How to become a natural explorer

 

 How a deeper connection with the landscape will not only maximise your enjoyment of the outdoors; it could also add a valuable ingredient to your photography...

If you think exploration has to entail journeys to strange places, physical feats, or important scientific discoveries, then think again. According to Tristan Gooley, we are entering a new era of exploration, and it doesninvolve conquering any mountains. In fact, there are adventures to be had right on your doorstep. If you understand how to read, and fully appreciate, the landscape, thereso much more just waiting to be discovered.

Gooley has certainly covered a lot of ground while developing his inspirational idea of natural exploration. He has led expeditions on five continents and, through his bestselling book, The Natural Navigator, he has re-introduced the lost art of finding your way using the sun, moon, stars, and by letting nature guide you. He is also the only living person to have both flown solo and sailed singlehanded across the Atlantic.

In his latest book, The Natural Explorer: Understanding Your Landscape, Gooley draws on his own experiences and ideas as well as insights and curiosities from a host of fascinating characters from the past 2,000 years, including Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, German naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, and Scottish hill-walker and author, Nan Shepherd. Even Winnie the Pooh shares his wisdom in the chapter that reflects on the wonder of rivers!

As outdoor photographers, with the means and the desire to capture how we see the landscape, wecertainly well-equipped to reveal the secrets of the natural world. Gooley puts it succinctly when he says, person who brings greater understanding of the role a wildflower plays in the universe and the impact it might have on their thoughts and emotions, serves us better than the person who finds some novel way to punish themselves by exercising in remote places.’

Switch on your senses

Have you ever arrived at a photographic location, perhaps with the exact image in mind that you want to capture, and fired off a number of exposures before youbarely stopped to breathe in the fresh air and take in your surroundings? Ita scenario I think we can all relate to; it is not always possible to dedicate as much time as welike to our photography, but we can certainly make the most of the time we do spend outdside.

As outdoor photographers, itlikely that we have a greater appreciation for the world around us than most. Even so, to really into the zone’on a shoot, we need to feel properly immersed in a place. Landscape photographer, Pete Bridgwood, says: those precious occasions, when we are able to ignore the distractions of modern life and slowly lose ourselves in wild surroundings, it sometimes seems possible to attune ourselves to some primordial force, a spiritual essence of place. When we are able to ”the landscape, our creativity suddenly becomes boundless.’The first step to becoming tuned into the landscape is to make use of our senses to take in everything around us. Gooley says, awareness of every aspect of the land and sky, the colours, sounds, smells and feel of our surroundings and their interconnections, helps to build a rich picture of the world around us.’He goes on to observe that; we enjoy

looking at something outdoors we are seeing it as a mix of perfect focus, imperfect peripheral vision and blind spots. Pilots are taught to scan the sky when looking for other aircraft, by moving the eyes in short hops from one spot to the next. We can use the same techniques when appreciating the outdoors as it will bring different points into sharp focus and allow discoveries that would otherwise pass unnoticed.’

Let nature lead

Heightened awareness combined with a flexible approach can pay dividends. Rather than setting out with the goal of capturing a particular subject, itgood to be alert to everything else around us, and to keep shooting options open. This can open your eyes to a raft of interesting opportunities and is a useful approach if an original plan doesnwork out due to overcast weather, for example.

Laurie Campbell is a prime example of a photographer who takes his cue from the natural world. For instance, in his Life in the Wild column this month (see page 20) he writes about a recent trip to the Isle of Harris. When plans to photograph otters go awry, his attention turns to a nearby group of sphagnum mosses. Consequently, he captures unusual images of these often overlooked plants; highlighting the important role they play in ecosystems.

Deepen your knowledge

An important part of unlocking any landscape is to achieve a greater understanding of all the elements within it. This can make any outdoor adventure a lot more enriching and exciting. As nature photographer, Niall Benvie, puts it: youmore familiar with the street than a forest, going into a bluebell wood in spring is a bit like going to a really great party where you donknow anyone and everyone is speaking in a foreign language. Of course yougoing to feel left out. But if you start to learn the language-or at least understand the inflections —learn the names of some of the plants and animals and the relationships between them, then it suddenly gets a lot more interesting. Connecting to the landscape means changing your role from observer to participant.’

The more we know about nature, whether ithow a plant works or what causes the earth to smell musky after rain —the more awe-inspiring things become. Gooley feels that, as a paintingbeauty cannot diminished by explaining the composition of its oils’, an explanation as to how alpine plants warm using fuzzy stems that trap air for insulation’will never dispel the wonder. He goes on to explain: sense of awe is important because this is the emotion that so often precedes wonder, and there can be no greater ultimate goal for explorers, old and new, than that.’None of us is ever going to know all there is to know about every species of plant and animal, or the geological make-up of every mountain or valley, but knowing the background story of features in the landscape can help to build a strong connection with it.

Gooley says; the life of a mountain even allows us to see beneath its skin, but this dry knowledge on its own serves us best by encouraging us to stop and think. Anything that provokes this pause is worthwhile, because it is from this moment that the true potential of our relationship with the peak grows’.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information from every angle, immersing ourselves in a favourite subject is surely the ultimate escape.

Record and share your findings

Natural exploration is about rediscovery as much as it is about making new discoveries. We are no longer limited by the boundaries of knowledge or communication that past explorers faced, and can indulge in finding exciting new ways to record subjects. Gooley believes we should take full advantage of the methods of expression that are at our disposal: opportunity to share the joys of discoveries with others through creativity has always been with us, it is part of being human, but we are especially fortunate that we live in a time when the potential to both create and share is growing exponentially.’

As we all know, a camera is an ideal tool with which to explore the world. Through photography, we can capture a unique moment in time, or record a rarely-seen species of butterfly. And, if we like, we can share our images with others at the click of a button.

If a landscape, or an element within it, awakens our sense of wonder, then surely we have more chance of capturing something special when we release the shutter. Isnnature photography at its best when it reveals a subject in a never-before-seen way?

For images that capture something new, why not take inspiration from Laurie Campbell and really hone in on a subject. He says:  With so much in nature being seemingly photographed endlessly, turn this around and think about what hasn t been well recorded. It needn t necessarily be anything rare but more of an aspect of a subject that you might have witnessed but have never seen successfully documented. Once identified, stick with an idea obsessively until you obtain the picture you want.

Consider researching and recording a subject that is out of your comfort zone. This could lead you to discover a world you might otherwise overlook.

When shooting outdoors, consider what you are trying to capture and why, whether itthe quality of the light or unusual animal behaviour.

If you want to get your images out there, why not hold an exhibition?

Set up a web page or blog site, and enter photography competitions.

Joining a camera club is a great way to get feedback on your pictures.

Share your images instantly on websites such as Flickr and Facebook.

Consider using your camera s movie mode —a film, or time lapse sequence, could be a more effective way of recording your subject.

Team up with like-minded people.

If you re feeling really ambitious and want to reach out to a bigger audience, embark on a project.

Take inspiration from conservation projects such as 202QVISI0N.

Ideas to explore

Remember how you used to view the world as a child. Gooley suggests that  we learn to develop our sense of wonder with age in some ways and lose it in others. A child may not get much joy from a walk around a ruined church, but we are reminded of what we have lost when we see a child experience ecstasy while playing with a feather in the breeze. The natural explorer is tasked with finding wonder in both.

Ask questions about everything around you. It s easy to pass by potential photo subjects without a second thought.

Get to know a particular location intimately, preferably a place close to home, so that you can spend as much time there as possible and get to know all its nuances.

Use a sketchbook. Rather than getting behind the camera straightaway, try making some sketches as a method of exploring shapes in the landscape.

Take your inspiration from the landscape itself, not from pictures you may have already seen.

Remember, every place holds potential for natural explorers:  It is worth considering the possibility that if a place fails to excite our senses, that might be more of a reflection of us than our location’, says Gooley.

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