I think that, by and large, nature photographers are a solitary lot. Yes, we enjoy time spent in the field with other photographers but when we really want to absorb the full impact of the natural world, we tend to go alone. Only in solitude can we truly appreciate the environment of nature as it is meant to be experienced; birds calling, insects buzzing, the sound of the wind. Peacefulness, tranquility, serenity, whatever label you give it, becomes an ache if denied to us, nature photographers probably more than most. City dwellers have it especially rough; crowds, noise, traffic.
It was in just such a condition that I found myself a few years back; living in a neighborhood with cramped houses, busy streets, boom boxes blaring from a constant stream of cars, airplanes, sirens, and dozens of barking dogs. I could stand it no longer on one particular Friday night as I grabbed a camera bag, hooked up to my camping trailer, and headed for a nearby state park; a poor substitute for a trek into the wilderness to be sure, but it would have to do. Photography, however, was not of the highest priority on this trip but rather to escape, to flush my mind of trivial matters, to shed the confines of the city, to seek calm surroundings.
I needed something to read at the campground, something conducive to a peaceful state of mind. I considered
The Wilderness Journeys by John Muir, a book I had yet to finish or maybe rereading
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. But on the bottom shelf laid a book I
did not recognize. Maybe my wife had picked it up at a garage sale. The dust cover revealed it was created by David Friend along with the editors of LIFE magazine and titled More Reflections on The Meaning of Life. It was perfect!
Arriving in late afternoon, photography was set aside as I made my camp, got comfortable, and began to read. In the book were dozens of interpretations of the theme by a wide variety of authors. From philosophers to preachers, from boxers to bikers, each expressed what the meaning of life meant to them. Some thoughts were profound such as words from the famous photographer Frans Lanting, "Life is a field for progress and progressive harmony. Each one of us has a part to play which he alone can execute." Others were more simplistic such as the biker who said life meant, "drinking, raising hell, and kicking butt." After a dozen or so readings, it became evident that there was no one meaning. The meaning of life was whatever you wanted it to be, your own personal interpretation.
I read for a couple hours and when the light became too dim to see I decided it would be a good time to stretch and to take a stroll around the nearly empty campground. Maybe I could figure out what the meaning of life was to me. A golden sun slid behind the trees as the sky purpled down. A slight breeze stirred the leaves while squirrels scampered about, gathering last minute snacks. It was an ideal setting for a little soul searching and introspection.
As I passed near a large trailer, a voice spoke from the darkness. "Evening." he said. I could barely make him out, sitting in a lawn chair, his shirt unbuttoned down the front, a cigarette glowing. It was difficult to tell his age in the fading light but I guessed
that from the quality of his voice, he was not a young man. He asked if I was here for a local country music festival. Not feeling comfortable with telling him I was searching for the meaning of life, I replied that I had come merely to enjoy the wonderful fall weather.
I sensed that he wanted to talk so I stopped and stood at the edge of the road. He began to tell me of his younger days when he worked in Alaska, building roads for the then new pipeline to carry oil. He described the wildlife and what effects he thought the pipeline had on them. He related stories of the weather and the incredibly difficult conditions he worked under. I listened with interest for I enjoy hearing how people have spent their lives, how they contributed, and if they would change anything if given the chance to do it over. I asked if he traveled a lot. "Not so much anymore", he said. "My wife and I bought this rig to travel across America and see the country but she got some cancer. She took the treatment and got better and we traveled a bit, but the cancer came back. It got her that time."
By now the only light was a pale yellow cast from a campground pole lamp. The wind had calmed. Tree frogs sang out with their raspy croak. I mumbled my condolences but with the continued silence, I knew the conversation was over. "Nice talking to you" I said, meaning it, and headed back to my camp.
I sat there, in the faint light of a half moon for some time that night, watching the stars; the stillness interrupted only by the hoot of a couple barred owls. I wondered if photography or more specifically, the world of nature, held my meaning of
life. I thought of many things that evening but mostly I thought of the man who spoke from the darkness, from his solitude, still dealing with his loss. What now was the meaning of life for him?
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Warren Williams has been doing photography for
over 25 years focusing mainly on Nature and wildlife. His work has been published in
several magazines, including Outdoor Photographer, Outdoor Oklahoma,
Oklahoma Today, and Persimmon Hill (the magazine of the Cowboy Hall of
Fame). Several of his photos have also appeared on calendars by Smith-Southwestern.
Warren is an active member on PhotoMigrations and invites you to visit
his website located at: Warren Williams Photography -
Images of Wildlife and Nature.