When I first read the book Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach, I was enthralled. A close friend had given it to me as a gift as I was leaving the UK for a one-year sabbatical to Australia. I read it on the plane, and again on my fi rst night in Sydney. I was 21 years old and unaware that I was reading a book that would change my life forever.
On a Monday morning 11 years later, a quote from Illusions floated in front of me, causing me to quit my job and follow my passion for wildlife photography (Part 1, OP190). Little did I know then that another quote from the same book would cause a similar revolution in my life several years later.
Imagine it’s already there
It was the winter of 2014 and I had been in Yellowstone National Park for two weeks. I had seen the usual wildlife suspects – ice-encrusted bison, lolloping elk, coyotes, eagles and swans – but I was desperate to see Yellowstone’s most famous inhabitant, the wolf.
Despite being one of the best locations in the world for spotting wolves, this apex predator is still a rare sighting. I had seen wolves only twice before in Yellowstone and things weren’t looking too positive on this trip. None of the guides had seen any signs of wolf – no tracks, no scat, no kills – and the spotting boards (notice boards on which visitors write down wildlife sightings) were blank. Even so, my mind was open to the potential.
One morning during my trip I climbed into the front cab of the snow-coach as usual. As we began the journey into the park – a long, quiet road swathed in the cloak of twilight – I closed my eyes. And there, in the darkness in front of me, I saw the words, ‘To bring anything into your life, imagine that it’s already there.’I recognised them from the book Illusions, although, like many of the teachings described by Richard Bach, I didn’t fully comprehend them or, more accurately, I didn’t fully understand how to make them real.
Despite that, with my eyes still closed, in my mind I visualised an image of a wolf standing amid the tall lodgepole pines that define the Yellowstone landscape. The snow-coach trundled on.
About half an hour later, I was making some final checks of my cameras, when there was a commotion on the road ahead. Large numbers of vehicles – vans, snow-coaches and snowmobiles – were lined up and people were wandering about excitedly. We pulled over and I climbed down, grabbing my camera bag. In the distance, I heard someone shout, ‘wolf’ in explanation of the ruckus. I scanned the ridgeline, seeing nothing. I walked ahead without knowing why, other than it felt like the right thing to do – instinct overpowering hesitation. My eyes were glued to the ridgeline when, out of the corner of one eye, I saw a flicker of contrast. I turned my gaze and there, among the trees, regal in its confidence, was a lone white wolf.
He was walking intently, slightly above me, and I followed, parallel to his path. He was always a step ahead. Then he stopped and turned his head towards me. I lifted the camera and he gazed straight down the barrel of my lens. A silent acknowledgement passed between us and then, as quickly as he’d arrived he was gone.
Back at the snow-coach, the chatter between the guides was energetic. It was their first wolf sighting in weeks, but the real reason for their excitement was that it was the first white wolf they’d ever seen. By the end of my time in Yellowstone, 10 days later, he hadn’t been seen again. I kept my own thoughts to myself. I didn’t really manifest a wolf by ‘imagining it was already there’. My morning epiphany and the appearance of the wolf was coincidence – surely?
Anything else was simply too ‘woo-woo’ to consider. I have a scientist’s mind, and there is nothing in any of the classic sciences with which I’m familiar that could explain conjuring a wild animal from thought alone. I am also a bit of a romanticist, however. And although my mind demands the rigors of science when understanding nature and the world around us, the idea of being able to manifest images at will was a fun illusion that was worth playing with.
The power of thought
For the rest of my time in Yellowstone, I set aside my usual approach to image-making (my back-to-front theory of composition, explained in last month’s article) and simply spent time truly connecting with my environment. Rather than chase light and pre-determined ideas I sat in a single spot, letting my senses be caressed by nature and trying to envisage my next image. And the strangest thing happened.
As I imagined each new image, by some twist of light and magic, immediately it would appear in front of me. I imagined a coyote – a coyote appeared, cool and inquisitive. I imagined an elk surviving in the harshness of winter – an elk appeared, forlorn in its isolation. I imagined bison in a crystal landscape – bison appeared along with rays of sparkling light.
I have had similar experiences in the past. I remember an occasion in India, watching a leopard hidden in some bushes. I imagined the leopard waking out of the bush, crossing an open area of grassland in front of me and settling at a nearby pool of water to drink. Ten minutes after seeing that picture in my mind, the leopard did exactly that. On another occasion, I imagined a grizzly bear snorkelling for salmon in a crystal- clear pool. That thought led to some quite remarkable GoPro footage of a fishing bear. But these were isolated moments that might also be explained in part by knowledge of animal behaviour, and nothing at all like the consistent fl ow of images that occurred in Yellowstone.
Sadly, after days of thoughtful experimentation, my time in Yellowstone was up and playtime was over. I had to get back to the office and serious work. Still, in the volcano-like centre of my mischievous mind, a thought bubbled away.
Another unexpected journey
A couple of months later, I was in the car with my partner, Monique, travelling back to Switzerland from the south of France. It’s a long journey from the Mediterranean to the Alps, and we were both tired and conversation was slow. To fill the silence, Monique asked if I wanted to listen to something, suggesting some music or an audio book. Normally I would choose music because I have little auditory awareness, which means music is about all I can cope with. On this occasion, however, for reasons I can’t explain, I chose the book option, picking one at random. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, I started to tune in. Here and there the narration would penetrate my auditory barrier and ping around my head as if my mind was the play zone of a pinball machine. I heard words and sentences such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘quantum domain’ and ‘mindfulness’ and ‘mind is the maker of reality’.
Something inside my psyche was beginning to put two and two together and coming up with an answer. I asked Monique to grab a pen and write something down so I wouldn’t forget: ‘The science of quantum mechanics asserts that in the beginning was potential. Potential was followed by chaos and chaos was followed by order. Photography mirrors the quantum world: photography starts with the potential for an image (the visualised idea), which is followed by chaos (the visual objects presented by nature), which is followed by order – composition.’
I then asked her to write down the question, ‘What does quantum physics reveal about our individual creativity?’ In answering that question so this journey, this great new adventure, begins. In next month’s chapter of A photographer’s guide to life on Earth: ‘Everything is connected to everything else’.