Am I a writer who also takes pictures, or is it the other way around?  I was asked to write something about this for writing teacher Carol LaChapelle, and it got me thinking about what it is that I do anyway.  As a teenager I considered studying photography in college, but ultimately settled on a career in urban horticulture. Over the past few years as I have ventured into my version of a writing life my camera has been just as valuable a writing tool as my pen and notebook.

What has mainly propelled my writing is my interest and affection for the natural world, particularly those corners of that world that is near at hand. Three decades of working in Midwestern landscapes of all types has exposed me to some amazing scenes, and if am able to transmit some of that interest to others, all the better. Attention is the name of the game, and in my mind both writing and photography work to focus attention on the subject.

The camera I use is not a fancy one, but it works well enough for my purposes. For example, if I go for a walk I don’t generally like to have too much stuff to fuss over. I have a modest digital camera, which sometimes takes amazing images. I attribute this to luck, the finding of something wonderful in view that stays put long enough to click.

One of my favorite photographers is the late Galen Rowell. Rowell was also an accomplished mountain climber. His images are iconic and one of his pictures in Sierra magazine evoked a letter from a reader claiming it was staged, or manipulated in some way. (A violation of that magazine’s editorial policy as well). He rebutted that letter, kindly. This image was later deconstructed by Rowell in his book Mountain Light, where he explained the shot, the location, etc. The point he made was that there were simply some sights that only mountain climbers would likely be in a position to see.

I guess that is what my excuse is too – I’m hardly out climbing mountains, but I often put myself in a position to get a nice picture here and there.  And doesn’t writing do that too? A goal when I write is to try to put the reader alongside me and in a place to see what I see. Those are rare moments indeed when I felt that I have pulled that off. As a writer who tries to bring attention to “the nature nearby” my camera is at least a recording device that refreshes my memory. At it’s best it’s a tool that takes one’s breath away and captures wonder that defies explanation.

A picture can be worth a thousand words after all.

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Dave Coulter

I have been a horticulturist for thirty years working in the Chicago area and beyond. I have lived in Oak Park for over thirteen years. My writing has recently appeared in the journal Ecological Restoration...