Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Little Touch of Christmas

            Everyone’s writing about Christmas now.  Stories, impressions, even sayings for Christmas cards. 
            But any Christmas-related narrative is difficult for a writer.  It’s hard to say anything new.  Not only is the Christmas Carol redone endlessly, but its basic lesson and story-arc are copied, then disguised, to make other commercial stories. The miracle transformation, the grump who finds love, the “spirit of Christmas” working out complications like a theatric fate maneuvering behind the curtains—such clichés, and their preachiness and inevitable cuteness, are just too easy to imitate.
            Usually my favorite Christmas stories are ironic and often ambiguous, like the Donald Duck tales penned by Carl Barks, “A Christmas for Shacktown” or “You Can’t Guess,” which are justly famous among comics fans.  They depict a time of late 40s/early 50s simplicity, but the materialism doesn’t vanish even when tempered by kindness.  And this mix of greed with Christmas cheer made the stories surprisingly humane and often timeless.  (Indeed, the Barks Uncle Scrooge stories I knew as a kid seemed a lot more understanding of human behavior—even though the characters were supposed to be ducks—than the superhero comics of that time.) 
            Outdoing Barks is hard, though, and even writing Christmas sayings for greeting cards, which seems easy at first, is also demanding—card companies know how clipped, precise, and audience-focused the writing needs to be.  These are the same requirements for all good writing, so we should not be too quick to say it’s simple. 
            The most prevalent statements, however, whether in editorials, sound-bites, on-camera interviews, contemporary sermons catering to crowds, and blogs, are on “What Christmas Means to Me.”  This portentous title could breed instant dismay and pain (in some of us, anyhow), so let me say immediately I’ll try to avoid all things religious, cute, moral, ethical, commercial, nostalgic (well, some of that creeps in), or the supposed ponderings of three wise men, puppy-like reindeer pulling a 19th century Grandpa, or even family good-cheer togetherness around a filling if fattening meal—though this last I really do enjoy. 
            Instead, my comments will be strictly sensory.  No emotion, no intellect, except perhaps in your own reaction.  (If anyone says, “Aww, that’s so sweet,” remember that’s your response, not mine.)  And before all this qualifying goes too far, let’s get to the point: 
            What I most associate with Christmas is darkness. 
            That’s no surprise.  It’s the middle of winter, after all, when nights are longest.  If you step outside, the chances are greater it will be at night than in the day.  And it’s usually cold.  Not always, of course, and we seem to carry memories of childhood or past winters that—we claim—were so much colder or deeper in snow than the ones now.  But we make into “story” even our memories, so I don’t trust such impressions, and global warming shouldn’t be working that fast.  Still, images of cold and darkness predominate.  For all the supposed festivity of the holiday, the first associations that surface seem grim:  night, darkness, cold, stillness (the last predictable—everyone’s indoors trying to keep warm and stay near the lamplight). 
           But along with the darkness comes the relief of little gleams centered in it all, lights in the night, small glows in a big dark. 
            You can see this easily in all the mythology/legendry/theology of Christmas:  the Christmas star (indicating hope at the darkest time of year), holly as one thing that grows in winter, the lone candle in a snow-touched window, the aurora above the night-shrouded toyshops at the North Pole, the red-and-green of Christmas-train signal lights, the star on top of the tree, and all Christmas lights themselves—not big spotlights to remove the darkness, not stadium lighting to bomb out the night, but just small gleams meant to shine and call attention to light itself, not to illuminate.  Like stars.  Never mind your nextdoor neighbor who’s a Christmas fanatic and makes his house into a circus—all those multi-colored twinklers still don’t shed much overall light.  I’m sure there are houses where if you stand in the yard and don’t get electrocuted you’ll find enough light to read by.  But Christmas trees are still not the best reading lamps.  It’s a kinder light, a decorative light, yet still restoring.  You can look into it without being blinded.  Your retinas are caressed instead of burned.  Even when floodlights are used (as in illuminating housefronts with that not-very-subtle “look at me” tone), they’re soft, muted, often colored, as much intensifying the darkness as breaking it.  And the North Pole aurora reminds us of wonder, not kilowatts. 
            My personal favorite is a night-time forest or wooded area, touched with snow so that the grounds aren’t too dark and threatening, where the trunks and limbs are defined in glow-worm sheaths of colored lights.  These accentuate the dark, make it glisten without eliminating it, make it comfy while retaining its depth.  Like all the “drive-thru” Christmas areas we have now, whether carefully engineered estate or park grounds (as in the Pittsburgh favorites of Oglebay Park, Hartwood Acres, and Overly’s “Country Christmas”), we get fields and woods with illuminated trees, artificial if lone displays, all sitting in darkness where, when you drive, the caretakers ask you—so appropriately—to turn off your headlights.  Talk about an alien landscape that is yet attractive, an “illuminated forest,” a “crystal world,” a winter realization of an Avatar-like luminescent night, a frozen marine depth where the coral branches flash and glitter. 
             And I like these places best when you can walk through them and not have to drive.  The car is too insulating, too enclosing (and I pity you if you have to sit in back where the windows are tinted).  When you walk you can get closer to the sources of illumination, sense them more deeply, enter and not just pass the jeweled darkness. 
            So a word to all you entrepreneurs out there.  Though the cold might be bitter, we need more places where we can walk through the Christmas lights instead of just drive by them. 
            I grant these impressions wouldn’t work in warm Florida or other tropics.  I admit this imagery is classic New England.  But Christmas has always had a northern European feel, where the winters are long and the dark thick.  The clouds might be heavy, the stars fugitive, the snow abundant (at least in our memories), and if you took away all those artificial lights the landscape would be grim indeed.  But this is one time when artifice, in strings of lights, adds to the mystery instead of defiling it. 
            For all the traps of commercialism, entertainment, forced happiness, hysterical expectations, money and materialism, family entanglements, and lessons on loving so passed-down they’ve become archaic (and Christmas probably was always this tacky—I’m sure even the Victorians knew how to shop), for all the standard emotions and heavy lessons we get each year, this simple sensory experience, of little lights in a really big darkness, is a large chunk of what “Christmas Means to Me.” 
            And, you know, writing all that (even with its inevitable upbeat sentimentality) wasn’t too painful after all.
            And I hope your reading of it was the same. 
            Merry Christmas, everyone!

            This photo, taken in the Clinton Light Up Celebration west of Pittsburgh, is a visual example of all that was said here. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reading for Inspiration to Write

            Writers need to read.  For inspiration, for learning, for exercise (of the brain), and for seeing “how it’s done.” 
            For example, the best way to see how to start a novel or design an opening paragraph is to go to a bookstore and pull famous or favorite stories (or download a lot of “beginnings” from Amazon) and see how they did it.  Read them closely.  Take notes, compare/contrast.  Define the ways all those authors got the reader’s attention, established the protagonist and the setting, started a narrative momentum, and made a “promise” to the reader that would need to be fulfilled in the rest of the book.  And if those paragraphs are really good, they also established what the conflicts would be. 
            This might be the best means of learning how to write.  Look at good examples—closely and thoughtfully—and collect the methods by which they succeed.  Then, apply them. 
            But reading is also important for inspiration, for getting ideas on what to write about—stories, characters, settings, backgrounds, ideas, situations, conflicts, atmospheres, moods, styles.  You get many examples when you read.   And you never know from where inspiration will come—from newspapers or online journals, cartoons or junk mail, grocery lists or advertisements.  It’s all fodder for the writer’s brain. 
            But most of us don’t have a lot of time for reading.  Being a teacher of literature, I’m lucky.  It’s my job to read.  But those books are often required and many times I’ve read them before.  Though they never fail to inspire, the first punch of inspiration (usually the strongest) is already past. 
            So what can we do in our so-called “spare time” to keep ourselves reading, in those microscopic moments when—shock!—you find yourself with maybe as much as 5-10 minutes (wow!) to read something that’s not required, or that doesn’t have to be done by tomorrow, or that’s not an instruction manual or an article in a “Help” menu.  And mood is often a greater determinant than time.  In those precious few minutes, what do you really want to read?  You don’t want to waste it.  But you might spend all the little time you have in just debating the right choice.  Believe me, it happens. 
            So here’s what I do.
I read at least three, and often more, books at the same time.  And they’re always in three different categories:  science fiction, non-fiction, and classical or mainstream literary fiction (with often a book from another popular genre, like fantasy or mystery, but they usually wait in line behind the other three). 
            Science fiction because that’s my genre of choice (that I study, teach, and write). So of course I always want to stay well-read in it—to know what’s been done, what’s out there now, and the tools needed to work in the genre.  Non-fiction because from it come ideas for the thought-experiments of my own novels, topics for plot scenarios, conflicts, issues.  Especially useful are popular explorations of science, history, mythology, folklore, and cultural studies.  And literary novels because they provide new outlooks and styles that diverge from the foregone expectations of much popular fiction.  The often challenging originality of these novels (that might not fit the standard “arcs” of, say, romances fulfilled or murders solved) and their experimentation with narrative techniques provide inspiration for new ways of doing things in fiction, ways that genre writers can’t always apply until such methods are more adapted for market realities.  In this way genre writers can take advantage of the sometimes chancy trial-and-error narratives for use in their own works.  
            Right now, the current SF novel I’m reading is Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (though untouched for a week or two), the non-fiction is a Time-Life The Battle of Britain (it’s most often read over breakfast), and the literary work is The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which, darn, I haven’t picked up in a month).  Those are the formal choices, and since they’re all in progress, I can always find something for the mood I’m in when I suddenly have time for reading a few pages. 
            But, as you can tell by the parenthetical comments above, nothing’s easy.  There’s a host of informal or required readings too.  For the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill and an undergraduate course I teach, I also have, equally in progress and taking up much more time:  The Name of the Wind (fantasy) by Patrick Rothfuss, NOS4A2 (horror) by Joe Hill, Ubik (classic SF) by Phil Dick, Mistborn (fantasy) by Brandon Sanderson (but I had to set this one aside), and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.  Then, for SF (and my special interest in SF authors of the 50s), there’s Mysterious Planet by Lester Del Rey and Ensign Flandry by Poul Anderson (read over lunches or when I’m on the treadmill), and I really need to get back to Blindsight by Peter Watts as well as House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds.  Then, for literary fiction, there’s Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (which I’m rereading after many years and listening to sporadically on audiobooks—I should finish it by next summer), but I’m also eager to start The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman and John LeCarre’s Our Kind of Traitor, and soon I’ll need to reread Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights for a class.  Then, for non-fiction, after having to put Ships aside (a coffee-table book) to make room for The Secret War (on spying in the 40s) and The Railroaders of the American West (it’s amazing what you can finish over breakfast), I just read a chapter into Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs.  And on top of all of that, since I’m now writing a prequel to my novel The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, I just gathered a stack of works for research I want to do (on the Sahara and Alaska, Australian mythology, “mysterious places,” archaeology, fabled lands, quantum physics—all of which I’m sure I’ll add to). 
            Can you see why I can’t keep my Goodreads up to date? 
            And then there are the graphic novels, which provide another great realm of inspiration.  But that’s for another blog. 
            All in all, what I wanted to suggest here (before getting buried) is to encourage that we read at least three books at one time, that we have them in three different categories so any mood or varied inspiration can be covered, and that we don’t pass up any book that we suddenly yearn for even if we only get one chapter into it and then have to switch. 
           And to always, always, always read. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Science Fiction, Memoir, and Description

Though most contemporary editors encourage new fiction writers to avoid as much description as possible, Patricia Hampl’s “The Dark Art of Description” argues that description is alive and well in memoir.
            While novels stress the “gripping narrative arc,” memoir prefers a “photographic” over a “cinematic” form of writing.  Though according to some writers, description is less important today than in the past (the claim is that we know enough of what things look like with the prevalence of visual media, and thus we need only a quick reference), memoir is less about the object or place described than the consciousness of the writer and how that perspective works “in harmony” with the material.  The writing style thus becomes crucial in providing such an “articulation of perception.” 
            While science fiction has the same popular-genre requirements of fast narrative, it’s similar to memoir because of its necessary description of other-worldly or fantastic settings, of immense objects of technology, of galactic powers and sublime vistas.  If we use the described object in memoir to depict the self of the writer, in science fiction we use a story-character’s perception, or the collective perception of humanity itself (following the idea in SF of the human race as main character), to give an interpreting view of the scene in order to create it for the reader. 
Though we often get standard objective “telling” of fantastic landscapes and constructions, given the requirements of fast pacing or narrative streamlining, the character’s comments on how the scene is depicted can tell us as much about the character or human assumptions as contribute to making a scene appear real, a scene that might be so alien it would be hard to describe—which in turn is then suggested by the emotional or intellectual reactions of the perceivers.  The quality of otherness is thus created as much by the conceptualizing of the means of perception, of the human medium in the description, as by the resulting object itself. 
            Indeed, in science fiction, the topic of perceiving the new—the alien, the other—is often objectified, and it thus becomes one of the common topics of the genre (like love in romance or murder in mystery).  We get the scene or the object presented but we also get the means of presenting it, the frame as well as what’s inside it.  The supposedly un-presentable is described by depicting the method of its presentation.  And thus in SF, telling is showing.
            For example, in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a child has “dreams” of distant worlds that are telepathic visions of actual places (“actual” in the story but imagined by the author):   

In the mornings they would question him, and he would tell what he could remember.  Sometimes his words stumbled and failed as he tried to describe scenes which were clearly not only beyond all his experience, but beyond the imagination of man.  They would prompt him with new words, show him pictures and colors to refresh his memory, then build up what pattern they could from his replies.  Often they could make nothing of the result, though it seemed that in Jeff’s own mind his dream worlds were perfectly plain and sharp.  He was simply unable to communicate them to his parents.  Yet some were clear enough. . . . (170) 

Interestingly the book goes on to give those views the child sees; we do get descriptions of them.  But the quoted paragraph makes sure we realize our perception of the phenomenon is dependent on a groping ability to conceptualize them.  They’ve been made more strange, more “alien,” by the discussion about how hard describing them really is—that the boy’s words “stumbled,” that the scenes were beyond the “imagination of man,” that new words were needed, and that the people listening could not understand.  We still get the alien vista, but we also get an alienating frame put around, or before, the description that “tells” us how difficult it is to “show” it to us.  So, again, the telling becomes a means of showing. 
            Like memoir, science fiction because of its often “alien” subject matter uses a similar emphasis on the perceptual medium itself, the consciousness of the perceiver, the means of assimilation, the moves made in trying to describe.  For all its current presence in cinema, prose SF still has its roots in this “photographic” form of writing.  We get the picture, but we also get the camera that took the picture too.  Or, in the case of a person’s description, we hear “Let me tell you what I saw,” as much as we here “Let me show you.” 
            (Other examples—from Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars, and China Mieville’s Embassytown—will be examined for the same methods in a paper I hope to present at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts next March in Orlando, Florida.  And if anyone has other examples to point out in SF, or comments to make about this style of writing, please give them below.) 

Clarke, Arthur C.  Childhood’s End.  1953.  New York, Ballantine, 1974.
Hampl, Patricia.  “The Dark Art of Description.”  The Iowa Review.  38: 1 (Spring 2008), 74-82. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Descriptions of Autumn: Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson

Before autumn abandons us completely, if it hasn’t done so already, I want to share a few favorite and long-cherished passages describing it—in this “blog for all seasons”—and invite others to submit favorite readings of their own, whether recent or from the past.  To save time and space, I’ll include just two writers, Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson, both in science fiction (and the ties between SF and autumn could make a separate blog of its own). 
One aspect of fall is the mood of change, the transience that makes for an invigorating, and yet subdued, dynamic feel:  the freshness of the new colors, the time speeded up and each day bringing something different.  After summer’s doldrums and humid haze, the sky clears, the winds grow brisk, and the low sun paints late-afternoon golds.  Each tree asserts its uniqueness with its own color and stands out from the forest crowd.  The time is vivid, painted, festive, with its longer twilights and nights orange-lit with decorations.  But the fat pumpkins are deteriorating, the leaves drying and crackling away, the harvests over-ripening, and the strong colors quickly withdrawing. 
Ray Bradbury in the short story “The Emissary” (from The October Country) describes a boy who is sick and confined to his bed, but who gets information about the outside world and season through his dog: 

            Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees.  In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.  Dog jumped.  Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted.  No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October.  (104)
Note the emphasis on change:  apples turned to cider, “farewell-summer,” a “departed” robin, the ferns “brittle,” and the image of burning in “leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.” 
A similar passage that again stresses exuberance, color, and change, is taken from Poul Anderson’s early SF novel, Brain Wave: 

            Autumn again, and winter in the air.  The fallen leaves lay in heaps under the bare dark trees and hissed and rattled across the ground with every wind.  Only a few splashes of color remained in the woods, yellow or bronze or scarlet against grayness. 
           Overhead the wild geese passed in great flocks, southward bound.  There was more life in the sky this year—fewer hunters, Brock supposed.  The remote honking drifted down to him, full of wandering and loneliness.  It was a clear pale blue up there, the sun wheeled bright and heatless, spilling its coruscant light across a broad and empty land.  The wind was strong, flowing around his cheeks and flapping his clothes, the trees were noisy with it.  (113-114)

Here too are details of transience:  winter soon to come, only few splashes of color remaining, the wild geese migrating and their sound filled with “wandering and loneliness.”  Anderson’s novel covers several years and uses the descriptions of the seasons to indicate time changes.  Also, the subject-matter of the book is change itself:  the Earth moves out of a large inhibiting field in space and thus the intelligence of every person on Earth increases, forcing humanity to cope with the change.  (This sense of transformation is one of the ties between SF and autumn—SF assumes historical, sociological, and technological change, while autumn is the naturally recurring state of change.)
Another aspect of autumn is “mystery,” its slight and playful and yet always latent sense of horror, mostly childish but sometimes not.  Halloween, ghosts, headless horsemen, scarecrows, hounds, flaking labyrinth cornfields at night, barren tree limbs exposing full moons or needle-sharp stars.  Ray Bradbury in his “Pillar of Fire” catches this edginess in contrasting the season’s stillness with its fiery-consumption when a zombie “resurrects” and longs to feel his environment again:

The smells of the world were all about him.  Frustratedly, he tried to smell the smells of autumn.   Autumn was burning the land down into ruin.  All across the country the ruins of summer lay; vast forests bloomed with flame, tumbled down timber on empty, unleafed timber.  The smoke of the burning was rich, blue, and invisible.   (141)
Instead of quaint or pretty images we get “ruins,” forests that “bloomed with fire” and “tumbled down,“ the smoke of this burning strangely “invisible” or only blue sky.
And then, used as the introduction to a seminal fall work, Bradbury writes:

OCTOBER COUNTRY . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year.  That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.  That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.  That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts.  Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . . 

All the images are of mystery, insubstantiality, vague boundaries, darknesses, and people penetrated by or composed of autumn itself.  The season here is not a backdrop but a determinant, a powerful force that doesn’t just represent change but can reach out and change you. 
Other aspects of autumn can be seen (like location—it’s mostly a northeast American experience), as well as more ties to science fiction (like other planets made to be like “autumn” planets—see Poul Anderson’s “The Mills of the Gods” in his Orbit Unlimited, maybe a subject for a future blog), but I want to invite people to send me their own favorite passages of autumn.  Plenty are out there, so help me gather more—before the season disappears for yet another year.  

The works quoted were read long ago but they still impress:

Anderson, Poul.  Brain Wave.  1954.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.    
        Vol. 2.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  7-119.
________________.  Orbit Unlimited.  New York:  Pyramid, 1961.
Bradbury, Ray.  “Pillar of Fire.”  1948.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.  
        Vol. 1.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  141-169.
Bradbury, Ray.  "The Emissary."  The October Country.  New York:  Ballantine, 1956.  104-111.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Autumn Landscapes, Poetry, the Romantics

Every year at this time I feel the need to “capture” autumn—in words, in photographs, in the reading of autumn stories. 
It’s no easy task.  The mood of autumn is—by definition—transitional, brief, fleeting, yet intimate.   And, though I love the clear skies and soft low sun that awakes the fires latent in the leaves, even more I’m attracted to “secret” autumn, the season touched by rain or twilight, wet leaves clogging the paths, houses hidden in descending darkness with jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin-lights lonely and desolate when they’re meant to be festive.  Autumn landscapes are thus ambiguous.  They tune up in order to tone down.  They show vivid colors of life in withdrawal, sensations in retreat, like a fading watercolor on darkening parchment—nostalgic, furtive, mysterious, cloud-wrapped. 

Once, while teaching a course in Western Cultural Traditions, I used European history to find fitting metaphors for a poem about autumn:

Spring’s Elizabethan, summer is Greek, 
Winter’s a Medieval Romanesque.    
But autumn?  Darkly Romantic is fall.   

And the poem went on to make comparisons between the season and the age:

Gothic cathedrals, tumbled in ruin,
Seem perfect for autumn’s brief tinted shades.
Leaves wheel down like angels in exile
From stark-blue heaven to yellow-red earth:
Gilt dreams, ripped skins, drops of blood, tears,
Scarred little Satans in flames of descent.

Paradise Lost obviously got in there too, but it’s appropriate since the Romantics (well, Blake at least) often felt that Satan was the real hero of that poem. 

The season’s gray mists and cool colored steam,
Under bare limbs and bleak Lovecraftian stars
 (Stars threaten and stare only in autumn;
In winter, they’re candles—in summer, lamps),
Make settings wearied of life’s high demands.

I felt compelled to bring in Lovecraft, though I could have pointed to Bradbury’s many Halloween stories too.   And I really believe that the stars in autumn pack a greater punch.  “The Colour Out of Space” didn’t take place in fall but everything else about that story fits.  

In general, the many landscapes of fall are those

That weep, that shed, strip their colors and die,
Burned-up, burnt out, in landfalls of decay.
Crepe-paper droppings, faded wrappers . . . leaves. 

Oh, those brooding Romantics would have loved it, as they looked at trees but saw deteroriated church-like halls where shards of stained glass, like decadent gems, flung their testaments to departed life in a macabre excess of colored debris, falling rose-windows, careening galaxies.  They’d be sullen, solitary, yet ecstatic at what they saw,
That in slow-tinted autumn comes
The fall.  

(The two photographs were taken on a glorious day in Erie National Wildlife Refuge last fall, where the light, the clouds, and the colors were perfect.)  

Friday, October 11, 2013

Images in Stone - Photography, Animated Landscapes

            Common in the old “funny animal” comic-books was a page where a drawing of a landscape, with much line work, had objects hidden in it that the viewer was asked to find.  “Help Grandma Duck Find Her Farm Tools,”  “Save Mickey from the Hidden Animals in the Woods.”  And you’d have to search the trees, bushes, houses and barns to discover the hidden objects whose outlines were obscured in the intricate drawing. 
            Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live (the comedian Don Novello) made a joke of this activity when he held up a large picture of a pizza and challenged the viewers to “Find the Popes in the pizza!”  Of course, it was just a pizza with nothing hidden (at least I never saw anything) which made the task even funnier.  (If real it might have become an ad line as good as “Where’s the beef?”) 
            All this brings us to pictures of big rocks.  I like to take such photos for the color, the texture, and sometimes even the ghostly images that seem to lurk in them.  Interestingly, I usually don’t notice such images until after the photograph is taken and seen in 2-D, and often when changed from color to black and white.  I don’t look for them while photographing, but there on the computer screen suddenly—good gosh, would you look at that? 
            These images are of boulders, cliffs, crevasses, erosion, but when the imagination gets a hold of them and plays with how they appear, then who knows what might be observed in the creative interaction between our minds and all that dead material “out there.”  We impose on what we see, or, as Wordsworth said in Tintern Abbey, “half create” what we perceive.
            Add good-humored titles and you’ll see what I mean. 
            These rocks look like stuffed sagging faces:

“My hat is crooked.”  “My chin droops.”

            The next picture was taken because the rock seemed somehow appealing, the composition balanced, appropriate for an unidentified “gut” feeling.  But after changing it to B&W, the title jumped out immediately.

“Let the Sleeping Dog Lie.”

            And this hard rock cliff suggests the soft and cuddly: 

“Kitten in Stone”

            Too bad no grass blades grew there for whiskers. 
            And the following was interpreted in one quick word. 


            I also used “Teeth” for sharp stones in tundra, “Emaciated Fingers” for narrow mounds between ruts in badlands, and “The Beartooth” for a crag that really does have that name.
And finally, my favorite:

                                                 “Rain Makes Me Scowl”

            Such a grumpy old sourpuss deserves that dribble irritating his face. 
            We half create what we see.  We impose interpretations.  Our minds and our memories drown our surroundings, sometimes preventing any chance for objectivity.  Now that we “see” those clownish doughboys, that dog, that kitten, those feet, that squeezed cranky petulant frown, it’s hard to notice anything else.  The landscapes are changed without our even asking, and we can’t get back to a bare slate. 
            Do we really see, or are we lost in a funhouse of reflections and projections? 
            Oh, by the way, if you come across any Popes in pizzas out there, or even in rock formations, do let me know. 
(The first two photos were taken in Arches National Park, UT; the third and last in Old Man’s Cave State Park, OH; and the fourth at a rest stop off Interstate 70 on the San Rafael Reef, UT.)