as fall peeks round the corner, making tentative changes
in the order of things –
but let’s not assume we’re on the edge of summer or the verge of autumn.
I think we’re always in the middle.
This precise and muddled middle where
we stand now
is where sunlight heats dried grasses
to sweet fragrance and a cool tongue of wind surprises
your cheek. This infinitely generous middle is where barefoot toddlers
delight in beach sand and a slice of hard blue hovers just
over the horizon. It’s all here, the pain of dying things,
the joy of hope, the exquisite indifference to our opinions, all
all mixed in the middle.
Summer’s bright blooms have faded and the heat is intense: it must be August, the month that puts patience to the test as each day drags into the next and a trance-like sameness descends on us. Here at 48.51N, 122.61W, significant rainfall hasn’t occurred for months. The landscape looks dull and tired, the birds have gone silent, and any hints of autumn are brief whispers at best. Knowing that summer is ending and fresh, cool, autumn days are near creates a liminal feeling: we are in between. And though it may feel like we’re treading in the margins, the pause between seasons is spacious.
This spring and summer I was propelled into a frenzy of activity. Which wildflowers were currently blooming and where were my favorites, the orchids and harebells? Could I go up to Sugarloaf to look for flowers or was I needed down at Tugboat Beach to help protect the Northern elephant seal? She had returned to the island to molt in mid-May. The only elephant seal ever known to haul up on Fidalgo Island, she has molted here each spring and gave birth to her first pup at a local park last winter. She chooses busy beaches for her land activities, so a great deal of effort goes into protecting her and educating the public. I was part of that this year, along with a small band of like-minded people. She kept us very busy, especially when the weather warmed and the crowds grew at the beach where she rested while slowly shedding her old fur coat. Every day I was outside, either photographing wildflowers or at the beach, seal sitting. Sharply focused on the life around me, I reveled in the graceful blooms of wildflowers, gazed into the soulful eyes of a pinniped, and responded to curious park visitors.
By late June Elsie Mae’s annual molt was complete. One morning she swam back out to the Salish Sea, bent on replacing the weight she’d lost from spending six weeks on land. She’s probably far out in the Pacific Ocean now, deep-diving and feasting – she’s tagged but has no radio or chip so once she’s in the water, humans don’t know where she is. We seal sitters were both relieved and bereft when she left. I never thought I’d bond with a marine mammal but spending so much time with her (and with her pup earlier this year), I found myself invested in the little family.
But I was also grateful to be free to concentrate on the local flora and eventually, my orchid quest was satisfied. I knew where each of our three kinds of Rein orchids grew and could tell them apart. The green machine was slowing to a crawl.
What was next? I kept going out because it’s good to be outdoors and I need the exercise but without a particular focus, I was at loose ends photographically. Quite a few boring images flew off the SD card! To get a spark going I experimented with intentional camera movement, different angles, and different lenses. A few compositions that seem interesting emerged. Except for the photos of Elsie Mae above, all of the photos are from the last few weeks.
The West – the phrase invokes associations of vast space, deserts, freedom, perhaps violence, and wilderness. The concept of the American West was just a hodgepodge of TV cliches to a kid like me, raised on the east coast. As I grew older, my fantasies of the western mythos were embellished with San Francisco hippies, surfers, intrepid explorers, and maverick pioneers. That may sound exciting but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the west; tropical places like the Caribbean interested me much more back then. By the time I finally got on a plane heading across the country I was in my thirties and on the way to San Francisco, which is nothing like the capital “W” west of cowboys and red sunsets. In fact, the sophisticated, wealthy, liberal, coastal city of San Francisco wasn’t all that different from New York, where I lived.
If, as some claim, the American West is everything west of the 100th meridian, then it encompasses big cities, deserts, plains, mountain ranges, and even rain forests. But for most of us, the capital “W” west means the desert part with some mountains in the background and perhaps a few Indians on horses in the foreground. For many years that just didn’t grab me.
It was 2004. My son was in a wilderness school program based in southern Utah. I won’t go into why he was there, I’ll just say that I was desperate and hoped the program would help him get back on the right track. The kids’ families were asked to join them at the end of the month so I booked a flight from New York to Salt Lake City and reserved a rental car. It seemed like a good idea to go early and get acclimated so I poked around Salt Lake City a bit, finding it an intriguing contrast to the eastern cities I knew. It was much smaller and cleaner than New York! But I was eager to head south toward Boulder Mountain, in the wild, high desert of southern Utah, where I would see my son and celebrate his accomplishment.
Soon after Salt Lake City dissolved like a mirage in the rearview mirror, I understood what all the fuss was about. Not knowing what to expect, my drive into the desert was a little like dropping into a void that morphed into pure space, expanding in all directions. The mountains were taller and more rugged, the view wider, the sky higher than any landscape I had experienced. There was room to really see the shapes and colors because they weren’t crammed together. By the time I reached my hotel in the quiet little town of Torrey, I was hooked. Even the view from my room was inspiring. The sheer spaciousness was a tonic for my soul.
The family program wasn’t easy. Each family had its own space up on that cold, tree-studded mountain. There were no amenities, not even a tent, so parents could experience how their kids had been living and kids could show their parents that they could survive without modern conveniences and distractions. Our shelter was two sleeping bags under a tarp propped up with sticks. In the early hours of the morning, it snowed and the tarp collapsed on us. Cold! The kids were supposed to make fires the next morning by rubbing sticks, the old way, but the wet weather made it a struggle. Fire was stolen by more than one camper. Later, there was an intense therapeutic program for everyone, held in a big heated tent, a luxury. In spite of a blazing migraine I got through that long day and in the end, living so close to the bone up there, so far from any human habitation, was tantalizing. The spare landscape, so different from anything I’d ever seen, tugged at my spirit. It felt good to be there.
As soon as I returned to New York, everyday life took over and my capital “W” western experience faded. I was busy – over the next five years, I went back to school for a Master’s degree, separated from my husband, moved twice, changed jobs, and began a new relationship. My son still struggled but he was older and I wasn’t trying to manage his life. My own life was happier than it had been in a decade.
Then a day came when, by a quirk of fate, my partner and I found ourselves both out of work. We began to question if we should look for jobs in New York City, where we lived, or somewhere else. It could be anywhere! After talking and researching, we zeroed in on the Pacific Northwest and planned a trip to scope it out. Landing in Seattle, we drove our rental car all over the region, visiting Mt. Ranier, the Pacific coast, and points in between. We liked what we saw so we took the leap: three months later we were in the west.
But we weren’t in the mythical American West, far from it.
The Pacific Northwest is wet, lush, and feels closed in because of the profusion of towering trees. It has its own beauty, which I’ve come to appreciate. In Utah, I had a taste of the classic West – a vast, arid, open landscape that reveals itself starkly. I hoped to experience that again and it turned out that the desert west was just a short plane ride from Seattle. I could access those sublimely difficult places that had been teasing my mind for years.
That’s what we did, making forays to locations like Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley in Nevada. I posted photos of every trip but a scroll through my Lightroom catalog revealed other photographs that haven’t appeared here and are worth a look. The common denominator is desert, whether it’s the Mohave or the Sonoran. The images come out of my experience of fierce, dry, captivating places. It’s one person’s view of a ravishing landscape.
and a few words about the still days of August when
summer holds its breath.
Where would my words and images land? Not knowing, I waited.
Then, small scribbles in digital space – a few comments, a few likes
and the little black marks suggested, “Continue.”
The sun set and rose, set and rose,
the moon, too. The earth turned.
I sent more missives into a net
that’s too wide and fine to perceive.
(Funny thing about the notes I launch into that net – they’re all about
physical things that I see, hear, touch, and smell
but the physical substance of the notes themselves? That’s beyond my ken.
A nice contradiction).
As the black marks and bright images flew across space
friendships blossomed and ten years later
here we are. The “we”
TEN YEARS:WHY LOOK BACK?
Fellow photographer and blogger Alex Kunz has been creating monthly “Throwback” posts for years. It’s his fault.
As I considered making a “Throwback” post of my own, it dawned on me that ten years ago this month I posted for the first time on WordPress. Blogging was new then, and my home was as well. I had moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City six months earlier, in February. While we settled into a cozy apartment in a Seattle suburb and looked for work, we played tourist to acclimate ourselves. It seemed to us that the culture of the Pacific Northwest was as different from New York as the natural environment was. Walking around with our eyebrows raised and our mouths turned up into smiles, we chalked up one contrast after another. No one cut us off on the highways and the onramps were not pitched battles. What? One could almost relax behind the wheel! When we asked for maintenance on our apartment our request was honored, not ignored. Grocery store clerks smiled disarmingly and asked us what our plans for the weekend were, just to make conversation. Weird! Our New York defensiveness, a self-preservation tactic carefully honed over decades, rose up with a “What’s it to you?” that we barely kept from voicing out loud. It was as if we had exchanged bumper cars for sailboats. Life was so strangely smooth.
We adapted. Seattle’s summer “heat” felt cool and comfortable after New York and the sense of a daily struggle just to exist gradually faded. Every month there were new things to do. August was busy – we rode the ferry across the sound from Seattle to Bremerton, explored a rail trail in our valley, and drove up to Deception Pass State Park to explore a driftwood-strewn beach. We went to the Seattle Art Museum and checked out the city’s architecture and public art. We hiked part of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascades, visited a Japanese garden in Seattle, and took walks in local parks. Whew!
Of course, a camera was always at my side. It was a Sony NEX-3, advertised then as the world’s smallest interchangeable lens camera, with the quality of a DSLR but not the weight or size. I was a rank beginner with a kit lens and I’d never heard of RAW format. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the camera but I was enjoying it. The little black box wasn’t a burden to carry and was capable enough for what I wanted to do. I could record the beauty around me and experiment with settings. It was thrilling to have control over aperture and exposure, even if I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing!
So here’s a throwback to August 2012. The photos were made that month but I’ve reprocessed them – why not? I’ve learned a thing or two in ten years. The old jpeg files may not have the range that RAW files have but they can usually be persuaded to look a little better.
That summer I discovered a deserted railway bed near our apartment where I could pick wildflowers. Even Butterfly bush (Buddleia) grew there! One August morning I arranged them in an old, dented silver pitcher, brought them outside, and began to experiment.
ON THE FERRY
One day we explored Rosario Beach, part of a sprawling state park named for the deceptive, turbulent channel of water separating Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. A large, weathered wood sculpture commands the space. Immense driftwood logs rest on a beach of smooth, round rocks, and tidepools harbor marine life. Reveling in the scenery, I had no idea that six years later we would move to a cottage less than ten minutes away from this spot.
LODGE LAKE TRAIL
Lodge Lake Trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653 mi (4,270 km) wilderness trail running from the California/Mexico border to the Washington/Canada border. The Lodge Lake Trail begins just off I-90, Washington’s busiest east-west highway but soon the traffic fades and mountain scenery emerges in the distance – depending on the weather.
We’d seen Pike Place Market several times so one day, we headed to the Experience Music Project. As a Frank Gehry fan, I had a great time finding interesting compositions outside of the building he designed – there didn’t seem to be any reason to go inside!
Almost hidden in a residential section of southeast Seattle, Kubota Garden was the all-consuming project of Fujitaro Kubota (1879-1973). Beginning in 1927, Kubota slowly added more land for his dream project, a traditional Japanese garden that would contain primarily native plants. After being interred in a camp in Idaho with his family throughout WWII, he began again, creating ponds, waterfalls, and a moon bridge. Eight years after he died the garden became a Seattle landmark and Kubota’s labor of love is a now peaceful public park.
“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.” *
The Arbutus, or Madrone
Four years ago, when I moved to an island in the Salish Sea, I fell in love with Madrone trees, also called Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii). The colorful peeling bark and sinewy, muscular branches of this unusual tree brighten the island’s conifer-dominated landscape. When I lived near Seattle I would see Madrones here and there. They were attractive accents in the unforgiving expanse of dark green that lines highways and trails around Puget Sound. Now they’re frequent companions; it seems the island environment suits them. It’s sunnier here than in Seattle and Madrones adapt to the undulating terrain and shallow soils. Give them a well-drained, open slope with a little shelter (there are plenty of tall conifers to provide that!) and they’re happy. They like mild winters (check), they tolerate bone-dry summers (check), and they can cope with very wet winters and springs (check). Our Madrones aren’t as big and healthy as many that grow in California and Oregon but that doesn’t diminish them to local eyes.
When Madrones grow in inhospitable, rocky places where the soil is thin and nutrient-poor, their wide-spreading roots help anchor them in place. Crucially, they associate with beneficial communities of soil fungi in networks that can transport beneficial nutrients to the trees in times of need. In fact, Madrones are like transportation hubs that facilitate different connections among trees in their “neighborhood” because they associate with diverse kinds of underground mycorrhizae (the networks of soil fungi).
The more I saw these pretty trees leaning out over the water or reaching for light in small forest clearings, the more I appreciated them. Their winding, eccentric branches carve exotic paths into the straight and narrow patterns of our wooded places. The unusual bark can bring out the artist in anyone. Colors range from pale, soft greens to deep, rusty reds with everything imaginable in between. Placing my hand against a Madrone tree on a warm summer day, I found that the bark stays as cool as a refrigerator! In spring there are creamy flowers, in fall, red-orange berries, and all year long the rich green of their leathery leaves shines bright. No wonder I fell under the Mardrone’s spell. The summer after I moved here, I put together a photo and text post about them called JUST ONE: Pacific Madrone. But the story wasn’t finished.
On exploratory walks near my new home, I paid close attention to the topography and plants, which are quite different from the Seattle area and vastly different from my native northeast. The first week we lived here I photographed an odd little flower – just tiny green buds on a stalk. The photo languished amidst images of spectacular scenery that year but the following summer I noticed more of the little flowers and became curious about them. I had a hell of a time trying to identify them, getting only as far as “Rein orchids.” I couldn’t be sure which Rein orchid I was looking at, not least because the names have changed several times. A casual observer wouldn’t even guess they are orchids – you have to get up close and personal to see the characteristic orchid structure in each tiny flower.
More often than not the modest flowers grow near Madrone trees, usually in forest clearings or on grassy slopes along the island’s intricately cut shoreline. Gradually, I developed a sixth sense for them – once I understood their preferred habitat, I often knew when I was about to find one. The more I learned, the more special the plants seemed. For example, Rein orchid seeds have to connect to a mycorrhizal network in order to germinate – without that connection, there will be no plant! Even more amazing, the tiny, germinated seed still has years to go before anything appears aboveground. At first, just one pair of leaves emerges. Gathering energy from the sun, the leaves nourish the underground heart of the plant until it’s mature enough to produce a stalk with flowers. There can be several years of nothing but leaves, busily preparing the way. Finally, a flower appears and once it is pollinated, there will be seeds. The cycle can begin again.
This year I was determined to find and correctly identify all the Rein orchids I could. Obsessed? Yes. I have finally figured out that there are three species here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans, P. elongata, and P. transversa. Their common names have changed over the years but currently recognized names include (in the same order) the Elegant Rein orchid (or Hillside Rein orchid), Denseflower Rein orchid, and Flat-spurred Piperia.
The summer after I wrote about Madrones I posted JUST ONE: Rein Orchids. I was – and am – fascinated by these plants. Their scarcity, intricate life cycle, and obscurity (most people walk right past them) make them special. I look for them from late winter until autumn: first, two oval leaves rise from the ground in late winter, then modest summer blooms rise among dry July grasses, and finally, seed stalks that look like burnt sugar on a stick are left – if you can find them.
Why do Madrone trees and Rein orchids grow together so often? Perhaps the answer’s hiding in the underground mycorrhizal networks that Rein orchids and Madrones rely on. Research has already shown that mycorrhizal networks can be a two-way street, transporting carbon compounds in both directions to benefit Douglas firs and birch trees. The Douglas fir is another tree that I always see near Rein orchids. Perhaps there’s a complex relationship among Madrones, Douglas fir trees, and Rein orchids facilitated by mycorrhizal networks connected to all three plants – an interdependence we can’t see directly but one that we enjoy indirectly, standing under the cool shade of Doug firs next to a colorful Madrone tree, with Rein orchids peaking through the grass.
Whatever the science does or does not tell us, I’ve come to cherish the special places where Rein orchids appear with Madrone trees. These natural gardens are almost always quiet. Often an expanse of water is within view. Two of the places I’ve found where orchids and Madrones grow are small clearings in the forest at the end of winding trails. Another spot is on a grassy hill sloping gracefully down to a mirror-quiet lake. These are settings where you can focus on all five senses and inhale the spirit of place. Where it’s safe to sense, as Georgina Reid said, “this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”