In the Presence of Old Friends

 

Places are some of my very best friends.

When I return to a beautiful location that I’ve connected with in the past, it feels like showing up at a dear friend’s front porch who swings open wide the door of warm hospitality, eagerly welcoming me in with genuine laughter, refreshing food and drink, palpable love.

One of these treasured friends is Mount Rainier.

 

 

I first met The Mountain as a five-year-old boy, glimpsing its snowy white broad-shouldered girth from a distance as my mom held me up to see out the kitchen window of our rental house in Washington state.

It would be decades later that I finally encountered 14,409-ft Rainier face to face, in all its shocking glory. It did not take but a single visit to form a bond, and this friendship resulted in years of wide-eyed wonder and the making of many cherished photographic portraits.

 

A summer sunset casts spectacular light on clouds above Mount Rainier at Reflection Lake

A summer sunset casts spectacular light on clouds above Mount Rainier at Reflection Lake

 

Pink and yellow monkeyflowers decorate a tributary of the Paradise River

Pink and yellow monkeyflowers decorate a tributary of the Paradise River

 

In the presence of this majestic mountain 15 years ago I met another friend. I was exploring a forest service road just west of the National Park boundary and somehow managed to navigate a Ford Taurus sedan up a sketchy dirt road and onto a platform overlooking Mount Rainier. As I set up the tripod and camera for a sunset shot, a 4WD truck clambered up this hill and pulled in next to me. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired young man with a slight Polish accent exclaimed, “How did you make it up here in that car!?”

And so began a most amazing connection with a guy who became one of my best friends ever, fellow landscape photographer Slavomir Dzieciatkowski. For a decade and a half we have journeyed together in this life, through many joys and a fair share of sorrows. We’ve grown close in the way I always imagined real brothers would.

When I moved clear across the country two years ago our friendship remained strong thanks to regular emailing, but hanging out in person has become a rare once-a-year treat. This summer we coordinated a camping and photography retreat for the two of us, joined by our very special companion, Rainier.

Driving toward our rendezvous this week, my first glimpse of The Mountain elicited a loud gasp as my heart leaped for joy to be back in the presence of this old friend. And so too when I arrived at camp, my heart leaped for joy as I embraced my old friend Slavomir.

 

 

Summer glacial melt creates a lush grotto in a rugged boulder-strewn ravine on Rainier's slopes

Summer glacial melt creates a lush grotto in a rugged boulder-strewn ravine on Rainier’s slopes

 

I spent three grand days getting reacquainted with my comrade Rainier, hiking high up on his flanks above treeline, discovering sublime compositions along the glacier-fed Paradise River he births, witnessing the spectacle of pink sunset clouds highlighting his noble presence at Reflection Lakes. All the while soaking up great conversation and photographic craft with my sidekick Slav.

One is a very special place. The other a beloved man. Both, I’m quite certain, will remain loyal companions the rest of my days on earth.

 

Swirling water and granite rock are nature's art on the Paradise River

Swirling water and granite rock are nature’s art on the Paradise River


Getting Your Feathers Ruffled

 

Like many folks, I am mesmerized by birds of prey. And perhaps the most common species most of us are able to enjoy regularly are hawks.

The fierce look, those piercing see-through-you eyes, the sharp weaponized beak, talons built for killing, the beautiful earth tone coloring in their wings, and the graceful effortless glide that suddenly turns into the swift dive-bomb of death for rats, lizards, frogs, and other edibles.

It’s not difficult to see the glory of this grand creature, and in that the excellence of the Creator.

 

 

Our back yard is often a convenient theater for viewing the hawk show. Frequently I’ll have my telephoto lens trained on one as he soars through the blue Florida sky, and simply watching him through binoculars as he’s perched atop a snag patiently looking for a meal brings me joy.

 

 

One day the show became quite lively as a resident mocking bird took offense at the hawk’s close presence to its nest. Tiny in comparison to the hawk’s big body, the mocking bird showed no fear or intimidation as it loudly complained in mid-air, swiping at the hawk again and again, often making direct hit with the hawk. The little bird would return to the bushes for a few seconds of rest, then soon he was back at it, helicoptoring right in the face of the spectacular raptor and actually looking quite fearsome in moments caught by the camera.

 

 

As startling as the territorial behavior of the mocking bird was to me, it was downright shocking to see the reaction of the formidable hawk: he did nothing.

I felt certain the hawk could crush the life out of the small bird should he choose, but he did not attack. Nor did he even defend. He sat stoically, unruffled, continuing his efforts to hunt from his high perch. And when the mockingbird’s fly-by hits became disturbing enough, the noble hawk did not retaliate, did not seek vengeance, but merely flew away to a quieter more distance tree where he could be at peace.

There’s a sizable chunk of wisdom to be gleaned in observing the behavior of these birds in their natural habitat. For weeks I have been pondering it. Sometimes in life I have been the mockingbird, so quick to react when I feel threatened by another person’s opinions or behavior or mere presence. And at other times I have been, like the hawk, the one being harassed, but unlike the hawk I did not remain calm and confident in the strength of who I truly am.

Thank you Maker, for the awesomeness of your natural world! And for granting me joy, learning, and growth through observing the works of your hands.

 

 

 


A Tale of Two Trails

 

The area I call home has a variety of paved trails where a bicyclist can spin car-free and carefree.

As I rode on my favorite of these trails recently my senses were alive to the incredible beauty of this route that meandered through lush groves of sub-tropical trees and alongside a gently flowing waterway. Gorgeous flowers were in bloom. All manner of birds swooped high and low, including the always-inspiring  osprey and swallow-tailed kite. Vibrant red cardinals flitted about the brush, and a variety of stately wading birds found meals along the water’s edge. Rabbits scurried on green grass, fish leaped out of the waterway, and warm Florida sunshine beamed down from a blue canopy decorated with white towers of cumulonimbus clouds. The eye candy of this trail was undeniable, and all of these small glories filled me up inside with a delicious joy.

This is the trail I would love to ride every single day!

 

 

 

A juvenile ibis hunts for some lunch along the Upper Tampa Bay Trail

A juvenile ibis hunts for some lunch along the Upper Tampa Bay Trail

 

But the particular bike trail I chose to ride on a different day was far from glorious: the sultry air carried a stomach-turning stench as it circled around a local landfill, and the swarm of large birds in the sky above were vultures. This trail also had a canal next to it, but the murky brown water was highly suspect with trash littered throughout. A large section of this route was built right next to a busy road, and the sight, sound, and smell of automobiles was far from appealing. No wildlife of any consequence was found, and no enthralling views were to be seen. A water treatment plant next to the trail was another of many blights. A couple of the underpasses revealed sketchy-looking characters sitting off to the dark sides and I was glad to be pedaling past quickly on a bike rather than nervously walking by them.

 

 

You might wonder why I would ever want to take that nasty trail again.

And yet the reality is that these two wildly different yet accurate descriptions are for the exact same bike trail.

What I see on any given ride along this path is what I choose to focus my attention on.

As I power along on my bike, will I train my senses to truly see all the everyday beauty surrounding me, crying out to be savored with a heart of thankfulness? Or will I set my sights on all the imperfections, all that displeases me, all that is wrong, leaving no room for grace and gratitude?

 

 

 

An anhinga drys off his wings in the abundant Florida sunshine

An anhinga drys off his wings in the abundant Florida sunshine

 

I choose the intentional practice of childlike wonder – eagerly anticipating the treats Creator-God has in store for me each new morning as he reveals his excellence, his beauty, and his love through the ordinary delights of life.

________________________________

“This is the day that the LORD has made; let’s rejoice and be glad in it.”

(Psalm 118:24)
________________________________

 

The message on the bench that greets me at the trailhead serves as a great reminder

The message on the bench that greets me at the trailhead serves as a great reminder

 

[Note: for the photographically curious, images in this post were created with a Nikon D7100 DSLR w/Tamron 150-600mm, an iPhone 6 Plus, and Adobe Lightroom 5 processing software.]


Chasing A Flying Kite

 

In my previous post I shared images of the backyard beauty my wife and I have been blessed to see and photograph this year. Since then I’ve continued hanging out on that back patio in the mornings, big telephoto zoom in hand, waiting for more beautiful Florida birds to grace me with a flyover. I was not disappointed a few days ago when I caught a squadron of Roseate Spoonbills, one of my favorites creatures of the air, gracefully sailing through the blue sky.

 

The pink coloring of roseate spoonbills pops against a Florida blue sky

The pink coloring of roseate spoonbills pops against a Florida blue sky

 

And a great little adventure developed recently around the chase to capture (photographically) another variety of bird.

As I was pounding out some miles on my road bike along the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, I thought I heard someone call my name. Suddenly another cyclist was alongside me wearing a big grin, and I realized it was my friend Cody. He was on his bike commute home and was excitedly telling me about witnessing ahead on the trail a kite plunging into the canal to grab a fish. After a brief moment envisioning someone flying a kite and crashing it into the water, I realized this must be some sort of Florida bird I did not yet know about.

I finished my ride but did not spot the kite, and back at home I Googled for info about this mystery bird. When I saw the image search results on my computer screen I immediately recognized the distinctive profile as one I had seen a few years ago at Florida’s Sanibel Island and I recall at that time how I was completely fascinated by the forked tail silhouette in the sky. The full name of this bird of prey is a Swallow-tailed Kite, and it returns to Florida each spring to nest after spending winters in Brazil.

Now my obsession with this stunning raptor was sparked, and I was driven to find one and photograph it.

In the days that followed my wife & I would take off in the car when we had spare time and drive the neighborhood surrounding the nearby bike trail, scanning the sky with binoculars. We came up with nothing. On a couple of other days we took to the trail on our bikes with the heavy photo backpack along for the ride, and again came up empty handed. But then on a subsequent bike ride when I had no camera with me, there were not one but three kites circling high above the trail! Thrilled as I was to view them, I was disappointed from not bagging my trophy photo.

After returning home from that bike ride I noticed a shadow flicker briefly on the wall as something momentarily blocked the light of the evening sun out in the back yard. Walking to the doors and peering out the glass, there was a majestic Swallow-tailed Kite diving in and out of the greenspace just a few dozen yards from the back of our house!

 

The striking Swallow-tailed Kite is one of the most eye-catching birds of prey

The striking Swallow-tailed Kite is one of the most eye-catching birds of prey

 

That evening I snagged my first ever shot of this amazing raptor, and since then he’s visited my backyard a couple more times. On his last visit he took a spectacular dive straight down into the bushes, emerging with a loud cry and a frog in his talons for supper.

 

After diving-bombing into the bushes the kite emerges with a frog

After diving-bombing into the bushes the kite emerges with a frog

 

It’s certainly not difficult to see the glory of God displayed in the spectacular design of the Swallow-tailed Kite, and other fantastic birds we all are privileged to admire wherever we may live or travel.

And there is another aspect of God’s great glory that has come to mind as I’ve been delighted to watch and photograph these creatures – the fact that he soveriegnly rules over all his creation, and provides the food to sustain not only these big birds of prey but also the common little sparrows. If this Creator cares for the birds, must he not even more so care for us, who he made in his image? Jesus assured his disciples that indeed he does:

“What is the price of two sparrows–one copper coin?
But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.

So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.”

(Matthew 10:29-31, New Living Translation)

 

A Cattle Egret takes flight in the skies above my backyard

A Cattle Egret takes flight in the skies above my backyard

 

 

 

 


Basking in Backyard Beauty

 

A profusion of springtime flowers attract a butterfly to the greenspace behind our backyard

A profusion of springtime flowers attract a butterfly to the greenspace behind our backyard

 

My father-in-law Bob is not a big fan of change. Nor technology. So when he recently visited our Florida home with a new Samsung smart phone in his hand, I figured we were all in trouble 🙂

His wife Sheila had ‘strongly encouraged’ him to replace his decade-old flip phone and join the 2015 tech party. He had reluctantly given in, but after two weeks with the new ‘smart’ device he was ready to chuck it into the nearest lake. For the first few days of his visit we’d try not to start laughing in front of him as the cascade of cursewords would flow when the device rebelled against his every intention.

But eventually I noticed a change beginning.

Bob had taken to sitting outside in the early mornings on our small backyard patio, and one day when I joined him with my much-later-morning mug of coffee in hand, I witnessed something remarkable: he had outsmarted his smartphone all on his own with no input from any of us, and learned to use his new hi-tech device to call in a variety of birds within feet of our back door.

He needed no help in navigating the phone’s web browser, googling for Florida bird calls, and playing those audio clips to get the attention of a gorgeous red Northern Cardinal. Not only that, he had bird identification pictures pulled up on the phone’s sizable screen and was showing us what species of birds were flitting around the brush and trees in the greenspace just beyond our tiny yard. And there was no more cursing!

 

A stunning red male Northern Cardinal comes within feet of our back door

A stunning red male Northern Cardinal comes within feet of our back door

 

Soon this spunky 75-year-old was even texting like a pro (something he vowed never to do in this life). And I thought, wow, an old dog actually can learn new tricks 😉

But after some days had passed with me joining my father-in-law on our back patio each late morning for peaceful sessions of listening to the songs and calls of the birds, I suddenly realized that this old dog Bob was actually teaching me, a rapidly aging dog, a new trick. For I had not fully realized until then that my own humble backyard was a view to some amazing beauty and glory waiting to be photographed.

During Bob’s visit I began bringing the Nikon out with big telephoto attached, and experienced great delight in making images of some of the little birds he had called out. Then my wife Wendy joined the fun with her nice photographic capture of a turtle passing by. And after my father-in-law returned home to Oregon I continued spending time in the morning sitting on the patio with camera nearby, waiting for more opportunities to see, enjoy, and capture the majesty of birds in flight and any other critter that might happen across the backyard, including butterflies and lizards.

 

A turtle takes its sweet time   crawling across the grass of our backyard (photo by Wendy Martin)

A turtle takes its sweet time crawling across the grass of our backyard (photo by Wendy Martin)

 

An anole lizard lounging on our patio displays its eye-catching dewlap

An anole lizard lounging on our patio displays its eye-catching dewlap

 

Bob, if you’re reading this, I thank you for your persistence in pushing through the learning curve and finding a use for your new phone that brought us all a lot of pleasure, and for helping awaken me to backyard beauty I had taken for granted.

Sometimes I need to be reminded: slow down, look around, truly see, and savor the everyday glory of our Creator in everyday places…

 

A Limpkin takes flight off of a dead snag behind our backyard

A Limpkin takes flight off of a dead snag behind our backyard

 

[all photos in today’s post were taken with a Nikon D7100 DSLR and a Tamron 150-600mm lens]


I Feel You Through The Pain

 

[Note: today I share with you more images from my troubled season of 2013]

Last week I wrote about the extreme anxiety and panic that enveloped me beginning in the summer of 2013 (you can read that first part here – When Joy Breaks Into Your Suffering). Today I would like to take you a little deeper into a remarkable moment of that stressful time.

It was mid-July in Tampa, Florida. Daily torrential thunderstorms amid near-100% humidity and 90-degree temps kept me imprisoned inside. A little over a week had passed since my wife had rushed me to the emergency room late at night for sheer panic from the fear of not being able to breathe properly. The worst of that panic had subsided but I was left with a constant attack of anxious thoughts banging around somewhere in a place so deep I could not access it to tell it it quiet down.

Day after day, it was the same: all variety of fears assaulting me, a sense of impending doom, nameless dread.

One night in this harried state of mind, just before bedtime, I slid a pair of headphones over my ears and dialed up an album of worship music on my iPhone, while I paced nervously back and forth through the house. I was desperate for even a sliver of mental and emotional solace.

And then the unexpected happened. Another life moment that I had absolutely no control over. The Divine broke through.

As the music and lyrics coursed through my brain, I suddenly realized the anxious thoughts were gone – completely. In the place of those haunting voices was One voice, with a much different message than I’d been hearing lately.

It was my Maker.

And he flooded my mind with the affirmation that he has me, I am his, he isn’t going anywhere, and he loves and cares for me more deeply than I will ever be able to comprehend.

I was struck down now, not by fears, but by a pure unexplainable joy of being truly loved. I collapsed to my knees, and wept countless tears of shear joy and thankfulness.

 

Latourell Falls plunges down a lichen-covered basalt cliff in the Columbia River Gorge, OR

Latourell Falls plunges down a lichen-covered basalt cliff in the Columbia River Gorge, OR

 

I so wish this was the Happily Ever After ending. But alas, anxieties were pounding away the next morning, and in fact it would take many more months, with some very difficult times ahead, before I would be restored to sanity, peace, and solidity. But there was something significant in that moment of my God breaking through my nightmare and reminding me of his gentle love. I knew then that he would bring victory in the proper time. And that he would not forsake me no matter how long this trial would last.

It was with this heart-knowledge of God’s stunning love that I departed Florida for the trek back West that I wrote of last week. And in that journey he would remind me again and again of his love as I experienced the disarming beauty of his creation, camera in hand. Today I share with you more images made during that 2013 season of brokenness punctuated with joy.

 

I vibrant lily pad blossom brightens the banks of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming

I vibrant lily pad blossom brightens the banks of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming

 

As I sat down to write today, I reclined in a chaise lounge outside, queued up a worship song on my iPhone, and leaned back to gaze up at the sky. There were hundreds of small puffy clouds against a canvas of late-afternoon blue sky, looking like pieces of a puzzle I so wanted to put together. The music and lyrics kicked in as I admired the mysterious beauty of God’s workmanship.

And again I knew in my heart the glory of his bottomless love.

This is the song that today has me in tears of ecstatic joy. I hope something in these lyrics, or these pictures, might resonate with your own heart, wherever you may be on your journey:

 

I see you in the sunrise
I see you in the rain
I see you in the laughter
I feel you through the pain

Everything that you have made is beautiful
Oh, my God, I can’t believe my eyes
But in all of this to think that you would think of me
Makes my heart come alive

Your love is like a mighty fire deep inside my bones
I feel like I could climb a thousand mountains all at once
And I never have to wonder if somebody cares for me
I love the Maker
And the Maker loves me

I see you, you are creation
I see the grandness of your majesty
The universe is singing all your glory
I can’t believe you live inside of me

Everything that you have made is beautiful
Oh, my God, I can’t believe my eyes
But in all of this to think that you would think of me
Makes my heart come alive

Your love is like a mighty fire deep inside my bones
I feel like I could climb a thousand mountains all at once
And I never have to wonder if somebody cares for me
I love the Maker
And the Maker loves me

More than just some words upon a page
You’ve shown me in a million ways
But there is one that stands above them all
Hands of creation on a cross

Your love is like a mighty fire deep inside my bones
I feel like I could climb a thousand mountains all at once
And I never have to wonder if somebody cares for me
I love the Maker
And the Maker loves me

You can view the official music video here: The Maker by Chris August

A grove of aspen glow in the soft light of dusk along American Fork Canyon, Utah

A grove of aspen glow in the soft light of dusk along American Fork Canyon, Utah


When Joy Breaks Into Your Suffering

 

[Today I share images I was blessed to make during a difficult season of suffering]

As I write this, it’s a wonderfully lazy Sunday afternoon in Ohio. My belly is full of lunchtime delishishness whipped up by my sweet sister-in-law whose home we are visiting. Relaxing on the patio in a Tommy Bahama beach chair, I’m aware of little else besides the warming sunshine on my skin, trees filled with eagerly chirping birds, an aimless spring breeze rustling the bottom of my cargo shorts on this sublime 60-degree day.

My mind is at ease. I’m relaxed in the deepest interior places. I feel solidly grounded and centered. There exists not even a hint of anxiety.

But this was decidedly not my state of mind in the summer of 2013.

After the upheaval of a major cross-country move – leaving the Pacific Northwest where I lived my whole life to face the unfamiliarity of Florida, with the death of my mother a month before the move still haunting my emotions, you could say my plate was full of adjustment challenges. And then my body revolted against the high heat and extreme humidity of stormy subtropical summer weather, and that was the last straw.

Something snapped that July evening: suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe, my anxiety levels skyrocketed, and I wound up in the local emergency room. A seemingly endless battery of tests were performed by the doctors, with nothing conclusive found, so I was sent home with a prescription for Adavan.

 

Early winter makes its presence felt in October with snow in the La Sal Mountains of Utah

Early winter makes its presence felt in October with snow in the La Sal Mountains of Utah

 

More doctors and more tests followed, as I was absolutely convinced something had gone awry physically. The days were filled with misery in a way I nor my precious wife have ever known before, with a strange anxiety almost constantly barraging my nervous system, fears running amok, a vague sense of dread, the threat of a panic breakdown always lying just under the surface.

One of the blood tests had revealed something concerning so I made a follow-up appointment with a medical specialist – not in Florida but in Washington state where I still had my primary care physician, as we realized I would be better off returning to family and friends in the West for the remainder of the summer. In late July I set out in my truck camper alone on the long road trip back to the PNW.

It was a summer of mental and physical suffering. Really, the worst suffering I have experienced so far in this life. And brutally difficult for my wife as well.

But that trek back West, and the ensuing months spent in my home region surrounded by caring friends, would begin a healing process. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t over when I eventually returned to Florida in October, as it would take the rest of 2013 and part of 2014 to fully solidify my mind, emotions, and body.

 

The blue cast of shaded light on river rocks contrasts with the green reflections of trees in Washington

The blue cast of shade on river rocks contrasts with reflections of green trees in Washington

 

True to how God has often worked in my life, photography of his creation became a means of much grace during that anxious summer. Connecting with the beauty of the landscape in the West, engaging in the contemplative process of forming compositions with my camera, proved once again to be medicinal.

I cannot explain how, in the middle of uncontrollable and painful anxiety pressing down on me, I was able to enter the flow of creating and produce memorable photographic work. First in Yellowstone during my solitary drive back to the West, then along a river with friends in Washington, and finally in October along my route back to Florida through Utah and Colorado – inexpressible joy would pierce through my darkness over and over as I beheld the majesty and beauty of the One who formed me, displayed in the works of His hands.

Grace was at work.

As I share with you today some of the images made during that troubled season, my heart soars with thankfulness to my God for how he never ceased to be at work throughout my suffering, with humble amazement for where he has brought me now to a place of rest, and with grattitude for these images that are tokens of his merciful care even during the worst times this life has thrown at me.

 

An atmosphere of mystery swirls around a thermal hot springs at Yellowstone National Park

An atmosphere of mystery swirls around a thermal hot springs at Yellowstone National Park

 

I’m also thankful for that time of suffering because it has given me new compassion and understanding for folks who are enduring their own difficult times, which perhaps is some of you reading now. Suffering seems to find all of us in this life. If you are in the midst of personal crisis and pain, I would be honored to support you by listening to your story, and lifting you up in prayer. If you wish to share with me privately, I’m ready to hear with a gentle heart. You may use the confidential Contact tab at the top of the page.

 

God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.
When they are troubled,
we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

(2 Corinthians 1:3b-4, NLT)

 

The San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado come alive with mesmerizing color in early October

The San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado come alive with mesmerizing color in October


%d bloggers like this: