“I found this an oddly hard year, just a shapeless year.” New York Times columnist David Brooks

An after-sunset sky above a ridge west of Montana's Flathead Lake'

An after-sunset sky above a ridge west of Montana's Flathead Lake, October, 2021

As I write this 2021 is in its final days, and like many of us I'm not sorry to see it go. It's been another year of pandemic, a year that's not ending with good news, with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 rapidly chipping away at what's left of our sanity. Case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths are higher than they were a year ago, and that was before we had vaccines. But back then we DID have lock-downs, mask and distancing mandates, and other enforced requirements. Despite concrete evidence that they minimized spread of the virus, I suspect we won't see much of that again, as such rules aren't politically expedient. Saying and doing things to win votes is more important than your constituents' health. American Politics as usual.

Pat and I are healthy enough, but we're old, which through no fault of our own puts us in a high-risk category. We are paying attention to CDC recommendations and other accredited science, and doing the things we think are reasonable and hoping that's good enough to keep us safe. We know lots of people behaving the same way. A few of them have contracted the virus and had various levels of difficulty as they fought through to recovery. We don't want to be included in their numbers, but sometimes it seems inevitable.

Bottom line: 2021 has been an uninspiring year. We did no travel. We made one visit to Glacier National Park (which we consider our “local” park) and while there never got near another person or anything one might have touched. Conditions weren't great and I didn't unpack the camera. We stayed away from airports and train depots, attended no concerts, did not exhibit in any outdoor art shows. Indoors or out, when near other people we don't know we wore masks and kept our distance.

We are having a house built and by necessity have had contact with suppliers, contractors, and trades people. No small percentage of these folk, while generally highly skilled and (usually) very nice people, will not wear masks or get vaccinated against the virus. It's no surprise that COVID has swept through some of the crews, sometimes leading to periods of inactivity at the building site. That's been frustrating for Pat and me mainly because it could have been so easily avoided. The good news is, all have recovered (so far).

Misinformation runs rampant; even good information is sometimes confusing or conflicts with itself. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are exhausting. It’s a feeling of unconnectedness. It’s the demon that separates us. It saps our compassion, our trust. I can't remember where the year went, as there were few “highlights” worth remembering.

Unrelated to the pandemic but still significant for me, the printer I've used for many years, a machine with which I'd become completely comfortable, and that had made hundreds of outstanding prints for me and for my clients, suffered a permanent failure late in the spring. Printing has become an important part of my photography, one that I see as having significantly helped improve my work behind the camera. It has so far not been practical to replace the machine, and that has left me feeling adrift creatively.

A Year Without Shape

We haven't traveled, choosing instead to avoid the hoards in restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, and parks. In spite of, or perhaps because of the pandemic, the parks and other wild places we love have seen record crowds packing roads, trails, parking areas, campgrounds, and services and leaving behind all manner of crap, damage, and stupidity. We've stayed away. The new house project has kept us busy. The long 2021 fire season filled much of the western U.S. with smoke that continued very late into the year. I'm unable to make prints. My camera gear spent more days stored in my pack than in my hands. I often wondered: Will we ever return to our favorite places? Will we ever visit places we've long wanted to see? Am I even doing photography anymore? If not, what will I do with all of the picture ideas and concepts rattling around in my head? It wouldn't be the end of the world; I've got plenty to do, and being an old guy, I can be pretty happy not doing much. But packing it in just doesn't feel right, somehow. The need to create, to make things, is still strong, and the things I make best are pictures. In this vague, unfocused year I've struggled to do that. But I have had, I think, some success.

Keep Calm, and Carry On

I live in paradise. Except for summer heat and drought; limited visibility due to thick wildfire smoke extending, these days, from Easter to nearly Christmas; and an overabundance of Republicans, it's just about perfect. I can walk out the door and find wildflowers, animals, and amazing scenery. Thanks to all that I've managed to get a few keeper photos this year, although probably not Ansel Adams's fabled dozen significant ones.

Our new home, which we hope to occupy before the end of this (2021/22) winter, sits in open hills and farmland devoid of trees, with a panoramic view of the Mission Mountain range. The surroundings are quite different from the old place. In the struggle for inspiration, looking for any motivation to make pictures, the hills around the new house provide a reason to look, to attempt to see, which is a prerequisite to any attempt to capture a scene photographically or otherwise

One evening in early October Pat and I drove down to the building site to see what work had been done that day. Late afternoon brought us an interesting sky, so I took the camera gear, hoping sunset might be a little bit special. It was, and more than a little bit. A few minutes before the sunset set beyond the hills behind the house the mountains across Flathead Lake, and the local hills, lit with brilliant color. As a bonus, a rainbow appeared, although faint and just briefly. It's tough to make a photo in that direction without houses and other structures in the scene, but with a long lens I did find some compositions in between the man-made stuff. But the show really got started when looking the other way after the sun had dropped below the western hills. I'm not a teenager; I don't use the word “awesome” very often. But awesome it was, and it lasted over half an hour before the amazing color in the sky finally faded into darkness. It was the most amazing half-hour of photography of the year for me. I felt somehow renewed, excited to be doing what I was doing, and eager to do more of it. Enough with the words; a few pictures can tell the rest of the story.

1 / 4
Hills to the east glow minutes before the sun set. 6:37 PM
2 / 4
Godbeams and storm clouds a few minutes after the sun set. 6:51 PM
3 / 4
The light and clouds continue to evolve. 7:01
4 / 4
A whitetail deer watches the last of the great light. 7:04 PM

Nobody knows what 2022 will bring. Scientists will continue to study and learn more about the virus. Vaccines may evolve, boosters may become a regular thing much like flu shots have been for years. People will argue about how to behave, the polarization will continue. Pundits will pund, misinformation will lead people to ridiculous beliefs and actions. People will get sick. Many will recover, some will die.

I think we have to look beyond all of this. Beautiful sunsets still happen. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

December, 2021

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