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Sunday, August 06, 2006

The One That Got Away

I had to either interrupt or curtail my vacation yesterday and drive back to Milwaukee from the lake house—whether this will actually be an interruption or a truncation of my last vacation will depend on whether I can get done the things I have to do here quickly or not. Maybe I can go back up for a few final days this coming week.

Here's the house. (Its suspicious resemblance to a white elephant should be noted.) The lakeshore as a whole is really a place best suited for Tom Wolfe or Grace Metalious—it's a web of novelistically complex interactions between and within families. Often, the turmoil is well below the surface, but the depth of the subtexts is simply awesome. I have friends up there whose great-grandmothers were friends of my great-grandmother. It's as if every action and statement exists not entirely in the present, but reaches back through many decades, and includes ghosts in the exchange.

The place exists essentially because our great-great grandfather invented French Vanilla. Well, that's putting it too simplistically. He did invent—and name—the flavor, but the money came from his five ice-cream factories, eventually sold to Borden's roughly a century ago. My great-grandfather, Frank Alexander Hamilton—son-in-law of the ice-cream man—spurned the Point at Harbor Springs to build a house along the shore of one of Michigan's then-very-unfashionable inland lakes. The story goes that he sent some carpenters up with plans and when he got there to inspect the work, found that the carpenters had misread the plans and built the roof-pitch to the steep side of 45° when it should have been the gentle side of it, so, rather than accept the error or have the mistake corrected, he just moved up the shore and started over again. The part of the story I like is that the lumber for the house was brought from the sawmills at the south end of the lake by horse-drawn sledge across the winter ice.

Everyone has their own ways of experiencing. Some people like to swim in lakes, others, to sail; I like to look at them. One of the best aspects for me of living by a lake is the way it lowers the horizon and lets me see the weather. Have you ever driven past one of those clear-cut lines in a forest where the trees have been trimmed back to make room for the road? They're almost like cross-sections of the forest, bereft of the obscuring riot of small trees, bushes and scrub that normally camouflage the forest's edge in the transition to meadow. The view from Hamilton Point is similarly like a cross-section of the atmosphere. I was limited when I took this sunrise (it was taken from the middle dormer window of the house, which you can see in the first picture, yesterday morning) by the 42mm-equivalent wide angle of my DSLR lens. I could have included three times as much lake in the shot if I'd been able to go wide enough. You can track, visually, the quick, violent thunderstorms that sweep down from the Straits of Mackinac* or across from Little Traverse Bay as they move across the lake from north to south or east to west. I've been privileged to witness a great many spectacular sights from this spot, only a tiny fraction of which I've even tried to photograph.

The first large "shoot" I did in the area was in 1983 when I was in photography school, and I've added to it more or less every year since. Leaving the area for the last time makes me wonder what I should do with all that shooting. A book seems in order, somehow, but I lack the resources, I suppose. Not just of money, but of leisure, of organizational skills—I have almost no faith in my ability even to gather together all the negatives—and of judgment. I see the place with the heart, through heavy filters of history, and of memories.

I have often compared photography to fishing. I think it's the best metaphor for the type of photography I do, and the type I like: you educate, prepare and equip yourself as best you can, and train by practicing, but, in the end, what you catch still depends on luck, chance, fate, and whim. One element of the eternal lore of fishing is the one that got away, and the best picture I ever saw that I never took—the one that got away, so to speak—was one that I experienced standing on the lawn of the big house. One storm (from the south) had just passed through, and another was following it, and for a brief few minutes the sun broke through. Instantly, a huge full rainbow was created, vivid against the deep purple-gray of the approaching clouds. It stretched from horizon to horizon, and it was so bright that inside it was a second rainbow. As if by magic, there was one small shred of cloud, moving fast on the wind of the approaching storm, that from where I stood was centered exactly inside of the rainbows, brightly lit by the sun and contrasting with the purple sky behind it. It was coming right at me, so although it got bigger and changed shape, it held its position. The picture was completed by three single birds. Up the shore there came swimming a single white swan (also unusual, since they're often seen in pairs), and above the rainbow against the darkest part of the sky was a single, distant seagull, coming right at me as it fled the coming storm, an elegant white mark against the sky. And then—I still can hardly believe this—in the middle of the scene, just between the swan and the seagull, flew a Kingfisher. For several long moments—it might have been minutes, I don't know—all three birds, moving more or less directly toward me, seemed to hold their positions in the scene just like the little cloud did. The Kingfisher flew over my head and disappeared.

It just paralyzed me. I stood rooted to the spot, open-mouthed and wide-eyed. (It did cross my mind to run into the house and get the camera, but that would have taken me away from the sight itself, and anyway, I had the wrong camera, the wrong film.) Nowadays you could hardly show such a scene, because it would be assumed to be a Photoshop pastiche. It was certainly the most extraordinary arrangement of objects, forms, and colors that nature has ever presented to my eyes, the single most astonishing sight I've ever seen.

I've taken tens of thousands of pictures in Northern Michigan, I suppose. But no matter how many pictures I've taken, I've probably seen ten times as many, if not more. That's certainly the way photography is: there are far more fish in the river than one fisherman could possibly catch in the brief time he's got to fish. The photographs I've made, nice though many of them are, are no match for the ones that got away.


*If you've ever wondered, every form and spelling of this name should be pronounced "MACK-in-awe."


Blogger Max said...

Wow, you're feelings are understood Mike. I've spent all my childhood in places that look very much like African savanna. The sea of grass, the crooked trees, the storms, the pastel sunsets, ever-changing as the seasons go by, shot over and over and over. And the whole situation, living there, it was all dictated by family business. And that's even harder as a force from the past, because sometimes the family projection through history becomes so interwoven with certain activities and places that a lot of people go on doing things and living in a certain way far long after they have ceased to have energies or will for such a thing.
But the colors, well, they are part of the (sweet) trap.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Thanks a lot for your comments both today and a few days ago. They're very perceptive. You really understand what's going on. I also think you're right that there may be a big aspect of relief to having it finally over and done with. There will also be a lot of sadness, of course. And possibly some lasting hard feelings.


11:45 AM  
Blogger tienvijftien said...

Faboulous place - looks straight out of a Stephen King Novel - and thats not a bad thing :-) Tell me, is there still time to winn the Euro-Millions Lottery ...

Seriously, sad you have to let it go, you have all my sympathy.


4:34 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

Wow, that is certainly an awesome scene you saw there.

Like anybody I'd give a finger to have photographed it.
... And yet... a photograph, even if you believed it, would probably have seemed... plasticky. Like a bad poster.

Instead I think we should cherish a moment like that as a gift from the divine. Handle it as best we can, and not compare the rest of our lives to it.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well Mike, I'm in a similar situation (almost permanently), and it's good to be able to share what we understand, and at the same time know that some issues are normal, and do happen similarly to others, at one time or another. Resonance is always good.
Another thing that is interesting, now you mention hard feelings, is that I was raised to believe that there is always a way to make everybody happy if you are doing what you consider to be the right thing. And that's just not true. Some people will never accept change, for the most futile reasons and with the best intentions (sometimes only because it wasn't their idea). And they might be brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and that's always hard.

5:47 PM  
Blogger stevierose said...

I have found that it is nearly impossible to convey what summer life is like in Northern Michigan on the Great Lakes or inland lakes to anyone who has never seen them. But you just did a mighty good job of it. I usually fall back on some weak approximation in my description, such as "They are sort of like fresh water oceans" but that just doesn't get it.

My mother's parents built a very modest summer house in Petoskey during the 1940's, not far from your family's summer home. It is in a residential neighborhood, not on the lake. In the 50's and 60's when I was a kid my dad was busy trying to make a living in the boom and bust building business. My mom took us kids up there for long stretches each summer where we stayed with my grandparents or various permutations and combinations of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Sometimes I was lucky enough to stay up there with only my grandfather and a couple of my close male cousins. It was really an idyllic part of my childhood replete with the building of tree houses, chasing minnows on the Bear River, getting sun burned at the Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix beaches, and pigging out at restaurants like the Dam Site Inn (all you can eat fried chicken, home made noodles swimming in butter, mashed potatoes, fresh peas, and incredible biscuits). When I was in college I would sneak up there in the fall with a girlfriend to view the fall colors and have bittersweet chocolate sundaes at Juilleretts in Harbor Springs, or have a romantic gourmet meal at the Rowe Inn in Ellsworth. My wife and I really fell in love when I took her up there the first time. We spent many weeks up there once we had children as well. To be sure, my mother's family had (and still has) a pretty complex emotional web, so I can also identify with what you wrote about that.

I was always amazed at how my stress hormone levels seemed to immediately plummet the moment Little Traverse Bay came into view as we drove over that last hill on the way into Petoskey. Just the sight of it made me relax. I always felt like I was coming home. Then one day I did the math and realized that my younger sister and I must have been conceived up there as we were both born nearly 9 months after Labor Day. Then I knew that I really was like a fish swimming upstream to get back to its spawning grounds! My parents do not deny the possibility....

8:54 PM  
Blogger Svein-Frode said...

I share your sentimental feelings Mike! As my grandparents are getting older our family summer homes will need to go on the market. I haven't got the money to buy them as I've spent all I have on a tiny appartment in the city where I work. It cost twice as much as both summer homes together, and still, it only has got 1/8 of the living space. Man do I long for those lazy summer nights by the coast...

5:41 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

Oddly enough, there is also a Dam Site Inn in Hell, Michigan. A biker bar, it features all you can eat fish dinners, and is frequented on weekends by large contingencies of Hell's Angels, and other biker groups.

Strangely enough, my wife fell in love with the place when we visited Hell for the first time a few years ago, to take their post office/general store up on their offer of postmarking our federal tax return as "Taxes from Hell" (they singe the envelope for you, as well).

We decided to try out the nearby Dam Site Inn restaurant (there really is a small dam nearby), and found that the food was quite good, in spite of rubbing elbows with a rather rough looking crowd.

So much so, that when her parents visited from Montana a couple of springs ago, she took them to the Dam Site Inn for Mother's Day dinner. As we were walking into the restaurant, past the lounging bikers in front, my mother-in-law volunteered, "We came in a truck!" (referring to the Durango we had arrived in).

They all laughed, and held the door for her. Inside, the place was crowded, but the folks from in front came in with us, and motioned for some of their friends to move to the bar, freeing up a table for us.

It's amazing what a little-grayed-hair lady can do with a bunch of muscled bikers. Must have evoked that storied "love of Mother" or something like that.

3:02 PM  

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