Local Walks: Goose Rock

The place is called Goose Rock but it doesn’t seem to have any geese. It isn’t shaped like a goose as far as I can see either, so the name for this bald hill at the tip of Whidbey Island is a puzzle. The park surrounding it (Deception Pass) has a name that’s easier to track down. It was called Deception Pass by a British explorer after he realized that the peninsula he was navigating around was actually an island, separated from another island by a narrow and treacherous channel.

Up on Goose Rock, where a broad expanse of sky and water spreads out beneath me, the names of places don’t seem to matter, but bear with me – the story of Deception Pass is a good one.

1. Ice sheets scarred these rocks 11,000 years ago and rain left puddles on them just hours ago. The weathering of these gently rounded hulks of rock doesn’t ever stop. November 2018.

In June of 1792 British naval Captain George Vancouver was anchored at the southern end of what is now known as Whidbey Island. He had left England the year before, calling at Cape Town, Australia and Hawaii on his way to Nootka Sound on present-day Vancouver Island, Canada, where he was to take possession of land seized by the Spanish a few years before. Vancouver also carried orders to prepare the way for British settlement in certain key locations. Of course, the land in question had already been inhabited for thousands of years by non-Europeans. But that’s another story, perhaps one to consider as your gaze follows the lichen and moss-covered rocks down to the thick forest below, now sliced by a busy road that winds towards a U.S. Naval Air Force base.

2. Traffic on Route 20 can be seen in the distance but it’s mostly quiet up here, except when the Navy Growlers are flying. June 2018.

But back to how Deception Pass got its name. An important part of Vancouver’s mission was charting. To this end, on the June day in question the captain sent a few smaller boats out to explore a stretch of coves and bays north of the mother ship. The Pacific northwest coast was daunting to most of the men. Legions of dark evergreens edge intricately crooked shorelines that are often foggy and gloomy, even in June. The Coast Salish tribes-people were used to navigating these waters, but to Vancouver’s men each rocky promontory and every small cove was new, so we can forgive Joseph Whidbey and his crew for not going quite far enough that day. Whidbey didn’t realize that just a few more miles of exploring would have brought him to a narrow passageway. If the tides had been favorable he could have steered west between towering cliffs and emerged on the other side of the “peninsula.” That would have allowed the men to turn south and circumnavigate the island, joining the HMS Discovery back where it was anchored. But shallow water in an area just short of the pass convinced the men to call it a day, turn around and head back to the ship.

3. Racing currents explode through the pass when a large volume of water is sucked through the narrow channel by the tide. This is the pass Whidbey missed the first time. November 2018.

The mistake was corrected quickly enough when the ship made its way north a day or so later. Now they could see a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.” Vancouver called the channel “Deception Pass” and the name stuck.

European settlers began arriving on Whidbey Island after 1850. They fished and logged and farmed, and the population grew, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1935 that a bridge was completed across the channel, finally connecting Whidbey to the mainland. You can see why that was not an easy task.

4. One span of the two-span bridge seen from Lighthouse Point on Fidalgo Island. It looks like the two islands are connected, but they’re not – the channel curves around the rocks and continues through to the other side. September 2018.

5. The other span seen from across the water at North Beach on Whidbey Island. Between the spans is rocky Pass Island, on the left here and on the right in #4. March 2019.

6. Under the bridge. June 2019.

The bridge that allows islanders easy access to the mainland also connects two sections of a popular park located on Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands (as well as a number of smaller islands nearby). Deception Pass State Park has been here since the 1920’s, expanding over the years to include 3,854 acres (1,560 ha) of varied terrain. You can watch the sunset from a beach with views of the Olympic Mountains, the San Juan Islands, and Canada. You can camp in the forest, kayak, scuba dive, paddleboard, boat, fish, or just wander miles of trails in quiet forests.

I like to follow the Goose Rock perimeter trail for about half a mile before turning away from the turquoise waters of the channel to climb through the forest on a less-traveled spur trail. A favorite sight along this path is a large Redcedar tree that toppled some time ago. I would have liked to have heard that!

7. Lush forest along the Goose Rock perimeter trail. December 2018.

8. Red huckleberry leaves persist on bushes scattered throughout the forest. November 2018.

9. Snow on the trail is unusual. February 2019.

10. Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is plentiful. December 2018.

11. The Fallen One. August 2019.
12. Another view. August 2019.

13. The bark of an old Douglas fir tree is adorned with lichens, spider webs, fallen needles and other bits of life. August 2019.

14. Leathery new leaves of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) emerge bright green in spring, later darkening to a deep forest green. June 2019.

Out of the woods and onto the rock. At about 494 feet the summit isn’t exactly vertiginous, but it’s the highest point on Whidbey Island and it offers a fine view. Sprawling glacier-scraped rocks are softened with lichens and moss, and criss-crossed by worn dirt paths. A smattering of well-weathered trees adds to the wild feeling. In spring, a parade of tiny wildflowers and intricate grasses springs to life, only to dry out and disappear by mid-summer. On any day the view of islands, water and sky pleases the soul.

15. On an autumn evening, sunlight shimmers through storm clouds over the Salish Sea. September 2018.

16. Reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.) and various mosses decorate the rocks in shades of green all year long. November 2018.

17. Pale blue-green reindeer lichen settles like clouds in a bed of moss and Kinnikinnick, or Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). November 2018.

18. Windy days and nights on Goose Rock scatter twigs on the ground. November 2018.

19. Even before summer has officially begun the grasses are drying up on the exposed rocks. June 2019.

20. Low fencing steers visitors off of delicate wildflower meadows. June 2019.

21. – 25. Wildflowers: Naked Broomrape (Orobanche uniflora), Harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria), Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum), Common camas (Camas (Camassia quamash), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis).

26. – 30. More wildflowers and a berry: Chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata), Nodding onion (Allium cernuum), Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), Fool’s onion (Brodiaea hyacintha) (two views).

31. Roots and moss make drawings on the rocks. February 2019.

32. Goose Rock gathers enough moisture for lichens to grow luxuriously on trees as well as rocks. June 2019.

33. A late afternoon view through the evergreens reveals the calm waters of a slack tide in the channel. December 2018.

34. The winter dance of the Red Huckleberry. February 2019.

35. Snow melts quickly, sending water drops down the fine twigs of bushes and trees, to nourish myriad life forms. February 2019.

I’ve been exploring the trails of Deception Pass for over a year now, and Goose Rock is a place I return to again and again. The views from the top have an immediate effect of extracting any tension you might still have after climbing through the quiet, lush forest. The trail is very accessible, beginning just under the Deception Pass bridge, so in summer and on nice weekends there’s company, but it rarely gets crowded. Maybe you …

Further Afield: In the Mountains

Yesterday I went hiking in the North Cascades with a friend who loves the mountains and is as curious about plants as I am. It’s time for berry picking now and most of the wildflowers are finished, but we hoped to find a few flowers hanging on. One of the flowers still blooming was a delicate, pure-white flower that looked familiar. I knew I’d seen it in the field guides but I couldn’t remember the name for it. I made a few quick photos to study when I got home. The pretty little wildflower was dropping snow-white petals onto the dark soil at the trail’s edge; it was a lovely, poignant sight signifying the end of summer.

After I got home I looked for the plant in my field guide and found it: it’s the Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata). The odd name instantly brought up a memory of my mother saying “Grass of Parnassus” as she described a similar wildflower she found hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where she lived. In fact, Grass of Parnassus is probably one of the flowers we saw on our last drive up into the mountains back in 1999, when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. Late that summer I visited her to help out and we took a pleasant drive together to see the scenery. It was one of many visits I made that year before she finally drew her last breath in her own bed, on Christmas Eve.

My mother loved wildflowers and passed that along to me. Mountains, too – she hiked many miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her hiking buddies. We never hiked in the mountains when I was a child; we lived in places with rolling hills and we vacationed nearby, or at my grandparent’s home near the ocean. But I remember standing on a hillside outside of Syracuse, New York with my mother when I was a schoolgirl and gazing at a glorious view spread out below us. It was essentially the same feeling I get from mountains vistas, that peaceful relaxing into open space that assures you there are endless possibilities ahead.

1. Mount Baker, or Koma Kulshan, an active stratovolcano in northwestern Washington, seen from a meadow on Dock Butte.

2. Mount Shuksan from the trail to Dock Butte.

3. The Sauk Mountain trail with a view of the Skagit River Valley far below.

4. A pond by the trail to Dock Butte.

My parents retired to place where they could hike in the mountains, and without making the connection to what they did, I did the same thing, although I’m on a different side of the country. But it’s no surprise since they set the stage early on, conveying a deep and lasting appreciation for nature. I kept the passion alive, thanks to my own enthusiasm and to the people around me. Now I’m living in a beautiful part of the world, making forays out to places that nourish the most fundamental parts of my life.

I’ll keep going back up to the mountains as often as I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It usually involves a long drive on terrible roads, and a bit of planning. But oh, is it worth it!

5 – 7. Wildflowers and butterflies on Sauk Mountain.

8. Another butterfly on Sauk Mountain.

9. Blueberries on the trail to Dock Butte. This blueberry bush has lost its leaves but the berries were incredibly sweet and flavorful. Another connection with the past: my mother picked quantities of wild blueberries in the mountains every summer and froze them for pies.
10. Old evergreens on the trail to Dock Butte.

11. Towering firs have a commanding presence on the trail to Dock Butte.
12. Sauk Mountain meadows and wildflowers in late July.

13. Wildflowers and mountain views, Sauk Mountain trailhead, 4300 feet (1310 m).

Late in July I hiked Sauk Mountain, another North Cascade Range peak. I didn’t quite make it to the top that day but that did not diminish my pleasure. The wildflowers were riotous, the butterflies and bees happy, and the view seemed endless. I’m sure my mother would have enjoyed that day. My son would have too, if he’d been there. The passion for nature, especially for the mountains, is alive in him.

14. Going camping in the mountains.

There’s something exhilarating about being high up in the wilderness. I’m thankful that my parents instilled a keen appreciation for the outdoors in their kids, and thankful I have friends and family who share the passion. My wish for you is that even if the mountains aren’t accessible and the wilderness is out of reach you can still go outside, quiet down, and forget yourself. With a little luck, the energy around you will bring peace, and maybe even a tear to your eyes.

15. Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), losing its last petals in early September on the Dock Butte trail at about 4200 feet (1280 m).

JUST ONE: The Pacific Madrone

Photographers are familiar with the dilemma of too many photographs. We accumulate vast numbers of images, and then how do we find say, the best photographs of our home, or any particular subject? Lightroom users have a quick way to sort through endless images. First, type a keyword in the search box. If you’ve been reasonably disciplined about keywording your photos when you load them into Lightroom, you’ll see every photograph you have that features the particular subject you’re searching for. Then if you filter the results by star rating you’ll narrow it down to the best ones. Hopefully, you rated each photo as you added it to Lightroom. Everyone has their own method for assigning star ratings; mine is to initially give photos two stars (the range is one to five). When I review them one by one, I delete any photos I have no use for and assign an extra star to the ones I want to be sure to get back to later.

Why am I telling you all this? To make the point that I have accumulated far too many “good” photos of a certain subject – the Pacific Madrone tree. In fact, I have over 240 3 – 5 star photos of Madrones, and over 100 more I’m saving “just in case.”

It’s a photogenic tree.

1. A large specimen leans over the beach at Kukatali Preserve. July
2. Madrones on the rocks; Sharpe Park, Fidalgo Island. January.
3. Madrone sentinels; Washington Park, Fidalgo Island. December.
4. Madrone bark and eelgrass on the beach; Larabee State Park. August.

The Pacific Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) has been a constant companion on my walks since I moved to Fidalgo Island. They like it here (me too). The west coast native ranges from coastal southwestern British Columbia to San Diego County, California, and there are places within that range where it does especially well – typically an open situation with good light and fast drainage.

When I lived in New York I had no knowledge of Madrone trees. Then I moved to the Seattle area, and seeing them was an occasional treat. Their striking red-orange bark and flowing growth habit always distracted me from the road as I drove around Seattle. Now I live in an environment where this tree seems quite comfortable. The beautiful colors and growth habit of Madrones is a frequent sight on the trails I wander along. They seem particularly plentiful close to the water, in the thin soil that covers our south and west-facing cliffs and bluffs.

5. Leaning over the water; Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park. March.
6. Reaching for light; Lighthouse Point. March.
7. Into the light; Rosario Head, Deception Pass State Park. August.
8. Madrone leaf wrack line; Kukatali Preserve. June.
9. One floating Madrone leaf; Rosario Bay. August.
10. Clinging to rocks at Lighthouse Point. June, using a Vintage super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens with adapter.

The distinctive peeling bark of these lovely beings shreds off in layers, revealing a lime-green or chartreuse base that is cool to the touch even on a hot day, giving them the nickname “Refrigerator trees.” The bark peels off each summer in big patches and delicate little curls, once the fruit begins to ripen. It falls to the ground and mingles with last year’s yellowed leaves, which are also shed in summer, after the new sets of evergreen leaves get their start. The curvy branches, dark green leaves and exfoliating bark present endless photographic opportunities.

11. Layers of peeling bark on Madrone; Washington Park, Fidalgo Island. July.

12. Young peeling branch; Little Cranberry Lake, Fidalgo Island. July.
13. Peeling madrone branch. Little Cranberry Lake. August, using a Vintage super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens with adapter.

14. Distant waters, bark peels; Lighthouse Point. March.
15. Peeling as it rains. The dark branch died after a fire. Rosario Head. August.

16. Patterns in the peel. Sharpe Park. January.

For those interested in the botanical and historical side of things, the name Arbutus relates to the Latin “arbor” – high plant, or tree. The genus Arbutus has only 12 species, which occur in both the Old and New World. They are all smallish trees or shrubs with red berries and peeling bark. The Arbutus genus is part of the Ericaceae (heath) family – a large family of plants that often grow on nutrient-poor sites. The species name, menziesii, is after Scottish surgeon and naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754 – 1842), who was a member of several important expeditions, including George Vancouver’s round the world HMS Discovery voyage. Friedrich Traugott Pursch, a German-born botanist who spent time tromping around the American woods with his dog and his gun to gather specimens (but didn’t travel far enough west to see the plant himself), named the Madrone tree for Menzies in his 1814 treatise, Flora Americae Septentrionalis; or, A systematic arrangement and description of the plants of North America. This work he accomplished while living in London, despite being “drunk morning, noon and night.” But that’s another story.

It seems we have to go back a little further to find the first written references to this tree – I believe it was Father Juan Crespi, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, who “discovered” the tree on an expedition to explore what would become the state of California. Father Juan kept a diary while on the Spanish Portola expedition in 1769-1770. He called the distinctive tree the madrono because it reminded him of the Mediterranean species, Arbutus unedo, a small evergreen tree that bears edible red fruits, a bit like strawberries in color and size. The Spanish call this tree “Madrono.” About twenty years later Archibald Menzies noticed Madrone trees when the HMS Discovery dropped anchor at Port Discovery (so named by Vancouver). That is about 25 miles as the crow flies from the park where many of my own Madrone tree photos were taken. We could call this part of Puget Sound the Madrone’s Happy Place.

17. Madrones leaning into the light. Deception Pass. September.

18. Fallen Madrone leaves on a bed of haircap moss, reindeer lichen and assorted detritus. Sharpe Park. January.
19. Venerable Madrone. Kukatali Preserve. January.

20. A gradual decline. Washington Park. August.

For a contemporary reference to Madrone trees try Tom Waits, who in his inimitable way instructs us to dig a big pit and fill it with madrone and bay for a special barbecue. (you can find that lyric in the video at around 1m 31s).

I’ve never used Madrone wood for a barbecue but I may consider making tea eggs with the bark some day. Or a medicinal tea for an upset stomach – supposedly that tastes like a cinnamon, mushroom and wood smoke mixture.

21. Gracefully dropped. Washington Park. August.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of this interesting tree, but that leaves more for next time, and having only used a handful of my steadily increasing store of Madrone photographs, I’ll have plenty of material for another post.

A Joyful Relation to What Is

A few weeks ago Sigrun Hodne, who writes at the blog Sub Rosa, posted a brief video about the photographer Jeff Wall. You may or may not find Wall’s photography appealing, but maybe you’ll be intrigued by what he says, as I was.

Towards the end of the clip Wall talks about art.

“I think all art is always an expression of the affection for there being a world…

1.

2.

“…that there’s something to see… that anything even exists.”

3.
4.

“It’s already a kind of joyful relation to what is. And then everything else becomes a detail…”

5.
6.

“I think all artists are pretty sympathetic people. They’re sympathetic to being.

And I think that’s why people like art.”

7.
8.

***

The photographs were made on two afternoons in May, during a trip to the Methow Valley, in north central Washington. Creeks originating from glaciers on some of Washington’s highest peaks drain into the Methow River, which weaves and wends its way through spare, sage green highlands before emptying into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean. The valley is dotted with small towns, and one called Winthrop emphasizes an American West atmosphere enough to resemble a movie set. Along with opportunities to camp, fish, ski, ride horses, and raft the river, the classic western look of Winthrop brings tourists to the area.

Coming in spring, we expected quiet and weren’t disappointed. We stayed outside the town of Twisp at a small farm whose owners work in retail and real estate while caring for a handful of horses and chickens and running an airbnb side business. A patchwork economy works best in the valley, as in so many rural areas. From the riverside we drove high up into the lonely, sere hills, where fires have their way with dry forest land and the views leap across space, and free the soul. The cheerful golden Balsamroot flowers that sprinkle the hillsides with color every spring were fading but no matter – my affection for the world was still an unhesitatingly joyful relation to what is, right there, in that particular place, at that particular time.

The photos:

  • 1. Fire-ravaged juniper tree, Thompson Road, Methow Valley
  • 2. Fallen trees and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) leaves, Gun Ranch Road, Methow Valley
  • 3. Shriveled Balsamroot flower, Thomson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 4. Lichen on rock, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 5. Single boulder in an Aspen grove, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 6. Fire-ravaged junipers and dry grasses, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 7. Lichen-splotched boulder, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley
  • 8. Insect on fading Balsamroot flower, Thompson Ridge, Methow Valley

A few more photos from the Methow Valley are here.

Local Walks: North Beach

Endless gray-green silk, swirling, swerving, circling waters.

The lapping of long, shallow waves, a heavy, dull sky above, sand collapsing underfoot.

Bundled in fleece and a long, soft scarf wrapped twice around my neck, I follow the easy hemline of the shore, delighting in the smooth expanse of khaki-colored sand, tide-scattered stones, and giant logs that look like they’re made for clambering.

 

1. North Beach, Deception Pass State Park, seen from the Deception Pass bridge.

 

It’s December. Tourists are just a memory, and right now, no boats fight the channel’s racing currents. A solitary loon fishes in the deeper water while mergansers keep company with golden-eyes and grebes closer in. A seal raises its head just long enough to satisfy curiosity, then sinks back down into the gray-green water.

Aloneness prevails, delicious aloneness….

 

2. Smooth rocks and colored sand reveal what gravity and water working together can do.


3. Looking down at the rock and log-strewn beach from the woodland trail.

4. The tides toss colorful stones onto worn driftwood logs, only to scatter them all over again.

5. December’s rain and mild temperatures are kind to living things, and tiny seedlings are popping up, even at this dark time of year.

Then March: a long month of rain and overcast skies. The first brilliant blooms of spring appear on the woodland trail that follows the shoreline.

 

6. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in flower, late March.

7. At the edge of the beach Siberian Spring beauty (Claytonia siberica) opens its delicate, five-petaled flowers.

 

On this Friday afternoon a few days into Spring, people are eager to get outdoors, even if the air feels cool and damp. I see two hikers ahead scrambling over the rocks. Theirs is the quiet joy of an older couple, people who have seen many seasons pass and still feel them deeply.

 

8. When the tide is in, a walk along North Beach requires that you climb over the rocky headlands or retreat into the woods.

9.
10. The stories these rocks hold stories probably go back 150 million years.

11. Water, sand, rock, and wood are continuously changing, morphing into new forms and shuffling places.

***

May first. Under cerulean skies, a loon in bold breeding plumage forages in the channel, and I can tell that someone enjoyed themselves on this beach over the weekend.

 

12. A carefully constructed Calder-esque driftwood sculpture commands space on the beach today, but it is as temporary as the tides.

                                                                

***

June. Clouds fill the sky, quickly give way to intense sunlight, then scoot back again. The sand is littered with footprints: human, canine, deer, crab. I start my walk at the west end of the beach, dodging waves and gratefully inhaling the fresh, clean air. Soon I’m focused on rocks – from shiny pebbles to a looming, dark cliff, their dense forms and subtle colors rivet me. Some are rough and riddled with fracture lines, others are polished smooth as an egg. So many different shapes, such power and strength, and yet the rocks are always changing, as water and weather have their way. The sculptural shapes and flat backgrounds lend themselves to playful processing – infrared, layers of different types of exposures, bold contrasts, delicate tones. The variety I reveled in at the beach has followed me home.

 

 

13. Most of the land visible from this beach is protected. Where there are houses, they mostly sit back and blend in, so the open view that our eyes and souls so badly need is preserved.

14. North Beach Rock, 1

15. North Beach Rock, 2


16. North Beach Rock, 3


17. North Beach Rock, 4


18. North Beach Rock, 5


19. North Beach Rock, 6


20.
                                                             

By the end of the afternoon the clouds have thickened, but the atmospheric unrest lingers in a procession of small clouds suspended over the Salish Sea. The Pacific Ocean lies far to the west, but its vastness is felt even here, in the salty taste of the water and the ceaseless permutations of tides and weather systems.

                                                                     *

This is part of a series called “Local Walks” that describes and pictures just that – walks I have taken that aren’t far from home. This time I included photographs from four walks across three seasons in one location. Stay tuned to see where I wander next.

 

Just One: Sword Fern

1. Bouquet-like clumps of Sword fern cascade down a steep forest slope on Fidalgo Island, Washington.

This is the first in a series of occasional posts I plan to write, featuring my take on one species of plant. This time the plant is the Western sword fern. For the last seven years I’ve been observing the natural world in the Pacific northwest through spring, summer, fall and winter, and I’m getting to know certain players on this verdant stage pretty well.

The Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is a large, evergreen fern that ranges from Baja California to southeastern Alaska, mainly on the west (coastal) side of the mountain ranges. Along with enormous trees, this fern gives our forests their characteristic prehistoric look, as if a dinosaur might walk into the picture and be perfectly at home.

2. Sword ferns arch gracefully underneath moss-covered hemlocks in December at Moss Lake Natural Area, about an hour outside Seattle.

In the Puget Lowlands there are about 40 species of true ferns, compared to over 10,000 fern species in the world. In Skagit County, where I live, there are only a few dozen different ferns, some of which only live up in the mountains. I tell myself I should be able to find and identify all the ferns in this area. Over time, maybe I’ll get to know many of them well.

The ubiquitous Sword fern is an easy place to start.

Apart from the botanical aspects of the plant, the aesthetic aspects are also important to me – in fact when push comes to shove, the aesthetic characteristics probably move me most. Ferns are universally appealing subjects, with their simple overall shapes and repeating patterns. Sword ferns don’t have the delicate, lacy look of a typical fern; they’re big, tough evergreen plants, with fronds divided into rows of single leaflets rather than divided again and again.

This gives them a bold, graphic look.

3. In February the refreshing bright green of Sword ferns is a real treasure.

The step-wise pattern of leaflets with their little lobes marching up the blade captivates me, but the best part is seeing what happens in spring. When new fronds emerge they uncurl upwards like other ferns, but then for no apparent reason, they appear to take a U turn. At that stage they really have a Dr. Seuss-like charm. It makes me smile with delight, every spring.

If you’ve never seen them in person, you may be surprised to learn that Sword ferns can reach heights of almost five feet (1.5 m)! Each year new fronds grow from a stout, woody rhizome in a vase-shaped arrangement. Fronds can last several years so individual plants can become quite congested.

The leaflets are lined with rows of spore dots; just one frond can release tens of millions of spores in late summer. Brush the underside of a frond with ripe spores and a fine, rust-colored powder takes flight on the wind. Reproduction in ferns is a complex process that I won’t go into here; suffice it to say that it works!

4. The U turn.


5 . A clump of Sword ferns stretching out on a wet April morning.

6. Sword ferns add grace to the forest landscape at Robe Canyon Historic Park, an hour north of Seattle.

Sword ferns tolerate dryness better than many other ferns, and sunlight too, but the largest specimens grow on damper, shadier sites. Individual fronds persist for several years but if one is cut or broken, it won’t grow back. New fronds will appear in spring; over time the plant will look full again. They will colonize clear-cut areas fairly quickly, and are often a dominant understory plant in old growth forests. You’ll see them along roadsides, you’ll see them deep in the woods.

Here is my take on the Sword fern then: up close, at a distance, in color and black and white, and through all four seasons.

7. A Sword fern fiddlehead emerges with a protective head of fuzzy hair.

9. A late snowstorm won’t stop the Sword fern.

10. Fern fronds are still unfolding in May on Fidalgo Island

11. A close look at the sharp-toothed leaflets.

12. En masse, the fronds make me think of a stack of ladders.



13. Sword ferns seem to applaud the meager bits of light filtering through the forest in January.

14. Withered fronds take a long time to crumble, but they provide an attractive backdrop for this year’s fronds.

15. Repeating patterns, gotta love ’em.



16. A look at a group of gracefully draped Sword fern fronds mixed with another fern, Bracken, using a Lensbaby lens.

17. Stages of growth and decomposition.



18. Dried fronds casting shadows on a rock in March.

19. A Sword fern frond and a Cottonwood leaf slowly decompose on a bed of moss.



20. Last February more snow than usual fell here, in a short period of time. The weight of the snow broke many Sword fern fronds. This photo was taken a few days after the snowfall. New fronds came up a few months later. The old ones remain in place to slowly decompose, nourishing the soil.

21. Hoarfrost makes a brief appearance on vegetation in the mountains but the fern fronds will survive intact.

22. Spring has sprung again….

Postscript: For about seven years a citizen science project tracking the response of Sword ferns to changes in rainfall and moisture has been going on in California. Emily Burns, PhD discovered that fog is absorbed directly into the leaves and stems of many plants that grow in California’s Redwood forests. These forests are very dry at certain times of the year, like much of the American west coast, so plants have strategies to help procure and retain moisture. One adaptation Sword ferns use is to limit growth where there is little moisture, and grow prolifically where moisture is abundant. The resulting size differences are easily tracked, yielding data that sheds light on the effects of available moisture on plants over time. Scientists and volunteers are monitoring 11 Fern Watch sites to track Sword fern growth. Since fog frequency is declining, it’s likely that plant stress in these special habitats will increase, making it more and more important to understand where to concentrate efforts to preserve the giant Redwood trees. Data from the Fern Watch studies should be useful as people work to prioritize which Redwood forests are most resilient, and ensure that they are adequately protected.

LOCAL WALKS: Kukutali Preserve

1. Madrone tree, Kukutali Preserve, La Conner, Washington

Summer has finally arrived here in northwestern Washington. The temperatures are still on the cool side but the sun is warm and the green machine has pushed past the delicacy of Spring into the lush heft of the season. The birds are a bit quieter, the afternoon light is bright and dappled, and the apples on the old tree are beginning to blush.

It’s no time to stay indoors, but the tourists are here so these days, I gravitate towards less-traveled corners of the county. There’s a preserve nearby called Kukutali, a Swinomish Indian word meaning the place of cattail mats. Local tribes dug clams and fished here in the summertime, living in shelters they wove from cattail leaves. It’s an interesting place for a walk anytime of year, with tidelands, forest, a lagoon and beautiful views.

2. Looking across Similk Bay from Kukutali Preserve. In the foreground is a lagoon that is fed and refreshed by the tides, which also scatter the driftwood around.


In the nineteenth century European-Americans began to forcefully occupy this area, part of what they called Washington Territory. The Treaty of Point Elliot, one of many treaties drawn up with native peoples, should have secured this land for the Swinomish tribe in 1855. But within 30 years a white family took ownership of the peninsula, and over succeeding years different individuals and entities owned the land. In the 1970’s there was even a plan to build a nuclear power plant here; thankfully that idea was scrapped due to environmental concerns.

3. A forest path lined with tall Douglas fir trees at Kukutali.

Finally, in 2010 a unique partnership was forged between the Swinomish, whose reservation and tribally owned tidelands border the peninsula, and Washington State Parks. The state was able to purchase the land, which is now co-owned and managed by the tribe and the state together, a very unusual situation. This partnership should keep the rich marine ecosystem and important upland habitat safe from development. Under the agreement certain sections of the peninsula and shoreline are off limits to people who aren’t Swinomish, and the remainder of the land is a nature preserve.

Kukutali Preserve is a little over a mile from my house as the crow flies, but we live in a land of inlets and bays, so the drive takes ten minutes (twenty when I stop for coffee along the way). I headed over there several times last week with a question about a certain wildflower in the back of my mind. I parked in the small lot, got my things together and walked down the gravel road to a tombolo you have to cross to reach the forested part of the preserve (you might remember the word, “tombolo” from a previous post.)

4. A reminder.

At Kukutali there’s one particularly large Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) I like to visit, to pay my respects and check on it. Early this Spring I noticed several pairs of leaves resembling tulip leaves, but flat on the ground, near the big Madrone. I told myself to return later to see what flower would come up there, so last week I made a beeline for that spot. Surprise! A little colony of Rein orchids was waving in the breeze, their slender stems of tiny, creamy white orchid flowers just inches tall, and easy to overlook. They rose from the litter of discarded leaves under the Madrones, and bloomed among dry, golden grasses between the trees. I was thrilled to find the delicate orchids sharing space with such beautiful, special trees on a quiet hill overlooking the water.

5. The wildflower in question – a Rein orchid (Platanthera sp.) has been difficult to precisely identify. Several different Rein orchids can be found in this area and they look alike.

6. A closer look. It might be P. elongata, Elegant Piperia.

7. Here’s the little colony of twenty or so orchids under the Madrone trees, basking in dappled light and fresh breezes. What we can’t see are the complex symbiotic relationships with fungi happening under the soil.



8. A mature Madrone tree at Kukutali, with recently dropped leaves.

9. As soon as you step out from the shade of the forest everything is very dry. On a sunny day the grasses are shot with gold.




The Rein orchids were exciting but the forest path beckons….let’s walk.


10. The north path goes through the woods to the end of the peninsula.

11. Summer sunlight in the forest.



13. An old Douglas fir tree is surrounded by younger friends.


14. The fronds of several Sword fern plants criss-cross in graceful curves.

15. Douglas firs, Redcedars and Western hemlocks tower over a lush wildgarden understory of Sword fern.

16. Trees often fall here; the soil is thin. No worries – after it falls a tree lives on, supporting a world of lichens, fungi, insects, and often more plants, even new trees.

17. The beautifully intricate leaves of Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) nestle in a soft bed of moss on the forest floor. Here in the shade it will stay cool and damp, but just a few steps away along the shoreline, the sun can be harsh.



18. The northwest corner of the peninsula has a series of rocky cliffs set with tall Douglas fir trees. In the distance is mount Erie, the highest point on Fidalgo Island.



After a slow, meditative wander through the forest I come to the end of the island, where the water sparkles and the eagle cries. The gravel beaches here are fun to inspect for signs of wildlife. In the recesses of the rocky places I’ve found tiny crabs and strange Orange sea cucumbers. At the other end of the tombolo is another small promontory which is off limits to everyone. I’ve seen Killdeer bravely chasing Bald eagles three or four times their size there, and heard the high-pitched cries of Black oystercatchers.

19. The tides work their magic on a Kukutali tombolo.

20. Driftwood floats ashore and lodges under steep cliffs on the Kiket Bay side of the peninsula.


21. And creatures wash up…

21. The beach at the end of the peninsula on one side is a mix of broken shells, basalt rock fragments, and bits of wood. Round the corner to the other side, and it all changes – instead of broken fragments there are marble and fist-sized rocks.

Heading back into the forest to return to my car, I feel weary from all the impressions – green upon green in the woods, the fairyland of tiny orchids, the sun-bright views over the water, the fresh cedar scent along the north trail, a clamber over immense driftwood logs on the beach – my senses have enjoyed a feast here, and next time it will all be different. Of that I am sure.

But for now, it’s time to trace my steps back through the woods….

23. Ironwood, or Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor) hangs gracefully over the north trail.

24. A Red huckleberry bush in the forest gathers filtered sunlight. Look very closely and you may find a few bright red berries, but soon the birds will devour them.


25. Rabbits are never hard to find at Kukutali, and often they don’t hop away until you’re pretty close.

26. The view across Kiket Bay towards Hope Island.

***

ROAD TRIP: Over the Pass

A few weeks ago we took a three day road trip to the Methow Valley, a popular weekend hiking, biking and skiing destination in north-central Washington State. I read that Methow is an Okanagan word for sunflower (seeds). I don’t know why “seeds” is in parentheses, but I suppose that the sunflower is Arrowleaf balsmaroot, a locally abundant flower that brightens the valley’s hills in Spring.

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) flowers backed by Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at peak bloom.

To get to the Methow Valley we had to drive over the North Cascade Mountains, following the two-lane North Cascade Highway east for over 100 miles. By the time we reached the pass, our elevation had increased by about 5,450 feet (1661m). It’s an exhilarating drive, once you get into the mountains. We stopped at Newhalem, a tiny company town built around the hydroelectric plant that has powered Seattle for almost a hundred years. Here, we took a short walk on the Trail of Cedars to enjoy the view of the Skagit River and the beauty of the mature forest around it.

Skagit River at Newhalem, with mares’ tails clouds
Northern Starflower (Trientalis arctica) on the forest floor.
Mid-day shadows are well defined, and black and white brings them out.

We stopped a second time at an overlook to gaze at the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by one of three successive dams on the Skagit River.

Diablo Lake with Davis Peak in the background

As we approached the pass the clouds thickened and patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road. The North Cascade Highway is very avalanche-prone during the winter and closes from October until sometime in May, depending on weather. For a good six months you have to drive further south to another pass if you want to get from one side of the state to the other.

North Cascade Highway (Route 20) heading towards Washington Pass

Up at the pass there’s an overlook with an impressive mountain view where I hoped to stop for a look. The short road to the overlook was closed and still snowy, but we were able to park the car outside the gate and walk up. Taking care on the snow, we sucked in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the silence.

Ravaged trees covered with lichens stand tall at Washington Pass.

A North Cascade mountain view at Washington Pass


The lichen-splotched rocks are an elegant complement to the plant life at the rugged pass.

Willow catkins

Liberty Bell mountain from Washington Pass

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Gray jays flew into view. It was clear that they were checking us out, and I knew what that meant – they wanted food! These birds are called Camp robbers, a well-deserved reputation. We happened to have a bag of nuts with us so we doled out a few peanuts, and could barely contain our joy the two jays swooped down onto our hands and grabbed the treats. I’ve fed birds by hand before, but not jays. I was struck by the satisfying plunk of their strong feet on my hand – these birds actually have a little weight to them, unlike the tiny chickadees I’m used to.

Hitting the Jackpot


Over the pass, down the mountain and into the valley we drove, from the wet west side of the Cascades to the dry east side. Before checking into our bnb we made one more stop, at Lewis Butte, where we dawdled amidst fragrant bitterbrush, lovely lupines, and sparkling aspens.

Aspen grove off Gunn Ranch Road, Winthrop

A pond reflects the Cascade foothills
A tree skeleton amidst the wildflowers near Lewis Butte

Homes with views

It’s such a pleasure to be able to experience a completely different environment after just a few hours’ drive. The small towns of Methow Valley have their charms too, with their “Wild West” atmosphere. They can get overrun with tourists at times, but it wasn’t a problem on this trip. We had a great time exploring back roads, and I plan to post photos from the rest of the trip later.

LOCAL WALKS: MORNING FOG

1. Driftwood, Lottie Bay

A late May walk on a cool, foggy morning, a favorite place ten minutes from home…

If you fly over this corner of Fidalgo Island in a small plane and look down, you’ll see a bay shaped like the curved knife used for chopping vegetables, sometimes called a mezzluna.  The knife edge is the beach. A rocky cliff takes a bite out of the edge and a long, narrow pier draws a fine line across the blade and into the bay. (A map is below, for reference.)

A bit of lawn disappears into thick woods surrounding the bay; the quiet water is speckled with rocks. To the west are more islands. In the distance, the Strait of Juan de Fuca disappears into the mist. In the off season the pier is deserted, the waters empty but for an occasional kayaker or small boat, the paths lightly traveled.

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2. At anchor in the fog, Bowman Bay

On this foggy morning there was just one other vehicle in the lot. I was effectively alone. We think of fog as removal: it takes away our ability to see clearly, it muffles sounds and obscures things.

But fog brings not-knowing forward, and what does that do? It returns us to the Wonder.

I’m not sure what’s ahead. I slow down.

3. Flowering grass, Bowman Bay

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4. The path to Lighthouse Point, nearly overtaken by wildflowers and dune grass.

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5. The growth of past seasons mixes with the fresh blades of dune grass on a tangled mess of crumbling driftwood.

 

Wild Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana) sprinkle the path like fat, pink polka dots. The pretty magenta flowers of Common vetch (Vicia sativa) are plentiful too, but are almost lost in  the welcoming, cloud-like drifts of Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum).

Stillness hangs heavy. The air is cool.

At the south end of the beach is a tombolo, an Italian-derived word for a narrow strip of land connecting an island to the mainland. This tombolo, strung between two bays, connects Lighthouse Point to Fidalgo Island. It’s the kind of place where edges have no edge, dancing with the tides, creating and erasing boundaries with the unpredictability of a butterfly’s flight. One day, masses of seaweed wash up onto the beach in spongy, pungent mounds. Another day a windstorm spills bay water into the marshy wetland. Sands shift and reach into the dune grass that lines a path over the tombolo. Waves cut shallow scoops from the shoreline. Forty-foot logs are tossed about like toothpicks, eventually becoming rooted in place by wildflowers growing around them. The rubbery ropes of Bullwhip kelp scribe messages in the sand alongside dainty racoon tracks.

It’s always changing here.

7. A receding tide deposits layers of seaweed on the beach and bares barnacle-studded rocks at the base of the cliff.

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8. On top of the cliff the view through the smooth branches of a Madrone tree is fine. Even on a foggy day. Especially so.

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9. Splashes of ochre-colored lichens, chestnut-hued moss, wildflowers, grasses and stunted trees provide decor on a cliff to the north of Light House Point.

On the back side of the tombolo a damp wetland gives way to a sheltered cove called Lottie Bay. This bay is fed by the straight whose churning waters barrel through Deception Pass several times a day, carrying water from the Pacific, ninety miles to the west. With its muddy, shallow bottom, the little cove is a favorite spot of gulls, ducks and chattering Kingfishers. On this day Kildeer spew their high-pitched cries into the gray air, raising the alarm at the slightest perception of threat. One bird drags its wing in the classic “broken wing” feint, designed by some mysterious twist of genetic material to draw would-be predators towards the bird pretending to be injured and away from its vulnerable young.

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10. Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) is beginning to go to seed. The young plant stems were peeled and eaten like celery by local tribes. Black bears forage on it too, which makes me wonder if the bear that swam ashore near here three weeks earlier might have snacked on this plant. That young bear swam to several other islands before being spotted back on the mainland, near a highway. It was finally darted, captured, and hauled off to the mountains. Life should be easier there, assuming this youngster didn’t get too used to dining on birdseed and trash during his island odyssey.

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11. A washed up, barnacle-studded branch is caught in a tangle of dune grass. Another still life to admire, until it all changes again with the next tide.

I return to this magical place at different hours, in fair and foul weather, through all the seasons. Because different habitats are jammed up against one another edge to edge, there are quick, dramatic changes to experience with all my senses. The chill in the air, the scent of low tides, the zippy flight of swallows and the echoing calls of Oystercatchers – it’s always a sensory banquet.

Woods, beaches, a wetland or two, rocky cliffs, a muddy bay, off-shore islands – all in the space of a half mile or so. That’s just what I see on foot, but if I were a seal or an otter, an eagle or a squirrel, then I would have parsed this place into different components. I’d have it memorized by sense instead of names: the place of fast water, the high tree where everything can be seen, the tangle of brush to hide in…

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12. A bouquet of wildflowers cascades off a cliff on Lighthouse Point. Delicate pink Streambank Spring beauty (Montia or Claytonia parvifolia) intermingles with the yellow flowers and succulent, blue-green leaves of Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium).  Grasses, Licorice fern and Bedstraw (Galium triflorum) help anchor the mass to the rocks.

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13. Delicate Streambank Spring beauty.

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14. I believe this is Baltic rush, Juncus balticus. Rushes look like grass until you get closer.  They’re “walk right by” plants of cool, damp places that most people don’t notice. In Spring, the discerning eye can find a complex, beautiful architecture in their flowers.

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15. The evergreen Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is ubiquitous in the northwest, thriving in many different habitats. The repeating patterns are irresistible.

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16. Seaweed caught on a branch shows just how high the tides can go. This may have happened last winter in a storm. It’s a rather desolate look, but I think it captures the wildness of this place.

***

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn
by Wu Men (Hui-k’ai)

English version by Stephen Mitchell

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

from Poetry Chaikhana Blog

(The poem is a verse from Ordinary Mind is the Way, Case 19 in the Gateless Gate (Mumonkon), a compilation of zen koans compiled over 700 years ago in China by Chinese Zen master Wu-men Hui-hai.)

 

***

A rough map of the places mentioned in this post

ROCK, WOOD, WATER

As a threesome, they don’t fit into any existing system I can think of; they’re not the Western world’s four elements (fire, earth, air, water), nor the Aristotelian five elements (earth, water, air, fire ether). They’re not Taoism’s five elements either (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) and they won’t work for “Rock, paper scissors.”

These three elements, or let me call them beings, are speaking to me lately, making their presence known as I roam forest and coast. Maybe they’re my own cosmology, for now at least: Rock, Wood, Water.

 

1. The Fidalgo Island shoreline carves alternating rhythms of Rock, Wood and Water: sheer cliffs set with Madrone, Shore pine, and Douglas fir trees abut narrow beaches littered with driftwood and thick with intertidal life. Back and forth it goes, Water wearing down Rock, Wood nourished by Water and nestling into Rock, Rock giving structure to Water and Wood….

 

Language treats them as distinct, even abstracted things but they are tightly woven together, constantly interacting with one another and the other beings of the land –  including humans.

David Abram, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, describes what can happen when we embed ourselves in a naming, separating language world: “….the character of linguistic discourse in the ‘developed’ or ‘civilized’ world, where language functions largely to deny reciprocity with nature–by defining the rest of nature as inert, mechanical and determinate—and where, in consequence, our sensorial participation with the land around us must remain mute, inchoate, and in most cases wholly unconscious.”

 

2. Wood in two guises (which we call “Western dogwood” and “Douglas fir”) invites us to touch, to experience smooth and rough with fingertips as well as eyes.

Having achieved the ability to converse about our world scientifically, which certainly has value, we have lost much of the directness of pure sensory experience, and the profound delight it can bring. This loss of direct experience of the wild alienates us from what we need to preserve, if we value life on earth. As Abram says later in the book, “For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.”

 

3. Setting aside the nature photographer’s usual desire for sharp focus, I set a longer shutter speed (without using a tripod) to show the soft swoosh of the waves as the tide brought Water back to nourish vulnerable intertidal flora and fauna.

 

But the camera – that complicated little black box – isn’t that another intermediary, another barrier between me and the sensory world? It is, but I think when we use it as a tool to remind ourselves of the power and beauty of the natural world, it may serve to nudge us back out there, into the midst of it all. That’s my hope.

 

4. Water’s nourishing presence on beach grass invites us closer.

 

5. Water and Wood embrace. After Rain traces paths around a Madrone tree branch it falls to the ground, giving life from above and below.

 

6. Maybe repeated freezes and thaws – Water’s work – caused this rock to fracture. Wood is present too, in the scatter of pine needles.

 

This island where I live is alive with Water, Rock and Wood beings. Once covered with thick, wet forests of towering evergreens, Fidalgo still cradles a group of the Old Ones near its center and a myriad of younger trees fringe the hills. Driftwood giants litter the beaches between worn rock outcroppings. Rock protrudes from the trails and defines the highest point. Fog hazes over the mornings, waves lap at shorelines, lakes dot the island’s center.

 

7. Water, Rock and Wood play disappearing acts over Burrows Bay on Fidalgo’s west shore. One small boat plys an open patch of water as the San Juan Islands and Canada’s Vancouver Island fade into the mist beyond. The names are useful, but the pleasure of this moment didn’t require any names. It was just cool breeze, evergreen scent, quiet and cloud-soft.

 

8. Wood in the form of an old Maritime juniper tree digs its roots into the rocky soil.

 

9. We often have gentle rains here that stop and start, which makes going out with the camera easier – especially if the camera is weather-sealed. Transitory moments like this are alive with change.

 

Our words identify things, making it easier for us to talk about them. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the things we perceive and talk about are separate. They’re all tied together, engaged in a complex dance of energy. Even the beings that look the most solid and unmoving are changing all the time.

 

10. Rock, with a delicate splash of lichens, near Twisp, Washington.

 

11. Wood rising in a form we call Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) sits happily by the wet ditch, where its branches are ruffled by an errant spring breeze.

 

 

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12. The Rockwater dance never ends. I noticed this detail on neighboring Whidbey Island’s North Beach.

 

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13. From a plane high over a mountain range, Water and Rock enchanted me.

 

14. Wood has a little human intervention, in the form of a driftwood sculpture on the beach. Someone has balanced Wood with a distant island and the shimmering blue Water.

 

15. The purity of Water can be mesmerizing. This photograph was taken while riding home from Europe in a plane. It might have been over Greenland, and I admit, I wanted to pinpoint the location. But in the end it was the wordless experience of melting into that horizonless horizon that mattered most.

 

***

These photos were all made recently, mostly close to home. #2 was at Rockport State Park, about 50 miles east, and the rocks in #6 and #10 were in the dry hills outside Twisp, Washington, about 150 miles east. I’ve been roaming as often as possible, mostly in familiar places. It’s been exciting to experience how spring behaves in this maritime climate – there have been new-to-me flowers to see in the forests and on the bluffs, wild herbs to taste, birdsong to enjoy and changes to observe along the beaches. The backlog of photos is getting fat! I may try to post more often. More from Europe will be coming too.

I hope your senses are alive with the season’s changes.