The educated look for technique and pattern, color quality and composition. Spirit touches them little, and it’s the only thing that counts. - Emily Carr,
If spirit is the only thing that counts, then it’s probably important for us to get a sense of the word. What does spirit mean in the context of nature, art and photography? The cosmologist Carl Sagan tells us that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin “to breathe”. Emily Carr, who was born in 1871, sixty-three years before Sagan, agrees.
What do I want to express. [...] The arrangement, the design, colour, shape, depth, light, space, mood, movement, balance, not one, or all of these, fills the bill. There is something additional, a breath that draws your breath into its breathing, a heartbeat that pounds on yours.
Carr’s words take me back to a morning at Elk Island National Park. Everything was perfect. There was no one else around - just me, Nature and the solitude. The rising sun had painted the sky in tints of pink and orange and it was beautiful. But there was more. Swans and geese were murmuring and honking out on the ice and the air was warm and electric with energy. It was a buzzing, thrumming energy of waking up, of melting snow and ice, of bursting willow buds and of life coming back to the land. It was wild and exciting and it was filling me up. It was building and bubbling and I felt that I just wanted to shout with the exuberance and magnificence of it all. Yahhh! It was an extraordinary experience of sight, sound and color. But it was even more than that. There seemed to be, as Emily Carr said, a breath that drew my breath into its breathing. I was drawn in, included in what was happening there that morning and in the synergy, a heartbeat that pounded in my ears.
But the spirituality of nature doesn’t always shout. Sometimes it can whisper.
It had been snowing for weeks and when the weather finally let up for a few minutes, I decided to take a drive from the Canadian Armed Forces Base at Comox, B.C., into nearby Courtenay. I took the scenic route, along Knight Road, around Cape Lazo and then hooked down onto Comox Road.
West of the Comox Marina, where the road comes down to the water, the sea and sky melded into a single, silver grey plane of light. An old blue and white row boat, covered in inches of snow, appeared out of the grey. The air was still and silent. There were no shadows and no ripples to reveal where the sky stopped and the sea began. Seamless. Just an old rowboat, layered in snow and suspended between sea and sky. It was one of the most beautiful, mystical experiences of my life.
I only had an old instamatic, pocket camera in those days. I got a picture, a snap shot. The results of course, didn’t express what I was seeing and feeling in that moment. Emily Carr who painted hundreds of canvases asks us, “What is the test of a picture”?
Not form or design or color or technique. It is the intensity of experience and feeling, the existence of the thing spiritually. If the spirit does not speak, nothing has been said.
Weeks later, looking at the print of my snap shot, nothing had been said. Yet, the experience was intense, cosmologic, with no previous frame of reference into which it might fit comfortably. It had been, literally, awesome.
To have shouted would have offended the spiritual solitude of that moment. Yet, the intensity required...something? My only recourse was to breathe out and then, try to wrap myself more completely in that soft and silent moment as I took another breath.
I don’t live in Comox anymore, but I’ve been back several times since that day in 1973. These days, I’ve got the cameras and the lenses and I go for the beautiful trumpeter swans and the tiny black-tailed deer that frequent the valley. But always, the haunting memory of that old row boat, suspended between sea and sky, comes back to me. It’s become a spirit boat, reminding me of an intense spiritual experience and what might have been a perfect photograph. And so I go, and I follow Comox Road, looking for that old row boat. But there’s no going back. ‘Ichi- go ichi- e’, one moment, one opportunity.