If my Winter Solstice Project had one beginning, a shot of a low-flying crow spotlighted by the early morning sun, it had two distinct and disparate endings.
It wasn’t the way I would have planned. I prefer orderliness, linearity, a sequential narrative with a defined beginning, a middle, an end. Time as we know it may indeed be direct and undeviating, but our minds and our hearts infuse it with an elasticity that forces us to constantly evolve or adapt to its constraints. It was something my project reinforced, and on a daily basis: Be open for the unexpected. Take nothing for granted. When in doubt, circle back. And always, always, take another look and see. Obviously only one ending was possible, and it came at the solstice sunset. But at Mill Creek, where I’d driven to shoot a steel building recently purchased by the city of Washington for a new shop, I wandered down to the falls and nailed a few images that turned out to be some of the most powerful taken since the inception of the project. Something about the stillness of the afternoon, gray and cold and the woods silent and moody, and the soft sound of water sluicing over the dam, a sound that always takes me back to crystalline trout streams and mountains, accompanied by some indefinable extra, an unformed thought that left me sad for no reason. For a long time I stood listening to the water, studying the stone flood wall rising from the banks and the electrical power plant beyond, snow everywhere and the river frozen save where the current picked up to go over the dam, and I thought, here’s the ending, right here, with some good shots of the water and ice and an early dusk falling. And then what. What will I do to continue this creative outpouring, this blossoming. What now.
It wasn’t over, of course. There were other stops on the drive home, notably the town of Hanover, where I stopped to photograph a house that had burned several nights before, potentially another arson in a town plagued by arsons, after which I discovered a derelict house complete with rusted tractor. Which I also shot. Through an open window at the old house I spied a chair perched atop a moldy roll of carpet and the ceiling spotted with mold, such wonderful imagery that I rushed back to the car and switched lenses to a superwide. I was in the process of circling the house when I spotted the neighbor’s dog, a massive creature eyeballing me with obvious interest, at which time I didn’t take stock of whether it was chained or free, but made a beeline back to the car to make my getaway. With regrets, because there were so many things of interest in that yard, from old vehicles and tractors to scrap metal and signs and a hundred shades of rust.
And so I was back in the game; the project wasn’t finished.
There was still the impending sunset. As I left Hanover, the clouds suddenly lifted in the west, breaking into a bright cerulean backdrop a few degrees in width between the horizon and the upper bank of clouds. I drove fast to make it home in time, and when there barely paused but kissed Lori and took off on foot.
I cut down the road and through the apartments, the snow deep and slowing my progress. By the time I reached Western Avenue I was panting altogether too much to feel good about my physical condition. The sun was still up though not for long, a few minutes at best. I roamed the field looking for a likely foreground that had something to capture the eye and lead it to both the barn and the sunset, and waited then for the moment.
Watching the sun in its final degree of descent is like waiting for a pan of water to boil: seconds drag to infinity and, as the adage goes, it refuses to happen while we watch. The solstice sun, however, was on a mission to usher in the longest night of the year. Without fanfare, it kissed the edge of the ridge and sank behind the northernmost spur of the Flint Hills. I rapped off a series of shots as each windswept whorl gilded in the sun’s dying light, golden patterns of drift and swirl on the crusted blue surface of the snow. High above the clouds flamed before smoldering to ash. It was deathly still.
Cold settled in; I hadn’t noticed it before, but with the sun down and, yes, the completion of my project now past, it nipped my exposed ears and fingers and snaked down my collar. I let the camera hang, and donning gloves and hat slowly, very very slowly, made my way back to the road.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay until dark and have it fall about me and become a part of me. But there was so much left to do, from downloading photos to sorting and processing and uploading to the Web and then a column to write. No rest for the weary nor time even to think things through, but another rush as the entire day had been a rush. And so I walked home in twilight and the woods darkening and a sort of alpenglow turning the snow lambent, and that was the end.
I had the shakes when I entered the house. Lori asked, “Did you do it,” and I said, “yes.”
“You should be proud of yourself,” she said.
“I am,” I said. “I’m just a little emotional right now, is all.”
I felt depleted, sucked dry of all energy or thought. But sitting at the monitor watching the images appear on the screen was another revelation of sorts, not a revisitation but a renewal. Each photo was a tiny heartbeat, a spark, an epiphany. I was reminded of something Chase Jarvis wrote near the end of the book that launched me on this creative journey: “This is more than a project.” Watching my creations come to life, it was, I knew, merely a beginning.
Jarvis closes his book with a one-word admonition. “Shoot,” he wrote. Shoot. Already I was thinking of solar alignments. The vernal equinox was only 89 days away…