Thursday, March 26, 2015

Notes From the Field -- Radical Transition Pt. 3

At the very bottom of this post is an image of a dead bird. Now, it may well be as beautiful an image of a dead bird as you've seen. But it's a dead bird just the same and I'd not want to sandbag anyone, so...

Youthful Ambition

Back in the day when eagles were still desperately rare, I once spent four hours sitting at rapt attention in my car near the dam on the Presque Isle Flowage during a late autumn snowstorm. I never took my eyes off the far reaches of that flowage for longer than needed to check the time or hit the windshield wipers, Scout's honor. It was something of a holy mission.

About the same time each day a bald eagle rose from the headwaters of the flowage, just this side of where boat chasers live and the Presque Isle is like murky serpents coursing through bug-infested forest. Every late morning that trip, the great bird came from deep in the floodplain, briskly reviewed the length of flowage then headed off downriver in search of riparian bounty. It flew past the dam, then disappeared over a stretch of dark, slow river that soon grows headstrong and sometimes hot white along a quickening rush to Superior, where not infrequently its voice is furious at the prospect of reaching big water and dissolution.

I'd my sturdy Nikon F at the ready, determined to capture the eagle front side and back as it went by. I could just barely see that damned bird all the way back there, circling low upon a snow blotted sky. Of course with that last day of the trip having gone so foul, it never came out. Which proved eagles had better sense than I.

Going through my back catalog of 35mm film reminded me that once upon a time, I'd wanted to be a wildlife photographer. I mean, who wouldn't?

Imagine stalking some wild northwoods beast on its home turf not to kill but to represent, so that others of your kind might understand what drew you to do it. With that imagined ideal image captured in perfect light of a bear or moose, eagle, loon or wolf doing it's thing, you'd stand for the beasts of the wilderness and for wildness itself. Because by choosing dominion over the world we've also chosen the responsibility to tirelessly advocate for that better part of everything that needn't reduce things to words. There's just no getting around that, if we're gonna pretend to be boss and still get outta here alive.

On a less stormy afternoon we once got a really good look at a lynx atop a beaver dam because we'd arrived downwind and in a canoe, now that's some kinda quiet. That day the Nikon sat fallow on my lap and in three twelve foot leaps the lynx was gone. By then I'd learned some sights are gifts meant to be seen, not prizes for potential capture.

And the truth was, I couldn't make much of a wildlife photographer working only twice a year on vacation either, so there's that. Though I never stopped looking for the great grab shot and occasionally the looking paid off:

Near to 30 years passed before I finally captured an eagle. Just so happens it was during a blizzard and I only got it because eagles are still smarter than me.

In time I altered my gear and most basic creative approach to suit. Stalking the wilderness in deep pursuit of what's typically hidden from the casual visitor proved much the same no matter the quarry. And as it turned out, the mission to stand for what has no voice -- in my case cultural memory embodied in monuments to human dreams that continue to inform us -- proved much the same too. I'm proud to have done it.

But maybe the happiest thing about architectural work as opposed to wildlife photography was that by & large, nothing moved. That virtue was particularly conducive to large format fieldwork, where I could spend 15 minutes setting up a shot and then not press the shutter. Sure, each time I'd revisit a site in some new season it'd maybe fallen down a bit more or perhaps wasn't even there. That was just part of the gig. But nothing ever suddenly up & flew away.

Static Energy

You find a lot of different things in the wild. You've only to keep your eyes open...

My film portfolio contains a raft of found objects, strange natural sights and a variety of dead things. Courtesy of digital capture it'll finally include some wildlife too, though not the sort I'd hoped for as a kid starting out:

Probably my first capture of a dead thing was when a fisherman left the head of a King Salmon perched atop a rock at the edge of the Laughing Whitefish River, like a warning for other salmon to beware. Trust me, that's a hell of an image. About such radical transitions, the great northwoods poet, author and all around raconteur Pat O'Neill writes:

Death is life.
It's why we're all here,
because of the dead.
Our homes, our clothing, our food, our compositions
are donated bodies of the once living -- gifts.
The dead are our primary caregivers.

I think that's about right. Quality time in the wild only proves it. Life relies on death for replenishment. It's the deal.  The only deal, really. And it's a natural process wholly devoid of moral consideration  but that we intrude upon it because we've intruded us upon life to the extent that there's no going back on our responsibilities without the earth first shrugs us off for its trouble.

Not to mention that found objects, natural oddities and dead things don't move either. That remains appealing, even without considering I'll be 60 this year. Stilled voices still have things to tell us too, though not so easily as architectural remnants that speak readily of dead people's dreams.

The image that appears below is from the last time I ever took the Nikon N90s into the woods.

On a brisk autumn day, for old time's sake Heather and I walked the short Speaker's Cabin trail in the Porkies down to Superior. I almost left the Nikon in the car. By then I was using the Linhof to shoot what was appropriate to that and 35mm film was about as pertinent to me as 16mm. In addition I'd learned how and when to separate working in the wild from walking in the woods. At the last minute I thought What the hell and slung the vintage hippie camera strap over my shoulder one final time.

Because of that I captured this bird so recently slipped into something else entirely, but not so far that you couldn't still see the life in its eyes.

And now probably the thing I'm looking forward to most about my transition to digital imagist is the feel of a camera in hand as a ready extension of sight, locked and loaded to capture whatever wonders there are to be found...

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