What have you done during this interminable pandemic? Most of us had a list, or at least dreams, of accomplishing something significant with so much time on our hands. We were going to read countless books and articles, clean and organize our house top to bottom, watch endless educational videos and classic films, take extra-long walks, catch up with all our friends online, arrange and digitize all our old photos, and so on.
But if you’re like me, you haven’t made much headway on this list; it was truly day-dreaming. While confined, our sins of omission have greatly outnumbered those of commission; the opportunity costs are astronomical. The seemingly endless parade of shuttered days gave us more time to do what we had long wanted to do, but they also drained our desire to do them. Each day blurred into another similar day, as routines were disrupted and activities trimmed or eliminated (to say nothing of relationships). Coping with Covid-19 hasn’t been easy.
Vicki and I have been living since October 2019 at Kendal, a continuing care retirement community on the outskirts of Lexington, Virginia. It’s a delightful pastoral setting, with a small college town on one side and bucolic pasture on another, and relatively insulated from the pandemic, though covid cases have risen since the college students returned this fall. But even a safe haven can feel claustrophobic after a while, and all of us have felt the urge to get out of our quarters—safely, with masks and proper distancing, of course, but OUT! We lose connection in our monotonous isolation. Getting out affords a welcome kind of further disconnection—temporary escape from the great crises gripping our nation and world this year, a confluence of catastrophes ill-timed and mismanaged that have compounded the anxiety we all feel in these viral times. We need two kinds of freedom: freedom from oppressive conditions and freedom for community. We found a measure of both kinds—rambling in nature.
Fortunately for us, Lexington is nestled in the scenic great Valley of Virginia, with the Blue Ridge to the East and the Allegheny highlands to the West, with one of the most diverse temperate forest in the world, I’m told. It beckons us to venture out and explore—and so we have done, not systematically but rambling here or there, at least once a week since the pandemic shut things down in March, 2020.
On our very first ramble, March 15, we came upon the Dancing Creek overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway along Otter Creek, which became one of our favorite places over the next few months. There is a picnic table nearby, and with traffic on the Parkway very minimal, a quiet retreat. The cool and misty morning was perfect for ground shots, as the cloud cover essentially acted as a giant diffuser. This rotted and life-infested tree stump struck me as rather like a late-season Christmas wreath.
March 22, another cloudy but enchanted morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this time at the Otter Creek Flats overlook. At this time of year, trees have barely thought about leafing out at this elevation, but I found the bare limbs and roots compelling.
Rambling in nature has been nothing short of soul-soothing. It has released us from confinement and enabled a bit of local travel. It has given us unexpected glimpses of the countryside around us. But it has also reinforced our sense of connection to our natural environment, that wider community of life compounded of countless organisms in intricate webs of interdependencies. And this connection not only widens our horizons, it refreshes our lives with meaning, a renewed sense of our place on earth. This wider community doesn’t displace human community, it only enriches it, I think. Travel, connection, meaning—it not only “takes a village,” it takes a planet to sustain meaningful human life. Our access to nature, to the great communion of life on this amazing planet, is relatively easy in the Valley of Virginia, for which I am endlessly grateful.
Some early trees were budding out on April 12, on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Peaks of Otter. Robert Frost held that “nature’s first green is gold,” but I reckon it can also be orange and red.
Just off the Indian Rocks overlook on the Parkway April 19, a favorite for our children when they were young (the clambering opportunities are endless), these boulders almost have the heft of Stonehenge, which the backlighting emphasizes (I almost said “highlights”).
This is archetypical Appalachian Spring on the Blue Ridge Parkway, April 19. The trees flaunt endless shades of green, while dogwoods lend white accents. The sky helps.
Another glimpse of spring on the Parkway on this magic day, April 19, with a flame azalea, a species of rhododendron, blazing in full glory.
We tried to visit as many and as varied sites as we could reach within a two-hour driving radius, usually a half-day trip though occasionally longer. Most of these places we had visited at one time or another earlier during our 49 years in the area, but a few were new to us and suggested by friends or guidebooks; all were as fresh as the Garden of Eden. I took photos of what lay to hand, without any sense that this would grow into an intentional pandemic project, only that I enjoyed taking pictures of beautiful things. I was limited especially early on by my nagging Achilles tendonitis that prevented the longer and rockier walks I would have preferred. Essentially I was tethered to our car. But what there was to see even on such a short leash!
A lovely day (cloudy, but photogenic) at Lake Robertson, April 26; this image is looking across the lake, with very nice reflections. Physical reflections are conducive to mental ones, and I try to take a moment in the midst of committing photography to do just that.
After a while I began sharing my photos with friends and relatives so they could enjoy second-hand what I’ve been seeing in person, even if they couldn’t get out to these places themselves. Finally, in early August, 2020, our daughter Laura popped the obvious question: Why not “publish a beautiful book of covid ramblings when this is all over”? She’s very persuasive. I even like her title! So I began a project that will run a full year, trying to capture a few of our experiences, chronicling our travels, and displaying the cycle of seasons in this part of earth—from expectant late winter, through vibrant spring, lush summer, colorful fall, austere winter and back to March again. Each season has its delights, as I hope you will agree. I also hope these images intimate something of the beauty I found. Nature is intricately interesting on so many levels, but I think it is just plain beautiful in every view. I suppose I should add experiencing beauty to the soul-soothing we experienced. Beauty speaks to soul and soul responds with delight. I guess I should stop preaching (to what I hope is the choir) and simply confess my state of mind. This project made me happier than I otherwise would have been, mired in monotony. I am rarely so happy as when prowling the woods with camera in hand.
On April 30 I went by myself to nearby Brushy Hills, a city-owned watershed of 560 acres. This acreage used to be the city’s water supply, but the spring has insufficient and unreliable volume today, so the city now has a reservoir further to the west. The forest was logged perhaps 70 years ago but has regenerated well. There are some 14 miles of trails, and even though I couldn’t walk far, it was far enough to glimpse this inviting path uphill.
The camera always in hand these days is my trusty Sony RX10, a point-and-shoot. Every camera is a compromise, and this one trades a small 1” sensor for a very portable and versatile tool—besides, it’s one I could afford. Its best feature is a fine Zeiss f/2.8 lens that zooms from 8.8 mm to 73.3 mm (24-200 mm full-frame equivalent), very convenient for my purposes far and near. It also has a pop-up flash, not terribly powerful but useful for fill-in flash on occasion, especially in daylight with harsh shadows, and I also use a circular polarizing filter. To travel light, I eschew a tripod (another compromise). For post-processing, I use ON1, which I find convenient, intuitive and helpful, especially because I shoot in RAW; besides, it indulges my penchant for vividness.
This blue-tailed skink was sporting on a bridge over the creek at Roaring Run, May 24, and was kind enough to pause and pose in a graceful swirl. Look at those beautiful toes!
We stopped for a snack June 2 at an overlook on the Parkway; nearby was a sawn stump being explored by this beetle. I just liked the composition, and enjoyed the bug’s perambulations for a while.
This post is the first of two selections from a work in progress (at least I hope it’s progress!) that is at best half-way complete. I have selected these photos to show the range of our ramblings, with captions that describe the setting and my reactions. I have taken the liberty of being unabashedly anthropomorphic and expressive in characterizing fauna, flora and fungi (though, just to be clear, it’s not intended literally!); I hope there is no umbrage. The arrangement is chronological, so that we can re-live our experiences in temporal order and you can see the orderly progression of nature. Nature rambles as well as we.
On June 9, I drove up to the Parkway overlooking Buena Vista in the evening to see if I could find a sunset. The sun barely peeked out, for rain was coming, but the mist and shadows were impressive.
On July 25 we drove out to Lake Robertson again, and there was this mystical view—quite literally, mist-ical—of the dock seemingly suspended in space. Without the trees on the right, could you locate the horizon? Would you want to?
Vicki and I went to the woods to break out of pandemic isolation and to connect with the complex and interrelated organic world that environs, sustains and supports us all. We sought to gain the solace, sustenance and solidarity—the connected freedom of a wider community of life—that a caged creature desperately seeks. These photographs are a record of our ventures, a way of recollecting our quest for natural community beyond confinement and also for the goal of creating a community of experiences with others. And besides, undertaking this project of recollection gave me a project to pursue—a measure of meaning during a monotonous time.
On August 9, we drove up to the Parkway yet again, a day after rains. There was a large puddle in the parking lot of an overlook, and it looked like a large eye surveying the misty scene in the valley below.
At Otter Lake further down the Parkway, the lovely patterns of Duckweed are enhanced by a dragonfly. Can you imagine being light enough to land on a Duckweed?
So there are multiple meaning to the title of “covid ramblings” fortuitously suggested by Laura: our actual ramblings about nature’s nearby garden during the pandemic (where we wandered), the unplanned serendipitous experiences we had (what we saw), and the rambling project of recollection (what we remember) and communication (what we tell). All have enriched my days of seemingly endless confinement. Of course there’s also another meaning of “rambling” which these paragraphs have illustrated but for which I beg your indulgence: my prose.
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