KEEPING UP…

…with seasonal changes is a motivating force. I missed three weeks of spring while I was away. That worried me, because after observing summer, fall and winter here on Fidalgo Island, I didn’t want to miss seeing the changes spring would bring.

But it was fine – when I returned from Europe 12 days ago, tender, green growth was visible everywhere. The spring ephemerals – wildflowers that take advantage of extra light on the forest floor before the trees leaf out – were blooming. These flowers benefit from spring rain too, and it’s been unusually dry. But at least for now the morning dew, and some moisture remaining in the soil, keep the green machine chugging along.

I’ve taken a walk outside most every day, not wanting to miss a minute of this fleeting season. I’m curious to see how spring here differs from spring 70 miles south, where I used to live. Many of the major players in this ecosystem are the same – the dominant evergreen trees, the understory of salal and sword fern, the basic weather patterns – but there are striking differences. Sussing out the disparities, season by season, is fascinating.

I’ve taken walks at a community forest around a lake, at my favorite places in Deception Pass State Park, and at a local park on a peninsula. Those locations are close to home but one day we drove an hour inland to Rockport State Park, where the ecosystem is a little different. In each place wildflowers were blooming, ferns were unfurling, birds were singing, insects were buzzing, and the cool, fresh air gave me a little shiver until I warmed up from trudging up and down hills.

I brought along a favorite macro lens, a wider-angled prime lens, and once, the old Super Takumar 50mm vintage lens, which can be a challenge to use, but produces some unique images. The sun has been bright lately, which isn’t ideal for photographing tiny, delicate wildflowers. I did what I could with the conditions I found. It was fun getting back to Lightroom. I really enjoy pushing those sliders around and manipulating images, but I’m rusty after three solid weeks away from it. In any case, I think you’ll enjoy the fruits of my walks – I hope so. I’ll get back to the Europe trip later – this feels like it can’t wait!

 

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1. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) like all ferns, is interesting to peer at up close. I love those tightly coiled little fists. Some people harvest and eat the fiddleheads, but the safety of ingesting this fern is controversial.

 

2. Bracken again. Slightly different species of this fern grow in North, Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in China and Southeast Asia, and in Australia. In other words, it’s everywhere! Cattle farmers don’t like it because it can poison livestock.

 

3. A Twisted stalk, probably Clasping Twisted-stalk, aka Watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius), unfolding in the shady understory of the old growth forest at Rockport State Park. The small flowers hide under the stalk – you have to get down really low to see them. A very elegant plant!

 

4. I think this is a close relative, Rose Twisted-stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus, v. roseus). It’s easier to identify after the flowers open, but what a beauty it is at this stage. Rockport State Park.

 

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4. Another elegant plant, though many people may not realize it, is our native Vine maple (Acer circinatum). This small forest tree is found, like many of our native plants, from southwest British Columbia to northern California. Close relatives are the familiar Japanese and Korean maples of Asia.

 

5. The little Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa) is found in cool forests in the US, Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics. The plant depends on particular soil fungi and does not transplant well.

 

6. Calypso orchid petals seen from above. The flower does not produce nectar, but the fancy digs (seen in #5) are quite attractive to insects. Though a bee may leave disappointed, just one more futile try for nectar at another flower may be enough for pollination. Orchids often use this strategy of pollination by deception.

 

7. Looking up in the deep shade of the forest at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. The cheerful oval leaves are the Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant of our woods. Indigenous people made good use of the small berries. Whenever I see them there are only a few left; the birds and animals always seem to beat me to the berry.

 

8. Pacific Bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), with its ferny foliage, creates a soft, pleasing picture wherever it grows. It’s a popular garden plant; the nursery trade has hybridized these flowers to produce much bigger, more deeply colored pink blooms, and pure white flowers as well. Rockport State Park.

 

9. Black and white? Color? I chose a highly desaturated look for this sweet fiddlehead unfurling it’s fronds at Cranberry Lake, on Fidalgo Island.

 

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10. The little Chocolate lily, (Fritillaria affinis) is a western lily of well-drained sites. Locally, it’s often found on bluffs and balds, the open spaces scraped clean by glaciers long ago. The small, brown and gold flowers can be hard to spot.  I had to sit down on the ground to get this angle; this plant was just a few inches tall. Taken with the vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens at f2 or f2.8.

 

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11. Another take on the Chocolate lily, seen from above and processed in sepia tones. This plant is similar to (but much smaller than) the garden plant Fritillaria meleagris, or Checkered lily, which is now rare in its native Eurasian range.

 

12. Death camas (Toxicoscordian venenosus), at Washington Park, where I saw hundreds of the pretty little plants, which are poisonous from head to toe, to both humans and livestock.

 

13. In bud here are two Common camas flowers (Cammasia quamash). Camas was an important food plant for indigenous people here in the northwest. It often grows near Death camas (above). The flowers are different, but when the flowers are gone it’s hard to tell the bulbs apart, and the bulbs are what people ate. Supposedly, tribes weeded out the Death camas plants to protect themselves against accidental poisoning. Taken with the Super Takumar 50mm lens.

 

14. Here’s an open Common camas flower, in a shadier place, where you can appreciate the delicate lavender color. Also taken with the Super Takumar.

 

15. Spring color is reflected in a fast-moving stream at Rockport State Park.

 

16. Is this a small bee? I don’t know. I was trying to photograph the impossibly tiny flowers of what’s known around here as Sugar-scoop, or Three-leaf foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata). The tiny flowers are scattered along a stem held high over three-part leaves. A delicate beauty, it rewards you if you can get close; in this case the reward doubled.

 

17. A stump of rotting wood is left in place at Rockport State Park. Downed trees are full of possibilities for many life forms, from tough lichens and luxurious mosses to the Douglas squirrels that use them as a picnic table and the Pileated woodpeckers that excavate meals from them.

 

18. Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) sends up one or two flower stalks on delicate stems, leaving the flowers dangling over the whorl of leaves. It’s a beautiful sight when the pale stars are scattered above deep green leaves on the forest floor. Deception Pass.

 

19. The humble Starflower may have supplied indigenous people with food from its tubers. It’s slightly different from the Northern and Arctic starflower (Trientalis borealis and T. arctica), which grow in eastern North America, and Europe and Asia.

 

20. Stink currant – that’s a fine name! It describes the smell of crushed leaves, not the fruit, which is reported to be unpleasant to delicious, depending on the bush. Ribes bracteosum is the Latin name for this gooseberry relative that grows from Canada down to northern California. I found this one at Rockport State Park,

 

20. A woodland trail at Cranberry Lake, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Taken with the Super Takumar lens.

 

21. This buttercup (Ranunculas sp.) has lost its petals, but the stamens and developing achenes (the tiny fruits that hold a seed) are the same joyful yellow. Goose Rock, Deception Pass.

 

22. I couldn’t resist including this burgeoning specimen of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It was along a roadside at Rockport State Park but of course, they are everywhere!

 

23. Meadow, or Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and pink Sea Blush, aka Short-spurred Pletritis (Plectritis congesta) bloom happily in a meadow. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.

 

24. A Red huckleberry bush gathers a shaft of light angling through the thick canopy of Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, and Redcedars. Deception Pass.

 

25. Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) has come into flower recently. The mid-size bush or small tree graces our roadsides with pretty, cream-colored panicles of flowers. The compound leaves are handsome too, with their elegant tips and finely-toothed edges.

 

26. Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) is easy to overlook but a close-up view is rewarding. This is another Spring wildflower that is available as a garden plant, with bigger, more colorful flowers. Indigenous people used the plant medicinally. According to Wikipedia, T. grandiflora contains a compound with antiviral properties. Deception Pass. 

 

27. Two Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) plants rise above Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) fronds, which in turn hover over the flattened evergreen fronds of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Snow crushed the Sword fern plants while the others slept underground – but Sword fern is putting out new fronds. Vanilla leaf sometimes makes a delicate ground cover in the forest. The vanilla-scented leaves were used to repel insects and perfume living quarters.

 

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28. A Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) past its prime is still beautiful. As the flower slowly turns deep pink, the petals will shrivel and fall away. See the holes in the leaves? I suspect a slug or other creature chewed a big bite in the plant a while ago, when the leaves were tightly folded to the center. The unfurled leaves now reveal three holes. Rockport State Park.

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Abundance! That’s Spring for you! This is longer than my usual posts, but the flowers just keep coming! Soon the flora parade will fizzle to a frizz, as our dry summer weather takes hold.

morning meander, home edition

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These photos were all made early in the morning in my yard, on the last day of March. A nice fog had settled in. When the sun broke through the mist, tiny dew drops sparkled on spider webs, and lit up like diamonds in the grass. I wouldn’t have known those spider webs were there, had I not gone out and paid attention, and if I waited an hour, it would have been over. It can be difficult to let go of what you’re doing and switch gears, but it is so worth it sometimes. 

I used an Olympus 45mm f1.8 lens, at f1.8 for most of the twig photos, at f2, f3.2 & f5.6 for the others, and f9 for the telephone pole. (That would be like a 90mm lens on most digital SLR’s, since I use a micro four thirds camera – an Olympus OM D EM-1, a model that’s now six years old, and eternity in technological terms.)

Old Forest

Under an ancient volcanic mountain on the edge of the North Cascades, a wide river meanders through a moss-shrouded forest of giant Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, Western Redcedars, and Bigleaf maples. Lumber has been a prominent industry here for centuries, so you’d be correct to think that a healthy forest with easy river access would have been harvested at least once by now. Somehow, part of this verdant lowland forest escaped the cut.

“Rockport State Park” isn’t a place name that excites me. It doesn’t make me want to know more. I had passed by the park sign several times without a thought, bound for places like “Diablo” and “Twisp.” But it turns out, there’s magic behind that sign; after reading about the park, I was determined to go beyond the sign.

Winter is quiet in this corner of the world. Few people are interested in walking through damp woods on a chilly day in January.  They’re up in the mountains skiing, they’ve gone south, they’re indoors. So a winter weekday afternoon proved to be a good time to walk the trails at Rockport State Park. The predominantly evergreen forest practically glowed with vivid greens. Leaves, lichens and mosses dripped with moisture, thanks in part to nearby Skagit River. Creeks gurgled, the trees stretched higher than we could see, mist floated in and out of the tree canopy, and shafts of sunlight knifed into the fern-laden understory. The effect was otherworldly. We were smitten.

Two weeks later we returned to walk another trail, where we were treated to a meeting with a magnificent Redcedar tree that has owned that spot in the forest for hundreds of years. Regal doesn’t begin to describe the bearing of that tree.

I wonder what early Spring flowers are beginning to poke though the moss and forest floor litter now. We’ll have to wait until we return from a trip to explore the park again. In the meantime, here are photographs from two mid-winter walks in the old growth forest at Rockport State Park.

 

1. On the Way

2. Greenglow

3. Sword fern fronds

4. The green machine at work in January

5. Bigleaf maple trees were leafless but colorful, from thick coats of moss, lichens, liverworts and ferns.

6. Moisture dripped through multiple layers of growth to the forest floor.

7. Everywhere, fallen leaves were caught on branches, and even trapped in lichen clumps. What’s happening between the decaying leaf and the lichen strands is a language I don’t speak, but sometimes I can feel it – that quiet language of nourishment and constant change.

8. Precious drops of water hung like pearls on a slender piece of Usnea longissima lichen. The lichen will use what it needs, and what’s left will drip down to nourish another part of the forest. A sign of clean air, Usnea doesn’t grow in places with significant air pollution.

9. A fallen leaf from a Bigleaf maple tree has laid here long enough for moss to crawl over it.

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10. Age and youth.

11. The bench gives you an idea of the immense size of this old Redcedar. Leaning against it was comforting. Circumambulating it, I paid my respects.

12. A certain someone leans in.

13. Water drop magic.

14. Moss or lichen? It can be hard to tell.  I think this is a moss. Naming the plants isn’t necessary but it gives me pleasure. It helps keep me grounded.

15. A big piece of foliose lichen, probably lung lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), tumbled to the ground to rest on a bed of Sword fern and Bigleaf maple leaves. This lichen can be found in wet places in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa, and it’s been used medicinally in most if not all of those continents, as well as for dye and perfume making.

16. Trees could be seen at every stage of life and decay.

17. Mist and moss conspired to create an otherworldly feeling.

18. There was elegance along the trail.

19. A leaf caught on a branch, wrapped around it, and stuck to itself. Then another leaf landed on the first one, and they breathed the moist, forest air together.

20. Either my fingers were too cold, or I was too lazy to switch lenses on my camera. I photographed the river in brilliant sunlight with my phone, which doesn’t handle bright contrast well. But you can get the idea – it’s a big river with an abundance of life all around it.

21. Creeks race through the forest to feed the river below.

22. A tree trio in black and white.

23. Thanks to mild winters and abundant moisture, massive amounts of mosses, lichens, liverworts and ferns live in the trees. Bigleaf maples can actually grow roots from under the bark on their branches, tapping into the nutrients of the spongy mass of life.

24. Another Bigleaf maple leaf caught on a twig, in a most unlikely manner. Such a delicate balance, and believe me, I didn’t touch it!

25. On the drive home clouds shifted over the heavily logged foothills. The pale patchwork shows what might have been, if the forest behind us had been logged too. I’m glad those trees still stand.

***

When this post is published I’ll be in the air, hurtling east towards Amsterdam for three weeks’ vacation in northern Europe. While on the road I won’t have the tools I prefer to do a proper post. Another post is scheduled for a week from now, and maybe I’ll post a few phone photos from the streets European cities if there’s time. When I return, I hope to get back to Rockport to see what changes the waking-up season has brought to this beautiful forest.

Lens and camera notes: On my second visit to the park, I used the vintage Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4. lens (discussed in this post) most of the day.  When I wanted a wider view I used my phone.  Photos #2, #3, #5, #6, #7, #13, #15, #19 and #24 were taken with the Takumar. Photos #1, #11, #12, #20, and #21 were taken with the phone.  Photos #4, #8, #9, #10, #14, #16, #17, #18, and #23 are from my first visit, when I used a Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens and an Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I used an Olympus 14-150mm f4/5.6 zoom lens that day for #22 and #25.

Spring(ing) Through an Old Lens

The first blooms have opened, the birds are singing, the air is fresh. It’s time for immersion.

 

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I can get lost in a lens. Especially the old Super Takumar 50mm f1.4. From time to time I get it out, twist it onto the camera body, dial the aperture way down, and see what happens. (Here’s a video about the lens).

 

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The white blossoms of a native Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) grace a patch of scrappy woods that’s between our house and the one next door. What a lift for the spirit, seeing that sprinkling of white among the bare branches and evergreens. And there are little Indian plums (Oemleria cerasiformis) in the woods, with joyous, lime green leaves and sweet little sprays of dangling flowers.

 

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The emerging energy around the yard is echoed at the state park a few miles away, where red alder (Alnus rubra) catkins glow with color and the rocks follow suit with blooms of lichen, perhaps Orange boulder lichen (Porpidia flavocaerulescens).  Sometimes I wish I could pack a tiny lichenologist, or a botanist in my pocket, and take him out whenever I had a question. I’d pull him out, point to a mysterious lichen and say, “There! Tell me a story about that one!”  If you doubt the existence of lichenologists, here’s an excellent article about one. It’s a great read. Seriously! I included another lichen photo, of a twig with at least four different species on it, just because lichens are cool.

There’s so much to learn.

Back on the trail in the park, diminutive Rattlesnake plantains (Goodyera oblongifolia) nestle in the moss. They will produce slender stalks covered with tiny white orchids; hopefully they will wait until I return. And the humble Red dead-nettle, or henbit, (Lamium purpureum), which hitchhiked here from Europe, is already blooming. Henbit hides its pale blooms under colorful leaves arranged in neat pairs. Seen from above, it’s almost architectural in its orderliness, like a tiny stupa.

 

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Then there’s the beauty below, the star of our early Spring forests, Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). This native shrub delights woodland walkers, hummingbirds and bees with a profusion of charming raspberry-colored flowers.

 

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Along the water the steep, rocky cliffs retain enough moisture for clumps of grass to take hold in crevices. I’m drawn by the artful way last year’s tattered leaf blades jostle with this year’s growth. In the forest, Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) leaves unfurl along green, zigzagging stems. The edible red berries will appear later, but I doubt I’ll get to eat one – the birds and mammals are likely to beat me to it. Next to a tree stump on the edge of the forest, hardy Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytonia sibirica) blooms. The edible plant can be used in salads but I don’t know whose dog, or which wild creature may have left their mark here, so I’ll pass.

 

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Our common evergreen fern, the Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) took a beating this winter from heavy, long-lasting snow. Clumps of this normally attractive understory plant lie flat on the ground now, their fronds broken and spotted with dead patches. Frankly, I haven’t wanted to look at Sword ferns lately, but a few dried fronds curled against a rock made beautifully intricate shadows, a pleasing sight. No doubt, even the dead fronds can be beautiful but soon their distinctive fiddleheads will begin to unwind, and I’m looking forward to seeing a Sword fern rejuvenation.

Near one end of a favorite trail, the small leaves of Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) dot the dark landscape like a pointillist’s dream.

 

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It’s getting late….time to go.

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All of these photos were made with the Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens, during the past week. Yesterday I went for a quick walk before dinner. I rushed out of the house with the old Takumar lens on the camera and a macro lens in the bag. Neither one was the right choice for photographing this Common loon swimming in the bay at sunset. It would have been nice to be able to zoom in closer. It is what it is though, and as a record of a moving scene, it ain’t half bad. So: have the lenses or the camera you’ll need with you – but if you don’t have the right equipment, do what you can and be satisfied.

 

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They Rise and Fall

On a chilly, gray day last week, I ventured out to Cranberry Lake, a community forest preserve on Fidalgo Island. My favorite path there combines pieces of two trails – one hugs a curve of the lake and then ascends a steep hill through a fire-scarred forest; the other traces the long eastern edge of the namesake lake.

The trail that ascends the hill winds through Douglas fir and Western redcedars before meandering through forest openings where Madrone trees and Ocean Spray shrubs flourish, at its highest point. It descends through more Douglas fir and Salal thickets to the south end of the lake, where I like to turn and head back along the water’s edge. The lake is shallow there, and tall, thin tree skeletons standing in the water show that it was once forest. In the 1930’s a dam built at the other end grew the lake back into the woods, killing the trees. Later, beavers moved in and did their work; now a “garden” of stumps and trees draws wavering reflections in the calm water. It’s a fine spot for the visually preoccupied!

Just when I was farthest from the car that day, high on the hilltop, it began to snow. Sparse flakes drifted down through the trees to settle silently on the lake far below me. I’d left my gloves in the car but I continued on anyway, compelled by the poetry of unexpected weather. When I reached the shallow end of the lake, I was surprised to find it covered with ice, like a pale field spread out before me. The dead trees stood mute, locked in the ice, like ancient Greek columns witnessing the history of the seasons.

I carefully picked my way along the narrow, rocky path as the snow thickened. The weather-resistant camera would be OK, but there would be no changing lenses now.  I kept on shooting as one mesmerizing scene unfolded after another. A few steps, a choice, a click. A few more steps, another choice, a turn of a dial, a click. Trees standing, trees scarred from fire, trees fallen across the trail and into the water. Reflections blurring, then clearing, as the air carried more or fewer flakes. Cormorants watching snow sail over the lake from their stump and log perches. A lone Common merganser quietly floating towards the middle of the lake.

The prevailing hush transfixed me. I worked that little black box to frame the layered changes in the landscape, and though wildlife sightings always capture my attention, what stuck with me that day were the trees in all their guises and stages, their varied forms partially obscured by the pointillist haze of snow.

The trees rise and soar, they burn, fall over, die and slowly decompose. And they persist.

 

1. Lakefall

 

2. Sidelined

 

3. Dialogue

 

4. Snowhaze

 

5. Flake Flutter

 

6. Twig Scoops

 

7. Lean

 

8. Fade

 

9. After Fire, Green Returns

 

10. Scarred Trio

 

11. Fallen

 

12. Perched

 

13. Cut

 

14. Tumble

 

15. Honeysuckle Twist

 

16. Towards Whiteout (now my fingers are numb)

 

17. Cormorant Quartet

 

18. Light Gatherer

 

19. Stand, Reflect, Fall, Reflect

 

20. Horizon Log

 

21. Lone Merganser

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Just Before Spring

It was one of the coldest February’s on record here, but I still went out for walks as often as I could. Sometimes it was only for a half hour and more than once, my fingers went numb as I worked with my camera. Temperatures are warming ever so slowly. We’re still consistently below normal, but the light is noticeably brighter now, birds are singing, a few buds are opening…

There is so much to see.

 

1. Weathered trees high on a bald overlooking a sparkling sea.

 

2. The late afternoon sun warming the underside of an old bridge.

 

3. The same bridge on another day, seen from a log-crossed, rocky peninsula at low tide.

 

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4. Thousands of Snow geese being one with the air, the field, each other….all of it.

 

5. A singular rock wiped clean by retreating waves, deep in conversation with the sand, the pebbles, and me.

 

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6. Svelte rocks that dance and wiggle their way into my heart.

 

7. Or a lumpen rock, strewn with green streamers from an eel grass party, cavorting with smaller stones while lining up its fine white markings with the ten directions.

 

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8. Magisterial rocks letting their green top coats dry out while drawing sun-warmth deep into their centers.

 

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9. What else is there to see?  A plum-colored path through a fuzzy fairytale forest draped with ferns, and set with the dark, knotted rootballs of fallen giants.

 

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10. Patterns shimmering through the air, making their non-linear way into the fir tree boughs, down to the earth, and up into my brain cells. Now, the shimmering patterns are yours.

 

11. And what is there to hear? Plenty. Just listen. Wherever you are right now, stop. Listen.

 

12. Whether sound emerges from a Song sparrow or a fishing vessel it travels through the same air, without caring what it meets. Sound rides the wind.

 

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13. Dizzying patterns abound, absorbing me into the binary rhythm of light and dark.

 

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14. The little rosettes of sedum leaves, the soft mosses and dried out grasses – they’re all waiting. Waiting without complaint or expectation in the knowledge that spring follows winter.  They know what to do and they will not fail to express the season.

 

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15. Old Douglas fir, ancient one, thick-barked, heavy-limbed, ever green, reaches out and invites me to duck under the branches on my way downhill. Thank you. I’m blessed.

 

16. More rhythm. Four straight Douglas fir trees alternate with the sinuous curves of a Madrone tree. The cold water below carries the cries of gulls out to the Salish sea.

 

17. Countless logs roll in and out along the shores of an island. A band of fir trees sucks in the light, hiding it well.

 

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18. The tides do their patient work, smoothing edges, rounding corners, loosening bark, fading colors….

 

19. The dimpled bark of a Madrona tree absorbs another sunset, burrowing light into every pore.

 

20. How much longer? How many more storms before this Douglas fir topples onto the beach? Not yet.

 

21. Rain.

 

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22. A lock on the old bridge, with just enough rust. I think.

 

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23. Water, sky, and earth bounce back and forth endlessly on a cold February afternoon, telling the tale of this one place.

 

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24. A fallen one effortlessly melds water and light.

 

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25. The creators, fire and water, bring it all home to us.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unseasonable and Unreasonable

Yes, it’s word play, but seriously, the unseasonably cold weather here in the Pacific northwest seems thoroughly unreasonable, to me at least. (We could talk about the futility of pairing reason with weather, but that would be another conversation). Seattle’s airport, Sea-Tac, marked its snowiest February on record before we were even half way through the month. The airport might get its coldest February on record, too. We’ve been locked into a nasty pattern of snow and cold for most of the month now, with more snow possible this week.

Winter weather in this part of the world normally consists of a tedious parade of gray days with plenty of drizzly rain and temperatures hovering around the mid 40’s F (7 C). We don’t have a lot of below-freezing days, and when it snows, it usually melts away in a day or two. Usually. But “usually” is just a memory, now that we’re stuck in this unreasonably unseasonable February.

Combine at least six inches of snow on barely plowed roads, temperatures consistently at or below freezing, and a declared state of emergency and you’ve got the perfect storm of difficult winter weather for our area. Then there were the cancelled flights, schools closed for days, impassable highways…we just don’t do snow that well. In these conditions a lovely walk outdoors has become a rare treat. I hadn’t realized until now that I’ve become spoiled by the region’s normally mild weather and the easy access to extraordinary natural habitats.

Of course, what we’re experiencing is nothing compared to many places in the US, Canada, and other places where snow is serious business and cold lasts all winter long.  When I lived in New York I was used to shoveling out my car and slipping and sliding down the sidewalks. Since moving here though, I’ve acclimated to a different reality and I’m just not used to real winter anymore. Imagine my distress when for a week, my go-to coffee shop either didn’t open at all or closed early. During the worst of it, when Seattle suffered through its “Snopocalypse” I had my own crisis, i.e. “OMG where am I going to get my espresso?”

Lest I sound unreasonable, I don’t expect any sympathy, especially from my hardy friends in colder places. This is actually more about a sense of wonder that our blue, spinning earth continues to bring us so many surprises. May it always be so, and may nature always have the upper hand.

***

It all began innocently enough with a light, rather picturesque coating of snow on the third of February.  At home, perfect little bird tracks in the snow and tiny ice balls in the nets protecting the fruit trees were a delightful novelty. The roads weren’t bad that day. Even the dirt road to Cranberry Lake was navigable, so I set out on a cold, careful walk in the woods. The forest was enchanting that afternoon, but my fingers got numb very quickly. I was grateful I had a warm home to return to.

 

1. A dusting of snow at Cranberry Lake.

 

2. Sword fern plants bowed down under coats of mealy-looking, icy snow in a dark corner of the woods.

 

3. The birds were busy, leaving a maze of tracks in the thin layer of snow under the feeders. I singled out one little hop for a black and white.

 

4. An enclosure to protect young fruit trees against deer was dotted with balls of ice.

 

The next day it was bitter cold and the roads were icy. I took pictures indoors, photographed a deer through the window, and caught up on things at home.

 

 

 

Soon the roads improved and the sun came out, but it was still very cold. I drove to a local park one day, hoping the road around it was passable. The boat dock sustained storm damage but – Yes! – the road was open. I drove happily through the woods at the proscribed 10 mph speed limit, stopping to photograph a twisted Maritime juniper tree. After 20 minutes in the cold I retreated back to the parking lot. Hearing the vibration of blasting music coming from a car, I muttered curses under my breath. Then I saw two young women sitting in their car, watching the sunset, and they seemed to be having a great time. Suddenly I realized the music was from the Bach Cello Suites! My frown turned to a smile. What prompted them to choose Bach instead of a hit from this week’s Top 100? I don’t know, and maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by their choice. I gave them a thumbs up and a big smile. What a nice send-off to that icy-cold day.

 

6. Looking up into the dead branches of a Maritime juniper tree. Imagine standing under this noble tree while listening to a Bach Cello Suite.

 

7. The svelte mid-section of another maritime juniper tree.

 

8. As the sun set that day it left an orange glow behind the Olympic Mountains, 60 miles away.

 

A few days later there was another round of snow, this time in the form of big, wet flakes falling softly overnight, leaving clumps of the cottony stuff everywhere. It was still snowing that morning but I set out for the coffee shop anyway, creeping along on clean white roads. Hardly anyone was out. After getting coffee I drove around March Point and tried to photograph the snow falling but there was little light to work with, and once again my fingers numbed in minutes. Back at home, I noticed our little creek was an important source of fresh water for puffy little Dark-eyed Junco’s that were endlessly flitting back and forth between feeder and stream.

 

9. This little creek is dry as a bone in summer.

 

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10. Cattails wore top hats of snow over their fluffy seed heads on March Point.

 

11. Leaning stakes probably mark old shipping lanes at March Point, where oil refineries share space with herds of cattle and a Great blue heron rookery.

 

12. The snow thickened over Fidalgo Bay, smudging the horizon.

 

Three days later, more snow fell….is this getting repetitive? You bet it is! I prowled around the yard again….

 

13. A Sword fern seems to shrivel and shiver in the cold. These hardy, evergreen ferns should be OK except for clumps damaged by the weight of wet snow. I believe those clumps will gradually recoup as new fronds emerge to replace the ones that broke under the snow.

 

14. How long before these petite clumps of snow fall to the ground?

 

After that  snowstorm, another bout of cabin fever hit me so I made my way to Deception Pass State Park at a snail’s pace. The parking lot hadn’t been plowed but since it’s on a busy inter-island thoroughfare (and maybe because there are restrooms there), vehicles had been driving into the lot, leaving deep tracks in the slushy snow. I steered my little car along the tracks, stopped, and got out. The staircase under the bridge had been trampled just enough – I could walk down the stairs while clutching the railing (and feeling thankful for waterproof boots). Under the bridge is a network of trails that traces the forested edges of Deception Pass. Only a dusting of snow had filtered down through the thick canopy of trees there. The path was easy to follow but it was dark and cold in the woods. Again, I didn’t last long but just being in the woods, gratefully breathing fresh air, was a treat. A tiny mouse raced past me, oblivious to my presence. He pawed at the snow, searching for food, and then ran off into the dark woods. I thought about my warm home….

 

15. The forest is dark on a perimeter trail at Deception Pass State Park.

 

16. Last year’s Ocean Spray flower (Holodiscus discolor) drips with melting ice and snow.

 

17. The water racing through the pass that day was a cheerful turquoise color, and the view through the tall trees across to Pass Island was delightful.

 

18. The leathery, evergreen leaves of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) cheer up the forest floor in winter. The orange leaves are dead Redcedar leaves from the drought we had last summer. All the snow we’re getting now will help prevent drought in the months ahead.

 

19. The mouse. I enlarged and lightened the photo as much as I could, and it’s still hard to see him…that mouse was tiny!

 

Steps away from the parking lot is the Deception Pass bridge, which has a pedestrian walkway. It’s usually a spectacular view from the bridge, high over the rushing water, but on that day the view was reduced by moisture still hanging in the air. Far out on the water I could barely make out some cormorants, gulls, a few seals, and one sea lion – all working hard for their living.

 

20. Snow on the rocks below the bridge at Deception Pass.

 

21. North Beach from the Deception Pass bridge. No one walks the beach on this snowy day.

 

22. A phone photo taken on the road home that day.

 

One day I ventured off the island to Mount Vernon, a small city with a good food cooperative where I like to shop. On the way I passed acres of fallow, snowy fields. The sun is bright out on Skagit Flats. The orderly rows of crops with their striped furrows converging on the horizon was pleasing to see.

 

23. A bus for migrant workers sits in the field, waiting for Spring. It looks like this is one of Skagit Valley’s famous tulip fields – you can see them coming up. The snow won’t bother them a bit.

 

24. Afternoon sun throws a maze of shadows on a farm building.

 

The snow has melted a little now, but it’s still below freezing at night and not much above freezing during the day. Friday I took a walk at Bowman Bay, part of Deception Pass State Park.  I lingered on the trail until sunset. The tide was out and a lone Great blue heron was busy foraging in the quietly lapping waves. The sun felt good.

 

25. A Great blue heron picks its way through the riches of low tide.

 

***

Dark Places

Recently a friend said she appreciated that I “allowed the dark places to stay dark” in a photograph of rocks and sand. That comment struck a chord; I had been thinking about inviting more darkness into my photography.

The urge to photograph a particular thing or place erupts from a myriad of sources, some of which are unknown to me. But one reason I make photographs is to share a place, a moment, a detail or an impression with others.

One way of conceptualizing the process of photography, for me anyway, is that I am making maps of my world as I photograph it. Here is the tree, here, the rough bark, over there, the repeating pattern of a fern and there, its reflection or shadow.  A curve, a shade of green, a shape, a texture….I notice the details as well as the whole scene, and I want to share it all. I want to faithfully record all the bits of data, the way a map does.

 

1. Photograph as map. Little is left to the imagination; you won’t get lost here.

Maps present the facts in an evenhanded way, shedding enough light across the surface so that every important detail can be read. I’ve always loved maps and in photography I often gravitate towards brightness, preferring well-illuminated images.

But what about the dark places, what about the shadows? Especially in winter with its clouds, low sun and short days, darkness comes into the foreground. Why fight it? In this data-heavy world maybe it makes sense to allow more darkness to manifest, if only to balance the plethora of visual information.

Dark places don’t appear on maps, not anymore. But like the blank places on old maps that elicited so many questions, darkness can play an important role in photographs. So I’m acquiescing to darkness, trying to refrain from lifting out the shadows. Here’s a group of photos that invites darkness in.

 

2. On a late October afternoon lingering rays of sunlight illuminate a clump of ferns at the edge of an algae-coated wetland. The deep blue areas are reflections of a bright, clear autumn sky.

 

3. Same day, same location.

 

4. After a gentle snowfall the pale coating on logs and leaves does little to lighten a dark corner of the lake.

 

5. Freezing rain left an assortment of water droplets and ice pellets on the slender twigs of a Snowberry bush (Symphoricarpos albus).

 

6. Rain begins to fall on a lake at dusk. The sun has set, and what little is left of the light is mesmerizing. It’s getting really cold but….just a few more photos. You know how it is.

 

7. After sunset on a mid-winter day, all is dark except for a bog in the middle of the lake.

 

8. Deep shadows fall across a wetland in a forest, on an October afternoon.

 

9. The Yellow pond lily leaves are curling up and turning brown, but the Douglas fir trees won’t give up their color. The lake must have risen long ago and killed the trees. They still stand tall.

 

10. A late summer view of the same lake.

 

11. Another day, a different angle, in black and white.

 

I’m going to try to keep the importance of darkness in mind. Of course I would never abandon the light. Below there are more photos from the same location, which is a shallow lake surrounded by forest, called Little Cranberry Lake. The photographs represent eight different walks around the lake, between August 2018 and February 2019. I’ve come to love the trails in this preserve. Walking the trails in sunny and overcast weather, in the rain or just after a snowfall, there’s always something new to see.

 

12. The same photograph as #11, processed differently.

 

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13. Trails at Little Cranberry Lake are rocky and full of roots.

 

14. A favorite spot on one trail by the lake cuts underneath a vertical cliff where Redcedar trees enjoy the constant moisture.

 

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15. Reflections in the lake in late November, when the grasses were fading.

 

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16. On the same day, a light rain began to fall. The water was absolutely still.

 

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17. In a third photo of reflections made the same day, a moss-covered log supports an array of  plants.

 

18. A glorious September sky is reflected near the edge of the lake.

 

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19. This isn’t spring green – the photograph was made in the middle of January. The edges of this shallow lake provide no end of reflections to study.

 

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20. Here are the same greens, on land now, also in January.

 

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21. Bracken fern decays beautifully, turning various shades of yellow, gold, orange and brown. This is from a September walk.

 

22. A pair of mushrooms rises between the dead fronds of a Sword fern. There’s plenty of moisture in this bed of moss.

 

23. I hope this is a slick of algae or bacteria on the wetland, not oil.

 

24. Light, wet snow on lichens makes a kind of miniature winter wonderland.

 

25. A honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) plant and a Snowberry bush seem to shiver in the fresh snow.

 

26. An infrared treatment in black and white gives the impression of snow. The photo was taken in February but on this day no snow fell.

***

Little Cranberry Lake is part of a collection of about 2800 acres of protected forest land on Fidalgo Island. Purchased in 1919 by a local power company, the forest was logged by the company for income for 60 or 70 years. In the late 1980’s local residents began to document how the practice of clearcutting was destroying the forest. A Friends of the Forest group coalesced and made their voices heard, along with residents who wanted trails, not logging in the island’s forests. Clearcutting ended in 1989, and now the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL) are permanently preserved and managed for recreational use.

 

Low Tide

I hadn’t planned to go to the beach; I didn’t know the tide was going out. I thought I might walk along a trail in Deception Pass State Park that wanders through the forest and along the shoreline. With the sun hanging low in the southwest, North Beach was looking chilly though, no sun there! I parked and considered my options. Steps away from the car, there’s a point of land where sunny West beach swings around a corner and takes a different name: North Beach. I hadn’t explored West Point (imaginative names!) because I’d been there at higher tides, when the water was high up on the rocks. Now as I looked down, the receding water revealed a wealth of complex shapes where the rugged promontory is wearing away bit by bit, as water works its infinitely patient way through rock.

Little sand-filled coves were strewn with smooth round stones, as green as moss, as orange as the sunset, as white as snow and as pretty as could be. Crags of ink-black rocks streaked with white rose from the water in a multitude of crenelated shapes. Smooth gray rocks were covered with softly delineated streaks from evaporating water that lingered in the crevices.

I scrambled down and picked my way through the intricate contours of rock and sand, waiting when necessary for an outgoing wave to jump across narrow rivulets. In one sheltered cove, the logs which had floated up on high tides and jammed behind the rocks were still white with frost on this sunny afternoon. I felt a dank chill there and the air smelled sharp with minerals. Off shore, two seals relaxed and let the swift tide carry them out of the pass. Hundreds of sea birds, too far out to identify, churned the air, their feet clapping the water as they struggled to take off.  An eagle flew low over the water’s surface, weighed down by a big catch, probably a sea duck. A second eagle followed close behind, then they vanished behind a forest-topped island.

What could be better than losing myself in this wonderland?

 

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As the sun began to set, people gravitated to West Beach to watch, cell phones in hand. Thirty miles to the southwest the Olympic Mountains were silhouetted against a nacreous sky like a strip of torn construction paper. Gulls stood solemnly on rocks warmed with orange sunlight, and the glassy water barely shimmered as the current quieted. Low tide, sunset.

 

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One last picture, with the phone…

 

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And,

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Your photographer

 

***

A google earth image of this location which appears to have been taken in summer during a very low tide is here.  Zoom in and you’ll see these rocks and the log-jammed cove, where someone may be sitting under a blue umbrella. The coordinates are N48.39  W122.66.

If anyone can tell me what the rocks I photographed are, I’d love to know.

And the colored sand, (#7 & #8) why is it arranged in those patterns, and what about those fine lines? Could it be that these are different kinds of finely crushed rocks with different magnetic charges, and when the waves wash the particles up, they fall into place relative to each another, something like iron filings around a magnet? That was the guess of one smart person I know. Or are some rock particles heavier, so they remain on the shore sooner or later than others do? There’s so much we don’t know.

Toss the Agenda, Just Be with the Trees

Chances are, most everyone who reads this has had a special relationship with a tree, or with a type of tree. My sacred groves have changed as I moved from place to place. Oak, beech, maple – those steadfast denizens of temperate North America were boon companions for decades, along with many others. Then seven years ago, the cast of characters changed when I moved to the Pacific northwest. Tall, raggedy lines of Douglas firs took over my horizons while elegant cedars and hemlocks called me deeper into the woods. Last July I moved again and the arboreal lineup shifted. Wandering the land, I saw the familiar silhouettes of Douglas fir, Western Redcedar, and Red alder, but subtle differences began to emerge. The island ecosystems here are different than the lowlands and foothills where I lived before. Colorful, wavy-branched Madrone trees are as plentiful here as Bigleaf maples were around Seattle. I don’t see as many willows now, but the scarce Maritime juniper is an endemic specialty here that’s worth seeking out.

Getting to know the quirks of local habitats is a slow process. Knowledge and understanding build organically as I ply forest trails, stroll beaches and tiptoe across mossy balds. What better way to absorb new information than to rest my gaze on a form, gather its essence at that moment, put the camera to my eye and make a photograph. At that moment, when things go well, I apprehend the whole that I’m situated in, without separation between me and my surroundings. You could say it’s a kind of adoration. The separateness we humans so often feel can quickly drop away when we’re immersed in an activity. Being in nature with all one’s senses alert is one of the more obvious ways to let go of all that makes us feel separate. But even the seemingly passive activity of looking at images can so immersive that we forget ourselves.

Separation can drop away at any time – that is an ever-present possibility. Approaching trees without an agenda about trees – or about anything – makes room for grounded, fresh experience. It’s my wish that you might approach these photographs with a spirit of no agenda. Skip the captions if that makes it easier – they’re here because I enjoy sharing ideas and information. Whatever works, I hope you can just be with the moment.

 

1. Western Redcedars (Thuja plicata), their lower branches thickly coated with moss, stand tall in the mist at Rockport State Park. Redcedars are undeniably graceful, with their sloping trunks that ease into the soil, and their billowing curtains of evergreen leaves.

 

2. This solid twist of driftwood could be from a Redcedar tree.

 

3. Curvy Pacific madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) intertwine with upright Douglas firs along a path in Deception Pass State Park. The Madrone grows along the west coast of North America from California to British Columbia. In Puget Sound it seems to love steep slopes near water.

 

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4. Feathery evergreen leaves of a Redcedar waft in the breeze. This Pacific northwest species can live over a thousand years, attaining great height and girth. And dignity.

 

5. The green edges of our rocky islands are often set with Shore pines (Pinus contorta) along with Madrones and Douglas firs. On west-facing cliffs where the weather takes no prisoners, trees bend and eventually crumble into luxurious beds of Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and Reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.). This particular grouping makes me think of a dramatic dance: arms flailing, people collapsing on the floor….  This scene may appear static, but even as they decompose, trees lead a dynamic life interacting with the flora and fauna around them.

 

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6. These roots are probably Douglas fir or Shore pine. Research shows that in the same soil as the roots of trees there are vast mycorrhizal networks that pass critical information among trees, along with nutrients, carbon and water. There is a world of intelligent activity under our feet!

 

7. Fire happens. In August, 2016, it happened here, in a protected community forest.  The fire was put out, trails were closed for a time, and now the forest is healing. These Douglas firs were protected by thick bark.

 

8. A fallen Douglas fir has been sawed to make space for a trail. It’s sad to see the giants go, but before long new plants will take root on top of the log. A whole community of moss, ferns, mushrooms, lichens, shrubs and trees can establish itself on a prostrate tree. Not to mention spiders, beetles, squirrels, birds….

 

9. A mature tree that began life atop a nursery log slowly works its roots down into the ground.

 

10. Western hemlock boughs are nice places to lose yourself.

 

11. This species of juniper only grows on a handful of islands in Puget Sound and a few other nearby sites. Named the Maritime juniper (Juniperus maritima), it was differentiated from Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) in 2007, after research showed critical distinctions between the two species. The tree I photographed is next to an oft-traveled park road and is frequently photographed. Maybe all that attention buoys the tree in some mysterious way.

 

12. A tree that fell into a shallow lake provides support for native grasses as the wood gradually weathers into a maze of sinewy, sculptural shapes.

 

13. An old Shore pine lives up to its Latin name, Pinus contorta. This photo was taken in December, and all the green you see is evergreen – trees, mosses, ferns, grasses, and other plants. 

 

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14. In the forest, a neck-breaking upward gaze reveals wildly criss-crossing branches on a Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). I imagine the benefit of all those twists and turns is that each branch finds a little more light.

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15. This Douglas fir is said to be over 800 years old. Only part of it fits into the viewfinder! Step back, and neighboring trees complicate the picture so much that it’s hard to tell which tree is which. Stand underneath, and you feel the deep power of age and maturity, and a solidity of being that emanates beneficence through every crack and fissure.

 

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16. A close-up look at Douglas fir bark reveals congealed sap that cracked open, perhaps from temperature and humidity changes. There’s a whole world here on the skin of the tree, just as there is underneath the soil, high up in the canopy, and deep inside the heartwood.

 

17. The Madrone tree’s naturally peeling bark was used medicinally by indigenous peoples. Western researchers isolated Betulinic acid from the bark, an anti-inflamaotory and antimalarial substance that may also inhibit some cancers.

 

18. An immense Douglas fir spreads its roots like feet. The tree is probably hundreds of years old. Scattered old growth Douglas fir trees hang on in the forests here, and their noble girth does my ego good.  Being dwarfed by these great beings puts me in my places and settles my spirit.

 

19. The shallow, still waters of Little Cranberry Lake mirror a phantasmagoria of dead wood.

 

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20. Leaves of Redcedar flutter in the breeze after morning rain.

 

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21. This tree sings of long journeys by water and the constancy of the tides. It is as wild and raw as the winter wind.

 

***

Mary Oliver died last week. Here is a poem she wrote:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

-Mary Oliver