Thursday, September 29, 2011

Break in the weather

The shortening days always catch me by surprise. Last week I geared up to photograph an engraving on a limestone outcrop high above Alcove Springs, the famed watering hole on the Oregon Trail, only to find the sun already slipping behind the thicket. My idea was to capture the carving when the light was low so that the inscription stood out in stark relief. As the sun was so low it had all but disappeared, that much of my plan was a success. Everything else was a shock to the system.

Nor did it end there. Several days later a friend roused me from a deep sleep with orders to photograph fog that had settled in the valley. Groggily and not without dire imprecations toward his interruption I dressed and staggered out to the car where the cold froze me in my tracks. The thermometer read a paltry 46 degrees, which combined with my summer attire of shorts and T-shirt, 100 percent humidity and pre-coffee disorientation equaled a chill index of 30 below zero.  

In all fairness I have to admit that I was among the thousands of others clamoring for a break in the heat, and now that it was here I’d have to acclimate myself to the change. Next year, though, I vowed to temper my wishes for a gradual cessation rather than one so abrupt that it takes us completely off guard. Moderation in all things.

The doomsayers and homespun climatologists wasted no time in predicting an early winter. Their reasons loosely fixed on the woolliness of caterpillars, the prevalence of fog in the lowlands and the early disappearance of birds, most of which could be explained through common sense. That the birds left on their southbound migration within days of their normal departure was easily proven through meticulous records. Fog is a common occurrence when the ambient temperature cools to a point lower than that of the rivers. As for the fuzziness of caterpillars, its alleged thickness remains subjective unless verified through measurement and hard data, none of which these declaimers of wives tales bothered to analyze.

The truth is simpler: we get so wrapped up in our daily doings that we fail to see what’s right in front of us. And, sometimes, the shift from hot summer to cool autumn happens at a faster pace, leaving us deliriously dizzy from the effect. I’ve taken to leaving windows open day and night to capture the coolness, necessitating blankets some nights. Facebook friends keep up a running commentary on the autumnal weather, none of whom dare express fears that it’s too early for these temperatures.

Perish the thought. I’m not one for wives tales though many possess a kernel of truth. Whenever I’m faced with those who swear by the old incontestable signs I remind them of the rain crow, a neotropical bird whose song is said to be a harbinger of showers. Several years ago during a particularly nasty dry spell that saw our city enact watering restrictions as ponds emptied and perennial creeks depleted, rain crows were abundant, and abundantly singing. Mating season was in full swing, a fact that probably goes without saying.

From the dawn of time humans have attempted to predict weather. Today’s technology has improved the science of climatology but any scientist worth his salt will admit that it’s still mostly guesswork. Satellites and radar might give us a godlike view of the planet but what happens next relies on forces beyond the reach of instrumentation. The best we can do is draw conclusions from the available data which is probably the same thing oldtimers did with their hirsute caterpillars and dubious ornithology. 

I’m taking it day by day, relishing every cool minute we’re given. The summer was a scorcher that few will miss. Prevailing winds have shifted to the north bringing drier, cooler air filled with the shapes of migrating birds and insects. Already golden leaves are drifting on the wind, mostly from walnuts and locusts. Nights are soft drones of crickets, tree frogs and katydids, and softer silvered moonlight. The sky has turned both paler and bluer, an atmospheric contradiction with no scientific explanation. Days shorten as the sun drifts southward. Colors leach from the fields, greens fade to ochre and dun, grasses lapse into dormancy while the rest of creation emerges from its heat-induced hibernation into a world it had all but forgotten, ephemeral and fleeting, undemanding of anything other than exquisite relief.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Disappearing acts

       Everything changes. Though it’s hardly an original concept it tends to take on a sense of immediacy once the tipping point loosely called middle age is reached, at which time it stirs in the ashes of personal history to rise phoenix-like into the light. Sometimes its appearance is welcome and at others intrusive, depending upon factors barely within our understanding. And while the pace of change is usually too subtle to have any direct impression in the short term, occasionally we’re witness to its incremental advancement in precise, if not disquieting, detail. My face, for example. 

I’m not talking about the accumulation of lines and crevices graven by time and circumstances, but something more pressing, something recent enough to affix a firm date—Sept. 1, early morning—with each day between signaling transformation or, as I sometimes prefer to describe it, degeneration. For each morning and each night I’m applying a topical cream to areas on my face ravaged by the sun, and each morning and each night the cream eats away another layer of skin. My dermatologist ordered treatment for three weeks or until the pain grew too severe, whichever came first. 

It’s not the first time I’ve done it but after the last experiment several years ago I swore I’d never do it again. Vows, however, have a tendency to ambush our deepest convictions with contradictions and inconsistencies, and this was no exception. That I’d told my family in no uncertain terms I would never, ever subject myself to the treatment again only hours before going back on my word at least lends a comedic flair to my about-face. Never say never, we’re told, a lesson I’ve been slow to learn. 

I knew what would transpire, how the skin would turn red and blotchy before shredding into the consistency of raw hamburger, how people would stare, how it would take months to heal. But what surprised me as I contemplated the drastic changes that would take place on the map of my face was how it seemed a metaphor for what I’d experienced the previous few days in New Mexico, surrounded by my past and places once familiar and now estranged. 

Only the past is unchangeable, I’d once thought, and now I realized I had it all wrong. Nothing about the past is fixed. It shifts and distorts and pulls disappearing acts like a magician’s sleight of hand, much as the layers of skin on my face would disappear in the weeks to come. Whatever the past was, or whatever recollections of our past had survived more or less intact, were never exact or pristine. At the end of the treatment my face wouldn’t be as it was when I started, it wouldn’t be better, or younger, or less ravaged, it would just be different, minus some of the cancerous cells and the crusties and the potential for melanoma but otherwise altered by the the effects of time and death-dealing medication. So, too, the past.

My family and I had spent an afternoon at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Cochiti, but nothing about it was the same as I remembered. What was once a favorite picnic and hiking area was modernized, if such is the word for paved parking lots, fee stations and tight regulations on visiting hours. As we hiked into a narrow slot canyon I recalled a night when my wife, then a girlfriend, kicked me in the shin with heavy boots, dropping me as if poleaxed. Her response to what I’d considered harmless fun seemed an over-reaction though in retrospect it was probably deserved. At the time the canyon was split by a single narrow dirt road and the night dark and velvety, sprinkled with stars undimmed by the lights of nearby Albuquerque.

Nothing remained of that place. And when I looked at my parents I saw shadows forming; what I had felt immutable now faded before my eyes. There was frailty where before there had been none. My older brother limped from a knee replacement and my younger brother, always baby-faced, was ruddy and weathered, his red hair frosted in gray. Nor was I who I was or considered myself to be in the split second before looking in the mirror to find a stranger staring back, older and heavier, less sure of himself. My hometown had spread like an oil stain, cancerous to the fragile desert, its once clear skies hazy and choked with smog. If not for the towering Sandia Mountains and the triple dormant volcanos on the western horizon, it could have been anywhere, or nowhere. My familiar landmarks were missing.

And now, looking in that selfsame mirror, parts of my face disappear even as remnants of my past vanished without a trace. It’s not change that we rail against, I thought, but the ceaseless disappearing acts that whittle us away until there is nothing left to do but shrug off this mask and take flight, following the birds into a sky of endless potential.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The fog

        The phone jars us awake. I glance at the clock to see it’s past seven, exceedingly late for me. 

“That’s not a good sign,” Lori mumbles.

It’s Peter. “The fog,” he says breathlessly, as if he’d been running a marathon or under the spell of some enchantment. “The fog, it’s in layers and colors, it’s breathtaking, you have to grab your camera and drive north of the bridge.”

“Okay,” I say. I can barely think I’m so dopey.

“You are awake, aren’t you?” he asks in an accusatory tone.

“Absolutely. I’m an early riser.” Except for today, that is. Today was that rarest of rare events, a chance to sleep in, and I meant to squeeze the life out of every second of it come hell or high water. But not, apparently, come Peter.

“You have to go now,” Peter says. “When the sun rises it won’t be the same. Go. Now.”

“I’m going.” I sit up and place the phone on the cradle. Wan light filters through the blinds. I desperately need coffee. 

“Where are you going?” Lori asks.

“North of the bridge.”



“Have fun.” (Translation: Don’t even think of asking me to join you.)

I clump downstairs, slip into my customary shorts and T-shirt, glance at the face in the mirror. Besides the usual wrinkles, bags and sags, angry red splotches mark areas being treated for skin cancer.  Not for the first time I wonder who stole my face.

I grab the camera and briefly hesitate to weigh taking the tripod, the monopod or the camera bag. Or make coffee. A glance out the window at the growing light nixes each idea. Out the door I fly, and it’s not until I’m halfway down the stairs that it hits me: it’s cold.

Which makes sense. Our local variety of fog forms when cool air settles over warmer water, in this case the Blue Earth River. The thicker the fog, the cooler the ambient temperature. According to the little digital thermometer in the Malibu, it’s 46 degrees. I crank up the heater and head through town.

       The park is wreathed in ghostly tentacles writhing through the chain link fence and bleachers, foaming in an undulant wave over the banks of the levee. The effect is interesting, even beautiful, but hardly reason to leave the warmth and comfort of the bed. I’m building into an energetic rant about too-friendly friends when the town falls away revealing the sweep of the road arcing toward the bridge and the fields below white with masses of vapor reflecting the pre-dawn luminance. Striated into separate bands of varying thickness, each distinct and independent of the other, the conglomerate shimmers and weaves as if directed by conscious thought, less atmospheric phenomenon than living entity. It coalesces along the river swallowing trees and ridges, in places boiling upward geyser-like, bubbling and boiling like stew in a cauldron. 

       I’ve barely time to take it in before I’m across the bridge and climbing toward clear skies. The eastern horizon is aflame with each vale and gully choked in fog glowing spectrally. At a cutoff I whip the car around and descend into the valley trying to determine the best angle for a shot but already portions of the main body have drifted off. What I need is the ability to fly to capture it from above but like the fog I’m earthbound and must remain so. 

Just before city limits I track left onto a gravel road that takes me on a meandering loop into lowlands tall with corn and on toward the grassy monolith of Capitol Bluff. It would be the ideal vantage if not for the absence of roads to the crest, but I’ve an idea now that the ghost town of Irving might prove fruitful so I turn southeast at its base and pick up speed along the railroad tracks. I’m racing the sunrise and losing but all thoughts of sleep have vanished which is at least a blessing. 

The road angles sharply to the south after crossing the tracks, the valley broadening and flattening before being squeezed into a tight chute several miles ahead. To my left the fog roils and fumes and glows silvery bright and the horizon a sliver of gold and peach pinned beneath a turquoise vault. Three deer burst through the brush giving me a minor heart attack before veering off waving white flags of surrender. Gravel pings against the undercarriage as I gun the engine and flash past skeletal bulwarks of center pivot irrigators and shorn fields dotted with hay bales and clouds of meadowlarks, tapping the brakes at the turn and fishtailing to the east. Already the fog has drifted deeper into the river bottom as if purposely avoiding me. I feel like I’m trying to nail down a moving blob of mashed potatoes with a fork.

Past the wildlife parking lot and the grassy clearing denoting the memory of the town that became the inspiration for Baum’s Oz the road suddenly turns rocky and rutted, gnarled trees closing in on either side to form a tunnel beyond which only a white luminance can be seen. I slow the car and navigate my way down toward the invisible bank and stop where the road forks. A riot of color marks the roadside vegetation, sunflowers and thistles competing against purple gayfeather and snow-on-the-mountain and russet grasses tall as a grown man. For all practical purposes the end of the road, impassable by car. 

I’ve come to the wrong place, I realize, a place without an adequate view or strong foreground or anything approaching composition, but time has run out. The sun stabs into my eyes and lifts ponderously above the rim of the valley as birds chatter and sing and the cold seeps into my flesh. As I watch in mute awe a plume of mist churns upward masking the sun, suffusing in an instant the entire valley in a golden nimbus through which the fleeting shadows of birds pass like dark thoughts and the woods fall silent and still. The fog envelopes the fields and rises like a flood to obscure the trees and the wildflowers, gilded now into a radiance both warm and forgiving, each suspended molecule incandescent and luminous, light itself, scintillant and lustrous and dankly wet, here on this rutted dead-end road not just another morning but the dawn of creation.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

One step closer to the unknowable

     Sleep made me awake and the whisky sleepy. Surely that’s coming full circle though I’m left dazed and not a little woozy, midnight passing and me yet chained to the computer. After a week without Internet I’m still spelunking the endless alleyways of cyberspace with thoughts of birthdays and aging and creativity and getting somewhere or nowhere, depending upon my outlook at that particular heartbeat. The aggregate is toward the future, uncertain though it is. This is a relatively new thing seeing as how for most of my existence I was firmly in the Janus camp, two-faced with two pairs of eyes staring forwards and back, though my favorite view was toward the direction I’d come. Scrutinizing the past gets you nothing more than a low-level remorse based on unchangeable events, most of which were far more insignificant in the larger scheme of things than our feeble memories allow.   

I’m still puzzled over a stranger asking if I’d be interested in second shooter position for an upcoming wedding. I said I would but needed more information. My puzzlement lies not in the request but in my response, for wedding photography was never something that interested me. I’m still questioning what I want to be when I grow up, a laughable concept indeed considering the finite number of years left to me. That the wedding fell on my birthday meant nothing other than I’d wanted to do as little as possible that didn’t include cuddling, reading, drinking and eating, in that order.

At my age birthdays are more an excuse for cake and ice cream, also some minor introspection formerly reserved for the final day of the year. While others partied I glued my butt to a chair and hammered out pages of reflection that ultimately did little other than calculate gains and losses. I grew to envy mammals and birds their freedom from self-consciousness but then realized that perhaps their supreme awareness of their surroundings and their place within it was more advanced than our own simpering egotistical efforts, at which time I left off writing in favor of something more practical, like reading a book or going to bed at a reasonable hour. 

Whether from dread or anticipation I’ve started a countdown of sorts without a fixed end position which leaves me floating about in a cloud of uncertainty. Life is what we make of it and how we deal with the cards we’re dealt, not the number of our days. Fortunately I’ve been dealt some good hands and won more than I lost. From here on I suspect losing will be the norm, at least in terms of family members and friends, also health, fitness and that ill-defined concept called well-being. After mowing the yard on our return from New Mexico I realized that for all my efforts at walking straight to keep my body aligned with my knees, I’m still meandering like a crab, not exactly sideways but hither and yon as if my lower legs had differing opinions about the route to be taken. This isn’t a huge handicap though while skirting knife-edge ridges in the San Ysidro Anticline care had to be taken that my legs wouldn’t wander the rest of me off a cliff. Unfortunately it places stress on my hips and a blossoming pain as irrepressible as the morning sun rising above the wooded creek to the east of our house. It dawned on me that someday I’ll be a crippled-up, gnarled old man with fire in every joint and all because of a bad knee. 

As someone who tries to find connections in all things, sometimes to the point of absurdity, I’m afraid, it comes as no surprise that our bodies hinge on connections of the weakest materials: cartilage, brittle bone, atrophied muscles. It probably doesn’t help that in the past year I ate more than I exercised, thanks in large part to the selfsame knee, thus adding to the mass requiring support. I’m often my own worst enemy but seem incapable at learning from my mistakes. Just now I cut myself another slice of birthday cake but not until stifling the interior voices advocating restraint. Being raised Independent Baptist infected my conscience with a prudish, prissy demeanor that finds no joy in living when Old Testament austerity worked so well for Job and the desert-wandering prophets. Screw that. I might have two pieces of cake, and a shot of bourbon to wash it down.

Thinking of the desert and aridity reminded me of our recent traverse across the Great American Desert, a prescient description to be sure in light of the drought. Somewhere in the middle of the Oklahoma panhandle we came upon a tractor dragging a plume of dust, each disturbed particle rising and falling to settle again in the ragged furrows until the agglomeration sifted into waves of sand hammered down by a merciless sun. I slowed to watch and wondered if the reason for the endeavor was more ingrained than purposeful, effort for effort’s sake and none other, neither planting nor harvesting but something else entirely, spitting in the face of adversity, perhaps, or a fatalistic act to stave off madness and despair. And as I watched movement caught my eye, swarms of dragonflies weaving the air in a southbound dash, sprinkled here and there with orange splashes of Monarchs. I’ll fly away, the old gospel hymn, came to mind, an old tune almost forgotten here on this deserted stretch of highway, but not so deserted that for a short moment we were all conjoined, the farmer, the travelers, the migrants, while all around us things were moving, migrating, the wobbling world spinning them off into unknowable trajectories, and anchoring us to this time and place a spray of wildflowers blue as the cloudless sky, and as full of unrealized promise.

The point was further hammered home upon our return when the evening sky darkened with the wings of hundreds of nightjars, swifts and swallows wending their way toward the tropics. Our chimney swifts apparently tagged along for since then the heavens have been deserted. I’m always left slightly bereft at the passage and not a little jealous. Why they get to go and I have to stay proves that life is unfair, but then again I’m safe and cozy in our darkling house, weary though I am.


The wedding fell through, or my part in it, anyway, leaving me the freedom to pursue other avenues. Mine led me to a local school where I watched an artist teach students the technique of encaustic painting, sort of a Photoshop layering using beeswax, brushes and heat guns rather than digital files. Seeing the students create their own works gave me hope for the future of the human race, something I’d not felt for some time but then I’ve been studying the political farce we call government and subjecting myself to online reader reviews, testament to the indomitable witlessness of my fellow Americans. I’ve come to the conclusion that the nation is doomed though it might be my pessimism talking. My timing was off meaning I arrived late for the workshop and had only a few minutes to indulge, but as I turned to leave my eye snagged on five wrinkled canvas aprons hanging on a wall. Something about them was mesmerizing, the interplay of light and shadows, the juxtaposition of rough texture against smooth wall, or maybe that indefinable conviction of seeing beauty in the ordinary and mundane. Without hesitation I lifted the camera and snapped the shutter. 

I didn’t have to look at the LCD to know I had what I wanted, not merely an image but a substantiation. Life is a lot simpler than we make it out to be. I could needlessly complicate my remaining minutes by marking the inexorable ticking of the clock, watching the dissolution of our nation or lamenting the grand migration of our birds, or I could do something substantive, something creative, maybe even something beautiful. Why that escaped me before is anyone’s guess, but here before me was the path I was meant to take. So bon voyage, my feathered friends, and bon voyage my U.S.A., we’ve come to Frost’s fork in the road. You go to your perilous journeys and to your doom, respectively; I think I’ll stick around and make myself useful.