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.
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.
I’ve been traipsing about on and off for the last week or so looking for interesting things to photograph, but it’s not always easy here in Michigan during the winter months. The trees are bare and the sky is often cloudy. Some days it feels like spring, other days it feels like Siberia. Usually I can dress for the weather and still take pictures —unless it’s raining. Like today. I don’t mind getting wet, but my camera sure does!
Yesterday, by contrast, it was cold and windy– but good enough for a picture walk. My destination: Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. This sanctuary is home to a large number of ducks and swans and geese who like to hang out along the edges of Wintergreen Lake and create a tremendous racket with all their honking and quacking and squabbling.
On any given day at the sanctuary, you can find hundreds of mallards waddling about on the grass or dabbling about in the lake. They are great socializers and mingle freely among the hundreds of Canada Geese and dozens of swans who also call the bird sanctuary home. It was against this backdrop that I played my duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’, the game where you have to find a cartoon type character dressed in a red and white striped shirt hidden among hundreds of other characters and objects that look frustratingly similar.
In the duck version of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ I was looking for a lone duck, among the hundreds of mallards, that was not like the others, — maybe a Gadwall or a Wigeon or a Wood Duck. An ‘odd duck’ like this is very hard to find among so many mallards. But yesterday, I found my ‘Waldo’—and his wife! (I knew it was his wife because he made an unexpected conjugal visit right in the middle of the lake while I was trying to take a family-friendly, G-rated photo!) The ducks I was looking at were totally new to me and I just kept snapping pictures so I could, hopefully, identify them later.
In spite of all the resources I had available, however, I could not identify these two ducks–not as a particular breed anyway. What I should have realized sooner rather than later, though, was that these two birds were mallard cross breeds.
After reading up on mallards a little bit, I learned that there are many different ducks in the ‘mallard family’ and those ducks are able to breed with one another. The offspring of these unions would then be referred to as a ‘cross breeds” by some or ‘hybrids’ by others.
The bird that we commonly call a ‘mallard’ can mate with domestic ducks as well as Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Green-winged Teals and Gadwalls.
I still don’t know what mallard mix produced the birds I saw today, but they certainly were an interesting pair!