The Extraordinary in the “Ordinary”

The Extraordinary in the “Ordinary”

The winter sun warms the oak savanna on the kame at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

On this “ordinary” January morning at Bluff Spring Fen, a blanket of cold winter white covered the preserve. As I crossed the threshold from windswept prairie to quiet savanna-on-the-kame, I was met by a hug of majestic bur oaks that gently placed me under their protection. (I nominate the word “hug” as the collective noun for a grouping of bur oaks.)

I am both haunted and fascinated by a phrase that’s often used to praise and describe my work.

It all came to a head one day after I performed my one-man show about Chicago nature. Three audience members separately visited me at my book-signing table and said, “Your photographs bring out the extraordinary in the ordinary.” They were enthusiastic and well-meaning. And I was gracious in my response, but in reality I was confused and shocked. Insulted, too—not for myself, but for the prairie and the woodlands that, to me, are immensely beautiful and full of wonderment.

At O'Hara Woods in Romeoville, Illinois, the April sun rises to warm the springtime woodland brimming with Virginia bluebells.

At O’Hara Woods in Romeoville, Illinois, the April sun rises to warm the springtime woodland brimming with fragrant Virginia bluebells. I can best describe this floral, yet fruity, fragrance as a Chanel version of Froot Loops cereal.

How can “ordinary” be used to describe the breathtaking experience of the lush and fragrant woodland scenes of Virginia bluebells in the spring and July’s kaleidoscopic heart-stopping vignettes of purple, orange, ivory, and gold?

Maybe, instead of “ordinary,” people really mean “everyday.” Even so, I still come to the prairie’s defense when people call it “ordinary” simply because it’s not the peaks of the Grand Tetons, Old Faithful erupting at sunset, or the mesmerizing midnight colors of the aurora borealis.

The many flowers of oak savanna at Somme Prairie Grove sparkle brilliantly in the last light of day.

Again, it’s July at Somme Prairie Grove, and the savanna is alive with a kaleidoscope of color.

The answer to why my work is able to convey the extraordinary in the ordinary was hidden in plain sight. When it comes to the habitats and inhabitants of Chicago’s wilderness, I’m blind to the ordinary. I only see the fascinating, the magnificent, and the beautiful. And therefore, I naturally create images that reflect what I experience and feel.

—Mike

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