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An eye for quiet places

In Los Angeles there used to be a law on the books that made it illegal to shoot jackrabbits from a trolley car. Those were the days of efficient mass transit in L.A. when you could go on the "Big Red Cars" from the foot of the mountains to the beach and almost to the edge of the desert. Obviously, the journey sometimes turned into what's known as a "sporting" event.

Even now, a certain sporting sense drives the denizens of that vast metropolis out into the "boonies" when the surf is down and the smog is too thick. Some folks heard for Las Vegas in great long weekend caravans of campers , bejewelling the desert night with their strings of headlights. Others fan out into closer corners of the Mojave for rock-hunting, sun, quiet, and a chance to commune with the natural world.

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The latter are looking for a different viewpoint. And they get it. There is no place like the desert for being alone with yourself and the universe, where one begins to reflect upon the realities of life free from the claptrap of civilization.

Long before our day, people went into the Mojave and recorded such thoughts in pictographs on rocks and possibly in larger scale markings on the desert floor. The Nazca people in prehistoric Peru traced enormous figures on the ground which apparently were meant to be seen by a being in the heavens, so it is conceivable that the Mojave markings may have a similar origin.

The idea of making an image on the landscape big enough to be observed by an eye in the sky is certainly not new, but recently it received a new twist from a sculptor in Los Angeles, whom the city commissioned to do something for its bicentennial celebrations this past year. Tom Van Sant noticed, from his eyrie high in the hills northwest of the city center, how the setting sun lit the tops of glass-clad skyscrapers downtown, sending reflections for miles. He also saw in a magazine a high-altitude photograph of the frozen Chesapeake Bay reflecting the sky. So he wondered how far hem could send reflected light, and discovered that if he stood on his terrace with a mirror in his hand he could make light from the sun bounce around the walls of a dentist's office five miles away on Wilshire Boulevard.

All of this suggested to him that he could send a reflection from the ground up to the Landsat satellite which regularly sweeps over Southern California, relaying what it sees to the world at large. Here was the eye in the sky, made to order, giving that different perspective which enables someone on the ground to see from above.

And what would we see from this exalted viewpoint? A mirror eye, of course, winking back at us in a nice double play on the theme of vision and reflection.

The next problem was where to put it. Van Sant, after studying a Landsat photograph of the Los Angeles area, found what looked like a convenient spot, with no interference from human activity, at Shadow Mountain in the Mojave. There an arc of hills could make an eye socket, as it were.

NASA supplied him with orbital data for the satellite. The USGS worked out, with a computer, the mirror settings for the satellite's pass on June 11, 1980, so that their reflection would be precisely aimed for the satellite scans. Then , armed with all this information, Van Sant and a group of friends sallied forth into the desert. They set up the mirrors with aid of instruments they devised themselves to guarantee proper alignment, each mirror standing on legs a bit above the ground and shading a little patch beneath.

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In due time, Van Sant received a huge print of the satellite photo, showing, indeed, the eye in the desert. The Landsat sensors worked like the Impressionist painters, making dots of color which the eye mixes. The computer processed picture looks like a modern painting or a quilt designed in pastel-colored squares, the eye glittering in brightest light tints, shadows and rock formations or vegetation coming up darkest.

The space-age "Reflections from Earth" is a triumph. Yet, if you look closely, you see there is no pupil in the eye. It turns out that, in order to get out of the hot sun, a jackrabbit sought the shade of the central mirror and, as he hopped about, knocked that mirror out of alignment! Van Sant's double play in the game of vision turned into a triple play, thanks to a sporting bunny! Whose eye twinkles now?

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