This photograph I took a few years back in Carmel called to me this morning. Anyone who has struggled with depression, or addiction, or trauma has been this man — walking by himself on a deserted shoreline at dusk, surrounded by beauty and blind to it all. I finished reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar last night, just after midnight. The Bell Jar is a study of a young woman’s descent into madness, and her eventual rise back from the disconsolate existence from which she could not have wrested herself alone. In many ways the novel is autobiographical of Plath’s own descent into madness, which she succumbed to just a month after The Bell Jar was published in Britain. Plath had been a successful poet in her years at Smith College, and she feared that The Bell Jar, her first novel, would be poorly received. She published it under a pseudonym, and only posthumously her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, allowed it to be published under her true name. The book resonated with me, having, myself, descended into the depths of melancholy, if not madness, only to come out the other side.
Three quarters of the book chronicles the narrator’s descent, while the final quarter memorializes her hospitalization and eventual convalescence. I found that the descent was uncannily accurate; the details were obviously intimately familiar to Plath. Having never managed to rise from the ashes herself, though, Plath’s account of the sudden loss of the psychoses that mired Esther (the narrator) for years seemed disingenuous.
Understanding that the recovery, for me, has taken nearly as long as the descent, the season that Esther spent in a sanitarium seemed to me conveniently abridged. I accept, with a certain level of grace, Plath’s predicament: I have tried to write a novel based on things I never knew, never understood. Plath never escaped from under the bell jar, but instead withered in the confines of its glass walls like a rose without air or water. I have known what it is like to feel encircled by the thick glass jar, not strong enough to lift it from the inside, and seemingly damned to an existence under the dome. Like Esther, the glass was lifted, ever so slightly over time, and now the jar is a memory, albeit a vivid one. Perhaps someday I will write my own version of the story, giving fair shake to the slow rise from the ashes in recovery.
Nature is a metaphor. This little bit of grey-green deer lichen (Cladina Evansii) dithered in the wind, caught between filaments of a ruined spiderweb, most likely the work of a golden orb weaver (Nephila Clavipes), which are common in North Florida. A yellow pigment in the silk lends it a rich golden glow in suitable lighting. The silk is eight times stronger than steel, and so this small clump of lichen was anchored securely, not likely to blow away even with the fiercest winds. Though lichen are epiphytes, existing on air and rain, without roots, and would survive just fine as I found it, I did have a certain pang of melancholy that it had been separated from its kith and kin that carpeted the edge of the path near the creek where I found it. I felt a certain kinship with it, being held in all directions by almost invisible binds. Yet I did not loose it from them, instead I insouciantly took a few snapshots of it to memorialize its predicament.
When I returned home to edit the photographs, I was struck by the photo even more than I had been by the scene itself. The high aperture effectively blurred out all but the lichen and the filaments, which I could barely discern in the low, dappled light of the swamp. It seemed fitting, that the camera would capture this play of light and elements exactly as it did. If nature is a metaphor, the camera is a poet, which preserves the play with deeper precision than memory ever could. In many ways, this is why I love photography so deeply. The world in which I live is a story to be told. I have written poems and novels and plays, and yet, a good photograph evokes as much meaning, if not more. I must confess the truth of the trite aphorism, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The longer I consider a photograph such as this, the more images and thoughts and feelings are evoked–more than I could have ever gathered by simply looking upon the object or scratching out a villanelle. The blur and the bokeh of the water in the background has meaning; as does the tack focus of the lichen stands out sharply against the insignificance of the streaks of sunlight on the tannin-stained surface of the creek on which my eyes would have instinctively refocused.
Perhaps I have an eye for these things, or an innate talent that lets me capture such meaningful photographs as the ones I have shared in the past, but I cannot help but to feel like the monkey banging on the typewriter inadvertently producing a sonnet. I feel a great sense of fraud, or perhaps a sense that I am a mere instrumentality of something much greater than myself. I wonder if Wordsworth or Ansel Adams ever felt like this–heaped with praise for simply capturing what nature served to them on a platter. If they did, then I share a deep kinship with them as a mere documentarian of nature.
Click here for a larger version.
Though I do not take many abstract shots, this one came rather organically. Taken at Big Talbot Island, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, I had fixed my macro lens on my camera halfway through the long walk down the driftwood-strewn beach. I had already taken many photos of the fossil-like trees, languishing and bleaching in the hot sun, and so I set out to capture the little elements that required me to look closer and actually observe the microcosms of barnacles and tulip snails and patterns in the grains of the wood. The day was cut short by the heat, which beaded down my forehead into my eyes, making the very act of photography an unpleasant task.
As I walked back the mile or so to my car, I left the lens cap off of my camera in case anything small, otherwise insignificant, caught my eyes, which burned with the sweat. Near my car, there was a rickety old circular wooden handrail. I cannot say why, but the way the rough-hewn logs stretched horizontally around, propped up by a glorified dock piling, reminded me of Stonehenge. I’ve never been, though I did see a large stone circle in the Lake District years ago. I scrunched up to where the post met the lintels, and manually focused my lens on the dark interstice between them. I thought nothing of the photograph until I got home and began editing the photographs which I had taken that day. There was something appealing about the abstract composition of the capture that pleased me, and, what’s more, intrigued me.
Photography has a way of elevating the mundane to art. Whether that was achieved here, I leave up to you, but in this particular perspective, the photograph seems to create something far more significant than a fence and its post. It is, itself, a simile without words. By giving it a title, I was able to ascribe significance to it–it was no longer simply pressure treated lumber bolted together. It was like Stonehenge. This photograph taught me a lesson, which I carry with me to this day. What may seem insignificant may be given artistic meaning, sometimes simply by capturing it with the camera, and other times simply by giving it a name, an identity. In this way, photography is kin to poetry, revealing the beauty and grace within the quotidian.
Click here for a larger version.
Being from Florida and going to college in North Carolina, the natural questions often arose as to whether I kept an alligator as a pet or whether I lived in a swamp. The latter question was more on point, as most of Florida is a swamp. We live near two nature preserves, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and Nocatee Preserve. I love taking Kemper in either, as his wonder for nature is still brimming with optimism and zeal. I could not pry him away from his animal figurines, and so I went to Nocatee Preserve by myself. I made a concerted effort to view the swamp that surrounds the paths through his eyes, and I snagged a number of photographs that captured a child-like whimsy that I had lost long ago (when it comes to swamps). This photograph of grove of bald cypresses (Taxodium Distichum) typifies this approach. I have seen so many in my life, that I take their majesty for granted. In the wild, these august trees can live for thousands of years. The largest and oldest, the “Senator” was estimated to be 3,500 years old. One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils. Approaching the swamp with a renewed perspective (a truly Florida tack) was a great lesson for me to learn. As this photo attests, there is beauty even in the brackish, tannin-dyed waters of the Florida swamps.
Click here for a larger version.
As I have mentioned before, the patterns of nature fascinate me. The swirls and whirls on this driftwood tree, most likely a live oak (Quercus Virginiana), caught my eye immediately when I took to the beach with my macro lens. I had passed the tree numerous times before, camera in hand, but I overlooked the fascinating, almost embryonic patterns along the large branch that reached towards the ocean. I cannot believe that I missed it, but in hindsight, I was not looking for the little intricacies of nature when I first came to Boneyard Beach; instead, I was looking for patterns in the trees strewn about the sand, which I found in the hulking driftwood trees.
A certain bit of melancholy washed over me as I returned a few months ago, two years hence, and two hurricanes since. The beach was not as I remembered it. The huge live oaks were still there; not even a category three storm could have moved them. Yet the smaller ones, like this one with the whirls, had been washed away. Perhaps they will be rolled back to shore by the heavy waves of a nor’easter, or, perhaps, by another hurricane. But for now, they were gone. I brought my son to the beach when I returned, hoping that he would find the same beauty in his five year old eyes. He, too, was enamored by the tulip snails, and he let go of his fears long enough to sidle up the trunk of one of the supine live oaks. I let go of the melancholy, as well, and I ventured to find new patterns in the niches where limb meets branch or branch meets trunk. Someday, Kemper will be old enough to mind the patterns, but for now, I will let him find the joy in the bigger picture.
Click here for a larger version.
This photograph of a southern needleleaf air plant (Tillandsia Setecea) on a water oak (Quercus Nigra) was taken on a hike in Nocatee Preserve near my home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The needleleaf is an epiphyte, an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris accumulating around it. I am fascinated by epiphytes, like the resurrection fern in an earlier post. In Florida, they are everywhere. We had a few large crepe myrtles in our back yard, and the needleleafs practically covered the trunks and branches of the trees. I have always been curious how they take hold on their host tree. Many people have seen these members of the bromelaid family, but few have ever seen the beautiful and delicate purple flowers that bloom for an instant and are gone. I have been lucky enough to see the blossoms, having grown up around them, and perhaps as the Romantic Poets believed, they are all the more beautiful because they are so evanescent and fleeting.
Click here for a larger version.
I have long since wondered what befell this little pignut hickory tree (Carya Glabra) that I found on a walk in the Pisgah National Forest, just outside Asheville, North Carolina. Its brothers and sisters in the grove around it were healthy, but perhaps this one was hollow from an early age. In my journey through the morass of my own personal demons, I met many individuals who were all but hollowed-out inside. For some, their facade mirrored their inner emptiness, like this little hickory stump. For many, however, they looked strong and confident and healthy on the surface, all the while roiling with anguish inside. Even those of us who manage to come out the other side still have hollow pockets, places where the memories of the shadows still live, which catch us by surprise every so often. Eventually, for the fortunate few, these shadows subside, but they remain–never to fade completely into the light, like scars that sometimes catch the sunlight at just the right angle to remind you that you were once injured, too. And every once in a while, you may come upon a hollow stump, a not so subtle memento of the emptier days. Maybe you walk by it, trying not to remember those times, but maybe, just maybe, you snap a photograph, a token to hold close to you, reminding you how insidious the hollowness can be.
Click here for a larger version and a color version.