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Expat Life

Showdown on the continental divide

Editor’s note: Brian Buckner will discuss his photography and his project of mentoring Cuenca photographers, Thursday, July 19 at the Museo de la Ciudad, corner of Gran Colombia and Benigno Malo in El Centro. Free exhibition catalogs will be available showing his work and that of his students.

With curiosity, I checked in with Cambridge, Google and Mr. Webster as to how their definitions of the word showdown might parallel or run askew of my own sense of the word’s use. The noun showdown finds its place in the lower 40 percent of frequency of use of all words in the English language. However, it’s in our vocabulary for a reason and in this instance, I find its use appropriate to both my written and visual composition.

Google-“A final test or confrontation intended to settle a dispute.”

Cambridge-“An important argument that is intended to end a disagreement that has existed for a long time.”

Webster-“A decisive confrontation or contest.”

Here are two synonyms: “clash” and “face-off.”

I made the photograph “Showdown” in December of 2017 while hiking alone on the front range of the continental divide looking out toward Naranjal, 50-60 miles away. It was a drier season then, high in the grasses of the paramo. Elevated barometric pressure created strong winds that whipped the purple and gold grasses into a frenzy while relentlessly driving those huge white clouds before them. Scattered along the ridge I was on and nestled among the grasses are geologic relics of the past. Formed from ancient volcanic activity, huge boulders made of basalt dot the paramo. The monolithic forms seemingly stand guard over the Andean domain and their cragginess is in strong contrast to their sister grasses that caress their features. They’ve been torn from the landscape, sheared off from larger deposits by glacial activity. Then, they were carried by ice and subsequently deposited from its melting, in another epoch of time.

As I hiked through the stone giants, the many different forms and geometries were candy for my eye. I considered my thoughts about this lonely and people forsaken place and contemplated some pre-visualizations of my finished photographs.

The huge boulder in my photograph seemed to be the bow of an ancient stone ship. Bent to the commands of its helmsman, the ship’s bow slashes into the waves of tawny grasses cutting them down to size. Undaunted, it sails across a literal sea of shimmering waves. The purple, green and gold of the paramo lick at its black flanks.

Oh! But a challenger appears on the horizon, a foe! Its billowy white shape has formed a wedge to bear against the bow of my mighty yet imaginary ship. The softness of its white leading edge is in stark contrast to its capabilities as the most powerful sculptor of landforms known. Another showdown is in the making as a series of natural events that have been repeated for millennia again prepare to unfold. This is indeed a face-off of the elements of nature. Wind, water and terra-firma clash with predictable results. Soon enough, the clouds run away from the fight, chased by tentacles of sunlight, leaving the huge stones to dry their stoney hides. The boulders lick their cuts and crevasses, preparing to again gird their loins for a battle that seems almost eternal. The clouds are coming back; maybe later tonight, maybe tomorrow afternoon. No matter, they’ll be returning with renewed energies to again challenge my ship of stone. The showdowns are repeated to determine the victor in a battle that spans the boundaries of time.

In the end, those clouds will diminish the ship to rubble, gravel, pebbles, sand and then dirt. They will win. Being tough isn’t always about being hard, because the hard don’t usually have the resilience to win. Power can be guised in many different mystiques. I never underestimate the power of those things that demonstrate the attributes of quietness and softness. Like the comparison between the small axe and the big tree, what at first seems beyond defeat gives way to perseverance and time. Though not often, the ways of nature and man sometimes do operate in parallel.

I take my lessons where I find them.