The Power to Inspire

A thick fogs welcomes a cool summer morning on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, Arkansas.
A thick fogs welcomes a cool summer morning on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, Arkansas.

Do you remember the first time you cast a line into your favorite fishing hole?  You know-the one that fills your mind as you watch the autumn leaves receive their glory through the window in your office.  What about that spot on the end of your favorite trail?  The spot that few have discovered and even fewer risk the necessary time and energy to reach.  That place.

Do you remember these initial experiences?  Something draws us back here over and over again.  But what could it be that draws us? It is the experience we have in this place that is likely unattainable in any other environment.  Our distractions are removed, and our entire effort is focused on that next cast, or the next revelation we receive as we listen to our spirits commune with our heavenly Father.

Ok, Jason, this sounds great-but what does it have to do with me?  The reality is that it has everything to do with you.  And me.  And every one of our fellow human beings.  The demands of our daily lives slowly rob us of our creative potential and eventually drain our spirits.  We spend hour after hour trying to be all that we can be-only to fall short over and over again.  These inspirational experiences refill our tanks and bridge the chasms that separate us from who were created to be.

Many of us seem to make time for others-which we must-but we often neglect ourselves in the process.  I have a tendency to neglect these necessary “recharges” on an all-too-regular basis.  Then I find myself there once again-a creative slump.  I struggle to find something to write about or something to photograph.  Or I’m so burned out that I can’t be the husband that my wonderful wife needs, or the father that my beautiful daughter needs to lead her.  Woe to me for neglecting this vital part of my existence!!!!

Water cascades through a rocky channel near the Little Red River.

What do I have to lose by disconnecting for a few hours, or even a few days? Might I neglect a few emails that could be returned?  Or some task on a list that really doesn’t amount to anything in the big picture? Perhaps I’m worried that I might discover my true self and unlock the fullness of my potential-the very thing I was created for?  Who am I really shortchanging here?

You see, without inspiration, we grow stale.  The same ideas and experiences drive us to repeat the same actions over and over again, with the same results.   When we refuse to be inspired, we choose to stay in that same rut that we can’t seem to pull out of.  But when we allow ourselves to be inspired, our chains are broken and we are free to create again.

My vantage point on the Little Red River as I disconnect from the chaos.
My vantage point on the Little Red River as I disconnect from the chaos.

The horn at the dam sounds in the distance.  They are about to release enough water through the turbines to completely transform this lazy mountain river I’ve temporarily occupied.  I’d better move my chair.

Western Cottonmouth

A Western Cottonmouth basks in a road in southeast Arkansas.

Here in south Arkansas we are blessed with an abundance of public land to explore and recreate on.  Some of these areas, such as Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, contain large areas of bottomland hardwood forest that stay wet most of the time. This provides excellent habitat for herpetofauna (snakes and amphibians), who can be seen and heard throughout most of the year in these areas.

One of the most commonly observed (and misunderstood) snakes in this area is the Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous leucostoma).  These snakes are indeed venomous, but like most wild animals, prefer to be left alone to carry out their daily duties.  Reports of cottonmouth chasing humans to kill them abound, and most folks kill cottonmouth upon sighting.  Many times non-venomous water snakes are mistaken for cottonmouth, and killed in the name of human protection.  Just yesterday I saw a young specimen attempting to cross a road who fled when I attempted to lie prone and photograph him.  Vicious indeed!!

Most folks associate this snake with water-and rightfully so.  They thrive in areas of slow-moving water, and are often encountered while boating or fishing, leading to this association.  While this is generally accurate, they are also regularly observed in upland areas that border their more common aquatic habitats.  I spend a good bit of time traveling gravel roads while working, and often encounter specimens basking in roads or attempting to cross them.

A cottonmouth creeps through an upland pine forest.

Oddly enough, they are becoming one of my favorite snakes to study and photograph.  Loathed by many, I find them to be fascinating to observe (as with many other things in nature!), and generally experience a bit of a mutual respect when I encounter them.  If they allow, I photograph them for a few minutes, then let them get on their way.  I only wish they enjoyed their encounter with me as much I enjoy each encounter with them….

Texas Ratsnake

“Hold on!”, I exclaimed to my wife on a warm spring afternoon during a trip to our local wildlife refuge.  I didn’t have to look at her to realize she wasn’t quite as enthused as I when I brought our SUV to a fairly abrupt stop on the side of the gravel road.  “What?”, asked my wife as I put the vehicle in park.  I was oblivious to her question-not even stopping to realize that she had asked me something.  I grabbed my camera and flung open the door in one motion, and began the approach to what had caught my eye seconds ago.

There it was.  A beautiful Texas Ratsnake (Pantheropis obsoletus, formerly Black Ratsnake, Elaphe obsoleta) who lacked only a few feet from safely completing his journey across the gravel road.  He stopped to see what was checking him out, and I immediately positioned myself in the road to document this specimen.  Image

He posed for me for several minutes-stone still at the edge of the road ditch.  I’m not quite sure as to the logic behind their “kinked” posture when approached, but it must work in their defense.  Most specimens I find along forest edges exhibit this same behavior.  The light was partially diffused through some afternoon clouds, and couldn’t have been much better.  After a minute or two of photographing him in profile, I decided to make an image of his head from another angle.  He still hadn’t moved, as if I had ordered him to remain where he was.

A close-up of the top of his head. The scale pattern can be a useful tool in distinguishing between some species of snakes.

After a few seconds of photographing him here, I decided it was time to head on back to the vehicle and head towards the house.  I decided to give him a hand completing his journey, but his defensive posture immediately informed me that he didn’t need or want my help!  It wasn’t my intent to agitate him, but I decided to take advantage of his behavior and make a couple of images for the sake of documentation.  I returned to my original prone position, and began to photograph him once again.  He cooperated, and presented me with the opportunity to make multiple images, which I readily took advantage of.  After several minutes, I decided to let him get on his way, and rejoin my family in our vehicle.

Note the defensive posture exhibited here after my attempt to help him finish crossing the road.

I thanked him as I walked back to my vehicle, silently hoping that this journey across the road wouldn’t be the last for him.  Sadly enough, many of us would have went out of our way to run him over with our vehicle.  I guess I get it-I was taught as a child that a snake must be killed immediately-but why?  Could it be that we don’t understand these important contributors in the ecosystems they inhabit?  He was simply out doing what the Lord made him to do-trying to make a living, if you will.  Hunting for the next rat, vole or mouse to cross his path and sustain him for another day, as he gave everything each day to perpetuate his species.  I must ask myself this question-am I doing what I was designed to do each and every day?  What if I could be more like this Ratsnake, and worship my Creator with my every move?

As I re-entered my SUV, my wife appeared glad to know that we were headed for home.  “What was it?”, she asked as I set my camera body back on the seat.  “Ratsnake”, I replied, and showed her a few of the images on the camera’s LCD screen.  She shuddered as I turned the camera off, and we headed back towards the house.

When nature gives you a flood

This spring has seemed unseasonably cool-of which I won’t complain.  Along with the cool weather, we have received what seems to be an abundance of rainfall this year.  Perhaps it is normal, but it seems atypical to me.  I’m confident that in a few months we’ll be begging for just a drop of rain to fill the rivers, creeks, ponds and lakes.

Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.
Floodwaters cover a bottomland hardwood forest near Deep Slough on Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.

The abundance of water during spring would typically be a good thing for my attempts to photograph herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles), but they haven’t been calling too much just yet.  So what’s a photographer to do?  Shoot what you have, of course!  The rain had forced the Ouachita River out of its banks, leading to road and boat ramp closures, and water in places it normally wouldn’t be found.

The river had risen more than I thought-and presented some interesting navigational challenges. I opted to head out with a friend in his boat instead of my trusty kayak, and immediately was glad I did.  Places that one could walk through with ease a week prior were several feet under water, which led to some interesting compositions.

The message I took home from this trip was to get out and go-even when the conditions aren’t optimal!  You may well witness something for the first and last time (likely), and in my case capture a unique image that might land you a spot in a publication or something even bigger!

This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!
This cypress tree thought its branches were safely above the water-which proved not to be the case!

When I was a young boy, my grandfather would carry me with him to the barber shop to get a haircut. His barber was a shaky-handed, well-aged gentleman who happened to be an excellent fisherman.  I would listen to his fishing stories in awe, always walking away with another potential adventure in my mind.  One day I decided to ask him a simple, but profound question-when was the best time to fish?  I sat eagerly awaiting a detailed, scientific explanation that I never received.  His response was simple.  “Son, the best time to go fishing is any time you can.”

I believe I’ll take that and run with it.