I grew up living on the edge—the edge of urban and rural in Illinois. The best days of my childhood were spent climbing trees, searching for salamanders and chasing fireflies on warm summer nights. In my young mind, I explored new places and discovered things no one had seen before, seldom straying from my backyard borders. On weekends, my family piled into the car and headed for the nearby county forest preserve. Free to roam, my siblings and I went feral. Shedding our shoes and splashing into the creek that wove among oak, maple and elm trees, we spent hours stalking frogs and turtles. Hours overturning rocks and watching crayfish scurry away from our clutches. Hours listening to bird songs. I didn’t know it then, but I was honing the skills required for photographing wildlife and nature: curiosity, awareness and patience.
The outings to the forest preserve and to the depths of my imagination sparked my wanderlust. In high school, I spent a month exploring the Rocky Mountains and canyon country of Colorado and the American Southwest. Through a travel study class led by my photography and history teachers, I ventured to six national parks. Hiking among hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, squeezing through doorways of ancient cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and shooting star trails in Arches—more honing of outdoor travel and photography skills.
As a young adult, I learned outdoor survival skills and made longer and longer wilderness trips off the grid, traveling by foot, raft, canoe and kayak. And always with a camera. Watching thousands of caribou migrate in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, paddling among alligators in Everglades National Park, and smelling the annual feast of spawning salmon in the Tongass National Forest, I made spectacular photographs in these wild settings. But more importantly, I made discoveries that can’t be captured with a camera. I learned that I can bushwhack many miles through a forest carrying a canoe and all my survival gear. I learned that I can survive snow storms, clouds of ferocious mosquitoes and blistered feet if I am prepared with the proper gear and mental attitude. I learned that there is not one way to live in the world, but many ways. And I learned to appreciate things that I once took for granted, like clean water, clean air and solitude.
For a long time, I thought that I had to have a purpose on each wild adventure. In search of the perfect photograph, I believed I had to come back with publishable images. I spent a lot of time chasing my tail while chasing elusive subjects. But a funny thing happened on the way to the wild. I went in with a camera and came out with a view. A view of what it means to be a part of the world, what it means to be human, what it means to just be. The more time I spent living by nature’s rhythms and not by a clock, the more I slowed down. And it is only when we allow ourselves to hear the quiet space in our minds that we can then truly see and feel. And that’s when the magic happens. For photography, for spirit, for life.
I often think back on the pivotal experiences in my life that shaped who I am today. There are many, but the common thread to all of them is time spent outdoors in wild places, all of which are public lands: parks, wildlife refuges, forest preserves, marine sanctuaries and more. Places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Point Reyes National Seashore. Places that we as a nation said were too sacred to be plundered. Places to be proud of. Places entrusted to all of us. What a gift.