Barnyard Ikebana

Apple & tire chain

Ikebana is a form of sculpture that exists only within a limited time span, transforms from moment to moment, then perishes. 

 ~ Akane Teshigahara

When I was a teenager, my grandaddy took me to an exhibit of Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We walked into a long room glowing with diffuse sunlight and spectacular flowers. At least a hundred vases graced the tables lining the walls. We slowly walked past each one, admiring not only the blossoms themselves but the sculptural quality of every element within the arrangement. My grandaddy, a painter and gardener himself, used his hands to explain to me what he liked about certain arrangements. He talked about movement, balance, suggestion, grace — all the intangible qualities the flower arrangers conveyed with understated perfection. He’d taken a risk that I was ripe to appreciate the artistic spirit of Ikebana — and he’d guessed right. I ate it up.

After that day, I saw the world differently. I began to notice the underlying beauty surrounding my everyday life. The simplicity, spontaneity, and seasonal reverence behind Ikebana became my aesthetic practice. Or maybe I should say it became my aesthetic play, because that’s really what its’ about — fooling around. Seeing how things go together. Or don’t. Experimenting with what’s lying about. Arranging a small corner of the world.

For instance, there’s a retired farm nearby where hundred-year-old orchard trees drop fruit for squirrels and deer to glean. The other day, I picked up an apple as I wandered through the old barnyard. I sensed that apple had artistic aspirations before it became wildlife fodder, so we tried out a few ideas before I tossed it back in the deep grass. Is this Ikebana? I’m not sure, but it felt like it for a playful autumn hour.

Barnyard Ikebana

Chasing Dragonflies 

McKenzie DitchLast week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.

Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.

This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion … but when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.

As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?

Eight-spotted Skimmer

Burning Through 

EvolutionThere’s a repurposed school bus that’s often parked in the vacant lot next to The Mine Shaft bar in Winnemucca, Nevada. This small painting adorns its side. I’ve often pondered what it means. My best guess is that it illustrates the evolution of Homo Erectus, subspecies Incendo — collectively known throughout the West as “Burners.” Every year, in late summer, they congregate on the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man — an event that features, among other things, the torching of a huge man-shaped sculpture on the playa.

Sounds simple enough, but over the decades the gathering has accumulated a complexity that’s staggering. Burning Man encompasses everything from inspired public art to hedonistic debauchery and back again. Every human fantasy that can be dragged out to the vast playa behind a vehicle makes an appearance.

If you live in a rural community along any of the migration routes to the Black Rock Desert, you’ll witness a plethora of urban-looking people driving strangely equipped RV’s or towing makeshift trailers piled with bicycles, 55 gallon water drums, building materials and the random odds and ends of civilization.

On the way to Burning Man, everything and everybody is clean. A week later, the same parade passes by in reverse — thoroughly coated with dust. If you live downwind of the Black Rock Desert, it can be hard to imagine what would compel a Burner to pay more than $400 for the privilege of wallowing in all that dust. Any windy day the same dust arrives in Winnemucca for free! But most anyone who’s been to Burning Man will assure you the expense is worth the opportunity to live out your wildest dreams — or watch someone else live out theirs.

I try to imagine what the early pioneers along the Overland Trail would have thought if they came across the modern migration to Black Rock City. Those bedraggled settlers might have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, concluding the desert light was playing tricks on them. That’s how it seems. Burning Man exists as its own mirage. By the end of the week, only the camaraderie, and the dust, are real.

Poetry in Place 


Come with me to the River Bench along Fountain Creek near Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. I discovered it while riding my bicycle on the old Ute trail one hot summer morning. Nestled in the cool shade of willows, undulating like the creek, it invites you to linger.

The River Bench is not a bench in any conventional sense. It’s more like a floating concrete sculpture resting on boulders. The top is decorated with stones and colorful tiles. Some of the tiles are embossed with verses written by one of my favorite poets, Pattiann Rogers, who penned the poems especially for this spot along the creek.

On my first visit, I circled the bench, reading all the verses, then lay down on the cool cement. Suspended between earth and sky on Pattiann’s words, her poems came alive around me. The creek cascaded over a riffle, talking to itself. The grasses faintly swayed, anticipating the afternoon breeze. The air smelled green. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and feel the delightful spirit of that place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks go to Steve Wood, who designed and constructed the River Bench, and the people of Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, who helped install the project. What a surprising and wonderful gift!



Illipah Reservoir

Illipah Reservoir in central Nevada has vanished. In a normal water year, these wild horses would need snorkels. Instead of trout habitat, Illipah has returned to its former self — a windy, parched flat. The horses — four adults and one foal — spend the heat of the day dozing, the only movement the swishing of tails. A trickle of water runs in the tiny gully, all that’s left of the creek. Short-cropped grass tenaciously colonizes the lakebed.

This scene speaks of extreme drought, but also hope. How else to read the faint green grass, the offering of water, the cooling wind, and the sleeping foal?

The Whole Picture


A few weeks ago, this scene caught my eye as I drove along Upper Klamath Lake. The mountain’s reflection and the line of trees in the evening light conveyed a Zen-like simplicity that made me want to pull over and rummage for my camera. I thought I might stop by the side of the road, snap the shutter, and drive on but that’s not how it happened. It got complicated.

When I noticed the picture, I couldn’t find a place to pull over, so I turned onto the first road heading toward the lake. I rattled across a set of railroad tracks, descended a short hill, passed through a scattering of old houses and bounced down a rutted track to a chain-link fence that corralled towering stacks of 55-gallon drums. On foot, I found a trail that led to the shoreline. I could see my picture, but an industrial-looking metal dock jutted into the foreground. Slogging back to the car, I noticed I could see the image through the chain-link fence, so I cradled my lens in the diamond-shaped opening and made another exposure past the scattered debris.

When I got home, I loaded the images into the computer and started cropping out clutter, trying to recreate the dreamy atmosphere I remembered. I eliminated the human-made foreground until what remained came close to my original idea — but I had a nagging feeling there was more.

Eventually it dawned on me how the creative process often exposes us to the messy context of natural beauty. If there had been a place to pull over along the highway, I would have made the pristine picture that I first saw and continued driving. Instead, I was forced off the high road into the heavily altered environment of the Klamath Basin. As I bumbled my way around houses, muddy ditches, gates, fences, trucks, docks, and fuel tanks, I bemoaned the hodgepodge of my species. But working on the photographs from that outing, I began to appreciate the interaction of the human and natural scene. If I could be less obsessed with capturing my vision of the untarnished natural world, I’d be more willing to take in the whole picture. After all, humans have lived and worked along the shores of Upper Klamath Lake for thousands of years. Why pretend otherwise?

So I ended up with two very different photographic versions of my experience. The first is of Upper Klamath Lake — beyond time. The second is a snapshot from our time, framed by feral junk and the rumble of a passing freight.


Shoe Trees

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe High Desert makes great shoe tree habitat. There must be thousands of dead or dying trees along lonely stretches of highway just waiting to be adorned with castoff shoes. As a kid, I delighted in every shoe tree we passed. These spontaneous shrines helped relieve the boredom of long road trips in the back of the family station wagon. I’d point and yell as we sped by, trying to impress upon my parents the significance of the site.

But what was the significance? Looking back as an adult I wonder. Certainly, they have the element of surprise. They’re kinetic sculpture. They’re natural and not-natural. They enable shoes to levitate! But as a kid, I think I also saw them as a sign of flamboyant rebellion. Teenagers could actually throw their shoes away. My mom would never let me do that. When I outgrew a pair of shoes, I had to hand them down to a smaller kid. I couldn’t liberate my shoes to swing in a tree along some lonesome highway.

So when I became a teenager did I ever throw a pair of shoes up in a shoe tree? No. Why was that? Was it because by then I didn’t wear sneakers, the predominant species populating shoe trees? Or was it something deeper and more mysterious?

This needs to be remedied. There’s a cottonwood near Mitchell, Oregon, that has room for a few more shoes. Next time I go that way, I’m flinging an old pair skyward.