Have you ever heard of asemic writing? The Cambridge Dictionary says asemic means “using lines and symbols that look like writing, but do not have any meaning.” The word “asemic” breaks down to without (“a”) and meaning (“semic”, like semantic). Meaningless script, why would you want that? Perhaps because there is something inherently beautiful about script itself, even without its meaning.
The word asemic is often used to refer to art made using script-like marks. The work can’t be read, only admired (or not) aesthetically. If you’re curious here’s a review of a book that delves deeply into asemic art. An example of asemic art by American painter and collage artist Cecil Touchon can be seen here. The Belgian poet and painter Henri Michaux is known for using script-like marks in his work. Maybe you’re familiar with the American painter Cy Twombly, whose paintings currently sell for tens of millions of dollars. He used gestural marks as well as actual words in his work to great effect.
You could say that the hinge on the door to meaning is well oiled in these works; wide swings can both reveal and obscure meanings.
And what does this all have to do with photography? Maybe you already guessed or scrolled down and figured it out. I have been noticing script-like marks in nature for years and I’m drawn to these lines and shapes, with their natural affinity to what I see on the page. I’ve always liked to read – put me in a bookstore or flash a text at me and I’m instantly alert. Not just the meaning, but the simple shapes of letters and the linear, orderly appearance of text appeal to me, too. I suspect that the pleasure I get from reading and an attraction to the look of text gradually became conflated in my brain. Maybe that led to my tendency to find text-like marks in nature. As I walk along the beach, the strands of eelgrass at my feet give afford as much pleasure as an elegant piece of calligraphy or a perfectly executed classic Garamond font. A birch tree’s bark, a white page with black text – both elicit a tingle of pleasure.
Reading can be aesthetically, emotionally, and intellectually gratifying. Many kinds of writing, from Arabic script to Medieval manuscripts to Japanese calligraphy, can be just as gratifying, in the eyes of this beholder.
What’s meant by this title is that there’s no need for pursuit; the world comes forward and meets you. It’s something akin to what photographer Paul Caponigro described:
“Gradually, some very few photographs began to make visible the overtones of that dimension I sought. Dreamlike, these isolated images maintain a landscape of their own, produced through the agency of a place apart from myself. Mysteriously, and most often when I was not conscious of control, the magical and subtle force crept somehow into the image, offering back what I sensed as well as what I saw.”
Paul Caponigro, ‘Landscape’
It may seem that the world meets us more beautifully and in more interesting ways in certain places. But I think anywhere and anytime you can be receptive and effortless, it becomes apparent that the world comes forward to meet you. There’s no need to pursue photography or strain yourself, trying to grasp an elusive ideal. Get out of your own way, quiet your mind, and attend to what’s in front of you: sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest.
And there it is.
Though this philosophy applies anywhere, there’s no doubt that one of my favorite places to take a walk and see what happens is Bowman Bay. Heeding the muted, internal voice that often nudges me toward one place or another, I find myself on the road to Bowman Bay regularly.
Bowman Bay is a salt-water bay that happens to be far from the ocean; it receives water flowing through the 96-mile long, 15-mile wide Juan de Fuca Strait – the same Pacific Ocean water that sloshes around Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. Because of its opening to ocean water, Bowman Bay is tidal, experiencing two low and two high tides each day at its two small beaches. Crescent-shaped Bowman Bay and its evergreen-topped rocky headlands are on the southwest shore of Fidalgo Island, where a west-southwest exposure means occasional strong windstorms and a rich upswell of nutrients.
Decades ago, a fish hatchery operated here. Besides ponds and buildings, the enterprise was responsible for “armoring” the beach: a quarter of the shoreline was “protected” by dumping 2,000 tons of stone on it. This is destructive to a shoreline’s natural processes but happily, most of the bulkhead was removed when work was done to restore the shoreline to its natural state. A pier built long ago is still in place but otherwise, few traces of the fish hatchery remain. Native plants and immense driftwood logs that wash ashore with the tides are creating a more natural habitat. All this is protected now because Bowman Bay is part of a state park called Deception Pass.
What I enjoy about this place is impossible to put into words, but it starts with the profoundly relaxing experience of being near open water. Then there’s the light that bounces off the water – crystal clear or foggy, bright and sunny or dark and brooding, it’s always different from the last time I visited. The ground beneath my feet varies from evergreen forest to pebbly beach, and from wetland edge to sandy beach. And rock – there are rocks to be reckoned with here! The two “pocket beaches” are divided and flanked by steep, rocky cliffs that invite exploring. There are delicate spring wildflowers, long, flowing lichens hanging from the trees, and oddities to be searched for under rocks at the lowest tides. Of course, there’s wildlife, too: herons, kingfishers, gulls, and sea ducks abound, Pileated woodpeckers and river otters are regular, if infrequent sights. Finally, there is the air – always fresh, it sometimes wafts nose-assaulting dead seaweed scents my way but and other times warms my skin deliciously.
Here’s a sampling of photographs from this magical place – not photographs I took but photographs I received with gratitude.
Anytime I can see the river otters that make Deception Pass their home I feel lucky. This summer I had not seen them for months and assumed they were staying hidden because there have been so many people around. Last Friday that quiet voice I’ve learned to pay attention to told me to go to Bowman Bay. I was surprised at how few people were around as I followed a path behind the beach. Investigating a small wetland, I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. I turned around to see a young-looking Douglas squirrel just an arm’s length away, with a big rose hip in its paws, nibbling it like corn on the cob. The squirrel didn’t seem to mind me. Nonchalantly, it tossed the partly-eaten rose hip away and scrambled through the thorny native roses. Maybe there was a tastier one in there somewhere. I marveled at the way its tiny feet avoided the thorns and thanked the little squirrel for letting me watch. A bit of tart fruit to balance all those cone seeds is a good diet choice, I suppose.
I walked on, climbing a steep, rock-strewn path up and over the cliff that separates the two small beaches. The sandy second one is very nice to walk on so I strolled onto it and studied the remains of the last high tide. Scanning the bay, I thought I saw them – the otters, yes! Barely visible, they swan slowly out in the bay in typical leisurely fashion: swimming in circles, coming up for air, going back under, coming up to look around…it was impossible to tell how many there were but it looked like a nice number – maybe six?
Only one other person was nearby, a woman who pulled her kayak in to rest against a piece of driftwood. It looked like the otters were heading toward the other beach so I was disappointed they were swimming away from me. But I was very happy to have seen them.
Then I realized they had changed course and were heading straight my way! I had a 60mm lens on my m4/3 camera, equivalent to a 120mm lens on a full-frame camera. It’s not a lot of reach for wildlife photography but that’s not what I do so that was all I had. Of course, when the opportunity presents itself I’m happy to click away with whatever lens I have. Later I regretted not being quick enough to locate burst mode in the camera menu or to switch to video. But it’s all good. And it was more than good as I was treated to the spectacle of eight otters coming ashore in fairly close proximity, digging in the sand (which I’ve never seen before) and generally being their amusing otter selves as I watched, enthralled.
In the slideshow the first photo is out of sequence and the rest are in order, showing how small the otters looked when I first saw them, how they gradually swam closer, came ashore in their inimitable humpy way, dug in the sand, got scared, lept back in the water, emerged again, and then ran straight across the grassy path that separates the beach from another bay behind it. I followed them, working the shutter and running through the forest to a rocky promontory with a good view of the bay they were in. Finally, I could no longer see them. All eight disappeared into the swift, turbulent waters of Deception Pass – or maybe they stayed closer to land, but I lost sight of them. I smiled a big thank you.
Slideshow below – click the arrow onthe right.
(The otters’ heads are just small dots at the bottom right in the last photo. Note that these are River otters, which also live in the sea – not Sea otters, which rarely come onshore).
I’ve been trying to remember to pause, think, and look for the essence of a scene when I’m out with my camera. Often, that can be accomplished by simplifying the composition. I’m inherently detail-oriented and my attention constantly wanders so when I’m outdoors, I scan a world where thousands of details flash by, all seemingly of equal weight. My basic desire is to include everything. Why? Because I deeply appreciate this world, in all its guises and permutations. There is a lot to love.
But including everything in the frame is not a good formula for making appealing photographs. Time and time again I’ve sliced off the edges of my files in Lightroom, trying to whittle down an overwhelming amount of information. Gradually, I’ve learned that a better way to make stronger photographs (and a way that sharpens my aesthetic sensibility in the process) is to try to grasp the essence of what I see.
Merriam-Webster calls essence “the most significant element, quality, or aspect of a thing or person.” Wikipedia’s entry about essence talks about “the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.” We could easily get entangled in words and concepts by trying to define essence but it’s not really complicated, is it? I think we know what it is, we just don’t always pay attention to it.
For me it’s often a matter of recognizing fundamental shapes when composing a picture, a process akin to abstracting visual information. It doesn’t have to be about the shapes though, it can be the colors, the play of light, the texture, or some other quality inherent in what is seen, that seems to be fundamental to its identity. I don’t only photograph particular objects so the essence can also be something fundamental to the overall quality or atmosphere of a scene.
Whatever this significant aspect may be, I don’t believe it’s a fixed quality. In the end everything is in motion, constantly changing, without a permanent self or essence. Ever shifting, essences appear and disappear. An essence of something needn’t be fixed in time or space. What I try to look for (when I remember!) is a quality that simplifies what I see, eliminates distractions, and strengthens the composition. The photographs below, all made this year, may reflect this idea.
You may not think this concept of looking for the essence of a scene is worthwhile, or you might not think these images exemplify that idea. That’s the beauty of human individuality; each of us has our own subjective experiences. It would be interesting to hear about what you look for and think about when you’re out with a camera or when you’re mulling over your writing, music, or any creative work.
About thirty years ago I read a novel – I can’t remember the name or author – which presented the idea that events occur mostly on the edges of things. The story followed a man whose life careened from event to event in a kind of pinball fashion. The idea that it’s all happening on the edges made sense to me. I knew that plants, birds and animals are more abundant where different habitats meet. Most ocean life exists in the narrow band where continents meet the sea, not far out in the middle. Explore the middle of a field, a forest, or a large body of water, then follow the edge where a field borders a forest. Walk the seashore, where land meets water and spend time at an estuary, where salt and fresh water mix. You’ll find an increase in biodiversity along all of those edges.
I suspect this principle can be applied to many phenomena, not just ecosystems. Think about the importance of interdisciplinary studies, or the uptick in traffic accidents at intersections. The word “liminal” comes to mind. Here are some definitions:
“relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.”
“occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”
“of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold : barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”
Two years ago I began a post about this idea of activity on the edges of things and liminal states, a concept that felt close to home. In the post, which I’ve unearthed from the drafts folder, I wrote, “I feel I’m in a liminal state these days…I’m entering new waters, with memories of another life still fresh and hovering just below consciousness.”
I had been taking photos at parks and preserves along the water’s edge and wondered if I was drawn to those liminal spaces because I felt I was on a threshold, too. I wrote, “It’s a loose place to be, this liminal space. The knots are undone, the ropes frayed, the anchor up. I’m not yet fully here, nor am I where I used to be. Maybe it’s a little like this”:
It felt like the photo below: “The leaves are green and the vine looks healthy, but many leaves have fallen off. They litter the pavement with the rest of the detritus; their usefulness is past. Perhaps there’s a sorting process going on with me, too, a shedding of the old skin in preparation for a new state of being.”
The picture below resonated too. “Everything looks like it has been discarded but the objects are still kept under the roof of a roadside shed. The old wood, the tarp, and the rope no longer serve their original functions but the rope appears to be fastened under that musty shroud, anchoring into the dark unknown. Likewise, parts of my life seem to be changing their functions. I’m not sure if I’ll need them or not.”
I thought, “This liminal state is like being inside an old barn full of forgotten tools, looking at the lush, vibrant greenery just outside the door. The focus is on growing the future while I’m standing in the dim shadows of the past.”
I included one more image in that post, writing, “I’m taking a picture of a photograph on display at an art festival. There are too many reflections to make a good likeness of the work but I take the picture anyway, because as the integrity of the original image disappears a new, in-between image gels – a liminal one. Perhaps it’s even more interesting. Will the figure on the left disappear into that mystical light at the end of the track?”
These five photographs tell stories that I interpreted a certain way back then. Chances are good that a few of them could tell you other stories. I don’t remember what happened with my story – how were those feelings of being in-between resolved? At the time I was in the midst of planning a three-week trip through four countries, none of which I’d been to before. Part of me was home at my desk, solidifying plans while another part of me was already roaming abroad. I was on the edge. That trip sent me across it!
There’s an old therapist’s technique of replying “Why now?” when a patient brings up an event that occurred long ago. I’m asking myself why a post that sat in the drafts folder for two years resonates now. Maybe it’s not as much a personal feeling as a universal one. There’s something about the nebulous, adrift feeling we have when major transitions occur that might resonate with most of us right now, simply because of the state of the world. The assumptions about the world we live in have been turned inside out in the last year and a half. We thought we’d be “over it” by now, or at least well into the normalcy we recall from pre-Covid-19 days, but that seems to be a distant dream. Instead of returning to the solid ground of life-as-usual, we have the Delta variant, millions of people who won’t or can’t get vaccinated, virus flare-ups and up-ticks, and foreboding, all layered on top of the daily stew of melancholy news. Nothing seems certain. The rug has been pulled out from under us, only to be replaced with a tipsy magic carpet hurtling us into unknown territory.
I don’t know if there are photographs in my catalog that depict this uncertain state and right now I’m not looking for any. I think I’d rather photograph what nourishes me. Maybe you feel that way, too.
The other day I saw an ad in The New York Review of Books for a book called Theory of the Earthby philosopher Thomas Nail. The title caught my eye, and, as so often happens in the age of the internet, that led me to more books, articles and interviews. Nail writes about human migration, borders, and the philosophy of movement. As someone who has moved house many times and generally enjoys being on the move, I think about movement from time to time, so Nail’s project to reconfigure philosophy from the point of view of movement intrigued me.
If I understand correctly, Nail sees phenomena as matter in motion and time as a process or effect of matter in motion. We live in a universe of change. Our world is not a closed set of discrete things and dates, but rather one of open processes. Humans are not external to life, observing it from afar. Space and time are not “things” as many of us were taught to construe them. Nail claims that not only is matter always in motion, but there is no separate force enacting this continuous flux. Rather, reality simply IS motion: it’s all patterns of interactions.
I’ll admit that a deep dive into Nail’s writing can leave me gasping and confused. Yet, I find inspiration there. In my view, philosophy can touch on every part of our existence, including our enjoyment of images. Thinking philosophically stretches the mind and encourages us to think critically, a practice that promotes creativity, curiosity, and clarity.
Looking at a painting isn’t the passive activity you might suppose. Even the heat emanating from your body transforms the painting, which vibrates waves of photons as it decays in a constant feedback loop with the environment. There is a “vast iceberg of material consequences” to everything we do, including the seemingly passive activity of aesthetic appreciation.
We may call photographs still pictures, but in fact, they are motion itself: the motion of a body acting in space, gathering impressions, and operating a camera; the motion of the camera, the subject being photographed, and a brain thinking, sensing, feeling. A digital photograph involves the motion of a computer as images are modified and light bounces around the screen – and the room! Photographs are light moving through the air, through the camera, on the screen, inside our eyes. Far from being separate, stable objects or mere copies of phenomena, photographs involve fluidity and complexity – more than we imagine.
Doesn’t a photograph also involve the motion of your brain, your breath, your heart? Yes. Mine too.
There is a group of photographs below. They’re here because I chose to bring them together and you are choosing to look. It’s an interactive process. There’s nothing static about it.
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.
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.
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.
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…
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was all enough.
Spring is enough,
whether in glimpses
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
“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.