On a cold January afternoon at sunset, I’m alone, but not alone – driftwood, rocks, fir trees, clouds, and seaweed, all sit with me. Diving ducks and soaring eagles turn my head, gently lapping waves quiet my mind. Separateness disappears.
On another day, Douglas fir trees and I share a wind-buffeted view of Deception Island, floating mirage-like in boundaryless waters.
One afternoon we go in search of Snow geese. Tens of thousands of them – some say over 100,000 – spend the winter feeding on agricultural fields on the mainland, about 15 minutes from home. To find them we ply the angular roads that break the fields into neat rectangles. After about ten minutes I spot a thin white line in the distance. It looks like a river reflecting light back to the sky but I am almost certain the white line is a large flock of geese. We drive toward it – straight, right, then left. There they are, perhaps two thousand of them covering the brown, muddy fields. We pull over, roll down the car windows, and watch, transfixed. After a few minutes, a signal we don’t see causes a small group to break away and take to the air with high-pitched, nasal honks. Soon the sky is filled with them, flashing black and white across the gray clouds.
When it’s time they’ll fly back to Wrangle Island, in Arcitc Russia, to breed. For now, they brighten our winter.
By the end of January, buds are swelling on the Red-flowering currant bushes. Never indecisive, they know what to do. They pace themselves with the light, incrementally growing larger and softer. Not too fast, not too slow, strong yet gentle. Qualities we can aspire to as we go about the business of our day.
Lichens come into their own during the first month of the year. Soft and swollen with moisture, Lace lichen hangs in pendulous tangles. Foliose lichens like the one below look as though they could take flight.
Sunsets needn’t be spectacular. A quiet vantage point on a hilltop perch above a channel or a sheltered spot in a rocky cove is all I need to dream myself into a deep calm on a winter afternoon.
Winter windstorms stretch strands of Lace lichen tight across twig chasms.
Driftwood logs change positions over the winter, especially when a King tide coincides with onshore winds. The massive logs are dense with water but slide some waves under them and off they go. Maybe they’ll land on another beach or maybe they’ll drift back and sit down inches from the last resting spot. When I walk down to the beach the logs appear to have been there forever, as solid as houses. But out in the middle of the channel, I see giant logs riding waves. I know they move around. I just don’t know their itinerary…
I think about my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents
and those who went before –
all of them gone to the cool earth – yet
I feel their support. The subtle threads of connection reach
the other way too, shimmering in the blood of my son, his infant twins,
When I was a little girl I watched my mother and her mother intently,
as children do. They discussed ordinary tasks: the making of gravy,
the way to set the dinner table. I sensed a deep bond
between us: three generations of women connected by
genes and blood, place and time. They taught me what beauty is –
a perfect white camelia, a tender biscuit,
a sparkling emerald, a warm smile.
The lessons buoyed me in dark times
long after their deaths
of the past.
I visited my son and his new family: twin boys,
my grandchildren. I watched as they were
held and fed,
bounced and tickled. I gazed as intensely as
I did those long years ago when I watched my mother and grandmother.
I am still learning
where beauty is
in this hard world.
The boys fell asleep and we talked about the value of art,
about being a new therapist and being new to therapy. We talked about Ukraine,
where the twins’ mother was born. She had offered to help old friends from her
school days but they spurned the idea, wanting only
money for the troops.
Revenge over comfort.
The talk turned lighter then, to family resemblances. I said I could see
my grandfather in the twins’ faces, their high foreheads, their curious, solemn eyes.
My son carries his name, a tribute to his forge-ahead energy,
endearing quirks, his confident way of moving
through life. A stubborn, self-made man, he framed out
a secure place in life for himself and his family. Now my son,
easily a foot taller than his great-grandfather and inhabiting
a different world,
dreams the same dreams,
makes them real again.
The day after the visit I waded through a box of old photos
and papers looking for pictures of “The Colonel”
(as my grandfather was called) to send to J. She was curious
about my grandfather, wanted to know more about the
mythical man whose blood runs in her children’s veins. Head bent,
I rummaged through the box and pulled out a sixty-year-old letter
typed on onionskin and dictated by my grandfather
in reply to a researcher inquiring about his background.
He said he didn’t know
what his own grandfather did for a living. Maybe
they were too preoccupied with survival in the coal mine hollows
of West Virginia to remember their forebears’ lives. But
the Colonel got out.
He did well.
In the box, a scrawled list of Paris restaurants proves it.
Penciled on hotel stationery by my grandmother
in her energetic, round script, the list tells
who you can call if you can’t find good Scotch
(their favorite drink) and which restaurant has a good view
of l’Arc de Triumph. Halfway into the box I pulled out
a glossy, black-and-white, 8×10 of the two of them
enjoying drinks with friends at a crowded Manhattan restaurant.
Smiles all around.
Leafing through the fragile papers and photographs
I sensed a subtle vapor-like energy,
an ethereal column of mist wafting through my core
ribbon-like, down to the past generations and on
to my child and grandchildren. Warm feelings
washed over me –
like the oxytocin rush I get when I hold the babies, a
visceral connection to my
And in the box there was a cherished missive from the past, a poem
my mother transcribed before she died. I’d wondered
where I put it,
worried that I’d lost it but there it was, folded in thirds just like
the first time I found it, weeks after she died.
Fifteen months of fitful struggles with pancreatic cancer
I had taken time off from work and flown down to her house
to wade through the contents, exhausting work
in the best of circumstances made harder
by the sheer number of objects. Room to room, I sorted, never expecting
to find a carefully penned poem on yellow legal paper,
folded and tucked into a dresser drawer with
my mother’s socks and stockings.
I stopped to read (she knew that would happen).
I was glad to be alone as I listened to her voice
reciting the words, threading through time,
pulling the bond tight.
A heartstab of love
from the cool, rich earth
of the grave.
To Those I Love
If I should ever leave you whom I love To go along the silent way, Grieve not, Nor speak of me with tears, But laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you there.
(I’d come – I’d come, could I but find a way! But would not tears and grief be barriers?) And when you hear a song Or see a bird I loved, Please do not let the thought of me be sad For I am loving you just as I always have You were so good to me!
There are so many things I wanted still to do
So many things to say to you Remember that I did not fear It was just leaving you that was so hard to face We cannot see beyond But this I know; I love you so ‘twas heaven here with you!
Isla Paschal Richardson
About the photographs:
All except the rock (#3) and the photo below were made using intentional camera movement (ICM). Most are one-second exposures at f22. Sometimes I moved my whole body, not just the camera, mimicking the waves coming ashore or the arcing outline of a rock. It was the day after I went through the box of papers, a day of rain and strong tides. I didn’t intend to do anything other than get outdoors between rain showers but I always have a camera with me and I wanted to do something different with it. Camera movement sprang to mind. The images seem to reflect the mood I was in – why wouldn’t they?
Did you know that in this context “lowering” rhymes with showering and was originally spelled louring? Lour is a Middle English verb meaning frown or scowl. That certainly fits the skies on a recent January afternoon.
But as often happens in this small corner of the world, that afternoon as the clouds scowled overhead, a wedge of gold hovered over the water to the southwest. The promising opening in the sky was caused by the Olympic rainshadow. The what? See the Olympic Mountain Range behind the trees in photo #2 below? When the wind blows across the Pacific Ocean from the west toward the mountains (which it often does) something interesting happens. As it pushes against the mountains and rises, the air cools. Cooler air can’t hold onto water vapor so the moisture condenses, producing rain in the lowlands and snow on the mountaintops. Then the wind travels down the other side of the mountains, warming as it goes. Now it holds the moisture, which makes the east side of the mountains much drier than the west side. A roughly oval-shaped area of dryer air results: the Olympic rainshadow.
Sunny Sequim, a town in the rainshadow, gets only 16 inches (40cm) of annual rainfall while the rainy town of Forks receives 199 inches (505cm) a year! Where I live, just outside the rainshadow, the annual precipitation is about 26 inches (66cm) and winter skies are often overcast. I’ve learned to look for brighter skies in the southwest corner of the island, closer to the rainshadow. Even if the sun isn’t quite shining there, I can often get a sweet glimpse of golden light spreading across the Salish Sea. A fifteen-minute drive from one end of the island to the other opens up an entirely different view.
That was the case on the January afternoon when most of these photos were made.
A one-way road traces a two-mile loop around the perimeter of Washington Park. Most visitors take their walks on the pavement and with few cars and varied scenery, it’s a very pleasant outing. But I prefer the tangle of trails that weave around and beyond the loop road. I pull into a rough parking place along the road, stash my backpack in the trunk, check that I have what I need in my pockets, and plunge into the woods.
Within minutes, the forest gives way to meadows and rocky outcrops with seawater views to the southwest. The golden light filtering through the trees here is as welcome on a winter afternoon as it was on summer evenings.
Here’s the lay of the land: in the center of the 220-acre park, dozens of campsites are scattered under a tall conifer forest. On the park’s north side a boat ramp and a small beach beckon families and boaters and along the western edge, a cement stairway leads to a rocky beach with a stretch of forested cliffs. My favorite part of the park is on the southern edge, where the land slopes down to the water in a series of mounds and ravines. As the terrain dips and rises, views of blue-green seawater appear and disappear. On sunny days, the light bouncing off the channel warms the trunks of rugged, weathered trees that tell stories of a landscape where the summer sun beats mercilessly and winter windstorms batter the hills with rain.
Difficult conditions make interesting habitats. The poor soil supports tiny, odd ferns in the rock crevices, a wealth of lichens, and meadows full of flowers in spring. When the summer drought shuts down the flower show, tufts of dried grass color the meadows gold. For a few months, the landscape is so parched that every step crunches something – dried leaves, sticks, grasses, lichens – even moss crumbles underfoot.
Then the autumn rains return and the landscape wakes up. Emerald green Licorice ferns uncoil, mounds of reindeer lichens puff up like clouds, and the Madrone trees glow in a rainbow of russet, orange, and lime green. This is when I like to roam the trails. With the flowers gone, twisted, contorted trees and intricate collections of detritus on the ground capture my attention. I slow down. The circuits in my brain fire up and my senses are alert to darting birds, a tapestry of color, and the play of light across the trail. Just being here is enough.
But you know I have my camera.
This post fits into two categories that I use: Local Walks and States of Being. To see more posts in these categories scroll way down and click on the category. More posts about Washington Park are here and here.
*Excellent photos of the plant and lichen in #11, photographed in Washington Park by my friend Richard Droker,are here.
Summarizing a year of photography is a daunting task and choosing the best photos of the year seems impossible. If you do choose your favorites and decide to post them, then I wonder if it’s mainly an exercise in self-congratulation. Will the photographer benefit more from the process than the reader? Having said that, I’ll admit that I only wavered for a few minutes before deciding to take a stab at it. I hope you’ll enjoy looking.
So here are some favorites from 2022. Most appeared in the blog this year, some did not. I like posting series of images that tell a story and obviously, this series can’t do that. What I’ve done instead is order the photographs so there’s a flow from one to the next. Below the photographs, you’ll see a summary of the experiences that made this year especially memorable. A slideshow accompanies the story – look for the arrow on the right.
Photographically, 2022 was a year of honing skills. I focused more on using wide-angle lenses for landscape views than I had in the past and continued experimenting with intentional camera movement. New Lightroom updates made it easy to select subjects, skies, and backgrounds or to lift the atmosphere of an image with colored highlights and shadows. I began using those edits regularly. I became more selective about what to keep and thought about how photography enables us to record scenes so easily that we often forget to consider the potential emotional impact of an image.
Trips always inspire me photographically and this year was no exception, with a memorable spring trip to the Southwest that included visits to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and best of all, Capitol Reef National Park. In October we returned to Humboldt County in northern California. It was good to see that the excellent Airbnb where we’ve stayed before, the local coffee shop, and the Mexican restaurant we like all weathered the pandemic. We explored Redwood forests, drove into the backcountry, and spent peaceful hours on spectacularly lonely beaches.
The biggest events of the year were not the trips though. They centered around the emergence of new life. At the tail end of January, a Northern elephant seal came ashore at my favorite beach and gave birth to her first pup. The area was closed off for months as Elsie Mae (born 4 years ago on a neighboring island) fed her pup, Emerson. In February I saw them and met the people who protect them, working as volunteers with the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network. I decided to join the volunteers in protecting the seals and educating the public about the first-ever Northern elephant seal born on Fidalgo Island. It was intensely busy and very rewarding. In June, Elsie Mae returned to the area to molt, requiring more hours of volunteering. Then in October, she came ashore for a rest and we wondered if she was pregnant again. Only time will tell.
In April I had a surprise from my son and his girlfriend who announced they were pregnant – with twins! Late in August, two tiny boys came into this world: my first grandchildren. It’s hard to describe how having a grandchild transforms your relationship with your own child. It gives you a very different perspective on your life, their life, and life itself. Holding the babies brought all my parental instincts back in play. Words cannot do it justice!
Sandwiched between the birth of the elephant seal pup and the momentous arrival of my own grandsons, I had an unusual experience in the forest. I was searching for orchids at one of my favorite places here on Fidalgo Island. Alone in the quiet forest, I suddenly heard a loud hissing sound and saw something jump in front of me. Startled, I realized it was a medium-sized bird, wings fully outstretched, and she – it had to be a female – was furious! She was not going to let me go any farther in that direction. I stopped, looked around, and saw two balls of fluff in the moss on the ground! I could see they were Nighthawks but I hadn’t seen a Nighthawk in many years. It was deeply moving to go eye-to-eye with this wild creature in such an unexpected encounter in the heart of the forest. I apologized to her and quickly made several photos while carefully backing away. It was a privilege to see them – this species is declining here and is not normally seen on the island. And here was a healthy Nighthawk and two chicks!
As if to make sure I understood the theme of new life, one day a doe with twin fawns walked through our yard. Then I found something unexpected in a photograph I uploaded. It was August and I had been photographing Bull-whip kelp in the park. Almost hidden in the giant kelp strands was a small, pure white Harbor seal pup! Later I learned that some Harbor seal pups are born prematurely with their lanugo, a white coat they normally lose before birth. I hope the little pup survived! My own grandchildren were also born prematurely and I see their parents devoting themselves to their care. The babies, the elephant seal pup I watched over for months, the tiny Nighthawk chicks, the baby Harbor seal – it’s been a year to take heart in new life.
Like huge swaths of the US, the Pacific Northwest was walloped with a blast of arctic air this week. Where I live, snow fell for hours, leaving about 7″ (18cm) on the ground. The white light of winter was accompanied by days of round-the-clock below-freezing temperatures, which is unusual here, especially in December.
I may have grown up with plenty of snow but, after living in the Pacific Northwest for ten-plus years, I’m not used to it anymore! Determined to get some exercise, I set out on a short, cold walk in a park by open water one afternoon. Brisk winds whipped straight across the water, waves dashed the shoreline, fir trees moaned and my extremities went numb.
But as I said, I was determined to walk – and of course, I had a camera in hand. The rhythmic scissoring of my legs over crunchy snow felt good after several sedentary days. By alternately warming each hand in a pocket to regain movement in my fingers, I was able to make a few photographs. Near an empty bench, two round, dark bird blobs bounced across the snow, looking for stray bits of anything edible. I threw a handful of peanuts from my pocket onto the ground. The sparrows wrestled with the too-large morsels but it seemed to be worth the effort. Other than a handful of bundled-up walkers, two cross-country skiers, and five sparrows, nothing but wind and waves moved.
Despite the cold, I lingered over the beauty. It’s always that way, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what discomfort we feel in the moment, it’s all forgotten when something exciting catches our eye. What caught my eye that day were the sculpted curves of snow drifts in the sinking sunlight, a patch of almost-bare ground that the snow battered with such force that every blade of grass was outlined, and sunglow on the fir trees in the forest.
Bringing my scarf up over my face, I turned back and walked as briskly as I dared on the snowy lane that was unplowed and closed to vehicles because the island’s few snowplows were urgently needed in town. Christmas lights strung carelessly in a tree by the parking lot welcomed me with the warm charm that makes me grateful to live here, away from city sophistication. Heading home in my unglamorous but dependable Ford Focus, I looked forward to a warm house, brightened by the white light of winter at the windows.
The blanket of snow has brought many pleasures. Crossing the bridgeto the mainland this week, we wondered at the beauty of a mackerel sky, clean, white fields, and the mirrored surface of the Swinomish Channel. I recorded the scene with my phone from the passenger window, closed tight against the frigid air. One day I drove around March Point and stopped for a minute to gaze over Padilla Bay, just north of the fields seen below. Ducks gathered in tight masses close to the shoreline. To the east, the clouds opened a narrow window onto snowy foothills. A skein of ducks flew silently over the bay, perhaps to spend the night huddled at the edge of a slough.
At home, a Dark-eyed junco huddled in the Redcedar tree that stands tall beside the house. The birds are so hungry this week that they only fly off at the last second when we step out of the house. It’s the briefest interruption in their all-day-meal at the suet and seed feeders. Stand still in the doorway for a few seconds and they flutter back down to the ground like autumn leaves, so close you can hear them alight. I treasure these intimate moments with wildlife. Making my way with big, soft steps into the snow, I walked back toward the woods and found a leaf that seemed to have been dipped in snow cream and rose hips with elfin snow caps. Even the deck fencing was transformed into a series of toques, ready for a bevy of chefs to place on their heads and get to work. What ingredients would they find? Perhaps cascara tree bark, rose hips, and wildflower seeds would be a start.
Reveling in the lovely, deep snowfall, I made a few more photographs before my fingers went numb again. Werner Herzog said,“The world reveals itself to those who walk.” And, I would add, to those who look. I hope your solstice holiday time, wherever you are, allows you time to walk and attend to the earth and its gifts. And speaking of gifts, thank you so much for the gift of your presence here this year.
A few weeks ago I bought a book by photographer Sam Abell from the used book store in town. I probably spend too much time there, browsing and drinking espresso, but I like an afternoon pick-me-up and the book selection is excellent. In Seeing Gardens, Sam Abell reflects on gardens all over the world, expanding the definition of a garden to include photographs of Arctic landscapes and scenes as mundane as a woman wearing a flowered scarf.
Abell’s inclusive vision got me thinking. Having worked in many gardens over the years and cultivated a few as well, there’s no question that gardens have played a major role in my life. So have wild places, from the woods behind the house where I grew up to the preserves and parks that I frequent now. Cultivated gardens are a cornerstone of civilization – the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and ancient Daoist parks in China are just a few examples. But the idea of a garden can encompass more than intentionally cultivated spaces. Seeing gardens in places where the human hand hasn’t been at work is a just matter of opening up one’s perspective. For me, gardens are just about everywhere.
Cultivated gardens took center stage in my life during certain periods; wild gardens were important at other times. As a chubby toddler, I went barefoot in the grass in a yard that bloomed with tulips and roses. Flowers were always a part of life at home. I remember black ants on white peonies, the scent of lilacs in spring, and the excitement of digging up wildflowers in the woods and bringing them home to plant by the back door. If it sounds idyllic, yes, it was.
College and work in New York City changed that. For more than ten years, gardens were something I experienced incidentally against a backdrop of stimulating, busy city life. I searched out nature when I could and that was enough. Then when I was in my 30s, I got a job at a historic New York City public garden called Wave Hill. Set on rolling hills above the Hudson River, it’s a peaceful, verdant refuge from urban life. I didn’t work in the gardens but they were never out of sight and over time, the elegant landscape informed and enlarged my relationship with nature. I still paid attention to wild places – even the smallest patch of stubborn green plants in the crack of a sidewalk won my appreciation.
A few years later I landed a temporary position at an imposing Victorian-era conservatory, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. It was basically grunt work like pushing wheelbarrows piled with cuttings through the glass houses. But being in the presence of exotic plants from all over the world was exciting and a random cactus spine in my rear end was a small price to pay for it.
My Fine Arts degree didn’t open doors to high-paying jobs but money wasn’t my primary focus. Work wasn’t a calling, it was a way to help pay the bills. In my forties, I didn’t want to be away from home all day because I had a son at home so when the conservatory job ended, I began gardening for a respected children’s book author and editor who’d sustained an injury that prevented her from working in her garden. The quiet, restorative work in small-scale flower beds around her suburban home kept me sane during troubled times. When Charlotte got better I took another gardening job, one that gave me a far more thorough education in gardening than I could have imagined. I was tasked with managing the grounds and maintaining the gardens at the country home of two top-of-the-line New York interior designers. A Cy Twombly painting graced their living room, finicky delphiniums bloomed in the gardens, and the boxwood hedges had to be wrapped in burlap every winter to prevent freezing and burnt foliage. The topiary trees required precision cuts while standing on a ladder and the greenhouse had to be checked after snowstorms to be sure the power was on and precious specimens were intact. Perfection was the expectation. I was in way over my head.
Once I was asked to find out how a striking fountain the owners saw at a neighboring estate was installed because they wanted one like it. That neighbor was the controversial philanthropist George Soros so discretion was critical. Armed with a little New York chutzpah, I drove straight onto the estate and located the property manager. Carefully approaching him with genuine humility, I found he was surprisingly generous with information and advice. Before too long, I found myself running a major dredging operation in one corner of the estate. The pond where the fountain was to be located had to be excavated to keep the motor underwater. The project put my love of nature in conflict with my job because dredging the pond meant changing its wild nature forever. Once I saw a Great blue heron beside that pond but after the fountain was installed I doubt the heron ever came back.
Whether weeding a bed on my hands and knees or ordering thousands of dollars of full-grown trees from a nursery, I learned as I went. The inspirational year-round beauty of the gardens atHigh-Lowgave back.
I enjoyed the challenges of the job until the owners began to behave erratically. The pressure of maintaining their social position, working for clients like Tina Turner, and having their own home featured on the cover of a major interior design magazine did not make them easy to work with. Seeing them treat loyal suppliers and employees with contempt was the final straw. It was a relief to quit but I was grateful for the education I received there.
A job at a local Starbucks offered good benefits for part-time work (and as many espresso drinks as I wanted!) so I took it. One year, the district manager asked me to design and install three small garden areas at different Starbucks stores. Serving espresso in the morning and digging in the dirt in the afternoon suited me better than the unpredictable demands and stress of my previous job. Expanding on the garden side jobs, I created The Garden Steward, my own garden maintenance business. It didn’t bring in much money but it kept me outdoors, surrounded by beauty (after I finished weeding!).
A different kind of immersion into gardens came with a two-year course in botanical illustration I enrolled in at the New York Botanical Garden. Botanical illustration requires careful observation, which I enjoyed. The slow, engrossing work deepened my understanding and appreciation for plant life.
In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy a home. The previous owner of the modest house in upstate New York gardened intensively and I picked up where she left off. Around that time a friend hired me to join the gardening crew he directed for a billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist who kept a sprawling estate in bucolic Dutchess County. It seemed to me that the owner was hardly ever there. That didn’t stop him from hiring the influential British garden designer and author John Brookes to fly over and make his mark on the landscape. As we snipped dead blossoms from enormous potted plants and planted hundreds of flower bulbs for drifts of spring color, we were a friendly little cadre of workers. Between microgreens sprouting in the greenhouse, a horse stable, and the perfectly manicured garden rooms behind the house, it was an elaborate setup made to please someone who was rarely present. I appreciated the beauty but not the waste.
In any case, it was time for a change in direction: I decided to go back to school for a Master’s degree in social work. The busy schedule of classes and internships pushed gardens to the periphery of my life. After graduating, I worked at an organization that supports people with severe mental illness, then found a better position with the state health department. I was back in the urban setting of my late teens and twenties, soaking in what nature I could after work and on weekends. But gardens were never forgotten. I continued to cultivate them in my mind.
A confluence of unexpected events caused my partner and me to change course. We’d lost our jobs at about the same time and we thought it might be the perfect time to leave city life behind. So we took a leap of faith and moved across the country, to the west coast. Suddenly I was immersed in a world of mountains, forests, and water. It didn’t matter that we lived in a small apartment because nature loomed large everywhere, even out the windows. When finding a job took longer than expected I volunteered at a public garden. We pinpointed plant locations in the garden using a GIS (geographic information system) data system. Ultimately, detailed plant information would be accessible to visitors and employees. The work put me right back in the garden. It felt good to be there.
Soon I was working full-time in Seattle and had little time to think about gardens. Driving from one appointment to the next I took note of my surroundings: the softly drooping tips of hemlock trees and the majesty of Mount Rainier in the distance made me glad to be living in the Pacific Northwest. If I felt the need to spend time in a garden, there was one close enough for a brief stroll on slow days.
On vacations, we explored the desert southwest, now just a few hours away by plane. It was all new to my eastern-bred eyes: the whole west was an immense garden. The weathered granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, the extraordinary Chiricahua Mountains, and the spare beauty of Death Valley astounded and delighted me. I had a better camera and became serious about photography, focusing on the wild gardens of the West and the cultivated gardens near home. And I began this blog.
Then we retired and left the city and suburbs behind to move to an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. I have all the time I want to appreciate gardens of any kind now. That’s what I do.
My medium of choice, the camera, doesn’t pick and choose. It has no opinions, no favorite colors or times of day. With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing. You may argue that this isn’t quite true – cameras do have limitations – but bear with me. The point is that in this season of abundant darkness when shorter days bookend the winter solstice, the camera’s all-seeing lens may not see as much as it does in brighter seasons. Unless you’re photographing a snowfield, it’s likely that a fair amount of the frame will fall into the shadows. That makes it easier to concentrate on a few elements of the scene. Darkness can be a wall where light enters through a door.
When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest from the east coast I bemoaned the lack of light. I missed the dazzle that accompanies blankets of snow, the delicate light of spring, the pop of bright autumn leaves. At a photo conference, I asked Art Wolfe, a respected Seattle photographer who travels widely, about what I thought was the problem of the paucity of light in the region. He surprised me by disagreeing and expressing warm enthusiasm for the local landscape, just the way it is. I respect him and his work so I thought long and hard about what he said. I tried to flex my mind and open myself to other possibilities. Over the next five years, while I grappled with camera noise and somber tones, I gradually developed a feeling for the moody Pacific Northwest. That meant accepting the challenges of dim, overcast days alongside the picture-postcard beauty of snow-topped mountains and craggy, forested islands. Now, my least favorite time of year for photography is the summer, when the sun rides high and bright in clear skies.
In a few weeks, the shortest day of the year will mark the turn toward an increase in light that culminates in June with deliciously long, sunlit days. I value the rebirth and growth that comes with spring, my favorite season. But by midsummer, I’m tired of sunny days whose harsh, flat light illuminates every nook and cranny in the landscape. It gets to be too much.
The crepuscular hours of winter’s short days are just the remedy – and it begins well before the official start of winter. Shadowed landscapes offer magical openings that leave more to the imagination. When a sliver of golden light picks out a few twigs in the forest and hides everything else in the murky half-light, a drive awakens in me. Like an animal focused on its prey, I become intent on finding interesting plays of light during the last hours of the afternoon. The cold is forgotten as I study details and analyze the pros and cons of each mentally framed scene. Working quickly before twilight turns into night, I appreciate every patch of light as a treasure in a half-dark world. And of course, it’s the darkness that makes those treasures valuable.
A few days ago a light snowfall coated the ground overnight. In the morning the snow was marked with neat circles where icy rain fell onto it. In search of whatever beauty I might find, I tried driving up Mt. Erie, the highest place on the island. Within minutes, the car began to skid. The road up the mountain isn’t a priority and isn’t well-plowed. Congratulating myself on a well-executed three-point turn on the narrow, icy road, I retreated in low gear and parked at the bottom. A trail across the road that leads up a gentler hill would have to be good enough.
And it was. In a forest opening, I found scraps of ice hanging like baubles from clumps of gray-green Usnea lichen that dangle from the branches (#2, 3, 4). Delicate twigs festooned with waterdrops glowed faintly in the low light (#5). Like an interloper, a beam of light sliced through the forest and illuminated a patch of drooping flower clusters that were dull brown with age. For a few seconds, they sparkled like gold. With fingers going numb, I photographed straight into the weak, distant sun before the light shifted again (#1).
The forest was losing what little light was left as the sun dipped behind the hill. Only the tallest treetops gleamed saffron; everything else was obscured in the dusky shadows. My toes and fingers were cold. Alone in the woods, I followed the trail back down to the road. The birds were quiet, probably busy gleaning the last seeds and tiny insects from the woods before huddling close to a tree trunk and fluffing their feathers for the night. Somewhere behind me, the high-pitched chatter of a Douglas squirrel broke through the shadows.
It felt good to get back in the car but there was still a little daylight left so I decided to check out Heart Lake. Just up the road, the small lake is a pretty splash of blue set in a deep green border of conifers. I knew the afternoon light would be raking across the lake in chiaroscuro patches. As I pulled into the parking lot mergansers dove in the shallows and a man threw a stick into the water for his happy Labradoodle. I got out and exchanged friendly words with the man but I was more interested in what was behind him on the edge of the lake. A great tangle of brush, grass, reeds, and trees glowed like copper in the lowering sun. Each twig and leaf was picked out in sharp definition. All I had to do was to stand as close as possible to the shoreline without getting wet feet, check settings, compose, and click (#6).
To the left, gracefully bent reeds were mirrored by the cold, still water (#8). On the north end of the lake, a group of ducks worried the surface. Noticing the pattern of sunlit reeds, barely visible trees on the opposite shore, distant ducks in a line, and striped reflections on the water, an idea came to mind: the varied bands of light and dark would make a nice composition. Later, I realized that the color was distracting and made the image black and white (#10). With the sun finally gone behind another hill, I saw one last subject: a loose fountain of tall grass sticking up through the ice. The ice was mushy and pock-marked from waterdrops that must have fallen from a nearby tree. I liked the graceful droop of the grass and muted colors. It was a natural conclusion to the afternoon (9).
This post is one in a series I call “States of Being.” Other posts in the series include “Curved”and “Absorbed.”
I like seeing what comes to rest on the beach when the tide goes out. It’s a tenuous kind of rest – soon the water will climb back up and rearrange everything. But at least for a few hours, the serendipity of random arrangements can be enjoyed by anyone with a curious eye. I’m going to call these arrangements natural still lifes. (Spellcheck doesn’t like ‘lifes’ but it’s correct in this case!)
Below, strands of eelgrass loop around smooth pieces of driftwood, like festive presents. Sometimes stalks of kelp look like hastily penned notes, legible to those familiar with asemic writing. Or torn bits of sea lettuce are scattered across the sand like confetti. Speaking of sand, sharp eyes will notice ghost-pale, wavy patterns of sand grains on the smoothest parts of the beach. They’re a record of each pause between the slow breaths of gently receding waves. Or are they abstract drawings? In #4 below, a group of thick kelp stalks curved together in a surprisingly orderly fashion. The tide must have been strong enough to push them together but not so strong that they were tangled up. Just so.
States of rest on tidal shores seem especially precious to me because of their ephemeral nature.
After the wind has whipped the water and its contents into great, tortured piles and dumped them on the beach, odd things can be found. Tiny treasures resting in the jumbled tangles of marine life might be revealed to the curious beachgoer. In #5 you can see the holdfast of a kelp plant that grew over a barnacle instead of a rock, which is what kelp plants are normally anchored to. A storm ripped the barnacle off something and sent it for a wild ride on tossing waves. There it was, in a mass of soggy kelp and seaweeds unceremoniously dumped ashore. In #6 there’s another oddity I found: a small marine invertebrate called a Bristly tunicate or a Hairy sea squirt. It was still clinging to an odd lump of orange substance that I can’t identify.
And buried deep in another knot of kelp and seaweed, a tiny white starfish, or sea star, glowed like a star that had lost its way and tumbled down into Neptune’s dark realm.
These bits of marine life might be back in the waters of the Salish Sea by now, riding the waves until they come to rest again.
Torn from maple trees during a storm, wet leaves came to rest on the leathery salal bushes that grow along the trail. The nature-made leaf collage was topped by a single rust-colored Douglas fir needle, released from a tree branch after the summer drought. I wonder how long the needle and leaves remained at rest like this?
For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the way leaves fall and land on one another or are caught somewhere before reaching the ground. In a California Redwood forest, I noticed a Redwood leaf stalk woven into a Maidenhair fern frond. Just think: it had to fall at precisely the right angle and rate to have landed like that. Maybe a gentle breeze helped. A small wonder.
An odder sight was a stray chunk of Northern elephant seal fur shed by a seal during her annual molt. How it got up into the wildflowers, I don’t know, but the beach where the seal rests while renewing her coat is often windy.
Inanimate objects can come to rest for a very long time. Take the old truck seen below. It’s been in the patch of wet woods for so many years that it’s grown a coat of thick moss. Maybe a tree will sprout there.
Heaps of plastic or fabric that have been abandoned always interest me. Sometimes a pile of material is unintentionally draped as gracefully as the folds of fabric in an Old Master painting. That was the case with the nets below that were used to protect apple trees from insects. I saw them in a garden, where they probably had been left for a short time before being stored somewhere safe from the ravages of winter.
Once I found a mannequin that was used on a photo shoot resting in a random heap with other props. The props were probably put away soon after I came across them. Finding the mannequin was pure serendipity. He seems to be contemplating his future – an interesting one, I would think.
What about people at rest? Rest allows the parasympathetic nervous system to come on board and do what it’s made to do: slow down the stress response that’s activated so often by modern life. When we rest, the immune system is strengthened, blood pressure comes down, the heart rate slows, food is digested, and the mind relaxes. That’s good stuff! But rest isn’t always easy to find.
Big museums never seem to have enough places to sit down. The single available seat on the bench below was probably taken within minutes. A street musician in Ghent, Belgium, caught my eye as he took a cigarette break. He seemed to own his resting spot! One evening as I walked around lower Manhattan after work, a fisherman stepped away from his pole to contemplate the view. Just watching him watch the water eased my mind.
Rest is a relative term – how still is anything really? We know that motion is constant but rest balances motion.
It’s a grace period in this twirling, whirring life.