Summarizing a year of photography is a daunting task and choosing the best photos of the year seems impossible. If you do choose your favorites and decide to post them, then I wonder if it’s mainly an exercise in self-congratulation. Will the photographer benefit more from the process than the reader? Having said that, I’ll admit that I only wavered for a few minutes before deciding to take a stab at it. I hope you’ll enjoy looking.
So here are some favorites from 2022. Most appeared in the blog this year, some did not. I like posting series of images that tell a story and obviously, this series can’t do that. What I’ve done instead is order the photographs so there’s a flow from one to the next. Below the photographs, you’ll see a summary of the experiences that made this year especially memorable. A slideshow accompanies the story – look for the arrow on the right.
Photographically, 2022 was a year of honing skills. I focused more on using wide-angle lenses for landscape views than I had in the past and continued experimenting with intentional camera movement. New Lightroom updates made it easy to select subjects, skies, and backgrounds or to lift the atmosphere of an image with colored highlights and shadows. I began using those edits regularly. I became more selective about what to keep and thought about how photography enables us to record scenes so easily that we often forget to consider the potential emotional impact of an image.
Trips always inspire me photographically and this year was no exception, with a memorable spring trip to the Southwest that included visits to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and best of all, Capitol Reef National Park. In October we returned to Humboldt County in northern California. It was good to see that the excellent Airbnb where we’ve stayed before, the local coffee shop, and the Mexican restaurant we like all weathered the pandemic. We explored Redwood forests, drove into the backcountry, and spent peaceful hours on spectacularly lonely beaches.
The biggest events of the year were not the trips though. They centered around the emergence of new life. At the tail end of January, a Northern elephant seal came ashore at my favorite beach and gave birth to her first pup. The area was closed off for months as Elsie Mae (born 4 years ago on a neighboring island) fed her pup, Emerson. In February I saw them and met the people who protect them, working as volunteers with the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network. I decided to join the volunteers in protecting the seals and educating the public about the first-ever Northern elephant seal born on Fidalgo Island. It was intensely busy and very rewarding. In June, Elsie Mae returned to the area to molt, requiring more hours of volunteering. Then in October, she came ashore for a rest and we wondered if she was pregnant again. Only time will tell.
In April I had a surprise from my son and his girlfriend who announced they were pregnant – with twins! Late in August, two tiny boys came into this world: my first grandchildren. It’s hard to describe how having a grandchild transforms your relationship with your own child. It gives you a very different perspective on your life, their life, and life itself. Holding the babies brought all my parental instincts back in play. Words cannot do it justice!
Sandwiched between the birth of the elephant seal pup and the momentous arrival of my own grandsons, I had an unusual experience in the forest. I was searching for orchids at one of my favorite places here on Fidalgo Island. Alone in the quiet forest, I suddenly heard a loud hissing sound and saw something jump in front of me. Startled, I realized it was a medium-sized bird, wings fully outstretched, and she – it had to be a female – was furious! She was not going to let me go any farther in that direction. I stopped, looked around, and saw two balls of fluff in the moss on the ground! I could see they were Nighthawks but I hadn’t seen a Nighthawk in many years. It was deeply moving to go eye-to-eye with this wild creature in such an unexpected encounter in the heart of the forest. I apologized to her and quickly made several photos while carefully backing away. It was a privilege to see them – this species is declining here and is not normally seen on the island. And here was a healthy Nighthawk and two chicks!
As if to make sure I understood the theme of new life, one day a doe with twin fawns walked through our yard. Then I found something unexpected in a photograph I uploaded. It was August and I had been photographing Bull-whip kelp in the park. Almost hidden in the giant kelp strands was a small, pure white Harbor seal pup! Later I learned that some Harbor seal pups are born prematurely with their lanugo, a white coat they normally lose before birth. I hope the little pup survived! My own grandchildren were also born prematurely and I see their parents devoting themselves to their care. The babies, the elephant seal pup I watched over for months, the tiny Nighthawk chicks, the baby Harbor seal – it’s been a year to take heart in new life.
Like huge swaths of the US, the Pacific Northwest was walloped with a blast of arctic air this week. Where I live, snow fell for hours, leaving about 7″ (18cm) on the ground. The white light of winter was accompanied by days of round-the-clock below-freezing temperatures, which is unusual here, especially in December.
I may have grown up with plenty of snow but, after living in the Pacific Northwest for ten-plus years, I’m not used to it anymore! Determined to get some exercise, I set out on a short, cold walk in a park by open water one afternoon. Brisk winds whipped straight across the water, waves dashed the shoreline, fir trees moaned and my extremities went numb.
But as I said, I was determined to walk – and of course, I had a camera in hand. The rhythmic scissoring of my legs over crunchy snow felt good after several sedentary days. By alternately warming each hand in a pocket to regain movement in my fingers, I was able to make a few photographs. Near an empty bench, two round, dark bird blobs bounced across the snow, looking for stray bits of anything edible. I threw a handful of peanuts from my pocket onto the ground. The sparrows wrestled with the too-large morsels but it seemed to be worth the effort. Other than a handful of bundled-up walkers, two cross-country skiers, and five sparrows, nothing but wind and waves moved.
Despite the cold, I lingered over the beauty. It’s always that way, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what discomfort we feel in the moment, it’s all forgotten when something exciting catches our eye. What caught my eye that day were the sculpted curves of snow drifts in the sinking sunlight, a patch of almost-bare ground that the snow battered with such force that every blade of grass was outlined, and sunglow on the fir trees in the forest.
Bringing my scarf up over my face, I turned back and walked as briskly as I dared on the snowy lane that was unplowed and closed to vehicles because the island’s few snowplows were urgently needed in town. Christmas lights strung carelessly in a tree by the parking lot welcomed me with the warm charm that makes me grateful to live here, away from city sophistication. Heading home in my unglamorous but dependable Ford Focus, I looked forward to a warm house, brightened by the white light of winter at the windows.
The blanket of snow has brought many pleasures. Crossing the bridgeto the mainland this week, we wondered at the beauty of a mackerel sky, clean, white fields, and the mirrored surface of the Swinomish Channel. I recorded the scene with my phone from the passenger window, closed tight against the frigid air. One day I drove around March Point and stopped for a minute to gaze over Padilla Bay, just north of the fields seen below. Ducks gathered in tight masses close to the shoreline. To the east, the clouds opened a narrow window onto snowy foothills. A skein of ducks flew silently over the bay, perhaps to spend the night huddled at the edge of a slough.
At home, a Dark-eyed junco huddled in the Redcedar tree that stands tall beside the house. The birds are so hungry this week that they only fly off at the last second when we step out of the house. It’s the briefest interruption in their all-day-meal at the suet and seed feeders. Stand still in the doorway for a few seconds and they flutter back down to the ground like autumn leaves, so close you can hear them alight. I treasure these intimate moments with wildlife. Making my way with big, soft steps into the snow, I walked back toward the woods and found a leaf that seemed to have been dipped in snow cream and rose hips with elfin snow caps. Even the deck fencing was transformed into a series of toques, ready for a bevy of chefs to place on their heads and get to work. What ingredients would they find? Perhaps cascara tree bark, rose hips, and wildflower seeds would be a start.
Reveling in the lovely, deep snowfall, I made a few more photographs before my fingers went numb again. Werner Herzog said,“The world reveals itself to those who walk.” And, I would add, to those who look. I hope your solstice holiday time, wherever you are, allows you time to walk and attend to the earth and its gifts. And speaking of gifts, thank you so much for the gift of your presence here this year.
A few weeks ago I bought a book by photographer Sam Abell from the used book store in town. I probably spend too much time there, browsing and drinking espresso, but I like an afternoon pick-me-up and the book selection is excellent. In Seeing Gardens, Sam Abell reflects on gardens all over the world, expanding the definition of a garden to include photographs of Arctic landscapes and scenes as mundane as a woman wearing a flowered scarf.
Abell’s inclusive vision got me thinking. Having worked in many gardens over the years and cultivated a few as well, there’s no question that gardens have played a major role in my life. So have wild places, from the woods behind the house where I grew up to the preserves and parks that I frequent now. Cultivated gardens are a cornerstone of civilization – the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and ancient Daoist parks in China are just a few examples. But the idea of a garden can encompass more than intentionally cultivated spaces. Seeing gardens in places where the human hand hasn’t been at work is a just matter of opening up one’s perspective. For me, gardens are just about everywhere.
Cultivated gardens took center stage in my life during certain periods; wild gardens were important at other times. As a chubby toddler, I went barefoot in the grass in a yard that bloomed with tulips and roses. Flowers were always a part of life at home. I remember black ants on white peonies, the scent of lilacs in spring, and the excitement of digging up wildflowers in the woods and bringing them home to plant by the back door. If it sounds idyllic, yes, it was.
College and work in New York City changed that. For more than ten years, gardens were something I experienced incidentally against a backdrop of stimulating, busy city life. I searched out nature when I could and that was enough. Then when I was in my 30s, I got a job at a historic New York City public garden called Wave Hill. Set on rolling hills above the Hudson River, it’s a peaceful, verdant refuge from urban life. I didn’t work in the gardens but they were never out of sight and over time, the elegant landscape informed and enlarged my relationship with nature. I still paid attention to wild places – even the smallest patch of stubborn green plants in the crack of a sidewalk won my appreciation.
A few years later I landed a temporary position at an imposing Victorian-era conservatory, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. It was basically grunt work like pushing wheelbarrows piled with cuttings through the glass houses. But being in the presence of exotic plants from all over the world was exciting and a random cactus spine in my rear end was a small price to pay for it.
My Fine Arts degree didn’t open doors to high-paying jobs but money wasn’t my primary focus. Work wasn’t a calling, it was a way to help pay the bills. In my forties, I didn’t want to be away from home all day because I had a son at home so when the conservatory job ended, I began gardening for a respected children’s book author and editor who’d sustained an injury that prevented her from working in her garden. The quiet, restorative work in small-scale flower beds around her suburban home kept me sane during troubled times. When Charlotte got better I took another gardening job, one that gave me a far more thorough education in gardening than I could have imagined. I was tasked with managing the grounds and maintaining the gardens at the country home of two top-of-the-line New York interior designers. A Cy Twombly painting graced their living room, finicky delphiniums bloomed in the gardens, and the boxwood hedges had to be wrapped in burlap every winter to prevent freezing and burnt foliage. The topiary trees required precision cuts while standing on a ladder and the greenhouse had to be checked after snowstorms to be sure the power was on and precious specimens were intact. Perfection was the expectation. I was in way over my head.
Once I was asked to find out how a striking fountain the owners saw at a neighboring estate was installed because they wanted one like it. That neighbor was the controversial philanthropist George Soros so discretion was critical. Armed with a little New York chutzpah, I drove straight onto the estate and located the property manager. Carefully approaching him with genuine humility, I found he was surprisingly generous with information and advice. Before too long, I found myself running a major dredging operation in one corner of the estate. The pond where the fountain was to be located had to be excavated to keep the motor underwater. The project put my love of nature in conflict with my job because dredging the pond meant changing its wild nature forever. Once I saw a Great blue heron beside that pond but after the fountain was installed I doubt the heron ever came back.
Whether weeding a bed on my hands and knees or ordering thousands of dollars of full-grown trees from a nursery, I learned as I went. The inspirational year-round beauty of the gardens atHigh-Lowgave back.
I enjoyed the challenges of the job until the owners began to behave erratically. The pressure of maintaining their social position, working for clients like Tina Turner, and having their own home featured on the cover of a major interior design magazine did not make them easy to work with. Seeing them treat loyal suppliers and employees with contempt was the final straw. It was a relief to quit but I was grateful for the education I received there.
A job at a local Starbucks offered good benefits for part-time work (and as many espresso drinks as I wanted!) so I took it. One year, the district manager asked me to design and install three small garden areas at different Starbucks stores. Serving espresso in the morning and digging in the dirt in the afternoon suited me better than the unpredictable demands and stress of my previous job. Expanding on the garden side jobs, I created The Garden Steward, my own garden maintenance business. It didn’t bring in much money but it kept me outdoors, surrounded by beauty (after I finished weeding!).
A different kind of immersion into gardens came with a two-year course in botanical illustration I enrolled in at the New York Botanical Garden. Botanical illustration requires careful observation, which I enjoyed. The slow, engrossing work deepened my understanding and appreciation for plant life.
In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a home. The previous owner of the modest house in upstate New York gardened intensively and I picked up where she left off. Around that time a friend hired me to join the gardening crew he directed for a billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist who kept a sprawling estate in bucolic Dutchess County. It seemed to me that the owner was hardly ever there. That didn’t stop him from hiring the influential British garden designer and author John Brookes to fly over and make his mark on the landscape. As we snipped dead blossoms from enormous potted plants and planted hundreds of flower bulbs for drifts of spring color, we were a friendly little cadre of workers. Between microgreens sprouting in the greenhouse, a horse stable, and the perfectly manicured garden rooms behind the house, it was an elaborate setup made to please someone who was rarely present. I appreciated the beauty but not the waste.
In any case, it was time for a change in direction: I decided to go back to school for a Master’s degree in social work. The busy schedule of classes and internships pushed gardens to the periphery of my life. After graduating, I worked at an organization that supports people with severe mental illness, then found a better position with the state health department. I was back in the urban setting of my late teens and twenties, soaking in what nature I could after work and on weekends. But gardens were never forgotten. I continued to cultivate them in my mind.
A confluence of unexpected events caused my partner and me to change course. We’d lost our jobs at about the same time and we thought it might be the perfect time to leave city life behind. So we took a leap of faith and moved across the country, to the west coast. Suddenly I was immersed in a world of mountains, forests, and water. It didn’t matter that we lived in a small apartment because nature loomed large everywhere, even out the windows. When finding a job took longer than expected I volunteered at a public garden. We pinpointed plant locations in the garden using a GIS (geographic information system) data system. Ultimately, detailed plant information would be accessible to visitors and employees. The work put me right back in the garden. It felt good to be there.
Soon I was working full-time in Seattle and had little time to think about gardens. Driving from one appointment to the next I took note of my surroundings: the softly drooping tips of hemlock trees and the majesty of Mount Rainier in the distance made me glad to be living in the Pacific Northwest. If I felt the need to spend time in a garden, there was one close enough for a brief stroll on slow days.
On vacations, we explored the desert southwest, now just a few hours away by plane. It was all new to my eastern-bred eyes: the whole west was an immense garden. The weathered granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, the extraordinary Chiricahua Mountains, and the spare beauty of Death Valley astounded and delighted me. I had a better camera and became serious about photography, focusing on the wild gardens of the West and the cultivated gardens near home. And I began this blog.
Then we retired and left the city and suburbs behind to move to an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. I have all the time I want to appreciate gardens of any kind now. That’s what I do.
My medium of choice, the camera, doesn’t pick and choose. It has no opinions, no favorite colors or times of day. With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing. You may argue that this isn’t quite true – cameras do have limitations – but bear with me. The point is that in this season of abundant darkness when shorter days bookend the winter solstice, the camera’s all-seeing lens may not see as much as it does in brighter seasons. Unless you’re photographing a snowfield, it’s likely that a fair amount of the frame will fall into the shadows. That makes it easier to concentrate on a few elements of the scene. Darkness can be a wall where light enters through a door.
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest from the east coast I bemoaned the lack of light. I missed the dazzle that accompanies blankets of snow, the delicate light of spring, the pop of bright autumn leaves. At a photo conference, I asked Art Wolfe, a respected Seattle photographer who travels widely, about what I thought was the problem of the paucity of light in the region. He surprised me by disagreeing and expressing warm enthusiasm for the local landscape, just the way it is. I respect him and his work so I thought long and hard about what he said. I tried to flex my mind and open myself to other possibilities. Over the next five years, while I grappled with camera noise and somber tones, I gradually developed a feeling for the moody Pacific Northwest. That meant accepting the challenges of dim, overcast days alongside the picture-postcard beauty of snow-topped mountains and craggy, forested islands. Now, my least favorite time of year for photography is the summer, when the sun rides high and bright in clear skies.
In a few weeks, the shortest day of the year will mark the turn toward an increase in light that culminates in June with deliciously long, sunlit days. I value the rebirth and growth that comes with spring, my favorite season. But by midsummer, I’m tired of sunny days whose harsh, flat light illuminates every nook and cranny in the landscape. It gets to be too much.
The crepuscular hours of winter’s short days are just the remedy – and it begins well before the official start of winter. Shadowed landscapes offer magical openings that leave more to the imagination. When a sliver of golden light picks out a few twigs in the forest and hides everything else in the murky half-light, a drive awakens in me. Like an animal focused on its prey, I become intent on finding interesting plays of light during the last hours of the afternoon. The cold is forgotten as I study details and analyze the pros and cons of each mentally framed scene. Working quickly before twilight turns into night, I appreciate every patch of light as a treasure in a half-dark world. And of course, it’s the darkness that makes those treasures valuable.
A few days ago a light snowfall coated the ground overnight. In the morning the snow was marked with neat circles where icy rain fell onto it. In search of whatever beauty I might find, I tried driving up Mt. Erie, the highest place on the island. Within minutes, the car began to skid. The road up the mountain isn’t a priority and isn’t well-plowed. Congratulating myself on a well-executed three-point turn on the narrow, icy road, I retreated in low gear and parked at the bottom. A trail across the road that leads up a gentler hill would have to be good enough.
And it was. In a forest opening, I found scraps of ice hanging like baubles from clumps of gray-green Usnea lichen that dangle from the branches (#2, 3, 4). Delicate twigs festooned with waterdrops glowed faintly in the low light (#5). Like an interloper, a beam of light sliced through the forest and illuminated a patch of drooping flower clusters that were dull brown with age. For a few seconds, they sparkled like gold. With fingers going numb, I photographed straight into the weak, distant sun before the light shifted again (#1).
The forest was losing what little light was left as the sun dipped behind the hill. Only the tallest treetops gleamed saffron; everything else was obscured in the dusky shadows. My toes and fingers were cold. Alone in the woods, I followed the trail back down to the road. The birds were quiet, probably busy gleaning the last seeds and tiny insects from the woods before huddling close to a tree trunk and fluffing their feathers for the night. Somewhere behind me, the high-pitched chatter of a Douglas squirrel broke through the shadows.
It felt good to get back in the car but there was still a little daylight left so I decided to check out Heart Lake. Just up the road, the small lake is a pretty splash of blue set in a deep green border of conifers. I knew the afternoon light would be raking across the lake in chiaroscuro patches. As I pulled into the parking lot mergansers dove in the shallows and a man threw a stick into the water for his happy Labradoodle. I got out and exchanged friendly words with the man but I was more interested in what was behind him on the edge of the lake. A great tangle of brush, grass, reeds, and trees glowed like copper in the lowering sun. Each twig and leaf was picked out in sharp definition. All I had to do was to stand as close as possible to the shoreline without getting wet feet, check settings, compose, and click (#6).
To the left, gracefully bent reeds were mirrored by the cold, still water (#8). On the north end of the lake, a group of ducks worried the surface. Noticing the pattern of sunlit reeds, barely visible trees on the opposite shore, distant ducks in a line, and striped reflections on the water, an idea came to mind: the varied bands of light and dark would make a nice composition. Later, I realized that the color was distracting and made the image black and white (#10). With the sun finally gone behind another hill, I saw one last subject: a loose fountain of tall grass sticking up through the ice. The ice was mushy and pock-marked from waterdrops that must have fallen from a nearby tree. I liked the graceful droop of the grass and muted colors. It was a natural conclusion to the afternoon (9).