LOCAL WALKS: Watching the Weather

1. After sunset, tide running out, Deception Pass. Late December.

Looking back over the past six weeks it seems like we’ve come full circle: in early December the skies were gray and drizzly and temperatures were moderate. Then over the holidays, a long week of sub-freezing, snowy weather settled in. Now we’re back to the cool, damp, cloudy days that typify Pacific Northwest winter weather.

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2. Sunset on a calm day, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.

What a treat the bright, White Christmas was, at least for those of us who weren’t traveling. When icy temperatures continued all week I was reminded of my New York childhood. Everything changed – the air was sharp and fresh, the landscapes enchanting, and the roads – well, our road was hardly plowed. But we’re both cold-weather veterans who’ve driven in far worse conditions so the dicey roads didn’t stop us from going out.

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3. Snowfall on Christmas Day, at home.
4. Our road, snapped with an iPhone between Christmas and the New Year.

But the cold! I’m not used to it anymore! Ten years in the Pacific Northwest has spoiled me. So I bought a pair of warmer gloves and packs of toe warmers that stick to the bottom of your socks and keep your feet warm for hours. That helped, but my fingers were just too stiff with cold to cooperate. The pervasive bright light that snow creates threw me off, too. Many of my photographs were disappointing. Still, I haven’t enjoyed the simple activity of looking out the windows so much in a long time. I would check the little stacks of snow on the deck railing to see if they had grown tall with a new layer or collapsed into pancaked shapes. I admired and worried about the Douglas fir trees laden with snow, their branches bent to the ground. The birds were ravenous, fluttering down from the trees and swarming like ants the minute I tossed seed onto the ground. In the morning there were fine little birds’ foot tracks and delicate wing imprints on the thin layer of snow that blew onto the concrete. The whole house filled with blue-white light, a boon to my mood. Winter is often very dark in this land of towering, dense stands of evergreens.

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5. Ice in the wetland at Bowman Bay. Early January.
6. As above.
7. Looking down from the bridge at Deception Pass. Late December.
8. Grasses underwater, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.
9. Surf scoters on choppy water, Washington Park. Early January.

News stories of atmospheric rivers bringing high winds and extra-high tides became routine but the storms’ effects were anything but routine. One day during a wind event I drove down to Rosario Beach, a rocky crescent of shoreline in Deception Pass State Park. Only one other car was in the lot. The noise of waves pounding the beach was deafening as I carefully made my way down the path to the beach. I could barely stand up, the wind was so fierce. Gulls sliced the air, wooden debris was smashed to bits at my feet, and walls of water tossed huge logs back and forth in a furious maelstrom. When white objects flew past me I thought, what little birds are those? None of our small birds are white. Then I realized the missiles were big chunks of foam the wind picked up from the wavetops and flung high across the trail into the bay on the other side. I didn’t stay long that day but I was glad I witnessed nature grabbing the upper hand with such unconditional determination.

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10. Slideshow: A wind-driven king tide throws heavy logs around at Rosario Beach. Early January.

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11. Logs and a tangle of Bullwhip kelp thrown onto Bowman Bay. Early January.
12. Blades of kelp floating on a calmer day, Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
13. Bullwhip kelp wrapped around a log by a rambunctious tide. Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
14. Red-tailed hawk, Campbell Lake. Mid-January.

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Eventually, the snow was confined to a few speckled patches in shady spots and the lake ice shrank to a smooth necklace on the shoreline. Temperatures returned to normal and numb fingers became a memory. We’re back to drizzly rains giving way to clouds, occasional fog, and sunbreaks (the sun only shines all day in summer here so we enjoy our sun in small doses that we call sunbreaks). The days are getting longer, the holidays are over, and a new year has begun. The dark cloud of discouragement that overtook me toward the end of the year has lifted. In my gut, just as the birds and animals do, I sense the climb toward spring.

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15. Calmer days. A hilltop path through the woods. Photo made with intentional camera movement. Mid-January.
16. Old road on Ginnett Hill. Photograph made with slight intentional camera movement. Mid-January.

17. Fog on Lottie Bay. Mid-January.
18. Fog at Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
19. Fog, Deception Pass Bridge from Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
20. Ice on Pass Lake. Late December.

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ENCOUNTERING the SUBJECT

What’s the difference between a sculpture given pride of place in a museum and a tree trunk washed ashore after being sculpted by countless tides? One is human-made, one isn’t, the places where we see them are nothing alike, and we attach very different meanings to each object. You can probably think of other differences. But what if we untangle the threads that make up the answers and see what’s left? Perhaps finally, the object itself is all that remains, without any stories “about” it.

1. Amida Buddha; Japanese, circa 1130.
2. Driftwood log; 12/22/21.

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What I’m talking about is the idea of removing layers of received wisdom from the experience of seeing, the encounter with the subject. A few weeks ago I photographed a handful of objects at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Essentially my approach to looking at art objects isn’t so different from my approach to looking at objects anywhere. That afternoon I didn’t ponder who made the work, why it was made, or how it fits into history. Those are good questions, no doubt. But I prefer to encounter art more directly. After all, the objects I was looking at were free from expectations or ideas about me. So, to the degree my mind was open, maybe I could approach them on the same terms, without distracting preconceptions.

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3. Detail, Buddhist ceremonial banner.
4. Bullwhip kelp; 12/22/21.

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Objects appear in my visual field as form, light, color, texture, structure, pattern, and perhaps other qualifiers that haven’t occurred to me. I enjoy taking them in on those terms. When I roam the landscape it’s the same: form, light, color, and texture present themselves in various guises. There’s no need to include extraneous thoughts (not that I don’t torture myself trying to remember the names of plants). Staying with the physicality of objects, leaving concepts and projections out of the relationship, one can embody a fresh appreciation of the world.

One thing that’s enjoyable about a museum experience is that the objects on display are presented with enough space around them to allow the viewer to rest in the encounter with the subject, to give oneself over to it. Focusing on objects individually, one after the other in conscious appreciation of their particularity, our attention is honed and heightened. I’ve noticed that after I walk out the museum door the experience doesn’t stop. I find I’m attending to the makeup of everyday objects in a deeper way. I’m more engaged with everything. In fact, even in the museum I often see chairs, shadows, and other “ordinary” objects as aesthetic subjects in their own right. That’s one of the pleasures of museum-going.

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5. Near East ceramic vessel? (I didn’t check the label).
6. Valves and alarms on an industrial building; 12/24/21.

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You probably already figured out what I’m doing with the images here. Each pair of photographs includes an art object and an object I photographed outside of the museum context. Maybe the pairings can help point toward a taken-for-granted fact: valuing one object over another is a choice we make or don’t make. I’m not suggesting that the log, the kelp strands, or the industrial valves I photographed should be in a museum. I’m suggesting that whether we’re in a museum or in a desert, at home or on an elevator, it’s possible to meet the world with fresh eyes and directly experience beauty without extra layers of mental activity.

Some of these pairs may be more obviously connected than others, which I think is fine. The point is to suggest a kind of universality of perception. There’s no need to see objects in museums differently than you see the objects you photograph. Conversely, everyday objects really benefit from the close, special attention that we give museum artifacts.

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7. Calligraphy scroll, probably Japanese.
8. Angel-wing begonia flower buds; 10/08/21.

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9. Water-moon Guanyin; Chinese, 10th to late-13th century.
10. Old Bigleaf maple tree; 12/01/21.

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11. Detail, Chinese landscape painting, probably 18th century.
12. Detail, peeling bark on a Madrone tree; 01/18/21.

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13. Thousand-armed, Eleven-headed Guanyin; Chinese, 16th century.
14. Spiraling stem and leaves on a tropical plant; 11/17/21.

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2021 REFLECTIONS

Some photographers create “Best of” wrap-up posts at the end of each year and this year, I decided to join the tradition. It wasn’t a simple task – I couldn’t begin to decide which are the best photos I made this year. What’s more subjective than one’s own opinions about one’s work? Mired in indecision, I persevered and finally chose to post a collection of images from 2021 that 1) appeal to me and 2) represent the scope of the year. Many of these were posted earlier this year, a few were not.

1. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Washington; May 12th. This year I spent lots of time studying the beach at low tide.

Reviewing the year’s work got me thinking about what I do here on WordPress. I don’t post individual images, though many photographers I admire do. There’s a lot to be said for posting single images; the viewer’s attention is fully centered on one photograph, with no distractions. But I like to create posts that can be experienced more like a short story or a film short focused on a particular theme. Often my subject is the observations I glean on a local walk but increasingly I’m drawn to concept pieces with images and text. The interplay of ideas and images intrigues me and the challenge of balancing text and photograph so neither detracts from the other keeps me engaged.

Because I spend a lot of time constructing these visual narratives, I tend to see and think about my photos in groups. How they relate can be more important than how they stand alone. Typically some photographs are like main characters, moving an idea forward, while others play supporting roles. I enjoy the flow that a series of images can create as the photographs “speak” to one another through qualities like color, tone, subject, scale, etc. Composing a “Best of 2021” series is challenging because there isn’t one idea or one place to represent – over the course of twelve months, there have been many ideas and (in a year of limited travel) at least several locations. Some cohesion is lent to the group by the fact that primarily, I photograph nature. Hopefully, a personal style also lends some consistency.

2. Deception Pass State Park; April 16th. In the spring I immersed myself in local wildflowers. It’s always my happiest time of year.
3. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY; May 24th. During a trip to Massachusetts and New York, we visited several parks and gardens. Garden photography was my favorite thing to do when I lived in New York.

As I looked back over the year, I realized that it’s been a year of gear changes. During the first six weeks of 2021 I was using the camera and lenses that I had grown accustomed to for five years. Holding that camera was as familiar as holding a pencil – it even had nice wear marks on the grip. Then the unthinkable happened: the camera died. There was no fixing it. I could replace it but it was an older model so it made sense to research newer iterations of that camera. That led me to consider other cameras that take the same lenses. At least I didn’t allow myself to be tempted to switch to an entirely new system!

For about a month I wavered. I had a backup camera to use while I thought about which camera to buy. In March, I made a decision to buy an Olympus Pen-F, a slightly smaller, lighter camera than the one that broke, which was an EM-1. Smaller and lighter is a good thing and the elegant-looking Pen-F has a special way with black and white, which interests me. But I was constantly comparing it to my old camera. Small things like the feel of the on/off button bothered me; a bigger issue was that the camera is not weather resistant. Lovely as it is, the camera wasn’t quite right. In June, I ordered the newest version of the one that died, the EM-1 Mark III. (I am not made of money but I rationalized two camera purchases by the fact that I spent little money on travel for the last two years). The Mark III is weather-resistant, has excellent image stabilization, and offers a host of features that I haven’t even tried yet. The buttons and levers feel right. The ergonomics are good, too, and it’s smaller than most comparable cameras but it weighs more than I’d like. Nothing’s perfect.

After nine months, it still feels a little new to my hands and I’m a long way from being comfortably familiar with all its ins and outs. What I’ve realized this year is that a camera you’re used to is one you don’t think twice about, which allows you to concentrate on being creative with your little black box. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the camera thinking about technique. Of course, that isn’t all bad but I’m eager for this camera to be so familiar that I never pause to think about which button is where or how to quickly find a setting. I want it to be an extension of my hand in service of my vision and that’s going to take a while.

In the meantime I know I’m lucky to have a good camera that I can use anytime I want. What’s more, I’m grateful for the community of creative people with whom I share my work. Thank you for being here and thank you for all that you do – you keep me going more than you know.

4. Anacortes, Washington; February 13th. My favorite local bookstore and cafe put a positive pandemic message in their window: “We are in This Together.”
5. Bowman Bay; May 12th. Another low tide discovery.
6. Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park; March 1st. Madrone tree bark study. I’ve been photographing these trees for almost ten years.
7. David Zwirner Gallery, New York City, New York; May 21st. Sculpture by Carol Bove. Her monumental steel sculptures were a delight to photograph.
8. Volunteer Park Conservatory, Seattle, Washington; November 17th. I was excited to find smudged, foggy windows at the conservatory. This is part of a series I call “Through” that I began over ten years ago.
9. Heart Lake, Anacortes, Washington; May 15th. I photographed Fawn lilies in bloom from mid-March through mid-May.
10. Little Cranberry Lake, Fidalgo Island, Washington; November 26th. This lake is often still and glassy, with nice reflections. The photo was made with an iPhone.
11. The San Juan Islands and Rosario Strait from Sugarloaf, Fidalgo Island; April 10th. Sugarloaf is a favorite destination for wildflowers in spring and views anytime.
12. Along March Point Road, Fidalgo Island; January 17th. Grasses, with their linearity and repeating shapes, are some of my favorite subjects. Home to two oil refineries, March point also has nesting eagles, a major Great Blue heron rookery with over 600 nests, and a flock of American white pelicans in the summer.
13. Heart Lake, Anacortes; July 14th. The diminutive, delicate Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) have fascinated me ever since I began finding them tucked in out-of-the-way places all over the island.
14. Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, New York; May 25th. A high point of the trip to New York was meeting photographer John Todaro, who introduced me to this out-of-the-way garden on Long Island.
15. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island; February 5th. A dead juniper is hung up among Douglas fir trees but one day maybe it will fall into the water. Seaside junipers have become another favorite subject since I moved here in 2018.
16. Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park; July 11th. Massive logs are strewn about on many Pacific Northwest shorelines – at the ocean and all through Puget Sound. Often surrounded by detritus, they can be challenging to photograph.
17. Bowman Bay; December 3rd.
18. Ancient Lakes, Quincy, Washington; April 1st. We met friends here in the desert in eastern Washington. The scenery is strikingly different from western Washington, where I live.
19. Queens, New York; May 21st. A commuter wearing a mask waits for a train to Manhattan at the Long Island Railroad Jamaica station.
20. Bowman Bay again; November 3rd.

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SOLSTICE

Snow falls

on the mountains,

paperwhites

at my window.

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Abundant rainfall in the lowlands, deep snow in the mountains. Next year Mt. Baker will release its white coat as river water, nourishing all creatures and plants in the river delta before merging with the Salish Sea. The paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceous) will fade long before then. I will plant them outside. Maybe they will bloom again, maybe not. Cycles of life.

Happy Holidays to Everyone

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COLOR IMMERSION: Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2022

Two photo friends posted this week about the 2022 Pantone Color of the Year and, inspired by Mark Graf and Alex Kunz, I decided to join in. Another photo friend, Linda Graschoff, has just added six beautiful photos inspired by the color of the year to her latest post. At this time of year, I can really use a good dose of color! Pantone is an American company specializing in color for designers, manufacturers, and printers, among others. The company is known for its systems of color swatches that enable industries to produce precisely defined, standardized colors. For example, a country can clearly specify the shade of red on its flag or a textile designer can communicate how a color palette will look when applied to a line of clothing or an interior.

Pantone also has a Color Institute that forecasts color trends and advises companies on ways to use color to support their brands. Each year since 2000 they have announced and promoted a ‘Color of the Year’ that supposedly reflects the current state of the world, the zeitgeist. The color for 2019 was ‘Living Coral,’ a warm, convivial coral color. That was before COVID 19 – I can’t imagine coral being appropriate for this year. In fact, for 2021, two colors were announced – ‘Ultimate Gray’ and ‘Illuminating,’ a bright yellow. The idea was that people need hope (yellow) but want a firm foundation (gray) in uncertain times. Skeptics can say it’s all just blatant consumerism and I’m not running out to buy the color of the year to paint my house, but I find it interesting to look at how these trends reflect the psychology of our times.

My introduction to Pantone colors was way back in 1967 when I got my first set of Pantone color swatches as a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. We were given assignments that involved combining different Pantone colors to illustrate color design principles. I have a clear memory of the weight, texture, and opacity of the chunky little “book” of color swatches and the individual sheets of Pantone paper we used for projects. The paper felt almost like someone painted color onto each sheet. It was visceral, working with those papers, and visceral reactions to color can be very pleasant.

1. This beautiful iris sports a color very close to the 2022 Pantone Color of the Year. Seen at Kubota Gardens in Seattle, it might be Iris ensata ‘Variegata.’

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Next year’s Pantone Color of the Year was just announced: “Very Peri” is its name and 17-3938 is its number. You’re forgiven if that doesn’t tell you much! You can see it here, on Pantone’s website, where you can also buy a mug or a keychain in Very Peri. To me, it’s a medium blue with enough red to push it slightly toward purple. Like in 2021, Pantone’s color choice seems to reflect the prevailing uncertainty of our world, this time with the thought that we all need courage and creativity. Pantone says, “Encompassing the qualities of the blues, yet at the same time possessing a violet-red undertone, PANTONE 17-3938 Very Peri displays a spritely, joyous attitude and dynamic presence that encourages courageous creativity and imaginative expression.”

Intrigued by the Very Periesque (Very Perish? No!) images that Mark Graf and Alex Kunz found in their archives, I scrolled through files going back ten years and came up with a bouquet of images that move in and out and around the color of the year, Very Peri. Enjoy!

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2. Iris laevigata ‘Variegata’ at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.
3. Another iris – either Iris sibirica ‘Blue King’ or I. sibirica ‘Ahrtalwein. Also seen at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
4. Anemone coronaria in a window box on a sidewalk in Edison, Washington.
5. Another sidewalk flowerbox, this time with pansies, somewhere in New Jersey.
6. These Periwinkle flowers (Vinca minor) were growing wild under a building in the ghost town of Helena, California. This could be where the name Very Peri came from.

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8. A Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
9. Delphiniums are pushed against a thick plastic sheet that’s used to keep out the cold at the flower market at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington.
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13. Wild Common camas (Camassia quamash) with Death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) and buttercups in a meadow at Washington Park,
14. Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) growing with an unidentified tree at Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle, Washington.
15. This photo was made in 2004 with my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica. I dug this little Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa lucilaea) from the lawn in front of my house so it wouldn’t be destroyed when the grass was mowed.

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Feel free to join in and post your own interpretation of the 2022 Color of the Year. I’d love to see it.

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LOCAL WALKS: Shifting Edges

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The idea that more action occurs along edges came up in a book of fiction I read about thirty years ago. I don’t remember the book’s title or author, or how the idea was developed. The story involved a man who kept noticing that there was more activity on the edges of things than in the middle. This idea really interested me. It made sense. I knew that ecologically, places where one habitat meets another – where a forest meets a field or where land meets water – are places where you can expect more activity, and often, more species diversity. That’s a generalization of course, but it fits my own experience. On a ship far out in the ocean, I saw few living beings – a few flying fish, a single gull – but on shorelines, I see many different life forms. Deep in the middle of a forest, it can get very quiet but on the edge of the woods, movement and variety predominate.

Edges are places where one thing turns into another, where states of being merge, mingle and mix. You could say edges are the primal dialectic. How about the trajectory of a person’s life? Transitions between life stages can be times of great turbulence; the middle periods may be less eventful. Certainly, in our imaginations edges are important – we fear dropping off the edge of the earth; we admire the edginess of current culture; we walk the razor-edge in dangerous times.

Photographer Brooks Jensen relates a conversation with another photographer who advised, “Watch out for the edges. Wherever there’s an edge, there’s energy. That’s what you want to be photographing.” Jensen expanded on the concept to include psychological edges, “where anger meets compassion, where compassion meets sorrow.” (Brooks Jensen; ‘Single Exposures’, 2008).

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My favorite ecological edge took a beating recently. What had been a fairly clear border between land and water was battered by strong winds associated with an “atmospheric river” – the same one that brought flooding, landslides, and destruction to our Canadian neighbors. Massive driftwood logs were tossed high up onto the beach, obliterating a trail and crushing vegetation. Tangled piles of Bullwhip kelp (a seaweed that can grow to 100′ long) were deposited at the bases of trees whose roots were exposed to the elements from erosion. Two small wetlands were breached: in one, a green haze lay on the surface of the water. Did it come from the bay or was it dredged from the wetland itself? I don’t know. In the other wetland, strands of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs floated where normally the water is clear.

This particular edge was muddled beyond belief.

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It was hard to look at. Giant-stepping over logs and ducking under a tree that fell across a trail, I told myself, “This is nature. This is what happens. It’s not a carefully tended garden.” Despite my rational explanations, it hurt to see this precious place turned upside down and inside out. I took only a few photos that day.

But I went back – of course I went back! – and things were different. I can’t say exactly why – something shifted and I found the beauty again, even amidst the destruction. A little sunlight didn’t hurt.

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5. Strands of Bullwhip kelp and a driftwood log now litter the wetland. In the lower-left corner, you can see rocks from the beach that were pushed into the wetland.
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10. The view from a hill between the two beaches and wetlands.
11. Piles of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs landed on the beach. The wetland in #5 can be glimpsed in the middle of the photo.
12. The wetland edge with Madrone trees leaning precariously over the water. The views in #1, #2 & #5 are to the right, beyond the frame.

13. A Douglas maple leaf (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) on the forest floor after a rainy morning.

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More about the lichens seen above: The green leafy-looking structures are probably Peltigera brittanica. Lichens are composite organisms; P. brittanica includes a fungus, a green alga, and a cyanobacteria. The dark dots on the green surfaces are the cyanobacteria.

The darker leafy-looking structures are another Peltigera, probably P. neopolydactyla or P. membranacea. The red-orange tips on them are spore-bearing structures called apothecia. Unlike ferns, which also have spores, these lichens can reproduce vegetatively, by breakage or by producing propagules that contain fungal tissue and green algal cells. Talk about living on the edge – lichens appear to live on the edge of comprehension! Scientists are continually revising our understanding of lichens, so what I’ve written here could change at any time.

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A philosopher’s musings about edges:

“What I have called the edge-world is not only a world composed of intricate patterns and permutations of edges; it is also a world that is itself on edge. As a consequence, each of us is pitched on a thousand edges—edges on which we shake and tremble even as we pretend to go about our lives undisturbed. Our equanimity is only skin-deep; underneath it the abysses gape open, not just at the far edge of the known world or at the base of a precipice. We are denizens of a world on edge, and we are ourselves creatures of exposed edges. This is not just a matter of being accident-prone or vulnerable as individuals. We carry risk to others, endangering their lives as well as our own. Whole populations of human beings have been decimated by their fellow humans. Many animal and bird species have been rendered extinct because of human actions in the Anthropocene. Now we are on the verge of making ourselves extinct if humanly induced climate change takes its full vengeance. There is no way to exist on earth, no alternative path, other than to follow the edges that guide us even as they expose us to risk at every turn. We must take such exposure into account, learning how to identify those edges that are likely to lead us astray: each of us exists on a perpetual visual cliff. Some edges bring us to an unwelcome fate for which we are not adequately prepared: on these I have focused in this epilogue. Instead of trying to forget them or merely regret them, we must think on them, reflecting on what they portend. Becoming wary of certain edges, we can come to trust other edges that will configure our life-worlds in ways that are both more constructive and more creative. These more auspicious edges point the way for us, incisively even if not infallibly. Thoughtfully traversed, they are able to liberate us, indicating directions with the potential to save us from our own destructive and self-destructive ventures”

Edward S. Casey: The World on Edge. Indiana University Press, 2017.

from Phenomenological Reviews

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JUST LOOKING 2

The photos may seem random but, not quite. It’s hard to put into words what connects them, but in my mind, it’s more than color, texture, or tone. It has to do with a sensibility that tries to find beauty everywhere.

Just Looking 1, from February 2021, is here.

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  1. A drainage ditch connecting Fidalgo and Similk Bays. Fidalgo Island, Washington.
  2. Sidewalk shadows. Anacortes, Washington.
  3. Five looks at my old teapot.
  4. South March Point Road railroad crossing. Fidalgo Island.
  5. Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophylla) on a frosty morning.
  6. Closeup of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) leaves.
  7. Reflections on the door of a cabinet with an antique blown-glass vessel inside.
  8. Detail of a drawing by Grace Knowlton (1932-2020) seen in 2008 at a show in Garrison, New York. Looking at drawing, painting and sculpture informs my work and life.
  9. A plastic bag found on the side of the road, with Bigleaf maple leaves.
  10. A foggy afternoon on March Point, Fidalgo Island.
  11. Cattle in the fog on March Point.
  12. After a dispute among four Bald eagles, the victor flies off with the spoils: a freshly-killed rabbit. March Point.
  13. Weathered boards on a shack that was torn down. Fidalgo Island.
  14. A mixed media ceramic sculpture at San Juan Islands Art Museum. Friday Harbor, Washington.
  15. Low tide on a foggy day at Similk Bay, Fidalgo Island.
  16. Flooded fields on Bayview-Edison Road, Bow, Washington.

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“Is it possible to celebrate the innate wild beauty of the indifferent universe while acknowledging one’s inevitable disappearance?”

John Yau. From a review in The Democracy of Abstraction

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GLASSHOUSE IMPRESSIONS

This week we headed into Seattle to meet friends at a historic Victorian-style conservatory. It had been years since any of us had been there so everyone was looking forward to wandering through the glasshouse greenery together. The opportunity to photograph in a conservatory again was very exciting – the last time I visited one must have been in 2019, in Leiden, Netherlands. We live a fair distance from urban centers and many public spaces were closed due to pandemic restrictions, so visiting glasshouses has not been in the cards for several years. This trip was a shot in the arm, even if our favorite part of the conservatory, the cactus house, was closed. Wearing a mask in a warm, humid environment is tedious, as is using a camera while wearing a mask. But nothing’s perfect and we’re grateful for the pleasures we have, particularly when we can share them with friends. Here’s a group of photographs from the day, along with a few words about conservatories I’ve known over the years.

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Whether you call them conservatories, glasshouses, or greenhouses, they are some of my favorite places in the world. They age beautifully; the example at Volunteer Park is over a hundred years old and seems to look better all the time. (I’m glad I’m not the one responsible for maintenance!) One of the gifts of urban living is being able to visit a conservatory in cold weather – a house made of glass, filled with plants, warm and fragrant with life – what could be a better antidote to the winter blues? Growing up, I never had that experience but in my 30s, I began to get familiar with magical crystal palaces where plants are nurtured to provide visitors with exotic, out-of-season pleasures.

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For a few years when I was in my mid-thirties, I worked at a New York City public garden called Wave Hill. The greenhouses at Wave Hill contain choice collections of cacti, succulents, and alpine plants but I was busy with the task of developing the garden’s first visitor cafe. The lush grounds and quiet greenhouses were a pleasant backdrop to the workday that I appreciated but rarely had time to enjoy. Five or six years later, through sheer luck, I landed a temporary position at the New York Botanical Garden Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a stately Lord & Burnham design with a 90-foot-high glass dome flanked by five large houses on each side. Being behind the scenes at an iconic institution that houses major research and educational programs was a treat, even if all I was doing was the grunt work of pushing heavy wheelbarrows around and weeding the cactus gardens. I felt lucky to be there every day. Almost twenty years later I made the long pilgrimage back to the conservatory from my apartment at the other end of New York City. Waiting to hear the results of critical negotiations regarding my job with the New York State Department of Health, I calmly readied myself to accept whatever happened. The grand glasshouse was a refuge that day.

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A more modest glasshouse became a favorite place to linger when I lived in New York City’s Staten Island. The Snug Harbor Botanical Garden’s old conservatory was filled to bursting with tropical and semi-tropical plants; in fact, palm trees regularly broke through the roof windows. On weekends I spent long afternoons wandering through the gardens and conservatory, camera in hand, exploring what could be done photographically in a richly rewarding setting. Sadly, the glasshouse is now closed to the public but it still functions as a propagation house for the garden.

In 2012 when we moved to Washington State, I found two conservatories to explore: Volunteer Park in Seattle and the W.W. Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma. Every winter I devoted at least one day to luxuriate in the fresh air of a glasshouse, surrounded by exotic plants, camera in hand. In 2013 a camera club I briefly belonged to arranged an afternoon shoot at the University of Washington’s Biology Greenhouse, which isn’t normally open to visitors. What a treat that was! Now I live almost two hours from the nearest conservatory. I miss the multi-sensory delight of slow walks through warm, humid, green places, especially in the colder months. But I digress…the point is that I’ve been visiting conservatories for years. During that time I’ve evolved a particular way of being in them, seeing them, and photographing them. It’s not a typical visitor’s view. Pretty pictures of brightly-colored flowers aren’t really my thing. Instead, there are patterns and textures or views of a mechanism that cranks the windows open. My favorites are the images made by looking through the steamy, whitewash-coated windows of the conservatory.

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Seattle’s Asian Art Museum is also located in Volunteer Park. Completed in 1933 in the Arte Moderne style, the landmark building was unfortunately closed the day we were there but that didn’t prevent me from finding inspiration.

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The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 7th photos were made with a vintage lens (and adapter). The Asahi Pentax Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4 prime lens was introduced in the 1960s. An all-metal, manual focus lens, it’s bright, sharp, and is known for smooth bokeh. #10 & #12 were made with an iPhone SE.

A suite of photos made looking through conservatory windows is here. A brief post with photos from the NYBG Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is here. A winter visit to the Volunteer Park Conservatory post is here. A post about the W.W. Seymour Conservatory in Tacoma is here and more photos from the Volunteer Park and the W.W. Seymour Conservatories are here.

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BEYOND the POSTCARD VIEW

When I was first getting to know a sheltered bay near my house, I was enthralled by the scenery. The picture-perfect bay is hemmed in by rocky cliffs, making it a place apart, quiet and peaceful. The water there is fairly shallow but a deep, narrow channel just to the south brings a mix of nutrient-filled tidal waters into the bay. The ocean is almost a hundred miles away but the 15-mile wide Strait of Juan de Fuca funnels water from the Pacific all the way back to this bay. When the winds are right the waves are powerful enough to toss huge logs onto the shoreline. It’s a rich, complex habitat, much of which is hidden underwater.

On land there are crooked old Douglas firs, sinuous, orange-barked Madrone trees, and weathered, contorted logs. Herons, ducks, eagles, and kingfishers live here. There are wildflowers tucked into the cliffs and set along the trails, lichens hanging from trees and coloring the rocks, graceful drifts of dune grass, and murky wetlands hemmed with cattails. Four tides wash over the beaches each day – two high and two low – bringing countless changes: stinky blankets of sea lettuce one day, tangles of Bullwhip kelp another day, and countless stray shells and pebbles. Seals and otters make regular appearances, sticking their heads above water to look around and scope out the scene.

All this draws me back like a magnet and gradually, I’ve dug a little deeper than the postcard views that first attracted my attention. I learned that sometimes, the low tide is extra low and when that happens, two beaches that are normally separated by a rocky promontory become one as the water recedes past the base of the cliff. Among the rocks at the bottom of the cliff a careful observer can find odd, ancient creatures called chitons clinging to the dark undersides of still-damp rocks, waiting for the water to cover them up again. Low tides bring discoveries: in the height of summer, a large Lion’s mane jellyfish might wash up. And as if the beach isn’t enough, there are dramatic sunsets over the water. Even the spectacle of kayakers gently gliding away and out of sight is a treat for the eye.

As I return to this particular stretch of sand and rock, again and again, more treasures are revealed. I’ve been looking at patterns in the sand left by waves, animals, or bits of flotsam and jetsam. They’re like calligraphic messages from the world of water, traced on land for us to see, but not for long. Within hours, the tide will rise and wipe it all away. Some of these traces appear very abstract and are especially appealing. Walking here, I focus on the world at my feet, examining changes in texture and color, thinking about how this constant shifting of substances rearranges the world into new patterns, patterns that may or may not fit nicely into that familiar rectangle that my camera imposes on the world.

Then I look up and take in the wider view. Back and forth.

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1. Here is one of those extra-low tides, called a minus tide. The rocks on the left form the cliff that you normally must climb over to reach the beach in the background. By checking tide tables, you can find windows of time when more beach is exposed, a good hunting ground for patterns.
2. Just visible in the upper right are marks left by the tide. At least one of those marks was made by this strand of eelgrass (Zostera marina), a U-shaped blessing of green against a solemn beige background of fine sand.
3. It’s easy to imagine a brush making these marks. Eelgrass as gesture.
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5. This view is from just past the rocks in #1, looking in the same direction. Successive lines of sea lettuce (Ulva fenestrata) washed up with the tide. Soon the tide will turn and the seaweed will be lifted up again, added back to the endless, living stew of bay water.
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10. Always nearby, always watchful, the Great blue heron abides.
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14. Like the herons, Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are constant companions at the beach, flying about in the underbrush or flitting around the driftwood logs.
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17. In the middle, a branch, to the left and right, pieces of Bullwhip kelp.
18. This is the opposite end of the bay from #5. There’s no sand here. Instead, a steep cliff abruptly meets the water in a tumbled tangle of rocks, driftwood, and detritus. Someday that leaning Douglas fir tree will fall.

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LOCAL WALKS: Roaming ‘Round the Heart of the Island

The island I live on isn’t especially large or small; at 41 square miles (106.684 km²) there’s room for a small city of about 17,000 people, many residential neighborhoods, and a generous amount of protected public land. Hugging the edges of the island and sprawling across its middle, the preserves include two state parks, a county park, several city parks, and 2,950 acres (about 12 sq. km) of community forest lands, known as the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL). Because this land once supplied the city with its water, several lakes were protected from being developed. No industries ever polluted their shores. The forests around the lakes, however, were logged to generate extra revenue for the city. Eventually, that changed. Now, water is drawn from a river and piped onto the island and thankfully, income from the forest no longer factors into the annual city budget.

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This post focuses on Heart Lake, part of the community forest lands. Nestled into the woods near the middle of the island, Heart Lake is fed by water draining from nearby Mt. Erie, the island’s highest point. At the lake’s southern shoreline there’s a treasure: a rare bit of lowland, old-growth forest. There, dignified Douglas firs and Western redcedars preside over a hodge-podge of downed trees, unruly understory plants, knee-high ferns, and thick moss. It’s messy. This is not an orderly lumber plantation, it’s a forest that has been largely left alone to follow its own wise way.

The elevation around the lake ranges from about 340 ft. to about 580 ft. (103m – 177m) at the top of a ridge. Mt. Erie, at 1273 ft. (388m), is just across a quiet, two-lane road. For this post, we’ll stay close to the lake, on well-trodden dirt trails that wind through the trees, skirt wetlands, cross small streams, and climb up easy hills. The scenery is quietly peaceful. Perhaps the drama lies in craning your neck to glimpse the tops of the oldest trees or stepping around a mossy, fallen giant. There are wildflowers scattered about and small openings in the forest support meadows of lilies in spring. The occasional boater plies the lake, a lone heron might be seen, and squadrons of ducks patrol the water in the colder months. You might hear an owl, startle a scolding squirrel, or spy a tiny wren hopping through the underbrush. Beavers are around, as you can see from a gnawed tree or a pile of branches, but they don’t come out until after dusk.

3. Old growth Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menzieii) lean in toward the water.
4. Western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) take root in a Western redcedar stump (Thuja plicata), probably from a tree that was logged out long ago. Evergreen fronds of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) spill over the path in the background.
5. Even in November, when the forest is looking a bit ragged, there is still color because most of the trees and ferns are evergreen. Unlike the dry summer months, November is wet so the green machine thrums along in spite of the chill in the air.
6. Openings in the forest allow Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) to take root. In autumn their dinner-plate-sized leaves get caught as they fall to the forest floor. This one picked up a stray bit of light threading through the forest. The canopy above is dense so precious little light is available down here along the trails. That’s one reason why some trees begin their lives in stumps as in #4, above. Sprouting just a few feet above the forest floor gives seedlings a head start.
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I can tell you about Heart Lake, its calm water and the deep green forest around it. I trust you’ll understand the words.

But I can’t really begin to convey the complexity of what’s happening here. I don’t know how to plot the intricate relationships that knit the landscape together into one, breathing whole.

When it comes down to it, it’s the simplest thing: you go out and you walk.

You let go of your tedious thoughts and pay attention to what’s around you.

You allow the false division between “you” and everything “else” to thin and fall away.

Your feet carry you along, the sun shines or it doesn’t, you look, listen, smell, feel. That’s it.

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10. Two types of Honeysuckle (Lonicera) – orange and pink – can be found twining around the branches of small trees in the forest.
11. Two species of wild rose are common in the woods: Baldhip and Nootka. Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) prefers more sun; this one was growing close to the lake’s edge.

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13. Not only trees fall…a fragment of Douglas fir rests on an Oregon-grape (Berberis or Mahonia nervosa) plant.
14. This is probably a Red alder leaf (Alnus rubra). It rests on a piece of old wood from a fallen tree near the lake’s edge.
15. We’ve had a very rainy October this year. One day, feeling frustrated with the rain and wanting to be closer to nature, I drove to the parking lot at Heart Lake and took this photo from inside the car. A flock of ducks, perhaps recently arrived from the north, swam in the middle of the lake. Even with binoculars, I couldn’t make a positive identification through the curtain of rain.

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17. Another photo from inside the car on that rainy day; focused on the leaves instead of the window glass. Sharp focus was impossible behind the rain-soaked window but I like the softness.
18. A soup of fallen willow leaves, a little Saskatoon leaf, and grasses that grow in the muck were all floating together at the edge of the lake on this November afternoon.
19. Midwinter on Heart Lake.

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I live on and gratefully roam through the traditional, ancestral, land of two Coast Salish tribes, the Swinomish and Samish. I honor and respect their long tradition of stewardship of this beautiful land.