The other day I saw an ad in The New York Review of Books for a book called Theory of the Earthby philosopher Thomas Nail. The title caught my eye, and, as so often happens in the age of the internet, that led me to more books, articles and interviews. Nail writes about human migration, borders, and the philosophy of movement. As someone who has moved house many times and generally enjoys being on the move, I think about movement from time to time, so Nail’s project to reconfigure philosophy from the point of view of movement intrigued me.
If I understand correctly, Nail sees phenomena as matter in motion and time as a process or effect of matter in motion. We live in a universe of change. Our world is not a closed set of discrete things and dates, but rather one of open processes. Humans are not external to life, observing it from afar. Space and time are not “things” as many of us were taught to construe them. Nail claims that not only is matter always in motion, but there is no separate force enacting this continuous flux. Rather, reality simply IS motion: it’s all patterns of interactions.
I’ll admit that a deep dive into Nail’s writing can leave me gasping and confused. Yet, I find inspiration there. In my view, philosophy can touch on every part of our existence, including our enjoyment of images. Thinking philosophically stretches the mind and encourages us to think critically, a practice that promotes creativity, curiosity, and clarity.
Looking at a painting isn’t the passive activity you might suppose. Even the heat emanating from your body transforms the painting, which vibrates waves of photons as it decays in a constant feedback loop with the environment. There is a “vast iceberg of material consequences” to everything we do, including the seemingly passive activity of aesthetic appreciation.
We may call photographs still pictures, but in fact, they are motion itself: the motion of a body acting in space, gathering impressions, and operating a camera; the motion of the camera, the subject being photographed, and a brain thinking, sensing, feeling. A digital photograph involves the motion of a computer as images are modified and light bounces around the screen – and the room! Photographs are light moving through the air, through the camera, on the screen, inside our eyes. Far from being separate, stable objects or mere copies of phenomena, photographs involve fluidity and complexity – more than we imagine.
Doesn’t a photograph also involve the motion of your brain, your breath, your heart? Yes. Mine too.
There is a group of photographs below. They’re here because I chose to bring them together and you are choosing to look. It’s an interactive process. There’s nothing static about it.
What follows is a group of photographs made at gardens in and around New York City in late spring. We spent more time than I thought we would visiting public gardens on our trip back east. Given the vicissitudes of the trip, that was a good thing.
If you know me, you know not to expect an array of colorful flower pictures. I’m as likely to get caught up in the way petals fall onto the sidewalk as I am to admire the flowers.
I photographed garden structures: a bamboo fence, a rose trellis, conservatory windows. And carp – I love to watch fish as they move nearer and farther from the water’s surface, their bodies curving gracefully. There are leaf studies because I could be happy doing those for the rest of my life. A shadow and a reflection or two are here because hinting at rather than spelling out a scene always intrigues me. In that vein several photographs picture something seen behind or through something else. I photographed the way the shape of a Japanese maple tree interacted visually with a cloud-strewn sky. And there’s a flower, too – a lovely peony. But not in color.
From an afternoon withJohn Todaro at Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, NY: #1, 3 – 6, 13, 19.
From a stroll on the grounds of Nassau County Museumof Art, Roslyn, NY: #2, 14.
From a leisurely morning at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and BotanicalGarden, Staten Island, NY: #7 – 10, 16, 17.
From a walk in Norman J. Levy Park, Merrick, NY: #11, 12, 15.
From a walk at Tackapausha Preserve, Massapequa, NY: #18.
That’s our earth. I never tire of it, especially at this time of year, when life is burgeoning with bright energy. Well, if I’m honest I do tire of my surroundings in winter but not for long, and any lingering weariness evaporates come spring.
What is this activity of going outside and making photographs all about? Part compulsion, part joyful play, part intellectually demanding work, it’s what I center my life around. I doubt all the motivating factors are the same for those of us who go out and make pictures, but that zing of energy we feel when the black box is cradled in our hands and our eyes are engaging with the landscape – that must be a fundamental feeling we have in common.
Two other parts of the process are vital to me: the act of reviewing, then processing images and the act of sharing the results. These three activities – exploring the world with a camera, nudging the photos one way or another to my liking, and placing them where others can see them, keep me going. I’m guessing I’m not alone.
In the spirit of earth as pleasure garden, here is a slew of recent images, or maybe it’s a stew – yes, a delectable, earthy stew of greens and oranges and tasty morsels and deep, dark delicious things.
(The photographs below were made within 10 minutes of home, except the first two and one other, which are from a forest park about an hour’s drive away, closer to the mountains).
“Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.”
Ellen Meloy; The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky, 2003. As seen in Brain Pickings weekly newsletter.
The possibility of numbering each photo strangely disappeared when I was putting this post together. Here’s a list.
1) Rockport State Park, with the Skagit River in the background. This photo and #2 were made with an iPhone.
2) Stately Douglas fir trees.
3) A bark study of an old Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii).
4) Overlapping and interweaving Bracken fern fronds (Pteridium aquilinum).
5) A somber look at low tide on an April evening. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park.
6) Afternoon sunbeams light up a tiny, exquisite Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). IT was absolutely worth sitting in the forest duff for.
7) A young Coralroot flower stalk (Corallorhiza maculatum). These flowers are parasitic orchids that lack chlorophyll and get their nourishment from decaying matter and soil fungi. This species of Coralroot normally has spots on the labellum (lower lip of the flower) but these had no spots. (Trust me – the photo shows only a sliver of the flower’s inside). This flower is probably a rare variant called Ozette coralroot.
8) Looking toward the San Juan Islands from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. A winter wind storm toppled several Douglas firs here. They will continue to support plenty of life on the ground. iPhone photo.
9) A tangle of Chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) framed by grasses. Most of the pretty spring flowers on Fidalgo Island are small. They tend to grow up through tangles of fallen branches, dry grass, fir cones and other wind-blown detritus. It can make flowers challenging to photograph but the effect can be artful, too.
10) Grasses on a breezy June day at Sugarloaf, Fidalgo’s second-highest summit.
11) A pair of Mallard ducks swims away from the shoreline of Little Cranberry Lake. Sorry!
12) Bowman Bay beach detritus includes a dead Purple shore crab (Hemigrapsus nudus) and various seaweeds.
13) A comically unfurling Sword fern (Polystichum munitum).
14) Another Sword fern fiddlehead, this one still tightly coiled.
15) A different kind of fern unfurling; probably Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina). The photo was taken using a vintage 50mm f 1.4 Super Takumar lens.
16) The graceful bud of a Chocolate or Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) a western North America native plant whose bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. The photo was made with an Olympus 60mm F 2.8 macro lens and processed in Lightroom with a split tone preset and additional tweaks.
17) Madrona bark always delights me.
18) New leaves on a Vine maple (Acer circinatum). Circinatum means round, as in the rounded shape of the leaf, in spite of the many pointed lobes. Common west of the Cascades, for some reason these beautiful, small trees do not grow wild here or on the San Juan Islands. The photo was taken at Rockport State Park, about an hour from Fidalgo Island.
19) A tiny hummingbird, probably Anna’s (Calypte anna) surveys its territory from the tip of a Douglas fir on Goose Rock.
20) A three-year-old, female elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) named Ellie Mae lounges on a Fidalgo Island beach. Almost extinct from hunting by the late 1800’s, Northern elephant seals are now protected and doing well. They’re deep divers so most of them live off the North American coast. Recently a small number of these large seals began spending several months each year on Whidbey Island, just to our south. A female gave birth there a few years ago and returned twice to give birth again. Ellie Mae (named by members of a marine mammal organization) is one of her progeny. For some reason she has come ashore at Fidalgo instead of Whidbey Island for the last two years.
Every year, elephant seals endure what’s called a “catastrophic molt.’ It takes about a month. As new skin and hair replace the old coat, the seals stay on land and don’t feed. Ellie Mae finished her molt at a marina on Fidalgo around the time I was in New York – but I knew nothing about this. It was a big surprise when I went for a walk at Bowman Bay a few days after I got home and saw her enjoying the warm afternoon sun on the beach. Apparently, she decided to swim over to Bowman Bay the night before. Someone must have seen her and contacted the marine mammal rescue network. She didn’t need rescuing but the volunteers are very good at keeping visitors at a safe distance while answering lots of questions.
She looked so comfortable! Though I didn’t have a very long lens with me, I was grateful for the rare opportunity to observe and photograph one of these seals. She opened her eyes and snorted like a dog, then she rolled over a few times. After a while I think the “handlers” wanted to go home. It was 4pm. They didn’t want to leave her alone on a public beach. Seals move faster than you think and these heavyweights can do real damage if they feel threatened. So they gently shooed her back into the water. She was reluctant, but into the water she went, with what I couldn’t help feeling was an accusatory backward look at the volunteers. Ahh, her sunny day on the beach had been good!
We just returned from the first long trip we’ve taken in two years. The pandemic quashed our plans for excursions last year, but by March of this year we were “two past two” (two weeks past the second shot) so it was time to get back in the saddle and plan a serious trip. A family member had a stroke last year and we were eager to lay our eyes on him, instead of relying on second-person reports. We could combine seeing him in Massachusetts with visiting family in New York and day trips to Manhattan by booking a flight to Boston, renting a car and driving to New York, and flying back to Seattle from JFK. We hadn’t been back to New York, where we’re both from, for several years.
So that was the plan.
The text below alternates with pairs of photographs from the trip; each pair includes an image of the human-built environment (mostly from Manhattan) and an image from one of the gardens and parks we visited.
A series of snafus made this trip beyond memorable. Let’s say it was successful overall, with wrinkles. The trouble started before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, when I began frantically digging through my backpack for my phone and realized that it was missing. No!!! I was crushed. We called the van operator that took us to the airport and asked them to look for a phone. Just before we took off we talked with them again, and, whew! – they found my phone and promised to hold onto it until we returned.
I was grateful but my emotions were all over the place as I thought about being incommunicado for ten days, days with an itinerary that involved about twenty friends and relatives. How would I manage?
Let me say here that this is the problem of a privileged person; I know that. Many people in Sudan, for example, own a mobile phone but are malnourished. The current vaccination rate there is only 0.2% of the population. Wealthy countries like the one I live in need to step up and help. I also know that spiritually, there’s more to life than having a phone.
But back to the story.
Sitting crumpled up on a plane with a mask on for five hours doesn’t exactly sooth one’s nerves – especially in the current atmosphere of high anxiety about flying and unruly passengers who cause trouble in the middle of long flights. At least I had ample time to hatch a plan: as soon as we arrived and procured our rental car, we would bee-line to the nearest phone store where I would buy a cheap replacement to use during the trip. New York time is three hours later than Seattle time but our morning flight should leave time to accomplish the task, I reasoned.
After arriving in Boston we located the rental stand and were directed to a shiny new Nissan. Opening the doors, we realized the car had been rubbed clean with so much chemical disinfectant that we couldn’t breathe without the windows rolled down. A few choice words flew around as we figured out how to start the car and open the trunk. “Let’s just get on the road” I thought, “this is too stressful.”
We whizzed through a city neither of us know (at least we had Joe’s smartphone for navigation) and got to the store well before closing. Of course, we soon confirmed what we knew must be true: the least expensive phones aren’t exactly cheap. Worse, I learned that one’s contacts reside on one’s phone, which in my case was 4,000 miles away, sitting in a drawer in Seattle hotel. That meant no phone numbers, no texting, and no communicating with people, unless I figured out another way to get their contact information. Needless to say, I don’t have any phone numbers memorized other than mine and Joe’s and I haven’t carried a paper phone list in years.
Watching the salesman set up the new phone, I tried to maintain a calm facade, while alternately seething, berating myself, and trying to talk myself into accepting the situation. Back and forth my mind went…
“Can we set up my email account?”, I asked the man. But when he tried to activate it on the new phone, Gmail wanted a four-digit authorization code. Guess where they sent it – to the phone in Seattle, of course! I didn’t want to tell the strangers keeping my phone safe how to unlock my phone so they could read the code to me – that wouldn’t be smart.
Now it looked like I would be without phone numbers AND email for the entire trip. Maybe you’re thinking, cheer up, it’s healthy to disconnect! Or you might wonder why I didn’t try again, and again. One time, Gmail locked me out for two weeks because I forgot my password and tried incorrect passwords too many times. There was no recourse except to wait until the company reactivated my email account. Thinking about being locked out of email for weeks made me cringe – I couldn’t risk having that happen again. Joe came to the rescue – he had been cc’ed on the family emails with the details for our big get-together the next day. At least we had an address for the reunion and the ability to contact family.
Leaving the shop with a rather rudimentary phone and a troubled face, I tried to reason with myself as we wound our way through Boston to a restaurant. I don’t recall dinner that night but I know that once we checked into our hotel, we collapsed.
That was just Day One!
The following day we visited the sibling whose stroke radically changed his life last fall. He had been actively immersed in academia at a prestigious college in Boston; now his days are scheduled around speech therapy appointments, meals, and exercise. But he’s as positive as he ever was, his sense of humor is intact and he’s working hard to rewire his brain and get back the skills he lost. It felt good to be with him. Reassured, I left to meet a dear friend I hadn’t seen in ten years who drove down from Maine for a rare, in-person visit. As always, we picked up right where we left off, plunging into conversations about anything and everything. It was wonderful.
I was swinging from the low of worrying about a lost phone to a high of happy connections with friends and family – but the day wasn’t over yet. The first of two big family get-togethers was that evening. We all know these reunions can be simultaneously awkward and heartwarming and our gathering fully lived up to that expectation. Exhausted from a day of emotional intensity and far from home, I slept poorly again.
The next morning we hit the road for New York. Joe drove and I navigated, which means that I had an opportunity to unwind a little. I was grateful for Joe’s patience over the previous two days but as we got closer to the heavy traffic of metropolitan New York City at rush hour, patience wore a little thin and his long-buried New York edge emerged. Later on we would joke about needing to purge the tough, New York attitude (which one absolutely needs to get on with life in the city) before returning to the Pacific northwest, where politeness and a forgiving outlook on life are the norm.
Seattle has experienced a boom and traffic there can be beyond aggravating, a fact of life we’re both glad that we don’t deal anymore, now that we live in a more rural environment. New York traffic is another matter – it’s famously busy and you have the added stressors of unpredictable, rude, aggressive drivers and terrible roads.
We were back in the fray and we were out of practice.
A stop at a sibling’s house for conversation and snacks was a welcome respite. None of our respective siblings, nieces and nephews who reside in metropolitan New York live in Manhattan. Most live on Long Island, so we chose a centrally-located hotel there. Of course, it happened to be hosting a passel of noisy hockey fans the night we got there, as well as an undetermined number of college sports teams.
We slept poorly. Again.
Seven more days of family visits and excursions ensued, including a hot, tiring but satisfying day in Manhattan, where we viewed inspiring art exhibits and enjoyed just sitting outside a cafe, watching the street life. There were visits to gardens in and around the city. We had an intriguing conversation with a Guyanese caregiver who was waiting for the same train we were. We endured a loud, heated argument at another family gathering that shocked everyone present. There was a poison ivy-laced walk through a preserve, pressured smartphone searches for places to eat, and hours spent navigating busy highways and sitting in traffic jams. We took a spontaneous tour of our old neighborhood, which we hadn’t seen in nine years. We enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon of coffee, conversation, and a garden visit with John Todaro, a fine art photographer I’ve admired for nine years. That was a high point!
We were struck repeatedly by the intensity and scope of sensory input during the trip: noisy people, rich food, hectic traffic, unfamiliar sights, strong smells, muggy, oppressive heat we could hardly bear, beautiful skies – our senses were assaulted with a range of impressions the like of which we hadn’t experienced in a long time.
We’re both retired now. We live in a quiet, extraordinarily beautiful place that always seems peaceful – even the weather changes slowly here and rarely throws us for a loop. Over the last year our lives shrank; sensory and social input was more limited than we had ever experienced. On this trip we felt as if we had jumped straight into a fire.
Eventually we settled down, slept better, and began to relax. Even the horrid smell in the rental car began to dissipate. But true to form, an unexpected event threw us off again, this time on the flight home. A passenger who apparently ingested something he shouldn’t have was talking rudely at full volume, then became very quiet. I noticed him struggling to maintain an upright position as he headed down the aisle to the bathroom. I heard the stewards call for medical help. After a half hour or so, apparently they determined that it was safe to continue on to Seattle; the flight didn’t have to be diverted. At the gate we were met by a uniformed phalanx of police and medics. With rescue truck lights flashing, medical kits, and handcuffs at hand, the pros handled the situation with aplomb, diplomatically convincing the unmasked man to exit the aircraft. Finally, we deplaned and called the van to take us to the lot where our car was parked. It arrived with a thrilling gift on board – my phone! The battery was dead but oh, the familiar feel of the case felt good in my hand!
I thought about the hundreds of emails in my inbox. They would be deleted, answered, and dealt with soon enough.
Heading home through a Pacific Northwest rainstorm, we sighed with relief when we pulled into the driveway. The air was fresh and smelled good. Everything was in place. We were home.
As stressed as I was from the emotional roller coaster and lack of sleep, my eyes were always open wide. Again and again, I looked and I thought about what I saw. I was inspired by beautiful paintings, imposing sculptures, interesting photographs. A store called Printed Matter with 15,000 artists’ books on the shelves offered more food for thought.
But not only art inspired me.
There was delicious food. There were energizing interactions with strangers – the warm, spontaneous, to-the-point kind that New York is famous for and we miss dearly. There were heart-warming visits with family – little ones we’d never met and grown-ups we hadn’t seen in over a decade. There were gardens galore, filled with irises, peonies, wisteria and water lilies. My ears delighted at the sound of birds I grew up with, singing their hearts out at the height of spring: cardinals, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles – even Blue jays and Red-bellied woodpeckers made me stop and smile. The owner of the neighborhood pizza joint we used to frequent recognized Joe instantly after an absence of nine years (and oh, the taste of a real New York slice!). We dined on Peking duck served by white-gloved waiters, wolfed down Trinidadian roti from a busy lunch spot in Little Guyana (a neighborhood in Queens), and savored perfect Agedashi tofu at a Japanese restaurant.
But back to the point: returning to the practice of paying close attention, no matter what disruptions and distractions are going on, is a practice that keeps me going. Look at this amazing world we live in, study what you see, watch the light, think about how shapes relate to each other, examine details. This is a refuge. Not an escape from anything, but a refuge. Be nourished by it, every day.
Bowman Bay is in Deception Pass State Park, a favorite place of mine. Straddling Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, the park comprises over 4,000 acres (1619 ha) of marine habitat, fresh and saltwater shoreline, old-growth forest, rocky headlands, wetlands, and more. The protected waters of crescent-shaped Bowman Bay, on the Fidalgo Island side of the park, attract campers and kayakers from spring to fall. When the weather is nice Washington’s busiest state park is usually too busy for my taste but on a winter weekday it can be almost deserted.
There’s a rocky promontory that requires careful footing and a little exertion to get up and over. If the tide is very low you can walk right around it, on the beach. The tide doesn’t recede that far very often – during normal low tides the water is still at least a foot deep at the bottom of the promontory. But sometimes there are REALLY low tides. During “minus tides” walking around the rocks on the sandy beach always reveals something new (and yes, it’s nice to walk around the steep part of the trail instead of over it!). Once there was a colorful jellyfish the size of a dinner plate floating in the water; several times I’ve found tiny snail egg clusters in rock crevices which are normally submerged.
Last week there were minus tides during daylight hours so I went to Bowman Bay to wander the sandy beach and explore muddy Lottie Bay behind it. It was a clear, beautiful spring day so I wasn’t alone but I found pockets of peace, especially when I focused intently on, well, you’ll see…
In a few days I’ll be back on the east coast visiting friends and family in Massachusetts and New York. It feels very strange to be packing a suitcase and planning plane travel again after the long, COVID hiatus. I am out of practice.
I hope to return with interesting photographs. For me it’s all about paying attention, really looking, and finding interesting visual delights. Actually, that process describes my daily life. The part that can be challenging is translating what I notice into engaging photographs. We’ll see how it goes!
No exploding volcanoes here, no thundering waterfalls, no calving icebergs, no wild elephants or glimmering Northern lights. Just a potpourri of “scenes seen” around the island in the last few weeks, mostly around town, with a brief nature break in the middle.
Like the waves at my feet, my mind’s eye shifts back and forth between sumptuous curves of basalt and the austere gray marks creeping across its surface. Even as I frame them, the abstract patterns are evaporating in the afternoon sun. Water shifts from one state to another as the mass of cold, sloshing liquid rolls through the strait, splashes smudgy films and wet pockets into cracks and depressions, then fizzles and morphs into humidity in the air.
Ten years ago today I followed a team of white horses and a caisson through Arlington National Cemetery to the final resting place of Sean Callahan, Sergeant, United States Marine Corps. I was there for his family, for friends whose sons deployed with Sean, for myself, and for my own son, who was still back in Afghanistan. It was a dangerous, stupid war but our sons cared deeply about what they were doing and about one another. Most of us were lucky; my son came home two months later. Sean’s family still mourns him. I know they’re remembering him today. Semper Fi.
In any case, here’s a collection that reflects my deep appreciation for “Spring ephemerals,” the fleeting wildflowers of spring that appear and depart all too quickly. These photographs were made within fifteen minutes of home, over the past five weeks.
This is a long, immersive post that you may want to linger over.
After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.
Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.
It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.
One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.
The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.
The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.
We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.
Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.
We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!
*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.
The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.
But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.
Exploring light and form indoors and out, in photographs made in the last two months in and near my home.
Unconcerned with digging
for inchoate connections –
(the dark creatures in opaque waters that, once elucidated, put bread on the tables of critics and academics) – I
Somehow, most of them connect anyway, linked
like dancers in a chaos of flashing
Their empty spaces, shapes and colors
bounce off one another, writing
the alphabet of all I see,
a to z.
Maybe you disagree with some of my categories. Maybe you see light and texture more where I see form. That’s fine. I’d rather make a suggestion that you disagree with than make a pronouncement that you swallow without thinking about it.