In searching the vast photographic record of America's natural beauty, you find very little of Alabama. For every Alabama picture there are thousands from individual landmarks such as Yosemite. When you stand in Yosemite Valley your eyes search for the spectacular beauty Ansel Adams pointed out long ago, but when you look at Alabama, what do you really expect to find?
Photographically undiscovered, outsiders and most Alabamians themselves are unaware of the abundant natural beauty here. I have come to realize that most of Alabama's natural treasure lie concealed except to the locals and some venturous outdoorsmen. One of my favorite places, Pisgah Gorge, is virtually unknown outside the area. Easy trails access three waterfalls that mark the first steps, but few people venture down into this gorge. It must be some of the most difficult and dangerous hiking in Alabama. Heavy rocks lie precariously upon one another and a wrong step could put your legs at the mercy of shifting stones. Accidents have been rare for me over the years, but I experienced two on my first three visits there. It is no wonder this gorge is left unknown.
The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is familiar to many, but known intimately by few. It is the second largest river delta in the country, consisting of 200,000 acres which host more than 250 species of birds and 300 species of fish. It includes the American alligator, the black bear, the bald eagle and the osprey. Yet how many Alabamians have witnessed the extraordinary beauty of Smith's Bayou? Quite often we don't notice the beauty around us, but when the American Lotus blooms along these horseshoe banks it is impossible to miss. Accessible only by boat, this gorgeous little stretch of nature is hidden from all but a few fishermen.
A major obstacle to exploring Alabama is access to the land. Twice, I have been run off from woodland by hostile people brandishing guns. Fortunately, unending efforts are being made to secure land for public access. In 2004 the 21,000 acre "Walls of Jericho," which straddles the Alabama/Tennessee border, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy and opened to the public. Securing land for public use doesn't always guarantee accessibility though. I live minutes from Oak Mountain State Park and would like to be at Peavine Falls for a foggy sunrise. But by the time the gate opens at 8:30, following a drive and a hike, I would be three hours late.
On my initial visit to the Walls of Jericho, I encountered another reason Alabama’s wilderness goes unexplored. It lay camouflaged and motionless in the leaves and had I not caught a glimpse of a triangular shaped head, I would have stepped right on it. Shaken by the prospects of my death before day’s end, I relaxed only when I stood in an area surrounded by solid rock. However, after completing a picture-taking session I turned around from my tripod to find a small snake within inches of my feet. Some places in Alabama are full of them and it is a serious deterrent.
Lastly, there is the effort required to reach our natural beauty. Bee Branch Canyon is one of the most visited places in the Sipsey Wilderness. You can find a map and trails lead you there, if you are willing to hike more than eleven miles (round trip) to see it. Other treasures of nature are far more remote and there are no maps, trails or even general knowledge of them. Two thirds of Alabama's land is covered with forests and that alone is twenty-two million acres of natural beauty to explore.
Twenty years ago when I first considered this book I was unaware how diverse the Alabama landscape is. We have mountains, foothills, plateaus, river valleys, coastal plain, swamp and seashore. This is truly an asset for a photographer. Another great asset is the many rivers, lakes and streams that offer access to the state. Within a few hours drive you can enjoy the diversity of canoeing south Alabama’s Escatawpa River, one of the finest black water rivers in America, or exploring the banks of the vast Tennessee River by boat in the north.
It has been nothing less than my greatest pleasure in creating this book. It is not so much a documentation of Alabama's natural beauty as it is a personal interpretation of it. After all, capturing Alabama on film is not a matter of documenting the grandest designs of nature. Alabama is a challenge in patience that requires exploration, thought, creativity and being in the right place at the right time. Our commonplace landscape suits me well, for I am more content to explore a pile of rocks and actually discover beauty, than to shoot a spectacular but well known landmark. Compositions of common subject matter such as the rocks on the preceding page sometimes hold a distinctive beauty beyond the spectacular. Those apt to give it a glance and turn the page are surely missing something. Profound beauty can be hidden right before your eyes, if you are looking for something else.
I feel privileged to have examined a small corner of this great earth in some detail and share a part of the experience. The many hundreds of photo trips over the years have forged an intimate bond with nature. It is only when I leave the comforts of civilization and find myself awakened in some unknown wilderness, that I feel I have truly returned home.