One day, I stood in a field of prairie flowers, thinking about my years of adventuring and outdoor photography. As much as I value images, as thrilling as it is to get them, they aren’t the primary rewards of those years. When you study a subject, an animal or a place, and learn its rhythms and its habits, you gain an intimate knowledge of the world you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a kind of meditation. After almost seventeen years of this, I’ve learned:
If you stand in a patch of bee balm, the hummingbird moths, butterflies and bees will come to you. You won’t need to chase them, and sometimes when they come you will even feel the breeze of their wings on your wrist.
The mountain goats in Glacier National Park have their kids in spring, and on the Fourth of July you can still stand on the frighteningly narrow Highline Trail, pressing yourself into the cliff face as a mother haughtily leads her kid past you, perhaps stepping on your booted toe as she goes.
Nothing breaks the hold a dreary midwestern winter has on your soul like seeing a hummingbird sipping from a Florida orange blossom in January.
Nature has an ironic sense of humor, and has given glorious creatures repulsive eating habits. A dead deer is a smorgasbord to majestic bald eagle, and swallowtail butterflies revel in dog shit. In that vein, the best place to photograph wildlife is often a dumpster on a remote mountain highway.
If the temperature dips below freezing in Florida, which it sometimes does in the winter, the manatees leave the river in search of warmer waters. So on some winter mornings, the spring run and basin of Blue Springs State Park is clogged with big grey sea cows.
Fairy slipper orchids can be found on the slopes of the Columbia River Gorge in April, but not till May in northwest Montana.
Two bald eagles live on Big Pine Creek just downstream from Fall Creek Gorge in western Indiana, in a tall sycamore tree on the bluffs.
If you enter the Everglades in September, you will have blood on your clothes at the end of the day. It will be your blood, and it will come from the visible black curtain of mosquitoes that swoops in to feed on you the instant you leave any vehicle or building.
If you walk into a prairie dog town, all of the residents will disappear down their holes and none of them will return as long as you are standing there. If you drive near one, however, your vehicle looks like a big metal buffalo. They’ll oblige you for as long as you shoot out your window. But the second you emerge from the car, they’re gone again.
There’s a buffalo that likes to scratch its ass on the posts at the Sage Creek Overlook in Badlands National Park.
Wild river otters live in the spring pool at Silver Glen Springs in middle Florida. If you canoe down the spring run, they will probably play cat-and-mouse with you.
On the mesas in New Mexico, you can find an iridescent, sparkly blue beetle that can have sex for 90 minutes.
In mid-April, herons nest high up in the sycamore trees along the Tippecanoe River in Indiana, and make a lot of noise at it. You can paddle a kayak back to a heavily shaded inlet and hear them above you in their nests.
There’s an American crocodile living in the mangroves off Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Not an alligator, which are once again legion in Florida, but an endangered American crocodile.
And finally, of course, there are two troops of feral rhesus macaques living on the Silver River in central Florida. I know them well now.
I can look at the things I’ve done, and the things I still hope to do, through many lenses — as memories, as discrete voyages, as images, or as component parts of an intimate knowledge with a world I love. Though I’m drawn to the “ambiguous adventure,” sometimes it’s nice not to have to guess if I want to see a heron in April or a manatee on a cold January morning.
For that, I can open the encyclopedia of past experience and look up the directions. But no matter how thick and overstuffed that book gets, it’ll never be big enough.