where the writers are
a shadow of reflection
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Yesterday at dawn, a pair of trumpeter swans glided along the mirror-still, tea-colored water at the mouth of the Amnicon River.  The atmosphere was chill, soft-edged with a mist that blurred the definition of earth, water, and sky.  The new sun cast no shadows: in the weak light the white plumage of the swans seemed infused with an inner glow brighter than the hazy, muffled sunlight.

The image was breathless in its beauty, so exquisite that I was loathe to blink, to move, to make a sound.  I was seized with the desire to freeze time.  I wanted to posses that scene, to be able to revisit it at will again and again and again, to hold on to it for all eternity.

An hour later, I returned to the river's mouth, camera in hand, but the world had moved on: the mist had evaporated, the sun was high and clear and bright.  The swans had resumed that northward flight and only a few mewing gulls circled in the flawless blue sky that overarched the sandbar between the river and the lake.

I confess to hold a love/hate relationship with photography: I enjoy preserving individual images, especially scenes from nature, but when a camera is placed in my hand I become one of those people who views the world through a camera's lens.  Because I feel that every object is beautiful and of value, I feel the need to record everything I see.  And not just record it: I am compelled to portray each thing as perfectly as possible, with means endless angles and exposures and -- well, you get the picture.

One of my favorite photographers, Jim Brandenburg, suggested a Zen-like solution to this compulsion: the afflicted photographer should restrict herself to one photograph a day: no more and no less.  I'd been wanting to begin this radical regime for months but always found an excuse to avoid its discipline.  After missing that wonderful swan photograph, I resolved to carry the camera now every time I venture out in the morning.

I almost backed out on my commitment, though, when I left the house today -- the first day of the cure -- because the dawn sky was overcast and muddy.  No excuses, I chided as I carefully set the camera and its bulky telephoto lens on the floor of the truck, protected from Trooper's morning exuberance.  We arrived at the lake to an extravaganza of a sunrise: a cloudless window of green sky defined the eastern horizon above the lake while the lower edge of the clouds glowed with ember-like highlights that the still water of the big lake reflected.  I struggled with the unfamiliar camera -- frustrated, I was forced to scurry back to the truck for my glasses and a flashlight so I could locate the "on" button -- but finally I was able to focus and click.  Nothing fancy, no special settings or effects.  But I had my first photo: the once a day photography odyssey had begun.

I'd taken my photo for the day so I left the camera in the truck and headed east along the beach, our standard morning walk.  Because of the time lost while I puzzled over the camera, the first, vivid fingernail arc of the sun appeared much sooner than usual and in a moment I was surrounded by rich, golden-pink light.  When the sun is low on the horizon, it absorbs color from the atmosphere that surrounds the earth, and in its light the clay cliffs that rise above the beach looked as red as the breast of a nuthatch.  Overhead, the sky was heavy, mottled gray and dark blue with clouds.  As the strongly-defined sunlight spread upward, it highlighted the spire tips of the scattered fir trees along the shore, as if someone had noted their importance with a yellow marker.  Against the lowering sky, the chosen trees glowed like emeralds.

I ached for my camera and just one more photo.  The light was so marked, so defined, so exquisite that I felt a wrenching, almost physical need to record it.  But I'd left the camera in the truck.  Damn, damn, and double damn!  I decided to cut the walk short and hustle back -- maybe this light would linger long enough for me to retrieve the camera.

I hurried along the beach, my shadow stretching to infinity in front of me.  The colors, the light, the sky: it was a world suffused with wonder, every second changing, every moment defined, rich, elegant.  I tried to see it all: the mottled reflection of the sky on the still surface of the water, the sun gilding the wet sand left by the receding waves, the purple glow of new growth on the tips of budding birch branches, a gull anointed with gold as it flew east.

The sun climbed higher.  The finger of my shadow shrank, became more precise.  But above the head of that shadow stretched another shadow, infinitely long: a tall, pale ghost of the original shadow.  It was me -- I recognized my contours in its form -- but how could one person produce two shadows when there was only one source of light?  My sun shadow continued to rein itself as the sun climbed, while the ghost shadow stretched outward, unbounded, like hope.

I glanced over my shoulder at the rising sun and was greeted by not one but two: the original sun riding a finger's width above the horizon, and its reflection in the still water, shimmering on the flat lake with so much energy that the reflected light nearly bested its source.

My two shadows accompanied me all the way back to my truck, where the cedar trees beside the open sand glowed with the still-golden light of dawn.  I grabbed my camera off the bench seat and stepped back to compose a shot.  The light -- and both of my shadows -- faded as I squinted into the viewfinder.

I slung the camera's neck strap over my shoulder before I set out for the second part of my trek -- along the sandbar to the mouth of the river and then along the shore of the sluggishly-flowing Amnicon back to the landing.  As I walked, I noted dull gold clouds slowly transform to slate, etching their reflection on the river in speckled bits of color.  I saw the tracks of beaver and otter.  I watched waves curl across a gravel stretch.  I saw gulls preen and swim.  I must have been tempted by a dozen or more scenes that begged for me to raise the camera to my eye, focus, and click.  I remember those images now, each vivid in my mind, although my camera remained on my shoulder for the remainder of the walk.