Lion’s Den Gorge: A Meditation on Photography
By Eddee Daniel
[Note: The images in this photo essay were shot in October 2020.]
On the horizon the edges of a low bank of clouds had begun to glow brightly. Twin expanses of sky and water shifted slowly from deep gray to pale blue. The night air hovered near freezing, frosting the fuzzy tops of goldenrod gone to seed on the edge of the bluff. The fog of my breath dissipated into the universe before me. It promised a beautiful morning.
The sun wouldn’t appear for another 15 minutes or so. As I paced the bluff trail, trying to stay warm, a tall, thin man materialized out of the gloom of the woods and walked briskly up to the railing overlooking the lake. In the still dim light I saw him raise a cell phone briefly, then turn and vanish back into the gloom.
I was left wondering at his haste. Why rise at such an early hour, drive to the preserve, and walk all the way from the parking lot to the bluff, only to turn back within seconds—before the culmination of dawn? I could only hope that when he got home and checked his phone he would be happy with the photograph he took in that instant.
Sometimes, as Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said, photography is all about “the decisive moment.” Shivering in the pre-dawn light, I was anticipating one of those moments, waiting for the sun to appear through the striated clouds on the horizon. On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for perseverance, taking the long view, and sticking with a subject or project. I for one wouldn’t come all this way and not wait for the sun to rise. These are not mutually exclusive strategies. Within a project of any duration there can be innumerable decisive moments.
When the sun finally breeched the horizon the results were not spectacular. The cloud bank remained low, blocking the rising light, with open sky above. I shot the few images you see here, but if that indecisive moment was all I had come for I would have gone away unsatisfied. However, if all I had wanted was a view of the horizon I could have had that anywhere along the vast Lake Michigan shoreline. This was Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, one of Ozaukee County’s most popular parks for good reason. I wanted to take a deeper dive into the place than I could get with a single moment, however decisive it might be. (The hidden truth behind every successful photo of a decisive moment is the countless number of attempts they take to achieve.)
I set out along the bluff top trail, considering the words of Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” If there is a single idea for which he is known it is mindfulness, a principle I consider essential to my photographic practice. I stroll, slowly, trying to be mindful of all that I encounter. Eyes open, but attention unfocussed, ready to discover the unexpected. If you start with a specific goal in mind for an image you may miss other perfectly good opportunities.
Here is another of Nhat Hahn’s thoughts: “We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living.” And, perhaps, get better photos.
One of the things I discovered at Lion’s Den Gorge was gold. There were the colors of the autumn landscape, of course: The aspen, crowning the bluffs in resplendent glory; the maple leaves; even an apple tree with golden fruit; and certainly the goldenrod, some still in radiant bloom but most already gone to seed. The longer I lingered the more “gold” took on additional meanings and became a theme for the outing: a metaphor for the value of preserving this place and for the quality of my experience, both spiritually and photographically.
There was so much to see and it took so long to reach the stairs leading down into the gorge that I almost turned back without descending. I could have justified it. I’d been plenty of times before and there weren’t very many people about (as beautiful as a place like this is in itself, I don’t consider a photographic story of a public park complete without including people in at least a few shots). But in the end, I again decided not to hurry. I felt like I wouldn’t be doing the place (or myself) justice if I didn’t go into the eponymous gorge. Of course, I was glad afterwards. The gorge and the beach it empties into are nothing like the terrain on top of the bluff.
For me, photography is similar to what Nhat Hahn calls “walking meditation.” Although my goal is to acquire images and not enlightenment, if I am mindful enough I also achieve a measure of peace and contentment as well. By the time I got back to my car the sun I had waited for so patiently so many hours before was nearing its zenith.
“When you look at the sun during your walking meditation, the mindfulness of the body helps you to see that the sun is in you; without the sun there is no life at all and suddenly you get in touch with the sun in a different way.”
~ Thich Nhat Hahn
Eddee Daniel is a former photography and art teacher as well as a board member of Preserve Our Parks.