I sporadically read movie and/or television reviews. I don’t necessarily trust entertainment reviewers, but I tend to assume they get it approximately right. Maybe they don’t point to true north, but they wave in a general northish direction. The reviews of Don’t Look Up were harsh; I saw it described as glib, as disastrous, as unamusing, as obvious and without subtlety, as over-the-top, as trivializing an actual social problem, as cynical and mocking. Reviewers said Don’t Look Up failed both as satire and as comedy.
But sometimes all I want is mindless, distracting entertainment–something glib and trivial and obvious. Besides, there were a lot of really fine actors in it, so how bad could it be?
I won’t say Don’t Look Up is a great movie; it’s not. But it’s not at all what the reviewers claimed it was. It’s not mindless entertainment; it’s not glib or trivializing or without subtlety. It’s a damned fine movie. It IS over-the-top, but considering the last few years, it’s only over the top by inches.
With only the tiniest possible SPOILER, I’m going to tell you what the movie is about. I’m not going to relate the entire plot; I’m only going to reveal one plot element (which you probably already know). But I’m going to describe what I think is the pivotal scene. It takes place fairly early in the film, and it establishes the theme on which the movie depends.
Three people–a grad student who discovers a comet heading directly toward earth, the professor who oversees her research, and a government official who heads some obscure agency devoted to protecting Earth from comets and/or other space stuff–are at the White House with a high-ranking military escort. They’re there to warn the president of the impending extinction level event. POTUS is busy doing political bullshit, so they’re left idling in a hallway. The escort leaves briefly and returns with bottled water and some snacks. He complains about how expensive the snacks were. The others reimburse him–US$20. He keeps the change. Later, the grad student (played by Jennifer Lawrence with unfortunate hair) discovers the snacks and water were free. Periodically through the rest of the film, she talks about how astonished she was that this guy screwed them for a few bucks when they were at the White House trying to warn humanity that all life on the planet is likely going to be extinguished. She just can’t understand people who act that way.
And that’s the movie. Good, decent people trying to do what’s right, trying to do what’s best for everybody, trying to deal with a system designed for–and occupied by–people primarily concerned with themselves and their own gain, people who are willing to lie, mislead, and manipulate others to achieve their short term goals. It’s not just that they have incompatible value systems; it’s that they don’t even share the same definition of values.
It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s satire. Sort of. Actually, I’m damned if I know what genre it falls into. It’s a critique of the politico-corporate culture we live in, where maximizing profits and shareholder value have priority over human concerns. It’s a critique of the social media driven culture in which celebrity is valued over knowledge and manipulated opinion trumps science. All of that sounds very dull, doesn’t it; but this is not a dull movie.
In the end, I found Don’t Look Up to be weirdly hopeful. It suggests that trying to do good, trying to do the right thing, is in itself a worthy goal, even if you don’t believe you can succeed. It suggests a person’s sincere attempt to do what’s right confers a sort of grace on the person. I like to think that’s true.
Don’t Look Up is worth watching.
EDITORIAL NOTE: By the way, this is one of the few films in which scientists are depicted as normal people who are simply devoted to science. Nerdy, perhaps, but ordinary.
Also? The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, who has a brilliantly quiet career playing strong, soft-spoken women; she deserves a lot more attention than she gets. It’s a small role, but she’s perfect in it. She knows how to throw a pill bottle and make it sting.
A week ago I posted the following photograph of a dirt road leading back into field that held a pioneer cemetery. It sparked a number of folks to ask a perfectly reasonable question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? I asked the same question the first time I came across a pioneer cemetery. I’m here to give y’all the answer.
Let me amend that. I’m here to give a couple of answers. I mean the obvious answer is simple: a pioneer cemetery is a plot of ground where pioneers are buried. But that leads inevitably to the question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer?
Let’s start there. The term ‘pioneer’ comes from the French pionnier, which originally referred to a type of specialized foot soldier — troops who were furnished with digging and cutting equipment and sent into new territories to prepare the way for an army. The root term is much older, medieval Latin, pedonem, which meant ‘foot soldier’. That’s also the root for the term ‘pawn’. In chess, pawns always move first; they’re essential, but disposable. The same applies to pioneers; they go first, they’re essential, but disposable.
In the US, the term ‘pioneer’ has a vaguely heroic connotation. I suppose that’s warranted because it takes a sort of courage — or maybe desperation — to take your family into unknown territory. And that’s what the early US pioneers were. They weren’t soldiers; they were mostly families of immigrants and first generation Americans. At the time, they were called settlers, or homesteaders, or sodbusters. They were families who loaded up wagons with their few possessions and pushed into largely unmapped territories, fording rivers and streams, in the hope they could find land they could farm. When they came to land they felt was promising, they stopped. They chopped down trees and built cabins out of the logs. They cleared trees and stones from the land by hand or with the help of livestock and created fields for crops. They planted and harvested, and they died and were buried.
Pioneer cemeteries are plots of land, often on family property, that these small, loosely formed farming communities agreed was sufficient to bury their dead. They’re the graves of the thousands of unremembered, ordinary people who turned wilderness into settlements.
We have to acknowledge the pluckiness of these pioneers, but we also need to be aware there was a very deep ugliness in what they were doing. In the US, pioneers were the leading edge of the concept of Manifest Destiny. The idea was promoted initially by John O’Sullivan, the son of an Irish immigrant. He wrote it was the new nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In essence, manifest destiny was a nice way of saying the expansion of white Europeans and their culture across the continent, displacing or killing the native tribes who’d actually lived there for centuries, was not only inevitable, it was also justified by god.
There you have it. The pioneers were intrepid settlers struggling to create a life for themselves. And they were also sanctimonious invaders who were comfortable with the idea of pushing the indigenous people off their land, stealing it for themselves, and killing those natives who resisted.
That’s who the pioneers were — settlers who were almost as expendable as the natives they dislodged and supplanted. But not everybody buried in a pioneer cemetery was an actual pioneer. The pioneers created the conditions for permanent settlements; permanent settlements inevitably bring disputes; disputes require some forum for resolution. That means a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies demand definitions.
Which brings us back to the original question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? The bureaucratic answer depends on where you live; different states have different legal definitions of ‘pioneer cemetery’. In Iowa, where I live, the law defines it as a cemetery in which there have been no more than twelve burials in the preceding half century. In neighboring Nebraska, a pioneer cemetery is defined as an abandoned or neglected cemetery that was founded or situated on land “given, granted, donated, sold, or deeded to the founders of the cemetery prior to January 1, 1900.”
There is, I think, something weirdly admirable about a bureaucracy making a deliberate decision to recognize and honor the ordinary people who lived and died in small farming communities dating from the late 1700s. The bureaucracies may not care about the individual pioneer cemeteries, but they care about the notion that there are people buried and memorialized in remote, semi-forgotten patches of land.
Most of the pioneer cemeteries I’ve visited are lonely places on patches of farmland or meadowland. They’re generally located on a low hill, most often with a small grove of trees. Some are only accessible by overgrown paths, or by vehicles with high ground clearance. A few pioneer cemeteries are well-tended; most aren’t. Many are overgrown with grass and weeds. Most have gravestones that are damaged, weathered, unreadable.
But all of them are full of stories. There are graves of soldiers — Civil War veterans, veterans of the world wars. You can tell by the dates which ones died in uniform. There are graves of wives who outlived their husbands, graves of mothers who died in childbirth, graves of the children they bore. There are lots of graves of infants, often with the number of months or weeks they lived.
All cemeteries and graveyards tend to be quiet. Pioneer cemeteries are more than quiet. They’re silent. And yet they’re full of stories. Untold stories. Forgotten stories. The first person buried in what would eventually become the Slaughter pioneer cemetery was eight-year-old Hester Slaughter, who died of ‘the fever’ in the summer of 1846. She was buried in a corner of the family farm. There was no lumber mill in the region, so there was no sawn lumber to make a casket. Instead, the family split the trunk of a tree that had been chopped down to clear the land; they hollowed it out, placed poor Hester inside, closed it back up, and buried her. A total of 69 people would be buried in that small plot of land, including three Civil War veterans and a veteran of the War of 1812.
Among them is Bluford Sumpter, who served in the 39th Iowa Regiment in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. We don’t know the details of his story, but we know the 39th was active from November 24, 1862, to August 2, 1865. We know they were involved in a great number of battles and skirmishes. We know the 39th helped chase Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (who would survive the war and help found the Ku Klux Klan) into Tennessee and suffered many casualties. We know they eventually deployed with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his brutal and savage march across the South that essentially ended the war. We assume Bluford Sumpter survived the war (since it was uncommon then to ship bodies home for burial), but there are no dates on his tombstone, so we don’t know when he died. We only know he was eventually buried in the Slaughter cemetery in Jasper County, Iowa.
Also buried nearby is William Wimpigler, who has his own story. Wimpigler served in the Iowa 48th Battalion during the Civil War, He was one of the Hundred Days Men — a troop of volunteers raised in Midwest during the final days of the war; they agreed to serve one hundred days in order to free experienced troops for combat service. The 48th spent its hundred days at the Rock Island Barracks in Illinois, coincidentally guarding Confederate prisoners taken during Sherman’s campaign.
Both of those Civil War veterans are buried near eight-year-old Hester Slaughter in her hollowed out log coffin on what was once an unused parcel of her family’s farm. Every grave has a story. But we only know about those stories exist because the graves exist, and we only know those graves exist because some unnamed person in a bureaucracy decided it was worthwhile to officially recognize and record the existence of pioneer cemeteries.
That unknown bureaucrat has a story too. We all do. Few of them get told, but all of them are worth telling.
Did my bit yesterday. You know…the ritual of tending the graves for Memorial Day. It’s supposed to be a holiday created by a grateful nation to honor the men and women who died while in military service. Some folks are grateful enough to visit cemeteries, large and small in every corner of the nation, to plant a flag on the grave of every veteran. It’s a pretty idea, isn’t it.
But let’s face it, the nation really isn’t all that grateful, and it’s been years since the holiday was about dead veterans. Modern Memorial Day is more a celebration of consumerism than anything else — like most American holidays. But it’s also expanded beyond its original purpose. There’s still a lot of tending to graves, but it’s no longer limited to veterans.
I’m fine with that. It’s nice to have a day set aside for remembering the dead, whoever they are, however they died. That’s especially true now, when the butcher’s bill for Covid-19 will almost certainly top 100,000 in the next week. Maybe next year somebody will plant a flag on the grave of every Covid-19 victim. I think we, as a nation, will need to find some way to express both our horror and our collective grief at the loss of so many lives. Right now it seems we’re either in shock or denial of the enormity of what’s happening. The fact that it’s still happening — that the pandemic is ongoing — makes it difficult to process. Some events are too catastrophic to comprehend until after they’ve finished, until we know how they end.
Yesterday I visited half a dozen different cemeteries — some in the city, some in the burbs, some in the middle of farmland. Some were nicer than others, some better tended, some busy with other Memorial Day caretakers, some weren’t. I helped tend to graves of family and friends, even those of a few strangers, only about half of whom were veterans.
As usual, I shot a few photographs. I generally delete most of the photos I shoot, especially on Memorial Day. How many photos do you need of gravestones and flags?
This morning I looked at the photos I shot yesterday. I deleted all but a few. Two of them struck me. One, shot in an urban cemetery, was of the rows and rows of flags — a reminder that there was a time when it was common for American men to do a few years of military service, that it was seen as an honorable thing to do. The other photo was of the farmland just outside a rural cemetery, rows and rows of seedlings growing.
Rows of flags, rows of crops. There are metaphors in those two photos. They’re mostly trite, mawkish metaphors, almost embarrassingly sincere, but they’re also honest. Which is more than I can say for a lot of what we see on Memorial Day.
There’s a place called as the Sycamore Trail. It’s a rather grand name for about 130 acres of untended old-growth woodland tucked between the Des Moines River and a soccer pitch. The ‘trail’ is a 6.5 mile loop, a narrow dirt path for mountain biking. It’s linked to the High Trestle Trail — a paved 25 mile stretch of bike path that follows an old Union Pacific railroad line (including the old half-mile-long trestle bridge that crosses about 130 feet above the river) — which itself is part of a 100 mile loop that connects with an even longer set of trails, which is…never mind. You get the point. Iowa has a metric buttload cycling trails.
This, believe it or not, is a bicycle trail.
The thing is, the Sycamore Trail goes through the woods. On a weekday, it’s generally deserted. On a weekday in December the only folks in the woods were my brother and I. We were out…let’s call it sylvan geocaching. That sounds so much more adventurous. I mean, sure, basically it’s just walking in the woods and using a GPS device to look for some sort of container that somebody stashed for no practical purpose at all except to give other folks a reason to go walk in the woods. But that sounds moderately ridiculous, to let’s call it sylvan geocaching.
This is not a bicycle trail.
So my brother and I, we were out sylvan geocaching, right? In the woods surrounding the Sycamore Trail on a singularly lovely day for early December. Almost 50F, sunny, not much of a breeze. Couldn’t ask for a better day to be noodling around in the woods sylvan geocaching. We didn’t stay on the trail, of course. We wandered through the flood plains, we slumped around the marshy oxbows, we pushed our way through the dry brambles, we clambered over the levee.
A levee, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a dirt embankment intended to protect the land from flooding. This levee was about 15 feet high and anywhere from 30 to 50 yards from the river.
Flooding is pretty common, which accounts for both the levee and the oxbows. It also accounts for all the downed trees and the odd bits of debris we sometimes see stuck up in the trees.
As we were noodling around sylvan geocaching, we noticed the outline of some sort of structure in the woods. It’s not uncommon, when you’re in the woods, to find the remains of sheds or the brick and mortar foundations of abandoned farm buildings. But it’s rare to find something that’s still standing. So of course, we went to investigate.
As we got closer, we realized it was bigger than we’d expected. Bigger and stranger.
Strange structure in the woods.
One of the reasons my brother and I go geocaching is because it takes us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, and we see things we wouldn’t ordinarily see. Things that are often completely unexpected. Like a 35-foot houseboat in the middle of the woods.
How did it get there? I mean, it was about a third of a mile from the river. Say 600 yards from the levee. That’s half a dozen football fields. How in the hell did it get there? We found a clue. The boat registration was still visible. It was dated 1993.
It’s called the Great Flood of 1993, but it actually began in the winter of 1992, when the American Midwest experienced heavier than usual snowfalls. The spring melt was followed by what the National Weather Service called an ‘extreme regional hydrological event’. In other words, it rained like a motherfucker — and it did it for a long time. There were persistent, repetitive storms that hovered over the Midwest. Between April 1 and August 31, the region experienced rainfalls that were 400–750% above normal.
Houseboat in the woods. Go figure.
In the end, the flood covered about 400,000 square miles over nine states. In some locations, the floodwaters stayed for nearly 200 days. Almost 55,000 people had to be evacuated; around 50 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Seventy-five towns were completely inundated; some small towns have actually been relocated — some were just abandoned. And at some point, the flood yanked this 35-foot houseboat from its mooring and deposited it at the far western edge of what would eventually become Sycamore Trails.
An oxbow along the Sycamore Trail.
The floodwaters receded, of course. Trees grew up. Twenty-six years went by. We’ve had more floods since then, though not quite as bad. Floods that are called ‘once in a hundred year’ floods, or ‘once in 500 year floods’ take place every couple of years now.
Finding that houseboat in the middle of the woods was incredibly cool. But it’s also incredibly sad. It’s sad because of all the suffering that took place. And it’s sad because the President of the United States, despite all the science and all the evidence, says climate change is a hoax.
The good news? A decade after the Great Flood of 1993, Greta Thunberg was born. So there’s that.
You know those mornings when you wake up, deal with the cat, and drink your cold brew coffee while you consider the list of things you ought to do, some of which are moderately important, but by the time you empty your mug you’ve decided to skip all those things and go to the state fair instead? That was me yesterday.
Young couple trying to see how many kids they can stuff in the cab of a really big tractor.
I like the state fair. I love the state fairgrounds more than I like the actual fair; I’ve spent a LOT more time noodling around the fairgrounds during the off-season than I have during the fair itself. But the fair is fun too. The noise, the smells, the crowds, the weird tension, the chaos, the confusion — I like all of that.
I like to look at farm technology. Tractors and combines and — okay, I have no idea what most farm tech is called. Or what it does. I confess, I have absolutely NO interest in the purpose of farm tech. But I’m fascinated by 1) how massive some modern farm equipment is, and 2) the fact that there are people who restore or refurbish old tractors. I like to listen to old guys (and it’s always guys) talk about their old tractors, even though I’ve no idea what they’re talking about. I recognize them as nerd-geeks who have a passion I can respect even though it’s entirely foreign to me.
Old guys talking about old tractors.
I also like that things I don’t understand are being judged by standards I also don’t understand. Like horses and sheep. Or cabbages and turnips. Or sewing and crafting. I look at the prize cabbages and I have no idea why one cabbage is superior to the next. I have no idea why this cow is better than that cow, or why the way that horse trots surpasses the way this other horse trots. But there are folks out there who DO know those things, and I find that notion wonderful. (By the way, I don’t need — or want — an explanation for why one horse’s trot is superior; I’m just happy that folks who DO know and care about such things exist.)
Some sort of horse judging thing. Or maybe a riding judging thing. There was definitely judging going on.
I like the people I see at the fair. Not just the folks like me, who show up and eat the deep fried vegan peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and marvel at the size of the biggest boar, but the folks who move to the fair for a week or so and show their animals. Again, I don’t know dick about farming or farm stuff. But I’m always impressed by the people — and especially the kids and younger folks — who spend their fair days washing and drying their cows or goats, or shoveling animal shit out of stalls and laying down hay (if that’s hay — what do I know from hay?). When I was a kid I had to do the usual chores — wash dishes, maybe mow the lawn, that sort of thing. These farm kids? They’re raising livestock and acting like it’s no big deal.
Blow drying a goat.
Kids. A tangent here. As a rule, I don’t photograph kids. I think kids going about their daily kid lives doing kid things are eminently photographable and interesting, but photographing kids these days is just a pain in the ass. It’s not the kids; it’s the parents. I have, in the past, been accosted by parents for shooting photos in the general vicinity of kids. Not photos OF kids, mind you; just photographs of stuff in a park where kids are playing — stuff with zero kids in the frame. Nothing is more embarrassing and frustrating and infuriating than being waylaid by an irate parent and basically accused, in public, of being a pervert. So I just don’t photograph kids anymore.
Except at the fair. I will occasionally shoot a photo of a kid engaged in some farm/fair related activity. Like blow-drying a sheep. I’m not photographing the kid, you understand. I’m photographing the activity. But sometimes there are moments when a kid is being so perfectly a kid that you have to make an exception. So I photographed a kid. I am NOT going to feel guilty about it.
Woke up from a nap, got chores to do.
Actually it turns out it’s almost impossible to shoot a photo at the state fair without including a kid. They’re everywhere. Which is as it should be, since fairs are all about being a kid. Sometimes when you’re taking a photo of a kid, you’re also shooting a photograph of somebody being a good, caring, thoughtful parent.
Cooling mist on a hot fair day.
When I got home I was surprised that almost every photograph I shot had a kid in it. Or an old person. Or a disabled person. Old folks and disabled folks on mobility scooters zipped around the fairgrounds like hornets, like pirates, like…well, kids. They probably shouldn’t have been eating funnel cakes or deep fried Twinkies or bacon-wrapped BBQ ribs, but they were. They probably should have been napping, but they weren’t. They probably should have headed inside when the sky got dark and it began to sprinkle, but they didn’t. They faired (and yeah, I know ‘fair’ isn’t a verb, but there ought to be a term to describe the act of enjoying a fair). Those folks faired like bosses. It was great to see.
Leaving the fair just as it began to sprinkle.
That was the fair. I saw a cabbage bigger than my head. I saw a massive horse with hairy hooves that looked like it ought to be pulling a Russian sleigh and escaping a pack of wolves. I saw farm tech that looked like mooncraft. I saw a sleepy young cowboy who’ll almost certainly look exactly the same in forty years. I ate a deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a damned stick. I walked six and a half miles (unless my Fitbit is lying to me).
My brother and I started geocaching last April and let me just start by saying flat out that geocaching is pointless and sort of stupid. But like a lot of pointless and sort of stupid things, it’s also fun.
Okay, so somea lot most of you are probably saying, “Greg, old sock, just what the hell is geocaching?” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, geocaching is…well, it’s described as an ‘outdoor recreational activity’. Which makes it sound incredibly dorky. (Also, when I said geocaching is pointless and sort of stupid, I should have included dorky, because let’s face it — it’s also fairly dorky.) Basically geocaching involves using a GPS-enabled device to locate a container hidden somewhere in the world.
Yeah, there’s a geocache hidden here.
That’s basically it. You may be wondering why you’d want to use GPS to locate a hidden container, especially if it’s pointless, sort of stupid, and dorky. That’s a perfectly valid question. It has a lot of answers, most of which can be boiled down to what I said earlier: it’s fun to find hidden things. Think of it like a treasure hunt. Only without the treasure. Oh, some cache containers include trinkets or toys or other swag, but most don’t — and really, nobody goes geocaching with the idea of finding anything more valuable than the fun of finding it.
There’s one under this bridge.
So how does it work? You download an app, of course. That’s how everything is done these days. The app shows you the general location of caches and gives you some idea of what to look for — the approximate size of the container (most range in size from an ammo box to a teensy tube no larger than the tip of your finger), the difficulty of the terrain (on a scale of 1-5), the difficulty of finding it (again, 1-5), and maybe a hint. Maybe. The app will usually get you to within 10-15 feet of the cache. Then all you have to do is find it.
Yeah, one hidden here too.
It sounds easy. Sometimes it is. Like the one we found yesterday. The map showed us where it was at. All we had to do was park in the lot of some electrical company, hike a third of a mile over a field to a pair of boulders, nose around a bit, and there it was: a dark metal tube on the ground. Easy peasy lemon breezy.
1) Find it on a map.
2) hike to the location.
3) Find the damned thing. It’s right there in the middle of the photo. Honest.
But sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes the cache is disguised. Sometimes it’s a false electrical plate on an air conditioning unit. Sometimes it’s a hollow chunk of dead wood in the crook of an old tree. Sometimes it’s in an old bird’s nest or in a magnetic box painted the exact same color as the metal girder to which it’s attached. Sometimes it’s a tiny container inside a hole drilled into a bolt screwed into an old section of railroad track.
The thing is, you never know. The cache might be out in the open or it might be cleverly disguised. You let the app get you close, then you just start looking. The only thing you expect to find in a cache is a logbook — which is often just a rolled up piece of paper. You sign the log, date it, put it back in the cache, put the cache back where you found it, and…well, that’s it. That’s the whole enchilada. Oh, except for this: don’t let anybody see you doing it.
Folks not involved in geocaching are referred to as ‘muggles’ — and yeah, the term was snitched from Harry Potter. As in the PotterVerse you’re not supposed to let muggles see you engaged in that thing you’re doing. Partly because muggles will, out of innocent curiosity or malevolent intent, fuck with a cache. They might take it, move it, destroy it, throw it away. Or worse — they might all the police.
And one hidden here behind a flood control barrier, though we never found it.
And who could blame them? If you see somebody sidle up to a light pole in your supermarket parking lot, lift the cover of the base, and remove or insert an object of some sort, you’d probably be suspicious. A couple of guys skulking around the flood control barriers looks dodgy as fuck. They could be hiding drugs or planting an IED or cheerfully murdering homeless folks. So you’d be forgiven for calling the police.
He appeared to have a small plastic box in his hand and after fiddling with the container he bent down and hid it under a flower box standing on the pavement. He then walked off, talking to somebody on his phone.
She called the police, the police called the Army, the Army sent in the bomb squad with a robot to conduct a controlled explosion. There have been at least five geocaching bomb scares in the last few years. So yeah, when geocaching in urban/suburban you need to be somewhat discreet.
Okay, this is part of the reason we go geocaching.
But here’s the thing. It’s pointless, sort of stupid, dorky, and sometimes suspicious, but geocaching is fun. The brother and I used to get together and sort of lackadaisically noodle around the countryside, stopping at some point for food and beer. Geocaching allows us to lackadaisically noodle around the countryside, stopping at some point for food and beer, only now with a pointless and sort of stupid dorky purpose. We’ve only found about 40 caches, but we discovered a great BBQ place in the small town of Slater that serves a kick-ass modified Cuban sandwich and serves local craft beers. And a place in the small town of Norwalk that serves kick-ass egg rolls and serves local craft beers. And a place in the small town of Carlisle that serves a kick-ass mac & cheese made with some sort of spicy sausage and serves local craft beers.
I used to be a camera app junkie. I regularly walked around with half a dozen camera apps on my phone — each of which did one or two things particularly well. I had two apps just for black-and-white work (one in square format, one in 3:2), another app just for awkward lighting situations, one for…well, you get the idea. I regularly downloaded new camera apps just to see what they could do, and discarded them ruthlessly
I’m in camera app recovery now. I only have two apps on my phone — one sophisticated app that gives me a lot of control over exposure, and one app that I’ve simplified in such a way that I can toggle between color and b&w (both in square format). I shoot almost exclusively with the simplified app. All the photographs in this post were shot with the same app.
A few folks have asked me why I bother to shoot in b&w when I could just shoot in color, then process the image as black-and-white. It’s a valid question. After all, a digital image in color contains a more information than a b&w image, and the use of color filters in post processing gives you more control over the final image. It would be smarter to shoot in color.
But I don’t. There has to be some sort of decision-making process that takes place in my head — some sort of algorithm firing in my brain, evaluating the scene and arriving at a decision. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much thought involved at all. I usually know if I’ll be shooting color or b&w when I pull the phone out of my pocket.
I also tend to photograph a lot of stuff that’s not obviously photo-worthy (if there is such a thing as photo-worthy), partly because I often find a photograph of a thing to be more interesting and appealing than the thing itself. Sometimes the entire point of a photo is in the act of photographing, not the thing being photographed. If that makes sense. Sometimes the point of a photo is in the decision of what to include in the frame and what to exclude.
As I wrote that, a thought occurred to me. Over the last several years, I’ve made my living dealing with narratives in one form or another. Now I walk around shooting photos that tend to be narrative-resistant. When you get down to the bone, a photograph isn’t anything but an arrangement of light on a surface. There’s no inherent narrative content. No matter what people say, a single photograph doesn’t tell a story. It can’t tell a story. Any narrative that might emerge comes from the viewer, not the photograph.
I don’t recall who said all photographs are self-portraits. One of those photographers from the 1930s and 40s, I’m sure — the ones who did the grunt work of turning the craft into an art form. It’s a great line, partly because it’s artsy bullshit and partly because it’s got a fuzzy kernel of truth. There’s a decision made behind every photograph. Every single one. And that decision reveals something about who you are.
Maybe you’re the sort of person who photographs kids at a birthday party, maybe you’re the sort of person who is passionate about photographing life on the street, maybe you’re the sort of person who is attracted by the arrangement of weeds growing along a drainage ditch. You might even be all the sort of person who does all three.
I had a point to make when I started writing this. I’ve totally forgotten what that point was. I suppose if the point was important, I’d have remembered it. This is what happens when you think about photography instead of doing photography. You might learn something new; you might also lose the point.
It’s pre-morel mushroom season in my part of the world. Pre-morel season is that brief period before the brief period of actual morel season; it’s that interval when common sense, experience, and science all agree that it’s still too damned early for morels to appear, but you go hunting for them all the same because hey, you never know and why the hell not. Actual morel season probably won’t start until — who knows? Later this week? Ten days? It’s a damned mystery.
But let’s face it, for a lot of us, there’s no meaningful difference between pre-morel season and morel season. We find the same amount of mushrooms in both. In other words, none at all.
I’m okay with that. Finding morels is the other reason for hunting morels. The primary reason, for me at any rate, is to get out into the woods. Deep into the woods. As deep into the woods as possible, because the deeper into the woods you get, the more the world becomes slow and quiet. Not silent — just quiet. Between wind and wildlife, the woods are rarely silent. It’s just that the sounds of the woods are subtle and usually indirect.
If you spot one morel, there are usually others nearby.
Subtle and indirect — that’s how you find morels in the woods. You walk slowly, scanning the ground for small disruptions in the pattern of the dead leaves. You walk for a couple of minutes, you stop and search for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you walk. There are dozens of tips suggesting the best conditions for finding morels — near dead/dying elm trees, old creek bottoms, south-facing slopes, areas of mottled sun, areas of bright occasional sun, shady areas — but the difference between spotting a morel and missing one is often just a matter of a few feet in one direction or another. So you sort of meander semi-aimlessly through the woods, guided by 1) the wisdom of your morel-hunting ancestors, 2) the terrain itself, 3) maybe a deer track, and 4) a sizable dose of bullshit folklore.
dead elm in an old creek bottom during actual morel season
Hunting morels is weirdly meditative. That’s why folks who talk about hunting morels sometimes sound like students of Zen. Be aware without concentrating, be focused without any objective point of focus. Morels can be masters of camouflage; you can carefully study a few square feet of woodland for a couple of minutes, suddenly realize there are two or three morels right there in plain sight, look away to tell your friends, and then struggle to find those same morels five seconds later.
But here’s a true thing about hunting morels: you can find them just about anyplace. Abandoned lots in town, roadside ditches, suburban yards, in sand, in mud, along farm fields and pastures. Another true thing: a morel you gather from a rural roadside is just as tasty as a morel you gather from the deep woods. One more true thing: there’s always delight in finding a morel anywhere at all.
Actually on a south-facing slope
Still, most of us hunt them in the woods. The tick-infested, thorn-ridden, spiderwebbed, bramble-thick woods. That’s partly because the odds of finding a morel are somewhat better in the woods. Not a lot better, but better — just like the odds of winning the lottery are only slightly improved by buying a ticket. Still, I think most of us hunt them in the woods because getting deep into the woods is…well, it’s nice, isn’t it. It’s pleasant. It’s deeply relaxing. It’s…I’m going to say it…therapeutic.
I’ve seen lots of online references to ‘forest bathing’ lately. That’s a notion developed in Japan (where it’s called shinrin-yoku) back in the 1980s. Forest bathing sounds silly, but it’s become a rather trendy form of therapy. I recently read that it can increase a person’s “capacity to communicate with the land and its species.” I’ve no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound any less absurd that some of the medical claims in support of forest bathing. For example, this:
[M]any trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.
Completely ridiculous, right? Well, actually, no. It turns out trees and plants actually do emit compounds called phytoncides. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the violent death of phytons. Phytoncides help prevent trees and plants from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals. And hey, when you go into the woods, you breathe that shit in. And guess what? It turns out, it’s actually good for you.
This what pre-morel season looks like — nothing but you, some ticks, and an invisible cloud of phytoncides.
Seriously. A few years ago the New York Times acknowledged studies demonstrating that walking in the woods for a couple of hours can actually increase a person’s white corpuscles (those ‘NK’ cells mentioned earlier) for up to a week. There have been a number of highly respected medical researchers writing in highly respected medical journals all highly agreeing that despite its absurd name, forest bathing (and therefore morel hunting) is good for you.
This video is from a couple of years ago, during actual morel season. It may look like a lazy stroll down a deer track. But no! In fact, this is me madly forest bathing and soaking up phytoncides like a damned sponge.
I’m always a tad alarmed to discover that something I enjoy is good for me. I suspect I’ll now be accused of hunting morels for my health, which would take a great deal of the fun out of it. Well, it would — except that, as I said, finding morels is the other reason for hunting them. Sometimes the point of morel hunting is coming home with a sack (mesh, naturally, so the spores can be spread) full of morels. I don’t mind doing something healthy if it delivers the occasional mushroom.
So for the next few weeks — once pre-morel season morphs into morel season — I’ll be out there as often as I can, forest bathing like motherfucker. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not. I’ll be looking for shrooms; my white corpuscles can look out for themselves.