Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What a Blanket of Cemetery Snow Can Reveal

There is something very intimate about being in a snow-covered cemetery by yourself. Especially if you’re driving up and down snow-covered hilly roads and can potentially get stuck. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania’s Hollenback Cemetery in the snow should be part of a driver’s education program. Seriously – a seventeen-year-old passes a driver’s test – big deal – he or she can perform a K-turn. Why is winter driving, driving under the MOST DANGEROUS of conditions, left to on-the-job training?

Hollenback Cemetery Gatehouse on River Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA
But I digress. On this frigid (17 degree) day in early February, I was carefully maneuvering my car up the partially-plowed slope leading to the mausoleums and monuments you see in the photo at top, being careful to keep my drive wheel on the plowed asphalt. One swath of all the roads had been plowed the night before, it seemed, but wind had drifted the snow onto both sides of the swath. Maybe five feet of asphalt was exposed. And they don’t salt cemetery roads.

Hollenback was open this morning – wrought iron gates open, utility vehicles parked near the quaint gatehouse, so if I got stuck, there would almost certainly be people around to laugh. As you’re navigating the uphills and downhills here, the possibility exists that your car can just slide off a steep embankment and get hung up on headstones. Not good. So I was pretty careful. Sometimes, when the drifting snow totally covered the (assumed) roadway, I had to back up and turn around. I spent just an hour there, driving around slowly and taking in the snow-capped beauty. The cemetery overlooks the Susquehanna River, which seemed a mere frozen stream, from this high above its banks.

Within five minutes of arriving, I stopped on a steep uphill grade so I could make this photo (above) of the contemplative old man statue, hoping that I could later regain enough traction to continue my ascent or back down the hill without sliding off! The light was gorgeous, just after sunrise, so that shadows, shapes, and silhouettes were plentiful.

Very rarely did I get out of my car, preferring to make photos from my car’s windows. However, at one point when I saw this small, familiar headless angel (below), I knew my zooms wouldn’t reach. I parked the car in the middle of the road (I mean, who would be fool enough to be driving in a snow-covered cemetery? I didn’t think I’d be blocking traffic) and climbed uphill through fifteen-inch crusty drifts to get to the headstone angel. I’d photographed seriously here at Hollenback a few times, so the angel, as well as a few other sights, were familiar to me. One of my habits is to return to familiar areas in different weather conditions, and snow just makes everything look different.

Headless Angel
Some sights were not familiar. If you’re walking through a graveyard, your line of sight is different from when you are scanning the scenery from a car window. You wouldn’t think a couple feet difference would be so critical, but it often is – almost as critical as walking in the opposite direction. Things just look way different in a cemetery from different directions. In a basic way, mostly all the fronts of headstones, monuments, and statues will be facing the same direction! Why is that? The subject of another blog, I suppose.

The Empty Bed
Snow draws your attention to certain things that may be overlooked otherwise. Like this little marble bed sculpture – no doubt a child’s grave – I would never have noticed it but for the snow and my low car-window vantage point. The entire monument only about a foot square, with the remnant of a flower on its pillow. We think that a blanket of snow would just cover up detail – and it does, to a degree. But unless you’re in a memorial park with all flush-to-the-ground grave markers, a walk (or drive) through a snow-covered cemetery can reward you with some interesting photographs.

Hollenback Cemetery, out my car's side passenger window

I photographed the headless angel on the headstone, but was not terribly thrilled with the result, as this particular grave marker is in the shadow of some large trees. But then – and I would have totally missed this if I had stayed in the car – I noticed the nearby snow-covered crypt with this amazing epitaph carved into its base:

 I had seen this crypt a number of times and have never been satisfied with the images I’d made of it. But the snow provided such contrast that the words jumped out. If you’re serious about your art, its easy to get so carried away with the scene you’re photographing that you don’t pay attention to anything else. However, every one of those 17 degrees was beginning to numb the tips of my gloved fingers. Just a couple more images with my other camera before I lose feeling in my fingertips ….

Not paying attention to my surroundings almost killed me some years ago. I was standing on the summit of Aspen Mountain in Colorado, with my camera, photographing the awesome sight of an airplane flying between two mountain peaks – below me! The top of the mountain where I was skiing is 11,242 feet above sea level. I stepped backward to change my angle of view and stepped right off the hard-packed "Snow-Cat" track on which I had been standing! I found myself floundering in a snow drift up to my neck! I grabbed onto the Sno-Cat track and hauled myself up on to terra firma (or actually, just packed snow). You only have to do that once to be forever vigilant in such situations.

A Hollenback mausoleum's forbidding doors

Granted, a jaunt through a cold and snowy cemetery is not as life-threatening as being buried alive, suffocating in a snow drift, but there is the threat of frostbite to the face and fingers. Art is one thing, but to live on the edge while you’re making it brings a natural, well, edginess, to one's work!