Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Mid-Winter Fantasy – The Bald Eagles

In honor of mid-winter, today’s blog will be different – a fantasy story just for fun. Next week will be time enough to continue down the path to aging gracefully.  Today it seems that a little make-believe might be in order.  Enjoy! 

The Bald Eagles

When I bought the used 35 mm Nikon at the shop on NW Market Street, I felt a strange sense of elation.  I had hungered for this camera  – a classic single lens reflex – since 1973 when I was almost too poor to manage rent let alone an expensive camera.  Over the years, my small digital cameras and, more recently, my iPhone didn’t quite meet the optical standards I wanted.  The mystery of taking, waiting, and finally experiencing a true image was lost for me.  I wanted the capability that only a real camera, with real film can give.  Just holding the black instrument in my hand made my heart skip a beat.

I walked back to my car and placed the camera carefully on the back seat.  I checked my voice mail and calendar.  I didn’t need to be anywhere at all.  The day was mine.  I pulled out of the small parking space.  The sky was so blue it almost hurt my eyes.  There are few days in the Pacific Northwest, especially in February, when blue skies are visible, let alone brilliant.  After endless weeks of cold, wet, grey skies, I needed a mid-winter break.  In a few minutes, I merged onto I-5 traveling north from the city.  Soon I was cruising at 70 mph towards the Skagit River estuary – home of bald eagles and tulip festivals.  It was too early for tulips but exactly right for eagles.

As I approached Exit 221, I slowed and looked up at the azure sky.  It was just after 11 o’clock in the morning and I was ready for a day of it.  I passed through the small town of Conway and stopped at Rexville Grocery for a latte and a smoked turkey sandwich.  I wasn’t hungry yet but I didn’t want to worry about lunch when I was fully invested in photographing the eagles.  I told her to throw in a bag of Tim’s Cascade Chips.  It felt like a holiday and a treat seemed right.

I turned back onto the Fir Island Road and slowed near the landing at the edge of the estuary.  The road was muddy.  Like a true Northwesterner, I had on waterproof boots.  My Gore-Tex jacket was in the back seat, sitting helpfully beside the day’s prize. 

It is hard to remember how the next six hours passed.  One minute I was walking in anticipation down the muddy trail with the sun high over head.  The next minute I was shooting the final flight of a magnificent eagle reflected against the rosy hue of the setting sun.  My sandwich sat neglected back in the parking lot.  The thought of food never entered my mind.  I was like a person possessed.  I didn’t know how many shots I took.  My pockets were crammed with film canisters.  I had changed film so many times I lost count. 

I had never seen so many nor such glorious eagles.  They sat on the tops of bare trees; in the dark green of majestic firs; on the black basalt rocks along the river’s edge; on the gravel bars that marked the tidal excursion.  They flew in pairs and alone across the estuary, owning the space as only ancient monarchs can.  Their white heads and tails shone like silver in the sunlight.  Their wingspans filled the air, blocking all other thoughts from my mind.  Perhaps I thought, the eagles are giving me a gift – a perfect day of perfect shots. 

As the final wisps of red light fell below the horizon I hurried, chilled now, back to my car.  I lay the camera carefully on the back seat and emptied my pockets of film canisters.  There were eight – each a finished roll of 36 shots and one more in the camera.  Altogether I would surely have one or two perfect shots – opportunities to finally have witness of how I see art in nature.  I got into the driver’s seat and devoured the sandwich and chips, suddenly starved.  I turned the engine on and drove back to the freeway, remembering every precious shot as I drove south.

The next day I took my film to be developed.  I asked the man at the counter for proofs as quickly as possible. 

“No problem” he said.  “We don’t get much call for developing 35 mm these days.  It will be our pleasure.  They will be ready on Thursday.”

The two days dragged endlessly.  I could think of nothing else but the eagles in the sky.  I could see them in front of me: the clarity of their beaks, the cruelty of their talons.  I wanted to hold the pictures in my hand.  I arrived at the shop early Thursday morning.  I couldn’t wait to open the envelope.  I pulled the thin strips of paper from inside and spread them on the counter. 

I looked at the first one.  It showed a lush green tree.  A green papagayo – a common Amazon parrot – sat looking out at me from a low branch.  Confused I looked at the next and then the next.  Each picture was in a tropical jungle, somewhere I had never been.  Most of the birds were elegant green parrots, mostly in pairs.  Several of the strips showed Scarlet Macaws and one showed a magnificent looking Toucan sitting on a dead tree branch above a silt-filled river.  The parrots sat in many positions, on mudflats, on trees in full bloom, on weedy floating islands.  They looked warm, their feathers were rich and colorful, and their expressions greeting me as if to say “Aren’t you happy to be warm?”  The sky in the photographs was a brilliant blue but it was not the Skagit sky.  It was the equatorial sky.

“These are not my pictures,” I said.  “You have made a mistake.”

“No mistake,” the man said.  “These are yours.  We don’t get many films to develop these days.  Your order was the only one this week.”

I left the store and walked slowly down the street, holding the strange pictures in my hand.  Could these pictures be the eagles’ fantasy I wondered.  Perhaps this is their real gift to me.  Their mid-winter fantasy frozen forever in 35 mm film.  I have saved the pictures all these years but I will never know how they came to be.

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