Discover more from Too Much at Once
other languages, other views (wildlife part 2)
finding refuge and maintaining connection in uncertain times
Why take photographs of wildlife?
In my last post, I wrote about how wildlife photography helps me find where I fit in the world. In another way of thinking, wild animals have also taught me a lot about life, death, and what it means to be alone.
Obviously, many species live solitary lives in isolated landscapes…wilderness areas, national parks, wildlife refuges. When I’m in such places, I’m often by myself as well.
But for humans, isolation often means loneliness. An isolated life is without connections, without security, with little comfort, and with little meaning.
Instead of living in isolation, however, one can live in solitude. Solitude is not loneliness, but instead it can be a refuge, a grounding in place and time, surrounded by security and quiet contentment. My science background cautions me about ascribing human thoughts and characteristics to animals, but nevertheless, that kind of solitude is where I like to think wildlife exists.
Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams
In a previous post I mentioned that there were two books that have broadened my perspective on photographing animals. The first is Down from the Mountain by Bryce Andrews.
The other book is Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge (Vintage, 1991). It’s about the persistence of life — and death — among human families and in nature. Williams details her mother’s decline from cancer while she also documents environmental changes in her beloved Great Salt Lake in Utah. Through her connection to nature and to others, she finds refuge in an uncertain world.
I often think about the first 12 months of the COVID pandemic of 2020. It was a time of doubt, uncertainty, and fear we all shared. And it was a time of isolation from one another.
The pandemic was also a period of personal transition for me. Right before it swept over us, I had gone from working full time into early retirement. I had left a busy job overflowing in human contact for a situation where sometimes the only other person I would see for days was my wife.
I was hidden away in a private upstairs bedroom with my books, my photographs, my laptop, and my cats. Those first days, weeks, and months of the early pandemic for me became a time for reading, for thinking, and for quiet introspection. It was my refuge from an outside world that was raging.
Even then I struggled, sometimes lashing out with anger and tears with worry about family in distant places. People were dying. My own daughter was on the medical front lines working as an EMT in Manhattan. Her stories were real and frightening.
I coped by helping others in my community. It is remarkable to look back now, remembering how a simple visit to the grocery store or post office felt so dangerous and life-threatening. But running seemingly risky errands for others gave me an opportunity for connection. Life went on. I still had my solitude in my room at home but I was no longer isolated.
Then just when things seemed to be steadying a bit, early that summer a series of highly publicized killings brought institutional racism and white supremacy into the open. Again, it was impossible for me to stay hidden away. Despite the concerns I felt about being on the streets, the urge to be connected to others was strong. I went places with my camera.
In those days, I spent countless hours pouring over these photos. My heart ached for the world. But again I was part of it, and for that I was thankful.
By February 2021, air travel became possible. I booked a flight from our home in New Hampshire to Fort Myers, FL. It had been a year since I had seen my 92-year-old uncle who lived there by himself.
Years earlier, my mother had moved to Fort Myers to live with her younger brother. When she died, I became primarily responsible for his well-being. I learned that his life had been a series of events, situations, and choices that caused him to become increasingly fearful and isolated from the world around him over time. He was sometimes called a “mean old man.” He was outdated in his views of the world. He was willful, defiant, and often difficult to care for, but I still visited him as often as I could. During the pandemic, however, those regular visits stopped, for his safety and for mine. So when the restrictions on travel were lifted, I was anxious to see him.
Things had been disconcerting for everyone during those months, but for my uncle it had been an especially challenging time. A lifetime of isolation had led to extreme loneliness. And when I got to his house I could see noticeable signs of his aging. For the first time I felt the strong approach of his death.
For that flight down to Florida, I carried Williams’ book. I was especially moved by this particular passage where, considering death, she finds comfort through her connections with the world.
“There are other languages being spoken by wind, water, and wings. There are other lives to consider: avocets, stilts, and stones. Peace is the perspective found in patterns. When I see ring-billed gulls picking on the flesh of decaying carp, I am less afraid of death. We are no more and no less than the life that surrounds us. My fears surface in my isolation. My serenity surfaces in my solitude.”
- Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge
While on a walk in a refuge near my uncle’s home, I made this photograph above of a female anhinga fishing in the shallow waters of a swamp. I realized how much I had missed being outdoors and immersed in nature over the past year.
The female anhinga is perhaps the most beautiful of all birds - graceful, gentle, and perfectly adapted for life in the water. When I studied this particular photo for the first time, I was struck by the patterns of ripples and light surrounding her. I fell in love with her tail feathers floating behind her neck. I marveled at how the water reflected every color around her.
And I saw that she was connected to the world in ways that I, as a human, could never completely understand. She lived in two worlds, one of water and one of air. Her light consisted of shifting colors and reflections. She had to be on guard at all times. In order to eat, she had to kill. There was competition for territory and for mates. There were avian diseases ready to attack and consume her body.
Somewhere within all that was an acceptance of life and of death. It was reassuring. She was “no more and no less than the life that surrounds us.” Although she was alone, she was not lonely. Instead, she was perfect in the moment, with no fear, with no loneliness. I realized that life is a balancing act between the self and others. We are all unique individuals, and yet we are one. Her life is part of my life. My life is part of yours.
In November 2021, my uncle passed away. It was not from COVID, but from other infirmities brought on by old age.
I remain grateful for that anhinga, her mysteries, her beauty. And I am thankful for the lesson she showed me about how meaningful it is to be connected, alive, and alone.
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