Green & Brown Acorns, Southeast Utah (c) Mike Utley
When we think of oaks, we tend to envision stately, majestic, robust trees with brawny boughs festooned with squirrels and tree houses. However, the farm on which I was raised in southeastern Utah sported no such giants. Instead, their gnarled, stunted cousins—Gambel oaks—thrived in the arid climate. We called them oak brush or scrub oak, and this species belongs primarily to the Four Corners region of the U.S. (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona). Small copses of this species covered much of the farm, and in the fall their dull brown leaves were the epitome of anti-climax when compared to the canary yellow of the elms and aspens. Brilliant palettes of lichen covered the twisted trunks of these trees that could sink roots even in sandstone. As a kid, I considered them the apotheosis of banality. I mean, it’s pretty pointless to climb a tree that will buckle under your weight, and when you’re a kid, an unscalable tree is a tree without a purpose. All they seemed good for was giving perch to squawking magpies and providing shade for cottontails. But their acorns were little treasures, lustrous green with finely textured cupules that resembled tiny little kilts (a shout-out to my Scottish heritage).
One autumn in the late 1990s, I gathered a couple of handfuls of these green gems, most of which had fallen to the ground and were destined to end up in a magpie’s beak or a squirrel’s belly. They seemed to glow of their own inner light, and I wanted to capture their hues and textures on film. I arranged them in a rusty pie tin on an old splintery wooden bench in the backyard and photographed them beneath an overcast sky to eliminate any harsh contrast. I added a lone brown acorn to the shot to liven things up a bit, placing it near one of the power-points to draw the viewer’s eye. I was pleased with the final result. And an interesting thing occurred… Nearly everyone who viewed this image immediately began interpreting it, all because of that single brown acorn in the corner. “This image is obviously a treatise on life and death…” Or, “This photo speaks to the evils of ageism, where the elderly are being pushed out of society just as the youthful green acorns are shoving the old brown oaknut right out of the frame…” Or, “Racism. This image is all about racism…” And I’d sort of grin and shrug my shoulders. How could I disappoint these folks with the truth? How could I burst their pretentious intellectual bubbles by telling them, “Hey, I just liked the colors and textures, and I stuck the old brown acorn in just for contrast”? To paraphrase Freud, “Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn…” And for those who are wondering, yes, I did pick a few from the branches, but after the image was made, all the acorns were distributed beneath the oaks where the magpies, squirrels and chipmunks would easily find them and deposit them in their larders. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)