There are all kinds of curves in the world, but one curve keeps coming back to me. It dwells in my body as a gesture, a wide, arcing swing of the arm that lifts the air. In yoga class I enjoy big sweeps of the arms; I never groan inwardly the way I might during challenging poses. Wikipedia says that “Intuitively, a curve may be thought of as the trace left by a moving point.”* I like this idea of implied motion and I was surprised to learn that it originated with Euclid over 2000 years ago.
So curves aren’t static. They’re traced by all sorts of things besides my arm, of course, and when I slow down enough to notice the world with care, I might find the particular curve that I like almost anywhere. A fond familiarity arises when the curve catches my eye. There must be a neuronal pathway – or more likely, many pathways – where this curve is repeatedly recognized and appreciated, a kind of mirroring of the internal and the external. When I see it my eyebrow might arch in pleasure, yet another gentle curve!
Often a camera is at hand so I make a photograph.
Curves slither through my LightRoom catalog, showing up in old images of gourds and grass or in more recent photos of buildings and Bullwhip kelp. There’s a curved wood relief I made in 1972; the photo of it reminds me that the preoccupation with curves is nothing new. I suspect it has deep roots, perhaps even mythical, or at least back to my first days on this planet when my mother’s breast was the curve of life.
I visualize the curve moving outward and upward more than inward and downward. It feels open-ended, generous. It stands alone or is tangled up with other curves and if it’s tangled, the disorder is harmonious, not fraught or tight.
A curved line suggests an indirect way to get from point A to point B. That appeals to me, too. Give me the back road, the side path! The very act of taking a route other than the straightest or most direct implies that there’s more to life than getting from A to B. And when it comes to solving problems, a roundabout route may not be the fastest one but it could turn up discoveries that shed new light on the issue. Physics tells us that gravity causes light to travel in a curve near large bodies. Did you know that there is “a flight simulator for multi-connected universes” called Curved Spaces? It’s freeware you can download that is supposed to enable inhabitants to “see their universe’s contents repeating in a crystalline pattern.”** I haven’t tried it and perhaps I’m rationalizing but it seems to me that there are many reasons to love a curve.
Here is a series of curves I’ve seen and photographed.
Eight years ago I read about a vintage lens photographers admire for the bright, “dreamy yet sharp” images you can make with it. One reviewer liked the “organic” transition from sharp to blurred. Another mentioned clean contrast, and another praised the color rendition. What interested me most was the “delicious” bokeh. Making photographs with soft, out-of-focus backgrounds was something I dreamed of doing long before I had a capable camera. I was already enjoying a macro lens for that ability so I thought maybe the vintage lens with all the enthusiastic reviews was worth trying. What is it? An Asahi Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4, an all-manual, solidly-constructed piece of glass from the 1960s and 70s. I created a post about it four years ago and today I’m revisiting that vintage lens.
In the fall of 2014 I bought one at a reasonable price (far less expensive than new lenses), along with an adapter to fit it to my camera, a Panasonic Lumix G-3 at that time. I took it out right away and sure enough, the photographs it produced were different from anything I’d made with a digital lens. I had a lot of difficulty focusing the lens but there was something appealingly old school about the photos, even when they weren’t focused right. The results I got were unpredictable compared to my modern lenses. It clearly wasn’t suitable for everyday use. But to express a different view of the world, using it was more than satisfying.
You may have seen my 2018 post about the Takumar but I don’t expect anyone to remember the details so here’s a quick overview. The Takumar 50mm f1.4 is capable of sharp definition and great contrast but many people enjoy using it more for the classic, slightly soft rendering it produces. Often I’m looking for an expressive quality in my photography, not a clinically accurate recording of reality. When I use the vintage lens I tend to look for subjects that don’t require edge-to-edge perfect focus. It’s hard to describe what kind of scene is likely to work best – you really have to get to know the lens. For that, some adjustments are necessary.
Manual lenses can be a challenge for those of us who are used to digital cameras. You can’t use autofocus – there’s no electronic communication from lens to camera. And if you’ve been spoiled by focus peaking (the digital camera feature that highlights what’s in focus so you can put sharpness exactly where you want), then you’ll have to figure out another way to evaluate your focus. (I’ve read that it’s possible to use focus peaking with manual lenses, but I haven’t figured out how to do it). The viewfinder image is too small to judge whether the focus is correct and even on the screen, it’s very hard to see what you’re doing. I put my reading glasses on and turn the focus ring slowly while examining the LCD screen, a very deliberate process. For close-ups, I might rock toward and away from the subject in tiny increments. If I want to ensure a usable image I’ll make several photographs at slightly different focal lengths.
Another step in the process is setting the aperture – you have to take your eye away from the camera and look at the aperture ring on the lens while you turn it. With my regular lenses, an intuitive flick of the thumb is usually enough to change the aperture but a manual lens requires a little more thought. There won’t be any information in the viewfinder or on the screen to remind you what the aperture is. Nor will there be any data about lens settings when you download the files. It’s mechanical, not electronic.
Does this sound tedious? Yes, it’s a challenge. But slowing down can be good. Like many people, I have a tendency to move quickly from one thing to the next. This lens forces me to be more deliberate.
These photos are arranged chronologically, from 2014 to 2022. The earliest are jpegs – I didn’t begin shooting in RAW format until 2017. All of the images have been processed to varying degrees.
Like many Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lenses made with a thorium lens coating, my lens had a yellowish cast. In some situations the added warmth was pleasing but ultimately I decided I didn’t like dealing with a yellowish hue in every photo. In February 2021, I removed it using a technique I read about online that involved leaving the lens in a box for several days with a blacklight bulb shining on it. After that, it was easier to color-correct and process the photos.
If you’re thinking of trying “that vintage lens” check several online sources to find the best price and don’t forget to order a good adapter. And give yourself time to get to know the lens.
I just heard that Pharoah Sanders died on Sunday, at the age of 81. I used to listen to him, Miles, Coltrane, Santana, and so many others on New York CIty and Newark, NJ jazz stations back in the early 1970s. A fellow art student who was born in Harlem and freshly returned from the Vietnam war introduced me to modern jazz, a complex music culture that seeped deep into my psyche. Hearing Leon Thomas’ soothingly tenor on “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, a collaboration with Pharoah Sanders, brings back a whole era. May they both R.I.P.
There’s a lake near my house set in a forest of tall evergreen trees that spill down to the shoreline. A road that swings by one end of the lake offers drivers a refreshing glimpse of liquid calm. I think of the lake as a bowl masquerading as the sky, reflecting limitless bright blue, opaque, chalky gray, or smudged pewter, as the weather shifts with the seasons.
Like most people, I usually drive by this lake with another destination in mind. But when my preferred spots are too crowded or far away I might turn into the crunchy gravel parking lot, park the car, and meander through the forest. The trails there don’t feature spectacular views but they do offer a cool, cocoon-like embrace. Sometimes that’s what I need.
The Loop Trail
As it leaves the whirring traffic behind the dirt trail enters a dim, amphitheater-like space of towering trees set among arcing sprays of emerald green sword ferns. There’s not much middle story here – the flora is mostly confined to evergreen ground covers below and stately conifers above with branches beginning far overhead. Winding up a rocky hill, the trail enters a drier part of the woods where discrete openings invite patches of grass and wildflowers. A small slice of the Salish Sea is visible through the maze of crisscrossing branches if you stand in just the right spot. The trail heads down and back up into a brushy opening where blackberries grow. Plunging back into the dim forest, the trail climbs, falls, zigzags and curves back around through mature firs and cedars to complete a two-mile loop. As you walk, every five or ten minutes there’s a subtle change of atmosphere, light, and flora, depending on where you are in relation to the lake, the elevation, the soil, and even the logging history. This land was once logged, some areas more recently than others. Now it’s a protected state park.
On maps, it’s Pass Lake, a name that might benefit from an explanation. It’s not called Pass Lake because it’s near a mountain pass, rather, the name comes from its proximity to a channel called Deception Pass. This deep, churning channel separates two islands with promontories that border a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.”* So wrote George Vancouver in his journal of the American Northwest Coast Expedition of 1792. Anchored off what we now know is a very long island, he sent Naval Master Joseph Whidbey and a crew to explore the twists and turns of the shoreline in a smaller sailing yawl. The expedition was busy mapping and naming everything in sight, in order to claim territory for the British Crown. After five days the men returned and reported that the land mass was as they suspected – a long peninsula. Then the HMS Discovery sailed up the other side of the “peninsula” and Whidbey was sent out again to examine the jagged coast in detail. This time he found that “very narrow and intricate channel” which leads to the other side. The peninsula was actually an island! Vancouver decided to name the channel “Deception Passage.”
Thanks to politics and power, maps retained that name with one small change: somewhere along the way, “Deception Passage” became “Deception Pass.” It made sense to call the small lake that empties into the channel “Pass Lake.”
Here it is, concealing its charms on a foggy autumn afternoon.
A Little More About Names…
Of course, Vancouver and his men weren’t the first people to name the channel – they weren’t even the first Europeans to label it. Two years earlier, a Spanish Peruvian explorer in command of a ship taken from the British was searching for the coveted Northwest Passage and found the deceptive channel. Manuel Quimper Benitez del Pino named it “Boca de Fion” or “Boca de Fidalgo” depending on your source. Later, complicated disputes and negotiations between Britain and Spain resulted in Vancouver renaming much of what the Spanish charted. Some Spanish names were kept; the island on the north side of the channel is still called Fidalgo Island, in honor of a Spanish explorer.
But what about the much longer history of this region before white men came and conquered? A Coast Salish name for the channel is Xwchsónges, the “Gateway to the hills, interior, or inland.” You can hear the melodious pronunciation of the name here.*
Enough about names!
Almost at sea level, 94-acre Pass Lake has a maximum depth of just 23 feet (about 6m). A pipe under the road at the south end feeds lake water into a creek that runs through the forest and empties into Bowman Bay. River otters can leave the bay, run uphill through the woods, and carefully cross the road if they want to forage in Pass Lake. (They can’t use the pipe because a cage blocks anything bigger than small fish.) I’ve only seen otters once in the lake but I’ve discovered haul-out sites (trampled grass, scat, and many bits of bones and crayfish shells) a few times while picking my way along the heavily wooded shoreline. Great blue herons, Bald eagles, Belted kingfishers, and overwintering ducks also feast on what the lake provides. I’m not sure people have as much luck. I never see the flick of a fishing line – just solitary, still, peaceful people drifting on the calm water in small, non-motorized boats. It’s catch-and-release anyway.
At Loose Ends? Try Intentional Camera Movement
Pass Lake is part of a state park with an extensive trail system. The loop trail described above connects with a little-known trail to a truly immense Western redcedar tree and to another trail with an old mine, the ruins of a miner’s cabin, and a pleasant view across a ravine. I began exploring these trails in September 2018, a few months after moving to Fidalgo Island. From time to time I go back when I’m at loose ends or if the thick fog hovering over the lake propels me into the parking lot for the best view of the lake. The lake is a natural subject but the dense forest around it can make isolating subjects for photography very challenging. I like to experiment with intentional camera movement to simplify the landscape.
Whatever you call it, this modest lake and the healthy forest around it are a treasure. I’m sure of it because on a hot, dry day this summer when I set out with no food or water, the forest provided. I didn’t think I would be out long enough to get thirsty but within a half hour, my mouth was dry. After 45 minutes of trudging up and down hills, I was desperately scanning every leaf for something edible to chew on. Then I saw them – bright red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) dangling from pretty bushes at the side of the trail. And there was more – the last Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) just needed a gentle tug. Near the ground, I found Trailing blackberry vines (Rubus ursinus) that gave up a few deliciously ripe berries. The stray beams of sunlight that the forest allowed to shine had produced just enough food to slate my thirst. And make me smile.
as fall peeks round the corner, making tentative changes
in the order of things –
but let’s not assume we’re on the edge of summer or the verge of autumn.
I think we’re always in the middle.
This precise and muddled middle where
we stand now
is where sunlight heats dried grasses
to sweet fragrance and a cool tongue of wind surprises
your cheek. This infinitely generous middle is where barefoot toddlers
delight in beach sand and a slice of hard blue hovers just
over the horizon. It’s all here, the pain of dying things,
the joy of hope, the exquisite indifference to our opinions, all
all mixed in the middle.
Summer’s bright blooms have faded and the heat is intense: it must be August, the month that puts patience to the test as each day drags into the next and a trance-like sameness descends on us. Here at 48.51N, 122.61W, significant rainfall hasn’t occurred for months. The landscape looks dull and tired, the birds have gone silent, and any hints of autumn are brief whispers at best. Knowing that summer is ending and fresh, cool, autumn days are near creates a liminal feeling: we are in between. And though it may feel like we’re treading in the margins, the pause between seasons is spacious.
This spring and summer I was propelled into a frenzy of activity. Which wildflowers were currently blooming and where were my favorites, the orchids and harebells? Could I go up to Sugarloaf to look for flowers or was I needed down at Tugboat Beach to help protect the Northern elephant seal? She had returned to the island to molt in mid-May. The only elephant seal ever known to haul up on Fidalgo Island, she has molted here each spring and gave birth to her first pup at a local park last winter. She chooses busy beaches for her land activities, so a great deal of effort goes into protecting her and educating the public. I was part of that this year, along with a small band of like-minded people. She kept us very busy, especially when the weather warmed and the crowds grew at the beach where she rested while slowly shedding her old fur coat. Every day I was outside, either photographing wildflowers or at the beach, seal sitting. Sharply focused on the life around me, I reveled in the graceful blooms of wildflowers, gazed into the soulful eyes of a pinniped, and responded to curious park visitors.
By late June Elsie Mae’s annual molt was complete. One morning she swam back out to the Salish Sea, bent on replacing the weight she’d lost from spending six weeks on land. She’s probably far out in the Pacific Ocean now, deep-diving and feasting – she’s tagged but has no radio or chip so once she’s in the water, humans don’t know where she is. We seal sitters were both relieved and bereft when she left. I never thought I’d bond with a marine mammal but spending so much time with her (and with her pup earlier this year), I found myself invested in the little family.
But I was also grateful to be free to concentrate on the local flora and eventually, my orchid quest was satisfied. I knew where each of our three kinds of Rein orchids grew and could tell them apart. The green machine was slowing to a crawl.
What was next? I kept going out because it’s good to be outdoors and I need the exercise but without a particular focus, I was at loose ends photographically. Quite a few boring images flew off the SD card! To get a spark going I experimented with intentional camera movement, different angles, and different lenses. A few compositions that seem interesting emerged. Except for the photos of Elsie Mae above, all of the photos are from the last few weeks.
The West – the phrase invokes associations of vast space, deserts, freedom, perhaps violence, and wilderness. The concept of the American West was just a hodgepodge of TV cliches to a kid like me, raised on the east coast. As I grew older, my fantasies of the western mythos were embellished with San Francisco hippies, surfers, intrepid explorers, and maverick pioneers. That may sound exciting but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the west; tropical places like the Caribbean interested me much more back then. By the time I finally got on a plane heading across the country I was in my thirties and on the way to San Francisco, which is nothing like the capital “W” west of cowboys and red sunsets. In fact, the sophisticated, wealthy, liberal, coastal city of San Francisco wasn’t all that different from New York, where I lived.
If, as some claim, the American West is everything west of the 100th meridian, then it encompasses big cities, deserts, plains, mountain ranges, and even rain forests. But for most of us, the capital “W” west means the desert part with some mountains in the background and perhaps a few Indians on horses in the foreground. For many years that just didn’t grab me.
It was 2004. My son was in a wilderness school program based in southern Utah. I won’t go into why he was there, I’ll just say that I was desperate and hoped the program would help him get back on the right track. The kids’ families were asked to join them at the end of the month so I booked a flight from New York to Salt Lake City and reserved a rental car. It seemed like a good idea to go early and get acclimated so I poked around Salt Lake City a bit, finding it an intriguing contrast to the eastern cities I knew. It was much smaller and cleaner than New York! But I was eager to head south toward Boulder Mountain, in the wild, high desert of southern Utah, where I would see my son and celebrate his accomplishment.
Soon after Salt Lake City dissolved like a mirage in the rearview mirror, I understood what all the fuss was about. Not knowing what to expect, my drive into the desert was a little like dropping into a void that morphed into pure space, expanding in all directions. The mountains were taller and more rugged, the view wider, the sky higher than any landscape I had experienced. There was room to really see the shapes and colors because they weren’t crammed together. By the time I reached my hotel in the quiet little town of Torrey, I was hooked. Even the view from my room was inspiring. The sheer spaciousness was a tonic for my soul.
The family program wasn’t easy. Each family had its own space up on that cold, tree-studded mountain. There were no amenities, not even a tent, so parents could experience how their kids had been living and kids could show their parents that they could survive without modern conveniences and distractions. Our shelter was two sleeping bags under a tarp propped up with sticks. In the early hours of the morning, it snowed and the tarp collapsed on us. Cold! The kids were supposed to make fires the next morning by rubbing sticks, the old way, but the wet weather made it a struggle. Fire was stolen by more than one camper. Later, there was an intense therapeutic program for everyone, held in a big heated tent, a luxury. In spite of a blazing migraine I got through that long day and in the end, living so close to the bone up there, so far from any human habitation, was tantalizing. The spare landscape, so different from anything I’d ever seen, tugged at my spirit. It felt good to be there.
As soon as I returned to New York, everyday life took over and my capital “W” western experience faded. I was busy – over the next five years, I went back to school for a Master’s degree, separated from my husband, moved twice, changed jobs, and began a new relationship. My son still struggled but he was older and I wasn’t trying to manage his life. My own life was happier than it had been in a decade.
Then a day came when, by a quirk of fate, my partner and I found ourselves both out of work. We began to question if we should look for jobs in New York City, where we lived, or somewhere else. It could be anywhere! After talking and researching, we zeroed in on the Pacific Northwest and planned a trip to scope it out. Landing in Seattle, we drove our rental car all over the region, visiting Mt. Ranier, the Pacific coast, and points in between. We liked what we saw so we took the leap: three months later we were in the west.
But we weren’t in the mythical American West, far from it.
The Pacific Northwest is wet, lush, and feels closed in because of the profusion of towering trees. It has its own beauty, which I’ve come to appreciate. In Utah, I had a taste of the classic West – a vast, arid, open landscape that reveals itself starkly. I hoped to experience that again and it turned out that the desert west was just a short plane ride from Seattle. I could access those sublimely difficult places that had been teasing my mind for years.
That’s what we did, making forays to locations like Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley in Nevada. I posted photos of every trip but a scroll through my Lightroom catalog revealed other photographs that haven’t appeared here and are worth a look. The common denominator is desert, whether it’s the Mohave or the Sonoran. The images come out of my experience of fierce, dry, captivating places. It’s one person’s view of a ravishing landscape.
and a few words about the still days of August when
summer holds its breath.
Where would my words and images land? Not knowing, I waited.
Then, small scribbles in digital space – a few comments, a few likes
and the little black marks suggested, “Continue.”
The sun set and rose, set and rose,
the moon, too. The earth turned.
I sent more missives into a net
that’s too wide and fine to perceive.
(Funny thing about the notes I launch into that net – they’re all about
physical things that I see, hear, touch, and smell
but the physical substance of the notes themselves? That’s beyond my ken.
A nice contradiction).
As the black marks and bright images flew across space
friendships blossomed and ten years later
here we are. The “we”
TEN YEARS:WHY LOOK BACK?
Fellow photographer and blogger Alex Kunz has been creating monthly “Throwback” posts for years. It’s his fault.
As I considered making a “Throwback” post of my own, it dawned on me that ten years ago this month I posted for the first time on WordPress. Blogging was new then, and my home was as well. I had moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City six months earlier, in February. While we settled into a cozy apartment in a Seattle suburb and looked for work, we played tourist to acclimate ourselves. It seemed to us that the culture of the Pacific Northwest was as different from New York as the natural environment was. Walking around with our eyebrows raised and our mouths turned up into smiles, we chalked up one contrast after another. No one cut us off on the highways and the onramps were not pitched battles. What? One could almost relax behind the wheel! When we asked for maintenance on our apartment our request was honored, not ignored. Grocery store clerks smiled disarmingly and asked us what our plans for the weekend were, just to make conversation. Weird! Our New York defensiveness, a self-preservation tactic carefully honed over decades, rose up with a “What’s it to you?” that we barely kept from voicing out loud. It was as if we had exchanged bumper cars for sailboats. Life was so strangely smooth.
We adapted. Seattle’s summer “heat” felt cool and comfortable after New York and the sense of a daily struggle just to exist gradually faded. Every month there were new things to do. August was busy – we rode the ferry across the sound from Seattle to Bremerton, explored a rail trail in our valley, and drove up to Deception Pass State Park to explore a driftwood-strewn beach. We went to the Seattle Art Museum and checked out the city’s architecture and public art. We hiked part of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascades, visited a Japanese garden in Seattle, and took walks in local parks. Whew!
Of course, a camera was always at my side. It was a Sony NEX-3, advertised then as the world’s smallest interchangeable lens camera, with the quality of a DSLR but not the weight or size. I was a rank beginner with a kit lens and I’d never heard of RAW format. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the camera but I was enjoying it. The little black box wasn’t a burden to carry and was capable enough for what I wanted to do. I could record the beauty around me and experiment with settings. It was thrilling to have control over aperture and exposure, even if I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing!
So here’s a throwback to August 2012. The photos were made that month but I’ve reprocessed them – why not? I’ve learned a thing or two in ten years. The old jpeg files may not have the range that RAW files have but they can usually be persuaded to look a little better.
That summer I discovered a deserted railway bed near our apartment where I could pick wildflowers. Even Butterfly bush (Buddleia) grew there! One August morning I arranged them in an old, dented silver pitcher, brought them outside, and began to experiment.
ON THE FERRY
One day we explored Rosario Beach, part of a sprawling state park named for the deceptive, turbulent channel of water separating Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. A large, weathered wood sculpture commands the space. Immense driftwood logs rest on a beach of smooth, round rocks, and tidepools harbor marine life. Reveling in the scenery, I had no idea that six years later we would move to a cottage less than ten minutes away from this spot.
LODGE LAKE TRAIL
Lodge Lake Trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653 mi (4,270 km) wilderness trail running from the California/Mexico border to the Washington/Canada border. The Lodge Lake Trail begins just off I-90, Washington’s busiest east-west highway but soon the traffic fades and mountain scenery emerges in the distance – depending on the weather.
We’d seen Pike Place Market several times so one day, we headed to the Experience Music Project. As a Frank Gehry fan, I had a great time finding interesting compositions outside of the building he designed – there didn’t seem to be any reason to go inside!
Almost hidden in a residential section of southeast Seattle, Kubota Garden was the all-consuming project of Fujitaro Kubota (1879-1973). Beginning in 1927, Kubota slowly added more land for his dream project, a traditional Japanese garden that would contain primarily native plants. After being interred in a camp in Idaho with his family throughout WWII, he began again, creating ponds, waterfalls, and a moon bridge. Eight years after he died the garden became a Seattle landmark and Kubota’s labor of love is a now peaceful public park.
“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.” *
The Arbutus, or Madrone
Four years ago, when I moved to an island in the Salish Sea, I fell in love with Madrone trees, also called Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii). The colorful peeling bark and sinewy, muscular branches of this unusual tree brighten the island’s conifer-dominated landscape. When I lived near Seattle I would see Madrones here and there. They were attractive accents in the unforgiving expanse of dark green that lines highways and trails around Puget Sound. Now they’re frequent companions; it seems the island environment suits them. It’s sunnier here than in Seattle and Madrones adapt to the undulating terrain and shallow soils. Give them a well-drained, open slope with a little shelter (there are plenty of tall conifers to provide that!) and they’re happy. They like mild winters (check), they tolerate bone-dry summers (check), and they can cope with very wet winters and springs (check). Our Madrones aren’t as big and healthy as many that grow in California and Oregon but that doesn’t diminish them to local eyes.
When Madrones grow in inhospitable, rocky places where the soil is thin and nutrient-poor, their wide-spreading roots help anchor them in place. Crucially, they associate with beneficial communities of soil fungi in networks that can transport beneficial nutrients to the trees in times of need. In fact, Madrones are like transportation hubs that facilitate different connections among trees in their “neighborhood” because they associate with diverse kinds of underground mycorrhizae (the networks of soil fungi).
The more I saw these pretty trees leaning out over the water or reaching for light in small forest clearings, the more I appreciated them. Their winding, eccentric branches carve exotic paths into the straight and narrow patterns of our wooded places. The unusual bark can bring out the artist in anyone. Colors range from pale, soft greens to deep, rusty reds with everything imaginable in between. Placing my hand against a Madrone tree on a warm summer day, I found that the bark stays as cool as a refrigerator! In spring there are creamy flowers, in fall, red-orange berries, and all year long the rich green of their leathery leaves shines bright. No wonder I fell under the Mardrone’s spell. The summer after I moved here, I put together a photo and text post about them called JUST ONE: Pacific Madrone. But the story wasn’t finished.
On exploratory walks near my new home, I paid close attention to the topography and plants, which are quite different from the Seattle area and vastly different from my native northeast. The first week we lived here I photographed an odd little flower – just tiny green buds on a stalk. The photo languished amidst images of spectacular scenery that year but the following summer I noticed more of the little flowers and became curious about them. I had a hell of a time trying to identify them, getting only as far as “Rein orchids.” I couldn’t be sure which Rein orchid I was looking at, not least because the names have changed several times. A casual observer wouldn’t even guess they are orchids – you have to get up close and personal to see the characteristic orchid structure in each tiny flower.
More often than not the modest flowers grow near Madrone trees, usually in forest clearings or on grassy slopes along the island’s intricately cut shoreline. Gradually, I developed a sixth sense for them – once I understood their preferred habitat, I often knew when I was about to find one. The more I learned, the more special the plants seemed. For example, Rein orchid seeds have to connect to a mycorrhizal network in order to germinate – without that connection, there will be no plant! Even more amazing, the tiny, germinated seed still has years to go before anything appears aboveground. At first, just one pair of leaves emerges. Gathering energy from the sun, the leaves nourish the underground heart of the plant until it’s mature enough to produce a stalk with flowers. There can be several years of nothing but leaves, busily preparing the way. Finally, a flower appears and once it is pollinated, there will be seeds. The cycle can begin again.
This year I was determined to find and correctly identify all the Rein orchids I could. Obsessed? Yes. I have finally figured out that there are three species here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans, P. elongata, and P. transversa. Their common names have changed over the years but currently recognized names include (in the same order) the Elegant Rein orchid (or Hillside Rein orchid), Denseflower Rein orchid, and Flat-spurred Piperia.
The summer after I wrote about Madrones I posted JUST ONE: Rein Orchids. I was – and am – fascinated by these plants. Their scarcity, intricate life cycle, and obscurity (most people walk right past them) make them special. I look for them from late winter until autumn: first, two oval leaves rise from the ground in late winter, then modest summer blooms rise among dry July grasses, and finally, seed stalks that look like burnt sugar on a stick are left – if you can find them.
Why do Madrone trees and Rein orchids grow together so often? Perhaps the answer’s hiding in the underground mycorrhizal networks that Rein orchids and Madrones rely on. Research has already shown that mycorrhizal networks can be a two-way street, transporting carbon compounds in both directions to benefit Douglas firs and birch trees. The Douglas fir is another tree that I always see near Rein orchids. Perhaps there’s a complex relationship among Madrones, Douglas fir trees, and Rein orchids facilitated by mycorrhizal networks connected to all three plants – an interdependence we can’t see directly but one that we enjoy indirectly, standing under the cool shade of Doug firs next to a colorful Madrone tree, with Rein orchids peaking through the grass.
Whatever the science does or does not tell us, I’ve come to cherish the special places where Rein orchids appear with Madrone trees. These natural gardens are almost always quiet. Often an expanse of water is within view. Two of the places I’ve found where orchids and Madrones grow are small clearings in the forest at the end of winding trails. Another spot is on a grassy hill sloping gracefully down to a mirror-quiet lake. These are settings where you can focus on all five senses and inhale the spirit of place. Where it’s safe to sense, as Georgina Reid said, “this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”
This is a series of Lightroom explorations. Taking free rein with the processing, my aim was to abstract the photographs to bring out essential elements like curves or textures. Most of these have been transformed into images quite different from what they would be if I processed them in a naturalistic manner. But most are still not pure abstracts; the subject is recognizable. There was no logic to the steps I took. I enjoyed allowing intuition to lead me one way or another.
Many of the photographs are of the ground or things on the ground like rocks and grasses; one is of water, and one is a window. One is a shutter misfire – my finger resting on the shutter made it fire unintentionally. Sometimes mistakes are worth keeping.
The unprocessed originals are below so you can see where I started.
We’re in a bookshop perusing the stacks – always a pleasant way to pass the time. Here’s the Eastern Religion section, which is mostly books about Buddhism. Casting my eyes right and left across the shelves, I feel at home here. A row of books by the Dalai Lama is as long as my outstretched arm and many books bear the familiar logo of Shambhala Publications. The Boulder, Colorado publisher goes back to 1969 with authors like the controversial Chögyam Trungpa, whose 1973 book, ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ was a bible for legions of spiritual seekers in the 70s and 80s.
Today I zero in on titles by certain authors, titles that trigger a cascade of reflections…
Here’s a book by the woman whose dog ate my pet cockatiel. She wrote eloquently about Zen in America, among other things. Years ago we shared an apartment near the Zen center where we studied and practiced. One day I came home to find the headless body of the pet cockatiel that I hadn’t even named yet lying on the living room floor. My roommate was duly mortified; I was secretly relieved. The bird had been given to me by a misguided friend who thought the distraction would help me pull through my grief. A few months before, on a warm summer Saturday, I had watched a close friend’s body drift deep into the dark river water. I’d tried to rescue him. I didn’t know he would panic halfway across the river, didn’t know his flailing arms would be too much for my slight frame to control. In the shock and grief that followed, Zen practice helped me more than the burden of caring for another being could. I didn’t feel that I was very good at caring for other beings just then.
Of course, the drowning reverberated through my life. Thousands of ripples emanated from it, some as clearly outlined as the daily struggles with tears, others more obscure. And strangely, my friend’s dog made life a little easier.
Over there is a book by a man who, with his wife, embodied a gentle path. They came to live in our New York City Zen community for one year. The reasons for their temporary transition from a flourishing California Zen center to a smaller, more urban Zen community were complicated but their practice was not. Friendly, straightforward in their practice, and intelligent, they grappled with getting their sons into new schools, adapting to the east coast lifestyle, and working with a new teacher. Ever graceful, they helped when help was needed but never appeared overwhelmed by our somewhat frantic pace. Our teacher had ambitious plans that his students either embraced or refuted. Perhaps because they knew their time in the community was limited, the west coast Zen family usually remained above the fray. There were times when they functioned as islands of sanity for me, especially during my pregnancy.
I imagine they returned to their community as stronger people after their year in New York. Looking at what they’re doing now – writing, teaching, leading a Zen foundation, sitting on the board of an interreligious organization, keeping up with kids and grandkids, there’s no doubt in my mind that they have remained true to themselves and to the dharma.
Here’s a book by the man who warned me not to marry L. It was a subtle warning, a question posed almost in jest as we passed each other on a back stairway the day of the wedding. He performed the ceremony a half-hour later with the appropriate solemnity. What other course should he have taken when his old friend had asked him to officiate at his wedding, even if he knew how unstable the man was? Their friendship went back to the 70s and was fostered over hard work on ice-cold mornings at a new Zen monastery in the Catskills. The traditional Japanese temple buildings still sit elegantly above the lake that punctuates the end of a dirt road like the dot on a question mark. The two monks shared a long history so one did a favor for the other and we had a proper Buddhist ceremony. We crossed our T’s, dotted our i’s, and lurched down a path with more bumps than a freshly plowed field on a damp spring day.
That brief encounter on the stairs echoed for ten long years, buzzing in my head from time to time like a premonition. For a long time, I wished he would have refrained from sharing his reservations with me, even if it was in the form of a lighthearted jest. But the remark was like the touch of a branch tip to the water underneath it: a passing ping that rippled far out to unseen corners of the lake.
There’s a popular, well-reviewed book by a man who was a great raconteur but maybe not such a great husband. My then best friend had a chapter-sized affair with him one year when he lived for a month at the sprawling old Huson River mansion where we practiced Zen. During the practice intensive, my friend was tasked with helping him edit his next book. Their seduction was clearly mutual. The more sotto-voce stories my friend told me, the more I lost respect for both of them. We were supposed to be practicing Buddhists, making an effort to uphold the three pure precepts: ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others.
We were (and are) so imperfect!
I still admire the man’s writing.
Here’s a slender volume by a man who had an incalculable influence on the shape of Western zen, according to at least one reviewer. A distant, formidable figure to me, he convinced my teacher that it would be best to place me in the role of cook for the community. For several years I was actively involved in developing the business that supported our community. Then I got pregnant. Families did not fit into the picture at this particular Zen community. There were no allowances or plans for childcare and since I needed to care for my baby, it only made sense (to them) that I should stay back and cook each day while everyone else went to work. We worked because work practice played a central role in our Zen practice. I had no problem with that – integrating study and practice into daily life is crucially important. But I would be running the kitchen, ordering and receiving the community’s food, and making lunch and dinner for 15 to 20 people each day while caring for my baby, a challenging position that isolated me from the exciting work the rest of the community was doing. If I felt removed from my teacher’s teacher before, now I was angry. Although lip service was played to the importance of the cook, or tenzo, in reality, the jobs that supported the business that maintained our community mattered more than what the tenzo did.
In spite of my disappointment, I knew my reaction was excellent grist for the mill, another piece of life’s turmoil that I could reflect on and work with, deepening my practice. What could be more valuable?
Above that book is one by someone whose path took the form of a benefactor, touching thousands of people’s lives. For about twenty years he hosted a free-wheeling radio show on New York’s favorite leftist independent station. He brought a cornucopia of spiritual teachers and other notable or obscure individuals to the airwaves – you never knew who would be on that show. Mother Teresa? Yes. The Dalai Lama? Check. Alan Watts answered his questions, too. His presence was like a bright, bouncing sun – passionate, intense, incisive. A month before I moved to the Zen community he appeared at my workplace near Columbia University on a rainy afternoon. He pulled me outside to the curb to meet the man who would soon become the most important teacher in my life. It was a gift. His boundless zeal was evident again one night when he initiated a few of us in a tantric rite that involved chanting and swallowing a pinch of a mysterious dried herb. Another time, also during his Tibetan phase, he and his wife asked me to drop by their house. They gave me a beautifully crafted bell and dorje and a set of beads in a simple act of shared enthusiasm. There was no hidden agenda.
He wasn’t afraid to shout out his opinions during community meetings but never held a grudge. One felt energized when he was in the room. He died too young but his books live on, right in front of me on the shelf, poised to ripple the shores of the next reader’s mind – and heart.
Over here are two books by the man behind it all, my teacher. We had our ups and downs. He disappointed me deeply once but he also inspired me and taught me well. I am indebted to him for five years of life-transforming practice. Whether deep or on the surface, the ripples from what I learned during those five years always flow through my life. And if I find myself forgetting the teachings I can always pick up one of these books and let the words wash over me.
It was the last day of June. Scattered clouds punctuated the horizon, a cool breeze promised fresh air, and the sun was strong. This is what Pacific Northwesterners live for: bright, comfortable summer days when the water beckons and worries are set aside.
After a difficult week, I was ready for a relaxing walk. Though Deception Pass State Park has as many visitors a year as Yosemite does, I can usually find a peaceful corner somewhere in the park, even on perfect summer days. My hopes and expectations amounted to nothing more than enjoying nature and finding a little inspiration along the way, right in front of me. There was no need to travel far or think hard about what I might photograph – it would be enough to be outdoors by the water and trees on a pleasant day.
I made my way to a favorite, sandy beach made wide by a low tide. Clouds blew across the beach, obscuring the scene like one of Christo’s monumental fabric installations. Actually, it was a kind of fog created by differences between the air and water temperatures. Shivering in the billowing shrouds of moist air, I reminded myself that I’d be warmer once I crossed the beach.
As bewitching as the effect was, I wanted to focus on the ground, which never disappoints my curious eyes. Soon I was in my own world, observing a jewel-colored leaf, ripples in the sand, and crooked ribbons of eelgrass. Mostly as smooth as a fresh sheet of paper, the sand was darker in one place, flecked with green in another. Wavy ripples broke up the surface at the far end of the beach where a cliff changes the way the water flows. There, in the dappled shade of a Pacific crabapple tree, a driftwood log made fine, arcing lines in the sand where softly lapping water hesitated before withdrawing. So subtle they almost disappear, the patterns explained in detail the gentle out-breath of a lowering tide – if only you could read the script.
After perhaps ten seconds of silly internal debate about expending the energy or not, I decided to continue on a favorite trail around a peninsula called Lighthouse Point. I wondered what wildflowers would be blooming near the water. Pausing to let a few people go ahead, I inhaled the fresh air and listened to the faint whisper of a few Chestnut-backed chickadees. As I entered the forest I stepped off the trail to let passers-by through once more, favoring my own slow pace where the trail meanders through a patch of tall Douglas fir trees. It was noon and the sun had been up for almost seven hours but the salal bushes on the trail were speckled with water drops. I don’t think it rained overnight – maybe it was dew. I was surprised. This is what happens when you trace the same path over and over, I thought, familiar things change and encourage the observant walker to pause and ponder the unexpected.
Soon the forest opened out to a clearing at the southern tip of the peninsula where two small coves are separated by craggy rocks bordering Deception Pass. Across the water to the south is Whidbey Island, to the east is the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge, and to the west is the Salish Sea, where nutrients from the Pacific Ocean pour down into Puget Sound and up into British Columbia. History, geography, and ecology could tell long, complicated stories about this transformative place.
But my concerns were more immediate. At my feet was a narrow cliff edge where delicate wildflowers bloom in spring and summer. First, midnight blue larkspurs cavort with pure white chickweed, then cheery yellow stonecrop flowers mix with wild pink onions and golden grasses. Now, to my amazement, more than a dozen upright spikes of Rein orchids were just coming into bloom. I’ve seen the unusual flowers in other parts of the park, never here. As I sat down to photograph them I cursed the harsh sunlight but I smiled, too – this is one of my favorite plants. These specimens were so healthy and floriferous that I wasn’t even sure which species they were. I don’t often see them growing in such salutary conditions. Only when I got home and carefully checked the photos was I sure of the identification: the Elegant rein orchid.
And that was just the start of the wildflowers.
Striking purple Harvest brodiaea flowers beamed up from thick beds of golden grass. First I saw only a few, then I found a generous offering of the little gems. Once the small, edible bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. These days the flower is sold by nurseries as a rock garden specimen. The genus, Brodiaea, is named for Scottish botanist James Brodie. Formerly in the lily family, since 2009 this plant has been put in the order Asparagales, family Asparagacae. Plant names are constantly changing as genetic and molecular differences are better understood. That can be hard for people (like me!) who understand plants based on the way they look (morphological differences) because plants that look very different may now be classified as closely related. For example, agave and yucca are in the order Asparagales, just like the little Brodiaea.
But on this bright June day I didn’t care about names.
The beauty of the meadow at Lighthouse Point is that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, dynamic water that races with the turbulence of the tides. The surface can be mirror-smooth at times but boaters know that’s deceiving: eddies and currents can be treacherous here. Large volumes of nutrient-rich water from the ocean forced through narrow openings also hide a kaleidoscope of marine life, only a fraction of which can be seen from land. Beds of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) hug the rocky headlands. The long stem (or stipe) of this huge brown algae floats on the surface when the tide is low. At the top of the stipe, a gas-filled bulb allows a fan of leaves (or blades) to rest on the water’s surface. Far underneath, a holdfast (like a rootball) anchors the algae to the bottom. Bullwhip kelp forests are important habitat for many marine species. For this human, watching Bullwhip kelp drift in the current is as relaxing as watching a goldfish tank. Maybe better.
Deception Pass waters really are greenish-blue. Phytoplankton – photosynthesizing microorganisms – that live in the top layers of the water thrive on the rich upswell of nutrients carried down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, giving the water a beautiful, milky blue-green color. Shades of turquoise have begun to appear in my wardrobe over the last few years. Maybe it’s the landscape entering my consciousness in ways I didn’t expect.
Golden grasses set with purple wildflowers, the calls of oystercatchers, blue-green water stretching to the horizon – it was a day of breathtaking gifts, more than I expected. But that’s often the way it is when I go for a walk – expecting little, I am given so much.
To complete the day, as I made my way around the loop trail I saw a familiar face – it was Mary Jean, a fellow seal sitter. We each volunteered many hours this spring to protect a Northern elephant seal and her pup, the first Northern elephant seal known to have been born on this island. Both of them are back at sea now, hopefully living their lives as their species has for millennia. We walked back together through the forest and across the beach, still billowing with fog. We wondered aloud where in the vast Pacific Elsie Mae and Emerson are now and when we’ll see them again.
No one knows, and no one knows what the next walk will bring.