A typical south Louisiana hot and humid day marked my first visit to Avery Island. Crossing Bayou Petite Anse, I passed through the tollgate and went directly to tour the Tabasco sauce factory. After getting a view of the famous fiery hot sauce, I visited the Jungle Gardens. Later, sitting in the shade, I reflected upon the day's events. It was apparent that life moves slowly here: the Tabasco sauce waiting patiently in its oak casks; the alligators afloat, smiling; and the plants blossoming in the heavy air. I imagined time suspended; as long as I could sit here, be a part of the island, I would not grow a day older.

    I made many visits thereafter to Avery Island, not to photograph, but to find refuge and to seek a regeneration of the spirit. Ultimately, I would go there to photograph, first in black and white and eventually in color. Color adds another dimension of understanding: a layer of information that is needed to convey the minute tonal qualities of sunlight and shade, the pastels of season-greens and pinks-all of which are invariably subtle in this region.

    The island gave up its images slowly. I worked around the tourists visiting the gardens, excluding them in the camera's viewfinder. It was as if this place were a private Eden and the intrusion of people could interfere with the stillness, the serenity that exists there.

    This quiet was abruptly interrupted one morning as I was startled by the crack of bamboo. A large buck leaped in his effort to avoid me. I remember how this graceful creature careened through the underbrush evading obstacles- ceramic olive jars and statues that decorate the Sunken Garden. It was a sight I did not record, because some moments, such as this, should be enjoyed and not photographed.

    A photographer working with a 4 x 5 wooden field camera attracts curiosity and attention. As a result, I have often served as an unofficial guide to many of the island's attractions. The question most often asked has been, "Where are the alligators?" I finally realized what a European visitor was asking: "Can you tell me where I may find the 'ahh-lig-a-tors'?" I still smile when I think of it.

    Trees and plants in the gardens have become as familiar as old friends. I have observed them through the seasons. Some have been lost to old age, many to frost, hurricanes, and other climatic conditions. I have been photographing there for three years, contending with heat, humidity, and hungry mosquitoes. I remember listening to the wind rustling in the trees while I was sheltered by the shadow of the hill and the dense jungle foliage. These memories remain rich. These photographs are not intended to catalog plant specimens and wildlife but to share an artistic vision and to tell a story. That story is about stewardship, gentle traditions, and labors of love. 

A. J. Meek

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