I sat beside the gas fireplace in a café, in summer, and I bought the same t-shirt I always buy when I visit Virginia. I wanted to find Catherine’s tree, and I needed to walk Rugby Road in the aftermath of the Rolling Stone debacle and with REM in my head. And I wanted to figure out which house was Phi Kappa Psi, because, well—the names never meant much then—but I wanted to try and remember whether I’d been there too. I wanted to see if my memories were accurate down to the hedge and the tree on the left a dozen yards from the next standing lamp. I wanted to walk the ways I walked 25 years ago—but a lot has changed. The theatre is in the same hollow, but the paint on the bridge is beyond the inch thick.
Later, I repair to the Lawn under cover of twilight, and as in the daytime took photographs that largely pretended I was alone. It is not a hard thing to make a crowd invisible, in the dark and between the street lamps and the louvered effect of the colonnades, the way ghosts are.
There was a day on the boat last month I took a break from the winches and the Mustang suits, the nets and rapt/worrisome gawking at sea ice and walrus, polar bears and the distillation of chlorophyll and zooplankton meat—maybe half an hour, about the same amount of breathing I spent with Catherine’s tree once I found it. I’m not sure what led me from the Arctic Ocean to the Charlottesville photographs, but perhaps it was a way to get, just briefly, off the boat. Maybe the folders on the laptop were near to each other. Perhaps I needed to expose more for strangers stumbling from the edge of the frame than those I had put front and center. Maybe I needed to escape the ice and fog and water, the vaporous horizon, and find the firmer edges of twilight. Maybe the bright red mooring floats and the falling snow over bird-less grey water reminded me of winter berries and trail lamplight, even in the thick of summer.
Maybe I was possessed by a residual reverence for these things, bright now, and digital—which is exactly what architecture is meant to do, the machine nature of a village where none of the photographs escape the fact this place is once again under construction, once again an evasive thing, transforming itself in an effort to remain exactly the same. A fence runs across in front of the Rotunda, as scaffolding enveloped Monticello 25 years ago—and Catherine’s tree? It’s girded by gates and signs I ignore to get to it. I report to Hyong that the memorial plaque is gone now—we hope temporarily, until the latest repairs to the village are over and done with. Her name will return before the light of the barbecue, before the fall. Repairs to the village. Yes. That is why.