Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.
The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.
You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.
This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.
Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.
One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.
But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.
What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.
The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.
Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.
Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….
Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?
The juniper berriesused in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.
A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.
America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.
Set into a chunky peninsula on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, Washington Park is a singularly beautiful place. I’ve been there thirty-odd times in the past couple of years and each time I return, I see something new, and I’m enchanted again. Here is a selection of photos from this favorite local haunt.
At 220 acres, Washington Park isn’t particularly large, but a varied habitat of saltwater shoreline, rocky bluffs and evergreen forest makes it a rewarding place to explore. From the park’s shores you might see harbor porpoises, seals, the occasional whale, oystercatchers, herons and even the elusive Marbled murrelet, which sometimes fishes near the shore. (The Marbled murrelet is an odd seabird. Back in 1974 a tree-climber found a murrelet chick high in an old tree; that was the first time Western science had found a Marbled murrelet’s nest. They may feed way out at sea and then fly up to 50 miles (80km) inland to raise their young. Their preference for old growth forests means habitat destruction is impinging on their nesting success. Foraging habits may also be negatively affected by climate change; currently the Marbled murrelet is considered endangered.)
Turning away from the water, the park’s woodlands invite scrutiny. Weather-ravaged junipers and Douglas firs command rocky headlands. Mounds of delicate, slow-growing reindeer lichens (Cladonia sp.) speckle forest openings and wildflowers that may be uncommon elsewhere bloom in the park each Spring. Deer, squirrels, and birds abound. There’s a bench by the loop road (open to walkers, bike riders and cars willing to go 10mph) with a lovely water view. It has become a favorite spot to hand-feed chickadees, sparrows, towhees and other birds. Tiny Chestnut-backed chickadees will perch on any outstretched hand with a few seeds in it; they’ve cleaned me out of nuts and seeds more than once.
To close the door on a year – or a decade – is really a pretty abstract concept. It’s essentially a numbers game that relies on a somewhat arbitrary system of calendar organization. I’m a sensual person and I prefer to think of this time of year in sensory terms, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.
There’s a quiet cast to the light these days. You could say the sun has gotten rather introspective: less likely to light up every little corner, more apt to hide its brilliance. Almost all of December was cloudy here. The sky spat out rain now and then, and kept referring back to itself in a gray-on-gray kind of way. On a few days, towards sunset, rogue openings appeared in the cloud cover, and yielded brief but welcome drama. If the clouds thinned to reveal bits of blue, the sunlight was weak but appealingly gentle. The punch has disappeared from color, textures are flat, and a sheen of moisture-soaked air has smoothed over the worn surfaces of wood and rock.
Wet air encouraged the verdure of lichens and ferns; many are as green as Springtime. Tiny plants sprout on the forest floor too. I don’t know what species they are, but I notice two, four or more tiny leaves climbing on fragile stems toward what light there is, with great determination. Will the little plants survive? Surely the ground will freeze sometime in the next few months. We’ll see. There’s always more to learn about, much of it right at my feet.
I’m drawn these days to the edges of the island, places where I can weave in and out of the forest as I walk, investigating the detritus washed up at the last high tide, gazing out over the water to look for birds, and picking my way along forest paths among the evergreen giants. Woods and water make a fine pair for this quiet time of year.
On a quiet Friday afternoon last month I traced the zigzag outline of Little Cranberry Lake on Fidalgo Island. The peaceful, mirror-like lake with its dense fringe of evergreen forest is one of my favorite places to walk. In fact, since moving to Fidalgo I’ve trampled the trails there nineteen times in sixteen months.
I wrote about Little Cranberry Lake earlier this year in a post called “Dark Places.” That day I was thinking about allowing more darkness into my photography. After presenting ten darker-than-usual images I somehow veered off into a series of photographs from Little Cranberry Lake and totally lost the thread of what I’d planned to write about. But that’s what happens with me and this park – even looking at photos of it has the effect of hijacking my brain. The walk last month was no exception; amidst mesmerizing reflections and delicate seasonal changes, once again I surrendered to my surroundings.
How places get their names is always interesting. This lake’s name puzzled me: cranberries? I didn’t think they grew here, but sure enough, I found the native Bog cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccus, on a plant list compiled in 2000 – 2001 by the Washington Native Plant Society for Little Cranberry Lake. They must have found the plant growing on the boggy islands in the middle of the lake. I’ve gazed longingly at those small islands many times, intuiting that the plant life there must be different from the forest. I’ve never seen anyone on the islands. One of these days I will get a boat, paddle over there and see for myself.
The “Little” part of the name differentiates this park from the larger Cranberry Lake, just over the bridge on Whidbey Island. Fidalgo Island’s Little Cranberry Lake is the perfect size for a day’s outing: you can circumnavigate its shoreline on about a mile and a half (2.4km) of winding trails. More paths, some open to mountain bikes and horses, some only for hikers, wander into the hills and over to Big Beaver Pond and beyond. Narrow, rocky and rooty, the trails twist and turn, forcing you to slow down and watch where you place your feet, as scene after magical scene of enchanting evergreen forest and picturesque lake unfolds before you.
No hunting is allowed here so you might spot a beaver, or perhaps a river otter – I have found piles of cracked crayfish shells on a path by the water where an otter had a meal. The first time I came here a Bald eagle flew down the length of the lake, emitted a piercing cry and disappeared. The hoarse, nasal “cronk” of ravens often reverberates overhead while the friendly chirp of Song sparrows emanates from the underbrush. On my November walk the silence was interrupted by chickadees fretting tiny insects from the Redcedars and Douglas firs, and an occasional Douglas squirrel scolding me for intruding. A few humans passed me on the trail too. As the sun lowered, the woods darkened and the water surface grew increasingly reflective. I photographed the lake from different angles as breezes rippled its surface and water dripped from overhanging branches, patterning the lake with concentric circles. A patch of late-blooming asters nodded at the edge of the lake, their lavender flowers enchanting against the blue water; lichens, abundant in the moist, near-shore micro-climate, decorated trees with a surprising range of colors and textures.
I went back yesterday afternoon. Overcast skies darkened and spat raindrops onto the lake as I walked around it. A flock of Dark-eyed juncos called tsk-tsk as their white tail feathers flashed through the dim shrubbery. Before I knew it, the sun had set and I could barely see the trail. On went the cell phone for a bit of light on the path. I stopped for one last image: the reflection of a sinuous Madrone limb arching out over the midnight-blue water. I was almost tempted to just sit there and be with the deep blue stillness, but chilly air and thoughts of hot coffee kept me moving. There will be a next time.
There are more photographs in the Lightroom library from Little Cranberry Lake: more water reflections, wildflowers, berries, mushrooms, fire-damaged trees, lichen-clad rocks, and an odd duck or goose. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see an otter next time I walk here. If not, I’m satisfied with the beauty of the land as it is, ever changing and generous with its gift of life.
Getting a little more concrete about the “Grand Uncanny”
Several times each day water is pulled back and forth by the mingling of lunar and solar gravitational forces with the earth’s rotation. Wind, weather and even the shape of the land can play a part in these complex liquid movements that we call tides.
The most common type of tidal cycles are semi-diurnal tides. These consist of two high tides of about the same height and two low tides, also about the same height, each day. Semi-diurnal tides occur on Europe’s Atlantic coast and on America’s Atlantic coast, where I first experienced the ocean as a young girl. Our family vacationed at my maternal grandparents’ home on a coastal barrier island every spring. There, I watched migrating birds, ghost crabs and coquina clams on wide, sandy beaches with the Atlantic as a backdrop. I took the regularity of the tides for granted. We planned activities around them, like walking way out to a spit of land only accessible at low tide, or going to the dock to catch Blue crabs with baited traps at high tide. If I was at the ocean it was the Atlantic, and understanding the tides was straightforward. I just needed to visualize the smooth oscillations of high and low tides on a tide chart and remember that the peaks and troughs would hit around 45 minutes later each day.
Then I moved to the West coast. Actually, I was far from the actual coast, which was a place to visit from time to time for a change of scenery. The pounding surf, beautiful blue-green water and mammoth logs littering the shores of Washington, Oregon and California took my breath away. Amid all that drama I paid no attention to the tides. Then we moved again, this time to a small island far from the Pacific ocean but surrounded by salt water thanks to its location near the end of a long strait that is so big it’s called the Salish Sea. Living here has prompted me to get to know the tides again, but I didn’t know how complex tidal cycles can be.
The tidal cycles here are called mixed semi-diurnal tides: there are two unequal low tides and two unequal high tides each day. There are higher high tides and lower high tides, and lower low tides and higher low tides. Did you get that? Apparently mixed tides are a West coast thing, occurring from Mexico to Alaska, along the Chilean coast and in some other locations. My (east coast native) partner likes to theorize about the congruence between left coast attitudes and left coast tides. I thought all tides were as regular as the semi-diurnal ones back on the east coast, but when I look at a local tide table I see irregular waves, with peaks and troughs that vary from deep to average to almost non-existent. Here’s an example: the tide chart for December 25th, 2019.
In addition to daily tidal cycles there are spring and neap tides, which occur everywhere but which, to my mind, might make predicting tides here even more challenging. Spring and neap tides are tidal changes (also called differentials) that are bigger or smaller, depending on the moon phase. At the new and full moon the earth, moon and sun line up and their gravitational pull increases, making high tides higher and low tides lower. At the quarter moons the gravitational pull is lessened, resulting in lower high tides and higher low tides. The upshot is that tide charts are essential around here, whether you’re going fishing, want an easier time getting your kayak in the water, or are looking for Geoducks.
If you read this far you know that much more can be said about that Grand Uncanny we call the tides. Maybe I’ll write again as I learn more. For now just remember: ebb and flow, ebb and flow, ebb and flow….
Sugarloaf – the name is used a lot for peaks and promontories, but why it was given to this hill on Fidalgo Island I don’t know. At 1275 feet (389m) it’s a bit lower than the island’s highest point, Mount Erie. Neither place gets snow very often. As it happened though, the first time I hiked to Sugarloaf there were a few patches of snow on the ground. That was mid-February of this year.
The sun was shining through the trees and ferns but clouds obscured the horizon. I had taken an easier route than the one most people use. Instead of beginning the hike at the bottom I drove up the winding, two-lane road that leads to the top of Mount Erie. Part-way up the drive there’s a trailhead for Sugarloaf and room for a car or two on the side of the road. I parked there and set out, keeping a map close at hand because of the confusing maze of trails through these woods. Trail 215 is part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands and is rated technically difficult because of numerous rocks, roots and a few steep pitches, but it’s short. I was at the top after about a half mile of winding through the forest.
The view of Whidbey Island and the San Juans was a nice reward and behind some trees, a slice of the Cascade Range was visible in the other direction. Tall, fire-blackened Douglas fir trees stood in the clearing alongside the fresh green of young Madrones. I wondered how long ago the fire came through here. How was it extinguished, so far from a water source?
I enjoyed the hike but it wasn’t until May that I got back there again, this time with a group of native plant enthusiasts. Learning about Fidalgo Island’s wildflowers was exciting. Gripped by a fever of wildflower identification, I came back three times that month, introducing friends to favorite new figures in my personal forest lexicon.
I worked at identifying flowers that were new to me, recording what I saw with the camera. When I could, I got down close for the challenging task of making photographs that were more than documents, often failing, sometimes succeeding. This kept me busy for weeks.
All of the flowers here were seen on Sugarloaf in May.
After the spring wildflower frenzy I didn’t get back up to Sugarloaf all summer. Then a few weeks ago I returned for a quiet woodland walk. I saw no one. One last flower bloomed in an opening, mushrooms lined the trail, and raindrops glistened in the bushes in the low, angled light. I amused myself with photographing tiny twigs and mushrooms.
A raven soared by and was quickly gone, riding the mountainside updrafts. I lingered to watch the sunset over the mountains, far off in the distance. By the time I was heading back down the trail, the sun had gone under and it was getting dark. Dozens of small white mushrooms growing in the fir needle duff lit up the forest gloom, like little stars showing me the way.
These days there’s a particular kind of beauty afield. It’s a beauty shot through with darkness, one that draws energy from the forces of disintegration. Everywhere I look I’m reminded that life is cyclical, and endings are every bit as integral to life as beginnings.
If I had to compare this time of year to Spring I’d say I’m happier in the Spring, even joyful. Now, as daylight becomes scarce, a pervasive undertone of sadness is undeniable. My drive to go outdoors isn’t as strong. When I do go out though, the beauty I find rewards close attention and second looks. It’s less predictable, more complex. Colors bleed through numberless permutations, forms contort in unthinkable ways, light bends and shifts, revealing forgotten corners. If I needed reassurance that ample beauty continues in this darkening world, well, that consolation is right in front of my eyes.
In the forest I listen to the gentle plunk of leaves hitting the ground. Some don’t make it – they’re caught on branches or land on other leaves. What irony that a tree bares its branches only to receive falling leaves from higher places. The vagrant leaves may be released with the next rainstorm, or maybe they’ll spend the winter hanging by a thread.
Leaves that do reach the forest floor crunch under my feet, wafting earthy scents into the cool air. A plethora of mushrooms add to the rich aroma.
Like a forest sprite, Licorice fern appears to spring magically from the rocks. Just as often, it climbs up mossy tree trunks, higher than you can see. The jaunty ferns are boon companions on many a walk: always friendly, ever-perky, enhancing every nook and cranny they get into.
Even after summer drought dries the fern fronds into a crunchy brown fringe, their tight curls still appeal. And when the rains return the ferns reappear as tiny green triangles of hope pushing into the moist, cool air.
Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is a denizen of wet places in western North America, growing on mossy ground, across fallen logs and rock surfaces and even high into the trees, where it studs branches and trunks with emerald green. The Latin name breaks down as poly = many and podium = little foot, which refers to the way the rhizome looks, but usually it’s hidden from view under the damp, mossy substrate the plant prefers. A rhizome is a creeping, horizontal stem with multiple rootlets (the many little feet) to anchor the plant in place, and fronds springing up at intervals. Glycyrrhiza refers to the slightly sweet, licorice-like taste of the rhizome, which was used by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for throat problems and to ease the unpleasantness of other, more bitter medicine. I can attest to the sweetness of the rhizome but personally, I’d rather get my licorice flavor fix by filching seeds from a fennel plant.
This attractive fern did not go unnoticed by the nursery trade; the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain lists a cultivar with long frond tips as available at six nurseries. On the west coast the same form can be purchased at a Washington nursery, or you can probably find the “straight” native plant at various growers.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and began familiarizing myself with the local flora, Licorice fern was one of many new plants. It reminded me of a fern I knew from the southeast called Resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides). Resurrection fern is another small, bright green fern that grows like feathers on tree trunks. Its fronds can dry up and look dead, then come back to life after a good rain. As I understand it Licorice fern doesn’t “resurrect” like that – it puts out new fronds after the summer drought, when rain returns.
As interesting as the objective qualities of Licorice fern are, it’s the subjective beauty of this fern that keeps me coming back. I’ve seen subtle variations in form that delight me: sometimes the tip on a frond is very elongated, giving it a stylish, graceful aspect (this is the form that was bred to be sold as a cultivar). Fronds often cross each other and interweave as they grow, making beautiful patterns. Another feature I like is the look of the sporangium (the round dots on the underside that contain spores) when they’re raised, giving leaves a very organized aspect.
A word about photographing ferns
Photography offers a double pleasure: absorption in the moment as we concentrate on framing a piece of the world that for one reason or another excites us, and later, the pleasure of finding a way to perfect that framed image so that it expresses our feelings. The more that camera and processing skills become second nature, the less we need to think about mechanics, leaving us free to enter into the moment and respond with feeling. Being absorbed in the moment often erases the endless commentary and worries that interject themselves into so much of our days. I don’t pretend to describe the experience of making photographs for others, but that’s how it is for me, on a good day.
I delight in the beauty of this little fern as I encounter it outdoors, and later I admire the attractive patterns all over again, as I process the photographs on the computer monitor. This humble little plant gives me great pleasure. Why should you care about it? No reason at all, but for me, the way it grows in the most unlikely places, the brilliant green of new plants at a time of year when others are looking old, and the happy spring of the fronds lifting towards the light make it admirable. Licorice fern makes a good photographic subject too, so as they say, what’s not to like?