As I approached a new hiking trail the other day, I was disappointed to see that I might just be walking through a dark woods all morning. Normally, I love walking through the woods, but not when I’m taking pictures. It’s usually too dark, or the light is too dappled for a good picture. I seriously contemplated going somewhere else, but gave myself a little pep talk instead. Even in the darkest of woods, I reasoned, there are patches of sunlight, and in those patches of sunlight, there could be a deer, or a chipmunk, or a shiny, new spiderweb! There’s always something, I thought. So off I went.
As I ambled along the trail looking for things to photograph, my thoughts kept turning back to my cousin’s young son who had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I was envisioning the anguish and the heartbreak that comes with such a diagnosis and wishing there was some way to make everything all better. I thought about the dark woods ahead; the one that they were facing, and hoping they would find patches of sunlight along the way that would make their journey less difficult. An unexpected kindness, perhaps, or a hopeful word.
Sometimes, the path I take through a dark woods leads me to an open meadow, or a hill top, or a pond, where the sun washes gently over everything, and the world looks like a brighter, happier place. I love when that happens! Sunshine opens up all sorts of possibilities!
And, on one very rare occasion, as I stood quietly at the edge of a pond hidden in the woods, a bald eagle swooped down out of nowhere and captured a fish right in front of me!
Even in the darkest of woods, there are always patches of sunlight, unexpected joys, and sometimes, glimmers of hope.
As I sit writing this piece, long before sunrise, on another cold and windy February day, I am contemplating the advisability of even attempting a picture walk. The weather forecast calls for 15 to 25 mile an hour winds with gusts over 40! On the other hand, temperatures might exceed 40 degrees —quite balmy compared to the below zero wind chill conditions I was faced with the other day! Usually, I can put on enough layers to stay warm, even on the coldest of days, but strong winds make for a much bigger challenge.
Most days, I’m up for that challenge but, I must admit, I’m growing weary of it all. These long winter days, where I have to plan for so many weather contingencies, and have to wear so many layers, are weakening my resolve—especially during the past two years of this pandemic where we haven’t been able to venture far from home. The birds in my backyard are quite tired of me begging for a photo shoot.
For the next few days, though, my backyard birds can take a break while I babysit my grand-dog on the opposite side of the state. There are lots of new places to explore here and once the sun is up, I expect I’ll venture out in spite of the wind and in spite of the cold! I’d much rather be outside searching for the possibility of something new than sitting here on the couch.
After writing those first few paragraphs, I did, indeed venture out– first to a nearby nature center and then to a nearby park.
I found the usual assortment of birds at the nature center—chickadees, finches, cardinals, nuthatches and goldfinches, but it was a brand-new setting! When I arrived at my second destination, I really hit the jackpot! Beaudette Park in Pontiac, Michigan, had a very large pond of open water and it was teeming with a wide variety of waterfowl, some of which I’d never seen before!
This time of year, it’s highly unusual to find open water in Michigan. Most lakes and ponds are frozen over. This particular body of water had the ubiquitous array of mallards, swans and geese, but it also had mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, ring-necked ducks, goldeneyes and canvasbacks!! It was the canvasbacks I’d never seen before. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!
Days later, I was still sorting through all the hundreds of pictures I took that day!
In spite of all the inherent beauty to be found in a picture of freshly fallen snow and a colorful bird here and there, I am more than ready for the arrival of spring; ready to be free of these bulky winter clothes, grey skies, and frigid temperatures. I’m beyond hungry for the colors to return, for the sweet smell of a newly mowed lawn, and for the sheer delight of a warm patch of sun on my bare skin!
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.
Mel and I have been to eight different nature preserves in as many days—both with cameras in hand.
One of my favorite new places that we visited was the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, described as “a journey into the heart of the Everglades ecosystem… a 2.5-mile adventure through pine flatwoods, wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.” I had to go!
I wasn’t particularly interested in finding the usual swamp creatures like alligators and turtles, I’d already seen plenty of them. What I really hoped to find was a painted bunting. They are such incredibly beautiful birds– and I had never seen one before!
Ironically, Mel and I spent 5 hours taking pictures along the boardwalk, but I didn’t get my bunting picture until we were back at the visitor’s center and I saw one hanging out near the bird feeders! (I prefer to get my birdies out ‘in the wild’ rather than by a feeder, but I was not about to pass this one up over a technicality!)
Another new place we visited was the Babcock Ranch Preserve Footprints Trail in Punta Gorda. Unfortunately, the trail had just undergone a controlled burn and several areas near the trail were still smoldering. Even though we had a hard time finding much of anything to photograph, Mel spotted the one thing I had hoped to find the most—a Barred Owl. Everywhere we go, we look up in the trees hoping to spot an owl, but they are usually well camouflaged and hard to find. This one was high up in a tree, but otherwise visible. I zoomed in, took dozens of shots, and left happy. What a treat!
All the other places we visited this past week or so, Celery Fields in Sarasota, Ollie’s Pond in Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay Park in Englewood, and the State College of Florida in Venice were places we had visited before at one time or another. They are all dependable places for finding birds, butterflies, bugs or alligators– and we were not disappointed!
With all the preserves that Mel and I visited, we ended up with thousands of pictures. Not surprisingly, it takes hours and hours to go through them all. So sometimes, like today, we take a ‘picture holiday’ and just go for a walk without our cameras, but it’s really hard for me to do. I always see something that begs to be photographed! Today it was the iguanas and the dolphins that caught my eye. I didn’t get them today. Maybe tomorrow…
Going for a ‘picture walk’ is a lot like a scavenger hunt, I think. It’s not that I have a list of things to find, but every picture I take feels like a little treasure I’ve collected and put in my pocket. When I get home, I empty my pockets of all the things I’ve found and decide what to keep and what to throw away. The nice thing about this kind of treasure is that my pockets are always big enough! And that’s a good thing– because sometimes I have more than 500 treasures to sort through!