I’m grateful to have gotten the lay of the land. In the spring of ’75 Dad led me and brother Randy through the fjord country, where we craned our necks in awe at thousand-foot waterfalls rushing off mountains vaulting straight out of the sea; absorbed the sonic shellacking of tons of winter melt thundering through boulder-strewn ravines. We were never out of earshot of the whoosh of water, never out of eyeshot of terrain hewn by the axes of stone giants. It was clear Dad was thrilled by our thrill.
The father. How can we be objective about a person so powerfully ingrained in our psyche? What tribute to him can run the gauntlet of emotion accrued over years of affection and resentment, submission and defiance? A father is more than progenitor, breadwinner and household exec. That godlike glow he casts on our childhood takes on tarnish in our adolescent. By adulthood we attain, if we’re lucky, a balanced view: Our father is human, the equal of every righteous and flawed human in the history of our race. He’s an icon, but he’s us. In the cosmic scheme: just another guy. In our private scheme: something between a retired dictator and favorite teacher. He no longer calls the shots but his impact resonates in our bones like the toll of a bell.
We can’t be blamed for harboring illusions about our father, for mistaking the honeyed or bitter taste of memory for insight. Once in a while, however, we’re blessed with a vision that puts the memory in perspective.
It was 2011, eight years after Dad’s death. The month was January but the air mimicked April. The mercury had climbed to the upper 60s and I had climbed to the 2,370-foot apex of Mt. Diablo’s Eagle Peak. Far below, stretching west 30 miles to the coast, fog had settled into the hollows, painting a watercolor dyed in the peach pastels of sunset. A lariat of lenticular cloud twirled above the Berkeley hills. Far below, the undulations of Clayton, Concord and Walnut Creek slithered through the mist like a squadron of sea serpents.
Something in the human spirit leaps in response to art that imitates nature. “Wow. That painting of sunset makes me feel like I’m right there.” We value representational art – especially when the subject represented inspires awe. But sometimes the awe-inspiring subject turns the tables on us and represents art. I stood on Eagle Peak snapping shots of a scene swept by the watercolor brush of fog and setting sun. My camera was documenting a painting. And my thoughts turned to my father, and a photo.
One of Dad’s retirement ambitions was to paint in earnest. As a commercial artist dogged by deadlines, as a father of four labor-intensive children and as a resident of the flatlands of Chicago – far from the monumentality of Norway – he dreamed of the day he could set up his easel and capture the mystery of light and shadow shifting through the furrowed face of a mountain beneath the slow rotation of sky.
But his choice of media was curious. I remember hearing, way back in the ’70s, of his desire to concentrate on watercolors. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the watercolor aesthetic was an odd fit. Here was a man of sharp edges and boldly outlined borders. No grey areas clouded his outlook; no pastel ambiguities. If you’d heard him preach on the state of the world, you’d have pegged him for a practitioner of the black-and-white philosophy of pen and ink on Bristol board.
But before my father found time to break free of the grind and set up his easel, something happened. Misery with a twist of irony. His eyesight began failing him, and his superhumanly steady hand began trembling – macular degeneration and a symptom of onset Parkinson’s. The penmanship of his handwritten letters, once silky perfection, became increasingly contorted.
Though he never complained, the loss must have hit him hard. His watercolor dream would never be fulfilled; he’d never get to pass along his love of the natural world in subtle washes of color. But he passed along something to me, passed it in genes and words and adventures outdoors. Call it a hunger: a ravenous urge to stalk and share the awe and wonder of the world.
Why do we so tightly embrace the promise of an afterlife? Is it to see our loved ones again? Is it our survival instinct at work – the fear of passing out of existence? I can think of another reason. I can imagine the soul known on Earth as Victor R. Erickson – with steady hand and penetrating eye – capturing the mystery of searing light and inscrutable shadow shifting through the landscapes of eternity.
Thanks, Dad, for the hunger. This shot’s for you.