STATES of BEING: At Rest

This post is one in a series I call “States of Being.” Other posts in the series include “Curved” and “Absorbed.”

I like seeing what comes to rest on the beach when the tide goes out. It’s a tenuous kind of rest – soon the water will climb back up and rearrange everything. But at least for a few hours, the serendipity of random arrangements can be enjoyed by anyone with a curious eye. I’m going to call these arrangements natural still lifes. (Spellcheck doesn’t like ‘lifes’ but it’s correct in this case!)

Below, strands of eelgrass loop around smooth pieces of driftwood, like festive presents. Sometimes stalks of kelp look like hastily penned notes, legible to those familiar with asemic writing. Or torn bits of sea lettuce are scattered across the sand like confetti. Speaking of sand, sharp eyes will notice ghost-pale, wavy patterns of sand grains on the smoothest parts of the beach. They’re a record of each pause between the slow breaths of gently receding waves. Or are they abstract drawings? In #4 below, a group of thick kelp stalks curved together in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The tide must have been strong enough to push them together but not so strong that they were tangled up. Just so.

States of rest on tidal shores seem especially precious to me because of their ephemeral nature.

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After the wind has whipped the water and its contents into great, tortured piles and dumped them on the beach, odd things can be found. Tiny treasures resting in the jumbled tangles of marine life might be revealed to the curious beachgoer. In #5 you can see the holdfast of a kelp plant that grew over a barnacle instead of a rock, which is what kelp plants are normally anchored to. A storm ripped the barnacle off something and sent it for a wild ride on tossing waves. There it was, in a mass of soggy kelp and seaweeds unceremoniously dumped ashore. In #6 there’s another oddity I found: a small marine invertebrate called a Bristly tunicate or a Hairy sea squirt. It was still clinging to an odd lump of orange substance that I can’t identify.

And buried deep in another knot of kelp and seaweed, a tiny white starfish, or sea star, glowed like a star that had lost its way and tumbled down into Neptune’s dark realm.

These bits of marine life might be back in the waters of the Salish Sea by now, riding the waves until they come to rest again.

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Torn from maple trees during a storm, wet leaves came to rest on the leathery salal bushes that grow along the trail. The nature-made leaf collage was topped by a single rust-colored Douglas fir needle, released from a tree branch after the summer drought. I wonder how long the needle and leaves remained at rest like this?

For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the way leaves fall and land on one another or are caught somewhere before reaching the ground. In a California Redwood forest, I noticed a Redwood leaf stalk woven into a Maidenhair fern frond. Just think: it had to fall at precisely the right angle and rate to have landed like that. Maybe a gentle breeze helped. A small wonder.

An odder sight was a stray chunk of Northern elephant seal fur shed by a seal during her annual molt. How it got up into the wildflowers, I don’t know, but the beach where the seal rests while renewing her coat is often windy.

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Inanimate objects can come to rest for a very long time. Take the old truck seen below. It’s been in the patch of wet woods for so many years that it’s grown a coat of thick moss. Maybe a tree will sprout there.

Heaps of plastic or fabric that have been abandoned always interest me. Sometimes a pile of material is unintentionally draped as gracefully as the folds of fabric in an Old Master painting. That was the case with the nets below that were used to protect apple trees from insects. I saw them in a garden, where they probably had been left for a short time before being stored somewhere safe from the ravages of winter.

Once I found a mannequin that was used on a photo shoot resting in a random heap with other props. The props were probably put away soon after I came across them. Finding the mannequin was pure serendipity. He seems to be contemplating his future – an interesting one, I would think.

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What about people at rest? Rest allows the parasympathetic nervous system to come on board and do what it’s made to do: slow down the stress response that’s activated so often by modern life. When we rest, the immune system is strengthened, blood pressure comes down, the heart rate slows, food is digested, and the mind relaxes. That’s good stuff! But rest isn’t always easy to find.

Big museums never seem to have enough places to sit down. The single available seat on the bench below was probably taken within minutes. A street musician in Ghent, Belgium, caught my eye as he took a cigarette break. He seemed to own his resting spot! One evening as I walked around lower Manhattan after work, a fisherman stepped away from his pole to contemplate the view. Just watching him watch the water eased my mind.

Rest is a relative term – how still is anything really? We know that motion is constant but rest balances motion.

It’s a grace period in this twirling, whirring life.

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This Place, This Moment

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2. Wave, kelp.

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3. Windstorm.

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Knowingly or not, we respond to place and moment. Our responses are particular

to a set of eyes, a body-breathing-in-skin,

a certain brain

with a singular set of experiences,

predilections, knowledge, needs,

desires. In my case, there is also a black box

with certain lenses,

a keyboard, software (clever software!), and

a beaming, bright screen.

This bundle of cells, functioning together

as they have for decades

(but differently in each moment) produces rows

of image files in concert with the black box and the software.

Is it magic?

Choices are made: less here, more there, lighter,

darker, softer, sharper, colored, or not.

And here is the fruit.

These responses to place and moment mean something to me,

something else to you. Flung across digital space

they resonate or they don’t. Either way is a response

and this vast, sparkling network of responses across

space and time encompasses

more than we can imagine.

That’s magic!

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4. Reflection.

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5. Reed, reflection.

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6. Windstorm.

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7. Windstorm, sunlight.

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8. Scattering, disintegrating.

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9. Windstorm waves.

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10. Return to water.

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11. Last light.

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12. Rain.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Humboldt Hash

1. Side street splendor; Ferndale, California.

This Humboldt Hash is the product of a woman with an ever-curious mind wandering around a county called Humboldt with a camera. The sparsely populated northern California county contains dense coniferous forests, open shrublands, wide beaches, sand dunes, wetlands, and a few cities on the coast. Small towns dot a landscape given to dairy farms, livestock rangeland, and impressive Redwood forests. The county is also famous for cannabis. Its world-renowned marijuana business began with countless illegal operations run by hippies who headed for the hills in the 60s. Now, mainstream cannabis businesses struggle with the environmental impact problems and the complex regulations that followed California’s legalization of cannabis sales and cultivation in 2016. (Yes, there’s a double entendre in the title of this post).

But when we’re in Humboldt County our focus is on wide, empty beaches, magnificent Redwood forests, and any serendipity we may encounter. It might be a cowboy on horseback herding cattle across hills overlooking the ocean or something as quotidian as a local cemetery that reveals an offbeat slice of history. Or it might be a spontaneous conversation with someone who introduces us to their dog and recommends a little-known trail.

We stay in Ferndale, a town known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture and comfortable, small-town vibe. We always admire the charming homes and storefronts but this time we noticed a sprawling cemetery while walking through town. “Let’s inspect the gravestones”, we thought. The site climbs a steep hill so we enjoyed a mini-workout punctuated with headstone poems. Graves have always interested me and this cemetery proffered a surprise: a handful of picturesque, weedy gravesites accented with tchotchkes and plastic flowers left in remembrance long ago.

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We intended to explore a back road that winds through the Lost Coast Headlands on this trip – on our last visit, we drove far enough to thirst for more but ran out of time. Maps show Mattole Road looping through uplands, dipping down to empty beaches, passing through a tiny town or two, and terminating in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where it joins California’s famous US Route 101, aka “the 101.”

We tabled the decision on whether to do the entire, 66-miles plus another 33 miles on 101 to get back to Ferndale. Car-weary from two days of driving 670 miles from our home to Ferndale, we figured we’d see how we felt – we could always turn around. So we set out one morning, planning to at least make it to Petrolia, a town of about 400 souls scattered in the woods. After a tedious, bone-rattling hour on the twisting, rutted road, we reached Petrolia. Gratefully, we got out of the car to peruse its one store. Here, you can supply yourself with coffee, groceries, camping supplies, T-shirts emblazoned with the volunteer fire department logo, organic cookies made by a local man, and beer. Cash only. Outside the store, a bulletin board functions as the ad-hock community center. I hope the Porta-potty fund does well because they were in pretty bad shape (see photo below).

3. Resting, Petrolia.

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We had only covered 30 miles in our hour of tortuous travel. There was no way we were going to subject ourselves to another two hours of Mattole Road followed by a half-hour of highway to get back to Ferndale. But I noticed a road on my phone’s GPS (cell service? No way!). It dead-ended at a beach and looked doable. It was. Mattole Beach is a very remote spot where you can beach-comb, camp, or begin hiking the challenging, 25-mile Lost Coast Trail. There was only one person in the parking lot (who happened to be from Seattle), waiting to meet friends for a camping trip. After exchanging pleasantries we climbed a dune and were alone on the beach. We watched as fog lifted and settled and lifted again. Sensory input was stripped down to the crash and swish of waves, the sweet feeling of cool, damp air on our faces, and the minimalist views that revealed nothing but more fog, more sand, more waves. We reveled in the misty splendor.

I wondered how anyone living near this coast could be anxious or troubled; pounding surf seems to soothe every last twitch of nerves.

5. Fog; Mattole Beach, Lost Coast.

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7. Brown Pelicans; Mattole Beach.
8. The fog lifts; Mattole Beach. (iPhone photo).

The next day we forest-bathed at Rockefeller Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photographs don’t do justice to the sensation of standing among the massive trees whose tops are far out of sight. But we also saw Redwoods from another angle: one hundred feet up in the air. One morning we went to the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka to experience the Redwood Sky Walk. The series of platforms built around the tree trunks connected via swinging bridges was a treat. There’s nothing like getting up into the trees!

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9. A hundred feet above the forest floor.

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The zoo’s flock of flamingoes from Chile provided a welcome shock of peach-tinged pink on that foggy day. One afternoon, a handsome butterfly paused on a trail, injecting another dash of color into my photo files. Persistent fog banks only allowed the sun to peek in and out during our stay in Ferndale, which was fine with us. We weren’t there to sunbathe, we were there to experience a place far from home, with all our senses.

One day I saw a road on my cell phone map that led to what appeared to be an uninhabited island in the Eel River delta. We followed Cannibal Island Road (really?), turned left past hay fields, and crossed over a creaky bridge. We didn’t find much that day and I don’t think the fishermen we watched from the bridge had much luck either. A harbor seal kept a sharp eye on them, clearly hoping for a morsel of bait. No luck. The cormorant and egret barely visible through the fog probably did better. On the way back to Ferndale we passed an abandoned dairy in a less prosperous town and wondered aloud why one town did so well and the other faded into oblivion. I like the kind of travel that poses lots of unanswered questions. It keeps the wonder alive.

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11. Fishing on the Eel River.
12. Maybe someone will repurpose the old creamery building and give it new life.

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Back to the beach, the main ingredient in my Humboldt Hash. Artfully arranged strands of kelp, a perfectly intact Sea urchin shell, and skeins of pelicans melting into the fog all manifest the liminal space between land and water. In Humboldt County, the mountains of King Range plunge down to the sea in waves that end in sheltered coves and exposed cliffs. Thrown up on smooth, sand beaches, slammed against hulking, dark rocks, or sent into wide river estuaries, the surf sings and thunders.

Spirits refreshed, we turn back toward town. Evenings find us at the same friendly Mexican restaurant, mornings always begin with a stop at the Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge, which is much more relaxed than it sounds. Traditional skin-on-frame kayaks are hand-built in the back, and dogs and their people relax in the front. Strolling down Main Street, we find a curious sign. “Go Away” it says, reminding us that soon we’ll have to climb back in the car for the long drive home. But on the other side, it says, “Welcome.”

We’ll be back.

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14. Sea urchin; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
15. Weather-sculpted rock; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
16. Fog, Centerville Beach, Ferndale.

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18. Fog over Black Sand Beach.
19. A Raven in the fog; Luffenholz Beach, Trinidad.

20. Trust me, the other side says “Welcome.”

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IN A LOCAL MOOD

The Pacific Northwest is known for rainy, moody weather – but peel back a few layers and you’ll find that it’s more nuanced than that. It’s not all rain and clouds, in fact, the weather varies widely from season to season and from place to place. Summers are dry, sunny, and cool in contrast to autumn, winter, and spring when gray skies predominate. Seattle is often drizzly but fragrant lavender farms color the landscape to the north, where mountains prevent the clouds from releasing moisture. Out on the Olympic Peninsula, an extraordinary rainfall total of 140 inches/year (355 cm) supports temperate rainforests. Whether it’s dry like the Mediterranean, soaking wet, or somewhere in between, it’s still the Pacific Northwest.

1. Water, sky, rock, fir trees create a typical Pacific Northwest quartet.

Does the idea of a place marked by abundant rain conjure up dramatic downpours? Oddly enough, that picture is wrong. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t experience many sudden, violent turns in weather. Tornadoes and hurricanes are infrequent to non-existent. Lightning storms, dangerous heat waves, and deep freezes aren’t likely to crop up in the local forecast. Changes here tend to come gradually like the slow turn of a dial when you’re looking for a radio station. Weeks often go by with temperatures hovering within a small range. Granted, the region’s winter windstorms can toss trees around like matchsticks but most weather transitions are relatively quiet. Even the heavy rains brought by atmospheric rivers from far out in the Pacific may take days to release all their moisture. Seattle, the city with a reputation for rain, has an annual precipitation of only 37 inches (94 cm) compared to over 49 inches in parts of New York City and Houston.

2. PNW-style rain.

Long-time residents might disagree with my observations but a decade of living in the Pacific Northwest after a lifetime spent in the Northeast gives me a certain perspective. Visitors who’ve heard “It always rains in Seattle” are surprised to find almost no umbrellas on the streets. Why? Because the rain usually eases in almost imperceptibly, then fades in and out all day. People wear shorts and sandals all year, just adding a hoodie in winter. The locals are hardy! And there are sunbreaks. I hadn’t heard of sunbreaks until I moved here. They splash the landscape with cheer during winter months and interrupt the long, wet springs with welcome warmth. We have sunbreaks because outside of the summer, the skies are cloudy most of the time. Summer is what everyone waits for but it takes its time; Seattleites don’t expect to see consistently blue skies and warm temperatures until after July Fourth. Most of June is cool and gray, which is why we have “June Gloom.” That may sound dreary but the steady, gray tones and cool temperatures can get under your skin in a good way. Or you could move to Nevada.

3. Shrouds of Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) screen the view into the forest.

It’s not only the weather that sets the stage for Pacific Northwest moods. The prevalence of tall, dense, Douglas fir trees in the landscape plays a major role. Looming conifers may inject year-round green into the landscape (hence Seattle’s nickname, “Emerald City”) but they also reduce the amount of available light. Thick evergreen forests impart a mysterious, even foreboding quality to the landscape. Topography plays a role, too: the hilly, mountainous terrain limits views. Wide-open vistas are relegated to mountaintops or places with open water. Nothing seems clear and straightforward in this enigmatic region.

Last but hardly least, water is a crucial element in the Pacific Northwest. The region I’m talking about, loosely speaking everything west of the Cascade Range, north of California, and south of Alaska is profoundly affected by the presence of water. Because expanses of salt water have a moderating effect on temperatures, snowstorms are short-lived and heat waves are nothing compared to what the east coast experiences. Temperatures around Puget Sound seem to want to go back to where they were. Paradoxically, salt water evens out temperature extremes but it is the embodiment of change. Landmasses are steady presences; water is all about movement. From coastal waters to Puget Sound, to inland lakes and streams, the presence of water adds mutability to the landscape. With constantly changing colors and textures, bodies of water influence and define the moods of the Pacific Northwest.

4. On the coast, sea stacks, surf, and fitful skies.

Maybe I’ve been thinking about Pacific Northwest moods because we’ve just entered the rainy season. Days are shorter, skies are cloudy again and temperatures have cooled. This season seems to reflect the essence of the Pacific Northwest, though I know many locals would say it’s the beautifully clear, cool summers that make the region special. I think fall weather suits this landscape. Trees brood darkly, water seeps around every corner, and there’s a damp chill in the air. I think these photos convey that feeling.

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6. Dry grasses persisting through fall soften the landscape. (This photo uses slight intentional camera movement).

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8. Cormorants gather on an old pier off Q’elech’ilhch Park on Fidalgo Island.

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9. Bullwhip kelp afloat in the Salish Sea.
10. Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) gleam in a dark recess of the forest edge.
11. Seeding next year’s fields of wildflowers.
12. In the mountains rivers run wild after fall rains.
13. Douglas fir trees cast shadows over lakes.
14. Ninety miles from the ocean, the waves at this saltwater beach don’t normally pack much of a punch but their incessant rhythm soothes the soul.

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Was it all a dream –

I mean those old bygone days –

were they what they seemed?

All night long I lie awake

listening to autumn rain.

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Ryokan

From Almost Paradise, translated by Sam Hamill. Shambhala Publications, 2005.

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FURTHER AFIELD: The Lost Coast

1. The Pacific Ocean from the Guthrie Trail, Centerville Road, Ferndale, California.

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Let me try to set the stage. We’re in California, more than 200 miles north of San Francisco and over 400 miles south of Portland, Oregon. “Geotechnical challenges” have made this region even more remote from cities than the miles indicate because it was too difficult to build a highway across the irregular terrain. In this sparsely populated, rugged landscape, peaks rise as high as 4,000 feet and plunge straight down to meet the restless waters of the Pacific Ocean. Behind forbidding cliffs, grassland gives way to acres of Douglas fir forest. A few winding, narrow, pot-holed roads wander the hills above the coast, occasionally dipping down to the shoreline on precariously steep stretches of broken blacktop that make you thankful for daylight. Only a handful of towns dot the region: Petrolia, Honeydew, Shelter Cove. Generous portions of the land are protected as the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and the King Range National Conservation Area, which features a 25-mile-long backpacking trail tracing the jagged, boulder-strewn beach. It is a wild, natural place, this Lost Coast.

In Humboldt County near the north end of the Lost Coast, the Eel River spreads out into sloughs, wetlands, and fertile soil. Here, dairy farms established long ago still produce prodigious quantities of fresh milk. A small town called Ferndale set in the midst of cow-studded fields offers a handful of places to stay and eat. Our plan was to spend the better part of a mid-October week there with frequent forays west to the beach or east to the redwood forests.

After two days of wading through 500 miles of dim, smoke-darkened skies in our rental car we finally turned west in southern Oregon, the promise of fresh air propelling us down the Redwood Highway and into northern California. As soon as we could we set out for Centerville Beach, a wild sliver of shoreline under sheer cliffs of hardened sand. I can’t begin to describe how good it felt to let the deafening fury of crashing waves wash all the tension from tedious days of highway driving out of our muscles and nervous systems.

Though we spent time in the Redwoods, beaches were the leitmotif of our trip. No matter the weather – cold wind, thick fog, or a spot of sunlight – the water’s edge beckoned. We were exhilarated by the barrage of waves thrashing ink-black rocks, delighted to jump across foamy tide lines, and awed by patches of impenetrable fog that periodically materialized over the rolling sea. Here’s a taste of the Lost Coast shoreline.

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2. A hard sand cliff at Centerville Beach.
3. A bleached-out impression of a lonely strip of shoreline.
4. The mesmerizing grace of tide lines.
5. A single strand of kelp punctuates the empty beach as fog settles into the headlands.
6. A singular detail in an indeterminately vast sea of sand grains soaked by countless waves.

7. A black sand beach studded with driftwood and occasional rude shelters slowly settling back into the beach.
8. Rough surf near Devil’s Gate on the road to Petrolia.

9. Brown pelicans soar on updrafts over incoming waves.

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“We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publically framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective. One of the deepest lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness from our individual presentness.”

John Fowles; The Tree. Harper Collins, 2010.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Southern Utah

We’re heading out on another road trip soon, this time to northern California’s Lost Coast and Redwood forests. We’ve been there before but the deserted beaches, forested mountains, and small towns are calling us back. The oversize scale of the coastal scenery and giant trees energizes us and reminds us how truly small we are, mere specks of passing dust on this great planet.

The trip is bound to generate photographic activity – I anticipate returning home with hundreds of photos because trips always produce a surfeit of images. In fact, there are dozens of decent photographs from the last road trip we took that I haven’t shown yet. In April we explored Southern Utah, another place where nature writes her stories with broad, bold strokes. I don’t know whether it’s the mind-expanding spaciousness of the landscape, the splendid variety of colors and shapes, or the spare, hard simplicity of the terrain that inspires me the most. I suppose it’s all that and more. The desert is surely a photographer’s dream.

Here’s a series of scenic views and close-ups of the high desert from the trip. Enjoy!

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1. On the Burr Trail, “…the most God-forsaken and wild looking country that was ever traveled…I never saw the poor horses pull and paw as they done today.” A pioneer wrote that in her journal in 1882. We followed a slow route of over 100 miles (161k), connecting Route 12, the Burr Trail, and Notom-Bullfrog Road. This remote desert circuit features jaw-dropping scenery and a series of dangerous, tight switchbacks dropping 800 feet (244 m) in a half-mile (0.8 km) of heart-stopping driving on a rough dirt track. We saw very few vehicles that afternoon. Deeply grateful for the privilege of traveling through some of the most extraordinary scenery in the US, we were also thankful that we didn’t get a flat tire.
2. Three juniper berries; Snow Rock State Park, Utah. We prefer less well-known parks like Snow Rock to busy Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The density of the crowds in the big-name parks makes it difficult to feel the uniqueness of these places. When you’re distracted by movement and conversations around you, it’s hard to ground yourself and allow all your senses to function freely.
3. Another view from the Burr Trail – Notom-Bullfrog Road loop. This part of the road is paved. Needless to say, there are no services and no cell phone reception for many miles.
4. An aspen leaf caught in a tangle of twigs at Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef, a sprawling smorgasbord of delectable scenery, is our favorite place in southern Utah.
5. Snow Canyon SP boasts rock formations that startled us with their beauty and delighted us with their accessibility. Visitors can scramble over gentle mounds of Navaho sandstone. Though fun to walk on, the fine quartz grain surface of the sandstone is coarse to the touch, like sandpaper. In places, it looked to me like the wrinkled skin of a giant orange elephant. The white rock is also Navaho sandstone but has less iron content.
6. A view from Hidden Pinyon Trail, Snow Canyon SP.
7. Timber Creek Overlook Trail at Kolob Canyon in Zion NP. We chose to enter Zion from the north side at Kolob Canyon instead of the main entrance to the south. At a maximum 6,359′ elevation (1938m), our sea-level lungs struggled to deliver enough oxygen to our legs. We trudged up this short trail very slowly, stopping to rest on boulders where lizards slithered out of sight.
8. Weathered wooden posts and fences are a common sight in the high desert. This one was in Teasdale, Utah (population 194). We pulled over on the side of a back road when the outbuilding below, one of a cluster of weathered structures, caught our eyes. A woman walking home from the post office stopped to chat. Finding eager listeners, she spun a long yarn about the history of the place, which she had known since childhood.
9. Part of a complex built many years ago by a woman from Scandinavia who spent time in Japan, then moved here to the desert. She even constructed a small teahouse nearby and sometimes served Japanese-style tea to the neighbors. Now it’s all in ruins.
10. Noble even in its demise, this old tree, probably a cottonwood, makes its last stand near a two-lane highway in southwestern Utah.

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12. Curly grass, Snow Canyon.
13. In an aspen grove somewhere between the small towns of Torrey and Boulder.

14. A lichen-splashed rock beside a road in Torrey, Utah. Torrey, population 242, was our base for exploring Capitol Reef. Though it’s very small, it has several hotels, a few good restaurants, a terrific roadside espresso stand, and lots of rocks.
15. A view of Route 12 cutting through Capitol Reef NP, seen from the Hickman Bridge Trail.
16. A spreading cottonwood leans over a roadside creek in southwestern Utah. The smooth-surfaced boulder caught my eye, too.
17. The geological wonders of Snow Canyon.

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19. This is Thompson’s wooly milkvetch, or Wooly locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus thompsoniaen) according to someone who identified it on iNaturalist. I saw the flowers at Capitol Gorge, a narrow canyon that slices through the Waterpocket Fold, a hundred-mile-long fold in the earth’s crust that’s about 7,000 feet (2133m) higher on one side than the other. The gorge was a way to cross the giant wrinkle on the earth’s surface for pioneers traveling west.
20. Over the years, many pioneers carved their names and dates on the sides of Capitol Gorge canyon. Some of the earliest European-American settlers in the area made these marks high on the walls of the canyon as they passed through in hopes that flash floods would not obliterate the records. In the upper left of this photo, you can see one man’s attempt to draw his initials by shooting his gun into the rock.
21. Layers of volcanic ash, mud, sand, and silt deposited in swamps or lakes over 100 million years ago make up the softly contoured Bentonite hills. I photographed them from a rough dirt road in Capitol Reef’s north end. Footprints on the delicate surface can take years to disappear so there are no trails over these formations.
22. Extraordinary colors adorn a mountain of rock in Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley, a remote area of spectacular, cathedral-like rock forms. This photo was made closer to the main road where there are signs of civilization. After fifteen minutes or so of bone-crushing travel over a washboarded dirt road, hardly any signs of humans remain other than the road itself and the occasional cow wandering through the desert.
23. A wildflower – perhaps Desert mallow – at Snow Canyon.
24. Last year’s seeds still dangled from the trees in April at Capitol Reef.
25. To fly home we had to return to Las Vegas, Nevada, which entailed traveling over desolate, snow-covered high passes. It was a fitting way to exit a region where the landscape dwarfs human activity.

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STATES of BEING: Curved

There are all kinds of curves in the world, but one curve keeps coming back to me. It dwells in my body as a gesture, a wide, arcing swing of the arm that lifts the air. In yoga class I enjoy big sweeps of the arms; I never groan inwardly the way I might during challenging poses. Wikipedia says that “Intuitively, a curve may be thought of as the trace left by a moving point.”* I like this idea of implied motion and I was surprised to learn that it originated with Euclid over 2000 years ago.

So curves aren’t static. They’re traced by all sorts of things besides my arm, of course, and when I slow down enough to notice the world with care, I might find the particular curve that I like almost anywhere. A fond familiarity arises when the curve catches my eye. There must be a neuronal pathway – or more likely, many pathways – where this curve is repeatedly recognized and appreciated, a kind of mirroring of the internal and the external. When I see it my eyebrow might arch in pleasure, yet another gentle curve!

Often a camera is at hand so I make a photograph.

1. Western redcedar trees. Washington, 2012.

Curves slither through my LightRoom catalog, showing up in old images of gourds and grass or in more recent photos of buildings and Bullwhip kelp. There’s a curved wood relief I made in 1972; the photo of it reminds me that the preoccupation with curves is nothing new. I suspect it has deep roots, perhaps even mythical, or at least back to my first days on this planet when my mother’s breast was the curve of life.

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2. The Jean Arp-inspired wood relief I made long ago now exists only as an old slide and a fuzzy digitized copy.

I visualize the curve moving outward and upward more than inward and downward. It feels open-ended, generous. It stands alone or is tangled up with other curves and if it’s tangled, the disorder is harmonious, not fraught or tight.

A curved line suggests an indirect way to get from point A to point B. That appeals to me, too. Give me the back road, the side path! The very act of taking a route other than the straightest or most direct implies that there’s more to life than getting from A to B. And when it comes to solving problems, a roundabout route may not be the fastest one but it could turn up discoveries that shed new light on the issue. Physics tells us that gravity causes light to travel in a curve near large bodies. Did you know that there is “a flight simulator for multi-connected universes” called Curved Spaces? It’s freeware you can download that is supposed to enable inhabitants to “see their universe’s contents repeating in a crystalline pattern.”** I haven’t tried it and perhaps I’m rationalizing but it seems to me that there are many reasons to love a curve.

Here is a series of curves I’ve seen and photographed.

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3. Decorative gourd. Home, 2010. Curves everywhere!
4. Greenhouse specimen. Seattle, 2013. From wide arc to tight spiral.
5. Lighthouse stairs. Oregon, 2018. Unfolding curves.
6. Bends in the road. Washington, 2019. That delicious feeling of hugging curves on a country road.
7. Garden grasses. Seattle, 2017.
8. Shells and window blind cord. Home, 2018. Serendipitous curve echoes.
9. Wires in a garage. California, 2017. Grit and grace.
10. Musuem architecture. New York, 2017.
11. Shell. Home, 2015.
12. Hosta leaves. Washington, 2018.
13. Driftwood. Washington, 2014. And smiles are curves.
14. Museum mosaic. Belgium, 2019.
15. In a Chinese garden. New York, 2011. Built this way to deter evil spirits, since they like straight lines, or because it bears the load of the roof better, or because it allows more light in, or because it allows rainwater to drain, or…
16. Kelp and driftwood. Washington, 2021.
17. Museum staircase. Washington, 2017.
18. A botanical illustration I did many years ago. New York, 1991.
19. Architecture in lower Manhattan. New York, 2017.
20. Agave. Seattle, 2013.
21. The soft, irresistible curves of a newborn’s face. Washington, 2022.

***

That Vintage Lens

Eight years ago I read about a vintage lens photographers admire for the bright, “dreamy yet sharp” images you can make with it. One reviewer liked the “organic” transition from sharp to blurred. Another mentioned clean contrast, and another praised the color rendition. What interested me most was the “delicious” bokeh. Making photographs with soft, out-of-focus backgrounds was something I dreamed of doing long before I had a capable camera. I was already enjoying a macro lens for that ability so I thought maybe the vintage lens with all the enthusiastic reviews was worth trying. What is it? An Asahi Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4, an all-manual, solidly-constructed piece of glass from the 1960s and 70s. I created a post about it four years ago and today I’m revisiting that vintage lens.

The lens.

In the fall of 2014 I bought one at a reasonable price (far less expensive than new lenses), along with an adapter to fit it to my camera, a Panasonic Lumix G-3 at that time. I took it out right away and sure enough, the photographs it produced were different from anything I’d made with a digital lens. I had a lot of difficulty focusing the lens but there was something appealingly old school about the photos, even when they weren’t focused right. The results I got were unpredictable compared to my modern lenses. It clearly wasn’t suitable for everyday use. But to express a different view of the world, using it was more than satisfying.

You may have seen my 2018 post about the Takumar but I don’t expect anyone to remember the details so here’s a quick overview. The Takumar 50mm f1.4 is capable of sharp definition and great contrast but many people enjoy using it more for the classic, slightly soft rendering it produces. Often I’m looking for an expressive quality in my photography, not a clinically accurate recording of reality. When I use the vintage lens I tend to look for subjects that don’t require edge-to-edge perfect focus. It’s hard to describe what kind of scene is likely to work best – you really have to get to know the lens. For that, some adjustments are necessary.

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1. One of the first photos I made with the Takumar. October 2014.
2. Sharp enough without feeling cold. Birches, October 2014.

Manual lenses can be a challenge for those of us who are used to digital cameras. You can’t use autofocus – there’s no electronic communication from lens to camera. And if you’ve been spoiled by focus peaking (the digital camera feature that highlights what’s in focus so you can put sharpness exactly where you want), then you’ll have to figure out another way to evaluate your focus. (I’ve read that it’s possible to use focus peaking with manual lenses, but I haven’t figured out how to do it). The viewfinder image is too small to judge whether the focus is correct and even on the screen, it’s very hard to see what you’re doing. I put my reading glasses on and turn the focus ring slowly while examining the LCD screen, a very deliberate process. For close-ups, I might rock toward and away from the subject in tiny increments. If I want to ensure a usable image I’ll make several photographs at slightly different focal lengths.

Another step in the process is setting the aperture – you have to take your eye away from the camera and look at the aperture ring on the lens while you turn it. With my regular lenses, an intuitive flick of the thumb is usually enough to change the aperture but a manual lens requires a little more thought. There won’t be any information in the viewfinder or on the screen to remind you what the aperture is. Nor will there be any data about lens settings when you download the files. It’s mechanical, not electronic.

Does this sound tedious? Yes, it’s a challenge. But slowing down can be good. Like many people, I have a tendency to move quickly from one thing to the next. This lens forces me to be more deliberate.

These photos are arranged chronologically, from 2014 to 2022. The earliest are jpegs – I didn’t begin shooting in RAW format until 2017. All of the images have been processed to varying degrees.

Like many Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lenses made with a thorium lens coating, my lens had a yellowish cast. In some situations the added warmth was pleasing but ultimately I decided I didn’t like dealing with a yellowish hue in every photo. In February 2021, I removed it using a technique I read about online that involved leaving the lens in a box for several days with a blacklight bulb shining on it. After that, it was easier to color-correct and process the photos.

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3. Reflections of fall color from a Japanese maple by a pond at a botanical garden. This was probably made at f2 but the camera can’t record data from the lens, so I’m not sure. November 2014.
4. Japanese maple. Purists don’t like the edges on the bokeh bubbles and the tendency of the lens to produce flare and fringing. I can live with those imperfections. November 2014.
5. We took the ferry to Vashon Island and came across this very photogenic, old building. November 2014.
6. In January 2015 I brought the lens along on a trip to southeastern Arizona.
7. By 2016 I had switched from the Panasonic Lumix G-3 to an Olympus EM-1. Both cameras use the same lens mount so I didn’t need to buy new lenses. The Olympus had more features, was very weather-resistant, and weighed less. Red elderberry leaves and shadows, April 2016.
8. Wildflowers and grasses have gone to seed. September 2016.
9. Autumn leaf color using an in-camera effect called soft focus and the Takumar. October 2017.
10. Another photo that I made using the same in-camera filter and the Takumar lens. October 2017.
11. A view through the whitewashed windows of a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. November 2017.
12. Volunteer Park Conservatory. In this photo, the colors changed in processing. November 2017.
13. Two ferns, Bracken and Sword fern, declining with the season. December 2018.
14. Twigs in the rain at home. December 2018.
15. I really enjoy using the lens wide-open and getting lost in tangles of twigs. It’s like entering another world. March 2019.
16. A Madrone branch with peeling bark. The focus isn’t quite sharp anywhere in this photo but the all-over softness works well, I think. August 2019.
17. A view through the plastic siding of a greenhouse. January 2019.
18. Twisted safety fencing. October 2020.

19. Hyacinth leaves. February 2021.
20. Madrone bark. March 2021.
21. Stormy skies over the Salish Sea. October 2021.
22. Heart Lake reflection (converted to black and white). March 2022.
23. Intentional camera movement. Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), September 2022.

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If you’re thinking of trying “that vintage lens” check several online sources to find the best price and don’t forget to order a good adapter. And give yourself time to get to know the lens.

***

I just heard that Pharoah Sanders died on Sunday, at the age of 81. I used to listen to him, Miles, Coltrane, Santana, and so many others on New York CIty and Newark, NJ jazz stations back in the early 1970s. A fellow art student who was born in Harlem and freshly returned from the Vietnam war introduced me to modern jazz, a complex music culture that seeped deep into my psyche. Hearing Leon Thomas’ soothingly tenor on “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, a collaboration with Pharoah Sanders, brings back a whole era. May they both R.I.P.

The Gentle Pharoah Sanders (1940 – 2022)

“The Creator Has a Master Plan” from the album Karma on Impulse! Records, 1969.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Around Pass Lake

1.

There’s a lake near my house set in a forest of tall evergreen trees that spill down to the shoreline. A road that swings by one end of the lake offers drivers a refreshing glimpse of liquid calm. I think of the lake as a bowl masquerading as the sky, reflecting limitless bright blue, opaque, chalky gray, or smudged pewter, as the weather shifts with the seasons.

Like most people, I usually drive by this lake with another destination in mind. But when my preferred spots are too crowded or far away I might turn into the crunchy gravel parking lot, park the car, and meander through the forest. The trails there don’t feature spectacular views but they do offer a cool, cocoon-like embrace. Sometimes that’s what I need.

2.

The Loop Trail

As it leaves the whirring traffic behind the dirt trail enters a dim, amphitheater-like space of towering trees set among arcing sprays of emerald green sword ferns. There’s not much middle story here – the flora is mostly confined to evergreen ground covers below and stately conifers above with branches beginning far overhead. Winding up a rocky hill, the trail enters a drier part of the woods where discrete openings invite patches of grass and wildflowers. A small slice of the Salish Sea is visible through the maze of crisscrossing branches if you stand in just the right spot. The trail heads down and back up into a brushy opening where blackberries grow. Plunging back into the dim forest, the trail climbs, falls, zigzags and curves back around through mature firs and cedars to complete a two-mile loop. As you walk, every five or ten minutes there’s a subtle change of atmosphere, light, and flora, depending on where you are in relation to the lake, the elevation, the soil, and even the logging history. This land was once logged, some areas more recently than others. Now it’s a protected state park.

3. If they’re this tall now, imagine how tall the trees must have been before the forest was loggged.
4. The trail climbs and the terrain opens up.
5. On an offshoot trail a Bigleaf maple struggles for light in a deep ravine.
6. Blades of grass catch the setting sun on a dry slope.
7. By September, the grass has bent to the ground.
8. Closer to the lake the rugged bark of a Douglas fir tree and a few stray Sword ferns fronds corral the last minutes of sunlight.
9. The fruit of the native Bitter cherry hangs over the lake in September.

The Name

On maps, it’s Pass Lake, a name that might benefit from an explanation. It’s not called Pass Lake because it’s near a mountain pass, rather, the name comes from its proximity to a channel called Deception Pass. This deep, churning channel separates two islands with promontories that border a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.”* So wrote George Vancouver in his journal of the American Northwest Coast Expedition of 1792. Anchored off what we now know is a very long island, he sent Naval Master Joseph Whidbey and a crew to explore the twists and turns of the shoreline in a smaller sailing yawl. The expedition was busy mapping and naming everything in sight, in order to claim territory for the British Crown. After five days the men returned and reported that the land mass was as they suspected – a long peninsula. Then the HMS Discovery sailed up the other side of the “peninsula” and Whidbey was sent out again to examine the jagged coast in detail. This time he found that “very narrow and intricate channel” which leads to the other side. The peninsula was actually an island! Vancouver decided to name the channel “Deception Passage.”

Thanks to politics and power, maps retained that name with one small change: somewhere along the way, “Deception Passage” became “Deception Pass.” It made sense to call the small lake that empties into the channel “Pass Lake.”

Here it is, concealing its charms on a foggy autumn afternoon.

10.
11. Trees tumble into the lake. No one tidies up the mess because this natural cycle benefits many creatures.
12.
13. This photograph is from last December. All the rest were made in July, August, and September 2018 – 2022.

A Little More About Names…

Of course, Vancouver and his men weren’t the first people to name the channel – they weren’t even the first Europeans to label it. Two years earlier, a Spanish Peruvian explorer in command of a ship taken from the British was searching for the coveted Northwest Passage and found the deceptive channel. Manuel Quimper Benitez del Pino named it “Boca de Fion” or “Boca de Fidalgo” depending on your source. Later, complicated disputes and negotiations between Britain and Spain resulted in Vancouver renaming much of what the Spanish charted. Some Spanish names were kept; the island on the north side of the channel is still called Fidalgo Island, in honor of a Spanish explorer.

But what about the much longer history of this region before white men came and conquered? A Coast Salish name for the channel is Xwchsónges, the “Gateway to the hills, interior, or inland.” You can hear the melodious pronunciation of the name here.*  

Enough about names!

Almost at sea level, 94-acre Pass Lake has a maximum depth of just 23 feet (about 6m). A pipe under the road at the south end feeds lake water into a creek that runs through the forest and empties into Bowman Bay. River otters can leave the bay, run uphill through the woods, and carefully cross the road if they want to forage in Pass Lake. (They can’t use the pipe because a cage blocks anything bigger than small fish.) I’ve only seen otters once in the lake but I’ve discovered haul-out sites (trampled grass, scat, and many bits of bones and crayfish shells) a few times while picking my way along the heavily wooded shoreline. Great blue herons, Bald eagles, Belted kingfishers, and overwintering ducks also feast on what the lake provides. I’m not sure people have as much luck. I never see the flick of a fishing line – just solitary, still, peaceful people drifting on the calm water in small, non-motorized boats. It’s catch-and-release anyway.

14.

At Loose Ends? Try Intentional Camera Movement

Pass Lake is part of a state park with an extensive trail system. The loop trail described above connects with a little-known trail to a truly immense Western redcedar tree and to another trail with an old mine, the ruins of a miner’s cabin, and a pleasant view across a ravine. I began exploring these trails in September 2018, a few months after moving to Fidalgo Island. From time to time I go back when I’m at loose ends or if the thick fog hovering over the lake propels me into the parking lot for the best view of the lake. The lake is a natural subject but the dense forest around it can make isolating subjects for photography very challenging. I like to experiment with intentional camera movement to simplify the landscape.

15.
16.
17.
18. Jiggling the camera just a little produced this effect.
19. The patch of grass in #7, with camera movement.

Whatever you call it, this modest lake and the healthy forest around it are a treasure. I’m sure of it because on a hot, dry day this summer when I set out with no food or water, the forest provided. I didn’t think I would be out long enough to get thirsty but within a half hour, my mouth was dry. After 45 minutes of trudging up and down hills, I was desperately scanning every leaf for something edible to chew on. Then I saw them – bright red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) dangling from pretty bushes at the side of the trail. And there was more – the last Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) just needed a gentle tug. Near the ground, I found Trailing blackberry vines (Rubus ursinus) that gave up a few deliciously ripe berries. The stray beams of sunlight that the forest allowed to shine had produced just enough food to slate my thirst. And make me smile.

20.

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LOCAL WALKS: In the Middle

Summer, gloriously spent, is leaning toward rest

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

here,

all mixed in the middle.

***

1.
2. A calm oasis at 5:30 in the afternoon.

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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.

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3. A glacier-scoured, lichen-spotted rock shines in forest-filtered August sunlight.
4. Spores are ripe on the backs of a Sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum).
5. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) shed their bark in August.
6.
7. This year’s discarded Madrone leaves lay atop those from previous years.

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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.

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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.

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9. Intentional camera movement in a meadow.
10.
11. Grasses take center stage in August.
12. Wildflower seedheads reward a close look.
13. A lake in the distance lights up a patch of wild grasses.
14. Made with a vintage Super-Takumar 50mm lens and adapter.
15. Pine needles dance across a rock atop Goose Rock.
16. A root and moss collaboration.
17. This feather is probably from a molting bird of prey, perhaps a young Bald eagle. Photo was made with the vintage Takumar lens.
18. Late summer is spider time here.
19. The forest stays green despite the lack of rain. Fallen logs are common on this thin-soiled island. Many layers are supportedof life as they decompose.
20. Seaside juni[per (Juniperus maritima) bark.
21. A Great blue heron stands on the old dock at Bowman Bay. Made with the vintage Takumar lens.

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