Two years ago this week we traveled 70 miles north, leaving a booming Seattle suburb for a quiet, 41-square-mile island of about 20,000 people. We have witnessed all four seasons here twice now. We have zeroed in on an assortment of favorite places – bluffs and beaches for sunset views, shorelines to meander along, coffee shops to linger in, forests to immerse ourselves in. Our lives feel very different than they did before we moved. It’s a good time to celebrate the pleasures of this place.
If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.
Lovely Lace lichen
who are you?
Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances
across my lips
and hovers lightly in the air,
waiting to be explained. Your
drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils
take me back to the Georgia coast, where
Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks
lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.
Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)
instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen
your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing
endless revelations: here
a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there
a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there
a weightless, crooked ladder, there
a neuron dancing in the air.
As the scientist says, there’s
considerable morphological variation.
And amidst this melange of forms
the swing and sway, the
drape and droop of you:
an enchantment in the woods.
Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:
Experiencing Lace lichen
Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.
Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.
Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.
What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!
Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).
If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!
Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii
The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.
Spring has been wet here. With lots of rain falling on weekends and less on weekdays, it hasn’t been fun for those with regular jobs who want to get out on their days off. Farmers must be happy though, and wildfires are less likely, at least for now. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain but summers here are actually bone dry, so wildfires become a concern if summer is preceded by a dry spring or winter. This spring, however, fire is far from my mind as I organize my outings for short spells of dry air that may follow a gloomy, morning fog. Ducking out between showers on a damp trail that skirts a lake or leads to views of the Salish Sea, I’m always aware of water. Fire’s role in the local ecology is less evident, but is still clearly visible in the stands of burned trees, charred logs and fresh, green growth around blackened stumps. With water and fire in mind, here is a selection of photos that call attention to these two primal elements.
Most of these photos were taken on Fidalgo Island; some are from the other side of the mountains, where dry conditions prevail much of the year. The activity of water and fire is something experienced by every creature on this earth, but the particular way these elements operate is unique to each location on our planet. Fire’s history here on Fidalgo Island is different from it’s history in Kansas or Kazakhstan. I think it’s worthwhile getting to know the elements intimately, in your own locale. How often does it snow? What are the textures of your snow, and what is the scent of rain on a hot day where you live? How often does fire tear across the fields, if at all? Are there native plants or animals where you live that are adapted to periodic fires? And what about the human relationship to water and fire – where does fear come in? What about the need to control? And what about capitalism?
Humans seem to have increasingly difficult relationships to fire and water. We understand that we are dependent on water and fire for our very lives, but we want them to stay in their places. We keep thinking that we know where those places are, even when time and time again, floods and fires prove otherwise. Instead of being flexible and working with water and fire, we stiffen and create inflexible environments amidst changing circumstances. We build houses in all the wrong places, encroaching further and further into places where wildfires or floods are very likely to occur. Fires or floods can be natural components of great cycles that we refuse to recognize or cannot imagine. At the same time, our frenzied activity has modified the earth’s climate and made wildfires and floods bigger and more frequent than we can remember them ever being before.
What’s the answer? Draw back. Pay attention. Don’t build in places where fire is part of the natural order of things; don’t build where flooding from storms is part of the balance of nature. Work with and respect fire and water and cut back on activities that pollute and warm the earth. I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but there are probably still things we can each do to support working in harmony with water and fire instead of against them. And we can get closer to the elements, get intimate and comfortable with their activities in our own back yards. They’re not separate – they are us.
The first day of summer is just over a week away. Before we bask in the warmth of the lush season and spring fades to a dream, I want to share a few more images from May, specifically, the last two weeks of May (images from early May are here).
As our state slowly, carefully emerges from the COVID restrictions, the county where I live is now beginning to open restaurants and retail businesses. It’s good to see people sitting at tables in coffee shops again and not just getting their drinks to go. It will be nice to see stores opening too, but I really long to travel, at least for an overnight road trip. I’m not sure when that will be feasible. We’re watching to see how other counties fare as they open more businesses and people move around more. In the meantime, we did take a few day trips last month, at places that are an hour or two away. I still spend lots of time in local parks and there’s plenty to see right here at home, too:
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” – John Le Carre
Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.
Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.
I grew upin profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.
After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.
Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.
And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.
The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.
The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!
There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.
Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.
When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.
The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. CalledCapillaire or Capilein Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.
A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.
We’re mid-way through May and already, trees are thick with leaves, dandelions have gone to seed, and rainbows of flowers vie for our attention. I’ve been rambling through local parks with my camera, photographing wildflowers, sea-and-sky horizons, and anything else that catches my eye. Last week we drove east for an hour to visit a state park that features a different type of ecosystem than ours. We don’t have Dogwood trees here but they were in full flower there. The forest floor displayed a soft, green carpet of Vanilla leaf plants. Their oddly toothed, tripartite leaves and candle-like flower wands always delight me.
Deception Pass State Park reopened recently to a flood of visitors. We got there early that first morning, ahead of the crowds. What a pleasure it was to walk across the wide beaches on a minus tide (minus tides are lower than mean low water and usually occur at a new or full moon). On a rocky cliff we found violet-blue larkspurs dancing in the breeze with the pure white flowers of Field chickweed. Two days later I went up to Goose Rock, also part of Deception Pass, and found more Spring wildflowers blooming on the sunny bluffs.
Harbor porpoises and seals have been in evidence, though I never can get them “on film.” There was a weasel in the yard – the first either of us had ever seen – and on the same day a Barred owl was being attacked by angry Robins. The Black-headed grosbeaks have returned after wintering in Mexico. They’re a delight, settling in at the seed and suet feeders for leisurely meals and whistling their cheerful songs from branches overhead. Insects are busy everywhere, pollinating flowers and devouring leaves. Slugs, are busy too – I’ve lost one tender plant to them already. Through rainy days and sunny days, life has a firm grip on every inch of the outdoors. I’m grateful for every minute that I can revel in it.
I could go on and on about the marvelous month of May but let the photographs tell the story. They were all made between the 1st and 17th of May, 2020.
Photos #3, 7, 21, 22, & 23 were made with a vintage Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens (plus adapter). Photos #2 & 6b were made with a Motorola phone. Most of the other photos were made with an Olympus Zuiko 60mm f2.8 macro lens. It’s advertised as a macro but it’s my favorite walk-around lens. On my OM-D EM-1 camera, it’s the rough equivalent of a 120mm lens on a full frame camera. The last photo was made with an Olympus Zuiko ED 14-150mm f4-5.6 zoom lens.
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.