I stood knee deep in the water and prayed.
If ever a word had connotations, it’s ‘prayed’.
I wasn’t asking for anything or speaking to anyone, and I am in no way religious, so perhaps I shouldn’t use that particular word.
But I want to.
Maybe its my sense of mischief making me slightly provocative. Maybe it’s the sense of gratitude and thanks that I was feeling. Maybe it was the energy I felt coursing through my body and soul.
I have no idea, but right now, ’prayed’ seems the most appropriate word.
Revelled. Basked. Glorified…they could work…
There was just so much to be thankful for, and I didn’t care who was listening to or what heard my thoughts, so I stood there and…revelled…basked…glorified…
I stood there and prayed.
I had just spent five days driving across America on a rushed but glorious road trip, hopping from national park to national park…the Badlands, the Rockies, the Arches and the Great Sand Dunes and was now on my last day before heading to work in Minneapolis.
I just wanted one more session, a photographic good bye to this magnificent country.
The night before I had spotted a lake on the map, only a small diversion from the motel i was staying in and decided to take a look first thing.
When I got there however, the main entrance to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge was shut – completely barred shut – with absolutely no entrance possible. Whats more it looked like it had been shut for a while, the gates held closed by an old swinging rusty padlock as a battered, drooping ‘closed’ sign hung tiredly from them – this was a permanent type of ‘shut’, definitely not the ‘you’re too early’ type.
Back to the car and back to the map…was there somewhere else to go? Or better still, another way in?
Tiny dirt track roads – barely visible on the map – made themselves known, seeming to loop round the back, skirting the borders of the park, before making their tentative way in.
This time i was barred by a half hearted sign and barrier blocking only one side of the road. Round I went, pausing only to check my conscience and acknowledge the mild trepidation I was feeling about entering illegally. Seven A.M. on a weekday morning in a closed wildlife refuge in the middle of nowhere? After you and don’t mind if I do…
Truth be told I wasn’t expecting much.
I had already achieved everything I could possibly have hoped for, photographically speaking. This was a potential bonus, a quiet moment for me to unwind my creative juices, a final, quick stop before the long drive back to Minneapolis, my start and finish.
It turns out I was right to have followed my instinct…Lake Desoto was a big lake – not stunning or dramatic, but placid and still with a huge deep, blue sky floating above. The early morning sun warmed my face as I left the car, camera in hand, film moving to a dull rhythm in my pockets.
But not quite.
I was not alone.
Not far from where I had pulled up, and on the path to where I wanted to go, was another car – a station wagon, its boot – trunk – was open, fishing gear and food spilled out. Metres away was an old man. He had set up for a day of fishing. Food and beer were within easy reach of his chair, fishing lines extended into the lake from a couple of rods balanced on stands, waiting for a reason to move.
My heart sunk.
I am not the most communicative of people at the best of times, but put my camera in my hand, a landscape full of potential in front of me and I will do my best to avoid any semblance of conversation, any pretence of wanting to be a part of the human race. Add to that the fact that it had already been six days since I had said more than five words to anyone, meant that my mind, soul and very essence were screaming out to be left alone…stay away, let me work in peace…please…
In hindsight I suppose I am glad he approached.
Memories of a location are important to me. Emotions felt at the time accompany me in the darkroom, filling the thick, chemically enhanced air as I forge a relationship with my nascent prints. The more memories there are and the more complex the emotions felt at the time, the more attached I become to the prints and the more fun I tend to have in the deep, red light.
It seems this apparent gate keeper, barring my way to all the potential images that were calling out to me, had a role to play, adding a fantastic level of surreal to my morning, perfect for me to feed off in the darkroom months later. And after days alone, betrothed to my mind in an intense intimacy with Mother Nature, those levels of surreal were amplified more than usual.
As our paths inevitably came closer to colliding, I noticed his face was lit up with a desire to pull me into his lonely morning. My mind, rightly or wrongly, decided he had more than one foot beyond the threshold of senility. More than likely he had been escorted here by his family and left for the day, to a place of familiarity and happiness. A place he loved, where he could pass his day in peace, doing what he loved, keeping his demons at bay.
As contact happened and I tried frantically to hide my social anxiety, he somehow morphed in my mind and became the guardian or gatekeeper to the location. Perhaps protecting this mini paradise for Old Nic, or more likely Pan, shepherd to a flock of nymphs as they frolic the day away in a mist of musk, lust and giggles.
Maybe I was being tested before being reluctantly tolerated by his master and allowed to enter their world, to temporarily disturb their play. Perhaps he would decide as we greeted whether to allow Pan’s nymphs to guide me as I took my photos, to toy with me, swirling their lust for creativity playfully through me as I worked.
Or would I fail, and leave the lake feeling frustrated, with only a handful of mediocre photographs, never quite feeling it and somehow failing to tap into the energy of the location.
I tried to focus on him, give him the attention he deserved.
We chatted. He chatted. I listened. He heard my foreign, British, strange accent. I told my story haltingly. He told me his. He saw my camera. He loved photography. He loved nature. He loved his spot, his domain. He had decided to trust me. He told me about a pair of eagles close by, their nest in a tree over there, somewhere beyond his quivering finger. Oh, you will be able to take wonderful photos of them, he smiled encouragingly. I thanked him for this wonderful information, but alas, with no intention of heading away towards the birds. With the best will in the world, my wide angle lens would never be up to the task of photographing eagles. I wanted the water and the lake. I wanted Pan’s kingdom and the nymphs, all beyond the gatekeeper.
I left, saying good bye and thank you. Holding my breath, hoping he wouldn’t call me back, insist I went to his eagles.
I left, entering Pan’s world, in search of his nymphs, in search of the essence of his domain and the inspiration it contained.
I left, in search of all the potential new images waiting to be discovered, hearing them calling me.
I left, feeling my camera come to life in my hand as it made its connection with my mind, my eye and our surroundings.
I left and I wandered barefoot, absentmindedly, instinctively into the lake.
And I stood there, knee deep in water.
I stood there, a rush of energy rising gently around me, subtly pulsating through me, my arms out to my side, throbbing.
With my eyes to the sky, a deep blue mirror above, my legs dissolving in the cool still water, my feet absorbed by the mud, I felt a familiar deep, deep connection. From without to within, from soul to surroundings, it appeared…a familiar connection to the thread that so often guides me through life, guides me as I take my photographs, reassures me I am on the right path, tells me all is good with the world.
My guide, my thread to all my potential, future images.
I had picked up on it, as I so often did at the start of a photographic trip, five days earlier, leaving Minneapolis. Then it had been strong and powerful, keen and eager, as I approached the dramatic worlds I planned to visit. It had grown in harmony with the power of the canyons, mountains and lakes I had been immersed in, until climaxing in the Great Sand Dunes as a screaming vortex created by my inner hurricanes, swirling around my soul, somehow making connections to my unknown futures.
And now, here it was again, back with me to say good bye. Subtle and unimposing, having done its job, slowly disappearing as i retreated from the world of creativity I had been immersed in.
It was perfect.
After the sheer jaw dropping, grandiose beauty of previous parks, this calm serene lake was nothing. It was not a National Park, it was a mere Wildlife Refuge – and a closed one at that. Shut down, from all but me. From all but my Gods and I. Mother nature and I. Gaia and I. The spirits and I.
My camera and I.
I was, for a few minutes, where I belonged, in my own little world, somewhere over the horizon, behind the blink of an eye and to the west of the sun.
And here in this land – so close yet so distant, so brief yet eternal – the nymphs giggled and frolicked, splashed and played. Pan himself voiced his amusement and approval as, for the last time on this trip, I lowered my camera, spent, exhausted and content.
And I gave thanks to all who were listening, made ready to leave the water and head back, past the guardian dozing in the morning sun, fishing rods suspended over the still waters, to the waiting car. To my waiting life.
But first, I revelled, basked and glorified.
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