The chapel on the hill, twilight

Welcome to the Profitis Ilias Chapel, on Milos, a Greek Island in the Cyclades. I had scouted this location during the day, which required skirting a farmer’s field, passing by some crumbling stone walls, and then hiking nearly straight up the side of a hill that overlooked the large bay in the center of the U-shaped island. The trail was overgrown and, well, let’s just be real for a moment—scratchy. The trail was scratchy, and it scratched my legs all up.

When I came back that night, it was much cooler and much buggier, but equally as scratchy. The previously unoccupied field was now occupied by a Greek farmer shepherding a fairly large herd of goats across the trail. Although I tried to keep my distance, the farmer didn’t look too happy about me deciding to visit the chapel beyond the bounds of daylight. Or maybe he was worried that I was going to spook his goats. Or maybe he was considering whether he’d have pork or chicken souvlaki for dinner, I honestly couldn’t really read his facial expression or body language that well in the dark.

Once I got past the goat herd and herder, I headed back up the hill to the chapel. I spent about an hour up there taking photos. For being on such a high promontory (by this island’s standards, anyway), the air was still and calm, just a slight cool breeze to make the mosquitoes work for their meal.

If I stood on the cool whitewashed barrier and threw myself off of it, down the hill, I’d eventually end up not far from where the Venus de Milo was discovered in 1820, by a local farmer. If I continued rolling down that hill, I’d eventually come to rest at an old Roman amphitheater that’s in the process of being restored. It was, and still is, a magnificent venue with an incredible panoramic view of the bay behind the main stage. In fact, the whole island was littered with Roman ruins. If you look carefully on the right side of the photo, you can see half a dozen whitewashed Roman columns just lying around. One of the columns was built into the church, on the left side of the door. On the back side of the chapel you can see evidence of how a fallen column was used as the base of the church.

In the present day, if I continued going downhill from the Roman amphitheater, which was below where the Venus de Milo was found, which was below this tiny chapel on a hill, I’d get to a small village that hosted at least half a dozen barking dogs. This village is just barely visible on the far left side of the photo, and you can see a bunch of anchored boats floating in the harbor by it. This tiny village built by the bay had about half a dozen syrma in it, colorful little boat garages built right next to the water. As idyllic as that scene is, I wouldn’t want to live there, because seemingly half the town’s residents are dogs that bark all night.

Behind and to the right of the chapel, you can see Plaka, or Milos’ old town. This is ground zero for the island’s nightly traffic jam, which occurs when people try to drive into the old town, only to realize that the streets are too narrow to allow for cars and that all the nearby parking is full.

About an hour past sunset, the large LED panel that lights the outside of the chapel turns on. It’s solar powered, and its battery is likely fully charged after a day spent in the hot sun. On the inside of the chapel, both day and night, candles burn.


The Profitis Ilias Chapel on the Greek island of Milos sits beneath clear skies at twilight. Click for a larger view. Prints available here. Licensing available here.

The Profitis Ilias Chapel on the Greek island of Milos sits beneath clear skies at twilight. Click for a larger view. Prints available (use the contact me form). Licensing available here.

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Arches at Arches – A night-sky panoramic journey of an iconic national park, part 1

I’m going to give it to you straight: Over the past year and a half I’ve fallen in love with panoramas, which now make up the bulk of the landscape photos that I publish. Following the “if a little bit is good, more is better” rule, creating landscape panoramas seemed like a natural step after spending years capturing an ultra-wide, 14-mm field of view. I suppose the next step is full 180-degree x 360-degree virtual panoramic tours, although I haven’t made that leap quite yet.

In my experience, after a certain period of familiarity with a particular lens or focal length, you start to more easily “see” your composition in that focal length. For me, I had become very used to “seeing” and understanding the ultra-wide 14-16mm range. One thing that I never liked about that range, however, was the distortion (particularly at 14mm, and particularly at night).

One advantage of taking panoramas, however, is that I can have an incredibly wide field of view but don’t have to deal with the ultra-wide-angle distortion resulting from using lenses like my trusty Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. The resulting panoramas are highly detailed and printable in large sizes at great resolution, which is really great, since I like making really big prints. And I can fit so much stuff in my composition. The disadvantages? Well, first of all, there’s so much stuff in my compositions. If you think uncluttering your foreground at 14mm is challenging, try it with a sweeping 180-degree field of view. And of course, sometimes putting panos together can vary anywhere from “Wow, Lightroom makes this easy now!” to “I’ve spent 6 hours on this and I’m still masking out stitching errors.” And the final disadvantage is that it took me a long time to really be able to “see” my panorama compositions in-field, particularly at night. In fact, that’s something I still struggle with, although this particular trip helped me quite a bit.

With that said, the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages for me, at least now. And I’m always looking for new challenges—it’s one of the things that I really enjoy about night-sky photography, and for a long time now creating panoramas of the Milky Way has been a huge challenge for me.

Because the Milky Way lies relatively low on the horizon in the spring (in the northern hemisphere, where I live), because it has a nice arch to it, and because the landscape at Arches National Park is so, well, in-your-face grandiose, I thought my 6-day trip to Arches would be a great time to focus on documenting the dark skies over the park with huge panoramas. And so I did.

After a no-holds-barred, I’m-only-stopping-for-restroom-breaks-when-my-car’s-nearly-out-of-gas, 15-hour drive from Oregon, I arrived at Arches to find spectacularly clear skies, and so I immediately got to work in the Windows area, despite my fatigue. It quickly became clear that North Window offered very little opportunity for imaging the Milky Way, so I moved on to South Window. I started off by climbing into the window. My compositions were extremely limited here, though, so I climbed down and found another angle to capture South Window (below). For this shot, I clambered up a little slickrock and tucked myself into a dark corner. Had I waited another half an hour or so, I’m sure the Milky Way would’ve climbed over South Window. But I wanted to move on.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park's South Window.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park’s South Window. Comet 252P/LINEAR can be seen as a green dot in the sky in the upper-right of the panorama. The Rho Ophiuchi region can be seen at the rocky edge along the panorama’s right side. Also note the mix of green and red airglow in the sky (as well as the unfortunate light pollution from Moab, nearby).

I then moved on to Turret Arch and quickly scouted out a composition.  Although I had hoped to be able to shoot the Milky Way through the arch, based on some online scouting prior to my visit I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t line up. My suspicion was quickly confirmed. Instead I decided to move in really close. Taking the “turret” metaphor too far, in my mind, I had imagined the arching Milky Way as the trail of some fiery object hurled by trebuchet from a more-northern war-like arch. Luckily the charge fell just short of Turret Arch’s ramparts.


The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park's Turret Arch.

The Milky Way appears over Arches National Park’s Turret Arch. Comet 252P/Linear can seen as a green dot in the sky in the middle-upper-right of the panorama. Prints available.


Dramatic post-script bonus story!

As I was standing in the dark, taking the final row of the Turret Arch panorama, I noticed a faint bobbing of light getting closer from the parking lot. Eventually, the bobbing light walked stopped about 25 feet away from me. Of course, I couldn’t see who I was addressing, but I made leap in logic and assumed they were human, called “hello,” and mentioned that I only had two frames left and then I would be done. The voice in the dark replied that was fine and that he’d wait where he was standing. About 20 seconds later, after my penultimate frame, I heard the unmistakable thud and clatter of both a body and some metallic photography equipment colliding with rock. I turned on my head lamp and rushed over to help the man, who had tripped and ostensibly fallen on his face. His glasses were badly bent several feet away from him, and the man was bleeding considerably from a cut (most likely caused by his glasses) on the bridge of his nose.

“Am I bleeding?” he asked, still on his hands and knees and dripping blood, unable to see at night without his glasses. A couple dozen blobs of blood on the ground confirmed that yes, he was bleeding. (Here’s an illustrative tweet, for those of you who must see.) Luckily the man had a handkerchief in his pocket, and the bleeding stopped pretty quickly as soon as he applied pressure. After he got up he insisted he was okay and that he was heading back to his car in the parking lot, where he had another pair of glasses. Selfishly, I told him if he’d wait 20 seconds I’d take my final frame and assist him to the parking lot, but he started off without me. I quickly finished my panorama and tried to catch up with him, just to make sure he didn’t wipe out again, but he was quite a bit ahead of me.

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The subtle art of floating away – twilight at Crater Lake National Park

Summertime at Crater Lake tends to be either perfectly clear or hopelessly cloudy, and the few days I spent at the lake this past summer were no exception. In reality, what I was seeking was a perfect mix of clear and cloudy, enough clouds to blow up with color in the pre-dawn light and provide some mysterious drama, but enough clear patches to have a sprinkling of stars shining through. Of course my best-of-both-worlds hopes didn’t materialize, so I’ll happily attempt to get that shot another time: it’s just another excuse to make a trip to Crater Lake.

Technical details:

This is three exposures taken chronologically as follows: The first was taken for the stars, the second was taken for the sky, and the third was taken for the land, all before the sunrise.

Other notes:

In the next couple of weeks I’ll be announcing my 2016 workshop schedule, which will include either one or two workshops at Crater Lake in which I’ll cover my techniques for sunset, twilight, and full-on night photography. I’ll be covering these techniques via lecture in a classroom setting, then field work at Crater Lake National Park, and then back to the classroom for post-processing.

If you’re interested in learning these techniques from me, I urge you to sign up for my workshop newsletter over here. These workshops are set up in a small-group format, and I try to teach my techniques both as a technical and as an artistic (fine art) endeavor.

Additionally, if you prefer to strap on some snowshoes and capture Crater Lake with a coat of white snow, I am available for private lessons this winter at Crater Lake–message me for details.

Crater Lake's rim glows in the pre-dawn light as stars sparkle overhead. Prints available here. Click for larger view.

Crater Lake’s rim glows in the pre-dawn light as stars sparkle overhead. Prints available here. Click for larger view.


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The holdout – photographing sea stacks at Samuel Boardman State Park (Oregon)

I don’t often get an opportunity to photograph Oregon’s beautiful southern coast, so when my crowded schedule cleared a bit earlier this week I seized the moment and made the long drive. Known for its numerous state parks and its indefatigable sea stacks, the southern Oregon coast is a seascape photographer’s playground.

During the light of day, the dirt trails that cut through Samuel Boardman State Park are safe enough, if you pick your route carefully, can avoid tripping over exposed tree roots, and have shoes with good enough grip to avoid dirt-skiing down a hill and launching into the churning ocean.

But as is often the case, at night the coast’s hidden coves and thickly wooded trails turn inky black and shadows become impenetrable. The speed of foot travel becomes highly dependent upon the luminosity of your headlamp, and some scrambling, including climbing ladder-like tree roots upward, is required. And if you’re like me, occasionally, when you shut off your headlamp and wait for your camera’s long exposure, you’ll wobble and gyrate in the dark, feet rooted in place to ensure that you don’t take an ill-fated step in the wrong direction in an effort to check your balance.

In other words, this isn’t a place to visit with someone you even remotely suspect of harboring a grudge against you. Luckily for me, I was joined by Matt Newman, a talented southern Oregon photographer who had a little more experience with Samuel Boardman’s trails than I had and was willing to show me around a bit.

Technical details:

This is a blend of three images all taken in low-light conditions. The first was a very long exposure taken half an hour post-sunset with a neutral density filter to ensure that a certain amount of natural long-exposure saturation occurred in the twilight sky. The second was taken just a few minutes later without an ND filter to ensure that some of the darker areas of the photo had adequate shadow detail. The third exposure was taken just for the stars.

Breaking waves sound like thunder as the sun sets on a misty evening in Oregon's Samuel Boardman State Park.

Breaking waves sound like thunder as the sun sets on a misty evening in Oregon’s Samuel Boardman State Park. Click the photo for full size. Prints available here.


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An ode to disappointment (or RIP, little quad copter)

The Pacific Northwest has more capes than Comic-Con, each of them with exotic and descriptive names. But my favoritely (not a word) named cape (a headland or a promontory of large size extending into a body of water, usually the sea, in case you wanted to know the definition) has to be Cape Disappointment, an area on the southwest Washington coast that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to beautiful views of lighthouses, but has been known to have terrible weather. And sometimes it even eats quad copters.

Last week’s weather forecast for the coast looked incredible–almost too perfect. Clear skies and low humidity promised an amazing view of the night sky. I learned a long time ago that there’s no such thing as a slam dunk when it comes to night photography in Oregon or Washington, but every forecast I saw said that it couldn’t get any more clear.

On my way, a thick marine layer met me in Seaside and left me briefly concerned, enough that I almost turned around after over an hour of driving. However, the skies cleared and my spirits soared as I neared Astoria. I clicked through my mental checklist of photos that I was going to take at Cape Disappointment that night while crossing the Astoria-Megler bridge into Washington. Nothing could stop me. However, after arriving at the North Head parking lot at Cape Disappointment, I was met with a surprisingly hard wind that only got worse whens I made my way through a grove of trees to an open bluff where the lighthouse sits.

I set up my gear, but several blurry photos informed me that my normally sturdy tripod couldn’t hold steady during the 40-mph gusts, even with my 20-some pound backpack hanging from it as ballast. My grand plans were being blown away. I realized that a lot of the compositions I wanted simply would not be available to me because I was too exposed.

I had to find cover from the wind, so I sought out different compositions and eventually found a couple spots that offered some protection, at least to the point where my tripod was no longer quaking. I took my sunset photos, and then recomposed for twilight and waited.

Shortly afterward, a couple of guys with a quad copter showed up. The sun was below the horizon, and the sky was darkening quickly. I watched them trot by the path in front of me over to the lighthouse, eager to prepare their drone (I’m assuming there was a camera of some kind on board) for what would’ve been a beautiful set of aerial photos. The sun’s remaining light was breathtaking, and the lighthouse itself was beautifully lit. It was a perfect evening. Except for the wind.

After a quick setup, the quad copter took off, reaching about 50 feet in altitude. Then it began to list like a boat taking on water as the winds quickly pushed it away from North Head, until it was hanging 100 foot above the ocean. The guy flying the drone had no way to put it down without crashing it into the sea, so he kept it aloft until it was over Deadman’s Hollow and Long Beach and was probably over half a mile away. As it got dark, I lost site of the drone. The guys left soon thereafter–presumably to look for their missing equipment–with noticeably different body language from when they had arrived.

I waited around for the stars to come out, and then I grabbed a few more photos, but I was still having a lot of problems with the wind. A couple hours after sunset the winds still hadn’t died down. My eyes were dry and irritated, my face felt chapped, and my equipment and I were covered in blown sea spray. I decided to pack up and leave. I turned my back to the wind and let it propel me down the path back to my car. As I walked the dark trail, far down below on Long Beach I saw a couple of flashlights scanning the sands. They still hadn’t found their drone.


The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington.

The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington. Prints available here.

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Rainier blows up

My six-year-old son and I both agreed that this was a “top-10 sunset.” I know that a six-year-old’s opinion doesn’t usually hold much weight, but my son’s seen a few sunsets in his day. This one exploded for nearly 45 minutes, bathing us in various shades of orange-red light.

At home, he routinely interrupts me from staring at my computer monitor so that he can excitedly drag me to our west-facing window and point out some pink-purple clouds. “Our favorite sunset colors” is a topic of conversation that has regularly come up in the past few years. Last summer we spent nearly three weeks on the road, staying up late, waking up early, checking out over half a dozen national parks, and talking a lot about photography. This summer we didn’t make it out quite so much.

Every once in a great while I feel a tinge of envy when I see posts from young, single photographers who have the opportunity to run off at a moment’s notice. While they chase sunsets, I’m often chasing kids around a playground. While they breezily travel to far-flung locales on a whim, I’m intricately planning out how I can get away for a night.

And every once in a while I find myself in the right place for a take-your-breath-away, the-sky-is-on-fire sunset. Long ago I thought it would be a good idea to carry a camera to capture those moments so that others could appreciate them, later. But it’s also nice to have a small person at my side who stops poking at the dirt with his stick to yell, without any pretense, “this is incredible,” not because he’s been coached to do such a thing, or because he feels that the exclamation is expected of him, but because he’s thrilled to be there in the moment, seeing an incredible sunset. With me.

Mt Rainier bathes in soft light at sunset, as the White River runs below.

Mt Rainier bathes in soft light at sunset, as the White River runs below. Click to view full-size photo. Prints available here.

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A night with an old friend

"Equilibrium," a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead.

“Equilibrium,” a whitebark pine hangs on the rim of Crater Lake by its roots, while the Milky Way spins overhead; prints available here.


I took a physical geography class years ago, and the main thing I took away from it was that wind and water are the Earth’s primary erosive forces. And Crater Lake’s not lacking for either of them.

Crater Lake in summertime is very different than Crater Lake during any other season, mostly because the place is buried in snow from early fall through late spring (if not longer). To a certain extent, that snowy winter coat protects some of the native trees and plants. But the water resulting from 10 feet of snow melting can move a lot of soil around. Once the trees are unburied they’re subjected to Crater Lake’s infamous wind. When the wind gusts at over 30 mph, the top layer of that volcanic soil takes flight, and you can feel its sting against your shins (if you happen to be out there in shorts) or even your arms and face. In these harsh conditions, figuring out the reason why many of the rim’s whitebark pines have become denuded of their bark over time doesn’t take a lot of imagination.

Unfortunately, man’s presence further accelerates the process. We move soil (both inadvertently and on purpose), trample plants that would better secure the soil to the ground, and some of us will even climb on some of these ancient trees in order to get a good selfie. The phrase “loved to death” springs to mind, but I would never begrudge anyone the opportunity to experience Crater Lake’s beauty in the same ways that I have (although I’ve never climbed any trees in the park).

At some future point, this spot may be closed to the public so that restoration can take place. At some other future point, this tree will likely fall into the crater, a (hopefully) natural act that was to some degree partially hastened by my many trips to photograph the tree. And at some long future point, if diseases like blister rust and insects like the mountain pine beetle win out, whitebark pines on the rim of the lake will cease to exist at all.

These seem like slow-moving or outright invisible processes, but I’m always surprised at the changes I see in these trees year over year: an extra twist in the bark, a more-exposed root, a fracture in an exposed root that was likely caused by a human’s weight. It’s these little changes that motivate me to go check in with these old trees, my old friends, to see how they’re holding up. And in the process I take another photo and make another memory.

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TWAN Earth and Sky Photo Contest (third place!)

Big news, everyone! I’m delighted to announce that my photo “A raising of the hackles” won third place in The World at Night’s (TWAN’s)  6th annual Earth and Sky Photo Contest. This is really exciting for me because, for one, I see TWAN as doing important work: It’s easy to point out the differences among all of us (and when I say “us,” I mean the people of the world), but it’s much more difficult to show how alike we are and to reveal how much we have in common. TWAN blends science and the arts to deliver the message that we all share the same night sky, not just visually in the form of stargazing but culturally as well.

Second, I look up to this organization and its members and photographers greatly. If you follow the link to the TWAN page take a moment, scroll down, and check out the contest judges and their work–impressive stuff.

Third, night-sky photography is still a niche form of photography, a subgenre of a subgenre, but it’s gaining in popularity every day. Even in the last five years, I’ve seen a major change of behavior among landscape photographers: They’re sticking around after the sun goes down. I was at a popular location at Mt St Helens Saturday night, and I swear I only saw two photographers leave after the golden hour. At least 15 photographers stuck around to shoot stars. Five years ago, those numbers would’ve been reversed. This TWAN contest represents the very best of my favorite type of photography and is an annual benchmark to see how high the bar has been raised. It’s an honor to be included.


The moon and the Milky Way rise over the eastern horizon of Crater Lake on a frozen winter night. Prints available.

“A raising of the hackles,” third place winner, Beauty of the Night Sky category, The World at Night 6th annual Earth and Sky photo contest. Big, beautiful prints of this photo are available for purchase here.

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Mossy Grotto Falls

“A return to splendor”

I really had to restrain myself from titling this one “Where the sun don’t shine.” This is the (in)famous Mossy Grotto Falls on Ruckel Creek (Columbia River Gorge, Oreegon), and this was during my first visit, which happened to be solo. This is one of the more verdant areas I’ve been to, and I can’t help but think my springtime visited was well-timed, with really amazing moss, some great-looking ferns, and very little visual evidence that others had recently visited.

Finding my way there wasn’t something I’d classify as “easy,” despite directions from photographers (I’m looking at you, Terence Lee) such as “take the trail that goes to the right” where there’s absolutely no obvious trail.

This off-trail portion didn’t so much require a willingness for adventure as much as a willingness to embrace poison oak with open arms. And ticks. Anyway, after I descended a fairly steep rocky chute with a bunch of loose rocks, downed trees and branches, and some vines, I made my way back to the creek, which I followed to this falls.

By this time it was mid-morning, so there was a fair amount of harsh lighting streaming in from the sun. This required two exposures–one that captured most of the dynamic range and another that was about three stops lower to re-collect the exceptionally bright highlights. After a couple of attempts, blending the exposures with luminosity masks proved to be too difficult, so I manually blended the exposures. Further post-processing mostly involved extensive contrast adjustments using luminosity masks. Finally I pulled out an unused and fairly underexposed frame so that I could mask in non-moving ferns in a couple of places, although for the most part this little grotto was breeze-free.


Mossy Grotto Falls is resplendent in its spring greens.

Mossy Grotto Falls is resplendent in its spring greens; click to view full size; prints look beautiful if I say so myself, and they’re available here.

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An evening at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is windy. Despite the malfunctioning weather display at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center claiming 1-2 mph wind speeds, the whole time I was exploring for this photo I was blasted with unrelenting (I’m estimating here) 25 mile-per-hour winds, with the occasional 10-second-long gust that caused me to check my balance. Strangely, the wind pummeling me was out of the south (to the camera’s left), whereas the clouds moving over the Panamint Range (the mountains pictured here) were moving from west to east. Of course, I was at around 200 feet below sea level, and the highest point of the Panamint Range rises 11,000 feet higher.

Several times I left my car on the side of the road and trudged the quarter mile or so into the Badwater Basin area, going to a point where I didn’t see many other footprints. I spent about three hours on the flats, scouting different areas and compositions and exploring the strange mud formations. Eventually, when I found what I was looking for, I just took a seat and waited for the light to get better.

At one point while I was shooting (or as most people call it, “waiting”), a large flying bug buzzed by my ear. It was completely out of control, carried away with the wind, its body turned 90 degrees from the direction it was actually traveling. The insect’s undersized wings did nothing to change its large body’s direction, no matter how madly it flapped. Several more bugs “flew” by in the same manner. It was tragicomic.

Without a book to read or an Internet for my phone to connect to, I started thinking about the bugs, wondering if they got frustrated with the wind. Their task was Sisyphean, but it occurred to me that they probably didn’t care. With the ability of ants to carry hundreds of times their own body weight over their heads, I doubt there’s an analog for Sisyphus in the insect world. These tiny careening bugs of Death Valley were supposed to fly, so they did, regardless of the outcome or the progress. As I sat there, waiting, I started to see value in going about my daily tasks with bug-like effort.

The clouds crowding the western horizon looked like they were going to pummel the sunset into oblivion, and despite my new-found resolve to go about my photography in a bug-like way, I started to get a little bummed. Eventually, though, the light got weird-interesting, not perfect or even what I had imagined good light looking like in this particular setting. But small holes in the clouds created bright, sharply defined rays of light over the mountains, just enough goodness that I was able to appreciate it in the moment and feel like my efforts to get to this spot had not been wasted.

I started thinking about how this tiny bit of joy mixed with relief was very un-bug-like. Those flying insects I saw earlier probably feel no joy when they overcome an obstacle or meet a goal. Sure, they likely don’t feel defeated by setbacks, real or imagined, but don’t these setbacks amplify feelings of accomplishment if goals are eventually met? And even if the goals are never met, isn’t there some merit in perseverance or in actively, consciously cultivating a cast-iron resolve? And besides, has anyone ever seen a colony of ants pause to admire a nice sunset?

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park.

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Prints available here. Click for larger size.

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