The Slow Curl Inward

In less than a month the shortest day of the year will mark another ending/beginning. Hanging low in the sky, the sun will begin climbing towards spring, however imperceptibly. As we approach the winter solstice the world seems to curve inward: leaf edges curl, hibernating animals wind into a ball, thoughts turn in on themselves.

Around here the beaches are strewn with pungent mounds of sloughed-off seaweed. The water is dotted with wintering ducks, diving for food, and pairs of eagles stand by their nests in a kind of pre-courtship bonding ritual. Pleasure boats are idle, and on most days the skies are washed with smudges of pewter and pearl. We may think in terms of endings – the end of summer, the end of good weather – but look closely and you’ll uncover ample evidence of the continuum of the seasons, folding one into the other. Here in the Pacific northwest, where temperatures are moderated by great bodies of water, the seasonal transitions are slow and subtle.

 

1. Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) mingle gracefully with seaweed on a narrow strip of sandy beach at Bowman Bay, in Deception Pass State Park.

 

2. An idle sailboat floats on calm water at Bowman Bay.

 

On the other side of the island from my house, a small, bowl-shaped bay abuts a ragged, rocky headland jutting into the Salish Sea. A loop trail meanders through a verdant ever green forest there, and emerges at a series of bluffs, high above the swirling, tidal waters of Deception Pass. This has become one of my favorite places to walk.

 

Trail, Bowman Bay

3. The trail to Lighthouse Point skirts an old Douglas fir tree and curves up a cliff.

 

4. Most of the seeds have been released from this summer wildflower. It could be harmless Water parsnip (Sium suave) or poisonous Water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii); both are in the Apiaceae family (along with celery, parsley and carrots) and both are found here.

 

 

5. Dew drops crowd a blade of American dune grass (Leymus mollis) at Bowman Bay. My guess is that the cool temperatures here slow down the decomposition process, but a warmer climate will likely change the rate of decay, along with many other biological processes.

 

6. Two Douglas maple leaves (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) leaves are slowly dissolving onto a sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum) in the shady forest at Lighthouse Point.

 

7. Old Douglas fir trees, their bark craggy with age, stand straight and tall in a frothy sea of bright green Salal (Gaultheria shallon). The Doug fir, as it’s called locally, is actually not a fir; it’s in the pine family.

 

Twice in the last week or so, I’ve walked the trails at Lighthouse Point. My mind empties quickly there, and I’m a field of receptivity, alert to whatever presents itself, without agenda or plan. I spread my attention out over the landscape and let it lead me. I feel the cool air around my face, I smell pungent piles of seaweed and fragrant firs and cedars, and I hear the gentle lapping of waves. Countless scenes unfold around me as I walk. With the camera hanging at my side, there is the great pleasure of peering through its rectangular frame, exercising my aesthetic vision, and pressing that little silver button.

 

8. Piles of Bullwhip kelp twisted together and washed up on a sliver of beach, coming to rest in one big smelly, sensuous, sculptural heap.

 

9. A large rock, worn smooth by countless tides, contrasts with the granular texture of tiny broken shells and rocks in a little scoop of a cove facing Deception Pass.

 

10. Fallen Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lend an otherworldly air to a bluff on the little-visited north side of Lighthouse Point.

 
 
 

11. Away from the windy headlands Douglas firs grow straight and tall. A gold lichen on the tree trunks reflects the gold leaves of deciduous trees in the background. They may be Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana). John Scouler was a nineteenth century Scottish naturalist and doctor who made extensive plant collections in western North America and the Galapagos. Those were the days!


12. Mushrooms along a trail at Lighthouse Point. Identifying these is beyond my pay grade.



13. More old Douglas fir trees lean over a narrow trail on the north side of Lighthouse Point. Their thick bark is protective, helping them survive fires that occur during the dry summers.



Beach Sliver

14. Gentle waves lap at a sliver of beach on Bowman Bay. This photograph was taken while I peered through trees growing from a rocky cliff above the beach. I used spot metering to emphasize the low November sunlight on the water and sand.

 

15. The San Juan Islands rise up across the Salish Sea, less than 13 miles away. The disturbance in the water is a bed of Bullwhip kelp. Harbor porpoises have just been feeding here (my camera only caught the tiniest crescent of fin). The Oxford dictionary says you can call a group of porpoises a pod, a herd, a school or a turmoil. I’ll go for turmoil – that perfectly describes the water when porpoises are actively feeding. The sun had set when I took this photo, and I had to hurry back on dim trails. I now have a flashlight in my pack.

 

The colors are muted, the light is scant, but the glory remains as autumn sheds its skin into winter’s bones. You have only to shed assumptions and look attentively.

 

Inspiration’s Residue

In October I went to southern California for a week to explore the Los Angeles area, and also, to see some art. I chose three places to look at art: The Broad (a contemporary art museum), the Watts Towers, and the Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. The Broad appealed because it’s a new museum, full of contemporary art. Watts Towers had been on my mind because I’ve known about this artistic landmark for decades, and I wanted to see it in person. I’d been to the Joshua Tree Outdoor Art Museum four years ago and was very impressed; this time I would have the pleasure of sharing it with my partner.

All three experiences were inspiring. This word “inspire” in English, derives from the Latin “in” – into – and “spirare” – breathe. When we’re inspired, we receive a breath from the world. For me, seeing art is one of the best ways to be inspired.

To illustrate that idea, here is a group of photos from The Broad, the Watts Towers, and the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum, along with a handful of photos I made on the trip that reflect the inspiration I reaped from the paintings, sculpture and architecture I saw.

 

1. The escalator at The Broad allows visitors to make a slow but powerful transition from the first floor entry to the upper level galleries.

 

Before I go any further, there is something that happened recently that for me, is related to the act of being with art. Last week Bernie Glassman died. He was my zen teacher. My experience at the Zen Community of New York, where I lived for five years in the early 1980’s, was transformative. What I learned during those years cannot be summed up easily, if at all, but it influenced the rest of my life.

In a 2001 interview during which he discussed his social action and interfaith work, Glassman said, “The goal is an infinite circle in which everything is included.” Impossible goals are conundrums to wrestle with, and to live by. He lived his, however imperfectly, and I’m sad to see him transition to another plane. But like any important inspiration or influence, once the spark is lit, the flames burn on.

The aesthetic impulse, spiritual grounding, and a deep love of nature are braided through my life: they’re intertwined tightly sometimes, loosely or not at all at other times, but they always continue. For you the threads are probably different, but in any case, I believe that impulses and inspirations from different parts of life strengthen one another when brought together. I think there is value in being aware of the braids of inspirations in our lives, and value in expressing them through art.

 

 

2. A sculpture made from baking pans, by Noah Purifoy. Purifoy moved from Los Angeles to a desert property in Joshua Tree in 1989, and created art there until his death in 2004, at age 82. He was an exuberantly inventive artist who primarily used discarded materials in his work.

 

3. The door on a large corrugated steel building created by Purifoy in the desert. His work is at the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney and other museums. A solo show at the Tilton Gallery in New York just closed last week.

 

4. A detail from the interior of a room-sized work by Purifoy, called Carousel. Purifoy’s story is a moving one: born poor and black in the deep south, in 1917, he eventually earned three college degrees, and was a respected political activist, deeply influenced by the infamous 1965 Watts riots. He worked with the physical and emotional residue from the riots, and ultimately filled ten acres of desert with a series of brilliant assemblages and installations.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning the Wheel

6. A discarded CD glinted in the dry grass on a roadside in the Malibu Hills. We had pulled over to take in the view, but the discs caught my eye. Investigating, I found more CD’s scattered on the ground. I turned away from the view of distant hills, and photographed CD’s in the grass instead.

 

7. Another CD on the roadside. Morning dew glistens on the underside of the disc. As I write this, fire rages here. Two people have died, hundreds have lost their houses, the ground is blackened, and I’m sure these plastic discs have been obliterated.

 

8. I didn’t disturb the CD’s, I just tried to photograph them where they fell. Why were they thrown on the side of the road? Some of them bore handwritten titles. Maybe they were someone failed Hollywood wannabe’s videos. The photos or the CD’s themselves could be the beginning of a story, or maybe the end of one….

 

9. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles was completed in 2003. Its gleaming stainless steel skin, stretching over the curved, sail-like forms, is a delight to photograph.

 

10. In the Broad museum’s galleries a model poses in front of a painting by Mark Tansey. She may be beautiful, but the audacity to stand in the way of visitors who were there to look at the art, not her, amazed me. It was not a professional photo shoot, it was just another couple of L.A. folks working hard to put an image across. The painting is called Achilles and the Tortoise.

 

 

 

 

 

12. A guard turned a chair to face the wall in a gallery at the Broad, and the shadows instantly morphed it into another (very temporary) artwork.

 

13. Safety fencing has fascinated me for years – I like the way the fence plays against its shadow: material and immaterial, both/and. Neither the fence nor the shadow is more important; they have equal weight.

 

14. More safety fencing, photographed while waiting for a take-out meal in Los Angeles.

 

15. The fence and shadow are given a solarized effect in Color Efex pro.

 

16. The Watts Towers were going through an extensive renovation when we visited, so we weren’t able to get as close as I would have liked. This street view gives an idea of the ordinary surroundings; the sculptural towers and mosaics, built by Simon Rodia from 1921 – 1954, are located in the working class Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

18. Sunlight illuminates the tropical colors of a lounge chair on a Los Angeles deck, echoed by shadow patterns.

 

Last but not least, a bit of commentary from Noah Purifoy.

 

Additional Notes:

I’ve mixed the art and installations I saw with my own photographs in this post. I don’t mean to imply that what I made comes anywhere near what artists who worked years to achieve their visions – people like Ellsworth Kelly, Simon Rodia or Noah Purifoy –  have produced. Rather the idea here is about how seeing art inspires one to turn around and make art. Being present with good works of art awakens something inside us that can broaden our perspective, enable us to see the world differently, and open us to different points of view. We are inspired, and Bernie Glassman’s infinite circle expands. Taking the next step and translating that wider perspective into your own artwork is, well, a good thing.

Deception Pass State Park: the Long and the Short of it…

Ten minutes from home, a spectacular bit of coastline and woodlands awaits. I knew about Deception Pass State Park before I moved here, but I had no idea of the variety of terrain this corner of the world encompasses. Now that I’ve lived here for four months, I’m beginning to understand the scope: whether taking the long view out across the water or peering in at the details, it seems the possibilities for discovery here are inexhaustible.

The 3,854-acre (1,560 ha) park straddles the ends of two large islands, and takes in many smaller islands too – some named, some just piles of rocks. Deception Pass boasts huge, ancient trees, stunning sunsets, a wave-tossed coastline, sheer cliffs, class 2 and 3 rapids under an engineering feat of a bridge, colorful underwater lifeforms, freshwater lakes, and a lot more.

Deception Pass was mapped by the Vancouver Expedition, in 1792.  Navigating the intricate ins and outs of the coastline here is difficult; rocks are everywhere, the water can be shallow, and currents can roil. It took a while before George Vancouver found the tight passage from the east side of what was then thought to be a peninsula, to the west side of it. After Vancouver sent Joseph Whidbey out in smaller boats to explore the area in depth, they realized that the peninsula is an island – actually two islands, Whidbey and Fidalgo. So Vancouver named the watery passageway “Deception Pass.”

Over a century later (in 1923), land on either side of the narrow pass was given to the state for a park.  Then in 1935, a breathtaking, 976-foot bridge span was completed, connecting Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. The bridge passes high over the water and across rocky Pass Island, giving Whidbey Island better access to the mainland. These days, two million yearly visitors visit the park, arriving by road or approaching by water.  They camp, fish, boat, hike, dive, surf, gawk at the views and enjoy themselves, and parts of the park can get crowded on weekends, but quiet corners are easy to find.

I’ve put together a collection of photos I’ve taken in the park, at locations on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. These photos were made in the last two months, so the view is only of the park in autumn.  As I get to know Deception Pass better, I’ll be posting more images of it from various perspectives, in different kinds of light, and over the course of four seasons. I’m looking forward to exploring both the long and short of this exceptional landscape.

 

 

1. Rosario Beach in the fog

 

2. An immense Red cedar (Thuja plicata) shares air space with Douglas firs and Bigleaf maples.

 

 

 

 

4. Looking northeast from Deception Pass bridge. Drivers can park and walk across. With the rush of traffic behind you and breathtaking views ahead, it’s an experience!  In this photo, a fast incoming tide counteracted by strong westerly winds creates chaotic currents.

 

5. Here’s the bridge from underneath. Walk down a set of stairs, and you can hear traffic roaring  overhead, watch the water rushing through the channel far beneath you, and view an engineering wonder, right in front of you.

 

6. Goose Rock is a glacier-scratched bald where lichens cover the ground and an expansive view opens out towards the Pacific Ocean, over 90 miles away as the crow flies. Speaking of crows, you’re likely to see their relatives the ravens up here, riding high on the wind.

 

7. Reindeer lichen (Cladonia or Cladina, various species), also called reindeer moss. Here at Goose Rock, attractive lichen pillows are surrounded by a sea of moss.

 

 

 

9. Sword ferns decorate the trail to Goose Rock, and fallen trees, sawed apart to open the trail, support a lush nursery of mushrooms, mosses, licorice ferns and other plants.

 

10. This Douglas fir tree is purported to be over 850 years old; the photo shows just part of it. Unlike most Douglas firs, it’s not straight and tall, but has been twisted by centuries of difficult conditions on this site, hard by a windy beach on the Salish Sea.

 

11. Lucky kayaker! The waters around Rosario Beach are usually calm, and perfect for kayaking. A seal may show up, and I’ve seen Black oystercatchers, Great blue herons and gulls on the rocks.

 

12. A section of the Deception Pass bridge, seen from the Lighthouse Point trail on Fidalgo Island. Three kayakers are heading into Canoe Pass, the quieter, safer passage between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. On the right is the steep-sided Pass Island.

 

13. A view of the bridge from North Beach on Whidbey Island.

 

14. A surfer in a wetsuit enjoys waves created by the stiff winds funneling down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Along with an incoming tide, the wind produced enough action for some excellent rides on surf breaking over a rocky point, at North Beach. Remember, this is 90 miles from the coast!

 

 

 

16. Back in the woods, on a forest trail connecting Rosario Beach to Bowman Bay, Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) hang delicately from a twig. Growing readily in moist, shady places, these plants are a common sight in the park.

 

17. Lichens are everywhere at Deception Pass – hanging from trees, growing on rocks, on logs, and scattered over the ground after a windy rain. This one drips with rain, and is attached to a twig by a strand of spider silk. Scenes like this are missed by hikers in a hurry.

 

18. A common understory plant, the Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) has branches that grow in a subtle zig-zag fashion, and small, oviod leaves held flat to absorb the light filtering down through the thick tree canopy.

 

19. Douglas fir trees cling to a sheer rock face at Lighthouse Point.

 

20. A view like this makes you glad this land was set aside as a park, and when a a curious seal pops its head out of the water and a pair of Bald eagles flies by, there’s no doubt about the value of habitat preservation.

 

 

 

22. Sunset over Rosario Beach rocks. On a very low tide you can walk out to the rocks and explore tide pools.  Look carefully and you’ll see a Great blue heron craning its neck out, to the right of the middle hump on the widest rock.

 

A few words about the photo groupings above:

#3 (between #2 and #4):  a) On an early November walk to Goose Rock, a bluff sitting high over the pass, I found this single leaf, hanging on after a storm.  b) The trail connecting Rosario Beach and Bowman Bay is set with many Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), trees. Some died long ago, possibly from fires, but they still stand, weathered and twisted. This section of a tree appealed to me for the gentle curve and smooth wood.

#8: a,b,c) Mushrooms are abundant, ever since our drought was broken by a series of rainy days – well, rainy weeks. These three photos were taken the same day, on the trail to Goose Rock. I won’t hazard a guess as to the identification of the mushrooms.

#15: People often pile the smooth rocks found on our beaches into cairns, and Rosario Beach is a good place for it. As you can see, there are plenty of nicely rounded rocks to pile up, if you have the patience. The photo of seaweed washed up on the beach was taken at North Beach, where the surfer (#14) was. I have a feeling that what washes up isn’t always as colorful as it was on that windy day, but I don’t know. I’ll have to go back again – and again – to find out. That will be my pleasure.

#21: Three “postcard” views around the park: a) Surf from a strong incoming tide splashes the rocky point between North and West Beaches, on the Whidbey Island side of the park. The land mass on the right is Deception Island, and like many of the smaller islands in the area, is uninhabited and can only be reached by boat.  b) This was taken on Big Cedar Trail, a trail winding through the forest to a ravine where the big Red cedar in #2 grows.  c) A late afternoon view from Lighthouse Point trail (there’s no lighthouse, just amazing scenery), taken with my phone.

***

 

Forgive me for making such a long post; I appreciate your patience. The images of Deception Pass were piling up! I hope you enjoyed these, and more than that, I hope you’ll come here some day. But don’t be deceived into thinking there aren’t equally wonderful views – long and short – in your neck of the woods. Fresh eyes will find them!