Raw Earth

A retreat in the frozen French countryside had such a nice ring to it. After a heavy semester and hectic holiday season, I was all too ready to embrace the quiet, simple life, ordered by bell song and ethereal chants of monks. And so I found myself sneaking through old churches and wandering woods, sipping tea from a handmade ceramic bowl from their gift shop as I lived out of a backpack. The experience was the stuff of stories, and it was glorious.

In many ways, it also was not. Through the years the institution around a tiny, war-torn church had been built up to accommodate massive groups of people and is now a sort of musical summer camp for the spiritually-inclined. When we arrived in January we were the only group there, and though lovely from the meditative point of view, less people also meant a menu of pasty leftovers and an unusually-full load of chores. One of the days this meant cleaning an area the size of a stadium with a demonic, uncooperative vacuum I fondly named Lucifer. The young brother in charge of us seemed hurt by the joke. I giggled anyway.

But all in all, the toil and fodder passed primarily without notice; nature, on the other hand was another story. Freezing, sub-zero temperatures swept through the forested retreat without respite. Each time I washed, the cold water cracked my hands until they bled around the knuckles; by mid-trip I had forgone the sinks all together in favor of water-less soap. Showering meant dashing through the cold with wet hair I was sure would give me pneumonia. A rat chewed through one of my feminine hygiene products. Even with a bit of heat in the room (and five other bunks in the space of a closet), I was sleeping ready to run with my backpack for a pillow. Still, there were few complaints. Perhaps it was the pride I felt in finally proving myself a hardy Midwesterner (still armed with a hairdryer, I must admit). I’m almost certain, though, it was because of the photographs.

For somewhere mid-trip when I was feeling especially low, I found myself wandering down a curving path armed only with my scarf and an old SLR. Determined to make the most of things, I took artsy, forgetful photos of the sloping trail and kept walking, hoping to find a nice enough composition to make my run-in with rodents more worthwhile. Then I saw it. The path opened up and flattened into what was for me a holy grail of nature photography—a pristine lake with an icy waterfall. It was beautiful. There was a bridge. The sun was low. Birds swam undisturbed and posed amid frozen bubbles. The dusting of snow hadn’t been touched by shoes. I was standing in a Thomas Hill painting, and I was completely alone.

To this day the photographs touch me, and I mean not in the emotional sense; I mean they physically reach out and slap me with all the tangible sensations of that week in the forest, of biting cold that still stings my arms and chills my head under a tangle of damp hair.

Of raw, raw earth warmed only by the lens of an old SLR.