The Naturalist's Journal

Better images often require upgrades in equipment, but if such gifts aren’t possible, acceptable shots can be had with modest gear, and such things as patient and stealth.


Contributing Writer

In terms of the most major blessings imaginable, my granddaughter Stasia has been living under our care for more than a year now, and while that has certainly been a good thing for all of us—she’s thriving at school and making wonderful friends; we’re forced to stay young... well, younger—I’ve been seeing signs recently that the old geezers who are serving as parents may not be having quite the beneficial impact we intended. This revelation happened as I was watching Stasia walk slowly down the stairs, each step taking forever and accompanied by groans and a motion that resembled a crippled person trying to find a place for a crutch.

“What?” I asked, as we made eye contact.

“Arthritis...” she moaned, drawing out the word. “My arthritis is really killing me.”

“Oy,” I replied, “I’m going to kill you... with my cane... well, if you can tell me where I left it...”

We all laughed. Stasia is nine and, thank God, arthritis free—indeed, she’s rather uncertain about what arthritis involves, except that it’s something her creaky-jointed caregivers complain about often and is frequently a topic of annoyed discussion among their equally creaky-jointed friends. In her fourth-grade world, the conversation instead revolves around Taylor Swift (love or hate), the perils of long-division, the unfairness of parental strictures and expectations, and why boys are really dumb, rather than the ailments of old age. But six decades separate us from her, and we can’t deny the effects that the slings and arrows of experience have had on our knees, hips, elbows, and everything else.

There is one thing, though, that unites us across the ages, and after this year’s Fellman Football Game and Thanksgiving feast entered the record books, the Tale of the Hunt for the Perfect Pie Apple is recounted, and everyone is basking by the wood stove, we will sip coffee and scan the multitudes of Black Friday Sales lists. We will be e pluribus unum’ed by, you guessed it, Holiday Shopping.

If, however, there is a naturalist on your buy-for list, this annual perusal may soon cause High Anxiety to be sitting on your shoulders. Not to worry: as faithful readers know from long experience, the Naturalist will, over the next several weeks, provide better balm for the gift-beleaguered soul than even that which is available from Ocean State Job Lot were you to purchase the Osaki Japan Premium 4.0 Massage Chair in Black with the double infrared heater system, 4D massage technology, and 9 stages of strength adjustment, for $6,499. (“The most popular approved medical device in Japan!”—perfect for relieving the stress that comes from over-zealous hiking, uncooperative birds, and, well, arthritis—also includes a $6,499 Crazy Deal gift card for future Job Lot purchases, a boon that, depending on your inclination, makes the purchase either free, or an accrual that no typical consumer could spend in a lifetime.)

OK, maybe the chair is a little much, so let’s peruse a portion of the Naturalist’s own gift list for some, no doubt, more modest and practical suggestions. Here’s what I’d like for the holiday:

Nikon d5600 dSLR, with 105mm micro lens: $1303.90

DJI Mavic Mini Drone with Fly More Combo: $499

Swift SW380T Research-Grade Trinocular Compound Lab Microscope with 40X-2500X Magnification, Siedentopf Head, and Camera adapter: $376.99

Wildtronics Pro Mini Parabolic Microphone with Clear Polycarbonate Dish and Micro PIP:  $300

Merrell Moab 2 Waterproof Hiking Boots: $130

Drawing Pad: $8.95

Nikon EDG VR Fieldscope 20–60x85 Spotting Scope with Nikon FSA-L2 DSLR Digiscope Adapter: $5196.95

Lest readers think that the Naturalist has become hopelessly materialistic, note that this last item replaces the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR Lens that has long been on my list. But, at nearly $18,000, not including the cost of a Sherpa, porters, and the requisite yak—I can no longer haul the heavy behemoth on my own—I have come to realize that such a lens is sadly out of realistic reach. Perhaps next lifetime... one can be optimistic...

Besides, if I get that new pad and use the modest but absolutely serviceable (and easily portable) spotting scope I already own, I can always draw the distant birds I’d love to be able to photograph. That would certainly be good enough. And maybe, just maybe, “good enough” will be perfectly fine.

This notion is, I realize, sacrilegious. After all, we’re constantly told that the flourishing of that most sacred of religions, the national economy, requires that we feel eternally unsatisfied with what we have and ever in need of an upgrade. Nowhere is this trap easier to fall into than in the natural history realm. There’s always a better camera one can procure to take pictures of things one can’t now quite focus on with the equipment currently in hand. This lack certainly extends to, say, being able to see more distant objects more clearly—new binoculars or telescopes, anyone?—record natural sounds, peer into the microscopic world, or be out there in less-than-amenable weather conditions. The old and familiar neighborhood can eventually become too old and familiar, thus requiring trips to more exotic land- and seascapes. And you can always use another field guide. Or two.

Or three.

I am, mea culpa, all too familiar with this ensnarement, both personally—long-time readers are, no doubt, accustomed to the Naturalist’s whine and wish lists for new and improved stuff—and professionally, since the Journal is often the venue for reviews of new and improved stuff in accounts that feature the words “must have.”

So, in advance, I’m going to plead guilty, even if I will also, right here and now, issue a counter-plea for wanting less. Well, a little less.

The Winter Moths are making their obnoxious and, in my view, utterly miraculous appearance on the tree trunks, as the invasive insects enter adulthood during the cold season that would seemingly make life impossible for the invertebrates. Every year at this time, I try to obtain increasingly better—read: sharper and more perfectly lit—pictures of the gossamer-winged males seeking out and mating with the flightless females, and annually, I voice frustration with my inability to do a better job. If only I had a finer macro lens and a faster camera, I routinely moan in a litany that could just as easily be applied to capturing shots of distant shorebirds, sea ducks, hawks and owls, and even planets, stars, and galaxies, I’d be fine, I say, running my fingers over my credit cards and thinking about logging into various online purveyors of desired gear.

I’d be fine... except that I know better.

When Stasia creaked and complained as she came down the stairs, it was a funny play for her, but the dialogue didn’t arrive out of thin air. I know where the words came from, and as I tried to steady a perfectly fine, if old, macro lens, camera, and supplementary lights on pairs of Operophtera brumata silently engaged in creating next spring’s caterpillar plague, I was all-to-well-aware of why the imaging tools weren’t working to my standards—and why “new and improved” wouldn’t mean, well, new and improved.

“Arthritis,” I hissed in the chilly night air. “My arthritis is killing me... and my photography...”

I didn’t need new stuff. Not at all. What I actually needed was new hands—or, with neither transplants, a cure, nor a Fountain of Youth in sight, a better tripod. Time for an upgrade. Now, where’d I put that gift list?

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