Beyond the static
Fujifilm X-E2, 14mm/2.8. ISO 200, 1/240s @f11
“Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
There is an energy in the early hours, in that breath-held half-time between night and day, between dark and light, which cannot be felt at any other turn of the 24-hour spiral. It is alluring, addictive, compelling. Perhaps that is why I like to rise in the mornings at 4:30 and meditate, to sit in the silence and just be, with only the joyous korimako (bellbirds) and the wind in the trees for company. Tane and Tawhirimatea, enjoying a moment of brotherly companionship before the day’s squabbles begin.
Perhaps that is what draws me to make photographs of the land at this time, to wrestle myself free of the seductive pull of the duvet and feather pillows, shake myself awake, dress roughly but warmly (a shower can wait), pack my camera gear, and add a thermos and a packet of gingernut biscuits to the mix.
Outside the door, once my truck is packed, I will take a moment to regain the balance and stillness which has evaporated in the bustle of preparation. I will stand in the tonal space between light and dark and breathe, just breathe, attempting to feel the day, to sense its subtler nuances and anything it may be trying to tell me, for the music of the spheres is easier to hear at this time. Of course it is always being transmitted but it takes an accomplished person to hear its signal through the chaos and static of daily life.
Then I will turn over the motor in my truck, and while it gathers itself, clears its lungs and warms up, I will observe the light, feeling for that as well. Then we will leave on a new adventure.
This particular morning was an opportunity. The local nature photographers group were having a fieldtrip to Mt. Patrick, and while the thought of standing on an alpine scree, photographing small plants didn’t appeal, the gate to the ski field was open and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make new portraits of the land. I hadn’t been able (or perhaps I hadn’t been willing) to go up there. In the ski season the road is only open when the skiing is on, and I didn’t really want to join the charge up a narrow, slippery and treacherous hill at a time when the light would have long passed its best. This day, however, the road would be silent, and we would be able to move in our time, at our own pace. But first there were trials to face.
Increasingly I find that I make my best work when I am alone, beyond the static, in a place which is high, wild and open, where I stand between land and sky, or water and sky. I am drawn to the subtle rhythms of the natural world. I also love travelling with my Dearly Beloved One, for she shares that sense of solitude and being Beyond. And this morning held promise. There was a conversation to be had.
As we turned onto the road leading up to the pass above our village, I groaned. There before me, in the headlights, a small vintage RAV 4 was gingerly picking its way up the hill. The driver was obviously uncomfortable on gravel and so focused on what she was doing that it never occurred to pull over and let me past. Anyway, there was no point. Through the fine summer dust cloud from the road, I could see another four-wheel drive and ahead of that, a bus, waddling its way up the hill. I switched the ventilation to recirc, to keep the dust out, and relaxed. This was going to be a long trip. Perhaps they would pull over at the top and let me past. They didn’t. They grimly held to the middle of the road as they crept over the pass and down the other side. Why so much traffic, I wondered? Then I remembered. It was a race; swim 3km across an icy lake, kayak 15km down a turgid river, hop on a bike for a mere 104km, and follow it up with a leisurely and relaxing 20km run to the finish. Then go for a beer. Easy.
They ground their way along the gravel, and I ground my teeth in frustration (consciously relaxing wasn’t working that well) for another 20 minutes. Then release. Finally. They all pulled in to a car park at the homestead and we quickly scuttled past them and through the locked gate. There was still light and time.
Ahead of us the landscape stretched in a tonal yawn, as we drove deeper and deeper into the narrowing valley. Then the road turned abruptly left and flung itself upwards into the sky. Hairpin followed hairpin as the road–turned-track snaked its way upwards. Some were easy; others required fine judgement to make it one go. We passed a bluff where the strata were tipped upwards, warped and turmoiled, a reminder of the dormant but violent forces at work here, and still the road continued ever upwards.
We finally topped out on a ridge where we could see out to the north and east. The high we were promised would last the day, but was already was beginning to move on to the east and it was holding back the dawn. To the east layers of brooding cloud blocked the sunrise, restricting its impact on the land to a dull shadowing effect. In a few minutes it would begin rise above the cloud. I still had time to get myself in place and wait.
Then the track eased itself into a gully and headed towards the ski club buildings, past a big outcrop on the right. Away beneath us early morning fog clung tenaciously to the valley floors as it oozed its way downwards to the south. Occasionally one or two of the power pylons we knew were there would appear the mysteriously sink back into the murk.
We drove the last stretch to the top and stopped. We went inside and spent a little time chatting with the photographers, who just finishing their breakfast, then drove back down the hill to a dip in the track, just past the opening to the gully. I turned off the motor and we got out.
The silence returned. A slight katabatic wind was ruffling the grasses, but everywhere else there was silence.
I wondered where the story lay, what I was being shown. So I waited and listened and observed. Was it about the land, the sky or both?
The moving anticyclone was painting the sky in delicate brushstrokes, wisps of subtle cloud flicked carelessly upwards, but too subtle to work with or record. The narrative was there, in the contrast between the cloud and the stolid immutability of the land and the dark, stubborn forms of the hills.
I waited and time passed.
Then the sun found a purchase on the clouds and began to heave itself up over the shelf. As it did so, warm, morning light began to rim the hills and coat the front faces. As it did so the delicately-traced clouds abruptly lifted off the sky and began to dance in the light, growing in strength, gracefulness and power.
I photographed the glorious atmospheric ballet until the coda had passed and the swan had crossed its arms and had sunk back against the sky, until the rising sun had overpowered the performance.
It was time to go, to give thanks and return to the valley floor.
The static was building.