Landscape

Not Quite North Shore

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I am not a surfer, nor am I a surf photographer, but a few months ago I went along with my wife and some of her nieces and nephews to one of their favorite family surf spots.  This spot is just south of the more famous beaches of Oahu's famous North Shore.  The beach here is smaller, more intimate.  There aren't any sponsored surfers or Quicksilver tents, no pro photographers with $3,000 zoom lenses.  Just a few local people taking in the sun and the waves, and me with my trusty Canon.

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For one of my wife's nieces, this was her first time surfing and several of her cousins came along to surf with her and help her find her feet on the waves.  This was a different side of surf culture than what I had previously been exposed to.  This was the familial surf culture--the tradition of wave riding that is passed down through generations.  No one is aspiring to be professional here, at least not yet.  The motivation for getting into the water is more spiritual, more pure, more about getting in touch with the rhythm of the ocean and the traditions of their ancestors.

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Not to say that the pro surfers don't feel the same spiritual surge while in the water--much has been written about how they do--but at this beach on this afternoon, there was no pressure to perform.  There was only sun, surf, and family, which was what I tried to capture most in these photos.

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A New Year, A Barrel Stove, & A Telescope

IMG_2200 New Year's Eve 2013 again found me in the middle of a hayfield attempting to light a fire in freezing temperatures.  But this year, because of the extreme dry weather and fire hazard, we could not build a bonfire.  Instead, we hauled an old barrel stove out to a place in the field where the cattle had beaten the ground to bare earth, and stoked the fire until the old stove glowed.

The stove itself has an odd story.  It originated from the years when the ranch was a fully functioning sheep and cattle operation, complete with cowboys and old ranch hands. According to my dad, one of those ranch hands one day decided that he wanted to have a stove in the shop to warm his coffee in the mornings.  With a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of welding, the old ranch hand turned an empty Standard Oil drum into a fine little wood stove.  Eventually, the old ranch hand moved on and my grandfather retired from cattle and sheep and turned the ranch into a horse breeding outfit.  The shop fell into disuse and the barrel stove became lost under four decades of junk.

But last October, in a cleaning frenzy, I cleared the debris from the shop and found the barrel stove hidden under the detritus--slightly rusted, but still strong.  When we went to build a fire in it on New Year's Eve, we found kindling and newspaper already set.  The newspaper was from 1964 and had a feature story on the trial of Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald.  We burned the fifty year old kindling and saved the newspaper.

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Along with the barrel stove, we brought my telescope with us to search the sky for planets and constellations.  In all my life I have never known a night sky so vibrant as is found in Lake County.  I have seen darker skies with less light pollution and I'm sure at some point I've seen a sky with more visible stars, but none of them had the magnetism of the Lake County sky.  It's as if the stars in Lake County have each been ground down to their most essential brilliance - the brilliance of pure light - and then expertly arranged onto a profound canvas of inky black night.

I used to think I was just biased, as anyone tends to be when thinking about home, but I found that I'm not the only one impressed by the Lake County night sky.  In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon at an abandoned mining town on the western slopes of Mount St. Helena--about fifteen miles from the hayfield where I took this photo--and he described the night as he saw it back then.

"The sky itself was of a ruddy, powerful, nameless, changing color, dark and glossy like a serpent's back.  The stars, by innumerable millions, stuck boldly forth like lamps....  I have never seen such a night.  It seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight....  The nameless color of the sky, the hues of the starfire, and the incredible projection of the stars themselves, starting from their orbits, so that the eye seemed to distinguish their positions in the hollow of space - these were things that we had never seen before and shall never see again." - Silverado Squatters

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(Final photo taken in March 2010)

Stonyford: Final Thoughts

IMG_8983 I took this photo just off of main street in Stonyford.  It is peaceful and serene - idyllic.  But what I have not written about (and what my photos do not show) is the wild and woolly nature of rodeo weekend.  Walking around town I saw people wearing official rodeo t-shirts that read "Do you remember last year's Stonyford Rodeo?"  and then on the reverse side: "Me neither."  Another had the classic Vegas motto: "What happens in Stonyford stays in Stonyford."  For the most part, they were right.

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During the rodeo I watched grown men stumble through the grandstand mouthing off to strangers, their faces red and glistening in an alcoholic sweat.  Fights and scuffles around the rodeo seemed to be ubiquitous; I witnessed young men brawling in the dirt, shoving and hollering slurred vulgarities at each other.

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In many ways it felt like the wild west - a place where the law had no hold.  There was a significant police presence, but it didn't seem to be nearly enough to counter the drunken mayhem.

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My focus in photographing Stonyford was the rodeo itself.  But if I were to go back next year,  I would put more emphasis on capturing the people of the rodeo and their drunken escapades.  I saw so many interesting people - like the old drunk man with the walker who putted around the rodeo with a small Jack Russell Terrier tucked in his shirt and two beers balanced in one hand; or the rodeo clown who got so drunk and belligerent at the bar one night that the sheriff had to come and escort him back to his trailer; or there were the seven or eight young men who stood in the back of their truck pounding Bud Lights and yelling at passing women for what seemed to be the entirety of the weekend - when they finally drove away on Sunday morning they left behind a veritable carpet of beer cans around where their truck had been.   Those people were the true spectacles of the weekend.

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But most of the rest of the year Stonyford is a very sleepy town.  From the turn off the highway it takes about twenty miles of dirt road, and then another twenty miles of patchy, rough, pot-holed blacktop, to get to Stonyford.  It is about as far off the grid as you can get in California and still have access to a bar, a store, and a gas pump (amazingly gas was cheaper in Stonyford than in San Francisco).  And yet, people live here.  They ranch, they wait tables and bar tend at the Timberline Bar, they ride in rodeos. To me Stonyford felt like stepping back in time, but to the locals it's just business as usual.

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Welcome To Stonyford

One weekend every year the tiny Northern California town of Stonyford is overrun by bull riders, bullfighters, bronco busters, steer wrestlers, calf ropers, barrel racers, beauty queens, rodeo lovers, and rebel rousers.  It's the annual Stonyford rodeo and it's the biggest thing to happen in town all year. IMG_9000

With a population right at 250, Stonyford boasts one bar, one restaurant, one tiny community church, and one general store with gas pumps from the 1960's and chap stick on sale for five bucks a tube.  But when the rodeo comes to town (and brings 3,000 screaming rednecks with it) the small arena just off East Park Road might as well be Market Street, San Francisco.

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For two consecutive days this arena is where cowboys make it or break it on the backs of their angry bucking beasts.  Only lasting seven seconds on the bull (instead of the full eight) can mean a difference of several thousand dollars, and one miscue chasing a calf with the lariat can break a cowboy's bank.

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These small town professional rodeos used to be much more common in California; today however, Stonyford is about the only one left.

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Most of the small town rodeos disappeared because people lost interest or the town outgrew its cowboy identity.  But in one case, it was the town itself that disappeared.  Monticello, CA had existed since the early years of the Gold Rush, but in 1958 a government project put a dam downstream and inundated Monticello along with the rest of the Berryessa Valley.  (Pictured above pre-flood - photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)

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Much like Stonyford, Monticello had a small population and drew the majority of its residents and support from ranchers and farmers in the Berryessa Valley.  Also like Stonyford, Monticello hosted an annual rodeo that was a major destination for cowboys and horsemen from all around northern California.  (Above photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)

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Historical accounts of the Monticello rodeo call it "Napa county's largest attraction.  Usually the first rodeo of the season, it drew spectators by the thousands."  But when the dam went in, the homes and businesses were all razed, the trees were cut to within six inches of the ground, and even the graves in the cemetery were dug up and relocated to a hillside overlooking the new lake.  The rodeo was finished.  (Above photo credit: Eftimeos Salonites, courtesy Vacaville Heritage Council)

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The Stonyford Rodeo might as well have been Monticello seventy years ago, only with newer cars, newer music, and a louder PA.

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Tokens of Spring

John Steinbeck wrote that the wildflowers of a Northern California spring were so unbelievable that they were "Almost sinful looking."  That makes sense - especially to a local - considering that much of the rest of the year, except for a few weeks in late April or early May, the landscape is an austere brownish-gold.  So when everything comes into full bloom all at once, it can feel strange and obscene - almost embarrassing. IMG_8643

But perhaps what is most unbelievable about those few weeks in mid-spring, is the sheer variety and volume of wildflowers that erupt.  Hundreds of native grasses, trees, bushes, and flowers go into full bloom.  They are the indicators of the beginning of warmth; they are the tokens of spring.

Above:  Calochortus amabilis, Diogenes Lantern.  Endemic to the mountains and hills of the Northern Bay Area.

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Mostly the flowers are small and fragile, which is why they don't last.  But they are hardy enough to sprout in bad soil, even straight out the rocks.

Above: Dudleya cymosa,  Rock Lettuce

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Above: Eschscholzia californica, California Poppy.  Steinbeck also wrote about these, describing them as "Of a burning color - not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies."

Bitterroot

Above: Lewisia rediviva, Bitterroot.  Common across much of the western United States and British Columbia, the Bitterroot is a perennial bulb that grows and flowers only briefly during the Spring.  It is also the state flower of Montana.

Chemise Lily

Above: We call these Chamise Lilies, though they seem to have several other common nicknames including Adam & Eve, Dogtooth Lily, and Fawn Lily.  They belong to the Erythronium genus of lilies.

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But it isn't just the flowers that come out in spring.  We found pools of water filled with hundreds of tiny swimming tadpoles, and everywhere in the flowers there were wild honeybees, spiders, and ants.  We also found this very large grasshopper sitting in the weeds.

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And up the side of a rocky hill I found this small snake skin, fresh enough that you could still see the eyes.  After a long winter hibernating I'm sure he was happy to get into the sun and shed his winter skin.

I think we were all happy to leave winter behind us.

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