Armchair Peregrinations


June 1, 1998

Summer is fully upon us in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The other afternoon about 4 pm the rumbling skies unleashed a torrent of rain that lasted about 45 minutes and quickly flooded downtown streets causing a traffic mess. Needless to say I was due at work at 5 and got caught in it. The water quickly subsided though, and the streets returned to normal. The air was fresher, though still humid, and, later as I rocked on the porch and listened to all the night sounds, I noticed that after-a-rain, washed, clean smell. Nice.

*****

It's been a little over a week since I visited Congaree Swamp National Monument near Columbia, the last remaining stand of old-growth bottomland swamp forest in the U.S. A magnificent realm of tea-colored water and light filtering down from a tall canopy of trees, many more than 100 feet tall, some of them state and national record trees. The day I was there the trails were just barely passable after the most recent floods from spring rains in the Congaree River drainage basin. Weston Lake, an old oxbow of the Congaree, was dark and still and chocolate colored. A snake basked on a log. Birdsong filled the air. There was the great stillness of the deep swamp, miles from the nearest road. There is something primeval about this place, almost as if this must have been what the earth was like millennia ago before human influence totally altered the landscape. Lizards, salamanders and othe creatures dart about and rustle leaves and plants in the undergrowth. The senses are more keen to these sounds because it is so still.

By 11 that morning I was leaving the forest. I didn't want to re-enter the outside world at first, but at least knew I'd be quieter and calmer as I made my way back to Charleston. As tall loblolly pines receded in my rear view mirror, a clearing emerged and cultivated gardens and some cleared and plowed farmland appeared. Soon I was on the road, gaining speed. The day became hotter. Memories of the great forest remained.

*****

A sure sign of late May in Charleston -- the gardenias are in bloom. During a walk late this afternoon near sunset, I noticed the shrubs just full of white flowers. There is no more fragrant flower that I can think of than gardenias, unless, you can consider the memories-inducing fragrance of honeysuckle which is now blooming in roadsides and on fenceposts and in unlikely shady spots here and there. Honeysuckle perfumes the air in summer when a gentle breeze blows the scent your way. I can recall the first day of my inaugural trip west in May of 1984. It was mid-morning, and I was driving down one of the prettiest and emptiest backroads I'd yet come across in southern Mississippi. The window was rolled down and I noticed the most wonderful smell in the air. I looked out the window to my left and saw honeysuckle everywhere along the road, covering the barbed wire cattle fencing that stretched away in the distance. Honeysuckle is such a fresh smell, not too overpowering. It will last, while unfortunately, the legustrum, jasmine and gardenia flower all too briefly and are gone.

June 4, 1998

It has been so hot here in Charleston the past couple of days, that everyone's wondering what the rest of the summer has in store. 97 today. Heat smacks you with its force like a late July day and it's only early June. Went out on the porch today about 7:45 and found that a gentle breeze from the ceiling fan combined with some nice breezes from without made sitting outside tolerable, even kind of nice. I think about the weather a lot because its variations affect me in so many ways from day to day.

*****

Am reading the book "Digital Literacy" by Paul Gilster in which he says we cannot deny what many want to deny, namely, that the Internet is a major and radical new form of media that has become a means of communication in the same way that the inventions of telephones and television changed the way we live in the world. He also likened it to the way the printing press changed the way we acquire information. But he cautions that the Internet is still just a tool, produced by science, adding, "It offers new possibilities that have to be considered within the context of an unchanging human nature...our challenge is to use technology in ways that enrich the human experience."

When I think of how dramatically the Internet and World Wide Web have changed my daily routines and means of keeping informed and well-read, I am amazed. I try to temper it with the knowledge that, while a marvel to behold, the myriad sites such as newspapers and magazines online, photography and art, journals, diaries, home pages, reference sources and many others, while there for the taking and mostly free, can be overwhelming -- information and sensory overload, in other words. It is ultimately how I absorb this information to acquire knowledge or aesthetic enjoyment or moral or spiritual uplift that really matters. Much of the Internet's content is vanity publishing and now, more frequently, commercial sites pushing products. While entertaining and diverting, they are not nearly substantial or moving or well-written enough to produce genuinely revelatory or soul-satisfying experiences like good journalism, literature or photography in books and other print sources. Also, when I daily encounter so many people in the course of providing information for them at work who have almost no knowledge or experience with the Web or search engines, it's a sobering thought. Evidently, not everyone thinks the Internet is a paradigm-shifting medium that will fundamentally alter our world. It will eventually, though, I believe, as the full multi-media and interactive capabilities of the Internet become widely accessible and the software and hardware to provide it ubiquitous and as easy to use as telephones and TVs. When people start doing more and more of their communicating via e-mail, shop and do banking throught the Internet, watch movies and make telephone/videophone calls, then you have the potential for unhealthy withdrawal into media in a way that is unprecedented in human society. How will we handle this? Will we retreat into "virtual" worlds, or will we engage the fresh air of real people, face-to-face conversation, open skies, earth smells, and good book reading out at the beach?

June 8, 1998

What a difference a couple of days make. Today was cool and windy, 15 degrees or so cooler than last week's awful, record-breaking highs in the upper 90s. It felt like an early spring day or a touch of fall in the air. Charleston was just beautiful yesterday morning. Visibility across the water was unlimited, the air so clear, all the blues and greens of sky and land were crisply delineated and sparkling with color. So intense.

The great expanses of marsh and braided creeks at the mouth of the Ashley River are taking on their summer appearance now. The Spartina grasses are finally getting green, and now the whole marsh looks new and fresh after a long, dormant gray season. The little creeks that I see from high above on the Connector are like veins to the marsh ecosystem. I like to watch them at all tide levels. At low tide they are easy to see winding across the marsh, mud banks clearly visible. At higher tide the waters take on more of the look of a flowing tidal creek, and at extremely high tide, their banks are lost to the high water which covers the marsh like a spreading sheet with just the tops of the Spartina grass visible.

I love the Lowcountry landscape, but at times I really miss the flow of water across rocks and the swift currents of higher elevation streams and rivers. The sound of flowing water is so beautiful and has such a calming effect on me. Here the creeks and rivers are all tidally-influenced and don't seem to originate from any source except the ocean. The Ashley, narrow and dark 10 or 15 miles up from Charleston, is one such waterway, the classic coastal river that originates in swamplands up above Summerville and which is harnessed by the ebb and flow of the tides. It is fascinating to watch it flow one way at high tide and reverse itself with the outgoing tide. Really, they are two distinct worlds, these low and high tide landscapes. I particularly enjoy low tide at the beach where the ocean seems to be off in the distance. How different a few hours later as the tide comes in. There is something very reassuring about this ceaseless changing of the tides.

June 21, 1998

Last Saturday morning, I was up at 5 am so I could leave by 6 for an all-day class in Columbia. Grumbling about having to go through all this, some of the complaints melted away once outside in the early morning air, car packed and everything quiet and still.

A short while later, I was driving down the old Charleston Highway (U.S. 176) which parallels I-26. Usually there are few cars on the road, and I just enjoy the scenery -- lots of old country stores, farms, pecan groves, corn and soybean fields and some really wonderful old farm houses more than 100 years old. I've driven down this road to Charleston since I first came to Columbia in 1973, always taking this route and never the nearby interstate unless I have to.

Twenty-five years of driving this road and I never tire of it. I always look for the familiar landmarks and it's always reassuring when they're still there, unchanging except for one old farmhouse. I noticed in the past year a new house build right next to it, and the older house peeling paint and starting to look abandoned and unattended.

In Columbia, as I walked to class, I marveled again at the great old trees in the Horseshoe, the original campus and parklike in its beauty. It was just starting to get a bit hot, but it was a glorious summer morning. I recalled my wonderful experiences there in 1973 and 1974. All these years later and back at this campus, where I've completed so many classes, back again in school. Sometimes it's just too much, all the memories that keep flooding back whenever I'm here. Memories of youthful days and just starting out in life. What excitement! The world was before me -- new jobs, new friends, independence. That Saturday last week it just felt right to be there. The air was rich and hot and earthy. A slight breeze stirred the oaks. I was passing through once again. Amazing.

June 28, 1998

There are photographs hanging on my wall that I've taken over the years that have special meaning to me. That's why I had them framed. These include some of the many black and white pictures I've taken in the South over the past 25 years -- mostly in rural, central South Carolina near Columbia and Sumter, of abandoned towns and houses, landscapes, portraits, people at the State Fair, people at parades, musicians at Jackson Square in New Orleans. They're all part of a mosaic, a pattern of people and places that crossed my path at various times in my life when I was seriously into black and white photography, including developing my negatives and doing the prints in friends' darkrooms, in closets or wherever else we could lightproof a space large enough to put an enlarger and chemical trays. When and if I ever exhibit those photographs, I'll spread them out before me and start writing about them, describing the circumstances under which I took the photos, what they mean to me, how I've changed since then, but how my photographic tastes and instincts remain so unaltered by time. Unaltered, basically, since that long ago time I first came across the work of Walker Evans. I've never ceased to be amazed and illumined by his work and that of the other FSA photographers during the Depression years of the 30s. Evans' portraits, taken in Hale County, Alabama, will be forever etched in my mind. So, when I finally begin to write about my black and white photographs, I'll be grateful to Evans, and Dorothea Lange, and Marion Post Wolcott, and Russell Lee, Jack Delano and Arthur Rothstein.

Since 1984, I've taken color print photographs from all the trips around the country I made in the 1980s, mostly of landscapes, but of architecture as well. Thus, my photographs are divided into a black-and-white period from about 1973 until 1981 and a color period from 1984 until the present. I'd like to write about some of those landscapes. The first one I've chosen is the one I'm looking at now and which I see every time I'm seated at my computer. It's very special for several reasons, the simplest being that it is a nice composition, lighting just right, and a peaceful scene. Just right for gazing at contemplatively. But as with all photographs, there's much more than meets the eye, for me anyway. What it tells is a story and provides a way for me to remember an incident I'd really rather forget.

It was mid or late July in 1992 and I was living in Edmonds, north of Seattle, Wash., at the time. With vestiges of youth still spiriting my outlook, I was prepared to cast my fate to the Oregon winds off the Columbia River Gorge and take a job teaching journalism at Chemeketa Community College near Salem, if they would have me from among the other applicants. When I got a call to come down for an interview, I naively assumed I was among a select few who were finalists for the job. I had my master's, I'd taught college-level journalism at a four-year school in the South for two years, and I'd edited a couple of weekly newspapers. I thought I had a pretty good chance at the job. I was asked to prepared a brief teaching lesson on that bane of journalism instructors, the inverted pyramid. I worked out my talk and brought it down with me to Salem. I was nervous as a cat because I really liked the school and could almost imagine what it would be like living in Salem. I could indeed see myself in that town. Now, of course, I realize it was a bit of a delusion. But that's another story.

On a beautiful day, I toured the waterfalls at Silver Falls State Park and walked around the lovely campus of Willamette College. Finally, late in the afternoon I went in for my presentation. It was obviously the last one for the day, the committee was weary and didn't seem the least bit interested in me. I was given a perfunctory tour afterward of the journalism classes and office area. It would be difficult to describe the sinking feeling I had, first from being treated like just one of dozens of applicants on a assembly line, and then leaving with hardly a thank you or a pleasant word from the man who conducted the interview and tour. I was feeling so sullen and dejected and angry by that point, too, because I realized I'd been had once again. Do you think there was any mention of reimbursing me for my night at the motel, or my gas or mileage or meal expenses. No!

The next day I left Salem for Seattle, but I was determined to turn my loss into something positive. I decided to take some back roads up to Astoria in the far northwest corner of the state and thence cross over the mouth of the Columbia River into southwest Washington and head up toward Olympia. About an hour and a half from Salem, I found myself along a winding and nearly deserted road that wound along the Nehalem River. Maples covered the road in a winding canapy, and the trees were so dense that the meagre sunlight above was obscured. But there was a fine and subtle light, just right for taking pictures in a wooded setting where the light that day was evenly dispersed and there was no glaring contrast between dark green vegetation and bright sunlight. After I had left the Nehalem River at one point, I turned off the road and down a rutted lane to a small and unexpected sanctuary. It was late summer and the rivers and streams I'd passed had been low and barely moving over the rocks and boulders. To my delight I saw a perfect little stream, barely trickling along under and between the alder trees above it. I snapped a vertical format picture with a large boulder in the foreground, and the S-curve of the stream flowing down into the center of the scene I was framing. The current was imperceptibe, but just enough to scatter some light from the sun over the surface. It was muted light, coming through an opening in the trees. I took several photographs, got back in my car after walking around a while savoring the peace and quiet, and was soon on my way.

During the ensuing half dozen years, I've looked often at that scene, reminding me of nature's harmony and order as the stream slowly made its way toward the Nehalem River and then to the Pacific Ocean. That photograph made the whole pointless, job-seeking trip worthwhile, and the callous indifference of the people at that community college, while it hurt, was salvaged by the experience along an alder-shaded creek.


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