the art of doing meditative nature photography

Archive for March, 2012

Life Lessons from the Bighorn Sheep “Stay Present in the Moment”

(click on any of my photographs to see an enlarged image)

Life is full of unexpected moments, and I had one yesterday morning. One of those moments that catches you completely off guard and that you’re totally unprepared for. You know, the surprise party moments that knock you off your step. Yesterday was a happy nature-and-photography surprise that caught me completely unsuspecting and utterly ill-equipped.

Alas, I hadn’t packed the telephoto lens. Sigh. Well, that’s how life happens, I guess. Sometimes we just have to make do, and make the best of the situation! And that’s just what I did.

Five months ago I was blessed to have been at Garden of the Gods when the bighorn sheep came down into the park. It’s a very rare sight. While they’re known to stand on the rocky hillside that borders the park to the north, they never jump the fence and enter the central garden of towering stones. That October day, they did. It was spectacular, wonderful, and amazing. You know you’re witnessing the unusual when even the park ranger is aghast!

So when I pulled up yesterday and the bighorns were way up on the hill, I got out to snap some shots- minus the zoom lens, but hey, sometimes the point is just to remember the experience, not get the shot that’s worthy of a magazine cover.

While I got some fairly nice shots (for having no zoom), the best part for me was sharing the experience with a complete stranger, a kind, friendly, charming man named Ron. For the longest time, we were the only two on the trail by the fence. The very few other onlookers were back by the road, so it was just me and this delightful soul sharing the bighorns up close. His equipment was fabulous, and he truly got some terrific shots. The sheep were putting on quite a show for us, seeming to pose and prance just for our entertainment.

Here we were, two stunned and surprised amateur photographers, smiling nonstop, letting out “ooh” after “ah” after “wow”. It was such delicious fun. He was as giddy as I, completely absorbed in the experience of seeing these great beasts up so very close, naturally, in the wild.

As we watched them lazily grazing on the hill and skillfully climbing about the rugged boulders, we decided to shift down the path along the fence so the sun would be at our backs and off of our lenses.

I’ll never know if our moving out of the way had anything to do with their decision, but much to our mutual surprise, the bighorns came down, down, down the hill… and jumped the fence.

The poor ranger wasn’t too pleased, but we photographers were pretty darn happy. We backed up to give them their space (they are large, powerful mammals) and eventually half the herd crossed our path and settled in to graze.

For the next hour or so we stood mesmerized as the sheep munched by the road and raced back and forth over the fence a few times (cars and dogs are rather scary, after all!). We pointed things out to one another and probably looked like two kids in a candy store.

Just to be in their magnificent presence was sheer joy. They move like a school of fish when startled, with remarkable gracefulness and synchronicity for such bulky creatures. When they look you in the eye you can’t help but feel mesmerized.

Ron got the treat of a lifetime at Garden of the Gods yesterday. He got to see the bighorn sheep up close. But I think more than that he had a great time. We both commented that it was so nice to have someone to “ooh” and “ah” with, to say “wow look what that one just did!” to, and to just share the moment.

As I write this the next day, I realize that that’s also why I blog. It’s to share what I see, to say, “Does anyone else see how cool that is?!” I blog to share the meaning and beauty I perceive, because it’s in the sharing that the experience takes on a new richness, fullness, and power. The life lessons I learn in nature mean all the more to me when they’ve meant something to someone else, too.

So the sheep taught me a lesson yesterday. They taught me to just enjoy the moment, to enjoy connecting with people more than trying to get the great shots. The sheep seemed to say just be here with us and take it all in. Put the camera down and just look at us. So I did. As much as I believe, wholeheartedly, in the power of focusing our lives meditatively through the lens, in those moments when you are already so focused on the moment, so present and aware, it’s okay to stop clicking and simply be present in the moment.

While I took a lot of photographs yesterday, I also had the presence of mind to ground myself in the present, to let time feel suspended and hang like a clock with stopped hands. I took in time with the sheep.

But you know I’ll be packing the telephoto from now on… just in case… 😉

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Take Care to Cradle the Buds of Your Creativity (In Memory of My Dad)

There was a time in my life when I didn’t realize how creative a person I was. I had never considered myself “artistic”, certainly not “an artist”. Don’t ask me to paint or draw, I can’t do either worth a darn!

Creative writing had come fairly naturally to me as a child, but I had drifted away from that in college, focusing instead on science and philosophy. I picked up guitar in my twenties, but never got nearly good enough to consider myself a musical artist!

I thought of myself as a dabbler in a few creative things, but in my mind, creative people were other people. I had trained extensively in logic in college, and I can’t help but wonder if that effort didn’t skew my perception of myself.

When my father passed away 12 years ago this month, he left me his camera. I had dabbled in photography with him and always encouraged his hobby. He was an enthusiastic amateur with perhaps not as great an eye as he would have liked, but he wholeheartedly enjoyed the process of photography. His equipment was pretty good, and I enjoyed using it when we traveled together from time to time.

Dad never thought of himself as a creative person, either. I think maybe that’s what held him back from his photography blossoming into something more. He was great with the mechanics and technical aspects of cameras- after all, he was an electrical engineer, so these things came quite naturally to him. But he had trouble getting beyond the mechanics and in to the art.

Why? I think he failed to cradle the buds of his creativity.

I think he failed to nurture and nourish and cherish his artistic abilities. They went unsupported and unencouraged, never blooming into their potential, never becoming more than a bud. I wonder if without the perspective, the mindset of “I am an artist”, my engineer dad couldn’t quite become the artist he really was. Somehow that didn’t fit his view of himself. His identity was “Ray the engineer and mechanically inclined guy”. I don’t believe he ever fully embraced “Ray the creatively artistic guy”.

I wonder if I picked that up from him.

When I published Life is a Balancing Act last fall, someone was flipping through the pages and said to me, rather astonished, “Oh! You’re an artist!” My jaw about hit the floor. Me? An artist? Was she crazy? I peered and poured through the pages that day, trying to change my self-perception and see what she saw.

All these months later, it’s slowly, finally starting to sink in. I am an artist.

There are a few people in my life who I can honestly say lack creativity, and I feel for them. For now that I’ve let my own creative genie out of her bottle, and have come to see and appreciate her for who she is and what she can do, I cannot imagine living any other way. Creativity breathes life into all aspects of our existence. It provides grace, beauty, meaning, perspective, and context. Acts of artistry bring forth our inner uniqueness and let us touch and engage the world in ways that carry profound depth.

For my non-creative friends, my wish for them is that they discover some path in life beyond the merely practical, beyond day-to-day existing. There is so much more to life, and so much more to ourselves. Light and love flow artistically, not practically.

So take the time to cradle the buds of your creativity, today and always. Don’t let your gifts wither up un-blossomed. Shush the inner logician, engineer, and overly practical person once in a while, and make sure they don’t overshadow the artist. Your creativity is your unique gift to the world, and all our creativity together is what breathes freshness and excitement into life. All great ideas and great progress spring from minds budding with ideas- even the great engineering ideas!

I wouldn’t have my life any other way, now. I artistically captured these buds- these emerging wonders of beauty on the verge of becoming nature’s art- early this morning with my Dad’s old camera lens attached to my DSLR. I had no idea it would lead to this tearful post.

This one’s for you, Dad. I miss you more than you would ever believe. Thanks for the camera, and for the creative eye…

~Susie

Old Oak Leaves and New Buds, Lessons of the Spring Equinox

The seasons give us perspective,

To know that our lives are complex,

With some things ending, new things beginning.

The transitions in our lives are much like the transitions of the seasons. They don’t happen all at once, on one magical day. They happen slowly, gradually, sometimes nearly imperceptibly until one day we wake up and realize- hey! It’s spring!

Often these transitions are in the process of occurring long before we’re consciously aware of it. The seeds that seem to lie dormant are really doing good and important behind-the-scenes work to get ready for the changes to come. Such it is with us as well. We are often in change before we are consciously aware of it.

In nature, the seasons are not the clean-cut, well-delineated rites of passage we imagine them to be. In the fall, while the oaks get ready for a restful winter sleep, the tansy asters are just blooming. This is their “summer”, so to say, their season of growth to fulfillment and fruition, at the same time the oaks are in the process of wrapping up for the year.

Like the forest, we, too have many seasons at once. The various stages of our lives are rife with crisscrossing events, some waning away, some waxing to culmination. It is never as simple as “I am in a growth phase right now”. For whatever you are growing towards, you are simultaneously growing out of something else, leaving it behind and moving on to the new.

Sometimes we choose to mark changes with rites of passage, with markers to celebrate the metamorphosis from what was to what will be. These repeating moments highlight the continuing progression of life, as birthdays roll by, summers come and go, and our lives evolve. The cyclical nature of some of these changes, like our birthdays and nature’s seasons, provide us with a sense of predictability and continuity, of expectation and celebration of the inexorable tide of time.

So it is, for all living things and living systems, which is why I love equinoxes and solstices. They are a quarterly reminder to me that we are all, collectively, hurtling around the sun, changing our perspective of our life-giving star, tilting towards and away as the seasons change, like babies rocked in the sun’s cradle of life.

Tonight (where I live, anyway- it may be early tomorrow where you live!) the earth will be aligned such that the sun crosses the celestial equator. The days will be, momentarily, equal in the length of light and darkness. The time of long nights and short days will phase, barely perceptibly, into the time of longer days and shorter nights. I will celebrate another transition in life, choosing this day to mark what I already see happening- the arrival of spring.

For me, a season of magic begins. Spring has an almost intoxicating pulse of life coursing through it. You can almost feel all of nature around you in a collective deep breath, as the race begins and the time of rest is over, for now. The excitement of renewal, rebirth, and re-invention of all our selves begins.

As a nature photographer, this season marks the start of the great thrill ride for me. One of my greatest joys is documenting new life from first bud to last bloom, observing in one living being the great race of life, all of its hurdles and triumphs, growth spurts and rests, milestones and mishaps.

Tonight I will take this opportunity to reflect on my own life, and ponder what this new spring season brings for me. I am in my own growth spurt right now, with new ideas budding and new aspirations emerging, while simultaneously other aspects of me fall away like the leaves in autumn. I feel as nature does, now. I am in transition. Tonight I will allow myself to feel the pulse of nature, tap into its collective breath, and try to catch some of that intoxicating rush of life-force that drives us forward in time, relentlessly reaching, growing, emerging.

I wish a Happy Spring Equinox to you all, a season of growth to bring to life and full bloom whatever dreams inspire your souls.

-Susie

Learning Patience from Flower Petals

My long wait is- finally– almost over.

I’ve struggled with patience my whole life. When I was in my twenties, my motto was “patience is a waste of time”. No kidding! My family is convinced that I’m part squirrel, and to be honest, I think they’re right. Hyperactive and impatient, yep, that’s me.

Luckily, I’ve found that I can learn just about anything from nature. I can pick up bits of wisdom, new coping strategies, fresh ways to look at life, and I can even discover new things about myself. Yes, nature is a fountain overflowing with inspiration, beauty, awe, wonder, and, apparently, life lessons. Which brings us back to patience. It’s another life lesson nature is drilling in to me.

While I think winter is beautiful and I love igloo building and a good sledding adventure as much as the next person, I long for warm weather. It has flowers bursting with a rainbow of colors and tender green leaves waving in warm breezes. It has soothing sunshine and soft rains (unless, of course, it’s monsoon season here in Colorado, in which case scratch that and change to “rain-and-large-hail-deluges”).

Winter comes and there’s not much I can do about it. It is grey and brown and pale, and compared to summer, rather dull. Nothing is growing and bursting forth new expressions of itself. Even the bears are sleeping. There are no cute baby bunnies to brighten my day, and so many of my delightful, chipper bird buddies have taken off for warmer climes. So each year as the cycle of seasons rolls on, as each winter approaches, I know the flowers will fade for a few months. The blue-grey gnatcatchers and the lesser goldfinches will fly south, and I will wait “patiently” for their collective return.

The seasons may be the circle of life, but I always end up feeling like a hamster in a wheel, thinking if I could only run fast enough along the circle, I’ll get there sooner. Yeah, I hear nature laughing at me, too, hoping someday, after all these years of “seasons of waiting”, I’ll finally get it. For having been such a good student, I sure can be a slow learner.

Alas, I don’t live in the tropics, so winter is an inevitable reality. Life has its lessons and its seasons, and though my allergies are making me miserable, the warmer air, budding trees, nesting birds and longer days are making me happy. So I’ll wait- hmmm- sort of patiently- for the flowers and leaves and my friends the lesser goldfinches. I’ll wait for baby bunnies to be born and black bears to re-emerge. And one of these days I’ll get this “patience’ thing. Yep, one of these days…

Though at least I know I’m not the only one looking forward to new green sprouts!

It Takes Courage to Open Yourself Up in an Uncertain World

Even though it takes courage to open yourself up in an uncertain world

Do it anyway

I love to take my inspiration from nature, from the natural wisdom that all sorts of funky little living things seem to have. They just live their lives, with a natural ease that lets them go for it. In the countless flowers I’ve photographed I’ve never seen a blossom seem to hesitate, second guess itself, or stay closed forever for fear of the big bad world.

Instead, they gently, confidently unfurl themselves for all to behold. No fears, just an air of poise and coolness, like they know that this is what they’re supposed to do.

I blogged the other day about the sweet sensation of anticipation in buds, and in writing this I guess I’m continuing that train of thought to the courage of flowers.

This blog is a new act of courage for me.

I’m learning the ropes and putting my feelers out. I’m offering my tidbits of insight and beauty I see in nature. I’m offering up my heart.

In life it can be so easy for us to feel like we want to stay closed up. “Playing it safe” is a game that’s addictively popular in our culture. Times get tough, sometimes we get burned, we know what it feels like to lose or get hurt, and before you know it, we’ve closed up.

The funny thing is, that’s what makes this little amethyst-colored gem of beauty my perfect analogy for this post. The pasque flower opens in shady conditions but closes up tight in bright sunlight. It seems to share that fear of the spotlight that many of us have- that fear of opening ourselves up to being vulnerable.

Now I suppose I could look at this lovely lavender life-form and think to myself, see, even in nature there are shy things that keep themselves hidden from the world.

But I think there’s another, wiser way to look at our little purple friend, here. The pasque flower knows how to be true to itself. It opens itself right up in subtle daylight, but feels no need for the glaring spotlight; it knows itself well enough to say, “I’m a little more introverted than that!”

Yes, I know flowers can’t talk, but nonetheless I can relate to this fuzzy beauty. Being something of an introvert myself, the pasque flower feels like a kindred spirit.

That’s one of the great things about nature. We can always find something out there that we can relate to. There’s a “muse” out there for everyone. (One of these days I’ll be blogging about all the ways I am like a squirrel- watch for it- it should be pretty darn funny!)

It does take courage to open up, and it also takes timing. It’s not the timing you set by some rigid schedule that you demand. For the pasque flower cannot demand when the sun rises and sets, nor can it demand the clouds come because it feels like being open. No, it’s at the whim and mercy of Mother Nature like the rest of us.

So here I blog, sharing words and pictures when the timing is right, and when I’m being true to myself.

After all, I can’t go through life thinking I have less courage than a flower. I couldn’t walk down the trails and face them anymore! I don’t want to ever look down at the courageous, naturally easy flowers and say, “Yes, I know you opened up, but I just couldn’t do it.”

So as spring blossoms over the coming weeks I’m going to proudly tell the flowers I meet, “Hey, guys! I did it! Thanks for the inspiration!”  All right, I know, people are going to look at me a little strangely, but hey, opening yourself up in an uncertain world takes courage, whether you talk to the flowers or not…

Why I Love My Hiking Boots (Why My Office Hours are Chickadee to Full Moon!)

I love my hiking boots.

My hiking boots remind me that my office hours are “first morning chickadee chirp” to “wow look at that midnight Moon”.

Hmm… I guess that means I work all day, but hey, such is the life of the work-at-home-writer/ work-in-the-wild photographer.

These boots are the physical representation of my life on the trails. As I see them sitting next to my desk, they’re looking somewhat like a dog staring longingly at a leash, begging to be walked. My boots are waiting patiently to be taken out on a hike. I swear my dog gets jealous of my boots on the days it’s too cold or wet for him to come along!

These well-worn pieces of footwear describe me.

My hiking boots mean that my “research” for my writing gets to be trotting along looking at grand vistas.

My hiking boots say that I’m adventurous, even when the terrain is filled with boulders and prickly beings ready to poke me if I dare to bump in to them!

My hiking boots give me traction. I don’t always have the best traction out on the trails. I’m often caught in spots where the footing isn’t so great. Well, isn’t the same sometimes true in life?

I often feel like I can’t find my traction, like I’m slipping, sliding, or stuck. I feel it on the trails and in moving through this world. Even in writing this blog and my books I feel it! Some days the traction is there, and I’m on a metaphorical run down the dusty, winding path. Other days, I’m lost for words, lost in the trees, lost in a fog, or just plain, well, lost

As the boots give traction on the trail, my hikes in nature give traction in my life. My boots anchor me steadily to the ground beneath my feet. Hiking anchors me in this world. It gives me perspective, a grounding point from which all other things are measured. It is my sanity, my balance, my joy. I can handle what life throws at me when I know the mountains will be there for me, whether I need the trees to whisper softly to me or the birds to sing my blues away.

My boots give me support. They wrap my feet up and keep my arches from pancaking. Trotting on trails and hiking to new heights can be stressful on the tootsies. It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Well, those rugged roads we travel chasing our dreams are craggy and uneven, challenging us at every twist and turn. We fight to keep our fragile footing and not lose our balance or our way. Sounds like quite the trek. Better have supportive footwear.

My boots protect me. They are my armor against the twigs, boulders, bee stings and prickly pear cacti out to maul my toes. Hiking in nature protects me. It is like getting the clearcoat protectant at the carwash. Time in the outdoors braces me against the harshness of modern life. Wandering in the wilderness gives me both a gentle eye for beauty and a toughness that only the rugged outdoors brings out in us. Nature forces me to handle it all- the wind, the cold, the snow, the rain, the relentless sun, the bugs, the aches, and the pains. Nature makes me sturdy.

My hiking boots get me up the hill to where these flowers wait for spring to arrive, to bloom again and let the sun kiss their leaves and petals. My time in nature gets me up the hills in life. Wandering the forests on lush mountain trails inspires me to create my own internal spring. It brings out my own desires to bloom, to grow, to be more than I am and keep reaching for who I could be.

My hiking boots whisper to me… “Let’s go to the trails!”

They take me along the path, and help me find new friends.

They tell me, “Remember, your office hours are from ‘first chickadee chirp at sunrise’ to ‘full moon lighting your late-night trail’….”

I do love my hiking boots.

And don’t even get me started on how much I love my camera…

The Healing Surprise of Sweet Deer on the Trail

I blogged last week about the sweet anticipation of flower buds hanging on the edge of blooming.

Anticipation is one of my favorite sensations in life, but another feeling caught me today and set my soul beaming with joy- “happy surprise”.

This morning was far too cold to stay out hiking for very long. I stopped at my usual morning “meet the animals” spots to say hello, see who was up to what, and see if any critters wanted to pose for my camera today. But apparently all the critters at Garden of the Gods thought it was too cold to play, too.

For two weeks, now, I’ve been watching a pair of magpies build a nest, but they weren’t in a building mood today. No, today they were just shivering on a branch. The mountain cottontails that hop about playing “chase” games this time of year were off hiding under the bushes.

The spunky family of fox squirrels I love to hang out with were nowhere to be found, and the landscape in this very early part of spring still has a bland look to it. That meant even the mountains and great stones of Garden of the Gods weren’t all that exciting this morning.

So I decided to spare my fingertips the agony of frozen nature photography. No, I decided. Go home and catch up on some house cleaning today.

And with that, I set off for home.

But on the way out of the park after leaving the magpie homestead there’s one more turn in the road I had to pass. This stretch of road runs alongside the stunning, towering rock formation known as “Cathedral Rock” (left in the top picture, blocking Pikes Peak), and as I approached it in the morning sun, I saw I was not alone.

My dear friends, the deer, a small herd of does and fawns that roam the park, were doing their happy morning munching on the hill in front of the south face of the great stone. Some had crossed the road; others to the west seemed to be thinking about it.

I parked and jogged up the hill, just in time for a mother and her babies to cross right in front of me on the trail, between me and the great stone Cathedral Rock.

I couldn’t have timed it any better had I actually tried.

Once they had all crossed the road and settled in on the hill in front of me, I couldn’t help but stand there in awe and reflect on the graceful timing of our encounter. Five minutes earlier, my cute deer buddies would have still been deeper in the park, out of sight. Ten minutes later, they would have been all the way over the ridge they were climbing.

So what are the chances that I would happen upon them, at just this magnificent moment, to cross the very path I was walking? How did I get so blessed as to spend the morning with these placid sweeties, when my mind had been in such a funk and on such a mundane mission: to go clean the house?

I have long told friends who were facing indecision, an unclear or boring path, or who are in crisis to stop trying to figure things out. So often in life, the answer, the solution, the inspiration that leads to the change we need comes not from thinking our way through something. It often does not come from reasoning, plotting, planning, strategizing or analyzing (shocking advice from me, a trained philosopher!). It comes, all on its own, when we just relax, and let life unfold, naturally.

Today I tried to plan my morning, in a nice, responsible, practical way. Looking back my thoughts amuse me. Yes, Suze, spare your hands the cold today. Yes, yes, go home and do the dishes and vacuum, that’s a much more reasonable use of this time.

Ha! Inspiration knows nothing of reason, and I have made a choice in life to follow the inspired path, to trek the tantalizing trail, to flow like water and see where the muse of nature takes me.

That’s when the inspiring things happen. That’s when the clouds part and the angels sing and the herd of deer crosses in front of the great stone at just the moment I happened to go by. Ah, that’s the path I’m taking.

What will heal a problem is so often something you cannot foresee. What will thrill you is often something you cannot foresee, either.

I’ve had some emotional pain to deal with this week, and the disorientation of a hectic, out-of-sorts, busy schedule. I had no idea how much I needed some down time to just let my soul do some healing. I had no idea how much I needed a little thrill.

When we’re stressed there’s nothing quite like having an experience where time suspends, emotions soften, thinking quiets, and all becomes still and wonderful. In those moments, when we’re truly in the present- not in the past, not in the future, not in worry or tension or pressure- we can heal. Answers come, smiles appear, paths seem clearer, and life takes on a new lightness.

So after I’d taken enough pictures to exhaust my poor camera (I do work the poor thing hard!), I sat down in the dirt. The one momma doe looked a little quizzically at me at first, but then decided to ignore me and give her baby a bath.

These deer have seen me and my annoying clicking machine before. Perhaps she remembered that, and knew I was okay to hang out with this morning. So I stayed with the little herd. They munched and played, groomed and bathed. And I sat a few feet away, enjoying their gentle sweet presence, their relaxed, quiet ways, their big brown eyes and the crunching of twigs.

I had a morning full of bliss. Not the morning I’d “planned”. No, this was way better than that….