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.