Looking south on West Grand Traverse Bay from Lee Point, near Suttons Bay

Looking south on West Grand Traverse Bay from Lee Point, near Suttons Bay

By MIKE NORTON

Photography is something I learned to do relatively late in life.

No, let me rephrase that. As a journalist, I’ve been taking pictures for decades, so I’ve known how to check the light meter, focus the lens and click the shutter. What I didn’t learn until recently -- and what has come slowly and delightfully over time – is how to look at things.

Like the sky, for instance.

West Bay sky from the Clinch Park Marina in Traverse City

West Bay sky from the Clinch Park Marina in Traverse City

To a journalist, the sky is largely wasted space. In the absence of solar eclipses, plumes of smoke or invading fleets of enemy aircraft, there’s nothing newsworthy going on there. But I’m doing something entirely different now. I’m paying a sort of lover’s homage to the place where I live, and the images that delight me now are the exact opposite of what is “newsworthy.” They’re the things that stand broad, tall and magnificent above and behind the petty dramas and tantrums that constitute most of what passes for news.

When I was a daydreaming youth, my exasperated father’s constant admonition to me was to get my head out of the clouds. Good advice for the time, I admit -- but like any advice it can be taken too far. After a lifetime of staring at things I really wish I hadn’t ever seen in the first place, it feels good to spend time looking at the sky. Only now have I begun to realize how much of the visible universe it encompasses. Why, I wonder, did I spend so much of my time looking elsewhere?

Looking north from Old Mission Point

Looking north from Old Mission Point

Sooner or later, such a profound shift in one’s weltanschauung is bound to make itself noticed. And sure enough, I’ve seen how my photographs seem to have more and more sky in them each year. Especially the pictures I take in wintertime.

Winters here in the dune country aren’t really monochromatic. There’s the snow, which can be blindingly white and cool blue in its shadows. There are the endless forests of evergreens, the brilliant flash of birds, the endless variety of Grand Traverse Bay in all its weathers, from brilliant azure to bruised purple and slate gray. But there’s no denying that the palette is substantially reduced; in our winter landscape, the true star is the sky.

Winter morning moonrise over West Bay, from Chateau Grand Traverse

Winter morning moonrise over West Bay, from Chateau Grand Traverse

That can be on a typical “lake effect” day, when walls of snow-filled cloud sweep suddenly across the face of a brilliant blue morning, obliterating everything in their path, only to melt away moments later. It can be a golden morning when the rising sun  shines across a sheet of polished ice, a noon of luminous robin’s-egg blue (is it the light reflecting back from the snow that gives it that delicate color?) a long early sunset  like a banked fire at the edge of the world. Or best of all, an icy night of sharp-edged stars, a slice of moon, and a ghostly curtain of aurora on the northern horizon.

It’s not always easy to keep looking up. Inevitably, you’ve got to glance down at where you’re walking once in a while – especially on icy winter sidewalks! But it’s done me a world of good to raise my head as often as I can, to contemplate things that are larger, truer and lovelier than I will ever be. Paradoxically, it has made me love this place more passionately than ever.

Winter sunrise over East Bay

Winter sunrise over East Bay