Just Another Day In The Park

As I started to write this post, about two weeks ago, nearly a third of winter had passed and barely a drop of rain had fallen here in California. This is troubling because if it does not rain in the low lands it is not going to be snowing in the high country. While the rain is important, its the snow pack in the higher elevations that fill our water reservoirs and keep the perennial creeks and rivers flowing. This year it has snowed once or twice leaving behind a negligible amount of snow on the ground.

The high country of the Sierra Nevada is normally unreachable by this time into winter by virtue of the hundreds of inches of snow that block roads and by the continuous storms that make snow plowing a futile effort. This year however, a new record has been set for the Tioga Road remaining open into winter. The previous record of January 1st set in 2006 has been put to rest and it has extended late into January.  This strange winter has also created an interesting and fairly unique opportunity to photograph places and events in the high country in winter normally not accessible.

Full Moon

Full Moon

The full moon this month fell on January 8th.  The full moon always rises as the sun is setting and this is a very nice time to add the moon to the landscape in photos.  Actually its better to make a photo with the rising moon a day or two before the moon is full due to the contrast variation between the land and moon at sunset.  On the day of the full moon, the sky and land will have darkened sufficiently such that to photograph both in a single exposure and retain detail in both the land and moon is nearly impossible.  However, the moon lags the sun by 45 to 50 minutes each day, so the day before the full moon the moon will rise about 45 minutes before sunset giving the opportunity to photograph the rising moon with sufficient light on the land as well.

The other interesting fact is that in January, the full moon rises just to the right of Half Dome in Yosemite when viewed from locations near Glacier Point.  In a normal winter, reaching Glacier Point is a monumental task as one has to either ski or snow shoe in for miles.  Not something that is done very often.  However this year the roads in the high country are still open, the full moon was rising, and access to these locations was incredibly easy.  Put all three of these circumstances together and you have the possibility for some interesting photo opportunities.

Knowing this, I presented the scenario to my 4 assistants two days before the full moon to hear there opinions on a one day excursion to the Yosemite High Country where we would hike in to the top of Sentinel Dome, a location west of Half Dome, like Glacier Point, but about 800 feet higher in elevation to see and photograph the rising full moon over Half Dome.  The consensus was a resounding yes!  So we started making plans for the trip, what we would need to bring, who would carry what and planned out our timetable.  We would leave on Saturday no later than 10 am, giving us enough time to reach the trail head and make the short 1.2 mile hike to the top of Sentinel Dome with enough time to set up the cameras.  Mind you, our youngest companion is only 5 years old.

I planned on making a couple of panoramic photos, one using the DSLR and one using the large format camera.  So rather than having to switch out cameras on one tripod, I opted to bring two tripods.  I would carry one and my oldest assistant, 14 years old would carry the second, along with extra water and food.  My second assistant, 12 years old, would carry extra warm clothing, water and some food.  The other two assistants, kept the hike lively.

Needless to say, we missed our departure deadline by one hour.  This cut into the schedule in a not so serious way as long as we did not have to make to many stops along the way…however we did, twice for bathroom breaks and once for gas.  As we made our way up the west side of the Sierra Nevada the absence of snow was very apparent and brought nothing but disappointment to my four assistants who secretly were hoping to find snow everywhere, after all it was winter.  Once we did reach an elevation of about 6000 feet we started seeing remnant ice fields from some snow storms in late autumn that have now turned into giant fields of frozen snow.  However to the occupants of a moving car, it looked white, it was on the ground, it had to be snow and the beseeching started. “Please!, Please!. Pleeeaseeeee!!….stop! we’ll do anything, Pleeaseeee!”  Icy patch after icy patch, the crescendo of pleading increased.  We finally reached the trail head at an elevation of about 7700 ft at around 3pm.  We still had close to one hour to reach the summit, I thought we were in good shape.

As soon as the assistants saw the ice fields they rushed to them with all abandon. It only took about 4 slips of the feet out from under them to realize it really was not snow and they came back with both their heads on straight and eyes on the prize of summitting Sentinel Dome.  This ate about 30 minutes of time before we were out on the trail.  The trail to Sentinel Dome is not a difficult one.  Elevation gain is only about 350 feet and it only gets steep once we reach the final ascent on the north side of the dome.  Along the trail there are two locations where Sentinel Dome can be seen completely and it was at the first location that my my youngest assistant, hand in my hand, asks “what is that?”  I replied, “that is the mountain we are going to climb, we are going up to the top”.  Suddenly she says, “Baba, I’m scared”  All her intrepidness seemed to vanish into thin air.  I reassured her that it would be ok.  She insisted that she did not know how to climb a mountain, but I continued to reassure here that she could hold my hand the whole way up and that we were not going to “rock climb”  Somehow I felt she really did not believe me.  Just before reaching the base of the granite dome, she started to give up out of tiredness and decided to just sit there in the middle of the trail.  After a little coaxing I manage to get her to continue.  The other assistants were already ahead of us and once she saw them ascending the dome, my little one suddenly became over exuberant and started after them.

It was as if I had not existed and this mountain was nothing more than a mole hill to her.  They all charged up the dome ahead of me.  I was about 50 feet from the summit, when my second oldest came rushing back down yelling “the moon is rising, hurry take a picture!”.  It was too late of course, I had missed the rising. Rather than trying to scramble and set up the camera on the slope I continued to the top and once there set everything up.  I started with the large format camera while the moon was still relatively close to the horizon.  I set it up, focused, metered and determined the filtering needed to hold the sky back while still keeping detail in the trees now in the shadow of Sentinel Dome.  I planned on using back shifts to create a two frame panoramic.  With this technique, I would only need to focus once and as long as I did not move the rear standard forwards or back, focus would stay the same.  Once I finished with the larger camera, I switched to the DSLR.  I planned out a sweeping panorama using my 80-200 mm lens set at 80 mm.  Even at 80mm the angle of view was quite tight so it required three vertical passes.  I made 36 separate exposures, twelve in three rows.  By the time I had finished all of this, the wind had started to pick up and with it the wind chill kicked in fiercely.  The air temperature was around 40°F and with that brisk wind, possibly 15 mph, the temperature suddenly felt like it was below freezing.

Sentinel Dome and Moon Rise Panoram

Moonrise over Half Dome

My assistants started to complainof the cold and found a small impression on the dome and all huddled in it to shield themselves from the wind.  Rather than risking anyone getting really cold, I packed up and we started down just as the the light was starting to become golden in color.  I sensed that the sky was going to ignite with color however reason won out and we found ourselves on the trail and heading down hill.  Once below the tree line the wind was non-existent and everyone was happy again.  Just before reaching the trial head we crossed over a wooden foot bridge that spans over a small unnamed tributary creek that feeds into Sentinel Creek.  The creek is not more than about 10 feet wide and it was completely frozen over.  The creek was a ribbon of ice meandering through the trees, each cascade, with all its ripples and splashes, caught frozen in time. It was too much for them to bear, they just had to walk out onto it.  At first they did so with an ample amount of care, which slowly eroded away and it led them to only find themselves flat on their backs on the icy surface.  This lasted for about 5 minutes with me bellowing out loud in both laughter and admonition to come back off the ice.

We all reached our vehicle in one piece and with our spirits soaring.  We made a quick trip down to Washburn Point, where I made two more photos of little Yosemite Valley under the light of the full moon and fading dusk light and then it was down to the Valley for something warm to eat before heading home.

Washburn Point at Dusk under Moonlight

Dusk at Washburn Point

On the short trip down to the Valley, we started recounting our hike and realized that my youngest assistant suddenly became the record holder in our clan as the youngest to summit Sentinel Dome, at 5 years old.  Not to be outdone, the others started to boast of their own records.  My next youngest holds the record of most number of times to Yosemite before age one.  He in fact visited Yosemite three times before reaching the ripe old age of one year.  Then my oldest of course holds the record for longest hike as a toddler, 4.5 miles at the age of 4 years.  My second oldest holds the record for many things in our clan none of which are for our outdoor escapades.

We arrived home just over 13 hours from the time we left.  We spent about as much time at 8000 feet as we would have on any of our local outings and yet somehow it was not just another day in the park.  We accomplished something great together, as a unit, and discovered things about ourselves and shared an experience, laughter, and each other.  I think we fell in love that day, with each other, with Sentinel Dome, and with Mother Earth.  I don’t know about  my assistants, but to me I feel like every step we took that day forged a stronger bond between the five of us, a bond, God Willing, that will hold us together for many moons to come. It also has seemed to light a desire in us that keeps calling us back to the mountains.

I encourage all of you to go out and do something epic with someone you want to get close to, as epic as you dare, or perhaps maybe even just with Mother Earth. She just might show you the time of your life and lasso your heart.

Peace.

 

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I Found My Dream Girl

Last week on Veteran’s Day I was not scheduled to teach anywhere as most schools close for that day.  I waited patiently as I watched my online schedule for any last minute additions.  When 6 pm rolled around and nothing showed up, I made a snap decision to return to Yosemite Valley to catch the last bit of autumn color in the Valley.

I gather up my entourage of four kids and packed up a day lunch, water and some warm clothing and we hit the road.  Four hours later we found our selves playing in the remnant snow at 6000 feet elevation around Crane Flat from the storm that passed through a few days earlier.  Once the fingers on my children’s hands had sufficiently numbed we continued on our way dropping down in to the Valley.  All four were now very excited to be in the mountains once again.  As we rounded the bend on Highway 120 leading down to the first view of El Capitan and Half Dome, my youngest son suddenly exclaims, “I have found my dream girl!” With astonishment the rest of the kids look at him in wonderment asking what in the world he is talking about.  I had an inkling about what he meant and then he clarified his statement to the rest confirming my thoughts.

He said “the Earth is a girl right?  We do call her Mother Earth.  She is beautiful. She never complains.  She feeds us and gives us to drink.  And she is always ready to accept us when we want to play.  She is my dream girl”

Well my son, mine too…mine too.

Dream Girl

Dream Girl

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Stripped

I wonder at times about the things in life that attract our attention while we don’t know why they attract us at the time. Sometimes its because of the beauty apparent in what we see. Other times its due to the ugliness. But most of the time its for no apparent reason.

However, as is often the case, understanding something usually occurs after encountering it.  Such was the case with the above photo titled ‘Stripped’.  A barren dead tree snag surrounded by lush green foliaged trees.  I guess what initially attracted me was the starkness of the bare tree.  How its bare branches contrasted against the green.  At the time it held no meaning for me and its graphic nature made me stop and something inside said ‘make a photo’.

Although now, finding myself unable to carry out my business as usual I feel somewhat stripped as well; left unprotected from the uncertainty of the future just like those bare branches are left unprotected from the harshness of the elements.  

Strange is the notion that having the ability to do something somehow imparts the sense of protection or control or stability from unfortunate future events.  Strange how losing a physical possesion effects the intangible spirit.  Strange how in-spite of being afforded every blessing in life from health to loved ones to our daily bread, we still feel bereft if we don’t have money.  How unfortunate it truly is that we attach happiness with monetary wealth.  Especially when we deal with fiat currency - paper has no true value in it – its only worth something as long as everyone believes it does.  Even if the currency was something that had intrinsic worth, like gold, it does not persist.  If we hoard our ‘money’ it is of no real benefit; we can’t eat it, we can’t wear it, it does not hug us or console us with soothing words when we hurt.  And if we do use it, then its gone.  Keep it or not, it cannot preserve us.  Eventually we will expire and leave it behind if it did not already leave us.

I suppose then that it is not the ability to earn ‘money’ that brings us happiness, but the endeavor behind that earning.  When we work as an employee we are paid a wage commensurate with the value of our service.  If what we do is important to others, then we are compensated by them accordingly.  If we work independently providing a service or product to others, we find satisfaction in what we sell when others buy it because we have facilitated ease or utility.  This then has value, and while intangible it still brings benefit to all involved.  Its just that in our age the compensation for our efforts is rewarded monetarily rather than by the transfer of necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter etc…

I photograph the world to share my joy in the beauty that I see.  It brings me great satisfaction when another person finds solace or elation when viewing one of my works.  If it was not a financial burden to produce them I probably would give them away for free, but alas they are not and so I do offer them for sale.  And since we do live in a time where our livelihood is obtained via currency, the photos I sell are also the means by which I provide for myself and my family.  Thus I think being stripped of my ability to bring beauty to others as well as seeking sustenance for myself and those that rely on me, has left me feeling how the tree in the above photo looks.  And until I have the means once again to bring the photos to the world, I have to rely on the world, albeit the virtual one, coming to me to enjoy and purchase one for themselves from this virtual store.

Take care and enjoy what remains of Autumn.

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An Hour with the Moon

It’s been another month. Yesterday I went out to look for the new crescent moon of Rabi’ Al-Awwal, the third month of the Islamic year, the month in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God Upon him) was born. It is a good time. Unfortunately however, the moon was not seen yesterday. The clouds in the sky were thick and only a small window through the clouds was visible for us to look into. Nonetheless, the month has come to an end and today with clearer skies the new crescent moon was easily visible and I had the good fortune to spend about an hour with it as it slowly sank into the western sky.

Rabi Al-Awwal Crescent

Rabi Al-Awwal Crescent

When I photograph the moon I always think to myself, these photos will not be very interesting. The sky looks plain, the moon too thin and I think to myself how great it would be if the sky suddenly erupted in a blush of color. But after I return home and start working with the images, I am utterly amazed at how beautiful the moon is with all its subtleties.

Subtleties of the Moon

Subtleties of the Moon

And then when the color does appear, it makes the moon stand out even more. One of the beautiful aspects of the moon is that it cycles. It always returns to this moment, like clockwork every month. It’s dependable, even if we can’t see it due to clouds or weather or some other reason, it always returns. It’s a promise that you can bank on. At the same time, it, just like everything else in creation is in a state of evanescence. It will vanish just like everything else. Here today and gone tomorrow.

Crescent in a blush of pink

Crescent in a blush of pink

Just like the light that lights the sky vanishes, so to will the moon and everything else for that matter, everything.

However, its only in the absence of something do we realize how important that thing was to us and what a blessing it was. And just when you think that you can’t do with out that blessing, you find that in its absence you can see things that you were never able to see when its brilliance was blinding you. You realize that even though all you can see is a small sliver of its light, its true nature is hidden by the make-up that covers it and in the shadows its true nature is revealed.

The Moon Revealed in Earth Shine

The Moon Revealed in Earth Shine

As the day came to a close and the final photo taken, I realized that no one is an island. Even though the moon tonight was the most brilliant object in the sky, it was not alone and could never be our moon if it was alone. For sharing the sky with the moon was Venus, our closest neighboring planet. Everything in nature has its counterpart – night and day, sun and moon, husband and wife, right and wrong.

The Moon and Venus

The Moon and Venus

One cannot exist without the other. Everything in creation exhibits this quality. And it is only with this very quality can anything be perpetuated. If one side of the balance is upset it will upset the other side as well and send everything into an out of control chaotic spiral downward into destruction – May God protect us from that.

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Euphoria

As a photographer I feel a certain amount of responsibility to record the world as it is. I always looked at what I thought were manipulated photos as somewhat of a desecration. That it was untruthful to portray the world in a way that it was not. I think my first foray with this line of thinking was against those photos that were heavily saturated in color produced by the use of a polarizing filter to make a scene look more enticing than it really was. I have always enjoyed the outdoors and I never saw that dripping off the page color in “real life”. I was satisfied, and in some respects arrogant, in producing the dull and lifeless photos that I knew came out of a camera.

Euphoric Glowing Aspens in Lundy Canyon

Then as I became more serious about portraying the natural world as it “really” is, I railed against the heavy-handed use of the now popular and almost indispensable Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. Used improperly and you could tell that it was a lame attempt to try to make film capture something that it could not. However, when used properly one could hardly tell a GND was used, and the photograph showed a scene that faithfully captured what one’s eye would see. For at this point I had learned that film was limited, it was a poor medium in trying to portray the world as we really experienced it. What I did next shocked my closest confidants; I whole-heartedly accepted and started using the GND. Although now I was branded as a hypocrite, a liar, a fake. I was shocked. Had I created such an environment around me that I had galvanized people into thinking that what the camera and film produced were truth? Had I built around me a glass bubble so fragile that if I tried to grow as a photographer and break through that bubble I would send shards of broken glass at myself as to render me dead? What had I done?

The more I photographed the more I learned that the camera cannot see what my EYES see. The camera cannot feel what my heart feels. The camera cannot smell, hear or touch what my nose, ears and fingers can. As I wandered this beautiful world with my camera photographing I became aware that I was actually being unfaithful to the beauty that I loved so much in my photos.

Even though I was recording the light faithfully, I was not conveying the euphoria that I felt in the presence of that beauty. And thus I embarked on a path of trying to convey the multi-dimensional experience of being out in nature onto the two-dimensional plane of a photograph. What resulted was sometimes very different from the straight record of light that was present. For now, the images transcended into the realm of my feelings. All photographers, as they photograph, are steeped in emotions at the time the shutter is tripped. Recalling those emotions when looking at the resulting photos at times leaves the photographer somewhat let down as the photos appear lifeless. I had to learn to not judge an image until I brought it into my photo editing software environment and apply the standard adjustments – tonal dialation, adjusting contrast and setting color balance – first. Then if it was still lifeless, a number of other adjustments from applying a softening blur or artistic use of dodges and burns to eliminating color entirely and going balck and white. If, after all that, I can’t reproduce a pale shadow of the euphoria I felt at the time I tripped the shutter, then and only then is the image a flop and destined for the trash can, otherwise known as the ‘Round File’.

And thus, you have the photograph that graces this post. A rendition of the euphoric state of my heart as I stood there under these delicate trees as thier leaves shivered in the light breeze and danced among the sunbeams that filtered through them. Maybe I am not a true photographer anymore depicting the world as seen through the lens of a camera, but now, at least now, I feel that I am finally writing with light.

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