Our city’s museum of western art is showing an exhibit of the photographs of Ansel Adams, surely one of the most gifted and well-known of twentieth-century American artists. I’ve always loved his work and admired his technical and artistic expertise. He, too, I think, was looking for the sacred and found it all around him. His passion for light on stone and water and field was matched by his passion for the preservation of the earth in all its beauty. When I came across his reference to the enormity of time, it started me thinking about time in new terms.
Of Heraclitus and the River
Time took Ansel Adams;
The photographs survive,
Brief slices of time,
A quarter or three hundredth of a second,
Preserved in their own stasis.
A second after the shutter clicked,
The river was changed,
The light was changed,
The grass itself was changed.
You can never photograph the same river twice.
But the river is caught in the photograph,
Preserved in the moment that will not recur.
The moon set long ago,
And the frost melted under the sun,
Running off into the first spring mud.
Half Dome itself will fall
(Long after you and I have fallen)
And wear away into sand or river-silt
(Long after the clay of the photographer is dissolved).
The photographs survive;
Oh, this print may fade,
And that one lose itself in fire or rain,
But the photograph itself lives on,
Passed down from negative to print,
From print to digital and back again,
In old age, in the deepening tides,
The photographer spoke of this,
Spoke of preserving the green earth
In the enormity of time.
Time took Ansel Adams;
Though context shows he meant the enormousness of time,
I am not sure; grammarians and etymologists,
For all our words, cannot call him back to ask
Whether perhaps he might have meant
The enormity of time. The term is apt.
Time is absurd, an affront, an insult.
Time is an enemy, relentless, merciless,
Who strikes, then laughs beyond the hills.
Time is a river, running fast and slow,
Full of tricks and treachery,
Gentle eddies and crashing falls over boulders,
Most dangerous when it seems most mild.
We sail the river in the frail canoes of bodies,
Or sit by its banks, watching, or wade,
Or dabble hands and feet in the water
Running now clear, now dark with silt.
No matter: the river has us all.
Half Dome, the moon, frost, flowers,
Photographers and etymologists alike,
Time’s enormity assaults us all.
Doesn’t the photographer live, then, in his photographs,
The scholar in her notes?
Only so long as a pebble may rest on the bed of the river
While the water rushes silver and black overhead —
Only so long as humans reaching above the river
Pass on scraps of paper from hand to hand —
Only so long as human memories linger —
Till time, that harsh, dark river, fragments us all.