By Aaron Firestein and Carolina Fonseca
This has been a year of questions – questions that are constantly being asked but rarely being answered definitively. One of the questions I have found myself asking along with many other people is “how can I approach this otherwise punishing year into a year that I will fondly look back upon?” While there are a multitude of ways to look at the “silver linings”, for my wife and I, the chance to get back into nature has been far and away the winner. Living through the pandemic in a major city in like Bogotá has been especially tough on this front given the excruciatingly backwards rules that were enforced, most notably the ban on access to municipal nature trails and the ban on leaving the city without the proper papers. People live in major cities like Bogotá to be able to access all the things that take away the city aspect of the place – putting a blockade on such activities only made things worse.
The perpetual concrete jungle existence lasted for nearly six months. Six very long months. Once the restrictions were lifted on September 1st, my wife and I took advantage and got the hell out of Dodge. Where were we going is not necessarily known as the Garden of Eden, or at least that is what we thought. For those that know the area, that “not the Garden of Eden” was the small town of Melgar in the neighboring department of Tolima (the house we’re in is the one my in-laws bought over thirty years ago as a sort of weekend or holiday retreat). Melgar is only a couple of hours from the cool, temperate, high altitude megalolopis of Bogotá, but it is quite literally a world apart (mostly because you drop about 7,000 feet in altitude to get here). Melgar is an important global city for some, but for the majority of us, it’s just a hot place near a cold place. It should be mentioned that it is an important city globally for its record of having the most swimming pools per capita in the country – not sure if you caught my sarcasm above. The accolade it is most proud of should actually be surpassed by a statistic that to me is actually way brag-worthy: the absolutely mindblowing number of beautiful and unusual birds and animals that live here.
We’ve all been in a never-ending cycle of trying to stay occupied this year without doing much. For those of us who make the city home, most of the activities we seem to turn to are somehow connected to a computer in some way, but of course there are analog escapes as well. I know for myself, and for my wife, the go-to usually involved Netflix or Youtube or something along those lines. Once we made the move to this suburban community in a small town with not much going on, we quickly found there was an even better show in town: looking for critters roaming around the bush on the outskirts of the development. What we found was beyond our wildest imagination. I’m talking ___ amount of bird species that seem to have been invented by some mad scientist who took too much LSD, ___of the most visually stunning butterflies, some of the weirdest bugs you’ve ever seen and even weirder species of vulnerable monkeys (Gray Bellied Night Monkeys), armadillos and a couple of types of possum. Getting up every morning and going for a walk around a seemingly normal neighborhood has brought to our light two important remedies to our lives: a healthy form of therapy and a reintroduction to the notion of being surprised.
Whether on a small scale, or a grand one, all of our individual mental well-beings have been put to the test this year. I’m not the one to say one form of stress-relief is better than another, but for me, there is no greater meditation than nature photography. I’ve been an avid and prolific photographer for as long as I can remember. While I have dabbled in nature photography from time to time (mostly on short trips to places where the setting is ideal for it), it hasn’t been something I have gotten so deeply into on such a consistent basis – until now. People often ask me why I love it so much (I REALLY love it), and I think I have finally solved the puzzle. You know that old adage “live in the present”? That is actually not possible, at least not for most of us with stresses and anxieties and all the other stuff that goes along with being a human being. What is possible however, is to be present for short bursts of time – moments when you really are not thinking about anything other than what you are doing at that very moment. As wild animals are usually not beings that sit ultra still, the photographer needs to be the one that doesn’t move. That stillness, consciousness of your breathing, the focus, the attention to detail on your camera and how it should interact with the natural surroundings, the noises coming at you from every angle – these things literally force you to be in the moment. When you’re in the moment, you’re genuinely at peace. In a normal year that is hard to find. In 2020, forget about it. This simple pastime that I have dedicated so much time to has allowed me to find it
An equally important side effect of this time spent photographing nature has been, even if on a small scale, sharing experiences that surprise us – in a good way. Covid has brought upon us all a sense of repetition bordering on the unbearable, so the combination of being in the fresh air and not knowing what it is you might find on your walk is just the medicine we needed for these trying times. I encourage each and every one of you to make some room for surprise-hunting – no matter where you find yourselves right now.