Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The past

with 31 comments

Mayan ruins, Copán, Honduras, 1978

“What’s past is prologue.” — Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1611.

“The best prophet of the future is the past.” — Byron, in a letter, 1821.

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 23, 2017 at 5:03 AM

31 Responses

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  1. The last sentence in the Santayana quotation is well-known, but the lines before may speak more directly to our time. From temper tantrums on social media, to demands for perfect security in safe spaces, to dependence on others for the meeting of life’s needs, perpetual infancy seems increasingly to be our desideratum.

    T.S. Eliot’s famous line may fit our circumstances more perfectly than he ever could have imagined: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”


    November 23, 2017 at 8:34 AM

    • Because the last line of the Santayana is so well known (and so often paraphrased: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana), I made sure to include the lines leading up to it. I’ve observed, and had my observation reinforced by some of Jonathan Haidt’s work, that there are people who are disposed to value novelty. In itself that strikes me as a good thing, the desire to experience different cultures, different geography. Carried to an extreme, however, as I’m afraid it too often is in some quarters, change for change’s sake becomes destructive. I’ve conjectured that if all the “demands” of certain groups were granted, it wouldn’t be long before those people would be back with a new set of “demands,” as any status quo soon becomes intolerable to someone of that psychological bent. I’ve even wondered, paradoxically, whether enough iterations of continuing new “demands” over several decades or generations might not lead to a “demand” for some of the very things that current demanders want to get rid of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 23, 2017 at 9:14 AM

  2. The photograph is marvelous, and the accompanying quotes the perfect accompaniment, particularly the last. In the last few months, working in groups of people in different ways locally in an effort to effect positive change, I’ve been struck repeatedly by the drive many have to go directly to task, without first taking into account the context, both present and historical. I find this a constant source of puzzlement, as it seems to me that, without having anything of the context in hand, one can’t possibly know whether the task undertaken makes any sense.

    Susan Scheid

    November 24, 2017 at 6:53 AM

    • What an excellent example, Susan, of not heeding Santayana’s insight. If you’ve spoken about it with any of the people who have a drive to go directly to a task without examining the historical and present contexts, I’m eager to hear what reactions you got.

      The photograph dates from my infrared period, which lasted from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. Infrared seemed especially apt at conveying the mystery of ruins.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 24, 2017 at 10:28 AM

      • I’m afraid I’ve so far not found the magic formula by which to persuade folks to stop and consider the “why” before embarking on the “what.” Should I succeed in future, I’ll let you know!

        Susan Scheid

        November 25, 2017 at 5:58 PM

        • Should you succeed, it would be an accomplishment worthy of the Nobel committee’s immediate attention.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 25, 2017 at 9:01 PM

  3. That is an astonishing photo, Steve… to my eye, very other worldly… I almost expect something to appear out of the sky…


    November 24, 2017 at 4:03 PM

    • I’m not surprised that for someone fond of coloring the past, this remnant from a thousand years ago exerts a compelling charm. The other-worldliness, created intrinsically by what trees and time have done to undo the Mayan site, is enhanced by the infrared. That’s why, once I’d gotten familiar with infrared film, I was eager to return to these ruins and record them in a new way.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 24, 2017 at 4:14 PM

      • Do you think of what the trees and time have done to ‘undo’ the Mayan site? To me it adds to it. Everything changes and nature has a way of reverting what man makes back to what it needs.
        I hadn’t realised this was done with infrared film, I’d assumed (wrongly, I’m sorry) that it was postproduction in a graphics program or maybe a setting on your camera. That just shows you how much I know (not!) about real photography… (But that’s okay, each to their own. 🙂 )


        November 25, 2017 at 7:32 AM

        • You make a good point. It’s the combination of original buildings and a thousand years of botanical growth that many people find so appealing. My understanding is that some of the largest trees in a place like Copán can’t easily be removed without damaging the structures they’ve grown into and onto.

          Photoshop does let people turn a conventional photograph into one that looks similar to an infrared version. At the time when I took this picture, 1978, of course there was no Photoshop. I had to do infrared the old-fashioned way, on infrared film, which was so sensitive that it had to be kept in opaque canisters and loaded into the camera in the dark (for which purpose I traveled with an opaque film-changing bag). If today’s strict airport inspection regimes had been in place then, I couldn’t have flown to Honduras with infrared film.

          People who want to do real (as opposed to simulated) infrared photography today have it a lot easier. There are companies that will remove the infrared-blocking filter from the sensor of a digital camera to make the camera sensitive to infrared light.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 25, 2017 at 10:03 AM

          • It’s all very interesting. Til now I’ve mostly associated infrared with night-time photography – nocturnal animals, for instance.


            November 25, 2017 at 4:20 PM

            • There’s quite a range in the infrared part of the spectrum. Infrared film and converted digital cameras respond to the part of the infrared spectrum just below visible red. The farther parts of the infrared spectrum involve heat radiation. The article at


              makes the statement that “infrared (IR) light is the part of the EM [electromagnetic] spectrum that people encounter most in everyday life, although much of it goes unnoticed.”

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 25, 2017 at 4:40 PM

  4. But there are those who do remember the past, and, unfortunately, want to repeat it.


    November 25, 2017 at 5:23 AM

    • That’s an excellent yet sad corollary to the Santayana quotation. Your “unfortunately” makes it clear that the remembered past you’re referring to is an unsavory one. On the brighter side, there are people who work to restore good things from the past.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 25, 2017 at 9:43 AM

      • Definitely unsavory, but, yes, it’s good that the past has some savory things to restore. But then, of course, the past is neither completely good nor completely bad, so, for example, we can admire and wish to remember/ republish certain authors but we may also have to remember the writer believed in eugenics. Then there is “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Shakespeare’s quote may apply to Robert Mugabe. Now I think I am way off topic and should end this comment!


        November 25, 2017 at 6:56 PM

        • I’ve heard several historians point out recently that we should be cautious about interpreting the past strictly in the light of current beliefs and sensibilities.

          I know little about Robert Mugabe, who has been much in the news this week. I’m reminded of someone who in at least one way was his opposite, George Washington, who broke the pattern of history and astonished the world by voluntarily giving up power after eight years.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 25, 2017 at 11:29 PM

          • If only more leaders would follow Washington’s example and limit their time in power.


            November 26, 2017 at 12:07 AM

            • The American presidency is limited to two terms of four years each (and in rare circumstances as much as an extra two years of a previously elected president’s term). There have long been proposals to limit the terms of the people in Congress as well. The writers of the Constitution intended service in Congress to be just that, service, not a career. The push for Congressional term limits came to the fore again this week with allegations that the man now in the House of Representatives for his 27th two-year term secretly used money from his office budget to pay a former female staffer $27,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim.

              That’s one more reason to stick to nature photography.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 26, 2017 at 7:36 AM

              • Sticking to nature photography is definitely a good idea but, even in nature, there’s scope for sexual shenanigans as I discovered when reading this article on persimmons https://www.qdma.com/sex-among-persimmons/


                November 26, 2017 at 5:21 PM

                • Who knew that there’s such a thing as the Quality Deer Management Association? And who knew that you can do gender reassignment surgery on a male persimmon tree?

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 27, 2017 at 7:41 AM

                • Exactly, who knew?


                  November 27, 2017 at 5:07 PM

  5. i would love to step into that image!!!!! in the book ‘satun’ – i remember that the shaman said that the good ‘spirits’ had left tikal because of man ‘intruding’ on the site… you were at this site when the good spirits were still there..

    great post! – the image is paired with great quotes…

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    November 27, 2017 at 10:05 PM

    • Step right in. I did in 1978, and even then there were more restrictions than when I’d first visited in 1969. From more-recent pictures I’ve seen on the Internet, I gather the ruins are more protected now, and therefore harder to photograph well. There must also be a lot more tourists. I can’t believe it’s been almost 40 years since I was there. I visited Tikal once, in 1968.

      I’m glad you liked the quotations that were paired with the photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 27, 2017 at 10:34 PM

  6. I love this image and post. Sadly, all I can think of is Trump, the ultimate perpetual infant.


    December 25, 2017 at 8:22 AM

    • In 1976 I moved to Austin. This trip to Honduras two years later was my last one to that country. By then I’d become a regular user of infrared film, which seemed a good medium for recording the mystery of ancient history. The continuing unstable situation in Honduras now makes me doubt I’ll ever be able to visit there again, which I’d like to after 40 years.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2017 at 8:51 AM

      • It is hard to watch places we once called home become so unstable, isn’t it? I was stunned, for example, by what happened in Venezuela last year. Here’s to peace in all the corners of the world. I hope you will get a chance to return there safely.


        December 26, 2017 at 10:20 AM

        • Thanks. I hope so. When I lived in Honduras in 1968 and 1969 it was one of the poorest countries in the Americas but I walked around, day or night, without any concerns about safety. I wouldn’t dare do that now, alas. And yes, Venezuela is a disaster.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 26, 2017 at 11:55 AM

          • It is so sad to see the state of things. I sometimes wonder if there are forces that want to drag us back into the Dark Ages.


            December 27, 2017 at 8:25 AM

            • If the past is prelude, then we’ll always have people who lust for power over others. We’ll also always have good people who fight against them.

              Steve Schwartzman

              December 27, 2017 at 8:56 AM

  7. […] A mound in the forest at John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs, Ohio, on July 21 made me think I was looking once again at the ruins of a Mayan pyramid that the Central American jungle had reclaimed. […]

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