The giant storm clouds in Camille Seaman's photographs stretch outward from her camera lens for 50 miles. In various shades of blue, green, and gray, the clouds are breathtaking -- in part due to their size, but also due to their potential for mass destruction. As the viewer, you imagine a tornado dropping from those clouds at any second and demolishing an entire town in minutes. We saw it happen in Oklahoma earlier this year, when storms led to nearly 50 deaths across the state in May.
Yet Seaman chases these clouds, compelled to document their fleeting time overhead. She attributes part of that drive to her grandfather, who told her when she was a child: "That's part of you up there. That's your water that helps to make the cloud, that becomes the rain, that feeds the plants, that feeds the animals."
His words reflect a concept I've heard repeatedly during my trips to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Seaman and her grandfather are Native American, but from a different tribe -- Shinnecock Indians from a fishing village at the tip of Long Island. Their theories run parallel to what I hear from the Oglala on Pine Ridge. Being human does not exempt us from nature. Regardless of how you believe we all came to be on this Earth in this moment -- whether it was God or Allah, evolution or aliens -- there are certain connections between us and the natural world, the one we try so hard to control.
As humans, we are 80 percent water. So it should come as no surprise that some of the same elements that pull at the ocean waves stir something within us as well. It should also make sense that when we go through natural biological processes, such as sweating on a hot day, some of that moisture gets pulled up into the atmosphere, helping to create the clouds that eventually rain down on us. It's a cycle, as Seaman's grandfather knew, and as his grandparents likely understood before him.
On Pine Ridge, my talks with Buffalo Man* often travel down similar paths. Water is alive, he told me one morning over coffee. He explained that as he sees it, water is like us; it needs air and movement to stay fresh. The opposite of water -- fire -- he spoke of as central to life as well. Whether it comes from the sun above or lightning striking down, fire is a form of energy and renewal; it brings Earth to life.
Buffalo Man lives in a region where these natural elements are very real, and potentially very threatening. The area of South Dakota around the Black Hills experiences some of the most extreme, volatile weather in the country. As wind whips clouds from the west across Wyoming, it meets over the Black Hills with perpendicular winds coming down from the north.
As a result, storms in Pine Ridge are intense. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found record-setting, 8-inch wide hail just east of the reservation in 2010. And on the reservation, it's no surprise to hear of the large ice stones breaking through walls, windows, and even killing cattle and horses.
As frightening as all that sounds, this part of the country offers the most open, expansive vistas. These views will stop you in your tracks and make you question the way you live your life. It's sky country, where you believe you see Lakota stories come to life -- the spot where Father Sky touches Mother Earth.
From Buffalo Man's porch, I've felt the temperature drop 15 degrees in as many minutes, watched in silent awe as storms grew and melted across the horizon. I've also stood in his driveway in pure panic, fearing that rain would transform the dirt-caked, three-mile drive into a river of mud capable of swallowing my car before I could make it to the road and begin my trek home to Chicago.
On one of my first trips back from Pine Ridge, I barely made it to the road. Hailstones pounded the car, forcing me to yell to hear my own voice. As I gripped the steering wheel, my mind formed alternate routes in case the windshield shattered around us. Stories of cow-killing-hail were fresh in my memory, and as we sped through the Badlands, there was nowhere to stop for shelter. Yet, I couldn't help taking my eyes from the road to marvel at the beautiful impending destruction.
Unlike Seaman, though, I wasn't going to risk a moment to photograph it. I was her opposite: trying to outrun the storm, not catch up to it.
Her work makes you stop and think, and I'm so glad she's doing it. Spiritually, the Oglala look to the west for strength, because it represents finality, but also where the rain originates. They understand, like Seaman and her grandfather, that those storms have been forming for longer than we've been here, and they will continue to form long after we're gone -- part of us, but more powerful than anything we know.
*Buffalo Man lives on Pine Ridge Reservation. He is a wonderful, knowledgeable resource who wishes to remain anonymous.