LOCAL WALKS: A TWO-FER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burrowing into the Depths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Water everywhere.

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

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

18. A gibbous moon appears from behind the clouds.

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

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

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LOCAL WALKS: Mount Erie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But enough, let’s go up!

7. Erie Mountain Drive in November…

8. …and on another foggy day in June.

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

10. It’s peaceful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Joyous Young Pine, 1944. Morris Graves.

22. The North Cascades from Mt. Erie.

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

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

A previous post about Mount Erie can be found here.

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CAUGHT

It’s caught,

held for a moment on its way somewhere –

where?

Its movement arrested, it seems

comfortable (and what is comfort anyway, but

the false security

that nothing will change?)

It’s stalled, or maybe

paused

in this in-between place.

Not my idea of home.

But still, it settles in

until the next shift

nudges it along.

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1. The next breeze might blow this seed onto the ground – or maybe not. Hollywood Heights, Los Angeles, California.

2. A Ginkgo leaf is temporarily trapped in the clutches of pine needles. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

3. On a quiet residential street, a spring blossom has fallen into a bed of leaves. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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The word “caught” can indicate a number of different states of being – caught in a maelstrom, caught lying, caught a break. These particular images came together because one day when I was out with my camera I noticed a leaf caught on a twig, suspended in mid-fall. Soon I began to see this phenomenon of things caught on other things frequently. I photographed leaves and other bits of flotsam caught on fences, speared by twigs, and resting on bigger leaves. There’s something poignant about these suspended moments, something that speaks to the ultimately temporary nature of all things, the “just-passing-through” sense of life that we humans find hard to accept.

I started adding the keyword “caught” to photographs in Lightroom so I could gather them together. Here’s a selection that spans eleven years and two continents.

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4. It was a poignant sight – dozens of little dead moths, covered with dew and caught on branches along a trail on a cold October morning. Baker River Trail, Concrete, Washington.

5. A feather caught on a blackberry branch. Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Duvall, Washington.

6. Fluff from Cottonwood tree seeds is caught in a corner of a roadside parking lot. Near Edison, Washington.

7. Even in January, the fallen leaves of Bigleaf maples trees remain snagged in branches high above the ground. O.O. Denny Park, Kirkland, Washington.

8. This lichen-covered twig fell right into the “arms” of a Madrone tree and stayed there. Sharpe Park, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

9. A length of cloth was tied to a rusty barbed wire fence, and then came the wind. Duvall, Washington.

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11. A length of plastic, whipped and wound by the wind on a cold day. Somewhere in upstate New York.

12. A tangle of tiny, curly leaves held by a depression in a wavy Hosta leaf. Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

13. Bigleaf maples, with their deeply indented lobes, are always getting caught on branches and fences. Duvall, Washington.

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14. Fireweed seeds caught in a spider web. Juanita Bay, Kirkland, Washington.

15. This barbed wire fence has been catching hanks of sheep wool – do they rub up against it or are they just passing by? Klein Reken, Germany.

16. High tides and winds wrap strands of eel grass around the branches of trees that grow close to the water. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

17. Leaves scrunched in the cracked mud of a dry creek bed. Somewhere in southeastern Arizona.

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19. Leaves from a Japanese maple tree fell into this Japanese lantern. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

20. The viscid caps of these mushrooms capture tiny treasures – Douglas fir needles, bits of leaves, a blade of grass and a tiny Redcedar cone. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

21. A Bigleaf maple leaf hung up on a barbed wire fence. Snoqualmie Valley, Washington.

22. A wild Rhododendron blossom stopped by a Salal leaf. It will probably disintegrate right here, with the help of gentle spring rains. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

23. Nature never ceases to amaze. This skeletonized leaf must have been caught on the tip of the horsetail plant when it was just beginning to grow. Mercer Slough, Bellevue, Washington.

24. A beautiful tropical leaf with an artful sprinkling of pollen. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, Netherlands.

25. A year and a week later I observed the same phenomenon closer to home. Tree pollen was abundant, coating this Salal leaf. I wonder why the tiny pollen grains stayed in the veins – maybe because a day of heavy fog was followed by a still, dry day. The moisture from the fog may have coalesced, carrying the pollen grains into the veins of the leaf, where the grains settled and formed the pattern you see. (This is called making it up as you go along!) Mt. Erie, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

26. Where would we be if bees didn’t catch pollen? This one carries a load of precious Trillium pollen. Somewhere in King County, Washington.

27. The shredded leaf of this tropical plant is caught between the stems, looking like it might get up and dance if the right music is played. Fort Myers, Florida.

28. And more.

29. Snow often does brief balancing acts when it piles up precariously on twigs and branches. Kirkland, Washington.

30. A leaf is caught on my windshield on a rainy December evening. Kirkland, Washington.

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LOCAL WALKS: Beach and Dune

When we think of beaches and dunes we usually picture a seashore, probably by the ocean. But just over the bridge from my home there’s a breathtaking stretch of beach backed by sand dunes and a narrow strip of forest. Walking along that beach feels a lot like being at the ocean, so much so that you might not guess it’s 90 miles away. Masses of cold, Pacific water funnel down the Strait of Juan de Fuca twice a day, creating a rich maritime ecosystem. Luckily for the plants, animals and humans that pass through this particular spot, a state park was established here almost a hundred years ago, protecting this unusual habitat on the northwest corner of Whidbey Island. Whenever I want to walk along a beach and listen to waves lapping at my feet, this is where I go.

1. I usually come here late in the day. The beach faces west and at sunset, even on the coldest days, someone is always enjoying the view. The bulge on the right is a rough shelter made from driftwood that piles up in heaps, providing creative opportunities for amateur architects.

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5. Behind the shoreline, wind and water sculpt the land. There are round rocks dotted with lichens that could have been tossed there by storms decades ago. Tough plants that tolerate blowing sand, sporadic moisture, and poor soil are here, too, and in the forest there’s a surprise: an immense Douglas fir tree that has been there for over 800 years.

6. A close look at a lichen-spotted rock found in the sand dunes. Everything is worth a look!

7. I think this is American silvertop (Glehnia littoralis), a plant in the carrot/parsley family. Up to its neck in fine sand and swimming in seeds, I’m confident this plant has done its job. I’ll look for the flowers next year.

8. The old, contorted Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) sprawls on high ground just above the dunes. Standing under its sheltering limbs I feel a stillness resonating from the core of the tree, passing through every cell and into the air around and inside me.

9. A view toward the water from behind the old Doug fir.

10. Broken branches and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) cones litter the mossy ground on a dry August day.

11. In the forest, Western dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) trees display warm Fall colors on branches hung with an assortment of gray-green lichens. You may recognize this scene – a similar one is in my previous post, “What it Might Be.”

12. On a scrubby hillock an ancient, toppled Western yew (Taxus brevifolia) tree pushes its branch tips up toward the light. This is c̓əx̌bidac, the bow wood tree. The strong, heavy wood can be used for bows, paddles, digging sticks and awls. The slow-growing Pacific yew is not at all common here. It is the original source of taxol, or paclitaxel, an important cancer drug. Thankfully, the drug can now be manufactured through cell culture techniques, taking pressure off wild trees.

13. Yew bark, the precious substance from which paclitaxel was made.

14. Colonies of lichens are at home on the deadwood. But why call it dead at all? Life springs up, reaches out and cycles around, even here.

15. This fierce little denizen of the dunes is the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) who is busy scolding me.

16. The middle dunes are anchored by tough grasses and Douglas fir trees.

17. A glimpse of Salish Sea waters and the San Juan Islands through a thicket of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and beach grasses.

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19. Bullwhip kelp (Nereocyctis luetkeana) blades shine orange in the late sun on the beach. The blades (like leaves) are draped over the stipe (the stem) of this huge seaweed that grows abundantly just offshore. Follow this link to learn about early uses for Bullwhip kelp and find out how to make a Bullwhip kelp rattle. 🙂

20. Here’s a contemporary use for Bullwhip kelp – spontaneous beach sculpture.

21. These two pieces of driftwood formed a nice minimalist picture at sunset.

22. Raindrops speckle colorful rocks that were tossed into a driftwood cavity by the waves.

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24. A corny sailboat-in-the-sunset image – it’s trite but it’s hard to resist recording scenes like this.

25. The sun has set. Time to go home.

The unknowable ocean flows

down the strait

mixing currents and creatures,

ceaselessly anointing the beach

with life. A woman walks along the shore

barefoot in winter, carrying nothing.

A child climbs a driftwood pinnacle,

three Buffleheads bob among the breakers, and

a crab claw lands at my feet.

The wide, pale sky blesses it all.

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Dedicated to J-J. P. He was a great neighbor who was taken from his family and friends way too soon. RIP

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JUST ONE: Vine Maple

1. November in the forest with Vine maples.

This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.

I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.

2. Looking down on our small Vine maple after a snowfall.

3. The same tree in April, processed with a solarized effect.

4. Looking down again, this time with a Lensbaby, in May.

5. In October.

Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.

Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.

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8. Looking up into a Vine maple tree at the Trail of Cedars in Newhalem, Washington. July, 2016

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10. Looking up into a Vine maple tree along the trail to Wallace Falls in July.

11. November winds blow pale Vine maple leaves off the trees. The dark evergreens towering over them are Western redcedars and Douglas firs.

I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).

As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.

12. A Vine maple peaks out from between two evergreen trees in May at Federation Forest in Washington.

13. Vine maples carry fat clumps of moss on their limbs at Federation Forest.

14. To the left is a Bigleaf maple, our most common maple species. Contrast its large leaves with the smaller leaves of the golden Vine maple on the right. Marckworth State Forest, Washington State. October, 2016.

15. This Vine maple, planted at a garden apartment complex, lights up the parking lot in November with color. Trees in full sun display more fall color than trees in the forest.

16. Vine maples adorn the forest at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland, Washington. November, 2017.

17. Another way of seeing Vine maple leaves on a windy November day at O.O. Denny Park.

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Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.

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HINGE TIME

1.

I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.

There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.

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In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.

My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.

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I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.

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There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.

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  1. A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
  2. The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
  3. End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
  4. A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
  5. Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
  6. Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
  7. Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
  8. A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
  9. Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
  10. I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
  11. A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
  12. Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
  13. Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
  14. A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
  15. The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
  16. Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
  17. Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.

WITHIN THE BOUNDS

…of a five-mile radius. That is where the shutter button clicked for the images below.

Real travel still seems risky but we are so weary of the restrictions we’ve had to adapt to this year! A release, a reprieve, a relief – that’s what we need. Getting outside works for me. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired but I make myself walk and in the end, there is much to be found that keeps me going, even close to home. So I continue my local forays with a curious mind and a grateful heart.

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Here on Fidalgo Island seasonal changes are drawn out and subtle; summer into fall is no exception. Instead of brilliant Sugar maple fire there is a quiet, golden glow in the grasses and leaves; in place of crisp, blue-sky days there is moody morning fog. The delights of freshly-opened flowers are gone but there is pleasure to be had in the following the sinuous curves of drying leaves. The slow permutations of autumn in the Pacific northwest unfold without hindrance, like a meandering waltz spreading limbs through time and space.

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These images were made between mid-September and mid October on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The terroir, as the French say, is strongly influenced by water, mild in temperature, thin of soil, and resplendent with natural beauty.

I “beat the bounds” of my own small place on this planet, walking a ragged perimeter of well-worn paths, absorbing the lessons I’m open to, exploring the limits of “my” territory. In England, Scotland and Wales, before maps were readily available, boundary memories were periodically refreshed by walking along and defining them. Beating the bounds and practices like it have probably been around for thousands of years and may be rooted in a similar Roman custom which Wikipedia says honored Terminus, the god of landmarks. But why is it called “beating” the bounds? Because willow or birch branches were slapped on the ground and on the old stone boundary markers, helping to fix parish borders in residents’ minds. Children were brought along to learn the boundaries by whatever means suited those in charge – maybe a firm knock on the child’s head when they arrived at a stone marker could cement the memory. And afterwards the bonds of the community were strengthened by celebrating with food and drink. According to Wikipedia, the custom still exists in some locations, including sites in Germany, France, and even the U.S. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have statutes requiring that certain boundaries are periodically reaffirmed. However, apparently some contemporary versions of beating the bounds don’t include actual walking. Too bad.

Though I’m not necessarily a fan of practices that strengthen the idea of ownership over land, I find much to like in the idea of beating the bounds. It seems to be a way to recognize and celebrate one’s connection to the earth, specifically to one’s locality. We are rooted in the local, nourished by the soil under our feet and the air about us. It’s good to remember that.

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3. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in repose.

4. My bounds include shorelines; on this beach golden leaves were scattered on the sand and tiny shell fragments piled up behind when the tide went out.

5. Madrone trees play a prominent role in my environment. As summer wanes and windy rainstorms appear they fling berries onto the ground. Douglas fir needles make a nice backdrop.

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7. A Douglas fir skeleton at the feet of thriving relatives looks mysterious in the morning fog.

8. Twined Douglas fir trees. They’re the most common tree species within the bounds of my island.

9. A fragile piece of Madrone bark hangs from a twig encircled by a honeysuckle vine. The slow collapse of autumn is indeed a beautiful thing, even in its most mundane details

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12. The single, ruined train car that shares a field with half a dozen cattle looked straight out of an old movie when the smoke settled around it. This is one of the stranger sights seen in my travels.

13. On this October morning my world was smudged by fog instead of smoke.

14. With a little help from the camera, golden Bracken ferns wave in the wind, saying goodbye to chlorophyll-green summer days and hello to the somber tones of decomposition.

15. I thought these were gooseberries but found out they’re Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) berries. This Pacific northwest native is grown in temperate gardens world-wide for it’s beautiful spring flowers.

16. Back at the beach the receding tide left a message written in eelgrass.

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18. Horsetails (Equisetum arvense) are leaning closer to the earth now.

19. I found fall color on a small scale in the forest – Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) in a bed of moss.

20. Another Western starflower plant rides out autumn in a soft sea of reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.).

21. Fog, not smoke. Bliss.

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FURTHER AFIELD: An Afternoon in the Mountains

I’ve been longing to go up into the mountains. On a calm Monday two weeks ago, the smoke had cleared and the weather was favorable, so we headed out to the North Cascades for a stroll around a pristine alpine lake. At 4300 feet (1310m) Bagley Lakes isn’t the highest hike in the Mount Baker area, but for us, it was a welcome change of scenery, from an island at sea level to a mountain’s dramatic peaks and valleys.

1. On the way. The first glimpse of mountains in the distance is always exciting.

2. Mt Shuksan and Hanging Glacier, seen from Heather Meadows on the flanks of Mt. Baker. At the lower left is White Salmon Lodge (a ski base).

Mt. Baker is a favorite destination for hiking, climbing, snowboarding, skiing and other recreational pursuits. The highest point that vehicles can access is at the end of a series of steep switchbacks that climb the mountain’s north side. The final 2.7 miles is under snow most of the year and only opens in the summer. It takes road crews two to six weeks to dig through the 30 – 50 feet of snow that falls up there. Depending on conditions they could finish in May, or it might be August before the last section opens up to visitors.

At the end of the road is Artists Point, a huge parking lot with an array of trails leading into the rocky wilderness beyond. Even on a weekday in September it’s a very popular place, so we decided to leave the road before the top and hike a little lower. It was a good choice; our trail wasn’t deserted but it wasn’t busy either. We had some space.

As we set out on a loop trail around lower Bagley Lake, I could feel the anticipation building. When I’m in the mountains my feet want to leap ahead, my mind races and my spirit soars. I have to consciously bring myself back down to earth – at least enough to sense the rocky path under my feet. Over and over that day, I reminded myself to watch where I stepped, slow down, and be careful. And over and over again, I felt the exhilaration of simply being alive in such a beautiful, humbling place.

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5. There were blueberries everywhere!

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7. For about 8 months each year this lake is under snow. Unofficially, the Mt. Baker ski area is said to have the highest snowfall of any resort in the world – on average, 53.4 ft (16.3m) per year. The mountain summit is 8 miles away from this spot, as the crow flies.

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11. This old tree has seen weather that I can’t imagine.

12. Battered by the elements, Douglas firs still stand tall.

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Here’s a link explaining how these amazing rock shapes form. The rock reveals the volcanic origin of the area and in fact, Mt. Baker is an active volcano. In 1975, Koma Kulshan (an indigenous name for the mountain) emitted steam when magma intruded somewhere deep under the mountain. The steam melted a huge hole in the glacier at Sherman Crater, below the summit. A stunt pilot was enlisted to fly scientists as close to the active crater as possible so they could photograph and study it. Seismometers were installed and campgrounds below the active crater were closed for the summer, but thankfully, no eruption occurred. Now, systems and procedures are in place in case the mountain erupts. The local county sheriff’s website has instructions for what to do in case of an eruption, noting that there WILL be warnings, in the form of “days or more of increased earthquakes.”

15. Like a giant’s building blocks, these enormous rock cubes tumbled down during some long-ago disruption, landing in a lush bed of wildflowers and grasses.

16. A sturdy stone bridge crosses the spot where a creek connects upper and lower Bagley Lakes. Two straight-sided boulders nearby offered a fine spot to sit and devour my lunch. Just beyond the bridge American dippers (small, dark gray birds) actively pursued their own lunch – under the water.

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18. Fallen trees in every stage of decomposition litter the steep hills. This one was adorned with sprightly Lady ferns (Anthyrium felix-femina).

19. A parting view of stately Mt. Shuksan, a 9,131 foot-tall massif (i.e. not a volcano) that’s beloved by climbers, with 14 different ice and rock routes to the craggy peak. We will leave that for the technical climbers. They get the supreme views but we get the blueberries.

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LOCAL WALKS: Two Walks by the Water

This post focuses on two places I return to frequently: one is at the island’s edge where land meets water, the other is inland, where a forest surrounds a lake. Water bodies have powerful effects on land, nourishing life with mist and fog, altering temperature, favoring particular plants and animals, and modifying the land itself. Bodies of water have profound effects on humans too, of course. Not least is the impact water has on our emotions. A lake I visit refreshes my mind even when barely glimpsed through the trees on a hill far above it. Reflections on the lake’s surface mesmerize me as I slowly ply the shoreline path. Along the island’s edge a larger body of water soothes my nerves, pushing waves that lap at my feet as I walk along the pebbled beach. Round stones roll and clatter when the water sucks them back, delighting my ears.

Walking by the water is restorative. I was in danger of taking that for granted until this month, when smoke-ridden, unhealthy air forced me to stop my outdoor walks. I didn’t think we would be shut indoors for so long, peering through closed windows at a landscape dulled by dirty air. I didn’t think the leaves on the Bigleaf maples could be so still for so long, or the birds so silent. That’s what happened though. And unsurprisingly, I got restless. For the past week I’ve made brief escapes by car, running the air conditioning (which I normally would not do) and gaping at horizons smudged down to nothingness. One normalizing errand I can do is to visit the drive-up espresso stand – but even that activity has been fraught. On the worst days, when the air quality index soared into a dangerous category, I would roll my window back up after ordering, roll it down again to grab the drink and up again while the masked barista smiled with her eyes and ran my card. Once she offered to add the tip and sign the receipt for me, so I wouldn’t need to roll the window down again. I worried about her, exposed to the “very unhealthy” air for hours on end.

But how lucky we both are, not to have lost our homes like so many others here on the increasingly hot and dry West Coast of America, the country that turns its back on climate change action and continues down a path which, if not altered, will create an unimaginable disaster. It will be a cowardly new world populated by the descendants of people who didn’t have the courage to act when it was necessary. I’m aware that I don’t help matters by using my car when I don’t absolutely need to. We all make compromises and do our best. We are living in strange times.

Today I’m going to spread a little beauty around. Maybe it will bring a measure of relief to you as you worry about what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. Water and its environs – drink it in with your tired eyes and breathe a long sigh. And maybe do one small thing today, to tip the scales the other way.

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1. A stipe (stem) of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) afloat in the shallow water of Rosario Bay. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.
2. Wind-sculpted Douglas fir trees and morning fog, August, Rosario Bay.

3. The Maiden of Deception Pass. She was carved from a Western redcedar as a joint Samish Tribe-Skagit County project. Here story can be found below, at the end of the post.

4. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stalks its prey on Rockweed-covered rocks in Rosario Bay. I wish this bird good luck on this foggy morning.

5. Rocks are tumbled smooth by four tides a day at Rosario Beach.

6. A young Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perches on a tall Douglas fir and surveys the scene up on Rosario Head, a bald above the bay.

7. Hopefully this little Townsend’s chipmunk (Tamias townsendii) can evade the hawk’s talons. It ate calmly while I stood nearby but scrambled under the driftwood as soon as I moved.

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9. Watching the fog at Rosario Beach.

10. Fog formed, evaporated and formed again as I meandered spellbound among the driftwood logs.

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11. At Little Cranberry Lake on a quiet July afternoon, a small island turns golden.

12. A tree that fell into the lake long ago sprouts a tuft of grass.

13. Beavers have been busy around the lake. The south end was flooded and now, dead trees wait their turn to crash into the water.

14. As I pick my way along the rocky, rooty shoreline, the water casts its spell.

15. Golden grasses sway on a bluff overlooking the lake.

16. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) throw lanky shadows across one another in the forest.

17. Long after they have dried up, papery Pearly everlasting flowers (Anaphalis margaritacea) continue to grace an opening in the woods above the lake.

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17. Douglas for branches dip their tips toward the water.

18. Tall, dense trees don’t let much light into the forest. Dew coats the dried flowers of Ocean Spray (also called Ironwood) (Holodiscus discolor) tracing a lacy filigree of light.

19. Thousands of midges, perhaps just hatched, swarm over the water at Little Cranberry Lake. Many will mate and many will be eaten.

20. Back at Rosario Bay, the view from Rosario Head is obscured by fog. Boat trails glow on the water’s surface long after they’re out of sight.

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  • The story of the Maiden of Deception Pass. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot was a beautiful Samish Indian girl living in a village at this site. She was gathering seafood one day when a young man from beneath the sea saw her and fell in love. But when this man of the sea asked her father for her hand in marriage, he refused, for fear she would drown. The young man warned Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father that the seafood would disappear unless she married him. When his warning proved to be true, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father granted permission for the marriage. The beautiful woman waded into the sea to join her new husband. Once again the seafood returned and was plentiful. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot returned to her people once a year for four years. Barnacles had grown upon her hands and arms, and her long raven hair turned to kelp. Chill winds followed wherever she walked, and she seemed to be unhappy out of the sea. Seeing this, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s people told her she did not need to return to them. Since that day, she has been the Samish Tribe’s guiding spirit and through her protection there has always been plenty of seafood and pure, sweet springwater. From the Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center

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