Photographing the Namib Desert: “One with Forever”
Many people feel drawn to the wild areas of the great landscape, especially the wild areas. It is important for them to know that these places exist, even if they cannot go there. The spiritual connection is deep and endless. Where does it start? Can he be favored?
Not once, during my many hikes alone among the imposing red dunes of the Namib, have I been afraid of getting lost. The highest dunes have always served as a visual compass. Several times, however, I have had to resist the urge to just lay down and let the sand drift over my body and become physically one with the desert that has already taken hold of me emotionally.
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Likewise, when I have been alone in the vast endless solitude of the High Arctic, the feeling of oneness with âall that isâ becomes palpable. I feel totally at peace. I am finally home. Why would I be leaving?
Yet one day in August 1984, I boarded a small plane that managed to land on a muddy strip near Alexandria Fiord on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. We flew south to Grise Fjord, from there to Qausuittuq (Resolute) and Edmonton, then again across Canada to Toronto and Saint John, New Brunswick. I drove the 40 minutes from the airport to my house at Shamper’s Bluff, dropped off my arctic gear, picked up my passport and two suitcases already ready for Africa, and headed back to the airport. Seventy-two hours after leaving the frozen Ellesmere Desert, I wandered the hot, sandy desert of the Great Desert – the Namib.
I don’t remember anything of the many flights between the two places, but I do remember the barely discernible dawn light as I parted with a friend by a road that meandered through the large dunes. We agreed to meet at the vehicle at ten o’clock, even though the only clock was in our car. By the time the sun had risen high enough to transform the highest ridges of the highest dunes into scarlet ribbons floating above deep black canyons, I was completely embraced by the purest silence. His life should end in such holiness.
Just four days before, I had hiked in bright sunshine at two in the morning along gravel streams that flow into Alexandria Fjord from the surrounding glaciers. The streams were lined with bright pink super-dwarf fireweed (fireweed). I was puzzled by a sandy depression where each of the thousands of tiny twisted roots exposed on the ground ended in a few miniature needles. Suddenly I realized that I was not looking at roots, but at a forest – hundreds of years old. The twisted roots were actually tree trunks that grew less than Â½ mm per year and the two needles were the foliage. To survive, trees lie flat on the ground. To me, the forest they formed looked like a finely woven carpet.
Now maybe someone who grew up in central Johannesburg or the slums of Mumbai or the small towns that stretch around Toronto can give me an answer. I want to know if a person who has lived in a city all their life can feel as easily and deeply at home in the wilderness as I can or, in fact, if they can do it at all.
Sometimes city dwellers who visit my home in a nature reserve are clearly pissed off. They communicate their discomfort with little jerks and hesitations. As we walked through a field of wildflowers near my home, I asked a well-known Canadian photographer who was visiting for the first (and only) time what made him uncomfortable. He quickly replied, “It’s so quiet.”
Our heritage is very important. The truism I heard the most when I left for college was, “You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the boy off the farm.” ”
Although I did not grow up in the great outdoors, our farm was bordered on one side by the boreal forest and on the other by a large river. Every morning, from early spring to early winter, I led our dairy herd through vast fields to pastures on the hillside. I have a vivid visceral memory of the rugged cow trails, wandering rocks and mossy valley in a stand of mature cedar trees. The first snowflakes of winter created an ever-changing weave as the white dots accumulated on the matted brown grasses, yellow-beige ferns and blue-gray rocks before covering them with a thick quilt. White.
In this place, I was one with the rocks and the ground. I knew the sweet scents that floated on the warm spring breezes and the westerly winds that portended winter. Each spring I saw swollen streams carrying blocks of melting ice and shallow streams where schools of minnows soared. A fire warmed our house but sometimes escaped to destroy a house or a barn. These are all expressions of the four elements of Earth. No one has ever had to explain that all of these natural things contribute to my spiritual and physical well-being. I just knew.
This sense of connection is even more fundamental than merging with a birthplace. Maybe it’s in our bones, so to speak. After all, every life form has climbed the same evolutionary ladder.
Personally, I think it probably is. Although many of us as children have had the privilege of learning more about our prehistoric connections, I believe that every adult is able to find the treasure, shrouded in wilderness and silence.
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About the Author: Freeman Patterson combines a deep love of photography with an open and engaging teaching style. Many around the world have come to know his warmth, thoughtfulness and generosity through his seminars with large groups of 50-4,000 – in the visual arts, music, education and ecology. His personal work ranges from documentaries to impressionism, and always resonates with themes inherent in the natural world. His images have been published in numerous books, magazines, journals, newspapers and advertisements, and have been exhibited around the world.
Freeman is the author of numerous books, including Photography for the Joy of It, Photography of Natural Things, Photography and the Art of Seeing, Namaqualand: Garden of the Gods, Portraits of Earth, Photo Impressionism And the Subjective Image, Shadowlight: A Photographer’s Life and Odyssey: Meditations and Thoughts for the Journey of a Lifetime. He currently lives in an ecological reserve in Shampers Bluff, New Brunswick, Canada.