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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Kemp & Brynn

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My sister and I were close as kids.  We lived across the river (literally) from our school friends, and we were often the only playmates the other had.  Nevertheless, I knew which buttons to push to get a rise from her, and I was like a churlish child on an elevator for the first time pressing all of them at once, at times, just to see them light up.  To my memory, she only paid me back once, when I was six or seven and learning to rollerblade.  I fell, and she tried to help me up with her foot…on my back…twice…  If this is the worst that I can remember, then I suppose we had a pretty good relationship.

Since we had kids (Claire’s daughter, Brynn on the left, and my son, Kemper on the right), however, we have grown much closer.  It may be the newfound maturity on both our parts, but I would like to think that we are just in a better place to be even closer than we were growing up.  She is a single parent, and a damn fine one.  My dad and I have both taken on the male figure in Brynn’s life, and in many ways I think that this has made me grow up even faster than just having two kids of my own.

I love seeing Kemp, Brynn, and now my daughter Nora, all playing together.  Kemp is gentle and kind with both girls, and very protective.  Brynn mothers Nora, and Nora adores them both.  We had the chance to spend a good chunk of time together in North Carolina over the New Year, and it is the best family vacation that I can remember.  Everyone was on their best behavior – even me – and the kids played constantly together.  This photograph was taken on a short hike on the property to an amphitheatre that was built for the boys’ camp that existed on the property in its earlier life.

Although I was trying to get Kemp and Brynn to pose for a shot, this one is candid.  It perfectly captures Brynn’s childish pleasure at being with the whole family (especially Kemper), and Kemper’s sly amusement at the world itself.  I love this shot, and I smile every time it comes up on my photo album that I have playing in my office at all times.  Claire and I were close, but I know that we want our kids to be even closer.  I think that is, ultimately, what we worked towards growing up without even knowing it.

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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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Climbing

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My parents have identical photographs of me at Kemper’s age climbing amongst the rocky shores of Maine and up to the narrowest branches in the trees in our yard, which in hindsight (now as a parent) was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad practice.  Kemper is a bit more grounded than me, less of a risk-taker, which is why in his almost six years, he has not yet broken a bone.  By his age I had already broken both of my wrists (at the same time), a few ribs, and a number of toes.  I look back at this period of my life and laugh, though as a parent, I cannot imagine what I put my own through.

Kemper found the supine trees on Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island, which have been the subject of many posts in the past, and though they were only feet off the ground, he was still tentative in climbing them.  I urged him, almost begged him, to overcome his fears and climb.  As you can see by the wry smile on his face, it was a worthwhile pursuit.  Of course, once I got him to climb one without incident, every new one we came upon needed to be ascended, which made for a fitful photography session of the trees, but was great fodder for capturing him candidly enjoying his boyhood.  When we were in North Carolina last week, he had shed his fear of climbing somewhat, and mounted the rocks on the property with great aplomb.  Still, he was more keen to slosh in the creeks and melted snow puddles with his wellingtons.  He is grounded, and this will undoubtedly bode well for him in the future.  Breaks are a part of childhood, a part of life, but his caution may let him escape the many breaks of bone and heart that I experienced.  This is my hope, perhaps a naive one, but my hope no less.

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Quarry

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As I stared at the tall, sheer rock face of the long-abandoned quarry, in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, my dad reminded me that one of my relatives had been a dynamite man for a quarry back in Maine many years ago.  Whether he was deaf from the work, or simply unsocial, my father never knew.  The long drills would bore vertically into the solid stone, and then he would carefully lower the dynamite into the channel to blast thousands of tons of rock and rubble from the mountainside.  Most of the bores in the Pisgah quarry were high on the stone face at least ten feet long, irregularly spaced, but distinctively smooth interstices in the jagged profile of the mountain.  The small paper birch trees were deceptively omnipresent in all of the photographs I attempted, and I was not satisfied with any of them–even as I took them.

As we began to walk on, however, I saw this remnant of a small bore, and I snapped a quick photograph of it, not thinking too much about it at the time.  This hole was unique from the others.  It was only a foot or so long, and its edges were not smooth like the channels higher up.  The crevasses and splintered stone that surrounds the bore suggests that it was an afterthought, and the jagged striations within the shallow channel evidence a blast that wrought the uniformity from it.

This photograph is a microcosm of the quarry, but far more representative than a wide-angle shot of the sheared-off face of the mountain with its uniform bores.  It is evocative and telling that the work was violent and loud and dangerous, but the quarry no doubt was necessary in supplying building materials for the early denizens of Brevard.  Though Robinson Jeffers noted, as I have quoted before, “Not everything beautiful is pleasant,” I have to believe that the opposite might be true.  The violence of a volcano or a blast-torn bore can be beautiful if the time is taken to appreciate it.

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Panthertown Skies

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North Carolina in the winter is breathtaking.  I haven’t spent a full winter there in over ten years, since Anna and I graduated from Wake Forest.  The little time I do spend there is with family over the holidays, and the less than frequent trip back to our Alma Mater.  So often now, I find myself looking down, whether it be watching the footfalls of Kemper and Nora, or searching out the low-lying objects that I neglected for so many years as I grew taller and less aware of the beauty that only years before had been at eye level.  As a child, though, I often looked towards the sky.  It was a predilection of mine, and was lost through high school, college, law school, and then my post-graduate work.  As a litigator, I have been trained to look ahead and anticipate the roadblocks before me, and  I have, along the way, lost the penchant for gazing into the clouds above the treetops.  Photography, though in many ways a mature art, has brought me back to my childhood wonder of nature, and as we hiked through Panthertown Valley over the New Year, I caught myself looking upwards once again.

This photograph, though a simple composition, captures some of the innocent wonder.  The clouds of the late morning were beginning to roll in, heavy with precipitation, and we laconically raced to avoid the rain that settled in as we reached the trailhead.  The fingers of the maples and sweet gums and oaks looked like arteries against the pale sky, and in many ways this is a fitting simile.  Nature is a lifeblood–one that I am reconnecting with after years of the wonder of it lied fallow.  Even though I am at my desk from the darkness of the morning through to the early darkness of the winter evenings, I catch myself looking often to the sky, especially as the sun rises and sets.  Jacksonville, to its credit, is beautiful at these times of day.  The rich colors wrought by the low sun are no match to a North Carolina dawn, but then I am biased and nostalgic for the old days, when I could skip my morning lectures and find myself in an hour at the base of Pilot Mountain as the leaves were beginning to redden at the first breath of winter.  Until we return, I will always long for those days, simpler by measure and winsome.  For now, I will console myself with the memories and the short trips when I will fill my camera with shots such as this of the mountain skies on a chilled winter day.

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