I came to know the nat­ural world ini­tially through the encour­age­ment of my par­ents, who both claim nature-friendly fam­ily tra­di­tions. When my par­ents, brother, and I moved to the coun­try­side out­side Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia in the late 1960s, we had no imme­di­ate neigh­bors and walked to our friends’ houses through the woods. We rock-hopped creeks, kept half-an-eye out for snakes, car­ried sticks to (respect­fully) relo­cate spi­der webs that seemed always to span the trail at face level, and learned many of the native plants and trees. My mother, in par­tic­u­lar, ensured that our vaca­tions included nat­ural areas, and we made many vis­its to the moun­tains of west­ern North Car­olina, home to most of her fam­ily. By the time I was in high school, our fam­ily moved to a forested moun­tain­side fac­ing the Blue Ridge Moun­tains where my par­ents still live today, and where I often visit and make photographs.

I sus­pect grow­ing up in the Great East­ern For­est (or more accu­rately, in its frag­mented remains) has helped to shape my vision by forc­ing me to focus more inti­mately to express the essence of the bio­log­i­cally more com­plex but geo­log­i­cally less dra­matic land­scape of the South­east­ern US. Unlike in a grand west­ern vista, the view of a water­fall on a moun­tain­side in the East is likely obscured by hun­dreds of species of trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants that sur­round both the falls and the pho­tog­ra­pher. It seems a nat­ural pro­gres­sion to focus closer in on just the trees them­selves, or even on par­tic­u­lar branches and leaves — there are so many dif­fer­ent, inter­est­ing shapes! Another incen­tive for close-in fram­ing comes from avoid­ing urban power lines (and the prun­ing mal­for­ma­tions near them), which limit the field of view to the extent that one is fairly forced into the abstract in order to visu­ally make sense of the few remain­ing purely organic areas.

All life forms are cre­ated as the math of the uni­verse endures our planet’s tri­als of hot, cold, sun, shade, water, drought, and time to achieve the func­tion of sur­viv­ing. Every species of tree or plant has a dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent look, leaf shape, or angle at which twigs or leaves emerge from branches, and all is chore­o­graphed for endur­ing and pros­per­ing. And each life’s form is shaped in part by the shapes of all the oth­ers. The shape and color of flow­ers are influ­enced by the shapes of the insects that pol­li­nate them, and vice versa. Did plants become trees by out­rac­ing dinosaur appetites or each other’s need for light? Even the unique suc­cess of human­ity, an anthro­pol­o­gist might say, comes from our hands with those con­ve­nient oppos­able thumbs that spurred on our minds which grew big invent­ing new things to do with our hands — and it is the trees that gave us our hands. When your hand falls by your side, even at rest your fin­gers will instinc­tively defy grav­ity to grasp an ancient limb.

I am always aim­ing for the point at which design and mean­ing inter­sect seam­lessly. Find­ing the visual rhythms in nat­ural forms is a way of gain­ing a glimpse of the greater design we can barely per­ceive — that we don’t have words for — that con­nects us all. I feel that my strength as a pho­tog­ra­pher is not so much in cre­at­ing some­thing new, but in notic­ing how things are.

– Kathryn Kolb

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