Irrefutable evidence of life after retirement

It started as a hobby, something to pass the time in their sunset years. But retired faculty member Hugh Nourse and his wife Carol have found second careers as nature photographers

B Y - M I S T Y - S T A R L E N E - H E R R I N

They never dreamed it would go this far. He was just having fun, poking around in the woods with a 35-mm camera. Seemed like a nice way for a retired economics professor to spend his sunset years, especially since his wife was gung-ho to be his accomplice. But then something went wrong. Hugh and Carol Nourse got too good at shooting pretty pictures of wildflowers. Before they knew it, they were spending nearly every waking hour chronicling Mother Nature's color-and-light show. Then they got published. Magazines and books. International travel opportunities followed. And now . . . well, the Nourses have messed up their retirement plans big-time. If they kick up their heels much higher, their AARP card will be revoked.

Top: The 145 photos in the Nourses' new book, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, represent six years of photographing UGA's 316-acre nature preserve.

Bottom: Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

"What began as an innocent little hobby photographing flowers has led to lots of exciting things," says Carol Nourse. "I never would have dreamed that we would be doing this. I thought that when Hugh retired, the pace of our lives would be slower. Instead, we're busier and having more fun than ever."

Hugh began teaching in the Terry College of Business in 1978 and went on to become one of UGA's most respected professors in the department of insurance, legal studies, and real estate. He was named MBA Professor of the Year by students in the 1992-93 school year and again in 1993-94. Students thought so much of him that they voted to name the prize the Hugh Nourse Award.

To combat their annual case of "flower withdrawal" during Georgia winters, the Nourses take photo safaris to exotic locales such as Hawaii and New Zealand.

Both Hugh and Carol had harbored life-long interests in photography. Carol began shooting photos as a teenager when she received a Brownie camera for Christmas; Hugh took to the medium later, in 1956 while in the service in Japan. But, as is often the case, work and family had relegated the hobby to the "someday" category.

"My first real interest in photography was to document our year and a half in Tokyo because we knew we would probably never return," says Hugh. "Even then, I was drawn to flowers. The cherry blossoms were so beautiful that I just had to try to capture them on film. But with the camera I had then, I couldn't get close enough." (That Petri Rangefinder he bought for $25 has now been replaced with several top-of-the-line Nikons.)

When they returned to the States, Hugh got busy with grad school and Carol, a science librarian, devoted most of her time to their three children. As Hugh says, "The extent of our photography was birthday parties and graduations."

In 1990, they took their first nature photography class—and suddenly everything changed. Hugh began to lead a double life: professor by day, shutterbug by night and on weekends. He and Carol joined the Georgia Botanical Society, where Hugh now serves as president, and they began taking field trips in search of wildflowers. When Hugh attended professional conferences, Carol would go along and scout out places to shoot. While he made presentations and listened to lectures, she hung out at botanical gardens and state parks. When the conferences ended, they would stay an extra day or two to take pictures. A conference in San Diego gave them the opportunity to shoot at Anz Borego Desert State Park. A conference in Los Angeles allowed them to take photos of the Joshua Tree National Monument and Huntington Botanical Garden.

Eventually, Hugh's avocation became too important to him, though at the time he had no idea it would one day become a second professional career. He opted for early retirement in 1996, and at his retirement party—held at the State Botanical Garden, of course—he and Carol put several of his flower photos on exhibit.

"I wanted to show everyone what I was up to—that I wasn't truly retiring," he says. "I was retiring from teaching to photography."

In the ensuing six years, Hugh and Carol have published photos in a number of national magazines (American Gardener, Wildflower, Nature Photographer, Backpacker).

Books were the next logical step. Their first effort, Wildflowers of Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 1999), was so successful that they quickly embarked on a second one, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which was published in November by the UGA Press. The large-format volume spotlights one of the University's most popular public service and outreach units.

Books are nothing new to Hugh, who has written five of them on economics and real estate. But he never thought he'd have two books of nature photographs under his belt and be well on the way to more.

Hugh's retirement gave the Nourses more time to travel—and to build up their slide library, which currently numbers 36,000 (every couple of years they weed out a few thousand). Their first trip taken solely for the purpose of photography was to New Zealand in January 1997. That trip is still my favorite," says Hugh. "It was a wonderful adventure. Down there it is spring in January, so a lot of things were in bloom."

Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) along the stream in the State Botanical Garden's International Garden.
One of the incidents Hugh remembers most vividly occurred on Fog Mountain.

"We ran across a tiny rare wildflower growing on a scree-covered slope that we had been slowly climbing all day," he says. "You know how it is with scree—you take one step forward and slide two steps back. I had to lie down full length to get close enough to the flower since it was so tiny, and the next thing I know I'm sliding down the mountain—me, the camera, and the tripod. But I eventually got it . . . and it's a good picture."

The New Zealand trip began a new tradition for the Nourses—traveling south in winter to get their "fix" of nature photography. In 2000, they went to Argentina and in 2001 to Peru.

"Carol calls these my Winter Psychiatric Trips," jokes Hugh. "I go through flower withdrawals in the winter months here in Georgia, so we have to go someplace where I can shoot something that's blooming."

"It's cheaper than a psychiatrist," says Carol, "and a lot more fun!"

The Nourses have just returned from Hawaii, where they photographed three tropical botanical gardens—two in Kauai, which is known as the "garden island" and the other in Maui.

As the Nourses have evolved from amateur photographers to professionals, they've also become well-informed amateur botanists. They can create a stunningly beautiful image of a rare wildflower in the north Georgia mountains—and rattle off its scientific name, too. Chances are, they're also familiar with its blooming habits, threats to its survival, other locales where it can be found, and which scientists are doing research on it. In their hybrid role as artists-scientists, the Nourses are active participants in some of Georgia's most important plant conservation efforts.

"Hugh and Carol have become indispensable parts of our conservation program," says Jim Affolter, director of research at the State Botanical Garden and a professor in the UGA horticulture department.

The Nourses often go along on research field trips with Affolter and Jennifer Ceska, plant conservation coordinator at the botanical garden, to document species they are studying.

"They bring solid scientific knowledge to their work," says Affolter. "They know to capture certain characteristics of plants that will help us identify them. They know to capture plants in the context of their habitats. And the photos they've donated have become an integral part of our public education efforts—the publications we create and our slide show presentations. They've been generous beyond belief."

The Nourses have put their winter vacations to good use. Their trip to Argentina two years ago was part of a botanical expedition led by several UGA faculty members, including Affolter and Jeff Lewis, director of the State Botanical Garden. Traveling at their own expense, Hugh and Carol documented important research work done by the UGA team.

In addition to their involvement with UGA initiatives, the Nourses are also working with Tom Patrick, state botanist for the natural heritage program in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, to complete the state's rare plants photo archive. They've hiked and waded through some of the wildest parts of the state searching for plants that few people have ever seen. They recently accompanied Patrick to Rabun Bald in the north Georgia mountains in search of a rare plant called "miserable sedge." The long, arduous hike through thick brambles paid off in images that are the only known photographic record of that species. Photos like these help land managers locate and identify species they must protect.

"We got to know many people involved in plant conservation in Georgia when we were trying to find rare species for Wildflowers of Georgia," says Carol. "With their help, we were able to locate and photograph those species, and we were delighted to find that they needed good photographs of some plants. We shared those we had, and continued looking for others."

Hugh says they get special satisfaction from capturing shots that conservationists need most: "When we're going out on a field trip and we know there are likely to be rare plants in the area, we'll be gunning for those."

The Nourses will go to great lengths to get their plant. In the fall of 1999 and 2000, they made repeated trips to the Okefenokee Swamp area looking for a plant called Hartwrightia for Tom Patrick. Every 10 days or so, they would make the 14-hour roundtrip by car, scouring one of only three remaining sites where this rare species grows, trying to get a shot of it in bloom. After several failed attempts, they found the tiny blue flower. In the process, they discovered a previously unknown fourth site, which is critical information for natural resource managers.

"Sometimes that kind of search takes months or even years," says Carol, "but what a thrill it is to finally find one in bloom!"

The Nourses' latest contribution to the conservation cause is their book on the State Botanical Garden. Through its celebration of the garden, the book will help promote awareness and appreciation of Georgia's biodiversity. And the Nourses are donating all of their proceeds from the book to the garden's plant conservation program.

"The garden has been a place we have enjoyed for over 20 years," says Hugh. "Our book is one way we can repay the people who have provided us that pleasure."

The 145 color photographs in The State Botanical Garden of Georgia are the culmination of more than six years of exploring and photographing the paths and collections of the 316-acre public preserve—which has been Hugh and Carol's photographic training ground since their first photo class in 1990.

"We live near the garden," says Carol, "so we could be there when the weather or the plants were at their best for photography. We set out to capture what is special about this garden."

That meant learning bloom times, experimenting with the shades and hues of daylight at various hours, mastering complicated equipment, marrying that technical expertise to the artistic process—and lots and lots of walking, which is an important health benefit for senior citizens.

"We're always chasing light," says Hugh. "We'll go back to an area again and again until we get the right light. I like to say that I paint flowers with light."

Carol's favorite photo in the book is a shot taken along the Orange Trail in autumn. "I like the way it evokes a feeling of fall," she says. "There aren't any trees actually in the shot, just reflections of orange, blue, and gray on the surface of the stream. It's an area you ordinarily wouldn't look at twice, but that was a magic moment."

In their dual role as artists-scientists, the Nourses are active in some of Georgia's most important nature conservation programs.

Above, from left: Lollipop plant (Pachystachys lutea), Saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana 'Alexandrina'), rose (Rosa floribunda 'Brass Band')

It's this kind of scrutiny and attention to detail and nuance that makes The State Botanical Garden of Georgia more than just a book about a Southern garden, albeit a diverse and lovely one. It's also a collection of magic moments in nature—and a reminder to look for them, savor them, and remember them.

"It's so exciting when something beautiful catches your eye, when a flower looks so glorious," says Hugh. "You want to capture it. You want other people to see it."

It's a variation on the old stop-and-smell-the-roses refrain, which has infused the Nourses' retirement years with the excitement of discovery. They look more closely at their surroundings than ever before, and they see—and preserve on film—subtle beauty that many people are too busy to notice.

"Hugh and Carol are sending a wonderful message: to find something you love doing," says former colleague Jim Verbrugge, head of UGA's finance department. "Hugh didn't really retire, he moved onto another passion."

"We look at the world differently now," says Hugh. "Even when we're not actually shooting—we can be driving along in the car—we're always pointing out things to each other that would make good photos."

Hugh's tweedy office jackets are attracting moths in the closet. Nowadays, he looks more like Indiana Jones when he heads out to "work": khaki photographer's vest, hiking boots or waders, cargo pants—and yes, on special occasions, mosquito netting head gear. Carol wears a Tilley hat, the Land Rover of outdoor headgear. Hugh lost his Tilley in Peru, so he's relegated to a garden hat. And they are always festooned with cameras, tripods, filters, lenses, and bags of film.

Like the early days when he tried in vain to get close enough to the cherry blossoms in Japan, Hugh prefers shooting flowers with a macro lens, while Carol is more likely to shoot landscapes. But there's no division of labor in this husband-and-wife enterprise. Theirs is a seamless collaboration, and all of their photos are jointly credited.

"Carol is a true partner," says Hugh. "We critique each other, ask each other for advice. We do all aspects of the photography together. It's wonderful when the two of you enjoy doing the same thing. We've been married for 48 years and we're closer now than ever."

"There are no 'average days,'" says Carol. "If you can find something that the two of you love doing, that's the way to go. Our kids are thrilled that the old folks are busy and happy."

Misty Starlene Herrin was publicity manager for the University of Georgia Press.

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