Exploring light and form indoors and out, in photographs made in the last two months in and near my home.
Unconcerned with digging
for inchoate connections –
(the dark creatures in opaque waters that, once elucidated, put bread on the tables of critics and academics) – I
Somehow, most of them connect anyway, linked
like dancers in a chaos of flashing
Their empty spaces, shapes and colors
bounce off one another, writing
the alphabet of all I see,
a to z.
Maybe you disagree with some of my categories. Maybe you see light and texture more where I see form. That’s fine. I’d rather make a suggestion that you disagree with than make a pronouncement that you swallow without thinking about it.
As I write we’re closing in on the Spring Equinox, that earthpause when day and night have equal sway, before the brightness overtakes darkness. There’s no doubt that the tonic of perceiving new life around us with all our senses is especially needed this year. For me, seasonal glimmers of hope began in January as the days began to lengthen. Where I live, spring takes its time, arriving in measured increments that begin early in the year and continue well into May. Instead of explosions of color or a sudden blast of warmth there are hints and glimmers arising over the course of months. In February Osoberry bushes reach for the light in forest openings, sprouting leaves and flowers that brighten the somber, deep green coniferous woods. Anna’s hummingbirds, those brave little bundles of speed that somehow overwinter here, appear far from the feeders they relied on all winter, calling “tzzip, tzzip” from the early-flowering Salmonberry bushes festooning the forest edge. Bald eagles perch proudly by the huge, messy nests they use year after year. If you’re very lucky, as we were one mid-February day, you may see a pair of them lunge, rise, swoop, rise again and lock talons high in the air, tumbling toward the ground in an extraordinary spiral before letting go at the last minute. Joe, as amazed as I was and always creative with words, said it was like a wingnut dance. Whatever you call it, we were grateful to witness the display in person – and right by the highway, as we were driving home! It was truly a proclamation of spring.
The hints and proclamations that began in February are picking up speed. Sunrises are drenched with color, birds are singing and the Bitter cherry trees have opened their snow-white buds in a frothy redemption: spring is now.
Before the cherry trees began singing diaphanous melodies in March there were other hints. On the first of the month I climbed up Goose Rock at Deception Pass State Park. The short, sometimes steep climb through the woods winded me. Just as I stepped onto the glacier-scraped bald at the top I heard the happy “chirrup, churee” of an American robin. Perched high in a Madrone tree, he faced the sun with the world spread out under his feet. As I walked toward him he gave no sign of letting up – he had an important proclamation to make.
I lingered on Goose Rock for a long time, looking for hints of the wildflowers that will soon dot the meadows and admiring pillows of moss and reindeer lichen softened by spring rain. The air was cool, no one was around, and quiet pervaded. To the west, the sun began to set behind strips of clouds over the strait. I pointed the camera directly into the sun, thinking, why not try? Then I strode back into the forest and made my way back down to the bridge at Deception Pass in fading light. Pausing underneath the bridge, I made the same photo I’ve made any number of times, this time with an iphone. Those criss-crossed girders marching into the distance are irresistible. Seeing more trash on the ground than usual, I frowned. There was more erosion, too, from an increase in foot traffic brought by the pandemic. It’s a two-edged sword, this new popularity of the outdoors: there is less privacy and more wear on the trails but there is also the possibility that more people will begin caring deeply about protecting wild places.
The next day I had an appointment in Kirkland, an hour and a half south. There was just enough time afterward for a brief walk in O.O. Denny Park, where Bigleaf maples rise from a deep ravine and a silver creek slides musically down the hill to Lake Washington. The sun was out and the air was fresh. Licorice fern fronds, firmly anchored on moss-covered tree trunks, shined acid green in the afternoon light. I didn’t have my camera but the phone worked well enough.
It was all enough.
Spring is enough,
whether in glimpses
Saturday was cool and overcast, a good day to hike a favorite route at Little Cranberry Lake in Anacortes. Following the trail through Douglas fir and Redcedar, I rounded the south end of the lake and began climbing a fire-ravaged hill. It was unnaturally quiet. Perhaps the fire that tore through here five years ago still prevents the land from welcoming as many creatures as it did before. No birds sang to remind me that spring was near and only one person passed me on the trail. A glimpse of aquamarine-colored, thorny stems shook me out of my gloom and I recalled savoring three or four tasty black raspberries from that plant last summer; the birds got a few, too.
At the peak of the hill, where Madrones consort with Douglas firs, soft green pairs of leaves hugged the ground exactly where I photographed Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) last July. The leaves will photosynthesize for the next four months, making fuel for the small flower stalks set with tiny orchid flowers that will bloom in mid-summer. It was reassuring to see them. Whatever mishegoss* is going on in this world, the seasons unfold on their own. The world is full of basic goodness just as it is full of the betrayal of innocence but orchids don’t care about that, nor do the seasons. Being amidst that great freedom from the mind’s constant business is why I return again and again to nature.
The next day I drove around March Point and pulled over to watch a flock of about 50 Common mergansers hunting together in a tight flock. Churning the choppy water of Padilla Bay in a long, thin line, they appeared to be herding schools of fish. Looking comically intent with their slicked-back crests, one bird took the lead while a few ducks dipped their heads under the water to see what was going on, then there must have been a signal I couldn’t see and they all dove at once. Seconds later they popped back up. I’ll never tire of watching that!
The setting sun turned a Bitter cherry tree’s blossoms yellow along the road and painted the dried grasses underneath it in graceful strokes. I dialed the light way down by using the camera’s spot metering mode and pointed at a bright spot in the grass. A few days earlier I had finally received a new camera that had been delayed from the Texas snowstorm. I was busy getting to know the feel of a different body in my hands and the locations of dials and buttons. It’s going to take a while!
The light was almost gone when I got back home. I raced out to photograph our own Bitter cherry tree by an intermittent creek that runs past the house. Opening the shutter to f2.8, I could see the blue cast of the creek behind the sparsely flowered branches.
On Monday I met friends who drove up from Seattle to explore Pass Island, a small island in the middle of Deception Pass that can be accessed from a staircase midspan. The island’s sheer, rocky sides drop off to churning water as it rips through the pass. I’ve never felt comfortable walking far on the trails there by myself but on this day I was with friends who knew the island – and for once, I brought a trekking pole. We were quickly rewarded with a natural hillside garden of rich purple Satin flowers, aka Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I almost teared up, seeing so many of the delicate, transient beauties that would surely be gone in a few days. Harsh sunlight made photographing the groups of flowers impossible but I managed a few photos of individual flowers.
At the end of the island we sat down for a quick snack and watched the spectacle of the rushing current grabbing passing logs and sliding them like toothpicks into a funnel of waves breaking against the rocks. Richard pointed out a yellow lichen (Polycauliona verruculifera) growing in a beautiful scallop pattern on a rock by the water. He’s been photographing that rock since 2003, recording the lichen’s slow crawl across the rock’s rough gray surface. This time he found tiny, orange cup-shaped apothecia on the lichen’s body. Apothecia are sexual reproductive structures; lichens mainly reproduce a asexually but sometimes will reproduce sexually.
We finished up the day at Sharpe Park, where my friends introduced me to a new (to me) fern, the Leathery polypody, Polypodium scouleri. I walked right by the little fern without noticing it The almost cartoonish charmer is a fern of the salt-spray zone on the Pacific coast from northern British Columbia south to Baja California. It “doesn’t belong” here, 90 miles from the coast, but maybe the fern feels at home near Fidalgo Island’s mix of fresh and Pacific Ocean water. Who knows? The island continues to surprise me. It was a good lesson, thanks to my friends, who know a thing or two.
The next day, invigorated by the discoveries on Monday’s outing, I decided to go down to the beach, Fidalgo Island-style. Tuesday brought a mix of sun and clouds and a very low tide at Bowman Bay. For once, the tide ebbed deeply in the late afternoon instead of the wee hours of the morning, which meant I could peer under rocks which are normally under water. I found snail eggs attached to a rock and delighted in interesting ripple patterns splashed across the sand. A brilliant Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum) lit up the forest along the Lighthouse Point trail but I was disappointed to find that heavy foot traffic on the meadow had crushed the few Satin flowers that tried to bloom there this year. This made me all the more grateful to have seen them blooming unmolested at Pass Island. Finally, a lone Great blue heron fishing in the bay with studied elegance was a gift.
I planned to cover the first two weeks of March here but there are already more photos than I think I should include. Flocks of Snow geese, more cherry blossoms and other early spring pleasures will have to wait. Whatever the state of the season is where you live, I hope it feels like enough. Even for a moment.
*mishegoss is a wonderfully expressive word I learned when I moved to New York City at the age of 18. It’s Yiddish slang for craziness – the kind of senselessness that’s hard to comprehend or digest.
Unless you’re on the other side of the equator, of course, in which case you may be anticipating fall. Here in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, spring teases us in March. We know it’s coming; the days are noticeably longer, the light brighter. But spring comes in fits and starts as winter lingers on.
Maybe a full immersion in April flowers would suit us now, as March gets underway. I’ve gathered a virtual bouquet of photographs taken in April, ranging from 2004 through 2020. There’s a shot of New York City rooftops from 2008, pictures from gardens in and around Seattle, and scenes from the streets of Amsterdam. There are daffodils and tulips as well as mosses and grasses. Should I arrange them in chronological order or mix them up? I’ll figure that out as I go along.
That was fast. Mix them up.
I hope you enjoyed this visual immersion into one person’s love affair with the month of April. There’s no question that every month has plenty to offer – I’m just partial to this one and I’m looking forward to greeting it again.
The lake is Heart Lake, a small, roughly heart-shaped lake on Fidalgo Island. The forest surrounds it. For a time the trees there were logged – but not all of them. Somehow a handful of giants missed the cut. The area was designated a state park but even so, a proposal to build condos around the lake was brought forward. That idea frightened the right people and finally, the lake and surrounding land received protection from the city of Anacortes. Now, this lush, precious green dot on the globe is preserved as community forest land.
That’s the story of what European-American culture has done here, but in no way is that the whole story. I invite you to enter into this landscape and recognize that part of you, a part that isn’t identified with any particular culture, knows this place. The plants and animals of Heart Lake breathe air and utilize water that travels ’round the earth. So do you. This isn’t a strange, exotic place. It isn’t “other” than you.
Give it a little time and this place will tell you a story beyond culture and words.
I delved into Heart Lake last year in a Local Walks post. This time I’m looking at the lake and forest between October and February, the quiet season.
“More powerful than any industrial plant, communities of photosynthetic creatures rearrange the elements on a planetary scale. They know how to compose liveable, breathable, nourishing worlds. As they exhale, they compose the atmosphere; as they decompose, they matter the compost and feed the soil. Holding the earth down and the sky up, they sing in nearly audible ultrasonic frequencies as they transpire, moving massive volumes of water from the depths of the earth up to the highest clouds. They cleanse the waters and nourish all other life…
…To say that forests and marine microbes form the “lungs of the earth” is an understatement. They literally breathe us into being. All cultures turn around plants’ metabolic rhythms. Plants are the substance, substrate, scaffolding, symbol, sign and sustenance…”
Natasha Myers: How to grow livable worlds: Ten (not so easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. From ABC Religion and Ethics, an Australian website for religious and ethics journalism and discussion.
Fallen objects tend to have negative associations, but is that necessary? A tree falls and begins a new life as a support for moss, fungi, insects and other life forms. Fruit falls from the tree and you pick it up; maybe you take a bite. A ship falls to the bottom of the sea and becomes a coral reef, sugar falls to the bottom of your cup, you stir it, and sip.
And what is this notion of a fall from grace? How about a graceful fall and a new beginning?
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.