I take pictures of weeds. We -- myself and my subject -- are marginal, negligible, even despised. We are all about the humus. Troops of do-gooders give up their Sundays to pull us up by the roots and throw us onto the compost heap.
More than a few times such a botanically correct citizen of field and forest has interrupted me as I stooped to photograph an outlaw -- knotweed, honeysuckle, rosa multiflora, mustard.
"That's an invasive species," they glower, arms crossed over their chest, shaking their heads in disapproval as if I were a weedy co-conspirator.
Well, I suppose I am. A co-conspirator, and a weed, which, by definition, is an outlaw, a trespasser, a malicious invader of the world of preened and prized cultivars. The world of prestige.
Our neighbor informed us last week that the several maple trees in our backyard were weed trees.
We needed (she continued) to go ahead and cut them down. They were shedding their messy flowers everywhere, and their shade was foiling her efforts at gardening.
The subtext was weed neighbors: old house with bad vinyl siding, seven flamingos in the front yard and lawns that invariably die of neglect year after year. Not to mention harboring criminal maples. That they stubbornly decline to chop down. Mea culpa.
Photography, usually, is about the thing-in-itself. Not the category weed, even the sub category dandelion, but this particular creature at this moment of its life, in this particular bit of sun or shadow, viewed by a particular set of eyes behind which seethe masses of contingent preference and point-of-view, all of which is moving through transience and toward demise, or, if you will, transformation.
I am the Dorothea Lange of meadow and swamp. I have borrowed the biblical judge not and applied it to the field-of-no-lilies.
I admit it: mine is a louche art, lower than that of the police photographer. My portfoliage is full of mugshots. I am the recluse at the crime scene. I flinch at passersby, the jogging, bicycling, dog-walking, tandem strolling, cell-phone talking, ipod listening and ever-yammering fellow denizens of the meadow. Stop talking I hiss, cowering behind a tree trunk. Yet on they talk ... and then I said, and, like, can you believe it, she didn't even, and then I said seriously ? and like she was all ...
Oh, to be sure, the weeds talk, too, but you have to know how to listen, and what you hear you may not like. For who likes to hear semblable, soeur from a non-celebrity mouth ? Who likes to be told they are nothing special, hardly the Universe's eye-apple, hardly the beloved child of something that might be called "God." But listen. Stay with it, breathe, wait, wait, wait, until suddenly everything explodes into a shimmering aurora of sublime and overwhelming indifference, so ghastly and beautiful that the very weeds bow down in the field. And you beside them.
Mmm'kay, Paula, I'm going to need you to go ahead and cut down those maple trees.
I am a hermit in a world that despises hermits. What drew me to religion was monastery and hermitage, what I found was congregation, congregation and more congregation. Interpersonal relationship the ultimate good, man (usually literally) the measure of all things and the one with dominion over it all.
To be sure there are the outliers, there is the hermit provision, but there's always the caveat: go out into the lonely place, yes, but be sure to come back. And soon. The default setting is the crowd. Arms upraised in prayer or salute, breasts stirring in unison with a common emotion. One bread ! One body ! America, America !
Even God can't stand being alone -- viz. he's taken in two roommates, Jesus C. and H. Ghost, and, by one account, they sit all day around the heavenly kitchen table and gaze adoringly at one another. Or perichorese, 24/7, in a triangular permutation of the square dance.
God is LUURRRVE !!! Do-si-do !
And what, then, about the buttercup and fern ? The legless bug ?
Yes, yes, I know: your church has solar panels and recycling bins, your book group is about to read the latest volume on eco-spirituality, and always, of course, there is Mary Oliver.
The Sunday morning meadow restores and vexes me. Instead of diving behind bushes and wincing at loudmouthed toddlers and their loudmouthed parents, instead of creeping among the nasty weeds of overgrown and moss-encrusted foundations, shouldn't I be pewsitting with my fellow humans in that admittedly serious place on serious earth ?
I stood a long time at my office window last Friday watching a squirrel. It was sitting, immobile, on a fence post not 10 feet away, tail fur rippling in the wind. It was so still I had to wonder: was it sick ? Frightened ? Then it proceeded to preen, much like a kitty -- licked its hands then ran them over its head, then grasped and gnawed at its tail. I wondered about its life. Foraging, nesting, fleeing predators, at the mercy of the elements, at the mercy of traffic.
What did it feel ? Pain ? Pleasure ? Fear ? Hunger ? Desire ? Anger ? What was the point of a squirrel, its existence ? To simply be thrown into life, to suffer, toil, reproduce, and to die ? Did it have an existential inkling ? Had it been sitting on the fencepost staring into the abyss ? I teetered on the brink of horror -- and escaped back into the workday.
Later, DK reminded me of the nimble elegance of squirrels as they soared across fences and up into the most improbable branches of trees -- maybe they're having fun ?
Yes, I thought. Maybe the squirrels are all right.
All right in the way a dandelion is all right.
All right in the way that I am all right, and that you are all right. And that we -- the absolute shimmering whole of it -- are all right, sustained by the terrible and wonderful indifference of existence. All right and nothing special, pointless, improbable and doomed.