Forgetting to See

by | 25 Jan, 2023 | Nature, Photography, Wildlife | 0 comments

I have spent too much time on social media these past few weeks, eyes to a screen instead of the sky, my camera left by the front door as the hours passed, poorly.

But this morning, in an attempt to see once more, I picked it up and went into the garden. There had been a hard frost overnight, each leaf and stem coated in thick, white ice. An icing sugar landscape. Fern frost, reminiscent of the work of William Morris, swirls and climbs across the windows of our cold frame. Its patterns are formed by imperfections in the glass; specks, bumps and dents encouraging the ice to grow in different ways.

A pile of fallen leaves in a quiet corner has been embroidered with tiny threads of ice. The sun never falls here, but there is something in their drab, brown shapes that draws me closer. I think it’s their stillness, and the way the frost has made each vein stand out as if embossed. They look almost metallic – faded, ferrous forms.

Frosted Leaves

Behind the old leaves and catching the first rays of hazy sunlight is a Hogweed. Ordinarily categorised as a weed, I left it to grow in our garden because I enjoy its tall, sculptural shape. The insects appreciate it too. Back in the summer, its white flowers attracted hoverflies and numerous Soldier Beetles. It’s dead now, but no less beautiful, especially as its encrusted in a layer of ice; ice which shines as the sun lights it, so that the Hogweed glows.

Frosted Hogweed

Next to this is a Woodbine which planted itself years ago and has grown here ever since. Last summer, when a prolonged drought gripped the landscape and the temperatures soared to record highs, I thought we might lose it. Its usual green appearance faded to brown and it began to shrivel. But it’s come back, and now it twists and contorts itself out of the corner where it began, to grip at the nearby Buddleja and Gooseberry bush. Its groping, loose ringlets are highlighted by the frost so that I feel today may be the first time I have really appreciated its lines. In the spring, a Blackbird built a nest in the tangled mass of its centre. I look for it now but can’t see it.

Frosted Honeysuckle

Along our neighbour’s wall, Asters grow, overseen by a Clematis called ‘Golden Tiara’. It is a late-flowering species, and in the autumn it is covered in small, yellow, lantern-like flowers. Now, safely withdrawn into its winter slumber, the plant is faded brown and adorned with fluffy seed heads. Beyond it, the frosted Aster catches the light so that it looks like it’s covered in a string of multicoloured Christmas lights. This is one of my favourite things about frost, the way it acts as a prism to refract the light, making the landscape glitter. I have tried and tried again to capture it with my camera, but I find the magic of this phenomenon never really makes it into the lens – not how it looks through my eyes, at least.

Frosted Aster and Clematis

After a little while in our garden, eyes removed from endless scrolling, I’m reminded of a quote from Roald Dahl’s The Minpins:

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

I realise now that this is where I’ve been going wrong. I’ve not been looking for magic. Instead, I have been looking at other people’s magic via a screen and forgetting to find my own. It’s easily done but not good, and it’s made me jaded, making me believe my own photography doesn’t reach the Instagramable heights of other people’s work and should therefore be locked away, forever, on a hard drive in our back room. But whether they reach those heights or not, creating images to appease social media was never the point. The reason I find my camera useful is that it helps me pay attention. It might not always enable me to capture all the sparkling brilliance of a scene but it does help me to hone in and slow down. That is why I take photographs and why leaving my camera by the door is not enough. The creative journey isn’t about other people’s opinions of your work, it’s about creative expression and understanding yourself. And I’m tired of curtailing myself to suit the status quo. I want to photograph what draws my attention the most, be that a vista or a single leaf.

When I remember to look and pay attention, I find beauty and intrigue nearly everywhere, but I often keep it to myself because I worry that other people might not find it interesting. But there is only so much I can remember. Keeping it to myself, ironically, means that a percentage of my experiences are known by nobody, not even myself, because I forget them. Therefore, transcribing matters. Photographs and drawings count. Words and pictures act as catalysts to transport me back. Without them, I’m left grasping at wisps of memories which travel through my mind like mist. Was that real, or did I dream it? It’s often difficult to tell. To avoid forgetting, I need to write it down. And my photographs and drawings bring the memories into focus a little more. Remember that sunrise? It really was that bright. Remember that snowfall? It really was that deep. You haven’t misremembered. This memory is whole. You paid attention, looked with ‘glittering eyes’ then wrote it down. And your reward? A memory that lasts.

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver