A few days ago, 1,500 ladybugs flew to my home in south Philadelphia. Actually, I had them shipped in a padded container all the way from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is where ladybugs come from.
I am not a “bug guy,” OK? I don’t have a collection. I don’t own ladybug paraphernalia, mugs or desk calendars, and I have never ordered insects online before. But a man--when pushed to his limits--does what he must.
See, two weeks ago I noticed white and black specs on the leaves of a hibiscus in my back patio. The plant is typically loaded with big, beautiful, pink-petaled flowers. Only this year the leaves are smaller and darker. The flower buds are barely there.
My neighbor Diane told me that it was infested with aphids, tiny nutrient-sucking insects. She said to spray them with something organic. "Coconut or peppermint oil.”
I don’t want these things smelling better, Diane! I want them gone!
At Lowes, I found Garden Safe Insecticidal Soap Insect Killer, the words “safe” and “killer” practically hugging on the label; perfect for the kind of no holds barred yet environmentally safe mayhem I wanted to unleash. I wondered—what’s in this stuff to make it both safe and effective? The label listed Active Ingredients by Wt.: Potassium Salts of Fatty Acids…1%, which sounded good. I can see Bobby Flay sprinkling potassium salts of fatty acids into one of his recipes. And the acids would burn the little devils like salt on a snail.
Then I read: Other Ingredients…99%.
Excuse me? 99% of this stuff is “other?” How is that even legal? Other could mean useless tap water, or turpentine, maybe some of that hippy peppermint oil Diane was hocking.
Turned off by the insecticidal mystery spray, I went home and Googled solutions. One made me particularly curious. Ladybugs. The site said they were “voracious eaters” and the best long term way to deal with aphids. Hello? Safe, voracious and adorable? Sign me up! I forked over my credit card information and soon $34 worth of killer lady bugs were headed my way.
The bugs arrived a few days later in a box appropriately labeled “Live Lady Bugs.” I nodded at the mailman, who glanced at the label as he handed it over. "Yup, they're live lady bugs," I said, and closed the door before he could judge me further.
Under the cover of night, I went to my patio, and with a teaspoon, ladled the ladybugs out of their container and dropped them like paratroopers onto the plant. Go! Go! Go!
I slept soundly, dreaming of the carnage that would ensue.
The next morning, I went to the garden and found a few upside-down lady bugs dotting the hibiscus leaves. The website said to expect a few casualties and I chalked it up to the long trip. Other ladybugs crawled in the dirt below. I looked down with pride at my garden world, these diligent beetles doing my backyard bidding. Soon I’d have enough healthy flowers to outfit a Hawaiian luau.
But when I looked closer I saw that the hibiscus was unchanged. The ladybugs weren’t crawling on their own. Some moved sideways. Others were upside down and somehow still moving.
Ants—black garden ants were carrying my ladybugs away like the spoils of war. One after another--dead, dead, dead. The more I looked, the more dead ladybugs I saw. A total bloodbath. Ants by the dozens crawled over my dear ladybugs, pulled at them, defiled them. I turned from the butchery as reality hit. My ladies were gone.
My laptop on, I scrolled once again through options like neem oil, dish detergent and water and natural predators like lacewings, caterpillars, monarch butterflies and something called a Minute Pirate Bug.
I decided to keep it simple and return to Lowes for Garden Safe Insect Killer. I’d let those “other ingredients” do what my ladybug army could not. But as I pulled into a parking spot, I couldn't get out of the car. A seed of an idea was growing in the back brambles of my mind. It was strange and it was strong and it had to be explored. It had to do with pirate bugs. And it wondered how quickly they’d ship.
A few images from my recent trip aboard the National Geographic Sea Lion in British Columbia and southeast Alaska. This is my absolute favorite part of the world (Italy is darn close though), blending jawdropping landscapes with fascinating First Nations culture.
Sentimentality certainly has a season. These photos are the product of my December Scroll--a search (usually with a nice glass of bourbon in my free hand) through the thousands of photos I take each year in order to share my favorites.
I am so grateful to have seen all of this in 2016. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and a fantastic 2017.
We hadn't been in the forest long before I saw the giant spruce. Its trunk rose perfectly straight. The top branches stretched to the clouds. And that trunk was so thick, even with three of us and a guide surrounding it, our fingertips couldn't meet. This was a magnificent tree.
But there was something strange about it. From its base, it took at least thirty paces in all directions to reach the nearest tree. The ground was clean except for a few bare rocks while the rest of the forest was covered in mosses and brush. The other trees weren't as tall, weren't as perfect. Most of their trunks were bent and many were missing branches.
"It's like that big one moved over there," I said, immediately feeling silly for saying it.
No one heard because they were busy crawling on the forest floor as the guide pointed out different types of moss. I knelt like them and quickly saw that what had been a swath of green while standing was actually a network of different mosses, each with a different shape and texture. Rocks covered in bright orange and red lichens dotted the green carpet.
"These lichens secrete acids that break down the rocks over time," our guide said. "That helps create new soil. And you know, if you dig below this moss, you'd find what's called the mycorrhizal network."
We looked closer.
"The mycorrhizal is a dense web of fungus beneath the surface that connects these trees. The cells interact with the root cells and share carbon and water and nitrogen and hormones. Even defense cells and information."
We drew closer to the ground, as if we'd be able to hear the trees talking to each other.
"See the biggest trees around here? Chances are they are "mother trees" and have the most connections to all of the other trees; sometimes hundreds. They give a lot, certain times of year more than they receive, but when they need it, they can rely on that network to feed them nutrients or information and keep them healthy. It's a complete give and take depending on conditions and seasons. Scientists call it the "wood wide web."
We sighed at the joke and trekked deeper into the forest, wondering what other microscopic miracles we were stepping on.
Before we hiked back, we stopped at the giant, perfect spruce to marvel again at it's size and isolation.
"How long ago do you think it died?" my friend asked the guide.
"I can't tell," she said. "Years, probably. But soon this forest will grow around it. Something may even spring up from inside it. You never know. It's the forest we need to think about. Not the trees."
Putting the Fuji X70 to the Test in Denali National Park
Why bring a camera designed for street photography to a one-road wilderness? Because it gets the job done.
Grizzly bears, moose, caribou roaming the tundra. These stirring images from Denali National Park consistently grace the pages of nature and photography magazines. And I couldn’t wait to take it all in during a recent scouting trip for Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic travel programs. But did I honestly think that I would come away with the same images as the pros? Not a chance. So, instead of reaching for the perfect shot, I reached in my pocket and shot with the same compact street camera that I shoot with in Philadelphia and New York City: the Fujifilm X70.
Here’s what I found:
1. When you are out all day, lugging a heavy DSLR like my Nikon D750 can take its toll. The Fujifilm X70 fit easily into any jacket pocket and even in the side pockets of my hiking pants. Having it tucked away at times also made me feel more open to the surrounding environment, which is why you travel all that way. (Tip: you might want to get a screen protector to keep that beautiful LCD view screen scratch free.)
1. Dials Rule: The Fujifilm X70 is designed for quick adjustments. The top dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation as well as the front aperture dial and lens ring keep every adjustment I would ever want to make right there on the body. No fiddling with a menu screen while the world passes you by.
2. With 10+ hour travel days and the view screen on for every shot, I was nervous about battery life. However, the battery lasted all day with juice to spare. The manual says "300 shots" on a full charge, which is accurate, maybe even on the low side. Still, best to have a spare nearby.
3. The 3" tilting touchscreen is awesome. I know that this was a test of a street camera in the wild and that its main competitor is the Ricoh GRII, but the articulating screen let me easily compose ground shots of the tundra or go high above tourist’s heads to get a clean shot—seeing what I was capturing the entire time. I used the touch screen only to set focus points. (And I didn't miss the optical viewfinder.)
4. AUTO mode is fairly fast and accurate at identifying the necessary scene mode. However, if wanting to go that set-it-and-forget-it route, I preferred setting the Aperture and Shutter speed to AUTO and using the easy to reach exposure compensation dial when I needed an override.
5. Sharpness: It's not big glass quality but this 18mm lens (28mm equivalent) is pretty darn close! Especially impressive for a camera in the $700 range.
6. Close Ups: I’ve been the guy changing his lens while a bear snatches up a salmon more times than I care to admit. 14-24, then 70-200, then 85mm macro. It’s tiring, at times embarrassing, and my sensors were quickly becoming dust magnets. Being able to shoot the distant landscape one second and a close up of lichen-covered boulders from 10cm away the next is hugely valuable when hiking.
7. Lag: The start up time on the Fujifilm X70 is tops. So you're up and running by the time you point at your subject. However, those used to DSLRs will notice the focus lag with this camera. It's far better than most other point and shoots that I've used, but still worth pointing out. The X70's 8 frames per second ensures that when you are focused, you won't miss the shot.
The (Somewhat) Bad News:
Most impactful photography is about getting close to your subject and stretching the frame. Well, with such a wide lens you have to get REALLY close. No grizzly shots with this camera! There is a 35mm and 50mm digital crop but I don't want to switch between them in the middle of shooting. So the bad news is what you already knew, a fixed wide-angle lens is limiting.
Also, post photo-taking, I didn't realize that my Lightroom 5 wouldn't handle the .RAF files. What gives? I downloaded the .DNG converter and am making due, but it's an extra step in a process that already cuts into your schedule.
The Big Picture
Above all, I loved that the fixed wide angle of the Fuji X70 forced me to see beyond a silhouetted animal or the snowy updraft of a single mountain peak. I saw the scope of Denali in each shot. And I was really pleased at how it handled. The low light performance, discrete size, sharpness--all the features I praise it for in the street came through in the wild as well. Also, as you can see by these shots, I love the monochrome and monochrome w/ red filter straight out of the camera.
Full disclosure, I didn't leave my Nikon D750 at home. I took it out when I needed some reach or really wanted to get the absolute highest quality shot I could. But the X70 was so fun to use and much more disarming when shooting people. My fellow travelers stiffened when faced with the D750, but would remain their smiling, adventure loving selves in front of the X70.
In fact, at Wonder Lake and Eilson Visitor Center, I went around with the Fuji and took photos of people. Most didn't even notice, and they are my favorite shots from the entire trip.
What I Want From the Next-Gen Fuji X70
The snow-capped mountain range kicks off some serious light. To shoot them, I used my D750 and added an ND filter to take those highlights down. The Fuji rendered beautifully, but sometimes I needed to hold back the sky a little more. A built in ND filter in future models would be killer. And, please, a Wi-Fi app that is fluid and does not cut out.
However, none of these tiny wishlist items should keep you from picking up the X70. It's my favorite camera for the city and, now, the wilderness too.
It’s my sophomore year of college and I am sitting on Abraham Lincoln’s lap. Me and Abe, Abe and me, looking out at the lights of the Washington Monument and the Capitol building as they sparkle in the Reflecting Pool.
“Get down!” my friend whispers. “Get down! A cop’s coming.”
His voice snaps me out of my hazy, 15 beer view to see a police car parked to the side. The cop takes to the steps two at a time.
In a panic, I squirm down from Abe’s bony knees to the pedestal, which now seems a mile higher than when my friends had lifted me up. Even drunk, I know that jumping down is a bad idea. But the cop is getting closer, fast.
So I jump.
My ankles explode out from under me upon impact, sending me backwards, falling as pain rockets up my legs. My ankles are broken, my ankles are broken—that’s all I can think of as I roll around, wincing and grabbing my legs. Somehow though, feeling the cop closing in, I get to my feet and hobble towards the steps.
“Evening, sir!” I say to him, as if he hadn’t just seen my drunk gymnastics.
He grabs me by my shoulder and rips me back up to my friends. Back to Abe.
“Give me your ID,” he says, catching his breath. He is a few inches shorter than me but seems 8 feet tall as he shines his flashlight in my face. I reach into my back pocket and my mind races. See, even though I can’t see straight, I know quite clearly what’s about to happen: I give the cop my ID, he sees that I am underage, and I go to jail. That’s it. To make matters worse, this isn’t just any night of sophomore year; it’s the last night of sophomore year. My parents are picking me up in the morning.
I wonder, what the hell can I do to get out of this? The guy saw everything. I can’t bullshit him. I think, maybe, maybe if I am up front and honest (like my good friend Abe), maybe he’ll be lenient. It’s my only hope.
So I hand over my ID and say, “I’m underage, sir. And, sir…I’ve been drinking.”
He doesn't seem moved by my candor. “Do you know what you just did? Do you know what you just climbed on?”
To everyone’s surprise, I respond as if he is sincerely asking. “Yes,” I say. “It’s Abraham Lincoln. He is like the first or second greatest president ever…Gettysburg Address.”
My friends burst out laughing until the cop shoots them a look.
He looks at me and when he does I really think he looks into me, seeing the guy who crosses the street at crosswalks, who cheats on tests but goes to confession afterwards. He exhales and says, “Look, you seem like a nice kid. Probably go to a good school here, right? Friends dared you to do this?”
I nod. “Uh huh.”
“Alright, look,” he says, adjusting his belt. “I’m going to give you three options.”
I brace for impact.
“First, I can book you and fine you $750 for underage drinking and public drunkenness. Or, second, I can fine you for defacing a federal monument.”
He points to where I landed. For the first time I see that mud from my shoes streaked the marble. I think of my parents, who will soon pick their son up from jail instead of his dorm. Their son, a monument defacer.
“Third," he says, "I can get you a rag.”
Still thinking of the fine and jail, I look at my friends, worried, wondering. What’s he going to do to me with a rag? Whatever it means, I figure it will be less painful than the wrath of my parents.
“I’ll take the rag,” I say. With that, the cop tells me to stay put. He goes to his car, brings back a blue cloth rag and hands it to me. He points to the spot where I marked the marble.
“Now clean that up.”
At this point, I’m still not sure what’s happening. Am I still busted? Is he letting me off?
I cautiously walk over to Abe, get on my hands and knees, and start to wipe up the dirt. And I wipe up everything, smiling back at the cop as I do, showing him with each swipe just how deeply I care about keeping our nation's monuments clean.
When the marble gleams once again, I throw out the rag. I’m face to face with the officer when he says, “Look. I’m going to let you go. But just so you don’t think you’re some sort of tough guy—”
I shake my head. “No. No I don’t think that at all.”
“You’re not the first person to do this, OK? I’ve fined and booked plenty of guys for doing what you did. Drunks, 2, 3, 4 in the morning when the bars let out.”
He looks at his watch.
“It’s 10:15, son. This is the stupidest fucking time I’ve ever seen anyone do this. Now go back to your dorm and I never want to see you here again.”
We leave. And the next morning when my parents pick me up I am still awake, dejected, my nerves shot to shit. They ask me about the semester and school and friends. I respond with the usual vagaries. “It was good. They’re good.” All I want to do is go home and forget that the night before ever happened. But I'm not off that easy. We drive down 23rd Street to the Memorial Bridge and the George Washington Parkway. On the way, the Lincoln Memorial looms out my window. I slink down in my seat, reliving my night with Honest Abe, the first or second greatest president ever.