During these long winter months in Michigan, it isn’t the snow or the cold or the relatively short hours of daylight that make ‘surviving’ winter a challenging endeavor, it’s the endless days of overcast skies. It’s just hard to stay upbeat and pleasant with so many dreary days in a row! When the sun finally does come out, though, everything seems happier, even the birds are smiling!! All seems right with the world… until it isn’t.
On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the sun was expected to shine all day. I absolutely couldn’t wait to get outside and take pictures! And even though it was going to be the coldest day ever, I had to get out of the house with my camera to see what I could find.
In order to insulate myself against the frigid temperatures, though, I wore three long-sleeved shirts, one fleece jacket, one wind-breaker, one winter coat, two pairs of gloves, one scarf, two hats, and a pair of over-boots to keep my feet from freezing. Inside each pocket of my coat were rechargeable hand-warmers! I was well insulated against the cold, but not well insulated against the breaking news on the radio as I drove home from my blissful day of picture taking.
The Capitol building of our beloved country was under siege by armed insurgents who were hell bent on overthrowing our election and doing as much damage as possible along the way—smashing windows, breaking down doors, destroying historic property, threatening the lawmakers and beating one Capitol police officer to death. It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the TV that I saw the full extent of the mayhem, hate and carnage that was still taking place.
In the span of just a few short minutes, my peaceful day among the birds had been totally upended and set on fire.
Today, as I look back through the pictures I took on January 6th, I am reminded of all the beauty that still exists in the world. And, I am reminded as well that beauty is not always easy to find or even easy to hang on to once you do find it, but it’s always worth looking for.
I came across the phrase, wandering with a sense of wonder, while researching ideas for my previous blog, Photography as Meditation. Alice Donovan Rouse, in her blog titled Photography and Meditation wrote, “I realized that wandering with a sense of wonder embodies the same methodology as yoga—it’s an exercise in focus and acceptance of whatever it is we may encounter along the way.”
That’s exactly how I envision my ‘picture walks’ –as wandering with a sense of wonder. On most of my ventures, I set out with no particular goal in mind other than to find whatever it is that I think is pretty or interesting– and take a picture. It might be a beautiful bird or butterfly, but it might just as easily be a rock or a fungus. It might even be a single sound that catches my attention and sends me off in a different direction.
About two weeks ago, I was out taking pictures at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, Michigan, and was mystified by a sound in the distance, a sound I had never heard before. At first, I thought it might be a bird or maybe even an injured animal, but quickly divested myself of that idea when I decided it didn’t sound like any living thing on this planet! It sounded more like something from outer space!
My curiosity was getting the better of me when I spotted two people in the distance bending down close to the ground as if they were examining something quite small. When they stood up, it appeared as if they were throwing these things into the pond— and that’s when the strange noises began! It happened again and again as they threw stuff into the pond. They were far too distant for me to see exactly what they were throwing, but the most likely answer was rocks. All of a sudden, the proverbial light went off in my head! They were throwing stones across anice-covered pond!! Fascinating!
Once the couple had moved out of range, I started experimenting for myself. The first rock I found was too small and made a disappointing ‘click-click-click’ sound across the pond. The second stone was too big and crashed unceremoniously through the thin ice. After a dozen or so rocks of various sizes and two small ponds with varying degrees of ice, I decided that a rock that was a little smaller than my fist made the best ‘pew-pew-pew’ sound as it skittered across the ice. Take a listen…
Once I returned home and could do a little research on the subject, I found an article by Mark Mancini titled, Skipping Stones on Ice Makes Crazy Sci-Fi Sounds, where he describes the sounds of this phenomenon perfectly “Skip a stone across a frozen lake and you might hear a high-pitched sound that’s both familiar and otherworldly. It’s like the chirp of an exotic bird or a laser blast from a galaxy far, far away.”
I also learned that the phenomenon itself is “… a classic example of acoustic dispersion. Sound waves are made up of multiple frequencies, including high ones and low ones. When a sound travels through air, its component frequencies usually travel together at the same rate, so they all reach the human ear more or less simultaneously. But sometimes, when a sound wave passes through a solid medium (like ice), those high and low frequencies get separated. Being faster, the high-frequency wavelengths zip ahead of their low-frequency counterparts. As a result, you may hear a gap between the high notes and the low notes contained within the same sound. That’s acoustic dispersion in a nutshell.” How interesting!
If you ultimately decide that you’d like to try chucking rocks yourself, I’ve read that extra-large expanses of ice lend themselves particularly well to acoustic dispersion, and that you should probably stand a good distance away from the iced-over body of water for the very best effect.
If you want to see the ultimate in stone skipping across ice, watch this video by Cory Williams as he tosses rocks onto an ice-covered lake in Alaska. He apparently struck internet gold when he posted this video in 2014. (Fast forward the video to the 3:50 mark if you want to skip the intro and just see him throwing the rocks.)
The idea of photography as meditation has been mulling around in my head for quite some time now. The more I go out to take pictures, the more it feels like a form of meditation.
Meditation is commonly described as a “practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.”
Whenever I arrive at a woods, a field or a pond to take pictures, a sense of calm washes over me. I quickly become so focused on looking for interesting things to photograph, that there’s absolutely no room in my brain for any of the usual clutter. Three hours later, I emerge from my ‘trance’, relaxed and ready to face the world. It seems a lot like what I think of as a meditative state.
Much has been written about the therapeutic effects of time spent in nature, but I had never seen anything written about the therapeutic effects of nature photography or, more specifically, ‘photography as meditation’. I decided to do a little research to see if anyone else had come up with the same idea. Surprisingly, there were entire books on the subject!
“For many people, photography serves as a form of meditation; a way to separate themselves from their stressful lives. Meditation and photography have much in common: both are based in the present moment, both require complete focus, and both are most successful when the mind is free from distracting thoughts.” (Photography as Meditation by Torsten Andreas Hoffman)
“Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily on what is happening in order to see more clearly. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.” (Stephen Batchelor, Yale University Press, Meditation and Photography)
I had tried ‘regular meditation’ once or twice before, where I would sit quietly and calmly for a short period of time and try to focus my attention on only one thing, but I never mastered the art. On a picture walk, though, I can stay focused for hours and there’s absolutely no room in my brain for the worries of the day to intrude— quite a godsend, I’d say, given this horrifying pandemic and the deplorable state of our government.
A picture walk continues to be the perfect form of meditation and the perfect antidote to today’s chaos.
These first few weeks of November have been idyllic here in Michigan in terms of weather. Even though we’ve had our first sprinkling of snow and a few nights of below freezing temperatures, most of our days have been blissfully sunny and unseasonably warm!
Growing up, we called this spate of pleasant November weather Indian Summer, but in writing this piece, I wondered where that term actually came from and was it even politically correct to say ‘Indian Summer’ anymore. This required some research and what I found was that both the origin of the term and the political correctness of it, depended on who you asked!
No one really knows how “Indian summer” came to describe such periods of unseasonably warm weather. One theory suggests that early American settlers mistook the sight of sun rays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires, resulting in the name “Indian summer.” Others speculate that Native Americans recognized this weather pattern and used the opportunity to gather additional food for the winter.
Some believe the term was coined by European settlers who observed Indigenous people hunting during hot fall days. More derogatory theories say it refers to a summer that is not on time or one that is phony or fake.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attacks from the Indians, and they coined the expression “Indian summer” to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable.
San Francisco State University American Indian Studies Professor Andrew Jolivette, said “Using the term Indian summer might seem innocuous, but it’s really part of a larger body of normalized euphemisms that keep Indians tied to nature and an imagined past in the minds of most Americans.”
To be on the safe side, maybe it’s time for us to find a new name. In many European countries, a November warm spell is called St. Martin’s summer. In Germany, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, warm autumn streaks are called old wives’ summer (which might also be politically incorrect!) Spain has a quince summer, (because it’s around this time of year that quince finishes its ripening), and Sweden has a “badger summer” (when badgers have one last chance to replenish their stocks for the winter).
For me, though, I’m going to stick with an English term I found along the way that is definitely innocuous and was put into use long before Indian Summer even came into vogue: Second Summer.
It’s another cold and rainy October day as I write this– not a day for pictures, but a day for bird watching from my easy chair! I am perfectly situated for this endeavor, with the fireplace in front of me, a large sliding glass door next to me, and a hot cup of tea snuggled between my hands. Just outside that sliding glass door is a second story deck where we have bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts. Today, there’s an entertaining assortment of sparrows, nuthatches, titmice, finches, grackles, blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals, and black-capped chickadees taking full advantage of our all-you-can-eat buffet.
Unfortunately, this rainy, gloomy weather has persisted for days on end now, with only intermittent bouts of sunshine, so it’s been difficult to squeeze in a picture walk. On the days where I have managed to get outdoors with my camera, it’s been so much harder to find things to photograph; gone are the colorful butterflies and dragonflies, gone are the beautiful fields of wildflowers, and gone are the fickle birds who only enjoy Michigan when it’s warm! What I am finding instead are the migrating birds, the ones just passing through on their way to Florida or other sunny havens—like the sandpipers, the northern shovelers, the greater yellowlegs, the gadwalls, and the white-crowned sparrows. Truth be told, I’m a fickle bird as well, and would scurry off to Florida in a heartbeat– were it not for this horrible pandemic!
In spite of the colder, darker days ahead and the loss of so much color, I still look forward to my quiet, solitary forays into the ‘wild’ to see what Mother Nature has left for me. It will get bitterly cold in the days ahead and the snow will eventually blanket everything. I will have to dress warmer, look harder and wait longer for one bird or another to show up, so I give myself pep talks: “It’s good to be out in nature! It’s good to be out walking and breathing the fresh air! It’s good to have an outdoor hobby!” But sometimes, even the best pep talks in the world won’t stand a chance when the mercury drops below freezing and even my camera doesn’t want to go outside!
The other day, I was talking with a friend about this hobby of mine that I love–nature photography; about picture walks, about writing a blog, about being outdoors every day. After listening to me ramble on enthusiastically, she said, “It really checks off all the boxes for you, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yes, I guess it does,” I replied. And then proceeded to get lost in my head visualizing all of those tiny boxes…
Box Number One is the ‘exercise box’. I get out and go for a picture walk almost every day. I may not walk fast and I may not walk far, but I do get up and out the door for three or four hours at a crack–sometimes more. At age 73, that might be considered an accomplishment!
Box Number Two is ‘connecting with nature’. As soon as I arrive at the woods or fields where I’ll be taking pictures, a sense of calm washes over me as I get ready to explore all the possibilities that lay ahead. I am so focused on looking for things to photograph, that I totally forget about anything that might have worried me before I left the house. A picture walk feels so much like a form of meditation that I decided to Google the words “photography as meditation” to see if anything came up. I was quite surprised to find that not only had articles been written on this topic, there was actually a book with the same title, ‘Photography as Meditation’!!
Box Number Three is ‘making connections with others’. One of the things I really like to do after taking my pictures, is to share them with others. There are so many interesting things to see out there! When I share what I’ve found with others, it starts a conversation. Those pictures and those conversations lead to writing a story, such as this blog, which then leads to Box Number Four.
I love to write. I love pulling my thoughts together and putting them down on ‘paper’. Writing things out forces me to clarify what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned. My hope is that those stories prove interesting or educational or somehow beneficial to someone else. If nothing else, though, the stories I write serve as ‘memory keepers’ for me when, years from now (or maybe next week!) the details of a particular walk will have eluded me!
There are certainly other boxes that could be checked off, such as ‘picture walks vacation destinations’ and ‘picture walks creative projects’, but the four I’ve described are at the very top of my list and are all the motivation I need to get out the door for another day of exploration.
This poem by Wendell Berry was posted recently by a friend and it really resonated with me, especially during these very stressful and troubling times. It speaks volumes about the peace we can find in nature and of the comfort it can provide.
There’s nothing more that I can add to this beautiful poem, so here are a few of my wild things to enjoy vicariously…
I love going out in the cool morning light for a picture walk, especially during these hot summer days when the afternoon temperatures have been well into the 90s! But our lovely summer days are quickly coming to an end, a bittersweet reminder that fall and winter are close at hand. I am looking forward to the cool, crisp days of fall, but am acutely aware that they will come at a price– all the colorful butterflies, dragonflies and frogs that I love to photograph will soon be gone. Come winter, the world will be even more monochromatic.
That said, my walk the other morning was a perfect blend of Summer and Fall. It was deliciously cool in the morning, sunny and warm by the afternoon; much too cold for the frogs and dragonflies as the day began, but plenty warm a few hours later for all my favorite creatures to be out sunning themselves!
Knowing full well that colder weather is nipping at my heels, I’ve been out nearly every day for at least a couple of hours trying to capture what’s left of summer. Because of the pandemic, we haven’t traveled far and I’ve been limited to visiting the same preserves and natural areas closest to home many times over. When I’m in the midst of taking my 700th picture of a monarch or a blue dasher or a bullfrog in the same preserve I’ve been to hundreds of times, I stave off the potential monotony of it all by telling myself “It’s all practice, Jeanne, It’s all practice”– It’s a different day and a different light, every shot I take is a new challenge!
The silver lining to going back to the same places over and over again is that I really get to know its inhabitants; a case in point is the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. I’ve been going there at least twice a week for years—and even more so during this pandemic. It’s a wonderful place to explore with dozens of ponds and lots of wildflowers. I’ve been there so many times that I know the best places to look for frogs; the most likely places to find the swallows perched on limbs, and which ponds the kingfishers favor most. I thoroughly enjoy this knowledge and this familiarity —but I am still longing for a change of venue.
Hopefully, by this time next year, the world will be open again and we can all feel safe in our travels—however small those travels may be.
My favorite time of day for going on a picture walk is early, early morning– just as the sun is coming up. It’s a quiet, peaceful time of day when the rest of the world is not yet awake and not yet making noise. It’s a time of day when it’s easier to hear the birds and easier to notice the movement of the grasses where a wiggling bug or bird might emerge.
Oftentimes, there’s a mist across the water that adds to the dreaminess of an early morning walk. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a dragonfly or two laden with dew drops and not quite ready to fly, or a spider web sparkling in the sunlight. The morning sun has a way of making everything look fresher and brighter and more saturated. The problem is, the morning sun doesn’t last long and I always feel like I’m racing against it for a few good shots.
The race begins long before I leave the house. In truth, it starts the night before when I lay my clothes out in the guest room so that, come morning, I can get ready without waking up my better half. In order to win my race against the sun in these waning days of summer, I need to be out the door by 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., depending on how far I have to drive. If I leave later than I should have, then the race becomes literal!
Once I arrive at my destination, the race continues– because I want to be everywhere at once before the sun is too high in the sky. If you’ve never been in a race against the sun, it’s hard to explain the urgency—or the delight, if you win!
(All of the pictures in this post were taken in the early morning sun.)