Some time ago a visiting friend caught me by surprise while we sat comfortably, talked, laughed and waited for the night to mature enough to go to bed. It was a nice evening with friends and pleasant conversation. Then, out of the blue, he asked me “What gives you joy, Bruce?” I am sure he expected, or at least wanted, a deeper and more thoughty answer than what I gave him. Initially I thought I could respond with my usual sarcasm and escape having to go beyond the surface of my thoughts at the time. I almost said “World Peace would give me joy”. Or perhaps “an extended time when loved ones don’t suffer from disease or pass away to leave another void in my life.” Both of these are true statements but they really don’t give any insight to my particular being and emotional state. So I punted. I pointed to a framed photo of Northern Pintail ducks in flight above him and said “That picture”. Now, I know I could have opened a deep conversation that Freud and others would have enjoyed. I’m sure my response disappointed my friend so he politely asked me “why”? I’ll try to explain.
The photo above is NOT the print which we used to frame our ensuing discussion. The image above shows an explosion of Snow Geese at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and certainly qualifies as one that “gives me joy”. I remember the scene like yesterday even though the image was taken in 2007. My friend David was with me as we toured this remarkable refuge after a morning of photography involving a sunrise, tens of thousands of Snow Geese and several thousand Sandhill Cranes. Emotionally I was on a high. Warm weather allowed us to shed our jackets and gloves after a prolonged morning of frosty fingers and numb toes. I was with a good friend who enjoyed the spectacle of the birds and appreciates the art of photography as much as I do. We weren’t rushed and simply drove around looking for something of interest.
Snow geese at the Bosque tend to follow farmers’ plows as they disk the fields. Fresh forage turns up and the birds know where they can find what they need. They flock in large numbers and work the field alongside the farmer. We saw a large concentration of geese at the edge of my lens’ reach and stopped. We stood by the car and watched and waited. We enjoyed the contented calls of the geese and an occasional crane in the distance. Red-winged blackbirds, dominantly female, swarmed the sky, swooped and dove in a brief aerial display before landing again. A soft breeze moved the air. It was 10:43 in the morning and the light was already hard – bright and contrasty. We readied our cameras by setting exposure and focus, double checked shutter speed and just waited for some action. While I was not thinking so at the time, I was experiencing a deep joy of the moment. The setting, the friendship, the warmth… all worked together to reward my being. They gave me joy.
When it happens, it happens rather quickly. The birds rise as a group that smears itself across the sky. The noise level goes WAY up as the contented feeding calls transition to flight calls and, perhaps, alert or danger calls. The sky fills with a pandemonium of white and black birds all trying their best to avoid one another and still get into the safety of a crowd in flight. We looked but saw no bald eagle and were left to wonder why the geese had lifted off. The same question goes through my head at sunrise as I watch thousands of geese swimming contentedly on a lake only to erupt like a gunshot without any apparent provocation. Why do they do that? Answerless, I’m left to just feel my joy and lifted spirits as the birds perform a naturally dramatic act. For a short time, the frantic swarm of birds fills my mind and, hopefully, my camera’s frame. For the birds it is what they do. For me, it is as good an expression of my understanding of “spiritual” experience” as any other I can express. Another close friend, Steve, accompanied me on my first trip to the Bosque. As we left the area that morning we were both quietly absorbing the morning’s experience. We had seen massive numbers of birds exploding in front of a sunrise sky. We froze our fingers and toes and still felt warm. As we drove away my friend looked at me and said “that was spiritual”. I couldn’t agree more. It gave me joy.