Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Essex Lion and Ancient Indian Wisdom

There’s a lion on the loose in Essex…or so I’ve read in the news, and as has been reported by a growing number of witnesses.  The police’s response (like most people’s) has been one of wavering confusion: armed officers and experts deployed, followed by the dismissal of the incident as a hoax, followed by the deployment of more armed officers and big-cat experts upon each new sighting.  It’s a doubtful situation that we cannot afford to doubt, and who knows what the truth will turn out to be?

So often we hear of such sightings of big cats in Britain which are often never fully resolved.  What is it about big cats that provide such a spectacle to entertain our imaginations? Is it simply the danger, or the exoticism, or the strange, almost supernatural sense of disbelief that accompanies such stories. 
I find myself sympathising with those on both sides of the mystery.  I remember myself seeing what I thought to be an unusually large black cat after dark in Lathkill Dale in the Peak District. It stared at me from some distance, and each time I half-pressed the shutter button on my camera to focus on it, its eyes lit up with a bright orange glow (which I still cannot explain).  It was an eerie, experience, almost in the realm of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  In that story, Dr Watson perhaps distrusts his own flights of imagination, counting on Holmes’s unswerving, rational judgment to find solve the mystery.  Despite what crazed imagination you might glean my own sighting in the Peaks that night, I hold no belief whatsoever in the supernatural, religion, the afterlife, or mythical creatures.  To my mind, some rational series of circumstances most likely have caused the illusion - the human eye can have especial difficulty judging distances and perspective after dark (oh no, did I really fall for the old Father Ted joke of the small cow and the cow that is far away?).  It’s also worth remembering that in Hound of the Baskervilles, like so many of those 19th-century Gothic novels which no doubt influenced Conan-Doyle in writing it, there was a rational reason for the bizarre but consistent sightings of the dog which glowed in the dark appeared to be breathing fire (it was a hoax, played out in order to re-enact an old legend and cover up a crime). All very Scooby Doo.
But it is the way in which animals act as a trigger to the human imagination that interests me, whether or not the Essex Lion turns out to be genuine or a hoax.  False and unconfirmed sightings of big cats in the landscape have been a source of fear and wonder for millennia, and as the speculation rises around this series of events in Essex, the reports reminded me of an ancient Indian folk tale which appears in The Pañcatantra, a collection of allegorical tales that date from around 300BC, which teach principles of successful governing in the form of animal stories:

Once there was an ass belonging to a certain washerman.  Worn out by carrying heavy loads of clothes, the ass had become emaciated.  The washerman, hoping to fatten up the ass, covered him in a leopard’s skin and turned him loose at night in the cornfield belonging to some man.  The ass began to eat the corn at will, and, thinking it was a leopard, no one dared to go near him to keep him away from the corn.
One day a farmer who was out keeping watch over his field happened to see the ass.  Thinking, ‘It’s a leopard! I am as good as dead!’, the farmer covered his body with his grey blanket and, crouching low and holding the bow with his upraised hand, began to stealthily slip away.  The ass, who had become plump and had recovered his strength, seeing the farmer from a distance, mistook him for a she-ass and, since his end was near, started to run after her at full speed.  The farmer, for his part, ran even faster. The ass then began to think: ‘Seeing me covered in a leopard’s skin, maybe she does not recognize me for who I am.  So I will take back my own identity and captivate her heart with my braying.’ With this idea in his head, the ass began to bray.
When the man who was guarding the fields heard that, he recognized from the braying that it was an ass. He turned around and killed the ass with an arrow.
(From Book 3 of The Pañcatantra, translated by Patrick Olivelle)
The story anticipates so many ideas of later story telling: it provides a perhaps more ironic twist than Matthew’s warning in the New Testament of false prophets which may appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while the mistaken identity of both characters in their unwitting dressing up anticipates Shakespeare in its comic conception (was Shakespeare aware of this story when writing All’s Well that Ends Well, I wonder?).  Perhaps there’s a lesson here in us being genuine when representing ourselves, or in representing nature, or perhaps a lesson in how we engage with other natural beings.
For these reasons, the story of the Essex lion would almost be more interesting if the reports turned out to be false – it tells us a great deal about how our imagination interprets nature and creatures in the landscape, at a time when such engagement it waning.  Either way, stories of big cats have been in the human imagination for thousands of years, and we have not seen the last of them yet.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Another side of Mull: Illness and fatigue vs peace of mind.

Photographing Eagles at dawn (mobile phone shot) - I was treated to some beautiful sights of both Golden and White-Tailed Eagles in the beautiful dawn light.

I’ve just come back from a trip up north to my second home on the Isle of Mull.  A big thanks to Scott and Dianne Gates and Scoor House (the only place I stay on Mull, with good reason) for the usual warm welcome and advice on the local wildlife that gets me out and about.  It’s such a great area to stay for wildlife, and I found that this time more than ever, establishing a rather unusual routine which led to me photographing a number of new species in new ways.

My routine upon arrival started fairly normally – go to bed the first night, setting the alarm clock for 4am, which is tough the first day, but after a few days of going to bed at 8pm, the body clock alters just as it would if you’re travelling to another time zone.  Then, straight down to the coast in time for dawn and start work hoping to photograph the otters. 

Only this year was different. First morning, 4am, the alarm goes off. It’s dark outside and I’ve not yet fully come round from the long drive the day before that had me fixed in a tiring spell of concentration (last time I was up here I had a nasty car crash, so I’m now more wary and deep in concentration than ever when I drive, and that quickly saps my usual Super-Ted strength).  Add to that the fact that the otters up here are having a quiet year; this was just starting to become clear last time I was up here in February: I was straight out of hospital, and yet I still found myself on my belly, sliding over rocks with my neck pulled up to look through the viewfinder.  If you’ve never tried photographing otters whilst suffering from whiplash, don’t – the experience is probably akin to swallowing whole, raw nettle stalks whilst head-banging to The Ace of Spades (and if you’ve never done that, then neither have I).  I did get a few shots, although it was extremely painful and I quickly resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t working, so I lay still and watched the otter work its way up the coast, further and further away from me, until the coast was (literally) clear for me to get up and leave.
Loch Scridain in February.

These days, I’m much kinder to myself than I have been in the past.  I no longer pull myself out of bed at all costs if I’m exhausted or ill.  I know that I won’t produce good work unless I’m feeling well in myself, and I run the risk of making a mistake and scaring an otter if I’m not fully alert.  So on the first day I lie in (till 6:40am!)  and head down to the shore for a few hours.  Wildlife tour guide Bryan Rains of Wild About Mull shakes his head when I look at him inquisitively as we pass on the road for the millionth time in our lives (‘Very quiet’ he says after winding down the window of his minibus; ‘one or two sightings if you’re lucky, early morning…but only if you’re lucky.’).  When my fiancée Katherine and I invite John and Janis Allen round to dinner, the same is confirmed.  John and Janis have an incomparable knowledge of the otters on the island, and photos and footage to prove it - not to mention the fact that they are terrific company of an evening.  Despite their advice that the otters are not all that active in many locations, John whips out his iPad after dinner and shows us some of his latest work at a difference site, and I melt with affection for the otters and in particular the behavioural shots of young cubs that he's photographed so brilliantly (see their superb website here). John ribs me when I say I’d like to take the opportunity to spend some time photographing wild flowers and landscapes while the otters are quiet - I’m keen to get out and see so many other aspects of wildlife on Mull that I’ve never made the time for previously.  On the one day that I do try to stalk an otter, I end up pressing myself up against one side of a large boulder with an otter snacking away round the other side.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so close before probably less than a meter, but I daren’t peer round for fear of giving the poor thing a heart-attack, so I sit tight and let it finish its meal.  I come away with no pictures and a clear conscience.

Loch Scridain in August (mobile phone shot).

All in all, it doesn’t seem to be the right time for me to be photographing otters just at the moment, and I have that shaky feeling in my bones which tells me I need a holiday (the two activities aren’t compatible).  So there are lots of pyjama days, many books read, walks down to the beach (super sunshine!) and only a handful of outings with the camera.  But Mull is a wonderful place and a few hours out with a camera can be more productive than days spent elsewhere.  In the third week, I walk up a small hill out the back of the house.  Scott and Dianne at Scoor House are always very keen to encourage me to spend time in the immediate area of the house (‘before you go running off to your otters’), as there’s so much wonderful stuff to photograph within walking distance.  This is brought home to me on my walk: despite wearing trainers, jeans and a colourful hoodie, standing next to a trig point (could I be any more conspicuous?) and only having a short telephoto lens on my camera (70-200mm), I manage some frame-filling shots (with eye contact) of a Golden Eagle that appeared to fly over to take a look at me.  Later that week, a trip out to photograph a landscape one evening results in a tip-off that there are Basking Sharks in the area.  So the final week is filled with Eagles and Basking Sharks; my Super-Ted strength is regained, and the camera is rolling. 
Photographing Basking Sharks last week (mobile phone shot).
I’m not travelling all over the island as I often have in the past; I’m only photographing wildlife on the doorstep (this is what I enjoy doing most, wherever I am – and what a doorstep!) and I’m only getting up early to do dawn shoots when I’m feeling good about it.  And yet by this point, I’m feeling really well rested and at home so the work I’m producing is up there with my best.  My favourite photo of the whole trip is an action shot of a humble rock pipit – a very common bird in Mull, but one of my favourite things in photography is showing the extraordinary in the ordinary.  The weeks of resting and relaxation have paid off – I could not be so productive if I had simply started this trip by beating myself up with dawn shoots the moment I arrived.  Now, everything feels right to be out and about.

*                             *                             *

Back home in Nottinghamshire, I switch on the desktop computer, eager to download my pictures and view them on the computer-screen (and I keep my fingers crossed that my favourite rock pipit is sharp – judging pictures based upon their appearance on the back of the camera so often is always a dangerous game).  Within seconds, the computer feels the strain of its rude awakening and dies.  My back-up hard-drives (which I always take away with me) are attached, and I feel sick to the stomach at the thought that it might have caught a virus and taken my entire catalogue and back-up drives to computer heaven.  Thankfully this is not the case.  The back-ups are intact, although the computer will need to be sent away for repair – it will be a few weeks before I can view the pictures and start to display them online (hence all the mobile phone shots in this blog)…that’ll be quite some wait. Is this what it used to be like with film? 

I do hope my rock pipit is sharp.

Mull in the mirror at twilight (mobile phone shot).