While this photo is not the cover of my second collection To Want the Winter, it is the photo that I share often when talking about it. The feathers, the snow, their color contradiction, the location, and the people I was with at the time all mean something. The depth and the magnitude behind a simple photograph inspired a large portion of the collection and if not in exact words it helped explain some of the meaning behind not only the pieces but parts of the entire Words of the Seasons series. This photo, as many photos do, encompasses many meanings; it’s raw, it’s death, it’s beauty, it’s life, and it shields innocence while baring the circle of life using my preferred metaphor; a bird.
My family and I were taking a walk at Wildwood park here in Ottumwa, IA. Same trail we take almost everyday. Off the side of the main road is a metal staircase that leads to a broken bridge over the creek and from that bridge you go up a dirt path. This path is a very narrow (and when raining, muddy) path that leads to a grassy area on the other side of the tree line. To the child the path is daring. To my husband and myself it causes a bit of worry as the ground has given away over the years and eroded to about two foot walkway with a twenty foot or less drop to the creek below. We urge our children to stay close, walk carefully, and not to shove or push. We joke that we don’t want to fish them out of the water but in reality the drop would not do good on their bones either. We took this path even in the winter time; we bundled up, put snow boots on, and did it as often as we could. It got us out of the house as staying home and watching the house slowly be boxed in frozen layer by frozen layer did not do wonders for my winter seasonal depression.
If you’re a reader of mine you’ll find in my work that I speak of birds often and with the circle of life being kind of the theme of these four season collections you’ll understand why I was drawn to take this photo the first place. The feathers of black with traces of metallic blue had appeared to be sat so delicately on the pure white snow. It was “pretty” but I realized there was more feathers up ahead, bunches of feathers stuck in odd angles and thrown on the ground with little care, and soon in the corner of my eye I saw the carcass. Our boys did not see the gruesome site yet so we shuffled them quickly to move them on down the path and didn’t speak of it. Shielded them. My oldest is sensitive to animals, to death, and to sorrow just as I was as a kid. It is a great sadness to him to think of pain or death, even a broken toy can bring sadness to his too large of a heart. If I could, I would go back to that day and speak to them about it more but in the moment with bitter wind blowing in our faces I wanted to shield my child from death, I wanted to shield my child from the pain that I felt in the winter time, from the pain that poor bird felt, and really just avoid sadness on our nice walk. I didn’t delete the photo; it was much more than just a “pretty” image now.
I went on to share this image after the publication of To Want the Winter, put the title with the photo onto promotional stickers and on banners for social media. This photo to me in hindsight could have been a profound cover but the cover the collection has is important too. So instead I use it to say “this is the ‘feeling’ of the book … draw your own conclusions”. The feathers were beautiful and they stood out against that frozen ground; a contradiction that the pull and push of our mental health and of being beautiful and feeling something even when we are frozen mattered. Sometimes the photo becomes my own personal acceptance of death, my metaphorical urge to be like and write about birds, and maybe my kids knew that those fallen feathers belonged to a dead bird. Kids are aware of so much more than we give them credit for, right? Someday though I’d like to sit down with them and show them the photo with words that express how a bird that did not live through the winter left it’s mark on me and that regardless of the guilt and the sadness that I survived the winter during a dark time. Someday they will be old enough to perhaps use this imagery to reflect on their own mental health, understand life cycles that may mean the bird either had an untimely meeting with the ground or that it was food for something else trying to survive too, and while we never met the bird- its feathers have been immortalized in my brain and that the picture has been shared for the world to see.
I don’t foresee myself explaining every picture choice in my collections or promotional pieces or my own artwork. But this one, during this initial step back into my creative side, needed explained. We cycle through life together even when we feel alone. We want to shield the young from reality because soon they will be growing up and you just hope that they are not that bird that gets caught falling, eaten alive, or flying involuntarily solo. You hope that they are not just getting photographed for a moment of beauty but that if they are that they can understand and appreciate the contradiction of it versus reality in our social media age. To my oldest, Roland, who loves too hard, cares too much, empathetically feels the pain of those around him, and involuntarily carries sorrowful burdens just because he “feels” with all of his senses- that he can take the souls around him and make them feel like they matter. That bird mattered. That walk mattered. The frozen snow matters. My sadness matters. His innocence matters. The “cycle” and the acknowledgment of it… matters. You matter, even in winter. The littles things around us can have a heavy and profound impression if we just acknowledge the importance of them. Things we dismiss everyday out of habit. … those little minds soaking these dismals in as new information everyday- see it, feel it, give it importance. Because the the result can be cathartic.
And I- I just want to fly away with the birds…”Molting, from collection To Want the Winter – Elizabeth Ridge