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.

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.

 

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The Light

I’ve probably written about importance of light, of an interesting, beautiful light in landscape photography. And I’ll probably write about it many more times because it is worth it. This is one of those stories.

One of the places that we visited on the recent trip was Canyon De Chelly. When we arrived there the sky was gloomy. The light was flat and uninteresting. The images were flat and uninteresting too.

We started with the furthest viewpoint. In just a few minutes the sky broke into a small rain that within seconds turned into downpour and then into hail. There is nothing to do but to leave.

We dutifully visited every viewpoint on the way back. Eventually, the rain was over. When I walked to the next viewpoint the sun broke thru the clouds and lit up the canyon in patches of soft glow that added volume and magic to the scene.

From there on there were a lot of images worth looking at.

The White House

Watching the light moving across the land – there is nothing more fascinated than that for me.

One of the destinations on my most recent trip was Canyon de Chelly. One of the most interesting places it has is a White House, which is a set of ruins from the times in the distant past.

When we arrived there we were met with pouring rain then hail. When it all stopped the sky was grey and the light was flat. While I found the White House be interesting compositionally, in flat light it was looking boring.

Then the sun started breaking thru the clouds. From a viewpoint that I was standing on I could see a spots of light moving across the planes on the other side of the canyon. As they reached the edge of the canyon they quickly dropped off the cliff down the sheer the canyon wall and landed with a splash into the valley below.

I was watching them doing it over and over. With time I started seeing the pattern to the movement: the direction they are moving in and which place on the canyon wall they will pick to take the fall.

Eventually, the spot that I’ve been waiting for came by. I knew it was coming to shine on the White House while it was still wandering the plains on the other side. I saw it highlight one tree after the other slowly crawling toward the edge of the canyon. When it reached the edge of the canyon I leaned to viewfinder anticipating its fall.

The light spot dropped down fast and I caught it just as it was crossing the White House. I was excited as if I caught a magical creature. Well, maybe I did. The light like that brings certain magic to the photo.

New View in Familiar Place

I return to the Palouse over and over. I love it. It make me feel at peace. I like to sit at the top of Steptoe Butte and follow the lines of the hills in a rhythmic pattern. Up and down, up and down. It has meditative quality.

And each visit I find new a new scenes. Sometimes along the roads that I travelled many times. The color of fields, the light, the clouds, the patterns – all change, all the time.

And sometimes it is simply taking a look in a different direction. Like in this case. I drove this road many times but always in the opposite direction and had never seen this tranquil scene up until now.

Backlog

Finally, finally, I caught up on the backlog of images I had not processed over the past year. I have no backlog now. Hopefully, I will keep it that way.

With that said, here are a few paths I have taken over the past year.

Facing the Sun, Facing the Wind

(Continueing from my previous post.)

On the way back from Columbia Gorge I stopped along the road at Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge. Something caught my eye as I was passing by. Ponds of still water reflecting clouds. I stopped by and decided to stay there till sunset.

I was standing at the edge of a pond waiting for the sunset. My camera was on a tripod next to me waiting for the sunset. Wind was blowing in my face as I looked at the sun approaching the horizon. It was as simple of an experience as possible. And it was beautifully satisfying.

I standed there for an hour, just being there, experiencing it with every sense of my body, recording it in my memory in all its rich beauty. Because that’s what my life is all about.

The Meadow

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. –Lao Tzu

Thanks to the modern medicine I’m off on the road in less than 3 weeks after the knee surgery. Just in time to catch the last of wildflowers in Columbia Gorge. That’s where I headed the last weekend.

The first day of the trip I spent stopping at random places because the sky and the light was amazing. I could not just drive by it. I  wanted to see it without rushing.

That meant that I got to Columbia Gorge late night and had no time to photograph wildflowers the first day.

The next day, I got on a hike. At first I walked just a little bit, trying to get a sense of it, if the hike was worth it. It was worth it. There was an abundance of variety of wildflowers on the trail. I got back to the car put my backpack, took tripod and went on the hike.

I completely forgot about my knee, hiking, taking photos. Until I got to a top of a hill. I was not even quite at the top yet, when the knee reminded me about itself. It was tired. So, I did something that I had not done since I was a kid. I lied down in the meadow of flowers to rest.

I was lying in the meadow of flowers and the life in the city seemed so distant and remote. All the rush, all the noise, all the chaotic motion seemed so unreal. I was lying in the meadow of flowers and thinking about how I’m trying to make as many pictures as possible on each trip and not giving enough time to take in the experience of being in the place. And just like that I fell asleep.

I woke up a couple hours later greeted by yellow flower hanging over me. I took my camera and captured that simple experience.

 

Follow Your Heart

When I go on a photographic trip the hardest decision is always picking a destination.

Last week I had a knee surgery (which went quite well and I’m recovering quickly). The weekend before that I was going on a photo trip. I knew it would be a while I’d go again, so the choice was really hard.

The way I often make such decision is first decide whether I want to explore a new place or visit again a place I’ve been too. Once that is over I decide within that group which place to go based on time of the year, weather, etc.

The way I decided this time was simply by following my heart. So, I went to the Palouse. After so many years and so many visits I still love this place.

It’s rolling hills have calming, meditative influence on me. Despite its growing popularity I still have my places where I can be alone. And I keep discovering dirt roads I’ve never visited before.

When I arrived there I realized it was the right choice for me. Calm and peace filled my heart. First day I did not even get the camera out. I was just looking at the hills following their lines in their slow rhythm of a heartbeat.

Photos for Meditation

I found certain photos to be great for meditation. I can stare at the for long time and think about something that I cannot remember anything of later. They are just so calming and simple.