July 31, 2016

Life Through the Lens

Last weekend up in the White Mountains and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, I wondered if I'd let my photography get out of hand.

Even before we passed 5000 feet, when we stopped at a crossing of the Owens River (and a small parcel of land with water actually owned by the County of Los Angeles)...

...I spent less time listening to the explanation of the plants we were seeing in the rare, wet, riparian habitat than I did trying to photograph it.

And as we were driving down Death Valley Road towards the "Devil's Gate," I had to make sure I captured as much as I could.

At least when we got there, I could park my car and get shots of scenery that wash't whizzing by me.

But still, I don't feel like I was really seeing any of it with my eyes.

I wanted to commit everything to memory, but what I'll remember is the photographs I took, not what I actually saw.

And sometimes, photographing something doesn't mean you're experiencing it. The camera—and its lens and screen—can act as a kind of barrier.

It's all at once a mask, a veil, a prop, and a security blanket.

But I do believe there are things I only notice because I'm looking for something to photograph.

The details in the landscape start screaming out at you, when you're packing the heat of a macro lens.

You watch where you step.

And you revel in the details.

I don't own binoculars—so sometimes my optical zoom allows me to see (and document) something  that's too far away for the astigmatic lenses of my eyeballs to process.

But the lens of my camera can handle the fleeting appearance of a horned lark...

...or the scurrying of a frisky marmot...

...that's emerged from his rockpile burrow to try to nab a snack from curious passersby.

When my father first discovered something was wrong with my vision when I was just three years old, he'd pointed out a "birdie in the tree" out an upstairs window, and I couldn't see it. (Or, that's how the story has been told to me.)

Now, my vision is mostly corrected—by thick eyeglass lenses and hard contact lenses that torture my eyeballs.

But it's the camera lens that really makes sure I never miss a birdie (or anything else) in the tree, ever again.

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Photo Essay: Spooks and Kooks at Midsummer Scream

Halloween can never come soon enough for me.

Seriously, I'm ready to start preparing on New Year's Day, once the hubbub of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve is done and over with.

So I'm delighted to have participated in a Halloween convention for three years in a row: last year and the year before as a panelist at ScareLA, and this year as a moderator of my own panel at Midsummer Scream, for which I assembled some kindred spirits to talk about ghost towns.

After our discussion was over and the audience filtered out, I finally got to mingle with the ghouls, goblins, freaks, geeks, and monsters that had come out to play on the exhibit floor.

All the usual haunts and amusement parks were out in full force, having brought a cast of stilt-walkers and other creepsters to rev up some excitement in the crowd.

But conventions like this are the kind of place where regular people can come as they are—and leave as a mutant.

Others arrive fully prepared to work the floor...

...even if they've got nothing in particular to promote.

Unlike some other conferences that are really just trying to sell stuff to you, Halloween conventions like Midsummer Scream actually want to entertain you...

...and give you a taste of what's to come in the fall with mini versions of local haunts, as a kind of amuse-bouche.

Whoever they are, and whatever their purpose, they generally love having their photo taken—or, at least permit it with a slight nod as they pretend-attack you.

The life-like masks on display at some of the booths, however, don't really have a choice in the matter. They must comply.

Sometimes it seems like they're going to jump out and spook you, too.

These dolls might start talking or laughing or crying... they latch onto one of your limbs to try to hitch a ride home with you.

In the end, the dolls stay there, but who knows what spirits may have attached to you as you perused their cracked faces and frilly costumes?

And maybe Krampus might have spotted you being a naughty little boy or girl, and noted to himself to stuff you into his basket along with all the other naughty little kids when he returns in December!

Of course, there are things to buy at Midsummer Scream, though it doesn't feel overly commercialized.

Even the big, expensive props feel handcrafted.

There's a kind of artisanal aspect to everything that's been molded, sculpted, painted, illustrated, glued, and fabricated.

People working in special effects, set decoration, and makeup for sci-fi and horror movies are so darn talented here in Hollywood—so it's a delight to get to see what they work on in their own spare time, when they're bringing their own vision to life.

Photo from

I took home an enamel pin from my friend Drew's booth. This pumpkin is on fire, and he loves it.

I might start wearing it right away. It's already August, after all.

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July 30, 2016

Photo Essay: Dead Wood

In certain parts of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, you'd think you were walking through a grove of dead trees.

Au contraire.

Not so!

Sure, some of the branches are dead.

But they're often attached to trees that are very much alive, and growing, and reproducing, and thriving in the harshest of conditions.

Although they can live for thousands of years, some trees must eventually die. And it's only then that we can truly know how long they were with us.

Even dead, the wood is sturdy—and fearsome. This dead wood looks as though it drifted ashore right out of the ocean.

But in actuality, the ocean drifted away from where the wood would eventually grow.

Nature—or science, or genetics, or fate and destiny—has twisted the wood into distorted patterns, rippling like the waves of the sea.

And yet they still manage to rise from the former ocean floor, climbing their way up to the tops of mountains, growing in soil that's more limestone than it is dirt.

Somewhere along those ripples, we can trace the course of its life.

Somewhere in the rings, there are scars we can't see.

We can only see the winds and the tides of time that have left their mark on the timber bones, strewn throughout the skeletal wreckage in an arboreal graveyard.

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July 28, 2016

Heal Thyself

There are reptiles like lizards and geckos that can break off their tails to escape from a predator.

It's a short-term sacrifice, because eventually, they can grow back a new one.

Humans can regenerate some of their cells, too—including those in organ tissue, like the liver.

I have a friend who burned the palm of her hand pretty badly once on a hot pot handle; but after it blistered and calloused over, the damaged, dead skin eventually peeled away, revealing a whole new baby layer of palm skin underneath.

The human immune system is pretty incredible, because it can heal the body before you even know something is wrong with it. We're constantly exposed to infections of all sorts—bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites—but we're not doomed to become ill every time because our bodies can heal themselves.

I'm hoping our brains can heal themselves, too.

I'm hoping my heart can heal itself. I don't think anybody else can heal it.

In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, those trees have to withstand a lot of perils: wind, weather, and a climate dry enough to occasionally burst into flames.

And yet some of them still last thousands of years, thriving in the harshest of conditions, growing in the driest of soils.

Parts of the trees may die off, their bark falling off and the wood underneath becoming twisted, while other sections still thrive.

A dead limb doesn't bring them down. They still manage to pollinate (by wind) a couple times a year...

...and produce these huge pine cones with their tell-tale spikes, a dead giveaway to the "bristle" cone variety of tree.

Their secret to longevity seems to be in the sap, which is often sucked out by a variety of woodpeckers. Any wounds they create in the surface of the tree while feeding off of the sap are immediately filled in by the sap, which seals the wound off from infection so it can grow back, leaving nary a scar.

On our trip to the forest, we watched the process in action, as a park ranger demonstrated how to "core" one of the bristlecone trees in order to determine its age.

He screwed a thin, hollow tube into the side of the tree trunk and then slid it out—warning that if it stayed in there too long without turning, the sap would start sealing it in place.

Soon, the sap will fill the entire hole to facilitate the regeneration of pine and bark. In fact, its own natural process works better than if Ranger Dave had closed up the hole himself or tried to patch it somehow, which bears the risk of trapping a dangerous fungus inside.

You just have to give it time, and let the tree do its thing. And when you come back in a few weeks—or a few thousand years—you won't be able to tell where it's been sucked or cored or otherwise marred.

Of course, I'm a lot more delicate than that. I'm still pockmarked from a sixth grade bout with chicken pox. My left knee has layers upon layers of scarring from all the times I've taken a tumble on it (most recently just this past February). I've got what seems to be a permanent sunburn on my arms and chest.

And I'm not very good at hiding the fault lines in my heart. Someday they're going to rub together the wrong way, and the resulting eruption will do irreparable damage.

Sure, I've been glued back together—like a broken vase or china doll head. Even if you can't tell who or what has pecked at my wood, there's no denying that it has happened.

I've been burned and gutted and sapped dry. And you can tell just by looking at me. I wear my scars on my sleeve.

But maybe the scars don't mean that I'm not healed. My new tail might look a little different than the old one, or than the rest of my body, but it still works as a tail.

And if I have to sacrifice it again in the face of danger, hopefully I've got another one just waiting to grow back in its place.

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