FARTHER AFIELD: A Dusty Lake Interlude

Last week I was part of a group of seven friends – photographers, botanists, a lichenologist, a ceramicist, a filmmaker, psychologists, and social workers (some categories apply to several people) who journeyed east to explore the dramatic landscape east of the Cascade Range, in central Washington. The Columbia River runs north to south there, grown wide from a series of dams that provide power to customers throughout the northwest. Bluffs line one side of the river; the other side, where we hiked, is cut with canyons of basalt and graced by scattered lakes of all sizes and shapes. One is named Dusty Lake, perhaps for the dun-colored land it rests on.

On the way over the mountain pass, we fended off rain showers, snow squalls, and finally graupel, a kind of snow pellet. In between, glimpses of blue reassured us that it really is spring. As we lost elevation the precipitation cleared out and wind took over, pummelling the landscape. Skies remained overcast for most of our short trip. It could have been a boon to us photographers who dislike midday desert sun, but threatening rainclouds turned the light leaden and flat.

The weather wasn’t a photographer’s dream but we made do. The sculpted landscape thrills you with a power that derives from the liberating, whole-body sense that you are surrounded by limitless space. Grand, crenelated cliffs, here called coulees, rise high overhead, the domain of ravens easefully gliding on the updrafts. A gravel road turns a corner to reveal the surprise of a dark lake where white pelicans preen in the distance like a lost posse of ghosts. Swallows swoop, stitching air and water together. Along the lake margins, Red-winged blackbirds’ rusty cries rise from last year’s crackling-dry cattails. On dusty trails, tangles of weathered grass hide tiny gold and pink wildflower gems. The scent of sagebrush clears the mind as precious oils are released into the atmosphere. Little of the softness one associates with spring can be seen here; rough textures and subdued colors dominate.


2. Lakes are rimmed with evaporative deposits.
3. Dusty Lake.


Angled rock, sharp scents, and the rude, cold wind on our cheeks – Eastern Washington isn’t a comforting place but for those of us living on the wet, lush, western side of the state, it offers the novelty of open vistas set with a child’s geometry of huge, smooth, blocks of basalt. It’s a good recipe to awaken eyes accustomed to thick, green landscapes ringed with water. Needless to say, plant life on the other side of the Cascade Range is very different. On the first day of our trip, the botanists lucked out when we ran into a rare plant specialist collecting data for a population viability study of an endangered wildflower. (The “BOTANST” license plate was a giveaway). Looking for a place near the river so we wouldn’t have to drive too far, we had inadvertently chosen a special place to hike. The botanist was as excited to show a group of fellow plant lovers around as his friendly Burmese Mountain dog was eager to greet us. Mark pointed out more plants than we could remember – including the fuzzy-leaved rare wildflower, a member of the Borage family which, as Mark informed us, is a “sandy soil obligate.” Almost all the flowers we saw had yet to reach peak bloom or to even open a bud. Spring has been slow and cool in Washington and the flowers are late. No matter – we enjoyed the impromptu private tour of a piece of land that conceals rare secrets from casual visitors.


4. Last year’s dried, curled grasses swayed in the breeze – but this photo was made using intentional camera movement.
5. Spring brings a rush of water to the streams.
6. The white bits are not flower buds, they’re feathers and down from a large bird that met its end here.
7. I can’t resist a tangle of tumbleweeds. This is close to the river, where moisture is more available.
8. Venturing into the tangle.


The following day, after five campers struggled through a night of screaming winds (Joe and I are softies and stayed in town) we crossed the Columbia River and headed inland to hike at Dusty Lake. The landscape there is a schizoid salad of lakes, wetlands, and rocky, sage-dotted desert. The unusual scenery derives from cataclysmic events like the Missoula floods of 18,000 years ago when glacial floods made their marks on a landscape that had been sculpted by lava flows millions of years before. The geological wallops left imposing views and a dry, spare habitat that shelters interesting wildflowers, lichens, and lizards, among others. I think we all enjoyed switching back and forth between the expansive views and small curiosities. One early blooming wildflower delighted everyone with its incongruous beauty: the hot pink Darkthroat Shooting star (Primula pauciflora). Taking shelter under craggy old sage bushes, the flowers nodded their delicate heads in the breeze as if to agree with our praise. Lichens were another source of color, adorning the rocks, sagebrush, and soil with fiery orange, deep gold, and slate blue. The pops of color cut through the barren landscape like a warbler’s song ringing out across a hushed forest.

Eventually, we had our fill of hiking, photographing, and botanizing. We stopped for coffee and then had dinner at a local burger joint that had been in the same family for generations. Grandmother’s recipe for potato salad is still followed, to our delight. Three of our group departed for Seattle, braving snow over the pass in the dark. The rest of us met the next morning in Vantage for a walk along the river. As we discussed where to walk, we spotted a wild herd of Bighorn sheep grazing on a distant hill. We tried to get closer but couldn’t so there are no photos – but the memory is sweet. After a low-key river walk, we began exploring a side road that heads west, the direction home. A construction roadblock halted our progress so Joe and I decided to head back to the highway for the long trip home. I enjoyed watching the scenery evolve from clear, open skies to snow and mist on the pass, then back to springtime green. All the while I knew the computer was calling me – there were plenty of photographs to sort.

Richard and Sharon continued wandering slowly west, finally picking up the highway to cross the mountains. The trip was short but packed with outdoor discoveries and the pleasure of spending time with friends. When I went through the photos, I puzzled over unidentified plants and grew frustrated at the overall palette, which was very subdued. But that fits a high desert landscape under thick clouds. For this post, I decided to emphasize the quiet color range and leave out the pops of color. Bright flowers will show up in a later post. I promise.


9. The lovely Darkthroat Shooting star (color versions coming soon).
12. Big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) slowly breaks apart on the sandy desert floor.
13. To the right you can see Richard inspecting the rocks for lichens.
14. I believe this is Crater lichen, Diploschistes scruposus, a lichen found all over the world. We nicknamed this one the Blob. Somehow, Richard tolerates this kind of nonsense from the rest of us.
15. A massive basalt cliff with unlikely patterns formed long ago.
16. Rachel returns from a wander.
17. Dusty Lake from above.

18. Barb raises a hand for hiking with friends.


STATES of BEING: Entering


These photographs are about entering. Some are more literal, like the photo above and some are more metaphorical. Some may not make sense to you but they might to someone else. When I photograph, if all goes well I enter into a relationship with what’s around me, a relationship that unzips the strictures of thought and lets the moment bloom. This is what keeps me coming back to the camera – this entering into the particulars of place, this being absorbed into all that my senses perceive. Later on, the pleasures of looking at, reworking, and sharing the images I make are an extra happy byproduct of those times when it all goes well.


Entering, we embrace the particulars

of the timeplace –

(call it the placetime if you prefer).

We attend to a play of light, a certain hue

or shade of green, the fading trill of a bird –

not any bird, but this bird. We notice

the precise angle of the torn edge

on a vandalized billboard, the oddly sharp scent

of the air passing under our nose.

This entering into the wherewhen

(call it whenwhere if you prefer)

is tied to attention,

rapt attention.


It springs and spreads into awareness

from a liminal space

between eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin, and brain matter.

Senseorgans, brainmatter, attention, and entering –

yoked together

like tide and shore.

There is no apartness wherewhen

we dissolve the tangles

of self

that tend

to obscure

this particular






It was a morning in early summer. A silver haze shimmered and trembled over the lime trees. The air was laden with their fragrance. The temperature was like a caress. I remember – I need not recall – that I climbed up a tree stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness. I did not call it by that name. I had no need for words. It and I were one.

Bernard Berenson


Additional posts in my “States of Being” series can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.


1. Branching out at a city park in Washington State.

Some years ago I realized that I was photographing a lot of tree branches. I wasn’t creating a project about trees, I was simply attracted to branches. A lifelong love of plants wasn’t enough to explain why branches kept showing up on my SD cards. Maybe it was because of my surroundings: I had moved from a New York City building with street and water views to a Seattle-area apartment on the corner of a building that backed up to a tree-filled ravine. The new window views were layered green walls of Douglas firs, Big-leaf maples, and Western red cedars growing together in a verdant chaos. When a job in Seattle began taking up most of my time, I could still make photos right from the deck of the apartment. That was my focus: teasing apart patterns in the entangled branches.

Pacific Northwest habitats and plants are very different from the East coast environment I knew for over half a century. I wanted to understand what I was looking at, sort out the names, and learn how this new region worked. Recognizing differences in tree branches was part of the learning process. I got to know the elegant sway of redcedar branches, the drooping tips and fine texture of Western hemlocks, and the saturated colors of Madrone trees. The ubiquitous Douglas fir tree was the landscape’s ragged backdrop along highways and in parks. In exposed settings, its contorted, weather-battered branches caught my attention. And there were so many lichens! A single tree limb could be sheathed in an astounding variety of them in this lichen-happy environment.

2. Lichen-covered twigs at a preserve in Washington.


But there’s more to it than that – what is it about branches? Something ancient connects humans to trees. Trees have offered us shelter since we first began walking around on two legs. They provide food, materials for building, and clothing. In a primal way, we are akin to trees, with our trunks and appendages. Our blood finds its way around using branches and our minds function via vast networks of branching neurons. We even organize our lives using branches – branches of government, taxonomy, genealogy, religion, and a host of other phenomena. The act of branching seems fundamental to life. Something starts out in one direction and splits in two, finding more space to occupy and enabling more to be done. Repeat that a thousand times and you’re going somewhere, you’re connecting to more than before. It works the other way, too: smaller branches feed larger ones. Systems on our planet depend on it.

I could cite example after example of how branches operate in life but I don’t want to forget aesthetics. That’s what I come back to – the basic beauty of trees. With their endless variety of forms, colors, and textures, tree branches stop my gaze and demand my attention, time and time again.


3. A city park in Washington.
4. The ravine behind my former apartment in Washington.
5. A peeling Madrone branch at a state park in Washington.
6. A national monument in Arizona.
7. A national park in Washington.
8. A state park in California.
9. Bigleaf maple branches are covered with moss and ferns at a city park in Washington.
10. Leiden, Netherlands as seen through branches at a historic landmark.
11. Tree branches screen the view from a street corner in Manhattan.
12. An old willow at a city park in Washington.
13. A Red elderberry branch between willow branches at a city park in Washington.
14. A Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) at a city park in Washington.
15. A national park in Washington, elevation 5477 ft./1669 m.
16. A national forest in Washington. Did you know that conifers in alpine regions grow tall and thin and often have drooping branches so heavy snow will slide off the tree?
17. Southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana) with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) on a roadside in South Carolina. Spanish “moss” is actually a flowering plant in the same family as pineapples. It’s not Spanish, either!
18. A state park in Washington
19. A state park in Washington.
20. A street corner in Antwerp, Belgium. Pollarding, the style of pruning that you see here, originated in Europe. It keeps trees from getting too big in urban environments.
21. Looking down on Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) branches and Sword ferns from a canopy walk at a city zoo in California. Redwoods have two kinds of leaves: peripheral ones for photosynthesis (seen here) and axial leaves, which specialize in absorbing water. This helps them adapt to California’s dry summers.
22. Living and dead Joshua trees in a national park in California. Not actually a tree, Yucca brevifolia is a long-lived Mohave desert succulent, now endangered in parts of its range due to fire, climate change, and invasive grasses.

23. A willow branch in spring at a national historic site in New York.
24. Douglas fir trees screen the sunset at a state park in Washington.