Sunday, July 15, 2018

Zen and the Art of Walking in the Forest

"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar."   -  Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Go A little Bit Farther

My walks in the Black Hills National Forest have been mostly during the late morning or afternoon hours. I call them "walks" because the word "hike" is defined in the dictionary as "to walk or march a great distance." I usually don't travel a great distance and I certainly don't march. It's more like a walking meditation, concentrating on my breath, keeping my head and eyes down and moving from side to side as I practice being totally aware of my surroundings. It's amazing the things you see when you slow down and take a closer look. Occasionally I glance up and into the distance to measure my progress or consider the wider view. More often, though, I am in dense growth or between canyon walls, or both, so that limits how far away I can see. That's a good thing because there are small wonders always at my feet or right next to me wherever I step. Mostly I prefer to stay on my own personal favorite trails. Those are the less traveled ones. Or the ones that really aren't trails at all. More like little paths hidden from the view of those who are less adventurous and choose to stay on the most popular and well established trails. If you are one who usually follows the maps I would suggest you consider putting the trail guides aside and find your own way next time you venture out. Use your intuition or look for a hint from Mother Nature. She's pretty generous at showing them to those who are paying attention. And when you've found it and have gone far enough to the point where you're ready to turn around...don't. Go just a little bit farther. I'll tell you why it might make all the difference.
When I first discovered what is now my favorite path just off the highway (but well hidden) in Spearfish Canyon I had only walked a few hundred yards and was amazed at the diversity all around me. Trees and other vegetation of all shapes and sizes. A trickling stream that disappeared quickly underground when I attempted to follow it. Fallen logs that were home to hundreds...probably thousands...of tiny insects and fungi. Various species of moss clinging for dear life onto multi-colored rocks. It was all there in its marvelous glory. I didn't think it could get much better if I kept going, but I kept going. It got better. First there was a collection of moss covered rocks formed and spaced perfectly in away that would provide nice little homes for Hobbits or wood nymphs or fairies. If you can imagine those sort of creatures actually exist. Not that I do. But also not that I don't. Anyway, back to my story --- after a few hundred more feet I noticed what looked like some type of structure. Primitive at best, but it looked interesting so I continued on in the direction it was located. My persistence paid off as I came to a flat multi-leveled area where someone had constructed a sort of shelter made of branches and small logs, with rocks placed in a circle at the base. It was pretty cool. I spend some time sitting there just taking in the surroundings and enjoying the sounds of nature. If I had turned around when I originally intended I would have missed this place entirely. I have gone back there many times over the period of a few years and most recently found the structure had been dismantled. I also discovered that another one had been built a short distance away out of view from the original spot. I also found a small cave in the side of the rock wall and had fun climbing up and exploring it with the help of a friend. All just because I decided to go a little bit farther.

"Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered."    -  Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees

After Dark

It's a different world out there at night. The darkness is complete. Even under a perfectly clear sky you can look up and see thousands of stars, but the moment your eyes come back to Earth, the darkness wraps you up again like a thick black veil. And the sounds are magnified. You can hear every movement clearly. I believe that if you try real hard and remain completely still it is even possible to hear a beetle scurrying across a fallen log. I don't take my walks very often at night, however. The reason is that I'm a little bit afraid of the dark. Not afraid of the night, I like going out at night. It's the dark that bothers me. I don't like being in the dark. I even have a hard time sleeping in a room that's too dark. My few night excursions have been mostly pleasant experiences and I've come away with some good pictures, but everything seems to be a little out of focus and I'm always slightly on edge so I prefer to stay in the light.

Get Healed

I might be dead by now if it weren't for the healing energy and calming influence of the "Hills." After my heart attack thirteen years ago I started making a concentrated effort to get up there more often, stay longer and take full advantage of the benefits of walking on (and off) the trails. I always knew it was good for me. Now I have proof. During a recent trek (in the rain) on that favorite path I mentioned earlier I made it a point to check my heart rate monitor at various intervals. The steeper portions pushed it up to over 100, but when I stopped to rest it dropped quickly and leveled off at about 68 in no time at all. It's not always that low when I'm just sitting in a chair at home. But when I'm up there my breath is measured and I'm more calm than any other time except perhaps when I'm sleeping. And even then it's not much below my "forest rate."  I'm not very disciplined about eating right all of the time and getting enough exercise but I feel good and have not had any complications or reoccurring heart issues, so I really believe my little nature walks are good medicine. 

There's a lot more I could say about this subject...and probably will later. But for now I will simply encourage you to get out and explore nature. It doesn't have to be in a forest. A desert can be just as good. I love the Badlands. My trips there produce the same results. Or even a park in your town is a great start. Baby steps, right? Soon you'll be planting your very own freak flag at the top of a mountain. Go for it!

Roger O'Dea     7/15/2018 

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Poet's Table Is Over

If you are reading this you probably have some interest the place known as the Poet's Table near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota, and likely have been following the social media and local news accounts of its destruction. The table is gone. The cabinet with all of the writings and memories is gone. The walls are scarred with paint and chalk and scratchings of names and initials. Someone has announced they are in discussion with park officials about placing a new table there. I say "don't bother." You are totally missing the point and, like so many others who have visited the now not so secret location, are really clueless as to the meaning and significance of what this place once was about. And mostly what it was about was a secret. You could only find it if someone who had been there guided you or gave you vague clues about "shortly after the second water crossing" or "the leaning Birch tree points the way" and then allowed you to enjoy the experience of finding it yourself. If you did find it, the idea was to spend some quiet time in reflection and enjoy the pristine setting. Maybe actually write some poetry or contribute some small trinket or personal item as an offering to nature or perhaps to future travelers who could appreciate the message and also be inspired to contribute. Or just have seat at the table and read some Kerouac about the art of boulder hopping.

I remember when I first made the trek to the then secret location. There was no obvious path. I followed the clues and eventually noticed an area off the main trail where the grass was only slightly disturbed. I went in that direction and fate, the universe, or just blind luck led me in the right direction. The path is so worn now you couldn't possibly miss it.
Just looking at this picture should provide enough evidence that too many people are going up there. Or too many of the wrong people. And when it becomes a matter of volume rather than quality, bad things can start happening. Like people with no respect for nature or for themselves leaving trash and cigarette butts scattered around. And others having some odd obsession with leaving their mark which leads them to carving or painting their name or initials on the rocks, table and cabinet. 
Even in recent years when I would visit I might see three or four other vehicles in the trailhead parking lot. Today it was full. The TV news was even on the scene.
I suppose someone can drag another table up there, but the Poet's Table was never about a table. It was about an idea...a experience exclusive to a few fortunate good and decent people who understood what it meant and took care of it and guarded the secret. Future visitors (if it is restored) will not be able to go there and be alone, or just be still and listen to the quiet. The secret is out. The Poet's Table is over. At least in its original context. It will never be the same.
Remember Woodstock '99? A perfect example of how sometimes you can't improve on the original. Or even come close. So, no matter what happens in the future, I won't go back. I will keep it alive in my memory as a wonderful place that gave me a few special moments to be cherished always. Since the Dalai Lama doesn't owe me any favors I will probably never achieve total enlightenment. But I will always have my memories of a very special and amazing place. As Bill Murray (Carl the greenskeeper) said, "so at least I've got that going for me."

 The Poet's Table. 

Roger O'Dea     5/28/2018

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Curiosities Abroad

During our recent trip to Ireland we were treated to spectacular scenes right out of the travel guides and tourism brochures. The lush green colors of the countryside, amazing views from castle towers, historic pubs, and local musicians in nearly every bar and on most every street corner. It was a feast for the senses. I have the photographs to prove it. But that's not what you'll see here. This is about a few things that probably won't make the cut to be included in the photo album you may find on our coffee table or bookshelf, but that you may still find interesting or entertaining.
I'll start with The Little Museum. It's located in a small house near Stephens Green and dedicated to the history of Dublin. Among the old newspapers, photographs and original furnishings was one rather large room located on the second floor dedicated entirely to the band U2. It was complete with one of those 60s style round egg chairs (which I couldn't resist trying out), an oversized guitar and half of a car covered with a wild design, but of which I was clueless as to its significance. Cool looking, though.

On the main floor was an entire wall covered with drawings by young girls who may have visited as part of a school tour. The children were asked to draw a picture on the subject of "Who will you be when you grow up?" I thought this was a great idea and really enjoyed seeing the contributions. A footballer, primary school teacher, a righteous woman...and many more. Every one was positive and hopeful. 

Art of all kinds was everywhere, and displayed in many different fashions. On a building in a small country town -

Inside the Guinness beer storehouse was this display.

Lining the halls of the Ireland National book depository at Trinity College were dozens of busts depicting ancient philosophers as well as historical scholars and writers. Even Socrates was represented. (Pronounced "So Crates" according to Theodore "Ted" Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esq.)

At the National Gallery of Ireland I was stunned by the work of a little known emerging artist named Saoirse Wall. Right there in the room next to paintings by Mauve and Monet was her video self portrait piece. It was hypnotizing watching her slight movements as her eyes looked straight at me like she was there in person. Incredible visual concept art.

Just a couple other items of note - Irish antique stores are the real deal. They are not second hand consignment thrift stores. They are packed with actual antiques and fascinating relics of all kinds.

Apparently being poisoned is not all that uncommon in Ireland. 

And if you ever find yourself in Dublin looking to do something slightly out of the ordinary - take the Ghost Bus tour. It was a hoot. Also informative about Ireland's dark side. But mostly just a lot of fun.


There's more. Like a small cafe we wandered in to one morning after seeing the sign in the window offering a "Traditional Irish Breakfast." Once inside we discovered the owner and most of the staff were Middle Eastern and the music coming out of the speakers above us was jazz. Not the experience we were expecting. But we appreciated the cultural diversity and the breakfast was actually very a traditional Irish sort of way.

Roger O'Dea     5/20/2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Strange But True

This is a true story. It happened just this way. I think it's something worth writing down. So I'm writing it down. Others may not find much of interest here, but I'd like to put it in my "permanent record" (pun intended). So here it is.
Monday I was sitting in the waiting room of the optometrist's office waiting for Kris while she was getting an exam. I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone that was on the table next to me. I'm not a big fan of what that magazine has become, but it was a choice of that or Redbook. I flipped to the 'Reviews' page which included new music, movies and books. One of the books was titled "Astral Weeks, A Secret History of 1968" by Ryan Walsh. It's about the famous and influential album by Van Morrison, which is one of my most favorite records of all time. The books gets into details of the time and place connected with the making of the album and talks about people who were in and around that same time and place. My fascination and love for the record is hard to explain in my own words, so here is an excerpt from a review by legendary rock critic Lester Bangs which explains it so much better than I can -

I had to get this book. I wrote down the book title and author so I would be sure to find it the next time I went to the bookstore. Then, the next day at 4:52 a.m. a message came in on my phone from an old friend who lives hundreds of miles away asking me to confirm my street address. I replied with a confirmation and a request to "send more Bings." That evening the reply came back saying "Sorry, I have no Bings to send, but be watching your mail for this to arrive..." followed by a link to which took me to this - 

 Wait. What? Are you kidding me right now? What are the chances of that happening? It turned out that my friend, Al, had seen the same review in Rolling Stone on one of his phone apps the same day and... knowing we both share a fondness and appreciation for 60s and 70s music (and that album in particular)... decided to order it for me. How cool was that? I told him it must be Divine intervention, cosmic energy, or synchronicity. He opted for Divine intervention, which I am perfectly okay with since it's all pretty much the same thing anyway.
And, guess what arrived in my mailbox today? That's right. Astral Weeks by Ryan Walsh.

Can't wait to get into it and discover the whole story. Was Janet Planet the muse who inspired several of the songs? What was James Brown's connection? And what was up with the radio station owner who believed he was the reincarnation of a scientist from Atlantis? It's all in there. Maybe I'll even find out what really happened on "Cyprus Avenue."  If I do, and you're interested, I'll let you know. And...thanks, Al. You're an alright guy.

Roger O'Dea      3/14/2018

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Work That Matters (Nobody Cares)

I've been watching a series of You Tube videos about photography. They have been generally interesting and helpful. Until now. The latest video in the series is titled "Nobody Cares About Your Photography." That title didn't bother me as much as something the producer of the series said about half-way in. He said, "you need to be of your time and you need to make work that matters."
Work that matters? Matters to who? What if it matters only to me? Is that enough? Yes. For me that's enough. If someone else gets some enjoyment or inspiration from it, or if it conjours up some emotion or memory, or just makes someone smile (or cry), that's a bonus. And that bit about being of your time...bullshit. Some of my most favorite images have been created with unsophisticated technology from another time. That doesn't mean they aren't relevant in this time.
If you would care to indulge me for a moment, I'll illustrate what I mean with a few photographs -

A simple Polaroid picture of an old car sitting in an alley of a very small town. I took the picture because the scene appealed to me visually. So it mattered to me. I was to find out later during a gallery exhibit in which the photo was featured that it also mattered to someone else. A woman approached me and told a very personal story about the car and it's relationship to her family. I wonder if I would have even taken the picture if, on that day, I was only looking to take photographs of  "things that matter."

Another example is a picture that is very simple but contains more visual elements in a single image than almost anything else in my personal collection.

Color, shadows, texture, shapes, perspective, rule of thirds, lines and's all there. It's one that has received very little thought or attention from anyone who has seen it, but it matters to me. 

Simple, real, raw and flawed Polaroids of some people who are important to me. People whom I met in the course of business and became friends with, one who I met by chance out hiking and have developed a new friendship, and friends who I grew up with and have influenced me in different but meaningful ways. These photographs matter to me.

These two matter because they won awards -

This one because it's about a secret that I wish I knew - 

This one because it's about sharing a Zen moment with a friend who is gone now -

Or this one because it looks like a place in a dream but it's real -

And this one because it's...well...because it's a bear sleeping while sitting up like a human  - 

Sometimes that's all it takes to matter. Just a bear sitting in a field. 

So I'm not going to stop taking pictures because nobody cares. Every photograph I take means something to me. And, if it's true that nobody cares now, one of them might mean something to somebody some day. Then I guess I will have done work that matters.

Roger O'Dea     3/4/2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What I See

My pictures came back from the lab the other day. I've been studying them, and selected two scenes that I think best illustrate why I am fascinated with the art of photography, especially film photography, and what specifically gives me the most enjoyment from making photographs. Simply put, it's how the same or similar scenes can look very different depending on the camera, film, even time of day.  I love how I can take a picture of something and the result is unique to the exact moment in time in which it was taken. And, in the case of portraits or candids of people, the emotions and personality of the subject at that exact moment. 

These two particular rolls of film were actually an experiment. I wanted to compare films and cameras that I really want to get back to using regularly again after lately finding myself turning to digital more often. The black and whites were taken with a vintage Pentax K1000 using Ilford Delta 100 B & W film. The color photos were taken with my plastic Color Splash camera using expired Lomography 100 color film. Yes, using the expired film was intentional. I've always been intrigued and a little excited to see the results from using older outdated film. I never know what to expect. The colors are sometimes a little off and less saturated. Or more saturated. It makes each photo truly unique. Nobody else will ever be able to duplicate it no matter how hard they try. One click of the shutter, one exposure, one chance to get the shot. You either get it or you don't. And you don't know until you go into the darkroom or open that envelope from the lab.

Now back to the subject of this particular exercise. Below you will see what I chose as subjects of this study. They are not pretty or perfect. I don't really do pretty and perfect. They were chosen because there is so much "going on." In the art garden scene look for the individual steps and spaces between them on the stairs, the shapes of the windows, the wrapped up hose, the shadow people in one of the paintings, the abstract shapes and lines in another...and so much more. In the alley scene with the power lines look at the straight, curved and tangled wires, the grainy sky, the symmetry of the transformers, the mural in the background of a child's face and much more. I like both versions of each scene.   (Click on photo to enlarge and open in a new window)

If you look closely, the light and shadows bring out so much detail in the black and white pictures. The slightly odd hues of the color versions bring out a personality and feeling exclusive to those particular photographs. 
I hope you see what I'm talking about. Or, it could be you will have an entirely different interpretation. That might even be better. I think Degas said it best, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” 
So. What do you see?

Roger O'Dea     1/25/2018

Sunday, December 31, 2017

From the Photo Archives

Too cold to go exploring today. So I took the occasion to search my old photos and see what I could find that has been forgotten, overlooked or ignored over the past few years.  Here are a few I picked out. Not sure why these particular photos. They are just the ones that caught my immediate attention. I'm sure there's a reason. It might come to me, but in the meantime go ahead and take a look if you're so inclined. I hope you see something you like, or that conjures up a fond memory, or in some way makes you happy. That would make me happy, too.

 A Zen garden right in the heart of the city. Denver.

I don't remember where this was. I wonder what it was.

Red Rock Park near Las Vegas. Before the rain came.

Sedona, AZ. A study in shapes, lines and colors. 

Sunrise in the Black Hills. Or sunset. Could be either.

Black Hills greenery. 

We all hit one every so often. That's okay as long as something doesn't break. 

Happy New Year. I hope in 2018 we see more kindness, less madness, and better days for all of us. 

Roger O'Dea     12/31/2017