An impenetrable sky of pallid blue has collapsed upon the mountaintop, and the snow has rendered rock indistinct from cloud. This is a snapshot of December 2013 captured at the summit of Hunger Mountain. The nearby town of Waterbury, Vermont is lost in the storm, three thousand feet below.
The month is now May, and in a sky of solid blue a spring sun holds without interruption. The cool of the morning dove has given way to the short chirps of finches and the alien resonance of the cardinals, interrupted periodically by the sound of an airplane overhead. The spring bloom is imminent, and the anticipation of its arrival seems to be all the birds are talking about. I am sitting in the shade of my porch, looking over old snowshoe photographs.
Pictures. In his writings on conservation Aldo Leopold described a photograph as a ‘trophy.’ “It attests,” he wrote, “that its owner has been somewhere and done something…These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value.” There is truth in this definition, for without these photographs there would be no testimony to my December trek up Hunger Mountain but my own fading memory. These photos are taken neither with the highest skill nor with the best equipment, and were I to demand a market price for them, I would find the buyers lacking. On the hard drive of my computer they are digitized possessions without monetary value, important as a demonstration of the experience from which they were derived.
My photos are replete with the “summit pose,” arms raised with a landscape background, standing one foot in front of the other atop a high point. These photos are my trophies from my many excursions into nature. Likewise trophy-seeking lies at the heart of the photo ‘selfie,’ which can be defined as any photo one takes of oneself. The selfie emerges out of an absence of other individuals, forcing the merger of photographer and photographed to mark an occasion or accomplishment. The selfie I am now looking at is of me at the top of Hunger, bulged by two winter coats, hat crusted in frozen snow. My eyes are narrowed against the wind, and they impart to me a stern look.
The fact that I refer to these photos as ‘trophies’ should not be taken to mean that I think they are inherently negative. They are, as Leopold wrote, “the prerogative of youth…and nothing to apologize for.” Whether a landscape is photographed ten or one hundred times is of no consequence; there is no negative effect to the landscape. “The camera industry,” concluded Leopold, “is one of the few innocuous parasites on wild nature.” The action of taking a photo is the sole mechanism by which an individual can engage in trophy-seeking behavior without negatively impacting the corresponding environment. For this reason I always pack a camera.
But there remains a greater value in our snowshoe photographs, and we must move beyond Leopold’s definition of trophies in order to find it. Short of video, photography remains our best attempt at mimicking reality. It is a poor imitation. The photos are limited by the camera’s field of view, megapixels, and light sensitivity. Absent from the still images are the wind and the cold. There is little of the physical challenge of reaching the top, and once up there, even less of the camera’s initial failure to operate in the cold. Like a bit of flash fiction, photography is limited in spectrum and scope to that which is most restricted and immediate, and in so being, the outlying infinite is lost. The shutter falls, and all that remains is what can be gathered toward it in a few brief milliseconds.
Yet when I look at these images, I do not see their limits. Instead I see only the mountain, and I remember. I recall how the snow squall washed in from the west, obscuring Waterbury beneath a roll of gray. I remember watching as windows of blue sky wisped in cloud like phantoms, wraiths portending messages, fleeting, and lost. I remember the way the krumholtz spruce bent from the gusting wind, and the way I bent into it. I remember being cold when I took my gloves off in the direct summit snow to operate the buttons of the camera. I remember wanting to stay and knowing I could not.
Like a runaway fusion reaction image collides with memory to become something far greater than either alone could be. A photograph is insufficient to form an event, as is human recollection. Together they comprise an experience. I look back further in my photographs to December 2012, to a snowshoe trek up Hunger Mountain occurring almost a year before the last. In these pictures the same location is presented as an altogether different landscape. A quilt-work of snow-covered mountains and valleys is unfurled beneath a high gray shield of altostratus clouds. There is distance, over which only the shortest lengths of light carry through, and they color the far mountains blue. Upon the near hills the trees appear as beard stubble, while the dense snow hangs thick beards over the stunted spruces, imparting to them a look of old Hasidim standing a mountaintop watch. It is a landscape of mysticism and clarity, and it cuts sharply through the photographs.
Time is perhaps the only element that remains absent. There is nothing of the year that passed between these two sets of photos, nor of the turning calendar between each and the present month of May. It is a welcome absence. Without the element of time these two contradictory ideas of Hunger Mountain in December occur simultaneously, and they do so in the present. Through image and memory all occurs at once. It is May, and I am on the mountain of December, 2013 and 2012. I have reached the summit, and I do so through my snowshoe photographs.