Three Experts Reflect on What Nature Means to Them
Take a step outdoors. What do you see? Hear? Feel? What do you seek by taking that next step?
These simple questions can have complex answers. Nature means many things to many people—and many things for the same person. It can satisfy our curiosity and spirituality, challenge us intellectually and physically. As a writer, photographer, runner, and hiker, I connect with nature in a variety of ways. But I was curious how others might experience it differently, maybe even more deeply. I asked three people with particularly strong relationships to the outdoors—a photographer, a scientist, and an elite hiker—to share their own insights. They kindly and patiently tried.
Conservation photography often means trekking to a remote area in an attempt to capture a landscape that doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes nature helps out, casting the forest in an ethereal glow. Other times clouds roll in, and the light falls flat. When that happens, the photographer must identify splendor in the mundane: a pile of rocks or a dew-beaded spider web. “[I’ll] often spend four, five, even six hours where I don’t even look at my camera,” Jerry Monkman says.
Most of the time, Monkman, a New Hampshire-based photographer and filmmaker, comes away with the shot. Land trusts, property owners, and environmental nonprofits (AMC and this magazine, among them) have used his images to tell stories and illustrate campaigns for two decades. These days, his reputation precedes him, but Monkman, now 50, stumbled into his career when he realized he could pair a love of the outdoors with a growing interest in photography. His accidental timing was impeccable: Vast areas of land were in peril, and organizations were mobilizing to protect the Northern Forest that covers much of upstate New York and northern New England.
He has covered a lot of ground in the ensuing years, but his assignments still take him into the unknown. On a warm October day, I meet Monkman near Saddleback Mountain for a hike along the Appalachian Trail, into the Maine Woods. He’s never hiked here before and hopes he can come away with some shots of the 200,000-acre landscape now known as Maine’s High Peaks region. Wispy clouds marble the sky as we set out—the sign of a good sunset to come, we hope. Monkman’s wary, though. If it clouds over, we could end up turning back early. “I’m not a masochist,” he says. “I don’t get up for sunrise if there’s no sun.”
We take the most direct route possible, and Monkman stops occasionally to catch his breath. This will be his longest hike since overcoming colon cancer in 2014, but he seems at ease. He jokes that most of the spots he photographs aren’t popular yet; when he and his wife, Marcy, take their kids hiking, they often head to places he photographed before the locations were conserved. It’s rewarding, he says, to revisit them post-preservation: “That’s awesome! It worked!”
We reach the summit after a couple of hours of climbing and sit for a quick snack. He looks north toward the Horn, the next peak along the AT, and wonders if we can get there and back before the good light splashes the forest around us. There should be just enough time, so we push on.
Monkman recalls being fascinated by nature as a kid—even though his parents were not—and obsessively cataloging the birds in their suburban Chicago yard. “Every day it would be chickadee, tufted titmouse, and white-breasted nuthatch,” he says. Occasionally his persistence was rewarded with a scarlet tanager or an indigo bunting. He also spent hours roaming the forest behind their house. “I had no idea what was going to be around the corner or under a rock,” he says. He can still identify a flying bird by its silhouette, but he’s given up trying to know every last species. When we pass a patch of unfamiliar moss, he continues climbing. “It is what it is,” he says.
At the top of the Horn, Monkman drops his pack and unfolds his tripod. Though we haven’t yet entered the golden hour, that brief window photographers plan their days around, the scene is still stunning. Fall foliage spreads through the rich green canopy like spots of rust. Monkman clicks the shutter, taking his first photo since we left our cars behind nearly four hours ago.
The sun accelerates toward the horizon, and the colors, unspectacular minutes ago, begin to deepen. Now it’s a race to capture as many shots from as many angles as possible. Our conversation, free-flowing for so many miles, stops as we hoof it back to Saddleback with a sense of urgency. “Oh, there’s so much I want to get!” Monkman says, anxious that we wasted too much time. But the light cooperates, and the mountaintop grasses glow. The scene lingers even after the sun vanishes behind the faint outline of New Hampshire’s White Mountains on the horizon. Then it’s over. Grays and blacks descend, shadows recede, and the landscape loses its depth and texture.
As we hike carefully back down a steep talus field, headlamps trained on the ground, I ask Monkman if his goal is to capture nature the way he sees it. “My goal is to create imagery that creates a sense of place—that represents a place in a way that I feel is true but also inspirational,” he says.
“I’m focused on the big landscape and people using the landscape. But I really wanted to shoot that reindeer lichen with the blueberry leaves,” he says, referring to a plant we saw before we reached our first peak. “That’s the hardest part. We could’ve never made it [to the summit], and I could’ve shot for four hours.”
Talus gives way to grass, and soon we’re back at our cars. I’m unclipping my pack in preparation for the drive home when Monkman says: “Oh, my god! Look up!” Once the sun set, we had stopped scanning the landscape for the perfect shot. We’d totally missed the next natural wonder: the Milky Way aglow in the sky above, millions of stars twinkling over the Maine wilderness.
“This is a very special place,” Mike Jones keeps saying. In the time it takes us to untie our kayaks from our cars and drag them down to the muddy banks of a pond in Plymouth, Mass., he repeats himself three or four times. I would think he’s feeling insecure about bringing me to what looks, on the surface, like every other pond in New England, but he’s so earnest that I can tell he means it.
I do see the beauty of the place once we’re in the middle of the pond. Waterlilies bloom all around us; a green heron swoops overhead; a yellow warbler flits by. But it takes a couple of hours for my eyes to begin picking out the pond’s resident of honor, the red-bellied cooter. When Jones excitedly points toward one of the turtles in the distance, I stare in vain. This pond, which he asks me not to identify, is the epicenter of a red-bellied cooter population that nearly vanished in the 1980s. A concerted effort to protect the habitat and the turtles has brought the species back from the brink of extinction. Jones, 36, who monitors them closely as the head herpetologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, estimates their population at more than 2,000 statewide.
Nine cooter species live in a 2,000-mile band stretching from the Rio Grande at the U.S. border to here, in Plymouth. This pond is basically the northern extreme of the turtles’ habitat, and yet the red-bellied cooter has managed to hang on here for 6,000 years, possibly longer. “We don’t tend to think in geologic time scales,” Jones says, marveling that a creature could call the same landscape home for so long. For him, that persistence alone justifies conservation.
Jones idly dips his hands in the water while we chat. He never stops scanning the pond, and our conversation frequently—and abruptly—pauses whenever he sees a turtle break the surface. When it does, he grabs his paddle, his shoulders hunching forward as he furiously sprints, pivots, and stops like a slalom racer. In a blink he tosses the paddle aside, grabs a long aluminum pole with a net on one end, and darts it into the shallow water. “Just missed,” he says as he paddles back to me the first time.
My presence aside, this is a typical summer workday for Jones. He and two colleagues are all out in the field, each on a different Plymouth County pond. They catch as many turtles as they can, weigh and measure each, identify the individual by scanning for a tiny transponder inserted into a hind leg or place a transponder if one isn’t there already, and then release the animal back into the pond. Today’s turtles alone won’t tell them much, but over years of data-gathering, they’re developing a detailed picture of the cooter’s population and behavior.
Jones grew up in Andover, Mass., where his interest in nature was piqued by a gravel pit. “All kids find gravel pits interesting,” he says, laughing. “You can find all sorts of stuff down there.” In his pit, Jones discovered a pond with hundreds of nesting painted turtles. “It was the first place I ever became concerned about,” he says. When he began to consider science as a career, he thought back to that pond. “That was the lens I saw [conservation] through,” he says. “I never really looked back since then.”
Suddenly Jones is sprinting again. He stops and sweeps the water, bobbing violently back and forth. I’m waiting for his kayak to dump him into the pond when he pulls up his net, revealing the unmistakable outline of a large turtle.
Jones’s wife, Liz, is also a turtle biologist. “Suffice to say, the lines are really blurred between vacation and work,” he says. The couple has studied plants and turtles in Mexico, Florida, and throughout New England. Visits home are a gray area, as well: Jones, his wife, and his mother are all invested in the gravel pit, having collectively tagged more than 600 of its turtles. It’s no surprise he views the outdoors analytically. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he says. “It feels unusual to go into a landscape and not wonder, What’s endemic here? What’s rare here? What used to be here?” He continues: “For some people, that can provide a sense of place.”
Jones finds that true for even the most humble pond. “It sounds absurd to say, but you can seek grace wherever you are,” he says. “If you were to come here on your own at 5 a.m. and see two male snapping turtles fighting, you would be moved.”
Just as we start talking about moving on, Jones sees something: “Oooooh! Look at that one! Oh, my gosh. If I can’t get that one, I should retire. Oh my goodness!” And he’s off, chasing another turtle, hoping to get one data point closer to understanding.
THE ELITE HIKER
Jennifer Pharr Davis is a former Appalachian Trail thru-hike record holder. She’s also a writer working on a new book and a business owner who runs a guide service out of her basement in Asheville, N.C. And on a cool, cloudy afternoon last April, she’s a mom picking up her daughter.
“I was mad at school,” Charley says immediately after walking out of her preschool’s front door.
“Do you think a hike will help?” Pharr Davis asks.
“I think it will,” Charley says. With that off her chest, she grabs our hands and leads us across the parking lot, ready to begin exploring Black Balsam Knob, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Earlier, while waiting for Charley to get out of school, Pharr Davis, 33, and I sit in her living room and discuss her hiking career. I had anticipated meeting an intense fitness addict, the sort of person for whom exercise is more a necessary fix than a healthy outlet. After all, this is a woman who once hiked 2,100-plus miles in 46 days. But Pharr Davis is relaxed, talking openly about the personal transformations hiking has helped her navigate, as though each hike was less a physical experience than a mental pilgrimage.
“Life transitions have drawn me to the trail because I feel like our society is really bad about giving people time to process,” she says. Her first thru-hike came after college, when she’d barely spent a night in the wild. “I didn’t know the difference between an oak and a maple,” she says. “That’s ridiculous!” For weeks she expected the journey to get easier—maybe when the weather improved, or once the bugs vanished, or when the trail got less rocky. Eventually she realized it wasn’t the trail that had to change but her. “You have to lose your sense of entitlement,” she says. Afterward, she started a job and figured that was it for hiking. “Everything was great,” she says. “[But] it wasn’t as good as the trail.”
After getting engaged to her now-husband, Brew, she trekked through remote Australia and “grieved this loss of singleness.” Then, following their wedding, Brew joined her on another AT thru-hike. “It was our honeymoon, which I don’t recommend, in retrospect,” she says, laughing. Her record-setting 2011 thru-hike came at a time when the couple was planning to have a child. “I wanted to know what my best was before my body and time was given over to a greater cause,” she says.
Most of Pharr Davis’s hikes these days are on others’ terms: her clients, her daughter, the subjects of her next book. “Everyone connects to the outdoors differently,” she says. In the time we spend together, I see this play out with Charley. Once we begin our hike, the little girl, now three and a half, dictates the pace. She pauses over some flowers just a few steps into the trail. A little farther up it’s time for a picnic and then a round of hide-and-seek. Pharr Davis admits her newfound interest in foraging stems from Charley’s habit of putting things in her mouth. When Charley decides it’s time to collect rocks, Pharr Davis carries a big one without protest. And when Charley tires, I learn where her trail name came from: “Carry Me.”
It’s all a big change for someone who previously completed a major backpacking trip every year. “I still need some selfish hikes,” Pharr Davis says. She and her husband allow each other a two-week break every year to go off and recharge. At the time of my visit, Brew is at a silent retreat in Kentucky. Otherwise, Pharr Davis fits in hikes when and where she can. Earlier this year, she found herself waking up early, weighting her backpack with a gallon of water, and walking around the neighborhood. It took her a while to realize she had subconsciously timed her walks to coincide with the first AT thru-hikers of the season departing Georgia.
After a switchbacking climb, we traverse a meadow-like ridge to reach Black Balsam Knob. Even with Charley hanging from her chest, Pharr Davis takes long strides, covering the trail with little apparent effort. At the summit, she spins her daughter in a dizzying circle before turning back toward the car.
Even though Pharr Davis’s first two books are memoirs, she’s horrified that someone could read one and assume they know her. “I grimace at the 21-year-old me in so many ways,” she says. She stresses that her record hike, while a defining moment in her life, isn’t the defining moment. “The trail [is] this catalyst for growth, but it’s like, you stop growing if you stop hiking,” she says.
This story originally appeared in AMC Outdoors.