The Healing Landscape


I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I’m there get into states of mind where I’m more open than usual. I’m waiting, I’m listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me. ~Minor White

Most images presented as photographs of the natural landscape are, in fact, not made in the natural landscape. Rather, they are made at the edge of it, where it meets the artifice of the human-made landscape—from roads and well-used trails, within easy reach of comforts and services—the edge delineating us from it: the wild. Such images portray the appearance of the landscape—its veneer, its skin—same as the portrait of a person’s face made by one who possesses no deep familiarity with that person. But beyond the skin there also exists a body and a life filled with great strength and great tenderness, great joys and great sorrows, great beauty and sometimes great tragedies. It is a body we once inhabited, and to which we evolved to respond in visceral, emotional ways.

Just as a well-made portrait hints of the life that inhabits a person, so can portraits of the natural landscape offer a glimpse into the depth and drama of its story, and arouse instinctive notions from far recesses of our brains—those places that remain wild and that are often consciously suppressed to accommodate demanding careers and urban lifestyles. But no portrait—of human or place—can substitute for personal acquaintance, for friendship forged over time by a history of intimate encounters, for interactions and shared experiences. It is this kind of kinship, and its familiar sensations, that I seek with my subjects.

The natural landscape is far older, more complex, and more mysterious than I can hope to know, let alone fully understand, within the blink of the lifetime given me. But as an artist this is a realization I cherish as it culminates in the greatest mysteries of existence and offers me a sense of my place in it—a profoundly humbling one. It is a realization that assures me that there will always be more to know, more to feel, more to discover and learn, and more to feed my inspiration. It tells me that I will never run out of interesting and exciting things to immerse myself in and that I can put to use in my photographs, so long as I am willing to keep exploring. And such things to me are not merely of aesthetic value; they also make my life richer; they not only appeal to my sense of beauty, they also console me in difficult times, and inspire life lessons and revelations; and they allow me to share in their experiences as my small thread in the tapestry of existence intersects with theirs, however briefly.

As so many are born and raised in cities, without direct contact with natural things, it may seem perplexing that such feelings seem intuitive even to those who rarely, or never, spend time in wild places. Indeed, studies in recent years reveal that we are innately programmed to respond in specific ways to certain natural phenomena—views and colors and life—in predictable ways. In a sense, such phenomena act as nearly-universal metaphors for some of our deepest and most powerful emotions, often transcending commonality in culture or language. Mired as we are in manufactured and virtual worlds, we still possess instincts infused in us during eons in which our Pleistocene ancestors depended on wild instinct and wild lands for survival and prosperity, offering existential and social advantages to those who evolved intuitive affinity with certain natural configurations that became metaphors for safety, sustenance, challenge, and mystery.

Among the more interesting scientific findings of recent years are those arising from studies showing a general preference for natural scenes that share visual characteristics with the African savanna, where early humans evolved. One study even showed an innate and universal appreciation of trees in the shape of acacias—a dominant tree on the African savanna. Brain imaging technology shows that viewing some types of landscapes is correlated with activity in the brain’s reward system—they give us pleasure just by seeing them. Today, these sciences are still nascent, but there are good indications that certain visual experiences are associated with much more complex perceptions and emotional responses that we do not yet fully understand.

But beyond just visual appeal, the natural landscape inspires emotions in far more diverse and complex ways. Silence, natural sounds, natural scents, natural colors, and natural textures all collaborate to make experiences ranging from simple appreciation of beauty to outright transcendence. It is why, once certain barriers of cognition and skill are overcome, the experience of being in a wild landscape, away from the buzz of the human hives, often leads to elevated, even mystical sensations of being intensely alive.

Such are the things that draw me into the wild and that I hope to express, however inadequately at times, in my work. No image can substitute for a real experience, but in understanding how natural aesthetics may correlate with actuation of certain feelings, even in people who have never experienced wildness before. Such visual cues may be deliberately employed in art as visual metaphors, conveying richer aesthetic experience than merely appreciating the beauty or magnitude of a given scene or object.

I would be remiss to not also mention that my experiences in the wild are not intended primarily as means for making photographs, or anything else. They are worthy to me in their own right (in fact, considerably more so than any photograph I might bring back). My photography and writing, inspired by such experiences, are indeed welcome byproducts, but they are not the main reason I am drawn to these places. Regrettably, this is a notion often lost in the competitive—and at times narcissistic—culture inspired by virtual socializing.

A particularly poignant study conducted in 2012 by psychologist David Strayer of the University of Utah established that spending just four days in wild natural surroundings, and in disconnect from technology, resulted in an astounding 50% increase in participants’ creative problem solving skills. The same study also proposed that too much time spent among the distractions of the virtual world may be detrimental to the functioning of what is known as the brain’s “default mode network,” which is thought to be associated with a number of psychological disorders, and perhaps even with degenerative brain diseases.

The natural landscape offers more than just innate metaphors for obsolete emotional associations; it can also be—in a real and measurable sense—therapeutic, and conducive to a more meaningful life.

Time Travel

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6 thoughts on “The Healing Landscape

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  1. This one, Guy. This one. You have gone deep and drawn us with you. There’s a flow in the language on this one that took me to a level of visceral understanding that I don’t always reach with each essay. Thank you. One can only hope that people will go beyond the image and actually read the words.

    I think that 2012 study is not the only one that commends the need for contemplation, albeit that specifies the nature/wilderness connection. In the 15 years that I worked so closely with my CEO groups, there was one huge commonality that the best ones shared (and by best ones, I mean the good guys who just happened to excel at running gigantic businesses): protecting time to just think and create. Many of them actually specifically carved out time in complex calendars each week or each month to have time with no distractions. Inviolate. I respected that so much.

  2. Once again… wow… this is incredible food to nurture my planned visit in March to some of your wild lands… although I may not stray too far from the roadside… I do plan to sit quietly in many of those places, away from the well trodden roadside pull outs, and allow my body and soul some nourishment and refreshment… to recharge the batteries…

  3. Dear Guy,
    How true your words. The need for the healing power of nature has never been so apparent as it’s been in these recent times. I know that my sanity has been saved by retreating to the pond in my backwoods whenever the news-induced outrage and despair threaten to overwhelm me. But it’s not the wilderness that you describe of course.
    There is the rumbly bridge clogged with commuters. The clatter and bang of rail cars just north of the river and the retardant bombers flying overhead are more numerous in the fire season than even the flocks of Canada geese that feed on the neighboring hay fields.
    Still, there is the redtail hawk nest in the ancient cottonwood next to the pond, the flashes of white- tails when I scare the deer from their beds, the end nibbled branches and tracks of the hares, and the nighttime hooting of owls who hunt them. And then there is the quiet meditative patience of the fishing heron, reminding me to be still, to stop and wait and listen until my mind empties of all those worries and distractions.
    Sometimes I despair when I can’t get out and experience true wilderness, but then I recall that Thoreau is so often misquoted when he said “In wildness (not wilderness) is the preservation of the world.” And wildness can be found almost anywhere if you take the time to notice–even if it’s just watching an orb spider build its web in the corner of the window, entrap its prey, wind it up like a silk enchilada and devour it.

    1. Ahhh, Peggy…only you could write a sentence like “watching an orb spider build its web in the corner of the window, entrap its prey, wind it up like a silk enchilada and devour it” and make me want more. Like Dave above, perhaps some day our paths will cross again. Your presentation at the symposium about your pond continues to make me want to see it some day. Hope you are well.

      Guy…I think you are more fortunate than you sometimes think, to have people like these two in your corner.

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