A Strange Day

Sometimes I want to tell a story without images, only with words. A story like this one.

Yesterday was a strange day for me.

While walking in the woods I met a man walking barefoot. He stood with his feet on a large maple leaf looking into the sun breaking through the bright green canopy of spring above and smiling at it. I smiled at the whole spectacle and the pure joy radiating from him.

I approached him and said it was a great idea to go barefoot. He said he was on a journey of self-discovery but he was thirsty and asked if I had any water. I gave him one of two bottles of water I had and told him to keep it. Then I removed my shoes and walked barefoot myself. I wanted to discover something myself.

I discovered long forgotten feeling of the ground I walk on. It reminded me of my childhood when I was running around barefoot all the time at my grandparents’ farm. And the gentle poking of rocks made me feel more alive.

Later on I was on my way to pick up food when I met a beggar who was done with begging for the day and was sitting alone and playing a guitar by himself for himself.

I’ve seen him before. His bright personality and appearance was very memorable. I told him the song was too sad and he played a joyful one.

At the restaurant I got extra food because I knew I’d like to share it with him. On the way back I asked if I could sit and listen to him playing while eating. He was delighted at that. So, I sat on the ground and I was in a concert, the audience of one. The best entertainment I had in months!

He played 3 songs that he wrote himself until he got tired and wanted to have a dinner too with whatever he got from begging. I shared what I brought and we had dinner together talking and talking. When we finished I thanked him for his music and left.

Later I was sitting outside reading a book in warmth of the evening sun. I was taking my eyes off the book from time to time to look at the sunset. A hill, really just grass covered big mound of dirt left from a construction long time ago, was blocking my view.

I meant to climb that hill with a camera for quite some time. I wanted to see the view from it but the hill was in private land (owned by construction company I presume) and that was stopping me. But yesterday I just got up, went to the hill and climbed it and had utter delight standing on top, looking at the sun changing hues as it was slowly rolling toward the horizon.

Yesterday was an interesting day for me.

Being One With the Place

Last week I just spent a few days in the Palouse and something unusual happened on that trip. I did not take pictures there. That’s right, I spent several days in one of the most sought after photographic destinations in the world and for a few days I did not take a single picture.

It’s important to mention that I had  been to the Palouse many times before and had taken countless pictures there. But not this time.

When I got there this time I realized that I didn’t have anything else to say about it; I have exhausted my visual language in photographing it. And instead of photographing it I decided to experience it. Simply being present there.

Instead of driving up to location for sunrise when an alarm went off after a night sleep in the car I was peering through the windows covered with a veil of snow white petals taken off the apple tree I was parked under by the gusts of wind whose rhythmic shaking of my car lulled me to sleep the night before.

Instead of driving around looking for photographic opportunity I was sitting at the top of Steptoe Butte, reading a book, doing some work, or just staring in the distance.

Walking among the trees of abandoned orchard I’d stop caught by the singing of the birds. I’d stand for I don’t know how long listening to them because the time lost its meaning and only the melody of the nature remained. I’d stand as quietly as possibly and just listen.

Next day I walked to the top of the Steptoe Butte proudly towering over the ocean of rolling hills. There’s a road there going all the way up. That’s how most people get there and that’s how I used to get there too. But, I wondered, what it would be like to walk that road instead. I drove to the top first, left my car there and walked down to the base of the butte. That way I would not chicken out and turn around half way to the top. I’d have to go all the way because that was where my car was. Following a spiraling road bound around the butte a few times down I went.

Walking it gave me a new appreciation of Steptoe Butte diverse natural beauty. A green carpet of grass with orange and purple and yellow and blue polka dots of wild flowers was covering the slope.  A multitude of plum and apple trees covered in blossom ranging from pure white to gentle pink were rising from that carpet. And isolated rock gardens not tamed by the vegetation yet.

On the way back I spotted a faint trail going up, more likely walked by wild animals than people. I took it. And just like that my walk turned into a real adventure. I found wild flowers I had never seen before, I experienced rich scents I had never smelled before, I saw a herd of deer that quickly retreated away from me and an ant mound that I carefully walked around at a safe distance.

A patch of trees that seemed insignificant from the road turned out to be a real forest where one could use ‘up’ as the only way to keep walking in the same direction. I had to find my way, sometimes walking around spiky bumbles, sometimes retreating and finding another way when facing especially dense vegetation. When I finally walked out of the forest onto the road I was rich with new experiences and much closer to the top than I expected.

In the end I did take a few pictures when the light was so dramatic that it was hard to stay away from the camera.

Restrictions Mean Creativity?

For almost two month now we’ve had Stay at Home order in Washington state. It ruined my travel plans and I was pretty disappointed with the loss of photographic opportunities. But I stayed at home and only walked close to it to keep myself and other people safe. As days passed and I kept walking the nature trails next to my home, I first came to terms with the restrictions, and then I started appreciate them because I was falling in love with the place I live in.

Day after day I was walking in the patch of wilderness near me. Little by little I studied it. Now I know every little stream, every little trail. I know many trees and rocks. I know how they look in sunny weather and in cloudy one. I know how they look in the morning and in the evening.

I spent hours sitting on a rock or log by a burbling stream in a cool shade of a tree while the sun was winking at me through the canopy. And I was winking back at the sun, listening to a story the stream was telling me. Or read a book myself. Every time I would make sure to leave no trace and take a good picture of the place.

The forest became my friend. I saw it waking up after winter, stretching its muscles with the cracking sound of its branches, dressing up in a green dress with flowery polka dots. Every day I had little discoveries waiting for me, brightening my day: a new flower blooming that was not there the day before, a tree having a shimmer of green where there were bare branches earlier, a deer walking among the trees.

The forest was never resting, always changing. And yet there was a sense of calm and peace in the forest. Nothing was rushed and everything got done. Slowly day-by-day it was coming to life.

By now I came to appreciate the restrictions for making me fall in love with the place I live in. I was challenged to find something interesting close to home. And I became more attuned to its beauty. And I became more creative.

I’m eager to see it living and changing through all the seasons.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

I recently vitsited Kyoto, Japan. Before I left on the trip a friend of mine who had been to Kyoto before me showed me her pictures of Kyoto and said that she would be interested to see what kind of pictures I would take at Fushimi Inari-taisha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fushimi_Inari-taisha). I thought of it could be a good challenge for me.

On my first day in Kyoto I went to Fushimi Inari-taisha midday. It was very crowded with tourists. At times the stream of torists moving through seemingly too narrow torii was so thick that I could not stand in one place, I had to move with the stream. It was hard to get any picture of the place. So, I did not. Instead I spent my time exploring the place, experiencing it first hand.

Next day I went there in the very early morning. It was dark and cold. The city was asleep. Occasional taxis on the narrow roads were asleep too with their drivers sleeping in reclined seats. The subway was  closed in such early hours and I walked along the streets of the quiet Kyoto to Fushimi Inari-taisha for an hour. I walked the path that would become all too familiar to me in the mornings after that.

When I got to Fushimi Inari-taisha it was still very early and I had it to myself until the first train would bring early-risers. I took some pictures but they somehow did not capture the place the way I felt it. They were too obvious, lacking uniqueness, my personal experience with it. They were technically perfect but that was too low bar for me. I wanted to go beyond technical.

On the morning of the third day I realized that I kept approaching photographing Fushimi Inari-taisha the same way I approach landscape photography paying attention to details. Every picture had every detail sharp in highlights, mid-tones and shadows. But that was not what Fushimi Inari-taisha was about. It was about mystery. It was about unseen and unheard. It was about my deepest wishes and deepest fears hiding away from light in the dark shadows of night. They were there for me to find, they were there for me to imagine.

Only after abandoning the idea of capturing every little detail in each picture I started getting pictures that spoke to me. A hint of torii, a striking pattern of shadow and light, a light revealing nothing but a few characters of Japanese script was enough. The rest could be filled by one’s own fantasy.

Once I saw the magic of the place I fell in love with it. It became the destination of my nightly pilgrimage.

On the last two days of my stay I finally got to the summit of Mount Inari (I had too many interesting photos to take at the lower levels before). As I got to the shrine at the summit I felt moved, touched by the experience of all those days and prayed following the local customs I had observed for so many times all the previous days. It just felt appropriate, like that was the single purpose of climbing all those steps.

I could not get enough of Fushimi Inari-taisha. On the departure day I stayed there as long as I could taking more and more pictures. Even as I had to leave I saw even more pictures that I did not have time to take.

National Park in the Backyard

Camera – check. Batteries – check. Boots, backpack, tripod… I’m ready to go.

For a while I had been obsessed with an idea of finding interesting pictures in my backyard, in my neighborhood, in the parks nearby. I thought of it as my personal challenge: finding interesting images where I live without going far away to popular photographic destinations.

One of the outcomes of it was an ongoing project “My Backyard” with a new installment published to my website every year. This time I took it one step further though. I decided to treat a patch of wilderness in the middle of my neighborhood as a National Park. I got all my gear the way I would take it on a hike in a national park. I got water and snack and I went exploring.

There was a well developed trail around the lake used by runners, joggers, and walkers. Along it there were plenty of side trails just begging to be explored. I walked to that trail briskly. Once I got on the lake trail I slowed down watching out for the side trails that would get me closer to the water.

Some were well-walked. Others were barely visible and somehow more enticing: following them I would make my way through shrubbery and brambles to eventually get close to water. A wall of trees would isolate me from civilization creating a realm of nature with its own sounds, with its own beauty.

Just like that, following one of those side trails, I found a place that would be great for taking pictures at sunset. Perched up on the log I settled down waiting for the sunset. Time flowed past quietly unnoticeably and somehow the wait was over. The warm colors of sunset was filling the sky. The tops of the trees were still holding the sun by its last rays. And the lake was reflecting it all in the upside down world…

I got home well after dark. I was tired but happy that I went on an amazing hike in the patch of wilderness in my neighborhood.

A Leaf

Pick a leaf. Any leaf. Hanging on a tree or lying on a ground, flying in the distance or caught in a spider web.

What’s so special about it? It is unique!

There is no other leaf in the whole universe exactly like that. Just think about it. You’re holding something so remarkable, so special, so singular. It can be enjoyed only by you. No one else can enjoy it, not now, not ever before and not ever after. Isn’t it amazing?

Look at it. It is so precious, so fragile, unaware of its own importance.

What is it doing here? What’s its story? Where did it come from? Did it come from a big or a small tree? Did the other trees like it or not? How that tree changed the soil it grew in? How much sunlight did it enjoyed?… Suddenly, there is a whole story woven around that single leaf, a whole universe is built around it.

It could be that single leaf you’re holding in your hand is the reason for the universe to exist. It could be a pinnacle of creation.

It is just for you to enjoy. In all its simplicity. In all its complexity.

***

There are many different things demanding our attention in this modern world we live in. We have to chose many times a day what to let in and what to leave out. I’ve chosen to contemplate a leaf. A leaf I found. My unique leaf. And the universe around it.

Camp Muir

Yesterday I went up to Camp Muir to check if I had altitude sickness and test my fitness level for a possible climb to the summit.

At Paradise I was greeted by thick fog. It was a hard decision whether to go or give up but I saw other mountaineers go and people who came down said the fog was clearing up at the higher elevations.

_DSC6589

When I got to snow fields it was a white out. For four hours I kept pushing upwards surrounded by white snow and white fog. I kept following a rocky outcrop on my left to make sure I didn’t get lost. At the four hour mark the rocks that I used for guidance ended. There was nothing but white ahead. I didn’t want to risk going out into the white.

_DSC6604

I was dismayed by the weather and ready to turn back when suddenly fog cleared out and I saw Rainier closer than I had ever seen it before.

_DSC6609

But it’s only when I turned around I was really stunned. Majestic snow covered Tatoosh Range was below me, green mountain ranges and valleys were below me, and the endless sea of clouds was below me. Awestruck, tears of joy running down my cheeks, I tried to take it all in.

_DSC6624

Right then I knew there was no turning back. I had to get to Camp Muir. In a mad dash I climbed remaining 800ft of elevation gain toward Camp Muir.

_DSC6640

_DSC6661

When I got there I was filled with joy, I wanted to dance, I was hi-fiving random strangers at the camp sharing my joy. And I was taking a lot of pictures.

_DSC6671

_DSC6677

_DSC6679

It was getting late and I needed to go down. With byes from people in the camp in tow I started running down the snowfield. I was light on my foot letting them slide from time to time. When slope was steep enough I was glissading enjoying it the way the kids would enjoy.

_DSC6659

It took me five hours to get up to Camp Muir. It took me only one and a half hours to get down.

 

The Best Place

I’m a perfectionist. I know this about myself. My friends know it about me. I know they know because I’ve heard enough grunts from them when I get stuck in one place endlessly perfecting a picture while they want to continue hiking.

This quality of mine can be a virtue as I constantly challenge myself to be better at my craft. It drives me on a personal quest to make the best of the scene to find the best of me. But sometimes it can also be misleading.

***

This morning I woke up very early as usual given my jet lag after flying from Seattle to Rome to go to Tuscany. I like my jet lag: I wake up deep in the night hours before dawn. I can explore Tuscany by myself while most people are sleeping.

I was staying at a farm near a small hill town Pienza. During day the town was bustling with tourist and shops and restaurants but at night I could have it all to myself. It was quite: a ghost town, a movie set, a place to wander aimlessly through its narrow streets. In warm street lights it was intimate and mysterious.

I could walk along its walls and enjoy the views of mist covered fields surrounding the town, listen to the quiet of the night, breathe its chilly air. The walls were empty during night but there were plenty of photographer every morning there as they offered grand views of the surrounding hills.

The walk to Pienza from the farm was about half an hour. As I was hiking along the road that morning I passed an olive orchard. Then I walked along a winery grape field. The grape wines were low enough that I could glimpse the hills that make Tuscany such a picturesque place. As I came to the end the second olive orchard I veered off the road and sneaked between the trees to come out to a wheat field where I finally got a clear unobstructed view of the valley.

I stopped to marvel at the thick fog blanketing the valley. The fog was slowly moving in waves and only tops of the hills were floating above it like ships in the ocean. I got my camera out and started taking pictures. The perfectionist in me was telling me to go to the town walls, that they would give me a bigger view, that it might be even better, that I would miss the sunrise if I stayed there.

And yet I stayed. I could not move. I could not abandon what I saw. And it dawn on me that the place, where I was, was the best place for me to be, because I was there alone, because I was the only witness to that particular moment, I was the only one there to capture it and share its beauty with others.

Walking up a Creek

Another stop on a long winding road along Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park. Deep temperate rainforest of Olympic Peninsula is on the side of the road. It is dark under its canopy of tall hemlocks. Trying to walk through it up the steep mountains would be a tremendous feat. Every now and then big trunks of the fallen trees create obstructions that are often too tall to climb over. Soft damp ground cover of needles and ferns can hide holes or loose rocks that can easily make you lose your footing. I’ve never been able to walk more than a few meters into it before meeting an obstacle that was too hard or too risky to get over.

Every now and then there are openings in the woods created by creeks running down the mountains. Some overgrown and barely visible while others wide and open. Most will dry by the summer but it is spring now and they are filled with water from melting white snowcaps of the mountains and frequent rains.

That’s probably the only “safe” choice to work through this forest following a creek bed. That’s why I stopped next to one of them. My curiosity urged me to follow one of them deeper into the forest and see what it is hidden in its depths.

I put my backpack on, grab my tripod and cautiously head off into the woods. Every twist and turn of the creek bed reveals new details. At first it starts as a rocky opening wide enough that two sides of the trees cannot join their branches to block the sky. The water is nowhere to be seen but I can hear its restless murmur. It is hiding under the rocks.

As I get further up more and more water can be seen rushing over the rocks in small cascading waterfalls or relaxing in a small quiet pools. Slowly the creek bed narrows and the canopy of trees closes up over my head. It gets darker and quieter. The rocks become more mossy and slippery and the footing more unstable. I wish I had my micro-spikes with me. It did not occur to me that they might come useful for walking on slippery rocks.

From time to time I stop to enjoy lively silence of the forest, let myself lose myself in it, become part of it. Sometimes I get my camera out, take pictures, have my dialog with the creek, be attentive to it.

It gets darker even more and I realize that it is not just because the thick canopy of the forest anymore: the sun is probably getting closer to horizon. Time to turn around and go back down to where I came from.

The walk down is easier, more familiar and less strenuous. I’m deciding to cut one of the twists and shorten my path down. The rocks look drier that way too and might be easier to walk on. After walking down a little while I run into large hemlock trunk crossing my path. It is over a meter thick and covered with moss. For a moment I ponder retracing my steps back and going down the way I came but I decide to scale it and promise myself never cut the creeks turns again. Following back the way I came is the safest way to go.

As I descent it gets lighter; the canopy opens up back to the sky. Finally, I’m back at the road. The sky is warm with the late evening sun light. I turn around to face the creek one last time. I bow to it and thank for the experience it gave me.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Challenge of One Road

The main part of this blog post was written last September after my trip to the Palouse at the end of August. It took me a while to come back to it to finish it. The idea of challenging myself is still very important to me and the post remains very much relevant.

***

Blue sky above with a streak of white clouds passing by, yellow rolling hills covered with a patchwork blanket of fields below and I’m standing a top of a butte floating between those two. Such a familiar landscape. So many times I’ve visited the Palouse, browsed its network of dirt roads raising dust clouds behind me in the air, captured its beauty in many images. And yet I visit it again and again. Its rolling hills are comforting, meditative and relaxing.

All my visits up till last would start at Steptoe Butte. It was my way to greet the Palouse, taking it all in in one sweeping 360 degree view. It was an easily most noticeable landmark in the Palouse, a popular destination for photographers, a place where images are easy to come by. The biggest challenge is to make something new.

Lately I had noticed my photos from the Palouse had become repetitive. I had my favorite spot for sunrise photography. I had my favorite spot for sunset photography. I kept visiting them every time I went to the Palouse. No risks taken. Guaranteed sunrise or sunset image. Just the way I had done many times. To do something new I had to do something different. I had to allow myself to fail. I needed to give myself an opportunity to see sunrise and sunset in different places. That might mean that I would leave without a killer shot but I can instead leave with a sense of exploration and wonder.

That is what I had on my mind during my last visit to the Palouse.

The first morning of the trip I got up early, before the first light of the day to come had started filling the starry sky. It was dark and chilly. Rather than rushing to a familiar sunrise spot in the morning – one of those I had taken pictures at during previous visits. I got into the car, drove out of the town and then turned onto some random dirt road letting the sunrise catch me somewhere unexpected, somewhere where I had not seen sunrise before.

I managed to get a few pictures during sunrise in different places. First one was a barn with a gradient of cold and warm colors of pre-dawn light in the sky. Then the light of the sun that rose just above the horizon barely skimming the tops of the hills with a lonely windmill, with a Steptoe Butte in the background.

After the early morning exploration I got back to the hotel to have a breakfast. During the breakfast another thought came to my mind: Do I have to wander about at random places? What if I explore the same place deeper? What if I challenge myself to find new images in the same place?

So I’ve decided to visit the same route I picked in the morning… Fast forward two days ahead, I drove that route six times during the trip. Each time I found new images, noticed things that had eluded my attention before. It was fascinating to observe how my attention was getting sharper. I would not notice those things without that focused exercise.

Besides seeing new things in already familiar places I had an opportunity to see the same places in different light: see them in the morning, at noon and in the evening; see how they changed. And as I was going to the same place over and over I was giving an opportunity for something special to happen. One time I got to see a man fly-fishing in a shallow creek, another time a tractor was working the field rising a column of dust in the sky. All of it by driving the same route over and over.

The take away from this story is that it does not matter how far or how close we travel, it does not matter if we visit an old place or a new, what matters for a creativity is a state of mind. Setting some specific goals for self-improvement, setting up challenges often helps to do something truly new and rediscover yourself.