“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. […] [T]hey are ambassadors from another time.”
We are out to prove Steinbeck wrong. I have read Of Mice and Men and East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath but I am here now, in the flesh, in the light and heat of his Californian sun and we are on the freeway heading north on a warm, dark, Friday evening. Where we’re going, you said, there are trees so wide they’ve cut holes through the middle for cars to pass through. Their bark is the colour of the sunset over the mountains at five O’clock when you’re riding the Q Line along Russell. Their trunks stand straighter than the flagpole on the Quad, and twice as tall. Bring your camera.
We are on the freeway headed north on a warm, dark, Friday evening and we are climbing. When we reach 2000 feet I wind down the window and let the cool night air deafen the radio for a while. There is the rich green tang of pine and the promise of adventure on the wind. In the space between the passenger-side sun-visor and the roof of your car we’ve hidden the list I scrawled on scrap paper in the month I was away. Go back to the lake and swim. See the bridge at night. Roadtrip to LA. Now I feel for a pen in the glovebox and cross one out, impatient. You say we are nearly there.
We are out to prove Steinbeck wrong because I am here now, in the flesh, in the dark heat of his Californian night, but I won’t be for long. I have a hidden list and we have a full tank of gas and we are on the freeway heading north. And miles to go before I sleep. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. We are singing along with the radio turned up loud and the windows rolled down and thinking about all the things we will do before it’s time to go home. There’s a cardboard crate of beer under your coat in the trunk and snowshoes tied to our rucksacks and my camera in my lap. We are not yet seniors and we have a full tank of gas and we are out to photograph a redwood tree.
On the freeway heading north I do not yet know what I will come to know tomorrow. I do not yet know the way the forest snuffs out the stars under silhouetted branches. I do not yet know the silence of those sentinels that keep watch outside our cabin through the earth-smelling night. I do not yet know the way light pours, thick as liquid gold and stark as your skin against mine through the dank canopy. Tomorrow it will pool at your feet. You will stand as a man among giants and we will say nothing, nothing at all. In the silence there will be no hidden lists, no cross-country road trips, no poetry or politics or promises. At the last moment I will raise my camera and trap it in a little black box, and in a basement one night like alchemists we will mix chemicals and light and coax a photograph into being.
We are not yet seniors; we are hurtling through the present. We are not yet marked with limitations, not yet chastened by hard-fought failure. We have well-stamped passports: we have no roots. We live inside our moment and we take photographs for class.
No, we know nothing – we know nothing of these ancients, these ambassadors, heavy with history. Years from now I will understand: my photograph does not show them at all.