Leaves in the forest

The leaves crunch satisfyingly under foot, filling the air with the tang of autumn. The rich golds and reds seem to glow as they strike a satisfying contrast with the deep forest greens. The scents of trees, leaves, and mossy forest floor mingle with the last lingering sweetness of wildflowers.

Liz breathes a little easier, walking through the quiet forest, kicking at a drift of leaves makes her smile even as the tension slowly melts away.

Unslinging the oblong case from her shoulder, she unzips it, then slides out the tripod, setting it up efficiently in the small clearing alongside the creek. Liz has been doing this for years, which is why the necessity of getting a degree galls her.

Dad gave her her first camera before she even started school. When the pictures came back everyone laughed at how her perspective was so different, but being under three feet tall gave her a different world view and it showed. It made her realize, too, that people see the world differently. It was empowering to photograph her world. Addictive, too.

It wasn’t long before her photographs started showing signs of technical mastery. The yellow plastic kiddie camera with the cute little gorilla face didn’t have any manual settings. She learned how to position herself just the right distance from the subject.

She had to figure out light by trial and error.

They gave her a real single-lens reflex camera for her seventh birthday. The grown up camera was amazing, but it was awkward and heavy for her small hands. She emptied her bank account to buy a light but flexible tripod because she couldn’t wait until her eighth birthday. From then on her allowance always went on film and developing. She couldn’t get enough.

The folks wouldn’t allow her to set up a darkroom at home because they worried the chemicals would be too dangerous to have in the house with the boys. They said. Liz thinks the real reason is Mom wanted her to take dance lessons, be more of a girlie girl.

But in high school she started a camera club and it didn’t take much to get a darkroom up and running. Enlargers, developer trays, timers and other darkroom gear was cheap because so many people were going digital. Suddenly the popular girls wanted to be friends — because they wanted her to photograph them for the paper or school yearbook.

Screwing the camera on top of the tripod she perches on a fallen log to survey the terrain. There’s pine, a bit of maple, a stand of larches. Peripheral motion catches her eye and she gets a few snaps of a raccoon as it lumbers across the clearing before disappearing into the woods.

It is so nice to be out in the real world breathing real air. Warmed by the sunlight Liz peers through the zoom to see what else there is to see in the forest. A flash of movement draws her eye to three playful young squirrels chasing about. Maybe litter mates. Or perhaps it’s just a bit of adolescent flirting. Whatever they’re doing it’s sure not territorial warfare.

Not for the first time she wonders if winter will surprise the critters. Instinct ensures they gather food for the time ahead, but surely instinct can’t prepare them for the cold desolation of snow. She often wonders about the natural world when she’s out taking photographs, although she rarely engages in any follow up research. Sometimes just knowing the questions is enough.

The long lens and the low light of the forest interior make it impossible to get good sharp shots of the little guys from this far away, but she fires off a series of photographs in burst mode for some interesting motion shots.

It’s so easy to be cavalier about how many digital pictures she actually takes. It’s never the taking that is the problem, it’s all the the sorting and filing later that eats up hours on end. Or days. Doing everything on a computer instead of in a dark room is still a little weird to get used to. But she is learning.

Rubbing her neck ruefully she idly wishes she had a boyfriend. It would almost be worth the annoyance to have someone around just to give her a neck massage when she needs one. Since she wants to relax, Liz tries to avoid thinking about Ethan. To not think about his dimple that comes and goes, or the single silver skull earing that peeks out at her from under the curly dark hair he usually restrains in a ponytail.

Although her initial tension has dissipated, there’s still a dull ache at the base of her neck. Maybe she should see if she can find a more comfortable perch. Hoisting gear packs over her shoulders she stands and snaps the tripod legs together with practiced ease before tucking it, still extended, under her arm.

As Liz moves back into the forest proper she realizes that the forest is just a little too tidy. Although there are different kinds of trees and complimentary vegetation, the groomed wood chip paths are the big tip off. Probably the lawn mower guys come here to shovel wood chips. The forest floor is somehow too manicured, that’s what’s wrong. No decaying logs, no moss, mold, or fungus. Fallen logs are probably hauled away for free firewood. City people don’t realize fallen trees are a natural part of forest renewal.

It is more a park than a forest, then, but better than a parking lot. There is some wildlife. The new subdivisions going up probably means the school won’t care about forest renewal as much as selling off this ’empty space’ to pay for new buildings. The forest is a part of why she chose Christie, but Liz knows she’s the minority.

At the creek, Liz sits on the wooden bridge, dangling her legs over the side. Taking the camera off the tripod, she hangs it round her neck and slides the tripod back in its case. Who is she kidding? She doesn’t need any more nature shots. The assignment is covered and then some. As always.

That’s not what’s brought her out here today. What she really needs is a break from people. It’s hard getting a chance to think when you’re living in a house full of strangers.

Liz knows her folks would have a conniption if they understood she was living in a co-ed residence with boys on the lower level. It was weird at first, but not much different from living with brothers. The girl’s floor is supposed to be off limits to guys but they all share the downstairs common room. And though she’s a grown woman who makes her own decisions, Liz is well aware that her dad would not best be pleased.

She’s seen Eric sneaking up to Elsie’s room, nights; and Elsie sleeps down in his even more. Sleeps. Right. It may not be allowed but it’s an open secret. Thing is, Liz doesn’t want to know who’s sleeping with who. Or who’s smoking up. Or who snores. She quit Facebook back in high school because of that stuff, but it’s even worse here. Sometimes she thinks half of the students are here for the soap opera, with education coming last.

Although she’d thought she was well out of it, she’d found out the hard way she wasn’t going to get anywhere in the ‘real world’ without a degree. Proving herself over and over didn’t make a difference.

Her boss thought the only reason she brought in good pictures was luck. She’d never seen him even holding a camera, but he could judge her because she didn’t have a degree, and he was the boss. Did he turn down her best shots because he was jealous? He killed her low angle time-lapse Ferris wheel shot— called it ‘artsy-fartsy’— then was furious when that same shot won the Canadian Geographic contest. That was the straw that sent her to Christie. So here she is back at school with all these kids.

Because if she had to go to back to school the only choice was here to study with award winning photo-journalist Annie Mol. Liz grew up poring over the world framed through the eyepiece of Mol’s award winning photos in This Magazine and Maclean’s.

Making good pictures is what it has always been about for Liz. Focal lengths, f-stops, and developing your own. But now those heady chemical smells are gone— Christie doesn’t even have a darkroom. The closest you come is printer ink, which is not the same thing at all. Everything she’d known about cameras and chemicals and photographic paper is different.

Although digital is still photography, it comes with a different set of problems. It requires new technical skills and competence with a computer to get it all in hand. So, okay, there is stuff she needs to learn. All the computer background she’s missed. Which means she is motivated after all.

But it’s too expensive to not live in residence. Even after moving home last year and banking near every cent she made, between tuition and digital equipment that will be obsolete by the time she graduates, funds are tight. The government has only just begun giving grants to needy students, and it’s more on the order of a gesture than actual help. Maybe it’ll get better. Her folks aren’t poor exactly, but with Mom staying home with the younger sibs it means there isn’t family cash to help out.

It’s frustrating nobody warned her that most scholarships aren’t even open to mature students. She’s already decided to apply for a student loan next year, but she might need to take a part time job like Amelia this year.

Even so, money is not the real problem. It’s more an annoyance. Even if it takes years to pay off, she will be able to get work at the other end, and a degree will ensure she’s paid what she’s worth. Onward and upward to the big time. Maclean’s maybe. Canadian Geographic? Sky’s the limit. She knows very well what it will mean to her quality of life. She might even be able to help the folks send the boys to college. The ones that want to, anyway.

Not Randy, he’ll go into an apprenticeship, be the one making big bucks fitting pipe.

No, Liz’s real problem is living in the dorm. What they call “the Res.” It’s not the same as living with family, even hers, which is big by today’s standards. You can shut the door on brothers.

All the other students. Strangers to share bathrooms with. Communal showers are not her idea of fun. Different showers for men and women isn’t enough, it’s group bathing. Always being too tall made her an easy target. She isn’t comfortable being stared at.

It’s different when it’s your own family. It’s a lot harder with roommates, particularly the one who sleeps in the same room you do. She says a little prayer for being blessed with Amelia as a room mate. Liz knows she wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with Maggie.

Maggie is a trial. Just thinking of Maggie makes Liz tense. Like most of her residence mates, Maggie came to Christie straight from high school. Even though she’s years younger than Liz, Maggie seems to have elected herself house mother, wanting to know where Liz is going, what she is doing.

Is it prurient interest or is it what Maggie says, that she just wants to know if she should worry? Either way it’s driving Liz around the bend.

Okay, maybe, it makes sense to have some idea where people are. But that’s why they have sign in sheets. It’s not Maggie’s job, she’s just another student.

They aren’t even in the same program for God’s sake. Back home, Mom and Dad trusted her to come in when she said. They never gave her the third degree. Why can’t Maggie? It’s none of her business.

And although Maggie is the worst, the city slickers s think their life experience is more cutting edge because they grew up in the city with drug dealers on every corner. And although Liz knows things most of them never will, to them she’s a hick. Inexperienced. Just because she grew up in a small town she lacks ‘street cred’.

Liz attended a school so small that all the teachers knew her name, so for sure it was harder to get away with anything.

But the biggest problem for small town kids is no public transit. Going to the movies requires a ride from somebody’s parents, not fun for a date. So everybody rushes to get a driver’s license at the crack of their sixteenth birthday.

Farm kids have the edge over townies because they get a chance to boot around on the back forty, sometimes years before they’re sixteen, like her friend Gabe’s brother. Liz and Gabe had been inseparable since the third grade. Gabe’s brother loved driving the four by four, and their Dad let him take it to the Hallowe’en dance before he’d graduated to the full license.

Except he was just a little bit cocky, and wrapped the truck around a bridge abutment. Although Gabe was thrown clear, his brother was killed on impact. And you know how it is, even though Gabe lived he wouldn’t see her anymore after the accident. It’s tough being a fourteen year-old paraplegic.

Liz knows she hasn’t exactly been wrapped in cotton, but it’s seems to make it worse that she doesn’t do drugs or drink. Sure that’s how she was raised but what’s wrong with that? Her parents don’t drink or smoke. She’s seen people drunk and been around people wasted. She knows what can happen. Meh.

Besides, she knows she’s capable of being stupid all by herself. She doesn’t need alcohol or drugs to help, she can manage it all on her own, thanks.

Many of her classmates assume she’s naïve because she doesn’t try to fry her brain cells. But she knows she’s not. She’s just smarter than they are. Liz smiles to herself. Maybe that is enough.

Don’t let them. — especially don’t let Maggie — get to her.

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