Did you know that in this context “lowering” rhymes with showering and was originally spelled louring? Lour is a Middle English verb meaning frown or scowl. That certainly fits the skies on a recent January afternoon.
But as often happens in this small corner of the world, that afternoon as the clouds scowled overhead, a wedge of gold hovered over the water to the southwest. The promising opening in the sky was caused by the Olympic rainshadow. The what? See the Olympic Mountain Range behind the trees in photo #2 below? When the wind blows across the Pacific Ocean from the west toward the mountains (which it often does) something interesting happens. As it pushes against the mountains and rises, the air cools. Cooler air can’t hold onto water vapor so the moisture condenses, producing rain in the lowlands and snow on the mountaintops. Then the wind travels down the other side of the mountains, warming as it goes. Now it holds the moisture, which makes the east side of the mountains much drier than the west side. A roughly oval-shaped area of dryer air results: the Olympic rainshadow.
Sunny Sequim, a town in the rainshadow, gets only 16 inches (40cm) of annual rainfall while the rainy town of Forks receives 199 inches (505cm) a year! Where I live, just outside the rainshadow, the annual precipitation is about 26 inches (66cm) and winter skies are often overcast. I’ve learned to look for brighter skies in the southwest corner of the island, closer to the rainshadow. Even if the sun isn’t quite shining there, I can often get a sweet glimpse of golden light spreading across the Salish Sea. A fifteen-minute drive from one end of the island to the other opens up an entirely different view.
That was the case on the January afternoon when most of these photos were made.
A one-way road traces a two-mile loop around the perimeter of Washington Park. Most visitors take their walks on the pavement and with few cars and varied scenery, it’s a very pleasant outing. But I prefer the tangle of trails that weave around and beyond the loop road. I pull into a rough parking place along the road, stash my backpack in the trunk, check that I have what I need in my pockets, and plunge into the woods.
Within minutes, the forest gives way to meadows and rocky outcrops with seawater views to the southwest. The golden light filtering through the trees here is as welcome on a winter afternoon as it was on summer evenings.
Here’s the lay of the land: in the center of the 220-acre park, dozens of campsites are scattered under a tall conifer forest. On the park’s north side a boat ramp and a small beach beckon families and boaters and along the western edge, a cement stairway leads to a rocky beach with a stretch of forested cliffs. My favorite part of the park is on the southern edge, where the land slopes down to the water in a series of mounds and ravines. As the terrain dips and rises, views of blue-green seawater appear and disappear. On sunny days, the light bouncing off the channel warms the trunks of rugged, weathered trees that tell stories of a landscape where the summer sun beats mercilessly and winter windstorms batter the hills with rain.
Difficult conditions make interesting habitats. The poor soil supports tiny, odd ferns in the rock crevices, a wealth of lichens, and meadows full of flowers in spring. When the summer drought shuts down the flower show, tufts of dried grass color the meadows gold. For a few months, the landscape is so parched that every step crunches something – dried leaves, sticks, grasses, lichens – even moss crumbles underfoot.
Then the autumn rains return and the landscape wakes up. Emerald green Licorice ferns uncoil, mounds of reindeer lichens puff up like clouds, and the Madrone trees glow in a rainbow of russet, orange, and lime green. This is when I like to roam the trails. With the flowers gone, twisted, contorted trees and intricate collections of detritus on the ground capture my attention. I slow down. The circuits in my brain fire up and my senses are alert to darting birds, a tapestry of color, and the play of light across the trail. Just being here is enough.
But you know I have my camera.
This post fits into two categories that I use: Local Walks and States of Being. To see more posts in these categories scroll way down and click on the category. More posts about Washington Park are here and here.
*Excellent photos of the plant and lichen in #11, photographed in Washington Park by my friend Richard Droker,are here.
Like huge swaths of the US, the Pacific Northwest was walloped with a blast of arctic air this week. Where I live, snow fell for hours, leaving about 7″ (18cm) on the ground. The white light of winter was accompanied by days of round-the-clock below-freezing temperatures, which is unusual here, especially in December.
I may have grown up with plenty of snow but, after living in the Pacific Northwest for ten-plus years, I’m not used to it anymore! Determined to get some exercise, I set out on a short, cold walk in a park by open water one afternoon. Brisk winds whipped straight across the water, waves dashed the shoreline, fir trees moaned and my extremities went numb.
But as I said, I was determined to walk – and of course, I had a camera in hand. The rhythmic scissoring of my legs over crunchy snow felt good after several sedentary days. By alternately warming each hand in a pocket to regain movement in my fingers, I was able to make a few photographs. Near an empty bench, two round, dark bird blobs bounced across the snow, looking for stray bits of anything edible. I threw a handful of peanuts from my pocket onto the ground. The sparrows wrestled with the too-large morsels but it seemed to be worth the effort. Other than a handful of bundled-up walkers, two cross-country skiers, and five sparrows, nothing but wind and waves moved.
Despite the cold, I lingered over the beauty. It’s always that way, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what discomfort we feel in the moment, it’s all forgotten when something exciting catches our eye. What caught my eye that day were the sculpted curves of snow drifts in the sinking sunlight, a patch of almost-bare ground that the snow battered with such force that every blade of grass was outlined, and sunglow on the fir trees in the forest.
Bringing my scarf up over my face, I turned back and walked as briskly as I dared on the snowy lane that was unplowed and closed to vehicles because the island’s few snowplows were urgently needed in town. Christmas lights strung carelessly in a tree by the parking lot welcomed me with the warm charm that makes me grateful to live here, away from city sophistication. Heading home in my unglamorous but dependable Ford Focus, I looked forward to a warm house, brightened by the white light of winter at the windows.
The blanket of snow has brought many pleasures. Crossing the bridgeto the mainland this week, we wondered at the beauty of a mackerel sky, clean, white fields, and the mirrored surface of the Swinomish Channel. I recorded the scene with my phone from the passenger window, closed tight against the frigid air. One day I drove around March Point and stopped for a minute to gaze over Padilla Bay, just north of the fields seen below. Ducks gathered in tight masses close to the shoreline. To the east, the clouds opened a narrow window onto snowy foothills. A skein of ducks flew silently over the bay, perhaps to spend the night huddled at the edge of a slough.
At home, a Dark-eyed junco huddled in the Redcedar tree that stands tall beside the house. The birds are so hungry this week that they only fly off at the last second when we step out of the house. It’s the briefest interruption in their all-day-meal at the suet and seed feeders. Stand still in the doorway for a few seconds and they flutter back down to the ground like autumn leaves, so close you can hear them alight. I treasure these intimate moments with wildlife. Making my way with big, soft steps into the snow, I walked back toward the woods and found a leaf that seemed to have been dipped in snow cream and rose hips with elfin snow caps. Even the deck fencing was transformed into a series of toques, ready for a bevy of chefs to place on their heads and get to work. What ingredients would they find? Perhaps cascara tree bark, rose hips, and wildflower seeds would be a start.
Reveling in the lovely, deep snowfall, I made a few more photographs before my fingers went numb again. Werner Herzog said,“The world reveals itself to those who walk.” And, I would add, to those who look. I hope your solstice holiday time, wherever you are, allows you time to walk and attend to the earth and its gifts. And speaking of gifts, thank you so much for the gift of your presence here this year.
My medium of choice, the camera, doesn’t pick and choose. It has no opinions, no favorite colors or times of day. With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing. You may argue that this isn’t quite true – cameras do have limitations – but bear with me. The point is that in this season of abundant darkness when shorter days bookend the winter solstice, the camera’s all-seeing lens may not see as much as it does in brighter seasons. Unless you’re photographing a snowfield, it’s likely that a fair amount of the frame will fall into the shadows. That makes it easier to concentrate on a few elements of the scene. Darkness can be a wall where light enters through a door.
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest from the east coast I bemoaned the lack of light. I missed the dazzle that accompanies blankets of snow, the delicate light of spring, the pop of bright autumn leaves. At a photo conference, I asked Art Wolfe, a respected Seattle photographer who travels widely, about what I thought was the problem of the paucity of light in the region. He surprised me by disagreeing and expressing warm enthusiasm for the local landscape, just the way it is. I respect him and his work so I thought long and hard about what he said. I tried to flex my mind and open myself to other possibilities. Over the next five years, while I grappled with camera noise and somber tones, I gradually developed a feeling for the moody Pacific Northwest. That meant accepting the challenges of dim, overcast days alongside the picture-postcard beauty of snow-topped mountains and craggy, forested islands. Now, my least favorite time of year for photography is the summer, when the sun rides high and bright in clear skies.
In a few weeks, the shortest day of the year will mark the turn toward an increase in light that culminates in June with deliciously long, sunlit days. I value the rebirth and growth that comes with spring, my favorite season. But by midsummer, I’m tired of sunny days whose harsh, flat light illuminates every nook and cranny in the landscape. It gets to be too much.
The crepuscular hours of winter’s short days are just the remedy – and it begins well before the official start of winter. Shadowed landscapes offer magical openings that leave more to the imagination. When a sliver of golden light picks out a few twigs in the forest and hides everything else in the murky half-light, a drive awakens in me. Like an animal focused on its prey, I become intent on finding interesting plays of light during the last hours of the afternoon. The cold is forgotten as I study details and analyze the pros and cons of each mentally framed scene. Working quickly before twilight turns into night, I appreciate every patch of light as a treasure in a half-dark world. And of course, it’s the darkness that makes those treasures valuable.
A few days ago a light snowfall coated the ground overnight. In the morning the snow was marked with neat circles where icy rain fell onto it. In search of whatever beauty I might find, I tried driving up Mt. Erie, the highest place on the island. Within minutes, the car began to skid. The road up the mountain isn’t a priority and isn’t well-plowed. Congratulating myself on a well-executed three-point turn on the narrow, icy road, I retreated in low gear and parked at the bottom. A trail across the road that leads up a gentler hill would have to be good enough.
And it was. In a forest opening, I found scraps of ice hanging like baubles from clumps of gray-green Usnea lichen that dangle from the branches (#2, 3, 4). Delicate twigs festooned with waterdrops glowed faintly in the low light (#5). Like an interloper, a beam of light sliced through the forest and illuminated a patch of drooping flower clusters that were dull brown with age. For a few seconds, they sparkled like gold. With fingers going numb, I photographed straight into the weak, distant sun before the light shifted again (#1).
The forest was losing what little light was left as the sun dipped behind the hill. Only the tallest treetops gleamed saffron; everything else was obscured in the dusky shadows. My toes and fingers were cold. Alone in the woods, I followed the trail back down to the road. The birds were quiet, probably busy gleaning the last seeds and tiny insects from the woods before huddling close to a tree trunk and fluffing their feathers for the night. Somewhere behind me, the high-pitched chatter of a Douglas squirrel broke through the shadows.
It felt good to get back in the car but there was still a little daylight left so I decided to check out Heart Lake. Just up the road, the small lake is a pretty splash of blue set in a deep green border of conifers. I knew the afternoon light would be raking across the lake in chiaroscuro patches. As I pulled into the parking lot mergansers dove in the shallows and a man threw a stick into the water for his happy Labradoodle. I got out and exchanged friendly words with the man but I was more interested in what was behind him on the edge of the lake. A great tangle of brush, grass, reeds, and trees glowed like copper in the lowering sun. Each twig and leaf was picked out in sharp definition. All I had to do was to stand as close as possible to the shoreline without getting wet feet, check settings, compose, and click (#6).
To the left, gracefully bent reeds were mirrored by the cold, still water (#8). On the north end of the lake, a group of ducks worried the surface. Noticing the pattern of sunlit reeds, barely visible trees on the opposite shore, distant ducks in a line, and striped reflections on the water, an idea came to mind: the varied bands of light and dark would make a nice composition. Later, I realized that the color was distracting and made the image black and white (#10). With the sun finally gone behind another hill, I saw one last subject: a loose fountain of tall grass sticking up through the ice. The ice was mushy and pock-marked from waterdrops that must have fallen from a nearby tree. I liked the graceful droop of the grass and muted colors. It was a natural conclusion to the afternoon (9).
There’s a lake near my house set in a forest of tall evergreen trees that spill down to the shoreline. A road that swings by one end of the lake offers drivers a refreshing glimpse of liquid calm. I think of the lake as a bowl masquerading as the sky, reflecting limitless bright blue, opaque, chalky gray, or smudged pewter, as the weather shifts with the seasons.
Like most people, I usually drive by this lake with another destination in mind. But when my preferred spots are too crowded or far away I might turn into the crunchy gravel parking lot, park the car, and meander through the forest. The trails there don’t feature spectacular views but they do offer a cool, cocoon-like embrace. Sometimes that’s what I need.
The Loop Trail
As it leaves the whirring traffic behind the dirt trail enters a dim, amphitheater-like space of towering trees set among arcing sprays of emerald green sword ferns. There’s not much middle story here – the flora is mostly confined to evergreen ground covers below and stately conifers above with branches beginning far overhead. Winding up a rocky hill, the trail enters a drier part of the woods where discrete openings invite patches of grass and wildflowers. A small slice of the Salish Sea is visible through the maze of crisscrossing branches if you stand in just the right spot. The trail heads down and back up into a brushy opening where blackberries grow. Plunging back into the dim forest, the trail climbs, falls, zigzags and curves back around through mature firs and cedars to complete a two-mile loop. As you walk, every five or ten minutes there’s a subtle change of atmosphere, light, and flora, depending on where you are in relation to the lake, the elevation, the soil, and even the logging history. This land was once logged, some areas more recently than others. Now it’s a protected state park.
On maps, it’s Pass Lake, a name that might benefit from an explanation. It’s not called Pass Lake because it’s near a mountain pass, rather, the name comes from its proximity to a channel called Deception Pass. This deep, churning channel separates two islands with promontories that border a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.”* So wrote George Vancouver in his journal of the American Northwest Coast Expedition of 1792. Anchored off what we now know is a very long island, he sent Naval Master Joseph Whidbey and a crew to explore the twists and turns of the shoreline in a smaller sailing yawl. The expedition was busy mapping and naming everything in sight, in order to claim territory for the British Crown. After five days the men returned and reported that the land mass was as they suspected – a long peninsula. Then the HMS Discovery sailed up the other side of the “peninsula” and Whidbey was sent out again to examine the jagged coast in detail. This time he found that “very narrow and intricate channel” which leads to the other side. The peninsula was actually an island! Vancouver decided to name the channel “Deception Passage.”
Thanks to politics and power, maps retained that name with one small change: somewhere along the way, “Deception Passage” became “Deception Pass.” It made sense to call the small lake that empties into the channel “Pass Lake.”
Here it is, concealing its charms on a foggy autumn afternoon.
A Little More About Names…
Of course, Vancouver and his men weren’t the first people to name the channel – they weren’t even the first Europeans to label it. Two years earlier, a Spanish Peruvian explorer in command of a ship taken from the British was searching for the coveted Northwest Passage and found the deceptive channel. Manuel Quimper Benitez del Pino named it “Boca de Fion” or “Boca de Fidalgo” depending on your source. Later, complicated disputes and negotiations between Britain and Spain resulted in Vancouver renaming much of what the Spanish charted. Some Spanish names were kept; the island on the north side of the channel is still called Fidalgo Island, in honor of a Spanish explorer.
But what about the much longer history of this region before white men came and conquered? A Coast Salish name for the channel is Xwchsónges, the “Gateway to the hills, interior, or inland.” You can hear the melodious pronunciation of the name here.*
Enough about names!
Almost at sea level, 94-acre Pass Lake has a maximum depth of just 23 feet (about 6m). A pipe under the road at the south end feeds lake water into a creek that runs through the forest and empties into Bowman Bay. River otters can leave the bay, run uphill through the woods, and carefully cross the road if they want to forage in Pass Lake. (They can’t use the pipe because a cage blocks anything bigger than small fish.) I’ve only seen otters once in the lake but I’ve discovered haul-out sites (trampled grass, scat, and many bits of bones and crayfish shells) a few times while picking my way along the heavily wooded shoreline. Great blue herons, Bald eagles, Belted kingfishers, and overwintering ducks also feast on what the lake provides. I’m not sure people have as much luck. I never see the flick of a fishing line – just solitary, still, peaceful people drifting on the calm water in small, non-motorized boats. It’s catch-and-release anyway.
At Loose Ends? Try Intentional Camera Movement
Pass Lake is part of a state park with an extensive trail system. The loop trail described above connects with a little-known trail to a truly immense Western redcedar tree and to another trail with an old mine, the ruins of a miner’s cabin, and a pleasant view across a ravine. I began exploring these trails in September 2018, a few months after moving to Fidalgo Island. From time to time I go back when I’m at loose ends or if the thick fog hovering over the lake propels me into the parking lot for the best view of the lake. The lake is a natural subject but the dense forest around it can make isolating subjects for photography very challenging. I like to experiment with intentional camera movement to simplify the landscape.
Whatever you call it, this modest lake and the healthy forest around it are a treasure. I’m sure of it because on a hot, dry day this summer when I set out with no food or water, the forest provided. I didn’t think I would be out long enough to get thirsty but within a half hour, my mouth was dry. After 45 minutes of trudging up and down hills, I was desperately scanning every leaf for something edible to chew on. Then I saw them – bright red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) dangling from pretty bushes at the side of the trail. And there was more – the last Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) just needed a gentle tug. Near the ground, I found Trailing blackberry vines (Rubus ursinus) that gave up a few deliciously ripe berries. The stray beams of sunlight that the forest allowed to shine had produced just enough food to slate my thirst. And make me smile.
as fall peeks round the corner, making tentative changes
in the order of things –
but let’s not assume we’re on the edge of summer or the verge of autumn.
I think we’re always in the middle.
This precise and muddled middle where
we stand now
is where sunlight heats dried grasses
to sweet fragrance and a cool tongue of wind surprises
your cheek. This infinitely generous middle is where barefoot toddlers
delight in beach sand and a slice of hard blue hovers just
over the horizon. It’s all here, the pain of dying things,
the joy of hope, the exquisite indifference to our opinions, all
all mixed in the middle.
Summer’s bright blooms have faded and the heat is intense: it must be August, the month that puts patience to the test as each day drags into the next and a trance-like sameness descends on us. Here at 48.51N, 122.61W, significant rainfall hasn’t occurred for months. The landscape looks dull and tired, the birds have gone silent, and any hints of autumn are brief whispers at best. Knowing that summer is ending and fresh, cool, autumn days are near creates a liminal feeling: we are in between. And though it may feel like we’re treading in the margins, the pause between seasons is spacious.
This spring and summer I was propelled into a frenzy of activity. Which wildflowers were currently blooming and where were my favorites, the orchids and harebells? Could I go up to Sugarloaf to look for flowers or was I needed down at Tugboat Beach to help protect the Northern elephant seal? She had returned to the island to molt in mid-May. The only elephant seal ever known to haul up on Fidalgo Island, she has molted here each spring and gave birth to her first pup at a local park last winter. She chooses busy beaches for her land activities, so a great deal of effort goes into protecting her and educating the public. I was part of that this year, along with a small band of like-minded people. She kept us very busy, especially when the weather warmed and the crowds grew at the beach where she rested while slowly shedding her old fur coat. Every day I was outside, either photographing wildflowers or at the beach, seal sitting. Sharply focused on the life around me, I reveled in the graceful blooms of wildflowers, gazed into the soulful eyes of a pinniped, and responded to curious park visitors.
By late June Elsie Mae’s annual molt was complete. One morning she swam back out to the Salish Sea, bent on replacing the weight she’d lost from spending six weeks on land. She’s probably far out in the Pacific Ocean now, deep-diving and feasting – she’s tagged but has no radio or chip so once she’s in the water, humans don’t know where she is. We seal sitters were both relieved and bereft when she left. I never thought I’d bond with a marine mammal but spending so much time with her (and with her pup earlier this year), I found myself invested in the little family.
But I was also grateful to be free to concentrate on the local flora and eventually, my orchid quest was satisfied. I knew where each of our three kinds of Rein orchids grew and could tell them apart. The green machine was slowing to a crawl.
What was next? I kept going out because it’s good to be outdoors and I need the exercise but without a particular focus, I was at loose ends photographically. Quite a few boring images flew off the SD card! To get a spark going I experimented with intentional camera movement, different angles, and different lenses. A few compositions that seem interesting emerged. Except for the photos of Elsie Mae above, all of the photos are from the last few weeks.
It was the last day of June. Scattered clouds punctuated the horizon, a cool breeze promised fresh air, and the sun was strong. This is what Pacific Northwesterners live for: bright, comfortable summer days when the water beckons and worries are set aside.
After a difficult week, I was ready for a relaxing walk. Though Deception Pass State Park has as many visitors a year as Yosemite does, I can usually find a peaceful corner somewhere in the park, even on perfect summer days. My hopes and expectations amounted to nothing more than enjoying nature and finding a little inspiration along the way, right in front of me. There was no need to travel far or think hard about what I might photograph – it would be enough to be outdoors by the water and trees on a pleasant day.
I made my way to a favorite, sandy beach made wide by a low tide. Clouds blew across the beach, obscuring the scene like one of Christo’s monumental fabric installations. Actually, it was a kind of fog created by differences between the air and water temperatures. Shivering in the billowing shrouds of moist air, I reminded myself that I’d be warmer once I crossed the beach.
As bewitching as the effect was, I wanted to focus on the ground, which never disappoints my curious eyes. Soon I was in my own world, observing a jewel-colored leaf, ripples in the sand, and crooked ribbons of eelgrass. Mostly as smooth as a fresh sheet of paper, the sand was darker in one place, flecked with green in another. Wavy ripples broke up the surface at the far end of the beach where a cliff changes the way the water flows. There, in the dappled shade of a Pacific crabapple tree, a driftwood log made fine, arcing lines in the sand where softly lapping water hesitated before withdrawing. So subtle they almost disappear, the patterns explained in detail the gentle out-breath of a lowering tide – if only you could read the script.
After perhaps ten seconds of silly internal debate about expending the energy or not, I decided to continue on a favorite trail around a peninsula called Lighthouse Point. I wondered what wildflowers would be blooming near the water. Pausing to let a few people go ahead, I inhaled the fresh air and listened to the faint whisper of a few Chestnut-backed chickadees. As I entered the forest I stepped off the trail to let passers-by through once more, favoring my own slow pace where the trail meanders through a patch of tall Douglas fir trees. It was noon and the sun had been up for almost seven hours but the salal bushes on the trail were speckled with water drops. I don’t think it rained overnight – maybe it was dew. I was surprised. This is what happens when you trace the same path over and over, I thought, familiar things change and encourage the observant walker to pause and ponder the unexpected.
Soon the forest opened out to a clearing at the southern tip of the peninsula where two small coves are separated by craggy rocks bordering Deception Pass. Across the water to the south is Whidbey Island, to the east is the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge, and to the west is the Salish Sea, where nutrients from the Pacific Ocean pour down into Puget Sound and up into British Columbia. History, geography, and ecology could tell long, complicated stories about this transformative place.
But my concerns were more immediate. At my feet was a narrow cliff edge where delicate wildflowers bloom in spring and summer. First, midnight blue larkspurs cavort with pure white chickweed, then cheery yellow stonecrop flowers mix with wild pink onions and golden grasses. Now, to my amazement, more than a dozen upright spikes of Rein orchids were just coming into bloom. I’ve seen the unusual flowers in other parts of the park, never here. As I sat down to photograph them I cursed the harsh sunlight but I smiled, too – this is one of my favorite plants. These specimens were so healthy and floriferous that I wasn’t even sure which species they were. I don’t often see them growing in such salutary conditions. Only when I got home and carefully checked the photos was I sure of the identification: the Elegant rein orchid.
And that was just the start of the wildflowers.
Striking purple Harvest brodiaea flowers beamed up from thick beds of golden grass. First I saw only a few, then I found a generous offering of the little gems. Once the small, edible bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. These days the flower is sold by nurseries as a rock garden specimen. The genus, Brodiaea, is named for Scottish botanist James Brodie. Formerly in the lily family, since 2009 this plant has been put in the order Asparagales, family Asparagacae. Plant names are constantly changing as genetic and molecular differences are better understood. That can be hard for people (like me!) who understand plants based on the way they look (morphological differences) because plants that look very different may now be classified as closely related. For example, agave and yucca are in the order Asparagales, just like the little Brodiaea.
But on this bright June day I didn’t care about names.
The beauty of the meadow at Lighthouse Point is that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, dynamic water that races with the turbulence of the tides. The surface can be mirror-smooth at times but boaters know that’s deceiving: eddies and currents can be treacherous here. Large volumes of nutrient-rich water from the ocean forced through narrow openings also hide a kaleidoscope of marine life, only a fraction of which can be seen from land. Beds of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) hug the rocky headlands. The long stem (or stipe) of this huge brown algae floats on the surface when the tide is low. At the top of the stipe, a gas-filled bulb allows a fan of leaves (or blades) to rest on the water’s surface. Far underneath, a holdfast (like a rootball) anchors the algae to the bottom. Bullwhip kelp forests are important habitat for many marine species. For this human, watching Bullwhip kelp drift in the current is as relaxing as watching a goldfish tank. Maybe better.
Deception Pass waters really are greenish-blue. Phytoplankton – photosynthesizing microorganisms – that live in the top layers of the water thrive on the rich upswell of nutrients carried down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, giving the water a beautiful, milky blue-green color. Shades of turquoise have begun to appear in my wardrobe over the last few years. Maybe it’s the landscape entering my consciousness in ways I didn’t expect.
Golden grasses set with purple wildflowers, the calls of oystercatchers, blue-green water stretching to the horizon – it was a day of breathtaking gifts, more than I expected. But that’s often the way it is when I go for a walk – expecting little, I am given so much.
To complete the day, as I made my way around the loop trail I saw a familiar face – it was Mary Jean, a fellow seal sitter. We each volunteered many hours this spring to protect a Northern elephant seal and her pup, the first Northern elephant seal known to have been born on this island. Both of them are back at sea now, hopefully living their lives as their species has for millennia. We walked back together through the forest and across the beach, still billowing with fog. We wondered aloud where in the vast Pacific Elsie Mae and Emerson are now and when we’ll see them again.
No one knows, and no one knows what the next walk will bring.
Tides are like the earth breathing in and out, in and out. On the in-breath, a myriad of living and once-living things are sucked away from the shore with the water. On the out-breath, everything is pulled back toward the shore and rearranged. In, out, over and over. Endless cycles reveal innumerable scenes for the visually curious, like new paintings created and framed, minute by minute.
Gentle currents of water draw lines and patterns in the sand. Waves scoop and carve hollows around stranded objects. Pieces of seaweed detach, swish around, and come to rest, leaving calligraphic messages behind. Tangles of plant life, artfully arranged chunks of driftwood, rivulets, ripples – the tides yield a never-ending parade of forms on the beach. Delighting the eyes of toddlers and photographers, piquing the interest of gulls and herons, the shoreline is “ever-present, never twice the same.”*
Tides wash shorelines the world over but each place where salt water meets land is different. The weather is different, the ecology is different, the geology is different, and the tide cycles are different. Not only do some locations have stronger tides than others, but each high or low tide is different from the last. Many variables are responsible for uneven tides, like bulges in the earth, continents in the ocean, an uneven ocean floor, and an imperfect alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. The seasons and lunar cycles also affect tides.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, a wide strait (the Strait of Juan de Fuca) cuts 96 miles (155km) back into Washington, connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific ocean. That means people living 90 miles from the ocean, like I do, still experience daily tidal cycles. Most places have two low and two high tides per day. In the Pacific Northwest, the lows and highs are mixed, which means that each day’s high tides are at different heights. Each day’s low tides are different, too. Today (at Bowman Bay), shortly after midnight there was a high tide of about 7.9 feet (2.4m). Just before 8am there was a low tide at 1 foot (.3m). The next high tide, at 3:17pm, is almost 3 feet lower than the first one – just 5.1 feet (1.5m). The last low tide of the day is at 6:03pm. At 4.7 feet (1.4m), it will be much higher than the morning low tide. As you can see, sometimes a low tide is almost as high as the previous high tide.
Keeping an eye on tide charts is essential for boaters and I’ve learned it’s worthwhile for me to check tide charts, too. That’s how I know to be at a place like North Beach (below) during a very low tide. Normally only the dark rocks in the photo are visible but during very low tides you can see rocks that have been smoothed and shaped by numberless tides.
Tide heights can vary a lot, depending on many factors. North America’s Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides – as high as 53 feet (16m) – but far to the south, the Caribbean has almost no tides. The reasons for this disparity are too complex to go into here. Though we may not grasp the science, many of us have seen the damage a very high tide combined with strong onshore winds and low pressure does. Whether in person or on media, we’ve seen houses destroyed and shorelines changed by complex interactions between the tides and the weather.
You probably know that around the new and full moon the difference between low and high tide levels increases because the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon magnifies gravitational pull. There are seasonal variations in tide cycles, too – something I didn’t know until I moved to an island. In the Pacific Northwest, summer brings unusually low tides during the daytime and the winter’s lowest tides occur after dark. During the full moon this month, Puget Sound had an extremely low tide, the lowest in over a decade. Foragers and families converged on shorelines throughout the region to experience the extra-low tide, a phenomenon that’s becoming less common due to rising sea levels.
I went to Bowman Bay, my favorite place to walk the beach anytime. I’d hoped to find pretty patterns in the sand but nature had other ideas. What I did find were ribbons of kelp shining in the sunlight (#4 & #5), a bare-bottomed toddler having a blast in the sand, the fresh hoof prints of a running deer, and the same family of Canada geese that I photographed last month. For at least a month these goose parents have kept all six of their goslings safe. I always expect to see one or two fewer, but so far they are all OK.
A few days later the afternoon low tide was still unusually low, so I went to Washington Park. A rocky pocket beach there can be good for tide pooling (searching for creatures in basins of water left by the outgoing tide). The only seastar I found was dead but there were beautiful anemones waving translucent tentacles. Another anemone was the color of an overripe peach.
Something interesting always appears as a result of the tides. These photos are just one person’s observations from walking along Salish Sea shorelines. You’ll find something different.
*The words, “Ever present, never twice the same” are inscribed on a granite marker that was part of an installation done in 1987 by the artist Robert Irwin at Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked then. That phrase, along with “Ever changing, never less than whole” is also inscribed on stones in the Central Garden, designed by Irwin for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
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 all around.
Looking. It’s what we do
in our boundless homes
**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 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.
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.
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.