Thoughts from the Southern mountains
This planet is a great vastness of nature. And being in the Patagonian wilderness for three weeks feels you're on top of it all. You're looking down with joy. You're looking up with respect. You feel big and small at the same time. It's no different from the familiar, you get used to the landscape instantly. You belonged there all your life. You're a patagonian at heart just as you are a complete stranger to the reversed seasons, sun movement in the sky and the South Pole.
I was a bit worried when I said yes to this. But I usually worry about everything. I'm a worried person. Worried of the future, of my health, of my sanity, of my relationships, of my photography. But when I saw Fitz Roy from the trail, I stopped being worried. The worried yes turned into a lightness of the heart that you can only experience there, face to face with the great vastness of nature. I didn't care it's iconic, I didn't care about all the other tourists going the same way. I knew we would have plenty of chances to have the imensity for ourselves - Aura, me and Doru. We are the ones who shared the good as you can see below. And a bit of introspective time too. Instagram would be proud.
For this Patagonian trip we had proper names: Don Miguel, Don Fernando and Dulcinea. Don Miguel didn't complain about anything and had a lot of patience with Don Fernando who was always hungry. Don Fernando had also a lot of patience (that he ran out of on a couple of occasions) with Dulcinea who had cold feet, drank a lot of tea and likes color yellow. They walked 300 km for 16 days carrying heavy loads in Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine National Parks. Patagonia was patient to them.
Before coming to Patagonia, I had a bit of challenge with myself. I knew the places were pretty photogenic and popular among photographers. I also knew it wouldn't be easy, but certainly doable, to replicate situations which could lead to a certain type of photography that's usually considered the norm in terms of popularity. I'm not saying it as a bad thing as I like all types of nature photography. It's just that I believe photography has character and should be personal, basically an expression of who you are and an impression of how you process and feel the experience. I'm quiet and introvert by nature, my inner world is always too crowded with thoughts and ideas, never at rest - it's tiresome, trust me. At the same time, I find talking too much a useless act. Communication has other interesting sides to it in which talking can only ruin them, instead of supporting them. That's why I probably prefer whispering images instead of screaming ones, to think more about it instead of being given all at once. I do them both because I am both. By I prefer interpretative and personal works over the straightforward and dramatic ones. I also strongly believe in the immediate impact an image has to have on the viewer, but I think that's just an effect of the immediate impact the photographed scene has on the maker of that image. You know it's good when everything comes together harmoniously - concept, reasoning, chance, instinct, atmosphere, form and meaning.
This is how my mind looks like.
One year ago, I started a personal project about forests when I went to the Caledonian Forest of Scotland (you can read about it here). Since then, I got the chance to visit and photograph Romania's intact forests and now the Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) and Ñire (Nothofagus antarctica) beech trees. Hard to say which one I like best so far, but the Patagonian forests are truly fascinating. On the exposed slopes they are shaped by winds and the impredictability of the Patagonian weather into what it's called krumholz (twisted wood), while in the valleys they grow up to 30 meters, offering good protection from wind and rain. The color show they put on in autumn took us completely by surprise. The shapes and the intense mix of green, yellow, orange and red had such a strong impact on me that whenever I closed my eyes I was seeing lenga trees. My retina was confused.
Your eyes will hurt.
The lenga forests are home to hundreds of species of plants, lichens and mosses. They offer shelter and food for lots of animals too. I really hoped to see and photograph the notorious austral pygmy owl (Glaucidium nana). With a bit of luck and Doru's keen animal spotting ability, one of the smallest owls in the world greeted us in the first night of camping. She stayed right above our tents while we ate and gave us plenty of time to photograph her. And as the journey unfolded, all sorts of small wonders greeted us along the Patagonian mountain trails. Although we knew chances were slim, we hoped to see the elusive puma too. In the second last day luck struck us again. We stumbled upon her fresh tracks in the snow which were confirmed with a biologist from the Los Glaciares National Park administration. It reminded me of a similar event back home in winter, when we found the tracks of the lynx intersecting the trail. The clear signs of these elusive creatures stirs an intense and reassuring feeling. You know they're close, at the safety of the deep forest or the high slopes and you're happy they have all of this to them. You're merely a visitor paying respect in the great cathedrals of wildland. Seeing a bird perched on a tree, a jumping hare or the footsteps of the puma should not be taken for granted. These are indeed wonders.
Aura said the pygmy owl looks grumpy and furious.
Photography is a sum of moments. Each of them is where you put your awareness at work - the lucid mind is recognizing certain elements and situations coming together in not just a visually pleasing manner, but also in a conceptually eloquent manner. I'm explaining using color, tone and composition why am I here, what is my intention, who I am, always remaining attuned to my emotional reactions and a trained instinct. That's why the visual language is complex, even abstract. But it also has another important quality - it's universal, it can be consistent throughout the perceived notions of beauty and throughout the characters of people. Much like nature and our enthusiasm in the face of paintings forged by the fierce Patagonian winds right in front for us. I was thinking at some point of doing polar journeys. But after spending one hour in the conditions you see below, I can only imagine the following scenario: "Polar chipmunk (code name) to the russian pilot: Comrade, I know you just dropped me off, but could you please come back? It's freezing out here." Hats off to guys climbing the world's highest peaks or going to the world's coldest corners. They are, among others, the true explorers of our times.
For a reason I can't remember, I had to take the gloves off for a minute or so. It probably took a good 10 minutes to feel my fingers again. It wasn't really that cold outside, but the powerful wind can drop the real feel by a lot. Nevertheless, photographically speaking, it was one of the highlights of the trip.
I could hear ice breaking and falling with thunder-like sounds from the glaciers found at the base of the peaks. Mice explored my boots and chew on Aura's backpack while rain fell gently on the tent until it turned into snow. Dreams became more lucid because of the tiredness. Night was mostly good to our mind and bodies except for a few occasions when temperatures dropped below -10°C. In those hours, I took time to process all we've seen and did the day before and came to realize that while we strive to capture with images and words these experiences, the body remains the best recording device. Sore muscles and joints from walking the trails, back pains from the loads, burned skin from the sun and wind, cold fingers and noses, but also deep breaths of the cleanest air, feasted eyes and a lifted spirit to close the circle. It's in trips like these that your body wastes on nothing and records everything. Your every action becomes basic and you simply feel good. We people are built to move forward, to see for ourselves what this world is about. Thus we become stronger and more knowledgeable.
My fascination for details and forests was satisfied on this trip.
I probably took more photos of the three of us than of the Patagonian ridgelines. They dominate the landscape and only by looking at them you become zen, one with nature. No need for too many photos. Your feet are wet and you're cold? Stare at Fitz Roy for a minute. Your back hurts? Cerro Torre has the cure. Aura is making your head spin? You need three peaks for that: Torres del Paine. Seriously now, they're gorgeous and that's that.
From left ro right: Fitz Roy (or Cerro Chaltén) and its satellite peaks, Cerro Torre partly covered by clouds and my favorite name of all, Aguja Saint Exupery (on the left with the tip cut-off) and the higher Aguja Poincenot (with the tip covered by clouds) in various lights and last, the reflection of the mighty Towers of Paine.
We were going up slowly into the night. We left early, so no rush. It was going to be our last morning in the mountains. Moon and stars were guiding. At some point we stopped. Minds were totally cleared and fresh. Yes, we felt tired and we were missing home, but the ordinary had, as with every trip we're ending, a slightly new connotation. A little something has been added. Truth being told, the measure of life is not given by traveling, hiking, sports, not even images. There's much more to it. There are bigger challenges inside ourselves that require a degree of responsibility and courage that no wild or physical endeavour can match. But that little something nature gives is a kind of wisdom you can't find somewhere else. We took our fare share in Patagonia.
Good times for the three friends.