Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How Lisa Found Childlike Delight through Photography

Lisa Johnson — Wednesday Morning, 7 a.m.

Yesterday KUMD played a repeat For the Birds from 2014, in which I talked about how thrilling it was, as a new birder, to be seeing in real life birds I’d seen as a very little girl in my Little Golden Book: Bird Stamps. In it, I said: “I wish that everyone could experience at least one season filled with the joy of discovery that I had in 1975, when I saw so many of my first birds through eyes filled with a child’s elation and wonder.”

Something about that inspired Lisa Johnson to write this splendid essay (as a text message!!):
My eyesight has been crummy ever since third grade, when I got my first pair of glasses. First it was nearsightedness, then nearsightedness with astigmatism… now it’s both of those with old eyes. I’m lucky that (so far) it’s correctable, because I’m legally blind otherwise, but I’m accustomed to not seeing real specifics at a distance.  
So imagine my delight when, through the magic of a camera lens, I’m learning that the black specks and brown blobs I’ve been seeing all my life resolve themselves into birds with the most amazing and undreamed of colors!  

Great Blue Heron by Lisa Johnson
Photography, for me, is almost like Christmas morning when I was a kid: “What did I get? What did I get?” And frequently: “Oh, this is even better than I thought it would be!” Birds almost never disappoint: even a photo that’s not crystal clear or beautifully composed can show the bright black twinkle of a sparrow’s eye or the huge yellow eyes of an owl. Although the subject of the photo is long gone, I can pore over the image to my heart’s content, looking at cormorants’ funny feet or the slate blue in a sparrow’s wing. 
Who knew that bird was really green? Who knew that bird had a bright yellow head? Who knew that those “ducks” floating on the slough were wood ducks and blue-winged teal and scaup and redhead? Is that silhouette in a tree an eagle or a hawk? 
Photography has opened up a whole new world for me in a lot of ways, but it’s really made birds something special. If we’re not racing through our days being “busy,” we’re racing down the road at 70 miles an hour. I’m tired of busy. I still drive faster than I should, but now I’m scanning the roadsides and trees and fences and power lines for birds. My camera with the big zoom lens sits in the passenger seat so I can slam on the brakes and pull over at a moment’s notice to photograph a turkey vulture or a red tailed hawk or a bald eagle.
Yellow-headed Blackbird by Lisa Johnson 
I know every slough and body of water between Lake Brophy in Douglas County to Kenney Lake in Grant County, Minnesota, where I spend most of my vacation time. I know where the yellow-headed blackbirds will be in the spring, the little creek where I can almost always photograph a great blue heron or a great egret, where I’m likely to find coot or bufflehead and where I’ve gotten good photos of white pelicans and cormorants. And in the lake where my dad’s ashes are scattered, I got my best-yet photo of a loon this summer.  
Then after I’ve doodled my way home after as many stops as it took to get photos, I can make a cup of coffee and carry it over to the computer and sit down. I can take my time browsing through my pictures, finally able to see clearly the birds I photographed. I can take my time inspecting their colors and patterns, marveling over the personalities they show the camera, get a good close look at their wings and beaks and feet. I can mark with a star the good photos, but even the crummy ones can usually show me a detail I could never have seen with my unaided eyes. I have all the time in the world to enjoy examining the birds in the images, to look them up, learn their names, and plan for the photos I’ll get “next time.” 
So when Laura talks about that joy of discovery … I’m having that experience right now. That driver in front of you who just hit the brakes and veered over onto the shoulder? Who’s snapping away with a big lens at who-knows-what out the window? That’s just a 57 year old child, experiencing elation and wonder. She’s got her hazard flashers on, at least, so just give her a smile and drive on by.