17 April 2012

A Second Chance at the Chestnut of 100 Horses

 Fig and Lichens
In September of 2010 I visited the Castagno dei 100 Cavalli for the first time. It was the height of Mediterranean summer, over-ripe, really, and the Castagno was no exception. Its half-dome canopy was so heavy with foliage and chestnuts that one could barely see the branches for the leaves. I made some photos, but came away thinking the umami of it (I like to keep my mixed metaphors vegetarian friendly) was somewhere underneath that surface: while the lush growth was impressive, it is the structure of its split-and-spread trunk that really tells the story of what it's like to be alive for 3,000 years. 

Moss on the Castagno, 2012

Since I was returning to Europe to install my exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, I took a cue from the death of the Senator Tree earlier this year, and decided to seize this opportunity to return to the Castagno. Spring was well underway in the tree-lined streets of that southern German town last week. Their chestnuts were already well-leafed, and I worried that I had come all this way just to face the same obfuscation. But I had forgotten an all important factor: it's not just latitude that matters; altitude can make a world of difference.

 Hail and Lava
I arrived in Sant'Alfio in the dark. I drove my rented Smart Car through the narrow, steep-walled switchbacks and up (then back down) an unsigned one-way street. Once safely tucked in at my favorite agroturismo, a thunderstorm settled in, then hail pelted down in loud, if brief, intervals, stirring up the yard dogs. In the morning, a layer of perfectly round hail covered the previous layer of lava spit down from Mount Etna. 

By the time I had made my way over to the Castagno, the hail had already melted, but I could see it had knocked a few tender leaves from its branches. The high altitude slows the coming of spring (and it's not hard to believe that its unseasonably cold here, as I write under a blanket in an old stone farm building.) I welled up with tears at the sight of its bare branches flecked with green, at the beauty of its form...and in relief for not having come all this way for naught. 

The weather changed every few minutes, clouds rolling in and just as soon rolling right out again. I explored the perimeter and the adjacent hazelnut orchard with my cameras. This morning I returned once more to meet Alfio, a gate keeper of the tree here in Sant'Alfio, whom had kindly held an umbrella over my head in 2010 while I photographed through our first meeting. The clouds persisted, but the precipitation did not, and I was able to see much more this time than last. I saw the heavy sections of the trunk and new suckers pushing forth, connected below the surface by a massive root system. I saw the details of gnarled and moss-covered swirls of bark. And I saw the deep charcoal of one section that I had overlooked before:

"Fire," I asked? Yes. Someone had tried to grill sausages inside the tree, and had nearly burnt it down. The fence has been up ever since.

14 April 2012

Site-specific exhibition, FAB.com Print Sale, and a return to the Castagno

Gutten abend from Baden-Baden, where my first site-specific installation of my Oldest Living Things work opened last night at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden. I've created a timeline spiraling from floor to ceiling, from 500,000 years into the past with the Siberian Actinobacteria, all the way up through 500,000 years into our unknown future...


And now through 11am on April 19th, FAB.com is hosting a special 5-day sale of my work. It features a number of my images from Antarctica (including those that ran in the NYTimes), as well as some one-of-a-kind artist proofs and a very few Oldest Living Things. Prints are up to 50% off, and your purchases directly help support my work. Win, win!

Tomorrow I head back to Sicily to re-photograph the Castagno dei Cento Cavali, or Chestnut of 100 Horses. I am taking a lesson from my experience with the now-deceased Senator tree: take your second chances when you can. I previously photographed the Castagno in the height of its summer foliage. Beautiful though it was, I missed the branches for the leaves. Hopefully it's still early enough in the spring that I'll be able to capture some of its unique understory. 

06 March 2012

A final missive from Antarctica: South Georgia, Shackleton, and ancient moss

Medusa Kelp in Hercules Bay, South Georgia

On April 24, 1916, just four years shy of one hundred years ago, Ernest Shackleton and a small cut of his crew set out on an 870 nautical mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. 
They were coming to their own rescue.
I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.

Elephant seals in Gold Harbor

Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.

A small selection of the 300,000 King Penguins in Gold Harbor (aka 'Penguinpalooza')
The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.

The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary – just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)

2,200-year-old moss bank, growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossilized bank

I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I made some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks -- the needles in a polar haystack.

Grytviken Whaling Station Torqued Ellipses (For Richard Serra)

Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet. 

If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.

The Grytviken maritime graveyard, guarded by a giant elephant seal

I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.

02 March 2012

Finding 5,500-year-old Moss on Elephant Island

View of Elephant Island, looking east

I am currently steaming towards the Falklands, and dispatch #4, my adventures finding the 5,500-year-old moss on Elephant Island are now live on the New York Times LENS blog: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/dispatch-from-antarctica-elephant-island/

28 February 2012

(Very) Deep South: Dispatch #3 on the New York Times LENS blog

My third dispatch about approaching the Antarctic Circle and taking a 'polar plunge' is live on the New York Times LENS blog here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/27/dispatch-from-antarctica-anticipation/

Stay tuned for more soon!

24 February 2012

Dispatch #2 from Antarctica on the New York Times LENS blog

First landing in Antarctica: Cuverville Island

My Second dispatch from Antarctica is live on the New York Times LENS blog here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/23/dispatch-from-antarctica-cuverville-island/

Stay turned for more to come, including an update on finding the 5,500-year-old moss on Elephant Island.

21 February 2012

OLTW featured on the New York Times LENS blog today

View from my cabin near the Lamer Chanel

Dear readers,

I am honored to announce that the New York Times photography blog, LENS, is currently featuring some of my writing from Antarctica, as well as an overview of photographs from the Oldest Living Things project.

Stay tuned for more updates from the bottom of the world.