Prairie Lights: An assignment I couldn’t refuse

I was going to write a regular column this week, but I found that I did not have—to use a word that has risen to prominence lately—the correct temperament for it.

I was far too serious, for one thing. The few hesitant starts I made toward a column veered off into politics, and not even the politics I know a little something about, that being local politics.

No, I found myself joining the great mass of national pundits focused on just one thing. It was like employing the Ouija board on a night when the planchette, that little device you place your fingers on, was unusually strong and willful.

I would begin writing and suddenly the dreaded letters would begin to appear: “T—r—u—m…”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A rogue maple tree on Locust Street.

I’d start over, with the same results. I tried changing my tack, launching into a subject so far removed from presidential politics that there could be no reason whatsoever for those letters, in that combination, to come into play.

No dice. I could avoid the subject, but I couldn’t interest even myself in the new subject matter, which meant there was little hope of interesting anyone else.

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, there was one subject that wouldn’t go away. That was the profusion of fall colors I had been seeing everywhere for the past few days, every time I ventured away from the world headquarters of Last Best News on Minnesota Avenue.

There had been no creeping up on fall this year, as far as I could tell, no subtle, drawn-out transition from the green and brown of summer to the riot of fall’s fiery palette. One day not long ago fall just seemed to spring up on us (if I can use “spring” in this context intelligibly).

So I did what I had evidently been longing to do, which was to send myself out, camera in hand, to capture images of this fleeting mini-season, which I knew could disappear as suddenly as it appeared. Over several days, by car and bicycle and on foot, I ambled around Billings and its near outskirts, preserving what was in the scope of my meager powers with the camera to preserve.

You could probably send a monkey out with a decent camera and it would come up with a decent photo gallery, given the brilliant colors on display everywhere in town, but still, I would be interested to know what the monkey found worth photographing.

That’s what a camera is, a contraption that allows us to see what others see when they look at the same things we look at, but focus on an aspect of it that we might not have noticed. In that respect it isn’t that much different from writing, if I may come back to my justification for giving over this week’s Prairie Lights to a collection of photographs.

I will only add this: that it is worth something to consider that whatever happens on Nov. 8, scenes like the ones recorded here will continue to display themselves indefinitely, as they have for millennia. They, whoever they are, can’t take that away from us.

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