One of my dearest friends announced his retirement today, and I’m devastated. Heartbroken.
The moment has left me pondering the temporary nature of our perceived permanence; in other words, our propensity to assume, incorrectly, the relative order of our lives. And yet all is entropy in the end.
It made me think of this image, one I made this summer in response to the timeless, yet disparate nature of the scene at hand.
Sand Pipers, Lakeside
So many migratory travelers moving through the Sand Hills are shocked at the hundreds of tiny lakes seeping up from the barely-hidden Ogalala Aquifer below; moreover, the plethora of waterfowl that flock to the surface water provide a unique experience for the onlookers.
Here, a quartet of sand pipers mills about a pond near Lakeside, flitting away for a few flaps, then returning to the shore; as one of the birds prepared to land, spreading its wings in a braking effort, I made this image.
Long Morning, Lusker Ranch
I began the PlainSky, Nebraskans project three years ago. My daughter was two; I was finishing my master’s thesis; we had lived in our present home less than a year. But I felt called to the project, energized by it, focused by the prospect of documenting a way of life with which I was familiar, but knew others weren’t. And time was running out.
So here I sit, the project well in hand, the first show opening in nine months, and a companion limited-edition book. So what? That’s not why I did this; I was looking for lessons, not praise. I was searching for cultural memories and ways in which to preserve them, mainly through photographs. Still, what have I learned?
And then, Rachel Larson’s 25 Things list crossed my path. She codified everything I had seen from the honest, hardworking Nebraskans I have been photographing; and I realized–not surprisingly–the project needed a set of lessons. So Rachel, here’s to you; you’ve cemented ranch culture for those who have lived it, as well as those who have never known it. My list can’t compare, but here it is, anyway.
10 Lessons for All of Us from PlainSky, Nebraskans
- Trust, and be trustworthy. I am reminded of a previous post about Joe Whiteaker, owner of Whiteaker’s Clothing in Harrison, who told a broke cowboy to wear a new pair of boots out the door without paying for them. Joe trusted the cowboy to pay for them when he could, and the cowboy knew he couldn’t break that gift of trust Joe had invested. In this era of defaulted loans, scrutinizing credit agencies and circular squabbles, it’s worth it to remember that the Whiteaker’s way of doing business was once the norm. Once, we trusted each other. The PlainSky, Nebraskans still do.
- Be a good neighbor and good citizen. People in Harrison, Arthur, Crawford and other towns across the western part of Nebraska are keenly aware of one thing: All they have is each other. Without everyone helping everyone, no questions asked, no refusals, there is no neighborhood, no community and no survival. Helping a neighbor means down the road, you’ll have someone you, too, can ask for help. What’s more, you’ll feel good about yourself and the place in which you live.
- Look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. Why do so many people avoid eye contact, or brush off that simplest sign of good intentions, the handshake? Because we’ve grown accustomed to living lives of solitude and mistrust. Let people know you mean what you say, and you’re glad to see them, in these two easy steps. I’ve never met anyone in western Nebraska who did otherwise.
- Respect your upbringing. In western Nebraska, every family I’ve worked with has told story after story about family; some were funny, some morose, but all important to what the family had become. These people don’t try to escape their blood, they accept that no one is perfect. All parents can do is try their best, and someday, each child will have to do the same.
- Cherish simplicity. In brief, unplug. Sit on a horse. Watch a sunrise. Smell the rain. Build a memory. It’s funny how the world moves slower once you do this.
- Say thanks. Everyone deserves a simple, heartfelt “thank you” for help rendered, no matter how small. Time and time again, I have heard these people (who are of few words by nature) say this–and mean it.
- Eat a meal together. Without the television. Or smartphones. Just good, simple food (lots of it), good family and friends, and lots of stories and smiles.
- Break a good sweat. Whether it’s for your own benefit or someone else, there is a singular joy in hard physical work. At the end of it, you don’t just tell yourself you’ve been working; you feel it. Moreover, you look back at the job and say with pride, “I did that.”
- Tie one on. Hard physical work justifies the occasional raucous evening. Think of it as decompression.
- Live this moment. Every waking hour (and for western Nebraska ranching families, there are a lot in a day), we should remember that this moment won’t come again. The way the Herefords cluster in a draw of the land, or how the grass becomes molten gold in the late evening sun, or when the breeze rises just enough to cool your face on a hot summer afternoon. They’re all precious; don’t wish any of them away. Today is enough; live this moment.
Am I wealthier from the PlainSky, Nebraskans project? Not monetarily, no. But certainly spiritually. I, too, have learned to live this moment.
Little Chicago, Sand Hills
I often think the weather and fate conspire to help me find emotionally powerful landscapes and people. Case in point: the Little Chicago cattle yard in this photograph. Begin story.
My assistant, Liz, and I had been following this storm for hours. We’d carefully checked the forecast for the Sand Hills that day, hoping for inclement weather and good subjects; the landscape photographer’s mantra is “Bad weather makes good pictures,” after all. As we hurried along to align ourselves to a photographically appropriate angle to the storm, things began to fall together, and looking over at Liz, I said, “Okay, I’m taking a left on the next gravel road, and maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Over the second hill about 1/2 mile down the road was this cattle yard. I slammed on the brakes, tossed the truck into the side of the ditch to park, and out we ran as the storm rumbled violently around us. Rain looked imminent, and in fact, more than we expected.
But the light. Oh, the light! The rolling expanse of the Sand Hills, the roiling black clouds backlit by late afternoon sun, the texture of the grasses and the irony of Little Chicago.
Lucky? Boy, were we ever.
Horses, Rails and Gathering Storm, Grant County
An interesting part of living in Nebraska is the size of the sky, and with that size, how much more dramatic our storms are as they build. Moreover, that combination of sky and storm often requires photographers to break one of their cardinal rules: photographing more than one hour after sunrise. In Grant County, on a Wednesday morning, this storm began its life as I passed these horses and meager ranch, and the sun rays dappled through the burgeoning atmospheric cataclysm to illuminate the horses for fewer than 60 seconds.
Sand Hills Train, Grant County
The Sand Hills (or, as Nebraskans do it, the Sandhills) are a challenging, subtle place to photograph; few trees or geographic landmarks exist to help define a sense of scale in any photo. That may be why I’m so drawn to the area: It’s a challenge. But, I think it is more the immense expanse of the sky, the clarity of vision and the openness of the landscape that simply tantalizes me with the question, “What if?”
Cemetery Angel, Whitman
In Whitman, Nebraska, a lonely cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking town and the vast, rolling expanse of the treeless Sand Hills.
High Plains Train, Grant County
My next solo exhibition, “PlainSky, Nebraskans,” opens at the Minden Opera House Gallery on April 16, 2013, and will feature three 40-inch-wide panoramic images indicative of both the project as a whole, and the essence of western Nebraska. The above image, “High Plains Train, Grant County,” is one of them (I think). Continue reading
Moving Train, Sand Hills
Often, travelers in the Sand Hills have only the land and trains to keep them company as they drive the long expanse of Highway 2 from Alliance to Broken Bow. As I passed Mullen, Nebraska, I found comfort in a Burlington Northern coal train’s partnership with my journey for a few moments, and I made this image to remind me of that shared trip.
Native Grass, Sand Hills
I often find the beauty of a location is in the details, and for many newcomers to the Sand Hills of Nebraska, that can be hard to see; after all, other than the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, there are few, or often no, trees. Makings images here is about opening one’s eyes, and at sunset during winter, the light on this stand of grass caught mine.