Thursday, November 22, 2012

Notes From the Field -- The Freezing Moon

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

Well then. That (as they say), is that.

A week ago I completed the fieldwork in what's become for me a personal and professional Odyssey. Not that we ever met Medusa. Neither did our paths cross with any three-headed dogs.

But last Thursday was also Opening Day of deer season, a holiday second to none in the State of Superior.

As exquisite light faded into evening, every other pickup truck on the road sported dead deer legs rising out the back like so much broken kindling. Many, many deer crossed their own River Styx that afternoon. Boatmen carried them mostly to local taverns instead of Hades, for bragging rights drenched in beer, with the only coins in evidence those tossed upon the bar.

It says up there on the masthead "...over the course of a single year".

The original plan called for this project to run from October 2011 through October 2012, though we've been at this it now some 13 months and a bit. In the field last November, awash in the most perfect light I'd ever seen, the plan changed. I determined to work November light one more time again and last week did just that.

Ojibwa say the world was created when muskrat carried mud from the bottom of the flood to place it upon the thirteen central plates of turtle's back. That narrative is the basis for the 13 moon lunar calendar of the Anishinabe. So depending on one's perspective, a single year it's been.

And if we've seen anything along our way, it's how near to everything turns on folk's perspective.

November is the month of the Freezing Moon, or Gashkidino giizis.

When I left the Range, short water on still water and flat water at the edge of rivers was cloaked in skim ice. Patches of snow left from the inch or so that'd fallen before my arrival held tight to places in the forest where from now until April the sun never shines.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

The long dark season is now full upon the Superior Basin and all that's wanting is for a blanket of white to cover it in Winter's frigid sleep. Freezing Moon, indeed.

During those last few hours in the field I became self-conscious while shooting, perhaps for the 1st time ever. I'm accustomed to being purely in the moment when working, but grew increasingly aware of things drawing to a close. Of opportunities that if wasted then, would never come 'round again.

My portfolio contains many images of scenes around Superior that no longer exist. And I've made plans to return to a site only to later find that the passing of even a single season finally pushed some item of longstanding merit full back to the earth from where it came.

This was different from that. This time it was me being made obsolete. And with every passing moment of a too short day blessed with perfect light.

So in the end I did the only thing I could, the only thing wholly appropriate to the occasion.

I worked alone in the wild through the fading of day. In the midst of the Ottawa National Forest, near the eastern reaches of the Gogebic Range, beside my beloved Presque Isle River.

I chose to be home.

Gogebic County MI, November 2012 -- from 120mm Transparency

When light diminished down so low I could work no more, I passed precious time beneath a glorious November sky while looking south along the winding trail of my river, the breath of winter upon the woods and all else in the world fallen silent.

An eagle rose above the river. It dipped its wings over the water then flew off into gathering darkness.

And I was done.


I suppose an accounting is in order:

26,133 miles driven. (Yeah, that's greater than the circumference of the Earth. What can I say? The Superior Basin is a big place and accommodates well to wandering.)

The 77 blog posts prior to this come to better than 60,000 words.

290 sheets of 4x5 transparency film, exposed through the Linhof.

3,330 exposures of 120mm transparency film run through the Mamiya.

And something over 6,100 digital images & movies captured using the Toy Canon, which I bought for dirt cheap at the beginning of this project. As it turns out, this piece of plastic wedded to electronics supplied excellent value for the dollar, as the blog wouldn't have been near so well illustrated without it.

Throughout that great pile 'o film there glistens the best work I've ever done. Should this be my swan song as a photographer, that's a fine way to go out, eh?

If you've read the Artist's Statement you'll know that we started out with the last 350 sheets of 4x5 film convenient to fieldwork left in the entire world. So what about those last 60 sheets?

Glad you asked.

They're in a freezer, awaiting winter's pleasure. My portfolio has always been short the winter season. Sadly, it's still short.

There wasn't much of winter on the Superior Basin last year. The big lake never froze, or we'd have made it to the sea caves off Cornucopia and would've likely run out of film well before now. Then when we went to the Basin in February all the same, winter kicked my butt.

So despite professional film having an expiration date (on my stash that date reads "August, 2012") and even though I started seeing bad effects all the way back in June with each remaining box offering uncertain result, I've saved some to meet the challenges of working a Northwoods winter one last time, opportunity permitting.

This past summer Mamiya stopped making film cameras and in response, Kodak discontinued the film I use in mine. Luckily I have some, still well within its expiration date. So we're covered, regardless.

And don't think you're gettin' off this hook easy, either.

I promised that when the fieldwork was complete, we'd settle in around the fire and talk about what we've seen. We'll do that too, but not for a while yet. With every mile traveled this narrative assumed a life of its own and I've been unable to write my way through where we've been, not even by posting twice a week through the heart of it.

So stretch your legs. Then grab a seat and settle in.

I may or may not ever again be a photographer, but we're some distance yet from being done.


In any project such as this, many people play a role in its success. The generosity of spirit I've been met with as we've traveled throughout the Superior Basin is a life altering gift. There's no bloody way I can thank all of these folk by name and I'll not compile some sort of list to try. That'd be an insult.

What's true is that continuing my life's work and redoubling my dedication to shared ideas will be the best thanks I can give. We're permanent partners now, working disparate threads of a complex natural & cultural mosaic that's touched all of us deeply, each in their own way.

Still, considering today and all the thoughts that came to mind as I took the long drive down from the Northwoods, here're a few items I oughtn't let pass without mention:

I'm thankful for my 2003 Subaru Outback. Though during this last trip the odometer blew right by 117,000 miles, it never gave me a hint of trouble all along our way. And I'm thankful too that we drove those 26k miles for this project without once getting pulled over, not that I ever speed...

Raptors proved fine company during this project and I'm thankful for each & every one -- from Eagles riding updrafts over still water or peering down into it through early morning fog from a high perch atop a tall cedar, to Ospreys chirping in little bird voices before crashing the placid surface of a lake. From Red Tails and Cooper's Hawks to Falcons and Kestrels, whether aloft upon a summer's breeze or standing sentinel still on a fencepost, breasts fluffed against a winter wind, eyes ever keen.

Which, now that I think on it, makes me glad I'm not a fish or a mouse.

Mostly, I'm thankful for Heather and for the Lake Superior Basin -- the two great loves of my life.

Each came into my life during my formative years. For decades now, each has continued to inform and enrich me with their singular spirit & wildness.

What's true is that if I'm a decent artist or a good man or if I know honest, abiding love at all, it's more due to that than to me.

And finally, I'm thankful for you. No one wants to put forth this much effort only to spit it into a vacuum. Later today or, given the distractions of the holiday perhaps early tomorrow, this blog'll top 10,000 page views. 

It's good not to be alone.

So thanks for coming along on this Odyssey through one of the world's great wild places, for accompanying me in this search for perfect light.

Enjoy the day.


  1. As I read this post I said to myself, "oh, no. I just found this great blog and now he's stopping." What a relief to find you have more stories to share with us. I'm a yooper who lives under the bridge now, and I love to read about home.

  2. No, we're not done yet. Lots of writing still to do and a few other things as well. It's a magnificent place that gets deep inside you and never lets go, I know.

    Thank-you so much for your kind words and for coming along...