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!
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.
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.
Amid the hundreds of thousands of deaths across the globe due to COVID-19, the senseless and horrific deaths of black men and women at the hands of white racists here in the states, the rioting across our country as the result of those crises, and the ‘leadership’ of a president who continues to fan the flames of hate and intolerance, it’s often hard to find joy.
Most days, what saves my soul from total despair are my picture walks. When I’m out and about on a trail with my camera, the sadness of the world falls away as I look for things to photograph that capture my attention, my curiosity or my heart. It feels like a form of meditation.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines meditation as, “the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed.”
Once I spot something that looks interesting or beautiful or odd, there’s no room in my brain for any worries other than how to get the best shot that I can. It’s a game of sorts really–one that I never seem to tire of. Did I get the settings right? Should I change where I’m standing? Can I get a little closer without scaring the animal away? When I do get most of those things right, and the picture turns out clear and crisp and appealing, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
In addition to feeling like I’ve accomplished something, my picture walks are good therapy. At the end of a very long day of unrelenting heartbreak in the news, I can take to the trails to unwind and re-focus, both literally and figuratively, to find all the beauty that still remains.
A little over a week ago Mel and I and our two old dogs made a twenty-two hour, thirteen-hundred-mile drive from Florida to Michigan in our small over-stuffed car. We left Florida at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday and arrived home at 6:00 a.m. Wednesday morning!
Because of the pandemic, we didn’t want to stay at any hotels along the way and we didn’t want to stop anywhere for food. So, prior to leaving Florida, we stocked up the car with ‘survival food’—cookies, muffins, apples, bagels, cheese and nuts. To stay awake, we loaded up a gallon of tea and a half gallon of coffee. To stay hydrated, we included two gallons of water (one for the humans, one for the dogs). With all that liquid to consume, though, we did have to stop occasionally for a bathroom break!
We are happy to be back home to our familiar surroundings, familiar belongings and familiar routines, but after ten weeks of unrelenting sunshine, it has been an adjustment getting used to grey skies and cold weather. We have even had snow!!
In spite of the weather, I have managed to get out and take pictures almost every day. Thankfully, the ‘stay at home’ orders from our governor have not restricted people from going outdoors as long as they abide by the 6 foot ‘social distancing’ recommendations. Keeping my distance while out on a walk has not been a problem—but having to worry about avoiding people has. It’s hard not to socialize when we are already so isolated!
My picture walks have always been a source of comfort to me and they are even more so during this pandemic. As soon as I strap on my camera and walk out the door, I feel a sense of calmness wash over me.
As I amble through the woods and fields, I am so engrossed in looking for things to photograph that it’s easy to forget all the ugliness in the world around me. And then, when I sort through my pictures at the end of the day, I am reminded of all the beauty that yet remains.