FARTHER AFIELD: Slow Shutter in Vancouver


“You know, the real world, this so-called world, is just something you put up with like everybody else. I’m in my element when I’m a little bit out of this world: then I’m in the real world – I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing alright. When I’m slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me… As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping most of the time. I’m like a slipping glimpser.” William de Kooning

From “Slipping Glimpser: William de Koonig’s Sublime Take on What it Means to be an Artist”: April 11, 2015. In “All That’s Interesting”


My own slip involves glimpsing carp in a conservatory with a camera set to a slow shutter speed. I was in Vancouver, Canada, for a few days and a visit to Bloedel Conservatory was just the thing on a cold, rainy afternoon. The domed conservatory is filled with tropical plants and free-flying birds, a perfect antidote to the midwinter blahs. As we slowly circumnavigated the walkway a little stream appeared and sure enough, bright orange carp were swimming there, making lazy circuits under a little bridge.

I’ve seen carp in streams in other conservatories and I decided to do what I’ve done before: photograph those svelte bodies slipping through the water as blurry shapes, using a slow shutter speed. Here’s the result (except for photo #8, where carp and water are stopped for a split second). The camera was usually on shutter priority at .4 seconds. I was, as de Kooning said, a little bit out of this world as I gratefully fell, slipped, and found the beam.



9. A watery interlude, sans carp.


10. An earthly pause.


11. The orchids slip, too.


12. Especially when you move the camera.


13. These visitors may or may not have been slipping glimpsers.


Vancouver is a city of more than 2.5 million souls. By contrast, the city I frequent for my daily espresso is home to just under 18,000 people. Scenic, diverse, and stimulating, Vancouver is less than two hours from home but we hadn’t been there since the pandemic closed the border. I wanted a quick and easy change of scenery so now that we can travel freely, it was an obvious choice.

We zipped through customs the first day and amused ourselves with miscellaneous errands and a delectable meal at a restaurant called East is East that serves foods from the Silk Road region. As I warmed my hands on a cup of peppery chai, dark-eyed waitresses flounced back and forth with stylish grace and customers lounged on piles of pillows. The soft murmur of conversations was a pleasant backdrop to a flavorful lunch of dhal and Bombay roti. It was a good way to slide into a “foreign” city, for though we Americans and Canadians share a language and a continent, there are still differences. The pleasure of parsing them is a key part of spending time in Canada.

We explored a residential neighborhood where the houses looked more like certain Long Island and Connecticut suburbs than the houses in our town, which is so much closer. After an afternoon coffee, we settled into an airbnb in North Van (that’s what locals call North Vancouver). Dinner was a pleasantly low-key affair and we turned in early.

The next day we met a fellow blogger, Penny Williams, aka Walking Woman. She led us on an unconventional tour of her neighborhood, the highlight of which was actually a sprawling construction site, Vancouver’s SkyTrain subway project. Very impressive on its own, the site became more compelling when we stumbled across a pile of abandoned machine parts and building materials. Giant augers! Rusty rebar! Half-full dumpsters! I’ll save that for another post.

14. Seen on our tour, a totem pole that was carved many years ago by the Nisga’a First Nations sculptor Norman Tait.

That afternoon we went to Bloedel Conservatory, where these photos were made. The weather had turned rainy and the conservatory’s atmosphere was a welcome respite. As I reacquainted myself with old tropical plant friends (I used to work at a large conservatory in New York) a bevy of girls interrupted the quiet with a silly, tuneless song voiced with the sweet enthusiasm of best school chums on a break from classes. They were clustered together on the walkway, cell phones in hand, trying to get the attention of a cockatoo named Mali. After much effort, Mali began to respond with raucous squawks. She flipped her fabulous headgear up and bobbed back and forth in rhythm with the girls while eyeing them intently. She got so revved up that she had to pull back and rest at one point. Then she started up again, this time adding fancy acrobatics involving her beak, her feet, and her well-worn perch. Eventually, the girls left, waving goodbye with musical giggles. I watched the cockatoo draw her body inward, cast her eyes down, and grow still. She seemed diminished, saddened. I consoled myself with the thought that Mali probably goes through this regularly and gets over it much faster than we humans would.

We walked back out into the cold, found the car, and paused at a pleasantly trendy, friendly cafe where they roast their own beans. Fortified, we then braved the traffic-snarled downtown streets to work our way back to North Van. Well, Joe braved the traffic while I navigated by keeping my iPhone on. Thanks to the map app (mapapp?) we worked our way through the dark city streets toward dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant recommended by a friend of Penny’s. It was the real deal, at least as real as you can get outside someone’s kitchen in Shanghai. The ambiance reminded us of many meals shared with friends and family at classic Chinese restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown and Flushing.

The next morning we left the city behind for an exhilarating walk across a suspension bridge hanging high over waterfalls and a rushing creek. The Lynn Canyon trail led us through a glistening temperate rainforest to a blue-green pool fringed with boulders and gnarled redcedar trees. Mindful of the time, we cut the hike a little short, promising ourselves we’d be back. The final treat was lunch and it was some of the best South Indian food I’ve ever had. Warm conversations with the owner and his wife, who came to Vancouver from Chennai, topped off a memorable meal. If only they could deliver across the border! We’ll just have to go back.





1. Lysichiton americanus, also known as Skunk cabbage.


Spring is inching forward, working its tender way into my consciousness with light shifts and color sparks. The days are noticeably longer, the grass and moss have greened up, a few birds have begun singing, and the wildflower parade is getting started. On a walk last week, I spotted one of the earliest wildflowers rising from the murky muck of a wetland. Skunk cabbage – it may not be a pretty name and all I saw was a handful of muddy buds – but that’s all it took to inject a surge of energy into my step.

Lest you Easterners get confused, the Eastern North America plant called Skunk cabbage isn’t the same as the Western one. They belong to the same family, the Araceae, but the Eastern species looks different and is arguably stinkier – anyone who’s stepped on an Eastern skunk cabbage leaf knows how foul that odor can be!

Both plants have oversized, bold, cabbage-like leaves and dozens of tiny flowers neatly arranged on a spadix – the candle-shaped structure on the left in the photo above. The spadix (or flower spike) is protected by a spathe, which looks like a large petal. Western Skunk cabbage plants sport a bright gold spathe, which is why they’re also called Swamp lanterns.

2. Skunk cabbage or Swamp lantern buds.
3. Swamp lanterns on March 23rd, a few years ago.

Interestingly, both plants have close relatives in Asia. The Western species is Lysichiton americanus and its Asian relative is Lysichiton camtschatcensis. The Eastern species is Symplocarpus foetidus, with four other Symplocarpus species in Asia. It’s theorized that Lysichiton and Symplocarpus each migrated across the Bering land bridge millions of years ago, eventually finding their separate territories.

I read somewhere that our Skunk cabbage emits odors that vary with the temperature to help attract different insects for pollination. Amazing, right? It fits with my experience. The first time I photographed Skunk cabbage after moving to the West, I entered what I can only describe as an altered state of consciousness. Expecting a foul odor because of my experience with Skunk cabbage back East, I was surprised to smell what to me was a pleasant odor – not sweet like a rose but heavy, musky, and fragrant. As I got closer to the plants for close-ups I inhaled more and more of the scent and became intoxicated by it. No one else was around. It was just the quiet wetland, hundreds of Skunk cabbage plants heavy with scent, and me. I felt like I was truly communing with the plants.

The next year, I hoped to have the same experience, but no! I have never smelled the same heavy scent again even though I’ve been near large clusters of Skunk cabbage several times. It must have been the temperature – maybe the humidity, too.

But I digress (easy to do with cool plants). I want to introduce another plant that belongs to the same Araceae family: Elephant ears, or Colocasia esculenta. This is the distant cousin in the title of the post. Elephant ears are popular garden plants and are the important root vegetable known as taro, one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans. The starchy, tropical vegetable is a staple across many cultures, from Jamaica to West Africa, India, the Philipines, and beyond. I like Elephant ears because their giant leaves add drama to a little group of potted plants in front of my house. In winter I bring the plant inside. It’s clearly not happy there but it gets by until I can put it back out in the fresh air.

4. Colocasia leaves begin as tightly-rolled cylinders that slowly unfurl into huge, pendulent, heart-shaped leaves.
5. Elephant ears on the deck last summer.

Elephant ears have the same spadix and spathe structure as their distant relatives, Lysichiton and Symplocarpus. This is what distinguishes the family they belong to, the Araceae, or Arums. There are thousands of Arum species, mainly in the tropics. You may be familiar with Jack-in-the-pulpit or Philodendron, both in the Araceae family. The family has been around for more than 100 million years and includes the giant Sumatran Titan arum, or Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) which truly smells rotten when it blooms, once a year at most. A duckweed called Wolffia also belongs to the Araceae and is the smallest flowering plant on the planet!

I wasn’t aware of all this last week when I was busy photographing the leaves of my Elephant ear plant. It’s an appealing subject and that was enough. But later that day I was walking in a forest that gives way to swampy wetlands, thanks to the work of the American beaver. In the muddy wetland, I saw the first Skunk cabbage buds of the year! It occurred to me that it was similar to the Elephant ear I’d been photographing that morning. I delved into google, and here we are. Distant cousins, one biding its time indoors until it can grace the driveway edge and the other just beginning its annual cycle, snuggled in the wet woods.

6. See the bumps under that spathe? Those are the flower buds!
8. A Skunk cabbage with an artfully drooping spathe.
9. What luck! I found two slugs enjoying each other’s company inside a Skunk cabbage spathe. Black and white works better here. This is one of the photos I made the first time I saw Western Skunk cabbage and became intoxicated with its fragrance.
10. Another handsome Skunk cabbage plant rises from the detritus.

11. An infrared treatment.
10. An Elephant ear leaf in black and white.
11. Begging for more light in winter.
12. A dried Elephant ear leaf.



14. A closer view.
15. Taking liberties with color.
16. Behind tangles of vines, Swamp lanterns beam their cheerful Spring song.



On a cold January afternoon at sunset, I’m alone, but not alone – driftwood, rocks, fir trees, clouds, and seaweed, all sit with me. Diving ducks and soaring eagles turn my head, gently lapping waves quiet my mind. Separateness disappears.

1. January 31st, 5:00PM.
2. January 31st, 5:03PM.

On another day, Douglas fir trees and I share a wind-buffeted view of Deception Island, floating mirage-like in boundaryless waters.

3. January 8th, 3:52PM.

One afternoon we go in search of Snow geese. Tens of thousands of them – some say over 100,000 – spend the winter feeding on agricultural fields on the mainland, about 15 minutes from home. To find them we ply the angular roads that break the fields into neat rectangles. After about ten minutes I spot a thin white line in the distance. It looks like a river reflecting light back to the sky but I am almost certain the white line is a large flock of geese. We drive toward it – straight, right, then left. There they are, perhaps two thousand of them covering the brown, muddy fields. We pull over, roll down the car windows, and watch, transfixed. After a few minutes, a signal we don’t see causes a small group to break away and take to the air with high-pitched, nasal honks. Soon the sky is filled with them, flashing black and white across the gray clouds.

When it’s time they’ll fly back to Wrangle Island, in Arcitc Russia, to breed. For now, they brighten our winter.

4. January 25th, 3:56PM.
5. January 25th, 4:02PM .


By the end of January, buds are swelling on the Red-flowering currant bushes. Never indecisive, they know what to do. They pace themselves with the light, incrementally growing larger and softer. Not too fast, not too slow, strong yet gentle. Qualities we can aspire to as we go about the business of our day.

6. January 28th, 4:08PM. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).
7. Cold snap. January 29th, 4:39PM.

Lichens come into their own during the first month of the year. Soft and swollen with moisture, Lace lichen hangs in pendulous tangles. Foliose lichens like the one below look as though they could take flight.

8. January 1st, 4:59PM. Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii).
9. January 7th, 4:17PM. I thought this was Hypogymnia canadensis. My lichen expert friend tells me it’s Hypogymnia physodes on the left and Parmelia sulcata on the right.
10. January 1st, 4:59PM.

Sunsets needn’t be spectacular. A quiet vantage point on a hilltop perch above a channel or a sheltered spot in a rocky cove is all I need to dream myself into a deep calm on a winter afternoon.

11. January 7th, 4:21PM.
12. January 20th, 5:16PM.

Winter windstorms stretch strands of Lace lichen tight across twig chasms.

13. January 1st, 4:58PM.
14. January 1st, 5:24PM.

Driftwood logs change positions over the winter, especially when a King tide coincides with onshore winds. The massive logs are dense with water but slide some waves under them and off they go. Maybe they’ll land on another beach or maybe they’ll drift back and sit down inches from the last resting spot. When I walk down to the beach the logs appear to have been there forever, as solid as houses. But out in the middle of the channel, I see giant logs riding waves. I know they move around. I just don’t know their itinerary…

15. January 23rd, 5:44PM.
16. January 23rd, 5:54PM.
17. January 23rd, 5:42PM.