What Might Be

Here is a series of nature-based semi-abstracts with accompanying text. Your reactions to the images are likely to be different from mine and my thoughts would probably be different on another day.

Images have so much to give.

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the wind wavered

a shadow

held me still

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breath sinks

splash of

green

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crackled hieroglyphics

eyes squint

and smile

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shudders

of color

their stories always shifting

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layers reach back

in space

the weaver rejoices

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breath catches

suffocates

under this chaos

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In Ghent

I gape, lost

in a distant century

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I always trust

you’re there

if I…

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rough path

squirrel chatter

keeps me company

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we were free

the clouds

sang

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traces

left behind

detritus of the ages

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I left something

there

for you

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inner circle,

outer circle

who belongs?

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14.

no choice

immersed in

liquid relentlessness

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JUST ONE: Vine Maple

1. November in the forest with Vine maples.

This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.

I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.

2. Looking down on our small Vine maple after a snowfall.

3. The same tree in April, processed with a solarized effect.

4. Looking down again, this time with a Lensbaby, in May.

5. In October.

Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.

Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.

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8. Looking up into a Vine maple tree at the Trail of Cedars in Newhalem, Washington. July, 2016

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10. Looking up into a Vine maple tree along the trail to Wallace Falls in July.

11. November winds blow pale Vine maple leaves off the trees. The dark evergreens towering over them are Western redcedars and Douglas firs.

I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).

As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.

12. A Vine maple peaks out from between two evergreen trees in May at Federation Forest in Washington.

13. Vine maples carry fat clumps of moss on their limbs at Federation Forest.

14. To the left is a Bigleaf maple, our most common maple species. Contrast its large leaves with the smaller leaves of the golden Vine maple on the right. Marckworth State Forest, Washington State. October, 2016.

15. This Vine maple, planted at a garden apartment complex, lights up the parking lot in November with color. Trees in full sun display more fall color than trees in the forest.

16. Vine maples adorn the forest at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland, Washington. November, 2017.

17. Another way of seeing Vine maple leaves on a windy November day at O.O. Denny Park.

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Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.

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RENEWAL

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It’s time for change in America. Four years ago a man was elected to the American presidency who should have never been chosen to lead anything, let alone a free, democratic country. This man’s tenure has been an ugly, backward time when many norms we took for granted were destroyed. The foundations of our government have been undermined, our relationships with each other have suffered, and relationships with our partners across the globe have crumbled. It’s time to turn things around and get back on track.

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This week, a news story in a local paper said that the old building you see pictured here is going to be torn down. It was built almost 130 years ago as a fish cannery. The building functioned well for a long time and was once even touted as one of the biggest fish processing plants in the world. It fell into serious disrepair in recent years, having been sold to an out-of-town developer who allowed it to fall apart become a hazard. It’s the kind of place people break into and hang out in, the kind of place whose present state is barely a shadow of what it once was. The owner has been told that he must erect a fence to keep people out – part of a wall collapsed last week. Soon the entire place will be torn down, once and for all.

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The current president’s contempt for truth, fairness, science, and humanity itself has been mind-boggling. In only four years this administration has done serious damage to our country. It’s time to tear down what has no integrity, to clear away what’s broken, rotten and dangerous and replace it with something new.

In this time of renewal, it’s appropriate that the changes we need will be accomplished with the help of our first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president-elect. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ll need to be patient, and we’ll need to try to work together. Let’s hope that what is constructed in place of the current structure will be created with integrity and strength. And maybe even a dash of beauty. We can dream.

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HINGE TIME

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I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.

There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.

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In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.

My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.

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I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.

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There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.

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  1. A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
  2. The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
  3. End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
  4. A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
  5. Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
  6. Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
  7. Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
  8. A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
  9. Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
  10. I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
  11. A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
  12. Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
  13. Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
  14. A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
  15. The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
  16. Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
  17. Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.

WITHIN THE BOUNDS

…of a five-mile radius. That is where the shutter button clicked for the images below.

Real travel still seems risky but we are so weary of the restrictions we’ve had to adapt to this year! A release, a reprieve, a relief – that’s what we need. Getting outside works for me. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired but I make myself walk and in the end, there is much to be found that keeps me going, even close to home. So I continue my local forays with a curious mind and a grateful heart.

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Here on Fidalgo Island seasonal changes are drawn out and subtle; summer into fall is no exception. Instead of brilliant Sugar maple fire there is a quiet, golden glow in the grasses and leaves; in place of crisp, blue-sky days there is moody morning fog. The delights of freshly-opened flowers are gone but there is pleasure to be had in the following the sinuous curves of drying leaves. The slow permutations of autumn in the Pacific northwest unfold without hindrance, like a meandering waltz spreading limbs through time and space.

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These images were made between mid-September and mid October on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The terroir, as the French say, is strongly influenced by water, mild in temperature, thin of soil, and resplendent with natural beauty.

I “beat the bounds” of my own small place on this planet, walking a ragged perimeter of well-worn paths, absorbing the lessons I’m open to, exploring the limits of “my” territory. In England, Scotland and Wales, before maps were readily available, boundary memories were periodically refreshed by walking along and defining them. Beating the bounds and practices like it have probably been around for thousands of years and may be rooted in a similar Roman custom which Wikipedia says honored Terminus, the god of landmarks. But why is it called “beating” the bounds? Because willow or birch branches were slapped on the ground and on the old stone boundary markers, helping to fix parish borders in residents’ minds. Children were brought along to learn the boundaries by whatever means suited those in charge – maybe a firm knock on the child’s head when they arrived at a stone marker could cement the memory. And afterwards the bonds of the community were strengthened by celebrating with food and drink. According to Wikipedia, the custom still exists in some locations, including sites in Germany, France, and even the U.S. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have statutes requiring that certain boundaries are periodically reaffirmed. However, apparently some contemporary versions of beating the bounds don’t include actual walking. Too bad.

Though I’m not necessarily a fan of practices that strengthen the idea of ownership over land, I find much to like in the idea of beating the bounds. It seems to be a way to recognize and celebrate one’s connection to the earth, specifically to one’s locality. We are rooted in the local, nourished by the soil under our feet and the air about us. It’s good to remember that.

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3. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in repose.

4. My bounds include shorelines; on this beach golden leaves were scattered on the sand and tiny shell fragments piled up behind when the tide went out.

5. Madrone trees play a prominent role in my environment. As summer wanes and windy rainstorms appear they fling berries onto the ground. Douglas fir needles make a nice backdrop.

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7. A Douglas fir skeleton at the feet of thriving relatives looks mysterious in the morning fog.

8. Twined Douglas fir trees. They’re the most common tree species within the bounds of my island.

9. A fragile piece of Madrone bark hangs from a twig encircled by a honeysuckle vine. The slow collapse of autumn is indeed a beautiful thing, even in its most mundane details

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12. The single, ruined train car that shares a field with half a dozen cattle looked straight out of an old movie when the smoke settled around it. This is one of the stranger sights seen in my travels.

13. On this October morning my world was smudged by fog instead of smoke.

14. With a little help from the camera, golden Bracken ferns wave in the wind, saying goodbye to chlorophyll-green summer days and hello to the somber tones of decomposition.

15. I thought these were gooseberries but found out they’re Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) berries. This Pacific northwest native is grown in temperate gardens world-wide for it’s beautiful spring flowers.

16. Back at the beach the receding tide left a message written in eelgrass.

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18. Horsetails (Equisetum arvense) are leaning closer to the earth now.

19. I found fall color on a small scale in the forest – Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) in a bed of moss.

20. Another Western starflower plant rides out autumn in a soft sea of reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.).

21. Fog, not smoke. Bliss.

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LOCAL WALKS: Whidbey Island Wandering

It was a day of serendipity. I had an appointment on Whidbey Island, our neighbor to the south, and decided to wend my way further south instead of heading right back home. The small, historic town of Coupeville beckoned. I’m sorry I don’t have photos of Coupeville’s charming Victorian architecture or its old wharf and quiet waterfront, but I was beelining to Little Red Hen for espresso and treats. Their too-small-for-COVID-times indoor seating space is closed so people lounged around outside as they waited for their orders, trying to maintain distance on the narrow sidewalk. I ordered an egg sandwich with goat cheese and crunchy fried kale served on their own English muffin. But wait, there’s more! I didn’t pass up the crisp, warm double-filled dark chocolate croissants, nor did I forget to buy a ginger-molasses cookie. You have to stock up when you’re in the presence of a baker who knows what they’re doing.

I found a spot with a nice view and wolfed down the sandwich, sipping a rich, intense macchiato between bites. Yummy. Then, on the way out of town I noticed a place called Ciao Food and Wine. I’d passed it before but never checked it out. It was time to investigate. Inside, a chef was frying garlic in olive oil only steps away from shiny displays of high-end Italian deli treats, the like of which I hadn’t seen in several years. I spent my formative years in New York, where Italian food reigns, and foods like like ricotta salata and sfogliatelle are comfort food to me. I miss that now and realize that I took good Italian food for granted, so I couldn’t stop smiling as I chatted with the salesperson, chose a wedge of cheese and a pretty pastry, and tucked a menu in the bag, in hopes of tempting a certain someone into coming back with me for lunch.

Treats in hand, I thought I was heading home but serendipity intervened again. The sky darkened with dramatic clouds to the west so I swerved off the highway in that direction to find a better view. The road led to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, a generous parcel of land along Whidbey’s Island’s western shore that features gorgeous views with a side of local history. Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey was an early settler on the island – or should I say, an early white settler. He brought his family over from Missouri and began making a life amidst conflict and hardship. Before he turned 40, Ebey was killed by members of a northern tribe (most likely Tlingit) in retribution for the death of one of their chiefs during a battle between a large tribal party that came down from their territory to effect a slave raid. Traditionally, a number of northern tribes took slaves from other tribes to establish wealth and rank but now, with whites in the picture, the scenario didn’t go as planned. Many people, including a chief, were killed by U.S. Navy sailors in what is known to whites as the 1856 Battle of Port Gamble. A small number of Tlingit men who were captured were eventually returned to their homeland, and again following tradition, they planned the revenge raid that ended in Ebey’s death. (He was actually not the target but ended up being a convenient mark for the tribe, as he was home that day and the doctor they planned to kill was not).

A few years later Ebey’s brother and cousin constructed a public house so his two sons would have a means of support. The handsome structure still stands, overlooking the broad fields that swoop down to a shoreline that once bustled with ferry traffic. The absorbing history of the Ebey family includes stories about Colonel Ebey’s role in the Oregon Territorial government, the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, and rumors about Ebey’s scalp, which was held by the tribe for a time, then sold to a fur trader and returned to the Ebey family. After that, the exact location of that sad remnant of a tragedy is murky; the trail runs cold in California.

Engrossing history aside, that day I was just looking for fresh air and stirring views.

In fact, the air was so fresh it was bracing. I found a trail passing the austere, slate gray house and tracing the edge of still-tended fields out to a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet, where the Olympic Mountains pile on top of one other across the cold, choppy water. I quickly regretted not putting my hoodie on – the chilly wind whipped my hair in my face and bit at my ears. Invigorated, I paused on the bluff with my back to the gale and watched clouds ride the wind and switch places across a vast, shifting, gray-blue panorama. The beach below was strewn with driftwood logs and an occasional walker could be seen braving the wind. A few wildflowers waved their heads frantically and ravens tore across the sky, slicing it every which way. Then a family approached, triggering my retreat.

Going back was shorter, as it always is, so instead of scurrying to the car I stopped to peer into the gloom of Ferry House. I couldn’t see much inside – the light was against it – but what I saw in the windows made up for the murky interior. The dramatic, cloud-darkened sky swirled around in the glass. A window on the far side of the house appeared like a beacon and my own reflection, broken up by repeating rectangles, disappeared into an abyss of light.

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FURTHER AFIELD: An Afternoon in the Mountains

I’ve been longing to go up into the mountains. On a calm Monday two weeks ago, the smoke had cleared and the weather was favorable, so we headed out to the North Cascades for a stroll around a pristine alpine lake. At 4300 feet (1310m) Bagley Lakes isn’t the highest hike in the Mount Baker area, but for us, it was a welcome change of scenery, from an island at sea level to a mountain’s dramatic peaks and valleys.

1. On the way. The first glimpse of mountains in the distance is always exciting.

2. Mt Shuksan and Hanging Glacier, seen from Heather Meadows on the flanks of Mt. Baker. At the lower left is White Salmon Lodge (a ski base).

Mt. Baker is a favorite destination for hiking, climbing, snowboarding, skiing and other recreational pursuits. The highest point that vehicles can access is at the end of a series of steep switchbacks that climb the mountain’s north side. The final 2.7 miles is under snow most of the year and only opens in the summer. It takes road crews two to six weeks to dig through the 30 – 50 feet of snow that falls up there. Depending on conditions they could finish in May, or it might be August before the last section opens up to visitors.

At the end of the road is Artists Point, a huge parking lot with an array of trails leading into the rocky wilderness beyond. Even on a weekday in September it’s a very popular place, so we decided to leave the road before the top and hike a little lower. It was a good choice; our trail wasn’t deserted but it wasn’t busy either. We had some space.

As we set out on a loop trail around lower Bagley Lake, I could feel the anticipation building. When I’m in the mountains my feet want to leap ahead, my mind races and my spirit soars. I have to consciously bring myself back down to earth – at least enough to sense the rocky path under my feet. Over and over that day, I reminded myself to watch where I stepped, slow down, and be careful. And over and over again, I felt the exhilaration of simply being alive in such a beautiful, humbling place.

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5. There were blueberries everywhere!

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7. For about 8 months each year this lake is under snow. Unofficially, the Mt. Baker ski area is said to have the highest snowfall of any resort in the world – on average, 53.4 ft (16.3m) per year. The mountain summit is 8 miles away from this spot, as the crow flies.

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11. This old tree has seen weather that I can’t imagine.

12. Battered by the elements, Douglas firs still stand tall.

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Here’s a link explaining how these amazing rock shapes form. The rock reveals the volcanic origin of the area and in fact, Mt. Baker is an active volcano. In 1975, Koma Kulshan (an indigenous name for the mountain) emitted steam when magma intruded somewhere deep under the mountain. The steam melted a huge hole in the glacier at Sherman Crater, below the summit. A stunt pilot was enlisted to fly scientists as close to the active crater as possible so they could photograph and study it. Seismometers were installed and campgrounds below the active crater were closed for the summer, but thankfully, no eruption occurred. Now, systems and procedures are in place in case the mountain erupts. The local county sheriff’s website has instructions for what to do in case of an eruption, noting that there WILL be warnings, in the form of “days or more of increased earthquakes.”

15. Like a giant’s building blocks, these enormous rock cubes tumbled down during some long-ago disruption, landing in a lush bed of wildflowers and grasses.

16. A sturdy stone bridge crosses the spot where a creek connects upper and lower Bagley Lakes. Two straight-sided boulders nearby offered a fine spot to sit and devour my lunch. Just beyond the bridge American dippers (small, dark gray birds) actively pursued their own lunch – under the water.

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18. Fallen trees in every stage of decomposition litter the steep hills. This one was adorned with sprightly Lady ferns (Anthyrium felix-femina).

19. A parting view of stately Mt. Shuksan, a 9,131 foot-tall massif (i.e. not a volcano) that’s beloved by climbers, with 14 different ice and rock routes to the craggy peak. We will leave that for the technical climbers. They get the supreme views but we get the blueberries.

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RETURNING TO ABSTRACTION

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The title of this post has two meanings: first, it’s a return to abstraction because I published a post featuring abstract images earlier this year. Second, like many people these days, I find myself drifting back to the past. Aesthetically, the past for me means abstraction. As a child I was shown the standard representational fare, some of it very beautiful, no doubt. But change and rebellion were in the air by the time I went to college. I refused to attend a typical college and enrolled in a New York City art school instead. There, minimalism, conceptual art, installations, land art and performance art ruled. Fully immersed in that culture, I was very happy.

A thread had been dropped though, and it wouldn’t be picked up until much later. I never forgot that nature was vital to my being, even in a decade of full-throttle, staccato, subway-riding, sensory-overloaded life in the city. Nature just rode along quietly for a while, breathing gently like a hushed tide. When I moved out of the city the tide came in. I gardened, watched birds, learned botanical illustration, and eventually began wielding a camera to record the beauty I saw everywhere.

That brings me to the present, a present in which I joyfully hone my skills making photographs of lichens, landscapes, and everything in between. But abstraction lives. The habits of seeing that were refined in galleries, in classrooms and on the streets of New York may not be obvious in my work, but they underlie many decisions made behind the camera and at the computer.

In the spirit of creating something new while working with the past, I’ve been making drastic changes to photographs in my archives. I’ve been abstracting them and therein, I’m finding new delights. As Wikipedia notes, abstraction “strictly speaking…refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world—it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world…” And that’s the space these images inhabit – the distillation and reshaping of the original image toward a new vision.

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I’ve been following a deviant route when I work with the photos on my screen. Before jumping into processing I get a feeling for the whole image. Then, instead of proceeding to refine what is there, I wonder what else is in the image. What can be extracted from it? What does it say? What permutations are waiting to be uncovered? Where can I take it?

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A paper appeared in my inbox one day that discusses a different, more philosophical approach to the photographic experience. Reading the paper, which was written by an art education professor, I stepped outside the world of photographers talking about photography for a moment. I realized that viewing photography through a different lens (sorry, I can’t help it!) could facilitate breaking habits. I thought about taking my typically representational images and mutating them.

“The encounter then operates as a rupture in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities. It produces a cut, a crack. However this is not the end of the story, for the rupturing encounter also contains a moment of affirmation, the affirmation of a new world, in fact a way of seeing and thinking this world differently.” Thinking Through the Photographic Encounter: Engaging with the Camera as Nomadic Weapon by Cala Coats. Nomadic in this sense refers to boundary-blurring, creative, alternative ways of being in the world. As a nomadic weapon the camera assists the photographer in engaging with the world directly, resulting in new insights.

In this excerpt from her paper Coats is quoting Simon O’Sullivan, an artist and professor at Goldsmith’s University, London. A brief scan of some of O’Sullivan’s work turns up references to disrupting habits of living in linear time and building platforms to access “somewhere else.” There are statements like this: “The infinite is not a transcendent horizon but the very ground of existence.” He discusses “minor arts” (e.g. performance art as opposed to painting) as art forms that are always in process, always becoming: “…a minor art pushes up against the edges of representation; it bends it, forcing it to the limits and often to a certain kind of absurdity.” Whether he considers photography a minor art or not is immaterial; his ideas sparked a fresh perspective in my mind.

Is the camera only a representational tool? Certainly not. It can be a launch pad for a trip to an unknown place. If seeing the world with fresh eyes is desirable, then how can wielding a camera disrupt habitual ways of seeing? What can the person behind the lens do to break the spell of look-click-look-click-look-click? And later, what can the person tapping the keyboard do to break the spell of contrast-up-highlights-down-sharpness-up, etc.?

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Instructions to Self:

Pare the RAW file

down to a sketchy suggestion of what

might have been, what

could be.

Rupture the railroad-straight line between

clicking the shutter and

the final file.

Find a crooked way, a way that

hesitates, races forward, wanders back,

uncovers new shapes, unfolds fresh colors,

unmasks smudgy tones, reveals deeper feelings

and ideas. And do it all

with joy.

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LOCAL WALKS: Two Walks by the Water

This post focuses on two places I return to frequently: one is at the island’s edge where land meets water, the other is inland, where a forest surrounds a lake. Water bodies have powerful effects on land, nourishing life with mist and fog, altering temperature, favoring particular plants and animals, and modifying the land itself. Bodies of water have profound effects on humans too, of course. Not least is the impact water has on our emotions. A lake I visit refreshes my mind even when barely glimpsed through the trees on a hill far above it. Reflections on the lake’s surface mesmerize me as I slowly ply the shoreline path. Along the island’s edge a larger body of water soothes my nerves, pushing waves that lap at my feet as I walk along the pebbled beach. Round stones roll and clatter when the water sucks them back, delighting my ears.

Walking by the water is restorative. I was in danger of taking that for granted until this month, when smoke-ridden, unhealthy air forced me to stop my outdoor walks. I didn’t think we would be shut indoors for so long, peering through closed windows at a landscape dulled by dirty air. I didn’t think the leaves on the Bigleaf maples could be so still for so long, or the birds so silent. That’s what happened though. And unsurprisingly, I got restless. For the past week I’ve made brief escapes by car, running the air conditioning (which I normally would not do) and gaping at horizons smudged down to nothingness. One normalizing errand I can do is to visit the drive-up espresso stand – but even that activity has been fraught. On the worst days, when the air quality index soared into a dangerous category, I would roll my window back up after ordering, roll it down again to grab the drink and up again while the masked barista smiled with her eyes and ran my card. Once she offered to add the tip and sign the receipt for me, so I wouldn’t need to roll the window down again. I worried about her, exposed to the “very unhealthy” air for hours on end.

But how lucky we both are, not to have lost our homes like so many others here on the increasingly hot and dry West Coast of America, the country that turns its back on climate change action and continues down a path which, if not altered, will create an unimaginable disaster. It will be a cowardly new world populated by the descendants of people who didn’t have the courage to act when it was necessary. I’m aware that I don’t help matters by using my car when I don’t absolutely need to. We all make compromises and do our best. We are living in strange times.

Today I’m going to spread a little beauty around. Maybe it will bring a measure of relief to you as you worry about what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. Water and its environs – drink it in with your tired eyes and breathe a long sigh. And maybe do one small thing today, to tip the scales the other way.

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1. A stipe (stem) of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) afloat in the shallow water of Rosario Bay. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.
2. Wind-sculpted Douglas fir trees and morning fog, August, Rosario Bay.

3. The Maiden of Deception Pass. She was carved from a Western redcedar as a joint Samish Tribe-Skagit County project. Here story can be found below, at the end of the post.

4. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stalks its prey on Rockweed-covered rocks in Rosario Bay. I wish this bird good luck on this foggy morning.

5. Rocks are tumbled smooth by four tides a day at Rosario Beach.

6. A young Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perches on a tall Douglas fir and surveys the scene up on Rosario Head, a bald above the bay.

7. Hopefully this little Townsend’s chipmunk (Tamias townsendii) can evade the hawk’s talons. It ate calmly while I stood nearby but scrambled under the driftwood as soon as I moved.

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9. Watching the fog at Rosario Beach.

10. Fog formed, evaporated and formed again as I meandered spellbound among the driftwood logs.

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11. At Little Cranberry Lake on a quiet July afternoon, a small island turns golden.

12. A tree that fell into the lake long ago sprouts a tuft of grass.

13. Beavers have been busy around the lake. The south end was flooded and now, dead trees wait their turn to crash into the water.

14. As I pick my way along the rocky, rooty shoreline, the water casts its spell.

15. Golden grasses sway on a bluff overlooking the lake.

16. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) throw lanky shadows across one another in the forest.

17. Long after they have dried up, papery Pearly everlasting flowers (Anaphalis margaritacea) continue to grace an opening in the woods above the lake.

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17. Douglas for branches dip their tips toward the water.

18. Tall, dense trees don’t let much light into the forest. Dew coats the dried flowers of Ocean Spray (also called Ironwood) (Holodiscus discolor) tracing a lacy filigree of light.

19. Thousands of midges, perhaps just hatched, swarm over the water at Little Cranberry Lake. Many will mate and many will be eaten.

20. Back at Rosario Bay, the view from Rosario Head is obscured by fog. Boat trails glow on the water’s surface long after they’re out of sight.

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  • The story of the Maiden of Deception Pass. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot was a beautiful Samish Indian girl living in a village at this site. She was gathering seafood one day when a young man from beneath the sea saw her and fell in love. But when this man of the sea asked her father for her hand in marriage, he refused, for fear she would drown. The young man warned Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father that the seafood would disappear unless she married him. When his warning proved to be true, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father granted permission for the marriage. The beautiful woman waded into the sea to join her new husband. Once again the seafood returned and was plentiful. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot returned to her people once a year for four years. Barnacles had grown upon her hands and arms, and her long raven hair turned to kelp. Chill winds followed wherever she walked, and she seemed to be unhappy out of the sea. Seeing this, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s people told her she did not need to return to them. Since that day, she has been the Samish Tribe’s guiding spirit and through her protection there has always been plenty of seafood and pure, sweet springwater. From the Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center

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FURTHER AFIELD: The Boulder River Trail

The green island where I live is brimming with lush parks, but as much as I enjoy the beauty here, my restless spirit keeps spinning dreams of the mountains, where up is higher, down is lower and vistas are rugged and vast. Late summer is a perfect time to venture inland, to places like Mount Baker in the North Cascades or Hurricane Ridge, high in the Olympic mountains. Those two places have been teasing my brain for months and we could visit either one – they’re two or three hours away. But it’s prime time for visiting parks and crowds don’t appear in the pictures in my mind. When the summer frenzy abates there will still be time for those trips. In the meantime, last week I was looking for an alternative, an easy hike that doesn’t require too many hours on the road. I came across the Boulder River Trail and we decided to give it a go.

The trail leads through a forest surrounding the rushing waters of Boulder River, which tumbles down from a remote lake, high up on Three Fingers Mountain, where three jagged peaks rise 6,500 feet above sea level. Following an old railroad grade on the side of the canyon, the trail enters the Boulder River Wilderness, where 49,000 acres of forests and mountains are distinguished by wet conditions (twelve feet of rain annually), thick vegetation and steep terrain. The river plunges down three separate waterfalls on the way to its confluence with the larger Stillaguamish River. One of those waterfalls is the big draw for the hike.

The first waterfall is noisy Boulder Falls, which can be heard but can’t be seen without descending off-trail through thick woods. The next waterfall is the prettiest and at just over a mile from the trailhead, requires the least effort. Some sources say it has no name but others call it Feature Show Falls. Just don’t disagree about the directions and I’ll be fine!

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1. The road to the trailhead is overhung with mossy Bigleaf maple trees.

2. A peak at part of the waterfall

Feature Show Falls is a lovely, 180-foot-tall double cascade that runs all year, unlike some waterfalls that dwindle to a trickle in summer. The hike isn’t long but you pay a price for that: the trailhead is at the end of a pot-holed, gravel road. Happily the road is only four miles long. Many Pacific Northwest trailheads can only be reached after navigating cratered roads at a snail’s pace for at least an hour. The relatively easy access and non-strenuous hike appealed to us. Even better, a mile up the road there is a well-built vault toilet with lots of toilet paper and a door that locks. Just when you need it!

We were relieved to see only three cars at the trailhead when we arrived on a Thursday morning at about 10:30. We set out under a stunning canopy of moss-hung Bigleaf maple trees, with golden light angling down from high overhead. Our packs held plenty of water and snacks and our masks were stuffed in our pockets. I had a new, wide-angle prime lens on my camera that I was eager to use. Unfortunately, I had left a circular polarizer on it the day before and didn’t notice it until well into the hike. It’s frustrating, but who hasn’t done that? If I’d known the polarizer was on the lens I would have turned it for the best effect. In some cases I would not have wanted it – our forests can be very dim, even in summer. Some photos were beyond saving and others needed a lot of help in Lightroom but, c’est la vie!

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3. This forest was logged many years ago. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western redcedar and Bigleaf maple are all plentiful. Slopes are very steep but timber is valuable, so back in 1909, eight miles of railroad track were laid into the woods here. It’s hard to imagine how they did it. Further into the forest, the trees were spared because the going got too tough.

4. We admired this well-worn boardwalk across a wet section of trail. It’s made with thick planks of Western redcedar, once felled and split for cedar shakes and shingles but now left to grow tall and play its part in the great scheme that is life, here in this one particular slice of our earth.

5. Setting off.

The trail is mostly level as it traces the old railroad grade cut into the face of a steep slope. Nature proceeds unhindered here. Trees fall and rot in place, returning nourishment to the soil, with its wealth of fungal networks that in turn, nourish the plants above. Of course, some trees fall right across the trail and if they’re too big to remove, you have to climb over or under – whatever works. We were awed by the size of the fallen giants, especially two conifers that fell across the trail right next to each other. There was very little space underneath them but they seemed way too big to straddle. I handed my pack and camera to Joe and took the awkward way, crawling under the log. A pass of the packs and it was his turn. At times like these, I think, “Will this be the moment when the big earthquake we are overdue for finally happens?” The funny thing was, on the way back we noticed that someone had cut large notches in the tops of the two trees, making it practically a walk in the park to climb over them. We hadn’t studied the situation well enough on the way out, or maybe we’re just not experienced enough to know to look for those handy notches. Swinging up and over wasn’t so hard and it was much nicer than crawling across sharp rocks!

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6. The first of many trees to duck under or climb over, this one doesn’t need notches because there’s plenty of room to walk under it. The tree further down the trail can be walked around.

7. Another place I don’t want to be when the big earthquake hits. The notch is near the rock on the right; the second tree is hiding behind this one.

8. This piece of tree trunk plunged into the earth like a spear and then stayed there. I pushed and it hardly gave at all. It must have hit the ground with formidable force.

9. Sword fern shadows, a gentler side of the forest.

10. Like someone having a bad hair day, this frond on a Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) twists and turns every which way. Deer fern has two kinds of fronds – spore-bearing and sterile. The bright green sterile fronds usually grow low to the ground, like in the photo below. The spiky fertile fronds rise from the middle, standing straight up at first but contorting into wild shapes when they’re ready to release their spores. Yes, deer eat these ferns.

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12. A Pine white butterfly (Neophasia menapia) moved slowly enough for me to get a sharp image but in the end, I like this partly blurred one better. By this time I had switched to a macro lens.

13. This sculptural arrangement of roots and rock consists of at least one mature Western redcedar tree growing on an old, Western redcedar stump that grew on a large rock. To give you an idea of scale, the rock is big enough to sit on comfortably, with your feet barely touching the ground and your head two feet below the top of the stump.

14. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) flourishes on moist rock walls. Unlike Sword fern and Deer fern, it’s not evergreen and the leaves were getting ragged. It’s not white, of course, but is fairly light in color, especially compared to evergreen ferns. I’m fond of the circular growth pattern.

15. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) prefers consistently moist environments so I rarely see it where I live. I was happy to see it growing here, even if some of the trees (technically they are large shrubs) were insect-ridden. Vine maple’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples and like them, it is a graceful, delicate tree.

16. The forest is full of old trees; many of them have rotted. This mushroom, probably a Red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Black and white emphasizes the sinuous curves.

We heard the enticing roar of Boulder Falls, then rounded a bend and climbed an incline. Feature Show Falls was in range. After all, we were hungry so we must be near the end! We had taken far longer than the other six or eight hikers we saw. There was so much to admire – moss-covered trees disappearing into the canopy, filtered sunlight picking out leaf details, late-blooming wildflowers, six kinds of ferns, a dark, hollow tree with white, dew-dotted mushrooms inside it, huge stumps with loggers’ springboard slots cut into them…and finally, the waterfall appeared through the thick foliage. The trail had narrowed and footing was precarious in places. As we picked our way carefully across rocks and roots, we glanced across the deep ravine, getting bits and pieces of the falls. Eventually we arrived at a wide opening on the side of the ravine. A conveniently placed log offered a spot to sit while we ate lunch and listened to wild streams of water tumbling down 180 feet of rock to the Boulder River below. A rough trail leads steeply down to the river but we were content that day to just sit and listen.

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16. There were no vantage points to see the whole falls, top to bottom and right to left, without descending to the riverbed. I worked with what I had. This view is through the moss and lichen-covered branches of a Bigleaf maple tree.

17. The air was cool and fresh and filled with tiny insects flying back and forth in the charged air next to the falls. Leaves fluttered from breezes let loose by the force of the water. Fine threads glinted and wavered, catching the light – they were spiderwebs, strung high over the river from tree limbs. Only the rocks were still.

18. A view through graceful Western hemlock branches.

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