Dealing With Nature – Part 3: Getting Equipped for an Adventure

OK, so far in this series we’ve talked about the allure of landscape photography and how mastery of it can inform virtually every other genre you might work in; but there are issues and dangers you need to consider before you just start out for the tall and the uncut (part 1).  And we’ve talked about getting prepared for a landscape trek both for yourself and your vehicle (we did NOT talk about photo prep in this series, that’s for elsewhere) in order to try to avoid emergency or even survival situations (part 2).

But now its time to talk about those times when even the best preparation has failed and you’ve been blindsided by a natural or man-created event and find yourself in the middle of a major emergency where you are not close to civilization and cannot extricate yourself and must spend at least a night in the middle of nowhere.  What are the tools and skills needed to survive such situations?  If you are interested we can add another segment or two on how to use those tools in an emergency situation.

But first, a (hopefully) calming introduction.  Remember, and this is important, we are NOT addressing skills needed to live off grid in a post apocalyptic world where the veneer of civilization itself has been pealed away with no grid remaining to even worry about for the rest of your life… or at least a very long time.  Barring that sort of nightmare scenario or prolonged natural catastrophe, most emergencies for nature photographers happen within a day’s hike to a road or other easy means of exit or help, and in the vast number of cases, happen when the photographer simply intended to hike out a few hundred yard or less and then things went seriously south in an instant.  For the most part, if – IF – you followed my instructions for leaving a plan with someone not going, and then sticking to it, rescue happens  in an average of three days (and usually less) and only rarely does the emergency actually last a full week.

It’s true that hyperbolic stories now and then hit the press about people surviving for weeks or months and those gather lots of coverage on all media fronts.  But those are extremely rare and usually are prolonged due primarily to human error or negligence, not the nature of the emergency itself.  For the typical nature photographer off on a typical photo trek, and other than a true survival hike or week long but planned-out journey, usually following established trails where you are carrying everything needed for that planned outing, your serious planning needs only to consider having an accident or losing your way and having to survive up to three days.  That is a VERY different issue than what to do in case of a civilization collapse or, something really likely like, oh, say, a zombie apocalypse.

If you recall the chart on what kills people at what rate, the things you will need to be concerned about for a 2-4 day sojourn are primarily maintaining core body temp and then water… in that order.

No, I didn’t forget about food.  For one thing you are not likely to starve to death in three days or even a week.  Oh, make no mistake, you’ll be REALLY uncomfortable and very hungry, but your survival will be dependent on other things than food.  And that means having to hunt or trap or fish for sustenance will not be a requirement.  And that is a good thing that already gives you a leg up.

Most survival kits contain fishing line and hooks but, movies and TV shows aside, throwing a line with a hook attached into the water, except perhaps during a salmon run, is likely to leave you frustrated, and worse, frustrated and REALLY hungry thinking about the fish you failed to catch.  Building a fish trap (assuming there was a good place for one) or hunting for small game is equally likely to fail and trapping is much harder than it is made to look in those great demos by some heir apparent to Davy Crockett.  And if you succeed in getting a fish or squirrel or rabbit, do you know how to clean it and prepare it for eating?  Can you recognize the signs of diseases on the meat of game, especially in rabbits so you would know what NOT to eat?  My advice is to bring plenty of energy bars and forget hunting or fishing for food.

While it is possible to live for a few days without water if you expend ZERO energy, in reality after a few hours, only 6-10 hours of any effort, you will start to dehydrate and feel the effects in an increasing failure to function properly. Dying from dehydration is really ugly.  I always have extra water in the vehicle and also have a water filter in the emergency kit.  But because here in southern California, and especially in the desert areas, water can be hard to find, the safest, easiest thing to do is simply carry extra with you and when you take off away from the vehicle, have a canteen with you.

To maintain body temp, which is the thing that will kill you the fastest, you will need some form of shelter from either the brutal rays of the sun or from cold and wetness.  If you are near your car and it is not wrecked or otherwise dangerous to be in or around, then it is the best existing shelter you can have because it is also far more easily spotted from the air by rescue personnel unless you’ve driven it off into heavy bush or into a deep lake or river.  If your car is simply stuck or stranded, stay with it.  If you have brought the suggested supplies (and you can carry enough in your car to several people for several days) you are ahead of the game and your main worry will be terminal boredom waiting for help.

But if your vehicle is not available, your primary needs for a 3-5 day stay, in terms of real survival, and assuming no medical emergencies mandating rescue or movement, will still be primarily shelter and maintaining body temperature. (We’ll talk about medical emergencies needing extraction later…) You face an immediate decision that is critical, i.e. Should you stay where you are or should you try to find your way out?

Many of us (mostly men I’m embarrassed to admit) assume we have some built in GPS system that will allow us to intuit our way across terra icognito to safety.   Listen carefully… YOU DO NOT.  To navigate in an environment that is not intimately familiar to you, requires two pieces of hard data: (1) where are you more or less exactly, and (2) where, precisely,  is the target destination and safety?  Study after study has shown that NO ONE can walk in a straight line for very long.  So what? Well… consider this:

If you are a mile away from your destination and know what is the precise bearing to get there, an error in your travel of one minute of angle (a 60th of a degree), equal to only one inch off in 100 yards, will have you missing your target by about 175 yards, nearly two football fields.  Not a problem if you are heading for a town, but if you are trying to get to a known spring, or your vehicle, or a cache, or a camp, especially in dense woods, you will walk by it and never understand how close you were as you march on to your death.

If you are not a very experienced outdoors person, highly skilled in land navigation, AND know those two basic bits of data, AND have a compass or GPS, you are almost certainly better off to find a close clearing or meadow where you can make yourself very visible to rescue aircraft and patrols.

Does your pack contain any high visibility sheets you can stake out to make your position more visible?  If not, add it now.  Old timers talk of building signal fires and would tell you that three fires belching smoke, located in a row, is a universally recognized symbol of distress.  And that is true.  But…  With the increase in droughts and extremely dry conditions, building large signal fires creates a huge danger of starting a wildfire and leaving nothing but your charred remains for later searchers to find, not to mention incredible danger to anything in the area from an out of control wildfire that YOU started.  So don’t do it.  There are better ways to attract attention.  One of the most devastating wild fires in this area was started by a lost hunter.

Most packets of high-visibility sheets also contains diagrams of how to arrange them for signaling your situation.  A large “V” means to pick you up there.  A large “X” means a medical emergency.

If the rescuers see you individually from the air, then you only need to know 2-3 of the body/hand rescue signals.  Once you know you’ve been spotted and the aircraft is circling to watch you or hovering, if you need rescue and to be picked up hold both arms straight up and steady.  If you need medical help but the situation is not life threatening, hold both arms straight out from your body parallel to the ground.  If you have a life-threatening medical emergency, as the pilot watches, lay down on your back, fully prone on the ground with arms overhead.

There is a whole language of body and hand signals for more specific communications, but when you are stuck in place, unable to proceed and need rescue, those are the ones you will need.  A normal plane will rock its wings to indicate it has understood you before it goes for help.  A helicopter will search to see if there is a close place to land and if not will circle then go for help.  Take a deep breath, it is almost over.

If it is dark enough to where your flashlight can be seen – you do have a flashlight with you??? – then an SOS will get the attention of anyone who can see it.  Three short flashes, three longer flashes, and three more short flashes, is the international “SOS” or “MayDay” signal.  If the sun is out, a signal mirror can send the same message for miles and miles if you have line of sight to an aircraft or where there is some sign of human activity.  Even the light from a cell phone, especially the flashlight function, can also be seen for miles.  Even if you do not have any signal for a call or text, the flashlight function will work. If anyone sees it, even a commercial aircraft, they will call it in.

There is some controversy that an SOS is meant for dire, life threatening emergencies only; but my feeling is that if your life is on the line, I’d worry about explaining and apologizing later after help arrived and you are safe.  If the SOS signal is received, the receiver would normally respond with an “R” (short, long, short) set of flashes, or two quick “Rs” together indicating they received your message.  But while almost anyone will recognize the emergency signal, not all that many people know enough Morse code and radio protocol to return the “R” signal. If they signal ANYthing back, it means they got your message.   If received by an airplane there may be no way to let you know they got the message other than, in the day time, when they know you can see them, rocking their wings.

So, OK, you’ve found a place to stop and stay, and you know it probably won’t be until the next day that search efforts get underway after your backup at home alerts the cavalry you did not return as scheduled.  Now it is time to think seriously about the upcoming evening.  Of course, you checked the weather forecast ahead of the trek and know whether it will be mild or cold once the sun goes down and dressed accordingly.  If rain is forecast then some form of shelter will be called for.  And for many people, rain or not, a shelter just feels less open to the scary dark and the real or imagined creatures that live there. A tarp would be wonderful but lacking that (they are heavy) a lean-to or A-Frame with sides made from tightly shingled boughs, can shed all but the most severe rain storms.

While fire may or may not be really necessary for heat,  a small containable campfire can do wonders for your morale; so it will be well worth your while to learn how to build one in such a way as to eliminate the likelihood of it getting out of control and setting the forest, and maybe you, on fire.  And if you are leading a small group here, your ability to get a campfire going will be almost magical in its ability to instill calm and confidence in you and reduce panic that can get someone killed.

Many folks, especially men, I hate to admit once again, seem to feel that buried in male DNA is the code to fire starting.  We expect ourselves, and are often expected by others, to simply kneel down, rub a couple of sticks together and poof, a beautiful campfire, ready for weenies or marshmallows, springs into existence.  Alas, there is not a shred of truth in that.

Making fire is a skill that must be learned and, once learned, needs to be practiced in a stress-free environment, so that when the adrenaline is running like Niagara and fine motor skills just left for a better party, and you are frightened, cold, and frustrated at the hand you have just been dealt by nature or your own actions, you can still start one easily.  When you know how, have the tools, and have practiced it, it actually IS easy although somewhat tedious.  But when you don’t know how, or think watching a few YouTube videos are all that is needed, you are going to be in for an ego shattering, incredibly frustrating, and perhaps very chilly evening.

Fire requires several things.  It requires fuel that will burn with a plasma flame such as most wood, it requires oxygen, and it requires ignition from some source.  The fuel itself is broken into three parts.  Once it is going well, fuel logs are fine.  Those are the larger, thicker chunks of wood, about arm or wrist thickness, that one normally associates with a wood fire.  But wood of that size does not ignite easily unless your tool kit contains gas and a portable blow torch.  Those are not items one normally carries in their pockets or emergency kits.  Even a storm-proof match or butane lighter is not going to get a log burning for your fire.  Fortunately there are other ways.  Before the fuel wood can be ignited, you need to start smaller.  Those intermediate steps are first the “tinder” and then the  “kindling.”

Tinder is fine, easily ignitable material, often dry grasses, pine needles, shredded bark, or man-made tinder such as fire cord, or even dryer lint.  Those are easy to ignite with the normal things such as matches and lighters.  But they also ignite with the more old-time approaches such as flint and steel (or the modern counterpart, a ferrocerium rod), a good magnifying glass, or even, if you are very skilled at it, a bow drill.  I can show you how to use the old-time approaches; but c’mon, get real.  Most of you are not interested in learning that stuff and in an emergency where you completely are blindsided by the need to make fire, the good news is that you are not going to have to make fires long after modern igniters run out.  You’ve only got to make one or, at the most, 5-6 fires.  So make it easy on yourself.  Toss in couple books of matches or a couple of butane lighters and relax.  For short term emergencies, where you will have enough emotional distraction to last a lifetime, we can accept that this is the 21st century not the 18th or 19th century.  This is not a test of your long term survivor skills, it is a short term life or death issue but the operative term is “short term.”

That means all you have to do is be able to get the tinder and kindling ready and perhaps split down some of the larger fuel woods for your fire, then “lay” a fire that allows the smaller tinder to ignite kindling and then fuel wood.  I know, I’ve met some… there are woodsy elitist who would have you believe there is only one proper way to lay a fire – most common are the “teepee” and “log cabin” lays.  But in an emergency, the proper lay is one that works.  Again we can cover this in detail if you want.

Meantime, let’s start with tinder since that is where you’ll have to start with your fire.  And, once again, you can either return to the days of ol’ Dan’l Boone, learn bush lore and what kinds of trees produce “fat” wood (resin infused wood), and how to properly scrape up a pile of it, crush wild grasses and twigs, etc., make “feather sticks” and char cloth (all of which is fascinating and worthwhile knowledge for any photographer spending time in the bush), or…  in the short term, you can take advantage of our modern world.

It turns out that modern conveniences produce excellent tinder as a by-product that ignites with far more consistency than grass (which has to be bone dry to work).  Your clothes dryer produces very efficient tinder in the form of “dryer lint,” especially when it is from cottons and wools (polyester lint is not very good).  The cotton that is used to stopper many supplement bottles is also very good tinder.  Instead of throwing it out, bag it and save it. You can make it into an incredible fire starter by combining it with some paraffin, bee’s wax, and/or magnesium shavings (very cheap on ebay). Put it in a baggie, toss it in your emergency pack and it will last essentially forever  When you are laying out the materials for your fire, in the tinder pile you can also include low hanging dead/dried twigs, shavings and chips from any wood chopping or sawing you had to do.  Then start collecting the kindling.

Kindling is small, up-to finger sized twigs and small branches (all DRY) or strips left over from splitting down larger logs into wrist and arm sized fuel logs.  The tinder will ignite the kindling and that will produce a large enough and long-lasting enough flame to ignite the actual fuel.

The reason things like feather sticks and shavings work is that thin, finer edges catch on fire far easier than the flat or rounded sides of larger pieces.  Once lit then they will continue to burn into the larger sides and edges.   Collect enough kindling to be equal in volume to one or two fuel logs.  Speaking of which, now it is time to collect the real fuel.

This fire starter tinder and even most kindling can be collected with your bare hands although it can be easier and a knife would be required for making a feather stick or shavings.  But to collect fuel wood, you will find it easier with some tools.  Yes, if you can find enough arm and wrist sized downed but dried wood branches, you can break it into campfire lengths by breaking them over a rock or against a tree.  But while often that might get you going, before long – and certainly a day later, you will run out of them and either have to forage wider and wider to find them (and remember you are lost because you were not all that good at navigating in the woods)  or you are going to need to be able to split and break down larger chunks of wood into reasonable pieces for your fire.  So, what tools will you need to have available?

To identify the tools we might need, let’s first identify the work you will need those tools to do.  You will need to cut down larger dead limbs and or use fallen dead trees and limbs that need to be “bucked” into firewood length pieces, some of which must then be split into firewood.  You might also need to be able to create wood shavings, and be able to shape some pieces into splitting wedges.

In an ideal world you would have several tools available: a good saw, an axe or at least a good sized hatchet or tomahawk, a larger knife for chopping and making intermediate tools, and a smaller knife for more precision cutting and slicing, and perhaps a pack mule to carry it.  Having all of that would make fast work of your fire-making chores.  But let’s face it, almost no photographer, and most especially one already whimpering about the weight of a DSLR, is likely to wander off for a shot with all that gear readily available in a pack or on their belt.

The fully loaded emergency pack that lives in my car when on the road includes all of that plus first aid and medical stuff, shelter pieces, fire making tools and supplies, water filter, canteen, lashing and rope, navigation equipment, it even has toilet paper on board… but it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  It really is designed to live in the vehicle and I almost never carry it when I think I’m just going down the trail over that little rise where I expect the wily image to be waiting.

So what do I carry on those short hikes where I only expect to find a shot, take it, and hike back to the vehicle in, at most, an hour or so?  I strap on a belt (often a surplus military web belt or law enforcement utility belt whose width helps spread the load) with a large knife, a Swiss Army knife in its own sheath, a small pouch with fire making stuff, simple first aid supplies, a canteen of water, and some lashing usually in the form of paracord.  And if, for some reason I had to pare that down to a one or two items, I would take the big knife and stuff some matches or a ferro rod in my shirt pocket.  If you wish, in a later post I can show how to use that stuff.

A critical warning however is that all the best survival gear you can find on the web will not save your life if you do not know how to use it.  Just like your camera, it is just a collection of tools waiting for the skills and knowledge to arrive to put it to good use.

But there is one potential issue we have not yet considered.  What if you, or someone in your party, are injured?  I don’t mean a minor cut or scrape that can be temporarily dealt with using a Bandaid® and maybe some antiseptic ointment, I mean something serious, like a broken bone and/or serious blunt force trauma from a fall or, worse, sharp force trauma from falling into a sharp broken tree branch?  Tripping over hidden roots or rocks, or making a misstep on a shelf or ledge trail, can, in an instant, turn a pleasant hike into a serious, life or death matter.  There are too many really easy ways to hurt yourself in the bush to ignore this possibility.

I once had a student walking through the timber, intently focused on a shot they thought they saw through the trees to the side, walk straight into a broken branch sticking our and peeled back a major flap of skin on their forehead.  It was not life-threatening, but it bled ferociously, looked horrible, and needed attention immediately to help keep it from getting infected.

What if you trip and break a leg or an arm?  With that injury and the agonizing pain, can you get back to your vehicle or somewhere where medical help is available? What if you reached over a rock to pull yourself up and got snake bit?  If by some miracle you had cell phone coverage, could you tell rescuers precisely where to find you?

I don’t want to scare you or make you afraid to go into the bush for photographs.  But the more you are aware of things that can negatively effect your trek, and the better prepared you are for them, the more enjoyable your photo trek will be and the more you’ll want to come back. And the more you return, the more beautiful photos you take, the more viewers will come to appreciate and want to take care of nature.  So add a comment if you’d like more details…

BTW, it looks like the Photo 245 Landscape Photography course will be allowed to run this Spring.  It is in the course schedule online but I do not know if you can yet register for it.  It lists my team teacher, Professor Melinda Holden as the instructor but that is the right course so if you are interested, sign up as soon as you can so it will not be cancelled.  I’ll have more details later.

Plus Steve Burns (PhotoShop guru extraordinaire), and I will be doing a workshop in Spring along the central coast dealing with using the concepts of the Zone System applied to the digital world to give you total control of your captured images and to better prepare them for advanced editing.

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Dealing With Nature – Part 2: Staying Safe

We’ve all seen those glorious landscape photos on cards, in books, as screen savers, in galleries and museums.  And for the fine-art photographer, landscape and nature photographs are the most common of the fine art subjects.  We all want to take images that would make Ansel Adams jealous, and yet, we rarely venture out off the highway turn-out to find those incredible shots.  Why?


Fear is the biggest obstacle for many photographers when contemplating heading out into nature to photograph her on her own terms.  Of all the emotions, fear is the worst.  It is the most debilitating, the most paralyzing, the most likely to end up in hatred.  We don’t want you to end up hating nature but being comfortable in it, and that means you need to learn the skills to let you feel unthreatened and, as my uncle use to say, “Walk in balance and harmony” with nature.

But first let’s lay a bit of foundation for it all.  I talked in the last post about how nature will talk to you.  I don’t mean it will announce, with a sonorous voice from inside a bush (although I confess if it did it would have my complete and undivided attention…), what you should do; but it will present you with imagery that, metaphorically can bring out emotional responses you can share with your viewers. We are all descendants of dwellers in the bush and there is still a connection there though it has been dulled and shoved aside by modern living and needs.  Consequently, a lot of people, especially those raised in the city, are very uncomfortable heading out into the bush and, to be honest about it, are a little afraid since it is so unfamiliar, and so many stories abound about people running into big trouble once off the beaten path.  And yet… it is in those unfamiliar surroundings that some of the most stunning photographs can be found waiting for you.

It’s important to understand, therefore, that nature will not purposefully harm you.  Now, to be honest, it will blithely let you harm yourself and not get in your way if that is your desire; but it will also not trouble itself to target you for harm.  Indeed, it will not trouble itself caring about you one way or the other, so consequently, unlike humans, it does not lie.  I’ve heard people gush that “I just LOVE nature.”  Get over it.  It does not care.  It does not seek your love because it knows the most common lie among humans concerns love; it only expects you to respect it and learn the rules.  It does not give a hoot if you love it or not, that is meaningless.    But if you respect it and learn those rules, the rewards can be simply awesome for the artist.  If you truly respect it you will come to want to protect and preserve it for your future images hunts and for others as well.  And the more you respect it, the more it will reveal of itself to you, and the more imagery you will have to show for it.  And the more comfortable you will become and want to spend more time in it.  It really is a win-win.

So what are the rules for the photographer venturing off into nature in pursuit of the wily image?  Remember in the last post I said my friend held that an “adventure” was an event that resulted from a failure of planning.  Most of the time, my experience indicates that is true, but there are times when all the planning in the world cannot protect you from being blindsided by an accident.  So, let’s divide our discussion into two major parts.  The first part (this post) will be focused on avoiding that unfortunate adventure via pre-trek planning that will, well over 90% of the time, keep you out of trouble and bring you home safely and without adventure.  The next post(s) will deal with the issues that arise when even that planning fails to shield you from an adventure (or when it really IS an adventure due to bad planning).

Final note before we start.  Reading a few blog posts or books or even watching demos on video will not, repeat, WILL NOT, make you into a viable survivalist or prepper.  Dealing with a true survival type situation where you have to remain in place in the middle of nowhere for several days without the conveniences of civilization and are, worse yet, possibly hurt, IS NOT EASY!  It’s not easy on the emotions and it will demand a lot from you in terms of skills and just determination to make it. This is especially true if there are other folks in your group even less experienced than you.  They will instantly look to you for your skills and knowledge to keep them alive and if they lose confidence in that you will have a full blown panic on your hands which can turn deadly in an instant.  The most I can do here is show you some places to start.  So lets get with it…

Martial artists learn that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  For our purposes it means doing whatever we can in advance to reduce or eliminate the chance of something going wrong.  The first item of business is trip planning.  Like a pilot, creating a “flight plan” that is reasonably doable, and then making sure that someone NOT going is aware of it, is critical.  The information should include your destinations, itinerary, and, perhaps most importantly, when you will be returning.  They will need to now within a reasonable “grace period” when they should hear from you that either you are home safe or there has been a change of plans, before they start sending out the cavalry to find and rescue you.  But it will make any survival situation more bearable if you know that before long, someone will be searching for you and have a good general idea where to look.

Do you know your vehicle’s mileage?  Not just on the highway, but when you are off-highway and following a dirt road?  It will likely be much less so do you know when to top off the tank to be safe? (Answer: regardless of where the gauge is, top it off just before you leave the pavement.)

If you have a cell phone and coverage, then try to check in daily with your stay at home backup and give new data if you decide to alter your initial plan.  This alone could save a lot of people major problems every year and all over the country.

If you are not a good map reader, become one.  Learn the basics of navigation and orienteering especially including how to use a good compass and map. This may seem unneeded if you intend to simply do car travel and stay in motels or campgrounds and got yourself one of those fancy GPS thingies.  But if you plan on ANY amount of hiking or exploring, know that most of the survival situations each year start out as simple day or even hourly hikes and then something goes terribly wrong.   You get off trail and get lost; you trip and break a leg, there are any number of ways a simple hike in a National Park or Forest and turn serious and potentially deadly if you are not prepared for every eventuality you can think of.

Do not rely on your clever GPS device which may run out of battery or get broken or lost in the field.  When they work they make navigation incredibly easy, but when they fail to operate, you will be dependent on some more traditional skills.  They are like calculators.  I used to be good at math – until I got my first calculator.  Within a disgustingly short amount of time my ability to do math was severely diminished because I relied on the calculator.  Other electronic devices are the same.  They are wonderful when they work, but don’t let them take away your knowledge and skills of what to do when they are not available.

When walking through nature, slow down, literally, stop and smell the flowers.  Move slow enough to allow yourself to become totally aware of what is all around you: the beauty of it as well as the danger of it.  The glorious outcrop against an azure sky but also the root about to trip you or the low hanging branch about to lay you low.  Learn to see and laugh at the antics of the squirrels but also see the tracks and sign that let know you are not the only predator in the forest.  Having your map and plan in your head so you do not need to be glued to the GPS, will free you to look around and be part of this incredible environment.  Being worried about staying on trail will divert your attention from the often incredible detail all around you just waiting for you — YOU — to see while others go right on by.

And give a copy of your map and planned itinerary to your backup that will be staying at home.  Just as on your copy, it should pin point intended stops and campsites.  If something goes wrong that will give them the ability to better aim the folks coming to your rescue. Then YOU stick to the plan unless you can connect with them to alert them to your changes.

I know, I know… you have no plans for extensive exploration and, at most, intend a few hour, or at most a day trip from the trail head or parking lot hunting for an overlook or unique shot.  So why worry with about all that stuff; surely it is massive overkill… isn’t it?  Well the reason is mathematical.  By FAR AND AWAY, the greatest number of people needing extraction and rescue from the woods and who are in the worst condition when found, are the day hikers.  Why?  Because they are the ones who least expect a problem and therefore tend to be the worst equipped or prepared for emergencies.  Don’t become one of those statistics.

How?  Plan a day hike with the same care you would plan a week long survival hike.  More people are lost and injured wandering away from the official picnic site than whoever attempted serious survival treks into the woods.  Real explorers prepare for everything and rarely get in trouble.  It is the recreationist that uses cheap tools and survival gimmicks, if they have anything at all, and find themselves in trouble.  Ask any rescue service or group if you don’t believe me.

So, with a plan identified and provided to your “back up,” now it is time to make sure your equipment is in good shape.  We all know to charge batteries for our shooting gear, but do you know how to make sure your vehicle is REALLY up for the trip?  Your vehicle is your major transportation but it may also end up being your survival shelter.  If it is not in top condition, take it to your mechanic, tell him or her what you plan, and ask them to make sure the vehicle is mechanically as ready as possible: no leaks, good belts, no electrical drains, good tires and battery, fluids topped off, etc.  If you have an older vehicle, especially, start each day on the trek with a “walk around” check to include tires, fluids, etc.

Now how about you and your party?  We’ll talk about specific skills and techniques in later posts, but first, do you have with you the tools and gear with which to easily apply those skills?  Don’t be misled by movies or TV shows where people get lost or in trouble and have no trouble making a shelter or starting a fire with a couple of sticks, or hunting, fishing, and trapping small game, and whose canteens seem to never run dry like the old westerns where no one ever had to reload.  Hiking out down the mountain side with a broken leg and a tree branch crutch may seem reasonable in a movie… until you have to try it with someone (maybe yourself) with a low pain tolerance and gripped with fear and agony.  I assure you, the reality will be very different… very quickly.

You should never venture into the woods alone unless you are a true and experienced wilderness explorer (and most individuals with those qualifications do not venture off the trail alone either…  And every one in your party should be prepare to take care of the others if something happens.  Don’t designate a single person to carry survival gear.  If THAT is the person who slips on the cliff trail and takes the gear with them you are now ALL in trouble.

No one thinks it will happen to them, and for most of them that is likely to be true.  But not one of the people who gets lost or seriously injured… or die… each year out in the woods thought it would happen to them either.   So what should you really prepare for?  Here is a breakdown of your greatest threats to survival:

  1. You can live for about 3 weeks without food if you seriously conserve energy.
  2. You can live for about 3 days without water if you conserve hydration
  3. You can live for from about 3 minutes to about 30 minutes if your core temperature rises or lowers below normal.

Now put that data into perspective. So what is clear is that in most “normal” survival events (as if any true survival event is normal) the statistics are you will be found (if they know to look for you) within 3-5 days.  Yes there are occurrences that can go on longer but that is the typical duration.  So for most individuals, food is the least of your problems in terms of survival.  However, that figure can be a little misleading.  When you are hungry in such a situation it is easy to let that hunger trigger panic so you will have to keep that from happening just because your stomach thinks your throat has been cut.  A fistful of energy bars you can ration will go a long way toward eliminating this issue.  If your ordeal went a full week, a dozen energy bars will leave you hungry but far from starving.

Then we have the question of water.  In the woods with lots of cover and shadow you can perhaps go for over that 3 day limit if you minimize movement and energy loss.  If you are in the desert where it is hot then that 3 days may be incredibly optimistic.  So make no mistake: water is critically important.  Ideally you would have a gallon per day but unless perspiration is depleting your hydration rapidly, even ½ gallon per day will keep you going.  So make sure your car has plenty of water for you (and for it) plus if you take off on a hike take a canteen or water bottle in your backpack.  Don’t waste it but don’t wait until you are thirsty and dehydrated to take a mouthful of water.  But on the trek “out” from camp, do ration it as best you can without risking dehydration so you’ll have plenty if for some reason you are delayed.  In the next segments we’ll talk about getting water naturally.  But the best bet is always to take it with you.

Aren’t we making a big deal out of nothing here?  You decide for yourself but consider this.  All it takes is a minor slip to seriously injure yourself against a broken tree limb: a trip over a hidden stump to demonstrate that a typical rock is tougher than a typical skull, a hunk of ledge shoulder crumbling under your feet, a braced grip on a wet tree fails, a falling branch, backing unexpectedly into a cholla —  these incidences can be just mildly irritating or potentially deadly.

So do you at least have a good first aid kit with you with first aid cream plus bandages – even band aids???  Do you have some aspirin or acetaminophen to help with pain.  Can you dress a wound if necessary? Can you remove a splinter or cacus spine?  Can you at least splint an arm or leg if necessary?  If you have to spend a night and day in the woods do you have any necessary meds you must take daily with you?

Once you step away from the pavement, all the things civilization allows us to take for granted will fade away and be out of reach.  Are you prepared for at least the little common issues?  Unattended, those common problems can turn serious very, very quickly.

And then we have the part that will kill you fastest: “exposure” which is a rise or lowering of your core temperature.  That means that your number one consideration should be shelter either from the heat or from the cold.  Let’s deal with heat first since here in San Diego we are so close to the desert.

Overview of Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley NP

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

HEAT.  Once you have spent any amount of time in the desert, especially in the summer, you will know clearly that “warmer is not always better.”  Excessive heat will deplete your hydration at a very accelerated rate, and as water is lost, lethargy will set in as your muscles fail to work normally until the most critical muscles, your brain and your heart, fail.  As you approach terminal hyperthermia your skin will get pale and clammy, your tongue swells, you will get a brutal headache, and as your body literally dries out, you become less and less coherent, and then you die.

You can only take off so many clothes and then you risk burning your skin and it is worse.  The solution is to reduce the heat; get in or create shade, get in a place with some breeze if possible, stay hydrated if you can.  If you absolutely must travel and can do so safely, rest in the day out of the sun and travel at night.  During the day plan your route and then follow it at night.

By the way, do you have a good broad brimmed hat or at least a modern Keffiyeh or Shemagh style scarf from which you can make a good head covering to protect not only from sun but from blowing dust and sand.  Cowboys used neckerchiefs and bandannas but they were not the little pocket hanky style, they were much larger like… well… lie a shemagh.  (Go ahead and look it up…)

Joshua Trees and Rocks 01

Late afternoon light on Joshua Trees and rock piles in Joshua Tree National Park

But do you know where to head? Do you actually know exactly where you are?  And from that, do you know where your car is or, from your map studies, where the nearest Ranger Station of other help might be?  Can you actually backtrack yourself back to safety?  Did you pay attention to your route, looking behind you frequently to see what THAT view looks like?  Do you know your trail well enough to know if it is faster to go back or keep going or try to cut across country and if that is your best option, can you navigate your way across desert flats to that safe haven?

If you can find water or even moist soil by digging in the eddies of the now dry stream beds and old water flows, remember, it is probably not safe to drink, but it can help cool you down by evaporation. Soak a handkerchief or shirt in it and place it on your head and neck. If all you can get is moist sand, use it in a scarf.    Also keep your wrists cool the same way.

Do you have with you the tools to make whatever you need to survive?  Do you have a way to hack bushes and materials for a shelter, to cut open certain cacti for liquid (and of course a guide to tell you which ones are safe) or dig for water?  Do you have a way to deal with a scrape or wound or snakebite?  Although we’ll go into more detail in later posts let me insert here that cutting desert ironwood or succulents or making digging sticks with your Swiss Army knife as your only tool will leave you incredibly frustrated.

If you are headed into the desert for longer treks (anything more than short hikes from the vehicle – meaning anything that takes you out of shouting distance from the parking lot) read everything you can on desert survival and practice it where you are safe.  Just never forget that in that type of terrain, water is life so make sure you set out with plenty on hand and in reserve.  Better to come home with a few still-full jugs than to have someone find your carcass somewhere with an empty canteen nearby.  And remember that most rescues are for people NOT expecting (and not equipped for) anything more than a few hours hike — if they are prepared for anything at all.

One last quick note, in the winter, even thought the desert is still warm during the day, the temperature can drop suddenly when the sun goes down and the enormous temperature differential will make it seem a LOT colder.  Are you prepared for that too?

tree in ridge 02 for blog

Bristlecone Pine high on a ridge in the White Mountains of California.

COLD.  The heat issue noted above is not normally given much thought since we think “warm is good” and often think it is only cold that will do us in… as indeed it will.  If your core body temperature drops below body normal (98.6° F for most of us) then the brain re-routes blood away from the extremities to protect core organs.  That can happen from more than a drop in the air temperature; it also can come from being wet (evaporative cooling) and wind.  Always – ALWAYS – have a dry change of clothes available.

Hypothermia will set in with unexpected speed and your cognitive abilities will suffer first, then fine motor skills.  Then you’ll start to shiver, a little at first then more energetically then uncontrollably.  And then your brain shuts down, commiting suicide by routing blood to the heart, and as blood to the brain is lost you lose consciousness, and then you die.

If your trek takes you anywhere where the air temperature is at or below the 60° – 70° range (which is well below your body’s core temperature) without proper clothing or shelter and especially if you get wet, you can get and succumb to hypothermia.  Do not play with this or ignore it!

Can you start a fire with what you have carried with you?  That doesn’t mean just making a spark, it means getting fuel, tinder, kindling together, laying a fire that will actually burn but in a way that will not set the forest around you on fire, and which will provide heat to you and your shelter.   We’ll talk in a later post about some easier techniques to learn and practice first around the barbeque before you head out into the bush. But the time to acquire that skill is in your back yard not when your life or the lives of others depends on it.

But what if it is not all that cold?  Fire also has a major impact on morale even where it is really not needed for the heat.  Humans seem to have an atavistic love of fire; it calms them and makes them feel safe.  It lets you see into the darkness and wards off those scary things we just know are lurking out there just beyond the light.   So there will be times when, as the leader, you will need to get a campfire going just to help keep up group morale.

You may also need to know how to make some hurried and makeshift shelter from rain or snow.  Made correctly it can keep you warm in the worst blizzards and can, like fire, help make an improvement in morale.  Can you do it?  Can everyone in your party do it if you should be injured or taken out?

losing the Light, Salt River Canyon

Late afternoon light accents outcrops in the Salt River Canyon, Arizona, near Globe, AZ. Canon 5D MkII

Navigation in the woods and mountains is quite different from the flatter terrain of the typical desert.  Your view is obstructed and there are a gazillion trees to confuse you; light is filtered and harder to detect directions especially when the wind is blowing the trees.  Although counter-intuitive, it has been shown in study after study that without external guidance, humans cannot walk in a straight line even if they know what general direction they should be headed.  The moment you think you might be lost or at least a little bewildered as to your exact location, STOP.  (Now is time for the 30-second stare.)

Get out your map, look for recognizable landmarks, and try to determine where – at least generally – you are and where you need to be.  If your GPS is working and can “see” the satellites it needs, great.  But if not, you will need to rely on some pre-GPS orienteering skills.  Knowing where you need to go is useless unless you know where you are.  And knowing the target is due east is not all that helpful if between you and the target is an unscalable cliff that you can’t see from where you are.  Can you read a map and understand what all those contour lines bunched together mean?  Can you then plan the best route around the obstacle?  This is not a rhetorical exercise; people get in big trouble and some die every year because they cannot solve this simple problem.  It is easy to solve when you know how… so learn how long before you really need it.

If you are headed into the mountains, especially if you are someone from low altitude and expecting to be spending time above about 5,000 ft in elevation, then also read up on altitude sickness and plan to deal with it.  It is not a small issue so take it very seriously.  I include handout material on it with materials for all of my workshops into the high country.  It can be completely debilitating and, in some cases, deadly, and the only cure is getting to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen.

I hope I’ve gotten your attention with this post and made you aware that although most photo treks go smoothly resulting with the capture of great memories and gorgeous imagery, when they DO go off the rails, things can get serious – deadly serious – in a moment.  The best approach is planning that will keep them on the rails.  The more you plan and prepare, the more unlikely an “adventure” will occur and that is the result to be hoped for.  Preparing for the worst makes you more aware, more careful, more attentive, and that alone can keep your photo train on the rails.

The next post(s), however, will deal with some issues when, despite your planning, things go awry.  And with that discussion we’ll talk about some items you ought to have with you, either on you or perhaps in your camera gear, when you trek out of shouting distance from the parking lot.

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Dealing with Nature – PArt 1: Letting It Talk to You

To paraphrase Minor White, an iconic figure in photography and photo education, (and the author who co-wrote the book that made Adams’s “Zone System” intelligible to us mortals), if nature sees in you a heart it can trust, it will wait for you.  I’ve found that to be true but it will do a lot more than that: it will even tell you HOW to it thinks you should photograph it.  Like a stereotypical Hollywood starlet who knows her best side, nature knows itself and will reveal that knowledge to you.

The problem is that nature’s voice is so soft and quiet, the photographer whose ear drums are calloused by the raucous noises of the city, cannot easily hear it. It speaks in a very quiet whisper as it interfaces with your spirit and mind and via recalled memories speaks metaphorically to you.  Some of you sci-fi and “trekky” fans may recall a “Next Generation” story of the crew trying to communicate with a race that only spoke in metaphors.  Well nature is like that and, to make matters worse, it only whispers.

Now if you come out with some preconceived idea of what a scene is all about then by all means keep the ear phones blasting heavy metal and blaze away.  Then you can add your postcard snapshot to the several billion nearly identical shots of that amazing scene.  For example, when you pull into the parking area at the “Tunnel View” overlook in Yosemite, go ahead, run to the overlook and take the shot.  It’s beautiful and if you can shove your way through the crowd (especially if a tour bus arrived a few minutes ahead of you) then by all means, go ahead and get it out of your system.

But then settle back, let the crowd disperse, and consider this: art is the product of interpretation – not of narration.  The artist (we’re talking photography here but it applies equally to painting or drawing) seeks to understand the subject, filter that understanding through their own experiences, histories, associations, emotional responses, etc. and then, using their skills and mastery of tools, create the image that (it is hoped) will best render that interpretation. In short, the artist/photographer endeavors to capture NOT what specifically they SEE, but what they FEEL.  But, for that image to be honest and accurate, that process starts with understanding, and that understanding is best achieved by letting nature tell you about herself while letting you tell yourself a bit about yourself.  That does not happen in the blur of a rush to get your shot before having to get back on the bus.

So how do you start?  You start by letting your heart tweak you when it recognizes something important. When you are moving through the landscape, clear your mind of other thoughts and sounds and disruptive things.  Just open yourself to the sensory input from your surroundings.  When it happens, that tweak might be a gentle nudge that makes you want to pause and look again, or it might be a strong kick in the gut.  There might be a quiet moment of recognition or a hard jolt to your senses.  But when it happens, the very first thing to do is STOP.  Sit down if you can.  Be STILL.  Give it what a barbarian friend of mine used to call “The 30-Second Stare” where you get quiet and still and really start visually and emotionally inventorying the scene in front of you.

That friend first used the term with me to address a major problem back exploring in the Rockies.  His definition of an “adventure” was the result of a failure of planning.  He believed we actually knew what to do but the panic and fear overwhelmed us and we could not access the data needed.  Hence… the 30-second stare (in my case it often took a bit longer…) to quietly assess the situation, look at intended resolutions, examine the resources needed to solve it, and then set about doing so.  But it is exactly the same exercise needed to let nature talk to you and help you hone in on how it wants to be rendered by you and you alone.  Another artist will respond differently and interpret the scene differently.  That is why it is an art not a science.

Start a series of “What” and “Why” questions and drill down as far as you can go.  First, as you scan the view in front of you, ask yourself what specific thing in that scene was what actually caught your attention.  A tree?  A rock?  A lake?  A trail?  A structure? A leaf?  A cloud? Or was it the awesome visual power of the whole scene?

Whitney Portal: incoming storm

Storm drops over Mt. Whitney and down the Whitney Portal Canyon in the Sierras of California near alabama Hills and Lone Pine

I once was given the project of updating the off-road trail maps for a large section of the Colorado Rockies.  We were given the original USGS topo maps the original teams had used and which had their notes on them.  They had marked places they thought would provide great vistas usually with a simple icon.  But in all of the maps, there was one only spot where the team, in a red marker, wrote the single word “WOW!”  We had multiple vehicles and had split up sections and another driver had “drawn” that section to cover.  Over the radio he hailed me in this excited voice and I thought maybe he was in trouble.  But he said to me, “Do you remember where the map had the note, “WOW!” on it?”  I said I did.  He simply said, “’WOW’ doesn’t quite express it…!”  We lost a day’s work but the entire team stopped where they were and went to see for themselves.  Wow.

Any and everything could be a potential magnet for your attention here, even if meaningless to someone else, so don’t overlook the tiny while overwhelmed by the mighty.  Remember the old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees?  Well, here, don’t fail to see the trees for the forest… or the leaf for the tree.  And don’t worry about what others see or feel.  Your art needs to express YOU and your reaction, not theirs.

So whatever it is that has caught your attention, sit and study it; let its presence flood your mind and heart and then ask yourself “Why?”  Why did it grab you?  What was it about the object that captured your attention?  Was it the shape, the form, the texture, the color?  And then ask “Why?” again.  What emotion did that elicit from you?  Awe?  Terror?  Something pleasant?  Something irritating?  And then again, ask, “Why?”  What is it you are remembering from your own experiences or history that was triggered by seeing that object?  What does it remind you of?  Why does that memory elicit the emotion you felt, however weakly?

Patriarch Bones

Taken at the Patriarch’s Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest, White Mtns, CA. B&W version of the “Bones of the Patriarch” shot several years earlier. Rhinocam mosaic using Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm f4

Now work your way back up the chain.  What is it about the subject that most strongly elicits that emotional response?  Now review the whole scene.  Does the response come from the subject alone with the rest of the scene remaining more or less irrelevant?  Or do other elements in the scene support that response or even add to it? What is the real core of the scene – the focal point?  What elements need to be eliminated or subdued?  What compositional devices, e.g. use of perspective, directional lines, element placement, etc. would best convey your response?

When you have those answers… you have your image in mind.  Now and only now is it time to get technical.  What is, based on your mastery of the craft and tools of your art, the best platform for you to create your image.  What vantage point?  What lens?  What aperture?  What shutter speed?

So what’s holding you up now? Don’t just stand there with your face hanging out…take the damn shot!

Red Oak on Old 80 - 05 for blog

Skip Cohen, photographer and instructor, wrote that you can’t tug at a viewer’s heart strings if your own heart is not in the shot.  Once again for emphasis: quite worrying about capturing what you see and start putting everything into capturing what you feel.  That lets you present to the viewers something they would not or could not have seen themselves, would not or could not have felt and experienced for themselves – and that is YOUR response now available to them.  You can practice that anywhere and should be doing something concerning your photography every day.  Then you’ll be ready for finding those stunning images when heading into the bush.


But some people are really nervous heading off the trail and out into nature.  But if you learn nature’s rules and follow them, a whole new world of wonder can open before your eyes. So next time, we’ll talk a little about the “rules” so you can be safe and comfortable out in nature.

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Why Do (or Teach) Landscape Photography?

I confess I’m getting really excited about potentially being able to do another Landscape (Photo 245) course at City. (For details click on the link in the banner at the top of this page.)  I’ve not yet heard if it was approved but since students had been asking about it I’m very, very hopeful.  I’ve worked on a preliminary itinerary for topics to cover because I want to make it the best we’ve ever had.  But I also have to be aware that the world of photography is changing and changing dramatically — after all I just wrote a book on it (  And perhaps, more important to us, from a professional AND educational level is that the world we work in is also changing dramatically and it will have a profound effect, some of it quite negative, on not only how we do our work but how we make a living from it.

Most of you are aware that even the great iconic landscape photographers (think Ansel Adams as the easiest example) did not make their livings just from their landscape images.  Adams was a master darkroom technician but he was also a master marketer and understood that being able to merchandise his images would bring in extra revenue hence the books and posters and calendars and postcards of his images.  He also did commercial work and (you might want to be sitting down for this…) did commercial work for one of the (then) major oil companies taking photographs of their gas stations around the country for calendars and posters. In my case I was primarily a commercial product and editorial portrait photographer who used landscape as a personal artistic and emotional outlet that had the wonderful by-product of getting me into the bush and out of the studio and town.

Many modern landscape photographers support their artwork with teaching, school or workshops or both, and/or by writing books or producing tutorials and demos for the web.  Still a major goal was always the creation of “take your breath away” wall hanging shots to rival even those of the master landscape painters such as Bierstadt or Moran.  One of my fun facts is that I have a landscape photo hanging next to a Rubens painting in a castle in Colorado… what a rush.  But before one gets too enraptured with this, do some math and budgeting.  How much do new, as-yet-not-famous photographers get for a photograph?  What does it cost you to produce that photograph counting travel and actual print and display costs?  What is your net?  If you hang in a gallery you will be lucky to get 50% of the sales price.  So how many prints must you sell per month to maintain the revenue stream necessary to maintain the standard of living to which you aspire? Those were the issues in the good old days when people had homes with wall space that could visually support such art and had the discretionary income to afford it.

That was also before everyone with a cell phone thought they were God’s gift to photography, an attitude reinforced when their social media friends see their beyond-mediocre images made with frenzied filter use and then posted on Facebook, and pronounced them as beautiful and stunning imagery.  And it was before photo-feature magazines like “Life” or gorgeous outdoor magazines like “Arizona Highways” and “Colorado & The Rocky Mountains” succumbed to the web’s unrelenting assault on publications, books, magazines, and newspapers.

Well, you may ask, if I have that grim outlook, why do a course in a genre that is tough to make a living doing?  Or, more to the point, as a student you might ask why would you take the time and cost to attend such a course?  I’m glad you asked, otherwise I’d have no real reason for writing this post.

One of the biggest reasons is that it is in this genre where you can openly and unabashedly work on the artistic component in your imagery.  Yes, I believe it will be increasing the brilliance of your unique vision and concept that will be required to set your commercial work apart from the competition as technology continues to level the technical playing field.  But honing and growing that conceptual ability along with the tools to render your vision, not to mention the exercises to develop your vision in the first place, can best be done away from the constraints of clients and art directors whose vision is often at odds with yours but whose vision and successful rendering may determine whether or not you walk away with a check.  In landscape work it is yours – and only your – vision and story that counts and will support the image you are creating.  Art is about interpretation not narration.  To interpret a scene you have to “feel” it so there is something to pass on to the viewer.  Without a story that elicits an emotional response and some reflective thinking there is nothing to attract, much less hold a viewer’s interest.  Landscape scenery presents itself to you stripped of the marketing needs and advertising copy attending the commercial piece; you and you alone can let the world see it as YOU see and feel it.

You and you alone can make the choices of tools and elements to bring to bear to render your own unique vision; you and you alone can make the artistic decisions as to what is the real subject of the scene and what do you wish to tell the viewer about it.  Minor White told his students that if a subject in nature saw in them someone it felt capable of rendering its “portrait” it would wait for them.  And it is true that at times nature can be extremely patient with you, unlike a client or director hovering over you pressing you to “get on with it” or losing confidence when you hesitate to think through a visual problem.

The really successful commercial shooter is one who can take the most mundane product and produce an image of it so appealing that someone can see it, and even having no clue what they are looking at, want to buy it anyway.  The conceptual and technical ability to do that shot after shot is often best honed in the quiet moments looking at something most people pass by and never notice – a rock, a leaf, a cloud.

Arthur Koestler in his book on creativity, wrote that the truly creative people he had studied and done biographies about all shared a common trait: they were able, “…to see the familiar as strange.” They could look at some common item and somehow see it as if they were seeing it for the first time without all of the normal limitations prior experience has placed on it.  That ability is as necessary to the advertising image of a muffler as it is to a nature detail shot of a crack in the sun-baked desert floor.  But it is easier to learn in the quiet unrushed environment of nature.

Nature photography also allows time to really learn one’s tools and how they all uniquely render a subject; one can learn how lens focal length and distance changes perspective; one can learn about lighting through observation of what happens as the sun moves across the sky to change the visual appearance of the  world under it; one can learn about color and color correction by having to deal with and exploit not just neutral color of normal daylight, but the so-called “golden” and “blue” hours.  Outdoor photography requires the artist to learn to feel the light and deal with scenes where the range of luminosity from shadow to highlight exceeds that of their medium – an ability of equal value in the studio.  And they can learn all that in an environment where their livelihoods are not at stake, and where errors and mistakes can become educational experiences and not strikes against employment.

The artistic skills you can learn doing top-quality landscape work are perfectly adoptable to the commercial world and will, in fact, help to set you apart in the approaching world of increasing sameness.  In our course we will be examining many of those elements to create powerful landscape imagery.  But it will be important to remember, they all have a proper and important place when you are shooting in the studio for a client.  The difference is only in that when doing landscape and artwork, YOU are the client, and your payment is the serotonin released when you can really see that the effort paid off with a great image.

So for me, it is fun to develop this course almost from scratch.  Retirement has given me the time to play with it, turn it over and over and really analyze where, in my own work which, as noted, was primarily commercial, did it apply and help me.  For the successful photographer the marriage of abilities usually seen as separate and apart is necessary.  We think of the “art” photographer as primarily interested in those aesthetic issues of the image and less concerned with the technical.  And we think of the commercial photographer as primarily interested in the technical side of things and less in the aesthetic.  But that is an incredibly false dichotomy.

The truly superb art photographers, like Adams (to bring this full circle) were absolute masters of the technical and “Craft” sides of their work. After all he was the co-creator of the Zone System for exposure and development mastery.  And the really superb commercial shooters were and are masters of the aesthetics and artistic sides of their work.  Both were masters of rendering a vision of that familiar object now seen as strange.  White told students to see things, “…not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are.”

So landscape photography can be as important to your photo growth as any specific skill and discipline if – IF – you also learn to take advantage of the less stressful shooting environment to hone those skills you will need in the professional world.  And while you are at it, you may produce some imagery that actually does generate some revenue directly or indirectly.  And best yet, you can do it in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

How could that not be attractive to you?

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the specific issues and elements we will be addressing in the course and in other photo courses and topics as well.

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Vision and Simplicity

One of my favorite photo-authors is David Du Chemin.  He writes with clarity and beauty about constructing the photographic image.  Among my favorites is “The Soul of the Camera.”  I could not possibly recommend that book and his writing in general more strongly.  If you are serious about your photography do yourself a favor and get that and other of his books.

But I’m also on his newsletter/blog list and this past week received one of the best documents on composition and the quest for simplicity and power in the photographic image.  I rarely re-post the material of others but this was so well written I felt that trying to paraphrase it would diminish its power.  So I wrote him and asked for permission to copy it here.  He graciously consented to it, so here is a real treat for you.  And here is the link to his blog so you can go directly to it:

Thank you David for letting me repost your thoughts.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” 
~ Henry David Thoreau
“One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.” 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
It took me years to figure out that photographic composition is about organization of elements in the frame, that making a photograph has so much more to do with my decisions than it does with the scene in front of me.
Before that realization, I raised the camera to my face secure in my assumption that the subject of the scene was amazing enough to carry the photograph as long as I nailed my focus and exposure. I was OK with my photographs documenting what I saw, but had no idea that I was learning to speak a language that would allow me to interpret, and to comment upon, what I was seeing. And to do that I needed to compose intentionally.
Composition allows us to organize the photograph. My choice of lens, orientation of frame, where I place elements in that frame by my position relative to those elements (a little forward, to the left, or getting lower than) can change everything. It can make one thing important and another thing trivial, or vice versa. It can lead the eye into the frame or out of it. It can create a unified whole of the elements or make a jumbled mess of them. It all depends on my choices.

Because how we think about something determines our choices about what we do with it, I have three ideas about composition and the power of simplicity that can change the way you think about your craft.

Intent is Everything

Without vision, there’s no starting point from which to make our decisions about how we compose. I know, I know—I’ve gone on about this before. But unless you have a sense of your vision or intent, or are open to discovering it through the process of making your images, then you will have no direction and no sense of whether your efforts at simplifying are getting you closer to, or further from, “adding the meaningful,” to quote designer John Maeda.
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious
and adding the meaningful.”
John Maeda
No one can do this for you, and it’s the hardest part of the art-making process. Making a choice. Being willing to try and fail and try again. Being willing, on some level, to be profoundly selfish about it: What do you want? What will please you? What do you want to say? How do you feel about this? Don’t look over your shoulder for the answers. Look within.

You. On some level art is first an act arising from the self. Only then can it be concerned about speaking to, engaging with, or pleasing others. The more clear you are about your intent (even if you have to explore with the camera to your face for a while before you find that clarity), the more simplified (not simplistic) your vision, the fewer barriers you’ll have to contend with as you figure out how to express that vision with your composition.

Think About Unity

Photographers don’t often talk about harmony, but that’s one of the touchstones of good composition. Do all the elements work together to support the image? Is there one unifying idea or theme? These are helpful questions because the answers help determine what you can exclude. The result of not considering the idea of harmony is a chaotic image that supports no one idea, intent, or vision.

“Three rules of work:
out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
~ Albert Einstein
Making sure the elements all work together doesn’t mean having a boring image; it means being intentional about creating contrasts that support the main idea, or a rhythm created with elements like shapes or colours that maintains the harmony but also giving variety; that’s what rhythm is.

Think Simply

An image can really only support one idea or theme well. It may touch on others, but we work with a very limited medium and trying to do too much with a photograph will usually result in the image doing very little. It will be diluted, its potential power lost to too many elements. The eye can only take in so much and assign meaning to so many elements in an image: 2 or 3 is usually the real limit; the rest is background.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Sainte Exupery

Look at the best images—the ones you love the most from the history of photography—and I think you’ll see most have only one main subject expressed through one key element, a secondary element, and very few tertiary elements. Generally speaking, the more you cram into the frame, the less power each of those elements will exert in the frame.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
~ Painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
The take away? Simplicity is key. Identify your main idea and choose only as many elements as absolutely necessary to work in harmony and support or express that one main idea.
Find a way to cut the rest out. Be ruthless about it. There is power and elegance in simplicity.
Use whatever isolating device you need to do this to get me to the heart of the image in the simplest way possible, and your photographs will be more powerful than their cluttered, chaotic, or confusing alternate versions.
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I Can’t Stay Away from Teaching…

As the cartoon character Cathy used to say… “Aaaaack!”  Retirement must be wonderful for people who do not like what they did for a living and are now free to go play as they always wanted to.  Good for them!  But I’m someone who IS what they DO… I loved what I did — teach and shoot — and it was actually all “play” for me.  So retirement has actually been, for me, not what it was cracked up to be.

So I had fortunately done the paperwork for retirement in such a way as to allow me, after a semesters separation from service, to return to teach what they refer to as “pro rata,” meaning I can teach a limited number of hours but do it as an adjunct would (meaning all I have to do is show up and teach (well, with the prep and grading, etc.) and not have to deal with the political nonsense.  And that means that I can return to teach a class in Spring of 2020.

To that end I’ve worked with my old full time partner, Dave Eichinger, to plan that return.  Apparently a number of students have asked about the old Landscape Class, so in Spring I’ll do one of those.  Full details are on the page listed in the banner above.

What will be interesting is that because my limited number of hours is less than that class offers I’ll team teach it.  I’ve asked one of my colleagues who specializes in photo history to be my “team mate” so material on iconic landscape photographers and artists can flesh out the course and make it even more comprehensive than I could do it alone.

I’m really quite excited about it and love the idea of getting back in a class room.  Now I need to get out and do some shooting for new material and also do some promo/marketing work for it including a video… cool!  I’m so glad to be back onto chatting about photo stuff here.  It is ever so much more pleasant to deal with.

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I Wish I could Say I Was Surprised…

I can’t tell you how much I’d rather be out making images and writing about them… but sometimes the world gets in the way.

While still reeling from Gilroy then El Paso, we got Dayton.  I am not surprised though I am profoundly saddened by it because, to me, it reveals a total breakdown in the cultural morals, ethics, and values that I’ve been writing about for years.  And still, idiots rush to politicize the incident(s) and sometimes by giving the despicable killer precisely what they wanted: exposure and in a truly perverse way, a score card to show their achievements.  Committing mass murder has always been about body count with the murderers believing the more they can kill the more they will become famous.  They study the web for data on previous killers to learn from their mistakes and hope to better their score.  And you cretins giving them that broader exposure are doing far more to facilitate more such incidences than any stretched connection between the words of some stupid politician.

Achievements?  Have you been so hung up on one issue solutions you’ve failed to see what was in front of you?  Yes, Achievements.  Whether it is a younger school shooter or an older mass shooter, there may be all sorts of rationales thrown up on their screeds to explain and promote their actions to their simple minded social media followers, but the bottom line is they are all driven by the same level of percolating, sub-surface rage flowing from a sense of rejection, abandonment, and disrespect that started in childhood and has never been dealt with by the actual adults in their lives, much less by the people who they have looked to for solution, their parents.  And so it builds and builds… and builds.

Finally, wound tighter than a drum, some emotional critical mass has been reached just waiting for the trigger of some acceptable pretext in their own warped perspective to ignite it.  But those “causes” jumped on by the press and by political partisans are just pretexts. I understand why you partisans would jump on those because they advance your agenda.  But they are not helpful and simply are distracting us from real issues.

What the killer wanted and achieved was attention (which the press and social media morons gave to him) through which, among those of his “friends,” he achieved some immortality with his score of bodies.  But any ideological aspect was simply a pretext to allow him to finally visit his revenge and reckoning on the world at large.  IF the shooter is drawn to a given hate-filled rhetoric it is because the rage was already there and he was simply looking for reinforcement from like minded morons.

Don’t think so?  The air is filled with the pundits’ blind certainty that the El Paso shooter was fueled by white nationalism and the rage at the “invaders” of other races victimizing the poor “real” Americans.  After all, that was what he wrote, wasn’t it? Isn’t that what his literary mentor, Ragnar Redbeard, told him?  Isn’t that what the histrionic partisans would have you believe Trump told him?

But who did he kill?

Did he select and murder just those he saw as Hispanic-looking sub-human invaders? If he actually believed what he read and wrote, or even if he was truly motivated by the hated Demon in Chief  and was in anyway doing good work for the country, he would have done his best to cut down the numbers of those identifiable invaders but spared the victims of that invasion.  But that’s not what he did.  No, instead he killed or tried to kill any and everyone he came across.  The truth is the screed is a smokescreen.  He just wanted to kill, period.

The published rant of the El Paso killer was to try to explain, perhaps even to himself, why he was driven internally to do strike out and kill and also to get him noticed by the other killers on social media.  But it was, and is, no more than a cover story happily slurped up by those whose political agenda is served by it.  It is far from the whole or even real story.

The Dayton killer murdered his own sister in the process of his uncontrolled rage and rampage. And he did it in a hot tourist spot that was not even predictably filled with logical targets of any ideological war. His screed was from a different perspective promoting socialism and “the squad” but in the end it too was simply a smokescreen.   He just wanted to kill and needed an excuse.  Finding the solutions to that is a very different effort than trying to stop truly dedicated ideologues killing targeted enemies for their honest faiths.  Theology is a lot more powerful than ideology, but both are trumped by psychology and hate.

And the next one, and oh yes you can be sure there will be a next one, will be just the same.  Because while you are arguing over how to limit the chosen tools not a single effort is being made to examine and address the root causes of what turns some of humans into wanton depraved killers while the vast majority of citizens, many of whom are far better armed, trained, and better able to wreak havoc if they chose to, in fact do NOT chose to.  Their access to weapons, their skill with them, their awareness of global and domestic events, their struggles in life on all levels from emotional to economic are no less stressful.  But they are not out there killing people wholesale in mass killings.

The self-credited brilliant sociological minds posting on FB make much of the concept that these shooters are all white males and then, in the next post tell us how horrible the conditions are for the minorities in this country… and never see the connection.  For purposes of this post lets stipulate to that.  Let’s accept that minorities are the ones with the real grievances and especially against their white oppressors.  We also know that there is a high percentage of weapon ownership in those communities.  So why have they not fielded competition in the sport of mass killing if that was the real cause.  They may fight back over particular events rightly or wrongly but they do not typically go collect massive firepower and assault some bastion of so-called “white privilege” to rack up a high score.

They certainly have those from their community saying no less by way of encouragement to violence than Trump has ever done.  Farrakhan, Omar, Wright, and Sharpton, the sleazy holder of the Tawana Brawley award for astonishing hypocrisy, have all said the problem is white males and hinted or openly asserted that the world would be better without them.  And yet, where are the minority communities’ entrants into the contest for who can be the most cowardly, disgusting human being devoted to death or those, in their own minds, out to persecute them? OR where is the righteous warrior riding out a la Don Quixote, to tackle the windmill giants of oppression?  I’ve looked and I’m not seeing them.  So maybe there is a different cause…  After all if even your mother told you to jump off a cliff would you do it?  I’ll bet not.

Perhaps for another time, this does raise some very interesting points about why have the minority communities seemed to have held on to some of those values and morals better than the majority community but that is not the point here.  The point here is dealing with what we have unfolding before us: another and another and another individual who went over the top on a killing spree.  After the last blog post, in an FB post where I asserted the poster(s) were all wanting a one size fits all answer because that fit their narrative from a political ideology, I was asked, basically, “Oh yeah, what would YOU (Mr. Smarty pants) suggest we do?

I assume they thought I had another simple answer just a different one.  But I don’t because I do not think one exists. There are multiple parts to this complex issue, and, worse yet, multiple issues within the multiple parts. There are many answers and all of them will need to be addressed in a unified approach if we are to succeed.

But if we do not, as a culture and society, seriously address them ALL, if we only continue to bicker about whose approach is the right one, as if there were actually A RIGHT ONE, this carnage will simply continue.

As an example let me pass on an interesting anecdote on point.  England has one of the toughest gun restrictions that side of Chicago.  But unlike Chicago, there is no easy place to get guns and import them.  So what to do when you want to kill people?  Easy.  Use a different weapon, in this case, knives.  You’ll not see the American media talking about it since it does not fit their agenda, but Parliament has been sufficiently concerned to discuss various types of knife bans.  Unfortunately since virtually every description of a knife used in both domestic and public attacks also fits more banal kitchen utensils, a workable and enforceable law has been elusive.  If  you honestly believe that someone whose inner rage has reached the point of killing will be dissuaded by not having the easy weapon to do it readily available, you are delusional or perhaps from another universe.  Humans grew adept at killing each other long before there were any firearms.

But lets get back to the topic of finding solutions for us.  Broadly speaking we have the following areas of inquiry to search for answers (there may be more but these are ones I thought of off the top of my head):

  1. The Beginning.  How are these shooters created?  Are they just born with an evil gene or are they created and formed?  This is perhaps the most important inquiry since if we can stop them at the beginning, there is no point in going further because there would be no place to go.
  2. Before the Event. This is what is referred to as “pre-incident” and is a two part issue…
    1. What can a potential victim, which is to say all of us, do to avoid the event by recognizing and then acting on the pre-incident indicators? And,
    2. What can be done to “harden” typical target locations such as schools, government buildings, places of worship, malls and even private businesses, and now parks and open air event locations, etc. (You do realize, do you not, this now includes basically EVERYWHERE?)
  3. Surviving the Event. The shooting has started… now what? You hear gunshots close by where there should not be any gunshots.  And they are getting closer.  What can you do to give yourself better odds of being a survivor.

Regarding Issue one, I covered my views on the genesis of these killer in my book, “Making Schools Safer” as the conclusions to its discussion of school shooters.  But aren’t those school shooters different from these mass shooters?  For the most and most important parts I think they are different only in age but I think the derivation of their psyche’s and undercurrent of rage are exactly the same and initially set in motion by the same group… parents.  If you don’t believe it get and read the book then let me know if you still don’t see it.

However this is a huge area packed with individual issues to deal with that may seem unrelated.  Many of you know I’m a huge fan of “Complexity Theory” and as such am inclined to look for and see the connections between those points in the larger system.  Here are just some of them that I think have an impact on the creation of the shooters and need cultural and societal attention.

However before I list them, let me be clear, I don’t think any ONE of them accounts for any of the shootings, nor are they all in play all the time.  Just as if Guns were the definitive cause since we are awash in guns this would be a lot worse.  If video games were the only element it would be a lot worse.  But I believe in greater or lesser degrees, all of these things play into the mix of influences and need to be looked at.

  • Parenting This is THE one that I believe is an issue of far greater importance and far more commonly found in all of the shootings.  But parenting methods are the result of both philosophy and economics so even here this is not as simple as it might appear.  I personally think it significant that with a single exception mass killers are male, and that a recent study revealed that 26 of the 27 recent killers of 8 or more people, were, in the words of the study, “dad deprived.”  That doesn’t just mean that there is no father, it also covers situation where the father seems to take no interest in the child or what they are doing.  Remember the song, “Cat’s in the Cradle?”  Think it was only a song?  Bottom line is that boys who are hurt and angry are the ones most likely to hurt us.  When a kid feels abandoned, even if that makes no sense to the adult minds around them, some of them will go on an occasionally deadly campaign to get that attention.
    Does that mean that not having a father is a guarantee of creating a mass killer?  Of course not, that’s just stupid.  But it is an influence prevalent in killers and has to be added to the mix of potential influences.
  • Entertainment media that promotes the idea to formative minds that violence is an acceptable solution to problems
  • Video Gaming that, as military use indicates, is good at desensitizing our natural inhibitions against killing other humans.  The industry argues there is no direct causal link demonstrated but that’s not the point.  Causing some one to do something is not the same as desensitizing them so that when they do succumb to the urge to kill it is easier.
  • News media and social media that consistently gives these shooters precisely what they want: exposure and attention
  • Social media and the culture of anonymous/semi-anonymous ad hominem attacks on those who look and think differently basically fueling the pretext collection for the killers.
  • The political environment of unvarnished hate for those who think differently. The rhetoric from all sides successfully blocks any indications of any side being willing to really work with the other and that means that not only is the running of the country paralyzed but to our point, it increases the acceptance of hatred especially when it appears to come from the top whether that is accurate or not.  Remember (for those who read the book) the logical adult/parent’s perspective is meaningless, what counts is what do formative youth “hear” and especially what do those just looking for a pretext to act hear?
  • Weapons availability. I’m including this as a discussion point though I personally think it is a bogus point given the ocean of weapons out there and the relatively rare (historically speaking) incidents of mass shooting compared to the ability to do it.  Nevertheless, to me this issue is worthwhile as a “trade goods” issue.  I do not think guns are the problem.
    However, I understand the fear behind those who know little about them except what overwrought folks tell them yet also see no logical reason behind the obsession with scary looking guns either to own one or to ban them.  What I do know is that fear trumps logic and when fear drives legislation than all hope for sanity for law abiding gun owners will be lost so it is in our vested interest to do something to get things moving.
    Hunting and self defense has been successfully practiced for a very long time with far less scary looking gun for those frightened of guns per se.  Nevertheless I do not ever recall hearing of a home invasion carried out by a platoon of 20 or so miscreants, nor a mugging by 100 or so muggers.  Unlike police actions where hundreds of rounds may be fired, most missing the target, in actual reports of personal or home defense the situation is resolved either no shots fired or no more than 3 or 4.   For myself, a long time shooter, my own selection for home defense would not be a rifle of any configuration and though from near childhood I’ve hunted small, medium, and large game I’ve never needed more than 2 shots to bring home the meat.  So if – IF – I could be convinced that a ban on scary looking guns was not simply a foundational step on the so-called “slippery slope” to total gun bans, I’d put them on the table and say to the politicians on the other side, OK, here’s your bone, now lets see if you can deal in good faith on other issues.
    I’ve also written about my being in favor of a federal CCW program that licensed everyone to own and carry a gun following specified training and testing.  The Federal database would then be incredibly easy to query when data was needed.  Since very often illegally procured guns are used I think background checks are overrated (by the way I’ve purchased several guns over the years at gun shows and every time had to wait for a background check ) but if they could actually demonstrate efficacy in finding and stopping the occasional problem, then great.
    But we all know that a dedicated bad guy will get a gun somehow and skirt the law. And the real problem is the coordination of systems locale to locale, store to city to state to feds.  Without that cooperation and interconnection it serves no purpose to gather data one place that is unavailable to another.  And we would need standardized definitions of the condition needed to refuse the purchase.  Good luck with that one.
    One last thing, there was one “good guy with a gun” who violated the mall’s gun free policy to go in several times and rescue kids and carry them to safety.  And for the record he was African-American.  Of course the media is pretty quiet about him too since that REALLY does not fit the narrative.
  • Red Flag Laws. These sound great and in principle could be of real value. The perfect complement to put some meaning and teeth into the “See Something, Say Something” efforts.  But before I’d back a specific law I’d want to read it all to make sure all due process was in place to protect the innocent in an age when we seem, politically, have transformed into a “guilt by accusation” mode.  When we can act on the basis of what someone might have done then we have fundamentally altered the basis for our legally and naturally given rights.  I think that needs to be addressed but with great care.  I also believe these laws need to be absolutely “clean” with no riders attached to them to force a vote one way or another.
  • Mental Health Issues.  Lots of controversy here and it does make an easy scapegoat.  Mental health experts insist the connection is vague at best.  The recent Secret Service report on Mass Killings, noted that very few of the perpetrators had a current mental issue that would have been treatable or at a level to require confinement.  However, and it is a big “however,” that report  noted that nearly all of them had past mental issues and had suffered from symptoms such as depression, paranoia, etc. that had warranted observation and or treatment or medication though not all of them have availed themselves of the help.
    To add “sport” to it various jurisdictions have very different criteria for mental issues sufficient to prohibit firearms purchase.  Those need to be standardized and, much as I hate saying it, may be one of those areas needing Federal oversight.

Regarding issue number 2b, I’ve already talked about it at length in my book noted above.  In fact that book also got into the weeds on ideas being floated for “hardening” schools in various way as well as the issue of arming teachers.  As I wrote in the book and in the last blog post, I’m not a huge fan of that, but in fairness I have to admit I learned after my book was finished that in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting (which had been the catalyst for me to write the book in the first place), a major review panel consisting largely of parents of victims and survivors plus law enforcement and security experts and counselors was convened and one of the primary recommendations from their report to the governor was to train and arm teachers who were willing to do it.

Issue 3, as noted both in the book and in my last blog entry, is covered well by specialists providing approved and licensed A.L.I.C.E. and RHF training to businesses and schools.  My own school, City College, offered the A.L.I.C.E. training to faculty.  I attended and thought is was very, very informative.  Personally I think there ought to be follow ups to keep faculty up to date and practiced so when it happens they will know almost automatically what to do. I’d love to see some “advanced” classes offered that extended beyond the school facilities out into the real world.

It is issue 2b that needs a lot more training and awareness by the public in general but specifically by education and business leaders and managers to be disseminated down among students and employees.  How do we re-awaken our natural intuitions to not just see but mentally react to pre-incident indicators that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. As I said in the last post, these killers work up to this and always, always leave a trail littered with “red flags.”

When I was a kid and my uncle was teaching me to track, what I learned was that only rarely could you follow footprints until you found one with a foot still in it.  Most of the time you were on your hands and knees looking for something out of place, something unusual.  But that meant you had to learn what actually was right in the first place.

When I was in spook school the instructor gave us a metaphor based on the then popular jigsaw puzzles.  Those were killer puzzles of a gazillion pieces and an image that was an abstract painting of subtle hue changes of a basic color.  He told us to image such a puzzle that the box top showed was all blue hues but when you dumped out the pieces, there was one pink one in the pile.  What was amazing was that he had a special puzzle like that made up and when he dumped out the pieces a large number of students did not see the pink one.  Some of you have seen the video of a basketball game in which a gorilla walks through the scene and almost no one sees it… or other events. If not click on the link to see it.

In our cases in the military seeing those pink pieces had a life or death connotation to them so we were motivated to look for them, but most people go through life and never “see” them or the gorilla walking by or the broken branches or the tipped over rock… or the gun under a jacket or the heavy trench coat on a hot day.  In fact we DO see those things we just refuse to accept them through our brain’s filtering process. Sherlock Holmes said that we, “…look but do not see.” No?  Do this little experiment from YouTube.

I hate it; a civilized society ought not to ever have to learn those things.  But if I had kids I’d be training them now to see those pink pieces.  I’d be talking about it to friends and workshop participants, people I would not like to hear were victims of the next shooter.  If I were a CEO or Chancellor or President I’d be looking into inviting an expert like Gavin De Becker in to talk about it.  Bottom line, evil is always arrogant and assumes a position of self righteousness and often being smarter and better than others who deserve to be treated poorly.  And because of that it leaves very visible tracks as it moves.  We’ve got to learn to see them and act on them.

But… since we are not addressing the items in the bullet list above, there most certainly will be a next shooter.  Will you be ready? Probably not because you’ll be having too much fun blaming personalities on the other side of the political spectrum for inciting this.  What could be more divisive than that? Because when you accuse the politician you also accuse their followers and then you haven’t just created a one-person divide or one enemy, you’ve created many.

Sorry, that’s just dumb.



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