Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude.
~ Eugène Delacroix
Shortly before the Christmas holiday I arrived at my campsite in a remote region where the Mojave Desert transitions into the now-frigid highlands of the Colorado Plateau. It is early afternoon. I have just enough time to set up camp and to make myself comfortable before the sun sets. With that done, I feel a strange elation sitting outside comfortably, the temperature just above freezing—a luxury I won’t have in the desert of my home until spring arrives.
Although the season’s holidays never played any significant role in my life, these days around the winter solstice still feel uniquely festive and restful to me. The sun hanging low in the sky, the soft golden light filtering through trees and shrubs all throughout the day, and the intense silence, all lend an uncommon peacefulness and dignity to these desert places otherwise prone to extremes. Like most wild beings, I take great comfort in the notable absence of people and their noisy trappings. I have not seen or heard another vehicle since leaving the highway about three hours ago, and I don’t expect to until I leave again in a few days.
I settle into my chair with a glass of tequila and the stub of a cigar I’ve been working my way through for the last couple of days. Millie the dog is sniffing happily among the grass-lined creosote bushes. After hours on the road, it’s now time to corral my thoughts, to bring my mind to where my body is, to become mindful of the quiet and majesty of the place, and to savor the beauty of the fading light as it retreats slowly from the slopes of desert mountains all around me.
In recent weeks I’ve given several virtual presentations to various camera clubs, usually in the form of question-and-answer sessions. Despite my social anxiety, I find these talks rewarding to work on. Other than the enjoyable challenge of putting my thoughts into words, these sessions also offer me a glimpse into the minds and preoccupations of other photographers, allowing me to compare them with my own. Often, a question or idea will rattle in my mind for some time even after presenting my answer. A couple such recent questions were about my approach to scouting new locations, and how I get myself into an “artist mindset.” I suspect that my answer to the first question may not have been very satisfying to the person who asked it: I don’t scout; I just go to some general area that appeals to me and keep myself open to experiences and to whatever may call out to me to make a photograph. The second question is what started this train of thought in motion. The answer I gave was this:
My goal is to never not be in an artist mindset. This is my life, it’s what I do, it’s who I am, it’s always on my mind, it’s my default state. When I’m distracted from this mindset, I can feel it viscerally: something just doesn’t feel right.
I remember times when this was not the case—times when, encumbered by the demands of urban living and professional obligations, it was difficult and at times impossible for me to set mundane concerns aside on short excursions. Much like trying to get rid of a song stuck in my head, I couldn’t get past a nagging anxiety borne from knowing that shortly I’ll have to go back to an uninspiring routine, that I had just this brief time to myself to “make the most of.” Paradoxically, this stress prevented me from achieving the very things I wished for: inspiration, calmness, disconnectedness from petty concerns, and relief from the stresses of everyday life. Absurdly, even in such remote places, surrounded by beauty, I couldn’t stop stressing… about stressing.
My sense is that people who are concerned with scouting locations may experience a similar kind of anxiety: stressing about making photographs, to a point of blinding themselves to the greater joys of peace, inspiration, beauty, mindfulness, presence, and creative epiphanies. For those caught in this self-defeating loop, my advice is this: convince yourself (hard as it is) that it’s OK to return with no photographs, that it’s OK to do nothing at all, to have nothing material to show for your time outside, to not even have enviable stories to tell others, to just let go, to just be. Then again, it’s really not OK… in the sense that it’s not just OK. It’s much more than OK. It’s one of the most powerful and life affirming things you can do: absolutely nothing except feel, sense, notice; without striving, without expectations, without any concern for what may come after. It’s the only way to extend an invitation to the muses, to put yourself in the path of opportunity, to experience the kind of profound peace that is only possible in the absence of stress, guilt, or any concern for “productivity.”
In his essay, Walking, Henry David Thoreau mused about the futility of being distracted when out in nature. He wrote, “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
At times, when I find myself distracted, I have adapted Thoreau’s advice, asking myself: what business have I in the… woods, desert, mountains… if I am thinking of something outside of where I am. To simply answer it may not be enough. Tools such as mindfulness, meditation, and immersing myself in some creative challenge, have been helpful in getting myself back into the artist mindset.
I don’t know of any sure way to get into an artist mindset, but I do know many sure ways to prevent myself from getting into it. One of these is to focus my attention on the singular goal of making photographs, to the exclusion of all other rewards that to me are the greater part of “making the most” of any experience. Photographs are most rewarding not as goals in themselves, but as outcomes and byproducts of mindful and elevated states. And these states, whether they yield any photograph or even any experience worth telling others about, are more worthy and rewarding in themselves than any photograph that is not the fruit of true inspiration.
The sun has set, and the world looks calmer still in the twilight. The resident Western Screech Owl is calling from among the rocks behind me. Stars begin to appear and I know there will not be as many of them visible this time of year as my view now looks outward from the Milky Way, rather than into its navel. I proceed to a favorite pastime: identifying the farthest celestial body I can see. It never fails to amaze me when I think about it, the astonishing scale of existence, the spectacular randomness of it all, me being here, being me, thinking these thoughts with whatever knowledge, senses, and intuitions are available to me, and within the immensity of the mysteries all around me: the staggering extents of my ignorance. And then, the cathartic moment when all I can think and experience collapse into this most blissful singular state: acceptance.
Sadness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, stress—these are all feelings that accompany any event or circumstance that shatters the delusion of having control, of being anything other than a feeble being, limited in mind and body, making the most of my very temporary existence on a speck of dust floating in a fathomless immensity.
I remind myself happily that all else—all that I can do nothing about at this moment, and in the coming days—is not worth an iota of concern. I’m safe and warm. I have the makings of an excellent dinner waiting. I am in a place of great beauty. I’m not here to solve any problem, not to arrive at any destination, not even to make any photographs. I’m here, first and foremost, to camp and hike with my dog, in solitude, in terra incognita, in the beautiful light of the winter solstice. And that is as much as I can ask for.
Happy New Year! May you stay in your woods.