Friday, March 28, 2008

My Playground

There are three major blessings of good fortune in my life:
I live in what I think is one of the most amazing places on the planet.
I have eyes.
I have a camera.

I suspect most everyone, everywhere, knows of the steal-your-heart beauty of the Pacific Northwest. A hiking and climbing friend of mine who lives in Seattle once told me the story of a trip he took to Europe to ski the Alps. He spent a night in an alpine mountain hut in Switzerland where one of the decorations on the wall was a large color poster, a photograph of spectacular Mt Shuksan, 9,127 feet in elevation, here in Washington’s North Cascades.

Washington state offers mountains to climb, untamed wilderness to hike, a wild and rugged ocean coastline to explore on foot or by boat. On the west side of the state you will find lush green rainforest where moss hangs from ancient old growth trees. If you travel east, over the Cascade Mountains, you will find yourself in dry country--desert where sagebrush tumbles in the dusty wind, rocky canyons where you’d better watch your step or risk a surprise close encounter of the rattlesnake kind. There’s something else in that arid landscape you might not expect to see: Miles upon miles (and then more miles) of agricultural land, made fertile by a labyrinth of irrigation canals that carry water down from the mountains.

When visitors from out of town ask me what part of Washington they should see, it’s a tough call. There is SO much here. But more often than not, I direct people to the northwest of the Northwest, to the San Juan Islands. Travel to the city of Annacortes, get on one of the island ferries, and then keep your eyes open. There’s the man-made: picturesque, secluded homes, sailboats, quaint island towns. Nature adds her touches: Evergreen trees cover most of the islands. There are eagles to see and (if you are lucky) Orca whales.

After the Creator made the Pacific Northwest, I’m pretty sure His/Her next day was spent inventing the camera. It's a logical progression if you ask me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Though I am the one who has lately been reading books about Buddhism, my sweet life-mate Leah has taken it upon herself to be the Buddha Police.

Let’s say I happen to lapse into my pre-Buddhist-scholar persona and make a nasty remark...something like: “He’s such a flaming idiot,” referring to the clueless individual my fellow Americans elected to be our Commander-In-Chief. My good-intentioned wife (who has read not one word of my Buddhism books) will lecture me about compassion.

Then this morning I made myself a cup of tea and as I drank it, Leah asked whether I was being mindful of the tea.


Truth be-told, however, I do need (and appreciate) the occasional gentle reminder to practice what I read.


This past weekend I rode my bike to Seattle. I stopped in the Greenwood neighborhood and visited with a Tibetan shop owner who sells beautiful Himalayan folk art: brightly-painted prayer wheels, beads and jewelry, sweet-smelling Tibetan incense. After hearing the news of recent violent clashes in Tibet between Tibetan protesters and Chinese authorities, I’ve stopped at that Seattle shop a couple of times in the past week to chat with the owner, and to learn more about Tibetan culture.

My new friend has taught me two phrases: The greeting Tashi Delek (Tashi means auspicious, and Delek means fine, or well.) He also taught me the Sanskrit word Ahimsa (it means nonviolence.)

In the 18 years I was a newspaper photographer in Seattle, I felt I knew the city, the unique personalities of its various neighborhoods, how to make my way, almost without thinking, from one area of the city to another. These days it seems like Seattle reinvents and re-creates itself almost on a weekly basis. As I cycled 25 miles from the far North End to the City Center, I felt I had entered a foreign land. All the many new high-rise condos, the just-opened, upscale businesses, made me feel tiny indeed.

At the end of the day, I rode my bike onto the ferry and headed home. Sitting in the passenger area of the boat, I probably looked kind of alien: Me in my ultra-bright yellow cycling jacket, my sunglasses with orange lenses, my helmet and bike panniers on the seat beside me. I glanced over to see a sweet-faced child, standing near a mural-sized advertisement. I shot the image you see posted here (I only got one frame, then the child ran off, probably afraid of the weird bicycler-man.)

Looking at the photo on the screen on the back of my digital snapshot camera, I thought:
“That’s me: Small person in a big world.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Good Week

Leah came home from the grocery store the other day practically jumping up and down with excitement. "She’s won the Lottery," I thought... (difficult, if not impossible to do, considering we don’t buy tickets.)

“Something very cool is happening at the Thriftway,” Leah said earnestly. “They’re selling local milk in glass bottles!”

For people like us, the Milk News was big, and apparently Leah and I are not alone in that feeling. The folks at the Thriftway tell us that the milk is selling like crazy and the store can’t keep it in stock...meaning fewer plastic milk jugs going into the recycle bin, fewer paper cartons winding up in a landfill.

Natural, locally-produced milk, sold in glass bottles: Is it a silly, insignificant spit into the environmental wind? ... something only important to a small community of aging granola-head hippies trying to live sustainably? Maybe. But given the choice between cynicism and hope, I’ll choose hope any day.


I was doing chores yesterday in our pasture when our Shetland sheep, Sweet Pea, came to visit me. He was all dressed-up for the Easter Parade with an adornment of tiny pine cones and a dried-up leaf in his fleece (his face was beautifully framed by several strands of his breakfast hay.) I told Sweet Pea he was making QUITE the fashion statement.

Continuing with the Cute Animal theme, my neighbor and friend Harley sent me a note, inviting us to come see the new baby goats at his place. Those big floppy ears are just as soft as my heart was when I took the picture. Believe me, that was soft.

Life is good.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


I think Leah and I are fairly observant people, at least when it comes to the place where we live. Our senses are attuned to the sights, sounds, and smells of the four seasons. These days our eyes see new bloom beginning to show itself on trees; our ears are fairly assaulted by the volume of songs we hear from birds and spring peeper frogs in full-throated voice; and my nose, at least, is aware that spring is here because cedar pollen is in the air.

Still, we agreed the other day that there are things about spring that surprise us, things we’d forgotten. Maybe we’ve spent too much time indoors during the dark, winter season. Maybe our powers of observation have been dulled by the months we've vegged near the wood stove, our noses buried in books.

Today we were bowled-over, thrown for a loop, entertained beyond belief by light. After an all-night rain that raised the water level of our pond by several inches (and probably made the spring peepers happy,) the sky cleared a bit this morning, the sun hit the raindrops that were clinging to tree branches, and all visual hell broke loose. It made our eyes hurt, the way the light laser-beamed around our back yard; it seemed that all the trees were filled with thousands of tiny, wet magnifying glasses, each reflecting light this way and that.

Oh my, it was an amazing sight!

We could see--and we had a deep, gut-level understanding--why the birds and frogs are so off-their-rockers and giddy, why they’re so bonkers and high on the potent drug that is spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Neighbors

My neighbors have been partyin’ lately--the kind of loud, crazy, all-night carryin’-on that makes it difficult for Leah and me to sleep. These wild individuals are fairly new to the neighborhood (I think they moved in ‘bout a week ago, near the time the weather began to get nice.) And as I lay there wide awake in bed and listen to the hubbub outside, part of me wants to open the window and shout at the party animals to turn the volume down on their housewarming revelry (I mean, they’re singin' at the top of their lungs!) Another part of me is envious ‘bout their ability to have a good time.

On top of it all, I think the neighbors might be fornicatin.' Maybe even in groups.

The new neighbors live down near a wetland on our property. Judging by the kinds of woo-ha noises I hear coming from that place (and, like I say, the volume) I’m thinking that the neighbors have a big damn family, and that they’ve also invited all their friends over--hundreds, maybe even thousands of ‘em. This is the time of year (with spring in the air and all) that Leah and I begin to think about sleeping with the bedroom window open just a crack, but no way we can do that. There’s too much party noise outside.

Yesterday, I finally got a look at one of the new neighbors (I even got me a picture of ‘em!) Probably due to his par-tay lifestyle, he looked kinda green and all bug-eyed. I don’t think this guy feels comfortable out among normal people in the daylight hours. I think he’s probably more into nocturnal activities, if you know what I mean.

Thing is, we kinda live out in the sticks, and folks here can do whatever they want.
I’m just sayin’: If this noise keeps up, I might hafta call the Sheriff.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Gift

A friend asked me to take her on a snowshoe trip yesterday to Camp Muir, the lofty perch where most climbers spend their first night if they hope to make the 2-day trek up 14, 410-foot Mt. Rainier. I must admit that initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to do yesterday's hike. In the 30 years I have lived in Washington State, I’d guess I’ve hiked to Camp Muir 50 times. It’s a long, long, slog, beginning at Paradise (elevation five thousand feet) and climbing to Muir (ten thousand feet.)

But... See the photograph above? I am SO happy I did the hike.

I’ve always considered the trip to Muir to be something I can do if I’m feeling like my fitness level needs a kick in the pants. It’s a kind of trial-by-fire day-hike guaranteed to give my lungs a wake-up call. Often, I’ll end the day a couple of pounds lighter than when I started. But I’ve done the hike so often that it unfortunately offers few surprises. Been there, done that. Fifty times.

Still, most photographers who shoot wilderness landscape pictures will tell you it’s better to be lucky than good, and yesterday I felt I was very lucky. Mother Nature served up a beautiful, sunny, spring-like day. My friend and I snowshoed to Muir in a bit less than five hours (not bad, considering every step of the hike was on snow,) and we descended in about half that time. As we returned to Paradise, the weather changed and storm clouds gathered near the mountain. There was also a thin sliver of gold--a fleeting and distant sunset--peeking out just above a gentle snow slope. Mother Nature graced me with a gift--a moment I would not have seen and a photograph I would not be able to share with you today, had I stayed home and spent the day lounging on the couch.

Annie Dillard is one of my favorite writers, and her book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” to me, is yet another gift. Annie Dillard says: “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fuzzy Logic

Garrison Keillor once joked that he had a photographer friend who took “artistic” portraits of people. Keillor said that he knew the images were “art” because they were shot in black-and-white, and the people in the photographs were never smiling.

I think I too might be heading down a path where I could be accused of trying just a wee bit too hard to be “edgy.” I’ve been playing around the past few days, shooting home snapshots of my son Abell's dog, Buddha. I pan the camera during the exposure; I have the flash turned on, so that it freezes part of the image, while the rest is blurry.

To really qualify as “art,” I should probably give these images some kind of gallery-worthy titles--something like “Enlightenment: The Buddha Series” or maybe “Buddha: Reclining Nudes”

It feels a little weird...after 30 years of trying to get my pictures “sharp,” these just-for-fun snapshots are all about fuzzy. As seems to be the case so often these days with my personal (nonprofessional) pictures, I used my Canon SD800IS point-and-shoot. That little toy is nearly always in my pocket (sometimes even when I’m on a professional assignment, using my 5D SLRs.) From that pocket-sized camera comes (maybe, could-be, might-be) “art.”

Monday, March 3, 2008

No Stress

Considering the wired, in-touch, almost-always-working lives we live these days, I suppose most of us have something we do to relieve stress. We sit down with a good book and read, or we cook a nice meal. Some folks veg-out in front of a television, while others go shopping. My wife Leah likes to garden.

Here in the Seattle area where I live, lots of people take sailboats out on Puget Sound and they claim there is peace to be found on the cold, windy water. There are other outdoorsy types around here who go hiking (I am one of those.) Judging by the overcrowded parking areas at some of our local trailheads (those would be trails where I, as an avoider of crowds, would tend not to hike) every-freaking-body who lives here owns hiking boots.

Only once have I met a Seattleite who defiantly claimed she was a non-hiker. Pam was a young reporter at the Seattle newspaper where I worked as a photographer. I vividly remember one day when we were on our way to an assignment and I told Pam what a great hike I’d done the past weekend with my friends. Pam’s snooty, anti-hiking declaration was: “I don’t put things on my back and go walking!”

For three days this past week, Leah and I entertained a friend from out of town who recently graduated from law school. Our friend was here taking the Washington State Bar Exam and, when the pressure-filled test was over, she had one simple request: “Take me to Mt. Rainier!” she said. “I need mountains!”

We threw snowshoes and day packs into the car. We drove up and up and up, parking the car and beginning our hike at an elevation of five thousand feet. We headed for a ridge high above the car, where I’d been before and knew the views would be amazing. I let my friend break trail. She’s younger than I am; plus she had that Bar Exam Angst to burn off. I took pictures as she snowshoed into the distance.

At the end of the day, my friend and I laughed that, yes, we could have gone shopping or watched television, but we were happy we’d put things on our backs (and our feet) and chosen to go walking.