This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.
I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.
Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.
Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.
I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).
As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.
Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.
It’s time for change in America. Four years ago a man was elected to the American presidency who should have never been chosen to lead anything, let alone a free, democratic country. This man’s tenure has been an ugly, backward time when many norms we took for granted were destroyed. The foundations of our government have been undermined, our relationships with each other have suffered, and relationships with our partners across the globe have crumbled. It’s time to turn things around and get back on track.
This week, a news story in a local paper said that the old building you see pictured here is going to be torn down. It was built almost 130 years ago as a fish cannery. The building functioned well for a long time and was once even touted as one of the biggest fish processing plants in the world. It fell into serious disrepair in recent years, having been sold to an out-of-town developer who allowed it to fall apart become a hazard. It’s the kind of place people break into and hang out in, the kind of place whose present state is barely a shadow of what it once was. The owner has been told that he must erect a fence to keep people out – part of a wall collapsed last week. Soon the entire place will be torn down, once and for all.
The current president’s contempt for truth, fairness, science, and humanity itself has been mind-boggling. In only four years this administration has done serious damage to our country. It’s time to tear down what has no integrity, to clear away what’s broken, rotten and dangerous and replace it with something new.
In this time of renewal, it’s appropriate that the changes we need will be accomplished with the help of our first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president-elect. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ll need to be patient, and we’ll need to try to work together. Let’s hope that what is constructed in place of the current structure will be created with integrity and strength. And maybe even a dash of beauty. We can dream.
I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.
There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.
In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.
My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.
I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.
There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.
A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.