Geologic Scale

Great Fold

It’s rather traditional in photos documenting geologic features to place an object in the frame to provide a sense of scale: a wristwatch, a geologists hammer, a water bottle, whatever’s handy and familiar in size to compare with the featured rock. But sometimes this practice just isn’t feasible, as for instance in the above photo of a fold in metamorphic rocks in the Sierra Nevada.

Perhaps zooming out will give us a better sense. Better, but the feature’s size is still somewhat ambiguous beside the tree:

Fold and Tree

These areas of red and white banded and folded rocks are known as roof pendants. They’re regions of ancient sedimentary layers that were pushed around, twisted, folded and baked when vast bubbles of intrusive magma muscled upward into their midst. The magma later cooled and hardened into the famous Sierra granite. The less durable roof pendants then mostly eroded away, but some hang on here and there.

Zooming out further (and at a different time of day) for better scale yet – now we’re talking!

Folded Stone and Light

Small roof pendants are pretty common in the Sierra, but no other examples compare to the massive and dramatic canyon walls in the northeastern edge of the John Muir Wilderness. The wide view, with full context and, I hope, a proper sense of scale:

Metamorphic Sunset

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Ramparts of the Sierra

Williamson Creek Morning

The giant escarpment where the Sierra Nevada plummet from their crest into the Owens Valley is one of the most amazing mountain walls in the United States. I managed to spend a little time with it up close and personal last summer.

Williamson Buttresses

Though this photo doesn’t begin to do them justice, the canyons coming off Mt. Williamson (California’s second-highest) are amazing. From the summit to the creek at lower left is a drop of over 7,000 feet in 3-1/2 miles:

Williamson Canyon View

These rocks like to keep their hard edges:

Granite Edges

A gentler detail in this forbidding landscape:

Symmes Saddle Sapling

Looking north up the Sierra front into Owens Valley:

Sierra Scarp

As I hiked out, I stopped for a quick breather and saw the moon setting between these granite fins. With no time to set up a tripod before the moon went down, this image isn’t as sharp as I’d like, but I’m fond of it anyway.

Moon Spires

Fall in the Rain Shadow

Fish Slough Autumn

I’ve seen and photographed some bright and lush fall color scenes this season, but the brilliant gold of aspens in the mountains did not resonate for me emotionally this year. More and more, I love the Great Basin desert for its pockets of surprising beauty set in austere surroundings. I saw much “better” expanses of fall color in October, but the only scene which really moved me was this oasis of dry country cottonwoods glowing under the moisture-blocking ramparts of the Sierra.

Runoff

White and Glass

Early 2017 saw record-breaking snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, and by June that began to turn into incredible runoff. Even here on the Eastside, where the waterways are comparatively modest, the creeks and waterfalls were amazing throughout the summer and even into the fall. Even the little Owens River is still running high as I write this in November. As usual, summer flew by all too fast, and as winter approaches I’m looking back and wishing I’d found even more time to spend watching the snow melt.

To me, running water is the real magic of the Sierra, even more than the lakes, sharp peaks and massive granite.

Rush Creek Power

Good News for the Confluence

 

We got some much-needed good news yesterday as the Navajo Nation Council voted 16-2 to reject the appalling Grand Canyon Escalade proposal. I have watched this proposal fearfully and advocated against it for years. It would have turned one of the most beautiful, isolated, biologically significant and culturally important corners of the Grand Canyon into a heavily commercialized, motorized, overcrowded tourist attraction. The proposed tramway and other infrastructure would have destroyed the wilderness and scenic values of a large portion of Grand Canyon National Park, and would have been an affront to both local Navajos and regional tribes, many of whom consider this location highly sacred. I have visited the Little Colorado Confluence numerous times by raft and on foot, and the place stands out for its unique beauty even in the spectacular context of the larger Grand Canyon region.

For background, please see my earlier writing on the Confluence and the Grand Canyon Escalade proposal.

I am very grateful that the Navajo tribal government saw through the developers’ rhetoric. I am left wondering what will come next, however. The Grand Canyon’s east rim will always be a tempting target for such proposals, and I hope that local Navajos will work together with other tribes and conservationists to introduce their own legislative proposals to the tribal legislature so that a more responsible and far-sighted vision of the areas future may be enshrined in the Navajo Nation’s laws.

But for now, it’s time to celebrate a bit! Many thanks to the local people at Save the Confluence, who have been fighting an uphill battle for years now, to the Navajo Nation Council members (16 of them, anyway), to Grand Canyon Trust and all the other organizations and activists who have worked on this!

Solitude Morning

Eel Skeleton

Halloween Wolf Eel

Here’s something a little different from my normal desert Halloween images: a wolf eel skeleton at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Happy Halloween!

Secret Lives of Rocks

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Wandering around Death Valley pointing a camera at interesting rocks is always a good time! Death Valley’s extremely long and convoluted geologic history makes almost anywhere else look geologically simple and sedate by comparison. The strata here have been desposited, metamorphosed, shuffled, broken, bent, folded, faulted, overturned relocated and eroded in almost every conceivable way over the last billion years. This petrified chaos is evident on a large scale in the Gothic outlines of the mountains and canyons, but it shows up plenty in the smaller details as well. One has the feeling that this is what rocks get up to when left unsupervised.

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Alpine Mirrors

Matlock Lake Calm

Photographing the Sierra Nevada has many delights. One of the foremost is waiting lakeside on a calm morning, wrapped in stillness and growing light.

Tree Glow

Total

End of Totality

“You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse…. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card…. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.”
— Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse

Partial eclipses, of which I have seen several, are curious, fascinating and peculiar. A total eclipse is utterly astonishing We saw the bewildering light as the sun dimmed, pale, soft and almost shadowless on the ground as the great shadow approached. We saw sunset light all around the horizons, the Tetons silhouetted ghostly to the east, Venus appearing, felt a late autumn chill descending on the warm August hills. The sun shrunk to a wickedly sharp crescent. But for all that, I was still taken aback at the instantaneous change as the dark of totality struck like a sheet of inverted lightning. The dark seemed to hit with a snap, and the orange crescent above was suddenly replaced with an inky circle rimmed with streaming colorless radiance. The black circle loomed surprisingly large, while the corona appeared vast, its tendrils so arresting that they seemed to cover half the sky. Two minutes of totality seemed to pass in a breath, until a dot of blinding white burst from the top right of the black moon, spotlighted the earth for a moment, then waxed and warmed as the light gradually returned.

To me, these photos stand out from the many others only because they happen to be mine. I’ve already seen lots of better ones, though none which even begin to capture the experience. Honestly, even though I made no serious efforts to photograph this eclipse, I wish I had done even less. Next time, I do not want to give even the smallest instant of thought to my camera during totality, I just want to gaze and be awed.

I was left with a feeling of sadness for the rest of the day, wishing those minutes of totality were twice, five, ten times as long. If you ever have a chance to see a total eclipse, make the effort – all the trouble was easily worth it! I will certainly consider seriously every chance I have to see that sight again in my life.

Black Sphere

Alpine Frogs

Round Meadow Sierran Treefrog

Sierran Treefrogs (Pseudacris sierra) up in the meadows at 10,000 feet in the Golden Trout Wilderness.

Brown Sierran Treefrog