Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tracking the southering sun

Incrementally, inch by slow inch (measured in human terms, not the galactic unfolding where an inch is less than a mote of dust, tinier than a molecule or atom), the sun shifts in its astral plane ever southward. Each evening I try to mark its progression from the back window, charting its trajectory in the tangled mass of the thicket, except of course for those evenings veiled by gray clouds and gray light the color of cold ashes, when the sun vanishes long before it sets and the dusk moody and intense, and colder for it. I watch and mark its latest point and wonder where it will be when it reaches the end of its apogee and our madly wobbling planet sends it careening back toward the summer solstice.

This isn’t the first time I’ve charted the extremes of its settings. In Colorado I notched the sun’s delineations on our back fence to form my own Stonehenge (or Woodhenge, as was the case with Cahokia), and thereafter knew with some precision when to expect the first day of summer and the first day of winter. In so doing, I was merely replicating what man has done since the beginning of time—charting the heavens to find order amid the chaos. To know the sun’s boundaries is to know one’s place, and to not give in to darkness.

It was different now. Something else prompted this study, a dawning sense of inevitability and loss. For even as the solstice proclaimed the end of autumn, it also marked the conclusion of my photographic project. On winter’s inaugural morn, how would I fare? I wondered how or if it would change my newfound vision and resolve, if the lessons I’d learned would slowly be forgotten or if life thereafter could only be an unbroken continuation and advancement. The thought plagued me.

I had come too far to quit. And learned so much, not simply about the craft of photography but about the vision, about seeing and framing and composing and being aware. But for all that, the best part was when others shared their own journey of discovery through my eyes and my lens.

“I didn’t realize until just now how much impact an image had on me,” wrote Linda from Topeka. “I’m learning about myself through your artwork, so I think that is a good thing.”

“What I love about your photography is that it stops me in my tracks,” wrote another woman. “I have to look and then look again. Sometimes I feel a strange nostalgic feeling as I look at them, sometimes a disturbing uneasy feeling, sometimes a peaceful, yet longing feeling. I also find that I am beginning to view things in my world with a different eye. It’s always good to have someone shake you up a little.”

Shake you up—a curious expression for my project, but somehow apt. Forcing myself to hunt down one good photograph each day for 51 days certainly shook up my latent laziness, cost me hundreds of dollars for a new and smaller camera and netted a surprising number of images I would have otherwise completely overlooked. It also taught me to look closer, harder, more focused. To have it conclude at the tolling of a new season seemed an altogether unfitting legacy.

I had started something that could have no end, I sensed, and yet an ending it would have. Each sunset moved that end closer and closer, and more southerly, too.

But it wasn’t over yet. On the way back from work last weekend I decided on the fly to explore the river beneath the bridge outside of town. I wasn’t really dressed warmly enough for the occasion—a storm was moving in rapidly, with snow already flying on a stiff north wind—but I needed a photo. I parked in a little roadside park and slipped into the silent trees.

On the way down the hill I engaged in an intense inner debate over the wisdom of what I was doing. The footing was tricky, slick with fallen leaves and hidden stones and steep, and hunters were about, and my jacket a nice fawn color with dark brown trim, so all that was lacking was a pair of antlers. I needed a blaze orange vest, I cajoled, and better boots, and anyway Lori had no idea where I was or where I was going so if I broke a leg I could be here for a long, long time. Halfway down I paused and took stock of the descent and almost for a moment believed the cautionary notes, almost turned back to the warmth of the car. I could see the sandbar through the trees and the icy river beyond; cars whumped over the bridge to my right; light snow pattered through the bare branches like a soft frozen rain. It was unutterably still and quiet except for the occasional vehicle or raucous crow winging past. I hesitated and listened to the voice of reason and plunged into the woods, ever downward.

I came across the trace of an animal path and followed it at an angle to a shallow ravine. The depression took me to the edge of the woods where the trees grew more dense. Beyond was a sharp drop-off carved by floods. I scouted the bank for a means to work my way down until finding a shallower drop with a fallen tree I could grab onto for leverage. Once on the sandbar I felt exposed, and wondered if on the opposite bank a hunter was sighting through a scope at this brown-skinned mammal emerging for a drink from winter woods.

And then the moment clicked, and there were images to capture: snow-filled deer and raccoon tracks, yellowed leaves frozen in ice, upturned mussel shells and a rippled sandscape molded by waters long since receded, and the cold no longer mattered, nor the snow or wind, nor the coming solstice. The southering sun has its own journey. This was mine.

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