JUST ONE: Coralroots

1. Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).
2. A group of Spotted coralroots.

Hidden in plain sight, modest and peculiar, demanding an effortful eye,

distinct from their neighbors,

oddly colored, without leaves,

they appear irregularly – maybe this year,

maybe next. Eccentrically nourished,

they hide underground anchors

exquisitely attuned

to a vast network

of fungi.

Rootless, alone or

tightly clustered,

they reward inspection with sweet symmetry.

When I insinuate

the black box between us –

this awkward human with legs sprawled across the forest floor,

neck crooked, eyes squinting, fingers tense –

a photo is made, and then

I watch the bright screen beam

patterns and colors

to rival my dreams.

3. A Spotted coralroot plant without spots on the white lower petal (also called a lip or labellum). These are sometimes called Ozette’s coralroot, after the indigenous people who first lived in the area in Washington where it was discovered in 1967.

4. Spotted coralroot growing through a Bracken fern frond.
5. Ozette’s coralroot in my fingers. Officially this is a variation called Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata var. maculata.

Coralroots are in bloom and I’m excited about them so this “Just One” entry is actually about two plants, both in the coralroot family. Small, slender, and unassuming, coralroots can be hard to see in the leaf and twig litter that accumulates under the trees. From above, they look like odd-colored spikes, hardly worth a second glance. But bend way down, squint your eyes, peer at a single flower, and you’ll find a masterpiece of design. If it reminds you of a corsage that makes sense – coralroots are orchids.

On the last day of May, I went to a local park to see if the orange Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming yet. There’s only one place on the island I can depend on to see Tiger lilies and I didn’t want to miss them but as they say in the Pacific Northwest, no worries – the lily stems were all topped by small, nodding buds. It would be weeks before the flowers opened.

I didn’t expect any botanical surprises that day but just after I stepped onto the trail, a flash of magenta caught my eye. I came to an abrupt halt. What was that? The color didn’t compute in my mind – I didn’t remember any magenta plants in that patch of woods. Pink flowers, yes, but this was a dark, almost purple shade of pink. One spindly, magenta stalk rose from the detritus of last winter’s gray-brown twigs and this spring’s green leaves. I knew immediately that the little flower must be something interesting.

Bending down, I found a delicate orchid. It looked like some coralroot plants I’d seen there in the past but it was the wrong color and the flowers seemed different. I quickly made photographs – a few closeups and a few of the whole plant – to help me identify it after I got home.

6. Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana).
7. Pacific coralroot.

Excited about the new find, I looked for more and located two plants. Each one was just a small, asparagus-like stalk rising from the duff but unlike asparagus, they were deep reddish-purple. I sat down in a tangle of branches and old leaves, careful not to crush anything living, and photographed the stalks with their tightly closed buds. It was good to know there would be more of these little treasures blooming soon.



The mystery plant reminded me of Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), which was nowhere to be seen, even though I photographed it in that area in each of the last three years. It was as if an imposter had arrived and stolen the scene.

When I got home it didn’t take long to identify the new flower as Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). Surprised that two Coralroots grow on Fidalgo Island, I looked for records of Pacific coralroot on the iNaturalist and Burke Herbarium websites. The Burke had two, dated 1952 and 1968, from other locations on the island. iNaturalist had three observations, all from the same place in the woods where I saw them. One is dated 2017, two are from 2020, and now that I’ve added my photos there’s a record for 2022.

By this time I was burning with curiosity – where else near my home could Pacific coralroot be found? Are there more kinds of Coralroots near here? The answers were easy to find on iNaturalist, where the map of Pacific coralroot observations showed a cluster of sightings on Whidbey Island (just to our south) in a protected forest where old-growth Douglas firs and Western hemlocks thrive. Obsessed with my new find, I twisted Joe’s arm, and the very next day we were marching through the forest on Whidbey Island in search of Pacific coralroot. We weren’t disappointed – there were dozens and dozens of them! Even more exciting, a number of the plants were pale and yellowish instead of intense pink.

9. Pacific coralroot, yellow and pink forms.

I had questions about these plants that I’ll write about here, but if there are too many details here for your taste, no problem. Enjoy the photographs!

Why do coralroots have such odd colors? Did you notice that they don’t have leaves? In fact, there aren’t any green parts at all. Coralroots lost their leaves and chlorophyll over evolutionary time. You may remember that chlorophyll is the compound that helps plants get energy from the sun and gives them their green color. So how do these plants live if they can’t photosynthesize? They form relationships with fungi in the soil, fungi that also have connections to the trees towering overhead. Those trees are busy photosynthesizing – so coralroots don’t have to! This is called mycorrhizal symbiosis. While I was photographing the diminutive orchids, complex transactions among coralroots, fungi, and trees were occurring continuously out of sight, right under my feet, making beautiful flowers like these possible:

11. A single Pacific coralroot flower.
12. A single Spotted coralroot flower in black and white.

About 400 different species of plants can’t photosynthesize and depend on fungi for nourishment; many are orchids. Some orchids depend on fungi only for germination but coralroots are dependent on fungi for germination and growth. They have lost their true roots and instead are anchored into the soil by a rhizome, essentially a horizontal, nubby stem. The nubs on the rhizome can resemble short branches of coral, which is why they’re called coralroots. The rhizomes are connected to mycorrhizal fungi that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, like Douglas fir trees. The requirement for particular fungi to be present in the soil means that humans have not been able to cultivate coralroots (as far as I know). Being dependent on fungal networks in the soil means that disturbances like road construction, which probably destroy mycorrhizal fungi, would restrict the spread of coralroots. You won’t find them invading roadside lots and lawns the way dandelions do!

The unusual arrangement coralroots have with fungi starts with the seeds, which are tiny and numerous, almost like clouds of dust. That’s typical for the orchid family, one of the largest plant families, with 25,000 – 35,000 species. Orchid seeds lack stores of energy (food) and can’t germinate on their own so they rely on fungi to get a start in life. If the particular fungus an orchid requires doesn’t live where the windblown seeds land, too bad, there will be no orchid. That’s probably why orchids produce prodigious amounts of seeds.



Ectomycorrhizal (ektos – outside, mykes – fungus, rhiza – root) relationships are being studied by people like Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia who has written extensively about the ways plants communicate below the ground. Her book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ details the implications of her ground-breaking research exploring the surprising forces that bind trees and plants together in complex networks. Actually, scientists have known that fungal networks connect to tree roots for years. It was a nineteenth-century German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, who first recognized and wrote about fungus/plant relationships and coined the word “mycorrhiza.” Frank also coined the term, “symbiosis” back in 1877. But there is still much to learn about fungal connections to plants.

How exactly the complex relationship among coralroots, mycorrhizal fungi, and trees benefits each partner is a question that, if I understand correctly, scientists are asking and answering bit by bit, as research continues. We know that fungi continuously “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, an ability that coralroots exploit to receive carbon. The fungi coralroots depend on are essentially intricate networks of rootlike hyphae that branch over and over again, exploring the soil for nutrients and forming connections with the fine tips of tree roots and orchid rhizomes. Minerals that fungi get from the trees they’re connected to can be passed to coralroots, too.

These fascinating plants are a small genus of only ten species, all but one found in North America. The coralroot that grows outside North America is C. trifida, sometimes called Early or Northern coralroot. It occurs across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the US. This small, yellowish-green orchid has some chlorophyll but primarily relies on fungi that are often connected to birch or alder trees. The plant I found in the park, Pacific coralroot, is an uncommon orchid found mainly in shaded, coniferous forests in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern California.

The most common coralroot in my area is Spotted coralroot, pictured above in #1 – #5 and #12. There were 35 observations of Spotted coralroot recorded on Fidalgo Island on iNaturalist the last time I looked (and iNaturalist has only been operating since 2008). I’ve seen it a number of times here but it’s not common. It seems odd that Pacific coralroot was growing in the same patch of woods where Spotted coralroot grew before. Maybe Spotted coralroot plants will appear there in a few weeks, who knows? Pacific coralroot was once considered a subspecies of Spotted coralroot so obviously, they share some characteristics, like habitat. But they do not share underground fungal networks – each relies on different kinds of fungi. Maybe the fungus that Pacific coralroot uses is in very good health this year and that enabled the coralroot’s rhizome, a lumpy storage organ that’s essentially an underground stem, to send up a flowering stalk. Perhaps Spotted coralroots are resting this year and I’ll have to wait until next year to see them again; I read that coralroot plants may rest several years under the soil. But that doesn’t explain why I saw Spotted coralroot three years in a row and Pacific coralroot this year. I have many questions!

14. Spotted coralroot, intentionally blurred by moving the camera.
15. Spotted coralroot from above, intentionally blurred by manually focusing.
16. Five years ago I noticed this small group of coralroots in a shaft of sunlight in the woods at Longmire, Mount Rainier.
17. A photo from July, 2012, the first time I saw coralroots. This is Pacific coralroot and after seeing that time in a park outside Seattle and once more on Mt. Rainier, I didn’t see it again until this spring. And frankly, if I didn’t have these photos I would not have known that I’ve seen Pacific coralroot before.


In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes both personal impressions and factual information. Click “Just One” in the category list below to see more of these posts.


LOCAL WALKS: Boundless

Lest anyone think I’m completely tone-deaf or have my head in the sand, I recognize the pain and despair caused by the horrifying mass shootings in this country. I’d like my readers outside of the U.S. to know that I’m deeply embarrassed by my country’s wrong-headed attitude about guns. When I think about parents with young children – even my own unborn grandchildren – I lament the fear and anguish in the face of the unthinkable they live with. One thing we can do is to bring some shred, some little piece of positivity into the world and offer it within our own sphere of influence. Whether it’s art, political action, or simply a listening ear and a hug, we need to counteract the evil.


There’s a quote from Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi) that describes how I feel sometimes when I’m outside: “Leap into the boundless and make it your home!” How’s that possible? I think that connecting deliberately to the precise place on earth where I am with all five senses can turn almost any place into a true home and an open, curious mind makes possible a leap into the boundless, the unexpected, the limitless.

Of course, having an open mind isn’t always that simple when the concerns of the day linger in one’s mind. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to let go of petty worries and irrelevant expectations now that I’m retired. Being older probably helps, too. When I worked full time I longed to spend more time outside and I would wait all week for the chance to visit a garden or wander through a park. I worried about the weather, too, and by Saturday my brain was crammed with needs and expectations – not the best mindset for relaxation and creativity! If that sounds familiar I hope you’ll go easy on yourself. Maybe you can take a minute to let all the ideas about what you want to do fall away when you’ve finally gotten your chance to enjoy yourself. There’s no need to do anything more than just appreciate what’s in front of you: your own life on this beautiful planet.

Fifteen photographs made on recent walks in familiar places

with camera in hand

and as little as possible in my head,

eyes up,

eyes down,

eyes all around.

Looking. It’s what we do

in our boundless homes

on earth.

1. I stepped outside one morning when the sun was shining and the air was fresh. Our Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) look great this year after a pretty wet spring. Watching the fronds unfurl day by day, week by week, is deeply satisfying.
2. Sword ferns have a peculiar growth habit you can see here, a downward droop and an upward push that happen at the same time. The plant in the first photo is further along. The first time I saw these oddly shaped fronds, I was taken aback. Ten years and thousands of plants later they still delight me. Sword ferns grow luxuriously here, carpeting the forest floor all year in bold, green fountains. (The colors aren’t realistic in this photo; I used an Adobe preset and made changes in processing).
3. Late one Saturday afternoon I took a walk on a little-used trail. I saw no one: perfect! The trail is short and doesn’t go anywhere interesting enough for most people. But the little hillside clearing at the end of the trail was magical that day. As many as a hundred nodding, brownish lilies were blooming with lush, green moss and bright yellow buttercups. Our chocolate lilies – Fritillaria affinis – don’t grow very tall and tend to disappear into the background because of their unusual coloration. I couldn’t make a good photo of the meadow but a single blade of grass from last year caught my eye.
4. Heart Lake Road cuts through a public forest near the middle of Fidalgo Island. There are two parking lots and several pull-outs for people planning to hike a trail or fish on the small lake. I chose a pull-out on the side of the road one day and stopped the car. As I got out and was locking the door I glanced across the road and saw this handsome male Wood duck (Aix sponsa) perched on a stump. Wow! These beautiful birds are here most of the year but are rarely seen. I didn’t have a very long lens and didn’t want to get closer for fear of scaring him so I photographed him from where I was and cropped later. Even with that stick in front of him, he was a pretty sight.
5. My favorite fern, Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is infrequent on Fidalgo Island because our summers are too dry, except in places like this shady cliff with cool trickles of water from winter to spring. It seems there’s always a breeze and never much light where these ferns grow. I decided to go with it, letting the leaf tips blur and the background stay dark.
6. In mid-April on a lovely spring day when the Salmonberries were beginning to bloom, I saw this little insect and managed to get a photo. iNaturalist tells me this insect is in the Leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae.
7. Across from a ship repair yard in town there are stacks of beautifully rusted metal pieces being stored. I like composing the shapes into neat rectangles.
8. A closeup of a metal support, with apologies to Linda Grashoff** who has made an art out of photographing the surfaces of dumpsters (among other things) and who inspires me to pay more attention to things like this.
9. Here’s a tiny wildflower, the Western spotted coralroot, an orchid that depends on fungi in the soil for nourishment. Multiple small flowers grow on thin, reddish stems about a foot in height. Corallorhiza maculata is blooming now in our island forests. Robert Frost’s poem, On Going Unnoticed uses this plant to talk about being overlooked but if you take the time to investigate the flowers, you’ll be unlikely to ever overlook them again.
10. This little guy is called a Grainy hermit crab. I photographed it underwater in a tide pool at low tide. I check the tide tables so I can poke around certain places when the tide is exceptionally low, something that tends to occur at new and full moons.



12. It was a sunny, windy day by the water, making photos difficult. I decided to show the wind by using a slow shutter speed (shutter priority, 1/6 second, F22). I focused in the middle distance to reveal some yellow flowers. The image was overexposed – I should have adjusted the exposure but it was getting late and I was ready to go home. I dragged the exposure down in Lightroom but kept the grass bright because that’s what I saw.
13. On another rainy day I went out just as the rain stopped. The Madrone leaves were kind enough to bead up the raindrops and hold them in place for me to see.
14. A single leaf of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) springs up from a bed of moss in a forest clearing.

15. A tangle of wild honeysuckle vines (Lonicera sp.) threads through the forest and catches the last rays of the setting sun.


**You can find Linda Grashoff’s photos of dumpsters here.

The quote above is from The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (ed. Columbia University Press, 1968) – ISBN: 9780231031479



The pairs of photos you’ll see below developed while I was reviewing photographs I’ve made this year. I looked through everything that hasn’t been shown here on Bluebrightly and has a rating of 3 stars or more. Three stars? Lightroom users can use stars to assign personal ratings to photos. I assign keywords and ratings as soon as I import files. This system gives me general reference points that help me locate photos later.

As I skimmed through the images I focused on photographs that I’m not likely to use in future posts on specific subjects, like southern Utah plants (coming soon, maybe!). I noticed an atmosphere or mood in many of the photographs so I started thinking about putting together a series of images reflecting this sensibility. It’s hard to articulate what it was that I saw in those images, except that they felt contemplative and seemed to lean more toward feelings, less toward facts.

When I narrowed my choices down and put the photos into a folder, relationships between pairs of photographs jumped out at me. Certain images talked to one another. So I thought, why not show them in pairs? The connections – or dialogues – center around different qualities like texture, directionality, color, or something less definable. Usually, the subject matter is different and some other quality links the images. These pairings won’t make sense to everyone but if one “duet” sparks an idea, expands a possibility in your mind, or simply pleases you aesthetically, I’m happy. For me, one important function of art is to get the mind out of its rut, take it off-road, and let it wander into new territory. The ground is fertile there. Maybe the sun is out.

(If you’re curious about the subjects they’re listed at the bottom.)













  1. Left: amaryllis bud at home; Right: driftwood closeup
  2. Left: padlock on an old shed at a park; Right: lichen-covered bark closeup
  3. Left: Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) in the wind; Right: lichen-covered rock in Utah
  4. Left: looking out the car window on a rainy day; Right: tidal patterns in the sand at a beach
  5. Left: more tidal effects at the beach; Right: Lace lichen
  6. Left and right: intentional camera movement images of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)
  7. Left: eroded rocks at a beach; Right: plastic garbage in the grass on a roadside
  8. Left: Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and old roots; Right: Snow geese (Anser caerulescens) flying over a field
  9. Left: beach rock and sand detail; Right: chained fence on a roadside
  10. Left: Lopez island through the window of a park shelter; Right: brick building in Panguitch, Utah
  11. Left: lichen on a tree, maybe Eyed beard (Usnea quasirigida); Right: looking out the car window on a rainy day
  12. Left: eelgrass (Zostera marina) on a beach; Right: a rock in Utah


LOCAL WALKS: The Bliss of Transience

1. Small camas (Camassia quamash).

The idea that bliss and transience go together may seem counterintuitive since we humans tend to get attached to things and usually find change challenging. But deep pleasure can come from experiencing impermanence. If you guessed that I’m thinking about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of spring, you’re right. In spring evanescent clouds mist the trees while flowers grow buds, bloom, and fade in a vivid parade that passes quickly. It’s hard not to want to make these fleeting moments last longer but maybe knowing that every gem-like spring flower is followed by a new one can ease the regret. Maybe fully sensing the beauty of life’s fluctuating rhythms is a better bliss than grasping at frozen bits of time.

Spring arrives in early February here with subtle, barely perceptible whispers. Buds swell, willows sport fuzzy catkins, and a few non-migrant birds sing tentatively. The leaves of certain orchids that won’t bloom for months appear in mossy places at the edge of the woods. This slow, steady unfolding is due to moderate temperatures – most of the time the thermometer doesn’t fall very low or rise very high. Cold Salish Sea waters that flow around our island even out the weather, creating optimal conditions for lush growth. As the days lengthen the greens that pervade our landscape intensify bit by bit, leaf by leaf. February, March, April, May, and June can all make claims on spring in the cool maritime Pacific Northwest.

2. A miniaturist’s dream. This tiny landscape of moss, lichens, and one sprouting plant was flourishing atop a trailside rock well before the Spring equinox. Feb. 18th.
3. A tightly coiled Goldback fern (Pityrogramma triangularis) fiddlehead emerges among last year’s fronds. Feb. 25th.
4. A cool, rainy day in the forest. March 18th.


7. At the end of March, just before we left for Utah, I checked a location where wild larkspurs grow and found little hairy fists buds. By the time I got home, the flowers were just beginning to bloom (#19). March 31st.

This spring I was away for two weeks in April, during the height of the time when roadsides display one of my favorite sights: the soft-edged, lime-green haze of budding deciduous trees. Acutely aware of the progression of flora and fauna during springtime, I was afraid I might miss something while I was away. But when I returned it seemed that the world had held its breath – the trees were still bright and fluffy and the wildflower show was just getting started.

With my head still spinning out visions of red rock dreams, I stepped into the moist glow of green fields and forests to search for wildflowers. I was eager to check out all the familiar places that I’d been the month before, where I knew wildflowers should be in bloom. But there was one catch: a Northern elephant seal pup, the first known to be born on the island, needed attention too. As a volunteer “seal sitter” for a network that protects marine mammals on the west coast, I felt an obligation to guard the young elephant seal pup and help educate the public. His mother made the inconvenient choice to give birth at a busy state park (the one that happens to be my favorite) on Jan 31st. She nursed him for 26 days and then swam away, leaving him all alone. It’s normal for this species to nurse for about a month and then leave pups to fend for themselves but most elephant seals are born in colonies where the pups have plenty of company. This guy only had humans!

For two busy weeks, I bounced between volunteering, dips into local parks, physical therapy appointments, yoga classes, and the usual chores everyone needs to tick off their to-do list. As the weather got warmer, the park got busier and the human/wildlife interface became harder to control, as one of the photos in the slideshow makes clear. Finally, it was decided that it would be best for all concerned to move young Emerson the elephant seal to an uninhabited island where he wouldn’t be surrounded by curious people all day long. To keep chaos to a minimum, the public wasn’t notified in advance and even volunteers didn’t get the news until the day after he was relocated. Suddenly I was free of my obligation, which was a bittersweet relief. I’d grown fond of this character with his big, dark eyes, sleepy afternoons, and a predilection for resting under the signs we used to inform the public to stay at least 50 yards away. I was glad Joe and I spent a few hours with him the day before the big move. True to form, that afternoon he rested for hours next to one of the signs, then suddenly (suddenly for an elephant seal looks nothing like suddenly for a chipmunk) decided to mosy down to the water, just to stick his nose in. Swimming is what seals are supposed to do but during his time at the park, Emerson mostly slept.

I learned a lot about Northern elephant seals over the last three months. I also came to see the park and its habitat differently. My sense of this park now encompassed an odd creature needing protection, a never-ending stream of curious humans with their dogs, and an assortment of signs and orange traffic cones that had to be moved every day because you never knew where Emerson would turn up in the morning. My cherished vision of this space as a sanctuary made way for a concept that sometimes seemed more like a zoo than a refuge. I wasn’t always happy about that but I learned a lot. It’s good to know this old brain can still be flexible.

But what about the wildflowers? I’ve been outside making the rounds, peering at the ground. The little gems won’t be here for long and that’s the beauty of it – they keep me fully awake in the present.


8. The Dark-throated shooting star (Primlua pauciflora) is a star of the spring wildflower show in spite of its short stature. April 25th.

9. The same species, five days earlier, in bud.


12. Rain rolls down the smooth bark of a Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) tree. Most of our rain falls gently; driving rainstorms are rare. If you go out in the rain there’s a good chance it will let up enough to use your camera. April 25th.
13. They’re not wildflowers but these cultivated apple blossoms promise delicious fruit later in the summer if we get there before the animals. May 1st.
14. This odd plant with succulent leaves is a Claytonia, probably C. exigua, a member of the purslane family (Portulacaceae). Known as Serpentine spring beauty, it’s one of several plants that grow comfortably in the serpentine soil at one of our parks. Serpentine soils lack many nutrients and tend to be shallow, which means roots can’t reach deep. This short, if not stunted plant has waxy leaves that help retain water later in the summer when the shallow soil gets very dry. Apr. 25th.



18. A riot of deep blue graces a rocky bald called Sares Head, high over the Salish Sea. This is Small camas, the same flower seen in the first photo. The small bulbs were dug, stored, and pit-roasted by local tribes. May 3rd.
19. Another blue beauty is Menzies larkspur (Delphinium menziesii). It’s been a banner year for them. They looked pretty on this bald alongside a fallen Doug fir tree and mounds of Reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.). These are the flowers seen in bud in #7. May 1st.
20. Here’s a flower that doesn’t have any chlorophyll. Dependent on other plants for nutrients, Oneflower broomrape (Aphyllon purpureum) grows near plants that it parasitizes, in this case probably stonecrops (Sedum). Apr. 21st.
21. The graceful Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) have finished blooming. I was lucky to find this one still open on a rainy day. Apr. 25th.




25. Checker lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata) are doing well this year. I’ve seen more than in other years. Local tribes steamed or boiled the bulbs, which are small and look a bit like fat rice grains. Apr. 30th.

26. An old Seaside juniper tree spreads out near the waters of Burrows Channel. Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) blooms in the grass.


Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home,
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

~ Eihei Dogen

from Heine, Steven, translator. Zen Poetry of Dogen. by Eihei Dogen. Tuttle Publishing, 1997.


It’s all about geology in Utah. This post zeroes in on the impressive variety of rocks that can be seen in southern Utah. Between April 3rd and 13th, we drove from the far southwest corner of Utah to Torrey, a small town in central Utah near Capitol Reef National Park. We put about 1680 miles (2703km) on our rented SUV, traveling on highways, two-lane local roads, and rough, unpaved roads. We walked through canyons, up cliffs, and along mountain ridges. It was a rock odyssey, from the enormous, ancient formations layered into the distance to the red rock dust on our boots and in our noses. In Utah, the shapes, colors, and textures of rock run the gamut from subtle to bizarre. Going back and forth between spacious, soul-satisfying vistas and mesmerizing details, it was a ten-day orgy of aesthetic pleasure.


1. Along the highway near St. George, in the southwesternmost corner of Utah.
2. Detail of a rock face on the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
3. Pebbles, Capitol Reef National Park.
4. Along Cathedral Road, Capitol Reef National Park.
5. Temple of the Sun, Capitol Reef National Park.
7. Snow Canyon State Park. The dark areas are sharp, medium-sized rocks; I believe they’re basalt lava flow. The dull green areas are covered with tough, desert plants.
8. For thousands of years people have inscribed signs and symbols on rocks to communicate. Over the years, different cultures made their marks on these rocks at Parowan Gap in Parowan, Utah. Interpretations of petroglyphs vary depending on who you’re talking to. To a modern-day Paiute elder a particular series of glyphs may tell a story that’s totally different from the message that a European-American scientist sees.
9. Depressions worn into the rocks hold the scant water that falls here, allowing it to become a lifeline for wildlife.
12. How could people resist putting rocks into these holes worn into the vertical faces of a canyon? Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park.
13. Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park.
14. Capitol Reef National Park.
15. Along the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I think these hills are bentonite.
16. Along Notom-Bullfrog Road. We made a long, dusty loop by driving from Torrey on Highway 24 to Highway 12 (a rather remote two-lane road) to Burr Trail Road (more remote) to Notom-Bullfrog Road (seriously remote) and back to Rt. 24. Road conditions and weather must be checked before you set out. Plenty of water and food must be on board too, just in case. We passed only a few vehicles on the more remote sections of the route. The grandeur of this landscape made the strongest impression on me the day we drove that 120-mile (193km) loop.
17. Burr Trail Road rock and juniper trees. It may look like soft sand but walk up to it and you’ll see that it’s really solid rock. The Burr Trail Road passes through Boulder, Utah, a tiny town so remote that it was the last place in America to get mail by mule train. In the early 1930s, a road was built and residents began receiving mail carried by wheeled vehicles instead of pack animals.
18. View from the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
19. Rock detail, Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park.
20. Along the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
21. Rock detail, Rt. 24, Capitol Reef National Park.
22. Context of the photo above: at the bottom of the frame you can see juniper trees. Most of these trees are taller than people. Imagine how high this cliff towers over park visitors.
23. Bryce Canyon National Park.
24. Some of the rock at Snow Canyon State Park (near St. George) is wrinkled like an elephant’s skin. This is cross-bedded, 173-million-year-old Navaho sandstone.
25. Along Cathedral Road, Capitol Reef National Park.


Southern Utah’s landscape is harsh, forbidding. Maps tell the story of settler’s reactions with plainspoken names like Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Rattlesnake Bench, Tarantula Mesa, Hell’s Backbone, and Last Chance Desert. Summer is hot, winter cold, and spring rains can bring floods. But the beauty beyond all that, between the dust blowing in your face and the endless miles of cracked earth, is truly sublime. In the last letter he wrote before he disappeared forever, Everett Ruess recalled riding “over miles of rough country, forcing my way through tall sage and stubborn oak brush, and driving the burros down canyon slopes so steep that they could hardly keep from falling.” He enjoyed the beauty of the wilderness and the vagrant life he was leading, preferring “the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”

This desert land touches your soul.


25. A view from the Burr Trail, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.


Quotes from Rusho, W.L. (1983). Everett Ruess, A Vagabond for Beauty. Peregrine Smith Books.



In the fall of 2000, I journeyed to south-central Utah twice, each time for less than a week. I went to support my teenage son, who was in a wilderness program. The second visit included a cold night spent with him and other families high on Boulder Mountain with nothing but a sleeping bag and a rough lean-to for protection from the elements. It snowed that night, causing the tarp over our heads to fall on top of us. Brrr. Warming ourselves next to a campfire amid the vast, open skies of the high desert that morning was definitely a memorable experience. The jaw-dropping drive down from Salt Lake City, the dramatically changing views, the crisp air, and the spareness of life in the high desert moved me. As awed as I was by the power of nature in this place, I was also charmed by the atmosphere of the small town where I stayed after that night on the mountain. Capitol Reef country and Torrey, Utah dug into my soul and worked their magic. I vowed to go back and returned three years later. And yes, it was memorable again.

That trip nineteen years ago was intensely pleasurable because my experiences were so different from everything I’d known as an east coast native. I explored, I hiked to a waterfall, I rode a horse, and I sat down under a juniper tree and painted the towering red-orange cliffs. In subsequent years I often thought about that wild country and the little town at the heart of it – I wasn’t done with Utah’s extraordinary landscape. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, it seemed like travel could feel good again and Utah was the perfect place to go. This time I’d share it with my partner, Joe, who is a wonderful travel companion.

On April 2nd we flew to Las Vegas and picked up a rental SUV at the airport. We stayed in town overnight and set off for Utah the next morning.

Four photos from the plane: low tide ripples off the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham Airport, a view of Lopez Island as we climbed to cruising altitude, Oregon’s beautiful Mt. Hood, and the sere, dun-colored desert outside Las Vegas.

1. Slicing through the northwest corner of Arizona via Interstate 15, we climbed through the Virgin River Gorge toward Utah.

2. In a short time we reached St. George, the city Utahns visit when they’re desperate for a dose of warm weather. By midafternoon we were enjoying a pretty trail through the red rock at Snow Canyon State Park.
3. Storm clouds over Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, seen from the car on the way to Cedar City.

With dramatic clouds threatening rain but not producing it (as so often happens in the desert), we continued north to Cedar City, our base for the next 3 days. The biggest draw for tourists in that area is Zion National Park, which neither of us had ever seen. But we knew the park would be a mob scene – even on a weekday in April. Not only does the park require you to leave your car in a crowded lot and take their shuttle bus to get to the major hikes and observation points, now they even require reservations for the popular hike up Angel’s Landing. It was spring break and families were everywhere. I was torn but Joe was adamant: after some discussion, we decided to forgo the main entrance to the park altogether. We would explore the less-frequented north end the next day, taking a scenic drive to a short trail that leads to a magnificent overlook. Even that proved daunting for us lowlanders when the altitude challenged our lungs. Plopping down on the rocks as often as we needed to turned out to be as entertaining as the views, thanks to the lizards scampering about.

4. Zion NP, Kolob Canyon section, Timber Creek Overlook.

We live at sea level in a place where the humidity often approaches 100%. We were now over 6,000 feet higher than that, all day and night, with humidity as low as 20%. We hadn’t realized how hard it would be to acclimate to the high desert! The following day we chose an easier itinerary: explore the petroglyphs at Parowan Gap and drive a big loop over mountain passes in the Dixie National Forest. The petroglyphs were some of the best and most accessible we’ve seen but the wind was fierce through the Parowan Gap. I couldn’t resist tossing tumbleweed in the air and watching it bounce down the road like a cartoon character. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get that phone video I made into another post.

We had one more day in Cedar City, a day that for me, began with feeling absolutely wretched. Mornings were getting slower and slower as the thin air made the simplest task a struggle. We weren’t sleeping well, either. Ah, the joys of hotel pillows – they’re never like one’s own! And the air in hotel rooms, don’t get me started on that. So that day we drove south to a lower elevation and by the afternoon we were both having a great time clambering around petrified sand dunes at Snow Canyon State Park. A long, relaxing lunch at an out-of-the-way spot that took us a while to find capped the day.


The next day we had a long drive ahead of us; we’d be visiting Torrey, the small town in south-central Utah that I fell in love with over 20 years ago. But I’ll save that for later. Needless to say, there are way too many photos to go through and trip impressions fade too quickly. It was an intense two weeks of sensory overload. There was rock above all, in countless guises – smooth, rough, grainy, pock-marked, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, lavender, white, black, warm, cold, shaped into hoodoos, perfect rectangles, and domes, wrinkled like elephant skin, balanced and poised to topple any minute, and solid as the ages underfoot. There were wonderful plants, some rare, some cultivated, all tough as nails. There were scintillating conversations with native Utahans, especially Martha, a 76-year-old native of Teasdale (population 219) who showed us the old tea house ruin. And Curtis and Tristan, proprietors of Dark Sky Coffee in Torrey, whose warm, relaxed hospitality and excellent espresso brought a gleam to my eyes. There were fierce, sandy winds, icy winds out of the north, and calm, sunlit afternoons under Cottonwood trees. There were good meals, especially a memorable breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries, and grits at the Black and Blue Diner in Las Vegas. There were long, dusty, unpaved roads, miles and miles of them, with horizons that peeled back the story of the earth for us to read. And there were ravens. Everywhere we went we saw single pairs of ravens flying together through the blue skies, slicing them up into then and now, backs shining silver in the sun, feathers dark as night.

Here’s a group of photographs from random moments over the course of the trip. More soon!

6. Capitol Reef National Park.


8. The car’s GPS says it’s 21 degrees outside one morning as we cross a high pass…many places haven’t opened for the season yet…and a sign in Cedar City announces 29 degrees on another morning. But the sun was warm and most of the afternoons were comfortable.



12. Joe and our SUV in Capitol Reef Nation Park’s north end.
13. Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef NP.
14. We awakened to snow one morning.

15. Snow in the morning, wildflowers in the afternoon – amazing.
16. Ancient petroglyphs at Parowan Gap.
18. Bryce Canyon National Park.

20. Going from small-town Utah to Las Vegas in one day was a jolt to the spirit.
20. Standing outside and looking up at the waxing moon helped ease the transition.
21. I hope canyon country will be in my rear-view mirror again before too long.


“…it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in sparseness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


STATES of BEING: Preparing


It’s the day before we leave for our first road trip since the pandemic throttled our travel plans. I have forgotten how to get ready for a trip. Everything requires more thought and seems a little harder. And it’s spring, my favorite season, so I’m distracted by the flashes of color everywhere, all vying for attention after a long, quiet winter. Part of me wants to be walking outside, looking for early wildflowers and inhaling the fresh air. Another part nags about packing and remembering the chargers and sunglasses. I check the weather in southern Utah for the second time today; the forecast seems to have changed again. A few days ago I thought we wouldn’t need warm clothes, this morning it looked like we would, now I’m not sure. I remove a T-shirt and substituted a long-sleeved, insulated shirt, a beanie, a warm scarf, even gloves. Maybe I need to rethink it: space is tight.

As I’ve been preparing for my trip the earth has been preparing for the season when reproductive tasks must get done. Flowers push through the cool, damp earth, woodpeckers drum love songs on hollow trees, and yesterday I watched harbor seals whack their flippers hard on the water and twirl in circles as other seals looked on, hopefully admiring the show as much as I did. One very unusual mammal (for this area) is preparing for the next stage of its life; a two-month-old elephant seal born nearby is getting ready to enter the water. I believe he’s the first elephant seal to be born on this island – most Northern elephant seals are born in California. When he’s ready he’ll swim down the long Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, perhaps heading for deep water off Alaska. He needs to teach himself to dive deep for fish and squid. That’s the way it works with this species – they’re on their own after they’re weaned. Once he leaves we may never see him again. A few weeks ago I became a marine mammal volunteer to help protect the pup from human interference, intentional or otherwise. I learned a lot in a few short hours about the intricacies of the human/wildlife interface. In a word, it’s fraught.

The last few weeks have been full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate on my own preparations, but gradually, I got my head into it and made some progress. By mid-afternoon yesterday, I was ready for a break: a trip into town for one more errand and an espresso. As I stepped outside I felt a chill but also had an urge to stop and admire the daffodils that opened yesterday. They’re late again and their numbers don’t seem to be expanding; I planted them under a tree where the sun barely shines. At least they’re protected from the landlord’s overzealous mowing. Looking up, my eyes paused at the sight of fat Bigleaf maple buds, ripe with the green energy that busts them out of their tight winter jackets. I thought I should document the yard today so I can compare it to the way it will look when I get back. All week I’ve been thinking about how different everything will be after the 13 days we’re away – this is a time of great change.

With my head full of such musings, I wandered over to my car and got in. Joe had parked at the opposite end of the driveway from his usual spot in front of me. I backed up, turned to my right to avoid the telephone pole, and let my foot off the brake. A heartbeat later I heard the startling, eye-squinching crunch of metal on metal. Worse, I was a little slow to stop because I haven’t slept well lately. A remark Joe made just minutes before sprung to mind: he said we seem to be getting things under control.

Maybe not. I got out, inspected both cars, frowned, and called him. He rushed out to assess the damage. Quickly apologizing, I said I’d take care of both cars when we get back home. Thankfully, Joe had the grace not to let loose with the first thing that must have come to his mind.

On the way into town I told myself to wake up or there’ll be a bigger accident. Deep breaths. I took care of the errand and made my way to the bookstore/cafe. It was pleasantly busy: familiar faces behind the counter and eager customers on the other side. Studying the baked goods neatly displayed in their glass case, I ordered my usual macchiato, but with a third shot. While I waited I saw a front-page article in the NY Times about a White House photographer from the Trump administration who’s been taken advantage of by Trump – it’s about money, of course. I read a few paragraphs and moved on to the Arts section, where there was a piece about the Whitney Biennial, a New York art world staple that I used to look forward to. It’s morphed over the years and is back now after a pandemic hiatus, with a less flashy, more thoughtful, perhaps darker-toned show. I opened the paper to the double-page spread, full of dark images. That prompted a passing thought about my own propensity for darkness in my photos. I wondered if there’s a connection between how I photograph the world nearby and the state it’s in. Or is it a coincidence?

The coffee tasted good. Browsing the shelves for a minute or two, I moved from art to fiction to the travel section. A used book called “The Names of Things” caught my eye. It’s beautifully written but it wasn’t a good time to buy a book so I made a mental note of the title. Suddenly the caffeine teased the neurons in my brain and I felt that bright light of inspiration, thanks to Susan Brind Morrow’s words. In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering if I would post anything before I left or during the trip. Now I had an idea – I’ll just describe my day, trying to include passing thoughts as well as observations.

Exiting the store, I got in the car, backed up (carefully), and headed back home. The sky was gray and white but not flat. The cherry trees were as frothy as a strawberry milkshake, magnolia flowers were opening bit by bit, and the willows weren’t weeping, no, they were rejoicing in their swaying, lime-green skirts. As I drove down R Avenue I glimpsed the soft blue silhouette of the Cascade foothills to the east through the dull gray repeating diamonds of a chain-link fence: it was a pleasing graphic image. All the way home I saw trees in bud, chomping at the bit of spring, ready to break into song. Preparing for the next thing.




We’ll fly to Las Vegas today, then drive to Utah, where we plan to visit Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and other less well-known places. With any luck, I’ll have a few photographs to post when I get back. I hope you’re enjoying spring in your own way, wherever you are on this great, turning planet.

7. Red rock country.


LOCAL WALKS: Goose Rock Impressions

1. March means storms and clouds over the Salish Sea.

In July of 2018, as we were settling into our cottage on Fidalgo Island I was also busy exploring the island’s parks. On a trail at Deception Pass one afternoon I met a couple from California who raved about two places – Lighthouse Point and Goose Rock. Their faces glowed with the pleasure of being outdoors. They had lived in Seattle years ago and came back to visit friends in the area. Eager to see their favorite places again, they set out on the Lighthouse Point trail, where we crossed paths. I’d never heard of Goose Rock so I googled it when I got home and added it to my list of places to explore.

I didn’t get there until two months later. It was a cloudy day so the view from the 484-foot (147m) promontory wasn’t ideal but what an interesting walk it was. After parking, I climbed down several flights of stairs to cross under the Deception Pass bridge, then began the walk on a pretty trail through the evergreens above the pass. The spectacle of rushing turquoise water funneling through the narrow pass below was impressive. Instant relaxation! A right fork took me uphill through a quiet forest of hemlock, Douglas fir, and Redcedar studded with gently arching Sword ferns. After climbing a while, I emerged onto a landscape of open balds formed by ancient, glacier-scraped rocks. I wandered over to the highest point, overlooking the San Juan Islands and the wide Salish Sea. A mix of pale green puffs of reindeer lichen, soft moss, and colorful stonecrop plants dotted the rocks. I was enchanted by the mosaic of finely differentiated textures and colors at my feet and the misty blend of blues and grays stretching out to the horizon. In the distance, I could see traffic but up there the atmosphere was quiet and spacious.

One of the defining characteristics of this walk is the transition from a moist, shady, enclosed forest to a broad, open hilltop. The hiker is first treated to a plethora of woodland details – evergreen ferns, luxurious mosses, towering trees with thousands of branches, little mushrooms – and then everything changes as the trail opens out onto an open space where you observe the world spread out below. I think both of these experiences, the near and distant views, are nourishing. We don’t have to be in the country to experience the relaxing rhythm of alternating near and distant views either. When I lived in the city I enjoyed finding details on the sidewalks as much as I loved to gaze out my apartment window at the bustling scene below. Near and far, back and forth. It’s healthy.

The meadows atop Goose Rock host a variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer but I knew nothing about them on that first day – in fact, interesting rocks, lichens, trees, and spacious views were quite enough. I went back again on a misty day in November when clouds flew across the sky. That December I climbed Goose Rock and delighted in the intense green of evergreens and ferns after autumn rains. In January I explored a longer trail that wraps around Goose Rock, passing through a dry hillside with different plants and quiet bay views as it spirals up the rock. And so it went, season after season, year after year. I’ve been up to Goose Rock thirty-three times in all since that first September day 3 1/2 years ago.

Here are photographs from my forays up to Goose Rock, spanning the years and seasons. First, let’s tuck under that bridge:

2. Under the Deception Pass bridge (as you can see, the sun was going down – this photo was actually taken on the way back).


5. A fallen tree sprouts a thick bed of moss, the perfect place for tiny Western hemlock seedlings to get a head start.
6. Trees fall frequently. As you can from these old giants, the rangers only cut them when they block the trail.

7. A small piece of a fallen tree that was cut years ago is now home to a riot of mosses, liverworts, lichens, and plants, surrounded by a garden of evergreen Sword ferns.



10. A slender summer-blooming plant of the woods, the graceful Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) begs a closer look on bent knees.



12. The trail affords a view of hikers below.


13. Looking south from Goose Rock on a foggy November afternoon.
14. November is another stormy month in the Pacific Northwest. Unsettled skies are a photographer’s friend.
15. Among the rocks at the top of Goose Rock a whole world awaits the person who looks closely. The succulent leaves of Stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) cozy up with various mosses and lichens.
16. At the edge of the woods sweet Broad-leaved starflowers (Trientalis latifolia) nestle beside a fallen branch with honeysuckle vines.



18. It’s June and the meadow grasses are in flower.





22. The San Juan Islands and Canada’s Vancouver Island punctuate the horizon.

23. I’d better hurry back down – it’s going to be dark in the forest.



“Because it’s what I do” claimed photojournalist Lynsey Addario in her riveting memoir about life as a photographer on the front line. Going out for walks is what I do. And although my walks don’t entail the risks that Addario’s outings do, like her, I always bring a camera. Why carry the little black box? Because with it I create new ways to relate to the ever-changing landscape that I live in.

1. This battered, old juniper tree has been carved with initials, climbed by countless people, and photographed innumerable times. It still commands the view with dignity.
2. Same tree, different view, black and white.
3. Another Seaside juniper tree (Juniperus maritima). This one was photographed with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
4. Another Seaside juniper, also photographed with the vintage lens.

With all the talk about technique, gear, or artistic intent, one can forget the sheer fun of photography. That cool little black box with its buttons, levers, lenses, and dials enables us to preserve moments of aesthetic delight, which is reason enough to use it. Beyond that, composing, processing, and sharing images offer innumerable ways to exercise creativity. Black and white or color? Crop? Lighten? Smooth, dramatize? There are so many options to work with, both in the camera and later on. If you take it a step further and share your images then the photographs enter the arena of relationships, which has its hazards but certainly has countless rewards.

So going out with a camera is what I do. It’s very enjoyable – there’s the motivation. But where? Why one place and not another? The decision to head toward one particular place has many facets. There are practical considerations – it can’t be too far away, too crowded, too this, too that. But there’s something less easily articulated that guides me too, an atmosphere perhaps. The more time you spend in a place, the more you get inside its unique atmosphere, what I sometimes call the “placeness.” Having lived in this location for almost four years now, I’ve gleaned the flavor of each place. And they all offer possibilities, both expected and unexpected.

This post centers around a 220-acre bulge on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island that was preserved as parkland long ago. Used for camping, walking, and boating, it’s popular with locals but I always manage to find a quiet spot where the slow rhythms of nature take over. Miles of rocky shoreline surround a forested center, traced by a maze of trails. The trails that cut through the forest and lead to open balds above the water are my favorites. They’re crowded with unusual plants like the rugged Seaside junipers and colorful Madrone trees that make fine subjects for any artist. Often there’s a hush on the trail, broken only by the croak of a raven or the whirr of a distant motorboat. My gaze switches back and forth from expanses of blue-green water dotted with islands to the tiny wildflowers, odd ferns, and tough lichens at my feet. Even the rocks draw my admiration.

5. Rocks sometimes steal the scene. That’s another Seaside juniper it.



7. Is it possible to fall in love with the colors of a rock? The little black box whispers yes.

10. This sensuous curve belongs to a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).



12. Bark peeling off a fire-damaged Madrone.
14. Dead Madrone leaves, Madrone berries, and peels of Madrone bark litter the ground.



16. Two lichen species, two mosses, and the new leaves of an unidentified wildflower mingle at ground level in late winter.
17. In early spring the buds of a shrub light up the edge of the woods.

18. Another photograph made with the vintage Takumar lens.
19. Now we’re looking into the water at low tide. This is a side view of an Aggregating anemone holding its bright pink tentacles close in.



21. A snowy vista at the edge of the park.


These photographs were all made at Washington Park in the cooler months. When it warms up there are wildflowers in the meadows and on the forest floor – a whole other subject. By mid-summer, the flowers are mostly finished. The grass dries out, the lichens are brittle, and I’m waiting for the fall rains. Then I’ll go back and explore again.

Previous posts about Washington Park are here and here.


JUST ONE: Satin-flower, aka Grass-widow


In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes personal impressions and factual information. You can find more of these posts by clicking “Just One” in the category list below.


Why this flower? Why now? Because it’s in bloom! I had no idea this delicate beauty might be blooming last week with temperatures dipping well below freezing night after night and snow on the ground.

2. This is what it looked like at my house on February 24th.

On the same day the photo above was made, a friend saw Grass-widows in full flower on a steep hill where we had seen them last year, two weeks later (March 8th, 2021). In 2020 I photographed Satin-flowers in early April on an open, grassy slope about a thousand feet higher and four miles north. In 2019 I photographed the first Satin-flowers I had ever seen, almost hidden on a grass-covered bald at sea level. It was March 26th. Looking at those dates and the snow in the photo, you can see why I didn’t expect a tender flower to be blooming on that cold, wintery day. However, before the cold spell, the weather had been considerably warmer.

To my mind, the Stain-flower is the essence of wild flower, a flower that is truly wild. Its fragile, purple bells thrive in places that are rugged and undisturbed. On a steep coastal bluff, a sagebrush-dotted plateau, or a rocky hill above a mighty river, fleeting dots of intense color appear for a brief period every spring. This diminutive beauty may be one of the first wildflowers to bloom on Fidalgo Island but few people know it – the blossoms are easily overlooked, they flower for a very brief time, and they’re not particularly common.


About that name! People in our region who are familiar with this flower call it a Grass-widow. The reason for this name is obscure. Other than the fact that the species often grows in grassy places, I find the name irrelevant, even off-putting. Another name for the plant is Satin-flower, which alludes to the flower’s attractive, satiny sheen. Like many flowers, this one has a number of common names, including Purple-eyed grass but I prefer Satin-flower.

The confusion from having multiple common names is supposed to be solved by assigning a single, agreed-upon, Latin name to each species of living thing discovered by science. Unfortunately, even scientific names change when new information reveals new connections, often on a microscopic level. Currently, Satin-flower is a member of the Iris family and is named Olsynium douglasii. According to Wikipedia, Olsynium comes from Greek and describes the flower’s joined stamens. Douglasii refers to David Douglas, a truly intrepid explorer who hiked thousands of miles across rugged landscapes, back in the early 1800s. He had been hired by England’s Royal Horticultural Society to find new plants that might be of interest to wealthy British gardeners. This endeavor entailed roughing it in barely-charted territories, having enough knowledge about plants to find new species, and figuring out how to get seeds safely shipped to England. Douglas was very good at his work but his efforts were cut short by a tragic accident. When he was only 34 he fell into a pit used to trap wild bulls in Hawaii. What a dramatic end for a plant collector! Those were different times.

The Satin-flower is the sole member of its genus that isn’t native to South America. It’s been recorded from southern British Columbia to northern California on both sides of the mountains, ranging only as far east as northeastern Utah. All of the Olsyniums prefer sunny slopes that are wet in winter and spring but dry out in summer. Like other spring ephemerals, our Satin-flowers fade away well before summer and go dormant during the driest part of the year.

5. A bud peeks out from its protective sheath.
7. Broadleaf stonecrop, a native plant that blooms in summer, makes an attractive background for a clump of Satin-flower.

Spring ephemerals appear when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear. When the ground is just beginning to warm up and the leaves on the trees aren’t out yet, spring ephemerals take advantage of a brief window of time when plenty of light shines on the forest floor. It’s easy to miss them because their growth cycle passes quickly – some of them bloom for only a day or two. Crocuses, violets, Spring beauty, Bloodroot, and trilliums, beloved by gardeners and nature-lovers, are examples of spring ephemerals.

The Satin-flower is a little different but follows the same general schedule. It’s not a woodland plant and usually has plenty of light in the open places where it grows. But the lack of shade and quick-draining soil can make for a very dry, difficult summer. That’s why this flower blooms so early – it’s taking advantage of the abundance of moisture in the ground from winter rains (or snow). When summer arrives, the plant has already finished flowering and set seed but underground, fleshy roots are busy storing energy for next year.

9. The purple color changes with the light – warmer in sunlight, cooler in shade.


Last year when I saw a dozen Satin-flower clumps blooming on a steep, grassy hill I almost cried. I’d been looking for them where I first found them in 2019 but I didn’t see any there – maybe it was too late and I’d have to wait another year. So the little flowers growing happily just a mile away were a joyful sight. Here, water races through the pass at a rate that would challenge even an experienced boater. Across the pass piles of dark rock plunge toward the water under a thick forest of tall Douglas firs. The trail threads between twisted trees and precipitous cliffs where one false step might land you in cold water. That wild hillside is a stunning setting for the little purple gems to display their colors.

Last week I went back to see them again. The snow had melted off the slope and the flowers shone like tiny beacons in the sunlight. Across the water, patches of snow whitened the rocks.


12. February 25th, 2022. Snow clings to the rocks and bushes across the water.



These delicate beauties have a delightful way of gracing rugged, sometimes inaccessible places with fleeting splashes of pure color. Today a song was going through my head – Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I almost always tear up when I hear it. It occurred to me that Louis Armstrong gave that song the same appealing juxtaposition of tender and tough that I admired when I looked at the Satin-flowers blooming at the pass.

Speaking of juxtaposing the tender and the tough, there is the situation in Ukraine. Today I had lunch at a Polish-Ukrainian restaurant. While we were there the door swung open again and again as neighbors brought donations of food, diapers, and other supplies that will be sent to Ukraine later this week. As boxes and bags filled the restaurant, my eyes welled up. It’s a powerful, human bond that connects people here to people in a faraway country dealing with an impossible situation.

If you’ve been wondering how you can help ease things for the people of Ukraine, this link has many good suggestions.

Ukraine, We Are With You!