Photographic Memory

I took photos on Earth Day. It was sunny in the morning; I turned my face up to the warmth and squinted my eyes half-shut as I walked the length of the parking lot, headed to the sled hill.

There the grass was already thick green plush, shaggy. The wind was blowing cool at the top through leafless trees. Someone was walking their dog along a trail. I left them behind as I descended.

At the foot of the hill I headed over to the swampiness at the edge of the clearing, blooming fervently with the bright yellow of marsh marigolds and the fresh green of skunk cabbage, leaves recently unfurled. Reflections floated in shards of standing water, old vines and branching thickets trailed across my view. I tried to maneuver around the deepest mud, setting up my composition: yellow flowers, green foliage, shining water. And a big black tire, dumped there in the swamp.

Up and down, crouched, on my knees, pushing though the thorny branches—I took a dozen shots. Then I turned to look for the bones Sally found last week: a length of vertebrae, lying in the grass, some ribs arching up; a couple of longer pieces, nearly hidden in the watery tussocks. Probably a deer.

It was a tricky subject, this small collection of bones, lying in a field, the line of trees off in the distance, standing guard. I tried this and that—different angles, a close-up, framed with blades of grass, then pulling back so the animal’s bones were just a small, chalky jumble at the edge of a big, green world.

It got warm down there in the sun, out of the wind. Warm, and beautifully quiet. No traffic, no one yelling for their dogs to heel, early on a Saturday. I took off my hat and stuffed it in my pocket, turned off my camera, capped the lens and began the climb up the hill. I was smiling as I went, thinking of my dad. This was exactly the kind of thing he used to do, and now, I realize, what he taught me to do.

I can remember standing with him, just the two of us, in the dimness of the woods off the trail behind the cottage as he showed me how to use the light meter on his old Leica. Take it off the mount and hold it in front of the lens, he advised, you’ll get a better reading. I have his Leica now. He told me to take it one day, a couple of years before he died, and I remember I couldn’t, just then. The idea made me too sad even though I knew he couldn’t use it anymore. I had discovered some time before that he no longer remembered how it worked, the man who used to open up his cameras to explain their operation to me, the mirrors in an SLR, and how things moved when you clicked the shutter.

Go outdoors, he taught me, by example—to the woods or the swamp; quiet yourself, look around. Take pictures.

My dad’s been gone nearly ten years. Strange, as time passes, how often I suddenly realize I am doing or saying the same things he, or my mom, or my grandparents did. Then it seems to me I can almost feel my ancestors come forward out of the past. I like to believe that they never really leave me, entirely. My dad showed me how to set an f stop, and taught me to hold steady as I squeezed the shutter, but so much more. He walks with me again as I edge the swamp, kneel and raise my camera to my eyes. Peering closer, looking deep.

Musing

I was captured by the Ninth Symphony.

It happened last Thursday night, sitting in the dark of a concert hall. This kind of thing has happened to me before, like the time I saw the film Down from the Mountain and afterward had the feeling I should devote the rest of my life to the preservation of bluegrass. Or the time I woke up to Gerald Finzi’s “Eclogue” on my clock radio. I’d never heard it before, and it seemed like a gift out of nowhere. I can still remember lying in bed in my tiny room in Boston with the yellow-painted walls and the announcer saying, “Every time I hear that piece it makes me want to be a better person.”

Often when I have this kind of experience I think about the piece of music for days. I read about it, try to learn something about the composer, the performers, the history surrounding it—whether early 20th century Appalachia, or 18th century Leipzig. I’ve learned some interesting facts in the course of my obsessions—for instance, that Gerald Finzi and I have the same birthday (although he died in the decade before I was born). That when Johnny Cash’s voice changed and his singing took on the low, resonant tones we know so well, the sound of it moved his mother to tears.

Ultimately, though, I’ve come to realize that none of that information explains why I respond so intensely to a piece of music.

This time the experience was so dramatic that I’ve really had no choice but to think about it. I recognize that one factor is the power of live performance—always more captivating and immediate than listening to a recording (as wonderful as it is, to have recordings to listen to).

And it must be relevant that this time the piece was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—a monumental work, loaded with drama, huge contrasts, big forces (including a choir of more than a hundred voices).

I’ve always loved certain moments in the Ninth—the very beginning, which has such a sense of expansiveness that I picture planets floating in the dark of space, a kind of sublime feeling of contemplating the universe. The opening of the fugue in the second movement—doesn’t everyone love that? It’s so famous that I would guess that pretty much the entire Western world has heard it. The contrast of the slow, tender melody that opens the third movement, and my favorite moment of all: in the fourth movement, when after we’ve heard—twice—a tiny fragment of the “Ode to Joy” theme returning, riding on a pulse in the horns (that pulse always makes me hold my breath), the strings rise and swell like an uplifting of wings and the chorus rushes back in to sing the theme one last time. At Orchestra Hall the other night, the effect was a tsunami of sound.

But my feeble descriptions still can’t explain, fully, what happened to me there. That music, in that hour, cracked me open like an egg.

When it was over and we were all on our feet, clapping and calling out to the roughly two hundred people taking their bows, I was acutely aware that I could have sat down and cried. Sad? No. I wasn’t sad, at all. And as the soloists and the conductor came on and off stage some five times and we kept clapping, I knew the moment was about to arrive when we would leave—but I didn’t want to. I felt bonded to those people, who had done this for me. Reached into my soul and opened it up like—I’m not sure what, but I know as we left I felt dazed, as if after a long time in a dark cave I stood blinking in the sun.

Something has changed, I thought, looking around at the lobby as we left, the people flowing down the stairs and out the doors to the street. Something has changed, I thought, walking into the parking deck which no longer seemed such an ordinary parking deck. It took a while before I realized: What had changed was me.

Of all the arts (and I love them all), music has the greatest power to go straight to our hearts and souls, grab us and shake us in ways that we can barely comprehend. Am I a better person for having attended that concert last Thursday night? I won’t make that claim. But I do see this: My sense of the world, both inside and outside of myself, has grown somehow. And that can only be a good thing.

 

Up and Down

“Downstate,” my neighbor and I say, standing in her vestibule. I’ve politely declined her offer to come in and sit, too much to do. I won’t stay, I tell her. So I stand in my ragged jeans and muddy work shoes, she in her bathrobe. It’s close to noon—but she’s in her 80s and lives alone. Why shouldn’t she be in her pajamas? I think if I were her, I likely would be too.

Downstate. We talk about it almost like it’s another country. It feels that way sometimes, once you’re here, for a while, the wind blowing, combing the shore; water and sand and trees surrounding you even along the highway. “More sticks than you can shake a stick at,” I quipped as we made circles around the cottage, picking up all the branches that came down over the winter. I had a big pile beside the path down to the beach, and we still hadn’t gathered them all.

An entire tree had come down, too; it fell along our property line, lying across the stream that runs there now, in spring. My neighbor mentions this first—she’s been looking at it, of course, from her window and as she walks out to her garage. I tell her I saw it, and Sally and I will cut it up. When things dry out, she says. Then we move on to other topics.

The winter was hard she says, because the weather—temperatures up and down, up and down—really got to her. “You’d think a nice warm day would feel good,” she says. But not when you know it’s not time yet, and the cold sets in again. “I think, winter is winter,” she says. I’m reminded that the seasons happen within us as well as without. “Although I did think, I don’t have to shovel.” She laughs wryly. She looks older than last year. Any kind of winter is long, I guess. But especially one that you can’t recognize.

We hug before I go; I tell her we’ll be back soon and get together for a glass of wine or something. She may be downstate, she says, May is busy. Downstate—that funny word again. Ok, I say. We’ll catch up some time.

After lunch Sally and I investigate the tree. I pick my way over to its stump, on a tiny island in the brook. The furrowed bark shows telltale D-shaped holes, and pulls right off to reveal the looping trails of insects underneath. Emerald ash borer. Just what I expected.

Later when a small plane revs overhead—for already the third time or so, this trip—I wonder about the difference, between downstate, and up north. Does it still exist? It must—there’s the Bay, glimmering in the late afternoon sun, I can see it even from behind the house, through bare spring trees. There’s not much like this, downstate.

And yet…

I am much like my neighbor, who had a hard time recognizing winter this year. I struggle sometimes to recognize this place I’ve known for nearly sixty years. Underneath the noise, despite the traffic: cars, the Fed-Ex truck, private planes. Beach-walkers, back and forth, jet skis, zooming in and out. I have to rearrange pieces of the puzzle—move this over, push that into the background—before I can say, ah, there it is, there’s the familiar picture, the one I know.

Human beings—we can adapt to change, but should we? Should we accept winter that is not winter? Should I embrace this place as it is now—shrinking, in a way? Sometimes I see it as the scene at the wrong end of a telescope: diminished, distant.

I know, though, that my perception can change, in a moment. Like Sunday morning before we left to go back “downstate.” I sat right next to the window at the end of the table, sipping coffee, looking out.  Nothing between me and the outdoors but that single sheet of glass, from which I’d taken the winter shutters a day and a half before.  All was quiet: the green bank of moss (our front “lawn”), the cedar trees, the edge of the forest. Beyond, the beach was empty; the water still, under a gray sky. Overcast but peaceful, at 7 a.m.

I felt as I often do, inside the cottage at the front windows: that I was part of what I was seeing. That all I had to do was reach, a little, and I’d be in that landscape, so close was I, so real was it. And then I saw something moving in the water close to shore, a dark head, too big and too low to be a loon or a merganser. I picked up the binoculars (we often leave them on the table) and looked. A brown, sleek head just above the surface, a long body following. I knew at once: a river otter, swimming up the Bay.

I’d never seen one before, although I remember my parents reporting sightings several years in a row. Come look, I told Sally, and she peered through the binoculars as the otter swam out of sight.

The water rises, river otters appear. Things change, sometimes for ill but now and then, for better. I stood as the otter swam out of view and hoped to see it again.

I stood at the window, and hoped.

 

Invaders

It’s spring, and nearly time to go to the cottage. My thoughts have been turning there; we’ll be going soon. I am eager. And also apprehensive.

Last night I dreamed that I walked along the beach to find not only a long row of houses but shops, right at the water’s edge. Someone was selling pizza from an open doorway while the waves washed up just inches away.

I love pizza, I told someone, but

Later in the dream I rose in the middle of the night to look out the front window and saw coming up the Bay a line of boats, in the moonlight. They had sails up, but I could hear the throttle of their engines and see their wakes, churning furiously as they sped north. There was one person, a single figure, on each of them. Some kind of midnight race…

The dream ended with being lost in a maze of tunnels under the nearby town. Eventually I and my companions found our way out, but when we surfaced we were behind a fence. I saw in the distance an artificial waterfall, a dam, not unlike the one that actually exists at the old hydroelectric plant in town. Beyond it, an array of smokestacks (something which doesn’t exist in the real town), belched smoke into the sky. We were in a strange twilight, a dimness, but it was too early for real night. I thought we could get out if we just hopped the fence—but it looked like we would be plowing through someone’s garden. That was not going to dissuade me. I was desperate.

Soon after, I woke up. And thought: We are the most invasive species.

We hear a lot about invasive species in the Great Lakes region. First zebra then quagga mussels (imports from the Dnieper River and the Black and Caspian Seas) became legendary, for the speed and numbers at which they multiplied and for the critical changes they’ve wrought in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The emerald ash borer has been killing trees in Michigan and spreading out from here for a decade; there are a few dead ash trees on my property up north and we pass whole groves of them on the highway nearby. Asian carp swim in the canals at Chicago and their DNA has been found a mere city block from Lake Michigan. Most Great Lakes residents shudder to think about them. What if they get in? So far, no one’s had the stomach to appropriate the money it will take to effectively keep them out.

We do spend money, every year in Michigan, to neutralize sea lamprey, which overwhelmed the upper Great Lakes back in the 50s, coming in through the Welland Canal. As a result, we and the fish they prey on are relatively untroubled by these parasitic, eel-like creatures. But those measures only came to pass after the lamprey decimated native trout populations, and we replaced them with non-native salmon (a population that is currently plummeting, making some biologists hopeful for the resurgence of native lake trout.)

Everywhere you look, it seems, there is some creature that has come in and upset the ecological balance. And no one more than us.

We brought every one of those invaders into our environment. But even without importing bugs and eels and carp so aggressive they jump out of the water, we do plenty of damage of our own.

My dream last night was about the suburbanization of my neighborhood up north. There’s no pizza hut near me—yet—but I’m confounded by the ever-growing number of gas ‘n go plazas in the little town down the highway. And every year on our road more houses, and bigger, go up. Last year we watched as a massive log house that looked almost big enough to be a hotel was built—on the woods side of the road, without water frontage. My parents used to think no one would build on that side. Too much swamp, and no beach. And then the first house went up…

I haven’t seen any midnight boat races, either; but there’s a daylight event that started a few years ago, a charity race called “Thunder on the Bay.” It involves high-powered motorboats racing at top speed to various points around Grand Traverse Bay. The first time I experienced it, I was on a stepstool, cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. My back to the window, I heard a roar and all the glasses rattled on the shelf. What the hell is that? I wondered. It went on for a good forty-five minutes or so, as I recall.

All of it makes me a little crazy. When I get down to the root of it, I’m afraid. Sometimes I think maybe I just need to chill—calm down some. Yes, the world has changed since I was a kid—especially in my small corner of northern Michigan.

But then again, this is not really the time to chill.

We have a president who wants to eliminate, completely, funding to protect the Great Lakes. We have an administration that appears to be gutting the EPA, the agency charged with protecting everyone’s water, and air, and soil. We have people in power now more than ever who put profits first, and who will not acknowledge that we are changing the very climate of planet Earth by human activity.

I love the northern Great Lakes, and Michigan, my home. I know that there are people all across the country, and all around the world, that have a similar deep affinity for the places they have come up in. And as I dream troubled dreams, of strip malls and smokestacks on the Bay so dear to me, I can only cling to this: Love is an anxious business. But there is no greater force in the universe. Love can do a lot.

Chagrin

It took me a while to come out of the dreamscape this morning. But when I did I was glad to see the light seeping around the edges of the curtains. It was good to be safe and sound, waking up and alive, on a Saturday morning.

I’d been dreaming about being a writer, in a garret in the city. The places I was visiting, trying to find a studio to rent, harked back to some of the apartments of my young adulthood. I didn’t really want to be there. Despite the flowerbeds in the lawn of the art museum (which was huge, in the dream) and the gardeners tossing around a volleyball, the marble balustrades and stairs and statues were crumbling. There was an air of ruin and decay.

Writing, though—that, I was happy about. And waking, I thought: My mother used to think I would be a writer. We argued about so many things, my mother and I, each convinced the other was wrong or at least entrenched in that position, that it would probably give her great satisfaction to see me now, putting pen to paper.

We fought as far back as I can remember. I can’t take much responsibility for the early battles—I was too young. But even after I grew up some we were often at odds, and I always found it hard to give her credit. I did so only grudgingly. I remember thanking my father, personally and specifically, for giving me the experience of the cottage, and for teaching me to use a camera. I don’t remember thanking my mother for exposing me to books. I should have.

The sad truth is that with distance and detachment it is easy to say that I owe to her my long and passionate relationship with books. She read to me and my sister when we were too young to read for ourselves classics from her childhood: Little Women, Hans Brinker, Black Beauty. Early on I grasped the magic that could happen when you opened a book. When we started reading in elementary school, I already knew how.

In the summer Mom took us to the library every week, if we weren’t at the cottage. I joined some kind of club there, got credit for the stacks of books I took home and read. The club seemed peripheral—I was really there for the books.

I’m sure Mom took home her own stack of library books, devoted reader that she was. Mysteries, she loved—especially Agatha Christie, although she never had to take those titles out from the library, she owned them all—mostly in paperback (although once in a while Dad got her the latest hardcover Christie release for her birthday or Christmas.) All of those paperbacks—I didn’t have the heart to toss them, after she died. What she still had filled a paper grocery bag to brimming. I put them up on the Freecycle website, and a young woman came and got them. For her grandmother, she said, who was in bed recuperating from something I don’t recall. My mother would be pleased, I think, that I shared her wealth.

I don’t know exactly why my mom thought, way back when, that I would be a writer. Seems to me that the writing I did in childhood, lots of kids did: poems now and then, song lyrics. I do remember creating outlines for a couple of novels—but I don’t remember showing them to anyone but my best friend in the third grade.

But my mom saw something.

I watched a movie last night in which a woman could see the future, her past, and the present, simultaneously—the totality of time, all at once. In the film, knowledge and connection banish conflict, and language, writing, the symbols drawn on a page, are a bridge.

Do we ever really know our parents? Shrouded in the murky past of our childhood, it can be hard to see them as the human beings they are. And do they know us? Sometimes, it feels like they don’t. Other times, they know more than we are willing to believe.

I’m not sure I would want to see the future entire. But is it possible to know, or at least imagine, a little of what is to be? If we could, maybe we would not spend so much time and energy, fighting, sharpening our knives, and preparing to fight again. Maybe we would try a little harder to connect with the people around us. I think I heard that message in the film I watched last night—and recognized a truth my own life and my mistakes may yet teach me.