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.

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.

On Melancholy

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I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.
-Baudelaire
I stumbled on an article yesterday, entitled “The Benefits of a Blue Period.”  In short, the article posited that periods of melancholy in our lives allow us to more greatly appreciate periods of happiness.  I read the article with great curiosity and enthusiasm, as I wholeheartedly agreed with the hypothesis.  One of my favorite professors at Wake Forest, Eric Wilson, wrote a book to this end entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.  It is a brilliant little book, and I have read my copy multiple times.
Professor Wilson taught me to love Blake, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and especially Keats, who wrote a beautiful poem entitled Ode on Melancholy, where he observed that pleasure and melancholy are two sides of the same coin (Keats’ metaphors are, of course, far more elegant); one cannot fully appreciate the prior without having first experienced the latter.  A rose is beautiful because it must die, because it is, at its core, ephemeral, as life itself is.
I took this photograph of my son, Kemper, earlier this year at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It is not the most elegant composition, but it evoked the memory of sitting in Professor Wilson’s class, engrossed as he discussed the wild Blake, and the addled Shelley, and the elder statesman, Wordsworth.  In 2007, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home, and I personally bore witness to the Lake District’s daffodils he was so fond of as I wandered lonely as a cloud.  I would soon thereafter realize, however, that I had not yet experienced true loneliness and solitude.
I have found myself in the depths of melancholy, with a singleness of isolation and anguish.  I was no better (or worse) than Coleridge, whose consumption of laudanum sustained his melancholic madness (that brought us Kubla Khan) until his death at 61.  I often thought I would end up like Coleridge, though with the ignominious distinction of anonymity to all but those who loved me.  Yet I persisted with my own course of self-medication until I was thirty.
I cannot say that I, with a fit of passion and self-realization, quickly emerged from the chasm of melancholy where I had made my home for nearly a decade.  My ascent was gradual, albeit progressive.  At some point along the way, I cannot say when, I gained the perspective of the Romantics – I did not regret the melancholy of my twenties, nor did I wish to shut the door on it.  I had been humanized and humbled by the darkness; because of it, the light shone that much brighter.  I am indebted to Professor Wilson for planting the seed, which, though it lay fallow for years, eventually grew of solid stock.
A rose plucked from a garden is beautiful because it must die, as all beautiful things must, one day, come to an end.  A silk rose in a glass vase is a pale imitation because it possesses no vitality, it is a mere imitation.  I recognize that I am an imitation – not a mimic, but a feigned likeness of a whole human held out to the world – a world, which chooses, most often, to accept me for what I seem rather than peering behind the curtain to who I truly am.
Before I get to afar afield, let me bring us back to melancholy and to a close.  As I am grateful to Professor Wilson, I am grateful for my melancholic past, and, yes, even for the fits of melancholy that I will continue to experience throughout my life.  Emerging from the darkness, the light is all the more vivid.
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Framed

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Life is a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

I have had many perspectives in my relatively short life.  I have seen the world from the top and from about as low a bottom as anyone could imagine.  I have begged for forgiveness, often undeserved, and I have forgiven.  I have now even seen the world through my own children’s eyes.

Photography allows me to manipulate perspectives, to frame them in ways that you may have never thought to look at a particular scene.  This photograph was taken at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It was a hot summer day, and in my infinite foresight, I arrived around noon, just as the sun was reaching its apex in the sky.  The shadows played on the driftwood as it began its slow descent to the West.  I came upon a particularly large live oak (Quercus Virginiana), which had two large branches reaching towards the sky.  One was perfectly vertical, and the other was at about thirty degrees.  I took a number of photographs of the geometry of the branches, but none were particularly aesthetically pleasing.  Although mathematics often make photographs interesting, when it is particularly complex like a fractal in a snail’s shell, when the shapes are so simple, they sometimes do not lend themselves to a pleasing composition.

Determined to use them for a shot, I evaluated what struck me about them.  I zoomed into one of the closer shots I took, which approximately resembled this final photograph, and I loved the contrast between the dark, shadowed wood, and the brightly lit ocean and clear blue sky.  I reframed the photograph, itself a frame, and captured this scene.  The fact that the wave rolled in at the exact right time with a sandy color to complete the triangle was a bonus that I only realized when I was touching the photo up later that day.

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Quest

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In the end, we are all searching for something.

The quote I chose for my yearbook junior year of high school was “Life’s a journey, not a destination, and I just can’t tell just what tomorrow will bring.”  This was from Aerosmith’s Amazing, which hit so many chords with me even then.  The quote is hackneyed and attributable to dozens of people, most commonly Ralph Waldo Emerson (though he does not appear to have written the exact quote, just the sentiment).  Some days I regret choosing it instead of Faulker’s quote from the Unvanquished: “I realized then the immitigable chasm between life and print – that those who can do, and those who cannot, and suffer enough because they cannot, write about it.”  That, I think, would have been more appropriate for that time in my life.

Kemper has inherited many things from me, but at his core he does not know what it is to deceive.  We often joke that he acts the same for Anna and me as he does for his teachers, and as he would for a stranger; what you see is what you get.  It is a brilliant, albeit foreign, trait to me.  As he has matured, I have waited for the introversion to take over, but he must have received a recessive gene from Anna.  Though he cedes to quietness after a long day of entertaining people – and not as a defense mechanism – he is not like me, like who I was.

In my earlier years, if you saw me, casually, on the street, to you I looked happy.  I was the greatest liar that ever lived.  That did not seem like hyperbole at the time, and when I look back on the years between college and where I am today, I can still say that without any reservation or apprehension (which, perhaps, is a testament to how often I convinced myself of my own deception).  But then I recovered.

I am different now, too.   I remain introverted, but the life I lead is no longer a duality of darkness and feigned brightness.  Hawthorne once wrote “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”  I read this quote (from The Scarlett Letter) in high school, and I still remember it to this day.  I lived the quote, not as much then as in my later years, but even at sixteen, I recognized my ability to con and fool others (and even myself) into believing I was capable of feeling joy.  But then I recovered.

I have found that capability, and I experience joy every day.  I am cautious though.  The joy is always tinged at the corners with a fear of free-falling back to a time and place I can now barely remember.  I do not regret my past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.  Instead, it has made me who I am at this moment, and this moment is all I have until the next one passes.  For now, I have joy and contentment and knowledge and peace that there are things both within and without my control.  Honestly.  Because I recovered.

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Tulips at Noon

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The main draw to Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, is the driftwood beach, commonly referred to as “Boneyard Beach.”  The first time I went to Boneyard Beach with my camera, I was so focused on the gorgeous shells of the trees scattered across the beach, some of them with full root systems intact, as if they just had been uprooted the day before, I failed to notice the smaller elements around me, such as these gorgeous tulip snails, which I featured in one of my first posts to this page – and still one of my favorite photographs, “Three Hermits.”

It was not until I bought a good macro lens and began avidly looking for the beauty of the minutiae that I first discovered the snails, and their unique patterns of verdigris and Tyrian purple.  The ancient Romans valued the murex shell for its dying purposes, and purple robes dyed with the tint were reserved for royalty (and during the Republic, for senators and upper statesmen).  The murex snail was found only in Carthage, the capital of which was Tyre, hence the appellation of the deep purple hue.

The deep saturation of the shells only shows up when the light hits them just right (or in some minor post-processing of the photographs), and I was lucky enough to catch them early on a sunny Florida afternoon.  They congregate on the trunks and branches of the driftwood trees, often in the crooks and interstices that are too small for even barnacles to have taken hold.  They must live in such crevasses for months, perhaps years, because their shells are too large to have found their way into them fully grown.  These two were on the top of a lower branch of a white oak (Quercus Alba), which was drying out from the ever more distant ebb and flow of the tide.

The patterns and gradients of the shells are almost abstractly perfect.  Looking at them that day, and again as I began to write this post, reminds me of the divinity of nature.  Although Darwin explained the evolution of creatures in his Origin of the Species, he did not (to my knowledge) opine on the divine proportions of the carapace of the Galapagos tortoise.  It took me many years to accept that there was a divinity common in all living things, but now that I have seen it, it cannot be unseen.  God, as you understand Him, is present in these snails – you just have to find the trees in the forest and look a little closer.

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Driftwood Core

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At the core, we all have holes.

Some are larger than others, and while most can eventually be filled in, some remain empty.  My paralegal lost her daughter in August just after childbirth.  The sorrow was unimaginable, and we did all that we could for her, but nothing we did or said could fill the hole of the loss of her only child.  Her daughter left behind a husband and three children, five, two, and a newborn.  Our paralegal was out for three months, and our practice slowed in her understandable absence.  More than anything, I missed my friend, and I looked forward to the day that she returned.

She came back at the start of January, less than complete and not totally present, but she was managing better than I could have.  My job (self-appointed) was to keep a smile on her face, to listen when she needed it, and to offer a shoulder to cry on in the moments when she needed to be vulnerable.  I brought her lunch, and we joked with each other, superficially, but still she laughed.  It was a little thing, but it was a bit of normalcy.

On Saturday tragedy struck again.  The baby stopped breathing, and could not be resuscitated.  He was gone, and so too was she once more.  I could not do a thing but tell her that I loved her and that I was here for her – howsoever she needed me.  I cannot imagine the gaping hole that this tragedy tore asunder, ripping the partially healed one of her daughter’s death back open to the elements.  I don’t know if it will ever heal.

My own holes are filled for the most part.  There are still remnants of them, cavities and interstices that remind me of the voids that were once a part of my life.  I do not dwell on them as a practice, but at times like these, I am reminded of the grace and providence that allowed me to see the faintest hint of light peeking through the chasms.

We all have holes at our core.  Some will be filled by time, but the unimaginable others, I just don’t know.

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