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Saturday, November 2, 2013

"a mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a little bit too... tight." - Dr. Who

An Elk, somewhere above The Dalles Dam, but below the John Day Dam, below the stereo and on this side of the Bicentennial glasses, between the ashtray and the thimbles in this three inches that includes the Chiclets, but not the erasers.

I had a teacher once (Vicky) who posited with a straight face that the most important thing you can give to starving people is art. Now as then, I still vote for bread, or more specifically, an educational program that teaches sustainable farming and a financial package to help such an endeavor along, but the outlandishness of my teacher's claim haunts me to this day.

I wish I could remember the words my teacher used, her normally brash and cool character terrifyingly subverted by the threat of oh-my-god-actual-tears, as she tried to convince us, a handful of her young sculptor's in training, that what she said was true. But I can't. It was thirty years ago or so, and while that may not pose a great problem for gospel writers, it does tend to make me, at least, a little sketchy on details.

I'm not a great student. What I got out of that teachable moment was that my teacher was very likely crazy...but also that art was important, probably more important than I've ever since been able to imagine.

A gallery wall at the Portland Art Museum

Art is a funny thing. It's hard to define. And, as with most things that enter the realm of culture and taste, people of privilege survey, record and contribute to its history and subtle nuances, ultimately creating a complex narrative or context to impose on the uninitiated. Art intellectuals might go on and on about what a painting says (overtly or symbolically) about motherhood or welfare states or perhaps feminism, but about half the people I know, seeing the same painting, will simply shrug their shoulders and comment matter-of-factly, "nice rack". 

A gallery wall in a narrow rock shelter

If you know culture and context, then you have a better chance of determining what art means. One of the problems for me is that when I chance to look at a 'gallery' of art that spans not only cultures, but centuries, I don't know for sure if I'm looking at... 

An inscribed painting of mountain sheep

a masterpiece,

Large scale 'public art' at the beginning of a once difficult river passage.

graphic design, 

d-stretch* enhanced detail of rock shelter image

or graffiti . 

Modern view from site of rock shelter.

It doesn't help that the context for much of the rock art in the Columbia Gorge has been drastically altered by the serial damming of the Columbia River. This has created 'lakes', where formerly, the river cut through narrow rock channels.

Markings that were still accessible when I was eleven have long been submerged under 'lake' Umatilla. 

Preserved petroglyph at Columbia Hills State Park

People did what they could to save bits and pieces from inundation by chipping them from their original sites and preserving them in arbitrary collections. 

Horsethief Butte from the middle of the Columbia River.

I do what I can to imagine the environment the way it must have looked hundreds of years ago.

Note: Photosynth is no longer supported by Microsoft...and I haven't found anything else like it to put in its place.

Specialized software from Microsoft, called Photosynth, attempts to recreate three-dimensional space by linking together overlapping photographs. I've tried to use this software to help provide a better idea of what it's like to visit a largely intact rock painting gallery. (Note: There are 73 photos incorporated into the 'photosynth' so, depending on your connection speed, be patient and wait for images to snap into full resolution.)

When some people look at rock paintings, they're tempted to think they're looking at something primitive - that half-naked aborigines struck with the first glimmerings of consciousness set about recording their first abstract thoughts - as if it was the apex of their civilization...

A mask from the Portland Art museum composited onto a picture of the interior of Chief Lelooska's long  house.

...but that's a mistake.'s a dumpster

It's kind of like discovering a graffiti covered dumpster and assuming it was done by Picasso - although, you never know.

Detail of Rock Shelter wall incorporating d-stretch* enhancements and assembled as an animated GIF file.

The artifacts of Native American cultures preserved in the Portland Art Museum testify to the fact that they had sophisticated artists just like we do. While some surviving rock paintings divulge the craftsmanship of their creators, many seem to have more utilitarian functions. Perhaps they act as signatures or attendance marks, or perhaps they serve to record events or tally them.

Detail of Rock Shelter wall incorporating d-stretch* enhancements and assembled as an animated GIF file.

Some panels appear to tell stories and include a rich vocabulary of visual symbols.

Detail of Rock Shelter wall incorporating d-stretch* enhancements and assembled as an animated GIF file.

Detail of Rock Shelter wall incorporating d-stretch* enhancements and assembled as an animated GIF file.

And some paintings, collaborative works visited again and again over time, seem to transcend the mere recording of earthly things ... 

Vandalism of petroglyphs at Sherer Falls

Unfortunately, there are some who have come to the conclusion that the most important thing you can give a starving person is not art or bread so much as it is beer.

Detail of vandalized petroglyph at Sherer Falls

And the remaining rock art suffers because of them.

Vandalism of rock paintings at picture canyon

Even the Earth and Time itself seem anxious to erase the lessons our species has wrested from nature. Erosion, moisture, ice, heat, mineral leeching, fire, abrasion from plants - it all chips away at our most timeless recordings.

Before and after wildfire pictures. The artwork seems mostly intact. Changes in color are likely attributable to the difference between sunny and overcast skies as well as time of day.

I can't help but think that there are important messages preserved in these paintings - warnings and signs from people who faced the end of their world. So I visit them when I can, and try to collect more context...

...and pictures.

*Dstretch,  is a specialized plugin for a graphics program called ImageJ. It allows for the enhancement of rock art images through...magic I guess...and seems particularly clever at picking out red pigments on rock. It can do much more, but there is a learning curve. It was written by Jon Harman and can be obtained here:


ImageJ can be acquired here:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Hello." The Water is Calling.

I set out for The Dalles last Saturday to track down some more examples of native American rock art (I'd been given a few leads - thanks Mr. Colman), but driving east on I-84, I didn't fail to notice that the Columbia River was as smooth as glass all the way from Portland to Biggs Junction and probably beyond.

This phenomenon was not entirely unexpected (witness the kayak strapped to my vehicle). The miraculous conditions persisted as I sped up the gorge. By the time I passed Celilo Village, my plans to correlate GPS coordinates with actual physical locations were mostly forgotten. The brilliant blue water was calling to me like early morning flat water calls to water-skiers.  Note to literalists: When I say the water was calling to me, I'm employing a metaphorical device and by no means am I suggesting that water can actually talk.

Even my brother Fred would have a hard time managing to capsize in this.

Some months ago, wildfire danced impulsively across this Columbia River island. 

Formerly, a nearly impenetrable barrier of trees, brush and stickers lined the shore, but now, the natural fence is decimated here and there...

...with only a few elder trees, limbs now charcoal-ized in gestures of despair, testifying that fire is hot.

The singed landscape struggles to hide its scars.

All week at work my brow is furrowed - the ends of my lips pulled down into a pained grimace - but today in this thin place, my forehead kissed by the sun - my face begins to unfold - relax - and though I don't recognize the feeling, I think I start to grin.

Inhabitants of this area told news reporters that there hadn't been a fire like this one in over 50 years...

...but this scorched island is not bereft of life or beauty

I've spent so much time conversing with the fire's ghost, that I realize I will be paddling back to my launch site in the dark.

I paddle through Hell's Gate as the sun sinks behind the hills. All the while I feel as if some kind of Moses has stretched out his hand to divide the winds on either side of me... to let me pass unharmed.

High on the lips of the gorge, the sun lingers for a sublime moment.

And I am left alone...listening...

...the water calling... whiz by on the freeway, semi tractors growling occasionally...and the last of the die-hard fishermen rev their motorboats to life and hurl themselves towards the boat ramp.

Monday, September 9, 2013

CRANE PRAIRIE RESERVOIR: What we learned from beavers

If you can block a stream, and keep the water from getting away, you can bury an existing prairie and make your own lake and use it to stock trout for sport and water for irrigation. That's what human beings did in 1922 to the Deschutes River Prairie (thank you Wikipedia). Beavers have a knack for doing this kind of thing without (presumably) thinking about it very much. Humans are learning to think about it with greater sensitivity, now that it is becoming clear that resources and land are limited, but regardless, the big winner here may very well be mosquitoes.

View from campsite #1. Left to right: North Sister (behind South Sister), South Sister, Broken Top, Bachelor & I don't know. Note: clicking on images should display a larger version.

Uncle Rico, Kip and I set out for Crane Prairie Reservoir, Uncle Rico in his character laden Jeep, and Kip and I in Kip's new normal passenger vehicle, destined to acquire some character of its own. My vehicle has accumulated enough character to become taciturn and devious toward humans and so we left it parked safely at Kip's.

At some point, I must have made a disparaging remark about Uncle Rico's aqua-pod, because when I had finished setting up my tent and turned my attention towards launching my kayak, I was able to decipher the subtle opinion Uncle Rico held for my trusty Tsunami.

Much of the reservoir appears to be shallow, and as fate would have it, locating the best fishing spots seemed tightly correlated to distance - that is, the further away from our campsite, the better the fishing. On a reservoir of approximately 5 square miles (thanks spam-like web page) this unhappy correlation became significant.

This osprey quickly grew irritated with me -  as if it thought I might try to steal its supper - and scolded me soundly before flying off

Besides mosquitoes (really they weren't that bad), osprey and eagle seemed particularly appreciative of human tinkering. Camping in the vicinity of an eagle couple, we soon became very familiar with their domestic arguments regarding home ownership and shared responsibilities.

Like a mythical chimera - half boat, half man - Uncle Rico relentlessly plied the waters of the reservoir in his quest for trout. Meanwhile, the clouds danced behind the mountains and fought the winds to maintain coherence, using any mathematical trick at their disposal to grow or propagate, sometimes dividing, sometimes multiplying...sometimes toying with exponents.

...and the world turned.

By morning, the clouds had gained the upper hand. Uncle Rico fearlessly disappeared into the void.

In camp, the moist air highlighted silk filaments that draped the vegetation - filaments previously not apparent in the searing light of a late summer sun - suggesting for brief moments, that it had snowed.

I set out to experience the void for myself. Briefly I caught a glimpse of Uncle Rico.

As the morning progressed, the battle did not go well for the clouds.

The sun carried out an overwhelming frontal assault, penetrating the cloud's cover.

I think I have been here before in a dream

I wondered what Uncle Rico sees. Does he see the return of life-giving light to the world, or is he enraptured instead with the flicker of underwater shadows and the glint of light on scales?  I'd settle for either.

The clouds lifted until I was able to spot my landmark. Note to self: Learn how to navigate before you try this on the ocean.

Uncle Rico: Smarter than fish. 

Something about fish expressions seem so appropriate to the horror they witness.

The forest was filled with the undertone of some indefinable buzzing at the edge of perception. We attributed this to the amazing number of yellow jackets inspecting the mud at the shoreline, but later, Kip, seeking an ideal spot to urinate, discovered a magnificently un-ideal spot to urinate.

Blobs of color speckled the far shores and the distant vibration of motors carried across the water. Uncle Rico's spotting scope revealed these blobs to be fishing boats.

Closer inspection of the far side of the lake revealed a rich habitat for trout, and even I was able to see the torpedo like shadows flee into deeper channels or hide among the fallen snags (yet wasn't quite quick enough to photograph them).

Kip took a meditative moment to reflect on his history as a cage fighter.

Due to high fire danger, no open or charcoal fires were allowed. Rangers came by twice, once in the afternoon to warn us, and once in the evening when they saw smoke. 

I missed the open fire and the opportunities it affords to play, 'Will it Burn?' 

A brisk wind cleaned the sky of clouds.

Old familiar constellations visited the reservoir...

...and much later, vain stars examined their countenances in a looking glass lake.

On this morning, an overconfident sun rose into a clear sky, only to be ambushed by clouds concealed low in the valleys.

At some point in the night, a fleet of monster trucks transported a small city into the unimproved camping area next to ours. Among the many features of the small city, the most notable were the dance hall, the industrial generator, the squadron of ATVs, and a taco food cart. Miffed at not being invited to the dance hall, we broke camp.

"...pictograph... found on boulder... of obsidian that (is) located at the southernmost member of a 6 km-long alignment of Holocene rhyodacitic obsidian domes." (Thanks Obsidian Lab Webpage!)

Sparks Lake as seen high atop Holocene rhyodacitic obsidian domes from an ill fated up-hill excursion to find rock paintings we had already found.

I'm beginning to suspect that Uncle Rico's favorite part of these trips (besides the fishing) is negotiating the forest service roads. My new yardstick for measuring the likelihood of road pass-ability is to determine whether or not Mt. bikers are using it for training.

We accidentally stumbled onto a hidden lake.

...and discovered a magic fishing hole.

The Narrative Image NAVIGATION AID

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