Understanding the Why, part 2

Written by Alpenglow Images on June 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I make images.  What’s my motivation to get up at unreasonable hours, explore dusty dirt roads that haven’t been touched in years, or hike for hours in the sun only to never take my camera out?  The answers–of course–transcend photography, but I have been able to identify some discrete reasons why I make images.  You can read part 1 (perspective) here.

Part 2: Beauty

“There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere.” — Edward Abbey


In my last post, I wrote about how photography–and being in nature–helps me to gain perspective.  Indeed it does.  However, by being outside often I’ve also been able to see many beautiful scenes in nature.  I’ve often joked with friends that I’ll never take them anywhere ugly for vacation, which as far as I know is a true statement.  “Beauty,” to the photographer, however is two-fold.

The first way to look at beauty is very simple: nature is beautiful.  My hope is that every single person has had an experience in the outdoors that has stopped them in their tracks and has moved them to the point where they are speechless.  During these moments when words aren’t sufficient, we stand in awe of the scene before us.  It is a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching awe that is at the same time more satisfying and more tortuous than anything we’ve experienced.  Satisfying because there’s no place on earth we’d rather be in that moment, tortuous because we know we can’t experience that euphoria forever.

There are times in life when words aren’t necessary.  For most of us, trying to put words to these moments wouldn’t do them justice, and might even scare them away.  As a photographer, I try to make images that convey my sense of awe, knowing that as my capacity to feel awe increases, so does my reverence of the natural world.

My worry is that these euphoric moments are becoming rarer and all too fleeting in our society.  I recently read an article in the American Scientist by Louis Chianese that asks a simple question: Is nature photography too beautiful?  His main idea is that by presenting only glossy and polished nature imagery, photographers are “masking” the plight of our planet, and by subduing our processing, we can bring our photography more in line with the current state of ecological affairs.  To me, his question asks whether artists have a social responsibility to accurately portray a scene.  This has been discussed many times, and I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s more important to me to protect those moments where I–where we–stand in awe of nature, because they’re equally as endangered (even if they’re less tangible).  This is where beauty and perspective go hand in hand:

If we lose our capacity for awe, we will forget who we are, and where we came from.

The High Sierra, Sequoia National Park

The second way to think about beauty is that we don’t have to go places to experience it.  Sure, that upcoming vacation to ____________ is something we all look forward to, but when you stop and look around you, you realize that beauty really is all around you.  In that sense, we have a good insurance policy on those awe-inspiring moments because they’re free and in abundance if we take the time to seek them out.  Photography helps me to “see” the world in new ways, and appreciate the inherent beauty in nature.

If we can all aspire to find a way to appreciate the natural world, whether by our art or other actions, we might be better off–kinder, gentler.  How do you appreciate the beauty that surrounds you?  Do you think nature photography is too beautiful?

Moss-covered trees, abstract

 

Understanding the Why, part 1

Written by Alpenglow Images on May 29th, 2014

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I make images.  What’s my motivation to get up at unreasonable hours, explore dusty dirt roads that haven’t been touched in years, or hike for hours in the sun only to never take my camera out?  The answers–of course–transcend photography, but I have been able to identify some discrete reasons why I make images.  You can read part 2 (beauty) here.

Part 1: Perspective

“Good and evil do not exist in Nature.” — Spinoza


So far this year, I’ve landed in Sequoia National Park a couple of times.  I didn’t really plan it this way, it just happened.  Most people associate the park with its namesake giant trees, which are truly impressive.  However, Sequoia’s backcountry is equally awe-inspiring; not only can you find the world’s largest trees here, but also the highest point in the contiguous United States.  They’re just a short 72.2 mile hike from one another (a day hike for some–Leor Pantilat ran the High Sierra trail in just under 16 hours in 2012).

Foggy Giant Forest

Whether you choose to focus on the forest or the trees, Sequoia’s landscape is big.  On my second trip to the park recently, I was on a solo backpack via the Golden Trout Wilderness. While the scenery here isn’t as well known as some other iconic Sierra locales, the views of the Kahweahs, Chagoopa Plateau, and Great Western Divide are impressive, and the scale of the landscape quickly becomes apparent.  While slightly less well-known, the landscape is still rugged.  In late May at 11,000′, the temperatures were still chilly and snow flurries reminded me winter might not be willing to loosen its grip quite yet.

Although rugged, I’m hesitant to say that the landscape is unforgiving because it simply can’t be.  It’s unresponsive.  That’s, I think, why I came here.   As Gretel Ehrlich wrote, I needed to be steadied by its indifference.  So much of the time, our burdens in life feel very big.  However in the grand scheme of things, things are really very different and those big problems maybe aren’t quite as insurmountable after all.  Standing in the Sierra or any landscape, I’m reminded of my smallness–my place–in the world.

Paraphrasing Muir, going out is really going in, and there’s a unique comfort to be found in a visiting a place that simply just is.

I make images in places like this to regain my perspective, to remember that I’m part of something bigger.  This isn’t to say that my worries and cares are diminished, but that’s the challenge:  can we not make something more than it is, while at the same time not make it less than it was?  Can the images we create answer this challenge?  Can photography become a practice in self-awareness and in helping us to gain perspective?

After The Storm

 

The Golden Hour Reimbursement Act of 2014

Written by Alpenglow Images on April 1st, 2014

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle hailed President Obama on Tuesday as he signed into law the Golden Hour Reimbursement Act (GHRA) of 2014.  The bill, introduced by senator Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, will offer government reimbursement to U.S. citizens who–according to the bill–” experience a crummy sunrise or sunset, whether at home or while traveling abroad.”

“If you can’t ride off into the sunset in California, where can you?” asked Senator Feinstein as she addresses the Senate subcommittee on iconic landscapes in early March, “What kind of message are we sending to our citizens, our artists, our dreamers, our children, if they can’t be inspired by an amazing and dramatic sky at least twice a day?”  The bill passed through the Senate and House of Representatives with few problems.

According to the GHRA, U.S. citizens who experience a lackluster sunrise or sunset will be eligible for reimbursement in the form of another chance to see a more beautiful sky at a later date.  This could come in the form of an additional paid vacation day from work (participation by employers at this point is voluntary), or a complimentary one-night hotel stay in order to extend a vacation (all major hotel chains will be required to offer this as a subsidized option by 2017).  Critics call the application process for reimbursement lengthy.  “One night in Texas is all anyone needs to satisfy their lifelong desire for beautiful sunsets–they’ll never need to wait weeks for another pretentious Californian sunset again.  This can only further contribute to the end of the free market economy,” huffed senator Ted Cruz (R) of Texas from the senate floor on Tuesday.

“While we simply can’t guarantee scenic beauty to our country’s visitors, I am proud to extend this opportunity to our citizens, knowing they’ll be inspired for a lifetime, not having to get up early, only to be left saying, ‘meh’ in response to another lackluster sunrise,” said President Obama in a brief statement outside the Oval Office.   He went on to say that his administration has learned a valuable lesson from the healthcare.gov “debacle” and that the website to submit applications under GHRA–sunset.gov–will be up and running without bugs by early September.

Despite criticism, the bill has largely been welcomed with open arms.  Landscape photographers in particular are celebrating this as a victory for the industry.   In the wake of GHRA’s announcement on Tuesday, we interviewed several well-known landscape photographers to ask a simple question:

What do you think about GHRA?

“For years I have had to endure burdensome expenses, like severe lack of sleep, boring photographs, and excessive frustration, due to mediocre or poor sunrises.  When I signed up to be a photographer I was under the impression the light would show would go off every morning!  Alas, not in my country.  Finally we have an administration that is willing to do the right thing: help hard working but dawn-disadvantaged photographers like me compete with photographers in sunrise-subsidized countries like France, Spain and Japan.  It’s about time.  Now I know when I wake up at 4am and leave my warm bed, if I don’t get the shot at least I’ll get a check from Uncle Sam.  Damn right.”  – Phillip Colla, www.oceanlight.com

“It’s a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough. Clearly having just one sunrise and one sunset in a 24-hour period is a policy that benefits the privileged 1% (of photographers whose creative wealth allows them to still make images outside the golden hours). The government should step in and speed up the Earth’s rotation so that sunrises and sunsets are more frequent.” — Guy Tal, www.guytal.com

“All those hours learning how to fake dramatic skies in Photoshop were all for naught! Where was this law five years ago?” — Ron Coscorrosa, www.coscorrosa.com

“Thank you to the do-nothing Congress for finally doing something worthwhile!  I just wish that lawmakers would make this policy retroactive, as 2013 was a rough year for my photography because I encountered an almost endless string of the conditions this bill seeks to address.  Still, something is better than nothing and I will certainly have some claims ready to file for 2014 once the system is up and running later this year.”  – Sarah Marino, www.sarahmarinophoto.com

“This is a great start, and certainly long overdue, but the new law is essentially toothless without also having the park service place camera icon signs in the right areas.  Because honestly, what good is an impressive sunset, if one doesn’t know where to stand to shoot it?” — Robin Black, www.robinblackphotography.com

Disclaimer: Alpenglow Images Photography makes no claims as to the accuracy, reliability, or even the reality of this news story.  

 

Silence & Movement

Written by Alpenglow Images on March 3rd, 2014

“Silence. We are seldom conscious when silence begins—it is only afterward that we realize what we have been a part of. In the night journeys of Canada geese, it is the silence that propels them. Thomas Merton writes, ‘Silence is the strength of our interior life.… If we fill our lives with silence, then we will live in hope.’”   — Terry Tempest Williams


It might not seem surprising that silence has been on my mind lately, given my lack of posts this year.  The truth is that 2014 has been very busy, and I’ve spent a lot of time in quiet contemplation.  There is peace to be found in silence: sometimes we are afraid the moment will be ruined with words that can’t do it justice; sometimes we find forgotten spaces within ourselves–spaces that have long since been buried.  We tend to not wander into these open and unprotected expanses, but rather build against them, filling them with things that obscure our view.

Normally by this time of year, I’ve taken several trips.  By contrast, I’ve been content to focus on local landscapes this year.  One of my favorite images so far was made in a little grove of trees in the riverbed along my normal Saturday morning running route.  I’ve been eyeing it for weeks, and the weather finally cooperated on a morning I was able to get down there.

Lichen-covered trees

I’ve also taken advantage of clearing storms in the mountains, and an invitation from a friend for an early morning hike on the beach.  There’s been a certain joy in creating images close to home this year.  Normally my trips are planned out on a limited itinerary and involve tiring travel.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy visiting far-off places (not even close), however by removing the stress of an abbreviated schedule and unfamiliar landscapes from the equation, I have the flexibility to let the light rather than the calendar dictate the situation, allowing me to relax and be more creative.

Movement seems to be an unintended theme in my images so far this year, but perhaps it’s fitting; we’re always quietly in motion, always changing.  When the clutter and fillers are cleared away, our own evolution becomes unmistakable and unmissable in the image-making process.  It’s these discrete, silent moments of self-reflection that propel us in making inspired art.  So it is that the open spaces we have unearthed no longer represent dullness, but vision and hope.

Wind-blown fog in predawn light

 

Coastal sunrise

 

2013 Year in Review

Written by Alpenglow Images on December 23rd, 2013

“Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home — not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.”  – Ellen Meloy

“I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely…we have lived too shallowly in too many places.” — Wallace Stegner


Another year has passed and I am re-reading my blog posts and journals from 2013, as well as reviewing my images, retracing my year.  Last year was one in which I grew tremendously in my photographic vision and voice.  This year, I hoped to build on that growth.

Looking at numbers of images produced, 2013 was relatively light for me.  Some of this was intentional: I spent significant time in the mountains over the summer and fall, but often left my camera at home, focusing on introspection and reflection.  I used to carry my camera everywhere with me, but have learned to let that go somewhat–sometimes being in the moment is more valuable than trying to capture every moment with a camera.  Details and intimacy with the moment get lost that way, as counterintuitive as it may seem.

Despite the few images I made this year, it was productive in other ways.  I was able to redesign my website and restructure my image portfolios.  I had several fantastic backpacking trips and was reminded how good getting off the grid for a few days can feel.  I was fortunate to enjoy two of those backpacking trips with Jackson Frishman, who I have known for several years through our blogs; I really enjoyed getting to know him in person this year.  I also was able to further develop some thoughts on the West, and on sense of place, which is an ongoing subject of interest for me:

Potsherds

In Defense of the West

Preserving Wildness

Personally, it was a year of deep introspection, revelation, and unexpected hope for me; 2014 should be an interesting year photographically as well as personally.   One thing I did confront within myself was the fact that my parents are aging and won’t live forever–this has been a theme since January and in some ways continues to be so.

My biggest recurring theme this year was the concept of ‘home’ and how we fit into the landscape.  I’m not talking about home in the sense of having a street address and a house, but rather the feeling you get when you arrive in a certain location.  Why are we drawn to certain landscapes more than others–why do we feel “at home” in certain landscapes, but not in others?  I feel like this is should be a central tenet of landscape photography: conveying a sense of place, a sense of belonging, to the landscape.

As humans, we are at an interesting crossroads: we can use the landscape to drive our development, we can simply be inhabitants of the landscape, or we can become part of the landscape, existing as part of its rhythm.   Only the latter option is a completely synchronous way of living–the former two are somewhat asynchronous.  The bottom line is that we must strive to create a life that’s in balance with our own needs, but also with the land.

I found balance this year by visiting familiar locations, revisiting places I haven’t been in years, and discovering new landscapes I haven’t visited before.  As I was reviewing my portfolios and images from the year, it struck me that many of my favorites from this year were in monochrome.  Why?  I guess I just saw the world that way in 2013.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the images, and that 2013 was good to you.  I hope you a fantastic 2014 as well!

Markagunt Plateau Aspens

Aspen grove, Utah. September

Aspens and granite boulders

Aspens & lichen-covered granite, California, August

Blooming Mojave Yucca

Mojave Yucca, California, April

Intimate mountain landscape

Tree & Rocks, California, May

Canyon Abstract 2

Canyon Walls, Utah, June

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Shadows and Hillside, California, March

Death Valley Sunrise

Stormy Desert Sunrise, California, January

The Little Colorado River

Little Colorado River Canyon, Arizona, February

Wildflowers, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Mountain Wildflowers, Wyoming, July

 

Happy Thanksgiving

Written by Alpenglow Images on November 28th, 2013

San Gabriel Mountain Cascade

I’ve never thought of myself as a sentimental person, but over the years the meaning of Thankgiving has become more important to me.  Simply put, it’s a time to give thanks.  It’s the beginning of a season in which we celebrate the notion that giving is more satisfying than receiving, that being kind and generous can be an everyday thing, and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

I have been to the mountains a few times this autumn, but haven’t made very many images.  These are from an outing to one of my favorite canyons a few weeks ago.  I was a bit late for the peak of fall colors, as many of the sycamore trees had already dropped their leaves en masse, leaving bare trunks prepped for winter and piles of leaves on the ground.   Perhaps not the most photogenic situation, but it didn’t matter.  It was an opportunity for me to give an early thanks and get ready for the season ahead, filling me with reminders why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving–I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

San Gabriel Mountain Cascade

 

Learning Light

Written by Alpenglow Images on November 12th, 2013

Art is not about f-stops and metering, it is a release for the soul.  – from Alister Benn’s artists statement


As a beginning landscape photographer, I learned a lot about the inner workings of a camera as well as fundamentals of composition and processing by participating in online critique forums.  Following the pattern many of us do, I “lurked” in the background before finally getting the guts to introduce myself by posting an image I thought was one of my best.  Fortunately, people were very nice as they critiqued my first image, as well as my second image, my tenth image, and so forth.

I might have been a slow learner, but over time I learned to put my frustrations aside and learn from the critiques being given to me.  As time progressed, I learned to look every aspect of a scene, from the lines to the light to each individual element and put them into thoughtful composition. As I gained confidence, I became more willing to offer honest critique of others’ images, which in turn helped me continue to grow.

In short, I was part of a community that was giving thoughtful discussion to photography and I was learning a lot.  After a while, however, I learned that one thing the critique forum couldn’t help me with was the development of my own voice and style.  These things have to come from within.  Once I gained a thorough understanding of my camera and light (not a mastery–I’m still working on that), I was able to break free on a more personal journey into photography.

Over time, I posted less and less on my old critique forum, and I noticed others were as well.  Image posting now seems to be done primarily on social networks and media, where honest critiques seem hard to come by (more on that in another blog post).  However, as I migrated to social media, several friends from my old critique forum also landed there.  There are several photographers who I respect a great deal, one of them being Alister Benn.

I remember thinking early on that I wanted to be like Alister, not so much in terms of emulating his images, but most certainly in emulating (and learning from) his thoughtful approach to art.  I think that’s the least any of us could strive for.  Even as critiques were offered at a harried pace (and thus were not always as constructive as they could be) on critique forums, Alister has always been thoughtful in his criticism, and he’s become a good friend.


For years I chased drama before I realised that simplicity usually satisfies me more than making some crazy colourful image.  – from Seascape Photography: Single Frame Techniques


Over the past couple of years, I’ve reviewed Alister’s other ebooks (see here and here), and I’d like to say a few more words about his most recent publications, a series of instructional guides on seascape photography.  Currently, he has three books in the series finished: a free introduction, Vision & Composition, and Single Frame Techniques.  Alister was kind enough to let me preview all three books, although he did not ask for this review.

Alister Benn Seascape Photography Introduction

 

One thing that struck me as I looked through all three ebooks was how Alister’s logical, thoughtful approach to photography shines through in every page.  From the very beginning, he encourages not only a mastery of light and equipment, but also a sense of ownership in the final image.  This is extremely powerful, especially in an age when we are surrounded by so many “how-to” guides, but few books on guiding vision in landscape photography.

Alister’s descriptions are clear enough for a beginner to understand, but are deep enough for a seasoned photographer to glean useful information from every page.

alister benn vision and composition

excerpt from Seascape Photography: Vision & Composition

 

You don’t live close to the ocean?  No problem!  Alister’s explanations go far beyond seascapes and are useful for any landscape photographer.  Not only can you use his suggestions for photographing any body of water, you can use them for photographing just about any subject.  All of these books–again–are based on learning a thorough understanding of equipment, but also the development of a personal style, which begins in the field, but is carried through to the digital darkroom.

Alister Benn's single frame techniques

excerpt from Seascape Photography: Single Frame Techniques

You can check out all of Alister’s ebooks at his website, Harvesting Light.  His introduction is available for free, and the other two Seascape ebooks are available for $10/each.  If you’re interested in developing your own artistic vision as well as your technique, these books are a must-have.

 

Joining Seasons

Written by Alpenglow Images on October 7th, 2013

“People do not merely select roles suited to their native talents and personalities.  They also gravitate to environments that reward their hereditary inclinations.” — Edward O. Wilson, Consilience


After a long, painful, and torrential monsoon season soaked the Southwest, the Mojave Desert is greener than I’ve ever seen it.  The creosote almost glows in the midday sun as I drive up the long grade that separates the Colorado Plateau from the low desert.  For a fall day, it’s still warm: nearly 80 degrees.  Finally after many months of other obligations, I’m able to come back for a visit.  Living in southern California, I go saying I miss autumn, but really I just miss the place.

The Colorado Plateau is characterized in part by its vast expanses of Navajo Sandstone; although other formations infiltrate here and there, the Navajo is predominant, and it has many voices.  In harsh summer light, it can appear white as snow.  It glows blue in moonlight.  During twilight hours it turns a creamy pink.   It can be completely red or streaked with ‘desert varnish’; the redness is a continuum that depends on the amount of iron present, and the oxidation state of that iron.

Iron = strength.

I trust iron, and I come here when I need to be reminded of strength.  For some reason I have never been able to warm up to the sea like I have the high deserts and mountains of the southwest, and I don’t look to it for solace.

A sense of place does not arise solely from a space, nor is it necessarily a direct function of time spent there.  Memories and experiences transform a space into a place.   I arrive on the Southwest edge of the Plateau, the first sandstone cliffs greeting me, and memories come flooding back to me.  I can look across a distant vista and remember individual trees, places where I have found bighorn sheep skulls, and the place I found so many Calochortus lilies that I wished I had brought my camera.  I even remember friends who have never been here with me except in spirit.

Markagunt Plateau Aspens

Autumn is a special time to be here.  The busy-ness of summer is leaving, families of tourists are back to their routines at home, and there is a heightened sense of peace.  In the high country, elk bugles make for a perfect alarm clock, and the breeze carries notes of winter, even on an Indian Summer afternoon.   In Navajo, October is called Ghąąji’, which means “the joining of the seasons.”  For them, it is a time to cultivate the richness of the season–summer’s crops–while getting ready for the ceremonies of winter as well as the hardships that lie ahead.

Photographically, I have always struggled when I visit a location for the first time.   I find myself feeling hurried and stressed out, and as a result I cannot find a composition that feels right, cannot read the light, etc.  I just feel out of place.  Granted, sometimes magic happens, but most of the time it doesn’t.  When I visit a place I know well, the opposite is true and I am relaxed, allowed to focus on the details of the place.  I find myself taking fewer images and there are times I may not even take my camera out of the bag.  I don’t think I’m harboring an elitist agenda by only waiting for the “best” light, but I am simply content just to be.

Our world is wonderfully complex and so many things are interwoven.  All too often, we search for truths that are equally complex and intricate.  However, sitting on sun-warmed sandstone in autumn experiencing my own joining of seasons, I am reminded that some truths are simple.

Lava Point Sunrise 2

 

Lava Point Sunrise

 

The important lesson

Written by Alpenglow Images on September 23rd, 2013

Sunset along the Kolob Reservoir Road

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read two blog posts that have made me think quite a bit about social media.  First, Ron Coscorrosa’s incredibly perceptive and well-written, “Avoiding the Internet Popularity Trap,” is a humorous poke at the current state of photography and social media.  The other post is, “7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook.” from a blog I’ve recently discovered called Wait but Why.

As I read both of these posts, I laughed at their cleverness, but my laugh quickly devolved to that awkward chuckle you get when you’re in a room full of people and realize you’re the butt of a joke.  For both posts, I need more than one hand to count the number of “offenses,” I’ve made.

I imagine to some extent it was true before social media came along, but there’s no doubt now: Facebook (and its offspring) has made us a funny bunch of people indeed.  The internet has increased the speed of our cultural evolution rapidly–too fast I’m afraid for our poor little brains to keep up with.  This leaves us doing all sorts of weird things for attention, as if we’re that awkward kid in braces at the middle school dance, trying to get the attention of that girl or boy.  You know who I’m talking about.  And you were that awkward kid; we all were.

In response to ribbing critiques of our odd cultural behavior, we have two choices: laugh at ourselves, or get mad.  If you follow the landscape photography circles on Facebook at all, you know about the fallout surrounding Ron’s post–there were some people who took it personally, and for no good reason in my opinion.  We’re all guilty of these things.  That’s why they’re funny, and if it causes us to take a step back for some positive reflection, then so much the better.   Things are so serious in this world…if you can’t laugh at yourself, what can you laugh at?

So with that in mind, here’s my offering of silly Facebook antics that I’m guilty of.  Will I do it again?  Probably.  But, I’m always mindful that it’s the body of work that does the talking, not the lip service.  That’s the important lesson here.

Thanks to Ron and Why but Why for the great posts.

 

Greg Russell's Facebook Post

 

A dew-covered world

Written by Alpenglow Images on September 9th, 2013

This last weekend, my family and I visited the eastern Sierra for an event I was attending.  We had a few extra hours on Saturday afternoon and decided to drive up to Tuolumne Meadows.  On our way up Tioga Pass, I wondered if we would see any evidence of the Rim Fire.  Highway 120, which connects Yosemite’s high country to the Valley is currently closed, so it was very quiet in Tuolumne Meadows, and as I expected, a very large smoke plume was evident across the western and northern skies.   As evening arrived, the wind shifted and heavy smoke moved into Lee Vining Canyon, filling the Mono Basin.

Negit Island Mono Lake

Negit Island and smoke from the Rim Fire

Although it’s now 80% contained, the Rim fire has been burning since mid-August, and has charred over a quarter of a million acres, making it one of the most destructive fires in California’s history.  Fire is becoming more and more a way of life in the West, but in the face of a blaze this size, outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, hikers, and simply the general public have stood in awe and horror as fire crews scrambled to get the upper hand in hot and dry conditions.

Unlike most people, when I think of Yosemite, I don’t think of the Valley.  I think of Tuolumne Meadows and the granite domes, Mts. Dana and Gibbs and the Cathedral Range (one of my favorite mountain chains anywhere).  This is the Yosemite I know.  Standing there on Saturday, looking at the smoke, something didn’t feel right.   I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

In the face of such destruction, whether it’s a forest fire or something more personal and human, we experience a visceral suffering.  Pico Iyer had a wonderful op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, “The Value of Suffering,” in which he concludes that with love and trust, maybe we can be strong enough to witness suffering, and freely admit that we will never get the upper hand over it.

To put it another way, consider the interesting Japanese word nen.  Nen is the smallest unit of time any human being can experience, and in any nen one can return to something, anything…whether it’s a breath, partner, path, or choice.  This decision to return is the foundation of Zen practice.

In any nen–whether watching the Rim Fire from a distant Tuolumne Meadows or thinking about a loved one, we have the choice to return.  I don’t want to distract from the mess that the Rim Fire has caused and allude to any single benefit, but we are an angry enough world as it is; it’s time to return to a more compassionate path and be thankful for the dew that covers the meadow each morning.

Mono Lake sunset

Black Point Fissures and smoke from the Rim Fire