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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Monkey-cam Meets Picasso at Cooper Spur

Monkey-cam had been monitoring the internet for weather reports and once he saw the little smiling sun symbols in the weekend boxes, he began begging in earnest for another chance to see Cooper Spur before the onset of serious snow.

Regular viewers may recall that Monkey-cam was in the process of testing some boundaries and chose our last Cooper Spur expedition as the scene for acting out his new found sense of independence.

I kept suggesting lower altitude hikes because I was pretty sure the last weather front had deposited snow down to the 4000 ft. level, but when I got an email from Mr. Lloyd (of Long Shadow Photography - www.longshadowphoto.com) reporting that the road to Cloud Cap was still open, I relented and started rounding up the hiking gear.




Mt. Hood as seen from the Parkdale Ranger Station where you can’t get forest parking permits on Sunday because they’re closed.

It’s a fairly long drive from Portland to Mt. Hood so I was glad to have Monkey-cam’s company. We tried to carry on a conversation, but I’m not very good at it and Monkey-cam can’t talk. I asked him if, in his role as stunt camera-primate, he considered himself an artist. I tried paying attention to his answer, but watching his gestural/sign language meant taking my eyes off the road and I’m afraid I didn’t really catch all that he was saying. He admitted that at first he was into it for the bananas, but hoped that I might soon begin supplementing his rewards with alcohol based beverages.

I found his response somehow depressing and drove on in silence. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell he was watching me. It made me uncomfortable, but I ignored him for a mile or two. Finally I glanced at him only to find him grinning from ear to ear with one of his fingers stuck inside his cheek like a fishing hook. I recognized this as his symbol for ‘hooking me’ – that is, he had played a joke on me. “So you’re not into photography just for the rewards?” I asked hopefully. He responded by hitting me on the shoulder and doing his gleeful shriek-laugh.



As we vibrated along gravel washboards and dodged pot-holes along the last eight miles to the trailhead, we caught glimpses of the mountain through the eternally besieged timberline forest. Every corner of the road that was in the shade presented melting-wet-slippery-ice-ruts which tested the car’s limited two-wheel-drive capabilities and also tested my limited experience at driving on ice.

Even though you can see Mt. Hood from a distance every day in Portland (weather permitting), from up close, its looming presence inspires… not reverence so much as a kind of excitement. Great beauty, great danger or maybe even both may be ahead.



One of the great things about digital cameras is how you can review your pictures immediately after taking them to see if your exposure settings are proper or if you captured what you thought you did. As we sat on the ridge of the Eliot Glacier Moraine, Monkey-cam turned the tables on me and pantomimed the question, “Do you think, in your role as a weekend photographer/ primate, that you ever actually produce art?” The fact that Monkey-cam can pantomime questions like these makes me wonder if he should be considered a pantomime artist.

So I showed him this picture right after I took it and said, “I don’t know if this is art.” I said it because I’ve never really come up with a good definition of art. But I went on to say that maybe this image at least told a portion of a story. It shows a glacier highway. It shows a mountain decomposing over time – a history of rock-falls traced into the slope at left – an instant of geologic time sufficient to show the inevitable trend. Also, I think this moraine picture is better than the ones I took last trip because the lighting is better, I found an angle that makes it look steep, and it has the added dimension of new but melting snow on top. Maybe it’s not art so much as it is journalism or documentation?

And nowadays, glaciers may be on the road to becoming a thing of the past – a memory - which may be another portion of story contained in this image.

Thinking about documenting vanishing glaciers reminded me of an old Kurt Vonnegut quote. He once wrote:

“I was perplexed as to what the usefulness of any of the arts might be, with the possible exception of interior decoration. The most positive notion I could come up with was what I call the canary-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. This theory argues that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are supersensitive. They keel over like canaries in coal mines filled with poison gas, long before more robust types realize that any danger is there.”




I’ve previously shared the bewilderment I felt upon viewing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in art history class and how I secretly began to wonder if I wasn’t being forced, metaphorically, to appreciate the emperor’s new clothes (surely Picasso was naked). Ever since then, I occasionally will take a stab at trying to produce something abstract. I showed this image (that I took as we walked across a field of boulders) to Monkey-cam who rolled his eyes and pantomimed the following.

He sarcastically pointed out that you really can’t get much more concrete than a picture of a rock.

I countered by first admitting that, yes, it was a rock, but that my picture was really about primordial, timeless, prehistoric life springing forth from the earth.

He responded with something about it not mattering whether it represented a prehistoric turtle, or an old man’s bony butt crack, the whole point is in NOT depicting objects. Besides, he added with a final complex finger-puppet gesture, you just made the narrative up after you took the picture.

Well, I’m the first to admit that I don’t understand abstract art. I still liked something about the way the crack suggested that the rock may once have had the consistency of cookie dough (though considerably hotter). I let Monkey-cam have the last word and we walked together pondering these things as we approached the Cooper Spur shelter.


Upon arriving at the shelter, we were startled to find Pablo Picasso crouching next to the stone structure, seemingly deep in thought. I don’t know why exactly, but I decided it would be best if Monkey-cam and I pretended like we see naked Picassos all the time. I offered my hand and said, “Mr. Picasso, I presume,” all the while hoping that Monkey-cam would remember how I taught him that his traditional butt-sniff-greeting was not appropriate for humans.

Picasso clasped my hand in his and smiled broadly. His gaze was intense and alive, but he didn’t say anything. I introduced him to Monkey-cam. They immediately began gesticulating together as if they were old friends. It turns out they had shared a few drinks the last time we had come here.


Together, the three of us set off to find and follow the Cooper Spur Trail – not an easy task since much of it was buried in the snow. Picasso and Monkey-cam didn’t seem to care where we went and pretty soon I lost track of them when I started taking pictures of rocks that appeared to have force fields that protected them from the snow.


When I finally caught up with Monkey-cam and Picasso, I found them engaged in a spontaneous ritual dance centered around an apparent phallus totem. The dance was energetic and frenzied and it looked like fun. Monkey-cam motioned for me to join in. “I can’t dance.” I offered lamely. Picasso just rolled his eyes.

Mostly I just didn’t want to take my clothes off. I rationalized that I needed to be a sane authority figure for Monkey-cam and besides, there were lots of other hikers taking advantage of this unusually nice 1st weekend in November – someone might see me. It was probably easy for Picasso to do whatever he wanted – what did he care? – he was already dead.

I tried to decipher the meaning of the dance. I’m still not sure, but I think they were simply symbolically giving Winter the finger – promising that Spring would ‘rise’ again.

(Note: Click on Images to view slightly larger versions)


It’s clear by now that I’m not a hiking expert, but I think I’ve narrowed it down a bit, and I believe this is the feature we’re talking about when we say Cooper Spur.

The line of phallic totems, one of which Monkey-cam and Picasso had danced around, turned out to be the rock cairns that mark the Timberline trail. This realization made it clear that we had missed the Cooper Spur trail. When we changed course and actually found segments of the correct trail, we determined that the trail was useless and possibly dangerous since without snowshoes or crampons, we could easily slide all the way back down to the timberline if we lost our footing. So we headed back to the Eliot Moraine ridgeline and proceeded upward along its clear but steep path.

Ever since noon, the wind had been picking up, and at the ridgeline, the moraine acted like a magnifying funnel and sent the wind whistling over the edge. Only two months ago, the sun had set on the right side of the mountain. But this time, the sun was already disappearing behind the left shoulder of Hood, and it seemed that perhaps Winter was pointedly responding to the FU dance.



Monkey-cam took this picture to capture an impression of how quickly it turned cold. When he showed the picture to me on the review screen, he pantomimed, “You may not be much of a dancer, but you are a wonderful mucous producer.” I think he was just trying to think of something positive to say.


But before I left the edge of the moraine, I watched a crow perform an aerobatic dance in the teeth of the wind. I was kind of hoping it was a raven, because then I could think about all the trickster symbolism from Indian sacred narratives, but either way, it was beautiful to watch. The …bird… started out at the timberline at the foot of the moraine, and then, without so much as beating a wing, it tacked like a sailboat, angled into the wind, gliding, sideways, ascending (perhaps transcending) all the way up the mountain. High towards the peak almost out of sight, it joined a partner and together they executed a kind of circle dance, flew cartwheels, looked around from on high, and then snuck down a back ravine to come around and do it all again.

Essentially, it seemed they transformed an insurmountable force – potential adversity - into an amusement ride. It was almost as if they dived all the way to the top of the mountain.


It is something our species has tried to emulate, albeit clumsily.



Out of consideration for the Monkey-cam, I decided to head back down while there was still light. We said our goodbyes to Picasso at the shelter, and soon entered the landscape of stunted trees or krummholz.

The trees actually look like they’ve been tortured, but it’s really hard to capture it in a picture. To me, it almost looked like this particular tree was bending back from the weight of some past avalanche, protecting itself as best it could with arms of wood.


Here’s another view of the same tree. The former picture shows the bending trunk, this one shows the outstretched arm. I couldn’t figure out how to get both gestures together.




Later, I tried to express the tree’s gesture by experimenting with an interesting (FREE!) 3-d modeling program called DAZ Studio 1.8. It lets you pose virtual 3-d figures and render images from them under customizable lighting situations. (www.daz3d.com).

I showed this image to Monkey-cam and asked him what he thought. “Nice boobs.” He pantomimed back.


Almost back to the trailhead, we continued to note examples of the extreme interface between Summer and Winter, where Fall can descend in one day – where the dance between life and death is both brutal and ingenious…


…where triune water morphs easily from one state to the other - giving life - freezing time - carving and preparing the Earth…



The Monkey-cam asked me what I thought of Picasso.

I said I admired his lack of inhibition, but that he didn’t talk much. Monkey-cam explained that dead people aren’t allowed to talk to self-conscious beings. Well, he added, it isn’t so much that they’re not allowed, it’s more like a general consensus and a courtesy. Dead people know that if they tell you the answers, they deprive you of the journey.

Oh, I said.

He thinks you should try dancing every once in a while.

Really?

And he’s happy that you’re still trying to learn.


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