How far is the far?

“How far is the far?” sounds like a bizarre word puzzle, and a puzzle is a good place to start writing here again after so much time away. I started this blog so my mom could see my writing — she’s been gone exactly a year and a half today, and along with her, a significant percentage of the fan base for my writing. I miss her more every week, miss her ability to see, and rejoice in, the very small things I often miss.

One small thing this week was an hour with Vern Northrup at his Ishkode exhibit at AICHO, beautiful photos of theOctober 2017 prescribed burn on Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, meant to restore traditional Ojibwe forestry management, especially for blueberries, miinan. I’d seen these photos at Vern’s opening talk, knew they reflect his work, and life, the way he sees the world. Now, a chance to take another look with Vern, who graciously agreed to meet with some writers who are experimenting with arts writing in the region.

We talk a little about the Ojibwe language, the art gallery in the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at AICHO, 80 years of change on Stockton Island, Vern’s career in wild land fire fighting, his turn to serious and careful photography three years ago, the occasions when he photographs something he did not know was there when he pointed the camera. I learn much from this self-described Ojibwe elder, who is forthright about this consultations with elders more senior than he. I learn, but there is much I don’t understand.

Then Vern tells the story about leading a wild land fire crew up a mountain in Idaho when a back up crew arrives, dragging their equipment toward him. “How far is the far?” yells the crew chief to Vern. Which sounds like complete nonsense on this burning mountain in the middle of nowhere, until it’s apparent that the new crew is from Kentucky and “far” means “fire.” Talking about the same thing, with different words. Vern laughs at the memory.

We ask Vern how he learned to photograph such small things — the abstraction of spheres of dew on the serrated edges of sumac leaves, the pattern of light and shadow filling the frame. The cleft in Split Rock, four photos in different seasons, looking into the narrow space of this igneous rock, a billion years old; you barely see the Lake, but you can see its size. The series showing a milkweed pod blowing open on a windy day, tiny tan seeds with their billowing fibers, racing away in the breeze.

And the big things: The progression of a ground fire to the forest’s crown, the living flame in each photo. “Blue Maples”, a simple composition of bare maple branches against a deep blue sky, every tapering branch and twig visible. You know the sun is warm to make a sky that blue, but in the spare bareness, you feel the coming chill of autumn nights, of winter’s approach.

I’ve seen these photos just a few days ago with the crowd at the opening event. Seeing them again in the quiet room I have a better sense of how Vern sees the world he chooses to photograph.

“If you look small, you won’t miss small,” says Vern, a lesson he learned looking down a rifle barrel in the Marine Corps. Small applies to his camera, too — a Galaxy S7 phone, with a camera he estimates at 12-14 megapixels. He doesn’t use editing software, except to crop sometimes. Simple and small is better, “I hauled shit around on my back my whole career. I don’t want to do that any more.”

Not quite sure how I wanted to write about the visit with Vern, I walked out to the bluff above Lake Superior yesterday late in the afternoon to see the broken glass of ice sheets stacked on the beach. The eagle  who hangs out in the neighbors’ tree did a leisurely loop over the ice and water to be sure (s)he knew who I was. I watched the flight back to the top of a spruce, enormous claws extended toward the perch, wingspan pulling in. And saw another eagle move along the branch to make room. They chatted back and forth to each other, right in front of me, for several minutes. I turned my back on the lake’s expanse and shielded my eyes from the sunny sky to listen to them. Such small and intimate sounds from these majestic birds.

In Vern’s work, I see the mystery in the smallest parts of our world, and the grace of the larger context which made them. Things that are far become close.

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