UR Here: Examining the ‘loose parts’ of the natural world

As I was driving home recently from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City after finishing my first-ever nature photography workshop, my camera-obsessed eye could not help but see everything outside my car’s window as a picture. The principles of perspective, line, shape, pattern, texture, echo, visual flow and weight that I had learned from Minnesota photographers Bryan Hansel and John Gregor continued to beam out of my eyes. After thirty-six hours of instruction and field work, tying hills to fields, connecting trees to windmills, linking land and sky in layers and tones, I was seeing in pictures. And as my mind also turned back to the class I was to teach the next day on Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle, I realized that what I was doing was enacting the theory at the core of the author’s work: the theory of “loose parts.”

Louv, who became well known for his book Last Child in the Woods and coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” asserts that our children have lost much in perceptual skill, understanding, creative play and well-being. Children have become more and more disconnected from the natural world, claims Louv. In his more recent book, The Nature Principle, he extends that argument out to the lives of adults as well.

The theory of “loose parts” harkens back to architect Simon Nicholson’s 1970s idea that working with “loose parts” in our environment — materials that can be moved around, redesigned, taken apart, put back together without preset directions — can drive and enhance our creativity. Child development and education experts have since applied this idea to creative play. “Loose parts” — including everything you can find in nature — are virtually infinite and infinitely combinable, whereas the “parts” of, say, a computer game, which admittedly can be vast, are nonetheless predetermined and finite.

Louv brings this notion to nature play, saying, “In a tree, a woods, a field, a mountain, a ravine, a vacant lot, the number of loose parts is unlimited,” and “exposure to the loose but related parts of nature can encourage a greater sensitivity to patterns that underlie all experience, all matter, and all that matters.” Louv extends his line of thinking even further: “Creative genius is not the accumulation of knowledge; it is the ability to see patterns in the universe, to detect hidden links between what is and what could be.”

Photo by Tom Dean
Photo by Tom Dean

Now, I am not claiming to be any kind of creative genius, and certainly not a photographic genius in my amateur fumblings with f-stops and shutter speeds. But I’ve very much enjoyed the symbiotic relationship I have found between my interest in photography and my love of the natural world. When I take a photo, because I want to compose a good image of the world I see in front of me, I am compelled first to stop, to be still, to look with purpose and intent. The relationships among the flowers, the grasses, the trees, the water, the rises and swales, the clouds, the birds, the moths, even the duff beneath my feet all slowly reveal the beauty and pattern to my eyes as I pay deeper and deeper attention. I hone in on what I think will make an aesthetically pleasing image, determine what I think will be the best camera settings and snap the shutter — and my apperception of the “loose parts” before me has allowed for what I hope is a good creative expression.

But much more is also happening, surpassing my seeing of patterns that I hope will resolve into an attractive combination of megapixels. My concentration on my environment does not end when I capture a composed image. My photographic mission has focused my attention, but my immersion in the natural place has yielded discernment much deeper than what I hope the camera has apprehended. Nature is not something to be framed; the patterns and interconnections extend infinitely past a photograph’s borders. Making a picture is only a doorway, a first step through to the infinite beauty and meaning of the living world.

After the shutter snaps, the colors and tones of tree bark and sky deepen further for me. The lines of bluestem and still-bare spring oak branches extend infinitely beyond my vision. Visual echoes of horizon line and prairie burn’s edge redound, and audible echoes of wind brushing brittle grasses still standing from last year merge with meadowlark song — “spring of THE year.” My nostrils take in the scent of softening topsoil, connecting me to the deep roots quickening below. All my senses open. Everything becomes one, the interdependent web of the biotic community inviting me to acknowledge my own living presence in this particular place, at this precise moment in time, grounding me in the larger extension and expanse of this earth — and universe — beyond my senses.

Yes, I get all that from taking a picture. I could never have this experience of the living world from any screen — from a phone, a computer, a television, or even a camera’s LCD screen, despite their millions, even billions and trillions, of bits, bytes and megapixels. Taking nature photographs helps me start perceiving and connecting the endless “loose parts” of the natural world — the real world. Whatever helps you do so — hiking, biking, singing, painting, writing, playing, meditating in nature — the world is opening and enlivening now that it’s spring. It’s time to loosen ourselves from our screens and merge with the infinity possibilities of reality.

Thomas Dean’s first camera was a 126 Kodak Instamatic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 198.

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