or, Why I take the same pictures every day
On my first visit to the physical therapist after my second hip replacement in six months, she asked me what my goal was? Going up and down the stairs was still a problem. She wanted me to think out in time to the thing that would let me know I was where I wanted to be.
“Walking around Lake Phalen,” I said.
I hadn’t been able to do that since we first moved in three blocks from the lake. One of the major reasons we bought this house was its location in one of only two significant green zones in the city. We loved the house itself but also especially because of its proximity to the lake. Steve was already dreaming about canoes and kayaks and sailboats.
During 2018 I could walk some of the lake, half at most, and not without significant pain. This year I made it all the way around without significant pain. It was truly a milestone. Now that I can, I walk around the lake almost every day. I do it with joy and pride and ambition. What’s the next goal?
In addition to being my exercise it is my meditation. My mind lets go of its petty preoccupations, spins out, and then opens up to the language of the trees, the birds, the wind, and the water. I have two or three basic variations of the lake walk, but it is substantially the same landscape and waterscape no matter which one I take. Yet it is anything but the same walk every day. Each day is full of delightful surprises.
The difference comes in various scales. The largest scale is the change of seasons, which is dramatic and all-encompassing. Walking in summer means shorts and tee shirts. Walking in winter means layers of down and ski poles. As much as I hate the worst of winter, beauty can still be found in unlikely places. Spring, summer, and fall are so abundantly beautiful, each in its own way, not as a state but as a process, that I am content to be where I am, doing what I am doing. The feeling of contentment in life is rare and evanescent. The broad natural and psychic space the lake creates in the immediate environment is a zone of quiet, of the wind through the leaves, the ripple of the water, the songs of the redwing blackbirds, and the fragrance of wildflowers and flowering trees. The impact of the natural surroundings is enveloping, visceral, and gives rise to a spontaneous feeling of well-being.
Downscale from the changing seasons are the daily changes within a given season. In spring and summer native wildflowers bloom in successive waves. Fragrance also comes in waves, first the lilacs, then the catalpas, then the lindens, then the sagey sweetness of the fields of wildflowers, each with a unique scent that sometimes saturates the air and sometimes teases from the distance.
The light changes hourly, and is different on each side of the lake, as different as light and shadow. The butterflies and transparent dragonflies and bees are creatures of an instant, there and gone among the wildflowers before you notice them.
Nothing is the same and nothing changes. Through the year’s round the banks of trees and flowers reproduce themselves before my eyes, burst like Fourth of July fireworks, flame red and pink before shedding their foliage to reveal their stark skeletons etched in ice and snow. It all comes. It all goes. It never dies. It returns each spring and explodes each summer and is consumed in flame each autumn like the phoenix that will rise again when the Earth tilts at the proper angle to the sun.
I take pictures every day because, although I walk the same paths I see different things and my eye glimpses different instants of sublime beauty. Sometimes I can catch that unique beauty in a photo. Sometimes not. Sometimes your eyes don’t see the thing I took the picture of, and it looks like a hundred other pictures I’ve taken in the same place. But it’s not the same picture and it’s not the same place, at least not to me. In each instance I am striving to capture something unique in its own singular instant, a particular confluence of space, color, sky, water, trees, shadows, and clouds with something at its center I haven’t seen before.
If nothing else, my walks around the lake make me happy and keep me sane. The photos are souvenirs, physical memories, artifacts of the revealed sublime, at least to me.