Examined

I never feel alone in the woods, though often there’s no one else around. There’s quite a bit of animal life along Sourdough Trail. Some is seasonal, like the turtles I’m now encountering. And this fall will likely bring the occasional black bear foraging close to town. When you know—or even suspect—that a bear’s about, every noise in the brush has an edge to it, and your visual awareness is likewise heightened. But most of the time, throughout the year, the largest animals are deer.

I don’t see a deer every visit by any means, but they are common enough that I treated them as unremarkable, and seldom even considered photographing them. That was partly due to casually classifying myself as a landscape photographer, not a wildlife photographer. Small-minded yet justified, perhaps, by finding far more than I could manage even within that category. Narrowness can be a strength, or even a necessity. At any rate, it’s clear that the animals belong to this place I am exploring and are therefore subject. Furthermore, this unusually curious deer, appearing as I walked a northern boundary one morning, deliberately approached to within ten feet and fairly demanded a picture.

You may notice the stronger toning of these images, akin to thiocarbamide toning in the darkroom. It changes from purplish in the low register to orangish in the mid-to-high range. The second image of the deer at the fence being generally lighter, it acquires a very different overall cast from the preceding one. I’m finding the look somewhat artificial, but also mysterious in a way that seems to suit my skittish examiner.

Nameless

I’m spending a fair amount of time along Sourdough Trail, but I’m spending it, for the most part, by and for myself. Despite maintaining this journal, I’m not primarily concerned with communicating about the place itself. Call it narcissism, but the emphasis has been more on me, specifically on me photographing, most precisely on me photographing in this particular spot. That does entail telling you a little about the place, but not to the extent that I’ve had to develop names.

Furthermore, my communication has been mostly visual. I don’t need to describe the snowy Watchman, standing just before the main bridge, because I can show him to you. And I don’t need to name him Watchman because I probably won’t be speaking of him again. In fact, I haven’t used that name even to myself before now—though he’s one of a set that I thought of loosely as Guardians when I first began photographing here.

Names are clearly needed for a full, communal understanding of place. Names carry meaning. There’s a world of difference between knowing a particular feature as, say, Flounder at the Base of the Creek (Dzántik’i Héeni in Tlingit) or as Gold Creek. In the present case, the fairly generic Sourdough Creek (there must be dozens in every western state) certainly has different associations from its other name of Bozeman Creek. But I’ll leave that social/historical thread for another time.

What I’m wondering now is what difference it might make, for me in my isolation, to create and use names. Does having a name make a feature more salient, more readily, even automatically, distinguished and noticed? Possibly. Still, an actual name seems superfluous. The Watchman stood out on my earliest visits, though he remained unpictured until snow fell. I notice him every time I walk that path. Similarly, I’ve always noticed, and thought of as a distinct entity, the long, nearly horizontal branch I have to duck under on a certain side path. I’ve wanted to photograph it, but haven’t seen the picture yet. Until now, it never occurred to me to give it a name, and I doubt I shall. (If I do, perhaps Long Arm…)

In many respects, at least for my own purposes, a photograph serves like a name. It singles out its subject, which thereafter remains a noticed quantity. For example, the Tangles I pictured late this spring, though noted in a general way before, will doubtless be more regularly observed in future.

A name is not mere shorthand, but adds some personal touch that’s a product of an individual mind, and that ties the named to other things, to the past. The photograph may also call up those associations, but perhaps not as surely and concisely and unfailingly over time. The haiku I wrote in the first phase of this project aimed to capture something along these lines, and I actually used them in place of titles for the photographs. Nevertheless, I think there’s a big difference between a haiku and a name. The haiku, by nature, represented unrepeatable moments. They don’t seem to carry the judgement, almost finality of a name. Recently, I’ve been reveling in changes more than continuities. The light on a leaf never falls the same way twice. Naming even that leaf is naming in vain.

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