Gilded in the oak savanna.
In the leaning hills, where the summer sun turns the grassland to tinder, the savanna is a wind chime, rustling a harmonious lullaby like a new deck of cards in nimble fingers. Grasshoppers and mayflies and the chaff of newly dried seed catch in the sun. A dry, hot blizzard in an amber streetlamp.
The Arastradero Open Space Preserve is home to rattlesnakes, coyotes, and mountain lions and innumerable flavors of insects and birds, yet it is the trees that bring me here time and again. Before the axe and the wheel came to this land, enormous oak savannas like this one stretched across the midwest, the southwest and here along the west coast.
But the axe and the wheel did come and the savannas left. I like to think of the craggy and twisted forms that remain as wounded but unbent descendants of the stalwart soldiers who resisted the blade and the advance of civilization to hold the dusty California soil to the ground and to provide shade for the coyotes and mountain lions and rattlesnakes that weave through the tall grass of the American Veldt. As these sentinels slowly march from mother to child up and down the wind-tousled steppe, we flit about the outskirts of this preserve as insects, building and gnawing and living and dying. I hope that’s all we’ll ever do.
I came to the Arastradero preserve to connect with a particularly beautiful oak I’d passed (and photographed) on hikes before. I found her on the hillside as ever, arms outstretched, singing in the late evening breeze, fluttering fingers of bright green.
As I stood for a while here on the hillside, gilded in the afternoon, alone with my thoughts but for the oak and the whisper of the breeze and the hum-drum clicks and tweets of grassland animals, I thought, “I’ve been away too long,” and was reminded of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and I’ve been thinking about it since.
I came back to the preserve to reconnect with a spot where I’d taken an old photo. Only now do I realize that same photograph was made nearly a year ago to the date. Oliver (who now runs and speaks and laughs) was with us then, asleep as an absolutely tiny three-month-old infant.
The change over the last year in Oliver provided, for me, a stark contrast with the constancy of the natural world, of these stalwart trees. How little they’ve changed. How little indeed will they change over the next century. Long may they roam on these hills and long may they feed my heart.
In the leaning hills.
I’ve cared a great deal about taking photographs for a long time. When people ask me how long I’ve been “into” photography, I often don’t have an answer. I can vividly remember becoming interested in my father’s camera when I was a kid. No idea how old.
In point of fact, my mother was cleaning house recently and asked that I sort through some old papers of mine. Tucked in a bunch of junk were loads of old prints made with a Vivitar point and shoot given me by my parents sometime while I was in fifth grade. The landscape/candid ideas are all there, but the execution was a long way from developed (and often still is)!
I found a renewed passion for image making when I was in college and then again in graduate school, although if truth be told, it’s been relatively steady for most of my life and those moments of renewed energy are likely just an interpretation of mine in hindsight.
I often return to the question of “Why?” Why should photography feel a bit like breathing and why should I derive so much satisfaction from it? I have loads of standard answers that you see on photoblogs and photo news sites ad naseum, revolving around physical/emotional enjoyment and the risk/reward of creativity and sharing, but these are pretty unsatisfactory.
I’ll tell you that the social networking and community aspects of photography are not what drives me to carry a camera to beautiful places. Neither is building a portfolio of images what puts my feet out the door. Although I run this blog and make every effort to post frequently, I often find myself going to great lengths to make images I find interesting and then leaving them on the hard disk at home for months or years at a time.
This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy every part of the process, from shooting to publishing; it’s just that, if those weren’t a feature of the photography/photoblog world, I would still shoot.
There is something about images and cameras that has always spoken to me, something in the process of making an extraordinary image that drives me across states and out of bed at strange hours. Images lie at the boundary between real and surreal, between ordinary and fantastic. They can tell the truth, they can lie, but good ones never let you know which. I find it thrilling to compare the different truths of the reality and the image made after. I like to imagine for a moment that the world is as strange as photographs make it seem, then I realize it’s far stranger.
I photograph because that’s who I am, it’s an authentic expression of myself. I mean authentic in the existential sense—that I am doing what comes naturally and being true to who I am. Sometimes explanations and reasons are trite and you just have to accept that you are what you are. Simply put, photography is.
Of course, existentialism takes for granted that, to the mind, the material world presents itself as incongruous and absurd. And maybe that's what I find so damned rewarding about photography; the world is messy and strange and absurd, but there is a great harmony and undeniable humanity in standing amongst the nodding, tawny, and wind-threshed grain, catching on a wafer of silicon a few trillion photons that have spent eons bouncing around the interior of our sun, all the while inundated with the smells of flowering plants and buzzing insects, luring one another to sex and death in the burning heart of the afternoon, in the leaning hills.