A Pleasure Garden

That’s our earth. I never tire of it, especially at this time of year, when life is burgeoning with bright energy. Well, if I’m honest I do tire of my surroundings in winter but not for long, and any lingering weariness evaporates come spring.

What is this activity of going outside and making photographs all about? Part compulsion, part joyful play, part intellectually demanding work, it’s what I center my life around. I doubt all the motivating factors are the same for those of us who go out and make pictures, but that zing of energy we feel when the black box is cradled in our hands and our eyes are engaging with the landscape – that must be a fundamental feeling we have in common.

Two other parts of the process are vital to me: the act of reviewing, then processing images and the act of sharing the results. These three activities – exploring the world with a camera, nudging the photos one way or another to my liking, and placing them where others can see them, keep me going. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

In the spirit of earth as pleasure garden, here is a slew of recent images, or maybe it’s a stew – yes, a delectable, earthy stew of greens and oranges and tasty morsels and deep, dark delicious things.

(The photographs below were made within 10 minutes of home, except the first two and one other, which are from a forest park about an hour’s drive away, closer to the mountains).

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Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

Ellen Meloy; The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky, 2003. As seen in Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.

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The possibility of numbering each photo strangely disappeared when I was putting this post together. Here’s a list.

1) Rockport State Park, with the Skagit River in the background. This photo and #2 were made with an iPhone.

2) Stately Douglas fir trees.

3) A bark study of an old Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).

4) Overlapping and interweaving Bracken fern fronds (Pteridium aquilinum).

5) A somber look at low tide on an April evening. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

6) Afternoon sunbeams light up a tiny, exquisite Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). IT was absolutely worth sitting in the forest duff for.

7) A young Coralroot flower stalk (Corallorhiza maculatum). These flowers are parasitic orchids that lack chlorophyll and get their nourishment from decaying matter and soil fungi. This species of Coralroot normally has spots on the labellum (lower lip of the flower) but these had no spots. (Trust me – the photo shows only a sliver of the flower’s inside). This flower is probably a rare variant called Ozette coralroot.

8) Looking toward the San Juan Islands from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. A winter wind storm toppled several Douglas firs here. They will continue to support plenty of life on the ground. iPhone photo.

9) A tangle of Chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) framed by grasses. Most of the pretty spring flowers on Fidalgo Island are small. They tend to grow up through tangles of fallen branches, dry grass, fir cones and other wind-blown detritus. It can make flowers challenging to photograph but the effect can be artful, too.

10) Grasses on a breezy June day at Sugarloaf, Fidalgo’s second-highest summit.

11) A pair of Mallard ducks swims away from the shoreline of Little Cranberry Lake. Sorry!

12) Bowman Bay beach detritus includes a dead Purple shore crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) and various seaweeds.

13) A comically unfurling Sword fern (Polystichum munitum).

14) Another Sword fern fiddlehead, this one still tightly coiled.

15) A different kind of fern unfurling; probably Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The photo was taken using a vintage 50mm f 1.4 Super Takumar lens.

16) The graceful bud of a Chocolate or Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) a western North America native plant whose bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. The photo was made with an Olympus 60mm F 2.8 macro lens and processed in Lightroom with a split tone preset and additional tweaks.

17) Madrona bark always delights me.

18) New leaves on a Vine maple (Acer circinatum). Circinatum means round, as in the rounded shape of the leaf, in spite of the many pointed lobes. Common west of the Cascades, for some reason these beautiful, small trees do not grow wild here or on the San Juan Islands. The photo was taken at Rockport State Park, about an hour from Fidalgo Island.

19) A tiny hummingbird, probably Anna’s (Calypte anna) surveys its territory from the tip of a Douglas fir on Goose Rock.

20) A three-year-old, female elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) named Ellie Mae lounges on a Fidalgo Island beach. Almost extinct from hunting by the late 1800’s, Northern elephant seals are now protected and doing well. They’re deep divers so most of them live off the North American coast. Recently a small number of these large seals began spending several months each year on Whidbey Island, just to our south. A female gave birth there a few years ago and returned twice to give birth again. Ellie Mae (named by members of a marine mammal organization) is one of her progeny. For some reason she has come ashore at Fidalgo instead of Whidbey Island for the last two years.

Every year, elephant seals endure what’s called a “catastrophic molt.’ It takes about a month. As new skin and hair replace the old coat, the seals stay on land and don’t feed. Ellie Mae finished her molt at a marina on Fidalgo around the time I was in New York – but I knew nothing about this. It was a big surprise when I went for a walk at Bowman Bay a few days after I got home and saw her enjoying the warm afternoon sun on the beach. Apparently, she decided to swim over to Bowman Bay the night before. Someone must have seen her and contacted the marine mammal rescue network. She didn’t need rescuing but the volunteers are very good at keeping visitors at a safe distance while answering lots of questions.

She looked so comfortable! Though I didn’t have a very long lens with me, I was grateful for the rare opportunity to observe and photograph one of these seals. She opened her eyes and snorted like a dog, then she rolled over a few times. After a while I think the “handlers” wanted to go home. It was 4pm. They didn’t want to leave her alone on a public beach. Seals move faster than you think and these heavyweights can do real damage if they feel threatened. So they gently shooed her back into the water. She was reluctant, but into the water she went, with what I couldn’t help feeling was an accusatory backward look at the volunteers. Ahh, her sunny day on the beach had been good!

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LOCAL WALKS: The Tide’s Out at Bowman Bay

Bowman Bay is in Deception Pass State Park, a favorite place of mine. Straddling Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, the park comprises over 4,000 acres (1619 ha) of marine habitat, fresh and saltwater shoreline, old-growth forest, rocky headlands, wetlands, and more. The protected waters of crescent-shaped Bowman Bay, on the Fidalgo Island side of the park, attract campers and kayakers from spring to fall. When the weather is nice Washington’s busiest state park is usually too busy for my taste but on a winter weekday it can be almost deserted.

There’s a rocky promontory that requires careful footing and a little exertion to get up and over. If the tide is very low you can walk right around it, on the beach. The tide doesn’t recede that far very often – during normal low tides the water is still at least a foot deep at the bottom of the promontory. But sometimes there are REALLY low tides. During “minus tides” walking around the rocks on the sandy beach always reveals something new (and yes, it’s nice to walk around the steep part of the trail instead of over it!). Once there was a colorful jellyfish the size of a dinner plate floating in the water; several times I’ve found tiny snail egg clusters in rock crevices which are normally submerged.

Last week there were minus tides during daylight hours so I went to Bowman Bay to wander the sandy beach and explore muddy Lottie Bay behind it. It was a clear, beautiful spring day so I wasn’t alone but I found pockets of peace, especially when I focused intently on, well, you’ll see…

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5. Looking up, I saw a group of kayakers paddling across the bay.

6. At my feet, fragments of seaweed floated on gentle waves.

7. A sandy beach on one side, rocky headlands on another – this is what makes Bowman Bay so interesting.

8. Poking around the rocks, I found a snail the color of a creamsickle.

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11. High among the rocks, a small colony of Menzies’ larkspur was nestled into a safe spot where no one could pick them. I was excited to see these beauties! I had only one lens with me and it doesn’t reach very far but that was OK – I was happy enough just to see the larkspurs.
12. The rocks are always worth investigating.
13. At my feet, more beauty.
14. The biggest driftwood pieces, those that have been here a long, long time, have intricate swirls of lichens painted across their surfaces.

15. Swirls in the driftwood, swirls in the sand.
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17. Muddy-bottomed Lottie Bay faces the pass between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, where the water is deep and the current runs fast. The low tide revealed a tangle of snail tracks is revealed in the mud. Or maybe they’re hermit crab tracks. Or?

19. A pair of walkers relaxed in the sun on quiet Lottie Bay. When the warm sun hits the cool water, clouds of mist rise and blow across the beach. The mist swirled around my legs that day. Two remnants hover over the forest in this picture and slowly burn away.
20. I focused on wind-blown detritus. The wind can cut hard into Lottie bay, blowing strands of eelgrass into trees that lean out over the water’s edge. This tangle must have happened during intense winter storms coinciding with unusually high tides because what you see was at eye-level. One has to wonder about the power of the wind, wrapping and tangling everything up like messy package, so high off the ground.

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22. The same scene, a moment later, with different processing.
23. A little human intervention keeps this piece of Bullwhip kelp in place.

24. The muddy bottom of Lottie Bay at minus tide. The sensuous, sinewy curves of this giant driftwood log seem to be breathing a sigh and relaxing into the mud. It reminds me of sculptures of the reclining Buddha.
25. On my way back to the parking lot a dandelion seed-head caught my eye. The cycles of life…

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In a few days I’ll be back on the east coast visiting friends and family in Massachusetts and New York. It feels very strange to be packing a suitcase and planning plane travel again after the long, COVID hiatus. I am out of practice.

I hope to return with interesting photographs. For me it’s all about paying attention, really looking, and finding interesting visual delights. Actually, that process describes my daily life. The part that can be challenging is translating what I notice into engaging photographs. We’ll see how it goes!

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The tide’s out.

AMONG the ROCKS at LOW TIDE

There’s a place I like to go when the tide pulls

the water off the ancient rocks

buffed by centuries of waves.

Lifting the liquid curtain, gravity unveils

enough shapes and patterns in this small spot

for a master’s thesis in visual aesthetics.

Steadfastly present yet ever-changing, the

land-water-scape draws me in

as it draws and sculpts itself.

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1. On an exhilarating April day cumulus clouds ornament the sky as receding waves lap gently against the shore.

2. Stepping onto the rocks, I find a rippled canvas of scrawled messages, like a Pollack drip painting in the making or the fine craquelure on an old piece of pottery.

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Like the waves at my feet, my mind’s eye shifts back and forth between sumptuous curves of basalt and the austere gray marks creeping across its surface. Even as I frame them, the abstract patterns are evaporating in the afternoon sun. Water shifts from one state to another as the mass of cold, sloshing liquid rolls through the strait, splashes smudgy films and wet pockets into cracks and depressions, then fizzles and morphs into humidity in the air.

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6. Mysterious circles are scattered about like thrown hoops. This one begs the question of time.
7. Turned this way or that way, messages take on different meanings.
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10. Back and forth, the tide continues, a pious servant of the sun, moon and earth.
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14. Even the barnacles, mussels and limpets leave messages on the rocks when the tide goes out.
15. Huddled
16. Scrunched.

17. A palette of warm hues bleeds into cool ones, the lot marked with cold, impatient scratches and dark, muddled crevices. To me, pure beauty.
18. I puzzle over the mysterious circles, some empty, some full. Evaporation must play a role here but exactly how the shapes appear and fade, I don’t know. That’s OK – not knowing keeps doors open.

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Ten years ago today I followed a team of white horses and a caisson through Arlington National Cemetery to the final resting place of Sean Callahan, Sergeant, United States Marine Corps. I was there for his family, for friends whose sons deployed with Sean, for myself, and for my own son, who was still back in Afghanistan. It was a dangerous, stupid war but our sons cared deeply about what they were doing and about one another. Most of us were lucky; my son came home two months later. Sean’s family still mourns him. I know they’re remembering him today. Semper Fi.

LOCAL WALKS: WILDFLOWER JOY

Or should I say the joy of wildflowers, or

is it the joy of early spring?

Or maybe it’s the joy of full vaccination…

In any case, here’s a collection that reflects my deep appreciation for “Spring ephemerals,” the fleeting wildflowers of spring that appear and depart all too quickly. These photographs were made within fifteen minutes of home, over the past five weeks.

This is a long, immersive post that you may want to linger over.

ENJOY!

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1. Like spirits from another world, pure white Fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) rise up from the dusky litter of broken sticks and dried leaves left by last winter’s storms.
2. Sitting under the dappled shade of fir trees with my legs tucked under me, I search, focus and click. Waves of enchantment wash over me. There’s nowhere I’d rather be at this moment.
3. I get up to go but I can’t resist another photograph, this time looking down at the perfect symmetry of the flower and its richly colored, mottled leaves. Fawn lilies are perfect from every angle.

4. A single-lane loop road traces a two-mile circuit through a local park that is sprinkled with tiny wildflowers, most of them never seen by people circling the park on the road. I walk away from the road on soft, dirt trails winding through evergreen woods and emerging onto quiet meadows. I see few people on the trails.
5. Here’s one of the park’s wild inhabitants: the diminutive Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), just beginning to open. See how small it is in relation to the grass, leaves and sticks around it – no wonder people don’t see it!
6. Once again I sit on the forest floor – how else can I see their faces? Like twins, these two bloomed close together on separate stems. Also called Venus’ slipper or Fairy slipper, this orchid of dry, coniferous and mixed forests does not tolerate disruption. The plant sends up a single leaf from a small corm (like a bulb), then a flower stalk that will soon disappear. Calypso orchids have close relationships with certain soil fungi in order to access nutrients they can’t produce on their own. If that partnership is disturbed the plant may die. Bees typically visit the intricate flowers a few times before they realize there is no nectar at all in that enticing opening. By then, pollination has occurred – by deception.
7. The Small-flowered woodland star (or prairie star) (Lithophragma parviflora) is opening five, deeply-cut, pale pink petals. “Litho” refers to stone and this little western American native loves the open, rocky bluffs on the edge of the park.
8. In early April, a thin-soiled bluff sports a lovely smattering of wildflowers, among them the Small-flowered woodland star.
9. This year’s plentiful winter rain was kind to the moss, which in turn seems to be kind to Small-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora) and Grassland saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia).
10. On the second Saturday in April I went up to Sugarloaf, a promontory on Fidalgo Island, and sat on a rock. Changeable weather discouraged other hikers that day; it was just me and a spectacular view of storm clouds pouring rain over the San Juan Islands. I barely made it home in time for dinner that day!
11. As I wound my way down the trail to my car that afternoon, I gazed out toward the water through an understory of budding Red huckleberry bushes and paused to take a photo while there was still light in the sky. It wasn’t quite as dark as it looks here – spot metering and choosing where to meter and focus dimmed the scene to match the moody atmosphere I felt in my bones.

12. Fiddleheads no bigger than your fingertip were uncurling among the rocks just below the top of Sugarloaf. I’m pretty sure this is Goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis), a small Western native fern that favors rocky outcrops and tolerates summer drought.
13. The clouds I watched over the San Juan’s unloaded a surprise on Fidalgo Island on that afternoon – hail. Pockets of the little ice balls still decorated the ground when I hiked up the hill.
14. One the earliest harbingers of spring is the photogenic Skunk cabbage, or Yellow lantern (Lysichiton americanus). These bold beauties rise up from the muck of low-lying wetlands in March. To me, the odor is not bad but I’ve read that the plant’s scent can change with the temperature. Maybe I’ve been lucky to be near them at their “best.” These energetic clumps grow in a wetland inhabited by beavers, near the middle of the island.
15. These fetching fellows favor wet places around bluffs on the fringes of Washington Park. They’re called Seep monkey flowers (Eryanthe guttata). The little charmers grow in a variety of habitats including alpine slopes, desert washes and serpentine balds on Fidalgo, where heavy metals in the soil discourage many plants from taking root. Along with Larkspurs (#18-20), Stonecrops (#28), and Checker lilies (below), Monkey flowers have been hybridized for gardens and exist in many forms, both in the wild and in cultivation.

16. The nodding, oddly colored bells of Chocolate lily, also called Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) tend to disappear when they grow in grassy areas. You have to look hard to spot them! I found this nice specimen fairly well hidden near a trail in Deception Pass State Park; the one below was at the top of Goose Rock, in the same park.
17. The Fritillarias are a genus of lily with well over a hundred species growing in temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere. In China certain Fritillarias are used medicinally for lung conditions. The flower bulbs of our species have smaller bulbs that look like plump grains of rice stuck to them. Coast Salish tribes used to dig and eat the bulbs; the plant is also called “Rice root.”
18. Perched on the narrow edge of a cliff overlooking tidal waters, this attractive larkspur (Delphineum menziesii) is an ephemeral delight. The deep, blue-violet color mixes well with yellow Lomatium flowers, white chickweed, and the multi-colored leaves of native Stonecrop plants that grow around it at this location. Honestly, I get nervous looking at these Larkspurs because they grow just a step away from a popular trail in a state park. So far though, they are unmolested.
19. Larkspur buds sport warm, fuzzy coats and a jaunty attitude.
20. I can’t resist adding another photo of Menzies’ larkspur. It was taken this week when the sun was sinking down over the waters of the Salish Sea, lending a warm glow to everything. The Latin species name ‘menziesii” is after Archibald Menzies, a surgeon and naturalist on Captain George Vancouver’s H.M.S. Discovery. He was one of the first Europeans to preserve and describe many plants of the Pacific Northwest, over two hundred years ago.

21. Time out to gaze at a Canada goose (Branta canadensiss) swimming across a small lake, not far from the Skunk cabbage wetland in #14, above. Back in New York, Canada geese gathering in large numbers fouled campus lawns with excrement. I never see more than a dozen at a time here and I never have to tiptoe carefully through the you-know-what.

22. That day at the lake, after looking down at the goose I looked up into a wild, Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum). What a pleasure to see this beauty reaching toward the light at the edge of the woods.
23. One of my favorite spring wildflowers is the petite Satin flower, or Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I’ve only seen them in two or three places.
24. Viewed from above, this patch of Satin flowers shows different stages of growth. The color, simple shape and scarcity of Satin flowers make them special to me. Like many of the native plants that grow here, they are found from southern British Columbia to northern California; they also grow in the interior, as far east as Utah. They favor wet springs and dry summers, like many native plants here on Fidalgo Island.
25. Here’s one place I found Satin flowers: along the edge of this path on Sugarloaf. It was a typically cloudy March day but we could still make out the Olympic Mountains, far off to the southwest, rising over a cloud bank. Since childhood I’ve been prone to switch back and forth between the close, small scale view and the expansive long view.
26. A fern unwinds after a long winter sleep. This is the (very!) common Bracken fern, aka Brake fern (Pteridium aquilinum). The tall, coarse fern thrives from Mexico to Alaska and is also native to Europe and Eastern Asia. Young shoots like this are relished in Korea and Japan. The plant contains a carcinogenic chemical that is probably safe in small quantities but cooks usually soak the shoots in water prior to steaming, which probably eliminates any risk. To me, Bracken ferns are fond friends (or should I say “frond friends?) whose shoots amuse me in spring and whose dried leaves add texture and color to the winter woods.
27. Isn’t the cool, violet-blue of Common camas (Camassia quamash), irresistible? A member of the lily family, this plant grows from a bulb that local tribes used to dig, then steam in large pits for many hours before eating. Before prairies were cleared for agriculture they grew abundantly enough to be one of the most important foods of Pacific Northwest tribes. The pretty flowers are fairly common here on the island, if you know where and when to look.
28. Nature composes pleasing rock gardens all over the island. This one is on Sugarloaf, where Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) mixes with shaggy mosses and crusty lichens. After the spring ephemerals have faded. Stonecrop plants will take their turn, sending up cheerful yellow flowers in early summer.
29. Standing up like soldiers, Prairie saxifrage (Micranthes integrifolia) has grown fast after being nourished by spring rain. Along with the rain, they’ll be gone by summer. Once again, it’s worth it to get down on the ground to see them at their own level. (Also pictured above, #9, at an earlier stage of growth).
30. How else would I see this, if I didn’t sit in the grass?

31. A cooperative Barred owl (Strix varia) allowed me to point the camera straight at it from a close range one day. I was walking back from a long hike and had a 60mm macro lens on my Olympus Pen-F (about a 120mm equivalent on a DSLR). That’s not really enough reach for birds, but I managed some acceptable shots anyway. Getting out frequently to look for wildflowers brings many gifts.

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HAPPY EARTH DAY!

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FURTHER AFIELD: Venturing Out Again

After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.

Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.

2. Gentle hills, gentle colors.

3. Looking across the Columbia River at a spare landscape of rock, grass, sage, and water.

4. Petrified wood

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6. Muted desert colors in the leaf litter.

It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.

One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.

The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.

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7. Investigating plants and rocks.

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9. Petroglyphs that would have been lost underwater when the Columbia River was dammed were moved a mile downriver to reside at the interpretive center. The display sparked a conversation among us about the universality of symbols.
10. Spring green in the form of little “paws” on Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).

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The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.

We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.

Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.

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12. The results of volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago delight the eyes today.

13. Sage is everywhere, dead and alive.

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16. I jumped with excitement when I saw little frog’s eggs in a shallow stream, like perfect, pink pearls, and so vulnerable. Sights like this make my day.

17. Power-lines on the horizon are a reminder that civilization isn’t far away.
18. This year’s blossoms rise from last year’s faded, crinkled leaves. Like #8 above, this is a Balsamroot, probably Arrow-leaf.
19. Down was easier than up.
20. Hats, walking sticks, sturdy boots, water, and curiosity….we’re prepared.

21. The last scene was the kind that makes you promise yourself that you’ll return.

We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!

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*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.

The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.

But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.

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NINE DAYS in MARCH: Hints and Proclamations of Spring

As I write we’re closing in on the Spring Equinox, that earthpause when day and night have equal sway, before the brightness overtakes darkness. There’s no doubt that the tonic of perceiving new life around us with all our senses is especially needed this year. For me, seasonal glimmers of hope began in January as the days began to lengthen. Where I live, spring takes its time, arriving in measured increments that begin early in the year and continue well into May. Instead of explosions of color or a sudden blast of warmth there are hints and glimmers arising over the course of months. In February Osoberry bushes reach for the light in forest openings, sprouting leaves and flowers that brighten the somber, deep green coniferous woods. Anna’s hummingbirds, those brave little bundles of speed that somehow overwinter here, appear far from the feeders they relied on all winter, calling “tzzip, tzzip” from the early-flowering Salmonberry bushes festooning the forest edge. Bald eagles perch proudly by the huge, messy nests they use year after year. If you’re very lucky, as we were one mid-February day, you may see a pair of them lunge, rise, swoop, rise again and lock talons high in the air, tumbling toward the ground in an extraordinary spiral before letting go at the last minute. Joe, as amazed as I was and always creative with words, said it was like a wingnut dance. Whatever you call it, we were grateful to witness the display in person – and right by the highway, as we were driving home! It was truly a proclamation of spring.

The hints and proclamations that began in February are picking up speed. Sunrises are drenched with color, birds are singing and the Bitter cherry trees have opened their snow-white buds in a frothy redemption: spring is now.

1. Our native Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) blooms without fanfare in the woods at Kukutali Preserve. To stand under a cherry tree in full bloom is to feel a benediction from light itself.

Before the cherry trees began singing diaphanous melodies in March there were other hints. On the first of the month I climbed up Goose Rock at Deception Pass State Park. The short, sometimes steep climb through the woods winded me. Just as I stepped onto the glacier-scraped bald at the top I heard the happy “chirrup, churee” of an American robin. Perched high in a Madrone tree, he faced the sun with the world spread out under his feet. As I walked toward him he gave no sign of letting up – he had an important proclamation to make.

2. American robin

3. Lush moss at my feet overtaking the dark detritus of winter storms.

4. Sunset over the strait.

I lingered on Goose Rock for a long time, looking for hints of the wildflowers that will soon dot the meadows and admiring pillows of moss and reindeer lichen softened by spring rain. The air was cool, no one was around, and quiet pervaded. To the west, the sun began to set behind strips of clouds over the strait. I pointed the camera directly into the sun, thinking, why not try? Then I strode back into the forest and made my way back down to the bridge at Deception Pass in fading light. Pausing underneath the bridge, I made the same photo I’ve made any number of times, this time with an iphone. Those criss-crossed girders marching into the distance are irresistible. Seeing more trash on the ground than usual, I frowned. There was more erosion, too, from an increase in foot traffic brought by the pandemic. It’s a two-edged sword, this new popularity of the outdoors: there is less privacy and more wear on the trails but there is also the possibility that more people will begin caring deeply about protecting wild places.

5.

The next day I had an appointment in Kirkland, an hour and a half south. There was just enough time afterward for a brief walk in O.O. Denny Park, where Bigleaf maples rise from a deep ravine and a silver creek slides musically down the hill to Lake Washington. The sun was out and the air was fresh. Licorice fern fronds, firmly anchored on moss-covered tree trunks, shined acid green in the afternoon light. I didn’t have my camera but the phone worked well enough.

6.

It was all enough.

Spring is enough,

whether in glimpses

or proclamations.

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Saturday was cool and overcast, a good day to hike a favorite route at Little Cranberry Lake in Anacortes. Following the trail through Douglas fir and Redcedar, I rounded the south end of the lake and began climbing a fire-ravaged hill. It was unnaturally quiet. Perhaps the fire that tore through here five years ago still prevents the land from welcoming as many creatures as it did before. No birds sang to remind me that spring was near and only one person passed me on the trail. A glimpse of aquamarine-colored, thorny stems shook me out of my gloom and I recalled savoring three or four tasty black raspberries from that plant last summer; the birds got a few, too.

At the peak of the hill, where Madrones consort with Douglas firs, soft green pairs of leaves hugged the ground exactly where I photographed Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) last July. The leaves will photosynthesize for the next four months, making fuel for the small flower stalks set with tiny orchid flowers that will bloom in mid-summer. It was reassuring to see them. Whatever mishegoss* is going on in this world, the seasons unfold on their own. The world is full of basic goodness just as it is full of the betrayal of innocence but orchids don’t care about that, nor do the seasons. Being amidst that great freedom from the mind’s constant business is why I return again and again to nature.

8. Picking my way back down through the forest to the north end of the lake, I turned right and traced a trail bordering the water, still as a mirror.

The next day I drove around March Point and pulled over to watch a flock of about 50 Common mergansers hunting together in a tight flock. Churning the choppy water of Padilla Bay in a long, thin line, they appeared to be herding schools of fish. Looking comically intent with their slicked-back crests, one bird took the lead while a few ducks dipped their heads under the water to see what was going on, then there must have been a signal I couldn’t see and they all dove at once. Seconds later they popped back up. I’ll never tire of watching that!

The setting sun turned a Bitter cherry tree’s blossoms yellow along the road and painted the dried grasses underneath it in graceful strokes. I dialed the light way down by using the camera’s spot metering mode and pointed at a bright spot in the grass. A few days earlier I had finally received a new camera that had been delayed from the Texas snowstorm. I was busy getting to know the feel of a different body in my hands and the locations of dials and buttons. It’s going to take a while!

9. Last year’s grass in a roadside ditch.

The light was almost gone when I got back home. I raced out to photograph our own Bitter cherry tree by an intermittent creek that runs past the house. Opening the shutter to f2.8, I could see the blue cast of the creek behind the sparsely flowered branches.

10.

11. Wild cherry blossom in black and white.

On Monday I met friends who drove up from Seattle to explore Pass Island, a small island in the middle of Deception Pass that can be accessed from a staircase midspan. The island’s sheer, rocky sides drop off to churning water as it rips through the pass. I’ve never felt comfortable walking far on the trails there by myself but on this day I was with friends who knew the island – and for once, I brought a trekking pole. We were quickly rewarded with a natural hillside garden of rich purple Satin flowers, aka Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I almost teared up, seeing so many of the delicate, transient beauties that would surely be gone in a few days. Harsh sunlight made photographing the groups of flowers impossible but I managed a few photos of individual flowers.

12. Satin flower.

At the end of the island we sat down for a quick snack and watched the spectacle of the rushing current grabbing passing logs and sliding them like toothpicks into a funnel of waves breaking against the rocks. Richard pointed out a yellow lichen (Polycauliona verruculifera) growing in a beautiful scallop pattern on a rock by the water. He’s been photographing that rock since 2003, recording the lichen’s slow crawl across the rock’s rough gray surface. This time he found tiny, orange cup-shaped apothecia on the lichen’s body. Apothecia are sexual reproductive structures; lichens mainly reproduce a asexually but sometimes will reproduce sexually.

We finished up the day at Sharpe Park, where my friends introduced me to a new (to me) fern, the Leathery polypody, Polypodium scouleri. I walked right by the little fern without noticing it The almost cartoonish charmer is a fern of the salt-spray zone on the Pacific coast from northern British Columbia south to Baja California. It “doesn’t belong” here, 90 miles from the coast, but maybe the fern feels at home near Fidalgo Island’s mix of fresh and Pacific Ocean water. Who knows? The island continues to surprise me. It was a good lesson, thanks to my friends, who know a thing or two.

13. Pacific, or Irregular polypody.

14. A view from Pass Island. Way in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of the North Cascade Range.

15. The Deception Pass Bridge towered above us.

The next day, invigorated by the discoveries on Monday’s outing, I decided to go down to the beach, Fidalgo Island-style. Tuesday brought a mix of sun and clouds and a very low tide at Bowman Bay. For once, the tide ebbed deeply in the late afternoon instead of the wee hours of the morning, which meant I could peer under rocks which are normally under water. I found snail eggs attached to a rock and delighted in interesting ripple patterns splashed across the sand. A brilliant Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum) lit up the forest along the Lighthouse Point trail but I was disappointed to find that heavy foot traffic on the meadow had crushed the few Satin flowers that tried to bloom there this year. This made me all the more grateful to have seen them blooming unmolested at Pass Island. Finally, a lone Great blue heron fishing in the bay with studied elegance was a gift.

16. A favorite declaration of spring, the Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).

17. Laid bare by the pull of the tide: tiny, glistening snail egg cases.

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20.

21.

22. A new tide dancer has washed up on the beach at Bowman Bay.

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24. The rocky point near the three walkers is normally under water, necessitating a climb over the cliff on a well-worn trail to reach the part of the beach where I stood to take this photo. The tide is only low enough to walk around the rocks at certain times. The firm sand felt good under my feet.

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26. A companionable pair of Canada geese waddles out of the water. I can see a hint of spring in the turn of their heads.

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I planned to cover the first two weeks of March here but there are already more photos than I think I should include. Flocks of Snow geese, more cherry blossoms and other early spring pleasures will have to wait. Whatever the state of the season is where you live, I hope it feels like enough. Even for a moment.

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*mishegoss is a wonderfully expressive word I learned when I moved to New York City at the age of 18. It’s Yiddish slang for craziness – the kind of senselessness that’s hard to comprehend or digest.

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LOCAL WALKS: A Lake and a Forest in the Quiet Season

The lake is Heart Lake, a small, roughly heart-shaped lake on Fidalgo Island. The forest surrounds it. For a time the trees there were logged – but not all of them. Somehow a handful of giants missed the cut. The area was designated a state park but even so, a proposal to build condos around the lake was brought forward. That idea frightened the right people and finally, the lake and surrounding land received protection from the city of Anacortes. Now, this lush, precious green dot on the globe is preserved as community forest land.

That’s the story of what European-American culture has done here, but in no way is that the whole story. I invite you to enter into this landscape and recognize that part of you, a part that isn’t identified with any particular culture, knows this place. The plants and animals of Heart Lake breathe air and utilize water that travels ’round the earth. So do you. This isn’t a strange, exotic place. It isn’t “other” than you.

Give it a little time and this place will tell you a story beyond culture and words.

1. Feathery Western hemlock tree branches (Tsuga heterophylla) drift above a tangle of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). February.

I delved into Heart Lake last year in a Local Walks post. This time I’m looking at the lake and forest between October and February, the quiet season.

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2. A subtle winter sunset over the lake. February.

3. Evening on the edge of the lake. February.

4. Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). November.

5. Dried Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilimum). January.

6. A lichen-covered branch tip. January.

7. Picking my way through old-growth Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees near the lake. The biggest trees were growing here long before Europeans arrived. February.

8. Towering Western Redcedars (Thuja plicata). December.

9. It’s impossible to convey the size of some of these tress in a photograph. This redcedar has a hole big enough to crawl into, but its branches are green, growing high in the canopy. I can barely see them. February.

10. The tip of a Western Redcedar branch on the forest floor. How did that twig weave through it? February.

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12. Tiny lichens colonize the bark of a tree that fell long ago. February.

13. Old growth Douglas fir has thick, deeply furrowed bark with its own community of lichens, fungi, insects, spiders and other beings. February.

14. A lush undergrowth of Sword fern carpets the ground under a moss-covered Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) tree. The forest here is damp and remains green all year. February.

15. Berries cling to an Orange honeysuckle vine (Lonicera ciliosa). November.

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17. Snow on a Redcedar branch. February.

18. Snow shrinks from the margins of Salal leaves, flecks the hemlock branches, and weighs heavily on little arcs of spiderwebs in the tree bark. February.

19. Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) loses its leaves gradually. November.

20. Young trees, old trees, and heaps of old wood on the ground create a healthy forest. February.

21. By November there’s very little left of the Yellow pond-lily (Nuphor lutea). The dark stem holds a chewed-up leaf.

22. Pond lily leaves and Douglas fir reflections at dusk. November.

23. Douglas firs stitch fine black lace edges across water and sky. February.

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“More powerful than any industrial plant, communities of photosynthetic creatures rearrange the elements on a planetary scale. They know how to compose liveable, breathable, nourishing worlds. As they exhale, they compose the atmosphere; as they decompose, they matter the compost and feed the soil. Holding the earth down and the sky up, they sing in nearly audible ultrasonic frequencies as they transpire, moving massive volumes of water from the depths of the earth up to the highest clouds. They cleanse the waters and nourish all other life…

To say that forests and marine microbes form the “lungs of the earth” is an understatement. They literally breathe us into being. All cultures turn around plants’ metabolic rhythms. Plants are the substance, substrate, scaffolding, symbol, sign and sustenance…”

Natasha Myers: How to grow livable worlds: Ten (not so easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. From ABC Religion and Ethics, an Australian website for religious and ethics journalism and discussion.

LOCAL WALKS: A TWO-FER

We’ll look at two places for this installment of “Local Walks” – March Point, a peninsula flanked by shallow bays a few miles north of my home, and Rosario Beach, a complex of coves and headland on the rocky southwest shore of the island. As usual, this selection of images doesn’t claim to offer an exhaustive overview of these locations. Instead, it’s a glimpse of scenes that caught my attention at a particular time, in a particular place on this earth.

First, March Point, a head-spinning mix of industry and nature. Industry dominates in the form of two large crude oil refineries that sprawl across the bulk of the land mass. A handful of small private properties, some with pastures of sheep or cattle, coexist with the refineries; a two-lane road traces the perimeter of the peninsula. To the west is Fidalgo Bay, most of which is an aquatic reserve known for spawning surf smelt and beds of eelgrass (Zostera marina), an important aquatic ecosystem plant. On the east side of March Point, Padilla Bay supports hundreds of Great blue herons, a summertime flock of American white pelicans, loons and sea ducks in winter, and many other species. Gaze out across either bay and you’ll relax into calm, expansive views; turn toward the land and you’ll be confronted with a busy industrial complex of tanks, towers, pipes, buildings, and fences. Heading away from the refinery you’ll pass modest homes or rough fields dotted with cattle and edged with wild roses. March Point is an anomaly.

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1. Low tide reveals the muddy, furrowed beauty of Fidalgo Bay. This view looks away from March Point, toward Anacortes.

2. Across the road from the bay, neglected land supports a thicket of grasses and thorny wild roses.

3. I enjoyed the rhythmic flow of winter beauty in these grasses as oil tankers barreled down the road behind my back. The Shell refinery processes 5.7 million gallons of crude oil each day on March Point. Tankers from Alaskan oilfields line up at the north end of the peninsula; trucks exit the south end to access Highway 20. Nearby, what is probably the largest Great blue heron rookery on the west coast of North America contains over 700 nests. This is a place of intense contradictions.

4. A length of plastic trapped in a tangle of roadside vegetation. Trash is inevitable along the busy roads, but not as prevalent as one might expect. And sometimes there’s beauty in it.

5.

6. Refinery stacks, native trees, non-native grasses: another odd mix typical of March Point.
7. Fidalgo Bay at low tide.

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On to Rosario Beach, at the opposite end of the island. The topography is very different here. Industry is absent and in fact, only a few houses can be seen from the shoreline. Traffic from a highway hidden behind the trees does intrude, but it’s usually no more than a quiet, intermittent hum. The area is part of a state park that encompasses the land and water surrounding Deception Pass, a channel between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. Inhabited by coast Salish tribes before Europeans arrived, the land was set aside for public recreation in 1922, almost a hundred years ago. The human imprint is faint here. Two simple, well-constructed log buildings made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, nestle into a landscape of tall trees and rocky headlands. A small parking lot, bathroom and pier make up the basic amenities. Two beaches, one sandy and sheltered, the other rocky and open, converge to join Rosario Head, a promontory with fine views to the south and west. This is a small and special place where wildlife is at home and people are cautioned to tread gently. It suffers from crowds on weekends but during the week, especially when the weather isn’t great or the hour is late, a walk here can feel refreshingly meditative. It is nothing like March Point – but beauty abounds in both places if you’re open to discovering it.

More of my photos of Rosario Beach and environs are here.

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8. Rosario Head supports a few wildflowers and trees on its thin soil. Views open up to sky and water over Rosario Strait and the Salish Sea.

9. Driftwood logs on Rosario Beach fill with water from rain and high tides. The huge logs may look like they’ve been in place forever, but come back after a big storm and you’ll find everything has been rearranged.

10. Recent windstorms have toppled trees and pushed driftwood and cobbles past the old high tide lines. Winter color in this thicket bordering Rosario Beach comes from the maroon of Nootka rose bushes, the bright red of rose hips, and the pale green of lichens flourishing on the branches of small trees.

11. Bright and low, the January sun bounced off the water and lit up the rock-strewn path between Rosario Beach and Bowman Bay a few days ago. Glossy evergreen leaves of Madrona trees and bright green needles of fir trees created the illusion of a warmer season but wildflowers won’t begin to bloom here for another three or four months.

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14. The view from the pier, seen by a camera sweeping left to right.

15. Urchin rocks, where Oystercatchers cry and Harlequin ducks swim, is barely discernible behind the lacy Douglas firs at dusk at Rosario Beach.

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To be in relationship with this world is to give praise to the trees for allowing us to breathe, to give thanks to the microbes for making the soil, and on, and on, and on. It is to listen, touch and be with all beings, sentient and other. It is to be gracious and humble, to offer gifts of action and care and words of gratitude and respect. It is not hard. In fact, it’s pure joy.” Georgina Reid, Breathing Fire, an essay in The Planthunter

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16. A photo from 2018 showing one of the refineries, seen from across Fidalgo Bay.

17. The Olympic Mountains rise out of the clouds, seen from Rosario beach last December.

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Note: The March Point photos were made on January 17th, using an Olympus M. Zuiko 12mm f2.0 lens (on an OM-D EM-1 camera). Most of the Rosario photos were made later that week, using a vintage SMC Super Takumar 50mm f1.7 lens with an adapter for the OM-D EM-1. #12 was made with an iPhone SE; #13 (father & son photos), #16, and #17 were made with an Olympus M. Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens.

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Burrowing into the Depths

It feels like we’re going to have an unrelentingly rain-soaked winter here in the Pacific Northwest. One storm after another has barreled in, blowing trees down and dumping precipitation across an already waterlogged region. Between fronts the air stays damp and cool. There are breaks in the clouds but it is seldom more than a brief reprieve, as the sun breaks out then quickly hides again under opaque, gray skies. Uninspiring? Yes. But the challenges of the season bring opportunities to look harder, work a little more, and find the beauty that is right here.

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1. Pelican Bay Books & Coffeehouse keeps me going no matter what the weather. This was the view from the curb on a rain-soaked December afternoon before I jumped out to get a perfect pour of espresso macchiato, a freshly baked treat, and a mystery for late-night reading.

2. A cloudy Christmas Eve offers the gift of calm water.

3. Supposedly birds sit on power lines not to keep their feet warm, but to keep predators in view and be ready for a quick take-off. Whatever the reason, I enjoy the way flocks of Starlings and blackbirds animate the wires.

4. In winter, fog-watching replaces wildflower hunting.

5. Pond lily leaves hold water even as they float on it.

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“…here in these misty forests those edges seem to blur with rain so fine and constant as to be indistinguishable from air and cedars wrapped with cloud so dense that only their outlines emerge.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

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6. Heart Lake, 3:56 PM, December 31st.

7. Standing in the damp, cold air by the lake at dusk and listening to the soft murmur of a barely visible flock of ducks – this is burrowing into the gifts of the season.

8. A raindrop elegy for the passing of the year.

9. On a forested hill between two lakes, the clouds allow a sliver of sunlight to warm a lichen-bedecked branch.

10. A thread of moss reaches toward the little light that can seep into the forest on a December afternoon.

11. A wetland tangle of twigs reflects on itself. Bowman Bay, January 3rd, 4:33 PM

12. On the opposite side of the trail, simplicity reigns where Bullwhip kelp drifts with the tide.

13. A close look at driftwood may be reward enough on a gray day.

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“When you have all the time in the world you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass.

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14. The rich colors of water-woven grasses and leaves widen my eyes.

15. Water everywhere.

16. Tide-tossed pebbles offer delight on a gray day.

17. Cap Sante Marina, December 26th, 4:09 PM.

18. A gibbous moon appears from behind the clouds.

19. No matter how many sunsets I am witness to, each one brings a measure of magic to the day.

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A day or so after I began writing this post, the weather changed. Back-to-back days of cheerful (if partial) sunshine brightened my spirits. I watched a pair of Bald eagles cavorting against a deep blue sky, and far below them, nestled in the damp moss, I found the first leaves of a Rein orchid (Platanthera trransversa). For five or more months the leaves will make food for the tuber, hidden from sight. In the warm days of summer a delicate stalk of tiny orchids will emerge, if all goes well. Maybe that pair of little leaves will be trampled or will shrivel up or be eaten – who knows? Life is fragile. But no matter what, winter will be followed by spring, rain by sun, night by day. This we can count on.

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LOCAL WALKS: Mount Erie

1. Swaddled in a warm blanket, someone settles in to enjoy the view.

On this darkest day of the year, let’s stay with the theme of extremes and go up to the highest place on the Fidalgo Island, Mount Erie. At 1273 feet (388 m) high, this hunk of Jurassic era volcanic rock wouldn’t even be noticed in most places on the mainland but relative to sea level, Mt. Erie is a prominent point of reference. Locals like driving up the narrow, winding road to the top to take in breathtaking views of the landscape around the mountain and beyond, where islands dot the horizon and two distant mountain ranges rivet one’s attention. Even on a chilly, late November day like the day when this photo was made, a quick trip up the mountain is rewarding.

Here’s a topo map of the mountain if that’s your thing. Personally, I love the way topographic maps translate on-the-ground reality into simple, graphic patterns.

Before we look around the mountain itself, let’s take a step back and see how it looks from a distance. When I’m out on the flats (Skagit Valley agricultural land) and I see Mt. Erie’s distinctive, bumpy shape and twin cell towers, I always feel reassured. I know that home is nearby. Before there were cars and roads, the mountain would have been an important navigation tool.

2. On a snowy February afternoon the bulge of Mt. Erie, with light from the open waters of the Salish Sea glowing beyond it, is a very pleasing sight.

3. Exactly six months ago, on the summer solstice, we were exploring Cornet Bay on neighboring Whidbey Island during a super-low tide. Looking northwest, we were happy to see our mountain.

4. There it is in the fog, looking east from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island.

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6. This view at the base of the mountain shows a pretty little waterfall on a trail that traverses the wooded west face. The waterfall runs all year and nourishes one of the island’s few colonies of Maidenhair fern, growing in moist, rocky crevices.

But enough, let’s go up!

7. Erie Mountain Drive in November…

8. …and on another foggy day in June.

9. One rainy day in December I drive up and park at the top. No one else is here.

10. It’s peaceful.

11. A view through the branches of a Shore pine on a September afternoon.

Mount Erie lies within the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, comprising almost 3,000 acres of protected forests, wetlands and lakes on Fidalgo Island. A network of trails climbs up and down the mountain. If you choose to hike from the parking lot at the bottom to the summit, you’ll gain about a thousand feet in 3.5 rocky, rooty, twisted, scenic miles. The most I’ve done is to climb Sugarloaf, Mt. Erie’s shorter neighbor (on the right in photo #2). That left me feeling beat. I prefer to hike along trails near the bottom or drive to the top and wander through the forest just below the summit.

12. Ravaged trees and lavender-gray mist on eerie Mt. Erie.

13. Some of the older Douglas fir trees are gnarled and twisted from years of exposure to the elements.

14. The mountain catches moisture and holds it close, which these lichens find very agreeable. This tree is almost buried in them!

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18. Douglas firs grow tall and straight just below the summit.

19. Looking northwest toward the San Juan Islands during the Pacific Northwest’s “June Gloom,” a weather phenomenon we suffer through each year while we wait for the sunny days of July and August. Beauty can be found in that June Gloom!

20. On a bright summer day a pastoral view includes hay fields, freshwater lakes and a tall, rugged cliff called Rodger Bluff. Pacific Northwest painter Morris Graves lived a hermit’s life up there in the 1940s. He bought 20 acres on “The Rock” for $80, using money he made selling paintings to the Museum of Modern Art. You can find more about Graves’ sojourn on Fidalgo and see his work in this article by local blogger Julee Rudolf.

21. Joyous Young Pine, 1944. Morris Graves.

22. The North Cascades from Mt. Erie.

23. Mount Rainier is over a hundred miles away and doesn’t exactly loom on the horizon but the sight of it always quickens my heart.

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Maybe one day when we’re all free to roam again you’ll visit Fidalgo Island and see the views from Mt. Erie for yourself. Maybe you’ve already been here, or perhaps your only glimpses will be virtual ones. In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed one person’s very subjective visual diary of this old hunk of rock.

A previous post about Mount Erie can be found here.

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