Landscape Photography by A. Jackson Frishman
Since we’re now coming up on a year since I backpacked the most colorful canyon in the Sierra Nevada, I really ought to post my remaining images! Skies were hazy with smoke, as is now to be expected, but the warmth of the haze worked fairly well with the colors of the folded rocks.
A wide view (please enlarge!):
This drainage is truly a unique and wonderful corner of the High Sierra!
To much delight, the monsoon season of 2018 has been strong. We needed it. Last winter simply didn’t happen and our high desert range was looking frighteningly brown and brittle by late June. Our usual late spring flower season also, unsurprisingly, failed to materialize. But in July, the southwest monsoon pattern kicked into gear with the strongest series of thunderstorms I’ve seen in this region. Our highway flash flooded twice, debris flows have afflicted the Sierra Nevada, many local backroads are still closed and will probably remain that way for a while. But the desert right now is beautifully green, and the indigo bush in particular has rallied for a wonderful out-of-season display of purple.
I drove around the valley a few days ago watching lightning on the mountains and the afternoon sun illuminating the falling rain. Between rain, wind and limited depth of field, these images are certainly rather impressionistic. I’ll have to see how they look in print. But the green, purple and wet is a welcome sight after months of brown and dry.
Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon is the northernmost major peak in the Great Basin, and in many ways it is one of the most archetypal of the region. It is highly asymmetrical, with a gently sloping west side contrasted with a massively steep and cliffy scarp on the east, a large block of crust levered into the sky by tectonic forces. It is big enough to cast its own rain shadow, blocking Pacific moisture from the west and causing the Alvord Basin to the east to be even drier than the arid range surrounding it. From the desiccated Alvord lakebed at its foot, it rises over a vertical mile through desert scrub, sage, juniper and aspens up to tundra at its summit, overlooking canyons that once held glaciers. If one were searching for the Platonic ideal of a Great Basin mountain range, Steens would make a very strong candidate.
Given its general excellence and regional importance in a land I’ve been exploring for many years, it’s a little surprising that until recently I had never even caught a glimpse of Steens Mountain. I had tried to visit back in 2002, but a sudden April snowstorm left me driving hours of snowy backroads and dodging frosty pronghorns instead, while Steens stayed stubbornly wrapped in clouds. But last November I finally chose to remedy the situation and make the long drive north to spend a couple days in the mountain’s impressive shadow.
One frustration of this area is the number of private lands which block access to the spectacular east side canyons below the mountain crest. (Access is granted to hunters, but if you’re not planning on killing anything that day, apparently you’re out of luck.) Still, there is no shortage of views, and the various hills, buttes and playas on public land to the east give great, sweeping, lonely looks at the Alvord Desert and the Pueblo Mountains to the south.
The late author Ursula K. LeGuin was a lover of this country and wrote beautifully on the subject:
Out here, there is another way to be.
There is a rising brightness in the rock,
a singing in the silence of the tree.
Something is always moving, running free,
as quick and still as quail move in a flock.
The hills out here know a hard way to be.
I have to listen for it patiently:
a drumming canter slowing to a walk,
a flutter in the silence of a tree.
The owl’s call from the rimrock changes key.
What door will open to the flicker’s knock?
Out here there is another way to be,
described by the high circles of a hawk
above what hides in silence in the tree.
The cottonwoods in their simplicity
talk softly on, as hidden waters talk,
an almost silent singing in the tree
that says, here is another way to be.
The earth’s crust is thin in the Great Basin and hot springs are abundant across the region. But Oregon’s Alvord Desert contains some of the most aesthetically pleasing springs I’ve seen in the region. White crusted pools plumbing unknown depths under a stormy sky, with Steens Mountain rising behind, steam rising in the chilly November air…..
One nearby basin was very active indeed, full of whistling fumeroles and a small bubbling geyser. My night photography abilities are not great and I wouldn’t dare to print this image large, but it was a haunting scene in the northern desert twilight.
It may not be the showiest wildflower out there, but the creamy yellow blossoms of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) bring a beautiful glimmer of life to the high desert. Even in a bad year like this one, when very little is blooming, these perennial shrubs put forth some color.
Bitterbrush is hardy and adaptable stuff, growing from true desert at 3,000 feet up to subalpine elevations at 10,000′, from the Mojave to British Columbia. Its seeds produce a small drop of vivid purple dye, almost like cochineal in its brilliance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Born in New Mexico, raised in Wyoming and Montana, the mountain west has always been my home. I come from mountaineering families on both sides: my maternal grandfather was a pioneering climber in the Sierra Nevada, while my father guided in the Tetons and climbed in China and Nepal. Both my parents guided for Outward Bound. I ran my first river at nine months old, and have been hiking and backpacking longer than I can remember. My other major influence has been my step-father, Stephen Bodio, a nature writer, falconer and traveler, and as fine a family member as I could hope to have.
I studied black and white photography in high school, under an excellent teacher, but failed to apply myself. After high school, I began guiding for ARTA River Trips, and my interest in photography gradually rekindled as I endeavored to share with friends and family my work in the finest landscapes of the American West. Meanwhile, I studied classical literature, philosophy and history of mathematics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 2005. I am currently living with my wife and son in Deep Springs Valley on the Nevada-California border.
Photographically, I travel light and prefer to shoot off pavement and explore unknown locations. My favorite landscapes include the unknown expanses and little-visited mountains of rural New Mexico, the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, and the vast wilderness of Central Idaho. I have also been fortunate enough to travel in Turkey and Mongolia, and can’t wait to do more.