BEING SEEING

when I’m on the trails

and when I’m not,

beingseeing.

In the park by the sea

here’s what I see

when I’m

seeingbeing.

1. Treebeing with intentional camera movement, using a vintage Takumar 50mm lens on a Pen-F mirrorless camera.

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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.

2. An iPhone view of the loop road on a December afternoon.

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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.

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4. Its’ scarred bark wet with rain, a twisty Madrone leans in toward the water’s bright light.
5. This Madrone’s bark is peeling as if the tree’s muscle wants to break out of its skin.

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6. Tree drama abounds on the edge of the park, where branches speak a language that is not foreign to me – or you.

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7. Leaning Madrones interrupt the repeating verticality of young Douglas fir trees.
8. An old Madrone seems to reach for an opening in the forest. (This photo was made with a vintage Takumar 50mm lens on a mirrorless Pen-F camera).
9. A Madrone palette spilled onto the ground.
10. Clumps of Reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.) swell and soften with moisture in the fall. Tiny green dots point to the beginnings of plants resurrected by the rain.
11. Wallace’s spikemoss (Selaginella wallacei) is not a moss, but a vascular plant that reproduces by spores. Here, it creeps across a lichen-covered rock. The tips are green but much of the plant is whitish because Tundra saucer lichen (Ochrolechia upsaliensis) is growing on it. In the Alps, Tundra saucer lichen grows above the tree line but here, it was growing at less than 50 feet above sea level.*

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13. An old Seaside juniper sprawls across a ridge. The branches on this tree fork like antlers on the deer above.
14. The sun peaks out after November rain. I keep to the grass – the rocks and soil are slippery now.
15. Another rainy day yields a hazy view through Seaside juniper branches. (Made with a vintage Takumar 50mm lens on a mirrorless Olympus EM-1 camera).
16. Raindrops hang from juniper twigs on a misty January afternoon.

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17. An impossible tangle of juniper branches obscures the view of the channel.
18. I watch the sunset through a byzantine screen of a juniper’s lacy twigs and foliage. (Made with a vintage Takumar 50mm lens on a mirrorless Olympus EM-1 camera)
19. After a rainy November day, the sun illuminates the world.

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20. Dusk settles a deep hush into the hills across the water.
21. The setting sun framed by a fragment of Madrone bark, a week before the shortest day of the year.

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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.

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STATES of BEING: At Rest

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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STATES of BEING: Curved

There are all kinds of curves in the world, but one curve keeps coming back to me. It dwells in my body as a gesture, a wide, arcing swing of the arm that lifts the air. In yoga class I enjoy big sweeps of the arms; I never groan inwardly the way I might during challenging poses. Wikipedia says that “Intuitively, a curve may be thought of as the trace left by a moving point.”* I like this idea of implied motion and I was surprised to learn that it originated with Euclid over 2000 years ago.

So curves aren’t static. They’re traced by all sorts of things besides my arm, of course, and when I slow down enough to notice the world with care, I might find the particular curve that I like almost anywhere. A fond familiarity arises when the curve catches my eye. There must be a neuronal pathway – or more likely, many pathways – where this curve is repeatedly recognized and appreciated, a kind of mirroring of the internal and the external. When I see it my eyebrow might arch in pleasure, yet another gentle curve!

Often a camera is at hand so I make a photograph.

1. Western redcedar trees. Washington, 2012.

Curves slither through my LightRoom catalog, showing up in old images of gourds and grass or in more recent photos of buildings and Bullwhip kelp. There’s a curved wood relief I made in 1972; the photo of it reminds me that the preoccupation with curves is nothing new. I suspect it has deep roots, perhaps even mythical, or at least back to my first days on this planet when my mother’s breast was the curve of life.

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2. The Jean Arp-inspired wood relief I made long ago now exists only as an old slide and a fuzzy digitized copy.

I visualize the curve moving outward and upward more than inward and downward. It feels open-ended, generous. It stands alone or is tangled up with other curves and if it’s tangled, the disorder is harmonious, not fraught or tight.

A curved line suggests an indirect way to get from point A to point B. That appeals to me, too. Give me the back road, the side path! The very act of taking a route other than the straightest or most direct implies that there’s more to life than getting from A to B. And when it comes to solving problems, a roundabout route may not be the fastest one but it could turn up discoveries that shed new light on the issue. Physics tells us that gravity causes light to travel in a curve near large bodies. Did you know that there is “a flight simulator for multi-connected universes” called Curved Spaces? It’s freeware you can download that is supposed to enable inhabitants to “see their universe’s contents repeating in a crystalline pattern.”** I haven’t tried it and perhaps I’m rationalizing but it seems to me that there are many reasons to love a curve.

Here is a series of curves I’ve seen and photographed.

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3. Decorative gourd. Home, 2010. Curves everywhere!
4. Greenhouse specimen. Seattle, 2013. From wide arc to tight spiral.
5. Lighthouse stairs. Oregon, 2018. Unfolding curves.
6. Bends in the road. Washington, 2019. That delicious feeling of hugging curves on a country road.
7. Garden grasses. Seattle, 2017.
8. Shells and window blind cord. Home, 2018. Serendipitous curve echoes.
9. Wires in a garage. California, 2017. Grit and grace.
10. Musuem architecture. New York, 2017.
11. Shell. Home, 2015.
12. Hosta leaves. Washington, 2018.
13. Driftwood. Washington, 2014. And smiles are curves.
14. Museum mosaic. Belgium, 2019.
15. In a Chinese garden. New York, 2011. Built this way to deter evil spirits, since they like straight lines, or because it bears the load of the roof better, or because it allows more light in, or because it allows rainwater to drain, or…
16. Kelp and driftwood. Washington, 2021.
17. Museum staircase. Washington, 2017.
18. A botanical illustration I did many years ago. New York, 1991.
19. Architecture in lower Manhattan. New York, 2017.
20. Agave. Seattle, 2013.
21. The soft, irresistible curves of a newborn’s face. Washington, 2022.

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STATES of BEING: Preparing

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It’s the day before we leave for our first road trip since the pandemic throttled our travel plans. I have forgotten how to get ready for a trip. Everything requires more thought and seems a little harder. And it’s spring, my favorite season, so I’m distracted by the flashes of color everywhere, all vying for attention after a long, quiet winter. Part of me wants to be walking outside, looking for early wildflowers and inhaling the fresh air. Another part nags about packing and remembering the chargers and sunglasses. I check the weather in southern Utah for the second time today; the forecast seems to have changed again. A few days ago I thought we wouldn’t need warm clothes, this morning it looked like we would, now I’m not sure. I remove a T-shirt and substituted a long-sleeved, insulated shirt, a beanie, a warm scarf, even gloves. Maybe I need to rethink it: space is tight.

As I’ve been preparing for my trip the earth has been preparing for the season when reproductive tasks must get done. Flowers push through the cool, damp earth, woodpeckers drum love songs on hollow trees, and yesterday I watched harbor seals whack their flippers hard on the water and twirl in circles as other seals looked on, hopefully admiring the show as much as I did. One very unusual mammal (for this area) is preparing for the next stage of its life; a two-month-old elephant seal born nearby is getting ready to enter the water. I believe he’s the first elephant seal to be born on this island – most Northern elephant seals are born in California. When he’s ready he’ll swim down the long Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, perhaps heading for deep water off Alaska. He needs to teach himself to dive deep for fish and squid. That’s the way it works with this species – they’re on their own after they’re weaned. Once he leaves we may never see him again. A few weeks ago I became a marine mammal volunteer to help protect the pup from human interference, intentional or otherwise. I learned a lot in a few short hours about the intricacies of the human/wildlife interface. In a word, it’s fraught.

The last few weeks have been full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate on my own preparations, but gradually, I got my head into it and made some progress. By mid-afternoon yesterday, I was ready for a break: a trip into town for one more errand and an espresso. As I stepped outside I felt a chill but also had an urge to stop and admire the daffodils that opened yesterday. They’re late again and their numbers don’t seem to be expanding; I planted them under a tree where the sun barely shines. At least they’re protected from the landlord’s overzealous mowing. Looking up, my eyes paused at the sight of fat Bigleaf maple buds, ripe with the green energy that busts them out of their tight winter jackets. I thought I should document the yard today so I can compare it to the way it will look when I get back. All week I’ve been thinking about how different everything will be after the 13 days we’re away – this is a time of great change.

With my head full of such musings, I wandered over to my car and got in. Joe had parked at the opposite end of the driveway from his usual spot in front of me. I backed up, turned to my right to avoid the telephone pole, and let my foot off the brake. A heartbeat later I heard the startling, eye-squinching crunch of metal on metal. Worse, I was a little slow to stop because I haven’t slept well lately. A remark Joe made just minutes before sprung to mind: he said we seem to be getting things under control.

Maybe not. I got out, inspected both cars, frowned, and called him. He rushed out to assess the damage. Quickly apologizing, I said I’d take care of both cars when we get back home. Thankfully, Joe had the grace not to let loose with the first thing that must have come to his mind.

On the way into town I told myself to wake up or there’ll be a bigger accident. Deep breaths. I took care of the errand and made my way to the bookstore/cafe. It was pleasantly busy: familiar faces behind the counter and eager customers on the other side. Studying the baked goods neatly displayed in their glass case, I ordered my usual macchiato, but with a third shot. While I waited I saw a front-page article in the NY Times about a White House photographer from the Trump administration who’s been taken advantage of by Trump – it’s about money, of course. I read a few paragraphs and moved on to the Arts section, where there was a piece about the Whitney Biennial, a New York art world staple that I used to look forward to. It’s morphed over the years and is back now after a pandemic hiatus, with a less flashy, more thoughtful, perhaps darker-toned show. I opened the paper to the double-page spread, full of dark images. That prompted a passing thought about my own propensity for darkness in my photos. I wondered if there’s a connection between how I photograph the world nearby and the state it’s in. Or is it a coincidence?

The coffee tasted good. Browsing the shelves for a minute or two, I moved from art to fiction to the travel section. A used book called “The Names of Things” caught my eye. It’s beautifully written but it wasn’t a good time to buy a book so I made a mental note of the title. Suddenly the caffeine teased the neurons in my brain and I felt that bright light of inspiration, thanks to Susan Brind Morrow’s words. In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering if I would post anything before I left or during the trip. Now I had an idea – I’ll just describe my day, trying to include passing thoughts as well as observations.

Exiting the store, I got in the car, backed up (carefully), and headed back home. The sky was gray and white but not flat. The cherry trees were as frothy as a strawberry milkshake, magnolia flowers were opening bit by bit, and the willows weren’t weeping, no, they were rejoicing in their swaying, lime-green skirts. As I drove down R Avenue I glimpsed the soft blue silhouette of the Cascade foothills to the east through the dull gray repeating diamonds of a chain-link fence: it was a pleasing graphic image. All the way home I saw trees in bud, chomping at the bit of spring, ready to break into song. Preparing for the next thing.

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We’ll fly to Las Vegas today, then drive to Utah, where we plan to visit Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and other less well-known places. With any luck, I’ll have a few photographs to post when I get back. I hope you’re enjoying spring in your own way, wherever you are on this great, turning planet.

7. Red rock country.

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States of Being: ABSORBED

This week I was thinking about the quality of being absorbed in an activity. I wondered about the origin of the word so I googled it. In an online etymology dictionary, I read that the English “absorb” comes from an old French word that derives from Latin. Breaking it down, “ab” in this case means “from” and “sorb” comes from the Latin sorbeo, to suck in or swallow. These combine into “absorbere” or “absorbeo” – to swallow up or devour. The Proto-Indo-European language root was “srebh.” I can really hear the sound of sucking in that word! I wonder if it ultimately derived from the sound of a nursing child.

In German there is absorbieren. A related German word, schlürfen, sounds to me like someone slurping beer. 😉 In Dutch there’s slurpen, in Italian, assorbito. The Welsh word is amsugno; perhaps Graham will explain how that fits in. Or doesn’t.

At any rate, by the 18th century, absorbed also meant completely gripping one’s attention. When we are absorbed we incorporate and assimilate with full attention (again, think of a nursing child, oblivious to everything but the task at hand). The idea of complete attention is important. To be absorbed in something necessitates an absence of distraction. It’s almost a refusal of incoming sensory information, except within the narrow field of engagement. When I think about being absorbed I sense a unity, a lack of boundary between what we call the self and the object of our attention. The separation that our minds create between ourselves and the rest of the world is useful for functioning in daily life but when we’re completely absorbed in an activity the separation recedes. Some of these ideas are my personal associations with the experience of being absorbed. Isn’t it interesting that we humans communicate by using agreed-upon word meanings but we each have a whole host of subjective associations attached to words as well?

This state of absorption is akin to flow, a concept developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His interest in creativity and happiness led him to assert that being fully absorbed in something for its own sake, or being in the flow as he called it, enhances our feelings of well-being and our creativity. Csikszentmihalyi talked about the importance of a balance between skill and challenge in the flow state. He recognized that motivation in this state is intrinsic, not external. The theory of a flow state isn’t exactly the same as the concept of being absorbed in something, but active focus and a sense of timelessness are characteristic of both.

This state of flow or absorption is a very human quality, something we all experience. As photographers, we’re pleased when we sense the dropping away of day-to-day worries and concerns and become fully absorbed in what we’re doing. Truth be told, we often hope that when we get home we’ll find an image that reflects the way we felt, even if it doesn’t convey the full experience. Looking through photographs that I made in the last month, there are hardly any pretty blue skies. The fullness of spring is just a dream. But even in less than optimal conditions, when inspiration doesn’t come easy, it’s possible to enter into a meditative state of absorption. And whether a pleasing photograph results or not, any time spent being absorbed in something is its own reward.

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1. It’s easy to be absorbed in the changing light of a fog bank at sunset.
2. And once you look, it’s just as easy to get lost in sand patterns on a beach.

3. Even a disintegrating fern frond rivets my attention.

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11. Fog again. The barely visible structure of a bridge in the distance drew me into the mist.

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Whether it’s a small detail, a wide vista, or something in between, being absorbed in what I see is one of the best things about being human on this earth. It goes without saying that music, touch, and all of the senses offer the possibility and pleasure of full absorption into the moment. I hope everyone experiences at least a few moments of absorption today.

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BEING ORGANIZED

No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.

That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.

1. Around 1992 I began a two-year Botanical Illustration course at the New York Botanical Garden. My home life was difficult, even chaotic. The quiet, intensely focused practice of drawing subjects like this pine cone from life was deeply satisfying. What may at first appear to be a ball of random little shapes isn’t that at all – the pine cone has a spiral growth habit. Finding the spirals helped me keep track of which little seed scale I was working on as I carefully shaded my drawing with dots of ink. There’s a reassuring order in there.
2. Organization times two: limpets and sand dollars are organized in pleasing, radially symmetric patterns. Centering one on top of the other creates a bulls-eye that centers my brain, if only for a few seconds.
3. Someone neatly stacked these roof tiles next to a building in Leiden, Netherlands. The old bricks in the street and walls might not be perfectly straight anymore but a sense of order still prevails. Leiden and other northern European cities I’ve visited seem to exude a calm orderliness that felt good to be around.

As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!

Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.

4. Repeating patterns in the windows of three buildings in lower Manhattan.
5. Electric wires, architecture, and a street corner line up as if they were engineered from just this spot, looking out the window of a Las Vegas hotel.
6. I can’t help thinking that whoever painted this door in Ferndale, California, must have appreciated symmetry and organization.
7. Antwerpen-Centraal, the beloved temple of European railway architecture. A photo can’t begin to relay the experience of getting off a train there and walking through the soaring, graceful spaces. I was too overwhelmed to position myself right in the middle of the steps, but I think you’ll get the idea.
8. Speaking of well-organized systems, this woman in the Cologne (Koln) train station was tremendously helpful, booking last-minute tickets during a busy holiday rush with a focused, calm demeanor. The bracelet of skulls and the 18 rings were no impediment to her organized functioning. Check out that mug on her left – brass knuckles?!

A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.

Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.

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10. Another humble building that helps to organize the environment is this little bus shelter on a country road in Washington.

Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?

11. I made this photo while in the midst of a crisis; my partner was ten floors up in the neurointensive care unit, recovering from a stroke. The future was uncertain. A row of sunny windows with potted plants marching down the hallway was a reassuring picture of order and normalcy in an unstable world.
12. Striped shadows in bright California light cut the space into unexpected shapes and accentuate its form.
13. A simply constructed wooden side chair I found at an estate sale presents a satisfying tableau when the light frames its shadow, doubling the pleasure of the design.
14. Sidewalk engineering and a shadow that mimics the patterns.
15. A Donald Judd sculpture benefits from carefully considered museum lighting.

The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:

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17. Looking through the rectangles of a conservatory window superimposes a certain order on the beautiful chaos of the plants inside.
18. In this case, I looked through a tangle of branches at a building with a broken bulls-eye of arcs superimposed on angled grids. The complex array of lines and shapes benefited from monochromatic processing. This was in Ghent, Belgium.

Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.

19. Symmetry in a stone mosaic medallion enhances the Italian pavilion at the Staten Island Botanical Garden in New York.

20. Alternating leaves, parallel veins – these examples of order in the plant world were adopted by people as field marks for identification, which is another way of organizing the flow of sensory input around us.
21. Classic floral symmetry: a Trillium has three leaves (which are actually bracts), three sepals, three petals, six stamens, and three stigmas. The Trillium’s simple design one of the most striking ones in the botanical world.

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I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.

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AT HOME

Sometimes early in the morning, I pick up the camera and make a few photographs right where I am, which is often in the kitchen. I might wander through the house then, looking for more possibilities. Using the camera before the day’s sensory impressions flood my brain can yield interesting results. The mental filters aren’t all in place yet. The mind is a little more open, a little looser. Often the photographs aren’t particularly good, but results aren’t everything – stimulating one’s aesthetic muscles can be just as important.

1. On the kitchen table.
2. Autumn bouquet.

Since I can remember a keen appreciation for form, light, and color has characterized the way I look at the world. Like most kids, I enjoyed making pictures and as I grew older I kept drawing, leaning more and more into art, in spite of an expectation that I would hew to tradition and attend a liberal arts college. But that route held no interest for me. After a few blind alleys and bumps in the road, I enrolled in an art school. That was a gift; plenty of people who would thrive in a creative environment never get the chance to experience it because finances or obligations prohibit it. Art school was invigorating but after graduating I had to make a living, which meant relegating art to the sidelines of my life. Having a child left even less time for making art.

But I never stopped looking and thinking about what I saw. Wherever they appeared, colors and textures were noted and analyzed, shapes and forms were admired, and lines were studied. Whether it was a landscape, a piece of clothing, a chair, a face – anything could be a vehicle for appreciation and consideration. Even the simple act of arranging objects in the house satisfied the aesthetic urge. However busy or preoccupied I was, the art gears kept turning.

Over the years I moved frequently and learned to invoke a feeling of home through the basic activity of putting things in places. Maybe the human instinct to arrange objects into some kind of order goes beyond practical necessities. The way we locate the things around us can satisfy deep aesthetic needs. Even in temporary spaces, setting down a few objects can transform a corner into a personal expression of beauty.

3. In a corner above the sink at a Bnb in Leiden…
4. …I made a small arrangement of objects.

Vignettes of found objects can reflect the moment, rooting current preoccupations into place. The objects I handle remind me that wherever I am, a core set of interests informs my identity. Making photographs exercises the same aesthetic urge.

As I gathered photographs for this post the story shifted from one about how the act of arranging and photographing one’s space keeps the artistic fires burning to one that considers the rolling narrative of experiences in various places where I lived and evolved. The unifying thread is the act of paying attention, of recognizing the beauty inherent in the everyday. Some photographs date from the 1970s and are worn with age, some are documentary, some reflect aesthetic concerns. The stories they tell you are surely different from the stories they tell me. We all see the world differently. That’s a good thing.

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5. A wacky little still life arranged on an old corner bookcase during my last year of college. Those are my shoes – gotta have red shoes. Don’t ask about the math, I have no idea what it means. I may still have the little ostrich and cow toys somewhere but Marilyn, the cowboy, the crayons, and the bottle of German soap bubbles are long gone.
6. A photo from the early 70s, just after I graduated from School of Visual Arts. The vintage utensils came from second hand stores. If this image looks a little familiar it may be because photographer Jan Groover exhibited a series of Kitchen Still Lifes in New York in 1979, some of which feature utensils. The photographs, which brought her well-deserved acclaim, were more complex and carefully thought-out than this casual composition. When I saw her work I felt an encouraging “Aha!” moment – my instincts were good even if my execution was lacking.
7. Around 1973 I moved into an old walk-up railroad flat in Hoboken, NJ, a small city across the river from Manhattan. The big city was too expensive for a recent art school graduate and Hoboken had not yet been discovered. Rents were affordable, especially in buildings like this one, which lacked central heat. On the left side of the gas stove the top folded back to reveal a single large burner. That was supposed to heat the entire apartment. It wasn’t enough for the frigid, northeastern winters so for three months a year, we curtained off the far two rooms and lived in the warm kitchen and the room next to it.
8. The Hoboken apartment was on the third floor of this building. Rent was $60 a month but Mr. Eng, the landlord, didn’t mind if we were late paying – he was grateful to have tenants who took care of their apartment. When I took this photo in 2008 the corner had hardly changed but Hoboken was completely different. It had become gentrified and was packed with new apartment buildings, hip restaurants and young professionals. My old building now has central heat and air conditioning. Rent is about $2,000/month, which may be a good deal for an apartment that’s a just quick ride away from Manhattan, even if it’s a one-bedroom walk-up.
9. Eleven years and two moves after the Hoboken apartment, putting things in places took on a whole new meaning. Here’s my newborn son surrounded by gifts from generous friends and relatives. What joy!
10. Skipping ahead another 17 years, this layered image was made at my comfortable Cape Cod home in rural New York, about 50 miles north of New York City. It was a cozy home with lovely gardens that I tended with enthusiasm. We parked in the driveway because the garage was crammed with pots and gardening tools. I bought my first digital camera, a 1.3 megapixel Sony Mavica that stored photos on floppy disks! Along with basic photo processing software, it was a clumsy setup compared to today’s options but it allowed me to explore and experiment.

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12. It was the last house I would own. In this photo there’s an antique drop-leaf table from my parent’s house and a chair with a seat cover my father upholstered. On the table is a bouquet of wildflowers and garden blooms from the sunny backyard, frequented by deer and wild turkeys. The scene appears idyllic but it was a turbulent, difficult time and the sturdy, mid-century house with its rural setting provided a welcome measure of stability.

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14. This is a collage of two black and white photos, one of a Great blue heron and one of an indigenous girl in traditional dress. I merged them together to express the freedom of taking flight united with the feeling of being secure in one’s own being. This was home: being rooted in place yet free to take wing.
15. A new job in Manhattan required four hours of commuting: I drove, parked, boarded a train, got off, threaded through tunnels to the subway, transferred to a different subway, emerged onto the street, walked to the office, passed through security, and took the elevator. This routine was not tenable! I found a rambling, high-ceiling, apartment in a prewar building on Staten Island, where rent was more affordable than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Now I could take the ferry to work! The cozy cottage by the river was exchanged for an airy apartment with lively urban views in three directions. To the west, a bell tower and late-nineteenth century homes, to the north, the vibrant New York harbor, and to the south, a handsome old gothic school. In this photo of a begonia cutting the bell tower is framed between the neck of the bottle and the edge of the leaf.
16. The new job required frequent overnight travel. Every time Pablo heard the sound of the suitcase wheels he ran and crouched in my shoes. (They look like men’s shoes but I like that style). He was one very unhappy cat – but soon he had another companion.

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18. An old Mahjong tile and a tiny ceramic rabbit that belonged to my mother when she was a child made a small still life on a bookshelf.
19. More changes loomed: unexpectedly, we lost our jobs within months of each other, through no fault of ours. As we began to collect unemployment, we dreaded the idea of finding new jobs in New York. We treasured our vacations and day trips away from a city that was wearing us down. Dreaming about leaving urban intensity behind, we thought about moving to the Pacific Northwest – but first, we needed some questions answered. Was there enough culture? Would we like the laid-back lifestyle? Was it really as beautiful as people said it was? So we flew across the country on a mission, visiting Mt. Rainier, the Olympic Rainforest, Rialto Beach, Whidbey Island, and Seattle’s Pike Place market. Yes, this was the place; it was wildly beautiful and more comfortable than we imagined. We said our goodbyes to family and friends as we engineered the big move. On a winter afternoon six weeks before we left, I photographed this view from our apartment.

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21. We don’t remember where we found the doll’s hand and the frog but they were a happy pair, sitting on a desk in the Kirkland apartment.
22. We moved once more, this time because we no longer had to be near Seattle for work and wanted to live in a more rural environment. We found a quiet, affordable cottage for rent on an island halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. After moving in we got to know Doe-a-deer, who clearly knew the place well.

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24. It’s not antique and surely isn’t authentic but we love Bobo and Evelyn, the broken African mask I bought in Kirkland (there should be two birds on top). We like the way the strand of leathery leaves (actually a necklace) suits these two characters. Someday we could to move again but there are no plans for that now! We’re happy where we are. Paying attention. Putting things in places. Appreciating our lives.

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Paying attention is work of the most rewarding kind. It connects us to the incredible intricacy of life, the indescribable beauty and mystery of the beings we share our home with, and the wonder and the heartbreak of existence. All it requires is standing still and looking, or crouching down and looking, or laying on your back and looking, or walking and looking. Just looking. There is little that is any more important right now than knowing this world, in all its beauty and brokenness.

From an essay by Georgina Reid in The Planthunter.

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Thank you for your attention. Life is full of uprootings and new horizons. And fresh opportunities to arrange things.

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LOOSENING THE I

Big Cedar Trail

Here I am, having come upon a place

deep enough to lose myself,

among emerald bouquets of Sword fern

thriving in the damp, dim light

as far as the

I can see. As the I can see – there it is again,

that stubborn “I”

but it’s loosening,

almost gone into the breath

of this verdant ravine

where redcedar soars, roots, spreads, and sits

as still and profound as two in the morning.

Just this, redcedar whispers.

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Cool breeze scatters leaves

from an unseen place – the top of the hill?

The jagged black edge of the island? Or

do the wafting breaths emanate from

sixty miles east of here, over the dark Salish Sea?

Here, now, air manifests:

gentle waves of cedar boughs,

fluttering tips of elderberry leaves and prickly

bumps on the freckled skin of my old arms.

Mind focuses and releases in waves

like the the darting chipmunk

who was breathlessly still

a second ago. Moving then still,

in breath and out,

back and forth,

we are centered in this particular herenow

at the bottom of the green ravine

where the I loosens and

joins the forest.

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WE ARE FALLING

Fallen objects tend to have negative associations, but is that necessary? A tree falls and begins a new life as a support for moss, fungi, insects and other life forms. Fruit falls from the tree and you pick it up; maybe you take a bite. A ship falls to the bottom of the sea and becomes a coral reef, sugar falls to the bottom of your cup, you stir it, and sip.

And what is this notion of a fall from grace? How about a graceful fall and a new beginning?

1. My scarf falls at my feet at an art gallery. I photograph it. Manhattan; October, 2017.

2. A Camel cigarette pack fell to the ground (intentionally or not?) and was crushed by a passing truck. I photograph it. I have come to this obscure corner of a busy city to explore an old railroad trestle but I’m distracted by the artifact at my feet – the fading colors, the roughened texture, the surprise of printed matter on the ground. Bellevue, Washington; September, 2017.

3. Leaves fell, it rained, and the tannins leached out of them, staining the new concrete. Now leaf shadows ghost the sidewalk. I photograph it. Kirkland, Washington; October, 2016.

4. A pear falls to the ground. I photograph it. In the mid-1980s I worked sporadically for a New York catering company, The Perfect Pear. The owner, Stuart, made memorable sesame chicken. I wonder if this pear gradually decomposed, like my memories from the 80s are doing, or if someone took it home and made it into preserves. Washington State University Research Center, Mt. Vernon, Washington; September, 2018.

5. Trees fall into the lake and drift into a cove. Snow falls. I photograph it. Fidalgo Island, Washington; March, 2019.

6. A 64-year-old ship fell to the bottom of a channel and is being recovered. I photograph it. After a violent, mid-January windstorm tore the boat from its mooring at Lovric’s Shipyard, it drifted along the bottom of the channel for a half mile and came to rest near a busy dock. The state officials who monitor safety hazards of derelict vessels contracted with a diving and reclamation crew to raise the ship. The 197-ton MV Chilkat was the first car ferry in the Alaska Marine Highway System, built in 1957, when Alaska was still a US territory. It was a rough ride (people called it the “Vomit Comet”) but it could load and unload vehicles straight onto a beach, using its bow ramp like landing craft from WWII. After serving the Alaska ferry system for many years, the ship found other lives: there were years of scallop farming, tuna trawling and Christmas tree deliveries. Recently the MV Chilcat was in storage at Lovric’s. A local family was trying to raise money to get it seaworthy again, but now it may finally be scrapped. Anacortes, Washington; January, 2021.

7. Rain falls. A man celebrates the sudden deluge with a handstand. I photograph it. My son is in the background, giving two thumbs up. He’s just returned from fighting the Taliban in Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines. His friend, Sergeant Sean T. Callahan, was killed in combat three months before their unit was to return home. My son was thrilled to be back in New York, but struggled with guilt. West side, New York, New York; July, 2011.

8. A dead goose has fallen to the ground. Overnight, a delicate layer of frost coated the bird. I photograph it. Chances are good that it fell out of the sky after being shot because in this particular field, people hunt ducks and geese. The bird won’t make a meal for a human, but beings of one kind or another will soon take the goose to its next stage of life. Duvall, Washington; January, 2013.

9. The groom falls to the ground during a raucous wedding shoot. I photograph it. This fall from three graces will be remembered with smiles. Battery Park, New York, New York; October, 2017.

10. My shoes look happy amongst discarded bits and pieces that fell onto the brick road by the flower market. I photograph them. Most of the market’s flower sellers are first and second generation Hmong immigrants from Laos. The older Hmong once were farmers in the Laotian hills. During the Vietnam war they aided the American CIA against the Communists. Afterward, to escape retaliation, many of them fled into the jungle or entered Thai refugee camps. Eventually some made their way to the Pacific Northwest. They have adapted to different ways and different weather, growing flowers instead of food in the green fields outside Seattle. The growers drive their flowers to Pike Place Market, where city residents and tourists are happy to buy pretty bouquets of seasonal flowers wrapped in big white paper cones. The pandemic has changed business practices but the farmers have adapted (or should I say pivoted?) and have found alternative marketplaces. Seattle, Washington; April, 2016.

11. Cherry blossoms fall to the sidewalk. I photograph them. When I bring the image to life half a world away and months later, the detail in the dandelion leaves makes me think of Albrecht Durer’s “The Large Piece of Turf.” Durer included a dandelion in the painting that he completed in Germany in 1503. Apparently, the dandelion (der Löwenzahn) flourished in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century just as it was flourishing the day I took this picture, 500-odd years later. Dandelions flourish in my own yard too, 5000 miles from that sidewalk. Amsterdam, Netherlands; April 2019.

12. A yellow work glove has fallen onto the concrete in an alley. I photograph it. I have stumbled across it while exploring downtown Seattle one summer day and I’m drawn to the unexpected pop of color. This fallen object was probably forgotten by its owner long ago, but it lives on in my archives. Maybe it will linger a while in your mind, too. Seattle, Washington; August, 2013.

13. Fallen fruit, barely bruised, litters the ground at a botanical garden. I photograph it. People may be hungry a few miles from here, but this fruit will remain where it fell – as if arranged by an artist – until a gardener scoops it up. I suppose it will become compost. Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Staten Island, New York; July, 2011.

14. Broken glass from an old greenhouse has fallen onto the concrete floor. I photograph it. I stumbled on this abandoned greenhouse in the early 1980s while picking flowers in a nearby field for the altar at the Zen Community of New York, where I lived. A year or so later I found out that my father’s first real job was right here, at the Boyce Thompson Institute. He had skipped two grades in school and was too young to go to college so he worked for a year at the institute, a 15 mile commute from his family’s modest Brooklyn apartment. He made $75/month doing research on plant hormones. The abandoned field where I picked flowers 50 years later may have held descendants of that work. When I saw it, the institute’s facility was in ruins but later, the historic building was restored, spiffed up and turned into a business/retail complex. Someone must have cleaned up all the broken glass. The field is gone. Yonkers, New York; April, 2010.

15. Glitter has fallen onto the boardwalk at a nature preserve. I photograph it. Why is there glitter at a nature preserve? Because photographers use the boardwalk as a location for shooting wedding and family photos. It may be pretty but it won’t do the environment any favors. Kirkland, Washington; May, 2018.

16. A tree appears to have fallen half-way down an embankment, then secured a foothold by rooting into the ground even as it dangles precariously. I photograph it. The tree is an integral part of its environment, surely supporting life even as it appears to be dead. Cape Perpetua, Oregon; September, 2019.

17. Apples and leaves have fallen under a tree wrapped in a net, part of a research project to determine best practices for growing fruit trees. I photograph it. My neighbor asked if I knew how to prune the young fruit trees that grow between our houses. I said that I didn’t know the exact technique and he should check with the people at the research center. I don’t think he ever did. He fell one night, harder than the apples, onto the pavement beside his car in the dead of night. It was cold. When we found him the next morning the car door was still open, his keys were in his hand, his mouth barely open. He did not come back to life, though we tried. He did not get back up. Like everything else in life falling is temporary, a transition between states of being, some of which we mourn, some of which we celebrate. Mount Vernon,Washington; September, 2018.

18. A sign has fallen down at a nature park. I photograph it. I walk past it. Will entering here be a new beginning? Mercer Slough, Bellevue, Washington; June, 2017.

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States of Being: CAUGHT

It’s caught,

held for a moment on its way some –

where?

Its movement arrested, it seems

comfortable (and what is comfort anyway, but

the false security

that nothing will change?)

It stalled or

paused

in this in-between place.

Not my idea of home, but

still, it settles in

until the next shift

nudges it along.

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1. The next breeze might blow this seed onto the ground – or maybe not. Hollywood Heights, Los Angeles, California.

2. A Ginkgo leaf is temporarily trapped in the clutches of pine needles. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

3. On a quiet residential street, a spring blossom has fallen into a bed of leaves. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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The word “caught” can indicate a number of different states of being – caught in a maelstrom, caught lying, caught a break. These particular images came together because one day when I was out with my camera I noticed a leaf caught on a twig, suspended in mid-fall. Soon I began to see things caught on other things everywhere. I photographed bits of flotsam caught in fences, leaves speared by twigs, or resting on bigger leaves. There’s something poignant about these suspended moments, something that speaks to the ultimately temporary nature of all things, the “just-passing-through” sense of life that we humans find hard to accept.

I started adding the keyword “caught” to these photographs in Lightroom so I could gather them together. Here’s a selection that spans eleven years and two continents.

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4. It was a poignant sight – dozens of little dead moths, covered with dew and caught on branches along a trail on a cold October morning. Baker River Trail, Concrete, Washington.

5. A feather caught on a blackberry branch. Snoqualmie Valley Trail, Duvall, Washington.

6. Fluff from Cottonwood tree seeds is caught in a corner of a roadside parking lot. Near Edison, Washington.

7. Even in January, the fallen leaves of Bigleaf maple trees remain snagged in branches high above the ground. O.O. Denny Park, Kirkland, Washington.

8. This lichen-covered twig fell right into the “arms” of a Madrone tree and stayed there. Sharpe Park, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

9. A length of cloth was tied to a rusty barbed wire fence, and then came the wind. Duvall, Washington.

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11. A length of plastic, whipped and wound by the wind on a cold day. Somewhere in upstate New York.

12. A tangle of tiny, curly leaves held by a depression in a wavy Hosta leaf. Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.

13. Bigleaf maples, with their deeply indented lobes, often get caught on branches and fences. Duvall, Washington.

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14. Fireweed seeds caught in a spider web. Juanita Bay, Kirkland, Washington.

15. This barbed wire fence has been catching hanks of sheep wool – do they rub up against it or are they just passing by? Klein Reken, Germany.

16. High tides and strong winds wrap strands of eelgrass around the branches of trees that grow close to the water. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

17. Leaves scrunched in the cracked mud of a dry creek bed. Somewhere in southeastern Arizona.

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19. Leaves from a Japanese maple tree fell into this Japanese lantern. Lu Shan Garden, Portland, Oregon.

20. The viscid caps of these mushrooms captured tiny treasures – Douglas fir needles, bits of leaves, a blade of grass, and a tiny Redcedar cone. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

21. A Bigleaf maple leaf hung up on a barbed wire fence. Snoqualmie Valley, Washington.

22. A wild Rhododendron blossom stopped by a Salal leaf. It will probably disintegrate right here, with the help of gentle spring rains. Deception Pass State Park, Washington.

23. Nature never ceases to amaze. This skeletonized leaf must have been caught on the tip of the horsetail plant when it was just beginning to grow. Mercer Slough, Bellevue, Washington.

24. A beautiful tropical leaf with an artful sprinkling of pollen. Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, Netherlands.

25. A year and a week later I observed the same phenomenon closer to home. Tree pollen was abundant, coating this Salal leaf. I wonder why the tiny pollen grains stayed in the veins – maybe because a day of heavy fog was followed by a still, dry day. The moisture from the fog may have coalesced, carrying the pollen grains into the veins of the leaf, where they settled. (This is called making it up as you go along!) Mt. Erie, Fidalgo Island, Washington.

26. Where would we be if bees didn’t catch pollen? This one carries a load of precious Trillium pollen. Somewhere in King County, Washington.

27. The shredded leaf of this tropical plant is caught between the stems, looking like it might get up and dance if the right music is played. Fort Myers, Florida.

28. And more.

29. Snow often does brief balancing acts when it piles up precariously on twigs and branches. Kirkland, Washington.

30. A leaf is caught on my windshield on a rainy December evening. Kirkland, Washington.

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