We spent time near Christmas at a family farm near Esterhazy in Saskatchewan. Regular readers will know that I enjoy photographing this part of the world. On December 23rd, as the clock marched toward four in the afternoon and the December sun (at 50°39'12"N) neared the distant flat horizon, I resolved on a photo-walk. It was around -30°C with a mild but painful breeze in the fast-changing light; one of the most intense experiences in my 2008. Herewith eight pictures, mostly of snow.
I was wearing: Ordinary underpants, an ordinary T-shirt from a trade show with a high-tech logo, thin ordinary socks inside and outstanding merino-wool socks from Three Vets outside, over them a tough pair of Zamberlan walking shoes that look deceivingly like sneakers, black jeans from Cowtown, a really warm sweater, a thick fuzzy wool toque that Lauren knitted, a down-filled parka that I inherited from my father, and as for my hands, that’s next.
I wanted to take pictures so my hands had to be usable without freezing too fast. I had loose ratty old leather-palm-canvas-back workgloves, and then Lauren bought a nice modern slinky fleece pair that fit right under them. With that combination I could carry the camera and operate the controls enough to get by.
Examining these photos’ metadata will reveal they span a period of only about twenty minutes, but you have to more than double that to get away from the buildings into the fields, and then back. My hands were screaming for mercy when I came in, and the grip on the camera was clawlike not delicate, but still, the glove combo did the job, and I’m thankful.
The prairies, well, they’re big. So all of these photos are the result of pointing my nice Pentax 21mm “Limited” wide-angle here and there. Yes, the colours and contrasts have been enhanced a bit, but—I claim photointegrity—only to look more like what I remember seeing. Yes, the shades shifted every three minutes and every direction you looked.
English just doesn’t have words to describe cold of that intensity. I was appropriately dressed but am still a mild-climate West Coast Wimp, and the cold hurt me wherever it touched me; and it tried really hard to find chinks in my clothing’s armor to penetrate and hurt.
There are colder place in the world, but very few where people choose to live. Which is understandable but a pity, the cold comes with clear air and this sort of beautiful afternoon.
There aren’t many “family” farms now, the countryside is emptying out as the quarter-sections (that means 160 acres) consolidate by dozens and hundreds, and the people who operate the resulting vastnesses want to live in town, as people mostly do. In the city or near it, every step takes you as much toward others as away from them. Not here; each step is a step away and will have to be echoed by a step homeward unless you want to sample the (not unpleasant, they say) flavor of death by hypothermia.
On this walk, part of my mind was thinking about interesting pictures. The rest was worrying about whether I should terminate the photowalk and head for the farmhouse. Because, after a half-hour’s hard trudge for healthy legs over the broken frozen fields, if you trip over a frozen cow-turd and unfortunately break an ankle, well, you might have just given your life for art.
A tiny part of my mind was saying, back in a remote corner of the skull, “hop another fence, keep chasing that horizon” and I couldn’t be sure whether that mental faction was about really great photos or just next-exit nihilism. The voice didn’t really have a chance to convince me, but it it was interesting to hear. If I weren’t generally both lucky and thick-skinned I imagine it might be louder.
I’ll close with a quotation from Little, Big by John Crowley which on alternate Thursdays I think the finest novel ever written in English. The quote comes with a title: Brother North-Wind’s Secret. And the secret is: “If Winter comes, Spring can’t be far behind.”
And I can report first-hand that right now in the mild Pacific Northwest, in the first days of February, there are green shoots to be seen in the corners of our garden, promising small glories of violet and gold before too much longer.