I am borrowing from the title of Geraldine Brooks’s novel of the Black Plague, Year of Wonders. It’s been that kind of year, worried about friends and family, seeing people lose their jobs, or risk their lives doing their jobs. Everything is out of balance, even with the ecosystem in our back yard.
It’s also a year that marks the achievement of a lifelong goal. I have finally earned my Ph.D. in English, writing about the connections between American women writers and women photographers in the early twentieth century. One of the women writers I’ve studied is Katherine Anne Porter, who may be one of the few novelists who has included the Spanish Flu of 1918 in her novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, after she, herself, barely survived that plague. Lit Hub even features a short video clip from 1973 featuring an 83-year-old Porter describing her experience.
We can or will eventually relate to her words at the end of Pale Horse, Pale Rider: “[N]o more plague, only the dazed silence…noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow.”
Since Joe’s working from home during the Covid-19 quarantine and I’m in the last stages of completing my Ph.D., he and I decided to expand our backyard potted garden. There’s immense satisfaction in growing your own food, and it’s also a huge responsibility to be conscious stewards of an ecosystem that you’ve established. We appreciate the balance that is sometimes very tricky to maintain. Insects start eating leaves, but the birds pick through the herbs to forage for a meal of grubs or caterpillars. They did this often when they were feeding a nest of youngsters. The lizards eat excess insects. Spiders set up webs and feed off various garden pests. But we’ve also had to wrestle with leaf miners, who decimate the foliage on our cucumber plants. We wrapped the concord grapevine with bird netting, but that meant they couldn’t pick off the borer that’s now attacking the grapevine. And let me tell you all about fungus….black fungus, powdery white fungus, rusty-looking fungus. Basil leaves can get fungus. Who knew? But then you get a bowlful of beautiful vegetables like these bell peppers, and how could I disrespect such a vibrant green by shooting them in black and white.
I can’t escape the irony that on this anniversary of Earth Day, humankind is forced to retreat indoors because of a raging virus and we must leave the natural world to nature. As a result, the air has become cleaner, the water clearer, the animals free and unharassed. I embrace nature as it exists in my back yard, feeding the birds, rescuing honey bees that fall into the birdbath, breathing in the plants, the vegetables and the herbs growing in pots all around our patio. And I turn to poets who have deep roots in nature, like Wendell Berry:
Mama Bird, Baby Bird
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets
Our worlds have shrunk, have concentrated, making us focus on what is immediately around us. For my husband and I, we were fortunate to plant our potted garden in the back yard before we all had to retreat into our homes. Those plants, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas have become our sanctuary. I’m also taking shelter in poetry and poets.org is offering to mail you a poem a day during April to celebrate Poetry Month, and they also offer Shelter In Poems: “This National Poetry Month, we ask our readers to share a poem that helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy, and a few words about how or why it does so.”
This particular poem was emailed to me today, “The Way We Love Something Small,” by Kimberly Blaeser. This poem resonates with me, even more so now as my photography often focuses on small things because it has been my experience, like Blaeser claims, that using one’s camera, like writing poems, is an “act of attention.” And these are the things that save us. These small things have always saved me, having the power to change me.
The Way We Love Something Small
The translucent claws of newborn mice
this pearl cast of color,
the barely perceptible
like a ghosted threshold of being:
here not here.
The single breath we hold
on the thinnest verge of sight:
not there there.
A curve nearly naked
an arc of almost,
a wisp of becoming
tiny enough to change me.
While leafing through a recent book on still lifes by The Getty’s Paul Martineau, Still Life in Photography, I discovered a couple photographs that made me realize I had an unknown connection to certain photographers whose work I admire but never saw these specific images. I have purposely created images that are homages to favorite photographers, but there are also images that I’ve created, not knowing that they echo an image created long before mine. Such is the case with André Kertész’s image of a drooping tulip.
Melancholic Tulip, André Kertész
My Broken Tulip was created because of the way the morning light hit this unfortunate bloom. The way the light hits a certain object often stops me in my tracks and I run to get my camera. Such was the case with this particular tulip that was long past its prime.
The Broken Tulip
The same is true of an image created by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, another photographer whose work (along with the work of his wife, Lola), I greatly admire. Books, however, have been
Libros, Manuel Álvarez Bravo
a frequent subject in my photographs since I am always surrounded by stacks of them, so it’s not unlikely that I would create a similar image. There are other photographers who photograph books beautifully as well (Morrell, Mansfield), even as they decay (Purcell).
Martineau claims, “The revival of interest in the genre at the dawn of the twenty-first century comes as the digital age is transforming the medium.” My own still lifes feel less transformative, but rather contemplative, leaning back on those from whom I have, knowingly or unknowingly, drawn inspiration.
“I…relish the aesthetic challenge posed by the limitations of the ordinary.” Sally Mann
Lily in a Basket
Sometimes the miracle of new life comes with fur and purrs when you hold her. Sometimes that’s enough.