Sunday, December 23, 2012

The statue. Stepping though the veil on the shortest day of the year.

 Just down the way from our home and at the end of a short path off the Beaver Point Road, is a statue standing in the semi darkness beneath some tall cedar trees. A cast concrete, three foot tall Virgin Mary, one of thousands of exact replicas, nothing special at all, and it is tempting to think, floodlit as she usually is at his time of year, that there is no more thought behind it than as as a Christmas decoration. And yet, standing alone in the cool green forest at the darkest time of year, she is lovely. A young woman who reaches out to bless any passerby who will turn off the highroad and take the forest path. I stop to look and come away warmed.

Real and concrete, or a thing of the spirit? We usually create a firm division between them, but here in the almost-dark of the shortest day of the year I can contain both. Religion, as an organized system of belief, has little to do with it. I am floating in a space I occupy more and more these days; neither 'reality' or 'religion'. I see the physical statue, bypass thought and feel the love .

This image of the female in such a natural setting is very ancient and not simply a Christian image: all religions present and past have recognized the essential role of reproduction, the flow of generation through all life. The passage of time and continual creation of the world as we experience it is the central mystery we live within. This Mary is known by so many names and worshipped in so many forms. What I felt in the forest is simply a human capacity to experience that greater truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keith A. Watson. An Australian WW II pilot with the Pathfinders ( 97 sqn.), and a friend forever


We are anchored at the Gold Coast, our schooner has recently sailed across the Pacific to Australia from Canada but we are not alone or even aboard on this Christmas day. We are visiting the family of a friend, Keith Watson, and watching tropical birds flutter across the table while Keith throws bits of meat in the air for the Butcher birds. He is making sure that we are welcomed here, sixty or so years after he was similarly taken into my English family back in the Second World War. Keith will not live many years after this, but right at this moment he is much the same person that war time had brought to us and made a lifelong friend.

At his end of the festive table, Keith tells me a story about those years in England flying Lancaster bombers. He is describing lifting off for the first time with a full load of bombs. As he talks, his hand pulls back on the stick and his voice echoes the tension as, at last, the aircraft comes unstuck and he carefully banks into a climb to meet and then lead, with his fellow Pathfinders the stream of bombers headed across the Channel on another night raid deep into Germany.
Keith Watson in centre with his aircrew
He tells us other stories over the next few weeks. We will get in the habit of taking our dinghy across the Broadwater, and visiting Keith at his retirement job with the Chamber of Commerce before buying our groceries at the shopping centre across the road. . He will brew up a pot of tea, slip next door for some sticky buns and them settle down to tell us another war story. His tone of voice tells us that these are well rehearsed and he also gives us some he has written down. His children tell us that most of his post-war life he never mentioned his wartime experiences. The national mood for many years was one of shame about the destruction of German cities, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden...., the tremendous loss of life. Like the Vietnam War veterans, Keith’s service to his country was not well recognized. In old age, Keith has finally opened up, as much to honour all those comrades who lost their lives, fifty thousand or more, in RAF bomber command (and twice that attrition rate in the Pathfinder Squadrons), as to tell his own personal story. “Good on ya Keith” we think as we munch our buns and drink our tea.

I ask him if he knew he was sometimes dropping bombs on targets located within civilian areas and he nods, yes he did, and proceeds to tell us about being in a pathfinder squadron ( 97) that lead the raids and marked the target with flares for the following aircraft. How he followed the radio voice of his leader, fellow Australian Don Bennett, circling somewhere ahead over the target, into flack so dense you could have cut it with a knife, about a shell passing right up thought the cockpit but not exploding, and of seeing a spirit of my mother as his 'guardian angel' serenely hovering there before him on the other side of of the perspex. Dodging night fighters, throwing his big four-engined aircraft through the night sky to shake off attack, coaxing his crippled Lancaster back to a landing and then doing it all over again a few nights later. Over and over again. He was probably all of twenty-two years old. A kind of steady courage that goes far deeper that the occasional heroic reaction to danger. Something that deserves recognition.

My father picked up Keith and his navigator hitchhiking on the Great North Road (A1), trying to get to London for a short leave. He dropped them at our gate and later at supper time found them still there with their thumbs out, (V1 rockets were hitting London hard and the traffic was all going the other way) and said they should come in and spend the night. They stayed that first time and Keith kept coming back leave after leave. His hat would be tossed through the front door first, just to be sure it would not be tossed back again. His welcome assured, he would settle in and could often be found inventing children's adventure tales about Australia for my elder brothers and sisters. One of many young men who found a family welcome at our home during those war years, Keith was lucky to survive the terrible odds and to finally ship off home at the end of the war and to marry the girl he had met in Camp Borden in Canada while doing his flight training.

Interestingly, but not out of character, the most meaningful story for Keith was when bomber crews were asked to fly to Germany immediately after the war to pick up POWs who were too ill to wait around for regular processing. For the first time his crew flew low over the land they had bombed at night from high altitude. Destruction! Landing at a bomb-cratered airport littered with wrecked aircraft, picking up a load of men and then crossing their fingers and taking off again over a dangerously bumpy runway. The emotional moments for the ex-prisoners of seeing the white cliffs of Dover ahead and then a smooth landing. A shaking of every crew members hand as those men left the plane. Thank you!
His crew laughing, “Keith, how come you never landed that smoothly when it was only us?”

The best years of his life, Keith will say, when living another day was such a gift and comradeship was so intense. Proud of his crew, of his skill that increased their odds, of his fellow bomber crews who battled their way through to eventual peace and of the many who never lived to see it.

There has been much post-war discussion about the effectiveness of all this bombing: that, as in Britain, it only strengthened the will to resist. How any nation could be proud of sending men to carry out such destruction and if there were not some shame attached to those who carried out the missions. The same could of course could be said of the Luftwaffe who destroyed 80% of London and other British cities with great loss of civilian lives. The reality is that neither Germany nor Britain signed an international agreement not to use bombers as an instrument of total warfare and Keith and his fellows were doing their duty. It would be reported by the victors that that vast armada of aircraft played a vital role in winning the war sooner and with less eventual loss of life than would have been possible otherwise. Even the beaches of Normandy would not have been tenable during the landings without the bombing of beach defences and the rail-yards further back in France which prevented German reinforcements from getting to the coast. Civilians lost their lives as part of this too. War is a nasty thing; by nature destructive of people as well as property.

Men and women of Keith’s generation who fought for the succeeding generations will never be fully understood or appreciated by those who were not there beside them. Mostly though, they re-entered civilian life fairly smoothly, married, held down responsible jobs, continued to serve their country in the important matters of everyday. Were loving and caring parents no matter what their wives vaguely understood through their husbands nightmares and occasional strangely absent moods. A generation who went through hell, emerged blinking into the light and then resolutely marched forward to bring their children to adulthood in peace. A peace they themselves had first to labour at great cost in lives and peace of mind to create.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making music with a camera. Parallels between musical and visual composition.

 Last month, I listened to Viva Voce, the Saltspring community choir of which my wife Heather is a member: or at least today she was by my side in the audience with a nasty cough that prevented her singing in the final performance. I am not particularly musical myself, but I have always loved listening; in fact I listen so intently that I might be thought to be participating! The audience, in music, the theatre and in the visual arts is a vital part of the act of communication after all and I bring my intense interest in making visual imagery to this performance. Visual creativity gives a parallel experience that adds to my understanding of the composition and performance of music.

Listening, I am aware of the many satisfying elements that are orchestrated in music. I feel the texture, the complicated rhythms, the clarity of some voices or instruments and the musical argument that is being developed through time. I almost see all this in visual terms. I know that not only am I a participant along with all other artists through the ages in making visual imagery but that musicians and composers are expressing and have always expressed that same mysterious river of thought in terms of sound and time. 

The other day I walked down a trail beside the ocean at Burgoyne Bay. A mainly cloudy day that threatened rain, with a flow of filtered light making the rippled surface shine like burnished silver, it was perfect for my photography. What I have in common with musicians is an interest in structure, in the coordination of all the elements that lie before me. A standard shot of the bay through trees is not really satisfying for me so I work with the bits of landscape available. I step closer and squat down, widened my lens and place a rock outcrop at the bottom of the frame. This low triangle is part of a series of similar shapes as the landscape receded into the distance. Similar, but each different in texture, tone and colour. My image is both true to the moment and yet organized, - each part working with the others. Like the music I have been listening to today.

Later, I climb up a trail thick with fallen leaves and find a big conglomerate boulder perched on the steep hillside. Interesting in itself perhaps, but interesting to me because of the arching arbutus and maple trees beside it. I can orchestrate these elements of textured rock and curved tree forms to become a composition that draws from visual elements present in the scene but are carefully placed in relationship with each other. To show the tensions between rock and tree, light and dark and provide a form of resolution to those visual forms in my composition is very satisfying. I was totally absorbed in that photographic exercise just as I have been today, listening to the musical compositions and the choir’s resolution and interpretation of them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Service: a call to arms.

John Gardam as a Peace keeper in Egypt

My elder brother is a retired army officer and on a recent visit he was telling me a story from his past. He was second in command of the regiment when his commanding officer was killed in a climbing accident. The padre was away, someone had to tell the wife and children. He said to his wife, we must do this! He relates the harrowing story of telling the widow, then the three youngest children and finally the eldest son. He tells his story clearly but compassionately. All these years later he is still focused on how dreadful this was for that family with no thought as to how being the bearer of shocking news and carrying the responsibility for helping that family pass through a difficult time might have affected him and his wife. Yet this is a story that still rings clearly for him.

We call our military the 'armed services' and usually think little about what is entailed. That someone may enlist into a 'job' with the recognition that death, disability or life long personal repercussions are the expected outcome seems bizarre. What my brother has demonstrated in his story is the tremendous ethical balance that must be created to support that armed service. 'The Regiment' is more than the sum of its parts, it is a thing of the imagination as well. My brother performed that difficult personal 'service' in his unquestioned responsibility for doing the whole job. You or I might turn aside, call a professional, somehow squirm out of a requirement to put ourselves into such a difficult responsibility. When we do that we also cut ourselves off from the growth that we gain from performing a duty that is so up close and personal. Service to others, it turns out, is the sure road to fulfilling our own lives as well.

We give little thought to the regimental padre who would normally perform this function, the medical profession, the police who have to be on the front line of this difficult duty in civilian life, or for the priests of all religions and denominations whose real duty of compassion is often hidden from view by their public performance. What an emotional toll it must take! And yet what a wonderful opportunity it is to be so close to the important life-changing moments of human lives. When we serve, when we reach out a hand, provide words and deeds that not only give comfort but point towards a way forward for those in distress, we are building a better community, a better world and a better personal self as well.

Group captain John Henry Roberts. Up, up into the blue.

A Canso on the launching ramp at Dartmouth in Halifax harbour

Group captain John Henry Roberts.

Jack Roberts , my wife Heather`s father, died recently at the ripe old age of 96. For me, it comes as a kind of wake up call because it seems only a short while ago since it was veterans of WWI who were dieing at that age. Now it is the Veterans of WWII who are taking their turn with crossing no-mans-land, the valley, the dark river, to the other side. Jack was a career Air force officer so perhaps it would be more appropriate to think of him as free at last to be off into the great blue yonder.

 People like Jack led the high moments of their lives during WWII. He flew a Canso ( Catalina) flying boat on long range patrols over the North Atlantic guarding the convoys that were carrying all the essential materials to keep Britain alive and fighting. After that life, after that experience of danger and high adventure, it was often difficult for the men and women who survived to adjust to the peacetime military and the different demands of family life.

I imagine Jack back in the cockpit with his wartime crew on some plane of existence, rolling his amphibian down the ramp at Dartmouth and taking off through the choppy waves of Halifax harbour. A cold, overcast day, many lonely hours and miles out to sea, watching over the grey shapes of yet another convoy. Guarding them from the wolves that were U boats and surface raiders. A shepherd, you might say. Not such a bad thing to be.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A walk on a foggy day. Standing still is not an option.

   Some of our family are visiting us, it is a foggy, damp day and it is time we all went for a walk and ran off some energy. For four year old Clara this will mean riding her new peddle bike up and down our quiet side road and this will be a challenge for her. She rides her little wooden peddle-less bike just fine but is having a crisis of confidence on the bigger, more complex one, for all the fancy streamers her parents have spruced it up with.

At times like this, a gentle stroll down the road and back again, I feel restless. I want to do something more individual, active and adventurous. My wife and daughter Gwyn though, seem to be tuned into what is happening here; we are providing Clara with an opportunity to overcome her fear and we are giving little Violet some fresh air in the stroller. Intellectually I get it, but there are times I still struggle with my grandparent role of caregiver, supporter and playmate for the grandchildren. I can even feel shame for my difficulty in making a complete adjustment to this new role.

I do understand the importance of good grand-parenting, of helping to carry on through the generations healthy, well adjusted, caring children who in turn will pass that on to their own children. I worked as a child and parent counsellor with social services for a few years and know all too well how difficult it is to repair families that have broken down and like-as-not are themselves the inheritors of destructive family patterns from the past. For individuals, families and society as a whole, getting this child raising right and giving support where needed is vitally important. I give my head a shake and take a new look around me.

Clara peddles past, her face contorted in fear and a siren of screams trailing behind her. Her mom runs alongside giving encouragement and taking a handlebar only when absolutely needed. Silence, and then back out of the fog they come with Gwyn riding and Clara running alongside laughing and giving her mom encouragement. Whether Clara learns to ride today is really not as important as the lessons Gwyn has learned as a child and is so effortlessly putting to work with her own children. And we know that this knowledge will be so deeply engrained in her daughters that they too will pass it on.

Of course nothing is guaranteed in life; war, social disruption, illness, a bad choice of mate, can mess this up, but to live hopefully into the future is really the only realistic option. We forget how fragile human life really is and how fragile is our way of life. If we forget to maintain and renew and adjust ourselves and our society continually we do not simply stand still in some shining spotlight of comfort, we start slipping back into a very dark hole the very moment we stop moving forward.

I adjust my sights, focus on the close and present and take over pushing the stroller.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Rainforest. Adjusting to winter rain on the West Coast.

This morning is just a slightly lighter version of the long dark rainy night but it is high time I let the chickens out of their raccoon-proof house. I slip on my '`lastic-sided' boots and walk out hatless and in my shirtsleeves. Just too lazy to suit up for such a short walk, I feel the drops on my bare head and thinning hair. This is cold and wet but also intimate. I feel the rain in a way that I would not if protected by layers of waterproofing.
The almost-dark, the mist in the trees, the squawk of awakened bantams and their scramble to exit their small door feels more real as a result.

Winter is scarce begun but our woodsmoke regularly adds its aroma and scarf of blue to the sky and softens the outline of overhanging trees. We are adjusting once again to life in the rainforest and what I have experienced in the semi dawn is one more step towards living fully within this world. Those first wet days after a summer of drought, blue skies and brilliant light make me bundle up protectively against the onslaught and it has taken this morning in the rain to make the next step towards my full acceptance of winter.

Bring on the midwinter darkness, the windstorms and slashing rain, I am ready to take the plunge.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Yanks: the war years with the USAAF ( 457 Bomber Group ) in Connington village, UK.

Yeah, and we meant it!

My brothers Paul and John

Although you would never know it from my North American accent I was born a little Englishman. It was 1942, the Second World War was raging, and there was an air raid in progress. Today, I jokingly tell my German friends that even when I was born there were Germans close by, a few thousand feet away, straight up!

Tommy Gough

I think this is Joe Kaputi. He is also the one who met us off the boat in NY and took the train with us to Montreal to be sure we got off to a good start.

In reality, I have few specific memories of the war years although our family was very much in the centre of it. We had an American Airbase in our village of Connington just on the edge of the fens in East Anglia and those airmen seemed to have spent much of their non flying time at our house. A scant few years in reality, the same time period that flies by so quickly today, but full of meaning and excitement for our family and for those Yanks.

Soon after the war ended we emigrated to Canada, and even that could be traced back to the excitement that these Yanks brought and to the end-of-war let down, and all the rationing, the rules and restrictions that continued for years after the war. “Come to Victoria”, a wartime friend said, and so we sold up our lovely old thatched cottage, Dad left a secure future in agriculture and all seven of us lit out for the new world, like so many others, seeking a larger, freer, more fulfilling life.

Little Bill
That smart outfit was sent for me bythe mother of one of those Yanks

It is here that my child memory, at age three, begins to create a continuous narrative. Sailing across the Atlantic on the Swedish liner, the Gripsholm, being met in New York by one of those Yanks from the war years who insisted on accompanying us to Montreal
by train and staying with us to be sure we got off to a good start. The train ride across Canada, Mom cooking meals in the communal kitchen car, a stop on the Prairies to stay with dad’s sister Dot and finally settling into a house on Saul street in Victoria on Vancouver island. I still have my English accent but will loose it when we move again to Mill Bay and I start school.

My parents and eldest sister Pat continued to get letters and receive visits from those American airmen; the album has photos of the girlfriend, and then the wife and the children beside slowly ageing men. Little tins of Christmas cake arrive, post marked U.S.A. Tommy Gough has been back to Connington to the dedication of a monument in the local churchyard. To the squadron this place represents a vital moment in their young lives, the loss of many companions in the defence of another country, - one that their history lessons about the revolutionary war defined as a repressive and hated parent country. What a difficult transition many of them must have gone through on finding themselves on the same side in war and over on our side of the Atlantic. How important it must have been for them to find a welcome, a family, at the end of yet another mission over enemy skies. A reason for their risk or probable sacrifice.

There are memories from my elder brothers and sister from those years, but they are now fragmentary.
What is this guy’s name?” I ask, looking through the album, only to find that their childhood years and memories of them are far, far back. “Maybe that is Joe? Kaputi? Johnny Wanamaker?”
But this one with his arm around your shoulders, here he is too with the whole family?”
It turns out that our parents knew this detail but all died with them. I have some of the stories second hand but not enough to create a realistic narrative. Perhaps detail is not so important after all, individual names blend into that moment in history when all was young and vital and each day a threat of annihilation.

Here are a few fragments however.
I remember seeing a flag over a hedge, an American flag I am told.

My Father walks around our house during air raids on the look out for incendiary devices. Our 300 year old home has a thatched roof that would go up like a bomb. The family shelters under the big oak table.

A crashed German plane in a nearby field is pillaged by a stream of airmen seeking souvenirs. It later explodes from a bomb.

Mom is always cooking meals for the Yanks using food “provided” from the base stores. Presumably we got a share in return. Tight rationing for British families.

Dad is very interested in hearing stories of the latest mission. Wounded in WWI, he is out of this one but has his village Home Guard unit. Brother John listens in.

The first Americans we meet are the engineers who built the airstrip. “What are those medal ribbons for?” Dad asks an old railroad engineer, recently arrived. “Well this is my WWI, this is from my state, this from my railroad union, this for enlisting...” Not wrong, just different from the British system. We need to adjust to American ways too, but really they are mostly so nice that is not so difficult. And yet our village feels as occupied as many a village on the other side of the channel. My dad has spent years of his youth in Canada and the US, only returning for WWI. He feels an empathy for these boys so far from home. They return our welcome many times over.

My parents stand outside in the night and watch the city of Coventry burn from a massive and deliberately scorched-earth air raid. When later, Germany feels the bite of devastating Allied raids there is little sympathy here. They started it but we will finish it. Hard words, strong emotions.

My brothers watch the con-trails in the sky as fighters and bombers grapple far overhead. They race around acting out these battles. My brother Paul is still to this day called 'Hawker' ( Hurricane). They build an 'ack-ack gun' in the orchard out of old pipe overlooking the runway. The village bobby comes to put a stop to their pretending when the returning aircraft come under 'fire' . The poor guys with jangled nerves did not appreciate even this bit of fun at the end of yet another daylight mission.

A time when the sky is filled with aircraft: Dakotas full of parachutists and gliders packed with soldiers under tow, all headed for Normandy and the beginning of the liberation of Europe.

Those big B 17four engined aircraft would no longer roar past our house and stagger into the air with a heavy load of bombs or limp home again full of holes. Those young men who had swept into our family’s life would be of home. But those that survived the war would remember us all their lives as we would equally honour and remember them.

Today is Remembrance Day here is Canada and there is much on the radio about those that gave their lives during the wars of the last century and, unfortunately, in this new one too. It is interesting to think about those on the receiving end of all the bombs carried by those B 17s. I met a German man while we were sailing the Pacific who had been a teenager in the Hitler Youth and had hauled the injured from collapsed buildings. Perhaps he was on the receiving end of those same bombs loaded on aircraft just down the road from our home and dropped by those nice young men we knew as friends. Such is war.

He said to me,” You know Bill, we could have won the war.” and I replied, diplomatically I hope, 'Yes, but wasn’t it just as well you didn’t? Even allowing for the bias of history written by the victors, and allowing also that not every SS Officer ( his father) was a monster, surely we can agree that a world ruled by the leadership of the Nazi party would have been worse than the Roman Empire ever was?” He had no good answer to that.

Andy Highberger? he had something to do with building the airfield. It was he that dad asked about his medals.

Tommy and Becky, my mother

On the Gripsholm. I remember that little toy in my hands

'The old Lodge', our home beside the great north road where the entrance to the camp was situated.
Dressed in celebration of the end of the war.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Autumn leaves. Building compositions that are more than standard pretty.

We walk the suburban streets and parks of Ottawa during the last great flash of colour in the autumn foliage before the long cold eastern winter sets in. We can feel the change in season, not in the temperature which in unseasonably warm, but subconsciously, as a great sadness. Here is death of a growing season and the beginning of a long winter sleep. A completion. The brilliant leaves spiral down and blow into windrows. Each one a unique individual. We can relate.

As a picture maker though, how to capture the mood, the message, in such a way that others will make the association from a two dimensional photograph. This is such an over-photographed subject matter after all; calendars, coffee-table books, screen-savers all showing the scenes that are all around us here, - bright, back lit yellows and reds, winding paths through woods carpeted with the already fallen. We are strangers on a brief visit so we are doubly handicapped when it comes to deeply understanding what we see or portraying much beyond the superficial.

Back home again on the West Coast a few days later, our foliage is making the same transition. Heavy rains have brought the moss-covered rocky slopes and tree trunks back to vivid green and the big maple leaves are falling steadily. Some spiral, some rock as they side slip from side to side, while many wait for a stir of wind in the high tops to flutter down in yellow/brown convoys that sift through the branches and come to rest on fir branches, fences, or rock walls. In this familiar landscape I can see the individual nature of each leaf, but more importantly I can enter more deeply into a place I know so well.

Last spring I built a long, low drystone wall. I love building with rock like this, perhaps because I have so many Yorkshire ancestors who of necessity spent their lives building them by the mile around their fields, it feels so natural and rewarding. Now it is topped by fallen leaves. I photograph this combination from several angles, unsure what I am getting at. In this state of exploration I can be sure however that what I am doing is not an off-the-shelf generic image. Grey solid rock, structure, permanence, and the seasonal transitory-ness of these bright, wet, fallen leaves. There is something here that lies in the unconscious of us all.

The little ponds and waterfalls in the stream, flowing again after its long summer rest, pull me closer and here are leaves, new fallen, resting briefly on the slowly moving surface. They flow past, superimposed upon the reflections of the parent tree above. Perhaps not a collection but just one single leaf would be right? What is right here? Can it be quantified, developed into a photographic theory of composition or is this so deep in intuition that it is best left there? There is flow upon flow here, transition, reflection, bright colour against indistinct darker tones. I am so much deeper into my own reflective state here in my own backyard that I could be far away in Ottawa. I am back where I belong!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Indian Point after the rain.

I have been aware of Indian Point calling to me. It has been two weeks since I last photographed this little piece of forested and rocky-beached Indian Reserve and I need to experience the change from drought to rain that is finally happening now, well into Autumn. I have entered into a relationship with this place and feel its pull.

I walk uphill for a change, scrambling up rocky slopes through the once dry grass stems, now wet and flattened. I find the old logging road and follow it westward. Bright maple leaves still flutter in the breeze against the blue sky which seems especially brilliant after days of low grey cloud. The clouds drifting on the breeze and the brisk air brings all to life today. All is transitional, everything rippling, falling, moving on. The light flashes off the ocean waves far below, cast shadows are long, the shade dark. Such a change from the soft overcast light of my last visit.

I arrive at the water’s edge and begin my return via the shoreline. Small birds chirp deep in the salal undergrowth. A kingfisher chatters in the bay and an eagle screams somewhere above in the treetops. The sea breeze sends crisp little waves to bark upon the gravel beaches. Faded, ghostlike ocean-spray and alder leaves murmur. I hear the words of this place even as I wait for its hidden face to peek out at me.

I am surprised to find a young Japanese man standing in the deep shadows peering at a cedar and stop to see what he is doing. “Is this tree sacred to the Indians?” he asks. I shake my head, that would be too simple an answer. “But you feel it don’t you? This grove of dark trees?”I reply. We begin a conversation, a little stilted with his limited English, about Shinto in Japan, which luckily I know something about. What he really meant by his first question, it turns out, was more nuanced. What did Indians here in North America feel about nature, did they have special sites that were sacred to them? Did they share his Japanese cultural perceptions about people’s relationship with the natural world?

A hard question for a non Indian to answer even though I studied Anthropology in University or perhaps because I am aware of the complexity I am unwilling to give a simple answer. I say that I think that what is being felt here is that we are all one. There is no separation between that tree and me. He smiles and says that he never expected to have this kind of conversation in Canada!

I continue along the trail taking the kind of photographs I have been moving towards in the past months: hidden faces of nature that surface through the general mass of perception if my mind is tuned to the right station. I think about that recent conversation back in the dark grove and how perfectly timed it was for me. I think about that young man, aware perhaps for the first time that the sacred groves around Shinto temples are representatives of a world of other groves, of the old Druid groves of my own cultural heritage and that this awareness of unity with the natural world is the heritage of all of us. We all are descendants of hunting gathering peoples around the world and that is the natural form of awareness of peoples who live as a part of nature.