It’s probably got something to do with the transitional seasons — spring and autumn. Summer and winter are seasons of certainties and absolutes; you know what you can expect: heat and cold. Spring and autumn, though, are seasons of flux and movement; they’re about the passage from one absolute to another.
Maybe that’s why I feel a greater need to explore the countryside in spring and autumn. That’s where you witness the change.
Saturday began as a dark, cloudy, stormy day with no real promise of improvement. I had good reasons to stay inside — a book doctoring gig that was overdue, household chores I’d put off for too long, photographs I’d taken the week before but hadn’t yet uploaded. Valid reasons to stay home. But I felt restless…and here’s a true thing: I almost never feel restless. When I do, I usually give in to it.
So I went to a nearby lake, with no purpose in mind other than to noodle around and see what there was to see. It was raw outside, miserably damp, and the light looked infirm. But there’s always something to see at the water’s edge. Lake, brook, ocean, river, doesn’t matter — there’s always something to see.
Then the clouds began to fail. The sun took a shufti, and started to wriggle and squirm through the cloud cover. And soon the day had become lovely. It didn’t get warm or anything, but it became comfortable. And the light…lawdy.
I’m sort of stingy when it comes to photography — maybe because I learned to shoot using film. I’ll lift the camera to my eye fairly often, but I don’t always press the shutter release. I’m not particularly conscious of my reasons for shooting or not shooting. All I know is sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t.
I was out at the lake for about an hour and a half — ninety minutes — and I took about ninety photographs. For me, that’s a LOT of photos.
They call it a lake, but in fact it’s a reservoir built in the late 1960s and 70s as part of a flood control program. It’s hard to believe these days, but it wasn’t that long ago when the U.S. government spent big money on big projects that benefited regular people in a big way. Not only did the massive construction project itself provide a lot of jobs, but the finished lake supports a large community of small businesses.
The lake is a major local recreational area. It’s popular with recreational boaters, with hunters, with anglers, with hikers, with bicyclists (there are bike trails all through the area), with picnickers, with photographers (I saw one guy with a 4×5 view camera), with campers. All of those people spend money on their hobbies. They buy boats and jet-skis (and have them repaired and moored at marinas in the summer and stored in the winter), they buy fishing and hunting gear, they buy bikes and cameras, they eat at local diners and buy gas at local filling stations, they buy camping gear and rent camping sites at the many campgrounds, they buy sunscreen and mosquito repellent, they buy beer and soda, they spend a metric buttload of money every year. All because the government built a 26,000 acre flood protection reservoir. (All of which is to say ‘Fuck you, Tea Party Asshats!’)
In the summer, this lake is busy. It slows down quite a bit in the autumn, and on a day that began so cold and unwelcoming it wasn’t surprising that there were so few people to be seen. There were a few people bundled up but still zooming around in boats, there were a few folks fishing, there was a guy with a dog, and another guy wrestling with a large format camera. Lots of gulls, a few deer, some dead fish, a different hawk every few yards, no obvious raccoons or weasels (though a lot of tracks), finches so tiny you could fit two in a teacup.
It seems so quiet when you first arrive — but soon you realize how much sound there is. The waves, of course, and the wind through the grasses. Distant drone of boat motors. That ridiculous but somehow still moving plaintive cry of the gulls. Soft rattling of dead leaves. It seems absurd that the world could be so quiet and still so full of noise.
At one of the many official recreation spots there’s a bath house for swimmers — an open air place to shower and change in and out of swim suits. It’s a purely functional building made of formed concrete. It looks rather like a failed student project from the Soviet School of Architecture and Design. It ain’t pretty.
But, again, the light. Light has the capacity to turn even a butt-ugly bath-house into something interesting. For a moment, anyway.
Here’s an odd thing. When I first arrived at the lake, I spent most of my time looking out at everything. Looking out at the horizon, out at the trees and out over the water, out at the buildings and the shifting clouds. But the longer I was there, the more I began to look down.
Looking out, you tend to see the larger world and the things you notice are large things. Looking down, you notice the smaller world. A world of small stones and tiny plants and odd-looking insects and sand and dry broken bits of wood and dead grasses and clusters of cockleburs. Along the lakeside, it’s a universe of cockleburs.
Cockleburs are really rather fascinating. The seeds, of course, are hard ovals covered in spines. The spines are actually wonderfully-formed hooks, though the tiny hooks are difficult to see without close study. But c’mon, who really looks at a cocklebur? Nobody. You just want to get the wee bastards off. Off your shirt, and off your pants, and off your socks, and your shoes, and Jeebus on toast I’ll bet the damned things could stick to tank treads.
That’s the point, of course. The spiny hooks are an incredibly efficient and effective mode of seed dispersal. But what’s really cool about these remarkably annoying plants is that they’re classic examples of photoperiodism. They’re what’s called short-day plants, plants that only bloom when the days begin to get shorter. Short-day plants have a protein that actually serves as a photo-receptor, which is incredibly cool. What’s even more cool (if you like this sort of thing) is that the photo-receptor isn’t triggered by the amount of light during the day, but by the amount of dark during the night. Short-day plants should actually be called long-night plants.
But wait — there’s still more cool but weird cocklebur stuff. That infuriating egg-shaped seed pod generally holds two seeds — one seed grows the next year, the other seed waits and grows during the second year. It’s a marvelously effective way to insure the perpetuation of the species. If you were to pick a few of those irritating burrs off your socks and boil them, you could make a tea that’s moderately effective at relieving nasal and sinus congestion. Or, you could use the plant itself to make a yellow dye. Seriously. The cocklebur belongs to the genus Xanthium, which means ‘yellow’ in Greek. It got that scientific name from a 17th century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who was aware that the plant had been used for centuries by the Greeks to create a yellow hair dye.
So the next time you have to pick cockleburs off your shoestring, remember to give a moment of thought to what a truly remarkable plant it is. Then throw the irksome little bastard away (which, of course, is exactly what the irksome little bastard wants).
An hour and a half, that’s all the longer I was out there. An hour and a half, and the clouds began to move back in, the wind picked up, and the air took on a dampness that made it seem colder than it was. An hour and a half, and if I believed in the soul I’d say mine was replenished in that time. Ninety minutes of mostly aimless walking and looking and shooting photos.
And another ten minutes picking the damned cockleburs off my clothes.