Friday, June 29, 2007


Sometimes my life is so easy, I can’t believe my good fortune. Maybe you know what I mean.

I read the newspaper or listen to the news on the radio and our world seems sick, terminally ill, the turf of madmen. But then I go outside and sit in the pasture with our sheep. There’s no war there, no car bombs are exploding. It’s peaceful. My sheep have grass to eat and water to drink. The sheep come up to me, give me a sniff, breathe their sweet sheep-breath on me.

I think the sheep are lucky because they don’t listen to the news.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not bad-mouthing "The Media." In my (now former) job as a newspaper photographer, I was a cog in the wheel that is The Media. For 25 years I was one of those folks whose job it is to inform you about your world. Today, when I hear disturbing news, I am not one of those who is inclined to blame the messenger.

I do think, however, that there can come a point where perhaps we are too aware of man's inhumanity to man. There can come a point where we're afraid to go outside, to travel to another neighborhood, another country.

There is a lot out there, outside our door, that is scary to us. A friend recently loaned us the book Beyond the Sky and the Earth, where Jamie Zeppa writes about the three years she lived in Bhutan. The author knows from personal experience how fear can cripple us: "We become a prisoner in a room full of what-if."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


There is one very basic and fatal flaw in the concept of me being in charge of the strawberry garden:

I eat too many berries.

The photograph you see above is pretty much the extent of our strawberry garden’s “yield” for 2007. The way-too-tasty strawberries can only be called “produce” if they make it successfully from Point A to Point B--in this case, from garden to house. If, however, the Strawberry Picker (that would be me) comes along during harvest and pops more strawberries into his mouth than into his berry pan, then the garden economy gets all out of whack.

Oh yes, I could make excuses. I could tell you that this spring we pulled out all the plants, tilled the garden, then replanted. I could make a weak case that berry production this year was bound to suffer. The sad truth is this: I ate WAY too many strawberries.

And that gardener with the red teeth and the sheepish, guilty grin? Yes, that would be me.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Simple, or not

Maybe it’s just me, but photographing flowers makes me crazy. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been hiking along in the mountains and come upon a patch of wildflowers. At first glance the scene is so lovely, it seems like all I need to do is pull out my camera, fire off a few frames, and Great Art will be made.

Then the sadistic gods of photography whisper in my ear: “Not so fast, buster. We have ways of making things difficult for you. There is an image here, but you are going to have to work for it. We want to test your resolve. We want to make sure you are worthy. Are you up to this challenge?”

Sheesh, all I wanted to do was take a flower picture!

The possible complications are legion: It could be that, when I get down on the ground and look more closely at the flowers, I see that I’m a few days too early for the blossoms to be just right, or maybe a day or two late. I look through a macro lens and realize that there are bugs on the plants. Or I want to use camera settings that will render the blossom in sharp focus, but then I see that the background is also now in focus, making the image too busy-looking. Most often, though, it is wind that is my undoing--there is a gentle-but-steady breeze coming off the surrounding peaks, and the delicate wildflowers are blowing all over the place.

Yesterday we hiked in the Teanaway River area of central Washington. It was raining when we arrived at the trail head so I opted to carry only a light daypack, rather than schlep a bunch of gear that would only get wet. I left my “serious” camera body, lenses and tripod in the car, taking only my digital point-and-shoot camera with me on the hike. It’s amazing, the images that can be made with that little “toy.” And yesterday, the simple camera seemed to be a way of avoiding complicated problems.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wrong Turn

This has not been a good morning here at our idyllic home in the country. I had to shoot one of our chickens (sadly, this was done with with a gun, not a camera) to put the badly injured hen out of her misery after our two dogs decided to play a game of chase-the-chicken. Normally the chickens can skitter into our fenced pasture or into the barn and out of harm’s way if the dogs decide to play chase. The poor hen this morning skittered right, away from the safety of the barn, when she should have gone left.

Talk about taking a wrong turn...

I’m sure the dogs had no idea that their game could end this way--that there was even a remote possibility they might catch that feathery, cackling bird. I scolded and scolded the dogs, who stood there, looking puzzled, as if thinking:

Well shoot, Homer, the rule book says we chase the hen and she goes left. We go right and nobody gets hurt. The book doesn’t say what we’re supposed to do if she runs the wrong damn direction.

And though the above might sound like I’m making light of this living-and-dying cycle that goes on here on our small farm, I must tell you: Watching an animal die is something I suspect will always--always--break my heart. We moved here to make a life, but somehow, we, like the dogs, neglected to consider the possibility of death.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Where we live it’s considered a very big deal to have a home with a view. The Cascade Mountains--snow-covered and make-you-cry beautiful-- rise up to the east of Seattle. The Olympic Mountains--a more-than-worthy backdrop for a summer sunset-- are to the west. The region is surrounded by sparkling, way-too-blue Puget Sound, and there are picturesque islands, covered with evergreen trees. Put simply, it’s pretty here, and I guess it’s understandable that people want to sit indoors and look out.

VIEW HOME!!! the real estate signs proclaim. WATER AND MOUNTAIN VIEWS!

I had to kind of laugh at myself recently as I worked in the little second-story office I‘ve set up in a secluded corner of our home. The window above my desk faces out on trees--huge, towering cedar trees, the kind of trees Tolkein called “Ents”-- and birds nest in the trees and sing to me while I work. My laughing came from a kind of self-mocking realization that the trees blocked the “view” of the surrounding countryside, yet there I sat, a goofy, blissy grin on my face, a kid in the best treehouse ever.

Views? Hey, I’m a photographer and a visual guy. If I want to see mountain views, I’ve got imagery in my head. My brain can play a cerebral slide show anytime I want, and my office-mates the birds are always willing to supply the soundtrack.

And then there’s my stone. It sits on my windowsill and, truth be told, probably looks like any stone you’d find in a typical gravel driveway, but I’m pretty sure my stone holds Big Magic. A friend, traveling in Nepal, brought me the stone from high in the Himalayas. I can hold the stone in my hand, picture my friend picking it up, putting it in her pocket, thinking “Kurt will get a kick out of this.” I would sooner give up one of my cameras than give up my Himalayan stone.

In another window, in another room, there is a rock cairn, also a gift from friends. Mountain ramblers pile rocks in this way to indicate back-country routes of travel, and the makings of this particular cairn were picked up on the banks a wild, high country river in Eastern Washington. In a state full-to-overflowing with over-the-top scenery, that river is by far one of our favorite places.

We feel fortunate to live here in the trees, and to have friends who give us rocks as gifts.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Proper Names

It’s raining as I write this, the kind of soft, all-day Northwest rain that makes everything so unbelievably green. If we had stuck with our weekend plan for a Sunday-Monday climb of Mt. Adams, we’d be sitting in a wet tent at 8, 500 feet. Instead I’m warm and dry and enjoying hot tea without having to melt snow on a backpacker stove, and I can sneak to the kitchen to see if that Dove Bar is still in the freezer.

Life indoors can be so comfortable.

It’s never easy to call off a planned and eagerly-anticipated outdoor adventure. One can’t be completely sure if yielding to a crummy-sounding weather forecast is prudent, or just wimpy. As I look out my window this morning, I humbly submit that not being on Mt. Adams is okay by me. I cast one vote for prudent.

Not being willing to entirely give-up on the weekend however, we headed yesterday to the nearby Olympic mountains to hike an area known as “The Valley of Silent
Men” -- a place I would want to visit, if only because it has such a cool name. One of the hiking guidebooks I own explains that, in the 1940’s, a college climbing club from Olympia had a tradition of doing trips up a nearby peak named The Brothers. The climbers, beginning their uphill trudge early in the morning through the brooding forest, began to mentally focus on the miles and the effort that loomed ahead of them. They walked along, a column of pensive travelers, lost in their own thoughts. At some point, climbers began referring to this place as "The Valley of Silent Men.”

Climbers and hikers seem to have a gift when it comes to finding just the right words for place-names. If I tell you there’s a peak called “Dragontail,” my guess is that you can visualize that mountain without ever having seen it. Likewise, I suspect you can imagine the look of Ripsaw Ridge, or picture the up-and-down verticality of the peaks in the Picket Range. Washington has a Black Peak, a Red Mountain, and a Yellow Aster Butte. In the North Cascades there is a flat-topped peak called The Chopping Block, and there are scary, severe mountains with the names Terror, Fury, and Torment. Some place-names are fanciful: Kool Aid Lake, Pogo Pinnacle, The Blop, and the Wine Spires.

My favorite place-name, though, is for a mountain between Nepal and Tibet, a peak many know as Mt. Everest. That summit, the highest on our planet, is Chomolongma, which means "Goddess of the Wind."

Friday, June 15, 2007


If you are a woman and you enjoy gardening, I have some advice for you:

Don’t let a MAN come into your garden!

Yes, I’m a male, and I’ll probably get kicked out of The Man Club for divulging Man Secrets. But I am heavy with guilt over my own gardening transgressions, and perhaps some truth-telling will help me begin the healing process. Women Gardeners, Hear This Truth: Your boyfriend or husband or even son will come around while you are blissfully planting or weeding in your garden and he will offer “help.” Before you can say the word testosterone, you’ll be hearing "suggestions," then "advice" on how to do things. Soon you will feel like the Huns have invaded your sacred, goddess space. I make my admission to the above crimes, and plead Guilty As Charged.

Women! Put a fence around your garden now, while there is still time! Vile, smelly invaders threaten your borders!

My own dear wife Leah will read the above and nod her head knowingly. She finally got so tired of me meddling in her garden--offering my based-on-no-knowledge ideas about what we should plant or how we might mulch--that she ceded the territory to me. “YOU know so much, YOU do the gardening,” she said, a remarkable and scary (to me) calm in her voice. It occurred to me later that the poor woman has become resigned to the ways of her vile, smelly life-mate.

And though the garden yesterday gave us wonderful, juicy strawberries, I fear I have not yet been granted a full-time pass out of the doghouse.

“Hostile takeover,” she grumbled as we shared the berries.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Being Green

I do not travel well.

I suspect anyone who cares about the health of our planet knows what I mean. Put an environmentally-aware individual into a car or an airplane and monsters begin to dance in our heads: We know about the tons of carbon our trip is dumping into the atmosphere. Our brains are awash with images of polar bears stranded on melting patches of ice.

I flew to Ohio last week to visit my mother. She’s 80, lives alone, and I felt that making the trip was important. I helped Mom plant flower beds in her yard and I did a few handyman, fix-it jobs around her house. I guess I'm not much of a carpenter because, try as I might, I have found that hammer and nails are ineffective at closing the three thousand mile gap between Seattle and Cleveland.

I flew red-eye. Landing in Cleveland at sunrise, I pulled the snapshot camera from my pocket and photographed the moon and the stunning early morning color I saw from my window seat on the plane. Unfortunately, much of that orange glow probably comes from the sun shining on pollution in the atmosphere.

Like I said, I don’t travel well.

Ohio is a beautiful place. There are fine, hardworking people there, some of them very dear to me. I guess Ohioans are probably the kind of folks political strategists have in mind when they talk about “family values.”

There’s a wonderful old Ohio barn--very bright red-- that my mom and I often pass, but I wonder how much longer the barn will be there. Every time I visit Ohio, I see that more and more farmland now grows subdivisions of houses. Nearly all those houses have lawns, and the hardworking folks are out on rider-mowers, cutting the grass. A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in a hour as 40 late-model cars.

I don’t mean to pick on Ohio. I read recently that in a single day, Southern California’s lawn tools spew out more pollution than all the aircraft in the Los Angeles area.

It ain’t easy, being green. But I know two things for certain: If I cut the grass today, I'll use a reel-type push mower. If I travel today, it’ll be by bicycle.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Keeping Secrets

A map would give the formal, Forest Service name for the trail where we were hiking Sunday, but as far as we are concerned, we were on “Our Trail.” A map would also indicate that we were in the Olympic Mountains, though we refer to them as “Our Home Mountains.”

An easy 45-minute car trip from our house, Our Trail, thankfully, is not one of those areas overused and loved-to-death by hikers. We walked seven hours without seeing another soul. That was wonderful, but a bit unusual. We began to wonder whether there was some calamity in the world that was keeping humans indoors, glued to television sets. Leah wisecracked that, even as we hiked, maybe CNN was breaking-in on coverage of the Iraq War to breathlessly report that Paris Hilton was (again!) being released from jail. That story would certainly keep America occupied.

You might notice that I’m being vague about the specific location of our hike, and this is quite intentional. One day soon, Leah and I will return to hike Our Trail in Our Home Mountains. We’ll both be seeking solitude. Though it’s my hope, Dear Reader, that you too will be out enjoying the peace of some wonderful place in nature, it’s best if you find your own Special Place. You needn’t tell me your Secret Spot, because I’m not going to tell you mine.

If, however, you happen to be a photographer, I will tell you this one thing: Four seconds at f 32 worked for me. Maybe it'll be good for you too.

Friday, June 8, 2007


I have spent a lot of time on Mt. Rainier and I can tell you she is a mountain with more tricks up her sleeve than a bad magician at a 10-year-old's birthday party.

At 14,410 feet, Rainier is a magnet for nasty weather heading toward Washington off the Pacific. A cloud-cap over the summit generally is an indicator that a storm is coming. These "lenticular" clouds signal that day-hikers should head toward the lodge for a burger and a beer. Summit climbers, too high to retreat, would be wise to check that their tents are well-anchored, that their seat belts are fastened, and their seat backs and tray tables are in the upright and locked position. Life is about to get interesting.

Several years ago I was snowshoeing at about the 5,000-foot level on Rainier when an amazing lenticular cloud formed over the summit. The winds up high were apparently so strong that the cloud blew completely off to the side of the mountain and hovered there like an alien spacecraft. This happened right about the time of sunset, so that the cloud took on an other-worldly glow.

The prudent course of action--the burger and beer retreat--was not my choice. I set up my tripod and camera and set to work photographing the light show. If aliens were going to land on Rainier, I wanted to be there to see it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Not Forgetting

Several weeks ago I helped a friend move into a sweet little house she just bought. We moved boxes of books and pots and pans and six or eight framed and matted 20x24 landscape photographs I had given my friend, including the waterfall image above. It was a photograph I'd forgotten I'd shot.

This does NOT happen to me, this forgetting of imagery. Yes, I lose track of where I put my sunglasses or car keys, but my brain is wired in a way that photographs stick there. Paul Strand's image of the "White Picket Fence" is in my memory, and it has lots of good company. I could amaze and astound you by describing the thousands and thousands of pictures archived in my otherwise unremarkble brain. When Leah and I watched the movie Bobby, I waited to see how the movie-makers reproduced Bill Eppiridge's iconic photograph of Bobby Kennedy, dying in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles.

Some words are memorable for me too. The war photographer Robert Capa wisecracked: If your photographs are no good, it's because you are not close enough. And Georgia O'Keeffe said she painted one New Mexico mountain again and again because God had told her that if she painted it often enough, she could have it.

Weird, me forgetting that waterfall.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Labors of Love

There’s a horse barn near where we live. Last year Leah went there a couple of hours each week to muck stalls. This was not a job she did to earn big money. She worked at the barn to be near the horses, and because hanging out at the barn is more Leah’s style than, say, shopping for shoes at Nordstrom.

I tagged along on trips to the barn, not only to visit with the horses, but also to just take it all in--to say hey to the barn cat, Hercules, and to walk around with a camera and play my photographer’s game of what-do-I-see-today? It is the best and most challenging game I know. It is a kind of note-taking, photographer-style.

I like what the writer Anne Lamott says about her early attempts at learning her craft: “I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship’s rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.”

I am amazed and thankful at my good fortune, because I discovered at an early age that a camera --and sometimes words--can record what I see and help me sort it all out. Today I read a news story about a guy who won the Lottery. The guy says he'll continue to go to work at what strikes me as a mundane job. For a moment, I thought that was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Then I realized that maybe that guy simply enjoys his job. I know that if someone handed me a big bag of money, I’d just continue to look for photographs.

One of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver, says “My way of finding a place in this world is to write one. This work is less about making a living, really, than about finding a way to be alive.”

Friday, June 1, 2007

In the West

Thirty-some years ago when I was in college, I had a summer photography internship at National Geographic Magazine. I was a 19 year-old kid from Ohio. At the time I believe a two-hour drive from Cleveland to Columbus was a big deal for me, and it is not an overstatement to say that internship was a window, opening on a new world.

Over time I suppose I’ll write more on this blog about my Geographic experience. Today I’m thinking about how the magazine sent me on assignments in the American West.

I recently made a note of something I liked in one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Bilbo Baggins tells Frodo:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step out onto the road and if you don’t watch your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And here’s an excerpt of something wonderful, written by the poet Mary Oliver:

The way I’d like to go on living in this world
wouldn’t hurt anything, I’d just go on
walking uphill and downhill, looking around,
and so what if half the time I don’t know
what for--

When the Geographic sent me West, I took pictures of cowboys; I bought myself a big, Western-style belt buckle. Eventually I found myself in the Pacific Northwest, where I walked forest trails so green it made my eyes hurt, and I climbed high into mountains where I swear I thought my heart would explode in my chest. And I knew I had found a new home.

It’s funny how a place can resonate within us. I’m still very much a kid from Ohio, but look, Frodo, at where my feet have taken me.