LOCAL WALKS: Shifting Edges

1.

*

The idea that more action occurs along edges came up in a book of fiction I read about thirty years ago. I don’t remember the book’s title or author, or how the idea was developed. The story involved a man who kept noticing that there was more activity on the edges of things than in the middle. This idea really interested me. It made sense. I knew that ecologically, places where one habitat meets another – where a forest meets a field or where land meets water – are places where you can expect more activity, and often, more species diversity. That’s a generalization of course, but it fits my own experience. On a ship far out in the ocean, I saw few living beings – a few flying fish, a single gull – but on shorelines, I see many different life forms. Deep in the middle of a forest, it can get very quiet but on the edge of the woods, movement and variety predominate.

Edges are places where one thing turns into another, where states of being merge, mingle and mix. You could say edges are the primal dialectic. How about the trajectory of a person’s life? Transitions between life stages can be times of great turbulence; the middle periods may be less eventful. Certainly, in our imaginations edges are important – we fear dropping off the edge of the earth; we admire the edginess of current culture; we walk the razor-edge in dangerous times.

Photographer Brooks Jensen relates a conversation with another photographer who advised, “Watch out for the edges. Wherever there’s an edge, there’s energy. That’s what you want to be photographing.” Jensen expanded on the concept to include psychological edges, “where anger meets compassion, where compassion meets sorrow.” (Brooks Jensen; ‘Single Exposures’, 2008).

2.

My favorite ecological edge took a beating recently. What had been a fairly clear border between land and water was battered by strong winds associated with an “atmospheric river” – the same one that brought flooding, landslides, and destruction to our Canadian neighbors. Massive driftwood logs were tossed high up onto the beach, obliterating a trail and crushing vegetation. Tangled piles of Bullwhip kelp (a seaweed that can grow to 100′ long) were deposited at the bases of trees whose roots were exposed to the elements from erosion. Two small wetlands were breached: in one, a green haze lay on the surface of the water. Did it come from the bay or was it dredged from the wetland itself? I don’t know. In the other wetland, strands of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs floated where normally the water is clear.

This particular edge was muddled beyond belief.

*

*

It was hard to look at. Giant-stepping over logs and ducking under a tree that fell across a trail, I told myself, “This is nature. This is what happens. It’s not a carefully tended garden.” Despite my rational explanations, it hurt to see this precious place turned upside down and inside out. I took only a few photos that day.

But I went back – of course I went back! – and things were different. I can’t say exactly why – something shifted and I found the beauty again, even amidst the destruction. A little sunlight didn’t hurt.

*

4.
5. Strands of Bullwhip kelp and a driftwood log now litter the wetland. In the lower-left corner, you can see rocks from the beach that were pushed into the wetland.
6.
7.

8.
9.
10. The view from a hill between the two beaches and wetlands.
11. Piles of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs landed on the beach. The wetland in #5 can be glimpsed in the middle of the photo.
12. The wetland edge with Madrone trees leaning precariously over the water. The views in #1, #2 & #5 are to the right, beyond the frame.

13. A Douglas maple leaf (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) on the forest floor after a rainy morning.

*

More about the lichens seen above: The green leafy-looking structures are probably Peltigera brittanica. Lichens are composite organisms; P. brittanica includes a fungus, a green alga, and a cyanobacteria. The dark dots on the green surfaces are the cyanobacteria.

The darker leafy-looking structures are another Peltigera, probably P. neopolydactyla or P. membranacea. The red-orange tips on them are spore-bearing structures called apothecia. Unlike ferns, which also have spores, these lichens can reproduce vegetatively, by breakage or by producing propagules that contain fungal tissue and green algal cells. Talk about living on the edge – lichens appear to live on the edge of comprehension! Scientists are continually revising our understanding of lichens, so what I’ve written here could change at any time.

15.
16.

17.

***

A philosopher’s musings about edges:

“What I have called the edge-world is not only a world composed of intricate patterns and permutations of edges; it is also a world that is itself on edge. As a consequence, each of us is pitched on a thousand edges—edges on which we shake and tremble even as we pretend to go about our lives undisturbed. Our equanimity is only skin-deep; underneath it the abysses gape open, not just at the far edge of the known world or at the base of a precipice. We are denizens of a world on edge, and we are ourselves creatures of exposed edges. This is not just a matter of being accident-prone or vulnerable as individuals. We carry risk to others, endangering their lives as well as our own. Whole populations of human beings have been decimated by their fellow humans. Many animal and bird species have been rendered extinct because of human actions in the Anthropocene. Now we are on the verge of making ourselves extinct if humanly induced climate change takes its full vengeance. There is no way to exist on earth, no alternative path, other than to follow the edges that guide us even as they expose us to risk at every turn. We must take such exposure into account, learning how to identify those edges that are likely to lead us astray: each of us exists on a perpetual visual cliff. Some edges bring us to an unwelcome fate for which we are not adequately prepared: on these I have focused in this epilogue. Instead of trying to forget them or merely regret them, we must think on them, reflecting on what they portend. Becoming wary of certain edges, we can come to trust other edges that will configure our life-worlds in ways that are both more constructive and more creative. These more auspicious edges point the way for us, incisively even if not infallibly. Thoughtfully traversed, they are able to liberate us, indicating directions with the potential to save us from our own destructive and self-destructive ventures”

Edward S. Casey: The World on Edge. Indiana University Press, 2017.

from Phenomenological Reviews

***

JUST LOOKING 2

The photos may seem random but, not quite. It’s hard to put into words what connects them, but in my mind, it’s more than color, texture, or tone. It has to do with a sensibility that tries to find beauty everywhere.

Just Looking 1, from February 2021, is here.

1.
2.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.

16.

*

  1. A drainage ditch connecting Fidalgo and Similk Bays. Fidalgo Island, Washington.
  2. Sidewalk shadows. Anacortes, Washington.
  3. Five looks at my old teapot.
  4. South March Point Road railroad crossing. Fidalgo Island.
  5. Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophylla) on a frosty morning.
  6. Closeup of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) leaves.
  7. Reflections on the door of a cabinet with an antique blown-glass vessel inside.
  8. Detail of a drawing by Grace Knowlton (1932-2020) seen in 2008 at a show in Garrison, New York. Looking at drawing, painting and sculpture informs my work and life.
  9. A plastic bag found on the side of the road, with Bigleaf maple leaves.
  10. A foggy afternoon on March Point, Fidalgo Island.
  11. Cattle in the fog on March Point.
  12. After a dispute among four Bald eagles, the victor flies off with the spoils: a freshly-killed rabbit. March Point.
  13. Weathered boards on a shack that was torn down. Fidalgo Island.
  14. A mixed media ceramic sculpture at San Juan Islands Art Museum. Friday Harbor, Washington.
  15. Low tide on a foggy day at Similk Bay, Fidalgo Island.
  16. Flooded fields on Bayview-Edison Road, Bow, Washington.

*

“Is it possible to celebrate the innate wild beauty of the indifferent universe while acknowledging one’s inevitable disappearance?”

John Yau. From a review in The Democracy of Abstraction

***

GLASSHOUSE IMPRESSIONS

This week we headed into Seattle to meet friends at a historic Victorian-style conservatory. It had been years since any of us had been there so everyone was looking forward to wandering through the glasshouse greenery together. The opportunity to photograph in a conservatory again was very exciting – the last time I visited one must have been in 2019, in Leiden, Netherlands. We live a fair distance from urban centers and many public spaces were closed due to pandemic restrictions, so visiting glasshouses has not been in the cards for several years. This trip was a shot in the arm, even if our favorite part of the conservatory, the cactus house, was closed. Wearing a mask in a warm, humid environment is tedious, as is using a camera while wearing a mask. But nothing’s perfect and we’re grateful for the pleasures we have, particularly when we can share them with friends. Here’s a group of photographs from the day, along with a few words about conservatories I’ve known over the years.

*

1.
2.
3.

*

Whether you call them conservatories, glasshouses, or greenhouses, they are some of my favorite places in the world. They age beautifully; the example at Volunteer Park is over a hundred years old and seems to look better all the time. (I’m glad I’m not the one responsible for maintenance!) One of the gifts of urban living is being able to visit a conservatory in cold weather – a house made of glass, filled with plants, warm and fragrant with life – what could be a better antidote to the winter blues? Growing up, I never had that experience but in my 30s, I began to get familiar with magical crystal palaces where plants are nurtured to provide visitors with exotic, out-of-season pleasures.

*

4.

For a few years when I was in my mid-thirties, I worked at a New York City public garden called Wave Hill. The greenhouses at Wave Hill contain choice collections of cacti, succulents, and alpine plants but I was busy with the task of developing the garden’s first visitor cafe. The lush grounds and quiet greenhouses were a pleasant backdrop to the workday that I appreciated but rarely had time to enjoy. Five or six years later, through sheer luck, I landed a temporary position at the New York Botanical Garden Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a stately Lord & Burnham design with a 90-foot-high glass dome flanked by five large houses on each side. Being behind the scenes at an iconic institution that houses major research and educational programs was a treat, even if all I was doing was the grunt work of pushing heavy wheelbarrows around and weeding the cactus gardens. I felt lucky to be there every day. Almost twenty years later I made the long pilgrimage back to the conservatory from my apartment at the other end of New York City. Waiting to hear the results of critical negotiations regarding my job with the New York State Department of Health, I calmly readied myself to accept whatever happened. The grand glasshouse was a refuge that day.

*

5.

A more modest glasshouse became a favorite place to linger when I lived in New York City’s Staten Island. The Snug Harbor Botanical Garden’s old conservatory was filled to bursting with tropical and semi-tropical plants; in fact, palm trees regularly broke through the roof windows. On weekends I spent long afternoons wandering through the gardens and conservatory, camera in hand, exploring what could be done photographically in a richly rewarding setting. Sadly, the glasshouse is now closed to the public but it still functions as a propagation house for the garden.

In 2012 when we moved to Washington State, I found two conservatories to explore: Volunteer Park in Seattle and the W.W. Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma. Every winter I devoted at least one day to luxuriate in the fresh air of a glasshouse, surrounded by exotic plants, camera in hand. In 2013 a camera club I briefly belonged to arranged an afternoon shoot at the University of Washington’s Biology Greenhouse, which isn’t normally open to visitors. What a treat that was! Now I live almost two hours from the nearest conservatory. I miss the multi-sensory delight of slow walks through warm, humid, green places, especially in the colder months. But I digress…the point is that I’ve been visiting conservatories for years. During that time I’ve evolved a particular way of being in them, seeing them, and photographing them. It’s not a typical visitor’s view. Pretty pictures of brightly-colored flowers aren’t really my thing. Instead, there are patterns and textures or views of a mechanism that cranks the windows open. My favorites are the images made by looking through the steamy, whitewash-coated windows of the conservatory.

*

6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.

*

Seattle’s Asian Art Museum is also located in Volunteer Park. Completed in 1933 in the Arte Moderne style, the landmark building was unfortunately closed the day we were there but that didn’t prevent me from finding inspiration.

*

17.
18.

19.

***

The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 7th photos were made with a vintage lens (and adapter). The Asahi Pentax Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4 prime lens was introduced in the 1960s. An all-metal, manual focus lens, it’s bright, sharp, and is known for smooth bokeh. #10 & #12 were made with an iPhone SE.

A suite of photos made looking through conservatory windows is here. A brief post with photos from the NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is here. A winter visit to the Volunteer Park Conservatory post is here. A post about the W.W. Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma is here and more photos from the Volunteer Park and the W.W. Seymour Conservatories are here.

***

BEYOND the POSTCARD VIEW

When I was first getting to know a sheltered bay near my house, I was enthralled by the scenery. The picture-perfect bay is hemmed in by rocky cliffs, making it a place apart, quiet and peaceful. The water there is fairly shallow but a deep, narrow channel just to the south brings a mix of nutrient-filled tidal waters into the bay. The ocean is almost a hundred miles away but the 15-mile wide Strait of Juan de Fuca funnels water from the Pacific all the way back to this bay. When the winds are right the waves are powerful enough to toss huge logs onto the shoreline. It’s a rich, complex habitat, much of which is hidden underwater.

On land there are crooked old Douglas firs, sinuous, orange-barked Madrone trees, and weathered, contorted logs. Herons, ducks, eagles, and kingfishers live here. There are wildflowers tucked into the cliffs and set along the trails, lichens hanging from trees and coloring the rocks, graceful drifts of dune grass, and murky wetlands hemmed with cattails. Four tides wash over the beaches each day – two high and two low – bringing countless changes: stinky blankets of sea lettuce one day, tangles of Bullwhip kelp another day, and countless stray shells and pebbles. Seals and otters make regular appearances, sticking their heads above water to look around and scope out the scene.

All this draws me back like a magnet and gradually, I’ve dug a little deeper than the postcard views that first attracted my attention. I learned that sometimes, the low tide is extra low and when that happens, two beaches that are normally separated by a rocky promontory become one as the water recedes past the base of the cliff. Among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff a careful observer can find odd, ancient creatures called chitons clinging to the dark undersides of still-damp rocks, waiting for the water to cover them up again. Low tides bring discoveries: in the height of summer, a large Lion’s mane jellyfish might wash up. And as if the beach isn’t enough, there are dramatic sunsets over the water. Even the spectacle of kayakers gently gliding away and out of sight is a treat for the eye.

As I return to this particular stretch of sand and rock, again and again, more treasures are revealed. I’ve been looking at patterns in the sand left by waves, animals, or bits of flotsam and jetsam. They’re like calligraphic messages from the world of water, traced on land for us to see, but not for long. Within hours, the tide will rise and wipe it all away. Some of these traces appear very abstract and are especially appealing. Walking here, I focus on the world at my feet, examining changes in texture and color, thinking about how this constant shifting of substances rearranges the world into new patterns, patterns that may or may not fit nicely into that familiar rectangle that my camera imposes on the world.

Then I look up and take in the wider view. Back and forth.

*

1. Here is one of those extra-low tides, called a minus tide. The rocks on the left form the cliff that you normally must climb over to reach the beach in the background. By checking tide tables, you can find windows of time when more beach is exposed, a good hunting ground for patterns.
2. Just visible in the upper right are marks left by the tide. At least one of those marks was made by this strand of eelgrass (Zostera marina), a U-shaped blessing of green against a solemn beige background of fine sand.
3. It’s easy to imagine a brush making these marks. Eelgrass as gesture.
4.
5. This view is from just past the rocks in #1, looking in the same direction. Successive lines of sea lettuce (Ulva fenestrata) washed up with the tide. Soon the tide will turn and the seaweed will be lifted up again, added back to the endless, living stew of bay water.
6.
7.

8.
9.
10. Always nearby, always watchful, the Great blue heron abides.
11.
12.
13.
14. Like the herons, Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are constant companions at the beach, flying about in the underbrush or flitting around the driftwood logs.
15.
16.
17. In the middle, a branch, to the left and right, pieces of Bullwhip kelp.
18. This is the opposite end of the bay from #5. There’s no sand here. Instead, a steep cliff abruptly meets the water in a tumbled tangle of rocks, driftwood, and detritus. Someday that leaning Douglas fir tree will fall.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Roaming ‘Round the Heart of the Island

The island I live on isn’t especially large or small; at 41 square miles (106.684 km²) there’s room for a small city of about 17,000 people, many residential neighborhoods, and a generous amount of protected public land. Hugging the edges of the island and sprawling across its middle, the preserves include two state parks, a county park, several city parks, and 2,950 acres (about 12 sq. km) of community forest lands, known as the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL). Because this land once supplied the city with its water, several lakes were protected from being developed. No industries ever polluted their shores. The forests around the lakes, however, were logged to generate extra revenue for the city. Eventually, that changed. Now, water is drawn from a river and piped onto the island and thankfully, income from the forest no longer factors into the annual city budget.

1.

2.

This post focuses on Heart Lake, part of the community forest lands. Nestled into the woods near the middle of the island, Heart Lake is fed by water draining from nearby Mt. Erie, the island’s highest point. At the lake’s southern shoreline there’s a treasure: a rare bit of lowland, old-growth forest. There, dignified Douglas firs and Western redcedars preside over a hodge-podge of downed trees, unruly understory plants, knee-high ferns, and thick moss. It’s messy. This is not an orderly lumber plantation, it’s a forest that has been largely left alone to follow its own wise way.

The elevation around the lake ranges from about 340 ft. to about 580 ft. (103m – 177m) at the top of a ridge. Mt. Erie, at 1273 ft. (388m), is just across a quiet, two-lane road. For this post, we’ll stay close to the lake, on well-trodden dirt trails that wind through the trees, skirt wetlands, cross small streams, and climb up easy hills. The scenery is quietly peaceful. Perhaps the drama lies in craning your neck to glimpse the tops of the oldest trees or stepping around a mossy, fallen giant. There are wildflowers scattered about and small openings in the forest support meadows of lilies in spring. The occasional boater plies the lake, a lone heron might be seen, and squadrons of ducks patrol the water in the colder months. You might hear an owl, startle a scolding squirrel, or spy a tiny wren hopping through the underbrush. Beavers are around, as you can see from a gnawed tree or a pile of branches, but they don’t come out until after dusk.

3. Old growth Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menzieii) lean in toward the water.
4. Western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) take root in a Western redcedar stump (Thuja plicata), probably from a tree that was logged out long ago. Evergreen fronds of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) spill over the path in the background.
5. Even in November, when the forest is looking a bit ragged, there is still color because most of the trees and ferns are evergreen. Unlike the dry summer months, November is wet so the green machine thrums along in spite of the chill in the air.
6. Openings in the forest allow Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) to take root. In autumn their dinner-plate-sized leaves get caught as they fall to the forest floor. This one picked up a stray bit of light threading through the forest. The canopy above is dense so precious little light is available down here along the trails. That’s one reason why some trees begin their lives in stumps as in #4, above. Sprouting just a few feet above the forest floor gives seedlings a head start.
7.
8.

*

*

I can tell you about Heart Lake, its calm water and the deep green forest around it. I trust you’ll understand the words.

But I can’t really begin to convey the complexity of what’s happening here. I don’t know how to plot the intricate relationships that knit the landscape together into one, breathing whole.

When it comes down to it, it’s the simplest thing: you go out and you walk.

You let go of your tedious thoughts and pay attention to what’s around you.

You allow the false division between “you” and everything “else” to thin and fall away.

Your feet carry you along, the sun shines or it doesn’t, you look, listen, smell, feel. That’s it.

*

*

9.
10. Two types of Honeysuckle (Lonicera) – orange and pink – can be found twining around the branches of small trees in the forest.
11. Two species of wild rose are common in the woods: Baldhip and Nootka. Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) prefers more sun; this one was growing close to the lake’s edge.

*

*

13. Not only trees fall…a fragment of Douglas fir rests on an Oregon-grape (Berberis or Mahonia nervosa) plant.
14. This is probably a Red alder leaf (Alnus rubra). It rests on a piece of old wood from a fallen tree near the lake’s edge.
15. We’ve had a very rainy October this year. One day, feeling frustrated with the rain and wanting to be closer to nature, I drove to the parking lot at Heart Lake and took this photo from inside the car. A flock of ducks, perhaps recently arrived from the north, swam in the middle of the lake. Even with binoculars, I couldn’t make a positive identification through the curtain of rain.

*

*

17. Another photo from inside the car on that rainy day; focused on the leaves instead of the window glass. Sharp focus was impossible behind the rain-soaked window but I like the softness.
18. A soup of fallen willow leaves, a little Saskatoon leaf, and grasses that grow in the muck were all floating together at the edge of the lake on this November afternoon.
19. Midwinter on Heart Lake.

***

I live on and gratefully roam through the traditional, ancestral, land of two Coast Salish tribes, the Swinomish and Samish. I honor and respect their long tradition of stewardship of this beautiful land.

BEING ORGANIZED

No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.

That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.

1. Around 1992 I began a two-year Botanical Illustration course at the New York Botanical Garden. My home life was difficult, even chaotic. The quiet, intensely focused practice of drawing subjects like this pine cone from life was deeply satisfying. What may at first appear to be a ball of random little shapes isn’t that at all – the pine cone has a spiral growth habit. Finding the spirals helped me keep track of which little seed scale I was working on as I carefully shaded my drawing with dots of ink. There’s a reassuring order in there.
2. Organization times two: limpets and sand dollars are organized in pleasing, radially symmetric patterns. Centering one on top of the other creates a bulls-eye that centers my brain, if only for a few seconds.
3. Someone neatly stacked these roof tiles next to a building in Leiden, Netherlands. The old bricks in the street and walls might not be perfectly straight anymore but a sense of order still prevails. Leiden and other northern European cities I’ve visited seem to exude a calm orderliness that felt good to be around.

As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!

Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.

4. Repeating patterns in the windows of three buildings in lower Manhattan.
5. Electric wires, architecture, and a street corner line up as if they were engineered from just this spot, looking out the window of a Las Vegas hotel.
6. I can’t help thinking that whoever painted this door in Ferndale, California, must have appreciated symmetry and organization.
7. Antwerpen-Centraal, the beloved temple of European railway architecture. A photo can’t begin to relay the experience of getting off a train there and walking through the soaring, graceful spaces. I was too overwhelmed to position myself right in the middle of the steps, but I think you’ll get the idea.
8. Speaking of well-organized systems, this woman in the Cologne (Koln) train station was tremendously helpful, booking last-minute tickets during a busy holiday rush with a focused, calm demeanor. The bracelet of skulls and the 18 rings were no impediment to her organized functioning. Check out that mug on her left – brass knuckles?!

A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.

Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.

9.
10. Another humble building that helps to organize the environment is this little bus shelter on a country road in Washington.

Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?

11. I made this photo while in the midst of a crisis; my partner was ten floors up in the neurointensive care unit, recovering from a stroke. The future was uncertain. A row of sunny windows with potted plants marching down the hallway was a reassuring picture of order and normalcy in an unstable world.
12. Striped shadows in bright California light cut the space into unexpected shapes and accentuate its form.
13. A simply constructed wooden side chair I found at an estate sale presents a satisfying tableau when the light frames its shadow, doubling the pleasure of the design.
14. Sidewalk engineering and a shadow that mimics the patterns.
15. A Donald Judd sculpture benefits from carefully considered museum lighting.

The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:

16.
17. Looking through the rectangles of a conservatory window superimposes a certain order on the beautiful chaos of the plants inside.
18. In this case, I looked through a tangle of branches at a building with a broken bulls-eye of arcs superimposed on angled grids. The complex array of lines and shapes benefited from monochromatic processing. This was in Ghent, Belgium.

Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.

19. Symmetry in a stone mosaic medallion enhances the Italian pavilion at the Staten Island Botanical Garden in New York.

20. Alternating leaves, parallel veins – these examples of order in the plant world were adopted by people as field marks for identification, which is another way of organizing the flow of sensory input around us.
21. Classic floral symmetry: a Trillium has three leaves (which are actually bracts), three sepals, three petals, six stamens, and three stigmas. The Trillium’s simple design one of the most striking ones in the botanical world.

*

I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.

***

LOCAL WALKS: BIG CEDAR

Here I am, having arrived at a place

deep enough

to lose myself

among exultant Sword fern bouquets

unfurling in the dim light as far as the

I can see.

There it is again,

that pesky “I”

but no problem, it will

get lost soon.

*

We breathe together, the “I” and

this verdant ravine where Redcedar soars,

roots, opens, and sits

as still and profound as two in the morning.

Just this, redcedar whispers.

Who hears?

*

A cool breeze scatters leaves. Was it from the ridge-top?

The jagged, black edge of the island? Or

did the wafting breath arise

fifty miles east,

in the center of the dark, cold Salish Sea?

Here, now, air manifests 

in gentle waves of cedar boughs,

flutters of tender huckleberry leaves,

prickly bumps on old arms.

Air and mind

focus and release in shuddering waves

like the darting squirrel

that was perfectly still a second ago.

Back and forth,

we’re eachall centered in herenow

in the bottom of the green ravine

where the I loosens and

dovetails into the forest.

*

Note: This poem appeared earlier this year in a slightly different version, with different photographs.

*

1,
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.

***

In Washington state’s Deception Pass State Park, a double loop of intersecting trails climbs in and out of a dry, coniferous forest and a deep, wet ravine. In the depths of the ravine, a massive Western redcedar tree (Thuja plicata) stands. This is the tree in the first photo and the photo below (with a person for scale). Well off the beaten path, the trail that winds down into the damp, fern-filled valley where the cedar grows is quiet. It feels remote from the built environment. Fallen trees coated with thick layers of moss from which younger trees sprout vie with ferns for the weak light that filters down through tall conifers. One can relax into the feeling of losing oneself in this forest, with only the sound of a distant raven and a nearby woodpecker punctuating the silence.

If you continue past the big cedar you’ll find more trails; go one direction and you climb out of the park, past the remains of an old mine and a decrepit log cabin, and back down to a quiet road. Walk another direction and you’ll emerge into a rough, cut-over area where blackberries thrive in the sun. I usually climb a steep, rocky trail leading out of the valley to a gentle ridge above Pass Lake, pictured above. The small lake’s cold water provides food for Great blue herons, Bufflehead ducks, River otters, and other beings who are intimate with the shoreline’s nooks and crannies. Humans must fish from non-motorized boats and throw the fish back to the water. We protect the lake, a breathing being itself that loves fog and holds it close on cool days before it floats away, nourishing the forest as it goes.

The old Western redcedar. Not a true cedar, this species belongs to the Cypress family. It was, and I assume still is, the most important plant to many Pacific northwest indigenous people, providing everything from clothing to canoes.

***

AT HOME

Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.

1. On the kitchen table.
2. Autumn bouquet.

Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.

But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.

Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.

3. In a corner above the sink at a Bnb in Leiden…
4. …I made a small arrangement of objects.

Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.

As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.

*

5. A wacky little still life arranged on an old corner bookcase during my last year of college. Those are my shoes – gotta have red shoes. Don’t ask about the math, I have no idea what it means. I may still have the little ostrich and cow toys somewhere but Marilyn, the cowboy, the crayons, and the bottle of German soap bubbles are long gone.
6. A photo from the early 70s, just after I graduated from School of Visual Arts. The vintage utensils came from second hand stores. If this image looks a little familiar it may be because photographer Jan Groover exhibited a series of Kitchen Still Lifes in New York in 1979, some of which feature utensils. The photographs, which brought her well-deserved acclaim, were more complex and carefully thought-out than this casual composition. When I saw her work I felt an encouraging “Aha!” moment – my instincts were good even if my execution was lacking.
7. Around 1973 I moved into an old walk-up railroad flat in Hoboken, NJ, a small city across the river from Manhattan. The big city was too expensive for a recent art school graduate and Hoboken had not yet been discovered. Rents were affordable, especially in buildings like this one, which lacked central heat. On the left side of the gas stove the top folded back to reveal a single large burner. That was supposed to heat the entire apartment. It wasn’t enough for the frigid, northeastern winters so for three months a year, we curtained off the far two rooms and lived in the warm kitchen and the room next to it.
8. The Hoboken apartment was on the third floor of this building. Rent was $60 a month but Mr. Eng, the landlord, didn’t mind if we were late paying – he was grateful to have tenants who took care of their apartment. When I took this photo in 2008 the corner had hardly changed but Hoboken was completely different. It had become gentrified and was packed with new apartment buildings, hip restaurants and young professionals. My old building now has central heat and air conditioning. Rent is about $2,000/month, which may be a good deal for an apartment that’s a just quick ride away from Manhattan, even if it’s a one-bedroom walk-up.
9. Eleven years and two moves after the Hoboken apartment, putting things in places took on a whole new meaning. Here’s my newborn son surrounded by gifts from generous friends and relatives. What joy!
10. Skipping ahead another 17 years, this layered image was made at my comfortable Cape Cod home in rural New York, about 50 miles north of New York City. It was a cozy home with lovely gardens that I tended with enthusiasm. We parked in the driveway because the garage was crammed with pots and gardening tools. I bought my first digital camera, a 1.3 megapixel Sony Mavica that stored photos on floppy disks! Along with basic photo processing software, it was a clumsy setup compared to today’s options but it allowed me to explore and experiment.

*

*

12. It was the last house I would own. In this photo there’s an antique drop-leaf table from my parent’s house and a chair with a seat cover my father upholstered. On the table is a bouquet of wildflowers and garden blooms from the sunny backyard, frequented by deer and wild turkeys. The scene appears idyllic but it was a turbulent, difficult time and the sturdy, mid-century house with its rural setting provided a welcome measure of stability.

*

*

14. This is a collage of two black and white photos, one of a Great blue heron and one of an indigenous girl in traditional dress. I merged them together to express the freedom of taking flight united with the feeling of being secure in one’s own being. This was home: being rooted in place yet free to take wing.
15. A new job in Manhattan required four hours of commuting: I drove, parked, boarded a train, got off, threaded through tunnels to the subway, transferred to a different subway, emerged onto the street, walked to the office, passed through security, and took the elevator. This routine was not tenable! I found a rambling, high-ceiling, apartment in a prewar building on Staten Island, where rent was more affordable than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Now I could take the ferry to work! The cozy cottage by the river was exchanged for an airy apartment with lively urban views in three directions. To the west, a bell tower and late-nineteenth century homes, to the north, the vibrant New York harbor, and to the south, a handsome old gothic school. In this photo of a begonia cutting the bell tower is framed between the neck of the bottle and the edge of the leaf.
16. The new job required frequent overnight travel. Every time Pablo heard the sound of the suitcase wheels he ran and crouched in my shoes. (They look like men’s shoes but I like that style). He was one very unhappy cat – but soon he had another companion.

*

*

18. An old Mahjong tile and a tiny ceramic rabbit that belonged to my mother when she was a child made a small still life on a bookshelf.
19. More changes loomed: unexpectedly, we lost our jobs within months of each other, through no fault of ours. As we began to collect unemployment, we dreaded the idea of finding new jobs in New York. We treasured our vacations and day trips away from a city that was wearing us down. Dreaming about leaving urban intensity behind, we thought about moving to the Pacific Northwest – but first, we needed some questions answered. Was there enough culture? Would we like the laid-back lifestyle? Was it really as beautiful as people said it was? So we flew across the country on a mission, visiting Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Rainforest, Rialto Beach, Whidbey Island, and Seattle’s Pike Place market. Yes, this was the place; it was wildly beautiful and more comfortable than we imagined. We said our goodbyes to family and friends as we engineered the big move. On a winter afternoon six weeks before we left, I photographed this view from our apartment.

*

*

21. We don’t remember where we found the doll’s hand and the frog but they were a happy pair, sitting on a desk in the Kirkland apartment.
22. We moved once more, this time because we no longer had to be near Seattle for work and wanted to live in a more rural environment. We found a quiet, affordable cottage for rent on an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. After moving in we got to know Doe-a-deer, who clearly knew the place well.

*

*

24. It’s not antique and surely isn’t authentic but we love Bobo and Evelyn, the broken African mask I bought in Kirkland (there should be two birds on top). We like the way the strand of leathery leaves (actually a necklace) suits these two characters. Someday we could to move again but there are no plans for that now! We’re happy where we are. Paying attention. Putting things in places. Appreciating our lives.

*

Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.

From an essay by Georgina Reid in The Planthunter.

*

Thank you for your attention. Life is full of uprootings and new horizons. And fresh opportunities to arrange things.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Pacific Northwest Mood

The darkening time –

after months of drought

the rain arrives, awakening licorice

fern tendrils,

greening up the ragged moss blankets

that wrap around rocks

where mushrooms smile.

*

Shadows thicken,

gloom pervades the forest,

opaque clouds loom

over the sea.

Threads of lace lichen soften,

gracefully fluttering

in the cool air by the bay

where I watch the last bees fret the aster’s

deep yellow discs.

The summer houses are empty.

*

Heron’s plans haven’t changed though –

peer, freeze, strike, swallow,

repeat

sometimes without the swallow.

In town

I see one flying

low over the roofs of busy stores,

crying hoarsely, fearless

and purposeful.

***

1. Wetland reflections.
2. Through a scrim of twigs and lichens.
3.
4.
5. Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii), Douglas fir needles, and a Madrone leaf.
6. Rain.
7. Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) dries up in summer and springs back to life with autumn rains. Last season’s shriveled leaves are at the base of the ferns growing on a moss-covered tree trunk.
8. More lace lichen.
9. Rain-slicked Madrone trees lean over the water.
10.
11.
12.
13. Great blue heron.
14.
15.
16.

***

FURTHER AFIELD: Into the Mountains

Last week we drove northeast to the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, a vast tract of land on the western slopes of the Cascade Range. Our goal was a high meadow set with heather, wildflowers, blueberries, firs and hemlocks, about 10 miles south of the Canadian border as the crow flies. A glacier-fed creek winds through the meadow and widens into shallow lakes where American dippers (gray, fist-sized birds) plunge underwater in search of small fish and invertebrates. At 4200 feet (1280m) the subalpine meadow is far below nearby Mount Baker but it’s a big step up in altitude from life on an island at sea level.

Mount Baker, known as Koma Kulshan in the popularized (and probably incorrect) version of a local indigenous language, is our guardian mountain. Snow-capped all year long, it’s presence graces views to the northeast from different vantage points around our island. When it isn’t obscured by clouds we like to check its mood: sometimes the mountain looks gentle, other times it seems forbidding and fierce. It all depends on how the light hits it, whether it’s ringed with a puffy cloud necklace, how clear the sky is that day, or our own moods – we like to read things into the mountain. As we left Fidalgo Island on a bright September morning, Mt. Baker competed with electric wires that span the bridge, creating yet another scene. It wasn’t a picture postcard view but it was just as real as any other.

1. Mt. Baker/Koma Kulshan from the car as we drive off the island.
2. A distant North Cascade peak shows the scale of the mountain range relative to the lowlands.

It’s a two-hour drive on two-lane roads that pass through small rural communities. The final stretch penetrates thick forest as it climbs on up into the mountains. After a series of hairpin turns the road passes a ski resort before it ends above the timberline at a scenic hunk of rock called Artist’s Point. Fine views of mountain peaks can be seen in all directions up there. But you’re still well below Mt. Baker. For that, climbers need to execute a technical climb on the glacier-strewn peak, which is technically an active volcano. But no worries, it’s unlikely to erupt without warning while research and monitoring stations are keeping watch.

No gluttons for punishment, we just wanted an easy, scenic hike – and what a beautiful day it was for that. We pulled into a lot below Artist’s Point, parked, donned backpacks, hats, and sunscreen, checked our water and food supplies, and set off on the Bagley Lakes Trail.

3. Bagley Lakes.
4.

*

*

6. Blueberry bushes cast shadows on a well-worn boardwalk over a wet section of the trail.
7. A gold rush in the late 1890s brought settlers into this wilderness. Soon after that the idea of tourism took hold. Construction on a lodge began in 1925 and a road was constructed up to Heather Meadows, where we hiked the trail around Bagley Lakes. In 1931, the 58-mile-long Mt. Baker Highway was extended to its terminus at Artist Point; the lodge burned down the same year. Three years later Jack London’s Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, was filmed nearby in the Mt. Baker National Forest.
8. Massive hemlocks tower over the meadows.

*

*

10. Bagley Creek’s bottom is littered with fallen trees. The red leaves in the lower left corner are blueberry bushes.

*

12. One impressive tree towered over the others, tilting toward the creek. Someday it will topple.
13.

*

I was surprised to find that last time we hiked here was exactly a year ago. The blueberries were more plentiful then and the skies were cloudier. It’s reassuring to return to a place you enjoy and take in the same views – but it’s always a little different. I find that reassuring, too. If you haven’t had your fill of mountain images, a post about last year’s hike can be seen here.

***