“Long before the term ecology became a part of the vocabulary of the scientist, primitive man, looking out over the expanse of blue-green water which characterized his favorite fishing haunt, was probably aware of the fact that notable alterations in the color and clarity of this body of water would occur as the seasons changed.”
The introductory sentence of Theodore Olson’s PhD thesis on algae blooms.
I was witness to my grandparents’ transition to an assisted living apartment from the home they had kept for more than half a century. Though modest, it was the center of a busy family’s activities, and had accumulated the corresponding mementos through the decades. It had also collected the technical artifacts of my grandfather’s scientific career, specimens of insects and fish and algae from his ecological and entomologist specialties. He kept copies of his and his peers’ published works, along with those of his doctoral students, who carried on these disciplines, with the scientific rigor and methods that he taught them over their years in his tutelage.
I was there on the day when he had to empty the ‘wall of books‘ in his home library, which included the dissertations of his students. There was no space for everything at the new apartment. A few important reference volumes could be retained, but the others? What to do with them? Here were the compiled and distilled understandings of pioneers in biology, acquired through years of painstaking research, building upon the pyramid of human knowledge. These breakthroughs of their time have now been incorporated into our general understanding of modern biology.
What should happen to the first-ever photomicrographs of blue-green algae blooming to produce cyanobacterial toxins? What should become of the tabulated counts of seasonal species of mosquitos that were the vectors of mosquito-borne diseases? What should be the fate of that first chart correlating taconite processing and asbestos-like fibers in Lake Superior? All of these new discoveries had been first reported in his research and in the dissertations of his PhD students.
It has been a wonderful time-trip to go back and review my journal entries, voice memo transcriptions, collected travel brochures, and observing notebooks to recreate these stories. Some of the material was outlined and posted on an early web site, but the impact of 9/11 a few weeks after my return from this trip, combined with the urgencies of daily life with my active family, derailed the project. My notes and artifacts have been hibernating these years since in an ignominious cardboard box.
The film that I brought home was processed by a professional photo lab and carefully organized into sleeves and folders and correlated with my observing notes. The images that stood out became popular prints that I presented at art fairs and exhibits the following year. The others kept silently in their folders in my file cabinet until I looked for supporting images for these stories. I have enjoyed scanning them and discovering pictures that deserve more attention.
My notes from immediately after my return offer some advice. Though today I do not recall it this way, my last night in the field with the windmill was recorded as a miserable experience, a disappointment of trying to reach a closure by recreating the first pictures from the outset of my trip. Maybe seeing a successful film image a few days later, erased that negative emotion. Today I enjoy reciting the story of being lost in the hayfield; at the time, it was just too frustrating.
In my notes I wrote that I took too much stuff and my plans were too ambitious. Today, I’m not so sure. My internalized boy scout motto, “be prepared”, provided the tools and materials when I ran into trouble in the wilderness– situations that could not be solved by a quick trip to the mall for repair items. There were many times that I was glad to have the resources that I had brought.
As to the ambitious plans, they might have been a setup for disappointment, but I no longer see it that way. I am appreciative for all of the experiences and opportunities that presented themselves. Maybe this is just a way of life for me; there is far more to learn than I can possibly take in. In the years since, I have learned to live with this limitation.
The road trip format– travelling every day– was not particularly good for deep sky work. Because of the high overhead for setup and alignment and focus, it would have been better to stay in one location for several days. I made the error that first-time travelers to Europe often make: trying to fit everything into a whirlwind tour.
In the end, because I couldn’t do everything, I had to prioritize. I favored shots that couldn’t be made from near home—so the startrails with unique foregrounds took priority and the deep sky shots that could, in principle, be made from anywhere on a clear night, were secondary.
Today, GPS is ubiquitous. At the time, before cell phones, specialized receivers were required. I had an early model, a gift from my mother-in-law who rolled her eyes about the whole concept but took pleasure in my delight at receiving it. The GPS receivers were quite primitive by today’s standards of localized maps that show you the nearest coffee shops and the route to get to them; instead, they displayed your numerical latitude and longitude and could record markers (waypoints). They could also show a trail of breadcrumbs of your recent route on a blank background. If a major city was nearby, the display would show a mark and a label for it. Still, as limited as it was at the time, GPS was a terrific aid to my efforts.
In the days before smart phones, there were “personal digital assistants”, PDAs, and I owned a Pilot, that hosted helper programs before they became known as “apps”. One such program, Sol-2, told me the local sunset, twilight, moonrise, and moonset times based on my location, which I could enter by reading it from the GPS unit. This was extremely beneficial for my nighttime photo planning. Today of course, all of this is available from your pocket computer/smart phone.
I have often referred in these stories to the difficulty of getting enough sleep. With the demands of cross country travelling, and nighttime photo shooting, sleep is postponed until it can’t. I learned that an hour or two nap is extremely beneficial. Even if not fully sleeping, the momentary metabolism slowdown of just resting seems to help.
The solo time on the road was a contemplative opportunity. My mind wandered over many topics as the miles rolled by. Most of those idle thoughts went unrecorded, with no subsequent loss to society; others I made notes of and have tried to convey in these essays.
The opportunity to undertake projects like this do not occur often. When they do, they are not always apparent. I am indebted to my wife Vicki, who recognized the moment for what it was and encouraged me to embark on this adventure. She saw that this was exactly the right thing for me; I encourage everyone to support the dreams of their partner.
And for those of you reluctant to embark on something that is outside of your usual style, I encourage you to push past the discomfort and seize the moment.
Consider the lesson I learned from the visit with my old classmate (Tillamook Friends…). That story was the result of wondering if I should take a tangent trip to Tillamook to meet him. The easier choice would have been to not go, to stay in my introvert’s comfort zone and get back to my solo photography. But had I not taken that normally untaken option during that summer trip long ago, I would not have renewed a friendship that then lasted until he passed away last year, and I would now be regretting the missed opportunities to have shared in part of his fascinating life.
It’s another reminder that life is short. When risky or expensive or uncertain opportunities come up, take them. Most people regret the trip not taken.
And when you find yourself under a clear night sky, take a few moments to look up at the stars and contemplate our place in this corner of the universe. We are blessed to be here, to have a life to fill with experiences and activities, and to share them with the people we love.
Ah, South Dakota. A transition state between the lush prairies and farmlands to the east, and the arid mountains to the west. A bit of both co-reside in this state, and tonight I find myself in a stretch of farmland where the grass has been harvested into giant tootsie-rolls of hay and left at random locations in the field. The mosquitos are fierce, a sure sign of nearby water sources that feed these fields. I do not have my mosquito suit, having left it at home, the land of ten thousand lakes, certain it would not be needed elsewhere.
But I have found another windmill artifact, this one apparently still serving its original purpose, pumping water from the aquifer below to the surface where it can be put directly to agricultural use. Perhaps the catch trough is the source of some of these mosquitos!
There is no wind to make the carnivores work for their blood meal, they land with impunity on any moist skin, and all of my skin is moist tonight. The temperature is 65 degrees, and the dewpoint is the same!
The windmill is about a quarter mile in from the road. I pull off to the side at the field access, an open gate and a vehicle bridge over the gulley. I don’t dare drive into the field, this is not my domain, but I am willing to lug my equipment into place, taking several trips for the tripods, cameras and batteries (to allow the dew heaters to prevent the lenses fogging).
There was not a whisper of breeze, but whatever wind had previously been blowing had left the windmill blades facing south, a fortuitous placement for my composition. I had long wanted to make a direct superposition of the windmill on the North Star, to have the startrails perfectly circumscribe the fan of blades, and here was my chance! I set up the cameras and was surprised where they had to be placed. After a moment I realized that this was exactly right. At this latitude, Polaris was at 450 elevation, the cameras needed to be very low and aimed high to get the composition and angles to work. Even with my wide-angle lenses, the cameras hugged the ground to get the view I wanted.
On my knees to set the tripods, aim the cameras, set the dew heaters, focus and aperture, I finally opened the shutters. I could relax for a while. The exposure time was going to be 80 minutes, exactly one-eighteenth of a day. I had determined this time by counting the number of blades on the windmill, 18. It was a detail that only a mathematician could appreciate, but I have long had suspicions that there are underlying mathematical principles to the esthetic response. I could indulge my intuition in this farmer’s hayfield.
I looked around at the hayfield and realized that I was now surrounded by a thick fog. I could not see more than a few yards in any direction. So this is what happens when the air temperature falls below the dewpoint! I was well aware of the condensation that happens when a lens, radiating heat into space, drops its temperature: it fogs! And so here was an example of the air itself, not just a glass or metallic object, dropping below the dewpoint. Fog!
I experienced a moment of fear. I was out in the middle of some field, I could not see, and I was not sure where my car, or even the road was. Worse, this would ruin the pictures I was taking. But looking up, the sky above was clear. I was in a circular container of fog with the top still open. I could not see any farmhouse lights, my innate sense of direction is poor, but I had the stars to guide me!
If I was not familiar with the sky I would have remained a little frightened, cocooned by a featureless mist with no pointer back to my home base, the car. Instead, I felt somewhat protected. I couldn’t see the traffic on the road, but then again, they couldn’t see me. Their headlights couldn’t penetrate to my camera setup, and no one would wonder what I was doing in the middle of this field. The sky above was open, and my pictures were progressing just fine.
Knowing that I had been traveling north on the road, with the field on the right, I took the steps west, leaving my cameras behind in the fog, until I encountered the road, then north until I found my parked car. I was back at my base camp. I now had a problem. How do I get back to the cameras when their exposure time was up?
My GPS tracker was the answer. I set a waypoint at my car’s location, and then headed back into the fog with the navigation device to find my cameras, this time by “dead reckoning”. I had only a sense of their direction relative to the car and so I set off hoping to see the silhouette of the windmill in a reasonable range. If I didn’t find it, I could always return to the car by aiming for its waypoint, and try again. The GPS signals have no trouble penetrating fog. Fortunately, I found the cameras on my first foray. In a truly worst case, I would have had to wait til morning for the fog to burn off in order to find them. The exposures would have been long ruined, but I would have recovered my equipment.
With markers at both ends of my route, I could now make my way back and forth through the night, each time wandering a slightly different route, but always ending up on target.
Eventually however, the sky covered up completely and even my guiding stars could not be seen. I’m glad this didn’t happen earlier in the evening, before I had my GPS markers set. I would not have been able to find the car so easily. As silly as it sounds to be lost in a hayfield, it would have been a frightening experience. As I packed up and ferried my gear back to the car, following the GPS breadcrumbs, I contemplated the situation I had encountered. My windmill whiteout was a personal lesson in the loss of orientation that explorers experience when they meet more dangerous whiteout conditions. I would advise modern explorers to bring their GPS units!
Most people think of Oregon as being a heavily forested state, because of all of the logging issues and the beautiful coastline with its rainforest edging, but, like Washington, Oregon is mostly… desert. The waters and moist clouds of the western shores are sequestered by the Cascade mountain range. As a result, the eastern two-thirds of the state are arid, though punctuated with areas of high-altitude forest, and irrigated orchards.
Evidently, the forest areas are subject to fire, and with infrequent rains, the fires go unchecked for days and weeks. This summer in particular has been bad, and, consistent with the sunset I enjoyed at Crater Lake, a brilliant red ball drops to the horizon as I drive across this sparsely populated region.
The towns are far between, but offer the services to road-weary travelers, and to road-savvy truckers. I stop at Jake’s truck stop in Bend Oregon, an important refueling center. For the first time I see a “truck-wash”, a facility designed to efficiently clean the miles of dust and grime from an 18-wheeler. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but of course there must be a way of rejuvenating the chrome and gleam of these giant beasts of burden. A truck wash is the natural explanation for why the trucks you encounter on the interstate are not all dirt-gray, but usually display their billboard-size logos with pride and polish.
I refuel at Jake’s. My car takes its usual 17 gallons, and I decide to go for the restaurant. I discover that, unlike some restaurants in the cosmopolitan coast of the state, this one had a smoking section. In fact, it was pretty much all smoking section. There was a small side room with some empty tables for nonsmokers, and, discovering that the main room was choking full, the staff struggling to keep up with the clients, I took my place in the smaller room and was handed a menu by an otherwise idle server.
Most attendees had given up and gone to bed with the cloud cover at midnight. A few of us accidentally enjoyed its clearing after 2:00. We took in views of galaxies, nebulas and star clusters until the near-dawn when Saturn, and then Jupiter and Venus appeared. This was the intoxicating finale of the evening, and with the brightening sky, I staggered to my tent sometime after 4:00.
Even as one exits daily life, its anxieties drag along. I headed west on highway 12, a route that could take me to Montana and beyond. The interval between rural Minnesota towns was a consistent five miles, a day’s round trip in the days of horse-driven vehicles. Although I had no need or desire to stop, I found these distances between oases of civilization annoying–my progress seemed so slow. As I crossed into South Dakota however, and the distances started getting longer, I found my tempo slowing to match. The rhythm of the car on the pavement was beginning to seem more natural. I had no appointments or obligations, other than my desire to reach Washington for the Table Mountain Star Party. And even that was not an obligation, I could change my plans at will!
Go west! Ride the road and make my plans on the run. I could go as far as I wanted, stop where I felt like it, and make my way, my way. And like the title of the book by William Least Heat-Moon, I was traveling the blue highways. Except by the conventions of today’s maps, the lesser traveled roads are marked in red, not blue. The two-lane roads serviced the rural business, farms and ranches, and the segments between the small-town hives of activities became longer as the hives themselves became smaller.