Thursday, July 12, 2001
In the brush the intruder also remains perfectly still, despite the crowd of mosquitoes hovering thickly about his face. The air is quiet. Neither creature moves. A soft click breaks the silence, the lens of a camera winks like an enormous eye, and the bobcat leaps away, satisfied that his territory is still secure.
The result of this encounter and many others like it is currently on view at a new exhibit of nine bobcat photos at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum. Photographer Ivan Eberle, whose previous exhibit at the museum featured dramatic close-ups of insects and plant life, has named the exhibit Lynx rufus! after the bobcat''s Latin name, which means "red lynx," though the coats on these cats are more tan than red. To capture the elusive creatures on film, Eberle has become a proficient predator caller, someone who with tape recordings and hand squeaks can mimic the sounds of distressed prey. On a recent foray to Big Sur, Eberle and Museum Director Steve Bailey were able to call into view in rapid succession a sharpshinned hawk, a black-shouldered kite, a golden eagle, two coyotes and a bobcat.
This kind of intense wildlife experience takes patience, a quality that Eberle has had ample opportunity to cultivate at his job. High atop Chews Ridge, at 5,000 feet in the Santa Lucia Mountains, Eberle is the caretaker for the Oliver Observing Station run by the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA). After leaving behind his corporate job at MCI, Eberle decided to pursue his passion for nature photography, first ignited by a backpacking trip in Montana when he was 17. He didn''t have a camera on that trip, but he hastened to acquire one soon afterwards.
After supporting his photography habit with various jobs on the Peninsula, in 1997 Eberle assumed the role of caretaker for the observatory, which was completed in 1984. With its magnificent location, ideal atmospheric conditions and up-to-date technological resources, the observing station is a crown jewel in the world of astronomical research. Yet as I spoke with Eberle, who is cheerfully outgoing and enthusiastic, I wondered about the solitude that must come with his job--not unlike, I imagined, that endured by the lighthouse keepers of the nineteenth century.
Eberle agreed that the isolation is the hardest part of being a caretaker. "But," he countered, "the biggest joy of being up there is being up there." Communication with the outside world can be difficult at best. When Eberle and I first spoke on the telephone last February, it was snowing on the ridge and the phone connection itself seemed ghostly, buried under a mountain of white noise. Now he has better phone lines and even, as of last month, access to the Internet.
What really keeps Eberle going, though, is the "spiritual connectivity" he finds in the abundant wilderness he can call his backyard. A typical day for Eberle begins with first light, which finds him predator calling in full camouflage. This may be followed by a couple of hours spent writing; Eberle is also busy at work on a novel based loosely on his experiences as a wildlife photographer. Then there are the business chores and maintenance of the site, which constitute the bulk of his working day.
Much of this work depends on the whims of Mother Nature: Eberle has had to contend with flocks of unruly condors, the punishing effects of El Niño--including 100 mph winds--and an ice storm. There was the snow last February, four-foot drifts in the driveway that kept him snowed in for eight days, during which time he was reduced to eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
"Essentially it''s irradiated, formed meat product," he recalls with a shudder.
The MREs were left behind by firefighters in 1999, and the nearby Tassajara Fire of that year remains one of Eberle''s most dramatic experiences as caretaker. It also resulted in some of his most stunning photos. (Eberle''s images of the lightning strikes and the forest fires that followed may be viewed on MIRA''s Web site, www.mira.org.)
Despite the challenges posed by the weather, the solitude, and the occasional yahoo thrilled more by vandalism than Venus, Eberle loves seeing visitors'' enthusiasm for both the site and what it represents.
"Up here, people''s faces really light up," he says, and it''s easy to see why: The view of our local mountain ranges is spectacular. For those fortunate enough to look at the cosmos through MIRA''s 36-inch reflecting telescope, the view gets even better.
For Eberle, the end of the day brings the calm, shadowy light so prized by photographers; several of his favorite images were taken at dusk. The beautiful Ilfachrome bobcat photos, which Eberle printed in his darkroom at the observatory, display a vibrant, glowing range of contrasting shades and textures. Each of the cats'' individual whiskers--so crucial to their knowledge of their surroundings--stands out with a hard-won photographic intensity.
Eberle will be on hand for the two remaining summer tours of the Observatory (see below for details), which I can attest is an experience not to be missed. Eberle''s own goal for this summer is to focus on the bobcat''s larger, even craftier cousin, Felis concolor. Commonly known around these parts as the mountain lion, this feline has thus far eluded Eberle''s photographic gaze, preferring the distance of its own secret universe.
Lynx rufus! shows at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum through the summer, 10am-5pm, Tues.-Sun. Free. 648-5716. The next tours of the Oliver Observing Station are Aug. 5 and Sept. 2. Reservations are required. Call 883-1000 or visit www.mira.org for more details.