Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter Falls

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I was surprised not too long ago to find out that today's young people have never heard of Carlos Castaneda, whose writings captivated me so much in my teens. I confess that I never went back to those books once I'd read them, except many years later, and then only by way of the Jungian exposition I found in a thin, excellent book called Border Crossings - A Psychological Perspective on Carlos Castaneda's Path of Knowledge, by Donald Lee Williams. 

Like Hero With A Thousand Faces, it cuts through all the cosmic debris that surrounds so much of what we call "spiritual seeking" to help reveal the awesome beauty of the world that is right under our feet. Both books rescue the fundamentally human story from the seemingly incomprehensible mythological realms of the hero's journey. Both are worth keeping and returning to over years or even decades.

Williams closes with a quote from Castaneda's fourth book:

Don Juan explained to the apprentices that don Genaro loved the earth and that the earth in turn cared for him, sustained him and made his life complete and bountiful. "This is the predilection of two warriors," he said. "This earth, this world. For a warrior there can be no greater love." Don Juan caressed the ground and said, "This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom."

--Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power

After that quotation, Williams writes: "Carlos has erased his personal history, disrupted his routines, assumed responsibility for the task he has in life, sought death as an advisor on the path of knowledge. He has cleaned the island of the tonal and become an impeccable warrior.... And yet Carlos has still not integrated the last lesson of don Juan and don Genaro: he has not yet learned to love the earth."

Every now and then when I'm out in the woods doing photography I'll stop, take off my backpack and put down the tripod, then lie down on the earth and relax every cell of my body and mind until I feel all my cares drop away like apples falling from a tree. Amazing that something so simple can be so effective.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Happy Solstice!

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Happy Solstice, Baby!

Going outside on these past few cold and windy mornings, I've heard a hummingbird chirping well before sunrise. Nature's creatures are such tough and resilient beings. Thanks for the inspiration, wild ones!

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

December Rising

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There was already a car full of photographers waiting at the closed gate, so I pulled in behind them and rolled down my windows before shutting off the engine. I listened to a Clarence Gatemouth Brown song, then ZZ Ward, before a ranger showed up to unlock the gate at 7 o'clock on the dot. A third car had pulled in behind me, and we all fired up our engines. 

Sunrise was going to be at 7:16, so I was in kind of a rush, but I believe the folks in front of me had never been to Mt. Tam before. They were driving very hesitantly, as if looking for good sunrise views on the way up the winding road. They pulled to the side of the road at the first opportunity with a wide enough shoulder, at which point I flew past them to try to get up onto Serpentine Power Point in time for the show, which of course starts well before the sun breaks the horizon. 

I've been laid up with a cold all week, but I chugged as best I could up the hill to reach my planned vantage point. I could see, however, that I wasn't going to make it, so I made do with a couple of frames along the way. I've never shot from that first vantage point before, and I kind of like it. I'd been trying to reach the view in the third and final shot, but you can see that the color in the clouds had almost completely faded by then. It was very windy and quite chilly, and I wished I'd brought gloves. 

I've always liked the view up this little side creek near the first bridge you cross on the way down the Cataract Trail from Rock Spring. The ravine is dry most of the year, so it's a little bit special to see it running with water. But just because I liked it doesn't mean I saw a photo opportunity, and I probably kept on walking for years before I finally set up the shot on the left back in 2012. Things change of course, and the same creek now has a recently toppled Douglas fir cutting across it. I believe the fir fell fairly recently, maybe last spring. 

Both frames were shot with the same 50mm lens, by the way. The 2012 version has a more compressed perspective because the lens was on a different camera. On the D300, which is what I had back then, the 50mm lens acts like a 75mm lens.

There were several of these guys growing under some small Doug fir trees, so I assumed they were slippery jacks. I still thought they were slippery jacks even after I took the picture and walked away. It was only when I got the image up on my screen that I noticed something fishy: gills! 

I wanted to experiment more with this technique for making an image appear more dreamlike, but only certain subjects are conducive to it, and this was the only one I tried this morning. It's basically just two images sandwiched together, with the opacity slider dragged down a bit on the top layer. I put the sharp image on top. The base layer is the same frame, but shot out of focus and wide open, like so:

I didn't think I had the energy or even the desire to hike down to the waterfalls. I wasn't sure I had enough energy even to climb the hill next to the trail, but I eventually mosied on up with a plan to make a short loop back to the car. As I stood in a small flat clearing where I suspect deer and possibly other animals have bedded down on occasion, I looked with appreciation upon these moss-bedecked bay laurel trunks, as well as that big slab of bark behind me in the picture. That's when it dawned on me that all the trunks were part of one tree! The original main trunk must have been huge before it fell away and decomposed. This bay laurel has probably spent most of its life with Coast Miwok being the only people for miles around. 

As I was poking around looking for interesting fungi I spotted this mossy tree trunk and adjacent rock, with a nice little declivity between the two. I'd also been noticing a scattering of fallen oak leaves that still retained some color. So I gathered up the colorful leaves in a small area around the base of the tree and placed them in the declivity. 

I put on a pair of glasses and looked over the surface of this whole toppled fir tree that's maybe thirty feet long, just to find this one little section that I wanted to photograph. I made this image at 1/3 lifesize, and it's a focus stack of 20 frames. I have never figured out how to avoid those halo effects that often show up around the red tips of the British soldier lichens.

Colors, shapes, textures. These Lactarius mushrooms were everywhere. They smelled okay, at least as far as I could judge with a stuffed-up nose, but I don't think they were candy caps.

At first I thought I knew what this was. And then I wasn't so sure. I photographed it, and then I harvested it to see if it had a volva, the sac-like structure typically found at the base of mushrooms in the Amanita genus. But there was no sac! I'd forgotten my pocket knife, so I dug under the mushroom with my index finger to pull it up. The base of the stalk was quite ordinary. Could this be a Stropharia? A Psathyrella?

At home I looked through Desjardin's California Mushrooms with no luck. Ditto for Arora's Mushrooms Demystified. I gave up, ate lunch and took a shower. On the inside of the bathroom door, we have a poster with lots of different mushrooms pictured on it. One of them was the mushroom I had photographed!

It was a death cap after all. I must have broken off the stalk and left the volva underground, something I've never done before. Mushroom-foragers warn against making this very mistake. Not that I planned to collect this for the table, but we do have superficially similar-looking edible coccora on Mt. Tam--a tasty amanita, not a deadly one. 

At least, I hear they're tasty. I've never risked trying one myself....

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lost & Found

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I've had a bad cold all week and am hoping, even though I'm still coughing and feeling low on energy today, that I'll be able to get out tomorrow to do some new photography. This image of the nudibranch Aeolidiella oliviae is from a December 2014 excursion to Duxbury Reef. I shot it during my yearlong project photographing in and around Pt. Reyes National Seashore. I've been thinking about getting out there more often again, although I'm not looking forward to the very early wake-up calls I subjected myself to back then.

Since I shot the project I had a major hard drive failure. Many of my TIFF files from the Pt. Reyes project were lost, but the raw NEF files are fine. I'd actually forgotten about that, but I finally got around to re-exporting the raw files from December 2014 to a more usable format.

Anyway, I liked the fluorescent orange nudibranch on the pinkish coralline algae. I grabbed my wife's Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolor brochure to see if I could match the colors, but I can't pull it off. Is that Quinacridone Sienna or Terre Ercolano? Neither, you say? I think it's difficult to match a color on paper with a color on a screen, too. If I really wanted to know, I'll bet there's software that tells you what colors are in your image. 

In fact, I just did an online thing to find that the slug's color, in HTML, is #FF6E00. The coralline algae is #C18168. Not too exciting, namewise. Sherwin-Williams has a phone app, but I'm not going to download it. Have you ever looked closely at the Sherwin-Williams paint logo? It's a bucket of paint dumped all over the planet with the words "Cover the Earth." I guess no one thought to "greenwash" their logo.

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tennessee Valley

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I've been hankering for bobcats for a while, so I drove out to Tennessee Valley this morning to see if I could get lucky. I arrived to find numerous cars and school buses in the parking area and along the sides of the street, even though it was only about 7:45 in the morning. I believe the commotion was all about this race. There was much raucous cheering of encouragement at the parking lot (I believe they started near Rodeo Lagoon). I've never seen so many people running an ultra-marathon before. They all looked extremely fit and most carried backpacks full of water. My first instinct was to turn around and drive up to Mt. Tam instead, but the thought of mushroom-hunting wasn't enough to overpower my lust for bobcats.

I began my hike among the runners, one of whom commiserated about the lack of peace and quiet, but I was scanning for bobcats in the distance north and south and didn't really mind. I'm a bit of an armchair ultramarathoner and could appreciate the feat they were setting out to accomplish. I soon dropped them anyway when I took the cut-off up to the campground, and they were all long gone by the time I came back to the main trail. I saw a very sweet covey of quail next to the campground. They were gathered in a tight group just on the edge of the chaparral, feathers fluffed and standing still to soak up the warm morning sun.

I hiked all the way down to the beach and back without seeing a bobcat, coyote or even a single deer. I saw one marsh hawk gliding slowly over the chaparral as warning chirps from songbirds below popped here and there, and I saw one brush rabbit stretch its body in a brief dash to cover as I approached the tender frosty greens it had been munching, but that was about it.

All the pictures in this post are from the month of December in '07, '09, and 2010. I did a lot of photography in Tennessee Valley back in 2010-11. The place was always busy with people, but there was also lots of wildlife. It was actually a little depressing this morning to find so little wildlife action. Even six years ago I could have a slow day where I didn't see any bobcats, so I don't want to make too much of today's miserly accounting. But I would not be surprised if the years of drought since then have taken a toll on the valley's fecundity.

So I just read Sebastian Junger's book Tribe, and wanted to share some of the tidbits I liked, starting with the following:

"The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life--even during times of adversity--challenged long-standing ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The !Kung had far fewer belongings than Westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control."

A page or so later Junger continues, "As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it."

Just this morning I overheard a couple of women talking on the trail, with one telling the other in an angry or disgusted tone of voice, "I can't believe how many depressed people there are at work!" 

Junger's thesis is that being part of a tribe is so important that soldiers sometimes feel like war was better than peace, and that civilian communities who've pulled together in adversity later recall how good it felt to have banded together in common cause. Of the three books I bought before the Thanksgiving holiday, Tribe was one I finished first.

The second book I finished was Mary Oliver's collection of essays called Upstream. In her essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson, she writes of his first published book, "Nature is a text that is entirely about divinity and first purposes, a book of manners, almost, but for the inner man. It does not demean by diction or implication the life that we are most apt to call 'real,' but it presupposes the heart's spiritual awakening as the true work of our lives. That this might take place in as many ways as there are persons alive did not at all disturb Emerson, and that its occurrence was the beginning of paradise here among the temporal fields was one of his few unassailable certainties."

I'm still working on the third book, Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees. He begins the chapter called "The Mysteries of Moving Water" with a deceptively simple question: "How does water make its way up from the soil into the tree's leaves?" He discusses transpiration, capillary action and cohesion, and comes to an interesting conclusion: no one knows!

I'm also working on another book that recently arrived in the mail: Science, Order and Creativity by the physicists David Bohm and F. David Peat. I've only just begun reading it and was struck by this in the Introduction: " exploring natural resources in a fragmentary manner, society has brought about the destruction of forests and agricultural lands, created deserts, and even threatens the melting of the ice caps." I was struck by that because this book came out 30 years ago. "And how can science lead human beings to control themselves?" it continues. "How do scientists propose to control hatred between nations, religions, and ideologies when science itself is fundamentally limited and controlled by these very things?" They sound a little like Sebastian Junger as they continue: "And what about the growing psychological tension in a society that is so unresponsive to basic human needs that life seems, for many, to have lost its meaning?"

Unfortunately, David Bohm died in 1992, but Peat is still around. He's Canadian, though, which means almost no one in the U.S. has ever heard of him. Anyway, the book feels dated with its paperback pages having lost some of their brightness, but the content is interesting and easy for a nonscientist like myself to understand (unlike the other Bohm title I got, called The Undivided Universe!).

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