Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Catherine Creek Journal: April 10th, 2012

Two days after Easter and I find myself back at the ponds at Catherine Creek. I hiked to the top of Tracey Hill and down the west side. Now I have time to fill, and the sun, which has been muted and shadow-less for hours behind thin cloud, has burned through. Still a few hours from sunset, but warm, in the sixties, and aside from a sometimes cool and always intermittent breeze, it’s been a fine day.

It’s been very quiet most of the day, and still – silence filled with darting birds and birdsong. Meadowlarks and startled killdeer, black crows and blue jays, buzzards, hawks, eagles – going up Tracey Hill I turned for no reason and a northern harrier swept low across the massive meadow, wings held in a motionless v, and looped around a stand of ponderosa before disappearing from sight. Coming down into Catherine Creek valley, a bald eagle lifted from the ground and perched for some minutes in a tree, then flew away with slow wing-beats when I approached.

I hiked past the bathtub and past the deer-kill I found last March. Not much remains but a skull in the flowers, a segment of vertebra with thick green grass outlining white bone. Hard to believe anything is left of it.

No deer, but sign everywhere: tracks, droppings, paths made for hoofs in the moss and stone. I haven’t been in the right place to see them, I guess, but it’s a warm day and only 6pm. Time yet. Grass widows are mostly gone but other flowers have taken their place. Buttercups are everywhere, alongside oaks toothwort and blue-eyed mary in the duff. There are shooting stars in the hundreds by the Dharma tree, and a carpet of glacier lily in the gully above the arch Yellow and purple desert parsley turn basalt crags and gnarled solitary oak into refined oriental gardens. Hound’s-tooth attracts bees and saxifrage fills the lower meadows, while lupine is everywhere about to bloom, and deep green bitterroot leaves are waiting. A few balsamroot brighten the cliffs.

After saying hello to some hikers near the arch, I didn’t speak again until almost back at the creek crossing several hours later, when I told a circling bee that “I am not a flower.”

Things are drying out and the oaks are beginning to bud. Everything is stirring. Up on Tracey Hill, coyote scat – gray, filled with hair and fragments of bone – lines the trail between labyrinths of gopher tunnels and dirt upturned into patterns like gopher writing.

Another change: above the corral, the ponderosa limb with that unusual growth has died and fallen; no sign of the growth left among the limbs and twigs in the grass. The tree looks healthy.
Almost to the end of this journal. Almost two years… Started at Crater Lake in 2010. Looking back makes me wish I’d written more. It also makes me realize how many miles I’ve traveled, how much I’ve seen, how much there is to come.

Mallards zip by overhead, a pair. Just a chuckle in greeting and they’re gone over the river. A good day for birds.

When I saw the harrier, it was because I felt I should turn around at that exact moment. It was different from stopping to catch my breath, or to look at the view. Irrational, but knowledge nonetheless. How much goes on behind me, when I’m not looking?

My thoughts have ranged up and down these trails with no order. But a natural order, a wild order. It’s a good day to sign off in this volume and move on to the next, with more looking behind and more looking ahead: next weekend, wherever it finds me. But first the drive home, a tick-check and shower, a beer and music while I look through the photos I’ve taken.

I’ll bet none of those photos will do today justice. None of them will last like that harrier on the wing.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Calendar Explained: February

Taken November 15th, 2011. Camera; Nikon CoolPix P100.
f/5.6, exposure time 1/278 sec., ISO 160, exposure bias -1, focal length 76mm, aperture 3


I posted this image online shortly after I took it, and even after cropping and adjusting for its rougher qualities, I still like it. Sunset comes early in November, and despite the pink sky and sunlight glinting in the waves, there was tension flowing through the day. The tide was high and the breakers at sunset thundered against the rocks. Terrible Tilly hovered above a heaving sea, with seagulls and light filling the space between. I remember actually feeling and hearing waves break against the rocks and reverberate through the ground. It felt like any minute the sea would reach in and sweep away the few people on the beach, myself included. As a hiker I love days like this, when nature presents such an impressive and unending emotive and thought-provoking display. The juxtaposition of sea and stone, light and space, and tension and release made for a memorable day, and that hopefully shows in this photograph.


I’ve always loved that Dizzy Gillespie said “I don’t care much about music. What I like is sounds.” His words hold true when translated to any artistic medium, including photography.

Like writing, photography is a method of re-creating experience. A good photograph will do that better than a snapshot, and the way to get a good photograph is to be in the right place at the right time, and to be looking the right way.

This photograph, I remember, didn’t take much effort at all. That’s not actually an arrogant statement. I drove to the coast and walked down the beach. I made myself comfortable and stayed on the beach for hours. I slowed down and grew attuned to what was going on around me. In other words, I did the work and was looking the right way. I only needed to see the photograph before I took it.

I’m sometimes guilty of letting the camera dictate what I see. Before I took this photograph, I spent a long time taking photographs of waves crashing against rocks and splashing high in the air. That time might have been better spent just watching.

Truth be told, I took 250 photographs before this one, and my camera battery was almost dead. When I finally stopped taking so many pictures, my experiences became richer. It took the absence of photography to get this photograph. And after taking it, I only took nine more.

That entire day, I didn’t get a single photograph I liked as much as this one. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Calendar Explained: January

Towards the end of 2011, I put together a calendar for a small number of friends and family. One of them hangs above my desk at work, and recently I flipped the page to April and decided to write about each photograph and the story behind it. This is the first of those stories.

Taken January 4th, 2011. Camera: Canon PowerShot A480
f/3, exposure 1/160 sec., ISO 125, focal length 7 mm, aperture 3.15625
Timing is everything with winter hiking, and I’ve been fairly successful at getting out in January to see the Columbia River Gorge’s frozen waterfalls. It takes a set of cold, dry weather and some traction devices for your feet, but it’s worth it to drive along the old highway and stop at ice-coated falls such as Horsetail and Ponytail, Oneonta and Latourelle. Other falls may be more impressive, but the lower tier of Multnomah Falls under the Benson Bridge has an understated quality. Partly this is because the main drop on Multnomah is so huge, falling hundreds of feet down basalt cliffs spackled with patterns of frozen water. Partly it’s because the main splash pool just above the lower falls is coated with ice inches thick, and freezing spray turns the Benson Bridge into a skating rink. When I took this photo, there was so much ice on the bridge it was closed, and the upper pool was a monochrome definition of winter: black stone, white ice, and bitterly cold wind and spray. The lower pool, however, wore a more delicate, less severe mood, with bright green moss and winter fern adding warmth and contrast to the cool ice and blue water. The patterns of ice were accents, not the main theme, like a piano solo in the middle of a brassy jam: less abstract and elemental, they invited contemplation. Water still poured over the falls and winter still held the water in its grip, but there was melody in the rocky foliage and a note of passage. This photo scarcely captures that, but of all the falls and all the photos I took, this is the one that stands out to me emotionally, although I’m certain that quality is only evident if you’d been there.