Landscape Photography by A. Jackson Frishman
“Cyprinodon salinus is so very alone in the world. One of its subspecies is restricted to a thin bead of water a few miles long in the best of seasons, the other is exiled to a universe of less than one-half square mile. But measurements…. do not accurately describe the isolation of Cyprinodon salinus. To grasp this solitude it is necessary to sit on a ridge above Salt Creek and look down the long, broad spread of Death Valley, the bounding march of the Panamint and Amargosa ranges plundering the miles, and consider what it means to be so lost in the great sprawl of the Basin and Range country, to have swam into such an aching solitude, the years and sand and salt and vast distance spiraling away from your only home, like the land itself.”
– Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea
There are many wonders in Death Valley, most of them mineral – badlands, canyons, mountains, tortured erosion, volcanic craters, salt, convolutions of rock layers whose arrangements and disarrangements speak of vast time and unfathomable forces. The depth, the heat, the light, the dryness are what we think of when we come to the place to be appalled at its barrenness. The thin veneer of visible life, the plants whose shapes have themselves come to seem quasi-mineral and the animals living their hardscrabble existence in such harsh desert, these creatures inspire sympathy and admiration for their tenacity. But one of Death Valley’s greatest wonders is perhaps its humblest, the one that simply should not be there, could never be imagined in such a place: fish.
The Salt Creek pupfish inhabit just a few short miles of below-sea-level stream where Death Valley’s subterranean water is briefly pushed to the surface by the underlying geology. This small habitat shrinks enormously in the summer, when air temperatures commonly exceed 120F and the creek’s water evaporates rapidly and grows twice as salty as seawater. Their neighboring subspecies, the Cottonball Marsh pupfish, has an even smaller and arguably harsher habitat among brackish pools in the salt pan and lives in 100-degree water in the summer. Some pupfish have been found to tolerate the heat by going without oxygen, respiring anaerobically for hours at a time. Yet each year, a population manages to survive the heat and salt to breed again in the cooler season.
For a creature with such an epic lifestyle, the pupfish are not particularly majestic nor dignified. But they are vigorous and lively, guarding their small territories and chasing mates and rivals with a flitter of blue in water scarcely deep enough to cover their two-inch bodies. In calm stretches of Salt Creek’s clear flow, they hardly seem aquatic at all, appearing to levitate above the desert gravel. When they take a notion to move, they accelerate suddenly, pushing a band of sunlit crescents before them. Though it’s surely anthropomorphizing to think so, one can’t avoid a feeling of joy as they zip about in their small world, unconcerned that 15,000 years of warming and aridity have shrunk their great Pleistocene lakes to a few patches of moisture amid the ranks of stony mountains and scorching basins.
“Once there was more water: giant lakes arrayed like fingers splayed in soft sand, tracking the basins…. It would have been something – to stand above Death Valley and see a lake 80 miles long and 600 feet deep, cupped between the Panamint and Funeral Mountains. Lake Lahontan, Lake Russell, Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, Lake Manly: gone these last 10,000 years, gone with the giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats, gone with the glaciers. The gulls that wheeled above the lakes, the fish that swam through the waters, the snails that crawled amid the algae and reeds – all the creatures that lived with the waters would have gone elsewhere if they were able, or perished, or followed the dying streams into springs and hidden canyons. And in these places the descendants of these refugees have lived on for generation after generation, wedded to the promise of water flowing from the mountains or rising up from the ground, a liquid fossil drifting through thick beds of rock and time.”
– Christopher Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea
Down an obscure dirt road, up a thousand feet of scree, sand and unwelcoming piñon forest, and through an obstacle course of massive boulders, and you’ll at last reach an intimate view of what is surely one of Nevada’s most remarkable rock outcrops. Back in the Mesozoic, as the Farallon Plate subducted beneath the west edge of North America, it sent forth a host of granite bubbles which would eventually form the Sierra Nevada, plus a few further east in the future Great Basin. This one intruded into the convoluted taffy pull of fault-contorted strata that would one day be lifted up to form the Toiyabe Range. The Toiyabes are one of the Great Basin’s more geologically and topographically diverse ranges, and the spires, walls and gorges of this granite-lined drainage form a forbidding scenic climax in the mountains’ eastern flank.
My visit to the area coincided with one of the many pulses of Pacific moisture that have been giving our region an unusually wet May, welcome moisture and consolation after a historically dismal, precipitation-free winter. I scouted a trailless path to promising views surrounded by mist and rain squalls, and went to bed with high hopes for a dramatic sunrise, but as I started uphill in the early dark I saw nothing but thick clouds. I hoped for a break to the east at dawn which never materialized. At last, forty minutes after sunrise, a few pale beams managed to break through the gray. It was not the light I hoped would complement such a landscape, but it was something. I’ll be wishing for better luck on future visits.
Once the chance of dawn light was well and truly over, I picked my way downhill into the maze in hope of reaching the creek. Rumor has it that people occasionally climb these formations, and I was hoping I might stumble upon an informal trail to ease the way. If any such paths exist, I didn’t find them. But I did make my way down to a beautiful stretch of creek where the small stream threaded its way over waterfalls in a gorge of polished granite slickrock.
The riparian trees were glowing spring green, and flowers and moss formed miniature gardens below the massive walls and brush-choked slopes, without the slightest sign of human visitation.
This is why I love Nevada. The state can often appear to be nothing more than unending desert and sage with nondescript arid ranges marching to the horizon; in truth, that aspect of the landscape appeals to me. But the outcrops of fantastic geology, the hidden pockets of lushness and water tucked away among innumerable mountains, these isolated treasures bring life and magic to the vast spaces. They evoke ecologic memories of Pleistocene lakes and ice, whispers of the expanse of geologic time, and their intimacy and rarity make the endless ridges and basins of their surroundings seem to spread even wider. Emerging from the granite maze, the sweep of the Toiyabe front stretches away as the clouds brush the peaks, a breath of moisture blowing east through the empty land.
We had the pleasure of awaking yesterday morning to three inches of snow in the yard, only a moderate number of broken tree branches, and flakes still falling. Though hardly an epic storm, this was the biggest snowfall we’ve seen in 14 months. It’s all melted off below 10,000 feet now, but the ground got good and damp and the air was full of the herbaceous smells of wet desert.
My ambitions did not extend beyond a casual ramble in the White Mountain foothills, but it was a delight to taste a little bit of winter.
The folks who worked this mine above Eureka Valley had an amazing vista, but they must have suffered through some dismal weather. I was nearly blown off the mountain yesterday, timing shots between gusts of wind, until distant lightning sent me packing for lower ground. But the giant clouds of sand blowing into a hidden arm of the valley below added some fine drama to an already dramatic view.
Surprisingly, the main Eureka Dunes seemed unruffled.
Last Saturday was branding day at Deep Springs. The calves seemed a bit feistier than last year, which resulted in lots of noise, copious clouds of dust, and some great cowboy action shots. The ropers were three friends who ranch near Lone Pine, CA, while the Deep Springs students and staff provided the calf wrestling, vaccinating, ear tagging, branding and other unmentionable services.
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.