Monument to Emptiness

Seaman Range Storm

Three years ago today, President Obama designated 700,000 acres of empty, obscure country in central Nevada as Basin and Range National Monument. It’s fair to say that many people, even people like me who are inclined to be broadly supportive, found this monument a little perplexing. Even three years on, it’s not easy to get a sense of just what’s out there. A little research will tell you that there’s good rock art, a few mining and homestead sites, some threatened species, an undeveloped cave, probably many fossils, at least one arch, a landscape art project that (we are assured) will someday be completed. But mostly what you’ll find by poring over maps of the monument is a whole lot of empty Nevada.

(Which is not to say that the petroglyphs aren’t good….)

Being rather a connoisseur of Nevada emptiness, I was glad finally to manage a glimpse of the place for myself this spring. The isolation was indeed glorious, with sweeping voids of high desert valleys stretching towards distant mountains, immense silence, no visible human presence besides the unpaved roads. Spring storm clouds and rain squalls emphasized the space and drama. Nameless cliffs and rocky summits in every direction beckoned with the allure of places where no one goes.

Golden Gate Dusk

My time in Basin and Range has so far been brief. But even this flying visit made clear to me that perhaps the Monument’s most important resources are emptiness and space. It is one of the very few protected areas in the entire Great Basin that encompasses the valleys in addition to the mountains. Most protected lands in the region preserve the ranges but ignore the basins. Its boundaries also serve to connect a generous set of interesting but seldom-visited wilderness areas outside the Monument itself. Pahranagat and Desert National Wildlife Refuges also lie close by. Taken altogether, these areas comprise and vast and very beautiful stretch of wild Nevada in which human impacts are barely noticeable.

Penstemon

Despite the very dry winter, a few flowers were blooming.

The appeal of such bare vastness and lack of obvious focal points will no doubt remain lost on many. The emptiness of Nevada is easy to dismiss and take for granted. But consider how large-scale solar and wind energy development are taking over many valleys in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Even land with no valuable minerals and no timber is now a resource merely because it is empty. Like all valuable non-renewable resources, we can expect to have less of it in the future. We should strongly consider protecting more of it as soon as possible before the experience of crossing an array empty valleys and mountains can no longer be taken for granted.

Aldo Leopold famously asked, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” The boundaries of Basin and Range National Monument might have been drawn with this quote in mind. Perhaps in time I and others will explore the Monument enough to find more headline features – gorges, arches, fossils, petroglyphs, curious rock outcrops, all the things that ordinarily justify protecting a landscape. But whether or not we ever find such things in Basin and Range, it will have value as a truly impressive blank spot on the map. I only hope that we will be able to appreciate it.

Coal Valley Glow

 

 

 

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One from the Valley

Cathedral Trees

I recently spent a lovely three days in Yosemite Valley, and returned with my memory card loaded up with…. wait for it…. a whopping 22 landscape images. And almost half of those were of a bird, and didn’t turn out.

I did go out with my camera to see what would would happen. I drove and strolled around the valley at dawn, enjoying the soft light, the bird song, the brief, blessed lack of cars and people. I do not wish to disparage Yosemite Valley, or in any way to imply that its scenery is not achingly beautiful and well worth photographing. But being awed by a place and being artistically inspired by it are not the same thing. Truthfully, I don’t have a real relationship with Yosemite. I’ve visited off and on, both as a child and in recent years, but I visit as a tourist. The knowledge that constitutes a relationship with a landscape, knowledge of its hidden corners, the subtleties of its geology, its unexpected views, its living creatures, the changes of its seasons – it’s knowledge I don’t have over there. For now, I don’t have photographic stories to tell about Yosemite Valley, but strolling by the Merced River that morning, this fact didn’t trouble me. With places as with other photo subjects, it’s just fine to take some gentle walks together before you presume to distill their deepest essence through a camera lens.

For all that, I did come away with this one image. Perhaps because I come from the dry and desert-y Eastern Sierra, one of my favorite aspects the Valley is the trees. The intermingling of the big, spreading oaks and pines with the cliffs and boulders is a form of beauty I just don’t see in my usual territory, and if I were to attempt serious photography in Yosemite Valley, that is where I’d focus (Charlotte Gibb is a master of Yosemite tree photography). In the midst of feeling no need to make images that morning, I noticed the first touch of light on a well-arranged grove of shadowed trees under Cathedral Spires. It was just one quiet, private moment with the Valley and its forests, and it was really all I wanted.

Terminal Flows

Salt Creek Fingers

From my latest article for Mountain Journal:

It’s a striking and clarifying sight to see flowing water come to an end.  A running stream slows, stalls and fades into dry ground, the water simply insufficient to carry on. Living in the Great Basin desert, one can see the phenomenon on both small and large scales.  Small desert creeks sink into sand and shrink from heat, until they are at last unable to cross even one more mud crack. Springs generate pools, greenery and wildlife habitat near their sources, but then transition through boggy mud, sheets of brine, damp ooze and finally dry powder as their waters evaporate on the valley floor….
….In most regions, drainages and hydrologic systems are too large and complex to take in at a glance, but here in the deepest umbra of the western rain shadow one can can stand at the literal end of a stream, see and remember: This much is all we have.

Read the whole thing! Two more previously unreleased images are included.

Full disclosure: In the image above, I digitally removed a sizable dead bush from the stream bank. Moving it physically would have left an unsightly mark, both on the ground and in my photo, so I opted to take care of it in post-processing instead.

Flower Seasons Past

Primrose Shine

It remains to be seen what, if any, kind of flower season we’ll have in the Great Basin desert this year. The indicators are definitely not good (my area just finished the water year with a frightening 19% of normal precipitation), but desert flowers can surprise you. These images also came in the wake of a very unpromising winter (2014-45).

I also wrote down some thoughts on flowers and the subtle charms of less impressive years for Mountain Journal. Check it out!

Indigo Stem

White and Purple

Eureka Valley Endemics

Dunegrass Shadows

Two desert endemic plant species’ protected status has just been downgraded:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that it is “delisting” the Eureka Valley evening primrose and upgrading the status of the Eureka dune grass from endangered to the less-imperiled threatened status.

Primrose Morning

On one level, this is good news. If you read the entire USFWS document, you’ll find that the rationale for the decision is the claim that current protections are basically working. National Park status, Wilderness designation, prohibition of sandboarding, designated campsites and visitor education have greatly reduced disturbances to these species since they were initially listed. I certainly hope that trend continues. One does wonder, however. The dune grass continues to decline, hence its continued “threatened” status. Death Valley National Park has seen surging visitation in recent years, and vehicle incursions into closed areas are increasingly a problem, including in Eureka Valley. Law enforcement (or any Park Service presence) in Eureka Valley is for all practical purposes nonexistent. Though the report dismisses it as a threat, tumbleweeds have been increasing on the dunes every year I’ve been visiting. I hope this delisting does not prove premature.

Dunegrass

Eureka dune grass is fascinating stuff. Hard, tough and pointy, it almost seems more like a thorn bush than a grass. It is likely a relict species, persisting in this one remaining valley long after it is gone everywhere else. Its nearest relatives are found in north Africa.

Solitary Dunegrass

Mineral landscapes and apparently barren areas often receive short shrift. Though sand dunes often harbor rare species and surprisingly abundant wildlife (they are often hotspots for desert rodent diversity, for instance), they appear barren and many people are inclined to assume that anything goes and such places can’t possibly be damaged. They certainly do make wonderful playgrounds for human visitors, but I wish more dune fields in the west would be approached with a lighter touch, appreciated not merely as sandboxes but as ecosystems.

Sand at Dawn

Interview with Mountain Journal

Mountain Journal Screenshot

The online magazine Mountain Journal just published an interview with me. As I tend to, it goes on at some length, but I hope you’ll take a look, read some words and see a few favorite images. We cover my upbringing, photographic background and approach, conservation, the Great Basin and more.

Mountain Journal readers, welcome! Please feel free to say hello in the comments, browse my image collections or follow my work on Facebook.

Mountain Journal publishes lots of other good stuff with a Northern Rockies focus: conservation, sustainability, culture, art, mountain-town psychology, and more. I also plan to do some writing for them in the future. Check ’em out!

I also named a few favorite photographers in the interview. Please take a look at their work and writings!

Late Winter

Winter Above

On a lighter note, it may be months late and much moisture short, but winter has been putting in at least a few fleeting appearances. The snowpack situation in the Sierra and much of the southwest is truly scary this year and is now beyond the point where we can have any real hope of its turning around. But we take what pleasure we can in the smaller storms that have at last appeared. Even disappointing systems in the Eastern Sierra can be very beautiful!

Grouse Mountain Snowfall

Sierra Storm Study 04

Compositing and Honesty

Questions regarding the ethics and taste of digitally composited photos have been a hot topic on the landscape photography internet recently. Issues surrounding manipulation of photographs are as old as photography itself, but this most recent round of discussion was jump-started by this piece by Matt Payne entitled “Pretty Little Lies”. The topic received a boost in relevance coming on the heels of the much-hyped SuperBlueBloodMoonEclipse on Janury 31st, a celestial event that apparently inspired a great deal of heavy digital photo manipulation, and which I photographed myself. A largely justified cloud of suspicion now surrounds eclipse photos in particular, and I too have received some comments indicating that some do not trust my image as a fair representation of the real event. This is a good time to discuss both the particular image in question and my view on photo manipulation more generally.

Regarding my eclipse image, things are pretty simple: it is not a composite, it is not any kind of digital blend and it is in fact a very straightforward representation of the view through a telephoto lens. It was shot at 345mm equivalent as the moon was setting behind the Sierra crest 12-1/2 miles away. The moon was just reaching the end of eclipse totality, hence the brighter light on the left, and I believe that atmospheric haze caused glow. The eastern sky was bright enough before dawn to show detail in the mountain. Processing consisted of only very light adjustments to exposure and white balance in Lightroom; quite frankly, my Photoshop skills are nowhere near up to the task of compositing such a scene, even if I were so inclined!

Split Mountain Lunar Eclipse Sequence

Sequential shots of January 2018 lunar eclipse setting behind Split Mountain, Sierra Nevada.

Split Mountain Lunar Eclipse Before and After

Lightroom screen capture of January 2018 eclipse before and after processing.

The same can be said of my lunar eclipse images from December 2011: they are a single-frame telephoto shots of a sinking partly-eclipsed moon with dawn light illuminating the landscape from behind. My images of the May 2012 annular solar eclipse in New Mexico are similar telephoto views, though in one of them I blended in a somewhat brighter exposure for a little better detail in the landscape. The two shots in that blend were taken at identical focal lengths fifteen seconds apart and nothing was moved or otherwise manipulated. The image is an accurate representation of the sun’s position relative to the landscape at the time of capture. It’s partner, shot three minutes later, is again a simple single-frame image with no fancy processing.

Crescent Sun Sequence

May 2012 solar eclipse sequence – the dark frames were shot through a solar filter, others are unfiltered at different shutter speeds. Images 129 and 132 were blended into my final image.

It’s worth pointing out that these were really not very difficult images to capture. I’ve shot enough eclipses now to have an M.O., and it’s pretty simple: Look out for one that will be low in the sky, spend a little time with an astronomical calculator such as The Photographers Ephemeris considering options, and shoot with a telephoto lens from far enough away that both peak and moon/sun will fit in the frame. Hope clouds don’t interfere. That’s really all it takes – most of the ingenuity behind these shots was in knowing the areas well enough to choose landscape features that would work and having the competence not to mess up the shot in the moment. Any competent photographer could do something similar, so it’s beyond me why someone would feel the need to manufacture such a shot via digital compositing.

Why am I making such a point of clarifying the genesis of these images? It’s very  important to me that my photography maintain a close relationship with the world we live in. The world’s an amazing place full of amazing things, and landscape photography is a means for myself and others to know it more deeply. I strongly believe that nature photography derives much of its power from the unspoken assumption that images depict real places and real events that can actually be experienced. I would not Photoshop wildflowers into barren desert or waterfalls into dry gullies, because doing so would distort the relationships between the land, its creatures and condition, and myself. Eclipses and celestial events in particular are rare opportunities to perceive our place in the universe with one’s own senses, and to modify such an event out of shallow aesthetic ambitions diminishes its power and resonance. (more…)

Eclipse and Split Mountain

As the totality phase of this morning’s eclipse was ending, the moon set behind 14,065′ Split Mountain in the Sierra Nevada:

Split Mountain Lunar Eclipse

Favorites of 2017

Happy New Year! 2017 was a very good year for me photographically. I managed to visit some long-desired locations and I had some fine spontaneous discoveries. Most wonderful of all was enjoying the amazing winter and spring conditions at home in Deep Springs Valley – amazing winter weather and snow followed by amazing spring wildflowers. This is a rather generous collection at 20 images (plus a bonus honorable mention), but hey, it’s my website and it was a good year! Best wishes for all my readers in the year to come!

January: Winter dawn, Deep Springs Valley.

deep_springs_snow_morning_900px

January: Morning of mists, Deep Springs Valley.

Sunrise_on_Fog_900px

January: Deep Springs Valley and Split Mountain in snow.

Split Mountain over Deep Springs

January: Snow-covered desert, Deep Springs Valley.

Storm Shadows

February: Lithograph, Death Valley National Park.

Lithograph_900px

February: Dawn on Walker Lake and Mount Grant, Mineral County, Nevada.

Walker Shoreline

March: Green Gully, Riverside County, California.

Green Ravine

March: Poppy field, southern California.

Purple and Orange

April: Sea to summit, Big Sur coast.

Broken Coast

May: Sunrise garden, Deep Springs Valley.

Sunrise Garden

May: Amargosa River canyon, Inyo County, California.

Amargosa Canyon

June: Ramparts of Mount Williamson, John Muir Wilderness, California.

Williamson Buttresses

July: Glass and white, Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

White and Glass

August: Sierran Treefrog (Pseudacris sierra), Golden Trout Wilderness, California.

Round Meadow Sierran Treefrog

August: Alpine reflection at sunrise, John Muir Wilderness, California.

Tree Glow

Bonus: It would be remiss not to mention one of the outstanding events not only of the year but of my entire life. Though I don’t believe my photo (or any photo) comes close to doing the event justice, the total eclipse in August was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

End of Totality

September: Evening light and metamorphic rock, John Muir Wilderness, California.

Red Slate Evening

October: Snow squall, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Wheeler Cloud Cap

October: Desert autumn, eastern Sierra.

Fish Slough Autumn

December: Towers and shadows, Steens Mountain, Oregon.

Steens Towers and Shadows

December: Dawn light with fresh snow, Warner Valley wetlands, Lake County, Oregon. Though I suspect many will find it rather understated, this image may well be my absolute personal favorite of 2017, a fine gift to round off an amazing photographic year.

Winter Wetlands