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The ties that bind

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

“What holds people together long enough to realize their power as citizens is their common inhabiting of a single place.” – Daniel Kemmis

“Our gadgets and electronic maps read our exact location and desires virtually anytime and anywhere. Never before have we been so located – and yet so lost.” – Bryan Pfeiffer

I recently read an article, “Ghosts and tiny treasures,” by Bryan Pfeiffer.  He uses an example of the way we react to the killing of an individual lion by a trophy hunter, yet at the same time many of us fail to take note of the impending extinction of an entire non-charismatic keystone species like the Poweshiek skipperling, a butterfly.  Pfeiffer makes the argument is that we clearly care about other animals and places, but we have not developed what he calls a “chronic passion” for nature. Martin Litton, who was probably a bit more gruff about the subject than Pfeiffer, argued for years that we don’t harbor enough hatred in our hearts when it comes to the destruction and development of the natural world. Finding my own personal balancing point between Pfeiffer’s passion and Litton’s hatred is something that’s been on my mind for quite some time.

I recently reposted an image on my Facebook page of the Bears Ears buttes in southern Utah.  Reaching almost 9,000′ elevation, the Bears Ears are the high point of the Cedar Mesa and greater Canyonlands area.  Visible from much of the Four Corners region, they never fail to announce that I’m almost home when I drive back to northern New Mexico from my house in southern California to visit my parents.

The mesas and canyons that extend off of the Bears Ears–the Dark Canyon complex, Grand Gulch, White and Arch Canyons–make up some of the most remote, rugged, and spectacular scenery in North America.  As if the scenery isn’t enough, the greater Bears Ears area houses what may be the highest density of archaeological treasures in the country.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of archaeological sites (ruins, rock art, etc) here, and visitors can gain a tangible connection with the past simply by walking a few hundred feet into this wonderful area.

Bears Ears Sunset

The Bears Ears buttes are the centerpiece of a proposed national monument in southern Utah

Although most of the archaeological sites are Ancestral Puebloan (ancestors of the modern day pueblo people, like Hopi and Zuni), the Navajo and Ute people, who live adjacent to the area on their respective reservations also have stories contained in–and on–this stone.  While the area is receives significantly less use than Utah’s “Big Five” national parks, it certainly isn’t unvisited. In addition to recreation pressures, oil drilling, and human development in general are knocking on the door of the area, and undesirable activities like archaeological looting run rampant.  In response to these potential threats, the Navajo, Zuni, Hope and Ute tribes have come together collectively as Utah Diné Bikeyah, and have proposed the Bears Ears National Monument to protect all of these resources for future generations.

The ecological importance of the Poweshiek skipperling–which Pfeiffer talks about in his article–might not be immediately obvious to everyone, at least not on first glance.  Similarly, the significance of cultural and natural treasures in the greater Bears Ears region may not seem that valuable, or worth protecting.  Thus, on the most basic level, Pfeiffer’s call for us to develop a chronic passion for nature and Utah Diné Bikeyah’s proposal for us to honor the wild landscape and cultural history surrounding the Bears Ears by creating a national monument are really no different.  They both symbolize a commitment to the ties that bind all of us together.

In so many ways right now in the United States especially, we’re at curious place, and the commitment that Pfeiffer and Utah Diné Bikeyah are asking for seems somewhat unobtainable, which is paradoxical to me.  While we want change (look at any social media outlet–not only do we want it, we’re downright angry about it!) and are more electronically connected to the things we want to change than ever before (webcam, anyone?), we seem to have lost the connections that really matter. Connection to place, to other organisms, to each other, is something we desperately lack right now as a people.

Now is the time to preserve not only natural Earth and the ties to our evolutionary history, but our ties to human history. But we need to re-establish our connections to both of them to do that. There is no other way.

I suppose this wasn’t really a blog post about photography, but about connection to a place, which–when present–makes photography more meaningful and personal.  In that spirit consider this the beginning of a dialogue…about connection, purpose-driven photography, and endeavoring to protect that connection.

Thanks for reading.

Muley Point Utah

A photographer in the proposed Bears Ears National Monument

Long-distance relationships

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

“Sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” — Rebecca Solnit

Over the last several years, I’ve devoted much of this blog and my photographic efforts towards the Colorado Plateau.  More so than even the results I’ve shared here, I’ve devoted time and experience to the Plateau; no place I’ve visited has given me a more of a feeling of calm than that landscape of sinuous canyons, sandstone mesas, and petrified sand dunes.  That’s why I return year after year without fail; every time I go back I hear my bones say, “I’m home.”

I feel that the resulting images from my time spent on the Plateau are purpose-driven, grounded, intimate, and unique.  As an individual, no one else can see things quite like me, and I want my portfolio to reflect my own way of seeing.  Just like with any relationship, time has been invested to get to know the Plateau, as well as a few cactus pricks, scrapes, and bruises.

Because of my approach to photography, I’ve never been great at walking into a place for the first time and being comfortable making images.  I almost always experience some intangible awkwardness during the process.  How does place-based landscape photography translate to travel to distant locations, where a great distance has been traveled and the unlikelihood of ever returning again is small?  I recently found myself asking this question when my girlfriend and I ventured to Iceland for my first big trip away from the Southwest.  Tourism in Iceland has exploded in popularity over the decade or so, and I wanted to avoid making copies of everyone else’s images; I wanted to see the country with fresh eyes.

Stormy mountain scene near Vik

Planning an appropriate itinerary is key.  While it’s tempting to want to see everything, that is not conducive to thoughtful landscape photography.  We picked out three or four places that we considered ‘must-see’ locations and planned around them.  Anything more would have been difficult or impossible given the amount of time we had.

In concert with the logistics, I had to ask myself, “why is this a must-see location for me?”  Presumably the idea of it spoke to me in some way, so I proceeded to learn more about these places.  Iceland, like many European countries, has a rich history, so spending time to learn the stories of the places I wanted to visit helped me to tell the stories with my images.  Knowing the story behind many of the Icelandic sagas helped me to understand the culture and people, and reading about the geology of this ever-changing island also helped give me a sense of place.  As always, I had a map out as I did this, allowing me to connect the landscape with the stories.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Being able to go back to Iceland would probably be of great benefit to me photographically.  However, the work I did before leaving home made me feel as though I had a connection to the place before ever setting foot there, which–in my opinion–made the photography that much more productive, enjoyable, and meaningful.  People and places make up the topography of our lives; the result is not much different than a landscape, with valleys and peaks, sunrises and sunsets.  My internal compass will always calibrate toward the Colorado Plateau and Southwestern United States, but I came home from my first international trip understanding that it is possible to connect with a place even if I may never visit again.

See all of my Iceland images here.

Reynisdrangar sea stacks

Jökulsárlón Lagoon

2013 Year in Review

Monday, 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:


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

Joining Seasons

Monday, 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

Preserving Wildness

Friday, August 16th, 2013

If you keep up with my blog, or if you’ve purchased our ebook, An Honest Silence, some of the themes in this essay, even some of the direct words, will seem very familiar to you.  I consider all of these thoughts an ongoing synthesis of experiences, and the repetition–in my mind–is part and parcel of the evolution of these thoughts.  My apologies if it seems derivative.

As we board our homeward-bound flight, the sun is disappearing over the Rocky Mountains, reminding me of my early childhood years living in Denver.  The sunset becomes more intense as the plane is pushed onto the runway, takes off, and moves quickly over the Front Range, leaving the city lights behind.  Flying westward, the Earth’s Shadow and Belt of Venus seem to be unable to let go of the day, keeping me company as I look out the window over my sleeping son’s head.

Below us, lights from the small towns of the West are starting to come on.  However, the empty spots—the growing blackness between the towns—are what capture my imagination and attention tonight.  I’ve been a passenger on this route enough times to know what’s below me:  the foothills of the western slope of the Rockies, the Green and Colorado Rivers, the white rim of the Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, the Basin and Range province, and eventually John Muir’s beloved Range of Light.

Like so many others, I first discovered these places while on summer vacation with my family.  We drove through the national parks and along lonely highways, filled with buttresses, canyons, peaks, and monoliths; they stuck in my memory as I returned home, and I read everything I could get my hands on about the adventurers who explored these wild, remote, isolated, and dangerous locations.  As often as I was able, I ventured out in search of my own adventure.

Today, more than 20 years later, I am finally beginning to understand the value of both wilderness and wildness in our lives.  The architects of the Wilderness Act envisioned wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man,” essentially to remain a blank spot on the map.  Indeed, we find ourselves in a world where we try to be big.  Everywhere, we are connected—via 3G—to the civilization that surrounds us, the number of empty places we experience is decreasing rapidly.  When we take the courageous leap, hit “Command-Q” on our keyboards, and venture out into these blank spots on the map, we are able to acknowledge that we are indeed small in this world, that we are connected to—not isolated from—nature.

Our nation’s Wildernesses represent much more than acreage and species diversity—things that can be quantified.  They offer a place for us to experience a quality of life—the wildness Thoreau wrote about in his now famous passage, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Earlier this year, a close friend was backpacking alone in a California Wilderness area; his first evening out, he realized he was being stalked—at close range—by a mountain lion.  It was a long, sleepless night for him, but everything turned out all right.  Facing the prospect of moving down on the food chain, my friend experienced a visceral, almost ancestral, reaction to the wilderness.  We should all be so lucky.  We go to the wilderness to find true wildness, and while it may come in forms that sometimes surprise us, hopefully we will come out kinder, gentler, sweeter human beings.

(Thoreau believed that we should embrace this sort of wildness on every walk in nature.  In his essay Walking, he wrote, “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms.  If you are ready to leave father and mother…never to see them again…then you are ready for a walk.”)1

After nearly a quarter century of wandering our nation’s wilderness in search of excitement, solace, adventure, and myself, I am watching my son discover his own wild nature through play in the outdoors.  In observing him, one becomes keenly aware that there is a quality of wildness in the wilderness experience.  Much emphasis today is placed on protecting wilderness as a parcel of land, but saving our own wild nature is just as important.  In wildness is the preservation of us.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”  Tonight, sitting on this jet with a bird’s eye view of the West, I have to wonder where my imagination would wander if there were no blank spots on the map.   If the peaks and mesas below me had been leveled, if more lights dotted the landscape, these places—as well as our experience of wild nature—would change forever.

1I do not completely agree with Thoreau; I do not believe we need such harrowing experiences to appreciate either the Wilderness areas that have been set aside by Congress, or to understand our own wild nature.  First, encounters like my friend’s have the tendency to make all but a few people fearful to be in the outdoors, and the preservation of wildness is diminished dramatically if we pit ourselves against perceived dangers, whether biotic or abiotic—the Other.  We share common elements with all of nature that are billions of years old, elements forged in stars that are light years away; we have a primal connection to the landscape and its creatures.  Acknowledging and embracing this is perhaps the ultimate act of courage and humility—the first steps in realizing our smallness in the world.  Second, I believe we need wilderness because of the connection that is fostered, as Wallace Stegner wrote, “even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.”  Knowing it’s there gives our daydreams a place to drift to, maintaining sanity and health.

Dolomite Dawn

The Preservation of Us

Monday, July 15th, 2013


I never thought I’d roll an ankle so badly that it would bring me off my feet, but as I hit the ground after slipping from the curb, I let out a cry of both frustration and pain, certain I’d broken a bone.  Suddenly my typical Saturday morning run had become anything but, as I sat there trying to figure out if I could move myself or not.  In an instant, visions of every single hike and backpacking trip I had been planning for the summer ahead flashed through my mind, and suddenly vanished.

“Maybe it isn’t that bad,” I thought to myself as I got to my feet and started to limp towards home.  “Maybe I can get it to loosen up if I walk for a while.”  It sort of worked–in my stubbornness, I ended up running nearly 5 miles home, but as soon as I took my shoe off, my ankle swelled to the size of a softball.  “That’s no good…I really should go to the emergency room.”

Fortunately there was no break, just a sprained ankle.  As I left the emergency room, I wanted to ask, “So, how long until I can go backpacking?”  I decided that this wasn’t the most intelligent question a person on crutches should be asking, so I kept it to myself.

I’ve been rereading Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild over the last few weeks; I read it for the first time right after high school and it is one of the few books I have revisited more than once.  Everywhere you look today there is literature about why this wilderness and that wilderness should be protected and preserved.  Turner’s book focuses on the experience of the wilderness rather than the wilderness itself.  How do we interact with wild places?  He asks, and answers, in very clear terms why we need wilderness, and what it comes down to has nothing to do with the place itself.  It’s the experience.  We need wild places for our own well being.  I think this is the wildness that Thoreau referred to in his now famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

In many ways, I find myself living a life I did not always intend on having.  It’s not that I don’t want my family or my home or my job, or that I am trying to run from adult responsibilities.  However, I am a worrier by nature, and in the rush, rush, RUSH of everyday life, I find it increasingly absurd that I worry about things which I have no control over.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.  Those words echo through my head because I realize that while some people may feel anxiety over going into the backcountry (you know…survival and all that), my worried mind becomes calm.   The longer I am away and the further from roads I go, the more quieted I become.  Wilderness makes me kinder, gentler, sweeter.  This must be a coveted quality: no other place I can think of, and only a select handful of special people in my life have ever had that affect on me.

So it was that as I sat there that morning with my ankle throbbing in pain that I saw my precious trips to the wilderness slipping away.  The nearest trip was only 15 days away–a much anticipated backpacking trip into the High Sierra with an old friend.

Over the next few days, I was largely immobile. My crutches frustrated me, my foot bruised worse, and I just did not see how a backpacking trip would happen.  I spoke on the phone with my friend who, understandably, had reservations about heading into the backcountry with someone who could get reinjured very easily.  We decided to go on a “test hike” four days before our scheduled departure.  In the days leading up to that test hike, I rested as much as possible (despite what my overactive brain was telling me to do), and I began to heal noticeably each day.  While I still had to be very careful where I placed my feet, I managed to get through a 6 mile test hike with no problems.  We cautiously agreed that the Sierra trip was on.

Four days and 45 miles later, with the help of an amazingly solid ankle brace, hiking poles, and the patience of my friend, I finished our trip with zero pain or discomfort.  I joked with another friend before leaving that the backcountry always seems to “heal” me, and while I am pretty sure the backcountry had nothing directly to do with this, I was active, careful, and in a positive state of mind–all of which are ingredients for a properly functioning immune system.

I’ve said before that the wilderness is where I go to heal, both figuratively, and now literally as well.  However, what strikes me more than anything was my state of mind on my drive home.  With so much weighing me down before leaving, I felt remarkably free of burdens, worries, or fears.  I think this happens somewhat naturally when we boil life down to its essentials:

wake up,

make food,


make food,

go to sleep,


Yes, we need wilderness, but we must interact with it as if our lives depend on it.  Because they do.  Talk about putting things into perspective.

In wildness is the preservation of us.

Fin Dome at Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park


A Canyon Offering

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Once I got to the ground, I laid down on the cold Navajo Sandstone, preparing to belay  my friends who would be joining me by rappelling over 300 feet into this remote canyon nestled deep inside the Colorado Plateau.  A few minutes ago, on the canyon’s rim, the morning sun warmed me, but now as I lay on the cold rock inside of this deeply shaded crevasse, I become chilled quickly.  Laying on here, I quickly realize that sandstone makes a crummy pillow, and it is my body that is forced to conform to the curves in the rock, not the other way around.  Still, although I have never been to this particular place before, I feel comforted and relaxed by my surroundings and I wonder to myself, “How much is it possible to love a place?”

My friends have joined me now, and the rope has been retrieved.  In a sense, we are now cut off from the world.  For the next several hours, we will work our way through the obstacles in our path.  Of course we will laugh (a lot) and enjoy each others’ company, but for me it is also a time of quiet contemplation, walking alone for brief periods as I soak up my time here.

Canyon Abstract 1

Inside of a canyon, we must embrace the notion that we are very small beings in a very large world.  It is one thing to be awed by a large ponderosa pine that has become lodged twenty feet up between a canyon’s walls.  It’s entirely another to return the next year only to find that the tree is gone, vanished.  Trying to understand the force that a flash flood exerts as it moves through a place like this is utterly impossible.  To escape from these forces inside of a canyon would be equally impossible: we would be crushed and our bodies washed away like the ponderosa pine.  Yet the rock endures, over time becoming more sensuously curved and beautiful in spite of (and because of) the nature of the destructive forces that shape it.

Canyon Abstract 2

We spend much of our time in everyday life searching for the bigger picture.  As I walk through the canyon, I can see pine trees hundreds of feet above me, and  I know that the world is going on “up there,” but I am not a participant in it today, however I have fallen into rhythm with the canyon, engaged in life down here.  There is something strangely liberating about surrendering to a world that rapidly–and voluntarily–becomes small and very focused.  As a reward for relinquishing my place in the world today, I am treated to some of the most sublime light imaginable.  Before my eyes, the canyon’s walls shift between shades of red, orange, purple, magenta, and blue that seem to exist only in dreams.  I can feel the peace deep inside of my soul.

Visitors to pretty much any national park in the American southwest will get a taste of canyons, whether they look in from the top of the Grand Canyon, or upward at the towering sandstone cliffs in Zion.  Of the millions of visitors to these and other parks each year, very few will experience a canyon close-up, and still fewer will get to experience the silence that true solitude can offer in between these extraordinary sandstone walls.

I am, I’m unashamed to say, in love with this place.

Canyon Abstract 3

In Defense of the West

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

As something of a disclaimer, I know not all of my thoughts here may make sense, and I know my connection between environmental issues in the West and landscape photography is tenuous at best, however because I believe so strongly in a strong sense of place guiding the production of quality landscape photography, I do believe there is a connection here.  So, please humor me, and if you have any thoughts to add, feel free to leave a comment.  

A little bit over a year ago, I wrote a blog post, “Citizen of the West,” in which I began to think about the landscape of the West, not just in terms of the topography, but of the culture, the art, and history as well; I was intrigued by how all of these components intersect to shape the West we live in today.  The general idea I wanted to convey is that landscapes like those of the West are more than just named places on the map–because of an inherent sense of place, they become part of who we are.  The places–just as much as the experiences–are what define us.  For many in the West, these bloodlines, as they are, run thicker than clay red Colorado River mud.

I recently watched a powerful and somewhat dark short film, The Death of the Bar-T,” directed by Anson Fogel from the Camp 4 Collective, that highlights this uncommon connection to the land and illustrates the complexity of some of the issues Westerners face–the collision of the old and the new West.  The old versus the new; a theme that is ever-present. Another example of this was given just a couple of weeks ago by American Rivers when they named the Colorado River–the lifeblood of the West–as the most endangered waterway in America.  As the population of the West grows (the arid Southwest states are among the nation’s fastest-growing), its precious little water is being strained beyond limit.

To me, landscape photography has an extremely strong Western influence–Ansel Adams’ work in the Sierra Nevada, Eliot Porter’s images of Glen Canyon, Edward Weston’s images from the California coast, Philip Hyde’s work from Utah, California, Colorado–all of these photographers shaped landscape photography as we know it today.  Because of their work, the named places that dot maps of the West are practically ingrained into our DNA and their images give the feeling of a sense of place whether we’ve visited these locations in person or not.  This is why so many flock to the national parks and monuments of the West each year.

As far as places go, these natural icons continue to be sought after by many as the holy grails of landscape photography, and in the name of originality, their portrayal is being pushed farther and farther to the limit of aesthetics.  The old versus the new: the icons as established by the f/64 school of thought, being reinterpreted by technology-driven pictorialists.

Family ranchers are still succeeding in places, but the culture is slowly losing its grip as larger operations take over, among other things.  Landscape photography, too, is changing (much has been written on this–see here or here).  Whether or not you eat meat, and whether or not agree with my thoughts on photography, there is much reason to defend Western culture.

Those who live here know the West is a challenging place–it is hard and arid and unforgiving, with no offering of shade or water in summer and no shelter from winter’s blizzards.  This challenge is the one against which we built everything.  Without it, we have fragments of memories–a mere recollection–of what was.

Things change, shifts in culture and perspective are inevitable.  I understand that, and in some ways, I suppose it’s silly to hang on to the past and avoid facing what’s here.  But, on some level, I feel compelled to think about these things.  All of them, from cows to photographs.  Because they all matter.

Prairie Sentinel

In the struggle lies beauty

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”  —  Jeannette Walls

I am about a mile away from my car in the Lost Horse Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.  Joshua trees are scattered around me, each one seeming as if it’s pointing in a different direction.  Are they trying to confuse me?  Perhaps it’s their cruel joke.  As the sun gets closer to setting, I hear a group of cactus wrens start to raise a commotion about one hundred yards to my right.  What has them riled up?  Ah, a coyote is trotting along the base of the hill.  I wonder if it sees me?  Surely it does–they don’t miss much.  I can hear cars driving by at the head of the valley, their passengers unaware of the story unfolding out here in the valley.

Over the last week or so I’ve spent quite a bit of time out in the Mojave Desert.  During a spring following a wet winter, the flowers in the Mojave can be quite spectacular, however this year things are depauperate to say the least; in southern California we’ve gotten less than twenty percent of our normal rainfall totals this season.

Despite the bleak wildflower viewing, the Joshua tree bloom this year was reported to be the best in recorded history, with trees blooming across their entire range; whether you were in the Mojave National Preserve, the New York Mountains, the Chocolate Mountains, or Joshua Tree National Park itself, the trees were adorned with beautiful white blooms.  Mojave yucca were blooming in profusion in places as well, and of course cacti dotted the hillsides with lovely splashes red, pink, purple, and yellow.

Blooming claretcup cactus

Unless something major like a Joshua tree bloom or the once-in-a-decade wildflower bloom is happening, the desert doesn’t get much press.  Still, life here persists.  Understanding the beauty implicit in the struggle of not only the Joshua trees but of all the plants and animals who live here gives a greater appreciation for the display they put on for the quiet observer.  Is there a metaphor here for our own lives I wonder?

After the sun goes down I shoulder my backpack and start walking back to my car.  Despite the hot April day, darkness will quickly drain the heat from the dry air, and before I get back to my car I am ready for a sweatshirt.  I don’t see the coyote any longer.  If it did see me, it certainly didn’t pay me any mind.  Crickets are starting to chirp, bats are flitting over my head, hawk moths are visiting the opening evening primrose, and the calls of the cactus wren have been replaced by a poor will in the distance.

Life here persists.

Joshua Tree Detail

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