We stand suddenly on the cusp of summer in these handful of days when there will be no greater daylight this year. Characteristic of all North Country climes, we have arrived here in a blur of see-saw skirmishes between the seasons of spring and something that is not spring, waking now to mornings noticeably less noisy, the urgency to sing in search of a mate gone from songbirds who’ve seen their nests empty. The apple trees and lilacs have bloomed – and while I did take notice of their fragrance, filling wet days when puddles exploded with alternating drops of rain and hail, it seems impossible to have lurched forward so soon, seedpods dry and fruit larger than acorns.
Much of our mountain snow is gone, torrents of gushing water bound for oceans on both sides of our continent, rivers groping lowland fields of crops, and sometimes subdivisions, while weathermen announce the “hundred-year flood” with statistics like gallons per minute, crest height, and photos taken from drones that show lakes in place of terra firma. Carp have seen clover and ospreys have fed their young with goldeneye shiners caught from among shelterbelts of Russian olives where great horned owls have caught voles during the other 99 of these years. Like the smell of lilacs, I have been aware of this, though peripherally, taking a long time to awake after so hard a winter.
The deer and elk that survived our interminable season of ice have been rewarded with meadows of taller grass then I’ve seen in my nearly 25 years in Montana. Visible ribs and resigned eyes have been replaced by sleek coats and, if I may be so presumptuous to define their expressions, pure joy. The seasons have tipped fully now, ready to begin inching back toward that day in December when all this will seem as impossibly far away as the glacial expanse of white which defined the last solstice.
A year ago I wrote about climbing a tall mountain to shoot the Milky Way, my way of making the most of the day with the least darkness. Six months later, I took a long drive through our long state, determined to squeeze every drop of light from the day that sees the smallest amount. What to do now, I ask myself after my requisite two cups of strong coffee? A trip I soon decide, a decision as hereditary as my predisposition to coffee, though the journey this year will be bounded by the price of gasoline and lifestyle choices that have made that price a good deal more painful than last summer. Such is the cost of being drawn to the arts I think as I load my camera gear into my truck and roll out of town, my gas gauge hanging in the position that an optimist would call half full. The realist in me takes note of the green, digital numbers announcing that in approximately 116 miles I’d better find myself near a filling station not opposed to accepting Mr. Visa.
One of the many wonderful things about living in a state like Montana is the ability to go somewhere new every time I set out and still not see nearly all there is to see. You can climb the dozen tallest peaks, fish the 25 best rivers, and learn one or two mountain ranges reasonably well enough to feel at home in them, but there will be alpine lakes, prairie coulees, twisting creeks and shaded north-facing stands of dense pine you will never lay eyes on. With that in mind, I decide to go somewhere new, compassed only by that inclination.
An hour later, after more than a few nervous glances at my fuel level, after creeping up a road more rock than dirt, after passing a makeshift campsite containing both an oversized RV and undersized teepee, I park next to a locked, iron gate where the National Forest Service says further travel will be on foot. Fine by me, and finer still when I see that beyond this gate the only sign of traffic is the splayed print of a moose who preceded me when the ground was damp.
A western tiger swallowtail drifts by me and immediately more follow, tracing the road the way their smaller, more vibrant cousins did a brook on the New Hampshire and Vermont border one day more than thirty years ago when my father and I explored another new place. Clough, its name was, and we fished it upstream to a falls impossible for trout to traverse though above it there were fish – small brook trout with backs greener than any we’d ever seen – a subspecies exiled to this spot for the past ten thousand years. As more swallowtails glide by me now, for a moment it seems all years between have come and gone as quickly as this summer has replaced this spring. All the more reason to get going I decide, following the moose tracks away from my truck into country that’s never heard my footfalls.
My path winds up, as most do when they leave civilization in the Rockies, past the stump of a lightning-shattered fir, a hillside of lupines, and across a scree field of lichen-coated granite. Where it briefly runs flat, the leaking tentacle of a snowdrift far above me crosses the trail, and all along this rivulet silver blues and spring azure butterflies fan their wings. I screw on my macro lens, drop to my belly, and wait for a shot of one facing me, another blurred to a haze of blue in the background. Further, where the trail begins climbing again, I catch a delicate, orange tip butterfly resting on a clump of sage-green moss. My shutter clicks as some vague awareness of time’s passage washes over me, a memory of iron spikes driven into the rock banks of Clough to hold back white pine logs destined for mills along the Connecticut River in the 1870s seeming both near and distant.
Onward now, through blue wings rising around me, further into new country and old memories of other summer days when blackfly bites ringed my ears, undeterred by the acrid odor of repellant. Where my path – gone by way of natural progression from a two-track to a game trail to a faint line of slightly-darker ground, traversed perhaps centuries ago by nomadic hunters – passes under an escarpment of lava rock, I spot the trunk of a silicified tree weathering out of its tomb. Six hundred thousand years ago it was encapsulated here when the caldera under present-day Yellowstone National Park spewed millions of tons of ash into the sky. I reach out and touch it the same as I did the iron rods on the banks of the Vermont stream, acknowledging the past in the moment of the present, the eons and decades similarly distant, similarly close.
With a small piece of the petrified tree in my pocket, I turn straight uphill and push toward ground which, by virtue of elevation, still resides in that in-between time neither winter nor summer. In a clearing where bright sun touches matted bear grass and bubbly pieces of clear agate, I take a picture of a hairy pasque flower, always one of the earliest to bloom in Montana, always reminiscent of the crocuses that heralded spring in New England.
My legs are strong this year, the result of running many miles, the result of some acknowledgement that I am in the summer solstice of my life, and even where the climb becomes steeper they carry me along up this mountain and through this day with minimal effort. Both pass as imperceptibly yet as undeniably as the time between my discovery of the iron spikes, the touch of my hand on the petrified tree, the focus of my lens on the pasque flower, and the rumble of an ancient earth torn apart to leave a crater for Yellowstone Lake.
A snowdrift. Pocked like the surface of a windblown lake, brown with dust and fir needles, it clings to shade below massive fir trees. I’m not the first to cross it, following in the footsteps of melted elk tracks, strands of the animal’s winter hair left on the ice, both souvenirs of winter that have found each other through the magnetism of seasons. Above it, I discover that this mountain is really just the shoulder of a much larger peak a few miles to the east. I think about turning that way toward the treeless summit but that would mean a longer step backward in time than I wish to make. I’ve had my fill of snow this year and will walk west, gradually downhill, remaining more firmly in early summer.
In an opening blue with silvery lupines, yellow arrowleaf balsamroot strewn among them like randomly-scattered sunflowers, I sit down to take a picture of a tortoiseshell butterfly. Just as I begin to lift my camera, a male calliope hummingbird, the smallest North American bird, fresh from his journey up from Costa Rica, zips into view. Our eyes meet as he fans the lilac-colored feathers on his neck in a colorful display to say these are his flowers, but before I can get a picture he’s off like a beam of green light, gone as completely from this moment as the days of Connecticut River log drives or the sound of a hammer striking a star drill along the creeks high above them. Gone as irrevocably as all things in the past dating back to whatever astronomic force began this universe. Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to photography I think as I focus on the tortoiseshell. Perhaps it’s my way of bowing to the intrinsically human desire to somehow hold onto time, an endeavor equally impossible now as it was whenever our ancestors first had enough self-awareness to attempt it through their drawings on cave walls. The moment is gone, but the likeness of it remains. I freeze the butterfly on a light-blue aster, wondering if the digital representation of this split second might someday catch someone’s eye the way the petrified tree caught mine.
My day in new country wears on with other snippets of it recorded by my camera, still more, like the hummingbird and a pair of elk I surprise in their beds, recorded by my eyes. The afternoon is clear, the forbearer of a clear night when I’ll want to once more capture our home galaxy. That will mean a nod of thanks to Mr. Visa and a journey of many miles, and that means at some point soon I’ll need to wind my way back to my truck. But not just yet. For a few more minutes, I will take macro pictures of orange lichen on pink-gray granite, watch a few more swallowtails float like October aspen leaves after a hard frost, stare at the rosy throats of spring beauty flowers, and run my hands over the fissured bark of a fir tree whose seen this solstice come and go five hundred times. I’ll carry a grouse feather, mottled and soft, because it is my nature to seek and find things, even as simple as this feather. I will take a picture of a small waterfall, the cascade blurring to water as smooth as river fog at daylight. I’ll follow a mourning cloak butterfly that never lands, kneel to capture the face of a ladybug, hold my breath while shooting a glacier lily leaning over the shoulder of a fairy slipper orchid. On this longest day, I won’t hold back time but by god I’ll make the most of it, believing fully that I’ve spent it entirely true to myself in a manner as worthwhile as any I can imagine. And when, miles away as the last rays of sun fade from a sky that’s held them longer than it has in a full year, when night begins its march toward its own December glory, when the feel of grainy snow under my boots and course elk hair between my fingers is as much a memory as the Wise potato chips my father and I ate along the banks of Clough, I’ll point my camera toward the center of our galaxy and deny myself sleep until that too has become a memory preserved.
Please take a moment to check out my new releases, all pictures of spring and early summer here in Montana, including a couple of my best night sky images. You can view them by following this link.