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A longtime friend who works for the U.N. is on break from her duties in South Sudan and enjoying the verdant wonders of West Marin while ranch-sitting in Chileno Valley. The other day, she invited us out for an afternoon of hiking, chores and chili.
The day was sunny, the air crisp and the chili chunky with grass-fed Angus beef raised in pastures that straddled Chileno Valley Road.
I took a few snaps during the walk, which you can see below. The most memorable scene of the day eluded my camera, though — a newborn calf, still slick from the wetness of its mother’s womb, unsteadily testing its earth-legs for the first time as mama cow munched nearby on a post-partum snack of winter grass. They were too far, the sun was too low and my lens was too wide to record the scene digitally, but I have it my head, an unforgettable image of the continuity of life.
I saw something rare yesterday, something inspirational not only for its elevation of community service over personal ambition, but also for its demonstration of political hope and good will in a time when both are nearly absent in public life.
That something involved this man, Dr. Curtis Robinson, who I photographed last year for Marin Magazine, and attorney Andrew Giacomini, a member of one of Marin’s most influential political families. They were competing to represent the county Board of Supervisors on the board of the Marin Community Foundation, a billion-dollar force in local philanthropy.
After a short recess, the board reconvened. Here’s a newspaper account of what happened next:
Giacomini … approached the podium … and withdrew, urging support for Robinson.
“I don’t think you can make a mistake,” Giacomini said, adding he talked to Robinson during the break.
“I was just going to ask the opposite,” Dr. Robinson quipped. “That’s very special and very kind and will never be forgotten,” he told Giacomini.
In seconds it was over. The board unanimously approved Robinson, and what could have been a moment of rancor and division became one of cheer and unity. One good man had holstered his ambition and stepped aside for another good man, one who had been prepared to do the same.
I suppose it’s sad that such a thing amazed me, but we live in a country where cynicism, negativity and dangerous zero-sum political thinking – victory defined by the destruction one’s rival — rule what remains of public discourse. Yes, of course, this is Marin and, of course, Robinson and Giacomini are much more alike than they are different, but still the swiftness with which they, and the supervisors, acted to resolve rather than inflame a disagreement showed me that the practice of servant leadership in public life is not dead.
At home later, I came across David Talbot’s column announcing his return to Salon magazine, which he founded 16 years ago. As forthright as ever, Talbot wielded a cudgel of outrage over the grim state of national affairs and declared Salon’s dedication to an “American revival.” He said:
“We will cover the people who are rebuilding America from the ground up — taking over their local schools, creating community gardens and food barter networks, launching green start-ups.
We’re inspired by Robert Kennedy, who — after failing to convince President Johnson to end the war in Vietnam — came back to his Senate office in a mood of dark despair about the fate of America. “Oh, to hell with it,” RFK told his young staff, with a new fire in his voice. “Let’s start our own country.”
It’s time to start our own country.”
I read that passage thinking of the sacrifice of ego that Robinson and Giacomini had made, a small thing to be sure, but just the sort of sublimation of self the nation is going to need if Talbot’s sentiments are to become reality.
This is my small part, then, this little story of two big-hearted men. It’s a pebble tossed into a big sea that needs a major change,
What’s your story?
One reason I like hanging out with ranchers is the simplicity of what they do: Raise animals, then sell them to the rest of us as food. As a basic business model, it can’t be beat conceptually.
Of course, there’s nothing simple about ranching these days. There’s the ever-rising costs of grain and land and gas. There’s the mega-ranches driving down milk and beef prices so low that smaller ranchers are cashing in good grassland for condo developments. And, there’s the work, the seven-day, crack-of-dawn-t0-last-light, never-ending work, a list of to-do’s that runs longer than the barbed wire around a 40-acre plot.
That means that family ranchers aren’t simple people either anymore. In order to have something more left at year’s end than a promise of another 365 days ahead like the ones just finished, something they can leave their kids with the hope that they’ll stay on the land, many small ranchers are now applying the same effort to expanding their businesses, eliminating the middleman and connecting with consumers as they always have to breeding their herds, compiling their silage and keeping the barn cats happy.
Dairymen are making cheese. Cattlemen are growing organic apples. Ranching families are leasing and to urban escapees who want to try their hands at something new, such as raising water buffalo in order to make mozzarella.
Marin County is a national leader in this sort of agri-innovation and for the current issue of Marin Magazine I had the opportunity to illustrate a story – reported and written by Inverness journalist Jacoba Charles – about how four local families are changing the concept of ranching.
In the course of shooting on the different ranches I got licked by a water buffalo (not so bad), had my index fingered suckled by heifer (more fun than I should admit) and more than once knelt in something soft and warm (hey, it’s organic).
Here are snapshots of the four shoots (the full story is here):
* Mike and Sally Gale’s ranch is on Chileno Valley Road, one of West Marin’s prettiest roads, undulates over 600 acres, plenty of room for the Black Angus cattle they raise and sell directly, butchered and freezer-ready, to grass-fed beef lovers. Since returning to Marin in 1993, the Gales have expanded the offerings of the Chileno Valley Ranch to pork, eggs and organic apples, pears and more.
* Bob Giacomini has been raising Holsteins in Point Reyes Station for more than 50 years, and is part of a sprawling farm family whose Swiss-Italian roots extend back 100 years in Marin and Sonoma counties. Ten years ago, Giacomini’s four daughters – Karen, Diana, Lynn and Jill – launched the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Now, they’ve added The Fork at Point Reyes, a cooking school and event space located dab smack in the middle of the family’s 700-acre ranch overlooking Tomales Bay.
* What the Giacominis are to Point Reyes, meaning iconic and ubiquitous in name, the Lafranchis are to Nicasio. Fredolino Lafranchi, also a Swiss immigrant, began ranching in Nicasio in 1919. Today, his grandchildren still make milk, although now it’s organic, and use it as the base for a line of farmstead cheeses sold through their new Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. “We looked on it as a chance to allow the ranch to continue, because the dairy business has been really hard for the last 10 years,” said Rick Lafranchi.
* Craig Ramini has traded in the high-tech life of Silicon Valley and software consulting for the decidedly retro world of Tomales and cheese-making. Ramini leases 25 acres from longtime rancher Al Poncia that he’s using to raise Asian water buffalo, whose milk he’ll turn into mozzarella di bufala and sell under the name Ramini Mozzarella. Ramini is living out a new dream and Poncia is finding a way to sustain his family ranch.
Here’s what Poncia told the Marin IJ earlier this year in a story about Ramini’s plans:
“A long time ago, sometime in the late ’60s to mid-’70s, someone who was pre-eminent in the dairy business told me, ‘Al, agriculture in Marin County is dead.’ But I wanted my chance. And I’ve had it. And luckily, because we’ve held on up here, I’m now able to provide other people with that opportunity — including my son, who is working very hard with his grass-fed beef operation (Stemple Creek Ranch).
“And now Craig’s come along with his boutique cheesemaking plans, and I think that fits into where Marin, Sonoma and the whole Bay Area’s agriculture is going,” said Poncia, whose grandfather purchased his ranch in 1901. “Our ranch is now producing diversified products for a local market, which is something we haven’t been able to do for quite some years.”
I don’t ever want to get to a place again where I spend so much energy working at what I love that I stop loving the work. That road I’ve traveled, and it doesn’t lead to a good place.
Lately, I have been working a lot. In recent weeks, I’ve photographed restaurants, jewelry, a country inn, a florist, several restored homes, several winemakers, many bottles of wine, a yoga studio (and its owners), lots of dogs, people ranging from a homeless woman living in a shelter to an Elvis impersonator to the founder of Twitter, some politicians, a university campus and more. No complaints about any of this. It’s really more than imagined I could do when a few years ago I made a U-turn from displaced newspaper editor to resurrected photographer.
What I haven’t been doing, though, is taking pictures for myself, images that have no client other than me — and that’s what got me into photography in the first place — so last night I put some effort into rebalancing the scale. Just before sunset, I loaded up the big Domke, slung it and the 300 over one shoulder and strapped the Gitzo over the other, and trudged up to the Tiburon highlands, thanking my yoga legs for the power on the uphills while cursing my ropers for their lack of grip on the downhills. (Boots? Gear? Steep gravelly trail? What was I thinking?)
The southernmost knob of the highlands provides a front-row vantage point for a moonrise over the East Bay hills, and is well worth the walk. I had the place to myself except for a group of graybeard hikers, who used a grassy spot down the slope for me as a place to break out the bread, cheese and port (!) while they took in the lunar show.
As much as I love the personal connection of photographing people, I think I love these moments of solitude more – just me, the camera and no other purpose than to make a picture of what’s before me.
Ever since Dave Mitchell, the curmudgeonly, Pulitzer-winning editor of the Point Reyes Light sold the weekly newspaper in 2005 to Robert Plotkin, a
The big complaint from the locals was that Plotkin was a disengaged auslander more interested in self-aggrandizement than covering the prosaic doings of local news and, more irritating, not publishing letters to the paper as freely as his predecessor.
To make matters worse, Plotkin and Mitchell had a post-sale philosophical falling out that end up in court complete with restraining orders.
In response, the unhappy former readers did what hardly anyone is doing these days – launched a new newspaper, the weekly West Marin Citizen. Its publisher is Joel Hack (above), who had run a smaller paper up the coast in Bolinas (best known for being the scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).
The two papers look quite different. The Light reflects its ambitions for glory with a more professional design and some high-falutin’ writing by the grad school interns Plotkin entices with dreams of being the next Didion or McPhee. The Citizen is rougher, its pictures more snapshot-like and its writing, well, uneven but still informative.
The two men couldn’t have been more different.
Hack invited me out to go on his weekly rounds of delivery and collection on my first phone call. Plotkin quizzed me repeatedly about the story and about my concept for the photo. “What’s your vision?” he asked. It took several more calls but he agreed to the photograph only if I did it in a location of his choice and not show any other parts of the paper’s newsroom, which he said were under reconstruction. Done.
I met Hack first and he fit the description offered by the writer: “… he looks a little like a Joel Hack.” We talked a bit and as he began pulling papers out of the trunk of his car to deliver to stores around town, I began shooting.
The light was full-on sunshine, but I made some nice images with him sitting on the edge of the trunk surrounded by papers. We walked. I shot, but the shadows were terrible. We did the post office, a grocery story and a book store. In the latter, I got some nice frames of him lit by the front window counting money. I had something we could use, but nothing with pop.
Suddenly, Hack says he’s got to go. We’ve been together about 20 minutes and I had been thinking we’d have an hour. One more shot, I tell him, something out on the street. I tell him to get an armload of papers. Then I grab a light stand and an SB800, put a Pocket Wizard on it and have him stand across from local landmark bar with the sun to his back. I shoot 10 or 12 frames and we’re done. That’s the shot the magazine used (1/250, F10, ISO 100).
Plotkin’s office is down the street, so I pack of up bag of lights and stands. At the paper, he leads me up a steep set of stairs to an attic office with angled ceilings so low there’s no room to raise and umbrella. There is a skylight, but the light in the room is dim and without a strobe I’d have to shoot at 1/30 wide open. I set up a couple of SB800s, one flagged, the other snooted on either side of him and start bouncing the light off things – a wall, a refector, etc.
To complicate things, Plotkin has constructed a “set” he wants to be photographed in front of, an artfully arranged group of artifacts and posters that I suppose he believes conveys who he is. He’s got a good eye, though and I like the way it looks. But after 15 minutes of shooting from various angles (and even squeezing an umbrella in very low), I still can’t get the framing and the light to work together, so I move him around and remove some of the stuff.
I turn off one of the lights, come in tight and tell him to hold still (and tell me not to shake). Then I made the shot (1/60, 5.6 ISO 400). The flash is not doing much more than adding some highlight and warmth to his face.
In the end, I’m pleased with the results. I’m learning to make good shots more quickly, a continual challenge for most of my assignments, for many of which I have no more than 15 or 20 minutes.