LOCAL WALKS: In the Middle

Summer, gloriously spent, is leaning toward rest

as fall peeks round the corner, making tentative changes

in the order of things –

but let’s not assume we’re on the edge of summer or the verge of autumn.

I think we’re always in the middle.

This precise and muddled middle where

we stand now

is where sunlight heats dried grasses

to sweet fragrance and a cool tongue of wind surprises

your cheek. This infinitely generous middle is where barefoot toddlers

delight in beach sand and a slice of hard blue hovers just

over the horizon. It’s all here, the pain of dying things,

the joy of hope, the exquisite indifference to our opinions, all

here,

all mixed in the middle.

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1.
2. A calm oasis at 5:30 in the afternoon.

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Summer’s bright blooms have faded and the heat is intense: it must be August, the month that puts patience to the test as each day drags into the next and a trance-like sameness descends on us. Here at 48.51N, 122.61W, significant rainfall hasn’t occurred for months. The landscape looks dull and tired, the birds have gone silent, and any hints of autumn are brief whispers at best. Knowing that summer is ending and fresh, cool, autumn days are near creates a liminal feeling: we are in between. And though it may feel like we’re treading in the margins, the pause between seasons is spacious.

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3. A glacier-scoured, lichen-spotted rock shines in forest-filtered August sunlight.
4. Spores are ripe on the backs of a Sword fern frond (Polystichum munitum).
5. Madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii) shed their bark in August.
6.
7. This year’s discarded Madrone leaves lay atop those from previous years.

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This spring and summer I was propelled into a frenzy of activity. Which wildflowers were currently blooming and where were my favorites, the orchids and harebells? Could I go up to Sugarloaf to look for flowers or was I needed down at Tugboat Beach to help protect the Northern elephant seal? She had returned to the island to molt in mid-May. The only elephant seal ever known to haul up on Fidalgo Island, she has molted here each spring and gave birth to her first pup at a local park last winter. She chooses busy beaches for her land activities, so a great deal of effort goes into protecting her and educating the public. I was part of that this year, along with a small band of like-minded people. She kept us very busy, especially when the weather warmed and the crowds grew at the beach where she rested while slowly shedding her old fur coat. Every day I was outside, either photographing wildflowers or at the beach, seal sitting. Sharply focused on the life around me, I reveled in the graceful blooms of wildflowers, gazed into the soulful eyes of a pinniped, and responded to curious park visitors.

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By late June Elsie Mae’s annual molt was complete. One morning she swam back out to the Salish Sea, bent on replacing the weight she’d lost from spending six weeks on land. She’s probably far out in the Pacific Ocean now, deep-diving and feasting – she’s tagged but has no radio or chip so once she’s in the water, humans don’t know where she is. We seal sitters were both relieved and bereft when she left. I never thought I’d bond with a marine mammal but spending so much time with her (and with her pup earlier this year), I found myself invested in the little family.

But I was also grateful to be free to concentrate on the local flora and eventually, my orchid quest was satisfied. I knew where each of our three kinds of Rein orchids grew and could tell them apart. The green machine was slowing to a crawl.

What was next? I kept going out because it’s good to be outdoors and I need the exercise but without a particular focus, I was at loose ends photographically. Quite a few boring images flew off the SD card! To get a spark going I experimented with intentional camera movement, different angles, and different lenses. A few compositions that seem interesting emerged. Except for the photos of Elsie Mae above, all of the photos are from the last few weeks.

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9. Intentional camera movement in a meadow.
10.
11. Grasses take center stage in August.
12. Wildflower seedheads reward a close look.
13. A lake in the distance lights up a patch of wild grasses.
14. Made with a vintage Super-Takumar 50mm lens and adapter.
15. Pine needles dance across a rock atop Goose Rock.
16. A root and moss collaboration.
17. This feather is probably from a molting bird of prey, perhaps a young Bald eagle. Photo was made with the vintage Takumar lens.
18. Late summer is spider time here.
19. The forest stays green despite the lack of rain. Fallen logs are common on this thin-soiled island. Many layers are supportedof life as they decompose.
20. Seaside juni[per (Juniperus maritima) bark.
21. A Great blue heron stands on the old dock at Bowman Bay. Made with the vintage Takumar lens.

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LOOKING (at the) WEST

The West – the phrase invokes associations of vast space, deserts, freedom, perhaps violence, and wilderness. The concept of the American West was just a hodgepodge of TV cliches to a kid like me, raised on the east coast. As I grew older, my fantasies of the western mythos were embellished with San Francisco hippies, surfers, intrepid explorers, and maverick pioneers. That may sound exciting but I wasn’t particularly drawn to the west; tropical places like the Caribbean interested me much more back then. By the time I finally got on a plane heading across the country I was in my thirties and on the way to San Francisco, which is nothing like the capital “W” west of cowboys and red sunsets. In fact, the sophisticated, wealthy, liberal, coastal city of San Francisco wasn’t all that different from New York, where I lived.

If, as some claim, the American West is everything west of the 100th meridian, then it encompasses big cities, deserts, plains, mountain ranges, and even rain forests. But for most of us, the capital “W” west means the desert part with some mountains in the background and perhaps a few Indians on horses in the foreground. For many years that just didn’t grab me.

Until…

It was 2004. My son was in a wilderness school program based in southern Utah. I won’t go into why he was there, I’ll just say that I was desperate and hoped the program would help him get back on the right track. The kids’ families were asked to join them at the end of the month so I booked a flight from New York to Salt Lake City and reserved a rental car. It seemed like a good idea to go early and get acclimated so I poked around Salt Lake City a bit, finding it an intriguing contrast to the eastern cities I knew. It was much smaller and cleaner than New York! But I was eager to head south toward Boulder Mountain, in the wild, high desert of southern Utah, where I would see my son and celebrate his accomplishment.

Soon after Salt Lake City dissolved like a mirage in the rearview mirror, I understood what all the fuss was about. Not knowing what to expect, my drive into the desert was a little like dropping into a void that morphed into pure space, expanding in all directions. The mountains were taller and more rugged, the view wider, the sky higher than any landscape I had experienced. There was room to really see the shapes and colors because they weren’t crammed together. By the time I reached my hotel in the quiet little town of Torrey, I was hooked. Even the view from my room was inspiring. The sheer spaciousness was a tonic for my soul.

The family program wasn’t easy. Each family had its own space up on that cold, tree-studded mountain. There were no amenities, not even a tent, so parents could experience how their kids had been living and kids could show their parents that they could survive without modern conveniences and distractions. Our shelter was two sleeping bags under a tarp propped up with sticks. In the early hours of the morning, it snowed and the tarp collapsed on us. Cold! The kids were supposed to make fires the next morning by rubbing sticks, the old way, but the wet weather made it a struggle. Fire was stolen by more than one camper. Later, there was an intense therapeutic program for everyone, held in a big heated tent, a luxury. In spite of a blazing migraine I got through that long day and in the end, living so close to the bone up there, so far from any human habitation, was tantalizing. The spare landscape, so different from anything I’d ever seen, tugged at my spirit. It felt good to be there.

1. The West?

But

As soon as I returned to New York, everyday life took over and my capital “W” western experience faded. I was busy – over the next five years, I went back to school for a Master’s degree, separated from my husband, moved twice, changed jobs, and began a new relationship. My son still struggled but he was older and I wasn’t trying to manage his life. My own life was happier than it had been in a decade.

Then a day came when, by a quirk of fate, my partner and I found ourselves both out of work. We began to question if we should look for jobs in New York City, where we lived, or somewhere else. It could be anywhere! After talking and researching, we zeroed in on the Pacific Northwest and planned a trip to scope it out. Landing in Seattle, we drove our rental car all over the region, visiting Mt. Ranier, the Pacific coast, and points in between. We liked what we saw so we took the leap: three months later we were in the west.

But we weren’t in the mythical American West, far from it.

The Pacific Northwest is wet, lush, and feels closed in because of the profusion of towering trees. It has its own beauty, which I’ve come to appreciate. In Utah, I had a taste of the classic West – a vast, arid, open landscape that reveals itself starkly. I hoped to experience that again and it turned out that the desert west was just a short plane ride from Seattle. I could access those sublimely difficult places that had been teasing my mind for years.

That’s what we did, making forays to locations like Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley in Nevada. I posted photos of every trip but a scroll through my Lightroom catalog revealed other photographs that haven’t appeared here and are worth a look. The common denominator is desert, whether it’s the Mohave or the Sonoran. The images come out of my experience of fierce, dry, captivating places. It’s one person’s view of a ravishing landscape.

2. Obstacles. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
3. Straight and Narrow. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

4. Stacatto. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
5. Western classic. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

6. Salt. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
7. Pale gold. Mojave Desert, Utah.
8. Wind-whipped. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
9. Twist. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
10. Rear-view. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.
11. Precipice. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
12. Fog. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
13. Two coots. Colorado River. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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15. Impression. Mojave Desert, California.
16. Exuberance. Mojave Desert, California.
17. Candy-colored. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

18. Hard rock, no cafe. Mojave Desert, Nevada.
19. Luxurious decay. Mojave Desert, Utah.
20. Defense. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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21. Arid ocean. Sonoran Desert, Arizona.

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22. Dusk. Mojave Desert, Nevada.

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REFLECTIONS on Water and Life

We’re in a bookshop perusing the stacks – always a pleasant way to pass the time. Here’s the Eastern Religion section, which is mostly books about Buddhism. Casting my eyes right and left across the shelves, I feel at home here. A row of books by the Dalai Lama is as long as my outstretched arm and many books bear the familiar logo of Shambhala Publications. The Boulder, Colorado publisher goes back to 1969 with authors like the controversial Chögyam Trungpa, whose 1973 book, ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ was a bible for legions of spiritual seekers in the 70s and 80s.

Today I zero in on titles by certain authors, titles that trigger a cascade of reflections…

1.

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Here’s a book by the woman whose dog ate my pet cockatiel. She wrote eloquently about Zen in America, among other things. Years ago we shared an apartment near the Zen center where we studied and practiced. One day I came home to find the headless body of the pet cockatiel that I hadn’t even named yet lying on the living room floor. My roommate was duly mortified; I was secretly relieved. The bird had been given to me by a misguided friend who thought the distraction would help me pull through my grief. A few months before, on a warm summer Saturday, I had watched a close friend’s body drift deep into the dark river water. I’d tried to rescue him. I didn’t know he would panic halfway across the river, didn’t know his flailing arms would be too much for my slight frame to control. In the shock and grief that followed, Zen practice helped me more than the burden of caring for another being could. I didn’t feel that I was very good at caring for other beings just then.

Of course, the drowning reverberated through my life. Thousands of ripples emanated from it, some as clearly outlined as the daily struggles with tears, others more obscure. And strangely, my friend’s dog made life a little easier.

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2.

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Over there is a book by a man who, with his wife, embodied a gentle path. They came to live in our New York City Zen community for one year. The reasons for their temporary transition from a flourishing California Zen center to a smaller, more urban Zen community were complicated but their practice was not. Friendly, straightforward in their practice, and intelligent, they grappled with getting their sons into new schools, adapting to the east coast lifestyle, and working with a new teacher. Ever graceful, they helped when help was needed but never appeared overwhelmed by our somewhat frantic pace. Our teacher had ambitious plans that his students either embraced or refuted. Perhaps because they knew their time in the community was limited, the west coast Zen family usually remained above the fray. There were times when they functioned as islands of sanity for me, especially during my pregnancy.

I imagine they returned to their community as stronger people after their year in New York. Looking at what they’re doing now – writing, teaching, leading a Zen foundation, sitting on the board of an interreligious organization, keeping up with kids and grandkids, there’s no doubt in my mind that they have remained true to themselves and to the dharma.

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3.

Here’s a book by the man who warned me not to marry L. It was a subtle warning, a question posed almost in jest as we passed each other on a back stairway the day of the wedding. He performed the ceremony a half-hour later with the appropriate solemnity. What other course should he have taken when his old friend had asked him to officiate at his wedding, even if he knew how unstable the man was? Their friendship went back to the 70s and was fostered over hard work on ice-cold mornings at a new Zen monastery in the Catskills. The traditional Japanese temple buildings still sit elegantly above the lake that punctuates the end of a dirt road like the dot on a question mark. The two monks shared a long history so one did a favor for the other and we had a proper Buddhist ceremony. We crossed our T’s, dotted our i’s, and lurched down a path with more bumps than a freshly plowed field on a damp spring day.

That brief encounter on the stairs echoed for ten long years, buzzing in my head from time to time like a premonition. For a long time, I wished he would have refrained from sharing his reservations with me, even if it was in the form of a lighthearted jest. But the remark was like the touch of a branch tip to the water underneath it: a passing ping that rippled far out to unseen corners of the lake.

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4.

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There’s a popular, well-reviewed book by a man who was a great raconteur but maybe not such a great husband. My then best friend had a chapter-sized affair with him one year when he lived for a month at the sprawling old Huson River mansion where we practiced Zen. During the practice intensive, my friend was tasked with helping him edit his next book. Their seduction was clearly mutual. The more sotto-voce stories my friend told me, the more I lost respect for both of them. We were supposed to be practicing Buddhists, making an effort to uphold the three pure precepts: ceasing from evil, doing good, and doing good for others.

We were (and are) so imperfect!

I still admire the man’s writing.

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5.

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Here’s a slender volume by a man who had an incalculable influence on the shape of Western zen, according to at least one reviewer. A distant, formidable figure to me, he convinced my teacher that it would be best to place me in the role of cook for the community. For several years I was actively involved in developing the business that supported our community. Then I got pregnant. Families did not fit into the picture at this particular Zen community. There were no allowances or plans for childcare and since I needed to care for my baby, it only made sense (to them) that I should stay back and cook each day while everyone else went to work. We worked because work practice played a central role in our Zen practice. I had no problem with that – integrating study and practice into daily life is crucially important. But I would be running the kitchen, ordering and receiving the community’s food, and making lunch and dinner for 15 to 20 people each day while caring for my baby, a challenging position that isolated me from the exciting work the rest of the community was doing. If I felt removed from my teacher’s teacher before, now I was angry. Although lip service was played to the importance of the cook, or tenzo, in reality, the jobs that supported the business that maintained our community mattered more than what the tenzo did.

In spite of my disappointment, I knew my reaction was excellent grist for the mill, another piece of life’s turmoil that I could reflect on and work with, deepening my practice. What could be more valuable?

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6.

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Above that book is one by someone whose path took the form of a benefactor, touching thousands of people’s lives. For about twenty years he hosted a free-wheeling radio show on New York’s favorite leftist independent station. He brought a cornucopia of spiritual teachers and other notable or obscure individuals to the airwaves – you never knew who would be on that show. Mother Teresa? Yes. The Dalai Lama? Check. Alan Watts answered his questions, too. His presence was like a bright, bouncing sun – passionate, intense, incisive. A month before I moved to the Zen community he appeared at my workplace near Columbia University on a rainy afternoon. He pulled me outside to the curb to meet the man who would soon become the most important teacher in my life. It was a gift. His boundless zeal was evident again one night when he initiated a few of us in a tantric rite that involved chanting and swallowing a pinch of a mysterious dried herb. Another time, also during his Tibetan phase, he and his wife asked me to drop by their house. They gave me a beautifully crafted bell and dorje and a set of beads in a simple act of shared enthusiasm. There was no hidden agenda.

He wasn’t afraid to shout out his opinions during community meetings but never held a grudge. One felt energized when he was in the room. He died too young but his books live on, right in front of me on the shelf, poised to ripple the shores of the next reader’s mind – and heart.

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7.

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Over here are two books by the man behind it all, my teacher. We had our ups and downs. He disappointed me deeply once but he also inspired me and taught me well. I am indebted to him for five years of life-transforming practice. Whether deep or on the surface, the ripples from what I learned during those five years always flow through my life. And if I find myself forgetting the teachings I can always pick up one of these books and let the words wash over me.

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LOCAL WALKS: Low Tide

1. Driftwood. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.

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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.

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2. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) working the tideline at Bowman Bay in spring. Wrinkled and furrowed by the outgoing tide, the sand holds just enough water to reflect the sky.

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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.”*

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3. Stones at Rosario Beach are smooth and round enough for strong waves to toss them into the grooves of driftwood logs during high tides.

4.

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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.

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6. Low tide reveals smooth rocks at North Beach. Deception Pass State Park.
7.
8. Ripple pattern in the sand. Bowman Bay.

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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.

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9. Tide lines on the rocks. Kukutali Preserve.

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11. Acorn barnacles (Balanus glandula) on a mussel shell (Mytilus trossulus) make a small sculpture gifted by the outgoing tide at Bowman Bay.
12. Anemone tentacles underwater. This might be a Brooding anemone (Epiactis prolifera).

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14. A tiny pyramid-shaped rock created its own moat when the tide went out. Bowman Bay.
15. This arrangement was pure happenstance. The triangular piece of driftwood is also in the first photo, which was made two weeks earlier. Bowman Bay.
16. Eelgrass (Zostera marina) wrapped around a log and tangled with broken reeds last winter at Kukutali Preserve.
17. Eelgrass is important as a habitat for small creatures like worms and crabs and as a stabilizer for the shoreline. Eelgrass is an important food for birds like Brant. Other birds, like herons, eat small fish and crustaceans that live there.

18. The tide’s coming in at Washington Park and the sun is setting. It’s time to go home. Next time, it will be different.

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*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.

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JUST ONE: Coralroots

1. Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).
2. A group of Spotted coralroots.

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

exquisitely attuned

to a vast network

of fungi.

Rootless, alone or

tightly clustered,

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.

3. A Spotted coralroot plant without spots on the white lower petal (also called a lip or labellum). These are sometimes called Ozette’s coralroot, after the indigenous people who first lived in the area in Washington where it was discovered in 1967.

4. Spotted coralroot growing through a Bracken fern frond.
5. Ozette’s coralroot in my fingers. Officially this is a variation called Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata var. maculata.

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.

6. Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana).
7. Pacific coralroot.

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.

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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.

9. Pacific coralroot, yellow and pink forms.
10.

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:

11. A single Pacific coralroot flower.
12. A single Spotted coralroot flower in black and white.

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.

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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!

14. Spotted coralroot, intentionally blurred by moving the camera.
15. Spotted coralroot from above, intentionally blurred by manually focusing.
16. Five years ago I noticed this small group of coralroots in a shaft of sunlight in the woods at Longmire, Mount Rainier.
17. A photo from July, 2012, the first time I saw coralroots. This is Pacific coralroot and after seeing that time in a park outside Seattle and once more on Mt. Rainier, I didn’t see it again until this spring. And frankly, if I didn’t have these photos I would not have known that I’ve seen Pacific coralroot before.
18.

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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.

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LOCAL WALKS: Boundless

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.

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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 up,

eyes down,

eyes all around.

Looking. It’s what we do

in our boundless homes

on earth.

1. I stepped outside one morning when the sun was shining and the air was fresh. Our Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) look great this year after a pretty wet spring. Watching the fronds unfurl day by day, week by week, is deeply satisfying.
2. Sword ferns have a peculiar growth habit you can see here, a downward droop and an upward push that happen at the same time. The plant in the first photo is further along. The first time I saw these oddly shaped fronds, I was taken aback. Ten years and thousands of plants later they still delight me. Sword ferns grow luxuriously here, carpeting the forest floor all year in bold, green fountains. (The colors aren’t realistic in this photo; I used an Adobe preset and made changes in processing).
3. Late one Saturday afternoon I took a walk on a little-used trail. I saw no one: perfect! The trail is short and doesn’t go anywhere interesting enough for most people. But the little hillside clearing at the end of the trail was magical that day. As many as a hundred nodding, brownish lilies were blooming with lush, green moss and bright yellow buttercups. Our chocolate lilies – Fritillaria affinis – don’t grow very tall and tend to disappear into the background because of their unusual coloration. I couldn’t make a good photo of the meadow but a single blade of grass from last year caught my eye.
4. Heart Lake Road cuts through a public forest near the middle of Fidalgo Island. There are two parking lots and several pull-outs for people planning to hike a trail or fish on the small lake. I chose a pull-out on the side of the road one day and stopped the car. As I got out and was locking the door I glanced across the road and saw this handsome male Wood duck (Aix sponsa) perched on a stump. Wow! These beautiful birds are here most of the year but are rarely seen. I didn’t have a very long lens and didn’t want to get closer for fear of scaring him so I photographed him from where I was and cropped later. Even with that stick in front of him, he was a pretty sight.
5. My favorite fern, Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is infrequent on Fidalgo Island because our summers are too dry, except in places like this shady cliff with cool trickles of water from winter to spring. It seems there’s always a breeze and never much light where these ferns grow. I decided to go with it, letting the leaf tips blur and the background stay dark.
6. In mid-April on a lovely spring day when the Salmonberries were beginning to bloom, I saw this little insect and managed to get a photo. iNaturalist tells me this insect is in the Leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae.
7. Across from a ship repair yard in town there are stacks of beautifully rusted metal pieces being stored. I like composing the shapes into neat rectangles.
8. A closeup of a metal support, with apologies to Linda Grashoff** who has made an art out of photographing the surfaces of dumpsters (among other things) and who inspires me to pay more attention to things like this.
9. Here’s a tiny wildflower, the Western spotted coralroot, an orchid that depends on fungi in the soil for nourishment. Multiple small flowers grow on thin, reddish stems about a foot in height. Corallorhiza maculata is blooming now in our island forests. Robert Frost’s poem, On Going Unnoticed uses this plant to talk about being overlooked but if you take the time to investigate the flowers, you’ll be unlikely to ever overlook them again.
10. This little guy is called a Grainy hermit crab. I photographed it underwater in a tide pool at low tide. I check the tide tables so I can poke around certain places when the tide is exceptionally low, something that tends to occur at new and full moons.

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12. It was a sunny, windy day by the water, making photos difficult. I decided to show the wind by using a slow shutter speed (shutter priority, 1/6 second, F22). I focused in the middle distance to reveal some yellow flowers. The image was overexposed – I should have adjusted the exposure but it was getting late and I was ready to go home. I dragged the exposure down in Lightroom but kept the grass bright because that’s what I saw.
13. On another rainy day I went out just as the rain stopped. The Madrone leaves were kind enough to bead up the raindrops and hold them in place for me to see.
14. A single leaf of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) springs up from a bed of moss in a forest clearing.

15. A tangle of wild honeysuckle vines (Lonicera sp.) threads through the forest and catches the last rays of the setting sun.

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**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

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A DOZEN DUETS

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.)

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  1. Left: amaryllis bud at home; Right: driftwood closeup
  2. Left: padlock on an old shed at a park; Right: lichen-covered bark closeup
  3. Left: Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) in the wind; Right: lichen-covered rock in Utah
  4. Left: looking out the car window on a rainy day; Right: tidal patterns in the sand at a beach
  5. Left: more tidal effects at the beach; Right: Lace lichen
  6. Left and right: intentional camera movement images of a Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)
  7. Left: eroded rocks at a beach; Right: plastic garbage in the grass on a roadside
  8. Left: Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and old roots; Right: Snow geese (Anser caerulescens) flying over a field
  9. Left: beach rock and sand detail; Right: chained fence on a roadside
  10. Left: Lopez island through the window of a park shelter; Right: brick building in Panguitch, Utah
  11. Left: lichen on a tree, maybe Eyed beard (Usnea quasirigida); Right: looking out the car window on a rainy day
  12. Left: eelgrass (Zostera marina) on a beach; Right: a rock in Utah

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STATES of BEING: Preparing

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Red rock country.

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INKLING*

A month before the Spring equinox, this

here-now world

brightens, greens, expands.

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

wildgarden.

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.

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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

they are.

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1. Tall Douglas firs grace the shores of the pass. At their feet, lush gardens of ferns, moss, lichens, and wildflowers bask in the always-moist environment.
2. The new leaves of Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) appeared last fall with the rain that arrived after our summer drought. All winter they’ve been green beacons of hope.
3. Ocean spray, or Ironwood (Holodiscus discolor) is unfolding its leaves now but the gracefully drooping, creamy white flower clusters won’t open until June.
4. Raindrops cling to a rootlet on the underside of a huge, downed Douglas fir tree.
5. Storm clouds break over Skagit Bay. The rain here falls as snow in the mountains, snow that will melt and nourish us here in the lowlands through the dry summer months.

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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.

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7. Which plant is it? I’m not sure but the message is clear.
8. This is probably Pacific willow (Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra), a large, spreading shrub that likes wet areas like the lakeside where I photographed it.
9. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cling to the rocks on the Lighthouse Point trail at Deception Pass State Park. A bright carpet of moss, grass, and wildflowers spreads underneath the trees.
10. A long-dead tree supports a colorful patchwork of lichens. They may not die back in winter like the wildflowers do, but their colors still convey the message of spring to my mind.

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.

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12. Tightly curled leaves of Yellow pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) will open soon in the shallow water of Little Cranberry Lake, where beavers are continually creating the kind of habitat this plant prefers.
13. Willows by the roadside, a glorious sight.
14. Here’s Little Cranberry Lake again. A single pair of wild Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) rest on a half-submerged log in deep shade. Soon they’ll head to Alaska or northwestern Canada to breed. They’ll be back late next year.

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*inkling (n.)

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.)).

From https://www.etymonline.com/word/inkling

ENCOUNTERING the SUBJECT

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.

1. Amida Buddha; Japanese, circa 1130.
2. Driftwood log; 12/22/21.

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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.

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3. Detail, Buddhist ceremonial banner.
4. Bullwhip kelp; 12/22/21.

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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.

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5. Near East ceramic vessel? (I didn’t check the label).
6. Valves and alarms on an industrial building; 12/24/21.

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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.

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7. Calligraphy scroll, probably Japanese.
8. Angel-wing begonia flower buds; 10/08/21.

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9. Water-moon Guanyin; Chinese, 10th to late-13th century.
10. Old Bigleaf maple tree; 12/01/21.

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11. Detail, Chinese landscape painting, probably 18th century.
12. Detail, peeling bark on a Madrone tree; 01/18/21.

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13. Thousand-armed, Eleven-headed Guanyin; Chinese, 16th century.
14. Spiraling stem and leaves on a tropical plant; 11/17/21.

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