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Nature Isn't Partisan. And For One Morning, Neither Were We

Canada Geese take flight at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)
Canada Geese take flight at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)

The sky above the open expanse at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. was ablaze with red clouds reflecting the sunrise. The colors, as dawn transformed into a cold, crisp morning, were dazzling, and the early hour meant we had this wondrous place nearly to ourselves.

As a serious amateur bird photographer, I spend a fair amount of time during the year at Great Meadows. With its open water, extensive reed-covered marshes, and nearby woods and river, it is a bird lover’s paradise. As Emerson wrote in “Nature”: “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

With my camera and a brick-heavy 600 millimeter zoom lens looped around my neck, my companion and I headed from the parking area out along the main trail, certain that in late November, we wouldn’t see the abundance of bird life we might have encountered in other parts of the year. I soon realized I was wrong.

Almost before I could focus, a red-tailed hawk flew directly above our heads and landed in a nearby tree. Its silhouette against the red sky was a money shot, and I’d barely gotten onto the trail. This visit, I realized, held more promise than anticipated, in more ways than one.

A red tailed hawk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)
A red tailed hawk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)

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I generally visit Great Meadows alone. But on this morning, I had a companion. David, a second cousin (once or twice removed) and fellow photography buff, invited me by text the night before to join him at 6:30 a.m. My wife and I were binge-watching “The West Wing” and the invite caught me by surprise. David and I had, in the past, messaged each other about our mutual love of nature photography and discussed a possible meet-up, but it hadn’t happened. Plus, I had reason to be wary of such an encounter.

As Jed Bartlet, the fictional president (portrayed by Martin Sheen) argued with his White House staff about his State of the Union address on TV, I thought about the political underpinnings of an encounter with my cousin. I hadn’t seen David, in person, more than once in probably 40 years. He was a former airline pilot and went the extra mile to help out my son with a plane ticket a few years ago. He was a good man, by all evidence. His photographs, which I could see on Facebook, were gorgeous. He clearly had that artist’s eye that separates exceptional photographers from the masses posting digital images taken with their smartphones.

He was also an outspoken Trump supporter, a conservative whose views on the state of our union had likely emanated from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. I had seen enough of his Facebook posts to know where he stood. Trump’s open disdain for nature, for science, his callous dismissal of global warming as a hoax, and his casual destruction of protection for some of our precious wilderness areas, made it impossible for me to understand David’s passionate support for him.

... what at little tolerance I had for David’s views had long ago disappeared. In 2020 America, it seemed common ground was a fictional territory that did not exist.

Given the deep contempt that I felt for Trump and the Republicans, David and I were as far apart politically as we could be. As this election year devolved into a maelstrom of vitriol and divisiveness, what little tolerance I had for David’s views had long ago disappeared. In 2020 America, it seemed common ground was a fictional territory that did not exist.

When we met up for our morning excursion, Joe Biden had won the election two weeks earlier, which, with elation, I had celebrated vocally on social media. The outrageous refusal by Trump and his enablers to concede kept the political divide inflamed. I had no interest in a raging political debate that would inevitably end badly. I considered David’s invitation. I weighed my options — and my love for photography won out. I texted back that I would be there. And I added two more words: “No politics!” David readily agreed.

David carried even more equipment than me. He knew the digital technology and spent serious time learning nature photography techniques online. We talked about all that as we moved slowly along the trail in the brisk morning air. My trepidation dissipated quickly. We both felt a visceral comfort in this place where nature claims dominion, and the sudden flight of a flock of Canada geese off the water drew our heightened senses. Our shutter releases click click clicked in motor drive mode. The great blue herons in majestic stealth searching for fish near the shore, the muskrats sliding through the reeds, the mallards gliding slowly out and away; it was all the tableau of a pristine morning as two hours passed quickly and without a negative word.

A great blue heron at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)
A great blue heron at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Mass. (Glenn Rifkin)

When we parted, we agreed to share our images from the morning and promised to meet again with our cameras and good intentions. I can’t speak for David, but for me, the morning inevitably left mixed feelings.

How can this man, a decade my junior but someone who has lived a full and vivid life, harbor such political leanings? We share so much, including bloodlines, but we are also as distant from each other as the farthest shore. I didn’t have an answer.

Ansel Adams, the famed nature photographer, said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Somewhere in the silence, the more important image becomes clear. I have no expectations about crossing the widening chasm. It saddens and angers me. But the natural world is filled with ambiguity as well as beauty, and we may, over time, have to find sustenance and connection in these ambiguous waters.

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Glenn Rifkin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Glenn Rifkin is a journalist and author living in Acton. He is a longtime contributor to The New York Times and is an avid nature photographer. 

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