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.
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.
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.
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.
You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.
The twin architects of our daily lives, time and space, occupy very different places in my mind/experience. Space is a concept I’m comfortable with; I can judge size accurately, I have a keen feeling for landscape, I relish the myriad permutations of form I come across in life. But time, that’s another matter entirely. Past present and future don’t always differentiate for me the way they seem to for other people. I am perpetually behind, I sometimes foresee what’s coming like it’s happening now, and I constantly get stuck in a mesmerizing present that puts me beyond the reach of the normal interruptions of daily life. Over the years I’ve learned to live with this mushy sense of time, and thankfully, people close to me usually tolerate the inconvenience it causes them.
Maybe my experience of malleable time and the erasure of boundaries promotes creative expression. Maybe new flowers grow in a place where time is not so fixed and the the border between now and then is smudged into oblivion.
I want to tell you something
profound about time but
I have never understood it. They say one moment
is followed by the next. No,
this morning in dim gray light
the towhee ziggs-zaggs under the feeder – a
svelte, dark shadow
and junco’s white tail feathers flit in quick arcs
between the sword fern and the bird feeder, and
my grandfather smiles gruffly at the pretty redbird,
a cardinal gracing his front yard, and the Song sparrow pours
song into the air from a wire
outside my old apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson: the same
buzz-and-trill melody, over and over, and
the chickadee’s delicate claws
precisely grasp my seed-filled ten-year-old hand and
a thin, gossamer thread, twinkling rainbow colors in an
almost-felt breeze connects
all of it, here,
The intention is for the images to convey a feeling of movement. Tempus fugit. Rushing ahead pell mell, turning back on itself in circles, the hazy fog where nothing is hitched to anything else….time is unpredictable and cannot be grasped. And at times it seems to stand still, but maybe not – as in the last photo of the German countryside seen from a speeding train car, where perhaps time is morphing into space.
A flock of birds takes off across the bay at a refuge near Seattle. The horizon is tilted and the colors are distorted for effect. f6.3, 1/80th sec. December, 2016.
Blurred Atlantic ocean water washes a bone I found on a beach many years ago. The bone is probably a dolphin scapula. From an old slide, circa 1979.
The road rushes by on Big Basin Highway, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California. Intentional camera movement on a Samsung phone. October, 2016.
Intentional blur and intentional camera movement from a car, colors altered. Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. f4.5, 2/5 sec. April, 2018.
A Red-breasted nuthatch flies away from a suet feeder. f3.2, 1/125th sec. Not intentionally blurred but I liked the effect. June, 2016.
The scenery disappears quickly through the window of a train in the Netherlands. Intentionally blurred. f22, 1/4 sec. April, 2019.
Carp at a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. Intentionally blurred. f20, 1 sec. November, 2017.
Flowers on my deck at home. Intentional camera movement. f5.6, 1/3 sec. September 2016.
A blowing leaf at a park, intentionally blurred. Aperture information unknown – vintage lens. 1/800 sec. February 2018.
Rushing water in a creek in the foothills of the Cascades. Intentionally blurred. f11, 1/8 sec. September, 2014.
I don’t think this doubled image happened intentionally – maybe the photograph was taken through a window, I don’t remember. f3.5, 1/320 sec. December, 2008.
The view from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park, Washington. Intentional camera movement. f22, 1/3 sec. February 2020.
A roadside outside of Portland, Oregon. Intentional blur and camera movement. f22, 1/8 sec. April, 2018.
Fields seen from a train traveling between Cologne and Frankfurt. The view seems static but it’s actually blurred by the train’s movement. f3.5, 1/200 sec. April, 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 berriesused 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.
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.
Set into a chunky peninsula on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, Washington Park is a singularly beautiful place. I’ve been there thirty-odd times in the past couple of years and each time I return, I see something new, and I’m enchanted again. Here is a selection of photos from this favorite local haunt.
At 220 acres, Washington Park isn’t particularly large, but a varied habitat of saltwater shoreline, rocky bluffs and evergreen forest makes it a rewarding place to explore. From the park’s shores you might see harbor porpoises, seals, the occasional whale, oystercatchers, herons and even the elusive Marbled murrelet, which sometimes fishes near the shore. (The Marbled murrelet is an odd seabird. Back in 1974 a tree-climber found a murrelet chick high in an old tree; that was the first time Western science had found a Marbled murrelet’s nest. They may feed way out at sea and then fly up to 50 miles (80km) inland to raise their young. Their preference for old growth forests means habitat destruction is impinging on their nesting success. Foraging habits may also be negatively affected by climate change; currently the Marbled murrelet is considered endangered.)
Turning away from the water, the park’s woodlands invite scrutiny. Weather-ravaged junipers and Douglas firs command rocky headlands. Mounds of delicate, slow-growing reindeer lichens (Cladonia sp.) speckle forest openings and wildflowers that may be uncommon elsewhere bloom in the park each Spring. Deer, squirrels, and birds abound. There’s a bench by the loop road (open to walkers, bike riders and cars willing to go 10mph) with a lovely water view. It has become a favorite spot to hand-feed chickadees, sparrows, towhees and other birds. Tiny Chestnut-backed chickadees will perch on any outstretched hand with a few seeds in it; they’ve cleaned me out of nuts and seeds more than once.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.
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.
Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.