The sun works its way through the Doug firs across the road, then the apple tree, the Bitter cherries and the others,
angles into the window where the glass is obscured by a thousand small dun-colored circles
made by something that got between the panes, leaving a haze that softens the early morning light. It’s 6:50.
I’ve looked up from my reading, seen the sunglow.
I get up, pull the camera bag out of the backpack, lift the camera out of the bag, pinch the lens cap off the camera. I go back to the couch, sit where I was, turn to the light, forget to focus, click the shutter.
Focus, shoot again.
The sun ascends at a steady not-fast, not-slow pace that reminds me
of watching the minute hand work its way around the clock face in grade school classrooms, the delicious game of perceiving
the almost imperceptible motion of the thin, black minute hand
forcing patience but rewarding it, too. Now the windows near me brighten, throwing slats of sun onto the painting of Bobwhite quails that belonged to my grandfather.
He liked to hunt birds.
The patterns are what interest me at 7:10 this morning, the patterns
and the empty spaces between them.
And the reflections, the reflections that mix up here and there,
those interest me.
I go back to my reading – an article about Vija Celmins. I remember standing in front of one of her paintings years ago, eyebrows up, the world gone. The pleasure of entering a universe painstakingly created by a woman whose artwork facilitated
leaving the here, going there.
Worlds inside worlds, and outside of them.
The article finished, I get up and follow the sun down the hall and into the back room where the computer is. There, the benevolent morning light shows me the beauty of ordinary grass and shrubbery just outside the window, but
Photographers are familiar with the dilemma of too many photographs. We accumulate vast numbers of images, and then how do we find say, the best photographs of our home, or any particular subject? Lightroom users have a quick way to sort through endless images. First, type a keyword in the search box. If you’ve been reasonably disciplined about keywording your photos when you load them into Lightroom, you’ll see every photograph you have that features the particular subject you’re searching for. Then if you filter the results by star rating you’ll narrow it down to the best ones. Hopefully, you rated each photo as you added it to Lightroom. Everyone has their own method for assigning star ratings; mine is to initially give photos two stars (the range is one to five). When I review them one by one, I delete any photos I have no use for and assign an extra star to the ones I want to be sure to get back to later.
Why am I telling you all this? To make the point that I have accumulated far too many “good” photos of a certain subject – the Pacific Madrone tree. In fact, I have over 240 3 – 5 star photos of Madrones, and over 100 more I’m saving “just in case.”
It’s a photogenic tree.
The Pacific Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) has been a constant companion on my walks since I moved to Fidalgo Island. They like it here (me too). The west coast native ranges from coastal southwestern British Columbia to San Diego County, California, and there are places within that range where it does especially well – typically an open situation with good light and fast drainage.
When I lived in New York I had no knowledge of Madrone trees. Then I moved to the Seattle area, and seeing them was an occasional treat. Their striking red-orange bark and flowing growth habit always distracted me from the road as I drove around Seattle. Now I live in an environment where this tree seems quite comfortable. The beautiful colors and growth habit of Madrones is a frequent sight on the trails I wander along. They seem particularly plentiful close to the water, in the thin soil that covers our south and west-facing cliffs and bluffs.
The distinctive peeling bark of these lovely beings shreds off in layers, revealing a lime-green or chartreuse base that is cool to the touch even on a hot day, giving them the nickname “Refrigerator trees.” The bark peels off each summer in big patches and delicate little curls, once the fruit begins to ripen. It falls to the ground and mingles with last year’s yellowed leaves, which are also shed in summer, after the new sets of evergreen leaves get their start. The curvy branches, dark green leaves and exfoliating bark present endless photographic opportunities.
For those interested in the botanical and historical side of things, the name Arbutus relates to the Latin “arbor” – high plant, or tree. The genus Arbutus has only 12 species, which occur in both the Old and New World. They are all smallish trees or shrubs with red berries and peeling bark. The Arbutus genus is part of the Ericaceae (heath) family – a large family of plants that often grow on nutrient-poor sites. The species name, menziesii, is after Scottish surgeon and naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754 – 1842), who was a member of several important expeditions, including George Vancouver’s round the world HMS Discovery voyage. Friedrich Traugott Pursch, a German-born botanist who spent time tromping around the American woods with his dog and his gun to gather specimens (but didn’t travel far enough west to see the plant himself), named the Madrone tree for Menzies in his 1814 treatise, Flora Americae Septentrionalis; or, A systematic arrangement and description of the plants of North America. This work he accomplished while living in London, despite being “drunk morning, noon and night.”But that’s another story.
It seems we have to go back a little further to find the first written references to this tree – I believe it was Father Juan Crespi, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, who “discovered” the tree on an expedition to explore what would become the state of California. Father Juan kept a diary while on the Spanish Portola expedition in 1769-1770. He called the distinctive tree the madrono because it reminded him of the Mediterranean species, Arbutus unedo, a small evergreen tree that bears edible red fruits, a bit like strawberries in color and size. The Spanish call this tree “Madrono.” About twenty years later Archibald Menzies noticed Madrone trees when the HMS Discovery dropped anchor at Port Discovery (so named by Vancouver). That is about 25 miles as the crow flies from the park where many of my own Madrone tree photos were taken. We could call this part of Puget Sound the Madrone’s Happy Place.
For a contemporary reference to Madrone trees try Tom Waits, who in his inimitable way instructs us to dig a big pit and fill it with madrone and bay for a special barbecue. (you can find that lyric in the video at around 1m 31s).
I’ve never used Madrone wood for a barbecue but I may consider making tea eggs with the bark some day. Or a medicinal tea for an upset stomach – supposedly that tastes like a cinnamon, mushroom and wood smoke mixture.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this interesting tree, but that leaves more for next time, and having only used a handful of my steadily increasing store of Madrone photographs, I’ll have plenty of material for another post.
You may expect to see nature photography here, but please bear with me as I detour to share a stimulating afternoon in Antwerp that I enjoyed earlier this year.
While staying in Gent, Belgium, last April we decided to visit Antwerp, which is only an hour away by train. It wouldn’t be a see-the-sights day – that’s not our style. I had read about an unusual museum there, the Museum Plantin-Moresus. It was the residence and workshop of a great printer-publisher of the Renaissance era, and we were both intrigued so we made that our goal for the day.
I was having one of those travel days when it takes all morning long to pull myself together. Checking the train schedule, we saw there was time for a leisurely late morning coffee at the cafe across the street from our airbnb apartment. Good, we needed it! Then it was a quick tram ride to Gent Sint-Pietersstation where we lined up for tickets, grabbed fresh sandwiches to eat on the train, and boarded.
The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear but was keeping up appearances with his cap, tie and jacket. Verdant fields flowed past the window and before I knew it, we had arrived at Antwerpen Centraal, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations. The bustle reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, which I used to commute through. Here though, everything was more ornate, ceilings were higher, the architecture grander. Throwing any semblance of not-a-tourist-coolness aside, I gaped, craned my neck, and clicked that shutter.
Consulting a Rome2rio app for directions, we headed for the museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the original workshop and residence of Christophe Plantin, an influential 16th century printer, publisher, and humanist. The museum is housed in a series of centuries-old buildings with a dizzying array of rooms (34 of them!) that ramble around a central courtyard. The quiet, softly lit rooms are packed with extraordinary early printed matter, old printing presses and family artifacts. Immersion in the world of early printing appealed to me; I have fond memories of a day spent at a small printing house helping fine-tune a run of brochures I designed for a specialty bakery business years ago.
Exploring room after room, occasionally getting lost in dim corridors as I stepped up and down stairs and across creaking floors, I perused hefty religious texts embellished with gold, precious illuminated prayer books, important botanical reference texts, an “early modern ode to women”, almanac illustrations, maps and more. I was deeply impressed not only by the workmanship, which is beautiful, but by the variety of subject matter. Seeing the breadth of topics that rolled off the presses here 450 years ago, I felt an inkling of how exciting it must have been to be alive during a time of such intellectual fervor. The era’s enthusiasm for knowledge was right there on those delicate pages, shining a light across the centuries.
Plantin was born in France about 500 years ago. He started a bookbinding business there but relocated with his wife to the commercially vibrant town of Antwerp in 1548. He set up shop and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, where painters, sculptors, engravers and printers apprenticed and connected with clients. He was industrious and produced impeccable work; before long he and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were running one of Europe’s top publishing houses. The Plantin-Moretus family continued the tradition another three hundred years, finally selling the building where it all began to the city of Antwerp in 1876. The museum opened the following year.
The Low countries in Plantin’s era were the center of western culture; by 1560, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. It was also the site of religious conflict. In 1523 two monks had been taken away and burned alive for refusing to recant their heretical Lutheran beliefs. The powerful King Phillip II of Spain put immense pressure on Lutherans and Calvinists, and the printed word played an important part in the struggle. Plantin published all sorts of things, including Calvinist pamphlets. He is described as a Protestant sympathizer, a very dangerous position to take. Savvy person that he was, he found his own middle ground in the creation and publication of a major work, the “Plantin Polyglot” (Biblia Polyglotta or Biblia Regia). This complex, impressive multi-lingual bible satisfied the needs of scholars – but it also pleased King Phillip II.
Times were turbulent enough that Plantin fled to the more liberal Leiden at one point, only to return soon afterward to Antwerp. He seemed to walk a line as fine as the ones he printed: by 1585, Plantin was considered the primary printer-publisher for the Counter-Reformation, while secretly helping Calvinists in Utrecht organize an anti-Spanish printing press. With all this, it amazes me that he managed to live into his late sixties.
The museum has a world-class drawing collection, the oldest printing presses in the world, an extensive library, and more. Over 25,000 books and manuscripts can be searched on its website. If you are ever in Antwerp, it’s worth seeing.
If printing interests you, a well-written, illustrated history of printing from pre-history to 2017 can be found on this site.
The museum was closing but I could hardly tear myself away. We were kindly escorted out with our souvenirs – one was a 12″ x 16″ print of a grotesque face from the 16th century that children are invited to color. We will probably frame ours.
We had time for a look at Antwerp’s Grote Markt, an historic gathering place dating back to the 13th century where Guild houses – ornate and dignified buildings designated for various trades – reflect Antwerp’s prominent position in the 15th and 16th centuries. I took a few pictures with my camera and phone as the sun began to set and museum overload began to take hold. Tired and hungry, we found our way to a Thai restaurant, a good choice for hungry folks on a budget who want food quickly. Later we took a wrong turn on the way to the train station, but that happens when you travel on your own in a country whose language you don’t read or speak. Eventually we got back to Gent and collapsed.
I would have liked more time in Antwerp, but I learned a lot just from seeing the Museum Pantin-Moretus. I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe, and I got a better grip on the critical role played by people who printed and disseminated that knowledge. The variety of printed matter that Plantin and Moretus published and changes manifested by the printed word could be likened to the explosion of information we are undergoing by having the internet at our fingertips. Understanding the degree of danger present in the religious struggles Plantin was navigating, coupled with impressions I gathered from the American Pilgrim’s Museum in Leiden bring to mind my own ancestor’s migrations from Europe to the New World. Their arrival from various northern European countries spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries, which means their lives were shaped by the same history I had the pleasure of being immersed in, if only for a few hours.
It goes without saying that religious struggles continue. The same with migrations for a better life. I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric. Travel is all about being moved and changed by your experience, and that minor museum in Antwerp made a day that reverberates.
A few weeks ago Sigrun Hodne, who writes at the blog Sub Rosa, posted a brief video about the photographer Jeff Wall. You may or may not find Wall’s photography appealing, but maybe you’ll be intrigued by what he says, as I was.
Towards the end of the clip Wall talks about art.
“I think all art is always an expression of the affection for there being a world…
“…that there’s something to see… that anything even exists.”
“It’s already a kind of joyful relation to what is. And then everything else becomes a detail…”
“I think all artists are pretty sympathetic people. They’re sympathetic to being.
And I think that’s why people like art.”
The photographs were made on two afternoons in May, during a trip to the Methow Valley, in north central Washington. Creeks originating from glaciers on some of Washington’s highest peaks drain into the Methow River, which weaves and wends its way through spare, sage green highlands before emptying into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. The valley is dotted with small towns, and one called Winthrop emphasizes an American West atmosphere enough to resemble a movie set. Along with opportunities to camp, fish, ski, ride horses, and raft the river, the classic western look of Winthrop brings tourists to the area.
Coming in spring, we expected quiet and weren’t disappointed. We stayed outside the town of Twisp at a small farm whose owners work in retail and real estate while caring for a handful of horses and chickens and running an airbnb side business. A patchwork economy works best in the valley, as in so many rural areas. From the riverside we drove high up into the lonely, sere hills, where fires have their way with dry forest land and the views leap across space, and free the soul. The cheerful golden Balsamroot flowers that sprinkle the hillsides with color every spring were fading but no matter – my affection for the world was still an unhesitatingly joyful relation to what is, right there, in that particular place, at that particular time.
1. Fire-ravaged juniper tree, Thompson Road, Methow Valley
2. Fallen trees and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) leaves, Gun Ranch Road, Methow Valley
3. Shriveled Balsamroot flower, Thomson Ridge, Methow Valley
4. Lichen on rock, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
5. Single boulder in an Aspen grove, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
6. Fire-ravaged junipers and dry grasses, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
7. Lichen-splotched boulder, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
8. Insect on fading Balsamroot flower, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
A few more photos from the Methow Valley are here.
The lapping of long, shallow waves, a heavy, dull sky above, sand collapsing underfoot.
Bundled in fleece and a long, soft scarf wrapped twice around my neck, I follow the easy hemline of the shore, delighting in the smooth expanse of khaki-colored sand, tide-scattered stones, and giant logs that look like they’re made for clambering.
It’s December. Tourists are just a memory, and right now, no boats fight the channel’s racing currents. A solitary loon fishes in the deeper water while mergansers keep company with golden-eyes and grebes closer in. A seal raises its head just long enough to satisfy curiosity, then sinks back down into the gray-green water.
Aloneness prevails, delicious aloneness….
Then March: a long month of rain and overcast skies. The first brilliant blooms of spring appear on the woodland trail that follows the shoreline.
On this Friday afternoon a few days into Spring, people are eager to get outdoors, even if the air feels cool and damp. I see two hikers ahead scrambling over the rocks. Theirs is the quiet joy of an older couple, people who have seen many seasons pass and still feel them deeply.
May first. Under cerulean skies, a loon in bold breeding plumage forages in the channel, and I can tell that someone enjoyed themselves on this beach over the weekend.
June. Clouds fill the sky, quickly give way to intense sunlight, then scoot back again. The sand is littered with footprints: human, canine, deer, crab. I start my walk at the west end of the beach, dodging waves and gratefully inhaling the fresh, clean air. Soon I’m focused on rocks – from shiny pebbles to a looming, dark cliff, their dense forms and subtle colors rivet me. Some are rough and riddled with fracture lines, others are polished smooth as an egg. So many different shapes, such power and strength, and yet the rocks are always changing, as water and weather have their way. The sculptural shapes and flat backgrounds lend themselves to playful processing – infrared, layers of different types of exposures, bold contrasts, delicate tones. The variety I reveled in at the beach has followed me home.
By the end of the afternoon the clouds have thickened, but the atmospheric unrest lingers in a procession of small clouds suspended over the Salish Sea. The Pacific Ocean lies far to the west, but its vastness is felt even here, in the salty taste of the water and the ceaseless permutations of tides and weather systems.
This is part of a series called “Local Walks” that describes and pictures just that – walks I have taken that aren’t far from home. This time I included photographs from four walks across three seasons in one location. Stay tuned to see where I wander next.