Tuesday, June 7, 2011
The Fascination of the Small
The southern summer has settled in with a vengeance, spawning tornadoes that swept northward like latter-day Jeb Stuarts taking the war to the Yankees. The thermometer puts up numbers of which students only dream, and you can soak a shirt walking out to get the mail. All in all, it seemed a strange time to take my camera for a stroll. But Christine has been gone for awhile, up in the Second City doing “Aunt Chris” duty, and I have succumbed to cabin fever. So I made it a two-stop day. First, I walked a short loop over by Lake Crabtree, then the “Investigator” path through the meadow and woods adjoining the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The lake trail was peacefully deserted, save for a few other mad dogs and Englishmen jogging and biking the perimeter. There is a calming silence to heat. It would be oppressive indoors, but out here it seems a filter – nothing expends energy on unnecessary sound. All that remains is important and worthy of our efforts to listen. The smell of pine and honeysuckle steep together nicely in the quiet; trumpet vines and mimosas splash pink and scarlet among shade upon shade of green and brown. Several times I raised the camera to frame a shot, only to let it fall. I began to realize that, today at least, simply pausing and watching would suffice. More and more these days, when I take a photo it has a way of sinking into the voracious, multi-layered and cross-indexed “Pictures” file, never to be seen again. Better to gaze, to breathe, and to listen.
Coming around a bend, I chanced upon a biker in full Lance Armstrong regalia; Area 51 styled helmet, spandex this and wicking that, all held together with Velcro and clever clips. His stylish steed rested lightly against him as he fiddled with ear buds looping down to something small and digital. I nodded, but he seemed oblivious to my awesome walking staff and raffish fedora. A yard or two past him a flashy bluebird perched above a spectacular thicket of poison ivy draped with honeysuckle. I stopped and peeked through my viewfinder. Damn near dropped the camera as a huge heron exploded from an eddy just behind her tiny blue buddy. She screamed, and beat her way into the air. I turned to see if Lance, too, had avoided a coronary, only to find him head down, staring intently at his digital doodad, thumbs flying. It struck me that had we invented cellphones first, we would never have tamed fire – the saber-tooth tigers and cave bears would have been picking us off like jellybeans as we texted our way to extinction.
The path embracing the art museum was more populated, but still not crowded. The large sculptures scattered across the landscape lay baking in the sun, pieces pulled from some gigantic kiln, cooling under Carolina blue. Dogs, which had no doubt started the day straining the leash, now toiled up slight inclines, tongues panted to full extend. Parents pushed, pulled and carried children among ponds and plantings perhaps a tad too obviously designed to tempt modern-day Monets. Still, I caved, and took a couple of shots as background for a new set of images I am drawing.
I suppose it was the sleepy little ones being toted through the lush landscape that took me back to the first serialized fiction I can remember reading, Thorton Burgess’s Old Mother West Wind stories. Burgess, a naturalist and author from Massachusetts, penned the tales over a stretch of almost 50 years, starting in 1910. I first encountered Little Joe Otter, Spotty the Turtle, Billy Mink, Peter Cottontail, et al., in 1954, when I was still several months shy of my sixth birthday. My father had taken a summer teaching position in California, and our rented home was not far from the local library. My mother used books the way modern moms use DVD players, and so we read the summer away.
I am struck by the differences between then and now, between those stories and today’s. The Mother West Wind tales made the small large – they created an entire world in a meadow or along a stretch of riverbank. It is a characteristic shared with Kenneth Grahame’s British classic, Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, and Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, from 1926. These works all appear to have their roots in a close observation of nature writ small. I envision Burgess, Grahame and Milne, children when the 19th century turned 20, forced to go outside and play without things plastic or electric. They were, no doubt, initially bored. But boredom, like necessity, often proves the mother of invention. And they invented entire worlds in the gardens, meadows and streams that surrounded them – worlds that later flowed from their pens onto receptive pages, worlds they shared with me, waiting anxious and unknowing, across the decades.
I wonder if, when even the youngest of children can touch the wide world through today’s magic screens, do we deny them the fascination of the small? Do we ever allow them to become bored enough to track an ant across the garden? To follow the flight of the bluebird? To imagine the throat that gives voice to thunder, or the world to which a rabbit hole allows entry? Have we become so averse to leaving our children alone with themselves that we impair their ability to discover who they are, and by what small thing they may be fascinated? And is the same true for you, and for me?