The San Juan River is a major tributary of the Colorado River, stretching 383 miles through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Photo by Pete McBride.
As we descend through 11,000 feet, I ask Bruce to slow down. He cuts the power, pulls a notch of the flaps and bleeds off the speed to about 90 mph – just slow enough to open the window, carefully. The glass pane sucks into the bottom side of the wing, and a blast of warm desert air fills the cabin. I lean into the wind and feel us slow more. 80 mph now. The skin on my arm has stopped billowing off my wrist like a loose spinnaker. “Can you slip us left across the river?” I ask over the headset, full of static from the wind filling my microphone.
“Got it. Cover that mic…” Bruce, a lifelong pilot and friend, reminds me as he smoothly adds left rudder and right aileron, making the aircraft fly angled, crooked with the left wing tilted upward. I can see more of the sinuewy ribbon of life below now. The San Juan River carves bends and bows off our left wing through ribs of uplifted sandstone that define the southern border of Utah.
South of the river is Arizona, the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley -- all stretching toward the Grand Canyon and the arid vastness of the Movaje Desert.
I focus my lens on the patterns of the river and the jumbled, layered geology around it.
“Keep this elevation?” Bruce asks.
“Drop another 200 feet,” I say, fighting the noise and wind resistance before burying the headset mic back in my jacket collar. I’m focused on one striking hairpin turn in the river that almost doubles back on itself. Click. Click…click. Another pattern of nature I will marvel at for hours later via the pixels on my computer.
I have spent a lot of time studying the natural world and its patterns. For two decades I have worked as a photographer and filmmaker for the pages and screens of National Geographic, Smithsonian, Outside and others. I started, like many action-loving lads, by chasing adventure tales. Higher. Faster. Harder. Those were often the themes linked with my assignments. But with time, I started getting lured into bigger stories about the places where we adventure – and how they are changing – and how they need protecting. Freshwater and its growing challenges became the center piece in many storytelling efforts. And dwindling or drying rivers (like the San Juan) were often clear symbols for a changing planet.
I started shooting more aerials but also the remarkable, poetic details of the smaller patterns all around us: the weathered wrinkles of a hand or the vein-like structures of trees, leaves, plants. Immediately, I started seeing how closely each resembles the other – the patterns of life in all shapes and sizes – be it from 10,000 feet in a Cessna or 10 centimeters above a cacao pod.
The visual poetry across the world, macro to micro, made me look at our shared planet in a new way. And the state of flow I sought and still do in my adventures and work, often created a rhythm with my breath, my eye, my awareness, my energy and even my photography. When they all linked arms, the clicks worked best. My best creative work documenting the world around me directly related to my ability to find my own groove first. Serendipity or that old school definition of luck – when opportunity meets preparation – would need to line up and then my lenses would lead me to better images.
And the more I found it, the more I noticed, often subconsciously, how there is a poetic flow to nature, in landscapes, rivers, mountains, plants, wildlife.
In photography, there is a “rule” called the Golden Ratio. In short, it is a spiraling composition guide that leads the viewer through an image, making it more visually pleasing. Compositionally, it also loosely aligns with horizontal and vertical thirds. Many believe it was first readily used by the Egyptians and the architecture of the Pyramids, but the Greeks and Pythagoras are often credited with formalizing the theory mathematically. As a result, forms of this theorem are taught in math but also art, architecture, music and photography since Pythagoras’s 1.6 ratio works for them all.
For me, the more intriguing element of this historic “rule” is how it is found throughout nature, where it is often referred to as “the divine ratio.” The spirals within flowers, shells, rocks, even river oxbows, follow the same compositional, flowing pattern of this ratio of thirds. Call it Mother Nature’s flow state – mathematically speaking.
I guess there is little surprise we find it pleasing in our visual media.
Close up of a cacao bean, a powerful plant known to support the same reward chemistries the brain releases during exercise namely dopamine, anandamide and endorphins. Photo by Pete McBride.
So as my art and my eye grow, I realize more and more how my physical and creative energies are related to the patterns or flows I find in nature itself. And sadly, it seems we are often fighting the natural world, instead of finding ways to work with it. But after decades of studying the natural world across all seven continents, I think we can all learn a lot from leaving our devices behind and taking a minute to explore and maybe even learn from the natural world around or near us, big or small without trying to conquer it.
Thanks to my line of work, I often feel removed and distant from pop culture and mainstream, well almost everything. But occasionally, I come across businesses who have passion for the wild world and protecting it – not just with label talk – but with production walk (add example line here perhaps – less energy, less plastic, natural products etc). But most importantly, it is inspiring to find folks who celebrate the pursuit of one’s flow, daily and the path beyond -- braided in concert with nature.
I’m proud to partner with and be powered by Flume.
By Pete McBride
An Emmy-nominated Director and award winning photographer who has worked on all seven continents for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Outside and many others. He is a passionate conservationist and focuses much of his work on protecting wild places and fresh water. His latest book on the Grand Canyon won a National Outdoor Book award.