The beautiful irony of this photograph is that I have little memory of where it was taken in Alaska. The tall mountain, offset by thirds from the center, may or may not have a name, and then, it may only be known to the natives. It is tall enough to be the highest peak in a number of the contiguous states, tall enough to catch the cumulus clouds that passed by, hooking them on its summit, and tall enough that it should be memorable–but that is the awful truth of Alaska’s wilderness, the majesty is overwhelming. For nature lovers like I am, it was a total sensory overload. I snapped thousands of pictures, not photographs, but pictures to simply document what I could not trust my visual cortex to process. That I managed to take this photograph and others as beautiful was simple dumb luck. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while.
I long to go back to Alaska with better gear and a better understanding of what to expect. Using kit lenses on my Nikon D40 in automatic mode was like cutting one’s first filet mignon with a teaspoon, ultimately effective, but crude and personally unsatisfying in hindsight. Still, I cannot regret the photographic experience totally. I stumbled on some amazing photographs through the law of averages. When your subject is so magnificent, it is hard not to capture some inkling of the awe, as here with this unnamed mountain, likely passed by in a matter of minutes during our cruise up the inside passage as the clouds passed with equal celerity over the peak, trailing it like a wispy pennant casually waving in the boreal air.
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This was the last photograph I took on our trip to England in late August of this year. I was tired, having climbed over moors, through the dales and back again at least four times over the course of the three hours or so. The flatness of this picture belies the vertical bent of everything in England. The sunset was magnificent because the clouds in the sky possessed such an impressionist character. The patch of sycamores on the horizon grew closer and closer as we approached the setting sun, with Top Withens (the inspiration for Wuthering Heights) behind us. There were no paths towards the top of the hike, which should have been an early harbinger of the difficulty of the climb. For all I knew (and willingly shared with the rest of the hiking group), we were likely the only masochists to have made the hike for generations. As we wended our way through the dense heather and tall wild grasses and bracken ferns, and I gasped for breath at manageable intervals, I thought back on that field twelve years prior where I proposed in a similar field across the valley from Anna’s grandparent’s house, amongst a small herd black and white Friesians.
The beauty of Yorkshire has ceased to surprise me. By this, I do not mean that it has become any less wondrous or awe inspiring, only that I have come to expect to look out on a field and see the beauty that inspired the Brontës and Wordsworth and John Constable and all of the other artists that have spent their lives’ work attempting to capture the magnificence of this landscape. Indeed, the sky was something out of Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral (sans the rainbow). The beauty is almost laughably ubiquitous. I have been to England three times now, and each time I am left with the distinct sensation that I was born on the wrong continent. My archaic turns of phrases, my passion for history and ancient things, all find root in the mother country. Anna’s grandmother, a strong Yorkshire woman, who still travels the world at 94, has adopted me as her “cloth” grandson, an appellation that I take very seriously, and I have been warmly embraced by the network of aunties and cousins — just the toe-holds I needed to claim a bit of Yorkshire as my own.
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I often wonder how this iconic tree took root. For those who don’t immediately recognize the scene, this is the “Lone Cypress” off the coast of Monterey, California. This photograph was taken during the height of the Soberanes Fire southwest of here in the valleys just off the coast of Carmel and Big Sur. Although likely surpassed by the recent Woolsey Fire, the Soberanes was the costliest wildfire in the history of California. It coated everything in a thin layer of ash, and the smoke that hung thickly, almost unctuously in the air made shots of the coastline nigh impossible. This photograph was taken towards the tail end of the trip, as the fire was winding down, and still the haze bled the details from the shot.
When the sun managed to pour through the thick air, the sky took on a burnt, sepia tone, which made every picture I took look like I had applied a strong filter to it. The tree is at least 250 years old, and for the last 65 or so has been held in place by strong metal cables. When I saw the cables in person, I thought that it was a supremely arrogant act by man to forestall the inevitable cycle of nature for the sake of Japanese tourists (and me) making a pilgrimage to gaze through chain-linked fence to snap an awkward photograph of the icon sitting on its outcropping, engirded as it is by a brick and mortar parapet. But still, we come en masse, ogling the tree with a misplaced reverence. When this one dies, as it will, it will be replaced with a fellow that I am certain is already being grown for its stead, like a Cardinal waiting in quiet for the Pope to abdicate.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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