A Bit of Whimsy

Humboldt County, California

David Wilson

It’s not for everyone to take the world seriously all of the time, though some people probably need to, at least a little bit. But I don’t think I’m one of them. I surmise folks like that need people like me to keep things in balance, so this week I am taking creative license to present a handful of images of our North Coast through the looking-glass of whimsy. Or is that mimsy?

Taking an early morning walk in the woods after the first rains, one finds mushrooms in many forms and colors pushing up through the debris on the forest floor. Some are small, some are large. Once while hiking with friends after sunset along the continent’s edge where the forest overlooks the broad Pacific, we spied a mushroom taller than the rest, a veritable tree it was. I joked that we could climb to the top of it, though I’m not really fond of heights. But when my friend Bill from SoCal began scrambling up a tuft of moss leaning on the mushroom’s side, there was nothing for it but to climb up with him. From the mushroom’s summit we watched as the crescent moon set into the ocean. Friends Morgan and Miranda stayed below and spoke in whispers over a glowing orb. I think they kept us safe.

Two silhouettes atop a giant mushroom watch the sunset, while below two goddess women consult an orb of light.
We watched the crescent moon set over the Pacific from the top of a great Amanita muscaria mushroom near Moonstone Beach, Humboldt County, California. Below, two goddess women interact with an orb of energy in the tall grass.

It brings to mind another time I met Morgan and Miranda, late one night up on Monument Road to the west of Rio Dell. This time they were floating by in a bubble of light reminiscent of that in which the Good Witch of the North rode to visit Dorothy in Munchkin Land — only Morgan and Miranda are real, of course. We caught up on things, and then they had to float on down the road. I didn’t really think anything of it at the time, but there was something odd about their mode of transportation. Note to self: next time I see them I must find out what that was all about. They seem to travel around in some kind of Goddess energy.

Two goddess women inside a bubble on a dirt road at night with the Milky Way behind them.
Morgan Crowl and Miranda Benton on a cold, windy, misty night somewhere up on Monument Road outside of Rio Dell, Humboldt County, California. 2018.

There’s a small well-known cave at Moonstone Beach. Those who have lived here long have seen how it changes with the storms and tides and seasons; the sand level at the entrance can vary a lot, for instance. Sometimes one can’t walk into it without crouching, while other times the sand is lower and more of the opening is exposed. The latter was the case on one evening visit to the place, but there was something else I’d never noticed there. 

A composite image shows a fanciful cave scene beneath comet Hayakutake (the comet was in 1996).
As you gaze into this image, what story could I possibly give you in words that could match the story you find here for yourself in your own imagination and innerscape?

There were granite pillars formed into the living rock, creating a gateway to the cave in the floor of which gaped a dark pit ringed with the moon-like stones so common at Moonstone Beach. A luminous yellow fume rose from the black maw, and around it a grey mist hung low to the ground. To one side a stone stairway led upward between two great leaning stones, and through the archway thus formed was another world where the evening sun was still setting over the ocean. A comet hung in the night sky over the cave. The strange thing was that none of it felt strange at the time. 

Later, looking at the photos of it at home I noticed at the top of the stone steps the ghostly figure of a man looking out to sea. A trail through the mists led back from him to the pit. I had not seen him when I photographed the scene. And now I think I see eyes in the rock. I have been back to the cave many times since, and though the storms and the seasons still leave their marks, never again have I seen it as it was that night.

A Handful of Humboldt County.
A Handful of Humboldt County.

Photographing the North Coast light in the dark of night has blessed me with many beautiful evenings beneath the stars, and some strange ones. Imagining these evenings as marbles, I poured a few into my wife’s hands for her to hold. Care for one?

Beneath the Vortex

Humboldt County, California

David Wilson

The stars wheel about the north star Polaris over Moonstone Beach, Humboldt County, California.
The stars wheel about the north star Polaris over Moonstone Beach, Humboldt County, California. Lights from the town of Trinidad brighten the horizon. January 25, 2019.

It was a clear, still night at Moonstone Beach. The tide was out, and my brother and I could hear the surf roaring in the distance. An occasional rogue wave would send a low sheet of water sliding across the sands to replenish the glossy surface and worry our toes. Overhead the stars were bright in the moonless sky, and up the coast the remnants of the season’s Milky Way stood on the horizon above the lights of Trinidad. It felt good to be on the north coast.

To the trained astronomer there was probably much more to see and understand in the starry night than I knew, though I did arrive with some knowledge gleaned from my photographic studies of it. There were a few objects in the sky that I hoped to include in an image. To the left of the Milky Way I looked to find the spiral galaxy Andromeda. To the right of the Milky Way and a little farther away was Polaris, the north star. And in the middle of the Milky Way just above the horizon I was able to catch the star Deneb, home to the infamous Denebian slime devils that nearly killed Spock in an old Star Trek episode. Deneb was nearly swallowed up in the lights of Trinidad.

There are no planets in these photographs, for the planets, the Moon, and the Sun travel across our sky in a consistent pathway known as the ecliptic, which off the left edge of these images to the south.

In previous pages I have mentioned how differently our human eyes see in low light from the way the camera sees. The images here represent a couple of the ways in which the camera takes in a nighttime scene differently from your eye or mine. The camera’s shutter can be left open for extended periods, each moment of which will add light and detail to the image being recorded on the sensor or piece of film. Our eyes don’t work that way. They see moment by moment, not allowing the image brightness to build up over time. An extended exposure in the camera can also allow moving objects like stars to become streaks, while our eyes see the stars as points.

The image with the stars as points was the shorter exposure at 30 seconds, and that time combined with a fairly wide aperture and a high ISO captured the stars and distant lights brightly. The 30 seconds was not so much time that the stars became streaks in their slow flight across the sky, though a close examination reveals that they do become slightly elongated.

Animation showing the stars turning about the north star over Moonstone Beach, Humboldt County, California. Lights from the town of Trinidad brighten the horizon. January 25, 2019.
Animation alternating between a fourteen-minute exposure in which the stars became streaks and a shorter thirty-second exposure that stopped the stars as points. 1/25/19.

The vortex image used a much longer shutter speed of 14 minutes, which allowed the stars to become distinct streaks as Earth’s rotation carried us beneath them. Earth revolves like a wheel on an axel that runs through the planet from pole to pole. The vortex shows the stars revolving around Polaris, the north star or polestar. Polaris is at the center of the vortex because its location is almost directly on our northern polar axis. When photographing the night sky, the stars move the shortest distances in a given length of time closer to the polar axes. They travel the longest distances farther from the axes. We can’t see the southern polar axis from our northern position on the globe; when we look to the south at night the stars are making a wide arc as they rise in the eastern skies to their zenith before sinking into the western horizon.

Reflections from Trinidad

Humboldt County, California

David Wilson

I opened the camera’s shutter and waited.

It was already high tide, and I didn’t expect any waves to reach me. When I had arrived half an hour earlier I’d set up where the small waves coming in across Trinidad Harbor lapped nearly at my feet. I’d taken a few photographs from there, but the incoming tide periodically sent the odd wave farther than the rest and had pushed me back up the beach.

It must have been a message to me that I needed something more interesting in the foreground, for I found myself guided to a heavy wave-sculpted piece of driftwood I hadn’t noticed before in the darkness. Its contours would help bring the foreground to life.

Now as I waited through the long exposure I thought about the light falling around me.

I was excited by the way it skimmed gently across the upper surfaces of the driftwood, accentuating the contours and illuminating a mound of sand around it.

Star trails above Boat Launch Beach, Trinidad, California.
The stars arc across the sky in their nightly parade in this view looking south from Boat Launch Beach, or Indian Beach, beneath the town of Trinidad, California. January 30, 2019.

Most of the light on the beach came in from the boat launch area some distance to the right of me. It lay across the sand and surf in interesting patterns of shade made by various forms near the boat launch. Some of the light also struck the camera, so I stood and waited where my body could shade the bulbous face of the wide angle lens. I wasn’t sure I had to, but it couldn’t hurt. It was a long exposure and I didn’t want any slight lens flare to build up during the course of it.

It was too dark for my eyes to make out much detail in the sand, but I could tell that people had been there before me, both by a vehicle’s tire tracks and by the foot prints of a person near what I took to be the paw prints of a four-legged companion. Would it have been cheating, I wondered, if I’d had a bucket of water to pour over those tracks to smooth them out? Don’t photographers always want that pristine beach shot? Or else to control the tracks in the photograph themselves? There is the classic shot of tracks walking away in the sand that seems compelling to photographers. I regretted the random evidence of humanity in my image at first, but there is also something to be said for capturing the essence of a place, and those marks in the sand and the people who made them had been part of it that day.

I was still standing where I could shade my lens. I looked at my phone’s clock. It had only been a few minutes. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to wait, but a few minutes was certainly not enough time. I was patient, though. I wanted to allow the stars enough time to travel across the sky far enough to make trails that would show the pathways of their travel.

The sky was full of stars, with the constellation Orion prominent over Little Head. I didn’t know how long I could leave the shutter open before the surface lights became too bright in the image, but if I left it open long enough the crowded star field would make great star trails. I was using a wider angle lens than I had before for star trails, and I wasn’t sure how far across its field of view the stars would travel in a given length of time. I had a good idea, though, and I knew that in the direction my lens faced the stars would travel the furthest during any given exposure time.

In a long exposure, stars move a shorter distance closer to one of Earth’s axes, but where I was looking was directly between the northern and southern polar axes where the stars would leave their longest trails. The length of the star trails is also governed by the lens focal length: with a wide angle such as I was using the stars would move a shorter distance across the frame than they would if I were more zoomed in.

I was still standing and shading my camera’s lens…Ten minutes so far. Suddenly far down the coast a car’s headlights appeared on Scenic Drive, probably at the Houda Point parking area I estimated, or Luffenholtz. As the car lingered there, the brightest spot in the image, I wondered if it would be too bright for the picture.

There is a bit of seat-of-the-pants guestimation in these nighttime images. It’s easy to overexpose a bright source of light like that car, and it’s easy to underexpose elsewhere in a scene and end up with a dark image. Those headlights were worrying me. The bright glow in the distance behind Little Head was also a concern the longer I waited, but I was situated so that most of it was behind the rock. The car moved a little and the headlights lost some of their intensity, but they were still bright. They had been on for over two minutes. At some point soon I knew they’d become an uncontrollably bright blotch on the image. I didn’t want that. I was done.

I closed the camera’s shutter.

Animation alternating between stars with trails and stars as points above Boat Launch Beach, Trinidad, California.
This animation alternates between the 12-minute exposure that produced the star trails, and a shorter, 30-second exposure taken a few moments later that stopped the stars.

Milky Way over South Fork Eel River

Humboldt County, California

David Wilson

The word “photography” literally means “light painting,” and there is something about taking that idea and actually adding my own strokes of light that appeals to me. Nighttime gives me the opportunity to make images that are illuminated in ways we don’t usually see, whether from moonlight, artificial ambient light sources, or light that I may apply to an area myself. Let me share with you one such light-painted image from a dark summer’s midnight in southern Humboldt County, California.

Milky Way over South Fork Eel River, Humboldt County, California.
Eel River slides gracefully by the giant redwoods, while the Milky Way flies above. California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. 2017.

Coursing among giant Redwoods, the South Fork Eel River slipped quietly by the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove, while the Milky Way made its silent passage across the sky. Not a human soul was about that night after midnight, though during the day this Humboldt Redwoods State Park spot on the Avenue of the Giants is very popular. I had seen many people enjoying the river and day use area of the Grove when scouting here that afternoon to see how the Milky Way would lie at night.

One of the reasons I am drawn to photographing the night is for the opportunity it gives me to add my own touch in the form of painted light to create something unique. Because it is dark, I have to leave the camera shutter open for extended periods, and that gives me time to apply light selectively to areas of a scene, often using a flashlight. Such was the case with this image.

To make this photograph I left the shutter open for 30 seconds, which was a long enough exposure to capture a lot of stars, bring out the detail in the Milky Way, and to give me time to use my light to illuminate the foreground and the trees across the river. It can take some time to paint light into a scene, particularly when some of it is as large and distant as those redwoods. While the shutter was open I had half a minute to run up the river bank a little way and use my flashlight to illuminate both the foreground and the distant redwoods across the river. My idea was to illuminate it from as far to the side as I could in order to highlight the foreground texture with interesting shadows, particularly with the small rocks along the river bank. 

An annotated night sky in this version of the scene showing Milky Way over towering Redwoods along the banks of the Eel River at the California Federation of Women's Clubs Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. June 2017.
An annotated night sky in this version of the scene showing Milky Way over towering Redwoods along the banks of the Eel River at the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. June 2017. Photo by David Wilson.

Houda Beach Cave

Humboldt County, California

David Wilson

Houda Beach Cave frames the Milky Way over the Pacific.
The Milky Way rises from the horizon near the glow of the setting crescent moon outside of this hidden Houda Beach cave. Camel Rock’s silhouette is large on the horizon beside the glow of the setting crescent moon. Humboldt County, California. September 13, 2018.

It was a low tide, a low moon, the cave, and the Milky Way… long had I waited for this combination to come together, and when it did, somehow I was there. All summer I’d watched the tides, waiting for a tide low enough for me to get to the cave safely sometime before midnight (hey, I get tired.) But the idea had slipped from the forefront for a time, and I hadn’t been watching the tides when the bug to go out hit me and I called my brother Seth for company on a photographic outing.

Checking the tide, I saw that it would be fairly low right after the crescent moon set.  I decided on Houda Beach, anticipating that some interesting rocks would be exposed. I hadn’t realized that the tide would be low enough to reach the cave until we arrived, but it was. Not only that, the Milky Way was lined up outside of it, framed in the entrance, along with the silhouette of Camel Rock near the setting moon. I’d wanted this photo for months, but only when I forgot to plan it did it come about. It’s interesting how that works. And I realized then that even if low tides had allowed me nighttime access to the cave during the summer months, the Milky Way would have been out of view to the left. It had to be this night. And I was there. I’m grateful for these opportunities.

Silhouettes of two guys watch the crescent moon set from the mouth of the cave.
My brother and I watched the crescent moon set before taking the Milky Way photos. In gathering enough light to illuminate the interior and see the stars this well, the moon’s crescent shape became blown out in the highlights.
My brother and I play with our "lightsaber" flashlights outside the cave.
At one point while photographing, my brother and I played with our light beams beneath the cosmos, careful not to cross the streams. We tried one take on this, and by luck our beams formed a little house over the setting moon and Camel Rock.

Leaving the cave we were alerted by sirens behind us, and turning found a large fire burning farther north up Scenic Drive, illuminating the entire area and throwing a great smoke plume across the waters. According to reports I read later it was a vegetation fire. We watched the lights of first responders approaching it, and it seemed to us by the diminished glow that they quickly had it under control.

A fire broke out on the hillside above the beaches.
A fire broke out north of us while we were in the cave. The blue light stabbing into the picture from the right was a vehicle approaching the fire, and the blue lights to the left are Trinidad and surroundings.
Mars peeks over the edge of a large rock.
Near the cave’s entrance, Mars peeks over the edge as two rocks frame the Milky Way.