After weeks of time and energy and thought and planning and scouting and coordinating, Saturday’s April 18, 2009 TreeSpirit photo outing on Mt. Tamalpais was welcomed with glorious, 75-degree weather and clear blue skies.About 45 gentle people, eager to play in the sunshine on a hillside, with a tree, gathered on our private public park location overlooking the Pacific Ocean.Some drove for hours to join in, all the way from Sacramento and Santa Barbara in fact.Mt. Tam state park was buzzing with spring fevered visitors.Anticipating this, I had changed my original plans for a TreeSpirit photo near the meeting place, a parking lot, deciding instead to make the photo with an old friend, a bay tree, just under a mile’s walk from all the human activity.
Another big reason for the more distant location: I had been given warnings a few day’s earlier by park/state/municipal officials, under two different jurisdictions, by phone and also by email, that what I was planning – hosting a group photo with nudity and without a permit – was not allowed.Apparently someone had forwarded my original open invitation to the authorities in Marin.(No, I do not know who, nor why, and the friendly officials I spoke with by phone didn’t know either.)
I was told I needed a permit for any large group assembly.I was told I needed a permit to take a “commercial” photograph.I was told I might be denied the permit anyway because of the nudity, disallowed on both state park land and municipal land (one has jurisdiction on one side of the road, another presides over the other).I learned officials label my plans “commercial photography,” categorized just like a big-budget advertising shoot.It didn’t matter that TreeSpirit was not for a commercial, had no budget at all, and that neither I nor the volunteer participants were being paid.
We came only to make art, have fun, and enjoy nature, a break from routine, and our spontaneous community—although if you have a connection to an appropriate (recycled paper?) environmentally-minded company like Outdoor Empire, who would be willing to fund or license a TreeSpirit photograph, please send them my way…
I’ve also learned, after the fact, you can’t get a permit for making a “commercial” photograph on Mt. Tam on any weekend because of the typically higher level of activity.I wonder if this applies to any summer Saturday or Sunday when the cold blanket of fog rolls in and drives everyone but the most adventurous nature lover off the 2,500-foot mountain’s chilly slopes.
I had a decision to make last week: obey the rules, cancel this springtime photo of celebration, apply for a permit for permission during the week, pay the applicable permit fee…and then try to assemble a group of volunteers on a weekday.I should also do it soon, before summer fogs roll in routinely and unpredictably.
I decided to proceed as planned.Perhaps from my formative years living in New York, I admit I have an aversion to red tape and beauracracies, and a willingness to sometimes break rules.I admit also that I chose, perhaps unwisely, to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, a permit, and be denied, which would leave me few alternatives, and none in 2009.
I moved the photo location away from the parking area, and asked some participants to help me disperse the usual parking lot crowd before it formed.(Thank you, Claire, Kevin, Hans, Christina, David and Kevin for your on-the-scene help.)With a love for adventure—and walkie-talkies—they quietly guided over forty participants to the undisclosed location.If rangers came looking for us, they wouldn’t find the usual crowd of friendly, happy people milling about to find me, their host.
More strategy: I had decided NOT to tell the people on the guest list that park officials had been notified.I was concerned officials could be tipped off again.And this way only I was culpable for ignoring the warning; all the participants would be innocent (and therefore also behave innocently).
In one hour all but the parking lot valets were gathered at the location.I was ready to describe to everyone the image I had envisioned for the day, a group dance with a lone tree.And that’s when our team told us by walkie-talkies, “…They’re coming!”In just a few more minutes we saw who “they” were…first one…and then another…atop the hill looking down on our secluded spot…
They were a quarter-mile away, standing ironically enough, right next to the tree we would pose naked below.The deepening blue sky behind them showed their tans and dark greens in crisp relief.Sunglasses, walkie-talkies bigger and more powerful than ours, utility/ leather gun belt, one topped with a park ranger hat…You knew from their body language, not just from their paraphernalia, they were NOT here to free themselves from their clothes and gear and join in today’s playful art-making…
My first thought: Don’t look!Pretend not to see them coming!Like a kid hiding from a monster by ducking under the covers. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide all our gear.Besides, I really wanted to make this photograph.Hidden from the park’s crowds as we were, I also couldn’t see how we would be bothering anyone—if we were even SEEN by anyone.
When TreeSpirit began six years ago it was just me, a camera bag, and a tripod.Now, as Sacred World Productions is developing the documentary about the challenges and dramas involved in the making of more and larger TreeSpirit photos, an entourage has formed: bigger, more visible, slower-moving.Today, this was two camera bags, another still photographer, her assistant, two videographers, sound person, and of course all their gear.A third camera crew had cancelled today at the last-minute and now I’m glad it did.In 2009 TreeSpirit has evolved into a small, mobile media crew.And today, we were also conspicuously without a “commercial photography” permit for our non-commercial shoot.
I look for the teachings in obstacles and setbacks; I believe they exist if I do.TreeSpirit’s media troupe exists to publicize our mission: what we’re doing and why, which is making dramatic, compelling humans-in-nature photographs to celebrate the natural world and to raise environmental consciousness. One of my many lessons from this day: it’s time I acknowledge that with TreeSpirit’s growth I must, at least in some situations like this, change my old one-man-band, run-and-gun mentality.Growing pains.
Several of us noted the rangers approached from more than one direction, like coyote circling their prey.I figured this is part of standard procedure.I learned later that some ranger “prey” actually try to run for it.True, in this magnificent rolling landscape it would have taken an HOUR to surround us from all four sides.Two sides, from above, would have to do.They couldn’t have known one would have sufficed because I don’t think we COULD have run if we wanted to.And I was crystal clear didn’t want to.Mostly because I wanted to stay, show these men in tan & green that we were completely harmless.Maybe they would warn us off, then leave us alone for 30 minutes to make our photo and then leave—and of course they were welcome to join in…
My past experience with park rangers has been only positive, like the time in Yosemite my brother threw his back out ten miles into the backcountry.The two rangers we hiked out to retrieve hiked back in with us, at dusk, carrying a litter (metal “stretcher”) so we could haul my brother out if need be.But that’s another story, involving a miraculous recovery and a helicopter…Suffice to say the rangers I’ve met love the outdoors as I do.It’s why they choose a job with as much work in the field as in the office, same as me.
I decided to wait for them to come all the way down to us from their perch above, rather than isolate myself from the group by going up to them.I also wanted them to get our vibe, see this gathering of gentle if permit-free nature lovers who were waiting quietly for this drama to play out.They hadn’t known they’d be ignoring a park official’s warning, only I did.I had made sure of that.
When the rangers reached us I introduced myself.After fact-finding (fact-confirming) I’m a photographer, I was going to make a nude photo, etc., I was told I was holding a “commercial shoot” without a permit.And that I’d made things worse by ignoring the warning I’d received.But of course.I spoke at length with two of the rangers then—and again while being escorted out to my car.They could not have been more polite, professional and respectful.Unfortunately they were equally unyielding.They were going to do their job assigned by their superiors, enforce the ordinances to the letter of the law.I don’t like the ordinances, don’t think it really applies to what we were doing and why—but their job of enforcement is one I DO support.We, the society, make these rules, not the rangers alone, and if we don’t like them we can expend energy to change them.
I’ve encountered officials over the last six years making TreeSpirit photographs, but realize today this was the first time any law enforcement personnel arrived BEFORE a photo even began.Perhaps I should consider that a great run of luck that has finally run out, and it’s time to go through the proper channels and paperwork.Ah, paperwork…the stuff I love to leave behind when I head for the woods…
I’m also saddened for a few reasons.The first: it was such a beautiful, warm, day, bursting with greenery and bird song and lupines and relaxed, smiling faces.The location, a steep hillside on Mt. Tam in Marin was a deepening blue as the sun lowered in the sky.The bushy dark green bay tree I wanted to play with remains, for now, an image only in my dreams.Over forty eager, peaceful, fellow outdoor enthusiasts made the effort to attend, to play boldly.They reminded me, before I was walked out by the men in uniforms, that it was a beautiful place to be that day regardless of the outcome.
I’m also sad acknowledging we have created rules which make it illegal for forty people to drive into a state park on a lovely Saturday or Sunday, walk to a secluded spot together and take off their clothes for twenty minutes to make a playful photograph that most likely no one else would even witness.If a group nude photo goes down on a hillside, and no one is there to see it, does it make a commotion?…
I was issued a citation for shooting without a permit.I don’t yet know how many dollars this fine is.I can choose to contest it in court, but I’m not convinced there is anything to contest.I’m responsible for what happened, and what didn’t happen.I took my chances, chose NOT to apply for a permit I thought I would be denied.I can of course request a permit in the future, but only for a shoot during the week.If it is granted—and this is progressive, art-minded Marin County so it’s possible—I can then see if enough TreeSpirit fans can attend mid-week.To my surprise and delight, many of yesterday’s would-be participants—you know who you are you beautiful souls—said they might.
Finally, I’m also sad because it’s all so…ridiculous!The rangers aren’t to blame, they were sent after us by officials.The officials of the CA state parks system—a park system that presides over millions of acres of land protected from development—simply enforce code.In fact there is no “them” to blame.Or them is US, we the people, as a collective.We have in us—and this includes me too—so much fear.Fear of people assembling in groups and acting destructively.Fear of accidents and injuries.(Fear of being denied a permit, in my case.)And of course fear about people being naked, which in my opinion is often related to fear of sexuality, our culture’s forbidden/insatiable hot topic.
One other ridiculousness: When officials use their misnomer, “commercial photography,” what they really mean is “professional” photography.I’m a professional photographer, not a commercial photographer on a commercial assignment.Oh how I wish this were a “commercial” shoot, meaning either literally one for a commercial in which case everyone is paid for broadcast rights, or in the more general sense that someone, anyone, was being paid.Or if I must be categorized with the Mercedes-Benz shoot I saw two nights earlier on the mountain, then cite me if you must, but then please give me their $1 million camera car rig.And a budget of any kind would increase the likelihood we could all assemble for a future, mid-week, ranger-escorted, permitted command appearance.
I have another question, from the artist-philosopher in me: “Do we really need all these rules?”Yes, rules can keep us safe.But too many rules can also make a cage.You’re alive in the cage, yes, live, but not fully alive.Read your Edward Abbey, he knew.All we did was gather quietly in a parking lot, walk 3/4-mile on gentle terrain to a warm hillside on a sunny day.From there we would have shed our clothes and peacefully, playfully posed for a photograph for about 20-30 minutes.Very few others would have seen us.That’s it.End of story.That’s all we wanted to do.Where’s the harm in it?
Difficult for me, too, is feeling the heat again rising today…it will top 80 degrees, warmer even than yesterday…it will be the warmest day of 2009 with spring arriving in full, languorous mysterious force…and I would LOVE to go out and play in the land with friends old and new, to make what I call a TreeSpirit photo…
I also know Sunday’s conflict was a tempest in a teapot, because much larger issues currently face our nation and planet.One of the biggest being how we often treat our mother Earth so unconsciously, fowling her air, land and water, simultaneously killing ourselves, but so gradually we usually don’t realize we’re doing it.The good news is we people are increasingly aware of this scientific reality.Hence the environmental, socio-political purpose behind The TreeSpirit Project’s celebration of our beautiful planet—humans and trees are interdependent.Put simply: if they die, we die.
I may decide to re-attempt making this photo with official permission, applying for the weekday permit, seeing who can take off early from work and hope, too, the summer fog doesn’t roll in as it often does.Then at least I could bring the film crew and relax.That would be sweet.