"To go inside, you go outside because you need to know yourself in context. Not the big “I” you usually feel you are as you go trotting through your daily life, but to find that added dimension of yourself that… that innermost essential you… that is there."
–Ruth Kirk (filmographer, naturalist, and author of several books about US national parks)
To visit the inside of the ‘outside’, one could visit caves. Four of the 62 US national parks – Wind Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, Great Basin, and Mammoth – offer cave experience to anyone wanting to ‘dig deeper’. Despite varying in their inherent characters like us human beings, these caves have one thing in common. It’s dark down there. Very dark.
During our visit to the Mammoth Cave national park last year, we took the ‘River Styx’ tour to the underground river that carved the cave system. I had mild trepidation signing up for this tour, which is rated moderate and goes deeper than any other tour… up to the water level. As an aside – I am not a keen cave-tour-taker; beyond a point, the incomprehensible darkness unsettles me. My anxiety was a bit more intense here at Mammoth caves, which has the unsettling history of Floyd Collins. Collins was a private cave explorer who, while spelunking in 1925, was trapped in the crystal caves here. Despite a noteworthy national media attention and a valiant rescue effort, he died trapped in the darkness. I don’t fear death, but I don’t want to meet her in total darkness either.
“Is everyone here?”, the young Kentucky-born-and-raised ranger asked loudly.
Thirty minutes into our tour, we had assembled in a large chamber after walking and squeezing through several passages of various width and height. Thanks to my past cave tours, I knew exactly what was coming next. When assured of everyone’s presence, the ranger reached out for a hidden switch and flipped it. The lights went out and we were left in total darkness. This pitch-black ‘cave darkness’ is truly unique; no matter how long you let your eyes adapt, you will still see absolutely nothing. As a fallout, all other senses are immediately heightened, and disembodied narration by the ranger only perturbs and daunts more. Gifted authors have described this darkness as “choking” and “smothering”. I don’t blame them. We, the visually unimpaired, are extraordinarily pampered by light!
But on this particular tour, I was ready not to be smothered by the darkness. Remember, this tour was all about gathering some of Ruth Kirk’s context for my innermost essential by visiting the “inside of the outside”? Well, here I was… in the very core of the outside, which like a galactic blackhole, adamantly refused the light. It doesn’t get any deeper and denser than this, does it? The ranger’s narration slowly fainted, so did all my proprioception. I was… floating away.
Suddenly, surrounding me, there were tiny blinking light... Fireflies! How did fireflies get in a cave? Oh, wait… I was not in the cave anymore. There was the Styx River surfacing through the large spring and flowing away from the grotto into the mighty Green river. Upstream on this mighty tawny river, one could see the Green River Rural Ferry ferrying cars, trucks, and Kentucky’s history for one and all. But then, in the fading twilight, I was mostly engrossed by the angelic display of these little riparian lights. Were they flickering hope? Were they happy memories of my childhood? Or, were they just little traces of my innermost inside out there on the outside?
Technical information: The displayed EXIF data are for the background scene, which was shot at twilight before firefly flashing peaked. The image is a composite of several 30 second exposures (ISO 3200, f/2.8) shot later from the exact same spot as the background.
Tags: PhotinusPyralis Fireflies Firefly GreenRiver Kentucky MammothCaveNationalPark MammothCave NationalPark Ramen Saha CommonEasternFirefly BigDipperFirefly
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I wonder, what is the history of this moment. Is it derived from the permanence of those august mountains, or the transience of those fizzy clouds? Or, is it instead personified by that carefree roadrunner who gamboled by here moments ago leaving behind his footprints in the sand?
Tags: GuadalupeMountains GuadalupeMountainsNationalPark Gypsum WhiteSand SaltBasinDunes Ramen Saha Graben Texas RamenSaha-Monochrome CryptogamicCrust Cryptogams SandDunes Dunes Roadrunner RoadrunnerTracks GypsumDunes
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Are you really reading this? Aren’t you –like most of them– in a hurry to see the next picture or do the next thing? No? Ah well. Pardon me, my friend, I misunderstood your intentions. Well then, turn your monitor brightness up and come sit by me. Listen into the night whose sovereignty over the land is mutely interrupted by that gibbous moon, rising behind those ageless Cathedrals. The air is impregnated with a thick fog, which is trying desperately to melt into someone’s song. There are no birdsong here, they are asleep. Instead, amplified by the quiet, you can hear that timeless hymn hummed by your heart and those distant waterfalls. The zephyr, although well-intentioned, feels a little chilly to your skin. You shiver. Indeed, it feels a little chilly to perceive infinity. Don't worry. Here and now, time is not the fourth dimension anymore. You are.
Tags: YosemiteNationalPark Yosemite TunnelView Moon ElCapitan WawonaRoad YosemiteValley CathedralRocks Fog HalfDome Ramen Saha Perception California NationalPark SentinelDome
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We are living through unprecedented times of collective suffering; this is a line in the sand where events after the crease will have little resemblance to those before. The streets outside are in turmoil from old human follies and new viral adversaries. Trying to explain these soul-stirring days to myself has been excruciatingly hard. Harder has it been to explain them to my ten-year-old –– and here I was, comically worried about the big sex-ed talk I would need to have with him someday! The world is boiling like the primitive cosmos where the darkness remains unpunctuated; it appears as if there are no beacons in sight.
So, where does one find solace during such malevolent turbulence? Gretel Ehrlich says (in her renowned book), one could find it in open spaces. Well, if one knows where to look, there are plenty of open spaces in a park near us – Yosemite. As you may know, Yosemite is a mental health asylum of some world-class repute. Since obscure times, it has cured numerous suffering souls, including a few luminaries who were primarily lunatics: Charles Weed, John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Fred Olmsted to name a few. It is located geographically in California's heart and spiritually in hearts of million other human beings who could be taxonomized as naturalists, activists, artists, environmentalists, visionaries, or, plain ordinary people, like, yours truly. When I am in Yosemite – or, find Yosemite in me – I perceive peace. You could say, the wilderness of Yosemite is my totem of solitude, solace and hope.
To most, Yosemite’s totem is Half Dome – a giant granite monolith that stands in congruent humility with its surrounding rocks and clouds. It is unique among all Yosemite domes in having a sheer cliff and a steep vertical face (northwest side), which actually displays a human face in blockprint (a story for another day). Glaciers, time, and light have ebbed and flowed over the humpbacked dome for millions of years, but ‘Tis-sa-ack’ stands proud in deft defiance. The oft-pictured image of Half Dome – the one with the helmet curve, as Ansel put it – is from the West (Glacier point area). From our vantage point the other day, the iconic steward of the park displayed its unglamorous hind side, which features a prominent hump, the eastern sub-dome. In his National Geographic article, William Least Heat-Moon described this view of Half Dome as, “… watching a Shakespearean play from backstage, where old and familiar lines seem different, strange, new”.
Our contemporary times are somewhat similar... old and familiar ways of life now appear ‘different, strange, new’. In his letter to Ansel Adams in 1953, art historian Beaumont Newhall wrote, “In the face of all the present turmoil and unrest and unhappiness… what can a photographer, a writer, a curator do? …To make people aware of the eternal things, or show the relationship of man to nature… is a task that no one should consider insignificant… These are days when eloquent statements are needed”.
Eloquence is not my thing, but here above, you have my statement against everything that attempts to stir darkness in our societies, lives, minds, and hearts.
PS: The title is borrowed from Sylvia Plath’s sonnet Ennui, which was written in 1950s and published in 2006:
“The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
compelling hero’s dull career to crisis;
and when insouciant angels play God’s trump,
while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
shall coax from doom’s blank door lady or tiger.”
Tags: HalfDome YosemiteNationalPark Yosemite Tuolumne NationalPark TiogaRoad Mt.Watkins Mt.WatkinsNortheastSummit SubDome Sunset Ramen Saha California Polarizer OlmstedPoint
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"Up and away to Lake Tenaya, another big day, enough for a lifetime".
John Muir – "My First Summer in the Sierra"
The Tenaya lake area in the Tuolumne high country was one of Muir’s favorite destinations in the park. Enthralled equally by the sedate beauty of this region and its geology, Muir wrote extensively about these exposed granite domes. “All is bare, shining granite, suggesting the Indian name of the lake, Pywiack, meaning shining rock. …and huge shining domes on the east, over the tops of which the grinding, wasting, molding glacier must have swept as the wind does to-day”. Buffed by Tuolumne glaciers of the past, the glazed faces of these granite domes were referred to as “polished pavements” by Muir, where “the sunshine is at times dazzling, as if the surface were of burnished silver”.
“The rocks, the air, everything speaking with audible voice or silent; joyful, wonderful, everlasting, banishing weariness and sense of time."
After almost three months of COVID-related closure, Yosemite recently opened again in a limited capacity for visitors with prior reserved accommodation in the park or a day pass. Such a day pass was procured on the first day of their sale on recreation.gov after some trepidation-causing snafu that is now a known characteristic of this government website. On the designated day of the day pass, we drove up highway 120 into John Muir’s “University of the Wilderness”. In the park, we first stopped at an unnamed pullover at about 8000 feet elevation. Stepping out of the car, I immediately noticed the unwonted silence – an outturn of much fewer tourists. This place is usually noisy (by wilderness standards) from hordes of clueless rabble and automobiles running up and down this alpine highway. Today, everything was quiet and the quiet was audible. Scores of invisible waterfalls all around were drumming up a soothing white noise. The wind, striking a chorus with fir needles, was gingerly imitating a canary now, or, a mockingbird then. These "joyful, wonderful" melodies indeed banished my weariness and sense of time. Rishabh told me that he had not seen me smile so much in the past few months as on this day.
“Wish I could live, like these junipers, on sunshine and snow, and stand beside them on the shore of Lake Tenaya for a thousand years."
Continuing with the pleasant singularity of an empty Yosemite, there were only three other vehicles parked at Olmsted point – a significant digression from the high tourist season norm of overly packed parking lot here. As we were gearing up for our saunter, a coyote walked past, calmly gawking us. His stone-cold stare was a genteel reminder: he owned the land, we were the visitors. Soon, our shadows were lengthening as the sun dropped down west. We scurried up about 300 feet on a nearby unnamed dome across several ‘polished pavements’, which felt like varnished marble to the touch. Scattered on these pavements were many well-rounded rocks (glacier erratics) and dwarf alpine flowering plants that have secured living rights in granite cracks. Past these charming spring floral displays, from the bald ridge, we saw (as shown above) Mt. Conness hogging the only cloud in the afternoon sky and the line-up of shiny giants in the fading light: Polly dome (9,806 feet), Pywiack dome (8,851 feet), the golden Mariuolumne dome (9,970 feet), Medlicott dome (9,880 feet), and Dozier dome (9,340 feet) from left to right. Nestled in between these behemoths in a cocoon of sturdy junipers was one of the largest lakes in the park – Muir’s beloved lake Tenaya. Everything was in place, not one thing worth bowdlerizing. Rishabh sat down on the narrow ridge to snack. I closed my eyes to invigorate all my other senses. “ –– not a breath of air astir, the lake a perfect mirror reflecting the sky and mountains with their stars and trees and wonderful sculpture, all their grandeur refined and doubled, –– a marvelously impressive picture, that seemed to belong more to heaven than earth”. Everything felt peaceful and all the worries of past months momentarily faded away. In those few moments, I lived many juniper years.
PS: If you haven’t been to Yosemite yet and need a scale to palpate the grandness of this place, then zoom in to find a delivery truck with headlights on by the lake.
Tags: Yosemite YosemiteNationalPark TenayaLake OlmstedPoint Tenaya GraniteDome Tuolumne PollyDome PywiackDome MariuolumneDome MedlicottDome MountConness Mt.Conness DozierDome RamenSaha California
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