Fifteen years ago, I bought my first digital camera. I'd always been interested in photography, but never really indulged because photography was an expensive hobby--film, processing, pictures. Everything changed with digital. If an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters could produce Hamlet, then why couldn't an infinite number of my digitals create something akin to Ansel Adams? That's what I told myself.
I don't know how or when I discovered Broken Kettle Grassland, but for some reason I thought it might be sweet to go out there on top of the world at dawn. So on August 9, 2003, (these files say) I got up an hour before dawn, took that new camera--a Fuji, I think, maybe six megapixel--and left, bound for the northernmost stretch of the Loess Hills, just north and west of Sioux City.
What I remember best was sheer astonishment at how incredible it was to be up there when the sun rose. Dawn has a Midas touch. Everything glows bold and gold. I wanted to shoot away from the rising sun, to see what all that gold did to ten miles of broad plain between the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers--Yankton Sioux country, although I didn't know it then.
And I didn't know what I was doing. The grasses right up in front of that picture up top?--that was a nice idea, but the little Fuji couldn't pull it off. Today, I know I'd need a wide-angle lens to make it all sharp--AND, a camera that costs more than $150.
It's not a good landscape shot, but I like it because I haven't forgotten being there, watching the dawn draw it's royal mantel over everything. Took my breath away. I remember thinking what a blessing it was simply to be there.
But what I wanted to do was take something of that gorgeous Loess Hills dawn home with me.
I couldn't. A dawn like that one doesn't fit in a canning jar. A rising sun over Broken Kettle doesn't fit in a Fuji, or even a Nikon with a wide-angle lens to die for.
But that morning, I didn't know that, so I kept shooting.
I didn't know what I was doing, but I loved doing it. I didn't even know that golden bouquet in the foreground was king of the tall-grass prairie, big blue stem. Had no idea. All I knew was that in an instant it turned to gold.
I didn't understand a landscape shot like this can't do justice to what unfurled before me. But I kept trying.
When the sun rises high enough, the drama flattens with the shadows. Instead of trying to get as much of creation as I could into that Fuji, I looked elsewhere. What I learned when I did--and when I got home and looked at what made it onto the memory card--is that those shots were probably more effective than the big, wide landscape shots--shots like this.
It would take me a while to understand that composition counts, that sometimes its not what's actually there, but the lines that entertain the eye and please the heart.
All these pictures are 15 years old. What hasn't changed is the tussle that goes on inside me every morning I'm out--winter cold or summer heat. There's always a contest: my soul wants simply to be awed once more in the presence of the Creator; my head earnestly tries to determine what to shoot and how, believing the fiction that I can get it into the camera.
What I learned that day years ago at Broken Kettle Grassland, my first day out, is that, when the camera is in my hands, I'm most blessed when my soul wins.