Nature as a Teacher

May 5, 2017

 

HOW I GOT TO HERE

I grew up in a suburban/rural town that was at the time, surrounded by woods and horse farms. Most of my days were spent outdoors exploring the areas around me with a great feeling of adventure. It was the first thing I would think about on a Saturday morning, hoping the sun was shining and the trails would be walk able. I never really understood why it felt so good to go hiking and spend the day in the forest but I was young and you don’t contemplate those sorts of things at that age. I hardly fit with any groups at school and had only a few very close friends. I played sports here and there but preferred skateboarding over all. As I got older I started playing music in bands and doing a lot more artwork, finding myself spending less time in nature. After high school I left for college in Center City, Philadelphia at the University of the Arts on Broad Street. Wildlife turned into wild life and nature was only human nature as I tried my best to adapt to a completely man-made world. No doubt I had fun, but the roots of my happiness were not there anymore. I never really pinned that on the way I grew up because it was such a slow evolution of interests. I spent seven years downtown and made a lot of great new friends that I still have to this day (one of them I married). In my last year or so I started have anxiety issues and troubles with stress. I have always been a quiet and laid back person and I remember sitting on the stoop of my apartment building on Pine Street and watching all the people running around going from here to there, the cars speeding down the street, honking at each other, the fights, the sirens, and the loud parties. I guess it made me feel like I needed to be doing something too, like I shouldn’t be just sitting there watching. Gwyn and I had been together for a few years and we were ready to move out of the city. 

 

BACK TO MY ROOTS

My job was in New Jersey so we moved out to an apartment complex near there. I remember the first night so vividly. The quietness was almost defining and I realized what a sensory overload the city had been and how much I needed to leave. Years went by and I re-adjusted to suburban life and moved a little farther out into a more rural area. We had children soon there after and another type of anxiety surfaced for me. The responsibilities compounded quickly and I found myself having panic attacks were my heart raced and I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea what was wrong but I learned that if I sat and took long, deep breaths I could ward off the attacks and return to normal. Gwyn told me what I was doing was a Buddhist practice. I said OK, whatever it is makes me feel a whole lot better and I’m going to keep it up. The more I sat and did breathing practices the more peace I started to feel. Many, many changes followed in the next months and years. Knowing first hand that this is something that really works well and has nothing but great results, I accepted the Buddhist lifestyle and began to practice different styles of meditation. Over time I trained myself to silence my thoughts quickly and embrace the stillness that comes with an empty mind. I started to see colors more vividly, I started hearing music more clearly, and the smiles on my faces were genuine. I read some very inspiring books and listened to some incredible lectures online. Most notably, the one who set me up for a great understanding and ultimate awakening was the late Alan Watts. A Zen Practitioner, Philosopher, Observer, Speaker, and Writer. He talked a lot about nature and our connections to it and he took me back to the happiness that I had forgotten about in the forest.

 

CRANE VIEW

I began to make an effort to go walking outside as much as possible. In my area there are plenty of wooded trails, lakes, fields, and the ocean is only about 35 minutes away. I found a handful of nice places to walk and observe. My favorite lake seemed to always be occupied by a great blue heron. Somewhere around the ring of the beach, he or she would always be standing there. The Great Blue Heron was the first bird to ever catch my attention as a kid. They stand about 3 feet tall and make quite an entrance when arriving on the shore. I remember being young and fishing with my friends and seeing the resident Heron come flying in and land. It made everyone quiet, just watching in awe. Now with a renewed perception, I was able to watch this beautiful animal and understand it better. The way it moves, they way it fishes, and the way it reacts to my presence. Blue Herons prefer stiller waters and tend to frequent creeks and streams that also inhabit beavers. The beaver’s natural instinct is to slow down running water by building damns which makes the water currents much more favorable for the heron. Just this very simple ecological system is enlightening in itself. During the time when I was watching the heron the most, I listened to a talk on perception that used a crane as an example in describing a state of mind. It explained that a crane uses the stillness to find and catch it’s fish. By opening up a soft wide angle view of the water’s surface, and not focusing on a small pinpoint areas, the crane was more likely to pick up visual movement on and under the surface. Once a deviation in the stillness is detected, the crane strikes the targeted area spearing and pulling up a fish or other prey. If the bird only focused a crisp, clear attention on a small area of the water, the chances of something swimming through would be slim, but having a relaxed open view allows it to see more without defining any precise details. This was a huge a lesson on meditation and one that I could watch, understand, and practice on my own. The next few months I worked on my own technique, which I casually named “Crane View”, I used it at the lake, in my bedroom, and I used it walking the trails in the woods. The benefit of this practice combined with slow deep breathing is priceless.

 

CAMERA AS A CATALYST

I spent a few months studying the heron and started to think about trying to photograph it with a nice camera. I thought I’d like to have my own images of the animal to study or do renderings from instead of using someone else’s view. I took film photography classes in college but that technology is almost completely obsolete now. The idea of learning how to drive a DSLR camera was a bit overwhelming, but my wife was a professional photographer and she was able to set me up with the basics. Everything that followed has been spectacular and can be seem in full through my posts on instagram @douglasheusser. My attempts to photograph the Great Blue Heron were futile at first because I couldn’t get close enough to capture the image that I was hoping for. I tried different lenses and techniques and still wasn’t satisfied. I felt like I needed to get closer to the heron so I practiced approaching slowly and carefully. Each step I took toward the animal was slow, quiet and careful. I tried this many times and was able to get some better photos but it seemed as though the comfort zone for the animal was about 20 yards or so. Every time I reached that distance I could see he or she tense up and prepare to fly. This happened over and over again and still no great photo until one afternoon I spotted one at the edge of the lake standing on a branch. I did my usual steps to get close until I felt the tension like I had crossed some sort of imaginary line. As soon as the bird pick up it head and started to turn to take off, I dropped down to my knees in the grass and put my hands down on the ground. To my surprise the heron eased up and after a few minutes began to fish again like I wasn’t even there. I stayed low to the ground and picked up my camera and began to shoot again. That day I had the satisfaction of gathering all the up close beautiful details I had been hoping to capture during the past few months. In those moments there was nothing else around me or anything that could possibly stop me from enjoying the experience. I finally understood the threat I posed and my submission was enough to show him or her that I meant no harm. It was a natural reaction that I had not planned and probably ended up looking like a deep, grateful bow to something fantastic, and it was in many ways. My walking and exploring with camera-in-hand led me far beyond the Blue Heron and into the world of insects and butterflies. The world around was crawling with life and countless unexplored processes yet to be discovered.

 

My first butterfly photo was of a male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail that had landed on an evergreen plant in the park where I was. I took it as an opportunity to take a few shots with my new DSLR knowledge. When I got home that day, I brought the image up on my computer and was astonished by the details that I could see in the wings, beautiful symmetrical patterns, and bright, vibrant colors. At the time, I didn’t know what kind of butterfly it was so I looked it up. After doing a bit of research, I learned that there are roughly 120 different kinds of butterflies in New Jersey alone. I thought maybe I would just snap photos as I saw them along my walks and see how many I could actually find. This is where my fascination began and still has not ended. The world of Lepidoptery is vast, complicated, and very mysterious. It’s made up of plants, weather, sun, temperatures, seasons, stages, cycles, rhythms, and probably much more we can’t comprehend. I made this one of my main focuses over the past few years even visiting Costa Rica twice to study and photograph the species in that region.

 

WAKING UP IN THE FOREST

I studied Zen at a forest monastery for over a year and during a few of my early meditations I had some very overwhelming experiences of feeling like I was one with my surroundings or a fully functioning part of a larger process. The first major awakening I had, which one of the monks had told me was called “Kensho”, showed me all the ways that all life is connected. For just about ten minutes I experienced a state of freedom and unity where there in front of me was the matrix of nature. It’s not something I can remember or even begin to explain, but it exists there inside all living things. To use the word illuminated would be a sufficient description of this energy for now. This happened three times, unfolding over a one-week period. The peace that came over me was so incredible that once it passed, all I wanted was to return to it. Although it never happened again to that intensity, it gave me a wisdom that I always take with me. When I go out hiking on the trails, I usually go alone and it’s very quiet. I enjoy the sounds of the sticks and dry leaves breaking under my feet, the songs of the birds, and the rays of sun that come in through the trees and light up different spaces on the forest floor. I use my soft, wide-angle vision to take in as much of the scenery as I can to pick up subtle movements from butterflies, insects, and other wildlife. Most organisms sit under deep camouflage so movement is necessary to be able to spot them. When enough time passes that my attention is fully engaged in observation, I arrive directly in the present moment. No thoughts of time, location, or direction. Breathing slowly while walking helps achieve a quiet presence. Now far out on a desolate trail, the silence takes over and I can feel my natural state and the way my breathing and body go into an automatic, calm rhythm. Sometimes I’ll stop walking to enjoy the experience, slowly looking around, it becomes very obvious that everything around me is living in that same state of grace. It’s all functioning, blooming, living, dying, growing, and changing without effort. Sometimes it feels as though another pair of eyes have opened inside my everyday eyes and everything looks quite different. A new perception which is taking in new information instead of the old tumbled words and knowledge that people seem to recycle and hand out. My human condition disappears for a short time and I reach an incredible stage of communion with my surroundings.

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