Ode

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Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
Isaiah 57:2

I have met many men who could quote the Bible and many men who preached for a living.  Yet, I have never met a man more learned in the Bible and its teachings than Anna’s great-uncle Michael, who passed away yesterday.  Michael was a lay preacher, and he dedicated his life in an uncommon way to God.  Michael was Anna’s grandfather’s brother, and he was predeceased by his wife auntie Pat.  David, or Ardy as Anna and her sisters called him, was wise beyond measure, and was a strong student of religion.  As successful as he was with his mill, his business, and his family, even David would admit that he could not hold a candle to Michael’s vast ecclesiastical knowledge.

I regret not seeing Michael the last time I was in England.  I hadn’t seen him since David’s death nine years ago, where he spoke so eloquently about death and the afterlife.  His death leaves a void in our family—I say “our” because Anna’s British family has adopted me as one of their own.  It also leaves a void in the community, because a gift and a dedication like Michael’s is almost unheard of these days.  Very few laypeople dedicated their lives to the study of God’s words like Michael did, and even fewer such people exist today.

We will go to church this weekend, and I will think fondly of Michael finally being home.  His belief was absolute, and I know that he did not mourn his passing but instead embraced it with the knowledge that his “light and momentary troubles” in this life achieved for him “an eternal glory that far outweighed them all.”  Corinthians 4:17.

I rarely quote from the Bible, mostly because I know so few verses, but also because my faith has been tested so much over the past ten years.  With faith restored, I do not feel as hypocritical drawing from the knowledge that has been set down by generations of believers.  And so I close with a quote, as Michael would have done.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:6-8

The Anecdote of the Jar

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Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island is one of my absolute favorite places to photograph in Northeast Florida.  I often lament how uninspiring North Florida is for photography, because there are very few changes in topography.  I think my feelings on the subject are driven in large part due to the mosquitoes and ever-present danger of an alligator or water moccasin deciding that this is the day to make me a statistic or a cautionary tale.  Although I have seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the surf before, he was as confused (if not more) than I was as to how he found himself there, and though he was quite large, he posed no threat to me.  Thus, the beach is safe.

Having grown up near the beach, I take it for granted.  I also take for granted the incredible wildlife we have from wild roseate spoonbills and butterflies of every variation, to even the bobcat and Florida panther.  (I have seen my share of bobcats, but thankfully I have never had a run-in with panther.)  Yet there is something so unique about walking through scrub oak woods, hearing the crash of waves, and finding yourself not on an empty beach, but on a beach filled with old, weathered live oaks lying there like skeletons strewn about by hurricanes.

Ironically, this photograph of a driftwood oak, still tethered by its roots to the beach, was taken in Jekyll Island—another barrier island about an hour north of Big Talbot in Georgia.  This photo captures a bit of what struck me so emphatically when I came upon the tree.  Unlike Big Talbot, this was the only driftwood feature on the entire beach.  But for this tree, it would have been a perfectly ordinary, flat, featureless Florida beach, and I would not have given it a second thought.  Because of this tree, however, the beach took on meaning.

Wallace Stephen once wrote a poem about the universe taking shape around a jar he placed on a hill in rural Tennessee.  It is a perfectly beautiful little poem that has always resonated with me.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.  
It made the slovenly wilderness  
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.  
The jar was round upon the ground  
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.  
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,  
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Around the jar the world gained meaning.  What was once a wilderness was now not so wild, as it found order in relation to this jar.  In the same way, this featureless beach took shape around this tree.  The beach that was perfectly ordinary became extraordinary because of this tree, just as the wilderness became forever commended to words by Stevens and became a part of American literature because of that simple little jar.  This tree is a testament to how some otherwise ordinary object can bring meaning to an otherwise ordinary, pedestrian setting.

On Discovering an Artist’s Mind

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Salt lingers on my tongue, the shore in my nostrils, even five years later, and miles removed from the rough-hewn valley, where I tried in vain to compose the essence of the waves, the spirit of the ocean in a single exposure.  My camera pulled at me as we walked gracelessly across the rocks.  That’s where Kemper and I found her, sure-footed above the whitecaps, a small silhouette against a dense layer of mist that settled over the shoreline, whitewashing the coal-black granite.

What does it say that I, myself, framed her body against the foothills, lingering on the shadow-play of her form, as if the roil of the ocean were quotidian; yet her profile swelled in the portrait like a distant odalisque?  What draws me back to her silhouette on that promontory, at that moment–that moment that will never be forgotten, though she may not have know that we were even there.

Aide-Mémoire

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In the nape of the cove, above the canopy of bull kelp, where the thick marine layer divides the day by half like a subtle reminder to drink in the sweet salinity of the Pacific, a small sailboat drifts in the ebbing tide, its mainsail rippling ever so slightly suggesting a gentle draft.

But the shore is still where I sit languidly, my back to the seawall watching the setters splash in the dying waves, my wife a stone’s throw away with our napping children whose bedroom windows are cracked ever so slightly so that the sea salt sweeps over their peaceful brows.

The air is different here, the coves tranquil and silent, where we may rest anchorless and safe in the still waters, whose undercurrents remind me dolefully that this place is not my home; I am a peregrine, like the sailboat, who must return eventually to port.

Two Crows on Spanish Beach

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The sky was sepia and thick from the smoke from the highlands where fires raged, uncontrolled and hungry like it had so many times before.  Fire trucks lined the Pacific Coast Highway, which was closed south of Rocky Point.  Any hope of going to Big Sur and seeing the redwoods was dashed, and the new hope was that the fire was stopped before it reached them.

I walked on Spanish Beach with Kemper and Anna, among the seaweed and the granite outcroppings, where Kemper stacked stones in little cairns as if to say “I’ve been here, and I was industrious.”  He was first to spot the two crows babbling amongst themselves, perhaps about the fires, and perhaps about the little visitor approaching without caution.  They hopped from place to place, not quite flying though propelled by their charcoal wings, themselves dappled with ash.  They settled on a low stone, glancing at us with queerly knowing eyes, whose whole blackness belied the sentience behind them.

I told Kemper to slow, to admire the birds before he scared them to flight.  He stopped, perhaps as intrigued as they were.  I told him that they had been known to drop nuts on the street so that passing cars could crush them, only to swoop down and pick up the fresh meats from the cracked shells.

In his small universe, these two were the birds that I spoke of.  Not those crows in Japan that had learned this behavior.  But I understood then, that this beach, these rocks, these crows—these were his universe.  These crows were the only oddities that his four-year-old imagination could process at the time.  The sky was smoky in and of itself, like a chthonic deity.  There need be no fires, only smoke.  There need be no other crows, only these.

As we walked away, careful to keep a wide radius from the crows, they continued to look at us, their heads panning ever so slightly as we passed.  The crows will still be there, as they are in this photograph and in his mind, fixed in eternity, a memory of a distant beach on a foreign coast, until he sees the next pair of crows flitting about the shortleaf pines in his backyard, wondering how they made the journey but ever grateful that they made it for him.

Setting Out in a New Direction

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I haven’t posted in a while, and for that I apologize.  I have been happily consumed with my first love, which is writing.  Although photography is a deep passion of mine, I have been a writer since I was eight and turned in a fourteen-page, typewritten draft of a story to my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Gibbs, when everyone else was struggling to get a page written.  She gave me a gold folder to keep my stories in, and I have it to this day.  I have listened to countless books on tape on my long drive into work, including a few volumes of short stories including a brilliant anthology entitled Florida, by Lauren Groff.  I highly recommend it.

In reading all of these stories, I was bitten hard by the writing bug.  In the last few weeks, I have written a longer one and a shorter one, and I have submitted the shorter one for publication in a few journals and magazines.  Now we wait…

The title of this blog post is perhaps a bit melodramatic.  It is my intention that the new posts will be a bit more literary, and in most cases less (directly) personally confessional.  I have always been inspired by my photographs, which is the purpose of this blog, and so this is a natural next step.  You will see photographs that you seen before, but hopefully the new narratives will give them a new perspective.

Foggy Path

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As evidenced by a number of my earlier posts, I am fascinated by paths and roads.  They make beautiful pictures in composition and metaphor.  I took this photo on the family friend’s property in Brevard, North Carolina, where we vacation each year.  This road leads up to the cabin where my parents have stayed for nearly a decade now, and I cannot fathom how many times I’ve walked it.  Yet, this was the first time I thought to take a photograph.

The early January morning was cool, and the fog was thick in the fields that sit just above the lower cabin.  For the first time, Anna, the kids, and I stayed there, while my parents, sister, and Brynn stayed in the upper cabin. I was afraid that the distance would cause us to lose a little something in the vacation, but all in all it was one of the best vacations we ever had in North Carolina or otherwise.

Large rhododendrons canopy the road that is lined with oaks, and maples, and even an errant chestnut.  Large hemlocks and black pines are scattered just off the road, a few of which have become diseased in the last few years, their hulking trunks covered in woodear mushrooms that portend their eminent downfall.

For a still life, the photograph has substantial motion.  In a sense, you are drawn up the path into the fog and unknown, and this is, perhaps, why photographs of roads and paths are so interesting to me.  They draw you along, involuntarily, and create a sweeping motion in your mind, or your spirit, where none physically exists.

The fact that the fog fades into gray at the end of the path makes the motion almost ethereal.  Although I have been drawn lately more to including figures, whether dog or human, in my photographs, I feel like this one works just right the way it is.  The path beckons, and I cannot wait for the next time I am able to heed its call.

Click here for a larger version.

Cabin in the Woods

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My parents stay in North Carolina twice year on the land of a family friend, who has become part of the family.  I have taken hundreds of photographs on David’s property.  There is just so much beauty on the land.  Even this simple photograph of one of the two cabins on the property turned out well.

I took it simply is a documentary photograph, to remind Kemper in years to come where we had stayed the Christmas when he was five, but its simple elegance made me keep it in the collection of photographs that I consider to have made the artistic “cut.”  The cabin is surrounded by black pines, hemlocks, and huge magnolias.  It overlooks a large pond that is stocked with large trout, and it is just a brief walk up to the two large fields on the property.

As I’ve said many times in the past, North Carolina holds a special place in my heart.  I loved it before I went to Wake Forest, I loved it my four years I spent at Wake, and I love it every time I get a chance to come back.  A part of me will always consider North Carolina home.  These cabins on David’s property have become a home away from home, and I look forward to returning every chance we get.

They say home is where the heart is, and I know this to be true.  I have left a part of my heart in North Carolina, Yorkshire, and even Carmel.  Thus, it is no wonder that I have Nostalgia to return.  As I’ve explained in an earlier post, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek meaning an aching for home.  North Carolina is unique in that I have spent every phase of my life there.  I spent the waning days of my childhood at college there; I learned love and loss and melancholy there; I became independent there; I met Anna there; I left, cracked like a dinner plate; and I returned whole, almost reborn, a few years ago.  North Carolina has molded me, and I will continue to return – one day, perhaps for good.

Usnea Florida

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This patch of Usnea, though very similar to the same type found in Florida (aptly named Usnea Florida), is unique to the Appalachians.  Like it’s Florida relative, this lichen has medicinal properties, is high in Vitamin C, and in a pinch can be used as gauze due to its antiseptic properties.  Although I should not be amazed any longer by things that indigenous people knew about nature, including the Timucuans chewing on willow bark to alleviate headaches, I am no less delighted every time I learn about a new use of a natural phenomena.

The lichen hangs on a black pine branch, and given its size and volume it must’ve been growing there for quite a while.  Lichen is a slow-growing organism, but I must admit that I don’t know enough about it to judge how long this one has been growing.  The light green of the lichen is set off by the dark rhododendrons behind it, and I actually enjoy the composition from a purely artistic, aesthetic standpoint as well as a documentary one.

I grew up around Spanish moss hanging from every limb of our oak trees that grew outside my bedroom window.  The only attention I paid to the moss was the ever-present caution from my mother to avoid the ever-present chiggers whose bite itched worse than a thousand mosquitoes.  I did not appreciate the epiphytes then, and it wasn’t until very recently (during my self-education on lichen) that I discovered that Spanish “moss” is actually a bromeliad, and is more closely related to the pineapple then actual moss.  Most of the epiphytic air plants that grow in Florida (genus Tilandsia) are bromeliads, and the subtropical climate of Florida is perfect for them to flourish.

Perhaps because I grew up around so much moss and lichen, I never truly appreciated them before I began documenting them in photographs.  In the photographs, I was able to more greatly appreciate their simple beauty.  I think my gateway drug was resurrection ferns (Pleopeltis Polypodioides), which fascinated me through their natural (no pun intended) symbolism and their innate ability to come back from the “dead.”  Once I found one epiphyte that captured my attention, it was a short matter of time before the others did so as well.

I love being able to share my renewed, and almost childlike, fascination with nature with Kemper.  Though his attention span is short, I can see the buds of interest taking root.  Perhaps it won’t take him almost thirty years to fully appreciate the natural world around him, but if it does, then he is in for a treat.

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Curiosity

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As evidenced by the sweat on Kemp’s brow, it was a hot day at Big Talbot Island when I took this picture of him in his live oak “fort.”  Although he went through a bit of a rough patch at the beginning of the year, since then he’s been everything we thought he could be in more.  Although we never doubted that he was a great kid, his attitude and outlook on life has changed for the better in ways that we could not even imagine.  He still has his moments, but then he is a six-year-old boy.

I love taking him to Big Talbot Island, selfishly because I can take pictures of him candidly as he plays amongst the live oaks, but I enjoy watching him in the outdoors getting sandy and wet while he chases the sand fleas and the ghost crabs among the huge driftwood trees.  He’s a cautious little guy, but he is become more comfortable climbing the trees which only rise about five feet from the sand at their highest.

I am incredibly proud of the little boy he’s becoming, and I am constantly amazed at the way his brain works in the capacity of his memory and his intelligence.  He has a fascination for music, and I am always blown away when I hear his little fingers on the piano.  His newest number that he practices without prompting is “Ode to Joy.”  Out of the blue, I will hear the opening notes slowly at first and picking up steam as he becomes more comfortable.  They are instantly recognizable, and his natural year for rhythm and tonality fascinates me as much as the music fascinates him.

This photograph shows a little bit his curiosity, but it is impossible to capture the depths thereof.  The questions he asks are genuine and delving beneath the surface.  When he asks “why,” he is genuinely curious of the answer, and the questions usually go to the very mechanics of the universe in his life.  I don’t know what he will become, whether lawyer, or musician, or doctor, or professor – the world lies open before him, and his curiosity will lead him to places that none of us can imagine.