Earth Day, Nature First, and the Healing Power of Nature

On the Lookout at Deception Pass–a Blue (or should I say Red Heron!) patiently searches for its next meal.

The First Earth Day: April 22, 1970

April 22, 2021 marks the 51st anniversary of the first Earth Day. On April 22, 1970 twenty million people participated in the event which at the time was more of an activist protest than the somewhat timid and only lukewarm celebrations we see today. Earth Day had humble beginnings but quickly tapped into some pent up energy in the public’s zeitgeist just waiting express itself in a massive protest. With twenty million participants, it was the largest protest in American History only recently surpassed by the Black Lives Mater/George Floyd Protest which was most likely even larger.

Just before the first Earth Day there was one major event in particular that raised the public’s awareness of an environment in trouble–a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara associated with drilling. This spill was the largest that ever occurred in US waters at the time. Within a ten-day period, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the Channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County in Southern California. The spill had a significant impact on marine life in the Channel, killing thousands of birds as well as marine animals such as dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. But although this event served as a catalyst, many people already knew the earth was in trouble by just being aware of their surroundings– high levels of smog were severely limiting their ability to see just a short distance in front of them and this smog also caused their eyes to tear up and sting, major pieces of the paradise that everyone loved were rapidly being turned into parking lots, not to mention the acid rain, and toxic lead in the drinking water. More than anything on Earth Day 1970, millions of people simply woke up to the reality of the world around them. In the words of Marvin Gaye’s popular song at the time Ecology–“Mercy Mercy Me, things are not what they used to be”.

On April 22, 1970 Denis Hayes pictured here at a Teach-In founded the first Earth Day

It is notable that people woke up on both sides of the political isle. Although the chief architects of Earth Day tended to be Democrats including Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, the board that helped orchestrate the original earth day teach-ins was co chaired by Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey. During the period just before after the first Earth Day the GOP helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, extend the Clean Air Act, and protect endangered species. What a far cry from where we are today, where many Republicans seek to denounce climate change as a hoax and aim to bring to an end the very Environmental Protection Agency they worked to build. This however is not intended to be a political post. It is merely to point out that protecting and safeguarding the environment needs to be everyone’s priority. Personally I think we do great harm not only to ourselves but also to the environment by making it a politically divisive issue.

Originally the Earth Day Organizers thought the primary activity would be teach-ins occurring on college campuses. They wanted to tap into some of the same energy behind the Vietnam War protests. The date was set on April 22nd, because this was a break period on many campuses so it would have little effect on the students educational activities. But Earth Day evolved far beyond these originally envisioned teach-ins and moved beyond college campuses. Some did constructive activities such as planting trees and cleaning up litter. Others took to the streets with massive protests. In New York City protestors marched down 5th avenue holding dead fish heads to protest the polluting of the Hudson River. Closer to my home, in Tacoma Washington about a hundred students rode horses down a highway to protest against automobiles responsible for much of the pollution that was poisoning the air. The methods were varied as the groups of people protesting, but still the common thread was a genuine concern that we as a society are destroying the very environment and natural world that is essential for our own health and well being.

Waterfall in a Rain Forest

Although it is easy to become cynical about the impact of a large scale protest such as occurred on the original Earth Day, there is considerable evidence that such a large scale mobilization of people engaged in a non-violent protest does bring about change.

Erica Chenoweth’s research, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only a good moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping societal change – by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious change. With the involvement of twenty million people, the first Earth Day engaged about 10% of the US population at the time well exceeding this 3.5% threshold. We have not seen this kind of engagement on environmental issues since then which is surprising given the wake up calls we have recently received in the United States—massive forest fires and increasingly frequent weather disturbances directly associated with global warming. But that does not mean there has not been progress on the environmental front. There are many examples—clean air emission standards on vehicles, more fuel efficient cars and a gradual transition to hybrid and or electric vehicles. But on the most pressing environmental front, climate change, we have not actually made much progress. The average atmospheric CO2 concentration now stands above 410 parts per million (ppm). The excess heat trapped by that CO2 has already raised global temperatures by about one degree Celsius since preindustrial times. Under the 2015 Paris climate accord (which we left during the Trump Administration), nations have agreed to limit total warming to no more than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels—with a preferred goal of staying below 1.5 degrees C. To date, emissions-curbing efforts have been unable to put the brakes on quickly enough to meet those targets.

Sunrise in a Mossy Forest

Although I am hopeful that soon once again an awakening in the public consciousness similar to what transpired on the original Earth Day will happen once again, I take some consolation in changes I see happening at more localized levels within groups of people with common experiences and a shared vision in our society. One of these changes was initiated by the young Greta Thunberg who helped inspire a younger generation to express their frustration with the actions of their elders in not taking climate change seriously. She helped organize a school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for the Future that not only captured the attention of millions in the US but around the World as well. At an even more localized level over the past two or three years I have witnessed a change in consciousness within the nature and landscape photography community regarding environmental issues which is what I would like to talk about next.

Baldy Mountain Yellow Desert Parsley

My Journey and Nature First

My path to starting my photographic journey actually started with nature not the camera. During my teens and early twenties I would head out into nature hiking and backpacking in Washington’s Cascades and lower elevation forested areas on almost a weekly basis. It was on these trips that I began to develop a close connection to nature through my experiences in the outdoors. Even at this early age, it seemed as though I was recovering a part of myself that was aching to find expression. I believe this part of ourselves, living and breathing in nature, wants to find expression in all of us. It is part of our DNA so to speak, perhaps a result of our evolutionary heritage which for most of our history as a people has involved an environment where we are closely linked to nature. So called progress, however, in the modern era, has for most of us weakened our connection to nature. Many of us grew up in environments resembling a concrete jungle where easy access to the natural world was not easily available. This is why for many of us finding our way back to nature feels like something that is akin to going home. In short in Nature we discover our roots, our authentic self, who we truly are.

Ruby Beach Early March Sunset

It is out of these early experiences in nature that I began my photographic journey. The journey began with a simple desire to share my experiences in nature with others. This sharing did not even take place until years after my initial forays into nature.

With the advent of social media, however, many people are now taking a different route with photography. For the purposes of contrasting approaches I am going to call this different approach the consumption approach rather than the experience approach to photography. With the consumption approach to photography a person sees on social media a beautiful and highly popular image of an iconic landscape scene and wants to go there to take a similar image-for example Tipsoo Lake, Picture Lake, Palouse or Multnomah Falls. The expectation of course is that their image will also be highly popular. I call it a consumption approach because typically this is also a kind of check the box approach–some might also refer to this as a bucket list. Once a person goes to one of these locations and gets a good shot, he or she is essentially done with that spot and wants to move on to the next hot spot until all the near by boxes are checked. Then they are often off to more distant places to do the same thing in an almost insatiable desire to chase popularity and social media likes. Contrast this to the experience approach, where one goes out on an adventure and discovers places through more of a process of exploration. The experience approach is far more likely to feature landscape scenes at multiple places along ones path, not just iconic locations. The experience approach is also far more likely to feature ordinary places creatively rendered both beautiful and interesting through the art and craft of photography.

Boardwalk Through an Ancient Forest

The consumption approach to photography is often associated with a disrespectful approach to the environment. What is important is chasing popularity and getting the shot at any cost, not necessarily being mindful of ones impact on the environment. Chasing popularity also feeds on itself because it encourages others to do the same. Exact locations of where an image was taken are often freely given encouraging others to go to the same location. In a short period of time the place suffers environmental damage from too many people visiting the same spot. This is also why I no longer freely share exact locations for environmentally sensitive places I worry may attract too many visitors or may become the next hot spot that hoards of people want to consume.

Beauty out My Backdoor–this scene was taken from an overlook accessible through a hike right out my backdoor onto a neighborhood trail and a short scramble. Having nature accessible like this helps reduce our carbon footprint because we do not need to drive to the hiking trail.

The larger issue, however, I try to balance this with is that it is good for our society at large that we all have access to nature. I keep this in mind when I am posting and in certain situations where the risk to the environment is very low I will provide more specific information. But in general I am more interested in getting people inspired and excited about exploring the natural world, not visiting specific locations. I have spent a life time exploring and finding about these locations. With exact locations on social media, one could do what I did in just a couple of weeks. This encourages the consumption approach to taking images and the associated risk of damaging the environment, rather than getting out exploring and experiencing nature where one will find their own unique compositions.

Desert Flowers

Many photographers independently have come to the same conclusion as I about the importance of exercising caution in sharing too much information regarding locations. A few years ago tapping into some of this sentiment an organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:

  • Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  • Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  • Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  • Use discretion if sharing locations.
  • Know and follow rules and regulations.
  • Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  • Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
A Hot Summer Evening in the Goat Rocks

Earth Day 2021 marks the second anniversary of Nature First. The organization choose April 22 as the beginning of their movement to highlight the close alignment of their own goals with those of the Earth Day Org, and organization with which they are a partner.

I joined Nature First Photography as a partner because I believe their mission will help raise awareness among nature and landscape photographers of the role of setting an example for protecting and conserving the environment. I feel that this can be done by inspiring others through photographs and modeling environmentally responsible behaviors. I have come to realize through my own experiences as a photographer the impacts that are left on the landscape through visiting these areas and through my own social media presence and acknowledge that awareness within the nature and landscape photography community needs to be increased to minimize the footprints we leave behind. By joining forces with Nature First Photography and actualizing their core principles, I hope to help preserve and protect our natural environments for ourselves and future generations to come.

A Pair of Trilliums

The Healing Power of Nature

In her landmark book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams creates a solid case based on her scientific research that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Without necessarily having knowledge of her research, many of us who have spent significant amounts of time in nature have more intuitively come to the same conclusion. Nature has the power to reconnect us with who we are as a person, inspire creativity, and make us feel happy we are alive experiencing the natural world around us. Nature is worth saving because without nature we cannot live a meaningful life and a healthy environment is essential for the future of planet earth. Happy Earth Day 2021 and may some of the spirit of the original Earth Day be with us this year and for years to come!

Final Frame

Calypso Orchid Trio
This flower is Calypso bulbosa, more commonly known as the calypso orchid, fairy slipper or Venus’s slipper–all wonderful names that play with our imaginations. These three were playing their silent music that I almost missed while hiking through Deception Pass State Park between sunrise and sunset at the Tulip Fields. It is a perennial member of the orchid family found in undisturbed forest of the Pacific Northwest . It has a small pink, purple, pinkish-purple, or red flower accented with a white lip, darker purple spottings, and yellow beard. The genus Calypso takes its name from the Greek signifying concealment, as they tend to favor sheltered areas on conifer forest floors.

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The Way of Zen, Love of Nature, and Photography

On this cool crisp day in late November, Naomi finally found a way to escape from the nine to five drudgery of her work life in the Finance department of a major corporation. With each rhythmic step along a trail through a forest that headed toward the coast, she felt her thoughts of work and family obligations gradually dissolve into the forest canopy. She began to feel a close and intimate relation to this natural world with no separation between herself and the world around her. Naomi was fully present in this moment neither thinking about this or that or even herself. The trail emptied out to a bluff with a breathtaking view of the Lottie Bay, Lighthouse Point and beyond.

Deception Pass November Sunset

As the sun made moved ever closer to where it would dip below the horizon, Naomi’s thoughts started waiver. Although she was exited about the moment, her thoughts turned to host of distractions that pierced the stillness she experienced earlier: “How am I going to complete my work assignment by its deadline?….I cannot linger here as I need to get back to the car before darkness!…. I need to quickly take out my tripod and camera to capture this moment.”

The mindset of Naomi on her way to the scenic overlook is closely akin to what many popularly refer to as the “Zen Mindset” and what she initially experienced is a “Zen Moment.” But what later happened with her wavering mind has little to do with Zen. Zen focuses on practices including Meditation, Mindfulness and the use of Kaons (riddles) to recover a Zen Mindset that experiences nature directly–no filter, no labels, no concepts, no distractions, no wavering thoughts–just a spontaneous connection to the natural world of which we are a part. Clearly Naomi has a long way to go on her “Way of Zen”. This, however, in no way diminishes the value of her experience of her “Moment of Zen”. Long time practitioners of Zen and even well established Nature and Landscape Photographers, too easily brush off such experiences as lacking any kind of meaningful depth. But we all started somewhere. If we are honest, we all have had experiences, myself many of them, similar to Naomi’s and even long term Zen practitioners still experience wavering minds. It is a big mistake to devalue anyone’s early experiences in nature where they feel more alive and in tune with the rhythms of nature. These experiences can serve as a catalyst to a more intimate connection to nature and also a spiritual awakening.

Light in the Mossy Forest

Imagine this. What would happen to you if you dismantled all of your concepts surrounding who you are as a person; in other words how you think about yourself–your accomplishments, your education, your processions, your personality type, even your likes and dislikes to the extent that these are also product of your conceptual thought? What if all your explanations and assumptions that define your conscious self and serve as your center of identity slowly withered away until at last there was nothing left? And what if this were all to happen not in an abstract way but at the level of your immediate experience? Where would this leave you? What might you discover about yourself at level deeper than your personal history and your thoughts that define your identity? Without your conceptual filters between yourself and all that simply is, would you experience yourself and the world around you differently? Although these questions are impossible to answer because any answer would itself rely upon conceptual thought — they do point to the ultimate adventure, the adventure of Zen–where we move beyond our conceptual filters and labels, and wake up to our true nature. This is not to say that we give up thinking. Thinking is as much who we are as a person as are our hopes, passions and feelings. Nor does Zen ask us to be heartless. Zen is always focused on nature just as it is, eternally present in the here and now, and that my friends is enough for the Zen Mindset.

A Burst of Light in the Hall of Mosses

In this post I will start out with a discussion of What is Zen and the ultimate futility of defining something that can only be experienced. We will then discuss Zen as a creative synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism. This is important because many of the modern day misunderstandings of Zen are attributable to a lack of appreciation of how Zen draws upon both of these ancient traditions especially its Taoist roots. We will then discuss Zen’s unique connection to nature and how the love of nature itself is part of the full Zen experience. It is this love of nature that for many of us photographers helped establish our “Way of Zen” even if we do not label our experience as Zen. Next we will discuss Zen and Creativity and how dialoguing with our unconscious self helps fuel the creative process. Although Zen focuses upon primordial awakening and sudden enlightenment, Zen has always been associated with practices that help tame the discursive mind that stands between us and our own true nature. So in the last part of this post we will focus on practices, especially those appropriate to nature and landscape photography, that will help us on our way with the adventure and experience of Zen.

What is Zen?

This question is difficult if not impossible to answer because Zen cannot be described with rational discursive thought. It can only be experienced directly. The Philosopher and Spiritual Entertainer Alan Watts who along with DT Suzuki was instrumental in bringing Zen to the West, introduced one of his lectures on Zen this way:

A lecture on Zen is always something in the nature of a hoax, because it really does deal with a domain of experience that can’t be talked about….So anybody who says that he knows what Zen is, is a fraud. Nobody knows.

Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind, 07, The World as Just So Part 1 (1)

Well that is one heck of a way for Watts to start a lecture Zen that relies on the spoken word! But it does establish an important context for any discussion of Zen. Our mind will get very confused in any attempt to understand Zen through the written or spoken word. This very confusion, however, is instrumental in weakening our mental defenses so that ultimately we cease trying to understand Zen intellectually and instead focus on practices that help eliminate obstacles to experiencing the world more intuitively just as it is.

The most concise and the essential statement of what Zen is comes from the first Patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma. It is said that Bodhidharma was born as the third prince of an Indian kingdom. He immigrated to China as a Buddhist missionary-monk in the late fourth or early fifth century. Here is the original statement:

Without relying on words and writings,
A Special Transmission outside of scriptures,
Pointing directly to the human mind,
See your own nature and become Buddha.  (2)

With this passage, Zen is introduced as a special transmission, something that is experienced intuitively without the use of words or concepts. This perception points directly to our human mind where we can awaken to our own true nature.

Snowdrop

Zen itself in its mythology imagines is own beginning even earlier with this story of the first special transmission of Zen. The story is called the Flower Sermon and predates Bodhidharma by approximately one thousand years . One day the Buddha silently held up a flower before the a large group of his disciples. Buddha offered no words and as the silence ensued his disciples were confused and did not know the meaning of the sermon, all except for one of Buddha’s disciples, Maha Kasyapa who simply smiled. This was the a wordless special transmission of Zen. The vehicle for this special transmission of Zen, is nature itself, in the form of a beautiful flower.

There is one more story that I would like to tell, a story that will take us to the very heart of Zen Buddhism even as it exists today, with its unique character, different from other forms of Buddhism. This is the story of the 6th Chinese Patriarch of Zen Hui-neng (638-713). The story of Hui-neng can be found in the Platform Sutra which is in effect an autobiography of Hui-neng. It is one of the more accessible stories in Zen literature and I highly recommend reading it in is entirety (2). Hui-neng was an illiterate woodcutter who had heard from afar a reading of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. This piqued his curiosity and he wanted to learn more. He approached the temple of the fifth patriarch who agreed to take him in as a dish washer and teach him more about Zen. The fifth patriarch some time later recognized that he himself was getting very old and needed to get on with the project of choosing a successor. He decided to hold a poetry contest for who could write the best poem that describes the nature of reality. Whoever wins the contest would become the 6th patriarch. Today we might call this a poetry slam! All of the monks except one decided not to participate in the contest because they knew the patriarch’s principle disciple, Snxiu, would most certainly win. Senxiu wrote on one of the halls of the temple the following verse:

The body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is a clear mirror.
Always strive to polish it.
Let no dust alight. (3)
Islands in the Sun

What does this verse mean? Our body is like the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha awakened to his true nature. The tree and our body are like props that serve as a vehicle for awakening. Our mind can be like a clear mirror reflecting the nature of reality. But we must strive through our actions to keep it clean and let “no dust alight” otherwise the reflection will not be pure. The emphasis is on cultivation of a practice like polishing to keep the mirror clean. Hui-neng saw this poem and asked a monk to read it to him. Upon reflecting upon Senxiu’s poem which he thought was pretty good, Hui-neng knew he could write even a better poem. He asked the monk to write this next poem on the wall next to Senxiu’s.

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The mirror has no stand.
Buddha nature is primordially clean and pure.
Where could dust even alight. (3)

Once the the fifth patriarch read Hui-neng’s poem he knew instantly that he understood the nature of reality and pronounced him the sixth patriarch.


There are moments when my soul is a mirror to everything around me. Forms, shapes and patterns bathed in light rise out of the dark void and return again in an endless cycle. In such moments I feel I am the mountains, the sea, the setting sun, and the tree spread out over the bay. There is no me, mountains, sea, setting sun, or tree spread out over the bay–Satori.

In Hui-neng’s poem, awakening does not depend on our physical being and definitely not physical objects such as a mirror. We are all already primordially awakened. There is no where for the dust even to fall. In this story we encounter one of the principle pillars of Zen, we already have the Buddha Nature, we just do not know it. There is nothing we possibly can do in terms of cultivation to acquire our Buddha Nature, it is simply already there. In other words pay attention to direct experience, we are already clean and pure. At this point one might say, but wait a minute, do you mean I do not need to engage in meditation and other traditional Zen practices such as mindfulness and reciting and answering Koans? Well just like everything else in Zen the answer is paradoxical, yes and no. Meditation and other practices will not bring us enlightenment, we are already enlightened. But practices may, and I emphasize the word may, help weaken some of our conceptual filters that we have acquired in the course of our lives that stand in the way of us experiencing our true nature.

Zen: A Blend of Buddhism and Taoism

When Buddhism came to China it encountered a culture already steeped in a Taoist tradition and perspective on nature and life. Many of the Buddhist Sanskrit terms were translated in a way that favored Taoist Chinese equivalent words, for example the nature of emptiness and interdependence, were rendered imprecisely as the Tao, or “the Way (4)”. Everywhere one looks in the historical record of Chinese Buddhism, whether it be rituals, practices, philosophy, and even the translation and the creation of sūtras—one finds Taoist parallels with the two traditions interacting with each other, each one influencing the other, until something unique begins to emerge which is Chan Buddhism. The term Chan is derived from the Sanskrit term Dhyana meaning meditation. The term Zen is in turn derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan.  While successive dynasties and authorities within Buddhist monasteries attempted to define the boundaries between the two traditions, this had little or no influence once one peered beyond the monastery walls. It is worthy of mention that we still find this same tension in both the east and the west today, where certain Zen monasteries attempt to reign in the Zen practice and move it back to something where its roots in Buddhism are more evident and connections to Taoism are downplayed or even non existent.

Light in the Forest

This merging and creative synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism is especially evident in the writings of those who figured prominently in introducing Zen to the west including Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Alan Watts’s landmark book “The Way of Zen” that introduced millions of westerners to Zen starting in the early sixties incorporates the interplay of Taoism and Zen right in the title to the book with a reference to “the Way” i.e., the Tao. Alan Watts actually begins his book with a lengthy discussion of Taoism. D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen scholar who spent considerable time in the United States writes in his corresponding landmark book “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism”…..”If I am am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer, Zen teaches nothing. Whatever teachings there are in Zen, they come out of one’s own mind. We teach ourselves: Zen merely points the way.” Here again we have a very impactful reference to “the Way” which we will soon see is a pillar of the Taoist tradition. Many modern day scholars reinforce these same themes, for example David Hinton in his book “China Root–Taoism, Chan, and Original Zen”, (c) 2020 (5). “The more Chan (Zen) is seen at the deepest levels essential for awakening the more Taoist it looks; while the more it is seen at shallow or institutional levels, the more Buddhist it looks.”

From my perspective it is likely a bit of an overreach to say that Zen has more to do with Taoism than Buddhism. A basic understanding of both are necessary for a greater appreciation of the Zen synthesis and also to better grasp what ultimately emerged which is unique and greater than just the blending of its parts. So at this point let us briefly discuss the separate traditions of Buddhism and Taoism.

The Buddha and the Four Noble Truths

Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, lived during the 5th century B.C. The Sanskrit name, the Buddha, means the “one who is awake”, and the story of the Buddha is about the one who awoke to his true nature. Buddha’s mother died shortly after giving birth to Siddhartha and he was raised by his Father who was extremely protective of his son wanting him to only experience an idyllic life within the palace walls. The Father wanted Siddhartha to eventually succeed him as King and did not want him to take a spiritual path that some had predicted for Gautama. The Father took extraordinary measures to shield Siddhartha from any knowledge of poverty, death and suffering. The Buddha’s curiosity eventually got the best of him and he left his wife and young son and he escaped into the world outside of the palace walls living in the forest for six years. On excursions to villages, Siddhartha encountered common people who were sick and suffering along with the corpses of those who had recently died. This made the Buddha acutely aware of the impermanence of human life including his own life. Siddhartha wanted to find a way to get beyond this human suffering. He spent six years searching, worked with a couple of gurus, and engaged in various ascetic practices in search of an answer.  Siddhartha eventually abandoned his Gurus, went out on his own. While meditating in nature, under a bodhi tree, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, woke up to his true nature attaining enlightenment. (6-The Buddha Movie).

Not exactly a Bodhi Tree, but if the story of the Buddha were to unfold today in my neck of the woods, I am inclined to believe that enlightenment may just take place under a Madrone Tree!

The Buddha’s best known teaching is the Four Noble Truths. Buddha communicates Four Noble Truths in a manner that parallels the way in which a Doctor diagnoses a disease. The first question the Buddha asks is what is the problem here? The answer to this question and the First Noble Truth is, “All life is Suffering.” Recall the images that Siddhartha saw as a young man of disease, old age, and death. The second question Buddha asks is— Can this disease be cured? There is no use moving forward unless the disease can be cured. The Second Noble Truth then is yes indeed the disease can be cured! There is release from the sorrows and suffering of our lives. The third question is what is the outcome we are trying to achieve? The Third Noble Truth then is that we can be released from suffering through waking up to our true nature, or in other words through finding Nirvana. Joseph Campbell, the renowned 20th century mythologist describes nirvana this way.

“The word nirvana means “extinguished.” Literally, however, the word is translated as “where no wind blows,” or “beyond the winds.” Buddhism is the ferry way to the yonder shore, where the wind of surface duality does not blow. We leave this shore of fear, of desire, etc.; we get in the ferryboat of the Buddhist yana, the Buddhist vessel, and we come to the yonder shore where there are no pairs of opposites, so that the ultimate realization is: now we are on the yonder shore, we look back to see this shore, since we are beyond the pairs of opposites, and surprise! There is no difference. This world is nirvana; that is the point.”

Ferry Going to the Yonder Shore

So what is it that we wake up to? It is nothing other than the world as its, or as Allan Watts puts it, the “World as just So” (1). It is here that we find a close linkage between the Buddha’s message and Zen. In Zen we are not aiming for some Transcendental Reality beyond the world as it is. The aim is to awaken to the true nature of our own being and at the same time see the world of nature just as it is, nothing special. A low and behold we realize there is no separation between our own nature and that of the natural world that surrounds us.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the the Eightfold Path, the way to awakening. This is also known as the middle way between the world of desire, passions, and attachments on one side and more extreme asceticism on the other side. The eight fold path includes (1) Right View, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Zen which is more inwardly oriented does not place nearly as much emphasis on cultivation of the Eightfold Path as other forms of Buddhism that are more outwardly oriented. Recall our earlier discussion of the 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, we are already awakened, we just do not know it. Zen, however, does put significant emphasis on the practice of mindfulness and we will discuss this a greater length when we come to Zen practices. This is not to diminish the importance of the eight fold path which points to a very practical way to carry out our lives in a meaningful way. Although a full discussion of the Eightfold Path is beyond the scope of this article, I highly recommend Mark Epstein’s book, Advice Not Given, for those who want to go deeper. In this book he discusses each step of the Eight Fold Path and its importance in our lives from more of a psychoanalytic perspective.

Buddhism: Common Themes

Buddhism evolved into a number of sects including Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinayana also known as small boat Buddhism is more traditional focusing on the ascetic life and practices of a few, those in a monastic order, to escape cycles and birth and rebirth and reach Nirvana. Mahayana, is also known as big boat Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha nature is realized, but then one goes back into the world as a Bodhisattva to share the message of compassionate Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism arose out of the Mahayana tradition. All forms of Buddhism, however, share three philosophical themes or ideas: impermanence, interdependence and selflessness.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

The Dalai Lama

Impermanence. Although our minds may perceive our everyday world as definite events that persist in our mind over time, such as your recollection of a beautiful sunset you experienced and photographed long ago, in reality everything is constantly changing, including your recollection of past events. There really is only the eternal here and now of moment to moment experiences that only last a second and are constantly changing. Emerson incarnates this eternal now beautifully hundreds of years later on American soil in this passage from his essay, Self Reliance.

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower, there is no more; in the leafless root, there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Interdependence. The second major idea is that of interdependence. The whole depends on the parts and the parts depend on the whole. None of us are truly independent in who we are as a person. We are not an isolated conscious person encased in a bag of skin separate from the world around us. Our identities, depend on our environments, both at a local level and at a cosmological level. Buddhism has always followed the path of ecology even before the word ecology entered into our vocabulary. Alan Watts put it this way: ““You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.” (8)

Let the Light be With You

Selflessness. The ideas of impermanence and interdependence are closely related to the Buddhist idea of self or perhaps more to the point no self. Because things are constantly changing, there is no identity to retain over time. What we think of as our identity–our processions, accomplishments, our view of our self and how we project ourselves to the world— is actually a kind of illusion largely derived from society. We are constantly changing and there is absolutely nothing to hold on to. Buddha’s message is that this kind of identity or sense of self is a product of our conceptual thought. It is this world of conceptual thought surrounding the creation of conceptual identities that Zen aims to break through, weaken, and eventual destroy. This is done so that the true nature of who we truly are will be more transparent. Although some take it a step further and say Zen wants to destroy our ego, this is not actually true. We need a healthy ego to get along, function and make a living in society. What we do not need, however, is an unhealthy ego that sees it self as the center of the universe. This kind of ego to Buddhism and Zen is an illusion.

Taoism

The Chinese word Tao means “the way”. One might ask what kind of way? First and foremost, it is the way of nature including our own nature. It is also the way of harmony with others and the way of self understanding. Taoism is the study of the way. Its origins trace back to the philosopher-hermits, called Xian, who roamed the mountains of ancient China. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese ancient pictogram for Xian (僊) represents a person in the Mountains (1). Taoism as as a philosophy of the way appears in China about the 5 Century BCE. Its two principle sages are Lao-tse and Chuang Tzu. Lao-tse lays the ground work and principle ideas of Taoism in the Tao Te Ching. Chuang Tzu brings us often paradoxical parables in what are known as the Inner Chapters. These parables are often irreverent but also down to earth complementing what was introduced in the Tao Te Ching.

Dances with Fog and Light

The important Taoist principles from the Tao De Ching where we find equivalents in Zen include the notion of our primordial awakening, and the importance of direct experience, impermanence, emptiness, and simplicity. You can find a through discussion of Taoism in my Blog Post The Tao of Landscape Photography, but here I am going to focus upon the principles where we find close connections with Zen along with an additional story from Chuang Tzu about the paradoxical nature of reality.

To study the Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.

Zen Master Dogen (18)

Primordial Awakening

A central theme in the Taoist perspective is a return to nature. At a more personal level this also means a recovery of our own nature, a kind of primordial awakening. I say recovery, because our own original nature, a sort of childlike primordial state, was always there. Lao-tse says in verse 55 of the Tao Te Ching that “The virtuous are like children” (10). As a metaphor, the child represents the eternal beginning, and the ever springing source of all life prior to adoption of our filters of conceptual thought. Taoism points to several factors that stand in the away of awareness of our true nature. Chief among them is our contemporary culture that surrounds us. Society convinces us as we grow up that the path to both success and meaning involve the acquisition of material wealth along with work accomplishments and recognition. Unfortunately this path also leads us further and further away from nature. What we need instead is a return to a life more anchored in spontaneity, passion and intuition. This idea of awakening to our own true nature and can be found in Buddhism in general but is especially prominent in Zen Buddhism. Recall the words of the sixth patriarch of Zen with Hui Neng’s poem: Buddha nature is primordially clean and pure, where could dust even alight”. The echoes of Taoism could not be more clear.

Return to Nature

Direct Experience and Impermanence

Taoism has always emphasized the importance of direct experience and has correspondingly been suspicious of any attempts to frame our experience through the lenses and filters of our conceptual thought. Our words, thoughts and concepts can literally never describe our experience of nature. The first words of the Ta Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way. ” (10). In chapter thirty-two Lao-tse goes on to say”

Naming is a necessity for order,
but naming cannot order all things.
Naming often makes things impersonal,
so we should know when naming should end.
Knowing when to stop naming,
you can avoid the pitfall it brings.
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers
flow through valleys to the sea (11).
Where Rivers Meet the Sea

Naming is part of our conceptual thought. Putting labels on things and what we believe are our experiences can prevent us from experiencing the world at a more personal, direct and immediate level . Although both Taoism and Zen place little emphasis on words associated with conceptual thought such as might be found in scriptures and texts, both do embrace a more poetic use of words. Poetry does not seek to explain the mystery through rational means. The way of the poet points us toward a more intuitive participation in the mystery and wonders of the world. This is done through the use of evocative and often rhythmic language rich in imagery and sounds closely aligned with our emotions.

In this same verse Lao Tse also connects the importance of direct experience of the Tao with the notion of flow with the metaphor of the water flowing from streams to larger rivers to the sea. The river is constantly changing, impermanent and yet also appears as an unchanging whole, connected to the Tao. Although we perceive the water in the river as a constant this water is gone the instant we perceive it only replaced with new water. The flow cannot be stopped, we can only go with the flow. This is Wu Wei, effortless action. The importance of unfiltered direct experience of course is also central to Zen which should not surprise us given the influence of Taoism on Zen. We find a focus on impermanence in both Taoism and Buddhism, but in the Zen synthesis, Zen takes the idea of impermanence to a level that goes far beyond what we see in either Taoism or Buddhism.

Emptiness

The importance of emptiness in Taoism is beautifully captured by Lao Tse in the following verse.

Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching: Emptiness Translated by Sam Tarode

A wheel may have thirty spokes,
but its usefulness lies in the empty hub.

A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty center.

A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.

Matter is necessary to give form,
but the value of reality lies in its immateriality.

Everything that lives has a physical body,
but the value of a life is measured by the soul (10).

For most of us, when we approach a beautiful landscape, we immediately start picking out subjects against a background. In doing this we are experiencing nature and the landscape as discrete and separate parts. The Taoist perspective, however, informs us that this process of picking out, naming and labeling subjects in the landscape may actually be getting in the way of us experiencing the true nature of reality, in other words experiencing nature and the landscape as an interrelated seamless whole. Without the background and negative space no subject or subjects can have any form. “A wheel may have thirty spokes, but its usefulness lies in the empty hub” and “the room is made of four walls, but its usefulness lies in the space between”. When a Taoist first approaches a mountain landscape, he/she is likely to first notice the valley below and the sky above rather than the imposing mountain looming as a primary subject. Focusing first on the negative space and background can go along way toward transforming how we view nature and the landscape and it is my belief that this will be for the better. This helps move us away from our habitual way of viewing the world, glorifying certain objects in the landscape, rather than experiencing what every landscape actually is, an integrated whole. Focusing on negative space, emptiness and the void brings us back to a more primordial and intuitive way of experiencing the world, it brings us back to the source of all that is, it brings us back to the eternal Tao.

Forest Carpet of Clouds

Ray Grigg writes in the “Tao of Zen”—“The Way in both Taoism and Zen is approached by emptying, by abandoning what is not the Way, by eliminating questions rather than finding answers, by opening to what cannot be Known. Because the Way can be recognized but not explained, all concepts become obstructions that have to be cleared away. Emptiness, therefore, becomes the condition that provides maximum range of perspective, maximum flexibility and freedom to move and respond. Any conception or preconception limits by predisposing awareness and action.” Emptiness is the way to unfiltered and immediate awareness, seeing the world clearly. This emptiness is a central pillar of Zen and the gateway to creativity. Zen Buddhist Monks are known to even start their day by reciting from the “Heart Sutra” including the phrase “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. When one attempts to understand this abstractly these words literally make no sense at all. The meaning here, however, is not abstract but simple and concrete. Form, since it is continually changing and impermeant is essentially empty. But emptiness is form, and therefore the world is just as it is–nothing less nothing more!

Simplicity

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse talks about the qualities of the sages of old who were examples of living a simple life in harmony with the Tao. Although these sages were alert, careful, courteous, and fluid as melting ice; they also were likened to the image of an “uncarved block. (11)” The metaphor of the uncarved block” is one of the most enduring and frequently found metaphors in all of Taoist literature. The uncarved block represents nature in its original, unchanged, and natural form. Benjamin Hoff, in the Tao of Pooh, writes “The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed (14)”. This fits in well with the previously discussed Taoist emphasis on emptiness and the importance of negative space. Living a life of the sage takes us in the direction of stripping away of much of the baggage we have collected in the process of fitting in with society and getting back to a much simpler and spontaneous life close to nature. The paradox is that when we return to the uncarved block we also unlock our potential to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. An uncarved block has the potential to be transformed into something extraordinary and worthwhile. But this will only happen when one moves with rather than against the rhythms and flow of nature. In the words of Lao-tse: “Who can be still until their mud settles and the mud is cleared by itself, Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?”

The Zen symbol or ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and emptiness. It is characterized by simplistic  minimalism born of a Taoist aesthetic. Using calligraphy, the artist creates the ensō fluidly with a single brush stroke. The circle may be open or closed. I prefer my circle open! When the circle is incomplete, this allows for movement and development as well as the perfection of all things. Japanese Zen practitioners relate this idea to wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection. 

The principle of simplicity has always been a part of the the Zen ascetic and it can be easily seen in its various art forms. This ascetic is also a reflection of the clarity of the Zen Mindset described so well in this passage by D.T. Suzuki.

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. […] Zen must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done, we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.” (15)

Again we have this notion, also so evident in Taoism, of “stripping away” and doing away with “intervening agents” between our our inner spirit and the facts and reality of our everyday world. Zen preserves beautifully the legacy of Taoism in way we do not find in other forms of Buddhism. Both Taoism and Zen get us back to to the simplicity and essence of nature, back to the “uncarved block”.

Paradox

Taoism is full of paradox at every twist and turn. We see this in the more lofty and philosophical writings of Lao-tse, but we see it at more of a concrete level of everyday discourse in Chuang Tzu. Consider this Chuang Tzu parable:

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.””You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.””You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” (16)

With Paradox, Taoism deliberately creates an insight that cannot be fully resolved through rationale thought. We enter the realm of ambivalence and confusion where our mind at some point just gives up and yields to a more intuitive and immediate way of understanding that does not rely upon words. It should come as no surprise that the Tao De Ching opens with these words, “The Tao which can be spoken, is not the real way.” Of course Lao-tse himself is relying on written discourse to communicate what cannot ultimately be communicated with words. This is the ultimate irony and paradox!

The paradoxes we also find in Zen result much more from its encounter with Taoism than its roots in Buddhism. For example on the subject of Dualism, Buddhism seems to attempt to move toward a resolution of the concept of duality with the notion of “not two, but one”. In Zen it is more like, not one, not two, but two = one and at the same time one = two”. Of course this makes no logical sense and that is the point-to move beyond logic and more into an intuitive way of grasping the true nature of our being.

Red Berries in a Mossy Forest

Nowhere is the sense of Paradox more evident than in the Zen Koan. Consider this Koan.

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree. Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe. (2)

In this Koan, Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, will not even entertain a common sense explanation for the movement of the flag but instead points to the minds of the two monks as the source of movement. Although this cannot be grasped with logical thought, it is something the two monks grasp at a more immediate and intuitive level. Trying to explain what Zen is, including my own attempts here, of course is also a paradox. It simply cannot be done, because Zen can only be experienced. If at about this time you feel yourself getting a little confused in the way of Zen that is exactly as it should be! Once the mind gives up trying to figure Zen out we are ready to begin the Zen adventure!

Zen and the Love of Nature

The Candle Holder

In Zen we always find a close an intimate relationship with nature. We find this at the time the Buddha embarked upon his 6 year retreat in the forests of India to the time he awakened under the Bodhi Tree. We find this also when Maha Kasyapa received a special transmission of Zen through his smile upon seeing his own Buddha Nature in the Lotus Flower. We find this in the likes of Lao-tse and Chuang Tzu, mountain men who roamed through the peaks and valleys of China’s natural landscape. We also find the close connection to nature when we look at where many Zen monasteries are located, typically located in areas where unspoiled nature is at their doorstep. Even in our popular consciousness of Zen most of us conjure up images of peaceful and tranquil moments of serenity in nature, Zen Moments. As photographers of nature and the landscape most of us have also experienced such moments. Zen, however, does not embrace just these peaceful and tranquil moments. Zen is open to nature in its entirety–stormy seas and calm seas, the Sturm and Drang of unsettled mountain weather, as well as the calm of a beautiful reflection in a mountain lake. In this regard Zen owes much to Taoist Yin and Yang. We cannot have the calm without the storm and one implies the other. Just as we cannot climb the mountain peak if there is no valley below. Zen sees clearly into all of nature, clear skies and foggy skies, new growth and renewal as well as death and destruction. We simply cannot have one with out the other.

Sturm und Drang

No where do we find as close and intimate connection with nature as where Zen took root in Japan. This is in part due to the special relationship the Japanese culture had with nature even prior to Zen taking root on soil of Japan. This also helps explain why Zen flourished in Japan even as it lost much of its hold in China after the Song Dynasty. D.T. Suzuki talks about this Japanese love of Nature in his landmark essay, Zen and the Japanese Love of Nature.

What is the most specific characteristic of Zen asceticism in connection with the Japanese Love for Nature? It consists in paying Nature the fullest respect it deserves. By this it is meant that we may treat Nature not as an object to conquer and turn wantonly to our human service, but as a friend, as fellow being, who is destined like ourselves for Buddhahood…. Zen purposes to respect Nature, to love Nature, to live its own life; Zen recognizes that our Nature is one with objective Nature, not in the mathematical sense, but in the sense that Nature lives in us and we in Nature.

D. T. Suzuki Love of Nature (17)
The Lantern
A Japanese Maple lights up like a lantern as the morning light bursts through an opening in the canopy of the small tree by a pond. In this image you will also see a small stone Japanese Garden Lantern.  In Japanese Culture these small garden lanterns symbolize nature through the concept of finding beauty in the impermanence of the natural world.  At no time was this more evident to me than underneath this Japanese Maple Tree, with its leaves now fully turned a bright red, catching the rapidly changing light, and ever so slowly starting to fall to the ground, one by one.

When we are in love with Nature we approach the natural world in a much different way. When we set out to climb the mountain peak we do not approach it as something to be conquered, but rather we are walking with the mountain, as the mountain helps lift us up through it various layers of sublime, mysterious, and sometimes rugged beauty. The mountain is our friend, never our enemy. Nature is our friend and like a good friend we are concerned with his/her well being. Our natural feeling is to preserve, protect and conserve nature. Likewise when we as Landscape Photographers set out on a photographic expedition, we are not just checking the box through visiting a well known site all teed up for that very predictable iconic shot. We are walking with nature and with each step we stand in awe at the mystery, beauty, and wonders of nature-all of nature-both the sublime and the quite ordinary. We live and breathe in nature and nature is as much us as we nature.

Russian Butte in the Mist

In the Zen aesthetic of simplicity that is in tune with the essence of nature, the Zen mindset is most transparent when close to scenes where the impermanence of nature is most evident, a budding flower, fallen leaves, melting ice. All forms are constantly changing and and therefore devoid of any permeant essence. The Japanese have a word for this temporal beauty and it is wabi-sabi. Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. Although it is easy for us to grasp this at a more obvious level-we see ourselves getting older and grayer and suffer the loss of loved ones, in the adventure of Zen it is also evident at the most subtle levels that encompasses all of nature including inanimate objects and especially our own thoughts.

Lilac Tears of Joy

Awareness of Nature itself leads us to a greater appreciation of its impermanence, especially when we spend time in the natural world. This awareness in turn helps breakdown our conceptual filters that prevent us from fully seeing the world as it is. As a nature and landscape photographer, I began to notice this as I spent more quality time in nature, often in quite ordinary but natural places on my walks in the forest close to home. This is also a common story and theme among other nature and landscape photographers who I know. Without necessarily even being conscious of what Zen is, many of us are already embarking upon the adventure of Zen.

Alpine Pond Autumn Moods

This Zen adventure is not unlike the adventure that Thoreau took in his two year experiment of living in the forest at Walden Pond. It was only here, in close contact with Nature, did the grip of his preconceived notions surrounding the natural world begin to evaporate as he experienced the natural world in a much more immediate and intuitive way. Thoreau did not transcend the natural world of wonder and beauty at Walden Pond. This was not a journey into some kind of transcendental reality beyond the natural world. Thoreau transcended his perception of himself as something separate from nature, a perception that was largely a function of his societal upbringing and his own conceptual thought. In transcending this false identity he embraced his true identity with nature. Thoreau lived in nature and nature in Thoreau at Walden Pond. With only cursory knowledge of Buddhism and Zen, Thoreau may have been one of America’s first Bodhisattva’s, experiencing enlightenment in his life in the woods at Walden Pond, then going back into the world to share the possibility of this experience with others through his book, Walden Pond. For more on this see my Blog Post on Thoreau and Walden Pond.

Mt. Baker Rising

The Japanese Zen Master Dogen once remarked:

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters. (18)

Dogen 1200-1253, founder of the Soto School of Zen

What does Dogen mean by this? Before embarking upon the Zen journey when we see mountains we perceive these mountains as objects of nature separate from us. The mountains are not only separate from us, but standing against us, something to be conquered. When one first embarks upon the Zen journey, the mountains are no longer seen as something that stands against us. We may then feel as though they dissolve into the “oneness of things” and the mountain ceases to be an object of nature. But at this point, the mountains are no longer mountains, there is only this undifferentiated oneness. Later in our Zen adventure the mountains are assimilated into our very being, into the core essence of who we are and we are absorbed into them. With this experience, I am in nature and nature in me. According to D.T. Suzuki this is not mere participation in each other but fundamental identity between the two. This is Satori or enlightenment. Now mountains are mountains just as they are before me.

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Allan Watts from The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (28)
One with the Ocean—When reviewing my images from a trip to Kauai a few years ago, this one surprised me the most. I did not at all see my shadow and silhouette in the spray of the wave at the moment of capture. But there I was, walking into the ocean of Kauai’s Shipwreck Beach, tripod in hand, one with the Ocean.

Zen and Creativity

The way of Zen is for us to awaken to our true nature. When we wake up we are also more creative because we loosen the hold of mental filters that not only falsely define who we are but also limit creative possibilities. The renowned Twentieth Century Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm expressed it more bluntly this way at a conference with D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. “The average person’s consciousness is mainly false consciousness consisting of fictions and illusion, while precisely what he is not aware of is reality.” (19) Zen practices such as meditation and mindfulness help us to slow down and gradually weaken the fictions and illusions surrounding our false identities. In the process of this happening our expanded awareness bring us into contact with new sources of creativity that previously were largely unconscious. In the Forward to the D.T. Suzuki book An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, the founder of Depth Psychology, Carl Jung put it this way. ” The world of consciousness is inevitably a world full of restrictions, of walls blocking the way…Since the emptying and the closing down of the conscious is no easy matter, a special training (Zen) and an indefinitely long period of time is necessary to produce the maximum of tension which leads to the final breakthrough of unconscious into the conscious.” (20)

Tumwater Watercolor Reflections

This creative breakthrough leading to expanded awareness, is also the path to creativity that Artist and Jungian practitioner Julia Cameroon discusses in her book “The Artist’s Way” (21). “Although we seldom talk about it in these terms, writing is a means of prayer. It connects us to the invisible world. It gives us a gate for the other world to talk to us, whether we call it the subconscious, the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the muse. ” Although Julia Cameroon is talking about writing here we can also include other practices that potentially can set in motion a dialogue with our unconscious self including nature and landscape photography, meditation and mindfulness. Cameroon goes on to say ” Inspiration may be a form of super consciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness-I wouldn’t know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness”. The primary practice Cameroon recommends to help access the wellsprings of our unconscious, silence our inner critic of conceptual thoughts, and unlock creativity is the morning pages, in other words keeping a journal. We will discuss this practice in more depth when we discuss Zen practices but let me say this now that our journals will also include the daily practice of taking photos of the natural world.

Andy Karr and Michael Wood offer a description of the creative process in their book “The Practice of Contemplative Photography” that I believe is especially relevant to our discussion of Zen and Creativity. Although Contemplative Photography as outlined by Karr and Wood traces its spiritual inspiration to Tibetan Buddhism, I find it also consistent with traditional Zen practices and more importantly the spirt of Zen. I am going to discuss this contemplative process looking at it from the perspective we have established of the Way of Zen closely connected to the Love of Nature. The contemplative process involves three stage of creativity as they apply to photography.

  • Connecting with a Flash of Perception
  • Visual Discernment
  • Forming an equivalent to what we have seen
Rock Tapestry

A flash of perception comes in the gaps in the flow of our mental activity. Mental activity is often characterized by sticky attachments to our conceptual thoughts that surround what we are feeling at any given moment. Through time in nature, slowing down, meditation, and mindfulness these conceptual thoughts loose some of their grip. Then when one of these gaps in our mental activity occurs we are more ready for a flash of perception. This is also the stage where the dialogue begins with our unconscious self and we become more aware not only of our surroundings but also our inner selves.

The state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank… But it is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.

Minor White

Visual Discernment involves staying with the contemplative state of mind after the initial flash of perception. Here we rest with our perception and allow the basic qualities of form, light, patterns, tones and textures to be recognized through our intuitive non-conceptual intelligence and the feelings we are experiencing. Visual discernment slows us down even more and gives us some space that allows our photographic vision to emerge.

Mushroom Huddle

Forming an Equivalent involves forming an equivalent of your perception, taking and processing the image. The image will be the equivalent of your perception and it should be obvious it will not be the same thing as this is impossible. The Contemplative Photography approach as it was originally envisioned involves a more representational style, but I do not think any such restriction is appropriate for Zen photography. Although Zen aims at clear perception and the true nature of who we are, the Zen aesthetic in the arts is seldom representational but rather a unique and creative expression of our true nature grounded in immediate experience, especially experiences in the natural world. In other words, Zen aims not so much as a documentation of our experience, but rather as a creative expression of our experience, especially our inner experience.

Spirit Angels in the Forest

The Zen aesthetic looks for the spirit and essence of nature, It is not so much interested in the exaggeration of forms or super imposing man made symmetries on an image to make nature fit ones own conceptual ideas of what nature should be. The imperfections, irregularities, and especially the temporal aspects of nature are all celebrated. The wonders of Nature are something to be admired never mastered. There is no attempt to solve the mysteries of nature. Nature and its mysteries mysteries are honored just as they are. For more on Mystery see my blog post: Mystery :The Holy Grail of Nature Photography.

“Naturalness, Spontaneity, and playfulness are all aspects of the ordinary mind that catches a glimpse of the world of things just as they are. To live this life fully means to see all of it. The doorway to experience is the creative process”.

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Crearitiby

When we are primordially awakened to our true nature we are as children who are naturally and playfully creative, only now as responsible adults no longer needing a parent to keep watch over us.

Moon Rising over the North Cascades

The Practices

In this section I am going to list some practices that will help loosen the grip of some of the barriers that keep us from experiencing the world of nature in a more intuitive, playful and spontaneous way. Some of these barriers have to do with the expectations of the society we live in, but mostly they have to do with the false identities we have created for ourselves. Our conceptual thoughts cause us to see our own selves as objects of our perception defined by such things as our jobs, material accomplishments, the great things we have done, and how we view our own personalities. As important as these things are, is this truly who we are? It is my hope these recommended practices will get us back to something much more elemental, a primordial awakening to our more authentic self. Some might call this our Buddha Nature, but this ultimately is just another name, and itself a product of conceptual thought. We are getting back to Nature itself where we no longer view ourselves or others as objects. In nature there is no separation. We live in nature and nature lives in us even as each one of us is a unique expression of nature. This is also the path of expanded awareness and new sources of creativity as the clouds of illusion dissolve and we view the world just as it is. Some in established Zen communities may not accept some of these practices as part of traditional Zen. That is a fair criticism and I accept it. My approach is focused more on getting back to the essential spirit of Zen and keeping a practical eye out for what will work in our own culture in the here and now and more specifically for nature and landscape photographers. As we have seen, Zen itself from its earliest origins has always been adaptive to the different cultures and and groups of people it has encountered, and no one should think even for a moment that process has come to its end in our current time.

1. Daily Walks in Nature

Daily walks in nature are a form of meditation and are also calming. The meditative rhythm of my walks in the woods right across the street from my house always seem to cut through the concerns and troubles of the day and put me in a more meditative state where I am more aware and receptive to a direct experience of nature. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions upon our movement and the need for social distancing, it is now more apparent than ever for the need for natural areas within walking distance of our homes. In her landmark book, The Nature Fix (4), Florence Williams explains why. Based on her scientific research, Florence creates a solid case that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Visiting these areas rather than alternative places far away is also better for the environment because we do not need to use fuel/stored power to get there. If you are not blessed with quick access to parks or open spaces close to your homes, just do the best you can. Just get outside daily and visit the most natural areas that are accessible to you. Although from time to time you may take images on these walks, these walks should not be purposeful or come with expectations. This time is a date with yourself and nature, and there should be nothing more to it than that.

Fern Hill Forest
Here is some local beauty across the street from my home on a north facing hillside leading down to the Cedar River. Walking to through this ravine I had the feeling of total immersion is a transparent wall of ferns.

2. Journaling

Most people visualize journaling as keeping a written daily record of their thoughts, feelings, and impressions surrounding their day to day life. Our Zen practice will certainly include that but also include a visual record through images. No one needs to see this written journal or the images. In some ways it is better that they do not, because when we take the audience away we also take away the temptation to write about what people want to hear. We also take away the temptation to take images of what we believe will be popular or that we have seen and liked on social media accounts. This helps unlock our personal creativity because we are not trying to be someone we are not. Each of us needs to live our own life. Any camera will do for the image journal. Cell phones often make possible a more fluid and spontaneous connection our world and are great for journaling. With writing, we are not so much trying to figure things out but rather engaging an unrestricted free flow of our thoughts, impressions, ideas, and emotions closely connected to our experience in the present moment.

There is something about writing down our daily experience that helps us dialogue with our unconscious which brings to greater awareness the true reality of who we are, our authentic self, and the world around us world just as it is. Although it is ok to do just writing or just images, I have found that the two together work best to dismantle some of our projections and conceptual thought that stand in the way of experiencing ourselves and nature in a more authentic way. David Ulrich in his book the Zen Camera talks about the photographic daily record this way:

“The free flow of impressions and ideas that comes through a camera can teach you about the world and yourself. Photography can help you bypass your usual conceptual filters and engage what is known as the right brain, the source of intuition, imagination, and creativity. Here the mind can flow without attachment. Zen knows this open, receptive frame of mind as no-mind”. (25)

David Ulrich, Zen Camera

Julia Cameron expresses a similar idea for writing in her landmark book on creativity, The Artist’s Way.

The morning pages (journaling) are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our left brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. (21)

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Both Ulrich with images and Cameron with writing are talking about moving beyond our false identities that are often a function of our conceptual thought. In this process we recover more of our authentic self and true nature. This is done through a dialogue with unconscious parts of ourselves and seeing the world once again just as it is. With journaling we cannot help but become more aware of nature, and this greater awareness will carry forward into a more authentic and creative photography practice.

Submerged Leaves Under Water

3. Meditation

We have already introduced the subject of meditation in our discussion of daily walks in Nature. Here our focus is on sitting meditation or what is known in Zen as Zazen. The key point with meditation is to simply experience the present moment without judgement. Zen has always been associated with the practice of meditation and the word Zen itself means meditation. I am not overly prescriptive in advocating any particular kind of sitting meditation. The important thing is just to sit in a position that is comfortable to you for an extended period of time. For some this may be five minutes and for others it may be a half hour. While meditating in nature, I keep my eyes open. Inside my home I keep them closed. In Zen, the self in many ways is just a concept, and through meditation this concept and the barriers between us and nature begin to dissolve. In meditation you focus primarily on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath and just watch your thoughts as they come and go. You cannot consciously try to avoid thoughts because this will result in just the opposite, but when the distracting thoughts come you acknowledge their presence, release them without judgement, and return your focus to the breath. This takes practice and at first you may be so distracted that you question why you are even doing this, but with time it becomes much easier. With meditation you will be more aware of your inner conditions, emotions, and both the whole of nature and the details of nature that surround you.

Yoga (Meditation) is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

PatanjaliYoga Sutra 1.2. Around 200 BC 

The calm, equanimity, clarity of mind, and expanded awareness that results from meditation travels with you once you go out into the field for nature and landscape photography. This is why when I hike to an area I want to photograph, I try to get there early and start my photographic session with sitting meditation. Some may also want to expand their Mediation practice to include meditation through movement which is what I do through a flowing series of yoga postures. I have found that once I learned these postures, and move almost effortlessly through the sequence of postures, paying attention to my breath, I enjoy all the benefits of sitting meditation, and in my case I am less subject to any distractions. I have now been doing Yoga for almost 25 years.

Zen Moment

4. Mindfulness

The use of the word mindfulness is widespread today. We hear the term every where from corporate leadership retreats to instruction material for photography workshops. Mostly the term seems to refer to some kind of hyper awareness. In Zen, however, mindfulness is not some kind of hyper awareness where we take note and label everything we possibly can see or feel. This kind focused attention divides the world into separate parts and actually can contribute to our feeling that we are somehow separate from nature.

“A scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.”

Alan Watts: The Book on the Taboo Against knowing Who You Are (28)

Zen understands the limits of the human mind to pay attention to multiple separate things, and also knows that these things (if they can even be called that) are not actually separate. It does not embrace a largely conceptual and analytical process of dividing our attention, focusing on this and that, and creating a list of names of each thing we see; nor does it embrace any kind of multitasking. Both of these methods are distractions of the mind. Mindfulness has more to do with stripping away and letting go of our conceptual filters that not only keep us from knowing our own nature but also separate us from the natural world that surrounds us. Mindfulness is the immediate awareness that we can only experience nature in the present moment–everything else represents some conceptual understanding, not nature itself. It is not so much an intention to be present in the moment, but rather a recognition that the present moment is all that there is.

Small Stream in a Hemlock Forest
One of the most rewarding experiences of hiking, is coming across small scenes like this and being stopped in my tracks to slow down and appreciate the beauty. Sometimes these experiences can be more memorable than what I thought was the final destination. It is by now a platitude, but it still rings true-its the journey not the destination.

Some of the confusion in the contemporary understanding of mindfulness may have to do with the term mind in mindfulness. David Hinton traces the derivation of the word mind to its origins in Chan Buddhism and mind actually refers to the heart mind (5). This brings mindfulness back to a more intuitive awareness rather than a intellectual knowing involving discursive thought. David Ulrich in his book the Zen Camera defines mindfulness this way. Mindfulness is “a broad, wordless awareness that is inclusive of the self and other; that can see the outer world, witness your inner conditions with clarity and equanimity, and perceive the relatedness between your self and the world” (25). The focus is on interrelatedness. This is very different from how most of us think of the mind and mindfulness. This is because our understanding of the mind is largely based upon concepts tied to our conceptual identities, not who we truly are as a person. In this regard I would like to tell another story often called the Gateless Gate that takes us back the Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Zen. This story comes in the form of a Zen Koan.

After experiencing regret that he had not been successful in bringing Zen to more of China, Bodhidharma went into a cave facing a wall where he meditated for nine years. The soon to be next and second Patriarch of Zen walked in out of a winter landscape and approached him wanting to get his attention and curry his favor.

Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, standing in snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple’s mind is not at rest. I beg you, teacher, give it peace.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind and I will give it peace.” The Second Patriarch said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma answered, “Then I have given peace to your mind.”

Wu-men-Kuan Case Forty One (13)

The mind that the Second Patriarch is referring to is of course just a concept, nothing that in a Zen universe is anchored to reality. This is the Gateless Gate, the realization this kind of mind is already at peace as there is no mind to even to be put at peace. We are on both sides of the Gateless Gate and there is nothing to even pass through.

Mindfulness practices in nature photography will be those that get us out of the mode of trying to use our discursive thought to try to interpret the world, label and objectify experience. Mindfulness practices are those that anchor us in the present moment and connect us to a more spontaneous, immediate, unrehearsed, and intuitive way of experiencing the world, unfiltered and unplugged. In photography these practices will include daily walks in nature, meditation, experiencing nature and the landscape with all of our senses without labeling or judgment, and some others that we have eluded to including slowing down, being present in the moment, and adopting a more contemplative approach to photography.

Sand Dunes Flash of Perception

5. Photography

The art, craft and even the technical aspects of photography are all part of Zen. Some have criticized the technical aspects of photography as standing in the way of the Zen experience. This is not at all consistent with the traditional practice of Zen. Consider the Zen tea ceremony with an elaborate and detailed process that must be learned. This process, however, is learned so that it can in a sense be forgotten as it becomes second nature. Only then can the Zen tea ceremony be carried out in the present moment with fluid motions in synch with rhythms of nature. The same goes for Zen and the Art of Archery or Calligraphy and so it is also with Zen and the Art of Nature and Landscape Photography. We must learn the art, craft and techniques of photography to the point where we can forget about it because these are all just part of who are. Only then can we have a more immediate and intuitive experience with nature, work with those flashes of perception to to create unique expressions of the natural world that are a seamless blend of our inner state of consciousness, that is our heart mind, and the natural world that surrounds us. In Zen the photographic process that we experience moment by moment will be as much or more important than the end result. If this is not case, the experience and adventure of Zen will not be evident in the final image. In Zen the focus is always on the process, the here and now, not the end result.

Journey Within

6. Mentorship

In the adventure of Zen it may be helpful to have a mentor. Traditional Zen insists upon working with a Priest or Roshi from an established Zen order. This is not the route I have taken and I think many in the west are suspicious and skeptical of this approach that insists upon working with established authorities. Some of this suspicion is well founded because of the history of Zen and eastern spiritual practices in the west. Unfortunately there is too much evidence of abuse of authority once the opportunity presents itself. I have pursued Zen as part of a more perennial philosophy where I believe all of the spiritual traditions of both west and east are pointing at common truths, only going about it in somewhat different ways. In this regard I am a follower of the spirit of Zen along with other sources pointing at a common truth including Taoism, my own Judeo-Christian heritage, Vedanta, Depth Psychology and American Transcendentalism; not some monastic Zen order. Zen is compatible with all spiritual traditions including the one you may have been born into including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and of course Buddhism. For that matter one could even be an Atheist. There is no need to give up your spiritual heritage. I have worked with multiple mentors over time on my spiritual path and this is what I recommend for you also. At some point you will outgrow your mentor and then work with another and another only to eventually set your own course in synch with who you are as a person and the rhythms of nature. Recall our earlier story of the Ferry Boat derived from Buddhist Mythology as retold by Joseph Campbell. The Ferry Boat is taking us to the further shore. In the original story, The Ferry Boat was made through lashing together wooden logs and is a symbol of the spiritual guide we are following. Eventually we make our way through the foggy waters and reach the further shore where we start the next phase of our journey on foot. Do we pack up this heavy boat and take it with us, or do we leave the boat behind?

This is a make shift pier at a lake close to my home where someone may have launched off on their Zen adventure!

Conclusion

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds–the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both of these worlds come from a single one. And it is this world that we much communicate.

–Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

The Adventure of Zen holds the promise for us to see into our true nature, to wake up in natural world and realize intuitively without words or concepts that there is no separation between us and nature. We are nature and nature is in us. This immediate experience also provides each of us pathways to creativity where we can offer the world unique and artistic expressions of who we are with our photographic images. There is nothing we can do to realize our true nature because we are already enlightened, we just do not know it. The adoption of the recommended Zen practices, however, will help weaken some of our conceptual thoughts surrounding our false identities, the masks we wear. Enlightenment may come suddenly or it may only come after years of practicing Zen. Most likely for most of us including myself there will only be brief moments where we see clearly our true nature and experience the world just as it is. For me, these are the moments that give life meaning and give me the feeling that I am alive in Nature. Such is the Adventure of Zen.

Lake Crescent Misty Morning

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2021 Originally Published March 13, 2021, Last Update May 24, 2021

Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on Zen and Nature Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this article. Your feedback is in part what keeps me going in writing new blog posts. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the Zen and Love of nature be with you!

References and Additional Reading

  1. Out of Your Mind, Chapter 7, The World as Just So, Alan Watts, Audio Book 2005
  2. Zen Sourcebook, Stephen Addiss, 2008
  3. Meaning of Life, Great Courses Audio Book, Chapters 13-21, Jay Garfield, 2013
  4. The Essence of Chan, Guo Gu, 2012
  5. China Root-Taoism, Chan and Original Zen, David Hinton, 2020
  6. The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, PBS Documentary, narrated by Richard Gere, 2010
  7. Myths of Light, Joseph Campbell, 2003
  8. Advice Not Given, Mark Epstein, 2019
  9. You’re It, Audio Book Alan Watts, 2009
  10. Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way, Translated by Sam Tarode, 2013
  11. Tao Te Ching, Translated by J. H McDonald, 1996
  12. Tao of Zen, Ray Grigg, 1994
  13. Zen Sourcebook, Stephen Addiss, 2008
  14. Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff, 1983
  15. Essays in Zen Buddhism, The Zen Mindset, D.T. Suzuki 1927
  16. Chuang Tzu, Translated by David Hinton, 2014
  17. Zen and the Love of Nature, Audio Book, D.T. Suzuki, 1995
  18. The Essential Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, 2013
  19. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, 1960
  20. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki
  21. The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, 1992
  22. The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood, 2011
  23. The Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori, 2004
  24. The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, 2018
  25. Zen Camera, David Ulrich, 2018
  26. The Way of Zen, Alan Watts, 1957
  27. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse, 1922
  28. The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts, 1951




2020: Reflections on Change and Stillness

2020 was a year of extraordinary change that effected each one of us at all levels of our being: physical, emotional and mental. The year started out ordinary enough but then came COVID falling seemingly from the sky igniting a global pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in about a century. With businesses, schools and even parks closing along with the need to social distance and wear masks, life as we once knew it came to a screeching halt. If this were not enough, as the year unfolded many of us found ourselves wading through the deep water of a toxic political environment primarily centered around the Presidential Election. Onetime friends turned against each other strengthening even more an already formidable great divide as many of us sought refuge in our social media bubbles. We started unfriending and blocking people left and right across a wide virtual field of social media acquaintances with little or no actual physical contact. During this period of time I also witnessed the slow decline of my Father and his eventual passing in September. He lived a good life but he was highly impacted during the pandemic by rules that helped keep him safe from COVID but also contributed to his isolation. My Dad introduced me to nature and the outdoors through hiking and photography at an early age and is one of the biggest influences in my life for my love of nature.

The one thing I now realize more then ever is the importance of Nature in each of our lives–Nature as a refuge from day to day troubles, Nature as a source of inspiration and creativity, Nature as a mirror and window into our own souls. Even in this Pandemic Nature is still there for me to discover.  Nature is within myself, and in all places including my own yard, the woods where Julia, Caroline and I can access right out our front door, and places within walking distance of our home.  As the initial stage of the Pandemic passed parks were soon reopened as long as we practiced social distancing and wore masks as appropriate. I actually spent more time in Nature in 2020 than any previous year that I can recall. In nature there is a beautiful stillness where we can experience who we truly are as person. In nature there is also impermanence and change which causes me to appreciate its beauty all the more. Much of the beauty of a flower or the colors of autumn is the knowing that this beauty is temporary. We can only experience this still, quiet, changing and impermanent beauty in the here and now, face to face with nature where we are nature and nature is us.

Here is a collection of my favorite images from 2020, not in any particular order. Thanks for looking!

#1. The Lantern

The Lantern

A Japanese Maple lights up like a lantern as the morning light bursts through an opening in the canopy of the small tree by a pond. It is a wonderful experience to get under a Japanese Maple and explore with a ultrawide angle lens different composition possibilities. Small movements left or right, up or down, can make major differences in the look and feel of the composition. It was a creative challenge for me to find an opening in the canopy where a sun star would be possible, along with just the right amount of natural light to illuminate the inside and outside of the tree. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment when it all came together in this image including a good perspective of the tree, a sun star, and wonderful backlit lace-leaf leaves lighting up like a lantern.  In this image you will also see a small stone Japanese Garden Lantern.  In Japanese Culture these small garden lanterns symbolize nature through the concept of finding beauty in the impermanence of the natural world.  At no time was this more evident to me than underneath this Japanese Maple Tree, with its leaves now fully turned a bright red, catching the rapidly changing light, and ever so slowly starting to fall to the ground, one by one.

#2 Hot August Meadow in the Goat Rocks

Hot August Meadow in the Goat Rocks

On a hot August day, I started my long loop trip hike into the Goat Rocks at sunrise and did not finish until well after sunset. I suppose I could have finished sooner, but what is the hurry? In the evening I passed through this happy meadow just below a ridge top and decided just to hang out and enjoy nature at her finest for an hour or so. Hiking down from the ridge to the car I eventually had to use a headlamp and in order to not surprise animals I played Neil Young music through my JBL speaker attached to my belt. No sooner than I set up the headlamp and music I peered out onto the trail about 50 feet ahead and saw two narrowly spaced bright eyes staring at me. At first I thought it a person because the eyes were fairly high off the ground. Then I saw a big and long bushy tail. It could have been a wild dog or a cat, I do really know for sure. The animal would not move so I turned up the music a bit more , now Neil Young’s Natural Beauty Song. The animal then slowly with grace, almost like our cat Precious, started moving up the rock talus and then perched onto a flat rock and sat down like a royal cat still looking at me. Amazingly calm I proceeded back out onto the trail but it later occurred to me that if this was a cat it may have just positioned itself in prance position. Nevertheless it was all ok and good—Perhaps thanks to some mellow Neil Young music!

#3 Satori

Satori

There are moments when my soul is a mirror to everything around me. Forms, shapes and patterns bathed in light rise out of the dark void and return again in an endless cycle. In such moments I feel I am the mountains, the sea, the setting sun, and the tree spread out over the bay. There is no me, mountains, sea, setting sun, or tree spread out over the bay–Satori.

#4 Beauty in My Backyard

Beauty in my Backyard

This image of Mt. Rainier was taken on a hike right from my home through the forest and up to an overlook with a view of Mt. Rainier. A long 200mm telephoto perspective compressed the layers in this scene sufficiently to capture the same emotional impact this scene has on a person when he/she stands at this site for the first time.

#5 May the Light Always be With You

May the Light Always be With You

In the early morning at Cape Disappointment the sun finds an opening in the clouds to fill the entire atmosphere with wonderful angelic light. Every day in life is such a blessing and it is in moments like this I remind myself to live each day to the fullest. Every day is a new beginning. Who knows what is around the corner. Plan for tomorrow, but always live for today as if it were the last and welcome the light of dawn!

#6 Deception Pass November Sunset

Deception Pass November Sunset

In late November I decided to do some hiking winding my way through various trails crisscrossing Deception Pass State Park. I eventually reached this viewpoint and decided to stay to sunset, hiking out with head lamp. There is something about late fall/winter sunsets, especially when most of the day is cloudy and overcast, that make them seem more special to me!

#7 Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

“To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive but expresses something as best it can.” –Carl Jung

Fog creeps across the pond and begins to fill the Snoqualmie Valley on Winter evening after sunset. Images with atmosphere especially with fog, mist, low clouds, haze, sand, and rain can all evoke a sense of dream like mystery. What all of these atmospheric conditions have in common are particles in the air interacting with sources of light. This awakens our feelings and emotions to cultivate the sense mystery. Particles in the air soften the scene, and with the interaction of light this helps direct our attention to essential forms while hiding others which deepens the mood. It would be a mistake however to reduce our reaction to the scene’s atmosphere to just feelings and emotions. The mystery also points to something beyond even what we are feeling at the time, to a sense of wonder at the experience of being in nature. With the softer rendering of the scene made possible through atmosphere, the scene can often seem dream like and a little other worldly.

#8 Moon Rising Over the North Cascades

Moon Rising Over the North Cascades

This is from my August backpacking trip in the North Cascades. We were treated to a wonderful sunset and moon rise on Saturday Night. After the sun set the mercury rapidly dropped bringing on a very cold night at close to 7,000 feet elevation. I laid one of my water bottles outside my tent and it was frozen the next morning! I think we felt a bit of autumn approaching in the air.

#9 Dances with Fog and Light

Dances with Fog and Light

On a foggy morning at Deception Pass State Park I noticed this tree growing out of a eroded seawall, although large, bonsai like in its shape, with two needleless arm like branches reaching out to the rocks on the shore and in the sea. Through minimalism and the process of subtraction I knew I could get to the essence of the scene and the use of black and white would help as a medium to emphasize the contrast of light and shadow to bring attention to essential forms.

Subtraction is strongly related to both improving the composition and deepening the mystery. Subtraction is the notion that less is better, and there is a beauty and elegance in removing as many elements from the scene as possible. In photography, the world as it presents itself to us is often cluttered with extraneous detail. But the skilled eye using a good choice of lens and angle of view can always simplify the scene to primarily include those elements which are integral to the composition and deepening the mystery. This does not necessarily mean always using a longer focal length lens with a narrower field of view, as that would be an over simplification of the process. But it does mean a keen awareness of what attracts you to the scene and the skills to arrange as few elements as possible in a pleasing composition. What is left out strengtheners the mystery for the elements that still remain. With mystery there is almost always something concealed and held back.

#10 Madrone Spread Out Over the Bay

Madrone Spread out over the Bay

A Pacific Madrone rises from the edge of a steep undercut bluff and reaches out over the bay, and out further still to Puget Sound’s Rosario Head and Bowman Bay. Madrone trees prefer to grow along bluffs in fast draining soil close to salt water where the temperatures are also warmer in the Winter. They are always doing something, shedding bark and leaves year long, growing leaves, displaying beautiful white flowers in spring and red berries in fall and winter. Madrones are among my favorite trees. They have so much character that reflects their intimate connection with their immediate environment and no two trees alike.

#11 Sunrise at Big Cedar Tree

Sunrise at Big Cedar Tree

I pass this tree just about every day while walking through the woods close to my home. Somehow it was sparred during the logging of this area years ago. It looks so tall, beautiful and majestic at sunrise, rising above all the other trees of a different generation.

#12 The Larch

The Larch

I remember watching an episode years ago of the British comedy, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” where an image of a Larch would keep popping up before, during and after various comedy skits with the narrator uttering the words in a British accent–The Larch. Perhaps this is where the expression Larch Madness has its roots! I am thinking that this Larch Tree here may be a good specimen for any new revival of the Monty Python show! I have always been attracted to a trees with character that stand out from all the rest but also appear as harmonious and organic parts of their larger environment. This Larch certainly stood tall and majestic above all the surrounding trees offering a clear subject and focal point and blended in beautifully in with its forest and mountain home. The autumn blueberry leaves in shades of burgundy, orange, red and gold provided a beautiful carpet leading my eyes to the golden larch and the mountain background helped place the Larch in its environment without also competing for attention. I love the way this Larch is seemingly reaching for and into the cloud filled sky above the mountains. Larch trees have needles like evergreen conifers, but these needles turn from green to yellow and gold in late September and early October in high alpine areas east of the Pacific Crest in Washington State.

#13 Light in a Mossy Forest

Light in a Mossy Forest

There is nothing like hiking on a late fall day when you round the bend and find a mossy forest catching the brilliant light of the sun already starting to set in the late afternoon.

#14 Daffodils Under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light

Daffodils Under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light

On an early March evening in the Skagit Valley, Spring welcomed me with Daffodils under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light! A chorus of Geese were flying all evening overhead, heading north. Although none flew into my shot, the music was welcome in the cool air of the fragrant fields of gold.

15. The Great Pacific Northwest

The Great Pacific Northwest

This image has some of the best things I love about the Pacific Northwest and Washington State: Wild Rhododendrons in bloom, the beautiful waters of the Puget Sound and Hood Canal, Islands, and Mt. Rainier!

#16 Glimpses of Summer Paradise

Glimpses of Summer Paradise

From the slopes of the North Cascades, as I approached this meadow I thought I was seeing glimpses of what might be paradise, or at least as close as we mortals will ever see.

#17 The Flow and the Way of the Glacier Lilies

The Flow and Way of the Glacier Lilies

When the snow melts on the fields of Mt. Rainier, yellow Glacier Lilies are among the first wildflowers to bloom, sometimes rising right through a thin layer of snow, eventually forming vast colonies that flow through the meadows and lead the eyes to the beauty that is everywhere at Mt. Rainier National Park.

# 18 Lilac Tears of Joy

Lilac Tears of Joy

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.” Walt Whitman

For many of us 2020 has been a year of mourning. We lost many of our loved ones due to the pandemic and other causes. I personally lost my Father who passed away at age 92. He live a good life but he was highly impacted during the pandemic by rules that helped keep him safe from Covid but also contributed to his isolation. His spirit lives on in all of his children and grand children, my loving Mother, and many others in his life. My Dad loved nature and the outdoors, never gave up on anyone–always being willing to help regardless of the circumstances or what one might have done. Family always came first. He introduced me to nature and the outdoors through hiking and photography at an early age and is one of the biggest influences in my life for my love of nature. Luckily I was able to talk to him in person outside a week before he died. The flowers were blooming at a dooryard and he was very lucid. He reminisced in vivid detail about a hike we took years ago to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness as if it were yesterday. My Dad was also very disciplined and I am so happy at least some of this wore off on me! Papa has gone on to a better place and is now in peace. Papa we miss you very much, but your spirit will always remain in our hearts forever.

#19 Blue Forget-Me-Nots

Blue Forget-Me Nots

This is dedicated to all our frontline workers in the medical field who have served us so well during this pandemic.

#20 Palouse

Palouse Sunrise

Rise and shine, this is your sunrise from the top of Steptoe Butte in the Palouse.

#21 Small Stream in an Ancient Forest

Small Stream in an Ancient Forest

With some areas of Olympic National Park opened after initial pandemic closures, in May I decided to take a visit. I am glad I showed up early as there were few people there and all camping facilities remain closed further reducing the crowds. The few people I saw were polite in their willingness to socially distance. Although I visited a few iconic sights, I felt drawn to this small stream cascading through some old growth, moss and rocks. The water seemed as pure as one could hope to find anywhere, likely one of the benefits of taking the trail less traveled through a rain forest.

#22 South Falls Backlit Maple

South Falls Backlit Maple

As the sun sets before dipping below the distant forest above the canyon wall, the leaves and moss of a big leaf maple are backlit taking on a luminous quality. Scattered light also illuminates South Falls against the dark background of the canyon walls.

#23 Lakeside Larches Turning Gold

Lakeside Larches Turning Gold

The Larches this year in Washington seem to have started turning gold a bit later than usual but at the time I took this image they were well on there way to their golden splendor!

#24 Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light

This image is looking out from Hurricane Ridge’s Observation Point out toward the first flank of the Olympics rising from the ocean waters of the Straight of Juan De Fuca. I am staring right toward the sun softly filtered through layers of clouds.

#25 Freedom

Freedom

A flock of birds fly through a foggy forest and into a small inlet before heading out into Bowman Bay. The song of the seagulls slowly passes through the misty air.

#26 Bare Tree Reflections in the Winter Light

Bare Tree Reflections in the Winter Light

The soft light of a winter sunset works its magic on a group of bare trees next to a small pond.

#27 Alpine Pond Autumn Moods

Alpine Pond Autumn Moods

In early October, Julia and I took a hike into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in some of my favorite conditions: clouds and fog. Autumn is still hanging on, but there were signs that it is slowly making its exit with many leaves on the ground. The blueberries were perhaps at bit beyond their peak ripeness, but still well worth spending an hour picking!

#28 Grazing and Sleeping in the Pasture

Grazing and Sleeping in the Pasture

A herd of deer settle into a carefree evening in this idyllic setting under the Olympic Mountain and colorful skies.

#29 Tumwater Canyon Visions

Tumwater Canyon Visions

In early October, I took a drive over to Leavenworth and the Tumwater Canyon. I just love how still sections of the Wenatchee River reflect the surrounding trees and foliage now transitioning to the colors of Autumn. I decided to experiment with this nearly abstract composition with just the reflections. I flipped the image to get closer to my Monet like vision for this scene.

#30 The Colors of Autumn

The Colors of Autumn

This image has some of the best things I love about the North Cascades in Autumn: a mountain lake, morning light, reflections, orange mountain ash, burgundy blue berry leaves, and larch trees! This lake lies just below the east side of the Pacific Crest where in early October the green needles of the the Larch Trees turn to gold complementing the colors of the the deciduous leaves of the orange orange mountain ash and burgundy blueberries. These larch trees only grow in high alpine elevations usually above 6,ooo feet. On this day there was wind on the water but I found this gorgeous secluded spot on the lake where the water was protected and the fall foliage wrapped around the foreground of the scene to help frame the image of the lake, reflection, and the surrounding peaks.

#31 Russian Butte in the Mist

Russian Butte in the Mist

This is from an early morning adventure in late November hiking trails above the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. I was taking some images of the forest when I turned around to this momentary opening in the clouds, fog and mist and was easily distracted into taking a different picture, this one!

Green Fields of the North Cascades

Green Fields of the North Cascades

This image was taken in August, but Spring arrives later in the North Cascades with the transition to Summer only a few weeks later, and not long after that Autumn!

Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on The Tao and Landscape Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this post. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. All of these images are available on my website for purchase and are located in the following link: 2020: Reflections on Change and Stillness. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the wonder and awe of nature be with you!

The Tao of Landscape Photography

The Tao of Landscape Photography is about the recovery and the illumination of the path to creativity. I say recovery because the way of the Tao is also a recognition that the path was always there. Along our long way we have acquired various forms of learning and knowledge that have helped us grow not only as individuals but also as landscape and nature photographers. But this learning and knowledge has also helped to restrict our awareness of nature. The Tao of Landscape Photography is about rekindling some spontaneity that brings back a more child-like sense of wonder and unrestricted awareness. This leads to a new awakening as we move away from well known formulas and instead experience and photograph the natural landscape with the eyes of a child.

Glimpses of Summer Paradise

In this post I will discuss what is the Tao and introduce two key source texts, The Tao Te Ching and Chuang Zu. I will then use direct passages from these source texts translated into English to explore eight Taoist ideas and how they relate to Landscape and Nature Photography in our own time: (1) Return to Nature; (2) Negative Space; (3) Yin and Yang; (4) Flow “Wu Wei”; (5) The Simple Life is the Best Life; (6) Perception: Is this Life a Dream?; (7) Reality is a Seamless Whole; and (8) Self Understanding.

What is Tao?

The Chinese word Tao means “the way”. One might ask what kind of way? First and foremost, it is the way of nature including our own nature. It is also the way of harmony with others and the way of self understanding. Taoism is the study of the way. Its origins trace back to the philosopher-hermits, called Xian, who roamed the mountains of ancient China. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese ancient pictogram for Xian (僊) represents a person in the Mountains (1). Although Taoism eventually developed into a religion complete with rites, rituals, and practices including meditation, Feng Shui and Tai Chi; in this blog post I am primarily interested in Taoism as a philosophy that sheds some light on my own relationship with nature and how nature provides inspiration for all of my photographs. In this regard I stay close to the original source texts for Taoism where one actually finds very little about religious rites, rituals, and practices.

North Cascades Wildflower Dreams

For me Taosim is part of what Aldous Huxley calls the Perennial Philosophy (2). This is a perspective views all of the world’s spiritual traditions as pointing to a common truth. In this regard I have found echos of Taoism with its emphasis on a direct, immediate and intuitive experience of nature as the way in both Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. It should not be surprising that one sees similarities of Taoism in Zen because the practice of Zen came to an already Taoist China by way of India and only later moved to Japan and eventually the West. Zen’s exposure to Taosim helped transform Zen into the spiritual practice that we know today. For more on Zen and its relation to Taoism and Photography see my post: The Way of Zen, Love of Nature and Photography. The similarity with American Transcendentalism is purely coincidental and there is no known evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau had access to any Taoist writings. To me this is actually a good thing because it demonstrates that the teachings of Tao need not be tied to a specific historical and cultural tradition and are relevant in all times and places including our own time. For more on Thoreau see my post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond.

Ancient Writings

Although there are many ancient texts on Taoism, there are two primary texts that have informed my understanding of Taoism

1. Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way) attributed to Lao Tzu
2. The Inner Chapters attributed to Chuang Tzu

The Tao Te Ching is generally regarded as the central text of Taoism (3).  It was written in the 5th Century BCE.  Although it is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu, we do not know for sure if such a person even existed and most scholars believe it was compiled by several authors.  The book is rather short consisting 81 brief chapters and only 5000 Chinese Characters.  Perhaps as a testimony of the difficulty of translating the Tao Te Ching, it has been translated into English by more different translators than any book other than the Bible.  Each Chinese Character in the Tao Te Ching has a very nuanced meaning making a precise English Translation virtually impossible.

Mountain Light Full Immersion

The Chuang Tzu is named for its primary author, Master Chuang. Composed in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, the Chuang Tzu  also focuses on the person of Lao Tzu, who is presented as one of Chuang-Tzu’s own teachers (4).  Although both the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu’s writing are paradoxical in nature, in Chuang Tzu the paradoxes rise to level where they are often humorous and perhaps also a bit irreverent.  Many of the chapters come in the form of parables and stories.  But one cannot fully appreciate or even understand Chuang Tzu without first reading the Tao Te Ching. So if you choose to read the Chuang Tzu Inner Chapters (it is short and makes great bed-time reading!), make sure you also have close at hand the Tao Te Ching!

(1) Return to Nature

A central theme in the Taoist perspective is a return to nature. At a more personal level this also means a recovery of our own nature. I say recovery, because our own original nature, a sort of childlike primordial state, was always there. Taoism points to several factors that stand in the away of awareness of our true nature. Chief among them is our contemporary culture that surrounds us and other trappings of society. Society convinces us as we grow up that the path to both success and meaning involve the acquisition of material wealth along with work accomplishments and recognition. Unfortunately this path according to Taoism also leads us further and further away from nature. What we need instead is a return to a life more anchored in spontaneity, passion and intuition.

Grazing and Sleeping in the Pasture

Taoism is also deeply suspicious of both language and thought. Our words, thoughts and concepts can literally never describe our experience of nature. The first words of the Ta Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.” Taoism always emphasizes the importance of direct experience. In this regard a landscape image that best reflects our direct experience of nature is also one that is in a more natural alignment with the Tao.

Waterfall in a Primeval Rain Forest

Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching: What is the Tao? Translated by Sam Tarode

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.
That which can be named is only transient.
The nameless was there before the sky and the earth were born.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
In nothingness you will see its wonders;
In things you will see its boundaries.
These two come from the same origin, although they have different names.
They emerged from somewhere deep and mysterious.
This deep and mysterious place
Is the gateway to all wonders.
Light of the Angels

This passage introduces the heart of the Taoist perspective. The Tao, or the way of nature, cannot be named. Any attempt to do so is transient, bound not only to a particular moment in time, but also to a particular person. Words cease to be relevant the moment they are uttered and are not to be confused with the Tao itself. Chuang Tzu put this more humorously when he said “A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker and a man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker!” In the Tao there are no boundaries and limits, but in our attempts to describe our experience using conceptual thought we establish just that, boundaries and limits. Does that mean we should abandon our attempts to name and describe our experience? Certainly not, but be aware that the mystery and wonder of Tao and nature is ultimately beyond any kind of logical description.

In this next passage Lao Tzu likens the Tao to the spirit of Perennial spring linking the Tao to nature itself and to what the poet Dylan Thomas alluded to when he wrote in his poem Fern Hill, ” a force that drives through a green fuse a flower.

Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching: The Source, Translated by Sam Torode

The Spirit of the Perennial spring
is said to be immortal.
She is called the Mysterious One.

The Mysterious One is the source of the universe.
She is continually, endlessly giving forth life,
without effort.

The Great Pacific Northwest

The spirit of the Perennial spring is the source of all that is . Some may refer to the Perennial spring as mother nature and she continuously brings forward life. She is also mystery. In the best of our nature and landscape photographs we share glimpses of this mystery of the spirit of perennial spring. But neither our images or words can unravel the mystery. At best we can evoke in our images and words some of the spirit of the mystery of the perennial spring. For more on Mystery see my post Mystery: The Holy Grail of Landscape Photography.

As previously mentioned, The Tao Te Ching likens the return to the more spontaneous rhythms of the natural world to a recovery of our child-like nature. Consider this next passage.

Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching: Become Childlike, Translated by Sam Torode

The virtuous are like innocent children---
poisonous insects will not seize them,
wild beasts will not seize them,
birds of prey will not attack them.

Their bones may be weak,
and their muscles tender,
but their grasp is sure.

They know nothing of power,
yet they are bursting with life.

Their spirits are strong indeed!
They can sob and cry all day without becoming hoarse;
their voices are harmonious, indeed!

To know this harmony is to know the eternal.
To Know the eternal is to know enlightenment.
To increase life is to know blessedness.
To increase inner vitality is to gain strength. 

As creatures grow and mature,
they begin to decay.
This is the opposite of the Tao----
the Tao remains ever young.
Daughter Caroline running through the Tulip Fields long ago

As a metaphor, the child represents the eternal beginning and the ever springing source of all life. To some the notion of returning to the innocence of our youth may seem overly idealistic and for most of us just not practical. But the message here is that as we grow and mature we move gradually out of harmony with the rhythms of nature that are second nature to the child. This movement away from the rhythms of nature takes us also away from the Tao and our inner vitality and strength. This sets the stage for rigidity and ultimately decay. This is so unlike the child who is flexible, growing, and open to all the world. The child may have no awareness of self and is part and partial of the flow of everything which surrounds him/her. The child lives and breathes in the Tao. How would your your life change if every day you greeted the new morning with the eyes of the child? In Landscape Photography, how would your approach to the landscape and the wonder of nature change if every day you approached life with the eyes of the child-with no restricted awareness, being genuinely open to whatever comes your way?

“The Hills are Filled with the Sound of Music”

2. Negative Space

Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching: Negative Space, Translated by Sam Tarode

A wheel may have thirty spokes,
but its usefulness lies in the empty hub.

A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty center.

A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.

Matter is necessary to give form,
but the value of reality lies in its immateriality.

Everything that lives has a physical body,
but the value of a life is measured by the soul.
Dances with Fog and Light

For most of us, when we approach a beautiful landscape, we immediately start picking out subjects against a background. In doing this we are experiencing nature and the landscape as discrete and separate parts. The Taoist perspective, however, informs us that this process of picking out and naming subjects in the landscape may actually be getting in the way of us experiencing the true nature of reality, in other words experiencing nature and the landscape as a seamless whole. Many of you will recall this image that is often used to help shed some light on figure ground relationships and the potential for confusion or misrepresentation.

In this image you will likely first see a couple of silhouetted faces facing each other. But on second glance you will see that the image is also of a vase. The Taoist perspective will take this even a step further and place importance on paying attention first to the background and the negative space. Without the background and negative space no subject or subjects can have any form. “A wheel may have thirty spokes, but its usefulness lies in the empty hub” and “the room is made of four walls, but its usefulness lies in the space between”. When a Taoist first approaches a mountain landscape, he/she is likely to first notice the valley below and the sky above rather than the imposing mountain looming as a primary subject. Focusing first on the negative space and background can go along way toward transforming how we view nature and the landscape and it is my belief that this will be for the better. This helps move us away from our habitual way of viewing the world, glorifying certain objects in the landscape, rather than experiencing what every landscape actually is, an integrated whole. Focusing on the negative, brings us back to a more primordial and intuitive way of experiencing the world, it brings us back to the source of all that is, it brings us back to the eternal Tao.

Scholar by a Waterfall, Ma Yuan, active c 1190-1225

The use of negative space is especially apparent in the long tradition of Chinese landscape paintings. The painting above is by artist Ma Yuan active from c 1190-122. Ma Yaun was a leading artist at the Southern Song painting academy in Hangzhou. His painting titled Scholar by a Waterfall, shows a gentleman in a mountainous garden like setting with the wind sculpted and somewhat jagged rhythms of the pine tree contrasting with the quiet mood of the scholar, and both are looking out into the flowing water of the cascading river and the emptiness beyond. Notice the considerable amount of negative space enveloping all parts of the image. The use of negative space is a consistent feature of Chinese Landscape Painting, where space, emptiness and the void are inseparable from forms, with each depending upon the other. It is out of the Tao and negative space that forms emerge. A recognized authority, Wucius Wong, on Chinese landscape painting in his book, The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting (9) puts it this way:

“Truth, to the artist, is both mass and void, both the material world and the artist as he fuses himself completely with his subject mater. Void (negative space) is hsu, the opposite of shih (mass/forms), and is generally considered by artists as more important than mass in painting.”

Spirit Angels in the Forest
Secrets of the Forest

3. Yin an Yang

Chapter 42: Yin and Yang, Translated by Sam Tarode

The Tao produces unity;
unity produces duality;
duality produces trinity:
trinity produces all things.

All things contain both the negative principle (yin)
and the positive principle (yang).
The third principle, energetic vitality (chi),
makes them harmonious.
Hypnotized by Beauty

Yin Yang is the principle of natural and complementary forces and patterns that depend on one another and do not make sense on their own. The original meaning of yin and yang is associated with the dark north facing and light south facing sides of a mountain. These two sides of the mountain are of course inseparable as all mountains have north and south facing sides and one side, be it the light or the dark side, will always imply the existence of the other. We cannot have light without dark, or dark without light. Although Yin and Yang are often thought of as as feminine and masculine forces and it certainly includes these two, Yin and Yang encompass just about everything that we think about and experience in the natural world.

Green Fields of the North Cascades

Yin and Yang are opposites that fit seamlessly together made harmonious through the flow of natural vital energy called “Chi”. The yin yang concept is not the same as Western dualism, because the two opposites are not at war, but in harmony. Yin and Yang are a unity. One cannot have the Yin without the Yang! This is often difficult for the Western mind to grasp, because we are accustomed to thinking that good is better than bad and that ultimately good should triumph. But Taoism teaches “When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil” and “When everyone knows beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter Two). At this point it will be helpful to hearken back to this popular ancient symbol of the Yin and Yang.

The dark area contains a spot of light, and vice versa, and the two opposites are intertwined and bound together within the unifying circle. Yin and yang are not static, the balance ebbs and flows between them – this is implied in the flowing curve where they meet. Yin contains some of the Yang and Yang some of the Yin. This applies to ourselves as well as the natural world. Yin and Yang forces are in each one of us in a constant ebb and flow. Likewise Yin and Yang are in the natural landscape in a constant ebb and flow of light and shadow, negative space giving rise to form, high and low, near and far, soft and hard, chaos and order, permanence and impermanence, life and death, feminine and masculine. The Taoist photographer will bring the forces of Yin and Yang present in the landscape and themselves into a harmonious ebb and flow in their photographic creations, mirroring the natural world that is after all a reflection of the Tao.

4. Flow “Wu Wei”

Chapter Thirty Two: Where to Stop, Translated by J H McDonald

The Tao is nameless and unchanging.
Although it appears insignificant,
nothing in the world can contain it.
If a ruler abides by its principles,
then her people will willingly follow.
Heaven would then reign on earth,
like sweet rain falling on paradise.
People would have no need for laws,
because the law would be written on their hearts.
Naming is a necessity for order,
but naming cannot order all things.
Naming often makes things impersonal,
so we should know when naming should end.
Knowing when to stop naming,
you can avoid the pitfall it brings.
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers
flow through valleys to the sea.

Small Stream in an Ancient Forest

One of the enduring symbols of the Tao Te Ching and Taoist literature in general is flowing water. Water, like the Tao flows naturally, easily moving around, under, over, or through obstacles without resistance from stream, to river, to sea. This Taoist notion of flow is also known as “Wu Wei” or effortless action. It is not the same as inaction or passivity, but rather going about life in a simple and flowing manner, not trying to force things, but instead living in tune with the rhythms of nature. In his landmark book, Tao-The Watercourse Way (6), Alan Watts said this about Wu Wei: “The art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.”

The Way of the Glacier Lilies

This notion of Wu Wei and going with rather than against the flow of course also applies to vocations including the practice of nature and landscape photography. This is not to say we go out into the field without any intentions or expectations. Although some photographers claim this is what they do, I think at this point this is somewhat of a platitude. Of course we have some intentions and expectations. We are not literally flowing into nature and the landscape at random. At a minimum we have made a choice of when and where to go. What is important is that once we are at our choice of location we are navigating freely with the vicissitudes of nature–not trying to fight it when nature does not cooperate with our expectations. We move more freely with acceptance and a minimum effort cooperating with the ebb and flow of nature.

5. The Best Life is the Simple Life

Ancient Masters, Chapter 15, Translated by J H McDonald

The Sages of old were profound
and knew the ways of subtlety and discernment.
Their wisdom is beyond our comprehension.
Because their knowledge was so far superior
I can only give a poor description.
They were careful
as someone crossing an frozen stream in winter.
Alert as if surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Turbid as muddied water.
Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
For only those who are not full are able to be used
which brings the feeling of completeness.
Coal Creek Falls Winter Flow

In this passage, Lao Tse talks about the qualities of the sages of old who were examples of living a life in harmony with the Tao. Although these sages were alert, careful, courteous, and fluid as melting ice; they also were likened to the image of an “uncarved block.” The metaphor of the uncarved block” is one of the most enduring and frequently found metaphors in all of Taoist literature. The uncarved block represents nature in its original, unchanged, and natural form. Benjamin Hoff, in the Tao of Pooh, writes “The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed (7)”. This fits in well with the Taoist emphasis on negation and the importance of negative space. Living a life of the sage is not so much about cultivation of various practices such as mindfullness meditation and the like, as it is about the stripping away of much of the baggage we have collected in the process of fitting in with society and getting back to a much simpler and spontaneous life close to nature. The paradox is that when we return to the uncarved block we also unlock our potential to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. An uncarved block has the potential to be transformed into something extraordinary and worthwhile. But this will only happen when one moves with rather than against the rhythms of nature. In the words of Lao Tsu: “Who can be still until their mud settles and the mud is cleared by itself, Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?”

Palouse Sunrsie Waves of Grain

As a landscape photographer I have found that return to the “uncarved block” is also the best way to grow in the art and craft of photography. Nature after all is what my photography is about, so would not it make sense that living life flowing with rather than against the currents of nature would best support my creative endeavors? Even the creation of good imagery has more to do with pairing down, stripping away, removing distractions, and getting back to a simpler more elemental state of elegance than it does with introducing layers upon layers of additional elements and complexity. Less is more and I have found for me at least simpler is better.

6. Perception: Is this Life a Dream?

Chuang Tzu Chapter Two, Verse 24 , The Butterfly

“Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly— a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu? Chuang Tzu and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things.”

Two Butterflies in the Meadow

In this often quoted passage, the philosopher Chuang Tsu dreams that he is a butterfly fluttering about, moving around from here to there wild and free. When he awakens, however, he is utterly confused. He does not know if he was a butterfly dreaming of Chuang Tsu or if he was Chuang Tsu dreaming he was a butterfly. From the perspective of the Tao our perception of our individual self or ego, as something separate from nature and the environment that surrounds us, is in itself a kind of dream or illusion. Whether he is Chuang Tsu or a butterfly in a way does not even matter. What matters is that all of us live life in accordance with the rhythms of nature.

This story provides a beautiful visual image that most of us can instantly relate to that illustrates the Taoist point that distinctions, such as butterflies, us as individuals, reality, dreams—are all just projections. In a sense we live in a dream world all of the time. When I see two butterflies, I am seeing my own perception of two butterflies. The butterflies are not literally in my mind. Experience never puts us in direct contact with reality (5).

As a Landscape and Nature photographer, this story of the the butterfly is especially dear to my heart and I believe it will also be to many of you. How often have you gone into the field with camera and had the feeling that you are part and partial with everything that surrounds you: the air you breath, the trees in the forest, the flowers at the lakes shore, and the birds flying overhead? For many of us this is also the moment where we transcend our individual self and live more in the spirit of Wu-Wei. We move about with effortless action and seemingly unbridled creativity because we are in harmony with the rhythms of nature. We do not resist but rather embrace what nature has in store for us this day, whether it be rain falling in the forest, a glorious sunset, or merely another overcast day.

Hot August Meadow in the Goat Rocks
In the middle of a hot 2020 August, I started my long loop trip hike into the Goat Rocks at sunrise and did not finish until well after sunset. I suppose I could have finished sooner, but what is the hurry? In the evening I passed through this happy meadow just below a ridge top and decided just to hang out and enjoy nature at her finest for an hour or so. Hiking down from the ridge to the car I eventually had to use a headlamp and in order to not surprise animals I played Neil Young music through my JBL speaker attached to my belt. No sooner than I set up the headlamp and music I peered out onto the trail about 50 feet ahead and saw two narrowly spaced bright eyes staring at me. At first I thought it a person because the eyes were fairly high off the ground. Then I saw a big and long bushy tail. It could have been a wild dog or a cat, I do really know for sure. The animal would not move so I turned up the music a bit more , now Neil Young’s Natural Beauty Song. The animal then slowly with grace, almost like our family cat Precious, started moving up the rock talus and then perched onto a flat rock and sat down like a royal cat still looking at me. Amazingly calm I proceeded back out onto the trail but it later occurred to me that if this was a cat it may have just positioned itself in prance position. Nevertheless it was all ok and good—Perhaps thanks to some mellow Neil Young music!
One reader of this story mentioned to me that this perhaps this cat was my spirit animal. This got me thinking about Chuang Tzu and the butterfly story. Perhaps I was this cat staring back at Erwin Buske?! But then again I the cat or the cat as I may not matter. What matters is that we are both in the flow of the Tao, fluttering about our way in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

7. Reality is a Seamless Whole

Those Who Divide Cannot See, Chapter 17 of the Chuang Tzu, Translated by David Hinton

“A sage inquires into realms beyond time and space, but never talks about them. A sage talks about realms within time and space, but never explains. In the Spring and Autumn Annals, where it tells about ancient emperors, it says the sage explains but never divides. Hence in difference there is no difference, and in division there’s no division. You ask how this can be? The sage embraces it all. Everyone else divides things, and uses one to reveal the other. Therefore I say: “Those who divide things cannot see.”

Freedom

In this verse Chuang Tzu speaks of the sage as someone who focuses on the whole of nature, not dividing nature into its constituent parts. The very act of dividing the world into specific objects of this and that can prevent us from truly seeing: “Those who divide things cannot see”. Although Chuang Tzu had no awareness of Gestalt , the influence of Taoist thought is evident in Gestalt including the Gestalt Principles established by its founder Kurt Koffka and the Gestalt Psychology of Fritz Pearls. Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.  This complements beautifully the Taoist perspective of nature.

Last Rays of Light at the Avalanche Lily Fields

As mentioned earlier, the Taoist does not immediately focus on picking out the subject from the background. Attention is first on the background and the associated negative space and only then on the forms that emerge from the background. But the Taoist does not view these forms as discrete stand-alone parts but as part of an integrated whole, in other words as a Gestalt.

The Gestalt Principles include: (1) Similarity –Objects and elements including shapes and patterns that are similar are perceived as a group;  (2) Proximity–The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group; (3) Continuation–the mind sees lines and curves as continuing even if visual information is missing or there are objects in the way; and (4) Closure– The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle.

Kanizsa Triangle

The kanizsa Triangle shown above has often been used by Gestalt psychologists to demonstrate the principle of closure, which maintains we see objects grouped together as whole even when they are incomplete. In the Kanizsa Triangle we see two triangles and three circles even though technically there are no complete circles and triangles in the image, only three pac-men and several incomplete triangles. Our holistic vision completes the gaps in the shapes. This image challenges the reductionist approach to vision that what we see in a image is merely the sum of its parts. We actually perceive objects/subjects that from a purely objective point of view are not even there. This is similar to the Taoist perspective that councils us to pay attention to the background and negative space as much as the figures and the subjects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge our limited way of viewing the world that focuses on discrete objects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge us to see a world holistically rather than just the sum of its parts.

Autumn Passage

Some gestalt principles that bring unity to a landscape scene can be seen in the above image titled Autumn Passage. There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left. The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group. The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground. The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation). For more on Gestalt and Landscape Photography, see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.

Grove of the Patriarchs

As a landscape and Nature photographer I have always thought that presenting my image as well balanced and integrated consistent with my experience in nature is more important than forcing all attention onto a subject. When I see some popular landscape images today the single minded focus on the subject often seems aggressively forced as if the photographer is screaming for our attention. Backgrounds are heavily darkened and directional light is manipulated to the point where the contrast between the subject and background is so strong as to seem unnatural. Some of this may be done to get instant attention on social media where people judge your image in a second or two then move on. This is not the way of the Tao. The Taoist perspective is more about turning down the contrast and volume, focusing first on the background, revealing the often subtle path of light, and creating a well integrated and balanced image where the rhythm and flow of the landscape is presented manner that seems as natural as nature itself.

The Taoist notion of the world is that it is organic and changing in never ending cycles of growth, decay and renewal. The world is an organism where every little thing is related to everything else. In this world there are no truly lone actors, and reality is a seamless whole. In this sense Taoism foreshadows the views of the modern environmental movement. For more on the Environmental Movement see my blog post–“Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement.”

Quiet Meadow

8. Self Understanding

Chapter Forty Seven: Explore Within, Translated by Sam Tarode

Without going abroad,
you can have knowledge of the world.
Without gazing at the stars,
you can perceive the heavenly Tao.

The more you wander, the less you know.

The wise explore without traveling,
discern without seeing,
Finish without striving,
and arrive at their destination,
without leaving home.

Fern Hill Forest–This is wonderful place a short walk from my home in the neighborhood woods.

In this passage we hear echoes of Thoreau’s message of Walden’s Pond. Thoreau found self understanding at Walden Pond within close walking distance of his original home in Concorde, Massachusetts. For more on Walden’s Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World. The path of self understanding need not involve going outside of where we are at in the here and now. Travels to distant parts of the earth are not necessary. This is because as we travel in the spirit of the Tao we realize the entire world is also within us. Alan Watts put it this way: “We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centers of awareness and action, placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other—which we confront. Whereas, in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behavior is an action: what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call the here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” We are part and partial of the world. The idea of ourselves as separate from the world from the Taoist perspective is an illusion. For more on living an authentic life close to nature see my post Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.

Let the Light Always be With You

In Taoism, self understanding is paradoxically related to freedom from a sense of  self. Self cultivation involves more a stripping away of various ideas and behaviors we have acquired along the way to help us dominate and control what we perceive to be the external world than it involves adding anything new. The stripping away involves: (1) Surrender–the recognition that ultimately our ego is not in control, (2) Wu-Wei or effortless action–going with the flow in a manner that recognizes there is no separation between our self and the world: (3) Simplicity-the recognition that we can best experience our connection to nature when we live a simple life, free from the weight of excessive possessions and vain pursuits of fame and glory, (4) Grounding–living our life close to the rhythms of nature and the earth, (5) Humility–living an authentic life with integrity that recognizes the limits of our individual self and the corresponding recognition that we are part of something much greater than our individual self, (6) Spontaneity–a return to our more child-like sense of wonder and playful experience of the natural world.

Cedar River Sunset–This is another location within walking distance of my home.

The recent covid pandemic brought home to me this idea that we can arrive at our destination without leaving home. The pandemic, especially initially, placed limitations on my movement and for a few months I took images of only places within walking distance of my home. I began to realize now more than ever how much that goes into creating imagery is drawn from internal sources of inspiration. When I or yourself take an image of a landscape close to our homes, it is not just what is out there, it is also our emotions and passions of a moment in time that are coloring our perception of what is out there. Our internal world can be beautiful and when the photographer integrates the internal and external worlds through an image this is a manifestation of the all inclusive Tao— it is also the art and craft of photography. What might otherwise seem ordinary and mundane receives the inspiration of the life force of the Tao and now seems uniquely attractive and aesthetically interesting, worthy of sharing through the creation of photographic art. For more on the pandemic and landscape photography see my post: Growing Creatively during a Global Pandemic. For more on Sources of Inspiration including Internal Sources see my post on Sources of Inspiration.

Conclusion

There is no time better than here and now to embrace the eternal Tao and the freedom it offers to rekindle a sense of child like wonder, to bring back unrestricted awareness, to experience nature and landscape with fresh eyes and to reflect this experience in our nature and landscape photography. Now is the time to experience the “Watercourse Way”, move in the spirit of Wu Wei, and bring forward your image of the uncarved block. In the words of the late great motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, “Do the Tao Now (8).”!

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020

Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on The Tao and Landscape Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this article. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the Tao of nature be with you!

References and Additional Resources

(1) Taoism: Essential Teaching of the Way and it Power, 1999, Allan Cohen, Audio Book
(2) The Perennial  Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1945
(3) Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way, Translated by Sam Tarode, 2013
(4) Chuang Tzu, Inner Chapters, Translated by David Hinton, 2014
(5) The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions, Great Courses, Jay Garfield, 2013
(6) Tao, The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts, 1975
(7) The Tao of Pooh. Benjamin Hoff, 1983
(8) Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, Living the Wisdom of the Tao, Dr. Wayne Dyer, 2009
(9) The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Wucius Wong, 1991

Growing Creatively during a Global Pandemic

Here is some local beauty across the street from my home on a north facing hillside leading down to the Cedar River. Walking to through this ravine I had the feeling of total immersion is a transparent wall of ferns.

The recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has effected all of our lives in significant ways.  The immediate effect was quite stark: schools closed, non essential businesses closed, and State and National Parks also closed.  We could still go to the grocery stores, but we limited our visits, wore masks, and maintained at least 6 feet of social distance.  The crisis also hit professional nature and landscape photographers very hard.  Workshops were canceled along with trips that were meticulously planned long ago.  Sales of products such as prints and tutorials also declined during a very challenging economic environment.  Many people lost their jobs and few wanted to make a non-essential purchase such as a print during these uncertain times.  But this is just the business side of photography.  The crisis also has had a major impact on the creative lives of all nature and landscape photographers.   We received a wake up call that one our primary sources of our inspiration, access to state and national parks, was now cut off. 

Fawn Lilies
Rare Fawn Lilies at the top of a small peak within walking distance of my home

My Experience during the Outbreak

During the first couple of weeks of the lock down I struggled to process many changes impacting me and my family.  My daughter Caroline was suddenly out of school and her preparations and dreams of a successful track season came to an abrupt end.  Suddenly we were all trying to live our lives as best we could only occasionally leaving our home-my wife Julia working out of the upstairs office, and Caroline logging into online school. Julia dusted off our old sewing machine and began creating face masks for our family and circle of friends using some of my old Boeing dress shirts that I hardly wear any more!  I could no longer make frequent visits to my aging parents, and not at all to my 92 year old father who is in a long term care home.  I stated to communicate with him through FaceTime, not at all easy with someone of his generation.  I learned of two friends and colleagues who actually contracted the corona virus which was a wake up call that this thing was real and not some abstraction we just hear about through the news media.  Clearly my family needed to take the necessary precautions of social distancing, wearing masks, and keeping travel to a minimum.  

Blue Heart Forget-Me-Nots
In honor of the the scores of people on the front lines during this crisis: nurses, doctors, and other people in the medical field. 

Prior to the shut down, I had just gotten my business to the point where it was beginning to grow rapidly and I was well on my way fulfilling my vision of having a successful side gig after taking an early retirement from the Boeing Company almost five years ago.  Wow, how time flies!.  Although I receive immense satisfaction helping others grow in the art and craft of photography and when someone cares enough about my work they would venture to purchase a print, I can easily deal with the loss of business.  There are far more people who have suffered true economic hardship during this crisis, along with people in the medical community who are putting their lives on the line who deserve our support.  A far more serious situation for me was being cutoff from one of the major sources of my mental and emotional well being, nature itself.

Cedar River Sunset

This river is a about a three mile walk down the hill from home in east Renton.  Anytime I venture out with car I pass the river but seldom venture down to its shores and never to this particular spot.  The beauty of the Cedar River can be subtle and you will almost never see photographers photographing this site.  But its beauty on this early spring day, with the leaves of the cotton wood trees just starting to come out, seemed as awe inspiring and wonderful as anything I could possibly imagine.  Is it possible that my own attitude can change the appearance of a place?  

With the passing of a few weeks I began to realize that the pandemic could not possibly cut me off from the source of my well being and creativity.  Nature was still there for me to discover.  Nature was within myself, and in all places including my own yard, the woods I can access right out my front door, and places within walking distance of my home.  Creating images that I would find personally fulfilling and that would also inspire others would clearly, however, require a different focus.  I needed to be receptive to the beauty in places many people would consider quite ordinary and mundane.   It was time once again to find beauty in small scenes and places that previously I overlooked.   It was also the time to explore processing these images somewhat differently incorporating some new skills I picked up watching video tutorials while staying at home.  My fresh vision required an approach consistent with where my head and heart was at this time, during this time period of the 2020 Corona Virus Pandemic.  How could one possibly just carry on as business as usual?  Clearly this was a time for seizing upon new a different ways of experiencing a now suddenly changed world.  It was also a time to channel this experience into a fresh approach to photography concentrating on the world immediately around me rather than far off in distant places.  Here are a few recommended ways for growing creatively during this pandemic that grew out of my own personal experience.

Bleeding Hearts in an Enchanted Forest
Here is a beautiful clump of bleeding hearts I stumbled across while temporarily  moving off the trail close to my home in order to practice social distancing. 

1.  Explore areas within walking distance of your home.

Even during the stay at home order and shutdown, Washington’s Governor Inslee encouraged people to get out and experience the outdoors in areas within walking distance of their homes while practicing social distancing.  I heeded this advice and am glad that I did.  Getting out into nature is so important for our sense of well being and the strength of our immune system.  I would bring along a camera and a small tripod but mostly took my images quickly so as not to interrupt the flow of foot traffic.  We need to keep things moving!  Occasionally in places where I would arrive early and no one was present, usually before and at sunrise, I would setup my tripod for a series of shots.  It is possible to live next to nature for years and take her beauty for granted, or worse still not even notice that her beauty is there.  Sometimes it takes something like the COVID-19  crisis to alter our perspective and see the familiar and mundane with fresh and open eyes.  There is beauty, both subtle and bold,  behind the veil of the familiar and the ordinary.

Sunrise at Big Cedar
I pass this big Cedar Tree, largest in this forest that is close to my home almost every day, but it sure took on a new look this morning with the sun rising and bursting upwards into the canopy.
Wild Current Blossoms in the Forest

This image is from one of my many recent sunrise walks in the woods across the street from my home.

Beauty in my Backyard
This image of Mt. Rainier was taken on a hike right from my home through the forest and up to an overlook with a view of Mt. Rainier. A long 200mm telephoto perspective compressed the layers in this scene sufficiently to capture the same emotional impact this scene has on a person when he/she stands at this site for the first time.

2.  Explore the Macro World
One can explore the macro world of small things just about everywhere including our own back yards.  Although it helps to have a dedicated macro lens, this is not necessary.  Even a kit lens can get fairly close to a small subject and one can always crop in post processing to get closer still.  I have witnessed in others some of the biggest strides in creativity when they enter the world of macro photography.  In some ways it may be easier to hone in on developing ones compositional skills through photographing small things.  “It is a a small world after all”  It is easier to identify the primary  subject, and the need to minimize distractions is more obvious.  Most of the rest of the guidelines for composition of grand scenes still apply, including the use of leading lines, repeating patterns, transitions, maintaining image balance, etc.  But you may find that working the macro scene helps sharpen your eye for composition,  growing your skill set so when you later go out and photograph the grand scene once again you will be seeing it with fresh eyes.

Snowdrop Lilly
Lilac Blossom Tears of Joy

(3)  Explore the world of small scenes. 
Exploring the world of small scenes is similar to the macro world except here we are talking about small vignettes or pieces of a much larger scene.  The vignette could be the size of a small room, it is just a piece of a much larger landscape.  Even in areas that seem devoid of any kind of distinctive landmark such as a mountain, lake or river there will be a multitude of small area scenes.  There are literally thousands of them even in a relatively small area of a couple of blocks.  Picking out the small scene or vignette that is meaningful to you will go a long way toward developing your eye for what works in any image.  As in the macro world most of the guidelines for composition of grand  scene will apply here as well.  You will still look for leading lines, transitions from cool to warm, along with patterns of light, texture and color, etc.    The more you practice taking these small area images the better photographer you will become and this will have a huge impact on your skill-set when you go back out and photograph the grand landscape. 

Dream of Dogwood Blossoms
Yellow Angel Butterflies of the Forest

A small colony of Oregon Grapes in bloom deep in the hear of the forest close to my home

Mystery: The Holy Grail of Nature Photography

Freedom

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The mystery of nature has inspired poets, artists, and song writers from the beginning of recorded time. But the mystery of nature often moves in ways that go beyond our common understanding of mystery. Much of our conventional understanding of mystery starts with the notion that if we could just find out more about the mystery, more information and more clues, we will eventually solve the mystery. But the mystery of nature ultimately cannot be solved.

I wish I was an island in the Fog

With nature we are not just talking about figuring out what lies just beyond the edge of the frame, even though that may help convey a sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature we are also not just talking about concealing important details in darkness and shadows, even though that might also contribute to the sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature, we stand in awe of its mystery in both the light of day and darkness of night. To those who welcome the message of nature, they sense her mysteries throughout the day and in all environments and places, in the brightest highlights and the deepest shadows and everything in-between. We welcome the mystery of nature both where nature reaches the pinnacle of beauty and in her more widespread and typical humble abodes.

Early Spring Snowdrop

What is Mystery?

The poets likely come closest to describing at least verbally the mystery of nature through their use of evocative language. One passage that immediately comes to my mind is this one from Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill:

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill.

Dylan Thomas’s words in Fern Hill are full of feeling and rich symbolism to describe the mysterious forces associated with new growth and energy of spring which brings to us an appreciation of the mystery of nature. It is impossible to rationally describe what the mystery of nature means in a manner that gives justice to the wonder and awe one feels in the midst of the mystery of nature. For the writer, this is why the use of evocative language is so important, and in the visual space this is also why it is so important for the photographer in pursuit of the art and craft of photography to bring to the viewer an ability to sense the mystery nature.

Twin Falls in the Mist

A standard dictionary definition of mystery goes something like this:

” Anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown”.

But are the mysteries of nature really secret or unknown? Some scenes certainly convey the feeling in the physical sense of something secret and unknown, for example in the above image I titled Twin Falls in the Mist. But when we utter the words “I am in awe of the mysteries and wonder of nature” are we just taking about certain manifestations of nature, lets say dark and foggy scenes punctuated with light? I think not. We are talking about a sense of mystery that pervades all of nature. It may be impossible to describe through rational means or represent through an unedited raw image the mystery of nature, but we all have the capacity to directly experience the mystery of nature. We all also have at least the potential to share this experience through evocative writing and through the art and craft of evocative photography. Evocative photography moves us beyond the visual representation of the scene and evokes emotions, feelings and moods that are associated with the experience of the mystery of nature.

Access to the Mysteries of Nature through Direct Experience

In the current debate over how much is enough in processing images, several photographers who I know and respect maintain that their goal in nature and landscape photography is to create images that are true to their experience of the scene. I find this interesting because in this same discussion many of these photographers maintain there is a close linkage between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” When I look at the work of these photographers, especially images of places I am very familiar with, I notice there is actually quite a gap between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” Sure these photographers shy away from more aggressive manipulations of the image, but nevertheless the images are heavily edited with shifts of hue and saturation, and alterations of highlights, shadows, brightness and tonality to help direct the the viewers attention to parts of the image, along with removal or deemphasis of distractions, etc. Now this actually does not bother me in the slightest, because it is as it should be. We edit images to bring to the viewer something that can transcend a purely accurate journalistic documentation of the scene. We introduce mystery.

A purely accurate representation of the scene will rarely evoke the sense of mystery we experienced in the field . This is because our highly individualized perception impacts how we experience mystery in ways that simply cannot be recorded by our highly accurate camera sensors. Our emotional state at the time and who we are as individuals both shape our perception of reality resulting in our “experience of the scene”. This does not mean that mystery is not inherent in a purely accurate rendering of the scene, but it does acknowledge that this mystery is significantly transformed through the mechanisms of human perception. The experience of the scene to me has everything to do with expressing some of the mystery of nature that I felt at the time of capture. For more on human perception and photography I recommend the book: Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia (1).

Daffodils under the Tree of Golden Spring
Daffodils are some of the first flowers to bloom in the Spring and their arrival stirs in me a sense of wonder and mystery of the every returning cycles of the seasons.

Elements of Mystery

In the sections that follow I will discuss some steps we can take as photographers to bring to our images and the viewer the sense of mystery we felt during our our experience of the scene. These steps will help lead the viewer closer to the mystery of nature, in other words evoke moods and emotions that we felt in nature’s presence. But the results of applying these steps should not be equated with an exact visual representation of the mystery. After all, if that were the case, then the image would no longer be a mystery! Think of these steps as a tool set from which we can select to help lead the viewer to a greater appreciation of the wonders and mystery of nature. Here are the steps I will discuss.

  • Wonder
  • Imagination
  • Shadow and Light
  • Atmosphere
  • Motion and Blur
  • Bokeh
  • Subtraction
  • Seasonal Transitions
  • Use of Metaphors
  • Transcendence

Wonder

“If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien

In the review of the elements of mystery I am putting wonder in the first position. A sense of wonder is the common denominator of all of nature and the starting point for mystery. There are many factors that contribute to the feeling of wonder: nature in seasonal transitions, changing light and weather, patterns, colors and shapes. As photographers we want to feature elements that help instill in the viewer the same sense of wonder that we experienced at the scene. In the above images I feature a lone leaf, flower, or tree as elements that bring a sense of wonder. The first image is titled Aqua Leaf. How did this single almost tropical leaf rise from the water in front of this waterfall at Mt. Rainier? Nature knows the answer. The second image is a lone Trillium in the Forest. How did such a beautiful flower establish itself in such a shady environment devoid of lower story life other than moss and ferns? Nature know the answer. The third image is titled Lone Larch. It is not common to see a lone larch in the open meadow as larches are a communal tree. One wonders how this tree established itself in this meadow when no others were able to do so? Nature knows the answer. All of nature is filled with wonder. Find the element or elements that bring to you a sense of wonder to be featured in your image and you will also communicate mystery.

Imagination

Spider Man

When I’m ready to make a photograph… I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there… I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” Ansel Adams

Through the imaginative use of perspective and angles the photographer can bring to the image some of the mystery of nature that might otherwise go unnoticed. The above image I titled “Spider Man” because the branch extending from the lower right appears to be reaching out in several directions in a manner that looks both human and spider like. With the wide angle lens I used, this perspective would have been lost if I stood further back and attempted to capture the entire tree. Imagination and composition are often closely related. The composition approach can magically transform a scene which stirs the imagination to marvel at the mysteries of nature. In the image below titled “Spirit Angels in the Forest”, this view would not at all be apparent looking out from the top of Tiger Mountain where I took the image. A long 500 telephoto lens allowed me to isolate a small portion of the forest emerging out of the clouds at the transition point of the cool light of dawn and the warm light of the rising sun. Diagonal layers of clouds and forest lift the eyes up and out to the light spreading inwards from the upper right portion of the image. For more on the Imagination see my blog post: Forest in the Mist: Windows into the Active Imagination.

Spirit Angels in the Forest

Shadow and Light

Revelations

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”  Martin Luther King

The large sensors on our modern cameras often allow us to open up our shadows to a degree that we can see all details in even the deepest shadows of the image. But in doing so we may be unwittingly also removing the chance for mystery. Mystery often demands some areas be kept dark. Highlights only stand out and draw our attention when there are contrasting shadows. But just as a good mystery novel offers the reader some clues, the darker areas of our image should not be devoid of all clues. We should still be able to see some subtle texture and detail, however dim, in some of the shadowy areas-this will help build a little suspense and tension into our images that will keep the viewer interested. The one exception to this would be in high contrast usually black and white images where we are concentrating on the form of the subject.

Snoqualmie Falls December Moods

Letting shadows be shadows helps preserve the mystery of the scene where there are strong and contrasting highlights and shadows in the original scene. This is especially true for backlit landscapes and seascapes when looking right into the rising or setting sum. I however do not advocate exposing for the highlights and letting the shadow go pure black. This made sense in the film days because with a high dynamic range scene, the photographer could either expose properly for the highlights or shadows, but not both. With digital photography it is possible to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene in a natural and believable way without overplaying the deepness of the shadows or the brilliance of highlights.

Shadows almost always look best when they kept looking somewhat airy and natural with some areas remaining almost but not entirely opaque. With natural shadows some detail will be evident in at least some of the shadowy areas, but this detail will be dim and only barely visible. Aggressive exaggeration of the difference between shadows and highlights almost always looks overdone and preserving the sense of mystery will require a more subtle treatment. Proper treatment of shadows and highlights represents a fine line that is easy to cross and is one of the biggest challenges in photo processing even today. Few of us, including myself, get this right 100% of the time, but effectively conveying a sense of mystery in our images demands that we do the best job possible.

Atmosphere

Twin Peaks

“To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive but expresses something as best it can.” –Carl Jung

Images with atmosphere especially with fog, mist, low clouds, haze, sand, and rain can all evoke a sense of dream like mystery. What all of these atmospheric conditions have in common are particles in the air interacting with sources of light. This awakens our feelings and emotions to cultivate the sense mystery. Particles in the air soften the scene, and with the interaction of light this helps direct our attention to essential forms while hiding others which deepens the mood.

Morning Fog

It would be a mistake however to reduce our reaction to the scene’s atmosphere to just feelings and emotions. The mystery also points to something beyond even what we are feeling at the time, to a sense of wonder at the experience of being in nature. With the softer rendering of the scene made possible through atmosphere, the scene can often seem dream like and a little other worldly. In post processing, contrast must be carefully and selectively controlled to preserve this dream like mood. We may need to actually lower contrast in some areas to capture the mood and only strengthen the contrast in selective areas where we want to attract some added attention.

Young Tree in the Forest

Motion and Blur

Dream Time Stepping Stones

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” – Francis Bacon

When it comes to still imagery photography there is no illustrative way to capture motion that is truly realistic. When taking still images we have a couple of choices, we can either arrest motion or blur motion. Both of these are departures from reality, but therein also lies their strength and ability to tease the viewer with mystery and stir the imagination. Just as the use of shadows and particles in the atmosphere have the ability to hide details, simplify compositions and focus our attention on forms, patterns and or the primary subject, blurring motion can do the same. This is evident in the image above titled “Dream Time Stepping Stones”. The blur smooths out the movement of the ocean and focuses attention to the seaweed covered rocks leading out into the vast ocean under a cloud filled horizon just after sunset.

The effect of blurring motion is often all the more mysterious when the effect is subtle and perhaps not even detectable. Such an image can leave the viewer with a sense of mystery even if the viewer does not fully understand why the image is mysterious. When it comes to mystery incomplete understanding is a good thing and helps deepen the mystery and light up the imagination.

Secrets of the Forest

In the above image “Secrets of the Forest” I took several images in the early morning light at different slower shutter speeds and blended the images together accentuating the impression of cloud movement and subtly altering the shape of the cloud forms. This blending of several images with blurred movement was an important factor creating the sense of mystery in this image.

Flock of Birds

Creating a sense of mystery of course is not limited to blurring motion. A sense of mystery can also make itself apparent through arresting or freezing motion. This is evident in the above image “Flock of Birds” where one of the layers in the image are birds flying in from the right side of the church and heading out to the west into the Skagit Valley. The church, birds and Mt. Baker all catch the side lighting of the setting sun. A large flock of birds flying in a narrow directional pattern almost always seems somewhat mysterious, and the juxtaposition of the church, village and a partially visible Mt. Baker under the clouds deepens the mystery.

Bokeh

Jade Vines

“Every Aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe.” Carl Sagan

In some ways Bokeh is similar to the effects of motion blur, fog, haze and other atmospheric conditions. In all of these details are softened and sometimes darkened, often to the point where they are barely visible or even hidden. Bokeh, however, is somewhat unique in that it is created optically through the use of a lens and a wide open aperture to transition between areas of the image that are in focus and out of focus. I say transition because the hallmark of good bokeh is a smooth and almost undetectable transition between in focus and out of focus areas.

Bokeh can contribute to the sense of mystery in many ways. When the bokeh is darker than the main subject of the image we sense the presence of something emerging out of near darkness or the void. There may be hints at what lies beyond, but these hints are only vague and somewhat ambiguous. Blurry elements, some suggesting movement, challenge the viewer to figure out what these blurry elements might be. How might these blurry elements also shape the viewers attitude about the element/s that are in focus?

In the above image Jade Vines, we see blue green mouth like forms with spiked tongues emerging out of opaque dark bokeh patterns. Would the effect be the same if details in the background were clear-absolutely not. In the next image the use of bokeh effects our perception of the in focus areas to the point where these subjects are no longer recognizable and become almost abstractions. These are actually tiny autumn colored red leaves of a plant that grows on mountain boulders, but most people have indicated to me that they look like flowers. This is a good example of how the use of bokeh can alter our perception of reality and in doing so deepen the mystery of our experience in nature.

Its a Small World After-all

Subtraction

Oregon Coast Moon Set

Nature conceals her mystery by her essential grandeur.” Albert Einstein.

Subtraction is strongly related to both improving the composition and deepening the mystery. Subtraction is the notion that less is better, and there is a beauty and elegance in removing as many elements from the scene as possible. In photography, the world as it presents itself to us is often cluttered with extraneous detail. But the skilled eye using a good choice of lens and angle of view can always simplify the scene to primarily include those elements which are integral to the composition and deepening the mystery. This does not necessarily mean always using a longer focal length lens with a narrower field of view, as that would be an over simplification of the process. But it does mean a keen awareness of what attracts you to the scene and the skills to arrange as few elements as possible in a pleasing composition. What is left out strengtheners the mystery for the elements that still remain. With mystery there is almost always something concealed and held back.

Indian Paintbrush: Quiet Morning Mist
Although I used a moderate wide angle lens for this image, there are few elements other than the paint brush, a few trees and fog in the image.

There are varying degrees of subtraction, from a moderate tightening of elements and tones in the scene as in the two images above, Mystery at the Seashore and Quiet Morning Mist, to a major emphasis of just the subject and its form silhouetted in black and white, as in the image below titled: Tree Dances with Fog and Light.

Tree Dances with Fog and Light

Abstraction takes the process of subtraction to an extreme degree and can often result in images with a heightened sense of mystery, especially those images where we are in awe and wonder at the beauty of the small intimate details of nature. But some would argue that for a true abstract photo we need to have no idea whatsoever of what the larger scene from which the abstraction was derived represents. Although still possible, such images are less likely to be mysterious. With mystery some but not all clues lie hidden. It is the subtle interplay between the two that deepens the mystery.

Rock Tapestry

Using the principles of subtraction, ones composition approach itself can imaginatively transform the scene to bring into view the mysteries of nature. An example of this is the image above titled Rock Tapestry. Walking through a slot canyon I noticed some most interesting patterns over a small section of the canyon wall. It was, however, not until I got very close and studied even smaller sections of the wall did I find the strong diagonals, the X shape and patterns featured in this image. In the next image I found some beautiful Monetesque reflections on an Autumn day at a slow moving portion of the Wenatchee River. Through isolation and careful choice of area selection I was able to capture these mysterious almost brushstroke like patterns of the river’s slow moving waters.

Tumwater Reflections

Seasonal Transitions

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.” T.S. Elliot

The seasons are filled with mystery and symbolic meaning and often the natural world mirrors our own emotional states. With Spring there is rebirth and the sense of excitement of having one more life to live. With Summer there is a sense of comfort and maturity in having arrived at the prime of our life. With Autumn there is a sense of warmth, change and letting go. Winter is a time of reflection and detachment with the realization things have come to and end. But there is also a beauty in the silence and quiet of Winter, knowing that the seasonal cycle will repeat itself as long as the world turns. But as mysterious as the seasons are in and of themselves, the mystery is all the more deepened during the time of seasonal transitions. With seasonal changes there is a movement from one state of life to another, part of what was will now be hidden, and part of what will be has not yet come into to view. As in our previous examples throughout this article, when something remains hidden and unknown, the mystery deepens. But the mystery also comes from what is in view, as we stand in awe and wonder of the new season beginning to unfold. It is the interplay between what we see and do not see that creates the ultimate mystery of seasonal transitions.

Daffodils under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light
In this field the Daffodils have just begun to open and the bare tree in the distance provides evidence that some of the spirit of Winter is still present.
From Ashes to Nature’s Majesty
The wildflowers at Mt. St. Helens are at peak bloom at the transition from Spring to Summer. This area is somewhat dry and as can be seen in the image the foliage of the flowers is already starting to dry out and turn to the mellow yellow-green of summer.
Autumn Passage
Peak fall color is of course beautiful, but what I find even more interesting are seasonal transitions. Seasonal transitions often make us more aware of changes in our own lives and consciousness. The passage this year from Summer to Fall has during this particular year was more beautiful than I can recall in previous years.

Early Winter Magic
There is a short window of time between when the first snow falls in the cascades and the pond freezes when there are still beautiful reflections on Gold Creek Pond.

Use of Visual Metaphors

In Landscape and Nature Photography visual metaphors are powerful means of communication because they raise the possibility of a shared vision. This shared vision moves beyond a visual message that is purely personal and finds a path that touches upon common experiences of all of humanity while in nature. Because visual metaphors invite participation through a shared vision, we often hear responses to such images like “I feel I am right there with you”. As a longtime landscape and nature photographer I can tell you that there is no greater source of inspiration and fulfillment for both the photographer and the viewer when someone feels they are right there with you, participating in your image at both a mental and emotional level.

The best way to demonstrate the concept of a visual metaphor is to provide a couple of examples.

Walking into a Dream

The above image, Walking into a Dream, was taken at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mount Rainier National Park. This cabin is in as beautiful setting as I could ever imagine and is like walking into a dream. In this dream I am finding my way back to where I truly feel I am more at home, in Nature and the Wilderness. This is a common dream shared by many as was evidenced by the thousands of reactions I received from this image. Indian Henry, known as Soo-Too-Lick, early on (1883) guided several familiar names to Mt. Rainier including the Hunting Grounds, these familiar names include James Longmire Philemon Beecher Van Trump and John Muir. Indian Henry was a Cowlitz Indian, beloved by many people. For more on the metaphor of finding our home in nature see my blog post: Journey to your own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Mt. Baker Rising above the Cluds
The moment when something changes after a long day in the clouds and fog, Mount Baker has risen.

Not until we are lost do we understand ourselves.–Henry David Thoreau

Looking into a scene like the image above just before the image was taken, when the mountain was still lost in the clouds, to me is like soul searching and the process of self discovery. I know the mountain is out there and will eventually emerge from the fog, clouds and mist. Just as I know my authentic self, the essence who I am, has always been there just waiting to be rediscovered. When the mountain comes into view, this validates the process of self discovery. The image and story is something others can relate to, share in the vision, and participate in the metaphor of self discovery. For more on the authentic self and self discovery see my blog post: Finding your Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.

Transcendence

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”
― Anais Nin

The use of visual metaphors and the creation of a shared vision moves the photographer beyond the confines of his/her individual self and provides a glimpse of our larger self that is common to all of humanity. Although individually felt emotions and our own personality type help guide the creation of the transcendent vision, the transcendent reaches even beyond feelings and emotions toward something mysterious, inexplicable, evading any attempt to articulate what exactly the mystery is. Nevertheless we experience the mystery as real and the mystery is nature itself. This is no lofty woolly eyed vision, but is anchored firmly to the ground.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
William Blake

Some may refer to transcendence as pointing to the spiritual realm and for me at least it does just that, but no faith, creed or religion is required to sense its presence. One could be a spiritual person or a non believer and still sense its presence. It is the “force that guides through a green fuse a flower,” and it is what causes us “to see a world in a grain of sand”, it is nature itself.

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2020

Mt. Rainier National Park: Where the Angels Roam

Thanks for reading this blog post. For more on the subject of Transcendence see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography and Creating images with Lasting Impact. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on Mystery. I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and point of view. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the mysteries of nature always be with you.

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020


References:

(1) Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia, Fifth Addition, Copyright 2018

My Best and Favorite Images from of 2019

Every year about this time I reflect back upon the year through a review of what I consider my best and most memorable images. I would not be honest if I said popularity has nothing to do with the selection. I have not met a nature and landscape photographer yet who did not feel a sense of validation of their work when it is well received in the photographic community and with people who follow their work. But popularity alone does not raise an image out of my often daily posts to the Best of 2019 album. I need to also feel good about the image, that it expresses something about who I am as a person, and the image also resonates with others at more of an emotional level. When I put an image into the Best of Album, I must feel reasonably confident that the image is well composed and is a good example of my progress in the art and craft of photography. Ultimately the images must be sufficiently impactful that they have the power to inspire others to share in my love for nature, and the ability of nature to lead us to something beyond our selves, the interconnection of everything on this earth. Here are 16 of my best and favorite images from 2019, not in any particular order. Thanks for looking!

#1 Rising from the Clouds

The moment when something changes after a long day in the clouds and fog, Mount Baker has risen. Looking into a scene like this when the mountain is still lost in the clouds to me is like soul searching and the process of self discovery. I know the mountain is out there and will eventually emerge from the fog, clouds and mist. Just as I know my authentic self, the essence who I am, has always been there just waiting to be rediscovered.

Not until we are lost do we understand ourselves.–Henry David Thoreau

#2 Ever Returning Spring

I always look forward to the Daffodils blooming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. To me their bloom symbolizes the arrival of spring, the long awaited movement out of winter hibernation, and the arrival of new life and energy. Every year we are lucky enough to experience the reawakening of our soul and a kind of rebirth. The daffodils in this image lead to a lone tree. Lone trees have always had a special place in my heart. For me part of their attraction is the sense of mystery that surrounds a lone tree. In this case, why was this tree spared when most if not all of the others were cut down when the valley was cleared for farms? The lone tree is often associated with the Tree of Life, a myth of a tree that connects heaven and earth. Standing at this spot I must say I feel I am as close to heaven here on earth as I will likely ever get, and this gives me greater appreciation of the enduring myth of the lone tree as the Tree of Life.

#3 Flock of Birds

It is such an exhilarating experience to watch about every hour or so the Skagit Valley Snow Geese gather and take up in flight, make of few spins over the fields, and then all land not much further away from where they started to resume their winter feeding. One must be patient, however, as the birds have a mind of their own as to the nature of the time and place for their next movement.

#4 Remembrance

Some summer memories linger and grow long after summer fades away providing memories of warmth and color one can draw upon anytime as the world turns.

#5 Mind Wandering in the Desert

Sometimes all that is needed is to lay down on the desert sand dunes and look up at the drifting sands and sky and let one’s mind wander to and fro. One thing I like about some desert landscapes is that world is reduced down to simple forms, patterns of light and shadow, lines and curves. The simple and beautiful essence of the landscape is made all the more apparent in natural near monochromatic scenes such as this one where the primary colors are gold and yellow tones.

#6 Spider Man

Photographing Japanese Maples in Autumn is one of the things I just love to do. Each tree seems to have its own character that almost every photographer sees in a slightly different way. A good Japanese Maple is truly a tree with a thousand faces. This year I decided to try photographing these trees in a much different way getting as close a possible to some of the more sinewy and well established branches. I call this image Spider Man because the branch extending form the right appears to be reaching out in several directions in a manner that looks both human and spider like.

#7 From Ashes to Nature’s Majesty

I consider this June Sunrise at St. Helens a near miraculous event: beautiful color in in a cloud filled sky, flowers near their prime, little wind, and beauty all around. It is moments like this that I feel so blessed to be fully alive and awake, witnessing nature at her best!

#8 Morning Fog

This Morning Fog image was clearly not one of my most popular images, but it is one from this year that I can relate to most and it also resonated well with several photographers and friends whose opinion I respect. To me the more subdued color pallet and subtle light moving through the grey green forest captures the feeling of walking through the woods on wet, somewhat dreary and cloudy late Autumn day. I have grown to actually like these days where one can walk in the quiet forest with an abundance of solitude, hear even the most subtle of sounds, and feel a close connection with the forest and its individual trees.

#9 Spring Thaw

The advent of Spring in the alpine often comes slowly. Even as one notices a few perennial plants here and there pushing up from bare spots on the forest floor, there is still snow to be seen in most other places. A few yellow glacier lilies will actually point their heads up right through the snow and alpine lakes begin to thaw as temperatures climb revealing beautiful abstract patterns of water, snow, and ice.

#10 Beauty at the Forest Floor

Nowhere do I find more peace and wonderment of the beauties of nature than at the forest floor. This is especially true in deciduous alder tree forests in sub alpine areas of Western Washington. Ample sunlight can make its way through the deciduous forest canopy in early spring before the leaves of the tree begin to emerge. This helps support the growth of a variety of greenery and flowers at the forest floor including bleeding hearts and queens tears pictured here. Later, the leaves of the forest canopy will crowd out much of the light, but at that time the bloom cycle will be about over and the plants will already be mature as summer approaches.

#11 October Multnomah Falls Dream

There is nothing like spending a morning in late October at this spot of iconic beauty that is Multnomah Falls. The Fall color this year was absolutely phenomenal and more beautiful than I can ever recall on previous visits. Although some say that Multnomah Falls is over shot, to me when one is lucky enough to find color and conditions like this, shooting the falls is cause for celebration. It is a little like seeing a double rainbow in the sky! Let us rejoice before the beauty and grandeur of Multnomah Falls in the colors of Autumn!

#12 Alpine Lakes Overlook

This image is looking out to some of my favorite lakes and peaks of Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness area-Kulla Kulla and Mason Lakes, and Bandera, Pratt, and Granite Mountains. For me this is where my journey into Washington’s wilderness began at an early age hiking with my family and often neighborhood friends to the various lakes of this Wilderness Area. It is also a place I am always enthusiastic about returning to. Each time I revisit these beautiful ridges they look both familiar and new. I return a changed person and that seems to also effect my experience of this place. On this trip, the Alpine Lakes seemed more beautiful than ever before!

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Elliot

13. Garden in Paradise

How would you imagine a garden in Paradise would look like? Would it possibly be something like this?

To fully experience the beauty of an wildflower meadow at Mount Rainier’s Paradise flower fields, one must lie in the trail inches away from a patch of flowers. From this low perspective breathe and take in the beauty that surrounds you. Be careful when you are doing this, walk (or lie!) on durable surfaces and leave no trace. It is surprising how many excellent composition opportunities can be found right from the trail. They may not be apparent, however, unless one gets down and dirty very low and close to the ground.

14. Beacons of Light

On this morning at a cloud covered Death Valley, beacons of light lit up small sections of the mountains creating beautiful spot lighting and contrasts of warm and cool light, streaking across the tall peaks and touching the salt sea with spring water below.

Climbing up through a steep and barely visible trail with head lamp I had few expectations for what would await me at the top of this climb. One of my favorite photographers, Erin Babnik, was leading the way to this spot with optimal viewing of Manly Beacon and the Death Valley salt flats below and I followed her steps. It was a cloudy day, but at sunrise shafts of light illuminated sections of the distant mountain and a not at all common site, water in Death Valley. I found the combination of warm and cool light amazing and this is a experience that will linger in my memory forever.

15. Avalanche of Fall Color

Here are swaths of fall color and light along a North Cascades Avalanche Chute. Light illuminating parts of this fall tapestry is a wonderful experience to behold. I could loose myself for hours just following the light as it saunters down the mountain side.

16. Palouse Lupine Dreams

Just after sunrise and the clearing of some valley fog, a beautiful patch of lupine looks out to the green wheat fields of the Palouse. I love photographing in this location and usually I look more for distant telephoto compositions featuring the waves and patterns of the spring wheat fields. But on this day I was drawn to a wide angle perspective of this beautiful patch of lupine along the slopes of Steptoe Butte. The combination of wild nature and the cultivated farm fields seem to live and thrive together in a harmonious chorus underneath a glorious Eastern Washington sky.

If you would like to see favorite images of 2019 displayed large and at higher resolution head on over to my website at https://www.erwinbuske.com/Print-Store/Best-and-Favorite-Images-of-2019/ Thanks everyone for looking!

Freedom through Limitations: Going out in the Field with just one Lens

If on your next dream excursion you could take just one lens, which would it be? Would you opt for a wide angle zoom so useful in capturing those grand landscapes? Or would prefer the versatility of a mid-range zoom that usually includes in its range everything from a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto? Although versatile, this lens leaves many bored because it has inadequate range to provide dramatic emphasis to the foreground and also because it is not long and powerful enough to compress and isolate a distant subject. Perhaps instead you would choose a long telephoto lens which would allow you to find within the grand landscape a multitude of potential subjects without having to move around much at all. Or perhaps you would reject all of three three options from the holy trinity of lenses and choose instead a Macro lens to bring to your eyes the often hidden beauty of the micro world.

Jade Vines
105mm 2.8 Nikon Macro Lens @F3.5, Focus Stacked Image

Although at first this might seem more like a hypothetical exercise, it actually is not. We should all, beginning and experienced photographers alike, periodically travel with just one lens. Although conventional wisdom often associates creativity with the freedom of no barriers and unlimited choices, creatives have long known that creative bursts are just as likely to come through working with limitations. Why is this so?

Young Tree in a Forest: Mid Range Zoom at 70mm @ F9

Introducing limitations to the process of image making is the ultimate defense against creative block. With one lens–we now have fewer choices to make in creating a compelling image. This reduction of choices helps inspire us to see the world in different ways, moving us out of our comfort zone, which allows us to tap into new sources of creativity! Who would have known that the best way to expand our horizons is working within often self imposed limitations? If we instead work with a full array of lens choices, we may never take the extra steps necessary to make a single lens work, for example moving closer or further away from the subject with a mid range zoom or simplifying a cluttered landscape with a telephoto perspective. By way of analogy from the world of music, one would never think that a musician who opts to play a song using a classic acoustic piano is any less creative than another musician who instead chooses instead an electric piano with a full array of synthesized sounds. In fact, just the opposite may be true. The same holds true for the world of photography. We should never prematurely judge a photographer as somehow less creative because he/she chooses to work within the limitations of one or two lenses. Taking along just a single lens will provide the added advantage of reducing the weight of our backpack, making us more agile and nimble in the field!

Ever Returning Spring
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM Wide Angle Zoom at 30mm, Focus Stacked
Flock of Birds
Sony 10-400 GM Telephoto Zoom @400mm

The Trinity of Zoom Lenses

The Trinity of Zoom lenses is very popular today and for good reason. One can fulfill the vast majority of photographic requirements with these three lenses. The three lenses include a wide angle zoom, mid-range zoom, and telephoto zoom. Popular focal lengths for each of these zooms are 16-35 mm for a wide angle zoom, 24-105 for a mid-range zoom, and a 70-200 (or 100-400 which I prefer) for a telephoto zoom. There is overlap in the range of each of these zooms which is a good thing because it reduces the need to change lenses too often. Frequent changing introduces the possibility of getting dust on the sensor and perhaps more importantly missing out on a decisive moment. Some photographers may opt for a somewhat wider wide angle zoom, for example 12-24mm . I own the Sony 12-24mm extreme wide angle but it seldom gets used because most of the time I can create a superior image with a less extreme focal length. There are times, however, when we definitely need to go wider, but these times are so rare that taking along an extreme wide angle zoom as ones only lens may not be the best choice. In addition to the holy trinity of lenses, we will also want to consider a dedicated macro lens as a single lens option.

Wide Angle Zoom

A wide angle zoom is typically the first lens a beginning landscape photographer buys after purchasing a camera with a standard mid-range zoom lens. He/she wants to go wider and perceives that the kit zoom is not wide enough to effectively capture grand scenes. Disappointment, however, often follows because using this lens effectively will require much practice in developing ones skill set. We are not just capturing wide angle scenes with this lens, but creating compelling compositions that provide a visual flow from major foreground elements, to the mid-ground and background. Lets reviews some of the Pro and Cons of the Wide Angle Zoom.

This lens has received a bad rap lately. Many perceive that the use of this lens to capture grand scenes, especially icons, results in too many quickly captured images that are visually similar and lack creativity. This may be true for the initial spotting of the scene and taking a quick picture, but zeroing in and fine tuning the composition is another mater entirely. Used properly this lens is one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding lenses to use. A wide angle zoom , skillfully used, can also highlight your unique vision for the scene even if it is a often photographed location. Another criticism I frequently hear is that with a wide angle zoom one can only pick out one or maybe two compositions for a scene. This criticism reveals more of a users lack of knowledge or experience in the creative use of the wide angle zoom, than it is an accurate assessment of the lens’s potential. As we will soon see, when one gets low and as close as possible to the foreground, even micro movements can and will result in substantially different compositions. The possibilities are virtually limitless. With a wide angle zoom, I can pick out in most situations as many as ten different compositions which is likely a point at which few would even want to venture beyond!

Rising from the Clouds
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @ 18mm, focused stacke
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A wide angle zoom definitely requires slowing down as one gets very close, often within inches from the foreground and finds a visual flow from the foreground, to the mid-ground and background. I have been known to spend up to a couple hours in the field fine tuning my wide angle compositions. When the camera is this close to the foreground, a couple of inches this way or that can dramatically alter the composition. One needs to study thoroughly the scene especially the visually predominant foreground to eliminate or reduce visual distractions. It is almost as if one has in the foreground an intimate or macro scene within the larger scene. The larger scene provides context to the image, but it is the foreground that will make or break the image. Getting this close, usually will also require focus stacking. If one focuses on a very close foreground the rest of the scene will not be in focus even at F-16. If one focuses one third into the scene, which is usually the mid-ground, then the foreground will not be in focus.

Remembrance
Sony 16-35 4.0 Lens @20mm Focus Stacked

A wide angle zoom can also be use to uniquely capture just the main subject without a blending of foreground, mid-ground and a distant background. With the lens inches away from part of the subject, the distortions and exaggerations of perspective of this lens can be put to work to bring out the character of the subject as is evident in the image below of a Japanese Maple, titled Spider-man.

Spider Man
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @F16

There are instances where a 16-35mm wide angle zoom will not be wide enough to capture both the foreground and background, but those instances are rare. The temptation is to go wider than one needs to go, but for most images one can create a more compelling composition with visual impact through selection of a less extreme wide angle of view. In order to do this, however, one is going to need to get real close, focus stack, and set the tripod up at the right height Although one wants to get a low as possible, going too low will potentially take the mid ground out of view resulting in a less than pleasing composition.

Extreme wide angles can render in certain situations the background and also the mid-ground insignificant and in these cases should be avoided. While it is true that to a certain extent we can correct these distortions through warping in Photoshop, I personally believe our aim should always be to get the image proportions as close as possible to the desired result in camera. Some minor warping will enhance the image, but I can usually spot aggressive warping (or perspective blending using lenses of different focal lengths) because it often calls attention to itself and just does not look natural.

One Enchanted Evening
Sony 16-35 2.8 GM @29mm focus stacked

Next is an instance where an extreme wide angle was definitely needed to give adequate emphasis to both the foreground leaves and the background of the waterfall. I used a 12mm lens, but as previously mentioned I find such instances rare.

Zen Moment
Sony 12-24 4.0 @F14

Wide angles excel in scenes where one wants to create a sense of three dimensionalality through rendering objects in the distance smaller. This is closer to how our eyes actually see the world. Our eyes also tend to scan the scene, looking down and close to the foreground and then out at the larger scene, similar to a near far composition.

Garden in Paradise
Sony 16-35 2.8GM @19mm

If one elects to only take a wide-angle zoom along for the creative challenge of this blog post, it is good to know that most of these zooms extend out to 35mm which some consider closer to a normal focal length. When I use my wide angle zoom I tend to keep it on the camera and frequently move out to its maximum 35mm focal length. With some slight cropping of a 35mm image one can easily create images that are more similar to images taken by a 50mm lens. One can do quite a bit with just a wide angle zoom lens!

Mid Range Zoom

I have met a large number of photographers who admit that they almost never use a mid range zoom. This lens lacks some of the allure of a wide angle zoom that can drastically alter spacial relationships through the exaggeration of the size of foreground elements. It also lacks the power of telephoto zooms that can dramatically compress layers in small portions of a distant scene. Nevertheless, both near far compositions and compression of layers within the scene are possible with the lens. In many ways this is the most challenging zoom lens from the trinity to use and the one that many accomplished photographers eventually come back to as their lens of choice. Although one of my specialties is near far compositions, well over half of my images taken in the past year are within the mid zoom range of 24-105mm.

Lets review some of the pros and cons of mid range zooms

Because the mid range zoom lacks some of the drama that comes easily to wide or telephoto zoom, it forces us to think harder about our compositions and the placement of elements within the scene. This is especially true of grand scenes, but it is also true of more intimate scenes.

I wish I was an Island in the Fog
Sony 24-105 @F7.1, 57mm
Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
Sony 55mm Lens @F4.0 Focus Stacked

There are several excellent professional photographers currently active where the mid-range zoom is their lens of choice, one of which is David Thompson. David is known for his excellent compositions and photo processing skills. Although he always exercises restraint in processing and gravitates toward the less dramatic mid range of focal lengths, he is creating some of the most visually compelling and photographically excellent images out there today.

Bayou Impressions by David Thompson

The mid range is also the focal length range that would be consistent with the images from classic landscape artists, the Hudson River School, and landscape painting icons such as Albert Bierstadt. The more extreme wide angle and highly compressed telephoto perspectives evolved more with the advance of lens technology for photography in the later part of the twentieth century.

Valley of the Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt
We seldom see in Bierstadt’s images the modern day dramatic emphasis of foreground made possible with wide angle lenses. Distant mountain always loom with grandeur in his paintings and he directs our eyes toward the middle of the scene. His paintings would almost all fall within the range of a mid-range zoom.

Most large format photographers also work with equivalent focal lengths that would be well within the range of a modern standard mid range zoom lens. About as wide as one would go in 4 X 5 large format photography is 90mm which is roughly equivalent to 27mm in full frame photography. About as long as one would go in large format photography is 300mm which is roughly equivalent to 89mm in full frame photography. Ansel Adams, who was actually primarily a 8 X 10 photographer, shot primarily in what would be a 35mm equivalent range of 28mm to 80mm. None of this is to suggest we should all aim to emulate the perspectives of these icons from the past, but many of us continue to be inspired by their work and want to include some of their influence in our own creations. Would our own photography take new and better directions if we more often said yes to the mid-range zoom and resisted the temptation for always reaching for lenses in wide angle and telephoto ranges, especially the more extreme reaches of these ranges? Personally I feel we would all benefit from this, especially if we have already spent significant time dabbling in photography using wide angle and telephoto zooms.

A mid-range zoom is often thought as the range that most closely approximates human vision, especially when we are talking about focal lengths with an angle of view of about 40% to 60% which would correspond to the portion of the zoom range on a full frame camera of about 35mm to 60mm. Contrary to popular belief, however, human vision has a very expansive angle of view of about 130% which would be a very extreme wide angle lens. Human eyes, however, are quite different than a lens with large portions of our field of view being blurred and only the central portion sharp. This central portion of our field of vision does correspond to lenses in the 35mm to 60mm range.

Holding on to Paradise
This image of Picture Lake and Mt. Shuksan was taken with a 35mm focal length which provides a well balanced emphasis on the foreground while still maintaining a reasonably large view of the peak. Opting for a wider angle in this case would result in a very diminutive peak and reflection that may not be visually as striking. It is noted that 35mm is also the equivalent focal length used in most cell photo cameras today.

Human vision, however, has far more in common with video than it does with a still camera with the human eyes constantly scanning the scene, focusing on different points , and our brain integrating this information into what we perceive as vision. What is important is that the mid-range focal length typically captures images that will be the closest to what we and others who we share images with will recall seeing on location. Although from a creative perspective we are not always wanting to bring to the viewer an image consistent with their own perception, sometimes we are. In those cases we should be using a mid-range zoom, employing the art and craft of photography to create compelling compositions, and skillfully processing these images. Our fans will instantly recognize a shared vision of the location, but they will still be amazed at our photographic and artistic ability to transform the scene into photographic art.

Hiking in the Fog and Bear Grass
We do not always need a wide angle zoom to create near far compositions. I created this image with a 24-105mm lens at 32mm
Mount Baker at Sunset
We do not always need a long telephoto to isolate a distant peak. This image of Mt. Baker was taken with a 83mm focal length which would be well within the range of most mid-range zooms.
Lupines in the Forest
I captured this image with a 41mm focal length which allowed me to feature the beautiful lupines prominently in the foreground and still have sufficient compression in the scene to visually a convey a sense of a forest in the background. With the selection of a wider focal length, the forest would be much more dispersed and loose its sense as a subject in the image.
Mount Adams Mountain Glory
This image was take with my mid range zoom fully zoomed out to 105 mm and provides an example how a mid-rage zoom at its longest reach can provide a telephoto perspective.

Telephoto Zoom

The telephoto zoom is typically the third lens a beginning photographer purchases after a kit standard mid-range zoom and then a wide angle zoom. Although this lens, with its ability to isolate subjects and compress space, opens up manifold opportunities for visual expression, it often it does not get nearly as much use as it should until a photographer further progresses in their photographic journey. This is likely due to the fact that it takes some time to develop the skills to make this an effective tool in capturing landscape images. In this regard you will want to ask yourself, what is it you like about the scene? What parts of the scene affect you more at an emotional level? Then scan the scene with your eyes without using the camera to pick only details that are consistent with what you like about the scene. Only then reach for the camera with telephoto zoom lens mounted and attempt to isolate the subject. Here are some of the pros and cons of the Telephoto Zoom.

With a telephoto zoom we can pick out many compositions within the larger scene–small vignettes or abstracts that allow us capture some of the essence of the larger scene. If you are more of the lazy type, you need not move far at all to work this lens, and from a given location facing lets say a range of mountains with overlapping ridges one could easily pick out as many as one hundred or more compositions. In such a situation it is far easier to do this with a telephoto than either a wide angle zoom or a mid range zoom. It, however, takes real skill to zero in on the one or two vignettes that result in the most visually compelling images and this skill takes considerable time and practice to develop. In this regard one needs to just get out there and with just the telephoto zoom lens, practice, practice, practice! Dare to take just one lens! If the telephoto range does not already figure prominently in your portfolio, going out in the field with just the telephoto zoom mounted to your camera for a day may be just what the doctor ordered to bring new life and creativity to your images.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
Sony 100-400 GM @101m
m

Telephoto zooms compress layers within the scene often giving them more or less equal visual weight and what we are left with are beautiful patterns of light and shadow, and lines and shapes. This can be seen above in the nearly monochromatic (gold) image of the sand dues. It can also be seen in the next image titled Family Farm that adds color to the mix taken above the Palouse wheat fields. The red color of the farm house immediately attracts ones attention as a contrasting element in the scene.

Family Farm
Nikon 200-500 @500mm

In the image below taken at a 183mm focal length I focused out toward the center of an alpine lake to capture a beautiful abstract pattern of the melting ice. Telephoto zooms excel at picking out such abstract compositions.

Spring Thaw
Sony 70-300 @183mm

In this next image I was actually at a fairly close range of less than 10 feet from a canyon wall and used a telephoto lens to capture this wonderful pattern of the rocks with diagonal accents. These patterns would be easy to miss just walking through the canyon, but if one slows down one can often spot these small vignettes that come to life through a telephoto perspective.

Rock Tapestry
Nikon 70-200 F4 lends @155mm
Forest Carpet of Clouds
Nikon 200-500 @500

In the above image, Forest Carpet of Clouds, I not only used the telephoto zoom to isolate the forest and create some simple layers of fog, forest and clouds, but I also included some fairly prominent negative space to give the composition a more minimalist feel without distractions. The telephoto zoom range is the best for more easily removing distractions in an image.

Telephotos are also excellent for exaggerating spacial relationships especially those in the far distance. In the image below the mountain looming very large on the horizon is Mt. Baker. If you saw this scene in person the mountain would be a fairly insignificant element in the distance. Even the church on the right would seem very small to the naked eye. With the use of a 400mm focal length, however, I am able to compress the layers within the scene and give the most weight to Mt. Baker in all of her majesty.

Reveal
Sony 100-400 GM @400mm

Of course the telephoto effect need not always be this pronounced and sometimes all that is needed is some moderate compression like in the next scene of Gig Harbor in Washington State taken with 156mm focal length.

Gig Harbor Sunset
Sony 100-400 GM @156mm

Macro Lens

When weight is not much of a concern, on special occasions I will pack my complete trinity of Sony lenses: a 16-35 2.8 GM wide angle zoom, 24-105 4.0 mid range zoom. and my latest addition the 100-400 GM telephoto zoom lens. But I do not consider this array complete unless I also pack my Sony Macro 90 mm 2.8 lens. On the most special occasions I will only use the Macro lens and wonder why I even took the others! With the macro lens we can open up the often unseen world of small things and easily create unique images that you are unlikely to find in any other photographer’s portfolio. Lets review some of the pros and cons of the Macro Lens.

Orchid Face
Sony 90mm Macro

Although any one of the three lenses from the trinity could potentially be used as a Macro lens, they will not work as good as a dedicated macro lens for this purpose. A true macro lens will have a magnification ratio of 1 to 1, in other words it can capture in focus a small portion of the scene with the size of the object corresponding exactly to the sensor size of the camera. The 24-105 lens would work in a pinch and when one is trying to save weight this would definitely be worth considering as an option. But by way of contrast, the 24-105 closest focusing distance is 15 inches with a magnification ratio at this distance of .32. The closest focusing distance of the dedicated macro is 12 inches (a good working distance) and the magnification ratio at this distance is 1 to 1. The macro lens also has a flatter field which allows better edge to edge sharpness . The zoom lenses all have more of a curved field with critical sharpness only found in the center of the lens. With macro compositions we are often (not always) featuring patterns where it is desirable to have edge to edge sharpness.

Canadian Dog Wood
The flat field of the Sony 90mm Macro was excellent for capturing edge to edge sharpness in this image.
Prayer Plant Leaves
90mm Macro Lens

Of course we are not always interested in edge to edge sharpness and macro lenses, which usually come with a maximum aperture opening of 2.8, are excellent for blurring backgrounds and minimizing distractions at close focusing distances.

Bog Gentium
Sony 90mm Macro

One of the beauties of macro photography is that one can use this lens in all kinds of light all day long, even when conditions would be far less than optimal for one of the other lenses from the trinity. Not only will the lens excel at capturing smaller worlds, but the lens will be able to uncover worlds within small worlds opening up new avenues for creative expression. For this next image, I shot hand held at F 2.8 and took numerous images in manual focus using my body to move the camera in and out of focus. My goal was to capture just a small part of the image in focus with the rest cast in a beautiful bokeh. Using a higher ISO and with the camera’s vibration reduction on, I did not need to use a tripod. In this kind of situation a tripod may actually get in the way of finding the perfect composition through a process that involves a great deal of experimentation. This iterative experimentation is best done hand held.

Tiny Autumn Leave
Although these look like flowers they are actually the tiny leaves about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. It is a rockery plant growing on micro thin soils covering granite rock boulders at Mt. Baker. Sony 90mm Macro

Although I often prefer to shoot with wide open or nearly wide open apertures for macro photography, I will often take multiple images and then make a decision in post processing which parts of the image I want sharp and which parts to remain blurred. The next image of some tiny Mountain Laurel Flowers in the North Cascades provides an example.

Mountain Laurel
Sony 90mm Macro

Conclusion

I am making the pledge to use the macro lens as my sole lens on trips into the cascade mountains in the coming year. I am sure it will open up new paths for creation of beautiful images to round out my portfolio. Which single lens will you pick for your next adventure to help you break through to a new creative frontier? Ironically by limiting your choices, your creative horizons may now appear more clearly and seem almost limitless. Once you make your single lens choice, you may find out just like I have many times, that the path to creative growth often involves voluntarily placing limits on your choice of a lenses.

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2019

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Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement

Long waves of blue lupine glistened in the golden hour light as I slowly made my way up Flower Dome. This was a photography oriented Sierra Club Outings trip and none of us were in any particular hurry to arrive at our destination to watch the day slowly to slip back into the darkness of night.

Waves of Lupine and Light

There was plenty of time for conversation along the way and I used this opportunity to check in with Roger about how the trip was going. Roger, a senior trip leader, was mentoring an aspiring trip leader who created this outing as a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Roger showed great enthusiasm about the landscape and spoke mainly about its immense variety, variety that met us at every turn of the trail on this seven day backpack—forested valleys of virgin trees, tall sub-alpine grassy meadows, fields of boulders stretching out to the distant horizon, steep hillsides of mountain huckleberries and stunted trees, Lyman Glacier leading up and over Spider Gap, mountain lakes, passes with views reaching out in every direction, and flower meadows. Roger did not dwell much on the iconic spots of beauty we experienced along the way, Image Lake and Flower Dome, giving them no more emphasis that all the other parts of the ecosystems along our journey. A long unbroken silence ensued and Roger eventually confided that he was concerned about the type of people that his men-tee and landscape photographer was attracting to the trip. Were these photographers more interested in using this trip as a way to get beautiful iconic shots of small slices of this vast Glacier Peak Wilderness Area rather than experiencing the wilderness in its entirety with its immense variety of landscapes? And were these landscape photographers at all interested in learning about current environmental challenges for the region?

Image Lake at Sunrise

This trip was six years ago which seems like almost an eternity in the evolution of digital landscape photography. Much has changed since then and most landscape photographers are now acutely aware of how their role in publishing location specific images on social media can have adverse effects on the landscape. Even a image of a seldom visited site can inspire thousands and sometimes upwards to a million people to think about retracing our steps so they too can take an image of nature at the pinnacle of its beauty. This burning desire to go to these places will still be there regardless if the specific location is shared or not. As landscape photographers, however, it is still difficult for most of us to reconcile the potential negative consequences of sharing an image with our desire to inspire others to develop the same appreciation and love for the environment that got us into photography in the first place. We want it both ways, to inspire others and also to conserve and protect not only these precious environments where beauty is at its pinnacle but also to be good stewards of the earth in general. But is it possible to have it both ways?

I never question the authenticity of a landscape photographer’s belief that they hope to inspire others through their images to participate in the same love, sense of wonder and veneration for nature that they feel while photographing beautiful landscapes. I believe the landscape photographer’s feelings are honest and genuine. But I think it is important for myself and other landscape photographers to recognize that not everyone feels that this kind of inspiration best serves the goals of conservation and the broader environmental movement and may actually be counter productive. The focus of much of landscape photography today is on the sublime beauty of very small parts of vastly larger ecosystems. This is also the case even when we move beyond well known icons such as Delicate Arch, Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes, and Tunnel View at Yosemite. Landscape photographers gravitate toward places where nature’s beauty soars toward its pinnacle of beauty regardless whether these places are iconic or not so well known. Even this pinnacle of beauty will not be high enough for the landscape photographer who aspires to go higher still and through composition, photographic technique and artful processing creates a romanticized vision of the landscape . There is no doubt that many of these images inspire others, but do they really support the goals of conservation and the environmental movement that are more focused on protecting larger ecosystems? We will explore this further in the paragraphs that follow.

American Conservation Movement Early Beginnings

To understand the roots of the American Conservation Movement we first must go back to the predominant view toward nature at the time of the founding of this nation. For this underpinning we need to look no further than this biblical passage:

” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28”

This of course provides a scriptural basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is our destiny to lay claim to and settle the American wilderness. During this time no one thought much about the consequences of their actions toward the environment. When one looked out west, America contained vast swaths of seemingly unlimited wilderness available for settlement. In his now famous thesis, The Frontier in American History published in 1893 (1), Fredrick Jackson Turner established the settlement of the American Frontier moving further and further west as a stream of events that shaped the psyche of the American People and made them unique-their love of freedom of the frontier, distaste for authority, self reliance and independence—a distinctive willingness to seemingly forever reinvent themselves at places where new settlements met a wilderness frontier. It is somewhat ironic that at the opening of his thesis Tuner announces that at the close of the nineteenth century and with the push of settlements out to the west coast, there is now no new American frontier. While this was true in a geographic sense, the idea of the American frontier even today is internalized in the American psyche as is evident in the attitudes of many that there are vast swaths of unspoiled land out there and no one needs to worry much about developing new land as there is an endless supply. We see this even among photographers who suggest there are an endless supply of wilderness locations of potentially iconic value just waiting to be discovered. At least in Washington State based upon my long history of wilderness travel I know that this is clearly not the case, and yet these attitudes persist–all we have to do is move to the next frontier.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
As much as I love the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley, it hardly feels like wilderness to me when I see thousands of foot prints going in chaotic directions everywhere I look. Photoshop has made it easy to erase some of the negative aspects of the experience, but it does effect how I feel about the place.

Beacons of Light
Zabriske Point is only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas and its proximity shows. Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US and is also one of the most loosely regulated. Social trails crisscross this area every way one can imagine and new ones are sprouting up all the time. Down below in the valley scores of workshops head out onto the mud playa and visible damage is everywhere. How much longer can this be sustained? Are we furthering the cause of conservation by joining this stampede visiting these areas?

With the rapid industrialization of America in the Nineteenth Century and some of its negative consequences, a group of writers known as the American Transcendentalists, chief among the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began offering a substantially different view of nature. The transcendentalists held that people through nature could directly experience the spiritual realm without any assistance from organized religion. The path of transcending the ordinary material world was through contemplation and direct experience of nature, both within oneself and in the natural world outside of oneself.

In his essay Nature Emerson describe the experience of transcendence this way:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

If nature provides the window into transcendence and living a more fulfilling life, does it make sense any longer to conquer and subdue nature? After all, a conquered and subdued nature is no longer available to support personal and spiritual development.

Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God-” The Last Resort by the Eagles Don Henley/Glen Fry

Denali National Park
If the American Frontier exists anywhere any longer it is here in Alaska, but I must admit with the steady procession of tourist buses headed toward the Denali back country and countless cameras dangling out the bus windows, when I was there a few years ago it hardly felt like a frontier to me.

Emerson met a much younger Thoreau at Harvard and encouraged him to explore transcendentalism and start writing a journal. Eventually Emerson granted Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on his land at Walden Pond where Thoreau conducted a two year experiment living in harmony with nature. The written account of this experience in his book titled Walden Pond provided a modern day source text or scripture, for an emerging environmental movement. For more on Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement see my blog post Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the negative consequences of rapid development were becoming obvious to many Americans-soil erosion due to excessive grazing and poor farming practices, deforestation, and polluted air. This spawned a growing back to nature movement and John Muir tapped into this sentiment becoming a spokesperson and advocate of an emerging environmental movement. Muir advocated preserving wilderness areas for their own sake, and much of this effort was focused on landscapes with breath taking scenery, the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir started the Sierra Club as an organization to help promote preserving wilderness lands and the club eventually recruited Ansel Adams to be be their resident photographer to assist in this cause. Adams’s images focused on the sublime beauty of the region bringing to many artistically crafted Black and White images of such iconic places as the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.

From Preservation to Conservation

During the early part of the Twentieth Century a battle emerged between preservation and conservation. Although preservation and conservation may seem like they are addressing the same thing, protecting the environment, there is a key difference. The US Forest Service describes the difference this way: ” Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of landscapes” Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use. Conservation focuses on the sustainable use of natural resources and therefore accepts such commercial uses as forestry, creation of water reservoirs, and even eco-tourism as long as these uses are consistent with the sustaining the natural landscape as a natural resource.

Evening has Come to Pass
John Muir said of the Mount Rainier Wildflowers “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I have ever beheld in all of my mountain-top wanderings.” I could not agree with him more!

These two perspectives came into conflict during the later part of Muir’s life with the proposed damning of the Hetch Hetchy River in the Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco claimed it needed the water for the city water supply and also falsely claimed that access to this source of water would have prevented the San Francisco Fire. Muir’s, nemesis, conservationist Gifford Pinoget, argued that damning the river to create a water supply was in the best interest of society. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States argued that conservation of natural resources was best achieved through management of the wilderness for the greatest public good. With Muir saying “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man” the two view points could not be further apart.

Hetch Hetchy Before and After Photos–the before image reminds me a bit of the Yosemite Valley which managed to dodge a similar fate.

In the end Gifford’s point of view won out, and Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. But Muir succeeded in the elevating awareness of the consequences of Gifford’s perspective on the environment making it easier to win similar battles in the future including one which would have dammed the Grand Canyon.

From Conservation to Environmentalism

As America and the World for that matter approached the twenty first century and beyond, awareness increased of significant life threatening environmental problems such as destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, acid rain, and contamination of the oceans . This helped move the focus of attention beyond local, state, and even national borders. With the recognition of these problems that transcend borders, the environmental movement began broadening its focus beyond just preserving wilderness areas with aesthetic value to taking steps needed to confront these much larger issues. Many began seeing the global environment itself as interrelated organism where the actions of humans were the primary cause of major imbalances. Many started to question whether it was even possible to manage resources in a manner that would keep the environment in balance and began advocating more drastic measures to head off the destruction of the planet (3).

Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. In the past many thought this stewardship could be accomplished in a manner that also protects and even promotes economic interests. As the focused shifted from Conservation to Environmentalism many began to doubt this. A divisive political landscape emerged where some political leaders turned a blind eye to environmental threats primarily because addressing these threats would have an adverse effect on the economy and would also move us closer to what they feared was creeping globalism and loss of national identity. This helps explain part of the reason behind the irrational denial of the reality of global warming by many American citizens.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset
Upon my recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area I was astounded at the beauty and immensity of the Marin Headlands Natural Areas just across the bridge from the populated city. Are not these wide open spaces just as important to us as distant wilderness areas?

Preservation, Conservation, Environmentalism and My Personal Journey

As a landscape photographer each of these trends in the evolution of the environmental movement continues to effect me. I no longer seek to conquer the next frontier in landscape photography with daring treks to locations known to no other, in Washington State these locations no longer exist as has been the case for quite some time now. My frontiers have moved inward and have more to do with bringing to the photograph my highly personalized experience of the scene. I am still a big proponent of preserving all remaining road-less places commonly thought of as wilderness areas. Designated wilderness areas represent only 2 percent of the continental America landmass and are far too precious to be squandered for any economic gain. The drumbeat of the economy will not skip a beat if we keep these areas commercial free zones, shutting out potential mining and drilling interests. But I now recognize that many of these areas are wilderness in name only with commercial establishments common around their periphery, and through Eco-tourism including photography workshops throngs of people visit these places every day. The idealized concept of the wilderness, a kind of pristine and untrammeled Eden, exists primarily in photographs from professional and serious amateur landscape photographers, not in reality.

Garden in Paradise
This near far focus stacked image is actually fairly close to what a person would see from a low perspective, but am I trying to create the impression of a new found Eden with this image?
St. Helens First Light
With the eruption of St. Helens Nature has taken us from Ashes back to a kind of Eden, but are we overly romanticizing this event in our countless images with similar perspectives taken from roughly the same area Johnson Ridge?

I have also matured in my perspective about conservation and sustainable use of the land. We cannot only focus on preserving areas of sublime natural beauty if this comes at the expense of loosening protections of surrounding areas that provide critical habitat to birds and wildlife. Commercial harvesting of timber in our national forests need not have adverse effects on the environment and may even help control the spread of diseases and provide important fire breaks. Ecosystems extend way beyond National Parks and Wilderness Areas and some lead right up to the door highly populated metropolitan areas. Conservation of these ecosystems and protection of biodiversity out of necessity will need to take into consideration societal and commercial uses of this land. With my increasing awareness of environmentalism and that I live on a planet where all ecosystems are interconnected, I now also realize that although I may act locally I also need to think globally. We cannot solve such problems as global warming and contamination of our oceans without reaching out across national borders. Environmentalism has also taught me that ultimately I may need to make sacrifices to ensure the health of the planet, reducing activities with a heavy carbon footprint such as consumption of meat and use of cars and airplanes to frequently travel to far away wilderness areas.

Rainier Rising Over Nisqually Delta
This wildlife refuge borders the highly populated Greater Seattle Tacoma area, and hardly meets the definition of wilderness, but from a conservation perspective this is one of the most valuable partials of land around for providing essential habitat to birds, fish, and wildlife.

Back to our original question–Is it possible for landscape artists to inspire others through their creations to be good stewards of the environment? First let us look at this from a historical perspective of how one Landscape Painter, Albert Bierstadt, and one Landscape Photographer, Ansel Adams, had a profound impact through their ability to inspire to also shape the perceptions of the public on the environment in a positive way. Although Bierstadt is not a photographer, in his time painting was the primary visual method of artistically representing the landscape and his approach continues to have a major influence on landscape photographers in the present day.

Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (2)

The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Interstate 1888

In the above image, “The Last of the Buffalo” the legendary artist Albert Bierstadt portrays a dramatic confrontation of a Native American Plains Indian with a large buffalo. In this confrontation both the buffalo and Indian are going to die. The scene itself is heavily romanticized bearing little resemblance to anything real. The landscape itself is a composite of several scenes, with mountains, canyons positioned unusually close to the wide open prairie. Although there is a seemingly endless supply of live buffalo in the distance, old buffalo skulls and fresh carcasses are in the foreground and still other animals look at the confrontation with unusual interest. The image is not only a blend of different scenes but also a time blend of an earlier more Eden like wilderness with the end of the innocence in the decisive moment of the confrontation.

This was Bierstadt’s last painting completed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century close to the time when Turner announced that the frontier in American history had ended. By this time Bierstadt was acutely aware that the once vast heards of buffalo were nearing extinction and that most Native American tribes had already moved to distant reservations of largely undesirable land. Bierstadt intended this painting to not only raise awareness of the blight of the Buffalo and the need for conservation practices to protect remaining animals, but also to raise awareness of how the conquering of the American Frontier Wilderness displaced and brought great harm to indigenous populations.

The painting itself which was very large measuring 6 by 10 feet sold for $50,000, a record price for any piece of American art work in the 19th Century. The Last of the Buffalo in a immediate sense reflects Biersdadt’s reaction to the poaching of the Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The painting had enormous impact in raising awareness of the near extermination of the Buffalo with influence reaching to the top levels of the US Government and a short time later new measures were put into place to manage and preserve remaining Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.

Ansel Adams : Landscape Photographer and Conservationist Influencer Extraordinaire

Even today, no other landscape photographer is more associated with efforts to preserve wilderness areas than Ansel Adams. And yet is is difficult to point to any single image as the one that carried the message forward of the need to conserve and protect wilderness. Adams’s ability to capture the beautiful mystique of the wilderness, an emotional feeling that transcends the realism of the physical space that was also accurately represented in his images, is without parallel. When seeing his images, who would not want to preserve the last remnants of America’s beautiful wild places?

Mount Williamson 1944-thisis one of Adams’s most famous images and example of his capturing the “mystique of nature”. Adams took this photograph during his voluntary assignment to photograph life at the internment camp located at Manzamar for Japanese Americans during the second world war. The boulders in the foreground beautifully echo the shape of the distant peaks. Adams was convinced that the beauty of the Eastern Sierra provided the internees some respite from their captivity, but one could also view the field of large boulders as a metaphor for the challenges of living a life in prison when one committed no crime.

Adams’s role in the environmental movement started at an early age, when the Sierra Club took notice of his photos and recruited him as guide and their official photographer. Not long after that Adams was offered a board of directors position which he held from 1934 to 1971. The Sierra Club used Adam’s Images from his 1934 book titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail to help promote the creation of a new national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada.

The book Sierra Nevada The John Muir Trail influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. Ickes showed Roosevelt Adams’s book and Roosevelt was so smitten with the beauty of Kings Canyon he kept the book that Adams had originally give to Ickes. When the Roosevelt administration asked the Sierra Club to help support what they envisioned as a road-less and non-commercialized Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club immediately tapped Adams to go to the United States Congress to help promote the idea. Although there was a fierce debate in congress, the bill passed and the park was formally created in 1940. Imagine this today, the executive branch of government and the Sierra Club joining forces in the cause of conservation!

Half Dome Reflection
I am forever grateful to John Muir, Ansel Adams, and others for helping preserve this National Park Treasure

Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a landscape photographer who could inspire others to support conservation causes through the sublime beauty of his landscape images alone. These images did not overtly support conservation causes or document environmental issues. His ability to inspire, motivate and encourage others to aid the cause of conservation rested primarily on the respect he earned through his realistic representation of the natural world in the creation of his emotionally charged black and white images. In this role he is an excellent example for other landscape photographers to use their influence to support the higher cause of preserving and protecting the natural environment.

Lower Yosemite Falls
I can only imagine the sense of wonder that trailblazers John Muir and Ansel Adams felt with their first encounters of the Yosemite Valley

Reflections on Bierstand and Adams and a Changing Social Environment

These are just two examples of visual artists who had a profound effect on shaping the American perception of environmental issues. There are countless others both in the past and who are currently active, but I chose to concentrate on these two because of their special historical significance. Through their ability to inspire others with their creations, they also helped shape the political landscape resulting in changes the helped preserve and protect the environment. It can be argued that both individuals created idealized representations of the landscape. Their focus was primarily on places where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, not giving much attention to the more mundane aspects of nature. But it is the more mundane nature that is more typical of larger ecosystems that extend far beyond areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty. This might not have been much of a concern during the time period time of these two artists. But as we move forward to the current age where social media dominates as the primary way images are communicated much has changed.

Before and After Pictures of California Poppy Fields during the 2019 Super Bloom
Photo Credit worldsokayesthiker

Captivating images of places that are inherently beautiful (even with just a cell phone snapshot) can draw thousands of people to a site in a very short period of time. We saw this recently during the 2019 super bloom in Southern California where in a short period of time social trails emerged where there were none before due to a rapid influx of social media tourists-tourists who find out about a picture/selfie worthy spot of extreme beauty through posts made on social media. In this new social media reality many Landscape Photographers are reconsidering how they share images of beautiful locations. The initial reaction was to stop geotagging or providing specific location descriptions of where the images were taken. An organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Latter developments included public shaming of landscape photographers who violated leave no trace rules especially those who wandered off trail into flower fields. Although I believe both of these reactions, along with including reminders in posts about leave no trace principles, have had some impact in slowing down the pace of environmental damage caused by social media tourists, it has not stopped the damage that continues to creep further and further forward.

Future Steps

What is needed at this juncture in our history I believe is for landscape and nature photographers is to reevaluate what they take images of to begin with, not just focusing on the small areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, but to include in our portfolios a more balanced representation of the larger environment in which these areas of often idealized beauty are located. In short we need to get people excited about protecting and preserving nature in the broader sense, the environmental ecosystem/s, not just specific locations whether geotaged or not. For this we will also need to inspire people to develop a reverence for nature, and share more about our experience of nature and less about specific locations. In the remainder of this article I will discuss these steps in greater detail that landscape photographers can take to help shift the focus of attention and accomplish this goal.

Step One: Create and Post More Balanced Portfolios

Rather than put all your energy into creating a single epic image from a location, aim instead to create a balanced portfolio of images that better represent the variety of scenery in the environment you visited including its various ecosystems. In the pre-social media era this used to be more of the norm. Images were shared in collections often using slide shows, online galleries, or even heaven forbid albums with actual paper prints. It was common to see in these portfolios not only images of specific sites of iconic beauty (weather well known or not so well known) such as high mountain lakes and waterfalls, but also images of the macro world, intimate scenes, geological features, trees and the forest floor-in other words all aspects of the environment one has visited. Social media has reduced our attention span to less than a second per image so most photographers shifted their focus to just putting their most immediately impactful (not necessarily their best) image forward. For some photographers this also meant taking fewer risks and going to specific locations that have a proven track record of yielding popular images on social media sites. We all know some of the sites I am talking about: Mt. Rainier’s Little Tipsoo Lake, Delicate Arch, Oxbow Bend in the Tetons and numerous others that appear all to much in social media posts. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as these posts draw even people to these over visited tiny sections of our National and State Parks–this has got to stop and each of us can help. It will not stop through merely withholding location data-people are far too smart for that. As we publish more balanced portfolios and people get exited about the larger environment and variety of scenery, flora fauna, and geology–we will help stop the stampede and inspire others love for all of nature, not just an overly idealized wilderness Eden that Jackson Turner informs us long ago vanished with the settling of the American Frontier.

Creating more balanced portfolios may at first seem contrary to a highly curated approach to releasing nothing but the best images, but this need not be the case. I have seen excellent portfolios consisting of between three and five images. The portfolio taken as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts and some of the images within the portfolio such as excellent macro and intimate scene images may actually be rescued from social media obscurity as they achieve better context through their association with a strong balanced portfolio. Providing a backstory behind all of the images along with some natural history will also help establish needed context. Individual images can have their own stories and descriptions ideally presented as mini chapters of the larger story of nature and the environment. Portfolios where appropriate can also include images that are more documentary, highlighting before and after changes to the environment resulting from either good or bad behavior. The recent trend in including stories with multiple images on Instagram and Facebook is a step in the right direction, but many of these posts at this juncture still seem incredibly shallow to me. We need to take this to the next level of actual portfolio posts of images that can be viewed in more depth for longer periods of time than a quickly disappearing story.

Providing context to images will have the added benefit of helping arrest the sense of burnout many of us feel looking large collections of nothing but once in a life time epic images. After awhile we suffer from epic beauty overload. We appreciate images with epic sunsets, rainbows, and flowers at peak bloom in part because these are rare occurrences. But when we see it all of the time it is no longer rare. The viewer will only be able to participate in the emotions and experience of a rare event if the portfolio also has images that include some of the more mundane aspects of nature. These are absolutely necessary for the unfolding of the portfolios story. Consider it a creative challenge to present some of these more mundane aspects of nature in a creative light that will draw the viewer in. This is far more a meaningful test of ones photographic and artistic skill set that taking a compelling image of what everyone already knows is one of earth’s most beautiful places.

Step 2: Inspire Others to Develop a Reverence for Nature

With Thoreau’s publishing of Walden at the time the settlement of the American Frontier was reaching its end, Thoreau introduced to us a fresh vision of nature-not as a wilderness at the frontier waiting to be conquered (or in modern times something to be checked off of ones bucket list), but rather as the source of our personal and spiritual transformation. Thoreau himself found his spiritual fulfillment not in some faraway place of iconic beauty, but rather along the humble shores of Walden Pond only a few miles from his original hoe in Concord Massachusetts. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered. For more on Thoreau and Walden Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Walden Pond Rivisted
The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

In my encounters with Nature and Landscape Photographers I have found that most of them quietly share this Thoreauvian vision of nature as a source for spiritual fulfillment. For most of us Nature and Landscape Photographers Nature is our sanctuary. What better way to inspire others to share in this vision of Nature than taking the example from Thoreau and visiting Nature in close by places? What better way to shift the focus overly visited spots to nature in all of her manifestations than use our photographic and artistic skill set to find and unleash the often hidden beauty of nature in close by and often overlooked places? The beauty of these places in Thoreau’s words may not “rise to the level of grandeur”, but the beauty is there nevertheless. Once others see this beauty in our images, they will not want to retrace our footsteps to the same location but will be inspired to find nature’s subtle beauty everywhere, including in their own back yards.

Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
This is a beautiful scene taken in a quite ordinary second growth forest across the street from my house. I doubt hoards of people will be visiting this spot any time soon!

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions upon our movement and the need for social distancing, it is now more apparent than ever for the need for natural areas within walking distance of our homes. In her landmark book, The Nature Fix (4), Florence Williams explains why. Based on her scientific research, Florence creates a solid case that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Visiting these areas rather than alternative places far away also better for the environment because we do not need to use fuel/stored power to get there.

Cedar River Sunset
This gorgeous rive still wild and free is within walking distance of my home.


Fern Hill Forest
My place of quiet contemplation in a ravine about a thirty minute walk from my home.

Step 3: Share More of Your Experience of Nature and Less About Specific Locations

Rising from the Clouds
Numerous people asked me for the exact location of this image and I politely ignored their requests. A simple Mt. Baker I thought was sufficient for an image that had more to do with a combination of unusual weather conditions along with my own state of mind.

I have found that when I visit a National or State Park and let my own intuition guide me to what excites me about a place, it usually has more to do with the journey of movement through nature and the landscape and less about specific locations. I will call this the personal experience of nature. Getting this experience and associated emotional reactions into an image we share is no small task. It is relatively easy to go directly to known spots along the way the have high image potential, but our strongest images may not be there. Our strongest images will be those that integrate our internal experience of the place, call it our inner landscape, and the outer world of nature. Many of these images will not be at the obvious places of beauty. Creating and sharing our personal experience is also what will make our images more unique and better aligned to our personal vision. For more on personal vision see my blog post: Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self. There will be less emphasis on merely documenting a scene, however beautiful that scene may be, and more emphasis on creating art that although faithful to the material world leads to the transcendent and encourages others to embark on similar personal journeys through nature. For more on the transcendent in photography see my post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact. For more on sources of inspiration including internal sources see my blog post Sources of Inspiration.

Epilogue

Fast forward six years and I am on a return journey to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, once again with my friends from the Sierra Club. We are doing the 50 miles Spider Gap Buck Creek Pass Loop. Much has changed since my last trip six years ago. I notice there are about three times as many people doing this strenuous loop trip. What brought all these people here? Did I help contribute to the popularity of this loop trip through my social media posts? If hoards of people found this arduous multi-day backing trip deep into the heart of Washington’s most remote Wilderness Area is there anything left unexplored? Is there any longer a wilderness frontier for Landscape Photographers willing to go the extra mile or even the extra 20 miles?

Spyder Gap and Upper Lyman Lakes Basin

As I descend from Spyder Gap down a glacier toward the Upper Lyman Lakse basin I find myself attracted to middle of the day scenes transformed by distant clouds softening the light and changes in my own attitude. I am no longer just going for the iconic shot of Image Lake in epic conditions and am using my intuition and own thought process to help guide how I make my images. But I still feel the pull of social media shaping my expectations. Clearly I have a long way to go in this photographic journey.

Glacier Peak Gentium Flowers

I think back on earlier threats to this wilderness environment. Kennecott Copper had a legacy mining claim and planned to build a huge open pit copper mine on miners ridge that would have forever marred the epic view that we now take for granted from Image Lake. Thanks to the efforts of countless environmentalists and a land exchange this threat was ultimately put to bed. I think back when I was in my early twenties and made my first journey to Image Lake when I saw a huge group of long haired nature loving young people, scores of tents were pitched at the shore, and evidence of lake shore trampling everywhere. The condition of the lake is actually much better now. Are the selfie happy Instagram influencers any worse than this bunch of characters from my past?

Image Lake Viewpoint
I do not think this scene would be the same with a large open pit copper mine in the distance.

The long arm of history informs us that it is a mistake to assume that everything that is important and significant is happening right now. The current challenges may seem immense but there is opportunity to make a big difference just as there was opportunity at the time when Turner announced that Americas Wilderness Frontier is no more. It was not destiny that drove Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams to choose to use their artistry and influence to advance the causes of conservation. Although both were influenced by people who came before them, they both had free will and exercised that free will for the betterment of the environment. They made positive choices. As nature and Landscape photographers we too have free will. Will we use this free will to rise to the occasion? Will we use the artistry and craft of photography to inspire others to love and protect nature everywhere-not just in those spots where her beauty reigns supreme, but in all of her manifestations, some close to home, even out our back door? If we accept Thoreau’s message, that nature points to the divine, then our willingness to accept this challenge may also be the key keeping this pathway open for the salvation of the world and all of its inhabitants both human and non human, every living thing, even the spirits in our material world—keeping a pathway open to sources of inspiration for our children’s children and more generations still to come.

“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”. John Muir

“In Wildness is Preservation of the World” Thoreau

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright Originally Published September 2019, Revised Earth Day, April 22, 2020.

Thanks for reading this blog post.  I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts.  If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications.  If you feel so inclined please help me reach people who may be interested in this post through sharing.  In addition to this blog I also offer a quarterly news letter. To subscribe click here. Thanks!

References

(1) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the American Frontier in History, 1893

(2) Peter H. Hassrick, Albert Bierstadt Wintness to a Changing West, 2018

(3) Liz Sonneborn, The Environmental Movement, 2007

(4) Florence Williams, The Nature Fix, 2016

Announcing My Quarterly Newsletter

I just published my first quarterly newsletter. In this first newsletter I provide some guidance for visiting at peak bloom the wildflowers at Paradise Mt. Rainier. There also is a short article on a method I find very useful in creating compelling images of the wildflowers in their larger environment titled: “To Focus Stack or Focus Stack, That is the Question”. You will also find a summary of my new Apprentice Program where I work one on one with a photographer over a period of time of one year for skill set development and to help the photographer creatively find his/her vision. There are also special offers available only to newsletter subscribers and announcements of upcoming trips I lead for the Seattle Mountaineers.

Wildflower Rapture
Focused Stacked Image

Here is the link to my first newsletter: Summer 2019 Erwin Buske Photography Newsletter

Here is a link to where you can subscribe to the newsletter. Subscribe

I will of course continue to post informative and inspiring article here on this blog, but as has been the practice, blog articles will explore subjects in greater depth. The newsletter will only contain short articles that are easily read in a failry limited period of time. I encourage everyone to also subscribe to the newsletter and in many ways the blog and newsletter are designed to work even better together, although they will also stand on their own. Thanks so much everyone for being part of my photographic journey!