First the smell, like an ultimatum. If you proceed, it will be on terms not your own. No coddling. What occurs here occurs not for your benefit. You may enter and leave self-contained, otherwise you will obtain no view from inside this container. With luck, the land will swallow you and spit you back out, although you will not be intact. You will be modified, your options diminished, although a certain clarity may arise about the ones that remain. You will know something you don’t want to know, and if you resist the knowing, dysphoria will become a vindictive tide. Your senses are not calibrated for these reference points. Land, water, and air are indistinct. They seem to occupy the same space all at once, both expansive and constrained. And there, where the elements converge, a being so perfectly at home, so perfectly at rest, whose presence speaks that this world was made perfect for someone, but not for you.
What draws the gaze and makes it linger? What halts the eye’s fluttering dance? Beauty usually can’t. What soothes rapidly becomes tedious. A larger force must override pleasure-seeking and offer a larger reward alongside its abrasive aspects. Once perceived, that larger force can become an object of desire–a desire more like love than addiction. That force is unplanned, or part of a plan too complex to understand, so that the encounter remains new. No matter how much additional attention is invested, revelation continues to flow. The unplanned land and its inhabitants have this quality, and I like to think that images can carry some of that force too, so long as they shun every cliche. The conventions of nature photography have mostly been about soothing a public alienated from the wilds, but soothing platitudes never allay pain for long, and if the cataloguing of scenery has been one of photography’s most relentless projects, the land and its creatures are too inexhaustible to be so easily contained. Every moment outside of brutally planned environments is a brand new revelation for those who cultivate attentiveness, and image making is a conduit for sharing sense-work with those who have attention but not access. There is so much more to see. Here is my offering. It is not soothing or beautiful. It is not even mine. It is an invitation, a filter, and an envoy.
Summer is an ill-fitting costume on this land. In the rain, it becomes itself. Every surface is more vivid. The humidity carries sound and scent further, but both remain subtle. Processes here are slow and ancient, and motion imperceptible. Growth and decay exist in enough proximity to extrapolate the full cycle without witnessing the changes. Even on flat terrain, walking feels more like climbing as boulders and fallen trees punctuate every potential line of traverse. Lines of sight are constrained and camouflaged as if concealing some inner sanctum via distortions in the fabric of space. Many people who have inhabited such places have told myths of walking for a long time and ending up in the same place. Indeed, direction is another sense that is inadequate to this place, and one is humbled to realize that no amount of knowledge, skill, or equipment is a guarantee against getting lost. A forest is neither friendly nor hostile. It is merely indifferent–to my safety, to my aesthetics and politics. I’m here to let go of my aesthetic concerns and find an aesthetic that belongs to the forest. I capture the spaces and creatures as they present themselves, without editing as I go. I will edit later and linger with each image–especially those that violate some compositional convention–in order to absorb what the forest tells.
Tunnels of foliage give way to a beach of rounded rocks and alder leaves. The smell called me here, and there it is: a rotting coho, the carnivore become meat, a small monument to nitrogen flows. Most of the flesh has liquified, but not enough to present as the elegant purity of a bleached skeleton. It is hideous and putrid and issues an undeniable call to linger. What it imparts is not pleasure but meaning, which is a pleasure that lingers. There is reward in endurance, in finding the right amount of friction and trusting that its meaning will become clear later. Here’s another secret: here in the temperate rainforest, there is sunshine. The clouds have a rhythm, and between them, channels of light more glorious than any desert or tropical paradise. The land’s contours siphon all the light and water into moments of coalescence.
Will you spend a whole minute, or more, with these images? They tell something to whoever will listen. What appears motionless is merely unwilling to reveal itself to a hasty spectator.
There is another stream back in the city, once home to coho. Usually cities are superimposed onto a watershed and streams are crammed into tunnels under the streets. But at the fringes of all of earth’s cities lies a buffer zone where the excluded go to set up shelter when the architects and financiers enact their schemes deeper in the city’s entrails. Here, haphazard neglect means the stream still flows between sunlit banks lined with chain link and bramble. Car parts and glass line the shore and the odor is more synthetic than rotting flesh. There is a narrow bridge of creosote timber and blacktop, and half a block up a little street, a simple white duplex. I was born there. The front yard is an ample concrete slab, as if the builder knew that whoever lived here would have a robust involvement with derelict cars and the various tasks of triage that coax life from them. Now the same people whose ancestors turned a floodplain into a city of steel walls have shifted their desires. They still want an aesthetic of control, but now with botanical overtones. They want back the stream they once relegated to the scorned classes. They have taken the houses, levied taxes, cleaned up the waterway, and programmed the habitat. Yesterday, coho spawned there for the first time in decades. Capital’s whims are as erratic as they are relentless. During the cannery era, salmon were the cheap protein that gave a low-wage workforce physical strength. Now they serve as yard ornaments for a post-urban pastoralism. My ancestors have moved on, in constant migration, like the coho, swimming upstream, in flight from capital, further on, toward the headwaters.