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Monday Photo Meditation: Shadows and Earth

Cornerstone Cropped

These are the long hot days of summer, when the shadows stretch eternally across a warm red earth. Wings and I have been spending as much time as possible working on the land, with the soil: tilling, cultivating, planting. The corn is in, most of the squash, a portion of the beans.

Summer these days begins later and lasts longer than in years past, an outgrowth of the climate change that now stunts our growing season, and our indigenous plant life with it.

Oh, some of the local flora still thrive; certain grasses and weedy plants seem to be outpacing themselves. But others struggle to adapt to the short late winters and delayed warmth, to monsoonal winter storms and dry rainy seasons. And, of course, development and the introduction of non-native species and dangers threaten their existence in different (yet still related) ways, as well.

Here, we know their value, and so we, too, struggle to adapt: on their behalf, and on our own.

Here, the earth is a gift, as is the life that emerges from it, as is the rain that nurtures it, as is the light that falls upon it and the shadows the occupy the spaces between.

Here, the earth is art.

We use it for many things: to plant the food that sustains our bodies; to craft the vessels that carry our water; to build the homes that shelter us from the elements. And this is why we call the earth our Mother, because she is everything: food, water, safety, love.

And sometimes, she dances with the light and with the shadow, with the plant spirits, in ways that produce beauty unmatched and unmatchable.

This image was the fourth of ten that formed Taos Pueblo:  Ancestral Places, Sacred Spaces, Wings’s one-man show hosted by the Cocteau Theatre in Santa Fe a few years ago. It stood out from the others in a number of ways: color, lighting, imagery. It was focused less on the architecture, although that was certainly a component of it, than of its interplay with the natural world around it, through the medium of the earth that built it.

I was glad that he chose this image for inclusion for one reason (well, one among many). It’s unedited, no filters, no Photoshopping, no added or altered color or texture or anything else. This was the image exactly as he captured it that afternoon years ago.

And it looks like a painting, a work of Impressionist art.

What’s also not clear to the casual viewer is the difference the sunlight makes to the clay earth itself. With only the photo to go on, the viewer would swear that the clay of the building wall and that of its flanged support are very different, certainly in color if not in other properties: The support is clearly red, while the wall itself looks near-white.

In truth, they are both the exact same color — save for, at the time it was taken, the patched area at the supporting cornerstone’s lower left, then still fresh and thus a different color from the larger area. But I know the very corner, where this shot was taken, and in reality, the whole building is one color, the same uniformly warm golden-reddish brown of a traditional village home.

It is light and shadow that cast the earth by turns red and white.

It is, perhaps, a trick of perception that holds broader meaning. What we se is not always what we think we see, not the thing in itself, and not the qualitative details that seem to refine its identity. After all, if one were to look, say, at our largest garden plot at this moment, it would appear empty, largely devoid of either life or light, the clouds having this moment cast a shadow across its entire expanse. Three small young plants fight for purchase in the hot dry air; all around them, the rows are dark and seemingly bare. But in a matter of days, more green shoots will emerge to compete for water and light, but also to support them.

This photo has seemingly formed an image out of three colors, red, white, and green, none of which, absent further context, is especially accurate. They appear so only because of the light, because of the shadows and earth that are the image’s constituent elements. And they have lessons to teach us about perception in another way, too.

The greenery, these beautiful delicate lace-like fronds that dance in the wind, casting shadow partners against the wall? Most would call them “weeds.” It’s a dismissive term, one that implies that they offer nothing of substance, at least nothing save more labor.

Many of the plants the outside world deems weeds are known to our peoples as medicine. But even if they held no medicinal properties at all, they would still be spirits of substance.

Here, in collaboration with the light, with shadows and earth, they are art.

~ Aji







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