Bathing at Bonanza

My apologies to Tony Menden, the fair and fine husband of my silversmith artist friend, Jean Menden. He had invited me to share a meal of baby-backs I had smoked for him the day before and this was my moment of delivery. With a temporary loss for words, it was several moments later after I drove away that I realized I was just feeling funky. Seemingly there are two widely held definitions; one where you feel aligned with the spirits of the soul, or when you aren’t. My alignment was certainly off.

The Mendens live about a mile south of the Bonanza, or northern portion, of Big Stone Lake State Park, and is basically an oak savanna nestled against a bank of the old Glacial River Warren. This is where I turned when I pulled from the Menden’s lakeside gravel road. Heaven knows why I turned toward the state park, yet there I was slowly navigating the park road along the savanna aimlessly looking for deer. Or, so I thought. When I reached the Education Center I stopped, parked, grabbed my camera and headed off into the woods.

Obviously they were calling. Initially perhaps it was to see if I could find a puffball mushroom, for photos of the prized mushrooms have started appearing on social media sites. What could be better than a juicy, grilled steak alongside a slab of buttery and garlicky puffball? 

The weathered path at Bonanza meanders through the savanna.

Then, less than a hundred meters down the path came the realization that what I really needed was to do some forest bathing. Based on a physiological and psychological exercise that emerged in Japan in the 1980s, and is called “shinrin-yoku” in their language, forest bathing combines yoga-like breathing, meditation and awarenesses while sauntering through the woods. A few months ago I took a class at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners “convention” at Prairie Island outside of Redwing. Although I’ve thought of forest bathing several times since, I just haven’t.

So I stopped and sat down off the weathered trail and slowly began taking in and releasing deep breaths. After some 40 years of doing yoga, meditative breathing is nearly second nature. With my eyes closed to concentrate on the meditation, to temporarily close out all that surrounded me, some of the funkiness began to fade away. My mind was feeling freer, and I was feeling, well, even a little “high.” Yes, that kind of high.

Among the keys of forest bathing is to bring awareness to all of your senses so you can experience the timbered environment on all levels. Smell was my first concentration, as it had been in the class. Then I began concentrating on sounds. Although the sounds of boats came through the canopy there was no real interference. It was then I realized my hearing aids were still in the charger back home, so perhaps the worst was not being able to hear the birds. Honestly, this isn’t much of an issue for sometimes bird sounds are simply too much for me to handle, and my goal was to relax, to ward away the funkiness in search of some internal peace. 

Like an eye in the forest poking out from a long dead and prone oak …

Those exercises seemed to have helped, so I stood, reached for the camera and headed down the trail. I found myself stopping ever so often to breath in the cool, morning air, that search for smell, to search more deeply for various scents of nature. Yes, there was a muskiness, especially as I neared a stream meandering through the wooded ravine. Searching the treetops, I started seeing the fleeting flights of brownish birds although I couldn’t make the species. Little did it matter. 

My strongest sense is sight, and there was much to see. Wild flowers dotted the path, and I became keenly aware of the ever changing treescapes, both along the forest floor and in the canopy above. The path led through an overreaching canopy of burr oak, dogwood, ash and maple, traversing down the hill toward the small stream. There a new wooden walkway had been built over an older bridge, and the two created a nice, comfortable place to sit for a rest while listening to the hypnotic sounds of rustling water. It was perfectly meditative, giving me a sense that mentally I was feeling more free of any lingering stress or mental discomfort. My forest bathing was working wonders. Something about a saunter through the woods and a burbling creek.

Visually I was becoming increasingly more aware of the small wonders of the forest, things I may have overlooked on another day. One was an incredible view inside the soul of a downed oak, peeking out at me like an eye of the forest. And there was a flower beside my knee that strangely and suddenly introduced itself, a streamside orangish flower I couldn’t recall ever seeing before. iNaturalist suggested it was an Orange Jewelweed. In the woods White Snakeroot poked through the grasses to create small, woodland “meadows” around the bases of tree trunks, and even a view of a hillside of sumac caught my attention, the reddish berries poking up from the green carpet of leaves.

As usual when I’m in an oak savanna, above me the stately limbs of the oaks once again fascinated me. There, deep in the woods, a sense of comfort came from being surrounded by the haunting beauty of a rich, oak savanna. Although I’ve made numerous images of oak limbs over the years here at Bonanza and in other savannas, here I was raising my camera again and again. As J.R.R. Tolkiem, author of the Hobbit tales, wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

The worn pathway curved alongside the lake for a few hundred feet before angling back toward the heart of the savanna. Suddenly I sensed some familiarity as I began to recognize different features from past walks and photography events below the Education Center. There would be a climb up the hill, although thanks to the deep breathing before and intermittently throughout the saunter, the walk up the hill was hardly a bother. Memories of an art and science camp with fifth and sixth grade students began to come to mind, bringing brief smiles of recollection — one of many memories gathered here.

I can never seem to have enough of the stately limbs of the oaks.

Then I thought of the Mendens, and felt fresh misgivings of my turning down their kind invitation. I simply wasn’t ready, and in the brief conversation we had as I handed off the bag containing their racks of ribs, I realized that without knowing why. As I reached my car I felt rejuvenated and mentally free, far different than I had felt nearly two hours earlier. It was then I realized that not all who wander are lost, and the old that is strong does not wither. And that the shackles on my soul were lifted.

Drive-by Shootings …

Yes, I carry. Nearly everywhere I go. Right close to my hip. Having it so close severely reduces my anxiety. I’m seemingly intent of seeking an opportunity to secure my rights and my sense of freedom. At home or on the road. Especially on the road. With it I can whip off several shots per second. Come nightfall I can peer into the darkness like the sharpest sniper to get off a shot depending on the target and lunar light. Through the years I’ve made hundreds of drive-by shootings!

Ah, so there’s your clue, for I speak not of a gun but rather of my trusty Nikon, a brand of camera I’ve had along my side since I entered the photojournalism sequence at the University of Missouri School of Journalism back in 1965. Over the years there have been a few upgrades, though not as many as one might expect. These were, and remain, sturdy tools. Dependable. As an example, while I was working for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald in 1968, fellow photographer Chuck Anderson inadvertently left one of his three Nikons on the ground as he rushed for a different angle with one of his other cameras … when a bulldozer scrunched his abandoned Nikon deep into the sand.

Realizing his mistake and at least temporarily traumatized, Chuck rushed to retrieve it. He brushed away the sand, peered through the viewfinder and pushed the shutter. “Wow!” he shouted. “It still works!” 

I was thankful to have my camera with me on the way home from a dinner party while passing through the Watson Sag in a twilight moment.

I’ve never given my trusty tool such a test, although peach juice once made a lens inoperable after covering a story on the Palisade peach harvest a few years later while working at the Denver Post. Both a handful of juicy ripe peaches and my cameras were sharing the passenger seat of my car.

Back in those days it was normal for working photojournalists to carry two to three camera bodies slung over shoulders and neck, each outfitted with lenses of varying focal lengths. Watch the end zones during a football game and you might still see this. One was fitted with a wide angle lens ranging from a 28mm to a 35mm, another with a medium length105mm to 135mm, and finally one with a longer telephoto, say of a 200 or 300mm focal length. Nowadays with much sharper and refined optics, I carry a 28-300mm zoom along with a 150-600mm zoom. Oh, and I have a 10mm in the bag for the rare chance of capturing a Northern Lights display. Three lenses and a single body, a Nikon D500.

These two larger lenses are typically laying in the front seat of my car within easy reach (minus the ripe peaches!), with the camera attached to the smaller zoom. Old habits die hard. When I head off into the prairie or into the woods, or even just driving into town, typically the camera is by my side. When in the field an over-the-shoulder bag totes my other two lenses. Holsters, if you wish. I carry because it’s fun, and like a 91 year old artist told me a couple of years ago when we shared a site at a Christmas market, “What else would I do?”

A moment caught on a narrow gravel road while art meandering with a friend.

All of these components, however, are simply tools. On of my favorite comments was when a Meander customer said, “You are an artist  ….  with a camera.” I loved that split second emphasis, for he equated a camera with a potter’s wheel, palettes and paints, or whatever other tool one uses to create his or her art. His comment wasn’t taken lightly, and it comes to mind when in the field or here processing images.

Speaking of processing, there is this frequent comment: “These must be Photoshopped.” Well, certainly. My images are captured in something called RAW, which is basically a digital “negative” that must be “processed” before being converted into a JPEG file so it can actually be used. RAW gives us much more data than does shooting in a standard JPEG format. For me, this generally means capturing much more shadow detail along with a broader color range. There is just so much more digital data to access. 

Often it’s the clouds that cause me to pause for a drive-by shooting.

That said, my “processing” of digital images is significantly less than what I formerly did while working with Tri-X back in my newspaper days with an enlarger, light sensitivity photo paper of varying contrasts and those horrible smelling chemicals in a darkroom. Like any professional in those days, working in the dim, yellowish darkroom light meant I had to master “shadow art” ­— the art of dodging the shadows, and the burning in of the highlights between the negative and print. Each image offered different and sometimes unique challenges. All of which was far more intense and manipulative than digital processing, of which there is little on my part.

While I would never in any shape or form compare myself with Ansel Adams, the noted nature and landscape photographer of Yosemite and the Tetons, who was known for manipulating his images extensively through the use of “push-and-pull processing”  when he developed his sheets of film, and then later when he went through his extensive dodging and burning to make his prints. “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships,” he once quipped.

Much of Adams’ work with his film plates and prints are now more easily accomplished with digital technology both in the field and at the computer. There are no apologies for that. Only blessings.

A friend called with a report of an American Avocet, which I couldn’t find … although this great egret caught me in the dimming twilight.

Yet, it all starts in the field. With an eye for subject matter and natural ambient lighting and colors. For cloud shapes, and for incredible and usually unique natural canvases spreading across the skies. God rarely errs with his offerings. From twilight through dawn and the short “Monet light”period until midmorning. Then hours later with the afternoon “Monet Light” through to sunset and the closing twilight of the evenings. In short, using the natural light and color while framing through composition, among other various visual offerings, all captured with tools called a camera and a lens. And a software program for the eventual processing of those “digital negatives.”

Adams mentions God frequently in his writing, yet for all those elements I’ve listed, perhaps credit is due. For me, an unabashed “carrier”, I’m forever thankful for whatever is presented in those ever changing and interesting skies, and for whatever nature provides me with subject matter. Be it a deer or native flowers, a sunrise or sunset over a wetland, or even stormy skies across a prairie landscape. Such blessings cannot be understated or under appreciated. Camera or not, we are fortunately blessed! Yet I “carry” and will hopefully be ready to pull off yet another drive-by shooting, one that brings someone a moment of thought and pleasure. 

Hopes Arising from a Homey Homily

“Longer Livin’” read the homey homily on the weathered rustic cabin edged against the Big Thompson River downriver from Estes Park. It was one of those cute commentaries folks tend to paint on the stern of their boats or on the metallic husks of their travel campers, and on this cloudy and sometimes stormy afternoon, the Big Thompson was cascading beautifully and peacefully alongside the highway guiding down from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Interestingly, our drive was on the 46th anniversary of when a 20 ft. wall of water surged through this very canyon and 146 people were “no longer livin’”, including five of whose bodies have never been found — surging right past where this weathered, rustic cabin now sits. My long ago friend from my Denver Post days, Ernie Leyba, who had covered the tragedy for the newspaper, posted the reminder of this sad and deadly anniversary on social media mere moments after I’d pointed out the sign to my son, Aaron, who was driving, and his wife, Michelle, here on holiday from Bergen, Norway.

Forty some years ago Colorado was home, when my work with the Post took me into numerous nooks and crannies of the state, from small towns in the Plains through the mountain passes, from peaches on the West Slope to “wheaties” harvesting the golden grain out in the Plains. This is where I grew up, where I began to become a man despite too many missteps to count, and even now in my late 70s I sometimes cringe on the number of people I may have hurt on my journey of growth.

About a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains briefly broke through the clouds.

Earlier in the week, as we drove across those same rolling Plains toward Denver, my eyes kept venturing toward the approaching Front Range mountains hoping to witness another majestic welcome as I had on my career- and life-changing trip back in 1969, entering a world yet to be explored and experienced. On this drive the skies were bluish-gray and overcast, then about a half hour from Denver a peek of the Front Range mountains momentarily broke through the clouds. Staunch and proud, and once again welcoming!

I was even able to capture a “textured” image of a tree on the mountainscape.

So began our nearly week-long journey of visiting family, a handful of old friends, a beautiful bookstore and an incredible farmer’s market on South Pearl. An old home week with the Norwegian branch, and my other son, Jacob. Midway through we were off to the mountains so Aaron and Michelle could make their traditional horseback trail ride they attempt to schedule on their trips. After hitting the trail on the saddled horses, Urchin and Grain, Rocky Mountain National Park beckoned. We realized going in that we had a limited time frame due to a patio party being hosted by another former “Postie”, Mardy Wilson, in nearby Fort Collins.

My daughter-in-law, Michelle, had a great sense of vision in noticing our first elk, lazing off the graveled jeep road in a pocket of wildflowers.

Ah, but the mountains. With Michelle at the wheel, we entered the Beaver Meadows entry point before veering off the pavement onto the one lane, one-way Conata Basin Road, for a climb up and through the alpine meadowlands on a picturesque graveled jeep road. It was an interesting trip beyond the physical beauty, for I learned the youngsters from Norway were taken in by the vast and tall mountainous vistas while I sought flora and fauna; they leaned across the front seat grasping views of the massive mountainscapes as I once had while now I craved for quick stops along the pocket meadows on the opposite side for wildflowers featured in palettes of vivid colors.

Apparently the road “engineers” agreed with Aaron and Michelle, for the half-car wide pullouts certainly favored the mountainous views over the pocket meadows on my side of the road. Plus, there were too many cars on the one-lane gravel for her to suddenly stop to allow her eager father-in-law time to jump out for a few moments of floral imagery. I also learned that my viewing of mountainscapes had shifted, for I was now looking for patterns and rhythms of those same shoulders of the valleys and peaks, of how the mountains framed and offset the towering clouds that rose above them, of how they lent themselves to an overall composition rather than as stand alone towering mounds of stone. 

This was about a fourth of the large herd we saw easing down a mountainous slope as we drove over the pass.

It was in the midst of such thought when Michelle suddenly braked the car to point excitedly, “Look! An elk!” Indeed, lazing beside a log and partially hidden by pines and tall grasses was a majestically antlered bull elk. I quickly changed lenses to more closely capture the reclining beast.

For a long while this was my highlight of the drive … until we climbed toward the top of our last pass where an entire herd was easing down a slope of the mountain. Dozens, perhaps, all easily ambling and grazing along their way. Cows and a few bulls, yearlings and calves among them. Moments later, as we capped the apex of the pass, two more elk were spotted at the crest. It was like the topping of a sundae. A few hours earlier, upon entering the park, we joked about even seeing one elk and now this!

I learned my vision has shifted from the brawn and boldness of the peak to seeing the rhythms of the ridges as elements of overall composition, factoring in the clouds and other features.

My aims for flora and fauna were certainly satisfied despite the steady passings of the numerous pocket meadows with hundreds of wild flowers beckoning from each. Besides the elk and the few flowers I was able to capture on our one stop at a gravelly, toilet-friendly pullout, the mountains with their patterns and rhythms were heavenly. It was splendid afternoon for a photographer, and actually an afternoon I hadn’t expected. After all, it had been four years since we’ve all been together as a family, and to share such a grand experience was godsend. And this doesn’t even factor in seeing my late wife’s family and a few old friends.

As we descended from the gravelly pass past the park exit, ambling along the Big Thompson, my thoughts drifted toward wading the beautiful cascading river with a fly rod angling for a colorful, battling trout or two.  Another sense of being back home in the Rockies, however briefly.

I realized while passing through the cascading Big Thompson that these river views truly captured that essence of being back, offering an odd sense of familiarity and comfort. “Longer Livin’” read the sign on the rustic cabin as we traversed the curvy and picturesque Big Thompson Canyon Road toward the Plains, providing an unexpected message that gave this guy a ray of everlasting hope that maybe someday, God willing, we’ll pass this way once again.