Archive for April, 2010

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I’ve been setting traps for weeks, baiting them with fat organic baby carrots. Early morning and again at dusk, I check the traps and scrutinize the war zone for new incursions, the fluffed random mounds of fresh-dug dirt that are my chief crop this season. I imagine soldiers in Iraq examining the roadside, trying to decide if a certain pile of trash belongs, or holds within its core uncalled, explosive death. This one is wrong, they might say—don’t know why but it’s wrong. So am I with the mounds—this one could be new, housing the enemy beneath innocent-appearing earth.

When I find one, I become an archaeologist, digging out the tunnel gently with a slender trowel. I arm the trap, position it, and back the trigger off to feather-light: perfect! The gophers, though, are smarter: every trap is empty, no carrots anywhere in sight. It seems aliens have spirited the treats away, leaving my lovely, lethal traps to wait in silent longing for their return.

There aren’t a lot of good alternatives. Poisons damage the environment. Vibrating stakes marketed to drive the tunnelers away just plain don’t work. Owls and hawks patrol nearby, but often prefer rabbits and baby raccoons. My indoor felines, busy napping, are no help.

Why stress over gophers? I don’t want to be in the gopher theme park business, my yard a maze of ankle-turning cavities devoid of all that’s green, or flowering, or fruitful. There’s also selfishness—I’m the one planting these vegetables, berries, and fruit trees. I’m willing to share with all my neighbors, but I deserve some of the bounty, right? A friend of mine talks to his gophers, seeking peaceful coexistence. He says it works, but I’m not convinced: these guys are ruthless, and don’t seem inclined to compromise. Until they do, I’ll keep working the traps.


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It never fails. Every time I have a show, someone comes up to me and asks me what kind of camera I use. Usually they preface the query with some nice remarks about my work, my sense of form and color, or my composition. But it’s clear what they really want is intel.

I thank them for the compliments, then smile and tell them what I shoot with. What I don’t say is that the camera’s just a tool, an instrument, that I use to express what I see—and two people using the exact same gear, in the same place, at the same precise instant, will never get the same results.

Often as not, the next question concerns megapixels. More must be better, right? That is, after all, the true American religion. These folks don’t really want to hear the answer, which is qualified instead of absolute. A few go on to dig for dirt on how I process images, what specific software I use, whether I use physical or digital filters, and so on. They hope, I think, for a secret gem of photographic lore, a magic key to unlock everything. Sadly–or perhaps not–there is no such thing. There’s nothing I can say that will transform the most vital piece of gear, their vision. By that I don’t mean the eye itself, but the most critical—and individual–part of the visual apparatus: the brain.

Photographers hate this sort of question. It’s like asking Matisse or Monet what kind of paintbrush he used, thinking the bristles were what gave the canvas life. Clearly that would be ridiculous. Tools are wonderful, and important, but they’re just a starting point. Art is made from timing, will, and creativity, and all the things that make us each unique. Art is who you are, not what you use.

This essay aired on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area) on 4/28/2010 as part of its ‘Perspectives’ series. See their website for downloadable MP3. (program = perspectives; search = peggy hansen)

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The first few are always startling, lurid aliens clustered between rocks or along railroad tracks. The bright orange seems out of place at first, tiny brilliant flames against the drab of winter. Every year, when I see them popping up toward the end of January, I am amazed: how can they be here already?

By April, they are everywhere. Clumps and sheets of fiery blooms adorn the sides of roadways large and small, enliven empty lots, and range free on open hillsides, grazed lands, and seaside bluffs. Not only is our flower self-seeding, it grows well in disturbed areas, is drought-tolerant, and quick to return in the aftermath of fire. Bawdy by day, it is night-shy, furling its satin petals as the sun sets. Cold, wind, or insufficient sun may also keep it huddled tight, petals nested each to each like sleeping cats. Unlike many flowers served by bees or butterflies, the California poppy consorts with beetles when it’s time for pollination.

Legend has that Spanish explorers gazed on massed California poppies and called the flower ‘copa de oro’, believing its orange petals turned to gold and filled the soil with riches. Before the advent of the Spaniards, indigenous peoples employed the poppy as both food and medicine. Seeds and leaves were used in cooking, and root as poultice or extract for relief of toothache and other pains. Flowers were handy to kill lice, and pollen served as a cosmetic.

In 1903, California named the poppy its state flower. Today, April 6, is California Poppy Day. Somewhere in your day’s journey, you are sure to come across one. When you do, take a moment to appreciate its beauty, determination, and endurance: happy even in the poorest soils, our flower thrives where few others will grow, and returns faithfully each year. Please don’t pick it, though—the rest of us will want to see it too.

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