Death Valley NP | Sand Ripples

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A Still Life in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Photography enlarges what we see to intensify the experience from a moment in our life. At the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, I made a series of photographs while immersing myself in an environment that is totally unsuitable for camera equipment.

In the extreme terrain of sand dunes, a photographer contends with a unique set of challenges. First of all, dune hills are not solid ground. When placed at the top of a dune, a tripod doesn’t necessarily stay put. The sands are shifting. Sometimes the movement is imperceptible. Sometimes, one must respond with lightning reflexes to catch the equipment before it falls over or slides down a newly forming slip face. Secondly, sand grains are an archenemy of camera lens assemblies, moving tripod parts, and human eyes.

Nevertheless, dunes provide compelling minimalistic scenery. They offer subjects filled with beautiful textures and patterns and where it’s possible to isolate visual forms and make selective compositions and abstract images.

When figuring out where to explore inside the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, I concluded that the further away from the other visitors that I could get, the greater would be my chances to reach areas without many distracting human footprints. Gaining distance from other visitors would also prevent instances when my tripod might be passed by, bumped against and jostled around.  With my eyes, I plotted a course to a distant area where the afternoon light was falling on the hills and creating some form-defining shadows.

I kept to a steady pace along the valley floor. Only occasionally did I climb up a dune slipface to check my progress and stay oriented. I estimated that one hour would land me in a good area before making an about-face for my return trip. Along the way, I sought out plant life or evidence of animals.  I hoped to encounter areas of sand with formations of ripples and patterns on the saltating dunes. In the above photograph, I captured both plant life and texture.

A feature of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes that is impossible to convey with a picture, is the omnipresent fragrance given off by the plants growing there. I believe the air around me was being scented by creosote bushes.  The scent was a pungent, evergreen balsam-like perfume. When these shrubs receive moisture, they emit an intensified odor. We observed a few patches of moisture in the sky at our arrival to the trail head. In this intensely dry terrain, just a small amount of moisture made so much come alive!

One might ask, “If you’ve seen one dune, haven’t you seen them all? Aren’t all dunes the same?” The short answer is, “No.”  Dunes are piles of sand that come in different shapes, patterns and sizes. Each dune type is the result of different wind patterns, and the presence or lack of vegetation on the ground. Geologic and meteorological forces create unique character and aesthetics where sand gets trapped.  At Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the dunes are crescent, linear, and star-shaped.

At White Sands National Monument, the dune shapes are domed, barchan, transverse, and parabolic. There we walked into the expansive blinding white gypsum fields and spent hours with the kids climbing up and sledding down dune faces that were only a hundred or so feet high.

At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the tallest dunes in North America,  the types of dunes are reversing, star-shaped, parabolic, barchan, coppice and transverse. We climbed vertically for three hours to reach a very high spot, a thousand feet up, before the kids ran down. There, the height affords mighty incredible views.

Pure elements are at work on wide open areas of sand. Many photographers revisit dunes because they offer dynamic visual studies. Depending on season, time of day, weather conditions, vegetation or lack of it, and of course, vantage point, dunes are always on the move, and photographs can reveal beauty underlying that process.

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