Down & Dirty Botany Display by Botanist Linda Curtis
March 3 through April 14, 2002 with the “meet the artist “ reception on April 7 from 1:30 to 3 p. m.
The Down & Dirty Botany Display has an unusual assortment of plant and fungi photos, in most cases, from a low-down camera position that required the camera to be almost on the ground or in the water. The photographer, of course, has to kneel or lie on the ground, and that’s me, getting dirty. (Picture a smudged but smiling face, with a few leaves in the hair.)
What the viewers see is the snail’s eye-view of the upper world, but with a difference. No flash, no tripod. This photographer has crouched, crawled and crept to find just the right light to show off the subject. In one case it is a mayfly sleeping on the pea vine that clings with fuzzy coiled tendrils from a rusty wire fence. The right light is usually first light of the morning. It’s soft, sometimes a bit rosy, but so easy on the subject. No color intense super-realism here, just natural light caressing the sleeping world of plants and creatures. Yes, a gentle world.
Why do I photograph fungi? Aren’t they, well, slimy and yucky? The answer is yes, to say the least. I’ve included the deadly fly agaric, which appears as an innocently beautiful golden mushroom, but will lay an entire village out from the local stew. On the other hand, the sulfur mushroom is eminently edible and tastes like chicken. It, too, is beautiful, in a canker-blossom sort of way. Probably the most controversial is the shameless stinkhorn. I am reluctant to share this fungi’s name, as people want to know why.
I must tell them that it’s Mother Nature’s creations, so she must be, you know, shameless too to make a mushroom designed like a human appendage. Is the joke on us?
Why photograph sedges? There are over 50 species of Carex, just one of the many sedge genera, in the woodlands in Lake County, and about another 50 species in the marshes and prairies. They are the most common genus in our area, and the least reported because they look like grasses. The triangular stem and tri-foliate leaves and flower parts form dramatic designs, to the envy of potters and weavers who must finally realize that while the devil might have all the good copies, nature has all the original designs.
Where did I photograph so early in the morning to get the soft light? I live near Cedar Lake and go down just after dawn, with the sun’s first rays. I have a photo of this soft light shining slanting underwater and revealing the rare water marigold, one of our endangered aquatic plants that blooms underwater. The camera shots from above the surface looking down are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to get without a rippled or distorted image. Patience, patience, and hold the breath. Using no tripod means having the steadiest hand to get the shot, bug bite or not.
I go to our state and county preserves so early there is usually no one else around. If there are early walkers, they usually stay clear and probably view me as a suspicious person. Only a couple from Italy stopped where I was lying on the ground at Ryerson Forest Preserve to see what I was photographing. And they were delighted to see the brain fungus, a head-like mass rising above the leaf litter, because it is a cosmopolitan species and they find it in their Italian woodlands. I learned it was delicious sliced and fried in butter.
The difficulties in photographing in the down and dirty manner are not so apparent at the time. It’s the next day that I suffer from camera neck, camera arm, and “the crouches.” The worst is when my body decides to entomb me in a self-inflicted stiffness so I couldn’t possibly go out with the camera again.
But I always forget how bad it was the last time. The photos come in from the developer and it’s feast time. All photos must be labels with scientific names, location and date, so the process is long.
Why would anyone, especially photographers dressed in neat tan slacks and multi-pocketed vests, want to forsake the tripod and lie upon the ground and risk “the grunge” of organic stains? Well, come to the Volo Bog Nature Center to see the Down and Dirty Photo Display and see if it was worthwhile.
If you don’t laugh, or cringe, or say “what’s that?” at least once, you can have your money back. Which reminds me. There’s no charge.