ON THE EDGE

About thirty years ago I read a novel – I can’t remember the name or author – which presented the idea that events occur mostly on the edges of things. The story followed a man whose life careened from event to event in a kind of pinball fashion. The idea that it’s all happening on the edges made sense to me. I knew that plants, birds and animals are more abundant where different habitats meet. Most ocean life exists in the narrow band where continents meet the sea, not far out in the middle. Explore the middle of a field, a forest, or a large body of water, then follow the edge where a field borders a forest. Walk the seashore, where land meets water and spend time at an estuary, where salt and fresh water mix. You’ll find an increase in biodiversity along all of those edges.

I suspect this principle can be applied to many phenomena, not just ecosystems. Think about the importance of interdisciplinary studies, or the uptick in traffic accidents at intersections. The word “liminal” comes to mind. Here are some definitions:

  • “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.”
  • “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”
  • “of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”

Two years ago I began a post about this idea of activity on the edges of things and liminal states, a concept that felt close to home. In the post, which I’ve unearthed from the drafts folder, I wrote, “I feel I’m in a liminal state these days…I’m entering new waters, with memories of another life still fresh and hovering just below consciousness.”

I had been taking photos at parks and preserves along the water’s edge and wondered if I was drawn to those liminal spaces because I felt I was on a threshold, too. I wrote, “It’s a loose place to be, this liminal space. The knots are undone, the ropes frayed, the anchor up. I’m not yet fully here, nor am I where I used to be. Maybe it’s a little like this”:

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It felt like the photo below: “The leaves are green and the vine looks healthy, but many leaves have fallen off. They litter the pavement with the rest of the detritus; their usefulness is past. Perhaps there’s a sorting process going on with me, too, a shedding of the old skin in preparation for a new state of being.”

The picture below resonated too. “Everything looks like it has been discarded but the objects are still kept under the roof of a roadside shed. The old wood, the tarp, and the rope no longer serve their original functions but the rope appears to be fastened under that musty shroud, anchoring into the dark unknown. Likewise, parts of my life seem to be changing their functions. I’m not sure if I’ll need them or not.”

I thought, “This liminal state is like being inside an old barn full of forgotten tools, looking at the lush, vibrant greenery just outside the door. The focus is on growing the future while I’m standing in the dim shadows of the past.”

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I included one more image in that post, writing, “I’m taking a picture of a photograph on display at an art festival. There are too many reflections to make a good likeness of the work but I take the picture anyway, because as the integrity of the original image disappears a new, in-between image gels – a liminal one. Perhaps it’s even more interesting. Will the figure on the left disappear into that mystical light at the end of the track?”

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These five photographs tell stories that I interpreted a certain way back then. Chances are good that a few of them could tell you other stories. I don’t remember what happened with my story – how were those feelings of being in-between resolved? At the time I was in the midst of planning a three-week trip through four countries, none of which I’d been to before. Part of me was home at my desk, solidifying plans while another part of me was already roaming abroad. I was on the edge. That trip sent me across it!

There’s an old therapist’s technique of replying “Why now?” when a patient brings up an event that occurred long ago. I’m asking myself why a post that sat in the drafts folder for two years resonates now. Maybe it’s not as much a personal feeling as a universal one. There’s something about the nebulous, adrift feeling we have when major transitions occur that might resonate with most of us right now, simply because of the state of the world. The assumptions about the world we live in have been turned inside out in the last year and a half. We thought we’d be “over it” by now, or at least well into the normalcy we recall from pre-Covid-19 days, but that seems to be a distant dream. Instead of returning to the solid ground of life-as-usual, we have the Delta variant, millions of people who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, virus flare-ups and up-ticks, and foreboding, all layered on top of the daily stew of melancholy news. Nothing seems certain. The rug has been pulled out from under us, only to be replaced with a tipsy magic carpet hurtling us into unknown territory.

I don’t know if there are photographs in my catalog that depict this uncertain state and right now I’m not looking for any. I think I’d rather photograph what nourishes me. Maybe you feel that way, too.

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RETRACING MY STEPS

As much as I like novelty, there is something deeply satisfying about the act of retracing my steps through familiar landscapes. Walking the same trails repeatedly can slowly turn a place into a sanctuary. I may say to myself that I’m going out to see what has changed since the last walk but in fact, I’m nourished as much by following my usual pathways as I am by discovering a new flower. Every path has a rhythm: ups and downs, bends and straightaways, enclosed and open spaces. These rhythms sink into the grooves of my soul, digging pathway echos that support me in some obscure way.

Walking the trails, I pick my way over rough rocks and twisted roots, my feet turning just so to fit the dirt-filled pockets where countless feet went before me. I sniff the air, inhaling the warm scent of sun-baked fir needles or wrinkling my nose at the pungent odor of rotting piles of sea lettuce left by the tide. Casting my eyes from side to side as I walk, I listen as Song sparrows throw bright melodies across fields and eagles pierce the air with sharp, quickly tumbling whistles. My knee twinges as I climb a steep section, trying to keep my weight centered. My eyes alight on visual anomalies: “Hmm, is that interesting? No, not really. Yes – there!” I try to keep my intentions loose and inchoate so I can welcome everything. There’s no reason to narrow my experience by adhering to an agenda. It’s enough to simply be here. Again.

Here’s a collection of photos from a few familiar places that I frequent.

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4. March storm clouds brew up some drama over the Salish Sea.

5. The bark of the Madrona or Arbutus tree makes sunset colors.

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7. Winter is a good time to focus on mosses and lichens. The ropy moss at the top is probably a Seliginella, the black-spotted lichen is a Peltigera and the pale, branched lichens are Reindeer lichen, a kind of Cladonia.

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10. Someone is lucky to live there, on the edge of the Park. What a view!

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13. The picnic tables are bare on a Tuesday afternoon in June.
14. Another Madrona tree.
15. Quiet skies over Bowman Bay on an early May morning.

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17. Straight reality – nothing augmented or artificial about it. Good stuff.

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It’s the Fourth of July in America, a day to mark the independent thinking and action of a group of idealistic people that led to this country’s freedom. As we celebrate, let’s not forget our interdependence with one another and with earth.

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STILL PHOTOGRAPHY?

The other day I saw an ad in The New York Review of Books for a book called Theory of the Earth by philosopher Thomas Nail. The title caught my eye, and, as so often happens in the age of the internet, that led me to more books, articles and interviews. Nail writes about human migration, borders, and the philosophy of movement. As someone who has moved house many times and generally enjoys being on the move, I think about movement from time to time, so Nail’s project to reconfigure philosophy from the point of view of movement intrigued me.

If I understand correctly, Nail sees phenomena as matter in motion and time as a process or effect of matter in motion. We live in a universe of change. Our world is not a closed set of discrete things and dates, but rather one of open processes. Humans are not external to life, observing it from afar. Space and time are not “things” as many of us were taught to construe them. Nail claims that not only is matter always in motion, but there is no separate force enacting this continuous flux. Rather, reality simply IS motion: it’s all patterns of interactions.

I’ll admit that a deep dive into Nail’s writing can leave me gasping and confused. Yet, I find inspiration there. In my view, philosophy can touch on every part of our existence, including our enjoyment of images. Thinking philosophically stretches the mind and encourages us to think critically, a practice that promotes creativity, curiosity, and clarity.

Looking at a painting isn’t the passive activity you might suppose. Even the heat emanating from your body transforms the painting, which vibrates waves of photons as it decays in a constant feedback loop with the environment. There is a “vast iceberg of material consequences” to everything we do, including the seemingly passive activity of aesthetic appreciation.

We may call photographs still pictures, but in fact, they are motion itself: the motion of a body acting in space, gathering impressions, and operating a camera; the motion of the camera, the subject being photographed, and a brain thinking, sensing, feeling. A digital photograph involves the motion of a computer as images are modified and light bounces around the screen – and the room! Photographs are light moving through the air, through the camera, on the screen, inside our eyes. Far from being separate, stable objects or mere copies of phenomena, photographs involve fluidity and complexity – more than we imagine.

Doesn’t a photograph also involve the motion of your brain, your breath, your heart? Yes. Mine too.

There is a group of photographs below. They’re here because I chose to bring them together and you are choosing to look. It’s an interactive process. There’s nothing static about it.

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Pure motion and transformation,

there is nothing still

about still photography. It is material,

real, and

constantly becoming:

Such a delight, this very world

in motion.

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1. Bullwhip kelp afloat on an incoming tide.
2. Rotating the polarizing filter, I shifted the view. Motion = transformation.

3. Shadows and reflections. Far more than a static representation or an artifact of time, the image is in your brain and you are interacting with it.
4. It can be hard to free oneself from the idea that an image is a fixed thing.
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6. The patterns in this rock appear to shimmer but the rock doesn’t have to shimmer to be in motion. There is probably mechanical, chemical and thermal movement even in the seemingly solid rock. And there’s motion in the photograph.
7. Moving the camera as I press the shutter may make it easier to think of a photograph as pure motion.
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10. Intentional camera movement again, expressing something poignant in the dynamics of the flower-filled swamp.

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Garden Reveries

What follows is a group of photographs made at gardens in and around New York City in late spring. We spent more time than I thought we would visiting public gardens on our trip back east. Given the vicissitudes of the trip, that was a good thing.

If you know me, you know not to expect an array of colorful flower pictures. I’m as likely to get caught up in the way petals fall onto the sidewalk as I am to admire the flowers.

I photographed garden structures: a bamboo fence, a rose trellis, conservatory windows. And carp – I love to watch fish as they move nearer and farther from the water’s surface, their bodies curving gracefully. There are leaf studies because I could be happy doing those for the rest of my life. A shadow and a reflection or two are here because hinting at rather than spelling out a scene always intrigues me. In that vein several photographs picture something seen behind or through something else. I photographed the way the shape of a Japanese maple tree interacted visually with a cloud-strewn sky. And there’s a flower, too – a lovely peony. But not in color.

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Key:

From an afternoon with John Todaro at Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, NY: #1, 3 – 6, 13, 19.

From a stroll on the grounds of Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY: #2, 14.

From a leisurely morning at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY: #7 – 10, 16, 17.

From a walk in Norman J. Levy Park, Merrick, NY: #11, 12, 15.

From a walk at Tackapausha Preserve, Massapequa, NY: #18.

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A Pleasure Garden

That’s our earth. I never tire of it, especially at this time of year, when life is burgeoning with bright energy. Well, if I’m honest I do tire of my surroundings in winter but not for long, and any lingering weariness evaporates come spring.

What is this activity of going outside and making photographs all about? Part compulsion, part joyful play, part intellectually demanding work, it’s what I center my life around. I doubt all the motivating factors are the same for those of us who go out and make pictures, but that zing of energy we feel when the black box is cradled in our hands and our eyes are engaging with the landscape – that must be a fundamental feeling we have in common.

Two other parts of the process are vital to me: the act of reviewing, then processing images and the act of sharing the results. These three activities – exploring the world with a camera, nudging the photos one way or another to my liking, and placing them where others can see them, keep me going. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

In the spirit of earth as pleasure garden, here is a slew of recent images, or maybe it’s a stew – yes, a delectable, earthy stew of greens and oranges and tasty morsels and deep, dark delicious things.

(The photographs below were made within 10 minutes of home, except the first two and one other, which are from a forest park about an hour’s drive away, closer to the mountains).

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Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

Ellen Meloy; The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky, 2003. As seen in Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.

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The possibility of numbering each photo strangely disappeared when I was putting this post together. Here’s a list.

1) Rockport State Park, with the Skagit River in the background. This photo and #2 were made with an iPhone.

2) Stately Douglas fir trees.

3) A bark study of an old Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).

4) Overlapping and interweaving Bracken fern fronds (Pteridium aquilinum).

5) A somber look at low tide on an April evening. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

6) Afternoon sunbeams light up a tiny, exquisite Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). IT was absolutely worth sitting in the forest duff for.

7) A young Coralroot flower stalk (Corallorhiza maculatum). These flowers are parasitic orchids that lack chlorophyll and get their nourishment from decaying matter and soil fungi. This species of Coralroot normally has spots on the labellum (lower lip of the flower) but these had no spots. (Trust me – the photo shows only a sliver of the flower’s inside). This flower is probably a rare variant called Ozette coralroot.

8) Looking toward the San Juan Islands from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. A winter wind storm toppled several Douglas firs here. They will continue to support plenty of life on the ground. iPhone photo.

9) A tangle of Chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) framed by grasses. Most of the pretty spring flowers on Fidalgo Island are small. They tend to grow up through tangles of fallen branches, dry grass, fir cones and other wind-blown detritus. It can make flowers challenging to photograph but the effect can be artful, too.

10) Grasses on a breezy June day at Sugarloaf, Fidalgo’s second-highest summit.

11) A pair of Mallard ducks swims away from the shoreline of Little Cranberry Lake. Sorry!

12) Bowman Bay beach detritus includes a dead Purple shore crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) and various seaweeds.

13) A comically unfurling Sword fern (Polystichum munitum).

14) Another Sword fern fiddlehead, this one still tightly coiled.

15) A different kind of fern unfurling; probably Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The photo was taken using a vintage 50mm f 1.4 Super Takumar lens.

16) The graceful bud of a Chocolate or Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) a western North America native plant whose bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. The photo was made with an Olympus 60mm F 2.8 macro lens and processed in Lightroom with a split tone preset and additional tweaks.

17) Madrona bark always delights me.

18) New leaves on a Vine maple (Acer circinatum). Circinatum means round, as in the rounded shape of the leaf, in spite of the many pointed lobes. Common west of the Cascades, for some reason these beautiful, small trees do not grow wild here or on the San Juan Islands. The photo was taken at Rockport State Park, about an hour from Fidalgo Island.

19) A tiny hummingbird, probably Anna’s (Calypte anna) surveys its territory from the tip of a Douglas fir on Goose Rock.

20) A three-year-old, female elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) named Ellie Mae lounges on a Fidalgo Island beach. Almost extinct from hunting by the late 1800’s, Northern elephant seals are now protected and doing well. They’re deep divers so most of them live off the North American coast. Recently a small number of these large seals began spending several months each year on Whidbey Island, just to our south. A female gave birth there a few years ago and returned twice to give birth again. Ellie Mae (named by members of a marine mammal organization) is one of her progeny. For some reason she has come ashore at Fidalgo instead of Whidbey Island for the last two years.

Every year, elephant seals endure what’s called a “catastrophic molt.’ It takes about a month. As new skin and hair replace the old coat, the seals stay on land and don’t feed. Ellie Mae finished her molt at a marina on Fidalgo around the time I was in New York – but I knew nothing about this. It was a big surprise when I went for a walk at Bowman Bay a few days after I got home and saw her enjoying the warm afternoon sun on the beach. Apparently, she decided to swim over to Bowman Bay the night before. Someone must have seen her and contacted the marine mammal rescue network. She didn’t need rescuing but the volunteers are very good at keeping visitors at a safe distance while answering lots of questions.

She looked so comfortable! Though I didn’t have a very long lens with me, I was grateful for the rare opportunity to observe and photograph one of these seals. She opened her eyes and snorted like a dog, then she rolled over a few times. After a while I think the “handlers” wanted to go home. It was 4pm. They didn’t want to leave her alone on a public beach. Seals move faster than you think and these heavyweights can do real damage if they feel threatened. So they gently shooed her back into the water. She was reluctant, but into the water she went, with what I couldn’t help feeling was an accusatory backward look at the volunteers. Ahh, her sunny day on the beach had been good!

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KEEPING MY EYES OPEN, no matter what…

We just returned from the first long trip we’ve taken in two years. The pandemic quashed our plans for excursions last year, but by March of this year we were “two past two” (two weeks past the second shot) so it was time to get back in the saddle and plan a serious trip. A family member had a stroke last year and we were eager to lay our eyes on him, instead of relying on second-person reports. We could combine seeing him in Massachusetts with visiting family in New York and day trips to Manhattan by booking a flight to Boston, renting a car and driving to New York, and flying back to Seattle from JFK. We hadn’t been back to New York, where we’re both from, for several years.

So that was the plan.

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The text below alternates with pairs of photographs from the trip; each pair includes an image of the human-built environment (mostly from Manhattan) and an image from one of the gardens and parks we visited.

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A series of snafus made this trip beyond memorable. Let’s say it was successful overall, with wrinkles. The trouble started before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, when I began frantically digging through my backpack for my phone and realized that it was missing. No!!! I was crushed. We called the van operator that took us to the airport and asked them to look for a phone. Just before we took off we talked with them again, and, whew! – they found my phone and promised to hold onto it until we returned.

I was grateful but my emotions were all over the place as I thought about being incommunicado for ten days, days with an itinerary that involved about twenty friends and relatives. How would I manage?

Let me say here that this is the problem of a privileged person; I know that. Many people in Sudan, for example, own a mobile phone but are malnourished. The current vaccination rate there is only 0.2% of the population. Wealthy countries like the one I live in need to step up and help. I also know that spiritually, there’s more to life than having a phone.

But back to the story.

Sitting crumpled up on a plane with a mask on for five hours doesn’t exactly sooth one’s nerves – especially in the current atmosphere of high anxiety about flying and unruly passengers who cause trouble in the middle of long flights. At least I had ample time to hatch a plan: as soon as we arrived and procured our rental car, we would bee-line to the nearest phone store where I would buy a cheap replacement to use during the trip. New York time is three hours later than Seattle time but our morning flight should leave time to accomplish the task, I reasoned.

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After arriving in Boston we located the rental stand and were directed to a shiny new Nissan. Opening the doors, we realized the car had been rubbed clean with so much chemical disinfectant that we couldn’t breathe without the windows rolled down. A few choice words flew around as we figured out how to start the car and open the trunk. “Let’s just get on the road” I thought, “this is too stressful.”

We whizzed through a city neither of us know (at least we had Joe’s smartphone for navigation) and got to the store well before closing. Of course, we soon confirmed what we knew must be true: the least expensive phones aren’t exactly cheap. Worse, I learned that one’s contacts reside on one’s phone, which in my case was 4,000 miles away, sitting in a drawer in Seattle hotel. That meant no phone numbers, no texting, and no communicating with people, unless I figured out another way to get their contact information. Needless to say, I don’t have any phone numbers memorized other than mine and Joe’s and I haven’t carried a paper phone list in years.

Watching the salesman set up the new phone, I tried to maintain a calm facade, while alternately seething, berating myself, and trying to talk myself into accepting the situation. Back and forth my mind went…

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“Can we set up my email account?”, I asked the man. But when he tried to activate it on the new phone, Gmail wanted a four-digit authorization code. Guess where they sent it – to the phone in Seattle, of course! I didn’t want to tell the strangers keeping my phone safe how to unlock my phone so they could read the code to me – that wouldn’t be smart.

Now it looked like I would be without phone numbers AND email for the entire trip. Maybe you’re thinking, cheer up, it’s healthy to disconnect! Or you might wonder why I didn’t try again, and again. One time, Gmail locked me out for two weeks because I forgot my password and tried incorrect passwords too many times. There was no recourse except to wait until the company reactivated my email account. Thinking about being locked out of email for weeks made me cringe – I couldn’t risk having that happen again. Joe came to the rescue – he had been cc’ed on the family emails with the details for our big get-together the next day. At least we had an address for the reunion and the ability to contact family.

Leaving the shop with a rather rudimentary phone and a troubled face, I tried to reason with myself as we wound our way through Boston to a restaurant. I don’t recall dinner that night but I know that once we checked into our hotel, we collapsed.

That was just Day One!

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The following day we visited the sibling whose stroke radically changed his life last fall. He had been actively immersed in academia at a prestigious college in Boston; now his days are scheduled around speech therapy appointments, meals, and exercise. But he’s as positive as he ever was, his sense of humor is intact and he’s working hard to rewire his brain and get back the skills he lost. It felt good to be with him. Reassured, I left to meet a dear friend I hadn’t seen in ten years who drove down from Maine for a rare, in-person visit. As always, we picked up right where we left off, plunging into conversations about anything and everything. It was wonderful.

I was swinging from the low of worrying about a lost phone to a high of happy connections with friends and family – but the day wasn’t over yet. The first of two big family get-togethers was that evening. We all know these reunions can be simultaneously awkward and heartwarming and our gathering fully lived up to that expectation. Exhausted from a day of emotional intensity and far from home, I slept poorly again.

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The next morning we hit the road for New York. Joe drove and I navigated, which means that I had an opportunity to unwind a little. I was grateful for Joe’s patience over the previous two days but as we got closer to the heavy traffic of metropolitan New York City at rush hour, patience wore a little thin and his long-buried New York edge emerged. Later on we would joke about needing to purge the tough, New York attitude (which one absolutely needs to get on with life in the city) before returning to the Pacific northwest, where politeness and a forgiving outlook on life are the norm.

Seattle has experienced a boom and traffic there can be beyond aggravating, a fact of life we’re both glad that we don’t deal anymore, now that we live in a more rural environment. New York traffic is another matter – it’s famously busy and you have the added stressors of unpredictable, rude, aggressive drivers and terrible roads.

We were back in the fray and we were out of practice.

A stop at a sibling’s house for conversation and snacks was a welcome respite. None of our respective siblings, nieces and nephews who reside in metropolitan New York live in Manhattan. Most live on Long Island, so we chose a centrally-located hotel there. Of course, it happened to be hosting a passel of noisy hockey fans the night we got there, as well as an undetermined number of college sports teams.

We slept poorly. Again.

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Seven more days of family visits and excursions ensued, including a hot, tiring but satisfying day in Manhattan, where we viewed inspiring art exhibits and enjoyed just sitting outside a cafe, watching the street life. There were visits to gardens in and around the city. We had an intriguing conversation with a Guyanese caregiver who was waiting for the same train we were. We endured a loud, heated argument at another family gathering that shocked everyone present. There was a poison ivy-laced walk through a preserve, pressured smartphone searches for places to eat, and hours spent navigating busy highways and sitting in traffic jams. We took a spontaneous tour of our old neighborhood, which we hadn’t seen in nine years. We enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon of coffee, conversation, and a garden visit with John Todaro, a fine art photographer I’ve admired for nine years. That was a high point!

We were struck repeatedly by the intensity and scope of sensory input during the trip: noisy people, rich food, hectic traffic, unfamiliar sights, strong smells, muggy, oppressive heat we could hardly bear, beautiful skies – our senses were assaulted with a range of impressions the like of which we hadn’t experienced in a long time.

We’re both retired now. We live in a quiet, extraordinarily beautiful place that always seems peaceful – even the weather changes slowly here and rarely throws us for a loop. Over the last year our lives shrank; sensory and social input was more limited than we had ever experienced. On this trip we felt as if we had jumped straight into a fire.

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Eventually we settled down, slept better, and began to relax. Even the horrid smell in the rental car began to dissipate. But true to form, an unexpected event threw us off again, this time on the flight home. A passenger who apparently ingested something he shouldn’t have was talking rudely at full volume, then became very quiet. I noticed him struggling to maintain an upright position as he headed down the aisle to the bathroom. I heard the stewards call for medical help. After a half hour or so, apparently they determined that it was safe to continue on to Seattle; the flight didn’t have to be diverted. At the gate we were met by a uniformed phalanx of police and medics. With rescue truck lights flashing, medical kits, and handcuffs at hand, the pros handled the situation with aplomb, diplomatically convincing the unmasked man to exit the aircraft. Finally, we deplaned and called the van to take us to the lot where our car was parked. It arrived with a thrilling gift on board – my phone! The battery was dead but oh, the familiar feel of the case felt good in my hand!

I thought about the hundreds of emails in my inbox. They would be deleted, answered, and dealt with soon enough.

Heading home through a Pacific Northwest rainstorm, we sighed with relief when we pulled into the driveway. The air was fresh and smelled good. Everything was in place. We were home.

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As stressed as I was from the emotional roller coaster and lack of sleep, my eyes were always open wide. Again and again, I looked and I thought about what I saw. I was inspired by beautiful paintings, imposing sculptures, interesting photographs. A store called Printed Matter with 15,000 artists’ books on the shelves offered more food for thought.

But not only art inspired me.

There was delicious food. There were energizing interactions with strangers – the warm, spontaneous, to-the-point kind that New York is famous for and we miss dearly. There were heart-warming visits with family – little ones we’d never met and grown-ups we hadn’t seen in over a decade. There were gardens galore, filled with irises, peonies, wisteria and water lilies. My ears delighted at the sound of birds I grew up with, singing their hearts out at the height of spring: cardinals, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles – even Blue jays and Red-bellied woodpeckers made me stop and smile. The owner of the neighborhood pizza joint we used to frequent recognized Joe instantly after an absence of nine years (and oh, the taste of a real New York slice!). We dined on Peking duck served by white-gloved waiters, wolfed down Trinidadian roti from a busy lunch spot in Little Guyana (a neighborhood in Queens), and savored perfect Agedashi tofu at a Japanese restaurant.

But back to the point: returning to the practice of paying close attention, no matter what disruptions and distractions are going on, is a practice that keeps me going. Look at this amazing world we live in, study what you see, watch the light, think about how shapes relate to each other, examine details. This is a refuge. Not an escape from anything, but a refuge. Be nourished by it, every day.

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LOCAL WALKS: The Tide’s Out at Bowman Bay

Bowman Bay is in Deception Pass State Park, a favorite place of mine. Straddling Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, the park comprises over 4,000 acres (1619 ha) of marine habitat, fresh and saltwater shoreline, old-growth forest, rocky headlands, wetlands, and more. The protected waters of crescent-shaped Bowman Bay, on the Fidalgo Island side of the park, attract campers and kayakers from spring to fall. When the weather is nice Washington’s busiest state park is usually too busy for my taste but on a winter weekday it can be almost deserted.

There’s a rocky promontory that requires careful footing and a little exertion to get up and over. If the tide is very low you can walk right around it, on the beach. The tide doesn’t recede that far very often – during normal low tides the water is still at least a foot deep at the bottom of the promontory. But sometimes there are REALLY low tides. During “minus tides” walking around the rocks on the sandy beach always reveals something new (and yes, it’s nice to walk around the steep part of the trail instead of over it!). Once there was a colorful jellyfish the size of a dinner plate floating in the water; several times I’ve found tiny snail egg clusters in rock crevices which are normally submerged.

Last week there were minus tides during daylight hours so I went to Bowman Bay to wander the sandy beach and explore muddy Lottie Bay behind it. It was a clear, beautiful spring day so I wasn’t alone but I found pockets of peace, especially when I focused intently on, well, you’ll see…

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5. Looking up, I saw a group of kayakers paddling across the bay.

6. At my feet, fragments of seaweed floated on gentle waves.

7. A sandy beach on one side, rocky headlands on another – this is what makes Bowman Bay so interesting.

8. Poking around the rocks, I found a snail the color of a creamsickle.

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11. High among the rocks, a small colony of Menzies’ larkspur was nestled into a safe spot where no one could pick them. I was excited to see these beauties! I had only one lens with me and it doesn’t reach very far but that was OK – I was happy enough just to see the larkspurs.
12. The rocks are always worth investigating.
13. At my feet, more beauty.
14. The biggest driftwood pieces, those that have been here a long, long time, have intricate swirls of lichens painted across their surfaces.

15. Swirls in the driftwood, swirls in the sand.
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17. Muddy-bottomed Lottie Bay faces the pass between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, where the water is deep and the current runs fast. The low tide revealed a tangle of snail tracks is revealed in the mud. Or maybe they’re hermit crab tracks. Or?

19. A pair of walkers relaxed in the sun on quiet Lottie Bay. When the warm sun hits the cool water, clouds of mist rise and blow across the beach. The mist swirled around my legs that day. Two remnants hover over the forest in this picture and slowly burn away.
20. I focused on wind-blown detritus. The wind can cut hard into Lottie bay, blowing strands of eelgrass into trees that lean out over the water’s edge. This tangle must have happened during intense winter storms coinciding with unusually high tides because what you see was at eye-level. One has to wonder about the power of the wind, wrapping and tangling everything up like messy package, so high off the ground.

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22. The same scene, a moment later, with different processing.
23. A little human intervention keeps this piece of Bullwhip kelp in place.

24. The muddy bottom of Lottie Bay at minus tide. The sensuous, sinewy curves of this giant driftwood log seem to be breathing a sigh and relaxing into the mud. It reminds me of sculptures of the reclining Buddha.
25. On my way back to the parking lot a dandelion seed-head caught my eye. The cycles of life…

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In a few days I’ll be back on the east coast visiting friends and family in Massachusetts and New York. It feels very strange to be packing a suitcase and planning plane travel again after the long, COVID hiatus. I am out of practice.

I hope to return with interesting photographs. For me it’s all about paying attention, really looking, and finding interesting visual delights. Actually, that process describes my daily life. The part that can be challenging is translating what I notice into engaging photographs. We’ll see how it goes!

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The tide’s out.

LOCAL WALKS: Nothing Exotic

No exploding volcanoes here, no thundering waterfalls, no calving icebergs, no wild elephants or glimmering Northern lights. Just a potpourri of “scenes seen” around the island in the last few weeks, mostly around town, with a brief nature break in the middle.

1. What’s more quotidian than a sidewalk? But oh, what beauty here!
2. One day in April, a No Parking zone received a blessing from cherry blossom petals.
3. Rusty building supplies seen across from a ship-building and repair business in town. Ever since it arrived here last summer, we enjoyed seeing the RV Atlantis, a Woods Hole Research ship that was in for a major overhaul at Dakota Industries.
Woods Hole, which is based in Massachusetts, is “the world’s leading, independent non-profit organization dedicated to ocean research, exploration, and education.” The RV Atlantis is a global class research vessel that carries a human-occupied submersible on board for exploring the world’s oceans. The submersible, called ‘Alvin’ has accomplished amazing things.
Work on the Atlantis was finally completed this spring; the ship left Anacortes in early April. Video of the departure can be seen here. As I write, the ship has left the Strait of Juan de Fuca and is transiting over the deep underwater canyons off the northwest tip of Washington State. Here’s the tracker.
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7. Just a short stroll from the shipyard, Pelican Bay Books has an extensive maritime book section, excellent coffee, and always-freshly-baked pastries. I like a town where industry and culture get close to each other.

8. I wonder if this tree’s injury was caused by something human-made.
9. I found this noble Bigleaf maple tree one rainy day while driving down a dead-end road.
10. Standing on a dock in the rain, I watched the clouds descend on Mt. Erie.
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17. “B” Dock at Cap Sante Marina was full up with fishing and crabbing vessels the other day. A walk down the length of the dock offered glimpses into a world I know very little about.

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20. Under a moody Pacific northwest sky, I pointed the camera west one evening, toward the San Juan Islands. The knoIl where I stood wraps its rocky arm around Cap Sante Marina, making it a favorite haunt for locals to catch their breath and enjoy the view.

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AMONG the ROCKS at LOW TIDE

There’s a place I like to go when the tide pulls

the water off the ancient rocks

buffed by centuries of waves.

Lifting the liquid curtain, gravity unveils

enough shapes and patterns in this small spot

for a master’s thesis in visual aesthetics.

Steadfastly present yet ever-changing, the

land-water-scape draws me in

as it draws and sculpts itself.

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1. On an exhilarating April day cumulus clouds ornament the sky as receding waves lap gently against the shore.

2. Stepping onto the rocks, I find a rippled canvas of scrawled messages, like a Pollack drip painting in the making or the fine craquelure on an old piece of pottery.

*

Like the waves at my feet, my mind’s eye shifts back and forth between sumptuous curves of basalt and the austere gray marks creeping across its surface. Even as I frame them, the abstract patterns are evaporating in the afternoon sun. Water shifts from one state to another as the mass of cold, sloshing liquid rolls through the strait, splashes smudgy films and wet pockets into cracks and depressions, then fizzles and morphs into humidity in the air.

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6. Mysterious circles are scattered about like thrown hoops. This one begs the question of time.
7. Turned this way or that way, messages take on different meanings.
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10. Back and forth, the tide continues, a pious servant of the sun, moon and earth.
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14. Even the barnacles, mussels and limpets leave messages on the rocks when the tide goes out.
15. Huddled
16. Scrunched.

17. A palette of warm hues bleeds into cool ones, the lot marked with cold, impatient scratches and dark, muddled crevices. To me, pure beauty.
18. I puzzle over the mysterious circles, some empty, some full. Evaporation must play a role here but exactly how the shapes appear and fade, I don’t know. That’s OK – not knowing keeps doors open.

***

Ten years ago today I followed a team of white horses and a caisson through Arlington National Cemetery to the final resting place of Sean Callahan, Sergeant, United States Marine Corps. I was there for his family, for friends whose sons deployed with Sean, for myself, and for my own son, who was still back in Afghanistan. It was a dangerous, stupid war but our sons cared deeply about what they were doing and about one another. Most of us were lucky; my son came home two months later. Sean’s family still mourns him. I know they’re remembering him today. Semper Fi.

LOCAL WALKS: WILDFLOWER JOY

Or should I say the joy of wildflowers, or

is it the joy of early spring?

Or maybe it’s the joy of full vaccination…

In any case, here’s a collection that reflects my deep appreciation for “Spring ephemerals,” the fleeting wildflowers of spring that appear and depart all too quickly. These photographs were made within fifteen minutes of home, over the past five weeks.

This is a long, immersive post that you may want to linger over.

ENJOY!

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1. Like spirits from another world, pure white Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) rise up from the dusky litter of broken sticks and dried leaves left by last winter’s storms.
2. Sitting under the dappled shade of fir trees with my legs tucked under me, I search, focus and click. Waves of enchantment wash over me. There’s nowhere I’d rather be at this moment.
3. I get up to go but I can’t resist another photograph, this time looking down at the perfect symmetry of the flower and its richly colored, mottled leaves. Fawn lilies are perfect from every angle.

4. A single-lane loop road traces a two-mile circuit through a local park that is sprinkled with tiny wildflowers, most of them never seen by people circling the park on the road. I walk away from the road on soft, dirt trails winding through evergreen woods and emerging onto quiet meadows. I see few people on the trails.
5. Here’s one of the park’s wild inhabitants: the diminutive Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), just beginning to open. See how small it is in relation to the grass, leaves and sticks around it – no wonder people don’t see it!
6. Once again I sit on the forest floor – how else can I see their faces? Like twins, these two bloomed close together on separate stems. Also called Venus’ slipper or Fairy slipper, this orchid of dry, coniferous and mixed forests does not tolerate disruption. The plant sends up a single leaf from a small corm (like a bulb), then a flower stalk that will soon disappear. Calypso orchids have close relationships with certain soil fungi in order to access nutrients they can’t produce on their own. If that partnership is disturbed the plant may die. Bees typically visit the intricate flowers a few times before they realize there is no nectar at all in that enticing opening. By then, pollination has occurred – by deception.
7. The Small-flowered woodland star (or prairie star) (Lithophragma parviflora) is opening five, deeply-cut, pale pink petals. “Litho” refers to stone and this little western American native loves the open, rocky bluffs on the edge of the park.
8. In early April, a thin-soiled bluff sports a lovely smattering of wildflowers, among them the Small-flowered woodland star.
9. This year’s plentiful winter rain was kind to the moss, which in turn seems to be kind to Small-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora) and Grassland saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia).
10. On the second Saturday in April I went up to Sugarloaf, a promontory on Fidalgo Island, and sat on a rock. Changeable weather discouraged other hikers that day; it was just me and a spectacular view of storm clouds pouring rain over the San Juan Islands. I barely made it home in time for dinner that day!
11. As I wound my way down the trail to my car that afternoon, I gazed out toward the water through an understory of budding Red huckleberry bushes and paused to take a photo while there was still light in the sky. It wasn’t quite as dark as it looks here – spot metering and choosing where to meter and focus dimmed the scene to match the moody atmosphere I felt in my bones.

12. Fiddleheads no bigger than your fingertip were uncurling among the rocks just below the top of Sugarloaf. I’m pretty sure this is Goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis), a small Western native fern that favors rocky outcrops and tolerates summer drought.
13. The clouds I watched over the San Juan’s unloaded a surprise on Fidalgo Island on that afternoon – hail. Pockets of the little ice balls still decorated the ground when I hiked up the hill.
14. One the earliest harbingers of spring is the photogenic Skunk cabbage, or Yellow lantern (Lysichiton americanus). These bold beauties rise up from the muck of low-lying wetlands in March. To me, the odor is not bad but I’ve read that the plant’s scent can change with the temperature. Maybe I’ve been lucky to be near them at their “best.” These energetic clumps grow in a wetland inhabited by beavers, near the middle of the island.
15. These fetching fellows favor wet places around bluffs on the fringes of Washington Park. They’re called Seep monkey flowers (Eryanthe guttata). The little charmers grow in a variety of habitats including alpine slopes, desert washes and serpentine balds on Fidalgo, where heavy metals in the soil discourage many plants from taking root. Along with Larkspurs (#18-20), Stonecrops (#28), and Checker lilies (below), Monkey flowers have been hybridized for gardens and exist in many forms, both in the wild and in cultivation.

16. The nodding, oddly colored bells of Chocolate lily, also called Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) tend to disappear when they grow in grassy areas. You have to look hard to spot them! I found this nice specimen fairly well hidden near a trail in Deception Pass State Park; the one below was at the top of Goose Rock, in the same park.
17. The Fritillarias are a genus of lily with well over a hundred species growing in temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. In China certain Fritillarias are used medicinally for lung conditions. The flower bulbs of our species have smaller bulbs that look like plump grains of rice stuck to them. Coast Salish tribes used to dig and eat the bulbs; the plant is also called “Rice root.”
18. Perched on the narrow edge of a cliff overlooking tidal waters, this attractive larkspur (Delphineum menziesii) is an ephemeral delight. The deep, blue-violet color mixes well with yellow Lomatium flowers, white chickweed, and the multi-colored leaves of native Stonecrop plants that grow around it at this location. Honestly, I get nervous looking at these Larkspurs because they grow just a step away from a popular trail in a state park. So far though, they are unmolested.
19. Larkspur buds sport warm, fuzzy coats and a jaunty attitude.
20. I can’t resist adding another photo of Menzies’ larkspur. It was taken this week when the sun was sinking down over the waters of the Salish Sea, lending a warm glow to everything. The Latin species name ‘menziesii” is after Archibald Menzies, a surgeon and naturalist on Captain George Vancouver’s H.M.S. Discovery. He was one of the first Europeans to preserve and describe many plants of the Pacific Northwest, over two hundred years ago.

21. Time out to gaze at a Canada goose (Branta canadensiss) swimming across a small lake, not far from the Skunk cabbage wetland in #14, above. Back in New York, Canada geese gathering in large numbers fouled campus lawns with excrement. I never see more than a dozen at a time here and I never have to tiptoe carefully through the you-know-what.

22. That day at the lake, after looking down at the goose I looked up into a wild, Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum). What a pleasure to see this beauty reaching toward the light at the edge of the woods.
23. One of my favorite spring wildflowers is the petite Satin flower, or Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I’ve only seen them in two or three places.
24. Viewed from above, this patch of Satin flowers shows different stages of growth. The color, simple shape and scarcity of Satin flowers make them special to me. Like many of the native plants that grow here, they are found from southern British Columbia to northern California; they also grow in the interior, as far east as Utah. They favor wet springs and dry summers, like many native plants here on Fidalgo Island.
25. Here’s one place I found Satin flowers: along the edge of this path on Sugarloaf. It was a typically cloudy March day but we could still make out the Olympic Mountains, far off to the southwest, rising over a cloud bank. Since childhood I’ve been prone to switch back and forth between the close, small scale view and the expansive long view.
26. A fern unwinds after a long winter sleep. This is the (very!) common Bracken fern, aka Brake fern (Pteridium aquilinum). The tall, coarse fern thrives from Mexico to Alaska and is also native to Europe and Eastern Asia. Young shoots like this are relished in Korea and Japan. The plant contains a carcinogenic chemical that is probably safe in small quantities but cooks usually soak the shoots in water prior to steaming, which probably eliminates any risk. To me, Bracken ferns are fond friends (or should I say “frond friends?) whose shoots amuse me in spring and whose dried leaves add texture and color to the winter woods.
27. Isn’t the cool, violet-blue of Common camas (Camassia quamash), irresistible? A member of the lily family, this plant grows from a bulb that local tribes used to dig, then steam in large pits for many hours before eating. Before prairies were cleared for agriculture they grew abundantly enough to be one of the most important foods of Pacific Northwest tribes. The pretty flowers are fairly common here on the island, if you know where and when to look.
28. Nature composes pleasing rock gardens all over the island. This one is on Sugarloaf, where Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) mixes with shaggy mosses and crusty lichens. After the spring ephemerals have faded. Stonecrop plants will take their turn, sending up cheerful yellow flowers in early summer.
29. Standing up like soldiers, Prairie saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia) has grown fast after being nourished by spring rain. Along with the rain, they’ll be gone by summer. Once again, it’s worth it to get down on the ground to see them at their own level. (Also pictured above, #9, at an earlier stage of growth).
30. How else would I see this, if I didn’t sit in the grass?

31. A cooperative Barred owl (Strix varia) allowed me to point the camera straight at it from a close range one day. I was walking back from a long hike and had a 60mm macro lens on my Olympus Pen-F (about a 120mm equivalent on a DSLR). That’s not really enough reach for birds, but I managed some acceptable shots anyway. Getting out frequently to look for wildflowers brings many gifts.

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HAPPY EARTH DAY!

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