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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

Camas

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Today I received in the mail my Summer 2012 issue of Camas, a publication put together by graduate students in the Environmental Studies department at the University of Montana.  Camas celebrates the literature and photography from the West; the theme for the summer issue is ‘Restoration.’

Although not quite made in Montana, an image I made in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains is featured in the summer issue.  Many of the West’s forests have been devastated by bark beetle infestations, leaving forests of skeletons, rather than trees.  To me, this image communicated the theme of restoration, in that some of the forests in the West are starting to recover from these insects through the use of controlled burns, cutting of infested trees, etc.

Scene in the San Bernardino National Forest

These sorts of university literary publications are common in the West (I’m not sure about other parts of the country); the University of Montana has Camas, and the University of Wyoming has the Owen Wister Review, for example.  I am happy to have my work be a part of this type of publication because they strike me as very grassroots, and are oriented towards a sense of place.  I’ve written before about how I’m proud to be a citizen of the West, and I’m proud to have my work featured in Camas.

Camas is published biannually (summer & winter) and contains literature and photography from the West.  I’m looking forward to digging into my issue.

Camas--The Nature of the West

Camas, Summer 2012

Little Wildernesses

Monday, May 21st, 2012

As the urban/rural boundary has blurred over the years, I’ve come to see that growing up in the city had its rewards. The inner-city life has adventures all its own, but I was also lucky to have grown up in the city when I did, when there was still some open space around – untended little wild spots, overgrown orchards, vast open fields that seemed to stretch forever without a building, dense arbors in urban parks where we could hide securely from school and cops.

-Ernest Atencio

Open space was a huge part of my childhood.  Every day after school, my friends and I would gather at the vacant lot near our houses, building jumps for our bicycles that were destined to break at least a few bones (although somehow they never did).  We went home only when our parents came looking for us.

For those few hours after school each day the city we lived in seemed to melt away, and we could pretend to take our bikes to anyplace in the world we wanted.

As we grew older, we ventured further from our neighborhood, eventually making our way out to the piñon-juniper woodland that surrounded my hometown in northwestern New Mexico.  There, we encountered coyotes, deer, as well as mysterious noises in the bushes that were probably nothing more than a deer mouse scurrying around, however it was enough to stir the remnants of an overactive childhood imagination.

So it was that my formative years were not spent in ‘wild’ wilderness necessarily, but it was wild enough to spark my curiosity, to make me want to see more wild places, and to instill in me a sense of adventure and stewardship.  It was in those pygmy forests of the Four Corners that my lifelong relationship with wilderness was born.


“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.” writes Wallace Stegner in his ever-poignant Wilderness Letter.

Stegner continues, “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 the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea.”

Barcroft Plateau, White Mountains, California

The Barcroft Plateau, White Mountains, California

What Stegner is saying is that every one of us needs wilderness.  I worked for several summers doing biological data collection in the White Mountains of eastern California.  One summer a volunteer in our lab came to the field with me for the first time; he grew up and spent almost his entire life in Los Angeles.

 

The Barcroft Plateau, White Mountains, California

The Barcroft Plateau, White Mountains, California

After leaving the pavement, he said to me, “I didn’t know there were any dirt roads in the U.S.”  That day, things I naïvely thought were commonplace appeared as a whole new world to him: deer, hawks, wild horses, violent but brief thunderstorms, and views that stretch on forever transformed his perception of the world before my eyes.

This is the wellspring of my hope.  Everyone perceives “wilderness” differently, and we have all been introduced to it in different ways.  We all have our own personal reasons to fight for its protection.  Yet, we need it, according to Stegner, for our spiritual health.

Our spiritual health.

Perhaps it is something rooted deeply in our evolutionary past, but wilderness is healing, a place of solace and comfort.  As far as efforts to protect wilderness go, we as a people have unity in our diverse perceptions of wild places.  Some wildernesses are little, some are big, but they are all equally valuable.


I wonder what those piñon-juniper forests of my youth would look like today, seen through older eyes.  I know at least some of it has gone away to make space for homes.  However, selfishly, I like to think they remain a place of hope, sanity, imagination, and peace.  Who knows, maybe some kids are building their own bike jumps there right now.  That may not be such a bad thing.

When it comes to things I care deeply for, words sometimes fail me.  I make photographs that (I hope) express my emotions for wild places.

What experiences formed your relationship with wild places?  Where are the places you seek comfort?

A small child in the outdoors

My son, 2 years old (photo by Brent Deschamp)

Citizen of the West

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Over the last few days, I have been contemplating some upcoming trips, and after a friend gave me some advice on a location, I pulled out a map to get my bearings; my memory of this particular area just wasn’t cutting it.  I have always liked maps: they tell a story, whether in a particular place name, in my memory of driving through a small town, or of a place I dream to visit.  When I was in college, before graduating to more sophisticated wall decor, it was not uncommon for me to put a map on my wall.

As I looked through my map file the other day, a flood of memories came back to me as I recalled roads I have driven, places I have seen, adventures I have had.  There’s something more tangible than paper here: these maps of the American West are the landscape of who I am.

The West has shown me what a windchill of -60°F feels like, and that those are perfect days to stay indoors.  I know that the radiating heat of 120°F in the Mojave Desert might seem uninviting, but that you can still find active wildlife.    My daydreams often drift to lonesome highways, and I find myself craving the feeling (and aroma) of being chest-deep in sagebrush at least every few months.   Dusty dirt roads were a staple of my childhood; I’ve had friends who give directions to their houses using landmarks and the words, “bear left at the Y then turn left after the cattle guard.”  This isn’t uncommon in the West.

Issues here, whether environmental or social, are hardly ever simple.  My approach to many of them is somewhat moderate.  I believe in wisely managing some of our public lands for more than one use.   The livelihood of many residents here relies on that principle–they count on our natural resources to put food on the table for their families.   That said, I watch news stories about things like coal mining, grazing, and dammed rivers closely.  As insignificant as some of them might seem, these issues ultimately affect every resident of the West.

I admire the people here who are extraordinarily hard-working; many of them know nothing else.  My grandmother is 81 years old and still works hard at least 4 days a week.

At the end of the day, politics do not matter as much as basic respect for your neighbor.  I lived in Laramie, Wyoming through many of the events surrounding Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was killed as a result of what is essentially a hate crime.  His murder showed that the rot of hatred and ignorance is indeed alive in the West, but it also brought out the best in people. A few months after things settled down, I was loading my groceries into my car, and I looked at the bumper of a beat up old ranch truck parked next to me.  On the bumper was a blue sticker with a yellow, “=”; the sign of equality.  Everyone in Wyoming, from farmers and ranchers to liberal progressives, came together in support of common, simple ideals.  Stereotypes do not hold much water here; what matters most is your character.

My website will tell you I am a photographer.  Indeed, I am.  However, I am more than that.  I am a citizen of the West.  I was born here, have lived here my entire life, and likely will die here.  I’m proud of the people who surround me, for their hard work, their vision, their character; all of these ideals are born from the landscape we live in.  They are as much a part of the West as the iconic landscapes we all chase with our cameras.

The prairie ecosystem near Cheyenne, Wyoming

High Plains Storm, December 2003

 

My Head In the Cloud

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Its either the romantic or Zen Buddhist in me, but I feel like we have a lot to learn from clouds.  A dramatic sunset can connect two lovers, just as it teaches us a valuable lesson on impermanence.  In thinking about our motivations, inspiration, and voice these analogies can make a lot of sense to an artist.  To understand my photographic ‘voice’ a little better, I turned to another type of cloud.

I recently generated a word cloud based on what I think are a few of my representative blog posts in order to gain a better understanding of my own writing and photography.  Click the cloud to see it larger.

word cloud showing Alpenglow Images' most popular posts

Some words immediately jump out at me and catch my eye.  Canyon.  Light.  Hope.  Utah.  Shapes.  Life.  Believe.  Sandstone.  Bryce.  National.  Park.  

Why these words?  The cliffs and canyons of the Colorado Plateau are a constant source of inspiration and creativity for me.  Perhaps its all the hours I spent there early in my life, but now when I need to mourn or celebrate, feel the need for safety and security, am lacking humility, or simply need to escape, I find solace in the red rock wilderness I have come to know so well.

Places like the Kaiparowits Plateau or the Vermillion Cliffs are still wild, largely undiscovered.  Sometimes, when I look at them in the distance, I wonder whether humans have ever seen all the features there are to be discovered here.  I continue to entertain what may be a naïve hope by believing these landscapes will continue to be protected and loved as they are now, that they will remain unchanged, and give my children and grandchildren a place to visit, possibly even to bring their children someday.


In order to photograph a landscape and capture more than just its superficial beauty, it is my belief that you must first know it, study it, learn about its intricacies and nuances.  In my own development, I learned by studying the locations others had visited–by doing homework from a desk chair.  But as I slowly grew to learn the places that I call home, my voice started to be heard through my images.  To an extent, gear matters, but taking off your gear goggles and focusing energy on introspection and self-evaluation is a start down the road of making truly personal images.

By looking at my cloud, perhaps I didn’t learn anything about myself I don’t already know.  However, by studying the words I use over and over again, perhaps, I can learn a little more about my voice, and most importantly what I want my photography to say to the world.

What does your cloud say about you?  About your photography?

Colorful sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Layers of Sandstone, January 2012

Overland Flight

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

As we board the homeward bound flight, the sun is setting 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, and takes off, leaving Denver International Airport behind.  The beauty of flying westward into the sunset is that it lasts longer–the earth’s shadow and Belt of Venus seem to be eternal, keeping me company as I daydream looking out the window over my sleeping son’s head.

Below us, lights from the small towns of the West are starting to come on.  I wonder what’s happening in those towns on this Friday night; people are relaxing at the bar after a long week of work, teenagers are cruising Main Street looking for something to do.  Despite that, its the empty spots, the growing blackness, that capture my imagination.  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 Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, the Mojave Desert.

Its quite possible there’s not a whole lot of unexplored areas left in the West, but part of me wants to hang on to the notion that there is still some “out there” left out there.  David Roberts recently had a thought-provoking op-ed piece in the New York Times arguing that with 21st Century technology, there’s not a whole lot of wilderness left.  That hopeful naïveté I cling to wants to disagree with him–that possibly there is still an unexplored canyon, or at least a hill which offers a great view of this everlasting sunset–that has yet to be enjoyed.

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.   As a photographer, I have been thinking a lot lately about documenting these wild lands–what is my responsibility as an artist, my obligation to protect these lands?  If those peaks and mesas are leveled, if lights begin to dot the landscape, these places will change forever.

Where does your imagination wander?  None of us would argue over the value of those blank spots on the map, but what do you think–is there a fine line between artist and activist, or are they one and the same?

Sunset and moonrise at Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

End of the Day, July 2010

On Reverence

Friday, September 16th, 2011

For August in the Southwest, the air is unusually humid.  Dark clouds are rolling in from the west as we walk into the wide, shallow canyon.  A narrow trails has been worn in the horsetail reeds; they rise up past my waist and I put my hands out, letting my fingers run along their tips.  The leaves of the cottonwoods that dot this canyon are moving faster and the cool air of the incoming thunderstorm acts as a natural swamp cooler.  After about twenty minutes of walking, I look up onto a sandstone outcropping and see what I’ve came here to visit–an 800-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruin nestled into the cliff.

I’ve returned to this area of southeastern Utah for my first significant visit in nearly 15 years.  Growing up, my Dad and I spent many hours backpacking the wild canyons of Cedar Mesa, and for the last several years, I’ve longed to come back for a visit.  My motivations for returning–I suppose–are many.  I’ve returned to slow down, hoping to escape the nonstop movement in southern California.  Similarly, I have returned to revisit my past; as an adolescent, I have suddenly realized that I took many of my early wilderness experiences for granted.  Photographic motivations also played a role–I want images of these places that define me.

An Ancestral Puebloan Dwelling near Moon House in McCloyd Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah

Ancestral Puebloan Dwelling, August 2011

I think, ultimately, I’ve returned because this is my epicenter: this is the place I fell in love with the Colorado Plateau.  Light-colored Cedar Mesa sandstone with its bold desert varnish seemed to always be a part of my early wilderness experiences.  Its is part of me–occasionally when I accidentally cut myself, I look closely at the blood, perhaps hoping its become the color of the Organ Rock or Moenkopi shales that top the Cedar Mesa formation.  I’ve come back to pay reverence to the natural and cultural history of this landscape.

Ancestral Puebloan Handprints, Cedar Mesa Utah

Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a virtue; the more reverence you have, the greater your capacity to feel respect, awe, shame.  As a visitor to the canyons of Cedar Mesa, all of these emotions are evoked inside of me.  I feel a deep respect for the Ancestral Puebloan people who settled here, multiple times, to make a living.  Although the landscape was likely different centuries ago, it was still a hot, dry place, but they made a living, farming the verdant canyons and carving out a life on the cliffs.  The work that went into these structures is tangible–look closely and you can see ancient finger and palm prints in the dried mud of their walls.  The forces that shaped this labyrinth of canyons are nothing less than awe-inspring.

Yes, one even can feel shame here, although it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I am ashamed I didn’t appreciate my early visits more, that I am just now realizing the full impact of the history available to us up on this small mesa in lovely, remote southeastern Utah.  Indeed, for the individual willing to open his heart and mind (and sometimes to close his mouth), these canyons can speak to you.

Moonhouse Ruin, McCloyd Canyon, Cedar Mesa Utah

The need for wilderness

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Its my fourth morning waking up in the desert.  Red dirt fills my pores, and has combined with sweat to form a sort of “desert varnish” over most of my body–a strangely welcome feeling that instantly evokes memories of summer on the Colorado Plateau.   I climb out of my sleeping bag, fetch my tripod and camera and walk up the ridge.  Below me, a deer moves through the willows, startled no doubt by my heavy feet.  Moving further up the ridge and out of the shaded valley, the air warms, but last night’s rain has left the smells of dirt and sage heavy in the air.

I am slightly groggy still as I arrive at the viewpoint I scouted the night before.  The sun isn’t up yet, but will begin to break the landscape very soon.  I sit on a rock, surveying the sky–no clouds.  The rain had left me hopeful of a dramatic sunrise.  No luck today.  The distant cliffs begin to light up, bright sunlight working its way down the face, highlighting the subtlety in the elegant Wingate sandstone.   Sitting there, I smile…I’m home.

Describing the Colorado Plateau has always been incredibly difficult for me.  I think this is largely because we all know of its immediate beauty, but the subdued details only reveal themselves with time, after you’ve developed a relationship with the place.  Putting the place you love into words for someone who has never been there (or has been there) is not easy, whether its redrock wilderness, the Oregon coast, the brooks of Massachusetts, or the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.  The only way to experience it is to coat yourself in dust, sit there, and ponder the land.

The clarity and peace of mind that come out of a relationship with the land is the very reason we need wilderness.  Looking around, we see the world changing, at a rapid pace.  It dismays me but the fight to save wilderness will begin soon, if not in our generation, certainly in our children’s.  Not only must we fight to ensure proper the legislation is in place now, we must also foster this sense of place and belonging in our kids.  Thus, to quote Edward Abbey:

It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.

So get out there and ramble out yonder, and make every moment count.

Sunrise on a ridge in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef sunrise, July 2011

An Honest Silence

Friday, March 4th, 2011

In my blog post, “Topophilia,” an essay about the value of the desert southwest, particularly southern Utah, I wrote that I, “feel connected with the land in a way that words cannot describe.”

Indeed I do.  Some people may contend that the wild canyons and plateaus are dangerous; yes, Mother Nature can be treacherous–violently so.  However, despite that, I find sanctuary in the sandstone, a place of refuge and rejuvenation, of clarity and healing.  How can I find words to describe this place?  I may not ever be able to do it justice.

Canyon and cedar snag in the grand staircase escalante national monument, utah

Cedar Snag, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, August 2009

Last week, I met Ann Marie Whittaker through her blog, “Age Old Tree,”  and discovered her prose about why she loves her Red Rock Wilderness.  In a brief email exchange, I could sense a profound sense of place and love in her voice for this beautiful slickrock desert so many people fall in love with.  We need more people like Ann Marie in this world; I hope you go to her blog and read the post over and over (make sure to check out part two as well).  You’ll be inspired; I am, and I learned that its actually okay to embrace an honest silence about a place.

I’m still not sure what I want to say about southern Utah, but I’m very happy its there, and that its loved by so many.

beautiful and colorful sandstone formation, with calcite, southern utah

Sandstone Kaleidoscope, 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