It is an hour into the new year of 2015, and my 365-day photography project along Piney Woods Church Road has ended. I am at a crossroads, wondering: Where from here?
The project has been tremendously rewarding, even if it has had its disappointments as well. I began the task inspired by Henry David Thoreau (who passed away at the age I am now), with a craving to dedicate myself to a significant life experiment, one that would test my beliefs about the nature of lived experience (and the lived experience of nature, too). And I would like to think, at the close of this effort, that Thoreau would approve of my task of living deliberately, deeply, in a single place, along a lone swathe of gravel road at the rural-suburban interface in Georgia. He remained over two years at Walden Pond, yet he traveled during that time. I did not. For one year, I never went further than Chattanooga, Tennessee. I awoke every day with my first thoughts being how I would fit my photography into the new day. Some days I was in such a hurry that I would drive to the start of the road (perhaps a tenth of a mile from my door, if that), take a few hasty pictures, and race off on errands. Other days — and these vastly outnumbered the frenzied kind — I left my watch at home, rambling entranced from one spot of wonder to the next, with little concern for how much time I was out there. More often than not, the outing would last an hour, to be followed by at least half an hour of uploading the photographs, (minimally) processing them with Picassa, uploading them, and creating my daily blog entry. One and a half hours times three-hundred-sixty five would be nearly 550 hours. That is close to 23 days — and nights. The project consumed me, and transformed me in the process.
I also began the project with the work of Mark Hirsch, whose year-long photo-exploration of a single burr oak tree in the Midwest remains in my mind a stunning achievement — particularly given all the subzero sunrises Mark experienced in the company of That Tree. His 365th day photo is filled with dozens and dozens of people whose lives were touched by the project. Hanging from the limbs of That Tree were myriad ornaments other people had made for That Tree and sent to Mark. By then, Mark had gotten local, regional, and even national news coverage for his work, appearing on The Today Show and garnering a Facebook fan base in the tens of thousands. My 365th day’s photographs are of solitary leaves. No one joined me for a final triumphal walk. I supposed I missed another shot at fame.
But then I think of those whose lives my project has reached, and the disparate parts of my life my photos have woven together. Among those who have commented on my posts have been former high school teachers of mine, friends from college, students I have taught, neighbors here in Georgia, and folks that I only know through their liking of my CommonPlace Nature page. And most of all, I think of one who so tragically lost a spouse early this past year, and who found moments of solace and peace in my photographs. And I feel so grateful for the opportunity I have had. I have not been alone in my pilgrimage after all.
I am still sorting out the experience as a whole. I will speak about that soon — on the 25th of January, at Serenbe Community Center, I will give a presentation on what the project has meant to me. In some ways, it was not at all what I expected. I anticipated lots of sunset photos (I took two or three), many landscape images (I took few indeed), and perhaps even some photographs from the same spot at different times of the year (I never felt inspired to do that). I set out to celebrate a particular place — Piney Woods Church Road. I had plans to explore its agricultural history, photographing the terraces left behind from cotton farming (difficult though they are to discern among the trees now) and also taking pictures of all the antique glass bottles that my neighbor has found near the trace of the original roadway. But instead, the particular place became every place, and my interest in historical story gave way to exploration of sources of wonder in the moment — many of which lasted only as long as the sun illuminated them for my camera to capture. I became entranced with grapevine tendrils, water droplets, the shapes and forms of leaves, and dozens of road bed still lifes that lined my daily path. I quickly abandoned pre-planning what the next day might offer. And I also gave up hoarding images — posting just one a day so that I could save enough to get me through the year. In 365 days, I have posted well over a thousand images, and taken thirty times that many. I have managed to build up a body of original photography that, almost without exception, comes from the same stretch of roadway. Just scrolling through all my images is overwhelming. My efforts to set up pages to sell prints have met with frustration, because there are too many photographs I want to make available. And to think that there was a day, not much more than a year ago, when I honestly wondered how I could ever find anything to photograph along such an apparently nondescript patch of country road.
At last, I have reached the stop sign, the end of my pilgrimage. It is not a particular end destination itself, though I do admit to feeling a touch of relief that I no longer have to worry about some emergency taking me away and leaving me with an incomplete project. It is a roadside rest, a place to pause, take stock of things, and then move on. I plan to begin with time away from this blog — two weeks, more or less. After that, I will return with some more distant photographs, and scattered posts through the remainder of January, February, and early March. I have many “behind the scenes” plans for that time. I would like to work with several lenses I own but have scarcely touched, including a number in the Lens Baby line. I want to make the transition from j-peg to raw file storage at last, which needs to be accompanied by mastering Adobe Lightroom. I have more personal goals, too — I hope to begin February with a two-week reboot juice fast, in particular. Then there is the task of making sense of this year. Several readers have urged me to turn this project into a book of some kind. I have been thinking of a 365-book, with photographs and snatches of text for each of 365 numbered days — not necessarily a photo from each day of my year, but seasonally-appropriate images paired with brief bits of writing. Maybe such a book would be in the form of a journal, with blank pages opposite ones with photographs. I cannot afford to underwrite the venture myself, so that means an online fundraising campaign. In short, there is plenty to keep me occupied until Spring arrives.
If all goes well, my next project will begin on the Vernal Equinox in late March, and conclude one year later. I propose to walk every mile of dirt road in or on the border of Chattahoochee Hills — approximately 33 miles in all — once a month for an entire year. This pilgrimage will expose me to an array of landscapes, from woods and pastures to ponds and streams. It will require a lot more walking, and will enable me to intersperse days of photography with days of other tasks. I would begin, of course, with an opening walk down Piney Woods Church Road on the first day of Spring. On that same day, I would also walk Kite Road — which once was part of Piney Woods Church Road, but now is many miles distant — to the Piney Woods Church site. The church is long gone, but the graveyard remains and is maintained. That first pair of walks will knit my familiar haunts into the larger space of Chattahoochee Hills.
Unlike this project, I am not certain I will pull it off. It is certainly more intimidating. It would involve many outings with quite a few miles of walking each, through areas where the residents will likely wonder what I am doing. I am certain I will encounter lots of dogs off-leash. I will have to balance days with many hours in the field with days I will be glued to the computer, doing all the work my online teaching life requires. I have many trips ahead, including two-week junkets to Utah and Texas, before the year is done. I may find that I have to settle for documenting each mile of roadway across the four seasons, but not necessarily every month. We shall see. I am excited, though, to make the effort — to widen my horizons, to “get the show on the road”, as it were.
But for now, rest and contemplation. Happy New Year, everyone! And thank you, dear readers, to whom I dedicate my photographic journeys.