Beneath the Rhododendrons

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The great rhododendrons (Rhododendron Maximum) are thick throughout western North Carolina, no less so in Panthertown Valley.  We hiked through the valley, and though the leaves had fallen from all but the paper birches, even the huge snowstorm the weeks before had not tempered the deep, rich green of the underbrush.

I don’t particularly care for the bare bushes, though in the summer when they are flowering, they can be quite lovely.  To me, they are glorified giant azaleas, which again, are beautiful only when they are in bloom.  Nevertheless, I respect them.  They are a native species, and they have retained their ground (with great aplomb) even where invasive species would have otherwise taken over.  Even the leaves of the rhododendron are persistent, lasting up to eight years on the plant itself, and then they are incredibly slow to decompose.  There is even some believe that the rhododendron is allelopathic (a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces chemicals that inhibit the growth or germination of other plants), which means it quite literally fights for its place in the forests through biochemical warfare.

There is, I admit, something to be admired about the lowly “great rhododendron” and the wide swath it has cut through Appalachia.  I count myself among a group of survivors, whose roots were set down deep by my parents, else I would have washed away long ago.  I feel a sort of kindred with them, and perhaps I did not care for them in the past because I saw a bit too much of myself in them.

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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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No Handbills

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The floods from the melting snow unearthed two old metal signs on the property in Brevard, North Carolina, which we found on a morning walk.  They fallowed under cover of sweetgum leaves and time.  The signs, rusted and riddled with bullet holes, were still legible, and demonstrated the disdain for the hippies that once made the property their home, before they were forced out by a more puritanical wave of valley residents.

The property sits on a geologic fault line, and the streams on the property are headwaters for the French Broad River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  The property was a summer camp in a former age, and the ruins of the old stone buildings are still visible.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the property was once a common stopping ground of a folk-singing, free-loving, cache of hippies and musicians, including Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.

These signs are further reminders that we were not the first to enjoy the hills and fields where generations of boys spent their summers away from home and hippies did – well, what hippies do…

In the seven years my family has been coming here, the land has become a part of us, a memory we carry with us in our day to day lives in Florida.  I will never know who put the bullet holes in the signs, but they will remain nevertheless.  We have left our own marks on the property, no less visible or timeless.  Generations from now, the cabins may fall and the sapling white pines may overtake them, but our time on the property will still be felt.

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Usnea

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This little piece of lichen (Usnea Florida) was the first photograph I took in North Carolina when we arrived in late December.  I had always known that the property was surrounded by natural beauty, but I took for granted the embarrassment of natural riches that the property had to offer.

I have spoken before about my reconnection with nature which coincided organically with taking up photography seriously in my late twenties and early thirties.  I had already begun a phase of my photography journey in which I was concentrating on lichen, and mushrooms, and other overlooked pieces of nature, and so when I arrived in North Carolina with that focus, I was almost overwhelmed by the proliferation of mushrooms and orchids pushing up from beneath the dense layer of fallen leaves.

As I mentioned previously, we go to North Carolina with my family – my parents, my sister, my niece and our clan of Nora, Kemper & Anna.  As much as I enjoyed spending time with them (and it was the best vacation we have ever taken in that regard), when everyone else was resting from a long hike, I would often try to sneak off with my camera to capture the little bits of nature that ordinarily go without notice.

Invariably, my father or mother would want to come with me, as they get to spend so little time with me during the rest of the year because of work (even though we live less than half-an-hour apart).  I was always happy to have them come along, and my dad even took it upon himself to be my “spotter” when I was so busy behind the lens to quite literally see the forest for the trees.  When I was accompanied, however, I always felt that my pace quickened, and I was not able to amble as slowly as I would have liked to take in as much as the wilderness had to offer.  That being said, I would not have changed those walks with my parents for anything.  Someday I will get the chance to walk alone through the woods, and I know then that I will long to have my “spotter” with me (or to have my mother asking whether I am taking my vitamins regularly, as mothers are wont to do).

Like this photograph, it is all about perspective.

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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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Growth

Panthertown Valley

Christmas break was supposed to be a reset.

Kemper had begun showing out at school, becoming increasingly obstinate to the teachers.  It had not fully made its way home, but we received emails every night or notes home in his folder that he had refused to do work or told the teacher he did not want to do something she asked.  He was five, and she was a brand new teacher, so we thought he might just be going through a phase and feeling out her boundaries.  Little did we realize that it was just the beginning of a truly rough patch.  But Christmas break was going to be a reset.  We would go to North Carolina, and all of the energy that he longed to let loose could be released in the mountain air.

We started the year with high hopes for Kemper.  We had begun to see a child psychologist before we left for North Carolina, and Kemper seemed to react well to him.  He showed none of the behavior that had been plaguing him at school, and we thought that he might have moved past the obstinance that he had begun to show.  The first day back was a disaster.  He yelled at the teacher, swatted at her, and flatly refused to do his math work.  He was sent to the principal, and Anna was called in to pick him up.  We disciplined him as we then thought appropriate, taking away his beloved stuffed animals, and this seemed to affect a change in his temperament.  The next day was as bad, if not worse.  The day after that he barely made it into the classroom before he had an outburst that sent him to the principal’s office.

We had him tested, and he proved to be off-the-charts gifted (which came as no surprise to us), and we thought he was just bored.  After many tears and gritted words, we walked away with a diagnosis of severe AD/HD.  The poor little guy could not physically sit still long enough to focus on his work, which he was being forced to do and then being scolded for not doing appropriately.  The psychiatrist suggested medication, which we very reticently put him on.  The change was immediate. Saturday was his sixth birthday, and we saw for the first time in a while the true Kemper coming back to us.

I took this photograph of a small patch of crustose lichen growing on the fallen trunk of a large red oak (Quercus Rubrum) in passing while on one of the many hikes that Kemper enjoyed (though he lamented his boredom along the way).  It did not mean much to me at the time, but in context it illustrates to me the rebirth of a new year.  Christmas break was not the reset we expected.  The fallen oak did not immediately sprout new leaves.  But in the darkness, there was a hint of life anew.  I may come upon this tree when we go back to North Carolina in June, and the lichen may cover the trunk by that point…or, it may just remain there in that little patch, growing slowly but steadily.  And that progress, as small as it might be, is enough.

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Steve at the Falls

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My family became the subject of a number of portraits during our post-Christmas vacation in Brevard, North Carolina.  On the whole, the portraiture was done mostly willingly (except my mother, who loathes having her picture taken – much like me).  I did not push her, except for one photograph with the grand-kids and one family portrait, which even I deigned to sit for.  This photograph was a candid of my father admiring Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley.

Although the falls were admittedly beautiful from the front, the view from behind the falls was something else entirely.  We had met a sweet older lady on the hike, just as we were about to turn around, who advised us to take ten minutes and hike to the falls that were running more strongly than she had ever seen due to the rain and snow melt.  She said that if we were careful, we could even hike behind the falls, which piqued my curiosity.  As soon as we turned the corner onto the side path, we heard the crashing of the falls.  The hike was easy to the falls itself, and I took a number of photographs of the falls that I have added to my portfolio “Falls.”

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