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Photographer Mark Hendricks in the mountains of the Chesapeake

Aristotle defined envy as annoyance at someone else’s success. Catholic teaching lists it among the seven deadly sins. But the sharp edges of ancient meaning have softened over time. So, when I say I envy Mark Hendricks — because he spent a morning with a bobcat in Shenandoah National Park, or because he was able to photograph a cerulean warbler in a nature preserve in West Virginia — it’s just a way of expressing awe at his good fortune.

And yet good fortune or fate have little to do with Hendricks’ harvest of photographs from his travels through the central Appalachian Mountains.

The harvest, now published in a 192-page book, required hard work, long hours in the woods and superhuman patience. If he had not gone out with his camera on that foggy Virginia morning — the fog adding an enticing layer of mystery to the waterfall Hendricks intended to photograph — he would not have crossed paths with the bobcat.

Even in Shenandoah National Park, you have to be in the right place at the right time, usually in twilight. Virginia wildlife officials say bobcats are “secretive, solitary and seldom observed.” In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources says bobcats are “uncommon.”

Mark Hendricks captured this image of a cerulean warbler in Eidolon Nature Preserve in West Virginia.
Cerulean warbler in Eidolon Nature Preserve, West Virginia. (Mark Hendricks)

So, that day in May 2013, Hendricks, who grew up in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University, was surprised to see one.

Surprised even more that the bobcat, after locking eyes for a moment with Hendricks, did not scamper into the underbrush.

If any luck was involved, it was in the nature of the particular bobcat. It did not seem to mind Hendricks’ presence. In fact, the animal went about its business, crouching, hunting for breakfast, unfazed by the man tracking him.

Hendricks followed the bobcat until it stopped behind a fallen tree and became fixated on something. Hendricks took the moment to slowly and quietly set up his camera on a tripod.

“In a sudden burst of action,” Hendricks writes, “the cat leapt over the log into some leaf clutter and caught a rodent-sized small mammal. It then disappeared … an abrupt ending to an unlikely story.”

But not before Hendricks got the bobcat photographs that appear in “The Central Appalachians: Mountains of the Chesapeake,” his book of images and prose from western Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

I would not call it a “coffee table book” for two reasons — because it’s smaller than the typical book of photography, and because the term demeans Hendricks’ work. Though full of images of flora and fauna from all four seasons, “The Central Appalachians,” from Schiffer Publishing, is not merely a “picture book.” There are stories and edifying captions on just about every page. Hendricks is as much a photojournalist as a nature photographer, noting the impact of climate change and habitat loss on wildlife or, say, the greed of humans who poach native plants from forest floors.

The subtitle of the book refers to the Appalachians as a geologic province of the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed, with major rivers having headwaters there.

“What happens terrestrially has a big impact on the water,” Hendricks writes, and thus his focus on the central Appalachian range. “The health of the mountains, the health of the water, and the health of the Bay. It is all but one and the same.”

Black bear cubs climb a tree in Shenandoah National Park. (Mark Hendricks)
Black bear cubs climb a tree in Shenandoah National Park. (Mark Hendricks)

The work of this book obviously took years, and some of the resulting images are stunning: A cerulean warbler in Eidolon Nature Preserve in West Virginia; three black bear cubs climbing the same tree in Shenandoah National Park; a barred owl chick in the hollow of a tree; flamingos blown off course by a hurricane and swimming in a pond in south-central Pennsylvania; elk in a meadow in the northern part of that state; a flock of cedar waxwings in the Finzel Swamp Preserve in western Maryland.

While in that part of the state, Hendricks donned a wetsuit and went underwater to capture life in the Savage River — a brook trout foraging among boulders for aquatic insects; minnows devouring a caterpillar; a wood turtle, a crayfish and the large salamander known as the Eastern hellbender.

There are numerous photographs of plant life — wildflowers (lady slippers and white trillium) wherever he found them; scarlet blueberry shrubs in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, and an old, stand-alone gray birch tree for which Hendricks developed a special fondness during trips to Shenandoah. The birch, he writes, is “a relic of the much-cooler past of the mountains.”

Almost all of Hendricks’ photography has a subdued quality, even when the subject is as bright as a goldfinch or as brilliant as maple trees in autumn. That’s not a criticism. It’s a statement of respect for honest photography that captures the natural world in its natural state  — the somber shadows of a forest, a mountain slope on a cloudy day, the oak and hickory forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains at dusk.

Mark Hendricks visited all those places numerous times. He devoted countless hours to recording life in the central Appalachians just as he found it — a long, good project worthy of envy.