If you’re fortunate enough to be on Maria Bowling’s email list then you are in for a parade of delightful images that arrive like little gifts, taken either in her back garden in Springs — a butterfly here, a blossom there — or on her travels around the globe where she documents her underwater encounters with the creatures of the sea.
Later this month, when Scott Chaskey, a poet and the director of the Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, publishes his new book, “Seedtime,” her photo of a milkweed seed will be featured on the cover.
Ms. Bowling owes her connection to nature to her upbringing north of New York City, where both sets of grandparents had farms and where she “spent a lot of time outside.” Her grandmother was a botanist, with “a love of plants she passed on to me.” Add to the mix her mother, an artist who expressed herself through myriad mediums including painting, drawing, quilting, sewing, and dyeing.
In her first career Ms. Bowling followed in her mother’s footsteps, designing greeting cards, which she sold at such stores as Barney’s and Neiman Marcus, which once carried them “in every store in country.”
Then she received the calling to study Chinese medicine, mostly because she was drawn to its philosophy based on the five elements, but also because of her attraction to its herbal pharmacy. “The plants are what got me into Chinese medicine,” she said.
While practicing acupuncture combined with other modalities in her Springs house, her continuing interest in plants led her to study botanical illustration at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which in turn led her to photography. “The specimens would only last a certain amount of time,” she said. Photographs provided a more lasting reference. In 2007 she purchased a macro lens and began to “photograph the very inside of blossoms,” she said.
Around this time Ms. Bowling lost her sister. “I knew that I needed to process and honor the grief so that the impact of the trauma would not affect my health,” she said. “I was led to work with a shaman in the desert who wore a whale’s tooth around his neck during a ceremony.” In an intuitive rush, she knew that “making contact with cetaceans and the ocean held a key to my healing.”
Not wanting the constriction of scuba gear, which she has never used, Ms. Bowling free dives. “There’s something very liberating about just having fins, a snorkel mask, and a weight belt.” And, of course, her camera. “You can hold still — that stillness in the ocean and making contact in that way is what it’s about for me.” But it’s not all static. “When I take a picture of the animals, they’re moving, the water’s moving, and I’m moving.”
She approaches her subjects as a kindred spirit. “I always ask [them] permission first, and approach slowly, and allow them to be curious about me first.” For each picture she takes, she fills her lungs with only one breath.
“My first swim in Hawaii opened me up to an entirely new world. The ocean was very soothing, it embraced my grief, and allowed me to cry my salty tears in the swaying of her tides,” she said. “What happens when you go into the deep blue, you lose your sense of time and space. The ocean is so big you can’t see the bottom. It’s like being on another planet.”
The photographer’s travels have since taken her to such far-flung locales as Bimini, French Polynesia, the Bahamas, Mexico, and the Kingdom of Tonga. In her office, where she treats patients with acupuncture, floral acupuncture (a treatment that employs flower essences and sometimes gem elixirs instead of needles), and dispenses herbal remedies, her undersea photographs hang “to remind me and my patients that life can shift in a blink of an eye and to be fully present and experience each moment of the journey with grace.”
This fall, she was thrilled to encounter an orca whale, the largest predator on the planet, while swimming off Hawaii, a place through which the creatures navigate only rarely. “They’re the holy grail of the ocean.” Was she frightened? Not a bit. “They’re not known to attack humans in the wild,” she said. “I’ve been with humpbacks, whale sharks, white-tipped sharks, sunfish, sail fish, and dolphins, but this was the most powerful animal I’ve encountered. They have a very powerful presence in the ocean, a confidence in the way they move, and the sonar was very strong.”
This encounter, she said, “has been the highlight of my underwater work, and perhaps of my life so far. Very few people have been in the wild with them.”
Ms. Bowling has had many mentors along her path, to whom she owes debts of gratitude. Carlos Eyles, who has taken her under his wing, is a writer, photographer, and “living legend” in the free-diving community. The work of the 17th-century naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian inspires her photography on land.
Ms. Bowling prints her photos of lichens, bark, flowers, insects, birds — you name it — on glass, aluminum, even silk organza. Most of her work, including silk scarves, is available on her website, prettymedicine.com, and sells from $65 to $1,000 for limited editions. Besides her artwork, she also makes perfumes and salves derived from botanicals.
After many “magical encounters” on land and sea, she has concluded that “nature has many important gifts that arrive when we least expect them . . . a chance encounter with a pod of wild dolphins or . . . the blossoming of a magnolia in spring.”