Pho­tog­ra­pher re­leases book cap­tur­ing ‘Faces of the Wis­sahickon and Schuylkill Val­leys.’

The Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist

When I go for a na­ture walk in a lo­cal for­est, I see trees, birds, flow­ers, deer.

Not pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­lard Terry.

When he goes for a walk — which he does a lot — he sees faces, lots of faces, in­cred­i­ble faces. Gnomes, ghosts, demons, an­i­mals, di­nosaurs, peo­ple, aliens, all star­ing at him from tree trunks, tree roots, bro­ken branches, gnarly bark, rock walls, even fence posts and barn sid­ing.

Amazingly, once you start look­ing for them, there are faces ev­ery­where.

And Terry has been pho­tograph­ing them.

He just pub­lished a book, “Parei­do­lia: Spir­its and Faces of the Wis­sahickon and Schuylkill Val­leys,” which will soon be avail­able in the Schuylkill Cen­ter’s gift shop (and on Terry’s web­site as soon as he sets one up). The book’s ti­tle, pro­nounced parr-iDOH-li-ah, while a mouth­ful, is the phe­nom­e­non in psy­chol­ogy whereby peo­ple see pat­terns in inan­i­mate ob­jects — like trees — and turn them into things they are not. The Man in the Moon is per­haps the best known ex­am­ple of parei­do­lia.

I vis­ited Terry in his Port Royal Av­enue home just be­fore the win­ter sol­stice, where the re­tired school teacher — he taught at Ger­man­town Friends for 30 years — was pre­par­ing for his an­nual sol­stice party. His wife, Holly, also a re­tired school teacher, also a vet­eran of Quaker schools (she at Ply­mouth Meet­ing Friends), were pre­par­ing for a cel­e­bra­tion with their three sons, all of whom work in the arts.

They’ve lived in their 1840s-era home for more than 30 years and have been care­ful and con­scious stew­ards of their his­toric home and barn. But they’ve brought that home into a greener fu­ture, their front porch in­clud­ing a por­ta­ble hoop gar­den bed where the cou­ple is grow­ing salad greens — in De­cem­ber — and their wood stove re­duces their re­liance on fos­sil fu­els, which is ad­mirable.

Terry walks “seven or eight miles a day, con­sis­tently over 50 miles a week,” he told me, much of it at the Schuylkill Cen­ter’s sprawl­ing prop­erty across the street and along the Wis­sahickon.

“Years be­fore I re­tired, I used to run,” he said, but after an in­jury forced him to re­con­sider that ac­tiv­ity, “now I walk a lot, and walk­ing has made me more ob­ser­vant.”

He took me and his dog, Lily, to visit a maple tree at the Schuylkill Cen­ter just off Port Royal, where he had his “aha mo­ment.” He had walked past this tree many times, but one day, the wizened face of a gnome frown­ing at him “just popped out at me,” as the bark’s bumps and gnarls formed a cranky face. He’s since pho­tographed the maple many times and in the book in­cludes a photo of the tree in win­ter, a dust­ing of snow giv­ing his gnome a bad case of dan­druff. The book’s bio page fea­tures an ac­tion shot his son took of Terry pho­tograph­ing the gnome.

“Once I started pho­tograph­ing faces,” he re­flected, “I be­came more aware of them. You’re sort of half look­ing, but then they jump out at you like a guy is sud­denly star­ing at you.”

For ex­am­ple, he points to a Tyran­nosaurus shaped branch he’s walked by hun­dreds of times on the op­po­site side of Port Royal from his gnome tree — and sud­denly he saw it, T. rex in pro­file.

When I asked him about the Freudian na­ture of see­ing faces where none ex­isted, he laughed.

“I looked this up on the in­ter­net,” he of­fered, al­ways a dan­ger­ous thing to do, “and saw that while some peo­ple see this as a sign of in­sta­bil­ity, oth­ers see a more cre­ative mind at work.”

(For the record, I’m go­ing with the lat­ter.)

He also noted it’s a bit of a Rorschach, like a photo he calls “Duck Din­ner,” where two mal­lards on a pond look to me like they’re about to be eaten by a ple­siosaur, an ex­tinct rep­tile, but oth­ers see the branch emerg­ing omi­nously from the wa­ter as just an­other duck. Not sure what this says about me … a sign of my own in­sta­bil­ity?

His pho­tog­ra­phy em­braces more than parei­do­lia.

“I’m in­ter­ested in por­traits and land­scapes,” he said, “where I like to look for pat­terns,” like a photo he showed me of sy­camore bark, its jig­saw puz­zle-pat­terned bark al­ways a fa­vorite of mine.

He also loves to add a sense of hu­mor to his work, like a framed color land­scape photo in his home of a Mail Pouch to­bacco ad painted on the side of a Penn­syl­va­nia barn, smoke ris­ing from the barn as if it were a giant chim­ney — which it clearly is not. But hid­den be­hind the barn is the cool­ing tower of the Lim­er­ick nu­clear power plant, steam ris­ing from it cre­at­ing the op­ti­cal il­lu­sion of the barn as a chim­ney.

While he first taught a sixth-grade class and then sev­enth-grade English, in re­tire­ment, he’s teach­ing a black-and-white film pho­tog­ra­phy course back at Ger­man­town Friends.

“The kids have never seen film be­fore,” he chuck­led. “They have no idea what it is.”

His parei­do­lia pho­to­graphs have been dis­played be­fore and will ap­pear in the Schuylkill Cen­ter’s up­com­ing “Com­mu­nity” ex­hi­bi­tion later this win­ter. We hope you come see them then.

Mean­while, Wil­lard Terry will con­tinue walk­ing 50 miles a week in nat­u­ral ar­eas, find­ing faces where less cre­ative peo­ple like me sim­ply see bark and branches. Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Up­per Roxbor­ough, [email protected] and can be reached at [email protected] schuylkill­cen­

Wil­lard Terry sees an anteater in this branch.


Pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­lard Terry pauses on his walk along the maple tree that started it all, the one with the gnarly gnomish face.

Where Terry sees a uni­corn with one horn stick­ing up, the au­thor in­stead sees a camel-like face, with one very clear eye and its jaunty ear pop­ping up. What do you see?

Can you find the wolf in pro­file growling at you, fac­ing to the left?

An ele­phant mag­i­cally ap­pears from the beech stump.

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