What do I remember of it other than the bright hot sun, the glare radiating off the muddy waters of the irrigation ditch, the encircling featureless West Texas horizon, the stunted mesquites with lizards bobbing in their fitful shade, the laughter of friends and the explosive splashing as we hurled ourselves into the water to straddle the huge silvery suckers with their soft obscene mouths and goggle eyes, and, at least on that one fateful day, finding instead of slimy reptilian scales, the razored edge of a broken bottle. The feel of it slicing through my foot, the raw immediacy of rending flesh and shock that pulverized the very air, followed by a scarlet stain spreading outward like the blossoming of a rose, the bloody signal to an end of play.
We touch the world and touching it understand more of its essence than through any of our other senses. Only through touch do we truly connect.
It’s an odd thought to be triggered through something so common as paper, but I’m discovering that paper is not just paper. Where have I been all my life to have missed this? Doing other things, apparently, absent in another reality. There is so much we do not know, so much that would enrich our lives, if we only knew.
I’m learning, slowly, and learning too that in this there are no graduation ceremonies other than the ultimate walk down that long black tunnel. Sometime back I was looking for small pocket notebooks and having a devil of a time finding anything other than the usual offerings, so I went online looking for something built tough enough to last longer than a few days. The wealth of journals and notebooks crafted with fine papers and exquisite bindings was a real eye-popper, something I had never dreamed existed. Suddenly my own inexpensive 24-pound bright white copy paper seemed not only lackluster but insignificant, reducing my words a few notches on the artistic scale. “Isn’t what you write worth the very best?” asked one advertising gem, leading me to admit that sometimes it’s actually not. Rephrasing the question might be warranted unless one’s audience is narrowly restricted to egotists.
I did manage to find Moleskines, a Milanese brand renowned for its superior functionality and historic resonance, having as former users such luminaries as Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and Hemingway. The little cahiers have 64 lined pages, a sewn spine and an almost indestructible cover, unless you run it through the laundry, which I did. After reading rave reviews and seeing the images on my monitor, studying the specs and calculating the extra cost—significant but not out of reach—I ordered several packs with the fatalistic idea that they would either be the best notebook in the world or just another in a long list of unrealized expectations. One touch and I knew I would never use anything else.
Description and detailed photos alone did not do them justice. I had to feel them, to hold them, to get the full benefit of the experience. And that has now translated to photographic paper, something I was mostly clueless about before buying my new printer and now am mostly clueless about because the number of art papers exceeds my financial grasp by several magnitudes.
Like most people who have ever dabbled in photography I knew the basic types of paper available for prints: glossy, satin, matte. And like most, I had my preferences and my biases. Glossy was good, satin yuck, and matte was for black-and-white. Not being able to print my own photographs limited me to what professional labs offered, and while that’s evolving into a market with many more options, it’s one thing to read about diverse types of paper and quite another to feel them.
Art isn’t something most people equate with touch. Photographs and paintings aren’t meant to be handled for obvious reasons; oils and grime from fingertips are as corrosive as acid, something that the National Park Service belatedly discovered after allowing visitors to touch the living formations in Carlsbad Caverns and other caves. Great swathes of the walls and stalagmites near the trail are now cold dead stone, their vibrant colors faded to ashen gray hues.
And yet, after opening several boxes of sample papers from various paper mills, I found myself swallowed in a tactile euphoria with each sheet presenting another impression, another emotion. I was utterly taken by the heavy matte papers, especially those made of cotton rag, their surfaces lightly textured, almost pebbled, some subtle and others more pronounced. Prints were crisp and sharp, and I found myself showing them to everyone I met, not to highlight my images but to show them the paper. “Touch it,” I’d say, forcing a print into their hands. “Can you feel the difference? Isn’t it amazing?”
My enthusiasm, I fear, was lost on most viewers. But it got me thinking about art and how of all our five senses touch alone is forbidden to us, how we’re supposed to distance ourselves from it, how we entomb the paper or canvas behind glass where its texture and fabric are nullified. To feel something is to bring it to life. And I remembered dipping my hands in the waters of the St. Vrain to feel the current, of reaching across a table and touching the hand of the woman who would become my wife, of holding our newborn sons for the first time, the sticky sap of pinyon trees, the dry cork grip of a flyrod, pages of a book that would break my heart, velvetweed’s satiny nap, the luxurious silken fur of our Angora rabbit, water, skin, paper, broken glass, how we know, how we remember our lives through our fingertips.