Christmas 2014 – Death of a Giant

Merry Christmas to all who follow or stumble across this blog.  I hope your Christmas was filled with family, friends, food, fun, and that your New Year will be a prosperous and peaceful one for you.

For me Christmas was, well, an OK Thursday… as Thursdays go. I’m not yet to the Scrooge stage but Christmas has become increasingly difficult for me.  It is hard watching all of the people out with families and friends seeming to be, at least for this one time of year, connected and together.  Perhaps it is all posturing and pretense, or some psychological sympathetic magic from Tony Robbins and PNL (Psycho-Neural Linguistics on steroids, e.g. if I act like it is real perhaps it will become so…).  But even if so it is at least, for them, an option.

I don’t dislike Christmas, I miss it.  I did get one of the best cards ever and several thoughtful and needed presents which was great.  But for years Christmas Eve and Day were special times.  I poo-poo’d it at the time, I admit, but now with Karmic irony I realize how much it actually meant to me.

Nowadays, even the cat will not wear a Christmas bow and though well-intentioned her annual Fancy Feast Turkey in Gravy Surprise is often overcooked.  Last year, for example, she tried to heat it still in the can… in the microwave… and for a brief moment the kitchen looked like the 4th of July and smelled like someone tried to roast a squirrel with the hair on.  When I finally found her hiding under the bed she wasn’t hungry either but did succumb to some coaxing with a handful of kitty treats but only after a promise not to make her clean up the microwave.

So I was definitely not interested in sitting home listening to Christmas music and the mere thought of watching movies of people finding each other under the mistletoe to the romantic chords of a platoon of violins and cellos rising to a crescendo as their eager lips met was, well, that was more than I could bear.

I wanted to be away – nearly anywhere else — and with a full tank of gas in the Montero (I still cannot shift the Jaguar) aiming in any direction seemed good.  “Out there,” “that-a-way,” both sounded like a really good plan. I actually wanted to see snow but according to the internet there was none in the local mountains and no mention of it in the regional ski areas.  Bummer.

However I could retain some value for the time and gas and head out to location-scout for a shoot I’ve been planning.  For you followers you have perhaps seen photos I’ve taken over the years of a wonderful antique giant of a tree along the Black Canyon Road near Mesa Grande.  Gnarly and powerful this ancient live oak rose from a rock outcropping and against all odds became a patriarch of the forest.

Here is one of the many photographs I have made of it over the years just to let you see what I am talking about.

The Old Giant Tree on Black Canyon Road.  Canon 1Ds Mk II Mosaic

The Old Giant Tree on Black Canyon Road. Canon 1Ds Mk II / Hasselblad Zeiss 150mm lens Mosaic

And here was one I was just having fun with. Tree on Black Canyon Road I have always loved that tree.  And I had a GREAT plan for it.  Do you recall the post from earlier in the semester when I was testing my Petzval lens and did a high key portrait of student and model Nikki Smith as a demo for the portraiture class?  I came up with an idea to use her ethereal look in a real production shot combining painting-with-light techniques, location lighting, and a long deep sky shot where she would look like a spirit rising from that great tree.

Though I had often shot it as the main subject in natural light, I now needed to do a real location scout and plan the shot for what types of lighting equipment I would need based on where I might need to put up light stands, modifiers, etc. (and how much help I would need).  So this seemed like a good day to do that and get my mind on a project.

My wrist is much better but still not strong enough to hold my heavy camera and lenses but it tested more or less OK using the lighter body and the Petzval lens so I tossed that alone into the car along, almost as an afterthought, with my little Point and Shoot.  After all this was not to be a photo shoot but a location scout.  Still, not having a camera in the car was like heading down to stroll the shops in Seaport Village without any clothes on.  (Ever have one of those dreams…?)

Besides, the weather was spotty with scattered showers and a heavy dark cloud bank was coming in from the west.  How appropriate… But I did not need good shooting light to determine where I might want to put light stands.

To be honest I was not in much of a creative mood anyway so thought the technical issues of planning the shoot would be good exercise to at least keep my practicing some part of my art.  But…  on the early part of the Black Canyon Road there was a tree still sparkling with recent raindrops that I thought might make a good subject for the Petzval.

It didn’t.  The unique bokeh of the Petzval glass was there but the 85mm lens was not the correct compositional tool.    The image in my mind needed a wide angle or even fish-eye to render it is I “felt” it.

But just behind the car where I had pulled to the side of the road I saw this little natural arrangement of bright sage leaves against dark wet earth.  I thought this could make a shot using the Petzval’s natural rapid focus fall off and swirling background.  Once I saw it again on the computer it seemed like it really also needed to have an old time feel so here it is in monochrome with a bit of split filtering.

Heavy rains brought out some leaves even in December.  Shot with 85mm Petzval lens on Canon 5d MkII w f2.8 waterhouse stop

Heavy rains brought out some leaves even in December. Shot with 85mm Petzval lens on Canon 5d MkII w f2.8 Waterhouse stop

So on I drove, passing up a few possible shots that might have been good for a different lens than the 85mm Petzval I had with me.  The sky was clearing in this area and the light was nice as it illuminated the valleys from the higher road bed.

Oh yeah, I needed this clear air with a hint of the sage drifting lightly on the breeze.  The grass following the rains was rich deep green, like the almost glowing “spring” green that shows up here for what seems like about three hours before things return to their normal brown.   When it happens, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

I almost drove by the spot where the tree I came here to scout… once stood.

Let that sink in for a moment as it had to for me. “Once stood…”

It was like being punched in the stomach and having all of the breath taken away.  It was GONE! The empty scene and that realization truly was disorienting and I really did not want to believe my lying eyes.  Was I in the right place?  Unfortunately yes, I was.

That marvelous old tree had conquered the rock outcrop and the hill and should be there forever.  It was surely timeless: a warrior tree spirit guarding its section of the forest.  It had, over the years become a friend and its early struggles with the rock and its protective branches arching over the hill side were both instructive and reassuring.

It was gone.

Closer inspection revealed that the high wind storms we had pass through here recently must have taken it down.  It looked like it had snapped not far above the line where it rose out of the rock that once tried to hold it back but finally capitulated and anchored it into the hlll side.  The last time I saw it, I knew somehow, like a premonition, its time was limited and even mentioned how sad it would be when this great tree finally fell.

But I was thinking in terms of years, not weeks.  I was left utterly unprepared for the sight that greeted me.  The emptiness of that hill side just added to the base emptiness I was feeling anyway.  There had evolved for me such a connection to the tree this was like going to visit a best friend and arriving as the ambulance with their body was driving off.

Maybe some of its mighty branches had fallen on the roadway because there was evidence of much chain saw use but there was not nearly enough wood on the ground to account for the whole giant tree. I used the little point-and-shoot to photograph the sad scene.  I was stunned by it and shot nearly on auto-pilot.

Site of gian live oak felled by storms in late 2014 along the Black Canyon Rd near Mesa Grande, CA.  Canon S120 P&S

Site of giant live oak felled by storms in late 2014 along the Black Canyon Rd near Mesa Grande, CA. Canon S120 P&S

I got back to the Mesa Grande road and realized I was hungry.  No problem I thought, I was near Santa Ysabel and a favorite restaurant.  But that restaurant was closed.

All but one restaurant in Julian was closed (despite crawling with people) and it had a line down the block.  Descanso Junction was closed.  The Brigantine near La Mesa was closed.  Mimi’s, Kings, Appleby’s, Changs, Pt. Loma Seafood, Fuddruckers, Smash Burger… everything was closed for Christmas.  Finally on Harbor Island The Boathouse was open due, probably, to all of the hotels nearby.  They were doing a land-office business!

As I left the restaurant to come home it was nearing twilight.  The light was really interesting this time.  The water in the big bay was a shade of blue I’ve never seen before: a rich royal / cerulean blue that nearly matched the sky.  And the skyline with all the mirrored glass was glowing almost gold in the warm sunset light.  But it was fading fast.  And there was NO PLACE TO PULL OVER!!!

I made a U-turn and went back up the road till someone pulled out and after another hasty u-turn I commandeered their space in a turn-out.  I got out of the vehicle and could see the shadow of the Pt. Loma headlands to the west sneaking past my feet and heading for the city.  I grabbed the little point-and-shoot and braced as best I could against a wavering street sign post and fired off three quick shots…  and then the light effect was gone.

Of the three shots, two were seriously compromised by camera shake but one seemed more or less OK.  So here it is:

San Diego Skyline, sunset, Christmas 2014.  Canon @120 P&S

San Diego Skyline, sunset, Christmas 2014.  The lights in the sky are airplanes coming in for a landing at the San Diego airport. In the shot at waterline you can see the Holiday lights on The Star of India and the citty administration Bldg.  Canon S120 P&S

So that was my Thursday.

Now, with Christmas over and a few weeks to prepare for next semester, I have some location lights (that I expected to use for the Tree/Nikki shot) to test and am looking forward to it.  Though the shot I really wanted them for is missing a main element and I will need to find a new location, they will be perfect for such shooting — 600 w-s self contained monolights.  It will, however, be hard to try to replace the ageless, powerful feeling of that wonderful old tree.

But there is, I believe, a lesson here.  My uncle tried to teach me that nature was chock full of lessons for us if we would just be open to them and a major event, such as the demise of this grand old tree, surely was no exception.

I had the idea for using that tree in a fine art production shot a long time ago.  But there were so many things that needed to be addressed first, and there was no hurry, after all that tree would be there forever, right?  For example, how about the right model?  Though I never mentioned it to her I had settled on Nikki when I did the demo early in the last semester. But there were other questions to ponder… and over-think as well.  Which of several ideas were best? And then there were the niggling little concerns to help me procrastinate and facilitate delay.  When I knew who to use, what if she was not interested?  How about production help? There was never enough time; so many things also needed my attention; my classes, my students, grading… yes there were weekends but… but…

What if I could not get the right gear for the ambitious concept?  What if the weather turned bad?  What if I could not get permission from the land-owner?  What if it did not work out as I imagined?  What if… ?

What if… ?

What if… ?

Minor White said of subjects in nature that if they saw in you someone worthy of taking their “portrait” then they would wait for you.  This grand old tree waited, and waited and waited for me.  And then without warning or announcement it could wait no more… and was gone.

What else in my life (and yours) is stands waiting for me (or waiting for you)?  Inaction IS action and sometimes speaks with an even louder voice.  What needs to be said or done before my next “tree shot” (or your current one) decides it can wait no longer?

What confluence of insight and courage needs to happen before you act?  At some point there will be no more time to wait and the cosmos will move on and whatever might have been… will never be.

At what point will the fear of the unknown and potential failures become less influential than the insight that the winds of change are gathering and what seems like a certain future  of opportunity waiting for just the right moment, for just the right certainty of outcome, may in fact be ephemeral and the unexpected loss of all opportunity becomes a reality?  Then the fear wins for sure.

Who says photography does not have things to teach us about life?  Here for me  is a final shot of the ruins of that site as a reminder…

Reminder... don't wait until it is too late.

Reminder… don’t wait until it is too late.



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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