Seeing is believing: In search of the beavers

I had been sitting patiently at the wetlands along the Rhine for about two hours waiting to photograph some of the birds that frequent the river. The place was beautiful, with mist hanging over the tree tops. To the naked eye, however, it seemed as if all living creatures had abandoned this part of the river.

I had seen another photographer in the distance also waiting patiently for nothing to happen. I was about to leave when he walked across and joined me for some conversation. We spoke about photography in general, and more specifically about our experiences photographing nature and wildlife. He told me that there were beavers in this area, yet he had never seen them. I asked him how he knew. He said that the farmer had told him, since his crops had been eaten by them. However, the farmer had also not seen them. He knew that they were beavers since there were trails of bits and pieces of crop that were left between the farmland and the river, in the mornings.

He then proceeded to take me on a guided tour along the river showing me evidence of the existence of the beavers. He pointed out burrowed tunnels on the bank of the river. He showed me the trails of foliage across the gravel cycle path that separated the farmland and the river. He also showed me huge sculptured indentations on the trunks of large poplar trees. As I looked at the trees, I couldn’t imagine an experienced lumberjack doing a better job of chopping the trunk with such grooved precision.

As I was shown all of evidence, I felt a strong desire to see and photograph the beavers. Being told and shown evidence of their existence was not enough for me. I needed to witness and experience the beavers for myself. As a psychologist, I knew that the most effective way to learn about anything is to move into the experiential domain and to personally witness and observe what is being spoken about. Telling and showing are only secondary levels of the learning process. The primary and most impactful level of learning is to go through an experiential process.

Many years ago, I saw a film called Searching for Sugar Man, which documented the search for the poetic singer Rodriguez, who had disappeared into obscurity after producing a chart winning album.

After reading up about beavers and their habitat, I felt compelled to go back to the wetlands in search of the illusive beavers. Beavers are nocturnal rodents, but can be seen at dawn or dusk. In the 1900’s, they were hunted to near extinction for their coats. They were reintroduced into a number of European countries in 1960-1970.

Before sunrise every morning for a week, I sat patiently waiting for the beavers.

My first sighting felt surreal. The beaver seemed to emerge out of nothingness, swimming across my line of vision. Throughout the week, the sightings were sporadic as they swam passed me, or emerged from the burrows on the opposite bank of the river. There was only one morning in the week that I did not see them. I felt satisfied that my search for the beavers was so richly rewarded. I now knew that they definitely existed. Seeing was truly believing.


Time and change in a field of sunflowers

Six weeks ago I stopped next to a field of beautiful sunflowers. It was early morning. There was not a cloud in the sky. The flowers seemed to be worshiping the sun as they orientated themselves to the light and warmth. They appeared to be celebrating the start of a new day. Their body language reflected an abundance of optimism as they smiled joyfully.

As I looked at the sunflowers, no flower was the same. As in a sporting team, they conformed in dress, yet each reflected a uniqueness.

The new
Early morning

Metaphorically, opportunities and potentialities in life are associated with a new day as the sun first appears at dawn. As with a new born baby, there is much hope associated with the new emerging energy.

It was late afternoon, on a cloudy day when I stopped next to the same field of sunflowers. Six weeks had passed since my first walk in the field. How different they now were. They seemed to be weeping, heads drooped. Their youthful state had passed. They were now ready to have their seeds harvested.

The old
Six weeks later – late afternoon

As with all healthy processes, an end invites a new beginning.

This is the nature of life, never-ending cycles moving in time. However, despite the changing phases, there is a constant in the evolutionary process – healthy systems sustain and perpetuate themselves over time.

As a day or a month or year unfolds, there is a beginning and an end. But beginnings and ends are convenient punctuations that are intellectually defined to break the never-ending flow of time.

Due to the relativity of time, one does not always notice change. It is only when you ‘freeze frame’ a specific moment in time and compare it to another, that change is highlighted.

A flow of seven unique moments

One of the tasks that I had set for myself when starting this project was to do a concluding post in which I integrate the seven different parts (photographs). On completion, however, I do not have any desire to pull the parts together in a formal way or to draw any further conclusions. Instead I feel that the seven parts should be left to dangle separately and to be joined together in whatever way you may wish.

At the onset, I had no idea of what I would produce for this project.

Cycling down the hill
Cycling down the hill
Running up the hill
Running up the hill
Walking the dog
Crossing the road, walking the dog

When going out to take the photograph, I found that it was best not to preempt where I should go and what I needed to be on the lookout for. This attitude freed up my ability to observe, enhancing the visual possibilities that existed in front of me. Given this, the external environment was allowed to flirt with me in whatever way it wanted. This provided a co-evolved creation where the context and I, were able to connect in a meaningful way at a specific moment in time. The photograph was a reflection of that unique moment of connection.

I walked away from taking each photograph with a feeling of appreciation. Each photograph acted like a Rorschach test for me, activating further thinking about psychotherapy, meaning of life, personal worldviews and created realities.

There are no simple answers to some of life’s tough questions. In fact, the complexity of life usually reveals itself as a paradox, where there are no rights or wrongs to an issue that you may be struggling with. Having said this, there is always a part to us that strives to live life in a more harmonious and meaningful way. Experiencing and then sharing my perspective of the flow of the seven unique moments offered me the opportunity to do just that.

Part 7: Playing


As I approached the beach I could hear the laughter. A group of children where playing in the sea. I could feel their joy jump through the lens as I took the photograph.

A child’s natural energy is playful, spontaneous and joyful. A child does not need to be taught how to play.

Most people consider work and play to be mutually exclusive. In today’s society, this certainly seems to be the case. Work is serious, considered to be very important and is done by adults. There is usually a clearly defined task or activity to be done, and after completion of this, you are rewarded financially. A signed contract governs what you can or cannot do, how long this should take, and the benefits that you will receive in the process. Unfortunately, work has been formalised and regulated to the point that it has become sterile and meaningless. In the process, work has also become stressful. The heart energy of a person shuts down under these conditions. When this occurs, work loses its ‘soul’.

Playful energy is at the heart of creativity. Being playful is a way of being, that encompasses lightness, joy, freedom and spontaneity.

Sport is formalised play. Professional sport offers the athlete the opportunity to integrate the worlds of work and play. The challenge for the professional athlete is not to lose sight of the fundamental reason why sport was chosen as work. When the energy of joy and love is brought onto the field of work (play), exceptional performances occur.


Part 6: Working


The ground was dry and the farming appeared primitive. She was working every morning when I passed this field just after sunrise. She was still working in the late afternoon.

I admired this elderly woman. Working the land is a physically demanding endeavour. She was so engrossed in her work, seldom resting. While she seemed poor, there was an aura of contentment as she watered the crops.

The act of watering reflects care. I remember my father emphasising the importance of this. Taking care in whatever you do and striving for ‘quality in action’, was a value that he passed on to our family.

The vegetable plants were growing and she was seeing the fruits of her labour.

As I took this photograph, I thought of the zen-like mental state that she was probably in, as she worked. The simplicity and routine of her work, coupled with the ability to remain in the present and not to get distracted, are the necessary elements to enter such a meditative state. It seemed rather strange that this elderly lady could probably teach young professional sportsmen and women (who are so richly rewarded financially), much about how to remain focused, when dealing with the ongoing, repetitive routines of athletic practice.

Part 5: Learning


The little boy was absorbed in what his father was showing him. The father was explaining how the motor worked.

Human systems are learning and evolving systems. Formal and informal learning occurs as knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.

As we move into the future and encounter more and more complexity, we need our children to know that there are two distinct types of reasoning when dealing with problems.

Firstly, we need to teach them that there is technological knowledge which is embedded in Newtonian physics where there is a right answer in trying to solve a particular problem. The reasoning processes that are applied in such cases, usually requires linear cause and effect thinking. Such thinking and knowledge is the predominant teaching in our formal educational settings.

On the other hand, we also need to teach our children to think in terms of processes and patterns that occur in nature and in people’s lives. This type of thinking is generally referred to as systems thinking and is best applied to ecological and human problems such as poverty, pollution, global warming, migration issues, war and terrorism (to mention a few). There are no absolutes in the world of ecologic, so in order to resolve an issue, one needs to apply ‘both/and’ type thinking to the dualistic conflict that is being encountered.

Gregory Bateson contended that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think. On this point, our children need to know when to apply technological thinking and when to utilise ecological thinking. What type of thinking and reasoning in turn, is determined by the nature of the problem that needs to be (re)solved.

Applying more and more technological reasoning to complex global issues is not working. Helping our children to think in terms of the unfolding processes in a holistic, inter-connective way will provide them with the necessary reasoning skills to help heal the fragmented, intense and conflicting world we live in.

Part 4: Observation


It was early morning and my eye caught an old man looking down and observing some passers by. He was drawn into what was unfolding below him. He was totally absorbed in observation.

As a therapist, I have come to learn that my observation is constantly being pulled and pushed in different directions by those I consult with. This occurs through what is being said and how it is being said. Problems are like visual magnets. They draw you into a particular reality, usually a rigidly defined water tight reality. The challenge, as a therapist, is to notice what is not ‘being said’ about what is unfolding right in front of you. Or to notice the little unusual pieces of behaviour or insights that are not part of the dominant story being told.

Central to the very heart of reality, a beautiful vision is available – when we can ‘see’ without adopting limiting positions (quote by Tulku, 1977). But in order to access this reality which is full of possibilities, you need to be aware of where and how you look at what is unfolding before your eyes. Where you look, is what you will see. What you see is determined by what you believe and the assumptions you may make. In other words, what you observe in reality tells you more about yourself (the observer) than what is perceived as the ‘truth’ that exists external to yourself (the observed).

When taking a photograph, you have a range of possibilities in how you want to frame a scene. Do you want to use a telescopic lens to highlight specific detail in the distance (narrow focus), or a wide angle lens to include as much detail so that a broad context is revealed? What about the position of the camera, taking the photograph from a low vantage point, or standing tall? What about the light: during early morning, mid-day, sunset or at any random time that is convenient? All of these many different factors then converge to create the final product.

Life philosophy (including religion), attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, values, family ecology (ideas/knowledge passed on from generation to generation), education, life experience and culture are some of the interacting factors that converge to create the ‘photograph’ that you see in life.

In general, I believe that we can view life through one or more of four lenses: (a) the co-operative, (b) expansive, (c) perfect and/or (d) random lens. Each of these lenses, views life from a different perspective. This philosophy helps me to understand some of the complex dynamics of life and guides my observations, responses and actions in my work as a psychotherapist.

As you observe a human system, you will have an impact on what is being observed. This is a tenet of quantum physics. Your observation will affect the dynamics of the system, even if you do not act at all. If you are able to observe with compassion, those who are being observed will feel the warmth, care and understanding. This type of observation has the power to heal. No other action is required.