Garden Reveries

What follows is a group of photographs made at gardens in and around New York City in late spring. We spent more time than I thought we would visiting public gardens on our trip back east. Given the vicissitudes of the trip, that was a good thing.

If you know me, you know not to expect an array of colorful flower pictures. I’m as likely to get caught up in the way petals fall onto the sidewalk as I am to admire the flowers.

I photographed garden structures: a bamboo fence, a rose trellis, conservatory windows. And carp – I love to watch fish as they move nearer and farther from the water’s surface, their bodies curving gracefully. There are leaf studies because I could be happy doing those for the rest of my life. A shadow and a reflection or two are here because hinting at rather than spelling out a scene always intrigues me. In that vein several photographs picture something seen behind or through something else. I photographed the way the shape of a Japanese maple tree interacted visually with a cloud-strewn sky. And there’s a flower, too – a lovely peony. But not in color.

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Key:

From an afternoon with John Todaro at Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, NY: #1, 3 – 6, 13, 19.

From a stroll on the grounds of Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY: #2, 14.

From a leisurely morning at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY: #7 – 10, 16, 17.

From a walk in Norman J. Levy Park, Merrick, NY: #11, 12, 15.

From a walk at Tackapausha Preserve, Massapequa, NY: #18.

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KEEPING MY EYES OPEN, no matter what…

We just returned from the first long trip we’ve taken in two years. The pandemic quashed our plans for excursions last year, but by March of this year we were “two past two” (two weeks past the second shot) so it was time to get back in the saddle and plan a serious trip. A family member had a stroke last year and we were eager to lay our eyes on him, instead of relying on second-person reports. We could combine seeing him in Massachusetts with visiting family in New York and day trips to Manhattan by booking a flight to Boston, renting a car and driving to New York, and flying back to Seattle from JFK. We hadn’t been back to New York, where we’re both from, for several years.

So that was the plan.

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The text below alternates with pairs of photographs from the trip; each pair includes an image of the human-built environment (mostly from Manhattan) and an image from one of the gardens and parks we visited.

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A series of snafus made this trip beyond memorable. Let’s say it was successful overall, with wrinkles. The trouble started before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, when I began frantically digging through my backpack for my phone and realized that it was missing. No!!! I was crushed. We called the van operator that took us to the airport and asked them to look for a phone. Just before we took off we talked with them again, and, whew! – they found my phone and promised to hold onto it until we returned.

I was grateful but my emotions were all over the place as I thought about being incommunicado for ten days, days with an itinerary that involved about twenty friends and relatives. How would I manage?

Let me say here that this is the problem of a privileged person; I know that. Many people in Sudan, for example, own a mobile phone but are malnourished. The current vaccination rate there is only 0.2% of the population. Wealthy countries like the one I live in need to step up and help. I also know that spiritually, there’s more to life than having a phone.

But back to the story.

Sitting crumpled up on a plane with a mask on for five hours doesn’t exactly sooth one’s nerves – especially in the current atmosphere of high anxiety about flying and unruly passengers who cause trouble in the middle of long flights. At least I had ample time to hatch a plan: as soon as we arrived and procured our rental car, we would bee-line to the nearest phone store where I would buy a cheap replacement to use during the trip. New York time is three hours later than Seattle time but our morning flight should leave time to accomplish the task, I reasoned.

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After arriving in Boston we located the rental stand and were directed to a shiny new Nissan. Opening the doors, we realized the car had been rubbed clean with so much chemical disinfectant that we couldn’t breathe without the windows rolled down. A few choice words flew around as we figured out how to start the car and open the trunk. “Let’s just get on the road” I thought, “this is too stressful.”

We whizzed through a city neither of us know (at least we had Joe’s smartphone for navigation) and got to the store well before closing. Of course, we soon confirmed what we knew must be true: the least expensive phones aren’t exactly cheap. Worse, I learned that one’s contacts reside on one’s phone, which in my case was 4,000 miles away, sitting in a drawer in Seattle hotel. That meant no phone numbers, no texting, and no communicating with people, unless I figured out another way to get their contact information. Needless to say, I don’t have any phone numbers memorized other than mine and Joe’s and I haven’t carried a paper phone list in years.

Watching the salesman set up the new phone, I tried to maintain a calm facade, while alternately seething, berating myself, and trying to talk myself into accepting the situation. Back and forth my mind went…

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“Can we set up my email account?”, I asked the man. But when he tried to activate it on the new phone, Gmail wanted a four-digit authorization code. Guess where they sent it – to the phone in Seattle, of course! I didn’t want to tell the strangers keeping my phone safe how to unlock my phone so they could read the code to me – that wouldn’t be smart.

Now it looked like I would be without phone numbers AND email for the entire trip. Maybe you’re thinking, cheer up, it’s healthy to disconnect! Or you might wonder why I didn’t try again, and again. One time, Gmail locked me out for two weeks because I forgot my password and tried incorrect passwords too many times. There was no recourse except to wait until the company reactivated my email account. Thinking about being locked out of email for weeks made me cringe – I couldn’t risk having that happen again. Joe came to the rescue – he had been cc’ed on the family emails with the details for our big get-together the next day. At least we had an address for the reunion and the ability to contact family.

Leaving the shop with a rather rudimentary phone and a troubled face, I tried to reason with myself as we wound our way through Boston to a restaurant. I don’t recall dinner that night but I know that once we checked into our hotel, we collapsed.

That was just Day One!

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The following day we visited the sibling whose stroke radically changed his life last fall. He had been actively immersed in academia at a prestigious college in Boston; now his days are scheduled around speech therapy appointments, meals, and exercise. But he’s as positive as he ever was, his sense of humor is intact and he’s working hard to rewire his brain and get back the skills he lost. It felt good to be with him. Reassured, I left to meet a dear friend I hadn’t seen in ten years who drove down from Maine for a rare, in-person visit. As always, we picked up right where we left off, plunging into conversations about anything and everything. It was wonderful.

I was swinging from the low of worrying about a lost phone to a high of happy connections with friends and family – but the day wasn’t over yet. The first of two big family get-togethers was that evening. We all know these reunions can be simultaneously awkward and heartwarming and our gathering fully lived up to that expectation. Exhausted from a day of emotional intensity and far from home, I slept poorly again.

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The next morning we hit the road for New York. Joe drove and I navigated, which means that I had an opportunity to unwind a little. I was grateful for Joe’s patience over the previous two days but as we got closer to the heavy traffic of metropolitan New York City at rush hour, patience wore a little thin and his long-buried New York edge emerged. Later on we would joke about needing to purge the tough, New York attitude (which one absolutely needs to get on with life in the city) before returning to the Pacific northwest, where politeness and a forgiving outlook on life are the norm.

Seattle has experienced a boom and traffic there can be beyond aggravating, a fact of life we’re both glad that we don’t deal anymore, now that we live in a more rural environment. New York traffic is another matter – it’s famously busy and you have the added stressors of unpredictable, rude, aggressive drivers and terrible roads.

We were back in the fray and we were out of practice.

A stop at a sibling’s house for conversation and snacks was a welcome respite. None of our respective siblings, nieces and nephews who reside in metropolitan New York live in Manhattan. Most live on Long Island, so we chose a centrally-located hotel there. Of course, it happened to be hosting a passel of noisy hockey fans the night we got there, as well as an undetermined number of college sports teams.

We slept poorly. Again.

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Seven more days of family visits and excursions ensued, including a hot, tiring but satisfying day in Manhattan, where we viewed inspiring art exhibits and enjoyed just sitting outside a cafe, watching the street life. There were visits to gardens in and around the city. We had an intriguing conversation with a Guyanese caregiver who was waiting for the same train we were. We endured a loud, heated argument at another family gathering that shocked everyone present. There was a poison ivy-laced walk through a preserve, pressured smartphone searches for places to eat, and hours spent navigating busy highways and sitting in traffic jams. We took a spontaneous tour of our old neighborhood, which we hadn’t seen in nine years. We enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon of coffee, conversation, and a garden visit with John Todaro, a fine art photographer I’ve admired for nine years. That was a high point!

We were struck repeatedly by the intensity and scope of sensory input during the trip: noisy people, rich food, hectic traffic, unfamiliar sights, strong smells, muggy, oppressive heat we could hardly bear, beautiful skies – our senses were assaulted with a range of impressions the like of which we hadn’t experienced in a long time.

We’re both retired now. We live in a quiet, extraordinarily beautiful place that always seems peaceful – even the weather changes slowly here and rarely throws us for a loop. Over the last year our lives shrank; sensory and social input was more limited than we had ever experienced. On this trip we felt as if we had jumped straight into a fire.

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Eventually we settled down, slept better, and began to relax. Even the horrid smell in the rental car began to dissipate. But true to form, an unexpected event threw us off again, this time on the flight home. A passenger who apparently ingested something he shouldn’t have was talking rudely at full volume, then became very quiet. I noticed him struggling to maintain an upright position as he headed down the aisle to the bathroom. I heard the stewards call for medical help. After a half hour or so, apparently they determined that it was safe to continue on to Seattle; the flight didn’t have to be diverted. At the gate we were met by a uniformed phalanx of police and medics. With rescue truck lights flashing, medical kits, and handcuffs at hand, the pros handled the situation with aplomb, diplomatically convincing the unmasked man to exit the aircraft. Finally, we deplaned and called the van to take us to the lot where our car was parked. It arrived with a thrilling gift on board – my phone! The battery was dead but oh, the familiar feel of the case felt good in my hand!

I thought about the hundreds of emails in my inbox. They would be deleted, answered, and dealt with soon enough.

Heading home through a Pacific Northwest rainstorm, we sighed with relief when we pulled into the driveway. The air was fresh and smelled good. Everything was in place. We were home.

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As stressed as I was from the emotional roller coaster and lack of sleep, my eyes were always open wide. Again and again, I looked and I thought about what I saw. I was inspired by beautiful paintings, imposing sculptures, interesting photographs. A store called Printed Matter with 15,000 artists’ books on the shelves offered more food for thought.

But not only art inspired me.

There was delicious food. There were energizing interactions with strangers – the warm, spontaneous, to-the-point kind that New York is famous for and we miss dearly. There were heart-warming visits with family – little ones we’d never met and grown-ups we hadn’t seen in over a decade. There were gardens galore, filled with irises, peonies, wisteria and water lilies. My ears delighted at the sound of birds I grew up with, singing their hearts out at the height of spring: cardinals, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles – even Blue jays and Red-bellied woodpeckers made me stop and smile. The owner of the neighborhood pizza joint we used to frequent recognized Joe instantly after an absence of nine years (and oh, the taste of a real New York slice!). We dined on Peking duck served by white-gloved waiters, wolfed down Trinidadian roti from a busy lunch spot in Little Guyana (a neighborhood in Queens), and savored perfect Agedashi tofu at a Japanese restaurant.

But back to the point: returning to the practice of paying close attention, no matter what disruptions and distractions are going on, is a practice that keeps me going. Look at this amazing world we live in, study what you see, watch the light, think about how shapes relate to each other, examine details. This is a refuge. Not an escape from anything, but a refuge. Be nourished by it, every day.

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ANTICIPATION

Spring will be here soon…just a little longer…

Unless you’re on the other side of the equator, of course, in which case you may be anticipating fall. Here in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, spring teases us in March. We know it’s coming; the days are noticeably longer, the light brighter. But spring comes in fits and starts as winter lingers on.

Maybe a full immersion in April flowers would suit us now, as March gets underway. I’ve gathered a virtual bouquet of photographs taken in April, ranging from 2004 through 2020. There’s a shot of New York City rooftops from 2008, pictures from gardens in and around Seattle, and scenes from the streets of Amsterdam. There are daffodils and tulips as well as mosses and grasses. Should I arrange them in chronological order or mix them up? I’ll figure that out as I go along.

That was fast. Mix them up.

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1. Ethereal pinks and greens, as delicate as a gentle April shower. Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline, WA. 2017. (Erythronium revolutum)

2. Pink dogwood always brings a smile. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY. 2011.

3. Built to entice, this Cypripedium orchid blooms in late April at Heronswood Garden, Kingston, WA. 2017.

4. Don’t forget to look down. Cherry blossoms and a dandelion on a residential street. Amsterdam. 2019.

5. In a shop window I see a joyful collage of fresh flowers, whimsical clothes, and a tree reflection. Amsterdam, 2019.

6. What is April without tulips? Leiden, Netherlands. 2019.

7. A native Foam flower provides sustenance to an early insect. Deception Pass State Park, WA. 2019. (Tiarella trifoliata)

8. Hostas are looking energetic at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. Staten Island, NY. 2011.

9. The fields are greening up, the poplar trees are beginning to leaf out and April storms are keeping everything going. Duvall, WA. 2013.

10. A Checkerboard lily nods demurely at the Center for Urban Horticulture. Seattle, WA. (Fritillaria meleagris)

11. At another botanical garden just outside Seattle, a Chocolate vine blooms. Bellevue Botanic Garden. Bellevue, WA. 2017. (Akebia quinata)

12. April in the city means rainy days and cherry blossoms. Staten Island, NY. 2008.

13. Layers of native lilies at the Center for Urban Horticulture. Seattle, WA. 2017. (Erythronium oregonum)

14. Maple trees have flowers, too, and they often bloom in April. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. Staten Island, NY. 2011.

17. Tiny Shooting stars, as elegant as one could imagine. Fidalgo Island, 2018. (Dodecatheon jeffreyi)

18. Getting ready for the annual Spring Flower Sale at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. Staten Island, NY. 2011.

19. Violets, violets, violets. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden. Staten Island, NY. 2011.

20. Tightly coiled and ready to unfurl, a Sword fern follows the rules of Spring. O.O. Denny Park. Kirkland, WA. 2016. (Polystichum munitum)

21. An unidentified grass blooms in a wildflower meadow. Fidalgo Island. 2020.

22. Someone is hiding on a Trillium petal at PowellsWood Garden. Federal Way, WA. 2017. (Trillium grandiflorum)

23. White daffodils in a garden. Fidalgo Island, WA. 2020.

24. A sea of daffodils borders a canal. Leiden, Netherlands. 2019.

25. Skunk cabbage, or Swamp lantern, in black and white. Mercer Slough. Bellevue, WA. 2012.

26. A bold Magnolia bud basks in the sunshine. Washington Park Arboretum. Seattle, WA. 2016.

27. More magnolias – I can’t get enough of them. Bellevue Botanic Garden. Bellevue, WA. 2017.

28. Apple blossoms at Washington Park Arboretum. Seattle, WA. 2016.

30. A woodland path bursting with lime-green leaves and pretty wildflowers. Fidalgo
Island. 2020.

31. Bracken ferns make amusing, tight-fisted fiddleheads. Snoqualmie Valley Trail. Duvall, WA. 2014. (Pteridium aquilinum)

32. A Chionodoxa plant comes inside to keep me company. Brewster, NY. 2004.

33. This delicate Grass widow blossom will be gone in a few days. Such ephemeral beauty is worth looking for, even if it grows only a few inches tall. When the time comes, I’ll be looking for it! Fidalgo Island, WA. 2020. (Olsynium douglasii)

I hope you enjoyed this visual immersion into one person’s love affair with the month of April. There’s no question that every month has plenty to offer – I’m just partial to this one and I’m looking forward to greeting it again.

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(UN)STILL LIFE WITH FLOWERS

PART ONE

1. Species hybrid iris ‘Kinshikou’ at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.

It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.

So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.

2. Wildflowers and grasses at a park outside of Seattle.

Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.

3. Your narrator.

I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.

4. My grandfather, with his mouth open, second from left. Note the many drinks on the table and the cigarette in his hand. My grandmother sits next to him in the middle.

My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.

5. Bouquet at a farmer’s market in Washington State.

I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*

6. Shovel in hand…

As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.

My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.

7. A wasp or bee on Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.

8. Happy in the snow in Michigan.

One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.

9. A tulip.

Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!

A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.

10. Pink fawn lilies (Erythronium revolutum) at Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline, Washington.

There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.

11. Left to right: my older brother, an unknown lion, my cousin, me, an unknown rabbit.

The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.

More about that later.

12. Naturalized lupines somewhere in the Adirondacks, New York State.

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*From an unpublished manuscript.

**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.

LOCAL WALKS: Wind in the Garden

Wind in the garden isn’t what a photographer wants, but there I was. The sky was pearly gray,

then

blue-and-white, and

gray again, and the flowers grinned

in a thousand bright colors.

Stillness came and went on rabbit’s feet,

the fickle sun flirted,

wobbly petals whipped

back and forth.

Gust, breeze

toss, scatter.

Stillness within.

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The photographs were taken on a windy afternoon at the Washington State University Discovery Garden, a public garden located in Mount Vernon, Washington, that is maintained by members of the Skagit County Extension Master Gardeners Program. June is glorious in the garden; I didn’t want to allow the wind to frustrate me so I went with it. When everything blew I put the camera on shutter priority, dialed back the exposure if I needed to, and set a long enough shutter speed to show the blur of movement (e.g. 1/4 sec.). When stillness prevailed I went back to aperture priority, shooting from f4.5 to f18. No tripod – I like to keep moving.

If you like the blurred photos, especially the more abstract ones, you might enjoy a recent post by Linda Grashoff at Romancing Reality. She has created some outstanding images using a different technique, Intentional Camera Movement.

Double Vision/Doppelt gesehen

For almost two years we have followed each other’s blogs. Recognizing that we’re kindred spirits, we soon began sharing observations about nature, blogging and language by email. As ideas were tossed back and forth across a 4900 mile, 9 hour time difference, a theme emerged: we tended to focus on differences and similarities in our environment, both physical and cultural. Plant species, the weather, words and phrases – we compared and contrasted them all. It was an entirely virtual relationship, honed in the realms of blog comments and emails. Then last month I traveled to northern Germany, where I visited my grandmother’s birthplace. That happens to be near the city where Almuth lives, so we had an opportunity to meet in person! A plan developed: we would spend a fine Spring day together.

 

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We met at the Bnb in Hannover where I was staying, then took a tram to Herrenhausen Gardens, an array of historical gardens dating back to the 17th century. The popular Great Garden (Großer Garten) is one of Europe’s most admired baroque formal gardens. Its history is interesting, but we prefer botanical gardens so we bee-lined for the Berggarten (Mountain Garden), across the street. After a stimulating stroll through gardens packed with Spring flowers, we enjoyed treats and coffee in the stylish park cafe. We jumped back on the tram to Hannover’s old town, where we discovered a few offbeat “historical” sights, like the protective wrapping around the facade at the old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus).  We capped the day with a traditional German meal at the Broyan Haus restaurant.

Of course we both took dozens of photographs and unsurprisingly, some are almost identical. After I got home Almuth proposed that we collaborate on a post with our favorite photos from that memorable Spring day. What a great idea, I thought! We quickly realized how many permutations there can be for posting “together.” There are the complications of different languages. Readers might be confused by too many photos. After thinking it through we decided to each create a post about the day, using our own photos, with links to the other person’s post. We sent drafts back and forth so the flow of text and images in our posts would almost match. If you’re using a desktop, try opening two browsers and viewing the posts side by side; on smaller devices we hope you can get the idea by going back and forth.

Here’s a look at the day through my eyes, and here’s a look at the day through Almuth’s eyes.

 

1. As soon as we entered the garden we noticed a set of beautiful shadows on a wall. I’m often drawn to juxtapositions of man-made and natural shapes, and this fits the bill.

2. There’s a great German word, Schattenspiele – it means shadow games. It’s too bad we don’t combine words more in English, the way Germans do.  It’s interesting to think about how language differences influence the way we see our world, but whether it’s Schattenspiele, shadow play, or whatever you name it – photographers everywhere love shadows.

3. I chose black and white to convey the different textures here – a highly textured ground cover, the fine-lined birch bark, and smooth shadows falling evenly over everything.

4. Almuth photographed a naturally landscaped stream with gorgeous birch trees. Of course I like that too, but trees like this one really aroused my interest. Like many trees in Europe, it appears to be pollarded. Pollarding is a pruning practice wherein upper branches are removed, promoting dense growth while maintaining a manageable size. Wikipedia says this very old practice kept trees within the bounds of medieval walled cities. Pollarding is far less common in the US, where space isn’t typically an issue. I always associated it with France, but I found many examples in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern Germany.

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5. While in Europe I made a conscious effort to take more photos of people than I ordinarily do, so here’s a gardener watering a bed of tulips. The light was harsh and I have a lot to learn about photographing people. I think I prefer Almuth’s version.

6. There we are, engrossed in the beauty of Spring flowers. I couldn’t resist playing with the colors in this photo (made by a certain patient someone).

7. We sat down to rest and made friends with this little fellow, who happily devoured all the peanuts we were willing to give away. We have a similar squirrel in the Pacific northwest but it doesn’t have those cool ear tufts.

8. Throughout my travels in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, I was impressed by huge specimen trees in the cities. Over here, trees planted by humans haven’t had as much time to grow. Our giants are more likely to be in the forests.

9. Thick “fuzz” that protects this fern from the cold was sloughing off in an attractive way, another sign of Spring. The horticulturalists wrapped last year’s dried fern fronds into a nest-like bowl for winter protection. See Almuth’s post for a photograph of this intelligently aesthetic landscaping practice.

10. A group of rare Suntel beech trees (Fagus sylvatica var. suntelensis or F. sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’) kept us glued to the path, wide-eyed and smiling. This European native naturally grows in a low, twisting, criss-crossing form, making the trees ill-suited to most commercial purposes. They were called Witch wood or Deveil’s beech in the past becasue people believed the trees were bewitched. Many were destroyed. This old Berggarten specimen gets meticulous care. Cultivars are now sold in nurseries around the world.

11. In the old town we found a few weathered gravestones standing mute among the flowers.

12. This is exactly the kind of sculpture I love seeing in Europe. I don’t know when it was carved but it has the vivid, emotional power of art from the Middle Ages, and it gets the message across, especially when reading isn’t an option.

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13. Wrapped buildings have intrigued me for years, and Hannover’s gothic Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) is a fine example (as long as restoration continues to be done on it). The burning question is whether the color of the wraps was intentional or not, because it sure does harmonize nicely with that old brick! Almuth called it Brick Gothic bagged – I love that!

14. A newer wrapped building provided us with more photo ops just a few blocks away.

15. Construction sites are always good places to see buildings in a different light.

16. My world was jostled and turned every which way on this trip, but everything was as rosy as the paint color on this building (which I changed in Color Efex). Old, new, virtual, real – the categories didn’t really matter.  It was a whirlwind of impressions.

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Readers of this blog know that I feel strongly about place. The uniqueness of each place on earth is worth celebrating. I believe that despite global culture we are still situated in place, that geography influences us more than we realize. I also believe being situated in a particular time and culture influences the way we think; for example, my native language leads me to see the world differently than the way someone who speaks another language sees it. We each construct slightly different realities.

These differences have been part of the pleasure of getting to know Almuth, but we also share a lot. Her approach to life, the way she sees and thinks – those qualities felt familiar to me even before we met. I imagined I would feel comfortable with her and I did. Yet differences persist, and they are fascinating. This is part of what resonates with me here on the internet: we find differences and similarities. Our curiosity is endlessly pricked. We learn, and our horizons expand.

Begonia Beguine

Soon this begonia will go back outside, but for now, it sings and dances indoors. The delicate, coin-sized flowers dangle shyly under arching leaves, and the whole plant appears ready to take flight.  It won’t take off, but in a few weeks I will, to northern Europe for most of April. These posts may slow to a crawl, so thank you in advance for tolerating any irregularity. Hopefully the begonia and her friends will manage without human intervention for a while.

 

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And for your listening pleasure…

 

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For all except #2, #8 and #10, I used an Olympus Zuiko 60mm f2.8 macro lens with apertures from f2.8 –  f4.5, handheld, natural light only.  For #2, #8 and #10 I used a vintage Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 with an adapter, at f1.4.  The photos were processed in Lightroom Classic and Color Efex Pro, using a variety of styles including solarization, infrared, and film effects.

If only the differences between people were accepted and appreciated as readily as the variations we enjoy in different photo processing styles….then the world would be a kinder, safer place.

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May in the Garden

An explosion of beauty invites closer looks…

 

Worries fall away. Self-referential thoughts and chattering preoccupation fade as the graceful curve of a petal, the intoxicating scent of fruity roses and the crunch of footsteps on gravel light up forgotten territories of the mind.

 

 

 

 

 

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These photos were taken at Bellevue Botanical Garden (near Seattle), all on May 21st. I used a 45mm f1.8 prime lens for all except the black and white paired peonies, the peony from behind and the tree from underneath – those three were made with a 60mm f2.8 macro lens. The camera is a micro 4/3rds (Olympus OM-D EM-1) so the lens focal length equivalents on a “normal” camera are about 90mm and 120mm, respectively. I used apertures from f1.8 to f20, for a soft background on some images and a sharp scene across the frame for others, and I often used spot metering.

The processing was done in Lightroom, but I also used Color Efex Pro on about four of these for additional enhancing, to get the image looking more the way I sensed it. The three black and whites were done in Silver Efex Pro, with a few additional tweaks in Lightroom. I’m one of those photographers who really enjoys the processing, so I don’t mind spending time modifying images after I’ve downloaded them. That might be because I was involved in drawing long before I took up photography seriously; I take the same pleasure in manipulating light, form, texture, and color on the computer that I did working with them on paper.

 

Invitation

Last year color curled up tight, rolled itself into a ball and hid like a bear in winter. Emerging tentatively

now it spritzes the air with a stippling of pale mint green on charcoal gray branches,

blushes the twigs of dogwood blood red, or gold,

washes the magnolia tree’s petals faintly, with rose and cream

and softens the horizon with a thousand filmy greens

as the swollen buds of birch, alder and maple rejoice.

Color paints the tips of tiny moss leaves gold, and in the wetlands

shines see-through light on brave grass sprouts,

fixes a silky shimmer on the fur of willow catkins,

lights the sky with a delicate shade of lavender blue,

and invites reverie. Color returns, indifferent to all our small sufferings

ignorant of our diseases and wars, just the season’s dependable procession

for now.

 

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The photos:

  1. Magnolia flower; Rhododendron Species Garden, Federal Way, Washington.
  2. Magnolia petals on the ground; Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.
  3. Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) buds and foliage; Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  4. Moss spore capsules; Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  5. Moss-covered rocks border a stream at the Seattle Japanese Garden, Seattle, Washington.
  6. A yellow variety of Red twig dogwood ( Cornus sericea); Juanita Bay Park, Kirkland, Washington.
  7. Native shrubs and trees in early April on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Duvall, Washington.
  8. More trees and shrubs, including willows, on the trail in Duvall.
  9. New leaves of Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium); O.O. Denny Park, Kirkland.
  10. Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), another Pacific northwest native; Juanita Bay Park.
  11. Flowering tree and cloud reflections in a stream at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
  12. Forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) at Rhododendron Species Garden.
  13. A pair of Douglas fir cones nestled in moss at Rhododendron Species Garden.
  14. The woods are greening at home too. The moss glows like neon on the branches, but the Big Leaf maple (the gray-barked, spreading-limbed tree) hasn’t unfurled its leaves yet; Kirkland.
  15. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) intermingle at Juanita Bay Park.
  16. An old willow begins to leaf out, and bright green Licorice fern adorns its branches at Juanita Bay Park.
  17. An insect pauses on a Magnolia bud at Seattle Japanese Garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Sides of the Glass

This time of year, a few hours in a conservatory renews the spirits. You may not have thought about looking in from the outside of the building, but the view from the other side of the glass can be very interesting.

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These photos were made during two trips – one to the WW Seymour Botanical Conservatory in Tacoma, in November, one to the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle in December. Both glass houses are over a hundred years old, and they’re kept going thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers. Here’s to those hard working people who maintain the plants, the facilities and everything else that keeps these wonderful resources running and available to the public.

The photos:

  1. A Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) inside the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle.
  2. Dead leaves push against the glass, seen outside the WW Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma.
  3. More dried leaves pushing against the glass at the conservatory in Tacoma.
  4. A palm stem with coarse fibers surrounding the leaf sheath, inside the conservatory in Tacoma.
  5. A jumble of conservatory plants, including Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides. That’s the familiar gray epiphyte which, draped heavily on live oak trees, is characteristic of much of the American south. It’s not a moss and it’s not from Spain – the original range was southeastern N. America, down through Central & S. America to Argentina. Now it has been introduced in other locations.
  6. A graceful orchid at the conservatory in Seattle.
  7. Dried plants settle against the windows of the WW Seymour conservatory in Tacoma.
  8. Ferns against the window at the conservatory in Tacoma. This photo was taken with a vintage lens, the Pentax Super Takumar 50mm F/1.4.
  9. Palm leaves, alive and healthy, inside the conservatory in Tacoma. Also taken with the Takumar 50mm F/1.4.
  10. Looking up at palm fronds in the conservatory in Tacoma.
  11. A single orchid petal in the conservatory in Seattle.
  12. A cactus inside the conservatory in Seattle.
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  14. I think this is a fan aloe, Aloe plicatilis, aka Kumara plicatilis, a South African plant. Seen at the conservatory in Seattle.
  15. I could look up at palms all day. Inside the conservatory in Seattle. This was taken with a Lensbaby Composer.
  16. Inside a vestibule at the conservatory in Seattle, plants are pressed up against the windows. Taken with a Lensbaby Composer.
  17. A complex shot – looking across a conservatory room, through windows to another room, with reflections. Taken with a Lensbaby Composer.
  18. An orchid display (maybe Dendrobium sp.) anchored by maidenhair ferns at the conservatory in Seattle, taken with a Lensbaby Composer.
  19. The Coleus plants were going strong at the conservatory in Tacoma, and made an interesting picture as they pressed against the glass. I walked all around the conservatory, getting as close as I could to it, to find scenes like this.
  20. A view of the front of the WW Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma. It’s a small one, but it’s full of Victorian charm!