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A letter to Secretary Zinke

Monday, May 8th, 2017

Dear Interior Secretary Zinke:

Last Friday, your office released a memo of the National Monuments under review per executive order 13792. This letter is regarding that order.

Much has been written about the “Western ethos.” This intangible set of characteristics enabled the pioneers to settle and explore the lands west of the Mississippi. Today that same tenacity and those values live on in Westerners who eek out a living in our arid Western landscape. Perhaps more than any of the other values, vision is the one I think is the most uniquely Western. Today, just as 150 years ago, we have a vision of what the West should be; our collective actions have been an (often unsuccessful) attempt to make the landscape to conform with our vision.

In the Antiquities Act, Theodore Roosevelt also had a vision for the West. The national monuments he and the presidents who have followed him have left behind for America are a tangible reminder of Western vision and tenacity. As Wallace Stegner said, the Western landscape–whose crown jewels are protected by our national parks and monuments–is what we as a people have built our very character against.

Much of this land has inherent monetary value, as the men who have looted archaeological sites for years on Cedar Mesa, which is now protected as part of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, would tell you. Or the men who want to drill oil and gas wells in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii or mine uranium from Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, would tell you. However, some of it simply has been protected for the sake of protection.

thunderstorm and fiery sunset at bears ears buttes in san juan county utah

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in southern California houses three federally-designated Wildernesses, and is home to last bighorn sheep herd in the Transverse Ranges. Carrizo Plain National Monument in California is the home of critically endangered species such as the giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens, a keystone species), San Joaquin antelope ground squirrel (Ammospermophilus nelsoni), and San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica). Finally, back to Bears Ears and moving beyond its monetary value, the monument symbolizes Native American sovereignty, and our government’s heartfelt acknowledgement that indigenous tribal history is one of the threads that holds our nation together.

antelope ground squirrel with grass in its mouth at carrizo plain national monument in southern california

In using the Antiquities Act, President Roosevelt personified the characteristic of possessing vision. He also showed incredible restraint, the rarest of virtues. The President would have remained vigilant of the landscape’s monetary value to the people, but he would have reminded us sometimes we need to protect a place simply so that future generations can experience it. In this sense, he would have worked to compromise in the creation of National Monuments. Indeed, the men who followed Roosevelt saw that that was the case in Grand Staircase-Escalante, Gold Butte, Grand Canyon-Parashant, and the others. Borders of these monuments were carefully set, with the interests of all “sides” in mind.

As a self-proclaimed disciple of Mr. Roosevelt, I’m sure you are familiar with his New Nationalism speech from 1910, in which he said, “It is of little use for us to pay lip-loyalty to the mighty men of the past unless we sincerely endeavor to apply to the problems of the present precisely the qualities which in other crises enabled the men of that day to meet those crises.” Secretary Zinke, I am asking you to look not only at our past, but also how far we’ve come as a nation as you endeavor to begin this review of our National Monuments. To paraphrase John Sawhill, you have the ability to ensure that future generations judge us by what we have chosen to protect, rather than by what we have extracted from the earth.

Keep our National Monuments intact.

apricot globe mallow wildflowers and buttes near lake mead at sunrise in gold butte national monument, nevada

Anatomy of a desert storm

Monday, April 10th, 2017

“Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.” – Thomas Merton, from Raids on the Unspeakable


Here in the desert southwest, we’re coming off an amazing winter of rain. The color green seems a color more appropriately likened to Ireland than the Mojave Desert, but the grass popping up between very happy creosote and salt bush doesn’t tell any lies: it was a good winter. The big, soaking storms are long gone as we transition into summer, but some spring squalls are still hanging on. Desert rain storms are really quite remarkable; they are swift, powerful, and incredibly rewarding.

You’re sitting on the rock in the late afternoon, enjoying the warmth of the sun, perhaps enjoying a beer after a long day of hiking. Dark clouds hang on the horizon, but they look like they are quite far away. As the wind starts picking up, you realize that your beer bottle might get blown over if you don’t take cover, and that perhaps those clouds weren’t as far as you thought.

photograph of mountain ranges and rain in nevada

Fortunately, you save your beer from a near complete loss, and as you do, you look towards the storm and realize there’s an incredible light show taking place behind it. Backlit virga hangs like tattered curtains and you stand there admiring the desert mountain ranges–which appear in various shades of blue–receding behind the squall. The wind begins to sandblast you and you start to feel the first drops of water hitting your face.

Soon, rain begins to fall in earnest, but this lasts approximately 10% of the entire length of the storm; the whole thing is really just a big tease. The clouds pass overhead, and you look towards the horizon from whence the storm came; any trace of the storm that just blew through has been hidden.  Then, you turn around, and discover what the storm has left you as it moves away into the distance.

photograph of a rainbow at sunset in the gold butte national monument

The sun is setting now, shining on the storm clouds which are no longer backlit. The trailing wisps of the storm catch the light, turning bright orange and pink, while the storm itself maintains its deep, menacing blue. You look above your head to see a rainbow arching overhead, completing this amazing sunset.

The entire thing lasts about 20 minutes and the landscape takes 25 degree temperature drop from start to end. Several times over the course of the storm you’ve nearly forgotten to take photos, but you make images, which you’re grateful for. But mostly you just stand in awe, thankful for what you’ve just experienced, and where you’re standing. This is meaningless joy, and it’s wonderful.

photograph of sunset after a rain storm in gold butte national monument

Two rabbis

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

“The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of the course. You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meaning of things were simply in ends, composers would write nothing but finales…” — Alan Watts


Storm light in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas Nevada

I once heard a joke about two Jewish rabbis who were having dinner together.  They were close friends and felt they could tell each other anything.  One night they stayed awake very late discussing the existence of God and concluded finally that God did not exist.  A few hours before dawn, they then went off to bed.  In the morning, one of the rabbis got up, looked for his friend all over the house, and not finding him, searched outside.  He found his friend in the garden, absorbed in his ritual morning prayers.

Surprised, he says, “What are you doing?!?”

“You can see what I’m doing, I’m saying my morning prayers.”

“That’s what surprises me!  We almost talked until dawn, decided that God does not exist, and now here you are saying your morning prayers?”

The other rabbi smiled wryly and replied quite simply, “What does God have to do with it?”

The punchline of the joke may not be immediately obvious, but what the second rabbi did not realize, perhaps, is that fidelity to and reverence for ritual was more important than belief in God to the rabbi who went on with his morning prayers.

I can remember one April day early in my photographic career, I saw a large-format photographer standing out at noon on top of the cab of his pickup truck with his camera in Death Valley making images.  From a distance I watched him for a while, and finally concluded that he was crazy because what sort of image could be made at noon?  It was, after all, the only reasonable explanation for his behavior, because it was at least 7 hours until it would be worth pulling the camera out of the bag.

Fast forward more than a decade, and I can see that photographer was not out of his mind.  There are many great articles out there on ways to make images all day long.  However, what’s more–and what I see now–is that it’s not always about only making images of a nuclear sky, but rather fidelity to and reverence for the process of image making.  Like any relationship, knowing the landscape requires time, effort, and–at least in Southwest–a few cactus pricks, scrapes, and bruises.  Repeated visits, and often several failed attempts are necessary to make “that” image, and finally–hopefully–success.  Success, as it were, ultimately may never come, but when your photography is motivated by the place itself, it paradoxically doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

It seems that the most highly praised photography is that which has the most jaw-dropping colors, or the most dramatic light.  It won’t be long and you’ll have an app on your smartphone that can tell you whether the sunset will be worth photographing tonight.  In other words, why waste your time going outdoors unless the sunset is going to be “V+F” worthy?   Don’t get me wrong, I still get very excited for colorful sunsets and dramatic light, but let’s not forget the sheer joy of being outside, making images.  If this is forgotten, it will be a step in the wrong direction for those attempting to make a case for photography as art.

I often wonder if I had approached that photographer in Death Valley years ago to ask him why he was wasting his time in midday light if he would have turned to me, smiled wryly, and asked simply, “What does the sunset have to do with it?”

Coxcomb Mountains in Joshua Tree National Park

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

The important lesson

Monday, 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.

 

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