Poetry and Pictures of Water- Of All Things Most Yielding

(Phil Norton/County Photographer)

PHIL NORTON

COUNTY PHOTOGRAPHER

Call the plumber! Call the roofer! Fireman, farmer, fisher—so many professions around here depend on water in one way or another.

Add tourism and real estate and even photography to that list.

In case you never realized it, we live in a maritime world. Surrounded by Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte, water is an everyday part of life in Prince Edward County. It has been since before the Mohawks paddled to the Tyendinaga shores, and Loyalists sailed in from the USA, and kite-surfers from Montreal discovered Lakeshore Lodge.

We live on an island (if the Murray Canal counts as a shoreline). Formerly known as Quinte’s Isle, The County has always promoted water, water everywhere for tourism—think Sandbanks of course. Fishing, paddling, and sailing are favourite activities here thanks to our water bodies — Great Lake Ontario, “Black Crick” and numerous shorelines, beaches and waterfalls.

Scenes of water appeal to artists and art-buyers. Stillness with mirror-like reflections (á la Claude Monet) or waves crashing and spraying against the rocks, there are infinite moods and constant changes through the seasons and conditions.

As the plein air artists set their easels with blank canvases on the bluffs, the landscape photographers wander and wait for a masterpiece to appear. They make repeat visits to pose the same bare roots of trees clinging to the crags and the same endless waterscapes, only different, depending on the sun and clouds. Some days the calm water and pastel sky appear to blend together as one with no visible horizon.

Sometimes you can capture a dramatic sunset if you notice it about to occur, when the glowing orange ball is sinking and synching perfectly with an opening in the grey cloud front.

Experience and intuition are the nature photographer’s most valuable tools for lining up a shot. It might be on the spur of the moment to run and climb to the best vantage point and catch the decisive moment, or it might be a planned shoot with the hunch that the chilly night will probably produce a low mist or tentacles of hoar frost. You just have to push yourself out of bed before dawn to get such pictures.

Moving water like waves and cascades can be photographed artistically by blurring the motion. This was done by early glass plate photographers through long time exposures on steady tripods simply because their “film” emulsion was not light-sensitive enough to freeze the motion with a faster shutter.

Look up William Henry Jackson who photographed the American West in the 1860s and William Notman in Canada around the same era. Nowadays with smart phone apps you can simulate that effect by merging multiple photos taken over time.Try snapping a 3 second “Live” image with an Apple iPhone then click “Edit” and then “Long Exposure”. It softens the waterfalls into a bridal veil effect and makes the wild lake waves look smooth and misty.

As a teenager with a camera, I was given a book of Taoist poetry and water photography called, “Of All Things Most Yielding”. They were dreamy artistic nature scenes of water, plants and rocks by John Chang McCurdy. The book title comes from this poem by Lao Tzu: “What is of all things most yielding can overcome that which is most hard, being substanceless, it can enter in even where there is no crevice. That is how I know the value of action which is actionless. But that there can be teaching without words, value in action which is actionless few indeed can understand.”

(Phil Norton/County Photographer)

Water is a metaphor for life. Yielding rather than struggling. Giving in and going around. Go with the flow. In my photographic adventures I have witnessed how water has worn down rocks over time, even carved out canyons, and split boulders by seeping into cracks then freezing with the force of a steel wedge. There is also an expression, “Water Is Life,” that has become the slogan of conservationists.

“Mni Wiconi” was the cry during the 2016 Standing Rock Sioux uprising against an oil pipeline across their territory. Rather than be called protesters, they preferred protectors, putting their lives on the line in the face of armoured vehicles and tear gas in defence of the life-giving river. That summer I drove from Picton to North Dakota to photograph the largest gathering of indigenous people since the Battle of Greasy Grass a.k.a. Custer’s Last Stand. Then in 2020 I stood alongside the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte where Warriors blockaded the railroad in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people opposing a gas pipeline in BC. People who live with nature understand that polluted water destroys the interconnected web of life.

In 2005 I contributed to a photo book and exhibit on water for a Canada-wide network of professional photojournalists called Photosensitive based in Toronto. That theme took us into every aspect of society because water is integral to every part of life on Earth.

As for our water in PEC, sometimes there’s not enough and sometimes too much. Quinte Conservation manages water resources not only for quality but for quantity. From early spring melt to late summer heat the levels of streams, lakes and aquifers fluctuate between flood and drought. You can see the monitoring stations used by their hydrogeologists at the Milford and Macaulay Mountain Conservation Areas. Measurements of precipitation, evapotranspiration, river flow and groundwater levels allow them to create a water budget—what comes in and what goes out. Armed with such raw data, the local science experts can show you clearly on their graphs that climate change is evident here.

Rural residents learn the worth of water when the well goes dry. Our rocky terrain that provides plentiful limestone for the cement plant doesn’t hold a dependable supply of groundwater for drinking. Many homeowners purchase and haul water to fill their cisterns. Imagine living in arid parts of the world as the planet warms.

Townspeople, do you know where your drinking water comes from, how it is sucked out of the lake, chemically treated and delivered through pipes under the streets? In Picton did you know your sewage wastewater flows uphill? With the help of a pumping station, of course.

And why do you think County taxpayers are financing a multimillion dollar water tower in Wellington? Because you can’t build hundreds of new homes if you don’t have an adequate year-round water supply. Kids learned that playing the 1990’s video game SimTown.

Although private homes and hotels around Wellington have made the shores inaccessible to the general public, thankfully the foresighted and charitable Rotary Club protected the picturesque beach with picnic shelter, boat launch and harbour light. Tourists have to pay this year, but with proof of PEC residency you can obtain a free summer parking pass from Shire Hall.

Way out of town, it’s no longer a secret that Point Petre is a favourite place of photographers for seascape scenes in all seasons. Wildlife thrives at the boundary between forest and lake with minks denning in the rock crevices and large woodpeckers finding plenty of nesting cavities in the wind-dried trees. The open water on the edge of ice harbours arctic ducks during the winter. It’s definitely one of the best dark sky areas for stargazing. Go before or after the biting fly season.

Locals have been coming to the Point for generations for a mix of activities ranging from swimming and partying to off-roading and duck hunting. Anything goes at Point Petre. To the bane of nature lovers, there’s even a new commercial monster tire amphibious vehicle that carries customers into the marshes and over boulders along the scenic shore. Water is life; water is poetry; water covers 3/4 of the Earth’s surface and surrounds Prince Edward County.

Water draws tourists and is an essential element in landscape art and photography. Go to www.countyphotographer.com to post your own water scenes and find tips on how to explore The County and upcoming photography workshops.