After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.
There is a lot to be said for being alone.
By that I do not mean lonely, which is a miserable place to be in, a space born of need. Alone is different. Alone allows you the space to just…be, to live in the comfortable room of your own existence, to enjoy solitude and your own thoughts and the ease of your own skin. Granted, it is fun to make photographs in the company of others, enjoying friendship and a shared experience, but sometimes it is good to be alone, to be able to listen to the land and what it has to tell you.
When the weather reports announced the snow, I got twitchy. I could imagine how it would come, and I knew that, while it might fall minimally on our village, it would fall more heavily over the back, in the Clarence River Valley. The weather gurus promised it would be sharp and short-lived, one last act of defiance before winter gave up for the year and grumbled away into the background. I knew spring was here for good, because our cat Mila was responding to the seasons as she does. When winter comes, she fills out, putting on fur and weight in anticipation of the huge fun to be had playing about in the snow and killing things. She had just gone through her moulting stage, where she sleeps for a few days and fasts, shedding weight and underfur. Now she was out and about, prowling her territory and eyeing birds too smart to come within range. Spring had definitely arrived.
Gradually, as the morning rolled on, the clouds began to draw back and dissipate. It was time to leave. I passed Ian Mac, one of our local courier drivers, and we stopped for a chat. Where are you off to? Over the back, I told him. Good on you. It might be the last chance you get for the year. He was right. I knew that, which probably explained the inner compulsion, the sense of a hand in the back that was sending me out.
It was midday when I turned off the tarseal and onto the corrugated road which led up to the pass. The snow had already melted except for the cold places in the lee of the hill where it still clung stubbornly to the rocks and plants. It was wet snow which iced everything it touched, coating and clogging it. Nearer the top of the pass it lay heavy on the roads, wet and thick, dragging at my tyres as they pushed insistently through it.
I drifted over the summit and the valley opened up before me. I was just in time. Under the blue, cloudless sky the land lay before me, smeared in silence and white. Overnight its narrative had changed. I stopped my truck and turned off the motor. The land wrapped me in a blanket of deep silence. I got out and went to the side of the road. This was spring snow, heavy yet delicate, impossibly white where the sun lit it, a delicate eggshell-blue in the shadows, and it sighed beneath my feet. I made a few images and then moved on.
There is a real but silly joy in being the first to make tracks in fresh snow. As I passed the old station homestead I realised I was the second person on the road. Ahead of me a set of off-road tyre prints disturbed the perfection of the landscape. Someone had beaten me to it. No matter. There was noone to be seen. I was perfectly and joyously alone, free to make my own decisions and mistakes without input from anyone else.
I tuned off the road, hooked in low range and headed up Isolation Hill, unsure whether I would make it and prepared for a tricky reverse back down the hill, but the fresh snow allowed me sufficient traction to make it up and park in the lee of the power pylon which adorns it. It was warm, surprisingly so, and the sun was plucking at the ice adorning the tower, picking off the white, translucent scabs and sending them down, to fall in small explosions on the ground. I kept a wide berth, not wanting to be hit on the head, and headed down the ridge with my camera and tripod. Horrible Flat lay spread out before me in the early afternoon sun, patchworked with snow and shadow. In the brilliant light the mountains shone with a clarity and sharp perfection, their edges defined perfectly.
I made a few pictures to get need out of my system, and then I stood back and listened and observed. The relationships began to come into focus and the offerings appeared. The soft curve of a side stream as it curled around the foot of a mountain; the abrupt triangular eruption of a creek as it emerged from a cacophony of snow-encrusted tussocks; the rhythmic plait of the braided river bed out on the flat. Things to hear, stories to tell, photographs to make. Time passed through the moment, the metronome of the sun as it wove the day. Then it was time to leave.
The soft sigh of snow beneath my tyres gave way to the grumbling of gravel and the teeth-jarring shock of water-filled potholes. Half-way along the flat I saw a vehicle approaching. I pulled over and he pulled up, a young man on an outing with his girlfriend in an old four-wheel-drive. Now I knew whose tyres had beaten me to it. How far you are going, he asked. The Island Saddle? You should make it. He looked appraisingly and approvingly at the aggressive pattern of my own off-road tyres. There’s snow all the way but it isn’t much. You’ll be fine. And he took off in a cloud of snow and small stones.
Further along the valley, as I began to slowly climb, the snow came back in across the road. The south faces were heavily coated, blue and in shadow, but the sunlit sides were already beginning to turn brown as the snow melted.
Time and distance passed.
From time to time I stopped and got out, to listen to the silence and savour my own aloneness. Without cellphone coverage or anybody else nearby, with only the steady, purposeful march of the transmission towers to keep me company, it was all up to me, and it was all down to me.
I ambled across the day, listening, conversing and rejecting, until I abruptly found myself beside the lake. It was cloudless, windless and still, the silence profound, bottomless and deeply satisfying. A small creek was emptying itself into the blue-black mystery of the lake, so I wandered over to listen to it. Its happy, aimless burbling somehow only magnified the sense of the profound and infinite. Have a look over there, it seemed to say, so I stared along the shoreline. The snow was down to the edge, crisp and sharply-defined. Something in the scene was attracting my attention, but I couldn’t figure it out. I stood there, sinking deeper and deeper into the silence. It still didn’t come. I couldn’t get past my monkey-mind by just standing there, so I went and fetched my camera. There was a sense of infinity, of not-time, of the moment holding its breath, so I went for my 14-24 zoom, to push the horizon away. I allowed mind to make technical choices and then gave it time off. Intuition was needed to guide the composition. I moved the camera until something fell into place in my heart and then I made compositions around that point. Then it signalled I was done and that any more attempts were a waste of card space and moment. I would simply be repeating myself. I stopped, took a break, drank some water and listened to the silent narrative of infinity.
It was time to leave, to turn out of the cattle stop and head further up towards the Island Saddle. There was pure joy in surfing silently across the snow, being the first to make marks in this snowfall. The pass, the highest in New Zealand at 1,347 m or 4,419 ft. above sea level, was its usual impassable self. I turned back and made my way to the three hidden tarns near the lake, finding my way by memory across the normally near-invisible track now completely hidden under snow.
Then it was time to leave. The sun had crossed the sky while my attention was turned and the brittle-blue light had taken on hints of yellow. The sunlit mountain faces had turned brown and the road was now clear of snow. I made my way home, hopeful that another story might reveal itself along the way.. However the land had shared all it wanted to and had turned its back on me..
It was only when I had downloaded and opened the file in my raw converter that I saw it. The cloud. It hung, mysterious and portentous in the sky, a figure eight on its side, the symbol for infinity attributed to 17th century English mathematician John Wallis. While chattering monkey mind had not seen it, my subconscious had, and used the line of the shore to point me directly at it.
And as I looked at the image on my monitor, I thought of a comment from another Englishman, poet, artist, anti-Enlightenment philosopher and mystic, William Blake:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”