As a student spending hours upon hours inside doing homework, I sometimes reach a point where practically nothing can captivate me. After one such mind-numbing evening of intense economics homework, I unwound by reading about a family friend’s winery in Napa Valley, the Scholium Project, when my senses were awakened by a photograph of people enjoying a round of champagne in the evening sun. I felt like I was there, with the wind tossing my hair and the sunlight warming my body. I could feel the laid-back atmosphere as they prepared to toast the harvest, and I was reminded of a period of my life when beautiful experiences like this were all I desired.
Leaping from place to place, I stayed in 13 residences over a span of 3 years. With each move came a mass purging of items I couldn’t fit in my ’93 Volvo. Giveaways included everything from a huge photo exhibit I built, to my collections of odd lamps. Today I wish I had those things, including a lamp shaped like a giant light bulb, a 1960’s sputnik-style chandelier, and a rotating, rainbow-colored fiber optics lamp, but at that time I valued freedom of movement over material objects. Like a butterfly seeking ultraviolet arrows pointing to nectar, I simply couldn’t stand to be weighed down in my search for the delightful. Things came and went, and I couldn’t waste time worrying about how to take care of all my stuff.
Living in love
Participating in society and getting a “real job” were not important parts of my plan. Living in love was my highest aim. Not wanting to live a mediocre life of passionless days and endless doldrums, I turned my life into a journey to turn up the fire in my heart and live with intention. I freelanced as a photographer, worked for a world-class artist, worked as an estate gardener, delivered coffee beans for a roasting company, coxswained, worked in a plant nursery, and cleaned horse stalls. As an artist’s assistance I performed tasks like organizing some 1000 pastels by color and tone. Some might find it tedious, but it was the perfect job for me at the time. These jobs allowed me to work as little as possible, so I could devote endless days to wondering and wandering.
Beauty through photography
Throughout my wandering, photography was my means of connecting with the outside world. It helped me discover the sense of beauty that I craved, and in order to take beautiful and striking photographs, I had to live a beautiful and striking life. My heart would lead me to new places, and the view through the lens would help me focus on the essence of why the experience was special. I’d be on the lookout for perfect moments at all times. Sunlight would make a rainbow in the shower water, and I’d run for my camera, hoping to capture the magic before it vanished. The golden hour was my best friend, and I followed the light into forests, across waters and through cities.
A place for night walks
At one point, my journeys led me to a peninsula on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I lived on a 200-acre estate that had been built for entertaining, but had deteriorated in the hands of nature. Trees grew through the tennis court, the pool had turned into a frog pond, and hardly a soul was around to appreciate the acres of daffodils in spring. Everything about the property felt stuck in another time. As storms traversed the Chesapeake Bay, I’d watch old power lines sway in the howling winds. On those nights, I felt like an old sailor in my seaside shack. On more pleasant evenings, I’d walk alone through pine stands and along marsh edges under a dazzlingly starry sky. I hoped that by going willingly into the darkness I might come upon some forest gnomes tending to the trees or meet some plant spirit with new secrets for me. Burdock, fig, chickweed, and cedar were some of my favorite plants on the estate. I eventually had to leave for fear that the same forces that reclaimed the tennis court and pool might come for me.
How did I get here?
So sitting there, exhausted from thinking about economics, yet invigorated by a flood of memories, I wondered how I got to my present-day life as a student about to enter a Ph.D. program in soil science. How is it that I became so committed and stable? Did I lose my desire for the beautiful and wondrous? No. Absolutely not. I discovered my love of science by way of an article about Paul Stamets, master of all things fungi. After reading about the oyster mushroom’s ability to break down toxic byproducts of burning fuel, I needed to know more about microbes. My search for beauty suddenly got funneled into a focused topic through which I found a whole new world of delight. I like to think that the voice of Nature was speaking to me in those walks through enchanted and wild places, and that she led me here. By dropping out of college in 2007 for the second time, and by taking the risk to let go of everything society was telling me to do, I gained the ability of listening to and trusting my heart. The journey was not always easy, and despite still having to deal with headaches like economics homework, the manifestation of beauty in my life today is beyond what I could have ever imagined. So please, take a moment and ask your heart what it’s been wanting to do. What has it been nudging you towards, what have you been putting off or ignoring? Whose voice are you listening to, and is it the one you want to hear? Take a step in your heart’s direction, and let me know what you find there.