Adventures and journeys can be endless and aimless, but projects have an end—both a goal
and a terminus. Life is an adventure, not a project, but life can be enlivened by projects. My
Covid Ramblings have been a year-long project. I will miss its many adventures and enjoyments.
In March 2020 my only goal was to take pictures while escaping pandemic confinement. By August, at the suggestion of our daughter Laura, that adventure evolved into a full-on project. But that project has itself also evolved. Initially I just wanted to gather images over the course of a plague year rambling in the surrounding countryside, then possibly to create and self-publish a photo book. It has been a delight doing so, and I have learned a great deal about the beautiful topography of these gentle hills, about the astonishing profusion of life it supports—and about myself. Now it’s time to take stock. I will be unabashedly confessional, and once again I commend such a project to other photographers. A long-term project can be viewed as an onerous task, to be sure, but for me it was an unexpected and wonderful gift.
I was struck this winter by a sentence in an op-ed piece by Karen Attiah in the Washington Post (December 14): “This year has taught me the power of appreciation and gratitude for the beauty in this world — and to share that with others.” Spot on. That, I realized, is the deeper meaning of all our Dear Susan posts, especially during this extraordinary year: appreciating beauty, with thanks, and passing it on.
All the images in this post are all drawn from last year’s ramblings, two for every month, starting in March, 2020.
Most photo projects are discrete and short (an hour, a day, a week); even photo safaris are at best a month. This one has lasted a whole year. What difference does a protracted duration make? Well, it has given me time to adjust what I was doing and to form and integrate new ideas; this is not simply a cumulative process, building linearly from a clear and distinct idea to its instantiation.
Projects often morph into something more—and perhaps stranger—than their origins, and sometimes surprise their agents (or custodians?). This project has grown in unexpected ways. It is like a giant Hegelian aufgehoben, swallowing all before it in further syntheses. Or perhaps it grew more like Topsy. I’m sure other projects are more clearly defined at the beginning than mine was, more clear-cut in their intentions and more precise in their execution, but I think all projects still have room to grow. What begins big may become small; what starts out as the center may become peripheral; what seems initially clear may become fuzzy and vague—and vice versa in all cases. In any case my Covid Ramblings gained a deeper meaning for me by the end than they had before.
These ramblings took interesting turns on Dear Susan. I started with two posts in October (#1052 and #1054), describing my pandemic wanderings from March; I originally intended there to be just one more, summing up a year’s experiences. Well, a curious thing happened on the way to summation; I got interested in other topics: philosophy and photography (#1072) in December, black and white (#1081) in January, minimalism (#1089) in February, and mushrooms (#1093) also in February. As a result of the latter, I am contemplating future posts on lichens, mosses and ferns. Pursuing these topics has enriched my journey. A longer project can do that. Thinking about anything for an extended period leads deeper and wider, and enriches one’s understanding.
Perhaps most importantly, over the year these ramblings have moved from egocentricity to biocentricity and geocentricity. Initially I just thought of something to get me outside during a confining pandemic. But I have come to see further: first of all, the images chronicled our weekly rambles in the woods in nearby areas. Looking back at these images I not only see the scenes we saw but also remember the experiences we had in seeing them. Second, there was what I learned about my photographic “method” and “process,” such as they are. Third, there was what I learned about myself—not spectacularly original insights, perhaps, but a deepening self-understanding. But fourth, looming ever larger over the year, is the story not of me nor of us but of the nature that environs and sustains us and of nature’s yearly cycle, from burgeoning spring to luscious summer to flaming fall to austere winter, and around again.
First, our experiences: We are fortunate indeed to live in an area of natural beauty in rural western Virginia and to have the gift of time, inclination and (somewhat limited) ability to venture out into it. I have come to notice more carefully and appreciate more fully the staggering variety of the flora and fungi in this area. I think they are lovely in all seasons. We had fewer experiences of fauna: they make only rare appearances, and they just won’t stand still!
As we have traveled throughout Rockbridge County and beyond (within a radius of a two- hour drive), I have come to see how different locales in western Virginia are actually quite similar in so many respects, even while the minute differences remain a delight. Every place however similar to others is uniquely itself, and every place looks different in different lights and at different seasons; but it’s all part of the greater Appalachian forest. All this experience of course wouldn’t count for much to serious biologists, botanists or mycologists, but it has meant a great deal to us.
We will remember these places we visited during our pandemic Groundhog Days and our delight in visiting them, whether or not we return.
Second, my “method:” Nancee Rostad in early November posed a very helpful question: Why did I stop to take the photos I did? What were my intentions and my “process”? My initial response, entirely too flippant, was this: my process is nothing more than just poking about some small patch of nature until I happen upon something I like and am satisfied enough with the result. But Nancee’s question forced me to think a bit harder about what I actually do (and you could well ask this same question of yourself).
I typically don’t intentionally plan on place or time or light or subject-matter. Instead, I go out on our ramblings thinking that some place would be a good locale (which we hadn’t visited, or not visited during this season) for seeing something interesting that Vicki will enjoy on her own—usually nothing more specific than that, though occasionally I will go out by myself or at the invitation of a friend to find a sunrise or sunset, some colorful patch of forest, some mushrooms. Upon arrival, I start to look around at nothing in particular, just what catches my eye. And what catches my eye? The usual suspects: I’m partial to colors, patterns, shapes and subjects, in about that order. These are reflective categories, not operative ones. I don’t actually use them in the field; they just are convenient folders for filing my actual choices.
I suppose I could be more intentional than that, but I’m usually not; I just bumble about instead of seeking a certain kind of photo (though I have noticed that certain kinds of photos seem to cluster on a given occasion; perhaps I find one or several and then am sensitized for that day to that kind.) Yes, a more deliberate procedure would probably produce better pictures, or at least ones that others like more, or “like” more, but my bumbling satisfies me more. I am primarily seeking the delight that accompanies being out in the woods and noticing things, and then later noting what I’ve found, rather than the further uses to which my images might be put.
Although I do share my images with extended family and friends, including the Dear Susan community, and I hope they all enjoy them, I take photos with the primary aim of pleasing myself; others may join the fun later. This self-absorption seems unavoidable in photography, though of course it can be taken to extremes.
Third, my self-understanding: Over the year I have also learned about myself through taking these images. I have learned that rambling in nature is good therapy, or at least a momentary stay against confusion (Robert Frost, in “The Figure a Poem Makes”), soothing a soul much troubled by these turbulent times and personal infirmity. I relax in the woods, comforted by its harmony and tranquility. I have also learned that the intended product of a project is less important, maybe much less important, than the process itself. Some would be aghast at the thought of not actually producing some result from all this labor, but I have found satisfaction in simply doing something that could produce that result—an actual process with a possible product (though in fact it looks like the possible will become actual in this case). In doing so, rambling has come to mean more to me than might be imagined. Basically it’s a form of play, worth doing even if nothing eventuates, because it’s intrinsically enjoyable.
Several people have commented on a certain calmness in my images, and I confess to being calmed by them also. For me, they are like a peaceful oasis in the midst of in our arid and unsafe contemporary landscape. I have learned that I like this kind of nature photography—what I call “serendipitous satisficing rambling,” an over-the-top term for just wandering about a small parcel of nature looking for images that catch my attention and are “good enough.” While I could never exhaust this genre—if that’s what it is—I do understand Vicki’s plea that I try other forms, perhaps ones that include people or buildings. I have several such projects in mind. Still, I do enjoy this kind of exercise, both the walking and the serendipity, and I will have to find a way to incorporate both in any future project. I am always open to suggestions!
I have also learned more about my limitations and my inadequacies. I think the project has sharpened my technique and expanded my vision, but it has also reminded me of my inevitable limits, despite my rationalizations, projections and willful blindness. I would like to think my photography has improved over the year, as it does please me more, but this may well be self-indulgence. I know there are better photographs to be made under precisely the circumstances I faced, though probably not by me with my current equipment, disabilities, and lack of skill.
Reflecting on it all gives me a needed injection of humility and makes me want to do better, perhaps to return to these venues with heightened awareness sometime in the future, and I hope I will be granted time to do just that. Few of us have both ability and luck to achieve perfection in any endeavor, but we can all aspire to improve.
Fourth: But enough about me. The real story of my rambles this year, I have come to realize, is at once the object and the support of my ramblings: nature itself, most particularly the vastly prolific and beautiful life that populates earth’s every corner. I could say that my appreciation of nature has greatly deepened, but that again puts the focus on me. Concentrate not on my appreciation but on what I appreciate, not my story but nature’s story. So in contemplating these images, I hope you will be brought to think more intently and intentionally about life on earth.
Such life will be dazzlingly different in your corner of the planet than in mine, as life has contoured itself to the local landscape, the climate and the other species that have co-evolved to make a living there. But it will be beautiful nonetheless, and I hope you will immerse yourself in it.
Meaning in life, and the meaning of life, is mostly a matter of context, the wider the better. If everything revolves around one small thing, such as oneself, its meaning is diminished.
Unremittent egoism is unending absurdity. But if you lose yourself you just might gain a world of meaning. So think: How do I fit into this amazingly fecund planet?
It is indeed an amazing planet, especially for the life it supports. Its story is almost infinitely complicated and absorbing. Without venturing into planetary origins or cosmological speculations, just focusing on this planet in its current stage of evolution, there is a certain satisfying rhythm to life driven by the cycle of earth’s seasons (not all planets have seasons!).
This wheel of earth’s seasons continues to turn even as my little photo project draws to a close. The beginning and end of such a project is accidental; it could have started at any time of the year and gone around just as well. What goes around comes around.
There are many rhythms to life on this planet, the fortunate product of revolution (providing solar years), rotation (the daily spin, the rhythm of our days) and inclination of the axis of rotation (giving us seasons). There are also tidal effects from our moon, which waxes and wanes. All of these rhythms, and more, affect living creatures. But there is one constant in all these cycles of change: they continue. Day after day, season after season, year after year, generations seemingly without end, they go on. Of course there are larger changes that are not cyclical but linear: climate change, human use of lands—and, sadly, extinctions. The planet is increasingly hazard to human self-centeredness, and eventually entropy triumphs. But cyclical change is the constant backdrop to our brief lives.
I hope the small glimpse into the natural cycles of life in this place that these photographs afford will entice you out of “civilization” and back into nature, into a life more connected with the countless other species who share this special planet with us and with whom we are blessed to experience life during our few brief moments.
There is I suppose a potential theological trajectory here as well: from self-wrapped self to beautiful planet—and beyond. But this is not an essay in theology. Rather, it’s a work of delight and appreciation for the life that environs and sustains us. I am drawn to something like the conclusion of Darwin’s Origin of Species:
To which I would only add that these beautiful and wonderful forms are to be enjoyed in and for themselves, wherever they may be found. Nature evolves, and photography helps us to enjoy its beautiful evolving appearance. I conclude with a final image taken almost exactly one year after my “Covid Ramblings” project began, as spring awakens yet again.
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