RETURNING TO ABSTRACTION

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The title of this post has two meanings: first, it’s a return to abstraction because I published a post featuring abstract images earlier this year. Second, like many people these days, I find myself drifting back to the past. Aesthetically, the past for me means abstraction. As a child I was shown the standard representational fare, some of it very beautiful, no doubt. But change and rebellion were in the air by the time I went to college. I refused to attend a typical college and enrolled in a New York City art school instead. There, minimalism, conceptual art, installations, land art and performance art ruled. Fully immersed in that culture, I was very happy.

A thread had been dropped though, and it wouldn’t be picked up until much later. I never forgot that nature was vital to my being, even in a decade of full-throttle, staccato, subway-riding, sensory-overloaded life in the city. Nature just rode along quietly for a while, breathing gently like a hushed tide. When I moved out of the city the tide came in. I gardened, watched birds, learned botanical illustration, and eventually began wielding a camera to record the beauty I saw everywhere.

That brings me to the present, a present in which I joyfully hone my skills making photographs of lichens, landscapes, and everything in between. But abstraction lives. The habits of seeing that were refined in galleries, in classrooms and on the streets of New York may not be obvious in my work, but they underlie many decisions made behind the camera and at the computer.

In the spirit of creating something new while working with the past, I’ve been making drastic changes to photographs in my archives. I’ve been abstracting them and therein, I’m finding new delights. As Wikipedia notes, abstraction “strictly speaking…refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world—it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world…” And that’s the space these images inhabit – the distillation and reshaping of the original image toward a new vision.

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I’ve been following a deviant route when I work with the photos on my screen. Before jumping into processing I get a feeling for the whole image. Then, instead of proceeding to refine what is there, I wonder what else is in the image. What can be extracted from it? What does it say? What permutations are waiting to be uncovered? Where can I take it?

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A paper appeared in my inbox one day that discusses a different, more philosophical approach to the photographic experience. Reading the paper, which was written by an art education professor, I stepped outside the world of photographers talking about photography for a moment. I realized that viewing photography through a different lens (sorry, I can’t help it!) could facilitate breaking habits. I thought about taking my typically representational images and mutating them.

“The encounter then operates as a rupture in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities. It produces a cut, a crack. However this is not the end of the story, for the rupturing encounter also contains a moment of affirmation, the affirmation of a new world, in fact a way of seeing and thinking this world differently.” Thinking Through the Photographic Encounter: Engaging with the Camera as Nomadic Weapon by Cala Coats. Nomadic in this sense refers to boundary-blurring, creative, alternative ways of being in the world. As a nomadic weapon the camera assists the photographer in engaging with the world directly, resulting in new insights.

In this excerpt from her paper Coats is quoting Simon O’Sullivan, an artist and professor at Goldsmith’s University, London. A brief scan of some of O’Sullivan’s work turns up references to disrupting habits of living in linear time and building platforms to access “somewhere else.” There are statements like this: “The infinite is not a transcendent horizon but the very ground of existence.” He discusses “minor arts” (e.g. performance art as opposed to painting) as art forms that are always in process, always becoming: “…a minor art pushes up against the edges of representation; it bends it, forcing it to the limits and often to a certain kind of absurdity.” Whether he considers photography a minor art or not is immaterial; his ideas sparked a fresh perspective in my mind.

Is the camera only a representational tool? Certainly not. It can be a launch pad for a trip to an unknown place. If seeing the world with fresh eyes is desirable, then how can wielding a camera disrupt habitual ways of seeing? What can the person behind the lens do to break the spell of look-click-look-click-look-click? And later, what can the person tapping the keyboard do to break the spell of contrast-up-highlights-down-sharpness-up, etc.?

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Instructions to Self:

Pare the RAW file

down to a sketchy suggestion of what

might have been, what

could be.

Rupture the railroad-straight line between

clicking the shutter and

the final file.

Find a crooked way, a way that

hesitates, races forward, wanders back,

uncovers new shapes, unfolds fresh colors,

unmasks smudgy tones, reveals deeper feelings

and ideas. And do it all

with joy.

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LOCAL WALKS: Two Walks by the Water

This post focuses on two places I return to frequently: one is at the island’s edge where land meets water, the other is inland, where a forest surrounds a lake. Water bodies have powerful effects on land, nourishing life with mist and fog, altering temperature, favoring particular plants and animals, and modifying the land itself. Bodies of water have profound effects on humans too, of course. Not least is the impact water has on our emotions. A lake I visit refreshes my mind even when barely glimpsed through the trees on a hill far above it. Reflections on the lake’s surface mesmerize me as I slowly ply the shoreline path. Along the island’s edge a larger body of water soothes my nerves, pushing waves that lap at my feet as I walk along the pebbled beach. Round stones roll and clatter when the water sucks them back, delighting my ears.

Walking by the water is restorative. I was in danger of taking that for granted until this month, when smoke-ridden, unhealthy air forced me to stop my outdoor walks. I didn’t think we would be shut indoors for so long, peering through closed windows at a landscape dulled by dirty air. I didn’t think the leaves on the Bigleaf maples could be so still for so long, or the birds so silent. That’s what happened though. And unsurprisingly, I got restless. For the past week I’ve made brief escapes by car, running the air conditioning (which I normally would not do) and gaping at horizons smudged down to nothingness. One normalizing errand I can do is to visit the drive-up espresso stand – but even that activity has been fraught. On the worst days, when the air quality index soared into a dangerous category, I would roll my window back up after ordering, roll it down again to grab the drink and up again while the masked barista smiled with her eyes and ran my card. Once she offered to add the tip and sign the receipt for me, so I wouldn’t need to roll the window down again. I worried about her, exposed to the “very unhealthy” air for hours on end.

But how lucky we both are, not to have lost our homes like so many others here on the increasingly hot and dry West Coast of America, the country that turns its back on climate change action and continues down a path which, if not altered, will create an unimaginable disaster. It will be a cowardly new world populated by the descendants of people who didn’t have the courage to act when it was necessary. I’m aware that I don’t help matters by using my car when I don’t absolutely need to. We all make compromises and do our best. We are living in strange times.

Today I’m going to spread a little beauty around. Maybe it will bring a measure of relief to you as you worry about what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. Water and its environs – drink it in with your tired eyes and breathe a long sigh. And maybe do one small thing today, to tip the scales the other way.

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1. A stipe (stem) of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) afloat in the shallow water of Rosario Bay. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.
2. Wind-sculpted Douglas fir trees and morning fog, August, Rosario Bay.

3. The Maiden of Deception Pass. She was carved from a Western redcedar as a joint Samish Tribe-Skagit County project. Here story can be found below, at the end of the post.

4. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stalks its prey on Rockweed-covered rocks in Rosario Bay. I wish this bird good luck on this foggy morning.

5. Rocks are tumbled smooth by four tides a day at Rosario Beach.

6. A young Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perches on a tall Douglas fir and surveys the scene up on Rosario Head, a bald above the bay.

7. Hopefully this little Townsend’s chipmunk (Tamias townsendii) can evade the hawk’s talons. It ate calmly while I stood nearby but scrambled under the driftwood as soon as I moved.

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9. Watching the fog at Rosario Beach.

10. Fog formed, evaporated and formed again as I meandered spellbound among the driftwood logs.

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11. At Little Cranberry Lake on a quiet July afternoon, a small island turns golden.

12. A tree that fell into the lake long ago sprouts a tuft of grass.

13. Beavers have been busy around the lake. The south end was flooded and now, dead trees wait their turn to crash into the water.

14. As I pick my way along the rocky, rooty shoreline, the water casts its spell.

15. Golden grasses sway on a bluff overlooking the lake.

16. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) throw lanky shadows across one another in the forest.

17. Long after they have dried up, papery Pearly everlasting flowers (Anaphalis margaritacea) continue to grace an opening in the woods above the lake.

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17. Douglas for branches dip their tips toward the water.

18. Tall, dense trees don’t let much light into the forest. Dew coats the dried flowers of Ocean Spray (also called Ironwood) (Holodiscus discolor) tracing a lacy filigree of light.

19. Thousands of midges, perhaps just hatched, swarm over the water at Little Cranberry Lake. Many will mate and many will be eaten.

20. Back at Rosario Bay, the view from Rosario Head is obscured by fog. Boat trails glow on the water’s surface long after they’re out of sight.

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  • The story of the Maiden of Deception Pass. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot was a beautiful Samish Indian girl living in a village at this site. She was gathering seafood one day when a young man from beneath the sea saw her and fell in love. But when this man of the sea asked her father for her hand in marriage, he refused, for fear she would drown. The young man warned Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father that the seafood would disappear unless she married him. When his warning proved to be true, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father granted permission for the marriage. The beautiful woman waded into the sea to join her new husband. Once again the seafood returned and was plentiful. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot returned to her people once a year for four years. Barnacles had grown upon her hands and arms, and her long raven hair turned to kelp. Chill winds followed wherever she walked, and she seemed to be unhappy out of the sea. Seeing this, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s people told her she did not need to return to them. Since that day, she has been the Samish Tribe’s guiding spirit and through her protection there has always been plenty of seafood and pure, sweet springwater. From the Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center

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FURTHER AFIELD: The Boulder River Trail

The green island where I live is brimming with lush parks, but as much as I enjoy the beauty here, my restless spirit keeps spinning dreams of the mountains, where up is higher, down is lower and vistas are rugged and vast. Late summer is a perfect time to venture inland, to places like Mount Baker in the North Cascades or Hurricane Ridge, high in the Olympic mountains. Those two places have been teasing my brain for months and we could visit either one – they’re two or three hours away. But it’s prime time for visiting parks and crowds don’t appear in the pictures in my mind. When the summer frenzy abates there will still be time for those trips. In the meantime, last week I was looking for an alternative, an easy hike that doesn’t require too many hours on the road. I came across the Boulder River Trail and we decided to give it a go.

The trail leads through a forest surrounding the rushing waters of Boulder River, which tumbles down from a remote lake, high up on Three Fingers Mountain, where three jagged peaks rise 6,500 feet above sea level. Following an old railroad grade on the side of the canyon, the trail enters the Boulder River Wilderness, where 49,000 acres of forests and mountains are distinguished by wet conditions (twelve feet of rain annually), thick vegetation and steep terrain. The river plunges down three separate waterfalls on the way to its confluence with the larger Stillaguamish River. One of those waterfalls is the big draw for the hike.

The first waterfall is noisy Boulder Falls, which can be heard but can’t be seen without descending off-trail through thick woods. The next waterfall is the prettiest and at just over a mile from the trailhead, requires the least effort. Some sources say it has no name but others call it Feature Show Falls. Just don’t disagree about the directions and I’ll be fine!

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1. The road to the trailhead is overhung with mossy Bigleaf maple trees.

2. A peak at part of the waterfall

Feature Show Falls is a lovely, 180-foot-tall double cascade that runs all year, unlike some waterfalls that dwindle to a trickle in summer. The hike isn’t long but you pay a price for that: the trailhead is at the end of a pot-holed, gravel road. Happily the road is only four miles long. Many Pacific Northwest trailheads can only be reached after navigating cratered roads at a snail’s pace for at least an hour. The relatively easy access and non-strenuous hike appealed to us. Even better, a mile up the road there is a well-built vault toilet with lots of toilet paper and a door that locks. Just when you need it!

We were relieved to see only three cars at the trailhead when we arrived on a Thursday morning at about 10:30. We set out under a stunning canopy of moss-hung Bigleaf maple trees, with golden light angling down from high overhead. Our packs held plenty of water and snacks and our masks were stuffed in our pockets. I had a new, wide-angle prime lens on my camera that I was eager to use. Unfortunately, I had left a circular polarizer on it the day before and didn’t notice it until well into the hike. It’s frustrating, but who hasn’t done that? If I’d known the polarizer was on the lens I would have turned it for the best effect. In some cases I would not have wanted it – our forests can be very dim, even in summer. Some photos were beyond saving and others needed a lot of help in Lightroom but, c’est la vie!

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3. This forest was logged many years ago. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western redcedar and Bigleaf maple are all plentiful. Slopes are very steep but timber is valuable, so back in 1909, eight miles of railroad track were laid into the woods here. It’s hard to imagine how they did it. Further into the forest, the trees were spared because the going got too tough.

4. We admired this well-worn boardwalk across a wet section of trail. It’s made with thick planks of Western redcedar, once felled and split for cedar shakes and shingles but now left to grow tall and play its part in the great scheme that is life, here in this one particular slice of our earth.

5. Setting off.

The trail is mostly level as it traces the old railroad grade cut into the face of a steep slope. Nature proceeds unhindered here. Trees fall and rot in place, returning nourishment to the soil, with its wealth of fungal networks that in turn, nourish the plants above. Of course, some trees fall right across the trail and if they’re too big to remove, you have to climb over or under – whatever works. We were awed by the size of the fallen giants, especially two conifers that fell across the trail right next to each other. There was very little space underneath them but they seemed way too big to straddle. I handed my pack and camera to Joe and took the awkward way, crawling under the log. A pass of the packs and it was his turn. At times like these, I think, “Will this be the moment when the big earthquake we are overdue for finally happens?” The funny thing was, on the way back we noticed that someone had cut large notches in the tops of the two trees, making it practically a walk in the park to climb over them. We hadn’t studied the situation well enough on the way out, or maybe we’re just not experienced enough to know to look for those handy notches. Swinging up and over wasn’t so hard and it was much nicer than crawling across sharp rocks!

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6. The first of many trees to duck under or climb over, this one doesn’t need notches because there’s plenty of room to walk under it. The tree further down the trail can be walked around.

7. Another place I don’t want to be when the big earthquake hits. The notch is near the rock on the right; the second tree is hiding behind this one.

8. This piece of tree trunk plunged into the earth like a spear and then stayed there. I pushed and it hardly gave at all. It must have hit the ground with formidable force.

9. Sword fern shadows, a gentler side of the forest.

10. Like someone having a bad hair day, this frond on a Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) twists and turns every which way. Deer fern has two kinds of fronds – spore-bearing and sterile. The bright green sterile fronds usually grow low to the ground, like in the photo below. The spiky fertile fronds rise from the middle, standing straight up at first but contorting into wild shapes when they’re ready to release their spores. Yes, deer eat these ferns.

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12. A Pine white butterfly (Neophasia menapia) moved slowly enough for me to get a sharp image but in the end, I like this partly blurred one better. By this time I had switched to a macro lens.

13. This sculptural arrangement of roots and rock consists of at least one mature Western redcedar tree growing on an old, Western redcedar stump that grew on a large rock. To give you an idea of scale, the rock is big enough to sit on comfortably, with your feet barely touching the ground and your head two feet below the top of the stump.

14. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) flourishes on moist rock walls. Unlike Sword fern and Deer fern, it’s not evergreen and the leaves were getting ragged. It’s not white, of course, but is fairly light in color, especially compared to evergreen ferns. I’m fond of the circular growth pattern.

15. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) prefers consistently moist environments so I rarely see it where I live. I was happy to see it growing here, even if some of the trees (technically they are large shrubs) were insect-ridden. Vine maple’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples and like them, it is a graceful, delicate tree.

16. The forest is full of old trees; many of them have rotted. This mushroom, probably a Red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Black and white emphasizes the sinuous curves.

We heard the enticing roar of Boulder Falls, then rounded a bend and climbed an incline. Feature Show Falls was in range. After all, we were hungry so we must be near the end! We had taken far longer than the other six or eight hikers we saw. There was so much to admire – moss-covered trees disappearing into the canopy, filtered sunlight picking out leaf details, late-blooming wildflowers, six kinds of ferns, a dark, hollow tree with white, dew-dotted mushrooms inside it, huge stumps with loggers’ springboard slots cut into them…and finally, the waterfall appeared through the thick foliage. The trail had narrowed and footing was precarious in places. As we picked our way carefully across rocks and roots, we glanced across the deep ravine, getting bits and pieces of the falls. Eventually we arrived at a wide opening on the side of the ravine. A conveniently placed log offered a spot to sit while we ate lunch and listened to wild streams of water tumbling down 180 feet of rock to the Boulder River below. A rough trail leads steeply down to the river but we were content that day to just sit and listen.

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16. There were no vantage points to see the whole falls, top to bottom and right to left, without descending to the riverbed. I worked with what I had. This view is through the moss and lichen-covered branches of a Bigleaf maple tree.

17. The air was cool and fresh and filled with tiny insects flying back and forth in the charged air next to the falls. Leaves fluttered from breezes let loose by the force of the water. Fine threads glinted and wavered, catching the light – they were spiderwebs, strung high over the river from tree limbs. Only the rocks were still.

18. A view through graceful Western hemlock branches.

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