RAMBLING THROUGH the MONTH of MAY

We’re mid-way through May and already, trees are thick with leaves, dandelions have gone to seed, and rainbows of flowers vie for our attention. I’ve been rambling through local parks with my camera, photographing wildflowers, sea-and-sky horizons, and anything else that catches my eye. Last week we drove east for an hour to visit a state park that features a different type of ecosystem than ours. We don’t have Dogwood trees here but they were in full flower there. The forest floor displayed a soft, green carpet of Vanilla leaf plants. Their oddly toothed, tripartite leaves and candle-like flower wands always delight me.

Deception Pass State Park reopened recently to a flood of visitors. We got there early that first morning, ahead of the crowds. What a pleasure it was to walk across the wide beaches on a minus tide (minus tides are lower than mean low water and usually occur at a new or full moon). On a rocky cliff we found violet-blue larkspurs dancing in the breeze with the pure white flowers of Field chickweed. Two days later I went up to Goose Rock, also part of Deception Pass, and found more Spring wildflowers blooming on the sunny bluffs.

Harbor porpoises and seals have been in evidence, though I never can get them “on film.” There was a weasel in the yard – the first either of us had ever seen – and on the same day a Barred owl was being attacked by angry Robins. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned after wintering in Mexico. They’re a delight, settling in at the seed and suet feeders for leisurely meals and whistling their cheerful songs from branches overhead. Insects are busy everywhere, pollinating flowers and devouring leaves. Slugs, are busy too – I’ve lost one tender plant to them already. Through rainy days and sunny days, life has a firm grip on every inch of the outdoors. I’m grateful for every minute that I can revel in it.

I could go on and on about the marvelous month of May but let the photographs tell the story. They were all made between the 1st and 17th of May, 2020.

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1. A Pacific dogwood blossom (Cornus nuttalii).

2. The forest is awash in a hundred kinds of green. Ferns, mosses, leaves, lichens, liverworts, flowers – they all play parts in a grand scheme that’s far bigger than our understanding of it. This scene is at Rockport State Park.
3. A Red Huckleberry twig (Vaccinium parvifolium) adorned with tiny flowers is reaching for the light. The flowers will morph into berries over the summer, providing food for small mammals and birds.
4. The Olympic Mountains, partly obscured by clouds, seen from Sares Head, Fidalgo Island.

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7. Ferns are unfolding everywhere – this one is a Sword fern (Polystichum munitum), by far the most common fern around here.
8. Decatur Island, seen from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. Decatur can’t be accessed by bridge or ferry and if you want to fly in or dock your boat here, you’ll have to get permission from the community first. There are no stores on the island so you’ll need to come prepared…or be lucky enough to be visiting one of fewer than 100 residents.
9. Like sapphires in the rough, Menzies’ larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) and Field chickweed cascade down the grassy edge of a steep cliff at Lighthouse Point. Deception Pass State Park.
10. Early this month there were still a few Fawn lilies (Erythronium oreganum) blooming here and there on the island. I’m sorry to see them go.

11. This handsome, chunky moth appeared at our kitchen window while I was putting this post together. The wingspan is 2 – over 3 inches! A Western Washington University moth website helped me identify it as a Bedstraw hawkmoth, aka Gallium sphinx moth (Hyles gallii). It ranges across the globe in northern latitudes, preferring coniferous forests. In our region it feeds on Fireweed species (Epilobium).
12. Last year’s cattails still tower above this year’s tender green shoots in a wetland at Deception Pass State Park, which reopened for hiking on May 5th.

13. The American robin (Turdus migratorius) is as common as a dandelion, but all the same, it’s a handsome bird. This one perched on a post on the morning Deception Pass opened up. For about 7 weeks, wildlife had the park to itself. I regret any disturbance we humans caused when we returned.

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15. Small-flowered alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) is just beginning to flower.
16. Yesterday I put my camera inside this lovely haze of alumroot flowers.

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17. False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum) doesn’t look like false anything to me; it looks like true beauty. A wildflower of moist, rich woods, it’s uncommon on Fidalgo Island, if it occurs at all. I saw this one at Rockport State Park. Most of the park is under 1000′ elevation and is situated beside a river at the base of a mountain, where fog is frequent, water from streams is abundant, and the soil is rich.

18. The zig-zag stalk of a Clasping twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius), also at Rockport State Park. This interesting wildflower, with small, bell-like flowers held under the leaves, ranges across Canada, the northern US, eastern Asia, eastern Russia and southern Europe.
19. Curious? Here you go – the hidden flowers of Clasping twisted stalk.

20. Tall Western hemlocks, Douglas firs and Western redcedars at Rockport State Park often are covered in moss and lichens. This one has enough moss to fill a railroad car. OK, I made that up.
21. Delicate Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) enjoys the moist air near the shoreline at Deception Pass. It may look like the Spanish moss that grows on southern trees, but it’s a lichen. Lichens are symbiotic unions of fungi and algae. Some lichens are very sensitive to pollution. Just looking at the structure of Lace lichen makes it easy to see how particles of pollution can be caught in the strands. The abundance of this lichen tells me the air is clean here.

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23. Last year’s dried fronds dangle in front of the new, lime green leaves of a Maidenhair fern (Adantium pedatum) one of my favorite plants. At home among consistently moist rocks, few Maidenhair ferns thrive on Fidalgo Island. I’ve only found two small colonies of them so far.
24. A close-up of a Maidenhair fern.

25. An old branch rests on a bed of Reindeer lichen at Washington Park. In late winter and early Spring, Reindeer lichen responds to abundant moisture with soft pillows of new growth in very small increments. Summer is very dry here and the lichen is quite brittle and easily damaged then.



26. I was excited to see this flock of Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) at West Beach, Deception Pass, recently. They were hunted for food and sport until hunting migratory birds was outlawed in 1918, and hunting may still occur on their wintering grounds. Plus, they face habitat loss. These individuals may have wintered in California and are probably on their way to breeding grounds in Alaska.
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Photos #3, 7, 21, 22, & 23 were made with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens (plus adapter). Photos #2 & 6b were made with a Motorola phone. Most of the other photos were made with an Olympus Zuiko 60mm f2.8 macro lens. It’s advertised as a macro but it’s my favorite walk-around lens. On my OM-D EM-1 camera, it’s the rough equivalent of a 120mm lens on a full frame camera. The last photo was made with an Olympus Zuiko ED 14-150mm f4-5.6 zoom lens.

JUST ONE: Western Red-cedar

We drift in a liminal space these days, caught between a past that’s just out of reach and a future that never comes into focus. Floating in a murky emotional soup of fear, longing, resignation and hope, we grope blindly for some shred of reassurance. At a time like this the thoroughly solid presence of old trees can be a welcome comfort. Maybe you’ve been lingering under big trees, consciously or unconsciously seeking solace. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Red-cedar is one tree whose benign, gentle presence can soothe and center frayed nerves.

My wish is that you could stand beneath this

stately tree-being, stand there quietly,

breathe along with bark, leaves,

and roots.

Bend your head way back and gaze far

up into the branches until your eyes tire. Peer closely

at the russet-colored bark and discover life

hidden in the darkest fissures. Trace the wide arc

of a single branch as it dips down, then

climbs back up towards the light.

Squat down,

follow the sensuous twists and curves of roots until

they disappear into the thick, spongy duff.

Inhale the sharp, fresh fragrance and listen to the

soft shushing of swaying branches.

Commune. Lose yourself

in the presence of this graceful tree,

forget the news,

shake off your worries.

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There are times when we suffer; there are times when the Red-cedars suffer. They fall, they burn in fires, they’re attacked by fungi and beetles, felled by loggers and stressed by climatic changes. Those that are taken from the forest may become shingles, siding, outdoor furniture, even caskets. Those that fall become new homes for fungi, plants and animals. Those that rot at the base may still stand, their hollows sheltering bears and other animals. Those that are burned nourish the soil.

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9.
10. Fire destroyed these giants on the Trail of Cedars in Newhalem, Washington, in 2015.

11. This venerable tree made it through the fire that killed the trees in the photo above.
12. The trunk of this old Red-cedar looks dead but branches on the right side are alive and reaching for light.

13. Feathers scattered over old and new Red-cedar leaves tell a sad tale.

14. A Western hemlock and a tiny Western Red-cedar take root in the shelter of a rotting driftwood log.

15. Receiving the light.

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The Red-cedar tree (and its relative the Alaska or Yellow-cedar) has played an outsized role in the lives of people living in the Pacific Northwest coastal areas. Regarded as the ‘tree of life’ by the Kakawaka’wakw, the species was, and still is, highly respected by all Northwest coast indigenous cultures. Ceremonial uses for the tree were not separate from other uses but were an integral part of everyday life. Nearly every part of the tree could be put to medicinal use. The bark, which was stripped off the tree in manageable quantities so the tree wasn’t harmed, was used for a wide variety of everyday objects like clothing, mats, dishes, ropes – the list goes on. Exceptionally large trees were once abundant in the forests so houses were built from Red-cedar poles, beams and planks. The straight-grained, rot-resistant, buoyant wood is not too hard to be worked with stone tools. Canoes are still made by Pacific Northwest tribes from carefully selected Red-cedar trees. Annual inter-tribal canoe journeys that keep these traditions alive, have taken place every summer since the 1980’s. In coastal forests, particularly in British Columbia, there are numerous culturally modified trees (CMT’s). These trees show evidence of being stripped of pieces bark or wood or otherwise modified for indigenous use, long ago or more recently. They are a living historical record and are respected as such.

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They’re not cedars, by the way. In fact, Thuja plicata is a member of the Cypress family, along with our native junipers; true cedars are native to the Old World. American cedar chests, with their familiar, moth-repellent, aromatic fragrance, were made from Eastern red-cedar, which is a juniper tree that grows in the eastern half of the U.S. But enough confusion! There is no mistaking Western red-cedar once you’ve seen it a few times. With its distinctive, vertically patterned bark, curved branches and gracefully drooping sprays of evergreen foliage, it is a dominant tree of the moist, lowland forests within its range.

Though its cones are small and often overlooked, they tell the story of Red-cedar’s reproduction. Both male and female cones are found on each tree. After developing in the previous summer, pollen cones shed their pollen into the wind in March. Around here that means several weeks of sneezing and dusty-looking cars. Seed cones trap and funnel the drifting pollen into ovules, where fertilization takes place in May. By September, the seed cones have matured and turned brown and can begin releasing seeds, to be carried by the wind. They’ll land some distance from the parent tree. Some will sprout into seedlings but the seedlings often have a tough time surviving. Perhaps as insurance, Red-cedar trees can also reproduce vegetatively. Low-hanging and fallen branches can root and even fallen trees may develop new, viable branches.

The oldest known Western red-cedar trees are well over a thousand years old; the biggest trees include one on Vancouver Island that is about 20′ (6m) in diameter and 182′ (56m) tall, and one on the Oregon coast that measured about 17′ in diameter and 153′ tall in 2010. In the face of this kind of longevity it might be worthwhile to ponder the fate of the scores of human generations that have lived and passed away while these old giants have persisted.

My wish for you is that you can relax under an old Red-cedar tree – but any big tree near you will do. My wish for the trees themselves is that no more Red-cedars suffer damaging harm from human causes – or at the very least, that no more giants are logged.

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21. An imperfect photograph of a perfect pair: Barred owls sheltering in a Red-cedar tree.

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More “Just One” posts can be found by scrolling down to the Categories section below.

LOCAL WALKS: Back to Washington Park

In January I wrote a “Local Walks” post about Washington Park, a 220-acre, wooded park about 20 minutes from home. I found out about this captivating place in 2017 but I lived far away then, near Seattle. After moving to Fidalgo Island in 2018, I could visit the park more often. Then, when COVID-19 restrictions closed another favorite park in March, I became a regular as Washington Park remained open for walkers, bikers and to a limited extent, auto traffic. Almost all of the Fawn lily photos from my last post were taken here, as well as the Calypso orchid photos in the previous post. Needless to say, this little dot on the globe is playing a big part in my life. I’m so very thankful it exists.

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The park has too many stories for me to begin sorting them out: the history includes a one-dollar-a-pie Lemon pie sale that local women organized in 1922 to raise funds to expand the park; the geology includes an unusual mid-Jurassic period rock ledge which was once part of the earth’s mantle; the park’s flora includes leafless, rootless orchids that spring out of the ground only to hide in plain sight and an odd little fern that looks like parsley and thrives in infertile serpentine soils. Let’s not forget the stories of the people who use the park every day, walking their dogs on the 2-mile loop road, camping under the tall trees, boating, picnicking, exploring tide pools at low tide, hand-feeding Chickadees and chipmunks, or even grabbing a 25-cent shower in one of several clean restrooms (I’m always pleasantly surprised to find a clean restroom in a park).

Some stories with personal meaning include the times I’ve spotted seals and porpoises from the shore, days spent exploring trails that wind through the woods and up and down the grassy balds, the surprise of mating Oystercatchers, and the peaceful times I’ve spent gazing across the water at vibrant sunsets. You can see why I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll let the pictures tell the story. Enjoy!

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3. The park abounds with fallen trees and branches. As they decompose, they become shelter and nourishment for the soil and for a variety of creatures.

4. Blue berries of Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) – actually modified cones – litter the ground in winter. The flavor of gin comes from juniper berries but gin makers use another species, Common juniper. The endemic Seaside juniper is limited to coastal bluffs here and in southwestern British Columbia, and a few spots across the strait in the Olympic Mountains. It thrives on Washington Park’s dry, rocky, southwestern-facing balds.

5. An aggregating anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) spreads its tentacles in a tide pool. These sea creatures have a mutually beneficial relationship with photosynthetic algae that live in their body tissues. The algae photosynthesize in a complex, symbiotic association that includes the manufacture of amino acids which act as sunscreen for both partners. Nature always amazes me – the more you delve, the more wonders you find.
6. This little Townsend’s chipmunk (Tamais townsendii) has an injured ear but that doesn’t seem to slow him (or her?) down.
7. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) are well adapted to the open, drier forest edges that ring the park. Their bark peels to a striking orange color and their deep green leaves persist year-round.
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10. A ferry makes its way to the San Juan Islands.
11. A Great Blue heron seems to be contemplating the sky.
12. Fog

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14. Small-flowered Blue-eyed Mary – what a big name for a diminutive flower. Here it’s growing in a bed of moss. (Collinsia parviflora).
16. In Spring small wildflower meadows can be found in a few spots around the park. This one features blue-violet Small Camas (Camassia quamash), creamy white Meadow Deathcamas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) and pink Shortspur Seablush (Plectritis congesta). As you’d guess, Meadow deathcamas is very toxic. Its bulbs look like those of Small Camas, which was once an important tribal food source. After the flowers fall, there’s no way to tell the two bulbs apart. People used to mark the locations of the safe bulbs, to be dug later when they were bigger. The sweet bulbs were steamed in large pits for a day or more to make them digestible.

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17. January winds slam waves of Salish Sea water into the ancient rocks. Incoming tides draw ocean water from many miles away to this area, where it mixes vigorously with fresh river water in the tight channels. The mix of ocean and fresh water contributes to an ecosystem that is rich in biological activity.

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19. Typical for the southwest side of the park is this cozy group of Seaside junipers and Madrones nestled in a bed of Reindeer moss (Cladonia sp.). The junipers and Madrones knit together Douglas fir-dominant forest (glimpsed behind them) with the rocky, grassy bluffs that overlook the water. Both tree species enjoy the sharp drainage and abundant light here on the edge of the peninsula.
20. The soil starts with rock and moss.

21. In the forest, Western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) often take root on old, logged stumps. Eventually the hemlocks may envelope the stump completely.
22. Black-tailed deer are plentiful in the park – and all around the island.
23. A Madrone tree leans over the one-way Loop Road.
24. Another foggy day on Fidalgo.
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Where do all those Latin names come from? Because common names vary from place to place, they can be confusing, imprecise and misleading. Latin names are a universal language. I try to include them often so that readers from other countries or other parts of North America can understand what plant I’m referring to.

The sources I use regularly include the internet (e.g. Wikipedia and iNaturalist), Daniel Mathews’ excellent reference book, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of Coastal British Columbia, the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers and Lyons’ Wildflowers of Washington. I actually enjoy searching through these books and online resources to figure out what I’ve seen, and then learning about it – it’s like detective work.

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JUST ONE: Fawn lily

Spring proceeds on its own schedule, without effort or hindrance. It may be wetter or slower or colder than we think it should be, but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience. Spring doesn’t listen to that. Without considering our opinions or preferences, buds open, birds sing, frogs lay eggs, insects buzz…

…and the flowers, the flowers. Lately one in particular enchants me: the Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.

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Clean and delicate, the elegant, six-petaled lilies appear in early to mid-spring, in moist woodlands or prairies from northwest California to British Columbia. About two dozen other species of Erythronium occur in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and the Caucasus. Like tulips, they are members of the Lily family. Generally, lilies have flower parts arranged in threes, grow from bulbs and flourish in temperate regions. Their simplicity of form is very appealing.

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The Fawn lilies here on Fidalgo Island have been beautiful. Last April I was away almost all month and the April before that, I didn’t live here, so this is my first April on Fidalgo Island. It’s been a month of discoveries and finding dozens of graceful Fawn lilies in parks and preserves near home has been thrilling.

The flowers I admire today have taken years to come into bloom; they’re nothing like the sprouts you might grow at home or grass seed that greens up a lawn in a matter of days. I could begin the cycle anywhere but I’ll start with January, when the winds of winter have their way with branches, leaves, bark chunks, needles, cones and lichen scraps, sending them all raining down onto the forest floor where they slowly decompose. In March the ground is still a chaotic tangle of broken fragments holding little promise. But deep under the soil, Fawn lily seeds are busy growing. The first visible effort isn’t very dramatic – just one small leaf will emerge, probably during the wet weather of autumn. But the leaf will grow, and so will the bulb.

The next year another leaf will emerge, this time a little bigger. Below the leaf, the seed will have fattened into a small corm or bulb, which gradually pushes downward to a deeper, safer place where it’s less likely to be dug up and eaten or dry out in the summer. That downward motion is accomplished with specialized contractile roots that pull the bulb down into the soil instead of taking up water and minerals. As this cycle repeats the result is a bigger leaf, a bigger bulb, and a stronger plant each year.

Finally, the plant gathers sufficient energy to produce a flower. If the flower survives it may be pollinated, most likely by a bee. Successful pollination will lead to seed formation and dispersal and with their work done, the leaves will wither in the summer heat, releasing their nutrients back into the soil. Some of the seeds will land in just the right places to begin the cycle anew.

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6. The name “Fawn lily” supposedly derives from the resemblance of the leaf patterns to a fawn’s coat. An intriguing theory about why the leaves are mottled brown and green states that the darker (brown) areas may help absorb more heat from low, late-winter sunlight.

7. The leaves are lovely but the prize is the flower and eventually, it appears.



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Spending time among the Fawn lilies, photographing them and working out different ways to process the images deepens my appreciation for them. They won’t be in flower much longer. Like many Spring ephemerals, they take advantage of the light on the forest floor that is present before many plants leaf out. They flower before the light is reduced, fading away over the summer and coming alive again in the cool, wet, early months of the year. Late next winter I’ll search for those distinctively mottled leaves in anticipation of enjoying the delicate white stars of the forest again.

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In saying that spring follows its own schedule and pays no attention to what we might be thinking, I don’t mean to imply that our actions have no impact on the climate, the environment, and thus on spring itself. What we do and how we are involved with life on earth matters.

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WONDERS: Overhead and At My Feet

The pandemic has turned the world upside down for many of us, smashing routines to bits and making fear and anxiety our daily companions. Normally I like the unexpected – it perks me up and keeps me engaged. But a world-wide crisis in which countless people suffer isn’t what I have in mind when I consider the benefits of change. People across the globe have been forced way out of their comfort zones. We’re all doing whatever we can to cope with the consequences of a situation that would have sounded like science fiction a year ago.

For many people that means getting outdoors as much as possible, trying to gain a little distance from the news and relieve the restlessness that comes with quarantine restrictions. Unfortunately, the ability to go outdoors is only a dream for some people. I’m lucky – access to nature is not difficult where I live and I’m healthy enough to get myself out the door. Being outside has always been my salvation, so lately, I get out almost every day.

And I never know what I’m going to see next.

How about having sky overhead jam-packed with thousands of honking, flapping geese frantically flying back and forth? That was certainly an unexpected sight, and I loved it. Or how about a tiny, glittering pink gem rising out of the rough detritus of the forest floor? Finding dainty Calypso orchids in the woods made my heart pound. Startling sights above my head and at my feet – these are interruptions in the routine that I welcome.

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1. This is a fraction of the immense flock of Snow geese (Chen caerulescens) that we came upon in the fields of Skagit County, after a trip to the bakery one afternoon.

2. We reveled in the deafening noise.

3. Most Snow geese that spend winters in Skagit county breed on Russia’s Wrangel Island, far to the northwest. Many farmers leave crops (like potatoes and corn) in the ground for the geese and for Trumpeter swans, which also winter here.

4. Handsome birds!

5. Photographers like this man are thrilled to be in the midst of a whirling flock of Snow geese. I didn’t see them all winter. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time (they cover a wide area, moving from field to field). I thought they would leave before I could see them this year, but the day we saw this flock proved me wrong.

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You can experience the deafening noise of Snow geese yourself here. My own amateurish video didn’t upload but the second video in the link looks a lot like what we experienced, except it’s far louder in person. Three Bald eagles were harassing the geese that afternoon. People walking their dogs may also have disturbed them. I don’t like seeing the geese unsettled for too long (we watched for at least 20 minutes). They need their energy. But I trust they are healthy and most will make it back to their breeding grounds.

Many of you know the poem, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. She also wrote this poem, about an encounter with Snow geese.

Snow Geese

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
To ask
Of anything, or anyone,
Yet it is ours,
And not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
Above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
A flock of snow geese, winging it
Faster than the ones we usually see,
And, being the color of snow, catching the sun
So they were, in part at least, golden. I
Held my breath
As we do
Sometimes
To stop time
When something wonderful
Has touched us
As with a match,
Which is lit, and bright,
But does not hurt
In the common way,
But delightfully,
As if delight
Were the most serious thing
You ever felt.
The geese
Flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
Is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
As through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

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Another startling sight I experienced recently is the glorious vision of small, delicate magenta orchids growing on the forest floor. The little Calypso orchid (Calyso bulbosa) grows mainly in undisturbed northern forests, all around the globe. I saw my first Calypso last year and since then I’ve found them in three different parks here on the island. They are an astonishing sight, a real anomaly. Shaped and colored like miniature corsage orchids, you would expect to find them in a greenhouse, or growing in the luxurious warmth and humidity of a tropical country. As if someone dropped an earring made of brilliantly colored stones on the floor of a dusty old factory, the orchids push straight out of the dim forest floor, with just a single leaf pressed close to the earth. They’re a delight for anyone sharp-eyed enough to notice them – but only for a few weeks.

Wikipedia says, “The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive.” I think the name works on several levels for this plant: the flower contrasts sharply with its surroundings but is so small that it’s often hidden in the previous season’s detritus. The most intricately patterned parts of the flower are concealed below the upper petals (actually they are sepals, petals and a bract). Finally, the plant deceives potential pollinators by appearing to be source of nectar, which it is not.

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6. I was serious when I said these orchids are small and like to come up through all the branches, twigs, leaves and other detritus on the forest floor.

7. I found this younger specimen growing under a cedar log on the side of a trail in the forest.

8. I’ve read that these little gems smell sweet but the chilly, early spring air makes my nose stuffy; though I scrunched down to smell the flower I couldn’t discern any fragrance. The sight is reward enough for me.
9. The flowers look enticing to insects (and to me!) but in fact, they don’t have nectar. Bees learn there’s no reward for them after a few visits, but apparently even just a few visits to different Calypso orchids will get the pollination job done.

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11. Seen from above: pure elegance.

One more…

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12. A gaggle of Snow geese in black and white.

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LOCAL WALKS: Heart Lake

The first time I visited Heart Lake was a warm summer afternoon in 2018, shortly after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I had just learned about Heart Lake and the Anacortes Community Forest Lands: 2800 acres of forests, wetlands, and lakes right here on the island, with 50 miles of trails for hikers. As if the presence of Deception Pass State Park wasn’t enough, the island also enjoys a fine complex of forest, wetlands, bogs and lakes that sprawl across its middle. Near the shore of one of the lakes a grove of very special trees has thrived for hundreds of years. It’s one of the few remaining stands of old growth trees in the Puget Sound lowland ecoregion, and once I heard about it you can bet I was eager to see it.

That August afternoon I parked at the bottom of Mount Erie, a 1273-foot promontory that identifies Fidalgo Island from miles away. Trails wind up and down Mt. Erie but that’s a story for another day – I was more interested in what lies at the bottom of the mountain. As I crossed the road and entered the forest a striking sight stopped me in my tracks: a sleek but massive Western Redcedar tree with a hollowed-out base big enough for a child to crawl into. The tree stood there like an ancient guardian spirit, wounded but unyielding. Apparently a fire gutted the tree’s core long ago, but gazing upward I could see a dense canopy of healthy branches, far above my head.

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1. The base of the old Redcedar tree (Thuja plicata).

It was an appropriate way to begin the walk – with wonder. I’ve been back fifteen times since then, through every season. Sometimes it’s just to pause near the edge of the woods and photograph the placid lake. Once, last May, I joined a group of botany enthusiasts from the Washington Native Plant Society for a field trip through the Heart Lake woods. But mostly I go simply to tread the trails and commune with the giants.

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2. A path through old growth Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). This trail is designated for walking only; bikes and horses can use other trails.
3. The tree canopy.
4. Western redcedars thrive near the lake, to the right of the trail.

5. The distant shore is thick with Douglas fir trees.

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A little history: In 1919 Fidalgo Island’s only city, Anacortes, purchased a large parcel of property from the Washington Power, Light and Water Company. The goal was to preserve the lakes and the land around them so the island would have a backup source of clean water. That purchase prevented development and protected the forest to a degree but for decades, the city logged sections of the forest for revenue. At one point in the tangled history of Heart Lake, it was managed by the State Department of Natural Resources, which actually proposed a condominium development along the shore! That proposal prompted citizens to mobilize in order to prevent any development at Heart Lake. For a time, Heart Lake was designated a state park. Ultimately the city of Anacortes purchased the land from the state, in 2002. Then Heart Lake and the surrounding forest became part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.

But people care deeply for this land and soon, a conservation easement plan was created to add more protection for the land. Acre by acre, forest land is purchased by private citizens or entities from the city and set aside for perpetuity. Easement land can never be used for any commercial purpose. No logging, no mining (yes, there are a few old gold mines in these woods), no leasing or selling the land for any reason. Easement land is safe from the buzz of the saw, thanks to the organizing power of tree huggers!

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6. After this couple passed me I quickly photographed them to show the size of the trees. Mild winters in our region encourage fast growth.

7. Fishing on Heart Lake in October. Mount Erie rises in the background. The lake is stocked each year with trout for recreational fishing, either from the shoreline or from non-motorized small boats.
8. Leaves of the Yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepala) in October.
9. Cattails (Typha latifolia) at the edge of the lake in November.
10. I found this strange mushroom called Witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) in January. Note the spiderwebs! The common name comes from Europe, where the appearance of the mushroom at one’s home signified that a spell had been cast. This odd mushroom is found on most every continent and it may have medicinal properties.
11. This winter has been a good one for moss. February saw abundant rainfall and by March, mosses were overtaking small obstacles everywhere I looked. This clump made its way up a bare stick. I think it’s Oregon beaked moss (Eurhynchium oreganum).

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The walk around Heart Lake doesn’t feature many expansive water vistas. Vegetation grows right down to the shore, as it would without human intervention and the trails are mostly set back from the shoreline. Exploring these trails is an up-close and personal experience, with countless fascinating life forms to examine. At the same time, the immensity of the trees puts you in your place, a feeling that isn’t always easy to come by. I think it’s worth spending time in places where humans are dwarfed. Lingering under these great trees, I stretch and strain my neck to discern their distant tops, then I bend down to peer at odd mushrooms and delicate wildflowers. I listen for the croak of a tree frog or the piercing “kireee” of an eagle, and I breathe in peace.

*

12. Buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) along a Heart Lake trail.
13. Simple Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) always delight me, even though they’re not native plants here.
14. My backpack rests against the massive trunk of an old growth Douglas fir tree.


15. And now my phone.

16. A section of bark on an old growth Douglas fir reveals woodpecker damage, fire damage, spider webs, lichens and moss. With a hand lens we would see more life forms. The Heart Lake old growth trees grow where moisture is abundant and fires are infrequent. Severe damage from fires and windstorms historically happens only every few hundred years but we can still see the “biological legacy” of charred bark on the old trees.

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What is “old growth?” As a definition, old growth varies – the term doesn’t indicate a particular age or species of tree. Here in the Puget Sound lowlands the small amount of old growth that remains is made up of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). One quality common to any old growth stand is structural diversity: there are trees of different ages and sizes, there are logs, snags, and clearings where trees have fallen. Look in any direction and you’ll find trees in a variety of conditions: small saplings reach for the light, some sprouting from moss-covered logs, mid-sized, straight-trunked trees are common, older trees appear like sentinels and a host of “dead” wood – snags, stumps, logs, and broken branches is scattered everywhere. The snags and logs may look dead, but they are fully engaged in the life of the forest. All manner of plants and animals take advantage of the changes that follow downed and broken trees: increased light means opportunities to grow more quickly, dead wood provides nesting spots, and insects, arthropods and their predators busily maintain the critical rhythms of decomposition and nutrient recycling.

Old growth is about age but it’s also about the complexity of an ecosystem that has evolved over time. In forests west of the Cascades it can be 175 – 250 years before the intricate layers of ecosystem diversity begin to emerge. After a century or two the forest looks more and more “spacially patchy” as ecologists say. An old growth forest looks nothing like a neat, even-rowed, managed forest. Irregular patches of growth support a community of wildlife, invertebrates, fungi, understory plants, mycorrhizal fungi and microbes, all living in concert with the tree layer. Here in the Pacific northwest, more than half the forests were in the old growth phase when Europeans arrived. Now perhaps 10 – 18% can be considered old growth, so even small remnants like the 20 acres of old growth around Heart Lake are precious.

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17. Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) leaves spring up from a bed of moss on the forest floor. Flower stalks will bear tiny orchids in the summer.
18. A fern leaf casts a shadow on a fallen log.
19. In June, the Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) trees drop their catkins.
20. It’s November and the Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) bushes are shedding their leaves.
21. Believe it or not, this was taken a few days before Christmas. The evergreen understory of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) blends seamlessly with the graceful, feathery branches of Western Redcedar.
22. Wetlands border the lake; this one has Swamp lanterns, aka Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) blooming in late March.

23. Even at 1pm on a summer afternoon, the light is subdued.

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The forest and wetlands around Heart Lake seem almost pristine now, after decades of protection. The single road that passes the lake isn’t busy; traffic noise doesn’t invade the forest. We need these quiet, outdoor places more than ever. For many people, spending time immersed in nature is very difficult right now. So far we’re lucky in Washington State – the governor said getting exercise outdoors is fine as long as we maintain a distance of six feet between ourselves and others. People are still going to the parks. In my experience, they respect boundaries by stepping off the trails to let others pass. Everyone is polite, almost painfully so. As nourishing as time spent outdoors is for body and soul, it can feel fraught in the moments when we encounter other people.

We wait and see, each of us dealing with restrictions and anxieties in our own way. This post is an offering of a brief respite.

*

24. Heart Lake Road, September.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Signs of Spring in the Pacific Northwest

Because we need it….

1. Skunk cabbage, also known as Swamp lantern, lights up a wetland on Fidalgo Island. Lysichiton americanum was considered famine food by Pacific Northwest tribes so it wasn’t eaten often. The leaves were used for lining baskets and steaming pits.
2. Look closely at catkins and you’ll see they’re composed of dozens of tiny flowers that release pollen into the Spring air. These catkins are probably Red alder (Alnus rubra), an abundant tree on moist sites in our area.
3. More catkins. These don’t dangle but are upright. It’s a willow (Salix sp.) of some kind. We have many willow species and so far, I haven’t learned to tell them apart.


4. One of our most delightful signs of Spring is the Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Its luscious pink flowers grace drab, late winter woodlands with just the pop of color we need. Seeds from this plant were sent back to Europe by explorer David Douglas (1799-1834) and after a few years, they flowered. The introduction of the attractive shrub into the nursery trade was so successful that it covered Douglas’ expedition costs. Thanks to Douglas, a blogging friend living in Brussels has been enjoying the same flowering shrub on her deck that I’ve been photographing along wooded trails near home.

5. A pink haze of Red-flowering currant. This photo and the one above it were made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
6. In a dim tangle of fallen trees and branches, Red-flowering currant provides a bright spot.
7. Look carefully and you can see a Red-flowering currant bush blooming high up on this rock wall, its roots buried deep in a crevice. Lichens, Licorice fern, mosses, and other plants adorn this cliff at Lighthouse Point, in Deception Pass State Park.

8. I can’t resist!

9. I literally jumped up and down when I saw this tiny gem, the first of the little Spring wildflowers that grace the bluffs and small meadows on our island. In the iris family, this diminutive beauty is called a Satin flower, or Douglas’ grass-widow (Olsynium douglasii). The pair of flowers was just a few inches tall, growing near the edge of a sheer cliff. As the turbulent waters of Deception Pass rushed past below me, I crept up to the flowers on hands and knees, trying to photograph them despite stiff joints and a chilly breeze. You can bet I was smiling.

10. An early bee. It was a few minutes past 5pm when I saw this motionless bee on a Soapberry (Shepherdia canadensis) plant. It’s also called Soopolallie, “soop” like soap and olallie, a native tribal word for berry. The berries foam up when beaten to make a native dish. The tiny flowers must be providing nectar for early bees at a time when few flowers are available.

11. This distinctively marked Blacktail deer, a subspecies of the Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) has been munching its way through our yard off and on since we arrived in July, 2018. In this photo, taken March 8th, we think she looks pregnant. Recently she seems slimmer, so we’re hoping to see a fawn with her soon. Taken with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.

12. Mount Baker is about 40 miles as the crow flies from this field near Skagit Bay. Up on the snow-covered mountain, the Mt. Baker Ski Area has closed temporarily to allow its ski patrol medical professionals to assist people elsewhere. Skiers and boarders will have to wait and see if the lifts run again this season. Back in the winter of 1998-1999, Mt. Baker achieved the world record for seasonal snowfall: 1,140 inches, or 95 feet (28.9m).
13. The upright leaves and dangling flowers of Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) are a welcome sight in the forest. Indian plum (also called Osoberry) blooms early, in late winter. It’s an important nectar source for early bees and hummingbirds. I have photos of buds dated as early as January 30th. This photo was made March 10th, with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
14. Indian plum leaves on a bush growing along a seasonal stream next to our house. Photo made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.

15. The fine, green twigs and buds of the Red huckleberry bush (Vaccinium parviflorum) are a common sight in forests on Fidalgo Island. Later there will be little juicy, red berries. Supposedly a great pie can be made (using plenty of sugar, I bet) but I’ve never seen more than a few berries on a bush.
16. Kayakers are out again, plying the calm waters of Rosario Bay at Deception Pass. On a quieter bay behind the rock on the left, we watched a Harbor seal cavorting last week. Tail slaps, leaps out of the water and bubble blowing made up the above-water repertoire that seemed to impress a nearby female. Who knows what else was happening below the water! We can’t be 100% sure of the seals’ sex, but the display, which went on for over 20 minutes, sure had that “Check me out!” look.

17. Common mergansers (Mergus merganser) were gathering at Padilla Bay on this blustery March day. Soon they’ll migrate north to nest. Mergansers are diving ducks. I’ve seen them hunt in packs by herding minnows into tight schools so the fishing is easier. In the background, the whiter areas are sections that have been logged more recently than the darker areas.
18. This dark scene appeals to me for its muddy, early Spring atmosphere.

19. Mud at my feet, cherry blossoms overhead: Spring.

20. Thousands of Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) overwinter in agricultural fields just east of Fidalgo Island. The Trumpeter swan is the heaviest bird in North America and has the longest wingspan – up to 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. Every fall our county’s farmers leave some potatoes and corn in their fields for the swans to forage all winter long. Soon they’ll be off to Alaska to breed.
21. Shooting into bright sunlight drained the color out of this photo, an effect I think adds a nice atmosphere to this roadside scene of Trumpeter swans drinking from a flooded field with a farmer on his tractor in the distance.
22. Skagit County farmers grow acres of daffodils and tulips. This field was planted by RoozenGaarde, a family company that grows flowers from bulbs. It’s largest tulip bulb grower in North America, with 1000 acres of flower fields and 16 acres of greenhouses here in the Skagit Valley. The “daffs” are at peak bloom now; tulips will bloom in about a month.

23. Back in the forest, Swamp lanterns bloom along a seep at the edge of the wetland.
Spring! I love it.

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Subtle Rapture

Last week I took a walk at Kukatali Preserve, a narrow, forested peninsula that’s owned and managed jointly by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Washington State Parks. The preserve reaches a long arm into a quiet bay where seals, cormorants and ducks ply waters alive with clams, crabs, oysters and more. A walk at Kukatali is always interesting, offering treasures from the forest, shoreline and bay. The photo below shows the view from the end of the peninsula on that overcast day. The bird you can barely see is a cormorant, likely the Double-crested.

1. Deception Pass bridge seen from Kukatali Preserve.

We are at 48 degrees 44 minutes North so you might not expect Spring to be in evidence here, but the Salish Sea moderates temperatures and our winters are mild. Spring doesn’t have to wait for the snow to melt here at sea level. So far this year, rainfall has been abundant; the moss is green and luxurious and buds on the trees are plump. The first blossoms of the year have already opened: Indian plum’s little white bell flowers dangle from spindly branches and a few Red-flowering currant flowers are unfurling deep pink petals.

In recent weeks I’ve seen eagles sitting on their nests or hanging out next to them, apparently thinking things over. The Varied thrushes are looking handsome in their breeding outfits; Song sparrows are singing everywhere I go. Tiny insects can be seen buzzing the air too, but the landscape is still rather bare, as if the earth was holding its breath for a moment before a burst of energy. I know that’s not true though – the dance always continues on many levels, whether we see it or not.

Against this background of subtle colors and charged possibility I walked the length of Kukatali Preserve, curious to see what would present itself. I was not disappointed. Towards the end of the trail, a grassy field marks the spot where a home once stood; along the edge of the field, a haze of creamy white beckoned behind a maze of bare winter branches. It was a lovely wild Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) in full bloom, all by itself in the somber brown woods. Bitter cherry doesn’t boast the sweet pink of cultivated cherry trees – this tree’s flowers are a soft, creamy white. For a brief time in early Spring their subtle beauty graces forest edges and moist woodlands of the Pacific northwest. When they grow in the middle of the woods the puzzle of branches all around them allows only tantalizing glimpses of the delicate little flowers. It’s not easy to describe the phenomenon of walking through the winter forest and finding a blooming cherry tree, but you can bet my breath was taken away by the sight of this modest beauty, glimmering in the woods.

2. Normally each flower has five petals but the flower on the left has almost double the normal number, and two styles instead of one. If you think about how many flowers must be on one tree, no wonder some of them aren’t “normal.”


3. This phone capture conveys some of the complexity of the forest and the haze of cherry blossoms on an overcast afternoon.

4.

5. This blossom landed on a Sword fern that was half under water. Shadows complicated the picture. I could have picked out the Doug fir needles and lichens that distract the eye but I prefer not to make too many changes. Besides, finding firm ground to stand on in this wet spot was challenging.

6. Sometimes I treasure the fallen petals more than the blossoms still on the tree.

7. Moisture from the morning rain kept this single petal stuck on an old, lichen-covered log.


8.

9.

10.

11.

12. New leaves

13.

14. In a certain light the creamy haze of flowers had a pink hue.

The Bitter cherry displays its bounty modestly, often behind a scrim of bare tree branches. Unlike that low-contrast scenario, the disparity between the nourishing beauty of my surroundings and the barrage of bad news about our earth, politics, epidemics and violence is intense enough to induce mental whiplash. This sentence from the newsletter of a local non-profit organization speaks about the painful discrepancy between the beauty we witness and the news we hear:

One of the tasks of these times, it seems, is to learn how to live in the space between unimaginable beauty and unbearable sorrow. To live without losing heart.

From The Pathfinder, the newsletter of Transition Fidalgo and Friends, a local non-profit.

15. A Madrone tree enjoys extra light by the water. Kukatali Preserve, south end.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Snow-covered Mountains and Moss-draped Trees along Route 20

Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.

The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.

1. I took this photo through the windshield when we were far enough east (and high enough) to see snow on the roadside. We continued east to Newhalem, a tiny company town centered around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams supplying electricity to Seattle. The road is closed about 9 miles further up. People who live in Winthrop, on the other side of the pass, have to drive south and then west to get to Seattle in the winter, a four-hour plus trip.

2. In the distance is the Picket Range, seen from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem. This section of the 789-square-mile North Cascade Mountains may not have the highest peaks, but those mountains are every bit as rugged as they look. Reaching the remote Picket Range requires a long, tough slog through steep, densely vegetated terrain just to get to the bases of the mountains. If you’re in tip-top shape and are an experienced climber, for $2050 USD you can join an 8-day alpine climbing expedition to the southern Picket Range in August. You’ll need to bring your own ice axe.

3. Zooming in on Pinnacle Peak (left, also called the Chopping Block), Crescent Creek Spires and the Rake. These peaks are so remote that the first alpine traverse, taking ten days, wasn’t accomplished until 1963. First ascents of individual peaks in the Picket Range were made from 1931 through 2004.

4. We were intrigued by the windblown, clean rock of Inspiration Peak (7900 ft) to the right.

5. Behind the viewing platform the cool, mossy forest of hemlock, alder and fir was quiet in the afternoon sun.

6. Rt. 20 follows the Skagit River down from several lakes in the North Cascades, where the river is dammed after passing the US – Canada border. Fifteen miles below Newhalem we pulled over for a closer look at the river. Here in Marblemount, a boat launch at the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit rivers makes a pleasant place to stop. Just downriver, Bald eagles congregate in December to feed on river salmon. I’ve seen more eagles out my living room window than I have along the Skagit, but maybe I wasn’t there at the right time. In any case, being near the river always refreshes one’s spirit.

7. This magnificent old Bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) grows next to the river. It carries a heavy load of moss, ferns, lichens, fungi and is probably home to lots of insects, too. It looks like its been through the wars – half of its massive trunk is broken off and dead, and a clutch of great, heavy limbs spreads towards the sky on one side.

8. Looking up into the hairy armpits of the Bigleaf maple. The biomass of mosses, ferns and lichens on trees like this can be four times that of the tree’s leaves.

9. A close-up of the thick jowls of moss living on the old tree, along with elegant Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

10. This section of dead bark had a large fungus growing on the inner bark and moss edging a piece of outer bark.

11. As the sun lowered it lit up garlands of moss that sweep all the way around the tree’s heavy limbs.

12. Red alder (Alnus rubra) trees dotted the river banks.

13. The alders were covered with different fungi in beautiful patterns resembling a map.

14. Another example of decorated bark, from the Newhalem Visitor Center. A sapsucker drilled rows of holes into the bark of this conifer tree.

15. I saw these tracks, which I believe are River otter tracks, on the sandy riverbank at Marblemount.

16. Near the alders the ground is matted with last year’s leaves and tired grass stems, a rich, decomposing brew that will nourish this year’s plants and animals.

17. The river bottom was a tapestry of soft green, gold and rust-colored rocks, and the water was clear as can be.

18. Every time you look at the river bottom it’s a little different, as ice-cold water races over the rocks on the way to the Salish Sea and the light bounces off the surface of the river, reflecting variable skies above.

19. Black and white seems to suit this roadside view of an old homestead nestled in the snowy Cascade foothills that we saw on the way home.

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EXTRA!

At the risk of destroying the illusion of paradise on Route 20, I give you this: the Marblemount Boat Launch honeybucket and a big puddle. I can’t vouch for the cleanliness of the interior.

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You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.

JUST ONE: Seaside juniper

This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.

Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.

One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.

But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.

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1. A grove of Seaside juniper trees on an exposed, south-facing site.

2. Nearby, the skeleton of a Seaside juniper graces the view of Burrows Pass and Burrows Bay.
3. Under this old juniper skeleton are grasses and lichens that can tolerate thin, rather poor soil. Around the tree are more junipers and Douglas firs, which also do well in less-than-perfect conditions.

4. Another old juniper skeleton, partly fire-damaged. Photo #12 below shows the sawed-off limbs on the right.
5. This tree demonstrates comfort in the precarious environment where junipers are at home. You can almost feel the wind coming off the water. Four-legged creatures (like the doe in photo #24) have no trouble navigating the steep slopes – but I have to very careful here.

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What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.

6. The one that started it all for me on a December afternoon in 2017, the first time I visited the park.

7. Sunlit leaves

8. Waves
9. Feathers

10. Sprawl and reach

11. Tangle

12. Chop

13. Venerable….this may be the oldest juniper on Fidalgo Island. It’s probably almost 300 years old, predating the arrival of white settlers on the island.

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The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.

Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.

14. Sometimes juniper bark grows in a criss-cross pattern, a phenomenon I’ve seen on other trees, too. I wonder what causes it.

15. A branch tip in November, when water is once again plentiful.
16. Older juniper branches host a wide variety of lichens and mosses.

17. The light at the edge of the island where the junipers grow is sometimes shot through with water-drenched color.

18. On the first day of Spring, even long-dead branches appear to celebrate gentler times ahead.

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Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….

Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?

The juniper berries used in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.

20. I believe these are male (pollen) cones.

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A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.

America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.

21. Well-rooted.

22. Another venerable, well-rooted juniper, living through another dry summer.
23. An impressive, if untidy, mature juniper with sprawling, multiple trunks and crossing branches.

24. This unusual, nearly prostrate Seaside juniper grows in sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, where a small number of these trees can be found.

25. You may spot tiny pink wildflowers in this photo taken in May. By mid-summer they’ll be almost gone. The ground will be parched until the rains return.

26. At dusk, a doe listens to a boat passing through the channel below, just out of sight. This is where juniper lives, and thrives.

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(Previous “Just One” posts include the Sword fern, the Pacific Madrone tree and the Licorice fern).