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New Mexico surge


Social distancing at Ft. Union. My walk back to the housing area (rooftops on the left). (Click on photos to enlarge)

It’s been a busy week since I last posted to the blog. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued strict restrictions due to a surge in COVID-19 cases from last Monday until Nov. 30. People are ordered to stay at home except for essential activities. Non-essential businesses have to stop in-person services and essential businesses are to limit their capacity. The state has travel restriction if you enter New Mexico. There has been a mask mandate for anywhere outside your home. In announcing the restrictions, she said, “Make plans for a different kind of Thanksgiving – one without non-household members.”

The numbers are not high by New York standards but the total population is not large so the rate of infection is high for many counties. Fortunately I’m in Mora County, which is 1,934 square miles, population 4,881. They reported 2 cases on Friday.

The Ft. Union park is still open but the visitors center is closed. Brochures are out on a table at the entrance and the trail through the fort is self-guiding. The rangers are good about wearing masks in their offices and around the housing area. It is strange to be isolated out here and seeing occasional news reports.

From what I’ve seen, people seem to be taking this seriously. I went shopping this past Thursday in Las Vegas and the Lowe’s grocery store had many signs at the door an inside instructing shoppers to social distance. They say keep 2 carts apart – roughly six feet. Lots of markings on the floor at the checkout for where to stand and where not to stand. At Semilla Natural Food the precautions were the similar.

For me, it’s pretty low risk at the park. Walking to the visitors center I might see one of the maintenance rangers in his truck drive by. Sometimes there are no visitors in the parking area or park. I did talk in the offices with rangers Mary and BJ yesterday about doing a video interview for their social media as a substitute for the program I usually do as artist-in-residence. And they nicely invited me to the Thanksgiving dinner here in the housing area. If the weather is warm, we’ll eat outside. If it is cold we’ll get our plates and return to our apartments. I just ordered a pie from Pedro’s Bakery in Las Vegas and will report after I pick it up.

The moon has been in a very beautiful crescent phase, getting larger every day this week. I’ve been out every night, sometimes late. I’ve been working on some different ideas about photos and also making some time lapse videos. During these few days, the moon lights up the landscape without washing out the stars. Soon the moon will be too bright, but the last few days have been productive.

Lowe’s signs inside the grocery store.
Beautiful two-day old moon setting. Earthshine can be seen here, a phenomenon observed and described by Leonardo da Vinci. Sunlight reflects off the Earth which then illuminates the night side of the moon (the non-crescent part).
Wagon wheel in the corral lit by the moon.
The International Space Station flies over one of the chimney remnants Friday evening. The 3-minute exposure depicts the station as a streak going through the plane of our galaxy.

Viva Las Vegas! (NM)

The train station, still in use. (Click on photos to enlarge).

Yesterday I drove down to the town of Las Vegas for some shopping. Somehow there is another town called Las Vegas. This one is much smaller than the Nevada version and there aren’t any casinos. It has a nice railroad station and the Castaneda hotel, one of a series of hotels developed by Fred Harvey along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. I took a look at the old central square and there was a big filming production going on. They were filming an episode of a TV show called, “Roswell, New Mexico”. Funny that they came to Las Vegas. I found Semilla Natural Foods for some grocery shopping, which was next to what looked like a pilates/yoga studio.

At the park on Veterans Day, Ranger Greg was dressed in a period U.S. Army uniform from the Civil War era. He thought it appropriate to wear the uniform, which he had done in the past during park events. It was in the 50’s, sunny but cool. Perfect weather, Greg said, for the heavy wool uniform. Greg has amazing knowledge about history of the park, the Native Americans who were part of this region and the Spanish descendants that came up through Mexico (when this was part of Mexico). He also helped run the night sky programs, setting up telescopes and often having groups camp overnight.

The moon has been illuminating the landscape nicely in the early morning hours. The park is very different at night. No big animals, but coyotes that often howl. A bit scary since you don’t know where they are.  

Murals painted on buildings for the TV filming.
Greg in his Civil War period U.S. Army uniform. The rangers greet visitors at an outdoor table.
The Milky Way above a wall lit by the moon.
Remnants of chimneys from the officers houses. Orion and some winter stars are high overhead. On the right is a bright Mars.

On the high plains: Ft. Union

Driving towards the plains on I-25.

I’m here on the high plains of New Mexico as the artist-in-residence at Fort Union National Monument. The park is at 6,775 feet in altitude and the wind is howling across the plain this morning. Ranger B.J. told me soldiers stationed here would call it Fort Windy.

The national monument is the site of an Army fort that existed in three iterations from 1851 to 1891 in the newly acquired New Mexico Territory. The fort was part of American expansion into the southwest and is situated at the intersection of two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail. You can still see wagon wheel ruts carved into the earth along the path of the trail. Ancestral lands of a dozen native American nations were trod on and settled by Hispanos, people of Spanish descent from Mexico, and then the U.S. Army.

Over a year ago I applied through the National Parks Arts Foundation for an artist-in-residence stint at the park. I didn’t know much about the park, but my friend Rush from Albuquerque said it was in an area with lots of history and it is fairly remote so the sky is very dark. I was accepted in March and wasn’t sure until recently if the residency would happen due to the pandemic. Park employees are careful about wearing masks and distancing. There are not very many visitors so I don’t see many people during a day.

Arriving in Albuquerque on Nov. 2, it was nice to see most people wearing masks on the street, and all wearing masks indoors. Like most other states, New Mexico is seeing an increase in Covid cases.

I’m staying in a small studio apartment in the ranger housing area about a half mile from the visitor center. It’s in a complex with an administration and maintenance buildings. The low one-story structures give it the look of a tiny town. I think three other park staff live here.

Seems like it’s hard to social distance from people here because it’s hard to find other people. The road leading into the park dead ends here, so there is little traffic during the day and none at night. It is very quiet here, a nice bit of solitude.

The park consists of the remnants of adobe walled structures that made up the fort. It reminds me of a more modern Chaco Culture, the park in northwest New Mexico that preserves ancient pueblo Indian buildings. I thought the shapes of the walls would lend themselves to interesting foregrounds against the sky.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

My efficiency apartment in the ranger housing.
The park: remnants of adobe walled structures are preserved.
First night out – Lots of stars!
Second night – green airglow recorded by the camera. Only seen in very dark sites, it is light emitted by atoms recombining at night after being photoionized by the sun during the day.

Sky, Moon, Sun

Join us for the opening of Sun, Moon, Sky, an exhibit of night sky landscapes by Stan Honda, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 presented by Tribeca New Music and nancy manocherian’s the cell. On display will be Stan’s striking images of the night sky, eclipses and the space shuttle.

The reception will feature a musical performance of Sapphire by Preston Stahly, inspired by a dawn astronomical twilight experienced at sea. It will be performed by violinist Jennifer Choi with a video of Stan’s images.

The exhibit runs until Feb. 6, the framed archival prints will be available for purchase. (The Cell is open Tuesday to Friday, 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm)

Click on image below or check our Facebook event.


Night sky

The guard tower and Milky Way. Bright object to the right is Jupiter. (Click on photo to enlarge)

One goal was to try and do some night sky photos of the structures at Minidoka. Thankfully, the site is far enough outside of Twin Falls that you get a good view of the stars and even the Milky Way. As you can see there is quite a bit of artificial light along the horizon from the outlying towns looking to the southeast (from the guard tower) but the view overhead is nice.

The tower and the fire station were taken on two separate night, both around 1:30 to 2:00 am in the early morning. The Milky Way rises about 1:00 am in early May and I thought that would make a good photo. Nearby lights from farms cast a faint glow on the tower and station. The nights I was there, it was very still though somewhat noisy due to the rush of the water in the irrigation canal which goes right by the guard tower.

While the stillness is similar to being there during the day, it was a different feeling being surrounded by the night sky and stars.

When researching the Idaho area, I saw Craters of the Moon National Monument on the map, close to Twin Falls. It sounds like a perfect place for the night sky landscapes so I took a two-day trip out there. Thanks to Janet from the Friends of Minidoka group, I stayed at her family’s cabin northwest of the park. (Friends of Minidoka co-sponsor a yearly pilgrimage to the site and work closely with the park service to support and help fund projects at the site. If you want to support the Minidoka site, the Friends group is a good one to donate to.)

Craters is a large volcanic lava field with an amazing landscape dotted with cinder cones and quite a bit of plant life. The ‘a’a lava (stony and rough) was familiar to me from my trip to Haleakala in Maui where I learned the two major types of lava, ‘a ‘a and pahoehoe, use Hawaiian terms to describe them.

The two pictures here are limber pines that grow in the park. The shapes of the branches are great and make for striking subjects. An almost first quarter moon lights up the gnarled pines against the starry sky. There was little color in the shots so I made them into black and white.

The fire station. The constellation Cassiopeia is right over the roof in the center
Craters of the Moon: The root of a limber pine lit by the moon with the Big Dipper.
Craters of the Moon: Limber pine branches lit by the moon.

American Vernacular

A mostly tin man, with axe, on Hunt Road, on the way to the Minidoka site.
 (Click on pictures to enlarge)

My photographer friend Ken and I (see his excellent blog, ), along with Ann’s help, are on the lookout for photos of what we call the “American Vernacular”. Mostly scenes where you might say, “Only in America” or “Only in Idaho”. Hard to define but we know it when we see it. When I saw the tin man above, I knew it was the American Vernacular. This is on the road a few miles from the Minidoka site. It was a bit scary, as it is wielding an axe.

As with life everywhere, athletic activity is important to the community. Even more so at Minidoka and the other camps with the lack of a normal life. The park service has built a baseball field near Block 22 where they believe an original field existed. The simple backstop, wood stands and single bench for each team recalls the simple materials that must have been used by the incarcerees. Volunteers built this field in a single day with donated materials.

An interesting book for younger children (or even adults) is called “Baseball Saved Us” about the experiences of a boy in the Minidoka camp. Other books on baseball in the concentration camps are “A Diamond In the Desert” by Kathryn Fitzmaurice and “Nikkei Baseball” by Samuel Regalado.

Food production was difficult during the war and each camp often had large areas set aside for agriculture. The camp administrators were not able to provide the usual foods that the Japanese Americans were used to except for rice. Many of the incarcerees were farmers and they began to grow crops that fed the entire camp. At Minidoka a root cellar was built, with timber poles, to store the harvests. It is partially underground with a roof covered with straw and ground cover. We got permission from the park service to go inside. I wore a hard hat in case anything loose fell on me. Emily, the intern, was posted outside in case anything happened. It was boring for her since nothing did happen.

Sunset over the baseball field.
Early morning sun on home plate.
A panoramic view inside the root cellar. There is an entrance at each end to the far left and far right. Horizontal lines get distorted in the creation of the wide view.
One of the entrances to the root cellar.

Local color and Block 22

Tattos AND aquariums!

Last Saturday I joined Hanako and another park employee, Sam, at a local restaurant called Koto Brewery. Across the street was a really interesting business called Churchman’s Tidepool Room. Their sign says it is a, “Tattoz & Body Piercing * Salt and Freshwater Fish” as in aquariums. Quite a combo. I believe it is related to Churchman’s Jewelry & Idaho Artistry next door.

In the first picture below, you are looking at a single 16×20 feet room carved out of the barracks in Block 22 (the white structure in the “Americanism…” post). If you are a couple or family of three, you would be living in this space. There was a single wood or coal burning stove for heat that was attached to the chimney at right. There was no running water, bathroom or kitchen. Separate barracks buildings in the block housed latrines for women and men and a large mess hall for all meals. Most barracks had six units in the 120 foot long building the largest being 24 x 20 feet for a large family.

 (The diagonal pieces of wood are being used to support the current day barrack and mess hall. At 77-years-old both are not completely structurally sound).

Living unit in the barrack for a small family. (click on images to enlarge)

The mess hall is essentially a double-wide barrack. I’ve never seen one and this is an original building from Minidoka that had been used by a canning business and was moved back to the site. The park service restored the exterior in the same fashion as the fire station. Inside picnic-style tables recreating the original table are on display as well as period-style kitchen ware that matches what is seen in historical photos from the camp. It’s interesting to realize the group meals led to children often eating with their peers and not their families, leading to a breakdown in the family unit.

Purple flowers growing in the field with the mess hall.
Interior of the mess hall with tables.
Period kitchen ware on display. Similar items show up in historical photographs.

The Minidoka Rangers

Minidoka rangers Hanako and Annette.  (click on images to enlarge)

I thought I would introduce the two park service rangers I’ve been working with here at Minidoka, Hanako and Annette. They work out of a small temporary visitor center that used to be the house of the Hermann family who farmed 128 acres where the historical site is now situated. In addition to all their other duties, the rangers give tours of the site, lately to school groups that bring classes to learn about the camp. Hanako has a personal connection to the Japanese American experience—four generations of her family were incarcerated at the Manzanar (Calif.) concentration camp. Emily, an intern that just started, was helpful in photographing the two rangers and later made sure the root cellar didn’t collapse on me as I wandered inside it (a future blog post).

On to the virtual tour. In a town of almost 10,000 people where almost all of the buildings are made of wood, you need a fire station. Minidoka had two, this is Fire Station #1. When the Hermann family received this homestead in 1950, the fire station was still standing and they lived in the structure until their house was built. This is one of two original buildings at Minidoka that are still in their historic location.

It’s essentially a barrack with an enlarged front to accommodate the fire trucks. The park service has nicely restored the exterior to as near original appearance as possible. For this project I decided to work on some panoramic photos to take in the wide expanse of these buildings and the site. The panoramas are composed of a series of vertical shots starting from the left and going to the right, usually about a span of 180 degrees. It’s really compressing onto a flat surface what your eyes naturally do. A result of this is distortion of straight lines, in this case the horizontal ones. This image used seven shots and were “stitched” together in a program called PTGui.

Intern Emily.

Panoramic view from the inside looking towards the big doors of the fire station
A cloud is reflected in a fire station window.
Hanako may not like this as she tidied up the floors for the photos, but I liked the light on the cobwebs.
Fire Station #1.

“Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart….”

A panoramic view of much of the historic site.
(Click on images to enlarge)

As a historic site, Minidoka is doing an amazing job of telling the history of the camp, the daily life under pretty horrible conditions, and showing visitors a small part of what was at the time the 7th largest city in Idaho. In 1979 Minidoka was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2001 became the 385th unit of the National Park Service.

The panoramic shot above looks northwest from near the corner of Hunt Road and S 1450 E road and gives you an idea of the terrain at the site. Mostly flat and now mostly agriculture, 600 buildings were crowded onto 946 acres. In the center are a barrack (white structure) and a mess hall in the location of Block 22. All camps were divided into this “block” format, at Minidoka twelve barracks, a mess hall, latrine, showers and a recreation hall made up Block 22.

Near the guard tower pictured in the previous blog are the remains of a guard station at the original main entrance that monitored all movements in and out of Minidoka. Next to it is a waiting room for visitors who were allowed to see friends and family restricted to the camp.

From this entrance is a 1.6 mile walking trail with very informative interpretive signs describing the location and daily life in the camp, many with historic photos. At the start of the trail is the reconstructed Honor Roll, which highlights the nearly 1,000 people from Minidoka that served in the U.S. military during WWII and commemorating those that died in the war.

An interesting quote on the Honor Roll is from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, who a year earlier had signed Executive Order 9066 that lead to the mass incarceration of only Japanese Americans: “Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry….” FDR, Feb 1, 1943

A barrack (left) and mess hall (right) in Block 22. For scale, the barrack is 120 feet long and 20 feet wide.
The guard station and behind it the waiting room at the original main entrance.
The reconstructed Honor Roll.

Minidoka, Idaho

(Click on images to enlarge)

I’m standing in the high desert of southern Idaho twelve miles northeast of Twin Falls. The sun is bright and puffy clouds gather on the eastern horizon. I’m reading a plaque that marks the Minidoka Relocation Center, a concentration camp that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. It is one of the most direct and unvarnished views of the incarceration that I’ve seen at many of these camps. Please read the text in the photo above to get an impression of the history and location.

I’m here for two weeks to document the buildings at the Minidoka National Historic Site for the park, which is run by the National Park Service. Chief interpretation ranger Hanako Wakatsuki invited me out to work on this project. I hope to also photograph some of the camp barracks that are scattered around the counties here that have been used as storage or out buildings by homesteading farmers.

The small parking area is described as the camp entrance and from 1942-45 it was the actual entry to Minidoka. Remnants of a reception center and military police building are there, informational plaques, an honor roll of incarcerees that served in the U.S. military during WWII and a recently reconstructed guard tower looming over the entrance.

An interesting quote is included on a panel: “The sentry towers are always silhouetted in the distance. It is not enough that they are not being used—to the residents they stand waiting for the day when they will be used. The eight sentry towers are ever present as a symbol of their confinement….no other single factor has had a serious effect on the residents’ morale as the erection of the guard tower.”—War Relocation Authority, 1943 (The administering government department).

The guard tower was reconstructed in 2014 by students in Boise State University’s Dept. of Construction Management program.
A facsimile of a barbed wire fence was constructed along a canal near the entrance, where a fence would have been during the war.