KEEPING MY EYES OPEN, no matter what…

We just returned from the first long trip we’ve taken in two years. The pandemic quashed our plans for excursions last year, but by March of this year we were “two past two” (two weeks past the second shot) so it was time to get back in the saddle and plan a serious trip. A family member had a stroke last year and we were eager to lay our eyes on him, instead of relying on second-person reports. We could combine seeing him in Massachusetts with visiting family in New York and day trips to Manhattan by booking a flight to Boston, renting a car and driving to New York, and flying back to Seattle from JFK. We hadn’t been back to New York, where we’re both from, for several years.

So that was the plan.

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The text below alternates with pairs of photographs from the trip; each pair includes an image of the human-built environment (mostly from Manhattan) and an image from one of the gardens and parks we visited.

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A series of snafus made this trip beyond memorable. Let’s say it was successful overall, with wrinkles. The trouble started before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, when I began frantically digging through my backpack for my phone and realized that it was missing. No!!! I was crushed. We called the van operator that took us to the airport and asked them to look for a phone. Just before we took off we talked with them again, and, whew! – they found my phone and promised to hold onto it until we returned.

I was grateful but my emotions were all over the place as I thought about being incommunicado for ten days, days with an itinerary that involved about twenty friends and relatives. How would I manage?

Let me say here that this is the problem of a privileged person; I know that. Many people in Sudan, for example, own a mobile phone but are malnourished. The current vaccination rate there is only 0.2% of the population. Wealthy countries like the one I live in need to step up and help. I also know that spiritually, there’s more to life than having a phone.

But back to the story.

Sitting crumpled up on a plane with a mask on for five hours doesn’t exactly sooth one’s nerves – especially in the current atmosphere of high anxiety about flying and unruly passengers who cause trouble in the middle of long flights. At least I had ample time to hatch a plan: as soon as we arrived and procured our rental car, we would bee-line to the nearest phone store where I would buy a cheap replacement to use during the trip. New York time is three hours later than Seattle time but our morning flight should leave time to accomplish the task, I reasoned.

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After arriving in Boston we located the rental stand and were directed to a shiny new Nissan. Opening the doors, we realized the car had been rubbed clean with so much chemical disinfectant that we couldn’t breathe without the windows rolled down. A few choice words flew around as we figured out how to start the car and open the trunk. “Let’s just get on the road” I thought, “this is too stressful.”

We whizzed through a city neither of us know (at least we had Joe’s smartphone for navigation) and got to the store well before closing. Of course, we soon confirmed what we knew must be true: the least expensive phones aren’t exactly cheap. Worse, I learned that one’s contacts reside on one’s phone, which in my case was 4,000 miles away, sitting in a drawer in Seattle hotel. That meant no phone numbers, no texting, and no communicating with people, unless I figured out another way to get their contact information. Needless to say, I don’t have any phone numbers memorized other than mine and Joe’s and I haven’t carried a paper phone list in years.

Watching the salesman set up the new phone, I tried to maintain a calm facade, while alternately seething, berating myself, and trying to talk myself into accepting the situation. Back and forth my mind went…

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“Can we set up my email account?”, I asked the man. But when he tried to activate it on the new phone, Gmail wanted a four-digit authorization code. Guess where they sent it – to the phone in Seattle, of course! I didn’t want to tell the strangers keeping my phone safe how to unlock my phone so they could read the code to me – that wouldn’t be smart.

Now it looked like I would be without phone numbers AND email for the entire trip. Maybe you’re thinking, cheer up, it’s healthy to disconnect! Or you might wonder why I didn’t try again, and again. One time, Gmail locked me out for two weeks because I forgot my password and tried incorrect passwords too many times. There was no recourse except to wait until the company reactivated my email account. Thinking about being locked out of email for weeks made me cringe – I couldn’t risk having that happen again. Joe came to the rescue – he had been cc’ed on the family emails with the details for our big get-together the next day. At least we had an address for the reunion and the ability to contact family.

Leaving the shop with a rather rudimentary phone and a troubled face, I tried to reason with myself as we wound our way through Boston to a restaurant. I don’t recall dinner that night but I know that once we checked into our hotel, we collapsed.

That was just Day One!

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The following day we visited the sibling whose stroke radically changed his life last fall. He had been actively immersed in academia at a prestigious college in Boston; now his days are scheduled around speech therapy appointments, meals, and exercise. But he’s as positive as he ever was, his sense of humor is intact and he’s working hard to rewire his brain and get back the skills he lost. It felt good to be with him. Reassured, I left to meet a dear friend I hadn’t seen in ten years who drove down from Maine for a rare, in-person visit. As always, we picked up right where we left off, plunging into conversations about anything and everything. It was wonderful.

I was swinging from the low of worrying about a lost phone to a high of happy connections with friends and family – but the day wasn’t over yet. The first of two big family get-togethers was that evening. We all know these reunions can be simultaneously awkward and heartwarming and our gathering fully lived up to that expectation. Exhausted from a day of emotional intensity and far from home, I slept poorly again.

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The next morning we hit the road for New York. Joe drove and I navigated, which means that I had an opportunity to unwind a little. I was grateful for Joe’s patience over the previous two days but as we got closer to the heavy traffic of metropolitan New York City at rush hour, patience wore a little thin and his long-buried New York edge emerged. Later on we would joke about needing to purge the tough, New York attitude (which one absolutely needs to get on with life in the city) before returning to the Pacific northwest, where politeness and a forgiving outlook on life are the norm.

Seattle has experienced a boom and traffic there can be beyond aggravating, a fact of life we’re both glad that we don’t deal anymore, now that we live in a more rural environment. New York traffic is another matter – it’s famously busy and you have the added stressors of unpredictable, rude, aggressive drivers and terrible roads.

We were back in the fray and we were out of practice.

A stop at a sibling’s house for conversation and snacks was a welcome respite. None of our respective siblings, nieces and nephews who reside in metropolitan New York live in Manhattan. Most live on Long Island, so we chose a centrally-located hotel there. Of course, it happened to be hosting a passel of noisy hockey fans the night we got there, as well as an undetermined number of college sports teams.

We slept poorly. Again.

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Seven more days of family visits and excursions ensued, including a hot, tiring but satisfying day in Manhattan, where we viewed inspiring art exhibits and enjoyed just sitting outside a cafe, watching the street life. There were visits to gardens in and around the city. We had an intriguing conversation with a Guyanese caregiver who was waiting for the same train we were. We endured a loud, heated argument at another family gathering that shocked everyone present. There was a poison ivy-laced walk through a preserve, pressured smartphone searches for places to eat, and hours spent navigating busy highways and sitting in traffic jams. We took a spontaneous tour of our old neighborhood, which we hadn’t seen in nine years. We enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon of coffee, conversation, and a garden visit with John Todaro, a fine art photographer I’ve admired for nine years. That was a high point!

We were struck repeatedly by the intensity and scope of sensory input during the trip: noisy people, rich food, hectic traffic, unfamiliar sights, strong smells, muggy, oppressive heat we could hardly bear, beautiful skies – our senses were assaulted with a range of impressions the like of which we hadn’t experienced in a long time.

We’re both retired now. We live in a quiet, extraordinarily beautiful place that always seems peaceful – even the weather changes slowly here and rarely throws us for a loop. Over the last year our lives shrank; sensory and social input was more limited than we had ever experienced. On this trip we felt as if we had jumped straight into a fire.

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Eventually we settled down, slept better, and began to relax. Even the horrid smell in the rental car began to dissipate. But true to form, an unexpected event threw us off again, this time on the flight home. A passenger who apparently ingested something he shouldn’t have was talking rudely at full volume, then became very quiet. I noticed him struggling to maintain an upright position as he headed down the aisle to the bathroom. I heard the stewards call for medical help. After a half hour or so, apparently they determined that it was safe to continue on to Seattle; the flight didn’t have to be diverted. At the gate we were met by a uniformed phalanx of police and medics. With rescue truck lights flashing, medical kits, and handcuffs at hand, the pros handled the situation with aplomb, diplomatically convincing the unmasked man to exit the aircraft. Finally, we deplaned and called the van to take us to the lot where our car was parked. It arrived with a thrilling gift on board – my phone! The battery was dead but oh, the familiar feel of the case felt good in my hand!

I thought about the hundreds of emails in my inbox. They would be deleted, answered, and dealt with soon enough.

Heading home through a Pacific Northwest rainstorm, we sighed with relief when we pulled into the driveway. The air was fresh and smelled good. Everything was in place. We were home.

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As stressed as I was from the emotional roller coaster and lack of sleep, my eyes were always open wide. Again and again, I looked and I thought about what I saw. I was inspired by beautiful paintings, imposing sculptures, interesting photographs. A store called Printed Matter with 15,000 artists’ books on the shelves offered more food for thought.

But not only art inspired me.

There was delicious food. There were energizing interactions with strangers – the warm, spontaneous, to-the-point kind that New York is famous for and we miss dearly. There were heart-warming visits with family – little ones we’d never met and grown-ups we hadn’t seen in over a decade. There were gardens galore, filled with irises, peonies, wisteria and water lilies. My ears delighted at the sound of birds I grew up with, singing their hearts out at the height of spring: cardinals, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles – even Blue jays and Red-bellied woodpeckers made me stop and smile. The owner of the neighborhood pizza joint we used to frequent recognized Joe instantly after an absence of nine years (and oh, the taste of a real New York slice!). We dined on Peking duck served by white-gloved waiters, wolfed down Trinidadian roti from a busy lunch spot in Little Guyana (a neighborhood in Queens), and savored perfect Agedashi tofu at a Japanese restaurant.

But back to the point: returning to the practice of paying close attention, no matter what disruptions and distractions are going on, is a practice that keeps me going. Look at this amazing world we live in, study what you see, watch the light, think about how shapes relate to each other, examine details. This is a refuge. Not an escape from anything, but a refuge. Be nourished by it, every day.

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NINE DAYS in MARCH: Hints and Proclamations of Spring

As I write we’re closing in on the Spring Equinox, that earthpause when day and night have equal sway, before the brightness overtakes darkness. There’s no doubt that the tonic of perceiving new life around us with all our senses is especially needed this year. For me, seasonal glimmers of hope began in January as the days began to lengthen. Where I live, spring takes its time, arriving in measured increments that begin early in the year and continue well into May. Instead of explosions of color or a sudden blast of warmth there are hints and glimmers arising over the course of months. In February Osoberry bushes reach for the light in forest openings, sprouting leaves and flowers that brighten the somber, deep green coniferous woods. Anna’s hummingbirds, those brave little bundles of speed that somehow overwinter here, appear far from the feeders they relied on all winter, calling “tzzip, tzzip” from the early-flowering Salmonberry bushes festooning the forest edge. Bald eagles perch proudly by the huge, messy nests they use year after year. If you’re very lucky, as we were one mid-February day, you may see a pair of them lunge, rise, swoop, rise again and lock talons high in the air, tumbling toward the ground in an extraordinary spiral before letting go at the last minute. Joe, as amazed as I was and always creative with words, said it was like a wingnut dance. Whatever you call it, we were grateful to witness the display in person – and right by the highway, as we were driving home! It was truly a proclamation of spring.

The hints and proclamations that began in February are picking up speed. Sunrises are drenched with color, birds are singing and the Bitter cherry trees have opened their snow-white buds in a frothy redemption: spring is now.

1. Our native Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) blooms without fanfare in the woods at Kukutali Preserve. To stand under a cherry tree in full bloom is to feel a benediction from light itself.

Before the cherry trees began singing diaphanous melodies in March there were other hints. On the first of the month I climbed up Goose Rock at Deception Pass State Park. The short, sometimes steep climb through the woods winded me. Just as I stepped onto the glacier-scraped bald at the top I heard the happy “chirrup, churee” of an American robin. Perched high in a Madrone tree, he faced the sun with the world spread out under his feet. As I walked toward him he gave no sign of letting up – he had an important proclamation to make.

2. American robin

3. Lush moss at my feet overtaking the dark detritus of winter storms.

4. Sunset over the strait.

I lingered on Goose Rock for a long time, looking for hints of the wildflowers that will soon dot the meadows and admiring pillows of moss and reindeer lichen softened by spring rain. The air was cool, no one was around, and quiet pervaded. To the west, the sun began to set behind strips of clouds over the strait. I pointed the camera directly into the sun, thinking, why not try? Then I strode back into the forest and made my way back down to the bridge at Deception Pass in fading light. Pausing underneath the bridge, I made the same photo I’ve made any number of times, this time with an iphone. Those criss-crossed girders marching into the distance are irresistible. Seeing more trash on the ground than usual, I frowned. There was more erosion, too, from an increase in foot traffic brought by the pandemic. It’s a two-edged sword, this new popularity of the outdoors: there is less privacy and more wear on the trails but there is also the possibility that more people will begin caring deeply about protecting wild places.

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The next day I had an appointment in Kirkland, an hour and a half south. There was just enough time afterward for a brief walk in O.O. Denny Park, where Bigleaf maples rise from a deep ravine and a silver creek slides musically down the hill to Lake Washington. The sun was out and the air was fresh. Licorice fern fronds, firmly anchored on moss-covered tree trunks, shined acid green in the afternoon light. I didn’t have my camera but the phone worked well enough.

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It was all enough.

Spring is enough,

whether in glimpses

or proclamations.

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Saturday was cool and overcast, a good day to hike a favorite route at Little Cranberry Lake in Anacortes. Following the trail through Douglas fir and Redcedar, I rounded the south end of the lake and began climbing a fire-ravaged hill. It was unnaturally quiet. Perhaps the fire that tore through here five years ago still prevents the land from welcoming as many creatures as it did before. No birds sang to remind me that spring was near and only one person passed me on the trail. A glimpse of aquamarine-colored, thorny stems shook me out of my gloom and I recalled savoring three or four tasty black raspberries from that plant last summer; the birds got a few, too.

At the peak of the hill, where Madrones consort with Douglas firs, soft green pairs of leaves hugged the ground exactly where I photographed Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) last July. The leaves will photosynthesize for the next four months, making fuel for the small flower stalks set with tiny orchid flowers that will bloom in mid-summer. It was reassuring to see them. Whatever mishegoss* is going on in this world, the seasons unfold on their own. The world is full of basic goodness just as it is full of the betrayal of innocence but orchids don’t care about that, nor do the seasons. Being amidst that great freedom from the mind’s constant business is why I return again and again to nature.

8. Picking my way back down through the forest to the north end of the lake, I turned right and traced a trail bordering the water, still as a mirror.

The next day I drove around March Point and pulled over to watch a flock of about 50 Common mergansers hunting together in a tight flock. Churning the choppy water of Padilla Bay in a long, thin line, they appeared to be herding schools of fish. Looking comically intent with their slicked-back crests, one bird took the lead while a few ducks dipped their heads under the water to see what was going on, then there must have been a signal I couldn’t see and they all dove at once. Seconds later they popped back up. I’ll never tire of watching that!

The setting sun turned a Bitter cherry tree’s blossoms yellow along the road and painted the dried grasses underneath it in graceful strokes. I dialed the light way down by using the camera’s spot metering mode and pointed at a bright spot in the grass. A few days earlier I had finally received a new camera that had been delayed from the Texas snowstorm. I was busy getting to know the feel of a different body in my hands and the locations of dials and buttons. It’s going to take a while!

9. Last year’s grass in a roadside ditch.

The light was almost gone when I got back home. I raced out to photograph our own Bitter cherry tree by an intermittent creek that runs past the house. Opening the shutter to f2.8, I could see the blue cast of the creek behind the sparsely flowered branches.

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11. Wild cherry blossom in black and white.

On Monday I met friends who drove up from Seattle to explore Pass Island, a small island in the middle of Deception Pass that can be accessed from a staircase midspan. The island’s sheer, rocky sides drop off to churning water as it rips through the pass. I’ve never felt comfortable walking far on the trails there by myself but on this day I was with friends who knew the island – and for once, I brought a trekking pole. We were quickly rewarded with a natural hillside garden of rich purple Satin flowers, aka Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I almost teared up, seeing so many of the delicate, transient beauties that would surely be gone in a few days. Harsh sunlight made photographing the groups of flowers impossible but I managed a few photos of individual flowers.

12. Satin flower.

At the end of the island we sat down for a quick snack and watched the spectacle of the rushing current grabbing passing logs and sliding them like toothpicks into a funnel of waves breaking against the rocks. Richard pointed out a yellow lichen (Polycauliona verruculifera) growing in a beautiful scallop pattern on a rock by the water. He’s been photographing that rock since 2003, recording the lichen’s slow crawl across the rock’s rough gray surface. This time he found tiny, orange cup-shaped apothecia on the lichen’s body. Apothecia are sexual reproductive structures; lichens mainly reproduce a asexually but sometimes will reproduce sexually.

We finished up the day at Sharpe Park, where my friends introduced me to a new (to me) fern, the Leathery polypody, Polypodium scouleri. I walked right by the little fern without noticing it The almost cartoonish charmer is a fern of the salt-spray zone on the Pacific coast from northern British Columbia south to Baja California. It “doesn’t belong” here, 90 miles from the coast, but maybe the fern feels at home near Fidalgo Island’s mix of fresh and Pacific Ocean water. Who knows? The island continues to surprise me. It was a good lesson, thanks to my friends, who know a thing or two.

13. Pacific, or Irregular polypody.

14. A view from Pass Island. Way in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of the North Cascade Range.

15. The Deception Pass Bridge towered above us.

The next day, invigorated by the discoveries on Monday’s outing, I decided to go down to the beach, Fidalgo Island-style. Tuesday brought a mix of sun and clouds and a very low tide at Bowman Bay. For once, the tide ebbed deeply in the late afternoon instead of the wee hours of the morning, which meant I could peer under rocks which are normally under water. I found snail eggs attached to a rock and delighted in interesting ripple patterns splashed across the sand. A brilliant Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum) lit up the forest along the Lighthouse Point trail but I was disappointed to find that heavy foot traffic on the meadow had crushed the few Satin flowers that tried to bloom there this year. This made me all the more grateful to have seen them blooming unmolested at Pass Island. Finally, a lone Great blue heron fishing in the bay with studied elegance was a gift.

16. A favorite declaration of spring, the Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).

17. Laid bare by the pull of the tide: tiny, glistening snail egg cases.

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22. A new tide dancer has washed up on the beach at Bowman Bay.

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24. The rocky point near the three walkers is normally under water, necessitating a climb over the cliff on a well-worn trail to reach the part of the beach where I stood to take this photo. The tide is only low enough to walk around the rocks at certain times. The firm sand felt good under my feet.

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26. A companionable pair of Canada geese waddles out of the water. I can see a hint of spring in the turn of their heads.

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I planned to cover the first two weeks of March here but there are already more photos than I think I should include. Flocks of Snow geese, more cherry blossoms and other early spring pleasures will have to wait. Whatever the state of the season is where you live, I hope it feels like enough. Even for a moment.

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*mishegoss is a wonderfully expressive word I learned when I moved to New York City at the age of 18. It’s Yiddish slang for craziness – the kind of senselessness that’s hard to comprehend or digest.

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JUST LOOKING

I was just looking

as always.

later, I found connections between the photos.

the connections may not be obvious – the

images were made

with different cameras

at different times and places.

you could say they were all

made with the same mind,

same hands, but

I don’t think so.

not exactly.

a thread connects the pictures

but

in spite of some inchoate commonality,

each image was made with a new

batch of molecules, a rearrangement of

electrons, a fresh tumble of light and brain

cells. it’s different every time

but the images connect with each other.

just looking. always

looking.

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The photos were made between 2008 & 2021, by keeping my eyes open. 🙂

If you’re curious:

  1. Looking up at peoples’ feet on a staircase at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, NY.
  2. View through a curtained window, somewhere north of New York City.
  3. Corner of 33 Rd. & 10th St., Long Island City, NY.
  4. Bamboo and curtained window at the Center for Urban Horticulture; Seattle, WA.
  5. Watercolor paints and photos on a table seen with a jiggled camera.
  6. Close-up of package mailed multiple times between Britain & USA.
  7. Isamu Noguchi sculpture & shadows; Noguchi Museum, NYC.
  8. Orchid and roots at the University of Washington Botany Greenhouse, Seattle, WA.
  9. Old keys from the William E. Dodge House (built 1863 in Riverdale, NY) on an antique desk.
  10. A rust-ridden hoop found on a beach in Staten Island, NY, then hung on a wall shaded by window blinds.
  11. A rock at Kubota Garden; Seattle, WA.
  12. Part of a dock at Deception Pass State Park, WA.
  13. Hanging sculpture made from shells at an airbnb; Leiden, Netherlands.
  14. Snow and porch railing; Fidalgo Island, WA.
  15. Metal sculpture on a wall at an airbnb; Phoenix, AZ.
  16. A display involving hanging, translucent printed fabric and a photograph; ABC Carpet & Home, NY, NY.

LOCAL WALKS: A Lake and a Forest in the Quiet Season

The lake is Heart Lake, a small, roughly heart-shaped lake on Fidalgo Island. The forest surrounds it. For a time the trees there were logged – but not all of them. Somehow a handful of giants missed the cut. The area was designated a state park but even so, a proposal to build condos around the lake was brought forward. That idea frightened the right people and finally, the lake and surrounding land received protection from the city of Anacortes. Now, this lush, precious green dot on the globe is preserved as community forest land.

That’s the story of what European-American culture has done here, but in no way is that the whole story. I invite you to enter into this landscape and recognize that part of you, a part that isn’t identified with any particular culture, knows this place. The plants and animals of Heart Lake breathe air and utilize water that travels ’round the earth. So do you. This isn’t a strange, exotic place. It isn’t “other” than you.

Give it a little time and this place will tell you a story beyond culture and words.

1. Feathery Western hemlock tree branches (Tsuga heterophylla) drift above a tangle of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). February.

I delved into Heart Lake last year in a Local Walks post. This time I’m looking at the lake and forest between October and February, the quiet season.

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2. A subtle winter sunset over the lake. February.

3. Evening on the edge of the lake. February.

4. Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). November.

5. Dried Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilimum). January.

6. A lichen-covered branch tip. January.

7. Picking my way through old-growth Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees near the lake. The biggest trees were growing here long before Europeans arrived. February.

8. Towering Western Redcedars (Thuja plicata). December.

9. It’s impossible to convey the size of some of these tress in a photograph. This redcedar has a hole big enough to crawl into, but its branches are green, growing high in the canopy. I can barely see them. February.

10. The tip of a Western Redcedar branch on the forest floor. How did that twig weave through it? February.

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12. Tiny lichens colonize the bark of a tree that fell long ago. February.

13. Old growth Douglas fir has thick, deeply furrowed bark with its own community of lichens, fungi, insects, spiders and other beings. February.

14. A lush undergrowth of Sword fern carpets the ground under a moss-covered Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) tree. The forest here is damp and remains green all year. February.

15. Berries cling to an Orange honeysuckle vine (Lonicera ciliosa). November.

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17. Snow on a Redcedar branch. February.

18. Snow shrinks from the margins of Salal leaves, flecks the hemlock branches, and weighs heavily on little arcs of spiderwebs in the tree bark. February.

19. Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) loses its leaves gradually. November.

20. Young trees, old trees, and heaps of old wood on the ground create a healthy forest. February.

21. By November there’s very little left of the Yellow pond-lily (Nuphor lutea). The dark stem holds a chewed-up leaf.

22. Pond lily leaves and Douglas fir reflections at dusk. November.

23. Douglas firs stitch fine black lace edges across water and sky. February.

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“More powerful than any industrial plant, communities of photosynthetic creatures rearrange the elements on a planetary scale. They know how to compose liveable, breathable, nourishing worlds. As they exhale, they compose the atmosphere; as they decompose, they matter the compost and feed the soil. Holding the earth down and the sky up, they sing in nearly audible ultrasonic frequencies as they transpire, moving massive volumes of water from the depths of the earth up to the highest clouds. They cleanse the waters and nourish all other life…

To say that forests and marine microbes form the “lungs of the earth” is an understatement. They literally breathe us into being. All cultures turn around plants’ metabolic rhythms. Plants are the substance, substrate, scaffolding, symbol, sign and sustenance…”

Natasha Myers: How to grow livable worlds: Ten (not so easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. From ABC Religion and Ethics, an Australian website for religious and ethics journalism and discussion.

WE ARE FALLING

Fallen objects tend to have negative associations, but is that necessary? A tree falls and begins a new life as a support for moss, fungi, insects and other life forms. Fruit falls from the tree and you pick it up; maybe you take a bite. A ship falls to the bottom of the sea and becomes a coral reef, sugar falls to the bottom of your cup, you stir it, and sip.

And what is this notion of a fall from grace? How about a graceful fall and a new beginning?

1. My scarf falls at my feet at an art gallery. I photograph it. Manhattan; October, 2017.

2. A Camel cigarette pack fell to the ground (intentionally or not?) and was crushed by a passing truck. I photograph it. I have come to this obscure corner of a busy city to explore an old railroad trestle but I’m distracted by the artifact at my feet – the fading colors, the roughened texture, the surprise of printed matter on the ground. Bellevue, Washington; September, 2017.

3. Leaves fell, it rained, and the tannins leached out of them, staining the new concrete. Now leaf shadows ghost the sidewalk. I photograph it. Kirkland, Washington; October, 2016.

4. A pear falls to the ground. I photograph it. In the mid-1980s I worked sporadically for a New York catering company, The Perfect Pear. The owner, Stuart, made memorable sesame chicken. I wonder if this pear gradually decomposed, like my memories from the 80s are doing, or if someone took it home and made it into preserves. Washington State University Research Center, Mt. Vernon, Washington; September, 2018.

5. Trees fall into the lake and drift into a cove. Snow falls. I photograph it. Fidalgo Island, Washington; March, 2019.

6. A 64-year-old ship fell to the bottom of a channel and is being recovered. I photograph it. After a violent, mid-January windstorm tore the boat from its mooring at Lovric’s Shipyard, it drifted along the bottom of the channel for a half mile and came to rest near a busy dock. The state officials who monitor safety hazards of derelict vessels contracted with a diving and reclamation crew to raise the ship. The 197-ton MV Chilkat was the first car ferry in the Alaska Marine Highway System, built in 1957, when Alaska was still a US territory. It was a rough ride (people called it the “Vomit Comet”) but it could load and unload vehicles straight onto a beach, using its bow ramp like landing craft from WWII. After serving the Alaska ferry system for many years, the ship found other lives: there were years of scallop farming, tuna trawling and Christmas tree deliveries. Recently the MV Chilcat was in storage at Lovric’s. A local family was trying to raise money to get it seaworthy again, but now it may finally be scrapped. Anacortes, Washington; January, 2021.

7. Rain falls. A man celebrates the sudden deluge with a handstand. I photograph it. My son is in the background, giving two thumbs up. He’s just returned from fighting the Taliban in Marjah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines. His friend, Sergeant Sean T. Callahan, was killed in combat three months before their unit was to return home. My son was thrilled to be back in New York, but struggled with guilt. West side, New York, New York; July, 2011.

8. A dead goose has fallen to the ground. Overnight, a delicate layer of frost coated the bird. I photograph it. Chances are good that it fell out of the sky after being shot because in this particular field, people hunt ducks and geese. The bird won’t make a meal for a human, but beings of one kind or another will soon take the goose to its next stage of life. Duvall, Washington; January, 2013.

9. The groom falls to the ground during a raucous wedding shoot. I photograph it. This fall from three graces will be remembered with smiles. Battery Park, New York, New York; October, 2017.

10. My shoes look happy amongst discarded bits and pieces that fell onto the brick road by the flower market. I photograph them. Most of the market’s flower sellers are first and second generation Hmong immigrants from Laos. The older Hmong once were farmers in the Laotian hills. During the Vietnam war they aided the American CIA against the Communists. Afterward, to escape retaliation, many of them fled into the jungle or entered Thai refugee camps. Eventually some made their way to the Pacific Northwest. They have adapted to different ways and different weather, growing flowers instead of food in the green fields outside Seattle. The growers drive their flowers to Pike Place Market, where city residents and tourists are happy to buy pretty bouquets of seasonal flowers wrapped in big white paper cones. The pandemic has changed business practices but the farmers have adapted (or should I say pivoted?) and have found alternative marketplaces. Seattle, Washington; April, 2016.

11. Cherry blossoms fall to the sidewalk. I photograph them. When I bring the image to life half a world away and months later, the detail in the dandelion leaves makes me think of Albrecht Durer’s “The Large Piece of Turf.” Durer included a dandelion in the painting that he completed in Germany in 1503. Apparently, the dandelion (der Löwenzahn) flourished in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century just as it was flourishing the day I took this picture, 500-odd years later. Dandelions flourish in my own yard too, 5000 miles from that sidewalk. Amsterdam, Netherlands; April 2019.

12. A yellow work glove has fallen onto the concrete in an alley. I photograph it. I have stumbled across it while exploring downtown Seattle one summer day and I’m drawn to the unexpected pop of color. This fallen object was probably forgotten by its owner long ago, but it lives on in my archives. Maybe it will linger a while in your mind, too. Seattle, Washington; August, 2013.

13. Fallen fruit, barely bruised, litters the ground at a botanical garden. I photograph it. People may be hungry a few miles from here, but this fruit will remain where it fell – as if arranged by an artist – until a gardener scoops it up. I suppose it will become compost. Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Staten Island, New York; July, 2011.

14. Broken glass from an old greenhouse has fallen onto the concrete floor. I photograph it. I stumbled on this abandoned greenhouse in the early 1980s while picking flowers in a nearby field for the altar at the Zen Community of New York, where I lived. A year or so later I found out that my father’s first real job was right here, at the Boyce Thompson Institute. He had skipped two grades in school and was too young to go to college so he worked for a year at the institute, a 15 mile commute from his family’s modest Brooklyn apartment. He made $75/month doing research on plant hormones. The abandoned field where I picked flowers 50 years later may have held descendants of that work. When I saw it, the institute’s facility was in ruins but later, the historic building was restored, spiffed up and turned into a business/retail complex. Someone must have cleaned up all the broken glass. The field is gone. Yonkers, New York; April, 2010.

15. Glitter has fallen onto the boardwalk at a nature preserve. I photograph it. Why is there glitter at a nature preserve? Because photographers use the boardwalk as a location for shooting wedding and family photos. It may be pretty but it won’t do the environment any favors. Kirkland, Washington; May, 2018.

16. A tree appears to have fallen half-way down an embankment, then secured a foothold by rooting into the ground even as it dangles precariously. I photograph it. The tree is an integral part of its environment, surely supporting life even as it appears to be dead. Cape Perpetua, Oregon; September, 2019.

17. Apples and leaves have fallen under a tree wrapped in a net, part of a research project to determine best practices for growing fruit trees. I photograph it. My neighbor asked if I knew how to prune the young fruit trees that grow between our houses. I said that I didn’t know the exact technique and he should check with the people at the research center. I don’t think he ever did. He fell one night, harder than the apples, onto the pavement beside his car in the dead of night. It was cold. When we found him the next morning the car door was still open, his keys were in his hand, his mouth barely open. He did not come back to life, though we tried. He did not get back up. Like everything else in life falling is temporary, a transition between states of being, some of which we mourn, some of which we celebrate. Mount Vernon,Washington; September, 2018.

18. A sign has fallen down at a nature park. I photograph it. I walk past it. Will entering here be a new beginning? Mercer Slough, Bellevue, Washington; June, 2017.

***

SILVER LININGS

Year-end reviews are useful but I’ve resisted doing one, perhaps out of laziness or avoidance, or because I prefer to look ahead and not analyze too much. But after reading a post by Alex Kunz, I began to think differently about reviewing my photographic year. I realized there is something to be learned from asking, “Where did I go with my camera in 2020, if not literally, then metaphorically?”

Last January I was busy planning a trip to Vietnam that was scheduled for three weeks in March. Then came the news of a dangerous new virus and the realization that travel plans had to be reconsidered. The first US case of the COVID-19 corona virus appeared on January 21 at a skilled nursing facility just 75 miles south of my home. We conferred with doctors and friends and decided to cancel the trip. It was a big disappointment but it cleared the decks for other things.

Soon, hospitalizations and deaths were making news. Then there was the daily litany of school closings, lost jobs and opportunities, and cancelled events. By March the governor of Washington had issued a stay-at-home order, the border with Canada was closed and in Seattle, a woman volunteered to be the very first person to receive Kaiser-Permanente’s experimental coronavirus vaccine.

Meanwhile, we were enjoying a lush, rainy spring. The green machine was in gear! Abundant flowers, insects, birds and even heavy crops of seed cones, all contributed to a breathtaking spring. I felt grateful to be retired and free of the concerns that so many people were dealing with – kids at home, lost income, sickness. In fact, the biggest impact for me at the time was the closing of my favorite destination, Deception Pass State Park. I felt that loss acutely but most county and city parks remained open, leaving me with plenty of choices. I became obsessed with searching for wildflowers in all the green places near home. Frequent forays led to discoveries of species I’d never seen before and a better understanding of familiar flowers. The previous year I was in Europe in April and took a road trip in May, which meant that I missed the parade of spring wildflowers. Before that I lived in a different habitat without many of the specialized plants that grow here on Fidalgo Island. I didn’t really know my own back yard. The cancellation of our trip and subsequent pandemic restrictions held a silver lining: the opportunity to study and take pleasure in the progression of the seasons right at home. I made the best of it!

Besides fully immersing myself in the local flora, two other photographic projects occupied my time last year: a series of photographs of a square pane of glass placed in various locations outdoors and a series of abstractions, made primarily in Lightroom. Working on the abstractions honed my ability to condense images down to simpler shapes, colors and textures. Concentrating on the forms within the rectangle, playing freely with exposure values, compositions and colors – all of that sharpened my ability to recognize what I’m looking for when I’m outdoors with the camera. I believe the process of abstracting images improved my photography. I’ll be returning to that project, as well as the glass pane project. Another project that involved writing more than photography was a memoir I began posting in March, ‘”An Unstill Life with Flowers.” More installments are in the works.

I added a few new tools to the Olympus kit this year: a smaller camera body for the Vietnam trip and two lenses: a 12mm f2 prime and a 12-42mm f3.5-5.6 ultra-compact zoom. The second camera body (an OM-D EM-5) is somewhat different from my normal camera and certain things drive me crazy, like the awkward placement of the on-off button. I’ll never be one of those people with two cameras hanging from their neck and a weighty backpack full of extra gear – but it’s good to have a second camera body that accepts the lenses I already have.

The wide zoom lens was meant for travel and I haven’t used it much yet. I’m excited about the 12mm prime lens (a 24mm equivalent). The one lens I own with an equally wide view is very heavy so it doesn’t get much use. For years now, I’ve tended to favor one particular lens, a 60mm f2.8 prime, over the others. Shooting with that lens so often has affected the way I see the landscape. Exchanging the 60mm field of view for a 12mm angle makes a big difference and forces me to stop and reconsider what I can do. That’s a good thing!

My aesthetic horizons expand each year from traveling and visiting museums and galleries. This year, with travel out of the question and museums closed, I found inspiration online, on your blogs, in email conversations, and from online workshops. This community has a lot to give! Over the course of last year, feeling inspired and free to roam the immediate environment, I went out with my camera well over 200 times. Like I said, the pandemic brought opportunities. Here are some of the results.

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1. One of the earliest wildflowers is the Swamp lantern (Lysichiton americanus).

2. White fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum) were plentiful last year in the biggest and wildest of our city parks.

3. Three months later, beautiful little Western tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) graced the same park.

4. The simple curves and parallel veins of a Clasping twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) captivated me.
5. When the state parks reopened I went to Larrabee State Park to photograph the sandstone rock formations.

6. One day on neighboring Whidbey Island we came across this driftwood shelter on a beach.

7. Fog at Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass State Park.
8. A Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) balances on Bullwhip kelp at Lighthouse Point.

9. The square pane of glass.

10. Another take on the square of glass.

11. An abstract that began as a photo of leaves on the ground.

12. Leaves afloat.

13. Bagley Lakes view, Mount Baker.

14. Picture Show Falls, Boulder Creek.

15. Five Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) on Cranberry lake, Deception Pass State Park.

16. Fog on Heart Lake.
17. Fog again, this time at Washington Park.

18. An abstraction that began as reflections on water.

19. Your photographer, reflecting on life.

***

What Might Be

Here is a series of nature-based semi-abstracts with accompanying text. Your reactions to the images are likely to be different from mine and my thoughts would probably be different on another day.

Images have so much to give.

1.

the wind wavered

a shadow

held me still

*

2.

breath sinks

splash of

green

*

3.

crackled hieroglyphics

eyes squint

and smile

*

4.

shudders

of color

their stories always shifting

*

5.

layers reach back

in space

the weaver rejoices

*

6.

breath catches

suffocates

under this chaos

*

7.

In Ghent

I gape, lost

in a distant century

*

8.

I always trust

you’re there

if I…

*

9.

rough path

squirrel chatter

keeps me company

*

10.

we were free

the clouds

sang

*

11.

traces

left behind

detritus of the ages

*

12.

I left something

there

for you

*

13.

inner circle,

outer circle

who belongs?

*

14.

no choice

immersed in

liquid relentlessness

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RENEWAL

1.

It’s time for change in America. Four years ago a man was elected to the American presidency who should have never been chosen to lead anything, let alone a free, democratic country. This man’s tenure has been an ugly, backward time when many norms we took for granted were destroyed. The foundations of our government have been undermined, our relationships with each other have suffered, and relationships with our partners across the globe have crumbled. It’s time to turn things around and get back on track.

2.

This week, a news story in a local paper said that the old building you see pictured here is going to be torn down. It was built almost 130 years ago as a fish cannery. The building functioned well for a long time and was once even touted as one of the biggest fish processing plants in the world. It fell into serious disrepair in recent years, having been sold to an out-of-town developer who allowed it to fall apart become a hazard. It’s the kind of place people break into and hang out in, the kind of place whose present state is barely a shadow of what it once was. The owner has been told that he must erect a fence to keep people out – part of a wall collapsed last week. Soon the entire place will be torn down, once and for all.

3.

The current president’s contempt for truth, fairness, science, and humanity itself has been mind-boggling. In only four years this administration has done serious damage to our country. It’s time to tear down what has no integrity, to clear away what’s broken, rotten and dangerous and replace it with something new.

In this time of renewal, it’s appropriate that the changes we need will be accomplished with the help of our first female, first Black, and first Asian-American vice president-elect. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ll need to be patient, and we’ll need to try to work together. Let’s hope that what is constructed in place of the current structure will be created with integrity and strength. And maybe even a dash of beauty. We can dream.

4.

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HINGE TIME

1.

I’ve noticed more darkness in my photographs lately. It’s not just an absence of light, it’s light and dark in contrast, pushing up against each other. A chiaroscuro quality is turning up. I had two thoughts about what might be behind this. One is that there’s more darkness in the photos simply because at this time of year, there is less light. Obvious. The other thought is that the mood of the world is darker these days. And people talk about the need for something positive, for a beam of light to alleviate what seems like endless bad news.

There’s an old Celtic/Gaelic celebration held around the midpoint between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, called Samhain. In the northern hemisphere the harvest is ending, animals are brought in from the pasture, the days are growing shorter. This is a turning point toward the dark time of year, a hinge period, a time when the door between light and dark swings freely. A time when we sense that the dark is pregnant with possibilities.

2.

In an older era Samhain was the time to honor the dead with offerings of food and drink and to hold on to the light with ritual bonfires. The solstices and equinoxes (called cross days) divide the year into four periods and the midpoints between them are cross-quarter days. In Celtic life these in-between days tended to be more important than the solstices and equinoxes. Astronomically, November 6th would be the date to observe Samhain because it’s the midway point between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. But over time, Samhain came to be celebrated around November 1st. Then the Catholic church made November 1st and 2nd important days in its calendar, merging church feast days with the pagan Samhain celebration. The threads are tangled now. We’re not sure exactly how Samhain was celebrated before Catholicism intervened, but remnants like bobbing for apples and offerings to spirits (or trick-or-treating) are still practiced. The seasonal foundation of the Samhain celebration hasn’t changed; there’s no question that in early November in the northern hemisphere, the chill is on the cheek and the nights are getting long. It makes sense that in times when people lived closer to the bone they were moved to mark this change from light to dark with ceremonies. Our Halloween is a distant cousin to those celebrations.

My photographs from the last few weeks picture dark water, intensely lit skies, long, deep shadows and spots of gold lighting up the gloom. There are dead plants seeding the ground for the future, too, paralleling an old Samhain/pagan custom of dousing the hearth fire and lighting it anew with a torch taken from from the communal bonfire.

3.

4.

5.

I grew up ignorant of other cultures and religions, with no exposure to systems of thought outside of the white Protestant culture in which I was embedded. At school one day when I was about nine, the word “pantheism” came up (with a negative connotation, naturally). I misconstrued it to be a faith based on nature; normally pantheism means finding divinity in everything. The idea of worshiping nature lit my mind on fire. There, I thought, that’s what I believe in! It made more sense to me than what I was being taught in Sunday school but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was enough just to know that somewhere out there, another Way might exist. And for me, it always has. Putting nature first, respecting it, and believing in it, are underlying principles in my life. One way I practice that is by paying close attention to nature, making the images I’m moved to make, and sharing them.

6.

7.

8.
9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

*

18.

There’s your photographer again, finding herself in a window.

***

  1. A fallen Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) lies in a shallow lake on Fidalgo Island. The same tree can be seen here in a March gentle snowfall.
  2. The loop road through Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
  3. End of day at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo island. The disturbance in the water near the point of land is a group of eleven River otters (Lontra canadensis) swimming in to shore for a rest.
  4. A Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) off March Point, Fidalgo Island. The loons are beginning to return to our waters for the winter.
  5. Four Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) ply the waters off March Point, Fidalgo Island.
  6. Fireweed seeds (Chamaenerion angustifolium) in a bouquet at home. (Taken with a macro lens at f2.8, spot metering).
  7. Two boulders and a Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii) at Washington Park.
  8. A Vine maple leaf (Acer circinatum) decomposing at Rockport State Park. Rockport, Washington.
  9. Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are winter residents in our area. This group of five showed up recently at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, on Whidbey Island. They’ve just arrived from the Arctic. (Deception Pass SP spans Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
  10. I think this is a Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) flower head gone to seed. Deception Pass SP, Fidalgo Island.
  11. A strand of Old man’s beard lichen (Usnea longissima) weaves through a bed of Bigleaf maple leaves (Acer macrophyllum). Rockport State Park.
  12. Here’s the Usnea hanging from a Bigleaf maple with a few leaves still on the tree. A Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) makes a nice backdrop with its blue-green leaves.
  13. Strands of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) washed up at high tide and caught on a log at Lottie Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Fidalgo Island. This huge seaweed grows in dense underwater forests just offshore. Technically a complex algae, it’s found in the cool coastal waters of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.
  14. A drainage ditch helps regulate water flow between Similk Bay (behind me) and a golf course run by the Swinomish tribe. Fidalgo Island.
  15. The sun is going down, casting golden light on Burrows Channel, seen from Washington Park. The old Douglas fir has a shrubby Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) behind it. Lopez Island, one of the San Juan’s, is in the distance.
  16. Pale leaves of a Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) appear ghostly in the dim forest light. Whistle Lake, Fidalgo Island.
  17. Three Tundra swans fly over Cranberry Lake. Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island.

WITHIN THE BOUNDS

…of a five-mile radius. That is where the shutter button clicked for the images below.

Real travel still seems risky but we are so weary of the restrictions we’ve had to adapt to this year! A release, a reprieve, a relief – that’s what we need. Getting outside works for me. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired but I make myself walk and in the end, there is much to be found that keeps me going, even close to home. So I continue my local forays with a curious mind and a grateful heart.

1.

Here on Fidalgo Island seasonal changes are drawn out and subtle; summer into fall is no exception. Instead of brilliant Sugar maple fire there is a quiet, golden glow in the grasses and leaves; in place of crisp, blue-sky days there is moody morning fog. The delights of freshly-opened flowers are gone but there is pleasure to be had in the following the sinuous curves of drying leaves. The slow permutations of autumn in the Pacific northwest unfold without hindrance, like a meandering waltz spreading limbs through time and space.

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2.

These images were made between mid-September and mid October on Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. The terroir, as the French say, is strongly influenced by water, mild in temperature, thin of soil, and resplendent with natural beauty.

I “beat the bounds” of my own small place on this planet, walking a ragged perimeter of well-worn paths, absorbing the lessons I’m open to, exploring the limits of “my” territory. In England, Scotland and Wales, before maps were readily available, boundary memories were periodically refreshed by walking along and defining them. Beating the bounds and practices like it have probably been around for thousands of years and may be rooted in a similar Roman custom which Wikipedia says honored Terminus, the god of landmarks. But why is it called “beating” the bounds? Because willow or birch branches were slapped on the ground and on the old stone boundary markers, helping to fix parish borders in residents’ minds. Children were brought along to learn the boundaries by whatever means suited those in charge – maybe a firm knock on the child’s head when they arrived at a stone marker could cement the memory. And afterwards the bonds of the community were strengthened by celebrating with food and drink. According to Wikipedia, the custom still exists in some locations, including sites in Germany, France, and even the U.S. Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have statutes requiring that certain boundaries are periodically reaffirmed. However, apparently some contemporary versions of beating the bounds don’t include actual walking. Too bad.

Though I’m not necessarily a fan of practices that strengthen the idea of ownership over land, I find much to like in the idea of beating the bounds. It seems to be a way to recognize and celebrate one’s connection to the earth, specifically to one’s locality. We are rooted in the local, nourished by the soil under our feet and the air about us. It’s good to remember that.

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3. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in repose.

4. My bounds include shorelines; on this beach golden leaves were scattered on the sand and tiny shell fragments piled up behind when the tide went out.

5. Madrone trees play a prominent role in my environment. As summer wanes and windy rainstorms appear they fling berries onto the ground. Douglas fir needles make a nice backdrop.

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7. A Douglas fir skeleton at the feet of thriving relatives looks mysterious in the morning fog.

8. Twined Douglas fir trees. They’re the most common tree species within the bounds of my island.

9. A fragile piece of Madrone bark hangs from a twig encircled by a honeysuckle vine. The slow collapse of autumn is indeed a beautiful thing, even in its most mundane details

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*

12. The single, ruined train car that shares a field with half a dozen cattle looked straight out of an old movie when the smoke settled around it. This is one of the stranger sights seen in my travels.

13. On this October morning my world was smudged by fog instead of smoke.

14. With a little help from the camera, golden Bracken ferns wave in the wind, saying goodbye to chlorophyll-green summer days and hello to the somber tones of decomposition.

15. I thought these were gooseberries but found out they’re Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) berries. This Pacific northwest native is grown in temperate gardens world-wide for it’s beautiful spring flowers.

16. Back at the beach the receding tide left a message written in eelgrass.

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18. Horsetails (Equisetum arvense) are leaning closer to the earth now.

19. I found fall color on a small scale in the forest – Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) in a bed of moss.

20. Another Western starflower plant rides out autumn in a soft sea of reindeer lichen (Cladonia sp.).

21. Fog, not smoke. Bliss.

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