LOCAL WALKS: Around Pass Lake

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There’s a lake near my house set in a forest of tall evergreen trees that spill down to the shoreline. A road that swings by one end of the lake offers drivers a refreshing glimpse of liquid calm. I think of the lake as a bowl masquerading as the sky, reflecting limitless bright blue, opaque, chalky gray, or smudged pewter, as the weather shifts with the seasons.

Like most people, I usually drive by this lake with another destination in mind. But when my preferred spots are too crowded or far away I might turn into the crunchy gravel parking lot, park the car, and meander through the forest. The trails there don’t feature spectacular views but they do offer a cool, cocoon-like embrace. Sometimes that’s what I need.

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The Loop Trail

As it leaves the whirring traffic behind the dirt trail enters a dim, amphitheater-like space of towering trees set among arcing sprays of emerald green sword ferns. There’s not much middle story here – the flora is mostly confined to evergreen ground covers below and stately conifers above with branches beginning far overhead. Winding up a rocky hill, the trail enters a drier part of the woods where discrete openings invite patches of grass and wildflowers. A small slice of the Salish Sea is visible through the maze of crisscrossing branches if you stand in just the right spot. The trail heads down and back up into a brushy opening where blackberries grow. Plunging back into the dim forest, the trail climbs, falls, zigzags and curves back around through mature firs and cedars to complete a two-mile loop. As you walk, every five or ten minutes there’s a subtle change of atmosphere, light, and flora, depending on where you are in relation to the lake, the elevation, the soil, and even the logging history. This land was once logged, some areas more recently than others. Now it’s a protected state park.

3. If they’re this tall now, imagine how tall the trees must have been before the forest was loggged.
4. The trail climbs and the terrain opens up.
5. On an offshoot trail a Bigleaf maple struggles for light in a deep ravine.
6. Blades of grass catch the setting sun on a dry slope.
7. By September, the grass has bent to the ground.
8. Closer to the lake the rugged bark of a Douglas fir tree and a few stray Sword ferns fronds corral the last minutes of sunlight.
9. The fruit of the native Bitter cherry hangs over the lake in September.

The Name

On maps, it’s Pass Lake, a name that might benefit from an explanation. It’s not called Pass Lake because it’s near a mountain pass, rather, the name comes from its proximity to a channel called Deception Pass. This deep, churning channel separates two islands with promontories that border a “very narrow and intricate channel, which…abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water.”* So wrote George Vancouver in his journal of the American Northwest Coast Expedition of 1792. Anchored off what we now know is a very long island, he sent Naval Master Joseph Whidbey and a crew to explore the twists and turns of the shoreline in a smaller sailing yawl. The expedition was busy mapping and naming everything in sight, in order to claim territory for the British Crown. After five days the men returned and reported that the land mass was as they suspected – a long peninsula. Then the HMS Discovery sailed up the other side of the “peninsula” and Whidbey was sent out again to examine the jagged coast in detail. This time he found that “very narrow and intricate channel” which leads to the other side. The peninsula was actually an island! Vancouver decided to name the channel “Deception Passage.”

Thanks to politics and power, maps retained that name with one small change: somewhere along the way, “Deception Passage” became “Deception Pass.” It made sense to call the small lake that empties into the channel “Pass Lake.”

Here it is, concealing its charms on a foggy autumn afternoon.

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11. Trees tumble into the lake. No one tidies up the mess because this natural cycle benefits many creatures.
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13. This photograph is from last December. All the rest were made in July, August, and September 2018 – 2022.

A Little More About Names…

Of course, Vancouver and his men weren’t the first people to name the channel – they weren’t even the first Europeans to label it. Two years earlier, a Spanish Peruvian explorer in command of a ship taken from the British was searching for the coveted Northwest Passage and found the deceptive channel. Manuel Quimper Benitez del Pino named it “Boca de Fion” or “Boca de Fidalgo” depending on your source. Later, complicated disputes and negotiations between Britain and Spain resulted in Vancouver renaming much of what the Spanish charted. Some Spanish names were kept; the island on the north side of the channel is still called Fidalgo Island, in honor of a Spanish explorer.

But what about the much longer history of this region before white men came and conquered? A Coast Salish name for the channel is Xwchsónges, the “Gateway to the hills, interior, or inland.” You can hear the melodious pronunciation of the name here.*  

Enough about names!

Almost at sea level, 94-acre Pass Lake has a maximum depth of just 23 feet (about 6m). A pipe under the road at the south end feeds lake water into a creek that runs through the forest and empties into Bowman Bay. River otters can leave the bay, run uphill through the woods, and carefully cross the road if they want to forage in Pass Lake. (They can’t use the pipe because a cage blocks anything bigger than small fish.) I’ve only seen otters once in the lake but I’ve discovered haul-out sites (trampled grass, scat, and many bits of bones and crayfish shells) a few times while picking my way along the heavily wooded shoreline. Great blue herons, Bald eagles, Belted kingfishers, and overwintering ducks also feast on what the lake provides. I’m not sure people have as much luck. I never see the flick of a fishing line – just solitary, still, peaceful people drifting on the calm water in small, non-motorized boats. It’s catch-and-release anyway.

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At Loose Ends? Try Intentional Camera Movement

Pass Lake is part of a state park with an extensive trail system. The loop trail described above connects with a little-known trail to a truly immense Western redcedar tree and to another trail with an old mine, the ruins of a miner’s cabin, and a pleasant view across a ravine. I began exploring these trails in September 2018, a few months after moving to Fidalgo Island. From time to time I go back when I’m at loose ends or if the thick fog hovering over the lake propels me into the parking lot for the best view of the lake. The lake is a natural subject but the dense forest around it can make isolating subjects for photography very challenging. I like to experiment with intentional camera movement to simplify the landscape.

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18. Jiggling the camera just a little produced this effect.
19. The patch of grass in #7, with camera movement.

Whatever you call it, this modest lake and the healthy forest around it are a treasure. I’m sure of it because on a hot, dry day this summer when I set out with no food or water, the forest provided. I didn’t think I would be out long enough to get thirsty but within a half hour, my mouth was dry. After 45 minutes of trudging up and down hills, I was desperately scanning every leaf for something edible to chew on. Then I saw them – bright red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) dangling from pretty bushes at the side of the trail. And there was more – the last Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) just needed a gentle tug. Near the ground, I found Trailing blackberry vines (Rubus ursinus) that gave up a few deliciously ripe berries. The stray beams of sunlight that the forest allowed to shine had produced just enough food to slate my thirst. And make me smile.

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LOCAL WALKS: In the Middle

Summer, gloriously spent, is leaning toward rest

as fall peeks round the corner, making tentative changes

in the order of things –

but let’s not assume we’re on the edge of summer or the verge of autumn.

I think we’re always in the middle.

This precise and muddled middle where

we stand now

is where sunlight heats dried grasses

to sweet fragrance and a cool tongue of wind surprises

your cheek. This infinitely generous middle is where barefoot toddlers

delight in beach sand and a slice of hard blue hovers just

over the horizon. It’s all here, the pain of dying things,

the joy of hope, the exquisite indifference to our opinions, all

here,

all mixed in the middle.

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2. A calm oasis at 5:30 in the afternoon.

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Summer’s bright blooms have faded and the heat is intense: it must be August, the month that puts patience to the test as each day drags into the next and a trance-like sameness descends on us. Here at 48.51N, 122.61W, significant rainfall hasn’t occurred for months. The landscape looks dull and tired, the birds have gone silent, and any hints of autumn are brief whispers at best. Knowing that summer is ending and fresh, cool, autumn days are near creates a liminal feeling: we are in between. And though it may feel like we’re treading in the margins, the pause between seasons is spacious.

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3. A glacier-scoured, lichen-spotted rock shines in forest-filtered August sunlight.
4. Spores are ripe on the backs of a Sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum).
5. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) shed their bark in August.
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7. This year’s discarded Madrone leaves lay atop those from previous years.

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This spring and summer I was propelled into a frenzy of activity. Which wildflowers were currently blooming and where were my favorites, the orchids and harebells? Could I go up to Sugarloaf to look for flowers or was I needed down at Tugboat Beach to help protect the Northern elephant seal? She had returned to the island to molt in mid-May. The only elephant seal ever known to haul up on Fidalgo Island, she has molted here each spring and gave birth to her first pup at a local park last winter. She chooses busy beaches for her land activities, so a great deal of effort goes into protecting her and educating the public. I was part of that this year, along with a small band of like-minded people. She kept us very busy, especially when the weather warmed and the crowds grew at the beach where she rested while slowly shedding her old fur coat. Every day I was outside, either photographing wildflowers or at the beach, seal sitting. Sharply focused on the life around me, I reveled in the graceful blooms of wildflowers, gazed into the soulful eyes of a pinniped, and responded to curious park visitors.

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By late June Elsie Mae’s annual molt was complete. One morning she swam back out to the Salish Sea, bent on replacing the weight she’d lost from spending six weeks on land. She’s probably far out in the Pacific Ocean now, deep-diving and feasting – she’s tagged but has no radio or chip so once she’s in the water, humans don’t know where she is. We seal sitters were both relieved and bereft when she left. I never thought I’d bond with a marine mammal but spending so much time with her (and with her pup earlier this year), I found myself invested in the little family.

But I was also grateful to be free to concentrate on the local flora and eventually, my orchid quest was satisfied. I knew where each of our three kinds of Rein orchids grew and could tell them apart. The green machine was slowing to a crawl.

What was next? I kept going out because it’s good to be outdoors and I need the exercise but without a particular focus, I was at loose ends photographically. Quite a few boring images flew off the SD card! To get a spark going I experimented with intentional camera movement, different angles, and different lenses. A few compositions that seem interesting emerged. Except for the photos of Elsie Mae above, all of the photos are from the last few weeks.

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9. Intentional camera movement in a meadow.
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11. Grasses take center stage in August.
12. Wildflower seedheads reward a close look.
13. A lake in the distance lights up a patch of wild grasses.
14. Made with a vintage Super-Takumar 50mm lens and adapter.
15. Pine needles dance across a rock atop Goose Rock.
16. A root and moss collaboration.
17. This feather is probably from a molting bird of prey, perhaps a young Bald eagle. Photo was made with the vintage Takumar lens.
18. Late summer is spider time here.
19. The forest stays green despite the lack of rain. Fallen logs are common on this thin-soiled island. Many layers are supportedof life as they decompose.
20. Seaside juni[per (Juniperus maritima) bark.
21. A Great blue heron stands on the old dock at Bowman Bay. Made with the vintage Takumar lens.

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TEN YEARS: A Look Back at August 2012

Ten years ago I launched a note into the ether –

two photos

and a few words about the still days of August when

summer holds its breath.

Where would my words and images land? Not knowing, I waited.

Then, small scribbles in digital space – a few comments, a few likes

and the little black marks suggested, “Continue.”

The sun set and rose, set and rose,

the moon, too. The earth turned.

I sent more missives into a net

that’s too wide and fine to perceive.

(Funny thing about the notes I launch into that net – they’re all about

physical things that I see, hear, touch, and smell

but the physical substance of the notes themselves? That’s beyond my ken.

A nice contradiction).

As the black marks and bright images flew across space

friendships blossomed and ten years later

here we are. The “we”

means everything.

Thank you.

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1. August 2012: I photographed Seattle’s premier landmark, the Space Needle, through a 1984 Alexander Leiberman sculpture called ‘Olympic Illiad.’

TEN YEARS: WHY LOOK BACK?

Fellow photographer and blogger Alex Kunz has been creating monthly “Throwback” posts for years. It’s his fault.

As I considered making a “Throwback” post of my own, it dawned on me that ten years ago this month I posted for the first time on WordPress. Blogging was new then, and my home was as well. I had moved to the Pacific Northwest from New York City six months earlier, in February. While we settled into a cozy apartment in a Seattle suburb and looked for work, we played tourist to acclimate ourselves. It seemed to us that the culture of the Pacific Northwest was as different from New York as the natural environment was. Walking around with our eyebrows raised and our mouths turned up into smiles, we chalked up one contrast after another. No one cut us off on the highways and the onramps were not pitched battles. What? One could almost relax behind the wheel! When we asked for maintenance on our apartment our request was honored, not ignored. Grocery store clerks smiled disarmingly and asked us what our plans for the weekend were, just to make conversation. Weird! Our New York defensiveness, a self-preservation tactic carefully honed over decades, rose up with a “What’s it to you?” that we barely kept from voicing out loud. It was as if we had exchanged bumper cars for sailboats. Life was so strangely smooth.

We adapted. Seattle’s summer “heat” felt cool and comfortable after New York and the sense of a daily struggle just to exist gradually faded. Every month there were new things to do. August was busy – we rode the ferry across the sound from Seattle to Bremerton, explored a rail trail in our valley, and drove up to Deception Pass State Park to explore a driftwood-strewn beach. We went to the Seattle Art Museum and checked out the city’s architecture and public art. We hiked part of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascades, visited a Japanese garden in Seattle, and took walks in local parks. Whew!

Of course, a camera was always at my side. It was a Sony NEX-3, advertised then as the world’s smallest interchangeable lens camera, with the quality of a DSLR but not the weight or size. I was a rank beginner with a kit lens and I’d never heard of RAW format. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the camera but I was enjoying it. The little black box wasn’t a burden to carry and was capable enough for what I wanted to do. I could record the beauty around me and experiment with settings. It was thrilling to have control over aperture and exposure, even if I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing!

So here’s a throwback to August 2012. The photos were made that month but I’ve reprocessed them – why not? I’ve learned a thing or two in ten years. The old jpeg files may not have the range that RAW files have but they can usually be persuaded to look a little better.

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AT HOME

That summer I discovered a deserted railway bed near our apartment where I could pick wildflowers. Even Butterfly bush (Buddleia) grew there! One August morning I arranged them in an old, dented silver pitcher, brought them outside, and began to experiment.

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3. Placing a sheet of watercolor paper under the vase, I photographed the shadow of a California poppy with a wide aperture. My experiments with depth of field weren’t always accurately focused but it was exciting to see what could be done when you have something better than a point-and-shoot camera.
4. I brought out a frame that had glass in it but no picture. Held inside the frame, the shadows and reflections became the picture.
5. In the frame or not? Ambiguity rules.

ON THE FERRY

7. We got off the ferry and walked into Bremerton, where I photographed swirls of water in a fountain.

DECEPTION PASS

One day we explored Rosario Beach, part of a sprawling state park named for the deceptive, turbulent channel of water separating Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. A large, weathered wood sculpture commands the space. Immense driftwood logs rest on a beach of smooth, round rocks, and tidepools harbor marine life. Reveling in the scenery, I had no idea that six years later we would move to a cottage less than ten minutes away from this spot.

8. The Maiden of Deception Pass tells a Samish story of Ko-kwal-alwoot, who went to retrieve something she dropped in the water and was befriended by a water spirit. Ultimately she had to leave her family and live in the water with the spirit – otherwise, food from the waters that the tribe depended on would disappear. She returned for brief visits many times but in the end, she stayed in the water realm. Her thankful tribe never lacked food.
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LODGE LAKE TRAIL

Lodge Lake Trail is part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653 mi (4,270 km) wilderness trail running from the California/Mexico border to the Washington/Canada border. The Lodge Lake Trail begins just off I-90, Washington’s busiest east-west highway but soon the traffic fades and mountain scenery emerges in the distance – depending on the weather.

11. Hikers in morning fog at Snoqualmie Pass, elev. about 3,000 ft (920m).

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14. The forest produced classic Pacific Northwest scenes like this one that day.

SEATTLE

We’d seen Pike Place Market several times so one day, we headed to the Experience Music Project. As a Frank Gehry fan, I had a great time finding interesting compositions outside of the building he designed – there didn’t seem to be any reason to go inside!

15. Then called the Experience Music Project, it’s now the Museum of Pop Culture. The building’s stainless steel and painted aluminum skin is so brilliant that it throws colored reflections onto the concrete.
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19. A sculpture called Grass Blades by John Fleming is at the Seattle Center, where the Space Needle and Frank Gehry’s building take pride of place.

KUBOTA GARDEN

Almost hidden in a residential section of southeast Seattle, Kubota Garden was the all-consuming project of Fujitaro Kubota (1879-1973). Beginning in 1927, Kubota slowly added more land for his dream project, a traditional Japanese garden that would contain primarily native plants. After being interred in a camp in Idaho with his family throughout WWII, he began again, creating ponds, waterfalls, and a moon bridge. Eight years after he died the garden became a Seattle landmark and Kubota’s labor of love is a now peaceful public park.

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23. Like the creek that runs through Kubota Garden, the experience of creating posts has been a lively river of inspiration, a place where I can send my work into the world, knowing that people everywhere are free to enjoy it.

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The Orchid and the Arbutus

1. On a warm July afternoon in a shady spot by the water a budding orchid reaches for the light.

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Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.*

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2. A mature Madrone spreads its thick branches against a phalanx of Douglas fir trees. Everything but the tree was desaturated to emphasize the beautiful bark, a welcome sight on a cold, spring day.

The Arbutus, or Madrone

Four years ago, when I moved to an island in the Salish Sea, I fell in love with Madrone trees, also called Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii). The colorful peeling bark and sinewy, muscular branches of this unusual tree brighten the island’s conifer-dominated landscape. When I lived near Seattle I would see Madrones here and there. They were attractive accents in the unforgiving expanse of dark green that lines highways and trails around Puget Sound. Now they’re frequent companions; it seems the island environment suits them. It’s sunnier here than in Seattle and Madrones adapt to the undulating terrain and shallow soils. Give them a well-drained, open slope with a little shelter (there are plenty of tall conifers to provide that!) and they’re happy. They like mild winters (check), they tolerate bone-dry summers (check), and they can cope with very wet winters and springs (check). Our Madrones aren’t as big and healthy as many that grow in California and Oregon but that doesn’t diminish them to local eyes.

When Madrones grow in inhospitable, rocky places where the soil is thin and nutrient-poor, their wide-spreading roots help anchor them in place. Crucially, they associate with beneficial communities of soil fungi in networks that can transport beneficial nutrients to the trees in times of need. In fact, Madrones are like transportation hubs that facilitate different connections among trees in their “neighborhood” because they associate with diverse kinds of underground mycorrhizae (the networks of soil fungi).

The more I saw these pretty trees leaning out over the water or reaching for light in small forest clearings, the more I appreciated them. Their winding, eccentric branches carve exotic paths into the straight and narrow patterns of our wooded places. The unusual bark can bring out the artist in anyone. Colors range from pale, soft greens to deep, rusty reds with everything imaginable in between. Placing my hand against a Madrone tree on a warm summer day, I found that the bark stays as cool as a refrigerator! In spring there are creamy flowers, in fall, red-orange berries, and all year long the rich green of their leathery leaves shines bright. No wonder I fell under the Mardrone’s spell. The summer after I moved here, I put together a photo and text post about them called JUST ONE: Pacific Madrone. But the story wasn’t finished.

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The Orchid

On exploratory walks near my new home, I paid close attention to the topography and plants, which are quite different from the Seattle area and vastly different from my native northeast. The first week we lived here I photographed an odd little flower – just tiny green buds on a stalk. The photo languished amidst images of spectacular scenery that year but the following summer I noticed more of the little flowers and became curious about them. I had a hell of a time trying to identify them, getting only as far as “Rein orchids.” I couldn’t be sure which Rein orchid I was looking at, not least because the names have changed several times. A casual observer wouldn’t even guess they are orchids – you have to get up close and personal to see the characteristic orchid structure in each tiny flower.

More often than not the modest flowers grow near Madrone trees, usually in forest clearings or on grassy slopes along the island’s intricately cut shoreline. Gradually, I developed a sixth sense for them – once I understood their preferred habitat, I often knew when I was about to find one. The more I learned, the more special the plants seemed. For example, Rein orchid seeds have to connect to a mycorrhizal network in order to germinate – without that connection, there will be no plant! Even more amazing, the tiny, germinated seed still has years to go before anything appears aboveground. At first, just one pair of leaves emerges. Gathering energy from the sun, the leaves nourish the underground heart of the plant until it’s mature enough to produce a stalk with flowers. There can be several years of nothing but leaves, busily preparing the way. Finally, a flower appears and once it is pollinated, there will be seeds. The cycle can begin again.

This year I was determined to find and correctly identify all the Rein orchids I could. Obsessed? Yes. I have finally figured out that there are three species here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans, P. elongata, and P. transversa. Their common names have changed over the years but currently recognized names include (in the same order) the Elegant Rein orchid (or Hillside Rein orchid), Denseflower Rein orchid, and Flat-spurred Piperia.

The summer after I wrote about Madrones I posted JUST ONE: Rein Orchids. I was – and am – fascinated by these plants. Their scarcity, intricate life cycle, and obscurity (most people walk right past them) make them special. I look for them from late winter until autumn: first, two oval leaves rise from the ground in late winter, then modest summer blooms rise among dry July grasses, and finally, seed stalks that look like burnt sugar on a stick are left – if you can find them.

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Why Together?

Why do Madrone trees and Rein orchids grow together so often? Perhaps the answer’s hiding in the underground mycorrhizal networks that Rein orchids and Madrones rely on. Research has already shown that mycorrhizal networks can be a two-way street, transporting carbon compounds in both directions to benefit Douglas firs and birch trees. The Douglas fir is another tree that I always see near Rein orchids. Perhaps there’s a complex relationship among Madrones, Douglas fir trees, and Rein orchids facilitated by mycorrhizal networks connected to all three plants – an interdependence we can’t see directly but one that we enjoy indirectly, standing under the cool shade of Doug firs next to a colorful Madrone tree, with Rein orchids peaking through the grass.

Whatever the science does or does not tell us, I’ve come to cherish the special places where Rein orchids appear with Madrone trees. These natural gardens are almost always quiet. Often an expanse of water is within view. Two of the places I’ve found where orchids and Madrones grow are small clearings in the forest at the end of winding trails. Another spot is on a grassy hill sloping gracefully down to a mirror-quiet lake. These are settings where you can focus on all five senses and inhale the spirit of place. Where it’s safe to sense, as Georgina Reid said, “this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.”

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5. Flat-spurred Piperia in black and white. The spurs contain nectar (those long tubes). Piperia is after a botanist named Charles Piper who wrote the first guide to the plants of the northwest. Published in 1906, it came out more than two thousand years after the Historia Plantarum by Theophrastus. It was a long time before white people learned about the plants of the Pacific Northwest! Most of the extensive knowledge indigenous tribes possessed about plants wasn’t written down and much of it was lost.
6. A Rein orchid hides in the grass on a south-facing shoreline at Kukutali Preserve.
7. A Madrone leaf caught on a lichen-covered branch. (Photographed two years ago with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens.)

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9. The orange bark of a Madrone provides the backdrop for a Rein orchid on an August morning.
10. A gnarled Madrone leans precariously over the water. It’s July, the sun is warm, the orchids are blooming, and there’s a smile on my face.
11. Ants appear to be looking for nectar on this Flat-spurred Piperia in a small clearing next to Madrone trees.
12. The tip of a Denseflower Rein orchid stalk sports tiny buds in early July.

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15. A parade of wildflowers follows a trail to Sugarloaf, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Elegant Rein orchids mix with pink Nodding onions, white yarrow, and yellow wildflowers – I’m not sure what kind!
16. A Denseflower Rein orchid.

17. An impressionistic rendering…
18. A Madrone bark abstract.

19. Madrone bark is always sensual and cool to the touch.

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*Georgina Reid, Breathing Fire: an essay in The Planthunter.

LOCAL WALKS: Summer Serendipity

It was the last day of June. Scattered clouds punctuated the horizon, a cool breeze promised fresh air, and the sun was strong. This is what Pacific Northwesterners live for: bright, comfortable summer days when the water beckons and worries are set aside.

After a difficult week, I was ready for a relaxing walk. Though Deception Pass State Park has as many visitors a year as Yosemite does, I can usually find a peaceful corner somewhere in the park, even on perfect summer days. My hopes and expectations amounted to nothing more than enjoying nature and finding a little inspiration along the way, right in front of me. There was no need to travel far or think hard about what I might photograph – it would be enough to be outdoors by the water and trees on a pleasant day.

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I made my way to a favorite, sandy beach made wide by a low tide. Clouds blew across the beach, obscuring the scene like one of Christo’s monumental fabric installations. Actually, it was a kind of fog created by differences between the air and water temperatures. Shivering in the billowing shrouds of moist air, I reminded myself that I’d be warmer once I crossed the beach.

As bewitching as the effect was, I wanted to focus on the ground, which never disappoints my curious eyes. Soon I was in my own world, observing a jewel-colored leaf, ripples in the sand, and crooked ribbons of eelgrass. Mostly as smooth as a fresh sheet of paper, the sand was darker in one place, flecked with green in another. Wavy ripples broke up the surface at the far end of the beach where a cliff changes the way the water flows. There, in the dappled shade of a Pacific crabapple tree, a driftwood log made fine, arcing lines in the sand where softly lapping water hesitated before withdrawing. So subtle they almost disappear, the patterns explained in detail the gentle out-breath of a lowering tide – if only you could read the script.

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After perhaps ten seconds of silly internal debate about expending the energy or not, I decided to continue on a favorite trail around a peninsula called Lighthouse Point. I wondered what wildflowers would be blooming near the water. Pausing to let a few people go ahead, I inhaled the fresh air and listened to the faint whisper of a few Chestnut-backed chickadees. As I entered the forest I stepped off the trail to let passers-by through once more, favoring my own slow pace where the trail meanders through a patch of tall Douglas fir trees. It was noon and the sun had been up for almost seven hours but the salal bushes on the trail were speckled with water drops. I don’t think it rained overnight – maybe it was dew. I was surprised. This is what happens when you trace the same path over and over, I thought, familiar things change and encourage the observant walker to pause and ponder the unexpected.

7. Leathery salal grows in the shade of tall Douglas fir trees. Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is invasive in England but here, where it’s native, it’s well behaved. The leaves and berries have fed and sheltered insects, birds, animals, and humans for ages.
8. Kelp floats in the shallows of a quiet cove on the Lighthouse Point trail. In the distance, the two-span Deception Pass Bridge connects Fidalgo Island to Pass Island (seen on the right) and Whidbey Island.

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Soon the forest opened out to a clearing at the southern tip of the peninsula where two small coves are separated by craggy rocks bordering Deception Pass. Across the water to the south is Whidbey Island, to the east is the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge, and to the west is the Salish Sea, where nutrients from the Pacific Ocean pour down into Puget Sound and up into British Columbia. History, geography, and ecology could tell long, complicated stories about this transformative place.

But my concerns were more immediate. At my feet was a narrow cliff edge where delicate wildflowers bloom in spring and summer. First, midnight blue larkspurs cavort with pure white chickweed, then cheery yellow stonecrop flowers mix with wild pink onions and golden grasses. Now, to my amazement, more than a dozen upright spikes of Rein orchids were just coming into bloom. I’ve seen the unusual flowers in other parts of the park, never here. As I sat down to photograph them I cursed the harsh sunlight but I smiled, too – this is one of my favorite plants. These specimens were so healthy and floriferous that I wasn’t even sure which species they were. I don’t often see them growing in such salutary conditions. Only when I got home and carefully checked the photos was I sure of the identification: the Elegant rein orchid.

And that was just the start of the wildflowers.

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10.

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12. A tiny Sweat bee (Lasioglossum sp) is busy on a Brodiaea blossom.

Striking purple Harvest brodiaea flowers beamed up from thick beds of golden grass. First I saw only a few, then I found a generous offering of the little gems. Once the small, edible bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. These days the flower is sold by nurseries as a rock garden specimen. The genus, Brodiaea, is named for Scottish botanist James Brodie. Formerly in the lily family, since 2009 this plant has been put in the order Asparagales, family Asparagacae. Plant names are constantly changing as genetic and molecular differences are better understood. That can be hard for people (like me!) who understand plants based on the way they look (morphological differences) because plants that look very different may now be classified as closely related. For example, agave and yucca are in the order Asparagales, just like the little Brodiaea.

But on this bright June day I didn’t care about names.

13. A wide meadow halfway round the peninsula features grasses and wildflowers. The soil is very thin so the grasses dry out by early summer, soon followed by most of the flowers. I like meadows for their spaciousness.
14. There’s not much of a lighthouse on Lighthouse Point – just the very small, square green thing in the center of the upper third of the frame. The brown strands in the water are kelp.

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The beauty of the meadow at Lighthouse Point is that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, dynamic water that races with the turbulence of the tides. The surface can be mirror-smooth at times but boaters know that’s deceiving: eddies and currents can be treacherous here. Large volumes of nutrient-rich water from the ocean forced through narrow openings also hide a kaleidoscope of marine life, only a fraction of which can be seen from land. Beds of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) hug the rocky headlands. The long stem (or stipe) of this huge brown algae floats on the surface when the tide is low. At the top of the stipe, a gas-filled bulb allows a fan of leaves (or blades) to rest on the water’s surface. Far underneath, a holdfast (like a rootball) anchors the algae to the bottom. Bullwhip kelp forests are important habitat for many marine species. For this human, watching Bullwhip kelp drift in the current is as relaxing as watching a goldfish tank. Maybe better.

Deception Pass waters really are greenish-blue. Phytoplankton – photosynthesizing microorganisms – that live in the top layers of the water thrive on the rich upswell of nutrients carried down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, giving the water a beautiful, milky blue-green color. Shades of turquoise have begun to appear in my wardrobe over the last few years. Maybe it’s the landscape entering my consciousness in ways I didn’t expect.

15.
16. Kelp floating just under the water, seen from the edge of the meadow.
17.
18.

Golden grasses set with purple wildflowers, the calls of oystercatchers, blue-green water stretching to the horizon – it was a day of breathtaking gifts, more than I expected. But that’s often the way it is when I go for a walk – expecting little, I am given so much.

To complete the day, as I made my way around the loop trail I saw a familiar face – it was Mary Jean, a fellow seal sitter. We each volunteered many hours this spring to protect a Northern elephant seal and her pup, the first Northern elephant seal known to have been born on this island. Both of them are back at sea now, hopefully living their lives as their species has for millennia. We walked back together through the forest and across the beach, still billowing with fog. We wondered aloud where in the vast Pacific Elsie Mae and Emerson are now and when we’ll see them again.

No one knows, and no one knows what the next walk will bring.

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19. A pair of kayakers float the Salish Sea between Lighthouse Point and Deception Island. Beyond them are the San Juan Islands and Canada.

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LOCAL WALKS: Low Tide

1. Driftwood. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

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Tides are like the earth breathing in and out, in and out. On the in-breath, a myriad of living and once-living things are sucked away from the shore with the water. On the out-breath, everything is pulled back toward the shore and rearranged. In, out, over and over. Endless cycles reveal innumerable scenes for the visually curious, like new paintings created and framed, minute by minute.

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2. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) working the tideline at Bowman Bay in spring. Wrinkled and furrowed by the outgoing tide, the sand holds just enough water to reflect the sky.

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Gentle currents of water draw lines and patterns in the sand. Waves scoop and carve hollows around stranded objects. Pieces of seaweed detach, swish around, and come to rest, leaving calligraphic messages behind. Tangles of plant life, artfully arranged chunks of driftwood, rivulets, ripples – the tides yield a never-ending parade of forms on the beach. Delighting the eyes of toddlers and photographers, piquing the interest of gulls and herons, the shoreline is “ever-present, never twice the same.”*

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3. Stones at Rosario Beach are smooth and round enough for strong waves to toss them into the grooves of driftwood logs during high tides.

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Tides wash shorelines the world over but each place where salt water meets land is different. The weather is different, the ecology is different, the geology is different, and the tide cycles are different. Not only do some locations have stronger tides than others, but each high or low tide is different from the last. Many variables are responsible for uneven tides, like bulges in the earth, continents in the ocean, an uneven ocean floor, and an imperfect alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. The seasons and lunar cycles also affect tides.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, a wide strait (the Strait of Juan de Fuca) cuts 96 miles (155km) back into Washington, connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific ocean. That means people living 90 miles from the ocean, like I do, still experience daily tidal cycles. Most places have two low and two high tides per day. In the Pacific Northwest, the lows and highs are mixed, which means that each day’s high tides are at different heights. Each day’s low tides are different, too. Today (at Bowman Bay), shortly after midnight there was a high tide of about 7.9 feet (2.4m). Just before 8am there was a low tide at 1 foot (.3m). The next high tide, at 3:17pm, is almost 3 feet lower than the first one – just 5.1 feet (1.5m). The last low tide of the day is at 6:03pm. At 4.7 feet (1.4m), it will be much higher than the morning low tide. As you can see, sometimes a low tide is almost as high as the previous high tide.

Keeping an eye on tide charts is essential for boaters and I’ve learned it’s worthwhile for me to check tide charts, too. That’s how I know to be at a place like North Beach (below) during a very low tide. Normally only the dark rocks in the photo are visible but during very low tides you can see rocks that have been smoothed and shaped by numberless tides.

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6. Low tide reveals smooth rocks at North Beach. Deception Pass State Park.
7.
8. Ripple pattern in the sand. Bowman Bay.

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Tide heights can vary a lot, depending on many factors. North America’s Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides – as high as 53 feet (16m) – but far to the south, the Caribbean has almost no tides. The reasons for this disparity are too complex to go into here. Though we may not grasp the science, many of us have seen the damage a very high tide combined with strong onshore winds and low pressure does. Whether in person or on media, we’ve seen houses destroyed and shorelines changed by complex interactions between the tides and the weather.

You probably know that around the new and full moon the difference between low and high tide levels increases because the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon magnifies gravitational pull. There are seasonal variations in tide cycles, too – something I didn’t know until I moved to an island. In the Pacific Northwest, summer brings unusually low tides during the daytime and the winter’s lowest tides occur after dark. During the full moon this month, Puget Sound had an extremely low tide, the lowest in over a decade. Foragers and families converged on shorelines throughout the region to experience the extra-low tide, a phenomenon that’s becoming less common due to rising sea levels.

I went to Bowman Bay, my favorite place to walk the beach anytime. I’d hoped to find pretty patterns in the sand but nature had other ideas. What I did find were ribbons of kelp shining in the sunlight (#4 & #5), a bare-bottomed toddler having a blast in the sand, the fresh hoof prints of a running deer, and the same family of Canada geese that I photographed last month. For at least a month these goose parents have kept all six of their goslings safe. I always expect to see one or two fewer, but so far they are all OK.

A few days later the afternoon low tide was still unusually low, so I went to Washington Park. A rocky pocket beach there can be good for tide pooling (searching for creatures in basins of water left by the outgoing tide). The only seastar I found was dead but there were beautiful anemones waving translucent tentacles. Another anemone was the color of an overripe peach.

Something interesting always appears as a result of the tides. These photos are just one person’s observations from walking along Salish Sea shorelines. You’ll find something different.

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9. Tide lines on the rocks. Kukutali Preserve.

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11. Acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula) on a mussel shell (Mytilus trossulus) make a small sculpture gifted by the outgoing tide at Bowman Bay.
12. Anemone tentacles underwater. This might be a Brooding anemone (Epiactis prolifera).

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14. A tiny pyramid-shaped rock created its own moat when the tide went out. Bowman Bay.
15. This arrangement was pure happenstance. The triangular piece of driftwood is also in the first photo, which was made two weeks earlier. Bowman Bay.
16. Eelgrass (Zostera marina) wrapped around a log and tangled with broken reeds last winter at Kukutali Preserve.
17. Eelgrass is important as a habitat for small creatures like worms and crabs and as a stabilizer for the shoreline. Eelgrass is an important food for birds like Brant. Other birds, like herons, eat small fish and crustaceans that live there.

18. The tide’s coming in at Washington Park and the sun is setting. It’s time to go home. Next time, it will be different.

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*The words, “Ever present, never twice the same” are inscribed on a granite marker that was part of an installation done in 1987 by the artist Robert Irwin at Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked then. That phrase, along with “Ever changing, never less than whole” is also inscribed on stones in the Central Garden, designed by Irwin for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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JUST ONE: Coralroots

1. Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).
2. A group of Spotted coralroots.

Hidden in plain sight, modest and peculiar, demanding an effortful eye,

distinct from their neighbors,

oddly colored, without leaves,

they appear irregularly – maybe this year,

maybe next. Eccentrically nourished,

they hide underground anchors

exquisitely attuned

to a vast network

of fungi.

Rootless, alone or

tightly clustered,

they reward inspection with sweet symmetry.

When I insinuate

the black box between us –

this awkward human with legs sprawled across the forest floor,

neck crooked, eyes squinting, fingers tense –

a photo is made, and then

I watch the bright screen beam

patterns and colors

to rival my dreams.

3. A Spotted coralroot plant without spots on the white lower petal (also called a lip or labellum). These are sometimes called Ozette’s coralroot, after the indigenous people who first lived in the area in Washington where it was discovered in 1967.

4. Spotted coralroot growing through a Bracken fern frond.
5. Ozette’s coralroot in my fingers. Officially this is a variation called Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata var. maculata.

Coralroots are in bloom and I’m excited about them so this “Just One” entry is actually about two plants, both in the coralroot family. Small, slender, and unassuming, coralroots can be hard to see in the leaf and twig litter that accumulates under the trees. From above, they look like odd-colored spikes, hardly worth a second glance. But bend way down, squint your eyes, peer at a single flower, and you’ll find a masterpiece of design. If it reminds you of a corsage that makes sense – coralroots are orchids.

On the last day of May, I went to a local park to see if the orange Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming yet. There’s only one place on the island I can depend on to see Tiger lilies and I didn’t want to miss them but as they say in the Pacific Northwest, no worries – the lily stems were all topped by small, nodding buds. It would be weeks before the flowers opened.

I didn’t expect any botanical surprises that day but just after I stepped onto the trail, a flash of magenta caught my eye. I came to an abrupt halt. What was that? The color didn’t compute in my mind – I didn’t remember any magenta plants in that patch of woods. Pink flowers, yes, but this was a dark, almost purple shade of pink. One spindly, magenta stalk rose from the detritus of last winter’s gray-brown twigs and this spring’s green leaves. I knew immediately that the little flower must be something interesting.

Bending down, I found a delicate orchid. It looked like some coralroot plants I’d seen there in the past but it was the wrong color and the flowers seemed different. I quickly made photographs – a few closeups and a few of the whole plant – to help me identify it after I got home.

6. Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana).
7. Pacific coralroot.

Excited about the new find, I looked for more and located two plants. Each one was just a small, asparagus-like stalk rising from the duff but unlike asparagus, they were deep reddish-purple. I sat down in a tangle of branches and old leaves, careful not to crush anything living, and photographed the stalks with their tightly closed buds. It was good to know there would be more of these little treasures blooming soon.

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The mystery plant reminded me of Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), which was nowhere to be seen, even though I photographed it in that area in each of the last three years. It was as if an imposter had arrived and stolen the scene.

When I got home it didn’t take long to identify the new flower as Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). Surprised that two Coralroots grow on Fidalgo Island, I looked for records of Pacific coralroot on the iNaturalist and Burke Herbarium websites. The Burke had two, dated 1952 and 1968, from other locations on the island. iNaturalist had three observations, all from the same place in the woods where I saw them. One is dated 2017, two are from 2020, and now that I’ve added my photos there’s a record for 2022.

By this time I was burning with curiosity – where else near my home could Pacific coralroot be found? Are there more kinds of Coralroots near here? The answers were easy to find on iNaturalist, where the map of Pacific coralroot observations showed a cluster of sightings on Whidbey Island (just to our south) in a protected forest where old-growth Douglas firs and Western hemlocks thrive. Obsessed with my new find, I twisted Joe’s arm, and the very next day we were marching through the forest on Whidbey Island in search of Pacific coralroot. We weren’t disappointed – there were dozens and dozens of them! Even more exciting, a number of the plants were pale and yellowish instead of intense pink.

9. Pacific coralroot, yellow and pink forms.
10.

I had questions about these plants that I’ll write about here, but if there are too many details here for your taste, no problem. Enjoy the photographs!

Why do coralroots have such odd colors? Did you notice that they don’t have leaves? In fact, there aren’t any green parts at all. Coralroots lost their leaves and chlorophyll over evolutionary time. You may remember that chlorophyll is the compound that helps plants get energy from the sun and gives them their green color. So how do these plants live if they can’t photosynthesize? They form relationships with fungi in the soil, fungi that also have connections to the trees towering overhead. Those trees are busy photosynthesizing – so coralroots don’t have to! This is called mycorrhizal symbiosis. While I was photographing the diminutive orchids, complex transactions among coralroots, fungi, and trees were occurring continuously out of sight, right under my feet, making beautiful flowers like these possible:

11. A single Pacific coralroot flower.
12. A single Spotted coralroot flower in black and white.

About 400 different species of plants can’t photosynthesize and depend on fungi for nourishment; many are orchids. Some orchids depend on fungi only for germination but coralroots are dependent on fungi for germination and growth. They have lost their true roots and instead are anchored into the soil by a rhizome, essentially a horizontal, nubby stem. The nubs on the rhizome can resemble short branches of coral, which is why they’re called coralroots. The rhizomes are connected to mycorrhizal fungi that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, like Douglas fir trees. The requirement for particular fungi to be present in the soil means that humans have not been able to cultivate coralroots (as far as I know). Being dependent on fungal networks in the soil means that disturbances like road construction, which probably destroy mycorrhizal fungi, would restrict the spread of coralroots. You won’t find them invading roadside lots and lawns the way dandelions do!

The unusual arrangement coralroots have with fungi starts with the seeds, which are tiny and numerous, almost like clouds of dust. That’s typical for the orchid family, one of the largest plant families, with 25,000 – 35,000 species. Orchid seeds lack stores of energy (food) and can’t germinate on their own so they rely on fungi to get a start in life. If the particular fungus an orchid requires doesn’t live where the windblown seeds land, too bad, there will be no orchid. That’s probably why orchids produce prodigious amounts of seeds.

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Ectomycorrhizal (ektos – outside, mykes – fungus, rhiza – root) relationships are being studied by people like Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia who has written extensively about the ways plants communicate below the ground. Her book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ details the implications of her ground-breaking research exploring the surprising forces that bind trees and plants together in complex networks. Actually, scientists have known that fungal networks connect to tree roots for years. It was a nineteenth-century German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, who first recognized and wrote about fungus/plant relationships and coined the word “mycorrhiza.” Frank also coined the term, “symbiosis” back in 1877. But there is still much to learn about fungal connections to plants.

How exactly the complex relationship among coralroots, mycorrhizal fungi, and trees benefits each partner is a question that, if I understand correctly, scientists are asking and answering bit by bit, as research continues. We know that fungi continuously “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, an ability that coralroots exploit to receive carbon. The fungi coralroots depend on are essentially intricate networks of rootlike hyphae that branch over and over again, exploring the soil for nutrients and forming connections with the fine tips of tree roots and orchid rhizomes. Minerals that fungi get from the trees they’re connected to can be passed to coralroots, too.

These fascinating plants are a small genus of only ten species, all but one found in North America. The coralroot that grows outside North America is C. trifida, sometimes called Early or Northern coralroot. It occurs across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the US. This small, yellowish-green orchid has some chlorophyll but primarily relies on fungi that are often connected to birch or alder trees. The plant I found in the park, Pacific coralroot, is an uncommon orchid found mainly in shaded, coniferous forests in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern California.

The most common coralroot in my area is Spotted coralroot, pictured above in #1 – #5 and #12. There were 35 observations of Spotted coralroot recorded on Fidalgo Island on iNaturalist the last time I looked (and iNaturalist has only been operating since 2008). I’ve seen it a number of times here but it’s not common. It seems odd that Pacific coralroot was growing in the same patch of woods where Spotted coralroot grew before. Maybe Spotted coralroot plants will appear there in a few weeks, who knows? Pacific coralroot was once considered a subspecies of Spotted coralroot so obviously, they share some characteristics, like habitat. But they do not share underground fungal networks – each relies on different kinds of fungi. Maybe the fungus that Pacific coralroot uses is in very good health this year and that enabled the coralroot’s rhizome, a lumpy storage organ that’s essentially an underground stem, to send up a flowering stalk. Perhaps Spotted coralroots are resting this year and I’ll have to wait until next year to see them again; I read that coralroot plants may rest several years under the soil. But that doesn’t explain why I saw Spotted coralroot three years in a row and Pacific coralroot this year. I have many questions!

14. Spotted coralroot, intentionally blurred by moving the camera.
15. Spotted coralroot from above, intentionally blurred by manually focusing.
16. Five years ago I noticed this small group of coralroots in a shaft of sunlight in the woods at Longmire, Mount Rainier.
17. A photo from July, 2012, the first time I saw coralroots. This is Pacific coralroot and after seeing that time in a park outside Seattle and once more on Mt. Rainier, I didn’t see it again until this spring. And frankly, if I didn’t have these photos I would not have known that I’ve seen Pacific coralroot before.
18.

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In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes both personal impressions and factual information. Click “Just One” in the category list below to see more of these posts.

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LOCAL WALKS: Boundless

Lest anyone think I’m completely tone-deaf or have my head in the sand, I recognize the pain and despair caused by the horrifying mass shootings in this country. I’d like my readers outside of the U.S. to know that I’m deeply embarrassed by my country’s wrong-headed attitude about guns. When I think about parents with young children – even my own unborn grandchildren – I lament the fear and anguish in the face of the unthinkable they live with. One thing we can do is to bring some shred, some little piece of positivity into the world and offer it within our own sphere of influence. Whether it’s art, political action, or simply a listening ear and a hug, we need to counteract the evil.

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There’s a quote from Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi) that describes how I feel sometimes when I’m outside: “Leap into the boundless and make it your home!” How’s that possible? I think that connecting deliberately to the precise place on earth where I am with all five senses can turn almost any place into a true home and an open, curious mind makes possible a leap into the boundless, the unexpected, the limitless.

Of course, having an open mind isn’t always that simple when the concerns of the day linger in one’s mind. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to let go of petty worries and irrelevant expectations now that I’m retired. Being older probably helps, too. When I worked full time I longed to spend more time outside and I would wait all week for the chance to visit a garden or wander through a park. I worried about the weather, too, and by Saturday my brain was crammed with needs and expectations – not the best mindset for relaxation and creativity! If that sounds familiar I hope you’ll go easy on yourself. Maybe you can take a minute to let all the ideas about what you want to do fall away when you’ve finally gotten your chance to enjoy yourself. There’s no need to do anything more than just appreciate what’s in front of you: your own life on this beautiful planet.

Fifteen photographs made on recent walks in familiar places

with camera in hand

and as little as possible in my head,

eyes up,

eyes down,

eyes all around.

Looking. It’s what we do

in our boundless homes

on earth.

1. I stepped outside one morning when the sun was shining and the air was fresh. Our Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) look great this year after a pretty wet spring. Watching the fronds unfurl day by day, week by week, is deeply satisfying.
2. Sword ferns have a peculiar growth habit you can see here, a downward droop and an upward push that happen at the same time. The plant in the first photo is further along. The first time I saw these oddly shaped fronds, I was taken aback. Ten years and thousands of plants later they still delight me. Sword ferns grow luxuriously here, carpeting the forest floor all year in bold, green fountains. (The colors aren’t realistic in this photo; I used an Adobe preset and made changes in processing).
3. Late one Saturday afternoon I took a walk on a little-used trail. I saw no one: perfect! The trail is short and doesn’t go anywhere interesting enough for most people. But the little hillside clearing at the end of the trail was magical that day. As many as a hundred nodding, brownish lilies were blooming with lush, green moss and bright yellow buttercups. Our chocolate lilies – Fritillaria affinis – don’t grow very tall and tend to disappear into the background because of their unusual coloration. I couldn’t make a good photo of the meadow but a single blade of grass from last year caught my eye.
4. Heart Lake Road cuts through a public forest near the middle of Fidalgo Island. There are two parking lots and several pull-outs for people planning to hike a trail or fish on the small lake. I chose a pull-out on the side of the road one day and stopped the car. As I got out and was locking the door I glanced across the road and saw this handsome male Wood duck (Aix sponsa) perched on a stump. Wow! These beautiful birds are here most of the year but are rarely seen. I didn’t have a very long lens and didn’t want to get closer for fear of scaring him so I photographed him from where I was and cropped later. Even with that stick in front of him, he was a pretty sight.
5. My favorite fern, Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is infrequent on Fidalgo Island because our summers are too dry, except in places like this shady cliff with cool trickles of water from winter to spring. It seems there’s always a breeze and never much light where these ferns grow. I decided to go with it, letting the leaf tips blur and the background stay dark.
6. In mid-April on a lovely spring day when the Salmonberries were beginning to bloom, I saw this little insect and managed to get a photo. iNaturalist tells me this insect is in the Leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae.
7. Across from a ship repair yard in town there are stacks of beautifully rusted metal pieces being stored. I like composing the shapes into neat rectangles.
8. A closeup of a metal support, with apologies to Linda Grashoff** who has made an art out of photographing the surfaces of dumpsters (among other things) and who inspires me to pay more attention to things like this.
9. Here’s a tiny wildflower, the Western spotted coralroot, an orchid that depends on fungi in the soil for nourishment. Multiple small flowers grow on thin, reddish stems about a foot in height. Corallorhiza maculata is blooming now in our island forests. Robert Frost’s poem, On Going Unnoticed uses this plant to talk about being overlooked but if you take the time to investigate the flowers, you’ll be unlikely to ever overlook them again.
10. This little guy is called a Grainy hermit crab. I photographed it underwater in a tide pool at low tide. I check the tide tables so I can poke around certain places when the tide is exceptionally low, something that tends to occur at new and full moons.

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12. It was a sunny, windy day by the water, making photos difficult. I decided to show the wind by using a slow shutter speed (shutter priority, 1/6 second, F22). I focused in the middle distance to reveal some yellow flowers. The image was overexposed – I should have adjusted the exposure but it was getting late and I was ready to go home. I dragged the exposure down in Lightroom but kept the grass bright because that’s what I saw.
13. On another rainy day I went out just as the rain stopped. The Madrone leaves were kind enough to bead up the raindrops and hold them in place for me to see.
14. A single leaf of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) springs up from a bed of moss in a forest clearing.

15. A tangle of wild honeysuckle vines (Lonicera sp.) threads through the forest and catches the last rays of the setting sun.

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**You can find Linda Grashoff’s photos of dumpsters here.

The quote above is from The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (ed. Columbia University Press, 1968) – ISBN: 9780231031479

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LOCAL WALKS: Goose Rock Impressions

1. March means storms and clouds over the Salish Sea.

In July of 2018, as we were settling into our cottage on Fidalgo Island I was also busy exploring the island’s parks. On a trail at Deception Pass one afternoon I met a couple from California who raved about two places – Lighthouse Point and Goose Rock. Their faces glowed with the pleasure of being outdoors. They had lived in Seattle years ago and came back to visit friends in the area. Eager to see their favorite places again, they set out on the Lighthouse Point trail, where we crossed paths. I’d never heard of Goose Rock so I googled it when I got home and added it to my list of places to explore.

I didn’t get there until two months later. It was a cloudy day so the view from the 484-foot (147m) promontory wasn’t ideal but what an interesting walk it was. After parking, I climbed down several flights of stairs to cross under the Deception Pass bridge, then began the walk on a pretty trail through the evergreens above the pass. The spectacle of rushing turquoise water funneling through the narrow pass below was impressive. Instant relaxation! A right fork took me uphill through a quiet forest of hemlock, Douglas fir, and Redcedar studded with gently arching Sword ferns. After climbing a while, I emerged onto a landscape of open balds formed by ancient, glacier-scraped rocks. I wandered over to the highest point, overlooking the San Juan Islands and the wide Salish Sea. A mix of pale green puffs of reindeer lichen, soft moss, and colorful stonecrop plants dotted the rocks. I was enchanted by the mosaic of finely differentiated textures and colors at my feet and the misty blend of blues and grays stretching out to the horizon. In the distance, I could see traffic but up there the atmosphere was quiet and spacious.

One of the defining characteristics of this walk is the transition from a moist, shady, enclosed forest to a broad, open hilltop. The hiker is first treated to a plethora of woodland details – evergreen ferns, luxurious mosses, towering trees with thousands of branches, little mushrooms – and then everything changes as the trail opens out onto an open space where you observe the world spread out below. I think both of these experiences, the near and distant views, are nourishing. We don’t have to be in the country to experience the relaxing rhythm of alternating near and distant views either. When I lived in the city I enjoyed finding details on the sidewalks as much as I loved to gaze out my apartment window at the bustling scene below. Near and far, back and forth. It’s healthy.

The meadows atop Goose Rock host a variety of wildflowers in spring and early summer but I knew nothing about them on that first day – in fact, interesting rocks, lichens, trees, and spacious views were quite enough. I went back again on a misty day in November when clouds flew across the sky. That December I climbed Goose Rock and delighted in the intense green of evergreens and ferns after autumn rains. In January I explored a longer trail that wraps around Goose Rock, passing through a dry hillside with different plants and quiet bay views as it spirals up the rock. And so it went, season after season, year after year. I’ve been up to Goose Rock thirty-three times in all since that first September day 3 1/2 years ago.

Here are photographs from my forays up to Goose Rock, spanning the years and seasons. First, let’s tuck under that bridge:

2. Under the Deception Pass bridge (as you can see, the sun was going down – this photo was actually taken on the way back).

THROUGH THE FOREST

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5. A fallen tree sprouts a thick bed of moss, the perfect place for tiny Western hemlock seedlings to get a head start.
6. Trees fall frequently. As you can from these old giants, the rangers only cut them when they block the trail.

7. A small piece of a fallen tree that was cut years ago is now home to a riot of mosses, liverworts, lichens, and plants, surrounded by a garden of evergreen Sword ferns.
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10. A slender summer-blooming plant of the woods, the graceful Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) begs a closer look on bent knees.

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12. The trail affords a view of hikers below.

EMERGING ONTO THE BALDS

13. Looking south from Goose Rock on a foggy November afternoon.
14. November is another stormy month in the Pacific Northwest. Unsettled skies are a photographer’s friend.
15. Among the rocks at the top of Goose Rock a whole world awaits the person who looks closely. The succulent leaves of Stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium) cozy up with various mosses and lichens.
16. At the edge of the woods sweet Broad-leaved starflowers (Trientalis latifolia) nestle beside a fallen branch with honeysuckle vines.

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18. It’s June and the meadow grasses are in flower.

WILDFLOWERS AT GOOSE ROCK: A SLIDESHOW

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22. The San Juan Islands and Canada’s Vancouver Island punctuate the horizon.

23. I’d better hurry back down – it’s going to be dark in the forest.

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LOCAL WALKS: Why Go Out?

“Because it’s what I do” claimed photojournalist Lynsey Addario in her riveting memoir about life as a photographer on the front line. Going out for walks is what I do. And although my walks don’t entail the risks that Addario’s outings do, like her, I always bring a camera. Why carry the little black box? Because with it I create new ways to relate to the ever-changing landscape that I live in.

1. This battered, old juniper tree has been carved with initials, climbed by countless people, and photographed innumerable times. It still commands the view with dignity.
2. Same tree, different view, black and white.
3. Another Seaside juniper tree (Juniperus maritima). This one was photographed with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
4. Another Seaside juniper, also photographed with the vintage lens.

With all the talk about technique, gear, or artistic intent, one can forget the sheer fun of photography. That cool little black box with its buttons, levers, lenses, and dials enables us to preserve moments of aesthetic delight, which is reason enough to use it. Beyond that, composing, processing, and sharing images offer innumerable ways to exercise creativity. Black and white or color? Crop? Lighten? Smooth, dramatize? There are so many options to work with, both in the camera and later on. If you take it a step further and share your images then the photographs enter the arena of relationships, which has its hazards but certainly has countless rewards.

So going out with a camera is what I do. It’s very enjoyable – there’s the motivation. But where? Why one place and not another? The decision to head toward one particular place has many facets. There are practical considerations – it can’t be too far away, too crowded, too this, too that. But there’s something less easily articulated that guides me too, an atmosphere perhaps. The more time you spend in a place, the more you get inside its unique atmosphere, what I sometimes call the “placeness.” Having lived in this location for almost four years now, I’ve gleaned the flavor of each place. And they all offer possibilities, both expected and unexpected.

This post centers around a 220-acre bulge on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island that was preserved as parkland long ago. Used for camping, walking, and boating, it’s popular with locals but I always manage to find a quiet spot where the slow rhythms of nature take over. Miles of rocky shoreline surround a forested center, traced by a maze of trails. The trails that cut through the forest and lead to open balds above the water are my favorites. They’re crowded with unusual plants like the rugged Seaside junipers and colorful Madrone trees that make fine subjects for any artist. Often there’s a hush on the trail, broken only by the croak of a raven or the whirr of a distant motorboat. My gaze switches back and forth from expanses of blue-green water dotted with islands to the tiny wildflowers, odd ferns, and tough lichens at my feet. Even the rocks draw my admiration.

5. Rocks sometimes steal the scene. That’s another Seaside juniper it.

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7. Is it possible to fall in love with the colors of a rock? The little black box whispers yes.
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10. This sensuous curve belongs to a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).

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12. Bark peeling off a fire-damaged Madrone.
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14. Dead Madrone leaves, Madrone berries, and peels of Madrone bark litter the ground.

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16. Two lichen species, two mosses, and the new leaves of an unidentified wildflower mingle at ground level in late winter.
17. In early spring the buds of a shrub light up the edge of the woods.

18. Another photograph made with the vintage Takumar lens.
19. Now we’re looking into the water at low tide. This is a side view of an Aggregating anemone holding its bright pink tentacles close in.

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21. A snowy vista at the edge of the park.

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These photographs were all made at Washington Park in the cooler months. When it warms up there are wildflowers in the meadows and on the forest floor – a whole other subject. By mid-summer, the flowers are mostly finished. The grass dries out, the lichens are brittle, and I’m waiting for the fall rains. Then I’ll go back and explore again.

Previous posts about Washington Park are here and here.

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