I SAW THEM YESTERDAY, HUNKERED AT THE EDGE of the lake. Canada geese, beaks tucked under their wings, feet nowhere to be seen. Feral pillows. This morning they’ve transformed into alarm clocks, all going off at once. Half-awake, I lie in bed and listen to their honking, to the heater’s slow tap, to rainwater dripping off the roof. The rain ended as I slept.
Red and yellow spaceships battle over every square inch of bedsheet. Aside from the bed, the lamp on its pink table and my pack in the corner, there is just the window, wide open. Without lifting my head I watch chipmunks scurrying up and down tree trunks, sunlight glinting through broad branches that shift in the breeze. I can smell the damp pine needles carpeting the sides of the road. The geese’s brass section is a prelude to the rest of an orchestra: flutes tuning up across the creek, a flock of clarinets passing overhead, now and then a tambourine. I remember where I am. I wish I’d brought a tape recorder.
I did bring a camera. My Zenit EM is a monster, an indestructible Russian-built contraption handed down to me by my dad. It has an enormous dent in its metal and a selenium light meter that, mysteriously, does not require batteries. My pack is heavy with it, and with canisters of black and white film I rolled myself in the university darkroom before leaving Corner Brook. I also have a binder full of photocopies describing darkroom chemistry and printing techniques, things I’ve only recently learned but will spend the summer teaching dozens of seven-to-seventeen-year-olds. Dad
dropped me off yesterday morning, then turned around and drove back to the border. On the map we discovered that Camp Canadensis is very near a town in Pennsylvania named Newfoundland, although I’m told they don’t pronounce it the same way.
I study the fragment of canopy and sky framed by the window and think about my Zenit, its viewfinder roughly the same proportions as this window, its dark interior roughly the same proportions as this room, and me lying here approximately where the film would be. I’m nervous. I’ve never been a camp counsellor before. I don’t know anyone here, and sometimes I find it hard to meet people. I know I need to open up in a way that does not come naturally, to find ways to make myself receptive. I think about the way my camera’s aperture blades scissor light so precisely. The way its mirror flips up to let light in. I jump out of bed.
Wind shakes shadows loose from the forest as I walk around the lake for the first time. At every turn in the trail, white exclamation points of deer vanish as soon as I spot them. I count at least twenty. Chipmunks are too numerous to count, and birds seem less an animal than an ambiance, a layer of atmosphere. In just a few days I’ve also seen a salamander, two groundhogs and a bear.
Last night was the first I closed the window, and this morning there was snow on the ground. Late May, and the local counsellors grumbled at the unseasonable cold, although to me it made the place feel more like home—not so much the snow but the unpredictability of the spring weather here, high in the Poconos. Brian joked that I’d brought the snow from Canada.
Haven’t taken any photos until today, but as I follow the path around the lake, Zenit in hand, I think about how I’ve been making photos in other ways. My notebook is not unlike a camera. Even this cut on my thumb is a kind of visual record. The pocketknife slipped and my body opened briefly to admit it, like a photo snapped by accident. It will leave a scar. Everything feels photographic, even my footprints, mud on my sandals, my breath in the morning air. The way the overnight snow melts last from the shadows. It’s cold enough for snow and yet several of the counsellors have sunburns already. I never burn, but tan lines trace a negative of my clothes on my skin. At the end of every day my face feels like a candle set alight by the sun and wind.
Spent the day bouncing along backwards on pickup trucks. Odd jobs all around the camp, mostly clearing away last year’s leaves: scraping gunk out of gutters, raking the baseball diamond, vacuuming debris from the pool.
Having been one of the first to arrive, I’ve been watching camp slowly fill up. Every day there are more people in line to use the staff computer, or wandering in search of cell reception. They’ve moved us into the old infirmary temporarily so we can clean the cabins before everyone arrives. The roof leaks in heavy rain, and we placed frisbees around the room to catch drips. Mike joked that we should just drill a hole in the floor under every drip. There’s still only a few dozen of us so far, but there will be more than 200 by the time we start orientation. Then, soon afterwards, 400 campers.
Yesterday I came across Sharon and Mika huddled in the shade by the dining hall. They had an egg carton cradling a tiny bird they’d found at the base of a tree. The bird was curled into the shape of an egg. Sharon was feeding it yolk with an eyedropper. “The sun is too bright for it,” she said. “It’s not ready to be out in the world. It would be warmer inside but I wonder if it might rather be outdoors, when it goes.”
Why is my first instinct to photograph the bird? It didn’t feel right to take its picture, so I resisted. Its eyes haven’t even opened. It’s a soft oval of nerves and veins, almost an eyeball itself, its pale skin slightly translucent. Its mouth blinks open and shut, accepting drops of yolk like yellow light. Sharon is the only sun it knows.
I spend an afternoon setting up the darkroom, plugging light leaks with garbage bags, rigging up a guard for the light switch, improvising a safelight out of an old light table. I glue a paper arrow to the clock’s second hand to make it more visible under the safelight, figure out how to connect the enlargers to the timers. I wash and rinse trays, beakers and tongs. I open all the windows in the outside room and set up a fan to flush out the stale chemical smell.
What is a darkroom? A place where we dissect dead light, perform precious autopsies. What if, instead of blocking out the sun, we channelled in as much light as possible? Maybe, once camp begins, I can convince everyone to help gather all the sunlight falling on the cabins, the pool, the baseball diamond. Counsellors can rip out bathroom mirrors, position them in careful arrays. Kids can string up clotheslines, hanging all the plates and cutlery so they gleam, and the
kitchen staff will unroll a summer’s worth of aluminum foil. We’ll drag the greenhouse into place to welcome all that light. We’ll get the rocketry kids to fire warning shots at any clouds, and at night we’ll cajole the sun back with bonfires and singalongs.
While we’re chopping up watermelons, Brian tells me about Lake Lenape. The creek was dammed in the mid-1800s, like many in this part of the country, for ice harvesting. This was in the days before refrigeration. They’d let the artificial lake freeze to a certain depth, saw the surface into blocks, then pry up the ice, pack it in sawdust, and send it to New York City by horse-drawn cart. Fortunes were made and lost in the ice trade. There were ice wagons, ice ships, ice barons. Frederic Tudor shipped ice from New England to the Caribbean, to Cuba, even as far as India.
The sound of the rain here is startling. It penetrates the cabin so easily, and I woke up thinking there was a woodpecker on the outside wall. Rain alters the colour of light, the density and weight of air, the patterns of animals. As we hiked around the lake this morning, the last drops teased out a pair of dragonflies, then a glitter-green beetle that one of the campers squished so she could get a better look at it.
My camera is utterly inadequate. Even colour film wouldn’t make a difference. It omits sound, touch, smell, taste. It captures a toad in my hand but not its frantic heartbeat, nor the wet, clammy prod of its knees against my palm. This lens doesn’t even understand depth the way my two eyes do. When Charise and I peered at the little insect she’d swatted out of the air, its compound eyes glittered with secrets. It seemed so much better equipped for interpreting the interconnectedness of things. How can I photograph the world that way? I imagine all the leaves of a tree folded into pinhole cameras, making long exposures in the wind. A swarm of bees each returning to the hive with pollen of a different colour, wriggling out a map of nearby botany. Or finding a way to focus water droplets so that, instead of a rainbow, they project a picture of the landscape as seen by a cloud.
On overnight duty, I tend the cabin like a campfire as it slowly burns off energy. Even after lights-out there’s the inevitable hour of chatter, cursing, confiscated flashlights, thrown pillows. The campers eventually fall asleep, and I sit on the deck outside, writing. Last week another group of campers toilet-papered their cabin, and Brian
and I spent an hour pressure-washing dried paper from shingles. My notebook fills up with ballpoint ink and the blood of flattened mosquitos. A marauding skunk wanders over to a nearby garbage can and I grab one of the Super Soakers from the cabin roof to fend it off. We started storing the waterguns on the roof after Danny and Alex put bleach powder in one of them and chased Rory all the way to the lake. Mike bawled them out. You could have blinded him!
Four of the boys smuggled a video camera out of the media lab and pointed it at a mousetrap overnight. They managed to catch a mouse being bisected by the trap, and Sharon and I caught them playing their snuff film over and over, hooting and hollering. They paused it to show us the frame-by-frame, pinpointing the exact moment the creature’s eyes went from white to not. Two bright dots in the grainy black and white. Sharon made them bury the mouse.
All this happens, and then I pick up a scrap of paper from the photo lab floor to find myself holding a photo of one of the campers, a girl I don’t recognize. She’s crouching in a mottled patch of grass and shadow, examining a leaf or a flower, something too small to make out. One of her hands cradles the object, the other just touches her chin. She seems utterly absorbed and yet conscious of the camera, and the blurriness of the photo belies the skill of whoever thought to press the shutter at just this moment. We print black and white negatives in the camp darkroom, but we send colour film to CVS. This photo was from a colour batch that got processed improperly, so the girl and the grass glow otherworldly orange. It’s a beautiful, luminous accident.
Today Rory punched holes in a cardboard box: two for his arms, two for his eyes, and a mournful mouth. Of all the kids in our bunk he’s been homesick the longest, and the others pick on him relentlessly. He wore his homemade suit of armour all morning, attracting a gaggle of admirers. When he left it behind the pavilion I took a photo, but what I really wanted was to borrow Rory’s armour for myself. We’re just a two-hour drive from New York City, and nine months ago the Twin Towers fell. Some of the campers lost family members in the attacks. I’m the only counsellor in our bunk who isn’t American, and the kids all call me Canada in a way that makes it clear I’m different. Most of them have spent every summer here since they were seven. Sometimes I feel like I know less than the campers, and it feels odd to hear my own voice advising, warning, giving ultimatums.
I showed a group of older campers how to make a pinhole camera out of a Pringles can. With enough black plastic and electrical tape, any
box can be made lightproof. Brass shims make the sharpest pinholes, but poking holes directly through cardboard works almost as well. We make the aperture in the side of the tall cylinder. I explain that by wrapping photo paper around the inside of the can, the pinhole will capture light from a very wide angle, making a fisheye image. We use photo paper instead of film because it lets us develop a picture immediately after making an exposure.
Of course, exposing directly onto paper means the images come out in negative. All our pinhole photos show an alien landscape, stark white trees against a black sky, and are distorted like the world seen through the wrong end of a telescope. The horizon is an exaggerated curve, as if we’re standing on a planet too small to hold an atmosphere. But Canadensis feels that way sometimes. As if you need a protective suit to breathe.
Last night they turned off all the lights across camp, to give the astronomy club a clear view of the stars. Sharon and I were both off duty, and we went for a walk, away from the hubbub of cabins and bobbing flashlights, across the bridge to the quiet side of the creek. We lay on the old merry-go-round and kicked it into a spin with our feet, watching the night sky whirl. The Milky Way was a gluestick smear of glitter on cheap black construction paper. The moon was just a pencil scratch, a glint of graphite, and when we switched off our flashlights we could barely see each other’s eyes. We found the North Star and spun the merry-go-round so our feet pointed north, making ourselves a compass. Sharon kissed me, quickly at first, a sixtieth of a second, then half a second, two seconds, four. With each lingering exposure I felt an image taking shape inside my head, a blur of shadows and movement that I will spend the rest of the summer trying to decipher.
Sometimes, especially sitting outside the cabin at night with no one else in sight, it’s hard to believe I’m really here, surrounded by all these flashlights and fireflies, spiderwebs and badminton nets, deer that blink in and out of existence, tendrils of smoke from Fourth of July fireworks, neon pink and yellow moths, lifejackets and snapping turtles, and now and again a yawn or cough from some unseen screen window. In aerial photos Canadensis looks like a raft barely held together, tangled pathways lashing cabins to oblong propane tanks, a thin filament of bridge keeping the tennis courts and baseball diamond from drifting away entirely. On sunny days, especially, it all
seems so fragile. The sun burns right through the leaves, and the hills full of ferns are trampled by kids who desire mostly waterguns and baseball bats, mice snapped in half, burning insect wings.
When I was younger, Dad collected bugs. He traded specimens with collectors from other countries, mailing swallowtails or whirligig beetles to Malaysia and receiving enormous atlas moths in return. On clear summer nights he’d hang a light trap by the back door, and we’d watch the white container slowly fill with shadows. There were shadows that bristled with spines and legs and antennae, shadows as sharp as pins, shadows that fluttered so fast you couldn’t tell what they were. Was it the warmth of the bulb they wanted, or the brightness? Later Dad and I would sift through their brittle bodies, picking out the rarest to pickle in vials of alcohol. Under a magnifying glass—the same one I used to melt ants in the driveway—I could see they were made mostly of glints of light: the iridescent scales in their wings, their shiny bodies, their compound eyes.
How many times in the last few days have I been told by one of the campers, “You smell like darkroom!” At night, if I’m not on duty, I sit on the photo lab porch and write. Insects flutter around the outdoor light, and I can hear moths battering themselves against glass, the occasional mosquito whining past my ear, and, beyond the edge of the porch, the endless pulse of crickets. I can smell the stained wood of the porch, chlorine from the pool at the bottom of the hill, darkroom chemicals and sweat clinging to my shirt. Some nights are so humid that Scotch Tape will hardly adhere to the page. I scrapbook everything: Polaroids, pages torn from a songbook, scraps from the photo lab floor.
I’ve run out of brass shims, so we made pinhole cameras with pop can aluminum. Someone told me that the chambers of a shell are called camerae, and I found myself wondering if it might be possible to construct a kind of camera using only natural materials. A pinhole pierced with a thorn through beetle-shell or birchbark. A small chamber, perhaps a wasp’s nest or a hollow log, sturdy enough to hold a handful of darkness. Then you’d just need something inside that was sensitive to light. A thin film of mud smeared on a leaf. A sliver of seaweed or ice. A butterfly chrysalis.