Gathering Material by Brandon

I keep meaning to finish something new. Soon.

Image: Muskrat gathering grasses. To eat? Line her burrow? Make something special?

A John McPhee Coincidence by Brandon

One winter morning two years ago, I visited my favorite bookstore. It was -- past tense, as it closed that spring -- a cozy place that struck just the right balance between old and new, rare and common, the sort of place you visit to just be around books. Every few weeks I'd go in the hopes of finding something I'd overlooked on all my other visits … which, inevitably, was the case.

On this morning I was looking for books by John McPhee, my favorite writer. I've read most of his works, but they happened to have a copy of Coming Into the Country, his account of life in Alaska, which I'd borrowed from a friend, lost, and consequently never read.

I lingered by one of the shelves as a young woman brought her selections to the counter. One of the books was of the mountaintop-air-crash-saga-of-survival genre. I don't remember the author, but Ginger, who never let a customer go unedified, remarked that he was very similar to John McPhee. The girl replied that she loved McPhee and was a journalism student at the University of Maine, where her class had recently participated in a conference call with him.

What a lovely coincidence, I thought! As she left, I gave Ginger my own McPhee find, and she said it was $30. Why so much, I asked? It was a signed copy, she said. I looked at the inscription and it read:

"For the Spider Lake Lending Library and the Redcoat Air Force with an appropriate salute from the other John McPhee, October 1978"

Spider Lake is deep in the north Maine wilderness, not far from Allagash Lake, where John McPhee, floating in a canoe just after ice out in the 1970s, received a float plane visit from a certain state game warden who'd written him several years earlier, lamenting the inconvenience caused by the author's now-famous name -- since his own name, too, was John McPhee.

"His uniform jacket was bright red, trimmed with black flaps over the breast pockets, black epaulets. A badge above one pocket said "STATE OF MAINE WARDEN PILOT." Above the other pocket was a brass plate incised in block letters with his name: JOHN MCPHEE. I almost fell into the lake.

He was an appealing, friendly man, and he did not ask for my fishing license."

McPhee memorialized McPhee in a New Yorker essay entitled "North of the C.P. Line," describing this alternate-universe version of himself who in so many ways lived a life he wished for himself: immersed in nature and wise to it, rescuing hunters and catching poachers, keeping track of fuel by instinct rather than dial, calling moose and catching brook trout.

The "Redcoat Air Force" was, I believe, a nickname the plane-flying wardens had for themselves. How did the book end up in my hands? The unfortunate, inevitable end to every story, perhaps -- much of Lippincott's library came from estate sales -- but I like to think some karmic hand reached down and graced that great coincidence with one more.

Spring Birds & Photography by Brandon

Of late I've felt ambivalent about my own photography. As Juhani Pallasmaa wrote in The Eyes of the Skin, we've elevated sight above the other senses; we regard the world -- see the world, in that telling metaphor for understanding -- in a disproportionately visual way, diminishing our other senses and the fullness of lived experience.

As I capture a moment in an image, so much is left out. Sound, taste, smell, feel, knowledge. And this holds not only for the photograph but the time preceding it, during which I'm engaging the world with an eye -- again, a sight metaphor -- to producing an image. I'm paying too much attention to surface details. Seeing rather than experiencing, and transforming experience to aesthetic.

This holds all the more for photographing animals. It's not just that I can't capture in an image, say, the tremolo calls of tree swallows, or the thrill of having a migrating kestrel stop in my industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, the scurry of a killdeer, the tree creeper's sign of spring. More than that, I'm in some way turning a conscious being with its own inner experiences, an individual, into a two-dimensional visual referent of some species unit: no longer an individual, but a generic red-tailed hawk (in this case likely a juvenile, else it would have known better than to perch so low, in plain sight.)

It's not a reason to stop taking photographs, which is something I enjoy, the process of which encourages attentiveness. But it's something to keep in mind, a guiding principle, a reminder that an image is only one aspect of reality. And sometimes, when I encouter something especially beautiful or special, I can honor it by not taking any pictures at all.

Fall Birds by Brandon

Marilynne Robinson, Subway Ride, Lesson by Brandon

In the opening essay of When I Was a Child I Wrote Books, Marilynne Robinson writes of the miraculous improbability that is every human being: each mind containing more neurons than stars in our universe, arranged in patterns complicated beyond our reckoning, loving and hurting and thinking, floating through a vast vacuum gulf; if from a certain scale even a chair would look like a cloud of energy, what might each of us appear to be....

I'd been trying consciously to keep this in mind, to remind myself (lovely how the word remains ingrained, linguistically guarded from decades of neuroscientific preference for brain) each time I found myself angry or dismissive: How can so-and-so, such-and-such, be so stupid, corrupt, mean, thoughtless? Squint on the inside, see them for a moment as a cloud of light. An effective routine, but easy to forget, and when I stepped into the subway on my way uptown I saw the wool army blanket pile, a sneaker poking out one end, garbage-bagged belongings, a slumbering twitch, smelled it/him, and chose a seat from which vantage he'd be hidden.

Above him was one of those Poetry in Motion subway posters. "Graduation," by Dorothea Tanning:

He told us, with the years, you will come to love the world. And we sat there with our souls in our laps, and comforted them.

Forty-five minutes later, a few minutes late for dinner, I walked fast toward the 72nd street B/C station exit. I passed a boy, maybe twelve years old, black, who called to me and matched my pace and asked how he could get on the 4/5 train. A cloud of suspicion: Maybe he was selling something, thinking of stealing something? Not breaking stride, I told him that he'd have to catch a train back downtown -- to 59th, I thought, I wasn't sure, I could have checked my iPhone subway map but that would have meant stopping -- then ride the E across town to 51st, then take the 4/5 from there. His face fell, he looked as though he were halfway to tears, and then I was up the stairs and on the street, thinking what an asshole I was.

At dinner I checked the phone and realized I'd given him the wrong station. He needed to transfer at 50th, not 59th.

Dinner, wonderful company, movie -- about Moslem immigrants risking themselves to save Jews in occupied Vichy France -- back downtown on the subway. Waiting for the G train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a homeless man walking up the platform, asking for money. No singles in my wallet, I shake my head when he passes. On the train, headphones on, I look up and he's passing through the car. This time, finally, I feel in my pocket, find two quarters and hand them over. From no perspective at that moment would I appear as a cloud of light.

Image: Man sleeping on the subway.

Marathon by Brandon

I hadn't planned to watch the New York City Marathon but was caught on the far side of Bedford Avenue, separated from my house by the runners, and fortunately so. Having only watched the highly competitive runners before, those at the front of the pack, rather than the great mass in the middle, I had not realized that the marathon is an allegory: The elites, beautiful as they are with long strides and holy focus, are an outlying fringe, like Broadway actors introducing a community theatre. Everyone else is -- everyone else.

Passing Bedford's black families barbecuing and flag-waving Mexicans and black-garbed Hasids orbiting white balloon-festooned cribs were a few good runners and many, many more not-good runners. Laboring runners with awkward gaits; even a few chubby people. A group of blind old men. Flag-emblazoned Europeans incarnating nations for a morning. A man in a loincloth and feathered headdress, and another in a fedora and ankle-length fur coat. Quite a few clown costumes. Tutus. Facepaint. Political messages. Random messages -- "Nothing beats Fukushima." It's a marathon of humanity's better, more congenial aspects; and the most common adornment was a placard, hand-lettered, with a runner's name, because the great marathon crowd tradition is to shout the name of eaching passing runner, to make every participant feel like a star.

Image: Brandon/Flickr

Window Seat by Brandon

Each time I fly I think of how many billions of people across millions of years have looked at the birds, and wished.