Editor’s Note: Michele Sons was the first of three 2022 New River Gorge Creatives-in-Residence at Lafayette Flats. Michele is an exhibiting fine art landscape and portrait photographer originally from England and currently based in southwest Virginia. This is a excerpt from her recent blog post.
I am recently home from a cold, beautiful, snowy month spent living and creating in and around New River Gorge National Park… and I’ve been resting and recovering and slowly processing the entirety of this experience. As a trained geographer, I was fascinated by the natural and cultural history of the New River Gorge, and I engaged fully with my inner nerd by mounting a huge map of this place on an easel in my flat, inspecting it nightly and making notes on it about places I’d been and places I needed to go. There’s a certain magic and mystery surrounding the place. This storied river, one of the oldest in the world despite its name, flows north through 3 states, eventually cutting down, down, down, creating the narrow passage of the gorge itself as it rushes in a white frenzy towards its confluence with the Gauley River, and ultimately to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The lower (northernmost) 53 mile stretch of the New River is the location of our newest National Park, formally known as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
I found a quiet, poetic beauty at all levels of the gorge and in all conditions. I think some wondered why I would seek to photograph the often overwhelmingly brown and drab Appalachian landscape in the depths of winter… But I saw so much potential, from the faded taupe and denim blue color palette, to a rainbow of reflected colors on the surface of the flowing water, and low-angle winter light playing in fog or grazing the tops of the “hairy hills…” I knew there would be no shortage of moments to be inspired by. And I was right, as I felt that I left an immeasurable number of subjects untouched and unseen by me when I departed which only inspires me to return in warmer seasons.
But winter offered its own unique scenes. The serendipity of birds soaring above a taupe-draped gorge, with gentle, late light reflecting off the Endless Wall and the rimrock pine forest growing upon it, a snow-dusted Gauley Mountain in the background… A gnarly, determined little pine tree dusted with snow and clinging to the edge of the gorge, looking down at the aqua-colored river 1,000 feet below, reminding me to hang in there, that persisting is how we overcome adversity… The stark white sycamore trees that I came to love, and fondly referred to as the Ghosts of the Gorge, whose true beauty is only fully revealed in the winter… Or the incredible subtlety and variety of patterns and colors created by the flowing waters, reminding me of the power of going with the flow of life rather than resisting it… All of these moments paint a picture of a unique landscape and remind me of the lessons that nature holds for those of us willing to slow down and observe the smallest of things. Importantly, though, the people of Fayetteville offered their own poetry in the form of warmth and an openness that struck me. There is a sense of community and support there that I just haven’t found in many other places.
A few of my favorite moments in the gorge:
Standing on the edge of the river on a foggy day, watching the aquamarine waters flow past me with the “ghosts of the gorge” standing guard along the opposite bank. I was completely alone, banks of fog rolling towards me from both sides, with just the sound of the water flowing energetically over the ancient rocks…
Discovering the gnarly little pine tree for the first time, clinging to the very edge of the Endless Wall, at a time of significant personal challenge. The scene perfectly reminded me to hang on, to “be the pine tree…”
Walking v-e-r-y-c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y along a trestle bridge above a raging river below, because I found the ‘“Charlie Brown sycamore tree” of my dreams and I needed to capture it with my camera…
Watching the sun rise at Grandview, and seeing the light begin its dance with the fog floating above the river beneath. The fog slowly dissipated, revealing the river and the ghosts of the gorge in all their winter glory…
Hiking through magical hemlock groves in the snow, breathing in the blue-green energy of these giants as I listened to the sound of Fern Creek gently trickling through the forest…
Looking down and discovering a group of sycamores reaching directly out over the river below me, dressed in fresh snow and rendered stark white against the aquamarine water, a beautiful and mesmerizing illusion of trees against the sky…
I left New River Gorge exhausted but filled with inspiration. The physical exertion of daily hiking with all of my camera gear, often in snowy or icy conditions, pushed me to my physical limits but I was determined to make the absolute most of the opportunity. Being so close to the park for an extended period of time was both an exciting opportunity but also a challenge in terms of overcoming the lower motivation inherent in having ample opportunity to ‘catch it some other time…’ But the ability to focus on getting outside, exploring, and creating new work was energizing – you’d be surprised by how much time photographers generally have to spend desk-bound – and I treasured this forced focus on creativity and all the actual things I love about being a landscape photographer!
For inquiries about prints or licensing, email Michele at firstname.lastname@example.org or use her contact form.
View Michele’s galleries of New River Gorge photography here: