Tag Archives: photographs

Bighill Creek, the stream of consciousness

I was back in Alberta last week visiting my parents. My dad writes a weekly column in the Cochrane Eagle and he asked me if I’d like to write a guest column for him. I said “sure” because asking me to write something is like asking me if I’d like a glass of champagne. I decided to do something on the lovely little creek that stitches together the parkland at the heart of the town. It’s on his website as “Our blue stream of consciousness joins past and future” with one photo by me, but since this is my blog and I have room, I’m going to give it to you here with four photos.

Day by day, high and far on its edges, Cochrane grows. And instant by instant, in the town’s green heart, a blue past and future flows.

Bighill Creek comes to air above town and wanders down to see what’s here. It sashays past the old RancheHouse, swerves under a footbridge, swings wide, sighs at the glittering graffiti under the highway and slides under another footbridge and the tracks. Nourishing grasses and trees as it passes, it ducks under Glenbow Drive and plays peekaboo with the red paths of Glenwood, William Camden, and Riverfront Parks: eight more bridges and two culverts. A jogger out with the dogs will cross it and cross it again, and again, and again. And then it becomes Bow water.

I visit Cochrane and the Bow Valley landscape of my youth every year, and every year I walk and run along and across Bighill Creek. As I change, and the people I know change, and Cochrane changes, the creek is more or less the same, depending on the season – but, like any stream, its water is different from moment to moment.

But it returns as I do, as the seasons do. Water evaporates from its surface and soaks the ground from its bed, and the plants it refreshes breathe it into the air. The water in the air dreams itself into clouds; the clouds rest down as snow and rain; the snow and rain feed the springs and the creek. And so, although most of the creek flows on like the countless instants we lose to memory in time, some of it returns.

And after another year, I return. I am the same person but not quite the same, and Cochrane is the same town but not quite the same. I stand on a bridge and reflect on the creek. And the water flows by like mind into memory, some of it newly met and some coming back to me.

hosta

I love words. And I love plants. But for some reason, I really suck at remembering words for plants. This may be for the same reason that I have trouble remembering the names of people I meet (or have known for even quite a long time). Which may be for any of a host of reasons.

It’s not that I’m hostile to them. Quite the opposite. Every afternoon, I go sit in a coffee shop (a different one each day) to work, because it’s hard for me to get through a day without having people around me, just as I don’t like going through a day without going somewhere where there are plants around me. I enjoy their presence. They’re nice to look at. But I don’t talk to them much. Not the plants, either.

So what do I do when I’m at a party, for those many times I’m not talking? Same thing as I do when I’m in a garden: I bring a camera. Some silly person once said a picture is worth a thousand words. I think this is true just in the sense that every picture I take obviates a thousand words of talking. But there’s no actual conversion. If I put a Warhol print in your kitchen cupboard I don’t expect you to eat it. Look, I know words, and I love words, but I also know and love visual arts, and I know the limits of words. And I know how nice it is to have a friend you can sit with and not talk because you don’t need to fill the air with verbal packing chips because you’re just there together.

Even when I’m a host of a party, I don’t need to spend all my time talking with people. I’m happy being not a wallflower but a leaf in the book-garden of the event. A leaf with a camera. Taking nice pictures of nice people, often in marmoreal monochrome to bring out their lights and shadows, with life shining on them like dewdrops on leaves.

And so, too, plants. I love green, so you might think I would always take pictures of plants in colour. But there is one plant of which it turns out I have always put my pictures in monochrome to bring out its lights and shadows. True to form, I didn’t actually know what it’s called until, yesterday, I asked some friends. It’s a hosta, they told me.

The hosta is not one type of plant. It’s a whole host of them: it’s a genus of which there is an uncertain number of species (botanists disagree) and more than 3,000 cultivars. The website of a local greenhouse offers me 233 different kinds. They’re all lovely. And many of them are named after people: Abby, Allan P McConnell, Amos, Amy Elizabeth, Andrew, Barbara Ann, Brother Stefan, Captain Kirk, Diana Remembered, Empress Wu, Frances Williams, Hans, Katie Q, Lacy Belle, Lady Isobel Barnett, Lakeside Meter Maid, Lakeside Shoremaster, Leading Lady, Margie’s Angel, Marilyn Monroe, Mr. Big, Paul’s Glory, Queen of the Seas, The King, The Queen, Veronica Lake… It’s like a whole party right there. And an interesting one at that. I wonder who would host it.

Never mind, I know who: either the person who named the genus Hosta or the person after whom the genus is named. It was named by the Austrian botanist Leopold Trattinnick in 1812 in honor of the Austrian botanist Nicholas Thomas Host. It’s not that the plants didn’t have names before, it’s just that they hadn’t been grouped into a genus before.

It’s tempting to think of N.T. Host as the genial host of a party of plants, and perhaps he was, but that’s not where his name came from. Our English word host traces to Latin, while the German and Austrian family name Host is apparently a toponym: there are villages by that name. Alas, my etymological resources run out of words at this point, and so I don’t know just how the villages came by the name.

But it’s OK. Not everything has to have a lot of words. Especially things that aren’t in a hurry to use them back to you. Hosta leaves have such a beautiful play of shadow and light, and they host raindrops and dewdrops so nicely, shining on them like life.

Minnewanka

What pasts and presents we drown in pursuit of our futures.

Minnewanka is a name of a lake near the town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. I visited it a week ago for the first time in decades and walked a path on its shore that I don’t remember ever walking before. The path starts paved, then becomes well-worn dirt, and over its course gradually roughens as it traverses roots and rocks. Within a half hour you’re at a bridge over a small canyon, and then the trail climbs up to bend around the mountain and follow the farther shore from on high. Past a certain point you are advised to travel in tight groups in case of bears; hikers can continue to overnight campsites many hours of bootsteps farther on. But up to the bridge, it is well worn and friendly.

At the trailhead is a parking lot and a snack bar and a motorboat rental. You may, if you will, speed across its surface, a score of metres above ghostly streets where people used to walk and talk and kiss and eat. You may, if you will, strap on a can of atmosphere and dive down to look at a town drowned seventy-seven years ago, a town on a site where people had lived even ten thousand years earlier. See the video with this article from Smithsonian – you may find it spooky and wonder what waterlogged ghosts are over your shoulder.

There has always been a lake here, though it wasn’t always this big. A long, long time ago it was bigger, but glaciers and moraine rise and fall and so do lakes. By 1888 it was eighty feet down from where it is now, and a hotel and then a town were built on its shore: Minnewanka Landing. Fifteen years later, up the hill, a mine was started and a town of a thousand souls sprouted up there. It was called Bankhead and had a power plant that supplied power for Minnewanka Landing.

In 1912 a dam was built on the lake to store water for another power plant. In 1922 the Bankhead mine closed and its power plant shut down. A new power plant was built to replace it. The houses of Bankhead were mostly unmoored from their foundations and moved to nearby towns, leaving a cluster of concrete lumps in the woods for local schoolkids to visit on field trips and a small selection of buildings with interesting pasts mixed in with the others in Banff and Canmore.

But in 1941 there was a war on, and more power was needed. A dam was built across the end of the valley for a new power plant, and everyone in Minnewanka Landing had to leave. They didn’t get to take their houses. Fifty-three years a town, ten thousand years a place people passed through and sometimes lived, now a dim dreamworld like a far-gone childhood, walked in only by people long passed, seen from above darkly by the eyes of our time.

As we ever see other worlds darkly. Their sacred fabrics become burial shrouds. Look at the name of this lake. For a time, the European settlers called it Devil’s Lake. Beyond its end is a place called Devil’s Gap (now also the name of an establishment in the town of Banff where you may buy bites and spirits). A sign near the snack bar will now tell you that Minnewanka comes from local Native words meaning ‘spirit lake’. One website I found declares it’s from “Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits).” But that’s not quite it.

How do I know that’s not quite it? The local language it’s from is Nakoda, or (in settlers’ terms) Stoney. That’s the language of the people on whose land I grew up. It’s a language I don’t speak, alas – but my dad does, quite well. So I asked him. The name of the lake in Nakoda is mînî wakâ, which means ‘sacred water’. The circumflexes indicate nasalization – the sort of thing you hear in French and Portuguese when an nor mis written after a vowel. So mînî, which means ‘water’, has nasal vowels, and wakâ, which means ‘sacred’, has a nasal vowel just at the end.

Did you catch that? If it were wâka it would sound like “wanka” to English ears, but it was wakâ, more like “walk on” without fully saying the n. We’ve shifted the sound. Just as we’ve shifted the sense, from ‘sacred’ (a fluid quality) to ‘spirits’ (individual beings) and then, for a time, because we feared the spirits of the people we invaded, to ‘devil’. We forced it with our own constructions just as we forced the water when, in one of our wars, we stopped it from flowing freely and used its holy fabric to shroud the ghost of a town because we wanted power.

But it’s still there. It’s all still there. For us now it seems a pleasant thing to look at when we’re not looking at our screens, a fun thing to invade, a present of nature from our past selves and our ages-old planet, but it’s still there. And when we have walked on, when we have drowned our last memory and spent our own futures, and the evidence of our passing slowly drains out of time, it will be still there. Mînî wakâ.

Chicago

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
—from “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg

Chicago was a big, young, driving, thriving city in 1914 when Sandburg wrote that. It had already been the home of the first skyscraper and was destined to be home of many more; it had seen its famous fire in 1871, and the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (which gave us the term midway); it was already a mid-continent commercial nexus and had for a time been the fastest-growing city in the world; it already had its famous elevated train loop around the central district. It had not yet seen the roaring ’20s and their gangsters; it was not quite yet the place about which the musical Chicago (set in the 1920s) was written. It did not yet have its famed deep-dish pizza, which first hit plates in the 1940s. It was not yet the town of the 1964 song “My Kind of Town,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. But it was all there, sprouting and growing, like a bulb (or perhaps a whole field) of wild garlic in the heart of America.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Chicago for the conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. We were at the Palmer House, now a Hilton hotel; it’s in the middle of everything, pretty much. It has a glorious lobby, a dimly lit cross between Grand Central Terminal (or should I say Union Station, since it’s in Chicago) and the Sistine Chapel, dominated by a busy cocktail bar. Up a grand staircase is the Empire Room, which through the heart of the 20th century hosted every entertainer who might perform in such a room (their photos line the hallways by the guest rooms) and this past week hosted a spelling bee for editors as part of the ACES conference (I was one of the judges, having won the event at last year’s conference). We also had events in the Chicago Athletic Club, which is no longer an athletic club – it has a hotel, bar, and event spaces in its classic old building.

Chicago is home to many classic old buildings. It has shiny newer buildings, to be sure, including the second and third tallest in the US, but it has not gotten rid of its gems from its booming years, all the American art deco and prairie style designs, all the steel and stone. This is a city that never stops reminding you that it was the epitome of architectural chic several decades ago.

Which is not where its name comes from. Chicago is a French-style rendition of a word from the language of the Miami-Illinois, an Algonquian people: shikaakwa, the name for a plant that grew abundantly in the area. The Latin for the plant is Allium tricoccum; it is more commonly called ramp, wild leek, or wild garlic. It’s smaller than a leek but larger than garlic.

To me, Chicago feels like a cross between Toronto and New York – it’s smaller than New York, more comfy and manageable in its central area, and with a nice lakefront, and often reminds people of Toronto in ways, but it has the urban grit and American empire feel of New York. I took some pictures at the conference. You can see the whole album on Flickr, but here are a few.

50

I had a bit of a party yesterday to celebrate a bit of a birthday. For half a day (I mean 12 hours) I took over the party room on the 33rd floor of the building where I live, and a goodly number of friends joined me to celebrate my attainment of half a century – or, as my brother reminded me, a third of a sesquicentury. (And 50 is one and a half times 33, so there’s that too.)

A 50th anniversary is a golden one, but 50 is the atomic number of tin, not gold. As it happens, my hair used to be gold, or goldish anyway, but is now much more the colour of tin. If you see 50 on a tin in Canada, it may be a can of Labatt’s 50, which is a beer. I suppose I could have been clever and served Labatt’s 50 at my party, but it’s not the sort of beer I buy often. Anyway, I was more focused on the sparkling wine, of which I bought two cases to serve those present (along with two cases of still wine, which may not be sparkling but it’s still wine).

The word fifty is obvious enough in its parts: fif meaning ‘five’ (the v in five was established later – in Old English, [v] was just a possible pronunciation of /f/ between vowels) and -ty a suffix meaning ‘ten’ and coming from a word meaning ‘decade’. But there is another suffix -ty that is related to Latin -itas and makes nouns of quality, such as beautyroyalty, and plenty. If royalty is ‘royalness’, fifty could almost be ‘fiveness’. That might be nifty – but it’s not so.

Many things are 50 in number. The states of the USA, for instance – and Hawai‘i, being the fiftieth to join, wears the number. But 50 is not so often a number of completion; more usually, it’s halfway, or an equal share, although it doesn’t always seem so – a 50% grey looks quite dark to most eyes; for a shade to look halfway between white and black, it needs to be closer to 33% grey, i.e., just 1/3 black (so a third of the way, just as my party room is a third of the way to the 100th floor – if there were one – and I’m a third of the way to being a sesquicentenarian). But 50 can also be a standard. In Canada, for instance, 50 kilometres per hour is the speed limit on any street not otherwise specified. And in 35 mm photography – and its digital equivalent, “full-frame” sensors – the standard “normal” lens has a focal length of 50 millimetres. In truth, it’s a slightly narrower angle of view than would best match what your eye sees in the same image area, but the length was established by Leitz for their Leica cameras on the basis of what they could make best at that time.

As it happens, I was using a Leitz 50mm lens during the party – I had it on my Sony camera; I took a picture of nearly every friend and family member who came (I missed a few). After night fell, I swapped to a faster, glowier 50mm lens. So it was 50–50, but it was always 50, though not for the sake of cleverness; I just wanted the look those lenses have. And so here I present what getting to be 50 has meant to me more than anything else: people. My family and friends. Here are 50 pictures of them (among which is one of me). Continue reading

TORONTO: the book

After my tasting of Toronto with pictures, and its sequel Toronto, part 2, I decided it would be fun to make a photo book with five-and-a-half dozen photos of Toronto, mainly to give some to people such as my parents. I was going to publish it via Lulu, where I’ve done Songs of Love and Grammar, but it turned out that for printing photos at a decent quality on decent paper I would face a choice of using one of their (ghastly, trite) templates or making an overlarge, very expensive volume. So I used Blurb instead. As you can see, it is a reality:

Alas, Blurb is not so cheap either. As you will see on Blurb, this 72-page book, not much over six inches square, lists at $35 Canadian ($28.69 US right now), which is rather a lot given its size – but a larger format would cost proportionally more. However, as the creator, I can order quantities at a discount, and I ordered a few to give to family with a few left over. If you fancy buying one off me for $25 Canadian (plus postage if necessary), let me know – email james at harbeck dot ca.

(If, on the other hand, you’d like a PDF copy of it, that can be arranged in exchange for a drink or some similar consideration; just email me to ask.)

memento

Memory is an immense pentimento, strokes of the past showing through but always partially extincted by more recent tincture. Given a means of external storage, we often avail ourselves of it to freeze time. But what do we choose to remember? What are the moments we digitize into a permanent convertible ephemerality? What mementos will we take with us?

Memento. That’s Latin for ‘remember’, second person imperative: “You! Remember!” Remember what? Often memento mori: remember dying, remember death, remember that you, too, will fade away and be deleted. But do memories die with us?

Does it matter? We amass them while we live to put together a narrative of our lives, a motif of moments. A constellation of our lives.

Constellations are made from stars, as we know. We seek stars to remember seeing: high points of light. This evening I stopped through the street festival for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). They have a red carpet area, well lit, and people surround it awaiting the famous ones, cameras ready for any glimpse. One person came up to a group of several standing on a planter for a better view and asked of a latter-day Zacchaeus, “Who’s coming out?” The spectator looked downward and said, “I don’t know.” But whoever it is, it will be a star, and a moment to remember.

Moment? Momento? It’s no surprise that the misspelling persists; the misanalysis has momentum. Magic moments make for mementos. And each memento moment may have two parts: the explosive effervescent of the moment, metaphorically like a sleeve of Mentos released into a bottle of Diet Coke, and the persistent image, made to be a meme, just a motif of emotion capable of captions multifarious. One is clear but evanescent, the other lasting but open to reinterpretation.

There is a movie, Memento, made in 2000, about a man who has anterograde amnesia. Digital cameras in every phone were not a thing at the time, and his memory was made of Polaroid photos that had physical persistance and could be written on – but also destroyed – and tattoos that were indelible but often inscrutable. He would never remember what had happened more than five minutes before, so he had to record the important parts to help him solve a mystery… or to create a mystery for his future self.

As we do. Flip through an album of photos, on paper or on your phone. See what things your camera has seen. Try to retrace a timeline of your life. What was that? And that? Was it really so? Or is it a pleasant part-fiction directed by previous you to mislead your future selves? It has all been selected and edited. It seems to make sense. But you will never breathe those breaths on those days again, so what is left?

Thus we raise our lenses and sensors; we resolve to resolve life into pixels so that a flat chip of time may take us back and prove that we were there in that moment. We could also buy or retain a thing, a souvenir, a flake of a life. It will be forever the age it is; a memento is frozen in death the moment it is born, and in time it acquires other layers, as the fresh memory fades and other associations attach. We just remember that we were one such person in one such place, with these things and these people, and the thread of our life is seen not as a coloured line among many thrown by a shuttle in a loom but as a single tight string twisted from peg to peg, nail to nail, each tack polished to look like a star; in the end this twiny constellation is meant to present our image, but we can never step apart to see it so.

But those are the instant-thin mementoes, already moribund. There is another memento to go with mori: memento vivere, ‘remember to live, remember life’. We cannot capture that with our cameras, of course, but it is the other part of the same experience: each shutter click is a paddle dip in a river, each memento maintaining momentum in the stream of life. I was here now, and here now, and here now. And from this we see the way forward.