I took this photograph of Kemper and my mom as we walked back to the upper cabin from a mid-morning hike on the property. The morning has been gray and drizzling and cool, but once the sun broke through the low-hanging clouds, the day brightened significantly. Kemper, like I did when I was his age, hates walking for the sake of walking, and so we necessarily have to make it an adventure for him so that he comes along willingly. Once he is out in nature, his wonder takes over, and the complaining ceases almost immediately.
My mother, who instigates most of the walking in our family, dragged Kemper away from the Christmas trains with the promise of large black salamanders in the pond. She delivered on her promise, and Kemper was too enraptured jumping on the stones that lined the pond and coaxing the amphibians from hiding to notice that he had walked a half mile to reach his destination. The promise of lunch made the return trip to the cabin just as painless.
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This photograph of my niece, Brynn, was taken days ago in Brevard, North Carolina. I caught her running down the drive way to catch up with Kemper. The morning was fog-filled, wet and cold, but spirits were high. It was my dad’s birthday, and the whole St. Amand clan went on a morning constitutional around the property. The kids splashed in the puddles and the swelling creeks, their wellingtons no match for the cold water. They sat on the rocks, and almost in unison dumped out their boots one by one, seeming to compare who had sloshed more water in than the other. Nature in North Carolina is singularly different than in Florida, especially in the winter, where the nights are almost silent, except the steady rain on the metal roofs of the cabins. At home the tree frogs, unphased by the balmy December nights, chorus with the crickets. I miss North Carolina, and I know that a piece of my heart remains in the rolling hills and willow trees that wait for my return.
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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 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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This photograph of my son Kemper, who was four at the time, was taken at Mission Ranch in Carmel Valley, California. As you can see from the long shadows of the sheep, I captured this scene just before dusk as the sun had nearly set in the western sky. Kemper adores all animals, and he wanted nothing more than to stand on the fence and watch the sheep herded into their barn for the night. That we missed our dinner reservation was a small price to pay to see him so carefree and joyful.
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This photograph of a large pod of pelicans was taken at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just outside of Carmel, California. Pelicans have significant historical and cultural value, including in Egyptian mythology, where the pelican was believed to be able to to prophesy safe passage in the underworld for someone who had died. Interestingly, Alcatraz was so named by the Spanish because of the large number of pelicans roosting there. The word alcatraz is itself derived from the Arabic al-caduos, a term used for a water-carrying vessel and likened to the pouch of the pelican. In the Christian context, pelicans were viewed as a paragon of piety based, in part, on the belief that a mother pelican was particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As such, pelicans are associated with the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist.
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