The California Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia

The character of the live oak

I wanted to welcome everyone back to the blog with a few new photographs and I thought, "What better way to start things off than by sharing two of my new most favorite images?"

In summer, the hills of the San Francisco Bay peninsula roll in flaxen waves. In the winter, with the rains comes the verdure of greening grass and clover and all other small and stalwart ground cover capable of feeding on what paltry inches the sky can spare. Upon this dry sea ride great, gnarled and knurled olive sentries: the California Live Oaks (a.k.a. Coastal Live Oaks or Quercus agrifolia). The generic term "live oak" refers to a set of unrelated* evergreen oak trees widely distributed in range but all remaining green through the winter.

* It would be more proper to here say relatively distantly related when one considers that all oaks, elephants and protists and everything living larger, smaller and in-between are, undoubtedly and in their own way, related. On some time scales, after all, it wasn't all that long ago that the last common ancestor of all living things was swimming in a puddle of goop somewhere on Earth, trying to survive and sire all of the strange, wonderful and terrifying things we call life today.

Upon moving here over a year ago, I became fascinated with these beautiful trees. Their knots and twists and turns give them such character. Often one finds them hanging on dearly to some steep hill along the roadside when it seems the sky hasn't even suffered a single cloud to form for months. The life of a live oak is endurance to be sure. So much so that recently, in describing the terrible droughts Texas has suffered recently, a friend said "We haven't had rain in so long the live oaks are dying." That is a drought.

Not entirely fruitless

The live oaks seem made for great photography. So much character, different from every angle, and found in such a striking setting, what is left to be wanting? Well, what's wanting is, at times, easy access (of course, easy access sometimes means too many other photographers!). In short, one needs to be fearless about trudging steeply uphill in straw and bramble so thick he can't see his shoes. Ultimately, one has to assure himself "I will not step on a rattlesnake, even though I can't see my feet." So I headed, just a few minutes before sunset and on a whim, to the Arastradero Open Space Preserve in Palo Alto, California with a few ideas of what photographs I wanted to make in my head and entirely too much camera equipment on my shoulder. As I raced up the trail against the sun, I found my quarry high up on a hill, through much of the aforementioned grass. Stately, twisted and shaped like a bell, the tree was just the kind for which I was looking. Up, up and up and I framed this beautiful tree on the ground glass of the large format camera with a wide angle lens and some beautiful 4x5 inch film. I made several exposures and decided I had better make a few digital images as well, you know, just-in-case.

I like to pause after I've made a few images, let the echo of the shutter opening and closing fade away and listen to what stillness I have bothered to find for myself. The sun shot through the embrace of the live oak and caught in the pollen and particulate of the day's restless energy spent and the wings of a thousand tiny insects ebbing and flowing together in congress above the grass. No rattlesnakes seen, no rattle heard. A bounding noise a few yards off from the back of the tree startled me, made my heart pound. A coyote only, probably hunting in the grasses, trusting no human would be foolish enough to climb the hill and play around in the tall grass. He was a little curious about me and stood up on his hind legs a few times to get his head above the straw to see what I was doing.

Quercus agrifolia at sunset, Arastradero Open Space Preserve

The sun sinks quickly behind the straw hills in summertime, sinks quickly and dives deeply. From golden to orange to ruddy and gone, and with it rushes out the warmth of the day, replaced by cool blue light and cooler waves of air. Twilight creeps out from caves and under rocks and out from shadows quickly as the grass radiates its daily heat out into the black of space. I always breath deeply the gathering violet and might normally stay well into night had I not been so exposed upon the hill. With my lone coyote companion, I opted to pick my way back down, following the gullies where past rains matted the grasses flat. Regaining the trail, I packed it in and in the absolute dark, unloaded my film cassettes and sent the sheets off for processing.

Well, what I've learned in my first entries into large format photography is that, no matter how quickly you think you can move from theory to practice because you know how to handle yourself around a small format camera, you will undoubtedly be your own worst enemy and ruin your first exposures before you make them! Film in backward, exposures ruined. Well, not entirely fruitless - I still have the digital image to rely upon and the lesson of how to make sure the film is ALWAYS loaded correctly.

One Tree Hill

In some ways, the sunset image was the complement to an image I had made previously, just an hour or so before moonset, high up on a hill in what is called around here The East Hills - that is, those foothills and mountains east of San Jose. The same hills host the Lick Observatory, but I hadn't gone quite as far as that on a cold fall morning to see a meteor shower. I knew I wanted a Quercus for my foreground, and in my mind there were two images - that of the live oak isolated upon a weathered hill set the the backdrop of the stars (the subject of a future post) and a frame that captured the scale of the tree in silhouette. In the end, when you're alone on a hill, well off the path in a state park at 2 or 3 AM, every shadow is a phantom, every noise a cougar (of course, the many signs that said "This is Mountain Lion Territory" didn't help much).

My teeth began chattering in the quiet, windswept chill of the night and I realized right away, I wasn't going to be able to stay out long enough to wait for moonset and the meteor shower (airlight from the moon makes seeing the meteors prior to moonset difficult - I only saw one in two and a half hours from where I was). Therefore my attention quickly turned to making images of the stars and moon, using the same visual elements as I had planned for the meteor image: live oak as foreground, starry, starry night as background. The stillness and isolation began to affect me and, as I became nervous and my heart pounded alone upon the hill, I cast wary, side-long glances at the tall grasses and shrubs behind me. Geese disturbed the water in the lake over the next hill and filled the night air with their calls and the tension of broken water. It was then that I realized the silhouette image I had in mind was one that also captured the atmosphere of isolation, exposure and fear of a night beneath the oak. I moved in close, used the tree to fill every corner of the frame and set the exposure to capture the hills beyond and waited for a car to come along the road far below. Waited and waited until I could hear, long before I could see, a single vehicle climbing the hill, headed east along 130 deeper into the hills. I tripped the shutter just as the high beams of a pickup truck came around the bend and flew along that lonely road east, twisting under the hill's brow and out of frame.

One Tree Hill