Thursday, February 28, 2013

Old feller fells his firewood

               Making firewood:  part 1

    An extreme  weather alert arrives by e-mail from our community emergency preparedness organization: a Pineapple Express is on its way from the Pacific. While much of Canada has struggled with cold, wind and snow this winter, the West Coast has been wet and mild. The mud on my driveway and the still half-full woodshed tells me so too. The name is descriptive of a mass of warm air being sucked up from the tropical North Pacific and pushed onto Vancouver island. Very heavy rain, possible floods and warm Springlike air. By March we expect only a couple of weeks more of possible snow anyway, so this may be Spring: already buds are breaking and soon the frogs will be busy singing in the Pond.

The first shoots of water iris emerge 
This morning I rush out to get some chores done before rain becomes deluge and then go back for my camera. Those water iris shoots, so clean and green, are fascinating, combined with all the raindrops on the surface of a pond. And while my eyes are alert I will photograph the rain glazed salal and mossy branches. In fact, why not document my wood cutting project that started a month ago with the felling of two trees. Today, having cut the trees into rounds I will begin splitting those rounds, some of them three feet or more across, into firewood. Firewood that once split will be stacked into rows, covered to keep the rain off and allowed to air dry until next Fall when I will haul them uphill and replenish the woodshed for next winter’s wood fires that heat our home. Thinking and planning ahead is as important for us on our little island piece of land as it would be for those in the fast lane in the city. Perhaps even more so.

Years ago I cut trees down on a regular basis, and just last year I felled several for a lumber making project, but usually I cut but once a year and only one or two trees at that. It is difficult to keep in practice and therefore things become that much more dangerous. Both of these trees had their potential problems: the maple was part of a much larger stump, leaned heavily and must be cut high up and in an unusual way; the danger with this leaning maple, which can be brittle, was of a premature and unpredictable break while I was still mucking about at its base. I looked at this tree for a long time before making a start but, after undercut and back-cutting, it creaked in time to warn me and I slid down the step ladder and scuttled away, chainsaw in hand, as it crashed to earth. Kaboom!!

 Beginning the next stage of making firewood
 The next, a big Grand Fir with a multiple crown, looked to be easy in comparison, but it resisted my efforts to fell it against its strangely weighed top hamper, and I ended up using a cable and come-along winch plus multiple wedges before it too measured its length, a hundred feet or more, parallel with the maple. It must have taken me two hours to bring it down, sweating anxiously all the while.

And then the seemingly endless work of cutting these tree trunks into firewood-long lengths: partly buried in the ground by the crash of their falling, they were also so heavy it was difficult to cut them into sections of five and roll them out to make the final cuts that separated them. I was aware that this was hard work for my ageing body, so I walked hard and long every day to keep in general shape and restricted the repetitive heavy wood work to only an hour or two every day. Now, at last I will be combining splitting, another repetitive exercise, with gathering all the branches and burning them, and I will continue walking.

Is all this worth it? At $250. a cord ( a cord of wood is usually described as stacked 4'x4'x8' ) , and at four cords per winter that is a lot of money for us retired folks, but there are more valuable considerations as well. Yes I risk my life, but I have the satisfaction to be gained from planning for and solving the felling of these trees, side by side, just where I wanted them. I get that thrill from the mighty crash, the flying shards of shattered tops. I get exercise, both from walking and from the work of turning trees into firewood. What doesn't kill me in the short term makes me strong, confident and self reliant. That is something to be valued at any age!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

National Health Insurance: what a great idea

On the shores of Fulford Harbour where eye connected with stick.

Yesterday, while walking and taking photographs at Indian Point I ran my eye into a jagged stick poking out of the undergrowth, Yeoww! I thought for sure that I had really done it this time, my eye must have been skewered! I help my hand over my eye, felt the pain and wondered what I should do now. I was half an hour’s walk from my van, there was no one around and of course we had never got around to getting that emergency cell phone. Some time later the pain subsided and I tentatively took my hand away. I could see just fine. There was some blood, but perhaps it was just a scratch on my eyelid. I walked back to the car, mopped out the blood with a damp tissue and used the rear view mirror to check the eyeball; oh, oh, I can see a dark spot, better get it checked at the emergency room of our local island hospital.

I check in, show my medicare card, and wait. I have heard about extended waits at Canadian emergency rooms but it is many years since I’ve needed the service. Finally I am triaged by a nurse and wait some more, out of the corridor at last. A recent arrival has a heart condition which puts him in first place so I wait some more and look around me.

Before me on racks reaching to the ceiling are the medical supplies and one catches my attention, a special kit for eyes ( actually both eyes are working fine and I am starting to feel like a phony), but there are row upon row of tools and bandages and so many things I really know nothing about. What keeps me here is the knowledge that I still need to be checked out by a professional, that my 'little eye problem' is best caught here and now rather that as a severe infection or loss of sight sometime later. I will cost our national health service something now but later would be much more expensive. The doctor comes at last and competently sticks my eyelid together and carefully checks my eye. She explains everything to me and sends me on my way. Another citizen back in operation and on his way to complete recovery. And at no direct expense to myself: I pay through my taxes and a small monthly premium based on income ( We pay this in BC, but it is free in most of Canada). If that visit was a direct hit on my personal finances though, would I have come for medical aid or taken a chance? How much would that have cost our society in the end. A stitch in time really does save.

Yes, I was restive during my wait, probably I had arrived at lunch break, perhaps a doctor had to be called in and that took a while, but when I consider that our little island actually has doctors and a well staffed and equipped hospital, my little hallway interlude seems petty indeed.

There is pressure from medical corporations based in America and from individual private medical clinics to move to a mixed public/private system. The rich and privately insured would have fewer wait lines and would not have to rub shoulders with the rest of us. Our Governments are tempted by the possibility of getting out from under the cost of financing this service and by a recent political slant towards private enterprise, but the public likes what they have got and hangs on. The same conditions still apply for the average citizen that brought about the Medicare system in the first place: compassion, fairness, equal access, a healthy citizenry.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Beacon: two 'constructed' photographs and the use of archetypal imagery.


Its is an obvious truth that an artist makes, or constructs, his painting or sculpture. It is not so obvious in a photograph which seems ( and so often is) simply a two-dimensional slice of reality. Occasionally though, I am more aware of the concept that comes as or before the image is taken. I am then *constructing an image, putting it together, to express that overarching idea; - not simply taking it as is from nature.

I walk beside the sea on an overcast winter day and see the *beacon that marks a rugged promontory. Although it is a dark day, it is not that dark and the beacon light is turned off, but high above, the sun is creating a soft pool of light in the clouds. In a flash I realize that I could alter my position so the light is repositioned directly behind the dark lens. Click! I move on but keep thinking about the image I have just made. Later, when I process the photo with a more analytical slant of mind I feel the power of the image and understand the beacon to be a powerful symbol in human thought, an archetype, and the light behind the lens as a way to engage the viewer in a 'flash' of perception. Light, but not lit, not real, but more than real: a paradox. I 'photo-shop' to emphasis the intent of the image: principally darkening the outer parts and gently creating a halo around the light.


Weeks later I return on another cloudy day with a definite plan in mind that will show another take on the symbolism of a beacon. I place a camera on its tripod facing the beacon, set the shutter release for ten seconds, and step forward into the right hand side of the camera's view. Click! Here is the beacon on the left and the back of my legs on the right. The completed photo though, is hopefully not about me as much as it is about the power of the beacon to convey a metaphorical message. When we look into the image we link the near figure, who is a stand-in for ourselves, with the beacon in the mid distance. With that prominent symbol to guide us, we see from a dark overcast place far out into the brighter sky, the gleaming ocean and distant islands beyond; and of course at a more personal level this can be read as metaphor. The image has its origin in my own dreams and desires, but what I have crafted reaches out to catch the minds of others who can also, in their own way, relate to the guiding light of a beacon and read their own lives into the photograph.

I found while thinking through and selecting the elements that went into the second image that constructing an image was difficult to get my mind around. I am so accustomed to seeing something that attracts me and adjusting my composition to bring out the 'word' of what is in front of me. To reverse the process and start with an idea and then find the appropriate parts and organize them as expression was challenging.

Although, as the creator, I have thought about and made these images, I really wish the viewer to simply encounter them and experience a flash of understanding, to dive in and have their own parallel experience.

*The Beacon
A beacon was originally associated with fire on a hill top warning of approaching danger or of some great event that all should know about. A light that was a message. It is the ancient power of this symbol that tugs at our unconscious minds even when today we might simply see a lighthouse on a bold headland.

Navigation lights are on buoys, beacons and lighthouses, just to mention a few, and flash their coded signals though the night to guide ships that are working their way among unseen hazards. While sailing the Pacific,at the end of a passage from Fiji, I remember our approach to land in the predawn darkness where the horizon ahead was a maze of blinking lights marking an important pass (Havannah passage) into New Caledonia. We sailed closer, consulted our less-than-perfect chart and tried to work out what each repeating pattern of flashes represented. Then came the dawn and all was made clear. In our case a beacon and its guiding light was where metaphor and reality met.

I wonder though, as more of us spend our lives in cities, separated from direct relationship with sea and landscape, sailing, fishing, hunting and farming, how our languages, - verbal and visual -, with their structures of imagery inherited from the past, can retain their ability to communicate in a rich and fulsome way. I make these images that rely on a viewer's gut feeling for 'Beacon', but if that has no real resonance, then we both have missed the mark.

*Constructed photographs are usually thought to be the combining of elements from more than one image in a photoshopping program. I have used this term here to describe thinking about and organizing the elements in front of my lens to express an idea that is not naturally part of the landscape. In 'Flash', the sun has been oriented behind the lens to create a paradox about light. The 'Away' image is created by placing the parts before the camera in a particular arrangement to express an idea about a beacon as psychological as well as physical reality: a guiding light.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Selfies: the ubiquitous self portrait phenomenon

Self, self

The other day on CBC radio there was a discussion about the increasing number of self portraits that people were taking and posting on line: 'selfies' as they are called. I can see that social media, with the need to illustrate one;s life to one’s friends, would lead to this behaviour, although once upon a time that would have seemed the height of self absorption. As I often take my own photo and do not post it on Face-book I listened carefully. Oh, oh, was I being self absorbed?

Much of the time I use myself as a model simply because I am handy and remarkably inexpensive. I can run through a lot of practice sessions with studio lighting, or put myself in landscape, and try out ideas without having to negotiate with another human being. And then sometimes I really do want to put myself within the frame instead of staying behind the camera. I am part of what is going on after all, part of the scene, and to leave myself out would seem artificial.

A couple of times last week I walked with my mini camera and its little tripod or used the screw mount on a hiking pole and set out to use the time delay shutter release to permit me to jump in front of the lens before the photo was taken. I found that there was a different dynamic at play, that placing myself within the frame required that I plan things out, as if I were setting up a stage play with actor, props and backdrop; as though I were making a film with only one frame. Very different from snapping a slice of reality, and 'different' can be difficult to achieve in photography, bathed as we are amid thousands of similar images in the digital age.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Miksang photography, constructed imagery, and the creative middle way.


True spontaneity is the result of freedom, and freedom is possible through knowledge. Tao

I recently attended a Miksang workshop, and then today I `constructed' an image. As Miksang is a style of photography that attempts to capture the world of perception without the usual theories that filter our awareness, and to construct a photograph implies some conceptual thinking one would think that they are at opposite poles in the practice of photography. True, but there is a creative middle way that is worth cultivating.

Down at the wharf I photograph an orange buoy used as a fender between dock and boat. I perceive the bright orange rounded shape and its dark green shadow below in the cold winter sea water. The contrast of colour and tone, the repetition of rounded shapes pulls me right in. Later, working with this image, I crop it down to the bare essentials and begin to construct from the elements that remain, an image that I later call 'Buoyant' because I see that, colour-wise, I have a floating orange above a heavy green. My buoy is visually buoyant as well!

There is unity between the form of expression ( photography) and the idea being expressed. It relies on a spontaneous 'flash' of perception by the maker and the viewer. Whether this fits exactly into ''The Miksang Way' or not is not important. The creative mix of spontaneity with conceptual works for me. I have carried the original flash of perception into a more refined state. That is a middle way, that is the art.

* The Tao quote also has something to say: the Tao is speaking of spontaneity being a product of freedom but that freedom is grounded within knowledge. We usually contrast freedom and spontaneity with knowledge so this Taoist twist wakes us up. So from that perspective, Miksang`s wish to experience the world of perception in a free and spontaneous manner cannot really be filter free. To photograph in the Miksang way is to have a firm grasp of both Buddhist meditation (based on experiencing the world of perception) and of photography,( camera operation, design theory, etc.). That is the knowledge that the Tao speaks of.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Reflections on the lake.

Brush and ink practice

     “Today”means boundless and inexhaustible eternity. Periods of months and years and of time in general are ideas of men who calculate by number; but the true name of eternity is Today.
Philo ( c. 20 BCE – 50 CE )
from 'The Enlightened Mind'. ed. Stephen Mitchell

I stand at the edge of Stowell Lake in a gentle rain. On the calm surface, the lake is divided into two reflections; close to my feet, the water reflects the grey overcast sky and further out, the darker reflection stretches towards me from the tall firs on the opposite shore. The rain falls evenly, but in the dark parts the myriad ripples formed as drops hit the water are a white, flickering vibration, while in the sky reflection, closer to shore, the drops form partial dark circles. Only because I stop to watch intently can I see this complex patterning constantly forming, fading, and being renewed.

At the far side of the lake a duck circles, loses height and splashes down, while somewhere off to my right, another squawks, leaps into the air and flies rapidly away to disappear among the misty tree tops.

I step towards some willows that overhang the water and see their bare winter sticks reflected below. The heavy drips that fall from the branches create longer lasting, expanding circles, making complex black and white designs. Soon a larger band of ripples arrives; the energy of that duck's leap into the air has been transformed into little wavelets that have been travelling for the last two minutes until they come into view. A dull wet day at the lake would be the usual evaluation of this moment if I were simply absorbed in my own human thoughts.

And yet, so much depends, as I stand beside the lake on this winter day, on taking time and tuning in. The raindrop patterns could simply have been ignored. The gliding flight of the dark bird, how it held its wings stiffly, tilted and side slipped to a landing and the sound of the other duck calling, the whir of wings, the splash as she became instantly airborne, her appearance within my vision and rapid exit stage left, could have been missed if my mind was turned away. Those dark willow reflections and the ripples from water drops sliding off overhanging branches, the identifying of the origin of the broader band of ripples that arrived from stage right, could have been lost in the chatter of personal thoughts.

I am part of this scene too, my actions, my thoughts, are as much a part of reality as the ducks and water; my careful observation a part of the whole. Through a raven's eyes, circling high above, my dark figure standing on the shore below in the rain is simply a part of the larger picture. The lake water is cupped in a fold of landscape, beyond which lies misty Fulford Harbour, an arm of the ocean. The ocean itself is part of a thin envelope of atmosphere that clings to the rocky skin of the planet. I experience rain on this lake today, but stand on a greater shore.