Friends didn’t believe me when I told them about the sycamore. Neither, for that matter, did Lori. But it’s true, and I proved it to her after my third failed attempt to photograph it: the tree is visible from space.
Not to the naked eye, obviously. It’s not as if astronauts aboard the orbiting space station routinely glance out the window as they silently sail above Kansas and raise a toast of vodka to the stark tentacled branches contrasted against the shadowed course of Fawn Creek. Through satellite imagery, however, the tree stands out plainly, a stately monolith now tilting at an unstately 45-degree angle.
Thrice before I’d returned all but empty-handed, stymied in my quest to artistically capture the tree before age and gravity toppled it to bridge the deep bed of the creek. I’d now acquired permission to cross a section of the gravel pit, the skies were filled with high cirrus and the sun was dropping. Everything was in place except desire. Undaunted, with supper already on the table, Lori looked at me and said, Go. And I did.
The first time I tried for the tree was about a year ago. Late afternoon, shadows long and growing longer by the second, the golden sun westering. Nailing the shot would be easy, I thought, a short jaunt from the shoulder of Highway 9 to the fence, frame the tree through lesser saplings and trip the shutter.
From the elevated road it might have made for a good composition, but from midway down to the creek absolutely nothing about it worked. Changing from a standard zoom to a telephoto tightened the focus on the tree itself but at the sacrifice of its primeval setting, the oxbowed banks and swirling waters, the leafless latticework of redbuds, locusts and elms forming a dense backdrop that only heightened the luminous ivory trunk and limbs. Separating one from the other would never do; the tree must be captured in its natural setting. After switching back to a standard zoom I skirted the fence looking for a better angle, tried higher on the roadway slope and finally, in desperation, shot from the bridge itself.
When I got home and downloaded the images they were as anemic as I feared. I deleted them all.
The tree remained. Whenever I drove past I would slow to study it regardless of traffic or impatient Nebraskan drivers intent on their mad, insensate exodus. Something about the tangled weave of branches haunted me. I was determined to try again, though the next chance took the better part of a year.
I was a little more prepared the second time. With the camera mounted to a tripod I dropped down to the fence and found an opening, slipped through and clawed through a seemingly malicious interwoven understory of thorny vines and saplings. It was as if the forest resisted my intrusion. By the time I reached the stream bank I was drenched in sweat and light was fading. What was quickly apparent was that I needed to be on the south bank. The vertical walls and deep waters precluded any notion of crossing, so I reluctantly turned back.
Live and learn, they say. A few days later I tried again, this time parking on the east side of Fawn Creek so I could follow the south bank to the tree. What I hadn’t counted on was an almost vertical drop between the stream and the top of a ridge bordering a gravel operation. Nor was my only problem one of steepness; the hillside was an impenetrable thicket of small trees.
For a short time I stood there listening to the moving water. It was a peaceful sound, elemental and soothing, a liquid lullaby calming my mad dash. I watched a cardinal flit through the woods like a scarlet comet and a large buck breaking cover at my feet. It bounded away into the gathering dusk with a splintering of small branches. And then I turned away and began making plans for a final assault.
“He who hesitates is lost,” I kept telling myself. A call to the gravel pit netted permission to skirt the edge of the ridge. Atmospheric conditions fell into place. Lori told me to go.
I got. And parking by the office checked in, gathered my things and set off. But what I had construed to be a single unbroken edge turned into a maze of gullies, dropoffs and piles of rusted equipment. If anything, the slope steepened in pitch. Farther I went, and farther yet, uncertain of my parameters or limitations, searching for a way into an old oxbow that bisected the base of the slope. When at last I came to a potential entry point I unhesitatingly slid into a muddy couloir and descended in a landslide of leaves, muck and stones. It was, I realized, a one-way track.
Crossing the quicksandy oxbow was my next challenge. Once across I navigated through woods silent and still to approach the creek from the south. The tree, slanting into the fading sunlight, was impossibly tall, a magnificent monolith of peeling bark and bonewhite limbs grasping for the pendent sun. Fawn Creek lapped at its exposed roots, tinkling like miniature glass bells. I felt as if I were in a cathedral and the tree an ageless sentinel, and could not resist a slight bow of respect.
But if I thought my struggles were over, I was mistaken. The curvature of the creek, tangles of downed trees, the depth of the waters, the height of the tree, were obstacles I could scarce overcome. It wasn’t merely a problem of physics or terrain as it was of technological possibility: The sycamore was too big, my lens by necessity too wide, my canvas too small. It was like trying to paint the galaxy on the head of a tack.
After a few bracketed exposures I gave up. The sun teetering on the horizon gilded the white limbs as though encased in bronze while below darkness pooled in the blackberry tangles. For a moment longer I stood there relishing the sight while all about me the woods stilled. I thought of how some things cannot be photographed but can only be experienced through our senses, and that rather than considering it a failure it’s more a matter of boundaries. The attempt, the effort, the communion, are what really matter. We’re called to live this life. Anything more is gravy.
Thanks for taking me along. I agree, there are some things that just cannot be captured on any medium other that the human brain cell. I've engaged in some similar photo shoots and at one point realized that I putting myself in some pretty dangerous situations. Old, decaying barns, outbuildings and farmhouses are personal disasters waiting to happen. Having said that, I find that photography is very much a solitary activity. I did participate in a group photo shoot once and it was downright annoying to have other people around when you are mentally talking yourself through the composition. Now, I make sure I have my cell phone on my person and practice caution in these locations.
Thanks for the imagery.
Suzanne -- Like you, I'm addicted to abandoned buildings and can't resist their siren song. My wife wants me to get a cell phone in case a floor caves in, but nobody can explain to me what good it would do if I didn't know where I was. Most of the time I'm just roaming backroads and have only the faintest idea of where I am. I'll probably be forced into getting a phone but I'm fighting it all the way. I'd rather have more camera gear. I liked your thoughts on photography as a solitary endeavor.
Excellent read Tom! I love how your writing really puts your reader there with you.
I've started to realize there are some things I just can't 'translate' into a photograph as well. I still get frustrated by this, but lately I've decided maybe such things are treasures for me to just experience...but I haven't quite learned the lesson and I still try excessively!
Scott -- The attempt however futile is what makes an artist. And who knows, maybe the final attempt will hold the key to the mystery.
Ahem. Ms. Dillard, she of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek", on two ways of seeing:
But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera.
When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints onto my own silver gut....
Perhaps some realities are meant for one kind of seeing, and not the other. Or perhaps there are times when the artist controls his subject, and times when the subject defines - and defies - the artist...
Linda-- You said it much better than I. Yes, a thousand times yes! Exactly--especially the "defies" part. At such times the best we can do is to adopt Ms. Dillard's attitude. Become the camera. Become the recipient of the light and exposure.
Wow! The word picture you have painted here is surely as beautiful as any of your photos, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. Yet, I suspect you are still not completely satisfied that you have been able to capture the grandeur of what you have seen with your own eyes.
Is it terrible to say that it's a little comforting to know this doesn't just happen to me? So many times I see something that I'd love to photograph, I take shots knowing none are hitting the mark, and am disappointed when I finally get home and see just how far off I was. I'm glad I read the comments here, too. What a wonderful quote!
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