Monday, September 2, 2013

Looking Back

* * *

The south side of the mountain has its charms and adventures, but when you go over the hill you find the north side holds plenty of promise as well.

I took on this project -- photographing Mt. Tam for a year -- without giving it much thought. It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. I've been wandering around out there for twenty years, and I'd like to leave an homage to the mountain on the internet -- a medium that still seemed ephemeral in the early '90s.

It's turning out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated. I don't want to shoot the same subjects I've shot before, but after twenty years I find it hard to believe I'll find any truly new subjects. I don't want to make photographs for the project that I've already made in the past, and when I see poison oak, for example, I think, "Oh, I've already photographed poison oak." 

I stopped at this location, by the way, to visit my nemesis grove -- trees that I assume to be non-native since I can't identify what species they are. I've never seen the flowers or the fruit. They are winter-deciduous and have interesting lichens growing on them that I've seen nowhere else. I brought home a leaf to help me find it in Marin Flora, but that wasn't enough. Still a mystery. [Update: My wife found a good candidate by thumbing through our Sierra Trees to find similar leaves, and I'm now pretty convinced the trees are Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia). They don't produce flowers until they're 30 years old, and even then not every year. They're in the southern limit of their coastal range at this location, but they can be found farther south in the Sierra Nevada.]

So I try to think about how to show what I already know, subjects such as wild honeysuckle berries that I've already photographed -- the low-hanging fruit -- in a new way. I try to get past the idea of simply trying to show a more-or-less literal translation of what a subject looks like and try to see the same subjects in a different light.

To see things differently, I find I'm often drawn to close-ups, which actually feels like coming full circle. When I took up nature photography in the early '80s, the subjects that drew me in were the wildflowers and waterfalls of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. They held a new kind of beauty and mystery to me. Or at least, I was experiencing the beauty and mystery of nature for the first time as an adult, and for the first time as a photographer with a little bit of education and training.

My First Cover, 1984

But the mountain always seems ready to spring something at least somewhat new. Sure, I've seen and photographed chorus frogs many times -- but not once before have I caught one sitting on a lily pad. It's hard to appreciate how small these guys are. The first one I saw this morning was on one of the topmost leaves of a smartweed plant, and I took it for a small moth (unlike this one, it had no green coloration at all) . . . until it hopped into the nearby horsetail plants.

The Lily Pond itself has changed quite a bit over the years. For a while there, the place was overrun with non-native bullfrogs, which eat native chorus frogs for breakfast. But a three-year drought killed off the interlopers, leaving the chorus frogs as kings of the lilies. Now, even the non-native lilies are losing ground to some kind of sedge that seems intent on taking over as the waterlilies hunker down for another long dry season.

A few of the waterlilies were high and dry. Here, a new leaf forms at the base of a plant that's several feet away from the surface of the pond, along whose edge a pair of American robins darted their beaks at insects  and other meals too small for me to see.

I should remember this plant as "marsh buckwheat," though its common name is smartweed. It's in the buckwheat family, Polygonaceae, and is called Persicaria punctata. It, too, often grows in the water, but today I found this patch in a dry, shallow depression near Lily Pond (or Lily Lake, depending on your map) that was still a small pond when I last stopped by. It's tempting to relate every dry spell, every drought, forest fire or other calamity to "global warming" -- a term I was blissfully unaware of in the 1980s (when we were still worried about ozone holes, a problem we actually addressed and solved). But if nothing else, the changes that seem to be happening make a photography project like this seem at least a little more worthwhile than a casual lark.

* * *


  1. John,

    These are beautiful photos and they give such an amazing overall picture of Mt. Tam both up close and from a distance. Thanks for visiting my Mt. Tam blog, by the way, and for leaving a comment there.

  2. Great post and I really like the frog foto. Try as I may, I have yet to find a frog willing to pose for me.

  3. Thanks, alembic. It was great to find another Mt. Tam blog out there.

    John, I hope you find a willing subject. I got this guy with a 500mm, and when I moved in close with the macro, he wasn't having any.