A Lesson in Traces

Remember last year? We had snow then. Thick and soft, it silently reflected the sunlight. The photo above is taken from my kitchen window on the 29th of December 2020. A sight almost untouched – safe for the footprints of an inquisitive bird and the stretched shadows of branches. Both are traces on the snow, referring to a bird or tree that they are simultaneously not and are also a part of. A bird without footprints would be unnatural, just as a tree without a shadow would be otherworldly. Yet, if we see their traces here, it would be a stretch to say that this is a photograph of snow, trees, and a bird.

The past year I’ve thought a lot about traces, how they bind our world together through reference and indirect presence. This can be slightly uncomfortable, like feeling the warmth of another person’s buttocks who sat in the train seat just before you, or downright scary, such as droplets that float eerily through the air after someone coughs. Fortunately, traces can also offer us a less bleak way of seeing the world. Seen through the lens of the trace, for instance, rain suddenly becomes a small, local aspect of the cloud it came from. The snow in the photograph similarly points us to the cloud, wind and circumstances that brought it here.

Looking at our surroundings in this way also reveals to us that traces often neatly assimilate into the events that surround them and become much more than they were initially. Traces are necessary parts that connect one aspect of the world to another; always moving and changing to fit their situation. The above photograph was taken several days after the first one. The slowly smelting sun leaves a clear outline of the black tarmac roof and the trails of jackdaws, pigeons and gulls loop together and away again. The roof makes me want to put down a piece of paper and trace the birds’ plodding course in chalk, marking the frayed edges of the snow with black crayon.

This photograph will have to do instead, perhaps not capturing the bodily contact of the footsteps but at least allowing me to talk about it now – to you. The photograph itself can, of course, also be thought of as a trace. Capturing a moment, a person, an object; separating it from its origin, like taking a shadow from a tree. As we continue moving onwards in time, these photographs will forever remain, and remind me of that snowy patch outside my kitchen window. It wasn’t a particularly striking moment, or even an event that had much emotional value to me. I just liked the footsteps of birds and the silence of snow.

This is not really a hopeful message to send us off with into the new year, nor is it a gathering of salient insights that will keep us going for another few months. I’ve found that those are hard to come by these days. All I can offer for now is to not lose track of those few traces that bind us together.

Pauw Vos

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