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pete_k_muller

Pete Muller

“This is how it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” Visual artist and National Geographic Fellow.

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Pine River Pond

SOUND ON: On a bright morning near summer's end, as cool winds stir the pines, I crush wintergreen between my fingers. As I have since I was a boy, I hold the leaves to my nose and savor their fresh, distinctive smell. It grows in shimmering green patches on the slopes of our family camp in New Hampshire, a place that feels more associated with the smell of burning wood, bacon and pine. Wintergreen always felt like a refreshing secret. It was here that my Swedish grandfather showed the mountains to my father and he, in turn, showed them to my sister and me. We drank from streams and cross ridge lines along which we extended our palms toward the clouds that enveloped us. For too long I strayed from these landscapes, drawn to places distant and different. I had things to engage and uncover both within and beyond. These days, my father's legs fail him and he spends days reading and writing on the porch. The wintergreen and water are beyond his range. We sit and talk in the shade, sipping coffee and eating sweets. With each year it is more evident that the tall, New England pines have shaped us both.

Dog days. Amman. It's cooler here than I remember. Even in August. The years in South Sudan changed my threshold of heat. I write in the morning and later sit in the sun with Mosi and my thoughts. I look at books by the American painter Andrew Wyeth and think of how he saw and rendered the world. "That's what painting has been to me," he writes. "Following a long thread leading like time to change and evolution. Nothing I've ever done has scratched the surface of what I want to do." Things are changing in and around me and I find myself looking more frequently to artists like Wyeth for guidance and inspiration.

SOUND ON. By the peak of South Sudan's dry season, the cattle camps migrate far beyond the roads. The men tasked with maintaining the herds move in accordance with water and grazing grounds. To find the camp, we pick up a rotating series of young boys to guide us. Excited to ride in a car, they hop in to direct us in shifts. With authority that exceeds their years, they show us across dry river beds and vast empty landscapes. Dust encases my lips and hair. The skin on my back burns as heat rash sets in. After nearly two days, we arrive on the banks of a stagnant river. It is the last remaining lifeline for the cattle herds of the area and thus a fiercely contested resource. The area is home to an array of heavily armed groups, all of which require the same resources to keep their cattle alive. During the night, young men sing the praises of individual cows and bulls and dare surrounding communities to steal them. Those calls are what you’re hearing now. The next morning, a raiding party arrives on the edge of the camp. Shooting erupts. Chasing. Five young men are killed. We carry back a man who was bitten in the arm by a poisonous snake as the repelling party crossed the river. He moaned the entire journey. It was the most remote place I'd ever been.

I was drawn to this portrait of the Protestant theologian, Martin Luther, in the National Museum in Stockholm. The accompanying plaque said that he was known to have a wicked sense of humor. Hard to imagine. What do you think he joked about? This afternoon I was reading a short history of sexuality in which Luther came up. In response to a question regarding his distaste for sex he said, "had God consulted me in the matter, I would have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay." Sounds like a hoot 😬

Lingbo

Day 1. At the start of a sweltering day in Juba, South Sudan, I sat across a table from Laura Heaton. I suffered a bruising hangover that I compounded with coffee and cigarettes. At this early point in my career, I was convinced that being quasi self-destructive was part of being a photojournalist. But as the morning temperature climbed into the 90s, I could not have felt worse. Laura, on the other hand, was radiant and well rested. She ordered a bowl of strawberries and sipped a cup of tea. She was in town reporting a story about young South Sudanese who'd returned from abroad ahead of the country's long awaited independence. She was voraciously curious, well organized and razor sharp. As I observed her manner, the myth of the hard-partying, gonzo journalist began to wane. Here was someone who cared deeply about her work, understood the energy it required and conducted herself accordingly. I admired her and the example she set helped me reevaluate my own approach to work and life. In the ensuing years, she became a trusted friend and source of creative, intellectual and professional support. It is an honor to watch her join paths with Conor Phillips, a keenly observant and equally kind and good-natured man, in Lingbo, Sweden this week. Together, they represent the best of all things within us.

So began a period of quiet study, through books and websites, trial and error, in this graceful, patient art. I made nearly a dozen trips to the rivers of central Kenya before feeling even a nibble from the trout below. But despite my initial lack of success, my excursions created both ease and excitement within me. As I’d walk and cast, and sit and write, I understood that the hooking of fish was but an excuse to explore and observe. To notice the sweet, enveloping scent of Angel Trumpets as the sun begins to set behind the hills. To watch pairs of Black African Ducks surf the current as mid-morning sun chases out the mist. To once again consider things both bigger and smaller than I. And as the fish began to take my flies, I came to know that the river had given me more than I had initially asked. I’d arrived in search of peace and pastime, a counterweight to the stresses in my life. But as I waded in the eddies, in a cathedral of mist and wood and leaves, I felt connected, as I did on the summer days of my childhood, when sand sharks and puffer fish made my heart beat with curiosity and wonder.

As John and I traverse the river, I realize that our definitions of fly-fishing vary. John, like nearly all people who fish for sustenance rather than recreation, prefers to catch fish than spar with them, and therefore occasionally baits his line. His method is effective, but for my more meditative aims, I pursue a slower, purer and far less fruitful approach. John could teach me about the river, about its history and ecology, but the subtleties of technical fly-fishing would be my own to learn. ———————————————————— I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the current issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart. @aberdare_cottages

Below the village where the camp once stood, John points to calm pools where fish linger and feed. I wade in, moving cautiously amid the rocks and swift currents, and fitfully cast my line. On my first visits, I know nothing of the principles of fly-fishing: about the presentation of the fly, about keeping the line taut while allowing it to float freely enough that fish mistake the artificial fly for a real one caught in the current. I mistakenly believed, as most do, that the difficulty of fly-fishing lay simply in its famous back-and-forth casting. In fact, fly-fishing is a complex study of both technique and ecology, requiring knowledge of the rhythms of the river and how fish feed, in order to effectively trick fish in one of their most basic skills.——————————————- I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the current issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart. @aberdare_cottages

I rent a basic cottage at the river’s edge where the sounds of the Mathioya are always present. I follow John Ngaii Moses, a nimble man who, at the age of 57, moves across wet stones with a grace and confidence of someone younger. His life began at a time when the valley’s beauty was tainted by man’s conflict and injustice. John was born in an internment camp above the river in the village of Kamuturi in 1961, during a period of “emergency law” when British colonists interned tens of thousands of Kenyans as they sought to suppress an armed movement for independence. The story of his birth reminds me, as other situations have, that men can enact violence and cruelty even in the most serene of places. —————————— In the coming days I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the August issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart.

It was to waters that I returned, nearly three decades later, in search of solace and connection. Between assignments, I began to drive out from the chaos of the capital of Nairobi, where I live, to the undulating hills that surround central Kenya’s Ragati and Mathioya Rivers. The slow-flowing Ragati drifts through protected indigenous forest, where a network of paths, used by humans, leopards, elephants, and buffalo, cut through lush vegetation. The Mathioya is a clear, impressive river that rushes through the heartland of Kenyan tea production, between the slopes of the Aberdares Mountains and the glacial peaks of Mount Kenya. Both rivers are home to populations of furtive brown and rainbow trout maintained through the stocking programs of the few nearby fishing clubs and lodges.——————————————————— In the coming days I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the current issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart.

Fly-fishing, with its knot-tying, wading, and rhythmic casting, embodied a type of artistry that seemed a meditative antidote to the chaos I’d photographed in recent years. I’d not cast a fishing line since the age of 10 or so, when I used bait and lures to fish the Atlantic waters that surrounded the places I lived as a child, first along the coast of New Jersey and, later, in Massachusetts. My mother’s boyfriend at the time taught me the basics. He was a large, avuncular man who’d been an interrogator in the Special Forces, an experience that left him with his own scars. As he affixed lures to his line, he explained that he could handle little more than fishing and taking photographs, the latter his chosen profession after leaving the military. At dusk along the jetties, his hand resting comfortably on the rod, he seemed at ease. ——————————- In the coming days I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the current issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart.

I began to venture to the highlands of central Kenya in 2013, with a hope that its rivers might exert their transformative power upon me, smoothing my edges as they have, over time, polished the stones in their path. I’ve never been entirely free of emotional distress but my years of working as a photojournalist in some of Africa’s most conflicted environments left additional barbs in me. With time, it became hard to differentiate the conflicts within and before me. Gradually, it seemed, they became intertwined and I came to feel an expanding sense of tension and discomfort in my core. ———————————— In the coming days I’m sharing photos and excerpts of a written essay that appears in the current issue of @natgeo magazine. I travel a lot and people often ask about my favorite place. Without equivocation, it is the lush highlands of central Kenya. There is no place closer to my heart. @aberdare_cottages

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