Saturday, August 26, 2017

Summer Air

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I just read Caesar’s Last Breath, in which author Sam Kean makes science writing as fun as anything else you’d bring to Limantour Beach for an enjoyable summer read, with the difference that he imparts thought-provoking information in addition to relaxing entertainment.

One of the chapters is about a gas we all take for granted, a component of the air all around us, called oxygen. It kind of jams my gears to imagine living in the vast span of human history before oxygen was discovered, before its true nature was precipitated out of the chaos of thousands of years of phlogiston and swirling human wonder. It’s thought-provoking to be reminded that oxygen was discovered less than 250 years ago, and it’s entertaining to read about the people and their experiments which led to the discovery. Imagine trying to discover oxygen yourself. How would you go about it?

Every schoolchild knows we need oxygen to breathe, to animate our lives so we can do things like walk to Sculptured Beach at Point Reyes and take pictures of weird rock formations. It’s a rote fact that we don’t even stop to think about, but around the late 1700s, as Kean writes, “[Antoine] Lavoisier had articulated the connections between fire, oxygen, and breathing, declaring that breathing was a sort of slow, controlled burning in our lungs. It remains one of the most important chemical discoveries ever….”

Having already discussed nitrogen, which preceded oxygen’s introduction to the Earth’s atmosphere, Kean continues farther down the page that, “Oxygen and nitrogen are neighbors on the periodic table…, [b]ut if the buildup of nitrogen a few billion years ago gave our planet its third and most benevolent atmosphere, the arrival of oxygen inaugurated a fourth and much more explosive regime. Whereas nitrogen is non-reactive to the point of being comatose, oxygen is volatile, manic, a madman in most every chemical reaction. It actually poisons many forms of life, and caused the greatest crisis that life on Earth ever faced, the so-called Oxygen Catastrophe of two billion years ago….”

Wikipedia refers to this “catastrophe” a little differently. On one hand oxygen’s arrival caused a mass extinction, but on the other hand, “the Great Oxygenation Event alone was directly responsible for more than 2,500 new minerals of the total of about 4,500 minerals found on Earth.”

I wonder which of the many minerals that make the geology of Point Reyes so interesting owe their existence to the formation of oxygen some 2.5 billion years ago.

In Caesar’s Last Breath, Kean writes that “oxygen destroyed early life because it detonates so easily inside cells; yet when life learned how to control oxygen, that reactivity became its greatest asset.” Continuing in a more arch vein, he continues, “And given how much havoc oxygen has wreaked throughout history, it’s fitting that this element destroyed every chemist who had a hand in its discovery. It’s the Hope Diamond of the periodic table.”

A science book written with a novelist’s flair: now that's a breath of fresh air.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

High Sierra Dash

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I've been in a bit of a rut when it comes to photography. A rut -- any kind of rut -- is just a comfort zone whose boundaries need expanding. But the problem with expanding a comfort zone is that it's -- guess what -- uncomfortable! It's not something you want to do. If you wanted to do it, you'd still be merrily finding accommodation in your comfort zone instead of feeling rutty. 

There are various ways to get out of a rut, and buying new photography gear can seem like a relatively easy, if expensive, way out. I've been reading the sneak previews of the rumored Nikon D850 and thought I'd like to have it. But what I really think is that I'd like to have had it back when I was still jazzed about photography -- about exploring a landscape with a camera, about slowing down enough to see things more fully than usual and to create beautiful images, to trap special slices of vicarious time, to fuel imagination, to share with others what I find. 

I thought I might be able to push out of my comfort zone by leaving the Bay Area and heading up to the High Sierra, as if all I needed was a "change of scenery." My wife and I normally go up in late summer, but we couldn't fit it in this year, so I made a solo jaunt. I was up at 3 a.m., on the road from San Francisco at 4 a.m., and hiking up Blue Canyon near Sonora Pass by 9 a.m.

Unfortunately, I felt like I was basically seeing the High Sierra's natural landscape with the same eye that I use on Mt. Tam, Point Reyes, or anywhere else. I see something that strikes me with the potential for a pleasing composition and I make the image. The subjects may be different, but somehow they look the same. When I feel like I'm flogging a dead horse, I know I'm in a rut.

So I guess I'm in a rut, but maybe that sameness is what we call "style," the ineffable thing that makes your images your own. Maybe I'll call it the Dead Horse style....

When this kind of angst takes hold I usually think of breaking out of my rut/comfort zone in photography by "moving up" to medium- or large-format, but frankly I've found moving "down" to a smartphone camera to be quite liberating. On a hike like Blue Canyon, with an elevation gain of about 1,600 feet to a destination at about 10,050 feet, such light gear would have been a welcome thing!

Strangely enough, there's something about lugging the heavy gear, of having the camera, lenses and tripod you need to make the best images you can -- images with the kind of detail that sucks you into the scene -- that's reward in itself. 

Many years ago I photographed a wildflower I'd never seen before. It was growing on a cliff face, and I climbed up to photograph it, only to find myself high off the ground on crumbling rock. I looked down and was suddenly frozen by The Fear. That's when I learned by experience that climbing down can be harder than climbing up. Fortunately, another hiker came along who knew exactly where my head was at (I was about to make a Hail Mary leap into a nearby fir tree, which likely would have ended in disaster), and he calmly directed me down. 

In later trips I saw the same wildflower in many easy-to-reach places. 

The relative difficulty in making two nearly identical images is of no account to a viewer, but a hard-won image will always mean more to you. Similarly, some of the high points of a photography trip have nothing to do with making an image. I spent a half-hour sitting in the shade beneath a group of stunted pines with a terrific view toward Sonora Peak. I did little more than philosophize about life and watch grasshoppers ramble through the nearby rubble and occasionally open their wings to display their abdomens to the sun's warming rays.

What we're trying to capture in nature photography is the sheer perfection of those moments when you are able to observe creation with the gut feeling and insight that you are part of it all, you are both observer and the observed, made from the same elements formed in the same supernovas. I don't know how to get that across in a picture, or even in a group of pictures, but that's what I want photography to do. I want to make a quantum leap from my rut to a comfort zone that has no borders.

Is that too much to ask from an image?

After the Blue Canyon hike I'd planned to photograph the night sky from the vicinity of Sonora Pass. I couldn't pull my car into the St. Mary's Pass parking area because it requires a high-clearance vehicle, but right across the street was another spot that was easy for any car to pull into. I spent an hour watching hummingbirds zip around and poke their noses into scarlet rocket flowers, and listening to the creek roll by and the wind whisper through the pines. Heavy clouds built up and shaded the sun, giving me the illusion that I wasn't getting sunburnt. 

I thought about taking a nap, but I wasn't tired. I decided I wanted to photograph the sand tufa at Mono Lake that night instead of looking for a good vantage point on Sonora Pass (where nothing was occurring to me), so I drove down there, figuring I could get a motel room in Lee Vining, where I looked forward to getting a shower and being out of the sun and heat until nightfall. Unfortunately, the place I wanted to stay was booked solid.

I didn't check anywhere else, and after a short trip to have lunch at Navy Beach where it was hot and sunny, a far cry from my comfort zone in foggy San Francisco, I decided to drive up to Yosemite's cooler climes. 

I haven't visited Yosemite in literally years, a fact that seems hard to believe. I know it's true because the car I bought in July 2014 has never been there. It was time to remedy that, even though it's been not just a few, but many years, since I last visited the park between Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

After a short visit with a pika along the Nunatak Nature Trail I paid my $30 to enter the park, an increase of $10 since my last visit.

Either way, Yosemite is worth it. Sure, there's all the traffic of peak tourist season, but it's still a magical place. I sat next to the creek that runs through Dana Meadows and watched a group of velvet-antlered bucks feeding on the summer's stock (wondering if deer have any taste preferences for one plant or another), then headed over to Tioga Lake to watch the sun go down while I ate another almond-butter sandwich.

I thought about laying out my sleeping bag somewhere but was concerned about bears getting into the cooler in my car. I stopped outside the park to take a nap in the car, but I still wasn't tired, so I kept on motoring, getting home at about midnight, amazed that I wasn't even drowsy.

I got in bed after being up for 21 hours. Closing my eyes, I could still see mosquitoes buzzing around me and landing on my arms, legs and face as I finally drifted off to sleep.

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