Being One With the Place

Last week I just spent a few days in the Palouse and something unusual happened on that trip. I did not take pictures there. That’s right, I spent several days in one of the most sought after photographic destinations in the world and for a few days I did not take a single picture.

It’s important to mention that I had  been to the Palouse many times before and had taken countless pictures there. But not this time.

When I got there this time I realized that I didn’t have anything else to say about it; I have exhausted my visual language in photographing it. And instead of photographing it I decided to experience it. Simply being present there.

Instead of driving up to location for sunrise when an alarm went off after a night sleep in the car I was peering through the windows covered with a veil of snow white petals taken off the apple tree I was parked under by the gusts of wind whose rhythmic shaking of my car lulled me to sleep the night before.

Instead of driving around looking for photographic opportunity I was sitting at the top of Steptoe Butte, reading a book, doing some work, or just staring in the distance.

Walking among the trees of abandoned orchard I’d stop caught by the singing of the birds. I’d stand for I don’t know how long listening to them because the time lost its meaning and only the melody of the nature remained. I’d stand as quietly as possibly and just listen.

Next day I walked to the top of the Steptoe Butte proudly towering over the ocean of rolling hills. There’s a road there going all the way up. That’s how most people get there and that’s how I used to get there too. But, I wondered, what it would be like to walk that road instead. I drove to the top first, left my car there and walked down to the base of the butte. That way I would not chicken out and turn around half way to the top. I’d have to go all the way because that was where my car was. Following a spiraling road bound around the butte a few times down I went.

Walking it gave me a new appreciation of Steptoe Butte diverse natural beauty. A green carpet of grass with orange and purple and yellow and blue polka dots of wild flowers was covering the slope.  A multitude of plum and apple trees covered in blossom ranging from pure white to gentle pink were rising from that carpet. And isolated rock gardens not tamed by the vegetation yet.

On the way back I spotted a faint trail going up, more likely walked by wild animals than people. I took it. And just like that my walk turned into a real adventure. I found wild flowers I had never seen before, I experienced rich scents I had never smelled before, I saw a herd of deer that quickly retreated away from me and an ant mound that I carefully walked around at a safe distance.

A patch of trees that seemed insignificant from the road turned out to be a real forest where one could use ‘up’ as the only way to keep walking in the same direction. I had to find my way, sometimes walking around spiky bumbles, sometimes retreating and finding another way when facing especially dense vegetation. When I finally walked out of the forest onto the road I was rich with new experiences and much closer to the top than I expected.

In the end I did take a few pictures when the light was so dramatic that it was hard to stay away from the camera.

The Best Place

I’m a perfectionist. I know this about myself. My friends know it about me. I know they know because I’ve heard enough grunts from them when I get stuck in one place endlessly perfecting a picture while they want to continue hiking.

This quality of mine can be a virtue as I constantly challenge myself to be better at my craft. It drives me on a personal quest to make the best of the scene to find the best of me. But sometimes it can also be misleading.

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This morning I woke up very early as usual given my jet lag after flying from Seattle to Rome to go to Tuscany. I like my jet lag: I wake up deep in the night hours before dawn. I can explore Tuscany by myself while most people are sleeping.

I was staying at a farm near a small hill town Pienza. During day the town was bustling with tourist and shops and restaurants but at night I could have it all to myself. It was quite: a ghost town, a movie set, a place to wander aimlessly through its narrow streets. In warm street lights it was intimate and mysterious.

I could walk along its walls and enjoy the views of mist covered fields surrounding the town, listen to the quiet of the night, breathe its chilly air. The walls were empty during night but there were plenty of photographer every morning there as they offered grand views of the surrounding hills.

The walk to Pienza from the farm was about half an hour. As I was hiking along the road that morning I passed an olive orchard. Then I walked along a winery grape field. The grape wines were low enough that I could glimpse the hills that make Tuscany such a picturesque place. As I came to the end the second olive orchard I veered off the road and sneaked between the trees to come out to a wheat field where I finally got a clear unobstructed view of the valley.

I stopped to marvel at the thick fog blanketing the valley. The fog was slowly moving in waves and only tops of the hills were floating above it like ships in the ocean. I got my camera out and started taking pictures. The perfectionist in me was telling me to go to the town walls, that they would give me a bigger view, that it might be even better, that I would miss the sunrise if I stayed there.

And yet I stayed. I could not move. I could not abandon what I saw. And it dawn on me that the place, where I was, was the best place for me to be, because I was there alone, because I was the only witness to that particular moment, I was the only one there to capture it and share its beauty with others.

Challenge of One Road

The main part of this blog post was written last September after my trip to the Palouse at the end of August. It took me a while to come back to it to finish it. The idea of challenging myself is still very important to me and the post remains very much relevant.

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Blue sky above with a streak of white clouds passing by, yellow rolling hills covered with a patchwork blanket of fields below and I’m standing a top of a butte floating between those two. Such a familiar landscape. So many times I’ve visited the Palouse, browsed its network of dirt roads raising dust clouds behind me in the air, captured its beauty in many images. And yet I visit it again and again. Its rolling hills are comforting, meditative and relaxing.

All my visits up till last would start at Steptoe Butte. It was my way to greet the Palouse, taking it all in in one sweeping 360 degree view. It was an easily most noticeable landmark in the Palouse, a popular destination for photographers, a place where images are easy to come by. The biggest challenge is to make something new.

Lately I had noticed my photos from the Palouse had become repetitive. I had my favorite spot for sunrise photography. I had my favorite spot for sunset photography. I kept visiting them every time I went to the Palouse. No risks taken. Guaranteed sunrise or sunset image. Just the way I had done many times. To do something new I had to do something different. I had to allow myself to fail. I needed to give myself an opportunity to see sunrise and sunset in different places. That might mean that I would leave without a killer shot but I can instead leave with a sense of exploration and wonder.

That is what I had on my mind during my last visit to the Palouse.

The first morning of the trip I got up early, before the first light of the day to come had started filling the starry sky. It was dark and chilly. Rather than rushing to a familiar sunrise spot in the morning – one of those I had taken pictures at during previous visits. I got into the car, drove out of the town and then turned onto some random dirt road letting the sunrise catch me somewhere unexpected, somewhere where I had not seen sunrise before.

I managed to get a few pictures during sunrise in different places. First one was a barn with a gradient of cold and warm colors of pre-dawn light in the sky. Then the light of the sun that rose just above the horizon barely skimming the tops of the hills with a lonely windmill, with a Steptoe Butte in the background.

After the early morning exploration I got back to the hotel to have a breakfast. During the breakfast another thought came to my mind: Do I have to wander about at random places? What if I explore the same place deeper? What if I challenge myself to find new images in the same place?

So I’ve decided to visit the same route I picked in the morning… Fast forward two days ahead, I drove that route six times during the trip. Each time I found new images, noticed things that had eluded my attention before. It was fascinating to observe how my attention was getting sharper. I would not notice those things without that focused exercise.

Besides seeing new things in already familiar places I had an opportunity to see the same places in different light: see them in the morning, at noon and in the evening; see how they changed. And as I was going to the same place over and over I was giving an opportunity for something special to happen. One time I got to see a man fly-fishing in a shallow creek, another time a tractor was working the field rising a column of dust in the sky. All of it by driving the same route over and over.

The take away from this story is that it does not matter how far or how close we travel, it does not matter if we visit an old place or a new, what matters for a creativity is a state of mind. Setting some specific goals for self-improvement, setting up challenges often helps to do something truly new and rediscover yourself.