Ten years ago, sometime around 7:30 in the morning in the U.S. central time zone, I was standing in front of three cubic yards of smoldering, smelly, beautiful mulch. Partially decomposed compost. I was crumbling it between my fingers, admiring its texture, taking in the aroma, looking inside my gate and making plans.
About ten minutes before the hour, a figure emerged from my house, interrupting my reverie. A plane had crashed into the tallest building in Manhattan's skyline. Being trained in the realms of context, skepticism, and history, I deflated the messenger. "It's happened before," I said. "Empire State building. A plane crashed into it. It's still there. Let's see what we learn as the day goes on."
I took a not entirely pleasant but entirely pleasing sniff of the semi-rotted matter, and resumed making plans.
Once again, just after the hour, a figure appeared coming from the house. Another plane, another tower. Skeptical head gave way to a two headed hydra of "oh, this is a story" and "oh, sh#t."
Plans gave way to planes. Which kept coming. The Pentagon. A Pennsylvania field.
Late in the afternoon, it seemed that perhaps it was the end of the planes. I walked back to my compost. An eerie silence. For I lived under an O'Hare flight path. The sound of airplanes, though distant, was constantly woven into the ambient noise of our yard. Suddenly, nothing but birds.
For days, nothing but birds, and the heart thumping occasional sound of a fighter jet.
Eventually, planes came back to the air.
And plans came back to my conscious.
Ten years later
I went walking through the park last night. The moon was almost full, so there was some light. That odd creeping light, that somehow combines the effect of turning on a focused highlight beam with the diffused light of a gentle flood, a peculiar light that is generally visible but most evident when it lands upon vertical objects.
So while you know where expanses of nothing are in a way you can't during a new moon, what really stands out are the edges of things that are there.
You do it, but differently, navigating in the dark. With even a minimal amount of light, you still try to lead with what your eyes discern, but other senses are heightened. When applied in familiar landscapes, internal blueprints get accessed. Whether it is your kitchen...a closet you organized...memories of your grandparents' house...a frequently traveled park...if you know it, both mental maps and tactile memories fill missing spaces in the visual data.
When you enter familiar terrain, you make assumptions.
When you round a familiar bend in the path, in the dark, you expect things. On a moonlit night in September of 2011, you expect the unmistakable silhouettes of two impossibly large willow trees. Your mind starts to put them into place, even as your eyes send the true but impossible message "One. Just one, on your right."
You are aware of the moments of cognitive processing as the brain adjusts, realigning expectations and current data inputs. You can almost anticipate the gasp you utter, the search to understand, the understanding.
A behemoth is gone.
I had made a plan to document these trees. Willows have been part of the fabric of my life for as long as I could remember. I swung both on and from a willow in my grandparents' yard. A willow is the first tree silhouette I learned to identify. Willows signified the presence water, always something I liked knowing I was near. These two willows, the most recent in my life, were preposterously large. Willow trees only lived this long in prehistory and Harry Potter. I grew to feel their presence on my walks and cross-country ski runs as nearly sentient. The one on the right had taken some severe blows over the years I've lived here, and it occurred to me last fall that it probably wasn't long for this world. I wanted to do something. In a way, these two trees were what prompted me to finally re-integrate photo habits into my life.
Coming out of the slight curve in the path, taking it all in during one of those time slows down moments, hearing course through my head the sound of chain saws that I had filtered out, away, because that always sounds like trauma and tragedy to me and I know I can overreact to things tree so I try to just look away, turn away...with those sounds, and knowing the outcome even as I had to watch my brain process the data, my first instinct was to pull out my camera. A fitting memoriam. But I didn't have it. I did have my camera phone. It registered this:
Which was apt.
I came back the next morning, with a camera. And set about attempting to document the aftermath, full of sorrow for not being there when the humans and the machines were in the process of taking it down.
Thus began a whole lot of "fail." But I kept at it, knowing that going through the motions was, just as were my repeated picture "takings" the night before, more a ritual for me, and a chance to murmur "sorry" over and over in my head.
This picture was one of the attempts to reflect the "missing mate." It failed. You can't see/feel the mass or girth of that trunk. I am between 5'6" and 5'7" -- prone, the height of that trunk is well up my chest, nearly to my shoulder.
Here is that piece from the side. With my travel mug for scale. Better, and yet, when I go in that close, the enormity is somehow lost. Yet again, if I pull back...
...it loses drama. And reverence.
So I keep going at it. It doesn't matter so much that I know I will fail at my assignment. Though, to be sure, that stings. I keep going at it, because the ritual helps me, and because I think there is a chance, that I might get it. And even if not, maybe the attempt will make me better. Eventually.
The more I try, the more I fail. But I take the time to mark, nonetheless.
Surrounding the site of absence, other images, somehow easier to take.
September 11, 2011
all images the author's own