The mug is already broken

It’s dangerous to be attached to possessions but I have one thing in my life that means more than most others. It’s not my camera, nor my computer. It’s a mug.

I bought it in a small shop in Smith Falls Ontario in the summer of 1992. I was working at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park at the time; it was my first job in a park. I had just finished my first of two years at Sir Sandford Fleming Collage’s School of Natural Resources and I thought I knew what I was doing. I had no idea. Later I worked in Banff and Grand Canyon National Parks, and while I still didn’t know what I was doing, I’d gotten better at faking it by then.

What I learned that summer at Murphy’s Point was that I wanted a life lived close to nature.

And I wanted to drink a lot of tea.

The mug I bought wasn’t thrown on a wheel by an aging hippie back-to-the-lander working out of a cedar wood shed in the hills of the Frontenac Axis; it was manufactured in China. It’s like ten – maybe a hundred – thousand other mugs emblazed with stylized drawings of wolves, bears and orcas; to me it is singular in every way.

My mug has a loon on it. I love its weight, and shape, and I love the small lip around the rim. It feels good to drink out of it. But that’s not why I love it. That summer I lived in an old Junior Forest Ranger camp on the shores of Loon Lake. Every morning I got up at 5 am and made a cup of tea and walked down a trail through the pines to a granite outcrop that jutted a dozen feet into the lake. I sat there, drank my tea, watched the park awake and fell head over heels in love with the world.

From my perch on “The Rock” I watched small mouthed bass nibble of insects along the short; saw red fox hunt mice in the tall grass; learned the habits of a family of beaver who had a lodge just a few hundred feet from my morning roust; witnessed osprey circling overhead, fish struggling in their talons; learned the language of a mob of turkey vultures that nested in a dead pine; became friends with Ralph the Heron who still-hunted on a small submerged island in the middle of the lake; and gave a wide birth to Igor the snapping turtle whose head was as big as my fist and who would prop himself up on The Rock to watch me watching him.

And I met Herald and Maude and Summer.

Herald and Maude were common loons who resided on Loon Lake and built their low nest three or four hundred meters from The Rock. I had just watched the movie Herald and Maude that past winter and was enamored with the life affirming message, so named these birds after the protagonists. From my position I watched them mate and watched Maude lay her eggs and a month or so later saw their single chick emerge from beneath Maude to climb on its mother’s back for the first time. Born on June 21st, my friend Laurie Belfour and I named the chick Summer.

I bought the mug soon after and drank tea out of it every day for the rest of that season.

I have moved it two dozen times since, and still drink tea from it at least once or twice a week. I have other favourite mugs now, but my loon mug has more meaning than all the other possessions in my house combined.

Someday it will break. It’s 21 years old, and has far exceeded its life expectancy.

So important is this mug that when I was separating from my partner in 2007 and we encountered a particularly rough patch, the one thing she thought to do that might hurt me was to break my mug. She knew that more than anything else this might cause me the kind of pain that I had caused her. Later she told me and we laughed – me a little nervously – about it.

But here’s the thing: the mug is already broken.

My loon mug is symbolic of a period in my life when I lived simply, deeply, passionately, and fully. I was very much in tune with nature, rising early, sleeping outside most of that summer. I paddled a canoe almost every morning and again late at night, slipping around the coves and bays of Loon Lake in complete silence, my paddle slicing the water as barred owls called back and forth across the water. Sometimes I paddled to work.

I thought, that summer, that I had found my own Walden, and that for a short while I was living as Henry David Thoreau had advised: deliberately. I did not want to discover when I came to die, that I had not lived.

The mug is symbolic of one of my first “awakenings.” I woke up a little that summer and discovered how much the world had to offer someone who had his eyes open.

Now the mug represents another such awakening: that nothing lasts forever, and that attachment to anything, especially something material, is foolhardy.

The thing does not contain the experiences it represents; when it’s gone, they won’t be. But even attachment to those experiences can keep us from living fully in the present, and so while I enjoy the memories, I’ve labored to let them go too.

When I look at the mug now I regard it as already broken.

Each of us is born with the absolute incontestable certainty that we will die. Everything in our lives is temporary; even the things we love most of all. Someday I will leave my children, or they will leave me, forever. My wife and I will be parted. My parent’s time will come. All of the things, the people, the places and the experiences we are attached to are ephemeral. They are already gone.

I don’t enjoy the cups of tea I drink from my loon mug any less because I know it’s already broken. I enjoy them more. Every cup of tea is savoured, the rich tapestry of my past and present congealing as if clay spinning into a vessel to be held in the hand. Knowing that at any time the mug might slip from my soapy grip and shatter on the kitchen’s hardwood floor, or be knocked onto the flagstone walk while I sit on the patio steps and enjoy afternoon tea makes me aware of the preciousness of the present moment experience.

Nothing lasts forever; only in the present moment can we celebrate what a thing, a person, a place or an experience brings, and feel the blessing to have been granted another day to live and love life.

And so the mug is at once already gone, and still so much a part of each day, and I am grateful for what a simple possession has taught me.

24 hours as a photographer

Recently I had the opportunity to take a whole day and concentrate on photography. Here’s a chronology of the experience.

4:30am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I get to shoot dawn to dusk.

4:31am: Remember that when I say shoot to my American friends they think I’m talking about something different.

4:32: Turn on kettle. I was so excited about this day that the night before I actually put the tea bag in my mug so I could save time.

4:34: Make tea. Drink it. Make more.

4:40: Car loaded the night before, I kiss Jenn goodbye and drive east on the Trans Canada towards Mount Yamnuska Natural Area.

4:50: The right lens falls out of my glasses. Foresee (pun intended) complications to my day.

4:51: Fix glasses while driving 110km/hour in the dark towards foothills.

5:05: Arrive at Mount Yamnuska Natural Area and begin hiking. My goal is sunrise photos from the ridge above the Bow Valley. After 25 years of shooting film, and more recently rearranging electrons (which sounds way less glamorous) I’ve got a contract with RMB | Rocky Mountain Books for Earth and Sky: A Foothills Journey to be published in 2015. I already have more than 2000 half decent images (and another 5 or 6,000 crappy shots) from the foothills shot over the last 18 years of exploration, but I want this book to be a perfect expression of my passion for this landscape, so I half run-half walk up the trail; I’m so excited to have this opportunity.

5:20: My first location yields little of value; I must climb higher. So I do.

5:45: I find the perfect location, so I set up again. Perfect location = something interesting in the foreground, in this case some lovely limestone, a great panorama of the Bow Valley and foothills, and the cresting sun. I get the image I came for. (Click images to enlarge)

6:30: In early July, with the forecast for 37 degrees C temperatures, the light is pretty much done for the day. The golden glow of sunrise has already turned harsh white. I start back down. More tea awaits in a thermos in the car.

7:30: Drive back into Canmore. My hope had been to head south towards the Porcupine Hills, but I’m holding my glasses together with gravity and the muscles of my nose, and that’s not going to work for long.

9:00: Get glasses fixed. Buy some groceries and when the liquor store opens, some beer.

11:00: After more delays, I’m on the road again.

1:30: Longview, Alberta. I forgot to call my publisher – the one who produces my fiction – and talk through some final edits for another book, so I do.

2:30: Porcupine Hills. The heat is intense and the light harsh, but I spend four hours driving around, taking different roads at random, finding dead ends, and stopping from time to time to take a few shots. I get one good image of an abandoned house (see below); the other 200 plus images are for posterity.

5:30: I drive the Skyline Road, the highest point in the Southern Porcupine Hills. The light is getting better so I stop more often and shoot.

6:30: I find a place to camp with a great view, and even better prospects for panorama’s from a crest above my tent site. Dinner and a beer.

7:30: Drive around until I get 1 bar of cell signal and call Jenn, who I miss already. Sniff. More beer.

8:30: The Show. I climb the hill above my camp, shooting rosy light on aspens as I go (see below) and then set up for some evening splendor. I’m not disappointed. I’ve been doing this since I was in grade 10, and all my life I’ve wanted to be a professional photographer, and here I am. I’m not going to waste this amazing opportunity. Every single time I press the shutter release I consider myself blessed.

10:15: The light gone, I make my way back to my campsite, stow my gear and crawl into bed, setting the alarm for 4:30. I’ve shot nearly 500 frames in one day.

4:30 am: Alarm goes off. Leap from bed. Big day. I don’t get to shoot from dawn to dusk straight through; I’ve got meetings and obligations, but I get from now until just after sunrise, and that too is a gift. I am blessed.