Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lessons from the other side (Part 2)

It’s been seven years, Jay, since we moved to this town, strangers to all but a handful. We’d been visiting annually for twenty-six years, and in all that time it seemed the town never changed, as if time had no hold. That’s what attracted us. Our first trip we drove to Lake Idlewild and rowed a canoe across the still waters as dusk settled down like a warm encircling fog. The chorus frogs were a wild nocturne while Lori’s hand trailed languidly in the water, the paddle barely making a ripple, and I thought that here we could start all over, be anybody we wanted to be. I never wanted to leave. And then one day we decided to stay, and we did.

Seven years. I thought it eight but Lori corrected me.

It was your town, not ours. We shopped at Stanley’s Hy-Klas Food Store and bought fixings for tacos because Bruno, Lori’s grandfather, had never tasted Mexican food. A jar of extra-mild taco sauce (I didn’t know they made such a thing), a package of tortilla shells, browned meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and the meal was set before him. He promptly dumped the contents of the taco into his plate and dunked the shell into his coffee to soften. So much for culinary adventures. Bruno’s gone now, and so is the store.

And all through those years TJ paced off the town step by step, up Main Street to the elevator and back to Fifth and on out westward a few miles, collecting cans, picking up trash, waving at each passing vehicle with a half-salute, half-chop of his hand, and Everett wheeled his bicycle up the streets and down, and all you others in your ordinary lives did ordinary things that now seem touched with a sort of nostalgic grace, or melancholy, and somehow extraordinary, too, even requisite for this place to exist. And us possessing only the tiniest glimpse into the workings of the town, of the people we would eventually come to know, and love.

It seems like a half-remembered dream, you in your world and us in ours so distant, but not so distant we couldn’t make the transition and graft ourselves to your roots, or weave our threads into your cloth. And now I think we were merely patchwork to a frayed and torn edge.

Was there really ever a time when we were not of this place? I can scarce remember, though I know it was so. What changed, what made that transition so fluid, and our past so ephemeral, was the people of this town. Like you, they came to us, one by one, and made us their own. And that, too, was something I’d never known.

Community was an alien concept. I saw this place as timeless, and told my friends so back in Colorado, where the pace of change was feverish. You who lived here knew better, of course. I was blind, never noticing when Stanley’s went out, or the bars, or when the town square was suddenly gap-toothed by fire. And the residents who passed on, known and loved by you, well, I had no inkling.

My desire was for an unchanging place. And standing here I realize that there once was a house next door, and another to the west, just as once there was no cairn. Nor freshdug pit for your final resting place.

Maybe this is a bitter lesson each generation must learn by dint of reduction. I recall the historic photographs of the old riverfront area with its towering limestone mill and waterworks, the bridge straddling the waterfall, and the gypsum plant in the distance. What the river didn’t take, fire did. Undoubtedly that generation felt they were witnesses to the end, an unruly nature having inflicted insurmountable damages the town could never recover from. Yet it did.

Not long ago several members of the historical society met at the empty Stanley’s Hy-Klas to imagine its restoration into a museum. Bare bulbs were strung to provide light, and as we moved our shadows danced along the cracked and peeling walls so that our small number multiplied wraithlike into a reflection of how the store once resounded with the bustle of a thriving town. I had to smile at that, Jay, and since you were already gone it touched me in a way it’s impossible to explain. The sense of loss was palpable and raw, and when I mentioned you to Lyle we both nearly started crying and had to stop before we embarrassed ourselves. I moved off to be alone and found a wide concrete stairway leading to the basement and descended into gloom and flicked on my flashlight and then flicked it off, for the darkness was a refuge.

A savage love for these people tore me so that I almost cried out in pain. It was like a fire or a hammer or a great wind, and suddenly the faces of the people in my dream were those of my friends upstairs, and as one by one they extinguished I doubled over and made a small sound that echoed faintly. This was love as fire, love as agony, love as lesson, and I knew then that it wasn’t buildings or streets that make a small town. All that really matters are people.

You probably knew this already. But goddamn it, Jay, you didn’t have to die to teach me this. Eventually it would have come to me, and in the meantime we could have been together a little longer.

By the time the others joined me I was fairly composed, and we completed our inspection, turned off the lights and stepped into a starry night. The street was silent. Light spilled brightly from windows along Main Street. We said our goodbyes and I watched them go, and Lori and I got in our car and drove the familiar, empty streets of our town.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lessons from the other side (Part 1)

You were late, Jay. By the time you arrived the morning had warmed enough for us to ditch our jackets and raise a sweat. The work of tearing down the two sheds had gone fast. Steve grabbed one rotted door jam and I the other, and when we pulled the walls collapsed in an explosion of dust and the ceiling caved in and a big rat dashed out, its beady little eyes blinking as if in disbelief. We almost lost Nancy there. She was ready to bolt, even as I’d promised to if we disturbed a hornet’s nest. We all have our phobias, I guess.

Fred maneuvered his dump truck under the overhanging trees and we loaded the scrap. Long after we’d considered it full you kept at it, methodically finding niches and slots for the remainder of the debris. When you were finished the wooden sides of the truck bulged under the mass. We settled a tarp over the mushroomed crown and lashed it down with tie straps. In the cool shade of an early autumn day we sat back to relax and let our muscles unwind. You kidded us for quitting too soon and we kidded you for being late. You smoked a cigarette. It felt so good being together, united in helping a neighbor.

And then you died and the nightmares began.

The sky was a burnished red glare as if seen through a welter of blood, and before me our town spread along the wooded shores of the Big Blue River. The grain elevator rose stark against the rising hills, an upthrust bone or grave marker, and on a broad plain fronting the clustered houses the entire assemblage of residents talked and laughed, unconcerned or aware of an impending doom. Rooted to the soil, immobile, I watched as one by one they guttered out like snuffed candles and disappeared, leaving gaps in the ranks that slowly expanded as if they had never existed. And as each flickered and darkened, a crushing sense of grief hammered me to the ground, and I knelt there sobbing as they passed, and wondered who would replace them. How a small town could withstand such losses and still survive. How I could survive without them.

In another, a dream within a dream, I woke from a troubled slumber to a great terror. Was it a noise that disturbed me? I slipped from bed in total darkness and slid the nightstand drawer open. The pistol shucked from the holster with a leathery rasp, the flashlight from its holder with a faint click. I padded down the stairs as lightly as I could. Past the nightlight, down a long dark hall with doors opening on either side, to an entry with a large room to the left. I felt air moving and saw the curtains blowing in a breeze—it was closed when we went to bed. Where are they?

I moved toward the window though I wanted to flee. Bumped into a chair or couch and crouched behind it to gather my thoughts. Too scared to move. Another noise, almost a hiss, a whisper of something moving across carpet, coming down the hall from the left. I raised the pistol and touched the rubber switch of the flashlight, but kept it off.

Was it coming closer? In the utter darkness I couldn’t tell, but I sensed it was, and not upright, either. Fear paralyzed me. The pistol grew heavier, the grip sweaty. Closer still, the whispery sound louder. My mind was screaming to turn on the light but my finger wouldn’t budge. Closer. Closer. The carpet shifted beside my knee—it was upon me. I snapped on the light and felt a scream rising. Eyes stared back—huge eyes, blinding in the sudden glare, eyes attached to something long and sinuous. Eyes mere inches away. Eyes that swallowed me.
My scream, like my sobs, resounded far into the coming weeks.

Your death cast a pall over this entire town. It was standing room only at your funeral, and I was almost late, hesitant to attend without Lori to prop me up. I snuck in, more shadow than substance after the disconsolate nights, and aligned myself with a column of mourners stacked like cordwood along the walls. I kept close to the exit in case I had to run. And as I looked around I thought of how loved you were, how so many had gathered to remember you, and of how so many were missing, too. And remembering the dream, I wondered who among these would be next.

Maybe things would have been different had Lori been with me. But I felt like an outsider, a voyeur looking in on matters that did not concern me, though most of the faces were familiar, and many could be named. A strange loneliness swept over me like another form of grief. And I don’t mind admitting that I railed against your God for cutting you down at such an early age, that what little faith I owned was shredded to confetti. Rage and grief battled for dominance. Your brother’s pentecostal joy in your passing left me nauseated, so that when the congregants departed to make their way to the cemetery I could not follow, but limped home like some wounded beast.

Along the fringe of plowed earth to the narrow treeline bordering the road I paced, and across the ruts to the brush pile beneath the old hackberry. Walking our land to clear my mind. Looking toward the house I saw the elevator rising in the background and turned my back on it and suddenly found myself at the cairn of our beloved rabbit. Low clouds pressed down. A scent of rain hung in the air.

Here was a mark upon the land created entirely by this outsider. Something new. And as I questioned marks and legacies—yours included—I recalled the first time we came here, and I realized that everything I thought I knew about this place was wrong.

(Conclusion next week)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Colorized version

Barrett School--black and white

Art and the naming of rivers

Several months ago while driving backroads near Frankfort we came across the old Barrett School, and finding the gate uncharacteristically open, proceeded up the lane so I could grab a few photos. About the time Lori cautioned against trespassing, a truck left the trees near the old farm and barreled down the road to intercept us. The driver appeared suspicious at first, but after explaining why we were there he told us to follow him to the school, where he graciously gave us a guided tour. Of such chance encounters do our lives unfold.

Lori met a man named Keith Jones. The actual meeting was arranged via e-mail, an introduction through Linda and Steve McGinnis of Topeka. Jones appears to be the holder of vast quantities of Marshall County history, especially that centered on the area around Barrett and Bigelow, where for generations his family has owned land. He immediately began sending documents, maps and historical excerpts to Lori at a prodigious rate. She was delighted and kept showing various things to me, most of which I read and thought neat but, well, I went on with my own thing.

Most of the photos I took of the old one-room school were nothing more than snapshots, but one in particular appealed to me. I couldn’t explain why, only that it was so. But nothing I did to the image worked; something was wrong. After converting it to black and white, I finally cropped out most of the room so the eye follows a row of desks receding to another row slightly offset, and beyond that the window. Removing the clutter left a stark, simple composition that seemed to enhance and define the emptiness of the room. The effect was startling. And it got me thinking of going back.

Knowing that Keith was involved in Barrett, I wondered if it was he who stopped us on the road that evening. Appropriately, I took the time to e-mail him after I caught up with my other correspondence. I didn’t figure to hear from him until later, but he must have been perched owl-like at his computer and promptly fired off a response.

He sent two extensive files containing journal entries from Oregon Trail times and before, when fur trapper William Sublette and others blazed their way across the wild frontier, the great pathfinder Fremont blundered his way westward, and surveyors such as Isaac McCoy and sons traced the course of rivers. McCoy was the first to keep a journal in Marshall County, and following his exploits through his words was like having history step off the page and shake your hand.

Keith’s files contained mythic battles between Indians and settlers, massacres along the Little Blue, fur trappers en route to the Rocky Mountains, explorers, surveyors, squaw men, immigrants along the Oregon Trail, scientific parties escorted by drunken soldiers, rich English adventurers tenting on the high prairie, bad weather, swollen rivers and a pair of high mounds located just south of Bigelow that seemed to be the locus of all those disparate parties.

As if that weren’t enough, there were maps.

One dated 1846 showed a small slice of northeast Kansas, western Missouri and southeast Nebraska, with rectangular blocks representing the various Indian tribes—Peoria and Kaskaskia, Otoe and Pottawatamie, Iowa, Ottowa, Shawnee, Delaware and Kickapoo. Few towns were shown, notably St. Joseph and Weston, with Independence on the extreme right, almost off the page; the only town in Kansas was Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail. But it was the branched tendrils of rivers that riveted me: the Smoky Hill, the Saline, the Neosho and Republican, the braided currents of the Platte, and, dropping down from Nebraska to parallel a dark line representing the Oregon Trail—the Blue Earth River.

My heart skipped a beat. The letters were tongues of fire, burning into my consciousness. The Blue Earth River.

How long had I searched for this? A very long time. Years.

I once wrote a series of stories about confluences, the merging of waters, having walked down Elm, Fawn and Juganine creeks to their junction with the Blue, and the larger convergence of the Little and Big Blue. I’d imagined a continuing thread, for the meeting of rivers haunts me. On a lark I designated the Blue with the original, Native American name of the Blue Earth River, having found an obscure reference to it on a Web site that can no longer be found. At the time I figured readers would consider me daft—and I wasn’t far off. Some thought me pretentious, others ignorant, but a very few understood. Though they could offer no proof, they’d heard the story.

This was the first substantiation of that name. For a long time I sat there absorbing it.

The letters traced the length of what we know as the Little Blue River, with the Big Blue shown as only a minor, unnamed tributary. A few pages later was another map, this drawn by McCoy between 1830 and 1836. Narrower in scale, it traced the Black Vermillion to its juncture with the Blue, their union the Blue Earth Creek. Included was a Kansa name for the river: Moh-e-ca-to.

When I returned to the photo the singularity of the monochromatic tone, while providing an archaic feel to the image, suddenly seemed dry as bones. Using the original, untouched digital negative, I started over, increasing contrast and vibrancy until an almost ethereal glow lit the room with the faintest peach accents. Like finding the ancient name of a river, it was the vision I sought.

History is like a photograph of an abandoned schoolhouse. The rows of scarred desks, the expectant chalkboard, moldering flag, flyblown windows, peeling wainscoting and rusted potbellied stove each inherent to the whole, but when taken together scatter and defocus the eye. A chance encounter on a lonely road taught me this: Narrow the vision and the past resonates like the endless echo of a bell.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The breaking

Shadowfall--the first trip

Shadowfall, serendipity, luck and the breaking of the Big Blue

It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography, everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. – David Bailey

It was a shadow, an ordinary shadow, inching incrementally across the ice like a barefoot bandit, cautiously keeping the high railroad bridge between it and the sun. I saw it from the south side of the bridge and picked my way carefully downward through a bouldery thicket treacherous with ice and crusted snow, and passed under the bridge to the far side where the barren trees along the upper bank pooled a cool blue shade. Canting in from the left at a sharp angle, the shadow slashed across the river to meld with the bridge on the opposite bank. The interplay formed thereby a distinctive symmetry, a geometry of substance and insubstance at once so intriguing and, yes, so ordinary that I was compelled to raise the camera, frame shadow and bridge, and snap the shutter.

Luck and serendipity are often mistaken for one another, but there’s a crucial difference. The etymological roots for luck lie in the act of gambling, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; undeserved happenstance, or fate, or whim of the gods. Luck can be good or bad.

Serendipity, on the other hand, is always favorable. Its roots date to an 18th century fairy tale in which three princes of the mythical kingdom of Serendip were always discovering things they weren’t looking for. Scientific American defined it in a 1955 article as “the chance observation falling on a receptive eye” (OED). In all cases, serendipity involves the act of searching.

Therefore, the position of the shadow in relation to the bridge and the angle of sun, the seamless field of ice heightening contrast, and my being in the right place at the right time with camera in tow, all had more to do with serendipity than luck. But I felt pretty lucky, nonetheless.

There was, unfortunately, a mistake made in the exposure.

It was a minor thing, easy enough to repair in my digital darkroom, but I felt a return trip necessary. Timing again was critical. The success of the image depended not only upon the angle of light but with the presence of the ice, and how long it lasted was a matter of conjecture.

So it was that on a warm afternoon one week later Steve Rock and I parked near the abandoned road to Irving and took off on foot for the bridge. We were looking for a shadow, but what we found blurred the boundaries between serendipity and luck, immixed and fused them into a separate indefinable concept, so that now I’m unsure which is which.


Some say spring arrives with the first upthrust blossoms, but I say it comes on the dog-cries of snow geese. As we walked through a patchwork of snow, mud and spongy grass, winter’s demise was etched across the heavens with long draggly skeins of white and gunmetal blue, their cries a clamorous song of homecoming. Darker shapes of Canadas stitched the horizons as they coasted in to feast on winter wheat. On either side of us fields flooded with snowmelt, and everywhere the sound of running water.

As we neared the river we slipped through a fence and scrambled up the railroad grade to walk the last few yards to the bridge. What was once a smooth coating of ice was now fractured and buckled, and open water formed a long narrow pool for a hundred yards downstream. The shadow draped across an undulant terrain of shattered floes, some brick-sized, others nearly the width of the river, some clean and white, others black with mud. The effect I’d wanted was ruined. We were too late.

But not too late to enjoy the sudden warmth and the simple pleasure of being afield after a long, cold winter. I experimented with filters and tried to simulate last week’s mistake to see if I could find a method of compensating. And as we stood with the bridge towering overhead there came a resonant crack, followed by a sound like a truck driving fast down a washboard road.

“Is there a road on the other side?” Steve asked.

“No,” I said.

The sound drew our eyes upstream. A faint shudder rolled through the ice as if some leviathan passed beneath. There was a long low groan and a surge of water into the pool. To the burble of rushing water came a deeper growl that hummed the very air, and from somewhere around that distant bend rose a terrible grinding babel that rose in pitch. The nearmost floes heaved as if struck from behind, juddered and cracked, and the entire assemblage lurched forward.

Whatever pressure shoved that thick, interlocked mass—rising water, we guessed—it wasted no time in forcing the ice forward. And once it started there was no stopping it, though the massive pylons created jams that heaved thick blocks of ice atop those wedged against them. The trapped bergs flexed and moaned as if in pain while the weight of those accumulated tons pressed and weighed with an ineluctable force, a force that brooked no resistance, until stress fractures lanced across their whitened surfaces like tongues of lightning and they surrendered with a sound like rifleshots. Along the shore smaller floes ground to bits. The temperature dropped several degrees. A slight current whispered the air. We stood mute, lost in the spectacle.

For over an hour the ice flowed. A battered john boat went by, and, near the end, when patches of open water became common, quarter-mile-long rafts of wooden splinters that must once have been logjams. And as suddenly as it started it was over, the river a smooth current, and slabs of dirty ice tilted crazily along the banks.

We both said it was blind luck that the river broke when it did, how fortunate we were to be there. But I wonder—where is the demarcation between serendipity and luck? Perhaps it lies in a gray twilight of language, where, when confronted with nature’s implacable force, words falter and lose their meaning.

Only this is certain: that as we started the long walk back, we both felt pretty lucky.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Ken Rockwell made me buy a new camera, and why it matters to all wives

Chod Hedinger is a shrewd man.

So shrewd, in fact, that he was able to buy a fancy Canon digital single lens reflex camera with two interchangeable lenses, several expensive filters and a custom bag to hold it all, and have his wife blame it on me.

My genuine assertion of innocence was met with evil snickers from Chod and snide insinuations from my wife—and downright hostility from his—leading me to question his motives when he first asked for advice on photographic equipment. His tactic, a classic male maneuver guaranteed to outflank the enemy (his wife) and to redirect hostile fire (to someone else, in this case me), worked flawlessly. He got off with a minimum of hard feelings, and the camera, and I am no longer allowed within ten miles of his house.

It was a brilliant move, one I’m still smarting over. In fact, I’m so stung by it that I’ve decided to come clean, to let wives in on the secret, even though I realize it may leave husbands all but defenseless the next time they think they need a new shotgun, truck, fishing rod, widescreen TV, or, yes, camera.

It goes something like this. He mentions his interest in a better camera and suggests a brand and model. I give him what I know and direct him to various Web sites for further information. He then begins prepping his wife by dropping hints of how outdated his camera is, how it limits his creativity, how technology has drastically improved, and each hint, each mournful lament, is sprinkled with a subtle, “Tom says.” And his wife, who like all wives never fully hears what he has to say but filters conversation through a special audio frequency which measures financial costs as well as levels of desperation, dutifully understands this as an interest in spending unholy amounts of cash on something he already has, and accepts this invitation to the marital jitterbug with the requisite riposte, “What’s wrong with what you have?” But like some virus or worm infecting the body from the inside out, the inclusion of my name triggers an attack response that slightly blunts the damage and focuses her ire elsewhere.

My feelings would have been hurt if not for Ken Rockwell.

It just so happens that I had been interested in a better camera long before Chod was. Or to put it another way, I had been frustrated by my camera for a long time, and was sure to make known the level of my frustration to the person who most mattered: my wife. Partly this was the prepping stage, but mostly it was the immersion stage, in which a husband inwardly flogs himself for craving a new and improved model, flails at the ghastly price associated thereof, and begins the convoluted process of convincing not only himself but his significant other that true happiness and contentment can only be attained through the object of his desire.

Concurrent with this is the laying of blame. Chod blamed me. I blamed Ken Rockwell.

Now, Ken seems like a nice enough fellow. His Web site,, is an amazing resource for all things photographic, especially camera and lens reviews but with a wealth of technical information and lessons in technique. He’s fair, he’s balanced, he smiles a lot, he has what looks like a very nice house in the California suburbs, and in all fairness to Ken he did his best to talk me out of a new camera.

His essay, “Why your camera does not matter,” was a revivalist tent meeting that had me convinced to keep the faith with my old point-and-shoot model. “Never blame a camera for not knowing everything or making a wrong exposure or fuzzy image,” he wrote, and I shouted “Amen!”

“Buying newer cameras will ensure you get the same results you always have,” brought peals of hosannas.

“Everyone knows that the brand of typewriter has nothing to do with the ability to compose a compelling novel,” garnered uplifted hands and dancing in the aisles.

But for all his pontification and sermonizing Ken Rockwell is still a man, and men have developed an evolutionary response to a woman’s filtering audio capabilities. This lower-octave frequency cuts through the yak and blather to the cohesive core that can best be described as “Tell me what I want to hear.” And Ken Rockwell said, “You need a new camera.”

Needless to say, this caused a rollercoaster ride of angst and emotion. One minute I’m caught up in the Spirit and the next I’m lured to the Dark Side through such sermons as “Why your wife wants you to buy a fancy new camera” and “Classes of digital cameras.”

It’s a one-two punch guaranteed to convert the vilest reprobate. The former laid the groundwork for getting the camera of my dreams, and the latter, as if anticipating any doubts or arguments, thoroughly and systematically trashed the camera I owned. By the closing paragraph I felt completely shattered, the plans I’d tied to my camera burned to ashes. “Don't waste $1,000 on a point and shoot unless you really want to trade off ease of use, speed and image quality for a little size and weight,” he summarized, as if reading my soul as well as my financial records, for that, in effect, was exactly what I’d done.

Translation: “You need a new camera.” So I did what any married man would do. At supper I casually mentioned how much digital noise had been in the last photos I’d taken, how difficult it was to remove, and how the new Nikon D80 had no such problem. “That’s what Ken says,” I confided, as if we were old buddies.

It took two months of this for me to get that new camera.

But with it comes a caveat: while this method is almost guaranteed of success, occasionally there are surprising glitches. In this case, Chod’s wife still blames me, my wife blames me, and Ken Rockwell is safe in California. How he escaped Lori’s wrath puzzles me. Obviously I didn’t say “Ken Rockwell says” enough.

I need to work on my technique.