Peak autumn

_C1_5869.JPGThe zenith of fall’s colors lasts only a few days, and for some reason or another, I think I’ve missed it every year I’ve been here in Arkansas. But this year’s peak fell on a weekend with beautiful weather and plenty of time for a hike — this weekend. I took advantage at the old standby, the Ozark National Forest around Devil’s Den State Park.

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_C1_5695.JPGWhat continually amazes me about the annual color explosion is that plants have a lot of the pigments that make it happen year-round, part of a chromatic net to catch as much sunlight as possible. They’re just overwhelmed by the familiar green of chlorophyll. Plants usually have to keep remaking the stuff and stop doing so around this time of year. So the oranges and yellows of carotenoids burst forth, sometimes in a way that looks almost pointillist, as with the oak leaf above. The same class of compounds gives carrots their color. The red is my favorite, though, and comes from a combo of sunlight and sugar.

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_C1_5902.JPGIf  you want to see it all, hurry. And thanks for looking.

Dan

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The eclipse

_C1_2959-Copy.jpgThe dimming of the sun was imperceptible at first, even as the moon gnawed it into a crescent. But slowly the light changed. Colors became less vivid and more gray. A few minutes before the sun was completely blocked, everything looked as if I were wearing sunglasses. Pieces of light in trees’ shadows took on the same crescent shape as their source. And in the final seconds before totality, the day darkened by the second around me as the sun’s last sliver disappeared. The moon seemed to lock into position, leaving only the white tendrils of the sun’s outer atmosphere and an orange glow along the horizon.

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_C1_3032.JPGIt’s easy to see why early humans greeted solar eclipses with fear and alarm — who wouldn’t think the world was ending? I stared at it trying to convince myself that it was real: an inky black, almost perfectly circular hole seemingly speared through the sky itself, surrounded by filaments of light like a cosmic flower. For almost three minutes in the middle of the day, Venus and some stars flickered, crickets chirped, the orange glow illuminated columns of rain to the south. I was literally jumping around with excitement. Between photos, at least. I worried obsessively for days that clouds would block the show. But the clouds cleared, and in tiny Exeter, Nebraska, I saw my first total solar eclipse.

_C1_3084-Copy.jpgIf you missed it, you get another shot in 2024. I have much more to share from the trip to Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota this past week and a half, so stay tuned, and thanks for looking.

Dan

The forest floor

IMG_9563.JPGThe soccer field at my elementary school in Springfield, Missouri, was nothing but a patch of bare, reddish dirt, and it was my favorite part of the place. I liked soccer just fine, but the real reasons for my affection were the thousands of dime-sized rocks caked into its surface. Almost all of them were imprinted with fossils: tiny grid-like bryozoan colonies, striated mollusk shells, cylindrical crinoids the size of pencil erasers, all remnants of an ancient sea. I was 7 years old and could spend half an hour after school crouched over the gritty dirt excavating these treasures with my fingertips, saving the most striking ones for my collection.

That’s all to say keeping an eye out for the small and overlooked underfoot has been my jam for pretty much forever. How could I possibly resist the yellow slime mold above? I’d only seen these weird organisms in textbooks before this moment. It might look like a fungus, but it’s actually the result of countless microbes literally fusing together into one huge cell that can move around and even learn, at least in some senses of the word.

Other denizens of Devil’s Den State Park’s forest floor don’t have the same flair, but I still love them.

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IMG_0020.JPGThis unsettling phenomenon seems to be guttation, which is apparently just the excretion of excess water — one more thing I’d only seen in books before now.

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IMG_0025.JPGAfter almost four years photographing the woods around here, they’re still surprising me. Thanks for looking.