Backyard Beauty: There’s Nowhere to Go But Here
There’s never nothing going on. There are no ordinary moments.
Socrates from The Peaceful Warrior
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
If you don’t know how to be in the moment, if you’re unhappy where you are all the time, consider carrying a camera with you to help you pay attention to what’s around you. You will find more beauty than you ever realized was possible.
After a peak experience of nature at the Corpus Christi Botanical Garden during my trip there to see my endorphin doctor, I brought a small point and shoot camera with me on my next trip. I took a few close-up shots of tiny tree frogs and showed them to my physical therapist, and my chiropractor, Steve, a talented hobby photographer. They both urged me to buy a camera. After much consideration and hemming and hawing about spending that much money, my PT said, “You could be hit by a truck tomorrow. Look what you’re going through right now. Buy the camera.” She was right. I bought the camera that weekend and paid it off over an 8-month period. Steve loaned me a telephoto lens for my next trip to Texas and I took some great pictures. In fact, they were good enough to justify purchasing my own telephoto lens so I got a low end one for my birthday.
Looking through a telephoto lens brings what you’re looking at up close. You can look at a bird in a tree and bring it close enough to see feather details. On the right settings, you can freeze the moment of a bird in flight, toes pointed, wings outstretched, sailing on the breeze. With this lens I could take pictures of what I loved observing in nature and share them with others.
I loved hanging out at birding haunts in Corpus Christi during feeding time. Birders came with long telescopic lenses and I with my camera and telephoto. Occasionally I’d see another photographer who obviously knew better what he was doing. But we all enjoyed observing the variety of birds, and I practiced panning those moving birds to catch a great shot of bird behavior. As I improved, I drove all over Corpus Christi to bird.
Other than my trips to Texas, which were physically demanding, I couldn’t travel, but during the summer of the 4th year after my accident I felt well enough to explore some places for taking pictures beyond my local botanical gardens. There was a treasure trove of forest preserves in the next county so decided to visit one per month. I found open savannas, oak forests, marshes and ponds, and even a few stands of pine trees where wildlife and the light of sunset enchanted the eye in all four seasons.
Some people wonder if bringing a camera into nature spoils the experience of being in the moment. I found the opposite. Here I was dialing up apertures and shutter speeds, exposure compensation and ISOs, changing lenses and eventually dreaming of better equipment. So it might seem that the technical demands interfered with my relationship to nature. But I discovered more importantly, that it acted as a barometer to my relationship. Was I relaxed and open to what I might see or was I going out there with an internal demand to Show Me Something Specific? The more anxious I felt about getting good pictures of something, the more I missed. But when I let myself see what was right in front of my eyes, I saw more than I expected and in unexpected places. The art I created through nature photography was not only evidence and a reminder of my connection to nature, but aided me in expanding the way I see the world around me. I looked at trees, birds, animals, grasses, flowers, insects, and landscapes in a new way and from many perspectives. I looked at light and how it changes the mood and colors of things at different times of the day and different seasons. At one time I hated winter, but came to love the soft pastel sunsets, whose hues softened the effect of the harsh cold air.
Carrying a camera alerts you to everything around you. I went looking for birds, but found a giant snapping turtle. I went to find birds, and happened on a pair of whooping cranes. I went looking for owls and found deer peering at me through dry winter grasses. I stopped looking for birds and learned to go with the flow of the moment when I walked around with my camera. The creative process is never completed. There is always another way to look at and capture what we see. And since nature is always moving, each perception, each moment, is unique. I stayed open for opportunities to capture a moment, whatever that may be. Bringing a camera creates an opportunity for you to open your eyes to your experience. That is, unless you’re in a hurry.
Some people go to the woods for exercise. They walk fast, go for a jog, or ride their bikes. My pace was slow because it pained me to exert myself too much. At my snail’s pace, I was able to look more closely at everything around me. Being hypersensitive made me hyper-alert. My princess and the pea self came in handy out in the woods for sighting things, yet felt soothed from the atmosphere (negative ions, they say).
In my slow motion world, it’s possible to discover great joy from the smallest parts of nature— tree roots, the shapes of tree branches reaching to the sky, the flight pattern of a bird, two squirrels playing, a cardinal feeding its mate, the red head of a downy woodpecker, a pastel sunset in a winter sky, a tiny bud poking out of the earth, a lone tree sprawling its wide branches, a bee drunk with pollen, insects mating, caterpillars chewing. Nothing is too small to delight.
One day I stopped at a new forest preserve. This forest preserve was only 20 minutes from my home yet I’d never been there. As I began walking the trail with camera in hand, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a hollow tree trunk and the flash of a tiny tail. I set up my camera on a tripod and focused my lens on the hole in the hollow trunk. Out peered a ground squirrel as if to welcome me to this new place. I snapped some pictures and continued on my walk, finding a tall tree whose base was neatly cut and scarred. The tree was so large, it looked as if beavers had worked for several generations to cut it down, but here it was now, waiting for the next family to come and cut their teeth into it. I was impressed by their tenacity. Then I saw another large tree growing at the edge of a creek, it’s roots hugging the bank of the creek, visibly reaching toward solid ground, which lay about a foot away. This tree was another example of nature’s determination and creativity.
I met a couple as I continued this walk. The man had a camera and asked me what wildlife I’d seen. I’m sure I glowed as I told them of the adorable chipmunk and unusual trees. They, however, had seen the nearby lake teeming with mink a few weeks earlier and came for a repeat performance. The lake was still. I wondered aloud if the minks had come through during a migratory period on their way upriver. I wished I’d been there! They were from the city so I told them of some other forest preserves nearby and what I’d seen. One place had whooping cranes.
“How many,” he asked.
“I saw two that day,” I answered.
Well, they’d been to a place several hours away where whooping cranes flocked and seen thousands. Then there were eagle stories from another place several hours away. Not knowing how to respond at first, I finally said, “I have medical issues so I don’t travel much.”
“Oh, sorry,” they said, looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and pity.
I felt strangely awkward about their response. I was enjoying myself, not feeling sorry for myself at all. I was so grateful to be alive, outside, and finding wonderful things to look at in this new place.
“It’s alright,” I said, “I find so much beauty in what I see around me, I don’t mind. There’s plenty of forest preserves to explore around here.”
Many of us don’t look closely at the messages and miracles around us. There’s a nagging urge to find something more dramatic, more intense, but what’s right in front of us has so much beauty if we slow down and open our eyes. Maybe one day I’ll travel again to more dramatic vistas, but right now, I’m grateful for the slow beauty I see in a tree trunk twenty minutes from home. When there’s nowhere to go but here, here can become rich with the beauty of life.
Postscript: Many people with chronic pain become artists. Why? Artists take time to observe and people with chronic pain move slowly. It’s a perfect match! This isn’t to say you have to have chronic pain to be an artist. Nor do you have to keep your chronic pain if you’d like to be free of it. If photography isn’t for you, try painting, sculpting, textiles or crafts. Find something you like to make and look at that represents something important to you about your beliefs, your life. Or, just to have fun!
Where would you like to go and take pictures or sketch?
Take your camera phone or pick up a disposable camera and start looking around. This could be in your backyard, out on a walk, or someplace where you drive.
Start taking pictures of things that interest you: fabrics, flowers, faces, insects, clouds, food, etc…
Really look at these things and see what new understandings you gain.
Write about your experiences.