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Dead Reckoning

March 11, 2012

I never left Playa yesterday. As I was getting ready to leave, I noticed my car was low on anti freeze, way low. Poking around, I found the red anti freeze that I just added gushing out of a wound in the bottom of my radiator. I suspect that the resident pack rat, last seen climbing the walls in my studio, was after the shiny foil bling of my radiator fins.

So I am stuck here on my own this weekend, stalled in time by the inability to travel until the local friendly garage can procure me a new radiator.

The names Summer Lake and Winter Ridge, which lies behind Playa across the highway to the west, come from John Frémont, who explored this region in 1843. He was heading east across the snow covered plateau above the ridge when he came to the edge and peered down into the summery green basin of the lake 3000 feet below. On this spring-like day in March down here, I can see snow up on the ridge. I have a goal of climbing to the ridge- which, although it appears to be “right there”- is a round trip of at least 12 miles.  It is a land of surprising contrast and deception.

Thinking of Frémont and the early explorers who decoded many of the geographic mysteries of the west, in the afternoon I climbed a small hill in the shadow of the ridge. With me I carried the simple tools of early cartographers: pen and paper, a compass, and binoculars ( Of course, I had my camera too). I measured the compass degree angle of prominent features and then guessed their distance either by the relative haziness or by comparing their visual height to closer features of which I sort of knew- assuming similar geologic features had similar altitudes- such as the tops of the long ridges. I was aided by smoky haze emanating from some Forest Service controlled burns at the north end of the lake. My goal was to see if I could fine tune my perceptions and create a system by which I could come to know the space of this land. I will use this information to draw a map and then compare that map to the USGS map in a game of reverse engineering. I was reading the landscape first using the map reading skills I had learned as a Boy Scout.

Amazingly, some of the explorers were incredibly accurate – Lewis and Clark measured the whole of the Missouri River by dead reckoning- gauging distances by relative travel from point to point- and they weren’t far off. Verplank Colvin was spot-on with the Height of Mt Marcy, the highest point in New York. Now, it seems, we have evolved to the point where finding the grocery store without a dashboard mounted GPS unit seems like an accomplishment. Frémont circumnavigated the entire West using a skill set foreign to modern man. As I write this, a pair of Sand Hill Cranes fly by on their way to places North . They navigate with the accuracy of a GPS guided tourist, finding familiar resting stops, such as the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge, year after year. Their squawk, which sounds as if it were recorded in the Mesozoic Era, reminds me how, for eons, the survival of man and beast has depended upon the ability of the individual to orient itself within an environment. Technology may be simplifying our lives in many ways but it doesn’t need to steal away our ability to know the land we live on. I am determined, before I leave here, to know this place well enough to visualize its rocky crags and flat basins, to navigate it with confidence. Just like I can conjure up all the places back home- the rounded hills, the cool creeks flowing in dark gorges and the deep green waters of the lake- and work them into my dreams at will.

Smoke on the water               Shadows at Sunset

I went back out on the playa this afternoon, seeking out the Cranes that hang out to the south of the cluster of buildings here. The light, as always, was offering a visual feast as it played off of the alkali dust cloud across the lake. As I stalked the cranes moving slowly across the flats, I took a series of photos that I’ll call the Rothko Lake series. With the horizon obscured by the dust, the scene appeared excitedly flat and abstract when viewed through my telephoto lens. Then, when I turned my head to the south, the dramatic afternoon light played off of the receding hills, offering a spatial reading reminiscent of the 19th century Romantics. Later, as the lengthening shadow of Winter ridge pulled a shade over the playa I studied the land features across the lake. One by one they were revealed by the low light and then drawn back into the shadows as the sun set. I then realized that a major key to understanding the topography is to study it in different times of day and in different seasons as the light constantly reveals, then conceals the form of the land.

         Rothko Lake                                                                         Blue Shadows on the lake

     Crane In a Rothko

                                           Cranes in an Albert Bierstadt painting                                                                      Cranes taking off

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One Comment
  1. These photos really stir up my hibernating visual creative urges. We should really try to get some video tape of your work. How can we do this? Can you bring me on as an assistant if I sleep in a ditch down the road?

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