Sunday, March 22, 2015


You’d think that if you had lived all four of your angst ridden high school years in the same house you’d remember the name of your street. I didn’t. But with a street map of Tempe and by following my substantial nose I found the little dwelling. I didn’t expect the Taj Mahal but, Jesus, the poor thing was a storage unit. 

What had been a white two bedroom was now a lime green outbuilding in a sprawling church complex across the street from a hospital that didn’t exist when I was a boy. Sad and diminished, the little box still stood fifty years later.   

The house
The house harbors lots of memories, some of them actually good: my first LP, Dave Brubeck’s “Take the A –train,” My Ludwig drum kit with Zyldjian cymbals, the ebony Wurlitzer spinet in the living room, the three block amble to and from my high school, once on a broken fifth metatarsal after a basketball scrimmage, the gorgeous Mary Lou McNatt, the lead in the all school play “Rebel Without a Cause” and second place in a state wide oratory contest that foretold a life of silver medals.

When I got back to the house from the police station my bags were on the back stoop. The night before I had crashed in the back seat of my car in front of my singing partner’s house. There may have been beer involved. Very early that morning my mother found me and called the cops. The officers, much embarrassed and apologetic, took me downtown presumably to book me for underage drinking or some other Class 1 felony. I was never charged. I sat in the slammer for a couple of hours, was released and walked home to be find my worldly possessions on the back stoop. I was on the street.

The stoop

A year and a half later when I turned 21 I went back to the house for the first time since that momentous day. I went back, ostensibly, to get my birth certificate though I suppose I was hoping for something more. There would be no something more and I never saw my mother again. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The lambing season

Alfonzo Abeyta
The whole sheep wrangling odyssey began almost a century ago when Alfonzo Abeyta’s father Amos helped with his uncle’s sheep and was paid in orphan or “penco” lambs for his efforts. Those pencos became the foundation of the Abeyta flock which this year numbers around 325.

Alfonzo took the baton from his dad and now the tradition is being preserved by son Andrew and grandson Amos. Both Alfonzo and Andrew remember that their first job was stomping on the wool to compress it as much as possible before bagging it. They were both about six when they started.

Andrew and Amos Abeyta
Throughout March and part of April a whole new generation of Abeyta sheep will enter this bleating world. Last Friday the precious little critters were squirting out wherever I turned, some of them, maybe two dozen, were pencos like the original sheep. Around fifteen ewes died in the untimely chill that descended on the San Luis Valley right after the shearing. "The cold weather was pretty hard on the sheep" lamented Andrew. I asked him if he lost more than normal this year and he responded that he had.

One lamb coming up

Managing the lambing circus is like herding cats 16 hours a day. Andrew and Amos Abeyta were showing the wear and tear of the ordeal already and still have a month to go. The crux of the effort is keeping mom and the babies together. Ewes have a notoriously short attention span and will forget the first lamb while birthing lambs two or three. My ewe of choice bore triplets so mother and children were herded into the same pen as quickly as possible. The ewe had no particular interest in feeding the youngsters and was given a hefty push by Amos.

Family unit

Ewes know their lambs by smell and will reject penco lambs. The pencos have to be hand fed goat’s milk from a repurposed water bottle. The scrum to get some of that magic elixir is a battle royal. Gloves highly recommended. When I asked Andrew how he knew that each lamb had been fed he said he could tell by their full tummies. How sweet is that?

Bottle Babies
Work release

Amos corralling strays

Andrew and a straggler

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Shapes and Shadows

We’re on the road going from opening to opening to opening. First it's Sorrel Sky in Durango then Sorrel Sky in Santa Fe and on to the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas. That’s three Peggy Immel shindigs in as many nights. So in anticipation of the white line fever that awaits I’m writing this several days in advance. And what with scrambling to get ready I’m adopting the short but sweet model. These are from Joshua Tree three weeks ago because that’s what the otherworldly shapes and shadows demanded on that day. The two below are quite abstract so if the scale is a mystery I have succeeded.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

It's February 22 all over again

Due to a computer glitch that forced me to restore my computer back to an earlier date the post named "Both Sides Now" was lost. So to preserve at least an archive of the entry here's an approximation of the February 22 issue.

Since 2012 when I last visited the Salton Sea I have wanted to return to photograph more desert weirdness and decrepitude. The images I made there that December proved to be my favorites of the entire year and that compelled me to return.

The so-called “sea” emerged from human error wherein the great canal cut from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley breached so that the entire contents of the Colorado flowed into the Salton Sink for two years. That created an inland sea and the largest lake in California. The Salton Sea enjoyed a brief honeymoon in the fifties and has since evaporated into an odiferous repository of agricultural runoff. The sea has no outlet so it brews itself into a toxic tea. So far I missed the highly touted Dead Fish Festival that occurs in mid-July when temperatures reach 120 degrees. 

Seen at the right time of day the view across the placid waters can by quite alluring though the chain link fence that prevents you from entering its recuperative waters suggests otherwise.

And despite its darker properties there are still folks who call the Salton Sea home as is evidenced by RV parks with wall to wall trailers from 1951 and all manner of detritus and graffiti.

On the plus side the Salton Sea boasts more bird varieties than anyplace in the US not named Big Bend.

And the remains of one unfortunate Pelican.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The once and future

I got into the sheep ranching story somewhere in the middle of the book. Both of my encounters with El Cubano Victor Hernandez happened at the end of the grazing chapter and now after trailing the sheep for a dozen or so miles and being part of the shearing festivities last weekend I'm hooked in a big way.

The story began to tell itself during the two day trek to the Abeyta ranch in Mogote, Colorado a couple of weeks ago. The shearing of the sheep, an event that is deeply communal, has given cultural context to the tale. If I treasured meeting Victor and trailing the sheep to Mogote, being part of the shearing has only deepened my appreciation for the rich history and uncertain future of sheep ranching and the proud culture of family, faith and the land in the San Luis Valley.

In the corral

In the chute

Aaron Abeyta gives a push

Inside the shearing trailer


Tom Barr's shearing rig

Branson Barr feeding the EZ Baler

400 pound bales of wool

Not so long ago the Abeyta family’s neighbors in Mogote would pitch in to gather the sheep and to prod them through a long chute where each would be shorn with hand shears. It was hard, time consuming work that produced forearms like Popeye’s.

Today a handful of friends and neighbors, all volunteers, arrive at the ranch to help Los Abeytas with the shearing but as much, it seems to me, to be part of an age old ritual and to be part of the clan. The clan is united by a shared history of lean times and the hard work of wresting a living from the earth. It is united in a separateness born of its history, ethnicity, income and loss.

If in the old times the shearing was done by the family and the clan, today the shearing itself is done by Tom Barr’s hired hands who shear a sheep with an electric razor in three minutes or less. Tom and his four assistants hail from the Mormon farming community of Sanford which lies about thirty miles from Mogote just past La Jara. I asked him how long he had owned his roving rig and he told me, “My dad built the thing in 1965 so it’s fifty years old. I remodeled it ten years ago. Put new siding on it. That guy (pointing at the number three shearer) did the work.” To my knowledge Bob has the only family owned shearing operation in southern Colorado and he and his vagabond crew drive as far as Montrose to shear sheep. What happens if Bob folds his tent is a question that looms as large as what happens when the 76 year old Cubano can’t herd the sheep anymore. The forecast is partly cloudy in this part of the San Luis Valley where the future of the Abeyta sheep operation mirrors the uncertainty of the Hispano ranching culture in southern Colorado.

One dead ewe and another just hanging on
Running sheep is not for the meek. There are nicks and cuts from the shearing and not every animal survives the march from the Taos Plateau. "We lose a few each year. Just like human beings, some are not strong enough to make it." Andrew Abeyta tells me. It's a poignant truth in a life rooted as strongly as faith to the land.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Open 2015

Silent Running
Opening March 10 and ending April 3 I’ll be part of the exhibition Open 2015 at PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. This will be my fourth group show at PhotoPlace. I am honored to have had "Silent Running" selected by the esteemed educator and photographer Jeff Curto, Professor Emeritus of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

It’s hard enough to choose images to submit to shows with themes. It’s something else again to select a handful of images from about a million. Ever since I started to develop the Fog Series in 2013 it has hovered near the surface of my consciousness so when choosing photographs to submit all were from that series. I happen to know Jeff has a poetic streak and may even have a soft spot for lyrical images.

Appropriately enough Silent Running was taken during the Putney Regatta on the Connecticut River in Putney, Vermont several years back. It's rather pictorialist I think, something Alfred Stieglitz relegated to the photographic dust bin a century ago. Maybe it's coming back.

To see all the images in the show click on the link below and page down.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pie in the sky

The history of homesteading in America began with the Homestead Act of 1862 and continued through 1950s mostly in Alaska and the great barrens of Southern California. In the Homestead Act of 1938 five acre patches of the Morongo Valley east of Twentynine Palms were leased to the delusional for $5.00 and the pledge to develop the land in the most minimal way. For most that was to build a simple cabin or buy one pre-built for $1,000 or so. Water, alas, was not as easily accessed and at the sole expense of said lessee. For those who created a habitable abode a “Patent”, a kind of ownership, was awarded. 

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of these homesteads have become feral denizens of the unforgiving desert. A few survive today and can be had for $30,000 or $40,000 complete with water, electric and A/C.

If there is a community hub for this vast aridness it is Wonder Valley where there’s a bar and restaurant that looked like it could actually function though there’s no guarantee of that. 

Of homesteading in general the intrepid John Wesley Powell proffered that it’s a pretty good idea when there’s sufficient water and land to support a family unit but that west of say the longitude of central Texas you're selling folks some pie in the sky and world of hurt.