Nova Genesis - New Life Takes Root in the Aftermath of a Southern California Wildfire

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
— Seneca

This baby Aspen tree has just taken root in the shadow of a massive Incense Cedar tree, which had probably stood for hundreds of years - but was killed with millions of others like it in a single day during a recent California wildfire.

Today, I took the opportunity to visit one of the burn zones of one of our recent California wildfires. This one incinerated one of my favorite places for hiking and photography. To visit this place was to step into a dream, or a nightmare, like a post-apocalyptic movie. It felt like entering Chernobyl after the meltdown, or the site of a volcanic eruption. Every blade of grass, every tree, every piece of moss, every pine needle had been completely engulfed in flame and incinerated. All that remained was layers of ash and charred trunks of dead trees.

But in this desolation I found the dawn of a new beginning for the forest. Walking on the layers of ash, the soil felt like a spongy loam or peat. It was as if someone had dumped fresh topsoil onto the entire forest, and the plants weren't wasting any time in utilizing it. Beneath the charred trunks of an entire forest, a whole new generation of trees had begun to grow, in just a matter of weeks. Thousands of bright green shrub-sized trees had already taken root, reaching their tiny tender branches towards the sky, now unimpeded by the shade of a canopy that no longer existed.

It was such a powerful and heart wrenching reminder that even in total desolation when all hope has been lost, nature makes a new beginning, and the cycle of life starts anew - often better than it ever was before.

As an artist, it was also a strong reminder that nature's strongest messages often lie in its quietest scenes. 

In today's HD-3D-VR-faster-better-bigger-more-louder-click-like-reshare world, it seems that in order to be accepted – let alone liked – nature images must be cranked up to the max with strong contrast, vivid colors, epic skies, and shocking scenes. But sometimes the images that speak to us the most do so softly and clearly, in a still-small voice of sorts. The images I found here seem to do just that, and I think that's a good thing.

"Inferno" / An exploration of Mecca Hills Wilderness

"Inferno: Vertical"

Today, I finally managed to cross the Mecca Hills Wilderness area off my bucket list! This included explorations of Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon. 

The drive out there was very much unlike the drive out to Anza Borrego. Instead of a two lane winding road through rolling hills, it was almost entirely freeway driving through cities and industrial areas laced with windmills and mines. Yuck. Finally exiting highway 86, I made my way across miles of irrigated farmlands and vineyards, carved into the desert through the heavy handed use of irrigation canals and pumps. It's no wonder California is in the middle of a water crisis, when we are building farms where God and nature have clearly declared there should be nothing but wild desert.

Four miles of washboard road eventually led to the entrance to Painted Canyon. The parking lot there is somehow notorious for vandalism and theft, and as soon as I arrived, I looked out my window to see that the Suburban parked right next to me had just had its passenger-side window smashed in, and some thief had thrashed the glove box and the console looking for who knows what. Sickening. As expected, there was also a lot of graffiti and vandalism, along with cigarette butts and litter along the trail into and through the canyons. Fortunately, the canyons are so vast and majestic as to make the pathetic efforts of man pale in utter insignificance by comparison, entirely overpowering the efforts of base men to destroy what magnificence God has created here.

My first foray was up to the left almost immediately upon entering Painted Canyon. This path led to a technical slot, and I made it up about 20 feet using a fixed rope, but decided to turn back at the second rope because it was getting more technical and it was clear that these ropes had been fixed with the intent that they should be used for descent, not ascent. 

Backtracking, I wandered back out to the parking area and across, exploring a slot canyon on the other side of the lot to the left. There is a lot of interesting terrain out there. Ultimately realizing that this was not going to lead to Ladder Canyon, I made by way back into Painted Canyon about a quarter mile, finding the rockfall that marks the entrance to Ladder Canyon on the left. The Ladder Canyon was beautiful and deep, and fairly long, lasting for about three quarters of a mile and several levels, connected by the famous ladders. In one spot, the ladders allowed passage up a good 20 or 30 foot drop in the canyon, after which the canyon proceeded to widen out before forking. I made the right, which took me to the surface, where I made a right at the ridge. This marked the beginning of what I liked to jokingly call, "The Death March" along the completely exposed rim of upper Painted Canyon, a good two hundred or so feet above the canyon floor. It was one of the most impressive hikes I've done in California to date, but not knowing how long the trail was or where it was going made matters a bit less enjoyable than they could have been. If I'd made the left at the fork in the canyon, I think it would have led me down to the canyon I'd started climbing earlier, and that route would have provided more slot canyon climbing, which would have been nice, but technical.

"Inferno: Horizontal"

Painted Canyon lived up to its name, and was incredibly colorful and diverse in its geological wonders. The scenic hike down canyon lasted for a good 2.5 miles or so at least, before taking me back past the entry point to Ladder Canyon and down to the truck in the parking area. I made my way back home, arriving before dark at few minutes past 7pm. I had left home at around noon.

Lessons: Bring more water (I ran out with 3 liters in just 3 miles!), be patient and curious. Don't be afraid to stop for photos, in spite of the inherent nervousness that comes along with exploring a relatively unknown route alone in the desert wilderness.

Oh, and that one detour up that technical slot? It produced the best photograph of the whole day, one of the best desert images I've produced to date. "Inferno" is an image that works as a landscape and abstract, as a horizontal and as a vertical, and I suspect in both black and white and in color!

Desert Creatures

Sand Creatures As I drive down the lone dusty desert dirt road leading to one of the desert shores of America's oldest lake, bright yellow wildflowers squeeze the sides of my car and the sound of gravel crunches beneath my wheels. The windows are down, and a crisp, warm breeze fills my lungs. Arriving at the empty parking area at the end of the road, I am immediately struck by the emptiness and silence of the place. I am alone here.

Retrieving my gear from the trunk, I set out across the sand down what appears for a short while to be a human trail into the desert. The footprints soon disappear, and I find myself walking across surprisingly firm, clean sand towards a massive and diverse array of intricate sand structures that stretch forth seemingly endlessly before me.

As I tiptoe around the fragile formations, I watch every step to ensure I don't accidentally brush one with my foot and break it. Many are as small as nine inches tall, and it is clear they had formed over thousands of years. I couldn't possibly have more respect or admiration for this desolate place. This is a perplexing area to visit. On one extreme, I've never felt so unwelcome in my life. The area screams of its sensitivity to human presence. I sense that even a single misstep could irrevocably destroy thousands of years of natural artwork, or ruin some fragile creature's native habitat. On the other extreme, this place is intensely welcoming in its soft, warm, peaceful solace. So much so that I couldn't help but lie down right on the sand and stretch out beneath the sky to just breathe and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of this incredible environment. I could stay here for ever, letting a world rich with vanity and artifice yet so devoid of perspective and place continue on without me. But loved ones are waiting, and there is also much good in the world, so alas I cannot stay for too long.

A few minutes later, I'm up and exploring again. The blind rise of another sensuous sand dune is calling my name, it's curves draped in bright sunflower yellow flora, another stretch of unexplored desert beckoning from the other side.

As I wander alone in silence through the desert, startlingly large jackrabbits and numerous desert hares frolic about in the scrub, peering at me through the bushes, nervous of this strange newcomer to their wonderland.

A few hours later, the sun has begun to set, igniting the clouds above in strikingly vivid hues of orange and pink, with the desert shores slipping into understated shades of violet and blue. My friends the sand formations are silhouettes now, framing the light show in the sky as though they were the pillars propping it up. The sun finally slips below the majestic mountains across the lake, and the light show fades out, giving way to the light of the full moon and the brilliant spectacle of the milky way over the desert.

Reluctantly, I make my way back to my car, and as I drive out across the desert once again, my headlights are greeted with the nocturnal dance of bats and birds and bugs swooping about in the night sky. My mind drifts, and already I know I cannot wait long to return to this special place.

And that Jackrabbit? It was the size of a coyote.

A Thousand Words

"A photograph is worth a thousand words," the unknown thinker said. I now understand this to mean, "A good photograph is worthy of a thousand words." Historically the great photographers who contributed to the good of humanity with their work used their heartfelt writing to give life and lasting meaning to their photos. What meaning could we gleam from Eliot Porter's images without his writings expressing the intimate relationships he had with animals and wilderness? What would Guy Tal's work be without his contemplative writings on life and philosophy? What would Ansel Adam's work be without his writings on technique, art and conservation?

An interesting study in contrasts is to examine the opposite situations: those where we see photographers who make consistently great images, but who do not accompany them with great writing. The only response we can come to upon reading poor writing or the lack of writing altogether is that these photographers are merely there to grab an image of light and color without a connection to the living organisms and ecosystems that the images represent.

I remember reading a few stories recently by some artists who's photographs I greatly admire. In these stories, they described nights of gambling, drinking, and driving through the night just to "get the shot," while fighting against nature, freezing their rear ends off, and scarcely making it back to their vehicles alive, while spending as little time as possible in nature. They were sure to later name-drop the brands and models of the several-thousand dollar state-of-the-art cameras and gear they used to grapple with nature and produce a memory card full of digital files that could be Photoshopped into marketable products that would produce decent sales numbers for their wealthy clientele, who would no doubt consume the product while sitting in their posh luxury apartments amidst the cacophony of city streets and sounds below, all the while far removed from any tangible appreciation for or connection with the natural world.

Many photographers view themselves as conservationists, but in this case you could easily make the case that some are more luxury product designers than anything else. They use use nature as a consumable resource to be manipulated for mere economic gain in much the same way as an oil drilling company or industrial development contractor would bulldoze or drill a majestic old-growth forest containing thousands of species of delicate wildlife in the name of some filthy green paper. If you photograph wilderness and wildlife without taking time and thought to know and love them, what have you accomplished? Without empathy, photos are meaningless. They are pixels and ink, without soul or purpose.

I don't want this for my work. My work challenges me to daily increase my understanding and knowledge of the places and natural phenomena I photograph. If I don't take the time to know these places better than those viewing my photographs do, what can I bring home worth seeing? I can't change or challenge someone else's views of these natural places if I don't develop my own first. This is a standard I aspire to. Whether or not I'll ever reach it, I do not know. For now, if I can learn more understanding and empathy each time I venture into the wilderness, I will continue to bring more meaning to my work.

I have so far to go, such depths to explore, so much to learn. My words and images can scarcely express what needs to be told about these places; certainly far less than they deserve.

Mobius Moment

A bright meteor sears across the Milky Way Galaxy behind the Mobius Arch in central California's Alabama Hills, with Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak lit by moonlight in the background. It was 3:00am as I walked out to the camera that I'd left in the desert on a tripod connected to my programmed intervalometer to check on the second star trail exposure series of the night.

I was aware the moon had risen during the exposures, and sure enough, it had pretty much ruined the 14 5 minute exposures, which had all been bleached out too much to work with. But the moon… it was absolutely incredible the way it illuminated the stone formations in the desert out there. The best part of all was the way it lit up the Sierra Nevada under the night sky filled with the Milky Way and billions of stars. So I knew I had to make the best of the situation and immediately set up to make some Milky Way photographs with this beautiful arch framing Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak under the moonlight. I set up the camera, dialed in the settings, and pressed the shutter release on the remote. About 20 seconds later, a very bright meteor zipped across the sky, right in front of the Milky Way, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. 10 seconds later, the shutter clicked closed, and I knew I had the shot. When this image popped up on the review screen, I just packed up the camera and went back to the car.

Mighty Polaris

The Earth's rotation around the North Star, Polaris, streaks the night sky into a spiral of light and color, with the light painted Mobius Arch in the foreground in this 71 minute blend of 16 sequential long exposures. Hey… I'm back! I know it's been a while since my last work. The last couple of months have been a whirlwind of training and hiking in preparation to climb the Mountaineer's Route on Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States at 14,508 ft. (4511.65 m). Well, that was a hard-earned and worthwhile success.

Now it's back to photography, and to start things off, I drove the 3.5 hours back up to Whitney Portal road and the Alabama Hills. We'd driven right by this place on our way to and from Whitney, and it reminded me of how much I loved the area. I arrived around 4pm, and spent the afternoon scouting compositions around the hills, driving my poor car up and down all the nasty washboard dirt roads there!

By nightfall, I was filthy, freezing, and sore. (I hadn't really had time to recover from that climb yet and still had sunburn and some exposure damage.) To be honest, all I wanted to do was drive home and get a hot shower and go to sleep. But I decided to stick it out for the night. I only rested in 70 minute naps all night, trekking back out across the desert to my camera to restart the intervalometer and composition between exposures. I'm glad I stayed!

This exposure contains a total of 71 minutes of exposure time. There are 14 x 5 minute exposures on the intervalometer for the star trails (to at least partially mitigate sensor overheat issues), followed by two light paintings with my LED headlamp at 30 seconds each. The first 30 second exposure was with a white LED, and the second was with a red one.

Then I blended the 14 star trail exposures in post to reunite them, eliminating the satellite & jet trails in the process, and then merged in the two light paintings on top at around half opacity each to create a more pleasing middle orange tone than either the bright red or bright white could provide. I hope you enjoy the result!

The Chamber

Reflected evening light ignites a hidden chamber inside a long and winding slot canyon in Southern California's Colorado desert region. I made the 2-hour drive and 2-mile hike out to explore the Canyon Sin Nombre Slot Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. It was completely silent there, and I only encountered two other hikers the whole day, and otherwise had the entire place all to myself for most of the day! This was my first time exploring the canyon. I would return later to get to know the place much better, and even spend a night cowboy camping beneath the desert sky there. What an incredible place. Peaceful, silent, surreal.