Thursday, August 4, 2011

Capture and Witness

from May 2008

I want to write something today about how animals call us back into the moment, how they summon me away from my drifting thoughts, my errant mind. How birds retrieve me from my sorrow, my worry, my preoccupation with time and things. They do this when they fly over a marshy north Georgia meadow, a tag of crimson brightness on dark wingspan in the gray late afternoon, and when they haul their spindly heronlegs and arching necks up over that same still brackish water and out to the edge of the woods. It’s always been this way. A friend reminded me recently of how this works, of how fast the mindfulness of being with creatures can come upon us if we let it, if we’re open to it. I thought about how immediate this could be for me as a child, how eager I always was for the experience of smelling my horse’s warm sweaty hide when I rode her or went to feed her. For the joy of seeing the raised flare of whitetail over deerhaunch, springing through high pasture grass. For the starlike spread of a possum’s pink paws on the wood of our porch, stealing cat food, and for the dry wheathusk of a kingsnake’s recently shed skin at the base of my favorite tree. The other day I went to a gathering of strangers to hear them play their flutes, and I began my time with them by hunkering in the grass with a fat bumpy toad and its big eyes, shuttered beads of black and bronze shimmering in the heat. The toad hopped about in the weeds for a bit while I tried to photograph it. Then I stood a ways off from it and let it abide under the tassel of something green. I got down on my belly and noticed the pulse of its creamy amphibial throat, the ridges and curves of its back and neck, the shapes of its nostrils. I thanked it for letting me see it so close and I took my pictures. That moment, a small one of felicity and sweetness, laid out a template of calm attention and inner peace that spent the rest of the afternoon with me.

Lately, on a website I belong to that features independent artists and photographers, I notice that when people compliment each other on their photographs they often say “nice capture.” While I appreciate their sincerity and encouragement, something about this language bumps up against me in a way that seems kind of goofy but which I understand. For me taking pictures is less about “taking” per se and more about watching, honoring, noticing, and being. The picture will come if it’s meant to. And sometimes, even when it seems meant to come and it does come, perhaps it isn’t meant to stay, I learned recently. Not that long ago, one late April afternoon during spring break, I was walking around up on Fort Mountain, about an hour north of where I live. The mountain was just starting to green up. It’s a sacred Native site and I won’t say much more than that about it other than to make mention of the long gray tumble of stone that spreads across the mountainface and the place’s aura of hauntedness, of the slightly melancholy sweet spiritpresence that is always there for me. I was standing around outside the old WPA tower on top of the mountain when my attention was directed towards the butterflies tumbling and rushing through the woods. Tiger swallowtails, mourning cloaks. i couldn’t get any good photos of the swallowtails but the mourning cloaks offered themselves right up to me. They were big and slow and tired from mating. Two in particular came right up to me, even brushing my forehead over and over as I lay on the ground near a big old log that seemed to hold some pull for them. They kept coming back and back to the log. I was able to get very close and the tattered wings and furry bodies of the mourning cloaks showed up gloriously on my camera. One mourning cloak paused on a branch near a big brown leaf that mirrored its body’s hues softly, earthily, eloquently. I was moved and thrilled by my photographs, and I thanked the butterflies when I left.

The next day I was in the little mountain town of Dahlonega, standing outside a cafĂ©, taking photographs of pansies and their expressive curling faces when I did it. Somehow, in my eagerness to take better macro shots, I reformatted my entire memory card, deleting all the splendid mourning cloak shots as well as photos from my father’s house at Eastertime and other pictures that I loved. I was sick at heart but tried to lean into the incident as a lesson in nonattachment. I’d never done anything like this before, and I pretty much knew my way around my relatively simple little Canon. Though what I’d done seemed stupid and careless, cavalier even, I decided to feel into the emptiness a bit and try to learn what I could from it.

And here it is: photographs for me are gifts of spirit. They’re a collaboration between my eye and the world with its tenderness and its sternness. They’re not about capturing but about witnessing and being there to let something come through. This process isn’t about passivity or even just receptivity, though: I think one has to seek, or at least open up, in order to receive. But it can and for me should be a sort of prayer, even in the goofiest and most playful of moments. If I carry this sensibility with me then my photographs will do the same thing for me that animals can: ground me in the thisness of now in a way that will nurture and befriend the spirits who see them.


  1. This is revealing, impressive and beautifully written. Much deep emotion is conveyed. Being a body,through the vehicle of nature you find a way "in" to your Spirit self. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Robert. Yes, Nature has always been that portal for me, and I am grateful every day for that.


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Georgia, United States
I live at the edge of the forest in a little town in the north Georgia mountains. I teach sixth grade Language Arts and am writing a memoir of sorts about family, spirituality, and narrative. I am also exploring a possible writing project having to do with contemporary lay contemplative experience and how it might be informed by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity. I am a relatively recent convert to Roman Catholicism and an admirer of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Joan Chittister, and Richard Rohr. I'm a Lay Associate of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I am interested in indigenous cultures, narratives, and spirituality, especially how these can inform my spirituality as a lay contemplative. I write, read, take pictures, play around with creating ephemera from paper and cloth and other organic things. I cook, hike, watch wildlife, and collect random bits of interesting oddness, both tangible and abstract. I am a seer of smallness and a caretaker of ridiculous minutiae. If you want, e-mail me at or