In what respect are the small hours small, I wonder? You can lie half-asleep and listen to the wall clock clucking its tongue, the refrigerator humming, the furnace shaking itself awake under the floor. It’s only when you get up and switch on the light that things retreat into themselves, the ordinary smallness that carries us through the day.
Last night, though, the small hours were measured in falling flakes. Just before I went to bed, I switched on the spotlight above the porch so I could take a picture of the snow falling out of a black sky. Even after all these years out of school, this sight, with its promise of a temporary reprieve, still turns me on.
The day before yesterday I mentioned Hank Green’s essay at Wild Thoughts, where he talks about the typical friendly greeting given by a gray wolf: it licks you on the teeth. Yesterday, Hoarded Ordinaries posted a photo of Yours Truly initiating friendly contact in a similar manner. But that’s far from the only reason to read that post. The theme of meta-photography and self-reflexivity is of great interest to me, and I was struck by the very real possibility that, by not carrying a camera, I missed an entire dimension of the Central Park milieu last Saturday.
I have been reading blogs with photos for as long as I’ve been reading blogs, but I guess I never realized how compatible the two activities are – instant photography and instant publishing. With the expense and hassle of developing film out of the way, even a lazy schmuck like me can enjoy trying to capture a bit of what I see. But will the camera lead me to see differently? If so, is that a bad thing? Will it hurt my writing?
Snow was on the ground and in the air when I went out yesterday afternoon. I left the trail and right away things got interesting. The bole of a hundred-year-old oak sprouted barbed wire, and I shuffled back and forth with the camera trying to get a good shot. The batteries were low. When I turned back around, something flew up from the laurel bush right beside me and landed on a tree branch a hundred feet away: a gray-phase screech owl. I barely had time to i.d. it before it flew back in my direction and dove into a hole fifty feet up a half-dead tree. I walked over and knocked on the bark, having read once that this can sometimes make an owl poke its head out. It didn’t. I stepped back to take a picture of the tree, which stands a few feet over the line onto our neighbor’s clearcut property, but the camera refused to take one more shot. I didn’t really mind, though. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t been in search of photos, I probably never would have gone off-trail.
At sunrise this morning I’m out again, camera in pocket. Snow is still gently falling, though the sky is half clear. In total, I think this storm has given us a good eight inches of fresh powder, just wet enough to cling to the smaller branches. The hours after a fresh snowfall, before wind and sun conspire to wipe the branches clean, are precious to me. It’s the only time between late October and early May when the woods resemble the ideal forest of my imagination, a labyrinth of lights and shadows, as teeming a profusion for the unaided eye as it would always present for the hand lens or the microscope.
I’m in search of tree beings for a Flickr album I’m planning, probably to be titled “Anthropology of Trees.” But I’m not averse to a few scenic vistas. Just as I reach the good view spot on Laurel Ridge Trail, a deer runs off, a pileated woodpecker flies from a nearby tree, and a hen turkey starts calling a few hundred yards away. Sometimes even the megafauna teems.
For the first half-hour this morning, my fingers freeze up every time I take my gloves off to snap a picture, and I have to walk as quickly as possible to keep my toes warm. Fingers and toes: that’s the mental image I get when I hear the word digital. The extremities – or most of them, anyway. I like the Mayan concept of humans as vigesimal beings – that our digits give birth to numbers that didn’t exist before we did. Anything to avoid the abyss of abstraction, I think. Can we include the other extremities in this accounting? The round head – shaved or otherwise – could stand for zero, then, and the male sex for infinity – or at least billyuns and billyuns. Little head, big head, a.k.a. forever and a day: this is that day, son, or it might as well be. It’s all in your head, as my friend Crazy Dave likes to say, but that’s where it counts.
That’s where we count, at any rate. Our necromancers have converted both sound and image into digital format, swapping homunculus for DNA, so to speak – analog for code. There’s even serious discussion now of making hand-held meters for retail taxonomy, like check-out scanners, identifying unknown life forms by reading some portion of their DNA. “Would you like paper or plastic? Thank you for shopping at Earth-Mart!” Excuse me while I go blaugg . . .
How many digits does a tree have? The sky’s the limit. Trees have a way of reminding us who we are – even if the fuckers never hug back. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, says the actress in the most-hated commercial ever. But for lusty braggadocio, I think I prefer goofy pop songs. Because, you know, sometimes I am too sexy for my clothes. Let’s get digital, baby, I said as I put my finger over the shutter. I’m plenty warm now. Small wonder!