In 1977 a Fidalgo Island resident named Kathleen Sharpe deeded a choice parcel of land to the county, to be used as a park in memory of her husband and his father. Irish-born Thomas Sharpe had arrived on the island about a hundred years earlier, establishing a farm and orchard. The 1870’s may not sound like long ago in historical terms, but Sharpe was one of the early permanent white settlers on Fidalgo Island. He and his family must have relished the peaceful views from their homestead.
Sharpe Park doesn’t impress with size but its beauty is undeniable. Set along rugged cliffs at the island’s western edge with spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands, this is the kind of place that is normally dotted with private homes. Instead, it’s a county park where anyone can enjoy the views free of charge. The park maintains a low profile; only a discrete sign at a small parking lot on a quiet road identifies it. Additional land was added to the park in 2003, thanks to the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust and funds from private, state and county sources. That cooperation dedicated to a mutually valued goal produced a gem of a park.
We used to drive up to Fidalgo Island to enjoy the scenery when we lived near Seattle. It was on one of those trips in the fall of 2017 that we discovered Sharpe Park. We followed winding, root-studded trails past a wetland and drifted through a moist, evergreen forest before arriving at Sare’s Head, the high bluff overlooking Rosario Strait. The expansive view took our breath away. Standing on that bluff with the silver water spread out far below, your mind-chatter fades away as everything quiets.
Since moving to Fidalgo Island, this park has become one of my favorite places to wander and relax. The trail system has easy, moderate and challenging sections as it follows the twists and turns of the shoreline. There’s a simple bench on the bluff and another on a second bluff to the east, making perfect spots for picnics. Walking through the peaceful forest, catching those first glints of blue through the trees and emerging on a bluff overlooking the water 400 feet below is always a treat.
The seasons roll forward revealing a parade of discoveries: dried cattails reflected in the dark waters of winter, a tiny native orchid penetrating the leaf litter in July, stripes of fire damage in the bark of a Madrone tree, and a suite of pretty Camas flowers lighting up the ground in a clearing. In March a friend and I watched a Bald eagle attempt to land on a branch that was too small. It tipped over and tried to right itself by spreading its wings. It was unsuccessful. We couldn’t help laughing as the eagle went to find a better lookout. There are supposed to be Harbor porpoises off Sares Head but I haven’t seen them there. That’s reason enough to keep coming back.
Light, water and movement: taken together they’re a recipe for enchantment. When light dances on water, patterns emerge as endless revelations. When the air pushes water this way and that or blows clouds across the sun, the patterns break up and reform in fleeting frames. Photographing these mesmerizing permutations of light and water, I never know what will happen, and that, of course, is a big part of the draw.
During a recent road trip we stopped for provisions at the North Coast Coop in Arcata, California and got into a conversation with the check-out person. The tall, wiry man was friendly and eager to talk as he rang up our purchases. I asked about his favorite hikes in the area and without hesitation, he began proclaiming the virtues of a place I hadn’t heard of. “Go to Headwaters Forest Reserve” he said. “They built a new trail, and it’s my favorite place for walking!”
The next day we drove out to the trailhead, parked, and set out on a mostly level trail that follows the South Fork Elk River through a picturesque forest. We got caught in rain showers a few times, but there was ample shelter under the thick canopy of tall, moss-laden trees. With rain and sunshine alternating, everything sparkled. On the trail, nursery logs supported mature trees, ferns arced over the forest floor, and a big, black beetle stopped us in our tracks. It was a glorious walk. Then I saw the colorful reflections on the gently rippling river and I was spellbound.
I have come to expect hypnotic reflections at certain spots on the lakes closer to home and the play of light on water never gets old. Whether air currents ripple the water or allow for relative stillness, the mirrored reality is captivating and mysterious. Here’s a group of photographs of reflections in lakes, streams and ponds near home.
These intimate immersions into transitory states of nature seem more vital than ever to our sanity in the face of the onslaught of bad news that presses against us every day. I don’t take the grace of being alive in such beautiful places lightly. I wouldn’t be there and the images would not have been made if activists and preservationists didn’t fight to preserve the land and waters where I walk.
In northern California, Headwaters Forest Reserve protects precious old-growth forest and watersheds that were almost lost to logging. This unique ecosystem was being actively clear-cut as recently as the 1980’s, but Earth First! stepped in and raised hell. There were boycotts, tree-sits, protests, and counter-demonstrations by truckers and loggers. During this period the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet were listed as threatened, enhancing the public’s understanding of the need to preserve this critical habitat for them.
The 1990’s was a challenging time for loggers, mill workers and their families, as well as for activists, legislators and others, as the fight to save previously unlogged forests heated up. Gray areas – the complexities of the situation as a whole – got lost in black and white thinking as the opposing sides became polarized. But after years of struggle the 7500-acre Headwaters reserve was transferred from private ownership to the public in 1999. The region may feel calmer now but in fact, nearby forests on the Lost Coast are threatened today. Activists continue to mobilize.
To see the original old-growth trees at Headwaters Forest Reserve you have to hike 10.5-miles (about 17km) round-trip or make a request in advance for a guided five-mile hike. On this trip we hiked shorter trails that don’t penetrate the ancient old-growth forest, but we enjoyed the trails we took immensely. We hope to do the guided hike next time. Photos #1 – #7 and #17 and #16 – #19 in my previous post began life at Headwaters.
Photos #8 – 13 and #16 were made within Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL). In the late 1980’s residents came together to protect land on Fidalgo Island that was being logged for revenue by the city of Anacortes. The forest was disappearing and the city wasn’t making much from logging it, so concerned citizens rallied together, educated key people and involved local teachers and children in the cause. Within a few years the logging was stopped and managing the forest lands for recreation instead of profit became a city budget item.
Photos #13 and #14 were made at local gardens. Again, people worked together to create these gardens for recreation and education. Bonhoeffer Gardens in Stanwood, Washington, preserves native plants for the enjoyment and edification of the public. The Discovery Garden in Mount Vernon, Washington, was created by a Washington State University Master Gardener class to educate and inspire the public. It features a mix of native and non-native species laid out in more than twenty separate demonstration gardens linked by paths and plantings. The Discovery Garden and Bonhoeffer Gardens each have water features – what is a garden without water? When the light is right, the reflections never disappoint.
It’s a little town in northern California – more precisely, in Humboldt County, home of mammoth redwood trees, counter-culture cannabis growers, and (more prosaically, because everything shouldn’t be exciting) dairy and beef farms.
we were driving onto the Coupeville ferry and crossing over to the Olympic peninsula. It’s a longer route, but so much prettier, and we avoided Seattle traffic. Heading south along the Hood Canal (it’s a fjord!) on a quiet two-lane road, we passed Hamma Hamma and Lilliwaup,
glimpsed a herd of elk grazing by the roadside, then merged onto the interstate (ugh). We powered past Portland and stopped in a town called Brownsville for the night. Google pointed us to a local joint called Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post for dinner. The food went down even better after we watched a vintage truck –
the one we thought was part of the display of vintage tools and stuff –
start up with a groan and a growl and slowly, very slowly, putter down the road. (We noticed the pickup truck owner’s wife scowling as she sped away in a separate vehicle).
The next day we crossed the Oregon/California border and sailed down a loopy mountain road in a downpour, finally arriving in peaceful little Ferndale at dusk. Early the following morning I wandered outside where a peaceful, pastoral scene unfolded: the world refreshed by September rains.
Contentment worked its way under our skin and deep into our bones as we strolled wide beaches, hiked emerald forests and motored through rolling hills that overlooked the empty Pacific far below. Daily coffee in a laid-back cafe with a workshop where a man builds kayaks anchored us to Ferndale’s gentle rhythms.
We’re home now and I miss this exquisite corner of the world already.
Maybe you can see why.
We met a cast of friendly, eccentric characters on the trails, including a 94-year-old man intent on hiking a steep trail connecting grasslands and beach, a woman of a certain age hiking barefoot in the rain with two tiny dogs on leashes and a cat on her back, and a man who seemed to go nowhere without his two cockatoos.
On the way back home we spent two nights on the Oregon coast in the little town of Waldport. More on that later, but here is a view from the beach at low tide one morning:
This trip went by too fast. I know I’m privileged to be able to spend any time at all at such spectacular places as California’s redwood forests and its nearly deserted northern beaches. Breathtaking scenery lurks around the corner anywhere you look though, if you let old habits drop away and look with new eyes.
These photos are a celebration of tafoni* and accompanying formations in the rock at Larrabee State Park, along with two vistas so you can see the context. And there are children enjoying their finds before returning them to the water, and two intertidal denizens called Purple sea stars.
Tafoni – in Sicilian it means windows (or so I read in Wikipedia). And in Corsica, taffoni (with two “f’s”) also means windows (says Wiki). The tafoni we’re talking about could be related to a Greek word for tomb, taphos but in any case, the window/tombs I’m thinking about are sensuously sculpted holes in rock. Tafoni is a term geologists use for certain the intricate patterns that occur in rocks from complex weathering processes.
This phenomenon can be found in the desert and at the shore, and the shore is where these photographs were made, at Larrabee State Park in northwestern Washington.
Larrabee was Washington’s first state park, thanks to a wealthy family who donated some beautiful waterfront acreage to the state over a hundred years ago. Primarily a rocky stretch of saltwater coast, the park also includes the west side of Chuckanut Mountain. The cliffs there are very steep: last year a man died in a fall from the rocks, and a couple was injured in another fall this year. The narrow, winding road that passes through Larrabee is full of blind curves and marvelous scenic views which you can enjoy as long as you remember to pay attention to where your tires are. After arriving at Larrabee I like to cross under the railroad tracks and follow the easier paths along the shoreline. The rocky beach is great to explore at low tide when tidepools reveal all sorts of creatures.
Maybe because they’re more dependable than sea life, the rock formations are the big draw for me. Whether the rocks are towering over the shoreline or defining it, the 57-million-year-old sandstone displays many fascinating forms. You can’t help but wonder how the tafoni and the smooth, svelte curves came about. The process of honeycomb weathering (those Swiss cheesy holes in the rocks) is fairly complex. It begins with the process of physical weathering, a loosening of the structure of the rock caused by a tree root, freeze and thaw cycles, the action of wind, acid rain…a myriad of forces that work on rocks to alter their shape. At Larrabee the rock is quite permeable. It’s subject to salt from ocean water, carried from many miles away by the tides and storms. Salt water splashes on the rocks, leaving salt crystals between grains of rock as it dries. The salt crystals grow, pushing grains of rock aside, a process that happens readily because sandstone here is quite porous. Certain minerals in the sandstone are more susceptible to salt crystallization than others and once a pit begins it can increase its size more quickly than the surrounding rock, so weathering can be very uneven.
Add to this the effect of algae growing on the surface of the rocks. Where algae grows, the rock absorbs water much more slowly so weathering is retarded. In places without algae the rock is eaten away faster, expanding into a hole. There is controversy about the exact science here and frankly, this is as much detail as I can absorb! If you’re interested, Dave Tucker at Northwest Geology Field Trips points to further discussions of tafoni in a blog entry here.
Better yet, visit this little stretch of shoreline and admire the rocks in person. Run your hand along the surface – it may look smooth but it’s not; the grains are large and rough, providing nice handholds if you want to scramble. Or locate a place close to you where honeycomb weathering can be found. Altdahn Castle in the Palatinate Forest of Germany, Mt. Wellington in Tamania, and Arches NP in the US are some examples, and here’s a map of the world with tafoni locations. Check it out. And bring your camera.
The place is called Goose Rock but it doesn’t seem to have any geese. It isn’t shaped like a goose as far as I can see either, so the name for this bald hill at the tip of Whidbey Island is a puzzle. The park surrounding it (Deception Pass) has a name that’s easier to track down. It was called Deception Pass by a British explorer after he realized that the peninsula he was navigating around was actually an island, separated from another island by a narrow and treacherous channel.
Up on Goose Rock, where a broad expanse of sky and water spreads out beneath me, the names of places don’t seem to matter, but bear with me – the story of Deception Pass is a good one.
In June of 1792 British naval Captain George Vancouver was anchored at the southern end of what is now known as Whidbey Island. He had left England the year before, calling at Cape Town, Australia and Hawaii on his way to Nootka Sound on present-day Vancouver Island, Canada, where he was to take possession of land seized by the Spanish a few years before. Vancouver also carried orders to prepare the way for British settlement in certain key locations. Of course, the land in question had already been inhabited for thousands of years by non-Europeans. But that’s another story, perhaps one to consider as your gaze follows the lichen and moss-covered rocks down to the thick forest below, now sliced by a busy road that winds towards a U.S. Naval Air Force base.
But back to how Deception Pass got its name. An important part of Vancouver’s mission was charting. To this end, on the June day in question the captain sent a few smaller boats out to explore a stretch of coves and bays north of the mother ship. The Pacific northwest coast was daunting to most of the men. Legions of dark evergreens edge intricately crooked shorelines that are often foggy and gloomy, even in June. The Coast Salish tribes-people were used to navigating these waters, but to Vancouver’s men each rocky promontory and every small cove was new, so we can forgive Joseph Whidbey and his crew for not going quite far enough that day. Whidbey didn’t realize that just a few more miles of exploring would have brought him to a narrow passageway. If the tides had been favorable he could have steered west between towering cliffs and emerged on the other side of the “peninsula.” That would have allowed the men to turn south and circumnavigate the island, joining the HMS Discovery back where it was anchored. But shallow water in an area just short of the pass convinced the men to call it a day, turn around and head back to the ship.
The mistake was corrected quickly enough when the ship made its way north a day or so later. Now they could see a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.” Vancouver called the channel “Deception Pass” and the name stuck.
European settlers began arriving on Whidbey Island after 1850. They fished and logged and farmed, and the population grew, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1935 that a bridge was completed across the channel, finally connecting Whidbey to the mainland. You can see why that was not an easy task.
The bridge that allows islanders easy access to the mainland also connects two sections of a popular park located on Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands (as well as a number of smaller islands nearby). Deception Pass State Park has been here since the 1920’s, expanding over the years to include 3,854 acres (1,560 ha) of varied terrain. You can watch the sunset from a beach with views of the Olympic Mountains, the San Juan Islands, and Canada. You can camp in the forest, kayak, scuba dive, paddleboard, boat, fish, or just wander miles of trails in quiet forests.
I like to follow the Goose Rock perimeter trail for about half a mile before turning away from the turquoise waters of the channel to climb through the forest on a less-traveled spur trail. A favorite sight along this path is a large Redcedar tree that toppled some time ago. I would have liked to have heard that!
Out of the woods and onto the rock. At about 494 feet the summit isn’t exactly vertiginous, but it’s the highest point on Whidbey Island and it offers a fine view. Sprawling glacier-scraped rocks are softened with lichens and moss, and criss-crossed by worn dirt paths. A smattering of well-weathered trees adds to the wild feeling. In spring, a parade of tiny wildflowers and intricate grasses springs to life, only to dry out and disappear by mid-summer. On any day the view of islands, water and sky pleases the soul.
26. – 30. More wildflowers and a berry: Chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata), Nodding onion (Allium cernuum), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Fool’s onion (Brodiaea hyacintha) (two views).
I’ve been exploring the trails of Deception Pass for over a year now, and Goose Rock is a place I return to again and again. The views from the top have an immediate effect of extracting any tension you might still have after climbing through the quiet, lush forest. The trail is very accessible, beginning just under the Deception Pass bridge, so in summer and on nice weekends there’s company, but it rarely gets crowded. Maybe you …
Yesterday I went hiking in the North Cascades with a friend who loves the mountains and is as curious about plants as I am. It’s time for berry picking now and most of the wildflowers are finished, but we hoped to find a few flowers hanging on. One of the flowers still blooming was a delicate, pure-white flower that looked familiar. I knew I’d seen it in the field guides but I couldn’t remember the name for it. I made a few quick photos to study when I got home. The pretty little wildflower was dropping snow-white petals onto the dark soil at the trail’s edge; it was a lovely, poignant sight signifying the end of summer.
After I got home I looked for the plant in my field guide and found it: it’s the Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata). The odd name instantly brought up a memory of my mother saying “Grass of Parnassus” as she described a similar wildflower she found hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where she lived. In fact, Grass of Parnassus is probably one of the flowers we saw on our last drive up into the mountains back in 1999, when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. Late that summer I visited her to help out and we took a pleasant drive together to see the scenery. It was one of many visits I made that year before she finally drew her last breath in her own bed, on Christmas Eve.
My mother loved wildflowers and passed that along to me. Mountains, too – she hiked many miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her hiking buddies. We never hiked in the mountains when I was a child; we lived in places with rolling hills and we vacationed nearby, or at my grandparent’s home near the ocean. But I remember standing on a hillside outside of Syracuse, New York with my mother when I was a schoolgirl and gazing at a glorious view spread out below us. It was essentially the same feeling I get from mountains vistas, that peaceful relaxing into open space that assures you there are endless possibilities ahead.
My parents retired to place where they could hike in the mountains, and without making the connection to what they did, I did the same thing, although I’m on a different side of the country. But it’s no surprise since they set the stage early on, conveying a deep and lasting appreciation for nature. I kept the passion alive, thanks to my own enthusiasm and to the people around me. Now I’m living in a beautiful part of the world, making forays out to places that nourish the most fundamental parts of my life.
I’ll keep going back up to the mountains as often as I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It usually involves a long drive on terrible roads, and a bit of planning. But oh, is it worth it!
5 – 7. Wildflowers and butterflies on Sauk Mountain.
Late in July I hiked Sauk Mountain, another North Cascade Range peak. I didn’t quite make it to the top that day but that did not diminish my pleasure. The wildflowers were riotous, the butterflies and bees happy, and the view seemed endless. I’m sure my mother would have enjoyed that day. My son would have too, if he’d been there. The passion for nature, especially for the mountains, is alive in him.
There’s something exhilarating about being high up in the wilderness. I’m thankful that my parents instilled a keen appreciation for the outdoors in their kids, and thankful I have friends and family who share the passion. My wish for you is that even if the mountains aren’t accessible and the wilderness is out of reach you can still go outside, quiet down, and forget yourself. With a little luck, the energy around you will bring peace, and maybe even a tear to your eyes.
The sun works its way through the Doug firs across the road, then the apple tree, the Bitter cherries and the others,
angles into the window where the glass is obscured by a thousand small dun-colored circles
made by something that got between the panes, leaving a haze that softens the early morning light. It’s 6:50.
I’ve looked up from my reading, seen the sunglow.
I get up, pull the camera bag out of the backpack, lift the camera out of the bag, pinch the lens cap off the camera. I go back to the couch, sit where I was, turn to the light, forget to focus, click the shutter.
Focus, shoot again.
The sun ascends at a steady not-fast, not-slow pace that reminds me
of watching the minute hand work its way around the clock face in grade school classrooms, the delicious game of perceiving
the almost imperceptible motion of the thin, black minute hand
forcing patience but rewarding it, too. Now the windows near me brighten, throwing slats of sun onto the painting of Bobwhite quails that belonged to my grandfather.
He liked to hunt birds.
The patterns are what interest me at 7:10 this morning, the patterns
and the empty spaces between them.
And the reflections, the reflections that mix up here and there,
those interest me.
I go back to my reading – an article about Vija Celmins. I remember standing in front of one of her paintings years ago, eyebrows up, the world gone. The pleasure of entering a universe painstakingly created by a woman whose artwork facilitated
leaving the here, going there.
Worlds inside worlds, and outside of them.
The article finished, I get up and follow the sun down the hall and into the back room where the computer is. There, the benevolent morning light shows me the beauty of ordinary grass and shrubbery just outside the window, but
Photographers are familiar with the dilemma of too many photographs. We accumulate vast numbers of images, and then how do we find say, the best photographs of our home, or any particular subject? Lightroom users have a quick way to sort through endless images. First, type a keyword in the search box. If you’ve been reasonably disciplined about keywording your photos when you load them into Lightroom, you’ll see every photograph you have that features the particular subject you’re searching for. Then if you filter the results by star rating you’ll narrow it down to the best ones. Hopefully, you rated each photo as you added it to Lightroom. Everyone has their own method for assigning star ratings; mine is to initially give photos two stars (the range is one to five). When I review them one by one, I delete any photos I have no use for and assign an extra star to the ones I want to be sure to get back to later.
Why am I telling you all this? To make the point that I have accumulated far too many “good” photos of a certain subject – the Pacific Madrone tree. In fact, I have over 240 3 – 5 star photos of Madrones, and over 100 more I’m saving “just in case.”
It’s a photogenic tree.
The Pacific Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) has been a constant companion on my walks since I moved to Fidalgo Island. They like it here (me too). The west coast native ranges from coastal southwestern British Columbia to San Diego County, California, and there are places within that range where it does especially well – typically an open situation with good light and fast drainage.
When I lived in New York I had no knowledge of Madrone trees. Then I moved to the Seattle area, and seeing them was an occasional treat. Their striking red-orange bark and flowing growth habit always distracted me from the road as I drove around Seattle. Now I live in an environment where this tree seems quite comfortable. The beautiful colors and growth habit of Madrones is a frequent sight on the trails I wander along. They seem particularly plentiful close to the water, in the thin soil that covers our south and west-facing cliffs and bluffs.
The distinctive peeling bark of these lovely beings shreds off in layers, revealing a lime-green or chartreuse base that is cool to the touch even on a hot day, giving them the nickname “Refrigerator trees.” The bark peels off each summer in big patches and delicate little curls, once the fruit begins to ripen. It falls to the ground and mingles with last year’s yellowed leaves, which are also shed in summer, after the new sets of evergreen leaves get their start. The curvy branches, dark green leaves and exfoliating bark present endless photographic opportunities.
For those interested in the botanical and historical side of things, the name Arbutus relates to the Latin “arbor” – high plant, or tree. The genus Arbutus has only 12 species, which occur in both the Old and New World. They are all smallish trees or shrubs with red berries and peeling bark. The Arbutus genus is part of the Ericaceae (heath) family – a large family of plants that often grow on nutrient-poor sites. The species name, menziesii, is after Scottish surgeon and naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754 – 1842), who was a member of several important expeditions, including George Vancouver’s round the world HMS Discovery voyage. Friedrich Traugott Pursch, a German-born botanist who spent time tromping around the American woods with his dog and his gun to gather specimens (but didn’t travel far enough west to see the plant himself), named the Madrone tree for Menzies in his 1814 treatise, Flora Americae Septentrionalis; or, A systematic arrangement and description of the plants of North America. This work he accomplished while living in London, despite being “drunk morning, noon and night.”But that’s another story.
It seems we have to go back a little further to find the first written references to this tree – I believe it was Father Juan Crespi, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, who “discovered” the tree on an expedition to explore what would become the state of California. Father Juan kept a diary while on the Spanish Portola expedition in 1769-1770. He called the distinctive tree the madrono because it reminded him of the Mediterranean species, Arbutus unedo, a small evergreen tree that bears edible red fruits, a bit like strawberries in color and size. The Spanish call this tree “Madrono.” About twenty years later Archibald Menzies noticed Madrone trees when the HMS Discovery dropped anchor at Port Discovery (so named by Vancouver). That is about 25 miles as the crow flies from the park where many of my own Madrone tree photos were taken. We could call this part of Puget Sound the Madrone’s Happy Place.
For a contemporary reference to Madrone trees try Tom Waits, who in his inimitable way instructs us to dig a big pit and fill it with madrone and bay for a special barbecue. (you can find that lyric in the video at around 1m 31s).
I’ve never used Madrone wood for a barbecue but I may consider making tea eggs with the bark some day. Or a medicinal tea for an upset stomach – supposedly that tastes like a cinnamon, mushroom and wood smoke mixture.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this interesting tree, but that leaves more for next time, and having only used a handful of my steadily increasing store of Madrone photographs, I’ll have plenty of material for another post.
You may expect to see nature photography here, but please bear with me as I detour to share a stimulating afternoon in Antwerp that I enjoyed earlier this year.
While staying in Gent, Belgium, last April we decided to visit Antwerp, which is only an hour away by train. It wouldn’t be a see-the-sights day – that’s not our style. I had read about an unusual museum there, the Museum Plantin-Moresus. It was the residence and workshop of a great printer-publisher of the Renaissance era, and we were both intrigued so we made that our goal for the day.
I was having one of those travel days when it takes all morning long to pull myself together. Checking the train schedule, we saw there was time for a leisurely late morning coffee at the cafe across the street from our airbnb apartment. Good, we needed it! Then it was a quick tram ride to Gent Sint-Pietersstation where we lined up for tickets, grabbed fresh sandwiches to eat on the train, and boarded.
The ticket taker looked a little worse for the wear but was keeping up appearances with his cap, tie and jacket. Verdant fields flowed past the window and before I knew it, we had arrived at Antwerpen Centraal, one of Europe’s most beautiful train stations. The bustle reminded me of New York’s Grand Central Station, which I used to commute through. Here though, everything was more ornate, ceilings were higher, the architecture grander. Throwing any semblance of not-a-tourist-coolness aside, I gaped, craned my neck, and clicked that shutter.
Consulting a Rome2rio app for directions, we headed for the museum. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the original workshop and residence of Christophe Plantin, an influential 16th century printer, publisher, and humanist. The museum is housed in a series of centuries-old buildings with a dizzying array of rooms (34 of them!) that ramble around a central courtyard. The quiet, softly lit rooms are packed with extraordinary early printed matter, old printing presses and family artifacts. Immersion in the world of early printing appealed to me; I have fond memories of a day spent at a small printing house helping fine-tune a run of brochures I designed for a specialty bakery business years ago.
Exploring room after room, occasionally getting lost in dim corridors as I stepped up and down stairs and across creaking floors, I perused hefty religious texts embellished with gold, precious illuminated prayer books, important botanical reference texts, an “early modern ode to women”, almanac illustrations, maps and more. I was deeply impressed not only by the workmanship, which is beautiful, but by the variety of subject matter. Seeing the breadth of topics that rolled off the presses here 450 years ago, I felt an inkling of how exciting it must have been to be alive during a time of such intellectual fervor. The era’s enthusiasm for knowledge was right there on those delicate pages, shining a light across the centuries.
Plantin was born in France about 500 years ago. He started a bookbinding business there but relocated with his wife to the commercially vibrant town of Antwerp in 1548. He set up shop and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, where painters, sculptors, engravers and printers apprenticed and connected with clients. He was industrious and produced impeccable work; before long he and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were running one of Europe’s top publishing houses. The Plantin-Moretus family continued the tradition another three hundred years, finally selling the building where it all began to the city of Antwerp in 1876. The museum opened the following year.
The Low countries in Plantin’s era were the center of western culture; by 1560, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. It was also the site of religious conflict. In 1523 two monks had been taken away and burned alive for refusing to recant their heretical Lutheran beliefs. The powerful King Phillip II of Spain put immense pressure on Lutherans and Calvinists, and the printed word played an important part in the struggle. Plantin published all sorts of things, including Calvinist pamphlets. He is described as a Protestant sympathizer, a very dangerous position to take. Savvy person that he was, he found his own middle ground in the creation and publication of a major work, the “Plantin Polyglot” (Biblia Polyglotta or Biblia Regia). This complex, impressive multi-lingual bible satisfied the needs of scholars – but it also pleased King Phillip II.
Times were turbulent enough that Plantin fled to the more liberal Leiden at one point, only to return soon afterward to Antwerp. He seemed to walk a line as fine as the ones he printed: by 1585, Plantin was considered the primary printer-publisher for the Counter-Reformation, while secretly helping Calvinists in Utrecht organize an anti-Spanish printing press. With all this, it amazes me that he managed to live into his late sixties.
The museum has a world-class drawing collection, the oldest printing presses in the world, an extensive library, and more. Over 25,000 books and manuscripts can be searched on its website. If you are ever in Antwerp, it’s worth seeing.
If printing interests you, a well-written, illustrated history of printing from pre-history to 2017 can be found on this site.
The museum was closing but I could hardly tear myself away. We were kindly escorted out with our souvenirs – one was a 12″ x 16″ print of a grotesque face from the 16th century that children are invited to color. We will probably frame ours.
We had time for a look at Antwerp’s Grote Markt, an historic gathering place dating back to the 13th century where Guild houses – ornate and dignified buildings designated for various trades – reflect Antwerp’s prominent position in the 15th and 16th centuries. I took a few pictures with my camera and phone as the sun began to set and museum overload began to take hold. Tired and hungry, we found our way to a Thai restaurant, a good choice for hungry folks on a budget who want food quickly. Later we took a wrong turn on the way to the train station, but that happens when you travel on your own in a country whose language you don’t read or speak. Eventually we got back to Gent and collapsed.
I would have liked more time in Antwerp, but I learned a lot just from seeing the Museum Pantin-Moretus. I could sense how thrilling the acquisition of knowledge must have been to people in 16th century Europe, and I got a better grip on the critical role played by people who printed and disseminated that knowledge. The variety of printed matter that Plantin and Moretus published and changes manifested by the printed word could be likened to the explosion of information we are undergoing by having the internet at our fingertips. Understanding the degree of danger present in the religious struggles Plantin was navigating, coupled with impressions I gathered from the American Pilgrim’s Museum in Leiden bring to mind my own ancestor’s migrations from Europe to the New World. Their arrival from various northern European countries spanned the 17th to the 19th centuries, which means their lives were shaped by the same history I had the pleasure of being immersed in, if only for a few hours.
It goes without saying that religious struggles continue. The same with migrations for a better life. I hope that the humanist ideals Plantin stood for aren’t entirely buried under today’s divisive rhetoric. Travel is all about being moved and changed by your experience, and that minor museum in Antwerp made a day that reverberates.