Journal Entry: December 5th, 2020 Bosque del Apache, New Mexico 26°
My goal on this expedition was to photograph Sandhill cranes at their wintering grounds of Bosque del Apache in Southern New Mexico.
The movie clip came via text message from my brother. Small, unstable, and in color. “Mom wants to spread dad’s ashes, right now.” There was no discussion, no plan, just “She wants to do this now,” and with that my brother, who happened to be visiting my mother at the time, was on the hook to make it happen.
The next film came seconds later. The phone, shaky and uncertain in my 83-year-old mother’s hands, pointed into the harsh South Texas sun. My brother, backlit, stood holding the urn. “Mom, do you see yourself on the phone or do you see me? he asked. “I can see you,” she answered. “Okay, where do you want me to spread the ashes,” my brother asked. “Right there,” she said. “In that high grass where the deer come.”
Slowly and by tracing an invisible circle my brother began to slowly pour my father’s ashes out and onto the Earth. The dust and bone backlit and powdery as a slight wind carried my father away and into the far reaches of the cedar and mesquite. “Goodbye John,” my mom said into the camera. “Goodbye.”
Seeing my mother and brother spread my father’s ashes was jarring and forced me to shut down for several minutes as I began to process what I was seeing. Flashbacks of my father began filtering through my mind.
Duck hunting as a boy. My father with his shotgun and me with my BB gun. A wet dog at our side. He would bring coffee for himself and hot chocolate for me. I never remember once aiming at anything. It was about being together and being in the wild. Even as a young boy I would catch him staring at me, smiling and mouthing an unknown dialogue to himself. Was he proud? Was he fearful?
As I got older our relationship changed, as they tend to do, as we spent more and more time apart. I obsessed with photography and he doing what he could to coexist with my mother while slowly falling prey to the demons taking over his body and mind. And when he finally decided to leave us that fateful day in South Florida, it was my wife and I standing over him trying and failing to bring him back.
Being human is to be in perpetual motion, perpetual transition. Bipedal batteries with a specific shelf life, give or take. But we are not alone. After gathering myself I slid back the side door on the van and stared out into the glaring void of a New Mexico winter day. A camera locked and loaded between my knees, and another around my neck, the distraction machine that has consumed me for nearly three decades.
Out before me were hundreds of thousands of cranes and geese jostling for position in their winter grounds. Deafening noise of hundreds of thousands of avian voices ringing out all at once saying we too are on the move, unsettled, temporary. Late light splintering through high clouds. Cold wind chapping the edges of my exposed face. There is no place I would rather be and no place that would make my father happier.
As the day passed and the sun fell low in the sky, more fellow humans began to emerge. City people, country people, and visitors from here and there, all masked and staring upward at the spectacle that nature was providing. All of us, in transition through the year of C19. Learning our way as we bounce off the right and wrong of a new existence.
You might think the mask was negative or a hassle, but this was not the case because behind every mask was a face of wonder staring at the natural world evolving in front of our very eyes. Yes, these are challenging times. Yes, we are suffering but that is what we do. We adapt, we learn, and we move on, and we will win, eventually.
Aren’t we the lucky ones? Isn’t this life of transition a sight to behold? Even if just for a moment take the time to ponder this life and this planet of ours. And if you know someone suffering then reach out. Ask, learn, listen, help. We are stronger together. Change is coming, again.
Life can be that way. At times. That’s why I spend every Sunday at Sebastian Inlet getting barreled in red tide.
What a tremendous tribute to your father. Losing parents is probably the worst ordeal I’ve been through. We know t’s inevitable, but that does not make it any easier.
Well done Mr. Milnor.
Yes, we all know it’s coming. And many of us will be those parents in decline. Never easy but gotta focus on the good stuff.
Very moving. Some day I will have your courage and write about my own father.
great use of the journal.
Powerful. Thanks for sharing this. I think we can all relate.
I figured this might make sense to others. We’ve all been there or will be shortly.
Thank you, Daniel. Great post.
I can appreciate your words. I too was in a similar end of line situation with my father, although I was only 16 and found it all unreal.
It’s interesting with the birds. I noticed, quite profoundly back on the first lockdown in April, how the birds around my modest South London garden had noticed something was different. I felt they ruled the roost, no pun intended. As I sat in the early spring sunshine,
I felt they knew, they knew us humans were vulnerable, fragile. It’s strange how the mind can sense these things. I found myself feeling subordinate to them, even inferior. I’ve never felt superior to anything but it was actually a rather reassuring feeling that nature would triumph, in the end. I suppose it was the relative silence, as cars and aeroplanes were quiet, but somehow the birds were on a loftier perch, literally and metaphorically.
Depending on the species they know a lot more than we do. Remember the tsunami from a decade ago. Birds hauled ass. Same for earthquakes.
Thanks bud. I just rearranged my office. Found Xray #9. Reminded me of you, Johnny and Giselle. Maybe in 2021 we gather with fire involved.
thanks sir and sorry for your loss.
Beautiful and moving. Many blessings Dan…
I just wrote in my journal, one I designed from Uruguay. The page I just wrote on has you crouching beside a pool table. Leica in hand.
I keep this quote in my journal and your post(s) reminded me of it.
A Warning to My Readers (Wendell Berry)
“Do not think me gentle because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant because I honor the grace that keeps this world.
I am a man crude of speech, intolerant, stubborn, angry, full of fits and furies.
That I may have spoken well at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.”
Same. I’m a mess. Just ask my wife. We just yelled at each other over my wanting to lower my desk.
I suspect your father was both proud and fearful … parenting can be a bit of a tightrope act.
I have lost both my parents: arrived too late to be with my father, but sat with my mother as she took her last breaths and thought how fitting it was that, as she had brought me into the world, I saw her out of it. It was a strangely peaceful moment, full of dignity. Reunited, they both now reside under some rocks in the Cairngorms with a wonderful view.
I have a love/hate relationship with birds due to childhood trauma with hens. But, we live under the flight path for Canadian geese and I just love the sound and sight of them flying over in their squadrons. What I most like though is the sound of their wings as the whole flock takes off from whatever neighbouring field they land in … breathtaking.
Yes, those mass takeoffs are incredible. Just the sound of wings moving em mass is quite unique. My mom is still going strong. She is shrinking, which we always remind her, but otherwise motoring on.
My dad died 7 years’ ago, and my grandparents over 20 years ago. I still miss them. In a way, though, my mind refuses to believe that they are gone. I meet them and speak to them in my dreams (not that I can remember anything sensible about those dreams, but the mere fact that I can talk to them matters). Except, I don’t ever get to speak to my grandfather. I only ever spot him out of the corner of my eye, and each time as I turn he is slipping out of the room as the door closes. I was angry about a lot with my father, following divorce – but it was my mother who left him. But when I became a father myself I found that the anger just fell away. The miracle of new life. He was a good photographer and made some iconic images of the crossing of Antarctica, and the climbing of Everest in 1953. Of course, I didn’t realise I had a lot to learn from him until it was too late.
Here in Australia we have wonderful bird life, but if I could I would remove all the myna birds – they constantly hassle everything else round here whether it be bush turkeys, kookaburras, parrots, herons. It’s a non-stop bombing raid and squawk fest.
The Lowe name is climbing royalty. I think we are all living a real time experiment when it comes to being human and navigating life, family, etc. I look back and cringe at some of the things I did and realize I’ll make more mistakes moving forward.
Thank you for being such a wonderful human, one who carries vulnerability as a shield to help fight off those demons as the knight your father has help groom you to be today.
Oh, I think you could easily find a dozen people who would dispute that wonderful human assessment.
Beautiful words and stunning imagery, lovely tribute for your father.
Thanks Deb! He was a thorn in my side, in a good way.