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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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lazy Days

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Made my first stop at Muir Beach Sunday morning to check up on the coho action. Sill too early. Redwood Creek has cut a new channel into the ocean, just a bit south of where it was on my last visit. A couple of large swells pushed their salty way up the creek quite a distance, and I imagined a smart salmon body-surfing a head start into the creek on such a swell. Dec. 15, 2006 is the last time I saw salmon spawning in Redwood Creek, so hopefully the time is just about right, if we get more rain.

Found this strange altar in a small clearing just to the north off the Benstein Trail. There were a couple other rock placements nearby that had been dug up by animals, so I assumed there wasn't a dead pet at the center of this intact pile of stones, feathers, bones, store-bought shells, and such.

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Mendo Morsels

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Spent a couple of days in beautiful Mendocino where we stayed in a cabin in the redwoods a few miles up the Comptche-Ukiah Road. We had one dry day and two wet ones, so we did most of our outdoor explorations on the dry day. The ocean was producing some large swells which appeared to be taking a toll on these nearly frond-free sea palms. Love the water color though.

This has become our new favorite hang-out on the Mendo headlands. We sat facing the ocean with our feet hanging over the edge, a great scene to be a part of.

I brought three small books to read while I was up there: Tribe by Sebastian Junger, Upstream by Mary Oliver, and The Hidden Life of Trees of Peter Wohlleben. They got me thinking about the life and further adventures of this drift log, which might have started as a seedling next to a river, grown strong and tall for hundreds of years as the river chipped away at the bank, and finally toppled into the river and out to sea during a heavy storm, then to drift among the swells, bull kelp and sea otters until it came to rest on this small sandy beach at the foot of Mendocino.

We joined the teeming hordes at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. It's kind of amazing there's anymore glass at all after years, even decades, of gleaning by collectors of sea glass. I took only pictures myself, sea glass in a mussel shell and in a small abalone shell.

There's a great photography gallery in Fort Bragg that's always worth checking out. It's kind of hidden around the back of the main drag, and we just made it before closing time after a late lunch and craft beers at North Coast Brewing Co. 

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Dr. Strange

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Pam and I went to see the movie Dr. Strange at the Alamo Draft House on Saturday, and it got me thinking. Always a dangerous thing.... 

I see people like Dr. Strange almost every time I drive on the freeways – arrogant idiots who endanger other people’s lives with their own recklessness. The second-best thing that can happen to someone like that is they go upside-down and on fire all by themselves. The best thing that can happen is what happened to Dr. Strange.

When Western medicine can’t give him what he wants, Dr. Strange risks everything on a desperate attempt to find someone who can fix him. He journeys to the East. He believes he has risked everything, but he can’t even risk his own arrogance. That arrogance is stripped away only when he sees for himself that there is a heretofore unknown dimension of awareness. Only now does he see how lowly his old keyhole existence actually was. Only now is he humble enough to be a student.

His last material possession is useless for its intended purpose, but it’s inscribed with magic words that will bind him to earth as he undertakes the supernatural adventure of a lifetime. He does battle with a powerful enemy, but he also has powerful allies and finds supernatural aids, including a levitation cloak and a double ring of power. His final battle is with the enemy of life itself.

We don’t have to be world-class surgeons to be self-absorbed keyhole mongers. We probably don’t have to be forced into dire straits to begin the Strange adventure. That is, we probably don’t have to go into it kicking and screaming and wanting our mommy.

Then again, maybe we do…. (Cue the evil laughter.) 

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Shooting in the Rain

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The road construction is done, so Fairfax-Bolinas Road reopened on Friday, once again making it possible to drive to the Cataract Creek trailhead at Alpine Lake. It was raining pretty hard when I parked, so I sipped coffee until it let up a little. I still had to put on rain pants and jacket, plus carry an umbrella.

This shot and the one before it were done from beneath the umbrella, which I've finally gotten the hang of. It can be frustrating if you don't work more slowly and methodically than normal.

The rain finally let up, which was great because at 55 degrees it wasn't really cold enough to hike up that steep canyon wearing all that rain gear. 

When I got farther up the trail and realized I was missing a lens cap, I was pretty sure I'd dropped it around here somewhere, and as I was hiking back down the trail to look for it I met up with another hiker who'd already picked it up for me. 

Stone steps on the Cataract Trail.

After I left the waterfall area I hiked a short way along a trail up on Bolinas Ridge to look for this very mushroom. Some years they don't come up, so I was glad to find a few of these purple-stalked specimens right where I've seen them before. They look like a shorter version of the Cortinarius vanduzernsis that I've found up in Sonoma County, but I'm not sure that species grows this far south.

Waterfall Clip

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Saturday, November 19, 2016


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I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Ken Wilber and Stan Grof. For a long-time fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, it’s been interesting to find these guys—both still alive—who carry the torch in a world that has become darkly materialistic and where rationalism appears to be going off the rails. I became familiar with the work of Grof and Wilber a long time ago and kind of forgot about them during the last 20 or so years, but I recently rekindled my interest in connecting with their decidedly non-materialistic approaches to the ways we perceive the world. In 1967, working with Abraham Maslow and others to create a fuller picture of what it means to be human, Grof coined the term transpersonal psychology.

The need for a new kind of psychology grew in part from Grof’s work with patients under the therapeutic influence of psychedelics such as LSD. When the government outlawed the use of these substances, even by doctors, Grof found another way for patients to access the transpersonal realms for healing. He named this other way, Holotropic Breathwork. With its capital letters and legal trademark, the name kind of rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a little pretentious and just another of the countless avenues of spiritual entrepreneurialism we see today. Not that there’s anything wrong with protecting your ideas—I’m all for copyright protections—but I did have to overcome an ingrained skepticism to learn more about it.

In trying to find out more about this weirdly named thing I found a local guy on Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork Community named Jimmy Eyerman. Looking into it a bit more, I found a podcast interview where Dr. Eyerman discusses the HB process. Although I’d read Grof’s definition of “holotropic” and had a basic understanding of the word, its meaning really sank in when I heard Dr. Eyerman talk about it. Simply put, the word means “movement toward wholeness.”

I think it sank in because I finally related the word holotropic to similar words I already knew from long-ago botany classes: phototropic (the tendency of plants to reach into the light) and geotropic (the tendency of roots to reach into the earth).

Dr. Eyerman has led something like 11,000 people on HB journeys, and in the podcast he talks about some of the experiences they’ve had. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Grof’s Psychology of the Future and getting more insight into the HB experience. As I learned more about HB, something kind of stuck in my craw—it’s temporariness. It seems that an HB experience is similar to a psychedelic experience in the sense that it can often be just that, a wild experience, a visit to a place you come back from and more or less forget about. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it seems like a half-step, like doing something inspiring on the weekend, only to feel stuck in drudgery the rest of the week.

That idea got me back to Wilber’s discussion in his book Integral Psychology of “states” versus “structures.” If I read him right, Wilber held that a goal of psychological evolution is to integrate the “states” into “structures.” Experiencing a state would be like realizing, briefly, that you had two arms. The next time you might realize you have two legs—and hopefully you didn’t forget about your arms during the interim. Eventually you realize you have a whole body, and if you play your cards right, that realization sticks, and now you have a fully realized structure to get around in.

The structure isn’t static like a building because time isn’t static. A structure in time is a process, and adjustments can be made to the structure to improve the process. Now the leap: What if holotropism, the tendency of one’s structure to reach toward wholeness, is as fundamental a process to humans as phototropism and geotropism are to plants? Why fight it?

This idea got me to thinking about the little bit of shamanic journeying I did back in the ‘90s with guys like Michael Harner. In shamanism, your drum is the horse you ride into the shamanic journey. I think writing and photography can be shaman’s drums as well, leading one into new ways of seeing the world. I see photography as being more primal than writing since images are its language, but I think rational writing can complement the primal art of seeing—and one of these days I hope to figure out how to do that.

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