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According to European-Western tradition, there are four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west; and we mark them on a map by making the sign of a cross: north, south, east and west. Dominus Vobiscum. But Western culture tends to value a map rather more than the ground under your feet. If we take a larger view of it all, we should acknowledge two more cardinal directions: up and down. We live in three dimensions, not two. A map is only a diagram. Et cum spiritu tuo.

And when we make images — photographs, drawings, paintings — we tend to look along the flat plane of our cardinal directions, which means also, the plane of our standing vision. And if we photograph flowers, we tend to make our images like the identification photos in a nature guidebook. We look at them as if they were as tall as us, or we as ground-hugging as them. 

The bias is to ignore the sky above, the mud below. I spent some hours yesterday attempting to break my own tendencies and see if a shift in perspective might give me a fresher look at the garden. And so, I made a series of photographs pointing the camera straight down at the flowers from the top. 

The first image I made, when I put it up on my screen, reminded me of something. It took a moment, but then I had it: the Pleiades — the Seven Sisters in the night sky in the constellation Taurus. Here are the flowers:

Here are the Pleiades:

Looking down in the day was a mirror of looking up at night. Bunches of flowers, especially roadside wildflowers, often remind us of stars in the night sky. It’s why we name them cosmos, stellas and asters. 

Certainly the flower that has meant the most to me, emotionally, through my life is the aster, named for the stars. I remember a day, some 40 years ago, driving with my then-soulmate (is there a sadder hyphenated word in the language?) near Port Jervis, N.Y., and coming across an abandoned field, maybe a couple of football fields in extent, that was crammed with asters, thistles and ironweed, so thick on the ground there was barely any green showing through. It was hysterical with blue, and I thought it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Since then, I have sought any semblance of that abundance. I’m not sure a single life affords more than one of those moments. 

And so, I am walking through my sister-in-law’s garden in North Carolina and holding my camera flat parallel to the ground to see what these flower-stars look like from an angle we don’t normally see — or at least, think of them. 

Over and over the star analogy shown through. Constellations of yellow or white against a sky of green. 

Even the leaves themselves can be stars:

Patterns made: line-ups, triangles, squares, quincunx, spatters and grids. 

There is a Medieval trope that everything in Heaven finds its analog in the sublunary world (much like the Renaissance idea that everything in the world is mirrored internally in the mind). And I certainly felt that correspondence strongly while finding my floral models to photograph. 

It was the looking down that made the connection, the opposite of the looking upwards at the night sky. But looking down — straight down, if I could avoid my own clumsy feet — gave me more than that. I found that I was photographing more than calyx and petal, but discovering just how many distinct greens nature blares forth. 

Historically, painters had a limited number of pigments to use when painting leaves and trees. They could modulate those hues with the admixture of others, but there was a limit. The trees of Claude or Titian are mostly monophonic rather than stereo. The artist who freed green from those confines was Paul Cezanne, whose paintings contain more greens and more blues than any artist before or since. His eye for tint and shade was phenomenal. I remember when I first came to appreciate the work of Cezanne. I had seen his paintings only in reproduction and always thought of them as rather dull, even muddy. But visiting the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., I found a wall of the still lifes and was knocked out by the glowing depth of color: color I had never experienced except under the influence of herbs. But those chemical-induced colors were vaporous compared with the earthiness of Cezanne’s greens, blues and yellows. 

And so, there I was, camera in hand, looking earthward and seeing the exuberance of May in Piedmont, North Carolina, and the blistering variety of green that sprouts from the ground.

I walked around the property, head held downward, and finding such a joyous variety under my feet, that I wound up, in the space of under an hour, taking at least 100 usable photographs — images I would be proud or eager to share with the enthusiasm of a convert. The greens made patterns; the blossoms made patterns; the leaves were shapes to pleasure in; the colors were delicious. 

The esthetic sense, however, awakens an awareness of yet a seventh cardinal direction, which we might call “center.” It is the inward direction that is privy to the other six and gives them meaning and purpose. North, south, east, west, up, down, and in. Each in some way a reflection of all the others.

I have traveled much in each of the cardinal directions, north to the Canadian arctic, south to the Cape of Good Hope, eastward to Europe and finally, the Pacific coast. I have gone up in aeroplanes  and cathedral bell towers, and down in chthonic mine shafts and vast caverns, but most of all, I have gone inside of myself. The experience of nature — but also the making and partaking of art — expand the inner world, adding continents to the mental globe, possibilities of understanding, and depths of compassion. 

Looking down at the humble soil and its profuse variety keeps one from becoming tired of life. Paying attention is, in some ways, coequal with life itself.

Next — perhaps in tomorrow’s rain — I will extend my interior travels by looking straight up to see what is there.

Click on any image to enlarge

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

There are books that give us pleasure in the reading, books that inform us, books we are required to read, and there are books that become so internalized, they essentially shape the course of our lives. We can probably all name such books for ourselves. I made a list, maybe 15 years ago, in a moment of quo vadis self reflection, of those books that have most shaped who I am. I stopped listing after 50 books. Since I made the list, I could add several more; after all, I keep reading.

Pageant of Life

Pageant of Life

Of course, it is the earliest reading that had the most influence — as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Even the best of the more recent books cannot have influenced me even a percentage of how much I was shaped by, say, the Life magazine book, The World We Live In, which my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, and which left me wide-eyed at the wonder and diversity of nature  — volcanoes, blue whales, dinosaurs, jellyfish, rainforests, barchan sand dunes. I wear the badge of that book in my deepest heart’s core. It is the holy of holies.

But what caught my attention as I reread my old list, was that it continued to include lists of other things that shaped who I have become: music that influenced my developing psyche; art (that I saw in person, not just in books); movies; TV shows; — and last on the list of lists —  landscapes.

We don’t often think of how deeply landscape affects us, guides the direction of our lives — but how different might be the novels written by Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving, or Mark Twain if those authors had lived elsewhere and seen different rivers, different mountains, different forests. I think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is practically a landscape — a cityscape — spread into lines of type.

Back Bay, Va.

Back Bay, Va.

Joyce had Dublin; Thomas Wolfe had Asheville, N.C., where my wife and I now live. Recently, I opened the first pages of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and read his description of Oliver Gant’s trip to western North Carolina. At one point, he describes a trip up the face of the Blue Ridge from “Old Stockade” to “Altamont” — thinly disguised versions of Old Fort and Asheville —  and as I read it, I knew that landscape — I knew that gravel road; I’ve driven it myself just last month. It’s still gravel and few cars venture it as it wanders and loops through the trees and snakes up the mountain. The interstate long ago made the trip faster and easier. But freeways are boring. As the old road loops and hairpins its way, you can frequently spy the railroad line as it winds its way uphill. That railroad was just being built as Wolfe wrote about it but even now, it  passes just under the hill where I live, and hear the locomotive whistle blow every night. It is uncanny to read about something fictionalized that you know as real.

But, in a sense, all the landscapes that are buried in the psyche are fictionalized: They have been transformed from mere fact into meaning. They are now metaphor and their existence takes on a reality that is imaginative rather than quotidian. It is imprinted as deeply as the smells of childhood, a mother’s kisses, the woodgrain of the school desk scratched with initials and scribbles.

Hudson River, West Point

Hudson River, West Point

Dunderberg

Dunderberg

My own internal landscape begins as I do, in New Jersey and New York, with the Hudson River running through it and the Catskills bumping one bank and the Taconics the other. The automobile drive around the dizzying Dunderberg north of Tomkins Bay was a white-knuckle ride when I was young, the three-lane highway incised into the edge of the cliff. My father hated that part of the drive; we kids loved it. The “mothball fleet” of rusting liberty ships off Jones Point was a living link to the war my father had returned from only a few years before. There was Bear Mountain, with its ski jump and the suspension bridge over the Hudson; there was Seven Lakes Drive through Harriman State Park, all trees and granite; there was the Red Apple Rest and its billboards on the highway.Bear Mountain Bridge for blog copy

I don’t know why, but the suburban life I lived in Bergen County barely registered as landscape. The housing developments and county roads never embossed themselves on my synapses in any significant way. But the summer vacation trips we took up the Hudson to Newburgh, NY, and to the “bungalow” that was my father’s family summer cottage in West Park burned themselves deeply into my awareness of the world. The Hudson River was the aorta that pumped the lifeblood of my awareness of the larger world.

Deep River, NC

Deep River, NC

So, when I moved to North Carolina and college, I was amused at the Tar River or the Deep River. They weren’t rivers. The Hudson was a river. Guilford County’s Deep River was a wet gully. I could have jumped across it.

I have lived many places, and in many landscapes, but they haven’t all dug wormholes into my psyche. I’ve traveled to every continental state of the union — most several times. When Hank Snow sings, “I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere,” I can honestly say that I have been to the places he names in the song: “Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond Du Lac … Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravellburg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado, Larrimore, Atmore, Haverstraw” … the song goes on.

And all those places have landscapes that accompany them, the way a song accompanies each Fred Astaire dance number. They are there in the memory. But not all of them have transformed from geography to mythology. There are moments in life when you are particularly open, when your very skin seems adhesive to experience. It is like that when you are a child, but it also happens when you go through some life altering change, a first divorce, or a move across country, a close call, the birth of a child, or a new job. The rind of the psyche gets pulped, and becomes a place for a mythic sense of life to become rooted.

At vulnerable moments in the course of living, the world takes on an extra glow, a mythic noumenon and becomes fixed in the synapses as something larger than itself. The landscape thus internalized becomes an emotional nexus, a place where complex thoughts and feelings can be induced merely by seeing an image of that landscape, or reading an evocative description, perhaps even hearing a certain piece of music.

Mendocino County, Calif.

Mendocino County, Calif.

And so, these landscapes can influence the way you see the world. If you live by the river, you become Twain, if you live by the sea, you become Sarah Orne Jewett, if you live in Manhattan, you become Woody Allen — and all you write takes on the world view the land provides. Think of Faulkner and the red clay, of Hemingway and Michigan, of Henry Miller and Brooklyn (I know Paris comes first to mind, but it is the Brooklyn of the Rosy Crucifixion where you see the real Miller world view).

And so, when a seven-year relationship was breaking down in suspicion and acrimony, we took a trip up through Pennsylvania and the Delaware River to try to make things right. The heart was a sodden wet rag, and one chill fall morning at Port Jervis, the sun rose over a field by a railroad roundhouse that was choked with more wildflowers than I have ever seen before: yarrow, aster, ironweed, joe pye weed, mullein, sunflower, black-eyed susan, queen-anne’s lace. It burned into me, and is still there as a kind of metaphor for the infinite sadness of paradise.

Watauga County, NC

Watauga County, NC

Years later, when I first came to live with the woman who has been my wife for the past 30 years, our house was on a ridge overlooking the New River in the Blue Ridge, and the landscape of rolling mountains and hills, divided between pastures and forest, coves and hollows, whitewashed churches and unpainted barns, took on that numinous glow. It is why we have moved back to the mountains, although the same landscape has now quieted down into comfortable daily life.

Hatteras

Hatteras

When I first entered college, and the intellectual world gaped open for me, I traveled several times with my friend Alexander to the Outer Banks. The sea oats and dunes, the long beach, Hatteras point — climbing illegally to the top of the lighthouse at night under a blanket of stars, feeling the steady wind on my cheeks, the smell of salt in the air — so that coming back to the dorm and  listening to Debussy’s La Mer on the tiny Sears Silvertone portable phonograph, sealed the experience into the brain like a mordant fixes dye in a fabric.

In the years I was unemployed and nearly homeless, I traveled back to New Jersey with my brother for Christmas. On the way back South, we drove through West Virginia, where he had friends, and we spent New Years Day on the top of a mountain. Before dawn, I woke and dressed and went out into the biting cold, where the grass was brittle with frost and my breath clouded in front of me and I surveyed the Cumberland Plateau, bumpy with mountains, spread out to the horizon. I felt lost and alone in all that frozen landscape.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

The opposite emotions were engaged the first time my wife and I drove out West, in 1980, and the first time we saw buttes and mesas. The land seemed even more expansive than the West Virginia mountains, but they seemed to offer unlimited potential. The air was clear; you could see mountain ranges a hundred miles away. Over the quarter-century we lived in the West, there were many such landscapes printed on my psyche, from Christmas in the snow in Walpi, on First Mesa, spent with a Hopi family; to driving across the Escalante National Monument alone; to spending the night camping north of the Grand Canyon in a forsaken part of the Arizona Strip, one of the least populated plots of land in the country.

Landscape functions not merely as a stage set, a backdrop of other memorable occurrences, but for themselves alone, as metaphor, as an image of the inside state of one’s emotions and mind. It can be as if the landscape were not injected into your mind through your eyes, but rather, projected outward upon existence from the deepest recesses of your mind. If you were to enter my skull and photograph what you found, it would be landscape.

Big Bend NP, Texas

Big Bend NP, Texas

From my list, other landscapes you will find inside my head include the Olympic Mountains in Washington; Schoodic Point in Maine; Big Bend National Park in Texas; the sea-swell grasslands of eastern Montana that I rode past on the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle; driving by night through the Big Sur in California; and Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., which I have circumambulated half a dozen times.

I do not know if it is rare — I have not asked many people — but many of the dreams I manage to remember as I wake up, are dreams consisting purely of landscape, often highly imaginary, exaggerated like the Andes of Frederick Church. It is the space in these dreams that seems to carry meaning, the emptiness from the spot where I stand to the thing I see before me: In between is air, and the air has shape and meaning.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

The best landscape painting and photography functions not as a record of the topography, but rather as an image of the interior state, vast and romantic, like Ansel Adams’ Yosemite in a winter storm, or Thomas Cole’s Crawford Notch. O blow you cataracts and hurricanoes, in the scumble of Turner, or cooly glow on the horizon, like the misty suns of Claude Lorrain, or the chessboard order of Canaletto.

 

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

 

Skull Island

Skull Island

When I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7, I first watched King Kong on TV, and what has stuck from then to now is the steamy, vine-clogged, rocky-cliffed landscape of Skull Island. That skull is mine, seen from the inside out.

If you want to shake the world out and make it larger again, get up at 3 in the morning and drive across the flatness of Indiana and Illinois. It is dark, the stars are thick as the July humidity. And the world seems quiet, empty and stretched once more to full size.

The sky grows upward as the stars populate it, lightyears away. Not only is the earth big, but you can see that you are a pebble at the bottom of a very deep universe.

You drive alone for miles and the only thing you see is distant headlights, like fireflies, flitting along the horizon line that shows up as the boundary between two different shades of black.

One set of headlights gets closer. You recognize a kindred spirit, someone else is driving in the lonely, vacant night. You wait a very long time for the lights to draw close. They are still miles away.

As the car gets nearer and dims its headlights — that salute of recognition in the dark — you see that it is the God of the Nighttime Highway, whose eyes are headlights and whose halogen gaze keeps the world from disappearing when everyone else is asleep.

And he passes and you drop once more into the large darkness.

Click on any image to enlarge

Baldwin County, Ala.

Baldwin County, Ala.

wildflowers copy

Sometimes, it’s not just where you take a trip, but when.

You can be too young to appreciate something or too old to partake.

When I was young, I loved the spring flowers, from the first jonquils that burst through the last snow on the lawn, to the wake robin in the woods. Nothing could compare with the speckled salmon color of the pinxter flower hanging over the stream, dripping dew in the early morning from the long, bowed tongues of its stamens.

All up and down the East Coast, the bright red stars of fire pinks grew along paths and blue spiderwort grew under the shade of trees. When they came out, the Eastern Seaboard seemed to be waking from its frozen sleep and taking its first deep stretches of the year.

After that, the seasons seemed anticlimactic. Summer was when leaves were turned to dry Swiss cheese by hungry insects. Fall was when those leaves dried out completely and fell off. Back then, I didn’t trust anyone over 30, either.

But a single road trip through northwestern New Jersey changed that for me. As I drove up the Delaware River in October from Philadelphia, north past the Water Gap and into the Kittatinny Mountains, every field was a paint box.

There had been a death in my family, and I had just gone through a divorce. After the formalities, I drove along the river, looking for some quiet.

In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad, shallow, stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns.

The Kittatinnies are not much in the way of mountains, either.

But along the roadsides, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed.

There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grown-up.

Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed as I drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard was grown over in asters.

There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and chicory left over from midsummer.

And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seed pods; milkweed down and nightshade berries.

There was yet no frost in the air, but you could see it coming in the overgrown fields that grind in the breeze with the peculiar sound of weeds.

I am now 64 and this is not a story about flowers.