This is the first in a series of occasional posts I plan to write, featuring my take on one species of plant. This time the plant is the Western sword fern. For the last seven years I’ve been observing the natural world in the Pacific northwest through spring, summer, fall and winter, and I’m getting to know certain players on this verdant stage pretty well.
The Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is a large, evergreen fern that ranges from Baja California to southeastern Alaska, mainly on the west (coastal) side of the mountain ranges. Along with enormous trees, this fern gives our forests their characteristic prehistoric look, as if a dinosaur might walk into the picture and be perfectly at home.
In the Puget Lowlands there are about 40 species of true ferns, compared to over 10,000 fern species in the world. In Skagit County, where I live, there are only a few dozen different ferns, some of which only live up in the mountains. I tell myself I should be able to find and identify all the ferns in this area. Over time, maybe I’ll get to know many of them well.
The ubiquitous Sword fern is an easy place to start.
Apart from the botanical aspects of the plant, the aesthetic aspects are also important to me – in fact when push comes to shove, the aesthetic characteristics probably move me most. Ferns are universally appealing subjects, with their simple overall shapes and repeating patterns. Sword ferns don’t have the delicate, lacy look of a typical fern; they’re big, tough evergreen plants, with fronds divided into rows of single leaflets rather than divided again and again.
This gives them a bold, graphic look.
The step-wise pattern of leaflets with their little lobes marching up the blade captivates me, but the best part is seeing what happens in spring. When new fronds emerge they uncurl upwards like other ferns, but then for no apparent reason, they appear to take a U turn. At that stage they really have a Dr. Seuss-like charm. It makes me smile with delight, every spring.
If you’ve never seen them in person, you may be surprised to learn that Sword ferns can reach heights of almost five feet (1.5 m)! Each year new fronds grow from a stout, woody rhizome in a vase-shaped arrangement. Fronds can last several years so individual plants can become quite congested.
The leaflets are lined with rows of spore dots; just one frond can release tens of millions of spores in late summer. Brush the underside of a frond with ripe spores and a fine, rust-colored powder takes flight on the wind. Reproduction in ferns is a complex process that I won’t go into here; suffice it to say that it works!
Sword ferns tolerate dryness better than many other ferns, and sunlight too, but the largest specimens grow on damper, shadier sites. Individual fronds persist for several years but if one is cut or broken, it won’t grow back. New fronds will appear in spring; over time the plant will look full again. They will colonize clear-cut areas fairly quickly, and are often a dominant understory plant in old growth forests. You’ll see them along roadsides, you’ll see them deep in the woods.
Here is my take on the Sword fern then: up close, at a distance, in color and black and white, and through all four seasons.
Postscript: For about seven years a citizen science project tracking the response of Sword ferns to changes in rainfall and moisture has been going on in California. Emily Burns, PhD discovered that fog is absorbed directly into the leaves and stems of many plants that grow in California’s Redwood forests. These forests are very dry at certain times of the year, like much of the American west coast, so plants have strategies to help procure and retain moisture. One adaptation Sword ferns use is to limit growth where there is little moisture, and grow prolifically where moisture is abundant. The resulting size differences are easily tracked, yielding data that sheds light on the effects of available moisture on plants over time. Scientists and volunteers are monitoring 11 Fern Watchsites to track Sword fern growth. Since fog frequency is declining, it’s likely that plant stress in these special habitats will increase, making it more and more important to understand where to concentrate efforts to preserve the giant Redwood trees. Data from the Fern Watch studies should be useful as people work to prioritize which Redwood forests are most resilient, and ensure that they are adequately protected.
One of the highlights of my trip to the northern Europe last April was an all-too brief stay with my friend Ule Rolff. During the visit we strolled through the picturesque village in Munsterland where she lives, and Ule showed me an intriguing old half-timber building, originally a home but later used for housing pigs. I dove into photographing the aged building that day, just as Ule had done before me. I had no idea that while on my journey through Europe, a stop at a small village would lead to another journey, this time a creative one. After I got home Ule and I decided to collaborate on a post about the building. “Funke’s Pigsty: a Double Eye-catcher” features photos and written history and reflection in German and English.
While working on that post we noticed that some of the photos we took were very similar – we both gravitated to the peeling paint, the rough timbers, the off-center lines. We wondered what would happen if we exchanged unprocessed photos with each other, then processed the exchanged photos in our own style. Would one person’s ideas for processing be similar to the other person’s, or not?
We decided to collaborate again, and over the past few weeks we exchanged photos and used google docs to record a dialogue about the experience. Luckily for me Ule is comfortable enough with English to converse via the written word as well as in person. She told me it’s “just” a matter of letting go of her native tongue and thinking in English!
Working with someone else’s photos and writing about the process has been a unique experience. I haven’t seen Ule’s results and she has not seen mine. I’m looking forward to the big reveal, as they say. We plan to incorporate our reactions to what the other person did with our photos by meeting online after publishing, recording our dialogue, then adding that piece to the dialogue below. *
A written record of our dialogue follows. Above and below you’ll find two processed versions for each of the four of Ule’s photos that I used. The originals are at the end of the post.
L: When we first thought about working with one another’s pigsty photos, I only had a vague idea in mind. It had to do with the fact that some of our photos were quite similar, and I was thinking that if we take almost the same photograph, then what is it that we are each doing, that makes that photograph different? As I thought about it some more it seemed like any differences in processing would probably be minimal. As long as we were aiming for a straightforward representation of what we saw, if we processed each other’s photos the outcome was likely to be different in only very minor ways. So then I started to think about what you have done in some recent posts, manipulating photos and taking an image to a very different place from where it started. I admire what you’ve done, and I wanted to try something along those lines. But I know you use Photoshop and I don’t. That would be a limitation. With all this in mind, I took two of your images and “messed with them” as much as I could in Lightroom, while still yielding a result that I liked. It was a struggle at first – it’s just not what I’m used to doing.
U: As we both tried to show more documentary photos of the pigsty, you are right: they would come out quite similarly. And this kind of work flow is more a thing I also prefer doing in Lightroom.
But in this second posting, my idea was to go beyond documentary limitations, to show what isn’t to be seen at first glance in a picture. This is what I am especially interested in these days also in my other work, published or private. And this is where Photoshop comes in with its wider manipulation effects on image data. When I understood that PS is not your favorite tool to work with, I tried to mostly do what was possible with LR also, so our thoughts about processing wouldn’t go too much apart. Just when compositing photos or altering structures, I had to go further, and I’m really interested in talking about photos that are further from where they started by editing… so I hope you do not feel uneasy with what we thoughtlessly agreed upon…so I hope you do not feel uneasy with what we thoughtlessly agreed upon.
L: I like that idea – to show what isn’t seen at first glance in a picture. I’m going to think about that when I work on another photo. A LITTLE unease is a very good thing. Only when it gets extreme does it become negative, right? This pushes me into something I haven’t done before, and whether or not I continue in the same direction, what I learn will probably inform me going forward.
U: This is what I love about you (above many other things) that you are so open-minded to new experiences and new thoughts. In photography, I often find it so easy to open up to other people’s concepts by viewing their photos. And I’m always afraid of losing my own way by these impressions – in your case also, I found myself afraid you might damage your poetical and emotional approach to photography by too much technical experimenting – but then again, I’m confident of your strong character and I think you have a feeling for what does you good.
L: 🙂 Please! Too many compliments! I will say that open-mindedness is an important value to me, I strive to keep an open mind and I try to be aware enough of myself to know when I’m not being open-minded.
I understand what you mean by the danger of being influenced too much by someone’s work. That’s something we have to live with and to be aware of. Hopefully, we are influenced positively and can maintain our own individuality in the process. Don’t you think that the older we get, the less that’s a problem?
As for the emotional and poetical sensibility, that is something I struggle with. I think it’s because I’m also drawn to a more documentary scientific approach to what I see. Part of me is always happy to just make a good record of something interesting. But another part knows that to relate to other people, to communicate with and move someone, there needs to be more than that. I’m happiest when I think I’ve created something with some emotional power, and that doesn’t happen very often. Lately I’ve been in the documentary mode – traveling for three weeks certainly strengthened the desire to document and didn’t leave lots of time for emotional expression along the way. There were too many new things to see. Lately I’ve been wanting to get back to pure feeling.
U: I agree: the older I get, the more I grow aware of my cultural roots and I’m thankful for influences that happened throughout my life. Nobody lives and develops a character without personal impressions. Maybe it is a question of organic integration and consciousness, as you describe, not to lose the individual core.
What you say about your different modes I can completely see in your latest publication about Leiden, but instead of one or the other, I see you integrating emotion in documentation, which often happens in your posts. But it is always a frail balance, I feel that for my work, I always need enough time to keep to myself to escape too much distraction. And traveling always throws me completely on new paths, mostly documentary ones.
L: I haven’t thought that much about my cultural roots, but the trip to Europe prompted me to think more about that, more as a New World/Old World comparison. Maybe I AM thinking about it, just not quite in those terms. Organic integration – that sounds good! If I’m integrating emotion and documentation, that’s wonderful. My inner critic says I need to emphasize real emotion a bit more. We’ll see how that evolves. 😉
Yes, we need time to ourselves, and that’s the great thing about not having to spend 40 hours a week working for someone else. At least we don’t have that distraction now. I think traveling can be a kind of addiction, not in a medical sense of course, but thinking about my own desire to travel, I’ve been aware lately of the benefits of not traveling, of being more rooted. But now I’m straying away from the topic at hand.
U: Not really. The question also at stake here is basic conditions we need for being content with our photography. So if it is traveling addiction with you, it is kind of an allergy with me …;-)
L: And to get back to what we need to be content, we are also interested in shaking things up a little, in this project, right? Right now there is not much to be gained by restricting ourselves to trying to do the best job in accurate documentation.
U: We are not competing, but doing something together, it is no question of better or worse, but of finding out possibilities together. And I have to admit: sometimes I love taking a little shower of bad taste 😉
L: A little shower of bad taste – that’s funny…
U: Wait until you see what I have done to your photos! I sometimes like overdoing things a bit, out of joy about what is all possible in editing photos – beginner’s disease, I think.
L : Now I’m scared. And it’s interesting how, along with the delight, there is always a shadow of competition there – like, uh oh, how will my processing look compared to hers? But I think that is just something we can acknowledge, look at, and move on from. I want to pick up on your phrase “beginner’s disease.” It immediately calls to mind the famous zen phrase, “beginner’s mind.”
U: Oh, I remember having read the phrase in David Ulrich’s book on Zen Photography. It sounded a bit friendlier than I used it above.
L: 🙂 A bit!!
*Here are our thoughts after posting:
L: : I just approved your pingback (do they call it the same thing in German?) I love your photos! Thank you!!
U: Yes, it is the same word. And I love yours! They are so completely “Lynn’s”! I must view and think a minute …
L: The captions you used help to carry me into the photo, because they show what you were thinking. I want to just say “I like…” but I’m searching for better words, because that really doesn’t say anything. Still, my initial reaction was a delighted: “I like what she did with my photos!” I appreciate that you tell the viewer which filters or effects you used. I confess I don’t remember what I did – it was more a matter of “try this, try that.” But there’s value in knowing how you get to a place! The systematic way you worked is satisfying to follow, and I can learn something from it.
U: Your captions are not so technical as mine, but they show an important part of your motivation, your intention what to do with the images. For many readers, your information may be more “speaking” than the techniques. But I’m really surprised how unfamiliar your alterations made my photos to me: you have added some of your character to them, your subtlety and refined taste. There are groups in your choice I see: one are the three roof cuts which pleases me very much, it gives something abstract to the skyline which I didn’t see before. And then the cloudy, ocean like bricks, marvelous! Isn’t it funny we both finish with kind of a joke?
L: The big “L” at the end of your post made me laugh, and I think that image and the first one are very powerful. I also chuckled at “green glow” – that is almost radioactive! It truly does glow, that little piece of metal. Combining all three photos was a serious challenge (Bildausschnitt, Schlösser einmontiert in PS). If you asked me to do it, I would not have known where to start. The result may be my favorite one – it sings. There is a fairytale quality to it, it seems that a narrative or a mystery lurks just beneath the surface. I also want to comment on your organization – the flow is easy to follow. Something else I can learn from. 😉 One more thing – your Photoshop skills! Kudos! I fully “believed” the last two photos. They don’t have the artificial look one sometimes sees when different images are combined, they’re very natural.
U: Thank you for the flowers (can I say so in English? – it is a plainly translated German proverb). I willingly admit that I have been working hard on my use of PS, and it gives me a bit of contentment that you perceive the compositions as natural. What seems quite “typically Lynn” are the tender colour and reduced “clearness” in ns. 2,3,4 and 6. All the more, I laughed about your very colourful finale, it must have hurt you to do it :-))!
L: On the contrary, I really loved making that one. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t remember what I did, because I wanted to do more in that vein but when I tried to work that way again, I couldn’t figure out how I got there. My fault for not making notes! I’m glad that this collaboration gave you a chance to move ahead in the direction you’re going, and I’m curious to see what else is going to appear down the road on your blog.
U: Me too :-)) I have no answer to the question behind your “curiosity”, we will see. And if you didn’t make notes on the making of …, trying again will lead you to new, other or similar results, and give you new fun. I hope this project didn’t lead you too much astray or off your path. And as you ask where this experiment will be leading us, I ask myself which were our intentions to give this kind of collaboration a try.
L: As for being led astray, that’s a good thing, it keeps us fresh to veer off our path once in a while. And as for intentions, I was wondering about intention, i.e. what was our intention in processing the photos? We talked about that before without calling it “intention” and maybe thinking specifically in terms of intent is helpful. There is an element of fun there, certainly, but it’s more than that. We are each letting go of our work, relinquishing it to the other person’s aesthetic, and – correct me if I’m wrong – I think we both find that idea more intriguing than scary. Some people would find the idea of another person working on their photo frightening. Another part of the intent, for me anyway, is to take the opportunity to push past some boundaries that I might normally stay within. My guess is that also is true for you. And then there is always the “payoff” of stretching yourself and learning or growing in the process.
U: The thought of risk is interesting for readers, I’m sure, for me it would be anyway, but in this case, I didn’t feel a trace of it. As you say, it was almost completely and exclusively intriguing. Besides, more and more I come to think of my raw captures as material to become what I want to show by further actions, so it is not so dangerous for my inner self, if someone else is touching them. Your question of intention is a bit more compelling for me: above all, it was a thing of fun and adventure and just doing anything together that is possible over the wide distance. But more seriously thinking, there is the hope of stepping out of self set boundaries when you have the opportunity to watch what somebody else (somebody you appreciate) does with your material – and what is even more valuable: someone I can talk to about what she is doing and what I am doing. There are so many people not unable, but unwilling to use language to reflect the great things they do.
But, to sum it up, I am very happy with the process and the outcome of our experiment – even this risky spontaneous chat felt completely comfortable all the way. Thank you so much for being the sagacious and lovable being you are.
L: I’m pleased with it too. You have struck a perfect balance (for me anyway) of open flexibility and calm organization during the course of the project. And the bottom line is (Americans love to talk about the bottom line!) that frankly, I really like your work!! Thank you very much.
The original photos:
Technical note: Ule sent me PSD’s of the photos I requested, and vice versa. Then we each worked on the photos in Lightroom. I also used Color Efex Pro. We scheduled meeting times across the nine hour time difference and chatted using google docs, which we then copied and pasted into our posts.
Summer has finally arrived here in northwestern Washington. The temperatures are still on the cool side but the sun is warm and the green machine has pushed past the delicacy of Spring into the lush heft of the season. The birds are a bit quieter, the afternoon light is bright and dappled, and the apples on the old tree are beginning to blush.
It’s no time to stay indoors, but the tourists are here so these days, I gravitate towards less-traveled corners of the county. There’s a preserve nearby called Kukutali, a Swinomish Indian word meaning the place of cattail mats. Local tribes dug clams and fished here in the summertime, living in shelters they wove from cattail leaves. It’s an interesting place for a walk anytime of year, with tidelands, forest, a lagoon and beautiful views.
In the nineteenth century European-Americans began to forcefully occupy this area, part of what they called Washington Territory. The Treaty of Point Elliot, one of many treaties drawn up with native peoples, should have secured this land for the Swinomish tribe in 1855. But within 30 years a white family took ownership of the peninsula, and over succeeding years different individuals and entities owned the land. In the 1970’s there was even a plan to build a nuclear power plant here; thankfully that idea was scrapped due to environmental concerns.
Finally, in 2010 a unique partnership was forged between the Swinomish, whose reservation and tribally owned tidelands border the peninsula, and Washington State Parks. The state was able to purchase the land, which is now co-owned and managed by the tribe and the state together, a very unusual situation. This partnership should keep the rich marine ecosystem and important upland habitat safe from development. Under the agreement certain sections of the peninsula and shoreline are off limits to people who aren’t Swinomish, and the remainder of the land is a nature preserve.
Kukutali Preserve is a little over a mile from my house as the crow flies, but we live in a land of inlets and bays, so the drive takes ten minutes (twenty when I stop for coffee along the way). I headed over there several times last week with a question about a certain wildflower in the back of my mind. I parked in the small lot, got my things together and walked down the gravel road to a tombolo you have to cross to reach the forested part of the preserve (you might remember the word, “tombolo” from a previous post.)
At Kukutali there’s one particularly large Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) I like to visit, to pay my respects and check on it. Early this Spring I noticed several pairs of leaves resembling tulip leaves, but flat on the ground, near the big Madrone. I told myself to return later to see what flower would come up there, so last week I made a beeline for that spot. Surprise! A little colony of Rein orchids was waving in the breeze, their slender stems of tiny, creamy white orchid flowers just inches tall, and easy to overlook. They rose from the litter of discarded leaves under the Madrones, and bloomed among dry, golden grasses between the trees. I was thrilled to find the delicate orchids sharing space with such beautiful, special trees on a quiet hill overlooking the water.
The Rein orchids were exciting but the forest path beckons….let’s walk.
After a slow, meditative wander through the forest I come to the end of the island, where the water sparkles and the eagle cries. The gravel beaches here are fun to inspect for signs of wildlife. In the recesses of the rocky places I’ve found tiny crabs and strange Orange sea cucumbers. At the other end of the tombolo is another small promontory which is off limits to everyone. I’ve seen Killdeer bravely chasing Bald eagles three or four times their size there, and heard the high-pitched cries of Black oystercatchers.
Heading back into the forest to return to my car, I feel weary from all the impressions – green upon green in the woods, the fairyland of tiny orchids, the sun-bright views over the water, the fresh cedar scent along the north trail, a clamber over immense driftwood logs on the beach – my senses have enjoyed a feast here, and next time it will all be different. Of that I am sure.
But for now, it’s time to trace my steps back through the woods….
…in another world. That’s what I felt on one magic Saturday in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was deeply engaged in a swirl of impressions, or was it a banquet of sensations? It began as soon as I awoke that day, tucked into an airy room on the second floor of an elegant private home:
It was tempting to stay snuggled in the thick duvet, or just to rest my gaze on the canal across the way with its swimming grebes, soaring magpies, fat old sycamores and pale daffodils waving atop a parakeet-green carpet of grass. But Leiden beckoned.
We slipped downstairs, walked along the canal, crossed a bridge and made our way to the heart of the city, at the confluence of the Oude and Nieuwe Rijn rivers, flowing through Leiden as canals. The old part of town is a picturesque neighborhood of cobblestone streets, bike-lined bridges arcing over winding canals, and handsome historic buildings, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Leiden was in its prime. It’s all very walkable, with enough restaurants, bars and coffee shops scattered around to grab a sit-down when you need it.
The Saturday market was bustling that cool Spring day. De Markt is supposed to be one of the best in the Netherlands, with packed stalls selling all the vegetables, fruit, fish, cheese, meat, baked goods and flowers you could want. As we walked towards the market we heard a merry musical sound that we couldn’t identify until we saw it – a colorful antique street organ parked on the cobblestones to entertain shoppers! One couple broke into a waltz, their wide smiles flying through the air. It was one of those great travel moments that one remembers later with a sigh….
Soon I was tired of the crowds, so we broke away from the bustle and wandered down a side street.
That’s when the magic took hold. In a matter of seconds, a hush replaced the market noise. It was the kind of stillness (no car noise, just the ring of an old church bell) that makes it easy to imagine you’ve dropped back into another century. I rested my gaze on a folding table set out in front of a narrow row house, holding an assortment of oddities – a globe, a broken tile, some worn books. The door to the building was ajar. It was dim inside and I sensed that a pile of treasures was waiting there. But it all seemed too precious – I doubted that I could afford anything in a European antique store. As I stood there hesitating (undoubtedly with a longing look on my face) a smiling couple exiting the store urged, “You must go inside!” So we wandered in, and for the next hour or so we were immersed in a self-contained little universe of delights and discoveries….
It wasn’t necessarily the objects themselves, though many were fascinating. It was the atmosphere, the jumble of centuries and continents, the dark recesses that held one unexpected object after another. The store, called Anterieur, is a warren of poorly lit, connected rooms that meander through the block, rooms that open onto snug outdoor spaces full of plants and statuary and rusty implements, rooms behind doors, behind rooms, behind windows….
I suppose I’m romanticizing the store – you might think it’s a mess! But for me that day, it was a delightful, otherworldy maze and I’d gladly return. If I could go again I would buy that textile I passed on, and another tile or two….
Right around the corner from Anterieur is an unusual small museum, the American Pilgrim Museum. I had read about it and I was curious. There was a sign: someone would be back to open the door in fifteen minutes.
The door featured a hand-stitched, ragged-edged cloth sign announcing the hours and price (five euros) – the perfect introduction to an eccentric and evocative museum. When it opened up again there were just a handful of us, mostly Americans. Our guide was the unforgettable Jeremy Bangs, the director and a distinguished Pilgrim scholar.
The museum is one of those places that’s impossible to describe, but suffice it to say that the experience was yet another immersion – this time into an intimate space full of objects both precious and mundane, that a small group of people left behind over four hundred years ago. Leaving England to find religious freedom, the Pilgrims spent time here in Leiden, where attitudes towards freedom of thought tend be very enlightened. They found work at the university – the oldest in the Netherlands – or in the cloth trades. But they struggled financially, and had misgivings about the liberal Dutch life – their children might stray, their hard-found religious freedom might evolve into a purely secular one. After ten years the group resolved to cross the Atlantic to the New World, where opportunities were plentiful and they could keep their faith firm. Back to England they went, to arrange for a ship and passage, and then, off to America. After the Leiden sojourn perhaps the pilgrims were a little better prepared for what lay ahead.
In the small museum housed in a fourteenth century building, the light is the same natural light supplemented with candlelight that was used four hundred years ago. Artifacts are not hidden behind glass, but are there to be touched and sensed fully. A latrine is in the corner, bone dice from a game children played lie on a table, and an amazing hand-painted linen banner carried in processions (seen above) hangs from the ceiling. Mr. Bangs hews to no script; each tour is different, depending on who is present and what questions they ask. I wished I had been better prepared because the man has such deep knowledge of his subject, but frankly, it was enough to simply take in the atmosphere.
After the museum we made our way to the Burcht, an historical fortification and park sitting on a hill in the heart of Leiden. Ages ago this was a shell midden, then in the 1200’s it was a residence, later it was a refuge from floods, later still a city water tower. A long history! Up in the old stone castle we enjoyed a view of rooftops from walkways circling the inside of the old brick building. The views were obscured by the budding branches of sycamore trees, which was fitting on that early Spring day.
The Burcht is guarded by the Leiden coat of arms, a lion and two crossed keys. We saw the crossed keys symbol over and over, throughout the city, and beyond question, the city opened its doors to us that Saturday – with or without keys.
Happy Fourth! We didn’t want to miss our local Independence Day parade. Anacortes has a reputation for being a bit odd, and I think you’ll see the evidence here. The town is pretty laid back, too. From senior citizens in wheelchairs to toddlers driving tiny cars – and let’s not leave out dogs dressed as lions – everyone is happy to keep it simple and low key – no self-conscious displays of power or anything else. Let’s just have a good time. And throw me some candy while you’re at it!
I threw this post together quickly….the pictures needed to get out there before it’s over. Those of you in the US are probably already barbecuing by now or on your way to watch fireworks. Some of you will watch from a rooftop, some from a beach, some in the back yard. Those of you outside the US are probably asleep already and won’t see this until tomorrow, but no matter.
A few American traditions have already wrapped – on Coney Island, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest by scarfing down 71 of ’em. Yum. In small towns and big cities the parades are over, ball games are being played, beaches are crowded. We’ve heard from several relatives and friends today. Everyone’s fine.
We’ll skip the tanks, thank you, and we’ll be fine too.