I grew up in Idaho and Alaska, so nature has always been up close and personal for me. My favorite childhood memories are entwined with experiences with wildlife, such as the many orphaned and injured animals that my stepfather would rehabilitate and release.
Growing up, it was common for me to spend weekends in the mountains either riding horses or hunting for mushrooms. My father was a photographer, and I think I received my first camera when I was around 6 years old. I grew into nature photography and my knowledge comes from personal experience rather than any formal training. I have not had any formal photography training, so my eyes glaze over when people start talking about photography specifics and techniques.
I have always sought out natural spaces, and when I moved to Illinois in 1988, I soon discovered many of the nearby forest preserves. I often marvel at how amazing it is that I can be watching a beaver while the skyline of Chicago is visible in the distance. The natural spaces that are so easily accessible are a testament to the wisdom of those who came before us. Over the years, I have tried to visit all of the area’s natural nooks and crannies, but there are a couple still on my bucket list. I do have my favorites that I return to time after time and often wish I had more hours in each day to explore.
Jewels in the underbrush: A dogbane leaf beetle sits atop a flower. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
In 2009, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The two years that followed my diagnosis were thankfully dulled by time. Those years were miserable with multiple surgeries, infections and pain — relentless pain. As I slowly tried to face life after cancer diagnosis, I instinctively turned to photography and nature. I struggled to adjust to a life where I had to spend 17+ hours a day hooked up to a jejunostomy tube (J-tube).
My freedom became limited to those few hours when I could unhook from the J-tube. Every step was painful and every walk left me in agony, but over time, my steps grew a little stronger. I often say I found myself while wandering aimlessly in the woods.
"I see you!" A praying mantis on the hunt. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
Because my steps were slow and I had to rest often, I found myself looking closer at the leaves. I studied the trees more thoroughly. I listened. I smelled. I felt. I moved at the pace of nature and my camera captured the moments. I watched tiny insects hatch from eggs, I marveled at the beauty of a fly’s eye. I grinned back at the dragonflies who flashed me their bright whites.
I will never walk freely as I did before cancer, but I have found joy and satisfaction in seeing more at my slower pace. I have learned to appreciate life in a few precious hours each morning when I can unhook and step into the incredible world that lurks close by. My time in the woods balances me, fuels me, and fills me.
The stunning colors of nature. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
For all that cancer took, nature gave me back in moments of stunning beauty, breathless wonder and laughter; lots of laughter. I found my sense of humor again walking the trails. My humor is a little more twisted and darker, but it bubbles freely. Some of the stories I have shared are worth re-sharing.
Then, I started to share my photographs and my experiences. I wanted others to see what I was seeing. Their questions led me to seek answers, and soon I was pouring over guidebooks seeking identification and additional knowledge. I learned how to look. I became more skilled at finding. I learned how to approach close enough to photograph but never too close to disturb. And the more I saw the more I shared. Through my camera, others saw what I saw. Then, to my delight, many started to look around and they started to see, too. I was now seeing through their eyes as well!
When the ordinary becomes extraordinary: Dew drops in the morning at Oldfield Oaks Forest Preserve in Darien. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
I tend to walk in solitude. I like to shed who I am when I am out with my camera. I can hear better when no one else is talking. For the longest time, I did not want to engage with others. I didn’t want to be noticed or bothered. I wanted to only be known as the woman with the camera, not cancer. I was outside, and I wanted my health issues to remain locked inside. But over time, I started to see the same faces on the trails. I learned the names of their dogs. I soon found myself engaged in conversations with others on the trails. Friendships were formed. One thing led to another and soon I was sitting on a hill counting migrating raptors. Nature rewarded me with a community.
Katherine Howard snaps a few photos during a walk at Oldfield Oaks.
There are days when the pain roars loudly and my camera remains tucked away. There are days when I know that to walk on the ice is far too foolish for a body such as mine. The days of walking in the rain are long over for me. Occasionally there are days when I find comfort sitting with my camera in my car in a parking lot waiting patiently for nature to come to me. There are days when the short walk to the observation stand at Whalon Lake wetlands in Naperville is as far as I can venture forth. No matter what the day brings, it almost always brings me back to the wild. Nature centers me.
When you slow down a nanosecond: A hummingbird hawk-moth sips nectar from a flower. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
My advice to others is simple: Take out the ear buds. Put away the cellphone. Stop talking. Slow down. Clear your mind. Be in the moment. You can’t see nature when you are moving fast. You can’t hear when you are talking. Move at the pace of nature and nature suddenly moves all around you. Be comfortable with standing still and doing nothing; the rewards are worth it. Look at patterns, shapes and colors and soon you will begin to see what was previously unseen: the camouflage abilities of insects is quite impressive. Bend down and look up at the underside of leaves. Look at the backside of flowers. Follow the sounds you hear slowly with your eyes. Remember that you are the visitor to their world, so respect all that you encounter. Nothing in nature is good or evil; it simply is. Everything is part of the whole and their value is equal. You are a visitor, not an owner. Discover, don’t destroy. Picture the flowers, don’t pick them. Leave the berries and mushrooms for the animals. Look but don’t touch. I wear gloves for a reason. Don’t touch the fuzzy caterpillar. Don’t collect the pretty leaves that are in a cluster of three (trust me on this one).
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to take a walk on the wild side, it won’t bite (other than the mosquitoes and ticks).
Howard lives in Willowbrook and has three grown children who share her appreciation for nature. She has a doctorate degree in education and blogs about her nature experiences at https://www.facebook.com/LifeAsISeeItPhotos/
Quite adorable when you stop and look. (Photo by Katherine Howard)
When nature smiles back! (Photo by Katherine Howard)
The beauty of a fly's eye. (Photo by Katherine Howard)