We drift in a liminal space these days, caught between a past that’s just out of reach and a future that never comes into focus. Floating in a murky emotional soup of fear, longing, resignation and hope, we grope blindly for some shred of reassurance. At a time like this the thoroughly solid presence of old trees can be a welcome comfort. Maybe you’ve been lingering under big trees, consciously or unconsciously seeking solace. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Red-cedar is one tree whose benign, gentle presence can soothe and center frayed nerves.
My wish is that you could stand beneath this
stately tree-being, stand there quietly,
breathe along with bark, leaves,
Bend your head way back and gaze far
up into the branches until your eyes tire. Peer closely
at the russet-colored bark and discover life
hidden in the darkest fissures. Trace the wide arc
of a single branch as it dips down, then
climbs back up towards the light.
follow the sensuous twists and curves of roots until
they disappear into the thick, spongy duff.
Inhale the sharp, fresh fragrance and listen to the
soft shushing of swaying branches.
Commune. Lose yourself
in the presence of this graceful tree,
forget the news,
shake off your worries.
There are times when we suffer; there are times when the Red-cedars suffer. They fall, they burn in fires, they’re attacked by fungi and beetles, felled by loggers and stressed by climatic changes. Those that are taken from the forest may become shingles, siding, outdoor furniture, even caskets. Those that fall become new homes for fungi, plants and animals. Those that rot at the base may still stand, their hollows sheltering bears and other animals. Those that are burned nourish the soil.
The Red-cedar tree (and its relative the Alaska or Yellow-cedar) has played an outsized role in the lives of people living in the Pacific Northwest coastal areas. Regarded as the ‘tree of life’ by the Kakawaka’wakw, the species was, and still is, highly respected by all Northwest coast indigenous cultures. Ceremonial uses for the tree were not separate from other uses but were an integral part of everyday life. Nearly every part of the tree could be put to medicinal use. The bark, which was stripped off the tree in manageable quantities so the tree wasn’t harmed, was used for a wide variety of everyday objects like clothing, mats, dishes, ropes – the list goes on. Exceptionally large trees were once abundant in the forests so houses were built from Red-cedar poles, beams and planks. The straight-grained, rot-resistant, buoyant wood is not too hard to be worked with stone tools. Canoes are still made by Pacific Northwest tribes from carefully selected Red-cedar trees. Annual inter-tribal canoe journeys that keep these traditions alive, have taken place every summer since the 1980’s. In coastal forests, particularly in British Columbia, there are numerous culturally modified trees (CMT’s). These trees show evidence of being stripped of pieces bark or wood or otherwise modified for indigenous use, long ago or more recently. They are a living historical record and are respected as such.
They’re not cedars, by the way. In fact, Thuja plicata is a member of the Cypress family, along with our native junipers; true cedars are native to the Old World. American cedar chests, with their familiar, moth-repellent, aromatic fragrance, were made from Eastern red-cedar, which is a juniper tree that grows in the eastern half of the U.S. But enough confusion! There is no mistaking Western red-cedar once you’ve seen it a few times. With its distinctive, vertically patterned bark, curved branches and gracefully drooping sprays of evergreen foliage, it is a dominant tree of the moist, lowland forests within its range.
Though its cones are small and often overlooked, they tell the story of Red-cedar’s reproduction. Both male and female cones are found on each tree. After developing in the previous summer, pollen cones shed their pollen into the wind in March. Around here that means several weeks of sneezing and dusty-looking cars. Seed cones trap and funnel the drifting pollen into ovules, where fertilization takes place in May. By September, the seed cones have matured and turned brown and can begin releasing seeds, to be carried by the wind. They’ll land some distance from the parent tree. Some will sprout into seedlings but the seedlings often have a tough time surviving. Perhaps as insurance, Red-cedar trees can also reproduce vegetatively. Low-hanging and fallen branches can root and even fallen trees may develop new, viable branches.
The oldest known Western red-cedar trees are well over a thousand years old; the biggest trees include one on Vancouver Island that is about 20′ (6m) in diameter and 182′ (56m) tall, and one on the Oregon coast that measured about 17′ in diameter and 153′ tall in 2010. In the face of this kind of longevity it might be worthwhile to ponder the fate of the scores of human generations that have lived and passed away while these old giants have persisted.
My wish for you is that you can relax under an old Red-cedar tree – but any big tree near you will do. My wish for the trees themselves is that no more Red-cedars suffer damaging harm from human causes – or at the very least, that no more giants are logged.
More “Just One” posts can be found by scrolling down to the Categories section below.
In January I wrote a “Local Walks” post about Washington Park, a 220-acre, wooded park about 20 minutes from home. I found out about this captivating place in 2017 but I lived far away then, near Seattle. After moving to Fidalgo Island in 2018, I could visit the park more often. Then, when COVID-19 restrictions closed another favorite park in March, I became a regular as Washington Park remained open for walkers, bikers and to a limited extent, auto traffic. Almost all of the Fawn lily photos from my last post were taken here, as well as the Calypso orchid photos in the previous post. Needless to say, this little dot on the globe is playing a big part in my life. I’m so very thankful it exists.
The park has too many stories for me to begin sorting them out: the history includes a one-dollar-a-pie Lemon pie sale that local women organized in 1922 to raise funds to expand the park; the geology includes an unusual mid-Jurassic period rock ledge which was once part of the earth’s mantle; the park’s flora includes leafless, rootless orchids that spring out of the ground only to hide in plain sight and an odd little fern that looks like parsley and thrives in infertile serpentine soils. Let’s not forget the stories of the people who use the park every day, walking their dogs on the 2-mile loop road, camping under the tall trees, boating, picnicking, exploring tide pools at low tide, hand-feeding Chickadees and chipmunks, or even grabbing a 25-cent shower in one of several clean restrooms (I’m always pleasantly surprised to find a clean restroom in a park).
Some stories with personal meaning include the times I’ve spotted seals and porpoises from the shore, days spent exploring trails that wind through the woods and up and down the grassy balds, the surprise of mating Oystercatchers, and the peaceful times I’ve spent gazing across the water at vibrant sunsets. You can see why I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll let the pictures tell the story. Enjoy!
Where do all those Latin names come from? Because common names vary from place to place, they can be confusing, imprecise and misleading. Latin names are a universal language. I try to include them often so that readers from other countries or other parts of North America can understand what plant I’m referring to.
The sources I use regularly include the internet (e.g. Wikipedia and iNaturalist), Daniel Mathews’ excellent reference book, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of Coastal British Columbia, the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers and Lyons’ Wildflowers of Washington. I actually enjoy searching through these books and online resources to figure out what I’ve seen, and then learning about it – it’s like detective work.
Spring proceeds on its own schedule, without effort or hindrance. It may be wetter or slower or colder than we think it should be, but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience. Spring doesn’t listen to that. Without considering our opinions or preferences, buds open, birds sing, frogs lay eggs, insects buzz…
…and the flowers, the flowers. Lately one in particular enchants me: the Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.
Clean and delicate, the elegant, six-petaled lilies appear in early to mid-spring, in moist woodlands or prairies from northwest California to British Columbia. About two dozen other species of Erythronium occur in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and the Caucasus. Like tulips, they are members of the Lily family. Generally, lilies have flower parts arranged in threes, grow from bulbs and flourish in temperate regions. Their simplicity of form is very appealing.
The Fawn lilies here on Fidalgo Island have been beautiful. Last April I was away almost all month and the April before that, I didn’t live here, so this is my first April on Fidalgo Island. It’s been a month of discoveries and finding dozens of graceful Fawn lilies in parks and preserves near home has been thrilling.
The flowers I admire today have taken years to come into bloom; they’re nothing like the sprouts you might grow at home or grass seed that greens up a lawn in a matter of days. I could begin the cycle anywhere but I’ll start with January, when the winds of winter have their way with branches, leaves, bark chunks, needles, cones and lichen scraps, sending them all raining down onto the forest floor where they slowly decompose. In March the ground is still a chaotic tangle of broken fragments holding little promise. But deep under the soil, Fawn lily seeds are busy growing. The first visible effort isn’t very dramatic – just one small leaf will emerge, probably during the wet weather of autumn. But the leaf will grow, and so will the bulb.
The next year another leaf will emerge, this time a little bigger. Below the leaf, the seed will have fattened into a small corm or bulb, which gradually pushes downward to a deeper, safer place where it’s less likely to be dug up and eaten or dry out in the summer. That downward motion is accomplished with specialized contractile roots that pull the bulb down into the soil instead of taking up water and minerals. As this cycle repeats the result is a bigger leaf, a bigger bulb, and a stronger plant each year.
Finally, the plant gathers sufficient energy to produce a flower. If the flower survives it may be pollinated, most likely by a bee. Successful pollination will lead to seed formation and dispersal and with their work done, the leaves will wither in the summer heat, releasing their nutrients back into the soil. Some of the seeds will land in just the right places to begin the cycle anew.
Spending time among the Fawn lilies, photographing them and working out different ways to process the images deepens my appreciation for them. They won’t be in flower much longer. Like many Spring ephemerals, they take advantage of the light on the forest floor that is present before many plants leaf out. They flower before the light is reduced, fading away over the summer and coming alive again in the cool, wet, early months of the year. Late next winter I’ll search for those distinctively mottled leaves in anticipation of enjoying the delicate white stars of the forest again.
In saying that spring follows its own schedule and pays no attention to what we might be thinking, I don’t mean to imply that our actions have no impact on the climate, the environment, and thus on spring itself. What we do and how we are involved with life on earth matters.
The pandemic has turned the world upside down for many of us, smashing routines to bits and making fear and anxiety our daily companions. Normally I like the unexpected – it perks me up and keeps me engaged. But a world-wide crisis in which countless people suffer isn’t what I have in mind when I consider the benefits of change. People across the globe have been forced way out of their comfort zones. We’re all doing whatever we can to cope with the consequences of a situation that would have sounded like science fiction a year ago.
For many people that means getting outdoors as much as possible, trying to gain a little distance from the news and relieve the restlessness that comes with quarantine restrictions. Unfortunately, the ability to go outdoors is only a dream for some people. I’m lucky – access to nature is not difficult where I live and I’m healthy enough to get myself out the door. Being outside has always been my salvation, so lately, I get out almost every day.
And I never know what I’m going to see next.
How about having sky overhead jam-packed with thousands of honking, flapping geese frantically flying back and forth? That was certainly an unexpected sight, and I loved it. Or how about a tiny, glittering pink gem rising out of the rough detritus of the forest floor? Finding dainty Calypso orchids in the woods made my heart pound. Startling sights above my head and at my feet – these are interruptions in the routine that I welcome.
You can experience the deafening noise of Snow geese yourself here. My own amateurish video didn’t upload but the second video in the link looks a lot like what we experienced, except it’s far louder in person. Three Bald eagles were harassing the geese that afternoon. People walking their dogs may also have disturbed them. I don’t like seeing the geese unsettled for too long (we watched for at least 20 minutes). They need their energy. But I trust they are healthy and most will make it back to their breeding grounds.
Many of you know the poem, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. She also wrote this poem, about an encounter with Snow geese.
Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last! What a task To ask Of anything, or anyone, Yet it is ours, And not by the century or the year, but by the hours. One fall day I heard Above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was A flock of snow geese, winging it Faster than the ones we usually see, And, being the color of snow, catching the sun So they were, in part at least, golden. I Held my breath As we do Sometimes To stop time When something wonderful Has touched us As with a match, Which is lit, and bright, But does not hurt In the common way, But delightfully, As if delight Were the most serious thing You ever felt. The geese Flew on, I have never seen them again. Maybe I will, someday, somewhere. Maybe I won’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters Is that, when I saw them, I saw them As through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.
Another startling sight I experienced recently is the glorious vision of small, delicate magenta orchids growing on the forest floor. The little Calypso orchid (Calyso bulbosa) grows mainly in undisturbed northern forests, all around the globe. I saw my first Calypso last year and since then I’ve found them in three different parks here on the island. They are an astonishing sight, a real anomaly. Shaped and colored like miniature corsage orchids, you would expect to find them in a greenhouse, or growing in the luxurious warmth and humidity of a tropical country. As if someone dropped an earring made of brilliantly colored stones on the floor of a dusty old factory, the orchids push straight out of the dim forest floor, with just a single leaf pressed close to the earth. They’re a delight for anyone sharp-eyed enough to notice them – but only for a few weeks.
Wikipedia says, “The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive.” I think the name works on several levels for this plant: the flower contrasts sharply with its surroundings but is so small that it’s often hidden in the previous season’s detritus. The most intricately patterned parts of the flower are concealed below the upper petals (actually they are sepals, petals and a bract). Finally, the plant deceives potential pollinators by appearing to be source of nectar, which it is not.
The first time I visited Heart Lake was a warm summer afternoon in 2018, shortly after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I had just learned about Heart Lake and the Anacortes Community Forest Lands: 2800 acres of forests, wetlands, and lakes right here on the island, with 50 miles of trails for hikers. As if the presence of Deception Pass State Park wasn’t enough, the island also enjoys a fine complex of forest, wetlands, bogs and lakes that sprawl across its middle. Near the shore of one of the lakes a grove of very special trees has thrived for hundreds of years. It’s one of the few remaining stands of old growth trees in the Puget Sound lowland ecoregion, and once I heard about it you can bet I was eager to see it.
That August afternoon I parked at the bottom of Mount Erie, a 1273-foot promontory that identifies Fidalgo Island from miles away. Trails wind up and down Mt. Erie but that’s a story for another day – I was more interested in what lies at the bottom of the mountain. As I crossed the road and entered the forest a striking sight stopped me in my tracks: a sleek but massive Western Redcedar tree with a hollowed-out base big enough for a child to crawl into. The tree stood there like an ancient guardian spirit, wounded but unyielding. Apparently a fire gutted the tree’s core long ago, but gazing upward I could see a dense canopy of healthy branches, far above my head.
It was an appropriate way to begin the walk – with wonder. I’ve been back fifteen times since then, through every season. Sometimes it’s just to pause near the edge of the woods and photograph the placid lake. Once, last May, I joined a group of botany enthusiasts from the Washington Native Plant Society for a field trip through the Heart Lake woods. But mostly I go simply to tread the trails and commune with the giants.
A little history: In 1919 Fidalgo Island’s only city, Anacortes, purchased a large parcel of property from the Washington Power, Light and Water Company. The goal was to preserve the lakes and the land around them so the island would have a backup source of clean water. That purchase prevented development and protected the forest to a degree but for decades, the city logged sections of the forest for revenue. At one point in the tangled history of Heart Lake, it was managed by the State Department of Natural Resources, which actually proposed a condominium development along the shore! That proposal prompted citizens to mobilize in order to prevent any development at Heart Lake. For a time, Heart Lake was designated a state park. Ultimately the city of Anacortes purchased the land from the state, in 2002. Then Heart Lake and the surrounding forest became part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.
But people care deeply for this land and soon, a conservation easement plan was created to add more protection for the land. Acre by acre, forest land is purchased by private citizens or entities from the city and set aside for perpetuity. Easement land can never be used for any commercial purpose. No logging, no mining (yes, there are a few old gold mines in these woods), no leasing or selling the land for any reason. Easement land is safe from the buzz of the saw, thanks to the organizing power of tree huggers!
The walk around Heart Lake doesn’t feature many expansive water vistas. Vegetation grows right down to the shore, as it would without human intervention and the trails are mostly set back from the shoreline. Exploring these trails is an up-close and personal experience, with countless fascinating life forms to examine. At the same time, the immensity of the trees puts you in your place, a feeling that isn’t always easy to come by. I think it’s worth spending time in places where humans are dwarfed. Lingering under these great trees, I stretch and strain my neck to discern their distant tops, then I bend down to peer at odd mushrooms and delicate wildflowers. I listen for the croak of a tree frog or the piercing “kireee” of an eagle, and I breathe in peace.
What is “old growth?” As a definition, old growth varies – the term doesn’t indicate a particular age or species of tree. Here in the Puget Sound lowlands the small amount of old growth that remains is made up of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). One quality common to any old growth stand is structural diversity: there are trees of different ages and sizes, there are logs, snags, and clearings where trees have fallen. Look in any direction and you’ll find trees in a variety of conditions: small saplings reach for the light, some sprouting from moss-covered logs, mid-sized, straight-trunked trees are common, older trees appear like sentinels and a host of “dead” wood – snags, stumps, logs, and broken branches is scattered everywhere. The snags and logs may look dead, but they are fully engaged in the life of the forest. All manner of plants and animals take advantage of the changes that follow downed and broken trees: increased light means opportunities to grow more quickly, dead wood provides nesting spots, and insects, arthropods and their predators busily maintain the critical rhythms of decomposition and nutrient recycling.
Old growth is about age but it’s also about the complexity of an ecosystem that has evolved over time. In forests west of the Cascades it can be 175 – 250 years before the intricate layers of ecosystem diversity begin to emerge. After a century or two the forest looks more and more “spacially patchy” as ecologists say. An old growth forest looks nothing like a neat, even-rowed, managed forest. Irregular patches of growth support a community of wildlife, invertebrates, fungi, understory plants, mycorrhizal fungi and microbes, all living in concert with the tree layer. Here in the Pacific northwest, more than half the forests were in the old growth phase when Europeans arrived. Now perhaps 10 – 18% can be considered old growth, so even small remnants like the 20 acres of old growth around Heart Lake are precious.
The forest and wetlands around Heart Lake seem almost pristine now, after decades of protection. The single road that passes the lake isn’t busy; traffic noise doesn’t invade the forest. We need these quiet, outdoor places more than ever. For many people, spending time immersed in nature is very difficult right now. So far we’re lucky in Washington State – the governor said getting exercise outdoors is fine as long as we maintain a distance of six feet between ourselves and others. People are still going to the parks. In my experience, they respect boundaries by stepping off the trails to let others pass. Everyone is polite, almost painfully so. As nourishing as time spent outdoors is for body and soul, it can feel fraught in the moments when we encounter other people.
We wait and see, each of us dealing with restrictions and anxieties in our own way. This post is an offering of a brief respite.
Am I the only one feeling scattered and distracted lately? Probably not.
So in keeping with being more distracted than usual, here’s a series of photos that don’t have much in common, other than the fact that most don’t seem to fit into the kinds of posts I typically publish. A few were made last year; most are recent. Some were taken inside but most, as usual, were taken outdoors.
Speaking of outdoors, we’re not completely confined to our homes here in Washington State. The governor’s edict ordering people not to leave home unless they’re participating in essential business went into effect a few days ago, but there are exceptions. One is that you may leave home to engage in outdoor exercise, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, as long as appropriate social distancing practices are used.
Common sense says don’t stray too far from home and most parks and wilderness lands are officially closed, so we do what we can. The other day we drove to a nearby preserve that is maintained jointly, by the Swinomish tribe and the Washington State Parks Commission. We knew it might be closed because state parks are closed. Also we had heard that tribal leaders are being careful, which makes sense, given the history. When we reached the preserve we were confronted with the confusing prospect of an open gate, four cars parked in the lot and a sign stating that the preserve is closed due to a storm!
We decided to chance it. Soon we passed a cheerful park ranger who greeted us and encouraged us to enjoy the day, while keeping her distance. That was both reassuring and puzzling. We found out later that though the preserve is officially closed, they’re not enforcing the closure. This is the new normal: figure it out as you go along! Happily, the few individuals and family groups that we passed were all careful about keeping their distance.
Maintaining distance from other people is easier here than it would be in the crowded suburb where we used to live, and it’s far easier than it would have been if we hadn’t moved out of New York City eight years ago. It’s really hard to go out and keep away from people when you live in a city, especially one as densely populated as New York. That’s one reason it’s now the virus epicenter of America, with more deaths from the virus in the last two weeks than from homicides all last year. People are pulling together though. Free airfare, free hotel rooms and free rental cars are being offered to health care workers who are willing to come to New York to help out. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about people stepping up in your neighborhood, too.
But let’s not dwell on the news. I hope you’re finding other ways to stay sane and healthy if you can’t get outside as often as you’d like. This pandemic is bound to last longer than we’d like, but ultimately it IS temporary – as temporary as clouds sailing through brisk March skies.
An office in town on a sunny afternoon. I’ve been preoccupied with patterns since early childhood and with shadows for 50 years or more. Samsung phone photo.
Under the dock at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Once in a while I like to tilt the horizon. Samsung phone photo.
Budding twigs in the fog at home in March, 2019. (Processed with the antique plate filter in Silver Efex Pro).
Same day, similar subject. I came to photography as an end in itself (rather than as documentation) rather late. Right away I wanted a camera I could control, not a point and shoot, because I longed to photograph flowers and leaves closeup with a very shallow depth of field. I’ve done that thousands of times and I haven’t grown tired of it yet.
At home. A dried narcissus flower rests on a book of Japanese calligraphy. I’ve been interested in calligraphy, especially the looser, cursive style for a long time.
At home. The bright but chilly light of March reflects on the shiny surfaces of the washer and drier. Reflections! Another fascinating phenomenon that can be found everywhere.
Taking shelter in the car on a rainy afternoon in the park. In my Lightroom catalog are hundreds of photos tagged “through” because looking at something through any kind of barrier – a rainy window, a fence, a scrim of tree branches – fascinates me.
Professional tree work. A diseased Western Redcedar was determined to be dangerous and taken down. Thank fully almost all the wood was salvaged.
Looking down at a boy playing at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. People aren’t my usual subject and I encourage myself to photograph people more often. It stretches me.
A gas meter and fire hookups outside my favorite bookstore, now sadly closed. Samsung phone photo.
A potted plant and its elegant shadow are also outside the bookstore. Samsung phone photo.
At home. A small, framed piece of blue glass rests on a window sill. Outside, the Douglas fir trees stand tall and scruffy.
Last year’s rose hips at Rosario Beach, Deception Pass State Park. Another preoccupation is fine lines and flattened surfaces. I like to think of the fine lines as text.
“No Hunting or Trespassing” sign at March Point, Fidalgo Island. Sometimes I try to imagine a world without private property.
An abandoned building on Swinomish tribal land sits at the head of a bay that is full of driftwood. One piece landed right by the building, perhaps during a winter storm. I’m sure that going to school in New York in the midst of the minimal and conceptual art movements had a profound influence on me. To me this scene is like a minimalist sculpture in a well-lit gallery.
A tugboat heads towards the San Juan Islands under changeable March skies. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
Skies brighten as a sailboat motors through the same passage. As you might guess, I lightened this image and darkened the preceding one to emphasize the feeling I had when I took each photograph. It was an exciting day of intermittent rain squalls, and patchy, fast-moving clouds. I was glad I happened to be close to the water then, and glad too that so far, that park is not closed.
This is a story about my life, an un-still life with flowers. The title plays on a ubiquitous trope in art, the still life with flowers. Countless painters have challenged themselves with the pleasurable task of painting blooms and blossoms; a search for “Still Life with Flowers” yields a riot of results, from a lovely Odilon Redon to a dynamic Juan Gris. Flowers play a big part in my life too, but unlike a painting, my life has hardly been still. So an “un-still life with flowers” is the framework I’ll use here to convey some of the particulars of this life – a life in which plants have been a focus from as early as I can remember.
It can be said that flowers are tired, even trite subjects for the photographer as well as the painter. They’ve been done and done again. I get it. But flowers – actually all plants – are important to me. I needn’t turn my back on floral subject matter just because it isn’t terribly original. In fact, I can’t imagine turning my back on flowers, and leaves, buds, seeds, bark and the rest! Though there was a decade or so when plants faded into the background of my life, they soon reappeared as a primary focus. The thread of green that twines through my days has never completely disappeared.
So here are pieces of that story, told in installments and interspersed with photographs of flowers and plants that stopped me in my tracks, whether in gardens, wild places, markets, or at home. There are a few photographs from the old family album, too.
Somewhere in a box or a picture album there is an old black and white photo of a happy toddler squatting in the dirt, grinning broadly and pointing to emerging tulip leaves. That’s me. It’s a warm spring day in the 1950s. I am plunked down at the edge of the grass, where my mother scraped a bit of garden from the soil around our small home in rural Michigan, and I’m excited about the smell of the earth and those plucky green sprouts pushing up through the dirt. This photo symbolizes the beginning of my plant fascination and I wish I could put my hands on it, but I can’t find it anywhere. The old photo of me below gets the point across though: flowers held my rapt attention from the start.
I was a middle child, born in the mid-afternoon, in mid-May in the geographical center of Michigan’s lower peninsula, to a middle-class family. There was an older brother and in a few years, there would be a younger one. Our family had no roots in the Midwest. We landed there because of my maternal grandfather. Born into a poor Welsh coal-mining family in West Virginia, he had powerful ambitions. That, and a talent for sizing up the big picture and acting on it, took him a long way from his roots. He became a successful, self-made businessman who, by the time his children were grown, was overseeing several businesses from his office on New York City’s Park Avenue. One of them was a small chemical company in rural Michigan.
My father, a New Yorker from a hard-working, German-American immigrant family, happened to land a research position at Michigan Chemical Company right after he finished his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Also working at the plant was another scientist named Pete, my uncle. But I hadn’t been born yet – not even close. Pete’s sister Helen came out one summer to work in the company office as her Dad worked to grow the business. She had just graduated college. That summer in tiny St. Louis, Michigan, Helen met Herb, they fell in love and were married before the year was out.
I began life in a place that must have felt more than a little alien to my mother, a sheltered girl from the New York suburbs, and my father, who grew up playing stickball with broomsticks on the rough-and-tumble streets of Brooklyn. They had no exposure to Midwestern ways; busy cities and suburbs were familiar territories, not acres of farmland. But for a very young child, the situation was idyllic: a little house on a hill with a few more houses nearby and a field that sloped gently away, rabbits running everywhere, fresh air, no traffic…but let my father tell it: “While St. Louis was a friendly town, it was a rural backwater, not the ideal place to raise children.” Well, that’s from the boy from Brooklyn talking.*
As idyllic as the setting seems to me now, obviously there were drawbacks. By the time I was five years old, we would relocate to a suburban home at the edge of a growing city, where schools expected more of their students, the community was more diverse and a patch of woodlands offered wildlife at the back door. But for a few years, my parents enjoyed the life they were building for their family in post-war rural America. Routines were clear-cut, whether it was housework or chemical research. They could depend on the small-town camaraderie of weekly BYOL card games with friends (bring your own liquor, sandwiches will be supplied). Herb was brilliant at ferreting out items they wanted that were scarce because of the war, like the toaster he bought on a business trip to Dayton, Ohio or the paper towel holder he found in Massachusetts. In those days he was deeply involved in improving the company’s DDT operation, which is a horrifying thought to me now. The role of chemicals in daily life was admired in mid-twentieth-century America – the negative connotations we tend to associate with many chemicals now came into the public eye later.
My father enjoyed every aspect of the analytical, practical approach of scientific research; he would rattle off names like Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane with the ease of an inner-city rapper. At work, he nursed chemical products though the manufacturing process and at home, he applied them to our lawn. In the early 50s, the mood in America was upbeat and the dangers of DDT weren’t as obvious as they would become later.** Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that delineated the negative effects of pesticides and was a springboard for the environmental movement, was not yet published. If my father had seen the link between the overenthusiastic application of DDT and its lethal impact on the environment when he was tasked with improving DDT efficiency and yields, what would he have done? I’m not sure.
I do know that both my parents had an abiding appreciation for the outdoors. My own deeply held views of the value of nature evolved from the foundations they laid. It’s one of the ironies of life that our family, a family that reveled in activities like forest walks and back yard birdwatching, was supported by my father’s employment in the chemical industry.
One memory from those years in Michigan hovers darkly in my emotional brain. It involves the outdoors and photography, subjects that occupy substantial portions of my life now. I was about three years old. As I played naked in the grass with a friend one summer day, my father, thinking it was cute, took a picture. When I noticed him trying to hide with his camera, I felt uncomfortable and stopped playing. Of course, he meant no harm. The picture was added to the family photo album, but as soon as I was able, I took it out and tore it into pieces. That marked the end of a certain innocence most people enjoy as very young children – the pleasure of playing outdoors with little or no clothing coming between yourself and nature. I’m sure that loss was inevitable, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong discomfort with having my picture taken. It’s no coincidence that just as I don’t like having my picture taken, I don’t often take pictures of others. Maybe that leaves me with more energy to concentrate on photographing nature.
Most of my memories from those early years are positive, centering around simple sensory pleasures. In my biased view, living in a rural setting for the first few years of life was perfect for someone who came to value nature above all else. I was lucky to be born to a family that could provide what was needed, in a country that was not at war or chronically poverty-stricken, at a time of economic and political stability. Being free from hunger and hardship meant that I had the leisure to freely experience the pleasure of my surroundings. Every detail was an opportunity for investigation – even the little dried pellets of rabbit poop I picked up were interesting!
A passion for wide-open spaces must date back to those early days too. I vividly remember the feeling of wild abandon and exultant freedom that washed over me when I raced down a huge sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan below, the landscape seemed endless. That exhilarating feeling would recur many times in the following years, and I’m grateful that we stopped at the dunes that summer. We must have been driving up to a summer cabin on the lake, a place for simple pleasures like fishing for perch from the dock. Family lore has it that I was more interested in playing with the worms than fishing, but I appreciate an anecdote that illustrates a tendency to subvert propriety.
There was tragedy in those early years for my parents but they kept the pain to themselves, for better and for worse. My mother’s adored brother Pete, who had introduced her to my father and who was growing his own family a few doors away, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though young and strong, no treatment could change the inevitable course of the disease and he died, leaving his young family, parents, and sister grieving. I don’t know how my mother coped with the loss of her only sibling; she rarely spoke about it. Her own intense pleasure in being outdoors and her love for all growing things must have helped ease the hurt. Caring for three kids under six at a time when dishes were done by hand and laundry was painstakingly hung to dry would have kept her busy, too. It must have been as distracting as a circus on some days. My father loved to recount the time when, at just over two years old, I wanted to see what he was doing up on the roof. So I climbed all the way up the ladder and continued across the shingles. He had the scare of his life when my head appeared at the peak of the roof. A neighbor was called (something that was easy back then) to help get me safely off the roof. I’m very curious. And I can be determined.
The journey from a simple delight in pretty flowers to my present interest in plants stretches through fields, forests, gardens, and conservatories, across temperate, tropical and alpine zones. That journey began in the middle of Michigan, then moved 500 miles east to Syracuse, New York.
More about that later.
*From an unpublished manuscript.
**There were a few early voices of concern about DDT. Wikipedia states that warnings were made in 1944, and again in 1947 by a doctor who lived in St. Louis, Michigan, the small town where we lived. DDT was a very important part of Michigan Chemical’s profit stream during the war years (it protected troops from malaria) and for a few years afterward. After we moved away, Michigan Chemical was bought out by Velsicol Chemical. Velsicol made fire retardants that were added to livestock feed in a damaging 1973 mix-up. High levels of DDT and other toxic chemicals lingered in the water and soil around the plant for decades – people are still warned not to eat fish taken downstream from the old plant site. The plant was shuttered in 1978, demolished in the 1980s and now the area contains four EPA Superfund sites. Dead birds were still being found with toxically high levels of a DDT derivative in their systems only six years ago.
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.