A Picture Needs a Thousand Words

Do you remember the first time we came here? Of course it was these woods. Of that much I’m certain. We walked between the rows of pines and I felt we were being led somewhere inevitable. It was a sensation I found comforting, and also slightly threatening, as if a severe parent had once again placed their hand on my shoulder, taken charge of my life.

Red pines on Benner Farm, in Norfolk, 1913 E. J. Zavitz

You yanked off your shoes, peeled off your socks and walked barefoot on the carpet of needles. “Warm,” you exclaimed, “warm and soft as silk,” and immediately the trees swallowed your words into their silence. No stirring of air. It was the sort of woods that appears in dreams, a place at once familiar and unnamable, the sort that lures the dreamer in then refuses release from its pattern; and the more often the dreamer consults her watch the less time seems to have elapsed, until suddenly the dreamer realizes she is naked or wearing a necktie and nothing else, perhaps a pair of earrings.

You ran to the car for your camera and tripod. We hid behind the trunks, thrust our arms out as branches; I turned my back on the lens and walked away while you pressed the shutter. I stuck out my tongue and again was caught. You promised to send me the best shots.

“I don’t want only the best,” I insisted. “I want all of them.”

“Buy your own camera,” you retorted. “Why don’t you? It’s not complicated. I’ll teach you.”

Though I shook my head you demanded an explanation. The only word that came to me was “trickery.” Later, alone in my hotel room I confided to the mirror above the dresser that cameras are dangerous dance partners who whisper eternities in your ear while robbing you of the present.

You did send me the prints. You proved true to your word. I spread them out on my desk and wondered which I liked best but couldn’t decide. I turned them over. On the back of each you’d written in your clear hand: “Pines. Benner farm, Norfolk County, 1913.”

How your love of research, your countless files, your need to label and organize used to exasperate me.

We didn’t know whose trees they were when we stopped. The small size of your bladder caused us to pull over. We’d been driving for hours and you needed to relieve yourself. You disappeared from sight then re-emerged, waving for me to come and see. I went, of course. When did I not do as you told me? There was nothing to see but sameness. The irrefutable sameness drew us deeper and deeper until at last we began to doubt. Perhaps the sameness was an illusion? And what did the white marks on the trunks signify? The scent of the needles became inebriating.

The envelope of photos remained in the drawer of my desk for years. Then I moved (my neighbour had grown intolerable, smoking huge cigars on his front porch and cranking up his radio at two in the morning) and the envelope disappeared into some box I lost track of.  Yesterday I opened my outdated atlas, thinking I’d give it away. Though who would want it now the boundaries and names of so many counties have changed? And there it was – your envelope. But with only one photo inside. I turned the image over – nothing was written on the back, no “Pines, Benner farm, Norfolk County, 1913” in your precise hand.

And yet these are the same trees. This photograph was taken by you. Surely you recognize the white markings on the trunks? Were they painted on? We had no idea of their purpose. You do recognize them don’t you? It has to be the woods where we stopped. But why are we not there? We posed so many times. We were in every shot you took, yet we’ve vanished.

It is always the same woods. Whenever I shut my eyes and think of you these are the woods I see.

Martha Baillie, August 2007
author and librarian