Am I the only one feeling scattered and distracted lately? Probably not.
So in keeping with being more distracted than usual, here’s a series of photos that don’t have much in common, other than the fact that most don’t seem to fit into the kinds of posts I typically publish. A few were made last year; most are recent. Some were taken inside but most, as usual, were taken outdoors.
Speaking of outdoors, we’re not completely confined to our homes here in Washington State. The governor’s edict ordering people not to leave home unless they’re participating in essential business went into effect a few days ago, but there are exceptions. One is that you may leave home to engage in outdoor exercise, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, as long as appropriate social distancing practices are used.
Common sense says don’t stray too far from home and most parks and wilderness lands are officially closed, so we do what we can. The other day we drove to a nearby preserve that is maintained jointly, by the Swinomish tribe and the Washington State Parks Commission. We knew it might be closed because state parks are closed. Also we had heard that tribal leaders are being careful, which makes sense, given the history. When we reached the preserve we were confronted with the confusing prospect of an open gate, four cars parked in the lot and a sign stating that the preserve is closed due to a storm!
We decided to chance it. Soon we passed a cheerful park ranger who greeted us and encouraged us to enjoy the day, while keeping her distance. That was both reassuring and puzzling. We found out later that though the preserve is officially closed, they’re not enforcing the closure. This is the new normal: figure it out as you go along! Happily, the few individuals and family groups that we passed were all careful about keeping their distance.
Maintaining distance from other people is easier here than it would be in the crowded suburb where we used to live, and it’s far easier than it would have been if we hadn’t moved out of New York City eight years ago. It’s really hard to go out and keep away from people when you live in a city, especially one as densely populated as New York. That’s one reason it’s now the virus epicenter of America, with more deaths from the virus in the last two weeks than from homicides all last year. People are pulling together though. Free airfare, free hotel rooms and free rental cars are being offered to health care workers who are willing to come to New York to help out. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about people stepping up in your neighborhood, too.
But let’s not dwell on the news. I hope you’re finding other ways to stay sane and healthy if you can’t get outside as often as you’d like. This pandemic is bound to last longer than we’d like, but ultimately it IS temporary – as temporary as clouds sailing through brisk March skies.
An office in town on a sunny afternoon. I’ve been preoccupied with patterns since early childhood and with shadows for 50 years or more. Samsung phone photo.
Under the dock at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Once in a while I like to tilt the horizon. Samsung phone photo.
Budding twigs in the fog at home in March, 2019. (Processed with the antique plate filter in Silver Efex Pro).
Same day, similar subject. I came to photography as an end in itself (rather than as documentation) rather late. Right away I wanted a camera I could control, not a point and shoot, because I longed to photograph flowers and leaves closeup with a very shallow depth of field. I’ve done that thousands of times and I haven’t grown tired of it yet.
At home. A dried narcissus flower rests on a book of Japanese calligraphy. I’ve been interested in calligraphy, especially the looser, cursive style for a long time.
At home. The bright but chilly light of March reflects on the shiny surfaces of the washer and drier. Reflections! Another fascinating phenomenon that can be found everywhere.
Taking shelter in the car on a rainy afternoon in the park. In my Lightroom catalog are hundreds of photos tagged “through” because looking at something through any kind of barrier – a rainy window, a fence, a scrim of tree branches – fascinates me.
Professional tree work. A diseased Western Redcedar was determined to be dangerous and taken down. Thank fully almost all the wood was salvaged.
Looking down at a boy playing at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. People aren’t my usual subject and I encourage myself to photograph people more often. It stretches me.
A gas meter and fire hookups outside my favorite bookstore, now sadly closed. Samsung phone photo.
A potted plant and its elegant shadow are also outside the bookstore. Samsung phone photo.
At home. A small, framed piece of blue glass rests on a window sill. Outside, the Douglas fir trees stand tall and scruffy.
Last year’s rose hips at Rosario Beach, Deception Pass State Park. Another preoccupation is fine lines and flattened surfaces. I like to think of the fine lines as text.
“No Hunting or Trespassing” sign at March Point, Fidalgo Island. Sometimes I try to imagine a world without private property.
An abandoned building on Swinomish tribal land sits at the head of a bay that is full of driftwood. One piece landed right by the building, perhaps during a winter storm. I’m sure that going to school in New York in the midst of the minimal and conceptual art movements had a profound influence on me. To me this scene is like a minimalist sculpture in a well-lit gallery.
A tugboat heads towards the San Juan Islands under changeable March skies. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
Skies brighten as a sailboat motors through the same passage. As you might guess, I lightened this image and darkened the preceding one to emphasize the feeling I had when I took each photograph. It was an exciting day of intermittent rain squalls, and patchy, fast-moving clouds. I was glad I happened to be close to the water then, and glad too that so far, that park is not closed.
This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.
It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.
So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.
Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.
I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.
My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.
I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*
As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.
My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.
I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.
One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.
Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!
A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.
There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.
The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.
More about that later.
*From an unpublished manuscript.
**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.
The twin architects of our daily lives, time and space, occupy very different places in my mind/experience. Space is a concept I’m comfortable with; I can judge size accurately, I have a keen feeling for landscape, I relish the myriad permutations of form I come across in life. But time, that’s another matter entirely. Past present and future don’t always differentiate for me the way they seem to for other people. I am perpetually behind, I sometimes foresee what’s coming like it’s happening now, and I constantly get stuck in a mesmerizing present that puts me beyond the reach of the normal interruptions of daily life. Over the years I’ve learned to live with this mushy sense of time, and thankfully, people close to me usually tolerate the inconvenience it causes them.
Maybe my experience of malleable time and the erasure of boundaries promotes creative expression. Maybe new flowers grow in a place where time is not so fixed and the the border between now and then is smudged into oblivion.
I want to tell you something
profound about time but
I have never understood it. They say one moment
is followed by the next. No,
this morning in dim gray light
the towhee ziggs-zaggs under the feeder – a
svelte, dark shadow
and junco’s white tail feathers flit in quick arcs
between the sword fern and the bird feeder, and
my grandfather smiles gruffly at the pretty redbird,
a cardinal gracing his front yard, and the Song sparrow pours
song into the air from a wire
outside my old apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson: the same
buzz-and-trill melody, over and over, and
the chickadee’s delicate claws
precisely grasp my seed-filled ten-year-old hand and
a thin, gossamer thread, twinkling rainbow colors in an
almost-felt breeze connects
all of it, here,
The intention is for the images to convey a feeling of movement. Tempus fugit. Rushing ahead pell mell, turning back on itself in circles, the hazy fog where nothing is hitched to anything else….time is unpredictable and cannot be grasped. And at times it seems to stand still, but maybe not – as in the last photo of the German countryside seen from a speeding train car, where perhaps time is morphing into space.
A flock of birds takes off across the bay at a refuge near Seattle. The horizon is tilted and the colors are distorted for effect. f6.3, 1/80th sec. December, 2016.
Blurred Atlantic ocean water washes a bone I found on a beach many years ago. The bone is probably a dolphin scapula. From an old slide, circa 1979.
The road rushes by on Big Basin Highway, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California. Intentional camera movement on a Samsung phone. October, 2016.
Intentional blur and intentional camera movement from a car, colors altered. Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. f4.5, 2/5 sec. April, 2018.
A Red-breasted nuthatch flies away from a suet feeder. f3.2, 1/125th sec. Not intentionally blurred but I liked the effect. June, 2016.
The scenery disappears quickly through the window of a train in the Netherlands. Intentionally blurred. f22, 1/4 sec. April, 2019.
Carp at a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. Intentionally blurred. f20, 1 sec. November, 2017.
Flowers on my deck at home. Intentional camera movement. f5.6, 1/3 sec. September 2016.
A blowing leaf at a park, intentionally blurred. Aperture information unknown – vintage lens. 1/800 sec. February 2018.
Rushing water in a creek in the foothills of the Cascades. Intentionally blurred. f11, 1/8 sec. September, 2014.
I don’t think this doubled image happened intentionally – maybe the photograph was taken through a window, I don’t remember. f3.5, 1/320 sec. December, 2008.
The view from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park, Washington. Intentional camera movement. f22, 1/3 sec. February 2020.
A roadside outside of Portland, Oregon. Intentional blur and camera movement. f22, 1/8 sec. April, 2018.
Fields seen from a train traveling between Cologne and Frankfurt. The view seems static but it’s actually blurred by the train’s movement. f3.5, 1/200 sec. April, 2019.
Set into a chunky peninsula on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, Washington Park is a singularly beautiful place. I’ve been there thirty-odd times in the past couple of years and each time I return, I see something new, and I’m enchanted again. Here is a selection of photos from this favorite local haunt.
At 220 acres, Washington Park isn’t particularly large, but a varied habitat of saltwater shoreline, rocky bluffs and evergreen forest makes it a rewarding place to explore. From the park’s shores you might see harbor porpoises, seals, the occasional whale, oystercatchers, herons and even the elusive Marbled murrelet, which sometimes fishes near the shore. (The Marbled murrelet is an odd seabird. Back in 1974 a tree-climber found a murrelet chick high in an old tree; that was the first time Western science had found a Marbled murrelet’s nest. They may feed way out at sea and then fly up to 50 miles (80km) inland to raise their young. Their preference for old growth forests means habitat destruction is impinging on their nesting success. Foraging habits may also be negatively affected by climate change; currently the Marbled murrelet is considered endangered.)
Turning away from the water, the park’s woodlands invite scrutiny. Weather-ravaged junipers and Douglas firs command rocky headlands. Mounds of delicate, slow-growing reindeer lichens (Cladonia sp.) speckle forest openings and wildflowers that may be uncommon elsewhere bloom in the park each Spring. Deer, squirrels, and birds abound. There’s a bench by the loop road (open to walkers, bike riders and cars willing to go 10mph) with a lovely water view. It has become a favorite spot to hand-feed chickadees, sparrows, towhees and other birds. Tiny Chestnut-backed chickadees will perch on any outstretched hand with a few seeds in it; they’ve cleaned me out of nuts and seeds more than once.
Getting a little more concrete about the “Grand Uncanny”
Several times each day water is pulled back and forth by the mingling of lunar and solar gravitational forces with the earth’s rotation. Wind, weather and even the shape of the land can play a part in these complex liquid movements that we call tides.
The most common type of tidal cycles are semi-diurnal tides. These consist of two high tides of about the same height and two low tides, also about the same height, each day. Semi-diurnal tides occur on Europe’s Atlantic coast and on America’s Atlantic coast, where I first experienced the ocean as a young girl. Our family vacationed at my maternal grandparents’ home on a coastal barrier island every spring. There, I watched migrating birds, ghost crabs and coquina clams on wide, sandy beaches with the Atlantic as a backdrop. I took the regularity of the tides for granted. We planned activities around them, like walking way out to a spit of land only accessible at low tide, or going to the dock to catch Blue crabs with baited traps at high tide. If I was at the ocean it was the Atlantic, and understanding the tides was straightforward. I just needed to visualize the smooth oscillations of high and low tides on a tide chart and remember that the peaks and troughs would hit around 45 minutes later each day.
Then I moved to the West coast. Actually, I was far from the actual coast, which was a place to visit from time to time for a change of scenery. The pounding surf, beautiful blue-green water and mammoth logs littering the shores of Washington, Oregon and California took my breath away. Amid all that drama I paid no attention to the tides. Then we moved again, this time to a small island far from the Pacific ocean but surrounded by salt water thanks to its location near the end of a long strait that is so big it’s called the Salish Sea. Living here has prompted me to get to know the tides again, but I didn’t know how complex tidal cycles can be.
The tidal cycles here are called mixed semi-diurnal tides: there are two unequal low tides and two unequal high tides each day. There are higher high tides and lower high tides, and lower low tides and higher low tides. Did you get that? Apparently mixed tides are a West coast thing, occurring from Mexico to Alaska, along the Chilean coast and in some other locations. My (east coast native) partner likes to theorize about the congruence between left coast attitudes and left coast tides. I thought all tides were as regular as the semi-diurnal ones back on the east coast, but when I look at a local tide table I see irregular waves, with peaks and troughs that vary from deep to average to almost non-existent. Here’s an example: the tide chart for December 25th, 2019.
In addition to daily tidal cycles there are spring and neap tides, which occur everywhere but which, to my mind, might make predicting tides here even more challenging. Spring and neap tides are tidal changes (also called differentials) that are bigger or smaller, depending on the moon phase. At the new and full moon the earth, moon and sun line up and their gravitational pull increases, making high tides higher and low tides lower. At the quarter moons the gravitational pull is lessened, resulting in lower high tides and higher low tides. The upshot is that tide charts are essential around here, whether you’re going fishing, want an easier time getting your kayak in the water, or are looking for Geoducks.
If you read this far you know that much more can be said about that Grand Uncanny we call the tides. Maybe I’ll write again as I learn more. For now just remember: ebb and flow, ebb and flow, ebb and flow….
Yesterday I learned that Patti Fogarty had died. We hadn’t been in touch for quite a while but she was such a life force, so vividly herself, that I thought – I hoped – the news couldn’t be about her. It must be someone else – could there be another Patti Fogarty who’s a street photographer in New York? No, unfortunately, the news was about the Patti I knew.
We met online about six years ago, after following each other’s blogs. We appreciated one another’s work. Patti’s blog, “Nylon Daze” was mostly New York street photography, just the right injection of vivid energy I craved every now and then. Though I left the city very deliberately, I missed its vitality. Patti lived for life on the street, gravitating toward the wilder characters who exemplify the creative self-expression that New York encourages in people.
Lots of people do street photography but Patti approached her subject – basically all of NYC humanity – with great love, and it showed. She had a sharp eye for humor and the contradictions life presents. Replying to a comment WordPress two years ago, Patti said, “… as an immigrant living here in NY I always see America as that vast land stretching beyond the Hudson River with awe and wonder at how this crazy place works. And how can we be sure a certain POTUS doesn’t f*** it all up? There’s the doom factor!”
Our styles were very different – Patti photographed city street life, fearlessly walking up to anyone and everyone, relishing events like Pride parades, protests, and traffic-halting snowstorms. I photograph alone in the woods, mostly. I enjoy working on my photos in post processing and I like telling a story with words and text on WordPress. Patti preferred to be spontaneous, direct, emotional, in the moment. No wonder she eventually migrated to Instagram and Tumblr.
She was a true New Yorker, coming from somewhere else and falling in love with the energy of the city, like so many before her. After a trip to England she said, “Sometimes I think the best part about traveling is coming back to New York. For all it’s faults, rough edges etc I always almost want to kiss the ground once I get back here.” Always generous with praise, she encouraged people to follow their paths, wherever they lead. Once she said, “Funny isn’t it where we find our comfort zones, not looking at something but rather searching for some thing . . . “
In the spring of 2016 Patti and I finally met in person. I was in New York and we agreed to meet at the Rubin Museum, which was convenient for us both. I thought we might see the exhibit after coffee but we never got to that, launching straight into intense conversation as if we’d been friends for years. Patti asked about my camera. When I said “Here, take a look” she began shooting. I watched, fascinated. There was something physical about the way she handled the camera, without hesitation. She fiddled with the art filter settings on the camera, took some pictures, and that eventually led to this post. I came away inspired that day by Patti’s involvement with the camera as a tool, and by her direct engagement with the world.
In October, 2017, we got together one more time when I returned to the city for a visit. We met near the World Trade Center, walked around West Street, Battery City and the World Financial Center, then sat down for a snack in the plaza by North Cove Harbor. Patti was as lively and curious as ever. While we sat and talked I photographed the buildings around us, again using the in-camera filter to dramatize the scene. Patti set people at ease, even as her own restless energy charged the air.
After we parted company I prowled the streets, relishing views that I used to pass on the way home from work. I wandered down to Battery Park. There were asters blooming and Monarch butterflies flying around. A wedding party clowned for their photographer. Throughout the afternoon traces of Patti’s energy wove through my own nostalgia for New York, making for a day in the city that felt slightly bittersweet, but very much at home.
Life got busy, as it often does. Instagram, where Patti posted, frustrated me with its too-quick takes, so I seldom looked at it. Patti wasn’t visiting WordPress much either, and we fell out of touch. I feel terrible about that now, but this is life. Like a friend said, Patti’s sudden death is a stark reminder to be thankful for the days we have.
Here’s to Patti, may she live long in our memories and continue to inspire us.
Han-shan Te-ch’ing, from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now ed. Red Pine & Mike O’Conner. Wisdom Press
Who is this old image-maker
wrapped up in pristine forests and trampled leaves?
This week I took a walk in local park shortly after a band of rainy weather passed over the island. In the park a one-way, 2.3-mile road shared by foot and car traffic loops through thick forest with brief views of the water beyond. The 15mph speed limit discourages car traffic; most people walk. I like to drive part way around the loop, park at a pull-out, and take trails through the forest, which I did that afternoon. When I came back out onto the road I admired a bright spot where maple trees interrupted the evergreen parade. Pale gold leaves were falling to the ground, making soft layers in the woods, but all the leaves that had fallen on the road were trampled flat by the tires of cars. The leaves’ cells were breaking down in progressively ruined stages: just-crushed, flat and thin enough to reveal pavement bumps, becoming translucent, losing edges, skeletonized – many stages of decomposition were on display.
I wavered about photographing the leaves on the road. Part of me was drawn to the way the splayed and flattened shapes recalled graphic depictions of a maple leaf. Another part of me was repulsed by the dirty, crushed plant tissue. The textures were interesting but the colors had lost their life. I turned away, then turned back. The sun was disappearing and there was no time for second guessing. Photographers know that the phenomenon we view at any given moment won’t repeat itself: the smashed leaves at my feet would never look quite like they did that afternoon. So I made some photographs and I’m glad I did.
I’ll look for the Bigleaf maples the next time I go to the park. Whatever I find it will be different next time, and the next. That’s part of the magic of walking outdoors. I’ll also be more likely to consider the aesthetic possibilities of crushed plant material the next time I come across it. That’s part of the magic of human imagination.
About the Bigleaf Maple
We are predominantly coniferous here on Fidalgo Island but we have our share of deciduous trees, trees that are mostly golden now as they work through the annual task of releasing their leaves. A standout among our deciduous trees is the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a well-named tree that’s hard to miss. With the largest leaves of any maple tree, it spreads its branches wide in the forest and frequently hosts copious amounts of moss on its trunk and branches. Happiest in moist climates that don’t get too cold, it ranges up and down America’s West coast where the weather is moderate, into the mid-elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and through coastal British Columbia.
Bigleaf maples turn yellow, gold and brown in the Fall as they cease food production and lose their chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment that green plants use to make energy from light. The same reduction in daylight hours that has me complaining prompts these trees to make layers of strong cells at the junction of each leaf stem and twig. The thicker cells allow weaker cells above them to break, severing the leaf from its home. The prodigious effort of food production that occupied the tree for the last six months or so is over; thousands of frail factories are floating down to the ground to gradually decompose. The process has its own intricacies; if you’re so inclined, here’s a study to about the mathematics of leaf decay from MIT.
Each spring before the leaves get started, male and female flowers share space on pretty, pendulous cascades that hang from branch tips. If there aren’t many other flowers out, the bees that visit Bigleaf maple flowers for nectar will produce a hauntingly fragrant honey. Last year I bought Bigleaf maple honey from a vendor at a farmers market and I savored every last drop until it was gone. I have to wait for another spring when I might be lucky enough to find it for sale again.
The flowers turn into winged maple seeds that ripen in the fall and are carried away by the wind for months afterwards to germinate in a moist, partially shaded spot when the time is right. A cut stem will sprout readily too. The little saplings are munched by deer and elk, birds and rodents eat the seeds, and various parts of the tree host a variety of insect life. Humans make use of the wood for furniture, veneers, musical instruments, crafts, pulp, and firewood.
The Bigleaf maple is an epiphyte paradise, gracefully supporting moss, lichens and ferns in great abundance. One study found that the trees carry an average of 78 ponds (35.5kg) of epiphyte biomass. They can actually grow small roots along epiphyte-covered branches to burrow into the rich substrate for nutrients captured from the atmosphere by the various epiphytes. Bits and pieces are always falling to the ground, enriching the soil.
These trees can live to be 300 – nothing compared to an ancient redwood, but an impressive number of seasons on earth. A photo of the biggest Bigleaf maple tree in the U.S. can be seen here. A person standing next to it makes the scale clear.
And here’s a photo of me holding an impressive leaf on a Bigleaf maple tree in July, 2012.
If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.
A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.
After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.
We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.
After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.
At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.
The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.
Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)
Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.
We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!
We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.
Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.
Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.
The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)
We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)
Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.
Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.
Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!
These days there’s a particular kind of beauty afield. It’s a beauty shot through with darkness, one that draws energy from the forces of disintegration. Everywhere I look I’m reminded that life is cyclical, and endings are every bit as integral to life as beginnings.
If I had to compare this time of year to Spring I’d say I’m happier in the Spring, even joyful. Now, as daylight becomes scarce, a pervasive undertone of sadness is undeniable. My drive to go outdoors isn’t as strong. When I do go out though, the beauty I find rewards close attention and second looks. It’s less predictable, more complex. Colors bleed through numberless permutations, forms contort in unthinkable ways, light bends and shifts, revealing forgotten corners. If I needed reassurance that ample beauty continues in this darkening world, well, that consolation is right in front of my eyes.
In the forest I listen to the gentle plunk of leaves hitting the ground. Some don’t make it – they’re caught on branches or land on other leaves. What irony that a tree bares its branches only to receive falling leaves from higher places. The vagrant leaves may be released with the next rainstorm, or maybe they’ll spend the winter hanging by a thread.
Leaves that do reach the forest floor crunch under my feet, wafting earthy scents into the cool air. A plethora of mushrooms add to the rich aroma.