Colorado’s most widely celebrated nature photographer shares his views on family, nature, and how to find real happiness in life
Interestingly enough my conversation with John Fielder, Colorado’s preeminent nature photographer, did not revolve around his photos themselves all that much. We touched on his influences, not so obvious connections, and the legacy we as individuals – as well as a nation – are likely to leave behind. Oh and if you’re looking for someone to talk to about nature, physics, or the meaning of life, there is no better conversation partner than Fielder.
Colorado has always been Fielder’s dream location. “I knew at an early age. My middle school science teacher would take seven kids in a station wagon 6,000 miles for five weeks all around North America every summer. And when we camped in Rocky Mountain National Park in 1964 I said to Mrs. Hickman, ‘I’m gonna live here someday.’ ”
That early love for nature experienced via travel was inspirational. “I used to do a lot of traveling around the world and perspective is everything. You’ve got to see other places to appreciate where you’ve been. Every time I come back from a beautiful or an extraordinary place, I always say to myself, ‘Wow, that was unbelievable, but I still think I like Colorado better.’ ”
The United States as a whole has done a fantastic job preserving natural open spaces and Fielder expounded on this. “We’ve done a better job than anybody at protecting the natural environment. The Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act and all those laws we created back when I was in college. It’s set the precedent for all the land protection we’ve done and no place else on the planet [has done it better].”
The talk turned towards the legacies that the US will leave as a nation. I brought up the Moon Landing but Fielder steered us back to earth. “Those are almost as strong as our dedication to guns… dismemberment, and destruction. We’re so smart. That’s one of our great legacies,” he rightfully quipped.
We laughed at the stark truth of his comment, and he continued, “I warned you this is Friday afternoon. This could go anywhere. I’ll be careful with my tongue in cheek stuff. Not everybody appreciates my dry sense of humor. On the other hand, I’m 72 years old now. Life is short… cut to the chase because we don’t have all that time left”
Science and Spirituality, not Science vs. Spirituality
As for the marriage between science and nature one of his early inspirations was actually the classic TV show “The Twilight Zone” with its complicated implications and wide ranging possibilities. It was “the unpredictability of the plots that he [Rod Sterling] designed, letting the human mind go beyond the rational and beyond the programmed thought processes. It was fascinating to me, and it was one of the influential things in my life.” This confluence of limitless possibilities, the very real intricacies of nature, and the emerging fields of quantum physics all help shape Fielder’s world view – and in turn his life’s work.
“I’m not religious. I grew up in the church, but it never became a staple in my life. The best thing to me about religion was the tenants of Jesus Christ — being nice to your neighbor and not killing people and all those things. But I always felt like religion created these boundaries… and I never wanted to have restrictions on letting my mind think about the true meaning of life”
Blurring boundaries is something Fiedler enjoys when it comes to nature, science, and belief. “The miracle of life on Earth segues from both spiritual to science, which I like using because it confuses people,” he wisely states. He expands on the convergence of the two. “The miracle of 4.3 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth and how profoundly healing wilderness and the natural environment is. When you smell decaying leaves in the fall… when you taste the metallic quality of freshly melted snow at 13,000 feet… when you touch the bark of an aspen tree…” to him, that is when the magic of it all comes out.
How to have it all
“Family and nature are why I’m happy, not having lived a perfect life, not having lived a life without tragedy. I lost a son to suicide at age 26 and a wife to Alzheimer’s at age 59. I’m one of the happiest people on earth because of my exposure to a great stable family and my time that I spent in nature.” There is a profound simplicity to this.
Knowing what grounds him, knowing what rewards await the struggle, is one of the most admirable things I took away from Fielder. He shares his dedication to his craft, “you know, when you don’t want to go any further because you’re dying, your knees are killing you, but you got to get to that lake you saw on the topographic map because that’s where you’re going to do your best photography.”
Fielder was recently in the news for donating his work to History Colorado. One of the main reasons for this incredible contribution was the idea that nature photography can be used as a way to document changes over the decades. Fielder was inspired by nature photos from the 1800s to create his own series of recreations of the shots.
“My passion for history motivated me to do what I did, to give people a sense of perspective for what Colorado looked like.” Fielder has seen the changes that the modern world has wrought on nature. “That kind of perspective is more important than ever because of global warming,” he explains that part of the motivation is for people to be able to look back on his photos, to stand in the exact same spots decades from now, and see how nature has changed from human activity — for better or worse.
We spoke on a myriad of topics but everything seemed to connect into the next. Subjects from religion, nature, happiness, and legacy all flowed effortlessly from one to the other. It wasn’t just this conversation though, it’s how Fielder sees the world. “It’s unbelievable how connected everything is. When something happens biologically in those mountains, it affects biodiversity on the other side of the planet.”