Thursday, February 28, 2008

By The Pond

Leah and I visited a number of Buddhist monasteries during our month-long trekking trip in Nepal this past fall. The feeling of peace in those spiritual places was unmistakable. Now that we’re back home in the US, I’m reading books about Buddhism, hoping to learn more, but I’m having to take my reading kind of slowly. This Buddhism stuff is heavy.

Yes, on the face of it, Buddhism is fairly simple:
--Be compassionate toward others.
--Don’t cling to the trappings of everyday life.
--Basically live by the principles that Christianity calls the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.

Beyond the above, however, some of my reading makes me wonder whether I’m smart enough to be studying Buddhism. I literally go through the books with a highlighter marker. I read passages, read them again, then reread them. Some of the ideas make sense to me, many do not. I try to go easy on myself (this is a Buddhist thing--to accept.) Buddhism has been around for two thousand years. I guess I can’t expect to get it overnight.

Buddhism talks about living in the moment. Monks teach lessons like: "When you are chopping wood, chop wood." Meaning, (I guess) "I’m chopping wood today, but not thinking about my meeting with my tax man tomorrow." This in-the-moment philosophy is probably a good thing for a photographer. We can concentrate on what is happening now.

Several days ago I walked past a small pond on our property. A fallen log was floating on the pond, and there was a beautiful lichen, reflected perfectly by the water. Birds were singing and I heard them. Frogs were croaking and I heard them too. But my brain kind of turned the volume down on nature’s soundtrack, and my eyes were all about seeing.

Maybe I had a kind of Baby Buddhist Meditation Moment.
Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much.

One thing I know for sure, I was standing by the pond as I stood by the pond. I'm happy to tell you that I wasn’t doing my taxes.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oh, The Humanity

I had no intention of doing the ride. I wanted to be sure my identity as a non-joiner remained intact.

I went to Bainbridge Island yesterday with my bicycle and my snapshot camera. My plan was to ride around a bit, take a few pictures, then get out of Dodge before the crowds made me crazy. It was the day of the annual Chilly Hilly ride, a springtime bike tour of the island that attracts upwards of 4300 riders of all shapes and sizes, covers 33 hilly miles, but is (I thought) the very pedal-palooza kind of setting I try to avoid in my outdoor activities.

Maybe it’s the 20-some years I spent as a newspaper photographer--often covering major college and pro sports, political campaigns, and other spectacles that involve huge crowds of screaming people--but today when I hear about an event that will draw humongous numbers of human beings, I think “Not for me.” My weekends are spent hiking in the mountains on trails not traveled by others, or bicycling quiet country roads.

Still, I am a “people person” (I wouldn’t have been much of a newspaper photographer had I not been engaged and interested in the lives of those around me.) Yesterday as I photographed the colorful scene of the cyclists, it took about two seconds for me to shed my self-imposed exile from humanity and decide I wanted to be part of that crowd. I wanted to ride along with the young racer dudes, to see how long I could hang onto a spot in their pace line. I wanted to be in the scene and cruise with the street kids wearing tennis shoes, the kids sometimes having to push their bikes uphill. I wanted to give words of encouragement to parents who were pulling children in tag-along trailers.

It was very cool to be swept along in that peddling river of humanity.

And my quest for solitude? Well, that can wait till next weekend.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Spring Fever

The weather has been feeling spring-like here the last several days. As I sit at my computer typing this journal entry, the early-morning sunlight is filtering through the big cedar tree just outside my window. The sun and the tree appear to be playing a game, making shadow puppets on the walls near my desk. Writing is difficult enough for me, and the distraction of the figures dancing on my wall is not helping the words make the long trek from my brain to my fingers and onto my computer screen.

There are frogs croaking outside.
A b’zillion birds are singing.
There is the tap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker.
I've got me some serious Spring Fever.

Mom, can I go outside to play?

Mom, I wanna go for a bike ride!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two Words

Photographers. You just can’t please us. We’re nut-jobs, absolute, certified wackos.

Yesterday was an utterly perfect, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky, mild, spring-like day. Leah and I drove up to the Olympic Mountains to go for a hike, and do you know what (admittedly) ridiculous thought I had in my head? “This day is boring,” I caught myself thinking. “The sky needs some clouds.”

Lock me up in an institution. Throw away the key. I should not be allowed out in a society of normal people. One minute I’m griping that all it does is rain here in the Pacific Northwest. Finally the sun comes out and I have the audacity to wish for something else. And WHY do I wish for something else? Because I see a beautiful, snow-covered peak off in the distance and I can envision a photographic composition, but the scene needs a cloud in the upper right corner.
Is that sick, or what?


Generally when I’m planning a hiking trip, I have one simple rule of thumb that works pretty well for where I live: If it’s cloudy or raining, I seek out a low elevation trail in the forest (overcast light is my friend if I'm photographing in the trees.) If it’s clear and sunny, I go up high in the mountains, or out to the ocean.

Yesterday, on that too-clear day, I would normally have headed to the high country, but Leah cast a strong vote to hike a trail that she dearly loves that is down in the Olympic National Forest. (Married Men: Please join me in saying those two words that make for tranquility on the homefront: “Yes Dear!”
Say it again with me Brothers: “YES DEAR!”

I was happy to have Leah’s good company on that too-perfect day, on that down-in-the-trees trail. There was a warm breeze blowing on us. The sun did filter beautifully through the forest. And by looking carefully, I saw that there were a few fleeting moments when the sunlight was not harsh and contrasty as I feared, but soft and amazing--when the presence of sunlight made for photographs that were actually better than I would have found on an overcast day.

Oh Brothers Who Art Married! I say unto you: There is Mighty Power in the words “YES DEAR.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Morning Chores

I was out in our barn feeding our seven chickens.

“Hellooo Chickens!” I sang in a high falsetto voice (a voice I would not use in public, or even around any creature other than a dim-witted chicken.) I was trying to sound like my grandmother did when I was seven years old and tagged along with her on egg-gathering chores.

As I threw corn out on the floor of the chicken house yesterday, it occurred to me that feeding these birds is an absolutely money-losing proposition. Our chickens are old and way, way past their egg-laying prime. Leah and I pony-up for expensive, organic chicken feed, but might (on a good day) find two eggs in the nest boxes. But we’re soft hearts. We keep feeding the dizzy old dames.

The sheep came into the barn. They know the routine: The chickens get fed, then I put hay into the sheep feeder. The uncharitable thought occurred to me: EVERYBODY out in the barn WANTS something from me! “What’s in this deal for ME?”

Well, for one thing, I shot a couple of pictures yesterday that I kind of enjoy. Standing there in the chicken room, I liked the way our Shetland sheep Sweet Pea looked when I peeked at him through the dusty, cobweb-covered chicken wire. Putting the camera back into my pocket, I went out to give the sheep their hay, whereupon Sweet Pea pushed his face up into my hand. My fleecy friend likes it when I scratch his face in the morning (this too is a part of our daily routine.)

So... in answer to my own question of what I get out of this?...

I receive the trusting friendship of animals, and I get a couple of minutes of absolute peace. It’s a pretty good deal if you ask me.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Seeing Green

I grew up in Ohio and lived there for over 20 years. In kindergarten I learned my alphabet and my colors. I thought I knew the color green.

When I was five, Kermit the Frog was what Crayola might call Puppet Green.
When I was 10, my dad took me to see the Cleveland Indians play. The field at the old Lakefront Stadium was Baseball Green.
When I was 18, I lived in a dormitory at The Ohio State University. On weekends in Columbus my roommates would go out on High Street and drink beer till they passed out. They came back to the dorm looking Sickly Green.

Still, it wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest that I encountered Knock Your Socks Off Green. While my relatives in Ohio yesterday dealt with a temperature of four above zero, it was about 45 degrees and raining here in the Puget Sound region. It’s been raining on-and-off since November, and it will continue to rain through early July. Water--the drip-drip of it in our forests, and the rush of it in the surf along our coastline--is as much a part of our lives here as breathing.

Chlorophyll--the thing that makes plants green--is one very happy camper here where I live. I went hiking yesterday in the Olympic National Forest, about 35 minutes from my house. Though the Olympic Mountains towered above me and are buried in deep snow, the lowland forest where I walked was amazingly green, and (with a bit of imagination and wishful thinking on my part) is already beginning to feel spring-like. There are no Photoshop tricks, no pumping up the color saturation at play in the images you see here. You are seeing Nature’s color palate. You are seeing Knock Your Socks Off Green.

Friday, February 8, 2008


The song went on...and on...and on....
“Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.”

This past fall, when Leah and I were trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal, we camped for several days on a grassy terrace in Namche Bazaar, the largest village on the main trail that leads up toward Mt. Everest. Our tent was very near the shops and trading stalls of the village, and a Nepali merchant had a boom box that played the “Om Mani Padme Hum” CD from early morning until sundown in the evening. Over and over and over, Leah and I heard “Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.” We joked that we’d never get that song out of our heads, and I predicted (cynically) that hearing that song would be one thing we would not miss about the trip experience.

I will tell you today that I was correct that the song took up residence in my brain and would not leave, but I must also admit--with great humility, and a ton of I’m Surprised-At-Myself chagrin--that I realized recently that I missed hearing the actual CD (Leah confessed to feeling the same way.) I poked around on the Web, hunted-down the CD, and bought it.

Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.

I was in Seattle yesterday and I stopped at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. I thought I’d visit the monastery bookstore and maybe look for a book about Buddhism (something I’ve also been thinking about in these days following our trip.) The monastery was closed, but I walked around outside. I pulled my snapshot camera from my pocket and photographed the amazing carved figures that decorate a doorway. I spun the prayer wheels. I have a limited knowledge of Buddhism (I plan to learn more) but I was curious about the apparent incongruity between the scary-looking figures, and the peaceful, meditative prayer wheels.

And, speaking of being curious, if you are wondering about the “Om Mani Padme Hum” song, here is a link:

If you find that the song sticks on your head, the CD is called "Tibetan Incantations/The Meditative Sound of Buddhist Chants."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Anyone who knows me will tell you that, when it comes to photography, I can be borderline obsessive. (Actually, anyone who knows me will tell you there’s no “borderline” about it.)

Take my obsession/paranoia about “Distractions,” for example. While much of the photographic world (and many of my photographer friends) have gone all gaga in recent years over digital imagery, I’ve been a semi-lone dissenter, a film camera holdout. “Distraction!” I shout when my friends talk digital. I twitch. I get facial ticks. I act seriously disturbed. I launch into a crazed-artist tirade about how digital cameras are the tools of the Devil, a wrong-turn off the path we need to travel if we hope to find Clear-Headed Photographic Vision. “Peril will come to he who picks up Satan’s cameras!” I warn, my voice trembling with emotion.

(Well, that’s not exactly how I behave, but I’m not exaggerating much.)

I have been taking photographs for over 30 years, so you might assume that, by now, I should know my craft. Yet every day I pick up my camera--which these days is a digital camera, so don’t rush to pigeonhole me as a complete anti-technology wacko--I’m still trying to stretch, to grow, to see in new ways. My evolution as a photographer is never-ending.

In the Digital Age, the photographer’s evolution as a technician is never-ending.

About two months ago, a friend who works in the photographic industry asked if he could use one of my landscape pictures on the home page of his business web site. He came over to my office and he and I went through hundreds of pages of film transparencies that I’ve shot over the years on hiking, climbing and photographic trips into the Cascade and Olympic mountains. My friend pulled out about a half-dozen images that fit his needs.

I turned on my film scanner so that I could digitize the slides and then burn them onto a CD for my friend. The film scanner wouldn’t work. I had recently updated the operating system on my computer, and my guess was that now the film scanner needed a new driver. I got on the Web and downloaded a bunch of drivers, but the scanner still wouldn’t operate. Though I do shoot quite a bit of digital now, all my old work is film, so I use a scanner fairly often. I went out and bought a new scanner. I spent yesterday setting up the new machine. It works beautifully.

The above problem-solving process with my film scanner (which I managed to drag out into a two-month ordeal, and cost $600 to resolve) had little or nothing to do with image-making. At best, I am becoming a better technician.