WRITING the STORY

Have you ever heard of asemic writing? The Cambridge Dictionary says asemic means “using lines and symbols that look like writing, but do not have any meaning.” The word “asemic” breaks down to without (“a”) and meaning (“semic”, like semantic). Meaningless script, why would you want that? Perhaps because there is something inherently beautiful about script itself, even without its meaning.

The word asemic is often used to refer to art made using script-like marks. The work can’t be read, only admired (or not) aesthetically. If you’re curious here’s a review of a book that delves deeply into asemic art. An example of asemic art by American painter and collage artist Cecil Touchon can be seen here. The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux is known for using script-like marks in his work. Maybe you’re familiar with the American painter Cy Twombly, whose paintings currently sell for tens of millions of dollars. He used gestural marks as well as actual words in his work to great effect.

You could say that the hinge on the door to meaning is well oiled in these works; wide swings can both reveal and obscure meanings.

And what does this all have to do with photography? Maybe you already guessed or scrolled down and figured it out. I have been noticing script-like marks in nature for years and I’m drawn to these lines and shapes, with their natural affinity to what I see on the page. I’ve always liked to read – put me in a bookstore or flash a text at me and I’m instantly alert. Not just the meaning, but the simple shapes of letters and the linear, orderly appearance of text appeal to me, too. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading and an attraction to the look of text gradually became conflated in my brain. Maybe that led to my tendency to find text-like marks in nature. As I walk along the beach, the strands of eelgrass at my feet give afford as much pleasure as an elegant piece of calligraphy or a perfectly executed classic Garamond font. A birch tree’s bark, a white page with black text – both elicit a tingle of pleasure.

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1. It looks like calligraphy to me.
2. Rocks on the Oregon coast.
3. Marks left by worms or ancient symbols?
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9. A Death Valley landscape is spare enough to resemble writing.
10. A dried-up lagoon that was once flooded with saltwater shows imprints from plants and animals, a natural text telling the story of what went before.
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Reading can be aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. Many kinds of writing, from Arabic script to Medieval manuscripts to Japanese calligraphy, can be just as gratifying, in the eyes of this beholder.

Text and script: aesthetic touchpoints.

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TAKING IT ALL IN

This post is not about a specific place or an idea, instead, it’s about what I’ve seen in the last two weeks. We’re always looking, aren’t we? Seeing takes little effort, it just happens. How we feel about what we see, what we think about it and what we do about it all depend on our personality and unique set of experiences. Walking through a field, we all see the grass but we each respond to it differently. I’m endlessly curious about what I see and I take pleasure in playing with visual material, so a camera is at my side when I take a walk. If I don’t have the camera I may use my phone to exercise the possibilities I see. It’s what I do.

Eight days in September:

1. A sunny September day on neighboring Whidbey Island, at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

2. More grass seedheads, this time on Fidalgo Island.

3. This dune grass (Elymus mollis) has a beautiful blue-green hue and drapes in wide, graceful arcs.

4. A hop, skip and jump away from the dune grass, beach sand at low tide displays an arc of its own.
5. Polished by countless footsteps, a few rocks on a park path gleam in a beam of sunlight.
6. It’s taken me a while to see the poetry in what lies scattered on the ground.

7. The beauty of Madrone bark, however, was something I recognized immediately.
8. This is a dry spot on a very dry island; we are in a drought and hardly had a drop of rain all summer. Even in this parched state, tree roots snaking through beds of lichen retain their beauty.
9. Brittle tangles of dead Seaside juniper branches present a compelling picture on a late September afternoon. The pale green poufs of Reindeer lichen on the ground are soft when moist, but now, a heavy foot here can shatter the lichens’ tiny branches.

10. This old, split-trunk Madrone tree has lived through fire and drought. Over many seasons its base has been sculpted into bulging waves of wood.
11. An experiment at home: a bell, an astronomical drawing cut from an old schoolbook, and a pencil drawing I made of a lily many years ago. I was just seeing what different things look like together.
12. It’s been so dry that many Douglas fir needles shed from branches high overhead won’t reach the ground – they’re caught in hundreds of spider webs festooned throughout the trees. The sight made me uncomfortable but I knew it could make an interesting photo.
13. Finally, in a spasm of joy, rain arrived and drenched our parched island. The intoxicating smell awakened memories that seemed distant.
14. Suddenly the world softened.
15. When the rain subsided I climbed up Goose Rock, admiring raindrop-sprinkled lichens along the path.
16. From the top of the rock the view was peaceful as the sky began to refresh itself over the Salish Sea.
17. The day before, after the rain began I drove to a lake, parked at the edge and photographed Purple loosestrife flowers under a willow tree through the car window.
18. I had a great time.
19. I changed up the colors on this one. (1/100th sec. at f3.2, manual focus somewhere between the window and the plants).
20. The wildflowers are almost gone, but asters are blooming. This one caught a few raindrops from a barely-there sprinkle that teased us on the 5th of the month.
21. Let’s not forget coffee. I’ve been enjoying sitting outside Pelican Bay Books and Cafe and reading the NY Times – the physical, papery one. It’s just not the same on a phone. Two shots of espresso with a little cream and a just-baked treat make the day complete.

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LOCAL WALKS: The World Comes Forward

What’s meant by this title is that there’s no need for pursuit; the world comes forward and meets you. It’s something akin to what photographer Paul Caponigro described:

“Gradually, some very few photographs began to make visible the overtones of that dimension I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, the magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I sensed as well as what I saw.”

Paul Caponigro, ‘Landscape’

It may seem that the world meets us more beautifully and in more interesting ways in certain places. But I think anywhere and anytime you can be receptive and effortless, it becomes apparent that the world comes forward to meet you. There’s no need to pursue photography or strain yourself, trying to grasp an elusive ideal. Get out of your own way, quiet your mind, and attend to what’s in front of you: sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest.

And there it is.

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1. A Great blue heron over Bowman Bay.

Though this philosophy applies anywhere, there’s no doubt that one of my favorite places to take a walk and see what happens is Bowman Bay. Heeding the muted, internal voice that often nudges me toward one place or another, I find myself on the road to Bowman Bay regularly.

Bowman Bay is a salt-water bay that happens to be far from the ocean; it receives water flowing through the 96-mile long, 15-mile wide Juan de Fuca Strait – the same Pacific Ocean water that sloshes around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Because of its opening to ocean water, Bowman Bay is tidal, experiencing two low and two high tides each day at its two small beaches. Crescent-shaped Bowman Bay and its evergreen-topped rocky headlands are on the southwest shore of Fidalgo Island, where a west-southwest exposure means occasional strong windstorms and a rich upswell of nutrients.

Decades ago, a fish hatchery operated here. Besides ponds and buildings, the enterprise was responsible for “armoring” the beach: a quarter of the shoreline was “protected” by dumping 2,000 tons of stone on it. This is destructive to a shoreline’s natural processes but happily, most of the bulkhead was removed when work was done to restore the shoreline to its natural state. A pier built long ago is still in place but otherwise, few traces of the fish hatchery remain. Native plants and immense driftwood logs that wash ashore with the tides are creating a more natural habitat. All this is protected now because Bowman Bay is part of a state park called Deception Pass.

What I enjoy about this place is impossible to put into words, but it starts with the profoundly relaxing experience of being near open water. Then there’s the light that bounces off the water – crystal clear or foggy, bright and sunny or dark and brooding, it’s always different from the last time I visited. The ground beneath my feet varies from evergreen forest to pebbly beach, and from wetland edge to sandy beach. And rock – there are rocks to be reckoned with here! The two “pocket beaches” are divided and flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that invite exploring. There are delicate spring wildflowers, long, flowing lichens hanging from the trees, and oddities to be searched for under rocks at the lowest tides. Of course, there’s wildlife, too: herons, kingfishers, gulls, and sea ducks abound, Pileated woodpeckers and river otters are regular, if infrequent sights. Finally, there is the air – always fresh, it sometimes wafts nose-assaulting dead seaweed scents my way but and other times warms my skin deliciously.

Here’s a sampling of photographs from this magical place – not photographs I took but photographs I received with gratitude.

2. Bowman Bay’s two beaches are united during very low tides when the sand at the bottom of a cliff is exposed. The flower-strewn path above is behind the second beach.
3. A few minutes walking through the forest past the second beach brings you to Lighthouse Point, a rocky peninsula with views of the Deception Pass bridge and more islands. This photo was made on a foggy October day.

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5. Barnacles are plentiful on rocks in the intertidal zone.
6. Wildflowers are colonizing this driftwood-studded sliver of land between a beach and a wetland. This is Puget Sound gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia).

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8. A Douglas squirrel in the roses nibbling a rose hip.

OTTERS!

Anytime I can see the river otters that make Deception Pass their home I feel lucky. This summer I had not seen them for months and assumed they were staying hidden because there have been so many people around. Last Friday that quiet voice I’ve learned to pay attention to told me to go to Bowman Bay. I was surprised at how few people were around as I followed a path behind the beach. Investigating a small wetland, I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned around to see a young-looking Douglas squirrel just an arm’s length away, with a big rose hip in its paws, nibbling it like corn on the cob. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind me. Nonchalantly, it tossed the partly-eaten rose hip away and scrambled through the thorny native roses. Maybe there was a tastier one in there somewhere. I marveled at the way its tiny feet avoided the thorns and thanked the little squirrel for letting me watch. A bit of tart fruit to balance all those cone seeds is a good diet choice, I suppose.

I walked on, climbing a steep, rock-strewn path up and over the cliff that separates the two small beaches. The sandy second one is very nice to walk on so I strolled onto it and studied the remains of the last high tide. Scanning the bay, I thought I saw them – the otters, yes! Barely visible, they swan slowly out in the bay in typical leisurely fashion: swimming in circles, coming up for air, going back under, coming up to look around…it was impossible to tell how many there were but it looked like a nice number – maybe six?

Only one other person was nearby, a woman who pulled her kayak in to rest against a piece of driftwood. It looked like the otters were heading toward the other beach so I was disappointed they were swimming away from me. But I was very happy to have seen them.

Then I realized they had changed course and were heading straight my way! I had a 60mm lens on my m4/3 camera, equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full-frame camera. It’s not a lot of reach for wildlife photography but that’s not what I do so that was all I had. Of course, when the opportunity presents itself I’m happy to click away with whatever lens I have. Later I regretted not being quick enough to locate burst mode in the camera menu or to switch to video. But it’s all good. And it was more than good as I was treated to the spectacle of eight otters coming ashore in fairly close proximity, digging in the sand (which I’ve never seen before) and generally being their amusing otter selves as I watched, enthralled.

In the slideshow the first photo is out of sequence and the rest are in order, showing how small the otters looked when I first saw them, how they gradually swam closer, came ashore in their inimitable humpy way, dug in the sand, got scared, lept back in the water, emerged again, and then ran straight across the grassy path that separates the beach from another bay behind it. I followed them, working the shutter and running through the forest to a rocky promontory with a good view of the bay they were in. Finally, I could no longer see them. All eight disappeared into the swift, turbulent waters of Deception Pass – or maybe they stayed closer to land, but I lost sight of them. I smiled a big thank you.

Slideshow below – click the arrow on the right.

(The otters’ heads are just small dots at the bottom right in the last photo. Note that these are River otters, which also live in the sea – not Sea otters, which rarely come onshore).

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9. These Douglas fir trees grow precariously on a rocky headland just past Bowman Bay, called Lighthouse Point.
10. Bullwhip kelp and seaweeds draw pictures on the beach at low tide.
11. Bullwhip kelp afloat in Bowman Bay. There’s a pile of it in the middle photo below. Patches of it can be seen floating on the water in the photo below that.

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13. A walk past Bowman Bay and around Lighthouse Point brings views of the beautiful Deception Pass Bridge, built in 1935. In this photo a Great blue heron balances on strands of Bullwhip kelp floating in the pass. Though the rocks under the bridge appear to touch, there’s actually a narrow pass of water there. A second bridge span over another water pass is to the right, out of the frame.
14. Even the crumbling old pier is attractive, both to me and to the barn swallows that nest under it. One blurry swallow flies across the water here.
15. It’s hard to resist sunset over the water.

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LOCAL WALKS: Getting to the Essence

I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.

But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.

Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.

For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.

Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.

1. To me the essence of these two intertwined objects is a soft curve. Strands of Bullwhip kelp naturally bend. Feathers can bend too. The beauty here is in the chance meeting of seaweed and feather on a sandy beach caused by the inexorable pull of the tides.
2. This Madrone tree survived a fire. Simplifying the composition down to a section of bark could express the story of the tree’s experience of fire, in color and texture.
3. Form follows function; form and function kept this bivalve going. Split in half and mirrored, the shapes appeal to me in a fundamental way, as primal as an infant’s search for the returned gaze of two eyes.
4. Everything is dry: the leaf, the strands of grass, the twigs, the sunlight. A simple oval, the fine lines of veins and grasses, and shadows: I think this is enough.

5. Finding the essence meant photographing just the curving tip of a leaf in the sun with its toothy shadow nearby and moving them to one side of the frame to show the feeling of motion implied by the curve.
6. River water in motion reflecting its surroundings is a complex phenomenon. Smoothing everything out with a quarter-second exposure keeps the eyes flowing with the current.
7. Bullwhip kelp has thick stems and broad, flat leaves. These kelp leaves washed up onto the beach in a mound of rubbery, brown ribbons. The stiff leaf blades can reach thirteen feet (4 m) long; a pile of them is a complicated, tangled mess. Simplifying the mound into a small composition and heightening the contrast made a more visually manageable image.
8. Focusing on four rocks and two squiggly lines reflects the essence of one beach on one day, during one low tide.
9. Color and form seemed to merge and be swept across the beach together on another day at low tide.
10. Madrone bark close-up is smooth but slightly grainy. Its colors range from yellow greens to deep rust, with a rainbow of possibilities in between. For me the essence of this one tree was in one small section of bark.
11. Can sheer complexity be the essence of something? Maybe, and draining the color helps keep the focus on the lines, shapes and texture.
12. The tips of two burned branches told a stark story. This seemed to me to be enough.

13. Intentional camera movement – a horizontal, handheld panning motion – blurs an already vague horizon on calm waters. That felt like the essence of what I sensed on that winter day as I stood on a rock and looked out over the water.

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You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.

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LOCAL WALKS: Summer Medley

From lush early June to parched late July….

1. A June afternoon view from Fidalgo Island’s highest point, Mt. Erie, celebrates peaceful Campbell Lake and the dramatic cliff called Roger Bluff. Toward the middle of the frame is the blue sliver of Deception, beyond it is Whidbey Island. The Salish Sea is to the right (west) and Similk and Skagit Bays lie to the east, in the upper left of the frame.
2. Speaking of a celebration, let’s celebrate the last rainfall that I can remember – on June 6th.
3. This orchid flower, one of about a dozen on the stalk, is about the size of your fingernail. Spotted coralroot (Coralrhizza maculata) lacks chlorophyll – you’ll search in vain for a green leaf on this plant. Happiest in moderately moist woodlands, the odd flower depends on fungi mycellium (mushroom “roots”) for energy. A pure white lip like the one here is unusual; normally they have maroon spots. The flowers tend to hide in plain sight with their dark red color and preference for dappled shade; Robert Frost used that feature in the poem, “On Going Unnoticed.”
4. Wild roses were already shedding petals in early June.
5. Incoming tide at West Beach, Deception Pass State Park. Travel straight out over that water for a hundred miles and you’ll be in the Pacific Ocean. You can taste the salt here, too, and the water is perennially cold.
7. On the 19th I took a walk at Little Cranberry Lake, a favorite place to unwind. One of two or three patches of Maidenhair fern that I know of on our island grows there on a cliff by the water. Just as satisfying as revisiting the little Maidenhair fern colony was seeing this alder tree bend to caress the lake.
8. Weedy little Wall lettuce (Mycelis muralis), an officially noxious weed in Washington State, actually looked pretty that day, with all the blooms closed except one. Especially with spot metering.
9. It’s the Fourth of July weekend and I’m back at the beach, foolishly. Yes, it’s crowded but at least I came in the morning. The dunes beckoned and hardly anyone was back there. This portly pear of a rock and its friendly neighbors were probably tossed up here long ago. They were arranged as harmoniously as a chamber quartet, waiting to be discovered by a passing human, photographed, and now seen by you.
10. You can see them in the distance, the dog walkers, the compulsive driftwood shelter-builders, the beachcombers and stone skippers. Who am I to covet a lonely shoreline?
11. A week later we took a long, low-tide walk at Cornet Bay, on the bay side of the park. Fishing boats and tour boats plied the water and later we found out that orcas were seen right there, that afternoon. How I long to see them! But we were happy with the hulking, twisted driftwood logs, the strands of eelgrass that decorated driftwood branches like bizarre giant’s party hats, the clear views of snow-covered Mt. Baker, and the warm sun on our backs.

12. July is the month my beloved Rein orchids begin to bloom. This one was on a bald in the forest near Heart Lake, on protected land that the city of Anacortes (the only city on Fidalgo island) set aside long ago for community recreational use. This is probably Flat-spurred piperia, Platanthera transversa. These delicate orchids are often overlooked by trail-walkers.
13. On one of my walks that week I ran into a botanist looking for unusual plants with his dog at his side. He told me about a bald near a dead-end road, so the next day I pulled my car over to the side of the raod near the end, away from the “No Parking” signs, hoping I wouldn’t anger the homeowners. The bald wasn’t hard to find – just a short walk down an old dirt road behind a gate. I found a few beautiful Rein orchid specimens there, a lovely view, and this fortuitous arrangement of fallen Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) leaves and Reindeer lichen (Claytonia sp.).
14. The road to the bald is set with Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum).
15. Last Sunday the clouds were busy.
16. Clear skies have been the rule this month and Monday was no exception. With a group of five friends, we hired a boat to take us to Cypress Island, a large, mostly state-owned island that is only reachable by boat. What a day it was! Here, two members of our group look across the Salish Sea at Orcas Island and beyond to Canadian waters. This is Eagle Cliff, a 1.3 mile hike through the woods from Pelican bay, where we were dropped off. We climbed 752 feet in that 1.3 miles and I was panting. There is no water on the island so you have to carry all you’ll need for the day. Oh, and the food, too! Having lunch up here was beyond relaxing.
17. We arrived at our pick-up spot in plenty of time. Two of us took of our shoes and socks and stood in the cold water – brr! But refreshing! – while one wandered the beach and the rest of the party sat on the driftwood and talked as the sun sank behind us.
18. The ride back to Fidalgo was delightful, with warm sun, spectacular views of Mt. Baker, the wake curving behind us, and thoughts of dinner in town…

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The Pacific Northwest is known for rain and beautiful scenery but the rain has been scarce the last few months. We are normally dry in summer but not this dry, not this early (there was precious little rain in June and May wasn’t as wet as it should have been). Most of our state, as well as the rest of the American West, is in a state of drought. For me, it means adjusting my expectations and finding beauty in a different world. I can do that. And we’ll get through this.

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ON THE EDGE

About thirty years ago I read a novel – I can’t remember the name or author – which presented the idea that events occur mostly on the edges of things. The story followed a man whose life careened from event to event in a kind of pinball fashion. The idea that it’s all happening on the edges made sense to me. I knew that plants, birds and animals are more abundant where different habitats meet. Most ocean life exists in the narrow band where continents meet the sea, not far out in the middle. Explore the middle of a field, a forest, or a large body of water, then follow the edge where a field borders a forest. Walk the seashore, where land meets water and spend time at an estuary, where salt and fresh water mix. You’ll find an increase in biodiversity along all of those edges.

I suspect this principle can be applied to many phenomena, not just ecosystems. Think about the importance of interdisciplinary studies, or the uptick in traffic accidents at intersections. The word “liminal” comes to mind. Here are some definitions:

  • “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.”
  • “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”
  • “of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”

Two years ago I began a post about this idea of activity on the edges of things and liminal states, a concept that felt close to home. In the post, which I’ve unearthed from the drafts folder, I wrote, “I feel I’m in a liminal state these days…I’m entering new waters, with memories of another life still fresh and hovering just below consciousness.”

I had been taking photos at parks and preserves along the water’s edge and wondered if I was drawn to those liminal spaces because I felt I was on a threshold, too. I wrote, “It’s a loose place to be, this liminal space. The knots are undone, the ropes frayed, the anchor up. I’m not yet fully here, nor am I where I used to be. Maybe it’s a little like this”:

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It felt like the photo below: “The leaves are green and the vine looks healthy, but many leaves have fallen off. They litter the pavement with the rest of the detritus; their usefulness is past. Perhaps there’s a sorting process going on with me, too, a shedding of the old skin in preparation for a new state of being.”

The picture below resonated too. “Everything looks like it has been discarded but the objects are still kept under the roof of a roadside shed. The old wood, the tarp, and the rope no longer serve their original functions but the rope appears to be fastened under that musty shroud, anchoring into the dark unknown. Likewise, parts of my life seem to be changing their functions. I’m not sure if I’ll need them or not.”

I thought, “This liminal state is like being inside an old barn full of forgotten tools, looking at the lush, vibrant greenery just outside the door. The focus is on growing the future while I’m standing in the dim shadows of the past.”

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I included one more image in that post, writing, “I’m taking a picture of a photograph on display at an art festival. There are too many reflections to make a good likeness of the work but I take the picture anyway, because as the integrity of the original image disappears a new, in-between image gels – a liminal one. Perhaps it’s even more interesting. Will the figure on the left disappear into that mystical light at the end of the track?”

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These five photographs tell stories that I interpreted a certain way back then. Chances are good that a few of them could tell you other stories. I don’t remember what happened with my story – how were those feelings of being in-between resolved? At the time I was in the midst of planning a three-week trip through four countries, none of which I’d been to before. Part of me was home at my desk, solidifying plans while another part of me was already roaming abroad. I was on the edge. That trip sent me across it!

There’s an old therapist’s technique of replying “Why now?” when a patient brings up an event that occurred long ago. I’m asking myself why a post that sat in the drafts folder for two years resonates now. Maybe it’s not as much a personal feeling as a universal one. There’s something about the nebulous, adrift feeling we have when major transitions occur that might resonate with most of us right now, simply because of the state of the world. The assumptions about the world we live in have been turned inside out in the last year and a half. We thought we’d be “over it” by now, or at least well into the normalcy we recall from pre-Covid-19 days, but that seems to be a distant dream. Instead of returning to the solid ground of life-as-usual, we have the Delta variant, millions of people who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, virus flare-ups and up-ticks, and foreboding, all layered on top of the daily stew of melancholy news. Nothing seems certain. The rug has been pulled out from under us, only to be replaced with a tipsy magic carpet hurtling us into unknown territory.

I don’t know if there are photographs in my catalog that depict this uncertain state and right now I’m not looking for any. I think I’d rather photograph what nourishes me. Maybe you feel that way, too.

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RETRACING MY STEPS

As much as I like novelty, there is something deeply satisfying about the act of retracing my steps through familiar landscapes. Walking the same trails repeatedly can slowly turn a place into a sanctuary. I may say to myself that I’m going out to see what has changed since the last walk but in fact, I’m nourished as much by following my usual pathways as I am by discovering a new flower. Every path has a rhythm: ups and downs, bends and straightaways, enclosed and open spaces. These rhythms sink into the grooves of my soul, digging pathway echos that support me in some obscure way.

Walking the trails, I pick my way over rough rocks and twisted roots, my feet turning just so to fit the dirt-filled pockets where countless feet went before me. I sniff the air, inhaling the warm scent of sun-baked fir needles or wrinkling my nose at the pungent odor of rotting piles of sea lettuce left by the tide. Casting my eyes from side to side as I walk, I listen as Song sparrows throw bright melodies across fields and eagles pierce the air with sharp, quickly tumbling whistles. My knee twinges as I climb a steep section, trying to keep my weight centered. My eyes alight on visual anomalies: “Hmm, is that interesting? No, not really. Yes – there!” I try to keep my intentions loose and inchoate so I can welcome everything. There’s no reason to narrow my experience by adhering to an agenda. It’s enough to simply be here. Again.

Here’s a collection of photos from a few familiar places that I frequent.

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4. March storm clouds brew up some drama over the Salish Sea.

5. The bark of the Madrona or Arbutus tree makes sunset colors.

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7. Winter is a good time to focus on mosses and lichens. The ropy moss at the top is probably a Seliginella, the black-spotted lichen is a Peltigera and the pale, branched lichens are Reindeer lichen, a kind of Cladonia.

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10. Someone is lucky to live there, on the edge of the Park. What a view!

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13. The picnic tables are bare on a Tuesday afternoon in June.
14. Another Madrona tree.
15. Quiet skies over Bowman Bay on an early May morning.

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17. Straight reality – nothing augmented or artificial about it. Good stuff.

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It’s the Fourth of July in America, a day to mark the independent thinking and action of a group of idealistic people that led to this country’s freedom. As we celebrate, let’s not forget our interdependence with one another and with earth.

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STILL PHOTOGRAPHY?

The other day I saw an ad in The New York Review of Books for a book called Theory of the Earth by philosopher Thomas Nail. The title caught my eye, and, as so often happens in the age of the internet, that led me to more books, articles and interviews. Nail writes about human migration, borders, and the philosophy of movement. As someone who has moved house many times and generally enjoys being on the move, I think about movement from time to time, so Nail’s project to reconfigure philosophy from the point of view of movement intrigued me.

If I understand correctly, Nail sees phenomena as matter in motion and time as a process or effect of matter in motion. We live in a universe of change. Our world is not a closed set of discrete things and dates, but rather one of open processes. Humans are not external to life, observing it from afar. Space and time are not “things” as many of us were taught to construe them. Nail claims that not only is matter always in motion, but there is no separate force enacting this continuous flux. Rather, reality simply IS motion: it’s all patterns of interactions.

I’ll admit that a deep dive into Nail’s writing can leave me gasping and confused. Yet, I find inspiration there. In my view, philosophy can touch on every part of our existence, including our enjoyment of images. Thinking philosophically stretches the mind and encourages us to think critically, a practice that promotes creativity, curiosity, and clarity.

Looking at a painting isn’t the passive activity you might suppose. Even the heat emanating from your body transforms the painting, which vibrates waves of photons as it decays in a constant feedback loop with the environment. There is a “vast iceberg of material consequences” to everything we do, including the seemingly passive activity of aesthetic appreciation.

We may call photographs still pictures, but in fact, they are motion itself: the motion of a body acting in space, gathering impressions, and operating a camera; the motion of the camera, the subject being photographed, and a brain thinking, sensing, feeling. A digital photograph involves the motion of a computer as images are modified and light bounces around the screen – and the room! Photographs are light moving through the air, through the camera, on the screen, inside our eyes. Far from being separate, stable objects or mere copies of phenomena, photographs involve fluidity and complexity – more than we imagine.

Doesn’t a photograph also involve the motion of your brain, your breath, your heart? Yes. Mine too.

There is a group of photographs below. They’re here because I chose to bring them together and you are choosing to look. It’s an interactive process. There’s nothing static about it.

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Pure motion and transformation,

there is nothing still

about still photography. It is material,

real, and

constantly becoming:

Such a delight, this very world

in motion.

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1. Bullwhip kelp afloat on an incoming tide.
2. Rotating the polarizing filter, I shifted the view. Motion = transformation.

3. Shadows and reflections. Far more than a static representation or an artifact of time, the image is in your brain and you are interacting with it.
4. It can be hard to free oneself from the idea that an image is a fixed thing.
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6. The patterns in this rock appear to shimmer but the rock doesn’t have to shimmer to be in motion. There is probably mechanical, chemical and thermal movement even in the seemingly solid rock. And there’s motion in the photograph.
7. Moving the camera as I press the shutter may make it easier to think of a photograph as pure motion.
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10. Intentional camera movement again, expressing something poignant in the dynamics of the flower-filled swamp.

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Garden Reveries

What follows is a group of photographs made at gardens in and around New York City in late spring. We spent more time than I thought we would visiting public gardens on our trip back east. Given the vicissitudes of the trip, that was a good thing.

If you know me, you know not to expect an array of colorful flower pictures. I’m as likely to get caught up in the way petals fall onto the sidewalk as I am to admire the flowers.

I photographed garden structures: a bamboo fence, a rose trellis, conservatory windows. And carp – I love to watch fish as they move nearer and farther from the water’s surface, their bodies curving gracefully. There are leaf studies because I could be happy doing those for the rest of my life. A shadow and a reflection or two are here because hinting at rather than spelling out a scene always intrigues me. In that vein several photographs picture something seen behind or through something else. I photographed the way the shape of a Japanese maple tree interacted visually with a cloud-strewn sky. And there’s a flower, too – a lovely peony. But not in color.

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Key:

From an afternoon with John Todaro at Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, NY: #1, 3 – 6, 13, 19.

From a stroll on the grounds of Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn, NY: #2, 14.

From a leisurely morning at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY: #7 – 10, 16, 17.

From a walk in Norman J. Levy Park, Merrick, NY: #11, 12, 15.

From a walk at Tackapausha Preserve, Massapequa, NY: #18.

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A Pleasure Garden

That’s our earth. I never tire of it, especially at this time of year, when life is burgeoning with bright energy. Well, if I’m honest I do tire of my surroundings in winter but not for long, and any lingering weariness evaporates come spring.

What is this activity of going outside and making photographs all about? Part compulsion, part joyful play, part intellectually demanding work, it’s what I center my life around. I doubt all the motivating factors are the same for those of us who go out and make pictures, but that zing of energy we feel when the black box is cradled in our hands and our eyes are engaging with the landscape – that must be a fundamental feeling we have in common.

Two other parts of the process are vital to me: the act of reviewing, then processing images and the act of sharing the results. These three activities – exploring the world with a camera, nudging the photos one way or another to my liking, and placing them where others can see them, keep me going. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

In the spirit of earth as pleasure garden, here is a slew of recent images, or maybe it’s a stew – yes, a delectable, earthy stew of greens and oranges and tasty morsels and deep, dark delicious things.

(The photographs below were made within 10 minutes of home, except the first two and one other, which are from a forest park about an hour’s drive away, closer to the mountains).

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Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”

Ellen Meloy; The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky, 2003. As seen in Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.

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The possibility of numbering each photo strangely disappeared when I was putting this post together. Here’s a list.

1) Rockport State Park, with the Skagit River in the background. This photo and #2 were made with an iPhone.

2) Stately Douglas fir trees.

3) A bark study of an old Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).

4) Overlapping and interweaving Bracken fern fronds (Pteridium aquilinum).

5) A somber look at low tide on an April evening. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

6) Afternoon sunbeams light up a tiny, exquisite Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). IT was absolutely worth sitting in the forest duff for.

7) A young Coralroot flower stalk (Corallorhiza maculatum). These flowers are parasitic orchids that lack chlorophyll and get their nourishment from decaying matter and soil fungi. This species of Coralroot normally has spots on the labellum (lower lip of the flower) but these had no spots. (Trust me – the photo shows only a sliver of the flower’s inside). This flower is probably a rare variant called Ozette coralroot.

8) Looking toward the San Juan Islands from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. A winter wind storm toppled several Douglas firs here. They will continue to support plenty of life on the ground. iPhone photo.

9) A tangle of Chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) framed by grasses. Most of the pretty spring flowers on Fidalgo Island are small. They tend to grow up through tangles of fallen branches, dry grass, fir cones and other wind-blown detritus. It can make flowers challenging to photograph but the effect can be artful, too.

10) Grasses on a breezy June day at Sugarloaf, Fidalgo’s second-highest summit.

11) A pair of Mallard ducks swims away from the shoreline of Little Cranberry Lake. Sorry!

12) Bowman Bay beach detritus includes a dead Purple shore crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) and various seaweeds.

13) A comically unfurling Sword fern (Polystichum munitum).

14) Another Sword fern fiddlehead, this one still tightly coiled.

15) A different kind of fern unfurling; probably Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The photo was taken using a vintage 50mm f 1.4 Super Takumar lens.

16) The graceful bud of a Chocolate or Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) a western North America native plant whose bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. The photo was made with an Olympus 60mm F 2.8 macro lens and processed in Lightroom with a split tone preset and additional tweaks.

17) Madrona bark always delights me.

18) New leaves on a Vine maple (Acer circinatum). Circinatum means round, as in the rounded shape of the leaf, in spite of the many pointed lobes. Common west of the Cascades, for some reason these beautiful, small trees do not grow wild here or on the San Juan Islands. The photo was taken at Rockport State Park, about an hour from Fidalgo Island.

19) A tiny hummingbird, probably Anna’s (Calypte anna) surveys its territory from the tip of a Douglas fir on Goose Rock.

20) A three-year-old, female elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) named Ellie Mae lounges on a Fidalgo Island beach. Almost extinct from hunting by the late 1800’s, Northern elephant seals are now protected and doing well. They’re deep divers so most of them live off the North American coast. Recently a small number of these large seals began spending several months each year on Whidbey Island, just to our south. A female gave birth there a few years ago and returned twice to give birth again. Ellie Mae (named by members of a marine mammal organization) is one of her progeny. For some reason she has come ashore at Fidalgo instead of Whidbey Island for the last two years.

Every year, elephant seals endure what’s called a “catastrophic molt.’ It takes about a month. As new skin and hair replace the old coat, the seals stay on land and don’t feed. Ellie Mae finished her molt at a marina on Fidalgo around the time I was in New York – but I knew nothing about this. It was a big surprise when I went for a walk at Bowman Bay a few days after I got home and saw her enjoying the warm afternoon sun on the beach. Apparently, she decided to swim over to Bowman Bay the night before. Someone must have seen her and contacted the marine mammal rescue network. She didn’t need rescuing but the volunteers are very good at keeping visitors at a safe distance while answering lots of questions.

She looked so comfortable! Though I didn’t have a very long lens with me, I was grateful for the rare opportunity to observe and photograph one of these seals. She opened her eyes and snorted like a dog, then she rolled over a few times. After a while I think the “handlers” wanted to go home. It was 4pm. They didn’t want to leave her alone on a public beach. Seals move faster than you think and these heavyweights can do real damage if they feel threatened. So they gently shooed her back into the water. She was reluctant, but into the water she went, with what I couldn’t help feeling was an accusatory backward look at the volunteers. Ahh, her sunny day on the beach had been good!

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