Night views from the mountains

To the east, Piesewa Peak surrounded by light.

To the east, Piesewa Peak surrounded by light.

In the last week, I have hiked up two mountains to view and photograph Phoenix at night.  There are plenty of choices.  The long string of peaks called South Mountain.  The popular Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak are others. I chose Shaw Butte and North Mountain, several miles north of downtown in North Mountain Park.

Shaw and North require relatively short hikes of two miles from the park’s Visitors Center.  And, since both summits sport cellphone towers, good service roads make for easier traveling in darkness.

At 2,149 feet, Shaw is by a scant margin the highest of the two but the view is partly blocked by its sister peak to the southeast.

North Mountain's towers.

North Mountain’s towers.

Not completely satisfied with Shaw’s views, I decided to hike up to North’s summit on a recent Sunday evening with Nebra.  I carried a camera, telescoping tripod and shutter release to the top.  North is more than 700 feet above the surrounding terrain and about 1,000 feet higher than downtown.  Good enough to see most of this sprawling metropolis in the desert.

It was after sunset when we reached the summit not far from the towers.  The only thing missing was the moon, here one day after the full phase.  It would not rise until we were on our way home.

I set up the tripod and shot some photos in all directions.  Nebra held the light from my new headlamp so I could adjust the settings.  The new digital cameras are amazing with their high ISOs allowing you to shoot in the darkest of conditions.  In the old days you flirted around with 100 ISO or so.  But my Canon T3i goes up to 6,400.  Higher end cameras even to higher, to 10,000 and above.

String of lights that is Shea Blvd.

String of lights that is Shea Blvd.

It was getting on to 8 o’clock when we loaded up and headed back toward the parking lot.

In this short jaunt to the summit, I discovered that these dark mountains I had come to think of as empty at night were not empty at all.

Descending on the asphalt road, I saw a dozen people, mostly young men and women, gathered at lookouts high on the mountain.  Also, we passed maybe a half dozen more ascending.  The mountains are very much alive at night.

And for some reason that made me feel good.

Breaking up a home

Cid and her eggs under the lamp shade.

Cid and her eggs under the lamp shade.

How can you care for a spider?  I don’t know exactly why but I do.  Much of it, I think, stems from humanizing it a bit by giving it a name.

A few months ago, I gave a Daddy Long Legs the name of Cid.  I spoke to it every morning when I turned on the floor lamp behind my reading chair in the dining room.  Cid built a web under the shade, a mere six inches or so from my head.  We got along fine.  I read the morning newspaper without thinking of Cid.  Daddy Long Legs are harmless to humans, I read.  And Cid does a good business there in the shadow of a light that draws flying insects into its clutches.

But something unexpected happened.

Cid became pregnant.  It was a she after all.  A dozen or more white and brown eggs exuded from what I assumed was her head.  She was so still I thought she might be dead.  I tapped the web.  She moved.  Relief.

But her pregnancy, to my unhappiness, was the turning point.  I moved the reluctant Cid to a dark corner of the garage.  She can have her babies there.

I feel heartless in a way.  Even in that tiny insect brain, I know by uprooting her Cid felt stress and the danger.

Twice I have looked for her in the garage but no sign yet.  The last I saw of her she was scurrying up the ladder with eggs in tow.

Think and shoot

Video from "The Great Courses"

Video from “The Great Courses”

I progress slowly through photography.  By my desk, to the left, is a cardboard container labeled, “Photo Archive.”  I take it off the shelf and wipe a layer of dust from the top with a tea towel.  Uncertain what is inside, I open it with interest.  I remember now.  There are 18 little bins of slides in neat rows of four.  The index tells me the photos were taken from October 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, to November 2003, on a trip to Paris.  I’m quite sure if I looked hard I would find a box or two of film negatives.

A lot has happened since then.   Namely, film’s replacement by digital cameras with memory cards.  If there is one thing that has increased my interest in photography, it is the digital camera.  I can now shoot as many photos as I want at a modicum of the expense I doled out for film.  Bad photos?  Just hit the “delete” button.  Digital made it possible to experiment without cost.

I have owned several digital cameras over the years.  My latest is a Canon EOS 600D, Rebel T3i.  If you don’t know your cameras just say it has all the bells and whistles and is relatively expensive.  Not top drawer, but getting there.

My most recent venture into photography took place last January when I went online to order a video set from “The Great Courses.”   It is streamed on my laptop.  The course of 24 lectures, “Fundamentals of Photography” was on sale for $39.90 and included at no extra cost, “The Art of Travel Photography.”

The instructor, Joel Sartore, is a regular photographer for National Geographic magazine, which publishes some of the best photos in the world.  He lives in Nebraska but of course travels the world.  Some of his photos he displays during the course border on unreal.  They are so good. And maybe that is one of the course’s drawbacks.  You know in all likelihood you’ll never produce anything as nice.

After a lecture or two, Sartore convince me that I needed a new lens.  “The camera is just a box,” he says.  “Spend your money on glass.”

And that’s what I did.  I bought an expensive Canon 24-70 mm lens.  Sartore said that is what he uses 90 percent of the time.  I know it is a good lens for, although it is stubby, it is also quite heavy.  Heavy equals expensive in my shallow view of things right now.

I will point out this course is not for the impatient photographer with a point-and-shoot.

“This course is about thinking,” Sartore says early on.  Think and shoot.

In his world, Sartore, says he sometimes spends hours if not days, thinking about how to shoot a single photo.  Soft light, appropriate background blurred if necessary and a subject that is interesting.  What makes photos interesting to him is not so much landscape itself but placing people and animals in it.  For instance, a photo of the stark beauty of the Antarctic landscape has penguins in the foreground.  What I don’t like about some of his photography is that it is posed.  Family, friends or paid models do his bidding.

Also, Sartore is big on avoiding harsh mid-day sunlight.

“If you’re serious about photography,” he says, “You work early, you work late, at the edge of day.”  He advises it is worth it to miss a breakfast or supper.  He may have lost me there.

Anyway, I have tried to absorb the 12 hours of instruction.  Each lecture runs about 30 minutes.  I take notes, which is maybe a bad thing.  Breaking the continuity, you know, giving yourself time to think stupid, unrelated thoughts.  But with video you can always stop it, go back over a point or, if uninterested, jump to the end.

By accident, the course has turned me into a bit of a tech freak.  I want to learn more about my camera, about lenses, flashes, low-light, Live View, even battery life.  Sartore does not delve deeply enough into them in my opinion.   Once I can master finding the so-called “sweet spot” of aperture, shutter and ISO, then I can think, really think, about the photo.

Consequently I’m shooting a lot of photos now on “manual.”  I pre-determine the settings, avoiding much of the camera’s automatic settings.  I do still lean heavily on AutoFocus.  And in doing so, my photos are, ahem, below par, I think.  The price of experimentation and learning, I hope.  Or a harbinger of perpetual ignorance.

As for the archived slides of yore, they will go back to their place.  More dust will gather.  I’m not yet ready to polish up my old Yashica-D and go back to film and slides.  And the darkroom.

Anything but landscape

An insect visits a beautiful world.

An insect visits a beautiful world.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like to photograph landscapes.  I usually post them to an Arizona hiking site as informational rather than objects of beauty.  It’s a “I hiked here” sort of thing.  Or this is where I got hung up on the mountain.

But as I shoot more photos I want more and more to make them interesting if not things of beauty.  Here are four photos that evoked in me the emotions of curiosity, humor and loneliness.

Oranges eaten by birdbath birds?

Oranges eaten by birdbath birds?

The first photo shows an African Daisy in our backyard.  It is one among many in the wildflower garden.  I used a tripod and cheap macro lens, the one that I displayed earlier with inconsequential scratches in the glass.  As I enlarged the photo on editing software, I not only saw the interior of the daisy but a small insect, a fly I think, nearby.  Hmmm.  Interesting, I thought.

Augie waits for his supper.

Augie waits for his supper.

I had to laugh at this one, the second photo.  It shows a small birdbath on a wall in our backyard.  Three ceramic birds hover just above the water.  Sentinels, I suppose.  To make it a bit unusual, I placed in the scene two damaged oranges from a nearby tree, no doubt victims of our noisy Gila woodpecker’s sharp beak.  If you look at it in a certain light, then you might think those ceramic birds briefly came to life and attacked the oranges.  Humor?  Maybe.

The third photo was shot in the near darkness of our backyard patio.  One of our three outdoor cat, Augie by name, is waiting to be fed.  It seems interesting to me since with the empty food bowls at the side, the photo seems all but self-explanatory.

Waiting for life to appear.

Waiting for life to appear.

Loneliness or emptiness radiates from the last photo.  At least to me.  There you have an “ancient” wood bench, unpainted, and a blue birdbath.  Neither is being used.  There is no indication really they have ever been used.  Set against the somber background of frost-damaged bougainvillea and a drab, gray wall, it is a downer to me.  It is an “autumn” photo shot in 80 degree weather on one of the warmest days of our winter.  I intend to shoot this photo over and over until I get it as good as I can.


Another ‘Rebel’ death

Almost 60 years after the film’s release, the James Dean classic “Rebel Without A Cause” lost its screenwriter recently, leaving only one known cast member still alive.

The writer, Stewart Stern, died on February 2 at age 92 in Seattle.  Stern created “Rebel” from an adaptation by Irving Shulman of director Nicholas Ray’s story.  In reporting Stern’s death, the New York Times noted he was “best known” for that 1955 film that starred Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

Jack Grinnage is the only cast member thought to be alive.  Grinnage played “Moose,” a member of Buzz Gunderson’s high school gang.

I posted two blogs about ‘Rebel’ deaths five years ago.  “Dennis Hopper and the dwindling cast of ‘Rebel,’ on May 29, 2010, and “Corey Allen:  2 scenes and immortality,’ on June 30, the same year.

Since then, Beverly Long (“Helen”) died last year and Frank Mazzola (“Crunch”) passed away several weeks ago, on January 13, at age 79.

Stern, according to the Times, based James Dean (“Jim Stark”) and parents on his own family, who were “unnaturally detached and seemingly incapable of love.”

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2005, Stern said, yes, his parents had seen the film.

“They thought it was marvelous,” he was quoted as saying.  “But they never recognized themselves.”


The spider beside me

By the lamp, behind my chair.

By the lamp, behind my chair.

Our house is lousy with corpses.  In almost every nook and cranny there are dead things dangling from the ceiling, from corners, from lampshades.  These dead things are corpses of very small insects.  Gnats, lacewings and some others I could not identify, all hanging from webs, the eventual entrees and desserts of at least eight spiders I discovered while exploring today with a flashlight.

With all these murders going on around me, I thought it wise to get to know at least one of the killers.

Cid, I call him, has a home in a corner of the dining room by a floorlamp.  I call him Cid because, though I am far from an arachnologist, I believe he is a Pholcid, a Daddy Long Legs (DLLs).  In this case, because she or he is the largest I have yet to find in the house, I believe it is a Grand-Daddy.   I do not think there is a spider called a Grand-Mommy, though maybe there should be.  For simplicity, I will identify Cid as a male.

In his irregular web, Cid has two or three meals lined-up.  One, I believe, is a green lacewing.  Once trapped in the web, Cid wrapped it in silk and inflicted the fatal bite.  I have read DLLs also feast on other spiders, in particular some of the most poisonous kind — the brown recluse and the black widow.  This Daddy is no threat to humans, I read, which is fortunate.  My morning routine puts Cid and I close together.

Once arisen, I find my way to the coffee, and the coffee and myself then travel over to the comfy chair by the floorlamp.  Since I have only seen Cid move once, and that not very far, we coexist from about a foot away, head to his front legs, as I flip through the morning newspapers.

Cid, up close and impersonal.

Cid, up close and impersonal.

Due to Cid’s position on the web, I always look at his belly which has a distinct brown stripe running down the middle.  We have little communication.  There was the time I hit his web by accident.  He backed off and vibrated violently.  But for the most, we live in harmony.

Nebra more than once has offered to clear out the web.  It doesn’t look nice, I admit.  But I say, no, let Cid alone.  He does no harm to me and keeps the house clear of bad insects.

His corpses I can live with.



‘Is this Phoenix?’

Fog near downtown.

Fog near downtown.

Our Super Bowl visitors from Seattle must have felt quite at home this morning.  A dense fog hovered.  Visibility was about 100 yards.  Flights into and out of Sky Harbor Airport were delayed.  A rare occasion in this part of the desert.

Nebra said to some passers-by on the sidewalk:  “Is this Phoenix?’

The couple laughed.  One said the obvious.  It is more like Seattle.

This neck of the woods is one of the least likeliest places you’ll run into a fog.  Our usually sunny city averages only seven foggy days a year, according to a website I read.  Among major cities, only Las Vegas has less, with five.  No other city listed was close.  Unless you call 46 at Salt Lake City close.

Usually you can see downtown highrises from here.

Usually you can see downtown highrises from here.

As for Seattle, it barely made the Top 10 for foggiest.

The top five:  New Orleans (200 days), Raleigh (198), Jacksonville (198), Houston (194), Richmond (185).  Even Pittsburgh (183) had more fog than Seattle (165).

But look at this way.  The fogginess could be a harbinger for a Seattle Seahawks victory in SB 49 later this afternoon.  Go Seahawks!  Poo on the Patriots.