“World Within”

Posted on Feb, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

World Within

This reflection starts out part musing and part story; as accurate as reconstructed memories can be and hopefully with just enough narrative to hold it together. And as to its ultimate destination, I’m not quite sure as I begin. The image I’ve posted below is evocative for me, though to a random viewer it must appear more than a little drab without benefit of additional context. In a twist on convention I’ll try to “illustrate” the image through descriptive prose.

The setting, a wetland marsh in Aurora, Ohio, has been a haven for sedge grass, rushes and reeds, and a refuge for native wildlife and migratory waterfowl since the founding of the town over two centuries ago. A short hike from my childhood home, the area was a daily destination along a dirt road, across a field and down a deer trail.

A close look at the photograph depicts its perimeter of trees, deadfalls, brush and vine that camouflage the interior woodland. Adding to the natural ramparts along the forest’s edge, thickets and brambles, mostly hawthorn and dewberries, twist and twine to fill the openings. Frequently I’ve breached this outer boundary to enter the other world, 200 feet beyond the western bank of the marsh where the crowns of maple, oak and beech coalesce into a towering canopy and where my own memories still stir. It’s been in this very location over the last 65 years that I’ve forged a bond with the land and gained an understanding of the term, “still point” – an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”, (an exegesis of time and salvation).

The scene pictured here begins at the edge of winter, before the early snows when the last leaves linger and splashes of hoary lichen paint dead trees in neon, and auburn confetti textures the forest floor; only then are the tunnels and pathways to the interior made visible. From late spring through autumn, these thorny, between-world entrances, gateways really, are concealed in prehensile vines and broad-leafed branches. Byzantine animal trails that allow access today are the same that led me between the world of wetlands and woods so many years ago. Once inside, a sanctuary as open and cavernous as a cathedral awaits – nature’s enclave for mind and spirit.
Beneath the canopy, stippled light and leaves and young beech position themselves at intervals across the forest floor, their paper leaves rattling and tenacious, beyond the reach of winter, erect across the forest floor. And the earthy scent of detritus and pine mix with time and space to provoke the imagination. This was always the place to consider possibilities, to reassess friendships, to chew on ideas, to consider such abstract propositions and constructs as infinity and creation, the nature of time and the early metaphysical propositions to which a child is first introduced, where the quotidian and extraordinary share the same space.

At times I suspect we’ve all had places, physical places, safe harbors where we could retreat to contemplate, where time loses dimension and meaning, where troubles and ideas collide, mingle, and perhaps, if we are particularly fortunate, bring clarity.

This is the beginning I realize. Much more remains to be told.
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“Wolf Moon and Mars”

Posted on Feb, Fri, 2021 in Uncategorized

“Wolf Moon and Mars”

Eleven years ago this evening (Friday 1/29/21) northeast Ohio enjoyed the rare sight of a Wolf Moon accompanied by Mars rising. It was a Friday as well and I had hiked into the northwest end of Schweitzer’s marsh shortly before sunset hoping to get a good view. I was facing southeast across a stretch of ice where I had tracked coyotes earlier that week. It was a particularly cold evening as the temperature had dipped to about 10 degrees. In an unnerving moment, a coyote let out a single howl behind me just as the landscape began to saturate with an otherworldly, lavender hue … a fascinating phenomenon as the color arrived with numinous, almost palpable weight, quite unlike the shades of red and orange that filter through the dense atmosphere at sunrise and sunset. Indeed, short wavelengths of blue and violet typically scatter at those times of day and cannot be seen. The lavender disappeared in less than an hour as abruptly as it had arrived.
Last night’s full moon here in northeast Ohio had neither the crystal skies nor the lavender atmosphere but hopefully some of you experienced the mystery of a Wolf Moon nonetheless.
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“Black Willow and Bittersweet”

Posted on Dec, Tue, 2020 in Uncategorized


A black willow’s cornice of gold showcases a bittersweet vine the last week of November, 2010. This was a wholly unexpected moment when a serendipitous break in the clouds gilded the landscape moments before sunset.

As a boy I remember cutting lengths of bittersweet for my mother’s Thanksgiving table. At the time, the jeweled vine was a prized discovery and I would scout new patches each summer in the woods around our home. That was 60 years ago when bittersweet was scarce, but in recent years it has proliferated as its beauty renders silent death to countless saplings and trees across the state. Apart from its stunning color, an ironic beauty also is to be found in the wake of its destruction, in the “impermanence” it brings to the landscape; a paradox to our western aesthetic that seeks wholeness and immutability.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Death is beautiful when seen to be a law and not an accident.”

In nature beauty often attends death, quietly, inexorably. Consider the bittersweet vine, its autumn beauty spreading deliberately along the margins of northeast Ohio’s hardwood forests. For the vine, the act of commingling seems less a random desire than a living imperative, sustaining itself as it does by robbing its host of light and nutrients. And any suggestion of symbiosis or benign reciprocity between vine and tree is illusory only, a black willow in this instance struggling silently beneath the weight of bittersweet, its vine as thick as a thumb, twinning about its host and, not without irony, explodes in a splendorous display of coral berries and orange calyx.

Thoreau further laments there is only “as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate … How much of beauty—of color, as well as form—on which our eyes daily rest goes unperceived by us?”

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“Autumn Rails III”

Posted on Nov, Sun, 2020 in Uncategorized

In 2007 I published “Autumn Rails I”, an image of this railroad track disappearing into the morning fog. Five years later (2012) I published “Autumn Rails II” taken from the same section of track in the blue light of early morning. The night before, heavy winds had stripped the trees of color, all except a small Hawthorne its auburn leaves intact, defiantly bracing into winter. This latest image was taken the last week in October. For me it’s a metaphor of promise, ephemeral of course, but one that augers well for future seasons of renewal.

Looking north into this frame the tracks form the western boundary of Schweitzer marsh. For five decades I’ve walked these rails, through each season, through the twilight of many mornings, through countless days and occasionally moonless nights.

Following a morning rain in late October this year I found myself seduced by the perspective, a narrow vista of burnished rails and colors converging, its sensate hues and geometry pulling me into a vanishing point. The element I found most provocative and compelling, however, was a black cherry tree listing overhead, content with the passage of time as it slowly, deliberately, etched its shape and form through space. This old tree, leaning in, its imperfect arch only inches above and beyond the passing trains seemed to taunt the cars closer. Something I could relate to, growing old, not yet fully resigned, a few leaves still clinging, still taunting.

The tree … an artist’s design?  Divine agency?  Nature’s beauty, arbitrary but unrelenting, finds its path … by an artist conceived, or a bird perhaps.
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“Chagrin Valley, In Memoriam”

Posted on Nov, Tue, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Chagrin Valley, In Memoriam”

 

At Fairmount and River Roads, on the eastern bank of the Chagrin river, for one week only, an acre or two of sugar maple stake their claim in time and space. Rising above oaks and pines, beech and sycamore, a cloud of burnished gold like souls ascending; 231,000 but who’s counting?

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“Splendor”

Posted on Oct, Fri, 2020 in Uncategorized

Splendor

“Splendor”
I almost named this “In Praise of Restraint” (see below). This is an autumn scene I took Monday atop the Miles road bridge spanning the Chagrin river in Bentleyville. I was looking for a view that might illustrate this year’s extraordinary range of fall colors without resorting to computer enhanced, hyper-saturation, the increasingly popular artifice employed in post-processing, especially during this season. My own favorite time to photograph the leaves is shortly after or during a rain, when the colors are naturally saturated and the contrast is enhanced by the soft intensity of color against dark, almost black branches and tree trunks. In this image I actually had to desaturate colors somewhat, a concession to the value of “restraint”.

One of the very interesting elements from my vantage point above the river was the vast number of easily identifiable trees. I suspect this compressed photograph will make it difficult to discern specific leaves but northeast Ohioans will recognize many species by the tree’s overall shape and color. On my original full sized image file I found yellow maples, sugar maples, American sycamores, American cherry, beech, honey locust, ash, red and white oak, spruce, white pine and possibly hemlock. I’ve stood above Vermont’s amazing Quechee Gorge during the height of color and, apart from the altitude, would say our views compare very well.

The challenge for many new photographers is that iPhones and most consumer level cameras process and save image files in a jpeg format that by design and default over-saturate the image. Color amping landscapes is especially seductive in autumn because the “pop” is easy to create and addictive initially. Photoshop and similar post processing software provide filters and sliders that make it easy to pervert the color spectrum into luminescent neon with a click of a mouse. These garish colors seem to exist because they “can”, not because they are in any way faithful to the colors we experience. Notwithstanding the principle of artistic license, most serious photographers have a threshold for image manipulation, some committed to reproduce an image precisely as experienced, some comfortably adding or deleting information purposefully, and some simply resigned to gratuitous changes without regard for an aesthetic.


My own preference is not to rely on computer algorithms (i.e. computer engineers) to make those choices for me. Over saturating, adding too much contrast, etc. usually does not contribute to the power of a landscape. To the contrary, it introduces visual noise that detracts from an artist’s intent, especially his/her ability to communicate subtleties that may otherwise be lost. This is a consideration for all photographers that I’ll address with more specificity in a future post but it has become increasingly disconcerting in the last decade to see the profusion of photographs from iPhones and digital cameras posted on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) that so distort the natural world. I would encourage photographers of all levels to consider photographic restraint when venturing into the farms, forests and fields. Many if not most cameras can be adjusted (see your manual) to save files in a raw or tiff format. Desaturation during post processing is also a good alternative through photo editing programs such as Photoshop, Capture One, Skylum Luminar, Adobe Elements or free basic editing programs offered by most camera manufacturers.

Some grist for the mill.
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