The paranoiac and the butterfly
The population of Reynolds County, Missouri is 6,696. That’s the entire county. It is a beautiful county in its own right, as well as the passage to even more beautiful counties to the south and west on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. In June come the butterfly milkweed, uninhibitedly orange wildflowers and attractants of all things buzzing and fluttering. And like many meadow wildflowers, they proliferate along the roadside. Whizzing along the deserted two-lanes of Reynolds County this month, I was bedazzled by the big mum-like clumps of it growing on a particular roadside. I pulled over on the generous gravel shoulder and grabbed my camera. I’m not exactly threatening looking. I look like a lady who probably once worked in a library; an aging soccer mom in a gray sedan, toting a Canon with a not very imposing lens. I also grew up rural and thought I spoke the language. The only dwelling I saw that day in Reynolds County, a house trailer on a small farm, was several yards down the other side of the road. A car passed me, slowly. I stay aware, so I watched it drive up to a man at the mailbox in front of the little farm. Then the car drove past me again. As I said, I stay aware. I got back into my soccer mom sedan. The man came beside me again, rolled down his window, and called out, not unpleasantly, “Hey, what are you doing?” I held up my camera from inside my car. “Well, that’s what my brother-in-law thought, that you were probably just taking pictures of the flowers.” I shook my head yes. “That’s my property,” he said of the woods beyond the highway. “You can’t be too careful.” “Sorry,” I replied. “I thought the ditch belonged to the highway department.” He stayed in his car on the side of the road and watched until I drove out of sight. Another time, in an actual nature preserve not far from the city of St. Louis, two quite elderly gentlemen were parked across a lake from me. I was leaning against my aforementioned sedan holding the aforementioned Canon with the not-so-imposing lens. The old men circled around to me and rolled down a window. “What are you doing there?” the driver called out. I held up my camera, pointed to the mallard ducks, the blue herons, the two bull elk with massive racks near the lake below us. He kind of huffed and rolled up the window and they drove away in their pricey car, probably to find a drive-thru for coffee so they wouldn’t have to tip.
When did a camera become an object of suspicion? Is it all the dumb gloom-and-doom social media shares? Twenty-four hour bad news? Crime rates are the lowest in decades; Americans have clean water to drink, cars to drive, and expanding waistlines. Yet paranoia rates have risen off the charts. An elderly family friend of mine – a Ph. D. and civic leader - grew up on the railroads. He heard a new passenger train was going through his tiny, faded hometown and parked on Main Street to wait for it to go by. A local cop drove up and tapped on his window. “What are you doing?” When my nephew was a boy, he was obsessed with catching a big catfish and a friend told us about a certain creek off the Mississippi that would be easy for a lady and a boy to fish. This was a Department of Conservation access with a paved parking lot within a tiny “city” limits. The local cop (population 351) drove past us several times, then stopped and rolled down his window. “What are you doing?” I guess middle-aged ladies belong behind a cart in Walmart. Good thing we only had fishing poles and not cameras.
I was hiking a state park trail a few days ago - with the camera over my shoulder - and a mountain biking couple slowed down as I approached. “Hey,” the man said. “If you’re quiet, there’s a doe and two fawns on the other side of those trees.” And they smiled and went on their way. I won’t give up on humanity yet. I call this photograph My Motive is Pure, Shannon County because sometimes it’s just about the flowers, guys.