Spring 2015.

It’s been three months since my Tucson workshop and I return to the desert celebrating happy news of two awards: I received an Ohio Arts Council 2015 Individual Excellence Award for my work creating handmade photographic storybooks, and also an Artist in Community grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council to attend a photogravure workshop at Renaissance Press in August. I am absolutely thrilled.  There is nothing like receiving letters that begin with a “Congratulations!” and I am ever so grateful to my city and state for their support of the arts.

It is 90 degrees on the desert floor today, and though much cooler at 7000 feet, Kitt Peak is a different mountain than it was in mid-winter. I was privileged to be able to photograph at that time of year when fog and mist and clouds render the landscape dream-like.

Driving west from Tucson that late January day. The mountain moving in and out of clouds. Sunlight stripes the desert, bright against dark skies. As we make the left off Ajo, looping the switchbacks up the access road, the landscape is suddenly three-dimensional: gleaming sun on one cliff against cloud-dark over another.  The desert floor tinted a minty green.  I am here in a different season.  They've had rain.

Beautiful for photographs but bad for telescopes, weather kept the domes closed, and without the expectation or rhythm of a night schedule the mood of our stay shifted; we felt snowbound.  Carrying my camera, I set out on walks.  In the fog... at sunrise... in the air after rainclouds passed... I made photographs of what I thought was the landscape, but what I now realize was the breath of water moving through that landscape.

From the ledge we watch curtains of rain move toward us across the desert.  Saturated colors.  Rich ochres and grey-greens.  Fog rolls up one side of the mountain on its way down the other and all I see is white. The twitter of birds — the only sound — bounces around this velvet-air bell jar we find ourselves in, and I am amazed: so this is what it sounds like in a cloud…

It was a beautiful time of year to visit.  Stepping, now, from the air-conditioned airport into the Arizona heat I can tell that the soft and moody season has passed.  As always, I am thankful for any time I can spend here, for the privilege of being a guest on the mountain, for the gift of travel, and especially, this spring, for the support of the arts councils of Ohio and Columbus.  I walk a little lighter into that bright Tucson sun.

Stargazing adventures, #5

On the first morning of summer, Tony called down to me from the observatory roof: "Hey!" he said.  "How was your night?"  I thought for a minute and my eyes welled up with tears at the same time I was grinning from ear to ear.  "You know how you have these moments in your life?"  I said.  "... This handful of unbelievable experiences you know you'll remember forever?  And best of all, you're lucky enough to recognize them even as they're happening?!" He smiled back at me.  

That was my time on the mountain.  And it felt like this: 

Albert Einstein's bookplate, by Eric Büttner, 1917. 

Albert Einstein's bookplate, by Eric Büttner, 1917. 


It started with a little drawing Don made to illustrate our place on the earth that night... 


...which would later inspire my favorite photograph.


Don told me he was on an airplane once working on his laptop when the lady next to him asked why he was an astronomer.  "What's the point?" she said.  And I think about that.  Sometimes the point is just to look.  To watch.  To be curious.  To find out.  To maybe come to understand even a little bit, and to be awed by everything we don't.


How do I even begin to say thank you for this amazing gift of time in night-magic-land?  Words fall so short. 


Stargazing adventures, #4

In the interest of packing light, I didn't bring my tripod on this trip.  I knew I wanted to try my hand at some night sky photographs, but I'm usually pretty good at creating some sort of tripod substitute if needed, so I left mine at home.  Silly me.  Had I not been fortunate enough to find an old telescope tripod in the observatory, I don't think my night photography experiments would have turned out as well.


Nights with the moon lit up the dome, made it easy to see what I was doing, and so I just held down the shutter button and counted.  Yay for digital! - I could view the results right away and make adjustments.


I'd planned to go out during a moonless hour on my last night to see if I could capture the Milky Way, and during the day I found a good spot to set up the tripod so I wouldn't have to fuss with carrying it up the rocks in the dark.  But - wow - dark is DARK up on the mountain, and there I am at midnight hiking around with my little flashlight hoping I don't break my ankle on the rocks, fall off the ledge entirely, or startle critters in the process.  I sing them a little song to let them know I'm coming...

Mountain lions, monsters, don't eat me; I am only skin and bones, you see...

When I finally get to the tripod I realize I only have two hands to screw on the camera while holding a flashlight. Why didn't I think of this?  Muttering, I figure out that holding the light with my shoulder like a telephone seems to work the best, and finally, there it is: my Milky Way.

Thank you thank you! 


Stargazing adventures, #3

And so go the nights...


6:15  -  Hike to the point to check the weather in person. 

6:45 -  Close the curtains in the house to keep the light in.  Make coffee (Don).  Make tea (me).  Grab flashlights for when it gets dark and head to the observatory.

7:00 -  Open up the dome and all the doors.  Refill the liquid nitrogen.  Don explains to me that this keeps the image sensor cold.  "We don't want any electrons moving around in there," he says.  (Those little troublemakers!)


8:00 -  Walk to the cliffs to see the sunset.  Look for Venus, and then Mercury, who happens to be standing next to her this week.


8:30 -  Turn on the jazz radio station which we can pick up from Phoenix and then get to work.


Don's got a couple projects in the works during his run at the observatory, but on most nights we are watching the daily life of CM Draconis, a binary star that's (a mere) 50 light years away off the curve of Draco's tail.  Every 39-ish hours one of its stars passes in front of the other and the system becomes less bright.  As the telescope records images, the data is plotted on a graph.  Over time - a very long time - the period between these eclipses will grow shorter as the stars move closer together.

CM Draconis (the red dot)

CM Draconis (the red dot)

My old-school romantic notions of looking through an eyepiece out into the universe were sadly squashed.  Not that graphed data isn't beautiful, but viewing is all on computer screens nowadays.

The eclipse. 

The eclipse. 

1 am - The jazz program ends, so we hook up the stereo to Pandora's "chill-out radio".  In between peeking over Don's shoulder and asking him a bunch of questions about what's what, I'm working on photographs of my own. It's nice to have this quiet "studio time".  Somewhere around now my eyes get too tired to stay open and I curl up in my workstation chair for a nap.

2 am - My second wind, and the perfect time for dinner, so I head out to fix something.  Now, I've been warned about scorpions, poisonous snakes, mountain lions, etc., but the thing that scares me the most is walking past the coat rack in the shop on my way to the kitchen.


Aha! The Buttermouse strikes again!  Wanted for crumb-stealing, butter-licking, and well-executed M&M raids in the middle of the night.  I'm rootin' for ya, Buttermouse, cause you're so darn cute!

  Caught !

 Caught !

All that was left...

All that was left...

4 am - With the dimmest of light beginning to glow in the east, we close up and I head off to bed, my brain spinning with whatever magic there was that night:  Supernova hunting...  Not just a full moon but a super moon...  The space station whizzing by at 17,000 miles an hour...  The dark time between moonset and sunrise when the Milky Way spills itself across the sky... The shortest night of the year spent sleeping on a cliff ledge, then watching the west at sunrise as the giant shadow-triangle of the mountain moves slowly toward us over the dusty lights of Ajo. 

I pinched myself a thousand times on this trip just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. 


Stargazing adventures, day 2.

There's that moment when you wake up someplace new and all of sudden you realize you're not in your own bed at home, and you know that when you get up to look out the window the scenery is going to be completely different. Sure enough, there it was when I opened the curtains: the view of the desert from the top of a mountain.  I'm not in Ohio anymore...


English muffins, bananas, tea. What else do I really need?  I've made friends with the spider in my shower, discovered that my telephone works if I take a little walk behind the dome, and found a good spot to sit and scribble in my journal.


I spend some time poking around the observatory library, looking at books and mostly incomprehensible academic papers, and the gorgeous old flat file drawers containing the Palomar Sky Survey.  These are charts of the entire sky taken in the 1950s at the Palomar Observatory in California, developed in a darkroom on real fiber-based photo paper and overlaid with transparencies labeling all the "stuff" out in space.  These days everything's digital - and so much easier - but what a treasure to have these prints.


This morning I met Tony, the machinist at the observatory.  He's got a picture tacked to a shelf in his workshop of Albert Einstein sitting at a desk with Einstein's quote: "If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk a sign?"  I'm always amazed by the interesting things people do: Tony told me he broke his knee a long time ago in an "armored combat" tournament, where apparently you dress up in - literally - suits of armor and whack at each other with clubs and swords.  (Suddenly my life seems very boring.)  "I don't do that anymore," he said.  He was in the kitchen making a smoothie. Here he is in the shop:


Telescope fixin' tools... I almost forgot to mention, the observatory has the biggest crescent wrench I've ever seen (although I'm told this is sort of a mid-sized model).


And there's a total science-nerd light switch which I love: