…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…
Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.
Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.
I grew upin profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.
After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.
Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.
And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.
The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.
The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!
There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.
Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.
When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.
The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. CalledCapillaire or Capilein Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.
A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.
Am I the only one feeling scattered and distracted lately? Probably not.
So in keeping with being more distracted than usual, here’s a series of photos that don’t have much in common, other than the fact that most don’t seem to fit into the kinds of posts I typically publish. A few were made last year; most are recent. Some were taken inside but most, as usual, were taken outdoors.
Speaking of outdoors, we’re not completely confined to our homes here in Washington State. The governor’s edict ordering people not to leave home unless they’re participating in essential business went into effect a few days ago, but there are exceptions. One is that you may leave home to engage in outdoor exercise, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, as long as appropriate social distancing practices are used.
Common sense says don’t stray too far from home and most parks and wilderness lands are officially closed, so we do what we can. The other day we drove to a nearby preserve that is maintained jointly, by the Swinomish tribe and the Washington State Parks Commission. We knew it might be closed because state parks are closed. Also we had heard that tribal leaders are being careful, which makes sense, given the history. When we reached the preserve we were confronted with the confusing prospect of an open gate, four cars parked in the lot and a sign stating that the preserve is closed due to a storm!
We decided to chance it. Soon we passed a cheerful park ranger who greeted us and encouraged us to enjoy the day, while keeping her distance. That was both reassuring and puzzling. We found out later that though the preserve is officially closed, they’re not enforcing the closure. This is the new normal: figure it out as you go along! Happily, the few individuals and family groups that we passed were all careful about keeping their distance.
Maintaining distance from other people is easier here than it would be in the crowded suburb where we used to live, and it’s far easier than it would have been if we hadn’t moved out of New York City eight years ago. It’s really hard to go out and keep away from people when you live in a city, especially one as densely populated as New York. That’s one reason it’s now the virus epicenter of America, with more deaths from the virus in the last two weeks than from homicides all last year. People are pulling together though. Free airfare, free hotel rooms and free rental cars are being offered to health care workers who are willing to come to New York to help out. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about people stepping up in your neighborhood, too.
But let’s not dwell on the news. I hope you’re finding other ways to stay sane and healthy if you can’t get outside as often as you’d like. This pandemic is bound to last longer than we’d like, but ultimately it IS temporary – as temporary as clouds sailing through brisk March skies.
An office in town on a sunny afternoon. I’ve been preoccupied with patterns since early childhood and with shadows for 50 years or more. Samsung phone photo.
Under the dock at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Once in a while I like to tilt the horizon. Samsung phone photo.
Budding twigs in the fog at home in March, 2019. (Processed with the antique plate filter in Silver Efex Pro).
Same day, similar subject. I came to photography as an end in itself (rather than as documentation) rather late. Right away I wanted a camera I could control, not a point and shoot, because I longed to photograph flowers and leaves closeup with a very shallow depth of field. I’ve done that thousands of times and I haven’t grown tired of it yet.
At home. A dried narcissus flower rests on a book of Japanese calligraphy. I’ve been interested in calligraphy, especially the looser, cursive style for a long time.
At home. The bright but chilly light of March reflects on the shiny surfaces of the washer and drier. Reflections! Another fascinating phenomenon that can be found everywhere.
Taking shelter in the car on a rainy afternoon in the park. In my Lightroom catalog are hundreds of photos tagged “through” because looking at something through any kind of barrier – a rainy window, a fence, a scrim of tree branches – fascinates me.
Professional tree work. A diseased Western Redcedar was determined to be dangerous and taken down. Thank fully almost all the wood was salvaged.
Looking down at a boy playing at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. People aren’t my usual subject and I encourage myself to photograph people more often. It stretches me.
A gas meter and fire hookups outside my favorite bookstore, now sadly closed. Samsung phone photo.
A potted plant and its elegant shadow are also outside the bookstore. Samsung phone photo.
At home. A small, framed piece of blue glass rests on a window sill. Outside, the Douglas fir trees stand tall and scruffy.
Last year’s rose hips at Rosario Beach, Deception Pass State Park. Another preoccupation is fine lines and flattened surfaces. I like to think of the fine lines as text.
“No Hunting or Trespassing” sign at March Point, Fidalgo Island. Sometimes I try to imagine a world without private property.
An abandoned building on Swinomish tribal land sits at the head of a bay that is full of driftwood. One piece landed right by the building, perhaps during a winter storm. I’m sure that going to school in New York in the midst of the minimal and conceptual art movements had a profound influence on me. To me this scene is like a minimalist sculpture in a well-lit gallery.
A tugboat heads towards the San Juan Islands under changeable March skies. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
Skies brighten as a sailboat motors through the same passage. As you might guess, I lightened this image and darkened the preceding one to emphasize the feeling I had when I took each photograph. It was an exciting day of intermittent rain squalls, and patchy, fast-moving clouds. I was glad I happened to be close to the water then, and glad too that so far, that park is not closed.
This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.
It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.
So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.
Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.
I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.
My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.
I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*
As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.
My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.
I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.
One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.
Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!
A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.
There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.
The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.
More about that later.
*From an unpublished manuscript.
**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.