This article was first published in the Winter 2015 Edition of Nature Alberta Magazine
By John Warden
I was looking for swans on a grey, April day. Cold and overcast, it would surely add to my day if I could find a swan or two. But there were no swans, or birds or even bison. The Point at Elk Island National Park was bare, silent, and desolate. It was almost spooky in that ominous, hold your breath waiting for something to happen, sort of way. A cosmic pause...
And then it started to snow, slowly at first and then heavier. The flakes were huge, individual crystallizations as big as quarters or loonies, parachuting down in slow motion spirals. Because of the silence, I heard the sound of a snow flake as it settled onto the ground. Really? Is it even possible to hear a snowflake settle? Softly, all around me like thick diaphanous rain drops, thwack, thwack, thwack.
I knew that to move - perhaps even to breathe - would shatter this magical moment; a synergy of senses which seemed to have a direct feed to my... what? My heart? My mind? My spirit? I was present in the moment and yet, at the same time, slightly apart from it, I was somehow experiencing myself experiencing the moment.
“HEY, HELLO, HAVE YOU SEEN ANY BIRDS?”
It was an innocent question, coming from two people had come down off the path and out onto the Point.
“WOW, IT’S REALLY BEAUTIFUL HERE, WE’VE NEVER BEEN OUT HERE BEFORE”.
Their words, their presence, their clattering about in the underbrush, SHATTERING the stillness.
“No, not today”.
I grabbed my gear and left.
Not their fault, I know, but the thing about solitude is that the only conversation that’s possible is the silent communion between yourself and Mother Nature. If you’re talking to someone else, it’s not solitude.
Not everyone likes or appreciates solitude though, and some people get it mixed up with loneliness. Paul Tillich, a philosopher and theologian of some influence explains the difference.
Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’, to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.
It had been a glorious moment, alone amongst the snowflakes, until others, inadvertently, shattered the stillness. Solitude though, calls me with a visceral power. “It’s time for some aloneness”. And so I go, for a few breaths, a few hours, or a few days, nature and I, one on one.
My attraction to solitude is grounded in the connection to the here and now. Gloriously alone, the connection tingles. My spirit, my energy, flows. All I need do is relax, breathe and slip into the moment. I feel the magic and the connection is complete. And when that happens, it’s so amazing that right away, I want to tell someone, I want to share the experience. And that’s the paradox of solitude.
Yet, creative endeavors are most often an experience in solitude. In that experience, we find the agony of Michelangelo and the frustrations of Emily Carr. Pablo Picasso is purported have said that “without great solitude no serious work is possible” and it was Edward Gibbon, author of Rise and fall of the Roman Empire who said that “conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”
It’s from that school of genius that we discover ecstasy, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the haiku of Basho and, closer to home, the southern Alberta landscapes of Brent Laycock. In solitude then, we find the artist, the scientist and the thoughtful person, contemplating the big questions: who am I, why am I here, what is the nature of beauty.
Solitude is an aesthetic component of heightened awareness, a feeling that speaks to the heart. How, then, do we photographers paint with light a picture of that feeling? Perhaps it is the individual, alone with the glories of nature, wrestling with the silent Muse and then…the sound of snowflakes.
I wrestle with the silent Muse, and then –
The sound of snowflakes…