Winter’s Exquisite Palette

We are but one week from the bottom of the trough, less than a week, actually from this year’s longest night. And though the momentum of these shortening days slows perceptibly while many of nature’s colors continue to bleed and fade, there is still enough beauty and texture, even within the rumpled ruins of these last few days of the year to settle a fretful mind and inspire wonder. What the heart hungers for is out there. Trust this. You will not find it in stores or on the web. And it will not fit within the production schedule of a network or the pixels of a television screen. But it is there just as surely as the stars are there, even when you cannot see them.

This morning, coffee in hand, I toured the raggedy perimeter of my garden simply to see and smell the damp, chill, outdoor world. I did not feel compelled to carry a fancy camera or trundle with a tripod. I did’t even bother to put a fresh battery in my point-and-shoot. I wanted to travel light, to pose a simple question and let the day answer as it would. “What have you got for me?” I asked.


Turns out this day offered me the exquisite beauty of death; fallen soldiers, once green and upright, untouched and unappreciated since slumping ever so gracefully to Earth in my shade garden a few months back. Seeing them this morning quieted some much too busy part of me that has been scurrying and fretting in that crafty way the manufacturers and marketers want us all to scurry and fret this time of year as we try desperately to keep up, to measure up, to open our wallets up and buy, buy, buy that, ‘NEW’, ‘AMAZING,’ perfect ‘thing’ they want to sell us.

Having been practicing for decades now, a bumbling student learning to call my soul back toward center from the frayed edges of obsession and feelings that I am utterly lost, this humble jumble of decaying leaves was a faint beacon on the horizon helping me to navigate toward safety. I might easily have missed it looking for something much grander. A wet mat of decaying leaves? Seriously? Big whoop. What possible salve or redemption could they offer?

But here’s something you might not have guessed. Seeing those leaves and even recognizing them would have achieved little or nothing had I not stopped, pulled out my little iPhone camera and paid them the honor of my time and attention. It could have been any camera. Or a sketch pad. Or a the whispered first line of a poem. I could easily have kept moving, could easily have said “No. You’re just not that beautiful. You’re not that important. I’m gonna keep looking. I want something better than you. Prettier, maybe. More impressive.” Think how often we do just that. To decaying leaves, certainly and to myriad other minor miracles. And also to people, which really, are profoundly major miracles. Often, even to the very planet that is our mother and every manor of her children. We have been taught to think that there will be something better just ahead, so we foolishly try to live in that next moment rather than the one we have now. And the chase never ends. And we often feel lost. And in our mercurial, grasping wakes we leave trails of rejection and destruction. The world doesn’t need to be this lonely, but it is, because we are always, habitually looking for the next, even better thing.

In some delicious way, it was stopping and acknowledging them that transformed these leaves into something more. Into something magical. It was saying “You are enough. Your beauty is enough to get me to release my hold on all the petty little things I’ve been fretting over, and on those much grander things I often hope for. In these next few minutes, I am yours. You are what I choose to see, what I choose to bend deeply over, despite my achey back. You are what I will frame up ever so carefully in my little camera, what I honor with my attention in this moment and the one that follows.”

I give lectures and teach classes and workshops about such things. Some sense this essential, transformational secret before they ever enroll, hoping to become better practitioners while for others the light bulb comes on in some newly triggered ‘aha’ moment along the way. And there will always be some who listen to each lesson and complete each assignment, and still leave certain that the secret must be in the particular camera or iPhone app I am using. When a chef’s food is delicious do you credit the knife?

If you would like to find a family to practice your seeing with, if you’re achey for reminders of just how to find your own soulful north star, perhaps a class is just the ticket to help you define and explore your own visual path, or perhaps it would be a perfect gift for someone you love. My next class offering will be through Bellevue College, beginning on January 27 on their north campus. I also love to work with students individually either through coaching and reviews, or in guided shoots. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

In the mean time, try grabbing something as simple as the camera within your phone (the less complicated the camera, the better), go outside and give your attention to something none of your friends could possibly be jealous of (see photo above). Showy, exotic, far-off locales and pictures of swankadoo foods in swankadoo restaurants that most of your friends will never have a chance to visit are fine, as far as they go, but these are not the subjects that will help you find your inner quiet. To accomplish that, begin by looking for the simplest, least impressive subjects. Give your eye and your attention permission to become fascinated with whatever little thing captures its fancy, not worrying for a minute what others will think. Do this just for you, considering only your contented sigh in that one moment you stand within. This may feel awkward at first, and that is as it should be. You’ll get better at it. Just as you get better at finding your breath when you practice yoga. Just as you get better at hearing the chords and the harmonies when you give yourself to music. You’ll learn that you can trust yourself. If you’re not there yet then trust me, for now. Budget ten minutes. No more. Now, deep cleansing breath. Quiet your mind by stepping out of it. Search for a pattern, an intersection, a texture, a color that pleases you, that intrigues you. It need not be much.  Matter of fact, less is generally better than more. A  wash of sky, a few faded leaves. The visual equivalent of a whisper. A single word. A sigh.

It’s there, I promise. And it wants you to find it.



I’d love to hear from you if this simple practice helps you. Send me a note or leave a message here. Include a picture, but just one. Choosing is part of the assignment.

Exploring the Garden of His Imagination

A first encounter with Eric Swenson’s very personal garden.


I spent an afternoon recently in one of the strangest and most personal gardens I’ve ever visited, a collection of sacred spaces and garden rooms fully envisioned and slowly being born from endless hours of meditative toil and the soaring depths of Eric Swenson’s yet-childlike imagination. And though many finished aspects of it still exist only within the poetic psyche of its creator, when you are in his presence listening to him lovingly describe each completed vision I swear you begin to see it in its completed form, too.


My visit grew out of telephone conversations between Eric and myself as we sorted out the particulars of a garden photo workshop I will be offering and a related garden photo contest I’ll be judging at the Kruckeberg Garden in early September. Somehow we began comparing life notes and garden notes, and soon he had inivited me to visit his very private wonderland, a surreal landscape of pure imagination that defies description and, to this observer’s mind, requires a sort of complete surrender in order to really even begin to appreciate it. His descriptions over the phone intrigued me and I immediately said yes.

Below: Eric is standing in the pit he has carved into the ground, and within which he intends to create on one side, a ten to fifteen foot waterfall that his adoring grandchildren will be able to stand behind and on the other, believe it or not, a subterranean sweat-lodge. That magical rabbit hole Alice tumbled into had nothing on this unfolding wonder.


As rough as certain aspects of Eric’s wondrous imagination garden still seem around their edges, I was still utterly delighted, again and again by the many unexpected, whimsical, meditative surprises his collection of botanical and spatial koans offered.

Following his introductory nickel tour (which was worth far, far more), and a bit of time then wandering this garden’s corners by myself, it dawned on me that for perhaps the first time in any garden, many of the pictures I was seeing really wouldn’t make much sense without Eric’s vital presence within them, for in this garden it is the picture of ‘what might be‘ emanating so effusively from his very being that makes the garden work as it does, and that gives it much of its magic.

I have never quite experienced a garden like this and at first was a baffled, trying to sort out a way to communicate something of its essential ‘story’ simply by picturing the spaces and the plants within them. Then it dawned on me to just ask him, which I did, tentatively, if he’d walk with me and let me picture him in a handful of his sacred places within the garden as a way to try to begin explaining a few of those essential threads of it to others who have never visited and might never get the chance. His answer to my request is self-evident, and now I ask you as viewers to try to imagine any of these images without the man in them. They just wouldn’t quite make sense, would they? Or is it just me?


Above: Eric sits beside an arching footbridge he has built atop his immense excavation and backed by a forest of different types of bamboo. From my vantage standing on a narrow ledge within that carved ravine where the waterfall will someday flow, listening to him explain his grand vision felt strangely like sitting at the feet of a great teacher or wizard in an enchanted wood. Below: This is just one of perhaps twenty meditation spots within Eric’s garden that contain a rustic bench, chair, stump, stool or seat of some other imagining from which to sit and contemplate, and watch the birds which are numerous, everywhere and very curious.


For this first visit, I just had a few hours to begin to get acquainted and begin to find the story of the place, but those hours were a surreal treat. Somehow, I thought you might enjoy a peek at this lush garden of Eric’s imagination and yet another attempt on my part to find that elusive path to telling better stories…