These last few evenings have provided winter sunsets blazing orangey-pink, strands of red weaving through the stark branches in my backyard. I absolutely delight in these brief bursts of color sprung like a June garden awash with zinnia colors. I take loads of pics, filling up my phone’s storage with sunsets for later, to recall the corals and fuschias, part of nature’s color palette that is out of stock in my garden in these cold months.
I just took a look through my roll and can report that it is overwhelmingly nature-bound. Like, approximately 60:1 nature to everything and everyone else. There’s one milkweed bloom from four angles. A bumblebee resting on my index finger, three shots. Monarchs, snails, swallowtails, a luna moth, moss, mushrooms, leaves, flowers, spiderwebs, and the sky, so much sky!
I smile remembering where I stood for a particular sunset shot, how it was cold and my breath spooled out through my scarf, how my dog’s paws crunched on the last of our sycamore tree’s leaves. I remember that when I came back into the house to roust my family to come and see this sunset, this one in particular because yes it is different from the one I made them come see last week, by the time I pointed out the window, the tide of fire in the sky had been replaced by a hard, dark vacancy. That quickly. But I had the pictures to show them.
This is how I carry nature in my pocket. Little bits of a sky caught between day and night, draped briefly across my backyard.
A few days ago my inbox held a sweet, short video made by Jeremy Seifert, honoring the late Barry Lopez (1945-12/25/2020). It’s a beautiful, zenlike film about this man, who set out to witness as much of the world in its natural state as he could. He wanted to know the parts of our planet not yet devoured by humans. He’s shown frolicking in a desert, space and light surrounding him. He wades out to a boulder in the river by his home, to write in the full sunshine. He seems like the kind of person I would’ve enjoyed walking through the woods with. He was a prolific writer of nature essays, articles, and fiction, and hearing him speak in the film has me looking forward to making him one of my new favorites.
In the film, Lopez talks about our ethical relationship to the natural world and gently suggests we reimagine it so we are no longer treating it as servant, but as companion. We need, he says, another way of knowing our place in nature. We are part of it, not the other way around. We can learn–there is still time– from those whose relationship with the planet is not based on a market economy but a gift economy.
This reimagining is not new; it’s just remembering the natural world in terms of a relationship of reciprocity borne of gratitude and responsibility. It’s not too much, too overwhelming, too little of us to repair too much we’ve done. It simply begins with each photo, each moment we stand outside and gaze at the stars or the leaves.
Sometimes I find myself thinking I can’t make a significant difference for the planet’s well-being. It would be convenient and common, and in my lifetime I might not lose too much by adhering to this mindset. There are times when it’s hard for me to acknowledge that my anxiety about the environment is a cushion that keeps me from examining my responsibility to it, especially in the short, bare days of winter. But as December brings a season of repose for nature in my yard I take the opportunity to see how I can make life better for the flora and fauna living here. I look through photos of my garden taken over the past year and I know who’s outgrown their spaces, who needs better sun, higher ground, more attention. I’m not preserving wetlands or protecting rare native orchids, but I am making it easier for wildlife to winter, for all the little burrowy things to take shape. I am carrying a small piece of responsibility for this natural world, those sunset pictures the winter reminders of my place in nature.
Lopez gave a lovely piece of advice in the film. He said, “It’s not about you, you don’t own the story. Carry it beautifully, and give it to someone else.”
The hundreds of photos in my phone of nature are waymarkers of my place among the trees and plants. They’re beginnings of stories, landmarks in my memory. These photos remind me how much I love nature, and how much she deserves to be carried beautifully to the next person, and the next.