Thoughts and confessions

I f you travel to the national park just north of the 'chaudiere' of the Ottawa River where the Gatineau River arrives from the north and the Rideau River from the south, you will be setting foot on the southern escarpment of ancient mountains. The northern boreal forests and eastern woodlands mixed here over the past few thousand years among the lakes and ponds and stones left by the last glacier.
As the ice sheet retreated, the tides of the Champlain Sea washed against the shore. By trail or parkway, you will see outcrops of rocks covered, like blue whales, with a patina of lichen, or rolling in and out of the soil of the past 10,000 years. If you cross the proscenium at the boundary between the pathways and the woods, there is a world of ancient rock formations colonized by species of moss and lichen. You can still see the places where the water once rushed up and down fjords and gullies. Bore holes down which the melting ice cap ran to the sea. In the lower reaches of the Park it is easy to imaging a hilltop jutting out of the surrounding surf. The rocks on which barnacles and seaweed clung are now covered with moss and lichen, much older than the surrounding forest. Elsewhere: a huge boulder left perched incongruously beside a trail; an ancient landslide of round boulders; a solitary stone at the apex of two valleys; barren rock on the escarpments worn by ice as smooth as glass.
In the 1990s I began to consider the possibility of photographing these rocks. It became an idée fixe, and through repeated interpretations of one subject, patterns and ideas began to emerge. I wanted to reach the impersonal, the inanimate, the absolutely non biological in some way. If you look up at night perhaps there is a vast inanimate, and interstellar dust is lying right about us, at our feet, and predates everything about us and our environment. Here I could look at and consider the actual shape and material of the planet as it was when there was hardly an inkling of the forms of life that were to evolve.

Systematically I started to photograph the rock outcrops on 30 km of parkway in the four seasons, on foot, by bicycle and on ski. Long ago, during the building of the parkway in 1954-61 cuts were made in the hills which exposed rock cliffs with a wide variety of textures, colours and forms. I added these photographs to those of natural subjects I had taken over many years of rocks in other settings throughout the Park. Although many visitors routinely pass them by, there is an astonishing variety of colour and implied texture in these rocks.

How detailed does one go? The surface geology, the tectonics of the whole region, the ecology of lichens and mosses; the interplay of light on these surfaces, the generation of colour and hue, the chemistry of film and mechanics of the lens, the psychology of interpretation?
In what light and humidity conditions? How much real time to devote to the investigations? Much depends on inclination, desire, perseverance, chance. There are so many variables and such a wealth of information on only the simple subject of rocks, in these few hundred acres.

From perhaps a thousand slide images I selected a few based on technical and aesthetic rather than scientific, let us say geological, criteria. This means that an image can be reminiscent of a piece of abstract art. The photograph is capturing a real pattern in nature, not making an interpretation. Nonetheless, a human eye might see in these photographs of rocks something artistic: the designs and patterns of nature. And don't our cultural designs (textiles, paving stones, abstract art etc) reflect patterns in nature?

I wished to bring to the fore what was known about the cosmic origins of the elements that make up these rocks, and, for that matter, everything else. I read or reread titles by Barrow & Tippler, Darling, Davies, Greene, Hawking, Sagan, Smolin, Rees in astrophysics and cosmology. To paraphrase Sagan (Cosmos, 1980), 'Hydrogen, the simplest of all elements, has itself come to invent language, cities, art, science and to contemplate its own origins'

The exhibit, therefore, considers the absolutely pre-biotic and non-human things, galaxies and rocks, what is elemental, what underlies life - that which is there whether or not life evolves - that which makes up a rocky planet or moon.

As we look upon the Milky Way, or on another distant galaxy such as Andromeda, we know it must harbour life forms and civilizations.  Certainly the common thread between us and other sentient beings, aside from some form of mathematics and science, would be a sharing of the chemical elements and even more so a piece of rock, the most primeval piece of material.

P. Geldart