May 27, 2010

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Adventures with Grapenut, story and photographs by John M. Rockwood, 2009, 54 pages
Adventures with Grapenut chronicles the first months of one loon's life.

Auburn photographer John Rockwood, relying on his kayak fitted with an umbrella for a sail, has over the past few years gotten to know some of Lake Massabesic's resident loons. (They're banded, which helps.) He respects them and their territory; they seem to recognize and trust him. He keeps an appropriate distance " be grateful for zoom lenses (and that umbrella sail).

Rockwood nicknamed one adult loon pair "the Grapetons" because they lived near the Grape Islands. When he discovered they had procreated (again) one recent July, he nicknamed the baby, which he judged to be about four days old, "Grapenut."

He visited Grapenut by kayak 10 times during that summer and fall.

And he took pictures.

The man may not know what to do with a comma (it's enough to give your English teacher hives), but he sure knows his way around a camera. And around the lake.

The heart-squeezingly adorable first pictures of Grapenut at a few days old feel almost 3D " you want to reach out and touch the soft down and the beads of water resting on his back. The level of detail is amazing as Grapenut gets older and morphs into an adult. We see him riding on a parent's back, being fed, learning to fly; we see his mother with a crayfish in her beak, crystal clear, and his father escorting Grapenut through the water.

We don't see, but we read about, Grapenut's attempt to eat a piece of an outboard motor; Rockwood writes that he threw a granola bar to startle the bird into dropping the chunk of metal. He says Grapenut was mad at him for a while after that.

There is a fair amount of anthropomorphizing ("Grapenut " rose up out of the water to show me how much he had grown") " the way people generally do with the animals they spend time with.

The story and photos are intimate.

For Day 46, there's a series of intriguing pictures of Grapenut's mother teaching him how and what to eat.

On Day 54, Grapeton has begun to physically resemble an adult.

On Day 60, he's trying, not very successfully, to fly; the series of photographs here is amusing and heart-rending (captioned "Run Grapenut Run!").

On Day 95, Grapenut's father flies away for the winter (which he'll spend on the ocean, Rockwood says). And on Day 125, a windy day in late November, Rockwood sees Grapenut himself depart for the season. Perhaps, Rockwood writes, Grapenut will return to Lake Massabesic in a few years to start his own family. Loons' average lifespan in the wild, Rockwood writes, is 25 to 30 years.

The book closes with this and other facts about loons and some principles of loon-watching etiquette, including tips on when to back off.

This is not a high-budget book; it was self-published and printed at Braintree Printing in Braintree, Mass., which a quick Google search informs me was "formerly the #1 Sir Speedy in the country." This probably explains the faint horizontal bands apparent across many of the photos, which look like ones my desktop printer produces occasionally. You can only do so much with limited printing capacity.

But clearly John Rockwood is an expert with his camera and this is an impressive collection and an impressive story. All the more so because these are our loons, on our lake. It's nice to know who we're sharing it with. It's nice that John Rockwood took these pictures so we don't have to " the fewer people bugging the loons, the better.

You can see some of the pictures, and order the book, at www.theloonmannh.net.

John Rockwood will be at Gibson's Bookstore in Concord on June 10 at 7 p.m. Lisa Parsons