ARLINGTON -- While recovering from brain surgery, Arlington resident Arno Knapen turned to nature photography at River Legacy Parks to help his mind regain sharpness.
At the north Arlington environmental area, the 50-year-old American Airlines pilot forced himself to focus through the lens of his camera as he snapped thousands of "macro" images of insects and wildlife starting in early 2009.
He later donated almost 700 of those images to the River Legacy Foundation, which used some of them on a bookmark distributed for its annual fundraising campaign. Now, a new exhibit, "Nature Inspirations," at the River Legacy Living Science Center showcases 20 of Knapen's photos. At 10 a.m. Saturday, he'll share his story and more of his favorites in a slide show presentation.
"I think the staff is doing a great job," he said after getting a sneak peek of the exhibit this week. "They picked a very diverse selection that shows how great the park is if you just open your eyes." In late summer 2008, doctors removed a benign tumor called a hemangioblastoma from Knapen's cerebellum. With plenty of rest, he said, they expected him to recover.
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But as fall turned to winter, Knapen, who also was going through a divorce, had problems. He often forgot the simplest things, which in turn angered him.
"I found myself in the parking lot at Home Depot unable to remember how to get home," he said. "My entire focus had been on why I needed to go to the store. But once I got there, I forgot everything else. I was sitting in the car and I could remember being a fighter pilot and doing the twists and turns in the air. But I couldn't remember the way home."
Knapen eventually sought the help of a neuropsychiatrist for his postsurgical troubles. He also turned to Sudoku, word search puzzles and photography, an old friend he hadn't seen much since high school.
With a camera, as in the cockpit, the operator has to make complex choices, like aperture, shutter speed and angle.
So Knapen bought a camera with all the bells and whistles and headed toward River Legacy Parks. He had been drawn there during long walks and bicycle rides earlier in his recovery.
"I would just go sit in the sun," he said. "The spring flowers were coming out. It changes constantly, and there's always something new. It's really an amazing ecosystem in there."
The images he recorded are colorful and clear. Many are of insects on flowers. His favorite shows dewdrops on the wings of a dragonfly. Another depicts a caterpillar's fuzzy body as it crawls along a blade of grass.
River Legacy naturalist Teddy Dillingham had the difficult job of choosing the photos for the exhibit, communications assistant Kristi Payne said. The choices were made "not only for their photo quality but their educational value as well," Payne said. "We wanted to give our guests an up-close look at nature -- the plants and animals that live in our park every single day but are not necessarily seen by the common eye, but Arno did an amazing job of capturing them with his camera," she said.
Eighteen months after surgery, following extensive tests, Knapen returned to the air in January 2010.
"I'm excited to see it up and going," he said of the exhibit. "I sure hope people enjoy it and take it in for what it is worth."
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Patrick M. Walker, 817-390-7423