Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tarpon Bay sits on the back side of Sanibel, at the eastern end of the big wildlife refuge, with just one tiny, putative opening onto the Pine Island Sound.  That's what you see from a kayak, anyway.  The mangroves that ring the Bay are so think, at high tide they make an emerald wall that merges with the water, and the barrier island is impregnable.  Existentially indifferent to our peripeteia. That appearance of solidity, however, isn't the whole truth.  The atom is like that, people have told me.  The little building block of all this..."matter," I suppose, is what we are supposed to call somehow ninety-nine percent nothing, an illusion of substance based on motion and electrical charges, instead.  When you come close to the emerald wall, gliding silently, paddle held-up in a reverent hush, the little eddy from your last stroke barely visible now, a slight dimple in the surface some ten feet behind the kayak, and perhaps a drop falling silently off the very tip of the paddle blade, you see that there are breaks.  The emerald wall causes optical illusions, befuddling already sun-squeezed eyes, where there are certain passages, backward bending at first, that lead into the forest.

Some years ago, I found a channel, obscured from the Bay.  You have to lay your paddle flat against the length of the kayak, and use your hands to pull-through a few mangrove branches that are slowly, but inexorably, stepping down into the water.  The mangroves yield as you pass in.  A ten foot width of light and blue sky swim parallel to your course, above the channel, and looking to left and right you see now not the emerald wall, but instead miles of forking branches and trunks in the airspace underneath the canopy.  About fifty meters on, the creek opens into a circular space, maybe five kayaks in diameter.

A few months ago, my husband and I were there.  The tidal flow was in fevered run back to the Bay, and thence to the Gulf.  We got out to stand in the ankle-deep water, as clear and swift as any mountain river that plunges over granite steps, and rushes in corrugated agitation over the shallows of rounded rock.  The water ran like a trout river, but in the mangroves there is no upstream or downstream, the force of the flow isn't contained, isn't channelled, can't be comprehended by your eyes that way.  It's fully directional; from one side of you, to the other.  And, it emerges from under and through the mangroves, shaking their roots and branches, and transmitting that vibration up into the emerald, and goes out through the other side of the lake-like clearing.  That motion is underneath you, pushing on your legs, making current turbulence around the place where you stand, but there isn't a visual paradigm for interpreting the teleology of all those millions of gallons of moving water.  You can't see a source or a destination.  There is only fast running water, and the enormity of its volume is riveting.  Our kayak was pushed away, pinned against the trees at the Bay side of the lake-circle.  Minnow swarms came and went, no possibility of fighting the tide, in glinting bursts like someone had dumped a can of craft sparkles at your feet in the shower.  Intellectually, I always knew that the mangroves aren't exactly growing on the land, or in the sea.  But for the first time I really felt that.  Understood it.  The mangroves are some kind of missing link in geology, an intermediate form between the solid and liquid parts that jostle for space on our globe.  And being there, you can see some kind of critical phase transition, be at the cliff effect of change.  I will always love that place.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

At low tide, when the sand bars are drawn out of hiding, and stretch in the sun for an hour or two, on the Gulf you can see wave layers piled-up on top of each other.  That should be impossible.  Water can’t stand up; it’s structure-less, our principle metaphor for mutability, running around, over, and underneath us, always in thrall to gravity.  And yet, there it is, witness-able by eyes.  Perfectly flattened, the old waves have a new life, not rushing back to the sea this time, instead spreading over the sand flats, perhaps veering a bit down shore, their patterns of little foam bubbles breaking askance and disconnecting through radial expansion, little big bangs of miniature firmament.  For once suspended from interminable motion, the water just stops still.  New waves come on top, sheering at first, but ultimately thinned-out too.  You can see four or five wave layers at once, and out there where the breaking starts they collectively stand so many feet high over the plain where we stand in a few inches of water.  It’s so beautiful.  Right at that moment in the cycle of the tides, I swear that I can literally see that force in nature that makes the water want to stick to itself.  I can see it like the spherical edge of a drop that holds fast, and unbroken, in my palm.

Two weeks ago, I took a photograph of one of my daughters running-wild at low tide.  Her silhouette leans right in mid-stride, as a gull faces left, wings fully vertical together, like praying hands or pendula.  In different planes of depth, they are just about to cross each other.  I think about Sanibel that way, because living on the sand forces you to reconceptualize solidity.  Surprisingly, I actually remember Xeno’s paradox of instantaneous motion from school.  I must have had coffee that day.  Imagine an arrow, the ancient thought experiment goes, flying through the air; if you could divide time up into a super tiny increment, the arrow would levitate in place, and defy gravity.  Waves stand still, measured in moments.  Photography is like that; it differentiates time into an instant.  How an instant relates back to its context, I can’t say, but the magic that was there was real.  It did take me a while, I have to acknowledge, to understand that the journey is what life is all about, not some endpoint.

When I was a kid, my grandparents did slideshows.  With impish delight, my brother and I would sabotage the circular Kodak slide-magazine to the side of the projector box, so that two slides would go together in front of the lamp, making some crazy double image.  The grown-ups would erupt in feigned surprise, and someone would chase us off as we laughed and ran.  I love the topicality of this image, with my girl and the gull, it’s multiple layers of subject.  The linear texture of the sand pattern, and its analogue the wave pile.  The depth of the seaweed elements, as they connect me in the foreground with the Gulf in the background, but also seeing them as a content layer, like a slide superimposed on the base image.  The leftward orientation of the birds, and the rightward motion of the figure.  There’s a shadow layer, and a white layer.  In my mind, I can picture the image just as a sea-scape, devoid of the living content elements, or I can see novel combinations, like the gulls and figure floating in a blank field.  That simultaneity of meanings, and explanations, is something I want to capture in this work.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

My father is a Cuban refugee.  I remember once, twenty years ago, on a family get away to Key West, that I saw a vintage marketing poster from the 40’s that had described the island as “so near, and yet so foreign.”  That’s profound.  The past recedes so quickly from us, and yet the all-powerful present can’t really ever break free of it.  We can be reconciled, I’m pretty sure, but the thread connecting things cannot be unwound.  And, what was once everyday life really does seem foreign, like someone else lived it, when you look back.

His family came to Miami in 1959, some jewelry hidden in the hollowed-out bread of a Cuban sandwich his mother somehow talked through all the security checkpoints, and got onto the plane.  For lots of immigrants, America is not only the beginning point for a new narrative, it’s the end point of a story that came first.  One opportunity opens, as another set of possibilities and dreams decisively ends.  America’s Horatio-Algerian-magic ran backwards, before it went forwards; riches to rags, is their original story.  My father’s family ran the Cerveza de Tropical beer brewery in La Habana.  Batista stole their money in the name of the crony elite, and Castro stole their money in the name of the crony non-elite.  They weren’t allowed to not pick a side.  Hypothetical question: is beer political?  As a girl, I decided to hate that paradox, that not choosing is choosing.  But, I think I was wrong.  We have to keep growing, can’t sit still.  That’s what the paradox really is.

I’ve got a photograph of a sea star, and the pattern of its movement in one of the tidal pools.  It was buried, went one way, and turned around to cross back over its own tracks.  What I like about that image is the aesthetic resonance between the implied motion of the waves that sculpted the pattern of the sand, and the crawl tracks.  You can’t see the first action of movement, wave or sea star, but you see the second moment, evidence that there is change and energy in what appears static.  Maybe slow change is what’s stable.

Reinvention is the continuity of barrier islands.  Another image that I like shows a decaying, fallen tree on the Sound side of North Captiva Island.  There are so many depths of field in that photograph; the tree limbs projecting themselves into the mirror world of the water’s surface, reaching for the reflected sky that goes down instead of up.  And, underneath the quicksilver barrier of the water, I know that a new world is starting.  A photosynthetic life, that went heavenward, is being reinvented as the cradle for marine life, sanctuary for fry, host for snails, anchor of oysters.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

My intention this trip had been primarily to go out into Pine Island Sound, to shoot the mangrove islands. And, maybe back out to the Gulf side of Cayo Costa, where the giant skeleton trees still stand frozen in place from the moment when Hurricane Charley made landfall years ago.  That same storm cut a channel through North Captiva Island.  People here called it New Pass.  But the gentler waves, washing over successive years, have closed that cut, and what were new fishing banks there have risen out of the water, land again, forcing the black-lined snook to choose between the Sound and the Gulf.

Relentless rain and sand-stinging wind, however, made for miserable boating and image-making conditions.  We get forced to change course.  In sailing you can’t go straight to the place you want to be.  You have to get there by angles.  So, I decided to explore a mangrove tunnel that I knew I could access by foot, hoping it would provide some shelter from the elements.  An inexplicable little wooden platform sits just off the side of the road, and from there you can slide off into the water, sending a ripple across the long-still surface, that makes you feel so loud, like when you were a kid and dropped your hymnal in church, and nobody turned to look at you, which is how you knew that everyone heard it.

I figured I could slowly wade in with a branch; that I’d sound the depth of each step before taking it.  And, that worked beautifully.  For hours, I traversed the tunnel, engorged with rainwater, without a drop ever exceeding the high edge of my waders, bought newly last week for this trip.  The sun came out in the upper world, and whenever the gusty wind shook that dense canopy, a million fireflies of light would sparkle all over the black water, the mangrove roots, and the leaves all around and above me.  It made light swarms, like when you’re seeing stars, but emerald green.  Did any of you have to memorize Caedmon’s Hymn in school?  Hefen to hrofa…heaven is a roof, like a Viking ship turned upside down.  According to people from a thousand years ago, we live in middangeard, the middle yard.  Just…in between stuff, I guess.

I felt like I was inside a kaleidoscope, in the place where that mirror-based illusion of light, color, and shape happens.  And, I was level with the mangrove roots that created pattern, somehow, from chance piling-ups.  And then, within almost the same moment, I had a little misstep.  My weight-holding foot, not holding.  My toe flexing, downwards, trying to stand, trying not to be an idealized form, wanting to be earth-bound, the opposite of ballerinas in pirouette.  Water flooded over, and into, my waders.  What had been a pressure, the water pushing on me from all sides, was suddenly in there with me.  That squeezing became equalized, but immobilizing.  A friend had actually warned me about this problem.  He had suggested waders with a quick release mechanism, but at the store the salesmen denied knowing of such a thing.  Oh well; life should come with a quick release feature.  I scrambled, pseudo-swam, and did get a higher footing.  My day’s worth of exposed film had been on my chest, cradled within the waders.  It hasn’t been developed yet.  Whatever effect that soaking is going to have, has yet to be uncovered.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

I remember two years after my first daughter, Alessandra, was born, lying in bed, taking advantage of resting, while she was napping.  Sick and exhausted, I was pregnant with my second daughter.  Alessandra’s nursery was just across the hall from my bedroom, allowing me to see into her room from my bed.  Though it was mid afternoon, her room was made completely dark by blackout curtains.  Having my girls in the absence of my mother, who died on the Fourth of July in 1999…happy birthday, independence…was profoundly difficult, and on this particular day, I was overwhelmed with that reality.  Beside Alessandra’s crib, and the rocking chair in which I nursed her, was a small tea table with a framed photo of my mother.  I could see it from where I was lying, when a streak of light miraculously made its way through those impenetrable curtains, for a few minutes illuminating her photo…

Light bathes us the same way water does.  Sanibel plays host to so many unfoldings, and mirrorings, that its light chemistry could never really be understood.  A second sun lives in the water.

In summertime, afternoon thunderstorms roll off the Gulf to collide head-on with the setting sun.  They rose visibly all morning, the truest white you have ever seen, piling heavenward in gorgeous crenellation.  Their sky lines grid the blue, as far as you can see, askew to the land, yet regularizing the ether up there.  And, by afternoon they’re drawn to the heat-staggered island, whose very air trembles with a tension of wind, light, movement, and color.  Their undersides turn lime green when light bounces up off the water, like the sea grapes blowing back and forth in the dunes.

I held a pen shell up to light one day.  I love the double reflection-lines on the water, on the tidal pool and the Gulf itself, how the tree forms and distant cloud line echo one another, the striations of the near-clouds and the shell, the family of moons refracting on the lens in various states of eclipse, and the figures right on the exact edge of the light.

“this clouding, unclouding sickle moon,
  whitening this beach again like a blank page”

                                                - Derek Walcott