At this tumultuous time, what should I write about? Something profound about recent political developments. As I thought about it, I heard an inner voice: “Put a sock in it, Merrill, give it a rest.” I took this as a sign.
I decided to write about something nice instead. I’ll write about my favorite photograph hanging in the studio where I write and process films. It’s particularly meaningful.
In the winter, it has been my habit to take to the fields, woodlands and the shore to photograph. Why winter? Spring, summer and fall reveal the earths plumage and busyness but, in these climes, winter shows the land’s infrastructure and reveals some of the basics that hold everything together.
I’d made similar excursions while living in Connecticut, but they weren’t as satisfying as they were in Maryland. In Connecticut, it often snowed – hiding the landscape. Snow left a bland sheet of white over everything.
In winter, Maryland’s rural landscapes are more generous in showing their stuff. Snows are less frequent so I’m able to see the nuances of their composition. In the other seasons, it is more difficult to see to the heart of what holds things together, their primal connections. Winter can reveal these connections
Speaking of how things are held together: my first visit to an orthopedist years ago was not particularly helpful, but it got me thinking about connections. I saw a life-size skeleton in the doctor’s consulting room. I wasn’t sure what kind of statement it was intended to make. Maybe nothing more than to remind me why I was there if I should get chatty and begin to wander too far from my complaint. I talk a lot when I’m nervous. I’d never seen a real skeleton. Was this the real thing? The thought spooked me.
I trusted the doctor’s office skeleton was not a commentary on the successes or failures of his practice, but only designating his specialty. I was almost sure that this skeleton wasn’t the real thing. Still, I was very conscious of its presence and remained curious. I decided it would be in poor taste to ask.
My winter walks often included frequent visits to small, old country cemeteries, many hidden behind old churches, alongside farmhouses or in open fields, lonely and melancholy. The epitaphs were sad. There was a famous 18th century epitaph I read about, less melancholy than it was sobering:
“Remember, friend, as you walk by, as you are now, so once was I,
As I am now you must be, prepare yourself to follow me.”
Whether about the fundamentals of a rural landscape in winter or the bare bones of a body, matters like this finally came down to how all things in this astonishing universe are connected; how one thing or a single phenomenon, apparently so different from another, or even distant, are conditional upon another. I believe this is one of the principal laws of the universe. For all its complexity, we understand only portions of it, but the natural world is, as we are, all of a piece.
I especially enjoyed roaming Elk Neck State Park at the head of Bay. I took the above photograph there in 1974. It immediately became my favorite.
I’d often be the only one out in the fields and woods, except of course for the critters like herons, geese, foxes and deer that roam through the fields. It was the leafless hardwood trees that seemed skeletons of sorts and they commanded my attention more than anything I witnessed that January day when I first walked the park. It hadn’t snowed. The day was cold and clear with clouds that came and went. Everywhere the bare limbs of the hardwoods were set against the dramatic sky that was alternately overcast and then sunlit; some trees were huge. Their leafless limbs reached out laterally, a few drooped downward, but most reached upward the way some tribal worshipers throw their arms up in the air in the intoxication of religious ecstasy; the tree limbs, crossing this way and that, presented a delicate tracery like a fine filigree does when silhouetted by the light shining from behind it.
As I saw the landscape, my instinct was to stand and be still and in the presence of the trees, reverently, as if I were on holy ground. I recalled the familiar call to worship in church liturgies that begin:” The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” It never worked, at least in the churches I served. In seconds following this invitation, there’d be hymns, announcements, prayers, the sermon, muffled whispering, an atmosphere more like the Tower of Babel than the silence of a holy temple.
But here in this winter wood, a silent reverence was certainly the order of the day except for a bird or two and the sound of cold air as it passed between tree limbs with a soft rush.
No doubt there is particular grandeur to a tree in leaf –– especially the bold, gold and crimsons of fall and the delicate yellow-greens of Spring. There is yet another glory of trees when they surrender their leaves to reveal their graceful bodies and elegant limbs while waiting for Spring’s wardrobe to arrive.
I couldn’t count how many prints I have made over the years. If I could, I hope this would not reveal me as a misanthrope. Most images are of tidewater environs in winter, usually empty of people. The thing is, that it’s in standing in the very uncluttered expanse of land and water that I have sensed intimations of eternity.
The photograph’s value to me is not its aesthetic properties although there are some. It has served me more as a documentation of a special time when I once stood in a liminal space between two worlds, the one bound in time, the other outside it and how I had the strongest sense that both were connected.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.