Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Elephants in the Ozarks

March 9, 2011

There is a phenomenon, or perhaps visual experience is a better term, that I like to think is unique to the Ozarks. It occurs in deep winter and earliest Spring, and you must be on foot and hiking along a high ridge somewhere along the Buffalo River. You will be moving through a mixed hardwood forest – maples, oaks, hickories, occasional red cedars, hackberries, ashes and walnuts. They will all be bare; last years leaves underfoot as you move toward the edge, toward the steep downward trek to the river. You will be astonished to find yourself looking down on a sea of leaves, a cloudbank of tan, toothed beauty, still clinging to mature trees and young saplings – all beeches (and sons of beeches) – that form a layer through which you must pass to reach the next level. Some difference, some magical combination of moisture, soil richness, and light have come together in just the way beeches love, and suddenly a tree that was absent only a few hundred feet earlier, now dominates the landscape.

The bark of beeches is the tonality of human skin to a black and white photographer, and the texture of elephant skin to everyone else. Smooth, gray, scarred, imperfect, a record of the life. My face is a well written page, Maggie, but time alone was the pen ( George Washington Johnson).  I once came upon a half-dozen mature beeches that had been cut and stacked after they had blown down during a tornado along the Buffalo, and it was one of the most troubling and sad images I have ever seen. It was impossible not to imagine it as a killing field for elephants, the shameful nightmare of poaching and dismemberment that has been so well documented elsewhere. I walked among the trunks, touching them, apologizing to them, reading their histories in their skins.

Sam and Dusty, Beech Tree, Buffalo National River
11x16 inch monochrome pigment print  $125
4x6 monochrome pigment print $25

A note about the photographs:  The images in this series of journal entries are part of a collection that will be on display during the month of April, 2011, at the Fayetteville Underground Vault gallery. The exhibition, titled 30 Days In The Life, will include 17 photographs, all new work. I offer them for sale to my blog followers, and also a special version – a smaller 4x6 photograph  that will only be available for a short time after each entry.

to order or discuss click here

Beeches seem to beg for vandalism. I have three field guides to the trees of North America, and all of them, when describing beeches, allude to the almost uncontrollable desire, on the part of humans, to inscribe initials in the bark. The photograph attached with this essay is a prime example. I despise vandals. I have seen their selfish and irritating work on enough sandstone bluffs, trees, native American shelters, gravestones, and old homesteads along the Buffalo River, to last a lifetime, and my usual response to it, muttered aloud, would be “Dusty and Sam, there is a special corner of Hell waiting for you, and I hope you have a chance to check it out very soon.”  So, why am I not feeling that way on this day, standing in front of this tree?

Perhaps I’m just rationalizing, grateful that of all the things they could do, this one seems on the relatively benign end of things, that the beech will survive, and its not as if they cut it down. I can still wrap my arms as far around it as I can, and lay my head against its bark and wonder at what it has seen in its lifetime. So, today, Dusty and Sam, I give you a pass, grateful that you put up your guns and took out your pens and only left your initials in the elephants leg.