The Long, Slow Look
by John Warden
This article was first published in the Summer 2016 Edition of BC Nature Magazine.
The Sooke River estuary is usually a great place for crabbing. At low tide, locals can often be seen wading through the eelgrass, netting crabs to carry home in five gallon plastic pails. This particular year though, no one was catching crabs. They weren’t even seeing them, except for one man.
We’d see him in the evening, standing at the edge of Billings Spit at high tide, staring into the water. I commented to my wife Debra, “It looks like some guy down on the spit is doing standing meditation”. Then, one evening as we were walking out to the end of the spit, Ron, the standing meditator, was walking back. We stopped to chat and after introductions, I asked what he was doing.
“I like standing here, watching the crabs”, he said. Then he explained.
“I just kind of let my shoulders relax and I breathe out and I let my eyes go wide, and that’s when I see the crabs. There are three right here”, he said, pointing along the shoreline.
Debra and I were used to seeing tiny little shore crabs, crawling around the tidal pools at low tide, so I suspected that’s what he was talking about. After all, everyone else had said there were no sizeable crabs around this year. Ron was a likeable, amiable sort of guy though, so we decided to give his technique a try.
We stood still, let our shoulders relax, let our breath out and let our eyes go wide as we looked deep into the water. It only took a few seconds.
Debra saw the first crab and then I saw it and then there were three, scuttling sideways, as crabs do, under the water. And these were not little shore crabs. These were big enough for eating. We could easily have scooped them out with a net, but this experience wasn’t about catching. It was about looking. Zen looking, some might call it or, as the poet and author Roger Housden calls it, the long, slow look.
Housden was actually the first of my mentors in the practice of the long, slow look. In his book How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons from the Master, he talks about needing to spend at least twenty or thirty minutes with a Rembrandt painting in order to feel the “poetic depth” of the masterpiece. He goes on to say that after spending time with a Rembrandt and returning to the outside world, he notices more and in the noticing, it makes him more human.
Noticing is another word for observing, which was often a topic of discussion between the fictional character Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson.
“You see, but you don’t observe”, Holmes said to Watson, and observing is the key to the long, slow look. It’s about making an active decision not to just see, but to perceive and consider.
Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes suggests that our habit of looking has become passive, mindless even. The practice of a long, slow look allows us the time to look deeply (like Ron) and see what’s really there. This requires mindfulness — constant presence of mind, “the attentiveness and hereness that is so essential for real active observation of the world”.
Out at Billings Spit, it was Ron who was putting words into practice. He had mastered the art of deep looking and was seeing things in nature that nobody else was noticing. And that’s the key to nature photography – seeing what no one else has noticed.
Will the long slow look work for you? Will it improve your nature photography? Give it a try by following Ron’s advice: take the time to slow down, breathe out and let your shoulders relax. Then, look deeply.
At first glance, you might not see too much, but wait. Keep looking. Relax and let your eyes go wide. For me, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Colors suddenly begin to speak. Here is the nurturing nature of green, there is the serenity of blue and there, in the shadows, the majesty of purple. Lines compete for my attention, leading me into, across and through my field of view. Shapes, form and texture coalesce into patterns and then compositions. And then light whispers in my ear, “look...here is something special”.
If you want to learn a bit more, have a look at the books I’ve mentioned in the bibliography. Even better though is to just start practicing on your own. Slow down, relax, look deeply. You can start by simply looking out your back door, or head on out to Billings Spit, near Sooke. There’s a lot to see there, crabs and eagles and ospreys. Spend some time there in the evening. Maybe you’ll see Ron. He’s a friendly guy. If you’re ready to learn, maybe he’ll give you a lesson.
Doyle, A. C. (1892). A Scandal in Bohemia. In A. C. Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Harper and Brothers.
Fogarty, J. (Composer). (1970). Looking Out My Back Door. [C. C. Revival, Performer] C. M. Group.
Housden, R. (2005). How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful Imperfect Self - Life Lessons From The Master. Harmony Books, Random House.
Konnikova, M. (2013). Master-Mind, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. New York: Viking.
You can view the original high definition images by clicking on the photographs below.