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Lay of the Land

Friday, September 9th, 2016

“To rise above tree line is to go above thought, and after, the descent back into birdsong, bog orchids, willows, and firs is to sink into the preliterate parts of ourselves.” – Gretel Ehrlich


The entire summer seemed busy, but August flew by at an unusually rapid pace. My son and I drove from California to New Mexico to visit my parents; on our way out there we broke up the drive by spending a quiet and welcoming night at Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona. Four days after getting home from that trip, my girlfriend and I left on a trip to the north coast of California, visiting friends and family along the way. That leg of our travels culminated at South Lake Tahoe (I know, it’s not the north coast. Don’t ask.), and my dropping her at the airport in Reno to fly home.

From there, I drove south to eastern California, picked up Jackson Frishman at his house in the Deep Springs Valley, and we headed to eastern Nevada to backpack and photograph some Great Basin mountain ranges. By the time I got home from my second trip, my car had more than 3,000 new miles and I guess you could say I really got the lay of the land.

Over the years I’ve spent outdoors, I’ve become acutely aware of moments where time seems to stand still and that particular snapshot in time seems to transcend all others. In those particular rare moments, I’m overcome with an almost indescribable peace, feeling as though there’s no other place on earth I would rather–or should–be. I imagine that Buddhists would describe these moments as feeling very much like Nirvana, when one’s soul is freed from continuous rebirth, thus permanently taking its small place in the world. Put another way, these moments represent true peace.

I’ve always liked the above passage by Gretel Ehrlich because I think perhaps she used tree line as the metaphoric “rising above,” which has always seemed more eloquent than any way I’ve found to describe the feeling. My August travels only took me above topographical tree line a couple of times, but I felt like every turn of the journey somehow took me above Ehrlich’s metaphorical tree line, and I am indeed very fortunate for that. Here are a few of my favorite images from the last month or so.

engineer-mountain-wildflowers

Wildflowers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

navajo national monument sunrise

August sunrise in northern Arizona.

fort-bragg-coastline

Coastline along the rugged north coast of California

mendocino headlands sunset

A foggy sunset along California’s north coast

white mountains california

Sunrise over the Deep Springs Valley, California

white pine mountains sunset

Sunset on Currant Mountain, Nevada

Field Notes: Bosque del Apache

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver (1994)


Geese, with their cacophonous honking, have filled my dreams lately.

Earlier this month, I visited the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with my dad.  In winter, thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese converge on this area of south-central New Mexico to feed and prepare for their migration back north to nest; he and I have both always wanted to visit.

I admire several very talented wildlife photographers, and I can’t even pretend to make images of birds on par with theirs.  However, I’ve always loved birds of all sizes, and as a friend recently pointed out, I’m one of “those” birdwatchers.  As Terry Tempest Williams writes, “The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”   How can one not be comforted by the dark green and snow white plumage of ducks, or admire their fidelity to place, migrating in a choreographed annual cycle that spans continents and is embedded in their genes?

bosque del apache snow geese fly in

Sandhill Cranes, Bosque del Apache

Even at the refuge, the daily cycle of the birds quickly becomes apparent even to the casual observer–en masse movements to and from the nighttime safety of water to daytime fields for what seems like a very conversation-filled meal.  Arriving with the focal length of a landscape photographer, I wanted to photograph the feeling of the place, rather than individual birds, to capture the visceral excitement of an evening fly-in or fly-out.

Top all of this off with a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl Bar, and it wasn’t a bad trip at all.

snow geese on an evening fly out, bosque del apache

Snow geese, Bosque del Apache

Sandhill Cranes flying at sunset

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Another year has almost passed and it’s been a relatively quiet one for me on the blog.  Life’s busy-ness has taken up a lot of my time over the last few months, and writing has taken a back seat to other things.  Such is life–I’m sure 2015 will bring change to the natural ebb and flow of things.

Despite my quiet nature lately, I have been thinking much about the holiday season this year, Thanksgiving in particular.  As a child, Thanksgiving was really just felt like a necessary stepping stone on my way to what I thought were much more important holidays: Christmas, and my birthday (which is in January).  However, over the years Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday; the notion of thankfulness has become very poignant as I’ve grown older.

This year, all I want for Thanksgiving is presence.  Be present in the moment, with whoever you’re with.  Practice the art of deep listening.  Our society is rapidly becoming one in which viewpoints and opinions are so polarized that discussion, common ground, and mutual respect are disappearing.  Not only is this true here in the United States in national news, I see it more and more on social media–just the other day I saw a discussion thread regarding personal preference for hiking boots vs. trail runners de-evolve into personal insults.  Really?

I read an essay by Laura Simms recently that captured this notion perfectly.  In an excerpt she wrote:

“Pulling opinions off of soapbox reactivity can be as agonizing as pulling a bandaid off an open wound. But without fresh air and time, the wound does not heal from within. We managed to listen to each other. Our dialogue became stunning and hard. We had to agree to consider each person’s reflection. With space, and with listening, and with a certain personal discipline, each of us began to melt. Our differences and our listening became our common ground.”

Sadly, Thanksgiving dinner is often the perfect venue for our opinions to clash.  Start small by giving the gift of presence to whoever you’re with this holiday season, and resolve to work towards a common ground of understanding in the new year.

bentonite hill layers, bits wilderness new mexico

Potsherds

Monday, March 11th, 2013

I am writing this sitting at a desk that my dad made for my eleventh birthday. In the second drawer is an old pipe tobacco can–Captain Black–filled with Native American potsherds.

My family moved to the Four Corners region in northwestern New Mexico when I was six years old.  Many of my earliest memories of New Mexico involve the typical sight-seeing outings families do;  I remember going to Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  At that age, the significance of these world-class archaeological sites did not really mean much to me.  However, I started to draw connections to the ancient residents of this area one September day while deer hunting with my dad; we walked through an area filled with potsherds.  I was probably a little bored after several hours of hiking through the seemingly endless piñon-juniper pygmy forest, and the potsherds made for an exciting treasure hunt.  We picked up some of the nicer ones and brought them home.  Since then, they’ve largely lived inside of the pipe tobacco can inside my desk drawer.

I am not sure how old they are.  Some are really lovely bowl rims, with simple triangular black-on-white patterns painted on them.  Others are pieces of corrugated bowls.  Many of the archaeological sites in that area of New Mexico are Navajo–about 400-500 years old.  However, the areas we used to visit do not lie far from Salmon Ruins and the Great North Road.  So, it is entirely possible–probable even–that these pieces are much older Ancestral Puebloan potsherds.

Pueblo Bonito, Tse-biya hani ahi

Archaeologists say that we learn best about ancient cultures by leaving artifacts in their place, admired but untouched.  After all, they tell the stories of the peoples who came before us.   Indeed, much science is lost by looking at these pieces of pottery ex situ.  However, when I look at them, I think of the people who made them.  What were they thinking when they left them?  Did they walk away unflinchingly from their home, or did they take a longing look back, thinking they may someday return?

These fragmented pieces of pottery tell the story of a people who eeked a living off of the land, who knew the landscape and probably felt a deep sense of place here.


I looked down upon hillside after hillside of slopes clear-cut for their timber.  Traversed back and forth by logging roads, the hills were deeply scarred and patterened.  All I could think of were pottery designs.  Beginning there, the entire flight was an aerial Anasazi visual feast of basket weaves made of farmland plowing, river ways drawn out like rock art, and cloud patterns resembling rock forms.”  — Bruce Hucko, Cave to Cave–Canyon to Canyon

Flying from my home in southern California to Colorado at 30,000′, I can relate to Hucko’s evocative impressions of the Western landscape (Bruce Hucko was the photographer for the  Wetherill-Grand Gulch Research Project).  I see landscapes–monoliths, cliffs, and mesas–that are part of who I am, so much so that I can recognize them without having seen them on a map, or even visiting them, in years.  A floodplain in the Mojave desert, the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, Navajo Mountain, Cedar Mesa, Mesa Verde, the San Juans, the Sawatch, and finally we touch down in Denver.  Terra firma.

Mojave Desert

Two hours in the air filled with fragments of landscapes that conjure memories–in the same way those broken pieces of pottery tell the story of a people, these landscapes are my potsherds of the American Southwest.  This is where I have spent my life and I’ve had adventures with friends and family; these stories would fill a hundred books.


It has been over 25 years since my first visit to Chaco Canyon, but it feels like many more.  It’s a sunny and warm December afternoon, and many of the other tourists have left, leaving the halls of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito quiet and a little lonely and the moon is rising over Fajada Butte.  I sit for a while, watching the reflected winter light bounce through the rooms, which are now open to the sky.   For what feels like the hundredth time, I find myself thinking about the journey of the people who lived here, and of their great road north toward my childhood home, near Salmon and Aztec ruins.  Potsherds lie across the high desert for nearly 100 miles; the stories of these travelers are being told in fragments.

So it is that we tell our own stories in broken, scattered pieces. Our own beautiful stories are being shared and discovered by the people in our lives, just as we discover our own pieces of others.  If we are lucky we find an entire, unbroken, pot now and then.

 Fajada Butte Moonrise

When it all comes together

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Sometimes in photography, as in life, things just come together perfectly.


I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, located in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico.  The Preserve lies on one of the largest volcanic calderas in North America; this supervolcano (as it’s classified) has the capability of altering weather patterns to the point of causing a small ice age if it ever erupts.  Try to imagine 1,000 km³ of rock and debris spewing from the earth–1,000 km³–I can’t quite wrap my mind around that.

The land was acquired by the federal government in 2000 as a trust, with a board of trustees making decisions about its management.  Still a working cattle ranch, the Caldera is administered using a combination of those policies used in national forests, as well as in national parks.

The thing that strikes me the most is that any event on the Caldera–whether it is hiking, sightseeing, or even hunting–is kept very small.  The idea is to give the visitor a sense of solitude.  Quiet contemplation.  Can you imagine if only 25 people were allowed into Yosemite Valley at a time?  That’s a very novel idea indeed.


Visiting this historic place, I knew I wanted to come home with both memorable and meaningful images.  First of all, I knew I may never get to visit here again, and second, it was important to me to make images of my home state that carried a sense of belonging.  Not knowing exactly what to expect, I hoped for dramatic light, and the time to let the landscape present itself.  Great light is often caused by crummy weather.  Fortunately, I got it.

Arriving late in the afternoon, rain was already beginning to fall from the thunderheads that had been building strength all day.  After looking at the map, we decided on a small pond that looked like it could get good sunset light.  By the time we drove up the mountain to our location, the rain had turned to sleet, the ambient temperature was in the mid-30s, and it was indeed beginning to feel a bit like autumn.

The rest of that afternoon was spent watching the fog rolling through the trees, constantly evolving, moving, transforming the landscape.  I thought of Sigurd Olson as the fog galloped through the trees like a herd of white horses.  The hauntingly beautiful bugles of bull elk looking for a fight came out of the mist from all directions.

A feast for the senses.

Fog and trees, Valles Caldera National Preserve

White Horses, September 2012

As sunset neared, the clouds cleared just a bit, and as I’d hoped, the fog settled in on our little pond, our small corner of the world.  All ours…tonight anyway.  The sky lit up giving us a perfect sunset.  Few things could have made it better.

Sunset on a small pond at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

New Mexico sunset, September 2012

So it went for the rest of the weekend: New Mexico autumn.  Wildlife abounded.  Rain brought a last bit of summer life to the forest before winter’s grip tightens.  Light danced at the perfect times.  And, of course, green chiles were on the menu.   Thank you, New Mexico, for the perfect start to my favorite season.

Rainbow and thunderstorm in northern New Mexico

Autumn Rainbow, September 2012

Grove of aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) in autumn

Aspen Grove, September 2012

Redondo Peak, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico

Redondo Peak, September 2012

Fog drifts through trees

Fog & Trees, September 2012

Harvesting Autumn

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Volumes have been written about iconic locations in landscape photography, but if there is an iconic season, then it must be autumn.   This is for good reason because the displays put on by vegetation as it transitions from a full summer coat to the nakedness of winter can be breathtaking.  In the same way farmers harvest their crop in October, photographers harvest the wonderful long shadows of waning daylight and the gorgeous colors of aspens and maples, taking advantage of weather that hasn’t quite turned white yet.

Trail and aspens in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

A Walk through the Aspens

Autumn is by far my favorite season.  Both of the images in this post are from previous years, but this year I’m looking forward an upcoming trip to the mountains of northern New Mexico, where aspen groves are certainly on the itinerary.  I am excited for crisp mornings accompanied by the bugles of bull elk looking for a sparring partner and the feeling of warmth only an autumn sun can bring.   In addition to the upcoming trip, it is time to enjoy the fruits of a hard year’s labor; later this week, I will have some exciting news to share here on the blog regarding a project I’ve been working on this year with PJ Johnson and Ann Whittaker.

To quote L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables), “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”  Indeed.  I hope you have a fantastic harvest season, and look forward to the next few months!

Laurel Mountain at sunrise, Sierra Nevada, California

Laurel Mountain at dawn 

The Gloaming Hour

Friday, July 15th, 2011

“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

–John Muir

 Not many people can say it quite like John Muir.  It wasn’t until I read this passage years ago that I’d even heard about gloaming–that time right before dawn or after sunset in which light present in the upper atmosphere illuminates the earth, which is not lit directly by the sun.

During the gloaming, one of my favorite atmospheric events occurs–the earth’s shadow can be seen on the horizon.  The dark blue band at the horizon is the shadow of the earth as the sun creeps nearer the horizon.  At this time, another phenomenon can be seen; the Belt of Venus is the pinkish band in the sky above the earth’s shadow.

Hoodoos during the gloaming hour in the Bisti Badlands of northern New Mexico

Gloaming, July 2011

There’s a lot of emphasis placed on capturing the sweet light as the sun rises or sets.  Indeed, it is sweet…long light on a mountain peak or on desert red rock almost always makes for a pretty photograph.  But, one of my favorite times of day is the gloaming hour, when there’s a subtle, but just as grand light show occurring.

What’s your favorite time of day for photography, or in general?

But I’m Not Dead Yet

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Over the last few weeks, family trips, a busy work schedule, and various home improvements have kept me extremely busy.  Of course this would drive any photographer/blogger crazy because I really enjoy writing, and I do have some new images to share.  I’ll be posting more in the latter half of July, but in the meantime I do want to put up some links to new images.

A few weeks ago, I shared an image from a small drainage near the northern border of Kolob Canyon, in Zion National Park.  Kanarra Creek, near the small community of Kanarraville, is such a great place, and despite its small size, it rivals the more popular Virgin Narrows in beauty.  In addition, south of Zion Canyon is a virtually untracked wilderness–the Smithsonian Butte National Scenic Backway.  Both of these locations, although “known” seem to be virtually “unknown.”  However, to celebrate the entire area, and perhaps to emphasize that there is indeed more to photograph that just Zion itself.  You can see my images of the Greater Zion Region here.

The Smithsonian Butte, south of Zion Canyon

Smithsonian Butte, June 2011

Over the Fourth of July, we made a trip out to the Four Corners Region to visit my parents in northwestern New Mexico.  While there, I got to re-visit the Bisti Badlands Wilderness, south of Farmington, New Mexico.  Although I grew up less than an hour’s drive from this amazing moonscape, I have to admit that I never fully appreciated it as a 17 year old (in fact, if I remember correctly, it was downright torture every time I was “forced” on a hike by my dad!).  What a difference several years makes!  I was sad to get only one morning in the Bisti, but you can view the images here.  Finally, in addition to visiting the Bisti, I was able to visit several other archaeological sites in the San Juan Basin; most of these sites were occupied by early Navajo inhabitants in the early-mid 1700s.  While this gallery will grow with time, you can see a couple of images here.

A Navajo pictograph from the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico

Warrior Pose, July 2011

I hope you enjoy the images, and don’t give up on me…I’m not dead yet!  More to come soon!

New Mexico Images (Bisti Badlands & the San Juan Basin)

Greater Zion Region Images