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Attuned to the Land

September 3, 2020

Photographer James Florio traverses this beautiful land for days at a time, in all weather conditions, listening, learning, and becoming a part of the land. Through his images, we are able to walk alongside him.

Engineered by Jim Ruberto and Monte Nickles
Produced, Narrated, and Music by Zachary Patten

00:00 JAMES FLORIO: In the end, I’m trying to get back to being in tune with the land, to understanding it, to feeling it. You have this love for this thing and you want to experience it for real, you know? I don’t want to live a life where it’s cold - I turn the heat on, it’s hot - I turn the air conditioning on, it’s night time - I turn the light on. It’s kind of this artificial world I grew up in. This is the only time in history where people have been completely separate from their environment. You can live in seventy-degrees your entire life, almost. Maybe you have to run between your car and the parking garage, and there might be a moment of discomfort, but that’s usually tried to be avoided. And, for me, I want to get back to that. It’s kind of an interesting way to start to experience the awesome power of nature, to understand it, and try to live more in tune with it.

00:55 ZACHARY PATTEN: To attune yourself to the land is to bring yourself into a harmonious relationship with it, to give yourself over to the mercy of its nature. It can be a test of discomfort and patience. It can challenge all of your expectations. But, being curious, dedicating the time to seek those experiences, and allowing the environment to point you in a direction, to set the tempo of your pace, and show you a path that resembles nothing like a straight line, are the only ways to hear its messages and learn its lessons.

01:38 Poets, musicians, and artists try to uncover ways of expressing the profound sense of freedom and the feeling of being completely connected to land like this. But first, they have to spend time immersed in the land, learn its cycles, hear it’s wildlife, catalog its smells, touch its trees and grass; it takes time, lots of time, to really know the environment.

“Initially, you are introduced to the land’s structures and features.”
Photo by James Florio.

02:08 Initially, you are introduced to the land’s structures and features. Over time, the flora and fauna become familiar friends and you become a part of their journey as much as they are a part of yours. You might spend a lot of time alone - observing, listening, learning, but you’re never lonely because there’s familiar life all around.

02:35 With their images, photographers open entire worlds to their viewers. Somehow, they’re able to show the things we might pass by every day, and present them to us in a way that reminds us how much we miss, and how special every moment really is.

02:55 Photographer, James Florio, recently moved to Montana to be able to spend more time on his journey of discovery. He traverses the land for hours at a time, in all weather conditions, embracing the elements, learning the land, and over time getting more and more in tune with it.

03:17 He’s just begun a journey for a long term process and project of attuning himself to the land and translating those experiences to us through his camera lens. From time to time it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, learn brand new things, maybe new ways of thinking, and to be able to share those experiences with others. And we get to join James for some of his first steps on his journey in this episode of the Tippet Rise Podcast.

04:02 JF: I guess in the end it’s about not letting anything come between you and the experience. Life is about searching, finding, and discovering, and this sense of adventure has been so important to me. One thing I’ve learned is that, if you put the time into it, you will get something out. Not necessarily that success is guaranteed if I put one hundred percent in, but that something will come out of it, something worthwhile.

“In the end, it’s about not letting anything come between you and the experience.“
Photo by James Florio.

04:24 ZP: Imagine a long-term project, one that’s going to require lots of time, resources, and energy. Your next thought, most likely, is to develop a plan to complete it. By their nature, you might associate long term projects with the need to have a clear end-goal, projected waypoints, and metrics to check your progress along the way and make corrections if need be.

04:49 But, when was the last time you took on a multi-year project where you allowed your intuition to be the main driving force, you had no specific end goal, no metrics, and where the very definition of success changes as you change? Now add to the equation this challenge to yourself - to not get stuck in your accustomed ways of thinking, to not allow your intuition to guide you into familiar places and patterns. If all you have is your intuition and yet you want to push that very intuition beyond its normal capacity, how is that possible?

05:26 JF: If success was guaranteed, or it was kind of so simple that you knew how - today I’m going to do this and it’s going to succeed. That’s pretty boring. There’s no chance of magic in that. If you really want to create something good and have “success” you eliminate as many improbabilities as possible. When something starts to work, you get kind of an inkling - your gut tells you that you should pursue this further - see where this goes, you know? Maybe it’s just a small step, but you kind of work your way left and right, in a zig-zag path. That’s also super important to the exploration, that it’s not going from just here to there.

06:00 ZP: It’s rare to even have the chance to take on this kind of self-exploration and adventure. It’s not usually found in any to-do list or action item. Materials on personal growth and self improvement fill the shelves and online shopping carts of retailers around the world. It’s a massive industry, where titles like - “habits of”, “powers of”, “art of”, and even “law’s of” precede some elusive thing that, surely, we all must crave.

06:31 People can be inspired and motivated by stories of success. But we can only relate to a story so much because it’s not ours, and maybe it only takes you so far, forcing you to find the next story, and the next and so forth. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just listen to our surroundings, get in tune with it, and trust that it’s guiding us every step or transition along the way, even as we grow and change, even if, like a mountain pass, it has many switchbacks?

07:04 JF: It’s also funny because, of course, we’re talking about spending five or six years at a place, or working on something, or even a month or whatever. What you think is a success at the beginning of something will change so drastically by the time you finish, and you may change entirely, yourself. So, it’s kind of silly to define success ahead of time. I think it’s much more about being open and being willing to put the time in not knowing what’s going to result. That allows, again, that magic that kind of unexpectedness to come and keeps you open to seeing things you wouldn’t have seen. Like if you would’ve said I’m going to get to that hill, I’m going to make a beeline, nothing is going to distract me, and I’m going to give fifty hours, one hundred hours - whatever it takes to get there, I’m just going. Well, you would miss so much… so much.

07:51 ZP: On his first trip to Tippet Rise, an unexpected event occurred and an important first lesson was learned.

07:58 JF: I remember driving up here and getting on I-90 and turning west and everything was so hazy. I started realizing there were these terrible forest fires, it was some of the worst fires in quite a few years. It was all over the state and other states as well. I was just devastated. I remember driving and being like, “This is awful.” I can’t believe we came all this way, we got permission to come shoot the sunrise and you can’t see anything. You can’t see the mountains. Where are these Beartooth, these tremendous craggy, mountains are just non-existent. And I approached it thinking that’s a huge bummer. And then, of course, I went anyway and to the sunrise. It was this unbelievably beautiful moment where there was no sun. It was so hazy you couldn’t see any sun. The entire sky turned orange and red and sat like that. And that was the morning.

08:53 ZP: In 2017 Montana fires burned 1.4 million acres, the most in 100 years. The people who choose to live here know that this is a land of extremes. From fires to blizzards, droughts to floods, the residents accept these incredible challenges. And they’ve learned how to cope with these extremes, prepare as they can for the future, and certainly live in the moment.

09:18 JF: The really important things you can’t anticipate and you really just need to be open. So, I’ve tried to shift all my work towards that mentality. Especially here, to be open to what happens. Which is one of the reasons why we moved here is to have that time to not feel pressure, to not feel like I have to capture something. Like today, there was a storm and it moved over there, over these hills, and I don’t feel like I have to take one hundred photos today, or even one photo. It can just be part of the process.

09:52 ZP: We rarely know when there will be a moment that brings significant change to our lives. But, if you’re patient and remain open to an experience, sometimes what seems to be the most unfortunate circumstance can become a kind of gift.

10:08 JF: It was a gift. That’s the lesson and I don’t think I realized that in the moment. I definitely realized it was beautiful, I took a lot of photos, and I was amazed. But, I don’t think it was until later, when I had time to take a deep breath and look back and reflect that I realized truly what a gift it was and how fortunate I was to be there and see that. That reflection allowed me to really start to think about what is that and how can I use that? Because you can’t plan that. We had planned for months to be here on those specific dates and it was scheduled ahead of time and you can’t really plan for that. So, how do you allow that to happen? And that began a journey of slowly trying to understand being open and slowly trying to understand the idea of allowing yourself to do that, to find that, because you can walk right past it.

11:03 ZP: Although there are times of extreme occurrences, like wildfires. In Montana, even within one single day, if you maintain your focus and awareness of your surroundings throughout that day, you’ll see and feel the land’s incredible dynamic changes.

11:19 JF: It’s such an interesting land of the sky, hills, and light. Everything is changing so much that even if you get stubborn and have an idea stuck in your head, I almost always stop before I get there. Maybe I’m walking or hiking to this place and, of course, you find something else and that leads you down a different path. A big part of the exploration here is about curiosity and you end up two miles that way, or at the bottom of this canyon, just out of pure curiosity. Just going that way is an adventure.

11:49 ZP: We are constantly drawing straight lines in life. How to most efficiently get from A to B. We spend a lot of time putting this into practice, and people are getting really good at it. GPS maps, of course, tell us where to turn to shave off a couple of minutes, and what could be better than falling asleep on the tarmac and waking up in a new city? But to be guided by your intuition and the land, is to disregard all of that. And what you find is that every step becomes an adventure.

12:23 JF: Just saying, “OK, let’s start walking,” that’s an adventure. Not really deciding where you’re going to go. Even if I said I would walk to Beartooth right now, I would probably not end up there for hours and hours just from the meandering and getting lost into these canyons coming back up. Each one is kind of a world unto its own. I really think it’s interesting that if you stand on the southern edge, or down below at certain angles, it almost looks like it’s just a rolling ripple of a couple of hills, you know? You don’t actually see the canyons and you don’t understand how deep they are. Alternatively, when you’re in one of these many canyons, you can’t see any of the rolling hills or the other canyons. And so, there is this world of mystery that you can go into in each zone or space.

“There is this world of mystery that you can go into in each zone or space.”
Photo by James Florio.

13:06 ZP: As you traverse this land, if there’s one word that comes to mind, it’s perspective. Our position relative to other objects and people is so important to how we view the world and each other. Even though we might be able to see to the horizon, as James mentioned, we completely miss the depth and beauty of all the canyons. And so, your intuition guides you there to become more familiar with all of those things originally unseen. This is when you start to really know the land, how all of its features are connected, and you develop a kind of empathy for all of those unique perspectives.

13:49 JF: Sometimes I say I’m going to hike all of Murphy Canyon. I’ll start at Midnight Canyon and go all the way down the watershed. I want to really understand it and learn it, or try to get a feel for it just that day. But sometimes, you just want to see what’s on the other side of the horizon, I don’t know, that’s always gotten me pretty excited. I just love the perspective change, I guess. I’m so curious to see what it’s like to stand at those trees at the very end of the horizon. It’s kind of weird that those are the only four or five trees anywhere in our field of vision. I wonder what’s on the other side of those?

14:32 ZP: James often walks the land with a walking stick in place of his camera. The taking of an image is one of the final steps of a much longer evolution. Once you start walking and cross that boundary from your day to day responsibilities to getting in tune with the land, It’s amazing how quickly the nature of your thoughts opens towards something larger.

14:59 JF: Freedom, I don’t mean in the sense of a country or a border or anything like that, but freedom to make your own choices is the most important thing you can have. The freedom to explore, that’s where you really get to see this. One of the things I definitely think about is an expression of gratitude to be here, to be able to witness this, and to share it. I like to imagine someone in a city somewhere so far from this place both in climate, culture, and even understanding. To be able to share that beauty is pretty incredible.

15:45 ZP: Within this large, beautiful ranch, there are many small quiet spaces and nooks. But it’s helpful to first plot the large sculptures or some of the significant natural features on a mental map to use as a reference point for these hidden extensions.

“The structures of landscape became a way to view the land.”
Photo by James Florio.

16:04 JF: It’s kind of funny that when I first came to Tippet Rise, I was so focused on the structures of landscapes. Then, they kind of became points on a map, an interesting way to find my place, almost. If I went down in a canyon or over a hill, they would reappear and disappear. Then, it became a way to view the land.

16:35 ZP: These natural and artistic waypoints not only help to find your way, but they also relate to each other, and overtime, interesting parallels and relationships are drawn between the many cairns.

16:50 JF: Sometimes, if you look at Tippet Rise, it’s too much, it’s too expansive. We’re in this canyon and it’s still this unbelievable narrow view outward. It’s endless to the mountains, the horizon, and these clouds. You follow these things and see how they work out, pair together, and what they lead to. Maybe that works really well here, maybe it doesn’t, there. Maybe it leads to the next thing. Maybe it’s over the ridge or a different season. But, going back to those things that are on a map and the land becomes a map itself. You have different points that become constants, so you can see the difference. It’s using the land to frame the seasons and then watching how it affects them and how it changes.

17:48 ZP: Although the waypoints are constant for location, the seasons have incredibly diverse characteristics and are not easily categorized. A single day can contain instances of multiple seasons, and all bets are off when you consider year to year. A real insight into this unpredictable land requires time and understanding.

18:14 JF: And also a vision. I’m not out here just trying to find the most interesting, most beautiful thing and take a picture of it. That would be kind of borning and that could be almost anybody. Then, it would just be a question of the right tool and walking around, right?

18:30 This is a complex thing to try to express in a two dimensional image. It’s a pretty three-dimensional situation we’re in right here. Always, but especially with this tree, wow.

18:48 ZP: At the edge of a high ridge is a massive fallen tree. Approaching from below, James first walks through the downed tree’s jagged branches, then along its trunk, before arriving at what’s left of the base. This tree is ever so slightly removed from the rest of the forest, closest to the incredible view we see, and at the edge of the ridge, but more exposed to the raging winds that frequent the area. It’s location, living outside of the safety of the forest, allowed the force of the wind to drive through it, flush, without the possibility of dispersion across many trees. At many points, it withstood the full force of a storm’s pressure, until it couldn’t.

19:47 JF: It’s such a strange form for a tree. It’s in such a different state of being. It’s pretty incredible that it uprooted itself and broke off at the same time. So, maybe it helps that it’s not like that tree right there. I find this tree very interesting, it’s very beautiful. I’d kind of like to get to know it a little bit and understand - maybe this is the second or third phase of a tree’s life, this decomposition?

20:14 ZP: Who knows how many beautiful sunsets the tree witnessed, like we see tonight, before being fully embraced by the steep ridge’s soil. It’s this kind of familiarity and intimacy that James earns from visiting the same area many times.

20:34 JF: I guess if I was going to photograph this tree, I would want to spend a lot more time with it. I don’t think it’s enough to just come here and hike, take a picture, and move on. But also, just to understand what I would want to take away from this - what I’d like to share. I think you have to just sit here.

21:11 When I sit out here and I look at this beautiful sky framed by these giant trees and the clouds moving, it seems ridiculous to say something is “good” or “bad.” I feel like stepping away from all those definitive ways of talking and definitive thoughts. The more we talk about what caused this land to happen, the more I kind of believe that - it’s definitely an interesting idea to learn more about and understand better - but, the fact that you can’t understand it, kind of takes me away from saying I know something so well, you know?

21:52 If I just say, “That tree is dead, it’s done.” Then I just walk right past it. This tree is alive - just oversimplification. If you take another step back, that tree is definitely not dead, right? It’s just as alive as the tree above it. It’s decomposing, it’s a cycle right? We talk about life being a cycle, but we try to take everything out of a circle and make it into something fixed. And it’s never so clear, it’s never black and white. I’ve never felt like that in my entire life, that I knew I was one hundred percent certain, even with my own self, my own thoughts. Maybe today I like this and tomorrow I like something else. I mean, we’re constantly changing. We’re constantly learning and evolving. I feel like the more I can let go of that trying to define what everything is, trying to know what everything is, the more I actually get to know what everything is. The more I can connect to it, the more I can feel the power of this tree and kind of hear its story, almost.

“The more I can connect to it, the more I can feel the power of this tree and hear its story.”
Photo by James Florio.

23:09 ZP: Almost three years to the day after his first visit, James returned to Tippet Rise to witness another smoke-filled sunrise, this time with a deeper connection to the land, and a greater awareness of being open to hearing its message.

23:26 JF: Yesterday, when I saw it was smoky, I got really excited and said, “Wow, it’s going to be just like it was that one time.” Then, I had to take a deep breath and say, “Well, that’s probably not going to happen. It’ll be different in some way.” And, of course, there was a crazy storm and really intense thunder. Then, it kind of cleared up, then got hazy again, then cloudy again. I just reminded myself to take a deep breath and sit with it, or watch it, be with it, not try to force anything, either there with myself or wanting too much for it to be like something in the past. That’s kind of boring anyway, right? If it was exactly the same, even though it was such a beautiful day that first day. But, even that first subtle hint of autumn was here the first time and it’s here now. The dryness, the stillness, the colors are very similar in the grass. The sky is kind of a grey-ish blue, infused with a little bit of yellow. I think maybe that goes back to the constant level of change. If you really look at anything, it’s constantly changing, you know?

24:35 ZP: Although change can sometimes provoke a sense of fear, its beauty is that you’re guaranteed to learn something new, even just one new lesson.

24:45 JF: Yea, that one thing can make all the difference. Maybe it’s just a way of learning to see all of that because it is happening all around us. That is the most exciting thing is to connect to that, tune in to that, be aware of that, be observant, be in the “now.”

25:06 ZP: Even though James is a professional photographer, he hasn’t discussed his camera once, and that should give you a pretty good idea about where he places it among his priorities. It’s not about the camera itself, but much more about being in the “now” through the patient process that the large format camera imposes upon him.

25:28 JF: The deepest reason for using this type of equipment is that it really is an incredibly slow method and I had a real hard time slowing myself down. That’s why I chose to use a camera that is just a real complicated (laughs) difficult, technical camera. It’s also, at the same time, an amazing thing to see an 8x10 negative, to blow it up, and to look at a huge image. Sometimes a space this big really does call for that. So, there are a few reasons like that, but deeper it’s more of a contemplative way to take images - very slowly, very heavy, very restrictive in many ways. You really think before you take an image. If I make two images in a day, I’m pretty sure I’ll remember both of those forever. That’s a special thing and I think, previously, I had been taking so many images. With a digital camera, you can just push that button, wait, and go look later. I really like being forced to slow down, to contemplate, and to look at a scene. You go under this dark hood and there’s this whole process of putting the camera together, putting it on the tripod, going under the dark hood, looking through the glass - it’s upside down. You really start to think slowly, look at it, and analyze it. And, maybe you have to wait thirty minutes for the wind to pause long enough to take the image. It feels like I’m much more in the environment than just taking an image.

27:21 ZP: To attune yourself to the land is to become part of the land, to become one with the land.

“That is what photography is, however long the shutter is open, that’s the moment.”
Photo by James Florio.

27:35 JF: You have to really just take a deep breath and approach it one at a time. One piece of film, one scene, one moment, and just focus on that. That’s what photography is, it’s however long the shutter is open, that’s the moment. That’s when the light is coming in and I really love the idea of focusing down to that one instance.

28:00 ZP: Every moment matters, even as we rush from A to B. Like James underneath his camera’s dark hood, focusing on a single moment of a single image, we can focus on the things that bring us more in tune with our surroundings.

28:20 JF: I think whatever makes you get in tune, whatever makes you lose that sense of time, that’s a good practice. Finding that, some people call it passion or love, finding a way to put yourself in that position or to be open to it. You can’t create that, but you can open yourself up for that opportunity by being flexible, by being adapting, by being open for change, by welcoming it, by looking for it you allow these opportunities to come about. You never know who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to learn, especially if you’re really listening or really looking. Not necessarily for something specific, but being open. That’s when the universe will bring things to you, whether it’s an image, or a friend or, just an idea, and that’ll guide you even more along your way.

29:16 ZP: Although many things have changed in recent months, hopefully, we will have the chance to make many more connections with each other along the way.

29:26 JF: What I hope for other people is a connection, and I don’t get too deep into that, and I don’t want to define that either. I want people to be moved or connected to my images in whatever way they choose. One of the beautiful things about art is there’s not a right or a wrong, it’s totally an open experience. If it can move you and can add power to you, whether it’s a sculpture or a photograph, that’s the beauty, that’s what I want to capture, that’s what I want to share.

29:56 ZP: Over the coming years, James will continue to walk the land and to get more in tune with it, and through his images, we get to walk alongside him.

30:09 JF: I do really think that more than ever now, we need that idea of connectedness to nature, to each other, to art, to music and to how important that is. Instead of an oversimplification of “this is music, this is art, this is land, this is sculpture.” You’re surrounded by beauty, and in some ways I feel like it’s kind of a - I get going back to that idea of being in tune. If I can just attune myself to this, that’s going to take care of the hard part.

“If I can just attune myself to this, that’s going to take care of the hard part.”
Photo by James Florio.