Standing beneath these trees when the wind blows one hears the squeak and groan of trunks and boughs and the sibilant rustling of leaves. This particular stand of black willows has mesmerized me for five decades, like a giant metronome dancing through space, its crowns moving in unison to a light breeze; its black bark, interlaced and deeply furrowed providing contrast to the delicate yellow-green leaves of early spring. But also, I’ve admired the restive side of their personality, when the trees beat and flail against strong winds sweeping down the farm’s western slope and, for all their frailty, holding, indefatigable, resolute, never breaking. Above the waterline, the massive root system, now fully integrated into sand and loam, provides ballast to secure the trees and bank. And, completing the aesthetic, an inner ring of cattails frames this frequently overlooked landscape.
Favorite lines I return to at the end of each season are from Robert Frost’s “Reluctance”, concluding with the final stanza, “Ah, when to the heart of man was it ever less than a treason to go with the drift of things … and bow and accept the end of a love or a season.”
This photograph is my version of a winter meadow; purple-stemmed asters and bulrushes, absent color, angulated against the snow create a composition all their own, still gentle, still determined, casting the subtle shadows of mid afternoon. Crossing the ice I thought this was the last image of snow for the season, a day before a thaw would cut off access to the north end of the marsh until next winter. Late that afternoon, the lip of the bank was barely discernible as its faint shadow traced the shoreline of a small cove (a bight the British might say). The frozen waters, little more than crystal shards, were punctuated with mineral mounds of wetland soil where outcrops of sedge and rush and long deceased pin oaks still stand, all rising above the ice awaiting the new season.
“End of Day” January 15, 4:30 p.m.
I took this photograph in mid-January, late in the day as the sun was in rapid descent. The blue ice is as close to the color I experienced as possible. Truth and authenticity in the medium of photography are justifiably challenged as “ready-made” skies, hyper saturation and the addition and deletion of pixels have become commonplace – most often victims of camera (and phone) manufacturers that “bake in” the captivating looks, as well as software engineers who preempt decisions of the artist.
What interests me here is what this photograph tells us about the evocative power of an image, what we may learn from its intrinsic properties as well as its relationship to us, our memories, our personal response. We come to understand that a good photograph can have infinite “truths”, some fundamental, some less visible, buried within and beyond the landscape and some ambiguous but almost never absolute.
Realities or, more directly, objective truths in an image rarely exist independently, rather they take form and give shape through their contextual relationships – both physical and metaphorical. One role of the photographer, any artist for that matter, is to focus awareness on the subject, tangible or abstract. The artist elucidates the unexpected (an object, lighting, something striking, even out of place) bringing abruptly into our awareness the departure from what was anticipated – the anomalies and illusions that catch the eye, an unusual specter of light for instance as in this image of “blue” ice. The conspicuous warm hues of sedge and the intermittent illumination along the shore’s bulwark of trees conceal their own truths. And still deeper, beyond oak and beech and hawthorn, into the tenebrous depths, Jungian shadows seduce and unsettle.
May nature’s mystery survive our instinct to comprehend.
“Turner Skies” Schweitzer Marsh, 7/8/13, 6:12 a.m.”
What does this image possibly have to do with today’s cold, wet, typical March day ? Not much really, but I retrieved it after coming across a random article on J.M.W. Turner’s “The Burning of the House of Lords”, a personal favorite and one owned by CMA. I’ve not posted this photograph before but recalled the sunrise that early July morning and how it brought to mind Turner’s color palette in his later years.
There will always be discussion about the father of impressionism, some scholars tipping towards Manet and others toward Turner. For me, the significance and attraction of Turner’s work will always be in his evocative and ephemeral use of light – the shimmering, transparent colors.
This image of Schweitzer Marsh is, to me, a very modest, tranquil counterpoint to the exquisite excitement, chaos and urgency of Turner’s genius.
Most who know me are aware of my obsession with sycamore trees, the American sycamore specifically, their roots plumbing my imagination since childhood … a fascination likely imprinted on an aberrant gene. As a young boy, hiking in the deep woods of winter, I would pass sycamores along the same creeks that still feed the Chagrin river. Odd for a child to be absorbed so by trees but these gangly apparitions seemed somehow familiar and benign, reminding me of my family and our small community.
Almost 70 years ago, a fortuitous change in plans, the reason for which I no longer remember, caused my mother to drive an additional 30 minutes from our home in Aurora, beyond our intended destination of Chagrin Falls, on to Gates Mills, a picturesque, little village that exists yet today in the heart of the Connecticut Western Reserve. A quarter mile south of town, on the narrow road that traces the Chagrin River, we rounded a curve and were confronted by a grove of giant sycamores. Smaller than a grove actually, a copse perhaps, these ghostly white trees had shed their summer vestments and were imploring us from the opposite bank, a welcoming gesture it seemed. The sycamores, desperately curious, their wizened, articulating arms and twisted hands, lending a human aspect, the tree’s roots mirroring its branches, twisting beneath the surface in the sandy loam banks above the river.
Few birds are more beautiful (“precious”, my mother would say) than these “snow-birds”, an apt appellation long before Audubon captured their soft beauty with watercolors and pastels. Earlier this week the large weeping birch at the east end of Squire Valleevue Farm was occupied by the early migration of an enormous “murder” of crows and an even grander “murmuration” of starlings. With my approach, the syncopated chatter erupted into cacophonous cries as birds abandoned the tree in a burst, leaving behind a lone Junco, seemingly unperturbed and perfectly amenable to a few photographs.
“Live by the Sword …”
Bastardized blithely into proverb (i.e.“Live by the sword, die by the sword”), the Gospel of Matthew speaks with preternatural relevance to starlings, the beautiful scourge of birds highlighted in a recent essay of mine. I confess to anthropomorphizing birds too frequently, imputing human characteristics and making judgements as to their elegance as well as their moral failings. Observed closely, at least in the context of the Western aesthetic, starlings are beautiful creatures, not only for their subtle iridescent hues and physical form, but for their aerobatic formations known as murmurations. They are, however, notoriously predatory, feeding on other bird’s eggs and offspring and displacing resident birds in their domination of available food.
Today I filled our feeder and watched as starlings bullied sparrows and songbirds, consuming the easy seed, scattering only shells and husks for the meek below. Inexplicably, in an instant, all the birds exploded from the ground, the feeder, the surrounding trees and the bushes, but for one preoccupied starling, falling prey in a brief moment, impaled on talons, staring into the murderous maw of a Cooper’s hawk.