The path not taken


Let’s start with something simple. What makes this photo so appealing?

This comes from a recent January meet with the Nantucket-Treweryn Beagles in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. It’s a view of an interior road of a largish farm in a rural area. Despite the timeless air to the place, I know these oaks are less than 100 years old, and that the path probably intersects a public road not far from where it vanishes here, but none of that matters to how the picture registers with me.

There are formal elements that are pleasing — the straight lines of the fences contrasted to the winding line of the lane, the various vertical angles, the flat lane against the low hillocks in the distance, the proportions of sky to land. But I find I have projected personalities and narrative into the scene, and that is the foundation of its appeal to me.

The oak trees own or guard this path, the one in front clearly the leader, with the others, lightning-shortened and leaning deferentially, in his court. Only the king oak reaches into the full sky. This is a numinous, fairy-tale setting: if I start down that path into the unknown dark, I will surely have an adventure and my life will be changed.

Without the path, the oaks would be handsome but story-less. Without the stormy lower sky, the path would be less of a gateway — the darkness is not necessarily sinister, just unknowable. The formal receding lines of fence and path create a visual focus of interest in the dark place where the path vanishes from sight, and that synchronizes with my curiosity and pulls me into the shadow.

The king oak may thrust into the well-lit winter sky, but his minions are trapped in the darkness. If I pass the guardian, nothing will stay my feet from trying to discover what lies beyond.

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