This weekend I went for a walk in a local forest preserve with Durrell, and as is usually the case I brought my camera along. One never knows, after all, when one will stumble across something photoworthy out in the big, broad world. Normally, I take a general-purpose lens, like a Sigma 70-300, or Nikon 18-105, because, as I said, you never know what you’re going to see rising up out of the marsh, or startled into flight from the tall grasses. Herons, turtles, the occasional snake or hummingbird: I’m all about the nature stuff. (Oh yeah: click on the images to see them embiggened.)

Red Skimmer dragonfly, up close

This time, though, I thought I’d try an experiment. I brought only one lens, a Sigma DG Macro 105mm 1:2.8. I’d been given this lens as a going-away gift when I resigned my previous job in Chicago before moving to sunny Southern California to take up a glamorous day-job in the nonprofit sector (oh just go read my bio if you care so much), and to pursue an increasing interest in semi-semi-pro photography as I prepare for those latter days that loom increasingly large and darkly ominous in my ever-nearer future.

I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Little blue flower, up close

Well enough of that; I apologize for the brief lapse into self-pitying literary allusion: it’s the fate of the liberal arts major to become ever more obnoxiously pedantic. There’s a direct relationship, I’ve observed, between the length of time since the MA was awarded and the level of showoffery exhibited by the erstwhile graduate student. Probably a not-so-subconscious desire to cling to the sunny intellectual days at the university coupled with the brain’s tendency to pay more attention to the increasingly distant past the closer to the inevitable end it is (“look at this shiny object over here, hon, and ignore the looming cold presence of inescapable mortality”).

Oh dear; how the hell did I end up on my deathbed? I think we were talking about macro lenses.

Bee on Salt Marsh Fleabane

So I decided this time to limit myself to looking closely at the little world of the forest; to eschew the bigger picture—the herons taking flight, the sun glinting on the algae-greened pond, the path winding through the shadows—and see what I could see when I was limited to peering closely at the leaves, watching for spiderwebs, and really just looking down.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Yikes, someone make me stop.

OK so where were we before we went to Walden? Oh right, the woods, with a macro lens.

Red Skimmer dragonfly on a dry stem

Once I got over the feeling of panic that I couldn’t photograph birds, or use the telephoto to capture dragonflies perched on dry stems by the pond’s edge, I settled in to a lovely and contemplative stroll, punctuated by long pauses to try to focus on vaguely wind-swayed flowers that steadfastly refused to come into focus and stay there while the shutter opened and closed. Durrell is ever-patient with my shenanigans and occasional outbursts, and so makes a perfect travel companion in all possible ways. (It must be pointed out that he, too, spent many long and seemingly interminable interludes with his camera focused on light-and-shadow patterns on the path, so we all have our little interests. I perhaps lack his patience and kind nature, and may possibly have whined and complained a bit about standing around places where there was nothing interesting for me to take pictures of.)

Close up of yellow primrose, with pollen on the stamen

So what did I learn from my foray into the Little World? Patience, in large part, and stealth. I was actually still able to photograph dragonflies with my macro lens, but I had to get much closer to them than I normally would. This involved sslloowwllyy maneuvering myself down rocks on the edges of ponds, shamelessly lying belly-down on the trail, striking alarmingly precarious poses, and generally showing little or no concern for my dignity. I learned to focus my attention more, to walk more quietly than usual (we are, generally, quiet hikers: we talk of course, but use our inside voices, and frequently the topic of our discussion is the unruliness of other peoples’ children, their insistence on beating the bushes with sticks, and their obnoxious screechings that frighten away the wildlife. Of course, complaining about families bringing their children to walk in the woods is perhaps as churlish and cranky as our grumblings about the omnipresence of infant annoyances at the miniature golf courses we occasionally frequent. Being annoyed that there are children at a place that features gaily-colored windmills and garish fiberglass dragons on the putting greens is, admittedly, perhaps not the height of reasonableness.)

red sap oozing from a tree, up clsoe

Flower parts. Busy bees. Oozing sap. A hike with a macro lens becomes less about the woods and more about the trees, as it were. Less about the big picture and more about the interesting beige stripe on the pistils in a white wildflower, or the suddenly visible bits of pollen in a primrose. It’s less about the majesty of a heron rising from the water, and more about the delicate stillness of a dragonfly, and the exposed wing mechanics on its back.

close up of beige-striped pistils

A walk in the woods with a macro lens is a reminder that we live in the little world more than we do in the bigger perspective; that we are tiny, tiny beings on the back of a whirling globe that spins around a star that spins around a galaxy that’s just one of billions of galaxies all hurrying away from each other. The spider in its web, the dragonfly on a leaf are riding that same rock with us, marginally aware of our existence only as large and probably threatening objects. We are the killer asteroid to their Earth, the black hole to their sun, the unknown and unobserved phenomenon. It’s all woven together, but we so rarely look at it. The little world or the bigger one, they’re all the same: repeated patterns and relationships, over and over again; ourselves as part of a patterns that’s at once so much smaller and so vastly bigger than we are. There’s the stuff of immortality; there’s a little joy for the Prufrock in me, and a dose of humility for my inner Thoreau.

Purple Sage plant