“Split Rock & Pinyon Pine”

Split Rock & Pinyon Pine, Lisbon Valley, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

I’ve posted several images from Lisbon Valley in southeast Utah. It’s an out-of-the-way region that lacks the deep canyons and arches of its neighboring national parks, yet it has a charm all its own. While photographing Big Indian Rock years ago, I came upon this large boulder that had tumbled down onto the valley floor below and split apart. Aside from the marvelous texture and color of the boulder, what really struck me was what grew on top: a stunted pinyon pine. These trees, and junipers as well, eke out a hardscrabble existence in the desert of the Colorado Plateau, seemingly surviving in the most inhospitable locales. How this little tree managed to flourish left me nonplussed. I use the word β€œtenacity” to describe desert life, and it’s an apt term in this instance. This scene spoke to me of isolation, loneliness, determination, tenacity and the will to survive despite the harshest odds. From a technical standpoint, due to the strong direct lighting from the evening sun, the rock face was extremely bright and glary, so I employed a polarizer filter to eliminate the glare in order to allow the texture detail to show. The polarizer also eliminates glare from atmospheric dust particles and haze, thus darkening the sky. This was a conscious choice regarding the sky, as I wanted a deep cobalt blue to provide contrast to the brilliant orange of the boulder. The cirrus clouds added a surreal touch to the sky. The way the shadows blocked up completely black made the color and texture of the rock pop. And the pinyon pine? It seems to glow of its own inner light, a strange sort of confidence and serenity. Despite its hardships and travails, it’s found its peace atop its own personal mountain. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

24 thoughts on ““Split Rock & Pinyon Pine”

    1. Thanks for such a wonderful compliment, Friedrich. I think a large part of it derives from a dysfunctional childhood and the coping mechanisms I was forced to develop to survive. There are so many extremes in a dysfunctional home, the ever-present fear and the constant search for peace of mind, a calm, safe place where I could retreat. I see in this image contrasts, as you mentioned. The fundamental power of stone and sky and shadow and harsh lighting balanced by an oasis of peace and tranquility far off in the corner, a safe place. Also, having access to the desert provided unlimited examples of the harsh environment of the raw earth. In the desert, there is no pretense; everything is stripped bare and exposed and vulnerable, the very bones of the earth. Yet there is delicate, fragile life everywhere, too. A weird symbiosis, a strategic balance, and above all, stillness and quiet. I consciously (and subconsciously) seek these contrasts when i write, and I sought them when I was involved in nature photography. It’s a drive, an imperative, to put to light that constant struggle I still experience, trying to achieve that balance, that peace. I’m rambling here, but I appreciate your kind words. Even all these years after making these images, I’m discovering things about them I didn’t notice back then, as though some deep part of me were shouting to be heard at last.

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      1. Bad experiences, trauma, pain…all of them can be important driving forces for artists. Even when someone sees your work for the first time, they understand that it is based on a long, intense reflection with important questions.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jane. It’s certainly sort of miraculous how life can survive in such a harsh environment, that’s for sure. Those little pinyons and junipers are fighters. πŸ™‚


  1. This is a beautiful, hopeful, and an intriguing capture. Perched above the rock – like trying to prove its own point. One can flourish even where there’s little sustenance. Love your words and the magnificent image, Mike. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks so much, Terveen. That little tree was just lording it up on that rock! I honestly don’t know if anyone else would have noticed it. I mean, who would expect to see a tree growing on top of a boulder where there’s no soil? I appreciated its fierce refusal to surrender to the elements. It valued life and clung to it and I respect that. I find it beautiful. I also find it reaffirming and encouraging. πŸ™‚

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    1. Many thanks, Xenia. What a delightful discovery this was! This tree found its safe place atop this boulder and thrived, and I feel sort of honored and humbled that I was the only one who got to witness this scene. Nature never fails to surprise us, eh? πŸ™‚

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  2. I love the vivid colors, Mike. It’s almost an abstract painting with its bold wash and block of color. The ruffle of the tree does seem to glow, doesn’t it? “Despite its hardships and travails, it’s found its peace atop its own personal mountain.” I love that line. I noticed trees growing from the Grand Canyon walls when I was there and remarked frequently on the persistence of life to find a way. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photo.

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    1. Thanks, Diana. You’re right–I feel a definite abstractness when I look at this image. The colors are so bold, the contrast is stark, and the juxtaposition of the tree on the boulder is startling, yet in a weird way, it all makes sense. It all fits together. Like you mentioned, these trees seem to thrive in the most inhospitable places. On the farm were i was raised (which was about an hour or so from this location), there were expanses of white sandstone, and even terraces of the stuff, and of course, stunted pinyons and junipers grew on these sheets of rock. Little trees, cactus, yucca and lichen, and some cheat grass here and there. It was such a curious thing to see these trees clinging to sandstone in a region where only about ten inches of precipitation fall each year. Nature is pretty creative. πŸ™‚

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