LOCAL WALKS: Watching the Weather

1. After sunset, tide running out, Deception Pass. Late December.

Looking back over the past six weeks it seems like we’ve come full circle: in early December the skies were gray and drizzly and temperatures were moderate. Then over the holidays, a long week of sub-freezing, snowy weather settled in. Now we’re back to the cool, damp, cloudy days that typify Pacific Northwest winter weather.

*

2. Sunset on a calm day, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.

What a treat the bright, White Christmas was, at least for those of us who weren’t traveling. When icy temperatures continued all week I was reminded of my New York childhood. Everything changed – the air was sharp and fresh, the landscapes enchanting, and the roads – well, our road was hardly plowed. But we’re both cold-weather veterans who’ve driven in far worse conditions so the dicey roads didn’t stop us from going out.

*

3. Snowfall on Christmas Day, at home.
4. Our road, snapped with an iPhone between Christmas and the New Year.

But the cold! I’m not used to it anymore! Ten years in the Pacific Northwest has spoiled me. So I bought a pair of warmer gloves and packs of toe warmers that stick to the bottom of your socks and keep your feet warm for hours. That helped, but my fingers were just too stiff with cold to cooperate. The pervasive bright light that snow creates threw me off, too. Many of my photographs were disappointing. Still, I haven’t enjoyed the simple activity of looking out the windows so much in a long time. I would check the little stacks of snow on the deck railing to see if they had grown tall with a new layer or collapsed into pancaked shapes. I admired and worried about the Douglas fir trees laden with snow, their branches bent to the ground. The birds were ravenous, fluttering down from the trees and swarming like ants the minute I tossed seed onto the ground. In the morning there were fine little birds’ foot tracks and delicate wing imprints on the thin layer of snow that blew onto the concrete. The whole house filled with blue-white light, a boon to my mood. Winter is often very dark in this land of towering, dense stands of evergreens.

*

5. Ice in the wetland at Bowman Bay. Early January.
6. As above.
7. Looking down from the bridge at Deception Pass. Late December.
8. Grasses underwater, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.
9. Surf scoters on choppy water, Washington Park. Early January.

News stories of atmospheric rivers bringing high winds and extra-high tides became routine but the storms’ effects were anything but routine. One day during a wind event I drove down to Rosario Beach, a rocky crescent of shoreline in Deception Pass State Park. Only one other car was in the lot. The noise of waves pounding the beach was deafening as I carefully made my way down the path to the beach. I could barely stand up, the wind was so fierce. Gulls sliced the air, wooden debris was smashed to bits at my feet, and walls of water tossed huge logs back and forth in a furious maelstrom. When white objects flew past me I thought, what little birds are those? None of our small birds are white. Then I realized the missiles were big chunks of foam the wind picked up from the wavetops and flung high across the trail into the bay on the other side. I didn’t stay long that day but I was glad I witnessed nature grabbing the upper hand with such unconditional determination.

*

10. Slideshow: A wind-driven king tide throws heavy logs around at Rosario Beach. Early January.

*

11. Logs and a tangle of Bullwhip kelp thrown onto Bowman Bay. Early January.
12. Blades of kelp floating on a calmer day, Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
13. Bullwhip kelp wrapped around a log by a rambunctious tide. Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
14. Red-tailed hawk, Campbell Lake. Mid-January.

*

Eventually, the snow was confined to a few speckled patches in shady spots and the lake ice shrank to a smooth necklace on the shoreline. Temperatures returned to normal and numb fingers became a memory. We’re back to drizzly rains giving way to clouds, occasional fog, and sunbreaks (the sun only shines all day in summer here so we enjoy our sun in small doses that we call sunbreaks). The days are getting longer, the holidays are over, and a new year has begun. The dark cloud of discouragement that overtook me toward the end of the year has lifted. In my gut, just as the birds and animals do, I sense the climb toward spring.

*

15. Calmer days. A hilltop path through the woods. Photo made with intentional camera movement. Mid-January.
16. Old road on Ginnett Hill. Photograph made with slight intentional camera movement. Mid-January.

17. Fog on Lottie Bay. Mid-January.
18. Fog at Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
19. Fog, Deception Pass Bridge from Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
20. Ice on Pass Lake. Late December.

***

ENCOUNTERING the SUBJECT

What’s the difference between a sculpture given pride of place in a museum and a tree trunk washed ashore after being sculpted by countless tides? One is human-made, one isn’t, the places where we see them are nothing alike, and we attach very different meanings to each object. You can probably think of other differences. But what if we untangle the threads that make up the answers and see what’s left? Perhaps finally, the object itself is all that remains, without any stories “about” it.

1. Amida Buddha; Japanese, circa 1130.
2. Driftwood log; 12/22/21.

***

What I’m talking about is the idea of removing layers of received wisdom from the experience of seeing, the encounter with the subject. A few weeks ago I photographed a handful of objects at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Essentially my approach to looking at art objects isn’t so different from my approach to looking at objects anywhere. That afternoon I didn’t ponder who made the work, why it was made, or how it fits into history. Those are good questions, no doubt. But I prefer to encounter art more directly. After all, the objects I was looking at were free from expectations or ideas about me. So, to the degree my mind was open, maybe I could approach them on the same terms, without distracting preconceptions.

***

3. Detail, Buddhist ceremonial banner.
4. Bullwhip kelp; 12/22/21.

***

Objects appear in my visual field as form, light, color, texture, structure, pattern, and perhaps other qualifiers that haven’t occurred to me. I enjoy taking them in on those terms. When I roam the landscape it’s the same: form, light, color, and texture present themselves in various guises. There’s no need to include extraneous thoughts (not that I don’t torture myself trying to remember the names of plants). Staying with the physicality of objects, leaving concepts and projections out of the relationship, one can embody a fresh appreciation of the world.

One thing that’s enjoyable about a museum experience is that the objects on display are presented with enough space around them to allow the viewer to rest in the encounter with the subject, to give oneself over to it. Focusing on objects individually, one after the other in conscious appreciation of their particularity, our attention is honed and heightened. I’ve noticed that after I walk out the museum door the experience doesn’t stop. I find I’m attending to the makeup of everyday objects in a deeper way. I’m more engaged with everything. In fact, even in the museum I often see chairs, shadows, and other “ordinary” objects as aesthetic subjects in their own right. That’s one of the pleasures of museum-going.

***

5. Near East ceramic vessel? (I didn’t check the label).
6. Valves and alarms on an industrial building; 12/24/21.

***

You probably already figured out what I’m doing with the images here. Each pair of photographs includes an art object and an object I photographed outside of the museum context. Maybe the pairings can help point toward a taken-for-granted fact: valuing one object over another is a choice we make or don’t make. I’m not suggesting that the log, the kelp strands, or the industrial valves I photographed should be in a museum. I’m suggesting that whether we’re in a museum or in a desert, at home or on an elevator, it’s possible to meet the world with fresh eyes and directly experience beauty without extra layers of mental activity.

Some of these pairs may be more obviously connected than others, which I think is fine. The point is to suggest a kind of universality of perception. There’s no need to see objects in museums differently than you see the objects you photograph. Conversely, everyday objects really benefit from the close, special attention that we give museum artifacts.

***

7. Calligraphy scroll, probably Japanese.
8. Angel-wing begonia flower buds; 10/08/21.

***

9. Water-moon Guanyin; Chinese, 10th to late-13th century.
10. Old Bigleaf maple tree; 12/01/21.

***

11. Detail, Chinese landscape painting, probably 18th century.
12. Detail, peeling bark on a Madrone tree; 01/18/21.

***

13. Thousand-armed, Eleven-headed Guanyin; Chinese, 16th century.
14. Spiraling stem and leaves on a tropical plant; 11/17/21.

***