Subtle Rapture

Last week I took a walk at Kukatali Preserve, a narrow, forested peninsula that’s owned and managed jointly by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Washington State Parks. The preserve reaches a long arm into a quiet bay where seals, cormorants and ducks ply waters alive with clams, crabs, oysters and more. A walk at Kukatali is always interesting, offering treasures from the forest, shoreline and bay. The photo below shows the view from the end of the peninsula on that overcast day. The bird you can barely see is a cormorant, likely the Double-crested.

1. Deception Pass bridge seen from Kukatali Preserve.

We are at 48 degrees 44 minutes North so you might not expect Spring to be in evidence here, but the Salish Sea moderates temperatures and our winters are mild. Spring doesn’t have to wait for the snow to melt here at sea level. So far this year, rainfall has been abundant; the moss is green and luxurious and buds on the trees are plump. The first blossoms of the year have already opened: Indian plum’s little white bell flowers dangle from spindly branches and a few Red-flowering currant flowers are unfurling deep pink petals.

In recent weeks I’ve seen eagles sitting on their nests or hanging out next to them, apparently thinking things over. The Varied thrushes are looking handsome in their breeding outfits; Song sparrows are singing everywhere I go. Tiny insects can be seen buzzing the air too, but the landscape is still rather bare, as if the earth was holding its breath for a moment before a burst of energy. I know that’s not true though – the dance always continues on many levels, whether we see it or not.

Against this background of subtle colors and charged possibility I walked the length of Kukatali Preserve, curious to see what would present itself. I was not disappointed. Towards the end of the trail, a grassy field marks the spot where a home once stood; along the edge of the field, a haze of creamy white beckoned behind a maze of bare winter branches. It was a lovely wild Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) in full bloom, all by itself in the somber brown woods. Bitter cherry doesn’t boast the sweet pink of cultivated cherry trees – this tree’s flowers are a soft, creamy white. For a brief time in early Spring their subtle beauty graces forest edges and moist woodlands of the Pacific northwest. When they grow in the middle of the woods the puzzle of branches all around them allows only tantalizing glimpses of the delicate little flowers. It’s not easy to describe the phenomenon of walking through the winter forest and finding a blooming cherry tree, but you can bet my breath was taken away by the sight of this modest beauty, glimmering in the woods.

2. Normally each flower has five petals but the flower on the left has almost double the normal number, and two styles instead of one. If you think about how many flowers must be on one tree, no wonder some of them aren’t “normal.”


3. This phone capture conveys some of the complexity of the forest and the haze of cherry blossoms on an overcast afternoon.

4.

5. This blossom landed on a Sword fern that was half under water. Shadows complicated the picture. I could have picked out the Doug fir needles and lichens that distract the eye but I prefer not to make too many changes. Besides, finding firm ground to stand on in this wet spot was challenging.

6. Sometimes I treasure the fallen petals more than the blossoms still on the tree.

7. Moisture from the morning rain kept this single petal stuck on an old, lichen-covered log.


8.

9.

10.

11.

12. New leaves

13.

14. In a certain light the creamy haze of flowers had a pink hue.

The Bitter cherry displays its bounty modestly, often behind a scrim of bare tree branches. Unlike that low-contrast scenario, the disparity between the nourishing beauty of my surroundings and the barrage of bad news about our earth, politics, epidemics and violence is intense enough to induce mental whiplash. This sentence from the newsletter of a local non-profit organization speaks about the painful discrepancy between the beauty we witness and the news we hear:

One of the tasks of these times, it seems, is to learn how to live in the space between unimaginable beauty and unbearable sorrow. To live without losing heart.

From The Pathfinder, the newsletter of Transition Fidalgo and Friends, a local non-profit.

15. A Madrone tree enjoys extra light by the water. Kukatali Preserve, south end.

***

FURTHER AFIELD: Snow-covered Mountains and Moss-draped Trees along Route 20

Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.

The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.

1. I took this photo through the windshield when we were far enough east (and high enough) to see snow on the roadside. We continued east to Newhalem, a tiny company town centered around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams supplying electricity to Seattle. The road is closed about 9 miles further up. People who live in Winthrop, on the other side of the pass, have to drive south and then west to get to Seattle in the winter, a four-hour plus trip.

2. In the distance is the Picket Range, seen from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem. This section of the 789-square-mile North Cascade Mountains may not have the highest peaks, but those mountains are every bit as rugged as they look. Reaching the remote Picket Range requires a long, tough slog through steep, densely vegetated terrain just to get to the bases of the mountains. If you’re in tip-top shape and are an experienced climber, for $2050 USD you can join an 8-day alpine climbing expedition to the southern Picket Range in August. You’ll need to bring your own ice axe.

3. Zooming in on Pinnacle Peak (left, also called the Chopping Block), Crescent Creek Spires and the Rake. These peaks are so remote that the first alpine traverse, taking ten days, wasn’t accomplished until 1963. First ascents of individual peaks in the Picket Range were made from 1931 through 2004.

4. We were intrigued by the windblown, clean rock of Inspiration Peak (7900 ft) to the right.

5. Behind the viewing platform the cool, mossy forest of hemlock, alder and fir was quiet in the afternoon sun.

6. Rt. 20 follows the Skagit River down from several lakes in the North Cascades, where the river is dammed after passing the US – Canada border. Fifteen miles below Newhalem we pulled over for a closer look at the river. Here in Marblemount, a boat launch at the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit rivers makes a pleasant place to stop. Just downriver, Bald eagles congregate in December to feed on river salmon. I’ve seen more eagles out my living room window than I have along the Skagit, but maybe I wasn’t there at the right time. In any case, being near the river always refreshes one’s spirit.

7. This magnificent old Bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) grows next to the river. It carries a heavy load of moss, ferns, lichens, fungi and is probably home to lots of insects, too. It looks like its been through the wars – half of its massive trunk is broken off and dead, and a clutch of great, heavy limbs spreads towards the sky on one side.

8. Looking up into the hairy armpits of the Bigleaf maple. The biomass of mosses, ferns and lichens on trees like this can be four times that of the tree’s leaves.

9. A close-up of the thick jowls of moss living on the old tree, along with elegant Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

10. This section of dead bark had a large fungus growing on the inner bark and moss edging a piece of outer bark.

11. As the sun lowered it lit up garlands of moss that sweep all the way around the tree’s heavy limbs.

12. Red alder (Alnus rubra) trees dotted the river banks.

13. The alders were covered with different fungi in beautiful patterns resembling a map.

14. Another example of decorated bark, from the Newhalem Visitor Center. A sapsucker drilled rows of holes into the bark of this conifer tree.

15. I saw these tracks, which I believe are River otter tracks, on the sandy riverbank at Marblemount.

16. Near the alders the ground is matted with last year’s leaves and tired grass stems, a rich, decomposing brew that will nourish this year’s plants and animals.

17. The river bottom was a tapestry of soft green, gold and rust-colored rocks, and the water was clear as can be.

18. Every time you look at the river bottom it’s a little different, as ice-cold water races over the rocks on the way to the Salish Sea and the light bounces off the surface of the river, reflecting variable skies above.

19. Black and white seems to suit this roadside view of an old homestead nestled in the snowy Cascade foothills that we saw on the way home.

***

EXTRA!

At the risk of destroying the illusion of paradise on Route 20, I give you this: the Marblemount Boat Launch honeybucket and a big puddle. I can’t vouch for the cleanliness of the interior.

***

You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.

EDGE-BLURRING: The Malleability of Time

The twin architects of our daily lives, time and space, occupy very different places in my mind/experience. Space is a concept I’m comfortable with; I can judge size accurately, I have a keen feeling for landscape, I relish the myriad permutations of form I come across in life. But time, that’s another matter entirely. Past present and future don’t always differentiate for me the way they seem to for other people. I am perpetually behind, I sometimes foresee what’s coming like it’s happening now, and I constantly get stuck in a mesmerizing present that puts me beyond the reach of the normal interruptions of daily life. Over the years I’ve learned to live with this mushy sense of time, and thankfully, people close to me usually tolerate the inconvenience it causes them.

Maybe my experience of malleable time and the erasure of boundaries promotes creative expression. Maybe new flowers grow in a place where time is not so fixed and the the border between now and then is smudged into oblivion.

1.

I want to tell you something

profound about time but

I have never understood it. They say one moment

is followed by the next. No,

this morning in dim gray light

the towhee ziggs-zaggs under the feeder – a

svelte, dark shadow

and junco’s white tail feathers flit in quick arcs

between the sword fern and the bird feeder, and

my grandfather smiles gruffly at the pretty redbird,

a cardinal gracing his front yard, and the Song sparrow pours

song into the air from a wire

outside my old apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson: the same

buzz-and-trill melody, over and over, and

the chickadee’s delicate claws

precisely grasp my seed-filled ten-year-old hand and

a thin, gossamer thread, twinkling rainbow colors in an

almost-felt breeze connects

all of it, here,

Now.

2.

3.

4.
5.
6.

7.
8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

The intention is for the images to convey a feeling of movement. Tempus fugit. Rushing ahead pell mell, turning back on itself in circles, the hazy fog where nothing is hitched to anything else….time is unpredictable and cannot be grasped. And at times it seems to stand still, but maybe not – as in the last photo of the German countryside seen from a speeding train car, where perhaps time is morphing into space.

***

The photos

  1. A flock of birds takes off across the bay at a refuge near Seattle. The horizon is tilted and the colors are distorted for effect. f6.3, 1/80th sec. December, 2016.
  2. Blurred Atlantic ocean water washes a bone I found on a beach many years ago. The bone is probably a dolphin scapula. From an old slide, circa 1979.
  3. The road rushes by on Big Basin Highway, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California. Intentional camera movement on a Samsung phone. October, 2016.
  4. Intentional blur and intentional camera movement from a car, colors altered. Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. f4.5, 2/5 sec. April, 2018.
  5. A Red-breasted nuthatch flies away from a suet feeder. f3.2, 1/125th sec. Not intentionally blurred but I liked the effect. June, 2016.
  6. The scenery disappears quickly through the window of a train in the Netherlands. Intentionally blurred. f22, 1/4 sec. April, 2019.
  7. Carp at a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. Intentionally blurred. f20, 1 sec. November, 2017.
  8. Flowers on my deck at home. Intentional camera movement. f5.6, 1/3 sec. September 2016.
  9. A blowing leaf at a park, intentionally blurred. Aperture information unknown – vintage lens. 1/800 sec. February 2018.
  10. Rushing water in a creek in the foothills of the Cascades. Intentionally blurred. f11, 1/8 sec. September, 2014.
  11. I don’t think this doubled image happened intentionally – maybe the photograph was taken through a window, I don’t remember. f3.5, 1/320 sec. December, 2008.
  12. The view from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park, Washington. Intentional camera movement. f22, 1/3 sec. February 2020.
  13. A roadside outside of Portland, Oregon. Intentional blur and camera movement. f22, 1/8 sec. April, 2018.
  14. Fields seen from a train traveling between Cologne and Frankfurt. The view seems static but it’s actually blurred by the train’s movement. f3.5, 1/200 sec. April, 2019.

FURTHER AFIELD: In Munsterland

Munsterland is in Germany, part of the North Rhine-Westphalia region which is famous for its castles and manors. Last April we stopped here to visit friends as we drove across Germany, from Cologne to Hannover. We didn’t cycle from castle to castle (a popular regional pastime) but our friends’ home is a castle in its own right, a haven where we felt secure, well cared for and enveloped in hygge. The small town we stayed in is probably like many others in the region, but wandering through the village and past the edges of farms around it was a magical experience for us. Meeting up with someone you know who lives in the place you are passing through brings a refreshing dose of reality to a journey. For a few hours you feel less like someone tasting bits and pieces, and more like someone who is connected to the culture and nourished by the landscape.*

Now, almost a year later, the brief time spent with friends in a far-away place already feels nostalgic. You’ll see that in these photos.

**

1. On the outskirts of the village.

2. The lambs and the ewe ran away from us; Easter was less than a week away.

3. One way to sheer sheep.

**

4. Little Kusebach flows south, passing near the center of town. This small section of of the stream looked blissfully unmanicured to my eyes.

5. A copse rises in the distance.

**

6. This is a Kleiner Kohlweißling butterfly, native to Europe and introduced inadvertently to North American back in the 1850’s. We call them Cabbage white butterflies. The flower seems to be a willow (Salix) of some kind. Whatever their names may be, butterflies and flowers are happy things to see in the Spring.

7. It looks like a cherry or apple tree. In my mind it’s a tree deity, guarding the fields for another season.

8. Friends

9. These old buildings in the heart of the village once housed tools and machinery for a local farm.

10. Walking through the village.

11. Magnolia trees scattered missives at our feet.

12. St. Antonius Church.

13. Streets and steps throughout the town were immaculate.

**

14. Birch catkins dangled over the pond.

15. The tender unfolding of Copper beech leaves was another reason to smile.

16. It’s Buche Kupfer in German.

17. Ben, Ule, Joe

18. Kusebach again, a darker version.

19. Trees leafing out and their reflections.

20. Clematis buds
21. More reflections in a pond behind a restaurant.

22. Later, the woods whizzed by in a haze of Spring green and deep umber.

23. After leaving our friends we spent a long afternoon driving past fields of mustard, tall, bare-branched trees and signs we didn’t quite understand. Eventually we reached Hannover, where we spent the next day with another good friend. Photos from that day are here.

*Another view of Munsterland from someone who lives there can be found here, at Ule’s blog: Ule Rolff, Texte und Fotografie. She is, of course, the person we visited. We’re indebted to her and Ben for making us feel so welcome.

If you need a translation, try this site – you just select your original and target languages, then cut and paste the url into the navigation bar and click “translate.”

***

JUST ONE: Seaside juniper

This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.

Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.

One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.

But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.

**

1. A grove of Seaside juniper trees on an exposed, south-facing site.

2. Nearby, the skeleton of a Seaside juniper graces the view of Burrows Pass and Burrows Bay.
3. Under this old juniper skeleton are grasses and lichens that can tolerate thin, rather poor soil. Around the tree are more junipers and Douglas firs, which also do well in less-than-perfect conditions.

4. Another old juniper skeleton, partly fire-damaged. Photo #12 below shows the sawed-off limbs on the right.
5. This tree demonstrates comfort in the precarious environment where junipers are at home. You can almost feel the wind coming off the water. Four-legged creatures (like the doe in photo #24) have no trouble navigating the steep slopes – but I have to very careful here.

*

What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.

6. The one that started it all for me on a December afternoon in 2017, the first time I visited the park.

7. Sunlit leaves

8. Waves
9. Feathers

10. Sprawl and reach

11. Tangle

12. Chop

13. Venerable….this may be the oldest juniper on Fidalgo Island. It’s probably almost 300 years old, predating the arrival of white settlers on the island.

*

The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.

Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.

14. Sometimes juniper bark grows in a criss-cross pattern, a phenomenon I’ve seen on other trees, too. I wonder what causes it.

15. A branch tip in November, when water is once again plentiful.
16. Older juniper branches host a wide variety of lichens and mosses.

17. The light at the edge of the island where the junipers grow is sometimes shot through with water-drenched color.

18. On the first day of Spring, even long-dead branches appear to celebrate gentler times ahead.

*

Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….

Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?

The juniper berries used in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.

20. I believe these are male (pollen) cones.

*

A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.

America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.

21. Well-rooted.

22. Another venerable, well-rooted juniper, living through another dry summer.
23. An impressive, if untidy, mature juniper with sprawling, multiple trunks and crossing branches.

24. This unusual, nearly prostrate Seaside juniper grows in sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, where a small number of these trees can be found.

25. You may spot tiny pink wildflowers in this photo taken in May. By mid-summer they’ll be almost gone. The ground will be parched until the rains return.

26. At dusk, a doe listens to a boat passing through the channel below, just out of sight. This is where juniper lives, and thrives.

***

(Previous “Just One” posts include the Sword fern, the Pacific Madrone tree and the Licorice fern).

Winter Diary

Before they get buried in the archives, here is a selection of “scenes seen” in the last few months.

1. Working boats at a marina in Anacortes with steam in the background from a refinery across the bay. The colors have been modified to add a little more drama.

2. Seen in a vacant lot outside a lumber business, in the small town of Edison, WA.

3. Sand patterns at Cape Perpetua, Orgeon

4. Winter fog, same location as #2. Edison has a population of perhaps a few hundred people and a four-block downtown. On that street are a couple of art galleries, a bakery, and a few restaurants, each of which achieves the kind of quality you’d expect in a city fifty times the size of Edison. And they all need electricity.

5. Another telephone pole, by the Olson Building in Anacortes.

6. Calm hands.

7. Several days of snow shuttered the schools and many businesses. The Sword ferns aren’t looking very good after being laden with heavy, wet snow for days. These fronds will gradually recover though, and the plants will send up new shoots in the Spring.

8. A tea cup is a close friend on cold mornings.

9. Citrus is appealing these days.

10. A thrift shop vase with seasonal berries is welcome in the house.

11. Nigella (aka Love-in-a-mist) seed pods, as seen with an in-camera filter. The seeds are dropping out of the pods. Maybe I’ll plant them. A relative, N. damascena, is used as a condiment and according to Wikipedia, its seeds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

12. Paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus) buds are reassuring whispers of hope.

13. Now that the buds have opened, the fragrance arrives like the blessing of a soft-cheeked infant.

14. In Port Townsend, a small town on the Olympic peninsula, moss overtakes a stairway. Port Townsend is in the Olympic rain shadow (which means the Olympic Mountains grab Pacific ocean moisture before it reaches this area). The town only gets about 20 inches of rain a year, compared to the U.S. average of 38. It’s still relatively cool and damp throughout much of the year, keeping the moss happy. This photo was taken in the wettest month, November.

15. The garden Buddha, enrobed.

LOCAL WALKS: Washington Park

Set into a chunky peninsula on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, Washington Park is a singularly beautiful place. I’ve been there thirty-odd times in the past couple of years and each time I return, I see something new, and I’m enchanted again. Here is a selection of photos from this favorite local haunt.

1. Winter sunset. The Olympic Mountains are low on the horizon; a gnarled, half-dead Seaside juniper tree is silhouetted on the bluff.
2. Ferries to the San Juan Islands (seen in the distance) leave from a terminal a mile away, but why leave?

3. A winter view from the park’s edge. The glacially-scraped rocks are serpentinite, from deep down in the earth’s mantle. These rocks are uncommon, and they’re around 170 million years old. This little cove has a mind-boggling variety of sea life hiding just under the water – brown and red algae, anemones, sponges, worms, chitons, snails, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, barnacles, crabs, fish, and more have been found by inquisitive explorers.

4. Three males and a female – attractive Harlequin ducks ply the waters around the park in winter.

At 220 acres, Washington Park isn’t particularly large, but a varied habitat of saltwater shoreline, rocky bluffs and evergreen forest makes it a rewarding place to explore. From the park’s shores you might see harbor porpoises, seals, the occasional whale, oystercatchers, herons and even the elusive Marbled murrelet, which sometimes fishes near the shore. (The Marbled murrelet is an odd seabird. Back in 1974 a tree-climber found a murrelet chick high in an old tree; that was the first time Western science had found a Marbled murrelet’s nest. They may feed way out at sea and then fly up to 50 miles (80km) inland to raise their young. Their preference for old growth forests means habitat destruction is impinging on their nesting success. Foraging habits may also be negatively affected by climate change; currently the Marbled murrelet is considered endangered.)

Turning away from the water, the park’s woodlands invite scrutiny. Weather-ravaged junipers and Douglas firs command rocky headlands. Mounds of delicate, slow-growing reindeer lichens (Cladonia sp.) speckle forest openings and wildflowers that may be uncommon elsewhere bloom in the park each Spring. Deer, squirrels, and birds abound. There’s a bench by the loop road (open to walkers, bike riders and cars willing to go 10mph) with a lovely water view. It has become a favorite spot to hand-feed chickadees, sparrows, towhees and other birds. Tiny Chestnut-backed chickadees will perch on any outstretched hand with a few seeds in it; they’ve cleaned me out of nuts and seeds more than once.

6. Moisture from the Salish Sea keeps mosses green through most of the year. This photo was taken in November; in the summer there is very little rain. Plants adjust by going dormant, dropping leaves or just biding time until the rains return in September.

7. An old Seaside juniper is flanked by the evergreen leaves of several young Madrone trees. The uncommon Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) only grows in certain parts of southwestern British Columbia and northwestern Washington State. Scientists recognized it as a separate species in 2007. The trees favor drier, south-facing slopes on the islands and are fairly plentiful in Washington Park but are scarce to nonexistent elsewhere. Seaside juniper is vulnerable to climate change since many of the trees grow on islands. If an island’s climate becomes inhospitable, the trees cannot slowly migrate away like they might be able to do on the mainland.

8. Seaside junipers and Madrones enjoy good light on this open headland slope facing uninhabited Burrows Island. The uprooted tree will slowly decompose on a bed of moss and reindeer lichen. Leaving the log where it is allows a whole host of non-flowering plants, insects, and other creatures to live their lives, which are connected to our lives.


9. Dewdrops line up on dried grass.

10. A little Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) blooms here in June.

11. This unusual, tiny plant, a fern called Indian’s dream (Aspidotis densa) lives on serpentine soils, which tend to be inhospitable to many other plants.
12. Pretty pink Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) and white Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) mingle on ground littered with broken, lichen-covered branches.

13. Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming in the forest only a few yards from the loop road, in June. What a delightful discovery!

14. A Douglas fir needle dangles from a Red huckleberry twig by a thread of spider silk. The forest at Washington Park sometimes seems to glow green, with plant life. The high, dense canopy of evergreens reduces the light entering the forest but open water on three sides of the park reflects light that brightens dim places.

15. Branch tip of a Seaside juniper tree.

16. Three juniper cones on the ground. I’m tempted to call them berries but they are actually cones containing one or two seeds each. A number of the park’s Seaside juniper trees may be over 200 years old.

17. Tall Douglas firs are plentiful in the woods, along with Western redcedar, whose gracefully drooping leaves are to the left.
18. I guess this rock is a glacial erratic. In the forest it quietly gathers lichens, mosses and insects, producing an ever-changing palette of life on its surface, even on a gray November day.

19. The complexity of crossing branches revealed after leaves have dropped is absolutely dizzying.

20. This beauty looks like it’s covered with snow but no, those are lichens that have found a happy home on a dead evergreen. The tree may no longer be producing needles and branches, but it still plays a vital role in the forest.

21. The snow-capped Olympic Mountain range is shrouded in clouds on a quiet December afternoon. Barely visible to the left is the Burrows Island lighthouse, the oldest intact wooden lighthouse in the state. The light went into service in 1906, then it was automated in 1972. The uninhabited island can only be reached by private boat. One of the delights of Washington Park is gazing out at the Salish Sea and dreaming of “what-ifs.” You can bet I’ll keep going back as long as I can.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Around Los Angeles

It’s archive time. A string of wet, gray days prompted a look through Lightroom’s bulging files and folders. Sometimes I scroll around arbitrarily, and sometimes I think of a place or subject and type it into the keyword field. Any archive review is bound to turn up something that deserves attention and this time, photos from a 2018 trip to Los Angeles caught my eye.

Before moving on to the photos I want to mention what happened to my Lightroom catalog and workflow process over the last few days. With the expert help of Alex Kunz, my impossibly messy catalog (the result of a computer crash, a hard drive crash and years of bad organization) has been sorted out and cleaned up. It’s a new world in there! And to top it off, I’ve learned that certain habits I had, like creating virtual copies every time I edited a photo, are unnecessary. The recycle bin is full (gotta remember to empty that!) and my editing process is now quicker and easier. What a difference! Kudos to Alex, whose services I highly recommend. Whether you use Windows or Mac he can help solve problems. His rates are reasonable, he’s trustworthy, he’s thorough – and he’s also a fine photographer.

The first image here is a view of Los Angeles from the hills above it, specifically the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of the city. It’s not an exceptional image but it sets the scene for a trip we took in October 2018 when we spent a day or so downtown, explored the hills around the city, drove out to Joshua Tree and went to the beach.

1. A view of sprawling L.A. from Angeles National Forest.


2. Now we’re in the heart of the city, inside a funicular. Known as Angels Flight, this bit of charm is two old rail cars that run up and down a short, steep hill on narrow gauge track, right downtown. Fans of Harry Bosch books or the TV series may recognize this as the location for one of Harry’s cases; Angels Flight also appears in a number of movies and songs.

4. This photographer looked at home at the Bradbury.

6. The local vernacular style sometimes incorporates quasi-oriental influences like the bamboo motif on this building in Venice Beach.

7. A matte finish on this old Ford pick-up lets everyone know the owner is on trend, which we all know is important in L.A.

8. Back up in the hills outside the city, a yucca thrives in the dry southern California climate.

9. Bark detail, Angeles National Forest.
10. A Topanga State Park trail through oak woodlands. The park is within L.A. city limits.

11. On the side of the road up in the hills, discarded CD’s gathered dew and dirt. No one was listening. Somehow, finding a bunch of CD’s tossed into the grass way up in the hills was not unexpected in media-driven L.A.
12. Joshua Tree National Park is about two hours east of LA, and absolutely worth the trip. Here’s a typical Joshua Tree, actually not a tree at all, but a kind of yucca plant native to the southwest.

13. A fantastic tangle of desert plant material at Joshua Tree NP.
14. Plants and rocks find unique ways to interact at Joshua Tree.

15. One afternoon we drove out to Zuma Beach, a popular surfing spot about an hour west of downtown L.A.

16. These winter-plumage shore birds are probably Pacific Golden plovers. Zuma Beach.
17. A lone Yellowlegs pauses at dusk. This is Hermosa Beach, a beach-front city about 45 minutes from downtown LA that’s popular for hanging out, night and day.

18. Sunset at the pier. Hermosa Beach.

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Quiet at the Turn of the Year

To close the door on a year – or a decade – is really a pretty abstract concept. It’s essentially a numbers game that relies on a somewhat arbitrary system of calendar organization. I’m a sensual person and I prefer to think of this time of year in sensory terms, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.

There’s a quiet cast to the light these days. You could say the sun has gotten rather introspective: less likely to light up every little corner, more apt to hide its brilliance. Almost all of December was cloudy here. The sky spat out rain now and then, and kept referring back to itself in a gray-on-gray kind of way. On a few days, towards sunset, rogue openings appeared in the cloud cover, and yielded brief but welcome drama. If the clouds thinned to reveal bits of blue, the sunlight was weak but appealingly gentle. The punch has disappeared from color, textures are flat, and a sheen of moisture-soaked air has smoothed over the worn surfaces of wood and rock.

Wet air encouraged the verdure of lichens and ferns; many are as green as Springtime. Tiny plants sprout on the forest floor too. I don’t know what species they are, but I notice two, four or more tiny leaves climbing on fragile stems toward what light there is, with great determination. Will the little plants survive? Surely the ground will freeze sometime in the next few months. We’ll see. There’s always more to learn about, much of it right at my feet.

I’m drawn these days to the edges of the island, places where I can weave in and out of the forest as I walk, investigating the detritus washed up at the last high tide, gazing out over the water to look for birds, and picking my way along forest paths among the evergreen giants. Woods and water make a fine pair for this quiet time of year.

1. A bit of rain falls towards uninhabited Deception Island.

2. Countless wave cycles have worn this old mass of roots down to a tough bundle of bumps, knobs, holes and craters.

3. Raindrops fall on the rocks at West Beach, Deception Pass. This is the time of year I’m glad I have a “splash-proof” camera and lenses, not to mention warm socks.

4. People love to balance rocks. The cairns don’t last too long at the beaches I frequent so I usually don’t mind them. In some environments, like deserts, animals depend on rocks for shelter so moving rocks around can make life difficult them. And leaving a cairn in an otherwise pristine place can subtract from the experience of being in the wild for other people. At the same time, rock-balancing requires focus, attention and creativity, which are qualities I wouldn’t want to deny anyone from expressing.

5. Another view of the rock pile seen above, in sepia.

6. The tides create numberless small compositions with rocks and sand.

7. A rare December blue-sky day at North Beach, Deception Pass State Park.

8. Water deepens the colors of this amazing pile of plants torn from from the Salish Sea seen after high tide. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.

9. A large rock at the edge of the water stays damp on this gray day; its wrinkled surface and blue-green color elicit my admiration.
10. Ever-present moisture along the island’s margins nourishes lichens, moss, fungi and ferns, as well as the trees and understory plants. We don’t realize how much we benefit from all of this, however indirectly. Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass.

11. A large percentage of life – perhaps forty percent here – relies on downed wood for habitat. So far these fallen trees support moss, lichens and mushrooms. In time, ferns and seed plants will appear. The wood teems with insect life too, and birds and four-legged creatures will engage with the logs one way or another. This two-legged creature with a little black box stopped to look one afternoon.

12. A lichen, one of the Usnea genus, cradles valuable moisture on a damp afternoon. With no roots, it pays for the lichen to be able to hold onto raindrops.

13. Two old Western Redcedars grow tall next to Heart Lake on Fidalgo Island. This species thrives on abundant moisture. Drier summers and droughts here on the island have coincided with a notable increase in dying Redcedars and hemlocks. Arborists are studying the trees and weather, trying to determine if the drier summers are causing the die-off or not.
14. One day this old Redcedar will probably slip in the water, which is just to the left in this photo. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
15. The root worked its way into the rock, and now Licorice fern is taking advantage of the resulting cool, damp micro-climate. North Beach, Deception Pass.

16. Bark shed by Madrone trees fell onto this bed of moss (probably Oregon Beaked moss – Kindbergia oregana) in Washington Park, near the edge of the island.

17. Tree trunk slices are welcome stepping stones on forest paths in the wet months. Heart Lake forest, Fidalgo Island.

18. Light bouncing off Heart Lake brightens the forest. The large Douglas fir tree on the left has seen hundreds of Decembers and it just might see hundreds more.

19. I was amazed to glance down and see this delicate little Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) by the trail, still blooming in late December. Kukatali Preserve.

20. This foggy place is several miles from the shoreline but because it’s the highest place on the island, clouds collect here and stick around. Mt. Erie, Fidalgo Island.

21. It’s 3:07pm on December 18th. Soon the sun will set, but not before breaking through a thick cloud cover and gracing the snow-covered Olympic Mountains, across the Salish Sea and more than 50 miles away as the crow flies.

***

Ghent

Or Gent. Either way, if you’re American you may not get the pronunciation quite right. In this Belgian city, as in most of Flanders, the primary language is Dutch (Ghent). But French (Gent) has a presence here too, and in nearby Brussels, French is the dominant language. Many Flanders residents, especially younger people, speak Dutch, French and English, a lingual multiplicity that reflects a complex, interesting culture.

A doorway in Ghent near the university.

In April we traveled to northern Europe, landing in Amsterdam. We planned to spend time in the Netherlands and Germany, looking up long-lost relatives and meeting blogging friends. Why not circle round and add Belgium to the itinerary? It’s the home of Magritte, Tintin and Django Reinhardt. Its constitution guarantees freedom of language, there are weird political machinations, fine chocolate, a penchant for brilliantly self-deprecating humor…in short, it must be interesting. So I looked for a base for a few days in Belgium.

Bruges came up right away. Frankly, people talked it up so much that I was scared away – my sense was that we’d drown in a sea of tourists in Bruges, straining to see the sights. I settled on Ghent, which also has canals, Flemish architecture and fries, but is a grittier university town and sounded more to our liking. We didn’t even go to Bruges. And because of Ghent’s central location I got carried away thinking about all the places we could visit that are only a train ride away – Antwerp, Brussels, even Lille, France are all in striking range. On arrival in Ghent we studied the calendar and train schedule with more sober eyes, paring it down to a day in Antwerp, a day in Lille (I was focused on seeing France, if only a corner of it), and a day seeing Ghent. Not enough, for sure!

For our day in Ghent I zeroed in on the MSK Musuem, or the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (the Museum of Fine Arts). Along with art museums in Antwerp and Bruges, MSK is part of the Flemish Art Collection, a comprehensive collection of five centuries of Flemish art. As an American art lover who had never been to Europe (when I was young and could have scraped the money together for a trip to Europe I wasn’t interested; later, family and work conspired against it) I valued the opportunity to see an excellent museum that isn’t overwhelmingly large. Over the years I’ve spent many hours at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Met Cloisters and the Morgan Library. Each one boasts an excellent collection of European art, but it’s just not the same as viewing art inside the country where it originated. To wake up in a European medieval city, sip coffee in a corner cafe, take a tram to the museum, gaze at sumptuous artworks spanning centuries, and then wander through the old part of town and into a cathedral or cafe is to begin to tie it all together. An altarpiece is no longer an isolated piece of art and an impressionist painting gains deeper context, making a sensibility and culture that are decidedly not American a little more transparent.

5. Walking through Citadelpark on the way to Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

6. Adriaen van de Venne (1589 – 1662); Dicing, Drabbing and Drinking Bring Man to Destruction. From the museum’s collection.

So here we are at MSK. Certain things catch my eye. I have no interest in recording consensus-approved highlights; instead, I photograph museum scenes, works of art and small details that I want to remember.

7. It was heartening to see students working intently on copies of paintings. It’s a great way to learn about composition, color, and patience.
8. This student has taken a break. What an interesting choice of painting to become wholly intimate with.
9. The Lamentation; Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). The message behind Christian-influenced art like this may not resonate with me, but oh, those faces! There is a strange, disjointed and angular awkwardness that is compelling here. Being in the presence of this painting in Ghent, where it was probably made, affected me more deeply than seeing a similar painting hanging in an American museum would. Medieval work in particular was very moving seen in the context of medieval cities. The paintings no longer depicted some far-off people in a far-off era; their time-stopping detail, rich color and powerful expressiveness connected me directly to the medieval world.
10. Detail, The Glorification of Apollo; Urbanus Leyniers et al. There is a room full of tapestries at MSK, some are floor to ceiling in size. This tapestry measures 408 x 330cm (13′ x 11′) The foot is beautifully articulated and the dyes speak of the earth, water and the sky. The skin color is as nuanced as can be and the blue drapery is a color Yves Klein would appreciate. (Leyniers, 1674-1737, was a Flemish wool dyer and tapestry maker in Brussels.)

11. A cabinet of curiosities. Another cultural-historical truism that was brought home to me on this trip was the excitement that grabbed people during the age of exploration when so many new objects, like these exotic shells, were discovered and brought to Europe.

12. A homey, impressionist winter scene by Adriaan Jozef Heymans that interested me because of the riot of colors he used in the sky, all to describe snow, which we normally think of as white. (Heymans, 1839-1921, was a Belgian plein air painter).

13. Detail, The Family of St. Anne; ca 1500. This triptych from a former Beguinage (a lay religious community for women) in Ghent is ascribed to the Master of St. Anne. The somewhat flattened perspective and abundant detail alongside the intense emotion seen in the eyes allows me to relate to the scene intimately. It was the time of Low Country masters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who created vibrant, extraordinary works which can connect us directly back to a time when the world was very different, and so much smaller.
14. A powerful jolt back to the present, this sculpture (Fluitketel, 1999) by Patrick van Caeckenburgh sits incongruously – delightfully so – in a gallery of traditional paintings. Van Caeckenburgh, b. 1960, is a Belgian artist who obsessively researches literary and scientific sources for his work. He reportedly lives a secluded life in a small Belgian village and is well-represented in museum collections from London to Taiwan.

For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.

15b. One more: a portion of THE PICTURESQUE HISTORY OF EMPTINESS, Les Oubliettes — The Oblivions — De Vergeetputtten, 2007-2014.

16. Glimpsed through a doorway, another strange sculpture beckons…
17. It is Panamorenko’s Aeromodeller (1980) and it seems ready to levitate right out of the gallery.

18. A window above Panamorenko’s “zeppelin” inscribes the piece with sunlight and shadow, enhancing the effect of weightlessness.

Panamorenko, born in 1940, died earlier this month. Another eccentric Belgian artist who explored hidden corners of the psyche, he made imaginary flying machines and other constructions which he thought of as more akin to poetry than to sculpture. We were lucky to view this huge, elaborate work in the same room at MSK where it was shown back in 1980.

AND NOW, it’s time to take a walk.

19.
20. View from the Vleehuisbrug, a bridge over the Leie River in the old section of Ghent.

21. Flemish architecture and a clocktower.

22. Sint-Micheilskerk. There has been a chapel here for almost a thousand years. This version was built in the 13th & 14th centuries.

23. Lost in the old city.
24. Another canal seen from a bridge in the old section of Ghent.

25. What can we see?
26. Perhaps the sun setting on drying laundry….

27. Or a detail on a cathedral.
28. At some point the eyes are weary, the feet have given out, and the belly cries for food. Sit. Enjoy.

Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.

***