What do protecting the world from climate change and healthy relationships have in common?

The Art and Heart of Paul Nicklen – conservation photographer

I was listening to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Paul Nicklen, a conservation polar photographer, talk about how he feels about the animals he photographs, and was surprised to be so emotionally moved on two very distinct levels.  I was moved about climate change and I was moved about what he said about building an intimate relationship.

His words and work inspired me to consider two seemingly unrelated things – the emotional impact of climate change on our planet, and a template he offered for how to have a strong and intimate relationship in one’s home or that could be extrapolated into one’s community.

In his work, he gets up close and personal with animals, the ecosystem and habitats that are dramatically being affected by climate change – namely in the Arctic and Antarctica. His intention is to photograph the sites and beings – that 99+ percent of us will never have the privilege to observe firsthand – and to show over time how they are being impacted by global warming through art and heart (one cannot see his work without appreciating the beauty of the shots, as well as having an emotional impact from the photos). He hopes his work will help people to care about and take care of the ocean.

He has photos of glaciers that he took 20+ years ago, that re-taken in today’s photos, look like walls of 20+ waterfalls lined up next to each other – the ice is so vast and is melting so rapidly that it flows like multiples of Niagra Falls. The photos are beautiful works of art, each one in and of itself. Together though, over the time spanned, they show the remarkable change that is breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time.

Paul Nicklen spoke of seeing a female polar bear with her cub, stuck on a small piece of floating ice, stranded easily 100 miles away from land, looking for seals – which clearly do not just jump up on a piece of ice to be had for lunch by the polar bear predator – and his terrible knowledge that the beautiful polar bear and her cub would likely end up dead because they cannot be off of land (sea ice) so long and there was none nearby. He has deep respect for the powerful but vulnerable and fragile species they are.

He talked about many dangerous experiences he’s had over the years, working in the sky, land and water of the Arctic/Antarctica (falling through polar ice – which he said is no big deal – not as bad as falling through lake ice! Or accidentally engaging a male Elephant seal – who weigh up to 8000 lbs. – when he inadvertently encroached upon his beach haram during breeding time, and used his camera pole to push off of him so he wouldn’t be drowned; or crashing in a small plane on the sea ice as he was trying to get close to narwhals, etc.) but none of those experiences was as painful to him as coming across dead polar bears in the last couple of years, where he’d never come across one before; or witnessing the many other devastating changes that have come about because of global warming. The bears were emaciated and had starved to death due to the absence of polar ice which gives them a platform from which to catch seals from, and then get back to land on.

Paul Nicklen helped me to understand the importance of polar ice and how central it is to the lifecycle of all the polar creatures – from the crustaceans and algae that grow underneath, to the smallest krill that grow and feed off that underlayer; to the fish and seals that feed off the krill; to the larger animals and top predators in the food chain (polar bears, etc.) who need and feed off those seals in order to survive. And how the glaciers melting and polar ice breaking up are leading to such a breakdown and devastation in the fragile ecosystem that affects not only the environment, but the animals as well.

He also spoke beautifully of how much he loves these animals – at all levels of the food chain. And how witnessing a leopard seal killing a penguin is all inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time – he is enraptured to see the leopard seal and feels sad for the penguin – but that leads him to have deep respect for how these animals have lived together for a long period of time. Predator and prey can live alongside each other in this amazing ecosystem. He can hold such competing feelings at the same time.

When nature goes at its own course, there is balance. There is coexistence. There is ebb and flow. Each sea creature eats only what it needs and many different species live together in the same fragile environment.

This seemed to be a model of how we humans might live together. There is so much we can learn from nature. Paul Nicklen expressed the humbling nature of being able to be in this environment.

Which brings me to what Paul Nicklen said about how to have a strong and connected intimate relationship…Well, he didn’t really say that exactly, but he did talk about his attitudes about these beautiful polar animals that he photographs, that end up creating a really extraordinary relationship with them. I thought these principles were right on for how we humans might cultivate better relationships, with our partners and with our larger community. Let me explain what I mean…

1. First, approach with true curiosity to know more. Set your judgments aside and be really willing to learn what the person’s life is like. Be open to whatever experience they show you.

…Nicklen talked about how his curiosity about leopard seals helped him to not feel afraid when in the water with these magical creatures.

2. Then, do no harm. And don’t try to change them…

…He wants to get as close as possible to these animals, but never wants to cause them damage or harm, due to his proximity or interaction into their lives. He fully respects the wonder of them and the world they live in. He doesn’t want to change an animal’s behavior and is most proud of never having killed an animal due to his photography.

3. Then, receive that person’s gifts as they are presented – even if they come in packages that you don’t like. See the good that is there rather than rejecting what seems strange or weird…

…He saw a beloved leopard seal offer him gift after gift of a live (and then later dead) penguin, as a demonstration of her care and consideration of him, and effort to connect.

4. The most important psychological concept he conveyed about having positive intimate relationships was the following:

…See and receive the threat behaviors of this creature you are already curious about as an expression of him or herself. Don’t take it personally and react with own sense of danger or defense to that perceived threat. Learn to see these expressions as how that other person is showing you a bit more of who they are, and not something to be threatened by. In containing your own reaction, you convey your trustworthiness and solidity, making it actually easier for the other person to get closer to you and to connect intimately. Do this over and over again…

…He presented a beautiful story of approaching several sea animals without threat; and receiving their aggressive behaviors when they felt threatened by his approach, with openness and curiosity (not out of fear of himself being in danger), ultimately creating very strong and connected relationships with each of them.

Who among us would love to not overreact when we feel threatened or hurt by our partners, and not make matters worse by that overreacting?

5. Finally, have appreciation and gratitude for any experience you have with your partner that allows you to feel close or learn something new about them…

…Paul Nicklen very movingly talked about comforting himself each night when he went to bed with tears of gratitude that flowed down his cheeks – he was so filled with deep gratitude for these beautiful animals that allowed him to know them and be with them, and had tried to know him and interact with him. One even tried to protect him from another predator. He bathed in the feelings of appreciation and thanks for the intimate experiences of each day, and felt so humbled by those experiences.

If you have a chance to listen to Paul Nicklen’s interview, or to see his work, don’t miss it. I’m sure it will stay in your heart for a long time. Here’s the link: http://www.npr.org/2017/06/06/531735345/polar-photographer-shares-his-view-of-a-ferocious-but-fragile-ecosystem

Let me know what takeaways you might come away with and how you might connect it to your own life and relationships. How do his words and work make you feel? Share your thoughts by responding to this post.

If you’d like to learn more about how to deepen your relationships, you might be interested to read these prior blog posts…

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
[email protected]
(510) 482-4445

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