LOCAL WALKS: Getting to the Essence

I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.

But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.

Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.

For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.

Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.

1. To me the essence of these two intertwined objects is a soft curve. Strands of Bullwhip kelp naturally bend. Feathers can bend too. The beauty here is in the chance meeting of seaweed and feather on a sandy beach caused by the inexorable pull of the tides.
2. This Madrone tree survived a fire. Simplifying the composition down to a section of bark could express the story of the tree’s experience of fire, in color and texture.
3. Form follows function; form and function kept this bivalve going. Split in half and mirrored, the shapes appeal to me in a fundamental way, as primal as an infant’s search for the returned gaze of two eyes.
4. Everything is dry: the leaf, the strands of grass, the twigs, the sunlight. A simple oval, the fine lines of veins and grasses, and shadows: I think this is enough.

5. Finding the essence meant photographing just the curving tip of a leaf in the sun with its toothy shadow nearby and moving them to one side of the frame to show the feeling of motion implied by the curve.
6. River water in motion reflecting its surroundings is a complex phenomenon. Smoothing everything out with a quarter-second exposure keeps the eyes flowing with the current.
7. Bullwhip kelp has thick stems and broad, flat leaves. These kelp leaves washed up onto the beach in a mound of rubbery, brown ribbons. The stiff leaf blades can reach thirteen feet (4 m) long; a pile of them is a complicated, tangled mess. Simplifying the mound into a small composition and heightening the contrast made a more visually manageable image.
8. Focusing on four rocks and two squiggly lines reflects the essence of one beach on one day, during one low tide.
9. Color and form seemed to merge and be swept across the beach together on another day at low tide.
10. Madrone bark close-up is smooth but slightly grainy. Its colors range from yellow greens to deep rust, with a rainbow of possibilities in between. For me the essence of this one tree was in one small section of bark.
11. Can sheer complexity be the essence of something? Maybe, and draining the color helps keep the focus on the lines, shapes and texture.
12. The tips of two burned branches told a stark story. This seemed to me to be enough.

13. Intentional camera movement – a horizontal, handheld panning motion – blurs an already vague horizon on calm waters. That felt like the essence of what I sensed on that winter day as I stood on a rock and looked out over the water.


You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.


LOCAL WALKS: Forest and Bluff

A network of forest trails threads through a state park near a small, freshwater lake frequented by fly fishers. I’ve been exploring these trails lately, in part because they’re less busy than the other trails here. Called Pass Lake, the lake has its own magic but is hard by a highway, so I don’t spend too much time there. Entering the woods, the traffic noise slowly drops away. Tall trees soar above a fern-covered forest floor. This alone might be enough, but by following a particular sequence of trails, I’ve found an interesting variety of habitats that invites scrutiny.

Around the lake the topography veers up and down verdant, steep slopes of evergreens. If you climb north on paths leading away from the water the forest thins, soon opening up onto a series of exposed bluffs. Interesting in their own right, some of these craggy spots have expansive views across the valley below. On the bluffs, also called balds* Madrona trees, grasses, lichens and wildflowers adapted to drier conditions displace the Sword ferns, Salal, Douglas firs, Redcedars and Western hemlocks of the forest below. The contrast between lush, green woodlands and sere, brown bluffs engages the curious mind: one minute you’re treading the quiet paths of a damp, dark forest lit by narrow beams of light, the next minute you’re in the open, with dry leaves crunching underfoot and the sun warming your face. All this can be experienced in just a mile or two of walking.

Below are photographs made at various times of the year of Pass Lake, the forest that surrounds it, and the balds above.

1. In the colder months when the trout have gone sluggish the empty lake is as serene as the sound of a temple bell. One foggy winter afternoon two years ago a few diving ducks plied the lake while I made dozens of photographs.

2. Intentional camera blur and Lightroom tweaks emphasize the vertical nature of the forest and the repeating forms of what is perhaps the understory’s most common plant, Sword fern.
3. On a foggy September day an old Bigleaf maple tree seems to levitate over a steep-sided ravine that stays green all year.
4. Leaving the Pass Lake Loop and taking the Ginnett Hill trail one day, I came across a huge, fern-bedecked rock. I imagine the rock and its cloak of mosses and ferns must have its own micro-climate, a damp and cool one.

5. Another impressionist view of the forest surrounding Pass Lake. You can just make out the woven pattern on the bark of a Western redcedar on the far left. This moisture-loving tree is extremely important to indigenous Pacific Northwest people; strips of the bark could be woven into clothing, mats, rope, roofing material and many other useful things. The wood is softer than most other trees so large logs could be scooped out with stone tools to make canoes. The rot-resistant wood is made into cedar shakes now.
6. As sinuous as a seated Guanyin** sculpture, this Western redcedar became one with its boulder support long ago.



8. By taking root here this Bigleaf maple tree gains height, which means more light, a critical commodity for plants and one that can be in short supply in Pacific Northwest confer forests.

9. Emerging from the forest after climbing a long uphill stretch, I came upon this bald on Ginnett Hill. You can see the bald’s typical thin, rocky soil. There’s evidence of a fire and new growth at the foot of the blackened Madrona tree. Madrona trees (Arbutus menziesii) grow well on this exposed, dry site. Their attractive, orange, peeling bark and crooked trunks stand out amidst the deep green, upright conifers. It’s fun to find the first Madrona as I climb the trail or the last one on the way back down.
10. Looking up into a grove of Madrona trees. This is a vertical landscape, hence many vertically oriented photographs.



12. Back at the lake a Great blue heron eyes me warily. You won’t find this bird on the bald!



14. Looking toward Rodger Bluff from an opening on the east face of Ginnett Hill. The majority of the trees seen here are Douglas fir. Maybe you can see the distinctive, rounded forms of Madronas on the rocks in the upper half of the photo. The yellow-green flowers in the bottom right are the blooming crown of a Madrona tree.
15. Reflections on the lake on an August afternoon. There are no Madronas down here.
16. Another look at winter fog reflections on Pass Lake.


“Trails are all about connections, connecting places and also connecting people to those places.” Jack Hartt, former Park Manager at Deception Pass State Park.


*Herbaceous balds–Variable-size patches of grasses and forbs on shallow soils over
bedrock, commonly fringed by forest or woodland.
From a US Customs & Border Protection publication detailing the variety of sites found near US borders which may be sensitive, priority habitats, because of their unique characteristics.

** Click Guanyin for a look at sculptures and paintings of this Buddhist bodhisattva.


ON and OFF the BOAT

Here is a collection of images made on ferries, on a pier in Anacortes, Washington, and a street near the pier.

1. Seen on Washington State’s Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2021. We puzzled over this. Who gets to go? Where does it lead? I mean, “TANK RM NO. 2” isn’t going to hold us all!
2. A ferry safety net and shadow from the same trip.
3. Seen on the ferry to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington, 2018.

4. Seen on the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2019. It was a fog-filled crossing.

5. Seen on the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2021. Normally there are two ferries on this route; one holds 90 vehicles, the other holds 124 (but no more than 26 commercial vehicles). 1200 passengers can squeeze on but walk-on traffic is usually light. The ride takes about 35 minutes. The ferry may be canceled during extremely low tides and the fare will set you back from $3.60 to $245.00 and up depending on whether it’s just you, walking on and proving you’re over 65, or you driving a very large vehicle.

6. Seen on the historic Pier 1 in Anacortes, 2021. Anacortes is the only urban center on Fidalgo Island, Washington. The 15.53 square mile city (40.22 km) has about 18,000 residents, some of whom are Samish Indian Nation people, a Coast Salish tribe. Coast Salish have lived in the area for at least 14,000 years.
7. Seen on Pier 1 on the same day. Water from these hoses keeps the catch fresh during unloading.
8. Looking up from the deck of the ferry on the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend route, 2021.
9. Seen from the upper deck of the ferry to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, 2018.

10. Seen at Pier 1, Anacortes, 2021. The 5,500 horsepower Crowley tugboat ‘Protector’ was built in 1996 as a ship assist and escort tug. This tugboat looked clean enough to eat a meal right on the deck.

11. Pier 1, Anacortes, 2021, the following day. ‘Protector’ is gone and a 1930s yacht, ‘Taconite’ has taken its place. The 125-foot yacht is tied up for two days. The ferry behind it is in drydock at Dakota Creek Industries, a large ship building and repair facility based in Anacortes.
12. Seen on the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2021.
13. Seen on the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2021. What a great-looking piece of machinery.
14. A warehouse near Pier 1 in Anacortes, 2021. The crane behind it is part of Dakota Creek’s operation. They are currently contracted to build six US Navy tugs. The tugs will tow and handle Navy carriers, surface ships, submarines and barges

15. One of Dakota Creek Industries’ buildings is graced by a telephone pole shadow, 2021.
16. The Anacortes Arts Festival juried art show, held inside the historic Transit Shed next to Pier 1. 2021.

17. A sculpture at the Anacortes Arts Festival juried art show frames a couple resting on the pier. The ferry in drydock is in the background. 2021.

18. Sunset seen from the Coupeville – Pt. Townsend ferry, 2021.



Big Cedar Trail

Here I am, having come upon a place

deep enough to lose myself,

among emerald bouquets of Sword fern

thriving in the damp, dim light

as far as the

I can see. As the I can see – there it is again,

that stubborn “I”

but it’s loosening,

almost gone into the breath

of this verdant ravine

where redcedar soars, roots, spreads, and sits

as still and profound as two in the morning.

Just this, redcedar whispers.


Cool breeze scatters leaves

from an unseen place – the top of the hill?

The jagged black edge of the island? Or

do the wafting breaths emanate from

sixty miles east of here, over the dark Salish Sea?

Here, now, air manifests:

gentle waves of cedar boughs,

fluttering tips of elderberry leaves and prickly

bumps on the freckled skin of my old arms.

Mind focuses and releases in waves

like the the darting chipmunk

who was breathlessly still

a second ago. Moving then still,

in breath and out,

back and forth,

we are centered in this particular herenow

at the bottom of the green ravine

where the I loosens and

joins the forest.