Friday, November 3, 2017

Sit Spot

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I recently found a great little sit-spot on some big rocks in the mostly dry bed of Cataract Creek. It’s close to the trail, within earshot of passing hikers but out of sight behind the woods and walls of the ravine. There’s a small pool of water at the base of the rocks that the local birds know about, and if you sit still enough, a Pacific wren might skitter down for a drink just a few feet below you. Bigleaf maple, Doug fir, and tanoak make up most of the canopy, with hazel and huckleberry filling in some of the gaps on the forest floor. The space in between is fairly open, luminous in the morning sunshine, and the view from the sit spot gives the feeling of being suspended in that space.

Rippling unseen through the space was a placid soundscape of acorn woodpeckers cackling in the distance and an intermittent breeze breathing through the leaves overhead, all of which conspired to make me conscious of the atmosphere itself. If you think about it, the motion of gases in the air around us is as much a part of Earth’s fluid dynamics as the motion of water around fish in the ocean. And like the ocean, the fluid of our atmosphere isn’t composed of just one thing, but actually a myriad of different gas molecules, pollen grains, fungal spores, bacteria, and so on. The air actually has mass, or weight, and even hiking through it creates friction. With a little imagination you can picture yourself practically breast-stroking up the trail.

As you swim, think about the fact that while you are immersed in that sea of gas molecules, pollen grains, fungal spores, volatilized plant resins, and dust motes, that all of it is entering your body with every breath you take. Waves of light strike your skin and impart their warmth. Waves of sound strike into your ears and, like light entering your eyes, initiate a cascade of electro-chemical signals in your central nervous system, much of which rarely, if ever, escapes your subconscious realm. There is no sharp line dividing you from the atmosphere. In fact, there is no sharp line dividing you from everything that is.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Resonant Frequency

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So I was sitting on the edge of the world out at Chimney Rock this morning, thinking about a couple of books I've been reading: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean, and The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. At the base of the cliffs, elephant seals wriggled and belched while a rising tide began to reclaim their small sandy beach. Flocks of brown pelicans glided like arrows above lines of waves rising to meet the rocky shore. Looking out to sea, the Farallon Islands were the only point of reference in the silvery haze along the horizon. Large swells rippled inexorably toward shore on a low frequency, like pond ripples moving in slow motion.

According to the authors of these books, a hundred billion neurons and trillions of synapses were at work inside my skull as I sat cross-legged atop that coastal bluff in the morning sun, hardly moving a muscle. A bouillabaisse of more than a hundred different molecules, chemical compounds called neurotransmitters, were ferrying information within a forest of axons and dendrites, and the lunk with the camera bag hardly even noticed.

And that was just the stuff going on in my skull! The whole of my organism was respirating and metabolizing and doing countless other duties thanks to thirty-trillion cells that know more about chemistry, physics and biologyabout life itselfthan all the smartest scientists with all the latest technology in the whole wide world. And not only that, but whatever pebble fell fifteen billion years ago into the still and timeless void to get this surf party started, contained within itselffrom the strings that build the quarks that build atoms that build the molecules—every potential that makes our world and our lives possible.

Looking out at the swells resonating across the ocean, I could imagine tracing them back to their source, like a jungle explorer following the trails of wild animals toward some El Dorado, some mystical center, and it seemed in that moment that the point of emanation is what the old Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu called "the pivot of tao," and that if you could say only one thing about that point before saying a second thing and contradicting yourself, it would have to be that it all began in a state of bliss.

That's right. All the crap emanating through time and space, everything that's good and bad, loving and indifferent, chaotic and orderly, had to start somewhere, and if you simmer it all down to its original essence, the last scintilla in the pan is bliss.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

On my way out to Chimney Rock along rutted roads and cow-burnt hillsides, I stopped briefly along the road to North Beach to photograph the setting harvest moon. While I was at it I noticed a flicker of movement on the periphery of my right eye. I turned to look and could hardly believe what I was seeing. A coyote at the top of a dune was leaping into the air as a pair of female marsh hawks made teasing passes just out of reach. It was like something from Alice in Wonderland. "Are they playing?" I wondered incredulously as I scrambled to change to a longer lens. "No," I answered myself, "there must be something at least halfway serious going on."

The coyote leaped three times that I saw clearly, but by the time I got the long lens on the camera and dialed up the ISO to get a decent shutter speed, the coyote and the hawks had spotted me spotting them, and they broke it up. It reminded me of a Far Side cartoon where animals are always doing something totally unexpected when the humans aren't watching.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Mortal Asclepias

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I packed my camera gear up to Mt. Tam this morning to look for narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), a lovely plant whose generic name honors the son of Apollo, god of medicine. I don't remember to look for it every year, but I last photographed it on Mt. Tam in 2011. The only time I ever saw or photographed a monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on this plant that's so important to the life of monarchs, was 2003. There were no milkweed plants in their former haunts this year, not even at Potrero Meadow. I didn't see any jimsonweed either. I imagined a few seeds of both of these interesting and beautiful plants biding their time in the soil until conditions become favorable once again. Maybe next year.

UPDATE (9/26/17): I noticed my first blooming plum tree as I biked home from work today, which reminded me that a guy on the Marin Native Plants group on FB said the milkweed was blooming like crazy in Potrero Meadow back in late July, quite a bit earlier than usual. Shopping for yard plants at Sloat Garden Center last weekend I saw a monarch land on a plant and pointed it out to an employee who told me he'd found two monarch chrysalises just the week before. Yesterday afternoon I saw another monarch flutter by downtown, near Sue Bierman Park. It can't be good for monarchs to show up in fall, only to find the usual haunts of milkweed gone, having already bloomed weeks or months earlier.  

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Golden Asymmetry

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A hundred years before I was born, Louis Pasteur wrote that the difference on Earth between things that have life and things that don’t is like the difference between a static photograph and a dynamic one:

“Most natural organic products, the essential products of life, are asymmetric and possess such asymmetry that they are not superimposable on their image,” he wrote. “This establishes perhaps the only well-marked line of demarcation that can at present be drawn between the chemistry of dead matter and the chemistry of living matter.”

When you compose an image on your screen or in your viewfinder, you notice that simply moving the center of interest away from the center turns a static (dead) scene into a dynamic (living) one. We think about, or maybe intuit, the “rule of thirds” when making a composition, but a more useful concept might be the “golden ratio” which does not draw a perfect circle, a perfect symmetry that ends where it begins, but a dynamic spiral with endless possibilities. 

As science has learned only recently, the universe itself exists due to an asymmetry between the matter and antimatter that were created together at the beginning of time. In those first moments of creation, matter and antimatter could have annihilated each other, but for some still-unknown reason they didn’t. Instead, about one in a billion particles of matter escaped to become the world we know and love.

Instead of going out in the crazy heat to shoot pictures I've been reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. That's where I learned that life itself also depends on asymmetry, or what chemists call chirality. Kean led me to the Louis Pasteur quotation above, which in turn led me to wonder if science has figured out yet how life got started in the first place. Apparently it has not.

“If you think about the physical world, it is not at all obvious why you don’t just make more dead stuff. Why does a planet have the capability to sustain life? Why does life even occur? The dynamics of evolution should be able to address that question. Remarkably, we don’t have an idea even in principle of how to address that question….” – Physicist Nigel Goldenfeld in Quantamagazine.

It’s kind of fascinating to draw a line from a universe where matter got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a planet where life got a foothold due to asymmetry, to a time when human beings would roam the earth and find beauty in asymmetry, in a golden ratio that perhaps reflects an archetype of consciousness that’s as deep as Creation itself.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Pondering Sanskrit

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As I stare into a clear night sky and ponder mysteries such as the existence of life on other planets, I recall that life almost came to an end on our own planet during the Permian-Triassic extinction around 250 million years ago, long before the more famous dinosaur extinction. Life mysteriously arose on Earth nearly 4 billion years ago, then gaily swam about for the next 3.5 billion years before evolving the ability to come out of the water and onto the land. So it was just about half-way between then and now that life’s experiment on Earth nearly came to an end.

I have a hard enough time acknowledging the ephemerality of my own life, but to realize that all life on the planet almost went belly-up is mind-boggling, not to mention heart-wrenching. We think our presence on Earth is inevitable because we’re here. Our memories are short. Like a gorilla in Rwanda who shares 98 percent of our DNA, we don’t think about millions or billions of years ago. We get into enough trouble worrying about the past and future of our own lives.

What if life’s great experiment had gone belly-up millions of years before human consciousness had ever formed? Before a human thought had ever been born? Before anyone ever needed to be reminded to “be here now” instead of living in a dream? Before quantum packets of starlight ever sparkled into a human eye and kindled an imagination?

Would the universe be void and meaningless without us? Without aliens on other planets who may have been shaped by their own near-miss extinctions? There is no such thing as 16 billion years ago, at least not in this 15-billion-year-old universe. What was the meaning of life before there was even a universe?

Some probability of human beings must have existed in that first spark some 15 billion years ago, the spark of creation itself. The alpha scintilla shaped itself into a sprinkling of gassy stars, some of which eventually burned through their hydrogen and helium and exploded into supernovas whose furnaces furnished the elements of life and scattered them about the universe. Let gravity pick them up. Let scientists put them in order, lightest to heaviest. H-He-Li-Be-B-C-N-O-F-Ne, and so on.

Like any other sentient creatures that may exist in that vast cosmos, we are made of the elements formed in supernovas, shaped into life by the universe itself.

“Tat Tvam Asi,” the Dharma says. “Thou Art That.”

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Summer Air

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I just read Caesar’s Last Breath, in which author Sam Kean makes science writing as fun as anything else you’d bring to Limantour Beach for an enjoyable summer read, with the difference that he imparts thought-provoking information in addition to relaxing entertainment.

One of the chapters is about a gas we all take for granted, a component of the air all around us, called oxygen. It kind of jams my gears to imagine living in the vast span of human history before oxygen was discovered, before its true nature was precipitated out of the chaos of thousands of years of phlogiston and swirling human wonder. It’s thought-provoking to be reminded that oxygen was discovered less than 250 years ago, and it’s entertaining to read about the people and their experiments which led to the discovery. Imagine trying to discover oxygen yourself. How would you go about it?

Every schoolchild knows we need oxygen to breathe, to animate our lives so we can do things like walk to Sculptured Beach at Point Reyes and take pictures of weird rock formations. It’s a rote fact that we don’t even stop to think about, but around the late 1700s, as Kean writes, “[Antoine] Lavoisier had articulated the connections between fire, oxygen, and breathing, declaring that breathing was a sort of slow, controlled burning in our lungs. It remains one of the most important chemical discoveries ever….”

Having already discussed nitrogen, which preceded oxygen’s introduction to the Earth’s atmosphere, Kean continues farther down the page that, “Oxygen and nitrogen are neighbors on the periodic table…, [b]ut if the buildup of nitrogen a few billion years ago gave our planet its third and most benevolent atmosphere, the arrival of oxygen inaugurated a fourth and much more explosive regime. Whereas nitrogen is non-reactive to the point of being comatose, oxygen is volatile, manic, a madman in most every chemical reaction. It actually poisons many forms of life, and caused the greatest crisis that life on Earth ever faced, the so-called Oxygen Catastrophe of two billion years ago….”

Wikipedia refers to this “catastrophe” a little differently. On one hand oxygen’s arrival caused a mass extinction, but on the other hand, “the Great Oxygenation Event alone was directly responsible for more than 2,500 new minerals of the total of about 4,500 minerals found on Earth.”

I wonder which of the many minerals that make the geology of Point Reyes so interesting owe their existence to the formation of oxygen some 2.5 billion years ago.

In Caesar’s Last Breath, Kean writes that “oxygen destroyed early life because it detonates so easily inside cells; yet when life learned how to control oxygen, that reactivity became its greatest asset.” Continuing in a more arch vein, he continues, “And given how much havoc oxygen has wreaked throughout history, it’s fitting that this element destroyed every chemist who had a hand in its discovery. It’s the Hope Diamond of the periodic table.”

A science book written with a novelist’s flair: now that's a breath of fresh air.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

High Sierra Dash

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I've been in a bit of a rut when it comes to photography. A rut -- any kind of rut -- is just a comfort zone whose boundaries need expanding. But the problem with expanding a comfort zone is that it's -- guess what -- uncomfortable! It's not something you want to do. If you wanted to do it, you'd still be merrily finding accommodation in your comfort zone instead of feeling rutty. 

There are various ways to get out of a rut, and buying new photography gear can seem like a relatively easy, if expensive, way out. I've been reading the sneak previews of the rumored Nikon D850 and thought I'd like to have it. But what I really think is that I'd like to have had it back when I was still jazzed about photography -- about exploring a landscape with a camera, about slowing down enough to see things more fully than usual and to create beautiful images, to trap special slices of vicarious time, to fuel imagination, to share with others what I find. 

I thought I might be able to push out of my comfort zone by leaving the Bay Area and heading up to the High Sierra, as if all I needed was a "change of scenery." My wife and I normally go up in late summer, but we couldn't fit it in this year, so I made a solo jaunt. I was up at 3 a.m., on the road from San Francisco at 4 a.m., and hiking up Blue Canyon near Sonora Pass by 9 a.m.

Unfortunately, I felt like I was basically seeing the High Sierra's natural landscape with the same eye that I use on Mt. Tam, Point Reyes, or anywhere else. I see something that strikes me with the potential for a pleasing composition and I make the image. The subjects may be different, but somehow they look the same. When I feel like I'm flogging a dead horse, I know I'm in a rut.

So I guess I'm in a rut, but maybe that sameness is what we call "style," the ineffable thing that makes your images your own. Maybe I'll call it the Dead Horse style....

When this kind of angst takes hold I usually think of breaking out of my rut/comfort zone in photography by "moving up" to medium- or large-format, but frankly I've found moving "down" to a smartphone camera to be quite liberating. On a hike like Blue Canyon, with an elevation gain of about 1,600 feet to a destination at about 10,050 feet, such light gear would have been a welcome thing!

Strangely enough, there's something about lugging the heavy gear, of having the camera, lenses and tripod you need to make the best images you can -- images with the kind of detail that sucks you into the scene -- that's reward in itself. 

Many years ago I photographed a wildflower I'd never seen before. It was growing on a cliff face, and I climbed up to photograph it, only to find myself high off the ground on crumbling rock. I looked down and was suddenly frozen by The Fear. That's when I learned by experience that climbing down can be harder than climbing up. Fortunately, another hiker came along who knew exactly where my head was at (I was about to make a Hail Mary leap into a nearby fir tree, which likely would have ended in disaster), and he calmly directed me down. 

In later trips I saw the same wildflower in many easy-to-reach places. 

The relative difficulty in making two nearly identical images is of no account to a viewer, but a hard-won image will always mean more to you. Similarly, some of the high points of a photography trip have nothing to do with making an image. I spent a half-hour sitting in the shade beneath a group of stunted pines with a terrific view toward Sonora Peak. I did little more than philosophize about life and watch grasshoppers ramble through the nearby rubble and occasionally open their wings to display their abdomens to the sun's warming rays.

What we're trying to capture in nature photography is the sheer perfection of those moments when you are able to observe creation with the gut feeling and insight that you are part of it all, you are both observer and the observed, made from the same elements formed in the same supernovas. I don't know how to get that across in a picture, or even in a group of pictures, but that's what I want photography to do. I want to make a quantum leap from my rut to a comfort zone that has no borders.

Is that too much to ask from an image?

After the Blue Canyon hike I'd planned to photograph the night sky from the vicinity of Sonora Pass. I couldn't pull my car into the St. Mary's Pass parking area because it requires a high-clearance vehicle, but right across the street was another spot that was easy for any car to pull into. I spent an hour watching hummingbirds zip around and poke their noses into scarlet rocket flowers, and listening to the creek roll by and the wind whisper through the pines. Heavy clouds built up and shaded the sun, giving me the illusion that I wasn't getting sunburnt. 

I thought about taking a nap, but I wasn't tired. I decided I wanted to photograph the sand tufa at Mono Lake that night instead of looking for a good vantage point on Sonora Pass (where nothing was occurring to me), so I drove down there, figuring I could get a motel room in Lee Vining, where I looked forward to getting a shower and being out of the sun and heat until nightfall. Unfortunately, the place I wanted to stay was booked solid.

I didn't check anywhere else, and after a short trip to have lunch at Navy Beach where it was hot and sunny, a far cry from my comfort zone in foggy San Francisco, I decided to drive up to Yosemite's cooler climes. 

I haven't visited Yosemite in literally years, a fact that seems hard to believe. I know it's true because the car I bought in July 2014 has never been there. It was time to remedy that, even though it's been not just a few, but many years, since I last visited the park between Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

After a short visit with a pika along the Nunatak Nature Trail I paid my $30 to enter the park, an increase of $10 since my last visit.

Either way, Yosemite is worth it. Sure, there's all the traffic of peak tourist season, but it's still a magical place. I sat next to the creek that runs through Dana Meadows and watched a group of velvet-antlered bucks feeding on the summer's stock (wondering if deer have any taste preferences for one plant or another), then headed over to Tioga Lake to watch the sun go down while I ate another almond-butter sandwich.

I thought about laying out my sleeping bag somewhere but was concerned about bears getting into the cooler in my car. I stopped outside the park to take a nap in the car, but I still wasn't tired, so I kept on motoring, getting home at about midnight, amazed that I wasn't even drowsy.

I got in bed after being up for 21 hours. Closing my eyes, I could still see mosquitoes buzzing around me and landing on my arms, legs and face as I finally drifted off to sleep.

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Leopard Lovers

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It was a little too early in the day when I arrived at the leopard lily patch. The lilies were still nodding serenely on their stalks, enjoying interludes of sun and shade, with nothing yet being asked of them. 

I took a seat on a small, well-situated rock at the edge of small jungle of lilies, chain ferns and stinging nettles, being careful to avoid brushing against vines of poison oak. Many deer-browsed leopard lily stalks stood at about arm's reach in front of me, sacrifices to the numerous blossoms swaying in a gentle breeze just beyond them. When the mosquitoes soon found me I wondered if I'd be able to stick around long enough for the action to heat up.

I was actually hoping to see some swallowtail butterflies drop by. Until I heard the telltale thrum of tiny wings swoop overhead, I'd forgotten that hummingbirds also like this lily patch. The first lone hummer refused to feed anywhere near me, so I sat with the mosquitoes and watched first one hummingbird, then eventually three, as they fed on all the blossoms beyond the reach of my lens.

Fortunately, the competition and temptation of fresh nectar finally overcame their fear, and they began to take me for granted as they went about their business. There were both anna's and allen's hummingbirds, and they chased one another around the garden a few times before settling on a kind of armistice. Watching two of the tiny rivals perched on the same small twig, you could imagine them trying to decide whether it was better to give chase or just enjoy the bounty.

Life is good when you don't even have to hover.

A couple of pale swallowtails eventually joined the fun, occasionally being chased off a blossom by a stern little bird.

The butterflies carried next-gen leopard lilies on the bottoms of their wings.

On the way to the lily patch I noticed that yellow mariposa lilies were done in the sunniest locations where they'd first appeared, but still bloomed in more forgiving meadows.

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