BORDER BLUES

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Regular visitors to this blog know it’s usually image-heavy, without too much text. This time it’s the other way around. There’s a story I can only hint at here, an important one. If you’re interested, follow the links to learn more. And if this isn’t your thing, be assured that next time I’ll revert to the usual emphasis on photography.

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In a recent post I featured cacti and other unusual plants at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, which I visited in January.  As much as I enjoyed the extraordinary Sonoran desert landscape, I could not ignore our troubled border with Mexico, which forms the monument’s southern edge.

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Being present at the border brings home everything you hear in the media, and more. International borders are political concepts, often drawn for colonial interests that ignored existing human, cultural and ecological realities. These territorial boundaries directly impact the land, the people, and even animals and plants in unexpected ways.

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On the US – Mexico border it’s obvious that living standard inequalities butt up against each other. We know that communities on either side offer different opportunities and face different challenges. Some of those differences were heightened for me when we drove down a park road parallel to the border. Thick smoke from fires on the Mexico side obscured the way ahead on a road littered with trash which had drifted over and gotten snagged on the rough vegetation.

And more than smoke and trash drift across this border.

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People have been crossing this border to find a better life for a long time. Many will cross illegally and will find work as farm laborers, in service positions, in construction. They will likely stay and contribute to the US economy.  Some will cross to sell drugs here – another path out of poverty.

Back in the 1990’s I managed the grounds on an estate outside of New York City and worked with Mexican men who were probably undocumented.  A pleasure to work with, the men I knew were reliable, friendly and above all, able and willing to do hard labor. It’s become a cliche in America to say that Mexicans do much of the labor that people born here are unwilling to do and I suspect there’s quite a lot of truth to that.

But that’s just one side among many of a complex issue.

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For years there wasn’t much to impede illegal crossings at certain sections of the border with Mexico. In the 1990’s Border Patrol attention increased at urban locations, pushing people to the fringes, like the wide open desert lands of Organ Pipe. With little but barbed wire holding people back, smuggling grew into a huge problem. Organ Pipe became known as America’s most dangerous park. In fact, much of it was closed after Kris Eggle, a park ranger, was killed while pursuing drug cartel men in August, 2002.

Two years later a barrier that keeps vehicles out but allows animals to cross was erected. Humans can still walk across but the barrier has reduced problematic vehicle traffic. Significant increases in personnel were made, surveillance towers were built, and things steadily improved. In recent years there has been an overall decrease in illegal border crossings.

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The double vehicle barrier above extends for a short distance, then continues as a single barrier along the road out to Quitobaquito Springs, a welcome if isolated slice of green in a sea of camel-colored sand. For thousands of years the spring and adjacent pond have been important landmarks to people living here and passing through. Just a few hundred yards away, busy Mexican Federal Highway 2 connects points east with Tijuana, to the west.

The area around the spring was closed to most visitors for years because of smuggling, but it’s accessible once again. I know our experience as American tourists was nothing like what people trying to cross into America illegally experience here. Too often, Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross under the radar are not prepared for the harsh conditions in the desert. It’s 99 degrees F right now, on a mid-May evening at 6:15pm. Imagine the heat on a summer afternoon.

People die here. Sometimes they are misled by traffickers who promise a short walk across the desert to a pick-up spot that can’t be found when the time comes. Like I said, it’s a complex situation.

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Many visitors to Organ Pipe stick to the scenic Ajo Mountain Loop near the Visitors Center, which we took our first day at the park. Wanting to see more, we had ventured south the following day on Rt. 85 to the turn-off for Quitobaquito Springs.

We saw only one other car on that mid-January weekday. It wasn’t a rental car or an RV – it looked like a local car. Two people were inside, driving at a brisk pace on the gravel.

We reached the parking area, where another sign greeted and cautioned us. The roar of trucks barreling down Mexico’s Rt. 2 made it easy to orient ourselves as we walked to the spring.

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A lone coot swam in the pond. Mourning doves called and last year’s leaves crunched underfoot.  We traced a narrow creek back through the desert to a wash, then lost the creek in the brush. Wandering away from the spring, we came upon a mound with a  gravestone. It stood all by itself in the desert, miles from any habitation.

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Jose Lorenzo Sestier, the Frenchman who died here in 1900 at the age of 74, was a shopkeeper – yes, once there was a store in the area, selling food, clothing and mining supplies. It was a moving sight, this hand-lettered grave marker overlooking lonely desert hills that roll on for miles to a ragged horizon of dark purple mountains.

There were more signs of humans.

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Discarded water containers, a common sight, reminded us of those who came to this place in more desperate circumstances than ours.

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A helicopter buzzed off to the east. We had seen plenty of Border Patrol vehicles and passed checkpoints so we weren’t surprised by a Border Patrol helicopter – until it was directly over us. It circled closely to get eyes on us. We gave a slight raise of the hand – not enough to indicate trouble, just enough to show we were OK and meant no harm. The helicopter dipped and circled away.

Feeling uneasy, we returned to the car. We hadn’t seen anyone since that one car on the road out to the spring and they had disappeared.  We decided to head back to the highway.  Along the way we relaxed a bit and curiosity pulled us to a detour down another park road. Storm clouds threatened and an odd looking flag waved in the distance. We pulled over, walked towards the flag, and found this:

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Emergency water. It was left there by Humane Borders, or Fronteras Compasivas. Their mission is “to save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands.”  They are volunteers who recognize a need for humanitarian assistance in this harsh environment.  On their website and printed on a brochure I picked up later, is a map showing locations in Arizona where human remains have been recovered. The map is pockmarked with red dots, each evidence of tragedy.  I stared at the red dots for a long time, trying to make sense of it all.

There are initiatives to try to identify remains but the spreadsheet on Humane Borders’ website tells a grim story: many remains are never identified. Too often, by the time remains are found the bones have been picked clean, clothing is long gone.

Not far away we found another emergency station offering a red call button with instructions in English, Spanish and O’odham, the language of the indigenous people, the Tohono O’odham – the Desert People (formerly called the Papago).

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The solar-powered tower holding the sign can be seen from a good distance, like the flag attached to the water barrel.

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Some of the undocumented border crossers who perish in the desert wind up at County Medical Examiners offices. As of 3/20/17 the Maricopa Medical Examiner had over 200 sets of remains, at least half are probably people who crossed the border illegally and died in the process. Illegal crossings have dropped overall in the last ten years due to tightened borders in places like Tijuana/San Diego, but people still try, and still die trying.

A difficult and moving article about undocumented crossers can be found here, along with an excellent series of photographs documenting the items left behind and the places where remains were found.

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On the way out of the park a Border Patrol car passed us and motioned us to a stop. The officer rolled down his window and “chatted” with us, carefully sizing us up, asking questions in a casual way that didn’t fool us for a minute. We wondered if he was after the people we passed earlier. Maybe he was checking to be sure we weren’t there to make a deal with them. It’s complex.

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Back on the main road to Ajo where we were staying, we took one more detour. We headed down Highway 86 into the Tohono O’odham reservation.  Tohono O’odham people lived here long before the US – Mexico border existed. Now their land straddles the US-Mexico border, dividing them in two and profoundly disrupting their lives.  It’s their land, severed by our border.  At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Roadside memorials, bleak in the overcast January skies, dotted the road. We saw few houses on that stretch of road.  I learned later that drug traffickers pass through tribal lands at an alarming rate, leaving trash and tempting tribe members (whose average income is way below the rest of the state) with promises of quick money.

Even if they are an enrolled tribe member, a person who lives on the Mexico side can be deported while visiting on the US side. It’s a risk that prevents people from visiting friends and engaging in activities that would preserve the culture of the Desert People.

To which nation do they belong?

US/Mexican border issues are especially ironic when a reservation resident hears a knock on the door from a desperately thirsty man crossing the border to find a better life in the US, or when the family dog brings home a human bone.

 

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We’ll see what happens if an attempt to build Trump’s wall is made here. The Tohono O’odham people are understandably against further incursion into their lives.

Wandering through Ajo the next morning I came across a graphic representation of a nation divided painted on an alley wall:

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And this:

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The flyer pictured below was posted on a billboard. It references the three-nation complexities of this region.  Fine print on the left says:

“We stand together in cultural solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our environment, our rights, our safety, our health – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

                                  MEXICO   –   TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION   –   USA

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That chilly Saturday in January local residents were selling vegetables at the farmers market. We bought artwork from a man who makes prints from fish, breakfast burritos fresh from a local woman’s kitchen and pastry from a baker.  Then we headed north to Phoenix, to catch a plane bound for Seattle. We missed that flight, but three long weeks later, we finally made the flight home.

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Borders and immigration are fraught topics, like many subjects in public discourse these days. Simplifying and polarizing do not help; the complexities involving three cultures and deep history would benefit more from a nuanced, intelligent and compassionate approach.  It’s been interesting to learn about the ways Organ Pipe National Monument is intertwined with the human struggles that surround and overflow into it. Getting a sense of how an entire culture is affected – a culture that called this land home well before “America” and “Mexico” came along – that was a truly eye opening experience.

Spring in Black and White

Spring is all about growth and the return of color: fresh greens, sparkling blues, deep purples, cheerful yellows. But black and white can also convey the message of renewal.

These photographs were taken in various gardens and parks in the last month or so, all in the Pacific northwest. It’s been an exceptionally wet, cool Spring, conditions that suit our plants just fine, but we humans tire of the endless days of mist and rain and long for the warmth of the sun.

Still, if you dash out between the heavier showers, the wet conditions can be rewarding for outdoor photography. Overcast skies do not create harsh, distracting shadows. The even light enables you to see shape and form. And if the sun does break through, maybe you’ll catch a ray of light in the forest or a sparkle on the raindrops.

It’s challenging to look over my photographs with an eye towards which ones might work well without color, and we know challenges bring rewards. Sometimes color is the story, and sometimes color can distract from the story.  This selection is a reminder to look for more than color, and enjoy.

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  1. A Trillium (probably T. ovatum, the Western Trillum) at Heronswood, a botanical garden and nursery in Kingston, WA.
  2. A pair of Trillium buds at Heronswood. Heronswood grows many different trillium species, so I hesitate to guess which it is when the flower is still in bud.
  3. A beetle on a woodland wildflower that hasn’t bloomed yet, at PowellsWood Garden in Federal Way. This plant, probably False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) or Star-flowered False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum), has name problems! Why false? I get that people named another plant (Solomon’s Seal) first but really, honor the plant with its own name next time. It’s not false anything, it is completely itself. And the Latin names for those two plants vary. The genus used to be Smilacina but is now Maianthemum, and not everyone has caught up. And don’t doubt for a second that there aren’t a myriad of common names for both plants –  Solomon’s Plume, Starry Solomon’s Plume, Feathery False Lily-of-the-Valley, Starry Lily-of-the-Valley, etc. Well, there’s work to keep botanists busy.
  4. A fern fiddlehead, possibly a Lady fern (Athyrium Filix-feminia), at Rhododendron Species Garden, Federal Way, WA.
  5. Peering through the fronds of an Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) at the Rhododendron Species Garden. The species name, struthiopteris, comes from the Greek: struthis means ostrich, pterion means wing (says Wikipedia). Obviously the scientific name was given because the fronds rightly reminded someone of ostrich plumes (see the photograph below). That means ostrich plumes had to be pretty well known in Europe back when the plant was given its Latin name. Indeed, Linneaus published his Systema Naturae, the groundbreaking book whose binomial Latin name system for plants and animals enables speakers of all languages to communicate clearly about the natural world, in the mid 1700’s. By then the distinctive flora and fauna of Africa was familiar to Europeans. In fact, Pliny wrote about Ostriches almost two thousand years ago, and sultans are said to have made gifts of them to European rulers. The Ostrich fern grows in northern locations in Europe, North America and Asia.
  6. A large planting of graceful Ostrich ferns at Rhododendron Species Garden.
  7. New Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) tree leaves at Bellevue Botanical Garden. Many readers probably know that Ginkgo trees are the oldest living “fossil trees” in the world, having survived on earth for many millions of years. Rarely if ever found in the wild, they were cultivated at monasteries and temples in China, where they once did grow wild. Now they are planted in many cities as street trees – they survive pollution and rough conditions admirably. Was it all the good training they received in Buddhist monasteries? Here is a terrific Ginkgo website. And here, a scientist argues against continuing to plant Ginkgos for a number of sound reasons – though I am very fond of them!
  8. A Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) fiddlehead at Paradise Valley Conservation Area, Woodinville, WA. Why do Sword fern fiddleheads take that odd turn south on their journey of unfolding? I love it!
  9. Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) at Kruckeberg Botanical Garden, just outside Seattle. This native beauty blooms in the woods here in April or May.
  10. Bleeding Heart flowers and foliage at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland, WA.
  11. Unidentified plants grow out of the shallow water of a retention pond in Redmond, WA.
  12. An old Douglas fir tree that split into two trunks early on, at Paradise Valley Conservation Area. The tree’s Latin name is Pseudotsuga menziesii – another “false,”  this time false hemlock – psuedo, and tsuga (Japanese for hemlock). Classified and named in the 1800’s, it is not a fir, a pine or a hemlock, but another kind of conifer. Of course, native peoples had their own names for this grand tree, which can grow to well over 300 feet and live to perhaps a thousand years.
  13. Another Sword fern fiddlehead takes a turn on the dance floor, at Meerkerk Gardens on Whidbey Island, WA.
  14. Tulips at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  15. A fading tulip at Bellevue Botanical Garden.

 

 

ADAPTATIONS

Life as usual

isn’t.

Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it

mine,

adapting.

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Just short of four months ago I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert near Arizona’s border with Mexico with my partner.  We explored Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape that ranges through parts of California and Arizona, and into Mexico.

Cutting across this desert is an international border. It is ignored and crossed fairly easily by plants and animals – at least while there is no wall. People fight over this line and suffer deeply because of it. Many lose their lives. The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent. Between border conflicts and the difficult desert environment, it’s clear that here, the ability to adapt is crucial.

How people adapt or fail to adapt is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, empty water jugs scattered across the sand, graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect it’s almost as if they were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them, an obvious category is plant life – the cacti and their allies, those brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs, maybe for another post, touches on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:

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The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus but in black and white one’s attention is drawn to the contrast between its round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple stem cactus for which the park is named is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the US map, here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the land was set aside, way back in 1937.

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I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them. A sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strangely beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we chose a huge old specimen and gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems.

The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal melody perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.

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Another cactus more often seen Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. A moth has co-evolved with the cactus, both species adapting to the environment and one another in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; the moth itself pollinates Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.

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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all have adapted to life at temperatures ranging over 100 F to below freezing, with scant, unpredictable rainfall. Below is a typical jumble of peculiar forms as Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others vie for space in the arid environment. Organ Pipe National Monument is really a lush desert garden.

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Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.

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An example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern.

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Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti will often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde, which provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe below. Look carefully and you can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem. Over time, it will grow many stems, and may live well over a hundred years.

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Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.

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The fallen Saguaro below pulled up the desert floor when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below it you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro.

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This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.

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Like the Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away the over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.

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Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.

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This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to them silhouettes at Joshua Tree in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuating the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t.

Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and then fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant, for years if necessary.

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This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and they’ll detach and seem to jump onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt by a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch light, glowing into dusk.

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We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They’re actually popular as cultivated cacti. Below that is a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.

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Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and lower branches into the poor soil on a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, this tree can go a year without rain. Very susceptible to cold, it doesn’t get very tall here. It has tiny leaves (so it won’t lose too much water to respiration) arrayed on delicate branches, which contrast with the tough-barked swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, further conserving water.

Certain indigenous people cautioned that its reddish sap, used medicinally, must be kept out of sight. I was drawn to this mysterious tree and would have liked to sit under it for an hour, but I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling.

Lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible.
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.

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Another intriguing adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized, crested bird and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries, they’re digested and the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  The mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs, and the Phainopepla naturally deposits the seeds onto a branch as it perches, looking for the next meal. Below you can see the berries growing close up, Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree, and berries left on a branch – they don’t appear to have gone through anyone’s stomach, but the desert’s mysteries are many…

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Maybe that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be a little harder to see than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but are just as interesting if you think about them. Let’s hope we can be as successful, and can evolve with rather than against our surroundings.

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* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to a practiced eye and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons for me.

In the Garden, Rain and All

In between April showers I’ve been visiting as many public gardens as I can.  I’m not kidding about in between – it’s been so soggy that we’ve broken a hundred and twenty-two-year record for the wettest October through April (our wet period). But if you watch the forecast and the skies carefully there are breaks, and that’s when I duck out to visit a garden. The destination may be an hour’s drive or a ferry ride away, or it may be closer to home. Either way, my impromptu garden tours are pure pleasure, even if I have to drive home in a downpour and wall to wall traffic.

I avoid carrying a tripod or backpack. The camera bag with extra lenses, filters and what have you stays in the car. A Blackrapid camera strap goes over my left shoulder and across, so the camera rests at my hip by my right hand.  I find it’s the most comfortable way to carry my camera, which is a little smaller than a standard DSLR.  I have small velcro pouches on the strap that hold an extra battery and SD card. They’re lifesavers, except when you forget to resupply – oh well.

I carry one or two extra lenses in a pocket or a pouch hanging from a belt loop. A snack is always handy, too. There’s a running joke about getting me one of those many-pocketed photographer’s vests, but I’m not going down that road. I have been grateful for the hood on my sweatshirt lately though – and grateful that my camera’s weather-sealed. Eventually the incredible Seattle summer will arrive and rain won’t be a worry, but the beauty of our rainy Spring is that overcast skies often bring out the best in flowers.

Here’s an assortment of photographs taken at six different public gardens this month.

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The photographs were taken at Heronswood, the beloved garden and specialty nursery founded by plant explorer Dan Hinkley, the Kruckeberg Botanical Garden, another garden that began with the passion of a collector and grew into a nursery-cum-public garden, the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle, Bellevue Botanical Garden, the Rhododendron Botanical Species Garden, and Powellswood, yet another garden that grew out of a private collection.

The pretty magenta and yellow nodding flowers are fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) which grow wild in the woods in the Pacific Northwest and are popular Spring garden plants. The photo that looks like an orchid (with dark background) is a Formosan Lady’s Slipper (Cipripedium), a hardy orchid from Taiwanese mountain forests that does well in our climate, too. The white three-petaled flower with the black beetle is a trillium (T. ovatum), a native woodland Spring flower that does well in gardens. Below it is the flower of the Akebia, an Asian ornamental vine.  The small blue flowers are Corydalis flexuosa; the blue bud is Meconopsis, the Himalaya Blue poppy. The last photo is of a Disporum, or Fairybells, probably our native species (D. smithii) at Heronswood.

I’m off to explore the “Big Empty” – a region in Oregon that is mostly range and desert, dotted with ghost towns and fossil beds. Maybe I’ll have a few desert landscapes to post when I return, and there are still desert photographs from my January trip to Arizona to post. Also, a selection of black and white garden images. Stay tuned…

Seeing Through

Though clear waters range to the vast autumn sky

How can they compare with the hazy moon on a Spring night!

Most people want to have pure clarity

But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

Keizan Zenji

from The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman

pub. Zen Center of Los Angeles, 1977

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Clarity is a fine thing, but the haze,

the haze, such

beauty in the haze.

Walk with me.

We’re going back outside the greenhouse,

round the corner.

We’re looking for the place where life pushes

against hazy windows.

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Photographs from the WW Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma, WA and the greenhouse at the Kruckeberg Garden, Seattle, WA.

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Happy Earth Day!

and

here’s to a successful March for Science.

 

A Glass House

“Photography is as much a gateway to the inner world of the photographer/viewer as it is to the beauty displayed in the outer world.  A garden is a setting for having this kind of experience on multiple levels – simultaneously sensual, aesthetic and spiritual.”

Allan Mandell, Photographer

Last week I read about a Victorian style conservatory in a park about an hour south of Seattle. Glass houses, where plants thrive in close proximity and perfume the air with possibility, are among my favorite places to explore with a camera. I love the way they transform the immediate environment – it’s like taking a quick trip to a tropical paradise.

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Years ago a friend’s son got me a temporary job at the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory – a dream position. I didn’t care about the grunt work hauling cuttings with a wheelbarrow through the houses, or the times my backside was riddled with cactus spines from weeding in the cactus beds. I was happy to be part of maintaining one of the grandest conservatories in the world. But I digress….

I drove down to Tacoma to check out the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory. It is quite small, but lovingly cared for.  With a central dome and just two wings, the space is packed with plants. There are tall trees hung with vines, Spanish moss and other epiphytes, flower displays, and the usual suspects  –  orchids, bamboo, tree ferns, agaves, etc.  A water feature is tucked into a corner where a tinkling stream tumbles over fern-framed rocks into a dark pool.  The swirling water flashes orange and white with koi. One elegant cream-colored fish, an ogon butterfly koi, steals the show. Its sail-like fins and tail curl and eddy the water like a magician flicking his wrists.

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I decided to photograph the koi with a long shutter speed to convey the mesmerizing blur of forms and colors churning the water.

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There’s something about conservatories that always inspires me. They keep me focused on something I love – the astonishing, delightful multiplicity of plant forms.

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Bamboo provided an opportunity to experiment with intentional blur. I moved the camera in various ways, while keeping the shutter open for about a half a second.

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Leaves of the ground cover below created a tapestry pattern. I converted the photo to black and white later. Spanish moss inspired me to use an in camera filter called Key Lines – that image is pretty much straight out of the camera. Another in camera filter plus processing in LR, was used for the black and white fern photo.

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Some plants warrant a more straightforward approach.

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Spanish moss (not a moss at all, but an epiphyte member of the Bromeliaceae) is so plentiful in the conservatory that one clump was wrapped around a metal bracket to get it out of the way.  The shop has strands of it for sale!  Spanish moss still reminds me of childhood Easter vacations with my grandparents on an island off the coast of Georgia, where it grows profusely on huge old live oaks. The plant has no roots, absorbing nutrients and moisture through tiny scales on the surface of the strands. I came to love it, and brought a clump home to my apartment the last year I went to the island. I knew enough to keep it near the shower where it could have a humid environment but still, it didn’t last more than a few months. Technically, it doesn’t depend on oak trees (or telephone wires!) for anything but support and closer proximity to the light, but I think something was missing chez moi. Maybe having other plants nearby would have helped maintain more consistent humidity and temperature.  In a similar way, I think conservatory plants benefit from growing together.

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Speaking of growing, I am working on growing my camera skills and focusing my aesthetic. To that end, I’m relying on and paying more attention to the community of other photographers online, and balancing that with time alone. Also, I’m focusing on a few projects – one is a series of photos looking through windows, especially fogged up greenhouse windows.

I walked around the conservatory outside to see if there were any fogged up windows with plants close behind them (pressing against them is best).  Yes! I found a place around back where the jungle of plants pushed up against the windows.

That will be for another post, but here’s one look at the inside, from the outside.

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COFFEE: instant

With a nod to Otto von Munchow at In Flow who posts an Instagram image every Wednesday, from time to time I’ll post an Instagram photo here. This one was made yesterday in a local coffee shop. I came in from the rain after a walk in a nearby preserve and ordered a macchiato. I shot a photo of it with my phone. How many photos have you seen of coffee and food in restaurants? Way too many! The afternoon light was nice but something needed to be switched up to make it a little more interesting…

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My Instagram feed

Coming soon…a wander through a botanical conservatory.

SEEING SPRING

The wild cherries and and the plum trees are in full bloom this week. White, cream and party-pink delights are sprinkled along the roadsides near home.  On the forest floor, last season’s leaves feed the soil.

I practice different ways of seeing Spring.  The camera is part of that – when it surprises me, that too becomes part of seeing with new eyes.

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Last week I went to a new-to-me public garden and found more Magnolia leaves that were skeletonized by insects; they make wonderful subjects. The one above must not have been tasty. It will disintegrate slowly and elegantly on a bed of dried ferns.

Pattern on pattern.

 

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Purpleleaf Plum trees line streets with a haze of frothy pink flowers, held aloft by rough, angled branches.

The skin of the blossom, smooth and delicate as a baby’s; the skin of the trunk, gnarled and coarse like a grandmother.

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Plum blossoms are an important symbol in Asian culture, and in particular, in the Zen tradition. The plum tree blooms very early, directly after experiencing harsh, cold conditions. Its simple five-petaled flowers give off a subtle, lovely fragrance. The plum tree has a powerful presence, at once rough, strong, fragile, intimate. Unstoppable.

Standing quietly under the tree

Gnarled, bruised bark,

Uncountable branches laden with pale, delicate flowers.

Fallen petals underfoot,

it’s enough.

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Viewed from three stories up, the early Spring woods is a complex web of intersecting lines.

Tens of thousands of buds

pepper every branch and twig,

moss clings wet and thick.

The forest is softening.

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  1. At the Rhododendron Species Garden (about 30 minutes south of Seattle), an Asian species rhododendron leaf lies on a bed of ferns. From the garden’s website:  “The Rhododendron Species Foundation & Botanical Garden is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the conservation, public display, and distribution of Rhododendron species. Home to one of the largest collections of species rhododendrons in the world, the garden displays over 700 of the more than 1,000 species found in the wilds of North America, Europe, and Asia, as well as the tropical regions of southeast Asia and northern Australia. Conservation has come to be of primary importance in recent years with the destruction of Rhododendron habitat in many areas of the world.”
  2. At the garden, a Magnolia leaf eaten by insects slowly disintegrates on a bed of moss.
  3. Magnolia leaf and moss.
  4. Magnolia leaves and moss.
  5. A Purpleleaf plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) near home. The Purpleleaf plum is common in and around Seattle. I thought they were Cherry trees but I just learned that they are a species of plum (in the same genus as cherries, apricots and almonds). This species was introduced to France from Persia well over a hundred years ago, and many different cultivars exist.
  6. A row of Purpleleaf plum trees glows like pink and white fizz.
  7. Purpleleaf plum blossoms.
  8. Purpleleaf plum flower with stamens full of pollen.
  9. The trees have grown into their own forms after years of neglect. Theirs is an untrammeled beauty.
  10. A softened and desaturated close-up of the woods – another way to see Spring.

 

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A selection of my photographs is available for purchase at lynn-wohlers.pixels.com.

FORAYS

Spring unfolds slowly in the Pacific Northwest. I’m as impatient for it as the next person, but I want to savor every bit of this season, so the measured advance suits me. This week cherry trees paint a delicate pink froth along the roadsides, the first Salmonberry flowers punctuate the woods, and birds riff and prance like it’s never been done before.

Skies are often wet and gray but between showers I make quick local forays: a few hours at the Arboretum in Seattle, a run to photograph the cherry trees that edge a parking lot near home, a late afternoon wander down an unused railroad track.

The resulting images are all over the map, metaphorically if not literally.

Here you go:

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This unusual mix of images reflects what I’m seeing these days. Here are the details:

  1. Parking lot Cherry tree blossoms. Shot with an Olympus M. Zuiko 60mm macro lens at f 4.5, processed in Color Efex Pro (CEP) and Lightroom (LR).
  2. At the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, a bamboo fence protects the Camellia tree in #4 and #10. I used the macro lens again at f 6.3 and processed the image in LR with a preset and tweaking. I could probably get a nice result in Silver Efex, too, but I thought I’d try the LR presets.
  3. Parking lot cherry trees, towards sunset. Taken with a vintage lens (using an adapter). The Asahi Pentax Super-Takumar 50mm 1.4 is a well-built but heavy prime lens; mine was made between 1966 and 1971. It’s supposedly slightly radioactive due to a  coating on one or more of the elements. It produces lovely color and bokeh but it’s very difficult to focus. Of course, there’s no automatic focusing – we’re talking old school here. You’ve got to be able to squint and look hard to see if you’re in focus. I mostly miss, but it’s fun to take the lens out and see what happens. I need to do that more! Processed in LR & CEP.
  4. The Camellia trees are dropping their blossoms at Washington Park Arboretum. Taken with the 60mm macro lens. Processed in CEP a bit, then LR where I reduced the saturation of the greens, which can be overpowering this time of year, and added vignetting.
  5. Interesting things happen on the ground in gardens, especially when blossoms fall. I think this is a rhododendron flower. Olympus 14 – 150mm zoom lens, f 8, 67mm. Only a tiny bit of processing was done in LR. It’s satisfying when you don’t need to do anything to your photo but I really enjoy processing.  I don’t make perfection out of the camera a goal – if you do, I admire you!
  6. This old wagon falls apart more each year, too bad. It sits by the side of the road near a small town called Duvall. Duvall sits in an agricultural valley about 45 minutes east of Seattle. When I first photographed the wagon five years ago, it stood on all four wheels. Tempus fugit!  Shot with a Panasonic Lumix 14mm f2.5 prime lens at f 4.5. I could have used a smaller aperture for more detail but it was very cloudy. I needed extra light and wanted the background to blur out a bit. Processed in Silver Efex Pro.
  7. On the same day, I visited this old structure on Cherry Valley Road in Duvall. I love this building for the simple, almost Shaker-like lines and the soft patina of its peeling paint. There are “No Trespassing” signs around but the building is unused. Shot with an Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm, f 1.8 prime lens, at f 9. This is a new lens for me and it’s going to take a while before I’m comfortable with it but I’m sure it’s going to be very useful. Processed in CEP, where I applied a blur vignette. I also increased the luminosity of the yellows in LR, just a little.I find the luminosity sliders for individual colors to be invaluable.
  8. A window on the side of building, same lens, f 6.3, processed in LR.
  9. Forsythia at the Arboretum with an orange haze of Red twig dogwood behind it. This is in the Winter Garden, which is nicely planted with contrasting colors, textures (in peeling bark, for example) and patterns. Shot with a 14 – 150mm Olympus M. Zuiko zoom lens at f 5.5. Processed mostly in LR, where I softened it a little more by slightly decreasing the contrast and reducing clarity towards the edges.
  10. A pretty Camellia at the Arboretum. They have a collection of Camellias and this is my favorite, for the color, grace of form, and the way the flower is set off by the glossy, dark leaves. Shot with the 60mm macro (which works well for plenty besides macro) at f 6.3. Very little processing.
  11. Every year, insects feast on the Arboretum’s Magnolia tree leaves. I think it mostly happens after the leaves fall to the ground. What’s left after the bugs depart are thousands of intact leaves with no “flesh” and just a fine tracery of veins. Here a tree flower is seen behind a skeletonized Magnolia leaf. I held the leaf in front of the lens (14 – 150mm zoom lens at f 5.5) and focused on the leaf veins rather than the flower behind. I may go back and experiment more with this.
  12. The same leaves are seen here layered on the ground with other leaves, making an endless array of patterns. Shot with the 60mm macro lens at f 5, processed in CEP and LR.
  13. A similar shot to the one above, this one was taken with my phone, an older Samsung, and cropped and processed in LR.
  14. More parking lot cherry blossoms at sunset. 60mm macro lens at f 5, lightly processed in LR.
  15. The diminutive Cyclamen coum, native to Bulgaria and Turkey but happy across the globe, at the arboretum. Thanks to the camera’s flip screen, I didn’t have to lie on the ground to get this – just placed the camera there! 60mm macro lens at f 6.3, processed in LR with a bit more softening, and blur added to the edges done in CEP.

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BTW – An inspirational TEDx talk can be found here, where Danielle Hark talks about the Broken Light Collective, an inspiring photography collective where people with mental illness show their work and often discuss how photography helps them cope with the everyday challenges of living with mental illness. Broken Light is also a WordPress blog.

 

A selection of my photographs is available for purchase at lynn-wohlers.pixels.com.

 

Seasonal Blend

The blend is uneven, barely mixed

as winter cedes to spring in

fits and starts:

trumpeting geese over barren

fields

dangling buds

of red-flowered currant,

willow’s thin yellow curtains, last year’s

dry curls of dead grass among

discarded leaves.

Fits and starts of lime-green

moss inviting

touch

on a fresh morning, chill rain

slicking the boardwalk,

fallen

camellias and collapsed cattails,

their tough green shoots stabbing

at the sodden air. It is an uneven blend

of dark

mixing with light moving

slowly, the

doe settling into wood’s edge for its

evening chew.

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Spring is moving slowly here, with colder and wetter weather than normal. I dart out between rainfalls – it’s often just hours before the drizzle begins again.  I took these photos on forays to a local botanical garden, a park, and at the side of the road. They are a mix of wild and cultivated – the camellia tree was planted, the red-flowered currant, and many of the grasses and trees were not. Wild Cackling geese (relatives of Canada geese) fly high above power lines and the doe forages at the botanical garden. It all draws my eye, whether wild or not.

It’s between seasons and I’m feeling in-between myself, unsure where to go next, literally and figuratively. Patience.

Patience too, during this just-before-Spring time. Gardens and fields are still mostly under last year’s detritus but cherry blossoms are about to pop, narcissus and forsythia are out, birds are singing and the grass is greening up. My favorite season is a breath away…