I should have taken a picture of that picture, a photograph I came to see as a work of art. It's up on a kitchen wall in the home of a woman who is herself an artist and has her early 20th century frame house decorated wonderfully, not in a "country"style but with a flair for the slightly stylized but decidedly local.
Local, in this case, is Chase County, Nebraska, a place made somewhat famous, somewhat infamous, by William Least Heat Moon's PrairyErth. We were in Chase County and in her house for the last several days, looking around the area but mostly suffering through a heat wave that made even the locals wilt.
Anyway, there it was on a wall in the kitchen, a nicely framed shot of a rancher closing a gate in snow. Try to imagine--a human figure clearly identifiable as a cowboy--hat, boots, bow-legged--just closing a gate that is little more than a couple of lodgepoles, something like this really, except the gate is wood too.
It's not a blizzard, or you wouldn't see him. I'm not even sure it's snowing. It's just this black-and-white image of a cowboy and a gate in a world of pure nothingness. Let me try to bleach this one a little to get it to look a little more like that fine photograph.
I told myself, right then and there, that I understood the beauty of that photograph. I got it. Maybe it helped that I was in the middle of some of the broadest tall-grass prairie left anywhere in the world, but I somehow understood the stark portrait's soul because in a space as wide and naked as the broad landscape of the Great Plains, anyone or anything that stands up in that ocean is, after a fashion, heroic.
Because the world of Chase County--and Sioux County too--is not always Laura Ingalls Wilder. Sometimes, sure, it's blessed, alive with wildflowers; but last weekend, when the temps were sky-high, which is no cliche here; the world outside the door was forbidding and harsh, not at all welcoming to its tourists or accommodating to its few residents.
My files are literally full of landscape photographs of single trees against endless landscapes. I've got hundreds, I'm sure, maybe thousands. But I've always believed the reason for so many variations on that image originated in the plain and simple fact that the featureless plains have so very little to contrast with their own yawning emptiness. I've taken a thousand pictures like the one above because there's literally nothing else on the endless landscape that fits in a camera.
But that photograph of a cowboy in the snow captured my admiration because there he was in the middle of all that nowhereness, securing a gate, trying to make some sense of the vast world around him, trying to bring some order to a world so vastly out of his control as to make him into something of a clown if he weren't so admirable. I understood the art because I sensed what the combination of elements was suggesting. He's trying, against all odds. He's human.
There's nothing stark or forbidding about this photograph, the most beautiful shot I took last weekend in all that heat, beautiful because of the heavenly canvas background. But beautiful also because of the determined silhouette this particular tree makes in the endlessness.
You may disagree, but little more than a long weekend in the wilting heat of the Great Plains makes me think of this tree, too, as something of a hero.