Monday, January 16, 2017

Freedom Trails

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I got to the Pantoll gate much earlier than usual, around 6:45, and was surprised to find four cars already waiting at the gate. The first two idled their engines, spewing exhaust fumes, until the ranger showed up just after 7 o'clock (two more cars had shown up by then), and the second guy even kept his headlights on. Go nature lovers!

Pam and I went to the De Young Museum yesterday where we breezed through the wild and colorful Frank Stella show. I kinda liked Stella's later sculptures, but I found more inspiration in another part of the museum with the Danny Lyon photo exhibit--black-and-white shots of bikers and prisoners and everyday poor people from the 60s. The exhibit is called "Message to the Future," and as I looked at the images and thought about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate today, it did not seem like the message has really gotten through. The last 50 years of progress toward all Americans living in a land of opportunity has been incremental in but a minuscule way.

I think Dr. King would have felt the same exaltation that I felt this morning among the waterfalls, tall trees, steep fern glens and mossy boulders--assuming he could have given himself over to a moment of freedom from the important work he gave his life for. I feel blessed to be able to drive up to Mt. Tam and get nature's glad tidings, and that I am privileged not to have inflicted upon me the intolerable weight of oppression, ignorance and inhumanity that so many suffer all their lives, a heroic weight that Dr. King carried for so many as his sacred duty.

When I think about how little has changed in my country's treatment of black people and others who have been oppressed and scapegoated during my lifetime, I know there's still a long road of struggle for civil rights, and also for the right of current and future generations to clean air and water, and to having someplace close to home where wild nature can be encountered, where one's spirit can be renewed in the guileless authenticity of uncivilized creation.

I almost forgot to look for them.

The grotto of fetid adder's tongues was my last stop along Cataract Creek before heading back up to my car which was parked in the pull-out above Laurel Dell (the West Ridgecrest gate was already open first thing in the morning). I met a guy near the top who was walking with his dog down the fire road who told me he'd just seen a bear cub run across the road in front of him. He said he waited for the mama bear but she never came. I'm sure my eyes must have widened as I told him that would be a very unusual sighting. Very unusual. I know they've had the rare bear sighting up at Pt. Reyes, so I figured it could be possible, but of course I had my doubts.

I drove north to where he'd seen his animal, thinking it must have been a bobcat, coyote or even a turkey, but I had put my long lens on just in case. Fog blew over the ridge from the northeast which made for some nice God beams in the woods.

I roamed around without seeing any animals, although a raven high in a redwood tree was carrying out a lengthy soliloquy that I could not fathom. Maybe it was telling an old story about when black bears had freedom to roam in these parts. 

It's been a while since I've even seen a buck deer on the mountain. I did see a coyote on the road on the way up, just a ways before the Mountain Home Inn. A couple of deer also stood in the road until I slowed nearly to a stop just a few feet away from them as they stared at my car. Then one bolted stage left, the other stage right.

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Friday, January 13, 2017


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All week I'd been looking forward to taking the day off work to hike down Mt. Tam's Cataract Trail to check out the post-storm creek and waterfalls, so I drove up this morning ready for action. Even though I didn't care about catching the sunrise since the sky was so clear, I looked forward to photographing the setting full moon. I arrived at the Pantoll gate at about 7:05 a.m., expecting to zoom past the open gate in time to find a good vantage point for the moon shot. 

Alas, I turned off Panoramic Highway to find the gate closed. Figuring the ranger was uncharacteristically tardy, I turned off the engine but kept the music playing since it was a Phil Manzanera song I like called East of Echo

Around 7:15 another car pulled in behind me, and I got out of my car to talk to the driver, who'd come up with his wife for their first visit. Unfortunately, it finally began to sink in that the ranger wasn't just tardy, but that the park was actually c-l-o-s-e-d! According to a camper I talked to over by the ranger station, the gate has been closed all week. I'd seen nothing about this closure on the Mt. Tam State Park web site, nor on the Marin IJ's home page. 

When it finally sunk in that the gate was never going to open and that I was not going to be hiking to waterfalls today, I realized it's Friday the 13th. Some say Friday the 13th is a bad-luck day, but my wife says it's actually a good-luck day. (Those are willow flowers budding in the background behind the otters.)

I'd planned to drive over to Fort Cronkhite to look for river otters after hiking the waterfalls, so I cut to Plan B and drove back down the mountain to check out Rodeo Lagoon. Luckily, I'd read in the Marin IJ earlier in the week that the Bunker Road Tunnel was closed (and will remain so until May), so I drove directly up Conzelman instead of having a second surprise disappointment of the morning.

I didn't see any sign of otters on the lagoon, but I still wanted to get out of the car and do some hiking, so I set out with my camera backpack and tripod along the lagoon trail loop. I didn't get very far before my luck changed and I spotted suspicious ripples in the water. Sure enough, three river otters were working the edge of the lagoon. I doubled back toward the car and staked out a position to wait for the otters to arrive and was able to fire off a few frames as they passed by.

After they passed me and went out of view behind a lot of willows and such, I anticipated seeing them  come into view again on the other side. It was sunny over there, and there were some colorful reflections in the water from a building at the foot of the Miwok Trail. But the otters never come out the other side. I figure they ducked under the bridge to den up for a spell, possibly among a bunch of large rocks. I didn't see any sign that they exited the water to enter the quiet eastern portion of the lagoon, and I doubt they somehow leaped over the small waterfall. I stuck around awhile but didn't see the otters again.

I wasn't ready to leave though, so I took a little stroll up the Miwok Trail to admire the light. I always love the morning light on leafless willows and alders.

A lady walking her dog asked if I was photographing birds. I'd heard some crazy-sounding bird calls, maybe Virginia rails, but I couldn't even see them much less photograph them, so I was just looking for abstracts. I was lucky to have the warm morning sun making everything so beautiful.

Although I did keep my eyes peeled for bobcats or coyotes on the nearby hillside, it was nice to just settle down and scout for compositions of subjects that aren't "things," like bobcats or mushrooms, but rather plays of light, shapes, lines, and colors.

I liked this stretch of willows so much I shot it as a panorama, although I cropped it down to standard dimensions for the blog.

I don't know what that crimson-branched bush is. There are non-native fruit trees and such in this area, so I hesitate to guess. I did see a couple flowering currant bushes, and quite a bit of the poison oak was already leafing out again. I'd thought I might find fetid adder's tongue on the Cataract Trail, but I didn't get the chance. 

Who knows if they'll open the Pantoll gate tomorrow. I just called the park information number (at 2:40 p.m. on Friday) and after it rang awhile, the standard recorded message came on, which was useless. If you Google "friends of mt. tam", the little Google box on the side says "Park Closed" in red, but if you actually go to the Friends web site the most recent "Ranger's Update" is from Jan. 9 and is noncommittal about closures. So somehow Google is more useful in that regard than either the Friends or the State Park web sites.

I haven't tried embedding a YouTube video in Blogger before. I wanted it to be larger than the usual embedded size. Here's the link to the video on YouTube.

I went back to the car and walked over to the bridge across Rodeo Lagoon to scout for otters, but there was still no sign of them, so I drove down to the beach and walked out on the bridge. A huge mat of sea foam was roiling on the water as freshwater from the lagoon tried to flow toward the ocean which was sending a few big waves up onto the beach and creating a counter-current in the lagoon. The movement of the foam was entrancing, like staring into a kind of kaleidoscope. If you ever wondered about the physics of foam, you might be surprised to find it so mysterious.

My luck held out as I drove home when another favorite mellow song came on, Sopwith Camel's Orange Peel. The song is kind of magical, like my wife, who I'd just bought a bunch of lavendar-colored roses for while doing my grocery shopping on the way home, thankful for being such a lucky guy. 

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Leisure Time

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With a new year under way and a new work week about to begin, it was great to take a leisurely stroll around Mt. Tam to contemplate the beauty to be found in even unexpected places around this great mountain park so close to home.

There were three cars already waiting at the gate when I arrived at about 7 a.m., just as the ranger was getting out of his truck to unlock the gate.

The sunrise was mellow, hardly a breath of wind.

I found several bits of vertebrae from a former alligator lizard along the edge of the woods. A little later I saw a kestrel on his usual perch near the Rock Spring water tank and wondered if he'd been the one to dine on the lizard.

I wandered down the Cataract Trail for a while, looking for a likely detour. I found what I was looking for near a big meadow. I crossed the gently running creek to check out this mossy area, and as I was admiring the oak I noticed something unusual in the distance.

I've seen a couple other stick structures around lately, but this was the biggest by far.

I continued up the hill past the stick tipi to check out another mossy area. It rained off and on, but I had an umbrella with me and stayed dry. Right after taking this shot I checked the thermometer I keep attached to my camera backpack. It was 39 degrees. I soon stumbled onto a small unmaintained trail that I'd never found before, and just as it emptied into a small meadow, the rain began to fall quite heavily. Not lots of rain, just very big drops. Some of the drops were landing with a thud, like tiny pieces of wet cloth. Then lots of them were falling, and they were white -- it was snowing!

The snow lasted no more than a minute or two, but what a treat. I followed the thin trail up into some sargent cypress which is where I found these Agaricus mushrooms pushing up a mound of dirt and moss. 

One of the trails sort of petered out in this little gnome forest of sargent cypress so I doubled back to check out a different route. That route began to head downhill, so I backtracked to loop back toward Rock Spring.

It took a while to realize exactly where I was, but I soon recognized familiar terrain near the throne rocks. Several of these little witch's hat mushrooms were sprouting under the sargent cypress, but they were all just barely getting their caps above ground. This little red-orange specimen was the only one that wasn't yellow.

The sargent cypress were in bloom, with their small yellow male cones ready to fill the air with pollen.

I finally remembered to make a note of whether these trees were bays or oaks. They are oaks. I'd like to know if they are even truly "they" as opposed to "it." Could all these trunks be connected to a primordial rootstock under the ground? Or did a bunch of individual acorns produce this little grove? Either way, you gotta love their trousers of green winter moss.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter Falls

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I was surprised not too long ago to find out that today's young people have never heard of Carlos Castaneda, whose writings captivated me so much in my teens. I confess that I never went back to those books once I'd read them, except many years later, and then only by way of the Jungian exposition I found in a thin, excellent book called Border Crossings - A Psychological Perspective on Carlos Castaneda's Path of Knowledge, by Donald Lee Williams. 

Like Hero With A Thousand Faces, it cuts through all the cosmic debris that surrounds so much of what we call "spiritual seeking" to help reveal the awesome beauty of the world that is right under our feet. Both books rescue the fundamentally human story from the seemingly incomprehensible mythological realms of the hero's journey. Both are worth keeping and returning to over years or even decades.

Williams closes with a quote from Castaneda's fourth book:

Don Juan explained to the apprentices that don Genaro loved the earth and that the earth in turn cared for him, sustained him and made his life complete and bountiful. "This is the predilection of two warriors," he said. "This earth, this world. For a warrior there can be no greater love." Don Juan caressed the ground and said, "This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom."

--Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power

After that quotation, Williams writes: "Carlos has erased his personal history, disrupted his routines, assumed responsibility for the task he has in life, sought death as an advisor on the path of knowledge. He has cleaned the island of the tonal and become an impeccable warrior.... And yet Carlos has still not integrated the last lesson of don Juan and don Genaro: he has not yet learned to love the earth."

Every now and then when I'm out in the woods doing photography I'll stop, take off my backpack and put down the tripod, then lie down on the earth and relax every cell of my body and mind until I feel all my cares drop away like apples falling from a tree. Amazing that something so simple can be so effective.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Solstice!

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Happy Solstice, Baby!

Going outside on these past few cold and windy mornings, I've heard a hummingbird chirping well before sunrise. Nature's creatures are such tough and resilient beings. Thanks for the inspiration, wild ones!

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

December Rising

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There was already a car full of photographers waiting at the closed gate, so I pulled in behind them and rolled down my windows before shutting off the engine. I listened to a Clarence Gatemouth Brown song, then ZZ Ward, before a ranger showed up to unlock the gate at 7 o'clock on the dot. A third car had pulled in behind me, and we all fired up our engines. 

Sunrise was going to be at 7:16, so I was in kind of a rush, but I believe the folks in front of me had never been to Mt. Tam before. They were driving very hesitantly, as if looking for good sunrise views on the way up the winding road. They pulled to the side of the road at the first opportunity with a wide enough shoulder, at which point I flew past them to try to get up onto Serpentine Power Point in time for the show, which of course starts well before the sun breaks the horizon. 

I've been laid up with a cold all week, but I chugged as best I could up the hill to reach my planned vantage point. I could see, however, that I wasn't going to make it, so I made do with a couple of frames along the way. I've never shot from that first vantage point before, and I kind of like it. I'd been trying to reach the view in the third and final shot, but you can see that the color in the clouds had almost completely faded by then. It was very windy and quite chilly, and I wished I'd brought gloves. 

I've always liked the view up this little side creek near the first bridge you cross on the way down the Cataract Trail from Rock Spring. The ravine is dry most of the year, so it's a little bit special to see it running with water. But just because I liked it doesn't mean I saw a photo opportunity, and I probably kept on walking for years before I finally set up the shot on the left back in 2012. Things change of course, and the same creek now has a recently toppled Douglas fir cutting across it. I believe the fir fell fairly recently, maybe last spring. 

Both frames were shot with the same 50mm lens, by the way. The 2012 version has a more compressed perspective because the lens was on a different camera. On the D300, which is what I had back then, the 50mm lens acts like a 75mm lens.

There were several of these guys growing under some small Doug fir trees, so I assumed they were slippery jacks. I still thought they were slippery jacks even after I took the picture and walked away. It was only when I got the image up on my screen that I noticed something fishy: gills! 

I wanted to experiment more with this technique for making an image appear more dreamlike, but only certain subjects are conducive to it, and this was the only one I tried this morning. It's basically just two images sandwiched together, with the opacity slider dragged down a bit on the top layer. I put the sharp image on top. The base layer is the same frame, but shot out of focus and wide open, like so:

I didn't think I had the energy or even the desire to hike down to the waterfalls. I wasn't sure I had enough energy even to climb the hill next to the trail, but I eventually mosied on up with a plan to make a short loop back to the car. As I stood in a small flat clearing where I suspect deer and possibly other animals have bedded down on occasion, I looked with appreciation upon these moss-bedecked bay laurel trunks, as well as that big slab of bark behind me in the picture. That's when it dawned on me that all the trunks were part of one tree! The original main trunk must have been huge before it fell away and decomposed. This bay laurel has probably spent most of its life with Coast Miwok being the only people for miles around. 

As I was poking around looking for interesting fungi I spotted this mossy tree trunk and adjacent rock, with a nice little declivity between the two. I'd also been noticing a scattering of fallen oak leaves that still retained some color. So I gathered up the colorful leaves in a small area around the base of the tree and placed them in the declivity. 

I put on a pair of glasses and looked over the surface of this whole toppled fir tree that's maybe thirty feet long, just to find this one little section that I wanted to photograph. I made this image at 1/3 lifesize, and it's a focus stack of 20 frames. I have never figured out how to avoid those halo effects that often show up around the red tips of the British soldier lichens.

Colors, shapes, textures. These Lactarius mushrooms were everywhere. They smelled okay, at least as far as I could judge with a stuffed-up nose, but I don't think they were candy caps.

At first I thought I knew what this was. And then I wasn't so sure. I photographed it, and then I harvested it to see if it had a volva, the sac-like structure typically found at the base of mushrooms in the Amanita genus. But there was no sac! I'd forgotten my pocket knife, so I dug under the mushroom with my index finger to pull it up. The base of the stalk was quite ordinary. Could this be a Stropharia? A Psathyrella?

At home I looked through Desjardin's California Mushrooms with no luck. Ditto for Arora's Mushrooms Demystified. I gave up, ate lunch and took a shower. On the inside of the bathroom door, we have a poster with lots of different mushrooms pictured on it. One of them was the mushroom I had photographed!

It was a death cap after all. I must have broken off the stalk and left the volva underground, something I've never done before. Mushroom-foragers warn against making this very mistake. Not that I planned to collect this for the table, but we do have superficially similar-looking edible coccora on Mt. Tam--a tasty amanita, not a deadly one. 

At least, I hear they're tasty. I've never risked trying one myself....

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lost & Found

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I've had a bad cold all week and am hoping, even though I'm still coughing and feeling low on energy today, that I'll be able to get out tomorrow to do some new photography. This image of the nudibranch Aeolidiella oliviae is from a December 2014 excursion to Duxbury Reef. I shot it during my yearlong project photographing in and around Pt. Reyes National Seashore. I've been thinking about getting out there more often again, although I'm not looking forward to the very early wake-up calls I subjected myself to back then.

Since I shot the project I had a major hard drive failure. Many of my TIFF files from the Pt. Reyes project were lost, but the raw NEF files are fine. I'd actually forgotten about that, but I finally got around to re-exporting the raw files from December 2014 to a more usable format.

Anyway, I liked the fluorescent orange nudibranch on the pinkish coralline algae. I grabbed my wife's Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor brochure to see if I could match the colors, but I can't pull it off. Is that Quinacridone Sienna or Terre Ercolano? Neither, you say? I think it's difficult to match a color on paper with a color on a screen, too. If I really wanted to know, I'll bet there's software that tells you what colors are in your image. 

In fact, I just did an online thing to find that the slug's color, in HTML, is #FF6E00. The coralline algae is #C18168. Not too exciting, namewise. Sherwin-Williams has a phone app, but I'm not going to download it. Have you ever looked closely at the Sherwin-Williams paint logo? It's a bucket of paint dumped all over the planet with the words "Cover the Earth." I guess no one thought to "greenwash" their logo.

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tennessee Valley

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I've been hankering for bobcats for a while, so I drove out to Tennessee Valley this morning to see if I could get lucky. I arrived to find numerous cars and school buses in the parking area and along the sides of the street, even though it was only about 7:45 in the morning. I believe the commotion was all about this race. There was much raucous cheering of encouragement at the parking lot (I believe they started near Rodeo Lagoon). I've never seen so many people running an ultra-marathon before. They all looked extremely fit and most carried backpacks full of water. My first instinct was to turn around and drive up to Mt. Tam instead, but the thought of mushroom-hunting wasn't enough to overpower my lust for bobcats.

I began my hike among the runners, one of whom commiserated about the lack of peace and quiet, but I was scanning for bobcats in the distance north and south and didn't really mind. I'm a bit of an armchair ultramarathoner and could appreciate the feat they were setting out to accomplish. I soon dropped them anyway when I took the cut-off up to the campground, and they were all long gone by the time I came back to the main trail. I saw a very sweet covey of quail next to the campground. They were gathered in a tight group just on the edge of the chaparral, feathers fluffed and standing still to soak up the warm morning sun.

I hiked all the way down to the beach and back without seeing a bobcat, coyote or even a single deer. I saw one marsh hawk gliding slowly over the chaparral as warning chirps from songbirds below popped here and there, and I saw one brush rabbit stretch its body in a brief dash to cover as I approached the tender frosty greens it had been munching, but that was about it.

All the pictures in this post are from the month of December in '07, '09, and 2010. I did a lot of photography in Tennessee Valley back in 2010-11. The place was always busy with people, but there was also lots of wildlife. It was actually a little depressing this morning to find so little wildlife action. Even six years ago I could have a slow day where I didn't see any bobcats, so I don't want to make too much of today's miserly accounting. But I would not be surprised if the years of drought since then have taken a toll on the valley's fecundity.

So I just read Sebastian Junger's book Tribe, and wanted to share some of the tidbits I liked, starting with the following:

"The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life--even during times of adversity--challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control."

A page or so later Junger continues, "As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it."

Just this morning I overheard a couple of women talking on the trail, with one telling the other in an angry or disgusted tone of voice, "I can't believe how many depressed people there are at work!" 

Junger's thesis is that being part of a tribe is so important that soldiers sometimes feel like war was better than peace, and that civilian communities who've pulled together in adversity later recall how good it felt to have banded together in common cause. Of the three books I bought before the Thanksgiving holiday, Tribe was one I finished first.

The second book I finished was Mary Oliver's collection of essays called Upstream. In her essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson, she writes of his first published book, "Nature is a text that is entirely about divinity and first purposes, a book of manners, almost, but for the inner man. It does not demean by diction or implication the life that we are most apt to call 'real,' but it presupposes the heart's spiritual awakening as the true work of our lives. That this might take place in as many ways as there are persons alive did not at all disturb Emerson, and that its occurrence was the beginning of paradise here among the temporal fields was one of his few unassailable certainties."

I'm still working on the third book, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. He begins the chapter called "The Mysteries of Moving Water" with a deceptively simple question: "How does water make its way up from the soil into the tree's leaves?" He discusses transpiration, capillary action and cohesion, and comes to an interesting conclusion: no one knows!

I'm also working on another book that recently arrived in the mail: Science, Order and Creativity by the physicists David Bohm and F. David Peat. I've only just begun reading it and was struck by this in the Introduction: " exploring natural resources in a fragmentary manner, society has brought about the destruction of forests and agricultural lands, created deserts, and even threatens the melting of the ice caps." I was struck by that because this book came out 30 years ago. "And how can science lead human beings to control themselves?" it continues. "How do scientists propose to control hatred between nations, religions, and ideologies when science itself is fundamentally limited and controlled by these very things?" They sound a little like Sebastian Junger as they continue: "And what about the growing psychological tension in a society that is so unresponsive to basic human needs that life seems, for many, to have lost its meaning?"

Unfortunately, David Bohm died in 1992, but Peat is still around. He's Canadian, though, which means almost no one in the U.S. has ever heard of him. Anyway, the book feels dated with its paperback pages having lost some of their brightness, but the content is interesting and easy for a nonscientist like myself to understand (unlike the other Bohm title I got, called The Undivided Universe!).

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