Saturday, August 16, 2008

When they harvest tobacco in the Madison area, you know summer is winding down

Wisconsin Tobacco Harvest
You know summer is winding down when they begin to harvest the local tobacco crop in Wisconsin. The tobacco is usually grown in small plots, and harvesting it is a labor-intensive process that hasn't changed much over the years. This could almost be an old Farm Security Administration (FSA) photograph from the 1930s.

Wisconsin Tobacco HarvestOf course, the kids' clothes give them away -- a difference that shows up more readily in color (click on photos to enlarge in Flickr, see more tobacco harvest pictures and find their locations on a map). Tobacco is making a comeback in Wisconsin as an interesting niche crop. And even if you're not a smoker, tobacco is a crop with rich historical associations in America. There are more tobacco farming photos in this Flickr set. And more about the changing nature of the Wisconsin tobacco crop in my post last year.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Madison night person experiences the early morning light down at Lake Wingra

Into the Dawn
As a confirmed night person who never gets enough sleep, early morning is mostly a stranger to me, but the light looked so lovely this morning I uncharacteristically hopped on my bike, DSLR dangling my neck, and pedaled down to Lake Wingra to see what the lake looked like. It's Madison's smallest body of water, but also the most serene, surrounded by enough green space that it's often easy to forget that you're in the heart of the city. That was the case this morning. A hint of morning mist still blanketed the lake. The water reflected the hues of summer, but there was also a hint of approaching autumn in the air, probably triggered by the Canada Goose taking off as if it were heading south -- instead of, as seems more likely, being one of those fat and happy locals who stays in Madison year-round. It was worth the trip. For a moment, all was right with the world.

Night flight to nowhere starts in UW Arboretum

Night Flight to Nowhere
Night Flight to Nowhere
The fuel tanks are dry, the engines have conked out, and the plane is on its final glide path. The night is dark and menacing, but with a strange glow in the sky. Will the pilot find a clearing in the inky black forest, thick as a jungle?


Playing with Photoshop: I took this picture in daylight, while photographing Curtis Prairie in the UW-Madison Arboretum. The plane buzzed low overhead and I reflexively shot it through the trees. Just a boring picture of an airplane flying by. It was only in processing the photos that I noticed the fast shutter speed had stopped the propellers. That led me to imagine a plane that was out of gas and the little drama above. I darkened the image, boosted the contrast and converted it to black and white. The caption helped prop up the fantasy. Just fooling around . . .

Photography's ambiguous relationship to truth is nothing new, but technology has made the boundary even more slippery. This is a trivial, playful example of how a photograph can say almost anything we want it to say. The process is not always so playful. And, as filmmaker Errol Morris writes in his NYT blog on photography, you don't even need Photoshop. His thoughtful, illustrated post, "Photography as a Weapon," considers the fake Iranian missile photos that were in the news awhile back, as well as the notorious satellite photos Colin Powell took to the UN when he helped lead us into the Iraq war.
If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

The photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 provide several examples. Photographs that were used to justify a war. And yet, the actual photographs are low-res, muddy aerial surveillance photographs of buildings and vehicles on the ground in Iraq. I’m not an aerial intelligence expert. I could be looking at anything. It is the labels, the captions, and the surrounding text that turn the images from one thing into another.

[. . .]

You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing.
Just something to keep in mind as we navigate our way through today's media-drenched world in which images play such a major role. Seeing should not always be believing.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's a historic national treasure, but we often take the Arboretum for granted in Madison

Biking Along Curtis Prairie
For most of us, it's all too easy to take the Arboretum for granted. It seems it's always been there, and always will be there -- a great natural resource, a place to bicycle, run, walk or hike on miles of paved road and trails through woods and prairies, as well as to enjoy the wonderful Longnecker Gardens. Not to mention skiing and snowshoeing in winter

Curtis PrairieBut the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum has not always been there. The seeming permanence of its mature natural communities is illusory. Back in the early 1930s, this was all farmland and pasture that had fallen into disuse. What we see today is the result of a painstaking and pioneering effort.
Though they may not have anticipated it at the time, the University of Wisconsin's Arboretum committee's foresight resulted in the Arboretum's ongoing status as a pioneer in the restoration and management of ecological communities. In focusing on the re-establishment of historic landscapes, particularly those that predated large-scale human settlement, they introduced a whole new concept in ecology: ecological restoration -- the process of returning an ecosystem or piece of landscape to a previous, usually more natural, condition.

Madison was a fast-growing city in the 1920's. Fortunately, some leading citizens recognized the need to preserve open space for Madison's residents. Most of the Arboretum's current holdings came from purchases these civic leaders made during the Great Depression. In addition to inexpensive land, the Depression brought a ready supply of hands to work it. Between 1935 and 1941, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps were stationed at the Arboretum and provided most of the labor needed to begin establishing ecological communities within the Arboretum.

Efforts to restore or create historic ecological communities have continued over the years, with the result that the Arboretum's collection of restored ecosystems is not only the oldest but also the most extensive such collection.
Erosion in Curtis Prairie The Arboretum does not automatically maintain itself. It takes a lot to maintain natural ecological communities within the confines of a major urban environment. As a result of population and environmental pressures, the Arboretum is facing major challenges. For example, the Arboretum is part of the Lake Wingra watershed, every year there's more runoff ending up in an already overstressed environment. The heavy rains this year caused extensive erosion and closed some trails (rainwater from the paved parking lots on Odana Road, several miles to the west, eventually ends up in the Arboretum). Don't miss the major article by Ron Seely in The Wisconsin State Journal about the challenges facing the Arboretum and the decisions that will have to be made if we want to maintain this marvelous environment and pass it on to our children in a healthy state.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mysteries of the Bureaucratic Mind (Continued)

> One Way <
Another mystery of the Madison bureaucratic mind is on display at Sawyer Terrace and North Segoe Road, in the form of this bizarre sign placement in front of the Hilldale post office branch. Up close, you can see what they're trying to accomplish, which is to keep people from driving directly into the post office driveway from Segoe -- although "Do Not Enter" would have sufficed, and "Exit Only" would have been less confusing than the left-pointing "One Way" if they really needed a second sign. A classic example of bad signage, and to motorists approaching on Segoe it's absolutely baffling.