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Ok—the title is perhaps misleading—but not untrue, at least by the standards of the current administration.

The Facts:  The date:  January 18, 2009, Time:  1:56 PM, Place:  The food court at the Crystal City Mall, Arlington, VA.

I was in DC with a group of middle school students, my son included, to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Being a mob, in the middle of a crowd of amazing size, finding a place to eat was a challenge—a problem solved by our tour organizers by giving us food coupons that could be used anywhere in a given food court, up to six bucks.  (Brilliant solution—you give the kids a lot of choices, no money changes hands, and everybody can sit together).

John McCain, January 18, 2009

What I expected was typical mall crap food, and the place met expectations.  What I did not expect was when one of the kids stated that John McCain was eating lunch with his wife a few tables down.   I thought the kid was joking—but no—there he was, only about 30 feet away.  I don’t know what he had for lunch, but he seemed in no mood for additional company, slouched under a Navy ball cap.    And why should he?  The entire city was preparing to celebrate the inauguration of the man who had defeated him in November—I’m pretty sure that Barack Obama was somewhere  planning his new cabinet and the inauguration balls—and probably eating the best catering in town. Much to my embarrassment, one of the middle school  teachers with us insisted on going up to talk to him—I tried to tell her not to—McCain had a reputation for being gruff –and I thought it best to leave the man alone on a day when the world seemed to be celebrating his defeat.  She did it anyway—and he got up and left.  I don’t know if he had finished his lunch or not.

I have to confess that I was glad McCain had been defeated—I, like many people, was tired of pointless wars started for the fun and profit of Halliburton and Blackwater—it was time for that shit to stop.  But now, looking back, I wish he had won the nomination in 2000—maybe that would have prevented the Dick from screwing the world.  The pendulum swings, and McCain got caught on the wrong end of the swing both times—just like Hillary.  Good people, who would have made great presidents , but crushed by the Republican right wing shit machine (fake stories about illegitimate children—but what about real ones?).  By the time the political party comes to its senses and nominates the better candidate, the political will moves away from them.

Well , John McCain is gone, never had his inauguration.  But he did have his moment of glory—when he came back to the Senate, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, to tank the right wing attempt to repeal  “Obamacare”. (God knows, Obamacare is a poor excuse for health care reform—every other civilized nation has nationalized single payer health care—but “Obamacare” sure as hell is better than being robbed by thieves disguising themselves as “health care providers “.   (Going to the doctor should not feel like being mugged—but it does.  Before Obamacare, the only difference between getting mugged and getting  cancer is that the mugger gets what’s in your wallet—the oncologist gets everything—the house, the retirement account, and the college fund for your kid—and after we’ve been trumped, we’re back to getting mugged.))  But when he gave his thumbs down on repealing Obamacare, I had to admit, I get why he deserves the press he is getting now.

So, now, I want to say I had lunch with John McCain.  I think I know what he had.  A shit sandwich, compliments of the right wing Republican machine.  The same as served to the rest of us.

 

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Most days, like today, I sit hunched over my computer screen, sitting in the deep shade, avoiding the heat and sun, slightly bored, not believing in much of anything.  As Dylan said, “it’s easy to see, without looking too far, that not much here is really sacred.”

But, every so often…

Cloudst at the pass, July 28, 2018

 

Like yesterday, my wife and son and I went to visit our niece, spending the summer on the coast at a marine science center, and decided to drive back to Spokane, even though we would arrive home late.  We also decided to try to avoid the traffic around Seattle, and take the “scenic route” home, through the North Cascades.  The result—we didn’t  arrive home until about 2 AM.

I recall driving through the north Cascades only once before—probably close to 20 years ago—and remembered only two real details from that trip—one was a tight canyon we drove through—the second a mountain with sheer cliffs and  multiple peaks that we passed as darkness approached.

Clouds at the pass, July 28, 2018

 

This time, we pressed hard to make it over the mountains  in the light, and arrived at the pass as the  sun was setting.  A passing thunderstorm dampened the road,  with clouds swirling overhead.  A sign pointed to an overlook—which I assumed to be the usual slender parking lot on the edge of the road—but this one turned out different—a modest parking area with a trail leading off into a forest—we followed the trail, and found ourselves on a rock outcropping, overlooking a majestic valley, with the clouds dancing overhead in the light of the setting sun.

I do not know what god or gods control our destiny—but sometimes I do feel that some force in the universe puts me in a place and time where something magic and sacred happens—the clouds dance, the thunder rolls, the mountains stand majestic,  and the light blesses it all.  And all I can do is raise my camera in thanks.

 

At the pass, July 28, 2018

Near Odessa, WA, July 10, 2018

 

My guess is that it was a new driveway with a kink in it–not a problem for shorter vehicles, but obviously an issue for this load.   The first half the house was already on site…

During the summer of 2017, I tried to photograph every public grain elevator in Whitman County, and on July 17, photographed the crib elevator in the small community of Hay, located about 90 miles from my home in Spokane.

Hay Elevator, July 17, 2017

 

In the spring of 2018, I learned that this elevator was being torn down in order to salvage the wood, to be converted into flooring.  I visited the site in March 2018, right as the razing of the structure began.

Hay, March 16, 2017

I met some of the workers on the job, and had a tour of the inside of the elevator–discovered that the last occupancy permit on the wall was dated 1999.  Apparently the elevator has not been used since then.  In March, some of the metal sheathing had been removed from the outside of the building, and several cuts had been made in the wood structure through the outside walls.

Hay, April 11, 2018

By April 11th, the covered unloading area had been removed, as well as the wood in the corners.  Progress seemed slow.

Hay, May 20, 2018

By  mid May, the west end and the tower had been removed, but the structure still towered over the landscape.

Hay, June 27, 2018

 

When I made a visit on June 27, the structure had been razed to the foundation.  I’m not sure what I found most shocking about the scene–the complete disappearance of the structure, or the sudden appearance of the tree behind it.   There is still some site clean up to be done, but the building is gone.

In my own limited time here, I’ve witnessed the razing of grain elevators at Sperry (Franklin County), Belmont, Crabtree (a pile of rubble by the time I arrived), Shreck, Grinnell (a flathouse), and now Hay.

I have mixed feelings about the deconstruction of the grain elevator at Hay.  Obviously, the elevator was no longer being used, and so served no useful function.  Converting the wood into flooring is a way of finding a new use for the materials, and removed a hazard.  On the other hand, it’s removal is evidence of the changes in agriculture–to bigger fields, bigger combines, bigger grain trucks–and bigger grain handling facilities.  Fewer people are needed to produce more grain.

In speaking with the workers at the site, they are scheduled to raze more of the old wooden crib elevators in the area–they estimate that they have at least several years worth of work lined out in front of them.

 

 

The Longmen Grottos are located near Luoyang in Henan province, China. They are considered to contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. They are comprised of approximately 100,000 carvings, ranging in size from less than one inch to 57 feet high. The first carvings date from 493 AD, and most were completed by 1127 AD.

SD43-8462

 

As is readily apparent from the photograph above, many of the carvings completed at this site have been damaged over the years. While there is evidence that some vandalism occurred as early as the 13th century, most of the damage occurred during the 20th century, when carvings were removed for sale to museums and collectors. Some sources also indicate removal of carvings by Japanese occupiers.

I am not a scholar of Buddhist art, and had never heard of this site until the day I visited there. I was traveling in China as part of a group of photographers invited to help celebrate the opening of a new trail in a nearby park, though the exact reason for the invitation was never quite clear to me. Some others in the group knew of the site, and suggested that we use a free day in our schedule to go to Longmen Grottos. The drive to the site was supposed to take two hours from Zhengzhou, but took more than four, as our bus driver kept getting lost. Our time at the site was limited: according to the metadata on my digital photographs, I spent slightly less than an hour on there.

I’m not quite sure what to make of these pictures, with so many damaged figures—missing faces and heads, missing arms. But worth noting is that the newest of these carvings are nearly 900 years old—the oldest more than 1500. Despite the damage done to them, I am still astonished by what remains—outlines, shadows, and mostly empty niches carved into the limestone. Ghost images from the past.

Click the link below for a PDF of a collection of these photographs

Longmen Grotto small

 

I received a text message this evening about a fire on the “Enola Low Grade Line Trestle”, along with the above image.  I put the title in quotes, because to me, it was always just “the railroad bridge at Martic Forge”.  I grew up about a mile from the bridge, on the Martic Township side, and recall hearing trains pass over it when I was a child.  I must have passed under the bridge thousands of times–on the way to church, or going to visit my grandparents on my mother’s side, and I passed under it every day while commuting to Millersville College.  It was visible from my school bus route every day (twice) for my entire grade school career,    A few times I floated in an inner tube under the bridge on hot summer afternoons.  And a handful of times (at least twice) I walked over the rail bed and looked down at the creek, far below.

As a child, I always believed that steel didn’t burn, but as an engineer, I learned that steel does soften and burn in structural fires.   It seems likely that the fire will make the bridge impassable and most likely damaged beyond repair.  (Although the pictures of the bridge from April 13 don’t look as bad as I feared–there is still enough of the structure left, perhaps it can be repaired–but I’m sure the steel will need reinforcing.)

Over the years, I photographed the bridge several times, most frequently while driving under it, a way of remembering how I most often saw it.

As Joni Mitchel sang, “Don’t it always seem to go/ you don’t know what you got till it’s gone / they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot”–and then she laughs.

 

 

 

Martic Forge Bridge

 

Martic Forge Bridge

Spokane, March 24, 2018

 

Spokane March 24, 2018

 

Spokane March 24, 2018

 

Spokane March 24, 2018

 

Spokane March 24, 2018

I traveled back to Lancaster County in January 2018 with the sole purpose of photographing the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline construction project.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, near Mount Joy, Jan 2018

My goal was to photograph the construction project in full swing–and my timing proved fortuitous.  During my first day photographing, I discovered pipe in the trench at the southern end of the line, ready to be buried.  There were sections with welded pipe, sections with unwelded pipe, sections with soil removed but no pipe, and sections with vehicle tracks over farm fields.  During the following two weeks, I watched as tasks were completed, and crews and equipment moved northward.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

Based on my childhood memories of winters, I knew that the weather might be bad–January is the coldest month, the most likely to have snow and freezing temperatures.  But my luck held with the weather–the days were warm and sometimes sunny–and many of the nights were cold enough to freeze the soil.  There was also a rain of about 0.3 inches.   The result was a glorious mud mess.  

 

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Jan 2018

 

My timing was intended to reveal the construction project during its most visible disruption to the landscape.  I know that once the pipe is buried and the grass planted, the pipeline will be largely invisible, except for the markers indicating where the pipe crosses under the road, and in the treeless right-of-ways through forests.  The wounds will heal, but scars will remain.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Silver Springs Road, Drumore Township, Jan 2018

 

This project has also made me aware of some of my family history.  In reading about the Conestoga Indian Village, I discovered that  in 1739, my ancestor Jacob Witmer settled nearby, apparently maintaining neighborly relations with the Natives.  In 1763, the Paxton boys massacred the Indians, and threatened to kill anyone who dared identify them.  As a child, my uncle Oliver Hess farmed some land along Indian Marker Road (currently farmed by Donnie Witmer–same name as my dad).  Nearby Witmer Road, Witmer Run, and Witmers Run still carry the family name.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Drytown Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

The Paxton Boys justified their killing of the Indians, as they were “not making good use of the land.”   The argument for the pipeline is not that much different:  Williams Pipeline company is hugely profitable, and can offer farmers payments far in excess of what they make farming the land.  

Of course, Williams isn’t killing anybody, at least not directly.  But there are moral and ethical questions that can be asked about this project.  On a global scale, this project will deliver massive amounts of fossil fuels to markets, adding to climate change.  The contracts for the gas to be shipped through the pipeline are mostly for export, and could lead (decades from now) to energy shortages in the US, or to higher prices for natural gas for US consumers.  On a more personal level, what gives a large corporation the right to seize land from individual landowners through eminent domain, when the “public interest” claim is so tenuous?   Do land owners, or Native Americans have a sacred right to keep their lands from being disturbed?  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Pequea Creek Crossing, Jan 2018

But what I found myself thinking about, as I drove the pipeline route, was how much this land has changed already, in my lifetime.  My father had a small farm–57 acres, a herd of 14 dairy cows–and told me that he didn’t think I could make a living on that farm.  Now, all the small farms are gone, except for those farmed by Amish (who are expanding their range).  Most of  the old stone barns have been Martha Stewartized–new roofs, new pointing, clean barnyards, and Christmas wreaths on the barn doors.  The “real” farms have huge new chicken and pig houses with massive ventilation fans, and big new tractors in the steel pole barns.  The Earl Butz “get big or get out” curse has run its course.  There are no more family farms.  

When I left the county in 1980, my fear was that the county would be paved over, becoming one huge housing development.  The changes that have occurred are different than I expected–there are still fields, but almost no farmers.  I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  

My distress about the pipeline through the landscape of my childhood is mixed with the other changes that have occurred.  Change happens.  Of course, in 1739, the change was brought about by a German immigrant named Jacob Witmer.  

 

  

I’ve noticed that on social media sites, people “share a memory”–re-post something from their site in the past–though, of course, the past is only as old as the social media site.

 

Near the Buck, Lancaster County, July 1983

Over the past few days, I’ve been scanning negatives I made during my first months working with a view camera, in 1983–now 35 years ago.  I don’t know when an image becomes a historical image–maybe the best rule is after the photographer and his generation are dead–when no one remembers what the time of the photograph actually looked like.  So by that definition, Walker Evans photographs are on the verge of becoming historical photographs–but my images from 1983 are not.  I still remember making the photographs–but perhaps even more important, they still look like I think the world looks now.  If I were to drive through the landscape in Lancaster County in 2018, the landscape would still pretty much look like these photographs, I could still find views that look like these.

Southern Lancaster County, July , 1983

 

Of course, there there have been changes–some farms have gotten bigger–embracing the industrialization of agriculture–but in Lancaster County, some farms have also gotten smaller–split into two or more farms, by the new Amish owners.  In 1983, there were no Amish in Martic Township–now there are several–and I suspect that there will be more in the future.

Amish Farm, near Quarryville, PA, July 1983

 

I moved away from Lancaster County in 1980,  thinking that the landscape in Lancaster county was being destroyed by development–farms that had been in my family for generations were being converted into housing developments–and the economics of farming were disastrous.  I think when I made these photographs, I thought this landscape would disappear within my lifetime.

The fact that this landscape remains as intact as it does is a bit of a surprise to me.  Maybe this says more about the slow pace of changes in the landscape–maybe in a few more decades, these pictures will look “historic”.

Near Karupa Lake, 1996

A story in the New York Times a few days ago caught my attention—it was about a bear destroying a sound recorder at a remote site in Alaska—at Karupa Lake, in Gates of the Arctic Park.

I spent a week at Karupa Lake in August 1996.  At the time, my wife Rachel was a biologist working for Gates of the Arctic Park.  I accompanied her on the trip as a volunteer, agreeing to help clean up trash around the lake.

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

The trash we were cleaning up came from several sources:  the remains of a cabin that local natives used as a hunting and trapping cabin, 5 gallon metal gas cans used by game guides, and (mostly) 55 gallon metal fuel drums, at least some of them left by an oil exploration camp in the late 1940s.  We crushed and stacked the metal for later pickup, and burned the plywood and 2x4s from the cabin.  I recall thinking, while burning the wood, that we were destroying the only fuel within miles—and in doing so, may have deprived some future person of the means of survival.  It felt like our job was to create a sense of “wilderness” in a place that had, in fact, been the site of human activity before.

I remember picking up a 5 gallon square gas can, probably from 50s, that some vole was using to store dried leaves for the winter—like hay in a barn–shaking the leaves on the ground before crushing the can—probably depriving that animal of his carefully collected food source for the winter, thus insuring its death—but my job was to get rid of human debris.

 

Karupa Lake, August 1996

 

Karupa Lake is remote, by any reasonable standard—about 350 miles or so from Fairbanks, on the way to nowhere, on the northern edge of the Brooks range.  The location is beautiful—but only in an Alaskan ordinary way—there is nothing there to attract hikers or backpackers that might justify the several thousand dollar charter flight needed to get there—there are other, more spectacular, more accessible places that can provide a “wilderness experience” for those with the means to pay for it.   On the other hand, it is possible to land a float plane (the way we got there) or a ski plane on the lake—a cheaper (and somewhat quieter) option than a helicopter.

In thinking about the sounds of silence that happen in a place like Karupa Lake—the wind blowing through the leaves and branches of the shrubs—the occasional call of a raven or a hawk, a handful of smaller birds—those are the expected sounds.  But there are also some unexpected sounds—like the clatter of caribou hooves on stone, or the splashing as they cross a shallow river.  But, of course, we think of silence as the absence of sound, or, more to the point, the absence of meaningful sound.  I have experienced, on the tundra, silence so deep that eventually you become aware of an unfamiliar but persistent sound—that of blood flowing through the capillaries of your own ear.  If there are no external sounds, we make our own.

Karupa Lake, August 1996

Of course, achieving silence is possible in places other than a remote wilderness.  It is physically possible to build rooms that absorb all sound, achieving an industrial version of silence.   Of course, the more common way of creating a sense of silence is to create “white noise”—ignorable or comforting sounds loud enough to cover the background noise of our lives.

I once read that most people can keep track of 5 sources of sounds at one time—right now, I’m hearing my son’s annoying music from the next room, the clatter of my own keyboard, the kitchen fan that we always leave on, the sounds of water heating in an electric teapot, and the fan of my computer.  Plus an occasional car moving in the street outside my house.

 

Near Karupa Lake, August 1996

 

Composer John Cage once wrote a piece titled “Four minutes, thirty three seconds”, usually called “four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence” which has been performed in concert halls.   It instructs the musicians to sit and do nothing for the prescribed period of time—the music, of course, being whatever the ambient sounds are.  Of course, the audience as well as the musicians are expected to honor the silence—but, of course, there are sounds—the ventilation system in the hall, the unsuccessful attempt to stifle a cough, the siren from the street outside—those sounds become part of the performance of the piece.  The other part of the performance is whatever is happening inside the heads of both the audience and the musicians sitting in front of them.

But it seems like the definition of silence is becoming one of the absence of industrial human sounds.  What happens when no engines or fans or iPhones can be heard.  So silence is being defined as a quality of “wilderness”—what the earth sounded like before we were here.  In other words, silence is what happened after the bear destroyed the recorder.    Or before it was there.

 

Karupa Lake, August 1006