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Natural Neighbors

As a photographer, sometimes I worry about crossing the line. I don’t believe the whole world is my subject or that it’s my right to shoot photographs of everything in front of my camera. I try to respect other people’s privacy, even in public places.

But I also find myself unable to resist a kind of rationalization to get a shot I like. For example, if I take pictures of strangers without their permission, I try to shoot their faces in positions that aren’t recognizable, like from the side or behind. I know I feel funny about people using my face—my image—without my permission and I appreciate the photographers I know who ask before shooting. Sometimes, though, asking permission isn’t possible so I have to evaluate what I’m actually “taking” with each shot. What I don’t want to do is take away someone’s dignity or agency. My hesitancy limits the kinds of photos I shoot but also, I like to think, makes me more inventive in the images I create.

I’m also careful about images of other living creatures but in a different way. I don’t hesitate for privacy reasons as I do with humans, but I don’t want to compromise other beings’ habitats or safety. The issue here is my presence, more than my camera and the images I make.

I often say that a farm is a cultivated space on a continuum between wilderness (at least the little bit left of it) and human inhabited areas thought of as “civilization” or urbanization. As an intermediary between these types of spaces, cultivation means not only that the natural world is used in an agricultural way but also that an attempt is made to work in collaboration with the natural systems found there. In cultivated spaces, humans and animals must co-exist, sometimes in managed ways, such as livestock, sometimes as neighbors. And as with human neighbors, sometimes the co-existence isn’t easy, such as when wildlife damage crops.

Here at Stonebridge, we try for neighborly co-existence with the other living creatures who live or travel through this land. We try to take the precautions necessary to protect our crops or our beehives or our chickens from creatures who are natural predators of what we’re raising here. We don’t blame bears for wanting to devour our beehives but we will put up an electric fence to protect the bees—and our honey.

This time of year, some of our natural neighbors are busy raising their babies in nests all over the farm. We hang a few birdhouses around, but we don’t usually get to choose where birds make their homes. Right now, we’ve got starlings nesting in one wall of our Sunflower Community room and wrens nesting in another. They seem to trust that we won’t disturb them as they fly in and out with food for the babies that we can hear chirping in the walls and we trust that the birds will leave as soon as they are able.

The most neighborly birds on the farm are the robins because they build their nests right in the midst of our work, in places we could never imagine nest-worthy, even precarious places that wouldn’t seem safe from our human perspective. I like to think that robins are trusting rather than vacuous but maybe the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ve been entertained by robins’ nesting habits for many years.

The most amazing nest was built several years ago next to the outer wall of the Sunflower Room. John had noticed a flicker trying to drill a hole in the wood so he’d propped the tip of a pushbroom on the edge of a bucket on top of an old desk chair so that the broom’s long bristled end covered the hole. Stopped the flicker, all right, but a robin thought that bristled ledge would make a perfect nesting place.

We couldn’t believe that the nest could balance on that broom, itself so precariously crutched on the bucket. We figured the mud must stucco the nest onto the wall, lending support to the entire nesting structure. But once the babies had fledged and the family flown away, we took down the nest and could see that nothing but the grace of exquisite balance kept that nest in place.

This year a robin has built a nest right on top of a tool shelf—right, in fact, on top of the tools. The shelf is on the side of a tool hut built by a friend from corrugated metal with an old satellite dish for the roof. (It’s the sibling of another disk-roofed building in which we dry herbs and store wood). We have to get tools from the hut so we have to disturb the robin’s nesting. Before the baby birds were hatched, the mother would fly to another branch when we’d come close, but now she’ll just sit immobile on the nest in the hope that we won’t notice her.

Before the fledglings hatched, I wanted to see what was in the nest, but since I’m not tall enough to peer into it, I took my camera and held it up over the nest to shoot. I had to count on my shortest-range lens focusing itself and took many pictures to get a few I like. The photos showed three blue eggs of a color seen only in turquoise stones or the ocean, a rare color in nature that seems odd for eggs. Why such a vibrant color for something that must be protected from predators? I’m sure naturalists have posited a theory about that one.

But should I have taken those photographs at all? The mother bird wasn’t happy with me, I know, because she sat on a nearby branch and trilled her scolding. I worried that those few minutes off the nest might cool the eggs or make them more vulnerable to breaking. I’m not even sure yet whether all of them have hatched because I haven’t used my camera to sneak shots of the babies like I did of the eggs. I don’t want to scare them by getting too close but I will try to get their picture with my longest telephoto lens once their little heads pop up over the rim of the nest.

I’m just trying to be neighborly here, not too nosy but curious enough to care. Perhaps that’s a good rule for photography too.

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