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'All Happy Now' Beneath the Milky Way



Peter Santino completed his "All Happy Now" earth sculpture in 2008 but I only became aware of it last semester, when one of my College of the Redwoods students shared a photograph of it in class after an afternoon hike in the Humboldt Botanical Garden.

I was mesmerized at the scale of the art piece, by the spiral pathway that takes the traveler up from one side of the dirt track at its base a quarter of a mile to the top, and then a quarter of a mile back down on the other side in perfect symmetry without retracing a step. It is a half-mile, gently sloping walk contained entirely within this 100-foot-diameter mound.

The earth sculpture is situated above a vista I had desired for years to include in a nighttime photograph: a view looking out over the CR campus and across the valley, with the Milky Way in the sky above it all. I was astonished when I found "All Happy Now" sat in the foreground.

In my mind's eye, I saw that at this time of year the spiral mound would interact powerfully with the rising Milky Way, a light spear of celestial origin sent to pierce the earthen ring of light. Or perhaps the sculpture was the source of light and the Milky Way shone forth from the mound itself in some mysterious interaction with the heavens. Or neither? That story will be left to the mind of the beholder. By the good graces of the universe, circumstances came together for me to finally capture that vista at a time of year when the extraterrestrial elements could line up just so with the mound.

The word "photography" is a combination of two words from Greek roots that mean "light" (photo) and "painting or drawing" (graph). Thus, I think of photography as "painting with light." Sometimes, this is more literal than others. This image is literally a light painting.

A photograph like this cannot simply be "taken," as so many snapshots are. Capturing the image was a process that began with pre-visualization and ended after many attempts to paint and capture the light just right. I was happy to have the help of my CR colleague Sean Patton. Over the course of about an hour and a half, we took about 20 photos from this camera position to get the lighting the way I had envisioned. 

Patton helped me by staying up with my camera to open and close the shutter as needed, while I "painted" the scene in with light: I'd walk around the perimeter, painting strokes of light onto the trail and mound with my light wand like a paint brush. The exposures ranged from 30 seconds to several minutes. After each attempt at painting the scene, I'd evaluate the results and then paint again — for while I am painting, I'm unable to see the results. To me and any observer, I'm just a guy walking around in the dark with a light. After around 20 attempts, I had the scene illuminated just so.

It struck me as I made this image that it was in some way an asynchronous collaboration between artists. Santino had the vision to create "All Happy Now" in the early 2000s and, while I don't know him personally, in a way we're now connected through our art.

Humboldt Botanical Garden is a world-class botanical garden comprising 44 acres of diverse plant species, trails, greenhouses and sculptures about 8 miles south of Eureka at 7707 Tompkins Hill Road, adjacent to College of the Redwoods and accessible from its northern Tompkins Hill Road entrance.

Learn more the gardens and "All Happy Now" at, call (707) 442-5139 or email

To keep abreast of David Wilson's (he/him) photography or purchase a print, visit or follow him on Instagram @david_wilson_mfx and on Twitter @davidwilson_mfx. He teaches Art 35 Digital Photography at College of the Redwoods.

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