In The Skinning Room

In the old barn down the hill from the ranch house where I grew up, there is a room that once, a long time ago, was used to milk cows.  The floor is concrete and has a long low trough that runs down the length of the room to a drain, so that everything could be hosed down after the milking was through.  Along the side of the room there is a row of stanchions, which were used to lock in the heads of the cattle as they were milked.  

But it has been fifty years since a cow has been milked here.  These days the stanchions serve as a convenient rack on which to hang several years worth of deer antlers, and the trough has, for as long as I can remember, only drained blood from the many bucks my family has skinned here over the years.

In my family you could say that deer hunting isn't so much a tradition as it is a rite.  Some ancestor of mine has been hunting the hills of northern California ever since my great-great-great-grandfather first came over from Kentucky in 1840.  And similarly, some member of my family has been skinning bucks in the disused milking room of the old barn since the early 1940s, when my grandfather first came to live at what is now our family's ranch.

So, when I grabbed my camera the evening after my older brother shot this forked horn, I knew I wanted to try to capture something of the timelessness that we feel when we set about skinning a buck and getting it ready to butcher.  It's hard, dirty work, but it also feels natural.  At least, it feels natural to me.  

There is something primal in the act of skinning an animal you've just killed--something bloody and horrible but also necessary and correct.  Every year that we kill a buck and bring it back to the skinning room my dad tells us how, when he was still too young to hunt and his father and uncles would bring home a buck, he'd run to the skinning room and start skinning the buck for them while they had drinks up at the house.  I can remember myself standing in the skinning room as an eight year old, watching in awe as my older brothers peeled the skin from off the deer, transforming it from animal to meat.

With these photos I wanted to show that this is what my family has done for generations, and we continue to do it year after year.  It is something that I can count on, something that connects me not only to my past, but also to the natural world that I live in.  It is the liturgy of the California Deer Hunter.

Praying Mantis

This praying mantis is eating a yellow jacket.  Eating is not the right word; this praying mantis is butchering a yellow jacket, disassembling it, undoing it.  And all the while, the yellow jacket is still alive, trapped in the clutches of the mantis's claw.  The yellow jacket wrestles against its captor.  It attempts to sting and writhe from the vice grip, but the mantis has its prey played perfectly.  It holds the yellow jacket far down, at the joint of the body, rending the stinger useless. IMG_9853

Apparently, the Praying Mantis vs. Yellow Jacket phenomenon is fairly common, though I had never heard of it.  I found dozens of videos on Youtube, all of which are interesting and worth a look, but rarely is Youtube better than real life.  In this case, the mantis had positioned itself next to the entrace to a hanging yellow jacket trap, and as the unsuspecting yellow jackets approached, attracted by the scent of the fresh bait, the mantis snatched them out of the air.  At one point (before I had my camera with me) the mantis was clutching two yellow jackets--one in each claw.  In the time of plenty, the mantis was stocking up.


But two turned out to be too many for the greedy mantis, and by the time I returned with my camera one yellow jacket had escaped.  With both claws free, the mantis abandoned his efforts for a double helping and began devouring the one unlucky yellow jacket.  I watched as the mantis bit into the head, removed the protective outer shell, and began picking at the soft inner flesh (click on the photo below for a close up).  It was horrible and fascinating.


But most fascinating was that even with the top of its head ripped off, the yellow jacket still buzzed and pricked, determined to fight to the end against the forces of mantis and nature.

In The Aquarium

IMG_9773 The tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are not your average fish tanks.  There are no goldfish here, no guppies, no koi.  These million gallon tanks hold sharks and sea turtles and rays and five-foot-long bluefin tuna.  Schools of mackerel and sardine swim through the wide open spaces of the tanks in great shimmering clouds of speeding fish flesh.  They cut and swerve in beautiful unison.  And outside the glass, the masses gather and watch, smudging the giant window panes with their fingers and noses.



Of course, there are regular-sized tanks as well.  These are the homes of the individual species: jellyfish and seahorses, octopi and crustaceans.  These were interesting, the jellyfish especially I could have watched for hours, but they lacked the grandeur and awe of the large-scale, open-ocean tanks.  I would have liked to sit and ponder the desultory movement of the jellyfish or the shy expressions of the seahorses--it was almost like watching a live action painting--but there were too many people rushing around, taking their turns at the glass, pointing and exclaiming, and then hurrying on.


When I was there, the aquarium was very crowded and, as a result, very stressful.  It had the feeling of a bad rock concert as people pushed to get to the front of the glass to take a photo.  They wore tension in their faces and carried before them a mood of harried malaise.  I saw a grown woman snap at a six-year old boy because he tried to nudge past her leg to get a better view.  "Shoulda gotten here sooner," she said as she widened her stance and cut him off.

In the midst of the crowd I felt a bit like a fish being pummeled in the current, but this was no tidy school of mackerel; these people were sharks.  At the large tank, I peered into the blue depths and watched a sea turtle ease through the open water above me; he swam graceful and free.  He approached the glass for a moment and paused to stare out at the crowd while people around me shoved and cursed and jockeyed for position to get the perfect shot.

Fish must think we people are strange beasts.


Still, despite the frenzied chaos, I admit that I was entranced by the aquarium.  I am not usually a lover of fish or of the sea, but in the darkness below the surface, I could feel the magic of the water.

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.


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


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."


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.


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.


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.


Lost Coast Round Two (film)

On round two of the Lost Coast I decided to take along the Canon AE-1.  I thought about bringing the 7D but it's so bulky and there's such heightened risk of damage that I decided to go with the more durable film camera.  In the end it turned out great.  I got to practice shooting film all week and never had to worry about the camera getting a little banged around.  As nice as digital is, this time old school durability was the better choice.

Starting out at the Mattole River trailhead.  Not sure what Bentley is doing here, perhaps he was still adjusting to the weight of his pack.  More likely he was just messing around.

Beach at the mouth of the Mattole River.  Sunset, looking north.

Driftwood at Mattole Beach.  We camped here on our first night at the BLM campground and endured mighty offshore winds that nearly blew the tent down.  But the wind meant no fog which in turn meant incredible visibility all the way up and down the coast, visibility that lasted all week long.

Trail marker with Punta Gorda in the distance.

Hiking south the wind was at our backs the whole way, often at gusts of up to 35-40mph. On the beaches the bursts blew sand so hard that it stung the backs of our bare legs and hurt enough to make us stop walking to wait out the gust for the sharp sudden pain.  It was less viscous on the packed earth trails though some of the more severe gusts did feel like they might knock us over.

The morning of the third day was once again windy and clear.  I woke early and couldn't go back to sleep as the wind was blowing the wall of the tent in my face, so I hiked down to the beach to watch the sunrise.

View at sunrise up Big Creek Canyon toward our camp.  The canyon was wide at the mouth but mostly rocky creek bed, so we hiked up and set down for the night back in the pines.  In the evening we saw a bear across the creek up on a side hill foraging for berries.  He disappeared into the brush and luckily didn't visit us later in the night coming after our food.

Sunrise on the pines.

That morning the light was so good that I couldn't stop taking pictures.  I finished off a roll of film and had to quickly pop in another roll before I lost the good light.  While I was changing rolls the wind kicked up so much that I noticed right offshore great columns of wind bearing down on the ocean, kicking up twenty foot tall sheets of sea spray that moved outward in large expanding circles across the surface of the water, before they finally dissipated or blew inland and up the cliffs.  I tried, but couldn't quite capture it on film.

Trail moving up off the beach onto hard pack.

We didn't see as much sea life as last time as the only negative tide all week occurred at 4am on our final night so we missed out on good tide pools, though we did see two dead rays washed up on the beach.  This one was fully intact but the other had its wings chewed off, probably by gulls or pelicans.

Look close and you can see a seal balancing itself on the rock taking in some sun. With just my film camera and one lens I couldn't zoom in as far as I wanted but this guy deserved a photo regardless of how far away he was.

On the final night the northerly winds subsided and a warm inland breeze began to blow down the canyon into our camp.  We stayed out on the beach watching the tide come up until after 10pm.  It was so warm we didn't even have to make a fire.  Finally, when the stars came out, we retreated into our tents for the night and in the morning hiked the final five miles into Shelter Cove.