Tides are like the earth breathing in and out, in and out. On the in-breath, a myriad of living and once-living things are sucked away from the shore with the water. On the out-breath, everything is pulled back toward the shore and rearranged. In, out, over and over. Endless cycles reveal innumerable scenes for the visually curious, like new paintings created and framed, minute by minute.
Gentle currents of water draw lines and patterns in the sand. Waves scoop and carve hollows around stranded objects. Pieces of seaweed detach, swish around, and come to rest, leaving calligraphic messages behind. Tangles of plant life, artfully arranged chunks of driftwood, rivulets, ripples – the tides yield a never-ending parade of forms on the beach. Delighting the eyes of toddlers and photographers, piquing the interest of gulls and herons, the shoreline is “ever-present, never twice the same.”*
Tides wash shorelines the world over but each place where salt water meets land is different. The weather is different, the ecology is different, the geology is different, and the tide cycles are different. Not only do some locations have stronger tides than others, but each high or low tide is different from the last. Many variables are responsible for uneven tides, like bulges in the earth, continents in the ocean, an uneven ocean floor, and an imperfect alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. The seasons and lunar cycles also affect tides.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, a wide strait (the Strait of Juan de Fuca) cuts 96 miles (155km) back into Washington, connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific ocean. That means people living 90 miles from the ocean, like I do, still experience daily tidal cycles. Most places have two low and two high tides per day. In the Pacific Northwest, the lows and highs are mixed, which means that each day’s high tides are at different heights. Each day’s low tides are different, too. Today (at Bowman Bay), shortly after midnight there was a high tide of about 7.9 feet (2.4m). Just before 8am there was a low tide at 1 foot (.3m). The next high tide, at 3:17pm, is almost 3 feet lower than the first one – just 5.1 feet (1.5m). The last low tide of the day is at 6:03pm. At 4.7 feet (1.4m), it will be much higher than the morning low tide. As you can see, sometimes a low tide is almost as high as the previous high tide.
Keeping an eye on tide charts is essential for boaters and I’ve learned it’s worthwhile for me to check tide charts, too. That’s how I know to be at a place like North Beach (below) during a very low tide. Normally only the dark rocks in the photo are visible but during very low tides you can see rocks that have been smoothed and shaped by numberless tides.
Tide heights can vary a lot, depending on many factors. North America’s Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides – as high as 53 feet (16m) – but far to the south, the Caribbean has almost no tides. The reasons for this disparity are too complex to go into here. Though we may not grasp the science, many of us have seen the damage a very high tide combined with strong onshore winds and low pressure does. Whether in person or on media, we’ve seen houses destroyed and shorelines changed by complex interactions between the tides and the weather.
You probably know that around the new and full moon the difference between low and high tide levels increases because the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon magnifies gravitational pull. There are seasonal variations in tide cycles, too – something I didn’t know until I moved to an island. In the Pacific Northwest, summer brings unusually low tides during the daytime and the winter’s lowest tides occur after dark. During the full moon this month, Puget Sound had an extremely low tide, the lowest in over a decade. Foragers and families converged on shorelines throughout the region to experience the extra-low tide, a phenomenon that’s becoming less common due to rising sea levels.
I went to Bowman Bay, my favorite place to walk the beach anytime. I’d hoped to find pretty patterns in the sand but nature had other ideas. What I did find were ribbons of kelp shining in the sunlight (#4 & #5), a bare-bottomed toddler having a blast in the sand, the fresh hoof prints of a running deer, and the same family of Canada geese that I photographed last month. For at least a month these goose parents have kept all six of their goslings safe. I always expect to see one or two fewer, but so far they are all OK.
A few days later the afternoon low tide was still unusually low, so I went to Washington Park. A rocky pocket beach there can be good for tide pooling (searching for creatures in basins of water left by the outgoing tide). The only seastar I found was dead but there were beautiful anemones waving translucent tentacles. Another anemone was the color of an overripe peach.
Something interesting always appears as a result of the tides. These photos are just one person’s observations from walking along Salish Sea shorelines. You’ll find something different.
*The words, “Ever present, never twice the same” are inscribed on a granite marker that was part of an installation done in 1987 by the artist Robert Irwin at Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked then. That phrase, along with “Ever changing, never less than whole” is also inscribed on stones in the Central Garden, designed by Irwin for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Hidden in plain sight, modest and peculiar, demanding an effortful eye,
distinct from their neighbors,
oddly colored, without leaves,
they appear irregularly – maybe this year,
maybe next. Eccentrically nourished,
they hide underground anchors
to a vast network
Rootless, alone or
they reward inspection with sweet symmetry.
When I insinuate
the black box between us –
this awkward human with legs sprawled across the forest floor,
neck crooked, eyes squinting, fingers tense –
a photo is made, and then
I watch the bright screen beam
patterns and colors
to rival my dreams.
Coralroots are in bloom and I’m excited about them so this “Just One” entry is actually about two plants, both in the coralroot family. Small, slender, and unassuming, coralroots can be hard to see in the leaf and twig litter that accumulates under the trees. From above, they look like odd-colored spikes, hardly worth a second glance. But bend way down, squint your eyes, peer at a single flower, and you’ll find a masterpiece of design. If it reminds you of a corsage that makes sense – coralroots are orchids.
On the last day of May, I went to a local park to see if the orange Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming yet. There’s only one place on the island I can depend on to see Tiger lilies and I didn’t want to miss them but as they say in the Pacific Northwest, no worries – the lily stems were all topped by small, nodding buds. It would be weeks before the flowers opened.
I didn’t expect any botanical surprises that day but just after I stepped onto the trail, a flash of magenta caught my eye. I came to an abrupt halt. What was that? The color didn’t compute in my mind – I didn’t remember any magenta plants in that patch of woods. Pink flowers, yes, but this was a dark, almost purple shade of pink. One spindly, magenta stalk rose from the detritus of last winter’s gray-brown twigs and this spring’s green leaves. I knew immediately that the little flower must be something interesting.
Bending down, I found a delicate orchid. It looked like some coralroot plants I’d seen there in the past but it was the wrong color and the flowers seemed different. I quickly made photographs – a few closeups and a few of the whole plant – to help me identify it after I got home.
Excited about the new find, I looked for more and located two plants. Each one was just a small, asparagus-like stalk rising from the duff but unlike asparagus, they were deep reddish-purple. I sat down in a tangle of branches and old leaves, careful not to crush anything living, and photographed the stalks with their tightly closed buds. It was good to know there would be more of these little treasures blooming soon.
The mystery plant reminded me of Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), which was nowhere to be seen, even though I photographed it in that area in each of the last three years. It was as if an imposter had arrived and stolen the scene.
When I got home it didn’t take long to identify the new flower as Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). Surprised that two Coralroots grow on Fidalgo Island, I looked for records of Pacific coralroot on the iNaturalist and Burke Herbarium websites. The Burke had two, dated 1952 and 1968, from other locations on the island. iNaturalist had three observations, all from the same place in the woods where I saw them. One is dated 2017, two are from 2020, and now that I’ve added my photos there’s a record for 2022.
By this time I was burning with curiosity – where else near my home could Pacific coralroot be found? Are there more kinds of Coralroots near here? The answers were easy to find on iNaturalist, where the map of Pacific coralroot observations showed a cluster of sightings on Whidbey Island (just to our south) in a protected forest where old-growth Douglas firs and Western hemlocks thrive. Obsessed with my new find, I twisted Joe’s arm, and the very next day we were marching through the forest on Whidbey Island in search of Pacific coralroot. We weren’t disappointed – there were dozens and dozens of them! Even more exciting, a number of the plants were pale and yellowish instead of intense pink.
I had questions about these plants that I’ll write about here, but if there are too many details here for your taste, no problem. Enjoy the photographs!
Why do coralroots have such odd colors? Did you notice that they don’t have leaves? In fact, there aren’t any green parts at all. Coralroots lost their leaves and chlorophyll over evolutionary time. You may remember that chlorophyll is the compound that helps plants get energy from the sun and gives them their green color. So how do these plants live if they can’t photosynthesize? They form relationships with fungi in the soil, fungi that also have connections to the trees towering overhead. Those trees are busy photosynthesizing – so coralroots don’t have to! This is called mycorrhizal symbiosis. While I was photographing the diminutive orchids, complex transactions among coralroots, fungi, and trees were occurring continuously out of sight, right under my feet, making beautiful flowers like these possible:
About 400 different species of plants can’t photosynthesize and depend on fungi for nourishment; many are orchids. Some orchids depend on fungi only for germination but coralroots are dependent on fungi for germination and growth. They have lost their true roots and instead are anchored into the soil by a rhizome, essentially a horizontal, nubby stem. The nubs on the rhizome can resemble short branches of coral, which is why they’re called coralroots. The rhizomes are connected to mycorrhizal fungi that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, like Douglas fir trees. The requirement for particular fungi to be present in the soil means that humans have not been able to cultivate coralroots (as far as I know). Being dependent on fungal networks in the soil means that disturbances like road construction, which probably destroy mycorrhizal fungi, would restrict the spread of coralroots. You won’t find them invading roadside lots and lawns the way dandelions do!
The unusual arrangement coralroots have with fungi starts with the seeds, which are tiny and numerous, almost like clouds of dust. That’s typical for the orchid family, one of the largest plant families, with 25,000 – 35,000 species. Orchid seeds lack stores of energy (food) and can’t germinate on their own so they rely on fungi to get a start in life. If the particular fungus an orchid requires doesn’t live where the windblown seeds land, too bad, there will be no orchid. That’s probably why orchids produce prodigious amounts of seeds.
Ectomycorrhizal (ektos – outside, mykes – fungus, rhiza – root) relationships are being studied by people like Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia who has written extensively about the ways plants communicate below the ground. Her book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ details the implications of her ground-breaking research exploring the surprising forces that bind trees and plants together in complex networks. Actually, scientists have known that fungal networks connect to tree roots for years. It was a nineteenth-century German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, who first recognized and wrote about fungus/plant relationships and coined the word “mycorrhiza.” Frank also coined the term, “symbiosis” back in 1877. But there is still much to learn about fungal connections to plants.
How exactly the complex relationship among coralroots, mycorrhizal fungi, and trees benefits each partner is a question that, if I understand correctly, scientists are asking and answering bit by bit, as research continues. We know that fungi continuously “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, an ability that coralroots exploit to receive carbon. The fungi coralroots depend on are essentially intricate networks of rootlike hyphae that branch over and over again, exploring the soil for nutrients and forming connections with the fine tips of tree roots and orchid rhizomes. Minerals that fungi get from the trees they’re connected to can be passed to coralroots, too.
These fascinating plants are a small genus of only ten species, all but one found in North America. The coralroot that grows outside North America is C. trifida, sometimes called Early or Northern coralroot. It occurs across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the US. This small, yellowish-green orchid has some chlorophyll but primarily relies on fungi that are often connected to birch or alder trees. The plant I found in the park, Pacific coralroot, is an uncommon orchid found mainly in shaded, coniferous forests in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern California.
The most common coralroot in my area is Spotted coralroot, pictured above in #1 – #5 and #12. There were 35 observations of Spotted coralroot recorded on Fidalgo Island on iNaturalist the last time I looked (and iNaturalist has only been operating since 2008). I’ve seen it a number of times here but it’s not common. It seems odd that Pacific coralroot was growing in the same patch of woods where Spotted coralroot grew before. Maybe Spotted coralroot plants will appear there in a few weeks, who knows? Pacific coralroot was once considered a subspecies of Spotted coralroot so obviously, they share some characteristics, like habitat. But they do not share underground fungal networks – each relies on different kinds of fungi. Maybe the fungus that Pacific coralroot uses is in very good health this year and that enabled the coralroot’s rhizome, a lumpy storage organ that’s essentially an underground stem, to send up a flowering stalk. Perhaps Spotted coralroots are resting this year and I’ll have to wait until next year to see them again; I read that coralroot plants may rest several years under the soil. But that doesn’t explain why I saw Spotted coralroot three years in a row and Pacific coralroot this year. I have many questions!
In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes both personal impressions and factual information. Click “Just One” in the category list below to see more of these posts.
Lest anyone think I’m completely tone-deaf or have my head in the sand, I recognize the pain and despair caused by the horrifying mass shootings in this country. I’d like my readers outside of the U.S. to know that I’m deeply embarrassed by my country’s wrong-headed attitude about guns. When I think about parents with young children – even my own unborn grandchildren – I lament the fear and anguish in the face of the unthinkable they live with. One thing we can do is to bring some shred, some little piece of positivity into the world and offer it within our own sphere of influence. Whether it’s art, political action, or simply a listening ear and a hug, we need to counteract the evil.
There’s a quote from Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi) that describes how I feel sometimes when I’m outside: “Leap into the boundless and make it your home!” How’s that possible? I think that connecting deliberately to the precise place on earth where I am with all five senses can turn almost any place into a true home and an open, curious mind makes possible a leap into the boundless, the unexpected, the limitless.
Of course, having an open mind isn’t always that simple when the concerns of the day linger in one’s mind. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to let go of petty worries and irrelevant expectations now that I’m retired. Being older probably helps, too. When I worked full time I longed to spend more time outside and I would wait all week for the chance to visit a garden or wander through a park. I worried about the weather, too, and by Saturday my brain was crammed with needs and expectations – not the best mindset for relaxation and creativity! If that sounds familiar I hope you’ll go easy on yourself. Maybe you can take a minute to let all the ideas about what you want to do fall away when you’ve finally gotten your chance to enjoy yourself. There’s no need to do anything more than just appreciate what’s in front of you: your own life on this beautiful planet.
Fifteen photographs made on recent walks in familiar places
with camera in hand
and as little as possible in my head,
eyes all around.
Looking. It’s what we do
in our boundless homes
**You can find Linda Grashoff’s photos of dumpsters here.
The quote above is from The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (ed. Columbia University Press, 1968) – ISBN: 9780231031479
The idea that bliss and transience go together may seem counterintuitive since we humans tend to get attached to things and usually find change challenging. But deep pleasure can come from experiencing impermanence. If you guessed that I’m thinking about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of spring, you’re right. In spring evanescent clouds mist the trees while flowers grow buds, bloom, and fade in a vivid parade that passes quickly. It’s hard not to want to make these fleeting moments last longer but maybe knowing that every gem-like spring flower is followed by a new one can ease the regret. Maybe fully sensing the beauty of life’s fluctuating rhythms is a better bliss than grasping at frozen bits of time.
Spring arrives in early February here with subtle, barely perceptible whispers. Buds swell, willows sport fuzzy catkins, and a few non-migrant birds sing tentatively. The leaves of certain orchids that won’t bloom for months appear in mossy places at the edge of the woods. This slow, steady unfolding is due to moderate temperatures – most of the time the thermometer doesn’t fall very low or rise very high. Cold Salish Sea waters that flow around our island even out the weather, creating optimal conditions for lush growth. As the days lengthen the greens that pervade our landscape intensify bit by bit, leaf by leaf. February, March, April, May, and June can all make claims on spring in the cool maritime Pacific Northwest.
This spring I was away for two weeks in April, during the height of the time when roadsides display one of my favorite sights: the soft-edged, lime-green haze of budding deciduous trees. Acutely aware of the progression of flora and fauna during springtime, I was afraid I might miss something while I was away. But when I returned it seemed that the world had held its breath – the trees were still bright and fluffy and the wildflower show was just getting started.
With my head still spinning out visions of red rock dreams, I stepped into the moist glow of green fields and forests to search for wildflowers. I was eager to check out all the familiar places that I’d been the month before, where I knew wildflowers should be in bloom. But there was one catch: a Northern elephant seal pup, the first known to be born on the island, needed attention too. As a volunteer “seal sitter” for a network that protects marine mammals on the west coast, I felt an obligation to guard the young elephant seal pup and help educate the public. His mother made the inconvenient choice to give birth at a busy state park (the one that happens to be my favorite) on Jan 31st. She nursed him for 26 days and then swam away, leaving him all alone. It’s normal for this species to nurse for about a month and then leave pups to fend for themselves but most elephant seals are born in colonies where the pups have plenty of company. This guy only had humans!
For two busy weeks, I bounced between volunteering, dips into local parks, physical therapy appointments, yoga classes, and the usual chores everyone needs to tick off their to-do list. As the weather got warmer, the park got busier and the human/wildlife interface became harder to control, as one of the photos in the slideshow makes clear. Finally, it was decided that it would be best for all concerned to move young Emerson the elephant seal to an uninhabited island where he wouldn’t be surrounded by curious people all day long. To keep chaos to a minimum, the public wasn’t notified in advance and even volunteers didn’t get the news until the day after he was relocated. Suddenly I was free of my obligation, which was a bittersweet relief. I’d grown fond of this character with his big, dark eyes, sleepy afternoons, and a predilection for resting under the signs we used to inform the public to stay at least 50 yards away. I was glad Joe and I spent a few hours with him the day before the big move. True to form, that afternoon he rested for hours next to one of the signs, then suddenly (suddenly for an elephant seal looks nothing like suddenly for a chipmunk) decided to mosy down to the water, just to stick his nose in. Swimming is what seals are supposed to do but during his time at the park, Emerson mostly slept.
I learned a lot about Northern elephant seals over the last three months. I also came to see the park and its habitat differently. My sense of this park now encompassed an odd creature needing protection, a never-ending stream of curious humans with their dogs, and an assortment of signs and orange traffic cones that had to be moved every day because you never knew where Emerson would turn up in the morning. My cherished vision of this space as a sanctuary made way for a concept that sometimes seemed more like a zoo than a refuge. I wasn’t always happy about that but I learned a lot. It’s good to know this old brain can still be flexible.
But what about the wildflowers? I’ve been outside making the rounds, peering at the ground. The little gems won’t be here for long and that’s the beauty of it – they keep me fully awake in the present.
Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm, Without looking for the traces I may have left; A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home, Hearing this, I tilt my head to see Who has told me to turn back; But do not ask me where I am going, As I travel in this limitless world, Where every step I take is my home.
~ Eihei Dogen
from Heine, Steven, translator.Zen Poetry of Dogen. by Eihei Dogen. Tuttle Publishing, 1997.
It’s the day before we leave for our first road trip since the pandemic throttled our travel plans. I have forgotten how to get ready for a trip. Everything requires more thought and seems a little harder. And it’s spring, my favorite season, so I’m distracted by the flashes of color everywhere, all vying for attention after a long, quiet winter. Part of me wants to be walking outside, looking for early wildflowers and inhaling the fresh air. Another part nags about packing and remembering the chargers and sunglasses. I check the weather in southern Utah for the second time today; the forecast seems to have changed again. A few days ago I thought we wouldn’t need warm clothes, this morning it looked like we would, now I’m not sure. I remove a T-shirt and substituted a long-sleeved, insulated shirt, a beanie, a warm scarf, even gloves. Maybe I need to rethink it: space is tight.
As I’ve been preparing for my trip the earth has been preparing for the season when reproductive tasks must get done. Flowers push through the cool, damp earth, woodpeckers drum love songs on hollow trees, and yesterday I watched harbor seals whack their flippers hard on the water and twirl in circles as other seals looked on, hopefully admiring the show as much as I did. One very unusual mammal (for this area) is preparing for the next stage of its life; a two-month-old elephant seal born nearby is getting ready to enter the water. I believe he’s the first elephant seal to be born on this island – most Northern elephant seals are born in California. When he’s ready he’ll swim down the long Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, perhaps heading for deep water off Alaska. He needs to teach himself to dive deep for fish and squid. That’s the way it works with this species – they’re on their own after they’re weaned. Once he leaves we may never see him again. A few weeks ago I became a marine mammal volunteer to help protect the pup from human interference, intentional or otherwise. I learned a lot in a few short hours about the intricacies of the human/wildlife interface. In a word, it’s fraught.
The last few weeks have been full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate on my own preparations, but gradually, I got my head into it and made some progress. By mid-afternoon yesterday, I was ready for a break: a trip into town for one more errand and an espresso. As I stepped outside I felt a chill but also had an urge to stop and admire the daffodils that opened yesterday. They’re late again and their numbers don’t seem to be expanding; I planted them under a tree where the sun barely shines. At least they’re protected from the landlord’s overzealous mowing. Looking up, my eyes paused at the sight of fat Bigleaf maple buds, ripe with the green energy that busts them out of their tight winter jackets. I thought I should document the yard today so I can compare it to the way it will look when I get back. All week I’ve been thinking about how different everything will be after the 13 days we’re away – this is a time of great change.
With my head full of such musings, I wandered over to my car and got in. Joe had parked at the opposite end of the driveway from his usual spot in front of me. I backed up, turned to my right to avoid the telephone pole, and let my foot off the brake. A heartbeat later I heard the startling, eye-squinching crunch of metal on metal. Worse, I was a little slow to stop because I haven’t slept well lately. A remark Joe made just minutes before sprung to mind: he said we seem to be getting things under control.
Maybe not. I got out, inspected both cars, frowned, and called him. He rushed out to assess the damage. Quickly apologizing, I said I’d take care of both cars when we get back home. Thankfully, Joe had the grace not to let loose with the first thing that must have come to his mind.
On the way into town I told myself to wake up or there’ll be a bigger accident. Deep breaths. I took care of the errand and made my way to the bookstore/cafe. It was pleasantly busy: familiar faces behind the counter and eager customers on the other side. Studying the baked goods neatly displayed in their glass case, I ordered my usual macchiato, but with a third shot. While I waited I saw a front-page article in the NY Times about a White House photographer from the Trump administration who’s been taken advantage of by Trump – it’s about money, of course. I read a few paragraphs and moved on to the Arts section, where there was a piece about the Whitney Biennial, a New York art world staple that I used to look forward to. It’s morphed over the years and is back now after a pandemic hiatus, with a less flashy, more thoughtful, perhaps darker-toned show. I opened the paper to the double-page spread, full of dark images. That prompted a passing thought about my own propensity for darkness in my photos. I wondered if there’s a connection between how I photograph the world nearby and the state it’s in. Or is it a coincidence?
The coffee tasted good. Browsing the shelves for a minute or two, I moved from art to fiction to the travel section. A used book called “The Names of Things” caught my eye. It’s beautifully written but it wasn’t a good time to buy a book so I made a mental note of the title. Suddenly the caffeine teased the neurons in my brain and I felt that bright light of inspiration, thanks to Susan Brind Morrow’s words. In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering if I would post anything before I left or during the trip. Now I had an idea – I’ll just describe my day, trying to include passing thoughts as well as observations.
Exiting the store, I got in the car, backed up (carefully), and headed back home. The sky was gray and white but not flat. The cherry trees were as frothy as a strawberry milkshake, magnolia flowers were opening bit by bit, and the willows weren’t weeping, no, they were rejoicing in their swaying, lime-green skirts. As I drove down R Avenue I glimpsed the soft blue silhouette of the Cascade foothills to the east through the dull gray repeating diamonds of a chain-link fence: it was a pleasing graphic image. All the way home I saw trees in bud, chomping at the bit of spring, ready to break into song. Preparing for the next thing.
We’ll fly to Las Vegas today, then drive to Utah, where we plan to visit Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and other less well-known places. With any luck, I’ll have a few photographs to post when I get back. I hope you’re enjoying spring in your own way, wherever you are on this great, turning planet.
In July of 2018, as we were settling into our cottage on Fidalgo Island I was also busy exploring the island’s parks. On a trail at Deception Pass one afternoon I met a couple from California who raved about two places – Lighthouse Point and Goose Rock. Their faces glowed with the pleasure of being outdoors. They had lived in Seattle years ago and came back to visit friends in the area. Eager to see their favorite places again, they set out on the Lighthouse Point trail, where we crossed paths. I’d never heard of Goose Rock so I googled it when I got home and added it to my list of places to explore.
I didn’t get there until two months later. It was a cloudy day so the view from the 484-foot (147m) promontory wasn’t ideal but what an interesting walk it was. After parking, I climbed down several flights of stairs to cross under the Deception Pass bridge, then began the walk on a pretty trail through the evergreens above the pass. The spectacle of rushing turquoise water funneling through the narrow pass below was impressive. Instant relaxation! A right fork took me uphill through a quiet forest of hemlock, Douglas fir, and Redcedar studded with gently arching Sword ferns. After climbing a while, I emerged onto a landscape of open balds formed by ancient, glacier-scraped rocks. I wandered over to the highest point, overlooking the San Juan Islands and the wide Salish Sea. A mix of pale green puffs of reindeer lichen, soft moss, and colorful stonecrop plants dotted the rocks. I was enchanted by the mosaic of finely differentiated textures and colors at my feet and the misty blend of blues and grays stretching out to the horizon. In the distance, I could see traffic but up there the atmosphere was quiet and spacious.
One of the defining characteristics of this walk is the transition from a moist, shady, enclosed forest to a broad, open hilltop. The hiker is first treated to a plethora of woodland details – evergreen ferns, luxurious mosses, towering trees with thousands of branches, little mushrooms – and then everything changes as the trail opens out onto an open space where you observe the world spread out below. I think both of these experiences, the near and distant views, are nourishing. We don’t have to be in the country to experience the relaxing rhythm of alternating near and distant views either. When I lived in the city I enjoyed finding details on the sidewalks as much as I loved to gaze out my apartment window at the bustling scene below. Near and far, back and forth. It’s healthy.
The meadows atop Goose Rock host a variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer but I knew nothing about them on that first day – in fact, interesting rocks, lichens, trees, and spacious views were quite enough. I went back again on a misty day in November when clouds flew across the sky. That December I climbed Goose Rock and delighted in the intense green of evergreens and ferns after autumn rains. In January I explored a longer trail that wraps around Goose Rock, passing through a dry hillside with different plants and quiet bay views as it spirals up the rock. And so it went, season after season, year after year. I’ve been up to Goose Rock thirty-three times in all since that first September day 3 1/2 years ago.
Here are photographs from my forays up to Goose Rock, spanning the years and seasons. First, let’s tuck under that bridge:
“Because it’s what I do” claimed photojournalist Lynsey Addario in her riveting memoir about life as a photographer on the front line. Going out for walks is what I do. And although my walks don’t entail the risks that Addario’s outings do, like her, I always bring a camera. Why carry the little black box? Because with it I create new ways to relate to the ever-changing landscape that I live in.
With all the talk about technique, gear, or artistic intent, one can forget the sheer fun of photography. That cool little black box with its buttons, levers, lenses, and dials enables us to preserve moments of aesthetic delight, which is reason enough to use it. Beyond that, composing, processing, and sharing images offer innumerable ways to exercise creativity. Black and white or color? Crop? Lighten? Smooth, dramatize? There are so many options to work with, both in the camera and later on. If you take it a step further and share your images then the photographs enter the arena of relationships, which has its hazards but certainly has countless rewards.
So going out with a camera is what I do. It’s very enjoyable – there’s the motivation. But where? Why one place and not another? The decision to head toward one particular place has many facets. There are practical considerations – it can’t be too far away, too crowded, too this, too that. But there’s something less easily articulated that guides me too, an atmosphere perhaps. The more time you spend in a place, the more you get inside its unique atmosphere, what I sometimes call the “placeness.” Having lived in this location for almost four years now, I’ve gleaned the flavor of each place. And they all offer possibilities, both expected and unexpected.
This post centers around a 220-acre bulge on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island that was preserved as parkland long ago. Used for camping, walking, and boating, it’s popular with locals but I always manage to find a quiet spot where the slow rhythms of nature take over. Miles of rocky shoreline surround a forested center, traced by a maze of trails. The trails that cut through the forest and lead to open balds above the water are my favorites. They’re crowded with unusual plants like the rugged Seaside junipers and colorful Madrone trees that make fine subjects for any artist. Often there’s a hush on the trail, broken only by the croak of a raven or the whirr of a distant motorboat. My gaze switches back and forth from expanses of blue-green water dotted with islands to the tiny wildflowers, odd ferns, and tough lichens at my feet. Even the rocks draw my admiration.
These photographs were all made at Washington Park in the cooler months. When it warms up there are wildflowers in the meadows and on the forest floor – a whole other subject. By mid-summer, the flowers are mostly finished. The grass dries out, the lichens are brittle, and I’m waiting for the fall rains. Then I’ll go back and explore again.
Previous posts about Washington Park are here and here.
In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes personal impressions and factual information. You can find more of these posts by clicking “Just One” in the category list below.
Why this flower? Why now? Because it’s in bloom! I had no idea this delicate beauty might be blooming last week with temperatures dipping well below freezing night after night and snow on the ground.
On the same day the photo above was made, a friend saw Grass-widows in full flower on a steep hill where we had seen them last year, two weeks later (March 8th, 2021). In 2020 I photographed Satin-flowers in early April on an open, grassy slope about a thousand feet higher and four miles north. In 2019 I photographed the first Satin-flowers I had ever seen, almost hidden on a grass-covered bald at sea level. It was March 26th. Looking at those dates and the snow in the photo, you can see why I didn’t expect a tender flower to be blooming on that cold, wintery day. However, before the cold spell, the weather had been considerably warmer.
To my mind, the Stain-flower is the essence of wild flower, a flower that is truly wild. Its fragile, purple bells thrive in places that are rugged and undisturbed. On a steep coastal bluff, a sagebrush-dotted plateau, or a rocky hill above a mighty river, fleeting dots of intense color appear for a brief period every spring. This diminutive beauty may be one of the first wildflowers to bloom on Fidalgo Island but few people know it – the blossoms are easily overlooked, they flower for a very brief time, and they’re not particularly common.
About that name! People in our region who are familiar with this flower call it a Grass-widow. The reason for this name is obscure. Other than the fact that the species often grows in grassy places, I find the name irrelevant, even off-putting. Another name for the plant is Satin-flower, which alludes to the flower’s attractive, satiny sheen. Like many flowers, this one has a number of common names, including Purple-eyed grass but I prefer Satin-flower.
The confusion from having multiple common names is supposed to be solved by assigning a single, agreed-upon, Latin name to each species of living thing discovered by science. Unfortunately, even scientific names change when new information reveals new connections, often on a microscopic level. Currently, Satin-flower is a member of the Iris family and is named Olsynium douglasii. According to Wikipedia, Olsynium comes from Greek and describes the flower’s joined stamens. Douglasii refers to David Douglas, a truly intrepid explorer who hiked thousands of miles across rugged landscapes, back in the early 1800s. He had been hired by England’s Royal Horticultural Society to find new plants that might be of interest to wealthy British gardeners. This endeavor entailed roughing it in barely-charted territories, having enough knowledge about plants to find new species, and figuring out how to get seeds safely shipped to England. Douglas was very good at his work but his efforts were cut short by a tragic accident. When he was only 34 he fell into a pit used to trap wild bulls in Hawaii. What a dramatic end for a plant collector! Those were different times.
The Satin-flower is the sole member of its genus that isn’t native to South America. It’s been recorded from southern British Columbia to northern California on both sides of the mountains, ranging only as far east as northeastern Utah. All of the Olsyniums prefer sunny slopes that are wet in winter and spring but dry out in summer. Like other spring ephemerals, our Satin-flowers fade away well before summer and go dormant during the driest part of the year.
Spring ephemerals appear when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear. When the ground is just beginning to warm up and the leaves on the trees aren’t out yet, spring ephemerals take advantage of a brief window of time when plenty of light shines on the forest floor. It’s easy to miss them because their growth cycle passes quickly – some of them bloom for only a day or two. Crocuses, violets, Spring beauty, Bloodroot, and trilliums, beloved by gardeners and nature-lovers, are examples of spring ephemerals.
The Satin-flower is a little different but follows the same general schedule. It’s not a woodland plant and usually has plenty of light in the open places where it grows. But the lack of shade and quick-draining soil can make for a very dry, difficult summer. That’s why this flower blooms so early – it’s taking advantage of the abundance of moisture in the ground from winter rains (or snow). When summer arrives, the plant has already finished flowering and set seed but underground, fleshy roots are busy storing energy for next year.
Last year when I saw a dozen Satin-flower clumps blooming on a steep, grassy hill I almost cried. I’d been looking for them where I first found them in 2019 but I didn’t see any there – maybe it was too late and I’d have to wait another year. So the little flowers growing happily just a mile away were a joyful sight. Here, water races through the pass at a rate that would challenge even an experienced boater. Across the pass piles of dark rock plunge toward the water under a thick forest of tall Douglas firs. The trail threads between twisted trees and precipitous cliffs where one false step might land you in cold water. That wild hillside is a stunning setting for the little purple gems to display their colors.
Last week I went back to see them again. The snow had melted off the slope and the flowers shone like tiny beacons in the sunlight. Across the water, patches of snow whitened the rocks.
These delicate beauties have a delightful way of gracing rugged, sometimes inaccessible places with fleeting splashes of pure color. Today a song was going through my head – Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I almost always tear up when I hear it. It occurred to me that Louis Armstrong gave that song the same appealing juxtaposition of tender and tough that I admired when I looked at the Satin-flowers blooming at the pass.
Speaking of juxtaposing the tender and the tough, there is the situation in Ukraine. Today I had lunch at a Polish-Ukrainian restaurant. While we were there the door swung open again and again as neighbors brought donations of food, diapers, and other supplies that will be sent to Ukraine later this week. As boxes and bags filled the restaurant, my eyes welled up. It’s a powerful, human bond that connects people here to people in a faraway country dealing with an impossible situation.
Tentative birdsongs are more insistent. Scents elude me in
the cold morning air, save for woodsmoke wafting from
the neighbor’s chimney. Chores abandoned,
I poke along a narrow trail, alert
to the floods of tiny green shoots
that crowd the way. Wild honeysuckle vines sprout new leaves
and the sturdy stonecrop’s succulent leaves bulge
with winter rain. Wildflower, fern,
moss, lichen – they’re all jamming in
perfect harmony: a breathing, life-affirming
Down below, blue-green seawater spreads
across the bay like a bright tablecloth set for no one
– except the Buffleheads, the Harbor seals, the
fish, and the insects threading erratic paths
above the water.
I sense the hush of a pregnant moment between winter and spring.
The lichens, the budding trees, the awakened birds
go on with their lives. No need to think about pauses,
no need to roll words through their brains
in a doomed attempt
to describe the beauty that
6. Douglas firs cling precariously to rocks at Bowman Bay, last summer’s grasses continue their slow decline, and rushes are reflected in the calm water of Heart Lake.
11. The diminutive Rattlesnake plantain’s leaves (Goodyera oblongifolia) have been hugging the ground for months. They look especially fresh these days. A tiny garden of golf tee-shaped lichens (Cladonia sp.), moss, a Douglas fir branch tip, and more lichens decorates a rock along a steep trail in a mature forest. Nearby, plump, green rosettes of Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) snuggle into the folds of a Peltigera lichen. More lichens and moss (maybe Common haircap moss – Polytrichum commune) surround them. The stonecrop will send up stalks of yellow flowers in May or June and the Rattlesnake plantain, (actually an orchid) will bloom in July.
c. 1400, apparently from the gerund of the Middle English verb inclen “utter in an undertone, hint at, hint” (mid-14c.), which is of unknown origin; perhaps it is related to Old English inca “doubt, suspicion, question, scruple.” However the earliest record of the word is as a nyngkiling; and The Middle English Compendium offers that this is not a misdivision of an inkling but rather suggests the word is a nasalized variant of nikking “a hint, slight indication,” gerundive of the Middle English verb nikken “to mark (a text) for correction” (mid-15c.), from nik (n.) “a notch, tally” (see nick (n.)).
This week I was thinking about the quality of being absorbed in an activity. I wondered about the origin of the word so I googled it. In an online etymology dictionary, I read that the English “absorb” comes from an old French word that derives from Latin. Breaking it down, “ab” in this case means “from” and “sorb” comes from the Latin sorbeo, to suck in or swallow. These combine into “absorbere” or “absorbeo” – to swallow up or devour. The Proto-Indo-European language root was “srebh.” I can really hear the sound of sucking in that word! I wonder if it ultimately derived from the sound of a nursing child.
In German there is absorbieren. A related German word, schlürfen, sounds to me like someone slurping beer. 😉 In Dutch there’s slurpen, in Italian, assorbito. The Welsh word is amsugno; perhaps Graham will explain how that fits in. Or doesn’t.
At any rate, by the 18th century, absorbed also meant completely gripping one’s attention. When we are absorbed we incorporate and assimilate with full attention (again, think of a nursing child, oblivious to everything but the task at hand). The idea of complete attention is important. To be absorbed in something necessitates an absence of distraction. It’s almost a refusal of incoming sensory information, except within the narrow field of engagement. When I think about being absorbed I sense a unity, a lack of boundary between what we call the self and the object of our attention. The separation that our minds create between ourselves and the rest of the world is useful for functioning in daily life but when we’re completely absorbed in an activity the separation recedes. Some of these ideas are my personal associations with the experience of being absorbed. Isn’t it interesting that we humans communicate by using agreed-upon word meanings but we each have a whole host of subjective associations attached to words as well?
This state of absorption is akin to flow, a concept developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His interest in creativity and happiness led him to assert that being fully absorbed in something for its own sake, or being in the flow as he called it, enhances our feelings of well-being and our creativity. Csikszentmihalyi talked about the importance of a balance between skill and challenge in the flow state. He recognized that motivation in this state is intrinsic, not external. The theory of a flow state isn’t exactly the same as the concept of being absorbed in something, but active focus and a sense of timelessness are characteristic of both.
This state of flow or absorption is a very human quality, something we all experience. As photographers, we’re pleased when we sense the dropping away of day-to-day worries and concerns and become fully absorbed in what we’re doing. Truth be told, we often hope that when we get home we’ll find an image that reflects the way we felt, even if it doesn’t convey the full experience. Looking through photographs that I made in the last month, there are hardly any pretty blue skies. The fullness of spring is just a dream. But even in less than optimal conditions, when inspiration doesn’t come easy, it’s possible to enter into a meditative state of absorption. And whether a pleasing photograph results or not, any time spent being absorbed in something is its own reward.
Whether it’s a small detail, a wide vista, or something in between, being absorbed in what I see is one of the best things about being human on this earth. It goes without saying that music, touch, and all of the senses offer the possibility and pleasure of full absorption into the moment. I hope everyone experiences at least a few moments of absorption today.