Three Nightscapes

As the sun slips past the horizon and night begins its march across the land, many of us head indoors. We turn on the lights without a second thought, and continue our day inside. Should we glance toward a window, we see a square, if you have square windows, of inky blackness. We look away and enjoy the pleasures that light brings us. But what was it like long ago before the advent of electricity? What did our distant ancestors do after dark?

To begin to understand this we have to find truly dark skies. Today, that is not an easy task. You need to be far away from the nearest significant light source, and you might be surprised at just how much light even the tiniest of towns emits. There are places which are still truly dark, though, which is a good thing. Out west, it is a little easier to find dark skies.

From the moment you turn off all light, be that the sun or whatever light you brought with you, your eyes will begin to adjust. This is a gradual, slow adjustment, but a richly rewarding one. The stars slowly come to life, one by one, two by two, dozens by dozens and before you know it you are staring into the depths of space and a sky filled with countless stars. The more you look, the more you find, and the more you find, the more you look. In some locations and at some times of the year, you can see the core of the Milky Way, and that is a completely staggering sight. It can literally leave you speechless.

One startling thing about the night sky is that it isn’t quite as dark as you might first think. If there is even a sliver of the moon you will be able to find your way around. If it is a full moon it might as well be broad daylight and you will know it is night, but it won’t slow you down. Conversely, if you find truly dark skies on a moonless night, well, it is dark. Such nights are perfect making photographs of the night sky.

These three nightscapes are some of my favorites, and represent how different the Milky Way can look.

Yavapai's NightYavapai’s Night was made in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Although the Grand Canyon isn’t quite as dark as it could be, it is still a good location for photographing the Milky Way. This photograph was made just after true dark, which is two hours past sunset. The Milky Way was just rising over the canyon rim, and the sight was certainly inspiring The Milky Way has a different personality every day, and it can take on different hues and colors depending on the time of the year, where you are, and importantly, the current atmospheric conditions. There is no predicting it, but Mother Nature will always provide a show. This night beautiful purple tones came out, making an excellent contrast to the canyon. The red glow on the far horizon is Tuba City. It doesn’t take much light to go a long way.

The sun began its decent toward the horizon, hurrying as it went, and thus the transition from day to night began. It was quiet in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico, but this was usually the case for this particular wilderness is little known, little visited, and perfect for finding peace, tranquility and solitude. Best known for its hoodoos, it features much the same topology of its more famous cousin, the Bisti Badlands. Alone in the trackless maze of hoodoos it is easy to become disorientated; as the sun leaves the sky it is downright simple to lose your way. The setting sun, though, brings up another amazing sight—The Milky Way. Far from the lights of civilization, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah boasts some truly dark skies. On a moonless night you cannot see anything, not even your hand in front of your face. It is that dark. The Milky Way shines clear and bright in those dark skies, and it simply takes your breath away. Also, in this photograph there is a vertical streak just above the horizon to the right of center. This streak is a falling star—a meteor—that happened when I made this photograph. Don’t forget to make your wish!

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s Night was made in the badlands of New Mexico in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. This area is little known and well off the beaten path. Few people venture out here, but that is their loss for it has some amazing rock formations, and some of its hoodoos are beyond the imagination. On this moonless night it was dark as dark can be. Even with my eyes fully adjusted I never could see my hand in front of my face. However, that was to my advantage because I was able to create the entire scene. I lit up the hoodoos that I liked, and positioned the Milky Way where I wanted it, making this beautiful photograph. As a completely unplanned bonus a meteor streaking through the frame (you can see it as a small vertical line jus above the hoodoos in the back). The wish I made certainly came true!

As the daylight seeps out of the day and the early evening shadows begin their march to darkness, the world quiets down and tranquility settles in. Perhaps a few crickets chirp to announce the arrival of night, and perhaps a lone coyote howl echoes in the far distance, but other than that, all is quiet. The ruins of the Abo Mission also quiet down, and prepare to hold fast through the night once more. In the centuries before electricity and reliable light at night, twilight meant the day was almost done, and night’s darkness was broken only by a cooking or watch fire and there. The Abo residents would be stirring before sunrise, and their lives were governed by the rhythm of the daylight hours. Standing there, alone, at the ancient ruins of Abo at the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico, let me reflect on that time. The stars above shone as bright as I had ever seen them for the skies in this part of New Mexico are reasonably dark. The lights of Socorro, sixty miles away, provided a faint glow on the horizon, and the light of Albuquerque, just further than sixty files, another glow on the opposite side of the mission. As in the opening narrative above, a coyote howled in the distance, letting me know that some things never change.

Abi Night is the last of the three nightscapes and showcases the mission and pueblo in the Abo unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. Although unoccupied since the 1600s, the mission still stands and makes an imposing foreground to the New Mexico night sky. Although not quite as pitch-black as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, it is still dark and the stars shine exceptionally bright. As with the Grand Canyon, however, modern civilization intrudes, with the cities of Socorro and Albuquerque contributing their glow to the scene. Still, it is not hard to imagine how this scene must have looked more than four hundred years ago.

When you get a chance, turn off your lights and step outside. Take a few moments looking up at the sky and let your imagination wander and roam. The stars above will be your guide. If you are in a city and you find yourself in the country, take a moment there to look up.

In the meantime, let these nightscapes inspire you!

Hummingbird Snack

Hummingbird Snack

There is something absolutely compelling about the color red to a hummingbird, that’s for sure, and when that red something happens to be a flower, the results are more than predictable.

I caught up with this hummingbird outside of Tucson, Arizona on a gorgeous spring day, and it was a perfect day for hunting down a flower for a snack. The buzzing of the wings first caught my attention, tugging at the periphery of my awareness, gently, yet incessantly, and eventually, yanking on it to get my full awareness. “Ah ha!” I though to myself, a hummingbird is near, but, by that time it was long gone. Hummingbirds are exceptionally fast and when they want to move along, they don’t waste any time. As I looked around, I wondered what had attracted the attention of the hummingbird; it didn’t take me long to spot a grouping of flowers, red ones no less, and figured that had to be it. I settled in for the wait.

This begs the question, however, of why do we think that hummingbird prefer red flowers? We don’t really know this answer, but science can make a few guesses. In short, it might well have to do with bees. Why bees? As it turns out, bees, as are all insects, see ultraviolet light, which in turn means that the color red doesn’t show up very well. Since they don’t see red, and especially red flowers all that well, those are largely ignored. Hummingbirds, however, do notice the red flowers, and visit them frequently. Whether this is by instinct or something every individual hummingbird quickly learns we don’t know, but either way the results are the same. Red flowers contains sweet, wonderful nectar and are well worth visiting.

It didn’t take long. I heard the distinct buzz nearby. I turned my head to try and find it, but saw nothing. Luckily, I had the sense to look back at the flower, and sure enough, there it was, happily enjoying another sip at the amazing nectar. I was ready, though, and made this photograph.

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Saguaro Nights

Saguaro Nights

The Sonoran Desert is, despite being a desert, a surprising noisy place. You might expect it to be dead silent and quiet, for surely, no one lives here, and since no one lives here, it must be quiet. In truth, the desert is a very active place, both visually and audibly. True, it is not like you can’t hear yourself think for the noise, and yes, you have to be still and listen, yet, the desert is active and lets you know it. During the night, however, it is a completely different story.

As the sun goes down, there is a brief flurry of activity as the desert begins to cool off from what can be scorching heat. Yet, eventually, the desert begins to quiet down for the evening. The lower the sun sinks, the more the feeling of stillness pervades the air. Of course, the desert is still quite active, it just quiets down.

What better representation of this phenomenon than the ever classic saguaro, silhouetted against the deep reds and blues of the sunset? This particular photograph was made in Saguaro National Park, the east district, in Arizona on a cool spring evening. As the sun began its final journey into darkness, I was rewarded by the last grasp at color, red this evening, just before it slipped away. The saguaro stood tall into the oncoming night. Tomorrow, of course, the cycle would repeat, but for now I was simply content to enjoy the stillness and silence of the moment.

Saguaro National Park has two distinct districts, and as expected, each has a different feel to it. The west district, or the Tucson Mountain District, can be characterized by numerous, yet smaller, saguaros. In some places, it seems like you cannot walk through the desert at all due to the high concentration of the saguaros. The east district, or the Rincon Mountain District, can be characterized as fewer saguaros, yet the ones that are here are substantially taller than their cousins to the west. There is no “best” district, and we are fortunate that both are preserved. Night at either district is an amazing time.

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Lush Creek: Oak Creek Canyon

Lush Creek

The west fork of Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona, is one of my favorite locations in the Southwest. Oak Creek itself is a pretty small, as creeks goes, and you can, in many places, walk across it without getting your feet wet. But what the creek lacks in size it more than makes up for in sheer beauty, and it is a very extraordinary location in the Coconino National Forest.

What makes this creek special is its combination of lush, thick foliage, the high red-rock canyon walls that tower over it, and its myriad of quiet pools that make absolutely perfect reflections. It some places, it is like looking into a mirror and you almost lose your orientation.

This photograph was made just after a mid-summer rain on a quiet evening. The rain brought out not only the vibrant, rich greens, but also highlighted the deep reds of the canyon walls, each complimenting the other, with both reflected on the still surface of the pool.

Of course, the time of the year matters quite a lot, and as the seasons change, so does the character and complexion of Oak Creek Canyon. For example, as the summer fades into the fall, the canyon’s deciduous trees burst into color, full of yellows and oranges and reds and hues that don’t even have a name yet. I’ve covered some of these colors in previous stories, such as Fall’s Reflection. You might even recognize this exact location, too, as I’ve photographed it a number of times, notably in Contemplative ReflectionContemplative Reflection

One could, and I have, several times in fact, spend all day in the canyon. There is a well-worn trail that runs for a few miles up the canyon, and this trail is a joy and a delight to walk. Around each corner you’ll find beauty, and the farther you walk, the more you’ll come to appreciate the canyon’s nuances, nooks and crannies. Although the official trail ends with you having to walk in the creek, you can keep going after this point for another eleven miles or so. In short, the canyon and the creek offer unparalleled beauty to explore.

The tranquility of the canyon overlaid everything else, and provided a deep sense of inner peace. When it was time to go, I found myself dawdling and lingering, finding every excuse I could to stay just a few more moments to enjoy. Eventually, however, daylight faded away, shrouding the canyon in a different kind of beauty.

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