I pull into the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot shortly before sunrise on a late October morning, but I’m not here to grab a cup of coffee before work. Being retired, I no longer have a regular job. No, this morning I have an altogether different purpose in mind. I turn into an adjacent parking area normally used by trucks and buses that are too big to navigate the drive-thru window. I find a spot in a back corner by a wooded embankment and get out. I pull on a pair of Wellington boots and retrieve my camera and tripod from the trunk of my car. There is a gravel path sloping down the embankment to the Mattabesset River. I descend perhaps eight or 10 feet to the water’s edge and enter another world.
The Mattabesset is shallow and never very wide, meandering through floodplain forest and tidal marshes on an 18-mile course across central Connecticut, one of the most densely populated states in the country. For nearly ten thousand years, Mattabessec and Wangunk Indians hunted and fished along its shores and planted corn in the floodplain. The river and tidal marshes are still teeming with wildlife, including beaver, deer, muskrats, snapping turtles, osprey and heron. A mile or so south of my entry point, the dense forest and undergrowth give way to a vast freshwater tidal flat on the northern rim of the Connecticut River tidelands, which the Nature Conservancy has designated one of 40 “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere.
On this particular morning the tide has ebbed, but the embankment is still muddy; hence, the Wellington boots. Trees grow out from water’s edge, forming a canopy over the river. Tendrils of fog still hover over its still surface in the silvery morning light. With camera and tripod slung over my shoulder, I pick my way carefully around brambles and fallen trees for perhaps 100 yards, until I reach a point where the river bends south toward the tidal marshes. There are no hiking trails here. Unless you are prepared to wade through thick mud and undergrowth, the only access is by kayak or canoe.
As I set up my camera by the water’s edge, the sun spills over the tops of the trees on my left, illuminating the fall leaves shivering in the early-morning breeze on the opposite bank. I carefully compose my shot, framed by the dark canopy of trees in the foreground, an almost otherworldly light falling on the trees beyond and the whole scene perfectly reflected in the glassy surface of the water below. I adjust the exposure and focus. I feel so privileged to be witness to this moment that I hardly dare snap the picture. But I do. It is as if God has put on a show just for me; the least I can do is to bring back a keepsake.
In my experience, the “golden hour” after dawn that is so beloved of landscape photographers rarely lasts as long as advertised. You must lie in wait for it and then capture it on the fly. Once that special light is gone, there is nothing left to do but to pack up your gear and head home, your shooting done before breakfast. I trudge back to my car, stow my gear in the trunk and head into Dunkin' Donuts for a medium decaf, black, one sugar. The show that God put on just for me is now curtained off by a line of trees at the edge of the parking lot. From here you would never suspect there was a forested floodplain just down the embankment with a river running behind the Stop & Shop across the street, skirting the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, then cutting south to the tidal flat that can be glimpsed behind a sewage treatment plant as you whizz by on Route 9 heading south.
I join the line of sleepy patrons waiting to place their order at the coffee counter, all seemingly lost in their own private worlds, oblivious of the world that lies just beyond the curtain of trees at the edge of the parking lot, oblivious of its splendor, oblivious even of the splendor that lies all around them at this very moment as the morning sun streams through the front window. The sad truth is that for most of us, most of the time, the world is too beautiful to bear. It is easier not to see, to remain oblivious. But that does not make the world -- or, or that matter, ourselves -- any less divine.