Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wowed By Nature

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The February 2017 issue of Lenswork opens with an editorial inspired by Brooks Jensen's encounter with a gallery owner in New York who was dismissive of landscape photography. Apparently there's even a pejorative acronym going around--ARAT--for "Another Rock, Another Tree."

I was thinking about that as I poked around among the rocks and trees along Lagunitas Creek. I thought of several possible explanations for the attitude of those gallery owners, but in the end I figure they are business people, and if they don't have a ready market or can't figure out how to create a taste for landscape photography, they are going to blame the artwork.

Interestingly, Brooks Jensen does much the same thing. Even though the gallery owner snubbed him and sniffed at Lenswork as being a ghetto of landscape photography, he nevertheless blames photographers for missing the mark. I imagine the dismissive gallery owner feeling a sense of satisfaction for inducing such self-flagellation.

"Cameras make wonderful copy machines," Jensen writes. "but if that's all they do, the resulting photographs may not rise to the level of art.... Art is something you make, not something you merely record." After delivering this scolding he writes that an artistic image is "unique," "wonderful," "insightful," and "inspiring."

However, even if the photograph possesses all of those attributes, the gallery owner who can't sell it is still going to dismiss it. All those qualities that make an image "art" are subjective. An image that moves you might not move the person standing next to you. A landscape image that connects you to an inner sense of what is simultaneously beautiful and sad about life might make the person standing next to you yawn. The image of a moment captured in time might suddenly bond you to the eternal stillness deep within your own being, while the person next to you looks at you like you're nuts.

In the editorial, Brooks does defend the aesthetic of landscape photography, writing, "It's not the rock nor the tree that are important, but the meaning, the expression, the connection that counts." This isn't the first time I've heard such sentiment, and I couldn't disagree more. The rock and the tree are crucial. If you're out there with the idea that the landscape and all the living beings, seen and unseen, that occupy it--all the movements of wind and water, of energy from the sun and nourishment from the soil--are unimportant, why bother? And if you are just copy machine who nevertheless makes the gallery owners go "Wow!" over you, are you an artist?

My wife was telling me about a middle-school student who is bereft over being rejected for admission to San Francisco's School of the Arts. I hope that student is able to remain true to her artistic self when she enters a high school full of people who yawn an art, or who turn away from art they can't make money on. Hopefully that student will find a few sympatico friends and even a grown-up or two who can help her keep that lamp lit and bring out her inner mounting flame.

When I look at the image at the top of this post, I see an exuberant chaos of life that nevertheless embodies a compositional order that I can only discover for myself, and which gives me profound joy. In all the years I've been publishing this blog, I have been trying to share my sense of being wowed by nature, and also to spark that recognition, that mysterious conjunction of outside and inside, that makes art out of rocks and trees--and thee.

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Storm Wrack

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I tried to drive out around the north side of Mt. Tam this morning, but Fairfax-Bolinas Road is closed again. There must have been more storm damage -- and so soon after they reopened the route! They were closed for months last time, and the closure this time begins in the same place, up by the Azalea Hill parking lot. 

I turned around and went for a drive along Lagunitas Creek, making a pit stop at the Cronin Fish Viewing Area. I crossed the street to check out the Ink Wells and almost went back for my camera. I couldn't quite get the angle I wanted, though, so I just took a brain picture. Sorry I can't share it. I did not see any salmon splashing up the falls or anything like that. Just a lovely scene that was a bit too cluttered in the foreground.

I continued past Sam Taylor Redwoods and was struck by the beauty of the forest along the creek. There's often nowhere to pull over at such times, but this time I was able to park at Devil's Gulch and walk a short way back along the road until I found a place to drop down to the creek. I followed a set of raccoon tracks in the sand and stopped to make a few photographs. You can see the big dam of flood debris in this image and the one above it (the lower image is cropped from the upper one). Note the debarking of the standing alders. That'll give you an idea how high the creek flooded.

I didn't go far upstream because this nice open area soon morphed under a darker tree canopy.

This buckeye seed was rooting into very shallow soil on a boulder patched with lichen, moss and polypody. It would be interesting to check up on it again in a few months to see how it fares.

Just as I was about to cut away from the creek and up to the road I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. It was a deer skull with only one antler still attached and most of its flesh peeled off. It's grisly business to get caught in a flood. Hopefully this buck was already dead when it got swept away.

I took this selfie just to make my wife jealous. She is the one who found this huge bay laurel in Bear Valley, and it instantly became one of her favorite trees. Mine too. In the fenced field behind the visitor center I scouted for badgers to no avail, but counted twenty-four deer browsing in the grass. Closer to the visitor center building, over by the electric car charging area, there were more quail than I could count, either pecking along the ground or sunning themselves on the wooden fenceposts.

Although I did stop at the tree, I wasn't really in the mood to do a whole Pt. Reyes thing without my wife, so I circled back toward Mt. Tam and drove up Bolinas-Fairfax Road. Chilly offshore winds were howling over the ridge, and I scouted in vain for bobcats or coyotes. I parked to take a walk in the woods and spotted this little banana slug pushed up against some mushrooms. It sensed my presence and seemed in no hurry to actually start feeding, so I took a quick photo and continued on my way. When I finally returned to the car maybe a half-hour later, the slug was about two inches away from the apparently uneaten mushrooms (I didn't check the gills, which is the part slugs often relish). Life in the fast lane.

This toothed jelly fungus was just about the only fungus I saw on my little walk. This guy is probably about an inch tall. It's not super-wet up there despite all the rain. I'm disappointed that I couldn't get a look at Alpine Lake to see if it's full. Last time I was there (Nov. 20), the bathtub ring was at least twenty feet high.

Here's a crop of the jelly fungus showing its teeth. They have been known to bite, so they should always be treated with care. I was surprised as I continued my walk to have my trail crossed by a group of four women who didn't know where they were or where they were going. They were just having a ball, out exploring. I told them the road was one way, the creek the other, and they charged off toward the creek.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Freedom Trails

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I got to the Pantoll gate much earlier than usual, around 6:45, and was surprised to find four cars already waiting at the gate. The first two idled their engines, spewing exhaust fumes, until the ranger showed up just after 7 o'clock (two more cars had shown up by then), and the second guy even kept his headlights on. Go nature lovers!

Pam and I went to the De Young Museum yesterday where we breezed through the wild and colorful Frank Stella show. I kinda liked Stella's later sculptures, but I found more inspiration in another part of the museum with the Danny Lyon photo exhibit--black-and-white shots of bikers and prisoners and everyday poor people from the 60s. The exhibit is called "Message to the Future," and as I looked at the images and thought about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate today, it did not seem like the message has really gotten through. The last 50 years of progress toward all Americans living in a land of opportunity has been incremental in but a minuscule way.

I think Dr. King would have felt the same exaltation that I felt this morning among the waterfalls, tall trees, steep fern glens and mossy boulders--assuming he could have given himself over to a moment of freedom from the important work he gave his life for. I feel blessed to be able to drive up to Mt. Tam and get nature's glad tidings, and that I am privileged not to have inflicted upon me the intolerable weight of oppression, ignorance and inhumanity that so many suffer all their lives, a heroic weight that Dr. King carried for so many as his sacred duty.

When I think about how little has changed in my country's treatment of black people and others who have been oppressed and scapegoated during my lifetime, I know there's still a long road of struggle for civil rights, and also for the right of current and future generations to clean air and water, and to having someplace close to home where wild nature can be encountered, where one's spirit can be renewed in the guileless authenticity of uncivilized creation.

I almost forgot to look for them.

The grotto of fetid adder's tongues was my last stop along Cataract Creek before heading back up to my car which was parked in the pull-out above Laurel Dell (the West Ridgecrest gate was already open first thing in the morning). I met a guy near the top who was walking with his dog down the fire road who told me he'd just seen a bear cub run across the road in front of him. He said he waited for the mama bear but she never came. I'm sure my eyes must have widened as I told him that would be a very unusual sighting. Very unusual. I know they've had the rare bear sighting up at Pt. Reyes, so I figured it could be possible, but of course I had my doubts.

I drove north to where he'd seen his animal, thinking it must have been a bobcat, coyote or even a turkey, but I had put my long lens on just in case. Fog blew over the ridge from the northeast which made for some nice God beams in the woods.

I roamed around without seeing any animals, although a raven high in a redwood tree was carrying out a lengthy soliloquy that I could not fathom. Maybe it was telling an old story about when black bears had freedom to roam in these parts. 

It's been a while since I've even seen a buck deer on the mountain. I did see a coyote on the road on the way up, just a ways before the Mountain Home Inn. A couple of deer also stood in the road until I slowed nearly to a stop just a few feet away from them as they stared at my car. Then one bolted stage left, the other stage right.

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Friday, January 13, 2017


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All week I'd been looking forward to taking the day off work to hike down Mt. Tam's Cataract Trail to check out the post-storm creek and waterfalls, so I drove up this morning ready for action. Even though I didn't care about catching the sunrise since the sky was so clear, I looked forward to photographing the setting full moon. I arrived at the Pantoll gate at about 7:05 a.m., expecting to zoom past the open gate in time to find a good vantage point for the moon shot. 

Alas, I turned off Panoramic Highway to find the gate closed. Figuring the ranger was uncharacteristically tardy, I turned off the engine but kept the music playing since it was a Phil Manzanera song I like called East of Echo

Around 7:15 another car pulled in behind me, and I got out of my car to talk to the driver, who'd come up with his wife for their first visit. Unfortunately, it finally began to sink in that the ranger wasn't just tardy, but that the park was actually c-l-o-s-e-d! According to a camper I talked to over by the ranger station, the gate has been closed all week. I'd seen nothing about this closure on the Mt. Tam State Park web site, nor on the Marin IJ's home page. 

When it finally sunk in that the gate was never going to open and that I was not going to be hiking to waterfalls today, I realized it's Friday the 13th. Some say Friday the 13th is a bad-luck day, but my wife says it's actually a good-luck day. (Those are willow flowers budding in the background behind the otters.)

I'd planned to drive over to Fort Cronkhite to look for river otters after hiking the waterfalls, so I cut to Plan B and drove back down the mountain to check out Rodeo Lagoon. Luckily, I'd read in the Marin IJ earlier in the week that the Bunker Road Tunnel was closed (and will remain so until May), so I drove directly up Conzelman instead of having a second surprise disappointment of the morning.

I didn't see any sign of otters on the lagoon, but I still wanted to get out of the car and do some hiking, so I set out with my camera backpack and tripod along the lagoon trail loop. I didn't get very far before my luck changed and I spotted suspicious ripples in the water. Sure enough, three river otters were working the edge of the lagoon. I doubled back toward the car and staked out a position to wait for the otters to arrive and was able to fire off a few frames as they passed by.

After they passed me and went out of view behind a lot of willows and such, I anticipated seeing them  come into view again on the other side. It was sunny over there, and there were some colorful reflections in the water from a building at the foot of the Miwok Trail. But the otters never come out the other side. I figure they ducked under the bridge to den up for a spell, possibly among a bunch of large rocks. I didn't see any sign that they exited the water to enter the quiet eastern portion of the lagoon, and I doubt they somehow leaped over the small waterfall. I stuck around awhile but didn't see the otters again.

I wasn't ready to leave though, so I took a little stroll up the Miwok Trail to admire the light. I always love the morning light on leafless willows and alders.

A lady walking her dog asked if I was photographing birds. I'd heard some crazy-sounding bird calls, maybe Virginia rails, but I couldn't even see them much less photograph them, so I was just looking for abstracts. I was lucky to have the warm morning sun making everything so beautiful.

Although I did keep my eyes peeled for bobcats or coyotes on the nearby hillside, it was nice to just settle down and scout for compositions of subjects that aren't "things," like bobcats or mushrooms, but rather plays of light, shapes, lines, and colors.

I liked this stretch of willows so much I shot it as a panorama, although I cropped it down to standard dimensions for the blog.

I don't know what that crimson-branched bush is. There are non-native fruit trees and such in this area, so I hesitate to guess. I did see a couple flowering currant bushes, and quite a bit of the poison oak was already leafing out again. I'd thought I might find fetid adder's tongue on the Cataract Trail, but I didn't get the chance. 

Who knows if they'll open the Pantoll gate tomorrow. I just called the park information number (at 2:40 p.m. on Friday) and after it rang awhile, the standard recorded message came on, which was useless. If you Google "friends of mt. tam", the little Google box on the side says "Park Closed" in red, but if you actually go to the Friends web site the most recent "Ranger's Update" is from Jan. 9 and is noncommittal about closures. So somehow Google is more useful in that regard than either the Friends or the State Park web sites.

I haven't tried embedding a YouTube video in Blogger before. I wanted it to be larger than the usual embedded size. Here's the link to the video on YouTube.

I went back to the car and walked over to the bridge across Rodeo Lagoon to scout for otters, but there was still no sign of them, so I drove down to the beach and walked out on the bridge. A huge mat of sea foam was roiling on the water as freshwater from the lagoon tried to flow toward the ocean which was sending a few big waves up onto the beach and creating a counter-current in the lagoon. The movement of the foam was entrancing, like staring into a kind of kaleidoscope. If you ever wondered about the physics of foam, you might be surprised to find it so mysterious.

My luck held out as I drove home when another favorite mellow song came on, Sopwith Camel's Orange Peel. The song is kind of magical, like my wife, who I'd just bought a bunch of lavendar-colored roses for while doing my grocery shopping on the way home, thankful for being such a lucky guy. 

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Leisure Time

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With a new year under way and a new work week about to begin, it was great to take a leisurely stroll around Mt. Tam to contemplate the beauty to be found in even unexpected places around this great mountain park so close to home.

There were three cars already waiting at the gate when I arrived at about 7 a.m., just as the ranger was getting out of his truck to unlock the gate.

The sunrise was mellow, hardly a breath of wind.

I found several bits of vertebrae from a former alligator lizard along the edge of the woods. A little later I saw a kestrel on his usual perch near the Rock Spring water tank and wondered if he'd been the one to dine on the lizard.

I wandered down the Cataract Trail for a while, looking for a likely detour. I found what I was looking for near a big meadow. I crossed the gently running creek to check out this mossy area, and as I was admiring the oak I noticed something unusual in the distance.

I've seen a couple other stick structures around lately, but this was the biggest by far.

I continued up the hill past the stick tipi to check out another mossy area. It rained off and on, but I had an umbrella with me and stayed dry. Right after taking this shot I checked the thermometer I keep attached to my camera backpack. It was 39 degrees. I soon stumbled onto a small unmaintained trail that I'd never found before, and just as it emptied into a small meadow, the rain began to fall quite heavily. Not lots of rain, just very big drops. Some of the drops were landing with a thud, like tiny pieces of wet cloth. Then lots of them were falling, and they were white -- it was snowing!

The snow lasted no more than a minute or two, but what a treat. I followed the thin trail up into some sargent cypress which is where I found these Agaricus mushrooms pushing up a mound of dirt and moss. 

One of the trails sort of petered out in this little gnome forest of sargent cypress so I doubled back to check out a different route. That route began to head downhill, so I backtracked to loop back toward Rock Spring.

It took a while to realize exactly where I was, but I soon recognized familiar terrain near the throne rocks. Several of these little witch's hat mushrooms were sprouting under the sargent cypress, but they were all just barely getting their caps above ground. This little red-orange specimen was the only one that wasn't yellow.

The sargent cypress were in bloom, with their small yellow male cones ready to fill the air with pollen.

I finally remembered to make a note of whether these trees were bays or oaks. They are oaks. I'd like to know if they are even truly "they" as opposed to "it." Could all these trunks be connected to a primordial rootstock under the ground? Or did a bunch of individual acorns produce this little grove? Either way, you gotta love their trousers of green winter moss.

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