Photo: John Courtney

Photographer, Don Boyd, embarks on a year-long journey

Welcome fellow lovers of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I have lived close to and visited the refuge frequently for more than a decade, and trekked here often before then from my home in Arizona. Usually, I take my camera gear with me, but often go without it to make certain I’m not letting my lenses get in the way of my seeing.

On December 21 this year, winter solstice, I will begin a photographic journey I have been dreaming of for years.  I will be photographing daily on the refuge for the next 12 months. But, before I say more about the Year of Refuge project, let me ask you some questions. Have you ever wanted to do something that strongly called to you, but the daily chores and labors made it seem impossible? Did the dull background hum of daily responsibilities rise in pitch every time you wistfully thought, if only?

Then perhaps you can appreciate the challenge I have chosen as I ask my loving and supportive wife to bear an unfair amount of our shared life’s chores, and ask dear friends to understand my absence and preoccupation with a task that may more bring to mind a man with a lance in search of a windmill than a noble quest.

Nature as a backdrop for a vision and quest is as old as human kind. Anthropologists’ stories are replete with tales of cultural traditions that ask novitiates to leave behind the child’s life and accept the responsibilities of an engaged adult through a ritualized, yet deeply personal task that marks their transition.

In more civilized times, we may accept the stories of others as our own because our culture has drifted away from asking something so deliberate and personal of us. When Henry David Thoreau reflected on why he spent more than two years alone in a cabin on Walden Pond, he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This declaration resonates so strongly with us that there is hardly a person who has not heard his story many times over. And, if you are one of the few who are hearing him for the first time now, I would wager that it wakes something deep within you and long dormant.

My year-long quest to have a more intimate relationship with the refuge, one blessed by daily contact, is not for lack of a rich life. Rather, what drives me to this particular task is what one writer calls divine discontent. A desire to dive even more deeply into a life that I have accepted too casually.

Like many of you, I am drawn to the abundant bird and plant life, and feel viscerally the healing power of the natural rhythms, the color and music of the birds, animals and wind in this rich oasis along the Rio Grande in the Chihuahuan Desert. So many visitors to the refuge I have met have told me that the refuge has changed their lives or that it feeds their souls. All of us have struggled to find the words that convey our experience so uncommon in our daily lives.

Clearly, our too infrequent visits can leave us hungry for more. But, why make such a costly personal decision to be there daily for a year? As a photographer, I have chosen this journey much as you might if, as an expression of a commitment to a mindful life, you apprehensively sat down like Thoreau in a far-away cabin in the woods, facing a clean blank page to write your story; knowing in advance that you would better understand your reason for being there only as you began recording and reading your story.

The whys of many things begin much as life does, pre-verbally, intuitively, and the answers follow only as the products of our efforts become manifest. Photography, like good writing, can create a space in us that holds our voice and vision, a place where the boundaries between you and the photograph dissolve. Your life warms from the inside and glows with the light and colors of an image warmed by time.

A dormant capacity for self-discovery is awakened as you choose the path of vulnerability. A year-long, mindful journey on the refuge may reveal more about the person behind the lens than about the subjects in front of it. I’m counting on it.

While it may be difficult to see a year photographing on the refuge as a path parallel to that of Thoreau’s, my intention is to view it as a small but sincere modern equivalency. An equivalency at least of a desire to look outward and inward to what I might learn from my honest efforts, to, as Thoreau said, “ . . . see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

A path is often only recognized in retrospect. This one seems buried vaguely somewhere within the 57,000 acres of this riparian refuge. A daily thirty-minute commute each way to the refuge can be, in its own way, a pilgrimage, or at least a part of one. It may pale compared to a twenty-six month sojourn in a cabin built by oneself where intimacy with things both in and outside a cabin is unavoidable. But, I have spent enough time at the refuge already that I know how easy it is to carry it with me both to and from my life outside the refuge confines. So, excitedly, I look forward to the next twelve months and fully expect that it will become a mark on my life’s calendar that separates all that was before and came after.

No wise person would undertake a journey like this without trepidation. A meditation teacher once said about following the path of a mindfulness practice, “If you knew what was in store for you, you would run kicking and screaming from this room.” So, if you come across me at the refuge or see me in my hometown of Socorro, and I am unkempt and am mumbling to myself, be gentle with me and kindly offer to pour water on my burning hair.

If you would like to follow along on this journey you can do so on Facebook at /DonBoydPhotography, or see more photos as well as notes in my blog at www.DonBoyd.com. On my website I will post some images of the journey under the home page heading, Year of Refuge. Welcome fellow travelers.

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