WRITING the STORY

Have you ever heard of asemic writing? The Cambridge Dictionary says asemic means “using lines and symbols that look like writing, but do not have any meaning.” The word “asemic” breaks down to without (“a”) and meaning (“semic”, like semantic). Meaningless script, why would you want that? Perhaps because there is something inherently beautiful about script itself, even without its meaning.

The word asemic is often used to refer to art made using script-like marks. The work can’t be read, only admired (or not) aesthetically. If you’re curious here’s a review of a book that delves deeply into asemic art. An example of asemic art by American painter and collage artist Cecil Touchon can be seen here. The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux is known for using script-like marks in his work. Maybe you’re familiar with the American painter Cy Twombly, whose paintings currently sell for tens of millions of dollars. He used gestural marks as well as actual words in his work to great effect.

You could say that the hinge on the door to meaning is well oiled in these works; wide swings can both reveal and obscure meanings.

And what does this all have to do with photography? Maybe you already guessed or scrolled down and figured it out. I have been noticing script-like marks in nature for years and I’m drawn to these lines and shapes, with their natural affinity to what I see on the page. I’ve always liked to read – put me in a bookstore or flash a text at me and I’m instantly alert. Not just the meaning, but the simple shapes of letters and the linear, orderly appearance of text appeal to me, too. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading and an attraction to the look of text gradually became conflated in my brain. Maybe that led to my tendency to find text-like marks in nature. As I walk along the beach, the strands of eelgrass at my feet give afford as much pleasure as an elegant piece of calligraphy or a perfectly executed classic Garamond font. A birch tree’s bark, a white page with black text – both elicit a tingle of pleasure.

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1. It looks like calligraphy to me.
2. Rocks on the Oregon coast.
3. Marks left by worms or ancient symbols?
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9. A Death Valley landscape is spare enough to resemble writing.
10. A dried-up lagoon that was once flooded with saltwater shows imprints from plants and animals, a natural text telling the story of what went before.
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Reading can be aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. Many kinds of writing, from Arabic script to Medieval manuscripts to Japanese calligraphy, can be just as gratifying, in the eyes of this beholder.

Text and script: aesthetic touchpoints.

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TAKING IT ALL IN

This post is not about a specific place or an idea, instead, it’s about what I’ve seen in the last two weeks. We’re always looking, aren’t we? Seeing takes little effort, it just happens. How we feel about what we see, what we think about it and what we do about it all depend on our personality and unique set of experiences. Walking through a field, we all see the grass but we each respond to it differently. I’m endlessly curious about what I see and I take pleasure in playing with visual material, so a camera is at my side when I take a walk. If I don’t have the camera I may use my phone to exercise the possibilities I see. It’s what I do.

Eight days in September:

1. A sunny September day on neighboring Whidbey Island, at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

2. More grass seedheads, this time on Fidalgo Island.

3. This dune grass (Elymus mollis) has a beautiful blue-green hue and drapes in wide, graceful arcs.

4. A hop, skip and jump away from the dune grass, beach sand at low tide displays an arc of its own.
5. Polished by countless footsteps, a few rocks on a park path gleam in a beam of sunlight.
6. It’s taken me a while to see the poetry in what lies scattered on the ground.

7. The beauty of Madrone bark, however, was something I recognized immediately.
8. This is a dry spot on a very dry island; we are in a drought and hardly had a drop of rain all summer. Even in this parched state, tree roots snaking through beds of lichen retain their beauty.
9. Brittle tangles of dead Seaside juniper branches present a compelling picture on a late September afternoon. The pale green poufs of Reindeer lichen on the ground are soft when moist, but now, a heavy foot here can shatter the lichens’ tiny branches.

10. This old, split-trunk Madrone tree has lived through fire and drought. Over many seasons its base has been sculpted into bulging waves of wood.
11. An experiment at home: a bell, an astronomical drawing cut from an old schoolbook, and a pencil drawing I made of a lily many years ago. I was just seeing what different things look like together.
12. It’s been so dry that many Douglas fir needles shed from branches high overhead won’t reach the ground – they’re caught in hundreds of spider webs festooned throughout the trees. The sight made me uncomfortable but I knew it could make an interesting photo.
13. Finally, in a spasm of joy, rain arrived and drenched our parched island. The intoxicating smell awakened memories that seemed distant.
14. Suddenly the world softened.
15. When the rain subsided I climbed up Goose Rock, admiring raindrop-sprinkled lichens along the path.
16. From the top of the rock the view was peaceful as the sky began to refresh itself over the Salish Sea.
17. The day before, after the rain began I drove to a lake, parked at the edge and photographed Purple loosestrife flowers under a willow tree through the car window.
18. I had a great time.
19. I changed up the colors on this one. (1/100th sec. at f3.2, manual focus somewhere between the window and the plants).
20. The wildflowers are almost gone, but asters are blooming. This one caught a few raindrops from a barely-there sprinkle that teased us on the 5th of the month.
21. Let’s not forget coffee. I’ve been enjoying sitting outside Pelican Bay Books and Cafe and reading the NY Times – the physical, papery one. It’s just not the same on a phone. Two shots of espresso with a little cream and a just-baked treat make the day complete.

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LOCAL WALKS: The World Comes Forward

What’s meant by this title is that there’s no need for pursuit; the world comes forward and meets you. It’s something akin to what photographer Paul Caponigro described:

“Gradually, some very few photographs began to make visible the overtones of that dimension I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, the magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I sensed as well as what I saw.”

Paul Caponigro, ‘Landscape’

It may seem that the world meets us more beautifully and in more interesting ways in certain places. But I think anywhere and anytime you can be receptive and effortless, it becomes apparent that the world comes forward to meet you. There’s no need to pursue photography or strain yourself, trying to grasp an elusive ideal. Get out of your own way, quiet your mind, and attend to what’s in front of you: sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest.

And there it is.

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1. A Great blue heron over Bowman Bay.

Though this philosophy applies anywhere, there’s no doubt that one of my favorite places to take a walk and see what happens is Bowman Bay. Heeding the muted, internal voice that often nudges me toward one place or another, I find myself on the road to Bowman Bay regularly.

Bowman Bay is a salt-water bay that happens to be far from the ocean; it receives water flowing through the 96-mile long, 15-mile wide Juan de Fuca Strait – the same Pacific Ocean water that sloshes around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Because of its opening to ocean water, Bowman Bay is tidal, experiencing two low and two high tides each day at its two small beaches. Crescent-shaped Bowman Bay and its evergreen-topped rocky headlands are on the southwest shore of Fidalgo Island, where a west-southwest exposure means occasional strong windstorms and a rich upswell of nutrients.

Decades ago, a fish hatchery operated here. Besides ponds and buildings, the enterprise was responsible for “armoring” the beach: a quarter of the shoreline was “protected” by dumping 2,000 tons of stone on it. This is destructive to a shoreline’s natural processes but happily, most of the bulkhead was removed when work was done to restore the shoreline to its natural state. A pier built long ago is still in place but otherwise, few traces of the fish hatchery remain. Native plants and immense driftwood logs that wash ashore with the tides are creating a more natural habitat. All this is protected now because Bowman Bay is part of a state park called Deception Pass.

What I enjoy about this place is impossible to put into words, but it starts with the profoundly relaxing experience of being near open water. Then there’s the light that bounces off the water – crystal clear or foggy, bright and sunny or dark and brooding, it’s always different from the last time I visited. The ground beneath my feet varies from evergreen forest to pebbly beach, and from wetland edge to sandy beach. And rock – there are rocks to be reckoned with here! The two “pocket beaches” are divided and flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that invite exploring. There are delicate spring wildflowers, long, flowing lichens hanging from the trees, and oddities to be searched for under rocks at the lowest tides. Of course, there’s wildlife, too: herons, kingfishers, gulls, and sea ducks abound, Pileated woodpeckers and river otters are regular, if infrequent sights. Finally, there is the air – always fresh, it sometimes wafts nose-assaulting dead seaweed scents my way but and other times warms my skin deliciously.

Here’s a sampling of photographs from this magical place – not photographs I took but photographs I received with gratitude.

2. Bowman Bay’s two beaches are united during very low tides when the sand at the bottom of a cliff is exposed. The flower-strewn path above is behind the second beach.
3. A few minutes walking through the forest past the second beach brings you to Lighthouse Point, a rocky peninsula with views of the Deception Pass bridge and more islands. This photo was made on a foggy October day.

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5. Barnacles are plentiful on rocks in the intertidal zone.
6. Wildflowers are colonizing this driftwood-studded sliver of land between a beach and a wetland. This is Puget Sound gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia).

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8. A Douglas squirrel in the roses nibbling a rose hip.

OTTERS!

Anytime I can see the river otters that make Deception Pass their home I feel lucky. This summer I had not seen them for months and assumed they were staying hidden because there have been so many people around. Last Friday that quiet voice I’ve learned to pay attention to told me to go to Bowman Bay. I was surprised at how few people were around as I followed a path behind the beach. Investigating a small wetland, I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned around to see a young-looking Douglas squirrel just an arm’s length away, with a big rose hip in its paws, nibbling it like corn on the cob. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind me. Nonchalantly, it tossed the partly-eaten rose hip away and scrambled through the thorny native roses. Maybe there was a tastier one in there somewhere. I marveled at the way its tiny feet avoided the thorns and thanked the little squirrel for letting me watch. A bit of tart fruit to balance all those cone seeds is a good diet choice, I suppose.

I walked on, climbing a steep, rock-strewn path up and over the cliff that separates the two small beaches. The sandy second one is very nice to walk on so I strolled onto it and studied the remains of the last high tide. Scanning the bay, I thought I saw them – the otters, yes! Barely visible, they swan slowly out in the bay in typical leisurely fashion: swimming in circles, coming up for air, going back under, coming up to look around…it was impossible to tell how many there were but it looked like a nice number – maybe six?

Only one other person was nearby, a woman who pulled her kayak in to rest against a piece of driftwood. It looked like the otters were heading toward the other beach so I was disappointed they were swimming away from me. But I was very happy to have seen them.

Then I realized they had changed course and were heading straight my way! I had a 60mm lens on my m4/3 camera, equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full-frame camera. It’s not a lot of reach for wildlife photography but that’s not what I do so that was all I had. Of course, when the opportunity presents itself I’m happy to click away with whatever lens I have. Later I regretted not being quick enough to locate burst mode in the camera menu or to switch to video. But it’s all good. And it was more than good as I was treated to the spectacle of eight otters coming ashore in fairly close proximity, digging in the sand (which I’ve never seen before) and generally being their amusing otter selves as I watched, enthralled.

In the slideshow the first photo is out of sequence and the rest are in order, showing how small the otters looked when I first saw them, how they gradually swam closer, came ashore in their inimitable humpy way, dug in the sand, got scared, lept back in the water, emerged again, and then ran straight across the grassy path that separates the beach from another bay behind it. I followed them, working the shutter and running through the forest to a rocky promontory with a good view of the bay they were in. Finally, I could no longer see them. All eight disappeared into the swift, turbulent waters of Deception Pass – or maybe they stayed closer to land, but I lost sight of them. I smiled a big thank you.

Slideshow below – click the arrow on the right.

(The otters’ heads are just small dots at the bottom right in the last photo. Note that these are River otters, which also live in the sea – not Sea otters, which rarely come onshore).

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9. These Douglas fir trees grow precariously on a rocky headland just past Bowman Bay, called Lighthouse Point.
10. Bullwhip kelp and seaweeds draw pictures on the beach at low tide.
11. Bullwhip kelp afloat in Bowman Bay. There’s a pile of it in the middle photo below. Patches of it can be seen floating on the water in the photo below that.

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13. A walk past Bowman Bay and around Lighthouse Point brings views of the beautiful Deception Pass Bridge, built in 1935. In this photo a Great blue heron balances on strands of Bullwhip kelp floating in the pass. Though the rocks under the bridge appear to touch, there’s actually a narrow pass of water there. A second bridge span over another water pass is to the right, out of the frame.
14. Even the crumbling old pier is attractive, both to me and to the barn swallows that nest under it. One blurry swallow flies across the water here.
15. It’s hard to resist sunset over the water.

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