Toss the Agenda, Just Be with the Trees

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***

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

When I Am Among the Trees

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

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

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

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

-Mary Oliver

 

 

 

Through the Gates

They aren’t snapshots;

they don’t happen quick as a snap

of the fingers, and unlike shots,

they’re not propelled outward

in search of a target. Rather they are

admissions.

Admissions of light and love.

Light that traveled 92 million miles

through vast emptiness

to filter down through clouds, bounce

around between objects, reflect off water

or rock, or the fine threads of lichens,

the fierce eyes of a hummingbird.

And with a shutter click

the light is absorbed,

admitted,

into my camera and mind. The gates.

The un-snapshots are

admissions

of light and love,

love for a world so exquisite

that we drink again

and again.

 

 

1. Short-eared owl stares me down; Farm to Market Road, Edison, Washington.

 

2. Licorice fern fronds on the Goose Rock Perimeter trail, Deception Pass State Park.

 

3. Window reflections and paint swatches on a warehouse in Edison.

 

4. Rain in December.

 

5. Dried Bracken fern; Heart Lake, Fidalgo Island, Washington

 

6. Sword fern decomposing at Sharpe Park, Fidalgo Island.

 

7. Cattails and tree trunks reflect in the still water of a shallow pond at Bowman Bay; Deception Pass State Park.

 

8. Rainy evening in January; Edison.

 

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9. Yellow lichens grow thickly on a damp cliff at North Beach; Deception Pass State Park.

 

10. Low tide at West Beach; Deception Pass State Park.

 

11. Driftwood on West Beach, with the San Juan Islands in the distance.

 

12. A resting branch frames a group of lichens, including a species of Parmelia slowly reaching across the bark like coral; West Beach.

 

13. Playing Santa at a small town Christmas parade; Anacortes, Washington.

 

14. Belgian draft horses at rest after the Christmas parade; Anacortes.

 

15. Roadside flooding and last summer’s Queen Anne’s Lace in the rain; Guemes Channel, March Point.

 

16. Dried Sword fern showing spore dots, or sori, at Sharpe Park.

 

17. The Granery; Edison.

 

18. The Granery lights; Edison.

 

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19. Old growth canopy of moss-covered trees at Rockport State Park.

 

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20. A tangle of trees, shrubs and ferns lit by January sun at Sharpe Park.

 

21. The view across Guemes Channel from March Point in the rain, from inside a car, with dried Queen Anne’s lace flowers swaying in the wind; Fidalgo Island.

 

22. Still life with toy ladder, clothespins and Japanese box.

 

23. Looking towards sunset, January 4th; North Beach.

 

***

 

Attributed to Hongzhi, a twelfth century Chinese Zen master:

“We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance, and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation.”

from Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, by Taigen Dan Leighton. Tuttle; 2000.

 

The Long and Short of it

Wide views of breath-taking landscapes, close-ups that focus on the details: I’ll take both when it comes to photography.

Broad views at the edges where land transitions to water are commonplace, now that I live on an island again.

1. Clouds over the Olympics. 12/22/18

 

I remember how refreshing it was when I worked in lower Manhattan, to walk over to the edge of that island after a day at the office, and gaze at the Hudson River. Then I moved to a suburban environment where I didn’t see those broad views as often. I missed the feeling of release that I felt when taking in the world from a wider perspective.

There’s no doubt too, that narrower views which zero in on an intimate part of the landscape have always excited me, and they figure prominently in my work. Since I was a little girl, I took notice of the details around me, and easily lost myself in them.

2. Mushroom, leaves, grass and twigs: a backyard still life. 12/27/18

 

Of course I’m aware of the middle distance too, but it seems that the polarity of near and distant reflects some inner gestalt, deep inside me. This group of photographs swings back and forth between the two ends of the visual spectrum, within the limits of a narrow geographical range and time frame.  Come along with me and take a look:

 

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3. The broken plates of ancient rocks at my feet, the Olympic Mountains in the distance, and the mesmerizing sound of lapping waves keep me riveted. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island, Washington.  12/22/18

 

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4. Gentle waves lap at my feet again, but this distant view reveals the edge of the San Juan Islands instead of the mountains. Three Harlequin ducks perch on rocks rich with intertidal life, and overhead, an eagle’s high-pitched “kereee” cuts sharply through the air. Rosario Beach, Deception Pass State Park, Washington. 12/14/18

 

5. On this late afternoon walk I only had a long lens and I was struck by the beauty of the distant view, so I used the phone to record the scene as the sun descended. North Beach, Deception Pass State Park. 11/06/18

 

6. A pair of mushrooms, fallen leaves, and a bed of moss – it’s a world unto itself, and all you need to do is bend down and look. Behind my home on Fidalgo Island. 11/17/18

 

7. A wild garden composition of weathered wood, Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) and the rosette of leaves of a Fringe cup (Tellima grandiflora) graces a rocky outcrop. I see bits of rust-colored bark from a Madrona tree (Arbutus menziesii) and one of its bright red berries, too. The tiny, succulent blue-green leaves of Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) are tucked into a corner, and moss, lichens and fallen leaves complete the picture. Pass Island, Deception Pass State Park. 11/06/18

 

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8. A Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) has found a strange home in a rocky cliff. It’s obviously struggling in this location but the scene is compelling, with the tight squeeze of plant and crevice, and the warm colors of lichens and dried fern fronds complementing green leaves and cool, blue-gray stone.  North Beach, Deception Pass State Park. 12/12/18

 

9. Fog obscures the details and beckons me forward, up the hill to Goose Rock. This forest of Western Redcedar, Douglas fir and Western hemlock is set with an understory of Sword ferns, like bouquets from another, more ancient time.  Deception Pass State park. 11/22/18

 

10. A giant has fallen in the woods. Along its flanks mushrooms sprout, and underneath it there are even more, sprouting up suddenly from wandering networks of mycelium that connect the forest underground, throughout the moist, rich soil. Soon moss will take hold on top of the log and Red huckleberry bushes will root there. Perhaps a hemlock tree will find a home on the log too, and eventually its roots will pass the wood and feel their way down into the soil. These ecosystems are called nursery logs, and they’re critical players in the forest symphony. Goose Rock Trail, Deception Pass State Park. 11/22/18

 

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11. On the wooded path it’s getting dark but across the water, afternoon sun picks out the details on an island named Ben Ure. Later, I learn that Mr. Ure was a smuggler of migrants from China in the late 1880’s. It’s said that he tied people in burlap bags to transport them in boats, and if something went wrong, he threw the bags overboard. Powerful currents at Deception Pass swept the victims away to wash up on the San Juan Islands; by then, surely they were dead. Immigration has always presented dangers, but we could do much better at reducing the hardship.  Goose Rock Perimeter Trail, Deception Pass State Park. 12/30/18

 

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12. A Western Redcedar’s roots are bared beside a rocky trail. Bits of dead cedar leaves have collected in the crevices after a dry summer, and a single Licorice fern frond has come to rest here too. Goose Rock Perimeter Trail, Deception Pass State Park. 12/30/18

 

13. A petite Licorice fern frond dangles from a mossy rock at Mt. Erie, the highest place on Fidalgo Island. 11/25/18

 

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14. Calm waters reflect the silvery grays of a December afternoon. Rosario Beach, Deception Pass State Park. 12/14/18

 

15. Up on Mount Erie, the view stretches for miles across lakes, farmland, and forests, then out past the Salish Sea to the rugged Olympic Mountain Range, 40 miles away. Fidalgo Island. 11/25/18

 

16. A thin film of oil, or perhaps bacteria, floats on a shallow pool of water in the forest, offering up obscure reflections of the trees and blue sky above. Little Cranberry Lake, Anacortes Community Forest Lands, Fidalgo Island. 10/22/18

 

17. A bevy of amber-colored mushrooms and one wavy-edged gray one nestle in the evergreen leaves of Bearberry, also called Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park.  11/20/18

 

18. The handsome Sword fern is ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, adapting to a variety of conditions.  It’s evergreen leaves turn an orangey rust color as they die. In spring, a batch of new fronds will unwind from tightly coiled fiddleheads. Goose Rock Trail, Deception Pass State Park.  11/22/18

 

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19. Lush even in winter, hardy Salal (Gaultheria shallon) spills onto the trail at the feet of forest giants. Goose Rock Perimeter Trail, Deception Pass State Park.  12/30/18

 

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20. Stretching up for every bit of light they can get, Western Redcedars and Western hemlocks cast deep shade on the forest floor. In the middle story, Red huckleberry bushes are almost invisible; having lost their leaves, their fine twigs form a green haze.  There’s magic in this juxtaposition of immense tree trunks and finely cut leaves and twigs. Goose Rock Perimeter Trail, Deception Pass State Park. 12/30/18

 

21. A bit of root calligraphy rises through the thin soil of a mossy bluff on Fidalgo island, high over the Salish Sea. Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park.  01/01/19

 

22. Delicate lichens fluff up and come to life after a rain. There are two different lichens on this little twig – and you’d likely find more if you examined the length of it. Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park.  12/10/18

 

23. I’m drawn to this old Madrona tree with its multi-colored bark that wrinkles just like my own skin. Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park  01/01/19

 

24. As the sun sets over the water, the torn edge of the Olympic Mountains is in silhouette and the thinnest sliver of a crescent moon glimmers in the soft purple of the evening sky. Dog-walkers are transfixed, waves collapse rhythmically against the shore, and contentment reigns for a minute or two. West Beach, Deception Pass State Park.  11/10/18

 

Once again, I’ve posted more photographs than I feel I should. It’s hard to whittle them down to a more manageable batch. I hope that rather than feel overwhelmed, you have simply entered into the beauty and enjoyed it.

That Other Lens

Why other? Because it wasn’t made for the camera I use. It’s the first non-native lens I bought, a Takumar 50mm f1.4, produced for Pentax Spotmatic cameras from 1964 – 1975. My copy was made in the 70’s and is coated with Thorium, an innovation at that time, meant to reduce glare. No longer in use, the coating is slightly radioactive. I hope I haven’t alarmed you – it’s a very nice lens.

 

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1. In this photo taken after a rain shower, you can see what’s called smooth bokeh – the almost musical lilt of the out of focus areas – and the decently sharp focus on the middle twig and raindrop. You also may notice a slight yellow cast overall, and “problems” in the colors, e.g. the twig in the lower left corner is unnaturally red, and some others are greenish. This lens isn’t sharp the way modern lenses are and may produce flare and artifacts, but I like it.

 

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2. A spore-heavy fern frond leans toward the ground near the Fidalgo Island shoreline. In the distance is Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands.  Words don’t readily convey the different feeling this lens has but I’d say the colors and background have a mellow, warm softness, and the fern leaf here is cleanly rendered.

 

It’s fair to say I still am a novice when it comes to photography, especially the technical aspects.  I never took a photography class, though I did go to art school. Until about ten years ago, photography was essentially a documentary process for me, and I only used basic point and shoot cameras.  When digital came along I bought a simple digital camera and adapted happily – after all, I didn’t miss a darkroom experience that I never had in the first place.

As I became more and more interested in photography for its own sake, I upgraded to an interchangeable lens camera. I went through several of them as I looked for the best combination of features for my situation. My current camera, an Olympus OM-D EM-1, is old by today’s standards, but it works for me. It’s relatively small, has excellent image stabilization, is weather-sealed, accepts a host of lenses made by Olympus and Panasonic, and is solidly made.

 

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3. It’s not only about bokeh; this lens does a beautiful job with sharply focused subjects, too. Two ferns intermingle here – the brown fern (Bracken) will soon decompose on the ground; the green one (Sword fern) stays green all year. The photo was made using a smaller aperture, but because the lens doesn’t “talk” to my camera, there is no data to tell me what aperture I chose. You could always make notes as you shoot if you wanted to evaluate apertures.

 

4. Heavy rain creates an intermittent stream that will aid the decomposition of leaves.

 

After getting the OM-D EM-1 with its standard kit lens, I began exploring different lenses. I was curious to know just how using a different lens affects the outcome of an image. I learned that prime (fixed focal length, or non-zoom) lenses are generally sharper than zoom lenses. The kit lens was a zoom and I wasn’t crazy about it, so I bought a prime that I could use in a variety of situations, a 20mm f1.7 by Panasonic. On my micro 4/3rds camera it’s like a 35mm or 40mm on a “normal” camera. I loved the 20mm and used it often – for travel, landscapes, closeups, you name it. I was getting the bug. I saw what changing a lens can do.

 

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5. After rain, in my yard, mid December.

 

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6. Another photo from the same day, looking down instead of up, using a smaller aperture.

 

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7. Thistle plants silhouetted against thin December sunlight at Deception Pass State Park.

 

As I read about different lenses I began seeing discussions about a certain vintage lens with a very enthusiastic following.  My curiosity was piqued. It sounded like the kind of lens that would render outdoor scenes with a certain poetic finesse, and I was drawn to that idea. I do like the technical bells and whistles that make modern lenses render scenes with great veracity, but I think there’s a place for both kinds of photographs – those with a more impressionistic look and those with a perfectly documented look. Of course there are many looks besides those two; that is just one polarity I tend to be very aware of.

 

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8. On an overcast December day the mood is somber, with a particularly soft beauty the vintage lens conveys well. I was attracted by the layers of texture and color: the dark water of the pond, the reflection, the cattails’ broken leaves and tall flower spikes, the lichen-covered fine twigs and tree branches behind them, and the hidden depths of the forest.

 

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9. A raindrop hangs suspended from the tip of a Redcedar leaf.

 

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10. The same tree, another raindrop. Using spot metering, and pointing the camera at the leaf in the first picture, and at the sky in this one, results in photos with altogether different moods. Spot metering is one of those exciting discoveries that opened up many possibilities for me.

 

I found the Super Takumar lens I’d read about on Amazon and bought it (in 2014) for $145, with tax and shipping. These days you can find it for less than that – a bargain compared to modern lenses. I bought an adapter online too, which set me back another $10 or $20, and then I was off and running!

Getting used to the lens was a challenge; for a long time, the focus seemed wobbly. I missed using autofocus and knowing my image would be sharp where I wanted it to be sharp. Maybe the lens wasn’t attached to the adapter properly, but in any case, after a little fiddling and by returning to the lens over and over again, I got used to it.

Each frame requires focusing. You must set the aperture, too. That’s a great way to make you slow down and think before shooting. Pretty soon changing the aperture and focusing the lens both become second nature. The all-metal lens has a satisfying, solid feel and is heavy for its small size. You feel like you’re holding something worthwhile. The mechanics are a joy – being a tactile person, I appreciate the smooth feel of the well-engineered focus and aperture rings.

 

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11. A fallen leaf comes to rest on driftwood in my yard.

 

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12. A narrow patch of woods between my house and the house next door is overgrown with blackberries.

 

 

 

 

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14. Thin blades of grass that grow out of the rock dangle from a cliff at Deception Pass State Park.

 

15. Next to the cliff, a sandy beach strewn with driftwood and strands of Bullwhip kelp is pockmarked from morning rain.

 

16. A cyanotype made in Silver Efex Pro of a mass of broken reeds, also at Deception Pass.

 

17. Lace lichen caught on the tips of Douglas fir tree branches could be mid-air calligraphy.

 

I go back to the vintage lens when I want to shake things up a little, or when I recognize conditions are good for using it. I think it has a special affinity for spring greens and the warm colors of autumn leaves. Not so much for snow. It’s recognized as a great portrait lens; maybe I’ll explore that one day.  For now, it’s a lens I appreciate for its unique rendering and for the way it helps me see the world a little differently.

A review of the lens is here.

I’ve shown photos made with this lens before here.

 

 

18. Even in December, mushrooms appear in the grass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meandering the Edges

Meandering the edges, these

wavy borders

between wet and not-wet, these

liminal spaces

that inhale and exhale life,

I feel alive, calm.

Being present here is easy –

just a matter of embodying tidal shifts

from one state of being to another,

just being the rhythm of

back and forth.

On the lapping edges

light shimmers, fades

and carries all known and unknown colors forward.

This curving, expanding, effervescing

between – for it is a “between” –

is made for meandering.

Here, I am carried back to the ground of being,

where being comfortable

means being as shifty as

a cloud.

 

1. The quiet hour before low tide, on a sliver of Salish Sea* beach, strewn with weathered logs and fist-sized rocks. 

 

2. As the tide recedes, shades of deep purple and brick red emerge in the sand around a single blue rock marked with a skitter of celadon green.

 

3. High tides slowly add stones to a cheerful collection in the hollow of a beached Redcedar log.

 

4. Lace lichen hangs soft and weightless in the dim recess of wet forest along the shoreline. Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) is the state lichen of California, where it grows on the coast and at higher elevations. Here on the Salish Sea I find it hanging from the trees that line the moist rims of the islands.

 

5. Lace lichen is variable, sometimes forming flattened ribbons alongside the delicate openwork structures that give the lichen its name. Lichens are composite life forms,  consisting of a fungus and a cyanobacteria or a green alga, living symbiotically. The structure you see (the thallus) is the fungus, which protects the alga as it photosynthesizes and make nutrients.

 

6. Lace lichen at dusk, photographed with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.  Lichens are a complex sort of borderland life form, which to me feels philosophically appropriate for the marginal space where water meets and mixes with land.

 

7. The sun setting in the southwest, over the Salish Sea, is reflected on the water of Cranberry Lake, a fresh-water lake separated from a beach by a narrow strip of dunes.

 

8. Spider webs thread the thorny branches of a wild rose (probably Nootka rose, Rosa nutkana) on the shore of Cranberry Lake (so-called because early settlers grew cranberries here).

 

9. Sunset over Cranberry Lake is a graceful sonata of dark evergreens, their calm-water reflections, the ragged, torn-paper silhouette of the Olympic Mountains, wispy clouds and softly bending reeds.

 

10. The sturdy golden stems of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis Leutkeana), a thin strand of green seaweed, and a washed-up tree branch (probably a Madrone, or Arbutus menziesii), create a still life on the beach.  The Latin names of the Madrone tree and Lace lichen share a species name, menziesii, that honors Archibald Menzies, a Scottish naturalist and surgeon who explored this region in the 1790’s, on the four-year-long Vancouver Expedition. His was the first European record of Madrone trees.

 

11. The smooth stones of Rosario Beach glisten, inviting a closer look.  A fragment of green seaweed and bits of bark landed here, but they may float back into the water with the next wave.

 

12. A tangle of Bullwhip kelp is buried in the stones at Rosario Beach. Imagine how nourishing the seaweed would be as it slowly decomposes under the rocks. If the kelp lands far up on the beach, maybe it will decompose in place, and perhaps a coastal strand plant like American dune grass (Leymus mollis ssp. mollis) will take root there, holding the land fast against the tides, if only until the next spring tide or big storm.

 

13. The graceful American dune grass grows in the shelter of a driftwood log, just a few feet from the shoreline.

 

14. Sometimes it seems there are as many beached logs and pieces of driftwood on these beaches as there are blades of dune grass. This sinewy log washed up onto the fine sand of the beach seen in the first photograph.

 

15. This sculptural piece of driftwood could be a piece of a Western Redcedar tree (Thuja plicata), or perhaps it’s a from a Madrone. It looks like it could crawl away, given half a chance.

 

16. Behind heavy clouds, the sun lays golden light down on the waters of Northwest Pass. Two spindly Douglas fir trees stand apart from the forest that blankets Deception Island, one of hundreds of uninhabited islands dotting the Salish Sea.

 

17. A Great Blue heron (Ardea herodias) is sheltering well back from the water’s edge, in a tangle of wildflowers and driftwood. The wind is blowing hard on this December day, and it’s high tide, so perhaps the heron is waiting for the tide to turn before going back to foraging. The heron startled me as I meandered the beach, studying the rocks. Moving very slowly, I managed to take photographs without disturbing my new-found friend, even though I was only about 15 feet away.

 

 

18. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) grows tall and strong here; the dried fronds persist for months. The “world’s most widespread fern”, sturdy bracken can be found in Washington State growing on Salish Sea shorelines, in suburban parks, and on subalpine avalanche tracks.

 

 

19. After the rain, lichens sparkle and drip. Because they gather moisture from rain, lichens are very susceptible to pollutants in rainwater. Some are highly sensitive to pollutants like sulphur dioxide, so just finding them growing at a given location is a sign of good air quality. There are at least two species here: the fruticose lichen (the one hanging down) is probably an Usnea, perhaps U. dasopoga.  A foliose lichen is stuck to the twig, and may be a Parmelia.  Some Usnea lichens have become rare in lowland Britain since industrialization; similarly, U. longissima was once common in the US and is now considered rare due to habitat loss and pollution. 

 

20. A fragment of lichen and a scattering of Shore pine (Pinus contorta) needles rest on a thick bed of moss. All three plants benefit from the moist climate on the edge of the Salish Sea. Identifying mosses and lichens is difficult, and I’m taking a pass at these two!

 

21. Lovely young Madrone trees emerge from the rich soil next to fallen trees on a bluff high above the water. Reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.), mosses, and grasses arrange themselves at the feet of the Madrones into a perfect garden composition  – no flowers needed!

 

22. Raindrops clinging to the Red huckleberry twigs (Vaccinium parvifolium) glisten in the forest, just yards from a steep cliff that plunges into the cold waters of Deception Pass. The red berries were used by all the local indigenous people. The birds must like them too, because I never see many berries on Red huckleberry bushes.

 

23. It grows dark quickly under the thick canopy of Douglas fir and Western Redcedar trees, and a single raindrop hanging from a Red huckleberry branch catches my eye.

 

 

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24. Two smooth stones and a third that’s partially buried. An entirely temporary arrangement.

 

25. Shimmering waves throw stones at the logs that line the beach.

 

26. A Shore pine and a Douglas fir huddle together on the rocks beside Cranberry Lake.

 

27. This weathered Douglas fir withstands strong gusts of wind up on Rosario Head, as it has for years. Unlike the tree, I’m mobile enough to choose a different location when those December winds blow, and that’s what I did – I quickly descended the grassy path for a more sheltered spot.

 

***

The photographs were taken this month at three locations in Deception Pass State Park close to, or at, the water’s edge.

*

From the Wikipedia entry on liminality:

“Major transformations occur at crossroads and other liminal places, at least partly because liminality—being so unstable—can pave the way for access to esoteric knowledge or understanding of both sides.[73] Liminality is sacred, alluring, and dangerous.”

*

For more about the beautiful Lace lichen, see this resource.

*

* The Salish Sea

“Salish Sea” is a relatively new term, approved in 2009 by the Coast Salish people and geographical name Boards in the US and Canada. It refers to an integrated marine ecosystem that comprises the Strait of Juan de Fuca (which separates northwestern Washington State from Vancouver Island, Canada), the Strait of Georgia (which separates Vancouver Island from the Canadian mainland) and Puget Sound, (which extends south past Seattle).

The Coast Salish people are thought to have inhabited this region for the last 11,000 years. The tribes enjoyed abundant resources in this land of temperate rainforests, rich waters and biologically productive tidal edges. Now many of these resources are dwindling or threatened, but people are working hard to conserve what’s left.

 

 

A Little Farther Into the Woods

Since moving to Fidalgo Island last July I’ve immersed myself in my immediate surroundings: the park, town and shoreline locations that are minutes from home. We are a long 90 miles (145km) from the ocean, but it’s still a water-defined landscape; Fidalgo’s shores look out onto sounds, bays, channels, and more islands, and even the forests here are dotted with lakes.

If you head east off the island, it’s a very different landscape. As you mount a high, arcing bridge, overlapping layers of foothills and mountains appear in the distance. Agricultural flatlands spread out on either side of the road, to the north and south. The view ahead steals the show as rhythmic mounds of forested hills rise up and gradually crumple into the jagged, rocky folds of the North Cascade Range. That rough and rugged terrain was beckoning me a few months ago – but I’m no mountaineer, so on a quiet Tuesday in October, we headed east for a lowland walk in the Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National forest.

 

1. Baker River Trail/East Bank Baker Lake Trail.

 

The goal was to meander along the East Bank Baker Lake Trail, an easy walk through the thick, coniferous forest that Baker River passes through as it divides into countless turquoise ribbons, braiding their way towards Baker Lake. The river’s namesake, Mt. Baker, or Koma Kulshan, is a young, glaciated volcano, and the third-highest mountain in the state, at 10,781 ft. (3286 m).  Koma Kulshan’s lofty, somber face dominates many a vista in this region. You might think Baker River begins under a glacier on Mt. Baker, but it actually rises under Whatcom Peak, to the northeast. From there, the river cuts a deep valley southwest, flowing around Mt. Baker before emptying into Baker Lake.

 

2. After a dry summer, the river is a series of shallow ribbons of cold water, unfurling over a rocky bed.

 

Getting to the trail was harder than we thought it would be. The first part was simple – drive east past fields and small towns on State Route 20. Then, in the tiny hamlet of Birdsview, you leave civilization behind to follow Baker Lake Road for 26 miles (42 km). The problem was the final six miles, where the road is not paved, and barely maintained. We still have the cars we brought with us from New York City seven years ago, and neither one is appropriate for the rough, deeply pot-holed forest roads that usually lead to trailheads. It’s really a pickup truck, SUV and Subaru world here. The going was tedious as we crawled back and forth across the road, trying not to wreck the car’s suspension. Occasional glimpses of snowy Mt. Baker beckoned through dense curtains of towering trees, and eventually the painfully slow slog ended.

 

3. The paved section of Baker Lake Road.

 

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4. The road narrows and begins to get rough while Mount Baker looms majestically above us.

 

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5. An old Redcedar leans heavily over the trail.

 

6. This beautifully built suspension bridge puts a little bounce into your step, like it or not.

 

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7. We saw thousands of small moths that day, both alive and dead. This one came to rest on a Redcedar bough. Shining drops of morning dew still cling to the delicate wings and body.

 

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8. This little one was alive, but maybe not for long.

 

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9. A dew-spangled dead moth is cradled in the leaf litter.

 

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10. Another rough-hewn wooden bridge on the trail crosses one of many creeks feeding Baker River. The rustic bridges are a real pleasure to see, to touch, and to walk across.

 

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11. I have great respect for the people who built these bridges.

 

 

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13. The bridge views were mesmerizing. Baker River rippled past water-sculpted rocks and the light danced over smooth stones that were barely covered by the shallow water.

 

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14. Looking up river it’s easy to picture how, after a winter of heavy snow in the mountains, the river fills up with glacial melt and roars down towards Baker Lake, taking fallen trees along for the ride, only to abandon the logs in untidy clumps, as the flow dwindles over the summer.

 

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15. Bigleaf maples had dropped their leaves in layers of nourishing mulch – in the woods, on the trail, and on the road, too.

 

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16. Mushrooms crowded this stump like a Hong Kong high rise.

 

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17. A fresh mushroom bouquet decorated with sprays of Licorice fern.

 

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18. This handsome specimen emerged from thick moss on the moist forest floor.

 

19. Forest floor synergy could be seen at our feet: rotting logs, fallen leaves and twigs, moss, mushrooms, and so much more that we didn’t see, all working together to support life.

 

20. A hiker stops to admire an old growth Redcedar pressing against huge boulder covered with moss, lichens and ferns.

 

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21. Constant moisture from the river nearby means that in this part of the forest, every dead limb wears a luxurious coat of spongy moss, all year long.

 

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22. Feathery-boughed cedars with their tapered trunks and waving, mossy branches made an enchanted forest scene. Green never departs from this forest, it just waxes and wanes in intensity.

 

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23. Cedar bark invites a close look, especially when the tree sports a stripe of bright green lichen. Look closely and you’ll see other lichens here, too.

 

24. The drab but pert American Dipper is always a thrill to see. This little bundle of energy forages by dipping, walking and even swimming in the rushing water of tumbling streams. When perched, dippers constantly bounce up and down, and movement is about all that gives them away, since the plain gray birds are hard to see among dark boulders, fallen trees, and the noisy, rushing water.

 

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25. The days were getting shorter and we had a late start that day, so we turned back to avoid driving 26 miles in darkness.

 

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26. Low-angled sun silvered the meandering river.

 

27. As we were about to get into the car, I noticed a maple leaf caught on a twig and made one more photograph. There’s always one more….

 

If you’re in the area:

The East Bank Baker Lake and Baker River Trails are about 115 (185km) miles from Seattle, and about 124 miles (200km) from Vancouver, BC.  The trailhead is 64 rather slow miles from where I live. Once you arrive at the large parking lot, if it’s an off-season weekday, you may be all alone. Set out on the wide, flat trail among huge boulders and towering trees, and soon you’ll sense the river behind the trees. In half a mile a suspension bridge crosses the river. From there, the Baker Lake Trail continues down the river and then follows the lake edge, for a total of 14.5 miles one way. Along the trail you’ll find more bridges, and views of the snow-covered mountains high above that are the repositories for all this rushing water. If you don’t cross the first bridge you can continue straight upriver on the Baker River Trail, reaching a campground in 2.6 miles. It was so pleasant the day we were there, and there was so much to look at, that we didn’t get far at all. That was not the object. The point was to feel, hear, see, and smell this unique place, to fully sense the aliveness of one small corner of our planet.

 

The Slow Curl Inward

In less than a month the shortest day of the year will mark another ending/beginning. Hanging low in the sky, the sun will begin climbing towards spring, however imperceptibly. As we approach the winter solstice the world seems to curve inward: leaf edges curl, hibernating animals wind into a ball, thoughts turn in on themselves.

Around here the beaches are strewn with pungent mounds of sloughed-off seaweed. The water is dotted with wintering ducks, diving for food, and pairs of eagles stand by their nests in a kind of pre-courtship bonding ritual. Pleasure boats are idle, and on most days the skies are washed with smudges of pewter and pearl. We may think in terms of endings – the end of summer, the end of good weather – but look closely and you’ll uncover ample evidence of the continuum of the seasons, folding one into the other. Here in the Pacific northwest, where temperatures are moderated by great bodies of water, the seasonal transitions are slow and subtle.

 

1. Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) mingle gracefully with seaweed on a narrow strip of sandy beach at Bowman Bay, in Deception Pass State Park.

 

2. An idle sailboat floats on calm water at Bowman Bay.

 

On the other side of the island from my house, a small, bowl-shaped bay abuts a ragged, rocky headland jutting into the Salish Sea. A loop trail meanders through a verdant ever green forest there, and emerges at a series of bluffs, high above the swirling, tidal waters of Deception Pass. This has become one of my favorite places to walk.

 

Trail, Bowman Bay

3. The trail to Lighthouse Point skirts an old Douglas fir tree and curves up a cliff.

 

4. Most of the seeds have been released from this summer wildflower. It could be harmless Water parsnip (Sium suave) or poisonous Water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii); both are in the Apiaceae family (along with celery, parsley and carrots) and both are found here.

 

 

5. Dew drops crowd a blade of American dune grass (Leymus mollis) at Bowman Bay. My guess is that the cool temperatures here slow down the decomposition process, but a warmer climate will likely change the rate of decay, along with many other biological processes.

 

6. Two Douglas maple leaves (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) leaves are slowly dissolving onto a sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum) in the shady forest at Lighthouse Point.

 

7. Old Douglas fir trees, their bark craggy with age, stand straight and tall in a frothy sea of bright green Salal (Gaultheria shallon). The Doug fir, as it’s called locally, is actually not a fir; it’s in the pine family.

 

Twice in the last week or so, I’ve walked the trails at Lighthouse Point. My mind empties quickly there, and I’m a field of receptivity, alert to whatever presents itself, without agenda or plan. I spread my attention out over the landscape and let it lead me. I feel the cool air around my face, I smell pungent piles of seaweed and fragrant firs and cedars, and I hear the gentle lapping of waves. Countless scenes unfold around me as I walk. With the camera hanging at my side, there is the great pleasure of peering through its rectangular frame, exercising my aesthetic vision, and pressing that little silver button.

 

8. Piles of Bullwhip kelp twisted together and washed up on a sliver of beach, coming to rest in one big smelly, sensuous, sculptural heap.

 

9. A large rock, worn smooth by countless tides, contrasts with the granular texture of tiny broken shells and rocks in a little scoop of a cove facing Deception Pass.

 

10. Fallen Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lend an otherworldly air to a bluff on the little-visited north side of Lighthouse Point.

 
 
 

11. Away from the windy headlands Douglas firs grow straight and tall. A gold lichen on the tree trunks reflects the gold leaves of deciduous trees in the background. They may be Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana). John Scouler was a nineteenth century Scottish naturalist and doctor who made extensive plant collections in western North America and the Galapagos. Those were the days!


12. Mushrooms along a trail at Lighthouse Point. Identifying these is beyond my pay grade.



13. More old Douglas fir trees lean over a narrow trail on the north side of Lighthouse Point. Their thick bark is protective, helping them survive fires that occur during the dry summers.



Beach Sliver

14. Gentle waves lap at a sliver of beach on Bowman Bay. This photograph was taken while I peered through trees growing from a rocky cliff above the beach. I used spot metering to emphasize the low November sunlight on the water and sand.

 

15. The San Juan Islands rise up across the Salish Sea, less than 13 miles away. The disturbance in the water is a bed of Bullwhip kelp. Harbor porpoises have just been feeding here (my camera only caught the tiniest crescent of fin). The Oxford dictionary says you can call a group of porpoises a pod, a herd, a school or a turmoil. I’ll go for turmoil – that perfectly describes the water when porpoises are actively feeding. The sun had set when I took this photo, and I had to hurry back on dim trails. I now have a flashlight in my pack.

 

The colors are muted, the light is scant, but the glory remains as autumn sheds its skin into winter’s bones. You have only to shed assumptions and look attentively.

 

Deception Pass State Park: the Long and the Short of it…

Ten minutes from home, a spectacular bit of coastline and woodlands awaits. I knew about Deception Pass State Park before I moved here, but I had no idea of the variety of terrain this corner of the world encompasses. Now that I’ve lived here for four months, I’m beginning to understand the scope: whether taking the long view out across the water or peering in at the details, it seems the possibilities for discovery here are inexhaustible.

The 3,854-acre (1,560 ha) park straddles the ends of two large islands, and takes in many smaller islands too – some named, some just piles of rocks. Deception Pass boasts huge, ancient trees, stunning sunsets, a wave-tossed coastline, sheer cliffs, class 2 and 3 rapids under an engineering feat of a bridge, colorful underwater lifeforms, freshwater lakes, and a lot more.

Deception Pass was mapped by the Vancouver Expedition, in 1792.  Navigating the intricate ins and outs of the coastline here is difficult; rocks are everywhere, the water can be shallow, and currents can roil. It took a while before George Vancouver found the tight passage from the east side of what was then thought to be a peninsula, to the west side of it. After Vancouver sent Joseph Whidbey out in smaller boats to explore the area in depth, they realized that the peninsula is an island – actually two islands, Whidbey and Fidalgo. So Vancouver named the watery passageway “Deception Pass.”

Over a century later (in 1923), land on either side of the narrow pass was given to the state for a park.  Then in 1935, a breathtaking, 976-foot bridge span was completed, connecting Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. The bridge passes high over the water and across rocky Pass Island, giving Whidbey Island better access to the mainland. These days, two million yearly visitors visit the park, arriving by road or approaching by water.  They camp, fish, boat, hike, dive, surf, gawk at the views and enjoy themselves, and parts of the park can get crowded on weekends, but quiet corners are easy to find.

I’ve put together a collection of photos I’ve taken in the park, at locations on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. These photos were made in the last two months, so the view is only of the park in autumn.  As I get to know Deception Pass better, I’ll be posting more images of it from various perspectives, in different kinds of light, and over the course of four seasons. I’m looking forward to exploring both the long and short of this exceptional landscape.

 

 

1. Rosario Beach in the fog

 

2. An immense Red cedar (Thuja plicata) shares air space with Douglas firs and Bigleaf maples.

 

 

 

 

4. Looking northeast from Deception Pass bridge. Drivers can park and walk across. With the rush of traffic behind you and breathtaking views ahead, it’s an experience!  In this photo, a fast incoming tide counteracted by strong westerly winds creates chaotic currents.

 

5. Here’s the bridge from underneath. Walk down a set of stairs, and you can hear traffic roaring  overhead, watch the water rushing through the channel far beneath you, and view an engineering wonder, right in front of you.

 

6. Goose Rock is a glacier-scratched bald where lichens cover the ground and an expansive view opens out towards the Pacific Ocean, over 90 miles away as the crow flies. Speaking of crows, you’re likely to see their relatives the ravens up here, riding high on the wind.

 

7. Reindeer lichen (Cladonia or Cladina, various species), also called reindeer moss. Here at Goose Rock, attractive lichen pillows are surrounded by a sea of moss.

 

 

 

9. Sword ferns decorate the trail to Goose Rock, and fallen trees, sawed apart to open the trail, support a lush nursery of mushrooms, mosses, licorice ferns and other plants.

 

10. This Douglas fir tree is purported to be over 850 years old; the photo shows just part of it. Unlike most Douglas firs, it’s not straight and tall, but has been twisted by centuries of difficult conditions on this site, hard by a windy beach on the Salish Sea.

 

11. Lucky kayaker! The waters around Rosario Beach are usually calm, and perfect for kayaking. A seal may show up, and I’ve seen Black oystercatchers, Great blue herons and gulls on the rocks.

 

12. A section of the Deception Pass bridge, seen from the Lighthouse Point trail on Fidalgo Island. Three kayakers are heading into Canoe Pass, the quieter, safer passage between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. On the right is the steep-sided Pass Island.

 

13. A view of the bridge from North Beach on Whidbey Island.

 

14. A surfer in a wetsuit enjoys waves created by the stiff winds funneling down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Along with an incoming tide, the wind produced enough action for some excellent rides on surf breaking over a rocky point, at North Beach. Remember, this is 90 miles from the coast!

 

 

 

16. Back in the woods, on a forest trail connecting Rosario Beach to Bowman Bay, Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) hang delicately from a twig. Growing readily in moist, shady places, these plants are a common sight in the park.

 

17. Lichens are everywhere at Deception Pass – hanging from trees, growing on rocks, on logs, and scattered over the ground after a windy rain. This one drips with rain, and is attached to a twig by a strand of spider silk. Scenes like this are missed by hikers in a hurry.

 

18. A common understory plant, the Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) has branches that grow in a subtle zig-zag fashion, and small, oviod leaves held flat to absorb the light filtering down through the thick tree canopy.

 

19. Douglas fir trees cling to a sheer rock face at Lighthouse Point.

 

20. A view like this makes you glad this land was set aside as a park, and when a a curious seal pops its head out of the water and a pair of Bald eagles flies by, there’s no doubt about the value of habitat preservation.

 

 

 

22. Sunset over Rosario Beach rocks. On a very low tide you can walk out to the rocks and explore tide pools.  Look carefully and you’ll see a Great blue heron craning its neck out, to the right of the middle hump on the widest rock.

 

A few words about the photo groupings above:

#3 (between #2 and #4):  a) On an early November walk to Goose Rock, a bluff sitting high over the pass, I found this single leaf, hanging on after a storm.  b) The trail connecting Rosario Beach and Bowman Bay is set with many Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), trees. Some died long ago, possibly from fires, but they still stand, weathered and twisted. This section of a tree appealed to me for the gentle curve and smooth wood.

#8: a,b,c) Mushrooms are abundant, ever since our drought was broken by a series of rainy days – well, rainy weeks. These three photos were taken the same day, on the trail to Goose Rock. I won’t hazard a guess as to the identification of the mushrooms.

#15: People often pile the smooth rocks found on our beaches into cairns, and Rosario Beach is a good place for it. As you can see, there are plenty of nicely rounded rocks to pile up, if you have the patience. The photo of seaweed washed up on the beach was taken at North Beach, where the surfer (#14) was. I have a feeling that what washes up isn’t always as colorful as it was on that windy day, but I don’t know. I’ll have to go back again – and again – to find out. That will be my pleasure.

#21: Three “postcard” views around the park: a) Surf from a strong incoming tide splashes the rocky point between North and West Beaches, on the Whidbey Island side of the park. The land mass on the right is Deception Island, and like many of the smaller islands in the area, is uninhabited and can only be reached by boat.  b) This was taken on Big Cedar Trail, a trail winding through the forest to a ravine where the big Red cedar in #2 grows.  c) A late afternoon view from Lighthouse Point trail (there’s no lighthouse, just amazing scenery), taken with my phone.

***

 

Forgive me for making such a long post; I appreciate your patience. The images of Deception Pass were piling up! I hope you enjoyed these, and more than that, I hope you’ll come here some day. But don’t be deceived into thinking there aren’t equally wonderful views – long and short – in your neck of the woods. Fresh eyes will find them!

 

 

 

 

Rambling Around L.A. with Flora

Who’s Flora? Flora is Fauna’s pal. You know, the one who makes everything livable.

Flora’s strong presence in L.A. is a key ingredient of the city’s identity. The city is chock full of glamorous botanical introductions from faraway places, native plants that thrived here for eons and everything in between. The “florabundance” of southern California captivated me, so here’s a selection of plants from in and around L. A.  –  a selection guaranteed to be completely unscientific and thoroughly skewed.  Most of these images are of trees because trees got to me on this trip, but you’ll find a few other plants in too, for the sake of variety.

 

1. The silhouette of a Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) frames distant hills on a trail at Topanga State Park’s Trippet Ranch, which is about an hour’s drive from downtown L.A.

 

2. More Coast live oaks at Trippet Ranch. The day we were there birds, squirrels and deer were feasting on the ripening acorns.

 

3. A fallen branch, probably oak, at Trippet Ranch. The live oaks of California take on wonderfully sinuous, expressive shapes as they grow.

 

4. Staying with the oaks, here’s a lovely, plump little acorn on a Tucker’s oak tree (Quercus John-tuckeri) at Joshua Tree National Park. The park is a good two or more-hour drive from L.A. but it’s well worth the effort to get there. More on that in another post.

 

5. Just off a trail in Joshua Tree National Park, the eponymous Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) stands tall. It is actually not a tree, it’s a type of yucca. This specimen suffered an injury to its trunk but it soldiers on, in a very harsh environment. The area has only received about two inches of rain this year; about a third of that fell just after we left, causing road closures and evacuations in town.

 

6. Back in downtown Los Angeles, hilly streets mean you might get to look down on a freshly clipped topiary tree. What a treat!

 

7. In trendy Silver Lake everyone has a little corner of paradise; this one comes with a generous sprinkling of banana plants and Bird of Paradise plants (Strelitzia). Oh, and a vintage Ford Falcon parked out front does add a certain charm to the block.

 

8. The fruit of a South American Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) hangs heavy on the branch, on a street in the Watts neighborhood of L.A. These trees drop their leaves before flowering – what a sight the brilliant magenta pink flowers are on bare-leaved trees!

 

9. On just about any block in L.A. there will be a corner like this one, with lollipop palm trees, telephone poles and criss-crossed wires, street lamps, and random signs. You’ll often find a certain glow in the sky too, maybe from the city’s relentlessly sunny skies and its proximity to the ocean. Or perhaps it’s that stubborn inversion layer. Or maybe all that light is just bouncing around so much that it glows.

 

 

11. At my feet on a residential street, a tree was artfully creeping over the sidewalk, and scattering its pretty golden leaves about like glitter on a movie star’s gown. OK, that’s a stretch, but this little scene did delight my eyes.

 

12. Down at the beach, forests of kelp grow just off shore. Now and then they toss us an offering. Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is actually a fast-growing algae, and I’m not kidding about the forest part – offshore kelp beds are thick, and plants can reach well over 40′ tall. 

 

13. A tangle of branches looks a bit haunted, in a ravine at Trippet Ranch, Topanga State Park.

 

14. I think this is a Peruvian peppertree (Schinus molle), one of many exotics planted around L.A. This was at Elysian Park, L.A.’s oldest park and a nice, quick escape from the frantic traffic of the city below.

 

15. At Angel’s Point in Elysian Park another Mexican fan palm stands tall amidst an unlikely assortment of objects. A whimsical sculpture seems to mock the heavy-handedness of downtown high-rises, and five glorious ravens sail freely on the updraft of a glowing, if smoggy, L.A. sunset.

 

16. I was struck by the sight of tree roots penetrating deep into rocky cliffs, in a number of places around the city. This photo was taken on the road to Mt. Wilson Observatory, a narrow, winding two-lane that had me clutching the edge of my seat more than once.

 

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17. Evergreens cling to the rocky hillsides of Angeles National Forest, along the precipitous road that climbs up to Mount Wilson Observatory, elevation 5,712 ft/1741m.  Two of the largest telescopes in the world (for their time) are here. The location benefits from regional inversion layers that trap clearer air on top of the mountain, but it suffers from light-polluted night skies.

 

18. Another view of oaks in a ravine, through filtered light at Trippet Ranch, Topanga State Forest.

 

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19.  Warm, arid southern California even manages glimpses of autumn here and there. This fiery tree appears to be a maple. I found it on a roadside, high up in the Angeles National Forest, about an hour from downtown.

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This meager offering doesn’t begin to do justice to the amazing variety of flora in and around Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, both the arid wilderness around L.A. and the well-irrigated landscape in and near the city offer up an astounding variety of plant life.  I hope this post encourages you to take another look around your own neighborhood. There may be more to it than you realize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entering In

 

Ten minutes from home

the mind

quiets.

 

1.

 

2.

 

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Mt. Erie is only 1,273 feet (388 meters) high, but it rises steeply from the surrounding land and is the highest point on Fidalgo Island. From miles away, on land or water, you can see Mt. Erie’s uneven bulge, topped by two cell antenna towers. At the top with the spindly cell towers there are a few small parking lots, some benches and viewing platforms, a toilet, a sculpture, and informational signs; one plaque honors a boy who died in a fall.

People enjoy driving up the twisting, two-lane road to the summit for the breath-taking view across the island and out to the Salish Sea. Most visitors leave it at that. But walk just a short distance into the woods below the peak and you’re in another world, enveloped in the hush of a forest layered in a hundred different greens.

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Coyote maybe. A chunk of moss nearby had been torn from its roots; the evidence suggested a struggle. Here was a vivid slice of wildness just steps from the road, a road most people use only to access the summit for a quick postcard view of the islands below.

If a visitor could contort like a bendable toy and lean way out over the rocks, they might see a climber or two. Mt. Erie has enough rocky outcroppings to make it the scene of intense rock climbing efforts. On the Mt. Erie Climbing facebook page you’ll find route names like Street Fighter, PTSD, and Beard on Fire, and photos of climbers in action with expansive views of tree-mounded islands and deep blue water behind them. 

I don’t have photos of climbers; I’d have to be under them, or beside them. I’ve taken my share of view pictures though – who can resist?

 

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Each time I go to Mt. Erie I admire those views, but these days I spend most of my time on the narrow, winding trails just below the top, where a different kind of magic invites closer looks.

 

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The Photos:

  1. This almost-prostrate Douglas fir hosts a thick collection of lichens. Underneath it a spongy layer of chartreuse moss supports Oregon-grape (Berberis nervosa) plants that are steadily turning red as autumn arrives.
  2. A closer view of lichens dangling from a fir tree on Mt. Erie. Lichens are tough to identify, and the Pacific northwest has a host of them, so I won’t venture further than saying this lichen is probably a species of Usnea.
  3. A closer look. Lichens are actually a complex marriage of an algae and a fungi. If that isn’t confusing enough, they also include a yeast. Lichens grow very slowly, so its important to try not to disturb them.
  4. I think this tree festooned with multiple lichen species is a Western Service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia).  I was drawn to the way the lichens’ cool gray-green coloring complements the warm gold of autumn leaves.
  5. A Douglas fir cone is nestled into a bed of moss. The rust-colored fir needles  probably dropped off the trees because of the drought we had this summer. Rain has returned and you can tell the moss is moist here, not shriveled and dried like it was last month. It’s soft to the touch too, which pleases me. Identifying moss is difficult, but I’ll guess this is urn haircap (Pogonatum urnigerum). (I cheated by locating a plant list for Mt. Erie and comparing photos and descriptions of mosses on the list with my photo).
  6. No one picks up fallen branches here to make things neat; it’s not a garden. The forest floor is crowded with moss, rocks, lichens, branches, ferns, and countless bits of flora and fauna that we’d need a hand lens to see. Step off the trail and you’re bound to be crushing some kind of intricate life form.
  7. The summer drought has even begun to affect the tough, evergreen Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). In the background, last year’s shriveled fronds are a cascading mass of crisp, brown curls. Even this year’s leaf is browning at the edges.
  8. Another tree limb draped with lichens. I’ve read that it may look like the lichen is killing the trees, but lichens are more likely to grow abundantly on trees that are already dying; leafless branches provide better space for the lichen to hold on.
  9. This bit of fur was just off the path, along with a disturbance in the moss. I picked up a piece of fur and smelled it – it had a rank, slightly sour scent, the smell of a wild animal. It went back where it was, to decompose in place.
  10. Trees at the top of Mt. Erie are exposed to the elements; some are mere skeletons. In the distance are Whidbey Island and the Salish Sea. As Wikipedia says, “The Salish Sea is the intricate network of coastal waterways that includes the southwestern portion of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the northwestern portion of the U.S. state of Washington.” Not exactly a sea, this body of water was named the Salish Sea only 30 years ago, by a local marine biologist attempting to raise awareness of the importance of the ecosystem. The “Salish” part recognizes the indigenous people who inhabited coastal areas here before Europeans arrived.
  11. A Douglas fir tree leans out over the spacious landscape at the top of Mt. Erie. Trees up here exist in every stage of growth, from sprouting seed to decaying stump, affording habitat for countless organisms.
  12. This photo was taken in July on a dry, sunny day. The prominent rock, called Rodger Bluff, barely fits within Deception Pass State Park boundaries. To see it closeup requires a longer hike than I’ve been up to so far, but maybe one day I’ll get there.
  13. Steep, moss-covered rocks and tall trees draped with lichens make magic at Mt. Erie. Sounds are muffled by all the soft plant matter, but chances are good that you’ll hear the hoarse call of a raven at least once if you spend an hour up here.
  14. These lichens have grown so long that the wind tangled them up.
  15. This Douglas fir is devoid of living branches and now hosts several kinds of lichens, forming an aesthetically pleasing screen of pointillist simplicity.
  16. Towards the end of the day the forest gets quite dark, but the bright mosses glisten with reflected light.
  17. Serviceberry leaves applaud the last light of the day.