A Bear Story

I did something I’ve never done before: I went hiking alone in Grizzly country.

I took my camera and, with no other hikers pushing me onward, my hike was pretty much doomed. Rather than hiking the 5 miles I’d planned, I spent about 3 hours loosing myself to photography without covering much ground.

At one point, I found myself panning with a flower that was whipping around in the wind, shooting a fly acting shockingly like a bee. I suddenly realized I’d been sitting there for more than 45 minutes.

That’s when I decided I needed to make some tracks. No sooner than I’d gotten some momentum going, I ran into a man hiking the opposite direction who told me he’d seen a grizzly about 10 minutes back on the trail (or 2 hours in photographer time).

I was both excited and worried. I was alone and had no bear spray. Neither condition is recommended in grizzly country. But, the man said the bear was far from the trail and distracted by the huckleberries that were in peak season.

I went on. Minutes later, I encountered a couple singing loudly. A sure sign of a bear sighting! Sure enough, they too had seen a grizzly a few minutes back. The moment they shared this information, I looked up and said, “Oh, look, there’s one now!” A grizzly had just crested the ridge above us and was headed in our general direction, although still 200 yards away.

I immediately did what any photographer does and grabbed the camera with my longest lens on it and started firing. Except, I was so excited I failed to read my meter and had to readjust and shoot again. As I fired off 3 more shots at good exposure (but with a heck of a lot more motion shake than usual), the bear started running towards us.
“And now he’s running towards us,” I said to the couple. The woman immediately asked her husband if the safety was off their bear spray can. I suggested we start backing up slowly.

The bear was closing the distance at a pace fast enough to scare the life out of anyone experiencing a grizzly running towards them for the first time.

We moved slowly for a few steps, and then more quickly, soon walking at a fast clip while glancing over our shoulders and talking loudly. When we passed trees that were between us and him, we lost sight of him (which was almost scarier).

We never saw him again. I suspect he was running towards a huckleberry bush that happened to be in our direction. However, it was scary enough that I decided to hike out with the couple and call it a day.

It took us 20 minutes to cover the distance that took me 3 hours on the way in.

My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to get a better shot.

Trust

Sometimes we need to trust ourselves. Sometimes we need to shut out what everyone else tells us and follow our own hearts. But other times, we have to accept that maybe our perception is dead wrong.

This is pretty terrifying really.

It’s hard to buck the system and decide no matter what anyone else says, you’re going to do the thing that makes you happy. For example, why do people who supposedly love us tell us not to follow our passion? I think it’s because they’re scared. Scared as much for themselves as for us.

Here’s an analogy: during my first marriage, my ex and I hadn’t been romantically involved for several months. I saw a romantic movie and when the couple started kissing passionately, I burst into tears. It was the pain of being reminded of what I was missing that made me cry. Having it thrown in my face broke the dam I’d built to keep all of that pain in check. Sometimes we’d rather believe something isn’t possible than to see someone else doing what we’ve dreamt of.

On the flip side, sometimes our perceptions are just wrong. Let’s take a wedding where we stress over details that no one else will notice or care about. Leading up to a wedding, many a bride (sorry to be sexist, but I have yet to meet a groom who felt similar stress about his wedding) will freak out about any one of a million minute details that no guest will ever notice.

The importance of details like how party favors are presented on the tables, the font of the invitation, or the subtle shade of blue that doesn’t quite match between the cake frosting and the napkins grow vastly out of proportion.

Yet, if you’re getting married, no one–NO ONE–cares if the blues are slightly different shades. What does matter is that you’re happy you’re getting married. That’s really the only detail you need to worry about: are you happy you’re getting married?

When we get into a state where things like matching shades of blue seem like life and death situations, we need to let go and trust in someone else’s judgment. But how do we tell the difference between when our own compass has been dropped vs when someone else’s advice is coming from their own fears?

Sometimes this is relatively easy. If we take a few deep breaths, there’s a place in most of our stomachs that will tell us that our best friend is right that the shades of blue are fine. Other times, it’s tough. Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching to distinguish between whether what we believe is right or whether maybe, just maybe, we should accept someone else’s opinion.

Sometimes the opinions we hold with the most certainty are exactly where we need to listen to someone else. If only there were a simple test to determine when we’re off base.

Bearing Witness

I imagine I look odd walking through the park with my dog, me carrying whatever toy he’s dropped, my camera, a loupe, and a pair of binoculars.  Probably even odder when I suddenly and without warning drop the leash, step on it, pull up my camera and line a bird in my sights all while talking to the dog, encouraging him to stand still while I attempt to capture a bird that is probably backlit, behind layers of leaves, and likely perched on a tree limb blowing in the wind.

I asked myself the other day why I do this.  I mean, what is it about photography I find so appealing that it’s now been a consistent pursuit for enough years I’d rather not add them up?

I think it comes down to this: photography is a recreation of life. There is in any given image a combination of fact and fiction. A bird, for example, looks the way it looks in a final image based on an endless combination of variables. Some of them I control.  Many of them I don’t.  In the end, any image represents one interpretation of a single moment and the odds of getting an identical image ever again are minuscule–just like the rest of life.

In this act of controlling what can be controlled and dealing with what cannot, there are lessons photography offers.  For example, you can see the same thing a multitude of ways and they are all correct.  And then there’s the expansiveness that results from constraints:  you see more looking through the blinders of a camera frame–it’s as if restricting your view causes better vision.

There’s also the inherent paradox of time.  You capture a moment by being completely in the present with a vision of a future image.  But by transforming that moment into an image, creating that vision of the future, you’ve brought with you a moment from the past. It is the only actual form of time travel that I’m aware of.

Most importantly, when I shoot, I am listening, looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling with the concentration of a hound dog in the hope of gaining a clue about where my next subject will unfold. Thoughts about the past and future get pushed aside, making space for the possibility contained in the present.

Ultimately, photography is an act of gratitude.  Gratitude for having borne witness to something remarkable–whether it’s a weed being struck by the sun, a puffy cloud that happened to show up just when I was looking, or the sudden appearance of a rare bird.  The desire to capture each of those moments requires appreciation of them as subjects worthy of attention.

In this way, photography gives gifts.  It hands me moments I would not have noticed had I never picked up a camera. Never mind the endless struggles and failures at getting exactly what I envision.  Just having been there, fully there, to witness those moments is enough.

Showing Up

I remember once, many years ago when I was teaching for a community college prison program, having a conversation with another instructor who was telling me about advice he’d given a student.  He’d told the student, “Just show up.  Showing up is half the battle.”

I was reminded of a student in one of the classes I taught during my teaching certification field experience.  He showed up to class, sat down, put his head down on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.  I asked him if he was feeling OK and he told me he’d been up until 2AM that morning playing video games.  When I asked him how he expected to succeed in school if he didn’t sleep at night so he could stay awake during class, he replied, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I think this requires considering what “showing up” means in this context.  It doesn’t mean physically moving your body from one point to another and not actually being there mentally.  Showing up means paying attention, watching and listening for opportunity to present itself.  It implies both an awareness and recognition of opportunity.

Even with this revision of the definition, I don’t know if I agree that just being there is 50% of the battle.  There’s also preparedness.  It doesn’t do much good to realize you have an opportunity if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it.

For example, I walk my dog in our neighborhood park 3-4x a day.  I spend this time mostly looking for birds.  I am aware, paying attention, watching and listening for the opportunity to see interesting birds present themselves.  However, I’d really like to get great images of these birds.  Yet, in spite of this desire, 9 times out of 10, I rush out the door with the dog but not my camera.

The opportunity to photograph birds presents itself nearly every time I walk, but only 10% of the time am I prepared to actually capture an image of a bird.

Yet, oddly, I seem to be less likely to see birds when I am most prepared.  This is like seeing that the weather forecast is for rain, taking an umbrella, a raincoat, and wearing waterproof boots only to have the weather turn sunny against all odds.

If we apply statistics to this equation, I think it comes down to this:  I’m going to see birds I could photograph 90% of the time I walk.  If I carry a camera only 10% of the time I walk, the odds that I will actually capture an image of a bird drops to 9 times out of 100.

Like everything else in life, showing up, being present, and being ready have to come together with luck.  The more frequently we do our part, the more frequently our readiness will connect with good fortune.  So, I guess that means I will be carrying my camera a lot more often in the future!

A Bigger Small World

Some days, it feels like you’ve reached an end of sorts.  I had one of those days this week.  I sat on our balcony watching the sky change to a gentle gray as the sun came up somewhere out of sight.  I sat on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and Stringer’s Ridge and felt caged.  I sat on the balcony and thought, “This is not my life.”

It’s a paradoxical thought to have–after all, of course it is my life.  At least, I hope so.  It’s the only life I expect to have; I’d like it to be mine.

But sometimes life feels too small.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I am sometimes overcome by the sensation that the world has shrunken to less than a half of a square mile.  Then, I go walk that half of a square mile listening to the birds and I smile.  It’s not such a bad ½ square mile.

Spotting a large flock of Cedar Waxwings while walking Tisen the following morning, I was surprised by how still they were.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I decided to take a chance after getting inside, grabbed it and ran back down.

The whole flock remained.  Some were roosting.  Periodically, small groups would fly down to the wetland to drink.  The rest were content to watch me.  I wondered if the world had started to feel small to them, too.

It’s funny how the size of the world shrinks and expands based on who is part of the world with you.

I entertained them with my funny, long lens and they entertained me.  For the few moments I spent intensely focused on the birds, watching them and waiting for moments to shoot, my world was simultaneously microscopic and infinite.  That such creatures exist bend the mind.  With their bandit masks, neon-yellow dipped tails, and red-wax-tipped wings, they always make me imagine a bird super-hero.

In spite of how common they are, the Cedar Waxwing goes surprisingly unnoticed.  I did not see one for the first time until I was around 30 even though I knew what they were from bird books–most people overlook them because they don’t know they exist.  I’ve had numerous people ask me about seeing a small, gray cardinal, knowing I like birds and hoping I could tell them what they saw.  Like me, these are people who are well into adulthood, yet they had never seen a cedar waxwing before.

Perhaps that’s why a flock of birds can make life seem bigger.  That something can be right under our noses (or above our heads) and go unnoticed makes it seem possible that there are many other missed possibilities within the confines of whatever portion of the world we inhabit.  The potential to discover something new in the same half of a square mile suddenly makes the possibilities seem endless.

Being Busy

Every time I believe I have reached the absolute peak of busyness, that if I have one more thing to do I will simply collapse, I get busier.  I remember when I thought I was incredibly busy 20 years ago.  I had a job that required me to work a lot of extra hours maybe one week every other month.  What was a long day then is just a normal day now.

I played softball in the summer, volleyball in the winter, and even tried the corporate bowling league one season.  I had the highest handicap ever achieved by any participant–at our first match, my highest score (out of 300 possible) was 37.  My handicap was largely responsible for my partner and I taking the league championship that year–I decided to retire from bowling after that.

I went on ski trips, played cards once a week, socialized regularly with friends.  I guess I was busy, but I spent a larger percentage of each day doing things that were just for fun.

These days, the constant incoming stream of information, multiple mailboxes continually filling, Google beckoning whenever I don’t know the answer to a question, Facebook friends posting interesting articles and stories keeps all of us jumping from one subject to the next nearly continuously.  Newsletters, informative articles, and don’t even get me started on YouTube.  It’s not a tube; it’s a black hole–no one really knows if or where you come out if you dare to enter.

Almost every person I know describes themselves as having ADD.  I’m not clear on the medical diagnosis of ADD, but I’m reasonably certain that it’s statistically improbable that every person I know (mostly adults) actually has ADD.

Yet, that doesn’t stop me from wondering about myself.  I walked into the kitchen 3x the other day, forgetting what I needed as soon as my foot crossed the threshold. I never did figure out why I thought I need something from there.  Is being so distracted all the time combined with the overwhelming amount of information streaming through our lives that makes us so scatterbrained?

And what about those moments when you sit down to do something that you really ought to spend time concentrating on only to have your brain start pinging you, wanting to know when the next interruption is coming?  I have to believe that our brains are becoming more and more trained to look for any distraction to avoid concentration and deep thought.

And is that what ultimately leads us to jam pack our calendars for every minute of every day?  Our secret desire to constantly hop to something new?

I don’t know.  All I know is that if I don’t shutdown now, I will be writing in my sleep.

Finding Elk

As you may recall from last week’s post, Pat, Tisen, and I went to Asheville for the weekend and went up to Great Smoky Mountain National Park very early last Saturday morning in search of elk.

In photography, there is a phenomena I think of as the “lens law.”  This law dictates that when you have a long lens on your camera, you will see the best sweeping view ever (requiring a wide lens) and when you have a wide lens on your camera, you will see wildlife or distant subjects (which require a long lens).  This is why I often carry two cameras.

However, since we had given up on seeing any elk and were only going to do a short walk along a river behind the Oconaluftee visitor’s center, I slapped my 24-70mm lens on my full frame camera and left the second camera and long lens behind.  This is the surest way to guarantee you will see wildlife–just as leaving an umbrella in the car guarantees it will rain cats and dogs.

We made our way slowly down the 1 ½ mile trail with me stopping frequently to shoot.  The trail paralleled the main road to the visitor’s center with a line of trees between the trail and an open field leading to the road.  As we neared the turn-around point in the trail, I climbed down to the water’s edge to shoot ice on the river.  When I turned and climbed back up the bank to the trail, I was shocked to discover an entire herd of elk making their way into the grass field.

Cars on the park road started accumulating along the shoulder as passers-by gawked at the elk.  The elk, slightly nervous, moved deeper into the field.  We walked slowly along the trail, trying not to spook them with our movement, sending them back to the road.  I crept into the trees between us and the field, trying to only glance at them enough to confirm that they weren’t concerned about me moving closer.  When I got to a tree at the edge of the field, they all stopped and looked at me.  I froze and looked away.  They decided I was harmless and went back to grazing.  I fired off a few shots with my wide-angle lens, silently cursing myself for leaving my telephoto in the car.

Then, I moved slowly back to the trail and we high-tailed it back to the car.  After a quick lens change, we drove down the park road on the far side from the elk.  We sat on the shoulder, joining the rest of the gawkers, and I shot at will out an open car window.  While the light conditions weren’t what I’d planned for and grazing elk are not quite as dramatic as, say, elk playing or running or just about anything else, I was pretty darn pleased I got any shots of elk at all.