May 29 2019

Reflections on the Smokies Via John Muir

John Muir once said everyone needs “places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”  For most of my life the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina has been one of those “places” for me.  I recently had a chance to spend a week in the Smokies.  It truly was a healing experience and brought “strength to body and soul alike.”  John Muir never sauntered through the Great Smoky Mountains but he did come relatively close on his 1000 mile walk to the Gulf.  I’ve often wondered how he would have described the mountains that have come to mean so much to me.  I don’t mean to put words in his mouth but I feel what he wrote about other places precisely describes my experience in the Smokies.  For example, writing of his beloved Yosemite Muir wrote: “One seems to be in a majestic domed pavilion in which a grand play is being acted with scenery and music and incense, …all the action so interesting we are in no danger of being called on to endure one dull moment.  God himself seems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.”   Muir may well have written these same words about the Smokies had he visited them.

Speaking about one of his favorite places, Muir said “The glory of the Lord is upon all his works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of ever clime, and upon every sky, but here in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has written in capitals.”  These too are words I could have written about the Smokies.  Like Muir, I believe that the glory of the Lord is visible in all of Creation, but there is something special about those ancient mountains that make up the Great Smoky Mountains.  I marvel at the vast species of flora and fauna that make their home there.  I relish time spent alongside its countless streams.  I receive inspiration from its many breathtaking vistas.  I love watching the sun rise and set from its mountain peaks.  Yes, the Smokies is a place where “the Lord has written in capitals!”  The fact that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is this country’s most visited national park, leads me to believe there are a lot of people who feel the same way about it as I do.

Actually I love all of our national parks and am so grateful they exist.  Muir once said “Wild parks are places of recreation, Nature’s cathedrals, where all may gain inspiration and strength and get nearer to God.”  I agree.  Our parks have so much to offer us.   There are a number of parks that are extra special to me but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just feels like home.  What park feels like home to you?  Which one, in particular, brings you nearer to God?


Jul 29 2016

Experiencing God in Our National Parks

Yellowstone Lower FallsAmerican’s National Park Service will be turning one hundred years old in just a few weeks. Because I love our national parks so much I cannot let this occasion pass without offering the NPS my congratulations and best wishes.  Since taking up nature photography twenty-four years ago I’ve been blessed to visit most of our national parks.  I’ve also visited scores of other national park units such as national recreation areas, national monuments, national rivers and seashores, etc.  Each of them has had an impact on my life one way or another.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for our national parks.

I was introduced to our national parks as a small child when my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today I visit them as often as I can.  Just two days ago I was able to pay a return visit to Mammoth Cave National Park.  I keep going back because I benefit so much from them.  Our national parks are incredible repositories of natural beauty that move my soul.  They are places where I often connect to God.  In fact, when I think of some of the parks I’ve visited I think not just of the scenery or wildlife but of the spiritual connections I made there.  Let me give you some examples.

TN Great Smoky Mountains Spruce Flat FallsWhen I think of Denali National Park I remember “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” I have felt a peace there I’ve not quite experienced elsewhere.  When I think of Grand Teton National Park I recall how important humility is in the spiritual life.  Standing before that giant mountain wall I always feel small and humbled.  When I think of Yosemite National Park I think of worship.  John Muir referred to those majestic Sierra mountains as his “temples” and “cathedrals” and they became that for me as well.  I can hardly imagine walking through Yosemite Valley and not singing the “Doxology” or “How Great Thou Art.”  When I think of Yellowstone National Park I find myself reflecting on the mystery of God.  Yellowstone is such a mysterious and magical place.  As with God, there is no comprehending all its wonders.  And when I think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I associate it with love. There is a wonderful and abundant diversity of life in this park that is so dear to my heart.  That diversity symbolizes for me the generosity and goodness of God and it serves as yet one more reminder of the divine love that is the source of all that is good.

Yosemite ValleyI could go on making spiritual connections with the many different parks I have visited and photographed. They are all special and they are all important.  We are incredibly blessed to have these national parks and we should, by no means, take them for granted.  I would encourage you in this centennial year of the National Park Service to give them all the support you can.  Visit them as often.  Work to preserve and protect them.  Our national parks are far more than just beautiful and ecologically diverse places, they are special places where God resides and where God can be experienced in some marvelous ways.


(I took the top image at Yellowstone NP, the middle one at Great Smoky Mountains NP, and the bottom one at Yosemite National Park.)

Jun 24 2012

Ansel Adams’ Problem & Ours

Like countless other photographers, one of my early sources of inspiration was the work of Ansel Adams.  Even when I knew nothing about photography it was obvious that this man’s work was phenomenal.  I continue to this very day to be inspired by his photographs.

A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to a website that focuses on Ansel Adams work in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I have most of Adams’ books and there are very few images from this park in them.  The website I went to indicated why.  Ansel Adams found it difficult to photograph in the Smokies.  In a letter he wrote from these mountains he told a friend, “they are going to be devilish hard to photograph…”  Considering the fact that I have spent more time photographing in this park than any other I found his comment to be quite amusing.  The Smokies are filled with extraordinary beauty; how could the great Ansel Adams find them so difficult to photograph?

I forwarded the link to my blogging partner, Rob Sheppard.  I pointed out to him how I was intrigued by Adams’ comment about photographing the Smokies.  Rob responded to my message by saying,I think Adams definitely was attuned to the West because he grew up there and spent most of his time there.”   If you are familiar with Ansel Adams’ work you know that most of his famous images were, indeed, made in the West.  Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevadas are featured prominently in his work.  That was the landscape he knew best and his familiarity with it helped enable him to capture the spirit or essence of that region.

In my note from Rob he went on to talk about how familiarity with a landscape affected his own work.  He wrote, “I think I am only beginning to really ‘see’ the chaparral because I have been photographing it for a few years now.  Georgia O’Keeffe once said “seeing takes time.”  She was no doubt right.  I remember how frustrating it was when I first started traveling out West to photograph.  I was rarely satisfied with the results.  Now, after dozens of trips out West I feel more comfortable and familiar with the environment and it shows in the photographs I take.  The more time you spend in a location truly does make a difference.

I suspect that what is true in photography is also true when it comes to seeing God in Creation.  Here, too, it takes time.  There are not a lot of “burning bushes” out there (see Exodus 3); God seems to make Himself known in much more subtle ways.  This means that we will likely have to spend a good bit of time becoming familiar with our surroundings to see and hear all that God longs to reveal to us.  Certainly God can speak to us anywhere, and we should always be open to that possibility, but it is likely that we will see and hear Him best in our home environment or the places we are most familiar with.  Has that been your experience?


*The link to the website on Ansel Adams and the Smokies can be found at  You’ll find several rare and unpublished images here.

(I took the top image at Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle image of Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park, and the bottom image  of Mesquite Dunes at Death Valley National Park.)




Jun 17 2012

Nature and Grace

Writing several centuries ago, the Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, wrote “Nature and Grace are in harmony with each other.  For Grace is God and Nature is God.  Neither Nature nor Grace works without the other.  They may never be separated…  That Goodness that is Nature is God.  God is the Ground, the substance, the same that is Naturehood.  God is the true Father and Mother of Nature.”  I read these words a few days ago and have been giving them some thought.  They are certainly deep words.

I cannot help but wonder if someone during her time was making the claim that nature and grace are not in harmony with each other.  I assume that is possible.  If so, I like how Julian addressed this claim.  I think she is correct in seeing the source of both grace and nature in God.  The Bible is clear in noting that we would have neither apart from Him.   Since they have the same source it makes sense that nature and grace would be “in harmony with each other” and that neither “works without the other.”

What all this seems to be saying to me is that we can expect to experience God’s grace in Creation.  Certainly we experience that grace first and foremost in Jesus Christ but it is also to be found in the world Christ has made.  And just as we must open ourselves up to Christ in order to know and feel his grace, we must likewise open ourselves up to nature if we are to know and feel the grace that is to be found there.  Matthew Fox once said, “When we can no longer feel the grace of nature we need to pause and allow grace to bless us again.”  That is good advice.

Have you paused lately to allow the grace of God that is found in Creation to bless you?  Last week my wife and I went to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate our anniversary.  We spent a good bit of time in those wonderful mountains and beside the streams that flow from them.  I must say that in those misty mountains I felt God’s grace.  And like Julian, I realized “that goodness that is nature is God.”  That is not to say that I see God and nature as one and the same, just that the One who is “the true Father and Mother of nature” has a wonderful way of bestowing grace upon us through Creation when we realize that the two truly are in harmony with each other.  I encourage you to live in this realization so that you might experience even more of God’s amazing grace in the days to come.


(I took the pictures shown above last week on our anniversary trip to the Smokies.)

Dec 7 2011

Losing Touch

Today I’ll be flying back to Kentucky. I’ve had a wonderful trip to New Mexico. Much of the trip was dedicated to photographing ancient Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans) ruins in the northwestern part of the state. I have been reading a lot about the Anasazi Indians over the past year or two. I am fascinated by both their architecture and culture. We should give thanks that many of their ruins have been preserved and are now protected by the National Park Service.


As I’ve walked in the various locations this past week I’ve thought a lot about how close the connection was between the Anasazi and the land they inhabited. In both a literal and symbolic way they lived very close to the earth. Due to necessity they had to; their survival depended on it. Their close connection with nature appears, however, to have gone far beyond just using it to survive. They saw a spiritual element in nature as well. This is reflected in the petroglyphs and pictographs they left behind, as well as in the way they constructed many of their kivas or places of worship.

I’m afraid that in modern times most people have lost touch with nature. We live and work in buildings that do not depend on the sun for light. Our homes are climate controlled and we do not have to worry about where or how we will get our food. The Anasazi paid very close attention to the cycles of both the sun and moon. They were quite conscious of the changing seasons and how the varying temperatures would affect them. They struggled to grow their own food. The differences between their connection with nature and ours is immense.

When I was growing up both homes I lived in had woods nearby that I could play in and explore. I have a feeling that my time spent in the woods early on has made an impact on my love for God’s Creation today. My family would occasionally make camping trips when I was young and some of my earliest childhood memories include a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I believe this early exposure to nature was pivotal for me. I would even include these memories as part of my spiritual formation.

Having said all this, here is my concern. Most of the children I know today have little exposure to nature and the outdoors. Instead of being out enjoying and learning about God’s Creation they’re mostly indoors playing video games, watching t.v. and chatting on Facebook. Many kids today haven’t got a clue where their food comes from, how the tilt of the earth affects the seasons, or the names of the birds that fly by their windows. Unfortunately, in many cases it’s not much different with their parents.

We truly are losing touch with nature and we are definitely not better off for it. This loss of connection cannot help but hinder us spiritually. If God makes Himself known through His Creation, as the Bible says, then we are missing out on much when we fail to connect with the world around us. I hope and pray more  people will recognize this and begin to reconnect with the natural world. Perhaps you could help someone do just that…


 (The top image was taken at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The middle image was taken at Salmon Ruins National Monument.  The bottom image was taken at Bandelier National Monument.)

Apr 6 2011

Love and Admiration

Over the years I have benefited tremendously from the writings of C.S. Lewis.  Back in college and graduate school I read a lot of his books.  It had been a while since I read anything by him so earlier this year I picked up a book of daily readings from his writings.  A few nights ago I came across the following passage:

“To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin; though we shall not be well so long as we love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”

We are reminded by Lewis that it is not a wise thing to be too self-absorbed.  So many of our problems in society today are the result of people looking out for and thinking of no one but themselves.  There is certainly a lot in the media these days that encourages such narcissist tendencies.  Great harm, however, comes to both those who give in to these tendencies and those who must be near them. The narcissist path, as Lewis notes, leads to utter spiritual ruin.

 As persons created in the image of God we are made to love and admire other individuals as well as the earth and all of God’s creatures.  When we do so our souls are made stronger and more beautiful.  When we fail to do so they are made weaker and grow uglier. 

Later today I will begin a journey with my wife to two of the Hawaiian Islands.  We celebrate our 30th anniversary in a couple of months and we decided this would be a great way to mark this milestone.  I already love and admire Bonita and have no doubt that I will also find much to love and admire in Hawaii.  Being with her and in this special place will greatly enrich my life.  I am at the same time thankful for all the other people and places I have come to love and admire over the years.  These, too, have led me many steps “from utter spiritual ruin.”

As important as it is “to love and admire anything outside yourself” it is even more important that we are careful not to “love and admire anything more than we love and admire God.”  Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment of all is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind and with all of your strength.”  As the God who created us and all that we have He deserves every bit of  love that we can give Him.  As the God who has made salvation possible for us at such a tremendous price to Himself, He deserves even more love than we can give Him. 

It is very easy for us to fall into the trap of loving the things and persons God has made more than we love God Himself.  As C.S. Lewis reminds us, when we do this we are not well.  We are only spiritually healthy when we give everyone their proper place.  We should love God with everything that we’ve got and then strive to “love our neighbor (human and non-human) as ourselves.”  This is what Jesus taught long ago and it remains to this day the one and only path to real spiritual health and beauty.


(I took the top image in the Tremont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I captured the bottom image at Panama Beach, Florida.)