The Dome Fire – Mojave National Preserve

I watched the weather radar from home, frustrated by doctor’s appointments and other domestic obligations that would keep me away from the East Mojave during one of the first thunderstorm events of what had been so far a “non-soon” Monsoon season (storms and rain failed to materialize across most of the southwest during the summer “rainy” season). I would be there soon. It was August 15, 2020. You might think that mid-August is no time to enter the desert, especially solo, but the high elevation regions of the Mojave National Preserve (MNP) sustain mild-enough temperatures (dependent upon one’s comfort levels) through most of the summer to make life possible here. Even better, the higher elevations of MNP are dressed in beautiful juniper and Joshua Tree woodlands, offering plenty of shade, rich and diverse plant life, and abundant wildlife. 

Appointments would keep me in town through the afternoon of August 19, and I would then depart for the Preserve to hopefully meet the next arrival of monsoonal moisture. On the afternoon of August 16, my stomach sank when I learned of the fire through a Facebook group. It began following a series of dry lightning strikes at 3:51pm on August 15 and was already burning quickly through Joshua tree woodland with unstable weather and high winds exacerbating the flames. In just over 24 hours the fire had taken 20,000 acres. 

From home, sick to my stomach over the fire, I kept a close watch on incident reports and social media and quietly wept inside. Early on the 20th I received word that road closures had been lifted and I quickly departed for the Preserve. 

It was named the Dome Fire (fire map) for its origin on the geologically unique Cima Dome, a symmetrical ten mile wide granitic bulge in Earth’s crust which is revealed in nearly perfectly concentric rings on the USGS topographical map. The fire had begun on the south and west perimeter of the dome and pushed east and northeast, directly over Cima Dome and Teutonia Peak, before roaring into the Ivanpah Mountains. Aided by improved atmospheric conditions, hundreds of firefighters, and air drops of water and Phos-Chek, the fire was mostly contained and extinguished by August 19. But not before the fire had consumed more than 43,000 acres of beautiful Joshua tree desert woodlands. In less than four days nearly the entirety of the Joshua tree forest on Cima Dome had burned. 

As I headed southbound on Cima Road, I could see clearly the burn scar on the dome from more than ten miles away, but it was a smoky day with poor visibility – hundreds of fires were burning throughout California and the west – and it was difficult to make out any details from this distance. Within just a few miles of the northern fire line the true scale of the fire became evident. I knew exactly how many acres had been declared burned but had not yet converted it to a relatable number: before me was 68 square miles of burned Joshua tree woodland. Not just any Joshua trees, but the largest and densest Joshua tree forest we know (they are found only in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah). I left the pavement at the northern fire line and in utter disbelief headed off onto a dirt road into the thick of it. I stopped and climbed atop my truck to survey the damage and what I saw appeared to be little more than a fire-blackened wasteland. All I could do was cry. 

It is important to understand why I would write this story or why I would cry over Joshua trees. This place is dear to me. I currently serve on the Board of Directors for the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy and for more than twenty years I have been exploring and adventuring in the Preserve and this was one of its most special gems. Plants, animals, and ecosystems are my interests and subjects. I can’t tell you much about contemporary culture, sports, or cinema but I can name plants by their binomial names and birds by their songs. In 2011, I was Artist in Residence at the Preserve and I concluded my residency with an exhibition at the Preserve’s Kelso Depot showing – that’s right – my Joshua tree collection. Sixteen years ago I rescued my dog, Mojave, from the Mojave desert just eighteen miles west of the summit of the Dome. We spent a lot of time here together, reveling in its extraordinary beauty, climbing the mountains that ring this beautiful valley, and studying its starry skies. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge just two and a half years ago and this fire reopened a bad wound. 

Unlike desolate alkaline basins which can feel uninviting and inhospitable, this is the most inviting portion of the desert, where Joshua trees and their shrub communities offer abundant welcoming shade and respite from a weary sun. This was the place that defied the typical expectations of the unwitting; where healthy jackrabbits,  cottontail rabbits, and antelope ground squirrels would flit between shrubs or sun themselves in the open; where choruses of coyotes would yip and howl by night; and where even a committed bird watcher would find delight in the resident Gambel’s Quail, wrens, phainopeplas, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and black-throated sparrows – a comforting place of diversity, abundance, and tranquility. 

For three days I walked through a charred landscape, revisiting familiar places and trees, only now dramatically altered by the fire – much of it a high intensity burn, with everything lying in its path completely consumed. The ground was scrubbed bare, left only with the black stains of complete combustion or white piles of ash. The wildfire had lapped at and barreled over large rock formations, reaching into crevices and caves and consuming everything: grasses, shrubs, trees, cactus, moss, lichen, even rat middens. Life seemed completely absent. These were incredibly difficult scenes to witness and process. Yet I felt I had an obligation to be here, to mourn and to grieve the tremendous loss of vegetal and animal life and an absolute transformation of a landscape I love, and to try to use my voice, my photographs, as a means to hopefully spark dialogues as to how to help better protect these trees and this landscape from the future threats they face. 

Many California ecosystems and plants are fire-adapted (or dependent) and fire can be highly beneficial to them, yet it’s deadly for non-adapted desert ecosystems like Cima Dome. Where a lightning strike might have formerly taken out one tree and its surrounding brush, the extensive destruction of the Dome Fire is the result of several factors, most significant being a changing climate. For those of us who spend a significant amount of time out of doors, drastic changes in the natural world present abundant signs of impending climate change disasters. California fires have become increasingly large and destructive and will only continue in this direction under the current climate regime – at least until humans find themselves willing to accept and tackle our most existential threat. 

I’m showing only a limited selection of photographs here. You can find here a growing gallery of my photographs from the Dome Fire aftermath; I hope you will return to the gallery for updates.

The Conservancy will be discussing with the National Park Service any possibilities for our involvement with rehabilitating the land. If you would like to be notified of ongoing efforts and potential volunteer opportunities, please consider following MNPC on its website or on Facebook

Resources

TAKE ACTION: Reduce Your Carbon Footprint (the reader may be confronted with inconvenient truths)

TAKE ACTION: Iconic Joshua Trees Need Your Help Right Now

#DomeFire feed on Twitter

INCIWEB Incident Reports and Maps

What the Fire Took Chris Clarke by Chris Clarke

L.A. Times: Mojave Desert fire in August destroyed the heart of a beloved Joshua tree forest

Dome Fire’s destruction of Joshua trees reminds us of climate change’s carnage

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Medium Format Magazine: July 2020

MF_July2020_coverI am pleased to announce my second article (Photography is Easy. Art is Hard) and nine photographs in the July 2020 edition of Medium Format Magazine, the #1 magazine dedicated to Medium and Large Format photography enthusiasts. This monthly magazine is well-written, elegantly produced, and contains many great photographs from all genres in more than 100+ pages in every issue. Thank you for looking.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Dig Deep

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Ernst Haas

I have walked this beautiful Death Valley canyon perhaps more than one hundred times. It is a spectacularly colorful serpentine canyon with deep, polished narrows and many potential photographs along the way.  I made all the obvious photographs over my first tens of visits. All of my walks since have produced exciting discoveries that can really only result from intimacy. I’ve not once been bored by this familiar walk (refer to the Haas quote) and I’ve never run out of opportunity or ideas. I walk with no photographic preconceptions as they act as barriers in my ability to *see* and experience.

These four geologic panels are millions of years old and found over a two mile span of the canyon. I made these photographs not because they are colorful and could compose well, but rather because I am fascinated by the geology of this canyon and the Death Valley region and have studied it extensively over the years. I now know these walls and every twist and turn of the canyon as if it were my own home.

My heart grows only fonder, the experiences and photographs get only better.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram

SPECIAL SALE on Exhibition Prints!

_DSC1511Take advantage of greatly reduced prices on a handful of my Limited Edition Exhibition prints! These prints were framed and hung during previous exhibitions; they were either not for sale or failed to sell. The overmat and prints are flawless; the back of the mount may show signs of handling, wear, labels, framing points, etc. Only ONE copy is available at this special price – ACT NOW!

Please let me know if you have any questions regarding these offers. Thank you for looking!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Medium Format Magazine

MF_May_2020_coverI am pleased to have an article and eight photographs in the May 2020 edition of Medium Format Magazine, the #1 magazine dedicated to Medium and Large Format photography enthusiasts. This monthly magazine is very well-written, elegantly presented, and contains many great photographs from all genres in more than 100+ pages in every issue. Furthermore, Medium Format has graciously provided me with my own column – The Inner Landscape – where I will share thoughts and personal process from the creative and artistic side of the medium. I look forward to seeing you there!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Toloache (Sacred Datura)

 

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)

The Sacred Datura plant (Datura wrightii) is known in Mexico as toloache, from the Nahuatl words for “bow the head” and “reverential” (how can you not love this?). Beverages made from this poisonous deliriant induce hallucinogenic visions; when used improperly, even death. It is used for sacred rites of passage by Native American tribes, has been used to hex and to break hexes, to produce sleep and induce dreams, and for protection from evil. It has also been used for divination, to find one’s totem animal, to allow one to see ghosts, for communing with birds, for long hunts and strength, for sharper vision, for sorcery and to increase supernatural powers. Sacred Datura (also known as Jimson Weed or Devil’s Weed [Yerba del Diablo]) is one of the subjects of Carlos Castaneda’s critically acclaimed The Teachings of don Juan. I have personally used it only for photographic power.

Accordingly, a sacred plant commands sacred photographic treatment. I experienced many rejects and failures before I finally landed a successful photograph. Sacred Datura grows in the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave deserts and blooms from April through October, rainy season dependent. In clear weather, flowers may open in the morning or evening but close during the heat of the day. In cloudy weather, they may open earlier and last longer. Individual flowers do not last long, timing is everything. In windy conditions – common on the desert during it’s blooming period – flowers can be quickly damaged by wind (folded and bruised flower petals don’t photograph  well). Further, wind is often disastrous for large format film photography where long exposures are common and camera bellows become wind sails. My exposures are timed carefully to fall between gusts of wind. Unlike digital photography, there is no instant feedback in film photography – results are not visible until I later develop the film. A second negative is often made to counteract wind movement; one is routinely a throw-away (due to blurring).

Toloache resides in my gallery of Strange Growths. For photographers and other artists, my next post here will detail the origins of and methods used in this ongoing body of work.

Put a print of this on your wall!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Photo: Pacific Ocean, 5:20pm

_MG_3158Design and Architecture firm Workshop/APD has acquired a large Tranquil Waters print for a New York design project. It’s an honor to have my Pacific Ocean photographs make an appearance on the Atlantic side. These liquid abstractions are often the confluence of three movements: water, watercraft, and camera. All three are typically moving simultaneously in these photographs and the results are often surprisingly exciting or a complete failure. I may be better known for my monochromatic impressions of California deserts yet I’ve lived in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean my entire life. In my experience, the vast infinite and solitude of open water is not at all unlike standing on a desert summit with the vast and infinite stretched before my feet.

You, too, could have this print on your wall

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Death Valley Sand Dunes Photography: A How-to Guide

Capture

Consider enriching your personal and photographic experience by trying something like this: Take a long walking tour, following magical light as it evolves and caresses the sands. If direct/frontal light seems too “harsh”, examine other possibilities for sidelight and backlight; these are more dramatic and are my favorite. Deep wells, holes, bowls, and hollows in dune fields can take on sensuous and dramatic shadows during what many photographers might term “bad light”. Keep walking, keep searching, keep changing your direction of view, and don’t forget to think and see in monochrome (when saturated colors have little relevance) for stunning black and white desert photography. Golden Hour? Make it three.

My article “Death Valley Sand Dunes Photography: A How-to Guide” has been published by The Image Flow Photography Center. It’s filled with professional advice on how to make your photographic adventure on the dunes more rewarding. Thank you for reading – enjoy!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

New Website!

I am pleased to announce the release of my new website!

Capture

It was more than ten long years since my old website first rolled out. In 2018, 58% of total website visits came via mobile devices and it was time for my site to join the 21st century. The old website featured considerably smaller images and was not mobile device compliant, while the new one features an all-new graphical interface as well as responsive and much larger images (reponsive = images that scale properly to any device for maximum resolution and viewing enjoyment). Hundreds of photographs have been reworked for the new site. More work remains to be done and new bodies of work are forthcoming but I am thrilled with the new look and would love to hear what you think about it. Thank you for viewing!

Photographer notes: consider WideRange Galleries if you need a custom website. I’ve been working with Jack Brauer and WideRange for more than a decade and cannot recommend their services enough.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Presentations & Workshops

_DSC9361-2I will be presenting Death Valley National Park: Magnitude and Mystery to the Lancaster Photography Association (Lancaster, California) on Tuesday, August 20th, 2019. The presentation includes nearly 200 photographs and a wealth of information about the Park’s natural and human history. The meeting is from 6-8pm and is FREE and OPEN to the public. Come on out!

My forthcoming Death Valley autumn/winter workshop season is filling up quickly. Seats remain open in the two following workshops:

https://lacphoto.org/…/death-valley-national-park-with-mic…/
(beginner/intermediate skills)

http://www.visionaryphotoworkshops.com/…/visionary-death-va…
(with Guy Tal; a cerebral and non-technical workshop). We’ve moved this annual workshop earlier in the season to take better advantage of late winter storms and light.

I hope to see you soon in Lancaster or Death Valley!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.