For me, nature provides a unique opportunity to reconnect with the stillness inside, which is the source of our deepest wisdom.

This year has felt like a runaway train plowing into a raging forest fire. We’ve been hit with two calamities happening at once: first the coronavirus pandemic, then the exploding racial tensions that have rocked the U.S. and reverberated around the world. Together, these epic challenges have shattered any sense of normalcy and complacency we may have allowed ourselves to settle into.

Photo: Paul Cotter

My wife and I live in the heart of the city in Charlotte, NC, where we could hear the percussive flash-bangs used to control protestors in the streets at night. We spent two months inside during the pandemic stay-at-home lockdown and we’re still housebound most of the time. Since the restrictions eased and businesses started reopening in late May, the number of new COVID-19 infections in our state has soared. As the daily death tolls mounted and the political divide deepened across our country, I finally had to stop watching the news right before bedtime; it’s been too unsettling, and I’d get myself too agitated to sleep.

Photo: Paul Cotter

Instead of fanning the flames of my anger and anxiety, I needed something calming – something that would provide a dose of the equanimity and perspective needed to face these twin crises which will test our mettle for some time to come.

So one morning, in the midst of all this swirling mayhem, I took a trip to a place where social distancing would be less of an issue. I got up before sunrise, filled a travel mug with hot green tea, packed my camera and drove to a picturesque rural area in York, SC, where our daughter-in-law’s parents live. I’m a city person at heart, and I love being surrounded by our favorite restaurants and cafes. But as I drove through the early morning fog, leaving the highways behind and taking remote rural roads lined with farms and pastures, I felt a sense of peacefulness settle over me.

I was reminded how vital it is to maintain our connection to nature, wherever we call home. When we lived in California, I felt this connection through the towering redwoods, the rocky Pacific coast and the majestic beauty of Yosemite. In nature’s presence, we can feel a profound sense of awe, which has been defined as a mix of reverence, fear and wonder. Photographer Nicholas Hlobeczy summed it up nicely when he said “Without awe, we cannot truly be alive.”

On this morning, I felt alive — joyfully, gratefully, fully alive — in the dreamlike mist that blanketed the countryside.

Photo: Paul Cotter

I’m guessing you discovered long ago that there’s a deep joy to be found in losing yourself – immersing yourself so deeply in a task that you lose all sense of time. Athletes call this “being in the zone.”

When we’re in this state, we feel a sense of oneness with whatever we’re engaged in doing. Our rational mind stops chattering, and the whispered voice of intuitive wisdom guides us. This was the whisper that compelled me to stop the car at one particular spot, where rustic fenceposts jutted up like fingers and solitary trees stood in quiet dignity on the hill beyond.

I spent a long time at this spot, appreciating the different views that revealed themselves with each subtle shift in perspective.

Photos: Paul Cotter

A while later, I came to the unpaved tree-lined road that you see below. This is the road that leads to our in-laws’ home. I’ve traveled it several times over the years, and I had no particular intention of taking a photograph at this spot. But on this day, it presented itself as a gift that was totally fresh and new – and once again I felt compelled to stop the car and step outside with my camera.

It wasn’t a conscious decision; I was simply responding from the heart to the gift that was in front of me. I saw the rhythmic pattern of the trees and the soft white light and the road leading into the distance, and I had to press the shutter.

It brings to mind the words of photographer Matt Black: “To me, the turning point in photography comes when you stop looking and start seeing.”

Photo: Paul Cotter

By this time, the morning fog was lifting and my eyes were drawn to the intimate details that revealed themselves: the weathered bark of the trees … the graceful intertwining of branches … the symphony of life and death that was playing all around me with its repeating cycle of new birth and decay.

Photo: Paul Cotter

When I was ready to get back into the car and drive home, another detail caught my eye: the gossamer threads of webs hanging from some of the branches. They were nearly invisible to the eye at first glance, but if you moved a certain way you saw them glistening with dew and backlit by the morning sun.

The translucent webs were a subtle reminder: there’s much, much more to this world and to life than our limited perception can reveal. We miss so much because our eyes and minds remain focused on a narrow band of things that are readily apparent to us.

Images: Paul Cotter

As my favorite photographer Wynn Bullock explained, “What you see is real – but only on the particular level to which you’ve developed your sense of seeing.”

This morning retreat was a gift for which I’m deeply grateful. The COVID pandemic and the issues of systemic racial prejudice are still with us, and they need to be faced with courage and a clearsighted view. For me, nature provides a unique opportunity to reconnect with the stillness inside, which is the source of our deepest wisdom. In the quiet countryside, I had a glimpse of what Brother David Steindl-Rast meant when he wrote, “… the present moment, with all the possibilities it offers, is the greatest gift one can imagine. Everything there is can be understood as a gift to everything else there is.”

Photo: Paul Cotter

We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”


Stories of Grateful Living
Paul Cotter

Paul Cotter

About the author

Paul is a photographer, writer and educator who lives with his wife in Charlotte, NC. His photography has appeared in gallery exhibits across the country and in publications including National Geographic magazine and the highly selective Seeing in Sixes book published by LensWork. He was recently listed as one of the top five landscape photographers in Charlotte. You can see more of his work at