the art of doing meditative nature photography

Shining in the Light

None of us is perfect

We each have our blemishes

And subtle flaws

But if we find our way to the light

Our striking beauty, our individual splendor

Shines right through

In memory of Otis Persons

1929-2012

Today my husband’s Grandfather passed away.

To relieve our sadness the kids and I went for a hike, and found this this tree that was badly burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire last month.

It seemed to be weeping along with us, and I felt the connectedness, resilience, fragility, and specialness of life.

We love you grandpa…

Be one

Who climbs above the ordinary dirt

 And discovers wonder and beauty

(click for a larger image)

My family lives on the northwest side of Colorado Springs. This is our emotional story of the Waldo Canyon Fire. While our outcome was far better than so many, it was nonetheless an incredibly traumatic experience. I share this as a reminder of the preciousness of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the strength of community, and the fragility of nature. Dedicated to all the first responders and the incident commanders who did such a remarkable job.

My first thought when I saw the smoke was “No. Not like High Park. Not here!” The High Park fire in Ft. Collins, two hours north of us, had been raging for weeks, sending smoke to our skies and destroying hundreds of homes.

My sister-in-law, Jill, had just called me. It was Saturday, June 23rd. “Susie, look outside. There’s a wildfire in Waldo Canyon.” She, my brother, and niece were returning from Denver around noon and could see the smoke from 25 miles away. “Jim’s been called in to help.” My brother’s been a firefighter and doing communications for the county for years. Somehow, this made my spine tingle. “Might want to keep an eye on this one!” Jill said.

I did nothing else for the next ten days.

A couple of hours later my daughter’s best friend texted from her house in Mountain Shadows: “We’re under a pre-evacuation notice”.

I scoured online maps to see just how close Waldo Canyon was to their house. That rugged terrain can be tough to get a good perspective on, and I was disoriented. I was shocked to see how close the fire was to them, and also to our town’s beloved natural landmark, Garden of the Gods. I began to worry about both.

Not long after, she texted again: “We’ve been evacuated.”

The tingle in my spine became a lump in my throat, as the smoke spread. I was starting to smell it in the air and sent my asthmatic son inside.

That day was a tense one. My brother went off to help as he could, yet we had no news from him till late in the night. He knew nothing we hadn’t seen on the news. We were left wondering, unable to think about anything else. How bad would this get? Would it be like High Park? Draining, emotionally exhausting thoughts began filling our heads.

The next day was supposed to be a lazy grocery shopping and hanging out at home day, but that would never be. Instead, it was surreal, spent sorting through the house, finding pictures and important papers, wondering what we would pack if we, too, were evacuated. The mountains where the fire was spreading loomed heavily to the west. This had always been the fear- a fire in the Pike National Forest that our city nestles against.

They say opposites attract and for me and my husband, it sure is true when it comes to how we view the future. He’s normally the eternal optimist, a card-carrying member of both the “nothing’s gonna happen!” and “what are the chances?” clubs. Me? I can usually sense or foresee danger five miles away and two months out. He calls it pessimistic. I call it careful.

But that Sunday, he just called it a good thing. He sat nervously, glued to the TV, while I calmly but methodically located all those boxes of pictures, keepsakes, important papers, and irreplaceable family items. I thought, for one moment, he was going to tell me to lighten up, but instead, much to my surprise, he urged me on. When I went upstairs to sit the kids down and tell them that pre-packing might be a good idea, just in case, I thought for sure he was going to chastise me for scaring them. Instead, he just said, “Good idea.”

At that moment I knew this must be as big and as scary as I thought.

We spent the day packing, sorting, listing, prioritizing. But then weariness set in, the TV’s lure got a hold of us, and we just sat and watched it, awestruck. I had one errand to run that evening, so the kids and I headed briefly out. We stopped at Ute Valley Park, between us and the fire/evacuated area, and watched the sun set as the smoke tinged the sky and crept menacingly along the Rampart Range just to our west. I was nauseated.

When you live in Colorado, in the “wildland-urban interface” as they call it, you know these things can happen. You know it and you know it, and you prepare as best you can, trimming trees, using rock instead of mulch, and our fire department trains and trains, but nothing prepared us for seeing smoke in the mountains next to our community.  Nothing prepared us for how frightening that scene would be. Colorado is a mountainous bounty of natural beauty. The vast coniferous forests, the stunning rock formations, the abundant wildlife all draw us here to live among nature’s wonders. We cherish our natural landscapes, our fabulous views, our miles and miles of hiking trails, and for us in Colorado Springs, our very city cradled up against the foothills of “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak. “America the Beautiful” was written about this landscape. If you’ve ever visited, you know why. To see it smoldering was… wrenching.

Monday came and brought with it some normalcy as my husband went off to work, and some welcomed excitement as my teenage daughter started an internship at Challenger Center (think “Space Camp”!).  Focusing on her happiness was a fantastic distraction for me and her younger brother. We stayed home and made cookies that day while the TV droned in the background, flashing updates, holding press conferences, showing all that smoke that now filled our noses.

We worried about our evacuated friends. My kids’ best friends happen to be siblings, so we know this family well. We kept tabs on them, and as evacuations got extended a little closer to our neighborhood they texted, “You can come stay with us if you get evacuated”. They had fled 15 minutes to the north, across the highway to Northgate where we have several good friends, one of whom was out-of-town as this happened. They’d so graciously offered us all a place to stay. But I was starting to take my husband’s point of view. Though I was packing and hyper-aware I kept thinking, “NO. It won’t happen to us.”

And of course, as all this went on, I kept running outside to take pictures, wanting to document this awful experience.

From up at Challenger Center when we picked my daughter up on Monday afternoon, I could see that the fire was contained well beyond the closest ridges of the Front Range, and that made me feel a little better. From down at our house, I couldn’t see up above the ridge line, and the smoke often looked deceptively close.

That evening we spent a lot of time out in the street & wandering the cul-de-sacs with our neighbors. From our house the gorgeous Rampart Range (the southern end of Colorado’s “Front Range”) takes center stage in our view, but the ridges of Ute Valley Park block our view of where the fire was burning. That meant that so long as we couldn’t see the flames, we knew the fire was contained over the ridge of the Front Range. We gawked and held our breath with our neighbors until well after midnight. Then we went to bed but barely slept, wondering, wondering what tomorrow would hold.

Tuesday began just as Monday had. Off to work for my husband, and off to the exciting internship for my daughter. The fire had calmed down a bit, at least smoke-wise, overnight. I tried to breathe and relax, but somehow just couldn’t. I was worried: for my evacuated friends, for my town, for the beautiful nature that draws all of us here in Colorado to come and call this semi-wild place home.

Challenger Center is across the highway and up north from our house, so my son and I had a panoramic view of the Front Range as we drove home from dropping his sister off in the morning. An eerie stillness hung over the city. It seemed that half-a-million people were holding their collective breath.

Then we spotted them! The C-130’s were finally flying, laying down reddish stripes of fire retardant, zipping to and fro, and there were water-carrying helicopters taking off and landing at the Air Force Academy as we drove by.

Back home, there was now an endless drone of airplanes and helicopters over our heads. I posted on Facebook that while it made me feel better that the C-130’s had joined the fight, it also made it scarier, it made the fire seem close to have them flying overhead all day.

For some reason I was becoming more unsettled. I guess that pessimist’s vision was kicking in. For as the afternoon wore on, and it got closer in time to go get my daughter, the smoke thickened and seemed to settle in towards the ground. I wandered into the street again, jaw open. What was going on?

I handed my camera to my 12 year old son as we got in the car to head up to Challenger Center to pick up his sister. These are the pictures he took on the drive:

The Front Range was disappearing behind a wall of smoke. It should appear continuous, but a shroud was settling in.

We arrived at Challenger, and the view back to the west, toward home, was becoming more ominous by the second.

Now as we got back on the road to drive home, I handed the camera to my 15 year old daughter, and she captured the immense smoke cloud enveloping Mountain Shadows, Rockrimmon, Peregrine…

Remarkably, she kept her cool as she took these, but then as we exited the highway and headed west towards the smoke, towards home and all our belongings and our 8 beloved pets, she, and I, began to lose it.

There, above the left-most green light, we saw flames overtaking the Front Range.

And as we continued, the scene only got worse, became more frightening, and reality hit us. I fumbled on the seat next to me and handed something to her. “Call your father. We need to evacuate.” The tears began to  flow, and flow, and flow.  My husband works downtown, 15 minutes away.

She handed me the phone as we rounded a curve in the road and saw more flames.

“You need to come home NOW!” I sobbed. “We need to evacuate. The fire breached the ridge.”

His answer dropped my heart to my feet. “I’m in Pueblo.”

He was an hour away. I’d have to do this without him, in one car.

A minute later as we pulled up to the house and began frantically packing up. Where to begin? How to get my head on straight? Gotta keep the kids calm… My mind was racing as I tried madly to stay organized and be efficient. But the smoke was overwhelming. It was terrifying. The smell was absolutely horrific. The 65 mile-an-hour wind that had pushed the inferno as a firestorm over the ridge and down into Mountain Shadows to our west was now slamming our house with this hot, stifling, choking mess of smoke and ash. Countless sirens wailed in the distance, more than I had ever heard in my life, as if the fire trucks themselves were hysterical.

I tried to pack the car but couldn’t take it. I had to pull the car in the garage and get the door shut. Of course, now there were things in my way, I was choking and out of breath, and time seemed to stand still. Worse yet, once I got the door shut, the house got hotter and the stagnant smoke hung like a blanket.

The sight inside the house was eerie.

A bizarre yellow haze settled in like an alien fog.

Eventually it engulfed the neighborhood. We couldn’t see across the street, and every window, with the blinds open or closed, looked like we were standing inside a bright golden mustard-colored balloon. The smoke was choking. My asthma was kicking in and my eyes burned. I don’t know how many times I controlled myself from throwing up. My son was breaking down, crying. My daughter kept feeling faint. My brother called. He’d gotten home (they live around the corner from us). We had time to get out, he told me. The firefighters were still holding Centennial Boulevard (the main defensible fire break). Ok. I believed him. Breathe.

The phone rang again. It was our friends who had evacuated to Northgate. “Susie- GET OUT of there!” my friend pleaded. From up there the entire northwest side of Colorado Springs was smothered in smoke. I loaded the dogs in the car. We grabbed the birds and put them in a box with holes. We ripped the gerbil’s sprawling connecting multi-cage tubes apart and stuffed his smallest cage in the car. Now the bunny…

It’s incredible how long it takes to load all of your stuff when you’re only half-packed. Where did the dog leashes go? Don’t lose track of the medicines. I’m forgetting a box of pictures…  We were frantic. But a neighbor’s friend had stopped by and said the roads are still clear, and they’re still holding Centennial. You still have time. So we kept packing stuff.

And then, to my astonishment, my husband pulled up in the driveway. Over an hour had already gone by.

By now the ghastly yellow had lifted and the winds had shifted the smoke momentarily. It seemed that day was turning to night. The smoke was everywhere. I snapped this pic, then ran to load up his car, too.

We stared at the house for a surreal moment before driving away. As we backed the cars out of the driveway, something large fell from the sky. It was two pages of an old magazine, burned all around the edges. It fluttered to the ground and stopped smoldering. My husband, compelled for a reason he still can’t explain, picked them up and took them with us as we drove away.

We got to the the top of our street and the Colorado Springs Police were directing traffic- now all lanes outbound. My husband had been lucky to get back IN and get home. There are only a couple of main roads out of the rugged, hilly Northwest side. Centennial Boulevard was now the front line of the fire, so everyone, all 24,000 of us, had to get out the other two roads. Unreal.

Heartfelt thanks, praise, and gratitude to the police officers in masks, directing traffic as calmly as they could, who got all of us out without any injuries.

Heartfelt thanks, praise, and gratitude to the firefighters who fought for every home they could to our west in Mountain Shadows, and who fought to hold the fire back at Centennial.

My daughter rode with my husband. My son was with me. Again I handed him the camera as thousands of us snaked our way out Woodmen Road.

When we finally got on to the highway heading north, he looked west:

So many people were still on Woodmen Road, still waiting to get out.

The sun was eerie as it loomed near Blodgett Peak…

It looked like the eye of a monster that was attacking the mountains. And as we drove north out of the heavy smoke plume, it felt like being transported away from a battle scene.

Being out of the smoke was almost as surreal as being in it.

Our emotions shifted, they almost slid, from frenetic panic and desperation to… utter numbness as we arrived in Northgate. We stopped in a parking lot and stared blankly down at the west side of the ‘Springs, as it lay before us, engulfed in smoke and flame.

Then we made our way up to our kind & generous friends’ home, where our fellow evacuees were waiting for us, worrying for us. We were glad we were together, with people we love and trust, as we hugged and cried and realized our lives were being turned upside-down.

The kids, reunited with their best friends, sat on the deck with us, helplessly watching a wide swath of their city burn, wondering if Centennial would hold, wondering if we’d all still have houses when then sun came up tomorrow. We were refugees, chased from our homes by the monster that was attacking over the mountains.

I didn’t sleep more than an hour that night. My sister-in-law, Jill, said she never slept at all. She was pretty emotional for someone whose nickname is “The Ice Princess”. She keeps telling me, “That was the most terrifying experience of my whole life.” Me, too, Jill. Me, too.

Over the next few days we rode an emotional roller coaster. It became clear that Mountain Shadows had borne the brunt of the damage, but initially we didn’t know if the fire had breached Centennial. Eventually I saw an infrared map of the worst damaged area. It showed our friends’ house in the red: burned. I finally showed my dear friend, and we had a very somber evening that day, wondering if the red was damage or destruction. The map didn’t even show our house at all.

But that night’s dismay turned to bright rays of hope the very next morning. Someone emailed us a detailed satellite image that I pulled up and zoomed in on. “That’s a roof!!!” my friend exclaimed. There it stood, their house. Though we had no idea the extent of the damage, we at least knew now that they had a home, still. And so did we. The fire had not crossed Centennial. Incredible, those first responders had been. Absolutely incredible that they contained that inferno and saved the rest of the northwest side of the city.

We huddled together, evacuated and feeling lost. Grateful beyond words to the kind friends who had opened their home to all of us and given us shelter and comfort. We lived together for several days, in our dazed and confused state, as information trickled in and the extent of the destruction truly became apparent.

Much of Mountain Shadows was leveled and gone. The number of houses destroyed stood at 346. Two people had died. My daughter had several friends lose their homes. The once-gorgeous mountainsides above what remained were charred black.

The house next door to our dear friends’ (our fellow evacuees) house had burned to the ground. Our friends had been so lucky, though it’s terribly hard to feel lucky when so many you know have lost so much. Many in this town now have ‘survivors’ guilt’, or ‘my-home-is-still-standing but yours isn’t’ guilt, or ‘I got un-evacuated and back to my home before you did’ guilt.

Welcome to the New Normal.

We got to go back to our home a few days later, though our son refused to stay in the house the first two nights because he could see Blodgett Peak- one of our favorite hiking spots- smoldering from his bedroom window.

But when we did get home, on a sweltering 90-some-odd-degree day, we were greeted by some of that wildlife that we all love so much. It was hot and so dry out and very, very smoky. Our neighborhood herd of roaming mule deer bucks saw us come home and crossed the street, right up to our driveway as we snapped pictures. They were panting, dragging along, and looking miserable.

They took a few munches on our apple tree, my husband brought them a bowl of water, and they went to rest in the neighbor’s shade.

Everything smelled somewhat like smoke. The house, the trees, the deck, everything had a stale, irritating smell that was even worse after you’d been gone for a while or just got out of the shower! But we had a house, and no major smoke damage, so why complain. We aired it out and aired it out, cleaned and re-cleaned the air filters, and got to the enormous task of cleaning up the gigantic mess we’d made when we evacuated.

The kids and I found ourselves wandering our property, picking up pieces of fire debris: ash, cinders, bits of people’s clothing, mangled, melted pieces of unidentifiable burned material, and crumbly bits of black soot. They’re now in a box- the “what could have been but luckily wasn’t” box. It sits next to the magazine pages my husband picked up. He framed them.

A week later we finally actually felt moved back home. We also felt more organized. We’re ready, now. All the pictures and important papers are together, we know what we’d pack if this ever happened again, and we’re hoping and praying it never does.

The only thing that finally calmed us down was rain moving in. Then we stopped worrying about the fire, or more fires in the near future. Now we worry instead about flash flooding off the burn scar. Ah, monsoon season in the Rockies. May it be gentle on us this year.

And we worry most about our friends, for they aren’t back home, still, two and a half weeks after the firestorm overtook the Rampart Ridge. They have significant smoke damage, some structural damage, and the weariness in their voices often brings me to tears, though I do my best to hide that and stay upbeat. Their home needs to be professionally cleaned before it’s even liveable. It will be weeks more before they go home. And it weighs on us all. Everything that happened to our neighbors to the west in Mountain Shadows weighs on us all. For now, I guess, we just accept that weight… that weight that’s part of the New Normal.

It’s (almost) funny, summer is usually my favorite season- all the hiking and camping and nature photography, the flowers and baby animals and fun. Hmf. I’ve never wanted it to snow more badly in all my life. This record-breaking, hot, drought-stricken summer can be done, now, thank you very much.

Since June 23rd I’ve been waking up having nightmares. This morning I finally didn’t. Perhaps that one small step heralds the arrival of the New, New Normal. I hope so. Today I begin washing our dear friends’ clothing and bedding from their home. One small thing I can do to move them forward to a better New Normal.

Although this new normal still brings some scary stuff with it. We had another bobcat behind our house again today, the second one in the past couple of weeks, no doubt another evacuee/refugee from the fire. New Normal for him, too, I guess. Time to keep our four dogs on a shorter leash.

I’ve been through enough hardships in my life to know that the key is to keep moving forward, to keep your eye on the day, however close or far off it may be, that you feel good again, calm again, happy again. You just keep reaching for that day, never letting your attention waver.

As this all began, Jill and I had been in the process of starting a new business. We were on the verge of filing our state paperwork to make it all official, we had researched everything we needed, and felt ready to launch by mid-summer.

That’s why I hadn’t posted a new blog in a while. Our organic cookie company was about to be born!

Well, I guess that was false labor. It might take a little bit longer now that we’ve lost some momentum, but now more than ever doing something creative, something that brings something new into the world, feels so healing. As our community rebuilds, we’ll build along with them.

Just as my books and my blogging have been wholly focused on the healing power and beauty of nature, this business carries forth in the same nature-inspired and nature-honoring spirit. And goodness knows our nature around here could use a little inspiration to re-grow.

I’ll keep blogging, be patient with me. My artistry has found an additional (and tasty) outlet, but my camera still beckons. I am relieved that Garden of the Gods was spared in this tragedy, but I mourn the loss of a devastatingly wide swath of the Front Range, charred to the ground beyond recognition. I weep for the once-lovely natural land now suffering so terribly, surrounding and cradling the humans who love it so much, who are suffering miserably alongside it.

I may have to accept the New Normal, but I don’t know that I’ll ever adjust to our new view. A sad, daily reminder of June 26, 2012, and the devastation of the Waldo Canyon Fire. A once thriving forest, reduced to standing charcoal toothpicks.

At least those brave men and women saved as many homes as they could, as well as Garden of the Gods and our other beautiful attractions. That is so much to be thankful for. Our community has pulled together and will rebuild, replant, and renew our love for this wondrous place.

Thanks to everyone who sent prayers and positive thoughts our way…

Some links:

A very emotional, powerful video, set to music, shot from a few streets away:

http://youtu.be/MS2QjhmN3gg

Satellite image of the burn area:

http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/3144-waldo-canyon-fire-burn.html

Five day time lapse of the fire:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBA7eHY022k&feature=youtube_gdata_player

 

 

It can be soothing and humbling to change our perspective.

I’ve been absent from this blog for a few weeks, busy beyond busy with end-of-school-year hustle and bustle. Yesterday was the first chance I’ve had to get out in nature and do some photography. I truly hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it.

I’ve been feeling a bit off. Life has been a tad overwhelming of late- busy, hectic, intense. Sometimes I thrive on squirrelly intensity, but the past few weeks have worn me out. My daily meditation hasn’t been the same since it hasn’t been through the lens. So I was quite happy yesterday to “refocus” myself out in nature, camera at the ready.

I didn’t have to look far for a new perspective. As I opened my car door once I arrived at my wild spot, I immediately noticed a sprinkling of dainty purple flowers blooming haphazardly among some grass by the roadside.

They were immensely small- graceful, petite splashes of soft lavender that seemed dwarfed by a simple blade of grass. From a standing position, they were barely noticeable at all. But my photographer’s eye noticed the subtle, shadowy green and purple world hiding beneath a newly leafed young Gambel Oak.

As I stooped down to peek at this miniature ecosystem I was astonished by the change in my perspective. I was in Garden of the Gods Park, known for its massive, towering sandstone formations. Tourists surrounded me, snapping pictures of the mammoth stones and gasping at the fantastic landscape before them. But me, I was stooped down next to my car, observing a tiny realm of diminutive flowers, grass blades with fuzz, and puffs of dandelion all smothered in dancing sunlight filtered theatrically through the soft, new Gambel Oak leaves. My perspective, especially through my macro lens, was that of an ant!

And what a world the ant sees! Does the ant even notice the great stones above? I don’t know, but honestly, the ant wouldn’t need to see them in order to find beauty in its world. For the world of fuzzy grass and purple flowers by the road has a gorgeousness all its own, rivaling any towering things.

So yesterday I spent about twenty minutes crouched on the ground looking at delicate lavender I-don’t-know-what’s. I stared at dandelion puffs, dainty ferns, and the occasional ant, home to this emerald paradise by the roadside.

For twenty minutes I got lost through the macro lens, reveling in sheer delight, in the interplay of color between lavender and green, between sunlight and shadow. My artist’s eye caught the different beauties that lay in the straight, smooth grass and the curvy petals and jagged ferns.

The dandelion puff seemed a complete cosmos unto itself, floating through its own space and time.

Getting lost in these tiny realms is like hitting a “reset button” in my thinking mind. I’m restored and rested. The sensation is much like waking up after a night of intense dreaming. “Real life” then seems somewhat surreal, as the aftertaste of the dream lingers in your consciousness like a powerful flavor.

When you’ve taken a small trip of sorts to another way of seeing and experiencing, your passion for your normal everyday existence takes on a new feel. Upon coming home from a long or faraway vacation, our home often feels a bit foreign at first, as we readjust and regain our bearings.

But what a wonderful feeling it is! Leaving and returning is a refreshing sensation, as it refreshes our perspective, our sense of place, and our sense of being. We fit in in a slightly new way, now. Our experience elsewhere has changed us ever so slightly, and we return to the everyday with fresh eyes and new subtleties of our spirit.

For me, escapes into tiny worlds with a camera are the same.

Oh, how much most of us miss, though! Small islands of wonder right at our feet go unnoticed. The stars in the heavens above us go unnoticed. Our perspective stay so much… the same, most of the time. We take the wonder all around us for granted, and perhaps don’t give it the honor and respect it deserves.

Like my emerald green oasis of purple flowers. Alas, the only other someone who apparently noticed this spot of ground was someone’s dog… who, well, did what dogs do. I wish that instead of seeing this small patch of Earth as a potty, the dog owner had seen what I saw- an oasis of blooming, leafing life- tiny, delicate, shade-draped and serene.

We could all use a reminder now and again of how special each corner of our Earth can be, even a seemingly insignificant, scraggy spot on the side of the road. It has its own special beauty, if you just get down to see it. If the dog owner had noticed the pretty purple petals, perhaps they’d have found another spot for Fido to poop. The bare ground or plain grass would’ve been less disturbed than the fragile flowers!

I was on quite a roll for a while, blogging consistently, doing my meditative nature photography and sharing it with whomever was willing to listen. Spring break came along and I took a week off from writing and photography to spend quality time with my kids. I’d just gotten back into the swing of things when life threw a new curve ball at me.

I’ve been proverbially upside-down and hanging by my toes.

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

Back in February, the first post I’d written based on my book was “Some days upside-down and barely hanging on by our toes, other days perched way up high and on top of the world”. The pictures were of chickadees exemplifying those experiences rather nicely. In that post I recounted how I’d both used meditative nature photography to face a medical issue, and how my daily nature photography finally had been ground to a halt by the illness.

Well, after a nice little run of “on top of the world”, I’ve found myself hanging by my toes again. I’ve done very little photography lately- the pollen count of 11.5 was making that a miserable experience, and too much time braving the wafting particulate monsters apparently lowered my resistance, resulting in me becoming rather ill.

One of the hardest things for me to do since my kids have been born (and they’re now 12 and 15!) has been to allow myself time to rest. They’ve been fairly high maintenance little people (both with truly significant health needs of their own) and there’s never been much time to take any “me time” whatsoever. Moms don’t often get the luxury of “time off” when sick or exhausted. We just work through it. Motherhood doesn’t stop and wait for us. With my kids that was absolutely the case. And I in no way mean that in the whiny tone of a martyr. I adore my kids and being a mom! But I won’t deny that at times it’s been hard.

So now that my kids are older and in better health, I’m having to completely re-learn how to take care of me. I’m re-learning how to slow down, listen to my body and soul, and just take time off. When this illness hit me, I was annoyed. How dare some little germs interfere with my time in nature, my photography, my sheer joy and “me time”? Hmf!

Well, as reality would have it, germs really don’t care if you “hmf” at them. Sick is sick and recovery time is recovery time. No amount of running the trails or photographing gorgeous spring blossoms can make you well when you’re really not.

I realize that my frustration with getting sick is because I had so little time off when my kids were younger. So now that I do have time for me, I relish it. I revel in it. On my daily nature hikes I’m like a kid in a candy store. Everything excites me; I can’t take it all in fast enough. I indulge myself in this self-pampering. I soak it all in with a zest for life and a passion for experience. I’m kind of unstoppable.

After all, I have years to make up for! Years when the kids who needed me came first. There was no “nature hiking for fun” then. So now that my life has the space for that, the sacred me time for that, I don’t surrender it easily. I’ll push through the offensive pollen, cold weather, even falling snow to get my outdoor communion with the deer and flowers and chickadees. This is my time, dang it, and I cling to it unyieldingly.

So this past ten days or so I’ve been fighting the need to rest. I started out pushing myself, then slowed down, then just collapsed in exhausted surrender.

And then today I remembered the last group of pictures I took as I slowed down- it was these chickadees, just like from the February post. Oh, the juicy ironies of life.

So here I blog about hanging by my toes again, poring through a folder of photographs of chickadees, giggling at the synchronicity, but interestingly, noticing that in most of the pictures the chickadees are simply being still.

Sigh. Nature delivers yet another life lesson to me. Time to stop and listen to her wise whispers.

It’s just that, well, I’ve been resisting her message.

I have a few friends here on wordpress who deal with chronic illness and pain, and who use nature photography as a healing tool as well. (An excellent blog is throughthehealinglens!)

One of the ironies I’m learning to navigate in my life is that the thing that is most healing to me- my time in nature, especially with a camera, can be thwarted all too easily by health issues. The irony is tough. What heals me, centers me, allows me the space to be healthy, well, sane, happy, and fit can also be the hardest for me to accomplish when I’m not feeling well.

But if I just stop and listen to all of the lessons nature has taught me, all of the hints on how to live well, I see clearly that nature knows when it is time to rest. In the fall, the trees don’t make a fuss about resting for the winter. They just do it. When my chickadee friends, here, had done enough flitting about, they rested. And they didn’t look annoyed about it. So I need to stop being depressed about not running the trails lately. I need to stop being frustrated by my lack of chickadee time. I need to get over missing a few of the flowers blooming this year.

But that’s the great thing about nature photography. I have pictures from all these years of meditating through the lens to pore through and look at. Nature is there for me, in photographic form, day or night, good weather or bad, sick or well.

So today I’ll peruse my folders of photos and enjoy all the nature I’ve had the joy and privilege of experiencing over the years. I’ll let myself get lost in nature’s images; I’ll let nature’s lessons come to me. I’ll be grateful for the wonderful technology that is digital photography, the marvel that allows me to re-live memories in vivid and colorful detail.

So I’m popping my head up to say hello to my blogosphere buddies. I’m not sure if I’ll be back full-time right away. This time I intend to rest as long as I actually need to! I hear the chickadees calling me to come play, but I’ll wait ’till mother nature lets me know that I’m truly up for it.

So see you soon, my cute little nature friends, I’ll be back for your doses of wisdom soon enough.

Until then… Today’s Life Lesson from Nature:

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

It’s good to be back from Spring Break!

I took last week off from blogging to spend that time relaxing with my two beloved kids. That was sheer bliss!

On one lovely day last week I became highly aware of my senses. As a nature photographer, you might think that I rely mostly on my sense of sight. I’ll admit, it’s rather obviously primary, but I couldn’t do what I do without all of my other senses.

Out on my nature hike one morning I came upon a flowering tree at the bottom of a hill. A fellow hiker had seen me taking macro shots of budding chokecherry bush leaves and suggested I continue down the hill if I wanted to see some cottontails frolicking along the fence. I thanked him and trotted down the hill, stopping to capture some nice shots of a pair of magpies who were building their nest and flapping about rather noisily.

As I came to the bottom of the hill the path rounded a corner. The bunnies hopped away from the trail just as I arrived, escaping from some barking dogs and noisy people. I stopped and watched the rabbits while I let the people and their dogs pass by. And as they walked hurriedly on, chatting and barking away, I watched several groups of people move past me, some jogging to tunes on their ipods, some running the trails, some chasing after unruly children. Finally, they all moved on, and I was left alone with the bunnies. They hid under shady tree and sat down to recoup from their dog encounter. I just smiled. I took a deep breath, thankful that it was finally quiet and calm.

But then, almost instantly, I turned my head. I caught the sound of… hmm… what was that? Buzzing! The sound of an entire chorus of bees filled my awareness and turned me around. The cacophonous noise grew louder as I turned to face it. Before me was a large tree exploding with beautiful spring blossoms.

As my eyes focused, the tree seemed to move with the motion of the bees swarming it. In graceful peacefulness they went about their busy bee jobs.

I stepped closer to take it all in and suddenly something popped out in front of me. A painted lady butterfly landed on a blossom, I pulled my camera up and began shooting.

Oblivious to the mass of striped stinging machines all around me, I leaned in and snapped, snapped, snapped away. Not a single bug bothered me. It was remarkable to be so close to them and stay so calm. But I felt comfortable. What I was feeling towards them was appreciation- for their beauty, for their pollinating services, for the privilege of being able to zoom in on their graceful activities.

I stood there for twenty minutes taking pictures, but what was sad to me was that no passer-by ever stopped. They were too busy chatting or wrangling their kids or looking at the larger landscape scenery. I felt sad for what they missed.

They missed the harmonious synchronicity of the bees dancing through the trees. They missed the humorous ballet that bees and butterflies do when jostling for blossom positions. They missed the sticky sweet fragrance of spring intoxicating them with aliveness. They missed a smorgasbord for the senses, a buffet for the eyes, nose, and ears. They missed pink and white buds, golden orange bees and butterflies, and the bluest of skies blending perfectly with fragrance and buzz.

Two days later, I was at the park hiking and doing photography with my twelve year old son. We went to a different flowering tree down on the south end of Garden of the Gods by Balanced Rock.

I was snapping pictures of the painted ladies, this time on bright pink blossoms, when three other photographers saw me, asked what I was doing and excitedly joined in. A couple of kids were running about making noise as we all “oohed” and “ahhed” at the flittering, lovely butterflies. Out of the blue my son announced, “Hey wait, there’s a lizard here!” I asked, “Where?” and looked around. He said, “I don’t know, but I hear it scurrying in the leaves!”

Yep, there in the leaves was a little prairie lizard under the tree full of butterflies. The out-of-town tourist kids squealed when they saw it, prompting the scaly critter to run up the tree and hang inconspicuously from the bark.

Good listening, son! Now the photographers had two target subjects and the kids from out of town got to see their first wild lizard.

With these experiences I became acutely aware of why I ditch my ipod when I’m doing meditative nature photography. I want to take it all in, and feel the melodious blend of experience that all my senses together creates. Nature isn’t the same in one dimension or two. It takes all our senses to really get a feel for a place, to get the full richness of any experience. It still amazes me that on that first day, no one else noticed that the tree was smothered in bees and butterflies. They never stopped to smell the luscious aroma, never spotted a painted lady.

Poor people missed out. Because no one heard the buzz.

(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… 😉

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

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