Year-end reviews are useful but I’ve resisted doing one, perhaps out of laziness or avoidance, or because I prefer to look ahead and not analyze too much. But after reading a post by Alex Kunz, I began to think differently about reviewing my photographic year. I realized there is something to be learned from asking, “Where did I go with my camera in 2020, if not literally, then metaphorically?”
Last January I was busy planning a trip to Vietnam that was scheduled for three weeks in March. Then came the news of a dangerous new virus and the realization that travel plans had to be reconsidered. The first US case of the COVID-19 corona virus appeared on January 21 at a skilled nursing facility just 75 miles south of my home. We conferred with doctors and friends and decided to cancel the trip. It was a big disappointment but it cleared the decks for other things.
Soon, hospitalizations and deaths were making news. Then there was the daily litany of school closings, lost jobs and opportunities, and cancelled events. By March the governor of Washington had issued a stay-at-home order, the border with Canada was closed and in Seattle, a woman volunteered to be the very first person to receive Kaiser-Permanente’s experimental coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, we were enjoying a lush, rainy spring. The green machine was in gear! Abundant flowers, insects, birds and even heavy crops of seed cones, all contributed to a breathtaking spring. I felt grateful to be retired and free of the concerns that so many people were dealing with – kids at home, lost income, sickness. In fact, the biggest impact for me at the time was the closing of my favorite destination, Deception Pass State Park. I felt that loss acutely but most county and city parks remained open, leaving me with plenty of choices. I became obsessed with searching for wildflowers in all the green places near home. Frequent forays led to discoveries of species I’d never seen before and a better understanding of familiar flowers. The previous year I was in Europe in April and took a road trip in May, which meant that I missed the parade of spring wildflowers. Before that I lived in a different habitat without many of the specialized plants that grow here on Fidalgo Island. I didn’t really know my own back yard. The cancellation of our trip and subsequent pandemic restrictions held a silver lining: the opportunity to study and take pleasure in the progression of the seasons right at home. I made the best of it!
Besides fully immersing myself in the local flora, two other photographic projects occupied my time last year: a series of photographs of a square pane of glass placed in various locations outdoors and a series of abstractions, made primarily in Lightroom. Working on the abstractions honed my ability to condense images down to simpler shapes, colors and textures. Concentrating on the forms within the rectangle, playing freely with exposure values, compositions and colors – all of that sharpened my ability to recognize what I’m looking for when I’m outdoors with the camera. I believe the process of abstracting images improved my photography. I’ll be returning to that project, as well as the glass pane project. Another project that involved writing more than photography was a memoir I began posting in March, ‘”An Unstill Life with Flowers.” More installments are in the works.
I added a few new tools to the Olympus kit this year: a smaller camera body for the Vietnam trip and two lenses: a 12mm f2 prime and a 12-42mm f3.5-5.6 ultra-compact zoom. The second camera body (an OM-D EM-5) is somewhat different from my normal camera and certain things drive me crazy, like the awkward placement of the on-off button. I’ll never be one of those people with two cameras hanging from their neck and a weighty backpack full of extra gear – but it’s good to have a second camera body that accepts the lenses I already have.
The wide zoom lens was meant for travel and I haven’t used it much yet. I’m excited about the 12mm prime lens (a 24mm equivalent). The one lens I own with an equally wide view is very heavy so it doesn’t get much use. For years now, I’ve tended to favor one particular lens, a 60mm f2.8 prime, over the others. Shooting with that lens so often has affected the way I see the landscape. Exchanging the 60mm field of view for a 12mm angle makes a big difference and forces me to stop and reconsider what I can do. That’s a good thing!
My aesthetic horizons expand each year from traveling and visiting museums and galleries. This year, with travel out of the question and museums closed, I found inspiration online, on your blogs, in email conversations, and from online workshops. This community has a lot to give! Over the course of last year, feeling inspired and free to roam the immediate environment, I went out with my camera well over 200 times. Like I said, the pandemic brought opportunities. Here are some of the results.
It’s time for change in America. Four years ago a man was elected to the American presidency who should have never been chosen to lead anything, let alone a free, democratic country. This man’s tenure has been an ugly, backward time when many norms we took for granted were destroyed. The foundations of our government have been undermined, our relationships with each other have suffered, and relationships with our partners across the globe have crumbled. It’s time to turn things around and get back on track.
This week, a news story in a local paper said that the old building you see pictured here is going to be torn down. It was built almost 130 years ago as a fish cannery. The building functioned well for a long time and was once even touted as one of the biggest fish processing plants in the world. It fell into serious disrepair in recent years, having been sold to an out-of-town developer who allowed it to fall apart become a hazard. It’s the kind of place people break into and hang out in, the kind of place whose present state is barely a shadow of what it once was. The owner has been told that he must erect a fence to keep people out – part of a wall collapsed last week. Soon the entire place will be torn down, once and for all.
The current president’s contempt for truth, fairness, science, and humanity itself has been mind-boggling. In only four years this administration has done serious damage to our country. It’s time to tear down what has no integrity, to clear away what’s broken, rotten and dangerous and replace it with something new.
In this time of renewal, it’s appropriate that the changes we need will be accomplished with the help of our first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president-elect. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ll need to be patient, and we’ll need to try to work together. Let’s hope that what is constructed in place of the current structure will be created with integrity and strength. And maybe even a dash of beauty. We can dream.
I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.
There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.
In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.
My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.
I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.
There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.
A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.
…of a five-mile radius. That is where the shutter button clicked for the images below.
Real travel still seems risky but we are so weary of the restrictions we’ve had to adapt to this year! A release, a reprieve, a relief – that’s what we need. Getting outside works for me. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired but I make myself walk and in the end, there is much to be found that keeps me going, even close to home. So I continue my local forays with a curious mind and a grateful heart.
Here on Fidalgo Island seasonal changes are drawn out and subtle; summer into fall is no exception. Instead of brilliant Sugar maple fire there is a quiet, golden glow in the grasses and leaves; in place of crisp, blue-sky days there is moody morning fog. The delights of freshly-opened flowers are gone but there is pleasure to be had in the following the sinuous curves of drying leaves. The slow permutations of autumn in the Pacific northwest unfold without hindrance, like a meandering waltz spreading limbs through time and space.
These images were made between mid-September and mid October on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The terroir, as the French say, is strongly influenced by water, mild in temperature, thin of soil, and resplendent with natural beauty.
I “beat the bounds” of my own small place on this planet, walking a ragged perimeter of well-worn paths, absorbing the lessons I’m open to, exploring the limits of “my” territory. In England, Scotland and Wales, before maps were readily available, boundary memories were periodically refreshed by walking along and defining them. Beating the bounds and practices like it have probably been around for thousands of years and may be rooted in a similar Roman custom which Wikipedia says honored Terminus, the god of landmarks. But why is it called “beating” the bounds? Because willow or birch branches were slapped on the ground and on the old stone boundary markers, helping to fix parish borders in residents’ minds. Children were brought along to learn the boundaries by whatever means suited those in charge – maybe a firm knock on the child’s head when they arrived at a stone marker could cement the memory. And afterwards the bonds of the community were strengthened by celebrating with food and drink. According to Wikipedia, the custom still exists in some locations, including sites in Germany, France, and even the U.S. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have statutes requiring that certain boundaries are periodically reaffirmed. However, apparently some contemporary versions of beating the bounds don’t include actual walking. Too bad.
Though I’m not necessarily a fan of practices that strengthen the idea of ownership over land, I find much to like in the idea of beating the bounds. It seems to be a way to recognize and celebrate one’s connection to the earth, specifically to one’s locality. We are rooted in the local, nourished by the soil under our feet and the air about us. It’s good to remember that.
It was a day of serendipity. I had an appointment on Whidbey Island, our neighbor to the south, and decided to wend my way further south instead of heading right back home. The small, historic town of Coupeville beckoned. I’m sorry I don’t have photos of Coupeville’s charming Victorian architecture or its old wharf and quiet waterfront, but I was beelining to Little Red Hen for espresso and treats. Their too-small-for-COVID-times indoor seating space is closed so people lounged around outside as they waited for their orders, trying to maintain distance on the narrow sidewalk. I ordered an egg sandwich with goat cheese and crunchy fried kale served on their own English muffin. But wait, there’s more! I didn’t pass up the crisp, warm double-filled dark chocolate croissants, nor did I forget to buy a ginger-molasses cookie. You have to stock up when you’re in the presence of a baker who knows what they’re doing.
I found a spot with a nice view and wolfed down the sandwich, sipping a rich, intense macchiato between bites. Yummy. Then, on the way out of town I noticed a place called Ciao Food and Wine. I’d passed it before but never checked it out. It was time to investigate. Inside, a chef was frying garlic in olive oil only steps away from shiny displays of high-end Italian deli treats, the like of which I hadn’t seen in several years. I spent my formative years in New York, where Italian food reigns, and foods like like ricotta salata and sfogliatelle are comfort food to me. I miss that now and realize that I took good Italian food for granted, so I couldn’t stop smiling as I chatted with the salesperson, chose a wedge of cheese and a pretty pastry, and tucked a menu in the bag, in hopes of tempting a certain someone into coming back with me for lunch.
Treats in hand, I thought I was heading home but serendipity intervened again. The sky darkened with dramatic clouds to the west so I swerved off the highway in that direction to find a better view. The road led to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, a generous parcel of land along Whidbey’s Island’s western shore that features gorgeous views with a side of local history. Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey was an early settler on the island – or should I say, an early white settler. He brought his family over from Missouri and began making a life amidst conflict and hardship. Before he turned 40, Ebey was killed by members of a northern tribe (most likely Tlingit) in retribution for the death of one of their chiefs during a battle between a large tribal party that came down from their territory to effect a slave raid. Traditionally, a number of northern tribes took slaves from other tribes to establish wealth and rank but now, with whites in the picture, the scenario didn’t go as planned. Many people, including a chief, were killed by U.S. Navy sailors in what is known to whites as the 1856 Battle of Port Gamble. A small number of Tlingit men who were captured were eventually returned to their homeland, and again following tradition, they planned the revenge raid that ended in Ebey’s death. (He was actually not the target but ended up being a convenient mark for the tribe, as he was home that day and the doctor they planned to kill was not).
A few years later Ebey’s brother and cousin constructed a public house so his two sons would have a means of support. The handsome structure still stands, overlooking the broad fields that swoop down to a shoreline that once bustled with ferry traffic. The absorbing history of the Ebey family includes stories about Colonel Ebey’s role in the Oregon Territorial government, the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, and rumors about Ebey’s scalp, which was held by the tribe for a time, then sold to a fur trader and returned to the Ebey family. After that, the exact location of that sad remnant of a tragedy is murky; the trail runs cold in California.
Engrossing history aside, that day I was just looking for fresh air and stirring views.
In fact, the air was so fresh it was bracing. I found a trail passing the austere, slate gray house and tracing the edge of still-tended fields out to a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet, where the Olympic Mountains pile on top of one other across the cold, choppy water. I quickly regretted not putting my hoodie on – the chilly wind whipped my hair in my face and bit at my ears. Invigorated, I paused on the bluff with my back to the gale and watched clouds ride the wind and switch places across a vast, shifting, gray-blue panorama. The beach below was strewn with driftwood logs and an occasional walker could be seen braving the wind. A few wildflowers waved their heads frantically and ravens tore across the sky, slicing it every which way. Then a family approached, triggering my retreat.
Going back was shorter, as it always is, so instead of scurrying to the car I stopped to peer into the gloom of Ferry House. I couldn’t see much inside – the light was against it – but what I saw in the windows made up for the murky interior. The dramatic, cloud-darkened sky swirled around in the glass. A window on the far side of the house appeared like a beacon and my own reflection, broken up by repeating rectangles, disappeared into an abyss of light.
The title of this post has two meanings: first, it’s a return to abstraction because I published a post featuring abstract images earlier this year. Second, like many people these days, I find myself drifting back to the past. Aesthetically, the past for me means abstraction. As a child I was shown the standard representational fare, some of it very beautiful, no doubt. But change and rebellion were in the air by the time I went to college. I refused to attend a typical college and enrolled in a New York City art school instead. There, minimalism, conceptual art, installations, land art and performance art ruled. Fully immersed in that culture, I was very happy.
A thread had been dropped though, and it wouldn’t be picked up until much later. I never forgot that nature was vital to my being, even in a decade of full-throttle, staccato, subway-riding, sensory-overloaded life in the city. Nature just rode along quietly for a while, breathing gently like a hushed tide. When I moved out of the city the tide came in. I gardened, watched birds, learned botanical illustration, and eventually began wielding a camera to record the beauty I saw everywhere.
That brings me to the present, a present in which I joyfully hone my skills making photographs of lichens, landscapes, and everything in between. But abstraction lives. The habits of seeing that were refined in galleries, in classrooms and on the streets of New York may not be obvious in my work, but they underlie many decisions made behind the camera and at the computer.
In the spirit of creating something new while working with the past, I’ve been making drastic changes to photographs in my archives. I’ve been abstracting them and therein, I’m finding new delights. As Wikipedia notes, abstraction “strictly speaking…refers to art unconcerned with the literal depiction of things from the visible world—it can, however, refer to an object or image which has been distilled from the real world…” And that’s the space these images inhabit – the distillation and reshaping of the original image toward a new vision.
I’ve been following a deviant route when I work with the photos on my screen. Before jumping into processing I get a feeling for the whole image. Then, instead of proceeding to refine what is there, I wonder what else is in the image. What can be extracted from it? What does it say? What permutations are waiting to be uncovered? Where can I take it?
A paper appeared in my inbox one day that discusses a different, more philosophical approach to the photographic experience. Reading the paper, which was written by an art education professor, I stepped outside the world of photographers talking about photography for a moment. I realized that viewing photography through a different lens (sorry, I can’t help it!) could facilitate breaking habits. I thought about taking my typically representational images and mutating them.
“The encounter then operates as a rupture in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities. It produces a cut, a crack. However this is not the end of the story, for the rupturing encounter also contains a moment of affirmation, the affirmation of a new world, in fact a way of seeing and thinking this world differently.”Thinking Through the Photographic Encounter: Engaging with the Camera as Nomadic Weapon by Cala Coats. Nomadic in this sense refers to boundary-blurring, creative, alternative ways of being in the world. As a nomadic weapon the camera assists the photographer in engaging with the world directly, resulting in new insights.
Is the camera only a representational tool? Certainly not. It can be a launch pad for a trip to an unknown place. If seeing the world with fresh eyes is desirable, then how can wielding a camera disrupt habitual ways of seeing? What can the person behind the lens do to break the spell of look-click-look-click-look-click? And later, what can the person tapping the keyboard do to break the spell of contrast-up-highlights-down-sharpness-up, etc.?
Something about the middle of August always inclines me to take a small step back and ponder the passing of summer with a sigh. The onward unfolding of seasonal changes never hesitates, always moving forward. The transitions are incremental; some obvious, some almost invisible. Here in the Northern hemisphere, by the middle of August the green machine is winding down. Leaves drop onto the ground. Dry grasses sparkle in the sunlight and berries ripen. Gardens are lush with tall, joyful blooms that have grown up together into fine, tangled bouquets. Young birds fending for themselves still beg from their parents now and then, fluttering their wings and peeping. Who can blame them? Fawns follow does to the best munching spots, which are too often on the wrong side of the road when I’m driving. Along the waterways shorebird migration is ramping up but lakes are placid and calm, perfect for canoes and paddleboards. Mid-August is also the time when hurricanes form and wildfires flare up with a vengeance, just as people disperse for a final summer sojourn.
You may be thinking about sights, sounds and smells that signify late summer in your neighborhood, or the news of California wildfire evacuations and floods in China. Looking out the window, I notice the light is a shade gentler and Bigleaf maple leaves have traded the fresh brilliance of spring for softer, warmer hues. We’re losing light as the days shorten. Summer’s riotous colors are just beginning to fade, another sign of the transition toward fall. The signs are subtle now. Next month will be another story.
So, in honor of fading light and quieter colors, here is a series of photographs from the past month. The images speak in tints and tinges instead of strong colors. I’ll throw in a few outliers to keep you from drifting off.
My first posthere was published in the middle of August, in 2012. I uploaded two photos and wrote, “Earth holds its breath for a few days – everything is still, heavy with light and summer dreams, waiting to move forward into autumn.” Noticing the nuances of seasonal change has always kept me grounded and recognizing summer’s impending dispersion into fall seemed like an appropriate way to begin this ecocentric blog.
You could make a case for eight seasons if you include the transitions from spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter and winter to spring. Each shift from one season to the next has its own sensory perceptions: the slightly earlier dawns and swelling buds in February, the decomposing leaves and chill in the air in November – the more you think about it, the more signs you’ll find. Some transitions may be more remarkable than others – for example, as we anticipate spring we search for every little sign that it’s on the way. For me, summer-into-fall stands out as a time when, as I said above, I step back and observe what’s happening in nature with a sigh. Why is that?
The social worker in me suspects that it’s because of a series of events that took place at this time of year. An unexpected, violent attack on a mid-August day, the year I graduated from high school, left a legacy of mute terror that effectively froze the feelings of a moment in time to the sensations of the season when it occurred. After that, every time the middle of August rolled around I would remember that difficult time, first as a vague discomfort, then more consciously. Then fifteen years later on another mid-August afternoon a drowning accident in which I tried, but could not save a friend’s life darkened the season again. I couldn’t bear to see autumn approaching that year – every falling leaf meant I was farther from the time when my friend was alive. I just wanted time to stand still. Four years after that my father died suddenly, in mid-August. The month filled me with foreboding – what next?
But time undercuts the fear, softens the jagged edges and lends perspective. I may still be acutely sensitive to the hallmarks of late summer – the slight damping-down of light, the first scatter of leaves on the grass, the torpor of stillness on hot afternoons, the absence of birdsong. But it doesn’t put me on edge as much. In fact, the tiptoe beginnings of autumn’s inward turn can feel like a respite after the wild ebullience of spring and early summer. After all, better light for photography is on the way! Vague feelings of unease may surface from time to time but on balance, I know it’s not good or bad, this time of year. It is what it is, as the saying goes. Well, maybe it’s good. Yes, if anything, it’s good.
“Abstract” is a familiar word that is worth prying open and thinking about. It’s from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away. Abstrahere (the verb) is defined as “to drag away, detach, pull away, divert.” The abstracted idea or object is dragged away from its physicality, diverted from its origin. In art, the word abstract has come to describe work that does not intentionally reproduce reality. Likewise, in photography, an abstract image does not depend on a real-world referent but relies on shape, light, form, and/or color to convey visual information and impressions.
Over a hundred years ago a man named Alvin Langdon Coburn had an idea for a photography show in which “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.” (Rexer, Lyle. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. NY: Aperture, 2013.) That thought exposes the aesthetic crux that many photographers who work with “reality” (whether that means portraits or landscapes or street photography) are dealing with: is the photograph just a snapshot, or does it say something more?
I think for most people reading this post, reproducing reality is (still) a compelling exercise but “the appreciation of the extraordinary” is probably what keeps that finger clicking the shutter. It’s certainly true for me.
To convey the “extra” that I find in the ordinary, I like to explore different approaches; abstraction is one that can freshen the mind’s eye. The images here come at abstraction from a variety of angles and some are more recognizable as real-world objects than others. But in my opinion, there’s no need to name what you see.
The urge to name what we see is hard to resist though. As soon as we see something, especially a two-dimensional image, labels pop into our minds. When we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, we learned to ask, “What’s in a name?” It was a good lesson, but it barely loosened the knot of naming things. We are compelled to tie an identity around everything and everyone, and usually, we tie the knot pretty tightly. That identity, that name, inevitably drags waves of associations along with it – liking, disliking, evaluating, remembering, etc.
Of course, the propensity for identifying what we see is necessary and helpful, but it’s not a bad idea to question it once in a while. Names and identities may be more arbitrary than we realize. Questioning the connection of a name to its referent can open up space in our minds. Even just loosening the bonds of language to simply absorb images without labeling them can be rewarding.
I’m not advocating slipping down into a world where meaning is entirely arbitrary and unique to each person. We need to agree on something, even if it’s only the names of things – times are tough enough! But I think it’s beneficial to step out of the familiarity of our language-based environment now and then. A little muddling and messing about with what we’ve come to rely on as firm and clear can be refreshing.
Lacking a brain, the black box doesn’t know that the flower in front of it isn’t just a flower, but is an infinite web of relationships. The awareness that a subject isn’t separate from its surroundings is something we are able to perceive, along with the awareness that we can choose to focus on any part of the whole, using our camera. Constantly becoming, the flower may be positioned at the center of the field that the camera encompasses, but in fact, the center extends infinitely through space and time, inviting a myriad of abstractions.
These images have been altered by severe cropping, color changes, and tonal manipulations. I followed my nose towards different “meanings” of the scenes above than what the camera saw, subverting the black box’s stubborn insistence on one-to-one reproduction. No matter where I point it, the camera “wants” to make a faithful copy. This is the blessing/curse of photography. Of course, the camera does have a person operating it – a person with ideas, history, and intentions. A moment to record was chosen. And later, when we sit down with the camera’s rendition of reality before us, we’re free to play with it as much or as little as we want.
By the way, I’m happy to divulge the names of these things and whatever I can remember about the process of metamorphosing them into abstractions. Just ask.
This entry in my “Just One” series about Pacific Northwest plants is actually about two wildflowers that look alike at first glance. It has taken me a long time to identify and differentiate them. They’re both Rein orchids – small, delicate wildflowers that most people have never heard of and would not notice, even if they walked right past them. But bear with me – they’re really quite beautiful.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with Rein orchids ever since discovering one in a hidden spot off a preserve trail two weeks after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I could tell it was an orchid but I’d never seen anything quite like it. A year later I found the little orchid again, this time in five different places. As I studied my photos I could see that some were different from the others, but when I tried to identify them I was met with a jumble of look-alike species and a veritable morass of names.
Learning that their leaves emerge in late winter, I reminded myself to search for the leaves where I’d seen the orchids in the summer. Sure enough, in February I found healthy, oval leaves, pressed close to the ground, gathering energy so the plant could flower in the summer. They had to be the Rein orchid plants.
This year I resolved to better understand the science of what I was seeing. I wanted to at least know the proper names of these pretty flowers, though I believe that names and science aren’t the only tools for understanding our experience of the natural world. There are less logic-based ways to understand the world which are just as important, but I value science – and I was itching to figure out which is which! A website called inaturalist has been very helpful; I can compare what other people have photographed and identified with my own sightings. I feel fairly confident now that I’ve been seeing two species of Rein orchids here on Fidalgo Island: Platanthera elegans and Platanthera transversa. There’s something tantalizingly poetic about these slender sprites that hide in plain sight.
The Rein orchids wait patiently,
gilded grasses swaying around them, faint
bay breezes rustling the dry Madrone leaves
at their feet. Spiders craft
sticky thread-worlds on their petals,
motorboats rumble in the distance,
occasional bursts of human voices
fade as quickly as they appear. The orchids
wait for the night
and the pollinators, for the arrival
of soft wings and probing tongues,
the woosh, the slurp, the brush of feet and antennae.
This is the reward of patience, or so I imagine
because our encounters, however sweet, are
never by moonlight. We soak the midsummer sun
together, the Rein orchids and I. The heat pricks my nose
with the fragrance of dry grass and cedar, and
encourages petals and roots to stretch. It relaxes
my stiff neck. Slowly the orchids’ nectar ripens
to satisfy the single species of moth that
might pollinate a tiny flower. Let it happen.
Let it happen and
let me find another fairy tale cluster
of slim white stems nestled in the warm grass
Orchids are fascinating. The pretty corsages you see at weddings evolved their colors and curves for very specific reasons, having nothing to do with humans. Evolutionarily advanced, orchids have developed thousands of distinctive ways to attract their pollinators. As Darwin said, “The contrivances for insect fertilization in Orchids are multiform & truly wonderful & beautiful.” As orchid species evolve, their pollinators evolve too, resulting in very specific, even exclusive relationships between plant and pollinator. Orchids often trick their pollinators, which can be bees, hummingbirds, moths, even birds. It’s theorized that the tricks employed by orchids to attract pollinators result in a greater fertilization success rate – as the specialist keeps visiting its favorite orchid species, the orchid pollen it collects isn’t wasted on other flower species.
The first orchid appeared on earth’s evolutionary stage some 100 million years ago; the family now comprises as many as 28,000 different species. Many grow high in trees, some thrive high in the mountains, a few live above the Arctic Circle, most grow in the tropics, and one exists entirely underground.
The Platanthera genus contains around 100 species; 45 are native to North America. At least two – P. elegans and P. transversa – grow close to my home. They are the orchids pictured here. Neither one has a fixed common name but P. elegans is sometimes called the Elegant Rein orchid. Apparently, our P. elegans is a subspecies, P. elegans elegans, the Coast Piperia. (Piperia is after Charles V. Piper, an American botanist and an authority on Pacific Northwest plants). P. transversa (pictured just above) is called the Flat-spurred Rein orchid, or sometimes the Royal Rein orchid. Flat-spurred refers to the long flower spur where the nectar is. It extends out horizontally on each little flower, clearly visible in photos #6 and 18. Another similar species (P. unalascensis) probably grows here as well but I haven’t seen it yet. These flowers are challenging!
Rein orchidson Fidalgo Island favor relatively dry, partly shady conditions. They grow near Douglas fir, and frequently under Madrone trees, which also like drier places. Clusters of Rein orchids can be seen hugging steep slopes facing the water and single flowers may be scattered near trails in open woods, where they get a little more sun than they would in a dense forest. I’ve noticed the presence of another small orchid, the Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), can be a clue that Rein orchids may be nearby. It surprises me that no one picks them or tramples them. Maybe that’s the cynical New Yorker in me, expecting nature to be destroyed by hordes of heedless humans. More likely, people don’t see them in the first place. Flower stalks are just a foot or two (20 – 55cm) tall and the flowers don’t sport bright colors. If I show a Rein orchid to someone the reaction is puzzlement and slight disappointment – that’s an orchid? You have to bend down and really look hard to see the graceful flowers. I think their small stature and pale colors are keeping them safe.
A deeper dive into the strange world of orchid reproduction
Rein orchids are summer bloomers whose leaves emerge in late winter. The orchids are busy photosynthesizing well before many other plants are visible. By July the stalk appears, buds begin to open, and the leaves are dry up. After pollination, the stalk is dotted with brown seed pods containing prodigious amounts of seed. Unlike most seeds, tiny orchid seeds don’t have enough nutrition on board to get going on their own. They must join with a mycorrhizal network (a web of fungal threads in the soil) to survive. Within hours of this crucial linkage, carbon will flow in both directions, benefiting the “infected” orchid and the fungus. Fungal partners also supply nitrogen and phosphorus to the orchid. This mycorrhizal association, though not well understood, is absolutely essential to all orchids.
Once a seed germinates and begins growing underground, the slow process of flowering is underway. A root will form in the soil at some point, but it can be years before a leaf emerges and photosynthesis takes place. It can also be years before the plant is robust enough to produce a flower stalk. Once the plant blooms and releases its seeds, little is left to see above ground. But a tuber is there, hiding in the soil, along with many fungal networks. When the time is right, (patience!) another Rein orchid will appear.
There is a dearth of information about these orchids. It’s not clear exactly what insects pollinate them. One source says that P. elegans is pollinated by a small brown moth not much bigger than your thumb. Its Latin name is Plusia nichollae and there is no common name – more obscurity! The little pollinator is a partly diurnal moth that lives mainly west of the Cascades, from coastal British Columbia to the Bay area in California, a narrow range not unlike that of the orchid. Sienna brown wings marked with white and gold would make the moth hard to spot among the golden grasses that often surround P. elegans. I’ll be looking for it.
A source says Flat-spurred rein orchids may be pollinated by “moths such as Thallophaga taylorata.” This moth doesn’t have a common name either. The obscurity of these lovely little plants is part of the appeal. They aren’t common, they grow in out-of-the-way places, they’re not well-studied by scientists, they aren’t known at all by the general public…and there you have a recipe for wonder. They will keep my attention for a while, I expect.
As I write this post, the flowers are fading and the plants are moving on to seed setting and dispersal. Six months from now I’ll be looking for Rein orchid leaves, nestled in moist moss. Until next year…