When Men and Mountains Meet

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.

This is not done by jostling in the street.

— William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Who doesn’t love a view? Few sights surpass blue mountains stretching across the horizon beneath an endless sky. In my part of the United States, you can easily see such a view by pulling off at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic road that begins in Virginia and winds its way down through North Carolina.

Sadly, I take this view of undulating blue hills for granted. In fact, my original plan for Photography 101’s Landscape theme was to drive out to Max Patch, a bald mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Situated on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, Max Patch offers an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain groups: the Bald Mountains, the Great Smokies, the Unakas, the Black Mountains, and the Great Balsams. You need a video camera to capture the astonishing scenery at Max Patch.

June 2011:  A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch

June 2011: A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch. Click here for my unsteady video of the view.

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

IMG_3197 cropLife interfered with my plans for a panoramic photo at Max Patch, so I chose an easy — and obvious — option for a landscape picture: the Haw Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. En route to the overlook, my son and I made an unscheduled pit stop at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. This was my first time inside the Visitor Center, where several hands-on exhibits caught my son’s eye. Meanwhile, my eyes were drawn to William Blake’s words — “Great things are done when men and mountains meet” — emblazoned across a photograph near the entrance.

In this context, Blake’s statement is lauding the Blue Ridge Parkway as a “great thing” achieved by the conjunction of men and mountains. Construction of the Parkway began in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and was finally completed in 1987. In every subsequent year since 1946, the Parkway has been America’s most visited national site. As the longest linear park in the United States, the Parkway annually gives millions of visitors access to campsites and hikes, vistas and waterfalls, wildflowers and trees. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a remarkable achievement.

Like most visionary projects, the Blue Ridge Parkway was not without casualties. Browsing through a bookstore in August, I came across When the Parkway Came, a children’s book written by Anne Mitchell Whisnant and David E. Whisnant. The Whisnants’ book looks at the building of the Parkway through the eyes of Jess, a boy whose family’s farm lies in the path of the proposed highway. While Jess is fictional, the book is based on a letter written to President Roosevelt in 1937 by S. A. Miller, owner of a small farm in North Carolina. Miller’s objections to the low offer made for his land were eventually rewarded with a better price. Although the book does not shy away from the Parkway’s darker repercussions, the Whisnants end on a note of optimistic reflection:

“I wish this land was still ours, Papa Jess,” I said. Papa Jess was quiet for a while. Then he looked up and smiled. “It is, Ginny,” he said. “It still is. Yours, mine, and everybody’s. And it is still so beautiful.”

As someone who benefits from the Blue Ridge Parkway, I am torn between sympathy for the mountain farmers whose property rights were overruled and gratitude for the engineers and CCC workers who made the mountains accessible to everyone. Because farmers like Miller sacrificed their land, the mountains bordering the Parkway are now a place for refuge and reflection – a beautiful place that provides recreational opportunities and inspires artists and writers.

In my reading of Blake’s epigram, he was not thinking of a specific “great” achievement when he wrote, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet. /  This is not done by jostling in the street.” A Romantic poet who hated the ugliness of industrialization and wrote of England’s “dark Satanic mills,” Blake is speaking here of that sense of wonder and awe that descends upon us when we gaze on a landscape too large for our circumscribed minds to comprehend.  Blake lived in London all his life — amidst the jostling of nineteenth-century London’s dirty, crowded streets.The great thing for Blake would have been solace for his soul and freedom for his thoughts as he gazed upon mountains.

Does the creation of a public treasure like the Blue Ridge Parkway justify the high price paid by Miller and many others? Thinking of the countless visitors who have gazed in wonder at views along the Parkway, I would answer, “Yes” – but, then, it wasn’t my land.

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)


Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the weekly Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.

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All photographs were taken by Sandra Fleming in November 2014, with the exception of the Max Patch picture, which was taken in 2011. An iPhone 5s was used for the panoramic photos and overlook sign, while a Panasonic Lumix was used for all other photos. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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Man in the (Rearview) Mirror

Michael Jackson and Joyce Kilmer on the same site? Say it ain’t so, Joe! The King of Pop is unlikely to show up here often, but Chic’s adaptation of an iconic 80s song was both clever and timely.  (I disabled comments here; please leave them on Chic’s site.)

A Swarm of Trees: “Till the Wood of Birnam Rise”

The folks at Photo 101 are forcing me to get creative with my camera. Photograph a “swarm” in late November? An old poem about swarming mentions only the months of May, June, and July:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

I might add, “A swarm of trees in November is worth a photo.” Looking along the Blue Ridge Parkway for “something that overruns your scene,” I was forcibly struck by the bare trees seeming to march towards me, line upon line of bark-clad soldiers with outstretched arms.

Encroaching trees (Coolpix L320)


Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Was it looking through the narrowed view of my camera that made the trees appear to move? Trees without leaves seem threatening, somehow — although trees with leaves can be hostile, like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. But bare-branched trees, thronged against the sky, create an eerie effect:

Trees on the Blue Ridge Parkway

After I posted this photo, my brother made it into avideo of swarming trees for a joke — I think it was a joke? While not high quality, the video is unnerving. (Panasonic Lumix)

As I sought “swarming” trees to photograph, I began to think about literary examples of trees that moved. The most famous instance of moving trees occurs in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The witches hint that a moving forest will precede Macbeth’s defeat: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.91-93).

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Panasonic Lumix photo, edited in PicMonkey

Confidently, Macbeth asserts:

That will never be:

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good.

Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom. (4.1.93-99)

Macbeth’s arrogant optimism is ill-founded. In Act 5, soldiers camouflage themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood as they march on Dunsinane Hill, creating the illusion of “a moving grove” (5.5.37). The “forest” that advances on Dunsinane is, in reality, an army of men who overwhelm the castle and force Macbeth’s downfall at the hands of Macduff.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Treebeard leads an enormous army of bonafide trees to the Battle of the Hornburg. This time, the trees can walk — vengeful Ents and Huorns, who uproot themselves to aid the desperate men of Rohan at Helm’s Deep:

The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (Panasonic Lumix)

Aroused, Tolkien’s Ents and Huorns decimate the terrified Orcs at Helm’s Deep. The next morning, the mysterious forest of Huorns has vanished, leaving instead an enormous mound of dead Orcs.

A moving forest does not have to be fantastical to cause destruction. In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children,  trees suddenly begin swarming down a rural hillside toward the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis, the landslide might have caused a tragic railway accident:

And, as Peter pointed, the tree was moving — not just the way trees ought to move when the wind blows through them, but all in one piece, as though it were a live creature and were walking down the side of the cutting.

“It’s moving!” cried Bobbie. “Oh, look! and so are the others. It’s like the woods in Macbeth.”

“It’s magic,” said Phyllis, breathlessly. “I always knew the railroad was enchanted.”

It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be walking slowly down towards the railway line, the tree with the gray leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep. (Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children)

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Panasonic Lumix photo

In western North Carolina, incidents of trees that suddenly begin to move are rare, although there are occasional rock slides along I-40 heading west. While I am being fanciful with the idea of trees that swarm, landslides and mudslides are a real danger in mountainside communities not far from my home. An actual swarm of trees, caused by erosion or earthquake, would be terrifying.

I have made much of the oppressive character of bare trees on a bleak day, but I like to walk in the woods in late fall and winter. Stripped of leaves, the hardwood trees reveal their clean lines and rough texture. Depending on the time of day and the light, row upon row of leafless trees can create a soothing effect. This cluster of trees suggests not a restless swarm but a graceful gathering of grey-clad Quakers.

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Panasonic Lumix


Photos taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with a Nikon Coolpix L320 and  a Panasonic Lumix. Text and photos copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014.

A Nation of Writers

Downtown skyline

“Because of computers, we’re suddenly a nation of writers.” — Patricia T. O’Conner

Computers have done for writing what Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press did for reading. Just as the printing press made it cheaper and easier to print books and disseminate information throughout Europe, the computer has made it cheaper and easier for writers to produce their works and share them with the world.

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Architect Douglas Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria, built in 1929, is an Art Deco masterpiece. (iPhone 5s photo)

This is not to slight typewriters, which got me through college (except on the rare occasions when I had access to my dad’s Apple 2e). Typewriters made writing more efficient, but I remember all too well the downside of typewriters: carbon paper, whiteout, fading ribbons, and sticking keys. Aside from an occasional electronic failure, computers enable writers to not only write and revise speedily but also to publish their work immediately. Press one button, and your writing could be read by someone else within seconds.

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Photo taken with a Panasonic Lumix

As a WordPress blogger, I am invariably startled when I read a post via the Reader, go to “like” it, and then discover that the post was published less than five minutes before I read it. I have to fight a reluctance to comment on a post so recently released that I can sense the author’s lingering breath. Blogging as a subset of writing owes its existence to the omnipresence of computers: anyone who knows how to use a keyboard, connect to the internet, and set up a site can become the author of a blog. Computers are the great egalitarian factor in writing.

Without computers, would so many people be dedicated to writing a novel in the month of November? According to the NaNoWriMo site, in 2013 more than 300,000 participants set themselves the goal of writing a 50,000-word draft of a novel in November. Many writers use computers as tools in getting their novels or other works published, whether by a company or through self-publishing. But for countless writers who don’t entertain thoughts of official publication but who nonetheless have something to say, the computer offers a way to share writing with friends and relations, with acquaintances, and with strangers in different hemispheres gazing at their computers.

Before I had a computer, I wrote in notebooks. As time passed, I wrote more sporadically. It is entirely due to computers that I have experienced a renaissance in my own writing. In 2012, my daughter told me about 750words.com, a site for online writing that was free (at the time). I kept my writing private, and I printed my entries, because I felt that I needed a physical copy of the words I was pouring into virtual Neverland. Thanks to the site’s challenges and badges, I began writing for the first time in 20 years. Are my daily “750 words” worthy of sharing? No, but, after two years of writing privately, I started writing publicly on a blog.

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Built in 1926, Asheville City Hall was also designed by Ellington. (Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix)

I am amazed at how many of us are secretly writers — and grateful that the computer is no snob when it comes to who is a writer and who is not. Am I as careful when I write on a computer as I was with pen and paper? If not, I should exercise more caution: someone is far more likely to stumble onto the words that I type here than in any of the spiral-bound notebooks lurking in an upstairs cabinet. One of the pitfalls of writing on a computer is the very ease of writing — and of sharing. With one click, that hasty or erroneous post is out there. Another drawback to writing online is increased vulnerability to piracy of writing or images. The information divulged in a blog could also give clues to the writer’s financial identity. Writing with computers has its hazards.

But I am thankful for an invention that has streamlined the act of writing, increased the exchange of information, and facilitated the dialogue between writers and readers. O’Conner’s quote refers to a “nation of writers,” but blogging has shown me that a veritable global community of writers exists. Despite this international frenzy of writing, I suspect that the ratio of great writers to everyday, ordinary writers is much the same as it has always been: most of us are not Fitzgeralds or Austens, and maybe not even Samuel Pepys with his famous diary. Still we write, for writing lets us take what is inside our heads and share that with someone else. Writing with computers makes the sharing exponentially greater.

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Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria and Asheville City Hall are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Panasonic Lumix photo)

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Asheville City Hall (Panasonic Lumix photo)


O’Conner’s statement appears on page 1 of Writers INC (Wilmington, MA: Great Source, 2001). Patricia T. O’Conner co-authors the blog Grammarphobia.

Note: One way in which computers are not egalitarian is that it costs far more to buy a computer than it does to buy a pen and paper. Economic inequality is not the topic at hand, however.


writers-quote-wednesday (1)Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting Writer’s Quote Wednesday (and for being patient with those of us who habitually miss posting on Wednesday). Since I’m also behind on Photo 101, I have used pictures from the Architecture assignment throughout this post. All photos were taken in November 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

A Quest for Curves: The Natural World

I’ll say this for Photo 101: it’s causing me to look more closely at my surroundings. When “The Natural World” assignment popped up on my phone’s WordPress app, I was waiting to pick up my son. Dutifully, I began searching for “curves” in the natural world nearest me: a large, open field adjacent to the church parking lot. I took the photo below partly because of the lovely colors (no filter, folks!) but mainly because of an abundance of curves in the landscape — the rounded shapes of the trees, the distant hills, and the clouds — set off by the horizontal line of the green field and the vertical tree trunks. Not long afterwards, the daylight faded.

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If you’re participating in Photo 101, you might see the problem: when I read the “Natural World” assignment, I seized on a key phrase rather than the whole idea. That happens when I read on my phone: my grasp of the material is often incomplete. The words that jumped out at me were “lines” and, in particular, “curves.”  Here are the words in context (I added the italics):

Exploring the outdoors, with camera in hand, is an opportunity to look for natural lines that lead our eyes to different parts of a frame. Envision the bend of a stream, or the curve of a petal: how can you use these lines in your composition? If you see strong vertical, horizontal, or diagonal lines, can you play with the orientation to create a more dynamic composition? Can you apply — or break — the Rule of Thirds?

Unfortunately, I didn’t read the assignment thoroughly until days later, at which point I had taken more pictures of the natural world — looking for curves and lines but not in terms of how they related to framing the picture. Never having looked for curves and lines in nature before, I had fun with this assignment (or my primitive grasp of the assignment). On a hike at the Arboretum, I spotted curves everywhere. Lines ran parallel to the curves, and lines cut diagonally or vertically across the curves. Soon, my 10-year-old was enthusiastically looking for curves with me — in waxy green rhododendron leaves, in strangely arched tree trunks, in the rounded ends of white oak leaves, in acorns and pebbles.

On your next walk, I recommend this fun exercise: see how many curves you can find in the natural world. Then, look for straight lines in nature. In my part of the United States, the curves dominate. Even straight pine needles, when grouped together on a branch, make a soft circle of green. The next time I take pictures of the natural world, I’ll try to go one step farther and use those lines and curves to — what was that again? “Create a more dynamic composition”? For now, enjoy the curves.IMG_3053


All photographs taken in November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with her iPhone 5s and copyrighted  © 2014. Next time I go looking for curves, I should take my Lumix: the Lumix has a view mode that divides the screen into nine squares, so I could look for curves or lines AND try to apply the Rule of Thirds.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_assignment/photography-101-natural-world/

Developing a Philosophy of Photography: Landmarks

Birds on a wire at the Basilica of St. Lawrence

As I work through Photography 101, I am starting to grasp something fundamental: what a photo says to the beholder may have little to do with the conditions under which the picture was taken. At the outset, I was puzzled when the example photo for the “Solitude” assignment showed a solitary woman walking through the Hagia Sophia. While the woman seemed to be alone in the photo, a photographer had obviously been present. If the woman was not alone, how could the picture represent “Solitude”?

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NC Arboretum (taken with iPhone 5s)

Taking an authentic approach, I decided to pursue the “Solitude” assignment by seeking solitude. To my surprise, when I reviewed my photos and compared them to the “Solitude” photos posted by other Photo 101 participants, my photos looked more like “Empty” than “Solitude.” Later, I noticed that a photo I had taken on a “Natural World” quest with my husband and son expressed the concept of “Solitude” better than all my pictures of empty paths, empty seats in an amphitheater, or landscapes devoid of people. This photo doesn’t show a person, but the one flaming branch in a mostly bare forest suggests separateness and isolation better than the photos I had taken while separate and isolated.

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Pack Square skyline: Vance Monument, County Courthouse, City Hall, and Jackson Building (taken with iPhone 5s)

I’m trying to learn that the image is the thing. What matters is not the emotion that I feel when I push a button on my camera but the emotion that the viewer feels upon seeing the picture. The picture might communicate an idea or mood that has nothing to do with the photographer’s mental makeup or agenda. There are times when the emotion that the photographer feels and the emotion that the photo conveys are the same: that seemed to be true of many “Bliss” pictures (although not necessarily mine). At other times, a photograph may be more illusion than reality. I am thinking of those false tuxedo shirts that seniors wear for graduation photos: it looks as if a young man is wearing a full suit of formal clothing when, in fact, he is wearing only a false front.

Monument honoring Zebulon B. Vance, a native son of Buncombe County who served as Governor and U.S. Senator

Monument honoring Zebulon B. Vance, a native son who served as Governor and U.S. Senator

It may take me a while to get my head around the disconnect between image and reality. Like most bloggers, I think of myself as someone who is honest with her readers. (I’m dodging the sticky truth that “honesty” in social media is inherently compromised, since I decide what parts of my life to share.) How honest are lovely images that were taken in a stressful moment?

Happily, a landmark is only a landmark, no matter what I’m feeling at the time that I photograph it. A landmark might be a natural wonder, as opposed to a man-made creation, but it carries less emotional baggage. Or does it? A landmark like the Lincoln Memorial may have strong historical connotations. In addition, the choice of perspective or background for the landmark may subtly influence the viewer. Ultimately, the photographer’s goal in taking the picture will determine whether she opts for straightforward documentation of a landmark’s features or decides to focus on a particular aspect of the landmark or setting. During my “Landmark” photo shoot, I learned this: whatever the photographer’s goal, telephone wires, street lamps, signs, traffic signals, cars, pedestrians, and trashcans will get in her way.

The iconic outline of City Hall, designed by Douglas Ellington, has been adopted by the City of Asheville in its official logo.

The Art Deco outline of City Hall, designed by Douglas Ellington, has been incorporated into the City of Asheville‘s official logo.

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Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the Basilica of St. Lawrence showcases what may be North America’s largest freestanding elliptical dome.


All photographs taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with Coolpix L320, unless otherwise specified in the caption. Text and photos are copyrighted by the author © 2014. Please do not use them without her permission.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_assignment/photography-101-landmark/

Looking for Loneliness

Carl Sandburg 3We should all be as fortunate as Carl Sandburg in choosing a place to live out our final years. At the age of 67, Sandburg, who had spent much of his life in the Midwest, moved with his wife Lilian and their grown children to Connemara, a rural estate in North Carolina. At Connemara, Sandburg was surrounded by books, his wife’s prize-winning goats, and 264 acres of land — pastures, forests, and mountains. Sandburg would often take his chair outside, onto the rocky outcropping shown in the photo above. There he would sit to read, write, or think. He spent the last 22 years of his life at Connemara, where he produced a third of his total writing output.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the time in my life when I wrote poetry was also a time when I took long walks by myself. I often walked to a quiet neighborhood not far from my college, stopping to sit and think at an empty lot where a house had burned down years before. There was a lovely view of the valley beyond the low stone wall that had survived the fire. I loved to sit by that wall, thinking, praying, scribbling in my journal.

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My photo of the sign in front of Sandburg’s solitary retreat at Connemara.  I have never seen a chair on the rocky outcropping where Sandburg like to sit, but I found a photo of Sandburg’s chair on a hiking blog.

Looking back, I wonder if I was too fond of solitude in those days. But I wrote a lot of poetry. Now I usually walk with family members, so taking a recent hike by myself at the Carl Sandburg Home was quite an event. I wish I could say that I had discovered Sandburg’s quotation all by myself. The truth is, Sandburg’s observation, which he made in a letter to a friend, appears on the front of the National Park Service’s brochure and in a sign near the famous rock: “It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'”

For Sandburg, finding a quiet place to reflect was as easy as walking out his side-door. For those of us not living in the country, it may be more difficult to find the place or even the time for sitting and thinking outside. But Sandburg is right: from time to time, self-imposed solitude is good for the soul, particularly beneath the swaying branches of hemlocks and pines.

November 2014

November 2014

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This is my fourth post about the Carl Sandburg Home, which is a fascinating and beautiful place. This photo shows Sandburg’s idyll (minus the chair).

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Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.