The Clearing

Witness, in this image, both the beginning and the end of my conversation with this suspicious whitetail buck. As soon as his eyes locked with mine, ears pricked forward, I knew I had pushed too far, too fast. Separated though we were by the impenetrable undergrowth, my last careful step put me inside his “fear radius.” The wordless language of this dialogue is universal, bridging the gaps between different species (those gaps are narrower than we imagine). I had snapped the invisible tripwire on his survival instinct, and he was telling me as much. A split second after I captured this frame, he turned and vanished in buoyant, effortless parabolas, the namesake white flag of his raised tail warning his comrades of the apparent danger. 

As a wildlife photographer, the greatest thrill is the moment when an elusive animal moves into clear view, that instant when a migrating warbler finally pops out of a thick bramble, or the breath-holding anticipation as the hypervigilant deer steps silently into the clearing. This one never got that far. The grassy meadow that would have afforded me an unobstructed view of this eight-point was not safe enough. Whatever reward might have been just beyond the safety of the thicket, the ancient and instant calculus of the deer’s mind assessed it as unworthy of the perceived risk.

The resulting photo was a happy accident — a failed attempt that yielded something interesting. It typically does not end up that way. Blurred and empty frames are the norm. What did I do wrong? Well, likely I missed many small things, most of them unconscious at the time, illuminated now only by the reflection, the light of thought bounced backwards. I was not aware of who I might encounter that day; I was there to photograph birds. My narrowed attention excluded deer, and thus I stumbled too close, too soon, and too loudly. The startled buck startled me, voicing his unease with a stamped hoof. Once alerted to his presence, I ignored his warning, met his gaze, and instead of backing off or otherwise deescalating, I succumbed to self-serving opportunism and attempted to maneuver into a better position (better for me, that is). Animals know when they are being stalked, and no one likes to be stalked.

In short, I went in expecting one thing and failed to adapt when I found another. I ignored the deer’s needs and desires and pressed my own agenda, in spite of his subtle and then not-so-subtle objections – a tensing of his posture, a “blow” (like an intentional sneeze), a single hard stamp. All these things mean, “I do not like what you are doing.” These are the final warnings before fight or (usually with deer) flight. I failed to consider if there was anything in that clearing that would warrant his risking an interaction with me. I neglected to consider what my actions were saying to him – my mirroring of his tensed focus, my direct eye contact, my short-lived stalk. So many subtle mistakes, and yet my intentions were good! All I wanted from him was a photo, but white-tailed bucks do not distinguish shutters from shotguns. I pressed blindly forward across a critical boundary, different for every animal, beyond which all chances of a productive encounter were lost. 

It seems I am not writing exclusively about encounters with wildlife anymore…

Every conference room, every coffee shop, and every living room is a clearing in the woods, too. And from the perspective of the deer, or any other human with whom I hope to have a productive encounter, I am not merely in the clearing. I am the clearing. And before stepping into that space, before letting one’s guard down, before exposing one’s truth, every species asks the same question: is this clearing safe?

If the answer is yes, your counterpart in this shared scene might risk stepping into that clearing. The deer might accept you as harmless and share his forest home. Your direct report might take a chance and share a new idea. Your team might ask one another tough, but necessary questions, and they might respond to one another with honest, thoughtful answers. You might catch a glimpse of their true beauty, their real gifts. But if the answer is no, if the risk feels greater than the potential reward (if there even is a potential reward), then just like the wary buck, they will turn tail and run, warning everyone around them as they go. Usually not literally, of course, but intellectually, emotionally, they will have bolted, retreating to safer relational territory, territory that feels less dangerous because you are not in it. You will be left questioning, like me with the deer, where you misstepped. You will be left wondering, as I often do in the wild with my camera, what beautiful creatures caught my scent on the wind and vanished before I ever even knew they were avoiding me? It is a frustrating experience, and one for which I, the photographer, must take full accountability. If we are talking about deer, that is relatively easy. It seems unlikely that one would blame the animal for being uncooperative. It would seem absurd to expect the deer to participate just because one demanded that they do so. But if we are talking about people, I might be more tempted to assign responsibility for the unproductive encounter not to self, but to other. With people, it is easy to place blame elsewhere.

Thus the critical question is, how does one create a clearing that draws the deer in and invites them to relax and stay for a while? How does one create an environment where meaningful questions are asked and answered? Where open exploration occurs and worthwhile risks are taken? Where real relationships grow? Where problems are solved?

I believe that creating such a clearing begins with more questions, asked mostly of oneself.

We can begin by examining our own intentions. What are they, really? What are you hoping for in this clearing you intend to create? Are you there to click a shutter or pull a trigger? Does this feel like a place where defenses can be lowered? Are there wide views and open paths to explore? Or does it feel like a location chosen for its chokepoints and clear shooting lanes? Would the fawns be safe to play and explore, even risking a fall on their spindly new legs, knowing they can simply stand back up and try again? Or is this a clearing where a misstep leaves one exposed and vulnerable to imminent danger?

The deer know the difference, and so do people. If you have ever looked into the eyes of a deer — or a horse, a goat, an antelope, or any of their myriad cousins — you might have noticed that they have elongated horizontal pupils. These are the eyes of the hunted, the eyes of a species that has evolved for tens of thousands of years as prey in the presence of predators. Those strange pupils, so different from our own, evolved to expand the animal’s field of vision. Aligned parallel with the ground, the horizontal slits maximize the amount of light coming in front the front, sides, and behind, while minimizing the blinding glare from above. The eyes of the deer are optimized to detect predators from any direction, while also providing visibility of all potential escape routes. Prey animals like these are highly attuned to danger, and so are you. So are your coworkers. Our instincts are not gone. When you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, that is the vestige of a threat response. The ancient parts of your brain perceived danger, and attempted to puff up hair that is no longer present to make you look bigger, more intimidating. Your conscious brain was not informed. That would waste precious time that could represent the space between life and death. Because we are social animals, we are equally well-equipped to detect threats to our relationships with others. Our ability to pick up the subtlest of facial expressions, minute changes in body language, and variations in tone of voice borders on the supernatural. If risk to the relationship is present in the clearing you create, others will know it and they will react accordingly and automatically.

If we can manage to dispassionately examine and appropriately cleanse our intentions, we can turn our attention to the environment, the clearing itself, be it physical or metaphorical. What have you brought into this space, perhaps unintentionally? What psychological weapons are concealed in your baggage? Have you chosen territory that is inviting to others? Or is it designed primarily for your comfort at the cost of theirs? Is this habitat polluted with your expectations, your judgements, your biases, your pet peeves, and your preconceived notions? Will those who enter find curiosity? Or judgment? What have you decided about people in advance? Do you expect them to step willingly into the open simply because that is what you want? Have you already decided what they should say, how they should act, what they should do? “Should” is a dangerous word, a toxin that leaks into the conversational groundwater. Hidden agendas are litter that clog up a free flowing stream of good ideas. These contaminants must be removed – or at least identified and contained – before we can expect others to freely enter. And if we want to have a real encounter with a beautiful yet elusive species, one that seldom shows itself in full view, we must go to the clearing where it feels safest, even if that means choosing some discomfort or a feeling of vulnerability for ourselves. Of course, we must also understand our own windows of tolerance and work to widen them in manageable increments. If we push too far into discomfort, or force a level of vulnerability that leaves us also feeling unsafe, our own fear will become just another contaminant. Life is complex.

Finally, once we have prepared a safe and inviting clearing, and have done so for the right reasons, we can turn our attention to our own instincts. Humans are an in-between species, evolved as sometimes predator, sometimes prey, equipped with the hard-wiring to survive simultaneously as both. We all find ourselves on both sides of this equation at different times, so not only do we have to ask what feels threatening to us, but also how we are threatening to others. If others venture into this clearing you have so carefully prepared, how are you likely to react to what they say and do next? What are the words, the body language, the tones of voice that raise your hackles and have you puff up defensively? Can you get close enough to make an intimate portrait of an animal that secretly terrifies you? When you observe others, what is your inclination? Are you anticipating their next moves, waiting in ambush? Have you locked eyes in the stalk, or are you looking forward together to the opportunity on the horizon? What topics trigger your prey drive? What words set you on the hunt? Are there dangerous places others might step and find you waiting to pounce? Or will you lash out not as predator, but as prey, teeth bared in fear, kicking blindly in self-defense? Are they allowed to ask that question? Are they allowed to disagree? Or is there territory in this clearing you have mentally claimed as your own? Are you prone to gently coaxing timid creatures toward nourishment and safety, or do you reflexively back them into corners where they are more easily controlled?

All of us do all of these things at different times for a host of very legitimate reasons, but for the purposes of real relationships and true collaboration, none are helpful. I can explain to the buck how I only wanted a photo and meant him no harm when I ignored his obvious discomfort, but my words will be addressed only to a white tail raised in alarm as he disappears into the forest. Perhaps he will come back, maybe once, probably not twice. How many times does one have to feel that they narrowly escaped before they decide never to visit that clearing again?

When I observe the work of the world’s best wildlife photographers, the exceptional few who consistently manage to capture the most compelling and beautiful images, they all seem to operate from these same principles:

  1. Their intentions are pure. They care deeply about the animals they photograph, and have an authentic desire to support their long-term well-being. Their motives are clean and their love of the animals real. Their aim is to capture its beauty in as non-intrusive a manner as possible, and then to leave it alone.
  2. They are ever-mindful of the environment they are in, the environment that they are. They create a clearing that invites the animal in. They become that clearing. They meet the animal on the animal’s terms, often making themselves vulnerable, uncomfortable, or both instead of expecting that of the animal. Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier brave icy waters and dark depths to capture stunning images of marine life. Tim Laman, now in his sixties, still hoists himself a hundred feet off the rainforest floor and perches precariously in a cramped blind in the canopy where the birds and mammals he photographs feel safest.
  3. They manage their own instincts. They are extraordinarily patient. They let go of the normal inclination to push. They will wait as long as it takes for their subject to feel safe so they can capture natural behavior in a natural environment. They wait for the animal to come to them. They resist the urge to stalk or chase, or to force an interaction for which their subject is not ready. If not today, perhaps tomorrow. Or the next day, or the next.

In our encounters both with our own species and the diverse others with whom we share this special planet, these things matter:

  • our intentions, often unclear even to ourselves,
  • our environment, the one we choose, the one we create, the one we are, and
  • our instincts, those that served us once but no more, and those which serve us still.

If we can become mindful of these elements in ourselves, we might just find that we have become that clearing in which the rarest and most beautiful beings will reveal themselves. Those moments when they step into the open, whether in the wilderness, the boardroom, or the living room, are magical, and they are what allow us to all move forward, together.

Photo © 2022 Greg Walker

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