Old Christ Church and Memories of the Berlin Wall

July 18, 2013
The Manchester Guardian reported July 5 on Bruce Springsteen’s historic 4-hour concert in East Berlin on July 19, 1988. 
Here, 25 years ago tomorrow, before 300,000 people from all over the German Democratic Republic, and millions more watching state television, Springsteen delivered a powerful challenge to the Wall that fell 16 months later. 

This week’s  anniversary of that concert prompted remembrances of the heady time when the Wall fell on November 9, 1989, and, with those musings, memories of a photograph I took just a few weeks later in early December. 

The image of three pigeons descending on a Vermont country steeple on cold winter’s day has been connected in my heart with the flowering of freedom in Germany a continent away.

The Setting

Old Christ Church sits in a small hollow on the northern bank Gilead Brook, where it flows into the third branch of the White River about three miles north of Bethel. From the north on Route 12, there is a wonderful view of the church, as the road crests the hill, dipping down and around the front of the property to Gilead Brook Bridge. Both meetinghouse and bridge are on the National Register of Historic Structures.

This venerable meetinghouse, of Federal style, was built in 1823. Here, many bishops were commissioned for the westward expansion of the Episcopal Church in America. It’s now used for summer worship only. With oil lamps, original plaster walls, wainscoting and box pews, old milk paint and soaring high windows of ancient clear glass panes, possessing all the bubbles and wavy idiosyncrasies of extreme age, this building is a treasure.

I confess I’m something of a nut about church steeples. I’m a student of architectural history anyway, but steeples, particularly here in New England, have long fascinated me. 

They are extremely difficult to build and maintain, yet, despite tremendous time and expense, our forebears placed them above meetinghouses as grand as Boston’s Old North Church and as humble as Old Christ Church in Bethel. These symbols of our highest aspirations are an integral part of the Vermont community landscape. 

On a particularly cold and clear morning in December, 1989, driving south on Route 12, I noticed a flock of pigeons roosting on this steeple. I parked at the head of Gilead Brook Road and spent a few minutes considering angles and lenses for a good photograph. 

What’s the Angle?

Before long I was trudging through snow on the field above the church to the north, seeking a view across, rather than up at the scene. At a distance of perhaps a hundred yards I had an unencumbered sight of the structure, covered by pigeons. With a 300mm lens, I isolated the steeple in bright morning sun against trees in darkened shadow on the hillside beyond. 

Though I could have hand-held the camera for an image, I had plans for this photograph which made a tripod necessary. In a few minutes the mounted camera was trained on the scene, cropped with the steeple filling the horizontal frame, slightly to the left of center.

For this shot, I used a Nikon F body with a motor drive that could shoot about five frames a second. I opened the lens aperture to 5.6, so the steeple would be in sharp focus against a blurred black background. This also allowed for a very quick exposure with 400 ASA Tri-X film. I hoped to stop the birds in mid-flight.

Off They Go

Everything set, I clapped my hands loudly and, right on cue, the pigeons flew from their roost as I shot a three-second film of about 15 frames. Then I waited. In about five minutes, the birds returned, landing together in a visual cacophony of feathers. This I also photographed. Another series of loud claps provoked a repeated exodus, which I filmed. This time, however, the wait was about 10 minutes, and fewer birds returned. This photography of pigeons departing and arriving continued for about an hour. I exposed more than three rolls of film as the numbers dwindled to three birds.

Back in the darkroom, I learned a lot about bird comings and goings that I couldn’t see in with my naked eye. First, unless you want a very funny image, it’s not a good idea to photograph pigeons flying away from their perch. The departing birds looked like sailors falling off a deck, dropping in free fall, their wings wrapped tightly around them until achieving speed sufficient for flight.

The birds returning, however, were beautiful to behold. That is, they were beautiful as long as they were caught with their wings up rather than down. What I could not see as the birds were moving is that, with light under-wing feathers, and dark upper-wing feathers, my pigeons all but disappeared when their wings were down.

Fortunately, in their final approach, the three birds were beating wings in synchrony, and in one frame their wings were all raised!

From over 100 images, only this one frame was successful. 

I’ve failed to mention that a solitary phone wire stretched across the scene. It was indiscernible against the dark woods, but really hurt the composition as it crossed in front of the very white steeple. Can you see it in the photograph? By placing the wire at the point where the corner posts ended, I was able to minimize the wire’s negative effect. In fact, no one has ever asked me, “What are those black lines there for?”

An Important Time

The high point of Springsteen’s Berlin concert was a brief heartfelt speech in broken, but understandable, German, 

“I’m not here for any government,” he said. “I’ve come to play rock’n’roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.” As the crowd erupted, the band launched into Bob Dylan’s, “The Chimes of Freedom.”

The morning I photographed this image, I found myself thinking about the Wall that had fallen. The descent of three birds to a beautiful steeple on a quiet Vermont winter’s morning will always be inextricably tied to that incredibly hopeful and uplifting time in human history.


Steeple Repairs Are Needed

Contributions are now being sought for the repair of the Old Christ Church steeple. Such repairs are inevitably necessary in Vermont, where our historic structures, most fashioned from painted wood, are exposed to such harsh weather. This particular steeple, one of our most distinctive, is such a treasure!

You are invited to help restore the Old Christ Church steeple.  With a gift of $50 or more, you will receive an 8x10” print of this image, signed and suitable for framing. Send your contribution to Christ Church P.O. Box 383 Bethel, Vermont 05032. For more information, call Nancy Wuttke (763 2807).

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