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The nature of loss

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve often (somewhat seriously) joked that the only reason I’d want to be the President of the United States is because of the Antiquities Act.  This law enables the President–with the swipe of a pen–to protect our nation’s “antiquities” by declaring a national monument.  Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the bill into law, used the Antiquities Act to create Devils Postpile National Monument, as well as Grand Canyon National Monument, which would later become a national park.  Most boys want to be an astronaut when they grow up; I wanted to create national monuments.

Today is the 105th birthday of Utah’s first national monument: Natural Bridges.  The monument protects three large natural bridges, including the world’s second largest, all of which are carved out of beautiful, white, Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  Two relatively untamed canyons come together in Natural Bridges, and between the large arcs of stone, Ancestral Puebloan ruins are also protected, standing sentinel over these canyons as they have for hundreds of years.  Natural Bridges is out of the way and remote, located in one of the darkest nighttime areas of the United States, earning it the title of the world’s first International Dark Sky Park.

White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence, but on the birthday of Utah’s first national monument, a group of congressmen–one of whom is from Utah–will begin a hearing in an attempt to undermine the framework of the Antiquities Act.  If passed, this body of legislation would require an act of Congress to declare a national monument as well as remove restrictions on land use within national monuments.  In Nevada, the Antiquities Act would become null and void (as it is in Wyoming currently).  My fear is that in today’s hyperpartisan congress, these changes would make it virtually impossible to use this law as it was intended.

What strikes me even more deeply is the fact that I see the world changing.  We are developing land and extracting natural resources at a rate which is simply unsustainable.  As a nation, we are slowly but surely abandoning wild places, which is opposite of the notion on which we built our country.  Wallace Stegner wrote in his now-famous wilderness letter, “We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.  The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Much has been written on the value inherent in preserving these places and I can’t begin to reiterate all of it here.  You can read about clear cuts, pipelines, and mining all day.  However, I can’t help but think there’s something deeper happening which we must examine.  The material impact of our society on wilderness is obvious, but what about the impact of wilderness on us?  Does it no longer move us?  Are we no longer in awe of what’s “out there?”  Are we simply missing the bigger picture?

What’s the connection to photography?  Honestly, I’m still working on this.  As landscape photographers, we have the ability to inspire people, to make them want to see places that they might not otherwise see.  We have the ability to become an impassioned voice.  It’s worth considering, and it beats the alternative.  The loss of nature will eventually force us to examine the nature of loss one way or another.

If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander?  If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life?  If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love?  And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?  — John Nichols

When I was a boy I didn’t want to be an astronaut; I wanted to be in the wilderness.  I still do.

Armstrong Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument

Desert Sentinels

Friday, November 11th, 2011

In the deserts and canyons of the southwest, water can be tough to come by; as a result, charismatic megafauna that rely on that water are often elusive and secretive.  The desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is a widespread, but uncommon resident of the southwest.

They truly are sentinels of the desert; on any given afternoon in Joshua Tree National Park,  you might see one surveying the landscape from atop a granite boulder.  In southwest Utah, they return to the canyons from the high country when the temperature starts to fall.  In the desert communities around Palm Springs, they illustrate the interaction between man and nature very well; bighorns have taken to eating ornamental cactus and other plants, so large fences have been erected to keep them out (which is ironic, because some people would pay to see a sheep!).

Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Joshua Tree
Desert Sentinel
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The interaction between humans and bighorns isn’t a recent thing, though.  In fact, humans have been interacting with them since the southwest was first settled, probably thousands of years ago.  If you take any interest in rock art at all, you’ll quickly find that bighorns were a ubiquitous subject of prehistoric artists.  Indeed, I wonder if the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples who lived with these animals found them just as captivating as we do today.

Fremont River petroglyphs, capitol reef national park, utah
Badly weather damaged petroglyphs depicting desert bighorn sheep
Wolfe Ranch Petroglyphs, Arches National Park, Utah

In some ways, the desert bighorn sheep embodies the spirit of the west: it is largely solitary, is resilient, and has shown a great ability to adapt to the desert environment.  Its a true steward of the ecosystems it thrives in.  The Desert Bighorn Council is a great resource to learn more about the biology and conservation of desert bighorn sheep (they list links to many local organizations as well).


Friday, June 24th, 2011

The ability of nature to persist and overcome challenges is something that continues to amaze me.  I remember, when I lived in Wyoming, driving to the Medicine Bow Mountains for the first time, and seeing the wind-battered pines that have been successful despite decades of cold temperatures, howling gales, and heavy snowfall.  Many of them seemed to grow (albeit somewhat crookedly) out of solid granite.  We read all the time about organisms that persist in some of the world’s most hostile environments (see here and here).

I just returned from a fantastic trip to southwestern Utah.  High on the wall of a slot canyon, I noticed these trees–a maple and a piñon pine–clinging to the rock, about 60′ in the air.  Surely, these trees have not had an easy life.  While they probably never see flood water, they must deal with howling winds, freezing temperatures, and despite the creek beneath them, probably a paucity of water.  Yet, they survive.

Redrock walls of Kanarra Creek, near Kanarraville, Utah

Persistence, June 2011

This sort of persistence becomes an instructive metaphor for photography, too.  Although it may not be the easiest way to survive, these trees hang on and dig in with their roots, making a life for themselves.  In much the same way, it is all too easy for a photographer to get caught up in making images of scenes that have been photographed many times before.  The real art comes from years of persistence, when the image-makers dig deep into themselves, ask the tough questions about inspiration and creativity, and follow their heart.  After all, your art should be about you.  In much the same way as these trees have created art, the photographer does so…with a little persistence.


The Paria, part II: immensity

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

In my last post, I talked about the subtle beauty along the Paria River in southern Utah.  It doesn’t take one long to realize just how big this place is too.  You begin hiking in the river bed, but at this point the canyon is broad, maybe half a mile across.  However, as you hike downstream, the walls narrow and swell upward, leaving you in a canyon of literally inescapable beauty.

Near the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch, you reach Sliderock Arch.

Sliderock arch, Paria River, utah

Sliderock Arch I, March 2011

Sliderock is hardly an arch in the way we normally think about an arch.  Rather than being eroded by wind and water, Sliderock Arch was formed when a large piece of sandstone fell from the wall above, hit the river bed, and leaned up against the wall.  Let me give you a sense of scale.  The opening of the arch, on the left, is about 20′ × 20′.  The righthand “arm” of the arch is about 40′ wide.  This is one big piece of rock.

Although the Paria Narrows may not be as narrow as other canyons in the southwest, they rival any canyon in immensity.


The Paria, part I: subtlety

Friday, April 8th, 2011

In the spirit of David Hyde’s travelogues (read the most recent here), I’ll present my recent trip to southern Utah in three parts.  However, rather than document the trip, I’ll write about three themes that came to mind as I hiked, and photographed.

Although I visited other locations (like Valley of Fire State Park), the primary purpose of my recent trip was to hike a portion of the Paria River, between the White House trailhead, and its confluence with Buckskin Gulch.  I think the Paria was one of those rivers I was meant to spend time with at some point in my life.  As a teenager, I remember reading about some of the “classic” rivers of the southwest: the Dirty Devil, the Escalante, and–of course–the Paria.  Unlike most of my peers at the time, I found a certain draw in that lovely, beautiful, muddy water.  The hike all the way to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona is considered to be one of the finest backpacking trips in the region.

Last week, I spent a day in the canyon, which starts out broadly, and narrows down after about 4 miles.  One thing I immediately noticed about the Paria is that its gorgeous–beautiful–but that beauty isn’t as in-your-face as other locations in the Southwest, like Zion, or the Wave.  This subtle beauty becomes apparent as you sit watching sandstone walls and erosions as the light passes, playing on it.  Or, as you contemplate the effects of thousands of years of wind and water on the stone.

The Windows on the Paria River, Utah
Windows into the past, March 2011

Once you enter the Paria narrows, the canyon turns from a broad, meandering line to a series of twists and turns.  However, the overhanging sandstone walls to give occasional views of the “outside.”  Again, subtle beauty is key.

The Paria River, in southern Utah
Subtle Beauty, March 2011

Grand, subtle, nuances prevail in the Paria River canyon.  What areas do you find these qualities in?


Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

In the desert, rock is ubiquitous, and seemingly everlasting.  Wind and water, however–the forces that carve rock–are not so permanent in the desert.  Water especially is ephemeral, coming in bursts throughout the year.  Winter’s snowmelt feeds the rivers, but many are reduced to a small flow by summer.  During summer, thunderstorms feed canyons, washes and rivers–anything that drains a watershed–in violent bursts.  The spring water works to carve the landscape and sustains life; summer flash floods finish the job.  Finally, any remaining water freezes during winter and expands in cracks, working to part rocks.

I made this image in Buckskin Gulch in southern Utah in January.  Buckskin, combined with the Paria River, makes for an accessible backpacking trip through one of the nicest slot canyons in the southwest.  I noticed the brown “bath tub ring” in my RAW images, and thought there was something going on with my lens, but then I realized that’s a high water line, probably from years of flash flooding.  For scale, its about 6 feet off the ground.


Buckskin Gulch in the Paria River Wilderness, Utah
Buckskin Gulch, January 2011

Incidentally, this is my 200th blog post here at Alpenglow Images.  I’m grateful for several things.  First, I’m grateful for the participation, both from people who comment and those who don’t.  Thank you for commenting, and for sharing your ideas.  To that end, I’m also grateful for your inspiration, because you all have been with me on a continuing journey to define my vision in photography.  Finally, I’m just plain happy this blog hasn’t been ephemeral.  Thank you again for a great 200 first posts.

Photo of the Month–February

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

January is already over, and the sun is starting to creep more and more northward in the sky every day.  Photographically, January was productive, and I’m excited to share some new images with you in the next couple of weeks.  February’s image of the month is an intimate landscape from a wildly popular location on the Utah-Arizona border.  During the first week of 2011, we traveled to Page, Arizona to visit the Paria River-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness.  Never heard of it?  Perhaps not, but I’d be willing to bet you’ve seen images from it.  The area’s crown jewel is “The Wave,” which draws huge numbers of tourists every year.

We began our trip by hiking into The Wave, and it holds up to its expectations: its stunning.  The Wave and surrounding Coyote Buttes North has some of the most striking geological formations in North America.  It should come as no surprise, then, that The Wave is also heavily photographed.  Confined to a small area, I think it would be nearly impossible to come up with a novel composition from The Wave itself.  While there, I snapped a few images, and enjoyed the surrounding area.  It may sound like heresy to some people, but I enjoyed some of the alcoves around The Wave more.  In fact, judging by the paucity of footprints, I found some fantastic locations that seem to hardly get visited just a few hundred feet away!

After enjoying this lovely area, we visited some other canyons in the area, and that’s where I found this month’s image.  One of the things I’ll blog about soon is the diversity of sandstone in this area–amazing, whimsical formations and colors abound.   I really liked the way the sandstone “windows” here contrasted with the ice below.  I hope you enjoy it too.

Also, I wanted to mention that yesterday I had the honor of being featured by David Hyde over at the Landscape Photography Blogger.  Over there, David primarily showcases the work of his father, Philip Hyde, the pioneering color landscape photographer.  Head on over and check out the feature as well as some of David’s other blog posts.  I think you’ll quickly learn that if you don’t already read regularly, you’ll want to.

Sandstone and ice in Buckskin Gulch, Paria River-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness, Utah.

Ice underneath, January 2011

Those who passed before me

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Have you ever imagined what the first people who walked into a place as grand as Yosemite Valley, or a beautiful remote canyon in Utah must have thought?  Unless they wrote their thoughts down, we can’t be sure, but I’d imagine it was something along the lines of “Holy Crap!”

Being the first person to see a place must give a grand sense of accomplishment.  But, similarly, seeing something grand for the first time–whether you’re the discoverer or not–can also be satisfying.  Perhaps you’re the first visitor of the season, knowing the canyon you’re in was left to the mountain lions, flash floods, and snowstorms for many months prior to your visit.  Or, maybe you’re witnessing your favorite peak after an epic summer storm being lit up by a fantastic atmospheric light show.  The sort of feelings and memories we take from experiences like this can easily leave us feeling like the most intrepid explorer.

As photographers, we try to make images of the places we visit as if we were the first to visit these locations.  We criticize an image if there are footprints in the dirt; I once saw another photographer carefully sweeping footprints out of the sand underneath an oft-visited arch in Utah.  Few photographers could claim theirs is the first image made at that spot (with the occasional very notable exception), but we want our image to look pristine, unvisited, wild just the same.

Alternatively, for me anyway, knowing I’m not the first person to pass through a place can be just as satisfying.  I made the images below at an intersection of two slot canyons in southern Utah recently.  (I think) the petroglyphs are from the Fremont period, from ~900-1300 AD (although if anyone could help me figure this out, I’d appreciate it); even if I’m wrong, these drawings have been on the wall of this canyon for many hundreds of years.  To me, being able to appreciate those who passed before me is just as satisfying as the idea of actually being the first to see an area.

This image may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that.  But, to me, its simple, telling, beautiful.  I hope you enjoy it.  Click on the image to see it big.

Petroglyphs located in Buckskin Gulch, Utah

Petroglyph Diptych, January 2011


Friday, January 14th, 2011

Ask almost any photographer and they’ll tell you that one of the most difficult aspects of their art is writing an artists’ bio.  Kah Kit Yoong, in a recent blog post, lamented that writing his own bio felt like,

tiptoeing the tightrope between modesty and shameless self-aggrandizing.

Yup.  That about sums it up.  Over the last few days, I’ve been working on a rewrite of my own bio and have felt like I’ve been walking a tenuous line the entire time.  My biggest goal was to make myself sound real, that the images I make and the places I visit are important to me.  I owe many thanks to my wife and friends (including David Leland Hyde) for reading drafts and offering suggestions for improvement; I hope you read the finished product by clicking on the ‘About’ tab at the top of this page, or by visiting the ‘About‘ page on my main website.

Why did I have a sudden desire to write my own bio?  There are a couple of reasons.  I wrote my original bio very early in my photographic career, and while I didn’t write what I thought people would want to read, I also didn’t have a clear vision for my work.  Now, several years have passed, and I’ve evolved.  My photographic focus is becoming somewhat narrower–I want to make images of scenes that give me a sense of belonging to the environment.  The new bio reflects that desire.

My second reason to rewrite now sprouted from my most recent trip to the Southwest.  Being back in a small town, close to slickrock and the fantastic sunrises and sunsets that help characterize the area really crystallized the need to realign my life–to simplify and focus.  I doubt any big changes will happen in my life soon, but I’m happy to have a “bigger picture” goal in mind.

Detail of sandstone in the north coyote buttes area of northern arizona

Luminous, January 2011

What obstacles have you run into while writing your bio, or while trying to describe your vision?  How have you overcome those obstacles, and where have you found inspiration?

The Canyons of Utah, part 3

Monday, June 28th, 2010

In my last two blog posts (here and here), I described adventures down two technical slot canyons located in Zion National park in southwestern Utah.  Having been through these canyons before, without a camera, I knew it would be a crime to go through them again without a camera.  Because these canyons take 6-11 hours each without time for photography, I didn’t have a lot of time to stop for photos, but I’m glad I was able to bring some images home with me.

The final canyon I visited on my recent trip is located on BLM land outside of Zion National Park.  With the proper vehicle, this canyon could be driven to easily, but we had a very easy 1/2 mile walk to the mouth of the canyon.  Although the surrounding ecosystem is pinon-juniper woodland, this little gem is very reminiscent of Lower Antelope Canyon without the crowds (with the exception of one local family hoping to escape the heat, my dad and I had this canyon completely to ourselves).

Red Cave, a slot canyon located in SW Utah

Red Cave I, June 2010

Red Cave, a slot canyon located in SW Utah

Red Cave II, June 2010

After two days of rushing to find time for photography, it was very pleasant to be able to relax, slow down, and compose shots without worrying about holding my companions up.  All in all, though, it was a fine trip.  Indeed, if you let them, the chaos and beauty of the canyons will make you calmer, gentler, sweeter.  Here’s hoping you can find what relaxes you this summer.

To see all of my Red Cave shots, click here.