That Vintage Lens

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.

The 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.

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1. One of the first photos I made with the Takumar. October 2014.
2. Sharp enough without feeling cold. Birches, October 2014.

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.

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3. Reflections of fall color from a Japanese maple by a pond at a botanical garden. This was probably made at f2 but the camera can’t record data from the lens, so I’m not sure. November 2014.
4. Japanese maple. Purists don’t like the edges on the bokeh bubbles and the tendency of the lens to produce flare and fringing. I can live with those imperfections. November 2014.
5. We took the ferry to Vashon Island and came across this very photogenic, old building. November 2014.
6. In January 2015 I brought the lens along on a trip to southeastern Arizona.
7. By 2016 I had switched from the Panasonic Lumix G-3 to an Olympus EM-1. Both cameras use the same lens mount so I didn’t need to buy new lenses. The Olympus had more features, was very weather-resistant, and weighed less. Red elderberry leaves and shadows, April 2016.
8. Wildflowers and grasses have gone to seed. September 2016.
9. Autumn leaf color using an in-camera effect called soft focus and the Takumar. October 2017.
10. Another photo that I made using the same in-camera filter and the Takumar lens. October 2017.
11. A view through the whitewashed windows of a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. November 2017.
12. Volunteer Park Conservatory. In this photo, the colors changed in processing. November 2017.
13. Two ferns, Bracken and Sword fern, declining with the season. December 2018.
14. Twigs in the rain at home. December 2018.
15. I really enjoy using the lens wide-open and getting lost in tangles of twigs. It’s like entering another world. March 2019.
16. A Madrone branch with peeling bark. The focus isn’t quite sharp anywhere in this photo but the all-over softness works well, I think. August 2019.
17. A view through the plastic siding of a greenhouse. January 2019.
18. Twisted safety fencing. October 2020.

19. Hyacinth leaves. February 2021.
20. Madrone bark. March 2021.
21. Stormy skies over the Salish Sea. October 2021.
22. Heart Lake reflection (converted to black and white). March 2022.
23. Intentional camera movement. Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), September 2022.

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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.

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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.

The Gentle Pharoah Sanders (1940 – 2022)

“The Creator Has a Master Plan” from the album Karma on Impulse! Records, 1969.

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LOCAL WALKS: Around Pass Lake

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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.

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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.

3. If they’re this tall now, imagine how tall the trees must have been before the forest was loggged.
4. The trail climbs and the terrain opens up.
5. On an offshoot trail a Bigleaf maple struggles for light in a deep ravine.
6. Blades of grass catch the setting sun on a dry slope.
7. By September, the grass has bent to the ground.
8. Closer to the lake the rugged bark of a Douglas fir tree and a few stray Sword ferns fronds corral the last minutes of sunlight.
9. The fruit of the native Bitter cherry hangs over the lake in September.

The Name

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.

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11. Trees tumble into the lake. No one tidies up the mess because this natural cycle benefits many creatures.
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13. This photograph is from last December. All the rest were made in July, August, and September 2018 – 2022.

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.

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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.

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18. Jiggling the camera just a little produced this effect.
19. The patch of grass in #7, with camera movement.

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.

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LOCAL WALKS: In the Middle

Summer, gloriously spent, is leaning toward rest

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

here,

all mixed in the middle.

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2. A calm oasis at 5:30 in the afternoon.

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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.

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3. A glacier-scoured, lichen-spotted rock shines in forest-filtered August sunlight.
4. Spores are ripe on the backs of a Sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum).
5. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) shed their bark in August.
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7. This year’s discarded Madrone leaves lay atop those from previous years.

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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.

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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.

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9. Intentional camera movement in a meadow.
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11. Grasses take center stage in August.
12. Wildflower seedheads reward a close look.
13. A lake in the distance lights up a patch of wild grasses.
14. Made with a vintage Super-Takumar 50mm lens and adapter.
15. Pine needles dance across a rock atop Goose Rock.
16. A root and moss collaboration.
17. This feather is probably from a molting bird of prey, perhaps a young Bald eagle. Photo was made with the vintage Takumar lens.
18. Late summer is spider time here.
19. The forest stays green despite the lack of rain. Fallen logs are common on this thin-soiled island. Many layers are supportedof life as they decompose.
20. Seaside juni[per (Juniperus maritima) bark.
21. A Great blue heron stands on the old dock at Bowman Bay. Made with the vintage Takumar lens.

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LOOKING (at the) WEST

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.

Until…

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.

1. The West?

But

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.

2. Obstacles. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
3. Straight and Narrow. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

4. Stacatto. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
5. Western classic. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

6. Salt. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
7. Pale gold. Mojave Desert, Utah.
8. Wind-whipped. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
9. Twist. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
10. Rear-view. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
11. Precipice. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
12. Fog. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
13. Two coots. Colorado River. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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15. Impression. Mojave Desert, California.
16. Exuberance. Mojave Desert, California.
17. Candy-colored. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

18. Hard rock, no cafe. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
19. Luxurious decay. Mojave Desert, Utah.
20. Defense. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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21. Arid ocean. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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22. Dusk. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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TEN YEARS: A Look Back at August 2012

Ten years ago I launched a note into the ether –

two photos

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”

means everything.

Thank you.

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1. August 2012: I photographed Seattle’s premier landmark, the Space Needle, through a 1984 Alexander Leiberman sculpture called ‘Olympic Illiad.’

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.

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AT HOME

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.

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3. Placing a sheet of watercolor paper under the vase, I photographed the shadow of a California poppy with a wide aperture. My experiments with depth of field weren’t always accurately focused but it was exciting to see what could be done when you have something better than a point-and-shoot camera.
4. I brought out a frame that had glass in it but no picture. Held inside the frame, the shadows and reflections became the picture.
5. In the frame or not? Ambiguity rules.

ON THE FERRY

7. We got off the ferry and walked into Bremerton, where I photographed swirls of water in a fountain.

DECEPTION PASS

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.

8. The Maiden of Deception Pass tells a Samish story of Ko-kwal-alwoot, who went to retrieve something she dropped in the water and was befriended by a water spirit. Ultimately she had to leave her family and live in the water with the spirit – otherwise, food from the waters that the tribe depended on would disappear. She returned for brief visits many times but in the end, she stayed in the water realm. Her thankful tribe never lacked food.
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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.

11. Hikers in morning fog at Snoqualmie Pass, elev. about 3,000 ft (920m).

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14. The forest produced classic Pacific Northwest scenes like this one that day.

SEATTLE

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!

15. Then called the Experience Music Project, it’s now the Museum of Pop Culture. The building’s stainless steel and painted aluminum skin is so brilliant that it throws colored reflections onto the concrete.
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19. A sculpture called Grass Blades by John Fleming is at the Seattle Center, where the Space Needle and Frank Gehry’s building take pride of place.

KUBOTA GARDEN

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.

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23. Like the creek that runs through Kubota Garden, the experience of creating posts has been a lively river of inspiration, a place where I can send my work into the world, knowing that people everywhere are free to enjoy it.

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The Orchid and the Arbutus

1. On a warm July afternoon in a shady spot by the water a budding orchid reaches for the light.

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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.*

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2. A mature Madrone spreads its thick branches against a phalanx of Douglas fir trees. Everything but the tree was desaturated to emphasize the beautiful bark, a welcome sight on a cold, spring day.

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.

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The Orchid

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.

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Why Together?

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.”

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5. Flat-spurred Piperia in black and white. The spurs contain nectar (those long tubes). Piperia is after a botanist named Charles Piper who wrote the first guide to the plants of the northwest. Published in 1906, it came out more than two thousand years after the Historia Plantarum by Theophrastus. It was a long time before white people learned about the plants of the Pacific Northwest! Most of the extensive knowledge indigenous tribes possessed about plants wasn’t written down and much of it was lost.
6. A Rein orchid hides in the grass on a south-facing shoreline at Kukutali Preserve.
7. A Madrone leaf caught on a lichen-covered branch. (Photographed two years ago with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens.)

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9. The orange bark of a Madrone provides the backdrop for a Rein orchid on an August morning.
10. A gnarled Madrone leans precariously over the water. It’s July, the sun is warm, the orchids are blooming, and there’s a smile on my face.
11. Ants appear to be looking for nectar on this Flat-spurred Piperia in a small clearing next to Madrone trees.
12. The tip of a Denseflower Rein orchid stalk sports tiny buds in early July.

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15. A parade of wildflowers follows a trail to Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Elegant Rein orchids mix with pink Nodding onions, white yarrow, and yellow wildflowers – I’m not sure what kind!
16. A Denseflower Rein orchid.

17. An impressionistic rendering…
18. A Madrone bark abstract.

19. Madrone bark is always sensual and cool to the touch.

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*Georgina Reid, Breathing Fire: an essay in The Planthunter.

TRANSFORMATIONS

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.

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Originals:

Wood on the ground in Death Valley, NV; January/ 2018.
Bullwhip kelp at low tide in Bowman Bay, WA; January 2022.
Plastic garbage on the roadside in Anacortes, WA; August 2021
Rock at North Fork Skykomish River, Index, WA; February 2016.
Sand ripples at low tide at Bowman Bay, WA; January 2022

Shutter misfire on the Burr Trail, UT; April 2022.
Roadside grasses, Anacortes, WA; January 2022.
Grasses going to seed on Fidalgo Island, WA; July 2022.
Rock at Red Rock Canyon, NV; January 2018.
Wind on the beach at Devil’s Punchbowl, OR; May 2015.
Roadside grass and wildflowers on the Burr Trail, UT; April 2022.

Grass, twigs, and leaves on the ground in Anacortes, WA; July 2022.

Window in Leiden, Netherlands; April 2019.

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REFLECTIONS on Water and Life

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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LOCAL WALKS: Summer Serendipity

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.

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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.

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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.

7. Leathery salal grows in the shade of tall Douglas fir trees. Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is invasive in England but here, where it’s native, it’s well behaved. The leaves and berries have fed and sheltered insects, birds, animals, and humans for ages.
8. Kelp floats in the shallows of a quiet cove on the Lighthouse Point trail. In the distance, the two-span Deception Pass Bridge connects Fidalgo Island to Pass Island (seen on the right) and Whidbey Island.

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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.

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12. A tiny Sweat bee (Lasioglossum sp) is busy on a Brodiaea blossom.

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.

13. A wide meadow halfway round the peninsula features grasses and wildflowers. The soil is very thin so the grasses dry out by early summer, soon followed by most of the flowers. I like meadows for their spaciousness.
14. There’s not much of a lighthouse on Lighthouse Point – just the very small, square green thing in the center of the upper third of the frame. The brown strands in the water are kelp.

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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.

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16. Kelp floating just under the water, seen from the edge of the meadow.
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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.

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19. A pair of kayakers float the Salish Sea between Lighthouse Point and Deception Island. Beyond them are the San Juan Islands and Canada.

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LOCAL WALKS: Low Tide

1. Driftwood. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

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Tides are like the earth breathing in and out, in and out. On the in-breath, a myriad of living and once-living things are sucked away from the shore with the water. On the out-breath, everything is pulled back toward the shore and rearranged. In, out, over and over. Endless cycles reveal innumerable scenes for the visually curious, like new paintings created and framed, minute by minute.

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2. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) working the tideline at Bowman Bay in spring. Wrinkled and furrowed by the outgoing tide, the sand holds just enough water to reflect the sky.

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Gentle currents of water draw lines and patterns in the sand. Waves scoop and carve hollows around stranded objects. Pieces of seaweed detach, swish around, and come to rest, leaving calligraphic messages behind. Tangles of plant life, artfully arranged chunks of driftwood, rivulets, ripples – the tides yield a never-ending parade of forms on the beach. Delighting the eyes of toddlers and photographers, piquing the interest of gulls and herons, the shoreline is “ever-present, never twice the same.”*

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3. Stones at Rosario Beach are smooth and round enough for strong waves to toss them into the grooves of driftwood logs during high tides.

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Tides wash shorelines the world over but each place where salt water meets land is different. The weather is different, the ecology is different, the geology is different, and the tide cycles are different. Not only do some locations have stronger tides than others, but each high or low tide is different from the last. Many variables are responsible for uneven tides, like bulges in the earth, continents in the ocean, an uneven ocean floor, and an imperfect alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. The seasons and lunar cycles also affect tides.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, a wide strait (the Strait of Juan de Fuca) cuts 96 miles (155km) back into Washington, connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific ocean. That means people living 90 miles from the ocean, like I do, still experience daily tidal cycles. Most places have two low and two high tides per day. In the Pacific Northwest, the lows and highs are mixed, which means that each day’s high tides are at different heights. Each day’s low tides are different, too. Today (at Bowman Bay), shortly after midnight there was a high tide of about 7.9 feet (2.4m). Just before 8am there was a low tide at 1 foot (.3m). The next high tide, at 3:17pm, is almost 3 feet lower than the first one – just 5.1 feet (1.5m). The last low tide of the day is at 6:03pm. At 4.7 feet (1.4m), it will be much higher than the morning low tide. As you can see, sometimes a low tide is almost as high as the previous high tide.

Keeping an eye on tide charts is essential for boaters and I’ve learned it’s worthwhile for me to check tide charts, too. That’s how I know to be at a place like North Beach (below) during a very low tide. Normally only the dark rocks in the photo are visible but during very low tides you can see rocks that have been smoothed and shaped by numberless tides.

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6. Low tide reveals smooth rocks at North Beach. Deception Pass State Park.
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8. Ripple pattern in the sand. Bowman Bay.

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Tide heights can vary a lot, depending on many factors. North America’s Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides – as high as 53 feet (16m) – but far to the south, the Caribbean has almost no tides. The reasons for this disparity are too complex to go into here. Though we may not grasp the science, many of us have seen the damage a very high tide combined with strong onshore winds and low pressure does. Whether in person or on media, we’ve seen houses destroyed and shorelines changed by complex interactions between the tides and the weather.

You probably know that around the new and full moon the difference between low and high tide levels increases because the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon magnifies gravitational pull. There are seasonal variations in tide cycles, too – something I didn’t know until I moved to an island. In the Pacific Northwest, summer brings unusually low tides during the daytime and the winter’s lowest tides occur after dark. During the full moon this month, Puget Sound had an extremely low tide, the lowest in over a decade. Foragers and families converged on shorelines throughout the region to experience the extra-low tide, a phenomenon that’s becoming less common due to rising sea levels.

I went to Bowman Bay, my favorite place to walk the beach anytime. I’d hoped to find pretty patterns in the sand but nature had other ideas. What I did find were ribbons of kelp shining in the sunlight (#4 & #5), a bare-bottomed toddler having a blast in the sand, the fresh hoof prints of a running deer, and the same family of Canada geese that I photographed last month. For at least a month these goose parents have kept all six of their goslings safe. I always expect to see one or two fewer, but so far they are all OK.

A few days later the afternoon low tide was still unusually low, so I went to Washington Park. A rocky pocket beach there can be good for tide pooling (searching for creatures in basins of water left by the outgoing tide). The only seastar I found was dead but there were beautiful anemones waving translucent tentacles. Another anemone was the color of an overripe peach.

Something interesting always appears as a result of the tides. These photos are just one person’s observations from walking along Salish Sea shorelines. You’ll find something different.

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9. Tide lines on the rocks. Kukutali Preserve.

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11. Acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula) on a mussel shell (Mytilus trossulus) make a small sculpture gifted by the outgoing tide at Bowman Bay.
12. Anemone tentacles underwater. This might be a Brooding anemone (Epiactis prolifera).

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14. A tiny pyramid-shaped rock created its own moat when the tide went out. Bowman Bay.
15. This arrangement was pure happenstance. The triangular piece of driftwood is also in the first photo, which was made two weeks earlier. Bowman Bay.
16. Eelgrass (Zostera marina) wrapped around a log and tangled with broken reeds last winter at Kukutali Preserve.
17. Eelgrass is important as a habitat for small creatures like worms and crabs and as a stabilizer for the shoreline. Eelgrass is an important food for birds like Brant. Other birds, like herons, eat small fish and crustaceans that live there.

18. The tide’s coming in at Washington Park and the sun is setting. It’s time to go home. Next time, it will be different.

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*The words, “Ever present, never twice the same” are inscribed on a granite marker that was part of an installation done in 1987 by the artist Robert Irwin at Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked then. That phrase, along with “Ever changing, never less than whole” is also inscribed on stones in the Central Garden, designed by Irwin for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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