Thursday, February 29, 2024

A peaceful force

Wave Action, Cape Disappointment, Washington

I’m fortunate to live in a area with so many distinctive landscape features. I could recognize Mount Rainier, certain waterfalls, or parts of the Pacific Northwest coast from rough sketches.

While their defining characteristics are burned into my memory, they were not always that way. Just as my hair has changed color over the decades, so, too, have their appearances. One of the ways I find tranquility in nature is to slow down and watch that change at work.

When you’re standing in front of a grand mountain, it’s hard to fathom a time when it wasn’t there. Or when it won’t be. But just as the mountain emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago, erosive forces today are carrying away pieces, one grain at time.

It’s basic geology, but in a world where we are often in a hurry and other things are competing for our interest, it can also lead to more profound experiences in nature.

Travel is often an awe-inspiring experience. Fresh scenery can be captivating and feel like an epic painting. The familiar landscape back home, by comparison, can feel like flash cards.

One approach that I use to restore that lost wonder is to examine the forces shaping the land — to observe how the land is still changing.

Sometimes that change can be dramatic. In the spring, I’ve sometimes watched as large chunks of ice break of mountain faces and crash into ground below.

Cattaraugus Creek, Zoar Valley, New York

Another memorable outing occurred last summer, when I hiked with a good friend in the Zoar Valley of western New York. The valley is shaped by Cattaraugus Creek, which cuts through it. There was a heavy rainstorm that stopped just before we started hiking. As we reached the creek, we could see that it was slowly rising, fed by the earlier storms. Later, we just missed seeing the collapse of part of the canyon wall, weakened by runoff.

Even when the force is dramatic, such as a falling ice sheet or a crumbling canyon wall, I find these encounters largely tranquil. They prompt me to slow down, observe and reflect.

The image at the top of this post is from the Washington coast during a king tide. When the highest tides of the year coincide with a winter storm, the coast can be slammed by waves that would dwarf a two-story house.

I watched in awe as ocean water reached higher and higher up the cliff face. As I looked more closely, I could see small channels that were worn away during previous storms. The more intently I studied the rocks, the more connected I felt to the environment.

The ocean is a powerful force. If I had stood in the wrong place, I could have been swept away. But I deliberately chose a more tranquil approach to rendering the scene, since that’s the way I felt watching the natural world in motion.

Experiences like this are part of my Five Minutes in Nature project. Numerous studies show that even just a few minutes in nature are good for us, helping us to relax and providing benefits that can include lowering our blood pressure. In my case, these moments have helped me feel more connected to the world around me, an important attribute in my photography.

A selection of images and experiences from the project will be featured this spring in a major exhibition at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. The exhibit opens April 27. I’m also compiling the pictures and stories in a new book that will be released at the same time.

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(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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