TOM EARNHARDT: The patience of Hugh Morton
Sunday, Aug, 16, 2020 -- Hugh Morton solved problems in the same way he took photographs in the natural world. His best images started with a vision and a plan to achieve it. Knowing what he wanted, Morton pursued his objectives with determination, technical expertise, and of course, patience.Posted — Updated
Hugh was also one of the finest photographers to ever hold a camera in our state. From the end of of his service in World War II, until his death in 2006, Hugh Morton was responsible for many of North Carolina’s most iconic photographs—coastal scenes, sports, politics, the environment, and all-things Grandfather Mountain.
Again, it was Hugh Morton’s vision, discipline, and willingness to work with others, that helped produce the right outcome for the environment and for tourism. The “missing link” in the Parkway opened to rave reviews in 1987.
As an evolving nature photographer in the 1990s, I studied Morton’s large animal photographs, his birds, his landscapes, and his sunsets, but for me, his wildflower photographs were simply the best. Each Hugh Morton image of a native wildflower was perfectly lighted, beautifully composed, and often framed by a dramatic backdrop. In his own unique way, he was the “Ansel Adams” of the Blue Ridge.
During a phone call in 2005, Morton shared with me the location of a wild patch one of North Carolina’s rarest native wildflowers, known as “Oconee Bell.” He told me the flower would be at its peak around March 15th and that I could expect the “best light” between 2:00 and 3:00 PM. His directions and instructions were precise. I’m quite sure that Mr. Morton had already envisioned the image that I would be taking.
A couple of years after Hugh Morton’s death in 2006, I had a conversation with his wife, Julia, at Grandfather Mountain. I ask her what quality made Hugh such an accomplished photographer. She did not hesitate in responding: “Patience! I often traveled with him while he looked for the perfect angle and waited for the best light to photograph a particular flower. I sometimes read two books before he got the picture he wanted. Don’t know who was more patient, Hugh or me?”
In retrospect, I am convinced that Hugh Morton solved problems in the same way he took photographs in the natural world. His best images started with a vision and a plan to achieve it. Knowing what he wanted, Morton pursued his objectives with determination, technical expertise, and of course, patience.
When I think of Hugh Morton, I am reminded of the work and legacy of other environmental leaders and advocates who have helped shape the way we confront challenges impacting life on this planet and our own quality of life. Such leaders include Wilma Dykeman (an early advocate for the French Broad River), Rachel Carson (who warned us about the environmental effects of unregulated chemicals), E.O. Wilson (our nation’s continuing champion of biodiversity), James Hansen (a leading advocate for national and international action on climate change), and Betsy Bennett (whose vision and tenacity gave us a North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the 21st century).
Morton and these other leaders identified a problem, sought the best advice, educated those around them, and then worked tirelessly until the problem was solved. To a person, they also left selfishness, personal gain, animosity, and politics at the door.
Perhaps the reason Hugh Morton and these other luminaries come to mind is that I don’t remember any of them ever saying that a problem was too difficult to solve. None of them ever implied that major environmental issues of the day “would just go away.” None of them ever approached difficult problems with the statement or attitude: “It is what it is.”
Unfortunately, too many individuals in positions of authority, at both the national and state level, have decided to take shortcuts as we deal with a global pandemic. They seem to have accepted transmission rates and hospitalization rates that are significantly higher than those of most other industrialized countries of the world. While other nations have virtually halted the transmission of coronavirus with the use of proven public health techniques, too many American officials are still engaged in magical thinking.
As a citizen, I want North Carolina‘s economy and our schools to open, but we must do it safely. As a parent, I want my children to be part of a state and nation in which science, civility, and shared sacrifice are the norm. As a person at three-quarter century mark, I don’t want to waste additional months “hoping and wishing.” I am ready to follow leaders with a vision, a plan to achieve it, and the patience to see it through.
As we deal with the worst pandemic in a century, a changing climate, and new generations hungering for contact with the natural world, think of Hugh Morton and the other leaders who have helped safeguard our natural resources.
These women and men had other careers and obligations, but each also had a vision for a healthier world. They worked as though our children and the planet depended on them.
Morton was a promoter of North Carolina tourism and of Grandfather Mountain. The mile-high swinging bridge, first built in the 1950s, has been a major attraction for visitors from around the world. (Photo 2)
Even though Hugh Morton build roads and buildings on Grandfather Mountain, you wouldn’t know it from a distance. He was passionate about preserving the unique ecosystems found on the mountain. Today, one-third of the mountain is operated by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation and the remaining two-thirds are protected as Grandfather Mountain State Park. The red berries in the foreground are mountain ash. ((Photo 3)
The rare wildflower Shortia galacifolia is commonly known as Oconee bell. It was first discovered in North Carolina by Andre Michaux, a French botanist, in the late 1700s. I photographed these flowers in March, 2006, with precise instructions from Hugh Morton. (Photo 4)
Photographing wildlife well requires a plan. You’ve got to “set up” in the right place, the right time, and in the right light. Photographing bald eagles, great egrets, and hummingbirds present different challenges...but all require infinite patience. (Photos 5, 6, and 7)
Sometimes the best light can occur on a rainy day. I happened upon this beautiful gentian one rainy morning in Buncombe County in early October. The rain highlighted the dark glossy leaves and the deep purple. (Photo 8)
Photographing a flower as simple as golden rod in September can turn into a special moment when honeybees appear! (Photo 9)
The “perfect light” at sunrise or sunset lasts only a few minutes each day. Getting a family of swans to fly in position at the precise moment requires intervention from “higher authorities.” (Photo 10)
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