LOCAL WALKS: Benign Neglect

Are you ever curious about an empty lot that you’ve passed countless times? Maybe an abandoned building or a field exudes an aura that captures your attention. Not far from my home there’s a tract of land next to a highway that I used to wonder about. Last June my curiosity intensified when masses of wildflowers appeared there. Tall, magenta flowers ascended a rocky cliff next to the highway. More flowers marched across the ridge top but beyond that was anyone’s guess – I could see no further. I really wanted to know what was up there! Each time I drove by I strained to see where the overgrown gravel road leading into the property went. A chain was strung across the bottom of the road and a “For Sale” sign sat next to it for months. Then the sign was removed, adding another question: did someone buy the property? As the height of summer approached and the profusion of foxgloves and daisies grew more colorful, my brain tingled with visions of what might be up there. I fantasized about gathering a bouquet of wildflowers and carting them home to enjoy all day long.

So I convinced my partner in crime to explore – well, to trespass – with me one fine, June day. We pulled into the gravel drive and parked off to the side. I thought at best we might look like potential buyers, at worst we were trespassing. I figured I could probably finesse the situation if anyone came along and questioned us.*

But no one did. What a sight it was up there! The land appeared to be a large parcel that someone began clearing years ago, perhaps to build a house or a development. Maybe the money ran out and the project was abandoned. The land is nothing more than three little contour lines on a topographic map – but as we climbed the hill, a network of undulating fields, rock outcroppings and woodlands unfolded before us. Small groves of blackened, dead trees and burned rocks told us a fire once ripped across the ridge. Summers here are very dry and fires can flare up quickly, but this one appeared to have been put out before it did much damage. Scrambling up a rock outcrop, I saw a slice of blue water surrounded by firs in the distance, a view that must have sealed the deal for the buyer.

Here are photographs from that delightful June afternoon. Benign neglect has allowed a whole community of plants, insects, animals, and birds to thrive in this patch of land beside a busy highway. The living beings here appear to be doing fine without any human interference. Each expresses its individual nature even as the whole blends into a hidden, human-free Arcadia. To my mind, the sky and clouds together with the land and its inhabitants are breathing a symphony into existence. After spending a few hours up there, I could only respect the fabric of the landscape for what it was. I hoped the human hand would continue to play a very minor role in the landscape. Imagine how nice that would be.

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1. A river of daisies.

2. A stand of Douglas fir trees shows what fire can do. The low branches of young trees would have quickly caught fire, causing the entire tree to become engulfed. Mature Douglas firs tend not to have branches at the bottom, making it harder for flames to travel up the tree. They also have very thick bark that protects them from fires. Many of the oldest Douglas firs on Fidalgo Island sport charcoal-black scars from fires past, but they are still going strong.

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6. Foxgloves were scattered everywhere.

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10. A profusion of Foxgloves and daisies among charred trees and branches.

12. A tiny Rufous hummingbird resting high in a tree watched us carefully. (I didn’t have a zoom lens with me so I did the best I could).

13. This field has scant shade, a result of logging and fire that created optimal conditions for sun-loving grasses and flowers like Foxgloves and daisies. Soil disturbance from logging probably prevented native plants from gaining a better foothold, though the field does contain some natives. Many non-native plants favor disturbed soil, which is why you often see them on roadsides and vacant lots. But what an effective combination this is, aesthetically – Foxgloves for height and color, daisies for mass, and grasses to tie it all together. These attractive flowers arrived without conscious human help and established themselves artfully. A garden designer might be envious.

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15. I didn’t see the tiny insects on these flowers until after I got home and imported the photo.

16. Campbell Lake is in the distance. I believe the rust-colored moss was burnt in the fire.

17. Fresh green moss grows in patches where the ground is still black from the fire. The lands heals slowly.

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19. It looks like the older Douglas firs here will make it. If the land is left to its own devices, new Douglas firs and a procession of plants and animals will appear over the years. But chances are, sometime in the next decade or so this land will be turned into houses and roads.

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* I don’t advocate trespassing. In this case, I had enough familiarity with the land and the larger environment to feel that it I could probably walk on the property without harming anyone or anything. Strictly speaking, I should not have wandered up there.

MID-AUGUST

Something about the middle of August always inclines me to take a small step back and ponder the passing of summer with a sigh. The onward unfolding of seasonal changes never hesitates, always moving forward. The transitions are incremental; some obvious, some almost invisible. Here in the Northern hemisphere, by the middle of August the green machine is winding down. Leaves drop onto the ground. Dry grasses sparkle in the sunlight and berries ripen. Gardens are lush with tall, joyful blooms that have grown up together into fine, tangled bouquets. Young birds fending for themselves still beg from their parents now and then, fluttering their wings and peeping. Who can blame them? Fawns follow does to the best munching spots, which are too often on the wrong side of the road when I’m driving. Along the waterways shorebird migration is ramping up but lakes are placid and calm, perfect for canoes and paddleboards. Mid-August is also the time when hurricanes form and wildfires flare up with a vengeance, just as people disperse for a final summer sojourn.

You may be thinking about sights, sounds and smells that signify late summer in your neighborhood, or the news of California wildfire evacuations and floods in China. Looking out the window, I notice the light is a shade gentler and Bigleaf maple leaves have traded the fresh brilliance of spring for softer, warmer hues. We’re losing light as the days shorten. Summer’s riotous colors are just beginning to fade, another sign of the transition toward fall. The signs are subtle now. Next month will be another story.

So, in honor of fading light and quieter colors, here is a series of photographs from the past month. The images speak in tints and tinges instead of strong colors. I’ll throw in a few outliers to keep you from drifting off.

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1. Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea).

2. Driftwood shelters get more elaborate every year. This one was encountered one cloudy afternoon on Whidbey Island.

3. Grasses, Queen Anne’s Lace and Curly dock (Rumex crispus) brighten a roadside field.

4. This thin-soiled area near the shoreline always dries out early and the Madrone leaves are already thick on the ground. On the trail they’re crushed to bits but here they make a lovely tumble.

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My first post here was published in the middle of August, in 2012. I uploaded two photos and wrote, “Earth holds its breath for a few days – everything is still, heavy with light and summer dreams, waiting to move forward into autumn.” Noticing the nuances of seasonal change has always kept me grounded and recognizing summer’s impending dispersion into fall seemed like an appropriate way to begin this ecocentric blog.

You could make a case for eight seasons if you include the transitions from spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter and winter to spring. Each shift from one season to the next has its own sensory perceptions: the slightly earlier dawns and swelling buds in February, the decomposing leaves and chill in the air in November – the more you think about it, the more signs you’ll find. Some transitions may be more remarkable than others – for example, as we anticipate spring we search for every little sign that it’s on the way. For me, summer-into-fall stands out as a time when, as I said above, I step back and observe what’s happening in nature with a sigh. Why is that?

The social worker in me suspects that it’s because of a series of events that took place at this time of year. An unexpected, violent attack on a mid-August day, the year I graduated from high school, left a legacy of mute terror that effectively froze the feelings of a moment in time to the sensations of the season when it occurred. After that, every time the middle of August rolled around I would remember that difficult time, first as a vague discomfort, then more consciously. Then fifteen years later on another mid-August afternoon a drowning accident in which I tried, but could not save a friend’s life darkened the season again. I couldn’t bear to see autumn approaching that year – every falling leaf meant I was farther from the time when my friend was alive. I just wanted time to stand still. Four years after that my father died suddenly, in mid-August. The month filled me with foreboding – what next?

But time undercuts the fear, softens the jagged edges and lends perspective. I may still be acutely sensitive to the hallmarks of late summer – the slight damping-down of light, the first scatter of leaves on the grass, the torpor of stillness on hot afternoons, the absence of birdsong. But it doesn’t put me on edge as much. In fact, the tiptoe beginnings of autumn’s inward turn can feel like a respite after the wild ebullience of spring and early summer. After all, better light for photography is on the way! Vague feelings of unease may surface from time to time but on balance, I know it’s not good or bad, this time of year. It is what it is, as the saying goes. Well, maybe it’s good. Yes, if anything, it’s good.

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5. The Sauk River: slow and shallow in late summer.

6. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) shed their bark.

7. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), the word’s most widespread fern (according to my ‘Plants of Coastal British Columbia’ book) is changing color.

8. Layers of Madrone leaves: this year’s on top of last year’s.

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10. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) fishes from a Bullwhip kelp bed (Nereocystis luetkeana).

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13. Driftwood.

14. Eelgrass catches on the trees on the shoreline during extra-high tides and then remains there slowly being bleached by the sun.

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17. This tiny crab was not happy with me.

18. The calm waters of Little Cranberry Lake.

19. A Common (or Fringed) willowherb (Epilobium ciliatum) going to seed.

20. The beginnings of fall color on a Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) leaf.

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ABSTRACTION

“Abstract” is a familiar word that is worth prying open and thinking about. It’s from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away. Abstrahere (the verb) is defined as “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert.” The abstracted idea or object is dragged away from its physicality, diverted from its origin. In art, the word abstract has come to describe work that does not intentionally reproduce reality. Likewise, in photography, an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.

Over a hundred years ago a man named Alvin Langdon Coburn had an idea for a photography show in which “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.” (Rexer, Lyle. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. NY: Aperture, 2013.) That thought exposes the aesthetic crux that many photographers who work with “reality” (whether that means portraits or landscapes or street photography) are dealing with: is the photograph just a snapshot, or does it say something more?

I think for most people reading this post, reproducing reality is (still) a compelling exercise but “the appreciation of the extraordinary” is probably what keeps that finger clicking the shutter. It’s certainly true for me.

To convey the “extra” that I find in the ordinary, I like to explore different approaches; abstraction is one that can freshen the mind’s eye. The images here come at abstraction from a variety of angles and some are more recognizable as real-world objects than others. But in my opinion, there’s no need to name what you see.

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The urge to name what we see is hard to resist though. As soon as we see something, especially a two-dimensional image, labels pop into our minds. When we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, we learned to ask, “What’s in a name?” It was a good lesson, but it barely loosened the knot of naming things. We are compelled to tie an identity around everything and everyone, and usually, we tie the knot pretty tightly. That identity, that name, inevitably drags waves of associations along with it – liking, disliking, evaluating, remembering, etc.

Of course, the propensity for identifying what we see is necessary and helpful, but it’s not a bad idea to question it once in a while. Names and identities may be more arbitrary than we realize. Questioning the connection of a name to its referent can open up space in our minds. Even just loosening the bonds of language to simply absorb images without labeling them can be rewarding.

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I’m not advocating slipping down into a world where meaning is entirely arbitrary and unique to each person. We need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things – times are tough enough! But I think it’s beneficial to step out of the familiarity of our language-based environment now and then. A little muddling and messing about with what we’ve come to rely on as firm and clear can be refreshing.

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12. If you identify this as “leaf,” “veins”, and maybe “fuzzy,” do those words change the experience of viewing the image? If I call it “dashu and crannen” do you look harder? (Or maybe you move along quickly!)

Lacking a brain, the black box doesn’t know that the flower in front of it isn’t just a flower, but is an infinite web of relationships. The awareness that a subject isn’t separate from its surroundings is something we are able to perceive, along with the awareness that we can choose to focus on any part of the whole, using our camera. Constantly becoming, the flower may be positioned at the center of the field that the camera encompasses, but in fact, the center extends infinitely through space and time, inviting a myriad of abstractions.

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These images have been altered by severe cropping, color changes, and tonal manipulations. I followed my nose towards different “meanings” of the scenes above than what the camera saw, subverting the black box’s stubborn insistence on one-to-one reproduction. No matter where I point it, the camera “wants” to make a faithful copy. This is the blessing/curse of photography. Of course, the camera does have a person operating it – a person with ideas, history, and intentions. A moment to record was chosen. And later, when we sit down with the camera’s rendition of reality before us, we’re free to play with it as much or as little as we want.

By the way, I’m happy to divulge the names of these things and whatever I can remember about the process of metamorphosing them into abstractions. Just ask.

JUST ONE: Rein Orchids

This entry in my “Just One” series about Pacific Northwest plants is actually about two wildflowers that look alike at first glance. It has taken me a long time to identify and differentiate them. They’re both Rein orchids – small, delicate wildflowers that most people have never heard of and would not notice, even if they walked right past them. But bear with me – they’re really quite beautiful.

1. A group of Elegant Rein orchids at Kukutali Preserve; July, 2019.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Rein orchids ever since discovering one in a hidden spot off a preserve trail two weeks after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I could tell it was an orchid but I’d never seen anything quite like it. A year later I found the little orchid again, this time in five different places. As I studied my photos I could see that some were different from the others, but when I tried to identify them I was met with a jumble of look-alike species and a veritable morass of names.

Learning that their leaves emerge in late winter, I reminded myself to search for the leaves where I’d seen the orchids in the summer. Sure enough, in February I found healthy, oval leaves, pressed close to the ground, gathering energy so the plant could flower in the summer. They had to be the Rein orchid plants.

This year I resolved to better understand the science of what I was seeing. I wanted to at least know the proper names of these pretty flowers, though I believe that names and science aren’t the only tools for understanding our experience of the natural world. There are less logic-based ways to understand the world which are just as important, but I value science – and I was itching to figure out which is which! A website called inaturalist has been very helpful; I can compare what other people have photographed and identified with my own sightings. I feel fairly confident now that I’ve been seeing two species of Rein orchids here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans and Platanthera transversa. There’s something tantalizingly poetic about these slender sprites that hide in plain sight.

2. A Rein orchid in the woods on a summer afternoon.

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The Rein orchids wait patiently,

gilded grasses swaying around them, faint

bay breezes rustling the dry Madrone leaves

at their feet. Spiders craft

sticky thread-worlds on their petals,

motorboats rumble in the distance,

occasional bursts of human voices

fade as quickly as they appear. The orchids

wait for the night

and the pollinators, for the arrival

of soft wings and probing tongues,

the woosh, the slurp, the brush of feet and antennae.

This is the reward of patience, or so I imagine

because our encounters, however sweet, are

never by moonlight. We soak the midsummer sun

together, the Rein orchids and I. The heat pricks my nose

with the fragrance of dry grass and cedar, and

encourages petals and roots to stretch. It relaxes

my stiff neck. Slowly the orchids’ nectar ripens

to satisfy the single species of moth that

might pollinate a tiny flower. Let it happen.

Let it happen and

let me find another fairy tale cluster

of slim white stems nestled in the warm grass

next year.

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3. Platanthera elegans at Kukutali Preserve.

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5. A Rein orchid under a Madrone tree.

Orchids are fascinating. The pretty corsages you see at weddings evolved their colors and curves for very specific reasons, having nothing to do with humans. Evolutionarily advanced, orchids have developed thousands of distinctive ways to attract their pollinators. As Darwin said, “The contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful.” As orchid species evolve, their pollinators evolve too, resulting in very specific, even exclusive relationships between plant and pollinator. Orchids often trick their pollinators, which can be bees, hummingbirds, moths, even birds. It’s theorized that the tricks employed by orchids to attract pollinators result in a greater fertilization success rate – as the specialist keeps visiting its favorite orchid species, the orchid pollen it collects isn’t wasted on other flower species.

The first orchid appeared on earth’s evolutionary stage some 100 million years ago; the family now comprises as many as 28,000 different species. Many grow high in trees, some thrive high in the mountains, a few live above the Arctic Circle, most grow in the tropics, and one exists entirely underground.

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6. The Flat-spurred Rein orchid, Platanthera transversa. (This photo was somewhat desaturated in processing.)
7. Another Flat-spurred Rein orchid and a single fine spider thread. Photo slightly desaturated.

8. A Flat-spurred Rein orchid with the background darkened in processing. Is this the way the orchids look on a moonlit night? Their moth pollinators might know.

9. Two lovely Flat-spurred Rein orchids growing up through Douglas fir and Bearberry at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. Follow this link to see a preserved Rein orchid collected on July 15, 1936 for the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium, also from Goose Rock. This land was preserved as a state park. The species continues.

The Platanthera genus contains around 100 species; 45 are native to North America. At least two – P. elegans and P. transversa – grow close to my home. They are the orchids pictured here. Neither one has a fixed common name but P. elegans is sometimes called the Elegant Rein orchid. Apparently, our P. elegans is a subspecies, P. elegans elegans, the Coast Piperia. (Piperia is after Charles V. Piper, an American botanist and an authority on Pacific Northwest plants). P. transversa (pictured just above) is called the Flat-spurred Rein orchid, or sometimes the Royal Rein orchid. Flat-spurred refers to the long flower spur where the nectar is. It extends out horizontally on each little flower, clearly visible in photos #6 and 18. Another similar species (P. unalascensis) probably grows here as well but I haven’t seen it yet. These flowers are challenging!

Rein orchids on Fidalgo Island favor relatively dry, partly shady conditions. They grow near Douglas fir, and frequently under Madrone trees, which also like drier places. Clusters of Rein orchids can be seen hugging steep slopes facing the water and single flowers may be scattered near trails in open woods, where they get a little more sun than they would in a dense forest. I’ve noticed the presence of another small orchid, the Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), can be a clue that Rein orchids may be nearby. It surprises me that no one picks them or tramples them. Maybe that’s the cynical New Yorker in me, expecting nature to be destroyed by hordes of heedless humans. More likely, people don’t see them in the first place. Flower stalks are just a foot or two (20 – 55cm) tall and the flowers don’t sport bright colors. If I show a Rein orchid to someone the reaction is puzzlement and slight disappointment – that’s an orchid? You have to bend down and really look hard to see the graceful flowers. I think their small stature and pale colors are keeping them safe.

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10. A Coast Piperia orchid emerges from a sheltered spot littered with fallen Madrone leaves.

11. As if to prove its affinity for Madrone trees, this orchid wears a Madrone leaf. A notch in the leaf caught it on the stalk. I should go back and see if it’s still there.

12. A Coast Piperia orchid among wild grasses and yellow Hairy Cat’s ear flowers (Hypochaeris radicata) at Kukutali Preserve.

13. Rein orchids at Sharpe Park, photographed out-of-focus with a vintage Takumar lens.

14. This photo was also made with the vintage lens, and processed using the Silver Efex antique plate effect.

15. A Rein orchid in the woods at Washington Park photographed with the vintage lens.

A deeper dive into the strange world of orchid reproduction

Rein orchids are summer bloomers whose leaves emerge in late winter. The orchids are busy photosynthesizing well before many other plants are visible. By July the stalk appears, buds begin to open, and the leaves are dry up. After pollination, the stalk is dotted with brown seed pods containing prodigious amounts of seed. Unlike most seeds, tiny orchid seeds don’t have enough nutrition on board to get going on their own. They must join with a mycorrhizal network (a web of fungal threads in the soil) to survive. Within hours of this crucial linkage, carbon will flow in both directions, benefiting the “infected” orchid and the fungus. Fungal partners also supply nitrogen and phosphorus to the orchid. This mycorrhizal association, though not well understood, is absolutely essential to all orchids.

Once a seed germinates and begins growing underground, the slow process of flowering is underway. A root will form in the soil at some point, but it can be years before a leaf emerges and photosynthesis takes place. It can also be years before the plant is robust enough to produce a flower stalk. Once the plant blooms and releases its seeds, little is left to see above ground. But a tuber is there, hiding in the soil, along with many fungal networks. When the time is right, (patience!) another Rein orchid will appear.

There is a dearth of information about these orchids. It’s not clear exactly what insects pollinate them. One source says that P. elegans is pollinated by a small brown moth not much bigger than your thumb. Its Latin name is Plusia nichollae and there is no common name – more obscurity! The little pollinator is a partly diurnal moth that lives mainly west of the Cascades, from coastal British Columbia to the Bay area in California, a narrow range not unlike that of the orchid. Sienna brown wings marked with white and gold would make the moth hard to spot among the golden grasses that often surround P. elegans. I’ll be looking for it.

A source says Flat-spurred rein orchids may be pollinated by “moths such as Thallophaga taylorata.” This moth doesn’t have a common name either. The obscurity of these lovely little plants is part of the appeal. They aren’t common, they grow in out-of-the-way places, they’re not well-studied by scientists, they aren’t known at all by the general public…and there you have a recipe for wonder. They will keep my attention for a while, I expect.

As I write this post, the flowers are fading and the plants are moving on to seed setting and dispersal. Six months from now I’ll be looking for Rein orchid leaves, nestled in moist moss. Until next year…

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17. By April, more plants are emerging. Flowering for the Rein orchids is still three months away.

18. A Coast Piperia blooms among wildflowers, moss, and last year’s sloughed off Madrone bark and leaves.

19. Wildflower seeds blew onto this Flat-spurred Rein orchid near Mt. Erie.

20. The flowers fade in late July as the ovaries swell and harden into seed pods.

21. An elegant Coast Piperia specimen in full flower.

22. A wildflower bonanza right next to a trail high up on Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Nodding onions (Allium cernuum) surround this Coast Piperia Rein orchid.

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Framing Earth and Sky

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planes of existence

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the sky falls into place

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the grasses swim; the clouds fall to earth

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pressed to reveal a secret

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it could be about the daisies

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at the edge of the known world

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we find light, hold it, and let it go

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this is not the place

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portal

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re-contextualizing again

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This project has its roots in another project I worked on in 1972-73. I took a square pane of glass to a vacant field an hour west of New York City and placed it on the ground. It was a sunny day and soon condensation began to form on the plants under the glass. Everything under the glass took on a slightly blue cast. I photographed that and moved on to other manipulations, wrapping a plastic bag over a small bush and bending a square of aluminum foil around a barbed wire fence so the foil hung like flag. I was interested in reflections and other subtle changes in the light that I could make with gentle interventions in the environment.

The following winter I returned to the field after a heavy snowfall with the pane of glass under my arm. Dropping it onto the snow, I photographed the resulting square made by shadows cast along the edges of the glass. I stuck the pane into the snow on its edge and photographed it head-on, with its bright reflection on one side and its shadow on the other side. I kept going, playing with a ball of string and four utility candles – more white on white. The pieces (photographs of them) were submitted for a sculpture class at the School of Visual Arts, which I was attending.

Then the ideas went dormant for a long time. One of the pieces was titled “Disappearance” but the ideas never disappeared from my mind. The play of light on objects always drew my attention, whether I was working, walking across the city, taking care of my son or gazing out a window. Four slides of the work from the early 1970s survive. Those images and my memory were enough to nudge me toward the hardware store this month to purchase two squares of glass, cut to my specifications. I drove to a field again, this time in Washington State. It was another sunny day, but of course, conditions were different than they were in 1972. I’m different. So I worked with the glass square, took photos, thought about what I saw on the screen and went out a second time. The photos above are from these two recent forays. I expect there will be more.

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Celebrating Two Years

Two years ago this week we traveled 70 miles north, leaving a booming Seattle suburb for a quiet, 41-square-mile island of about 20,000 people. We have witnessed all four seasons here twice now. We have zeroed in on an assortment of favorite places – bluffs and beaches for sunset views, shorelines to meander along, coffee shops to linger in, forests to immerse ourselves in. Our lives feel very different than they did before we moved. It’s a good time to celebrate the pleasures of this place.

1. Mt. Erie, the island’s highest point, wrapped in fog. June, 2020.

2. Mt. Erie from the south, with Pass Lake. December, 2019.

3. A trail through old Douglas firs. January, 2019.

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5. Lichen-encrusted branch, Bowman Bay. March 2019.

6. Cap Sante Marina. December 2018.

7. Abandoned building. Anacortes. September, 2018.

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9. Mt. Baker from Cap Sante. October, 2018.
10. Rain over Deception Island; Fidalgo Island is to the right. December, 2019.

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12. Driftwood, grasses and wild roses; Rosario Beach. February 2020.

13. Floating burr-reed (Sparganium angustifolium) (?) and reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. September, 2018.

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15. Evening reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. October 2019.

16. Rain shower, Little Cranberry Lake. February, 2019.

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18. The creek at home. February, 2019.

19. Heart Lake trail. August, 2018.

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21. A fishing boat tied up at Trident Seafoods in Anacortes. November, 2018.

22. Fog on Mt. Erie. December, 2019.

24. Heart Lake. February, 2020.

25. Looking west from Lighthouse Point. December 2018.

26. Bell, shadows and reflections at home. February, 2019.

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JUST ONE: Lace Lichen

If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.

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1.

Lovely Lace lichen

who are you?

Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances

across my lips

and hovers lightly in the air,

waiting to be explained. Your

drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils

take me back to the Georgia coast, where

Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks

lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.

Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)

instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen

your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing

endless revelations: here

a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there

a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there

a weightless, crooked ladder, there

a neuron dancing in the air.

As the scientist says, there’s

considerable morphological variation.

And amidst this melange of forms

always

the swing and sway, the

drape and droop of you:

an enchantment in the woods.

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2. Lace lichen on Douglas fir, within sight of the Salish Sea.
3. Wavy ribbons.

4. A crooked mesh ladder.

5. Hanging from a pine tree at California’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The Structure

Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:

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Experiencing Lace lichen

Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.

Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.

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12. I wondered what the Chestnut-backed chickadees were doing, rummaging around in this big clump of Lace lichen. My question went unanswered…but I was left with delight.

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14. The way Lace lichen joins branches and twigs to one another expands my perception of the space they inhabit.

The Science

Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.

What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!

Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).

If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!

15. A clump of Lace lichen on the ground.

16. I put a wayward strand on my car to admire the color and structure.

17. This tree wears a Lace lichen necklace. You can see other lichen species on the bark of the tree. This Lace lichen is drying out as summer approaches. It will bounce back from dormancy with the return of rainfall in September.

18. A lichen and its shadow.

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Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii

The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.

In 2015 California became the first state in the US to recognize a state lichen, Ramalina menziesii. After years of lobbying by the California Lichen Society, Governor Jerry Brown signed on the dotted line.

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“We must entrust ourselves to what we are investigating to guide us safely in the quest” (Gadamer, 1960/1989, p. 378)

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HAVE A SEAT!

Inanimate things for a change. Enjoy!

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1. Have a socially distanced seat outside Pelican Bay Used Bookstore and Cafe. Anacortes, Washington.

2. Have a seat and a cigarette break in an alley behind a restaurant. Maybe you can use those three red lines to center yourself. Kirkland, Washington.

3. Have a seat – or maybe not – in this overturned chair by a canal. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

4. Have a seat on a bench in a garden and take pictures with your Lensbaby. Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

5. Have a seat if you dare, at the far end of a long, dark tunnel that was once used to store ammunition to protect New York harbors. Fort Totten, Queens, New York.

6. If you don’t mind getting your bottom wet, have a seat at Urban Coffee Lounge on a rainy winter afternoon. Kirkland, Washington.

7. Have a seat in Seattle’s Westlake Park alongside Steinunn Thorarinsdottir’s sculptures and various local characters. Seattle, Washington.

8. Have a seat and another cigarette break in an alley in Kirkland, Washington.

9. Have a fashionably quaint seat next to an abandoned railroad track behind Januik Winery. Woodinville, Washington.

10. Have a seat and reminisce at the Old Town Bar and Restaurant on East 18th St. New York, NY.

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12. Have a seat on the street across from Watts Towers. Los Angeles, California.

13. Scale this restaurant facade and see if you can have a seat on the artwork. Hannover, Germany.

14. You’ll probably be grateful for this seat outdoors after visiting a patient at Banner – University Medical Center Hospital. Phoenix, Arizona.

15. Have a seat and commune with a Buddha statue at Ksitigarbha Temple. Lynnwood, Washington.

16. Have a seat in an old straight-back chair I found at an estate sale for $5.00. Kirkland, Washington.

17. Have a seat on the Edmonds – Kingston ferry and feel the breeze. Somewhere in Puget Sound, Washington.

18. Have a seat across from this busy commuter on the Staten Island Ferry. New York harbor, NY, NY.

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20. Have a seat in the truck and deliver fresh eggs to the produce store. Malty Produce Market, Maltby, Washington.

21. Have a seat here and you’re in big trouble. ‘Under the Table’ by Robert Therrien, at the Broad Museum. Los Angeles, California.

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FIRE & WATER

Spring has been wet here. With lots of rain falling on weekends and less on weekdays, it hasn’t been fun for those with regular jobs who want to get out on their days off. Farmers must be happy though, and wildfires are less likely, at least for now. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain but summers here are actually bone dry, so wildfires become a concern if summer is preceded by a dry spring or winter. This spring, however, fire is far from my mind as I organize my outings for short spells of dry air that may follow a gloomy, morning fog. Ducking out between showers on a damp trail that skirts a lake or leads to views of the Salish Sea, I’m always aware of water. Fire’s role in the local ecology is less evident, but is still clearly visible in the stands of burned trees, charred logs and fresh, green growth around blackened stumps. With water and fire in mind, here is a selection of photos that call attention to these two primal elements.

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1. Dangerous currents roiling through a narrow passage reveal the relentless power of water.

2. Evidence of a fire in a forest near Twisp, Washington.

3. Water in its frozen state is an uncommon sight on Fidalgo Island. Luckily, I was out for a walk in the woods when this gentle snow shower began.

4. Charred tree trunks and scarce undergrowth tell fire’s story.

5. Sitting in the car, watching the rain.

6. The ground is littered with burned wood for a long time after a fire. As it decomposes it adds nutrients to the soil.

7. Rain clings to the long needles of a Shore pine, a close relative of Lodgepole pine. In the Pacific Northwest, people complain about “June Gloom.” Rainy days like the one last week when I took this photo are frequent, and frustrating.

8. Grass casts a shadow on a log burned in a 2014 fire started by people building a campfire on a dry day, in a place where campfires aren’t allowed.

9. The pretty Lyall’s star tulip (Calochortus lyallii) wet with raindrops, graces a field on the eastern slope of the North Cascade Mountain Range.

10. Daisies encircle a burned stump in a field overcome by fire two summers ago, less than a mile from where I live.

11. Trees died from flooding when this lake was created. On the hill in the background, just out of sight, a fire raged six years ago.

13. A small waterfall in the foothills of the North Cascades.

14. Fire is frequent on the dry, eastern side of the North Cascades. Evergreen foliage is a rusty orange color and tree trunks are charred black from a fire that once burned hot but now nourishes the soil.

15. Slender branches scrape the surface of a lake, mixing with reflections of other branches, creating a rippling chaos of light and shadow.

16. A Yellow-pine chipmunk that has seen its share of tussles (look at those ears!) watches me carefully from a safe perch in a charred Lodgepole pine on the east side of the Cascades.

17. Early spring fog and morning dew at home.

19. Some of these trees were burned, others were drowned. They stand and then fall in a lake frequented by fish, otters, beavers, ducks and more creatures, all part of patterns of interdependence that are more complex than we know.

20. Another example of water and fire: the trees were killed by a fire up here at Washington Pass (elev. 5,476′ or 1669m).

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Most of these photos were taken on Fidalgo Island; some are from the other side of the mountains, where dry conditions prevail much of the year. The activity of water and fire is something experienced by every creature on this earth, but the particular way these elements operate is unique to each location on our planet. Fire’s history here on Fidalgo Island is different from it’s history in Kansas or Kazakhstan. I think it’s worthwhile getting to know the elements intimately, in your own locale. How often does it snow? What are the textures of your snow, and what is the scent of rain on a hot day where you live? How often does fire tear across the fields, if at all? Are there native plants or animals where you live that are adapted to periodic fires? And what about the human relationship to water and fire – where does fear come in? What about the need to control? And what about capitalism?

Humans seem to have increasingly difficult relationships to fire and water. We understand that we are dependent on water and fire for our very lives, but we want them to stay in their places. We keep thinking that we know where those places are, even when time and time again, floods and fires prove otherwise. Instead of being flexible and working with water and fire, we stiffen and create inflexible environments amidst changing circumstances. We build houses in all the wrong places, encroaching further and further into places where wildfires or floods are very likely to occur. Fires or floods can be natural components of great cycles that we refuse to recognize or cannot imagine. At the same time, our frenzied activity has modified the earth’s climate and made wildfires and floods bigger and more frequent than we can remember them ever being before.

What’s the answer? Draw back. Pay attention. Don’t build in places where fire is part of the natural order of things; don’t build where flooding from storms is part of the balance of nature. Work with and respect fire and water and cut back on activities that pollute and warm the earth. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but there are probably still things we can each do to support working in harmony with water and fire instead of against them. And we can get closer to the elements, get intimate and comfortable with their activities in our own back yards. They’re not separate – they are us.

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MORE MAY RAMBLES

The first day of summer is just over a week away. Before we bask in the warmth of the lush season and spring fades to a dream, I want to share a few more images from May, specifically, the last two weeks of May (images from early May are here).

As our state slowly, carefully emerges from the COVID restrictions, the county where I live is now beginning to open restaurants and retail businesses. It’s good to see people sitting at tables in coffee shops again and not just getting their drinks to go. It will be nice to see stores opening too, but I really long to travel, at least for an overnight road trip. I’m not sure when that will be feasible. We’re watching to see how other counties fare as they open more businesses and people move around more. In the meantime, we did take a few day trips last month, at places that are an hour or two away. I still spend lots of time in local parks and there’s plenty to see right here at home, too:

1. The old bamboo birdcage takes on new life surrounded my late May’s super-saturated greens.

2. Afternoon sunlight in the forest at Pass Lake, Deception Pass State Park. These are Red Huckleberry bushes (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant in our woods.

3. Another detail, the same day. These two photographs were made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens, using spot metering in the camera.

4. And now for something completely different…a fallen tree in the bay at Larrabee State Park. The San Juan Islands are seen on the horizon; behind them is Vancouver Island, Canada.

6. A peaceful view from Larrabee, looking out over Salish Sea waters toward the San Juans.

7. One day we explored Northern State Hospital, a decommissioned state mental health facility that operated between 1912 and 1976. Mental health treatment has never been as compassionate as one would like, especially at the state level. However, there were positive aspects to treatment here: the facility was in a beautiful, rural setting and patients could get involved in farm work. There was a library, a greenhouse, and opportunities for recreation. Still, most or all of the patients were there involuntarily. Many of them didn’t have any mental illnesses but were people who didn’t fit in with prevailing norms and lacked the means to get by on their own.
9. Rabbits everywhere!

10. A Douglas fir (left) snuggles up to a Madrone tree at Washington Park. A perfect example of different bark textures.

11. Interesting textures on driftwood at Deception Pass. The brown circles are probably a rim lichen, or Lecanora. Orange and blue-green patches are lichens, too.

12. A Great Blue heron fishes under a massive rock covered with lichens, moss and plants. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Scenes like this one make my day.

13. Sixty miles southeast of home at the edge of the Boulder River Wilderness, the Neiderprum trail climbs into the North Cascades. One weekday we followed part of the trail, beginning alongside Moose Creek, where I found this fading Western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis) hanging over the rushing waters.

14. The light changed a few steps away where delicate Piggy-back plants (Tolmiea menziesii) also dangled over the creek. This native wildflower in the Saxifrage family is called Piggyback plant (or Youth-on-age) because buds develop into new plants at the base of leaves. These plants can drop off and root in the soil.

15. A quick shot out the window as we left the mountains.

17. A snail leaves a slime trail on the moss and heads across a dog lichen, or Peltigera. This is probably a Pacific sideband snail, a hermaphroditic land snail that employs “love darts” in courtship. The small, arrow-shaped dart is fired on contact. If it pierces the receiving snail, mucous is released that aids sperm movement, which benefits reproduction. From Wikipedia: The mucus carries an allohormone that is transferred into the recipient snail’s hemolymph when the dart is stabbed. This allohormone reconfigures the female component of the reproductive system in the receiving individual: the bursa copulax (sperm digestion organ) becomes closed off, and the copulatory canal (leading to the sperm storage) is opened. This reconfiguration allows more sperm to access the sperm storage area and fertilize eggs, rather than being digested. Ultimately this increases the shooter’s paternity. Do you have more respect for snails now??

18. A tangle of lichen that fell out of a tree, probably Old Man’s Beard, or Usnea longissima. When pieces are blown off of tree branches some of them are sure to land in hospitable places. That simple process disperses the lichen – like seeds blown by the wind disperse flowering plants. Old Man’s Beard: a lovely, rootless vagabond. (The orange objects are the male, pollen-bearing cones of Douglas firs, and right now they’re everywhere!).

19. A surprisingly tropical-looking scene at the edge of the woods at Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park. The orange flowers are Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa). The pink ones are the native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). The ferns are Western bracken; the aggressive bracken fern is found all over the world.

20. A Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) performing the annual spring dance of frond unfolding. Foraged by deer, the plant was also used medicinally by some indigenous people. It is appreciated in shade gardens here and abroad and is known as Hard fern in England.

21. Sword fern, our most common fern, continued to unfurl new fronds in May. At home I watched in great annoyance as a deer nibbled just the tips of 6 or 7 new fronds one day, ruining the graceful vase shape of the plant. But since then, no more leaves have been sampled so I’ll allow it. The deer’s mantra seems to be, “A little of this, a little of that.” 🙂

22. Get outside if you can!

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A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” – John Le Carre