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  • How does a pelican turn into a squirrel?

    This isn’t a trick question.

    As some of you know, I have spent the last three years running the website Indian River by Air to showcase the aerial photographs taken by my father over Florida.  This has been a fascinating and, at times, frustrating learning experience (thank you Facebook algorithms for that latter part). I started not knowing much about social media beyond the basics, but over time feel I’ve picked up a number of new skills, and I am always looking for different challenges, such as the creating the weekly newsletter and daily update, or learning how to use PowerPoint to create videos.

    So in late 2015 I began to playing around with new ways of using the images. First there was text, then I realised I could use the same technique on anything.  The possibilities were endless … pelicans, sea turtles, and even a TARDIS featured in my designs.

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    The thought then arose: Why not use my own photos?

    I’ve been using a digital camera for nearly two decades, and I have tens of thousands of photographs sitting on my computer, on external hard drives scattered around my desk, and on my phone.  It just became a matter of finding the right shape to go with the right photo.  The squirrel was one of the first pictures I experimented with, and the results encouraged me to create the complete set of “Magnificent Mammals” greeting cards.  I have a long list of other wildlife images I plan to use in the near future; drop me a line if there’s something in particular you’d like to see!

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    POND LIFE

    Spring is a season for new life.  Lambs can be seen frolicking in fields across the country, gardens are showing the first flush of colour, and birds are beginning to stake out their territory for nesting. But the sign of spring that had me most overjoyed? The humble frogspawn.

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    Nature’s Calendar, a site run by the Woodland Trust to record seasonal events, uses this as one of the ways of measuring the arrival of spring across the UK.  I noticed the first gelatinous mass of eggs on 3rd March, and they were joined by ever more bunches throughout the week.  The frogs
    themselves could sometimes be seen mating at the bottom of the pond, the male holding on to the female in a behaviour known as “amplexus”. This is Latin for “embrace” and it more or less sums up the process: the male grips on to the female’s back to fertilise the eggs once they leave her body.  This position is also a good way to keep away any other potential suitors, which can be numerous. Although the mating of frogs is often described as a roiling, almost violent occurrence, in our pond it was less a sexual frenzy and more a very persistent hug.

    The pond itself is rather small, measuring perhaps five feet across and no more than two feet at its deepest.  It’s made of preformed fibreglass, and was a gift from my parents.  When I mentioned to friends that we were putting in a pond, their first question was always the same, “Are you going to get fish?” And I always responded in the negative: fish need care and eat tadpoles.  This pond was strictly for wildlife.

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    My father actually flew over from Florida to install it in October 2014, and frogs moved in before it was even properly full.  However, while I counted seven or eight frogs at any one time, there was no frogspawn the first year.  We added a few more water plants, set some rocks around the border to give the frogs a place to hide when out of the water, and waited.

    So the appearance of spawn in early March felt like an amphibian seal of approval: they were comfortable enough with our garden and the pond to use it for the next generation.  I began an almost daily vigil, watching the eggs change as they elongated from perfectly round full stops to hyphens to the exclamation points of tadpoles.

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    Most hatched just before Easter, and I was surprised to see them stay in a large, wriggling mass in the centre of the pond.  As a child, I had kept tadpoles in a jar to watch the complete metamorphosis of developing limbs, shrinking tails, and the creation of perfect, miniature frogs.  Those tadpoles tended to keep their distance from their siblings; I found out why when I noticed that some of the larger ones turned cannibal.  With closer inspection, that seems to be what they are doing here as well: they are feeding on the frogspawn that failed to hatch. It is, I suppose, an easy meal and a simple way to recycle nutrients that would otherwise be lost.

    Now, about a week after hatching, some of the braver tadpoles are beginning to disperse, finding a place around the side of the pond and feeding on the algae that is starting to grow with the longer, warmer days.  The pond is also full of other surprises.  While watching the tadpoles today, I caught sight of a newt venturing to the surface for a quick breath before retreating back to the pond weed.

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    Newts eat tadpoles.  But in this case, it seems to be a chicken or egg conundrum: did the newt overwinter near the pond and end up there for the same reason as the frogs, i.e. to breed, or did it turn up recently for a tadpole smorgasbord? Regardless, there are enough tadpoles to support a few newts, and I look forward to seeing how this patch of aquatic wilderness develops.

    BADGER AMONGST THE BLUEBELLS

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    This photo of bluebells in the spring was snapped a few years ago in West Woods near Marlborough in Wiltshire.  My husband and I love to visit this patch of woodland first thing in the morning to catch the dawn chorus and any stragglers who haven’t quite made it back to their beds; one year it was a fox, another time a herd of deer thundered down a path then vanished into the trees.

    I liked this particular photo so much that I had it enlarged and printed on a canvas that now hangs in the guest bedroom, inviting visitors to imagine their own walk in the woods. The picture also came *this* close to being used as the website background for miss-elaineous.com, and its colours—the muted greens of the woods, the purples and blues of the flowers—remain in the MissElaineous logo.

    Although it missed a claim to fame via the website, it was the first photo I turned to when I started designing the “Magnificent Mammals” collection. Despite the controversy surrounding these animals, I knew I wanted to include a badger.  We have a sett nearby and they regularly visit our back garden to clear up apple cores and any other fruit that’s gone off, so I am rather fond of these opportunistic omnivores.

    Through a fortunate stroke of serendipity, one of the knotholes looked exactly like an eye, and this encouraged me to look at all of the photos I planned to use in a new light.  Stay tuned for information about all of the animals designs over the next few weeks.

     

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    AN EASTER GETAWAY

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    Samuel Johnson famously declared that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” What was true in the 18th century remains just as accurate today.  England’s capital city is just over an hour away from home by train, and it’s a place I visit regularly for work and pleasure.

    My first visit to London was as a teenage tourist twenty years ago.  From this I caught a lifelong bug for international travel, but, like most visitors, had to contend with a lightening tour of the top sites.  It is true you can cram the postcard images of London into a few days of sightseeing: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square.  Perhaps even take in a West End show or two.  But to actually immerse yourself in some of the sights—such as the world-leading trifecta of the British Museum, the National History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum—it takes time.

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    This is why I count myself fortunate to have this opportunity to dip in and out of London’s offerings.  I only visited the inside of the Tower of London for the first time last year, and many other sights, like St. Paul’s Cathedral or catching a play at the Globe, are still on the list of things to do.  Added to this mix are familiar sights with a different angle, such as a new or revamped exhibition.

    Which is how I found myself at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum for the fifth or sixth time.  This is one of my husband’s favourite places to go for a spot of creative photography, and the new Star Wars exhibit had drawn us like moths to a flame (perhaps a bad cliché to use around wax works, but you get the point).  It’s also fun to see what new public figures have been chosen to get the Tussaud’s treatment (hello, Benedict Cumberbatch!).  Each statue costs approximately £150,000 to produce, so it’s no wonder they try to find stars with staying power: I swear most of the celebrities were there during my first visit 20 years ago.

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    It’s also a reminder that the cult of celebrity is not new.  Indeed, people have been paying for over 150 years to get close to the rich, famous, and powerful at Madame Tussaud’s.  What I find fascinating is that in the world of the internet and instant news, where nothing about a celebrity is left to the imagination, this desire for physical proximity to the famous remains.  Perhaps technology even fans the flames: selfies on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like provide a ready audience.  I can’t help but marvel how this relatively old art form of wax doppelgängers  has found a new life in the 21st century.

    Following Madame Tussaud’s, we paid a visit to the theatre to see The Play That Goes Wrong.  That’s its actual title and it goes very wrong indeed, much to the delight of the audience.  This was our second time seeing it and it remained just as amusing as before.  I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’ll just say that if you have the chance to see it, go now.  The rest of this blog entry will wait and is nowhere near as side-splittingly funny (or funny at all to be honest).

    The following day it was off to Legoland.  We had enjoyed visiting the one in Florida previously, and had long wanted to see what miniature scenes were set up at this park near Windsor.  After dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed off … only to discover upon getting to the gate that the 2-for-1 voucher had been left in our room.  The hefty price tag meant we decided to turn around and tackle Legoland on another day.

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    Legoland Florida: We weren’t expecting the same thing at Legoland Windsor. We were, however, expecting to go inside.

    While in the end it may be false economy (we will, after all, have to pay to get ourselves back to Windsor), it certainly felt like the right decision as it started raining not long after we returned.  Even Windsor’s eponymous castle looked dull, so the day of Legoland photography would not have happened as we had envisioned anyway. I recognise that bad weather is the stereotype for England but, after a relaxing evening, the view of Windsor the following morning showed why this area is a tourist magnet.

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    Attempting to photograph Windsor Castle in black and white on a rainy day didn’t help; instead of dramatic, it just looked gloomy.  The next day, however…

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    So London continues to work its magic, Windsor retains its royal charm, and Legoland, well, it will wait for another day.

    MEDITATION BY GOOSE

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    This is Lydiard House and Park, near Swindon in the UK.  While the land belonged to the St. John family for over 500 years, the present house was built in the 1740s in the Palladian style, with an adherence to symmetry and use of Classical architectural details.  In 1943, the house was sold to
    the Swindon Corporation, and, for the time being, it is still run by Swindon Borough Council. The extensive grounds are now a public park and, perhaps more surprisingly, parts of the house have been turned into a hotel and conference venue. This latter purpose is why I found myself there recently as part of a work event.

    It was a major meeting, one I had recently been given responsibility for managing.  This was my opportunity to meet the people involved, see how everything operated, and discuss other aspects of our current project plans.  It probably isn’t a surprise that I had been feeling anxious ahead of the event, a combination of not knowing what to expect and worry about the greater responsibility I would now have.

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    Indeed, the first day had been intense: so many new people to meet, notes to take, activities to get through.  I began to wonder how I would manage this in the future on top of my usual workload, how I would make sense of everything, and how I would cope with the pressure to do a good job.

    The second day dawned cold and clear.  I had a few minutes to kill before everything kicked off again, and decided to use this time to explore the grounds of the park. I found myself drawn to the pond, with its reflections of sunrise and winter tree branches, and its assortment of waterfowl.  The geese in particular were noticeable, honking to each other in a strange dawn chorus. Watching them as they went about their morning routine, a phrase popped into my head: “Like water off a duck’s back.”  Despite the difference in species, I mused over this common cliché.

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    It implies a resilience I think many of us wish we had, to be able to take whatever life throws at us and let it wash over us without ruffling our feathers. And yet, as I stood there watching the waterfowl and listening to their calls, I realised what a great metaphor it was for my current situation.

    Ducks aren’t born waterproof.  When they hatch, they’re covered in fine, fluffy down, and it takes several months for them to grow their adult feathers.  And for these to resist water, the ducks (and geese, swans, and most other water birds) have to look after themselves.  It’s why they can be seen regularly preening, spreading oil over their feathers to make them waterproof.  Without this care and attention, their feathers would lose the protective coating and the birds would be unable to keep themselves warm and dry.

    Yet how many of us do just the opposite?  We expect perfection of ourselves from the start, and work constantly without any time to refresh and replenish. It made me realise that I needed to allow myself time to grow into the role and to ensure I gave myself the space to build up my own “emotional coating” so that the duck’s back resilience came more naturally.

    I went back to the house feeling just a little lighter and far more ready to take on the day.

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    MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy