Letter Excerpts

I've often received compliments in regard to my writing and its ability to contribute to the overall appreciation of my artwork. Having written to friends about my experiences in Hawaii and other locations for many years, I had a large supply of material from which to extract some of the more satisfying paragraphs for your enjoyment.  I hope that these selections might offer some insight into the sorts of things that fascinate me, which is ultimately relevant to the nature of my work.

You can simply scroll through the page, or use the links in the index below to jump ahead to certain titles:



The Coral Reef  -  Molokini  -  Ultralight Flight  -  Cloud Chasing  -  Forever's Tree  -

Waikamoi Forest  -  Waimoku Falls  -  Hanawi Falls  -  The Hana Highway  -

Kilauea Volcano and the Fern Forest  -  Hot Lava #1  -  Hot Lava #2  - A Lava Wilderness   -


South Pacific

Aranui Cruise: the Tuamotu Atolls and Marquesas Islands  -


North America

Sequoia National Park  -  Night Walk in Snow  -  Fireflies of the Smokies  -

-   The Forest of Greenbrier  -  Banff National Park (Canada)  -  Sleepy Hollow  -

- A Magnificent Snowfall - The Firefall of Yosemite -



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The Coral Reef

Makena, Maui, 1996

"There is simply nothing to compare with this strange environment under the sea. I think that I've never been so shocked and amazed by a vision of nature, where such a variety of bizarre things were on display. In every way, it's entirely foreign to the sights and experiences of those who spend their lives on dry ground. The life of some distant planet, where everything is just the opposite of that which occurs on our familiar Earth, could be no more startling than this alien world below the waves.

Snorkeling, I've found, is like a strange dream experience - it's like flying, as long as you regard the water as simply extraordinarily thick air. You're suspended above this bizarre landscape, and surrounded by other "flying" creatures, who seem to levitate magically, rising and falling through this dense, atmospheric space - a fluid wilderness of pure color, pierced by great columns of sunlight.

The sea-floor is an elaborate construction of coral towers and lava blocks, and smooth expanses of bright sand; there are natural arches in the rock, the result of collapsed tunnels that mark the route of old lava tubes, in which many marine animals now find shelter. The area within close proximity to the reef is teeming with creatures of every shape, size, and color. Living things cling to the reef, or swim about it, or lay half buried in the sand, or crouch in the protective cover of some nook in the coral - spines and tentacles sprout from a multitude of small holes in the reef, to do the work of the creatures hidden within. There are great schools of fish - hundreds of them huddled together in one place, hanging motionless in the water, suspended above the sea-floor as if defying gravity. Other fish seem solitary, wandering about on their own, some of them so strange in form and color that they resemble brightly colored hot-air balloons, or glowing UFO's.

Only among wildflowers will you find such a variety of brilliant colors on land - these fish wear striking exteriors of purple, orange, yellow, green, blue, red, silver, white, black, and brown, and the colors are often of the fluorescent sort, alive with a sort of neon glow, as if these creatures were somehow brightly lit from within. They're striped, mottled, spotted, ringed, or just plain uniform in color, and the colors seem to flash and change every time that the fish moves one way or another. Some have enormous fins that rise far above and below their bodies; others are stream-lined to the maximum, very long and slender. Some have peculiar fins that flap up and down at their sides like a pair of outrageous wings, and still others seem so grotesque in shape that one wonders how they manage to swim at all."



Molokini Islet, near Maui, 2002

"Molokini is little more than an arid crescent of lava, almost devoid of vegetation. It's the upper rim of an old volcanic cone, most of which remains submerged beneath the sea, and the inner depths of its central crater are likewise flooded, yet shallow enough to support a thriving coral reef there. Huge, dark seabirds circle the island like prehistoric things - they nest in great numbers on this isolated rock, which is free from all predators. The south side of the islet is dominated by a jagged cliff perhaps 80 feet high, a wonder-world of twisted, wind-sculpted rock. Having formed in the midst of the ocean, the cone's outpourings of searing lava were in direct contact with the cold water, resulting in numerous explosions that blasted the lava into tiny fragments of ash. The cone was formed as layer after layer of this ash settled down around the blast site, and these layers are exposed to view in the cliff, where they look very much like the grain in a piece of gnarly wood. The ash is so fragile that it's readily subject to erosion by wind and water, so the cliff is a stunning display of weird sculpture, very smooth and rounded in many places, sometimes almost billowing like wind-blown cloth, and all these curves and billows are emphasized by the dramatic grain that runs throughout the whole. Even more spectacular than the rock, however, is the water that sparkles all around it. We witnessed colors that were simply astonishing. The colors were most spectacular near the mouth of the crescent, where the two arms of the island embrace the dazzling shallows within the crater. Here, sunlight reflecting from the bright, sandy sea-floor delivered a cerulean blue of such heavenly radiance that it seemed practically supernatural."


Ultralight Flight

Over the West Maui Mountains, 2005

"Unlike virtually any other aircraft, the ultralight has no exterior structures surrounding its occupants - one simply sits in a seat housed in a narrow shell, while the world below passes directly under one's feet with almost no obstructions to interrupt the view. The takeoff was so gentle as to be barely noticeable. A 15-minute flight between Maui's two volcanoes took us over the intervening flatlands, mostly covered by a pattern of sugarcane fields in an array of utterly random shapes. We were soon over the foothills of West Maui's deeply eroded mountain range, and then the larger valleys were spreading below us. These valleys are characterized by soaring, eroded ridges that extend from the valley walls much like the flying buttresses to be seen on ancient cathedrals, and these grand extensions of rock give the impression that if the valleys were suddenly deprived of them their great cliffs must simply topple over. In the morning sun, the ridges were casting long, cool shadows across the smaller folds of the jungled landscape below, and puffs of cloud were already beginning to appear along the high cliffs that separate the valleys from one another. Occasionally, the sun cast a shadow of the ultralight onto the brilliant screen of these passing clouds, where a fully circular rainbow appeared around our speeding shadow.

Of particular interest to me was a landform called Mount Eke (pronounced AY-kay, with the same long "a" vowel sound in both syllables) - sometimes called Eke Crater, although that's technical a misnomer, since no visible crater remains to be seen today. This unusual peak is actually an exposed tower of lava that had once plugged the interior of a former crater, but now stands revealed after the volcanic cone and its crater eroded away. It commands an exceptionally exalted, lofty perch at the summit of a promontory separating two monstrously deep valleys, and this location is as spectacular as any that could be imagined. The great valleys on either side feature magnificent waterfalls plunging into chasms of terrifying depth, and the heights of the valleys are topped by sharp, craggy peaks smothered in vegetation. Some of the waterfalls emerge as springs directly from the cliffside, while another - the tallest cascade on Maui - leaps from a narrow gorge in the clouds to a sheer descent of more than a thousand feet.

As we first approached Eke, we passed over it at close range, and through a thin veil of dispersing clouds I was able to see its surface in detail. The entire plateau is pocked with deep sinkholes and smaller pits, giving it a rugged, prehistoric appearance. The plateau shelters a bog where a variety of rare plants prevail in an isolated, pristine environment. There are no trees or any other plants of tall stature in the bog, and all that can be seen from the air is a thin veneer of stunted vegetation. Pools of standing water sparkled in the bog, alternately reflecting the blue of the sky or the white of nearby clouds as we passed this natural tower again and again."


Cloud Chasing

Haleakala, Maui, 1998

"When the afternoon clouds encircle the mountain, the land becomes moody and dark. I suppose that some would find this dismal, but I love the atmospheric effects of these conditions and I often ramble around the countryside on the cloudiest days for no other reason. I'm always hoping to encounter the big clouds that drift close to the ground - these have a way of moving independently across the landscape, drifting between the dark groves of trees. When they do this, they look like great floating ships, or enormous ghosts travelling on their way toward some uncertain destination. They come in all shapes and sizes - they can be huge, tattered masses of dense, white vapor, or sometimes they're just thin, thready wisps that spin as they go along. Sometimes I can walk right into them - they're cool and humid to the touch. Blown by strong winds, the clouds do remarkable things, moving very rapidly and constantly changing shape, revolving and twirling into corkscrews and spirals and whirlpools. The wind cuts and divides them into slender strands, until they appear as nothing more than a tangle of wispy threads. Eventually, these threads disappear altogether, replaced by a new batch of moisture to repeat the process all over again."


Forever's Tree

Maui, 2000

"A walk in the mountain country takes you through a landscape that seems enchanted, especially when the clouds brush against the land and sweep you into a mysterious haze, in which so many elements of this place appear to have materialized from a storybook world. For instance, I recently visited an astonishing tree. I had observed it from a distance for years, because its enormous size renders it conspicuous on the mountain's slope from even as much as ten miles away. I hiked up to it for the first time in February, and it was no disappointment. Approaching it for the first time, I was awestruck. It's a grand, rugged, spooky tree of overwhelming character and presence. An imported Eucalyptus, it can be no more than 150 years old, yet it appears venerably ancient and must be one of the largest trees on the island - the lack of a winter season here accounts for the tree's remarkably rapid growth. Although its crown is indeed very tall and wide-spreading, the tree's foundations are really the source of its exceptional grandeur. It rises from a mass of exposed, knotty roots, which have fused together to form a stage-like platform. The lower trunk is really a complex union of many individual trunks and branches, all emerging from one another, and their combined width is nearly ten feet, according to my best approximation - I'm sure that at least eight people, hand-in-hand with arms outstretched, would be required to close a ring around the tree's perimeter. The wood feels as solid as iron, and even has the appearance of having formed from a great slab of molten metal, which, in a superheated state, had sagged and warped under its own tremendous weight, creating innumerable folds and wrinkles before cooling. There are many deep crevices in the trunk, some large enough to conceal a man of average size, although the gauzy cobwebs stretched in these spaces would discourage anyone from sheltering within. Twisted branches reach out toward every horizon, some dipping down to contact the ground. The tree offers a uniquely dramatic view from all directions, and walking around its cathedral columns is like surveying a work of grand architecture, while its organic qualities leave you with the alternate sense that it might actually be a living creature of monstrous size and disposition, caught napping in the sun. All of these features conspire to make the tree appear perfectly haunted. I call it "Forever's Tree."


Waikamoi Forest

Maui, 1995

"The forest is outrageously beautiful. Rain falls here more often than not, and the forest is almost perpetually wrapped in the thick fog of cloud cover, but on rare occasions the sky clears and offers a breathtaking view of the island's distant coastline far below. The wet forest is the very image of tropical verdure, where the excesses of Nature seem to pile upon one another for lack of available space. Every tree bears a thick, dark covering of green and orange mosses and a wide variety of other clinging plants, and enormous sedges burst explosively from the boles of living trees; in this condition, the trees often look truly grotesque and misshapen, but all the more spectacular as a result. In color, form, and texture, the complexity of the forest is a vigorous and constant challenge to the senses; it's a visual assault, layer after layer of green confusion, tangles of intricate fern fronds curling and stretching among leafy masses, and overhung with trailing vines. With water-drops clinging to every leaf and stem, the forest sparkles in the sunlight during uncommon moments of clear sky, and the constant wind keeps the vegetation in teeming, fluttering motion."


Waimoku Falls

Kipahulu, Maui, 1998

"As you exit the bamboo grove, the giant cascade becomes visible for the first time, rising like a skyscraper above the forest, although it's still a mile distant. And when you finally approach it at close range, it becomes a spectacle of overwhelming impact. Its beauty seems almost terrifying, as if you were approaching the Throne of God - musically, the sight could only be accompanied adequately by a choir of a thousand voices, all raised together to a powerful, deafening volume! It's just absolutely stunning, and you can do little else except to stand there motionless, gaping at it stupidly, open-mouthed."


Hanawi Falls

Nahiku, Maui, 1999

"In the absence of a trail to the falls, I simply walked upstream, often wading through the rapids in order to avoid rocky obstacles. In its deeper recesses, the gulch becomes narrower as its cliffs rise ever more steeply, and several of its high springs soon become visible - like the Biblical "water from the rock," crystal streams appear to pour magically from the faces of the cliffs, then dash down through the greenery below. After a mile of difficult navigation through the streambed, I arrived at the waterfall, which is about 200 feet high. The view is pleasantly inspiring from a distance, but it becomes a scene of profound violence at close range. The cascade has carved a chimney-shaped niche for itself in the rock - within this narrow space, the cascade's fury is contained and amplified, and a perpetual hurricane exists there. It's truly terrifying. Many tons of water drop onto the rocks with tremendous power, and the sound can only be described as a continuous roll of thunder, at an absolutely deafening, heart-shaking volume - it's the sort of noise that fills one's entire head and chest with intense alarm. The cascade spills into a frightening cauldron of agitated water, in constant turmoil like the ocean during a great storm. The impact of the falling water produces a violent wind, whirling in the waterfall's crevice and rushing out into the greater canyon beyond, carrying dense clouds of spray. Blasted by moisture, the rock walls are green with a film of stunted vegetation. Water drips continuously from every surface, but each droplet is immediately carried away by the furies, and the hundreds of tiny ferns and other clinging plants are all in constant commotion."


The Hana Highway

Maui, 1998

"The Hana Highway is notorious for its narrowness and curviness, and it seems baffling that the word "highway" was ever associated with a road where the posted speed limit rarely rises above 15 m.p.h.   As it tackles the rough terrain of the island's eastern slope, the road presents no less than 516 curves, as well as 56 one-lane bridges that force traffic to a halt whenever two vehicles meet head-on. By getting a very early start, I avoided traffic problems along the way toward Hana, but had to drive about half of the road in darkness, and it's a strange road to be on at night. It dips down into many deep gulches, where the darkness seems even more oppressive. But there are many sounds - you can hear the hiss of invisible streams as they flow beneath the road at every bridge crossing, and bird calls are common as the morning sky begins to brighten. At the bottom of each gulch, the night air is cool and moist, smelling strongly of tropical vegetation, and sometimes a mist can be seen hanging there, slowly revolving as it waits to be extinguished by the heat of the day."


Kilauea Volcano and the Fern Forest

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island of Hawaii, 1996

"Kilauea is a bizarre wonderland of volcanic activity, a region where fantastic rainforests grow at the very edge of volcanic devastation, and a remarkable desert of fine ash and cinder occupies the slope just downwind from the volcano's summit. Unlike the other islands, Hawaii's lands seems to stretch on without end across great, barren distances, through mile after mile of harsh and irregular lava. There is little beauty in the landscape, but it makes up for this deficiency through an excess of character - there is simply no other district in which the unique qualities of Hawai'i are so profoundly displayed, and the air seems thick with the very essence of the Hawaiian world. The land is cracked and fissured almost everywhere, and steam rises perpetually from countless natural vents in the rock. You might imagine this as a place of constant, intolerable heat, but nothing could be further from the truth - Hawaii's basaltic lavas are very effective insulators, so the subterranean heat of the volcano is not felt at the surface, unless one happens to be in especially close proximity to a steam vent. Contrary to common preconception, Kilauea's 4,000 foot summit rises into an atmosphere of perpetual autumn, with very cool temperatures and a great deal of cloud cover and rain. During rainy periods, the summit area is wrapped in thick, wet clouds, which sweep across the surface of the land and submerge the place in a dense fog, adding to the inherently eerie quality of the place. The rainwater that seeps down through the porous lava soon contacts the heat of the volcano, adding fuel for the steam vents and sending up ever more vigorous plumes of white vapor into the air."

"This plentiful supply of moisture supports a rainforest more spectacular than any other that I've seen in Hawai'i. The lower half of this beautiful forest is dominated by giant ferns, the Hapu'u, Hawaii's largest tree-fern. These ferns grow in astonishing abundance around Kilauea's summit, packing the forest understory with their enormous green fronds, which are held aloft on yellowish stalks, and the stalks themselves may be elevated upon a woody trunk twice the height of an average man. The tree-ferns form something like a forest within the forest, and to walk below their canopy of fronds is like entering a lost, prehistoric world. Even the air and the light seem eternally green, filtered from above through a mesh of overlapping fronds. They're often epiphytic, growing from the trunks or branches of living or fallen trees, which only adds to their impressive sense of height. And the ferns themselves may host a rich growth of other botanical guests, such as mosses, smaller ferns or other ground-cover plants. Plants of this sort may form a green covering so thick that the surface of the fern's trunk is entirely obscured beneath the growth; even young trees may sprout from this blanket of growth and use the fern's bulk for support, while sending down a tangle of aerial roots in search of terrestrial connections."


Hot Lava (1)

Big Island of Hawaii, 2008

"Well before sunrise, I found myself at the eastern end of a black sand beach that had simply not existed only three weeks before. This black sand was a creation of the lava's recent interaction with sea-water. The meeting of hot lava and cool water is an explosive affair, often blasting the lava to small bits, which are further crushed by wave action. The resulting debris washes ashore to form a beach that is absolutely black in color. In the glare of my flashlight, each grain of pulverized lava was glassy and reflective, the whole beach sparkling like a pile of gemstones.

At the far end of the beach, about two hundred feet ahead of me, I caught sight of several irregular shapes of yellow-orange light glowing hotly in the dark, at ground level. They seemed like lanterns that had been set up along the perimeter of the beach - but, in fact, they were spots of active lava on the leading edge of the flow, which at that moment was in the process of slowly consuming its own beach. To my utter amazement, I found myself walking up to a lava flow quite casually, without the slightest appearance of danger. This close encounter with hot lava was an epic moment for me, a fulfillment, and I was delighted that my travelling companions had fallen behind, leaving me to approach this wonder of nature for the first time completely alone. I stopped merely a few feet from the flow's edge, where I was met by a radiance of heat so powerful and insistent that it seemed an almost physical barrier to closer approach.

There, at my feet, lay a massive pile of incandescent sludge, its surface alive with a variety of sizzling and crackling sounds. A light rain had started sprinkling, and each drop that fell upon the flow's surface instantly burst into a puff of steam with a sharp snap. A great wave, sweeping up the incline of the beach, found its way as far as the edge of the flow, and sent up a flurry of steam as it touched the molten mass. Stirring and stretching like a living thing, the flow seemed suggestive of an enormous animal, too dangerous to touch, but otherwise simply too massive and powerful to concern itself with the activities of whatever curious, insignificant creatures might dare to linger around its feet. Its interior glow, surrounded by a cooling shell, produced an effect identical to that of a jack-o-lantern with a translucent rind, the light escaping unevenly from one place to another depending on the variable thickness of the enveloping crust. The flow displayed a spectrum of hot colors, from yellow-white to orange to red, and even a range of magentas and purples. Every open crack or thin spot was revealed by the blazing light within.

The flow's forward motion was performed in small increments, as individual break-outs of fluid material would occasionally escape through weaknesses in the lava's shell. These outpourings would spill forward, as hot and yellow as the sun, bright enough to illuminate the nearby sand - but these advances occurred at a leisurely pace, posing no immediate threat to me despite my close proximity. Such pioneering lobes of mobile lava, especially the smaller ones, are referred to as "toes," since no other word can describe them quite as satisfactorily. They would creep across the sand for two or three feet, visibly cooling almost at once. The cooling could be seen as the formation of a web-like mesh of surface striations, which would gradually thicken and multiply, becoming more opaque, and ultimately concealing the glow of the lava's hot interior, which tends to remain quite hot since the cooled skin of the lava insulates very well.

By poking a few of these newly-formed lava toes with a large stick, we found that their half-cooled surfaces were pliable, but quite tough and leathery, surprisingly resistant to the intrusion of a foreign object. If the stick could be made to penetrate this surface, the congealing crust could be pried away with some effort, revealing a thick, taffy-like consistency just below the surface. This disturbance would quickly induce a free flow of hotter, thinner material from the center, which would pour out and repeat the cooling process all over again. As the surface skin began to congeal, yet was still soft enough to be bent and shaped, it was sometimes carried along by the continued motion of the hotter material below, dragging it forward in such a way that it would begin to pile upon itself, producing intricate, rope-like braids and loops that curved in the direction of the flow's travel. On flows of this sort, these surface forms are eventually frozen in place by the final cooling of the lava, preserving an elaborate and beautiful surface ornamentation, which was on display all around us.

Some of the active lobes of lava were small enough to approach at very close range, within about three feet, since their radiance of heat was not so unbearable - but even in this best-case case scenario, the heat was too much to tolerate for more than 15 seconds or so. I would move in, compose and snap the shot as quickly as possible, and retreat hastily. The sensation was like sticking one's head into an oven, and the impulse to get away from it was urgent.

In the interest of painting a clear mental picture of this scene, it's perhaps worth noting that the flow is rarely seen as a continuous, open river of molten lava, as might easily be imagined - such a river does exist, but it's soon hidden beneath its own crust, which forms quickly when the lava is exposed to the cool air. This crust, which is often thick enough to be walked upon, insulates the flow's interior and allows it to travel across many miles without cooling, and the lava seldom makes an appearance until it drains into the ocean. Along the way, it flows freely within its own self-made cavern, called a lava tube.

It was over the roof of such a fiery chute that we now walked quite brazenly. Since we had been so absorbed with the activity of the lava on the beach, the sky had brightened considerably by the time that our guide endeavored to lead us across the flow to a more favorable location for viewing the lava's entry into the ocean. Skirting the edge of the hot material, we found a cooler surface on which to begin this seemingly foolhardy journey. We stepped carefully across the tormented surface, which was considerably fractured, with thick plates of crust tilted at awkward angles, but these surfaces were surprisingly solid and reliable under our feet. Waves of heat and wispy tendrils of steam rushed from fissures between the plates, and also from smaller holes and cracks here and there, and the smell of sulfur was strong near these vents. The sulfur had produced a yellow-orange discoloration on the surface of the rock in every place where the gas escaped, and these spatterings of color were warning signs that the lava river was flowing hot directly beneath our feet, with only its outer shell to separate us from certain death. Yet, the surface was so solid that no real sense of immediate danger presented itself, and we were soon on safer ground on the opposite side, standing on a stable platform of cold lava above yet another infant black-sand beach.

At the far end of that beach, a channel of flowing lava could be seen to emerge from beneath the shell that we had just traversed. Rather than flowing as freely and energetically as the seawater splashing around it, the lava seemed as thick as molasses, dripping lethargically into the waves - it crept over the edge at an unhurried pace, and was dragged down by gravity, sometimes tearing away in dense masses as it fell. Its color was bright orange, although the daylight sky was beginning to compete with its luminosity by this time. Picturesque waves crashed against the lava, sometimes creating so much steam that the entire scene was temporarily obscured within a roiling cloud of vapor, which blew harmlessly away from us out to sea. Due to the sluggish flow of the lava here, the vapor cloud was considerably smaller in size than at several other locations in the distance, where larger plumes of steam rose with violent energy - these areas were too volatile to approach safely, and we kept our distance.

Of the many extraordinary things that I've been privileged to experience during my years in Hawaii, this close encounter with hot lava was arguably the most notable. Lava has always held a special fascination for me, and to walk beside these outpourings from the center of the Earth was simply a surreal, dream-like adventure."


Hot Lava (2)

Big Island of Hawaii, January, 2011

...The landscape was utterly changed since my first visit to the lava three years ago. The volcano had consumed many acres of land - huge groves of coastal forest had been burned away, and once familiar roads, trails and landmarks were now gone. We were obliged to park our car about a half-mile from the flow, and walk the remainder of the narrow road until reaching a place where the pavement abruptly ended where it had been covered over by the advancing lava.

The lava at the road's end had already cooled sufficiently to offer a solid surface that could be walked upon. The hotter, active lava was yet an uncertain distance away - we could see bright spots and flashes of it, shimmering in the distortion of heat rising from the flow, but it was impossible to judge the exact distance in the dark. We could reach it only by striking out across the crust of lavas that had probably been deposited only days before. A full moon offered some assistance, but it was already low and yellow in the sky as we started out, and it soon fell behind the mountain, leaving us to find our way across this hellish landscape with only our small flashlights. The journey provided ample cause for anxiety, since many of the crusts were less than two feet thick and enclosed a semi-liquid interior that was still quite hot - we soon found ourselves traversing cracks that revealed a wicked, red-orange incandescence below, and heat poured furiously from these menacing fractures. This circumstance was more than a little unsettling, and we moved along with the greatest caution, trying to determine the safest and coolest route.

This was challenging, since many flows of different ages and temperatures were all intertwined in a confused maze of activity. Ambitious streams of lava had apparently diverged from the main flow, reaching out laterally across the surrounding terrain and crisscrossing one another innumerable times. We quickly learned to assess the relative ages of these flows by the quality of their surfaces. If very new, they were still pristine, glossy and sparkling. In contrast, the older flows were much degraded, their surfaces duller and deteriorating into tiny chips and fragments as the lava cooled and contracted, pulling itself apart. But the surest sign of the freshness of any given flow was simply the heat, which was impossible to ignore. A few of the surfaces were so hot that we were compelled to question the wisdom of crossing them, and we occasionally moved off in some other direction in search of a more comfortable path. Whereas we had brought jackets to shield us from the initial chill of the night air, we soon found it necessary to remove them as the heat from the flow became oppressive.

Although there were some bright spots of exposed lava at close proximity to us, we found that these seemed impossible to reach without walking over acres of perilously hot terrain. I suggested, instead, that we skirt the edge of the flow and stay on cooler ground, walking ahead to the flow's leading edge, where I reasoned that we would be likely to encounter active outpourings of lava, and could make our approach on older, untouched land that would be cool and stable. This would place us between the flow and the ocean, which were separated from one another by only a short distance at that time.

To get there, we were obliged to pick our way through the remains of a small forest which had been consumed by the lava in preceding days. Billows of illuminated smoke just west of our position indicated that some of this forest was still burning there - occasionally, bright bursts of flames and windblown embers revealed that another tree was falling victim to the flow, near enough that we could sometimes hear the crackling of these fires. But our path took us through a cooled area that had already been devastated in this manner, and the charred, leafless skeletons of trees lay all around us. A few palms remained standing near this wreckage, but were hopelessly brown and wilted. Most of the trees had been burned through near the ground and had simply toppled over, coming to rest on the cooling crust of the lava, where they had been spared from total incineration, although all of their leaves and smaller branches had been burned up and the leftover trunks had been reduced to a ghostly white. This forest cemetery was sometimes difficult to negotiate among so much ashen litter, but we simply pursued the path of least resistance as we pressed on toward the sound of the ocean.

Eventually, we exited the doomed forest to find ourselves in an open area within sight of the water, and a pavement of smooth lava lay before us. The beams of our flashlights revealed that small jets of steam were emerging from openings in this surface. Sight was not strictly necessary to detect these vents, since the emerging vapor smelled strongly of sulfur. The heat was strong, too, and we knew that these signs together suggested the presence of flowing lava below the crust, so we crossed this place hastily and soon found safer ground just ahead of the flow, where active breakouts of glowing lava were escaping from the crust here and there. These were was so easily approached that we often stepped within just a few feet of the stuff, and we busied ourselves in snapping photos as the dawn sky began to brighten.

One especially vigorous outbreak produced a swirling pond of lava, which soon filled beyond capacity and fed a small, fiery cascade. To capture a shot of this wonder from a higher vantage point, I ascended a nearby mound that must have been no more than a day old, where I straddled a blazing, incandescent fissure between my feet, and then fled before the soles of my boots could melt. Amazingly, we both accomplished several examples of such foolhardy bravado without harm to ourselves, our equipment, our clothes, or even our footwear.

At one point, we heard a peculiar snapping sound - a soft crunch, as of the breaking of dense styrofoam. A section of crust had surrendered to the pressure of mobile lava within, and a long crack had appeared. The crust behind this crack rose several inches as it was lifted by the hydraulic power of the escaping lava, and a wide torrent of white-hot material emerged lazily but steadily, unstoppable, crackling and hissing, piling up on itself and congealing even as it gained ground. In one place, it was lost altogether as it poured into a deep crevice.

On another occasion, we heard a sound that seemed altogether like the roar of a big cat - one of the smaller of the big cats, perhaps, like a jaguar or a cheetah, in that the roar was somewhat high pitched. We heard this several times, always in the distance, although sometimes seemingly closer than before, and were puzzled to explain it. It was so like the roar of an animal that we seriously began to wonder if something was prowling around with us in the dark. After some thought, however, the solution occurred to me - a steam vent, probably releasing bursts of hot sulfur or some other noxious gas. This was later confirmed by a guide who came along, leading a train of tourists - he claimed to have seen the vent himself.

And, yes, we did have company out there. We encountered a few similar small parties like ourselves, in addition to the tour guide and his group. Flashlights could be seen bobbing along in the dark in various places. One man arrived in the company of a woman, who revealed to us that her friend had come to melt his wedding ring in the lava, although we never discovered the details of the larger drama behind the story.

There were also local residents nearby, enduring their own personal dramas, since the flow was encroaching on a housing development at this time. As we set out on our second morning, a van was parked at the end of the road, and a man emerged from the dark to ask us to walk around the vehicle at a distance, in order to minimize whatever noise we might make - the van, he explained, was occupied by a woman who was now trying to sleep after fleeing her house, which had been consumed by the lava overnight. The burning wreckage of her home was still visible at no great distance from the road.

On the lava field, we encountered the remains of other demolished homes embedded in the rock. Some metal roofing had survived in one place, left scattered on the surface after the wooden home below it had burned away. And we saw the tops of two steel poles protruding from the lava, with a clothesline still strung between them.


A Lava Wilderness

Kanaio, Maui, 1997

"A few days ago, I accompanied some friends on a walk through a very impressive lava wilderness. Maui's most recent lava flows have plastered the south slope of the mountain with dark, swirling streams of brown rock, some of which are merely a few hundred years old. As of yet, nature has declined to conceal these young flows below a vegetative layer of any sort, and they remain distinctly obvious to the eye, dark and barren, in contrast to the older flows between them, which have developed a yellow-green tinge of plant life. The eruptions deposited immense volumes of rocky material to form a vast, level plain, which rises only very gradually away from the coastline - to an observer near the coast, this plain presents a spectacular scene, one to take your breath away, since there is nothing to obstruct one's view across miles and miles of open lava. Farther inland, the mountain's slope rises suddenly and steeply to great heights - enormous cinder cones stand on the slopes like the great pyramids of Giza, and the flows of lava are clearly seen to stream down from the bases of these towering hills. The view of Haleakala reveals one of the mountain's most stunning profiles - a sweeping panorama of the volcano's wide dome, studded with dozens of prominent cones, like the warts and bumps on the skin of a toad. The volcano's summit rises away to such great heights that it slips into a hazy realm of tropical pastels, where thin veils of light-filled atmosphere intervene to render the scene as soft and beautiful as a vision of Heaven. Down below, however, the lava plain is far from heavenly. The ground is irregular and unstable, and appears as if it had been subject to the most abusive treatment and violent upheaval - in many places, the land looks as tormented as the surface of a storm-tossed sea, as if the choppy waves had suddenly been frozen in place, the permanent record of a hurricane's fury."


Aranui Cruise: the Tuamotu Atolls and Marquesas Islands

A daily report from the South Pacific, April to May, 2007

April 26th, 2007
In an airplane, somewhere over the Pacific

At this moment, I'm enduring the cramped quarters of a commercial airliner, flying between Honolulu and Los Angeles. I actually have no interest in going to L.A., but am compelled to fly there by necessity, as it's the only means of catching a plane to Tahiti before Saturday.

Tahiti isn't really my final destination, either.  I'm boarding a ship in Tahiti on Saturday morning, bound for the Marquesas Islands, which are located a few hundred miles north-east of Tahiti. Altogether, I'll be on the ship for 14 days, stopping at every port in the several inhabited islands of the Marquesas.

But my primary goal is only one of those islands, a remote and sparsely inhabited place called Fatu Hiva. The island has no airport nor any hotels, so the only practical means of visiting the island is by cruise ship - or by private yacht, of course, although such personalized transport is sadly lacking in my case. Unfortunately, the cruise ship stops at Fatu Hiva for only one day during its two-week voyage, so I'll be obliged to make the most of every available minute there.

You're probably wondering what sort of circumstance would motivate me to travel so far just to visit such a distant place for a single day.  It really wasn't my idea, although I was undeniably eager to accept the opportunity when it was presented to me by a client who commissioned me to do a painting of Fatu Hiva. He's sending me to this place, at a substantial cost to himself (all expenses paid), for no other purpose than to allow me to acquire suitable photographs for reference during the completion of his painting.  So, even as I write, my long-held dream of visiting the islands of the South Pacific is in the process of fulfillment, although I certainly would never have imagined that someone else would be footing the bill.

Prior to this trip, I knew very little about the Marquesas Islands, although I had heard of Fatu Hiva many years before through Thor Heyerdahl's book "Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature." Heyerdahl and his wife had lived as hippies on the remote island in their youth, and the book had been one of the many early influences that stirred my imagination with island imagery prior to my move to Hawaii. Based on the photos that I've seen, Fatu Hiva could easily have provided the inspiration for the prehistoric island in "King Kong." Among people who routinely sail throughout the Pacific, Fatu Hiva is widely regarded as the most beautiful island to be seen south of the equator - but its beauty is strange, as if the place were still haunted by the wrathful gods of Polynesia, whose faces seem to appear in the bizarre rock formations that overshadow the island.

Wondrously strange and unexpected, isn't it? If all proceeds as planned, I should set foot on Fatu Hiva within a week or so.

April 27th
Papeete, Tahiti

After an overnight stay in Los Angeles, followed by a grueling, 8-hour flight to Tahiti, I find myself in a room at the Royal Tahitien Hotel, pondering my first impressions of Tahiti. They're not very good, so far - although, I have yet to see the place in daylight, so I can't offer an entirely fair assessment yet. Tahiti's main city, Papeete, has yet to fulfill any vision of a tropical paradise. The plane landed after dark, and I stepped out to find that the night air was oppressively hot and humid - 86 degrees at night, which makes me wonder how hot it will be on the unshaded pier when I board the ship tomorrow.

April 28th
Aboard the ship "Aranui III"

...my cruise ship, the Aranui III, was being loaded with passengers and freight. The ship is not a typical cruise ship, nor a typical freighter, but rather a combination of the two. Every three weeks, the Aranui delivers freight to every port in the Marquesas Islands, and is one of only two ships that connect the islands with the outside world.

The front half of the ship is dedicated to freight, and has two giant cranes for loading and unloading goods - when I arrived at the pier, bundles of timber poles were being hoisted into the air by one of the cranes, and forklifts were in operation all over the pier, moving large boxes into position for loading.

And then there's the back half of the ship, where there are accommodations for 200 passengers, although less than half of that number are on board for this particular voyage. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my room on the ship is altogether superior to either of the hotel rooms that I've stayed in during the past two nights. It's quite clean, very well air-conditioned, and has a large window that looks out onto the Pacific. I have a deluxe room on the top level of the ship, the "Star Deck," so my window provides a bird's eye view of the horizon.

In many ways, the Aranui feels nothing like a cruise ship - it has the sparse interior of a freighter, with metal walls and stairs, and very little decoration to soften its edges. There is, however, an attractive lobby with reception desk, a fine dining hall, and a lounge with a library, all equipped with comfortable seats, and the individual rooms for passengers are likewise very nice. My room has a set of doors that lead out to a tiny balcony, where you can breathe the ocean air and get a wider view of the surroundings. As I sit at a desk in my room, typing away on my computer, I can look down to my right, through the windows of the balcony doors, to see the ocean rushing past at surprising speed. The water's surface is illuminated by both the rising moon and by a variety of lights from the ship.

I'm wearing a small, sticky patch behind my right ear to fight the effects of sea-sickness. It's a prescription medication, and seems to be working very well. Despite the Aranui's size, it still rocks gently from front to back, and from side to side, and would certainly induce illness if not for the medication. The rocking motion is actually quite nice at night, since it literally rocks me to sleep. The room creaks and shudders gently as the ship struggles against the powers of the ocean, but I have quickly become accustomed to these elements of the nautical experience.

April 29th,
Leaving the Tuamotu Islands

The Aranui's first stop was an atoll, Fakarava, belonging to the Tuamotu chain of islands. The Tuamotus are not part of the Marquesas, nor a part of the so-called Society Islands of Tahiti. The Tuamoto chain is an archipelago of its own, consisting of more than 70 atolls of various shapes and sizes. These atolls are little more than rings of coral that mark the position of islands that formerly stood above sea-level at some time in the distant past, but which have since descended below the waves because of erosion or subsidence, or both. While the islands themselves are no longer visible, they've left a record of themselves through the remains of their coral reefs, which continue to thrive on the submarine foundations of these extinct islands. The reefs absorb the energy of the incoming surf, and so protect the atoll's interior lagoon, where the water is astonishingly calm and clear. Fakarava is one of the world's largest atolls, measuring some 20 miles in diameter, so it's impossible to see across to the far side.

There is land at Fakarava, and people live on it. The land appears to be the result of the piling up of coral debris that has accumulated along the fringes of the reef, producing a circular band of dry, flat ground which is never more than a quarter of a mile in width, and no more than a few feet above sea-level. The residents of Fakarava make the most of their limited acreage, however - there are paved streets, houses, churches, and even a small airport. Many of the houses are situated at the very edge of the lagoon, sometimes projecting over the water on flimsy stilts. Many of these homes seemed to be in a decrepit condition, and it's hard to imagine that people actually live in them, although I suspect that the residents of Fakarava spend more time outdoors than in.

The primary vegetation on Fakarava (and probably on most of the atolls) is the coconut palm. There are thousands and thousands of them, rising high on thin, spindly trunks. Some of the homes are also decorated with ornamental flowering plants like Hibiscus and other colorful flowers, and there are a number of other types of trees, but the coconut palms are easily the most abundant form of vegetation.

The shallow water of the lagoon was clearer and more colorful than any that I've ever seen. The aquamarine color that occurs near the shore is practically of a neon intensity, and the beach is likewise radiant when seen under the full strength of the sun. The beaches are small, but are composed of a very fine, powdery sand derived from crushed coral, brilliantly white in color. Its pure whiteness probably accounts for the highly saturated color of the water in the shallows, since the sand reflects so much light from below the surface.

Although the water of the lagoon is quite calm, the ship enters the atoll through a passage in the coral, and this location is characterized by very turbulent conditions, apparently because the ocean's current is pushing a great volume of water through this narrow pass, where the sea-floor abruptly changes from deep to shallow. The result is something that resembles a white-water river, all foaming and roaring. The ship plunged headlong through this turbulence, which was an impressive thing to see, with the noisy water churning on both sides and the ship rocking and creaking more heavily as it strained against the rapids. We were obliged to enter and exit the atoll through this passage, so I was able to witness the event by daylight during our entry and by moonlight during our exit.

April 30th
At sea

Having left the atolls of Tuamotu behind us, we now have two days of travel across the ocean, with no sight of land - there is only the vast, blue ocean mirroring the vast, blue sky. With no land to block the view, the skies are tremendously wide and beautiful, featuring giant cumulous clouds that occasionally build up to great size and then drop rain on the horizon - our surroundings are so unobstructed that we can see weather events occurring all around us in the distance, even though our own position may be dry and sunny. The open ocean, far from any land, seems to be rougher than what we experienced earlier in the trip, and the ship rocks a bit more now. During the night, I was awakened several times when my desk drawer and closet doors were flung open and closed by a few especially forceful jolts.

May 1st
Near Ua Huka

I saw my first Marquesan island today, a placed called Ua Pou. We did not stop there, since the Aranui was in a hurry to reach a smaller island, Ua Huka, for the purpose of delivering a replacement power generator there (the entire island had been without power for days after the failure of the original generator). So, as we passed it by, Ua Pou came into sight, and then receded from view within about two hours - but it was an impressive sight while it lasted, a scene of brutally rugged land capped by clouds, and seemingly devoid of vegetation, although we were not close enough to discern such detail.

The smaller island, Ua Huka, became visible on the horizon at about the same time that Ua Pou was disappearing from view. We arrived at the island well before dark, and had a chance to see it in the warm glow of sunset. This island is modest in appearance, but its colors came to life at sundown, when a rainbow appeared briefly in a curtain of rain that was falling in the distance. The island appears to be quite arid, and its lower slopes seem nearly barren, which is probably mostly due to the dining habits of the multitude of goats that roam wild. Even from a 1/4 mile offshore, I was able to distinguish dozens of these animals moving about on the cliffs. Where the rock and soil are exposed, the land is seen to be of a dramatic brick-red color, and this warm coloration contrasts beautifully with a thin veneer of yellow-green vegetation that occurs from place to place. When the sunlight strikes these colors, the result is dazzling.

Ua Huka has several large sea-rocks that have been carved away from the main island by erosion, and these isolated rocks sustain vast populations of noisy sea-birds. At this moment, the Aranui is resting motionless between these great rocks, and their shapes can be distinctly seen as dark silhouettes against the moonlit sky and water. Stepping outside on my little balcony, I can hear the noise of the birds, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them, all raising their shrill voices together in a single, continuous torrent of sound. They can be distinctly heard even above the engine of the ship.

May 4th
Docked at Hiva Oa

We've been to a few different islands since my last addition to this letter. Right now, we're only minutes away from our departure from Hiva Oa, one of the larger islands of the Marquesas. Hiva Oa is famous because of Paul Gauguin, who lived on the island during the height of his artistic career. This island is beautiful (they all are), but it's no match for the one that we visited two days ago, Ua Pou.

Ua Pou is indescribably craggy and rugged, all earth tones near the shore, although much green growth occurs in the interior. What makes Ua Pou so uniquely beautiful is the fact that it's capped by several enormous spires of volcanic rock that have resisted the forces of erosion. These spires began as subterranean plugs of dense lava that filled the throats of volcanic vents, and were later exposed by the disintegration of the softer material around them. The spires now dominate the summit of the island, and can be seen from every direction on clear days. When we first arrived in the early morning, clouds were obscuring the view, which was an initial disappointment. But while the rest of the passengers went into the nearby village to have lunch at a local restaurant, I skipped the meal to sit on the deck of the ship and wait for a lifting of the clouds, even if such an event might be very brief.

The clouds did break briefly on several occasions, and I was stunned by the vision that emerged from behind the veil. The spires are almost too extreme to believe. The largest one is shaped like an enormous arrow-head, while another is as tall and slender as a minaret. There are at least a dozen spires and similar tower-like structures, most gathered near the summit, although a few are scattered around at lower elevations. One of them occurs so close to the ocean that it has worn away from the main island and now stands as an isolated sea-rock just offshore. The entire place is so wildly dramatic that if dinosaurs were to emerge from the nearby jungle it would hardly elicit any surprise whatsoever, as if nothing could be more natural or predictable in such a place. Great Frigate-birds, a common seabird here, were circling overhead with their huge, pointed wings, so closely resembling extinct pterodactyls that they contributed perfectly to the prehistoric quality of the scene.

A few hours ago, I stepped aside from letter-writing to have dinner in the ship's dining hall. In the meantime, the ship was well on its way toward Fatu Hiva, my primary destination for this trip. I caught my first sight of the island as a silhouette against the moonlit sky and ocean. Tomorrow will be the most important day of my trip, as I try to capture the necessary photographs to complete my client's painting. So far, the weather appears to be in my favor.

May 6th
Near Tahuata

As I write, the Aranui is anchored just offshore from a secluded and radiantly golden beach on the island of Tahuata - a charming island, but I must neglect it in favor of a discussion about my momentous day at Fatu Hiva, which occurred yesterday. It was an immensely successful visit, in terms of accomplishing the primary goal of my trip - I gathered hundreds of photos of the island, which was on excellent display due to cooperative weather and strong light.

Although we spent time at two locations on the island, I was mainly focused on our afternoon destination, the bay of Hanavave - otherwise known as the "Bay of Virgins." There's a very funny story behind the latter title. Early French explorers discovered the bay and were impressed by its unusual rock formations, some of which happen to be unmistakably phallic in appearance. Apparently dissatisfied with the traditional local name (Hanavave means "surf bay"), the French called the place "Baie de Verges," literally meaning "Bay of Rods," although the implied translation was universally understood to be less polite. Many years later, missionaries arrived and found reason to disapprove of the name since it only encouraged the wanton promiscuity of the native population, so they cleverly inserted an "i" into "Verges," now rendering it as "Vierges" - Virgins.

That was much more to a missionary's liking - although it's absolutely preposterous, because I can assure you that there are very few virgins, if any, to be found in Hanavave, as is plain to see by the huge number of children in the valley. The children gather attractive shells that they find along the shore, and will sell them to you for 100 French Pacific Francs each - about one U.S. dollar per shell. I know this because a young girl was tugging at my elbow very soon after I set foot on shore, and she easily convinced me to part with my money in exchange for a lovely shell, which I selected from a large collection that she had assembled on a towel.

Hanavave is indeed a remarkable place, and was worth all the time and trouble involved in getting there. The place is almost otherworldly, with bizarre rock formations towering over vast groves of coconut palms, all against a backdrop of jagged, forbidding mountains. It presents some of the most unusual land-forms that I've seen, and they virtually defy description. It's as if the island had somehow produced a sublime, natural monument to its human history of violence and sexual excess, balancing savagery and beauty in a strangely harmonious way. Several of the eroded lava formations are disturbingly reminiscent of monstrous, distorted human faces (in addition to other body parts), evoking the fearsome, stone Tiki idols that still stand watch over ancient Polynesian temples throughout these islands.

With its towering, monolithic formations and sense of unspoiled natural beauty, Hanavave really could be described as the Yosemite Valley of French Polynesia. It has a similar aura of unique magnificence. The valley is shaped somewhat like an hour-glass, with two wide sections connected by a narrow pass. The area close to the ocean is the residential section, with a few paved streets and houses, a church, a soccer field, etc., while the back of the valley is characterized by green slopes that abruptly meet sheer, vertical cliffs. The entire valley is dominated by coconut palms. The palms rise overhead everywhere - they're never absent from view. At every turn, there seems to be yet another compelling view of palm trees, radiantly yellow-green in the sunlight, seen against a jagged skyline of grim mountain walls. A stream flows musically throughout this scene to complete the picture-perfect image of an idyllic, tropical setting.

The light changes constantly as cloud-shadows creep across the land throughout the day, but Hanavave's best show occurs at sundown, when the richly-colored soil and vegetation are warmed even further by the orange light of the setting sun. The colors that result from this fortunate meeting of light and land are simply astounding. As the sun sinks, the rocky towers and ridges begin to cast purple-green shadows across the valley, while every area of exposed soil becomes fiery orange.

May 9th
At sea

I'm sitting at my desk, with my balcony doors open to admit the night air and the sound of the turbulent ocean as the Aranui cuts through the water - we're heading back toward Tahiti, after having departed from the Marquesas Islands today. The last island that I saw was also the very first that I had seen more than a week ago - Ua Pou, the island with the giant volcanic spires. I watched this magnificent island, with its rock towers wrapped in shreds of cloud, growing paler and hazier as it all receded into the distance, perhaps never to be revisited. I have conflicting feelings about the end of the trip. On the one hand, after nearly two weeks at sea, I'm a bit homesick and eager to return to more familiar surroundings; but, on the other hand, I'm also convinced that I could happily live on this ship for a good many years, visiting islands indefinitely, having my meals prepared for me each day, and enjoying the company of the friends that I've made here.


Sequoia National Park

California, 2006

We were within the boundaries of Sequoia National Forest, and some of the legendary Sequoia trees could be found in the surrounding woods at not too great a distance from our cabin.   They're conspicuous, of course, for their habit of towering above the other trees.  We had seen large chunks of Sequoia drift-wood in various places in the river-bed, and eventually stumbled across the source - a fallen tree that had smashed across the river, leaving at least half of itself out of sight on the top of an adjacent cliff, while its lower trunk had become an obstacle to the flowing water, creating a small waterfall.  Upon first seeing this cascade from a distance, I had mistaken the obstacle for a great boulder, but on closer inspection it was revealed to be a tree trunk six feet in diameter.  The trunk had shattered into large slabs - a characteristic weakness of Sequoia wood which is said to have spared many of the trees from the lumberer's saw, since their wood was not considered favorable for construction.  In every other respect, however, the trees appear to be virtually indestructible and immortal.  Their thick bark protects them from the ravages of fire, and none are known to have died while standing - they die naturally only if toppled by the forces of the weather.  Many have escaped that fate for thousands of years, and continue expanding in size to this very day.

While the few scattered Sequoias near our cabin were of awe-inspiring size, they weren't able to compete with the real giants to be found at Sequoia National Park.   The park's primary attraction, of course, is the Giant Forest, an expansive Sequoia grove reminiscent of a fairy-tale setting. The grove features the world's largest tree, the General Sherman tree, whose base measures 36 feet wide between two of the larger root extensions.  The actual trunk of the tree as it rises above the base is narrower, of course - 17 feet in diameter - but this is astonishing in itself, and all the more so since the trunk loses very little of this width as it rises skyward.  It seems as straight as an architectural column, standing more than 270 feet above the ground, nearly as wide at the top as at the base, which gives the tree a sense of massiveness that simply must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated. As with all mature Sequoias, the crown of the General Sherman is a wild tangle of enormous, gnarled branches.  One of these massive limbs had recently broken off during a snowstorm, and had fallen to earth with enough force to shatter the concrete walkway that surrounds the tree - the branch, five feet in diameter, still lay embedded in the ruins, and we were obliged to step around it.

The trunks of the Sequoias provide an ample surface for the reflection of light, which can result in a very beautiful effect when the trees are backlit by the sun.  Wherever the trees are gathered in sufficiently tight formation, each sun-soaked tree reflects light onto its neighbors, producing a warm glow that can invest the grove with a heavenly radiance.


Night Walk in Snow

Foothills of the Smokies, Tennessee, 2009

My new home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains lies under a blanket of snow tonight - an uncommon occurrence in Tennessee so early in the winter, I'm told, although this is the second snowfall to collect on my roof since I moved here last summer. The power failed some hours ago, and left me to rely on a gas fireplace for heat.

Earlier in the evening, shortly after sundown, I had noticed that the night sky was surprisingly bright, so I decided to take a walk throughout my snowy neighborhood. Since the snow was still falling quite heavily, and was of the thick, wet variety that melts quickly, I carried an umbrella to deflect the big flakes, which struck the fabric audibly with a soft smack. I worked my way up and down the steep hills that the local streets traverse, finding no need at all for the small flashlight that I had brought along. Whether the cloudy sky was concealing a generous moon or simply reflecting the light from nearby towns was difficult to determine, but a soft, ambient light prevailed with absolute uniformity. This seemingly unnatural brightness - a phenomenon of snowy nights when the white frosting on every surface reflects even the most meager source of light - left the impression that the landscape was aglow with a restrained phosphorescence.

The result was sincerely captivating, a sort of wintry fairy-world - and all the more so since the blackout had left local residents like myself to resort to candlelight, which could here and there be seen to flicker orange and dim in the occasional window. There are only a few full-time residents like myself in this area, and a mere handful of visitors at this time of year, so I passed many dark, unoccupied cabins. Since the neighborhood is heavily forested and the cottages are relatively few and far between, I had the sense of wandering through a wild setting and coming across little outposts of human settlement in one place or another. Since the temperature was barely cold enough to sustain the snow, it was melting off and discharging great volumes of water into every little gully, and the flowing water could be heard in several places as it rushed through the forest, in great contrast to the silence elsewhere. All around, the leafless branches of trees stretched out and intertwined in wild confusion, each bearing an ever-growing veneer of white, and the boughs of evergreens drooped with fatigue under their burdens of wet snow. The presence of the snow in the air created a fog-like effect, rendering distant hills and rooflines pale and indistinct, and a few flashes of lightning added to the night's sense of strange enchantment.


Fireflies of the Smokies

Smoky Mountains National Park, 2010

Another luminous display of the summer months is the appearance of the fireflies, which are endlessly fascinating to me. In addition to the common variety that can be seen almost anywhere in the Eastern states, Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more than a dozen other species. Not all of these produce light, but the ones that do are remarkable.

Of these, the synchronous fireflies are the biggest attraction. By flashing in unison, they produce a unique visual experience that can be seen nowhere else in this half of the world. Perfect synchronicity would result in a sort of strobe effect, which was how I had imagined the phenomenon before seeing it for myself - but the actual display is more like a concentrated sparkling, and the result is hypnotically beautiful. The species was discovered here only as recently as the mid-90's, and they have since become such an object of fascination that the park service has found it necessary to regulate the flow of visitor traffic into the limited territory where the bugs work their magic.

Another variety is known as the "Blue Ghost," which is distinctive among fireflies for its ability to sustain a constant light, rather than a momentary flash; they glow for as long as a minute at a time, such that their flight path through the forest can be tracked with ease. Their lanterns are pale blue or blue-green in color, in contrast to the yellow-green of the more common firefly, and their wandering flights among the trees have an indisputably haunting quality.

These wonders were entirely new to me when I ventured out to see them one evening in mid-June. I arrived well before nightfall, and familiarized myself with the area by walking along the stream-side trail, which is an old logging road, so the path is quite wide. Groups of people were already assembling along the route, and had come equipped with beach chairs and coolers, while others like myself were simply walking or standing around. The collective mood of the gathering was bright, with everyone clearly enjoying themselves in anticipation of whatever show that nature might deliver. Many people had brought along their children, and as darkness settled the scene became strongly reminiscent of Halloween: a procession of adults and children, carrying flashlights or glow-sticks, made their way down the trail in the advancing darkness, everyone having fun, the children excited, with drinks and treats being passed around from the coolers. With their flashlights directed toward the ground, I could see little more than the legs and feet of approaching groups, and the scene was rendered surreal by the fact that most of the flashlights were covered with red cellophane - a recommendation of the park service to reduce the amount of white light, which is disruptive to the bugs as well as to the eyes of their human admirers. Thus, the groups moved along in patches of red light, with the undersides of their chins and noses reflecting red as they passed by. People exchanged questions or stories about firefly encounters in the South; one couple from North Carolina told me of having seen hundreds of the Blue Ghosts hovering over a field in their home state, with their ethereal blue-green lights travelling to and fro just above the grass - "like fairy lanterns," they said. Now, trying to visualize the imagery of their stories, I was desperately hoping to see such a spectacle.

It wasn't long before the bugs delivered. The synchronous variety had begun to emerge at twilight, and at first seemed little different from normal fireflies. After dark, however, their distinctive behavior became evident. At the very moment that one would flash his lantern, his nearest neighbors would immediately flash their own in response, and this would rapidly set the entire group into action. Each bug flashes from four to eight times, at a rate slightly faster than one flash per second; thus, seven or eight flashes occur in about five seconds, and each bug concludes his performance at approximately the same time as his peers (give or take a second or two, depending on how quickly each one manages to join the display). Then, darkness. A few moments go by. Then another flash, followed instantly by the furious response of dozens or hundreds of others, each trying to steal the show while his batteries are fully charged. Then, darkness...more darkness...repeat. This routine produces an optical experience identical to the sparkle of randomly flashing Christmas lights. For periods of five to eight seconds, the entire understory of the forest comes alive with this luminous display. Since their flashes are not perfectly synchronized, but only generally so, the intervals of darkness between bouts of activity give emphasis to a behavior that might otherwise be less obvious to the casual observer.

As I marveled at this show, I noticed another very different light source working its way among the synchronous sparkles - the constant, blue-green glow of a Blue Ghost, tiny and dim, but visible enough in the darkest of places. The more that I looked for these, the more I noticed, although their small size - roughly equivalent to a grain of rice - renders them more difficult to detect. They follow a seemingly aimless, wandering course through the night air, and their beautiful "fairy lanterns" are completely mesmerizing. Although I saw a few of them flying at eye-level with me, they're said to spend most of their time only four inches from the forest floor, in search of their potential mates, the females who remain grounded and respond to the airborne males with tiny lights of their own. Their search for each other apparently requires the male to fly low, so that he can illuminate the ground below him. This works quite well; I noticed one specimen who flew with his back to me, such that his lantern was entirely hidden from direct view, but his radiance was clearly visible reflecting on the ground as he moved along in his search for Ms. Right.

Occasionally, the females of the various species can be seen flashing their responsive signals from the ground, but these are harder to spot as they tend to be tucked away among the litter of fallen leaves and sticks on the forest floor. Some of the females have learned the sinister trick of mimicry - by plagiarizing the unique flash sequences of other species, they compel foreign males to land nearby, and then they capture and eat them.

With all of this activity occurring after dark during the summer months, in addition to the light show of nocturnal thunderstorms, the night-time environment here delivers an unequaled display of luminous wonders, which are every bit as compelling as anything that might be seen during the day.


The Forest of Greenbrier

Smoky Mountains National Park, 2010

I enjoyed a fine ramble in the national park last summer. The highlight of this excursion was Ramsay Cascades, a popular attraction in the national park, but not easy to reach. The journey to the waterfall involves a walk of eight miles, round-trip, through a valley called Greenbrier. About half of the walk is conducted below the towering canopy of an untouched, old-growth forest, since this is one of only a handful of locations in the Smoky Mountains that were spared the logger's axe during the first half of the 20th century. Enormous tulip poplars still shadow this place, rising perhaps a hundred feet or more on trunks as uniformly circular and massive as the great columns of the Parthenon, and recalling that ancient monument wherever they stand together in close proximity. A number of streams flow through this territory, and the trail crosses the largest of these waterways several times by means of primitive bridges, which consist of a single huge log shaved flat across the top, with the addition of an equally primitive handrail.

The latter stages of the hike are strenuous as the route climbs into rugged, rocky territory where stray rivulets of water find their way into the trail, producing a slippery, muddy situation. The landscape here appears altogether wild; travelers are obliged to find their way among massive, piled boulders, and to step around pools of water trapped among rocks and tree roots in the path. Small streams rush downslope across the trail in the last half-mile, and these must be crossed carefully without the aid of a bridge of any sort. Finally, the celebrated cascade comes into view to restore the weary traveler's spirit.

After admiring the attraction for about an hour, I began to notice deep grumbles of thunder - far off at first, and barely audible over the rush of the falls, but soon drawing closer and resounding with amplified force. Since the waterfall is located at some elevation on a mountain's slope, this storm action ultimately came to be very close at hand - dark clouds began brushing the treetops and imposing a dense, twilight gloom, although it was still only mid-day. Wisps of windblown cloud began to dip below the rim of the falls, and soon the scene was cast in a persistent, whirling fog. I found myself standing in the very midst of a thunderstorm.

The storm passed before long, and I emerged from the shelter of my umbrella to begin retracing my steps through the old forest. Whereas these woods had been beautiful enough during my original ascent, it was amazing to see what a wondrous transformation had now been affected by the rainfall - every plant seemed to be gleaming with joy at the receipt of this gift: the leaves were glossy with fresh moisture, the mosses loaded with sparkling beads, the ferns nodding and shuddering under the impact of falling droplets, and the lush green color of the forest had multiplied tenfold. The place had become a rainforest as beautiful as any that I've seen in the tropics. As the sky began to clear, sunlight found its way to the forest floor again, and the newly fallen moisture responded to the touch of these rays by vaporizing into radiant veils of steam, rising and dissolving among the sunbeams in the forest canopy.



Banff National Park
The Canadian Rockies, 2011

My first visit to Banff took place in May, when Canada was just emerging from winter. In the mountains, I found that most of the great alpine lakes were still frozen over, and some were inaccessible due to the fact that a few roads were still closed because of snow. But the place was overwhelming, and I was immediately taken with it. At Lake Louise, the park's best-known attraction, I found the ice melting just enough to reveal pools of frigid water, bearing the glacial blue color for which the lake is famous. I walked along the lakeside trail, often trudging through leftover snow still more than ankle-deep, although the spring air was quite comfortable. Jagged summits of rock towered all around, emerging and disappearing in the clouds of a stormy, unsettled sky. Occasionally, small avalanches poured down the cliffs above the far shore - these produced narrow cascades of falling debris that appeared just like normal waterfalls, but consisted of snow and ice and rocks, all of which created a thunderous racket that echoed between the cliffs surrounding the lake. Since all of this occurred on the far side, where the cliffs met the water more abruptly, these noisy downpours posed surprisingly little danger to onlookers like myself.

Though brief, this first experience in Banff was so profound that I could not stop thinking about it after my return home. It was clear that circumstances had led me to one of the great places of the Earth, and I resolved to return at my first opportunity during the warmer months when I could experience the region at the peak of its beauty, and with more time to appreciate it. Thus, I've been travelling throughout the Rocky Mountains of Canada for the past two weeks, staying two or three nights at a time in different locations throughout four of Canada's national parks: Banff, Yoho, Glacier, and Mount Revelstoke.

The place is thoroughly Tolkienesque in character, a truly enchanted realm reminiscent of the ruggedly mountainous landscape in The Lord of the Rings: there are sharp, rocky summits that remain snowcapped throughout the year, and high mountain passes between these peaks, and blue-green rivers that run swiftly through flower-filled valleys of their own making. I walked through an evergreen rainforest as wild and menacing as Tolkien's Fangorn Forest - gnarled trees grew among immense boulders dropped by a melting glacier in some era of the distant past, and each boulder was covered with a carpet of moss and surrounded by sparkling flowers. The trees were generously draped with grey, hanging mosses that trailed down from the branches like Halloween cobwebs, and a leaden sky cast a solemn and gloomy disposition throughout these great woods.

Although the mountains and forests of Banff are simply magnificent, the alpine lakes are the unique gems of this territory - fed by the meltwater from glaciers, these lakes display an aquamarine color so wildly saturated that it seems to transcend the boundaries of reality. The color is attributed to the influence of a type of silt called "rock flour" - apparently, a fine mineral powder produced by the grinding action of the glaciers against their rocky foundations. The lakes are infused with this powder, which gives them a semi-opaque, milky quality, and causes the water to reflect light in an amazing way - in strong sunlight, the lakes appear to glow as if lit from within by a gigantic neon bulb. The rivers that flow into the lakes, and those that drain them, are likewise endowed with this cerulean color, which is perceptible even in the absence of strong light. Many of the lakes exist because the glacial meltwater has been dammed behind great mounds of rock, called moraines, which consist of material formerly bulldozed by the leading edge of a glacier. These hills can often be climbed for a view overlooking a lake, and the color of the water seems to increase with even a small gain in elevation over it.

Of all of these great pools of color, the real show-stopper is Moraine Lake. The hue and intensity of the water varies from one lake to another, and Moraine was the most striking of those that I saw. The lake is obviously named for the prominent moraine that offers a viewing platform at the eastern end of this natural wonder. To paint this thing credibly would be an almost insurmountable challenge; even if rendered faithfully, the natural color of the water would tend to invite suspicions of excessive artistic license. To add to the drama of the place, the landscape surrounding Moraine Lake is extreme beyond all expectation. Located in a chasm called The Valley of the Ten Peaks, the lake is crowned by cliffs that terminate in ten summits of bare rock, as sharp and rugged as Indian arrowheads; they're dusted with snow even in summer, and several blinding-white glaciers are perched among them. Like the tines of a jagged saw blade, these peaks rise at close proximity all around - a spectacular backdrop that blazes like fire in the first light of day, while reflecting in the mirror of blue-green water below. Despite my travels to some of the most scenic destinations in various parts of the world, I personally have not seen anything more magnificent than this grand lake, and very few places that could even begin to compete with it.



Sleepy Hollow
New York, October 2011

The Hudson River Valley is the heartland of early American folklore - Washington Irving lived here, and his most famous characters did, too. Last week, I walked among the Catskill Mountains, following the route of Rip Van Winkle's mystical journey; and, just yesterday, I arrived in Sleepy Hollow, where I've since toured Irving's home, walked in the footsteps of Ichabod Crane, crossed the Headless Horseman Bridge, and wandered among the tombstones of the village's famous cemetery, where Irving himself is buried.

Throughout the Hudson Valley, but especially in the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow, there are numerous old estates and mansions, and even a few castles, which formerly belonged to the wealthiest of Manhattan's elite residents during the 19th Century. Despite their former grandeur, many of these buildings are languishing in a state of disrepair today, some reduced to crumbling wrecks, although many others are still well preserved as historic destinations. Whether neglected or celebrated, virtually every one of these properties has an old ghost story attached to it, making this perhaps the most haunted corner of America.

In retrospect, I can say that the old haunted village exceeded my expectations. Admittedly, my expectations had been low, as I was prepared for the disappointment of discovering that the antique charms of the place had long since been covered over by the pavement of urban sprawl. To the contrary, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Sleepy Hollow is still a place of rural tranquility, with a uniquely haunting disposition.

I arrived in the village late in the day, and after checking in at my hotel, I went directly to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where I had a ticket for the lantern tour that began at 7:00 that evening. Arriving at dusk, I found a collection of gas lanterns blazing beneath a tree, where other visitors like myself were assembling. It was a large group, and there were only lanterns enough for every other person to carry - since I was travelling alone, I snapped one up as soon as our guide invited us to do so.

It was nearly fully dark by the time that we set off, our lanterns casting shadows among the thousands of gravestones and sculpted monuments to be seen along a baffling maze of cemetery roads. We walked along so many curving pathways, over and around so many hills, beneath the limbs of so many tall trees, and by way of so many intersections and forks in the road, that I was soon utterly helpless to discern how we might return to our starting point, especially since the darkness made an even greater mystery of our surroundings. This, however, is much of the fun of the lantern tour - everything is uncertain, and objects of interest emerge from the gloom of night reluctantly, coming into clear view only upon close approach.

We stopped every now and then, perhaps at some ornate mausoleum entrance, or at a work of elaborate sculpture, to hear our guide recite the stories of the deceased figures associated with these memorial structures. The cemetery is an outdoor museum of sculpture, and much of the work is excellent. Carefully crafted, life-like figures sometimes represent the individuals that they memorialize, appearing as if they might at any moment step from their platforms to rejoin the living; in other cases, the graves are attended by angels bearing garlands or crosses or printed plaques, or by female representations of mourning who stand watch day and night in a state of perpetual lament.

Washington Irving's final resting place was a highlight of the tour, although his grave-marker was quite modest and only slightly different from the dozens immediately surrounding it, all gleaming warm whitish-grey in the lantern light. A merry jack-o-lantern smiled at the foot of Irving's stone, to help distinguish him from the multitude of his relations in the family burial plot, the boundaries of which were demarcated by a length of wrought-iron chain and a little, black gate bearing the Irving name in white letters.

Ascending a hill, we stopped at a prominent marble cube bearing the names of local residents who had served in the Revolutionary War. From this elevated position, I was surprised to find that the skyscrapers of Manhattan were visible on the horizon, glowing brightly about 30 miles to the south. The topography of Sleepy Hollow was also vaguely perceptible in silhouette against the night sky - a landscape of hills dominated the cemetery, while flatter land to the west was occupied by a residential neighborhood, and beyond that could be seen the Hudson River and its far shore, twinkling with distant lights.

Returning to the cemetery on my own the next morning, I relocated some of the previous night's attractions, but only through sheer luck, since only the most memorable landmarks appeared familiar in the full light of day. In any case, I was more interested in following the route of the stream that flows through the property, in search of a bridge that the cemetery has built as a replica of the old wooden structure, now long gone, that was supposedly a haunt of the Headless Horseman in former times. The stream was picturesque, its gentle rapids filling the air with the hiss of fast-moving water, while golden leaves fluttered down all around the rustic bridge to complete the very image of an autumn fairy tale.

I crossed the bridge, my boots thumping on its wooden planks, and wandered on until I found myself at the iron fence along the eastern boundary of the cemetery; there, I discovered a small unlocked gate allowing travelers to pass freely from the property of the cemetery to that of the Rockefeller Preserve, an enormous, wooded park that is largely responsible for the survival of the Hollow's charm. This park began to take shape around the turn of the 20th Century, as John D. Rockefeller and his son acquired a vast private estate of some 3,000 acres, which would ultimately spare the area from residential development during the next 100 years. Instead, for their own pleasure, the Rockefellers maintained the property in a semi-natural condition, but with the order and design of a great park; to facilitate access to the outdoors, they built 55 miles of gravel carriage roads throughout these wooded lands, sometimes adding lovely stone bridges where river crossings were needed. These roads and bridges still exist, and they're a treasure. The public is welcome to access the property for recreation, and since the carriage roads were designed for equestrian travel, this remains a focus of their use today - while bicycles are excluded, horses are welcome. This was doubtless the Rockefellers' nod to the Headless Horseman, perhaps hoping to appease that restless spirit by offering new lanes for him to haunt during his nightly rides.

The Rockefeller Preserve shares a lengthy border with the 90 acres of the cemetery, and the two properties together encompass nearly all of the territory that Irving would have recognized as Sleepy Hollow. The interconnected cemetery and park trails are so extensive that you can walk or ride from one corner of the village to virtually any other, and spend most of that time in shady, wooded country, or in foggy fields lined with gnarled Sycamore trees, or among cemetery hills studded with timeworn markers and monuments, and rarely beyond sight or sound of flowing water. This circumstance of rural preservation is simply amazing, and hugely fortunate for the fate of this revered capital of American folklore.



A Magnificent Snowfall
Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, 2013

I awoke during the early morning hours of March 2nd. Maybe 2:30 a.m. or so. I always leave the window-shade up at night so that I can see the stars, or the clouds, or lighting, or fog, or whatever. In this case, there appeared to be a fog, since a nearby hillside was hidden from view. But snow had been forecast, so I reasoned that it must actually be a snowfall in progress, heavy enough to hide the landscape. Looking more carefully, I could even see big flakes drifting past my window and settling on the roof below.

Some hours later, I awoke again. Now the snowstorm had ended, the view was clear, and the wooded hillside was visible, but it appeared as I had never seen it before - every branch of every tree was encased in a shroud of bright snow, rendering the forest surprisingly visible in the gloom of night. I slept fitfully thereafter, eager to see this scene in the light of day. I got up just as the morning was beginning to brighten, and stepped out onto my front porch for a better look. All around was a most amazing spectacle, of a sort not often seen here: the snow had not merely collected on the most welcoming, level surfaces, but actually appeared to have wrapped itself around objects, conforming to their shapes and clinging to them tenaciously, so that even the most delicate twigs were gilded with a veneer of sparkling white. What was more, there was not so much as a breath of wind to disturb this fragile scene.

Despite the fine preservation of this icy frosting on the trees, the air was warm enough to prevent the roads from freezing, and the pavement remained quite free of snow and ice. As a result, I was able to drive safely into the national park, where I followed a road along the edge of a river that was roaring strong with the runoff of recent precipitation. This route led me into a setting so wondrous that it was nearly beyond belief, as if I had ventured by accident into some otherworldly dimension - I was reminded of snow-laden Narnia, when the kids first venture through the magic wardrobe in the C. S. Lewis book. Now, in real life, I was witness to a comparable scene of winter extravagance. The snow coverage was so complete that the trees had the appearance of being formed of snow, rather than merely supporting a layer of it. Many of the trees were bending precariously under the weight of this burden, and so were often compelled to arch gracefully above the river, framing scenes in which small cascades tumbled into blue-green pools of the clearest water. The vibrant color of these pools was in stark contrast to the remarkable surplus of white to be seen all around.

While I was still out there, it began snowing again, and with some strength. The roadway began to accumulate snow and slush, and my car struggled in the slippery conditions wherever an uphill grade was encountered, so I reluctantly turned back. Still, before abandoning the place, I was able to observe the most beautiful snowfall that I've ever seen - the sort of huge flakes that descend at a leisurely pace in windless air, filling one's vision with the gentle motion of millions of particles.

But it was not to last. As the morning progressed and the daytime air warmed, the scene began to fall apart before my eyes. I had left home hurriedly at 7:00 a.m., without any breakfast, and had been driving or walking through the snow, camera in hand, until nearly noon. Then it suddenly began to melt off so quickly that the snow fell from the trees in great, sparkling sprays of powder. By the time that I returned home less than 30 minutes later, it was already over - not a trace of snow remained as evidence that the spectacle had ever occurred. It was as if I had wandered into a magic world that morning, and then had somehow blundered right out of it again, never to return.


The Firefall
Yosemite National Park, February 2016

So I found myself in Yosemite once again. At that moment, a rare, natural event known as The Firefall was occurring. This phenomenon involves the interaction of the setting sun with the water of a cascade that spills down the vertical face of El Capitan, one of the famed cliffs of sheer granite for which Yosemite is renowned. In its annual north/south transit, the sun is properly positioned to produce the Firefall only twice a year - once in the winter and again in the fall - and since the water typically flows only during the winter alignment, there’s a very limited window of opportunity for witnessing the event. Cloudy or freezing weather can cancel the affair altogether by depriving the spectacle of either light or water, so the Firefall has sometimes gone unseen for years at a time.

But not this year.

What happens is that the setting sun, at the very moment of striking the horizon, shines through a cleft in the granite in just such a way as to be fortuitously aligned with the falls; if the flow of water is strong, the falls leap into midair from El Capitan’s summit, and the airborne cascade is flooded with light while seen against the shadow of the great cliff behind. Thus backlit by the sun and surrounded on all sides by shadow, the water reflects the orange light so exclusively that a spectacular illusion is produced, in which the waterfall appears to glow with the intensity of a flame, as if ablaze with its own light from within.

I saw this, and will never forget it.