Tides are like the earth breathing in and out, in and out. On the in-breath, a myriad of living and once-living things are sucked away from the shore with the water. On the out-breath, everything is pulled back toward the shore and rearranged. In, out, over and over. Endless cycles reveal innumerable scenes for the visually curious, like new paintings created and framed, minute by minute.
Gentle currents of water draw lines and patterns in the sand. Waves scoop and carve hollows around stranded objects. Pieces of seaweed detach, swish around, and come to rest, leaving calligraphic messages behind. Tangles of plant life, artfully arranged chunks of driftwood, rivulets, ripples – the tides yield a never-ending parade of forms on the beach. Delighting the eyes of toddlers and photographers, piquing the interest of gulls and herons, the shoreline is “ever-present, never twice the same.”*
Tides wash shorelines the world over but each place where salt water meets land is different. The weather is different, the ecology is different, the geology is different, and the tide cycles are different. Not only do some locations have stronger tides than others, but each high or low tide is different from the last. Many variables are responsible for uneven tides, like bulges in the earth, continents in the ocean, an uneven ocean floor, and an imperfect alignment of the sun, moon, and earth. The seasons and lunar cycles also affect tides.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, a wide strait (the Strait of Juan de Fuca) cuts 96 miles (155km) back into Washington, connecting Puget Sound to the Pacific ocean. That means people living 90 miles from the ocean, like I do, still experience daily tidal cycles. Most places have two low and two high tides per day. In the Pacific Northwest, the lows and highs are mixed, which means that each day’s high tides are at different heights. Each day’s low tides are different, too. Today (at Bowman Bay), shortly after midnight there was a high tide of about 7.9 feet (2.4m). Just before 8am there was a low tide at 1 foot (.3m). The next high tide, at 3:17pm, is almost 3 feet lower than the first one – just 5.1 feet (1.5m). The last low tide of the day is at 6:03pm. At 4.7 feet (1.4m), it will be much higher than the morning low tide. As you can see, sometimes a low tide is almost as high as the previous high tide.
Keeping an eye on tide charts is essential for boaters and I’ve learned it’s worthwhile for me to check tide charts, too. That’s how I know to be at a place like North Beach (below) during a very low tide. Normally only the dark rocks in the photo are visible but during very low tides you can see rocks that have been smoothed and shaped by numberless tides.
Tide heights can vary a lot, depending on many factors. North America’s Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides – as high as 53 feet (16m) – but far to the south, the Caribbean has almost no tides. The reasons for this disparity are too complex to go into here. Though we may not grasp the science, many of us have seen the damage a very high tide combined with strong onshore winds and low pressure does. Whether in person or on media, we’ve seen houses destroyed and shorelines changed by complex interactions between the tides and the weather.
You probably know that around the new and full moon the difference between low and high tide levels increases because the alignment of the sun, earth, and moon magnifies gravitational pull. There are seasonal variations in tide cycles, too – something I didn’t know until I moved to an island. In the Pacific Northwest, summer brings unusually low tides during the daytime and the winter’s lowest tides occur after dark. During the full moon this month, Puget Sound had an extremely low tide, the lowest in over a decade. Foragers and families converged on shorelines throughout the region to experience the extra-low tide, a phenomenon that’s becoming less common due to rising sea levels.
I went to Bowman Bay, my favorite place to walk the beach anytime. I’d hoped to find pretty patterns in the sand but nature had other ideas. What I did find were ribbons of kelp shining in the sunlight (#4 & #5), a bare-bottomed toddler having a blast in the sand, the fresh hoof prints of a running deer, and the same family of Canada geese that I photographed last month. For at least a month these goose parents have kept all six of their goslings safe. I always expect to see one or two fewer, but so far they are all OK.
A few days later the afternoon low tide was still unusually low, so I went to Washington Park. A rocky pocket beach there can be good for tide pooling (searching for creatures in basins of water left by the outgoing tide). The only seastar I found was dead but there were beautiful anemones waving translucent tentacles. Another anemone was the color of an overripe peach.
Something interesting always appears as a result of the tides. These photos are just one person’s observations from walking along Salish Sea shorelines. You’ll find something different.
*The words, “Ever present, never twice the same” are inscribed on a granite marker that was part of an installation done in 1987 by the artist Robert Irwin at Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked then. That phrase, along with “Ever changing, never less than whole” is also inscribed on stones in the Central Garden, designed by Irwin for the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Hidden in plain sight, modest and peculiar, demanding an effortful eye,
distinct from their neighbors,
oddly colored, without leaves,
they appear irregularly – maybe this year,
maybe next. Eccentrically nourished,
they hide underground anchors
to a vast network
Rootless, alone or
they reward inspection with sweet symmetry.
When I insinuate
the black box between us –
this awkward human with legs sprawled across the forest floor,
neck crooked, eyes squinting, fingers tense –
a photo is made, and then
I watch the bright screen beam
patterns and colors
to rival my dreams.
Coralroots are in bloom and I’m excited about them so this “Just One” entry is actually about two plants, both in the coralroot family. Small, slender, and unassuming, coralroots can be hard to see in the leaf and twig litter that accumulates under the trees. From above, they look like odd-colored spikes, hardly worth a second glance. But bend way down, squint your eyes, peer at a single flower, and you’ll find a masterpiece of design. If it reminds you of a corsage that makes sense – coralroots are orchids.
On the last day of May, I went to a local park to see if the orange Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming yet. There’s only one place on the island I can depend on to see Tiger lilies and I didn’t want to miss them but as they say in the Pacific Northwest, no worries – the lily stems were all topped by small, nodding buds. It would be weeks before the flowers opened.
I didn’t expect any botanical surprises that day but just after I stepped onto the trail, a flash of magenta caught my eye. I came to an abrupt halt. What was that? The color didn’t compute in my mind – I didn’t remember any magenta plants in that patch of woods. Pink flowers, yes, but this was a dark, almost purple shade of pink. One spindly, magenta stalk rose from the detritus of last winter’s gray-brown twigs and this spring’s green leaves. I knew immediately that the little flower must be something interesting.
Bending down, I found a delicate orchid. It looked like some coralroot plants I’d seen there in the past but it was the wrong color and the flowers seemed different. I quickly made photographs – a few closeups and a few of the whole plant – to help me identify it after I got home.
Excited about the new find, I looked for more and located two plants. Each one was just a small, asparagus-like stalk rising from the duff but unlike asparagus, they were deep reddish-purple. I sat down in a tangle of branches and old leaves, careful not to crush anything living, and photographed the stalks with their tightly closed buds. It was good to know there would be more of these little treasures blooming soon.
The mystery plant reminded me of Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), which was nowhere to be seen, even though I photographed it in that area in each of the last three years. It was as if an imposter had arrived and stolen the scene.
When I got home it didn’t take long to identify the new flower as Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). Surprised that two Coralroots grow on Fidalgo Island, I looked for records of Pacific coralroot on the iNaturalist and Burke Herbarium websites. The Burke had two, dated 1952 and 1968, from other locations on the island. iNaturalist had three observations, all from the same place in the woods where I saw them. One is dated 2017, two are from 2020, and now that I’ve added my photos there’s a record for 2022.
By this time I was burning with curiosity – where else near my home could Pacific coralroot be found? Are there more kinds of Coralroots near here? The answers were easy to find on iNaturalist, where the map of Pacific coralroot observations showed a cluster of sightings on Whidbey Island (just to our south) in a protected forest where old-growth Douglas firs and Western hemlocks thrive. Obsessed with my new find, I twisted Joe’s arm, and the very next day we were marching through the forest on Whidbey Island in search of Pacific coralroot. We weren’t disappointed – there were dozens and dozens of them! Even more exciting, a number of the plants were pale and yellowish instead of intense pink.
I had questions about these plants that I’ll write about here, but if there are too many details here for your taste, no problem. Enjoy the photographs!
Why do coralroots have such odd colors? Did you notice that they don’t have leaves? In fact, there aren’t any green parts at all. Coralroots lost their leaves and chlorophyll over evolutionary time. You may remember that chlorophyll is the compound that helps plants get energy from the sun and gives them their green color. So how do these plants live if they can’t photosynthesize? They form relationships with fungi in the soil, fungi that also have connections to the trees towering overhead. Those trees are busy photosynthesizing – so coralroots don’t have to! This is called mycorrhizal symbiosis. While I was photographing the diminutive orchids, complex transactions among coralroots, fungi, and trees were occurring continuously out of sight, right under my feet, making beautiful flowers like these possible:
About 400 different species of plants can’t photosynthesize and depend on fungi for nourishment; many are orchids. Some orchids depend on fungi only for germination but coralroots are dependent on fungi for germination and growth. They have lost their true roots and instead are anchored into the soil by a rhizome, essentially a horizontal, nubby stem. The nubs on the rhizome can resemble short branches of coral, which is why they’re called coralroots. The rhizomes are connected to mycorrhizal fungi that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, like Douglas fir trees. The requirement for particular fungi to be present in the soil means that humans have not been able to cultivate coralroots (as far as I know). Being dependent on fungal networks in the soil means that disturbances like road construction, which probably destroy mycorrhizal fungi, would restrict the spread of coralroots. You won’t find them invading roadside lots and lawns the way dandelions do!
The unusual arrangement coralroots have with fungi starts with the seeds, which are tiny and numerous, almost like clouds of dust. That’s typical for the orchid family, one of the largest plant families, with 25,000 – 35,000 species. Orchid seeds lack stores of energy (food) and can’t germinate on their own so they rely on fungi to get a start in life. If the particular fungus an orchid requires doesn’t live where the windblown seeds land, too bad, there will be no orchid. That’s probably why orchids produce prodigious amounts of seeds.
Ectomycorrhizal (ektos – outside, mykes – fungus, rhiza – root) relationships are being studied by people like Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia who has written extensively about the ways plants communicate below the ground. Her book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ details the implications of her ground-breaking research exploring the surprising forces that bind trees and plants together in complex networks. Actually, scientists have known that fungal networks connect to tree roots for years. It was a nineteenth-century German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, who first recognized and wrote about fungus/plant relationships and coined the word “mycorrhiza.” Frank also coined the term, “symbiosis” back in 1877. But there is still much to learn about fungal connections to plants.
How exactly the complex relationship among coralroots, mycorrhizal fungi, and trees benefits each partner is a question that, if I understand correctly, scientists are asking and answering bit by bit, as research continues. We know that fungi continuously “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, an ability that coralroots exploit to receive carbon. The fungi coralroots depend on are essentially intricate networks of rootlike hyphae that branch over and over again, exploring the soil for nutrients and forming connections with the fine tips of tree roots and orchid rhizomes. Minerals that fungi get from the trees they’re connected to can be passed to coralroots, too.
These fascinating plants are a small genus of only ten species, all but one found in North America. The coralroot that grows outside North America is C. trifida, sometimes called Early or Northern coralroot. It occurs across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the US. This small, yellowish-green orchid has some chlorophyll but primarily relies on fungi that are often connected to birch or alder trees. The plant I found in the park, Pacific coralroot, is an uncommon orchid found mainly in shaded, coniferous forests in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern California.
The most common coralroot in my area is Spotted coralroot, pictured above in #1 – #5 and #12. There were 35 observations of Spotted coralroot recorded on Fidalgo Island on iNaturalist the last time I looked (and iNaturalist has only been operating since 2008). I’ve seen it a number of times here but it’s not common. It seems odd that Pacific coralroot was growing in the same patch of woods where Spotted coralroot grew before. Maybe Spotted coralroot plants will appear there in a few weeks, who knows? Pacific coralroot was once considered a subspecies of Spotted coralroot so obviously, they share some characteristics, like habitat. But they do not share underground fungal networks – each relies on different kinds of fungi. Maybe the fungus that Pacific coralroot uses is in very good health this year and that enabled the coralroot’s rhizome, a lumpy storage organ that’s essentially an underground stem, to send up a flowering stalk. Perhaps Spotted coralroots are resting this year and I’ll have to wait until next year to see them again; I read that coralroot plants may rest several years under the soil. But that doesn’t explain why I saw Spotted coralroot three years in a row and Pacific coralroot this year. I have many questions!
In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes both personal impressions and factual information. Click “Just One” in the category list below to see more of these posts.
Lest anyone think I’m completely tone-deaf or have my head in the sand, I recognize the pain and despair caused by the horrifying mass shootings in this country. I’d like my readers outside of the U.S. to know that I’m deeply embarrassed by my country’s wrong-headed attitude about guns. When I think about parents with young children – even my own unborn grandchildren – I lament the fear and anguish in the face of the unthinkable they live with. One thing we can do is to bring some shred, some little piece of positivity into the world and offer it within our own sphere of influence. Whether it’s art, political action, or simply a listening ear and a hug, we need to counteract the evil.
There’s a quote from Chuang Tzu (also called Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi) that describes how I feel sometimes when I’m outside: “Leap into the boundless and make it your home!” How’s that possible? I think that connecting deliberately to the precise place on earth where I am with all five senses can turn almost any place into a true home and an open, curious mind makes possible a leap into the boundless, the unexpected, the limitless.
Of course, having an open mind isn’t always that simple when the concerns of the day linger in one’s mind. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to let go of petty worries and irrelevant expectations now that I’m retired. Being older probably helps, too. When I worked full time I longed to spend more time outside and I would wait all week for the chance to visit a garden or wander through a park. I worried about the weather, too, and by Saturday my brain was crammed with needs and expectations – not the best mindset for relaxation and creativity! If that sounds familiar I hope you’ll go easy on yourself. Maybe you can take a minute to let all the ideas about what you want to do fall away when you’ve finally gotten your chance to enjoy yourself. There’s no need to do anything more than just appreciate what’s in front of you: your own life on this beautiful planet.
Fifteen photographs made on recent walks in familiar places
with camera in hand
and as little as possible in my head,
eyes all around.
Looking. It’s what we do
in our boundless homes
**You can find Linda Grashoff’s photos of dumpsters here.
The quote above is from The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (ed. Columbia University Press, 1968) – ISBN: 9780231031479
The pairs of photos you’ll see below developed while I was reviewing photographs I’ve made this year. I looked through everything that hasn’t been shown here on Bluebrightly and has a rating of 3 stars or more. Three stars? Lightroom users can use stars to assign personal ratings to photos. I assign keywords and ratings as soon as I import files. This system gives me general reference points that help me locate photos later.
As I skimmed through the images I focused on photographs that I’m not likely to use in future posts on specific subjects, like southern Utah plants (coming soon, maybe!). I noticed an atmosphere or mood in many of the photographs so I started thinking about putting together a series of images reflecting this sensibility. It’s hard to articulate what it was that I saw in those images, except that they felt contemplative and seemed to lean more toward feelings, less toward facts.
When I narrowed my choices down and put the photos into a folder, relationships between pairs of photographs jumped out at me. Certain images talked to one another. So I thought, why not show them in pairs? The connections – or dialogues – center around different qualities like texture, directionality, color, or something less definable. Usually, the subject matter is different and some other quality links the images. These pairings won’t make sense to everyone but if one “duet” sparks an idea, expands a possibility in your mind, or simply pleases you aesthetically, I’m happy. For me, one important function of art is to get the mind out of its rut, take it off-road, and let it wander into new territory. The ground is fertile there. Maybe the sun is out.
(If you’re curious about the subjects they’re listed at the bottom.)
Left: amaryllis bud at home; Right: driftwood closeup
Left: padlock on an old shed at a park; Right: lichen-covered bark closeup
Left: Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) in the wind; Right: lichen-covered rock in Utah
Left: looking out the car window on a rainy day; Right: tidal patterns in the sand at a beach
Left: more tidal effects at the beach; Right: Lace lichen
Left and right: intentional camera movement images of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)
Left: eroded rocks at a beach; Right: plastic garbage in the grass on a roadside
Left: Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and old roots; Right: Snow geese (Anser caerulescens) flying over a field
Left: beach rock and sand detail; Right: chained fence on a roadside
Left: Lopez island through the window of a park shelter; Right: brick building in Panguitch, Utah
Left: lichen on a tree, maybe Eyed beard (Usnea quasirigida); Right: looking out the car window on a rainy day
Left: eelgrass (Zostera marina) on a beach; Right: a rock in Utah
It’s the day before we leave for our first road trip since the pandemic throttled our travel plans. I have forgotten how to get ready for a trip. Everything requires more thought and seems a little harder. And it’s spring, my favorite season, so I’m distracted by the flashes of color everywhere, all vying for attention after a long, quiet winter. Part of me wants to be walking outside, looking for early wildflowers and inhaling the fresh air. Another part nags about packing and remembering the chargers and sunglasses. I check the weather in southern Utah for the second time today; the forecast seems to have changed again. A few days ago I thought we wouldn’t need warm clothes, this morning it looked like we would, now I’m not sure. I remove a T-shirt and substituted a long-sleeved, insulated shirt, a beanie, a warm scarf, even gloves. Maybe I need to rethink it: space is tight.
As I’ve been preparing for my trip the earth has been preparing for the season when reproductive tasks must get done. Flowers push through the cool, damp earth, woodpeckers drum love songs on hollow trees, and yesterday I watched harbor seals whack their flippers hard on the water and twirl in circles as other seals looked on, hopefully admiring the show as much as I did. One very unusual mammal (for this area) is preparing for the next stage of its life; a two-month-old elephant seal born nearby is getting ready to enter the water. I believe he’s the first elephant seal to be born on this island – most Northern elephant seals are born in California. When he’s ready he’ll swim down the long Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific, perhaps heading for deep water off Alaska. He needs to teach himself to dive deep for fish and squid. That’s the way it works with this species – they’re on their own after they’re weaned. Once he leaves we may never see him again. A few weeks ago I became a marine mammal volunteer to help protect the pup from human interference, intentional or otherwise. I learned a lot in a few short hours about the intricacies of the human/wildlife interface. In a word, it’s fraught.
The last few weeks have been full of distractions, making it difficult to concentrate on my own preparations, but gradually, I got my head into it and made some progress. By mid-afternoon yesterday, I was ready for a break: a trip into town for one more errand and an espresso. As I stepped outside I felt a chill but also had an urge to stop and admire the daffodils that opened yesterday. They’re late again and their numbers don’t seem to be expanding; I planted them under a tree where the sun barely shines. At least they’re protected from the landlord’s overzealous mowing. Looking up, my eyes paused at the sight of fat Bigleaf maple buds, ripe with the green energy that busts them out of their tight winter jackets. I thought I should document the yard today so I can compare it to the way it will look when I get back. All week I’ve been thinking about how different everything will be after the 13 days we’re away – this is a time of great change.
With my head full of such musings, I wandered over to my car and got in. Joe had parked at the opposite end of the driveway from his usual spot in front of me. I backed up, turned to my right to avoid the telephone pole, and let my foot off the brake. A heartbeat later I heard the startling, eye-squinching crunch of metal on metal. Worse, I was a little slow to stop because I haven’t slept well lately. A remark Joe made just minutes before sprung to mind: he said we seem to be getting things under control.
Maybe not. I got out, inspected both cars, frowned, and called him. He rushed out to assess the damage. Quickly apologizing, I said I’d take care of both cars when we get back home. Thankfully, Joe had the grace not to let loose with the first thing that must have come to his mind.
On the way into town I told myself to wake up or there’ll be a bigger accident. Deep breaths. I took care of the errand and made my way to the bookstore/cafe. It was pleasantly busy: familiar faces behind the counter and eager customers on the other side. Studying the baked goods neatly displayed in their glass case, I ordered my usual macchiato, but with a third shot. While I waited I saw a front-page article in the NY Times about a White House photographer from the Trump administration who’s been taken advantage of by Trump – it’s about money, of course. I read a few paragraphs and moved on to the Arts section, where there was a piece about the Whitney Biennial, a New York art world staple that I used to look forward to. It’s morphed over the years and is back now after a pandemic hiatus, with a less flashy, more thoughtful, perhaps darker-toned show. I opened the paper to the double-page spread, full of dark images. That prompted a passing thought about my own propensity for darkness in my photos. I wondered if there’s a connection between how I photograph the world nearby and the state it’s in. Or is it a coincidence?
The coffee tasted good. Browsing the shelves for a minute or two, I moved from art to fiction to the travel section. A used book called “The Names of Things” caught my eye. It’s beautifully written but it wasn’t a good time to buy a book so I made a mental note of the title. Suddenly the caffeine teased the neurons in my brain and I felt that bright light of inspiration, thanks to Susan Brind Morrow’s words. In the back of my mind, I’d been wondering if I would post anything before I left or during the trip. Now I had an idea – I’ll just describe my day, trying to include passing thoughts as well as observations.
Exiting the store, I got in the car, backed up (carefully), and headed back home. The sky was gray and white but not flat. The cherry trees were as frothy as a strawberry milkshake, magnolia flowers were opening bit by bit, and the willows weren’t weeping, no, they were rejoicing in their swaying, lime-green skirts. As I drove down R Avenue I glimpsed the soft blue silhouette of the Cascade foothills to the east through the dull gray repeating diamonds of a chain-link fence: it was a pleasing graphic image. All the way home I saw trees in bud, chomping at the bit of spring, ready to break into song. Preparing for the next thing.
We’ll fly to Las Vegas today, then drive to Utah, where we plan to visit Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and other less well-known places. With any luck, I’ll have a few photographs to post when I get back. I hope you’re enjoying spring in your own way, wherever you are on this great, turning planet.
Tentative birdsongs are more insistent. Scents elude me in
the cold morning air, save for woodsmoke wafting from
the neighbor’s chimney. Chores abandoned,
I poke along a narrow trail, alert
to the floods of tiny green shoots
that crowd the way. Wild honeysuckle vines sprout new leaves
and the sturdy stonecrop’s succulent leaves bulge
with winter rain. Wildflower, fern,
moss, lichen – they’re all jamming in
perfect harmony: a breathing, life-affirming
Down below, blue-green seawater spreads
across the bay like a bright tablecloth set for no one
– except the Buffleheads, the Harbor seals, the
fish, and the insects threading erratic paths
above the water.
I sense the hush of a pregnant moment between winter and spring.
The lichens, the budding trees, the awakened birds
go on with their lives. No need to think about pauses,
no need to roll words through their brains
in a doomed attempt
to describe the beauty that
6. Douglas firs cling precariously to rocks at Bowman Bay, last summer’s grasses continue their slow decline, and rushes are reflected in the calm water of Heart Lake.
11. The diminutive Rattlesnake plantain’s leaves (Goodyera oblongifolia) have been hugging the ground for months. They look especially fresh these days. A tiny garden of golf tee-shaped lichens (Cladonia sp.), moss, a Douglas fir branch tip, and more lichens decorates a rock along a steep trail in a mature forest. Nearby, plump, green rosettes of Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) snuggle into the folds of a Peltigera lichen. More lichens and moss (maybe Common haircap moss – Polytrichum commune) surround them. The stonecrop will send up stalks of yellow flowers in May or June and the Rattlesnake plantain, (actually an orchid) will bloom in July.
c. 1400, apparently from the gerund of the Middle English verb inclen “utter in an undertone, hint at, hint” (mid-14c.), which is of unknown origin; perhaps it is related to Old English inca “doubt, suspicion, question, scruple.” However the earliest record of the word is as a nyngkiling; and The Middle English Compendium offers that this is not a misdivision of an inkling but rather suggests the word is a nasalized variant of nikking “a hint, slight indication,” gerundive of the Middle English verb nikken “to mark (a text) for correction” (mid-15c.), from nik (n.) “a notch, tally” (see nick (n.)).
What’s the difference between a sculpture given pride of place in a museum and a tree trunk washed ashore after being sculpted by countless tides? One is human-made, one isn’t, the places where we see them are nothing alike, and we attach very different meanings to each object. You can probably think of other differences. But what if we untangle the threads that make up the answers and see what’s left? Perhaps finally, the object itself is all that remains, without any stories “about” it.
What I’m talking about is the idea of removing layers of received wisdom from the experience of seeing, the encounter with the subject. A few weeks ago I photographed a handful of objects at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Essentially my approach to looking at art objects isn’t so different from my approach to looking at objects anywhere. That afternoon I didn’t ponder who made the work, why it was made, or how it fits into history. Those are good questions, no doubt. But I prefer to encounter art more directly. After all, the objects I was looking at were free from expectations or ideas about me. So, to the degree my mind was open, maybe I could approach them on the same terms, without distracting preconceptions.
Objects appear in my visual field as form, light, color, texture, structure, pattern, and perhaps other qualifiers that haven’t occurred to me. I enjoy taking them in on those terms. When I roam the landscape it’s the same: form, light, color, and texture present themselves in various guises. There’s no need to include extraneous thoughts (not that I don’t torture myself trying to remember the names of plants). Staying with the physicality of objects, leaving concepts and projections out of the relationship, one can embody a fresh appreciation of the world.
One thing that’s enjoyable about a museum experience is that the objects on display are presented with enough space around them to allow the viewer to rest in the encounter with the subject, to give oneself over to it. Focusing on objects individually, one after the other in conscious appreciation of their particularity, our attention is honed and heightened. I’ve noticed that after I walk out the museum door the experience doesn’t stop. I find I’m attending to the makeup of everyday objects in a deeper way. I’m more engaged with everything. In fact, even in the museum I often see chairs, shadows, and other “ordinary” objects as aesthetic subjects in their own right. That’s one of the pleasures of museum-going.
You probably already figured out what I’m doing with the images here. Each pair of photographs includes an art object and an object I photographed outside of the museum context. Maybe the pairings can help point toward a taken-for-granted fact: valuing one object over another is a choice we make or don’t make. I’m not suggesting that the log, the kelp strands, or the industrial valves I photographed should be in a museum. I’m suggesting that whether we’re in a museum or in a desert, at home or on an elevator, it’s possible to meet the world with fresh eyes and directly experience beauty without extra layers of mental activity.
Some of these pairs may be more obviously connected than others, which I think is fine. The point is to suggest a kind of universality of perception. There’s no need to see objects in museums differently than you see the objects you photograph. Conversely, everyday objects really benefit from the close, special attention that we give museum artifacts.
Some photographers create “Best of” wrap-up posts at the end of each year and this year, I decided to join the tradition. It wasn’t a simple task – I couldn’t begin to decide which are the best photos I made this year. What’s more subjective than one’s own opinions about one’s work? Mired in indecision, I persevered and finally chose to post a collection of images from 2021 that 1) appeal to me and 2) represent the scope of the year. Many of these were posted earlier this year, a few were not.
Reviewing the year’s work got me thinking about what I do here on WordPress. I don’t post individual images, though many photographers I admire do. There’s a lot to be said for posting single images; the viewer’s attention is fully centered on one photograph, with no distractions. But I like to create posts that can be experienced more like a short story or a film short focused on a particular theme. Often my subject is the observations I glean on a local walk but increasingly I’m drawn to concept pieces with images and text. The interplay of ideas and images intrigues me and the challenge of balancing text and photograph so neither detracts from the other keeps me engaged.
Because I spend a lot of time constructing these visual narratives, I tend to see and think about my photos in groups. How they relate can be more important than how they stand alone. Typically some photographs are like main characters, moving an idea forward, while others play supporting roles. I enjoy the flow that a series of images can create as the photographs “speak” to one another through qualities like color, tone, subject, scale, etc. Composing a “Best of 2021” series is challenging because there isn’t one idea or one place to represent – over the course of twelve months, there have been many ideas and (in a year of limited travel) at least several locations. Some cohesion is lent to the group by the fact that primarily, I photograph nature. Hopefully, a personal style also lends some consistency.
As I looked back over the year, I realized that it’s been a year of gear changes. During the first six weeks of 2021 I was using the camera and lenses that I had grown accustomed to for five years. Holding that camera was as familiar as holding a pencil – it even had nice wear marks on the grip. Then the unthinkable happened: the camera died. There was no fixing it. I could replace it but it was an older model so it made sense to research newer iterations of that camera. That led me to consider other cameras that take the same lenses. At least I didn’t allow myself to be tempted to switch to an entirely new system!
For about a month I wavered. I had a backup camera to use while I thought about which camera to buy. In March, I made a decision to buy an Olympus Pen-F, a slightly smaller, lighter camera than the one that broke, which was an EM-1. Smaller and lighter is a good thing and the elegant-looking Pen-F has a special way with black and white, which interests me. But I was constantly comparing it to my old camera. Small things like the feel of the on/off button bothered me; a bigger issue was that the camera is not weather resistant. Lovely as it is, the camera wasn’t quite right. In June, I ordered the newest version of the one that died, the EM-1 Mark III. (I am not made of money but I rationalized two camera purchases by the fact that I spent little money on travel for the last two years). The Mark III is weather-resistant, has excellent image stabilization, and offers a host of features that I haven’t even tried yet. The buttons and levers feel right. The ergonomics are good, too, and it’s smaller than most comparable cameras but it weighs more than I’d like. Nothing’s perfect.
After nine months, it still feels a little new to my hands and I’m a long way from being comfortably familiar with all its ins and outs. What I’ve realized this year is that a camera you’re used to is one you don’t think twice about, which allows you to concentrate on being creative with your little black box. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the camera thinking about technique. Of course, that isn’t all bad but I’m eager for this camera to be so familiar that I never pause to think about which button is where or how to quickly find a setting. I want it to be an extension of my hand in service of my vision and that’s going to take a while.
In the meantime I know I’m lucky to have a good camera that I can use anytime I want. What’s more, I’m grateful for the community of creative people with whom I share my work. Thank you for being here and thank you for all that you do – you keep me going more than you know.
Abundant rainfall in the lowlands, deep snow in the mountains. Next year Mt. Baker will release its white coat as river water, nourishing all creatures and plants in the river delta before merging with the Salish Sea. The paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceous) will fade long before then. I will plant them outside. Maybe they will bloom again, maybe not. Cycles of life.
No, I’m not one of those super-organized people, never have been. My parents were well organized. There was my father, the disciplined, German-American chemical engineer with a steel-trap mind, and my mother, who put balanced meals on the table promptly at 6, made sure all three kids were properly cared for, and still had time to run the Parent-Teacher Association. Her advice was that I should try to form “good habits.” I thought to myself (but didn’t dare say) “What’s good about a habit?” Spontaneity has always been more my style.
That being said, there is something comforting about organization, isn’t there? If you know where things are and when things are supposed to happen, you feel more secure and you can get more done. Even observing examples of organization around us can be comforting: neatly laid-out buildings set on grids of streets, symmetrical patterns, charts. They resonate with something deep inside our brains – even mine. Perhaps in these days of pandemics, climate change fears, and political uncertainty, the predictability of order in the environment is especially valuable.
As a hypersensitive person whose sense organs never seem to dial back a notch, I get overwhelmed when there’s too much input. Don’t seat me at the restaurant table that’s halfway between two sound systems playing different tracks: I won’t be able to eat. And how did I ever get through that summer job at a noisy factory where Hai Karate aftershave and other strongly scented products were packaged? Ugh!
Sensory overload is inevitable in this world but introducing a little organization into the environment can lessen the sting. A rhythmic body movement like foot tapping, stacking loose papers so they line up neatly, arranging clothes according to color, making lists – I’ve used those and more tricks to corral an overwhelmed nervous system. No wonder I respond so strongly to patterns in nature. And architecture, a natural vehicle for introducing organization into the surroundings, can quiet frazzled nerves with its square angles, gentle arcs, and repeating patterns.
A keen appreciation for the visceral pleasure of buildings’ square-framed spaces may have begun when I was around 9 years old. A small development of new homes was going up near our house. On weekends I could wander through the just-framed structures by myself, soaking in the neat order of repeating right angles, inhaling the fragrance of freshly-sawn wood, and imagining how the finished rooms might look. Later I took great pleasure in the grid of streets that makes Manhattan so easy to navigate: north is uptown, south is downtown, east side, west side – it all makes sense. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate breaks in the grid, I did (and do!). But I relied on that grid when I lived in the city to help me organize my life.
Even humble buildings can have an attractive aura of balance and symmetry – architectural aesthetics don’t reside only in classic Greek temples or modern masterpieces. I saw this building on a country road in southeastern Georgia and photographed it head-on to emphasize the symmetry. It must be long gone now because that was around 1967.
Have you ever noticed how shadows can organize a space?
The Judd sculpture is arranged in a mathematical sequence, an imposition of order on the materials. I’ve played with positioning various grids in front of the camera lens as a way to illustrate the push-pull that I experience between ordered space and disorganized space, for example, in a flower garden:
Symmetry, order, and repeating patterns can be found everywhere, perhaps more obviously in human-made things but also in nature. The design below borrows from nature.
I’ve been extolling the virtues of observing order in our surroundings but don’t expect me to give advice about being organized – that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to set before you a visual buffet that illustrates one person’s notion of observed order. If this sparks a new thought, creates an island of pleasure in your life, or even a modicum of inspiration, I’m happy.