If I had a blog, today I would write about the gift of seeing.
Most of us are blessed with the gift of sight, the ability to process our environment visually, but far fewer have the gift of seeing. To see, one must be able to look beyond the bold and flashy and take note of the beauty found in simple, less eye-catching scenes. To truly “see” the world around us, we must follow the advice of naturalist John Burroughs who wrote: The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.
This quote takes me back to an October afternoon in Ely, Minnesota. Mom, Kindra, and I were hiking the Angleworm Trail, some twenty miles from our cabin. The trees were at the peak of their fall color and stepping into the forest was, for us, like crossing over into another reality. I immediately fell behind my hiking companions, mesmerized by the photo-ops that presented themselves on that perfect autumn day. I’d spent about two hours walking, crawling on my knees, and laying flat on the ground taking pictures of scarlet and gold moose-maple leaves, blooming club moss, towering birches, and old logs adorned with tiny mushrooms. I’d lain on my back in the spongy sphagnum moss, watching a whisky-jack going about his day in the balsam and fir trees and had even shared a granola bar with my gregarious avian friend.
As I set off down the trail again, I met a fellow hiker-photographer on his return to the trailhead. We said a polite, “Hello,” to one another and I asked, “Did you find anything good to photograph?”
“Nothing,” the man said, “No moose, no wolves, no bears. Nothing.”
“Too bad,” I replied, “Some days just don’t pan out.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he said as he trudged dejectedly towards the parking lot.
I was stunned. Nothing to photograph? I’d just checked my camera and had taken well over 300 photos since I started my hike. What a lesson in “look underfoot!” My experience on The Angleworm has become a touchstone in my outdoor life and it colors every outing I take. “Look underfoot” keeps me focused on everything around me: the intimate goings-on in the natural world as well as the big “calendar shots,” and that philosophy has given me some of my favorite pieces of work.
Today was certainly a “look underfoot” kind of day. As Mom and I hiked along the old logging road to Big Valley, the day did not cry out, “Amazing!” The trees are just beginning to blush, their fruits just starting to ripen, and even down at the river, the world was caught in limbo between summer’s bounty and autumn’s blaze of color. It was not a day for landscapes or wildlife, so it was time to think small.. Coming up from the river, we saw a pile of large seed hulls, soft and yellow with sharp spines on the casing. The delicacy it protected had been stolen away by squirrels and it took some hunting to find an unopened shell. Deep in a tangled mass of vines and spent flowers was our quarry. I gently broke it open and inside was one of my favorite fall gifts: A buckeye.I set the mahogany seed and it’s shell in a spot of sun and took my photo. I knew this would be the shot of the day.
I slipped the buckeye in my pocket and brought it home to grace my bookshelf along with a selection of acorns, milkweed pods, and an older buckeye, given to me by my grandmother. After cautioning me that buckeyes are poison to eat, Gran told me that buckeyes are good luck charms. Carried in one’s pocket or worn about the neck as a talisman, these beautiful seeds will protect their owner from harm and alleviate aches and pains. In the past, I’ve hesitated to mar the finish of my buckeye with a clasp and worried it would get lost if I carried it in my pocket, but this year I need luck and healing more than ever, so I will carry my new treasure as Gran instructed and see what happens. Regardless of whether it has magical properties, my buckeye is certainly a reminder to slow down, to appreciate the simple beauty of nature, and to seek The Divine where I expect to find it least: In the tangled, weedy, fecundity of my own, familiar bit of Earth.