The ABC's of nature

Photographer Kjell Sandved
finds letters in nature.

Kjell Sandved sees a bird watcher when he looks at this picture of a teasel seed.


We would love to see the world through Kjell Sandved's eyes. It would be like putting on a pair of magic glasses that revealed nature's hidden designs, such as the tiny alphabet Sandved discovered in the wings of moths and butterflies. The Yak first wrote about Sandved, whose first name sounds like "shell," in 1996, shortly after he published his beautiful book "The Butterfly Alphabet." He also made the alphabet into a poster using butterfly and moth letters and numbers.

Now, the famous Norwegian-born nature photographer has produced an all-new alphabet, "The Nature Alphabet." There's no book yet, but there is a poster, above -- and it shimmers, thanks to a new Kodak printing process called Endura. Sandved says he discovered the new alphabet the same way he discovered the first -- by accident.

"I was going through my slides about four months ago," said Sandved, who recently retired as a lecturer and nature photographer for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "I was looking at a crab I photographed in a shallow Pacific coral reef, then at a viper snake I shot in a jungle in Panama. The crab looked like a 'D,' and the snake looked like a 'Q.' I sat back and closed my eyes and thought: 'How could I be so stupid? I have the letters and numbers to make another book and another poster of nature.'"

Amazingly, Sandved said, he never worried that he wouldn't find all of the letters of the alphabet and the numbers zero through nine in his more than 20,000 slides of animals, plants, rocks and trees. Sandved has spent more than 40 years tramping through cloud and rain forests, wading through swamps, scuba diving on coral reefs and looking closely at nature on every continent. So that would make him how old? "The doctors tell me I'm 82, but I don't believe it," Sandved said.

Sandved tells the most incredible stories, which is why he was such a popular Smithsonian lecturer for so many years. And he has a story for every letter and number in "The Nature Alphabet." For example, the "A" is formed by a green inchworm stretched between the "V" of a green branch. Unlike a caterpillar, an inchworm has no feet down the length of its body. But it does have foot pads and claws at both ends, enabling it to firmly push against two surfaces, such as a branch.

But Sandved is no "click, click" photographer, his term for the kind of shooter who snaps the first picture he or she sees. He studied that inchworm for a long time before shooting it.

The new poster can be ordered by calling Sandved at 800-ABC-WING or by visiting his Web site at www.butterflyalphabet.com. You can also have your name made, using one or two letters from the new alphabet and the rest from the butterfly alphabet. Eventually, names will be available in the nature alphabet, the butterfly alphabet or a mix of both!

By Patricia Chargot

Photo courtesy of Kjell Sandved/KRT

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