The Greatest Gift

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In this sunlit desolation of rock and thorn, where the sun beats down through an unending march of days and the desert silence which broods among the boulders and Ocotillos is broken only by the harpings of the wind, we can spread freely the net of our minds to gather those priceless, fundamental stirrings of the infinite which are most easily come by when one is close to nature. Marshal South

I recently celebrated my birthday in Death Valley National Park. Reasoning that all my clients are wonderful people and a joy to be around (this is no lie) – especially considered in the context of photography and Death Valley –  I chose to schedule photo tour clients on my birthday. While some opt for more civilized days or nights on the town with a fine dinner, friends, and a show, my time spent quietly in nature amidst the sun-burnished desert holly, half-billion year old canyons, and ancient night sky are among the simplest of joys – they make me happy. I don’t need any wrapped presents or candles or cake – these are the gifts I want and love.

I’m always a little hesitant to share my “methods” with my clients. I meet most of them at their lodging, where they’ve often spent a comfortable night under a roof with the possibility of evening television entertainment. They are often surprised when they learn that I forgo lodging and sleep under the stars. Not camped in a tent – literally, on the ground and under the stars (never in “developed” campgrounds). It is not a budgetary constraint – it is a choice. Sometimes the kit foxes visit me at night (sometimes walking around on and smelling my sleeping bag – “lie down, kit!”). Often I hear my coyote friends nearby reveling in their hunt. I have no fears about sleeping beautifully this way – much worse (and louder) things can happen in any city on any given night. There is no quiet like the quiet of my preferred Death Valley sleeping sites.

My “method” ceased being a choice long ago – after a great many years of doing it this way, sleeping under a tent canopy or roof feels wrong when there are planets, meteors, and a raging night sky to lull me to sleep. Rest assured, I’ve had plenty of middle-of-the-night rain drills which send my scurrying like a wood rat. My ancestors slept like this; it feels right to follow in their steps and try to understand a little of their existence and their communion with nature. It cannot be so terribly different from my own experiences.

One of Lynda’s goals was to experience and photograph the Milky Way. Any day or month of the year, I get to experience this brilliant flaming Galaxy over the Death Valley night sky. And while I don’t care so much about making photographs of  it – I observe it nightly in real-time H.D. with my own eyes – I don’t take it for granted. Never for a second.

In a world which often seems to be speeding (and spiraling) out of control, I feel eternally thankful and blessed for these gifts. The gift of sight lets me see nightly that infinite galaxy overhead. The gift of sound allows me to hear gentle desert winds rake across the hairs of my outer ear. And the gift of simply being allows me to take pleasure in the simplest joys which were enjoyed by my ancestors (and which are frequently lost on modern man).

Thank you for a most wonderful birthday in Death Valley, Lynda and Jim!

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For information and photographs, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

High Peaks and Low Valleys

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before I began typing this entry, I counted the meager number of blog posts that I made in 2015. It’s staggeringly pathetic considering that the year is now three-quarters finished. While some consider blogs dead (in lieu of Facebook and other similar social media), I still consider it my main means of communicating more detailed thoughts (despite not having done so in recent months). On one hand, my photography, business, and adventures have experienced a remarkable 2015 – it’s been exciting. On the other hand, I’ve experienced one of the most difficult years of my adult life. My nine-year-old lumbar spine problems and chronic pain reared its horrid ugliness again, and my father passed away on July 28 after several difficult months of illness and hospitalization. It’s hard to celebrate the highs with such low lows.

I was very close to my father. I took him to most of his medical appointments, oversaw his care, and was with him in his final days and with him when he took his very last breath. I lost my mother 16 years ago and forgot what it really felt like to lose a parent. I had no idea that I would be hit again as hard as I have been.

In late September 2015 we took home some of dad’s ashes to his birthplace of Edinburgh, Scotland (an incredibly beautiful and charming UNESCO World Heritage site – this from a guy who dislikes cities). The journey was beautiful and emotional. Regardless of any trip’s purpose, I always carry a camera and tripod (shouldn’t an artist always have their tools?). Although the purpose of the trip was to celebrate dad’s life and be with family, I was still able to spend many hours alone wandering through Edinburgh making photographs of its narrow closes and wynds and dimly lit corridors. Many of my favorites are dark, mysterious, brooding – perhaps the mood of Edinburgh or perhaps more reflective of the state of mind of the maker.

The Green Steps is one of my favorites (see it LARGER). It’s dark and perhaps a bit brooding. But I prefer “light at the end of the tunnel” or perhaps the route of ascendance that my father took (or hovered above) as he made his way to a more verdant, happier, and brighter place.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook and Google+.

Speed Kills!

Kit Fox, deceased (Vulpes macrotis)Over the course of nearly thirty years operating automobiles,  I have moved off of roadways and roadsides far too many dead animals (coyote, hawk, owl, squirrel, snake, raccoon, opossum, skunk, deer, jackrabbit…the list goes on), and on January 16 in Death Valley National Park, I added a new species to the list. Not far from the parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, I found a kit fox lying just beside the road. I was immediately angered and saddened – this doesn’t have to happen. This poor fox was virtually undamaged, although its bowels were slightly protruding and it appeared to have a broken back leg. There was very little blood. Such a beautiful, soft, and delicate creature, not bigger than most of my cats. I gently laid it to rest beneath a creosote bush and wished it well. My sleep was not good that night.

Speed kills! Please, when in wildlife country, no matter the posted speed limit, slow down! Do not assume that animals will make the right choice as your vehicle or headlights move towards them – they will not. Be observant for those sets of eyes that catch the glint of your headlights; automatically slow down when you see them. Project and imagine what the guilt will feel like after you’ve hit an animal. Imagine the young animals that could be left behind to suffer and starve after their provider has been killed. Let these thoughts guide your safer, more observant, and slower driving. Wildlife does not have to die beneath our wheels.

Disclosure: I’ve done a significant amount of driving where wildlife lives, often during the wee, dark hours. In my thirty years, I’ve hit only one creature (a kangaroo rat), and it was one creature too many. However, I have had  many animals in my headlights or on the roadway before my vehicle, but they received the attention and berth they needed to survive.

Please slow down and save a life.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Hell on Earth: My Quagmire of Pain

This is a long post, but it might possibly contain valuable information that may make a medical difference for you, a loved one, or someone else you may know. Some of you noticed that my online presence and professional output diminished greatly post-Spring 2011. I’d made previous comments about personal disability on my blog, Facebook and elsewhere, and many of you took note and wrote with your concerns. Thank you for caring! This is a story about my spine…

In March 2006 I suffered the blow of my life. As I often am, I was in Joshua Tree National Park enjoying camping, hiking, and photography in one of my favorite places on earth. Up until March 2006, I had been continuously adjusting to and ignoring general lower back pain that had been increasing for months: “I must have pulled a muscle”. One can only successfully manage pain up until the point of catastrophic failure: I awoke in the Park to excruciating pain and the inability to rise or walk. The very next day I was hospitalized due to an 8mm lumbar disc herniation. Two additional lumbar discs were bulged, and I was diagnosed with a host of degenerative spinal issues. I’ve carried a lot of packs in my life; I’ve taken serious falls while technical climbing; and genetics are against me. But at a young 38 years of age, I never would have imagined that I’d be hospitalized and completely debilitated. It was the worst time of my life; naturally, it came to a screeching halt.

Despite the recommendations for surgery, I was well aware of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome and I instead elected to self-rehabilitate only with several forms of physical therapy and exercise. I came home with a walker and graduated to a cane. I was told that if I committed and worked hard, I could be back at play and work in 6-12 months. I listened, I desperately worked at it, and I recovered despite how at-the-bottom I felt at that time. It was an amazing journey, and by 2007 had worked my way back to backpacking with a camera kit. I rejoiced and my core was strong like never before.

Fast forward to July and August 2010, when I led two backpack photo tours into the High Sierra. Both tours were excellent, and I felt physically healthy and strong. Yet shortly after the August tour, I began to once again feel a tinge of pain in my lumbar spine, and slight worry began to set in. By early November 2010, I began to fully realize that I was quickly sliding in the wrong direction, and I had new lumbar MR images taken. Uh-oh. The new images revealed that *all five* of my lumbar discs were now bulged, yet none thankfully herniated. I got back into assisted physical therapy, and remained there for months. I did everything right and everything that I was supposed to do, yet unlike 2006, the therapies were not at all helping (ultrasound; acupuncture; traction; massage; TENS, exercise) and I was getting no better despite my efforts. It was frustrating and discouraging. Everyday life was becoming a challenge.

By May 2011, I was a physical wreck. There was not one moment per day that I was free from pain and discomfort. Sleep loss became routine (forget the bed; I slept on the floor for months), appetite- and weight-loss ensued, and before I knew it, I was not able to leave the house other than for doctors appointments. The only way for me to get through each day and night was through the legal use of opiates. And not even Oxycontin could alleviate my pain or help me to sleep. I quit caring about photography and life, and wondered if this was my new future. I really felt at the bottom when I recognized and was confirmed with muscle atrophy. My own mother suffered from chronic pain for more than twelve years. I had endured less than a year’s worth, and it was already too much (my mother was an incredible woman, it turns out).

My wife is a career Registered Nurse and knows just about everyone in her medical field. We sought recommendations and the very best doctors. I saw a respected spinal surgeon who declined to operate (Thank you, Dr. Chen). I followed up with a recommended neurologist who diagnosed me with neuropathy (nerve damage) in both legs (more depression!). I once again felt finished, but this time at the age of 43. A few more weeks of chronic pain passed, and then I saw another neurologist for a second opinion. He, too, was unable to diagnose the exact cause of my pain, nor was he able to suggest anything or anyone that could help me. To further corroborate lack of diagnosis was my regular pain management doctor, who insisted that my pain was indeed a result of lumbar disc compression issues (why didn’t Dr. Chen agree?).

By August 2011, after living with chronic pain and sleeplessness for months on end, I’d had enough. This was not the way I was going to live out my days, and being a full time Netflix’r and pill popper was not a lifestyle I sought. Despite my wretchedness, I decided to take control of my situation and began doing hours of online research (while squatting before my desk; sitting was still physically impossible). Thank goodness for the amazing WWW – I learned of something called Piriformis Syndrome (also spelled Pyriformis). Piriformis Syndrome is almost symptomatically identical to sciatica. Consequently, many doctors and surgeons who are inexperienced with Piriformis Syndrome (as mine were and as most are) will often overlook this diagnosis. Until then, I had never really quite known of the piriformis muscle (many back pain sufferers ultimately become quite knowledgeable about anatomy) even though piriformis stretches were part of my repertoire. After reading through pages and pages of forum posts from suspected piriformis sufferers, I became positive that this was my affliction, and I would allow no doctor to tell me otherwise.

Thank goodness for YouTube: I located a number of myofascial release exercises and stretches for the piriformis muscle, and immediately got to work (even though the initial pain was severe). Within one week (ONE WEEK!), the majority of numbness in my left leg was gone, and my pain level went from 9+ to 5-. On August 16, 2011, I revisited the second nuerologist, who upon my request injected my piriformis with cortisone. Within a few days of the injection, I stopped taking ALL medications (including Advil); the numbness was entirely gone; and my pain was a fleeting memory. It seems virtually miraculous, yet the miracle is that I had the courage to fight and take control despite my misery and the overwhelming darkness at the end of my tunnel.

I am very happy to report today that I have quickly swung back into business after months of inactivity and suffering. I am back to camping, hiking, and photography, and last week went on assignment for The Wilderness Society (an upcoming blog post). It’s great to be back at work. It’s even better to be back outside again where I can feel the desert winds blowing, hear coyotes howling, and watch the sun start and conclude a day. I am back and life is good!

The moral to this [long] story is that sufferers will suffer when they place their hopes and outcomes entirely within the hands of doctors or others. You are the #1 advocate for your care and for your situation. Empower. Fight like hell. Never quit. Research and understand Pirifromis Syndrome if you suffer from sciatica and are getting no relief despite your best efforts. Most of all, find a doctor who will listen to you, because this is your life.

Who’s joining me this weekend for a Star Party in the Mojave Preserve? 🙂

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

The Cracktrack: Confessions of a Drug Runner

Some years back, my good friend Steve told me about finding old aircraft tracks on Death Valley National Park’s famous Racetrack playa (where the stones “mysteriously” move). In 2004, author Michel Digonnet released a wonderful adventurers guide to the Park, and he too, mentioned the aircraft tracks: “…a few decades ago the Racetrack was used by drug smugglers as a landing field.”

Steve, Scott, and I were at the Racetrack again in December 2010, and we found the aircraft tracks on the playa after walking across it while aiming towards one of the old mines east of the playa (photo at right).

Finally, just last week, the Los Angeles Times published a Framework multimedia piece by Don Bartletti entitled “Flight of a Drug Cartel Smuggler“. Within the first two minutes of this video, you’ll see images of Death Valley and hear drug smuggler/pilot John Ward detail how he used to land at night on the Racetrack, carrying upwards of one ton of marijuana or cocaine. Unless there was more than one smuggler using the Racetrack as a landing strip, I assume that the tracks seen in the photo at right belong to none other than John Ward.

The mystery of the Racetrack’s aircraft tracks is no more.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Yosemite National Park: Can’t see the forest for the missing trees

Yosemite National Park ©Michael E. Gordon

I mentioned being injured in my last blog post on June 17. That comment did not go unnoticed, and I’d like to thank everyone for their concern, well wishes, and generosity. I am indeed on the disabled list, and I will address this in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, there’s something more pressing that I need to get off my chest…

Approximately 5-6 years ago while traipsing cross-country through Yosemite National Park’s incredibly beautiful Tuolumne Meadows – within eyesight of Highway 120/Tioga Pass Road – I discovered scores of young pines that had been cut and removed from the meadows. All that remained of the trees were very short and slender stumps. It had to be the National Park Service (NPS) that cut the trees, and that they were most likely cut to preserve the views for those driving Hwy 120 in the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows. In late 2008, I learned that the large pines that had grown in front of Yosemite’s famous Tunnel View also got the chop, all in the innocuous-sounding name of viewshed restoration. I was upset. Finally, just this week, Yosemite National Park approved its Scenic Vista Management Plan, and word has gotten out (Mercury News article; L.A. Times article).

In short, the NPS says that the Scenic Vista Management Plan “…is needed to reestablish and maintain Yosemite National Park’s iconic views, vistas, and discrete lines of sight that are obscured by vegetation growth.” The question is WHY? Trees grow, vegetation grows, and natural processes occur. I know you know this, yet I have to wonder if the NPS does. It is not and should not be NPS policy to interfere with natural processes in the name of viewshed restoration, yet that’s exactly what they plan to start doing. I encourage you to have a look at the NPS Mission Statement. Even if broadly interpreted, I cannot see how this action is within the bounds of the NPS’s mission.

The public is at odds with the NPS regarding this issue, and it is vitally important to note that most of the thinning will take place alongside roads, turnouts, and at scenic viewpoints. It should be noted that I support tree thinning and controlled burns to control wildfire – Yosemite NP engages in both every year. But by its name alone, it should be evident that this Plan was primarily enacted to restore scenic views that have become obscured by trees and brush.

For some historical and geologic perspective, let’s have a look at Yosemite Valley’s famous Mirror Lake. Once upon a time, Mirror Lake was much larger and lake-like – you can see this in early Ansel Adams photographs. Mirror Lake is today partially filled with sediment, and is slowly becoming a meadow. Years from now, Mirror Lake and Mirror Meadow will be no more, and the area will be recognized as a forest. This is the standard geological process in the Sierra Nevada. We can’t stop it, we cannot change it. Once upon a time, Tuolumne Meadows was also a lot wetter than it is today, but like Mirror Lake, the expansive meadows are filling with trees and obscuring roadside views – much as forests do. Even the NPS acknowledges Mirror Lake’s meadow conversion on their website (Mirror Lake/Meadow).

It’s a done deal and there’s little we can do about it (the public comment period ended long ago), yet All photographers have a vested interest in this discussion. My concern is that trees and other biota are not killed so that opportunity is created for tourists and photographers. This is not why we created Yosemite National Park and the National Park System. This is not America’s best idea!

I appreciate your comments and contributions on this subject.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Little Jewels

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to take in an André Kertész exhibition here in Los Angeles (I can hear a few readers saying “who in the heck is André Kertész?” Photographers: Please do yourself a favor and learn about him and his work). Beyond the brilliance of his photographs, what struck me most about the exhibition was just how small the prints were. Kertész worked with mostly hand-held small(er) format cameras, and either contact printed his negatives (contact prints are the same size as the original negative) or made very small enlargements (what we might today call “tiny”). What I learned from that experience was that by their very nature, small prints command the viewer to move in, get close, and enjoy a very personal experience with the print (I again experienced a similar sensation a few years later at an Edward Weston exhibition; his, too, were mostly 8×10″ contact prints). On the contrary, large prints have the unintended consequence of moving the viewer away from the image, both physically and possibly emotionally. Indeed, some images can be printed massively and will still dominate the viewers emotions and attention, but I’d suggest that this is more the exception than the norm.

Little JewelsTry this experiment with your own photographs. Printed small, every one of them becomes like a little jewel. I recently made an 11-print sale (all framed); six large, five small. Very small! These five were custom sized to fit very specific bookshelf spaces. Mind you, I make small proof prints all the time, but it’s a wholly different experience to make such small prints and then to frame them as the finished product! These five are finished with hand-oiled solid walnut frames, and I was taken with their tiny beauty (photo at left). Despite their diminutive size, one is commanded to move close, hold the frames, and carefully inspect all the details (right down to the framing). NO large print has ever moved me the same way. I learned this first from that Kertész exhibition, and I am reminded of it again today with my own small pieces.

I write all this as my largest-ever print (34×80″; yes, that’s 7 feet wide!) is currently at my finishing lab awaiting treatment!

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.