When the whole year's project lay stretched out before me like a blank canvas, the circumannuation seemed a daunting task. There's no way to rush a project which, by definition, must take a year to create. It has been a challenge! In the early weeks of the project I tried not to worry about what I was going to do all year by reminding myself to take it one weekend at a time. I put my trust in the mountain, that it would reveal itself, and that all I had to do was show up. And when the High Sierra called, or the Eastern Sierra or the deserts or the coasts or the bird-filled Central Valleys or the redwood country or the Cascades, I answered, "Yes, I'll be back. But this year I dedicate to Mt. Tam." The past year has seen the first rock concert since 1967, the inauguration of the Mt. Tam Cam whose camera-trap posts are sprinkled throughout this blog, a weird winter with a rotten string of Spare the Air days that smogged the atmosphere when it should have been raining instead, a fantastically clear day when I could see the snowy Sierra Nevada from Bolinas Ridge, a small forest fire (and the season's first wildflowers) off Fairfax-Bolinas Road, a seemingly drought-busting storm, the likes of which had never been seen before by either myself or fellow soaked hikers I met along the trails, and a brief stay at the Steep Ravine Campground, something I've long wanted to do. Either with my wife, Pam, or by myself, I explored many trails that were new to me despite having hiked on the mountain for more than 20 years. It was good to stretch out of old habits and become better acquainted with the mountain, which is a large part of what this blog was all about.
If you're just finding the blog, I'm sorry to say it's over. Hopefully its 100 posts still stand as something worth investigating. Pick a month and poke around! In addition to a year's worth of Mt. Tam imagery in the blog itself, check out the sidebar for interesting items: from the Information Kiosk to the Blurb books; a couple of articles I had published in Marin Magazine; some hiking ideas; a PDF version (about 450 pages) of this entire blog; and the valuable and interesting Mt. Tam Links (definitely check out Gary Yost's beautiful short films). The Blurb books are so expensive to produce that I am offering them for sale with no mark-up. Even so, I'm sure only the most avid collectors will take the plunge. But even if you don't plan to buy one, the books can be viewed online in their entirety, though of course with limited resolution. Just click on the book to go to the Blurb site, click on Preview, then click on the "View Fullscreen" icon.
This blog actually started in 2007, with the first post based on a July visit to Yosemite. It was called Photo Processing back then. By and by it became John Wall's Natural California, and I spent a few years exploring pretty much every corner of this incredibly beautiful and diverse state. As fun as it was to report my findings here on Blogger, I also took great satisfaction in creating concurrent projects in print. I made short booklets with Lulu, magazines with Magcloud (now merged with Blurb), and books with Blurb. It seems expensive to produce these projects, but it's actually an economical way to preserve one's work in print, and it's portable to boot. Moreover, thirty years from now, I'll still be able to hold the books in my hands and enjoy them. I deleted all those years of posts to do this final, one-year project. My day job has been demanding more of my time, so my regular, far-flung correspondence had to end. I had followed my bliss all over the state, only to come full circle back home, to Mt. Tamalpais.
I'd like to go back to the Natural California project one of these days, but it'll have to wait until I can either cut back my work hours -- or retire. It could be a while either way!
I was thinking about driving around the whole mountain for my last regular post (the farewell post is scheduled for 11:30 tonight), but I didn't plan ahead and couldn't pull it off. I'm usually pretty worn out after a few hours of stalking the wild photographs.
I drove out toward Fairfax to loop around the north side of the mountain. The fog was thick and low and completely obscured any views of the mountain, so there really wasn't anything harrying me and I could pull over to check out some California buckeye flowers without feeling pressed for time.
The deer from the previous shot is still in there.
Okay, I'm going to go with "harvest brodiaea" for this guy. Does anyone really know how to pronounce "brodiaea"? I always hear it as bro-dee-uh, but what about that apparent extra couple of syllables on the end? Is the "ea" silent? Or do some people actually say bro-dee-uh-ee-uh? Or maybe bro-dee-uh-ee? I would feel too self-conscious to say all that. I would just go with "grass nut," which harks back to the days when people dug up and ate the nutritious corms.
Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum).
I remember chamise from way back at Santa Barbara City College when I thought I was going to be a botanist. That was after I ran out of money to continue at Brooks Institute of Photography. SBCC had a great biology department back then, but I was far too math-challenged to really do well in it. I ended up with a degree in journalism, but my heart was never into writing for newspapers. When I'd joined the Navy after high school I thought I was done with school forever, but I eventually went to college to climb the academic ladder, only to storm the walls and realize I was in the wrong castle.
"And so it goes," as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.
If I were able to produce an image of the chamise canyon shown two photos above, you would be able to see the stone-crop, or rock lettuce, in the photo immediately above. This is the no-name canyon I hike to reach Carson Falls. There are Oregon ash trees near the base of the canyon.
I was hoping to photograph some birds this morning, so I stopped at every pull-out along Fairfax-Bolinas Road and watched for movement in the trees while listening for birdsong. I was especially hoping to photograph "the jee-bee bird." I've been hearing it quite a bit the last few weeks. It's "companion call" (the call it uses to keep in touch with others of its kind while foraging for insects among the tree branches) sounds like jee-bee jee-bee jee-bee. I got a very good look at two of them, but I didn't have my telephoto lens either time. They looked to me like black-throated gray warblers. When I listen to the online recordings of this species, I hear something similar, but not exactly the same. Maybe the BTGWs of Mt. Tam have their own dialect.
Just seconds after I pulled into one particular gravel turnout to listen for birds, I was suddenly surrounded by three or four vehicles that I hadn't even known were there. They'd been far enough behind me to be out of sight. Two pulled in behind me, one kept on going, and another pulled in front of me. What luck. I'm trying to listen for bird calls, and suddenly I'm surrounded by yahoos -- at a very improbable place, I might add. This was not a trailhead. I started the Jeep and pulled out, watching as the people in the minivan in front of me started waving and frantically hollering ("No! No!") out their windows. Glancing at my sideview mirror I saw a guy running after me. I hit the brakes, stopping in the middle of the road. The guy caught up to me. "Something I can help you with?" I said. They were looking for the Cataract Trail.
Over the course of the last year, I didn't always photograph subjects I'd photographed before. One such subject is the yellow mariposa lily, Calochortus luteus. I've got such a sweet shot of it that I'm almost afraid to try to photograph it again. Anyway, I could probably say the same thing about dogtail grass, but this morning I just couldn't resist.
As I continued my slow drive along Fairfax-Bolinas Road I stopped at a location I'd never stopped at before. It's mostly a very steep embankment of gravelly serpentine, with very little life growing upon it. In much the same way that moss can't grow on madrone trunks that frequently shed their outermost layer of bark, this serptentine scree slope is still too steep to guarantee long-term purchase for new plant growth.
But there was still a little bit of water in a ravine at its base, and generous portions of moss seemed to have found a home thereabouts. It reminded me of cryptogamic desert soils. Anyway, I found perhaps the strangest thing I've ever found on Mt. Tam -- a frog skeleton. If it really were the desert, it would probably be a mummy. It's far too big to be a chorus frog, and probably not big enough to be a bullfrog, which means it's probably a foothill yellow-legged frog.
My next stop was the Lily Pond, where someone introduced non-native bullfrogs once upon a time. The bullfrogs (which eat native chorus frogs) were not drought-tolerant and failed to survive.
For this comparison shot, I was unable to stand in the same place. I'd forgotten to bring the April 25 photo with me, but I was pretty sure I remembered where I'd stood. I ended up having to stand stage-right of my April location because the horsetail was so high that I could not make a photograph through it. Where I stood in April is stage-left of my position in the May shot -- closer to the pond.
From Lily Pond I decided to walk out to Alpine Lake. I was surprised to see how full it was. This little arm reaching into the woods was completely dry the last time I was here. I found some interesting animal tracks in the mud along this stretch and thought it would be an interesting place to set out the camera trap, although people do occasionally pass this way.
There was a pair of female common mergansers floating nearby. They didn't seem too perturbed by my presence, but they didn't come up to the edge of the lake to say hello either. They made interesting companion calls, and once in a while one of them skittered along the surface and took off, only to circle above the woods a few times and land again.
Morning monkey flower at Alpine Lake.
I'm going to go out on a limb here...
...and call this a wood pewee. Whatever it is, it's a baby. I heard it being fed and watched one of the parents feed it. The tiny fellow did not seem to mind my presence for quite a while. It even preened its feathers while I made photographs, using the built-in flash to try to fill in for the avalanche of sunlight falling into the background.
But I think I eventually pissed him off. He probably deduced that my presence was the reason mama wasn't coming back to feed him.
Here's where I might have begun the next phase of my photographic explorations if I hadn't been slightly tuckered out. I did in fact look for snakes, but found none. The baby snake I'd left on a rock last week was gone, the rock toppled into a little ravine. I imagined that a passing hawk or raven had looked down and thought, "That is one cocky little snake!"
So I snapped a photo looking south, and another looking north. A couple of tourists soon replaced me at the position, and I aimed for home.
I was disappointed to see that I'd pointed the camera too high. I'd hoped to catch wildlife drinking in the little stream that's just below the frame in these shots. This deer dropped by on Sunday evening and noticed the flashing red rectangle right away.
This might be the same mama deer taking an even closer look the following morning. I'd half-expected to find the camera dislodged from the boulder where I set it up, lying face-down on the ground, or maybe even having rolled into the stream. But it didn't get touched.
The little bambino dropped by a little later in the day.
One of the little bambinos even checked out the camera that afternoon. Besides these Sunday night-to-Monday critters, no other animals passed through the tree gate all week, but I had numerous false triggers due to tree limbs blowing in the wind. I'll come back to this spot later in the season, but for now I'd like to find someplace completely different.
Yet this is our conviction and invitation: to let yourself
slip, with the faith of a child, into this natural California and so invite
wonder, worship, and gratitude for the simple joys of being alive. Along the
way, may you hear the whisper of the sacred, which is everything.
--James Lawrence, from essay in California by David Muench and Marc Muench
I got to the gate a little before 7 a.m. and was surprised to see the sun already shining on the "Mount Tamalpais State Park" sign. I mentioned to the ranger who came to unlock the gate how weird that seemed since it was still so dark at this time of day just a few months ago, and she agreed, saying she feels like she's running late when it's this light out.
I was the first car through the gate and stopped to check out this vista point. I photographed a gorgeous post-7a.m. sunrise from here not that long ago.
By 7 a.m. these days the good light is almost over already. Almost.
I was a little disappointed to find it so windy on the mountain, but at least I'd left the cold and fog back in San Francisco. I was surprised to see how tall the grass has gotten in the meadow at Rock Spring, so I took a picture.
I had the whole place to myself, and I enjoyed just poking around at a leisurely pace. In fact, I stopped so often and for long that "pace" is probably not the right word for what I was doing.
I tried not to be creeped out by finding European earwigs (etymology) in the mule ears blossoms. I suppose that old Night Gallery episode is responsible for some of the cringiness of them. They're actually kind of cute when they're just lounging around and eating nectar or pollen or whatever. It's only when they "scuttle" that they seem creepy, especially if they're scuttling toward you.
According to Powell and Hogue, this is the most abundant species in California, but it wasn't known in the state until 1923. It's interesting to think of the first earwigs coming over to California in some very specific location(s), then spreading out over much of the state. They are omnivorous, feeding on plants as well as dead and living insects, including aphids. When these guys realized they were being watched, they scuttled to the underside of the flower, returning topside when the coast seemed clear. Almost every mule ear blossom in this part of the meadow had a resident earwig.
There were many more species of grass in the meadow than I would ever have the patience or skill to identify, and you've got to hand it to the grasses for finding so many ways to express themselves.
The tiny beetle climbed up the grass stalk and flew away.
A little farther down the trail I spotted my first foxglove flowers of the season, though I've been watching the plants come up for a few weeks.
Here, a beetle forages on a cluster of blue dicks. Apparently you can know by the wing coloration of this species that this particular beetle is female. It's common name is dimorphic flower longhorn beetle.
I finally found a spot that was protected from the wind, allowing me to run the only focus stack of the morning on this checker bloom with a frothy mass of spittlebug larvae attached.
On a much more "mature" checker bloom blossom I found this other species of flower longhorn beetle. I see this beetle every year and know it must be very common, but it's not covered in Powell & Hogue.
I guess it was just last week when Pam and I were hiking farther down the mountain that I couldn't recall if I'd ever actually seen one of these clicking critters. You hear them in the trees all around, but if you try to walk over toward the tick-tick-tick sound, it abruptly stops before you can zero in on it. I spotted this one because it was fluttering around on the ground next to the trail. It eventually climbed up onto this grass stalk where it was kind enough to allow me to photograph it at my leisure.
To give you an idea how small these woodland cicadas are, my macro lens was set a 1:1 ratio in this shot, which is shown full-frame. Their genus, Platypedia, would appear to mean "flatfooted," which does not seem like their most obvious trait, if you ask me. There are 18 species in the genus in California, mostly in the northern half of the state.
I didn't go far down the trail before I turned around and headed back to the Jeep. I stopped along a drying-out seasonal streambed to look for snakes, but only found these witch's teeth.
I didn't find a snake until I almost ran over this sunbathing gopher snake. I didn't see him in time to stop, but I was at least able to drive over him without running him over. I parked just up the road and returned to snap this picture with the 50mm, then I nudged the snake so he'd slither off the road and into cover. As soon as I touched him, he reared up as if to strike, then hissed at me and slithered into the grass. Once he was all the way in the grass, he hissed again even louder for good measure.
I drove out along the road a ways to look for more snakes sunning themselves, but didn't see any more until the return trip. This small, baby rattlesnake was in the middle of the returning lane and had not been as lucky as the gopher snake. This little guy had to have been killed only a short time before I saw him since he hadn't been there when I first drove by.
I set him on this rock to get a better look at him, but the Jeep was idling in the middle of the road, so I made a quick snap and got moving again.
When I got home I found the latest ("final"?) version of my Mt. Tam book, which includes many of the D800E images I shot during the year of this blog. I got it with Blurb's highest quality papers, and it cost just over $200 with tax and shipping. You wouldn't want to spend that much on something for yourself -- but if you're lucky, maybe you'll get one as a gift. For what it's worth (not sure if works for me or for the book), there was a 15% discount coupon in the shipment that expires June 30, coupon code BLURB2014.
The photos you find here will wander a path through the year. I call it a “circumannuation” in homage to a practice among certain Japanese monks who walk around -- or circum-ambulate -- a mountain. Three poets -- Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen -- took the practice to Mt. Tamalpais in 1965, and others continue to this day. I'm not a circumambulator myself, but my less-structured wanderings around the mountain are nevertheless a kind of meditation and prayer of thanks -- thanks to the mountain itself and all the life it harbors, to those who worked to keep it undeveloped, and to those who continue to maintain and enjoy it today.
In this photography project I will explore the mountain's trails and its natural history for the period of one solar cycle. At the end of each month I'll post some additional pictures I shot during that month in other years. Enjoy!