Wild Altars

posted in: Ely Adventure, Nature, Photography | 4

Wild Altars

I haven’t written nearly as much as I thought I would during my Ely adventure. I think it’s because I’ve been trying to avoid talking about the challenges of the trip because I didn’t want to come off as a complainer or wimp.

Right now I am back home for a few days recovering from sleepless nights and pain issues and getting rested up and ready to head back to Ely tomorrow.

This adventure has been much more challenging than I thought it would be for reasons I should have expected, but didn’t. I seem to be the eternal optimist about things related to my desire to travel and make photographs—which is sometimes good, often not so good.

The beauty of this place fills my soul.

I soak it in and it sustains me. It brings me great joy. I feel such satisfaction after completing a challenging hike.

But it’s not easy.

I’ve had chronic pain (diagnosed as fibromyalgia) for decades. In addition I struggle with food sensitivities and autoimmune digestive system disease that also remits and relapses in unpredictable intervals.

Sometimes I have periods of remission of the fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune symptoms and sometimes I have difficult stretches that last for months, sometimes years.

wild altars

Prior to heading up to Ely I had been feeling pretty well and I was hopeful that by having a home base up north and pacing myself that I would be able to do the kind of photography I’ve dreamed of doing in the north woods. The whole reason for my considering this adventure was because I know that I cannot travel and photograph as many people do, spending long days out photographing day after day and hiking long distances in the process.

Sometimes my body feels good moving and on those days I can do up to 1 1/2 miles of hiking (which isn’t very far but it’s better than nothing). But often my body doesn’t feel good moving and pushing myself to do too much results in my feeling even more pain. By having a place to live that is out in the north woods I still can experience the light and magic of the land, and get to know places that I can visit that will not tax me physically too much.

At least that was the plan.

Since I’ve been in the north woods I haven’t had a single day where my body has felt good moving. And most nights I sleep very poorly due to pain issues. Some days every step I take is painful. And it’s hard to challenge myself to do more when I’m tired and in pain.

Despite the magnitude of these challenges, I’m glad that I took advantage of the opportunity to be here. I have made some photographs I love. I’ve had days when despite physical challenges I’ve ridden a wonderful wave of creative flow that takes my breath away. I’ve found the edge of my fear and moved beyond it countless times. Every time I step outside, feel my feet on the earth, and breath the fresh clean air I’m filled with joy. Every time I lift my camera to make an image I am grateful. And every time I move beyond my fear into wonder and trust I say a prayer of thanks.

Some days I’ve cried in frustration or from sheer exhaustion and the minutes drag by feeling like hours. But most days have gone by so quickly I can’t imagine where the time went. This trip is The Full Catastrophe for me. It is full of joy, gratitude, and wonder; and also fear, pain, and loneliness.

I practice mindfulness to get me through the rough patches and when I get too tired, I take a respite at home in Minneapolis where I can rest and gather my courage again for more adventures.

“Life only unfolds in moments. The healing power of mindfulness lies in living each of those moments as fully as we can, accepting it as it is as we open to what comes next—in the next moment of now.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

Again and again I learn to find wholeness in each moment and practice compassion towards myself when I experience fear, sadness, or pain. I embrace my connection to everything and I forgive myself for not being able to overcome the challenges some days.

Wild Altars

One of the many good things that has emerged from this adventure is a series of photographs I’ve begun creating that I’m calling Wild Altars. The idea of photographing altars in nature has been floating in my mind for a few years. I’ve tried various approaches to this idea over the past 2 years, none of which worked. Finally when I was walking in the north woods the idea gelled into the concept of Wild Altars—objects (or animals) I happen upon in nature, arranged and created by nature, which express the sacredness I experience in the north woods. Shortly after the concept gelled for me I happened upon an article in National Geographic Magazine with photographs created by Jim Brandenburg, one of my favorite photographers. In the article (see National Geographic April 2016 issue) Brandenburg says:

“Each image I make feels like a prayer flag I’ve hung out to the universe—a celebration of nature’s wonder.” — Jim Brandenburg

That’s the way I feel about these images. They are “prayer flags hung out to the universe” that celebrate how nature lifts my spirit and makes me feel the sacredness of life. And they are an expression of the deep love and respect I have for the landscapes of the north woods and for nature.

Everyone has their own challenges and gifts. The trick is to embrace the Full Catastrophe, even when things aren’t the way you want them to be.

May you find wholeness in each moment.

May you practice compassion towards yourself.

May you embrace your connection to everything.

May you walk in beauty.

Note: This post contains 3 images from my Wild Altars series.

wild altars




4 Responses

  1. kurberg

    The images are absolutely lovely. I especially love the 1st one. The colors are perfect, and I sense a story in dark spots in the right bottom that I choose to read as fading animal tracks. Your bravery inspires me.


  2. kurberg

    Did you know that there is a little child hiding in the lower right corner of the tree bark photo?

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