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.


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


(Final photo taken in March 2010)

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.

Farewell on Fulton

Three weeks ago we moved away from San Francisco.  I had finished my final semester of classes at USF, and though it was difficult to say goodbye to the city, it made the most sense for us to move back to Middletown for the summer. On our final night in the city, I took my camera for a walk on Fulton Street - our cross street.  I'd always wanted to photograph Fulton at night, and this photo caught the late-night number five bus speeding away from the avenues back towards downtown.  It was a fitting farewell.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.