Sunday, December 12, 2010

No Regrets - Great Egret

Great Egrets are elegant birds, standing almost four feet tall. They are migratory in Maine. I only see one or two each year.
Great Egret, Center Pond - Phippsburg
     Though I'm a wildlife photographer, I've never been on a safari. I'm not waiting for big game on an African savanna. I'm mostly just in my living room wearing my bathrobe, very much in the little leagues of the ball game. Just the same, I have to be prepared for whatever presents itself, even if it's unlikely to be a tigress slurping water from a pool at sundown, warm light filling her deep brown eyes. The birds and animals here in my home town are all the big game I have and generally, all the big game I need.
     To be ready for them, one of the first things I do every day even before I brush my teeth, is adjust my camera's exposure settings for the light of the day. I pick the film speed, shutter speed and aperture that will give me the best advantage if suddenly, something appears. I intend to be at least minimally ready by hedging my exposure bets as best as I can. Frequently, when a bird or or animal has turned up, had I spent time fumbling with the camera settings, I would have missed the shot. I always have the camera with me, because I don't ever want to be looking for it in the golden moment a subject pops out of the bushes. Preparedness has served me well. Nonetheless, I often don't get the shots I hope for and find something wrong with nearly every photograph I take.
     Sometimes, when a subject shows up, I have to take the shot even though I know the conditions aren't good, because the beast may not come back. That aside, I also have a merciless inner critic crabbing at me constantly. "Those feathers should be sharper," "there's too much background business behind the bird," "I wish I'd used a flash." Frequently, I wish I could take them over. Invariably, I look at an image and think "Oh, if only my aperture had been smaller! I would have had more depth of field!" Or, "What the hell was I thinking? ISO-schmiso! I should have had a faster film speed." And so it goes, leaving me like an exhausted race horse, flogged nearly to death by a rider it can't shake. About the only regret that I never have is not taking the photo at all. I haven't quit and I keep trying. I've learned something from every photograph I've taken, regardless of how frustrating or disappointing its outcome. Each time I press the shutter, I'm hopeful that this time, I'll nail it.
      There have been a lot of things in my life that I wish I could do over. Many people asked, even assumed that I would have photographed  those hunters that terrorized me a few weeks ago. Had I photographed their boat, the warden could have tracked the registration and caught them. But, alas, I wasn't thinking about my camera when that happened. The gun fire, yelling, and barbaric threatening dumped me back to a horrible place I had not been in a long time.
     Having nothing to do with demonic duck hunters, I already had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a neuro-chemical problem some people acquire after experiencing traumatic events. The "flight or fight" brain chemistry gets turned on as it should, but then never completely shuts off. My brain simmers in a brew of fear all the time. Something as innocuous as a slammed door or backfiring engine can send me diving under a bed or running for the nearest exit. Though my thinking self knows that all is okay in my world, my primal protective mechanisms over react. My heart races, my breathing quickens, chest pain pushes on my heart and often, I cry. I take medications that help. I've also lived with my quick-to-startle jumpiness for fifteen years, and I've learned to manage it, to some extent. But, every once in a while, something happens like the duck hunting episode, that suddenly sends me overboard, awash in chemical messages that I'm in danger.
    My PTSD is the legacy of a violent marriage. For nearly two decades, I lived with a sick man in an even sicker relationship. After all, there were two of us to make it that way. I knew the day that I married him that I had made a terrible mistake. It was a mistake that would cost me for the rest of my life, long after he was gone. Those dark, ugly times crash in on me when a here-and-now event busts open my flood gates. I ask myself, "If there was a do-over, would I do it again?" The obvious answer is "Of course not," but, it's not that simple. Like a failed photograph, I don't always know what I should have done differently, only that the end result wasn't what I had imagined. From that marriage, I have two of the most incredible children a mother could ever have dreamed of; I wouldn't trade them for anything. And, now, with David, I have the fairy tale life I had wished for with their father. Had I kept my heart in my pocket way back then, I wouldn't have any of these things now. It's for all the bad photographs I've taken that I'm a decent photographer today.
     In the midst of the scary, stressful times before I escaped my children's father and took them into hiding, our lives behind closed doors were living hell. On the outside, though, we looked Hallmark good. I kept up such exhaustive pretenses of health and happiness that neither friend nor family knew what was really going on. To this end, I hosted elaborate holiday dinners every year. When I bought groceries for Thanksgiving, I always filled two carts. As I shopped, I arranged my purchases carefully so that there would be room and things didn't get crushed. One year, toward the end of the marriage when things were at their worst and my organizational skills were rapidly eroding, I had a shopping disaster.
     While pulling one full cart behind me and pushing a second ahead, they were becoming too much to maneuver around the aisles. So, I left them, sought out items, then came back to the carts and tossed them in. On one of these forays, while trying to choose vanilla extract, I became aware of an odd sound. Over the tinny Christmas carols issuing from the supermarket ceiling, I heared a shooshing noise. It was coming from one of my carts at the end of the aisle. Thinking I imagined it, I turned back to the vanilla extract, but the noise got louder.
    At the very bottom of the fullest cart, under a ton of carelessly piled groceries was a can of whipped cream. The weight of the groceries crushed the cover then forced the nozzle through the wire grid of the cart bottom. Whipped cream was discharging full throttle from my cart! Panicking, I tried to get to it, but there were just too many things piled on top. A mountain of whipped cream was building as if tectonic plates had collided under my cart! Helplessly, I watched Mount Everest grow. I tried to move the cart, but the cream kept coming! The loud, shooshing sound was building as the pressurized can spewed forth.
     When I started laughing uncontrollably, customers stared nervously. A lady ventured near, keeping her back to the opposite wall, as far away as she could get but still pass by me and snatch a bottle of vanilla extract. Her husband scurried after her, both of them staring at me and the mounting, suspicious looking mess on the floor. "It's just whipped cream, folks!" Tears streamed down my cheeks as I laughed. I could hardly breathe! I laid my head onto the groceries and squeezed my legs together trying not to pee myself (I always have to pee when I'm in the supermarket). Between bouts of hysteria, I babbled to the nervous shoppers "REALLY! It's just whipped cream!"
     Eventually, the can was emptied and I stopped laughing. A store clerk appeared with an inadequate roll of paper towelling and an orange 'wet floor' hazard cone. I apologized profusely and tried to help her clean up the mess. "Oh, don't worry about this," she explained. "It happens more than you know. Out in the warehouse, those cans are going off all the time. We call them 'cream bombs!'" Good to know, I thought. I felt like a cream bomb myself. A passing customer surveyed the two of us just as the clerk asked if I'd like for her to get me a replacement can. Eyeing me, he said "Lady, if I were you, I'd stick to Cool Whip in a tub."
     If, one day there are do-overs for these things, this is what I've learned for the next time around:
1. I'll be ready with the camera if the hunters return. I'll shoot back in the way that I know how.
2. I'll always take photographs, good ones and bad ones. You don't get any of them, unless you commit to the shutter.
3. I won't ever hide my heart in my pocket and,
4. I'll always choose real, whipped cream, no matter what the risks.

If you would like to see more photographs of Great Egrets, click here: Great egret    


  1. The Egrets are wonderful looking birds almost prehistoric in nature, and your photos are great. Boom & Gary of The Vermilon River.

  2. Wow, another amazing post! I'm so impressed with everything you have shared, and I'm still laughing out loud imagining the non-stop whip cream bomb! Thank you!

  3. Excellent post and pics!

    The Average Joe Fisherman

  4. Thanks, Ryan. I don't think you are real average Joe Fisherman if you're reading this stuff!

  5. here's for sometimes but not always getting a do-over, acknowledging our imperfect judgment and always choosing real instead of fake, cream or otherwise. great piece and beautiful birds.

    we saw many egrets (not great, tho') on vacations in hawaii; in the family they became known as 'white chickens,' but for it to be funny, you had to have been there.
    femme forte
    December 12, 2010 05:54 PM

  6. Oh, I don't know, femme forte! I thought that was pretty funny! Maybe I was there in another life.

  7. Gorgeous shots of the egret, Robin. We see them in the Scarborough Marsh each spring. Have even seen one or two up in Cape Breton. We have more in common than nature photography and I can totally relate to your story. I was impressed with your description of what happens when you are having what I call 'an episode'. I have an anxiety disorder. It's a close cousin to PTSD and sometimes last for weeks. Very distressing.

  8. KaHolly, thank you for 'reaching out' here. Yes, PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, in a big family of neuro-chem. disorders including ADD, ADHD, OCD and others. The birds help, very good medicine to me.

  9. Ahh, Robin, this is a painful joy to read. Painful because of the life you lived all those years ago. And a joy to know you're out of a terrible and tragic situation with 2 great kids to show for (some of) it. Everything that happens to us, everything we go through, whether it's "our fault" or not, makes us who we are today. And what happens today makes us what we'll be tomorrow. I'm delighted to finally realize that I'm still growing, still learning, still able to experience most of life's joys--and sorrows. You can't have one without the other, it seems.

    Thank you for sharing this. I know it must have been hard to decide to write it--letting it all hang out, as we used to say back in the day. But I'll just bet someone's gonna read this and take hope from it, hope that she, too, can come out relatively whole on the other side. And that's a magnificent gift!

    Oh, yeah, the photo's nice, too..... ;-)

    Rated. D
    Yarn Over

  10. Yarnover, oh you are a delight. Your comments are always so thoughtful. I feel as if I'm talking to you on the phone or something. You are correct that I feel oddly lucky. And though the road was rough, it brought me great joy in the end. Anyone who needs living proof that it can be okay on the other side need only see me.

  11. FABULOUS Egret photographs! I feel like I am standing right there with them in the water as their beautiful reflection ripples. About your first marriage...just like when you learn something with every photo, you take what you've learned from that experience, as horrible as it was, produced two beautiful children AND paved the way for what would really make you happy in a marriage. So you see...some stories do have happy endings!

  12. These photos are stunning!
    Just Thinking...
    December 13, 2010 12:52 PM

  13. Absolutely magnificent - writing and photos. Yarn Over is right - so are you. ~R
    December 13, 2010 12:59 PM

  14. I have a lot to learn about taking photos, but I enjoy it. I just love egrets. thanks.
    Sheba Marx
    December 13, 2010 01:59 PM

  15. Robin,
    You are an outstanding writer AND photographer. I love the philosophy at the end of the article. BUT REAL whipped cream gets whipped, not sprayed out of a can! Just sayin.....
    Leslie Nuccio
    December 13, 2010 02:05 PM

  16. Geez, I just KNEW someone would bring that up about the 'sprayed not whipped' cream! I'll have to complain to my my technical adviser about that.

  17. I both cried and laughed at Whipped Cream Fiasco, and your past life experiences. What a gem you found in David and he in you. Keep up the wonderful photography and most interesting blog.

  18. HG, Thank you for the wonderful compliments about the photos. And, you are correct: if a person's got the starch to get through some of the awfulness, it can be indescribably good on the other side.

  19. Lovely shots of the elegant Egret.

    It's good to try to be prepared (photography or anything else in life) but sometimes you just have to go with the flow. As for the cream bombs well that should put a smile on anyones face Cheers FAB

  20. This was a "cream bomb" of a story and I mean that in a good way! Such a beautiful elegant bird. More stories please.
    Scarlett Sumac
    December 13, 2010 05:57 PM

  21. Liberal Southern DemocratDecember 14, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    Thanks for the lovely photos. Hope the beauty of this creature and other delights of nature bring you peace.
    Liberal Southern Democrat
    December 14, 2010 09:34 AM

  22. I too always hope to get a perfect shot...I'll just keep shooting and learning from each one. I think your shots are all wonderful!

    This post was very touching. My heart aches for what you lived through but despite the pain you have two great children and now have true happiness...amen

  23. Thank you, Nanny. I certainly am fortunate. Though I spend most of my time in my raggedy bathrobe, I feel like a fairy princess.

  24. What a terrific post, Robin! Reading it one goes through a whole range of emotions from horror to hilarity. Thank you for writing it. You give a great description of the hypervigilance of PTSD. I am glad you survived and are thriving. The great egret photos are wonderful.

  25. Thanks, Hilke. I do get tremendous satisfaction from moving people, though I don't love that often, that means I've made them uncomfortable. So, I'm delighted that you said thank you for doing it. I'm sorry anyone on the planet knows anything about having PTSD.

  26. Great post Robin. You are an excellent writer..So happy that you are now in a great relationship. I am with you..Real whipped any day.

  27. Thank you, Dawn. It's great that people are reading these posts back in time, very gratifying it is!