The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun”

Earlier this year, I asked a few friends on Facebook what songs bring them hope. The response was overwhelming, and the suggestions they provided allowed me to make a 90-minute audio cassette mixtape, complete with a side A and a side B. Just as I have my characters in Fossil Five explore the process involved in making a mixtape, I enjoyed the process of breaking out the calculator to make build both sides with as little empty tape as possible.

After I completed the mixtape, I decided that it would be a good frame for me to write an essay for each song, and focus on the hope that these tunes provide. This is the first in a series of essays inspired by the songs that all of you helped me create.

Here’s to you, and to all of us, in the hope we provide, and receive, along our journeys.


The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles. Essay #1

All photos were taken by me. Please provide credit to me and this page if you use them elsewhere.

I’ve always been fascinated by sunrises, and most of my better photo shoots have come at the expense of a rising sun – usually on a mountain top or on the water’s edge. This goes way back to my early childhood where, in late days in July, my dad and I would leave the house at 3 a.m. and head to Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore, where we would rent a rowboat from Shnaitman’s Boat House to spend the early hours crabbing on the Wye River. We’d have the boat on the water by 5 a.m., a good hour before the sun actually broke the horizon. I remember clearly the reverent pause in our crabbing when sunrise was imminent. The taut hand lines that had blue crabs tugging at the fresh bait could wait a minute or two as we watched in silence the first line of light find its way over the water. When it crested, we returned to our work without a word, checking the lines and manning the nets as we culled our first dozen from the brackish waters of the Wye.

Years later, when I was in college, my friend Trina and I would take midnight road trips to the beach, watching the sun rise as we walked the foam line of the incoming or outgoing tide. With film camera in hand, I did my best to capture the moment when the sun broke the horizon line. Some of the pictures silhouetted Trina against the wet, fluid brushstrokes of crimson, violet, and gold. We were tired in those pre-dawn moments, but with the rising sun, we felt renewed, energized by the light filling the sky, and us.

As we got older and established our own families, our overnight trips turned to pre-sunrise walks on New Year’s Day. Our last jaunt, 2014, was to the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre De Grace to see the sun rise over the upper tip of Chesapeake Bay in northeast Maryland. This time, the camera I held was a nifty digital Nikon, but the result was the same: magnificent hues with Trina silhouetted against the pre-dawn light.

Throughout my life, I have hiked mountains just to get a glimpse of the sun before anyone else. The elevation gave me the edge over the rest of the world, and I would be afforded a few extra minutes to cherish and receive the energy of the day’s new light, virgin rays of life and Chi that few others would receive. For days – maybe years – I would carry that energy deep within me. Even now, I can tap into these very precious moments and feel a new life coursing through my veins as if the rising sun were my blood, my oxygen to live fully another day.

My most recent trip was in 2015, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina to watch the sun rise atop Big Bald Mountain. The pictures I got were breathtaking, but the personal experience of being there, as witness to the rising, was in itself unforgettable, caught between the full moon setting in the west and the great sun rising in the east. I was in the center of the universe. I ended up writing a longer essay (“14 Hours In Light“) that I published here on my site in a series of smaller reflections. The experience renewed my hope at a time when I was struggling mightily.

It was there that I realized the energy I had in front of me was afforded to all of us each and every day, regardless of where where we stand when that great sun makes its first appearance of the day. The light in our lives promises us just that – and it is indiscriminate, abundant, fulfilling. The sun’s energy and hope, its comfort and warmth, are boundless, unending, and open for all.

And so it is: A new day begins. For indeed, here comes the sun.

Seek hope in light – it is always there waiting to be received… by you, for you. in all ways. There is no greater way to drive out darkness. In patience, we shall always be recipients of the energy that provides hope.


The Story Behind The Picture: Solitary Pony on Assateague Island


Solitary Pony on Assateague Island. Photo: rus vanwestervelt, 2010.

My buddy Brad and I were in Ocean City, MD with our families, and we decided over dinner one night that we would head in to Assateague Island, MD the next morning to get photos of the horses on the beach at sunrise.

The weather, itself, did not disappoint. An agitated swirl of cirrus clouds preceded the rising sun, and we were treated to a beautiful pre-sunrise that left us somewhat breathless.

The only problem we faced was the lack of wild ponies. In fact, we couldn’t find a single one.

After our initial shoot of the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean, we headed back toward the Jeep to pack up and see if we could find any herding ponies in the dunes (we eventually did). As we started to get into the Jeep, we turned to give the rising sun one more look.

To our shock, a small herd of ponies had appeared on the dune’s horizon, and we immediately began taking photos.

This was the last one I took, pulling back as far as I could to get the rising sun and solitary pony at opposite ends of the frame. I knew when I depressed the shutter that it would end up being one of my favorite photos that I have ever taken. Today, that still stands true.

I guess it pays to keep looking up, keep living an attentive life, and keep capturing the beauty that exists in each moment. I am grateful that we looked up to see such beauty.


An Afternoon in Butler, MD

The following photos were all taken in Butler, MD, earlier this afternoon while on our way to Maryland Saddlery. Madelyn needed a new bit for her bridle, so Braeden and I took to the back roads to snap a few photos. All of these pictures were taken within 2 miles of the Saddlery. There’s beauty to behold everywhere in and around Baltimore. All we need to do is slow down and open our eyes more often.


Two Red Doors. There’s an old stone building on Butler Road, just across the street from the Saddlery. I’m not too sure what it is being used for today, but somebody is taking very good care of it. My first thought when I saw the two doors was that old short story that’s still used in many middle school classrooms, called “Lady, Or The Tiger?” written by Frank Stockton. Which door do you choose? What lies beyond each?


Pink and Purple Loosestrife Wildflowers. Although these were planted in a nicely landscaped bed at the entrance to Maryland Saddlery, you can find these beautiful flowers attracting butterflies all over Maryland.

Silver-Spotted Skipper. One of the most fascinating facts about this common skipper is that they almost never visit flowers that are yellow. Instead, they are attracted to blue, red, pink, and purple flowers. As you can see, today’s skipper was in no mood to be different.

Sweet Maryland Corn. If you are not a native to Maryland, I recommend three must-haves if you visit us during the summer months. First, real Maryland crabs. Just ask for some “number one jimmies,” and you will experience some real seafood nirvana. Second, be sure to pick up some Maryland tomatoes; nothing beats the meaty taste of a good local vine-picked tomato. Third, don’t leave without trying some sweet Maryland corn. We soak ours for about 30 minutes and then cook them (still in the husk with the silk removed) right on the grill for about 25 minutes. Once off the grill, we add butter and Old Bay for a sweet Maryland treat.

If you do these three things on your next visit, you may be looking at some real estate catalogs before you leave town.

Your Standard Maryland Red Barn. It’s pretty hard to drive five miles in any direction when you are in rural Maryland and not see one of these beautiful red barns along the side of the road. Whether they are used to store feed or equipment, they are a mainstay among the rolling farmland greens throughout the state.

If you live in Maryland and have suggestions of places I should visit and photograph, find me on Twitter (@rusvw13) and let me know!

Change Your Perspective, Change Your Life

Last Sunday, Oct. 27, I began my day with realizing the following:

Inspiration surrounds us in all things; we merely need to realize the beauty in what we already see.

The experiences we have, and the way in which we perceive and receive them, are entirely up to us. Sometimes, all we need to do is shift our perspective in the slightest of ways, and we are rewarded with unimaginable gifts.

It is hard, though. Too often, we are on auto-pilot, going through the day so fast that we hardly take the time to even process all that we see and experience.

Late in the afternoon on that same Sunday, my son and I took a walk around Deer Park in Carroll County. It was our first visit, and we were surprised with the number of playing fields, a fair-sized pond, and preserved lands along a meandering trail.

The park was, in many ways, similar to Sandy Mount Park, which is about 4 miles east of Deer Park: multiple fields, the paved trail that winds around the perimeter of the park, but much less wildlife and natural surroundings. In fact, at Sandy Mount, BGE has removed many of the trees that once served as a barrier to the noise, pollution, and visible traffic along Westminster Pike.

Very sad.

Anyway, in our walk around Deer Park, I took a few pictures. The sun was setting, and I wanted to take advantage of the light low to the horizon. My mind was pretty open to what I might find.

I never expected, though, to realize the truth so quickly in my early-morning words.

Two sets of photos showed me all I needed to experience the power of changing my perspective, just a little, and seeing the beauty that had been around me the entire time.

DSC_0473In this first photo of milkweeds, which I took at 5:33:09 p.m., I was pleased with how the focus of the plant contrasted the natural backdrop. The light hitting the pods from the right really added a nice dimension to an otherwise colorless image.

As we continued our walk, I was aware that the sun was setting over a barn in the background, and I was focused on getting that just right. As I was walking by to get more angles of the barn, I glanced back at the milkweeds in a remarkable light. Immediately, instead of seeing brown milkweed pods illuminated softly by a peripheral light,  I saw angels dancing in an explosion of fire, of energy, and I had to find a way to capture it. I underexposed the image by a few F stops, and got this next picture at 5:34:02, exactly 53 seconds after I had taken the first photo. DSC_0475

I could not believe the difference between the two images. All I needed to do was shift my perspective, by mere inches in this case, and I found myself enriched beyond measure with an image that seemed almost heavenly.

We continued our walk around the trail. I took a few more photos, and then we reached the pond.

When we first saw it, I was happy with the early fall canopy of matted oranges, greens, and browns that were in the background. I thought the bench added a nice touch, suggesting that we all need to take a break every now and then and enjoy the colors of the season.

Just in that thought, I had believed that I had already changed my perspective. I felt as if I had received the reward so easily, with very little effort.

I must be more mindful, now. More aware. Appreciating the moment is providing me many rewards along this path…

I took a few pictures of the pond and the bench. The time was 5:46:35 p.m.

DSC_0485Very nice, I thought.

I continued my walk along the edge of the pond and, when I reached the other side, I turned around to call my son.

I saw a different kind of sun, though, one that was now descending just along the top of the barn’s roof.

I was immediately struck by its beauty. This was not the same pond that I had just photographed minutes ago.

How could this be? It was as if I were experiencing two entirely different worlds, simply by walking to the other side of the water.

At 5:51:11 p.m., just 4 minutes and 36 seconds after I had taken the first photo of the pond, I took another shot. sunset deer park

I changed my perspective, and the experience changed my life.

I do my best to really seize the moment. I was raised on the mantra of Carpe Diem, or seize the day. I don’t know any other way to live my life.

But this. This experience in a short walk around a man-made park — a walk that lasted no more than 30 minutes, confirmed my words from early that morning:

Inspiration surrounds us in all things; we merely need to realize the beauty in what we already see.

Change your perspective, change your life. Not a bad way to seize this moment, now and for always, now and in all ways.


I’m An Artist, So Pay Me, Maybe?

Adam Byatt recently posted a piece about artists getting paid (or not), in response to a piece written by an artist named Amanda, who was responding to a letter that was sent to her by an artist named Amy.

Adam, Amanda, Amy… All artists. I’m thinking of changing my name to Arus (and it shall be pronounced A-roos, with a roll on the “r” if you can manage it) — at least for the purposes of writing this post.

I’ve been chatting off and on for several years about this topic with another artist, Cara. We both believe that giving abundantly provides abundant returns.

The question is: Where should artists stand when it comes to being paid for their work?

Before I even begin to answer that question, let me throw out a few particularly random, but relevant, thoughts.

The boom of the internet and the technology explosion have collectively oversaturated the market with good works at little to no cost. Nearly everybody with a smartphone can take a better-than-decent photo. Pretty it up on Instagram, Hipstamatic, or even iPhoto, and you can put together a great virtual album of photos worthy of their share of oohs and aahs, all of which will happen in a matter of seconds before friends and followers flip through their newsfeeds and move on to the next batch of artistic creations.

Never before have we been able to read so much, so immediately, and so efficiently. There’s a lot of good writing out there in the blogosphere, and virtually all of it is for free.

We are getting our “fix” of great art stuff — both making it and receiving it — and we don’t have to pay a dime for it. In fact, even when we want to purchase local artists’ works, we often have too many choices, and we simply cannot buy everybody’s books and photos that we would like to.

So where does that leave the artists who are trying to make a living through their creations?

We are being forced to rethink how we market our work (if at all), and to whom.

We cannot stop creating our photos, our sketches, our stories. It is a part of who we are; it is what we do, what we know, and what defines us.

We can choose other professions that sustain an income while we “dabble” with our art, but that’s not who we are. Our work suffers, and our contributions are never as significant as they should be. And, when we do invest a great deal of energy into a specific project, the returns are negligible, at best.

I have likened it in the past to CPR compressions. It’s getting harder and harder to create a product that isn’t on constant marketing life support. The minute we stop pumping energy into that product, it expires within a few days.

Very sad.

On Adam’s post, one commenter wrote that she has found a way around the “friends network” problem; she bypasses her local audience completely and sells her work in markets that are looking to buy high quality art.

This makes sense, and I think it’s worth a try to make that work if you are serious about making a living from your work. But it also saddens me to think that we need to go outside of our general community to have our work taken seriously. (For the record, I am ever grateful for the tight-knit group of supporters who has always purchased my stories and my photos.)

For me, I’m returning to some traditional means of publishing — sharing a little less online and through self-publishing, and submitting more work to reputable pubs and journals for consideration. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be blogging or posting through my social networks, but I will work harder on finding traditional markets to “accept” my work and build my credentials and clips.

Like Adam says, artists need to find their own path and walk it genuinely. For some, that’s the full-blown, make-a-living path. For others, it means giving, sharing, and submitting a little more generously while making some money in other ways.

I’m refining my own path, and it’s working for me. But I am, and always will be, an artist.

Photographing The Perseid Meteor Shower

Meteor Shower
If you are interested in capturing some great images this weekend of the Perseid Meteor Shower, here are a few tips that might help you.

Find The Darkest Area Possible

It’s getting harder to find such a place these days, but scope out a site that is free of city or suburban lights. It’s not enough to find a place where such light is behind you; it must be dark in all directions.

Choose A Place That Has A Nice Horizon

It’s always best to get shots that have a good contrast between earth and sky, so that any streaking meteors will be in the context of a natural landscape. Trees, water, or even rolling hills or rocky areas will be more than suitable.

Position Yourself Strategically

Find a place where the crescent moon is rising on the right side of the horizon. Jupiter and Venus will be aligning beautifully under the moon tonight (and then around it on the 12th and 13th). The meteors will be streaking above and to the left of the moon and the planets.

Use A Tripod

Stability is essential to get a good shot of a meteor streaking across the sky. It is impossible to hand-hold a camera for longer than a half-second without camera shake. And, when you are dealing with the extraordinary distance between you and the stars, any little movement will make a huge difference in the quality of the shot.

Use A Remote Shutter Release Cable

The ideal remote is wireless, but they can get a little expensive. Even triggering the shutter release with your finger when the camera is on the tripod might cause the camera to move. If you do not have a shutter release cable, take advantage of your camera’s self-timer.

Camera Settings

  • I recommend that your ISO be set to at least 1000, if not faster.
  • Your aperture should be opened all the way (the smaller the number, the larger the opening; I recommend anything below an aperture of 4.5).
  • Set the shutter speed for at least 15 to 30 seconds, if not more. If your camera has a “bulb” setting, you can do longer exposures. However, the longer the exposure, the more likely you will begin to capture star movement, due to the earth’s rotation. While this is a really cool image pattern to photograph, it detracts from the meteors streaking across the sky. A shutter speed of 15 to 30 seconds (even up to 1 minute) is a pretty good amount of time to get the meteors against an immobile sky. I would switch it up a bit and take many shots at varying shutter speeds.

Other Reminders

  • Have patience and be realistic with your expectations! You might take 50 long-exposure shots with the hope of one or two of them capturing a good meteor streaking across the sky.
  • Get set up before midnight, but be prepared to stay in position for several hours, if possible. The best meteors will light up the sky an hour or two before dawn.
  • Run a few test shots by varying the exposure times, aperture settings, and ISOs. The beauty of shooting with digital cameras is there is immediate gratification in checking your images on the LCD screen. Don’t hesitate to try many different combinations to make sure you are getting the shots you are looking for. Use the setting recommendations above as a starting point, and then customize at will.

Enjoy the time in the outdoors! The weather should be fairly cooperative, and a few clouds might even add a surprise element to the beauty of the show!

Gettysburg Sunrise: First Themed Slide Show

I am venturing into a new medium for sharing my photography: YouTube slide shows that feature my photos in specific themes.

The first “release” is Gettysburg Sunrise, 46 photos taken at the Gettysburg National Military Park in October 2011. If you like the video, please subscribe to my YouTube channel, as I will be releasing more photo slide shows in the near future. My next release will most likely be “Four Seasons,” presented with excerpts of Vivaldi’s masterpiece under the same title.

Enjoy Gettysburg Sunrise, presented with Enya’s “Cursum Perficio” and “Boadicea” from her CD, The Celts.

The Five-Minute Photo Shoot

photo: rus vanwestervelt, goucher college, towson, md 9/26/11

My drive home from school today took less time than I expected, and I had exactly ten extra minutes before I had to pick up my oldest daughter to take her to the gym.

Given the fact that I was still five minutes from home, that left me with exactly five minutes of spare time. What could I possibly accomplish in such little time?

I stopped at Goucher College (near my home), went in the direction of the pond on campus with camera in hand, and remained receptive to what might present itself to me. I was struck immediately by the brilliance of a single fruit dangling from a dying tree. After shooting five frames in under a minute, I wandered further down toward the pond. I disturbed a grasshopper in the tall weeds, and I followed him to a blade of grass (below). Fired off another 8 shots (took two of the tall grasses blowing in the wind), returned quickly to my Jeep, and headed home.

I was a little disappointed. I arrived home a minute early. I wondered what else would have presented itself if I had spent that minute at the pond?

photo: rus vanwestervelt, goucher college, towson, md 9/26/11