On clear days when I was a child, I'd look up from the playground at my school, or out the window of my mom's car, toward the top of Snively's Ridge along the south edge of the valley. There in the distance, I'd see something, though I wasn't sure what—in fact, it was so small against the line of hills that sometimes in between glimpses I thought I'd only imagined it. But, no, the next time I looked, there it was: a little white dot up on top of the hill. I imagined some sort of tower, a lonely castle fortress where some distant king looked out across his domain.
I came to find out when I was a little older that it was a fire lookout, which didn't really dampen the romantic nature of my imaginings, just changed their focus a bit. I thought of some vigilant park ranger up there by himself, watching, watching, watching, to keep everyone safe.
For years and years I looked up at that little tower and wondered what it looked like up close, but I never got closer than four or five miles away. The trail up the ridge was too steep, too long, and I was too much an indoor child. This past February on a trip back to visit Juliette's parents I finally decided to make the climb, and in the early chill of a Thursday morning, found myself trudging up a narrow, rocky trail in Garland Park. It took me the better part of two hours to hike the three miles or so from the parking lot by the river, and in the end I discovered that the tower itself is set back on another hill behind the ridge, called Pinyon Peak. There's no public access, and so the closest I could get was still a few hundred yards off.
So, I took this picture, then turned to look out across the land around me. There was a little breeze, cool against my skin damp with sweat from the climb, and no sound but a bit of birdsong, some leaves rustling in the wind, and the sound of my own breathing. The sky was clear, just a few wispy clouds making ribbons in the sky to the southeast. I could see east past the Village, southwest to the Highlands, and to the northwest all the way to Monterey and Seaside.
I stood there a while and looked and breathed. Eventually I started back down, as I had promised to meet up with everyone that afternoon and still had a bunch of places to find and photograph. I didn't reach the goal I had in mind for that morning, but what I got was enough. I'll get there some day.
There's been a lot of new construction in the neighborhoods where I live and work. The city sets aside certain areas as "wildlife corridors"; the intention is to allow the local fauna some space to hunt, get access to water, breed, and get from one place to another without getting hit by a car. In the ten years that I've lived here, these corridors haven't gotten any narrower, but the edges have gotten a lot more defined as the houses have gotten closer.
Bits of Wildness
The sun was just starting to set as I made my way back up the hill to my in-laws' house. In another hour there'd just be a pink and orange stain on the horizon, but right then the light was still bright, and low enough to cast a long shadow on the far side of the canyon. Just above the trees, atop the ridge, a house perched, and down at the bottom of the canyon was the road as it passed by a horse pasture. But in between the hillside was steep, and I wondered if these trees had ever known a human's touch. It's strange and wonderful to think that there are still bits of wildness left in the world, even so close to the places we called home.
We had been there all day, piling rocks one atop the other, and the dam was really starting to take shape. Who knows whose idea it was—things have a way of coming together when no one is paying attention. Here and there a tadpole darted between the shadowy places between stones and algae, tickling our feet as their tails and little legs brushed past us. We laughed, splashed, hollered, and kept building.
At last the dam was done, the river deepening behind it, tinkling and rippling over and through it. We took off our shirts and lay in the little pool, letting the water wash past us. It was cold, even in the heat of the summer, and we sat until our lips turned blue.
Hearing the Song
Although most of the photographs I show here are family-oriented, I have always had a deep connection with landscapes. I grew up in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world, a place people come to visit from all over the world just to see the hills and trees and rocky shoreline. The few times a year I get the chance to go back home, I always end up taking a bunch of landscape shots. And, indeed, the most landscape-heavy work I've shown is centered there, in my home town.
But although I do take a lot of photos around San Diego, none of them are what I'd really consider straight landscapes. There's some street work, a lot of urban/suburban architectural stuff, a smattering of still life, but nothing really of the land as land. I remember once when Juliette and I were talking about our life in Southern California, I talked about how, as much as I like having friends and having a job, I don't really feel connected to the place. "Back home," I said, "the land sings. I can feel it in my bones. There's no song here, no soul to the land."
Now, I do think it's true that things here are different, and a lot of it has to do with living in a city—something I'm never really going to be cut out for. But, more and more, I'm realizing that every place has some kind of spirit, and if I'm not feeling it, it's got more to do with me than with the place.
I recently signed up to participate in Stuart Pilkington's 100 Mile Radius project, the prompt for which is simply to "document the land using [my] unique voice." I think it's time I learned how to listen to this place, and hopefully this project will be just the kick in the pants that I need.