The place was an island of wildness in all the surrounding sea of domesticity. I approached it on foot. —Paul Gruchow from Journal of a Prairie Year (1985)
Each day we are given a world to be in, to enjoy, to be opened by and grounded in. —Gunilla Norris from Simple Way (2008)
In the late fall of 2011, I published my initial photographic essay titled Patterns, which contained seventeen pictures taken during the summer and fall of that year. They depicted various features in two natural areas within biking distance of my home, Gervais Mill Park and John Allison Forest, to which I went often during that period. I also included in that essay selected texts from writings by four of my favorite nature authors.
This winter of 2013 was a good one for cross-country skiing. Accordingly, I made a number of excursions to ski at another natural area near by house, Vadnais-Snail Lakes Regional Park. The portion of this park where the ski trail is located consists of about 260 acres of oak woods and grasslands, plus a shallow lake and associated wetlands.
The weather during my ski outings varied greatly—from snowing to overcast to bright, blue skies. I also went on several occasions to experience late-afternoon winter “alpenglow” light effects, which were among my most memorable moments. All of the photographs in this essay were taken with a simple cell-phone camera. During each skiing venture, I was diligent to watch for and photograph unique, yet relatively unremarkable or obscure natural features–a single oak leaf lying in the snow, a group of cattails waving in the marsh, a grove of aspen trees.
As the photographs of the essay came together, I realized that I had used compositional elements reminiscent of those employed by three nature photographers of my past—Nadine Blacklock, Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams—whose work I have greatly admired. I regard them among the most significant artists who have influenced my own photographic sensitivities. I’ve included here several examples of their pictures along with my own. You can judge for yourself how I have been affected by them.
Finally, I have chosen once again to include texts from three writers whose work I like–Paul Gruchow, Gunilla Norris and Henry David Thoreau. I trust that the words and photographs in this essay might help you, the reader, to find meaning and beauty in the ordinary aspects of your daily living. In the words of Gunilla Norris, may these pictures and texts offer you glimpses of “…a world to be in, to enjoy, to be opened by and grounded in.“
I am older by minutes, days, years. More sadness, more happiness, more life has taken root in me. —Nadine Blacklock from 15 Years In a Photographer’s Life (1997)
Photographer Nadine Blacklock first became known to me through her photographic memoir published in 1997. I was drawn to the book through a review I’d read in the newspaper, and after I acquired my copy I couldn’t put it down. I have a fondness for the nature photography of a number of other artists—Ansel Adams, Craig Blacklock, Jim Brandenburg, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Cole Weston, Edward Weston, and Cedric Wright to name a few—but none comes to me more strongly than Nadine’s work. Perhaps her photo titled “Bur oak at Welch, Minnesota” affects me deeper than any other. It depicts a lone bur oak tree in winter situated on a snow-draped hillside. It resembles a number of the isolated large oak trees I saw during my skiing ventures through the snowy landscapes around Grass Lake.
I’m sad to say that Nadine died in an automobile accident at just forty-five years of age in 1998—just a year after her book was published. After her death, I bought a signed poster of one of her photos titled “Curtain Falls” and had it framed. It is now in my writing space where it—and her signature—offer a presence that continues to inspire me.
Grass Lake was identified in some of the earliest maps drawn of my area of Minnesota. I often wonder how it got its name. Perhaps it was a translation of whatever name the Indians had for the lake. If so, I like to think that maybe this lake once supported a stand of wild rice plants, which was one of the major foods of the original people in this area. In recent years, Grass Lake has almost ceased to be a lake at all. Below average precipitation has caused it to become almost completely dry in parts of the lake bed.
A major freeway also passes just south of the lake and undoubtedly has detrimentally affected the flow of water through that area, and possibly contributed to the lake’s degraded condition. As I skied on the trail that circles the north and east sides of the lake, it was impossible for me to be unaware of this highway, both by sight and sound. However, this area is also slowly being restored to more closely approximate the original vegetation of this area before settlement—a mixed cattail marsh, an oak savanna, and a shrub swamp. This project is working to also develop habitat for the endangered Blanding’s turtle, as well as for red-shouldered hawks.
The winter sky is the plain and homely sister of the skies… —Paul Gruchow (1985)
I look upon the lingering gray of
winter undefined sky, stark limbs and lifeless
leaves, a scene of somber sameness, stillness
and chill. Life is sometimes like that
bleached by the gray-wash of a long,
cold winter. Yet into such times come shafts
of afternoon light bringing
warmth, anticipation and renewal. Geese rising
from a marsh, a cardinal punctuating the
silence. The sky takes on a tinge of
blue; even the dry leaves
glow richly in the low-angle radiance.
Everything is so much more coming
through gray. —Steve Robert Simmons (1990)
…the only remark of nature is its silence, but that is not because the world around us has nothing to say. It is because we come unequipped with ears to hear. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
When I was just twenty-two years old, in 1969, I bought a book published by The Sierra Club. It was titled In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World, and it featured photographs by Eliot Porter. I had never heard of Porter or seen his pictures before—and didn’t even consider myself much of a photographer then either. Yet as with the book by Nadine Blacklock that came to me almost thirty years later, Eliot Porter’s work captured my photographic imagination like few others. Through his pictures, I began understanding the beauty that is found in the ordinary niches of nature. In more recent years, I have tried to emulate Porter’s sensitivities to such natural beauty—and some of the photographs I took at Grass Lake during the winter of 2013 are a case in point.
…where the grasses still stood, the landscape was covered with a soft loose blanket of
snow. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
…therefore I come out to these solitudes, where the problem of existence is simplified. I get away a mile or two from the town into the stillness and solitude of nature, with trees, weeds, snow about me…it is as if I had come to an open window.
—Henry David Thoreau (1857)
Help me to treasure this moment which always returns me, now and at the end, to
You. —Gunilla Norris from Being Home (1991)
Now it was high winter, and I was wandering again. The landscape was as clean and spare as any the prairie winter offers…The wind had piled the snow in waves and scalloped them to look like the beached and empty shells of sea creatures. The waves of the lake itself had been caught and frozen in midair. Here not only sound but motion had been suspended. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
I am smelling winter…cold wet earth and something astringently joyous. I am feeling winter. It is a blue cold, a happy crackling cold, a shouting cold. I am…wakened… gladdened. Please open me to the joy that is always right here, beyond thought.
—Gunilla Norris from Being Home (1991)
Photographer Ansel Adams needs no introduction, even to non-photographers; his black-and-white images are iconic. I first encountered his work through that same Sierra Club book series that introduced me to Eliot Porter. I now own more books about Adam’s photography than any other. It’s not possible for me to single out a favorite photograph of Ansel Adams, but I do have a strong affinity for two that he published of aspen trees. Growing up in Indiana, I had little first-hand acquaintance with aspens since they don’t grow naturally in the area of the state where I lived. I can only recall them from the trip I took with my aunt to the Black Hills of South Dakota when I was twelve years old. I don’t recall taking any pictures of the quaking aspens I saw then, but I do remember being impressed by them.
Now, I would list aspens as among my favorites of the native trees that grow in Minnesota. A large number of them grow in areas of Vadnais-Snail Lakes Regional Park. One grove of aspen in particular was impressive to me during my skiing excursions during the winter of 2013. I thought of Ansel Adams often as I made photos of this aspen grove under various lighting conditions. I sensed his presence as I framed and exposed each picture, and as I later processed some into black-and-white images to resemble his. In a sense, I felt I was standing on the shoulders of the Master as I took those photos.
…a clear, bright calm had descended and had covered everything with its sweet
peace. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
The winter sky does, however, have its moments…When the winter sky puts on that face, the only possible response is to keep silent, as before any many-splendored
thing. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
This is what I go out to seek. It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked
with him. —Henry David Thoreau (1857)
The sun came down a little, and the sky began to color. The shadows grew long and
sharp. —Paul Gruchow (1985)
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.