Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A View from the Guadalupes

I have a lot of creative projects in progress; they simply aren't quite ready to share. In the interests of keeping this blog alive, I present a field watercolor, which I painted on the El Capitan trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The wind blasted and whipped around me as I moved the bubbles of colored water across the page. As often happens, I felt sorry for the majority of Americans, who were glued to their smartphones and not observing the broader world. I even felt sorry for trail runners, so bent on breaking up the trail at maximum speed, that they miss the beautiful landscape it contains. People feel most alive when they are in the present moment, and using all five senses. Meditation helps with this, I am told. Impatient with traditional forms of meditation, painting on a windy hill with a hundred-mile view of mountains and rolling plains can be, for now, my substitue.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Searchers for Greatness in 2015

Inevitably, the changing of the year is a time of reflection. A review and reassessment of the recent past, and a moment to plan and hope for the future. A time when millions of Americans resolve to go to the gym, and most don't make it past January. Although fitness is important, these people are not thinking big enough. Former congressman and highly-progressive presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has a broader and more visionary new year's resolution for America, which includes a full-employment economy, an end to NSA spying, reparations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a transition to sustainable forms of agriculture and energy, to halt global climate change. My resolutions and yours should be similar in scope!

Geographically, my 2014 spanned across many parts of the western United States. Although I still need to think bigger when it comes to accomplishments for the world, it is nice to look back with a bit of awe at all the red monoliths I saw and the frigid waters I stomped through. It is wise to pause and feel some wonder at our amazing world, a quest assisted by photos like these and these.

For the long-winded Studlar family holiday letter, I wrote the following for my part:

Ross has continued to work in National Park Service sites that feature caves. He finished a volunteer post at Wind Cave, was a summer Ranger at Timpanogos Cave, and then reprised for the winter a seasonal Ranger job at Carlsbad Caverns (held previously in summer 2013.) This all happened because one cave park led to the next—Ross is still a forest dweller at heart! Timpanogos Cave has its fair share of forests as well, with a daily hike up a rocky mountain required to reach the trio of glittering caves, the last and most impressive of which (the monument’s namesake) features many thousands of helictites—formations that resemble writhing snakes. With its comparatively small staff, Rangers at Timpanogos Cave must wear multiple hats, which Ross was glad to do. He guided cave tours and tours of Cascade Springs wetland; patrolled the mountain trail; acted as a primary EMT; and created portions of the Junior Ranger activity books for children. He wrote and drew a comics story about a Townsend’s big-eared bat and a Packrat who have an adventure in the caves, giving the National Monument a rare and innovative edition for its Junior Ranger program. Timpanogos Cave is in the heart of Mormon country. And, unlike most National Parks, the majority of its rangers and visitors are local. Ross was able to make friends across the boundary, even staying with an LDS family for several nights after the season was over .Back at Carlsbad, Ross partook in the Rock of Ages historic lantern tour, a special holiday production, wherein the modern Cave Rangers donned costumes and impersonated key people from the park’s history. Ross portrayed Ray V. Davis, the photographer whose work alerted the public and authorities to the wonders of the caverns, leading to their inclusion in the National Park system in 1923. Ross took pride in playing a fellow artist. In between seasons, he made trips (sometimes solo and sometimes with friends) to the great Sequoias; to wilderness areas of Oregon; and to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and other legends of the southwest. He agrees that the family trip to Yellowstone was amazing! He transcribes his adventures and draws stories about animals and monsters whenever he can. Follow him at rosswoodstudlar.blogspot.com.”

Using a photo from Monument Valley Tribal Park (taken for me by one of their Navajo guides), I created a spoof movie poster. This made a special Christmas gift for my father. He is a proud Texan, who grew up in the days when John Wayne dominated the box office.....

Happy New Year to all and Hope for a better 2015!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rock of Ages

I wrote most of this on Dec 17th, 2014:

I shared this photo with some family and friends, accompanied by the following email:
“We took this photo at the dress rehearsal of the Rock of Ages historic lantern tour. My fellow Rangers and I portray various key people from the history of Carlsbad Caverns. I portray Ray V. Davis, photographer. His pictures were instrumental in drawing attention to Carlsbad Caverns, from both the public and government officials, leading to its protection as a National Monument in 1923. (It became a National Park in 1930.) I may temporarily lose the facial hair for the final performance, to look more period-authentic. Yes, that is a real period-authentic camera that I carry, from the days when exposures were 14-28 minutes, and you needed to illuminate the cave with a brilliant flame--Davis invented a pyrotechnic device for this purpose, wherein he blew through tubes to feed magnesium powder into the flashpan torch. I have a mock-up of that too, but can't use it, since it wouldn't pass OSHA."

Now, Rock of Ages is over. It was a collective victory. I am exhausted.

Along this lantern-lit tour, the historic figures positioned themselves at various points along the trail. Upon arriving at each point, the lighting technicians showed their spotlights upon the character, who presented their sketch, to illustrate their importance in caverns history, and connect it to the tour's broader themes--this one focused especially on preservation. Each historic person then joined the tour--in character. I shared my stop with Ranger Jeff, who portrayed Dr. Willis T. Lee (fourth from left in middle row)--the first geologist to make study of Carlsbad Cavern. And he wrote articles for National Geographic about the great cave experience. These were illustrated with photos by both Davis and Lee, after Davis taught Lee how to tackle the challenge of cave photography. At our stop, we each promoted ourselves and the cave. Jeff portrayed Lee as an egotistic and condescending Scientist; my version of Davis was an enthusiastic southern business man, skilled at customer service, but ready to hold his ground. (And I quoted Davis directly as much as possible in my dialog, drawing upon the various articles and interviews he left behind.) The back-and-forth banter and bickering between us reminded me a bit of the interactions of the twin protagonists of Dual Survival. In any case, this artist-playing-an-artist could hold his own in the flyting. I also involved the audience by posing them for a group photo with the antique camera. I received laughs when I explained that it's a 28-minute exposure. I took out and explained the pyrotechnic device, and lit a match--but was interrupted by Lee before I could start the blaze! Some members of the audience gasped, thinking I really was going to fire it up.

Both performances sold out. Our audience included some of the public, and MANY members of the broader CAVE community, employees and volunteers and their friends and families. A few members of the audience had the thrill of seeing themselves portrayed as Rock of Ages characters! Notably, Pat Joblansky (played by Ranger Ellen, far right end of photo) was a key player in this historic tour. Pat is a volunteer who conducted scientific research on the damage which lint does to caves, and undertook steps to mitigate the problem. She has led an annual volunteer lint removal camp for many years, wherein they use brushes and forceps to rid the speleothems of the offending debris. She put forth a proposal that the park service construct walls around the trails to contain the lint (after her research demonstrated the efficacy of this method), which they implemented. When the real Pat Joblansky saw Ellen's rendition of her and her work, she was moved to tears.

Pat retires this year. Her work was the inspiration for the preservation theme of this year's Rock of Ages tour. By a fortunate coincidence, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act; and so we subtitled our tour "Preserving an Underground Wilderness."

The tour culminated with a black out by column known as the Rock of Ages, accompanied by the singing of the traditional Christian hymn of the same title. Then, from out of complete blackness, the Big Room is re-illuminated a section at a time, with our loyal light technicians scurrying from one switch to the next. This is a historic reenactment of the ceremony which used to conclude all guided cave tours of the Big Room from 1928 to 1944. Eventually, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the caverns staff to stop the Rock of Ages ceremony, claiming that it was unprofessional. Maybe so, but it was also a moving and emotive moment for many visitors (and rangers!) Therefore it is unsurprising that there have been many reenactments over the years; with the formalized historic lantern tour in December established as a new tradition since 2008.  

 For months, the caverns staff has prepared for Rock of Ages. Now that it's over, a weight is off our shoulders (to soon be replaced by other weights.) Along the way, I made sure that we experienced the other Rock of Ages--I coordinated it with our Thanksgiving for "orphans" back in November. We thumped to the raucous Def Leppard song and the greatest hits album of the same title while cooking parts of our Thanksgiving feast. And after Thanksgiving dinner, we gathered around a large flatscreen television with its theater-like sound system, and watched the 2012 Hollywood musical Rock of Ages. Some film critics and members of our CAVE team rather dislike this film, but I am indifferent to their claims. For me, the film pulls at my heart strings, while making me laugh, and relive the wonder and nostalgia of the 1980s "decade of rock." (Even though I did not become a serious rock listener until the 1990s, many of these same hits still rattled our boomboxes and televisions, much to the chagrin of our parents.)

I have always supported the personal freedom to draw and sing, and contended that whales and polar bears should have these freedoms too. Which is why you and I have cause for some holiday cheer--President Obama has used executive action to protect Bristol Bay in Alaska! Take a moment to celebrate--and then a thousand more battles await. We have wilderness and farm and sea to protect, realms above ground and below.

Topmost photo by Mannie Bemis, National Park Service.
Middle photo by Jeff Strang, National Park Service.
Rock of Ages movie poster copyrighted to New Line Cinema, low-resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sasquatch versus Condor!

Christmas in the land of deserts and caves! An odd prospect for this man of the eastern forests. The Carlsbad Caverns community has its own unique holiday traditions--importantly Rock of Ages--to be revealed in an upcoming post. We also have a Secret Santa gift exchange, which I planned not to participate in, being that I had so many other holiday engagements. Then fellow ranger Christina commissioned me to draw a Secret Santa gift for fellow ranger Lee, who is an avid fan of the Sasquatch (and less a fan of the California Condor.) This drawing was a hit among the CAVE people, and Christina has planned to cook something good for me as payment.

In the real world, Sasquatch and Condor peacefully ignore each other. IF the former is out there, which remains a matter of debate. I am told that he is often seen near Ruidoso, New Mexico, at the Mescalero Apache reservation and its environs. It is a place of Ponderosa Pine forests, and just might be right for a large bipedal ape....

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Pika and the Pony

I will soon post another entry inspired by my travels in the southwest. In the interim, I return mentally to the Pacific northwest, and share a drawing which I created on commission. My friend Brad (of Homestead and Seattle Urban Farm Company fame) hired me to draw this as a gift to his wife Erika, for their first wedding anniversary. It depicts the spirit animals which each companion assigned to the other. As an Outward Bound guide who is at home on rugged alpine slopes, Erika is a pika. (I took some artistic license and made her a giant pika.) As an organic farmer who pulls weight much greater than his stature would suggest, Brad is a pony. The drawing was a hit with them, especially Erika. Afterwards, Brad shared with me some “bro” advice: "You should be sending mad art out to all the ladies at all times, in my opinion." I won't dispute his wisdom.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In the Footprints of Seldom Seen Smith

Edward Abbey was born in Pennsylvania. At age eighteen, he went on a westward trek, by foot, bicycle, and train-hopping; cross-continent to California, and then east to the southwest. When he landed in the four corners area, he knew he had found home.
Interestingly, my journey has some parallels with his. A child of the eastern United States (Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Vermont), I too take awe and inspiration in the great size of the west. At some undefined point on the westward drive, the landscape opens up, the sky and the earth become larger, and one can see for vast distances. Somewhere in the deserts of Arizona or New Mexico, the red monoliths and orange plateaus appear. And the giant cacti and snow-covered mountains. And the oil wells, some with their wasteful flames of natural gas atop, burning day and night. And the haze in the air from coal mines, hidden from sight.

I have been in the southwestern United States for most of the past two years, and have generally been on the western side (coast or inland) for the majority of the past seven. The east still feels like home to me, and probably always will; the west is an alien landscape of wonder, and I am an astronaut on a long journey.

Although my compass may point in a different direction from Ed Abbey's, I have nonetheless come to inhabit some of the same haunts, and even work for the same institution (the National Park Service.) Anarchist rebel Abbey spent some years as a Ranger at National Park Service sites including Arches, Organ Pipe Cactus, Lassen Volcanic, and Everglades.) And last spring, I got to know the direct action branch of the environmental movement, for which Abbey is the spiritual and philosophical founder. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang—featuring four renegade idealists who decide to preserve wild nature by ripping up highway survey markers, sabotaging bulldozers, and blowing up automated coal trains—is one of the very few fiction books which had a direct and measurable impact on the real world, as radical environmentalists like David Foreman sought to emulate the tactics of Abbey's characters. The resultant movement of Earth First! brandishes on its website artwork based on the original cover to Abbey's book, even today, 38 years after its publication. Abbey's character George Washington Hayduke, the muscular, binge-drinking green beret veteran who applies his combat training to save deserts from "progress," is a character of mythic proportions. And the verb “to monkeywrench,” meaning “to conduct righteous sabotage” (derived from the title), has become a permanent addition the English language. Real monkeywrenchers, like Abbey's characters, follow a strict code of no violence to people; they destroy machines (and take inspiration from the Luddites.)

To be clear, there is more than one kind of direct action—the activist can wreck bulldozers with corn syrup or block their path with her body. The direct action groups which I visited and worked with (such as Mountain Justice) do not engage in property destruction, only civil disobedience. 

And if we're lucky, the forces earth and sky can conduct some direct action of their own. In a vivid early scene in Abbey's book, Seldom Seen Smith (a tall slender “Jack Mormon” and monkeywrencher) rediscovers his religion when he stands before the Glen Canyon Dam. He gets down on his knees and prays to God to send an earthquake, to fix this “temporary plug” in the beautiful Glen Canyon. He receives no answer.

On my visit to the Glen Canyon Dam, I hoped to impersonate Seldom Seen Smith in prayer, purely for fun. Being alone and concerned that I might raise suspicions, I decided not to. I had to take humor at the high level of security at the dam. Patrol cars patrolled, and a big white man security guard trailed the guided walking tour I partook in, led by a young lady Navajo guide, working for the Bureau of Reclamation. The guard kept in the distance, just close enough to be intimidating. Before the tour, I had to run to the car to drop off the Leatherman multi-tool and matches which I normally carry. Any mention of bombs or sabotage on the tour, jocular or otherwise, would result in expulsion from the site. I wasn't bold enough to ask if the same rules applied to a mention of the names Seldom Seen Smith or George Washington Hayduke. I wanted to complete the tour, and take in my fill of pro-dam propaganda. The dam was a fascinating window into the post World War II-era, and America's quest to build big stuff, conquer nature, dam 'em all, and reach a new Manifest Destiny. Something you won't hear about on the tour: many of the early battles of the environmental movement, from John Muir's time through the 1960s, were over dams. After a coalition of environmental groups led by the Sierra Club successfully blocked dam projects for the Colorado River by the Grand Canyon and the Vernal River by Dinosaur National Monument, they did not fight the Glen Canyon Dam, as a compromise. David Brower (then-executive director of Sierra Club) still agonized over this decision, decades later. Today, there are fewer dam proposals and more mountaintop removal, fracking, nuclear plants, and oil pipelines. We have moved out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Strangely enough, the bookstore at the dam still had Abbey's books for sale (but not The Monkey Wrench Gang!) Regardless of politics, Abbey is probably the most articulate and oft-quoted scribe of the desert environment. His memoir Desert Solitaire is considered by many to be the Walden or the Sand County Alamac of the desert. Abbey was a great proponent of getting out and exploring and experiencing the wild world, giving him a fan base among outdoor recreationists, whether or not they share his radical philosophy.

Before visiting Glen Canyon, I visited Zion National Park. There, I overcame my trepidation towards cold water and hiked 'The Narrows.' My adrenaline surge overwhelmed my tendency to freeze, and I charged forward, with frequent stops for photos (most of them terrible because of the weird lighting inside a canyon). “This is awesome!” I declared to a young couple of hikers, as we both stood on the dry land of the same rock before the next plunge. I charged onward for hours, through water knee-deep and occasionally chest-deep, and turned around when my adrenaline started to wane.

Edward Abbey articulated well the feeling of being alive and immersed in the great earth, when he described a similar scene, wherein Seldom Seen Smith led a raft trip through a canyon down a river. “The river, the canyon, the desert world was always changing, from moment to moment, from miracle to miracle, within the firm reality of mother earth. River, rock, sun, blood, hunger, wings, joy—this is the real, Smith would have said, if he'd wanted to. All the rest is androgynous theosophy. All the rest is transcendental transvestite transactional scientology or whatever the fad of the day, the vogue of the week. As Doc would've said, if Smith had asked him. Ask the hawk. Ask the hungry lion lunging at the starving doe. They know.” 

As I warmed my feet by the fire, under the cottonwoods of South Campground with the rock monoliths in the distance, I knew too.

Topmost photo taken at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Monkey Wrench cover is copyrighted either to its artist or publisher, low resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Thor's Hammer and other Indelible Icons

Bryce Canyon National Park has filled me with awe and wonder, with its natural ampitheatre and hoodoos—sometimes they look like the turrets of an epic castle, striated in orange and white; sometimes like an army of stone soldiers, standing tall and in formation. In Pauite legend, they are people turned to stone by coyote for their evil deeds. In geology, they are the result of erosion of the Claron Limestone, primarily water that percolates then freezes (frost-wedging.)

Not surprisingly, I became fixated on Thor's hammer, and wielded my brushes and brush pens and oil pastels to produce a few drawings. Yes, nature meets culture here for me, being that I thrilled to the adventures of the thunder god (especially Marvel's rendition) in my young days and my older ones. How appropriate that the first Thor comics epic I read was “The Flame, The Frost, and The Fury!” (issue #425, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz) wherein the thunderer battles Sutur the Flame Demon and Ymir the Frost Giant to avert Ragnarok (the Norse apocalypse.) Plenty of flame, frost, and fury has shaped the landscape of Bryce Canyon!

After bouts of drawing and hiking, I visited the Visitor Center, to discover Thor's hammer emblazoned on various post cards and posters and calendars and tote bags. The icon of Bryce Canyon!

Most National Parks have their icons, and normally it is some object with a very distinctive shape. At Timpanogos Cave National Monument (where I worked last summer) that honor belongs to the Great Heart of Timpanogos. Park visitors' preoccupation with the Heart was sometimes a source of frustration for some of my fellow rangers, because although the Heart is majestic, it is a large stalactite, similar to ones found in many other limestone caves. The truly exceptional feature of Timpanogos Cave is its Helictites—very few other caves in the world have them in such number and diversity. The greatest concentration of these is found in the Chimes Chamber; they resemble worms of snakes, and their growth seems to defy gravity. Whatever the merits of the helictites, the Heart's iconic shape has a way of cementing itself in the longitudinal memory of the average visitor, above all other cave features, save the darkness (according to an informal survey.)

Iconic shapes—objects unmistakable in silhouette—must occupy a deep and potent place within our imaginations, perhaps even amygdalas, reinforced by millions of years of evolution and survival. (I wrote about this previously in my post “Silhouettes and Night Encounters.”) Religions have their icons, such as the cross for Christians and the circle for many American Indian belief systems. Many of the most successful characters in comics and animated cartoons have a distinctive shape—Batman, Wolverine, Popeye, Betty Boop, Bart Simpson, Dick Tracy, Calvin and Hobbes, etc. These characters are unmistakable in silhouette—just like the famed icons of the National Park system! These include the Sequoia tree, the Bison, Old Faithful, Wizard Island, Mount Rainier, Delicate Arch, the Three Patriarchs, etc. The park ranger in a flat hat is an iconic character too. I strongly suspect that these ink drawings, ancient rocks, and uniformed public servants all tap into the same deep recesses in our brain. Outlines are all-important to how we see the world—what camouflage does is break up an animal's outline, so they are seldom seen. And so the recognition and memory of distinctive outlines with certain characters or features must have been fundamental to our survival, whether to stay away from a lurking lion or to navigate by sun, moon, and landmarks.

And so I sat on the Navajo Loop trail, and tried to depict every crag and crust and ridge of Thor's hammer, my hands caked in ink and graphite, my jeans covered in gray limey soil. The clouds moved past in the deep blue sky behind the red rocks. Tourists came by, most photographed the hammer, and some photographed me at work as well. To me, the hammer meant power and dominion over the sky and storms. I couldn't help but imagine the sky turned to black, and lighting blasts sent from the hammer, to blast away flying saucer invaders to our world!

Thor (superhero) is trademarked to Marvel Comics. Low-resolution image (as designed by Myriah Hankins--unsure of original artist) is used here for educational purposes only.