dusty stew pot her memory lingers by the cold hearth
a tiny sun in this cold dark hell golden suisen
strings of koto from beyond the bamboo grove my heart breaks again
don’t look at me, moon I’m not who you think I am dark night of the soul
from my window the mountain; from the mountain eternity
green silence and the end of all things sea of trees
(Note: A bit of a title change for this series. I’ve been writing senryu almost as long as haiku and I figured it was time to clarify that these little collections contain both. Haiku pertain to nature and seasons, while senryu address the human condition. The formats are virtually identical; the subject matter differs.)
Trout Lake, near the small town of Telluride in southwestern Colorado, is my second-favorite spot on Planet Earth, just behind Heceta Head Lighthouse on the central Oregon Coast. I’ve posted a few images of the lake itself, snugly nestled in the laps of Sheep Mountain, Vermilion Peak, Golden Horn and Pilot Knob amid pine and spruce forests, aspens and a cornucopia of wild flowers. A dirt road circumnavigates the lake, wending its way closer to the peaks and through the woods and bogs. A narrow wooden bridge, which had fallen into disrepair the last time I was there, spans a creek halfway around the lake. It was here, near the collapsed bridge, while photographing elkslip and other wild flowers one summer evening in the late 1990s, that I noticed a lone pussy willow catkin perched on a twig.
I’ve always been enamored with these diminutive delights, tiny and soft and so aptly named (honestly, the term “catkin” is sort of giggle-inducing). There were no willows where I lived on the farm so I’d never had the opportunity to photograph these little guys until now. The light was quickly fading so I set to work. The compositional goal was to isolate the twig and catkin against the background by using a wide aperture setting to blur the background into a solid mass of color in order to make the subject stand out as much as possible. I wanted to express a little story with this image, too, a vignette of the early stages of life, its uphill battle to reach maturity, and the uncertainty that awaits all of us at the end. The catkin was placed on a power-point in the lower left, with the gentle upward arc of the twig leading across the frame to…what? What lies ahead? What of that sudden drop-off at the end of the twig? In life, we may think we have a plan, a goal for the future, but in reality we’re all flying blind. At any moment, our own personal twigs may end abruptly, plummeting us into oblivion. I envisioned the tiny catkin feeling trepidation at the beginning of its journey, leaning back in fear…perhaps steeling itself to perform a Naruto run to the end of the twig and take flight into the unknown. In this brief pause on the cusp of its decision, the air was utterly still, and not a sound came from the forest. Even the ever-present mosquitoes held their collective breaths as they awaited what was coming. I like to think the catkin was preparing itself, screwing up its courage, and calming itself in the cool air and verdant green silence of the woods. And then…
…it’s up to you to decide what happened next. I haven’t returned to this place in years. I hope the catkin’s journey was a happy one, and as brief as this blossom’s lifespan may have been in the grand scheme of things, its ethereal beauty fit right at home in the green silence of the forest, among elkslip, wild irises and columbines. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
Lisbon Valley is a relatively nondescript region in southeast Utah near Canyonlands National Park. While its redrock sandstone formations don’t rival the majesty of those found in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, it has its own hidden marvels, its own unique personality. In the late 1990s, I spotted this rock formation while exploring one late-autumn evening. I was intrigued by several aspects of this scene: the contrasting, opposing oranges and blues; the split-personality of the formation, with half in bright sunset light and the other half in dark shadows; and the looming presence of the formation compared to the diminutive form of the lone juniper tree on the left. And above all, a contemplative stillness. Some might say there’s a David-and-Goliath theme here, a sense of immutable power being challenged by stalwart–if fragile–determination. However, I see something else here…a sense of sorrow, a reaching-out from weakness to strength as the tree casts its shadow on the base of the tower in supplication, as if seeking consolation. A sense of loneliness and isolation. I identify with that juniper tree. I feel deeply that sense of yearning to be a part of something but always finding myself standing on the outside, looking in. Try as it might, the closest that tree will ever come to connecting with that rock is by casting its shadow upon it once a day just before the cold night falls. Such is life in the desert; such is life in this world. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
There’s nothing quite like a country rain. In the region where I live, summer thunderstorms bring the arid landscape to life as everything seems to shimmer and glow, and the scents of wet sage, pine, juniper, earth and fresh air assault one’s olfactory sense like a heady brew. In this image from the late 1990s, this blue lupine had found refuge beneath a pinyon pine and rode out the storm relatively unscathed, unlike many others that were damaged by the intensity of falling rain and were left standing among tatters of petals. Macro-photography is fascinating, especially when exploring the hidden inner worlds of wild flowers, and this lupine made a perfect subject with its brilliant hues and clinging raindrops. I’m left with the impression of each individual blossom craning skyward, open-mouthed, in an attempt to drink in as much rain as possible. In an area that receives around ten inches of precipitation annually, summer rains are vital for the environment to remain balanced (and also pose the threat of wildfires). The beauty of wild flowers is exquisite and all-too-brief, so capturing these examples of nature’s haiku was a priority for me during my days as a nature photographer. (Canon gear, Fuji Velvia ISO 50)
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-balance—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)