there be dragons

Mt Laguna snowIt had snowed in the local mountains late last month. By the time I got up there you could still find big patches of snow on the ground.

Snow over the desert

At the crest of the Laguna Mountains you can look down down down over the edge of the escarpment of the Elsinore Fault to the Vallecito Valley immediately below. It’s a quick vertical mile of dropoff, a height comparable to many vistas along the Grand Canyon. The change in elevation is impressive, but so is the radical change in landscape. A fairly well-watered green-and-brown mountain plant community–think pines, ceanothus, mountain mahogany–careens into a sere desert landscape, all of it in muted brown and purple and pink and gray tones. Down below the colors of geology quickly overpower those of biology. Someone who doesn’t love deserts might liken the descent into Anza Borreo Desert State Park as a descent into Hell.

On this early January day Hell was pleasant, in the low 70s, sunny and dry. Something I hadn’t visited before was a big installation of sculptures by Ricardo Breceda. Installed on a flat expanse on the edge of Borrego Springs you’ll find a rusty steel menagerie of various creatures. I recognized the camels and horses, including this horse with an unfortunately-placed support column.

Camel scuptures in the desert

Horse with rectal probe

Archduke Charles sculpture
(Note to artist: It is possible to model rearing horses without rectal probes, as this sculpture of Archduke Charles in Vienna’s Heldenplatz shows. (Photo by Peter Gerstbach and used here by the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.))

I recognized some of the creatures but a few started to get pretty fanciful, like they’d escaped from a Maurice Sendak picturebook.

Beheaded beast

This one had either just lost its head or was still in the process of being installed.

Horse escaping creature

Headless or not, it was scaring the horses…

Ricardo Breceda sculpture creature

And what the heck is this creature supposed to be? Whatever it was, it appeared to be mom with a little one on her back.

Dragon head

Dragon with mountains

And now we come to the dragon, a big and fancy and fearsome number with five different segments that go from one side of the road to the other. (Edit January 20: Ricki points out that it’s probably a sea serpent and not a dragon, and I agree with her.)

Dragon segment as gate

Here one of the segments functioned as a really lovely little garden portal.

Dragaon vs cholla

But in the end the most fearsome thing of all out in the desert that day wasn’t the dragon, but this “jumping” cholla cactus, one of the local Cylindropuntia species (maybe C. ganderi?). I’ve never been hurt by a dragon, but this bit of botanical evil is a different story. Be afraid, be very afraid.

highlights from 2012: disney hall garden

Sorting through last year’s photos I ran across many little piles intended for blog postings that never happened.

One of the roads paved with good intentions led to Los Angeles. We were up June 1 to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for one of the premier concert performances of John Adams’ new oratorio The Passion According to the Other Mary, a big and sprawling work with many amazing musical moments. (The piece is being reprised in early March in a version staged by Peters Sellars.)

Disney Hall exterior reflecting the sunset

Disney Hall southwest side
Disney Hall has established itself as an architectural landmark, for reasons that you can see here. But less publicized is its little roof garden.

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney

The main centerpiece is a delft blue-and-white rose fountain Frank Gehry designed for concert hall benefactor Lilly Disney. During midday the fountain’s blue colors play off the blue of the sky reflected in the thousands of reflective facets of the concert hall’s stainless steel exterior. But we were there at dusk and the reflected colors formed a backdrop of warm tones.

(Writing now, in January, when these short winter days sees darkness falling in late afternoon, it’s comforting to see that within a few months the sun will still be up late into the evening, summer manic to counter the winter depressive. I can hardly wait!)

Disney Hall Garden big rose fountain for Lilly Disney alt

Disney Hall Garden Lilly Disney fountain

Disney Hall Garden plants

Disney Hall Garden Heuchera maxima

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building

Disney Hall Garden coral tree and building alt

There was a nod to native California with this clump of coral bells, Heuchera maxima, but the other plants drew on the imported botanical palette that you see around Southern California. This blooming coral trees were probably the most prominent among them.

Disney Hall interior with the french fries

Going inside the hall, the wacked out organ pipes behind the orchestra always amaze me. The architect refers to them as his “French fries.”

So ends this delayed little tour of a sight from last year. If my blog hosting service spares me further times without service, I’ll have a few more glimpses back ahead, along with what some Southern California gardens are doing in the lengthening days of late winter.

sunburn–the good kind

Until a couple weeks ago I hadn’t bought any art or photo books this year. In today’s online age something really has to speak to me for me to want to make space for it at home in tangible, doorstop form. Chris McCaw’s new–and first–book, Sunburn, was the release that broke this year’s bookless streak.

Sunburn book cover
Sunburn / Chris McCaw.
Richmond, VA: Candela, 2012.
Dimensions: 10 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.
96 pages, 43 plates
ISBN 978-0-9845739-2-9

From cover to cover this is a book of photographs incorporating one main subject: the sun. But this is the sun photographed in a way that’s never been done before.

Chris uses giant lenses, many of them weighing dozens of pounds, and aims them at a sheet of vintage photo paper inside big cameras of his own making. All that light generates a lot of heat, and the paper inside the camera often scorches the areas where the sun’s image falls on it. Most of the exposures are many minutes to many hours long, so that as the sun moves through the sky it burns lines and arcs onto the paper in the camera. Sometimes little fires break. Photo paper isn’t used to all this light, and in addition to flaming out every now and then it can do some wacky things with a process called solarization, where some parts of the image are flipped from negative to positive. In a few of the images you can also see some rich colors others than black or white or gray in the danger zone around the sun’s image, a reaction of the paper’s chemistry to being used in ways it wasn’t designed to be used. (The book’s cover image above demonstrates this nicely.)

The method of working would remain an interesting anecdote if it didn’t result in some pretty startling photographs. Be sure to click and enlarge these images to begin to see all their beautiful little subtleties. You’ll be glad you did.

Chris McCaw Sunburn Number 65 (Nevada)

Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#65 (Nevada), 2007. 16″x20″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Private collection.

This early piece shows the classic burn-through with the sun’s path.


Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#190, 2008. 20″x24″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Fidelity Investments Collection.

In this and the next image the sun didn’t scorch through the paper, but it did some cool things with the branches in the foreground.

Chris McCaw Sunburn 325

Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#325, 2009. 4″x5″ unique gelatin silver paper negative. Private collection.

Some photography concerns itself with the world outside the camera. It’s photography about people, places, issues and ideas. Other kinds of photography do a lot of navel-gazing obsessing about the process of photography itself. This second camp expresses itself in lots of different ways, including images produced using antique photographic processes, toy cameras, camera-less photograms, or images created by the chemical reaction of the entrails of bunnies with color photographic paper. (No, I’m not making this up. The photographer Adam Fuss has a body of work that apparently ended up with his family and friends eating many meals that featured rabbit as the main course.) I think Chris’s work falls a little more on the camera-geek side of the equation, and his work is instantly appealing to photographers familiar with the materials he works with. But the resulting photos of landscape with a sun’s path burned out of the sky, with mysterious flips of positive and negative, dark and light, are pretty wonderful things that viewers attuned to beautiful objects will immediately connect with.


Chris McCaw. Sunburned GSP#541(Galápagos), 2012. 8″x10″ unique gelatin silver paper negative.

The sun’s path changes with the seasons and with your location on the earth. If you want to have your sun rise up the center of the photo in a perfectly straight line you have to do some traveling to the earth’s equator, which is exactly what Chris did, taking this photo off the coast of the Galápagos Islands earlier this year. Wow, huh? The sun’s reflection really makes this image.

And there’s a sort of companion piece to this one, a big multi-panel panorama he shot up in Alaska’s Brooks Range, where the sun never sets as it marks a long, slow parabola over the mountains on the horizon over the course of more than a day. Double wow. (It’s on pages 68-69 of his book.)

And did I mention Chris is a really cool guy? A few years back I was on a little desert camping trip to Anza Borrego with four other photographers, and Chris was one of them. At that point he’d figured out that there was something really interesting when you burn a photographic negative, but hadn’t yet worked out his current method that uses big sheets of photographic paper that serve as the final artwork, scorch marks and all. To think, I knew the Chris way back when before impending greatness.

So…if you have a big, rectangular stocking to fill later this month, this might be the perfect thing to put in it!


Oh, and I forgot to mention this impressive frontispiece to the book. The image is Sunburned GSP#573(eclipse), 2012. Cool enough, but the page has been die-cut to give you a sense of how it would be to handle one of these photos. I didn’t shoot the back of the page, but there you’ll find reproduced the backside of the image with scorch marks and Chris’s notations. It’s for things like this that the word-elves invented the word “awesome.”

All images in this post are copyright the artist, and are used here with his permission.

it’s a girl

Maybe three years ago I started some coyote bush from local seed. This species, Baccharis pilularis is a pretty easy plant to reproduce this way, pretty close to “just add water.” It produces plants that are either entirely male or entirely female in the kinds of flowers they produce, or “dioecious” in botany-speak. When you grow them out from seed you have a pretty even chance that a single plant will be male or female.

Each gender has its uses in the garden. The males are great if you want a fast-growing reliably green mound of foliage that keeps requires close to zero added water in a garden situation. Virtually all coyote cultivars are boys.

The females are also fast-growing reliably green mounds of foliage that keeps require close to zero added water in a garden situation. But unlike the males produce thick foliage-obscuring quantities of white seed heads in the late fall and early winter when most other plants aren’t quite so glamorous. They’re spectacular, but come with the down-side that the seeds can flit about and land all over, populating your garden with little coyote bushes. This is why most named cultivars in the nursery trade are males. The sole exception, which was pointed out to me by Barbara of Wild Suburbia, is Centennial, a believed hybrid of this species and B. sarothroides.

Some closeups of the seed heads…

I’ve waxed poetic about the hillsides shot with flashes of white like this one that you see at this time of year.

Now I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. How bad is it having a female coyote bush in the garden? I’m about to find out, and I’ll report back here. But I doubt it’ll be any worse than a few other plants in the garden that spread themselves about. And if a few plants find their way into the bleak rental next door where the only things the renters are growing in their dirt-patch of a garden are mastiffs and bulldogs, how can it be a bad thing?

tales of the city, and a room of mirrors

After leaving Yosemite we took a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area. We had tickets to see Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’ “opera,” Einstein on the Beach, which was staged at UC Berkeley as part of an international tour. I’d known the work since it shook the new music and theater circles in the 1970s, but West Coasters like me haven’t have a chance to see the work until now.

It’s a piece that has to be seen to be really appreciated, but I’ll give you a one-word review: Wow.

(Curtain calls…)

So, while in the neighborhood, we cross the bridge to San Francisco for a quick day of even more culture.

With so many offerings you have to choose. This is the sun hitting the famous green roof of the California Academy of Sciences. We didn’t have time to go inside…

…but we did get a good overall view from the view tower next door at the de Young Museum which was renovated fairly recently. Architects Herzog & de Meuron clad the building in an amazing mantle of copper and added a multi-story tower capped off with a rhombus-shaped viewing chamber.

The odd angles and walls of glass made for a glimpse of what it must be like to live inside a kaleidoscope. The views were great, but the reflections inside the viewing chamber were at least as amazing.

Even the floors were polished and reflective.

The entrance to the de Young features a charismatic piece by Andy Goldsworthy that’s been written up many times by bloggers and journalists. How can you not like a big installation of oversized cut stones and pavers that nods to California’s seismic origins by featuring a delicate but assertive crack that travels all throughout the entry plaza where the piece is installed? You can click this little panorama to the left and see the line exit one of the big stones and end at the museum’s front door.

And below are some of the cleaved stones. It’s easy to miss the little crack at first, but when you start to follow it around the courtyard the piece really comes to life.

Wow, all over again.

final yosemite resting places

While researching what to do with my father’s ashes I came across something I hadn’t known about: It’s perfectly legal to spread your loved one’s ashes within Yosemite National Park. Many (most?) municipalities prohibit doing that except for within the confines of a designated cemetery–for instance my town, San Diego, prohibits it except for burial at sea three miles out. So it was an almost astonishing surprise that one of the crown jewels of the National Park system was lots more accommodating. I haven’t researched other national parks in detail, but they appear to be equally welcoming.

You’ll need to do a couple things before making your last trip to the park with mom or pop. The overhead is pretty reasonable, though, and is detailed [ here ]. First you’ll need to obtain permission from the park. This takes place at a snail-mail timescale, so it might take a couple weeks. Next you’ll need the burial permit obtainable from your local county records office. This will cost you about eleven bucks.

The actual distribution of ashes has a few restrictions–you have to keep a certain distance from trails and waterways, for instance, and your can’t leave any permanent markers. Once the deed is done you file the permit with the local county records office.

While in Yosemite last month, thinking about last days and final resting places, I stopped by the little pioneer cemetery in Yosemite Valley.

Stereotypical Latin crosses were few. This one was the most prominent, and belongs to James Hutchings, an early Yosemite hotelier and major booster of the Sierra Nevada, partly through his publication of Hutchings’ California Magazine.

G. B. Cavagnaro’s resting place also sported a traditional marker. This one was white marble, incised with oak leaves and acorns, a nod to the landscape all around. When I entered the cemetery everything was in shade but for this shaft of brilliant white stone. Talk about theatrical.

The most beautiful and place-appropriate markers took this form, slabs of Yosemite granite, large or small, barely worked.

They reminded me of Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures at their best, or standing stones of the sort you’ll find in the British Isles. This one was as tall as I am.

No cemetery is complete without botanical remembrances. Here the flowers took the form of little plastic bouquets tucked around the stones or attached to them. I suppose it was a little sad to see the impermanent plastic flowers, but many of the inscriptions on the heavily sculpted headstones were already starting to be illegible. Nothing is permanent.

yosemite late october

We arrived in Yosemite the day after the first winter storm of the season came through. Snow had dusted the higher elevations and a thin coat still clung to the top of many of the Valley’s prominent geological features like Half Dome, Sentinel Dome and Cloud’s Rest.

Although Yosemite has always been one of my favorite places anywhere, it had been almost 15 years since my last visits, when I spent half-months in November and May on an artists’ residency program. Fortunately a life-long relationship with Yosemite is one that you can pick up and resume after many years away. It took a little while to get the hang of the road system, but the place felt like home right away.

I mentioned the snow. Here’s the trail to Sentinal Dome. Oooh pretty. But the trail was slippery as the snow thawed and I was holding an unprotected camera and the day was getting late, so I turned around not long after this photo.

Fall isn’t typically the time to experience Yosemte’s waterfalls at their peak. Here’s the face of Upper Yosemite Falls, more like Upper Yosemite Seep. The young French couple that I was pacing part of the way up the trail seemed a little disappointed.

You can see here the meager flow into the little twin pools at the top of the falls, right before the creek takes a leap that will launch it into a the journey that marks it as North America’s tallest waterfall, or in this case, North America’s tallest seep. So, yah, fall isn’t the best time to see Yosemite’s famous waterworks.

But October and November can bring terrific leaf colors to the park. Here’s what the drive into the Valley looked like the day the sun came out.

I hope you like yellow. That’s the predominant autumn leaf color down in the valley. Yellow, and brown. Bigleaf maples and various shrubs were doing the yellow thing. Oaks turned yellow-brown, then brown. The Valley dogwoods can color up a rich burgundy shade, but this year they were skipping the red and going straight to brown. Oh disappointment, thy color this season is brown.

A couple thousand feet higher in elevation, somewhere around 6200 feet, the colors were more varied. Yellow, we have yellow. I’m not sure what this low roadside shrub is, but it was pretty brilliant yellow. Ferns were also going through a straw-yellow stage on as the green drained from the leaves.

And up here we got the non-brown leaves on the Pacific dogwoods, right now going through their candy-pink phase. Some will turn dark burgundy before falling. Others…we’re back to brown again. But brown via pink, no complaints.

And this last one is a subtle eye-candystore of some of the leaf colors: pink, yellow, straw. Almost East Coast leaf colors–minus the blizzards (or scary hurricanes)…

a cliché i happen to like

How can you pick out a Californian from within a brig crowd? Just wait for a rainy day and see which one heads for the door to look at the amazing stuff falling from the sky. We don’t see much of the stuff, especially over our dry summers. This past weekend was moist, one of only two periods of rain over the last four months. So there was this Californian, outdoors with camera in hand.

Pictures of raindrops on leaves are pretty common, over in cliché territory, almost as common as photos of raindrops on roses, but there’s something satisfying about making more, particularly if you live somewhere rain can be pretty rare. Here are some quick photos from the garden.

The first few are of raindrops on Agave attenuata.

This one displays the nice out of focus bare green stems of Galvezia juncea in the background–probably more interesting than the wet leaf. Photo geeks call the phenomenon of out of focusedness “bokeh,” mostly used to refer to the shapes of bright spots in the blur. Lens reviewers drool over bokeh spots that are more circular than those that are irregularly-shaped like bladed lens apertures. Bokeh is a pretty unusual word so I had to go running to Wikipedia, where it pointed to “the Japanese word boke, which means “blur” or “haze”, or boke-aji, the “blur quality”. The Japanese term boke is also used in the sense of a mental haze or senility.”

And now a few on tree aloe, Aloe arborescens. It’s kinduv a scary-looking plant, dontcha think? But really cool, subtle, warm colors in addition to the green…

And I’m sure you’ve never seen photos of raindrops on spiderwebs (insert snarky smiley) so here’s one.

And one final drops on spiderweb photo, this one in front of California matchweed, Gutierriezia californica, with nice little yellow bokeh circles from the out of focus flowers.

october coffeeberries

October can be the cruelest month. The first couple of days saw a return visit from Satan’s HVAC guy. Freaking hot. And same goes for Wednesday of this week. October was the month of the big wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

This October also brought the first measurable rain since May, when the month saw 0.02 inches of rain. According to San Diego weather enthusiast John S. Stokes III, “[t]his is the 19th time in the last 163 years June, July, August and September have been zero/trace.” But after a dry summer we got some rain, and change is in the air.

One of the California native plants that weathers the dry spell best is the coffeeberry, Frangula california or more commonly known and sold by its old name of Rhamnus californica. With only occasional supplemental water the plants stay looking green. Give them a little more water and they can look absolutely lush.

You can buy different clones of coffeeberry, and they do do slightly different things. The most “normal” looking plant, from a non-native horticultural standpoint might be the clone Tranquil Margerita that’s sold by Las Pilitas. If you read any British garden writing you’ll encounter the word “gardenesque,” and this clone could be used to define the word. Neat, dense and well-behaved, with long, somewhat glossy leaves, it would fit seamlessly into cottage garden landscape.

Eve Case is a clone that goes back to its introduction in 1975 by the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation, a group that was founded in 1952 through the vision of horticulturalist Ray Hartman to give Californians more climate-appropriate choices for their gardens. Compared to Margarita, Eve is a wild woman. This clone’s leaves are coarser, a little reflexed, and come fewer to the stem than with Tranquil Margarita. If Margarita was gardenesque, Eve might be called “woodsy.” Here’s one of my plants of it–probably not the best examples of what this clone can look like. But it’s a real-life example of what gophers can do in a garden to retard the growth of plants, with this plant going into the ground after the previous one.

Mound San Bruno is somewhere between the previous two clones. The leaves tend to be a little smaller, and not so recurved like in Eve Case. My plant of it is a really bad example. I put in the ground and assumed that the little drip emitter would keep it happy. But some evil critter–gophers again–buried the emitter so that the plant got next to no water for several months. If the plant had a chance to get established it would have weather the dry spell just fine, but this plant didn’t fare so well. But as soon as I fixed the emitter it came back, and should look terrific after it gets a moist winter to get it established.

People grow coffeeberries for the reliable green foliage. But they also grow this plant for its berries. True to its name the berries mature to a dark shade like dark-roast espresso beans. I mentioned change earlier, and this seems to be the month when you see the berries making their transition in a big way.

Some plants have a multicolor mix of fruits at this point in the season.

For me Eve Case is just starting the transition, showing colorful spots on the original green berries.

Next in the coffeeberry spectrum are warm oranges…

…quickly followed by pink-inspired reds.

The final color stage is this namesake coffee bean color. The birds are sure to show up once they find out coffeeberry is served…

high-res camera in the october garden

Is a camera with more megapixels better? In our bigger is better culture your might be inclined to think so, but for everyday use more could be serious overkill. Here’s a quick look at some of what a super-high resolution camera can do with subject matter in the early autumn garden.

One of the main reasons for a pile of megapixels is for making large prints. My background in large-format film cameras got me used to being able to produce 20 x 24 inch prints that you could look at with a magnifying glass to see even more detail. That’s not a requirement for most photographers.

Here’s a shot of Corethrogyne (a.k.a. Lessingia) filaginifolia next to some stepping stones in the garden. Flowers this time of year are pretty thin, and this is one of the great plants that comes to the rescue by blooming in late summer and fall.

This is a full-pixel crop of the above. (Click to enlarge to 600 x 900 on your screen.) The dried flowers are pretty sharp, still. The open flower is a little blurry, but that’s more from being a little out of focus. It’s not great art, but if you were to print the first image full frame, the extra resolution would let you make prints with nice detail.

Related to the issue of making larger prints, images with higher megapixels allow you to make nicer looking cropped versions. You might want to crop an image for prints, or you might just want to be able to show closeups from a larger image for use on the web.

Sarracenia leucophylla “Super Swamp Ghost,” putting out some new pitchers for the fall. This is the original full-frame image. The picture has stuff on the margins that I thought was pretty distracting.

This is a slight crop of the previous, making a cleaner illustration with fewer distractions. You’d be able to do this with most images from most cameras.

But what if you decided to crop to isolate just the mouth of one of the pitchers? I saw the one large fly when I took the photo, but I didn’t see the smaller one to the right until I looked closer.

Or how about getting really close, to take a really good look at the bigger fly? Or how about wanting to take a look at the hairs on the interior of the pitcher that direct insects downward, into the tube, into the digestive juices, never to escape. This is where the higher resolution original image gives you more options.

Why yes, you’d be able to accomplish some of this with a good zoom lens on your camera. But if you wanted to extend the reach of your zoom, it helps to have a photo with more information in it. Also zoom lenses don’t generally give you same image quality as lenses of fixed focal length, so that a $150 fixed lens can give results that would dust a premium zoom more than ten times the price.

The rest of these images are just quick looks at other things in the garden, not necessarily anything you’d want to print at a large size. I’ve down-sized the images from 7360 x 4912 pixels to 900 x 600, and this blog page further reduces them to 300 x 200. (Click to see the intermediate size.) If you only need photos this size, there’s probably no real need for a high megapixel camera.

Another of the pitcher plants, Sarracenia Sky Watcher.

Sarracenia leucophylla, “Hot Pink” clone from Botanique.

Sarracenia Green Monster x xcourtii, a cross by Rob Co of The Pitcher Plant Project.

Sarracenia alata x minor with a garden frog, contemplating the universe, deciding if it needs a high megapixel camera.

Dried flower heads, late season, on black sage. Salvia mellifera.

A sure sign that autumn is here, the dried flower heads and supporting stems from San Miguel Island buckwheat, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. If you water the plant more than I do it’d stay a little greener. This plant is anything but dead, with there still being lots of green closer to the crown of the plant. Some people would cut all this back, but I really like how it looks draped over this patinated wall.

Cropped and focused a little differently and photographed with a little more care than my quick snapshot this might make a nice wall print.

FYI, the camera used here was the Nikon D800E, which is categorized at 36.3 megapixels. That’s pretty extreme for a small DSLR. But if you want to talk about extremem miniaturization, there’s even a 41 megapixel cellphone camera, the Nokia PureView 808. Word on the street is that it’s not a particularly great picture-take much higher than when you set it at at 5 megapixels, within the range many cellphone cameras operate in. Making a 41 megapixel cellphone camera seems to be a mostly a stunt, technically an extremely high-res camera, but almsot useless when operated that way. The Nikon by contrast is actually a good camera.

an artist loosed in a garden