I have had this little photograph open in my image editing program for some time now, waiting to post it online. It is a simple photograph, but I connect it to several things that have some meaning to me. The scene is in the tiny yard at the home of relatives in Heidelberg, Germany, whose hospitality we enjoyed over a two-week period a couple of summers ago. On this evening we had gone outside, if I recall correctly, to eat and have some wine when I noticed this diagonal beam of light passing over the surface of the white wall and forming a shadow. As someone once wrote, “There is always something to see,” and photographs are potentially anywhere.
Early morning frost on dormant winter grasses in a Yosemite Valley meadow
On a late-winter morning like this one there could be snow in Yosemite Valley, and even without new snow there is likely to be a bit of it lying around in shady areas. But not this winter. This has been the fourth of a series of very dry years in California, and this year was especially unkind to the Sierra. By the end of the season the snow pack looks to be barely 10% of what it would be in a typical year, and the situation is even more dire since this is only the latest in a string of such years. So it was not surprise to find this meadow snow free, with only a bit of frost suggesting the season.
We arose early on this morning and headed out close to sunrise looking for a meadow with the common winter low fog. We finally found a bit of it in this meadow, though it was dissipating quickly. Before it went away we headed out into the meadow to see what photographic possibilities we could find. I first focused on the frost itself and on some of the winter-dormant brush and bushes around the meadow’s edge. Then I moved back into the main part of the meadow, where these bent over and dried grasses reminded me of the patterns I might find in flowing water.
A single cottonwood tree lies among dry winter grasses in a Yosemite Valley meadow.
This has been and continues to be a historically dry year in California and especially in the Sierra. More concerning, it is the third such year in a row. In a more typical year — and may those return soon! — the location where I made this photograph would be very wet and perhaps even snow-covered on a day like the one when I visited.
We headed out into the Valley very early on this morning. It was the sort of day when you might hope to find some ground fog in the Valley meadows. We had no luck at the first two meadows we checked, but the third did have a very tenuous and shallow layer of fog, so we stopped. I wandered out into the dry and slightly frosty meadow, and as I did the last of the fog dissipated. As I looked for compositions among the waves of dormant grasses I began to notice that here and there were reddish-brown heart-shaped leaves left over from the autumn cottonwoods.
San Joaquin Valley wetlands on a late winter morning
About a week ago we headed off to Yosemite Valley for a few days, primarily to attend the opening reception of the 30th annual Yosemite Renaissance Exhibit in The Valley, but also to spend some time there in what we hoped might be interesting and possibly snowy conditions. Given the way this year has gone, it shouldn’t be surprising that the hopes of snow were not met — though there was a five-minute flurry in the morning in the Valley and we found a few inches of new snow by climbing up out of the Valley. But “there is always something to see,” and there was no shortage of other things to photograph.
On our way to the Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area we made a short morning stop at a favorite migratory bird hangout. Typically we arrive here by dawn and encounter thick tule fog. This morning was different and more spring-like with sun and a few puffy clouds overhead. While it seems wrong to see this weather in what should be winter, it still was beautiful, and I made this simple photograph of a quite wetlands marsh where I more typically photograph in fog very early in the morning.
Thick tule fog obscures the view of a central California marsh
These conditions are among my favorites out in the Central California wetlands — silent except for the calls of birds, almost nothing moving, fog so thick that details quickly disappear, and a gentle glow from sun above the shallow fog layer. Mornings like this one remind me that the photography is about something deeper than getting a clear shot of another bird — it is about somehow trying for that merging of capturing and evoking the mood of such a place, and about personally experiencing the thing.
Subtle and uncontrollable things come into play. I have to slow down a lot and look for compositions in place that are not at all obvious, and the subjects from which I can select are limited to those that are very close. Some elements of the composition exist almost on the very edge of visibility — in this photograph there is a further extent of the tules that is barely visible at all. Focus isn’t easy, and I may choose to “go with the softness,” as I did here. And the bird, suddenly appearing at the lower left, turns out to be utterly unpredictable yet important to the overall effect of the image.
An egret hunts in marshland grasses, San Joaquin Valley, California
On this foggy late-December morning I was in this spot mostly looking to photograph sandhill cranes. It seems that the cranes are often a bit shy in the early morning and I often am not able to get too close to them — I try, but they tend to be a bit off in the distance except when they are in flight, and then they typically diverge a bit when they see me. There were lots of cranes on this morning, but they were by the ponds near the more distant trees in this photograph. (If you look closely you can probably spot a few of them.)
Egrets, on the other hand, are often not that far from my route. Out here they tend to be found along creeks and ditches or out in grassy areas where they can hunt, which is what this one was doing. While the egrets are spectacular in flight — with their slow, swooping trajectories and huge wingspans — they may actually be more interesting to watch when they are hunting. They seem to be very careful and very patient hunters, often sneaking up on their prey slowly. Along the way they may stop in some awkward pose, perhaps standing almost still aside from a bit of neck “rocking” or the slow movement of a foot. Then the neck stretches a bit and suddenly the bird stabs its small prey. This bird was hunting in grasses very close to a gravel road, so I remained in my vehicle to photograph it as it looked for its breakfast.
Yellow and orange autumn aspen trees in the high desert terrain of the eastern Sierra Nevada
My “discovery” of Sierra Nevada aspen trees has gone through a number of phases. I was first aware of these trees many years ago, early in my backpacking career, when I frequently encountered the trees and their fluttering leaves along backcountry trails. (To this day, when I think of the green trees, one of the first places that comes to mind is a humble little thicket along the trail to Cathedral Lakes.) It was not until much later, believe it or not, that I made the connection between these trees and the color show that they put on for us in the fall. Perhaps this was because my orientation to the Sierra was from the west side (rather than the east, where the most spectacular aspen displays are arguably located) and because I rarely visited the range during aspen color season, instead going almost exclusively in summer (for camping, hiking, backpacking, and occasional climbing) or winter (for cross-country skiing.)
Perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago I had my first introduction to the “east side.” I know that sounds crazy, especially for someone who has loved the Sierra for a lot longer than that, but somehow it worked out that way. On the bright side, I had the opportunity to discover a whole new aspect of the Sierra at a relatively later point in my life. After “discovering” the precipitous east side of the range, it wasn’t a big step to expand my season a bit to include late September and October, which eventually became my favorite times to be in the range — for aspens of course, but also for beautiful fall weather and the occasional early season storm. More recently, after perhaps a decade of heavy focus on the eastern Sierra aspens each fall, I have begun to turn my eyes further east, to the color along the base of the range and in the mountains to the east of the Sierra, where the trees often grow in spare, dry surroundings.