Taking License

by James Morris

A few summers ago, I collected photos of butterflies I saw in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. I didn’t intend to start this collection. It started innocently enough.

I was hiking with my 13-year-old son up Mt. Marcy, the tallest peak in New York state. We stopped for water (more for me than for him) when the two of us noticed a butterfly. It was a butterfly I had never seen before. I was curious to know what it was. It was brown with a broad orange stripe near the margin of each wing.

Worried that I would forget its colors and distinctive markings, I decided to do what we might all do these days – I pulled out my “phone” and took a photo of it. Later, I was able to compare the photo to pictures on the web. I still had trouble identifying it, so I sent the photo to a friend who is a Lepidopterist (a butterfly expert), and quickly got a reply – it was a Milbert’s tortoiseshell. It’s not a very rare or unusual butterfly, but I was right – I had never seen one (or even heard of it) before.

This got me started on my collection. I decided to photograph all of the different butterflies I saw that summer. Some were common – like the Monarch:

Others I recognized but didn’t know their names – like the White Admiral:

And others were new to me – like the Great Spangled Fritillary:

At the end of the summer, I made a postcard of all of the butterflies I photographed, and I included both their common and Latin names. I am not sure why I arranged them as a postcard. They just seemed to form a nice set and a record of what I saw that summer.

Stories emerged from the collection. My wife, noticing a butterfly on the postcard called the Question Mark, asked me why I didn’t identify that one. I replied that that is indeed its name. This orange and brown butterfly gets its name from the distinctive curved line and dot on the underside of each wing, resembling the punctuation mark. This story has become part of our family collection of stories.

I am proud of the postcard, but what I really like is the way that the first photo led to an accidental collection and to a story that has become a part of our family.

It’s funny because that’s exactly how my collection of license plate photos began when I was much younger. I was at my grandfather’s 50th (!) college reunion at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. People came from all over for the reunion. Ithaca is beautiful, but what I noticed were all of the unfamiliar license plates. I grew up in Massachusetts and did not travel out of the Northeast very much. So, when I saw an Alaskan license plate, I did what perhaps any inquisitive 8-year-old child with a new camera would do – I took a picture of it.

That’s the only license plate photo I took while I was at Cornell, but it got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be fun to see if I could photograph all 50 license plates without leaving the Northeast? I set myself this odd challenge and got to work. Whenever my family would go to a mall, for example, everyone would go shopping, while I would scour the parking for new license plates, ones I had never seen before that I could add to my growing collection.

Of course, some were easy – the New England states and most of the states along the east coast. But others were more elusive, like small Midwestern states. The very last one turned out to be quite a challenge. I nearly finished the collection – 49 of the 50 states – and even got all of the Canadian provinces and some far-away plates, like England and France and – of all places – the United Arab Emirates.

But the one that took me several years after I found 49 states turned out to be . . . Idaho. I’m not exactly sure why. I always thought it had something to do with the size of the population and its distance form where I lived. But who knows.

I hung all of the photos on a wall in my bedroom, creating a license plate mural that grew over time. Along the way, I learned some interesting lessons. Obviously, I learned a lot about geography. And I learned a lot about people.

I remember a time when my family and I were in Martha’s Vineyard. I saw a plate I really wanted – I think it was Texas. I had my camera at the ready when I saw a man with cowboy boots approaching the car. My instincts told me that he was the owner of the car. Not wanting to lose this rare opportunity, I decided to simply tell him what I was doing and ask him if it would be ok if I photographed his license plate. He agreed, but asked if I wanted “a real cowboy” standing next to it. To be polite, I said sure, but asked if I could take two – one with him and one with the plate alone (which is the one that ended up on the wall of my room).

Looking back at the collection, there are other lessons. It is interesting to see how the plates have changed over time. And not just the plates. Each license plate is centered in the photo, with just a narrow frame that shows the front or back of the car. There, I can see a nice record of cars of the 1970s, including vintage VW bugs.

I also ended up learning many of the states’ slogans – “Oklahoma is OK” and “The Land of Lincoln” (Illinois) are two that stand out.

With the first photo of the butterfly or the license plate, I did not know where it would lead. In fact, I didn’t think it would lead anywhere at all. I had no plan in mind – just an opportunity that I seized. I am glad I did.

I suppose this is the lesson of the two first photographs, a lesson also captured in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” In this poem, he fully knows “how way leads on to way.” Roads, after all, always lead somewhere.

© James Morris 2017

3 thoughts on “Taking License

  1. Rachel T

    The license plate game was my family’s favorite and now is our family’s passion as well…not to mention the slews of nature pics the kids and I take everywhere we go!

  2. Eleanor Worth

    I mentioned your collection of license plate photos to Owen (age 6) the other day and he was immediately enthusiastic about making his own collection. He’s found a bunch already and has been hugely enjoying it. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. James Morris Post author

      That’s wonderful! Thanks for letting me know. The collection provided me with a challenge and enjoyment over many years.


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