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)

Sunsets and Dental Art

We went up to Tahoe last weekend and on Saturday night caught the sunset from Speedboat Beach on the north shore. IMG_8212_2

I really enjoy photographing sunsets and with this one in particular I got a little out of hand running around snapping photos like crazy.  I kept thinking "Wow these picture are turning out great."  But when I looked through all my photos later that night, I realized that I sort of hated them.  Even the ones I'm posting here made me feel uneasy.  The colors were so rich and the scenery with the rocks in the water was so idyllic that the photos came out looking like something that would hang on the wall of a dentist's office.  And I really dislike dental art.


Even this cabin photo, which I was really excited about when I took it, later looked to me like something that might appear on one of those corny motivational posters.  I couldn't figure out why I'd been so pleased as I took the photos only to later turn on them after the moment was over.


The more I thought about it the more I realized that the photos had an overly-idealized quality to them. But, that evening at the lake was very idyllic.  I remember that as the sun set there was no wind, it was a little cold but not too bad, and the lake was placid and silent.  A few other people moved around on the beach taking in the rising moon and the fading sunlight but most of them spoke only in whispers when they spoke at all.  The pastel colors reflected on the lake and the moonlight glittered on the water.  It was perfect, and in my rush to capture the moment I discarded all restraint and glossed over an already glossy scene.


Dentist office art is supposed to make you feel a sense of serenity, but it is a false serenity because whenever I go to the dentist I'm nervous and jittery; so when I see photos or paintings that remind me of a dentist's office I immediately hate them because I feel like they are trying to trick me.  The same is true of Kenny G.  When I was a kid, the dentist would always play Kenny G's Greatest Hits in the lobby right before I had to go in and get seven teeth pulled.  So maybe I just have hang-ups generally about anything that reminds me of the dentist office.  Nothing against dentists themselves, their choice of art just brings out my cynical side.


I don't hate these photos outright.  If I did I wouldn't be posting them here.  I'm also not saying you should feel bad if you like them.  I think they do a nice job of capturing the splendor of Tahoe.  And maybe that's just the way Tahoe is -- so beautiful that it almost doesn't seem real.

I don't want to sound like I'm being a humble bragger either, saying my photos are too beautiful or too well done.  I just found it so strange that I could love the photos as I was taking them and then turn so suddenly on them just hours later.  I know I'm a cynic, but I blame the dentists for prejudicing me against my own work.

New Year's Eve

IMG_8086 New Year's Eve 2012 was clear and cold in Middletown and rather than huddle beside the TV to watch Dick Clark's postmortem Rockin' Eve, we ventured out into the darkness of the ranch and lit a bonfire to celebrate.


We had some trouble getting the fire going in the cold and the damp but when we finally got it burning hot enough, it took off.


In photographing the fire, the sparks were what got my attention.  Over the period of exposure and against the black backdrop of the still moonless evening, the orange sparks left scurrying orange trails of light across the photo.


Individually the tiny spark trails were interesting, but together they formed a high column of complex twisted light, like a photo of a firework only wilder and more intricate.  What I loved most about photographing the spark columns was that each one was distinct depending on how the hundreds of different sparks twisted skyward.

IMG_8094 IMG_8089 IMG_8088

In order to allow enough time for the spark trails to really show up in the photos I had to lengthen the exposure time.  This was problematic in that the light from the fire was too bright and overexposed parts of the picture, but it also gives an essence of white heat coming off the fire that I liked.


As we gathered around the bonfire we tuned our radio to the Old Crow Medicine Show New Years Eve Concert being broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  With the sounds of banjos and fiddles streaming from the car stereo, and people dancing around the fire, it felt like something out of the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou, or maybe Deliverance, depending on your taste or distaste for hillbilly antics.  The only thing missing was the moonshine, though we did have a gallon of homemade apple cider that we passed around.

Late Rains

A big storm late in the season can wash away the anxiety of a dry winter.  This storm nearly did that when it dumped 0ver five inches of rain on us this past week. We're still below average for the year, but the late surge should keep the creeks running strong and the wells producing all summer long like they should.

Taking photos in the rain can be difficult because of weak lighting but after having endured a winter with little to no rain I felt myself drawn outside into the storm to watch the land fill up with water.  Of course I brought along the camera.

Old Man's Beard, sometimes incorrectly called Spanish Moss, is actually a combination, or symbiosis, of fungus and algae.  Also known colloquially as Beard Lichen or Treemoss, the proper name for the plant is Usnea and can be found all over the world.  It is edible and high in vitamin c though the taste leaves something to be desired.  In a pinch it can be used to treat surface wounds as it contains Usnic Acid, a powerful antibiotic.  Besides all that, it gives the bare oak trees an archaic quality that is almost mystical, especially in the rain when it soaks up the water and turns a pungent shade of sea-foam green.

Heavy rains also bring the creeks up.  With just a few inches Putah Creek below the house was running muddy and fast.

The good storms never come quickly.  This one took a few days to build up before it finally made landfall; but once it did, it stuck around, saturating the earth for a whole week with the steady precipitation

The Boneyard

Welcome to the boneyard.  The final resting place of the ranch animal.  When I was a kid I remember that we used to scatter our dead livestock throughout the hills to try to avoid such a phenomenon, but over the past several years my aunt has taken to dumping her dead all together in the mouth of the back meadow, creating what is now the boneyard.

Admittedly, it isn't for everyone, but I think the boneyard is one of the most interesting places on the ranch.  It smells just like you think it might.  The bones, both the bleached and the bloody, lie scattered together across the dead grass in slow decomposition.  Some still carrying leathery bits of hide and rotting strands of stinking sinew.  It's horrifying and enthralling all at once.  In short, it's nature at work.

Black and white seemed the only fitting way to capture such a landscape.  I think it allows the image to be more than just grotesque.  It becomes intriguingly horrific.

The calf.

The hanging goat head.  Perhaps strung up to try and preserve it?  If so, it's not working.  I don't know.  I didn't hang it.

One of the fresher horse carcasses.

The sheer volume of carcasses that have been deposited in the boneyard must be the reason that they were not interred (I counted 20 horse skulls, at least two pigs, the calf, and the goat).  It would take innumerable hours to bury so many beasts.  Also the rocky adobe soil is not exactly conducive to digging.  So instead they are dumped and left as carrion for the vultures, crows, and coyotes.

In one way it is a blemish on an otherwise pristine landscape.  An unnatural collection of death.  But at least it is an interesting blemish.