JUST ONE: Rein Orchids

This entry in my “Just One” series about Pacific Northwest plants is actually about two wildflowers that look alike at first glance. It has taken me a long time to identify and differentiate them. They’re both Rein orchids – small, delicate wildflowers that most people have never heard of and would not notice, even if they walked right past them. But bear with me – they’re really quite beautiful.

1. A group of Elegant Rein orchids at Kukutali Preserve; July, 2019.

I’ve become a bit obsessed with Rein orchids ever since discovering one in a hidden spot off a preserve trail two weeks after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I could tell it was an orchid but I’d never seen anything quite like it. A year later I found the little orchid again, this time in five different places. As I studied my photos I could see that some were different from the others, but when I tried to identify them I was met with a jumble of look-alike species and a veritable morass of names.

Learning that their leaves emerge in late winter, I reminded myself to search for the leaves where I’d seen the orchids in the summer. Sure enough, in February I found healthy, oval leaves, pressed close to the ground, gathering energy so the plant could flower in the summer. They had to be the Rein orchid plants.

This year I resolved to better understand the science of what I was seeing. I wanted to at least know the proper names of these pretty flowers, though I believe that names and science aren’t the only tools for understanding our experience of the natural world. There are less logic-based ways to understand the world which are just as important, but I value science – and I was itching to figure out which is which! A website called inaturalist has been very helpful; I can compare what other people have photographed and identified with my own sightings. I feel fairly confident now that I’ve been seeing two species of Rein orchids here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans and Platanthera transversa. There’s something tantalizingly poetic about these slender sprites that hide in plain sight.

2. A Rein orchid in the woods on a summer afternoon.

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The Rein orchids wait patiently,

gilded grasses swaying around them, faint

bay breezes rustling the dry Madrone leaves

at their feet. Spiders craft

sticky thread-worlds on their petals,

motorboats rumble in the distance,

occasional bursts of human voices

fade as quickly as they appear. The orchids

wait for the night

and the pollinators, for the arrival

of soft wings and probing tongues,

the woosh, the slurp, the brush of feet and antennae.

This is the reward of patience, or so I imagine

because our encounters, however sweet, are

never by moonlight. We soak the midsummer sun

together, the Rein orchids and I. The heat pricks my nose

with the fragrance of dry grass and cedar, and

encourages petals and roots to stretch. It relaxes

my stiff neck. Slowly the orchids’ nectar ripens

to satisfy the single species of moth that

might pollinate a tiny flower. Let it happen.

Let it happen and

let me find another fairy tale cluster

of slim white stems nestled in the warm grass

next year.

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3. Platanthera elegans at Kukutali Preserve.

4.

5. A Rein orchid under a Madrone tree.

Orchids are fascinating. The pretty corsages you see at weddings evolved their colors and curves for very specific reasons, having nothing to do with humans. Evolutionarily advanced, orchids have developed thousands of distinctive ways to attract their pollinators. As Darwin said, “The contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful.” As orchid species evolve, their pollinators evolve too, resulting in very specific, even exclusive relationships between plant and pollinator. Orchids often trick their pollinators, which can be bees, hummingbirds, moths, even birds. It’s theorized that the tricks employed by orchids to attract pollinators result in a greater fertilization success rate – as the specialist keeps visiting its favorite orchid species, the orchid pollen it collects isn’t wasted on other flower species.

The first orchid appeared on earth’s evolutionary stage some 100 million years ago; the family now comprises as many as 28,000 different species. Many grow high in trees, some thrive high in the mountains, a few live above the Arctic Circle, most grow in the tropics, and one exists entirely underground.

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6. The Flat-spurred Rein orchid, Platanthera transversa. (This photo was somewhat desaturated in processing.)
7. Another Flat-spurred Rein orchid and a single fine spider thread. Photo slightly desaturated.

8. A Flat-spurred Rein orchid with the background darkened in processing. Is this the way the orchids look on a moonlit night? Their moth pollinators might know.

9. Two lovely Flat-spurred Rein orchids growing up through Douglas fir and Bearberry at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. Follow this link to see a preserved Rein orchid collected on July 15, 1936 for the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium, also from Goose Rock. This land was preserved as a state park. The species continues.

The Platanthera genus contains around 100 species; 45 are native to North America. At least two – P. elegans and P. transversa – grow close to my home. They are the orchids pictured here. Neither one has a fixed common name but P. elegans is sometimes called the Elegant Rein orchid. Apparently, our P. elegans is a subspecies, P. elegans elegans, the Coast Piperia. (Piperia is after Charles V. Piper, an American botanist and an authority on Pacific Northwest plants). P. transversa (pictured just above) is called the Flat-spurred Rein orchid, or sometimes the Royal Rein orchid. Flat-spurred refers to the long flower spur where the nectar is. It extends out horizontally on each little flower, clearly visible in photos #6 and 18. Another similar species (P. unalascensis) probably grows here as well but I haven’t seen it yet. These flowers are challenging!

Rein orchids on Fidalgo Island favor relatively dry, partly shady conditions. They grow near Douglas fir, and frequently under Madrone trees, which also like drier places. Clusters of Rein orchids can be seen hugging steep slopes facing the water and single flowers may be scattered near trails in open woods, where they get a little more sun than they would in a dense forest. I’ve noticed the presence of another small orchid, the Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), can be a clue that Rein orchids may be nearby. It surprises me that no one picks them or tramples them. Maybe that’s the cynical New Yorker in me, expecting nature to be destroyed by hordes of heedless humans. More likely, people don’t see them in the first place. Flower stalks are just a foot or two (20 – 55cm) tall and the flowers don’t sport bright colors. If I show a Rein orchid to someone the reaction is puzzlement and slight disappointment – that’s an orchid? You have to bend down and really look hard to see the graceful flowers. I think their small stature and pale colors are keeping them safe.

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10. A Coast Piperia orchid emerges from a sheltered spot littered with fallen Madrone leaves.

11. As if to prove its affinity for Madrone trees, this orchid wears a Madrone leaf. A notch in the leaf caught it on the stalk. I should go back and see if it’s still there.

12. A Coast Piperia orchid among wild grasses and yellow Hairy Cat’s ear flowers (Hypochaeris radicata) at Kukutali Preserve.

13. Rein orchids at Sharpe Park, photographed out-of-focus with a vintage Takumar lens.

14. This photo was also made with the vintage lens, and processed using the Silver Efex antique plate effect.

15. A Rein orchid in the woods at Washington Park photographed with the vintage lens.

A deeper dive into the strange world of orchid reproduction

Rein orchids are summer bloomers whose leaves emerge in late winter. The orchids are busy photosynthesizing well before many other plants are visible. By July the stalk appears, buds begin to open, and the leaves are dry up. After pollination, the stalk is dotted with brown seed pods containing prodigious amounts of seed. Unlike most seeds, tiny orchid seeds don’t have enough nutrition on board to get going on their own. They must join with a mycorrhizal network (a web of fungal threads in the soil) to survive. Within hours of this crucial linkage, carbon will flow in both directions, benefiting the “infected” orchid and the fungus. Fungal partners also supply nitrogen and phosphorus to the orchid. This mycorrhizal association, though not well understood, is absolutely essential to all orchids.

Once a seed germinates and begins growing underground, the slow process of flowering is underway. A root will form in the soil at some point, but it can be years before a leaf emerges and photosynthesis takes place. It can also be years before the plant is robust enough to produce a flower stalk. Once the plant blooms and releases its seeds, little is left to see above ground. But a tuber is there, hiding in the soil, along with many fungal networks. When the time is right, (patience!) another Rein orchid will appear.

There is a dearth of information about these orchids. It’s not clear exactly what insects pollinate them. One source says that P. elegans is pollinated by a small brown moth not much bigger than your thumb. Its Latin name is Plusia nichollae and there is no common name – more obscurity! The little pollinator is a partly diurnal moth that lives mainly west of the Cascades, from coastal British Columbia to the Bay area in California, a narrow range not unlike that of the orchid. Sienna brown wings marked with white and gold would make the moth hard to spot among the golden grasses that often surround P. elegans. I’ll be looking for it.

A source says Flat-spurred rein orchids may be pollinated by “moths such as Thallophaga taylorata.” This moth doesn’t have a common name either. The obscurity of these lovely little plants is part of the appeal. They aren’t common, they grow in out-of-the-way places, they’re not well-studied by scientists, they aren’t known at all by the general public…and there you have a recipe for wonder. They will keep my attention for a while, I expect.

As I write this post, the flowers are fading and the plants are moving on to seed setting and dispersal. Six months from now I’ll be looking for Rein orchid leaves, nestled in moist moss. Until next year…

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17. By April, more plants are emerging. Flowering for the Rein orchids is still three months away.

18. A Coast Piperia blooms among wildflowers, moss, and last year’s sloughed off Madrone bark and leaves.

19. Wildflower seeds blew onto this Flat-spurred Rein orchid near Mt. Erie.

20. The flowers fade in late July as the ovaries swell and harden into seed pods.

21. An elegant Coast Piperia specimen in full flower.

22. A wildflower bonanza right next to a trail high up on Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Nodding onions (Allium cernuum) surround this Coast Piperia Rein orchid.

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JUST ONE: Lace Lichen

If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.

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1.

Lovely Lace lichen

who are you?

Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances

across my lips

and hovers lightly in the air,

waiting to be explained. Your

drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils

take me back to the Georgia coast, where

Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks

lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.

Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)

instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen

your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing

endless revelations: here

a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there

a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there

a weightless, crooked ladder, there

a neuron dancing in the air.

As the scientist says, there’s

considerable morphological variation.

And amidst this melange of forms

always

the swing and sway, the

drape and droop of you:

an enchantment in the woods.

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2. Lace lichen on Douglas fir, within sight of the Salish Sea.
3. Wavy ribbons.

4. A crooked mesh ladder.

5. Hanging from a pine tree at California’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The Structure

Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:

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Experiencing Lace lichen

Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.

Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.

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12. I wondered what the Chestnut-backed chickadees were doing, rummaging around in this big clump of Lace lichen. My question went unanswered…but I was left with delight.

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14. The way Lace lichen joins branches and twigs to one another expands my perception of the space they inhabit.

The Science

Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.

What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!

Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).

If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!

15. A clump of Lace lichen on the ground.

16. I put a wayward strand on my car to admire the color and structure.

17. This tree wears a Lace lichen necklace. You can see other lichen species on the bark of the tree. This Lace lichen is drying out as summer approaches. It will bounce back from dormancy with the return of rainfall in September.

18. A lichen and its shadow.

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Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii

The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.

In 2015 California became the first state in the US to recognize a state lichen, Ramalina menziesii. After years of lobbying by the California Lichen Society, Governor Jerry Brown signed on the dotted line.

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“We must entrust ourselves to what we are investigating to guide us safely in the quest” (Gadamer, 1960/1989, p. 378)

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FIRE & WATER

Spring has been wet here. With lots of rain falling on weekends and less on weekdays, it hasn’t been fun for those with regular jobs who want to get out on their days off. Farmers must be happy though, and wildfires are less likely, at least for now. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain but summers here are actually bone dry, so wildfires become a concern if summer is preceded by a dry spring or winter. This spring, however, fire is far from my mind as I organize my outings for short spells of dry air that may follow a gloomy, morning fog. Ducking out between showers on a damp trail that skirts a lake or leads to views of the Salish Sea, I’m always aware of water. Fire’s role in the local ecology is less evident, but is still clearly visible in the stands of burned trees, charred logs and fresh, green growth around blackened stumps. With water and fire in mind, here is a selection of photos that call attention to these two primal elements.

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1. Dangerous currents roiling through a narrow passage reveal the relentless power of water.

2. Evidence of a fire in a forest near Twisp, Washington.

3. Water in its frozen state is an uncommon sight on Fidalgo Island. Luckily, I was out for a walk in the woods when this gentle snow shower began.

4. Charred tree trunks and scarce undergrowth tell fire’s story.

5. Sitting in the car, watching the rain.

6. The ground is littered with burned wood for a long time after a fire. As it decomposes it adds nutrients to the soil.

7. Rain clings to the long needles of a Shore pine, a close relative of Lodgepole pine. In the Pacific Northwest, people complain about “June Gloom.” Rainy days like the one last week when I took this photo are frequent, and frustrating.

8. Grass casts a shadow on a log burned in a 2014 fire started by people building a campfire on a dry day, in a place where campfires aren’t allowed.

9. The pretty Lyall’s star tulip (Calochortus lyallii) wet with raindrops, graces a field on the eastern slope of the North Cascade Mountain Range.

10. Daisies encircle a burned stump in a field overcome by fire two summers ago, less than a mile from where I live.

11. Trees died from flooding when this lake was created. On the hill in the background, just out of sight, a fire raged six years ago.

13. A small waterfall in the foothills of the North Cascades.

14. Fire is frequent on the dry, eastern side of the North Cascades. Evergreen foliage is a rusty orange color and tree trunks are charred black from a fire that once burned hot but now nourishes the soil.

15. Slender branches scrape the surface of a lake, mixing with reflections of other branches, creating a rippling chaos of light and shadow.

16. A Yellow-pine chipmunk that has seen its share of tussles (look at those ears!) watches me carefully from a safe perch in a charred Lodgepole pine on the east side of the Cascades.

17. Early spring fog and morning dew at home.

19. Some of these trees were burned, others were drowned. They stand and then fall in a lake frequented by fish, otters, beavers, ducks and more creatures, all part of patterns of interdependence that are more complex than we know.

20. Another example of water and fire: the trees were killed by a fire up here at Washington Pass (elev. 5,476′ or 1669m).

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Most of these photos were taken on Fidalgo Island; some are from the other side of the mountains, where dry conditions prevail much of the year. The activity of water and fire is something experienced by every creature on this earth, but the particular way these elements operate is unique to each location on our planet. Fire’s history here on Fidalgo Island is different from it’s history in Kansas or Kazakhstan. I think it’s worthwhile getting to know the elements intimately, in your own locale. How often does it snow? What are the textures of your snow, and what is the scent of rain on a hot day where you live? How often does fire tear across the fields, if at all? Are there native plants or animals where you live that are adapted to periodic fires? And what about the human relationship to water and fire – where does fear come in? What about the need to control? And what about capitalism?

Humans seem to have increasingly difficult relationships to fire and water. We understand that we are dependent on water and fire for our very lives, but we want them to stay in their places. We keep thinking that we know where those places are, even when time and time again, floods and fires prove otherwise. Instead of being flexible and working with water and fire, we stiffen and create inflexible environments amidst changing circumstances. We build houses in all the wrong places, encroaching further and further into places where wildfires or floods are very likely to occur. Fires or floods can be natural components of great cycles that we refuse to recognize or cannot imagine. At the same time, our frenzied activity has modified the earth’s climate and made wildfires and floods bigger and more frequent than we can remember them ever being before.

What’s the answer? Draw back. Pay attention. Don’t build in places where fire is part of the natural order of things; don’t build where flooding from storms is part of the balance of nature. Work with and respect fire and water and cut back on activities that pollute and warm the earth. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but there are probably still things we can each do to support working in harmony with water and fire instead of against them. And we can get closer to the elements, get intimate and comfortable with their activities in our own back yards. They’re not separate – they are us.

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MORE MAY RAMBLES

The first day of summer is just over a week away. Before we bask in the warmth of the lush season and spring fades to a dream, I want to share a few more images from May, specifically, the last two weeks of May (images from early May are here).

As our state slowly, carefully emerges from the COVID restrictions, the county where I live is now beginning to open restaurants and retail businesses. It’s good to see people sitting at tables in coffee shops again and not just getting their drinks to go. It will be nice to see stores opening too, but I really long to travel, at least for an overnight road trip. I’m not sure when that will be feasible. We’re watching to see how other counties fare as they open more businesses and people move around more. In the meantime, we did take a few day trips last month, at places that are an hour or two away. I still spend lots of time in local parks and there’s plenty to see right here at home, too:

1. The old bamboo birdcage takes on new life surrounded my late May’s super-saturated greens.

2. Afternoon sunlight in the forest at Pass Lake, Deception Pass State Park. These are Red Huckleberry bushes (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant in our woods.

3. Another detail, the same day. These two photographs were made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens, using spot metering in the camera.

4. And now for something completely different…a fallen tree in the bay at Larrabee State Park. The San Juan Islands are seen on the horizon; behind them is Vancouver Island, Canada.

6. A peaceful view from Larrabee, looking out over Salish Sea waters toward the San Juans.

7. One day we explored Northern State Hospital, a decommissioned state mental health facility that operated between 1912 and 1976. Mental health treatment has never been as compassionate as one would like, especially at the state level. However, there were positive aspects to treatment here: the facility was in a beautiful, rural setting and patients could get involved in farm work. There was a library, a greenhouse, and opportunities for recreation. Still, most or all of the patients were there involuntarily. Many of them didn’t have any mental illnesses but were people who didn’t fit in with prevailing norms and lacked the means to get by on their own.
9. Rabbits everywhere!

10. A Douglas fir (left) snuggles up to a Madrone tree at Washington Park. A perfect example of different bark textures.

11. Interesting textures on driftwood at Deception Pass. The brown circles are probably a rim lichen, or Lecanora. Orange and blue-green patches are lichens, too.

12. A Great Blue heron fishes under a massive rock covered with lichens, moss and plants. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Scenes like this one make my day.

13. Sixty miles southeast of home at the edge of the Boulder River Wilderness, the Neiderprum trail climbs into the North Cascades. One weekday we followed part of the trail, beginning alongside Moose Creek, where I found this fading Western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis) hanging over the rushing waters.

14. The light changed a few steps away where delicate Piggy-back plants (Tolmiea menziesii) also dangled over the creek. This native wildflower in the Saxifrage family is called Piggyback plant (or Youth-on-age) because buds develop into new plants at the base of leaves. These plants can drop off and root in the soil.

15. A quick shot out the window as we left the mountains.

17. A snail leaves a slime trail on the moss and heads across a dog lichen, or Peltigera. This is probably a Pacific sideband snail, a hermaphroditic land snail that employs “love darts” in courtship. The small, arrow-shaped dart is fired on contact. If it pierces the receiving snail, mucous is released that aids sperm movement, which benefits reproduction. From Wikipedia: The mucus carries an allohormone that is transferred into the recipient snail’s hemolymph when the dart is stabbed. This allohormone reconfigures the female component of the reproductive system in the receiving individual: the bursa copulax (sperm digestion organ) becomes closed off, and the copulatory canal (leading to the sperm storage) is opened. This reconfiguration allows more sperm to access the sperm storage area and fertilize eggs, rather than being digested. Ultimately this increases the shooter’s paternity. Do you have more respect for snails now??

18. A tangle of lichen that fell out of a tree, probably Old Man’s Beard, or Usnea longissima. When pieces are blown off of tree branches some of them are sure to land in hospitable places. That simple process disperses the lichen – like seeds blown by the wind disperse flowering plants. Old Man’s Beard: a lovely, rootless vagabond. (The orange objects are the male, pollen-bearing cones of Douglas firs, and right now they’re everywhere!).

19. A surprisingly tropical-looking scene at the edge of the woods at Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park. The orange flowers are Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa). The pink ones are the native Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). The ferns are Western bracken; the aggressive bracken fern is found all over the world.

20. A Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) performing the annual spring dance of frond unfolding. Foraged by deer, the plant was also used medicinally by some indigenous people. It is appreciated in shade gardens here and abroad and is known as Hard fern in England.

21. Sword fern, our most common fern, continued to unfurl new fronds in May. At home I watched in great annoyance as a deer nibbled just the tips of 6 or 7 new fronds one day, ruining the graceful vase shape of the plant. But since then, no more leaves have been sampled so I’ll allow it. The deer’s mantra seems to be, “A little of this, a little of that.” 🙂

22. Get outside if you can!

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A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” – John Le Carre

JUST ONE: Maidenhair Fern…

AND THOUGHTS ON AMERICA’S HISTORY OF RACISM

Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.

Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.

I grew up in profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.

After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.

Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.

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And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.

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The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.

The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!

There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.

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5. Three different native ferns intertwine along a trail in Snohomish County, Washington.


6. Pendant Maidenhair fern fronds on a rocky bank along a rural road in Skagit County, Washington.


7. Maidenhair ferns growing in a cave near the beach at Shelter Cove, in Northern California.

8. A garden specimen unfurls delicate fronds in March at Kruckeberg Garden in Seattle.
9. A cultivated Maidenhair fern frond is nestled in a Hosta leaf at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

10. Masses of Maidenhair fern make a lush accent for the trees at Washington Arboretum in Seattle. Look carefully and you can see the difference between this cultivated fern and the native species.
11. Maidenhair ferns grow near a power plant at Newhalem, Washington, deep in the North Cascades.

12. I found this Maidenhair on a wet cliff at Multnomah Falls, along the Columbia River in Oregon.

13. These leaflets look exactly like tiny Gingko tree leaves! That’s what I love about this plant – the endless discoveries you can make when you study its form.

14. The colors have been altered in this photo but the stems often do have a purple cast.

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Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.

When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.

The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. Called Capillaire or Capile in Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.

A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.

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15. In October the fern’s leaves begin to turn gold.

16. By November Maidenhair fern has turned brown. The leaves will persist for months.
18. A piece of plant detritus has fallen onto a fresh frond in the woods.

19. At Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, Maidenhair fern is used as a filler in plantings. Sometimes it escapes, as it did here, pushing through cracks in a display table.

20. Maidenhair fern drapes luxuriously over Camellias at Volunteer Park Conservatory.

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RAMBLING THROUGH the MONTH of MAY

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

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

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

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

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1. A Pacific dogwood blossom (Cornus nuttalii).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

JUST ONE: Western Red-cedar

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

My wish is that you could stand beneath this

stately tree-being, stand there quietly,

breathe along with bark, leaves,

and roots.

Bend your head way back and gaze far

up into the branches until your eyes tire. Peer closely

at the russet-colored bark and discover life

hidden in the darkest fissures. Trace the wide arc

of a single branch as it dips down, then

climbs back up towards the light.

Squat down,

follow the sensuous twists and curves of roots until

they disappear into the thick, spongy duff.

Inhale the sharp, fresh fragrance and listen to the

soft shushing of swaying branches.

Commune. Lose yourself

in the presence of this graceful tree,

forget the news,

shake off your worries.

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

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

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

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

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

15. Receiving the light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOCAL WALKS: Back to Washington Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JUST ONE: Fawn lily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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WONDERS: Overhead and At My Feet

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

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

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

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

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

2. We reveled in the deafening noise.

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

4. Handsome birds!

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

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

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

Snow Geese

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.

11. Seen from above: pure elegance.

One more…

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

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