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.