The Dragon Photographer

In our early days of nature photography, long before I had any right to be that way, I was very competitive. I wanted the awards and accolades. If someone took a good shot of something, I wanted a better photo of the same subject. Most of the time I didn’t succeed in capturing one, but I certainly tried. I have mellowed somewhat as I’ve gotten older—perhaps I can even say “matured” now. I no longer need to have the best photos of everything, which makes life much easier. Not that I ever truly had the best images of any subject, but that task would be virtually impossible now.

Bull elk in velvet
Bull elk in velvet sniffing the flowers, Rocky Mountain National Park

Never mind the fact that no two photographers can even agree on which image is best, there are simply too many great photographers as well as quite a few lucky ones taking pictures of pretty much everything these days. It’s almost overwhelming. And the images that are being captured…all I can do is look and stand amazed by what I see today. Many of these photographers are going to lengths I just don’t feel up to anymore, so I almost humbly say, “Kudos and well done.”

Autumn creek
Autumn cascade, Rocky Mountain National Park

Some might say I’ve gotten old and lazy. I can’t argue with the old part, but I prefer to think I’ve adopted a zen attitude, where it’s enough to experience the wonders of the world without necessarily coming home with award-winning photos. Oh sure, I enjoy taking a great picture as much as the next guy, but my photos no longer have to be among the best. It’s enough to feel the wind, smell the air, hear the songs/cries/growls/roars/bugles, and simply bear witness to the miracle we are a part of. Using terminology from the movie Kung Fu Panda, I have become the Dragon Photographer—able to see the grandeur of lions making a kill in a life and death struggle in my urban backyard, and able to subsist on granola bars alone…at least until meal time.

Bryce Canyon
Morning hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

I still maintain that while the Earth doesn’t need any more people, it certainly needs more nature photographers—not necessarily even good ones, just people who care enough about wild places and their residents to want to capture them in pixels. Even though some of our favorite spots might become more crowded, we just might create a demand for more protected habitat. By sharing images of our experiences, we might even influence those who rarely come in contact with the natural world. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. So keep sticking your noses deeper and deeper into the mystery and majesty of the wild, recording it on whatever medium best suits you, and by all means, share it with the rest of us.

Bald eagles
Roosting bald eagles and snowy mountains, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

We're All In This Together

There’s always something new under the sun. There are always surprises waiting for us
in the most unlikely places. Recent studies are showing plants may be far more than the
yard decorations and colorful picture elements we’ve taken them for. These beings that
we’ve always considered to be merely ground cover are capable of movement,
communication--yes, they can talk to their neighbors--and even arithmetic--some
species need to know the hours of darkness and calculate if they have enough starch to
survive the night. Charles Darwin recognized intelligent, purposeful movement in plants,
and he even wrote a book on it. The scientific community ignored his findings for more
than 120 years.

Bull ekl with vegetation in antlers

It’s not like we’re the only ones who don’t consider the feeling of plants in our daily dealings with them. We all do what we have to do in order to survive, and sometimes the plants suffer.

We don’t even know how intelligent plants are because we are not smart enough to
communicate with them. The problem is they use chemical cues rather than auditory
ones to talk to the plants and animals around them, and this is a language Rosetta
Stone© doesn’t cover. Plants are as aware of our presence as any animal, more aware
than many. They are even self aware, which puts them way above most animals in
intelligence, at least by the way we measure such things. There is also considerable
evidence they feel pain. Any time plants are wounded, they emit ethylene, a familiar
pain killer. There may another answer, but it seems logical to assume they emit a pain
killer when they feel pain.

Bugs on flower blossom

If only we could decipher the chemical language between plants and their environment, who knows what wonders we would discover.

What are the implications of these discoveries? Well, one of the big arguments for the
vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is that it is kinder to feeling creatures, and that was a valid
point until these recent discoveries. It turns out that even though plants don’t have
faces, and even though their seat of intelligence may not be a brain per se, they do feel
and they are aware. Harvesting fruit or grain may be just as painful for them as plucking
off pieces of us would be. We raise many plants just to kill them so we can survive.
There is simply no getting around the fact that for one being to live, other beings,
whether they are animals or plants, must die. We are utterly dependent upon other
living beings paying the ultimate price so that we may live. We are more closely tied to
the rest of creation than we can possibly imagine.

Rock squirrel & blossoms

For us, flowers are nothing more than ornamentation, and for many species they are only nourishment. But who knows how much more they truly are. Keep in mind that for tigers humans are merely tiger food.

Whether we are aware of it or not, almost anywhere we point a lens in the natural world,
we are photographing a life and death struggle. The struggle may not be obvious. It may
even appear completely harmless--a porcupine nibbling on a flower or a field of many
species in bloom--but there is a struggle occurring. Of course, just to make things more
complicated, at the same time as this struggle for available resources is going on, there
is also a constant discussion or dialogue between the protagonists, establishing
boundaries, making or breaking treaties, and deciding who to cooperate with and who to
fight tooth and nail.

Cow elk eating flowers
Regardless of their other qualities, flowers brighten up and make just about any image more interesting.

The idea that we are better or more evolved than other species because we don’t need
to kill thinking, feeling beings no longer holds water. What’s more, the knowledge of
whether it’s better to kill animals or plants to survive is forever beyond our grasp. The
fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden to us, and consequently,
just like every other plant and animal we see, all we can do is muddle through as best
we can. For me at least, being a nature photographer helps. The camera lens makes
me an intimate part of the ongoing conflict/cooperation, and makes it easier to rejoice in our connection to it. This is what makes the world go round.

High mountain wildflowers
This is so much more than a colorful meadow. Complex struggles are in play here, partnerships are being forged, decisions are being made to help one’s progeny. And we are totally oblivious to everything but the pretty colors because most of the action is occurring at the root tips.