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. 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.

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

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

Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World

The image of Walden Pond, a serene place of imaginable beauty with a small cabin close to its shore, is somehow etched in most of our minds.  Few of us have actually been there or even seen a picture of the actual place.  Still Walden Pond has enduring symbolic value that finds its home deep in our personal psyche and our collective soul.  We may have recalled hearing about Walden Pond as part of our early education, but few can remember much about what they might have heard or read, and yet the image of the pond in our mind’s eye lingers and may even come into a clearer view with each passing year.

170623_walden_001 (1) John Suiter

Artist’s Sketch of Thoreau’s Cabin included on the title page of the original book, Walden or Life in the Woods, published in 1854.  

This is all consistent with Henry David Thoreau’s vision for the pond.  Although for Thoreau, Walden Pond was definitely a physical place,  Walden was also a metaphor for  an internal journey of self discovery and this metaphor has now been internalized in the hearts and minds of countless individuals.   Ultimately Walden straddles two worlds that are in reality a unity  The first world is an accurate, literal, and often highly detailed description of Thoreau’s two year stay at Walden Pond.  The second is a world of metaphor and symbols that allows us to internalize our own vision of Walden Pond as we travel with Thoreau on his internal journey of self-discovery that points to a transcendent world of soul and spirit.  In both the reader participates in this unity, making it a shared experience of transcendence.

Three Forks Dog Park Autumn0097-HDR

Walden Pond Revisited

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. 

My personal encounter with Thoreau began in in my sophomore year of high school.  As part of our reading assignment of Walden, the class walked over to a close by wooded area.  Each of us was instructed to find our somewhat isolated area in the forest and then to just sit quiet, letting go as much as possible of any preexisting thoughts.   With paper and pencil in hand and using all five of our senses, we were then to record in as much detail as possible our observations, thoughts, and emotions-what ever came to consciousness in our newly found forest home.  This modest assignment is of course what Thoreau did on a much larger scale at Walden Pond.  He left behind what he saw as the corrosive effects of society and moved to a small cabin in the woods close to Walden Pond.  His objective:

“I went to the woods because I wished to lived deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”

Central Tree

Young Tree in the Forest

I thank my High School teacher for encouraging me to go into the woods for this meditative experience.  It helped sow the seeds  for my almost life-long series of meditative journey’s, some small, others large, into the wonders and beauties of nature.  This meditative experience has also been part of my photographic experience since day one.  But like most of us, I have had many detours along the way of my journey into nature-impossible work schedules, striving for material success, and periods of time where my day to day activities and relationships with others did little to help nurture my soul and spirit.  For a short period of time I attended a New Thought church based upon some of the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists.  But I  found New Thought lacking in one very important area–nature.  Although New Thought placed a healthy emphasis on changing our minds to change our lives for the better, there was little or no emphasis on celebrating ones connection to nature that was so important in Emerson’s and especially Thoreau’s thought.  Getting married to my loving and supportive wife Julia, raising our daughter Caroline, and a renewed focus on nature and photography has done much to rekindle my spirit in the last two decades.  I am forever grateful to Julia, Caroline and living as close as possible to nature for helping reshape my life, making manifest sources of  inspiration to nurture and steadily evolve who I am as a person–my authentic self, my love for nature and ultimately the art and craft of my photography.

Secrets of the Forest Journey 2 272

Forest Carpet of Clouds

A couple of years ago I started reading and rereading Thoreau’s Walden again,  It is amazing how a book can take on new life and energy several decades later.  His message contained in the chapters of Walden Pond seemed to speak to me like never before, helping me to better communicate thoughts and impressions that have been going on in my mind for some  time.  In this blog post I will discuss my twelve takeaways from my recent reading and rereading of Walden Pond, offer some probing questions for everyone to consider, along with some questions more directed at  nature photographers.  This article, however, is intended for a wide audience of people, both photographers and non-photographers alike.  We all need the “tonic of nature”!

Before launching off on my takeaways I will lay some groundwork with  a discussion of the  following:  (1) A very brief biography of Thoreau, (2)  Thoreau and Transcendentalism, (3) and Walden Pond-a physical and spiritual place.

Henry David Thoreau a Brief Biography

Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life.   Thoreau studied at at Harvard University, graduating in 1837.  While still in college, in 1835 he contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.  He made his living by working in the pencil factory, by doing surveying, by lecturing and teaching, and by publishing essays in newspapers and journals. His income acquired primarily through side gigs, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication.  Thoreau did not identify himself with any of his lines of work and described his occupation this way  “My profession is always to be on the alert to find God in Nature, to know his lurking-places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, of nature.”

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A Walk in the Forest

A decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard.   The older Emerson introduced Thoreau to transcendentalism and encouraged him to start recording  his experiences in a journal.  Thoreau was a member of the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843, earning his living as a handyman. In 1843 he was a tutor to William Emerson’s sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson’s house.

In 1845, he received permission from Emerson to use a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. He bought building supplies and a chicken coop (for the boards), and built himself a small house there, moving in on the Fourth of July. He had two main purposes in moving to the pond: to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and to conduct an economic experiment to see if it were possible to live by working one day and devoting the other six to his practice of  contemplation, journaling,  reading, and walking– thus reversing the Yankee habit of working six days and resting one.   In the years after leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) but Walden itself was not published until (1854), a whopping seven years after leaving Walden pond. 
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IMAGE: 37 year-old Henry Thoreau by Samuel Worcester Rowse, as he appeared in the Summer of 1854 when “Walden” was published.

Thoreau who wrote “In wildness is preservation of the world” is often credited with being the father of the American Conservation Movement, not so much because of political advocacy but because he established that nature is essential for society to thrive and for an individual’s own spiritual growth.  Thoreau is also widely known as a nature writer and Walden is often refereed to as the urtext, the place where all American nature writing starts.  In addition to being a champion of nature, Thoreau is also known for his views on civil disobedience, mainly the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws.   Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King referred back to Thoreau to help explain their own acts of civil disobedience associated with the Indian Independence and Civil Rights movements respectively.  Thoreau himself was an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada.  He wrote strongly-worded attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Slavery in Massachusetts”) and on the execution of John Brown.

In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis with which he had been periodically plagued since his college years .    Thoreau’s best friend Emerson wrote and provided his eulogy (exerts):

“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature….The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

Thoreau and Transcendentalism

The the principal ideas of the American Enlightenment, the celebration of pure reason and the belief that science (at least how it was understood at the time) has an answer for just about everything, played a key role in the development of the American Republic from its founding until  the early part of the Nineteenth Century.   The elevation of reason also played a roll even in the practice of religion and this caused many transcendentalists to abandon the Unitarian Church because they perceived the denomination had an overly reasoned approach to explaining mysteries that defy rational explanation.   Toward the mid nineteenth century we see a counter movement in American culture and life based upon a Romantic notion more centered on intuition, emotion, and direct experience of nature as necessary conditions for developing an appreciation of the sublime and mysteries of life.  We see this in American Art as artists progressed from  primarily documentary portraiture to romanticized interpretations of the American Landscape.  We see this also in the literary world with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir and others.

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Sunset in the Rockies by Albert Bierstadt 

Emerson attributed the philosophical underpinnings of Transcendentalism to the Idealism of German Philosopher Emanuel Kant as explained in Kant’s book titled the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant divided the world into its two aspects: the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the material world we are aware of; this is the world we construct out of the sensations that are present to our consciousness. But if we limit our understanding of the world to appearances only, in other words what we can perceive empirically through our senses, our perception of the world is not complete and may actually be a kind of an illusion, and certainly not what Kant refers to as “the thing in itself”. The noumenal world consists of things we seem compelled to believe in, but which we can never know empirically because we lack sense-evidence of it. Kant also called this noumenal world “the thing in itself”, something that is beyond space and time.

Thoreau as a transcendentalist never denied the validity of the material world, but he also did not see the material world as compete. Both Emerson and Thoreau embraced the scientific method of empirical inquiry as it was understood at the time. This is especially apparent in Thoreau’s work as a naturalist, documenting and categorizing plants. But Thoreau’s inquiry as a naturalist was not limited to the material world, to what can be objectively perceived through the senses.. The path of self awareness transported him beyond the material world and through the embrace of wild nature took him to a noumenal world of soul, spirit and the divine.

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Phlox and Sun Flowers in Paradise–Columbia River Gorge

  Nature often has the ability to lure us deep into a rapidly unfolding scene, but at the same to elevate us to a place that seems beyond the temporal.  For more on Transcendental Nature see my blog post Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.

In Walden, Thoreau provides to us his personal story  of how in nature he reconnected with his own soul and its inherent divinity, thus fulfilling the potential for an ideal existence in the real world.  In doing this Thoreau takes us beyond theory of Kant and Emerson’s often abstract ramblings, and provides us a very accessible example of what our own transcendental journey might look like.

Walden Pond

Upon first reading Walden’s pond one may initially get the impression that Thoreau is merely providing a meticulously detailed documentary account of his experience living there for two years.  But as the book progresses it is clear that Walden Pond is more than that and is full of symbolism and metaphors for the awakening of the soul and spiritual growth.  This is clear in passages such as this one from the chapter titled, The Ponds, where Thoreau describes the water of Walden Pond like this “It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  It is also evident with this passage also from the chapter the Ponds:

“Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sites by it, and the railroad has infringed on its water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the changes is in me.  It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples.  It is perennially young.”

What I find remarkable from the above passage is that even in Thoreau’s own lifetime he witnessed the encroachment of civilization at Walden Pond, with a railroad visible from the pond, residences popping up , and the falling of most of the large trees.  But even in the midst of these physical changes, Thoreau thought that the essence of the pond had not  changed, and in a sense seemed to be outside of space and time.  Thoreau  suggests here that the spiritual aspect of Walden Pond transcends this material world and even his own perception.   It is the same pond where Thoreau discovers the depth of his own nature, that is his spiritual  self.  Ultimately Walden is both, part of this material world that is constantly changing and something eternal, beyond the material world and even sensory perception.  It is the genius of Thoreau that throughout Walden Pond  he is able to closely, inseparably, and artistically link  real and ideal worlds.  In this regard he far exceeds even his mentor Emerson and in my opinion anyone who has since appeared on the literary stage.

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Artist depiction of Walden Bond, Frederick Chide Hassan

In the Chapter titled Ponds Thoreau does provide as near to a  concise summary description of Walden Pond as can be found in the book:

” The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it  much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.   It is a clear and deep green well, a half a mile long and a mile and three quarters` in circumference, and contains about sixty one and a half acres, a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.”

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Cedar River Grove–This is a somewhat ordinary place along side a noisy suburban road that was completely transformed by natures gift of some special mid-morning light.

By Thoreau’s own admission, Walden was a place of understated beauty and not what we would now refer to as iconic or epic beauty.  It was very humble in its origin.  Many people are surprised to hear that Walden was only a couple of miles away from Concord Massachusetts.  This was not a remote spot even by the standards of the Nineteenth century.   But to Thoreau Walden was extraordinary in a couple of ways, its depth and purity.  Thoreau mentions that the shoreline drops so suddenly that one could take one step into the water and already loose touch with the ground and that  no none knew for sure the absolute depth of the pond.  The water is so pure that in the right light ones ability to see into the water appears almost unlimited.  Depth and purity of course are coincidentally qualities we normally associate with the spiritual world.    The Walden Thoreau has introduced us to, however, could be just about anywhere, even in our own backyards, and it is in that context I will now discuss my key takeaways from reading  and rereading several times the book.

(1)   Access to Nature is our Birthright

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  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 nature.”   Thoreau Walden Chapter 17 Spring

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Primordial Forest Flowers

This quotation comes in the closing chapter of Walden titled Spring.  With Spring Thoreau experiences a kind of rebirth of his soul.  Awakening from the depths of winter, Thoreau experiences an elevation of his spirit in his experience of the wonders and mysteries of nature.  With this awakening Thoreau recognizes the importance of nature for all of humanity.  Even as science finds explanations for much of what we can observe and study through our senses, there is a part of nature that will always remain mysterious and unfathomable.    The path to self discovery and spiritual growth for everyone goes right through Nature in all of her mysteries.  This is also a major  humane reason why it is so important to protect and nurture nature.   If we do not have access to nature or due to our recklessness we cause the destruction of nature, we are in effect cutting our selves off from the source of our spiritual development.    Ultimately “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”   Thoreau Walking. 

Drawing inspiration from Thoreau and others, I am a big champion of having wild places close to cities and suburban places.  I wrote about one such place in Waterfalls of Cougar Mountain.  Are there wild or semi wild places close to where you live?  How often do you visit these places?  For photographers, does your photography practice include frequent visits to nearby places where you can stay in touch with the pulse of nature on a near daily basis?

(2) What we need is a Breath of Fresh Air

” So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life and denying the possibility of change.  This is the only way, we say: but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from the center.  All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which it taking place every instant.  Walden Chapter One Economy”

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Olympics Sunset: Come Fly Away

With Thoreau’s decision to live at Walden’s Pond, we see a pattern that was also part of the journey of two other Transcendentalists.  The first is Thoreau’s teacher and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the second is the legendary conservationist John Muir.  All three of these individuals put different levels of emphasis on Nature as the source of renewal, with Emerson’s Nature being often being more abstract, Thoreau’s more internalized, and Muir’s a kind of mountaintop spirituality involving what are now iconic landscapes.  Nevertheless, a  major change that brings each of these men into a new and fresh contact with nature  plays a key  role in their journey of self discovery.  What we also see in all three of these individuals is a pivotal point in their lives when they leave an old world behind to embrace a new world where the vestiges and shackles of their old world can be discarded and left behind.

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Many scholars are reluctant to count John Muir as a Transcendentalist, but any in depth reading of Muir by those familiar with Thoreau and Emerson will see a close affinity of perspective and thought between these individuals.  Muir was a student of both Thoreau and Emerson and actually met Emerson for several days in Yosemite in 1871.  According to the Sierra Club which Muir founded, “Muir’s copy of the twenty-volume, 1906 edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau is heavily annotated, underscored, and indexed on the blank pages with extensive commentary by Muir”.  Muir’s interpretation of the religious spirit of nature is remarkably similar to the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau as is evident in this passage and others.  ““When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  In June 1893, John Muir visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and laid flowers on Thoreau’s and Emerson’s graves. ”  

With the untimely death from tuberculosis of Emerson’s first wife Ellen at the age of only nineteen, Emerson leaves the ministry and sets sail for Europe where he meets the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Emerson’s life is forever changed as he leaves behind established religion, and it is at this time that his new transcendentalist vision for salvation through direct experience of nature begins to take hold.  Later we also see something similar with Muir.  At age 29 Muir was blinded in  a factory accident.  Although his sight eventually came back, this was a tipping point in his life.  He left everything in his life behind, his job as an efficiency expert in the factory, his connection to the Church and his family, and embarked on a 1,000 mile march to immerse himself in nature, starting in Indiana and ending in Florida where he caught malaria.  This experience was the impetus to send him out west to California where he found mountaintop spirituality and set in motion his life long effort to conserve and protect the natural world.  Thoreau’s journey to Walden Pond,  just two miles away from Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts may not seem quite as grand, but this journey also represented his turning away from a society that in the face of rapid industrialization was causing people to live a lives of  “quiet desperation”.   For Thoreau, the true frontier was not thousands of miles away across the sea or land, but within his own consciousness as he immersed himself in the natural wonders of Walden Pond.

Is there a time period in your own life where you broke away from  much of your past and turned your attention to new images and a dream of a new future?   For photographers, has a major life change been part of your photographic journey and does this change still provide to you sources of inspiration?  Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision

(3) Voluntary Simplicity

“Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, Simplify.”  Walden

Thoreau lets us know his original intention for coming to Walden Pond  in the second chapter of his book title of his book “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For “

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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Window through an Old Growth Cedar Forest

This quote comes after the first chapter of the book titled Economy where Thoreau provides an elaborate explanation of how he was able to move close to the pond, build a small cabin, and largely become self sufficient with a small surplus that he could barter or turn into a small amount of money.  Adopting this kind of lifestyle for him was necessary to remove himself from what he saw as the unnecessary distractions of living life in a society that that does not nurture the development of ones soul.  These distractions also included not only employment in what was then fast becoming an industrial society,  but also the processions that often serve to complicate our life, weigh us down, making it difficult to follow or even hear the still quiet voice within.  Ultimately he wished to stand on its head the prevailing work ethic at the time of working six days and resting on the Sabbath, a goal which he successfully accomplished at Walden Pond.

Most of us realize at some point along our journey that the world we have constructed around our self, including such things as expensive homes, cars, well paying but demanding jobs, and even some of our complicated relationships with others-are adding unnecessary complexity to our life and standing in the way of living a more fulfilling life consistent with our true calling.  Unraveling this complexity and moving toward a  simplified life seems like a daunting task to most and for some maybe not even an option.  But living a more simple life will be necessary to create the time and space to move toward a life closer  to nature and getting in touch with who we truly are as a person, our authentic self.

Have you ever felt the need to simplify your life, and if so what steps have you taken to accomplish this?  For photographers, do you ever feel the life you have built around yourself including your occupation, even if nature photography, limits your access to sources of inspiration, including nature itself?

(4)  Daily Practice

A good part of the book Walden is dedicated to writing about Thoreau’s daily spiritual practice.  This practice consisted of the following: (A) contemplation, (B) journaling, (C) walking,  (D) conversations, and (E) reading.  All of these practices helped Thoreau establish a daily rhythm that helped him in the process of walking up to his true nature.  This process of waking up was not as much about finding meaning as it was about awareness and feeling fully live in the present moment.

Thoreau would spend hours in front of his cabin and along the shore of Walden Pond engaged in quiet contemplation. In doing this Thoreau was not so much seeking seeking answers, but letting nature reveal itself and speak to Thoreau on its own terms.  Thoreau also kept a daily journal for most of his life and these journal entries helped him describe what he was observing not just in a matter of fact way, but also in a more lyrical and evocative way.   Moving more toward a poetic description was necessary for those aspects of his observations which eluded a more precise description.  For example Thoreau would often feel a surging energy in nature, an experience better suited to poetry than his more scientific descriptions of nature. Walks were a regular part of his routine and these walks were meditative in nature with Thoreau immersing himself and being present in nature that surrounded him.

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Foggy Trail-One of the many trails I have close by access to for walking on a daily basis.

Although Thoreau lived a somewhat solitary existence at Walden, portions of the book are  dedicated to discussing his conversations with visitors.   In Walden Thoreau states: “I had three chairs in my house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  In the chapter visitors, Thoreau introduces his admiration for a wood cutter who would occasionally drop by for conversation.  The wood cutter seemed to be living in harmony in nature, but lacked any kind of intellectual or spiritual awareness.  This helped Thoreau realize that he must go deeper in his own spiritual practice, recognizing that it is not sufficient to just be working in nature such as in his own  practice of farming,  but that a deeper immersion involving deep thought and the mind is necessary.  It is noted in his second year at Walden Pond Thoreau cut way back on his cultivation of his fields to open up more time for him to spend experiencing nature without the distraction of work and toil.

Just like many of us take our favorite book on wilderness adventures (often Walden itself!),  Thoreau was an also avid reader during his quiet hours at Walden Pond.  At Walden Thoreau mentions multiple times his reading of ancient Hindu texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas.  All of these texts came from Mr. Emerson’s library and Thoreau read them without any interpretive assistance finding in them what Aldous Huxley famously termed the “Perennial Philosophy”, common themes that ring true in wide variety of ancient texts and cultural traditions.  To get a sense of the extent to which these texts captured his imagination consider this passage from Walden:

“I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well”.

Thoreau wrote to his friend Harrison Blake in 1849:  “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi!”     One actually finds in  Walden a beautiful story of one man’s realization of Ātman which is a Sanskrit word that means inner self or soul.  In Hindu Philosophy,  Ātman is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual, somewhat similar to the previously mentioned numinal world of the nineteenth century German Philosopher, Emanuel Kant.  What goes around comes around!   Thoreau’s genius is that in the creation of Walden he shared his story that made much more accessible to others this idea of moving beyond ego and the material world to self realization.

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Self Realization–Eagle Cap Wilderness Area

I have found in my own life there is nothing like a regular practice focused on nature to keep life in perspective and focus on what truly is important.  My practice includes all of the practices that Thoreau discusses in Walden, but I am sure I am not nearly as devoted to these practices as the master Thoreau!  These practices have also formed the groundwork for my creative pursuits especially photography.  Does your current life include time for daily spiritual practices, especially time in nature?  For photographers, do you often spend time in nature, without camera, just observing, listening, and absorbing what nature has to offer?

(5) Follow the Beat of Your Own Drummer

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  Walden Conclusion

Thoreau like Emerson and all Transcendentalists puts much emphasis on the need for individualism.  But in this passage Thoreau adds his own perspective.  If  one is not keeping up their peers in what are often competitive pursuits, it may not be because one  lacks the ability to keep up, but rather one is drawn to another calling.  In other words, the feeling of the need to compete in certain endeavors—for example for jobs that convey a sense of status and for bigger and better homes — may actually be taking us further away from our true calling and who we are as a person.  It is following a script set by society that has largely lost its connection to nature.  Thoreau points to another way that shuns conformity and this way involves moving closer to rhythms and pulse of nature.

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Boulder Garden–This image was taken below Little Si, not exactly an iconic spot, and often quickly passed over on the way to the small peak.  But on this day I followed a still small voice of nature that said this is the spot for meditation (and photography!) today.

Are you currently living the life you imagined for yourself?    Are there steps you can take, some small and some large, that can lead you to a life more consistent with your calling?  For photographers, are the images you are sharing on social media those which express your own voice and calling rather than conforming to some standard, not your own, that is associated with achieving recognition or popularity at little or no risk?

(6) Solitude

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”  Walden Conclusion

I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.  Walden Chapter Five Solitude

Lone Trillium in the Forest

Walking around Walden Pond, Thoreau experiences solitude in nature, but in this solitude he is not lonely, because he is part and partial of nature.  In his participation in nature Thoreau finds freedom: freedom from a societies institutions, competitive pressures, and petty gossip..  Nature prevents him from ever really being alone.  In the company of animals, plants, and the elements, Thoreau finds an inexhaustible source of spiritual nourishment.  Thoreau is careful to differentiate between solitude and loneliness, which one can feel even when one is in the company of other people.  For Thoreau in his experience at Walden Pond, it is solitude, not society, which prevents loneliness.   Even in solitude, one is connected to the natural world and web of life.

Do you frequently set time in your schedule to be alone with nature?  If not, are there some steps you can take to have what Julia Cameroon calls in her landmark book the Artist’s Way, a date with yourself, just you and nature?

(7) Inward Journey

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered.  Travel them, and be 

Expert in home-cosmography.  Thoreau  Walden Conclusion

In this passage where Thoreau is reflecting upon his experience at Walden’s Pond, he exhorts us to take the inward journey because this is where the true frontier of self discovery lies.  To find this final frontier, Thoreau reminds us there is no compelling reason to travel far and wide to disparate locations around the world.  The frontier lies at the intersection of nature and one’s own  consciousness where ever one may be, even at Walden Pond, less than two miles from his previous home in Concord, Massachusetts.  There is no better way to get to know oneself than through the natural world.  But it would be mistake to think one must first travel to a distant place or even a very particular place before taking the inward journey.  The right place and time to  start the inward journey is close to where you are in the here and now.   In every part of nature we can sense the interconnectedness of all of nature,  and every part of nature, however, small and humble, can lead us closer to the  heart and soul of  nature, both within us and without us.  We too are nature.  For more on the inward journey see Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self

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Inner Reflections–Henry M Jackson Wilderness Area

How much to we really know about who we are as a person, our authentic self?  What does it mean to you to direct ones eye inward and how might living a life close to nature help this process?  For photographers,  have you ever noticed that one of your images images of nature reflects both your inner and outer world?

(8) Be Here Now

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” .  Thoreau’s Journal Entry, April 24, 1859

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Bleeding Hearts of the Forest–I found this scene on one of my countless walks through a forest close to my home in a suburb of the greater Seattle area.  We need not travel far to find nature is one of Thoreau ‘s primary messages.

I believe there is no doubt that Thoreau intended Walden as a kind of spiritual guide for finding fulfillment in ordinary places, even one’s own backyard.  It is not just a coincidence that Walden’s pond was only a few miles from the Emerson home in Concord Massachusetts, and in the conclusion of Walden Thoreau specifically states one need not travel far and wide to find fulfillment.  It is a kind of irony that eternity can only  be experienced one moment at a time, but deep down inside I think we all know it cannot be any other way.  All of us must work with the life we have and stop trying to be something we are not.   Even in quite modest places and facing only the essential facts of life, great things are still possible for each of us and that is a key message of Walden Pond.

Living in the here and now at Walden Pond came easily to Thoreau, and  his daily observation of nature using all five of his senses  and documenting this experience helped establish the awareness that made this possible.  Granted Thoreau’s senses were  far more keenly developed than my own and most people reading this article, but living in the here and now is also possible for each of us if we focus on cultivating awareness through a daily practice of spending  quality time in nature.

Examine your own life and your typical daily schedule and ask yourself if you can find a regular time in  each day to be a witness to the wonders and beautifies of the natural world.  For photographers, how might cultivating a greater awareness of nature on a daily basis, employing all five of your senses, help you in continuing to develop the art and  craft of photography?

(9) Waking Up

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through we which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”   Walden Chapter -Where I lived and What I Lived For.

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Dawn of a New Day

For Thoreau the “infinite expectation of the dawn” is a metaphor for spiritual awakening, moving out of our often unconscious lives and living life in a much more conscious manner.  In Walden Thoreau states “to be  awake is to be alive”.  Thoreau thought most of us live lives of quiet desperation, being in a kind of semi conscious slumber, or in the words of Pink Floyd’s lyricist “comfortably numb’.  The script for our lives, however, is often not our own, but comes from a society that places more priority on material gain, status and popularity than spiritual development.  In this passage Thoreau reminds us there is another way and sounds a joyful and positive note.  Through living close to nature, simplifying,  and living a more conscious life, we have the opportunity to create and shape our own destinies.  Here Thoreau uses the examples of a sculptor or painter who are just replicating in their art the beauty that they see around them and comparing this to the sculpture or painter who carves and paints the very atmosphere and medium through which they look.  The later is not just documenting the world that they see around them but through their conscious actions as self aware individuals are creating something new.   The artist does not need to conform to the world that surrounds them.  The artist instead can become the center of his or her world and actually help shape this world making it a better place “worthy of contemplation”.

What does it mean to you “to elevate ones life through a conscious endeavor’?  Is there a relationship between our conscious awareness of each moment, where we focus our attention, and our own potential for growth?  For photographers what does it mean to you “to paint (photograph) the very atmosphere and medium through which you look” rather than just to paint (photograph) a few beautiful objects?  Is Thoreau talking about the process of artistic creation rather than just documenting a scene?

(10) Follow Your Dreams  “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”.    He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of  the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. ”  Thoreau Walden Conclusion

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Walking Into a Dream, Mt. Rainier

Once one has embarked on a path of voluntary simplicity, living close to nature and one begins to wake up and discover his/her authentic self and divine nature– it is time to create a vision to develop ones potential for greatness.  By greatness, Thoreau of course is not talking about  material success or ego aggrandizement, but developing a larger sense of self, ones true nature, grounded in spiritual awareness. Thoreau knows from his personal experience, and admonishes us, that the important thing is to move forward in the direction of our dreams.  This is what Thoreau did with his experiment at Walden Pond and in the years following when he created the book Walden, a Life in the Woods, and this path is available to us as well.  Each individual’s journey will of course be different.  In finding our vision, however, we should not just settle for the ordinary.  The vision needs to be challenging and creative.  Once we start to move forward, what at first may have seemed impossible will seem less difficult and step by step our larger sense of self and potential will come into view.    It is as if  all the universe and all of its laws want us to succeed and we will.  Transcendence involves creating a new vision of reality and ones relationship to it.  Once one realizes this new vision, there is no turning back.  It is as though one has passed an invisible boundary and the only way lies forward.

Looking back at the successes in your life that you feel best about, were these also times where you moved in the direction of your dreams without knowing  for sure how all the pieces would come together?  For photographers, what are your dreams for the future?  Do your creative dreams put nature first ahead of plans for commercial success?

(11) Stay Grounded

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them”.  Walden Conclusion

Although Thoreau encourages us to dream big and have lofty goals, he places equal emphasis on staying grounded.  In a sense with Walden,  Thoreau is ushering in the possibility of change and a new vision with nature at its center to help us reach our highest potential.  But this new vision for personal transformation needs a  solid foundation.

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Beauty at the Forest Floor

Emerson wrote in his essay the Transcendentalist   “We have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands.”  Thoreau gave his dream a solid foundation through multiple actions discussed in Walden,  not just the building of the foundation for his small cabin in the woods and his work in his garden, but also his daily spiritual practice of contemplation, walking, conversations, writing, and reading.  Living our dream will not be a constant experience of divine ecstasy.  Beware of false new age prophets who promise this.  A good portion of our time will be spent finding a balance of tending to doing what is necessary to secure our basic needs and in our free time tending to our daily spiritual practice.  With this foundation work in place, we can direct the remaining energy to pursuing our creative vision.

What activities and pursuits in your life help you to feel grounded?  Is it possible to pursue your dreams but at the same time cultivate those activities which keep you grounded?

(12) Rebirth

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”.  Thoreau Walden Conclusion  

When Thoreau decided to embark upon his experiment in simple living at Walden Pond, he did so in part because he thought that his life had become to routine.  Living at Walden Pond taught him many things not the least of which was the rhythm and cycles of nature.  Nature is constantly reinventing itself, not only with the changing seasons, but in the longer term with transformations of the landscape itself.   After two years at Walden Thoreau once again thought his life had become routine and it was time to redirect his energies.

From Ashes to Eden

In an area that in recent times was ashes and dust following the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, we now see beautiful fields of flowers to direct the eye to this still active volcano.

Although Thoreau kept journal entries at Walden Pond, the book itself was not yet written and it would take him another seven years to finish the creative masterpiece that now serves as a modern day myth and guide for achieving personal and spiritual transformation through immersion in nature.  Thoreau also firmly believed that personal and spiritual transformation through nature would lead one to a higher moral outlook.  Thoreau had much more work to do in gathering and writing his thoughts on the importance of civil disobedience, and his own role in supporting the abolition of slavery.  Had Thoreau lived longer we likely would have seen a lot more from this champion of nature.  His legacy however is born anew everyday in the lives of millions of people the world over, bringing them closer to nature and its protection, inspiring the quest for spiritual growth, and encouraging people to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with their own conscience.

Do you sometimes feel that you have many more lives to live?  Do these feelings cause you to make changes in you  life to help you to live the life/lives you imagined?

Conclusion

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“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.  ”  Thoreau Walden 

Walden or Life in the Woods, is a spiritual guide for the process for each of us to wake up to our own divine nature.  Although Walden was a physical place, Thoreau wanted each of us to embark upon a journey to our own Walden Pond.  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.

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019

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References and Additional Resources:

Walden or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854

The Journal 1937-1861 Henry David Thoreau, Edited by Damion Searls

Thoreau As Spiritual Guide, Barry M. Andrews, 2000

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, By Laura Dassow Walls, 2017

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists, By Great Courses

The Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1842

Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photographers

The Thoreau Society

The Walden Woods Project (founded by Don Henley)

The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1944

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster, 2008

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