Archive for the ‘emotion’ category

HEALING THE SOUL ON AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER

August 13, 2011

After a family trauma that left me grieving, I chose to go home to Seattle by Amtrak rather than Delta, so that I could use the slower form of transportation as a way to quiet my sorrow. I hoped that the passing American landscape would sooth my soul.

I boarded Amtrak in Ann Arbor on a muggy summer morning; I was among the first at the station, but gradually the platform filled with about a hundred day trippers and overnighters, most going to Chicago for a Monday outing. In the seat in front of me, a little girl going to Chicago with her parents looked forward to going to the zoo, which her patient mom and dad explained repeatedly was the city of Kalamazoo–not the zoo of her imagination. After we passed through Kalamazoo and they didn’t get off the train, I think she got it. Her mother explained that they woud be visiting a museum and an aquarium, and that her little daughter was going to walk with a penguin.

Amtrak slowed repeatedly on the trip to Chicago, once stopping because of a signal light that may or may not have indicated an oncoming train (best to be prudent!). The Norfolk Southern, upon whose tracks Amtrak runs along this route, had designated parts of the tracks a 15 mph zone, so we crawled along past houses, farms, and fields. Then we had to pull over to stop for a faster freight train. After all this, we were over two hours late getting into Chicago.

Walking toward the train on the platform at Chicago’s Union Station

The lady conductor sternly gave us a lecture over the intercom that the delays were not Amtrak’s fault and “don’t go complainin’ to Amtrak–call the State of Michigan and Norfolk Southern if you are going to complain!” I was’t going to complain. Heck, it’s all an adventure to me, so I just chuckled.

At Union Station, we detrained and walked the platform back to the terminal, ears cowering next to the giant, hissing beasts. It would have been even more atmospheric if the locomotives had been black behemoths hissing steam, like they would have been 75 years ago when men were men and steam was king, but we live in a kinder, gentler age when oil is king and men are unemployed.

Inside Union Station it was anything but kinder and gentler. The place was packed. There was a lot of milling around and a lot of asking Amtrak employees where the portal to the next train woud be. I had to ask three employees before I got to the right gate, since the signage was so poor. But I at last arrived in the steerage waiting room, where people sat and stood and sprawled against every available wall. The place was packed. And hot. A giant fan worked overtime to ineffectively cool the room and effectively silence the announcements.

Upper Class train travelers, who book sleeping compartments, got better treatment. They walked into a darkened space with frosted glass doors that looked like the VIP lounges for first-class air travelers. But our waiting room made for a richer experience, if you like noise and heat and watching Amtrak cops chatting inside their sterile, air-conditioned office while the rest of us sweated outside.

After waiting a half hour, the young woman sitting next to me said she had never ridden the train before and wondered if she was in the right place. I asked what train she wanted, and she said “the Empire Builder,” and I assured her that she was in the right place. We waited. I asked about her trip and she had taken a bus from Tennessee to Chicago, and she was taking the train to Libby, Montana to see her fiance. I asked what he did for a living, and she said

he was retired military, a cop, and an EMT. Sounds like Superman, and he’ll be a good protector of her. I sensed that this shy and pretty woman, approaching thirty years old, had rarely been outside Tennessee. A vigorous older man sitting on the other side of me had a strong southern accent that seemed like what I had heard in rural southern Indiana or in West Virginia. He had a longish gray beard and an easy affability that allowed him to wait patiently and with a sense of humor.

Finally, a big woman from Amtrak sternly told us that the train was boarding and to show her your ticket as we passed. To each of us, she loudly admonished us to get in line “SINGLE FILE” after we passed her unsmiling face. She missed her calling: she should have been one of the occasional battle-axe teachers I observed in my youth (my favorite cartoon, Frazz, features one such teacher, Mrs. Olsen, to great effect).

We boarded. I sat down next to a man from Seattle. With typical Seattle reserve, he didn’t even glance up at me. But in 24 hours next to him, he did open up and say that dinner was “OK, but expensive.” And he said his steak was overdone. In my experience, a person could be stranded in the Seattle airport for a week and nobody would ever, ever talk to him. In contrast, I once waited in the waiting area of the Marquette airport in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the sparkle of people chatting with strangers reminded me of the tinkle of stemware in an expensive restaurant. Coastal people, in general, are jaded and prefer separation, perhaps because they live packed so close together. Rural Midwesterners, by contrast, prefer connection.

The train shrieked and groaned out of the Chicago station: something was clearly wrong with our train car’s rear truck–it had a rubbing metal sound that occurred every time whe went around a curve at low speed. Had I been on a plane with that sound, I would have been praying!.

We passed derelict warehouses and factories, and overgrown yards, and enough rusty metal and graffitti-adorned buildings that the route felt like Chicago’s unofficial back alley–a fascinating place to dig for photographic treasure, but not a great place to live your life. Looking out the window at a dead end dirt road below the support columns of a road bridge, I saw a late model dark SUV with five beefy, unsmiling guys standing around it, one on a cell phone. The quick glimpse reminded me of a TV mafia story just before some guy got cement shoes to be used for his final dive into the Chicago River.

The woman sitting across the aisle from me was from Michigan. A hint: if you want to talk to somebody on a long trip, sit near a small town Midwesterner. She is from a rural area near Battle Creek in southern Michigan, and had been on the train from Kalamazoo. She told me then about being struck by lightning a few years ago: a tremendous bolt of lightning hit her house, then traveled in via the old wiring, slammed into her shoulder and out through her fingers and back into the wall. Meanwhile, she was knocked unconscious, tossed eight feet across the room, and burned and bruised on her arm. She awoke to her dog licking her face and the walls on fire around the room. She got out just in time … thank God for dogs! And for women from Michigan to entertain us with great stories!

On we snaked through Milwaukee, with more urban grunge. Farther on, up through Wisconsin forests and lake country. On to Minneapolis, where I fell asleep. I heard the next day that young people enjoyed the lounge that evening, with guitars and beers late into the night. Strangers on a train connect more effectively than strangers in virtually any other situation, perhaps because the surroundings and seats are comfortable and the atmosphere relaxed. Life stories are readily passed.

Night in a recliner seat. Stiff neck and need for coffee at dawn as we raced across the prairie. The pothole country of North Dakota gave us displays of brilliant American White Pelicans and red-stained Sandhill Cranes who had groomed their feathers with oxides from the mud where they feed. One young man ahead of me in the car was moving to Portland on this trip, accompanied by his guitar and by a potted Venus Flytrap that sat on his tray table. He said it looked much better than when he had started the journey and had the carnivorous plant sealed in a plastic bag. Apparently meat-eating plants like to breathe as much as meat-eating humans. His colorful left arm was covered with bright tattoos, looking much like all the other young people flocking to Portland in the great exodus of the decade. Portland is the glittering “City That Works” along the Willamette River, where commuting on bicycles is cool and food vendors in mobile food carts descend upon the city by the hundreds. There is even a funny TV show exploring this hip, young culture: Portlandia.

Three friendly young people were independently making their way to Rugby, North Dakota, which is kind of opposite of Portland in its hipness quotient. Still, one young woman had a bead of blue inserted in her lip piercing, so she wasn’t totally uncool. Her mother had moved to North Dakota from Wisconsin because the housing and land prices were so low and jobs were plentiful, with the lowest unemployment rate in the country during this endless recession. The shocker when she got there was that the jobs paid very little, so she had to get two jobs to make ends meet. Nothing is ever easy.

The prairies went on for hundreds of miles, punctuated by tiny towns with skyscraper grain elevators. The breadbasket of America, with the harvest starting in the golden fields. Not everything was golden; the town of Minot, North Dakota, had been the site of once-in-a-century flooding, and there were still farms and outbuildings surrounded by giant lakes where there should be no lakes. In the town, a sports park had been deeply gouged for its soil, which had been mounded high around some lower-lying buildings to provide a fortress against the flood. The train slowed considerably through this stretch, as the roadbed was just a bit over the waterline.

I had carried much of my food on the trip, but used the cafe to stoke up my alertness with periodic doses of coffee. Each morning, when we coffee drinkers got in line with puffy faces and uncombed hair, the lady attending the cafe laughingly greeted us with “How many?” We must have looked desperate for coffee. On the second afternoon, the train took on boxed dinners provided by a restaurant in a small Montana town, available for ten bucks. These included broasted chicken–a mostly western specialty I hadn’t enjoyed in some 30 years, as well as a roll and some good old-fashioned blackberry cobbler. The Dining Car offered more options, but was expensive for those of us on limited budgets. Most of the Dining Car diners had meals included with their private sleeping quarters.

We took on three private cars, which were attached to the back of the train while stopped at a Montana town. The Michigan woman decided to go check out one of the private cars, but as she walked close with her camera, several big guys with aviator sunglasses came out and gave her the evil eye, so she backed off.

Looking back at one of the private passenger cars hitched to the train

Michigan woman is a lover of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as am I. She spent many weeks of her childhood in the U.P., and said that her first taste of whiskey–at age 11–came from John D. Voelker, an ex-Michigan Supreme Court judge who became widely famous under his pen name of Robert Traver. He wrote the classic Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a popular 1959 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The success of the book and movie allowed Voelker to retire to his beloved U.P.–he was born in the U.P. mining town of Ishpeming–to pursue a career of writing and trout fishing. As a teenager, I had read his wonderful book about fishing and whiskey drinking, Trout Madness, and had been captivated for a time by the classic and romantic sport of fly fishing.

Harvest time on the great American prairie

Two guys from the same Montana town–but who didn’t know each other–boarded the train in eastern Montana and plunked down in my end of the car. One immediately rose and walked down to the cafe to get a beer. Alas, the cafe was closed for 45 minutes for a staff break. From that moment on, I heard stories about craving beer. One guy was a construction worker whose long-term job was cleaning up an old lead mine site, which had heavy arsenic contamination. He said they were removing the contaminated waste and dumping it in a lined pit on the mountain, which would be sealed over when the job was complete. He was a vigorous thirty-something with a friendly and open Montana personality.

The other guy who came on board said he was really ashamed of something he had done, but he didn’t feel like talking about it. Finally, the cafe opened and the two guys got their beers, and that loosened them up. The younger guy, a twenty-something who now lived on the coast, had gone back to his small town for a wedding, and was arrested after the wedding and pled guilty to a DUI charge by a cop he had gone to school with (as in: “sorry, just doing my job”). He had his old acquaintance take his picture behind bars, as he was wearing his tuxedo. Now the guy faced the possible loss of his job, which involved driving, and a permanent stain on his record.

The other guy topped this story with his own background of two DUIs; the second one had cost him confiscation of two vehicles and spending seven days in jail. He figured that it cost him over $20,000, which probably didn’t include the long-term raises in his insurance. Both guys agreed that in their small town, lots of people thought drinking was the only thing to do. At least drinking on a train is a relatively benign activity, unless you are going to be driving right away when you reach your destination. I drifted to sleep as the Amtrak attendant shuffled the noisy drinkers off to the observation car so that we teetotalers could get some shuteye.

When I awoke, all the people I had talked to had vanished at remote Montana stops in the night. I changed clothes in a changing room, then lurched down to the dining car–staggering because the tracks are pretty rough in places. It reminded me of being on a small ocean-going ship during a storm. I was seated at a singles table with three others who had no dining companions. I turned out to be the most talkative of the bunch, which will astound and amaze everyone who knows me. Two of the other three were from Seattle (remember my comments above about Seattle reserve?), and the other was a lady from Oswego, New York, who was going to the Seattle area to see her son, whom she hadn’t seen in five years. Five years … really … what’s the son’s excuse for that?! She and her kids had often been to the nature center I once managed in the Syracuse area, near her hometown of Oswego. One of the Seattle guys owns a sailboat for navigating Puget Sound, as well as a cabin in an old gold-mining area of the Cascades; he said that if he is down in the Olympia area, he’ll look me up for a sailing trip on the Sound.

Breakfast, for me, was an excellent spinach and cheese omelet, with American fries and good coffee. The service was good, but the table setting was not the storied linen tablecloths of the classic days of train travel. The tablecloth and napkins were paper, the coffee cups were styrafoam, the china was plastic (though not made in China) … but at least the flatwear was classic metal. After several cups of coffee and pleasant breakfast conversation, I went back to my seat and enjoyed the view of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

The channeled scablands were formed when ice dams suddenly broke open during the ice age, sending unbelievable sudden surges coursing through the thick volcanic basalt formations of eastern Washington, ripping away solid rock and creating networks of channels. Now only the remnants of those natural catastrophes remain: basalt cliffs rise above sagebrush valleys, telling stories that geologists were able to piece together from clues on the landscape. As the train thundered westward, hawks and Great Blue Herons constantly fled the noise and commotion, flying away from the tracks and small wetlands toward distant refuge.

Speaking of noise: the train is not nearly as noisy as might be expected. The engine was so far ahead that I could hear no engine noise and I could only faintly hear the train’s whistle–used when approaching highway crossings–when I thought about listening for it. Inside the train cars, there was a constant soft hiss from the ventilation system, which creates a soothing white noise that I found relaxing. There is no clickity-clack of the rail joints these days, since the tracks are now made using long stretches of continuous welded rail.

Approaching Stevens Pass in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, the train was again delayed, this time by a freight train having engine trouble on the west side of the pass. The Conductor estimated a delay of an hour. Actually, delays of Amtrak trains are common, because freight trains have the right-of-way on tracks operated by private railroads. For these railroads, Amtrak is an inconvenience–but also a source of revenue, so they probably don’t want it to go away.

Several National Park Service volunteers boarded the train in eastern Washington, and went on the loudspeaker to interpret the passing landscape for us, adding to the richness of the trip. They told us about early settlers and Indians and the Columbia River and the apple orchards and such. They did not, however, tell us the history of one of the greatest train disasters in the history of America, which occurred along this very route over Stevens Pass. Perhaps Amtrak and/or the National Park Service are afraid of upsetting delicate sensibilities, but the Wellington Train Disaster is a great story.

In late March of 1911, two trains were stopped at Wellington in a place very close to where we were stopped on our journey. Except that it was the dead of winter, in a blizzard. They were stranded for six days in the blizzard; on the seventh day an avalanche roared down the mountains, sweeping the train cars off the tracks. When it was all over, 96 people were dead in the greatest natural disaster ever to hit Washington State (that is, until the next big earthquake …). To read more about this event, which “celebrated” a 100th year anniversary in 2011, go to Wellington Train Disaster. A long tunnel, built in 1929, dramatically reduced the avalanche hazard for train travelers.

Crossing the Columbia on a steel railroad bridge

During our one hour delay–without avalanches, thank God–riders patiently occupied themselves. Lots of books were open, but no Kindles, perhaps because coach passengers on a train tend to be traditional. My part of the car had four Macs in operation (one guy working on a spreadsheet, one gal watching a movie, one guy writing code, and me writing this story), and occasional PCs. One lady knitted. One played solitaire. Several slept. Some chatted to seatmates. One demonstated something to the attendant on an iPad. Many used iPods or similar equipment to listen to music or watch recorded video. But it was all the books that impressed me most; people who ride trains still like to read–a slower-paced activity in this digital age. Considering that we were running four hours late on this route, there was little grousing about lost time. In a sense, the delays were a gift of quiet personal time for us–a rare commodity in this caffeinated and over-stimulated age.

The Empire Builder chugs through the open landscapes of eastern Washington State

Traveling on, we reached Puget Sound and snaked right along the edge of the Sound in what would be prime real estate if the railroad tracks didn’t run there. It gave me a view of a part of the region that I had never seen before. Finally, we arrived in Seattle, creaking our way through a tunnel before arriving at the King Street Station, which I officially designate as the armpit of Seattle, the status of which may change pending future renovation. Tired, I detrained and wheeled my suitcase 0.7 miles to the ferry terminal, so I could take the last leg of the journey home on a ferry across Puget Sound to Bremerton.

Would I take Amtrak again? Absolutely! This is a civilized way to travel, on a human time scale, that is more energy efficient by far than planes and cars and is kinder to our sense of time (with no jet lag!!!!). The seats are comfortable, and the quiet time without the constant distractions (for me) of radio and television and the internet gave me many hours of quiet work and reflection and observation. The Amtrak attendant for our car was new in her job and couldn’t have been any nicer to all of us. I made friends with two people, Dave and Wyn, and gave them my contact information. What more could you wish for on a trip with total strangers?

The trip was also inherently beautiful, an unwinding mural of the great American landscape, from the lush midwestern farms and decaying rust belt cities, to the endless prairies with big skies, to the towering Rocky Mountains, to the dark fir forests of the Cascades, to quiet Puget Sound with hardly a ripple on this pleasant summer afternoon. All this made for a stunning trip loved by most everyone on board.

The journey succeeded in another way. It salved my soul a bit, after the death of my mother, with the gift of time and quiet and the fleeting friendship of fellow travelers.

We reach the shore of Puget Sound north of Seattle

A note about the photography: I played with the camera a lot during this journey in order to give a poetic and impressionistic feeling for the passing landscape. I overcame the challenges of dirty windows and sun glaring in and high rail speeds using long exposures and quick grab shots. There are no second chances for photos at track speed, so I had to use all my accumulated skills to get these photos. And I came away pleased.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

SEATTLE ARBORETUM: Wild Things

March 10, 2011

Male Gadwall in a small arboretum pond

I came to the Washington Park Arboretum to photograph colorful garden flowers; alas, spring seems to be a bit late this year, so I spent most of my early March afternoon photographing wild visitors to the park.

Today was a birdy day, with a knot of half-a-dozen Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Brown Creeper, and lots of Black-Capped Chickadees.  Robins were doing unmentionable things deep in a flowering forsythia. A pair of Gadwalls fed on a tiny pond and didn’t seem to mind that strange photographer laying on the ground and pointing a lens at them.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, a tiny bird constantly in motion, pauses a split second for a portrait

Mosses were lush and feathery to the touch on this spring day. A few people were happily walking dogs, jogging, identifying birds, and taking pictures. As a counterpoint, in thick brush I happened upon a grief-stricken informal memorial to a child from an anguished parent. It reminded me of a passage from a Dave Mathews song:

Lying in the park on a beautiful day

Sunshine in the grass, and the children play

Sirens passing, fire engine red

Someone’s house is burning down on a day like this”

The good and bad, happy and sad, swirl around us in a cloud of molecules and electrical impulses every day as we go about our lives.

A parent’s sad memorial to a son. Among other touching words, the driftwood sticks are inscribed “In Memory: My son and best friend … You beat us there, but we’ll meet you there … We love you.”

Woman walking with her dog on a beautiful spring day

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), a native shrub, lights up the March woods with its candle-like flowers

Extreme closeup of beautiful moss; I have never had training in moss identification, so I don’t have a clue as to the species

The graceful base of a huge old rhododendron

Water play, or so it looked to me

Female swimming among beautiful reflections

Adult female Gadwall with an orange bill. The female was more actively feeding than the male–within about four feet of me at times. She would sit in one place on the water, vigorously “paddling” downward with her legs, causing her to rock rapidly back and forth. Then she would “tip up” to feed, with tail stuck into the air. I believe her rapid leg motion helped to stir up matted aquatic plants so that she could more easily harvest them when she stuck her head underwater, but it is also possible that she was after aquatic insects. The male Gadwall kept a wary eye on me as I watched the female feeding.

I had always thought of male Gadwalls as rather plain ducks–especially in comparison to Wood Ducks–but the barred feathers have an understated elegance of design up close

The shape of a Gadwall’s head is interesting, with the fat cheeks and narrow head

In case you hadn’t guessed, I love photographing ducks from a low angle, though it gets increasingly difficult to haul myself up from the cramped position when I’m finished

Beautiful and subtle colors and patterns adorn the male in breeding plumage

Cone and needles of a Weeping White Pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’)

A male Ruby-Crowned Kinglet showing a bit of its scarlet crest, which is often hidden

Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on a fallen log

Patch of moss growing on the bark of a fallen log

I have posted several previous blogs about the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.  Go to:

Azaleas in SeattlePretty in Pink, Spring in Seattle, and Monet in Seattle’s Arboretum.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. I also have some inexpensive, smaller pieces for sale at an Etsy Website.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.


MICHIGAN AMISH: A Timeless Way of Life

January 5, 2011

Stopping by a farm on a snowy morning

Imagine rural America as it was in the late autumn of 1875. Horse-drawn buggies pass by, the drivers greeting passers-by with a wave. Children play in the snow outside a one-room schoolhouse. Farmers are out on the pond, cutting ice to put away for the distant summer. Eggs and quilts are for sale at a roadside farm. Men pitch in to build a new house for one that burned down …

Except it is not 1875: it is 2010, in a pastoral landscape in central Michigan where scores of Amish farms and families have established a community during the past 25 years. This is the area where my mother lives, though she is not Amish. I remember when the first families arrived and bought some old and tired farms; my mother was talking to a man who had experienced the Amish arriving in other areas, and he said something to the effect of “You are going to experience a wonderful renaissance here, as the Amish bring the worn-out soil back to life.” He was right, and I’ve watched through the years as the numbers of Amish rose and the landscape came back to life.

My photographs here were all taken on several brief late autumn and early winter drives through the Amish landscape, so they comprise just a snapshot of a different way of life. I wish I could spend time getting to know these people, but I live half a continent away and it isn’t easy to strike up a conversation between buggy and Buick.

While there, I watched three different Amish wagons, drawn by draft horses, coming across the fields from unseen ponds, each carrying a shiny load of freshly cut ice. The blocks of ice were perhaps 8″ thick, reflecting a long and cold December, and they had the slight blue-green tint hinting at their pond origin. I watched one pair of men putting the blocks into an insulated shed using big, steel ice tongs.

This brings me back to a childhood memory of my family buying ice during a circa 1960 camping trip in the Upper Peninsula. Along the waterfront in Copper Harbor, on the Keweenaw Peninsula which juts jauntily into Lake Superior, there was an old-timer selling his ice from an insulated shed. He hauled it out with tongs, and rinsed off the insulating layer of sawdust by dunking the block in a galvanized tub of lake water. My dad then put the block in our green Coleman ice chest to take back to the campground at Fort Wilkins State Park. That kind of experience has pretty much vanished in 21st century America.

Stacks of cornstalks enduring a November snowstorm

When I toured the Amish landscape on a Monday, nearly every farmer’s wife had set out her wash to dry in the sub-freezing winds. Some had lines strung up on the farmhouse porch; others had lines in the yard, where blue denim overalls shared the breeze with colorful quilts.

Signs in front of the old white farmhouses proclaim what is for sale, usually with the disclaimer “No Sunday Sales.” Some will be selling brown eggs and honey; others might have quilts or deer blinds or maple syrup or freshly-baked pies. The families make plenty of time for these enterprises; after all, there aren’t umpteen hours of television per day, or 300 tweets per day, or email, or shopping for the latest fashions. These people live off the electric grid. In fact, should catastrophe hit America, we will be looking to the Amish to see what we can emulate from their self-sufficient way of life.

While driving one gravel road, I came upon a big wagon with two draft horses parked in one lane of the narrow road. Two Amish men were cutting firewood from roadside trees and loading it on the wagon. Their dog sat looking at me

A cow grazes among the cornstalks of an Amish farm, cleaning up the cornfield and fertilizing it at the same time; the red barn in the distance is probably not Amish unless recently acquired, since the Amish paint their barns white

from the other lane, blocking it, so I waited patiently for one of the men to see why I was parked there. He realized that the dog was in the way and called it. He laughed; I laughed; and we had a moment of human connection.

I saw three one-room schoolhouses in the area. Through the windows of one, I could see children praying. Later, I saw about ten children, clad entirely in black, playing in the white snow during recess outside another schoolhouse. Amish children clearly enjoy their snowball fights!

An Amish one-room schoolhouse after the children have left for the day

Had it been late spring, I would have seen the Amish children walking to school in their traditional clothes, complete with straw hats. Amish men also wear straw hats, and Amish women wear long dresses, even while working in their beautiful gardens. The ladies wear hair coverings in the summer and black bonnets in the winter. Many Amish go barefoot in warm weather.

On this trip I saw the spread of sawmills among the Amish–at least a half-dozen farms had associated sawmills. This is a good fit for the Amish, because many of the farms have woodlots where the farmers can take a sustainable harvest of hardwood oaks and maples. One woodlot was set up as a sugarbush, where each March the farmer would tap the Sugar Maples, collect the sap, and boil off the excess water to make one of the most flavorful products on earth–maple syrup.

As I sit here at my computer typing this story, I realize one of the aspects of Amish life that I envy: the Amish men spend their lives outdoors doing hard physical work. They plow fields, stack corn, milk cows, split firewood, and accomplish all the other necessary chores around a farm. These men stay in great shape from their work, while I have to jog mindlessly along a road or work out on a fitness machine as a necessary counterpoint to my digital life. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs … or would I? Probably not.

Amish farmers stack their cornstalks in the field in this distinctive manner, creating a series of pyramids through the cornfield

The Amish life would work for many, but for me the rules of the religion would be something of a straightjacket. Creative expression does not often blend well with fundamentalism.  So here I am, living an imperfect life, but one that allows me as much flexibility and creativity as I can muster. And there they are, living satisfying lives in the shelter of a like-minded community. We are essentially different, and I love this diversity of lives that America encourages.

Horses are a daily part of Amish life; they plow the fields and pull the buggies and assist in much of the other work around these farms that harken back to an earlier time

Stacks of cornstalks after a snowstorm

Amish horses grazing in a cornfield

Buggies share the road with cars; the warning triangles on the backs of the buggies were a reluctant concession to safety

Cornstalks bending away from the wind-borne snow


To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

For another of my weblogs celebrating the rural traditions of America, go to https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/cades-cove-app…the-past-tense/


THE DUMPSTER CHILDREN: Please Help Me Before it’s too Late!

April 20, 2010


I’m a BIG fuzzy teddy bear who loves everyone. But my family got tired of me and Daddy threw me into this big dumpster. Now I’m scared. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but Mommy and Daddy and Olivia and Joshua decided that there was no room for me in the tiny apartment, and little Olivia started playing with her Bratz dolls and stopped talking to me and didn’t want to cuddle with me at night. I was so sad because I always liked cuddling with her and Josh when they were little. Now they don’t like me any more.

Then one night Daddy came home and was playing heavy metal music so loud that it vibrated Josh’s Lego Starfighter right off the dresser and it crashed into the floor and broke in a billion pieces and Daddy came into the room barefoot and did a dance of pain ’cause he stepped on the Lego pieces. Then he fell down on the bed and broke the bed with a loud crack that hurt my ears and then said some words that I can’t tell you here. I think he got mad ’cause he had been drinking beer. Then he passed out on the bed and when he woke up, he took me and Cinderella out the door and dumped me into the dumpster among pizza boxes and cans and common garbage.  He left Cinderella behind the dumpster and she was sad too.

But the saddest thing is that Olivia and Josh didn’t really care. I hope that somebody finds me soon, because all I want in life is to have a family that loves me. Please adopt me before it’s too late! Oh, no: I hear a big green truck coming. It’s getting louder and louder … !

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Sacred Ground: The Flight 93 National Memorial

April 16, 2009

2007_pa_0113Mennonite women viewing the folk art angels commemorating the souls who died in the Flight 93 crash. The actual crash site is in the far distance on the right in this scene. You might be able to see the distant flag.

 

Rare shared moments in our lives are seared into our brains.  On September 11, 2001, I awoke on a warm late summer morning to the voice of Carl Kasell on NPR, saying there were reports that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.  Almost immediately came reports of a second plane hitting the other tower, and all hell broke loose.  Our lives were never to be quite the same again. 

Six years on, I was in Washington D.C. on September 11.  Leaving town, I drove north into Pennsylvania toward Pittsburgh; somewhere along the  road, it struck me that I must be following roughly the path that the fourth plane hijacked by the terrorists would have taken toward Washington D.C., only in reverse. I stopped, looked at a map, and determined that I could stop for a day at the field where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into the ground, ending the lives of all aboard.

I drove through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside that day, enjoying the touches of autumn, covered bridges, pastoral farms, and small towns that have remained much the same for decades. Near Shanksville, I followed signs to the Flight 93 site.  When I arrived, there were a few scattered cars and Harleys, as well as a tour bus filled with Mennonite men and women on an outing.  The place was quiet, except for the American flags flapping in the brisk and chill wind.

2007_pa_0118Mennonite ladies pause to view a collage of heartfelt tributes to the heroic passengers and crew of Flight 93.

Every American alive on 9/11 knows the stories of that day, but it was with a sense of awe, wonder, and sorrow that I relived the tragedy and heroism of that day in this sacred place.  Flight 93 was heading for San Francisco from Newark.  It got a late start, but the flight looked smooth on this beautiful day for the seven members of the flight crew and 37 passengers. Over Ohio, 2007_pa_0094the four hijackers made their move in the first class cabin.  They incapacitated the pilots, took control of the plane, and turned back toward Washington D.C.  By this time the passengers, talking on cell phones to family and friends, learned that three planes had already hit their targets and their plane was to be the fourth.  They probably didn’t know it, but the target was to be the White House or the Capitol Building.

From their cell phone conversations, we know that the passengers voted to try and retake the plane.  Todd Beamer has become the most famous of a group of men who hatched a plan and launched a counterattack.  The black box recording of the cockpit provided evidence that the counterattack was effective in thwarting the plans of Al Qaeda; the terrorist pilot ended up diving the plane straight into a reclaimed strip mine field at over 500 miles per hour.  2007_pa_0067Everyone died instantly.  You can review the events of the flight at http://www.nps.gov/flni

We know there were heroes that day, and when I stood on that sacred ground I could feel that heroism in my very bones.  Spirits inhabit the place and every visitor is quiet and reverential.  Few places evoke so many quiet tears.

Visiting Americans have left thousands of remembrances: crosses, flags, notes of admiration, motorcycle club patches,firefighter memorabilia, and so many other items are collected on a memorial wall.  Volunteers from the area provide heartfelt interpretation of the events of that day.

2007_pa_0127A reverential biker views the names of the passengers and crew.

Visitors are not allowed on the actual crash site; that is reserved for family members of the crew and passengers.  The crash site is visible from the hill where the memorial is located.  As of this 2009 writing, there is a temporary memorial; soon there will be a permanent memorial building and exhibits run by the National Park Service.  The website I linked to above has extensive information and graphics concerning the design of the permanent memorial, which will be a reverential reminder of the events of the fateful day.  In addition, there is a website where you can learn about donating to the memorial, and get another narrative of the events of the day.  Go to: http://www.honorflight93.org/

2007_pa_0107Items donated by visitors decorate the 40′ tribute wall.

I came away with a sense of pride that Americans had the courage to take the course of events into their own hands that day.  It is among our proudest moments as a nation.

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

 

December 4, 2008 Childhood’s End

December 4, 2008

When I was a child, playground equipment was simple:  swings, slide, teeter-totter, and merry-go-round.  Like most little boys, I played hard on this basic equipment, swinging higher and pushing the merry-go-round so fast that I nearly got sick.

Fast forward half-a-century.  I now travel with my cameras, seeking emotional connections with the landscapes, small towns, and natural details of America.  When I saw this playground in the forest, I was camping at Pike State Forest in Indiana and using a bit of electricity in the picnic shelter to power my computer.  Then the idea struck me that this old and well-used playground equipment behind the shelter would make a fine subject for infrared photography.  So I got out my old Pentax 6×7, loaded the black-and-white infrared film in a dark corner of the shelter, and set out with my hand-held light meter and B+W 092 filter to get some evocative images.

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Infrared film is tricky to expose, because the film sees a different part of the spectrum than our eyes.  With the filter on the camera, exposures are measured in seconds, rather than a fraction of a second, so a tripod is essential.  Infrared light focuses at a different point than visible light, so one hard-for-me-to-remember step in taking each photograph is to change the focus.  Basically, I compose the image in focus, then screw on the extremely dark red filter, then turn the focus on the lens to a little red mark that indicates the point for infrared focus.  Then I set the shutter to B, cock the camera, then trip it with a cable release, counting one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, etc. until I want to end the exposure.  The three pictures shown here were exposed about 10 to 20 seconds each in morning light, and I made several longer and shorter exposures for each image so that I could be sure to get what I was hoping for.  Film infrared photography is a slow and deliberate procedure that harkens back to the era when everything about photography was slow and deliberate.  It takes patience and is among the few things in life I have patience for.

Once the negatives were processed and the contact sheets made, I scanned the best negative of each piece of playground equipment and printed it.

Black-and-white infrared pictures render foliage in ethereal shades of light gray and white, which gives the photographs a mystical quality.  And what could be better for looking back through the mists of time to our childhood experiences?

bw48swings

 

bw47teeter

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

August 15, 2008 Reading a Photograph

August 16, 2008

Most of my photographs are straightforward views of landscapes, wildlife, small towns, or whatever else catches my eye.  I love taking these pictures; they are part of a long tradition of photographers seeking out the best light and working with finely tuned technical skills.  Sometimes, however, my work takes a step beyond, to where the subject and intent can be “read” by the eye in several ways.  Here are a few examples, using the names I gave each picture.

 

AMERICAN ICON 1: Log Cabin

While photographing an old cemetery in central Pennsylvania, I was first interested in the 200-year-old shale gravestones and took several pictures portraying the fascinating hand-carved shapes of these memorials.  Then I photographed several gravestones with the log cabin as a background. Then the cabin’s windows caught my eye and I took a few detail photographs showing the combination of logs, chinking, and windows.  Then it struck me like a thunderclap:  the flag icon was right there in front of me.  At that point the adrenalin started pumping and I took one of the best pictures of my life.  Your eyes can read it either as a log cabin or as an American flag:  either way, it is a strong and iconic symbol of American life.

 

We Are As Spirits

While visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I carried only a pocket film camera, hoping perhaps to get a few snapshots.  I didn’t use it much, but when I entered the chamber where these people were standing, mesmerized, in front of a giant tank with tuna and sharks and other huge creatures, it cried out for a photograph.  I loved the blue light and the human forms, so I stood back and took a dozen or so pictures, with exposures ranging from about 1/4 second to 1/2 second, hand-held.  For the first picture, I had left the flash on by accident, and it turned out that this picture was the best because of the ambiguous shapes the flash reflection added to the dark human forms.*  Most people realize that this is an aquarium picture, but when I view it–even knowing exactly what it is–I see spirits living among us.  Others see it as humans lined up during a UFO appearance.  Whatever the interpretation, it is ambiguous enough that it invites repeated viewings.

*So often, mistakes in photography are useful, because they can lead to a whole new interpretation of an image.  Perhaps it says something about my photographic skills, but I make plenty of mistakes–and end up liking some of them.  

 

LAYERS 3: A Parallel World

While photographing the interior of a ghost town building in Bannack State Park, Montana, I found some of the small details fascinating–such as these crackled paint layers on a wall.  It wasn’t until I looked at the slide on the light table that I realized that this photograph looked like a map, but not a map of any world that we know.  It could well be a parallel world, and it reminds me for all the world of the colored maps on the classroom walls of my youth.

 

When Rocks Dream

While visiting Joshua Tree National Park, I took lots of beautiful pictures of the Biblical-looking Joshua Trees, lizards, desert tortoises, and granite cliffs dangling climbers.  But when I came upon this formation, I actually laughed out loud at the Mojave Desert’s dry humor.  The rock was about life-sized and the lighting was “just right” for my formal portrait.

At a recent art show I found myself seriously explaining to a nine-year-old boy about how some pictures could be understood in several different ways at the same time.  I pointed out the log cabin and aquarium pictures and how they could simultaneously mean different things.  I’m not a teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I was getting through to him.  But then he smiled and pointed at my rock photograph and said “like that picture.”  Yes, he indeed got it!

 

For more examples of my work, visit my web site at LeeRentz.com


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