Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Field of Schemes

If you plant it, they will come.

That’s the feeling I have about a young Magnolia tree in our yard. The tree is so knock-you-over beautiful--adorned as it is at this time of year with graceful and delicate spring blossoms--I think I should put a sign down at the end of the road inviting folks to come and look. I would not charge admission for this attraction, but suppose I might accept donations.

Better yet, I could invite camera clubs. Photo hobbyists (decked-out in safari vests, three top-of-the-line digital cameras hung like jewelry around their necks)... why, those folks would come. I’d show them where to put their tripods. I’d give them lens and exposure suggestions. I could practically guarantee the visitors that they’d win blue ribbons in their next camera club competition.

“Crass Commercialization” you say?
Au contraire, say I.
For it’s beauty we have here.
It’d be a shame, probably even un-American, not to share it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Family Stories

Today marks the one year anniversary of this online journal. I have posted 140 pieces of text and nearly 300 pictures. As a photographer, the sharing of images feels natural to me. The writing...well that’s another matter. Sometimes the words for the essays come easily, sometimes, uh, not so much. There are occasions when I’m laboring over words and I feel a kinship with Leah’s Uncle Art.

I remember the yarn that, over the years, we have come to call “The Uncle Art Story.”

Part of the lore of Leah’s family, I suspect the story came from Aunt Anne, whose husband Art was an Ohio farmer, a dairyman. This means that Uncle Art not only had the typical farmer worries--whether the field would dry at the right time in the spring so that he could plow; then whether it would rain at the right time after planting so that the crops would grow--but Uncle Art also had to deal with milking. Morning and night the cows had to be tended to. Family legend has it that Uncle Art (and I can picture this happening in a dark Ohio bedroom at 4:30 AM in January when it was ten degrees outside) sat on the side of the bed, trying to find the motivation to pull on his clothes and go out and milk. He sat there and quietly mumbled the words: “Oh shit.”

That Uncle Art would say “shit” isn’t what makes the story memorable to us, but that Aunt Anne would repeat the word... that is funny. (My guess is that in the first telling of this now often-repeated tale, Aunt Anne might well have spelled the “s-word.”)

We remember that Uncle Art was hardworking, cheerful and pleasant. I like to think of people like him when I sit looking at a blank computer screen, when I need gentle encouragement.

Forty-some years ago my dad made the photograph you see above. It’s a picture of my sister, and the transparency that has been passed down to me has taken on the graceful patina of age.

There’s a sweetness to be found in the moments of everyday life. It pleases me that as the years roll by, we have stories and pictures in our families that help us remember.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In Harmony

Our community came together last Saturday for a very cool event, a yearly Earth Day gathering called EcoFest. There was a full day of amazing live fiddle music and singing, and mounds of great food. The primary focus of the festival, however, was found at 30-some informational booths where folks could pick up tips about sustainable living (I was host of a booth about bicycling.) I couldn’t help but be reminded of a number of observations Mahatma Gandhi had made.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

During my 25-year career as a newspaper photographer, I carefully avoided personal activism in politics or other issues I might one day be assigned to cover. I felt it was my professional responsibility as a journalist to be an observer and a documentarian, not a participant.

“To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

Now that I’m a “civilian,” I’m learning to live like a real human being who has freedom to engage in the real world. My bike booth was something I volunteered to organize to help people make cycling a viable transportation option for getting around on a car-dominated landscape. I handed out hundreds of maps of cycling routes; I gave away safety “blinky” lights that I got from the county transit agency, and free bike tire patch kits and lip balm that bike advocate New Belgium Brewery donated.

“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result”

As I brainstormed what my bike booth might offer, I heard about a local company that markets electric-assisted bicycles and scooters. Aware of the reality that not everyone is as gung-ho about riding a human-powered bike as I am, I invited the electric bike company into my pedal-powered tent.

As I strolled around the grounds at EcoFest, I was amazed by all that I saw. There were booths about worms and composting, about native plants, about fish and wildlife. I saw a great horned owl that could not survive in the wild and has been rescued by a local wildlife shelter. I was impressed that so many people were doing so much for the greater good. Again, I thought about Gandhi:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Friday, April 18, 2008


She’s a pest, an absolute pain-in-the-butt pest, but cuter than heck.

My friend Harley needed to be out of town again this week, so he asked if I wanted to milk his mama goat, Heidi. Milking Heidi is easy and pleasant, a kind of meditation rather than a chore. But dealing with Heidi’s kid, Lily, well that’s another matter.

I’m not sure how old Lily is in goat years, but in people years I’m positive Lily is in her Terrible Twos. While I milk patient goat mom Heidi, Lily climbs up on my shoulders. She nibbles on my hat, chews on my glasses. She gambols around in her half-in-control baby goat way, on the verge of tumbling into my milk pail. Then she makes nice: She breathes sweet baby goat breath in my face (this is actually kind of wonderful.)

Oh heck, I hafta admit: Lily is pretty swell.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Access

I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. It’s been nine years--468 weeks--since I resigned my longtime job as a newspaper photographer. Finally, this week, I had a moment when I missed my old life, when I thought (ever so briefly) that a press pass would be a good thing to have.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama was in Seattle. The spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama was here in the Northwest for five days of events organized around the theme of “Compassion.” I would have dearly loved to photograph the Dalai Lama. On the trip that Leah and I did this past fall in Nepal, we encountered a few Tibetan traders in the high Himalayan village of Namche Bazaar (that area of Nepal is but a short distance away from the border with China and Tibet.) The Tibetans were a beautiful, exotic-looking people. I’d like to know more about China and Tibet. Those places are high on my list for future travel and discovery.

I attended one of the Dalai Lama’s Seattle appearances. It felt weird to be sitting in the crowd, in the arena where over the years I have covered--up-close-and-personal-- hundreds of Seattle Sonics basketball games. My place now is among “civilians” rather than in a press area. From where I sat in the arena this week, far-removed from the stage, the Dalai Lama was a tiny speck of a man. I used my pocket snapshot camera to shoot an I-Was-There picture of the Dalai Lama when he appeared on the big TV screen that hangs in the center of the arena. Ironically, my former news photographer colleagues were even farther away from the Dalai Lama than I was. They were using 600mm lenses to shoot their “up close” pictures.

Seeing where the press was, I let go of my Press Pass Envy. Any photographer will tell you: A 600mm lens will never be the best way to get close to humanity.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Zen of Milking

I had just the best Man Week.

I’m a male, age 50-something, and this week I got to do two things most men my age love:

--I sat on my ass, ate popcorn, drank beer, and watched great basketball on television (the Final four championship game was freakin’ awesome, dude!)

--I also got to talk--as the saying goes-- “Like a Sailor.” I got to use the word “teat” pretty much whenever I wanted. You see, a friend of mine who owns a small farm had to go out of town and I volunteered to milk a goat for him. In all the years I’ve been around farms and done farm chores, I’d never milked an animal before. This week I learned my way around a teat. I developed finesse at gently squeezing a teat. Like a Zen Master, I became One With a Teat.

Teat teat teat.

You think handling a teat is easy? I suggest you think again. It took me hours of patient meditation to learn the technique of the teat pinch-off, the teat squeeze. At first I fumbled awkwardly and very little milk flowed. I worried that I would be kicked out of The Farmer Man Club for reasons of teat ineptitude. It was finally my wife Leah who gave me the advice that led me down the path toward a full pail of milk and a contented (and relieved) goat-friend. “Relax,” Leah suggested. “Don’t be so tense.”

Then Leah gave me the best advise of all:
“Try chanting,” she said.

It felt a little weird, chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum” to a goat, but the words worked their magic. I chanted in a deep and guttural Tibetan Monk-like voice, and in no time at all both milk-er and milk-e were bathed in the sweet light of man/animal enlightenment. A veritable jet-stream of milk emerged from the goat’s teat and splashed into the milking pan with a satisfying zing.

I had mastered the teat.
The world was in perfect balance.
Life was good.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


The town where we live has just the best little farm and garden store. It's the kind of place we can take visitors from out of town and they'll gush about how “cute” the store is (and yes, it is pretty darned, uh, cute.)

The store sells hay and farm animal feed, work gloves and boots and straw gardeners’ hats. If I want to buy Leah a simple gift, the store has homemade soaps and candles (you know: cute stuff.)

The feed store is also a kind of gathering place, a resource where people here can go to learn most anything: Who in town is selling a dairy goat? Has anybody around here got firewood they want to get rid of? Who can we get to feed our animals while we’re out of town?

Leah and I went to the feed store last week to buy spring flowers. My job on the trip was to carry the shopping basket, but I occasionally lobbied for the purchase of plants I thought offered photographic potential. Some of the flowers we brought home went into the gardens, others into the baskets on an old bike Leah uses as a kind of decorative planter.

Not long ago I saw a commercial on television, an ad for a credit card available through Chase Bank. “Chase What Matters,” the ad voice-over was telling the viewer, while in the background, rock music by “Queen” was pounding, singing: “I want it all! I want it all! I want it now!” In the storyline of the ad, happiness was to be found in the purchase of a new television set. The TV, of course, can be had simply by choosing the right bank, by using the right credit card.

I look at the flowers Leah has planted.

I see. I know.

We already have what matters.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Census figures report that most Americans now live in cities. If this is true in your case, it’s my hope that you at least have a memory of life in the country--a time in your childhood when you visited an uncle or a grandparent who lived on a farm, when you had cow or horse manure on your shoes and hid from your brother or sister in the tall stalks of field corn.

I think it’s kind of sad when people get so far removed from the food chain that they think that groceries come from a store; that they’d faint if they opened a carton of eggs and found one of them was stained with a teeny-weeny bit of chicken poop.

Some neighbors down the lane from us have a bunch of newborn lambs at their place. Leah and I went visiting the other night to see the sweet little critters, but as cute as the four or five lambs were, our neighbors’ two children were even cuter. They took us on a tour of the Ultimate Cool Secret Spots: a glade in the trees that forms a kind of natural kid clubhouse; a tree that is just perfect for climbing; a swing that can carry a child up into the stratosphere (we got an official demonstration.)

Best of all, the kids invited us to come back. Maybe next time I can try the swing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Barn Picnic

My neighbors Clint and Cindi hosted a barn picnic the other night, a yearly springtime event that gives people around here a chance to set aside shovels, hoes, and other gardening tools, put on clothes that don’t have dirt stains on the knees, and visit, civilized-like. Leah and I walked over with our potluck hot dish contribution of hippie/vegetarian/Buddhist rice and lentils. Our dish took its humble place on a picnic table in Clint and Cindi’s barn, joining real food that others had brought: potato salad, baked beans, roasted chicken, burgers and hot dogs.

As she does every year, our neighbor Sue brought her “Jell-O Shot Eggs,” misleadingly innocent-looking orange and green egg-shaped thingies that are full of rum or liquor. My sense is that over the years it’s pretty well come to be expected that Sue will bring those eggs. If some year she shows up with chocolate chip cookies but no boozy Jell-O, I think many people would joke that the picnic was a bust.

People chat. We talk about how our rural area is changing, how there’s that new housing development going in down the road. We talk about our chickens and how many eggs we’re getting these days, and of course we talk about our gardens and our hopes for good, fresh summer produce.

For most of us though, I think the coolest part of Clint and Cindi’s picnic is the live music. A bunch of the guys have brought their guitars. After we’ve eaten our fill of burgers and baked beans (and lentils?) we head up to the loft of the barn, the guitars come out, and the jamming and singing begins.... Johnny Cash tunes. Old Hank Williams. I think back to that famous scene in the movie “Blue Brothers” where Jake and Elwood go into a bar looking for a gig for their band. “What kind of music do you have here?” they ask the bar owner. “Why we have both kinds,” the bar owner replies, “Country and Western.”