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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Saturday, July 1, 2017

June Camera Trap

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Coyote (who plainly sees the weird box strapped to a tree limb). 
(A fast-moving pup had blurred through a week earlier)

Gray Squirrel (a frequent visitor)

Band-Tailed Pigeon (maybe a first at this site)


Jackrabbit (a first for this site)

Coyote's Close-up

Cooper's Hawk (a first for this site)

Gray Fox

Jackrabbit (many frames held jackrabbits, maybe even outnumbering squirrel shots)



I moved the camera a little farther back this morning. I had a hunch this might not have been the best spot, but I'd coveted a close proximity to the watering hole. Unfortunately, I couldn't point the camera down as much as I'd have liked. 

It's interesting to go through a whole month's worth of images and find only two coyotes, one gray fox, one raccoon, one buck deer and one doe. Not a single bobcat. Squirrels have always liked this spot, but so have steller's jays, which didn't make a single appearance. It was interesting to see a resident jackrabbit for the first time. 

July might be more productive since water is beginning to get scarce.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Coyote Story

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Coyote gobbled down the last bit of his morning gopher, then stepped briskly up the steep slope through tall brown grass until he came to the top of Bolinas Ridge near Serpentine Power Point. He looked out over the forest and the blanket of fog and said, "This is a good day to change my bones."

So Coyote stripped off his beautiful golden skin and laid it down fur-side up. "I strip away everything I have, Creator," said Coyote. "I strip away my past and my future, my fears and my desires. I strip away my skin and my muscles and my organs and even my bones. My thoughts that flutter like leaves in a swirl of wind, I strip away. The leaves fall to earth. I stand here as nothing before you, Creator, with no substance and no thought. Empty."

Creator saw Coyote thus emptied out and felt kinship with him. He decided to give Coyote new life, and said, "Coyote, it is time to put yourself back together. I will give you new bones, but you must put back on the rest of your organs and skin and fur. Otherwise no one will recognize you."

"Aho," said Coyote. "Thank you for these brand new bones. I am renewed." Refreshed, Coyote trotted north toward the woods with the new bones Creator gave him, feeling strong. Crossing a flat meadow he looked to the east and noticed a human being watching him. "I wonder if that human being is here to get new bones," Coyote thought as he slipped into the woods.

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jungle Lore

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"This forest road was little used by human beings and as there was an abundance of game in the forest through which it ran, an early morning walk along it was of great interest, for on the road ... was a record of all the animals that had used or crossed it during the night.... For instance, the porcupine that had come out on to the road ... had evidently taken fright at something in the jungle on the right of the road and had scurried back. The reason for his fright was apparent a few yards farther on, where a bear had crossed the road.... On entering the jungle ... the bear had disturbed a sounder of pig and a small herd of cheetal, for they had dashed across the the road into the jungle.... A little farther on, a sambhar stag had come out ... and after browsing on a bush had walked along the road for fifty yards, rubbed his antlers against a young sapling, and then gone back into the jungle. Near this spot a four-horned antelope, with a fawn at foot, had come on the road. The fawn, whose hoofprints were no bigger than the finger nails of a child, had skipped about the road until the mother had taken fright, and after dashing down the road for a few yards mother and fawn had gone into the jungle. Here there was a bend in the road, and at the bend were the footprints of a hyena who had come as far as this, and then turned and gone back the way it had come."
--Jim Corbett, from "Jungle Lore"

Although I'm not much of a tracker myself, I love stories of experts who read track and sign on the landscape, seeing wildlife stories that entirely escape the notice of most people today, including even long-time hikers. 

In addition to tracking, Corbett also writes about listening to birds to get an idea of what's going on beyond your field of view. Reading his stories reminded me of a time when some joker was standing under a small tree with his dog, watching the Eel River flow by. He was blissfully oblivious of the scolding being directed at him from the branches above him. A bird was anxious about the safety of its nest and was making quite a racket. It went on and on, and a friend who'd finally had enough yelled across the river to tell the guy he was disturbing the bird. Sure enough, as soon as the guy took his dog away from the tree, the bird stopped scolding and returned to her nest.

You've probably never heard of Jim Corbett, even though he's got a national park named after him. That's because the national park is in the state of Uttarakhand, in India, where he was born and lived most of his life before retiring to Kenya where he died in 1955. I learned about Corbett by way of Jon Young, one of the few who keeps the study of bird language alive in these modern times.

The recent rains gave a January feel to the June woods this morning. I brought my camera gear down to Potrero Meadow to see if I would feel inspired to do any photography. I wandered through a large patch of native wild onion (Allium unifolium) without any lightning striking, then followed deer trails through a variety of tall grasses with patches of tall meadow rue (including one plant decorated with a small group of orange insect eggs) and short pennyroyal, finally making my way to the still-blooming western azalea bushes. I fully expected to pick up a few ticks brushing up against all of that, but when I reached the picnic tables to check myself I was almost disappointed that I didn't snag a single one.

It was another beautiful morning, so even though I wasn't feeling much inspiration to do photography, it was still great to have the earth underfoot, forest all about, and blue sky above. I looped out to Rifle Camp again, then returned along the fire road to my car at the Mountain Theater's dirt parking lot. 

I was surprised to see so many people heading to the theater since the Mountain Play is on Sundays, not Saturdays. I thought they changed the day since the Dipsea Race is tomorrow, but today's show was actually the Magic Mountain Play Music Festival whose headline act was Jefferson Starship, followed by a concert version of the play Hair, a nice celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love.

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Real Things

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I'm surprised it's been so long since I posted anything. I've been feeling like the blog has been winding itself down, and maybe it has. I can't tell yet if I just need to wait for the batteries to recharge, or if it's time to move on to some other weekend activity. I brought my camera up to Mt. Tam last week and photographed this flower spider on a yellow mariposa lily, and I set a camera trap in a spot where I plan to leave it all summer. Otherwise I've hardly touched a camera in weeks.

This morning I did a short hike with no camera at all, carrying nothing but a bottle of water. Down the Cataract Trail to the Mickey O'Brien Trail and Barth's Retreat. Onward to Potrero Meadow and Rifle Camp and back along the fire road and the Benstein Trail to Rock Spring. A quick two-hour stroll to experience a kind of beauty and divinity that can't be acquired or shared in a picture: the smell of plant resins in the air, the sound of wind blowing through the forest, trickling creekwater, clouds sailing across a blue sky, the soft surprise of new tanoak leaves, a lizard darting across dry leaves, the weight of a grappletail bending a stalk of grass, the orange and black symmetry of feathers on a northern flicker, the joy of hiking over earth strewn with rocks and roots. Real things, not just pictures that remind me of real things.

I didn't really miss not having a camera with me, but I did have the impression throughout my hike that I was moving too fast, covering terrain like a hiker instead of a photographer, practicing an unfamiliar art.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day

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In honor of the special day I decided to visit the planet Earth, and an especially lovely corner of it situated on the outskirts of the town of Larkspur near the base of Mt. Tamalpais. The place is called Baltimore Canyon. 

When my family moved away from Hawaii the first time, I was about seven years old, and we went from Honolulu to Towson, just outside Baltimore, Maryland. It was the year of the "blizzard of '66" for this Island boy, and I still remember two years later worrying about my father as he drove off to work in Baltimore during the riots that broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 .

So how, you might ask, did the name of Baltimore end up in this pretty little canyon at the base of Mt. Tam? According to a Wikipedia entry on Larkspur Creek, a sawmill was transported down the east coast of North and South America, around Cape Horn, then up along the west coasts of those two continents -- all the way from Baltimore to Larkspur -- in 1849:

Secretary Daniel Taylor of the Baltimore and Frederick Trading and Mining Company recalled in a 1914 newspaper article, “When we arrived at Larkspur, there was no one to meet us. The country was a wilderness, with wild geese in abundance." The sawyers denuded Mt. Tamalpais of old-growth redwoods in short order. Said Taylor in 1914, "I can picture the majestic redwoods that covered the flat where Larkspur stands today. Some of the trees were eight feet in diameter and lifted their immense bulk 300 feet upward.” 

You can still find a few redwoods along Larkspur Creek. In the photo above that shows multiple trunks rising in a kind of circle together, my guess is that they are all sprouting from the same burl, or underground fruiting structure, that once supported a single giant redwood. Larkspur is no longer a wilderness, but it seemed like a cute little town as I drove through it. 

I got a stiff neck looking for California spotted owls but didn't have any luck. I photographed this semi-snoozing owl about this time two years ago.

I was surprised to see a fruiting of Panus conchatus on a decaying bay laurel that had fallen across the creek. I didn't even notice the slug gnoshing on the old specimen until I viewed the image back at home.

I drove out of Larkspur along Magnolia Avenue to Sir Francis Drake, then out to Fairfax-Bolinas Road which finally reopened earlier this month. This velvet-antlered buck was grazing on the edge of the road across from the Meadow Club Golf Course.

This might have been his younger brother, kicking back. It was great to see so many deer out and about again. Seems like it's been a while. 

Up near Azalea Hill, a California poppy emerged from its tissue-like calyx.

Several cream cups (Platystemon californicus), bloomed around their orange brothers in the Papaveraceae.

Due to the road being closed most of the winter, I hadn't been to the Lily Pond in ages. The non-native lilies were in bloom, but I was more interested in these slime mold fruiting bodies, which I presume to be wolf's milk (Lycogala epidendrum). There were a few bright red spots nearby which apparently is what the slime mold looks like in its plasmodial stage. Now I'm sorry I didn't photograph them.

A little farther down the trail I found a nice fruiting of spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), a plant that doesn't produce chlorophyll. Instead of photosynthesizing, this member of the orchid family parasitizes the mycelium of fungi in the Russulaceae. Now that I think about it, there were quite a few black-spotted banana slugs in the same vicinity. One of the slugs was feeding on a very old, entirely black and decayed mushroom that was probably among the last of the above-ground fruitings of a russula.

As I walked back toward the car, this little Pacific chorus frog hopped across the trail and landed on a log that seemed a perfect match for its camouflage. I fired off two frames before it hopped off and scuttled into a nearby pool of water where it disappeared.

Once again, another happy day on planet Earth.

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