Hopefully a better one….
Tower Hill Botanic Gardens, December 2015.
I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving. We did, it was great spending time with family as always. I had much to be thankful for this year, including a more experimental attitude. Why not?
I’ve been exploring the Blackstone River area in Massachusetts over the last few months. It is striking just how much psychological as well as environmental territory the River covers. Though it remains quite polluted from centuries of exploitation, stretches of the River are quite beautiful and natural. Other stretches are, more complex. No stretch of the River though, at least that I have traveled, requires more effort to understand than the Blackstone Valley Bike Trail in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the River originates. Along this two mile or so stretch you will see the River, a super highway (Route 146), an active freight train yard and line, as well as legacy tracks, a Walmart and Sam’s Club, trees being cut by a beaver, beautiful small falls and rapids, trash and signs that say stay away from the water for health reasons. It’s all right there. Nature and civilization crash into one another at top speed in places and this is one of those locations.
I have photographed there for months, searching for the right way to capture the feel of such a complex place. I’d used most every technological trick I could think of, but ultimately wasn’t satisfied. I decided to go back and try again, this time with black and white film. Digital is just capable of making pictures that are too perfect for this location it seemed to me. Nothing about this location says “perfection.” This work, like this location, is incomplete and some of the images you see here may not survive the next cut. This is where things stand though at the moment.
Shooting on film is interesting of course. I realize that the look can be replicated in software using a digital means of capture. But that somehow doesn’t seem quite right at times. What is really different about shooting on film is the process. You do indeed slow down. You have to for economic reasons if nothing else. For a time, you have to step away from the technological (rat) race. It’s quite refreshing.
Tech Notes: Shot on Kodak TMax and Ilford Delta films using a Nikon F6. The later, for my money, remains the finest 35 mm camera ever made. Negatives scanned on a Nikon 5000 film scanner and finalized in Lightroom/Photoshop (You can’t really escape the technology can you.)
As readers of this blog know by now, one of my main concerns about how we think about our environment is, actually, how little we think about it. We take for granted so much without questioning what supports our lives. The food shows up at the grocery story, the water in the faucet and the oxygen that sustains us in the atmosphere. I live in central Massachusetts and work in eastern Massachusetts. Most people in eastern Massachusetts don’t know where their water comes from, the Quabbin Reservoir. So my mission is in part educational. As such, I’ve been working more with video as a media for engaging with people about the source of their water. This has involved creating short videos that hopefully take the viewer to the source of their water and at least help them connect a few dots.
With that as background, here is a short two minute trip along two sections of the Middle Branch of the Swift River, one of the most important sources of water that goes into the Quabbin Reservoir. I’m shooting from two locations, one the Bear’s Den and the second, where the Middle Branch cuts through the Quabbin Reservation, closer to the Reservoir itself. You can reach both in New Salem. Both are rather tame walks (but see my warning below). I find both of these locations compelling and have posted still imagery from there many times. I hadn’t been back in a year or two, much had changed, though much remained the same.
A word of warning and a request. Posting video online is not as satisfying as you might think given that every one seems to be doing it these days. Most services compress the video severely and if you’re used to good photography, you notice this immediately. Second and more seriously for me, most of you read my blog as subscribers. You have it e-mailed to you and WordPress does not always embed the video properly, meaning you may not see it. This happened a few months ago, to my chagrin.
Trying something different this time, I’ve actually uploaded this version to WordPress itself rather than embed it from Vimeo. However, If you can’t see it, click here and you’ll go right to the video as posted on Vimeo. Regardless, make sure you’re watching the HD version by clicking on HD in the lower right hand corner of your video screen. You’ll know to do that if the quality of the video is particularly annoying. If the preview version I can see is any indication, you will need to click HD to get the higher quality view.
On the hazards of nature photography. When we go out into the field, we are actually quite careful. Tics are everywhere and they are particularly dangerous in New England. So we are fully covered regardless of the temperature. No sandals, short sleeves, etc. Never, even when it’s really hot. But that isn’t always enough to protect you it seems. I’d been to this location many times but evidently this is where I contracted poison ivy, or something like that. Even though I didn’t think I was excessively allergic to poison ivy, I have never been cavalier about it. Your reaction can change over time with aging. This time something went wrong and the poison ivy mixed with something else and left me severely ill. The treatment, prednisone was just as bad as the disease as some of you know. It finally seems to be working now thankfully. I got some good medical care along the way, including from an excellent Dermatologist. Just as I was leaving his office, he shared a rather bone chilling observation that he said all his dermatology friends had been pondering over the past few years. Poison ivy is getting much more virulent. They don’t know why. I have no expertise in this area other than what I’ve learned over the past month so I can’t verify his statement, but he’s a good doc and very well trained. So why am I saying all this? If you’re old enough you may remember a pretty good police show, Hill Street Blues. The desk sergeant at the precinct had a way of closing his start of shift meetings that came to mind recently: And hey…..be careful out there.
The Blackstone River project continues though I have no idea where it will lead. Researching an idea and then getting out in the field is definitely an exciting experience. The more I find out about the River then more intriguing it becomes. It makes up in Worcester, the industrial heartland that it helped to create. This view of Beaver Brook is less than half a mile from my home.
The white object in the upper left is a mattress. Fairly random I know. Beaver Brook joins forces with Middle River about two miles away, to give genesis to the Blackstone itself. As you can see, there isn’t terribly much left that is natural about Beaver Brook. Where we’re standing is where the Brook comes out from below ground. It is tunneled in for around a mile, reappears in Beaver Brook Park off Chandler Street in Worcester and then disappears again. It would seem that civilization has trumped nature, in this case. That is the story here I think, the tension and synergy between nature and civilization writ large.
As I said in the previous post, the Blackstone is one of the most polluted Rivers in the U.S., which is saying something. It was indeed the home of the industrial revolution and it’s 400 plus foot drop from Worcester, Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island meant water power. At Pawtucket, a Mr. Slater founded the first Cotton Mill in the United States, the very first one. The impact of that bit of industrialization on the entire country cannot be over-stated. More on that to come.
Nature has reasserted herself though along the way. Just a bit of research pointed us toward River Bend Farm in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, less than twenty-miles away. River Bend is actually a state park, managed by the Massachusetts Division of Conservation and Recreation, though it is affiliated with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor which is under the management of the National Park Service. It is perhaps ten to fifteen miles long. It runs along a stretch of the Blackstone River and the Blackstone Canal itself, parts of which at this location are still clearly visible. This is an image of the Canal from new the Visitor Center there.
The Canal Barges were propelled, or rather pulled along, by horses that trod along the tow path you can see to the right. In places, the Canal and River intermingle, as seems to be the case here at the Arch Bridge approximately half mile north.
But what about that 400 foot drop from Worcester to Providence? The Canal required a series of locks to make the journey possible. Here is the Goat Hill Lock, one of the few remaining that is still largely visible.
A barge would enter the lock and a door shut behind it. There was also a door shut in front. Water would be pumped out or in to the lock depending upon the direction the barge was heading. The water level would reach that of the next leg of the journey and the door in front would open, allowing the barge to carry on. This lock is ten feet wide. That is not the pathway for flowing water, that is the entire lock, meaning that the barges were all less than ten feet wide. All that, and it was still cheaper than sending goods over land, evidently considerably cheaper. The barge then moved ahead into an area of the Canal or River such as this.
Obviously, no passing in the lock. However, on the good side, very little need for a GPS. More to come.
I’ve been working my way through a most interesting book, The Language of Landscape, by design professor and photographer Anne Whiston Spirn. She is on the faculty at MIT and her work is very scholarly (I like that, but it might serve as a warning to those who don’t). I will try to capture her point succinctly, though I’m sure I’m damaging it in the process. The landscape we see is talking with us if we know how to listen. In fact, the landscape is telling us about itself, its history and the forces that shape the landscape, be they geological, meteorological or human. Some such stories are authored almost totally by nature, think of the Grand Canyon telling us about the power of the flow of a river. However, such solely authored works are harder to come by then one might image.
Humanity is often on the cover jacket as well, working with, around, through or co-opting nature as a co-author. The hand of humanity is obvious in some cases. The suburban office building and parking lot tell us a story about the economic intent and values of the designers and perhaps the surrounding community, albeit one we might find boring. Such is not always the case of course. Sometimes the story is more complex and perhaps more interesting. Sometimes design, even design by humans, can result in something quite unusual.
Thinking like this has helped me take a different approach to some of my photography over the past several years. In particular, I’ve been hanging around the Winsor Dam and Goodnough Dike, the structures that are largely responsible for holding back the waters of the Swift River and creating the massive Quabbin Reservoir. The Reservoir, for the new visitor, is the source of drinking water for much of eastern Massachusetts. It is a marvelous resource that is also surrounded by an accidental wilderness, with wonderful forests and wildlife. It was created at great sacrifice, particularly for the several thousand people put off the four towns take to create the Reservoir. As I have said many times here, we should all be thankful for the sacrifice of others. (If you don’t see the importance of a resource like the Reservoir, Google “Sao Paolo Drought.” You will see a horrific story of the very rapidly dwindling supply of water in the reservoirs surrounding Brazil’s largest city. The supply in the main ones is down to around 5 – 10%. They may run out of water in just a few months. Twenty million people. There for but the grace of God and the sacrifice of others….. But back to my story.)
So the creation of the Reservoir is a complex, sad and wondrous story. These images were taken on or below the largest of the structures, Winsor Dam, located in Quabbin Park, Belchertown and Ware, Massachusetts. What is the landscape saying?
There are I’m sure many answers to the question. I was talking with a friend the other day, a colleague at Babson who loves to fish in the catch and release area just below the Dam. I asked him what the Dam looked like to him. He agreed, it’s not your typical dam. I’ve been trying to find out the motive behind such an unusual design. There are many engineering related answers. An earthen dam makes sense given the location. There was appropriate soil nearby for the construction of such a dam. You have to plant grass on the side of an earthen dam and keep trees off of the dam itself. That part of the story seems very relevant. But does it explain the way it looks? In his book, From Valley to Quabbin, author J.R. Greene quotes an article from the Amherst Record, dated October 11, 1946; “This is the Quabbin Reservoir created by man for utilitarian purposes yet so panned that a great engineering feat has been skillfully blended with nature,” (Greene, 2010, pg. 126, Athol Press). I suspect the story the landscape here is trying to tell us has more to offer.