Purveyor of Beauty

img_8740As I circled beautiful little Lake Tomahawk for the third time (four times around is approximately 2 miles, I’ve learned), I paused yet again to snap a picture of the gorgeous red leaves against the blue sky.img_8743 Simg_8754ure, the picture-taking limited the effectiveness of the exercise, but who cares? Given the glory of the scene before me, how could I not take a picture? How could I not try to share the rich colors of the fall foliage, the smell of sun on pine straw, the glimmer of light on the water?

“Are you a camera person?” asked a friendly man who watched me interrupt my walk to clumsily frame a scene. I said yes, but, really, I’m not much of a photographer, and my iPhone 5s is showing its age. What I am, I decided, is a purveyor of beauty.

I liked the sound of that phrase–“purveyor of beauty” –but later, seated at the coffee shop with my café au lait (I liked the sound of that phrase, too), I looked up the meaning of “purveyor,” just to be on the safe side. What a blow: “purveyor” didn’t mean what I thought it did! I had confused “purveyor” with “surveyor”–someone who takes stock of the situation or assesses the value of something. “Purveyor” actually means someone who is endeavoring to sell or trade something: it can also mean someone who is trying to promote a view or idea. Reveling in my felix culpa, I realized that the real meaning of “purveyor” fit much better.

After all, if I wanted to soak up the beauty for myself, would there be a need for picture-taking? Maybe: I don’t trust mere memory to capture experiences. Memory is fickle and tricks me up with dates or blurs similar experiences. How many falls have I lived through now? How many achingly beautiful autumn scenes have I tried to pin down with camera, verse, prose?

So I suppose I am taking the pictures to remind myself of what a wonderful walk I had, smiling pleasantly at the other folks doggedly rounding the lake along with me, some with dogs in tow. But, even more, I want to share the beauty with you, dear reader–with you, who couldn’t be with me to watch the ducks dabbling in the water near the bridge; with you, who couldn’t count the peaks of the Seven Sisters off to the right.img_8744img_8751

Because beauty kept to myself feels like hiding a joyful secret from someone. Beauty shared is so much better, especially if the other person gets as excited about trees turning from pale-green to vivid yellow as I do. Strangely, though, I kind of like my morning walks alone (alone, with a dozen other people out for their morning constitutionals). If I’m walking with someone, I’m talking or listening. If I’m walking alone, I can let my thoughts float free. Or I can try to notice details that might escape me: the watercolor brush of colored leaves on the lake’s surface; the leaves slowly somersaulting to the ground, the little island with its air of sanctuary, the cross-section of shoe prints in the dirt trail, the half shorn tree hinting at the season’s progress.
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Enjoy the beauty of fall in Black Mountain–and purvey it along!

Finding Words for Spring

Baker_Street_CD_CoverIn the 1970s, I had in my possession a Broadway cast album of the musical “Baker Street.” Yes, THAT Baker Street, and, yes, there was a musical about Sherlock Holmes, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and featuring a romance between Holmes and Irene Adler.

Why I owned this obscure LP is the real mystery. I did like reading mysteries, so maybe that’s why my mother — the greatest of all bargain hunters — bought the record for me or my older brother? My brother initiated me into the sleuthing world with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown; eventually, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and the like. We found at least one use for “Baker Street”: an instrumental segment from “Finding Words for Spring” served as background music for our “radio” play, “Murder Man,” a long-term project. With our neighbors, my brother and I intermittently recorded the play on my parents’ tape recorder. (Before you get too impressed with our creativity, we borrowed the concept of the “Murder Man” play from an Encyclopedia Brown story.)

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We loved mysteries, and we loved musicals: how could the album be anything but a hit? Devotees of Sherlock though we were, the songs seemed more laughable than laudable.  Was it because we were kids? Maybe we were more discerning than I realized, if reviews of the album are to be believed. Did Broadway patrons agree with us? “Baker Street” hasn’t been revived yet, and, as far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film. The songs weren’t particularly catchy, and Inga Swenson’s rendition of “Finding Words for Spring” was the sort of soprano warbling that sent adolescents running in the opposite direction.

Even so, a fragment of this song floated into my thoughts as I admired the azaleas lining my driveway: “Finding words for spring / Is no easy thing.” Soon, I was flipping through my stash of LPs, but the album wasn’t there — which is just as well, since my turntable stopped working 10 years ago. Maybe my parents have the album? Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to “Finding Words for Spring,” as sung by Swenson, and a nostalgic rendering by songwriter Ray Jessel. Surprisingly, the song isn’t about spring or natural beauty; it’s about the difficulty of articulating romantic feelings:

P1080030 (800x600)Finding words for spring

Is no easy thing

Still, I’m sure I’d find a few.

What words could be right

To describe the night?

Somehow, I would find them, too.

P1080035 (800x600)How can one explain

Love’s sweet splendor?

The most tender words won’t do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Should you want to praise

Lazy summer days,

I could find a phrase or two.

As for love, mere words —

P1080040 (800x600)Though they’re clever —

They’ll just never, never do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Did I misremember the song? The title “Finding Words for Spring” seemed to promise a song about the inexpressible freshness of spring — not a love song. Honestly, it may be more difficult to describe a landscape than to describe one’s love.  At least you can use images from nature as symbols of love or of the loved one’s perfections. But how to depict with mere words the wonders of spring?

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It has been a glorious spring here in North Carolina. Dogwood blossoms have graced my backyard with a snowy whiteness; daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips have added brilliant colors — yellows, blues, oranges, lilacs, reds — to the greening grass. The azaleas have flamed crimson and scarlet and so many shades of pink against an even greener background. Even my teenage daughter has remarked on the abundance of chlorophyll. Now the rhododendrons are coming into their own, with purply-pinks against glossy, dark-green leaves. Soon it will be time for the roses to fulfill their promise.

Whenever I get a free moment, I find myself rushing off for another stroll at the Biltmore Estate. We treated ourselves to season passes this year, partly because of the “Dressing Downton” exhibit that runs through May. There have been afternoons of pure happiness, riding bikes alongside the river, or hiking up a gentle slope to the house, or slowly strolling through the Azalea Garden. Meanwhile, our passes to the North Carolina Arboretum are good through September, so we can enjoy the beauty of spring blooms there as well.

IMG_3971 (800x600)Why am I even sitting at my computer, when I could be outdoors? Spring in the southern United States is beyond beautiful, especially in the early evening, which seems to be the time of most of our Biltmore jaunts.

IMG_3898 (800x600)So, if anyone has wondered why I’m not writing much, I would say, “It’s springtime, silly!” Alas, I am not a gardener myself, but I can enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors at the Biltmore and the Arboretum. I’m thankful that the people who built our house planted so many azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwoods. Benign neglect has been our policy so far, with remarkably few ill effects.

With the end of the school year upon me, I am unlikely to blog much in the next month. I’m a slow starter, but I like to finish strongly. This is one homeschooling mom who kicks into gear in the second semester, and especially in the final months. “What? We’re not going to get through the one-year American history curriculum? Says who?” Fortunately, my youngest son likes history.

Look for me when it starts to get hot again. My blogging anniversary is coming up in June: I cannot remain inactive until then. And I still have Doug’s challenge to fulfill: five stories about five photos in five days. Can it wait til spring is over?

For now, I’m off on a final April expedition. (Or not. Now it’s raining. The other side of spring.)

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.

Capturing Beauty with My Camera?

A camera has become a “beauty essential” for me: if I see something beautiful, I photograph it.  But is my constant use of a camera hindering my appreciation of beauty?

What oft was thought

Twice lately I’ve encountered the disturbing implication that, because an incident wasn’t searchable on the internet or hadn’t been documented in a photograph, the incident had never occurred. I have decided not to share the details of the incidents, both of which I encountered via Facebook links. One link involved a rumor that I don’t wish to feed. The other link had to do with a crime; given the circumstances, the person searching for facts about the murder was understandably distressed that the incident had received little attention. What concerns me is the perception that reality can be determined by a Google search: if there are no results, it just didn’t happen?

To me, it seems absurd to infer that something didn’t happen simply because someone failed to document it. True, artifacts and written records give us valuable clues about the past; we would know little about ancient civilizations without…

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