Until I moved to Philadelphia, I had spent most of my adult life in close proximity to the water. After a childhood spent on a rural farm, I was used to open fields enclosed on all sides by mountains and forests. A heavy snowfall in the early winter would leave us trapped for weeks on the farm, unable to get out of the mounds of wet snow that barricaded us from leaving the mile-long driveway. The magic of cancelled school and igloo building and snow angels and hot chocolate was short-lived, and my siblings and I would develop cabin fever after a few short days (sometimes after a few short hours, if our home had lost power). While I value my childhood experiences and cannot seem to shake a desire for a rural lifestyle (in the far off future, of course), I think that perhaps my adventures in this landscape led to a comfortable claustrophobia: while my surroundings could never be considered the physically tight spaces that lead to irrational fears, I felt confined to them, by them.
At 18, I moved away to attend a small waterfront college on the St. Mary’s River in southern Maryland. The water quickly became an inescapable part of my daily routine. I learned to sail early and quickly and spent my afternoons skipping classes to be on the water. My weekends were full of offshore races and cruises on the river that lasted from late morning until the sun began to set. On the weekdays, my housemates and I would wake at 5 am for crew practices to be on the river before the sunrise. There is something profoundly beautiful and indescribable about waking before the rest of the world does; about stepping into cold murky water before your eyes have even fully opened; about the repetition of raising and lowering the oar in the water until it becomes so ingrained in the memory of your muscles that it is a meditation. There is a strange sense of peace experienced after the body is so physically exhausted and the shell is still miles from the dock that there is nothing left to do but continue this meditation.
Sometimes, near the end of the fall season when the air began to get crisper and waking early became even more and more difficult, the fog would lie so low on the water that its reflection in the still river seemed to become that which it reflected, and we would row blindly into the darkness; into a surreal sense of an upside down world. These were my favorite mornings, when we had to rely solely on our knowledge of the river’s shape, its twists and turns and shorelines and typography, to guide us. Our only sense of direction came from a flashing light on a coast guard beacon to the south, and from the glow of the light pollution from DC to the north.
I often think of these mornings, especially when I remember places as I have experienced them, and not perhaps as how a photograph would depict them. I spent several more years after college calling the St. Mary’s River my home. In every place that I have lived in the better part of the past decade, my front door has been steps from the river. It is comforting to know the tides and patterns of the shoreline; to collect the sea glass and the driftwood from the beach in your front yard; a present that the landscape delivers to you and no one else. It is encouraging to find the mangled ropes and tattered painted buoys of the fishermen and crab pots tangled in the fallen trees where the river meets the creek: a testament that the river always wins. It is liberating to know that within moments, you can climb into a boat and be down the river, drifting with the wind, gazing into it the murky underwater depths.
I realize now that in all of these places that I called home, it is the landscape I remember more so than the buildings in which I lived. They were beautiful, unassuming places: the first, a loft in an old sheep barn on an eighteenth century plantation called Mulberry Fields; the last, a nineteenth century dormitory for workers at a tomato-canning factory that had been converted into a house for old Captain Clarence and his wife Gerty in the 1930s. I recall spending hours with my neighbors at Mulberry Fields in my loft, drinking red wine late into the night and cooking elaborate dinners in a tiny galley kitchen, the river always visible from my windows. At Captain Clarence’s house, I would drink my coffee early each morning on the porch, watching the sunrise over the docks as the day began to stir. Yet I do not have a single photograph of these places. Of the landscapes and the hours spent in it, yes. But not of the places I inhabited, of the peeling paint or the old appliances, or the dusty bookshelves and collections of shells on my windowsills. I don’t have a single image to remind me of the way things looked in the special places that I have lived so many moments of my life. I am left to remembering them in the way I experienced them; to describing them in words rather than in pictures.
I have contemplated on this recently, on the lack of pictures I have taken of the buildings in which I have lived and experienced most of my early adulthood. While I doubt that I will ever truly understand this, I think that a part of my hesitancy to photograph my built surroundings is that I wish to remember them through the way I understood them as places, not as framed through the lens of my camera. Susan Sontag once wrote, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” I have never wished to participate in capturing the mortality of places. To photograph them would be an acceptance that they are dying, decaying things that shaped who I am and how I experience the world. I have accepted the landscape as memento mori in its own right; by nature, it reminds us daily of change. But to photograph places that were mine for a short moment seems an imposing task, and one that requires an acceptance of my own human mutability.