Exercise S2-5: Sauntering

I am delighted to report abject failure and grand victory with this Exercise. As before, I take the opportunity to stretch out at length in my summary and realize that not everybody enjoys (or has time for) such excess, but after all it's principally in service to my own discovery and reflection.

I made two separate stabs at intellectual disengagement and Popova's mindset of presence rather than productivity

Part the First:

In the last few years I've spent a lot of time exploring cemeteries, so I'm reasonably well attuned to their grammar and syntax, and sensitive to their variety and distinctness, and entangled in the ever-expanding project of realizing them as cultural topoi, as spaces with complex significance. Insofar as this is a coherent project, it began with a visit to Père Lachaise in 2015, but I soon realized that I'd had a lifelong engagement with cemeteries without thinking of it as such. My Blurb book Remembered: a graveyard book (pdf, 2016) was a first crystallization of my discoveries in the year after the Paris beginning. There may or may not be subsequent versions in book form, but the adventure of discovering and exploring new cemeteries continues, and has of course an ongoing photographic component. Like all of my projects, this one sprawls and declines to be reined in, and is gloriously without commercial potential.

This is all by way of introduction to the locus of this week's exercises in seeing, and to the reflections that unfolded as I explored . My first plan was to begin with a nearby cemetery that I had never visited, and try to experience it with fresh eyes and minimal preconceptions of what I'd find, to address its essences without the intermediary of the camera, and to try to keep track of the experiences that would ensue.


The cemetery I had intended to explore turned out to be impossible to find, being too small (just 20 residents, all members of a single family) and apparently tucked away in Private Property, so I explored 3 other nearby cemeteries in saunter mode. My success was only partial, because intellectual disengagement is hard for me to sustain, and I kept sliding back into the narrative mode in which I mostly live. Even something as apparently simple as a lichen kicks off a cascade of thoughts about species and their habits, growth patterns, substrates, possibilities for tessellation... I tried to attend to leaves on the ground, the bark and roots of trees, the feel of mosses underfoot, the uneven footing, the shapes of the gravestones and of their shadows, but stories kept intruding. I looked at the typography of inscriptions for the shapes of letters, but couldn't help reading them and so falling into my familiar habits of calculating the length of life from the birth and death dates, noting family relationships among adjacent headstones, imagining the effects of the death of infants and young children, of spouses, of men lost at sea. These are all things that feed my engagement with cemeteries, and seem almost impossible to turn off. Perhaps I should have tried a landscape that I'm not so invested in.


And so the next day I embarked on Part the Second:

About 2 miles from our house is a public beach that stretches for more than a quarter mile. I have photographed there quite often, always finding new things to explore and enjoy. I noticed that Low Tide would be at 6:30 AM, and that sunrise would be at about the same time, so I arrived at the beach at 6:00, in almost complete darkness, and started sauntering. The first thing I noticed, almost immediately, was that my mind names things and then carries on a dialog with itself. I can't shut that off, indeed I don't want to shut it off, even experimentally. As Betsy points out to me, it's Witness Mind that attends the thought stream we might identify as monkey mind—not a separate sensorium from Conscious Mind, but in a sense that both Goethe and Bateson would recognize and applaud, an integral part of a gloriously complex Me.

Perhaps I should have tried to let the monkey mind yammer in the background, but it's my lifelong habit to make Notes to Oneself in writing, these days in a pocket-size Moleskine, so I started writing in the dark, just aide memoire phrases and comments to abet later reconstruction and help me think about how to realize the underlying issues of photographing at the beach. And then I decided that the iPhone was sort of a sketchpad, and the slippery slope of "without your camera!" was breached. So that hour of engagement with the beach and the tide and the sunrise and the sounds and smells of the dawn opened out instead of narrowing down, and produced a heap of images (see Dawn: an hour at Drift Inn) which I think of not so much as free-standing photographs as sketches to help me consider how I might actually make intentional photographs with big-time equipment, considering exposure and aperture and lenses and so forth. The hour was enormously productive for me, awash in profound discoveries in a territory I thought I knew pretty well. I was fully engaged with and awed by the physical processes around me: the wavelets arriving and collapsing, the water advancing and retreating, the clouds and sky changing color, the formation of the ridges in the sand, the catenary curves at the interface between land and water, the emergence of rockweed as the tide retreated, the flow of time... You just can't buy that sense of immersion in the natural world. Whether it's possible to capture such epiphanies in a Bayer array sensor and turn them into distributable images is an open question, and one that I wouldn't have thought to ponder if I hadn't invested that hour in today's dawn.

So thank you for that, Andy. For my money, the Exercise really worked.