Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Posts Tagged ‘grass

First wildflower for 2023

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About a week ago I checked out a property a couple of miles from home where I expect ten-petal anemones (Anemone berlandieri) to spring up early in the year. I found exactly two of those flowers, and both were the worse for wear (and apparent nibbling). A day or two later we had a little bit of rain, so I returned to the property yesterday to see if the watering had had its effect. It had, and this time I found a bunch of anemone flowers scattered about. The “petals” on a ten-petal anemone are actually sepals, and 10 is more typically a lower bound than a requisite number. I count a dozen on the flower above. There are also more than 12 droplets of rain, thanks to the drizzly morning.

Hoverflies in the genus Toxomerus outnumbered me dozens to one on that property.
For the first time ever I managed to photograph three of them together on a flower.




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Over half a year ago I requested Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom’s Do You Think What You Think You Think? from the Austin Public Library system. When month after month went by without the book showing up for me at my local branch, I figured maybe the system’s one copy had gotten lost and the long delay came from a new copy having to be ordered. Last week I unexpectedly got a notice that the book was in. Upon picking it up, I found it was an old, worse-for-wear copy, so where it had been for over half a year remains a mystery.

Anyhow, one question the book takes up is: what makes a great work of art? The authors say that “six broad types of answers have been given time and again in the history of art theory and aesthetics”:

  • The work displays great technical ability.
  • The work is enjoyable.
  • The work conveys the feelings of the artist.
  • The work conveys an important moral lesson or helps us to live better lives.
  • The formal features of the work are harmonious and/or beautiful.
  • The work reveals an insight into reality.

As is true for each topic in the book, what follows is a quiz in which you rate each of those six factors from 0 (not important at all) to 4 (vital). After a second quiz, this time comparing the works of two artists, the authors analyze your ratings. I won’t discuss them here, so anyone who wants to get the book and take the quizzes can do so with a blank slate, so to speak.

Other topics dealt with are reason, morality, taboo, God, ethics, being alive, and freedom. Interesting stuff. If that sounds interesting to you, too, check out Do You Think What You Think You Think? (and if you literally try to check it out of your public library, let’s hope it doesn’t take more than half a year for you to get it).



© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 30, 2023 at 4:36 AM

What I found in the drizzle

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Forward into the new year, which you’ll be thrilled to know is very seveny because 7 x 17 x 17 = 2023.
The most recent year to be a prime number was 2017 and the next one will be 2027. Once again, seveny.


Let’s begin the year with a little look-back at the misty morning of December 12th at the Riata Trace Pond, where I found some luscious bushy bluestem seed heads (Andropogon tenuispatheus) covered in drizzle droplets. In the background you see brief traces of some falling droplets.

I also photographed a bird that I later learned is a white-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis.



And how could I resist a few drizzle-dropped flowers of gulf vervain, Verbena xutha?



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Speaking of sevens, I’ve been aware of the name Loren Eiseley for most of my life but until last month had never read anything by that naturalist who lived from 1907 to 1977 and who wrote prose with a sensibility more poetic than that of many people who identify themselves as poets today. Take an essay called “The Slit,” in which he describes working his way through a narrow slit in some sandstone and coming face to face with an embedded skull:

It was not, of course, human. I was deep, deep below the time of man in a remote age near the beginning of the reign of mammals. I squatted on my heels in the narrow ravine, and we stared a little blankly at each other, the skull and I. There were marks of generalized primitiveness in that low, pinched brain case and grinning jaw that marked it as lying far back along those converging roads where… cat and man and weasel must leap into a single shape.

… The skull lay tilted in such a manner that it stared, sightless, up at me as though I, too, were already caught a few feet above him in the strata and, in my turn, were staring upward at that strip of sky which the ages were carrying farther away from me beneath the tumbling debris of falling mountains. The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see? …

I restrained a panicky impulse to hurry upward after that receding sky that was outlined above the Slit. Probably, I thought, as I patiently began the task of chiseling into the stone around the skull, I would never again excavate a fossil under conditions which led to so vivid an impression that I was already one myself. The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.


For wonderful prose and insights into nature and evolution you can turn to The Loren Eiseley Reader and also The Immense Journey, a collection of his essays from the 1940s and ’50s.



© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 1, 2023 at 4:32 AM

More from the beach

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On September 19th we spent hours on Galveston Island. One of the plants that drew my attention formed distinctive mounds wider than they are high. I recognized it as a species of Croton; it turned out to be Croton punctatus, appropriately called gulf croton and beach tea. One website says that “it forms compact, seemingly manicured mounds in dunes that are accumulating sand and tends to disappear from eroding landscapes.” In the top picture, the grass behind the croton is sea oats, Uniola paniculata, which you last saw here from the Florida panhandle in 2019. In the second picture, the wildflowers behind the even broader mound of gulf croton are beach sunflowers, Helianthus debilis, which the post two days ago showed you a big colony of.




Alan Dershowitz’s new book, The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth the Consequences, praises American philosopher John Rawls.

He contemplated a nether world in which none of us knows whether we will be rich or poor, male or female, Black or white, Republican or Democrat, healthy or sick, intelligent or average, young or old. Blinded by this “veil of ignorance” we must articulate principles that would be maximally fair to all of us without any of us knowing into which categories we would fit in the real world. So even if one wanted to act out of self or group interest, he could not, because he would not know what he would be or what group he would belong to when the time came to apply the principles.

The laudable moral stance of treating everyone fairly, in the same way, is quickly falling out of fashion among a segment of our population. That unfortunately increasing faction insists on favoring people in certain groups and disfavoring—discriminating against—people in certain other groups, even though that discrimination violates the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and all U.S. state constitutions.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 3, 2022 at 4:27 AM

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Inland sea oats arc

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 Look at the characteristically graceful way inland sea oats (Chasmanthum latifolium) forms arcs.
I photographed these green seed heads along Bull Creek on June 24th.



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The latest attempt to redefine a word


In the middle of the 20th century George Orwell, himself a former Communist, pointed out the ways in which authoritarian regimes believe they can control people by redefining words. In 1984, a dystopian novel of the then-future, Orwell went so far as to invent a language that he called newspeak. In that language, for example, people were still allowed to use the adjective free in the sense that a dog is free from fleas but not in the normal sense in which a person has individual liberty.

In previous commentaries I’ve criticized campaigns within the past few years to redefine such basic terms as man, woman, and mother (notoriously recast as a “birthing person”). This week the semantic reformers have targeted the financial term recession. For decades now the predominant rule of thumb for recognizing a recession has been ‘two consecutive quarters of declining growth in the gross national product [GNP].’ Do an online search and you’ll find that definition in dozens of places, including the January 1991 article “Weathering a Weak Economy” in the magazine Black Enterprise. Similarly, a person in a 1989 Congressional hearing had spoken of a recession as “two consecutive quarters of less than zero real growth.” And the 2014 book Understanding National Accounts mentions “the two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP [gross domestic product] that typically denotes a recession.”

The typically in that last quotation concedes some wiggle room in determining whether a given country at a given time has entered a recession. I’m certainly not opposed to nuance. What I am opposed to is the opportunistic mad scramble that we’ve seen in the United States over the past several days by government officials proclaiming that the standard decades-long indicator of a recession was never really the standard decades-long indicator of a recession—just like women were never really the only kind of people who could give birth.

It was almost fun to watch the hypocrisy. For instance, among the choreographed corps of recession-deniers was current White House economic adviser Brian Deese, who on July 26th insisted that “two negative quarters of GDP growth is not the technical definition of recession.” Investigators, however, soon turned up a statement Deese himself had made in 2008: “What Senator Clinton has said is that of course economists have a technical definition of recession, which is two consecutive quarters of negative growth.”

It wasn’t just government officials who twisted themselves into instant recession-deniers. So did many commenters on television networks, as did newspaper writers, people in charge of social media, and even Wikipedia, which in the past few years has become increasingly biased. As Nellie Bowles reported in the blog Common Sense on July 29th:

The Wikipedia page on “recession” is getting furiously updated. (The crowd-source encyclopedia now contains a note on the “recession” entry that all previous definitions are false: “An outdated version of this article has been widely circulated. Please verify that claims or screenshots you may have seen are consistent with the actual content here.”) The economic historian Phil Magness posted on Facebook about the White House word games with recession and got a warning tagging it as “false information” and adding a “fact check.” Government is inefficient in most ways, but when it comes to coordinating with our social media oligarchs, it’s a well-oiled machine.  

You’re welcome to read that full piece as well as a January 28th article by Eric Boehm in Reason entitled “After 2 Consecutive Quarters of Negative Economic Growth, Is America in a Recession?” The subtitle is “Most Americans believe so.”

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 30, 2022 at 4:30 AM

Posted in nature photography

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Here’s a word for you: terete. It means ‘barrel-shaped.’ That fits these insect eggs, perhaps from a stinkbug, that I saw on a couple of plants in the southern section of Great Hills Park on July 15th. In the top picture the grass seems to have been silver bluestem, Bothriochloa laguroides. In the bottom picture the vine was indubitably (there’s another word for you) Clematis drummondii, colloquially called old man’s beard. Poking its drying snouty seed head into that strand-rich chaos was a Mexican hat, Ratibida columnifera.



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Four months ago I reported on a March 7th article on the satirical website The Babylon Bee that bore the headline “Biden Sells Alaska Back To Russia So We Can Start Drilling For Oil There Again.” The strangest thing about it was that USA Today went through the motions of fact-checking it. The newspaper found that the article was indeed satire yet still felt the need to add: “There is no evidence Biden plans to sell Alaska.”

I recently became aware of a similar incident from 2018 in which The Babylon Bee had run an article headlined “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” In that case the self-proclaimed fact-checking site snopes.com felt the need to investigate the claim. It really did. At least it came to the right conclusion.

Similarly, in 2021, when Covid was still a big problem, snopes.com looked into the satirical claim that CNN ran a banner announcing that Taliban fighters correctly wore masks during their take-over of Afghanistan. In that case the story had originated in The Babylon Bee but then circulated with no reference to its satirical source.

For more information about the clearly satirical Babylon Bee nevertheless repeatedly getting fact-checked, you can read a 2019 article by Bill Zeiser.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 22, 2022 at 4:22 AM

Two takes on silver bluestem

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From June 24th in St. Edward’s Park come these two takes on the grass called silver bluestem, Bothriochloa laguroides. The second view of one of these seed heads looks quite different from the first due to backlighting. Whereas the black backgrounds in many of my recent pictures resulted from the close use of a ring flash, in this case flash would have destroyed the effect of the backlighting. Instead, I had to look for a dark patch in the landscape that I could line up my subject with. In a shaded copse of trees not far away I found a dark area just large enough to surround the backlit seed head.




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From 2017 through 2019 the folks at Gapminder posed various questions to people. Here are four you can try your hand (or brain) at. I’ll give the answers in a couple of days.

1)  In 1980, roughly 40% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, with less than $2 per day.
What is the share today?       A) 10%       B) 30%       C) 50%

2)  During the past 40 years the amount of oil and natural gas remaining in known reserves has:
A) been reduced to less than half       B) remained more or less the same       C) more than doubled

3)  How much of the world’s total land surface has some physical infrastructure built on it, like houses or roads (excluding farm land)?        A) less than 5%       B) around 15%       C) more than 25%

4)  How many of the world’s one-year-old children were vaccinated against some disease in 2019?        
A) less than 20%       B) around 50%       C) more than 80%


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 3, 2022 at 4:30 AM

Aotearoa comes to Padre Island

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June 2nd was the first night we spent away from home in the two-and-a-quarter years since the pandemic hit. We drove 200 miles south from Austin to see the sea, or more properly the Gulf of Mexico, which is a branch of the Atlantic Ocean. Our first nature stop on the coast was the Padre Island National Seashore, where both of these dune scenes reminded me of Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand that supposedly means ‘the land of the long white cloud.’ I took these pictures two minutes apart, and although a long white cloud inhabits each one, I went for different photographic treatments.



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Speaking of places with beaches, in a feature that aired on September 27, 2021, Sharyl Attkisson looked at the potential Puerto Rico has to supply pharmaceuticals domestically and thereby lessen the heavy dependence of the United States on foreign countries, most notably China, for our medicines. The nine-minute video focuses on two immigrants, one from Viet Nam and the other from the Dominican Republic, who are opening a pharmaceutical plant in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Credit also goes to the mayor of that town, who shortened the process of getting all the required approvals down to a single day from what would typically take a year (why?!). Have a look.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 7, 2022 at 4:33 AM

Inland sea oats looking different

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I’ve often photographed seed head arcs of inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), and my post on January 16th showed two views of this grass’s leaves looking backlitly colorful. I commented then that although the species name latifolium means ‘wide leaf,’ I’d never considered inland sea oats leaves particularly wide. Now I get to add that not until walking the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt Trail on Valentine’s Day had I ever seen a leaf of this grass as tightly rolled up along its axis as the one you see here. It pointed not only to the farthest seed head but also to the fact that nothing would keep me from photographing so distinctive a leaf.

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Yesterday morning I successfully woke up. I successfully got out of bed and successfully made my way to my computer, which I successfully bought three years ago. I successfully looked at e-mails that had successfully come in overnight, and I successfully replied to some of them. Then I successfully went into the kitchen, where I not long ago successfully got the fluorescent light fixtures successfully replaced. Nearby was the toaster oven I successfully ordered last month. After its arrival I’d successfully removed it from its shipping box, successfully unwrapped it, successfully put it on a counter, successfully plugged it in, and successfully turned it on. Since then we’ve successfully cooked various foods in it and successfully eaten those foods.

What I’m getting at is that increasingly many people feel obliged to attach the word successfully to routine actions. For example, in January I sent an e-mail to a company after I kept getting billed each month for a subscription I’d canceled. The first reply I got said: “The escalation form has been successfully submitted to Gannett Subscriber Services Team.” Notice the unnecessary successfully.

One place where I think almost everyone has encountered this is on websites that require you to log in. After you log out, you almost invariably get a message with wording like “You have successfully logged out.” Logging out of a website is hardly special enough to be considered a success. It’s mundane. But do you think I’ll ever successfully convince website programmers to successfully drop the superfluous word successfully? I’d say my chances are on a par with getting advertisers to stop hyping a sale as a “sales event,” or businesses that deal in X to stop calling themselves “X Solutions” — which is to say the likelihood is zero.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 21, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Posted in nature photography

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Three takes on bushy bluestem

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At Chalk Ridge Falls Park in the outskirts of Belton on January 17th I did several takes on the native grass known as bushy bluestem, Andropogon tenuispatheus. Above, you see a stand of it on the opposite bank from where we walked along the Lampasas River. Soon afterward I had a chance to get close to some on our side of the river.

Elsewhere I worked quickly to record a bushy bluestem plant while it was still backlit. A few minutes later
and the moving sun—actually of course the moving earth—would have deprived me of the chance.

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Last week I finished reading the 2015 book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. My personality normally sets me at odds with activists, many of whom I see increasingly pushing ideologies despite objective reality contradicting those ideologies. Yet this activist, Alice Dreger, is also a historian, and she upholds historians’ traditional ethics: do the research and document the truth, whether it matches your preconceptions or not.

Here are a few people’s recommendations for Galileo’s Middle Finger:

Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine
Galileo’s Middle Finger is a brilliant exposé of people that want to kill scientific messengers who challenge cherished beliefs. Dreger’s stunning research into the conflicts between activists and scholars, and her revelations about the consequences for their lives (including hers), is deeply profound and downright captivating. I couldn’t put this book down!”

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of The Blank SlateEnlightenment Now, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Rationality:
“In activism as in war, truth is the first casualty. Alice Dreger, herself a truthful activist, exposes some of the shameful campaigns of defamation and harassment that have been directed against scientists whose ideas have offended the sensibilities of politicized interest groups. But this book is more than an exposé. Though Dreger is passionate about ideas and principle, she writes with a light and witty touch, and she is a gifted explainer and storyteller.”

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and The World until Yesterday: 
“Alice Dreger would win a prize for this year’s most gripping novel, except for one thing: her stories are true, and this isn’t a novel. Instead, it’s an exciting account of complicated good guys and bad guys, and the pursuit of justice.”

Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, Emeritus, Harvard University (who died this past December 26th): 
“In this important work, Dreger reveals the shocking extent to which some disciplines have been infested by mountebanks, poseurs, and even worse, political activists who put ideology ahead of science.”


I’ll give more information about Galileo’s Middle Finger in a follow-up commentary.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 4, 2022 at 4:32 AM

Switchgrass time again

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The “big four” grasses of the tallgrass prairies are little bluestem, big bluestem, (yellow) Indiangrass, and the subject of today’s post, switchgrass, Panicum virgatum. I always look forward to seeing large clumps of switchgrass in its late-fall and winter form, as I did on January 11th in the northeast quadrant of Mopac and US 183. From a distance the tops of these clumps seem to me a tan haze, as shown above. The lower portions of the grass, curlicued as their leaves so often are, lend themselves to abstract portraits like the one below.


☀︎         ☀︎         ☀︎


Did you hear about the preserved baby dinosaur discovered curled up inside its egg?
It’s quite an exciting find.

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 20, 2022 at 4:34 AM

Posted in nature photography

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