Saturday, January 29, 2011

The next step: The Cottonwood Country

I have seen the face of what lies east of the mountains and know it to be a spare and cheerless land with room aplenty for desperation. From the lea-side of Shuksan to the Dakotas and south to Mexico is a thousand mile slice of dust and dry stalks, grit-wind and unexceptional towns, each one boarded over with movie-theater size adverts selling Technicolor dreams. Visit Hawaii (it’s beautiful), drink Pepsi (the models are beautiful), consider cosmetic surgery (you’ll be beautiful). Every town provides glimpses of other places and the means to get there, and never the home-turf. It makes me think of Steinbeck who wrote about this in Travels with Charlie, "I was to see over and over in ever part of the nation a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any here."

Should I go east, then it will be to that waterless land that rations its green till the Lakes. I think of it as the Cottonwood Country, for that is the most widely found tree of that land. Those trees do not grow so well where the rain is measured in feet, yet still prefer to sink their toes in streamsides than pumice dust. There they grow as they can till they can send their breeze-loving seeds on the west wind to drift across the Rockies and blow about the plains till they can find some mud, sprout, shoot, and set seed in turn till the descendants come at last to a place too hot, too wet, or too salt and do not sprout. By then there are other trees – maples, poplars, pines, oaks, birches, willows – and the cottonwood country has long since ended.

That land has its defenders and heroes who do not see it as I do now. For they, open skies are the wages of freedom, and a world held between a sheet of blue and a sheet of brown does better for them than one between grey and green. Cattle do not do well in forests. Guns are better shot in the open where the crack of the echo can scare the crows into flight. I care for neither cattle nor guns. My soul needs shade. When the west wind blows over the Great Basin and across the prairies, bending the cottonwood, the cottonwood does not beckon to its own country, but thru and past, to wherever it has sent its seeds.

Bleak rendition, I realize, of a full third of the nation, and unfair to those who have chosen it as their Eden. But I am a Pacific-American, by choice if not birth, and my heart sets to the nearer side of the dividing mountains. From the Sierras and Cascades, west. This is the place – for now – that I need.

I think then, that the spring will send me north, to British Columbia, where the dome of trees keeps the sun from the earth. I want to keep the salt on my skin and the smell of cedar in my clothes. I am avoiding the cottonwood country. So long, and so treeless, I think. Perhaps, I may even go around it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


A friend gave me a very precious gift. In June, in Santa Rosa, I was given a Holga camera by a friend, who accepted in exchange a cheap pinhole camera made from a tea tin. I do not know how well the pinhole camera worked, but I now know the results from the Holga. My regret is that I neither knew its complete operation, nor its worth, until these photos, taken in Washington - mostly on the Olympic peninsula, with a few from Seattle.

Sometimes the images turn out quite sharp, and serve as touchstones of memory, as when I took this photo of a farmhouse outside the Quileute Reservation at sunrise. Operating as a dairy and a bed and breakfast, I knocked on the door, looking for something hot to drink. The first frost had just happened.

I met this man and his wife (below) who have the most incredible garden, full of strange statues and doors that lead nowhere over many acres. Many photos were taken in places too dark that they did not show up well. But here, when he entered a clearing, the light hit him well enough. I do not remember his name, but I recall he has Parkinson's so badly that he cannot use silverware but must only eat with his fingers. He does not care that the deer eat his plants. It is too big a garden anyway.
Though old, the woman is not feeble, and has many times circled the Earth with her husband, and a few without.

The dark lines and shadows give a prescience to each moment. I don't think that there is a meaning ascribed that was never there. But rather a meaning that becomes more visible once it is preserved.

I strive to catch the small moments of beauty that happen daily. Here, a spoon lodged in a fencepost. The camera has two settings, which I have only just learned today. One setting ensures a brief exposure of about 1/50th of a second. The other is manual and can expose for as long as the shutter is held open. Only learning this now, I realize why some photos of mine are too blurred and others so sharp as the settings went back and forth while the camera knocked around my pack.

Toy cameras, these are called. A Holga costs around $30 and is made only of plastic, including the lens. It weighs not even so much as a deck of cards and is the size of a small lunchbox. The setting for close-up shows a stick figure. Slightly further away, twist the lens till the hashmarks on top move from the stick man to the stick family. A bit further out, twist again till the gallery of stick people. One more twist and there are no more stick figures, but a stick mountain, for landscape shots, as the above. Cape Flattery, where the land just ends.

Sometimes, I forget to advance the film, and the result is a double exposure, as when a night shot of a hamburger shack overlapped with a self-portrait.

These shots lack the clarity of a glass-lensed camera. And they will never have the color-value of digital, though there are color films available. They are lurid dreamscapes, where the world is preserved not as it appeared, but as it felt to be.