It Feels Like Knowing A Secret
- story by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, photography by Martyn Lucas
Of the hundreds of decisions that had to be made quickly when my late husband Don Grierson died, only one was easy. I knew exactly where to scatter the ashes retrieved from the funeral home in an ugly brownish plastic box that looked like a cheap canister for flour.
Without announcing my intentions, I got into my old red pickup truck before dawn one September day and drove the eight hours from my hollow in Hill Country, North Mississippi, to Henderson, Louisiana, a workaday town on the Atchafalaya Basin. I got there around sunset, first day of duck season, coincidental timing but appropriate. Don was a duck hunter. He dearly loved the swamp.
Across the Bridge
Greg hooked his trailer and skiff to my truck and we were off, to Bayou Benoit, a beautiful spot in the Atchafalaya. We hummed into a spectacular sunset, Greg stopping near a cypress grove and simply nodding. Then he was quiet, almost invisible, as I scooped ashes a handful at a time and cast them like a net made of sand into the water.
“Knowing the Atchafalaya feels like knowing a secret,” Greg has written. And it does. I’ve found I don’t willingly share that secret with everyone, which perhaps is small of me. But too many times friends or relatives would visit our Henderson duck camp and miss the point. They would be looking for New Orleans, or Disney Cajuns, or something – I’m not sure what -- besides the natural beauty, which is the whole and absolute point. And besides, for me now it’s a family cemetery.
Mutual friends told me Martyn Lucas of Pass Christian wanted to photograph the swamp. “Who doesn’t?” I thought.
But then I saw Martyn’s work, his icebergs in Antarctica and the Arctic, his mostly black and white and profoundly true photographs of the natural world from all over the world. And I was eager to help.
Sure enough, Martyn fell in love. With the trees. With the swamp. With the people he met, with his guides Roy and Annie Blanchard. When he spoke or wrote about that first visit, you could almost hear Martyn hitting his palm against his forehead. After all, he’d traveled the world, exotic and faraway locations, but never been to the Atchafalaya.
“There was always an excuse,” he says, “it’s the summer, too hot and way too humid. The lure of the American Southwest, the excitements of Antarctica and the unknown regions of the Arctic.”
It was, he says, “time and my own impermanence” that finally made him decide to go and see the trees. “It is almost like a place to go and worship … something that exudes spiritualism.”
Martyn takes full advantage of the new camera technology, “which allows infinite control and repeatability,” yet there’s something pleasingly old-fashioned and thus profound about his photographs. They are not unlike a Karsh portrait, only his subjects are icebergs or cypress trees, but every bit as full of personality as a Winston Churchill or Fidel Castro.
“I use the camera to make sense and make art of the world,” Martyn has said, and it is true. Influenced by Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna and John Sexton, among others, Martyn’s photographs are like Hemingway prose. They are unadorned by dizzy color or frenetic activity.
A gregarious and generous man, Martyn grew up in England using his father’s black and white darkroom and learning “how to compose by the contrast of light and dark….” He is obsessed, not unlike Greg Guirard, with the environment and what is at stake in the natural world.
Martyn’s past focus had been the polar bear and the Arctic sea ice. Greg’s, for decades, has been the swamp. Both despise the political and business interests that are hastening the erosion of the environment. In one case, the sea ice is melting. In the other, the wetlands are disappearing. But climate change is the culprit, the evil common denominator.
One way to fight the urgent scenario is to capture the beauty of what will be lost. That is what Martyn does to perfection.
He likes to quote Charlie Parker, who said, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts and your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
Martyn Lucas is living it, and the silent music is deafening.