Have you ever heard of asemic writing? The Cambridge Dictionary says asemic means “using lines and symbols that look like writing, but do not have any meaning.” The word “asemic” breaks down to without (“a”) and meaning (“semic”, like semantic). Meaningless script, why would you want that? Perhaps because there is something inherently beautiful about script itself, even without its meaning.
The word asemic is often used to refer to art made using script-like marks. The work can’t be read, only admired (or not) aesthetically. If you’re curious here’s a review of a book that delves deeply into asemic art. An example of asemic art by American painter and collage artist Cecil Touchon can be seen here. The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux is known for using script-like marks in his work. Maybe you’re familiar with the American painter Cy Twombly, whose paintings currently sell for tens of millions of dollars. He used gestural marks as well as actual words in his work to great effect.
You could say that the hinge on the door to meaning is well oiled in these works; wide swings can both reveal and obscure meanings.
And what does this all have to do with photography? Maybe you already guessed or scrolled down and figured it out. I have been noticing script-like marks in nature for years and I’m drawn to these lines and shapes, with their natural affinity to what I see on the page. I’ve always liked to read – put me in a bookstore or flash a text at me and I’m instantly alert. Not just the meaning, but the simple shapes of letters and the linear, orderly appearance of text appeal to me, too. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading and an attraction to the look of text gradually became conflated in my brain. Maybe that led to my tendency to find text-like marks in nature. As I walk along the beach, the strands of eelgrass at my feet give afford as much pleasure as an elegant piece of calligraphy or a perfectly executed classic Garamond font. A birch tree’s bark, a white page with black text – both elicit a tingle of pleasure.
Reading can be aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. Many kinds of writing, from Arabic script to Medieval manuscripts to Japanese calligraphy, can be just as gratifying, in the eyes of this beholder.
This post is not about a specific place or an idea, instead, it’s about what I’ve seen in the last two weeks. We’re always looking, aren’t we? Seeing takes little effort, it just happens. How we feel about what we see, what we think about it and what we do about it all depend on our personality and unique set of experiences. Walking through a field, we all see the grass but we each respond to it differently. I’m endlessly curious about what I see and I take pleasure in playing with visual material, so a camera is at my side when I take a walk. If I don’t have the camera I may use my phone to exercise the possibilities I see. It’s what I do.
What’s meant by this title is that there’s no need for pursuit; the world comes forward and meets you. It’s something akin to what photographer Paul Caponigro described:
“Gradually, some very few photographs began to make visible the overtones of that dimension I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, the magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I sensed as well as what I saw.”
Paul Caponigro, ‘Landscape’
It may seem that the world meets us more beautifully and in more interesting ways in certain places. But I think anywhere and anytime you can be receptive and effortless, it becomes apparent that the world comes forward to meet you. There’s no need to pursue photography or strain yourself, trying to grasp an elusive ideal. Get out of your own way, quiet your mind, and attend to what’s in front of you: sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest.
And there it is.
Though this philosophy applies anywhere, there’s no doubt that one of my favorite places to take a walk and see what happens is Bowman Bay. Heeding the muted, internal voice that often nudges me toward one place or another, I find myself on the road to Bowman Bay regularly.
Bowman Bay is a salt-water bay that happens to be far from the ocean; it receives water flowing through the 96-mile long, 15-mile wide Juan de Fuca Strait – the same Pacific Ocean water that sloshes around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Because of its opening to ocean water, Bowman Bay is tidal, experiencing two low and two high tides each day at its two small beaches. Crescent-shaped Bowman Bay and its evergreen-topped rocky headlands are on the southwest shore of Fidalgo Island, where a west-southwest exposure means occasional strong windstorms and a rich upswell of nutrients.
Decades ago, a fish hatchery operated here. Besides ponds and buildings, the enterprise was responsible for “armoring” the beach: a quarter of the shoreline was “protected” by dumping 2,000 tons of stone on it. This is destructive to a shoreline’s natural processes but happily, most of the bulkhead was removed when work was done to restore the shoreline to its natural state. A pier built long ago is still in place but otherwise, few traces of the fish hatchery remain. Native plants and immense driftwood logs that wash ashore with the tides are creating a more natural habitat. All this is protected now because Bowman Bay is part of a state park called Deception Pass.
What I enjoy about this place is impossible to put into words, but it starts with the profoundly relaxing experience of being near open water. Then there’s the light that bounces off the water – crystal clear or foggy, bright and sunny or dark and brooding, it’s always different from the last time I visited. The ground beneath my feet varies from evergreen forest to pebbly beach, and from wetland edge to sandy beach. And rock – there are rocks to be reckoned with here! The two “pocket beaches” are divided and flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that invite exploring. There are delicate spring wildflowers, long, flowing lichens hanging from the trees, and oddities to be searched for under rocks at the lowest tides. Of course, there’s wildlife, too: herons, kingfishers, gulls, and sea ducks abound, Pileated woodpeckers and river otters are regular, if infrequent sights. Finally, there is the air – always fresh, it sometimes wafts nose-assaulting dead seaweed scents my way but and other times warms my skin deliciously.
Here’s a sampling of photographs from this magical place – not photographs I took but photographs I received with gratitude.
Anytime I can see the river otters that make Deception Pass their home I feel lucky. This summer I had not seen them for months and assumed they were staying hidden because there have been so many people around. Last Friday that quiet voice I’ve learned to pay attention to told me to go to Bowman Bay. I was surprised at how few people were around as I followed a path behind the beach. Investigating a small wetland, I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned around to see a young-looking Douglas squirrel just an arm’s length away, with a big rose hip in its paws, nibbling it like corn on the cob. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind me. Nonchalantly, it tossed the partly-eaten rose hip away and scrambled through the thorny native roses. Maybe there was a tastier one in there somewhere. I marveled at the way its tiny feet avoided the thorns and thanked the little squirrel for letting me watch. A bit of tart fruit to balance all those cone seeds is a good diet choice, I suppose.
I walked on, climbing a steep, rock-strewn path up and over the cliff that separates the two small beaches. The sandy second one is very nice to walk on so I strolled onto it and studied the remains of the last high tide. Scanning the bay, I thought I saw them – the otters, yes! Barely visible, they swan slowly out in the bay in typical leisurely fashion: swimming in circles, coming up for air, going back under, coming up to look around…it was impossible to tell how many there were but it looked like a nice number – maybe six?
Only one other person was nearby, a woman who pulled her kayak in to rest against a piece of driftwood. It looked like the otters were heading toward the other beach so I was disappointed they were swimming away from me. But I was very happy to have seen them.
Then I realized they had changed course and were heading straight my way! I had a 60mm lens on my m4/3 camera, equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full-frame camera. It’s not a lot of reach for wildlife photography but that’s not what I do so that was all I had. Of course, when the opportunity presents itself I’m happy to click away with whatever lens I have. Later I regretted not being quick enough to locate burst mode in the camera menu or to switch to video. But it’s all good. And it was more than good as I was treated to the spectacle of eight otters coming ashore in fairly close proximity, digging in the sand (which I’ve never seen before) and generally being their amusing otter selves as I watched, enthralled.
In the slideshow the first photo is out of sequence and the rest are in order, showing how small the otters looked when I first saw them, how they gradually swam closer, came ashore in their inimitable humpy way, dug in the sand, got scared, lept back in the water, emerged again, and then ran straight across the grassy path that separates the beach from another bay behind it. I followed them, working the shutter and running through the forest to a rocky promontory with a good view of the bay they were in. Finally, I could no longer see them. All eight disappeared into the swift, turbulent waters of Deception Pass – or maybe they stayed closer to land, but I lost sight of them. I smiled a big thank you.
Slideshow below – click the arrow onthe right.
(The otters’ heads are just small dots at the bottom right in the last photo. Note that these are River otters, which also live in the sea – not Sea otters, which rarely come onshore).
I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.
But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.
Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.
For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.
Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.
You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.
A network of forest trails threads through a state park near a small, freshwater lake frequented by fly fishers. I’ve been exploring these trails lately, in part because they’re less busy than the other trails here. Called Pass Lake, the lake has its own magic but is hard by a highway, so I don’t spend too much time there. Entering the woods, the traffic noise slowly drops away. Tall trees soar above a fern-covered forest floor. This alone might be enough, but by following a particular sequence of trails, I’ve found an interesting variety of habitats that invites scrutiny.
Around the lake the topography veers up and down verdant, steep slopes of evergreens. If you climb north on paths leading away from the water the forest thins, soon opening up onto a series of exposed bluffs. Interesting in their own right, some of these craggy spots have expansive views across the valley below. On the bluffs, also called balds* Madrona trees, grasses, lichens and wildflowers adapted to drier conditions displace the Sword ferns, Salal, Douglas firs, Redcedars and Western hemlocks of the forest below. The contrast between lush, green woodlands and sere, brown bluffs engages the curious mind: one minute you’re treading the quiet paths of a damp, dark forest lit by narrow beams of light, the next minute you’re in the open, with dry leaves crunching underfoot and the sun warming your face. All this can be experienced in just a mile or two of walking.
Below are photographs made at various times of the year of Pass Lake, the forest that surrounds it, and the balds above.
“Trails are all about connections, connecting places and also connecting people to those places.” Jack Hartt, former Park Manager at Deception Pass State Park.
*Herbaceous balds–Variable-size patches of grasses and forbs on shallow soils over bedrock, commonly fringed by forest or woodland. From a US Customs & Border Protection publication detailing the variety of sites found near US borders which may be sensitive, priority habitats, because of their unique characteristics.
** Click Guanyin for a look at sculptures and paintings of this Buddhist bodhisattva.
The Pacific Northwest is known for rain and beautiful scenery but the rain has been scarce the last few months. We are normally dry in summer but not this dry, not this early (there was precious little rain in June and May wasn’t as wet as it should have been). Most of our state, as well as the rest of the American West, is in a state of drought. For me, it means adjusting my expectations and finding beauty in a different world. I can do that. And we’ll get through this.
About thirty years ago I read a novel – I can’t remember the name or author – which presented the idea that events occur mostly on the edges of things. The story followed a man whose life careened from event to event in a kind of pinball fashion. The idea that it’s all happening on the edges made sense to me. I knew that plants, birds and animals are more abundant where different habitats meet. Most ocean life exists in the narrow band where continents meet the sea, not far out in the middle. Explore the middle of a field, a forest, or a large body of water, then follow the edge where a field borders a forest. Walk the seashore, where land meets water and spend time at an estuary, where salt and fresh water mix. You’ll find an increase in biodiversity along all of those edges.
I suspect this principle can be applied to many phenomena, not just ecosystems. Think about the importance of interdisciplinary studies, or the uptick in traffic accidents at intersections. The word “liminal” comes to mind. Here are some definitions:
“relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.”
“occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”
“of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”
Two years ago I began a post about this idea of activity on the edges of things and liminal states, a concept that felt close to home. In the post, which I’ve unearthed from the drafts folder, I wrote, “I feel I’m in a liminal state these days…I’m entering new waters, with memories of another life still fresh and hovering just below consciousness.”
I had been taking photos at parks and preserves along the water’s edge and wondered if I was drawn to those liminal spaces because I felt I was on a threshold, too. I wrote, “It’s a loose place to be, this liminal space. The knots are undone, the ropes frayed, the anchor up. I’m not yet fully here, nor am I where I used to be. Maybe it’s a little like this”:
It felt like the photo below: “The leaves are green and the vine looks healthy, but many leaves have fallen off. They litter the pavement with the rest of the detritus; their usefulness is past. Perhaps there’s a sorting process going on with me, too, a shedding of the old skin in preparation for a new state of being.”
The picture below resonated too. “Everything looks like it has been discarded but the objects are still kept under the roof of a roadside shed. The old wood, the tarp, and the rope no longer serve their original functions but the rope appears to be fastened under that musty shroud, anchoring into the dark unknown. Likewise, parts of my life seem to be changing their functions. I’m not sure if I’ll need them or not.”
I thought, “This liminal state is like being inside an old barn full of forgotten tools, looking at the lush, vibrant greenery just outside the door. The focus is on growing the future while I’m standing in the dim shadows of the past.”
I included one more image in that post, writing, “I’m taking a picture of a photograph on display at an art festival. There are too many reflections to make a good likeness of the work but I take the picture anyway, because as the integrity of the original image disappears a new, in-between image gels – a liminal one. Perhaps it’s even more interesting. Will the figure on the left disappear into that mystical light at the end of the track?”
These five photographs tell stories that I interpreted a certain way back then. Chances are good that a few of them could tell you other stories. I don’t remember what happened with my story – how were those feelings of being in-between resolved? At the time I was in the midst of planning a three-week trip through four countries, none of which I’d been to before. Part of me was home at my desk, solidifying plans while another part of me was already roaming abroad. I was on the edge. That trip sent me across it!
There’s an old therapist’s technique of replying “Why now?” when a patient brings up an event that occurred long ago. I’m asking myself why a post that sat in the drafts folder for two years resonates now. Maybe it’s not as much a personal feeling as a universal one. There’s something about the nebulous, adrift feeling we have when major transitions occur that might resonate with most of us right now, simply because of the state of the world. The assumptions about the world we live in have been turned inside out in the last year and a half. We thought we’d be “over it” by now, or at least well into the normalcy we recall from pre-Covid-19 days, but that seems to be a distant dream. Instead of returning to the solid ground of life-as-usual, we have the Delta variant, millions of people who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, virus flare-ups and up-ticks, and foreboding, all layered on top of the daily stew of melancholy news. Nothing seems certain. The rug has been pulled out from under us, only to be replaced with a tipsy magic carpet hurtling us into unknown territory.
I don’t know if there are photographs in my catalog that depict this uncertain state and right now I’m not looking for any. I think I’d rather photograph what nourishes me. Maybe you feel that way, too.
As much as I like novelty, there is something deeply satisfying about the act of retracing my steps through familiar landscapes. Walking the same trails repeatedly can slowly turn a place into a sanctuary. I may say to myself that I’m going out to see what has changed since the last walk but in fact, I’m nourished as much by following my usual pathways as I am by discovering a new flower. Every path has a rhythm: ups and downs, bends and straightaways, enclosed and open spaces. These rhythms sink into the grooves of my soul, digging pathway echos that support me in some obscure way.
Walking the trails, I pick my way over rough rocks and twisted roots, my feet turning just so to fit the dirt-filled pockets where countless feet went before me. I sniff the air, inhaling the warm scent of sun-baked fir needles or wrinkling my nose at the pungent odor of rotting piles of sea lettuce left by the tide. Casting my eyes from side to side as I walk, I listen as Song sparrows throw bright melodies across fields and eagles pierce the air with sharp, quickly tumbling whistles. My knee twinges as I climb a steep section, trying to keep my weight centered. My eyes alight on visual anomalies: “Hmm, is that interesting? No, not really. Yes – there!” I try to keep my intentions loose and inchoate so I can welcome everything. There’s no reason to narrow my experience by adhering to an agenda. It’s enough to simply be here. Again.
Here’s a collection of photos from a few familiar places that I frequent.
It’s the Fourth of July in America, a day to mark the independent thinking and action of a group of idealistic people that led to this country’s freedom. As we celebrate, let’s not forget our interdependence with one another and with earth.