Yellowstone in Winter

I realise now that you can’t photograph Yellowstone in winter. It is not a still life.

Yellowstone is in constant motion. I don’t mean the animals. I mean Yellowstone.

Moving animals are easy to capture in an image. The camera can freeze a moment in time and convey every aspect of an animal in motion. Yellowstone, the place, is different.

I couldn’t help thinking to myself ” there is no Yellowstone”.  One minute it’s there and then it’s gone.

Like the mythical Brigadoon.

Like a lunar eclipse, which is not a thing in itself and can only be known by the phenomena it creates in the shadow of another planet. Yellowstone’s  presence, its outline, can only be extrapolated from ever-changing mists pierced by dazzling shafts of sunlight. Like flying over Antarctica and being unable to discern the outline of the coast, which is indistinguishable from the sea ice, so that the continent seems to go on forever, Yellowstone merges with the weather, the heat,  the freeze, air and light, to create a phenomenon that transcends the lines on a map indicating  Yellowstone and all its landmarks.

From one moment to the next, the whole scene before you can be transformed. Trying to see Yellowstone is like watching a slide show that seemlesslessly moves from one image to the next, each image fading in and out to merge with the next image, or suddenly disappearing.  Any photograph of Yellowstone in Winter gives the false impression that one might visit the park and see the scene in the photo but it is entirely possible that whatever was captured in the photo , only ever existed for a moment before disappearing for eternity. Yes there were vistas of hillsides and mountains, rivers and lakes. We stopped at all the landmarks, including the immense frozen waterfall that inspired Roosevelt to create the first national park. It was all very beautiful but I have seen more spectacular scenery than that. What I saw in Yellowstone is far more elusive . I witnessed unpredictable moments of awe and breathtaking  landscapes that no longer exist.

On the first morning I saw shafts of sunlight burst out from the branches of an enormous pine, towering high above my head. I watched the light twirl and contort as it strained to find its way through the branches. As it pushed through , the sunlight expanded, swelled, exploded and fanned out like the sunburst at the beginning of time. The tree was possessed by sunlight and levitated in its rays. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. We looked at each other. Is this really happenening? Can you see what I see? The world became a kaleidoscope of black and white, slowly turning to create a new picture with each twist, the mist softening and blurring the scene like a lens trying to focus. Not a splendid panorama: just a single pine tree, light and mist. It was unbelievable.

On the second day I saw some bison in the distance, shovelling snow. Just black shapes on a white canvas. Ubiquitous . Then the mist was gone  and the sky turned black . It was like the wind was arranging the sky into a curtain above the bison. The heavens were gathered up into lavish folds of fabric that draped perfectly  and evenly over the bison.  Nature had formed a black umbrella across the sky. Impossible.

Yellowstone is an illusionist, a magician, an artist. Views are created and vanished. A  silk handkerchief of mist is placed teasingly over the object of your interest, then dramatically whisked away to reveal the unexpected.

We walked out along a boardwalk that appeared from nowhere out of the mist and led us into the unknown. Surrounded by white, our feet gingerly stepping out into an abyss of white nothingness. You could feel the  breeze moving the mist, as if the world was made up of nothing but this primeval mist, changing and reforming  reality. Suddenly in front of my eyes was a vast sparkling whiteness that could have been the stars of the Milky Way. It was a scene of cosmic beauty that stretched out to the horizon and I had no idea what I was actually looking at. Later, when I looked at a map, I realized that what I had seen was Yellowstone Lake, frozen.

The stillness  and serenity of a landscape in constant motion is a strange thing.  Much like waves lapping against a shore has a rhythmic hypnotic quality.  A river babbling, flowing, fleeing.  The world’s largest volcano hides beneath the Earth’s crust, the thermal eruptions bubbling up in mud pools and shooting up in vents and geysers. The heat of the steam  collides with the frozen air and ground creating an other-worldliness that is suffused with powerful forces and yet drifts into consciousness with the quiet misty whisper of a dream.

I saw my son as a black silhouette in a quiet gentle storm of total whiteness, while tiny illuminated snowflakes danced around him like a million fire flies. We begged him to stay still. He had no idea he was part of an enchanted   scene that was alive with magic. We all stopped to photograph him. ” What’s going on? Can I move yet? ” Oblivious.

Two months later when I saw sublime video footage of that moment, I knew absolutely, how impossible it is to photograph Yellowstone.

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