There they are, lined up like sentinels behind the scaffolding. I am always excited when the Christmas trees come to town, even if I never buy or own one, because they transform barren concrete sidewalks into magical tiny forests. Every time I walk by the fragrant firs, pines and spruces, I am transported from grey New York to my own private Narnia. Arriving around Thanksgiving and lasting until Christmas Eve, the seasonal trees elevate mundane places and turn routine chores into an adventure. You never know who might run out for a tube of toothpaste to a 24-hour drugstore at 2 a.m. and come home instead with a ten-foot spruce. And I can’t help wondering, are these truly just trees, or maybe—for those with special vision—a line of deep green uniformed soldiers guarding a dark red castle? Each time I walk by, I breathe deeply and stand a little straighter. You never know who might be watching.
Fall put up its own form of resistance this year. Days stayed warm into late October. Leaves refused to turn. I looked everywhere for seasonal progress but couldn’t find it in the usual places. A trip upstate to hunt color on Columbus Day disappointed. In the city, crews strung holiday lights around trees with bright green leaves, as if they were in Florida or California.
The day before the midterm elections, change blew in overnight. Locusts and lindens filled the streets with their golden glow. Ocher leaves lifted and scattered in the wind. Coming up from the grimy subway underground, I entered a forest of light. It was a harbinger.
Warts are in, at least on pumpkins. So are lumps, bumps, wrinkles and diverse colors. These compelling and unique “Super Freaks,” seen on a day trip to Daisi Hill Farm in Millerton, New York, wore their weirdness proudly. Back in the city, I was bored by the smooth-skinned orange pumpkins sold street-side at corner groceries. Now I wanted a Jack O’ Lantern with some serious battle scars. Looking in the mirror, I felt more tolerant of my own. Imperfection is organic. It is honest. And, at heart, it can signify rebellion.
Like its ambitious citizens, the Manhattan skyline is always reinventing itself with an eye to the competition. The newest super tall skyscrapers—some still with cranes—look like fishing lines to the stratosphere. Are they trying to catch birds, helicopters, clouds? Here are views for billionaires (and maybe global criminals) who need to show they are on top of the world. Not just the one-percent, but the one-upper percent—the “my treehouse is higher than yours” club. Like NBA basketball players or super models, the towers look down imperiously on older buildings. The formerly imposing now looks short and squat. But reflected in the dimpled water of the Central Park Reservoir, the Super Talls shrink like Legos and belong to everyone. Nature brings them down to size, and wins.
It took me decades to figure out that the New York City summer ends emotionally, but not literally, at Labor Day. Back to school supplies, best-of-fall media previews, and chilly boutiques stocked with winter coats all conspire to convince me that fall has started. In reality, it's still wretchedly hot. The summer sun continues to laser the concrete, my iPhone says it "feels like" 100 degrees, and a short walk outside is an act of faith and resilience. Inside, high humidity swells all my apartment doors so that they jam their jambs. They grunt with complaint.
The dog days of September?
I dial back to the August morning I awoke at a friend's beachside cliff house in Encinitas, California. From my perch on high, I watched a dog race joyfully through the surf while his owner trailed languidly behind with leash and morning coffee. A great splash of ocean lies between them. It's that cool, empty space I jump into now.
When I first went to the Grand Canyon, I thought it would look just like the photos I'd seen all my life. I was stunned to realize they were inadequate. I realized then that some things could only be understood in person. it was impossible to capture and convey the Grand Canyon's magnificence and menace in a tiny two-dimensional frame.
Beach sunsets are pretty much the same thing. A lens can't do them justice. People love to shoot them, but they can't really capture them. The same thing is at play: a vast and colorful sky made small loses its reason for being. Sunset photos look like muzak sounds.
And yet, we try.
Here, an unencumbered girl runs and dances at ocean's edge near a hot pink sinking sun on the Fourth of July on "First Encounter" beach in Eastham, Mass. It struck me as a childhood experience of freedom and beauty and joy that I'd want every child to have, and so I shot it, and now I share it.
I like to say I summer on the island...of Manhattan. The central city's pace and congestion make it easy to forget there's soothing water views on all sides. Every now and then, its true island nature reasserts itself. This almost mystical fog rolled into Times Square one early evening, haunting all the favorite haunts. It wrapped itself around tall buildings and spilled across wide avenues, dulling the city's brightest signs and blocks. Suddenly we were more like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. The velvet coastal softness rarely makes it way so far inland and came as a surprise.
Who doesn't love blue? The color of trust, the color of mood, the theme of a favorite Joni Mitchell song. A scientifically proven boost for creativity. Blue is also the color that brings the Internet to its knees. How? You can do a lot of amazing things online, but one thing you can't ever do is International Klein Blue (IKB). That "pure energy" ultramarine color, invented by the French artist Yves Klein in 1960, requires a matte synthetic resin binder to preserve and promote the color's intensity. I amped the blue in this graphic shot of red tree buds, but I still couldn't photoshop my way to IKB. It's material. It's texture. It's layered. Like nature, IKB doesn't live online. The other day I counted sixteen people near me in a subway car. All of them were glued or tethered to their phones. I hope they get a chance to walk outside unplugged.
Humans aren't the only species who invade and conquer. Plants are guilty, too. I was awestruck by acres of red-tipped green succulents flowering under a blue California sky next to a turquoise ocean. Then they were outed as a lethal beauty. An expert at the California Coastal Trail Association identified my fan photo as Carpobrotus edulis, or Ice Plant, and warned me by email that it "forms a large, thick mat that chokes out all other native plants and alters the soil composition of the environment." Even worse, as "a coastal invader, it competes with many endangered, threatened, and rare plants." Ice plant shows that colonialism is built into natural design, but the forward-thinking imperative is for us to weed it out.
It's a mysterious truth that even a road to nowhere must lead somewhere. I’ve always loved the news item about the couple who followed their GPS so closely they ended up driving their rental car right into the ocean. An ocean of nowhere to them, certainly, but not to the people who walked the beach or splashed in its water. The furrowed tracks on this dusty old ranch road in Templeton, California, end in an infinite distance I'll never see but some locals might know well. Above them, a plane's white contrail pierces the deep blue sky like an arrow. When you think about it, nowhere can seem like a noun, but it's really just a point of view.
King of the Mountain is serious business in Manhattan. It's not easy ruling the unruly kingdom (ask any builder or Wall Street trader). Usually, kids are on the losing end of the city's scale. Tall buildings shrink them down to mice. Elevators threaten to eat their tiny hands and sneakers. Dogs bark or growl nose to nose. Even kind strangers engulf like giant lampposts. But every now and again—on a swing, a parent's shoulders, or atop a manmade snow hill in Central Park—perspective reverses. Buildings become Lego blocks. Traffic runs on Matchbox toys. A snowscape becomes a moonscape; the sky tastes like cotton soup. Suddenly, the city is entirely theirs.
American seasonal flavors and scents are threatening to turn pumpkin season into one giant corporate cliché. You know autumn is here when pumpkin donuts, bagels and cream cheese come rolling out of Dunkin' Donuts. Ditto Starbucks' pumpkin-flavored lattés, Frappuccinos® and scones. Even Oreos, M&M's, deodorant, and, hilariously, pet shampoo are getting pumpkinized, reports Fortune. Personally, I like my gourds in shards. For years, I've applauded the changing of the leaves by watching farmers at Daisi Hill Farm in Millerton, New York, load pumpkins large as cannon balls onto a handmade medieval-style catapult. There's more deep-bodied joy in watching them fly through sky to explode in a distant field than all the pumpkin-spiced goods in the world will ever deliver. Unless, of course, you're the pumpkin.
Walking near the 79th Street Boat Basin, I noticed that this rusted iron nautical ring bent its neck in the same graceful arc as two female Mallard ducks perched beside it. Bolted and yoked, it seemed burdened by time and water. Immediately, I thought of T.S. Eliot's third. In his epic poem, The Waste Land, Eliot asks, "Who is the third who walks always beside you...Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded...who is that on the other side of you?" Eliot's "third" refers to a guardian angel or spiritual support (see Third Man factor for why). Here, of course, it is the ducks who can glide. The ring gives strength by being strong and immobile. I loved watching the two ducks flex and swivel their necks next to an imagined mirror third. A few seconds later, they swam off.
The person (or people) who created this got to say with pride: "Today I made love on the beach!" I stumbled across it on a long walk and could say, "I found love on the beach." And then I realized that the only way to make this love everlasting was to shoot it.
I wish I could witness the total eclipse on August 21, but I'll have to make do with a partial experience in my home city. It doesn't help that Annie Dillard wrote in her brilliant 1982 essay 'Total Eclipse': "Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him." Oh well.
Eclipses are dramatic because they connect polar opposites. We expect the sun and moon to revolve in harmony. When the moon obstructs the sun, it breaks every rule we know about nature. It's unbalancing. Dillard wrote that seeing the eclipse in Yakima, Washington was like "slipping into a fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering."
Night skies of textured velvet can also feel like fever dreams. Vaporous skies fascinate me. I took this photo through our windshield as we drove in a purple haze late into the night. It felt to me like clouds were devouring the moon—a midnight of the soul. Then I remembered that both clouds and moon were in fact lit by the sun.