By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER MINDS THAN MINE have already taken note of the fact that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the penning of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees, a short bit of cozy verse which is either beloved sentiment or dreadful dreck, depending on which literary camp you pitch your tent in. I would have to confess that I find Kilmer’s ditty too cute by half, sort of the rhyming equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but, that said, faced with either the specious cause of “progress” or the faith it takes to plant trees, I side with the trees.
This particular better angel of my nature comes from observing
my father, to whom a connection between the soil and the soul is palpably real. If he were to assemble his version of The Avengers, he would sub out Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and St. Francis for Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Cap America. To watch him will twigs to vigorous life, or summon forth roses from wishes over the decades is to truly “get it”. He was Earth Day before Earth Day was cool. He was Rachel Carson in reverse drag.
So I have to pause for just a post’s-worth of mourning at the recent loss of two enormous palm trees from our place in Phoenix. These were not important trees in any grand sense; they afforded no shade, bore no fruit, marked no key battlefield. No children’s swings ever hung from their heights, and, as for sheltering purposes, they were little more than a beak sharpener for the neighborhood’s woodpecker.
The palms’ annual shower of spring litter had become a sore point between our team and the next neighbor over. What had, at lesser heights, been at least decorative additions to the yard had become, twenty years on, a pain in the astroturf. So down Thing One and Thing Two went, and, with them, one of my favorite visual elements in that part of the property. Going back through the foto files in the depths of the Perk Cave recently, I saw them taking a star turn, again and again, most notably as a skybound workout for our daring landscaper. He was part of the crew that eventually sliced, diced, and hauled them away, and with respect and admiration, his lofty Olympic feat is featured here.
So, even though I will never exactly be the Lorax, and even though I think Kilmer was a hack, I myself seldom see a “poem lovely as a tree”, and I still peer quizzically when its old hunk of skyspace seems deserted somehow.
I suddenly feel like planting something.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.
- “I think that I shall never see…”: Joyce Kilmer as War Poet (pietistschoolman.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.