Poop bag portraiture

I’m pretty sure that I’ve photographed more dog poop bags than anyone. I’ve learned a lot, some of which I’m offering here as tips to photographers.

  • Develop a relationship with your subject. As in photographing babies or hamsters, get right down with the subject. You must get your knees dirty.
  • Imbue the bag with emotion—joy, loneliness, steadfastness. Don’t be afraid to zoomorphize the bag, with its knotted ears, imaginary eyes and maybe even a shy grin. Is the bag likeable, or is it repellent?

See related article ‘The poop bag puzzle’ and a poop bag photo gallery

  • A photo—even a single photo—should tell a story. What was going through the dog pooper’s mind when he set down the bag? Was he careful or careless, and what did that say about the pride he felt toward his pet or his political views?
  • Try different angles. Explore how the poop bag relates to the bark of the tree behind it and the soft moss and herbs on which it sits. Give your subject a sense of place.
  • Light can be your friend or your enemy. Direct sunlight can reflect off of the bag and create an ugly white glare. Conversely, too little sun can take all of the life and excitement out of a brown or green bag. A slightly overcast day is ideal, particularly if the light comes at an angle to create subtle shadows and depth. Backlighting can be an effective way of infusing the colored plastic with an inner glow.
  • Occasionally try making the bag just part of the composition, letting it occupy a small—but crucial—spot on the canvas. Study how this technique was used by the artists of the Hudson River School, with their carefully placed human onlookers or a distant locomotive designed to express man as a part of a rich and ever-changing natural world.

As for equipment, I’ve used professional SLR cameras and lenses, point-and-shoot cameras, and cell phones. For me, the cell phone is the clear winner. The quality is more than adequate, and they draw less unwanted attention from passersby.


Stalking the wild amphibolite

Hikers clamber over remnants of oceanic crust created half a billion years ago.

The park ranger set the map on the countertop and traced his finger along a dotted line, first down the edge of Bear Island. and then upstream along the Potomac River’s Mather’s Gorge. Just past a spot marked TM-3 his finger stopped.

“Here it is,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “Amphibolite isn’t something you see much around here.”

I didn’t know much about amphibolite except that it was a dark rock with a violent and mysterious past. Even its name is beguiling. “Amphibole,” one of its  constituent minerals, means “ambiguous” in the ancient Greek.

Getting to know a new rock is always exciting—at least to me. It was getting late, but the trail looked short. If I hurried I could reach the spot well before dark.

Race to the rocks. Turning off the C&O Canal towpath I followed the blue marks on tree trunks that traced the trail through the stunted forest. Past a stream I came to a wall of rock. Up I scrambled, finding footholds for my boots and  feeling my leg muscles stretch as I stretched my arm to grab a handhold.

Every so often I looked around at the jumble of rocks, some grey, others black, many covered with blotches of light green lichen and tufts of moss, or even small trees growing out of cracks. Many of the rocks were cleaved into sharp angles, as if by a master stonecutter. I walked on bedrock smoothed into curves and hollows by the river’s abrasive floodwaters.

The rockscape was created over hundreds of millions of years by collisions of sections of the earth’s crust as they migrated over the earth’s mantle. Each collision threw up mighty mountain ranges and compressed and deformed sediments and debris and the very magma that welled up from deep under the earth’s surface. The Potomac region sits in the epicenter of these continental collisions.

I crossed a little beach and climbed another cliffside, then dropped down again, taking care with each footstep. Up and down, again and again—this was starting to be more work than pleasure. It was also getting late. I kept glancing at the sun as it sank over the hills across the river.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea? The rock I had wanted to meet as a new friend was now luring me along a path of slippery ledges, sharp crevasses, and plunging holes, each with the potential to twist my ankle, or worse. I checked my cell phone; the screen said, “No Signal.” I hadn’t left a note to say where I was going. I didn’t have a flashlight, or even my plastic orange whistle that was top rated by survival-mastery.com.

Then I came to a post—the same trail marker the ranger had showed me on his map.

Just as the amphibolite had intruded into the overlying sedimentary rocks, a tree drives apart the amphibolite.

Ancient fortress. A few steps further and I found myself in a realm of rock slabs like the remains of an ancient fortress. I examined a rock face and its coarse-grained pepper-and-salt pattern, heavy on the “pepper.” The dark mineral is hornblende, the common name for group of minerals found in many types of igneous and metamorphic rocks called amphiboles. The “salt” was  feldspar.

I ran my hand over the rock and felt its pebbly texture. These were amphibole crystals that had been exposed by weathering. The rock surface looked like the skin of the marine iguanas I once saw on the Galapagos Islands.

Now this was starting to get fun again. No matter that amphibolite is actually a common rock that is used for very mundane purposes. Polished to a shiny black, it’s a favorite for building facades and kitchen counter tops. Its toughness makes it a good aggregate for road construction and ballast for laying train track. The local Indians shaped amphibolite into tools for grinding corn and other foodstuffs.

Heat and pressure.The amphibilite was created here some 540 million years ago. This would put it in the period between two great mountain building events, the first when continents collided 1.1 billion years ago to form a super continent called Rodinia, and the second when an arc of volcanic islands slammed into North America’s east coast around 460 million years ago. In between, vast amounts of sediments swept into the ocean and cascaded down the slope on the edge of the continental shelf. These submarine landslides created sediment layers sometimes miles thick, producing heat and extreme pressure that forged the mud sand sand into shale and sandstone.

Framed by lichen, the weathered surface displays pebble-like crystals of amphibole.

Next, tabular masses of oceanic crust, called gabbro, punched up into these sedimentary rocks, where the same heat and pressure transformed them into amphibolite. I was standing on such a mass, one of a series of parallel deposits shaped like fingers that began on the opposite shore and passed underneath the river.

OK, time to go. Hurry, but take care, I kept telling myself. I continued on, up the rocks and down. I found the cutoff trail leading back to the C&O Canal towpath just as the moon appeared as a thin crescent over the hills. Back down by the river the usual owl was making its usual comments.


Meet the Potomac’s own philosopher

If the Potomac River has its own trickster (our friend Patowmack), why shouldn’t it have a philosopher as well?

Despite his life of despair (note the tear), Heraclitus teased posterity with a double-edged aphorism about stepping into rivers.

My philosopher of choice would be Heraclitus. As his name suggests, he was an ancient Greek, and he had some important things to say about rivers.

Member of a distinguished family, Heraclitus lived 2,500 years ago in the city of Ephesus, which was located on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea in present-day Turkey. Through much of its history, this fabled city was a major commercial and religious center. Vestiges of its past glory survive today in the gleaming ruins of its temple, its vast amphitheater, and its great library. The city also figured in early Christian history as the probable origin of the New Testament’s Gospel of John.

Despite his illustrious homeland and family pedigree, Heraclitus led a lonely and ascetic life. He despaired of just about everything, and according to some accounts, at his life’s end he smeared himself with cow dung to cure himself from an unknown illness. The remedy proved ineffective, and his body was cast out in the street where it was eaten by dogs. Heraclitus was known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”

Restless rivers. Even if you have never heard of Heraclitus, you probably know his famous aphorism:

“You cannot step twice into the same stream.”

So true. Every time I go down to the Potomac I find a river that’s constantly reinventing itself, from year to year, from instant to instant. Its water flows clear one day, discolored the next. Mayflies are hatching one hour, then nothing but dragonflies an hour later. The water warms, then cools; its volume ebbs and flows; levels of oxygen and pH and other chemical indicators rise and fall in an ceaseless continuum.

A wall-to-wall carpet of stargrass one year nearly disappeared the next.

One year I’m dazzled by beds of stargrass that turn the river yellow from shore to shore; the following summer I find only scattered patches. An island recedes; a gravel bar forms upstream. I catch smallmouth bass along a stretch of shoreline one year; the next year only largemouth bass rise to my fly.

The restless river redraws its own geography. Mountain rivulets cut into mountain slopes and change the spot that marks the river’s sources. Downstream sediments build up and form oxbows that loop across the landscape. The sediments that reach its mouth create new land and extend the river further into the lake or sea.

All this is true, even obvious. But it hardly seems like the stuff of philosophy. Am I missing something?

Our mind’s river. It turns out that the idea of constant change was only part of what Heraclitus’ thinking about rivers. Here’s something else he said:

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.”

What to make of this? First off, Heraclitus could have used a good editor. (Actually, the blame for the clumsy writing likely goes to a compiler named Diogenes Laërtius, who wrote some 700 years after Heraclitus lived.)

I read the sentence over and over until my brain went into neutral. So I checked online to see what the experts had to say.

Now I think I get it, and it does seem to be legitimate piece of philosophical wisdom. Part of the idea is that rivers (and all else) must change, because otherwise they wouldn’t be rivers. Change is the very essence of a river.

But at the same time, rivers must remain the same—at least in our minds—to enable us to continue to speak of them as rivers. When we imagine a river, we conjure up the same image that we’ve had in the past and will continue to have in the future, despite the fact that the actual river itself is always different. Just by using the word “river,” we are implying that this object has essential qualities that we recognize as immutable. It’s kind of like a taxonomist’s type specimen, which anchors the defining features of a given species.

Heraclitus’ river. I’d like to think that Heraclitus had some kind of personal experience with an actual river. Not that this experience would be first-hand. I can’t imagine him taking delight in feeling the river mud squish between his toes or turning over rocks to see what lived there. He was a Weeping Philosopher, not a river rat.

Writhing across the valley, the Küçük Menderes shows how change defines a river.

If an actual river was the subject of Heraclitus’s philosophizing, it would have been the Küçük Menderes (also called Cayster or Kaystros), which flowed past Ephesus.

About the size of one of the larger tributaries to the Potomac, the Küçük Menderes today snakes through a mosaic of agricultural fields as it probably did even before  Ephesus’s founding.

Heraclitus would have found the Küçük Menderes a fine example of change. The river’s very name means “meander,” and so it has over the millennia, its channel looping first one way, then another, constantly on the move.

It’s also a silty river, and its currents continually transport these sediments downstream to its mouth on the Aegean Sea. The sediments create more land on the coast and extend the shoreline—along with the river’s mouth—further out into the sea.

Modern-day pilgrims to Ephesus’s Temple of Artemis come with cameras and tour guides.

As the shoreline marched westward, it left Ephesus behind. By 1000 BC the city’s harbor had turned to marshland, and Ephesus had to be moved closer to the sea and provided with a new harbor. Around 300 BC the port silted up again, and the city was moved once more. In the 5th century AD the harbor was abandoned. Today, the ruins of Ephesus lie landlocked about 4 miles from the sea.

A canal linking Ephesus to the sea bypasses the river that has silted up ancient harbors and left the city landlocked.

But this was not the end of it. The Turkish government now has a project underway to connect Ephesus to the sea, not by moving the ancient ruins, of course, but by constructing a canal to the ancient site. And in place of boats laden with grain and amphorae of wine and olive oil, the canal will now carry yachts loaded with tourists.

No doubt Heraclitus would have wept over his city’s transformation into a tourist attraction. But that is the price of change.