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.
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!
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.