Snow Pictures

Although we didn’t get the snowstorms that the north of England has been enjoying (?) the last day or so, we got a dust of snow last night. Today was cold enough that that dust didn’t go away. I was out in it, getting some zippers for making sofa cushion covers, and believe me, it was cold. (Yes, yes, for Edinburgh, a mild day for the arctic, or Toronto, but I’m a Californian and a wimp at that.)

I took a walk through the Meadows, looking for things to photograph in the snow, but found more on the city streets.

Cobbles on Buccleuch Street:


Taken 28 December 2005

Leaf from an Edinburgh University courtyard:


Taken 28 December 2005

Ice crystals between the cobbles:


Taken 28 December 2005

But the richest venue for photographs turned out to be the walk back from the bus to my house, over the football pitch and beside the weedy path:

Dead grass in the snow:


Taken 28 December 2005

Live grass in the snow:


Taken 28 December 2005

The blades corkscrew in the cold:


Taken 28 December 2005

Snow on the weeds:


Taken 28 December 2005


So I’m finally off work until Christmas, just in time to meet up with a friend from my accountancy days, Kirsty. The two of us on Princes Street with no agenda but a very brief shopping list (present for x, stocking present for y, spray mount): what do you do?

Well, you go to the German Christmas Market, and Munich-resident Kirsty suggests what to order. (Thanks for the tip about the shot of Amaretto in the gluhwein, Kirsty!). You go to the Bucks to escape the lunchtime rush. You go on the giant Ferris wheel by the Scott Monument to see the city. You egg each other on to buy a suit.

And (unless you’ve just done your ankle in) you go jumping.

Taken 21 December 2005

With flips


Taken 21 December 2005

The Nature of Photography (and the photography of nature)

Due to a combination of factors (longer lunchtime walks, better camera phone, encouragement by commenters), I’ve been taking a lot more pictures of late.

I’ve been in love with photography since I was 15 or 16, when I got a 35mm camera (a Pentax ME Super) from my parents along with free run of the darkroom. I spent a year or two exploring the world as seen through a lens, and inhaling vast quantities of extremely interesting chemicals.

One of the things I learned early on is that other people don’t see the same things I see. Yes, we both look at a tree and go “Big thing, brown on bottom, green on top.” But something in me is also going “Oooh! Oooh! Pattern and regularity of leaves as they grow, shapes of trunks and branches! Wow!” Seriously. For every tree unless I consciously shut it off. I walk through the Botanic Gardens with my mouth open, or smiling irrepressibly, when I go alone. I also get that feeling from a lot of repetitive patterns and textures. (Ask Martin about my reaction to the hobbit cloaks in the Lord of the Rings films.)

But I found, showing my “Oooh! Oooh! Pattern!” shots to other people, that they didn’t get the same buzz. My mother once said it looked like I’d just pointed the camera at everything and taken a picture. The two decades since then have been spent, at least in part, trying to find ways to show other people what I see all the time. I do things like choosing a contrasting element against the patterned background, or photographing patterns with other redeeming features, such as good colour saturation.

But the other day, I found a link to a set of photos by professional photographer Jim Brandenburg. Although I’m intrigued by the specific challenge he set himself – 90 days’ photography permitting only one exposure a day – what really delighted me is that some of his pictures are ones I would take myself (if I were his technical equal). He can use pattern, and pattern alone, to lead the viewer into the shot. His quaking aspen shot, the Patterns of Branches, and most of all his picture of Norway Pine grove are all part of what I have been trying to capture for twenty years.

I’m not discouraged to have seen these shots – far from it. I’m excited by the chance to learn from them. Maybe I can find other ways to lead people into the world I see, and show them how beautiful it is.

Today, at lunchtime, I made my first attempt at a “pattern” photograph that did not use a contrasting foreground element to focus the viewer.


Taken 20 December 2005

On an unrelated note, I also got my camera to do this ghostly image (entirely untweaked, I promise you!). It’s of the disused Scotland Street tunnel, which has one brave plant trying to eke out a single-leaf existence in its shadows.


Taken 20 December 2005


I think I need to set more challenging objectives for my lunchtime walks. I found two of the three madrones (Arbutus menziesii) on the first day of searching. The hunt did take me into a bed that I hadn’t wandered through before, but actually, one of the madrones is visible from the road outside the gardens.

Anyway, the proof:


Taken 13 December 2005

One of the reasons I like madrone so much is its papery bark. On the younger branches, it peels off in entire sheets, exposing the green underbark. On older wood, it alligators like a charred log, which is much less dramatic.


Taken 13 December 2005

The thirteenth was an overcast day, which made it difficult to take photos in natural light (I don’t use the camera’s light). The ones I got were either against the sky (this one has been lightened considerably to bring out the red in the leaves),


Taken 13 December 2005

…or lucky shots, still enough not to blur but slow enough to get the tremendous colour saturation that comes from overcast day photography.


Taken 13 December 2005

I will have to pick a more evasive plant for my next quest.

Snappy comebacks from the under-fives

At dinner:

Alex: (quoting Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) Look out! Behind you! It’s a Dementor!
Abi: (refusing to look behind her) I doubt it.
Alex: You have to look behind you!
Abi: No, I don’t
Alex: Yes, you do. Otherwise you’re cheating.
Abi: No…going off of the script isn’t cheating. It’s called improvising.
Alex: It’s called ANNOYING.

Rident omnes

Found it!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been engaged in an occasional search to find my favourite California native plant, the California bay laurel, in the Botanic Gardens near work. As you can see from the link, although the website has a bed location, it does not have a clickable link to the bed map. This made me wonder if the entry were old and outdated. Was the tree still there?

Even if the bed map entry was correct, I wasn’t sure where in the bed the tree would be. That bed happens to include a building as well as a number of plants, so it’s not the easiest place to search. Particularly for a plant I wasn’t sure was there.

But today, I found it.

The proof:


Taken 12 December 2005

I knew the tree before I saw the label, of course.

The bay laurel grows in all of the places I spent my childhood. It’s an integral part of the species mix up at my parents’ cabin, where it was a traditional headache cure for the native Americans in the area. It grows on the UC Berkeley campus, and indeed I got into occasional trouble for climbing it there. And for many years, one grew just outside my bedroom window in Piedmont.

The fragrance a broken leaf brings me right back to those places and those times. I brought one back to the office (bad of me to take it, I know). Each time I smelled it, I had another tiny flashback to my past, and another microburst of homesickness. The mix of bitterness and memory reflects the nature of the bay laurel itself.

Bay laurel is in the family Lauraceae, the same family as European bay, laurus nobilis, (as well as cinnamon, avocado and sassafrass, but that’s another story). Bay laurel has about a third more resin ducts in its longer, narrower leaves than its European cousin. The fragrance and flavour are slightly different between the species: the California bay is sweeter and sharper, the European slightly more bitter. It can be used in cookery much the way its relative is, but one should use only part of a leaf where the recipe calls for a whole bay leaf. Californian bay is also more of a tree and less of a hedge than its European counterpart, and is useless for topiary.

Soup, anyone?


Taken 12 December 2005

(Next target: Arbutus menziesii, also known as Pacific Madrone.)

(While downloading pictures from my camera, I also ran across this one from last week.


Ivy stems.


Taken 8 December 2005

Rainy Day Walking

It was a damp and muddy Monday for a lunchtime ramble. I was going to go to the Botanics to try to track down a California bay laurel (the tree I miss most from California). I stopped on the Rocheid Path to take some pictures and chat to a chance-met colleague, and never made it to the Botanics.

Fallen leaf on mossy wall.


Taken 5 December 2005

Golden leaves and black stems.


Taken 5 December 2005

I don’t know what this wee plant is, but it’s cute.


Taken 5 December 2005

Surprise! We’re in the middle of a city!


Taken 5 December 2005

I know that not all of these pictures are worthy of Ansel Adams. My camera is extremely limited in what it can do, and even with a good camera I can’t always capture what it is that I find beautiful. I simply hope that the delight I felt in seeing these things comes through in the images.

Civil Partnerships

So today the new Civil Parterships Act comes into effect in the UK. The Beeb calls them Gay Weddings, but even their FAQ on the matter admits they’re not.

Before we get too het up on the marriage/not marriage distinction, though, the reasons civil partnerships are not marriage are:

  • They can be conducted in private. Civil marriages are public matters, with both partners signing the register simultaneously and saying certain words. A civil partnership is formed when the second partner signs the papers, even if that happens at a different time or place than the first signature.
  • There is no religious connotation to a civil partnership. In this land of the established church, a Church of Scotland minister can officiate at a wedding and have it be binding. S/he cannot do the same for a civil partnership. (This does not ban religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. Ministers of non-established churches – and mosques, and temples – have religious ceremonies for weddings, but the legal marriage is not formed without intervention of a registrar.)
  • No one wanted to be the politician who legalised gay marriage.

Nonetheless, I’ve skipped through most of the Act, and it’s all there. Formation, dissolution, degrees of relationship, adoption, intestacy, insurance benefits, next of kin, pension rights, immigration… Most of the text of the law is actually a series of insertions, reading over and over again, “For ‘husband or wife’ read ‘husband or wife or civil partner’.”

On the surface, looking out over the nation today, all is quiet. No one much was talking about civil partnerships, though all the papers had stories on the subject. The chat at the office was about the lack of large cups at the coffee cart, who was getting kicked off of the reality TV show, and of course the weather.

But the first ripples of change are coming. Asda will apparently be stocking “Mr and Mr” and “Mrs and Mrs” cards. The Times has added a Civil Partnerships column to its “Births, Deaths and Marriages” page. My employer posted a vocabulary chart for the new terminology (“divorce” is now “divorce or dissolution”) so that our personnel forms can be updated consistently.

And the world spectacularly failed to end. I didn’t really expect it would, just because more of my fellow travellers on the biggest adventure of my life are now share my rights.

But I admit I had hoped for some dancing in the streets.