The 10,000 Things

photo: accidentOur everyday encounter with infinity takes many paths. It can start half-watching late-night TV only to be brought wide awake by a ton of steel and plastic slamming into a telephone pole. I dash outside into the thin rain. Neighbors join me in the dark. The careless 18-old woman is okay, but every window in her Saturn sedan is shattered; the front end, smashed. Then a macho pickup truck comes around the corner, sees the accident, and stops suddenly in the middle of the street. The lights on top start to flash their warning but it is too late: the brakes of the car immediately behind the truck vainly squeal on the wet road. Now we have two accidents.

"Why did you do that?" I complain to the truck driver, who turns out to be a volunteer firefighter. "You caused another accident!"

"No I didn't! I had my lights flashing!" he says.

There's nothing more for me to say. I walk to the intersection to direct traffic down the side roads, away from the accidents. Like the firefighter, I want to be helpful. During a lull in the traffic, I get my camera and tripod; I don't want to be that helpful! The raspberry light in the flare's smoke is beautiful.

Days later, wondering how the intersection can be made fool proof, I notice trees on my leasehold and others obscure the traffic lights. I trim my trees, dragging the severed limbs into a huge pile that later gets cut up into plastic bags to be recycled.

Photo: Pin Oak leavesI wonder again about these trees under my care: how they grow, how they branch, and their names. Such curiosity quickly becomes grandiose, a bad habit of mine. I fantasize photographing each type of plant on our leasehold, then putting the photos and what information I can find about each plant on this website, creating a survey that might be helpful to others who, like me, may not know the plants in their care.

I start by photographing the leaves of the tree I know best, the white oak. Then I am uncertain. Is it a white oak, or some other kind? I am terrible with names. Vanderbilt University's Bioimages website has the answer. It is a pin oak. But how should I photograph it? If the photo is for identification, the background should be plain. I try a white background, but there are too many distracting shadows. I hang the leaves on a string in front of my stereo speakers. I like the resulting photo, but creating it takes so much time that shooting scores of them for my survey will take forever. This is a problem, one in common with most of my brilliant ideas. Inspired, I start a new project, only to discover how much work is involved. That doesn't mean I give up the ideas, only that I add them to the 10,000 things on my To Do List.

The phrase, "the 10,000 things," appears frequently in Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching, starting with the first chapter and appearing again in chapters 32, 34, 39, 40, 42, 62, and 64. (Note, each chapter is perhaps ten sentences.) Want to know what 10,000 things look like? Vanderbilt University's Bioimages website has 10,170 images of plants on its plant identification website.

Photo: roses, no petalsLao Tsu wants people to look away from the 10,000 things and to look instead towards the nameless, the beginning, the source. He doesn't call it a who, doesn't identify it with the person of God, but his teachings are not antithetical to most Christians. To learn more about the Tao (which cannot be learned or taught), I highly recommend the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, a book which has, in part, inspired my own PhotoPrayer website with its mix of photos and prayers. I am delighted to say that the Feng/English translation is still in print, 36 years after its first publication.

Meanwhile, inspired by my photograph of pin oak leaves, I have just photographed some wilted roses that have lost their petals. My working title for the photo above is, "The queen rejects the suitors." Shall I create a gallery of plant portraits? Not tonight!

—Danny Schweers, 9/28/2008

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