Bad weather can ground airplanes. Parents ground children for bad behavior. And a microscopic virus has ground life as we knew it to a halt. What’s a nature photographer to do?
Aldo Leopold said, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” I am definitely of the “cannot” camp. The camera is my tool for exploring wild things and increasing my understanding of the world and my place in it. Getting splashed by thousands of spawning salmon pulsing up an Alaska stream, sitting near a Patagonia puma and her three cubs feeding on a guanaco or looking into the eyes of a mother mountain gorilla in Rwanda as she nurses her infant—in moments like these, I am bursting with joy and grateful to be alive. But why? I used to think it was because I was seeing something new. Whenever we see something for the first time, it’s easy to be filled with wonder. And yet for me, the novelty of wild things has never worn off, no matter how many times I return to a place or see familiar wildlife. Instead, I feel a deep sense of connection to the earth and all of its inhabitants. I feel—grounded.
To experience the best of wild things, I have ventured to places where the natural processes of life are still functioning as they always have. Where the circle of life is whole. But ecologically intact ecosystems are increasingly difficult to find in a world where we’ve converted wildlands to farms, factories and toxic waste dumps. And so I’ve long believed that travel, sometimes to faraway places, is the only way to experience a connection to the wild and the feeling it evokes in me. Or is it?
In the early days of the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt like a punished child grounded to the confines of my living space. The days melded into one long continuous stream of hours. Lots of repetition. Lots of bouncing off the walls in my house and in my mind. But a photographer has to shoot, and an explorer has to explore. So, I dusted off my camera and set out on a grand adventure—to my backyard.
While I’m always appreciative of the nature I see on a regular basis at home, I don’t often photograph it. Not because it doesn’t inspire me, but because I’m usually too distracted doing other daily chores. The beauty of travel is that I walk out my door and leave the distractions behind. I’m free to focus and be physically and mentally present. Could I do this in my own backyard? More important, could I feel that deep sense of connection to nature in a not-so-wild place?
I photographed the usual suspects: black-tailed deer, Douglas squirrels, coyotes, goldfinches and other animals. I photographed Douglas fir trees, plump salmonberries, and maidenhair ferns. I shot cloud patterns and stayed up way past my bedtime to capture Comet NEOWISE streaking across the night sky. The more I photographed at home, the more I realized that physical confinement doesn’t have to mean mental confinement. Beauty is everywhere, in every moment. We just have to choose to see it. The fine hairs on a squirrel’s bushy tail backlit in the afternoon sun, the emergence of billions of stars at dusk or the flick of an alligator lizard’s tongue—good grief! It’s all so incredible.
One cool summer morning, a dragonfly brought me to my knees. Grounded on a concrete slab, the insect remained motionless. Was it even alive? I carefully crawled toward it. The powder-blue markings on its body, the delicate legs, and the wings—oh, the wings. Viewed through a macro lens, the wings looked like miniature panels of stained glass. The tiny “panes”—some clear, some blue—formed an intricate mosaic. Viewed at certain angles, the iridescence of the panes bounced unfathomable beauty back to my eye. My entire being buzzed. And the wings before me began to buzz, vibrating and blurring as nature’s flying machine warmed its engine in the dawn sun. At liftoff, the dragonfly hovered in front of my face and then took flight, leaving me grounded to the earth in a heap of gratitude.