A Fresh View

Scientist-turned-photographer Kelley Zylstra documents nature’s changing face.


Growing up in the concrete jungle of Chicago, Kelley (Downer ’04) Zylstra was a frequent visitor to the Brookfield Zoo, The Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. When she wasn’t out exploring the Windy City’s exhibits of nature, she tuned in for Marty Stouffer’s Wild America and paged through back issues of National Geographic.

Those experiences, Zylstra says, turned the city girl into a nature lover.

After graduating with an ecology degree from Northwestern and earning a master’s in entomology from the University of Massachusetts, Zylstra worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducting research to detect, monitor and control invasive insect species, primarily a Eurasian wood wasp that was threatening pine trees (and the associated billion-dollar lumber industry).

“The work kept me outside in the woods almost 365 days a year, which was, by far, the best part of the job,” says Zylstra. “I watched the forest constantly change from day to day and season to season, and I had my camera with me the whole time, documenting everything.”

Despite the freedom to spend every day outdoors, Zylstra was starting to feel suffocated by the bureaucracy of her government job. So when the recession led to federal cuts, including at the USDA, it was the breath of fresh air Zylstra needed.

“Having to redefine your vocation involves a lot of introspection. When I thought about what I would do if money were no object, I wanted to find a way to keep encountering wild places and documenting what I discovered there through the lens of my camera.

“I realized I needed to figure out how to make something I love into a career.”

Zylstra launched Kelley Elizabeth Photography two years ago and now makes a living documenting life, including love, marriage, families and other natural wonders. “A foundational pillar of science research is careful observation,” she says. “My purpose behind my camera is the same. My view is one of endless fascination with the world, whether I’m shooting a waterfall or a wedding. It’s my way of capturing something worth keeping.”

Zylstra also continues to photograph landscapes and wildlife—including close-ups of her beloved bugs—images she markets to nature magazines and sells as fine art in her Etsy.com store, KelleyElizabethPhoto.

In her photos and in life, Zylstra strives for an intimacy with nature that she nurtures by immersing herself in it every day, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of her German shorthaired pointers, Maya and Wesson, and always with her camera in hand. Her five-and-a-half-acre property in upstate New York—just an hour’s drive from the Canadian border—is next to a hemlock swamp and surrounded by acre after acre of hardwood forest.

Most people don’t live off of the land anymore, claims Zylstra, or even very close to it. “People approach the outdoors as a place full of things that can harm you: biting bugs, poisonous plants—even boredom.”

But if you are open to the outdoors, it will reveal itself to you in subtle, startling ways. “It has to be a deliberate relationship,” Zylstra advises, “one you’re continually cultivating by tuning into the landscapes around you and the rhythms that were here long before you were. That way you’ll notice the claw scratchings of a black bear on a pine tree or the singular V-shape made by the wings of a soaring turkey vulture.

“I’ve lived here eight years, and this place is still revealing itself to me,” she marvels. “Every day there are surprises—learning the rhythms and languages of all the inhabitants. Just the other morning, I was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by the caterwauling of barred owls in the swamp. It was eerie—and magical.”

For Zylstra, wild places are more than magical; they’re sacred: “No brick-and-mortar church has ever made me feel as worshipful or close to God as the forest, feeling the warmth of the light filtering through the canopy, kneeling on a soft cushion of moss, listening to chorusing birds and frogs, and smelling the balsam and rose hips.”

As a leafy cathedral, it’s picture perfect.

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