Detox just to Retox

We live in a strange time at the moment. There seems to be a constant stream of massive social, political, and cultural changes. An abnormal day has started to become normal. As a result, how we think, act and speak is expected to change to conform with the new equilibriums (which I agree with in most cases for the record).

Don’t panic, I’m not about to dive into the nitty gritty of BLM, climate change, cancel culture or the current pandemic. There are people, some of whom are good friends of mine, who do that much more intelligently, passionately, and effectively than I ever could so I will leave that to them. So why lead with this if I am not going to go into it in more depth?

Well, in part thanks to this, I’ve been feeling really quite lost and down lately. I just didn’t know it.  

As some of you may know, I am trying to build a career photographing and documenting wildlife and showing people just how incredible and endlessly surprising it is. It’s my passion. I am lucky enough to live in a city surrounded by like-minded friends that share similar ambitions. I am very lucky.

However, recently my videos have been doing poorly (considering I want to make a living from it) as have my posts on Instagram. Growth is majorly down. But work is work, so I started spending more time editing and looking into algorithms, trends, and ways to boost things. Consequently, this meant less time with friends and less time out and about. But I was still happy because it’s what I want to do.

Last week I visited my parents for the first time since Lockdown, as the guidelines in the UK allowed. They live in West Sussex which is a county in the south of England with a large amount of wild spaces. My plan? To make the most of the time I had there, film as much as I could to get some killer content for YouTube and Instagram and ultimately get things back on track.

I arrived weighed down with bags of equipment but filled with enthusiastic plans of how I was going to make the most of the week. But the first day I woke up in a noticeably quiet mood… which is rare for me. I am very close to my mum especially, but when having our expected catch up I just didn’t feel like talking much. I sat quietly for most of the day, watched some birds in the garden and didn’t touch my phone. Except to speak with a friend of mine Will, who was updating me about a spot we had been spending time at before I moved away. Having done nothing all day I decided to go out to this spot in the evening to see if I would get as lucky as Will had been in recent weeks. To my surprise, my Mum asked to join me.

For context, my Mum loves animals and wildlife, she always encouraged me to take notice and engage with it as a child, perhaps one of the main reasons for my passion. However, she has never understood sitting in a woodland for three hours on the off chance you might see something at a distance. So this request, though understandable, was surprising to say the least.

As we left I packed up my usual gear, stills camera, telephoto lens, wide angle lens, macro lens, vlogging camera, gorilla pod, tripod, camo, water bottle. The standard lightweight setup… But as I went to leave, for some reason, I just couldn’t face the idea of worrying about filming the experience. So ditched my vlogging camera.

We drove to a beautiful broadleaf woodland on the edge of a field and searched for the trail that would apparently lead us to a fairly active badger set. We found it rather quickly and set up, Mum sat at the base of a tree and I set up my tripod just behind another. I made sure to position us far enough apart that Mum wouldn’t be able to talk if she got bored of course. We couldn’t even message each other as there was no phone signal, meaning that we would both have no temptation to check messages or scroll through Instagram and looking for photos of beautiful landscapes and woodlands to like.

So I sat. Waited. Listened. Watched. Hoped. Contemplated. Breathed.

For those of you who have never sat and waited silently for wildlife, there are some things that you cannot fully explain without experiencing. At first it seems ordinary, like taking a moment to sit on a long walk, or just taking time to take in a view. But as time passes things change, your senses heighten, even in a short space of time you start to learn sounds of birds, squirrels and even the trees as they stretch in the wind. One of the tips I gave my mum before doing this for the first time was that if she needed to move to get water or to get more comfortable, to do so as if you are staring an animal in the eye and don’t want to spook it. Because odds are, it’s already looking at you. This seemed to ring true as about an hour into the evening a Roe Buck appeared seemingly out of nowhere, between me and Mum. It slowly made its way towards her. It passed about 6ft from her before scent marking on a tree fully relaxed with her presence. Not a bad start to the evening.

The rest of it however was pretty uneventful. Though a hare passed in the distance and at one stage the grass moved around me like something out of Jurassic park as a small mammal (I suspect a stoat) went on the hunt. Just as we were about to pack up, I glanced over at mum to see if I could give her a signal to leave. I didn’t want to shout over because I believe in taking as much care in leaving a place as you would in arriving, keeping disturbance to a minimum. Luckily, because I wasn’t shouting, I got to witness a large badger make its way down the bank and up to the tree Mum was sat at the base of, pause for a few seconds, then calmly trot back up to the top of the hill. We watched them in the distance for about 20 minutes before our eyes were struggling to make out even the shapes of the trees in front of us.

Walking back to the car, we were both on a high, buzzing with excitement that could only be expressed through high pitched whispers. Mum revealed she had cried twice having made eye contact with the deer and then the badger. It was the first time either of us had a good view of a badger in the wild. So I completely understood her excitement and emotion. We walked back to the car only being interrupted by the calls of a tawny owl. I called back on the off chance, both paused waiting for a reply. Then out of nowhere one floated out of the trees, over our heads and into the shadows on the opposite side.

It had been so long since I had just taken time to be with nature.

The rest of the week, I did a tiny bit of filming in the garden. Mainly some slow motion clips of birds in the pond, or the green woodpecker excavating the mound in the lawn in an attempt to reach the ants inside. But otherwise, in terms of filming and photographing, I pretty much stopped everything. However, for the rest of the week me and Mum made sure not to miss a trip to the badger set.

On the third night I was unaware I had set up next to a track they use and had one walk straight up to me and stop less than 6ft from me. I stopped taking photos and just shared a moment with it. I looked down at first to try and hide my eyes and show I wasn’t a threat. But she didn’t seem to mind. She turned, walked a few feet away, had a scratch and then came back for another look. I was able to get a shot, but not one I was happy with because it was so dark and she was so close. It was a little bit blurry and very noisy, but it is still a special moment for me. After another look she decided to just go around me and slowly disappeared into the night, foraging as she went.

I had been there a few days and realised that this was my opportunity to tick something off of my photography bucket list. A camera trap photo of a badger. I was fully immersed in the idea, getting lost in the planning of it and the excitement at the possibility of success. With two evenings left I made my way to one of the tracks near the set, making sure not to be too close in case the flash disturbed them. I wanted them to be able to avoid it if that was the case. I set it up and left it for a couple of nights.

When it was time to go home I picked it up on my way through. Setting eyes on it and realising it was still there was the first relief. I checked the sensor, yep, it still worked. Everything seemed hopeful. I checked the photos. They seemed well exposed; optimism was growing. I cycled through them, there seemed to be lots of empty shots, maybe it was not quite setup right. Then bam! There it was, a badger appearing out of the shadows, looking straight down the lens. I was overcome with pure child-like joy. Yes, there are plenty of things I could have done or could do to improve the shot in the future, but that didn’t matter. I got my first, sharp, well exposed, truly wild camera trap photo. And it was of a badger, an animal I hadn’t photographed until that week. Not to mention using a camera trap I had built during lockdown.

So after all of this seemingly pointless rambling, what’s my point? Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that life is a lottery and I am in a privileged position in that respect. I am also aware that there are a lot of people who have far more of a right to be down about life or aspects of it than I do. I have great friends and a fulfilling work life. However, what I learnt was that everyone is allowed to have moments to feel down. And if you are like me, working in an area that relates in some way to your passion or simply in a role you find fulfilling. Then it doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to want or even need a break from it all. I didn’t realise I needed this break, from news, from the world, from day to day life until I had one. Until I spent time in nature, just absorbing it all, reminding myself what my passion actually is and getting perspective on everything, leaving behind the digital world if only for a moment. Einstein seemed to sum it up well when he said “ Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. So if you are feeling a bit odd in some way, perhaps due to the sometimes inescapable torrent of news, the worlds constantly shifting ecological, political, social or cultural disposition. Maybe things just aren’t going your way or you are hooked on the cheap and easy dopamine high of the colourful little screen in your pocket. Maybe consider taking some time, make a physical change to your surroundings, take a step outside and genuinely experience the environments we pine for when looking at them digitally. You may find, like I did, that you need it a lot more than you realise. Everyone is allowed to feel down from time to time, even if everything looks good on the surface.

Go outside, somewhere quiet, turn off your phone and just… Sit.

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