Category Archives: Mindfulness

EMBODY THE WILD!

Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua trees. Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

It’s more than synchronistic that Terry Tempest Williams appeared at the Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham for a talk on the value of public lands, “breathing spaces in a country that increasingly holds its breath.”

I say synchronistic because I have this urgent dream to visit all our National Parks, not just the ones I return to again and again. And Tempest Williams came to share her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, described by publisher Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a literary celebration of our national parks, an exploration of what they mean to us and what we mean to them… Part memoir, part natural history, and part social critique, The Hour of Land is a meditation and a manifesto on why wild lands matter to the soul of America.”

Among the impassioned essays in this book are photographs from Lee Friedlander to Sally Mann to Sebastião Salgado.

It was a special, and I mean special, event co-sponsored by Village Books and North Cascades Institute.

I’m not sure how to attribute the following quotes, which I took from VB’s and NCI’s websites. I believe they are Tempest Williams’s own words and possibly appear on her book jacket.

“For years, America’s national parks have provided public breathing spaces in a world in which such spaces are steadily disappearing.”

“By definition, our national parks in all their particularity and peculiarity show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect. They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities. Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.”

From beginning to end, Tempest Williams, her vivid language and her presence, transported me. Several times I was brought to tears, listening to her experiences. One story, which is narrated in her book, she described a visit to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with her husband. While there, this is what they witnessed:

“A silhouette of coyotes feasting on a bison carcass, surrounded by bald eagles and ravens, appeared in our binoculars. As the light grew stronger the coyotes became nervous and left. The eagles flew. The ravens vanished. A large gray wolf entered.

Morning light illuminated the bison body, now more bones than flesh. We watched the wolf disappear into a red cavern of ribs. He emerged stained. In the several hours we watched, the wolf’s stomach expanded with each mouthful of bison ripped from the scaffolding of bones until he stopped eating, looked over his shoulder, sniffed, and walked back into the woods.

At dusk, we returned to the Lamar Valley. We wondered whether the wolves might be back on the carcass. Instead, two coyotes were picking on the bones covered by a buffalo robe. The coyotes disappeared into the the shadows with the last light of day.

An indigo sky deepened. A mile away, a herd of a hundred bison or more grazed unconcerned. Seven left and walked single file toward the remains of the mother bison. They circled her twice, sniffed her, nudged her body, and tightened their circle as they lowered their heads. They stayed with her until twilight. Then the bison left as they came, walking single file back toward the herd–save one lone bull who stayed behind.”

Her conclusion? “We are not the only creatures on this plant who love.”

“We are” she said, “but one species among many.”

Raven, Joshua Tree National Park

Raven, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

“Humility is born in wilderness,” she said. The lesson, of course, is that we must be good stewards and preserve what we can of the wild.

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park

Jumbo Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Park. Photo © Jane Alynn.

Several moments of silence followed her closing words. A bow to the power of her message. . . and to the truth of it.

“Nature,” she said, “is the pathway to peace.”

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THE MOMENT

Alleyway after the Rain
 
No matter how many times I stroll through the alleys in Mount Vernon, the lyric of these narrow liminal spaces always trips my senses. I love the old brick walkway and buildings, dipping and cracked due to the silty fill, their uneven settling. I am fascinated by the textures, the collection of dumpsters, stuff piled in the back-stoop storage. And after a rain I love how the alley resonates silence and melancholy.

Alleys fascinate me. As liminal spaces, betwixt and between, neither-this-nor-that, these pathways that thread between buildings have intricate histories. Alleys have existed in virtually every urban culture and location in the world in some form or another for at least two thousand years, and often were bustling urban places. Neglected, they turned into scuzzy and sometimes dangerous places that became forbidden territory.

These days there is a move to revitalize our alleys. Surely, the effort to clean them up and give them a face lift is laudable. But some things that make alleys so interesting to me will be erased and paved over. What is now will be gone.

Photography is always dealing with the momentary, and by accepting change I open myself to new moments. These moments of attentiveness are all we have, these and the photographs that remember the characteristics of the place that held my attention.
 
alley-wall

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SURPRISE

Efflorescent Utility Pole

Efflorescent Utility Pole

I travel this street nearly every day, and sometimes more often than that. It is my usual route out of town. This residential street lined with ordinary houses, tidy lawns, and arborvitae privacy screens is as familiar as a place can be.

There is comfort in familiarity. It is reassuring to get what we expect, to see the same old scene altered merely by time or season. And yet there is another side to this regularity. Sameness can make the eye lazy.

Surprise snaps me out of this kind of passivity.

I have learned to always carry a camera, which not only makes me ready for the unexpected, it actually shifts my mindset to see the unexpected. It invites surprise.

And sure enough, on this day I saw the surprising juxtaposition of a flowering tree and a utility pole. The pole looked like the tree’s trunk with full-blossomed branches growing from it. It was positively an electric spectacle! As Joel Meyerowitz says, “It is this kind of surprise that keeps me interested in things that might easily go unnoticed. It is paying attention that makes photography a vital form for me.”

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THE SILENCE IS NEARLY PERFECT

Causland Park, Anacortes
 
Today I found myself thinking these negative thoughts because there is so much craziness happening in the world now! The danger, of course, is overlooking the positives—a concord of flowering trees, early daffodils, returning birds, the sun getting it right—just outside my window.

I’m glad to be brought back to the present moment.

And to a breath of silence.

*

Starlings and the Cormorant

Not yet dawn
I walk in a soft rain
unprepared
for the cloudburst
of starlings
that drop
from powerlines and houses
by the thousands
into a spruce tree;
their song, twittery and bright,
is something miraculous—
Swelled from a few
once let loose
they sing with continual freedom,
no fear, no ambition,
running the gamut naturally
in trills and tremolos,
warbles in an unbroken litany.

And when I leave
the birdsong behind to return
to my quiet room, wondering
what to do with words,
I stand there in the darkness,
drenched, arms outstretched
like a cormorant drying her wings.
I try to hear, if there’s a voice,
what she would sing
but the silence is nearly perfect.

© Jane Alynn
from Necessity of Flight (Cherry Grove, 2011)

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FRESH STARTS

The Dike in Bloom

The Dike in Bloom. Photograph © Jane Alynn.

Xīnnián hǎo! Monday, February 8 was the start of the 2016 Chinese New Year. It is the year of the Fire Monkey. I read somewhere that the Year of the Fire Monkey is a great year for fresh starts.

This photograph reminds me of the treasure of standing still, in the quiet cool of a spring morning, on the dike that rises along Skagit Bay, breathing in the salt marsh exposed by low tide.

Though it is a familiar landscape, at that moment I felt surprised, open, and inspired. Even my step had a spring to it.

But then, in seeing and photographing, isn’t every moment a beginning?

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LET THE FEELING BE LOVE

Couple on the Beach, Waldport, OR

All you need is love.
~ John Lennon (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980)

The deluge of news about acts of terror at home and around the world makes it easy to believe that danger lurks behind every door, that we are not safe, and that we must then be wary of everyone who is different from us. Otherness becomes a defense for fear and suspicion, which hardens into irrational beliefs that lead us to act out against innocent people. Closed doors, hearts, and minds are the enemy of life.

It is a dangerous progression. And the media, in reporting the rhetoric of hate, further deepens ignorance and extremism.

I’ve written before about the power of words and how they affect seeing.

Clarity of vision demands a receptive, compassionate heart, free of labels and preconceptions.

So let the feeling be love.

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Roll with the Punches

Carpe Diem, Port Townsend, WA

Carpe Diem, Port Townsend, WA. Photograph © Jane Alynn.

I just spent several days in Port Townsend. The main reason for my visit was to make images. In particular, I wanted to photograph Fort Worden’s extensive system of large, abandoned bunkers, creating new work to add to my What Remains portfolio.

As I stood among those fascinating structures, awed by their complexity, aware of their dark history, I set up my tripod and camera, loaded my film, and turned the crank. Instead of stopping at the first frame, the crank advance kept turning. Oh, no! I thought. My camera is broken! Indeed, after several tries, it was clear my camera’s advancing mechanism was not working properly. Shortly after that I took a hard fall and my camera and I went tumbling. It took me about five seconds to call it a day.

But life is like that. It requires flexibility. By accepting this and adapting to the circumstances as they are instead of what we want them to be, we open ourselves to new possibilities. So, I decided to roll with the punches and see what I could do with my digital camera. I was too bruised and achy to do anything more at Fort Worden, but the accessibility of the boat yard offered me exactly what I needed.

Carpe diem is usually understood to mean “seize the day”; its more literal translation is “enjoy the moment.” And I did.

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Observation

Barred Window, Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley, WA

Window, Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley. Photo © 2015 Jane Alynn.


 
Recently, when I was wandering around the old Northern State Hospital farm for a project I have been working on, this wall with a barred window on one of the dilapidated buildings caught my eye.

At first glance the surfaces attracted me. The textures of long-growing lichens, of cracked and peeling paint, its many layers exposed by years of neglect.

Then I saw the puzzle of geometric shapes: the rectangular window, a frame within a frame, perfectly centered in the middle of what remained of a square structure; and the space divided into triangles by the diagonal bar, which together formed another rectangle.

But that slash of metal! The diagonal line, even as it contributed to the symmetry of the composition, furnished the needed contrast, subverting the visual balance with a sense of drama. Slicing across the front of the window, its meaning was clear and commanding: entry was forbidden!

Observations like that make connections with something more inward.

As I stood there, looking at the cracked and peeling layers of paint, the barred window, I envisioned the layers of mystery that surrounded the hard lives of the mentally ill patients who once lived there.

It is this process—the same process, really—as writing a poem, that makes seeing and then photographing so vital for me.

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Emptiness

Sears Ghostbox in Burlington

Sears Ghostbox, Burlington, WA. Photograph © Jane Alynn


 

Not too long ago, Sears, one of the anchor stores in the Cascade Mall, in Burlington, closed its doors. Dark and vacant, it was a hulking monument to our shopping culture. I was captivated by its emptiness, its raw, brutal, concrete architecture.

Here was another “ghostbox” (as they have come to be called) with its grim façade and a shadow of its stripped signage, lingering like a scar.

For some time I have been drawn to empty spaces such as abandoned buildings, deserted shopping malls, abandoned parks and playgrounds, places that have been built for our activities but are devoid of people. I find these strangely surrealistic and am endlessly fascinated by them.

So, I headed down to the mall one afternoon. As I stood there in the empty parking lot, photographing, a feeling swept through me, which I could not name.

But today, out of the blue, someone sent me the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, and voila! There was the word for it:

kenopsia: n. the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs.

Of course. When we think about emptiness we soon see that it is not really empty. Emptiness holds immense tension (potential) in the absence. It is a seedbed of infinite selection, a succession of possibilities.

Likewise, negative space is not a void. It helps to define the boundaries of positive space, brings balance to a composition and, I might add, energizes the entire image.

Emptiness as a state of being enables me to see with new eyes.

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Wandering: Going Without Arriving

Bridge, Portland Japanese Garden

Woman crossing the bridge in Portland’s Japanese Garden.

A good traveler has no fixed plans,
and is not intent on arriving.
~ Lao Tzu

Going is important, not arriving. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

We left today for a long-awaited journey with our new (to us) 29-foot travel trailer. We will be out two-weeks, but our whereabouts during those two weeks are uncertain. We will have a road map, of course, but we expect to lose our compulsion for a known itinerary. It is the unexpected that is the hallmark of our most enjoyable travel.

Thus, our plans are loose. Head west, then south. Follow the coast. Or not.

When we do not plan too tightly, and are not fixed on a route or a place we feel destined to end up, we leave ourselves open to wander.

In wandering, we slow down. It is always the present moment. Our habitual mind-set is disrupted, and everything around us becomes a surprise, new and fresh. This heightened way of seeing—happy, relaxed, unconcerned with self, attentive—is full of delight and expansiveness.

Traveling like this offers so many opportunities to see—the roadside, vehicles that pass by, iconic signs and structures, the landscape, people, buildings, and critters of the place, even ourselves as we become part of what we see.

I love this relaxed way of going, seeing, and of making photographs. It is always the present in photography.

While traveling, I may not have reliable internet access. But check in to see if by some chance I have managed to post something. In any case, I look forward to sharing our discoveries when I return.

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