July 1, 2011
I would not be the first man to be thinking of a woman while sitting on a gravel bar on the upper reaches of the Buffalo National River, or for that matter, while standing, as I am this droughty-hot afternoon, in the middle of the dry pasture of an old homestead, trying to keep sweat from dripping onto the lens of my camera. I am staring at a flower, and traveling through time.
Anyone who has seen passiflora incarnata, otherwise known as passion flower, or maypop, knows that this flower does not belong on earth. The color and structure and surprise of it are otherworldly – living, blooming proof that meteorites carry ancient seeds from planet to planet. And I cannot look at them without thinking of Nancy Maier – musician, poet, artist, songwriter, and rather otherworldly herself.
In 2003, Nancy called me to schedule a day of copy work – the mundane production photography that every artist must arrange to document their finished pieces, or in this case, to make her paintings useful for the insert of a CD of her latest songs. Nancy had just made it through a bout with cancer, and as we drank tea and made small talk, I knew I was in the presence of someone who had shaken hands with death and walked away to tell about it. Her paintings and her songs were a witness, a warning, an encouragement – a distillation of the horrors of treatment and the joys of discovery that seemed to walk hand in hand for her.
While I saw to the technical end of things – setting up flashes, taking exposure readings – Nancy began walking up the long driveway to the house and the nearest bathroom. I was watching her from the studio door, enjoying the scene – a woman in a long dress, one hand holding her hat against the breeze, moving through deep grass and morning sun, Carl padding silently behind her. Just as I was registering the oddity of that old dog leaving me alone to follow a stranger, I heard her give a loud sigh and saw her collapse.
By the time I reached her, my silly little first aid kit in hand, she had already begun a small watercolor painting; her sudden exclamation and drop to the ground a reaction to the unexpected sighting of a cluster of passion flowers climbing over the fescue along the path. I hid the kit behind my back and answered her questions as best I could – the name’s reference to Christian themes that some saw in the structure of the flower, the crown of thorns, the cross, and the implications of death and resurrection. I personally could attest only to the resilience of the plant and the odd fruit that when green and plump and attractive is dry and inedible inside, and only when brown and papery and unappealing, holds a treasure of plump, juicy, thirst-quenching tart seeds. I finally left her to her work, with Carl nervously circling at a distance, as if trying to protect her from something neither of us could see.
A few months later when I received a copy of the new CD, I was most interested in hearing again a song that she had played for me that summer day, sitting in a rocking chair, while on the other side of the studio, I methodically photographed one painting after another – The Buffalo River. She had spoken eloquently of the spiritual cleansing and regeneration she often found there during the stress of what seemed like endless chemotherapy.
The river takes me down to places I have known
The river takes me down into my home
The river takes me down with people I have known
The river takes me down into my home
Love is like a river flowing
Steals your breath and keeps on going
Will I win or will I lose
The question doesn’t matter to a fool
Nancy died last year. I have four things to remember her by – that song of the river, a thriving patch of passion flower that I pass daily on the way to the studio, a small watercolor of my home that Nancy painted from her position in the driveway, and perhaps most powerful of all, the memory of the way she handed it to me, laughing, like a child clutching dandelions.