I live in southern Illinois. The middle of nowhere. There’s not much in the way of dramatic subject matter to shoot around here. Once spot looks pretty much like the rest. The difference is in the small details. And in the weather. There’s not a lot to recommend this place, but we do have four seasons. We have snow in winter, rain in spring, fall colors. And in the summer time the heat and humidity is so thick there are days you can see the air.
When I moved back here I opted for an Andrew Wyeth tactic for photography. You use the same subject matter, over and over until you finally create something that captures its essence. And by then you should have a pretty good clue exactly what its essence is.
With the change in agricultural practices over the last half of the twentieth century, the focus became on larger farms. Smaller farmers were wiped out and sold to their neighbors. The result was clearing houses, barns, field rows … whatever stood in the way of larger fields. Larger fields require larger tractors and time spent avoiding a barn, or a tree is wasted time. Plus it’s wasted space in that the idea is to maximize yield, not preserve the character and history of the landscape.
You’d think that with all this open landscape there would be lots of places to ramble. One thing great about Britain is the public right of way, which allows people to walk across farmland to get from one place to another. We don’t have that here. Instead we have private property, no trespassing. Everything is posted and at times, fiercely protected. What started out as a strong sense of self reliance in this country has become paranoia.
There’s one bit of woodland on the edge of town here where you can hike. It’s not like nature exactly, but there are trees. If you wander just a bit off the path, you find yourself in meadows, the woods, the creek and farm fields.
It was there I spotted the tree. Ancient for these parts and standing alone. Well, not quite alone. Across the field from it is its brother. Or sister. I’m not sure exactly how to tell the sex of trees.
I’d stand on the edge of the woods and look out at this lonely sentinel. Why was it spared? How did it feel to be so alone?
I began stalking the tree. I’d hike the tree line and shoot if from different angles. I’d trudge through the snow to capture it in winter, through the mud in spring, baking in the summer’s heat. And I’d get closer, no more than a few feet at a time. I wanted to approach it and show respect. Dignity. I wanted it to see me, to get used to me, like you do with wild things.
People asked me what I named it. I didn’t name it anything. It’s a tree. Trees don’t need names. People need to give things name. Trees don’t.
For me, that’s where I break with a lot of pagans. Nature doesn’t have names, labels or anything human for that matter. Its laws aren’t codified nor rigidly enforced. The strange, the unusual, the inexplicable can happen at any time, for any or no reason.
A tree can stand for hundreds of years, and one lightning strike be gone in a flash.
It’s how the world evolves, and not all evolution is pretty, nor kind. It is after all for the most part, the strongest survive. The weak disappear. Maybe what makes us human is that we do look out for the small, the infirm, those who are alone and without our consciousness, would disappear.
Without our consciousness, our minds, we’d quickly disappear. I couldn’t live as my tree lives, alone in a field, without shelter, without company for that matter. Very few of us can stand alone in the wild. Where there are no names, no labels, and when you die, you fall to earth and become a part of it, without mourning, without recognition.
Finally I was able to walk up to it. There’s a creek which flows part of the year, and goes beside it. Which is likely the reason it’s survived the axe all these years. It served as an avenue as I walked the final few yards, till I could go right up to it and touch it. It felt alive.
And it feels like a friend. Not a close friend mind you. I’ve told it a few secrets, but nothing truly important. It is after all, just a tree.