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Banners around the El Dorado Park Duck Pond in Long Beach, featuring my photography.

Banners around the El Dorado Park Duck Pond in Long Beach, featuring my photography.

(DEPT. OF CONTINUING SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION) For the past nine months I’ve been working with the City of Long Beach on a project conceived by Councilwoman Gerri Schipske called “Winged Wonders.” The project was to post educational banners around the El Dorado Park Duckpond, a location frequented by a large number of bird species, and an even larger numbers of human beings intent on feeding the assorted birds. Schipske reasoned that if people were educated about the specific birds in the park, and about the dangers of overfeeding them, then people would be more likely to act as responsible stewards of the environment rather than active participants in its destruction.

Pelican banner

One of the banners, before being posted

First a little background. El Dorado Park is a wonderful feature of Long Beach. A 450-acre greenspace, it includes a 105-acre nature preserve, lighted basketball and volleyball courts, softball and soccer fields, a skate park, picnic sites, a disc golf course, a tennis center, an 18-hole (non-disc) golf course, archery range, community center, and, of course, the duck pond.

So Schipske, whose district includes El Dorado Park, was dismayed by the growth of algae and litter in the duck pond, the direct result of residents feeding vast quantities of inappropriate food to the ducks, herons, and geese. Folks have been seen feeding the birds the usual bread, but also hamburger, chicken nuggets, corn chips, donuts, and candy. The birds, being basically driven by a single-minded interest in constantly eating, have very little self-control when it comes to effortless, free food, and eat all the crap they’re offered, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate for their health. Not to go into too much detail, but when birds eat stuff other than the usual insects, waterplants, and small fish, they produce copious amounts of waste, which goes directly into the water and, in a closed system like a pond, encourages the rapid and rapacious growth of algae. The algae sucks nutrients out of the water, and the birds’ natural food sources disappear, and the birds die. Alternatively, the birds die sooner from eating too much, from poisoning, and from eating plastic bags. So soon, Schipske knew, the El Dorado Duckpond would be a big, dead pool of stagnant water.

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Banner

Banners, in situ

To avoid that, education seemed like the first solution, and the “5th District Lakes, Ponds, and Wetlands Taskforce” was created. Walling off the pond would be an unpleasant last resort. Initially, the plan was to commission local artists to produce images of the resident birds, which would be printed on large banners surrounding the pond. The results, while of fine artistic merit, failed to authentically look like the birds they depicted: rather, they were (as such things generally are) the artist’s impression of a duck, not any particularly identifiable species. While nice for a gallery, it was not the thing the duckpond project needed.

TV interview

Being interviewed for local TV with Gerri Schipske

So Schipske and her staff went to the Internet, as one does, looking for photos they could use. On the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology they found several photos not just of the birds they were looking for, but that had been actually taken at El Dorado Park by a local Long Beach photographer (ta da). (Cornell had posted my photos by permission, of course.) Schipske’s staff reached out to me, and a project was born. Over the course of the next few months, I worked closely with Schipske staffers Haley Mizushima, who coordinated the project, and Misha Houser, who designed the banners. We sorted through my existing portfolio, and I took some new photos of birds that either were missing from my archives or for which larger-size photo files were needed. (A few species, which the local Audubon Society insisted were in the pond–but which I’ve never seen in my years of photographing the site (they’re probably migratory, and I just missed their visits)–were represented by photos culled either from Wikicommons or Cornell.) The banners also include a number to call for more information about the bird depicted, including its call.

The banners were posted around the pond, and an “unveiling” held in late May. Because I’m a shameless self-promoter, you can read the press coverage by clicking here: Duck Pond Banner Project Takes Flight.

"Unveiling" the banners with Councilwoman Schipske

“Unveiling” the banners with Councilwoman Schipske

http://www.ebutterfieldphotography.com

“Japan,” someone told me, a few days before I left, “can be an acquired taste.”

Well yes.

Sensory overload, to put it mildly. I do not speak Japanese (well, other than a mangled arigatou gozaimasu and the occasional konnichiwa, which, while rendering me unfailingly polite, somewhat severely limits my normally sparkling conversational skills), so I found myself suddenly, virtually illiterate upon my arrival in Fukuoka, some 550 mile southwest of Tokyo on the island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is the eighth largest city in Japan (metro population 2.5 million, which makes it roughly the size of Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S.).  Perhaps as a result, the city is not really focused on the tourist trade, so helpful non-Japanese signage and speakers were not in the abundance they might be in Tokyo, for instance.  (Although the Convention and Visitors Bureau says Fukuoka is second only to Tokyo for convention business in Japan, so what do I know?) Still, the city was clean and attractive, and literally everyone I came into contact with was warmly polite and pleasantly patient with my hopelessly incompetent efforts to navigate my way around. Local residents happily participated in various spontaneous acts of international street mime (it’s astonishing how much information about local-versus-express trains can be communicated without words) and responded in a friendly and helpful way to my mute map-pointing and no doubt hysterically amusing pronunciations of place names.

The dominant language at my work-related functions was technically English. I say “technically” only because the subject matter was well outside my scope of comprehension—I was there in a staff capacity to support one of our sponsored techical conferences, not as a subject matter expert. The presenters, while obviously brilliant and eloquent, were talking about the theory, design and application of computer networks and distributed computing and information systems, referring to PowerPoint slides that that might as well have been in Kanji (and occasionally were) for all they made any sense to me.

Keynote Presentation with PowerPoint slide

Prof. Shoichi Noguchi presenting the Day 1 Keynote, "The Design Principle of the Robust Information and Communication System under the Great Natural Disaster" at AINA 2012, Fukuoka, Japan

But the conference was well-attended and smoothly-run; the banquets and dinners were delightful and collegial; the organizers and participants cordial and very interesting to talk with. I was able to do some operational good, solve a problem or two, hear some important concerns raised, and generally managed to not get in anyone’s way or unduly embarass myself, so I’d call it a rousing success.

But sensory overload, to say the least. I was very much a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by signs and announcements and graphics and flashing neon things and television broadcasts that made very little sense to my parochial mind. Where signage was in English, it was often in very random English, seemingly selected for how the words looked more than what their normally-intended meaning was. (The same presumably goes, perhaps, for all those Kanji tattoos that are so popular amongst the denizens of Southern California; oh sure the tattoo artist says 愚か means Luck and Prosperity, but you can’t run your bicep through Babelfish once it’s inked.)

I don’t like being illiterate. I really, really don’t. I’m not illiterate when I’m at home. It makes me nervous. I’m not xenophobic, but I am all about words, all about the ongoing narrating of my life that goes on somewhere in the back of my brain, so I suppose I’m naturally illiteracy-phobic. For a guy who loves photography, I’m still all about the words (those of you who bravely plow through these blogs know that by now).  If I’m all about words for the most part, then I’m pretty lost without them. In Europe and South America I may not speak the language but I at least recognize the letters as words, and the convenience of common Latin and Nordic and Romance roots makes the experience a little less like being on another planet. Combine the linguistic illiteracy with an accompanying cultural illiteracy (the book I read about Japanese history prior to my trip proved to be little help at all when, at dinner one evening, I was served a still-very-much-alive squid, its tentacles waving about as chopsticks descended) and I was very much adrift.

Like any other business trip, though, I made sure to make some time for me and the Nikon to wander about. And Fukuoka, while not necessarily a tourist magnet, has a lot of remarkable treats to offer the wandering photographer. And pictures, as we know, can be worth more than words—a comfort to the struggling foreign illiterate.

I also found that it helps, when feeling overwhelmed by a culture and language well beyond one’s comfort level, to go small. That’s often my tendency in photography, anyway: Look for patterns in the details, for pieces of the whole that make sense on their own, and focus on that. Vast landscapes, wide-angle street scenes—those don’t tend to be my interest or, particularly, my forté. Focusing more on the small stuff helped me feel more comfortable in a very large and confusing place. Looking for pattern and detail helped isolate the cacophony of image and sound around me, and eased me more gently into my environment.

Roof beams, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Door to Buddhist Cemetery in Fukuoka, Japan.

Incense sticks in a large bronze urn, Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Green demon-mask at Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan

Conveniently, it was the beginning of cherry blossom time in Fukuoka, which provided the opportunity for different details. (Even more conveniently for the detail-minded, it was not yet full-blown cherry blossom time, so there were no breathtaking vistas of low-hanging pink and aromatic floral clouds lining park paths and creating landscape temptations.)

Cherry blossoms in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

Of course, that’s not to say that some things weren’t well worth the risk of standing back and taking in the whole picture. Sometimes, I suppose, one has to take a deep breath and be very brave and look beyond the micro to face the big, scary world outside the details. There’s a lot to be seen in bits and parts and pieces, in the close-in and carefully-framed; it would seem, though, that there’s also something to be said for sometimes standing up and taking a good look around.

Setting up a Shinto wedding photograph at Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka, Japan

Orange pagoda tower at Tochoji Temple, Fukuoka, Japan

Samurai warriors in Maizuru Park, Fukuoka, Japan

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