No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.

That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.

1. Around 1992 I began a two-year Botanical Illustration course at the New York Botanical Garden. My home life was difficult, even chaotic. The quiet, intensely focused practice of drawing subjects like this pine cone from life was deeply satisfying. What may at first appear to be a ball of random little shapes isn’t that at all – the pine cone has a spiral growth habit. Finding the spirals helped me keep track of which little seed scale I was working on as I carefully shaded my drawing with dots of ink. There’s a reassuring order in there.
2. Organization times two: limpets and sand dollars are organized in pleasing, radially symmetric patterns. Centering one on top of the other creates a bulls-eye that centers my brain, if only for a few seconds.
3. Someone neatly stacked these roof tiles next to a building in Leiden, Netherlands. The old bricks in the street and walls might not be perfectly straight anymore but a sense of order still prevails. Leiden and other northern European cities I’ve visited seem to exude a calm orderliness that felt good to be around.

As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!

Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.

4. Repeating patterns in the windows of three buildings in lower Manhattan.
5. Electric wires, architecture, and a street corner line up as if they were engineered from just this spot, looking out the window of a Las Vegas hotel.
6. I can’t help thinking that whoever painted this door in Ferndale, California, must have appreciated symmetry and organization.
7. Antwerpen-Centraal, the beloved temple of European railway architecture. A photo can’t begin to relay the experience of getting off a train there and walking through the soaring, graceful spaces. I was too overwhelmed to position myself right in the middle of the steps, but I think you’ll get the idea.
8. Speaking of well-organized systems, this woman in the Cologne (Koln) train station was tremendously helpful, booking last-minute tickets during a busy holiday rush with a focused, calm demeanor. The bracelet of skulls and the 18 rings were no impediment to her organized functioning. Check out that mug on her left – brass knuckles?!

A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.

Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.

10. Another humble building that helps to organize the environment is this little bus shelter on a country road in Washington.

Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?

11. I made this photo while in the midst of a crisis; my partner was ten floors up in the neurointensive care unit, recovering from a stroke. The future was uncertain. A row of sunny windows with potted plants marching down the hallway was a reassuring picture of order and normalcy in an unstable world.
12. Striped shadows in bright California light cut the space into unexpected shapes and accentuate its form.
13. A simply constructed wooden side chair I found at an estate sale presents a satisfying tableau when the light frames its shadow, doubling the pleasure of the design.
14. Sidewalk engineering and a shadow that mimics the patterns.
15. A Donald Judd sculpture benefits from carefully considered museum lighting.

The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:

17. Looking through the rectangles of a conservatory window superimposes a certain order on the beautiful chaos of the plants inside.
18. In this case, I looked through a tangle of branches at a building with a broken bulls-eye of arcs superimposed on angled grids. The complex array of lines and shapes benefited from monochromatic processing. This was in Ghent, Belgium.

Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.

19. Symmetry in a stone mosaic medallion enhances the Italian pavilion at the Staten Island Botanical Garden in New York.

20. Alternating leaves, parallel veins – these examples of order in the plant world were adopted by people as field marks for identification, which is another way of organizing the flow of sensory input around us.
21. Classic floral symmetry: a Trillium has three leaves (which are actually bracts), three sepals, three petals, six stamens, and three stigmas. The Trillium’s simple design one of the most striking ones in the botanical world.


I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.



Here I am, having arrived at a place

deep enough

to lose myself

among exultant Sword fern bouquets

unfurling in the dim light as far as the

I can see.

There it is again,

that pesky “I”

but no problem, it will

get lost soon.


We breathe together, the “I” and

this verdant ravine where Redcedar soars,

roots, opens, and sits

as still and profound as two in the morning.

Just this, redcedar whispers.

Who hears?


A cool breeze scatters leaves. Was it from the ridge-top?

The jagged, black edge of the island? Or

did the wafting breath arise

fifty miles east,

in the center of the dark, cold Salish Sea?

Here, now, air manifests 

in gentle waves of cedar boughs,

flutters of tender huckleberry leaves,

prickly bumps on old arms.

Air and mind

focus and release in shuddering waves

like the darting squirrel

that was perfectly still a second ago.

Back and forth,

we’re eachall centered in herenow

in the bottom of the green ravine

where the I loosens and

dovetails into the forest.


Note: This poem appeared earlier this year in a slightly different version, with different photographs.




In Washington state’s Deception Pass State Park, a double loop of intersecting trails climbs in and out of a dry, coniferous forest and a deep, wet ravine. In the depths of the ravine, a massive Western redcedar tree (Thuja plicata) stands. This is the tree in the first photo and the photo below (with a person for scale). Well off the beaten path, the trail that winds down into the damp, fern-filled valley where the cedar grows is quiet. It feels remote from the built environment. Fallen trees coated with thick layers of moss from which younger trees sprout vie with ferns for the weak light that filters down through tall conifers. One can relax into the feeling of losing oneself in this forest, with only the sound of a distant raven and a nearby woodpecker punctuating the silence.

If you continue past the big cedar you’ll find more trails; go one direction and you climb out of the park, past the remains of an old mine and a decrepit log cabin, and back down to a quiet road. Walk another direction and you’ll emerge into a rough, cut-over area where blackberries thrive in the sun. I usually climb a steep, rocky trail leading out of the valley to a gentle ridge above Pass Lake, pictured above. The small lake’s cold water provides food for Great blue herons, Bufflehead ducks, River otters, and other beings who are intimate with the shoreline’s nooks and crannies. Humans must fish from non-motorized boats and throw the fish back to the water. We protect the lake, a breathing being itself that loves fog and holds it close on cool days before it floats away, nourishing the forest as it goes.

The old Western redcedar. Not a true cedar, this species belongs to the Cypress family. It was, and I assume still is, the most important plant to many Pacific northwest indigenous people, providing everything from clothing to canoes.



Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.

1. On the kitchen table.
2. Autumn bouquet.

Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.

But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.

Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.

3. In a corner above the sink at a Bnb in Leiden…
4. …I made a small arrangement of objects.

Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.

As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.


5. A wacky little still life arranged on an old corner bookcase during my last year of college. Those are my shoes – gotta have red shoes. Don’t ask about the math, I have no idea what it means. I may still have the little ostrich and cow toys somewhere but Marilyn, the cowboy, the crayons, and the bottle of German soap bubbles are long gone.
6. A photo from the early 70s, just after I graduated from School of Visual Arts. The vintage utensils came from second hand stores. If this image looks a little familiar it may be because photographer Jan Groover exhibited a series of Kitchen Still Lifes in New York in 1979, some of which feature utensils. The photographs, which brought her well-deserved acclaim, were more complex and carefully thought-out than this casual composition. When I saw her work I felt an encouraging “Aha!” moment – my instincts were good even if my execution was lacking.
7. Around 1973 I moved into an old walk-up railroad flat in Hoboken, NJ, a small city across the river from Manhattan. The big city was too expensive for a recent art school graduate and Hoboken had not yet been discovered. Rents were affordable, especially in buildings like this one, which lacked central heat. On the left side of the gas stove the top folded back to reveal a single large burner. That was supposed to heat the entire apartment. It wasn’t enough for the frigid, northeastern winters so for three months a year, we curtained off the far two rooms and lived in the warm kitchen and the room next to it.
8. The Hoboken apartment was on the third floor of this building. Rent was $60 a month but Mr. Eng, the landlord, didn’t mind if we were late paying – he was grateful to have tenants who took care of their apartment. When I took this photo in 2008 the corner had hardly changed but Hoboken was completely different. It had become gentrified and was packed with new apartment buildings, hip restaurants and young professionals. My old building now has central heat and air conditioning. Rent is about $2,000/month, which may be a good deal for an apartment that’s a just quick ride away from Manhattan, even if it’s a one-bedroom walk-up.
9. Eleven years and two moves after the Hoboken apartment, putting things in places took on a whole new meaning. Here’s my newborn son surrounded by gifts from generous friends and relatives. What joy!
10. Skipping ahead another 17 years, this layered image was made at my comfortable Cape Cod home in rural New York, about 50 miles north of New York City. It was a cozy home with lovely gardens that I tended with enthusiasm. We parked in the driveway because the garage was crammed with pots and gardening tools. I bought my first digital camera, a 1.3 megapixel Sony Mavica that stored photos on floppy disks! Along with basic photo processing software, it was a clumsy setup compared to today’s options but it allowed me to explore and experiment.



12. It was the last house I would own. In this photo there’s an antique drop-leaf table from my parent’s house and a chair with a seat cover my father upholstered. On the table is a bouquet of wildflowers and garden blooms from the sunny backyard, frequented by deer and wild turkeys. The scene appears idyllic but it was a turbulent, difficult time and the sturdy, mid-century house with its rural setting provided a welcome measure of stability.



14. This is a collage of two black and white photos, one of a Great blue heron and one of an indigenous girl in traditional dress. I merged them together to express the freedom of taking flight united with the feeling of being secure in one’s own being. This was home: being rooted in place yet free to take wing.
15. A new job in Manhattan required four hours of commuting: I drove, parked, boarded a train, got off, threaded through tunnels to the subway, transferred to a different subway, emerged onto the street, walked to the office, passed through security, and took the elevator. This routine was not tenable! I found a rambling, high-ceiling, apartment in a prewar building on Staten Island, where rent was more affordable than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Now I could take the ferry to work! The cozy cottage by the river was exchanged for an airy apartment with lively urban views in three directions. To the west, a bell tower and late-nineteenth century homes, to the north, the vibrant New York harbor, and to the south, a handsome old gothic school. In this photo of a begonia cutting the bell tower is framed between the neck of the bottle and the edge of the leaf.
16. The new job required frequent overnight travel. Every time Pablo heard the sound of the suitcase wheels he ran and crouched in my shoes. (They look like men’s shoes but I like that style). He was one very unhappy cat – but soon he had another companion.



18. An old Mahjong tile and a tiny ceramic rabbit that belonged to my mother when she was a child made a small still life on a bookshelf.
19. More changes loomed: unexpectedly, we lost our jobs within months of each other, through no fault of ours. As we began to collect unemployment, we dreaded the idea of finding new jobs in New York. We treasured our vacations and day trips away from a city that was wearing us down. Dreaming about leaving urban intensity behind, we thought about moving to the Pacific Northwest – but first, we needed some questions answered. Was there enough culture? Would we like the laid-back lifestyle? Was it really as beautiful as people said it was? So we flew across the country on a mission, visiting Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Rainforest, Rialto Beach, Whidbey Island, and Seattle’s Pike Place market. Yes, this was the place; it was wildly beautiful and more comfortable than we imagined. We said our goodbyes to family and friends as we engineered the big move. On a winter afternoon six weeks before we left, I photographed this view from our apartment.



21. We don’t remember where we found the doll’s hand and the frog but they were a happy pair, sitting on a desk in the Kirkland apartment.
22. We moved once more, this time because we no longer had to be near Seattle for work and wanted to live in a more rural environment. We found a quiet, affordable cottage for rent on an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. After moving in we got to know Doe-a-deer, who clearly knew the place well.



24. It’s not antique and surely isn’t authentic but we love Bobo and Evelyn, the broken African mask I bought in Kirkland (there should be two birds on top). We like the way the strand of leathery leaves (actually a necklace) suits these two characters. Someday we could to move again but there are no plans for that now! We’re happy where we are. Paying attention. Putting things in places. Appreciating our lives.


Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.

From an essay by Georgina Reid in The Planthunter.


Thank you for your attention. Life is full of uprootings and new horizons. And fresh opportunities to arrange things.


LOCAL WALKS: Pacific Northwest Mood

The darkening time –

after months of drought

the rain arrives, awakening licorice

fern tendrils,

greening up the ragged moss blankets

that wrap around rocks

where mushrooms smile.


Shadows thicken,

gloom pervades the forest,

opaque clouds loom

over the sea.

Threads of lace lichen soften,

gracefully fluttering

in the cool air by the bay

where I watch the last bees fret the aster’s

deep yellow discs.

The summer houses are empty.


Heron’s plans haven’t changed though –

peer, freeze, strike, swallow,


sometimes without the swallow.

In town

I see one flying

low over the roofs of busy stores,

crying hoarsely, fearless

and purposeful.


1. Wetland reflections.
2. Through a scrim of twigs and lichens.
5. Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii), Douglas fir needles, and a Madrone leaf.
6. Rain.
7. Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) dries up in summer and springs back to life with autumn rains. Last season’s shriveled leaves are at the base of the ferns growing on a moss-covered tree trunk.
8. More lace lichen.
9. Rain-slicked Madrone trees lean over the water.
13. Great blue heron.