The photo that changed my life

Long’s Peak from Moraine Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In January I read the blog post 1:1000, A Picture is Worth 1000 Words by Julianna Whalen on her site, Streets and Streams. Her idea is to write 1,000 words about one photo. Shortly after reading that, I wrote a blog post about one of my photos. https://kislingjeff.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/1-photo-1000-words/ A few days after that I wrote another blog post about a different photo. https://kislingjeff.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/1-picture-indy-art-1000-words/

But ever since I read Julianna’s blog, I’ve known that I wanted to write about the photo above of Long’s Peak rising above Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

I am very grateful my parents chose to take us on camping trips across the United States for our summer family vacations, specifically selecting National Parks to camp in.  Actually camping in the Parks was key to the whole experience.  Our first camper was a King camper, which was an aluminum trailer with a canvas covered framework that unfolded to form the top half when we stopped at the campsite.  Being in the woods, hearing the sounds of the wind and wildlife and the glacier streams rush over the boulders, feeling the cold at night, and smelling the pine trees made the experience so much better than traveling into the park during the day and returning to a motel at night.

Hiking through the meadows and forests and upon mountainsides with countless, stunning vistas, were life changing experiences for me.  I was overwhelmed by the intense beauty.  Rocky Mountain National Park was our favorite, and we returned there time and again as we were growing up. We quickly found that not many people traveled too far from the parking areas, and with even a short hike we were practically alone in the woods.  Hikes of just a mile or two brought us to lakes, canyons, waterfalls, cliffs, meadows, snowfields, boulder fields, and rock walls to climb. Places we were able to appreciate alone.

I hadn’t reflected much on why we sought opportunities to be by ourselves in the mountains. It just seemed a much better experience that way. Now I think it was related to feeling closer to God when we were deep in the quiet of the forests. Having grown up in Quaker communities, I was used to worshiping in silence, as we do so we can hear the whisper of the Spirit. Being enveloped in the silence of the mountains was a natural extension of Quaker worship.

This was also a reciprocal relationship. I was always challenged to find ways to share my spiritual experiences with others. These experiences are ineffable, that is they can’t be adequately expressed with words. But art can often better express spirituality. So I hoped some of my photographs might show glimpses of the Spirit.

I have begun reading Robert Reid’s book, Because It Is So Beautiful:

The writer’s lonely, harrowing struggle to give shape to his or her elusive vision of the world—to complete a book, to discover among the fragments of a thought or a dream the precise image needed to breathe life into a poem—is a familiar chapter in the annals of pain and grief.

How can we save the wilderness? I was a mountain climber whose affection for the high peaks had evolved gradually into political commitment to the cause of preservation. I was, too, a fledgling writer searching for direction. I knew the importance of craft, experience, doggedness, and the other familiar requisites for literary success, but I lacked vision—an understanding of my relationship to the world.

How could we convince lawmakers to pass laws to protect wilderness? (Barry) Lopez argued that wilderness activists will never achieve the success they seek until they can go before a panel of legislators and testify that a certain river or butterfly or mountain or tree must be saved, not because of its economic importance, not because it has recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.

I left the room a changed person, one who suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. I had known that love is a powerful weapon, but until that moment I had not understood how to use it. What I learned on that long-ago evening, and what I have counted on ever since, is that to save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker—to live one’s life—one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.

Reid, Robert Leonard. Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West . Counterpoint. Kindle Edition

One reason I began to write was to explore why I take a given photograph.  I hadn’t appreciated this until I was repeatedly told the same thing, which is that a photograph can help the viewer see the subject in a way they hadn’t before.  So as I prepare to shoot a picture, I think about what I am trying to show with it, how to compose it, and set the exposure and focus in such a way as to create the photograph as closely to the image I am envisioning, as possible. 

Note that I said “envision”. I don’t take photos to be as realistic as possible, which would be like make a Xerox copy of a scene.

My hope is that some of my photographs might help others to see and understand the subject as I understand it, and may see/understand it differently than before viewing the photo.

One of the many things I’m learning from Indigenous ways is the Spirit is in all things, including animals, plants, water, sky and mountains. I felt this deeply when I was in the forests and mountains. I’ve heard others express this in various ways as feeling closer to God, and that was how I felt.

This spiritual connection I developed with the mountains, lakes and forests had profound consequences in my life.

When I moved to Indianapolis in 1971, the city was enveloped in smog. This was before catalytic converters, which began to appear in 1975. When I saw the polluted air, I had a profound spiritual vision of the Rocky Mountains being hidden by clouds of smog. The possibility that I would no longer be able to see the mountains shook me to my core.

I was thinking specifically about the photo above, and how terrible it would be to no longer be able to see Long’s Peak. Although I now have many photos of the same view, I was thinking of this black an white photo specifically when I had that vision. The quality isn’t near what I get now with a digital camera. And I developed the film and the print in a darkroom. But this is the one connected to my vision.

From that moment on I saw cars as evil because of the damage they were doing. I decided I could not be part of that, and have lived without a car since then. I began my lifelong study of environmental science and work to try to bring awareness about the catastrophic damage being done to Mother Earth. Although I give thanks that catalytic converters took care of the visible smog, I knew of the continued damage and consequences of the tons of carbon dioxide and other gases coming from the exhaust of ever increasing numbers of cars.

I also saw automobiles as the ‘seeds of war’.  For example, although other reasons were given at the time, the invasion of Iraq was to protect the oil fields there.

“I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars… I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.” George Fox

“Oh! that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding treasures in the self-pleasing spirit is a strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.” John Woolman

It was camping in the national parks, and spiritual connections to the lakes, forests, wildlife, sky and mountains, that made me become a lifelong environmental activist. And photography was how I tried to express that for myself, and others. I knew environmental damage from burning fossil fuels would damage the mountains, forests and rivers, so I tried to preserve those scenes with photographs. Significant damage will happen with higher air temperatures, forest fires, infestation with migrating insects, torrential downpours, and drought.

It is sad to think such photographs might be historic records of the way things used to be, and no longer are.

Last summer at the annual meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) I was grateful to be asked to show my photographs during one of the evening programs. The program was titled “Finding Truth and Beauty.” For about an hour the meetinghouse full Quakers watched the slideshow of photos in silence. Then, as the slideshow continued, Friends (Quakers) were invited to share their thoughts, which many did. I was grateful for this experience of sharing photos that had a spiritual significance for me, with my Quaker community in the context of silent worship.

This entry was posted in Arts, climate change, Indigenous, Quaker, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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