Golden Gate Heights

Ambivalence

The morning after the storms passed in late November, I took my camera to the hills near my Inner Sunset home to capture views to the north, east, and west. I was feeling grateful, for many reasons. First, the storm’s tail-end spawned fantastic cloudscapes; this photo-ready drama, common elsewhere, is relatively rare in San Francisco. Second, the storm stirred hope for a good rainy season, which we still need after years of drought. Third, the clear sharp air was the first after nearly two weeks of smoke — breath-stealing, eye-stinging, school-closing smoke — that had drifted to the Bay Area from the tragic Camp Fire hundreds of miles to the north and east.

As my camera shoot progressed, this last bit of gratitude slowly opened itself to question. Yes, the skies dazzled, and my lungs sucked in cool fresh air, and I was grateful, even exhilarated, that the smoke was vanquished. But to our north and east, the dead were still being sought and counted, and beneath these same brilliant skies the people of Paradise were slowly returning to … nothing.

So I felt a mix of sorrow and gratitude. I can’t call it survivor guilt, because I was not in the midst of the fire, and what we survived here was by comparison a mere nuisance. I don’t know how to label it, and grammar-themed websites aren’t coming up with answers. “Cognitive dissonance” feels too removed. “Ambivalence” may fit the bill, but in some ways even it seems too weak a term. All I know for certain is that, for me, the images from that morning will always carry a weight beyond their blue skies, sun-struck buildings, and billowy clouds.

 

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Blue Dawn, Red Dawn

Up very early on the first Sunday of 2015, I grabbed my camera and walked to the 666-foot top of Grandview Park, hoping for one of the gorgeous sunrises we’ve enjoyed in this recent stretch of clear, cold weather. I approached from the west, climbing the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps beneath hazy pre-dawn skies. Would there even be a sunrise? The world seemed blue as I looked down Moraga Street, over the Sunset District, to the Pacific Ocean. On the hill climb, flags of a reclamation planting set off blue tiles in the stairs. All was dim, dusky, on this western side of the hill, but my watch told me the sun would be rising soon — clouds allowing — so I continued on.

When I reached 15th Avenue, curling into Noriega, the world flipped from blue to red. The change was startling. I climbed the switch-backing wooden stairs of the park, alone save for some chatty sparrows, capturing photographs as I went. At the top I could see Sutro Tower and surrounding hills against skies blazing with color. The sandy hilltop of Grandview Park, and its wind-battered eucalyptus and Monterey cypress trees, and the city beyond it, were glowing; there is simply no better, less hackneyed way to describe it.

And then the color fled — not in minutes, but seconds. What did remain for a time was a gash of blinding light in the otherwise dense clouds and fog. Then that gash healed and closed, and the world was blue again, lightening as the world awoke. Morning joggers and dog walkers began to appear, staying only briefly in the windy chill. I lingered for several hours, photographing the hill and its paths and trees, and the city around it, as sun flitted in and out of the winter’s day.