Sunny, 37 Degrees, light winds
This idea has come to me many times of late. I remember it very distinctly from a few months ago in the fall when the daily changes in the woods were so beautiful and compelling. Today, January 26th, the daily changes are not so compelling but it is a beautiful day nonetheless. It’s relatively warm, just above freezing, and the sun is out. You can actually sense the coming spring even though it is many months away yet. The sun is higher in the sky and there is a softness in the air that was not there earlier this month when the temperatures hovered around zero and being outside was harsh and difficult.
Jamie setting out on our first walk for this blog
The idea that keeps coming up is to photograph and write about my morning walks with my dog Jamie. I walk Jamie every day, usually over the same trails in the woods north and east of my home. The trails are paths cleared through brush and woods by the owner of the land. It’s a part of an old farmstead about a half mile from my home. The farm is a beautiful old place with a handsome house and several barns. The owner was an old man whom I never met. He was largely a shut in until he died last winter. I was told he was found dead outside his door. I imagine that he fell and was unable to get up and subsequently froze to death there. A grim way to go, but this is only rumor and speculation on my part. Now his children own the place and they come up from their homes in Indiana on some weekends. I pray that they will not sell the place off and have it subdivided into housing. It would be such a shame.
To get to the woods, I walk a few blocks in the neighborhoods of my town then turn North on a dirt road. The farm is about a quarter mile up the road and just past the farm are the woods and brush of the land I walk. The farmer kept these trails clear by mowing them a few times a year with his tractor. They are used only by a few local residents, mostly to walk their dogs. Right now, I am the only one using them. I know this because only my footsteps appear in the snow in winter.
Near the entrance to the trails in the woods
I began walking in these woods not long after I met my wife. She took me there one sunny weekend and we wandered around in the woods, getting a bit lost but eventually finding our way out. The dog I refer to as mine is actually her. She works long hours so I started walking him as a way to help her out. He was a nice dog if a little overenergetic and a bit wild at that time. My wife sees animals as almost more important than people. She let him do whatever he wanted when she walked him and consequently he ran around at the end of his twenty foot leash like a madman. He would run to the end and give you a yank so hard you’d think he would break his neck. But he has a neck as big as my leg and it didn’t phase him in the least.
Jamie in the snow on our second walk
His name is Jamie. I cally him Jimmy most of the time, or just buddy. He is a mix of unknown breeds. My wife rescued him from a last chance shelter. There is definitely some pit bull in the mix, but he has the body of a boxer and his face has some hound dog in it as well. He is as strong and muscular as a prize fighter. Not one ounce of fat on him anywhere. He is a beautiful brown and black brindle and has a handsome and sensitive face. People who pass Jamie and me on the street almost invariably remark on what a beautiful dog he is.
He is a very sweet dog with people. He wants to meet everyone he passes and accepts the petting and scratching he gets with much appreciation. He loves children and is remarkably gentle with them, seeming to appreciate their small size and delicacy. He stands nose up to their faces, sniffing gently.
With dogs, it is another story. Any strange dog near his size or bigger will cause him to go nuts, lunging and seething at the end of his leash as if he wants to kill or eat the other dog. I’m sure he looks scary as hell, though I know that he just wants to meet the dog. He doesn’t just run up and bite a dog, but he can be so overwhelming that a meek dog will often snap at him to back him off. This doesn’t bother him. He just backs off then comes back for more. Given five minutes with most dogs, things will relax and they go about their business.
So, as I said, Jamie is my wife’s dog. I was not a dog lover when I met her. I’d had dogs as a kid and wasn’t afraid of dogs, which was good because he used to jump up on me relentlessly when I came to see her. But I didn’t love dogs. They felt too needy to me. I had had cats for many years, mostly because of my ex-wife, but I liked their independence and their occasional affection more than the intensity that Jimmy brought.
On my first walk in the woods, the snow had all melted, leaving this scene
But back to Jimmy more later. This is supposed to be about the Woods. He is certainly a part of the story, but let me tell you a little more about the woods first. To get into the property you have to duck through a little game trail. The owners don’t want people accessing the property easily though they have never objected when I have met them in their woods. Nonetheless, they block off these little game trails about once a year with mounds of brush, forcing me to find another way in. Once through the brush that lines the dirt road you come to a small clearing that is mowed a couple of times a year. It’s probably only half an acre and is the only cleared land on the ten or fifteen acres that appear to be part of their parcel. It’s a nice place to begin a walk there as the sun is usually rising over the field as I enter the property.
From there, there are a couple of loops of trails you can walk with a few cut offs from each that afford a variety of ways you can walk the trails. Each path is generally at least ten feet wide or more, though some are narrower, particularly in the deep woods. On the upper level of the land there is mostly very dense brush, perhaps eight or ten feet high with some scattered trees. This land must once have been cleared but the brush is so dense that it is absolutely impenetrable for a human. There is a wide path that forms a loop around the perimeter of this upper level.
At several points along the East side of this loop there are trails that take you down through forest to the lower level. This entire area is densely wooded, and doesn’t have the brush of the upper level.There is a fairly steep hill that drops down from the upper level to the wooded lower level and this makes a walk in the woods a good workout. At the Northern and Eastern side of the loop that runs on the lower level, there is a large marshy area. The lower trail skirts the edge of this marsh at some distance and you can see out across it to some distant woods up on a promontory. There are a few houses visible at the North end of the marsh on the other side but for the most part there is no sign of civilization anywhere on the property save for the paths themselves.
I come to these woods most mornings of the year to walk Jamie. He is a very high energy dog and I don’t really like walking him on a leash. He wants to be exploring all the time and I get no pleasure either being pulled by him or pulling on him as he stops to sniff and pee on every place a dog has passed. I want exercise too on these mornings and have little patience for stopping all the time. I want him off leash, and in the woods I can do that. It is against the law to have a dog off leash virtually anywhere these days, but here I can get away with it because almost no one comes here but me.
I seem to keep coming back to Jamie as I tell this story. There will be a lot more to say about Jamie and me, but I want to return to the reasons for my desire to photograph and write about these walks. The first reason is simple. I’m a photographer. Or at least I have been a photographer. I haven’t done much photography for some years. I haven’t had a sense of just what I want to photograph. I’ve done a lot of nature and landscape photography for years and I’m pleased with and proud of that work, but I had begun to feel that I couldn’t find subject matter that was compelling to me. I felt I had said about all I needed to say about the beautiful beaches and forests of Michigan.
I actually spent the last four or five years mostly learning about and building motorcycles. I enjoyed doing that a lot, but they are expensive to build, very labor intensive, and hard to sell. So I’ve closed the door on that chapter of my life and moved on. I’ve actually moved on to being retired, which could be seen as not so much moving on as just stopping moving.
Jamie scanning the woods for deer
I’ve enjoyed the first few months of retirement pretty well and I’m enjoying it still. I’ve been playing guitar a lot more, studying pretty seriously to learn jazz guitar. It keeps me interested and fills two or three or more hours a day pretty well, but I need a bit more to fill my life completely.
Photography keeps coming to mind. I always enjoyed it. I’ve been one kind of artist or another all my life. It’s part of my heritage, coming down from my parents. So it’s natural for me to think of it. I don’t need to work at it so hard as I have in the past. I don’t need to make money at it, though some extra money wouldn’t hurt. But this idea of writing about and photographing the woods probably won’t make me any money.
I always pursued photography with the intent of selling my work. So, though I enjoyed it, I always approached it like work. I worked hard to develop a portfolio worthy of gallery representation. I worked hard to find galleries to represent me, and then I worked hard to continue to deliver fresh work to them on a regular basis. That meant that I went to remote locations, hiked back into the woods, and camped alone where I could experience nature without interference of others. I would rise at or before dawn so I could shoot in the beautiful soft morning light. I would shoot for hours, then rest a bit, then soot again for several more hours mid day, rest again, and then shoot until dusk.
A photograph from my earlier days of landscape photography. It’s from the Pictured Rocks area.
I found this pretty exciting for a while, though I never really liked the solitude and the hardship of it. I missed my wife. I don’t really like camping all that much. It was just what I needed to do to get the pictures I wanted. After a few days of it I needed to get out and go home. I don’t think humans are really meant to be alone for too long. I would not speak to another human being for days at a time and it’s just plain weird to be the only person in a deserted campground in the middle of nowhere.
I did this periodically for several years, but eventually I felt I had covered the areas I wanted to about as well as I could. I started with the beaches of the Upper Peninsula and later spent some time in the woods of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. But I was becoming less and less happy alone in the woods and those pictures didn’t seem to sell as well as the beach photos did, so I took to the motorcycles and stopped shooting.
The thing that’s different about photographing my local woods, my daily walk, is that I don’t think it’s as photogenic as the spectacular beaches and woods that I had photographed were. It’s not spectacular. But it’s deeply familiar and something I experience almost every day. It has a depth of its own, but I don’t think it will generate images like the ones I have made and sold before. But what the heck. I’m retired now. Maybe I don’t have to make images that are saleable. I just want to share the experience of walking there every day and maybe the images will turn out to be beautiful and possibly even saleable at some point.
My intent is to write as well as photograph because I want to share the experience more fully. It is a meaningful experience for me to walk there every day, to see all the changes in weather and season, to walk with my dog over and over, getting closer and more in touch with him day by day. It’s day to day life. It’s not the spectacular and the exceptional. It’s experience over a long period of time, the slow growth, the observations gathered day in and day out for years rather than the exceptional moments of special light in special places. Those special places and the beautiful photographs that came from them are nice, very nice, but they are not what life is comprised of.
So my thought is that I would take pictures of a place that I see every day, that is not terribly exceptional though it is often beautiful at least to me. I want to share the fairly ordinary thoughts and experiences that I have every day but that add up to life, or at least a life. And just maybe it will add up to something that other people will find interesting or beautiful. Maybe even I will find the real beauty that I take for granted or dismiss as unsuitable for real photography.
A tree along the trail in the woods
So there’s my idea. Ordinary stories of ordinary things on ordinary days and pictures of a nice but not exceptional place that I see every day. Doesn’t sound all that promising and yet the idea has come to me repeatedly and I don’t think I should dismiss it. Besides, I’m making nothing of interest now anyway and what do I have to lose but time that I have to spare anyway.
A big concern I have is that I will write a bunch of stuff from my day to day life that no one else could possibly find interesting. I worry that this exercise is massively self-indulgent, that anyone who might read it will roll their eyes and wonder how I could possibly think anyone else would give a damn about this stuff. And the photos could just be boring and unspectacular, important only to me because I walk these trails every day, absorbing the feel of nature every day of the year. Self-indulgent in a different way.
I worry more about the writing because it is not my primary art form. I’ve always been a visual artist and I’ve had a lot of time to get comfortable with making images and letting other people decide for themselves whether they are worthwhile. I know they are worthwhile to me. But writing is different. It too is a part of my heritage. My mother did quite a bit of writing though she never really got anything published. And I’ve enjoyed writing about my photographs a lot as well. I’ve compiled several books of my photographs with a bit of text included that I felt pretty good about. But I don’t have the long experience, the good feedback that I’ve gotten about my visual art work to help me feel good about writing.
And of course the writing is so overtly about me. Hence the feeling of self-indulgence. The photographs are overtly about something else, though they are about me just as much as is the writing. But I am more hidden in the photographs and therefore less exposed and perhaps more insulated from criticism.
One of my favorite passages in the woods
But there is nothing else to do but write and let other people read and hope that some of them find the writing interesting and rewarding. No artist can survive if they are not willing to do their work and then let other people see it and think what they will. Surely the same is true for a writer.
So, on with the project. Take pictures, write about my experiences with the woods, with Jamie, and with whatever else comes up. Tomorrow, I bring the camera with me on my walk.