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.