An American Journey – Part One

May 9, 2016 ·

Mark Seawell

MarkSeawell

Life. It is many things. For me, it has been and continues to be a journey. But a journey often involves a crossroads. My photography journey began not in North Carolina, my place of birth, but in the gentle hills of rural Germany. I was in Germany because of my military career with the U.S. Air Force. I retired from the Air Force in 2005 and took a job at Ramstein Air Force base doing IT support. My family and I had been abroad in Europe since 1994, serving in various assignments. Germany was our first job after the military and where the photography bug bit me.

The German countryside is made for walking, though the weather can be dreary, overcast, and rainy even in the summer. But it really doesn’t matter. Being married to a Belgian means you walk regardless of the weather, resistance is futile. So off we went and I didn’t complain. Once we got into our daily walks, I asked my wife should I bring a camera. “You should” she answered, “and capture some of this beauty.” This is how my love of photography began.

PathofLight
Path Of Light

Germany was the perfect place to learn my craft. The areas around my village became my little Yosemite. My passion for photography grew quickly. Through constant failure, I was able to realize what to look for, what moved me. But the land fought back. It was not eager to surrender its secrets. “Earn it” I was told time and time again. Why am I out here before sunrise when I could be in a warm bed next to my wife, I asked myself. Dashing to a sunset only to realize it was too late. The land laughed again and again. Get up. Get off the matt. Get better. Re-attack from a different angle. Photography for me was both the most exhilarating and exasperating exercise I had experienced in my life.

Moments in the hills of Haschbach, Germany. Field of vision.
Moments in the hills of Haschbach, Germany. Field of vision.

But I never gave up. I loved the mornings in the German countryside. I began to see beyond the physical. When you get to know a land, your land, a spiritual connection is made. The land finally began to whisper to me, sweet secrets. I earned respect through my diligence and finally it began to show in my photography. I learned to convey emotion through photography.  I moved beyond sunrises to moments in time. I touched the land and the land touched me. And most of the time I was alone in my neck of the woods. In my nearly 10 years of photographing the German countryside, I saw maybe a handful of photographers. That was fine by me. I loved the solitude and being and audience of one.

AudienceofOne
Audience Of One

And what makes Germany special? That is difficult to explain. Above all, the German people care. They care about their land and maintain it. What my wife and I loved was how clean and pristine everything was. No garbage along the roads, no billboard signs, no beer bottles.  What you did find was quiet beauty. Walking paths that encouraged people to get out into nature. The perfectly placed bench on the hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Rolling hills of treasure as the Autumn peaked. And my favorite part of the day, the mornings, were just spiritual, deep entries into another world. Who would not be touched as they walked back to their village in the early light only to see a church steeple peeking through the mist in absolute silence? Rapture and ecstasy. Welcome to my church, my communion with the unseen. Welcome to a different plane of existence.

HeartofAutumn
Heart Of Autumn

As I said earlier, Germany can be…wet. Actually, you can just about count on rain especially in winter. This particular November in our area was miserable. From the beginning of the month until the end, it rained and would not stop. I didn’t fire my camera in anger the entire month and I was in a foul mood. Finally, on 30 November I awoke to silence. That morning I decided to take the back roads to work. I stopped above the village of Reuschbach, took a picture and pressed on. I drove past my favorite farm approaching my former village of Obermohr.  As I came around the bend I nearly slammed on my breaks, pulling off to the annoyance of the cars behind me. In front of me was the entrance to Obermohr. Mist hung heavy in the air and the morning sun had just started to break through. The village was submerged, hidden, all except one part. Majestically rising through the mist, almost defiantly was the Obermohr church steeple. I quickly set up the tripod and carefully arranged my Panasonic G1. With no one in sight and before a car could intrude into the scene, I pressed the shutter and captured it all.  But I was honestly surprised at the reaction, the strong emotion this image evoked in people. One comment stuck forever, “Wow, this must be Heaven’s Gate.”

aa-Heaven'sGateCanvas
Heaven’s Gate

I am sure some photographers  arriving in Deutschland, especially our area, would think the landscape doesn’t offer much. To me, it was anything but ordinary. I just think it was there to be missed, hiding in plain sight if you will. This image outside my village of Rehweiler was taken in early September. I had been up well before sunrise driving around in the world’s oldest VW Golf. Finally I resigned myself to absolutely nothing and took the road home. My wife and I walked our lab on this farm road every day. As I drove by I noticed a horse alone in the field. I stopped the car and pulled out my trusty Panasonic GH2. And I suppose the morning Gods took pity on me, because just as I got out the car, the sun emerged, cracking the horizon and illuminating the field. Magic.

GBHorses3exp
Good Bye Horses

The advantage to living in such a rural area was that I didn’t have to travel too far to find my special place. One of my frequent haunts was the railroad track passing through our village. Trains have always invoked mystery to me, the unknown. Where are they going? Is it just to the next town or hundreds of miles away to some distant location? On this morning, the ever present mist was heavy and the light from the morning sun was starting to touch everything. It was a view to eternity

View to Eternity, Rehweiler, Germany
View to Eternity, Rehweiler, Germany

While in Germany, I had the luxury of taking the backroads to work. I would drive from my small village of Rehweiler, cutting through the hills and waving to the occasional farmer working the land. There was one farm on that road which I photographed on many occasions.  Sunrise at this location could be spectacular. Because the farm was down in the valley, mist would often collect at the bottom. And on this particular morning, seeing the thick mist, I parked my car and waited. It wasn’t too long before I finally started to see the land and that one tree rising through it all. Amazing, and what a beautiful moment to savor. It was as though the tree was saying “Here I stand.”

Here I stand, Reuschbach as the light touches everything
Here I stand, Reuschbach as the light touches everything

The rich history of Germany was a photographer’s dream. I enjoyed driving to different locations to visit castles. Some were in ruins but others were still in amazing condition after centuries of conflict. I set out early one morning in March to visit two castles north of my home, Burg Eltz and Cochem Castle. During the drive it snowed, making for an interesting journey. Burg Eltz was in splendid form when I arrived a couple of hours later with fresh snow on the grounds. This was followed by a trip to Cochem but the weather turned grey and part of thetrip was a disappointment. Finally, I called it and drove home in the afternoon but at the last minute decided to stop at Burg Lichtenburg, a castle less than fifteen minutes from my home. The trip to Burg Lichenburg wasn’t for photography but tea for hot tea and a small dessert. After I parked, I grabbed my camera to review captures from the morning. As I started to walk up the castle, snow came down softly and I pulled out my GH2 to capture the last snow of the season…winter’s end.

Winter’s end
Winter’s end

But I also had the opportunity to explore other parts of Germany. Bavaria, located in the southern part of the country, was the traditional heartland. When Americans think of men in Lederhosen and Oktoberfest that is Bavaria. My family and I travelled to Garmisch-Partenkirchen on two occasions. The Alps are stunning and I would rise early to capture the beauty of this land. On one cold March morning I made the drive to Bavaria alone. I wanted to capture the famous Neuschwanstein castle. When I departed my home, the weather was perfect with blue skies, but by the time I arrived five hours later, snow was pouring down fast and furious. I wasn’t sure my old VW would be able to handle the conditions and considered turning around but pushed through and was rewarded with this view of Neuschwanstein in the snow. It was worth the drive!

Majestic Neuschwanstein in the bavarian alps covered in a Spring snow
Majestic Neuschwanstein in the bavarian alps covered in a Spring snow

Life has a way of intervening. Although I was retired from the military, I still worked for the Air Force and the Air Force had plans. With the downsizing of our military in Europe, we were hit with very unwelcome news. My position was being deleted and the time had come to return to the United States. My Belgian wife and I had raised our three children and two were out the nest with the last one heading for college in the U.S. just like his siblings. So in essence, we would return to the United States and become empty nesters at the same time. The next part of the puzzle was where would we go? At the beginning of 2014 we received our answer. We were to report at Hill Air Force base, northern Utah in July 2014.

But Germany would not so easily be forgotten. I like to think I was born in America but grew up in Europe. I fell in love with photography there and learned how to see the land, discovering hidden treasures in the most ordinary of places. I found beauty in a land I came to love. It was with a heavy heart we departed but the time had come. What we leave behind.

What we leave behind, Reuschbach, Germany
What we leave behind, Reuschbach, German

Mark Seawell
March 2016

 

 

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Mark Seawell

“I would rather be in the mountains thinking about God than be in Church thinking about the mountains.” John Muir Born in the great state of North Carolina, Mark joined the Air Force after high school. His first assignment was Sunnyvale in northern California. Just over a year later he was assigned to Brussels, Belgium where he met his wife Lutgart and over the next two decades, they served in various countries in Europe. They have three wonderful children who are now adults pursuing their careers and education. After 20 years of military service, Mark retired and accepted a civilian job with the Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Almost immediately he was impressed by the beauty of the German countryside and started bringing a camera on long walks with his wife. His interest in photography grew rapidly and he was soon reading everything he could about this fascinating subject. As Mark continued to hone his photography skills he was noted in several publications. Over the years he received multiple international awards for his images. He also taught many photography workshops while in Germany. In July 2014, after 22 years of living abroad, Mark and Lutgart moved to Ogden, Utah where Mark continues to support the mission at Hill Air Force base. They are both excited to reside in America again. Utah and the southwest are recognized as having some of the most scenic landscapes on earth, offering endless possibilities and giving them new inspiration. Their art from Utah reflects visits to many landmark sites and they continue to explore the southwest with great passion.

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