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Snow Day

When my Americans ask me how often it snows in my hometown, my answer is invariably “almost never”. Nailsea, though far from resembling a tropical paradise, is situated in a region of England that is comparatively warm. A couple weeks ago, we were treated to more snow than we’d entertained in years. A storm that formed in Siberia blew westward, and all of a sudden we had puffy snow. Actual snow. The kind you see in snow globes and Christmas cards. What made it all the more bizarre was that this was happening in March.

Because this kind of weather is so rare over here, it’s seen by most people as a romantic novelty. Unlike Wisconsin, where even an ice storm won’t be enough to get you out of class, everything shuts down here at the sight of half an inch of wintry dandruff. I noticed that a lot of folks took to the streets. There were more people outside than on a sunny weekend in July. Kids in mittens, being pulled along on sleds. Teenagers having snowball fights. Families building snowmen. The view outside my window was tantamount to a Currier & Ives lithograph. Scowling at the scenes of idyllic wholesomeness from my bedroom window, I decided to stay inside and nurse my three-day headache with painkillers and boiled water.

Yesterday, however, the snow came back. Having already gotten a lot of writing done that weekend, I decided that this time I would go outside and take some photographs. For some reason, I just felt like getting out.


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I decided to head in the direction of my old Primary School, and ended up on a trip down memory lane. The first place I came to was a block of terraced houses that surrounded a flat green. I cast my gaze at a street corner, the bollards topped with tufts of snow, and recalled the long afternoons we spent playing there after school. Sometimes a big group of us would play “Manhunt”, other times a small group of us would sit on the benches talking about the future. I had a girlfriend at the time, which in those days of innocence meant sending each other love notes and having pretend weddings ordained on the schoolyard by a fat friend. I remember the girls watched as the guys wrestled on the grass. My girlfriend said “You’re a really good fighter” and we kissed, standing on the same street corner I looked at now, 14 years later. We probably thought that we’d get married. As I continued my walk past the bollards and left the memory behind, it seemed so strange to me that all that happened, that I was the same person. Other than the name “Michael”, I don’t see what else I have in common with the little guy.

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As I got closer to my old school, I came to a kid’s park. No one was out here pulling sleds or throwing snowballs. It was just me, the snow, and the memories buried underneath.

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The school is bordered by a tall metal fence, which in turn is bordered by a row of tall, piney trees. At the corner of the fence that separates the kid’s park from the school field, there’s a little space in the trees that my friends and I used as a secret den. Having nothing better to do with our afternoons, we decided fix the place up. We sent out search parties to gather resources, and ended up stealing a load of rope and buckets from the bed of a nearby truck. We showed our spoils to the rest of the group, who ended up making a pulley that carried buckets to those on lookout duty at the top of the tree. We didn’t really have anything to send up there, but we just admired the working contraption for what it was.

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I left the spot of our old hideout and decided to check out the far end of the kid’s park. What I really wanted to photograph was an animal of some kind- a bird or cat- but nothing around me showed even the slightest hint of life. Everything was silent. I passed the part of the fence that you can climb over and into (or out of) the school grounds. When I was 11 my friends and I got caught having a conker war (throwing horse chestnuts at each other) by the angriest staff member in school. Rather than face her wrath we made a snap decision to run away. She couldn’t believe that we would just run away while she was in the middle of screaming at us. She chased us across the field, but we were able to make it to the part of the fence you can climb over, and escaped.

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Reflecting on all these memories, I called my friend Artie and told him I was out here at our old hangouts taking pictures. It was freezing cold though, so I told him I would come up and see him, since he lived just a few minutes away. That way my walk in the snow had a sense of direction. I left the school and the park behind; passing the swing set where I got drunk for the first time at the age of 15, the trees we used as goalposts for unending games of football, the spot on the concrete path were the old guy fell over and cracked his head wide open that one time.

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As I started in the direction of Artie’s house, I came upon a huge field covered with snow. At the other end, a guy was walking towards me. A sign of life at last. I said hello and asked if I could take a picture of his dog. I was disappointed not to find a bird in the bushes, but this little pupper would do. It was a West Highland Terrier, the same breed that sunk its teeth into me when I was 14, causing a fear of dogs that lasted several years. Another memory. Once again, it felt like a different life, hard to make sense of. I’m forever asking: Were those my hands? My words? My thoughts?

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F-Stops & Flood Plains: My Weekend Part Two

I’ve been nothing if not introspective in the wake of the New Year. I think that’s just how I’m wired. I spend a lot of time in my own head. I can’t really experience something without thinking it to death afterwards. I’m given to considering its place in the larger continuum of my life and attaching a greater significance to it. In my last post I wrote about my Saturday afternoon, in which two friends visited me in my hometown of Nailsea. I wrote about how the visit got me thinking about 2018 as a whole, and the strange feeling I had that I was leaving one chapter behind for a new one.

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Well, the second half of my weekend only extended the dialogue in my head. 2018 does feel very in-betweeney. When I returned last summer from Texas, I was picked up by my kid brother Frank in his Ford Fiesta. Like me, he had just passed his driving test that year. I was so happy to see him, because for the first time in six years, we would be living together again. I left for the University of Winchester in 2011, and he the University of Plymouth in 2013. And due to the fact that I was now living in the USA every summer, I’d gotten used to the idea that seeing him was a special treat. We still spoke every day on the phone, but he was out attending lectures on phytoplankton, conducting research into soil, and giving guided tours of a local aquarium on Devon’s south coast, while I traveled the USA from the Mennonite country stores of northern Wisconsin to the pawn shops of Pasadena, Texas. We were out making new lives, but now- for the first time since 2011- we are living together again.

But I’ve realized that this stage of our lives will likely be over in a flash. Frank’s done well since his graduation to snag himself a pretty sweet job as a flood risk engineer. We’ve been making more of an effort to spend some quality brother time together now that we’re in the same place again, and his presence has really helped me to cope with the routine blues that come with leaving my American roommates. Last Sunday we decided to go for a little hike to the site of an Iron Age fort that overlooks the town I live in.

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Frank’s one of those people with many strings to his bow; he’s got a seemingly endless supply of energy to learn and discover. Everything interests him. He’s unable to spend his free time simply resting. What I admire about him is that he seeks to fill it with as many vivid experiences as possible, and he doesn’t let something completely new intimidate him, or stop him from following his curiosity like a pig digging for truffles. It’s like he recognizes that life is short. No sooner had he acquired his new job than he was seeking out something else to consume his focus; within a week of becoming a flood risk engineer he was searching for new hobbies and experiences- refusing to let this latest career achievement define him.

Frank has been curious about nature photography for a while, and armed with a camera lent to him from his girlfriend and a free Sunday afternoon, decided we ought to go on a hike and take some pictures. I hadn’t used my dSLR in a while; it hangs around in the background silently judging me alongside my banjo and microphone. Three years ago I took a class in photography that taught me the basics of how to get the best out of a single lens reflex, and it’s something I’ve put to use when exploring Northern Wisconsin or indeed serving as the photographer for high school graduations and weddings. So I discussed focal ratios and shutter speeds with him and we stopped to try out different shots of nearby sheep and barbed wire fences.

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As we ascended the hillside we had the sensation of déjà vu one gets when walking a path that was once so familiar. It’s the same feeling I get when I find myself on the old route I used to walk to high school. I can’t walk past the dry cleaners without that strange, damp smell bringing me back to the cold mornings talking about girls or Premier League football. It’s the same with the trail to this ancient fort. My parents used to take us here all the time, and Frank and I would always charge ahead fighting imaginary goblins or battle droids, depending on if we were into Lord of the Rings or Star Wars that day. I think little hikes and trails are great for kids. We used to do it a lot and every time we let our imaginations run wild. Even after all these years, the trail was as familiar to us as the sound of our mother’s voice. The mud clogging up the center of the path, forcing us onto the grassy banks. The other sentient bipeds that would always say “Hello” in that breathless way they do, sometimes accompanied by Labradors and children in mittens. “Don’t worry, she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Come on, Tulip, come on…”

The trail has several gates and stiles. As kids we would jump on the gate as our parents would open it, enjoying the brief ride. I decided to do this as my brother unlocked it. He cast a smile my way in recognition of my journey to the past. The trees were leafless and what patches of grass remained untouched by the January sun were hardened by frost. The winter has its own aesthetic, I said. Frank replied that he would be back in spring to capture the place in an entirely different way. Even though it was cold out, we weren’t cold ourselves. Walking uphill negates that. It was bright too. I hate the January sun. It’s white and shapeless and its low position in the sky means that it blasts light like an aggressive search helicopter.

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As we reached the top of the hill we entered the wide bowl of the old Roman hangout. In the distance a couple of boys ran along the ramparts, lost in a play reminiscent of the kind of adventures Frank and I used to have. Not everything was the same, however. There were areas of trees cut down; it was more open, less mazelike, which disappointed me. I passed by the entrance where a big tree ripe for climbing used to stand, and I recalled a particular memory from when I was eleven years old. I decided to take my friends on a “UFO hunt” after reading that the best place to catch a flying saucer or a Roswell Grey with designs on your prostate was in the countryside. It started out super serious and one of my friends even claimed to have seen a big spaceship in the distance but it only turned out to be a cell tower. When we reached the top we forgot about UFOs and started playing with our imagination while my mom read a magazine on a blanket.

Frank and I walked through the fort to the edge of the hill, where the trees part to give an unobstructed view of the valley below. Nailsea is surrounded on all sides by marshes and farmland. Frank pointed to all the flooded areas of the pastures below and how he’d studied it for his dissertation. We continued taking pictures of the barren trees, the winter flowers, a few lonesome mushrooms, and on our way back I thought I saw a dog running free across the hilltop. Something brown and athletic like a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I didn’t have my glasses on. Blinking, I realized I was looking at a deer. It came around towards us, up the earthen mound of the rampart and bounded across the flat center of the fort. It was quite a sight; that this place once served as a hub of activity, bustling with Dobunni hunters and later, Roman soldiers, and now existed as a barren expanse of cold, pale grass where wild deer roamed free. It’s hard to imagine that empty silence filled with the clank of boots, the warmth of fires, the laughter of men and women. Pots and books and candles and tables and plates and chests and weapons. Frank and I broke into a run, chasing it as far as we could, but by the time we got to the other side, the deer was long gone.

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To bring this post full circle, hiking with my brother gave me an impression of the immensity of the past behind me. It might be the last walk up that hill I ever take, but if that’s the case then I’m okay with that. While the sights, smells and sounds of Cadbury Camp evoked the past, our conversation was fixed entirely on the future. One way or another, 2018 is going to be an interesting year for us both. And I wonder what memories I have yet to create that will one day give my older self a sense of déjà vu.