Catching Stardust

The Cracked Eggs of the Bisti Wilderness, also known as De-Na-Zin, in northwestern New Mexico is among the most otherworldly landscapes on our planet, when viewed under the starry sky of the Milky Way. The Navajos called this region on the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau quite symbolically ‘Great Area with Hills’. The additional name De-Na-Zin refers to cranes in the Navajo language and very aptly describes the appearance of many of the rock formations in the area.

With the goal of photographing this fairly remote and odd rock formation of the Cracked Eggs under the stars of the Milky Way, I headed out early in the morning for the long hike to get there. This provided me with sufficient time to explore the area thoroughly and to locate the best photographic composition. In the midst of these badlands, so rich in shapes and colors, the almost two meters long (6.5 feet) formation of the Cracked Eggs particularly stimulate the fantasy. One could easily recognize crawling prehistoric creatures in them.

In fact, however, what we are looking at is 73 to 70 million year old mud from a shallow ocean. This ocean covered large parts of the central North American continent in the Cretaceous period, during the age of the dinosaurs. It connected the Gulf of Mexico with the Arctic Ocean. Sand, mud, and clay were deposited in alternation in this sea called the Western Interior Seaway. At this time, the Bisti Wilderness, located on its western margin, was a braided landscape of rivers, streams, and lakes with swampy forests teeming with dinosaurs. Later, ash deposits from volcanic eruptions covered this landscape. The Bisti Badlands with its rocks called Fruitland Formation are therefore rich in dinosaur bones and fossil tree logs. During erosion of the marine sediments, the softer muddy sediments weathered faster than the harder sandstone. This differential rate of weathering created the bizarre structures of the Cracked Eggs. Mineral deposits in the river water created their color variation and patterns. About 25 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau began to rise above the surrounding landscape. As a result, today’s Bisti Wilderness is elevated 1850 meters (6100 feet) above sea level.

Glaciers and meltwaters from the last ice age, ending 6.000 years ago, contributed significantly to exposing and shaping the Bisti Badlands landscape as it is today.

In August, monsoon storms frequently develop in the region of the Colorado Plateau, whenever humid air enters the plateau from the south. These weather conditions, which occur in irregular waves, mainly cause sandstorms in the Bisti Wilderness, in addition to localized torrential rain causing flash floods. Sandstorms occur when the surface winds in the vicinity of the thunderstorms are forced into the updrafts of the thunderstorms. I was caught in such a sandstorm on this day. For about half an hour, I sheltered from the blowing sand and dust in a small side canyon, breathing through a shirt wrapped around my head. The rain of those thunderstorms, however, did not reach the Bisti Wilderness, but made for a spectacular cloud backdrop. By dusk, the thunderstorms were moving even farther away, leaving only the horizon covered in clouds. As darkness fell, distant lightning brightened up the horizon.

With this enchanting scenery of the Cracked Eggs in the foreground, I set up my star-tracking device and started photographing the 180° arc of the Milky Way above this landscape. The impressively bright starry sky far from any city lights paired with the absolute silence in this surreal landscape made a deep impression. In such moments, I humbly merge with nature, becoming one with the landscape and the starry sky. After two and a half hours of photographic work on the Milky Way panorama, my star tracker was extended to its maximum and therefore automatically retracted to its zero position. At the time the star tracker retracted, the camera shutter had been open for four minutes and had photographed pointy stars. Now another 30 seconds were added to this exposure while the device was rotating back, which is equivalent to two and a half hours of star trails.

This resulted in a fascinating combination of tracked stars and star trails, with Polaris remaining pointy at the center of the rotation. Only the bright stars in the night sky became trails since the camera was able to gather their light fast enough. Particularly striking is the Pleiades starcluster. The remote lightning of the thunderstorms lit up the horizon in diffuse yellow while the clouds stood out in black against the starry sky, completing this image to a unique composition. It seemed to me as if primordial creatures were chasing the stardust falling from the sky.

During the long exposures of my astrophotography, I hardly move at all, to avoid any vibration being transmitted to the tripod. After finishing my exposures, I switched on my headlamp and explored the surroundings. A track immediately caught my eye, which crossed my own track at right angles. The characteristic imprints in the sand revealed the presence of a cougar. When had this track been made? I examined the track more closely and found the imprint of a paw in my own footprint. This cougar was there while I was taking the pictures in the dark of the night. He had been watching me while I had no idea of his presence. This intense and humble feeling of being a visitor in the home of a cougar flooded through me. I felt my silent question, am I welcome here? I did not get to see this majestic mountain lion, but his paw imprint in my own footprint not far from my tripod signaled his answer: I know you are there, I recognize your humility, and I tolerate you in my territory. Had it been otherwise, the cougar would have shown himself and signaled to me that I would not be welcome.

August 2018
Canon 5DSR, Rokinon 14 mm, f/2.8, composite of static and dynamic exposures of 4:30 minutes each, 15.312x5.753 pixels, 88.1 megapixels, ISO 1600, Manfrotto 055CB tripod with Manfrotto 410 geared head, AstroTrac TT320 digital star tracking device.
Colorado Plateau Gallery » Catching Stardust