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Make It, Don't Take It!

by Dan Lewis

I have to admit I'm not the biggest fan of photography. It saddens me that the highest expression of beauty many of us are capable of is the utterance of "Dang! I forgot my camera and look at it - this is an incredible sunset!" Photographers miss the present, so that at some point in the future, they can enjoy the past. I say enjoy the moment - how often do we look at those pictures anyway? I file those moments away in my memory, which is portable, free, and permanent (all right, there is some minor short-term memory loss).

Dan practices what he preaches! I agree with Daniel Dancer's theory, published in Wild Earth magazine, April 1996. "Simply put, a deep photography ethic entails a reciprocal relationship where the subject one photographs is honored by some manner of advocacy on its behalf - our taking balanced by our giving." He writes of the environmental impacts of photography, including silver, arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, cyanide and a long list of other hazardous chemicals routinely added to the environment. He urges us to use our cameras sparingly, more strategically, and to be an advocate for the places, animals, and trees we film. So yes, I do take pictures for slide shows about saving Canada's rainforest. That's about it.

An activity I find more satisfying is that of nature journalling. Several years back I was working very hard at learning about all the plants and animals living here in the temperate rainforest. I discovered a bookcalled Sketching in Nature, by Cathy Johnson. She writes "Sketching is a tool, a visual aid - not only for artists but for anyone who wishes to learn from nature... When I sketch, I become more deeply acquainted with the natural rhythms, the ebbs and flows and growth and dyings of the world around me.

I'd always believed I couldn't draw. Her book taught me a few simple exercises to get me going. One of these techniques is to do rapid sketches, allowing yourself only 5or 10 seconds to capture the feel of an object or scene. It is uncanny just how evocative these "gestures" can be, recalling exactly how the situation felt. I've used this technique while sitting in my kayak, floating close to shore and watching a bear forage on the beach.

Another technique is to forget about drawing say, a bear, but to focus on drawing the negative shapes around the bear, between its legs, and so on. By focussing on drawing shapes, you circumvent our programmed response from kindergarten art classes, which is to draw symbols. You can just focus on drawing the shapes around the bear, and not worry about getting it "right". It is amazing how accurate such drawings can be.

Contour drawing is another technique. Here the goal is not to make an accurate picture, but to get a kinesthetic connection between say, the edge of a leaf as the eye moves slowly along it, and the pencil tip on the paper as it moves along millimetre by millimetre. The trick is to not look at the page as you draw. It is a real thrill to look down at the end of a sketch and see that your pencil arrived back at the point where it started! This technique can be modified by glancing down at the page when making major changes of direction, to make sure details end up where they belong.

Another book that really helped me out was Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Now I know you've all heard of this book and assumed it doesn't apply to you, because you can't draw. Right? Wrong! This book walks you through a series of exercises that teach you a variety of ways to "trick" your left brain (the linear, factual half), thus allowing your right brain (the spatial half) to do what it does best, which is to help you draw.

It is a pleasure to look back over my journals, to remember when I first saw an Eared Grebe in breeding plummage, or the time I saw a pair of Winter Wrens feeding their brood of seven fledgings. The memory is instantly recalled when I look at my sketch of a puffy little wren chick, with its bright yellow beak. And I will never forget sketching that bear from less than a hundred feet away - it didn't even see or hear me floating in my kayak offshore.

So this summer, grab a pencil and some scrap paper from your recycle box, get out there in the field and put your impressions of nature's beauty onto paper! These sheets also make excellent firestarter when you're done, or they can simply be put back into the recycle box. You might even generate a few keepers, to pin up above your desk, which take you right back each time you look at them, the memory of making the picture as vivid as the scene depicted.