ART333 Photo Essay Assignment- February 2019. Feel free to click on the images to see higher quality versions!


My walk through the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve began with the 20 minute walk from the dining hall, through Main building, and down Raymond to the road leading into the main Vassar farm. Since my ankle was hurting, it took longer than usual, but it was around four o’clock and the sun was at its brightest in the early evening sky. The sky was a saturated baby blue, and the sun was shining through the trees, capturing their shadows on the ground. After walking past Skinner Hall, my friend and I tried to cross the road, but the crosswalk was broken. We did not know at first until it did not make any noises when we pressed the button. A few cars and a jogger passed on the other side of the street, and we decided to run across. As we made our way towards the farm, the chilly air and partially melted snow took over the area. I had originally planned to walk around the main farm and back further than usual, but my friend pointed out a sign for a different trail called “Swain Trail.” It was off to the right, directly before the above bridge. Dappled with sunlight and mostly clear of snow, we decided to veer off and take this route.

When turning right, the sun flowed into my eyes. I first noticed that the early part of the trail was meant to trace around a large pond. For as far as I could see, shrubbery and small bushes lined the right side of the trail. As there had been a snow day a few days before, the lake was partially frozen with a thin sheet of ice coating it. As we began to walk along the trail, I found myself looking at the pond more than at the ground. The first part of the trail was made up of small stones mixed with grass and a little bit of snow off to one side of the trail. It was thin and manicured- it consisted of ample walking space, and nothing obscured it. We continued to curve around the lake, surrounded by the low shrubbery and high cattails.


Because the weather had been volatile leading up to the day we walked, the sheet of ice above the pond was thin and melting in holes. The arms of the plants reached out over the water and upwards, lifeless and tan due to the winter months besides the occasional splash of everlasting green or red from a stray berry. In the same area, fallen trees emerged from the ice. Some branches came up out of the water and went back down, like the leg of a large beast about to come out of the water but frozen in time. It was hard to see where the lake ended, but the water was cradled on both sides by hills covered in trees surrounded by patchy snow.

I started to think about the berries. Their stoicism astounded me- they powered through the winter! I suppose they are native to the local area. After a google search for “ugly wild red berries,” I found an Etsy listing for some seeds for “red chokeberry.” Those look very similar, but they could also be some variation of holly. According to the USDA website, they are perennial shrubs that are native to the eastern parts of Canada and the United States, and westward to Texas. Considering I am from the South, it makes sense that I thought of these as ugly red berries and not nice berries that stay throughout the winter.


The more I walked, the more the trail continued to hug the side of the lake. Sometimes the view was unobscured, but more often than not the edges of the trail were walled in by shrubbery or or wild growing plants. I heard the familiar crunching of snow-covered ice beneath my feet, but the shadows of the trees on the lake caught my attention. When taking this photo, I became very annoyed with one of the broken tree stumps in the middle. Every time I thought I had a nice composition, it would appear directly in the center of my photograph, drawing attention to itself. I didn't realize how important even the smallest details like that were in composing a landscape. Though this was primarily a photographic problem, the ice on the lake would have looked much more pristine and beautiful without that blemish. It really made me consider what the area would look like at different times in its history. Since the pond seems to have originally been a creek, its entire existence was fabricated for the nature preserve. It made me wonder, what happened to that tree that made it into the sad stump that it is now?


In this image, the sun highlighted the snow so beautifully that I was very sad I could not get a picture without the lens flare. If anything, I suppose it shows the angle of the sun’s rays and how nicely lit the trail had become. On both sides of the trail were sections of the pond, glimmering in light. There was no ambiguity that we were going the right way. In this picture in particular, it becomes evident that the sun’s movement and heat along with shadows have an effect on where and when the snow melts. It also seems that the far right of the trail is much more trodden than the left, as the snow is much higher and enveloping the shrubbery.

Near this point, my friend got pricked by a thorn while walking too close to the side of the pond on the left hand side (possibly why less people walk there?). Pretty soon, we saw an older couple walking towards us with their dog. While we passed the woman, she also got pricked by a thorn on her jacket and had trouble unhooking herself. We asked if she needed any help, and she said she was fine, while finally becoming uncaught and caught again by another swinging thorny vine.


Though some architectural elements could be seen from the other side of the trail, the more enthralling view was the translucent finish on top of the lake. The sun rays refracted on the surface of the ice, creating a matte finish and taking in the details that the trees’ shadows cast upon it. The grass surrounding the lake was in a mess towards the ground, but a few of the pieces reached up through the broken parts. This could have been a remnant from previous visitors, breaking the grasses to try to get a better view. From here, the snow became slightly thicker in the areas where it hadn't melted completely. It was crunchy in some areas where it had been compressed and softer in others.

On the other side of the trail, tangles upon tangles of small, thorny branches blocked the view of the shore. Since they were darker than the grasses shown above, they created a silhouette of masses that masked the icy surface of the water. Up close, the ice had bubbles in it from where air got trapped. It looked akin to the surface of the earth while on an airplane traveling over the ocean. A few steps later, I noticed a bird’s next amongst the tangle. I couldn’t tell if its inhabitants were present or not, but it seemed to be the equivalent of a cozy home with an ocean view.


As we kept walking, the trail began to diverge from the lake. The more I looked around, the more I noticed how much the landscape had been altered for visitors who were treading the trail. These three logs were particularly noticeable. Once grand trees, they had fallen and were cut up and parts removed so that people could safely enjoy their nice walk around the pond. Lichen was growing on their halted trunks, and light spilled over their lifeless bodies surrounded by grasses. Were the trees fallen and left for people to look at as a monument to the trees that once stood, or were they left due to logistical reasons of weight?
In contrast to the human alteration of the landscape, I noticed a feather on the ground in a patch of melted snow. It would have camouflaged well, but it sat alone, maybe hoping to be picked up by a springtime visitor. However, it snowed again very soon after this visit, so it probably was covered again and ruined. I noticed some more red berries as well as some twisting vines that would have made a nice macro photograph. They spiraled around each other like knots, and I could tell that if they were separated they would not make it on their own.


As the trail widened out and had more snow and less footprints, eventually, we got to a point where “Swain Trail” intersected with another pathway. We approached the orange sign, thinking that we might be taking the wrong path while walking in the other direction. On our way there, I noticed a blue plastic marker with the Vassar College logo on it nailed to a tree. However, the sign was signaling the start of another trail, “North Trail.” We took a look at the sign and considered going in that direction. However, my friend was wearing canvas Converse and had stepped in the snow, so we decided to continue onwards on Swaine. Additionally, North trail was not as trodden and mainly in shade, as evidenced by the amount of packed down i.e. that comprised of the first few meters that were visible. North was labelled as being .68 miles long, and we were about a fourth of the way on the 0.3 miles of our current route. Around here, I noticed that there was a woodpecker sound. However, it was very loud and mechanical, so I am unsure if it was a person, machine, or bird.


At this point, the sun was getting lower in the sky and the trail had diverged from the lake even more. There was less ice covering the snow, and the effect that the shadows of the trees had on the melting of the snow became more and more obvious. Often, the snow would be nearly completely intact on one side of the road and melted on the other side of the road. The sun was so bright here that I could not avoid the lens flare on the right of the image. The grass was pretty much dead under the snow, and it made a similar crunching noise as the ice on the snowy part did. I chose to walk in the snow as I was wearing proper shoes and I felt the need to traverse on the parts with no footsteps. The footsteps that were there, though, were very well preserved and likely new. They had not yet had the chance to melt away, and it was interesting to see how different visitor’s trips were documented via the imprints of the soles of their shoes or how close together their steps were.

Because I wanted to listen to nature, I did not listen to music during the walk. However, my friend and I decided on a short playlists hat we felt captured the way we felt during the walk:

“I Want Tomorrow” by Enya

“Rusalka, Rusalka/ Wild Rushes” by The Decemberists

“Gregorian Chant Remix”

“Shadout Mapes” by Grimes


At this point we were nearing the end of the trail. As North Trail almost connected back to Swaine Trail, we knew we would have to turn back soon. I noticed this thicket of trees that seemed to completely cover the horizon and landscape as far back as I could see. I had to get in the bushes to take a photo without the presence of too many twigs that would have been in the shallow depth of field. The bushes provided a cover from the forest, on both the right and left sides of the trail. This image was on the right. The sun was setting more and more, and the rays reflected against the left of the trunks. In the woods, the melting of the snow was very splotchy, signifying the shadows and highlights created by the canopy of trees during the day. I took a few snapshots of the moon rising above the canopy of trees from a different angle, and their leafless branches provided a nice frame for its small appearance on my camera.


We were almost to the very end of the trail when the snow began to completely cover the walking area and my friend’s shoes had become completely soaked. The presence of the intersection of North Trail, some buildings, and a fence showed us that it was nearly time to turn back. Though it was a human constructed trail, seeing the fence and buildings at the end was sad. This semi-manufactured look at nature stopped very abruptly with the obvious signs of life right outside of the special trail. If we had chosen a longer route, I am sure it would have been different, but since it was getting dark, we decided to say farewell and see the way we came from the reverse, stopping periodically to take photos.


Looking back from the end, my friend ran far ahead of me so that she could stand in the grass next to the snow on the pathway on a less covered area, so that her feet would no longer be in severe pain. She wanted me to catch up, but I was too busy listening to hear the ever present crunching of snow and an airplane passing overhead. Since the sun was almost setting and the light was nowhere near as intense as it was before, it was hard to capture the evening sunset’s glow on the scene. Though my friend protested, I stopped to take a photo of some dog’s footprints on the ground in front of me. I wonder if they were from the couple we passed by earlier on the walk?

When I caught up with her, the sky had become a nice baby blue with cirrocumulus clouds passing by. I gazed up at them and noticed that they intersected with an airplane trail. The clouds had an evening glow that illuminated them with the same pinks that were taking over the sunset. I saw a male cardinal in a tree, but when I tried to capture it, the red was turned into a silhouette in the branches of the trees. However, it did not fly away as we walked by; it was safe in its protective tree branch.


As we walked back, the same buildings from earlier on the walk reappeared. Since the sun was too low in the sky, the lighting had become even and I had to open up the aperture to get a nice image. The clouds were hanging low in the sky, and showed a contrast of blue and orange from the sun. Due to the moving water in the lake moving into the creek or from body of water to body of water, some parts of the lake were not frozen leading into the moving areas.

On my way back to the road, I began to notice some litter- a plastic bottle or a plate. It was sad to see people hurting the landscape. The entire demeanor of the place had changed from early evening to right as the sun had disappeared- the light had lost its fierceness, and everything had become a flat color. It was still beautiful, but it lacked the picturesque dimension in lighting that it had before. Walking down the road back to campus, I looked at the winding road back to the main farm that I had walked on a few times before. I looked at the visual rhythm that the human-made guardrail made, and the non-spontaneity of the pattern on the asphalt. Then I looked back at the trees and their forms that they grew into without any help, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the landscape would have looked like if the ponds hadn’t been created, the barn hadn’t been built, or those stumps hadn’t ever been cut. However, my walk on the trail made me want to return again in the spring, no questions asked. I want to see if anyone has picked up the feather or carved their name into a tree trunk on the ever-changing trail.

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