What’s in a Symbol

One of the things I love about my travels to Asia, is that they remind me of how many little bits of knowledge and learnings have been packed inside my head over the past 40 years. For instance, color association: we associate red with hot and blue with cold, and black is evil and unknown, white is good and pure. In Bali, their religious colors are swapped – black is good and white is death, which for most of us is counter intuitive. Add to it red, which is the creator’s color (their creator god, Brahma is denoted with red at temples). We would most likely associate a red mask with evil or devils, but they see the crazy red mask in their dances as a good and welcome symbol.

The one that has taught me the most about myself is the use of the swastika. The Sanskrit word “svastika” means “well being” or “good fortune” and is still widely used in Buddhist and Hindu holy decoration. For me, it was a lovely bit of introspection to unwind from the connotations that I, as a Westerner, held of this symbol. Symbols by definition mean something and until I went to a Buddhist country, a swastika always denoted Nazi Germany, evil, exclusion, horrible thoughts, etc. I remember my thought process exactly, when I sat in a cold common room at 15,000 feet, and first noticed with shock, then contemplated a beautiful brass and copper urn in the corner. It had dabs of butter pressed on the cover where it met the lip of the urn, and I got up and studied it before asking the meaning of the butter and then the urn itself. And then I asked about the decoration, a swastika that doubled back on itself, in brass, then continued into the rest of the ornate design overlay. It is part of the eternal path in Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Christian labyrinth, a knot that doubles on itself and continues onward.

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Designwork and symbols on the gate at Tengboche Monastery in Tengboche Nepal

I remember that it was easier than I thought it would be to unwind my negative ties from that symbol, and understand it for the meaning it had for Tibetan Buddhists. And it is pervasive in Bali, too. There is a Hotel Swastika in the tourist district, though I am not sure it does very well. Then I thought of how the locals see that hotel, and if they wonder why it isn’t a polished, glowing successful place. But that’s not fair. That’s imposing outside connotations on a different and separate use of a symbol.

Our own culture can be so ingrained that it becomes invisible. Visiting other cultures, particularly one with stark differences in symbolism, like the friendly red gods of Hinduism, remind us what we have assimilated through our own upbringing. I remember learning that red was hot, danger, stop.

I’ve done a lot of design study, particularly those of Celtic knotwork and repeating designs. The Book of Kells held my attention through college for its illuminated lettering. I insisted on learning those knotwork constructions in triangle, circle and square, and how to create my own using the same patterning and logic. One of them is much like the swastika – turning back on itself to catch another shape before looping in the opposite direction.

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Celtic symbol construction methods from a book I’ve had 20 years: Celtic Art, the Methods of Construction, by George Bain

It can mean whatever you want it to. It’s a symbol. And since I realized that a swastika has pleasant, positive meaning in Asia, when I see it, it’s my job not to read into it with my own past learning, but to unhinge from it and move forward in seeing something differently than I always did before. That’s what I love about travel. If your eyes are open, you learn a lot about the place. If all of you is open, you learn a lot about yourself, too.

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In Search of the Larch

We were supposed to backpack to The Enchantment Lakes area, having jumped through all the hoops to secure a set of coveted passes for the restricted, fragile, high alpine region. This was the weekend we wanted because the change of season brings a very unique sort of fall color – the larch.

Most normal people don’t know what larches are. My mother-in-law thought it was a variety of slug, for instance. But Pacific Northwest nature photographers get a little crazy about the subject. It’s actually a variety of deciduous conifer: a pine tree that loses its needles in a golden flush.  The variety that lives here, in the Pacific Northwest, resides only above 5000 feet, so in October, these golden beauties decorate mountainsides like The Queen’s necklace, often just after they receive an early dusting of snow.

This is what we were after. This is why we chased those permits, planned this weekend, watched the weather, and panicked when, after a week of mostly sunshine, a strong Alaskan storm pushed into the area on Thursday and Friday. There are only a couple of people I trust to drag me into the wilds when weather threatens. Orion is one of them, as he has a knack for triangulating multiple weather reports, and out-guessing most weathermen. Many times has he called the weather correctly when the weathermen were wrong. It’s easy to get mountain weather wrong, but at the very least, I trusted he could select the best locations to get to larches and avoid the worst weather.

First, our Enchantment location became sketchy, then we ruled it out, as the last section of trail is steep enough to collect snow at a moment’s notice. In an alpine storm, nine miles of rough trails with 45 pounds of winter gear, tent, food, clothes, on your back quickly becomes the last choice. The final mile is a lot of scrambling, questionable even when it’s just wet. Some of you think I am hard core, but I’m not crazy. Here we are staring at first snows of the season.  So after much deliberation and weather watching, we scrapped the idea and opted for a campground on Highway 20, along the northern route of the Cascade Loop instead. The goal was to day hike each day and get up to larches that way rather than backpack. It allowed for quick exit, should the weather turn really nasty. Problem is, when we left the Seattle area it was lightly overcast and dry. We were optimistic and hopeful. Ninety minutes later, the windshield wipers went on. Not long after, as we gained altitude, and approached our camp spot, it was a full-on down pour.

With views obscured due to low clouds and rain, we decided we could sit in an idling car at the campground, or drive the car through the picturesque highway and see some of the waterfalls we passed on the way in. The dramatic slopes of this area make waterfalls extremely dynamic. The ones that aren’t fed by snow often run dry within a day of rain. This day, they were gushing. So, with extra towels and our cameras tucked in our raincoats, off we went to shoot in the rain. What else do you do?

Here’s what we saw along that bit of road.

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These are usually a trickle or non existent in the summer.

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I think we really take for granted the engineering marvel that is mountain roads.

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This is the stance: get your settings down, then shoot, dry camera, tuck and repeat.

dscf5567_std We had a little fun, too.

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We weren’t even the only crazy people out there!

Then we turned and went back past our campground and ventured deeper into the mountains. Blue Lake was our hike slated for this Saturday, whose trailhead is between Rainy Pass (4700 feet) and Washington Pass (5470 feet).  Just before we got there, a 4X4 pickup with a camper was coming the other direction. He had just pulled off at an overlook on his side of the road. Just before we passed, the driver’s door opened and the driver fell all the way to the pavement, head first. Passed out on the freezing, wet road. The two of us not driving said in unison, “We should turn around!”

By the time we pulled up behind him, he was conscious and standing back up. As we ran over to him to assess the situation, I said his license plate out loud, and noted it was a Georgia plate. He was tall, thin and dressed in shorts and sandals. There was snow gathered along the shoulder of the road. He said he’d had a panic attack. We began asking questions, stalling him from returning to his vehicle to continue down the road, which he looked intent to do. Are you all right? What happened? Do you have more clothes? Are you from Georgia? “My son is on the PCT. I am supposed to meet him at Rainy Gap.” His voice was quivering, distraught. He was breathing hard.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs along the spine of the westernmost mountain ranges of the US, from the Mexican border to Canada. It’s 2600 miles of wild mountain footpath that is probably all too popular since it made the Silver Screen with Reece Witherspoon a couple years ago.

“I…I dropped him in Stehekin this morning, and I’m supposed to meet him at Rainy Pass. Do you know where that is? And this storm, this storm…. It’s eighteen miles on that trail… I had a panic attack. I have to find him! Do you know where Rainy Pass is?” We assured him it was just a few minutes down the road, in the direction he was headed. “Could you lead me?”

Are you okay, yes, we can lead you, but you must go slowly, carefully. He nodded, called us angels several times, and in about a mile we reached the parking lot where he meant to be. He hopped out of his truck and almost hugged the yellow PCT signpost, “Yes, this is the sign! I am supposed to be right here!…You are angels, thank you all for your kindness.” He was relieved but still frantic, gasping for breath. I asked again if he could get in warmer clothes, if he was okay. “Darlin’ I had an attack, I am hot, I don’t need more clothes just now…” 35 degree rain continued to fall. He looked up at the sky, over at the trail and stood motionless except his heavy breathing. Then he broke down in tears, covered his face with his hands and doubled over, exasperated, exhausted, frightened.

This is where you need to know that the vast majority of the North Cascades has no cell service. None, not even one bar. I tried my phone anyway. No dice. We’re hell and gone from anywhere. Nearest tiny mountain town is 40 minutes east (through Washington Pass) or 80 minutes west. Neither of them have cell reception either.

The only other car in the parking lot was leaving, unaware of the situation. I ran over and flagged them down, asking to see if they had service. Nope. The last forest ranger truck we’d seen was about 50 miles down the road, back past our campground. I considered walking down the PCT a mile or so, but two lost people is no better than one. We waited. The rain continued. The man got in his truck and stayed there. We decided after a few minutes that we could go.

It was about 3 pm. Even an optimistic two miles per hour in this weather, with elevation gain, rough trail, (this section of the PCT is one of the more challenging in terms of elevation and weather), he might wait a while.  But he had clothes, heat and a vehicle. There wasn’t much more we could do. So we continued on to Blue Lake Trailhead, just a mile up the road. We got out, sopping wet, and stood in the slushy snow of the parking lot for a moment before setting feet on the trail we intended. I guess we figured, heck, we’re here, let’s hike for a moment and see how it feels. Just then a couple dressed like they’d been through a Nor’easter came off the trail. They were pink with chill and shimmering, dripping across every inch. I asked how long they’d been out. About two hours. I couldn’t imagine this much wet for two more hours, but we set feet on the trail. We walked for 6 minutes then turned around, content to have tried it.dscf5601_stddscf5596_std

Remember what that mountain looked like on Saturday… you’ll need it in a minute…

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Blue Lake Trail

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On the way back to our campground, we passed the Rainy Pass parking lot and the man and his truck were still there. Once back at camp, we made an early dinner and I managed a campfire which roared for about an hour until the rain won. But not before we had roasted marshmallows and relived the moments of the day. We played cards in the car for an hour before giving up the rest of the evening. We crashed in the cars, since the tent pads looked like this.

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Constant drumming on the roof drowned out the sound of the swelling, rushing river only a few feet away. The next morning I woke to silence. Sweet silence inside my truck. No rain. I could almost hear the river, and no other sounds. The tent pads had dried.

So we made our way back up to the pass and hiked. This is what we saw.

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The morning cleared slowly, mist hanging among the valleys and trees.

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Once on the hike, we saw them! In the distance, lighting up granite faces with gold.

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…snow all along the trail…dscf5684_std

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Remember that mountain from yesterday… tallest one, right of center (above). What a difference one day can make.

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Blue Lake, elevation 6250 feet.

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Washington Pass (see highway 20 below center, next to tree)

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Hawk Release

Recovered from my ancient blog:

[First entry: Thursday, July 24, 2008]

A really amazing thing happened to me yesterday. While exiting the freeway (520) at 4:00 PM I noticed a large hawk sitting on the side of the exit ramp. I didn’t figure out what it was until I had whipped past, but kept it in mind and went on my way to pick up my oldest from school.

On the way back, I told the kids what I had seen and asked if they wanted to go see if it was still there. I expected that it had just caught a vole or mouse and was about to fly up to a perch to have a snack, but after a three-exit, rush hour-turn around, so I could exit up the same ramp, it was still there!

I pulled out of traffic, ahead of the bird and pulled off my sweatshirt. I walked toward it and noticed that it looked completely intact, no broken wing or injury, but its eyes were closed. It had dark brown stripes across its back, a dark head, golden ivory neck and chest, and yellow feet with dark, sharp talons. My kids looked out the back window of the car. I slowly slid the sweatshirt over its back and anticipated it flying off. When it didn’t, I slipped the sweatshirt over it’s head, wings and talons and scooped it up under my left arm, tail hanging out behind my left elbow. It flapped only briefly, then rested, almost contentedly under the weight of my arm.

I walked back to the truck and exposed its head to let the kids see. They were completely enthralled. We were rescuing a hawk! It was no small hawk either. About the size of a house cat with yellow eyes almost as big. I called a friend who gave me the location of an avian recovery center right in my neighborhood (go figure) and we ended up there after a bit of trial and traffic, 90 minutes later. The bird was under my left arm, in a sweatshirt, on the freeway, through town all that time, and remained calm, fluttering only occasionally to let me know it was still alive.

The clinic graciously took it in and sent it up to no other than my favorite wildlife clinic. They are the ones who identified that jawbone I found last October. So the bird made yet another car ride up to the specialty clinic and rehab center last night. I called this morning to see if they knew how it was doing.

“The one found on 520 and 148th?”
“Yes, how is it doing?”
“She’s a yearling female Harlan’s Redtail Hawk, and she is fat and sassy and just has a little swelling around one eye. We cleaned out her crop for something nasty she ate, so we’ll have to re-hydrate her and over the next few days test her wings to see that she is releasable, but it looks good so far.”
My heart soared. I had never done this before! How wonderful. Then it got better.
“Do you want to release her yourself, if she is releasable?”
“What? Yes!… What is your procedure for that? Yes!”

She spelled out the days and requirements, collected my contact info and gave me a case number. Sometime next week, I will be driving to Arlington to collect her, name her and set her free, myself, in Marymoor Park. Anyone who wants to accompany me is welcome.

[Next entry: Friday July 25, 2008]

I talked to the clinic again today and she continues to improve. They said in nine years, they have only seen one other Harlan’s come in. They are a pretty rare sub species of red tail. The gal I talked to has completely taken this bird under her wing (pun intended) and is almost as excited about her as I am. “Oh, the Harlan’s… that’s MY baby!”

Today she will get her first food since she arrived and more hydration. Tomorrow she may be able to fly their grounds to test her physical strength. But they are really careful not to release a possibly-still-damaged bird back out. So it will be Thursday or Friday next week, at the earliest that this little saga gets its happy ending.

[Next entry: Tuesday July 29, 2008]

Epiphany

That’s the hawk’s name! I am having a series of epiphanies recently, so it must be the hawk’s fault, right? So her name is Epiphany. Well, it is if everything goes well. I called again yesterday and everyone knows “the Harlan’s” that is at the recovery center. They said she took a step or two backwards and isn’t eating well. So they have to re-hydrate and do another set of tests on her to make sure she is okay internally. I guess birds are “really good at acting perfectly fine until they drop dead,” according to one of the gals there.

So I didn’t call today because I am not a pest… I am not a pest… I am not a pest… but it sounds like it may be next week before she is ready to release, and it just so happens that we are leaving for Utah next week. So, yet another bit of waiting, wondering, chomping at the bit (or pulling on the tethers). More soon.

[Next entry: August 8, 2008]

Free Bird

(sing the song all day…)

But what this is really about is Epiphany… my hawk. Last Monday (Aug 4) I got to go retrieve her and set her free. It was a great experience. The hour long drive up to get her was, well, long and full of anticipation. The lady, Sue, had to go catch her from the flying grounds that she was in, and put her in a pet carrier that I supplied. The kids and I looked around the “recovering birds display” while we waited. There were bald eagles, all sorts of owls, hawks and falcons, most of whom were beyond total repair and thus, permanent “exhibits” of the center. My favorite was the snowy owl. She was huge and spunky, with a bit of attitude. She’d hiss at us every time we moved. Once back, and on location at the park, this is what unfolded…

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Peeking in

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Looking out

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Helping out (She didn’t need help, I just really wanted to hold her for a second, again…)

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First Wingbeat of Freedom

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And in a second…

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She was gone…

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Full Wingspread (notice how tiny Erik is here!!)

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And up to her first perch

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Where she sat for several minutes to catch her breath. There was already a pair of resident Coopers hawks, who immediately pestered her (though they were much smaller). So once she got her bearings and a bit of a breath… she said “thank you.” This is her looking right at ME, and I’m quite sure she opened her mouth to say it …

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Freedom Again

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Back To School

September, that lovely season of crisp breezes, falling leaves and back to school. This year has been different. I have a high school freshman for the first time since I was one. This week was curriculum night, where the parents go through an abbreviated version of their child’s schedule, meet the teachers, get an overview of the class material, ask questions. His world is very different from the one I grew up in. For instance, my high school was almost 400 students when I entered; he has more than 400 in his entering class. Even in 9th grade, most faces I passed in the halls were familiar, many said hello as I passed. His experience feels a bit like my freshman college year, actually – awash in a sea of unknown faces, wrestling through crowds to get to a classroom and take lecture notes. It’s daunting for someone with my experience, and down right terrifying if you think about it too much. But there are bright lights. Curriculum night, for example. I’m pretty sure we never had that, and if we did, my parents didn’t go. Clubs galore. I suppose when your school community is pushing 1700, there are a lot of interests. Many of the clubs I’ve never heard of, many others are brazen big brothers of what I knew. Our cheerleaders, for instance, also ran pep club (what there was of one) and were also in charge of concessions at games. The gymnastics team worked out in the wrestling room (stinky!) often right after the wrestlers had been in there. There were 2 entrances on our building. This one has 37… or something ridiculous.

But the feelings are the same. It immediately sent me back to those same old high school feelings and whirling through nostalgia for about 3 days after that curriculum night. I’ve been thinking about old classmates and team mates, many of  whom I’ve since reconnected with on Facebook. Some who are now gone. I remembered through my teachers and coaches, ever grateful for the experiences they imparted to me. Homecoming revelry, team cheers, classic novels and final papers. That damn wallflower story the headmaster told every year…. And through the haze of nostalgia, as I sat in my son’s seat, his teachers impressed me. The curriculum too. He’s almost done with the JV tennis season already. Homework doesn’t seem as hard as last year. He’s confident… maybe more so than I am (is this where the, “gees, Mom” starts?). I think he’s going to do all right.

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The Force of Music

I have a story about this song. I have stories about lots of songs, because that’s the nature of music. At least for me. It brings memories, ideas, feelings and so much more. This one came to mind today when Mingma posted the newly completed video on his Facebook page. He is one of the musicians I traveled with on my first trip to Nepal.

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He is so at home with a guitar. Often, during the month we traveled together, I would find him strumming in a corner, on a patio, in a common room of lodges along our way. Even when it was 40 degrees inside, his fingers worked the strings. I remember when he first explained the words of this song: He stopped strumming long enough to say humbly, “This is a song about the youth today. About how it is our turn to build and take the next step and make the world better… a beautiful place,” Then he crooned heartfelt words to gently plucking fingers. That night on stage he played it again and the audience fell silent listening to the poignant words. The song wasn’t yet recorded when we toured in 2011, but the message was ready to be shared.

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It could very easily have been a rally and fight song. If it was American, that’s probably what it would have been. But Nepalis are devoutly communal; this song is about taking care of the less fortunate. About being strong and courageous enough, confident enough in yourself to reach out and do that. Today his words that accompany the post of this video say:

Namaste everyone… from this song and video by Cvds Nepal, children and disabled society is getting supporting helping hands day by day. Jaya (raising up) humanity and yes, you all are a living god.

The last line is precious: you are all (each) a living god. It probably doesn’t even matter that you (or I) understand the lyrics as they’re sung. The visual is strong enough.

Enjoy.

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How Photographers Hike

Went on a hike to see pretty things and get a little exercise. But it was a photographer’s hike, which means doing it during hours that don’t make sense to most people. And the people it does make sense to are either mountain climbers or, well….

How Photographers Hike

You take off mid-day, drive 3 hours, fight for a parking place, or wait for people to leave. Hike 3 hours, donning and removing your spikey feet several times, take some photos, and wait for the day hikers with reasonable judgement to leave the mountains. Then you take some photos, eat a leisurely dinner at your chosen post, watching the main feature change colors as people continue to clear out. Shoot, shoot, shoot, with your camera. Wait for the last few unprepared idiots to go… “Dude, with this gallon water jug, I’m 220, cool man!”… yes, you’re also shirtless, sunburned, road-rashy and nearly hypothermic from sliding down that snowfield on your face. Probably should drink the water and high-tail it off this hill, mmmmmkay? “Heh, ok…I’m…I’m not crazy!”

Deep breath… set up tripod. More photos, watch the sun drop and the colors turn golden, still shooting until color leaves the sky. Pack up gear, hike out after dark with head lamps, traversing a couple sketchy snowfields in the dark, and return to a nearly empty parking lot just before the moon rises (it was red). Shoot a couple photos of the Milky Way, because you can see it up here like a ribbon across the sky. Get a little tired of being cold and tired (note to yourself that it’s still “early in the season” on July 23, and coolish, like 40 degrees). Pat your hiking partner graciously for picking a picture perfect weather day. Drive 3 hours home. Hit bed at 2:30 am.

Then when you look at the photos the next day, realize why you do stuff like that, and vow not to wait so long until you do it again!

The Photos

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Chain up area ahead. And low clouds that blew over us for an hour, making us wonder if we’d see the main event at all this trip.

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But it did clear and that behemoth was right in our face. No telephoto lens needed, captain.

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Mid-day, you shoot and wander. Fremont Fire Lookout on the right, Glacier Peak on the left (below).

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Indian paintbrushes and Little Tahoma in the shadow of Tahoma (Rainier).

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Pretty things yonder.

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Awwww, critters!! Chipmunk, meadowlark, ptarmigan and her baby! We also saw a packrat – a real one! Also known as a bushy-tailed woodrat, we caught him in our headlamps long after dark. They look just like rats, but with fluff at the end of their tails (and no sewage behind their ears).

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Main Event and side show…

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Final moments and afterglow.

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Stars in the parking lot.

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Milky Way (above), moon-lit Rainier (below).

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Art at She Haven

Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt immediately as though it is your home away from home? Today, for the second time I visited Sidhehaven, and that’s how it feels. An hour and a half from Seattle there is a modest two-and-a-half acre parcel with a small house on it. It’s far enough away from the city that there’s room to breathe. It might look like a hobby farm, or relaxed retiree oasis, but it’s more than that.

What happens there and what’s been added to the property, is what makes it really special. This is a home and a haven for Sherry Kirk, who also uses it as her artist’s studio.

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The first time I went to visit, I went to play with clay in an active potter’s studio. I went to put my hands on a potters wheel and remember the feeling after more than 15 years. She led me across the wooden porch, through a screen door, to her studio. The smell of clay dust, wet metal, glazes, and moist sponges is still familiar and beautiful to my nose. It transported me to my college studio, where I spent hours every day perfecting my own art so many years ago. It also took me back to that time in my life when art came first.

As I spun clay, Sherry spun stories of her past. I heard about her military history. We have a mutual friend who lives in Chicago. One day we both appeared side by side on Facebook, and the friend suggested we connect, so we did. They were in the military together in Turkey and Iraq and Afghanistan. Sherry told of helicopter runs over borders; some as a recon, some as unsanctioned “supply runs” for a group of her buddies on one side or the other of a border she was or wasn’t supposed to be on. “Yeah, I got an a little bit of trouble for that one,” she says with a smile and a giggle. My original thought was that she was standard military personnel, now retired and relaxing on her rural parcel not far from the military base she once worked at. “I’m a much different person now than I was in the Army.” And the person she has become is what decorates Sidehaven.

Sherry and I spent hours trading stories and going back-and-forth the first time I visited. She told me about the seeds she received from one community member and the plants she traded with another, and dinner in trade for massage, or tools. The barter system works well here. She gets art supplies as donations from other members of the community because everyone knows she’s good at passing things around to other people who need them. “We just received a welding setup and I am excited to get that up and running.”

Once I sat at the wheel, it was just like riding a bike. Well, after a few tries it was. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing. But while my hands were immersed in earth-red clay, I spent as much time studying the studio as I did making pots. Wildly creative drawings and paintings mingle with army plaques and decorations along the walls of her studio. A T-rex in chalk, a Master Sergeant award, a fairy holding a machine gun, a scantily clad vixen with a whip and sergeant stripes tattooed on her arm. Most are gifts from people in her community. On the floor, in the center of the studio begins a poem or a manifesto; words to consider if you live here, work here or visit. The words spiral out in a circle, decorating the floor as they reveal the poem’s message.

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“None of this was here when I bought it, but when I retired from the military, I wanted a place where I could enjoy doing pottery,” she says. So she converted the master bedroom into a pottery studio, two years ago, and that became the heart of Sidhehaven, pronounced “she haven”. The Sidhe are a group of elves and dwarves who live underground in Irish mythology, she explains. “So that’s where I got the name, but it’s a play on words as well. It’s a haven for me, for the community.” Her pottery is often adorned with Celtic knot work and designs reminiscent of Gaelic imagery, and with a decidedly Hippie flair.

She has an Etsy store that keeps her business hopping; she’s often backed up on orders for her latest designs of coffee mugs, pitchers, and other functional pieces.
She has also put in a stone labyrinth and herb garden, food garden, hot tub, performance stage, two fire pits, flower beds, and a yurt, where interns or guests often stay. The renewable, reusable and environmentally friendly live here. There’s a composting toilet surrounded and secluded by tall bamboo which feed on the wastewater that the toilet produces. There are chickens and ducks roaming the property between the gardens, and a very affectionate cat.

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But at the heart of Sidhehaven are Sherry’s stories. Today I am here again, and brought my children this time, to let them experience the art I love so much. They’re working on the potter’s wheel.

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As she walks us through her home and then through the gardens, there are stories of each place, each room, each stone. She tells of when she was in the military, of what she wanted when she was done, why there’s no carpet on the floor, and why there’s money from around the world decoupaged onto her dining table. The deck is covered in beautiful hanging things that spin in the wind and make delightful sounds, and a cat stretched out in the sun, under them. There are ceramic pots and bowls filled with shells and sea glass, and plants trailing down small steps. It’s eclectic and shiny and unique. It’s every bit Sherry’s heart and vision, brought to life in a place, a haven.

She said she tried to make it an intentional community living space once, but was surprised when the people who were most excited about the idea, didn’t understand that it involved doing some of the work in order to make it function.

She explains some steps of converting a regular house into a haven. “We couldn’t afford real flooring, but we couldn’t leave it bare, and I hate carpet. So we put outdoor paint on the subfloor, then painted the stone design. It was supposed to have lacquer on top, but we didn’t get that far.”

In the main room hangs a large batik of a graceful, bountiful tree with Gaelic knot work designs around it. “That’s the design for Sidhehaven,” she says. It’s repeated perfectly in the tattoo on her right arm, and in some of her pottery pieces.

I run my fingers over the molds and pieces she has in production, enjoying her delicate craft work in the red earthenware. “I never want to spend my time just to make 20 pieces all exactly the same.” She’s interested in the unique, the individual, each piece with its own personality. And that’s what her customers get. Right now she’s working on a steam punk series of coffee cups. She shapes and places each gear on cups in preparation for tomorrow’s bisque fire.

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We’ll go back soon to see the bisqued pieces that the kids made when they were there today. I wonder what she’ll be working on then.

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Writing Circles

I picked up my book again. The one that’s already published. Yes, again. Among my comedy of errors in the world of first-time publishing, I made the mistake of looking at the final draft of my book before it was a even back from the printer (I know!). So by the time the glossy, printed version was in my hands, I already knew there were errors, exactly where they were, and I flogged myself for each of them over and over. I did this for several months after the success of the book wore off. I kept going back to it and re-writing sections. Then I spent a bunch of time asking people if it was worth it to go back and rework, or if I should just let it be the jagged edge that I rub up against forever. I let it sit for a year and wrote other things. It’s been five years now since I wrote it, and I’ve forgotten most of the words. I could almost read it as if it was someone else’s.

In the time since I put it down, I didn’t work on my own stuff. I was tired of it and needed to work on someone else’s projects for a while. I worked on a human trafficking project for a photojournalist, I worked on an international photo project for some photographers, I made other people’s websites and graphics. I wrote other people’s newsletters. Some of it was really great, inspiring, and moved me forward. Some of it was time filler. Some of it- the most important parts – served to remind me that I have my own story to tell. So I am back at my own story, which apparently begins at remembering the story I already told. The recipe also includes remembering what I learned, telling other people’s stories, and new experiences.

Oh, and photographs. My own photographs. I ran across this one the other day. It’s a start.

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What’s in a Seed

I found and an elm seed on the ground this morning. What I did immediately after that was smiled. Then after I realized the smile on my face, I picked it up and spun in a circle twice, looking for the source.  There were giant trees everywhere, in full green – fir and sequoia, maple and alder. But I know this seed. This seed is something I’ve known since I was tiny. We had an elm tree in our backyard where I grew up. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood. We couldn’t even try to climb it because it was so big around. Every spring it would cover our postage stamp lawn in pale lime-colored circles the size of a dime. We’d throw the piles up like fresh snow after a storm. They’d flutter and float willingly back to the ground.

Then when I was about eleven, Dutch Elm Disease ripped through the neighborhood and all of the big elms came down. They were spray painted with orange, then day by day the cutting crews came through and thinned the neighborhood block by block. The shade trees all but disappeared. A volunteer mulberry grew in it’s place; nothing anyone planted. We picked the sweet berries whenever we were bored, and they squished between our toes when we ran barefoot in the yard. But it’s the elm tree I’ll remember. We’d lay under it to watch cloud animals chase each other above its friendly canopy.

So when I bent and picked up this single seed, I couldn’t believe that I’d found it, and that there was no trace of any others or of the giant who made it. I turned again, looking at the treetops. I thought about writing about this. I thought about another recent elm tree experience. And I thought about the elms seeds I still have in a glass jar. I harvested them right before leaving Minnesota to live in a new city, a new state for the first time. I kept them with me for the seven years I lived in Michigan. Since I was transient to that area for all those years, I never thought about planting them there. I’ve thought about planting them here, and imagine how big they’d be today if I had, the first year we moved into our house. They’d be fifteen years old now and who knows what kind of space they’d command. But instead they still sit in that jar.

I interrupted my workout in the park (maybe I didn’t really want to work out anyway) to take this one seed over to the edge of a field where the tallest cottonwoods were shedding their fluff. I looked at the ground and the false snow that had accumulated, at all the seeds this one elm seed would have to compete with in order to grow. I thought about the hundreds and thousands of seeds each tree gives for the chance to plant just one seedling. When I got to the edge, I grabbed a nearby stick and dug a hole in the hard ground just large enough to hold the seed, dropped it in, and covered it with almost damp soil, then tamped it down. The rest is hope. Maybe that tree will grow. Maybe I’ll finally plant those elm seeds in the jar.

There was a sugar maple in our front yard. I have a jar of those seeds too….

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Following Ansel’s Path

Way back in 1989, I had to declare a major in college. I toyed with an architecture major, but the prof for the prerequisite: History of Cities was horrific and scared me from that path. I considered math (very briefly) before settling on Fine Art with an emphasis in photography and ceramics (yes, two opposite ends of the fine art spectrum). Art degrees are funny, you spend hours practicing this thing you know very little about, and then you read about and memorize all the masters in your specialty. Then you’re meant to fill in the giant chasm between your work and theirs from your own guts before graduation.

Since my college years I’ve had it on my list to see Yosemite. I mean, it’s been there since 1890, so I’m a bit over due. So when the chance came, I went… with 27 teens on a school trip as a chaperone. Below is my photo essay of the three national parks we visited in that six day stretch last week. Happy 100 years, National Parks! Descriptions in line.

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Aah Frisco. The tourist tour. The entire week was spent on this tour bus – the one whose wind shied I am shooting through. Hey, you do what you can.

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We began a series of about 10 hikes by walking across the Golden Gate. It was a good break-in.

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This was the visit to San Fran that let me see things a bit differently. Through childrens’ eyes, perhaps?

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Sunset from our city camp site at the Presidio. Who knew you could camp there? As we set up tents, the tour bus owners brought halibut from one of their Alaska tours, and crevelle (like a grouper) from one of their recent Baja trips. He fried it up in camp while I gushed over the fact that he was feeding these hard-caught delicacies to kids!

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Before we knew it we were on a gorgeous California beach. “Where are we?” We asked… Marin county, so this is the Marin Headlands beach. Quintessential.

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I watched the surfers when I wasn’t on alert for random kids running into the sea.

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Before we knew it there were dorsal fins in the surf. I noticed all the surfers were turned away from the beach at once. I thought they were looking for the next wave, but then I realized they were spotting the fins.

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By their spray we could tell it was mammals, not sharks. The surfers relaxed and paused, even, to watch the small pod pass. But the dolphins paused as well and played in the surf along with the surfers.

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You can see one on the left of the image above.

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And closer here.

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Photographically I had several challenges. The largest was shooting with available light. Meaning, high noon most of the time. This is what Yosemite looks like at noon. (Photographers cringe, but I like the challenge.) El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the middle, Bridal Veil Falls on the right. I look forward to playing with these in black and white.

Another challenge is that I have done no post production work on any of these shots. They are all right out of my new camera, jpg crunched at the moment they were shot. (At noon, can I say that again?) I hate spending time in post production (done enough darkroom hours for a lifetime), so this was a fun challenge: Get it right the first time; no messing, no fixing. (And bless Fuji for making this camera like my Minolta of 1985!) For the first time since my film days it felt like it should. And it feels luxurious. I love it.

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Of those 10 hikes we did in a week, this was the doozy. I offered to lead the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike. It spends 3.4 miles going up switchbacks next to the waterfall and tops out 2700 vertical feet later at 6500 feet elevation. So it’s like Mt Si, but starting at 3800 feet elevation instead of ending there… in about 80 degree weather. We felt it. And we almost got to the top, but since I only had 9 of the kids, we had to meet back up with the rest of the group at a certain time. We were all pretty tanked anyway (yes, me.)  But 4 of the kids really wanted to make the top and ran ahead of me for the last 10 minutes. By my estimates they had 3-4 switchbacks to go until the top. So there you go. A peakbagger I am not. I turned them around.

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This will be a pretty black and white when I get to post. Taken on the way back down.

Here’s the fun part about this tour bus: You eat dinner under El Cap, you fall asleep on this moving hotel, and you wake up to imminent sunrise over Death Valley. As a landscape photographer I truly appreciated rolling over in my sleeping bag, so I could face the giant picture window, and run video of the sun rising over the thirsty brown mountains.

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By noon we were fed, sweaty and marching across the Mesquite sand dunes in 105 degrees. This is where I will tell you my third photo challenge: I was limited to one lens: 18-55 mm. That’s wide angle to standard portrait. No telephoto. I knew this, but these dunes are one of the few places where I wished for more reach. But more than that, I wished for sunset. I’ve always had visions of standing in the Sahara as the last camel caravan crossed a shaded ridge in the low light. This is what I’ve got. It’s more than I had a week ago.

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After cooking in daytime temps with the kids as they attempted sledding (in saucers) down the dunes, I strolled back to the parking lot shade shelter. Along the way I studied lizard tracks…

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And snake tracks, and wind tracks.

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And I realized in looking at these, there is no way to express how freaking hot it was at this moment, as sweat evaporated before it dripped from my head to my camera, and every step was … well it felt like an old Western. The cracked-lipped-dry-wineskin-stumbling-through-the-desert-type. We hadn’t showered in three days.

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Our third hike of this day was a loop around the rim of this lovely volcano: Ubehebe. I took the short route and turned around here, so I could (rest) take photos of the other group. And sit in the shade of the bus, and drink water.

We pitched tents in an oasis that night: Furnace Creek. Appropriately named. One thermometer read 120 degrees. It looked like this (below).

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This is also my Ansel-channeling moment: All I could think was, Moonrise over Hernandez must have felt like this. It’s a fun read if you want to know the history of that photo. Sotheby’s probably doesn’t want my rendition, however. It was still steaming as the sun went down, colors and light realized after the heat of the day dropped to a level that we could actually appreciate the space we were in. It was about 95 degrees as we tucked into sleeping bags that night.

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Death Valley Sunset

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More hiking the next day. Zabriskie Point – a photographer’s trap in the desert. It was gorgeous at mid-day. I can imagine the row of photographers who gather at sunrise to shoot it. We hiked down into it instead.

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We took a wrong turn along the path through the Golden Canyon and ended up on a slightly longer hike than we planned. It was 105 again. We were hiking. This sign caught my eye. It felt so perfectly placed.

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Traveling light, 1.5 mile trail down from top to bottom… the bus will grab us at the end… if we find it.

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An hour later we were at the edge of Death Valley, visiting a date ranch. I must admit, this is the first time I connected the term “date palm” to the actual thing you eat. Hmm. They grow here. Along with the saguaro cactus.

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So of course we had to hike through them. And if you’re counting (I left out the salt flats) this is six hikes in two days. All in Death Valley. It’s a dry heat.

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I trotted up one of  the near ridges and got a good look at the date farm (and the oasis that feeds it). It looked like what I imagine Saudi Arabia looks like. Gorgeous in its inhospitable terrain and climate.

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A few cactus shots… these guys were dancing in the last of the sun.

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Aloe vera

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last light on the rocks.

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The remains of beehives among the junk and rubble of the date farm. Bees are really useful creatures, folks.

Once more we converted the bus into what they called “the miracle” so that we could sleep during a night drive. When the bus stopped it was dawn in Joshua Tree. I was itching for some early light (and temps) so I grabbed my camera, crawled over a dozen sleeping bodies, and ran kidless (!), amok through the poofy trees and rocks as the day came alive. Click. Breathe. Click, click, scamper… look. Listen. Silence. Click.

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As I returned, the bus was waking and setting up breakfast.

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And on our final hike in J-Tree, we ran across this lovely gopher snake. He was about four feet long, and played it really cool when 27 kids encircled him to get a look.

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If you look on a map of California, Joshua Tree is in the southeast – almost centered in the triangle that is made by Los Angeles (west) Phoenix (east) and Las Vegas (north). So it took one more night drive, aka The Miracle, to return us to San Francisco for a 11 am flight the next morning.

Thanks for reading.

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