BIG. EMPTY.

Before I traveled to central Oregon last month, a friend commented, “So you’re going to the Big Empty.”  I didn’t know much about the area – only that it included a geological wonder called the Painted Hills, many fossils and a scattering of very small towns – but that seemed about right.

Google “Big Empty” and much more comes up – a 1994 song titled “Big Empty” by the Stone Temple Pilots, a 2003 movie called “The Big Empty”  starring Jon Favreau, and a PBS TV special, “The Sagebrush Sea” about the huge sagebrush plateau between mountain ranges.

It’s a catchy phrase.

The Big Empty isn’t the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, and it’s certainly not thronged with people. It really IS pretty empty. Technically it’s the inter-mountain west. Specifically, I planned to travel around the Umatilla Plateau and the Blue Mountains’ John Day/Clarno Uplands.  A mouthful, these are U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ecoregion designations that delineate regions based on geography, solar radiation, and rainfall.

Here are two views of Blue Basin, part of the John Day/Clarno Uplands.

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The uplands include semi-arid foothills of sagebrush and gentle mountains dotted with ponderosa pine. Highways here are two lane and relatively quiet. Rugged cattle country, this area is famous for Painted Hills beef.

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Truly vast, open landscapes aren’t to everyone’s liking. The agorophobe takes no comfort in endless horizons. Landscapes dominated by mountains, waterfalls or other grand features usually appeal to people more than dry desert steppe.

In central and eastern Oregon’s sagebrush and pine country, the landscape is drawn down to its essence.

Below are roadside views of the Umatilla Plateau, a treeless grassland farmed for winter wheat. Seen from the car passenger window, the plain rolls out to a horizon that always seems to push past the last sight line.  Where the plains curve into gently folded hills, they too carry the eyes out into the “wild blue yonder.”

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This arid land will shrink plants to the bone. Even buildings are squeezed dry.

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The open landscape captivates me. Seventeen years ago I had seen very little of the West, in fact my teenage son knew it better than I did. In the summer of 2000, while at a program in southern Utah, he needed a minor operation.  I flew out from New York to be there.

Driving south out of Salt Lake City in my rented car, I gaped as the city gave way to countryside.  Stretching out on either side of the road, wider and wider with each mile, the Utah landscape was infinitely more grand than any I’d seen before.  The colors appealed to me. Soft tawny golds, dark rusts and pale gray-greens offered countless subtle shades to focus on.

It pleased me to be in a place where I could focus on simple shapes – the triangle of a treeless mountain top, the sphere of a boulder. I finally understood the draw of the great American West.

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This is the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, in Oregon.  Whether in Utah or Oregon, being dwarfed by the western landscape puts everything in its proper place, and I am comforted.

The quiet ease of small western towns is deeply refreshing, too. We stayed in Mitchell (pop. 130 in 2010), which nestles into the hills of Wheeler County, the least populated county in a state with only 1.27% of America’s people. Around Mitchell are scenes like this:

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The small, unpretentious towns that settle into the folds of the hills have a straightforward appeal. The mercantile should have what you need, as long as your needs are uncomplicated. Breakfast at the cafe comes with easy, friendly conversation, and maybe a little advice from a hand-lettered sign on the wall.

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Having fewer choices, going at a slower pace, and the simple pleasures of clean air and attractive vistas made this Big Empty experience full enough, for me at least.

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Last Glimpses of Spring

It already looks more like summer than spring around here…so before they’re completely outdated, here is a group of images of spring in the Pacific Northwest. Lean back, put up your feet, and immerse yourself in fleeting beauty.

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Dead my old fine hopes

and dry my dreaming

but still…

iris, blue each spring

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Spring in the Pacific Northwest is a drawn out process. It begins early, since we have little frost and no lasting snow at lower elevations. The season extends well into late May because we stay fairly cool and moist. (In fact, the received wisdom here is that summer doesn’t start until after July 4th).

This year spring was particularly cool and wet. Then a spate of warm, dry air arrived and stalled, bringing pleasant weather the last few weeks. I like the way a long spring slows the pace of growth, it gives me time to enjoy it all. The question is, do lingering springs make up for our long, dreary, gray winters? Well, possibly.

These photographs record spring scenes in wild and tame places, from a neglected field and pond on the side of a road, to well-manicured public gardens. In between is the Federation Forest, a slice of old growth woods that feels untamed, even primordial. It wouldn’t be here though, without the foresight of the Washington branch of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Back in the 1920’s, when logging threatened the last vestiges of old growth in our beautiful forests, local GFWC women fulfilled their mission of community improvement by working with the state legislature to set aside a tract of timber land for public enjoyment. Unfortunately, wind, fire, nearby logging and roadwork all took a heavy toll on the tall trees, and by the late 1930’s the land was no longer the peaceful forest it had been.  The women were undeterred. They located another, larger tract of forest with old growth trees that was better protected. Today Federation Forest is 600 acres of magical, mossy woods with miles of trails meandering alongside the White River, at the foot of Mount Rainier.

The 5th photo (a path and logs), the forest floor photo after it, the 12th photo (False Solomon’s Seal leaves) and the final two were taken on a mid-May walk in Federation Forest.

That duckling is a Wood duck, a denizen of wooded swamps. We’re privileged to have these extraordinarily beautiful ducks living year-round at a park in our town. Their prefer nesting sites are in holes in trees or nesting boxes elevated above the water. When the time comes, the young get pushed out, landing with what can only be a traumatic splash. This little guy appears to be none the worse for the experience. I’m sorry to see spring disappear, but like the Wood duck, I must move on!

 

 

 

Elemental Duet

The elements: Earth and Water

The mood: Contemplative

Earth:  The Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, in Oregon. Water:  Reflections at Bellevue Botanical Garden and Heronswood, in Washington.

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The Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon, is a remarkable visual record of events that began over 30 million years ago. As the mountain range we now call the Cascades was being formed by volcanic eruptions, ash and tuff (rock formed from volcanic ash and cinders) blew eastward and drifted to the ground. It slowly weathered and solidified with pressure. Over millions of years climate changes caused subtle bands of color to form in the deposits.

The reddish layers contain more iron and aluminum, left behind from sub-tropical times when wet weather caused other minerals to leach out, bringing iron and aluminum to the surface. Areas with less color are sedimentary clay, silt and shale – what I like to think of as really old mud, left behind in cooler, drier periods.  The dark patches are areas where tropical plant growth turned into lignite, a kind of peat.

Ultimately, newer, softer soils eroded away and beautifully undulating, multi-hued layers of time were exposed.

Hidden away in this geological stew are a multitude of fossils, making this and its sister sites, the Clarno and Sheep Rock Units of the John Day Fossil Beds NM, important research locations for paleontologists. At least one of my readers has a geology background. He (you know who you are!) can probably explain the processes better than I did.

I appreciate the science, but the bottom line for me is the essential beauty of this landscape, which I visited a month ago. A bonus was the string of amazing small towns in the area that retain a genuine Old West atmosphere and whose residents offer warm hospitality – at least for now. The region is smack in the middle of the August 21st solar eclipse path of totality. One shudders to think what these relaxed, friendly towns will feel like when they’re inundated with thousands of eclipse watchers.  I’m staying clear!

As for the reflections of spring leaves in moving water – that entails some luck. The light has to be right, and you have to be able to photograph the water from the right angle. I balanced on stepping stones for some of them. Then you may need to experiment a bit with camera settings, and again, with processing.

The moving water images struck me as harmonizing nicely with the Painted Hills images. So: a duet, or even a pas de deux, in shimmering hues of earth and water.

BORDER BLUES

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Regular visitors to this blog know it’s usually image-heavy, without too much text. This time it’s the other way around. There’s a story I can only hint at here, an important one. If you’re interested, follow the links to learn more. And if this isn’t your thing, be assured that next time I’ll revert to the usual emphasis on photography.

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In a recent post I featured cacti and other unusual plants at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, which I visited in January.  As much as I enjoyed the extraordinary Sonoran desert landscape, I could not ignore our troubled border with Mexico, which forms the monument’s southern edge.

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Being present at the border brings home everything you hear in the media, and more. International borders are political concepts, often drawn for colonial interests that ignored existing human, cultural and ecological realities. These territorial boundaries directly impact the land, the people, and even animals and plants in unexpected ways.

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On the US – Mexico border it’s obvious that living standard inequalities butt up against each other. We know that communities on either side offer different opportunities and face different challenges. Some of those differences were heightened for me when we drove down a park road parallel to the border. Thick smoke from fires on the Mexico side obscured the way ahead on a road littered with trash which had drifted over and gotten snagged on the rough vegetation.

And more than smoke and trash drift across this border.

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People have been crossing this border to find a better life for a long time. Many will cross illegally and will find work as farm laborers, in service positions, in construction. They will likely stay and contribute to the US economy.  Some will cross to sell drugs here – another path out of poverty.

Back in the 1990’s I managed the grounds on an estate outside of New York City and worked with Mexican men who were probably undocumented.  A pleasure to work with, the men I knew were reliable, friendly and above all, able and willing to do hard labor. It’s become a cliche in America to say that Mexicans do much of the labor that people born here are unwilling to do and I suspect there’s quite a lot of truth to that.

But that’s just one side among many of a complex issue.

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For years there wasn’t much to impede illegal crossings at certain sections of the border with Mexico. In the 1990’s Border Patrol attention increased at urban locations, pushing people to the fringes, like the wide open desert lands of Organ Pipe. With little but barbed wire holding people back, smuggling grew into a huge problem. Organ Pipe became known as America’s most dangerous park. In fact, much of it was closed after Kris Eggle, a park ranger, was killed while pursuing drug cartel men in August, 2002.

Two years later a barrier that keeps vehicles out but allows animals to cross was erected. Humans can still walk across but the barrier has reduced problematic vehicle traffic. Significant increases in personnel were made, surveillance towers were built, and things steadily improved. In recent years there has been an overall decrease in illegal border crossings.

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The double vehicle barrier above extends for a short distance, then continues as a single barrier along the road out to Quitobaquito Springs, a welcome if isolated slice of green in a sea of camel-colored sand. For thousands of years the spring and adjacent pond have been important landmarks to people living here and passing through. Just a few hundred yards away, busy Mexican Federal Highway 2 connects points east with Tijuana, to the west.

The area around the spring was closed to most visitors for years because of smuggling, but it’s accessible once again. I know our experience as American tourists was nothing like what people trying to cross into America illegally experience here. Too often, Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross under the radar are not prepared for the harsh conditions in the desert. It’s 99 degrees F right now, on a mid-May evening at 6:15pm. Imagine the heat on a summer afternoon.

People die here. Sometimes they are misled by traffickers who promise a short walk across the desert to a pick-up spot that can’t be found when the time comes. Like I said, it’s a complex situation.

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Many visitors to Organ Pipe stick to the scenic Ajo Mountain Loop near the Visitors Center, which we took our first day at the park. Wanting to see more, we had ventured south the following day on Rt. 85 to the turn-off for Quitobaquito Springs.

We saw only one other car on that mid-January weekday. It wasn’t a rental car or an RV – it looked like a local car. Two people were inside, driving at a brisk pace on the gravel.

We reached the parking area, where another sign greeted and cautioned us. The roar of trucks barreling down Mexico’s Rt. 2 made it easy to orient ourselves as we walked to the spring.

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A lone coot swam in the pond. Mourning doves called and last year’s leaves crunched underfoot.  We traced a narrow creek back through the desert to a wash, then lost the creek in the brush. Wandering away from the spring, we came upon a mound with a  gravestone. It stood all by itself in the desert, miles from any habitation.

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Jose Lorenzo Sestier, the Frenchman who died here in 1900 at the age of 74, was a shopkeeper – yes, once there was a store in the area, selling food, clothing and mining supplies. It was a moving sight, this hand-lettered grave marker overlooking lonely desert hills that roll on for miles to a ragged horizon of dark purple mountains.

There were more signs of humans.

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Discarded water containers, a common sight, reminded us of those who came to this place in more desperate circumstances than ours.

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A helicopter buzzed off to the east. We had seen plenty of Border Patrol vehicles and passed checkpoints so we weren’t surprised by a Border Patrol helicopter – until it was directly over us. It circled closely to get eyes on us. We gave a slight raise of the hand – not enough to indicate trouble, just enough to show we were OK and meant no harm. The helicopter dipped and circled away.

Feeling uneasy, we returned to the car. We hadn’t seen anyone since that one car on the road out to the spring and they had disappeared.  We decided to head back to the highway.  Along the way we relaxed a bit and curiosity pulled us to a detour down another park road. Storm clouds threatened and an odd looking flag waved in the distance. We pulled over, walked towards the flag, and found this:

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Emergency water. It was left there by Humane Borders, or Fronteras Compasivas. Their mission is “to save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands.”  They are volunteers who recognize a need for humanitarian assistance in this harsh environment.  On their website and printed on a brochure I picked up later, is a map showing locations in Arizona where human remains have been recovered. The map is pockmarked with red dots, each evidence of tragedy.  I stared at the red dots for a long time, trying to make sense of it all.

There are initiatives to try to identify remains but the spreadsheet on Humane Borders’ website tells a grim story: many remains are never identified. Too often, by the time remains are found the bones have been picked clean, clothing is long gone.

Not far away we found another emergency station offering a red call button with instructions in English, Spanish and O’odham, the language of the indigenous people, the Tohono O’odham – the Desert People (formerly called the Papago).

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The solar-powered tower holding the sign can be seen from a good distance, like the flag attached to the water barrel.

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Some of the undocumented border crossers who perish in the desert wind up at County Medical Examiners offices. As of 3/20/17 the Maricopa Medical Examiner had over 200 sets of remains, at least half are probably people who crossed the border illegally and died in the process. Illegal crossings have dropped overall in the last ten years due to tightened borders in places like Tijuana/San Diego, but people still try, and still die trying.

A difficult and moving article about undocumented crossers can be found here, along with an excellent series of photographs documenting the items left behind and the places where remains were found.

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On the way out of the park a Border Patrol car passed us and motioned us to a stop. The officer rolled down his window and “chatted” with us, carefully sizing us up, asking questions in a casual way that didn’t fool us for a minute. We wondered if he was after the people we passed earlier. Maybe he was checking to be sure we weren’t there to make a deal with them. It’s complex.

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Back on the main road to Ajo where we were staying, we took one more detour. We headed down Highway 86 into the Tohono O’odham reservation.  Tohono O’odham people lived here long before the US – Mexico border existed. Now their land straddles the US-Mexico border, dividing them in two and profoundly disrupting their lives.  It’s their land, severed by our border.  At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Roadside memorials, bleak in the overcast January skies, dotted the road. We saw few houses on that stretch of road.  I learned later that drug traffickers pass through tribal lands at an alarming rate, leaving trash and tempting tribe members (whose average income is way below the rest of the state) with promises of quick money.

Even if they are an enrolled tribe member, a person who lives on the Mexico side can be deported while visiting on the US side. It’s a risk that prevents people from visiting friends and engaging in activities that would preserve the culture of the Desert People.

To which nation do they belong?

US/Mexican border issues are especially ironic when a reservation resident hears a knock on the door from a desperately thirsty man crossing the border to find a better life in the US, or when the family dog brings home a human bone.

 

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We’ll see what happens if an attempt to build Trump’s wall is made here. The Tohono O’odham people are understandably against further incursion into their lives.

Wandering through Ajo the next morning I came across a graphic representation of a nation divided painted on an alley wall:

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And this:

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The flyer pictured below was posted on a billboard. It references the three-nation complexities of this region.  Fine print on the left says:

“We stand together in cultural solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our environment, our rights, our safety, our health – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

                                  MEXICO   –   TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION   –   USA

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That chilly Saturday in January local residents were selling vegetables at the farmers market. We bought artwork from a man who makes prints from fish, breakfast burritos fresh from a local woman’s kitchen and pastry from a baker.  Then we headed north to Phoenix, to catch a plane bound for Seattle. We missed that flight, but three long weeks later, we finally made the flight home.

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Borders and immigration are fraught topics, like many subjects in public discourse these days. Simplifying and polarizing do not help; the complexities involving three cultures and deep history would benefit more from a nuanced, intelligent and compassionate approach.  It’s been interesting to learn about the ways Organ Pipe National Monument is intertwined with the human struggles that surround and overflow into it. Getting a sense of how an entire culture is affected – a culture that called this land home well before “America” and “Mexico” came along – that was a truly eye opening experience.

Spring in Black and White

Spring is all about growth and the return of color: fresh greens, sparkling blues, deep purples, cheerful yellows. But black and white can also convey the message of renewal.

These photographs were taken in various gardens and parks in the last month or so, all in the Pacific northwest. It’s been an exceptionally wet, cool Spring, conditions that suit our plants just fine, but we humans tire of the endless days of mist and rain and long for the warmth of the sun.

Still, if you dash out between the heavier showers, the wet conditions can be rewarding for outdoor photography. Overcast skies do not create harsh, distracting shadows. The even light enables you to see shape and form. And if the sun does break through, maybe you’ll catch a ray of light in the forest or a sparkle on the raindrops.

It’s challenging to look over my photographs with an eye towards which ones might work well without color, and we know challenges bring rewards. Sometimes color is the story, and sometimes color can distract from the story.  This selection is a reminder to look for more than color, and enjoy.

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  1. A Trillium (probably T. ovatum, the Western Trillum) at Heronswood, a botanical garden and nursery in Kingston, WA.
  2. A pair of Trillium buds at Heronswood. Heronswood grows many different trillium species, so I hesitate to guess which it is when the flower is still in bud.
  3. A beetle on a woodland wildflower that hasn’t bloomed yet, at PowellsWood Garden in Federal Way. This plant, probably False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) or Star-flowered False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum), has name problems! Why false? I get that people named another plant (Solomon’s Seal) first but really, honor the plant with its own name next time. It’s not false anything, it is completely itself. And the Latin names for those two plants vary. The genus used to be Smilacina but is now Maianthemum, and not everyone has caught up. And don’t doubt for a second that there aren’t a myriad of common names for both plants –  Solomon’s Plume, Starry Solomon’s Plume, Feathery False Lily-of-the-Valley, Starry Lily-of-the-Valley, etc. Well, there’s work to keep botanists busy.
  4. A fern fiddlehead, possibly a Lady fern (Athyrium Filix-feminia), at Rhododendron Species Garden, Federal Way, WA.
  5. Peering through the fronds of an Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) at the Rhododendron Species Garden. The species name, struthiopteris, comes from the Greek: struthis means ostrich, pterion means wing (says Wikipedia). Obviously the scientific name was given because the fronds rightly reminded someone of ostrich plumes (see the photograph below). That means ostrich plumes had to be pretty well known in Europe back when the plant was given its Latin name. Indeed, Linneaus published his Systema Naturae, the groundbreaking book whose binomial Latin name system for plants and animals enables speakers of all languages to communicate clearly about the natural world, in the mid 1700’s. By then the distinctive flora and fauna of Africa was familiar to Europeans. In fact, Pliny wrote about Ostriches almost two thousand years ago, and sultans are said to have made gifts of them to European rulers. The Ostrich fern grows in northern locations in Europe, North America and Asia.
  6. A large planting of graceful Ostrich ferns at Rhododendron Species Garden.
  7. New Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree leaves at Bellevue Botanical Garden. Many readers probably know that Ginkgo trees are the oldest living “fossil trees” in the world, having survived on earth for many millions of years. Rarely if ever found in the wild, they were cultivated at monasteries and temples in China, where they once did grow wild. Now they are planted in many cities as street trees – they survive pollution and rough conditions admirably. Was it all the good training they received in Buddhist monasteries? Here is a terrific Ginkgo website. And here, a scientist argues against continuing to plant Ginkgos for a number of sound reasons – though I am very fond of them!
  8. A Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) fiddlehead at Paradise Valley Conservation Area, Woodinville, WA. Why do Sword fern fiddleheads take that odd turn south on their journey of unfolding? I love it!
  9. Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) at Kruckeberg Botanical Garden, just outside Seattle. This native beauty blooms in the woods here in April or May.
  10. Bleeding Heart flowers and foliage at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland, WA.
  11. Unidentified plants grow out of the shallow water of a retention pond in Redmond, WA.
  12. An old Douglas fir tree that split into two trunks early on, at Paradise Valley Conservation Area. The tree’s Latin name is Pseudotsuga menziesii – another “false,”  this time false hemlock – psuedo, and tsuga (Japanese for hemlock). Classified and named in the 1800’s, it is not a fir, a pine or a hemlock, but another kind of conifer. Of course, native peoples had their own names for this grand tree, which can grow to well over 300 feet and live to perhaps a thousand years.
  13. Another Sword fern fiddlehead takes a turn on the dance floor, at Meerkerk Gardens on Whidbey Island, WA.
  14. Tulips at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  15. A fading tulip at Bellevue Botanical Garden.

 

 

ADAPTATIONS

Life as usual

isn’t.

Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it

mine,

adapting.

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Just short of four months ago I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert near Arizona’s border with Mexico with my partner.  We explored Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape that ranges through parts of California and Arizona, and into Mexico.

Cutting across this desert is an international border. It is ignored and crossed fairly easily by plants and animals – at least while there is no wall. People fight over this line and suffer deeply because of it. Many lose their lives. The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent. Between border conflicts and the difficult desert environment, it’s clear that here, the ability to adapt is crucial.

How people adapt or fail to adapt is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, empty water jugs scattered across the sand, graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect it’s almost as if they were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them, an obvious category is plant life – the cacti and their allies, those brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs, maybe for another post, touches on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:

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The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus but in black and white one’s attention is drawn to the contrast between its round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple stem cactus for which the park is named is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the US map, here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the land was set aside, way back in 1937.

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I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them. A sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strangely beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we chose a huge old specimen and gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems.

The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal melody perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.

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Another cactus more often seen Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. A moth has co-evolved with the cactus, both species adapting to the environment and one another in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; the moth itself pollinates Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.

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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all have adapted to life at temperatures ranging over 100 F to below freezing, with scant, unpredictable rainfall. Below is a typical jumble of peculiar forms as Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others vie for space in the arid environment. Organ Pipe National Monument is really a lush desert garden.

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Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.

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An example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern.

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Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti will often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde, which provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe below. Look carefully and you can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem. Over time, it will grow many stems, and may live well over a hundred years.

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Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.

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The fallen Saguaro below pulled up the desert floor when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below it you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro.

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This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.

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Like the Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away the over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.

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Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.

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This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to them silhouettes at Joshua Tree in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuating the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t.

Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and then fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant, for years if necessary.

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This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and they’ll detach and seem to jump onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt by a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch light, glowing into dusk.

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We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They’re actually popular as cultivated cacti. Below that is a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.

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Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and lower branches into the poor soil on a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, this tree can go a year without rain. Very susceptible to cold, it doesn’t get very tall here. It has tiny leaves (so it won’t lose too much water to respiration) arrayed on delicate branches, which contrast with the tough-barked swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, further conserving water.

Certain indigenous people cautioned that its reddish sap, used medicinally, must be kept out of sight. I was drawn to this mysterious tree and would have liked to sit under it for an hour, but I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling.

Lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible.
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.

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Another intriguing adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized, crested bird and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries, they’re digested and the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  The mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs, and the Phainopepla naturally deposits the seeds onto a branch as it perches, looking for the next meal. Below you can see the berries growing close up, Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree, and berries left on a branch – they don’t appear to have gone through anyone’s stomach, but the desert’s mysteries are many…

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Maybe that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be a little harder to see than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but are just as interesting if you think about them. Let’s hope we can be as successful, and can evolve with rather than against our surroundings.

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* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to a practiced eye and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons for me.

In the Garden, Rain and All

In between April showers I’ve been visiting as many public gardens as I can.  I’m not kidding about in between – it’s been so soggy that we’ve broken a hundred and twenty-two-year record for the wettest October through April (our wet period). But if you watch the forecast and the skies carefully there are breaks, and that’s when I duck out to visit a garden. The destination may be an hour’s drive or a ferry ride away, or it may be closer to home. Either way, my impromptu garden tours are pure pleasure, even if I have to drive home in a downpour and wall to wall traffic.

I avoid carrying a tripod or backpack. The camera bag with extra lenses, filters and what have you stays in the car. A Blackrapid camera strap goes over my left shoulder and across, so the camera rests at my hip by my right hand.  I find it’s the most comfortable way to carry my camera, which is a little smaller than a standard DSLR.  I have small velcro pouches on the strap that hold an extra battery and SD card. They’re lifesavers, except when you forget to resupply – oh well.

I carry one or two extra lenses in a pocket or a pouch hanging from a belt loop. A snack is always handy, too. There’s a running joke about getting me one of those many-pocketed photographer’s vests, but I’m not going down that road. I have been grateful for the hood on my sweatshirt lately though – and grateful that my camera’s weather-sealed. Eventually the incredible Seattle summer will arrive and rain won’t be a worry, but the beauty of our rainy Spring is that overcast skies often bring out the best in flowers.

Here’s an assortment of photographs taken at six different public gardens this month.

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The photographs were taken at Heronswood, the beloved garden and specialty nursery founded by plant explorer Dan Hinkley, the Kruckeberg Botanical Garden, another garden that began with the passion of a collector and grew into a nursery-cum-public garden, the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Bellevue Botanical Garden, the Rhododendron Botanical Species Garden, and Powellswood, yet another garden that grew out of a private collection.

The pretty magenta and yellow nodding flowers are fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) which grow wild in the woods in the Pacific Northwest and are popular Spring garden plants. The photo that looks like an orchid (with dark background) is a Formosan Lady’s Slipper (Cipripedium), a hardy orchid from Taiwanese mountain forests that does well in our climate, too. The white three-petaled flower with the black beetle is a trillium (T. ovatum), a native woodland Spring flower that does well in gardens. Below it is the flower of the Akebia, an Asian ornamental vine.  The small blue flowers are Corydalis flexuosa; the blue bud is Meconopsis, the Himalaya Blue poppy. The last photo is of a Disporum, or Fairybells, probably our native species (D. smithii) at Heronswood.

I’m off to explore the “Big Empty” – a region in Oregon that is mostly range and desert, dotted with ghost towns and fossil beds. Maybe I’ll have a few desert landscapes to post when I return, and there are still desert photographs from my January trip to Arizona to post. Also, a selection of black and white garden images. Stay tuned…

Seeing Through

Though clear waters range to the vast autumn sky

How can they compare with the hazy moon on a Spring night!

Most people want to have pure clarity

But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

Keizan Zenji

from The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman

pub. Zen Center of Los Angeles, 1977

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Clarity is a fine thing, but the haze,

the haze, such

beauty in the haze.

Walk with me.

We’re going back outside the greenhouse,

round the corner.

We’re looking for the place where life pushes

against hazy windows.

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Photographs from the WW Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma, WA and the greenhouse at the Kruckeberg Garden, Seattle, WA.

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Happy Earth Day!

and

here’s to a successful March for Science.

 

A Glass House

“Photography is as much a gateway to the inner world of the photographer/viewer as it is to the beauty displayed in the outer world.  A garden is a setting for having this kind of experience on multiple levels – simultaneously sensual, aesthetic and spiritual.”

Allan Mandell, Photographer

Last week I read about a Victorian style conservatory in a park about an hour south of Seattle. Glass houses, where plants thrive in close proximity and perfume the air with possibility, are among my favorite places to explore with a camera. I love the way they transform the immediate environment – it’s like taking a quick trip to a tropical paradise.

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Years ago a friend’s son got me a temporary job at the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory – a dream position. I didn’t care about the grunt work hauling cuttings with a wheelbarrow through the houses, or the times my backside was riddled with cactus spines from weeding in the cactus beds. I was happy to be part of maintaining one of the grandest conservatories in the world. But I digress….

I drove down to Tacoma to check out the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory. It is quite small, but lovingly cared for.  With a central dome and just two wings, the space is packed with plants. There are tall trees hung with vines, Spanish moss and other epiphytes, flower displays, and the usual suspects  –  orchids, bamboo, tree ferns, agaves, etc.  A water feature is tucked into a corner where a tinkling stream tumbles over fern-framed rocks into a dark pool.  The swirling water flashes orange and white with koi. One elegant cream-colored fish, an ogon butterfly koi, steals the show. Its sail-like fins and tail curl and eddy the water like a magician flicking his wrists.

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I decided to photograph the koi with a long shutter speed to convey the mesmerizing blur of forms and colors churning the water.

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There’s something about conservatories that always inspires me. They keep me focused on something I love – the astonishing, delightful multiplicity of plant forms.

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Bamboo provided an opportunity to experiment with intentional blur. I moved the camera in various ways, while keeping the shutter open for about a half a second.

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Leaves of the ground cover below created a tapestry pattern. I converted the photo to black and white later. Spanish moss inspired me to use an in camera filter called Key Lines – that image is pretty much straight out of the camera. Another in camera filter plus processing in LR, was used for the black and white fern photo.

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Some plants warrant a more straightforward approach.

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Spanish moss (not a moss at all, but an epiphyte member of the Bromeliaceae) is so plentiful in the conservatory that one clump was wrapped around a metal bracket to get it out of the way.  The shop has strands of it for sale!  Spanish moss still reminds me of childhood Easter vacations with my grandparents on an island off the coast of Georgia, where it grows profusely on huge old live oaks. The plant has no roots, absorbing nutrients and moisture through tiny scales on the surface of the strands. I came to love it, and brought a clump home to my apartment the last year I went to the island. I knew enough to keep it near the shower where it could have a humid environment but still, it didn’t last more than a few months. Technically, it doesn’t depend on oak trees (or telephone wires!) for anything but support and closer proximity to the light, but I think something was missing chez moi. Maybe having other plants nearby would have helped maintain more consistent humidity and temperature.  In a similar way, I think conservatory plants benefit from growing together.

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Speaking of growing, I am working on growing my camera skills and focusing my aesthetic. To that end, I’m relying on and paying more attention to the community of other photographers online, and balancing that with time alone. Also, I’m focusing on a few projects – one is a series of photos looking through windows, especially fogged up greenhouse windows.

I walked around the conservatory outside to see if there were any fogged up windows with plants close behind them (pressing against them is best).  Yes! I found a place around back where the jungle of plants pushed up against the windows.

That will be for another post, but here’s one look at the inside, from the outside.

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COFFEE: instant

With a nod to Otto von Munchow at In Flow who posts an Instagram image every Wednesday, from time to time I’ll post an Instagram photo here. This one was made yesterday in a local coffee shop. I came in from the rain after a walk in a nearby preserve and ordered a macchiato. I shot a photo of it with my phone. How many photos have you seen of coffee and food in restaurants? Way too many! The afternoon light was nice but something needed to be switched up to make it a little more interesting…

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Coming soon…a wander through a botanical conservatory.