It feels like we’re going to have an unrelentingly rain-soaked winter here in the Pacific Northwest. One storm after another has barreled in, blowing trees down and dumping precipitation across an already waterlogged region. Between fronts the air stays damp and cool. There are breaks in the clouds but it is seldom more than a brief reprieve, as the sun breaks out then quickly hides again under opaque, gray skies. Uninspiring? Yes. But the challenges of the season bring opportunities to look harder, work a little more, and find the beauty that is right here.
“…here in these misty forests those edges seem to blur with rain so fine and constant as to be indistinguishable from air and cedars wrapped with cloud so dense that only their outlines emerge.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
“When you have all the time in the world you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.” Robin Wall Kimmerer,Braiding Sweetgrass.
A day or so after I began writing this post, the weather changed. Back-to-back days of cheerful (if partial) sunshine brightened my spirits. I watched a pair of Bald eagles cavorting against a deep blue sky, and far below them, nestled in the damp moss, I found the first leaves of a Rein orchid (Platanthera trransversa). For five or more months the leaves will make food for the tuber, hidden from sight. In the warm days of summer a delicate stalk of tiny orchids will emerge, if all goes well. Maybe that pair of little leaves will be trampled or will shrivel up or be eaten – who knows? Life is fragile. But no matter what, winter will be followed by spring, rain by sun, night by day. This we can count on.
Year-end reviews are useful but I’ve resisted doing one, perhaps out of laziness or avoidance, or because I prefer to look ahead and not analyze too much. But after reading a post by Alex Kunz, I began to think differently about reviewing my photographic year. I realized there is something to be learned from asking, “Where did I go with my camera in 2020, if not literally, then metaphorically?”
Last January I was busy planning a trip to Vietnam that was scheduled for three weeks in March. Then came the news of a dangerous new virus and the realization that travel plans had to be reconsidered. The first US case of the COVID-19 corona virus appeared on January 21 at a skilled nursing facility just 75 miles south of my home. We conferred with doctors and friends and decided to cancel the trip. It was a big disappointment but it cleared the decks for other things.
Soon, hospitalizations and deaths were making news. Then there was the daily litany of school closings, lost jobs and opportunities, and cancelled events. By March the governor of Washington had issued a stay-at-home order, the border with Canada was closed and in Seattle, a woman volunteered to be the very first person to receive Kaiser-Permanente’s experimental coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, we were enjoying a lush, rainy spring. The green machine was in gear! Abundant flowers, insects, birds and even heavy crops of seed cones, all contributed to a breathtaking spring. I felt grateful to be retired and free of the concerns that so many people were dealing with – kids at home, lost income, sickness. In fact, the biggest impact for me at the time was the closing of my favorite destination, Deception Pass State Park. I felt that loss acutely but most county and city parks remained open, leaving me with plenty of choices. I became obsessed with searching for wildflowers in all the green places near home. Frequent forays led to discoveries of species I’d never seen before and a better understanding of familiar flowers. The previous year I was in Europe in April and took a road trip in May, which meant that I missed the parade of spring wildflowers. Before that I lived in a different habitat without many of the specialized plants that grow here on Fidalgo Island. I didn’t really know my own back yard. The cancellation of our trip and subsequent pandemic restrictions held a silver lining: the opportunity to study and take pleasure in the progression of the seasons right at home. I made the best of it!
Besides fully immersing myself in the local flora, two other photographic projects occupied my time last year: a series of photographs of a square pane of glass placed in various locations outdoors and a series of abstractions, made primarily in Lightroom. Working on the abstractions honed my ability to condense images down to simpler shapes, colors and textures. Concentrating on the forms within the rectangle, playing freely with exposure values, compositions and colors – all of that sharpened my ability to recognize what I’m looking for when I’m outdoors with the camera. I believe the process of abstracting images improved my photography. I’ll be returning to that project, as well as the glass pane project. Another project that involved writing more than photography was a memoir I began posting in March, ‘”An Unstill Life with Flowers.” More installments are in the works.
I added a few new tools to the Olympus kit this year: a smaller camera body for the Vietnam trip and two lenses: a 12mm f2 prime and a 12-42mm f3.5-5.6 ultra-compact zoom. The second camera body (an OM-D EM-5) is somewhat different from my normal camera and certain things drive me crazy, like the awkward placement of the on-off button. I’ll never be one of those people with two cameras hanging from their neck and a weighty backpack full of extra gear – but it’s good to have a second camera body that accepts the lenses I already have.
The wide zoom lens was meant for travel and I haven’t used it much yet. I’m excited about the 12mm prime lens (a 24mm equivalent). The one lens I own with an equally wide view is very heavy so it doesn’t get much use. For years now, I’ve tended to favor one particular lens, a 60mm f2.8 prime, over the others. Shooting with that lens so often has affected the way I see the landscape. Exchanging the 60mm field of view for a 12mm angle makes a big difference and forces me to stop and reconsider what I can do. That’s a good thing!
My aesthetic horizons expand each year from traveling and visiting museums and galleries. This year, with travel out of the question and museums closed, I found inspiration online, on your blogs, in email conversations, and from online workshops. This community has a lot to give! Over the course of last year, feeling inspired and free to roam the immediate environment, I went out with my camera well over 200 times. Like I said, the pandemic brought opportunities. Here are some of the results.
It’s easy to pass by mundane sights you see hundreds of times around the house without thinking twice about them. When weather and a pandemic conspire to keep you at home, familiar sights are seen again, and again.
I don’t mean to say that these sketches are mundane – they’re not. Two weeks ago, thanks to Jean MacKay and a local art center, I sketched wild rose hips while watching Jean on Zoom. With over a hundred other people I watched as Jean drew plants found around her home in New York while giving tips for making quick sketches from nature outdoors (even on cold days!) and finishing them up indoors. It felt surprisingly comfortable to work on my drawing while listening to her relaxed, confident instruction. Drawing entails a different way of seeing and working. It slows you down, which is a nice counterbalance to digital life. In my experience, the eye that photographs is primed for drawing, just as the eye that draws is ready to make photographs. You may think the skills needed to make a drawing or operate a camera are potentially the biggest barriers to creating good work, but learning to see is more important, in my opinion. That skill can be practiced anywhere and anytime, with or without tools. Even around the house!
It’s been rainy for weeks and weeks. The light is soft and diffuse, a quality I longed for in July but grow tired of now. Whenever the weather clears my eyes are greedy for the sunrise hues that grace the sky behind the black lace limbs of the Douglas fir trees. I find myself looking out windows a lot, as I’ve done all these years. There’s something satisfying about placing my gaze over there, not here, beyond.
Best Wishes to you, and to all living beings on this planet, for 2021. Let it be a year in which getting out of the house is less fraught with danger. Let it be a creative year, a year in which we expand our minds to entertain more possibilities. And a deeply felt Thank You to all the readers who have come here this past year bearing gifts that lift me up and broaden my world.
The word “caught” can indicate a number of different states of being – caught in a maelstrom, caught lying, caught a break. These particular images came together because one day when I was out with my camera I noticed a leaf caught on a twig, suspended in mid-fall. Soon I began to see this phenomenon of things caught on other things frequently. I photographed leaves and other bits of flotsam caught on fences, speared by twigs, and resting on bigger leaves. There’s something poignant about these suspended moments, something that speaks to the ultimately temporary nature of all things, the “just-passing-through” sense of life that we humans find hard to accept.
I started adding the keyword “caught” to photographs in Lightroom so I could gather them together. Here’s a selection that spans eleven years and two continents.
When we think of beaches and dunes we usually picture a seashore, probably by the ocean. But just over the bridge from my home there’s a breathtaking stretch of beach backed by sand dunes and a narrow strip of forest. Walking along that beach feels a lot like being at the ocean, so much so that you might not guess it’s 90 miles away. Masses of cold, Pacific water funnel down the Strait of Juan de Fuca twice a day, creating a rich maritime ecosystem. Luckily for the plants, animals and humans that pass through this particular spot, a state park was established here almost a hundred years ago, protecting this unusual habitat on the northwest corner of Whidbey Island. Whenever I want to walk along a beach and listen to waves lapping at my feet, this is where I go.
The unknowable ocean flows
down the strait
mixing currents and creatures,
ceaselessly anointing the beach
with life. A woman walks along the shore
barefoot in winter, carrying nothing.
A child climbs a driftwood pinnacle,
three Buffleheads bob among the breakers, and
a crab claw lands at my feet.
The wide, pale sky blesses it all.
Dedicated to J-J. P. He was a great neighbor who was taken from his family and friends way too soon. RIP
This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.
I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.
Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.
Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.
I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).
As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.
Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.
It’s time for change in America. Four years ago a man was elected to the American presidency who should have never been chosen to lead anything, let alone a free, democratic country. This man’s tenure has been an ugly, backward time when many norms we took for granted were destroyed. The foundations of our government have been undermined, our relationships with each other have suffered, and relationships with our partners across the globe have crumbled. It’s time to turn things around and get back on track.
This week, a news story in a local paper said that the old building you see pictured here is going to be torn down. It was built almost 130 years ago as a fish cannery. The building functioned well for a long time and was once even touted as one of the biggest fish processing plants in the world. It fell into serious disrepair in recent years, having been sold to an out-of-town developer who allowed it to fall apart become a hazard. It’s the kind of place people break into and hang out in, the kind of place whose present state is barely a shadow of what it once was. The owner has been told that he must erect a fence to keep people out – part of a wall collapsed last week. Soon the entire place will be torn down, once and for all.
The current president’s contempt for truth, fairness, science, and humanity itself has been mind-boggling. In only four years this administration has done serious damage to our country. It’s time to tear down what has no integrity, to clear away what’s broken, rotten and dangerous and replace it with something new.
In this time of renewal, it’s appropriate that the changes we need will be accomplished with the help of our first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president-elect. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ll need to be patient, and we’ll need to try to work together. Let’s hope that what is constructed in place of the current structure will be created with integrity and strength. And maybe even a dash of beauty. We can dream.
I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.
There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.
In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.
My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.
I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.
There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.
A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.
…of a five-mile radius. That is where the shutter button clicked for the images below.
Real travel still seems risky but we are so weary of the restrictions we’ve had to adapt to this year! A release, a reprieve, a relief – that’s what we need. Getting outside works for me. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired but I make myself walk and in the end, there is much to be found that keeps me going, even close to home. So I continue my local forays with a curious mind and a grateful heart.
Here on Fidalgo Island seasonal changes are drawn out and subtle; summer into fall is no exception. Instead of brilliant Sugar maple fire there is a quiet, golden glow in the grasses and leaves; in place of crisp, blue-sky days there is moody morning fog. The delights of freshly-opened flowers are gone but there is pleasure to be had in the following the sinuous curves of drying leaves. The slow permutations of autumn in the Pacific northwest unfold without hindrance, like a meandering waltz spreading limbs through time and space.
These images were made between mid-September and mid October on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The terroir, as the French say, is strongly influenced by water, mild in temperature, thin of soil, and resplendent with natural beauty.
I “beat the bounds” of my own small place on this planet, walking a ragged perimeter of well-worn paths, absorbing the lessons I’m open to, exploring the limits of “my” territory. In England, Scotland and Wales, before maps were readily available, boundary memories were periodically refreshed by walking along and defining them. Beating the bounds and practices like it have probably been around for thousands of years and may be rooted in a similar Roman custom which Wikipedia says honored Terminus, the god of landmarks. But why is it called “beating” the bounds? Because willow or birch branches were slapped on the ground and on the old stone boundary markers, helping to fix parish borders in residents’ minds. Children were brought along to learn the boundaries by whatever means suited those in charge – maybe a firm knock on the child’s head when they arrived at a stone marker could cement the memory. And afterwards the bonds of the community were strengthened by celebrating with food and drink. According to Wikipedia, the custom still exists in some locations, including sites in Germany, France, and even the U.S. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have statutes requiring that certain boundaries are periodically reaffirmed. However, apparently some contemporary versions of beating the bounds don’t include actual walking. Too bad.
Though I’m not necessarily a fan of practices that strengthen the idea of ownership over land, I find much to like in the idea of beating the bounds. It seems to be a way to recognize and celebrate one’s connection to the earth, specifically to one’s locality. We are rooted in the local, nourished by the soil under our feet and the air about us. It’s good to remember that.