The Shot Not Taken

My parents visited Ireland for their 25th anniversary to stand foot on what my mother considered her ancestral grounds; that our relatives had been on the same land in County Derry in Northern Ireland for centuries was somehow beside the point. It was a kind of second honeymoon for them, visiting the home of Yeats, the Blarney Stone and all the rest. Tension only arose because as a writer my mother preferred to fully experience a scene or moment through all five senses, but my father was usually looking through the lens of his Leica. She wanted him to put down what she felt was an isolating device and be fully there with her, but he was an artist whose instinct was to frame what he saw, and preserve it. My mother was also just a much more social person, while my father’s introversion felt more comfortable behind the camera.

The family later appreciated my father’s efforts through his slides, but the more I travel, and the more I write, the more I see my mother’s point. There are moments you just should not visually document, and things you can’t successfully capture with a camera. Take rainbows, for instance. They’re gorgeous, and a bit magical, appearing from thin air as they do. It’s no wonder our ancestors tried to comprehend natural wonders like rainbows, Northern lights and tornados by crediting a spirit population. One that I saw over Lana’i in June was so intensely colored (Dr. Ph. Martin’s Radiant Concentrated Watercolors came to mind), it was as if you could scoop it up in your hands—but the images I took look like cheap postcards. Palm trees and rainbows, what could be more cliché?

I was recently in Ocean City, Maryland where my family vacationed almost every summer. I’ve stood in front of that surf countless times, but one day at sunset a westerly wind was lifting a fine spray off of the crests of glass waves, and the sun was hitting the water at just the right angle to form prisms in the mist —“spraybows” as I now call them. My sister and I stood there waiting for the next waves, hoping to see another one. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a good shot of something so ephemeral and active without a tripod, but I compulsively kept trying. In so doing, I was missing experiencing them with my naked eye, missing being in that childlike moment with my sister, alone on the beach. The photograph I have is a generic if pretty image of the sea. You have to be pointed to the faint prism at left to even see it.

 

 

On Galveston, in the middle of a 7,000-mile cross-country trip, I was in a laundromat one Sunday, surrounded by families getting ready for the week of work and school. It wasn’t what I’d call a clean or well maintained place, but people were friendly. A tiny Hispanic man was standing next to me wearing a powder-blue t-shirt, with sparkles, that read “It isn’t easy being a princess. ” That shirt, on that man, in that environment—wow. I was chuckling inside, and was tempted to grab my camera, taking the shot would have felt mean spirited. I doubt he was being ironic—he didn’t seem to speak English. It was probably just an available shirt on laundry day. What entertains isn’t always appropriate to immortalize. I learned this lesson the hard way when I took a picture of a man carrying dead chickens by their feet through downtown Kisumu in Kenya. He saw me with my camera raised and shook his head angrily. I took the shot anyway. When I got the pictures back, his withering expression shamed me. I think if he could have cursed me, he would have—it was that intense a glare. 

Maybe there’s something to that idea of photographs stealing souls. In any case, at times it’s common courtesy to leave the lens cap on and drink everything in in a less possessive way.

Lingual Souvenirs

Thirteenth-generation Smith Islander Jennings Evans

Thirteenth-generation Smith Islander Jennings Evans

Part of the pleasure of exploration is listening to dialects and regional turns of phrase. The South is particularly rich with iconic expressions like “that dog won’t hunt” for ill-fated plans or the “bless her heart” chaser that serves as absolution from a just-cast aspersion (“All of Violet’s taste is in her mouth, bless her heart”). In a rural corner of Arkansas a cab driver described an employer’s efforts to be rid of workers just prior to their benefits eligibility as “They just wanna be shed of you”—which is hard to fully appreciate without hearing the Ozark drawl on that “shhhehd.” Visions of snakes wriggling free of skins....

When I first visited Ossabaw Island, Georgia, Trey Coursey fetched me in Sandy West’s little skiff from the dock in Vernonburg. He hightailed it back to the island, given the thunderstorm on our tail. As we lifted up on the waves and slammed back down, he mentioned some responses to Sandy’s 1926 Spanish Revival mansion, which has remained untouched except for the additions of an electric stove, refrigerator and a couple of window unit air conditioners. “Some people think of it as Grey Gardens, or even some Stephen King hotel. I guess the light and sounds the house makes do stimulate ghost stories.” Stimulate ghost stories (and again, with a drawl). Wow—I'd never heard the verb used that way—a perfect choice for the genesis of myth. But, errr, where the heck was my pen? Paper? My recorder was stashed in the hold. I had to hold onto those sentences, repeating them over and over in my mind while Trey continued to use the language so beautifully. Splitting my brain into parallel tracks of conversation and conservation while I held onto the dash for dear life was no easy task.

I had a similar experience while being driven in a golf cart back to the ferry dock at Smith Island, Maryland. The captain pulled over to speak with a woman who had attended the heartwrending funeral of a young island man the day before. She said “’Nother day like that, and I’ll be all up with him.” She pulled that “all” out for at least three seconds, and the allusion of her following the deceased’s heaven-bound journey...stunning crafting. Add to this the unique dialect of Smith Islanders— part Eastern Shore Southern cadence, part colonial-era English pronunciations maintained by the centuries-long isolation. Sentences like these are gifts of originality and authenticity. I collect them like the treasures they are—souvenirs for a word lover.

Islands were at an historical advantage for both creative uses of language and retention of original accents and expressions from European (Smith and Tangier Islands in the Chesapeake Bay and Ocracoke Island, North Carolina) and African (Daufuskie Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia) descendants. Less connected to the mainland by newspapers, television and radio, their populations didn’t use the phrases gleaned from advertising slogans or other mass-use expressions. For those of you who want to dive into the rabbit hole on this subject, here are a few links (who knew there was a dialect blog?): 

http://m.wamu.org/#/news/11/06/27/tangier_islanders_retain_unique_dialect.php 

http://dialectblog.com/2011/02/09/north- americas-strange-island-dialects/ 

http://www.shimajournal.org/issues/v2n1/c.%20Wolfram%20Shima%20v2n1.pdf

—Anna Marlis Burgard 

Surf Lessons

Sandy West's boxing gloves, found fifty years apart on two of Ossabaw Island, Georgia's beaches.

Sandy West's boxing gloves, found fifty years apart on two of Ossabaw Island, Georgia's beaches.

Beachcombing is one of the simplest of island pleasures; the focused meandering helps you release whatever might be on your mind—a sort of hypnosis, along with the sound of the waves and wind. What will fall before your feet can’t be predicted, whether seashells or driftwood or the random manmade items that wash ashore: sunglasses, flasks, lures, small toys. Optimistic souls with metal detectors hope for more, particularly after storm surges pound the sand. A shipwreck’s dubloons could be unearthed, or more mundane bounties of gold rings, slipped from fingers in the surf, might be found. On Captiva Island, shell scoops were designed to sift for valuable varieties in the feet-thick banks of shells. My mother used to say that my bottom was the most tanned part of my body; I was forever bent over looking for treasure.

When I first moved to Tybee Island, my collector’s instinct kicked in—I compulsively picked up every perfect shell in my line of sight. I finally figured out that this drive to possess was not what island life was about, although it wasn’t until one sleepless night when I stayed up organizing lettered olives, sanddollars and whelks in vintage mason jars that this acquisitive-cum-avaricious problem became clear. I had so many shells at that point that I took some with me on my walks to swap with people who were whisking live creatures away. It’s more pleasant to be out with your feet in the surf and the sun on your face once you stop trying to own nature. That said, every now and then something crosses your path that you can’t ignore. 

 

Sandy West tells the story of how in the 1970s, when she was battling the State of Georgia over the terms of the sale of Ossabaw, the wild barrier island her parents had purchased for their winter home in 1924, she walked the beach to clear her head and found a small plastic boxing glove. For her, and others before and since, meaning was gleaned from what the waves tossed onto her path—it gave her renewed vigor for the fight. In a “What are the odds?” moment 50 years later, during another series of confrontations with the State to preserve what had been agreed upon a half century before, she found an identical plastic boxing glove on another of the island’s beaches—the same save the color—and again her strength was bolstered. She keeps them both in a fabric bag on her bedpost as a reminder.

I had similar experiences on Tybee. A longago love sent word of his first-born son’s arrival;     I wanted to create something beautiful for his child, for him, and looked at two tiny green sea urchin shells I’d found on the beach near his home in Africa, at the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. But I hesitated to use them in the wrapping design. I loved these shells, so beautiful, so fragile; I struggled with surrendering them. I realized I was still feeling the loss of him, of the life we might have had. I headed to the water to get away from the quandary, only to find two perfect purple urchin shells at the North End jetty, side by side—shells I’d never seen in years of living there—not broken, not whole, and certainly not in pairs. It was the island’s version of “There are more fish in the sea.”
At times the surf’s offerings fill you with delight—hundreds of purple starfish—or are entertaining with no life lesson proferred beyond “Lighten up!” I got a good laugh from a naked doll frozen in a beauty pageant wave, while a friend on Key West found “Jesus” in plastic lettering. Islands are more than mere land masses, they’re entities of a fashion: they have a saltwater pulse, and their own intelligence and language. There’s a spirit to them that interacts in ways you can’t anticipate, but that lingers long after you’ve left their shores.


—Anna Marlis Burgard

Grasping at Ghosts

Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, Alaska

Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, Alaska

The light illuminating Alaska’s Baranof Island spurns verbs and adjectives like so many unworthy suitors. I could write of its burnished twilights and immersive qualities that seem to be borne more from energy fields than mere humidity, or muse over whether the angle of the sun that far north is the alchemical magic that sets it apart. In the end I still feel as though I’m grasping at ghosts, trying to hold onto images while they’re vaporizing. It’s me v. the words—my ability to persuasively convey what I’ve experienced while it’s fresh in my re-collection. In describing nature, I don’t want to pin the butterfly to the velvet. The language has to breathe. 

My notes from Day one in Sitka: Gleaming, glimmering water. Dreamscape quality to the light, not hazy exactly, not misty, but luminous in a way I had never seen. Not crisp, light and water merged in an enveloping way, an immersive embrace…palpable and magnetic. Sort of Avalon…or Van Morrison: ”as we sailed into the mystic.”Hesitate to use “ethereal”…gossamer? Shroud of light…but wasn’t cloaking…although did conceal the volcano…a halo over the water…radiant… but more than that. I stared across the Sitka Sound toward Mt. Edgecumbe from dawn to dusk throughout the week, hypnotized and taunted by this shape-shifting entity. With each new writing attempt I felt the light looking askance at me with a “Seriously? You’re going to use shopworn descriptions?” aura of judgment. Days, weeks, months can pass crafting such passages, trying to get at the beating heart of the object of observation. Much like a good biscuit, you can’t over-handle the ingredients without the end result being overwrought— tough and heavy. It’s a delicate process.

In the lyrical The Island Within author Richard Nelson aptly (and effortlessly, it seems) describes Alaskan island light: Translucent clouds are wrapped around the upper slopes like a chiffon veil, so thin that the dark streaks of ridges blown clear of snow are visible through it. And the overcast is heavier, sunken, oddly luminous, with almost no visible texture. To be fair, Nelson had bathed in Alaskan light for decades before he wrote that passage, while I’d only been in Sitka for 24 hours when I wrote mine. Still, I’m envious of how he so elegantly captured it in forty-one words. With so many visions from a nation full of islands to share (with photographs doing a lot of the talking), I can’t linger long on one kind of light. I might just need to bow to the master and pull that quote, allowing the spirits to rest.

 —Anna Marlis Burgard