“Juniper Tree on Rocks”

Juniper Tree on Rocks, near Canyonlands National Park, SE Utah (c) Mike Utley

I’ve always found something jarring and surreal about desert landscapes, and even more so with regards to intimate desert portraits such as this half-dead juniper tree growing among sandstone boulders. In such a sere, austere environment, life somehow not only manages to exist, but to persist against all odds. I came upon this scene in 1996 while exploring near Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah one late-summer afternoon. I was struck by the sheer audacity of the stunted, crippled juniper as it clung tenaciously to the sandstone, its roots delving between cracks, seeking the sand below in hopes of the promise of moisture. It’s a common tableau in the desert. What lives there has earned the right to survive through adaptation and sheer luck.

I think what really stands out, however, is a sort of duality present in this scene: the split personality of the tree as one half thrives and the other diminishes; the limited color palette of orange-brown and graduated blue –opposing hues on the color wheel; and the curious negative space at the bottom left corner provided by a rocky protrusion in complete shadow. It appears as though someone has torn the corner off the image, creating an odd sense of mystery, and serves to almost throw the image off-balanceβ€”a black nothingness to contrast with the vital, living essence of the tree.

From a technical standpoint, it was a simple shot. I used a 24mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens to frame the image, and a polarizer filter to eliminate glare on the sandstone and juniper leaves, which also enhanced the natural color gradation in the sky.

This image is among my favorite desert photos. It doesn’t hold the majestic grandeur of a sprawling vista, and it’s rather prosaic in nature (it’s a tree on a rock), but it speaks to me of contrasts and opposites, a subconscious pulling and pushing, and an enigmatic, contemplative stillness, a recurring theme in my nature photography. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)

31 thoughts on ““Juniper Tree on Rocks”

    1. Thank you kindly. Sometimes I feel like this tree, to be honest. Parts of me don’t work well anymore and it seems I’m clinging to my own personal rock with clenched fingers. On the farm where I grew up, there was an apple tree outside my bedroom window. It was similar to this juniper in that half of its braches were dead and resembled an arthritic hand reaching for the sky in supplication. I have a poem about that apple tree here on my blog:

      “The Apple Tree”

      I suppose this little juniper may feel the same way, although I see strength and determination here, whereas I felt pity for the apple tree as it seemed so forlorn and hopeless. Different perspectives. πŸ™‚

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      1. That’s a beautiful poem at the link. It is humanly wearing in so many ways to be all but sole witness to a slow and steady demise which can neither be helped nor escaped. And yes, a different perspective with this juniper! Maybe that’s the biggest reason for why God made evergreens.

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    2. Thank you for your kind words and for your thoughtful take on the apple tree. I hope it still lives. It’s been more than seven years since I last saw it, but I think about it often, especially as I grow into the autumn of my own life. And I think you have a valid point here: “Maybe that’s the biggest reason for why God made evergreens…” Perhaps there’s a little bit of evergreen within all of us. πŸ™‚

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    1. Many thanks, Jane. Yes, there’s a lesson here, for sure. It’s amazing what you can find in the desert–it’s such a harsh environment, yet life abounds. There’s a stubbornness to the plants and animals that live such a hardscrabble existence, a strong will and an ability to adapt when things change around them. We all could certainly learn a few things from this tree. I appreciate your kind words, my friend. Thanks for stopping by–it’s always a pleasure to see you here! πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks so much, my friend! I’m pleased to know you liked this photo. The natural world is beautiful and peaceful and can calm a troubled soul. I appreciate your kind words and I hope your day is going well. Thanks again! πŸ™‚

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  1. It’s a beautiful capture, Mike. Love the torn corner part. It immediately struck me. The colors are brilliant contrasts that give the desert a vibrant facade. The tree reminds me of a person undecided on whether to give up or continue struggling. Hope and despair usually fight for space. Great work as always. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks, Terveen. I agree with you regarding the tree. Most definitely an internal struggle, much like so many of us endure daily. Sometimes, each day feels like a “flip of the coin” to decide whether to give up or carry on. Lots of contrasts and paradoxes in the desert. Thanks for your always kind words. I really enjoy reading your take on things. πŸ™‚

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  2. What a gorgeous picture Mike and truly love your keen vision, artfully crafted words and sharp sense of knowing life intimately ” duality present in this scene: the split personality of the tree as one half thrives and the other diminishes; ” ❀️

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    1. Thanks so much, Joni. Oh yeah, I’m unabashedly enamored with trees. Your poetry and stories certainly display your love of them, too. There’s something about the quiet stillness and steadfastness of trees that I find reassuring. Even dead trees fascinate me with their expressive bare branches and somber personalities. I’m glad to know this image appealed to you. Many thanks! πŸ™‚

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      1. I know right. That was a particularly interesting tree against the red. Yes I agree trees are so amazingly resilient. How they poke their heads to the sky. I believe when I get to heaven I will be able to talk to trees. David wrote about trees clapping. That piece was beautiful. Dead trees also have a story to tell. The image and the piece were very beautiful. Thank you my friend. πŸ¦‹

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    1. Thanks, Jordyn. I think I was subconsciously drawn to contrasts and opposition when I was involved in photography. Those forces created a strange sort of balance that lent a stillness to the scenes, and that calmness amid opposition was soothing to me. I noticed the same thing in my younger, pre-deafness days with my guitar playing, and it’s apparent now in my writing. I was raised in a severely dysfunction home and I believe my quest for calm stillness is a direct result of that experience. Anyway, thank you for such a kind and thoughtful comment. I appreciate it. πŸ™‚

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