Jun 21 2014

Loving the Ordinary

sassafras“God has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

Recently I saw a saying posted on Facebook that went along with my last blog, “Removing the Blinders.”  The saying was “Anyone can love a rose, but it takes a lot to love a leaf.  It’s ordinary to love the beautiful, but it’s beautiful to love the ordinary.”  The source of these words is unknown but they certainly convey a truth that is worthy of our consideration.  We do, in fact, often overlook the ordinary for the beautiful.  That does not mean, however, that there is not much to love and appreciate in the ordinary.

baby-turtleThe saying quoted above spoke to me because I am one who tends to focus on the beautiful, especially when it comes to my nature photography.  I have a propensity to take pictures of those things that are beautiful and extraordinary.  These are the things that thrill and move my soul.  They also tend to be the things that editors buy.  For both reasons I rarely photograph that which is not widely considered beautiful.

mono lake hdr 4My close friend and co-writer, Rob Sheppard, takes a different approach.  When we are out photographing together it seems we seldom take pictures of the same things.  He is quite content to photograph what most people would consider ordinary things.  I remember once being with him at Mono Lake in California.  Neither of us had been there before.  I spent the biggest part of my time photographing the lovely tufa that emerge from the lake.  The scenery at this location is spectacular!  I’m not sure Rob, on the other hand, ever photographed the lake or tufa.  He spent the biggest part of his time photographing a tiny wildflower that he found nearby.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone could choose a small wildflower to photograph over the vast beauty of the lake, tufa and surrounding mountains.

You’d have to check with Rob to get the final answer on why he did this but I do believe that it is related to the saying quoted above.  Anyone can love a rose or Mono Lake but it takes a lot, someone special, to love a leaf or tiny flower.  There are countless photographers like me who love the beautiful; to do so is quite ordinary.  There is a scarcity of those like Rob who have learned to love the ordinary and that makes such people extraordinary.  There is something truly beautiful about people like that.  Perhaps one day I can become one of their tribe.

Rob at Mono Lake not shooting Mono LakeMy personal theology leads me to believe that God loves ordinary people as much as God loves those the world deems “beautiful” people.  It also leads me to affirm the goodness of all of Creation, not just the beautiful parts.  I am convinced that the ordinary—both people and the various aspects of Creation—deserve more of our attention.  In fact, I suspect if we were more spiritually mature we would realize, to quote a well-known Ray Stevens song, that “everything is beautiful in its own way.”  To see the beautiful in the ordinary is to see with the eyes of God and that is a beautiful thing indeed.  It is my hope that more of us can come to view the world and others with the eyes of God.  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

–Chuck

The top two images I took in my yard while living in Middlesboro, KY–a sassafras tree and a common box turtle.  I took the bottom two images at Mono Lake.  I call the last image “Rob at Mono Lake not photographing Mono Lake.”


Jan 5 2014

Give Beauty a Chance

_CES2968eSomeone recently paid me a compliment that meant a lot to me.  After posting some pictures from an area I had not been to before this person said, “You find beauty wherever you go.”  I’m not sure this is totally true but I do confess that it is something I strive for.  I choose to look for beauty.  Now I realize that what one views as beautiful is highly subjective.  Rob Sheppard and I were photographing in the eastern Sierras a few years ago and we both had a chance to take close up images of a rattlesnake.  Using a telephoto lens I focused tightly on the snakes scales and was amazed at just how beautiful they were.  When I showed the image to others later on some were repulsed; they saw no beauty at all because all they could see was a poisonous reptile that they happened to detest and be afraid of.   Interestingly, I’ve had similar responses when I have shown or posted images taken in winter.  If there is ice or snow in the picture some automatically dismiss the beauty that might be found there simply because they strongly dislike the cold that is associated with snow and ice.

_DSC5241Once again I understand that not everyone will agree on what is beautiful but I do feel that most people can and should strive to expand their perimeters of beauty.  Years ago John Lennon famously sang “Give Peace a Chance.”  Today I feel like uttering the cry “Give Beauty a Chance.”  We all need beauty; it is one of the things that makes life worth living.  Beauty makes us feel better.  It  is also good for the soul since in most cases beauty promotes a sense of gratitude or thanksgiving.

Another reason I think beauty is important is we tend to not only admire but be willing to work for the protection or preservation of that which we find beautiful.  This is true in numerous areas but I am most familiar with the realm of nature.  If people had not found certain species of birds, animals, trees or flowers beautiful many of these would have become extinct by now. Whole areas have been set aside as state or national parks primarily because large groups of people considered them beautiful.  Perhaps other species or places will be preserved and protected in the future if more people will only expand their vision and give beauty a chance.

_CES2599In the end I find beauty to be something spiritual and closely connected to God.  God is the Creator of beauty and is beautiful in and of Himself.  A number of contemporary praise songs have recognized this and include words like “You are beautiful beyond description.”  Long ago the Psalmist prayed, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” (Ps. 27:4)  The Psalmist found God to be beautiful, especially when he visited the temple.  I, too, find God to be beautiful, especially when I visit the larger temple of Creation.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God “has made everything beautiful in its time.”  I believe this to be true and that is one of the main reasons why I look for beauty wherever I go.  I believe that I can experience God in beauty.  I believe you can as well.  For that reason I ask everyone, “give beauty a chance.”

–Chuck

(I took the top image on Friday at Henderson Sloughs WMA, the middle image at the Buttermilk Mountains in California, and the bottom image yesterday evening during my first visit to Bluegrass FWA in southern Indiana.)


Nov 10 2013

Widening Our Circle of Compassion

“God made the wild animals according to their kinds… And God saw that it was good.”  Genesis 1:25

_CES1181Yesterday I was part of two conversations that had a similar theme.  I went out to Henderson Sloughs Wildlife Management Area to photograph the birds that are starting to migrate into the region.  I spent about an hour photographing a number of different species from a stand overlooking a pond.  When I climbed down and was loading my equipment into my car a man in a truck drove up, stopped, rolled down his window and said “Glad there aren’t more snow geese out there.”  I actually thought at first he had said he “was glad to see some snow geese out there” but he went on to say “There were so many of them last year that they ruined our refuge.  We didn’t have many waterfowl to hunt.”  He then drove off.  I was amused by the conversation because just a few minutes earlier I was giving thanks for having some snow geese to photograph.  I also found it ironic because I’m getting ready to spend a good bit of money to go out and photograph thousands of snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

_CES0461Later in the evening I was at an event and was sitting at a table enjoying a meal.  I had my iPhone with me and showed some people the squirrel image you see here.  I took the picture earlier in the week at a local park.  When one person saw the squirrel she said “I don’t like squirrels.  They eat all my bird feed.”  Once again I was amused.  I have very few good squirrel pictures and was thrilled to get this one.  Having just had the conversation with the stranger about snow geese an hour before I couldn’t help but marvel at how selective we can be about which creatures we like and dislike.  Rob Sheppard has written at this site before about how people tend to like animals, such as bears and whales, that capture our imagination, but find other creatures, like spiders, appalling.   Part of me can understand why some people might like bears over spiders (I’m one of those people) but here we are talking about the difference between species of birds on the one hand and two common backyard species that are fun to watch on the other.  Still, sharp lines were drawn.  One species was considered better than the other.

eCES8248Are some species better or more important than others?  It might pay us to ponder this question but before we answer it we would have to figure out from whose perspective would we be making the distinction.  Do you get to make the call or do I?  In the end, I would suggest, the answer is neither.  That is God’s call.  Perhaps God would say some creatures are better or more important than others.  Then again, perhaps not.  Being their Creator God may have an equal love and appreciation for all the creatures He has made.  Regardless I do believe that we should try to look at all species from a broader perspective than our own.  I also would suggest that since God made all species that we should try to learn to grow in our appreciation of every one of them.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”   I encourage you to take seriously that task.  Ask God to help you widen your circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.  Doing so could make a huge difference in how you see the world and your Creator too.  It might also make a difference somewhere down the road on the survival of some species.  This makes our task an important one indeed.

–Chuck


Jul 31 2013

Behold the Unexceptional!

Columbus-Belmont-State-ParkMost of the books I own are sitting five and a half hours away.  That has been one of the most frustrating things about the move to my new location.   Our house in eastern Kentucky has not sold yet and we have nowhere here to keep them so if I want or need something there I’m pretty much out of luck.  This situation did cause me to be very selective in what books I did bring to Henderson.  Of highest priority were the volumes I’d need for my work; after that came the books that bring me the greatest pleasure.  It was for this reason I made sure my volumes of Mary Oliver poetry arrived early.  Her poetry moves me as no other poet. I wanted them close at hand.

pine needlesEarlier today I saw where the author Parker Palmer posted a Mary Oliver poem on his Facebook page.  It is a poem from her book Why I Wake Early and is called Mindful.   I’m glad Palmer posted this poem today; I needed it.  Consider Oliver’s words: “Every day I see or I hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.  It is what I was born for–to look, to listen, to lose myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.  Nor am I talking about the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant–but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab, the daily presentations.  Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help but grow wise with such teachings as these–the untrimmable light of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?”

RNP-277The thought conveyed at the end of this poem reminds me of the words I cited in my last blog from Oprah Winfrey.  Speaking about nature Oprah said, “sometimes its smallest offerings are the ones that open my soul to its splendor.”   Mary Oliver goes a bit further and encourages us not to miss that which is to be found in the unexceptional, in “the ordinary, the common, the very drab.”  I confess I tend to look for the exceptional, especially when I am photographing.  If something is ordinary, common or drab it typically does not get a second glance from me.  My blogging partner, Rob Sheppard, however, has made a conscious decision to pay more attention to these things and to photograph them as well.  He has written about this a number of times in his other blog, Nature and Photography.  He likes to remind people that these common or ordinary things are part of nature too.

BB173Yes, they are a part of nature too and that also means they are part of God’s Creation.  That alone should be cause enough to broaden my horizons and motivation not to dismiss that which is considered unexceptional by most people.   In the end, is anything God has created unexceptional?  I doubt it.  Throughout Genesis 1 we are told God repeatedly declared Creation to be good–all of it.  Both Winfrey and Oliver mention the joy and delight they receive from these small or common thing.   I suspect I have missed not only that joy and delight but a number of spiritual lessons as well simply due to my propensity to ignore that which is common.  That being so, I think I’ll take Oprah, Mary and Rob’s advice and try to start paying better attention to the unexceptional.  Would you consider doing the same?

–Chuck


May 22 2013

Eyes of the Heart

_CES8139I received a book in the mail a few days ago that has brought me a good bit of excitement. It’s called Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice and was written by Christine Valters Paintner. I have long felt that there was a spiritual dimension to my photography. I have likened it in the past to a spiritual discipline. That is why I named my photography business Contemplative Images over twenty years ago. Photography has helped me see things in a way I had not prior to picking up a camera. In this new book Paintner gives a voice to my experience.

_CES2657In the introduction the author writes, “Photography as a spiritual practice combines the active art of image-receiving with the contemplative nature and open-heartedness of prayer. It cultivates what I call sacred seeing or seeing with the ‘eyes of the heart’ (Ephesians 1:18). This kind of seeing is our ability to receive the world around us at a deeper level than surface realities.” Later she adds, “Photography as a spiritual practice can help us to cultivate an awakened vision so we begin to really see.”

_CES5257I have often said that my nature photography is at times an act of worship. Paintner agrees with this. She says “Photography can be an act of silent worship. When we see the world with eyes of the heart, we can engage in an act of both reverence and self-expression. We can discover how the living Spirit is being revealed in the world.”

_CES8282As I’ve been reading this book I have rejoiced that someone has been able to put into words what I have felt for so long. The experience has been like finding just the right greeting card that says exactly what you wanted to say to someone but could never have come up with the words yourself. If you own a camera and would be willing to explore how it might be used as a spiritual tool I highly recommend that you purchase and read this book. It is not a book that will teach you how to use a camera (my blogging partner, Rob Sheppard has written plenty of those and I urge you to buy them too), but it will help you to see the world in a different way and this will make you a better photographer in the end. Practicing the principles taught in Paintner’s book will not necessarily help you create award winning images but will instead lead to something far better–a closer connection with God and His Creation.  In the end this book is as much about the contemplative life as it is photography.   It is a book that has the potential to change your life in more ways than one.   That’s saying a lot for a book that only cost me $11.86 on Amazon.com!

–Chuck

(The pictures I’ve used today are examples of my work I’ve come to call “macro therapy.”


Feb 20 2013

“Sheddin’ Time” Part 2

_CES0539In my last post I talked about “sheddin’ time.”  I made some comparisons between deer shedding their antlers this time of year and the season of Lent when we, too, are beckoned to shed some things.  In Sunday’s entry I suggested that Lent is a great time to look inward and discover what bad habits or sins there may be that need to be shed.  The day after I wrote that blog I talked to my co-writer, Rob Sheppard, on the phone and he mentioned that for many of us there is also a need to shed some of our possessions.  I realize that this is not likely to be a popular topic but it does deserve some attention.

_CES6082I suspect that the vast majority of us have far more possessions than we really need.   Some people, like me, cannot park in their garages because they are filled with so much junk.  Others have to build sheds or rent storage bins to store all their extra possessions.  The clutter can be overwhelming and at times even sinful.  Do I really need ten jackets?  Certainly not when there are people in the community who have none.  Do I really need 17,000 books?  I say “yes” but Rob says “no” and as much as I hate to admit it, Rob is probably right.  In fact, I actually do have so many books that I’ve been known to purchase books I have, forgetting I already own them.  Not good!

Henry David Thoreau once gave this wonderful advice: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”   If we could follow this advice each of our lives would be richer and less complicated.  Jesus, knowing all too well our tendency to collect more than we need, once said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” (Matthew 6:19-20)  I shudder to think just exactly what he would say today to those of us who have invested ourselves so heavily into the material world.

bison-and-calfOur unbridled consumerism has taken a toll not only on our souls but also upon the environment.  Natural resources have been used up unnecessarily.  It is becoming harder and harder to find space for landfills to deposit all the extra stuff we discard.  Excessive consumerism likewise contributes to the pollution of the air and our waterways.  In the end there is a far greater cost to our purchases than most of us imagine.

So, yes, once again, perhaps we ought to view the season of Lent as “sheddin’ time.”  In these weeks leading up to Easter maybe we could all take a closer look at what we have and see if there are some things we can shed and give away.  This form of recycling could actually benefit many who are in need, while at the same time giving us more freedom from “stuff.”

If you are interested in exploring a number of different ways you can simplify your life, I’d encourage you to check out Nancy Sleeth’s newest book, Almost Amish.  I think you would find it helpful.  Good luck in the adventure and please wish me the same!

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Acadia National Park in Maine; the middle image at my home in Pikeville, KY; and the bottom image in South Dakota.)