ABSTRACTION

“Abstract” is a familiar word that is worth prying open and thinking about. It’s from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away. Abstrahere (the verb) is defined as “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert.” The abstracted idea or object is dragged away from its physicality, diverted from its origin. In art, the word abstract has come to describe work that does not intentionally reproduce reality. Likewise, in photography, an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.

Over a hundred years ago a man named Alvin Langdon Coburn had an idea for a photography show in which “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.” (Rexer, Lyle. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. NY: Aperture, 2013.) That thought exposes the aesthetic crux that many photographers who work with “reality” (whether that means portraits or landscapes or street photography) are dealing with: is the photograph just a snapshot, or does it say something more?

I think for most people reading this post, reproducing reality is (still) a compelling exercise but “the appreciation of the extraordinary” is probably what keeps that finger clicking the shutter. It’s certainly true for me.

To convey the “extra” that I find in the ordinary, I like to explore different approaches; abstraction is one that can freshen the mind’s eye. The images here come at abstraction from a variety of angles and some are more recognizable as real-world objects than others. But in my opinion, there’s no need to name what you see.

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The urge to name what we see is hard to resist though. As soon as we see something, especially a two-dimensional image, labels pop into our minds. When we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, we learned to ask, “What’s in a name?” It was a good lesson, but it barely loosened the knot of naming things. We are compelled to tie an identity around everything and everyone, and usually, we tie the knot pretty tightly. That identity, that name, inevitably drags waves of associations along with it – liking, disliking, evaluating, remembering, etc.

Of course, the propensity for identifying what we see is necessary and helpful, but it’s not a bad idea to question it once in a while. Names and identities may be more arbitrary than we realize. Questioning the connection of a name to its referent can open up space in our minds. Even just loosening the bonds of language to simply absorb images without labeling them can be rewarding.

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I’m not advocating slipping down into a world where meaning is entirely arbitrary and unique to each person. We need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things – times are tough enough! But I think it’s beneficial to step out of the familiarity of our language-based environment now and then. A little muddling and messing about with what we’ve come to rely on as firm and clear can be refreshing.

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12. If you identify this as “leaf,” “veins”, and maybe “fuzzy,” do those words change the experience of viewing the image? If I call it “dashu and crannen” do you look harder? (Or maybe you move along quickly!)

Lacking a brain, the black box doesn’t know that the flower in front of it isn’t just a flower, but is an infinite web of relationships. The awareness that a subject isn’t separate from its surroundings is something we are able to perceive, along with the awareness that we can choose to focus on any part of the whole, using our camera. Constantly becoming, the flower may be positioned at the center of the field that the camera encompasses, but in fact, the center extends infinitely through space and time, inviting a myriad of abstractions.

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These images have been altered by severe cropping, color changes, and tonal manipulations. I followed my nose towards different “meanings” of the scenes above than what the camera saw, subverting the black box’s stubborn insistence on one-to-one reproduction. No matter where I point it, the camera “wants” to make a faithful copy. This is the blessing/curse of photography. Of course, the camera does have a person operating it – a person with ideas, history, and intentions. A moment to record was chosen. And later, when we sit down with the camera’s rendition of reality before us, we’re free to play with it as much or as little as we want.

By the way, I’m happy to divulge the names of these things and whatever I can remember about the process of metamorphosing them into abstractions. Just ask.

JUST ONE: Rein Orchids

This entry in my “Just One” series about Pacific Northwest plants is actually about two wildflowers that look alike at first glance. It has taken me a long time to identify and differentiate them. They’re both Rein orchids – small, delicate wildflowers that most people have never heard of and would not notice, even if they walked right past them. But bear with me – they’re really quite beautiful.

1. A group of Elegant Rein orchids at Kukutali Preserve; July, 2019.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Rein orchids ever since discovering one in a hidden spot off a preserve trail two weeks after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I could tell it was an orchid but I’d never seen anything quite like it. A year later I found the little orchid again, this time in five different places. As I studied my photos I could see that some were different from the others, but when I tried to identify them I was met with a jumble of look-alike species and a veritable morass of names.

Learning that their leaves emerge in late winter, I reminded myself to search for the leaves where I’d seen the orchids in the summer. Sure enough, in February I found healthy, oval leaves, pressed close to the ground, gathering energy so the plant could flower in the summer. They had to be the Rein orchid plants.

This year I resolved to better understand the science of what I was seeing. I wanted to at least know the proper names of these pretty flowers, though I believe that names and science aren’t the only tools for understanding our experience of the natural world. There are less logic-based ways to understand the world which are just as important, but I value science – and I was itching to figure out which is which! A website called inaturalist has been very helpful; I can compare what other people have photographed and identified with my own sightings. I feel fairly confident now that I’ve been seeing two species of Rein orchids here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans and Platanthera transversa. There’s something tantalizingly poetic about these slender sprites that hide in plain sight.

2. A Rein orchid in the woods on a summer afternoon.

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The Rein orchids wait patiently,

gilded grasses swaying around them, faint

bay breezes rustling the dry Madrone leaves

at their feet. Spiders craft

sticky thread-worlds on their petals,

motorboats rumble in the distance,

occasional bursts of human voices

fade as quickly as they appear. The orchids

wait for the night

and the pollinators, for the arrival

of soft wings and probing tongues,

the woosh, the slurp, the brush of feet and antennae.

This is the reward of patience, or so I imagine

because our encounters, however sweet, are

never by moonlight. We soak the midsummer sun

together, the Rein orchids and I. The heat pricks my nose

with the fragrance of dry grass and cedar, and

encourages petals and roots to stretch. It relaxes

my stiff neck. Slowly the orchids’ nectar ripens

to satisfy the single species of moth that

might pollinate a tiny flower. Let it happen.

Let it happen and

let me find another fairy tale cluster

of slim white stems nestled in the warm grass

next year.

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3. Platanthera elegans at Kukutali Preserve.

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5. A Rein orchid under a Madrone tree.

Orchids are fascinating. The pretty corsages you see at weddings evolved their colors and curves for very specific reasons, having nothing to do with humans. Evolutionarily advanced, orchids have developed thousands of distinctive ways to attract their pollinators. As Darwin said, “The contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful.” As orchid species evolve, their pollinators evolve too, resulting in very specific, even exclusive relationships between plant and pollinator. Orchids often trick their pollinators, which can be bees, hummingbirds, moths, even birds. It’s theorized that the tricks employed by orchids to attract pollinators result in a greater fertilization success rate – as the specialist keeps visiting its favorite orchid species, the orchid pollen it collects isn’t wasted on other flower species.

The first orchid appeared on earth’s evolutionary stage some 100 million years ago; the family now comprises as many as 28,000 different species. Many grow high in trees, some thrive high in the mountains, a few live above the Arctic Circle, most grow in the tropics, and one exists entirely underground.

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6. The Flat-spurred Rein orchid, Platanthera transversa. (This photo was somewhat desaturated in processing.)
7. Another Flat-spurred Rein orchid and a single fine spider thread. Photo slightly desaturated.

8. A Flat-spurred Rein orchid with the background darkened in processing. Is this the way the orchids look on a moonlit night? Their moth pollinators might know.

9. Two lovely Flat-spurred Rein orchids growing up through Douglas fir and Bearberry at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. Follow this link to see a preserved Rein orchid collected on July 15, 1936 for the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium, also from Goose Rock. This land was preserved as a state park. The species continues.

The Platanthera genus contains around 100 species; 45 are native to North America. At least two – P. elegans and P. transversa – grow close to my home. They are the orchids pictured here. Neither one has a fixed common name but P. elegans is sometimes called the Elegant Rein orchid. Apparently, our P. elegans is a subspecies, P. elegans elegans, the Coast Piperia. (Piperia is after Charles V. Piper, an American botanist and an authority on Pacific Northwest plants). P. transversa (pictured just above) is called the Flat-spurred Rein orchid, or sometimes the Royal Rein orchid. Flat-spurred refers to the long flower spur where the nectar is. It extends out horizontally on each little flower, clearly visible in photos #6 and 18. Another similar species (P. unalascensis) probably grows here as well but I haven’t seen it yet. These flowers are challenging!

Rein orchids on Fidalgo Island favor relatively dry, partly shady conditions. They grow near Douglas fir, and frequently under Madrone trees, which also like drier places. Clusters of Rein orchids can be seen hugging steep slopes facing the water and single flowers may be scattered near trails in open woods, where they get a little more sun than they would in a dense forest. I’ve noticed the presence of another small orchid, the Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), can be a clue that Rein orchids may be nearby. It surprises me that no one picks them or tramples them. Maybe that’s the cynical New Yorker in me, expecting nature to be destroyed by hordes of heedless humans. More likely, people don’t see them in the first place. Flower stalks are just a foot or two (20 – 55cm) tall and the flowers don’t sport bright colors. If I show a Rein orchid to someone the reaction is puzzlement and slight disappointment – that’s an orchid? You have to bend down and really look hard to see the graceful flowers. I think their small stature and pale colors are keeping them safe.

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10. A Coast Piperia orchid emerges from a sheltered spot littered with fallen Madrone leaves.

11. As if to prove its affinity for Madrone trees, this orchid wears a Madrone leaf. A notch in the leaf caught it on the stalk. I should go back and see if it’s still there.

12. A Coast Piperia orchid among wild grasses and yellow Hairy Cat’s ear flowers (Hypochaeris radicata) at Kukutali Preserve.

13. Rein orchids at Sharpe Park, photographed out-of-focus with a vintage Takumar lens.

14. This photo was also made with the vintage lens, and processed using the Silver Efex antique plate effect.

15. A Rein orchid in the woods at Washington Park photographed with the vintage lens.

A deeper dive into the strange world of orchid reproduction

Rein orchids are summer bloomers whose leaves emerge in late winter. The orchids are busy photosynthesizing well before many other plants are visible. By July the stalk appears, buds begin to open, and the leaves are dry up. After pollination, the stalk is dotted with brown seed pods containing prodigious amounts of seed. Unlike most seeds, tiny orchid seeds don’t have enough nutrition on board to get going on their own. They must join with a mycorrhizal network (a web of fungal threads in the soil) to survive. Within hours of this crucial linkage, carbon will flow in both directions, benefiting the “infected” orchid and the fungus. Fungal partners also supply nitrogen and phosphorus to the orchid. This mycorrhizal association, though not well understood, is absolutely essential to all orchids.

Once a seed germinates and begins growing underground, the slow process of flowering is underway. A root will form in the soil at some point, but it can be years before a leaf emerges and photosynthesis takes place. It can also be years before the plant is robust enough to produce a flower stalk. Once the plant blooms and releases its seeds, little is left to see above ground. But a tuber is there, hiding in the soil, along with many fungal networks. When the time is right, (patience!) another Rein orchid will appear.

There is a dearth of information about these orchids. It’s not clear exactly what insects pollinate them. One source says that P. elegans is pollinated by a small brown moth not much bigger than your thumb. Its Latin name is Plusia nichollae and there is no common name – more obscurity! The little pollinator is a partly diurnal moth that lives mainly west of the Cascades, from coastal British Columbia to the Bay area in California, a narrow range not unlike that of the orchid. Sienna brown wings marked with white and gold would make the moth hard to spot among the golden grasses that often surround P. elegans. I’ll be looking for it.

A source says Flat-spurred rein orchids may be pollinated by “moths such as Thallophaga taylorata.” This moth doesn’t have a common name either. The obscurity of these lovely little plants is part of the appeal. They aren’t common, they grow in out-of-the-way places, they’re not well-studied by scientists, they aren’t known at all by the general public…and there you have a recipe for wonder. They will keep my attention for a while, I expect.

As I write this post, the flowers are fading and the plants are moving on to seed setting and dispersal. Six months from now I’ll be looking for Rein orchid leaves, nestled in moist moss. Until next year…

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17. By April, more plants are emerging. Flowering for the Rein orchids is still three months away.

18. A Coast Piperia blooms among wildflowers, moss, and last year’s sloughed off Madrone bark and leaves.

19. Wildflower seeds blew onto this Flat-spurred Rein orchid near Mt. Erie.

20. The flowers fade in late July as the ovaries swell and harden into seed pods.

21. An elegant Coast Piperia specimen in full flower.

22. A wildflower bonanza right next to a trail high up on Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Nodding onions (Allium cernuum) surround this Coast Piperia Rein orchid.

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Framing Earth and Sky

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planes of existence

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the sky falls into place

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the grasses swim; the clouds fall to earth

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pressed to reveal a secret

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it could be about the daisies

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at the edge of the known world

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we find light, hold it, and let it go

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this is not the place

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portal

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re-contextualizing again

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This project has its roots in another project I worked on in 1972-73. I took a square pane of glass to a vacant field an hour west of New York City and placed it on the ground. It was a sunny day and soon condensation began to form on the plants under the glass. Everything under the glass took on a slightly blue cast. I photographed that and moved on to other manipulations, wrapping a plastic bag over a small bush and bending a square of aluminum foil around a barbed wire fence so the foil hung like flag. I was interested in reflections and other subtle changes in the light that I could make with gentle interventions in the environment.

The following winter I returned to the field after a heavy snowfall with the pane of glass under my arm. Dropping it onto the snow, I photographed the resulting square made by shadows cast along the edges of the glass. I stuck the pane into the snow on its edge and photographed it head-on, with its bright reflection on one side and its shadow on the other side. I kept going, playing with a ball of string and four utility candles – more white on white. The pieces (photographs of them) were submitted for a sculpture class at the School of Visual Arts, which I was attending.

Then the ideas went dormant for a long time. One of the pieces was titled “Disappearance” but the ideas never disappeared from my mind. The play of light on objects always drew my attention, whether I was working, walking across the city, taking care of my son or gazing out a window. Four slides of the work from the early 1970s survive. Those images and my memory were enough to nudge me toward the hardware store this month to purchase two squares of glass, cut to my specifications. I drove to a field again, this time in Washington State. It was another sunny day, but of course, conditions were different than they were in 1972. I’m different. So I worked with the glass square, took photos, thought about what I saw on the screen and went out a second time. The photos above are from these two recent forays. I expect there will be more.

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Celebrating Two Years

Two years ago this week we traveled 70 miles north, leaving a booming Seattle suburb for a quiet, 41-square-mile island of about 20,000 people. We have witnessed all four seasons here twice now. We have zeroed in on an assortment of favorite places – bluffs and beaches for sunset views, shorelines to meander along, coffee shops to linger in, forests to immerse ourselves in. Our lives feel very different than they did before we moved. It’s a good time to celebrate the pleasures of this place.

1. Mt. Erie, the island’s highest point, wrapped in fog. June, 2020.

2. Mt. Erie from the south, with Pass Lake. December, 2019.

3. A trail through old Douglas firs. January, 2019.

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5. Lichen-encrusted branch, Bowman Bay. March 2019.

6. Cap Sante Marina. December 2018.

7. Abandoned building. Anacortes. September, 2018.

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9. Mt. Baker from Cap Sante. October, 2018.
10. Rain over Deception Island; Fidalgo Island is to the right. December, 2019.

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12. Driftwood, grasses and wild roses; Rosario Beach. February 2020.

13. Floating burr-reed (Sparganium angustifolium) (?) and reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. September, 2018.

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15. Evening reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. October 2019.

16. Rain shower, Little Cranberry Lake. February, 2019.

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18. The creek at home. February, 2019.

19. Heart Lake trail. August, 2018.

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21. A fishing boat tied up at Trident Seafoods in Anacortes. November, 2018.

22. Fog on Mt. Erie. December, 2019.

24. Heart Lake. February, 2020.

25. Looking west from Lighthouse Point. December 2018.

26. Bell, shadows and reflections at home. February, 2019.

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JUST ONE: Lace Lichen

If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.

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Lovely Lace lichen

who are you?

Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances

across my lips

and hovers lightly in the air,

waiting to be explained. Your

drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils

take me back to the Georgia coast, where

Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks

lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.

Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)

instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen

your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing

endless revelations: here

a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there

a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there

a weightless, crooked ladder, there

a neuron dancing in the air.

As the scientist says, there’s

considerable morphological variation.

And amidst this melange of forms

always

the swing and sway, the

drape and droop of you:

an enchantment in the woods.

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2. Lace lichen on Douglas fir, within sight of the Salish Sea.
3. Wavy ribbons.

4. A crooked mesh ladder.

5. Hanging from a pine tree at California’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The Structure

Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:

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Experiencing Lace lichen

Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.

Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.

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12. I wondered what the Chestnut-backed chickadees were doing, rummaging around in this big clump of Lace lichen. My question went unanswered…but I was left with delight.

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14. The way Lace lichen joins branches and twigs to one another expands my perception of the space they inhabit.

The Science

Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.

What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!

Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).

If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!

15. A clump of Lace lichen on the ground.

16. I put a wayward strand on my car to admire the color and structure.

17. This tree wears a Lace lichen necklace. You can see other lichen species on the bark of the tree. This Lace lichen is drying out as summer approaches. It will bounce back from dormancy with the return of rainfall in September.

18. A lichen and its shadow.

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Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii

The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.

In 2015 California became the first state in the US to recognize a state lichen, Ramalina menziesii. After years of lobbying by the California Lichen Society, Governor Jerry Brown signed on the dotted line.

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“We must entrust ourselves to what we are investigating to guide us safely in the quest” (Gadamer, 1960/1989, p. 378)

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HAVE A SEAT!

Inanimate things for a change. Enjoy!

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1. Have a socially distanced seat outside Pelican Bay Used Bookstore and Cafe. Anacortes, Washington.

2. Have a seat and a cigarette break in an alley behind a restaurant. Maybe you can use those three red lines to center yourself. Kirkland, Washington.

3. Have a seat – or maybe not – in this overturned chair by a canal. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

4. Have a seat on a bench in a garden and take pictures with your Lensbaby. Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

5. Have a seat if you dare, at the far end of a long, dark tunnel that was once used to store ammunition to protect New York harbors. Fort Totten, Queens, New York.

6. If you don’t mind getting your bottom wet, have a seat at Urban Coffee Lounge on a rainy winter afternoon. Kirkland, Washington.

7. Have a seat in Seattle’s Westlake Park alongside Steinunn Thorarinsdottir’s sculptures and various local characters. Seattle, Washington.

8. Have a seat and another cigarette break in an alley in Kirkland, Washington.

9. Have a fashionably quaint seat next to an abandoned railroad track behind Januik Winery. Woodinville, Washington.

10. Have a seat and reminisce at the Old Town Bar and Restaurant on East 18th St. New York, NY.

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12. Have a seat on the street across from Watts Towers. Los Angeles, California.

13. Scale this restaurant facade and see if you can have a seat on the artwork. Hannover, Germany.

14. You’ll probably be grateful for this seat outdoors after visiting a patient at Banner – University Medical Center Hospital. Phoenix, Arizona.

15. Have a seat and commune with a Buddha statue at Ksitigarbha Temple. Lynnwood, Washington.

16. Have a seat in an old straight-back chair I found at an estate sale for $5.00. Kirkland, Washington.

17. Have a seat on the Edmonds – Kingston ferry and feel the breeze. Somewhere in Puget Sound, Washington.

18. Have a seat across from this busy commuter on the Staten Island Ferry. New York harbor, NY, NY.

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20. Have a seat in the truck and deliver fresh eggs to the produce store. Malty Produce Market, Maltby, Washington.

21. Have a seat here and you’re in big trouble. ‘Under the Table’ by Robert Therrien, at the Broad Museum. Los Angeles, California.

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FIRE & WATER

Spring has been wet here. With lots of rain falling on weekends and less on weekdays, it hasn’t been fun for those with regular jobs who want to get out on their days off. Farmers must be happy though, and wildfires are less likely, at least for now. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain but summers here are actually bone dry, so wildfires become a concern if summer is preceded by a dry spring or winter. This spring, however, fire is far from my mind as I organize my outings for short spells of dry air that may follow a gloomy, morning fog. Ducking out between showers on a damp trail that skirts a lake or leads to views of the Salish Sea, I’m always aware of water. Fire’s role in the local ecology is less evident, but is still clearly visible in the stands of burned trees, charred logs and fresh, green growth around blackened stumps. With water and fire in mind, here is a selection of photos that call attention to these two primal elements.

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1. Dangerous currents roiling through a narrow passage reveal the relentless power of water.

2. Evidence of a fire in a forest near Twisp, Washington.

3. Water in its frozen state is an uncommon sight on Fidalgo Island. Luckily, I was out for a walk in the woods when this gentle snow shower began.

4. Charred tree trunks and scarce undergrowth tell fire’s story.

5. Sitting in the car, watching the rain.

6. The ground is littered with burned wood for a long time after a fire. As it decomposes it adds nutrients to the soil.

7. Rain clings to the long needles of a Shore pine, a close relative of Lodgepole pine. In the Pacific Northwest, people complain about “June Gloom.” Rainy days like the one last week when I took this photo are frequent, and frustrating.

8. Grass casts a shadow on a log burned in a 2014 fire started by people building a campfire on a dry day, in a place where campfires aren’t allowed.

9. The pretty Lyall’s star tulip (Calochortus lyallii) wet with raindrops, graces a field on the eastern slope of the North Cascade Mountain Range.

10. Daisies encircle a burned stump in a field overcome by fire two summers ago, less than a mile from where I live.

11. Trees died from flooding when this lake was created. On the hill in the background, just out of sight, a fire raged six years ago.

13. A small waterfall in the foothills of the North Cascades.

14. Fire is frequent on the dry, eastern side of the North Cascades. Evergreen foliage is a rusty orange color and tree trunks are charred black from a fire that once burned hot but now nourishes the soil.

15. Slender branches scrape the surface of a lake, mixing with reflections of other branches, creating a rippling chaos of light and shadow.

16. A Yellow-pine chipmunk that has seen its share of tussles (look at those ears!) watches me carefully from a safe perch in a charred Lodgepole pine on the east side of the Cascades.

17. Early spring fog and morning dew at home.

19. Some of these trees were burned, others were drowned. They stand and then fall in a lake frequented by fish, otters, beavers, ducks and more creatures, all part of patterns of interdependence that are more complex than we know.

20. Another example of water and fire: the trees were killed by a fire up here at Washington Pass (elev. 5,476′ or 1669m).

***

Most of these photos were taken on Fidalgo Island; some are from the other side of the mountains, where dry conditions prevail much of the year. The activity of water and fire is something experienced by every creature on this earth, but the particular way these elements operate is unique to each location on our planet. Fire’s history here on Fidalgo Island is different from it’s history in Kansas or Kazakhstan. I think it’s worthwhile getting to know the elements intimately, in your own locale. How often does it snow? What are the textures of your snow, and what is the scent of rain on a hot day where you live? How often does fire tear across the fields, if at all? Are there native plants or animals where you live that are adapted to periodic fires? And what about the human relationship to water and fire – where does fear come in? What about the need to control? And what about capitalism?

Humans seem to have increasingly difficult relationships to fire and water. We understand that we are dependent on water and fire for our very lives, but we want them to stay in their places. We keep thinking that we know where those places are, even when time and time again, floods and fires prove otherwise. Instead of being flexible and working with water and fire, we stiffen and create inflexible environments amidst changing circumstances. We build houses in all the wrong places, encroaching further and further into places where wildfires or floods are very likely to occur. Fires or floods can be natural components of great cycles that we refuse to recognize or cannot imagine. At the same time, our frenzied activity has modified the earth’s climate and made wildfires and floods bigger and more frequent than we can remember them ever being before.

What’s the answer? Draw back. Pay attention. Don’t build in places where fire is part of the natural order of things; don’t build where flooding from storms is part of the balance of nature. Work with and respect fire and water and cut back on activities that pollute and warm the earth. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but there are probably still things we can each do to support working in harmony with water and fire instead of against them. And we can get closer to the elements, get intimate and comfortable with their activities in our own back yards. They’re not separate – they are us.

***

MORE MAY RAMBLES

The first day of summer is just over a week away. Before we bask in the warmth of the lush season and spring fades to a dream, I want to share a few more images from May, specifically, the last two weeks of May (images from early May are here).

As our state slowly, carefully emerges from the COVID restrictions, the county where I live is now beginning to open restaurants and retail businesses. It’s good to see people sitting at tables in coffee shops again and not just getting their drinks to go. It will be nice to see stores opening too, but I really long to travel, at least for an overnight road trip. I’m not sure when that will be feasible. We’re watching to see how other counties fare as they open more businesses and people move around more. In the meantime, we did take a few day trips last month, at places that are an hour or two away. I still spend lots of time in local parks and there’s plenty to see right here at home, too:

1. The old bamboo birdcage takes on new life surrounded my late May’s super-saturated greens.

2. Afternoon sunlight in the forest at Pass Lake, Deception Pass State Park. These are Red Huckleberry bushes (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant in our woods.

3. Another detail, the same day. These two photographs were made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens, using spot metering in the camera.

4. And now for something completely different…a fallen tree in the bay at Larrabee State Park. The San Juan Islands are seen on the horizon; behind them is Vancouver Island, Canada.

6. A peaceful view from Larrabee, looking out over Salish Sea waters toward the San Juans.

7. One day we explored Northern State Hospital, a decommissioned state mental health facility that operated between 1912 and 1976. Mental health treatment has never been as compassionate as one would like, especially at the state level. However, there were positive aspects to treatment here: the facility was in a beautiful, rural setting and patients could get involved in farm work. There was a library, a greenhouse, and opportunities for recreation. Still, most or all of the patients were there involuntarily. Many of them didn’t have any mental illnesses but were people who didn’t fit in with prevailing norms and lacked the means to get by on their own.
9. Rabbits everywhere!

10. A Douglas fir (left) snuggles up to a Madrone tree at Washington Park. A perfect example of different bark textures.

11. Interesting textures on driftwood at Deception Pass. The brown circles are probably a rim lichen, or Lecanora. Orange and blue-green patches are lichens, too.

12. A Great Blue heron fishes under a massive rock covered with lichens, moss and plants. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Scenes like this one make my day.

13. Sixty miles southeast of home at the edge of the Boulder River Wilderness, the Neiderprum trail climbs into the North Cascades. One weekday we followed part of the trail, beginning alongside Moose Creek, where I found this fading Western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis) hanging over the rushing waters.

14. The light changed a few steps away where delicate Piggy-back plants (Tolmiea menziesii) also dangled over the creek. This native wildflower in the Saxifrage family is called Piggyback plant (or Youth-on-age) because buds develop into new plants at the base of leaves. These plants can drop off and root in the soil.

15. A quick shot out the window as we left the mountains.

17. A snail leaves a slime trail on the moss and heads across a dog lichen, or Peltigera. This is probably a Pacific sideband snail, a hermaphroditic land snail that employs “love darts” in courtship. The small, arrow-shaped dart is fired on contact. If it pierces the receiving snail, mucous is released that aids sperm movement, which benefits reproduction. From Wikipedia: The mucus carries an allohormone that is transferred into the recipient snail’s hemolymph when the dart is stabbed. This allohormone reconfigures the female component of the reproductive system in the receiving individual: the bursa copulax (sperm digestion organ) becomes closed off, and the copulatory canal (leading to the sperm storage) is opened. This reconfiguration allows more sperm to access the sperm storage area and fertilize eggs, rather than being digested. Ultimately this increases the shooter’s paternity. Do you have more respect for snails now??

18. A tangle of lichen that fell out of a tree, probably Old Man’s Beard, or Usnea longissima. When pieces are blown off of tree branches some of them are sure to land in hospitable places. That simple process disperses the lichen – like seeds blown by the wind disperse flowering plants. Old Man’s Beard: a lovely, rootless vagabond. (The orange objects are the male, pollen-bearing cones of Douglas firs, and right now they’re everywhere!).

19. A surprisingly tropical-looking scene at the edge of the woods at Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park. The orange flowers are Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa). The pink ones are the native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). The ferns are Western bracken; the aggressive bracken fern is found all over the world.

20. A Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) performing the annual spring dance of frond unfolding. Foraged by deer, the plant was also used medicinally by some indigenous people. It is appreciated in shade gardens here and abroad and is known as Hard fern in England.

21. Sword fern, our most common fern, continued to unfurl new fronds in May. At home I watched in great annoyance as a deer nibbled just the tips of 6 or 7 new fronds one day, ruining the graceful vase shape of the plant. But since then, no more leaves have been sampled so I’ll allow it. The deer’s mantra seems to be, “A little of this, a little of that.” 🙂

22. Get outside if you can!

*

A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” – John Le Carre

JUST ONE: Maidenhair Fern…

AND THOUGHTS ON AMERICA’S HISTORY OF RACISM

Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.

Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.

I grew up in profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.

After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.

Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.

**

1.

And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.

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The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.

The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!

There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.

**

5. Three different native ferns intertwine along a trail in Snohomish County, Washington.


6. Pendant Maidenhair fern fronds on a rocky bank along a rural road in Skagit County, Washington.


7. Maidenhair ferns growing in a cave near the beach at Shelter Cove, in Northern California.

8. A garden specimen unfurls delicate fronds in March at Kruckeberg Garden in Seattle.
9. A cultivated Maidenhair fern frond is nestled in a Hosta leaf at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

10. Masses of Maidenhair fern make a lush accent for the trees at Washington Arboretum in Seattle. Look carefully and you can see the difference between this cultivated fern and the native species.
11. Maidenhair ferns grow near a power plant at Newhalem, Washington, deep in the North Cascades.

12. I found this Maidenhair on a wet cliff at Multnomah Falls, along the Columbia River in Oregon.

13. These leaflets look exactly like tiny Gingko tree leaves! That’s what I love about this plant – the endless discoveries you can make when you study its form.

14. The colors have been altered in this photo but the stems often do have a purple cast.

**

Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.

When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.

The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. Called Capillaire or Capile in Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.

A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.

**

15. In October the fern’s leaves begin to turn gold.

16. By November Maidenhair fern has turned brown. The leaves will persist for months.
18. A piece of plant detritus has fallen onto a fresh frond in the woods.

19. At Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, Maidenhair fern is used as a filler in plantings. Sometimes it escapes, as it did here, pushing through cracks in a display table.

20. Maidenhair fern drapes luxuriously over Camellias at Volunteer Park Conservatory.

***

SYNAPTIC CROSSINGS

A runway show…

elegant black dresses

spare shapes

nubby textures

graceful curves

atypical lines

strong statements.

They’re here too – the shapes, textures, lines, and curves.

The statements.

Here

five thousand miles from Paris, at my door.

Seeing it all, I’m inspired

to grasp the magic box made of plastic and metal in my old hands.

To point it at something

just as a complex of sensations hisses

along the intricate pathways of my bodymind, informing a decision

to click.

I’ll pry the smooth little square from the box later.

I’ll sit in front of the computer

eyes fixed on the screen, fingers hovering over the keyboard

images floating in the light.

I’ll pick and choose. In some obscure part of my

thinking/feeling brain I’ll be moved

to make one shape darker, another shape brighter

one part sharper, one softer.

And then the leap over here

to this place where we meet across time and space

entangling our neurons with light.

The place where, when the stars align

you might experience a heightened noticing

a raised eyebrow, a widened pupil, a slight

upturn at the corners of the mouth.

There.

The job is done.

*

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What are these pictures?

  1. Leaves and bud of a Clasping twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius).
  2. Leaf tip of an unidentified wildflower.
  3. Dead tree; Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
  4. Buddha statue under a damaged plastic bag.
  5. Reflection of a tall, dead tree; Cranberry Lake, Fidalgo Island.
  6. Round rock under a damaged plastic bag.
  7. Nest that fell on the ground; Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.
  8. Rock patterns; Larrabee State Park, Bellingham, Washington.
  9. Petals of a Dark-throated Shooting star (Primula pauciflora) seen from above.
  10. My shadow with a caustic.
  11. Three California sea lions snuggling on a float, seen from above; Newport, Oregon.
  12. Patterns in the sand; Bowman Bay beach, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island.

***