That ain’t no way to go, it seemed. Prone on the ground, in the middle of nowhere, privy only to the suffering stillness of space. But the details of death are not chosen by any living thing, the exit is not signed. The slow scatter of bones on the range is something to observe, for this is the dust that we all come from and to which we shall return. Cow, human, or plant, certain rules remain the same.
The following is the draft of a short essay written to accompany the set of ten images I’ve called The Juniper Tree, shot in June of 2009 with Victor Arnold out in the wilds of Arizona. The original objective was to shoot three (3) sets of ten (10) images – for a grand total of 30 photographs – that studied a triad of subjects out on the 7-Up Ranch. The three sets follow a theme by each opening with a wide view of a subject, and then presenting nine subsequent detail photographs. I was interested in exploring some of the ideas that have been intriguing me as of late: curiosity (The Juniper Tree), identity and history (the Halfway House), and immortality (Skin & Bones). A Folio presenting the images and texts is the eventual goal.
Above: The Juniper Tree, #2
THE JUNIPER TREE
Photographed: 3 June 2009 | Written: 7 June 2009
Bozarth Mesa in Arizona is an ocean of grasses, and upon it I am adrift. I have spent long weeks casting about these vast expanses, feeling smaller with every step. The feeling exists that nobody ever came by this place too easily. To reach this position on the planet has always required a commitment – one realized through hours of navigation, movement across rugged vistas, and a level of preparedness that can afford to take little for granted. To be here unintentionally seems impossible; this is a place one must mean to come to.
Stark upon this grassland, limbs intact but long past its photosynthetic prime, the skeleton of a juniper stands proudly anchored in the ground. Set apart, austere in its loneliness as well as its passing from green to gray, it yet commands a panoramic view across the mesa, its wind-swept branches frozen into an expansive sky, its roots piercing subterranean soils.
Bound for the tree it occurs to me that I have sought out this juniper as part of a lesson, perhaps. The lesson is one that by now I have experienced different times in different places but one which demands constant revisiting – it is slowing becoming more of a practice. It is an endeavor about learning how to look and how to see, a demonstration and subsequent reminder to myself that often my senses are too narrow and too shut down to enjoy the discovery of the world around me even as it is taking place.
The sun is high. Scores of grasshoppers take to wild spastic flight as Vic and I make our way, clouds of gnats in close orbit around us. Lugging heavy equipment across the vast plain from our trusty truck that has now dropped out of sight under the subtle swales of the mesa, it occurs to me that it would be no stretch of the imagination to find this a reasonably undesirable situation. But apathy is aptly kept at bay by a sense of purpose or even a simple objective, and so we advance expectantly, even excitedly.
Our purpose, or objective, is outwardly simple: go look and see. Our subject is a particular tree in the middle of nowhere. For the task at hand we have brought cameras. We approach the old trunk with growing excitement, for even from deep in our packs the lenses we carry are already encouraging us to more closely consider what we are encountering. Indeed these cameras we now raise to our eyes are for looking closer, for stretching our powers of observation to the upmost, for actually learning how to see, again and again.
We share time and place with the juniper tree, and using shutters and apertures we take it apart and put it back together a million different ways. At moments we set the machines down and simply look; it is wild when there can be such delight in seeing! We connect with this gnarly character in the manner only possible when a means of channeling and directing one’s attention has been attained and sustained, however fleetingly. The greatest potential of photography, we comment, is altogether immaterial.
From a bird’s eye view – perhaps one hundred feet above the mesa – one would surely wonder at the activity observable below. Two men in the middle of the wilderness subjecting themselves to the midday heat of a summer day in Arizona, circling around the dead trunk of a single tree. Hours pass by yet they linger on looking, seemingly lost in the moment over and over again. What do they see, what holds them there invisibly? Can a sense of wonder really stop anyone anymore?
Yes it can, and it does. What we see is so often a question of scale, perspective, or state of mind. Changing such variables brings forth an infinity of realities, realities for which each of us hold an invitation to explore if only we dare. At the juniper tree we rediscover the amazement the world offers to each of us when we remember to look with the intent to see.
Also known as Halfway House, as it lies halfway out on the mesa to the winter grazing grounds for the cattle. I didn’t know that much about the place, except that Dad used to live here as a summer ranch hand, and that in recent years it had been infested by scorpions. However undesirable as that may sound, it remained near and dear to our hearts during the field season as it is the only source of clean water for miles and miles. Luckily that could be pumped from outside.
But on this day I was curious about this place. My great aunt and uncle used to make a life here, managing a ranch and raising a family, yet I had never stepped foot inside. This place is what had brought my Dad out from California, decades before it ever came back into his (and therefore my) life when he was asked to collaborate on the archaeology of the region. Funny how life can be so circular. Vic and I took a closer look.
The skeleton of the old juniper tree, when I could wipe the sweat out of my eyes and look up past my feet, just begged to be photographed. I was walking a transect, on the lookout for lithic scatters or other signs of the bygones, holding a northing that took me right past it. Placed along in a large open grassland of cracked and dry soil, I had no idea how long its leaves had been gone. The aridity of the desert makes a mummy of everything; the silvery trunk and limbs before me were anything but recent.
I vowed to find the remains of the juniper again, a deed easier said than done in that expansive landscape. But we did.