Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Become a Nature Photographer

Every third Estonian claims to be a nature photographer. If you don’t believe me check the census data. It’s just one of those peculiarities of the country.

Most don’t sell their photos and, if you corner them, they’ll admit they’re not professional nature photographers, but rather masons or dentists or accountants or lawyers. But if you meet them in a dark bar on the edge of the wilderness, before you even have your drink ordered, they’ll identify themselves as nature photographers.

Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc, a news shooter for ERR’s English-language website, is one of them. “Veux-tu aller avec ton roi à Soomaa?” Jacques barked over the telephone. Or something like that. I don’t speak French, but that never stops Jacques. Each time I remind him I’m from the other part of Canada, which he is only able to remember until the next time he calls.

When I finally got Jacques to switch to English he informed me that we’d been invited to accompany some nature photographers on a canoe trip in Soomaa. Since it was the flood season, they were making their annual pilgrimage, and if I would quickly stuff some dry clothes into a plastic bag then two authentic nature photographers would be in front of my house within an hour.

“Where could the damned thing be?” Tarmo the nature photographer was rummaging around inside his car, tossing thermos mugs and maps this way and that. “My hand lotion. I need my hand lotion!” After he found it and greased up, he offered me his hand. “I’m Tarmo. They say hand lotion is addictive, but I’m not sure.” I rubbed into my skin what Tarmo left on me, half wondering if I’d soon want another hit.

As we drove toward Pärnu, Tarmo and Jacques sat in the front, discussing their choice of long underwear. Jacques was wearing French military-issue polyester, while Tarmo had new Merino wool.

“Smell me,” said Tarmo, shoving an arm in Jacques’ face.

“All I smell is hand lotion,” said Jacques. “But it’s nice.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” explained Tarmo. “In two days you’ll smell like Vello’s butt, and I’ll still smell like, well, hand lotion.”

I thought about joining the conversation, but I had no idea what type of underwear I had. Liina bought it for me several years ago and so far it had kept me warm. But today it was five degrees and raining, and we’d spend all day sitting in Tarmo’s canoe. Maybe I should have thought more about my underwear.

Throughout the drive, when Tarmo and Jacques weren’t discussing the newest in keep-warm fabric, they were talking about Janno, one of Estonia’s more famous nature photographers, a photo god of sorts, who had just published a series of polar bear photos which had drawn more than 100,000 visitors to his blog. This was of course the dream of any creative human: to have another human want to look at his work. And 100,000 was quite a few other humans. We were due to meet Janno in just over an hour, board canoes, and photograph the rainy, flooded wilds.

But when we arrived Janno wasn’t there. After a series of phone calls, half of them disconnecting mid-stream due to lack of signal, it was determined that Janno had left his telephone at home. Some other nature photographers, who did not have their own canoes, would rent them from the Viljandi side, and we would somehow meet on the water. Janno would presumably be among them.

“It’s gonna be a goddamned song festival,” announced Tarmo, pocketing his telephone and reporting the intel he’d gleaned from the conversations. “Every canoe in Estonia is currently in Soomaa. There may even be a Nature Omnibus.”

“I thought those were mostly full of pensioners?” I said. “And it is a weekend, right?”

Tarmo and Jacques looked at me like I’d peed in their camera bags. It was clear that nature photographers considered themselves the eagles of the forest, soaring majestically, high above the ground-dwellers who must forage for nuts under leaves and logs. “Well,” Tarmo conceded, after a long silence. “The pensioners won’t go too far in their boats. We’ll just go farther.”
And so, after another application of hand lotion, Jacques and I stepped off the dry road into our canoe and floated into the flood plain.

Soon followed Tarmo, but I would never have recognized him. He was paddling hard in a short sea kayak, dressed in a yellow dry suit, a rubber gasket sealed tightly around his neck, his head crowned with an astronaut’s cap. “They call him Gagarin,” said Jacques from the stern. “He not only dresses like that, but he’ll go anywhere to get a photo.”

It was true. On a dare, Tarmo had once crawled into a den of hibernating bears to get a photo of the cubs. To increase his odds inside the den, he wore a hockey goalie’s mask, thick fingerless gloves, and fired a series of shots with and without a flash. Shouting to his friends to extract him, they pulled him out by his feet and then all ran to the safety of a metal cage where they examined the photos. Tarmo had given the bears redeye. And so it was with nature photographers. You could risk your life in a den of bears and they would still criticize your work.

We spent the entire day navigating through the song festival looking for perfect light and for Janno. Nature was replaced by throngs of canoes crashing through forest cover and the occasional shriek, sometimes from joy and occasionally from an overturned boat.

Though few photos were taken due to the rain, we did not find Janno until the evening when we beached our boats and he arrived by car. “Smell this,” was the introduction I got from Tarmo, who led me to Janno’s car and insisted I sniff.

“Hand lotion?” I ventured a guess.

“No, smartass. A dead fox. Janno picked one up off the road last week and can’t get the smell out.”

“Picked it up, why? To eat?”

Tarmo considered this a question not worth answering, shook his head, and ordered everyone in their cars. We would be heading for a meal and a sauna in a Kilingi-Nõmme guesthouse. The cold and wet had spoiled everyone’s appetite for camping.

At dinner it became clear that Janno had picked up the dead animal to give it to a wounded feral dog, recovering under a friend’s care. Janno’s tales of his unsuccessful attempts to rid his car of the smell led to more discussions of the superiority of Merino wool underwear (Tarmo encouraged everyone to smell him) and eventually to the discussion of photography. Janno’s polar bear photos had already been stolen and circulated around the globe. He had received no money of course, and many of the thieves had even removed his name and replaced it with their own. As if to add insult to injury, the Kilingi-Nõmme guesthouse was distributing Estonian government-funded country tourism brochures which featured a cover photo by Janno. A photo for which he’d received neither money nor credit.

“You should sue them,” I offered, trying to whip the shooters into a frenzy. “Set their office building on fire,” added Jacques. But the photographers only shook their heads, as if to suggest that suing someone or setting something on fire were distinctly North American and French behaviors, respectively.

The next day the sun shined brightly – another curse for photographers – and we were too late on the water to take advantage of any of the morning fog. This day there were even more canoeists, but the Sunday boaters were more well-behaved. A flotilla passed which was full of Centre Party politicians. We passed an internet guru. A well-known banker. Even a former porn star. It was a floating song festival and well worth the trip, even though nature is better viewed alone.

On the way home we crossed the Pärnu River and witnessed a canoe ram a tree head-on and capsize. First on the scene, we pulled over to assist, and as Jacques tied together every piece of rope he could find, Tarmo climbed into his Gagarin suit.

The canoe washed far downstream and the couple clung to a tree in mid-current, stranded with their bodies half in the near-freezing water. Tarmo grabbed the rope and headed upstream for the bridge.

“What’s he going up there for?” I asked Jacques, as the treed woman screamed for help. “He could wade out right here by the woman.”

“Do you know how much that suit cost?” asked Jacques. “You spend that kind of money then you've got to have drama.”

And with that Tarmo leapt off the bridge into the swiftest current and drifted down to the girl clinging to the tree branch. He fixed a line under her arms, swam until he had sure footing, and then pulled the girl to the bank. He repeated the procedure with the man, though without the action-hero bridge leap.

“Thank you,” panted the couple who by this time were being whisked to a waiting car which would take them to a nearby sauna.

“All in a day’s work for a nature photographer,” replied Tarmo in a faux-deep voice. As he walked to the car he clapped me on the back. “Say, Vello,” he offered, “any chance you want to smell my underwear now?”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Of Caca and Springtime

“You better pick that up!” she shouted at me from the other side of the fence. My Siberian Husky Mundo had just crapped near her apartment building.

“I don’t have a bag with me,” I replied. “But I’ll come back later and get it.”

“No you won’t!” she bellowed.

I usually carry several plastic bags, though on that day I had simply forgotten to resupply my coat pocket.

“What’s your postbox number?” I asked in an even tone of voice.

“Why do you want to know?” This woman obviously had problems much bigger than dog shit, and they’d eaten away at her, making her suspicious of everything and everybody until she’d become a troll under the bridge.

“I need to know your postbox number,” I continued in the same level tone, “because that’s where I’m going to put the dog shit. Otherwise, how will you know that I’ve cleaned it up?”

That old cow just stared at me, and before she could come up with some other little problem I blew her a kiss and moved on. I would have come back to pick up the dog shit, too, if she hadn’t have been such a bitch.

For readers who like stories with clear lessons, this one has nothing to do with dog shit. The moral of the story is Don’t be a bitch (with the corollary that then there’ll be a lot less shit in your life). But, since dog shit is so topical at the moment – since it has even inspired a work of literature by Estonia’s most famous living author – I feel compelled to publicly comment: For the record, should I ever decide to run for parliament, I am in favor of cleaning up dog shit from public places.

I often like to walk Mundo near the sea in Pirita and as the snow melts around the TOP Hotel the earth gives up its treasures: rotting husks of Roman candles, rusty syringes, used condoms, kinder surprise shells, last summer’s chicken bones, and of course a veritable minefield of dog shit. It’s the time of year when the city epitomizes the Soviet maxim that if something belongs to everyone then it belongs to no one.

Recently, I heard about a campaign to point out the dog shit everywhere by placing little yellow flags to mark each pile. This is a nice gesture, but for it to work it would require that the majority of citizens access their conscience. This might work in cities where space is truly at a premium or in rich socialist countries where the angry are fewer. But in Tallinn, given the still vast gulf between the haves and have nots, the sense I get is that too much bitterness still remains. Your dog crapping and your Lexus-driving neighbor stepping in it in his thin-soled Italian shoes provides an immediate sense of satisfaction and in a small but important way helps reset society’s delicate emotional balance.

My wife Liina — who like me considers herself an amateur psychologist but who also has a soft spot for conspiracy theories – has floated the idea that there’s a reason we are given little yellow flags and not parks crawling with municipal cops with their flammable green uniforms and inbred eyes: If the city were to take away our dog shit (or, for example, the 10,000 swans we’re not supposed to feed) we might turn our attention to more serious issues, like a serious discussion of Estonia’s presence in Afghanistan, Narva’s dreadful HIV record, human trafficking or god-knows-what. Dog shit, Liina says, is the modern opiate of the masses.

Liina makes her case by pointing out that mayors of much bigger cities have shown the world that where there’s a will there’s a way. Giuliani solved New York’s litter problem and crime problems almost overnight. Boris Johnson and Mike Bloomberg are recognized for making their cities cleaner, calmer, and greener. Liina contends even an incompetent administrator, if he had the desire, could quickly solve Tallinn’s dog shit problem (and its snow- and ice removal problems).

I’m not sure I buy Liina’s theory, not least because intelligent discussion about Afghanistan and HIV would serve to draw attention away from the city government to the federal government, a clear advantage for the Centre Party, but also because there is likely a very good reason why no one gives a damn about the dog shit. It could be the fact that many city offices are still staffed by the Homo Sovieticus generation who are simply accustomed to dog shit in public places. And it’s likely Mr. Savisaar does not stroll through parks in the season of the melt: his daily walk is from the heated leather seat of a Mercedes Benz E350 CDI 4Matic directly to his door.

I have met Mr. Savisaar only once, at an American Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Those of us seated at his table asked him questions in our accented Estonian, and he briefly huddled with advisor Heido Vitsur over each question before – as if Mr. Savisaar had his hand shoved up inside him and was moving his lips — Mr. Vitsur answered our questions. I wasn’t able to form too many conclusions, except that Mr. Savisaar is not comfortable around westerners.

I recently saw Mr. Savisaar again at the press conference where he revealed his contention that the 1.5 million euros was for the Lasnamäe church. With a deft hand and without a single visible drop of sweat, he played flawlessly to thirty journalists in the room. It was a masterly performance.

Add to his stagecraft a personal history right out of Oliver Twist, and you have the perfect makings for a long profile in a well-known American magazine, to whom I actually tried to peddle the story of a three-dimensional profile of what makes Mr. Savisaar tick. They were not interested, sadly, the editor bluntly asking “Why would Americans give a shit about that?” While it seemed no less relevant to me than a story that same magazine ran about a minor politician in Central America, I guess I was simply too minor a writer to guarantee them readers for a profile no matter how interesting I could make an Eastern European politician. And so there was little left to do than write about dog shit in Postimees. (Full disclosure: Dog shit was their idea.)

Without knowing the man, what I am willing to conclude is that Mr. Savisaar is very bright, and I am sure that if he were to set his sights on dog shit in Tallinn, he would be able to eradicate it. But my sense is that his interest in the city of Tallinn is not equal to his interest in Estonian politics — city goings-on must bore the poor man to death. What of course we need to rid the city of dog shit, is a leadership more committed to the city itself than to a certain ideology or class of voters.

I find it interesting that in Estonia one may easily find plenty of people who are proud to be Estonian (or Mulgilased, Muhulased, or Whateverlased). It’s easy to find people who are proud to be from Tartu or Viljandi or Pärnu or Haapsalu. But I’ve met very few people who are genuinely proud to hail from Tallinn. (A certain breed of Tallinner — elitists more often than not — are often proud that they are not from the countryside.) Being neither a tiny town nor a big city, Tallinn somehow lacks any distinct identity; it’s the capital city we have to have, the city center a vast collection of architectural mistakes and monuments to the vanity of small-timers, and, except for the Old Town and its remarkable residential neighborhoods, the city is a rather forgettable gray blob.

It would be tempting to say that what Tallinn needs is some big event to inspire and bring us together as a community, like being named a Cultural Capital of Europe. But what Tallinn really needs is a leadership who cares both passionately and visibly about it. A leader who can make inspiring speeches about why we should care for our neighbors (Mr. Ilves’ speeches on this topic seem rote). A leadership who clearly gives a damn and can make us believe that cleaning up dog shit is about a lot more than cleaning up dog shit.

Until that happens, however, I wouldn’t place to much faith in yellow flags. Keep wearing those thick-soled shoes.

Thick-soled shoes available here.