My April Photo of the Month is SNT43, taken under the Highway 52 Bridge over the San Diego River in Santee, California.
SNT43 and the Intersection of Progress and Nature
Growing up, I loved maps, cities, structures, and freeways. As an adult, I find the intersection between nature and modernity to be interesting and thought-provoking. SNT43 chronicles something people take for granted during their rush hour commutes. What’s under that bridge you are crossing?
Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of cars crossed these spans every day. Should that be? There are plans to expand this freeway, meaning the trees you see will be ripped out and replanted. If the spans are super-wide or merged into one super-bridge, how much grows back? How does that change the watershed? Is this what we want?
We are now breathing the cleanest outdoor air of our lives. Wildlife is showing up everywhere in our local, State, and National Parks that have been scared away (or worse) during the last century. If not for the stay-at-home order, this would be the perfect time to do astrophotography. Have you noticed the lack of contrail clouds too? Those have always messed up my landscapes and yet they’re out of the way, specifically because we’re in isolation.
One change affects another. The retreat of humanity is probably weeks to months from ending. Nature has roared back, as it should. That vitality we are seeing from wildlife is encouraging, but I suspect the “comeback” of human activity is going to do away all of their progress (and then some).
I managed to not get gas in the month of April, and I still have 170 miles left in my gas tank. That hasn’t happened since I first got my driver’s license. I miss nature, and being outdoors, and that requires travel. I too will be part of the problem.
I Will Show You Fear In A Handful Of Dust
“April is the cruelest month…”
The opening line from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (my personal favorite poem of all time) has never been so relevant. Eliot wrote this section as a satire of Chaucer’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales. Eliot dispenses with the idea that Spring brings life and abundance. What if the supposed riches of Spring are bad, and the hardiness it takes to get through Winter is actually preferable? Is it great to see the tubers grow, only to die during the Summer? What if Spring is a bad thing disguised as a good thing? It’s great satire, it’s something to reflect on, and Spring coincidentally hasn’t been great this year.
T.S. Eliot wrote this poem in 1922 not long after the Spanish Flu epidemic. This section of the poem is even called….The Burial of the Dead. Spring 2020 would seem to agree with Eliot. Sometimes, life imitates art.
“Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow…”
Humanity has forgotten our history. Even on the Tides of History podcast I listen to, it’s easy to listen to pandemics and plagues that killed millions in the past as something that happened only to our ancestors. But there have been warnings that we can’t permanently escape these epidemics.
The original SARS and the 2009 Swine Flu epidemic had all the potential to create what is happening now. Advanced medicine has indeed saved millions of lives in the last few centuries. We did successfully reduce the number of these endemic diseases. But this is now our 2nd pandemic in the last 11 years. HIV/AIDS is still a pandemic. There have been other epidemics since 2003 that carried pandemic potential. The way we live, act, travel, and interact is making all of this possible. And there are new influenza strains, and plenty more coronaviruses out there.
“And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
I don’t think too many people would argue that the Vietnam War and the protests that resulted were the biggest cultural event of the United States in the 20th century. This week, the United States lost more people to COVID-19 than the entire Vietnam War. Consider that for a moment when somebody minimizes what is going on right now.
This has been a cruel month. April, is indeed, the cruelest month.
SNT43 Background – Compositions and Lousy People
SNT43 comes from my one and only photographic trip in April. I do like bridges, and I have always wanted to get more images of the San Diego River watershed. In this area, Highway 52 has two long sections that cross the river wetlands where the cities of San Diego and Santee meet.
My first thought was a wide angle or a panoramic photograph, but the thing with ultra-wide angle images is that they really distort at the edges. It was too much distortion from my vantage-point with the vertical columns (called bents). I also had some additional problems in the wetlands themselves. From the West Hills Blvd bridge, the foreground had evidence of a homeless encampment, graffiti, and a lot of trash.
The angle I chose was informed by those issues, and a desire to build a contrast with the weather above. I didn’t have time or social space to come back over and over, so SNT43 was the result.
Bike Lanes Are Great When They’re Used
When I was leaving, I packed up my gear to get to my car parked on an adjoining street. Walking the sidewalk, I could hear people speaking loudly, saying stuff like, “Look out, bikes coming.” I thought about confronting them. It was a husband and wife, and of course they were playing loud music on their stupid bikes. But I also didn’t think it was worth it during a time we are supposed to be staying away. I stood on some dirt off the side walk as they passed, conspicuously not looking in order to give them no indication I was moving of my own free will. The lady then said, “Thank you sir,” and I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating that was.
A jogger down 100 yards did not react like me. She got in their way on purpose and really let them have it. She did point out the really nice (and newly painted) Bike Lane on the street, and how it would be nice if they actually used it. The husband appeared to reply with profanity in return. What a strange headspace to be in, yelling in triumph at somebody, even though you are completely wrong.
SNT43 was the result of all this dissonance. Beautiful clouds, some sense of human triumph over it’s environment, and human destruction of that environment and their peers.
Living The COVID-19 Blues
My photography in 2020 has been about as unproductive as it gets. Through 4 months, I’ve made a total of 333 images. I am on pace to make fewer than 1,000 images in a year for the first time since 2003. It feels more of a crisis than it should be, but since we are on our 7th week of house arrest, everything is an anxiety-ridden crisis. Cabin fever is real.
My refrigerator is empty, so much that I made it the photo for my Photo Club’s April 2020 Photo Quest.
As I have told people who have checked in, I have a job, I have a place to live, and I have a car. I am doing better than many people, perhaps millions of people.
But anxiety is ruling my life right now. What’s in store for the future? What problems are coming? How will I overcome them? Will I be able to?
I have started to work more on some of my older pursuits, like drawing and creative writing. It feels like I am tapping into a different person and a different universe picking those old habits up again.
I may come out of this less a photographer and more….something else.
Music Soothes The Soul
Tomorrow, Bandcamp (the best place to buy music) is waiving their revenue share for 24 hours. Artist musicians, who aren’t paid well to begin with, are feeling this crisis more than those of us with office jobs where we can work remotely.
The pricing is good, often Pay What You Want, and you can play your purchased tracks through the Bandcamp App or download the music in every format imaginable. Streaming sucks. The music is ultra-compressed and the artists are compensated terribly. I am sharing a few recent tracks I have enjoyed recently (and purchased), and maybe you can find something you like there as well.
As always, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the image.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.