It’s that time of year again, when the Southwest burns. Our ongoing, possibly permanent drought makes it even more critical to pay attention to signs like the one above. Many wildfires are started by Zeus and his pesky lightning bolts, but some of the most devastating conflagrations of recent years have been caused inadvertently by […]
I’m sure there are people out there who don’t like watching a campfire, but I don’t think I’ve met any. It can be mesmerizing, staring at the flames as they follow the ever-changing currents of super-heated air, the pulsating glow of the coals underneath, and the sudden shifts of the wood as it is converted into brittle carbon. We love to feed a fire, either tossing small pieces of wood into the coals where they are consumed in a rapid blaze, or adding a log to the top and watching the flames lick at it, tasting out the spots to take hold, heating the sap until it bubbles out and forms an accelerant, and finally caressing the whole log as the ones below fall into the coals.
A healthy fire needs to be open, to allow air to flow through, under, and around, feeding the flames. Properly built, a campfire will burn wet wood through the night even in a light rain. (I witnessed this when I was a Boy Scout.)
I have been purging recently, divesting myself of the accumulated detritus of the past decade or so. I finally got rid of the last of my supplies from the photo gallery I ran from 2010 to 2014. The large format printer is sold, and the frames and matboard given away. I am left with two flat files of prints, the unburnt fuel of a poorly built fire. I have also given away all my canvas and most of my acrylic paints, as I have pretty much consumed all the fuel in that fire. There are some embers left that I may fan at some future point, but the fire will be different. I am clearing out clothing, furniture, tools, and other items which only serve to clog my fire, preventing oxygen flow. As the space in my small home empties out, the flames flicker, following new air currents in different directions, burning new fuels in new colors. The test for me now is to feed this new fire with care, keeping it open and free to explore, yet strong enough to survive the inevitable rain.
The strangest things catch my eye sometimes. Why is there a rectangle on this wall that is a slightly different color than the block around it? I have no idea, and there is no evidence to give me a clue. It provided a nice, subtle composition, though, which pleases me.
I used to say that I came to Tucson for the weather and stayed for the mountains. I love the mountains which surround this city. There was a time when, if I felt down, all I had to do was raise my gaze a couple of degrees, and the Catalinas would raise my spirits. I still love the mountains, but they don’t seem to have the same restorative quality that they used to. Now it’s the little things, like noticing the image above, or looking out my window this morning to see this perfectly lit composition, and running out in my sock feet to take a photo.
Another thing that used to center me in times of struggle was my painting. In many ways, the non-repeating organic pattern that I laid on canvas for 35 years was a mantra. I cheated on it with photography, eventually dumping painting altogether for my new love. Now, instead of creating compositions, I notice and record them. It isn’t cathartic in the same way, and it doesn’t have that instinctively driven pattern/mantra to calm my monkey mind. I am not inclined towards traditional meditation, so I have in recent times gravitated towards the screen. Facebook, Netflix, and Diablo III became the blankets I used to dampen my inner turmoil. None of those was healthy, despite a small portion of the Facebook content being useful, and some of the Netflix programming being worthwhile. They sucked all the time and soul out of my life, so I cut them off, along with my internet at home. Now I come to a coffee shop once a day, get my email, and sometimes make a post here. At home I go to the local video store and rent stuff to watch once a week when they have 2 for 1 rentals. I have a lot more time, so I’m cleaning up my living space, purging hoarded crap, rearranging, painting, and finally making it a place that I am comfortable entertaining in. I’ve been collecting art from my friends over the past couple of years, so my small guest house looks like a gallery now. It’s nice having all their creativity surrounding me.
I am a world class procrastinator. Many of the things I do, I do to avoid doing other things that I probably should do. I write here when I should be working on my novel. Writing here isn’t without its benefits, and it sometimes informs my novel, but it as much a distraction as a discolored rectangle or some pretty shadows on a wall in my alley. At some point I have to get to the matter at hand, whether it be writing my novel or cleaning my house. I’m always glad when I do, but…. SQUIRREL!
This was snapped halfway up Tumamoc Hill in Tucson. The three mile paved road to the top is a favorite cardio workout for many in the Old Pueblo. As you might guess from the contents of the lost and found, it’s not uncommon to meet people pushing their kids ahead of them in strollers. These items were there for a while, evidence that many people only undertake the challenge of the hill once. It is grueling, and requires a particular flavor of determination. I’m not sure if they are there still, because I have been on my own hiatus from the trek.
The image got me thinking about the concept of “lost and found.” In this context, it means something lost by one person and found by another. It is an example of the inclination of good people to be kind to strangers. This is an inclination often overwhelmed by fear when said strangers are actually in our presence.
How often have you sat in your air conditioned car at a light, uncomfortably avoiding eye contact with the hot and dusty person with the sign preemptively blessing you for helping them? This is a person who has lost something as well. It might be a job, or their home to a natural disaster (or medical bills), or maybe their sanity. It could be any combination of the above, each exacerbating the other.
That person on the corner isn’t going to find their job, home, or mind neatly pinned to a line by an anonymous stranger. Chances are, they will never get back what they have lost. This is actually the case with most of the things we all lose. If you are hiking in the woods and lose your way, you rarely find it again. More likely you find a new way to the same destination. Most people who lose a job find another one rather than going back to the one they lost. If you lose a friendship, it is gone. Even if you develop another friendship with the same person, it will never be the same. For better or worse, it will be colored by the loss. As with the trail, you find another path, but to a new destination.
Most of us who experience life-changing loss have support structures in place, family, friends, or the resources to pay a trained stranger to listen to our problems. This is why it is so uncomfortable at that stop light. We know that the person with the cardboard sign has experienced nothing more than what we could easily experience tomorrow, without warning. The difference is that they don’t have the support structure. Often they have given up trying to find what they have lost, and all they are looking for is enough cash to numb their mind, to forget what they once had. Do we want to give a dollar to someone when “all they will do is buy alcohol?” Maybe that is all they have left. Maybe their life and mind are so ravaged that that is the only peace they can find.
I don’t know the answer. I almost never open my window at street corners. I do try to at least make eye contact and smile. Occasionally, when I am flush with cash, I will give a panhandler enough money to surprise them. When I travel, especially in the third world, I buy photo opportunities from the people who ask me for money. I have a lot of portraits of beggars. Interestingly, when I was in Guatemala last year, I had a couple people ask me for money and then walk away when I offered to pay to take their photo.
By making a transaction out of the relationship between the poor local and the (relatively) wealthy traveler, I had lost the connection to their poverty, but I also was trying to help them find the dignity in making an exchange rather than just begging. The people who refused me evidently felt that there was more to be lost by allowing me to take their photo than there was by asking for money. They would assuredly find another tourist to simply give them money.
What have you lost in your life? If you knew you could retrace your steps and find it pinned to a cord, would you go back and get it? Or have you found things because of that loss that have put you on a new path which you are not inclined to leave? Even if you did go back and collect what you lost, do you think it would be the same now, or would you just lose everything you have found since?
I have two drafts in the queue, that I have started and not finished yet. Coming soon.
I ran across this yesterday. It reminded me of one of those old boxes that had a sign on it saying “In Case Of Emergency, Break Glass.” Each one contained a small fire extinguisher. As if a fire extinguisher would help in a real emergency. Somebody made a lot of money selling those things. They probably got them written into the fire codes across the country.
In my imagination, this piece of glass is what remains of the larger piece which shielded a fire extinguisher. If the glass were broken and the extinguisher used before there was an emergency, maybe when there was a little trash can or stovetop fire, it probably prevented a larger conflagration. Once the emergency had set in, nobody would stop to break the stupid glass to spray a little cloud of dust or foam on the flames. They would be running for the doors.
The point is, someone should have noticed when the fire was small, and dealt with it, using the readily available extinguisher.
As far back as the 1800’s scientists began to notice that the Earth was warming, and that carbon dioxide was a major factor. Many saw this as a possible boon to mankind, opening up more of the planet to habitation and farming. It wasn’t until about 50 years ago that we started to realize that the effects of continued climate change could be devastating. We saw that the trash can was smoldering. At that point, we had plenty of time to change our behavior, take out the fire extinguisher, as it were. Instead, we fought over whether to believe the science.
Now, the house is burning around us and we are led by a bunch of fools who deny the existence of the fire. We are far past the fire extinguisher phase. We need a couple of pumper trucks and a fire crew, at minimum.
There are some brave people in Congress proposing that we call the fire department, but they are largely being patronised at best, and ridiculed at worst. Of the herd of people running to be the leader of the free world, only one has recognized that climate change is the crisis of our generation. If it is not dealt with, nothing else will matter. There is only one planet. Jay Inslee doesn’t have a prayer of becoming the Democratic nominee. His support is in the single digits, and you probably haven’t even heard of him. He isn’t my prefered candidate either, but his message is vital. Every single Democrat should be embracing and running on the Green New Deal. We can still put the fire out with only survivable damage, but if we let it burn much longer it will get out of control.
I’m sure there is someone out there who could identify this lizard, and probably tell you where I took the photo (Wadi Rum, Jordan). The lizard’s life is pretty much like any other lizard’s life in any desert on Earth. It eats bugs, gets water when it can, and escapes predators by losing part of its tail, which it then regrows.
It is pure chance that this lizard hatched where it did, in what humans call the Middle East, in a country invented and delineated just a century ago by exiting colonial forces. It worked out well for the lizard. It lives in a sparsely populated area, far from falling bombs and big cities and heavily trafficked roads. Just a few hundred miles north, and it would have been in the middle of a war zone, where humans, also born by chance into arbitrarily designated regional identities, fight over the petrolified remains of much bigger lizards who lived in the jungles which covered this desert millions of years ago.
The lizard doesn’t know how lucky it is. It doesn’t even know that there is any world other than its own small territory. Humans, on the other hand, know. Some of us are lucky enough to be born into prosperous, free countries whose wars are mostly fought elsewhere. Most humans are not. Most humans are born into poverty, war, and bondage of one sort or another. Many of those who, like me, are lucky, believe that they somehow deserve the advantages which have fallen to them. Even I, who acknowledge the good fortune I had to be born here, am not willing to give it up. It’s not my fault that someone is starving somewhere. Or is it? And, if it is, what is my responsibility to act?
The lizard is content to eat bugs and find water where it can. Wealthy humans are content for other humans to eat bugs and find water where they can. There is enough for all of us to eat and have clean water, for all of us to live in comfort. Yet we spend most of our energy and wealth killing one another over the remains of long dead lizards.
Is this a picture of a garbage can? I suppose it is, if you need it to be a picture of something. Or maybe it’s a picture of phone lines? An Alley? To me, it doesn’t really matter. To may people, photography is about subject. See a nice tree? Center it and snap. Want a photo of your friend? Put their face in the middle, tell them to smile, and snap. Visiting Machu Picchu? Stand in front of it, make a peace sign or strike a yoga pose, and have your friend take the pic. (make an image search for “me at Machu Picchu” and you’ll find dozens of these)
There is nothing wrong with this. Often the subject is enough to carry an image. Proving you were at some famous place with a selfie is a time honored tradition from the earliest days of photography.
For me, whether I am photographing Machu Picchu or a garbage can in a Tucson alley, it is all about the edges. I am working within a rectangular frame. The way the lines of the photo exit that frame and interact with it are what make it more than just any photograph.
Remember when you were a little kid, and you would make drawings that were just little vignettes in the middle of the page? You didn’t care about the edges, just the thing you were drawing. Then one day, someone, maybe a teacher, told you to fill the whole page. Draw the sky in, draw the ground, the horizon. Remember how you suddenly felt like a “real” artist? Maybe you don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing with photography. As long as you are only focused on the subject of your image, it will never pass from documentation to art. When Ansel Adams photographed the national parks, he didn’t just find a place where he could see Half Dome at Yosemite, center it, and click. He considered time of day, lighting, and yes, the edges of his photograph. Not just the edges of the frame, either. Any place where two things meet. In my image above, I moved slightly to the right so the prickly pear behind the garbage can wouldn’t quite touch it. I paid attention to how the palm tree interacted with the garbage can too, as it had the possibility of becoming a confusing element. I moved around until all the elements felt right. Maybe you think I was successful, maybe not. It’s certainly not the best image I’ve ever captured, but I like it. I like the way the can relates to the edges of the photo left and below. I like the way the phone and power lines intersect with the frame. I like the little detail of the prickly pear.
Often I try to find a metaphor to use in my posts, some connection between what I am talking about or photographing, and a bit of personal experience or philosophy. I’m having a tough time doing that today. I’ve been having difficulties with my rewrite of my novel as well, and I haven’t taken my camera out to play in a long time. The center of my life is good. It’s the edges that feel off. The connections between things aren’t working. I’ve had some unhappiness recently, and to get past it, I focused on the center, the basics of my life. I need to step back, look at the details, maybe shift my focus a bit off center and find that imbalanced balance of elements that feels right.
My paternal grandparents didn’t always live in Ithaca, NY, but they did for my whole life. We visited twice a year, most years. Christmas, and after our summer month in Maine, around my birthday. The same times I usually visit my own parents now. Taughannock falls is a gorgeous 215 foot spectacle at the end of a flat, family friendly hike. I think I posted pics of it during my trip last summer, when the above was also taken. My childhood memories do not feature the falls so much as the walk there. I loved being able to run out into the shallow streambed between the numerous smaller falls, and walk the flat sandstone, wading occasionally as this child is. It was one of those larger than life adventures that only happen when you are smaller than life. As a child, it’s easy to experience that magic because you are literally smaller, and your worldview is limited to a few years and a small area. As we get older, we tend to do everything we can to shrink our world, settling down in one place, with one job, one house, one vacation spot, and a small group of friends. This makes it very hard to let life be larger than you so you can have larger than life adventures. It takes an effort to find the feeling of a small child traversing a waterfall for the first time. Often we are so concerned with safety and security that we are unable to break the bubble we have made around ourselves and we suffocate slowly.
Break free. Breathe. Run. Play.
Sometimes the Sonoran Desert really does feel like another planet. Well, all the time, if you are paying attention to the natives.
Prickly Pear Cactus are so named because they are, surprise, prickly. When they grow new pads in the spring, however, they do this. The almost mundanely green plant with spines all over it sprouts bright magenta-fading-to-orange pads with rubbery little two-toned green nodules all over them that have tufts of orange fuzz at their base. Somehow those friendly little nodules become vicious spines. I don’t remember ever seeing an interim stage. Maybe it happens over night. It sure does in life. Everything is going well and suddenly spines shoot out and skewer your best laid plans and cherished hopes. Every year when those pretty new pads sprout, I have to touch them. I love the feel of them and the knowledge that I can only run my hand over this plant at precisely this stage. Then, a month later, they have changed, and nothing can touch them except a javelina. I once watched a javelina munch down an entire prickly pear plant, thorns and all, without skipping a beat.
In other alien news, I’m still working on the rewrite of my sci-fi novel, but it’s been difficult to focus on it recently. I’m still distracted by a recent run-in with some unexpected spines where I didn’t expect them. It’s hard to get inside the heads of my characters when my own is so muddled.
I love the Sonoran Desert, in all its fragile, hostile beauty. I will hike in it not just when wildflowers are blooming, but any time. The tenaciousness and resilience of its flora and fauna are awe inspiring. There are many plants that literally kill parts of themselves off during dry seasons so they can survive until the next rain. They they sprout and branch and leaf out like crazy for a couple of months and start all over again.
I think humans do that when they are young. We bounce back from our setbacks, whether they be personal or professional, wait till it rains, and start all over again. Unlike plants, however, there is usually more involved than just water. Sometimes the bits of us that die off don’t grow back, or grow back incomplete. When that happens, we lose some of the benefits from the next rain, and then the cycle repeats and repeats. We adapt and survive, but eventually we stop putting out pretty little magenta pads with rubbery nodules. We go straight to spines. It takes a javelina to appreciate that, and who wants to be friends with a stinky, vicious peccary?