The camera and the blue guitar

 

 

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

—Wallace Stevens

Hiking up Mt Inari through a veritable tunnel consisting of thousands of vermillion Torii gates is one of the quintessential experiences of a visit to Kyoto Japan. As a Shinto shrine, Fushimi Inari is a spiritual celebration of Japanese history and natural beauty. It is an extraordinary site that should bring great joy and peace to any visitor.

While making my way up the mountain through the shimmering shrine, too many of the faces I encountered were not joyful but rather disappointed or even mildly angry. It’s easy to imagine an occasional grimace from the steep climb. But, who would guess that such a sublime location would cause so much obvious unease and irritation?

The problem, you see, is the camera—whether traditional or part of a smart phone. Everyone wants to take the perfect photo of a serenely empty lacquered passage or—better yet— a perfectly orange-red framed selfie or smiling family portrait. Every time you get to the top of a pitch or turn through a slight curve or corner, you are met with a dozen scowls reflected on the faces of people whose perfectly composed photos you just utterly destroyed. Time after time, the way is blocked by photographers shooting photo after photo in vain attempts to get tired kids to smile.

As I proceeded along the steep passageways, I found that verses from Wallace Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar became stuck in my head like an earworm. My brain had subconsciously made the connection between the blue guitar and a camera.

Substituting ‘camera’ for ‘blue guitar’ begs the question: how does the presence of a camera change not just our perception of the world but the actual world, itself?

A camera has the power to transform the sublime to the ridiculous or the ridiculous to the sublime.

With the right shot, we can change a bustling crowd into a solitary experience in the photos we use to brag about our travels to friends and colleagues. Our children are never crying, our spouses never irritated, our wrong side never exposed. There are no telephone lines, no peeling paint (unless it’s artistic), and no dead branches.

A good (or lucky) photographer can transform a fleeting shadow or a crack in a sidewalk or an unwelcome wrinkle into a work of art.

With a camera, we can lock in memories of a glowing bride or a child’s first step to help us make it through later moments of conflict or worry.

Years ago, I had a photographer friend who insisted I should never bother him when he was taking a photo. Hiking in the wilderness of the North Cascades, I once tapped him gently on the elbow while he was setting up his tripod. He brusquely shoved my hand away. After finishing his photo shoot, he angrily asked what possibly could have been important enough to bother him. Imagine his expression when I replied that I just thought he would have wanted to see the mountain lion that was walking on the trail below us.

I was totally mortified when a colleague told me he could hear my camera snapping away as I photographed a school play. While my intent was good—to put together a photo book for a school fundraiser—I had unknowingly caused a minor disturbance through the whole first act. Yikes!

I have read that cameras are causing young people to not actually look at the world around them. My own experience is that carrying a camera often causes me to stop and look at things more carefully. My zoom lens has helped me see things I never would have seen with my ‘naked’ eyes, from birds in flight to baby monkeys in a tree to sail boats on the horizon. Sometimes, I’ve missed seeing interesting things until I later found them in a photo.

Carrying a camera can alter how people perceive and act towards you. To a kid on vacation, a camera can change a beloved parent into a slavering troll. Walking down an alleyway in Kurashiki, I was stopped by an old guy loudly scolding ‘no shoot a lot.’ Gees, I was only checking google maps. I’m not sure there was anything in the alley ‘worth’ taking a picture of, anyways. To him, apparently, there was.

There are few things that can bring a smile to a parent’s face or make an instant friend at a tourist attraction like offering to take a photo of a family. I carry hand sanitizer for that express purpose. Although, I once encountered a young couple that thought I wanted to steal their cell phone when I offered to take their picture. Like they couldn’t easily outrun a little old lady.

How many times have I stopped and waited or taken a circuitous path to avoid ruining someone’s photo? How many times have I gone places just because I saw a picture and wanted to take one like it?

I’ve made friends through photographs. When I got to the top of the Inari shrine trek, I saw two young guys clowning around and asked if I could take their photo. Winds up they were from South Africa and more than happy to share an hour of conversation with a solo traveler from the other side of the globe. I got an insider’s view of Capetown from the top of a Japanese peak.

Sometimes, the presence of a camera has brought out a self righteous or holier than thou streak I’d prefer not to acknowledge. Like when the fellow traveler on a tour of Assisi kept asking my husband to take her photo while she struck her best glamor pose in front of one Franciscan site after another. Or, when a group of selfie-stick-wielding tourists rushed the altar in a French cathedral, poking me in the face and threatening to knock over the candlesticks.

A long lens can turn me into a bit of a voyeur, unabashedly snapping candid shots without permission.

I look through the lens of a camera. The camera changes me and it changes the world around me. What should I do now that I’ve realized my camera is actually a blue guitar?

I’m not going to stop using a camera but I am going to try to be more conscious of a camera’s potential impact. I’m going to try to leave the camera at home more often. And, rather than scowling at other people for ‘ruining’ my shot, I’m going to try to take things as they are… however they are… blue green pink purple yellow or undeniably overcrowded vermillion.

If you’re going to play a blue guitar, you might as well learn to embrace the blues.

The stuff that memories are made of

The stuff that memories are made of

In the Hamburg airport en route from Reykjavik to Milan, I’ve been scrolling through my iPhoto library, mulling over the amazing island I flew out of just a few short hours ago. Yesterday afternoon, I was breathing in chill October air while counting laps in one of Iceland’s steaming hydrothermal pools. Now, Iceland is only a memory. As I sit surrounded by mobile humanity, I can’t help but ask myself: what, of all the things I saw and did in Iceland, will stay in my mind and heart the longest? What have I learned from my visit to this small but spectacular island nation—and how has it changed me?

Iceland, an island of only 330,000 inhabitants, hosts 3.5 million visitors a year— and there’s good reason why it’s so high on many people’s bucket lists. Located atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Iceland Hotspot, Iceland is a young, vibrant land where geology is anything but an historical science and where Viking heritage stands strong.

The Icelandic people both benefit and suffer from the island’s active tectonics. On the one hand, life on the island is always a bit precarious. A volcanic eruption in the 1780s caused widespread famine, wiping out a quarter of the island’s population and affecting climate acrossEurope and beyond. As recently as 2010, eruption of the Eyjafjallojökull volcano grounded many European flights for weeks. Earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 and higher have occurred with some frequency. On the other hand, modern Icelanders benefit from cheap geothermal energy and hydroelectric power that heats their homes, keeps their greenhouses warm year round and provides steaming swimming pools and hot tubs to ease the long, dark, dreary days of winter. Certainly, the geologic features provide some of the biggest draws for legions of tourists.

Iceland packs a world of geologic phenomena within its 40,000 square mile surface. I’ve seen steaming hot springs, spouting geysers, and bubbling mud pots before—most notably in Yellowstone National Park and the Taupo/Rotorua region of New Zealand. But, only in Iceland could I see THE GEYSIR after which all geysers are named. In Thingvellir National Park, I stood astride the Mid-Atlantic spreading center between the two massive North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, recalling my previous life as a geophysicist. Walking around the geothermal park Krysuvik, with its steaming hot springs colored by teeming microorganism, reminded me why I chose to study geology over 35 years ago. The mineralogy alone is near and dear to my heart—clays like kaolinite and montmorillonite, abundant iron oxides, and the vibrant brick red HgS mineral cinnabar. The last 30 years of my life have been devoted to understanding water-rock-microbe interactions. In Iceland, these interactions are laid out for all to see like few places on Earth.

The glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón was a highlight of my trip. The view of the Breioamerkurjökull glacier calving, spawning icebergs that float bobbing down the island’s shortest river, will remain vividly etched in my mind for the rest of my life. Each iceberg has a unique geometry, texture, and color, but the ones that glistened in variousshades of blue were my favorites. As is often the case, I only discovered the most remarkable features by stopping to look carefully at the world around me. A slow walk through the maze of icebergs washed up along the black sand beach revealed that in places, the delicate edges of the ice don’t just sparkle in the sun—they glowa bright neon blue. Breathtaking

.

It’s hard to choose whether the glacial lagoon or an early morning view of the Northern Lights was my most spectacular Icelandic experience. Privileged to stay at a small family-run hotel in a room facing a glacier-covered mountain, I was awoken at 2 AM by the ringing of a telephone. The nearly full moon had gone behind a cloud and the Aurora Borealis was unexpectedly in play. Drawing open the curtains, my first vision was of a brilliant green ring that flitted above the mountains like a troop of dancing fairies. After rushing up the stairs to the hotel rooftop, I witnessed the aurora darting about the sky in various shades of green, then white, then with a single jet of deep purple. As if that weren’t enough, the display was punctuated by a shooting star that traced an arc across the night sky. The early morning experience canonly be described as a mystical, primeval reverie.

 

 

To my mind, Iceland will always be the land of waterfalls and rainbows. Imagine standing in front of the iconic Skógafoss waterfall watching as a full rainbow beaming in the mist grows to encompass your legs and feet. Gullfoss isn’t as big as Niagara Falls, but to my mind, it’s more magnificent in its multi-tiered, raging splendor. Hraunfossar appeared as a stunning series of small cascades tumbling through basaltic lava rocks. The sun came out just in time to illuminate streamlets weaving through the magnificent reds and yellows of autumn foliage and tumbling into the brilliant blue of the glacially fed river.

The island has abundant wildlife: Icelandic horses—not much bigger than ponies but as beautiful and rugged as the land where they are bred. Reindeer—their varied coats of grey, brown, white, and black sporting thousands of hollow and woolly hairs per square inch. Harbour seals—bobbing playfully amongst icebergs in the frigid glacial lagoon. Salmon—darting and leaping and turning the Öxará River into achurning maelstrom. Icelandic goats rearing up to crash heads and lock horns in a testosterone driven sparring match. Curve-horned sheep with dense wool prized by Icelandic knitters for intricately patterned sweaters. Enormous black ravens that harken back to the Icelandic settlement saga and seem both

wise and ominous.

 

The Saga museum taught me that, according to DNA studies, modern Icelanders enjoy a mostly Scandinavian/Viking paternal lineage and a largely Irish maternal lineage. Considering that my mother’s recent DNA test revealed mostly Irish with some Scandinavian ancestry, I feel some kinship with the many blue-eyedblondes and redheads. My own eyes are blue, and my hair has a reddish tinge. And, I have a wildstreak that craves adventure but cherishes hearth and home.

This trip to Iceland served to highlight the strength, dynamism, and fragility of our planet. It was a brilliant reminder that rain which darkens the sky brings green grass and rainbows. I was reminded of exactly why I became an environmental geologist. Some of the child-like wonder of a scientist was rekindled within my aging bones. All of these thoughts and experiences will remain with me for years to come.

 

Until now, I haven’t mentioned by far and away the best and most important part of my Iceland experience. My travels were in the company of Jeanna, my dear friend from college. The two of us traveled to visit April— my college roommate— who made Iceland her home over 20 years ago.

These two friends are amazing, strong and accomplished women. As a student, Jeanna impressed me as even-tempered, good-natured, and well grounded. The thousands of women who relied on Dr. Jeanna Piper to guide them through serious problem pregnancies could not have been better served. After years of practicing and teaching medicine, she has gone on to serve the world’s HIV community—and is a powerful voice for the difference between expectations, prejudices, and reality. This modest SouthernBaptist lives in a world where colleagues bring one another souvenir walking willies and vulvas to lighten a deadly serious vocation. She remains an even pickier eater than I am (and that’s saying a lot).

April—the girl whose white jeans I accidentally dyed green. Who titrated her shoe in chemistry lab. Who put up with my ultra studiousness, arrogance, and stress-fests. Who once thought soda in a cake recipe meant adding a tablespoon of coca cola but who has devoted herself to cooking and cleaning and praying for andloving 6 wonderful children—3 sons and 3 daughters. The best roommate I could ever possibly have asked for. An all American girl who moved to Iceland and who graces her adopted home with eyes that sparkle and a warm, endearing heart. Despite being a devoted wife and mother of 6, April remains the same bright, energetic, beautiful girl I met when I first walked into our dorm room nearly 40 years ago.

The trip was all the sweeter for: Jeanna patiently enduring my endless geologic monologues…. April explaining that the accent is always on the first syllable of Icelandic words… Jeanna talking me into a duck boat ride that threaded its way past glistening icebergs and wasn’t nearly as cold as anticipated…. The three of us sharing a delicious Mexican meal at the restaurant where April’s son is head chef and enjoying thecompany of our fellow classmate, April’s husband Mike…. Pouring my heart out over motherly worries knowing that I would not be judged but simply supported…. Realizing that while we’re all growing older, we still have so much in common…. Treasuring the chance to explore with old friends a magical land of elven gardens and troll figurines.

Spending time with these two friends from college in one of the most beautiful and interesting places on Earth reminds meof just how incredibly blessed I am. I have done nothing to deserve such an amazing life. The worldis full of much harder working, kinder, more generous, more devout, and far better people than I. It makes me think that perhaps, as Maria sang in The Sound of Music: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good”.

In any case, I need to strive to live up to the standards set by my beautiful, intelligent, accomplished, and much beloved friends.

Thank you, Iceland, for giving me so many wonderful memories, for reminding me of past joys, and for renewing my faith in the future.

With such a beautiful planet and such enduring friendships, I can only say that life is good and I am blessed beyond belief.

Pebbles in a stream

Pebbles in a stream
August 2017

Yesterday evening, my sons and I set up camp by the side of a wild mountain river. After the tent was staked and the firewood chopped, I began to prepare our meal while the boys set about exploring the riverbank. A few minutes later, #1 son came back to get me; “there’s something you need to see.”

There in the river about 200 feet from our campsite was a small but impressive rock sculpture garden. Some creative and formidably patient soul had engaged in the modern art of balancing rocks. Most of the rock ‘statues’ were fairly simple—a round granite cobble placed atop a flat piece of sandstone or schist. But, several were considerably more complicated. One, in particular, seemed nearly impossible—an obelisk-shaped stone perched atop a natural pyramid. It was difficult to imagine how this dramatic stone finger pointing at the sky could possibly remain stable for a fleeting second, let alone minutes, hours, ….or days?

The boys were anxious for me to see the balancing rock sculptures and take some photos. As they put it, ‘they’re not going to last long.’

When I arrived back at camp the following evening after a soggy solo hike, the tent was not quite floating but surrounded by puddles. Sure enough, the river was swollen from the thunderstorms and most of the rock sculptures had been swept away; lost and gone forever.

Perhaps it’s a cliché to muse that rock sculptures in a mountain stream represent the ephemeral nature of all works of man. Modern artists have imbibed the lessons of Ozymandius through their high school English classes. All our works, whether toiled over by thousands of slaves or sculpted by a single craftsman, are overwhelmed by the hands of time.

While the balanced rock sculptures were ephemeral, they were also beautiful—especially when glistening in the sun and surrounded by a cascade. The fact that I only saw the sculptures for a few minutes made them all the more memorable. They were crafted with care, stood up against powerful forces, and then they were gone.

On further thought, perhaps the rock statues were also meant as reminders that each and every one of us is a unique and precarious sculpture put on Earth for only a very brief time. It doesn’t matter whether we’re tall and thin or short and round or peaceable or defiant. We’re all just pebbles standing against immeasurable forces that will, without fail, sweep us away either sooner or later.

Perhaps someone somewhere sometime will look back with fondness at the peculiar sculpture that I once was.

But, if not, that’s okay.

I was put on Earth to stand for a moment then be swept away and lost within an all-powerful and timeless flow. I am who I am because of my destiny as a child of God; a destiny that I joyfully embrace.

We each make our own path

We Each Make Our Own Path

May 2017

Several weeks ago, as I was listening to NPR on my car radio, I caught part of a debate on the meaning of Robert Frost’s much-loved poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Apparently, English majors have been debating for decades whether or not the traveler in the poem purposely took the path ‘less traveled by’ or, perhaps more correctly, whether the traveler could even tell which path was more or less traveled when deciding which way to proceed. It’s hard to know for sure when the poem, itself, is full of contradictions and as opaque as the yellow wood it describes.

I’ve encountered this poem many times over the years, as it has become an anthem for those of us who choose to live more or less offbeat, eccentric, unconventional lives. We wear our Road Less Traveled t-shirts as a badge of honor. And, why not? It’s part of the American way.

But, as someone who has lived much of her life mucking about on hiking trails, whether wooded or not, I don’t think choosing the way ‘less traveled’ is the main point of the poem. After all, the title of the poem is not “The Road Less Traveled” but rather “The Road Not Taken”—which is, to say, the road more traveled in this particular poem. To me, the poem delves far more deeply into a basic philosophy of life—a philosophy I like to think of as ‘just forge head and enjoy yourself’. Or perhaps better stated… ‘don’t be afraid to embrace adventure’. Maybe even: life, like poetry, shouldn’t be taken either too literally or too seriously.

Consider yourself the traveler in the poem, perhaps a hiker making your way along a wooded path. Suddenly, you come to a fork in the road. There is no trail sign—no way to tell which of the two similar looking paths is the main route or which is the ‘right’ path to take. I’ve been in this situation many times. Taking an unmarked path has led to some memorable adventures: seeing an unnamed waterfall or climbing a mountain peak or meeting an interesting fellow traveler who became a life-long friend. Other times—like when it’s starting to hail small boulders or I’m already running late for meeting my spouse at a pre-designated location— an unmarked fork can be reason for minor panic.

Note that the traveler in the poem doesn’t do what many a hiker, including yours truly, has done in countless such situations. He doesn’t mutter a curse about how poorly maintained the trail system is and resolve to write a letter of complaint that the route isn’t properly signed. He doesn’t pull out his handy-dandy GPS (all right, they probably didn’t have GPSs in Robert Frost’s days, but they certainly had compasses and maps) and diligently figure out which path to take. He doesn’t unpack  lunch, park his butt on a rock, and wait for someone to mosey down one of the paths and explain where it leads. He doesn’t turn back to the comfort of the well known path he just came from. Instead, he peers ahead a bit, shrugs his shoulders, opts for the path that looks a little greener and less heavily trodden, and then forges ahead. Once he realizes he’s not on a smooth, easy, popular route, he doesn’t turn around but rather embraces the joys and challenges of a road less traveled.

That attitude — ‘let’s explore this interesting looking path and enjoy wherever it takes us in life’ — is, to my mind, the main message of the poem. Let’s face it, no matter how well mapped out or heavily trodden or popular a given path may be, we never really know where it will take us. There are no clear signposts in life. When we come to an uncertain fork, we can panic, we can pull out all our maps and tools and try to intellect our way through, we can wait for someone else to come along and give us directions, we can turn back and run for the safety of the known… or, like the intrepid traveler in Robert Frost’s poem, we can forge ahead with a spirit of adventure. If we’re true to ourselves and perhaps a little bit lucky, we might just stumble upon a road less traveled. In any case, we should embrace it as the road we chose, whether deliberately or not.

By embracing life and treating it like the adventure it is, we will indeed have made all the difference—not just to ourselves but to everyone we know and love. Perhaps with that attitude, we can’t help but choose the path less traveled by.

And oh, what a great adventure it will be!

 

 

You can read The Road Not Taken BY ROBERT FROST at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken