I usually go into nature armed with a camera, notebook, hiking stick, binoculars, water, cell phone with species identification apps and often more. But sometimes going out unencumbered brings bigger rewards — a chance to, in some ways, become another species, if only for a few minutes.
Photography is a wonderful tool for learning about and documenting nature, as consistently getting good photos requires truly focusing on a subject — with lens, eye and mind. Sometimes things I don’t see through the lens are only revealed when I’ve enlarged the photos, long after the subject has walked, hopped, flown or slithered away. I once photographed slug eggs, not knowing what they were until I enlarged the photo on my computer and saw an adult slug’s back barely sticking out of the dirt next to them.
In spite of its power as a learning tool, photography can also create an emotional barrier between the photographer and the subject. Concentrating on framing, focus, speed, aperture and a variety of other technical issues can distract from connecting with the subject on a more personal and meaningful level.
When I left a newspaper in Montana to work on a ranch in Wyoming for a summer, I intentionally put my camera aside for the six months I was there. While I regret not having photos of my time on the ranch, it gave me a chance to concentrate on living my life rather than photographing it.
Throughout my four years on the Northern Plains, I remember many times just standing on a bluff or working cows in a pasture on a raw day with the almost-always-present Wyoming wind cutting through me, as if I were wearing nothing at all. Despite my aversion to cold, I celebrated those moments of being buffeted by the elements — experiencing nature unbound and raw.
A few years ago a YouTube video went viral of a hiker, Paul Vasquez, in Yosemite National Park seeing a double rainbow and just freaking out, beside himself with pleasure. He was fully in the moment of experiencing the grandeur spread out before him.
“It was incredible,” Vasquez describes on YouTube. “The camera could not capture the vivid intensity and brightness. Look into the mirror, look into your soul!” I had such revelatory experiences many times, always better realized without my camera.
Some revelations come in quiet ways, as on an unseasonably cool, breezy August afternoon this past summer. I was alone on the property where I live and started out from the house with some purpose in mind, only to be drawn to walking down the steep driveway to the ponds. I had only the clothes on my back — no hiking pole (which I usually take with me everywhere, because of a medical condition), no camera, no other encumbrances.
The clouds were boiling over, seeming to warn of an impending storm, and I was suddenly back in the wilds of the high plains, the Rockies, the Southwestern desert or the Pacific Coast, where I’d start out for a short hike and end up walking for hours, frequently with the weather turning against me. I often started casual hikes late in the afternoon or early evening, passing hikers on their way back to camp and ending up alone on the trail in the dying light.
Once at Mt. Rainier National Park, as I was returning from seeing some huge, ancient trees, I ended up following a couple of deer, just a few yards ahead of me on the trail. With no one else on the trail and my being on my own, we kept a quiet communion almost all the way back to the parking lot. Another time, in Canada, I followed a ruffed grouse back to a campground as dark completely enveloped us and the trail.
In these and similar wildlife encounters, the animals around me just went about their business, totally ignoring me, because, like them, I was merely trying to get somewhere. If I’d been clicking away with my camera, or trying to swap out lenses or get into position for a “perfect” shot, I would have missed the feeling of communion I had with these animals — all of us just walking home together after a long day at work.
That August day in Old Hollow, when I reached the first of the two ponds at the bottom of the hill, I slowly walked around the upper one to a path to the lower one. I could see the great blue heron that had been visiting regularly perched on a long log that was floating in the lower pond. Although only a few yards away, the bird was facing away from me. I couldn’t see its head, which was tucked in low. Was the heron dozing or focused on prey below the surface of the pond? I could only tell that it was oblivious to my presence.
Seeing an opportunity to get to know the heron better, I slowly, quietly sat down on the grass. Before I got into a comfortable position, the heron’s head suddenly popped up. I froze, then very slowly continued to get comfortable. But the heron had noticed me and flew off rather lackadaisically to a tree on the edge of the small pond.
Great blue herons have good vision, even at night, thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All about Birds website. That means that, although these birds are primarily crepuscular (most active at dusk and dawn), they will also feed during the middle of the day and or night. They are also highly aware of their surroundings and will fly off if a human approaches, as this one had always done when spotting me.
This time, however, I waited patiently, and the heron came back and landed at the same place on the log. It appeared to be looking at me with its right eye but not moving. Every few minutes, it would slowly sweep its head around, pointing its beak in my direction, perhaps to get a better view of me, or to see what else was around. The bird was quite calm, and I wondered what it was thinking, as I have in many such instances where I’ve felt like I’ve tried to enter into another species’ world.
Was the bird merely doing a threat assessment, or was it curious about what who I was and what I was doing there? Did it recognize me as human at all, since I was not walking around, or standing, as I had been in other encounters with it?
Communing this way with wildlife is meditative to me. Time slows down. I forget about whatever else may be going on in my life. The longer I look, the more we become just two animals sharing an ecosystem. By sitting quietly, relaxing into the other’s world, I start to connect on a visceral as well as a cognitive level, gaining some small understanding about that animal, the world we both share and my place in it.
At this time of year, most Americans give thanks for all the good things in their lives. Every time I walk out of my house in this beautiful county and see the abundance of wild things just outside my door, I give thanks for that.
© 2014 Pam Owen
Pam Owen is a writer, photographer, Virginia Master Naturalist and lifelong conservationist who lives on the border of Shenandoah National Park. Learn more about her at Nighthawk Communications online.