It helps to go without expectation, just being open to what you find when you get there. There is no way to plan for some shots. Maybe the leaves are right, maybe not; maybe the sky is overcast, maybe not. Maybe it’s raining, maybe not… So much has to come together, you’ll make yourself crazy trying to get it all lined up and marching to your tune. We have to see what is there to know what to do about it. We can trust ourselves to figure out what to do in plenty of time to get it done.
There are small seasonal streams in the Smokies that depend on a wet spring for their brief existence, and do a wonderful job with the opportunity to do what all streams do. In their “stream-ness” they are one with all streams, everywhere. They are as “streamy” as it gets, and flow splashing and gurgling along their course, nourishing the mosses and ferns, trees and flowering plants—doing what is theirs to do—with all the passion and dedication of streams that last year-round, and come replete with names, and bridges, and swimming ropes. My hat’s off to these little wonders. They encourage me on when I encounter the Soul Killers: “So what? Who Cares? Why try? What’s the use? What difference will it make?” And they remind me to say, “I’m just going to do what I do best and see where it goes.”
It isn’t hard to find photos in the fall in North or South Carolina. It’s hard finding a place to park and a place to set your tripod. The rural roads have no shoulders and people, urban and rural, are funny about you walking through their yard and standing in their flowerbeds. Their dogs are even funnier. You are limited to public places with parking and no, No Trespassing signs. And you thought it was about having an expensive camera and several lens. We make the same mistake with everyone who comes our way. We look at them and fail to notice all they are dealing with—how the Cyclops in some present-day configuration is body-slamming them just for the fun of it, and laughing. John Watson’s words are worth carrying around, remembering, living out: “Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle.”
I always miss fall when it’s gone. I love finding photos everywhere, not having to look for them, not having to wait on them—but there is still something to complain about: Not enough camera time. That’s my complaint. Fall doesn’t last nearly long enough. If it only lasted as long as July and August! There should be some compensation for July and August! They last six months apiece. That’s a year total. Fall should last a year. Fall should last long enough that I begin to long for winter. Wish it would snow so I could shovel the driveway. That’s how long I want fall to last.
Something else to be big about—as though we need something else to be big about! We spend all our time granting concessions, making allowances, adjusting our stride to fit the terrain, accommodating, accommodating, accommodating… The turtles and the fishes, the deer and the Great Horned Owls have to do the same thing, but they don’t know they are doing it. It’s just, “Oh, well,” with them. They don’t sit around grousing about it. Not even the Ruffled Grouse grouses. Something’s wrong about that. Something else to grouse about. To be big about. To get over.
The toughest thing about photography is giving your eye something to see. You can’t take your eye somewhere without going with it. And a quiet day reading by the fire with a cup of coffee is out of the question. You want to do this and you want to do that. That conflicts with this. What are you going to do? Enter the agony! Bear the pain! The only people who live pain free lives immune to agony are dead. They may be upright, intact, 98.6 and breathing, but they have been dead for years past counting and are only waiting for the undertaker to make it official. If you are going to be alive, you have to live with the pain and agony—the reality—of “this” negating “that.” Mutually exclusive wants, wishes, options, choices and desires characterize being alive. You get this by giving up that. You get that by handing over this. Trade-offs are the price of being alive. When you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, be damned and be done with it! Make a choice! Decide! Get the camera and give your eye something to see. Or sit with the book and read. It’s your life, live it—and bear the pain of your choices!
Edward Hicks painted over a hundred versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” between 1820 and his death in in 1849. That’s having to get it right—having to do it well. This is the primary distinction between the artist in both the practical arts and the fine arts and those who aspire to be artists by doodling around, owning all the props and wearing the costume.
A plumber is as much an artist in what he does as the painter or the poet is in what she does. What makes them all artists is the drive to do it well. My wife has never taken a landscape photograph in her life, but she has landscaped beautifully and well the yards of every house we’ve lived in.
Art is where your gift lies. Everyone is an artist who knows what gift she, he, has been given and lives to serve that gift, to bring it forth and do it well according to his or her own sense of perfection, no matter what the critics say—and the critics there be many whether they get paid to write reviews or snicker about your flowerbed as they walk down the street.
What do you have to do well? Who says when it’s done well? Joseph Campbell said, “If you can do something you love to do without fear of criticism, you will move. You will feel the joy in it. You don’t have to move more than an inch to feel the joy. Remember, the Buddha’s third temptation was duty, doing what people expect you to do. That’s the censorship fear.”
Live your art, express your gift, do your work—and do it well, according to your own sense of completion.
The gift is a harsh task master, demanding everything in the service of the gift. And it is the giver of life and being. We serve the wonder that brings us to life, anoints us with life, calls us forth, directs our steps and forms the way we are in the world. It is the invisible source of vitality, joy, enthusiasm and delight. A blessing and a grace. Without it, we would be deader than dead. With it, we leave the dead to bury the dead, and press on, in service to the gift. May it always be so, with us all, forever!