When one door shuts, another opens. Of all the adages we’ve been force-fed since day one, it’s the likeliest to come true and the least likely to be surprising. After all, it’s not as if we give up at the first sign of defeat. We’re built of tougher stuff. Failure is for quitters.
That laziness sometimes trumps determination is often as much common sense as self-preservation. Looking out the window on the second-to-the-last day of my project, all I could think of was staying close to home. A strong cold front was expected to push down from the northwest bringing rain, colder temperatures, high winds and snow, but for now it was merely gusty and overcast. Winter was going out with a bang.
Remembering an old farmhouse north of town, I called the owner to ask if I could photograph the place. Not surprisingly, the answer was an emphatic no. He claimed he didn’t want anyone knowing the place was empty, fearing vandalism. I doubt that people who trash old farmsteads favor my writing or photography, but then again I wasn’t exactly thrilled having to ask permission. Our friendship, such as it is, runs the gamut from rocky to hostile. No surprises here.
Next I called a friend who’d told me about some ancient stone buildings on her property just across the county line, including the original spring house. To the west of her family’s home was another limestone structure that was, in her words, “photogenic.” It didn’t take a genius to hear that secondary door swinging open but her next words threatened to slam it shut. Nobody was home except for her two dogs, she said, but they wouldn’t bother me.
Had I heard that before? You bet. Most dogs would as soon eat me than look at me; indeed, my feelings toward canines closely matches my feelings toward select members of our community. Nothing ventured nothing gained, though, so I kissed Lori goodbye and headed out, propelled by a stiff north wind.
I rarely visited their neck of the woods. The narrow road seesawed through deep wooded ravines and rolling hills each with competing views of the northern Flint Hills. The term hill is used loosely for want of a better word. Several years ago during a codgernautical expedition to the West we ran into actual hills and I reverted to a gibbering idiot, maudlin to the point of tears over their forgotten symmetry. For a Westerner it was a terrible shock to have fallen so low.
After a few miles I came to their driveway but kept going another half-mile or so to the stone house. After parking on the shoulder I stared balefully at the fence wondering how to get through. Though cattlemen will think me daft I consider the invention of the barbed wire fence one of the great tragedies of history. A nearby culvert required only minor acrobatics to circumvent the obstruction, and soon I was crossing a field dotted with fresh land mines of the equine variety.
The clouds were just right in a seething way making me wonder what it would be like to shoot with towering cumulonimbus spiked with lightning as a backdrop. Probably be heading for cover. A snaggletooth chunk of limestone outbuilding kept calling to me so I returned to it again and again, each time finding something different and more dark and moody in the clouds. When I was leaving I turned to find one long white tendril arcing from above the ruin and so rushed back for more. We might be heartily sick of storms but they make for good atmospherics.
Knowing I’d captured some good images, I almost drove past the driveway and on to home. The wind was rising to a hard gale and the skies darkening, and the road none too promising with interwoven ruts that bespoke of grim times when wet. There was also the matter of the dogs. Being bitten in the face during my formative years did little to endear me to man’s best friend. Why chance it?
Echoing the question came another, more intrusive: Why not chance it? If the dogs proved surly I could always retreat, and anyway my phobia is a prison I’m frankly weary of. “We must travel in the direction of our fear,” wrote poet John Berryman. Words to lead the charge. Feeling much less positive than my actions, I nosed the truck down the long meandering road that led to the house.
The hounds rushed out to meet me—two older pooches, gray in the muzzle but wagging their tails so vigorously they all but spun in circles. It came to me that if we could reclaim the amount of time spent worrying needlessly about something we’d add decades to our lives, and happier ones, too. Also another question, why the lessons we most need to learn remain so intractable.
I climbed from the truck and patted the dogs. They swarmed around me in an affable greeting and then settled back on their haunches as if to ask, “What now?” Not having any real idea, I set out for the creek with the dogs in tow. I could see the concrete arch of the spring house but the stream bank was a black liquid goo. It didn’t stop the white dog, who proceeded across to root around until it came up with what appeared to be a bloody cape from a ring-necked pheasant. On its return I saw something in the composition of the dog’s trajectory, the dark flowing water and the barren woods, and ripped off a string of shots. The other dog was sitting slightly uphill from me looking immensely contented so I nailed him, too.
I wouldn’t know until later that the two images possessed a dynamism that left me slackjawed. Being redeemed from my suck-mode by a pair of mutts I had instinctively, and unreasonably, feared, might well be the ironic—and iconic—lesson of my photographic journey.
(Conclusion next week)