The Edge

August 2012 (Panasonic Lumix)

Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, August 2012 (Panasonic Lumix)

When I saw that “Edge” was the assignment for Photography 101, it was only a matter of time before I started thinking about  The Edge. No, I’m not referring to U2’s guitarist. I have a strange fondness for the 1997 adventure film The Edge, which features Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle Macpherson, and an actor named Harold Perrineau, whom I know as “Michael” in the television show Lost.

Bear with me if you have seen this movie (and forgive the pun). Since some readers might not have watched The Edge, I’ll try to minimize the spoilers. This rather grisly movie (last pun, I promise) takes place in the Alaskan wilderness, where a plane crash strands a bookish billionaire, Charles (Hopkins), and two photographers, Bob (Baldwin) and Stephen (Perrineau). Making a bad situation worse, Charles suspects that Bob has been fooling around with his wife (Macpherson), and a Kodiak bear begins to track them. The Edge is an intense viewing experience, with enough violence, gore, and language to earn it an “R” rating — not usually the cup of tea that this Janeite sips; in fact, I have to cover my eyes or fast-forward in a couple of places.

I Iike The Edge for two reasons: 1) its revenge-of-the-nerd plot; 2) its inclusion of one of my favorite lines in a movie: “They die of shame.” Throw in a script by David Mamet and an excellent cast, and there you have it: a movie that will not only keep you on the edge of your seat but may lodge this dialogue in your brain permanently (that’s what happened to me):

Charles Morse: You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.

Stephen: What?

Charles Morse: Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.

Robert Green: And what is that, Charles?

Charles Morse: Thinking.

As someone who over-analyzes every decision and agonizes over past decisions, I seized on Charles’ quote as wisdom that applies to many situations, not only to occasions that find us literally on the edge of society and survival. No matter how much I may justify my actions later, I blow it — not from time to time but every day. Sometimes the consequences of my mistakes are minor, and sometimes they are enormous. Sure, I should learn from past mistakes, but nothing good will come of permitting myself to be paralyzed by the awareness of my own incompetence.

December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Edge of the Parking Garage, December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

If I’m running late to an appointment or event, will it help if I “die of shame” on the way, castigating myself for the series of poor choices that led to my being late? It will not. Nor will wasting the first five minutes after I arrive by over-apologizing. Human frailty is a redundant phrase: as Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Should we hold ourselves to a high standard in our daily actions? Yes. Should we “forgive” ourselves when we stumble and slide along that straight and narrow path? If we don’t, then we may do more damage — not only to ourselves but to those around us.

In the unlikely event that my college kids happen to be reading this, please don’t “die of shame” at the end of the academic semester. In The Edge, Charles implies that thinking would have saved the lives of the people lost in the wilderness. Not necessarily, but assessing the remaining options, now that the door has been irrevocably closed on better options, is the only way out of any bad situation. (Says the woman who can’t seem to schedule her mornings productively.) So study on! Find a study group, limit your internet time, go visit the professor — but don’t die of shame.


Not having gone on any Alaskan adventures recently, I have no edgy photos of charging grizzlies to illustrate my post. I had hoped for a return trip to the Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I remember the sensation of being on the edge of the world.  I had to content myself with the edges that I found in a local park and in a local parking garage (above). Adding a black-and-white filter brought out edges and textures in some photos.

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Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Please do not reproduce them without her permission.

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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.

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.

Drive like a Tourist

Drive like a Tourist

If you look closely, you can see that the speedometer reads 42 mph. (The speed limit on this part of the parkway is 45 mph.)

Ah, the power of words! Writing about fall photos inspired me to do something I have never done as an Asheville resident: search for fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The last line in A Tale of Two Photos got to me: “Now is the time to capture these golden days–whether with camera or words.” Even though my husband had a long to-do list for his day off, I persuaded him that we should hop in the car and go look for leaves. (He pointed out that there were plenty of leaves in our driveway, but he agreed.)

Instead of listening to his suggestion that we hike down in Brevard or up at Craggy Pinnacle, I insisted that we use the recommendations in the weekly Fall Color Report. At that point, the report was six days old, but surely those experts knew more about fall color than my nose-in-a-book husband. We had a limited amount of time, since I wanted to be back to cook dinner for my daughter, who had too much homework to accompany us. That ruled out the Cullasaja gorge, but we could still try for the Black Balsam area, past Mount Pisgah. We grabbed walking sticks, water bottles, cameras, and Bojangles chicken. Off we set!

Our destination was Black Balsam Knob (elevation: 6, 214 feet), which, according to the report, should offer brilliant colors. Since we were in tourist mode, we turned off at several overlooks as we drove west on the parkway: the Bad Fork Valley Overlook, the Pounding Mill Overlook, the Cherry Cove Overlook. My son got excited about the out-of-state license plates, especially when we saw the same cars at multiple overlooks. Having moved to this area when he was five, my husband found it painful to play the role of a tourist, but David soon was happily pointing out beautiful patches of red or yellow or orange leaves. (Despite the name of my site, I’m no tree expert, but we saw mostly white oaks, red oaks, and maples.)

After eating lunch at the Mount Pisgah picnic area, we drove on, stopping at more overlooks to photograph Looking Glass Rock. Not far past Mount Pisgah, however, we noticed that we were seeing more empty branches and fewer golden and orange leaves. My husband said thoughtfully, “You know, I’ve always heard that the 15th to the 20th is the best time for color.” Today was October 21st.

By the time we reached the Black Balsam area, I suspected that we had driven too far: at this elevation, the color had “peaked.” Nonetheless, we parked at the end of Black Balsam Road and started walking down Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Although we saw many red maple leaves on the ground, the limbs of the deciduous trees around us were bare. After hiking a short distance, I looked at my husband and pleaded, “We could hike this trail any time, but I was hoping for a fall-color hike today!”

By now, it was too late to take winding Highway 276 farther down into Pisgah National Forest, where we could have hiked at Pink Beds or Looking Glass Rock. Since we would drive past Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower on our way home, my husband suggested that we hike there. I prefer a path through the woods to an old service road, but the weather was so perfect that I couldn’t complain about the rocky, uneven trail.The last time we climbed this 70-foot tower, David had been too little to go up the steep metal stairs. He insisted that he didn’t want to climb the tower, but, by the time we got there, he had changed his mind. It was a windy day but beautifully clear, and we had amazing views at each stage of our climb up the old tower, built in 1941 and listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. If the photo seems a bit crooked, put it down to my shaking hands.

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View from the Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower (taken with my iPhone 5)

As we walked back to our van, a young couple passed us on their way to climb the tower. We warned them about the wind, and they just smiled. Headed east on the parkway, we stopped at an overlook or two for more photos. Suddenly, I realized that I had failed to get a picture of one of the many stone tunnels along this section of the parkway. My husband began to drive more slowly, looking for a place to pull off near a tunnel so that I could get out and take a picture. His hesitant driving irked the driver of the car behind us, who started following closely and even honking intermittently. As soon as we could, we pulled into a overlook and let him go around us. These locals are in such a hurry!

Enjoy the slideshow of photos, taken with my Nikon CoolPix L320. Believe it or not, I weeded out some pictures.

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Meet the Author

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Here’s a selfie I took on the day that I wrote my first post. I’m not an avid biker, but there is a great bike trail at Huntington Beach State Park.

Adjectives swim as I reflect on the questions: who am I? why am I here? Graying. Overweight. Disorganized. Optimistic. Rueful. Although I could censor this self-description, I am using the first words that came to mind because they seem honest. But this isn’t how I should present myself to strangers–which raises another question: am I ready to be here, exposing the gritty workings of my mind? Is writing merely a brain dump for me, and, if so, is there a reason for me to be blogging?

This summer, I stumbled upon blogging.  Wanting to follow someone else’s blog, I ended up creating a blog for myself (it helped that we were on vacation at the time). But when the blogger I was following stopped writing, I didn’t stop.  Why not, I wondered?

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A couple of days after setting up my blog, I took this picture of the sun rising at Litchfield By-the-Sea. A metaphor for blogging? Time will tell!

I’ve been writing privately on another website for a couple of years. Despite my sporadic nature, I recently passed the milestone of 100,000 words. Private writing is inherently worthwhile, but is it time for me to put a toe into cyberspace? One drawback to my private posts is that I never edit them; sometimes I pursue a promising line of thought, but the words never leave my sanctum. Although I am continuing to journal privately, an occasional foray into the public eye might be good for me (and for my writing, which has become all too stream-of-consciousness lately).

I’d also like to think that something I have posted could improve or enlighten someone else’s day (in a very small way). During my grad school days, I began to feel that there wasn’t a reason for anyone to write anything, ever again: hasn’t it all been said, over and over? Yet along came J. K. Rowling, boldly presenting the world with a lovable and complex young hero, just when I had thought no one could come up with anything new. Aspects of the Harry Potter series are undoubtedly derivative, but the sum–the sum has touched thousands of readers, old and young alike.

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The last blueberries of last summer on a bush at Craggy Gardens, off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Unlike Rowling, I’m not a writer of fiction, and my pontificating days are mostly over; if I have any profound thoughts, I’ll post them elsewhere. Still, I love traveling, whether it’s a cross-country journey or a day trip to pick blueberries in the mountains. Although I am an uneducated amateur, I also enjoy taking pictures. Rather than cluttering up my Facebook page with another photo album that few will ever view (thanks, Dad!), I will try to chronicle the occasional outing here, to capture the experience for others besides myself.

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Flowers by a fountain at Fearrington House

I don’t plan to post regularly. For that reason, I am unlikely to continue with the Blogging 101 assignments: today I began to contemplate what a month of blogging assignments might do to my daily schedule. Besides managing a home, I am homeschooling a young lad (I should be giving him a piano lesson at this moment). But I’m here, and this first challenge has helped me figure out why.