Photographing the sacred

Todd Pickering
Although he's been connected to West Marin his entire life, photographer Todd Pickering still feels like a newcomer with a longing to belong. "I visit and revisit trees and beaches, hilltops and valleys, hoping to be remembered and welcomed," he said. His images show at Toby's next month.  

How and where do you experience the sacred land of Point Reyes? That’s the driving question for a new exhibit coming to Toby’s Gallery next month, featuring the beautiful black-and-white nature photographs of Todd Pickering accompanied by essays from 15 community members: a rancher, a surfer, a poet, a doctor, a park ranger and more. 

“Words and images have a buildup of power,” Todd said. “Each one supports the other in an important way.”

The exhibition is part of The Geography of Hope, a series of gatherings, hikes, film conversations and art exhibits organized yearly by the nonprofit Black Mountain Circle. This year’s theme is “The Sacred in the Land,” which event organizer Steve Costa said Todd captures better than anyone.  

Todd’s family has lived in West Marin since 1898, and Todd has been a permanent resident for the last three decades. “There is blackberry in my tissue, bay laurel in my lungs, and sea salt in my veins,” he wrote in his artist statement. 

While shooting, he attempts to find a point of rest—a wave just before it breaks, a lone tree branch on a still evening. “When I feel the quietness of something, that’s the arrival of something beautiful to me,” he said. He enjoys black-and-white for the way it strips down a picture to its essence. This helps him translate a photograph into an icon of a feeling.

Creating his own wooden frames completes his “treasure hunt,” he said. For the upcoming exhibit, he also crafted three benches out of bay, oak and madrone, and a redwood table so visitors can sit and write their own answers to the driving question. The responses will be posted on the wall to provide an interactive experience. 

“It’s one thing to be inspired by the photographs and the words of these 15 locals,” Steve said. “But, given what’s swirling around us today, it’s also important that we challenge and invite people to step back and take a breath, and [ask] if they know the sacred in the land.” 

The 15 essays, compiled in a spiral-bound book, explore that theme. “This is a constellation of voices,” said Claire Peaslee, a nature writer who curated the essays. She said she recruited a broad swath of age ranges and lifestyles and gave little instruction; styles vary from short to long, from anecdotal to discursive, and from straightforward to experimental. “Each person has her own relationship with the sacred in the land,” Claire said, “so let’s have a group conversation about that theme.” 

Her own essay is about listening to Gaia, the lifeforce of the earth that she feels is particularly strong in certain places on Point Reyes. Surfer Ken Otter’s essay is about the connection he feels with his surroundings while he’s riding a wave. Poet Brian Kirven likens plunging into the ocean to being baptized: “I become water itself, unbroken, whole, in a kind of liquid religious experience with our Earth’s most precious resource,” he wrote. 

“When you ask just about anybody, they have a sacred place and they can explore what it does for them,” Claire said.

The theme for this year’s Geography of Hope series arose from presentations at past conferences by Native American wisdom-keepers. The speakers reminded the organizers of the traditional indigenous appreciation of the sacred in the land, Steve said. Originally, he thought of inviting Bay Area photographers that had spent time in Point Reyes for an exhibit, but after Todd shared his portfolio during a dinner at the Mesa Refuge in January, Steve decided to create a solo show. “The photographs brought tears to my eyes when I saw them,” he said.

When Todd is out on the peninsula, he says he feels a spirit figure that’s been coming to him in dreams for 30 years. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it matches a familiar feeling of melancholy, and he suspects it reflects the land’s nostalgia for its people. 

For thousands of years, the Coast Miwok passed down intimate knowledge of their natural surroundings, while the people who live here now are basically visitors, he said. “So, I think there’s a sort of echo, or resonance, from people being here for so long, and then not being here,” he said. His photographs attempt to evoke that silence.


“This Sacred Land: Images and words from Point Reyes” shows from Sept. 5 until the end of the month during Toby’s Feed Barn’s business hours. A reception will be held on Sept. 7 from 2 to 4 p.m. On Sept. 26 at 5 p.m., the essay writers will speak. Essayists include Harmony Grisman, Cicely Muldoon, Kevin Lunny, Dr. Anna O’Malley, Madeline Hope, Arron Wilder, Jules Evans, Gwen Heistand, Lina Jane Prairie, Ken Otter, Brian Kirven, Claire Peaslee, Cindy Davis, Ruby Raye Clarke and Zoë Rocco-Zilber.