The Beauty of Losing Yourself in Nature

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

Let's face it: Staying in the house for a few days can be relaxing and enjoyable. Doing it for weeks and months, even when it's to protect yourself from a deadly virus, can be claustrophobic. Although I fully welcomed and supported our local stay-at-home order, as a photographer I felt doubly confined by the lockdown because it prevented me from getting outside with my camera.

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My wife and I live in the heart of the city in Charlotte, NC.  For two months, I made the best of the stay-at-home situation, looking for interesting things to photograph around the house: my fedora-filled hat rack ... fallen cherry blossoms on our front steps ... the intriguing patterns of light and shadow on a wall. In its own way, this turned out to be a rewarding creative exercise. But after two months, I was desperately ready to shoot something else – and eager to reconnect with the outside world.

By late May, the lockdowns in Charlotte were gradually being lifted. Life has regained some sense of normalcy, yet there's very little that's normal about it. New infections have been on the rise in our state since things reopened, and to me this means photographing in a busy city environment is not necessarily the healthiest option, if it can be avoided.

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So one morning, I took a trip to a place where social distancing would be less of an issue. I got up before sunrise, filled a travel mug with hot green tea and drove to a picturesque rural area in York, SC, where our daughter-in-law’s parents live.

I’m a city person at heart, and I love being surrounded by our favorite restaurants and cafes. But as I drove through the early morning fog, leaving the highways behind and taking remote rural roads lined with farms and pastures, I felt a sense of peacefulness settle over me.

I was reminded how vital it is to maintain our connection to nature, wherever we call home. When we lived in California, I felt this connection through the towering redwoods, the rocky Pacific coast and the majestic beauty of Yosemite. In nature's presence, we can feel a profound sense of awe, which has been defined as a mix of reverence, fear and wonder. Photographer Nicholas Hlobeczy summed it up nicely when he said "Without awe, we cannot truly be alive."

On this morning, I felt alive -- joyfully, gratefully, fully alive -- in the dreamlike mist that blanketed the countryside.

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I'm guessing you discovered long ago that there’s a deep joy to be found in losing yourself  – immersing yourself so deeply in a task that you lose all sense of time. Athletes call this “being in the zone.”

When we’re in this state, we feel a sense of oneness with whatever we're engaged in doing. Our rational mind stops chattering, and the whispered voice of intuitive wisdom guides us. This was the whisper that compelled me to stop the car at this particular spot, where rustic fenceposts jutted up like fingers and solitary trees stood in quiet dignity on the hill beyond.

I spent a long time at this spot, appreciating the different views that revealed themselves with each subtle shift in perspective.


A while later, I came to the unpaved tree-lined road that you see below. This is the road that leads to our in-laws’ home.  I’ve traveled it several times over the years, and I had no particular intention of taking a photograph at this spot. But on this day, it presented itself as a gift that was totally fresh and new – and once again I felt compelled to stop the car and step outside with my camera.

It wasn’t a conscious decision; I was simply responding from the heart to the gift that was in front of me. I saw the rhythmic pattern of the trees and the soft white light and the road leading into the distance, and I had to press the shutter.

It brings to mind the words of photographer Matt Black: “To me, the turning point in photography comes when you stop looking and start seeing.”

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By this time, the morning fog was lifting and my eyes were drawn to the intimate details that revealed themselves: the weathered bark of the trees ... the graceful intertwining of branches ... the symphony of life and death that was playing all around me with its repeating cycle of new birth and decay.

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When I was ready to get back into the car and drive home, another detail caught my eye: the gossamer threads of webs hanging from some of the branches. They were nearly invisible to the eye at first glance, but if you moved a certain way you saw them glistening with dew and backlit by the morning sun.

The translucent webs were a subtle reminder: there's much, much more to this world and to life than our limited perception can reveal. We miss so much because our eyes and minds remain focused on a narrow band of things that are readily apparent to us. 

As my favorite photographer Wynn Bullock explained, “What you see is real – but only on the particular level to which you’ve developed your sense of seeing.”

This morning retreat was a gift for which I’m deeply grateful. More than just a photo opportunity and a break from the stay-at-home routine, it was a chance to rejuvenate, re-center and reconnect.  In the quiet countryside, I had a glimpse of what Brother David Steindl-Rast meant when he wrote, “… the present moment, with all the possibilities it offers, is the greatest gift one can imagine. Everything there is can be understood as a gift to everything else there is.”

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~ Paul