Last Saturday, we hiked a trail in Indian Rocks Park, one of many trails in the protected Appalachian woods near our summer home in the mountains. We had not visited this particular park in well over two decades, and for good reason. It is here that we thought, for a couple of agonizing hours, that we had lost our children to the woods in the dusk of early November.
We had just purchased this property on Sanderlin Mountain, prior to the first real flush of development in what is now a thriving community. We were excited about fixing it up, driving up from Atlanta on Sunday afternoons to work on the house. Our two kids were just a little too young to leave by themselves for the afternoon and of an age that soon becomes bored when separated from toys, friends and television. The rest of the details are not important – why we encouraged them to go for a walk, why it took us so long to realize that they hadn’t returned, and why they ventured so far, all the way to Indian Rocks Park. Suddenly it was getting dark, and cold, and they weren’t back. We spent a frantic hour or two driving in several directions, as far as we thought they could have wandered. I think every parent has had at least one such torturous experience and, fortunately, most have also experienced the sweet flood of relief when the child finally turns up, safe and bewildered at all the attention.
When I was in high school, I liked two subjects more than any others – biology and art. It follows, then, that the educational highlight of those years for me would have been the exercises in drawing, in exact detail, classroom specimens from the animal kingdom, sometimes observed through a microscope. This is the way biology was taught to my generation, and to my mother’s as well. I’m sure it was painful for some students, but I relished it – colored pencils to differentiate organs, labels lined up perfectly down one side of the page. The names of animals, their classifications and their organs were ingrained into my memory through that enjoyed experience.
So, last Saturday, as I walked out of a dark corridor into the blue light of the jellyfish collection at the Tennessee Aquarium, the word “coelenterate” popped unsummoned into my brain, a solid relic of that long-ago educational experience. Later, I consulted Wikipedia to satisfy myself that I had it right and was dismayed to find that the term “coelenterate” is now considered obsolete, that biologists have re-ordered the names of animals formerly classified as such and now use (and teach) a different name for this group of elegant drifters.
It comforts me to think that jellyfish have been on the planet for over 500 million years, orders of magnitude longer than the humans who are so bent on naming them. They are truly timeless.
This photograph, made in Georgia in late June, has the distinct feel of autumn to me. It is an illusion, of course; the rich reds are attributable to a Japanese maple in summer garb. The early evening was hot and sticky, the air still.
But I find the effect comfortably deluding. For just a moment, I have the sense of a crisp fall chill and turning leaves.
Bumble bees remind me of the watermen that ply the river and Gulf of Mexico near my home in Florida. They are gatherers, not sowers. They both simply take what nature gives them – nectar on the one hand, shellfish on the other. The waterman doesn’t own that natural bounty; he doesn’t invest in seeding the river with crabs or the Gulf with shrimp, in fertilizing and otherwise maintaining that crop. He just collects it, like plucking wildflowers.
The difference between the bee and the waterman is that the bee is doing double-duty as a pollinator when she dines, ensuring her future and that of the daisy. That to me is the ultimate in sustainable practices.
As the summer rolls on and I struggle to find photographic subject matter here in southern Appalachia, awash in green leaves, hazy blue skies and endless sunshine, I’ve apparently evolved. I’m no longer trying to avoid the fishermen; in fact, I’m stalking them. I watch them launch in the cool morning dampness from my perch in the shadows along the lakeshore. I swat absently at the occasional gnat and consider that evolution.
I’m struck by the parallels between their sport and my photographic practice. Fishing, they say, is all about patience. But so is photography, I remind myself as I wait rather impatiently for the boat to move into that shaft of light and for the line to arc out over the water. Hook the big one? Well, how about producing your masterpiece? Revel in the silence? Check. Mixture of art and craft, of skill and luck, of frustration and bliss? Check. Obsession with gear? Check. Up before the sun? Double-check. Addictive? Most definitely.
My mission at the farmer’s market last Saturday was tomatoes, which are now, and finally, in season. However I paused in front of a booth devoted to garden flowers, admiring the variety and freshness of the flower lady’s colorful stock. She told me that she keeps cut flowers healthy in her home for as long as a week by simply tending them daily. That I believed without question. She also said that strawflowers make great dried flowers and that these would be an interesting color once they opened. I just had to trust her on that one. I bought $6 worth of her blooms, selecting three different varieties, and she made them into a bouquet for me.
I had no idea if these flowers would make it home in the hot car, and I suddenly realized I didn’t even have a proper vase to put them in once I arrived there. As I paid her the $6, I asked her if I could leave the bouquet there with her, wrapped in wet newspaper stuck in a bucket of water beneath her display table, while I solved this problem.
Off I went to a nearby flea market to find a vase, tomatoes all but forgotten. Mind you, I was fully aware of my 2015 commitment to cull – to simplify my environment – which in part means to only buy something if it is either exceptionally beautiful or useful, and to pay as little as possible in the process – value spending. A vase is useful, but at what price? After the better part of an hour in the shop, I finally settled on this ceramic pitcher, which I loved all the more because of its $8 price tag.
I have carefully tended these flowers for five days now, following the flower lady’s guidance. The flowers and their vase give me great pleasure, of course, every time I enter the room where they reside. Most importantly, now I have even more incentive to return to the market and thus give the vase its raison d’etre.
Sometimes “the back way” means a little-known shortcut. Other times, it means the more scenic route. I make the 480 mile trek back and forth between west central Florida and the mountains of north Georgia several times a year, and I refuse to take the interstate highway. That, of course, results in a trip that is at least 1.5 hours longer than it needs to be.
I’m good with that. I don’t have to sit at complete attention, alert to what the cars around me might do at 80 mph, because there are very few other cars. I can set the cruise control and truly cruise for an hour or more at a time. I can, and do, stop whenever I feel like it, even if it means abruptly turning around for something I missed. In this case, it was an old abandoned farmhouse standing guard in front of a very healthy field of Georgia corn. Once I had rolled to a stop, standing alone in the morning sun and hot breeze, listening to the rustle of corn silk, I forgot about the house and was smitten by the corn.