JUST ONE: Satin-flower, aka Grass-widow

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In my “Just One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes personal impressions and factual information. You can find more of these posts by clicking “Just One” in the category list below.

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Why this flower? Why now? Because it’s in bloom! I had no idea this delicate beauty might be blooming last week with temperatures dipping well below freezing night after night and snow on the ground.

2. This is what it looked like at my house on February 24th.

On the same day the photo above was made, a friend saw Grass-widows in full flower on a steep hill where we had seen them last year, two weeks later (March 8th, 2021). In 2020 I photographed Satin-flowers in early April on an open, grassy slope about a thousand feet higher and four miles north. In 2019 I photographed the first Satin-flowers I had ever seen, almost hidden on a grass-covered bald at sea level. It was March 26th. Looking at those dates and the snow in the photo, you can see why I didn’t expect a tender flower to be blooming on that cold, wintery day. However, before the cold spell, the weather had been considerably warmer.

To my mind, the Stain-flower is the essence of wild flower, a flower that is truly wild. Its fragile, purple bells thrive in places that are rugged and undisturbed. On a steep coastal bluff, a sagebrush-dotted plateau, or a rocky hill above a mighty river, fleeting dots of intense color appear for a brief period every spring. This diminutive beauty may be one of the first wildflowers to bloom on Fidalgo Island but few people know it – the blossoms are easily overlooked, they flower for a very brief time, and they’re not particularly common.

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About that name! People in our region who are familiar with this flower call it a Grass-widow. The reason for this name is obscure. Other than the fact that the species often grows in grassy places, I find the name irrelevant, even off-putting. Another name for the plant is Satin-flower, which alludes to the flower’s attractive, satiny sheen. Like many flowers, this one has a number of common names, including Purple-eyed grass but I prefer Satin-flower.

The confusion from having multiple common names is supposed to be solved by assigning a single, agreed-upon, Latin name to each species of living thing discovered by science. Unfortunately, even scientific names change when new information reveals new connections, often on a microscopic level. Currently, Satin-flower is a member of the Iris family and is named Olsynium douglasii. According to Wikipedia, Olsynium comes from Greek and describes the flower’s joined stamens. Douglasii refers to David Douglas, a truly intrepid explorer who hiked thousands of miles across rugged landscapes, back in the early 1800s. He had been hired by England’s Royal Horticultural Society to find new plants that might be of interest to wealthy British gardeners. This endeavor entailed roughing it in barely-charted territories, having enough knowledge about plants to find new species, and figuring out how to get seeds safely shipped to England. Douglas was very good at his work but his efforts were cut short by a tragic accident. When he was only 34 he fell into a pit used to trap wild bulls in Hawaii. What a dramatic end for a plant collector! Those were different times.

The Satin-flower is the sole member of its genus that isn’t native to South America. It’s been recorded from southern British Columbia to northern California on both sides of the mountains, ranging only as far east as northeastern Utah. All of the Olsyniums prefer sunny slopes that are wet in winter and spring but dry out in summer. Like other spring ephemerals, our Satin-flowers fade away well before summer and go dormant during the driest part of the year.

5. A bud peeks out from its protective sheath.
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7. Broadleaf stonecrop, a native plant that blooms in summer, makes an attractive background for a clump of Satin-flower.
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Spring ephemerals appear when winter is on its last legs and spring is whispering in your ear. When the ground is just beginning to warm up and the leaves on the trees aren’t out yet, spring ephemerals take advantage of a brief window of time when plenty of light shines on the forest floor. It’s easy to miss them because their growth cycle passes quickly – some of them bloom for only a day or two. Crocuses, violets, Spring beauty, Bloodroot, and trilliums, beloved by gardeners and nature-lovers, are examples of spring ephemerals.

The Satin-flower is a little different but follows the same general schedule. It’s not a woodland plant and usually has plenty of light in the open places where it grows. But the lack of shade and quick-draining soil can make for a very dry, difficult summer. That’s why this flower blooms so early – it’s taking advantage of the abundance of moisture in the ground from winter rains (or snow). When summer arrives, the plant has already finished flowering and set seed but underground, fleshy roots are busy storing energy for next year.

9. The purple color changes with the light – warmer in sunlight, cooler in shade.

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Last year when I saw a dozen Satin-flower clumps blooming on a steep, grassy hill I almost cried. I’d been looking for them where I first found them in 2019 but I didn’t see any there – maybe it was too late and I’d have to wait another year. So the little flowers growing happily just a mile away were a joyful sight. Here, water races through the pass at a rate that would challenge even an experienced boater. Across the pass piles of dark rock plunge toward the water under a thick forest of tall Douglas firs. The trail threads between twisted trees and precipitous cliffs where one false step might land you in cold water. That wild hillside is a stunning setting for the little purple gems to display their colors.

Last week I went back to see them again. The snow had melted off the slope and the flowers shone like tiny beacons in the sunlight. Across the water, patches of snow whitened the rocks.

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12. February 25th, 2022. Snow clings to the rocks and bushes across the water.

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These delicate beauties have a delightful way of gracing rugged, sometimes inaccessible places with fleeting splashes of pure color. Today a song was going through my head – Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I almost always tear up when I hear it. It occurred to me that Louis Armstrong gave that song the same appealing juxtaposition of tender and tough that I admired when I looked at the Satin-flowers blooming at the pass.

Speaking of juxtaposing the tender and the tough, there is the situation in Ukraine. Today I had lunch at a Polish-Ukrainian restaurant. While we were there the door swung open again and again as neighbors brought donations of food, diapers, and other supplies that will be sent to Ukraine later this week. As boxes and bags filled the restaurant, my eyes welled up. It’s a powerful, human bond that connects people here to people in a faraway country dealing with an impossible situation.

If you’ve been wondering how you can help ease things for the people of Ukraine, this link has many good suggestions.

Ukraine, We Are With You!

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INKLING*

A month before the Spring equinox, this

here-now world

brightens, greens, expands.

Tentative birdsongs are more insistent. Scents elude me in

the cold morning air, save for woodsmoke wafting from

the neighbor’s chimney. Chores abandoned,

I poke along a narrow trail, alert

to the floods of tiny green shoots

that crowd the way. Wild honeysuckle vines sprout new leaves

and the sturdy stonecrop’s succulent leaves bulge

with winter rain. Wildflower, fern,

moss, lichen – they’re all jamming in

perfect harmony: a breathing, life-affirming

wildgarden.

Down below, blue-green seawater spreads

across the bay like a bright tablecloth set for no one

– except the Buffleheads, the Harbor seals, the

fish, and the insects threading erratic paths

above the water.

I sense the hush of a pregnant moment between winter and spring.

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The lichens, the budding trees, the awakened birds

go on with their lives. No need to think about pauses,

no need to roll words through their brains

in a doomed attempt

to describe the beauty that

they are.

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1. Tall Douglas firs grace the shores of the pass. At their feet, lush gardens of ferns, moss, lichens, and wildflowers bask in the always-moist environment.
2. The new leaves of Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) appeared last fall with the rain that arrived after our summer drought. All winter they’ve been green beacons of hope.
3. Ocean spray, or Ironwood (Holodiscus discolor) is unfolding its leaves now but the gracefully drooping, creamy white flower clusters won’t open until June.
4. Raindrops cling to a rootlet on the underside of a huge, downed Douglas fir tree.
5. Storm clouds break over Skagit Bay. The rain here falls as snow in the mountains, snow that will melt and nourish us here in the lowlands through the dry summer months.

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6. Douglas firs cling precariously to rocks at Bowman Bay, last summer’s grasses continue their slow decline, and rushes are reflected in the calm water of Heart Lake.

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7. Which plant is it? I’m not sure but the message is clear.
8. This is probably Pacific willow (Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra), a large, spreading shrub that likes wet areas like the lakeside where I photographed it.
9. Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cling to the rocks on the Lighthouse Point trail at Deception Pass State Park. A bright carpet of moss, grass, and wildflowers spreads underneath the trees.
10. A long-dead tree supports a colorful patchwork of lichens. They may not die back in winter like the wildflowers do, but their colors still convey the message of spring to my mind.

11. The diminutive Rattlesnake plantain’s leaves (Goodyera oblongifolia) have been hugging the ground for months. They look especially fresh these days. A tiny garden of golf tee-shaped lichens (Cladonia sp.), moss, a Douglas fir branch tip, and more lichens decorates a rock along a steep trail in a mature forest. Nearby, plump, green rosettes of Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) snuggle into the folds of a Peltigera lichen. More lichens and moss (maybe Common haircap moss – Polytrichum commune) surround them. The stonecrop will send up stalks of yellow flowers in May or June and the Rattlesnake plantain, (actually an orchid) will bloom in July.

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12. Tightly curled leaves of Yellow pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) will open soon in the shallow water of Little Cranberry Lake, where beavers are continually creating the kind of habitat this plant prefers.
13. Willows by the roadside, a glorious sight.
14. Here’s Little Cranberry Lake again. A single pair of wild Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) rest on a half-submerged log in deep shade. Soon they’ll head to Alaska or northwestern Canada to breed. They’ll be back late next year.

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*inkling (n.)

c. 1400, apparently from the gerund of the Middle English verb inclen “utter in an undertone, hint at, hint” (mid-14c.), which is of unknown origin; perhaps it is related to Old English inca “doubt, suspicion, question, scruple.” However the earliest record of the word is as a nyngkiling; and The Middle English Compendium offers that this is not a misdivision of an inkling but rather suggests the word is a nasalized variant of nikking “a hint, slight indication,” gerundive of the Middle English verb nikken “to mark (a text) for correction” (mid-15c.), from nik (n.) “a notch, tally” (see nick (n.)).

From https://www.etymonline.com/word/inkling

ABSORBED

This week I was thinking about the quality of being absorbed in an activity. I wondered about the origin of the word so I googled it. In an online etymology dictionary, I read that the English “absorb” comes from an old French word that derives from Latin. Breaking it down, “ab” in this case means “from” and “sorb” comes from the Latin sorbeo, to suck in or swallow. These combine into “absorbere” or “absorbeo” – to swallow up or devour. The Proto-Indo-European language root was “srebh.” I can really hear the sound of sucking in that word! I wonder if it ultimately derived from the sound of a nursing child.

In German there is absorbieren. A related German word, schlĂźrfen, sounds to me like someone slurping beer. 😉 In Dutch there’s slurpen, in Italian, assorbito. The Welsh word is amsugno; perhaps Graham will explain how that fits in. Or doesn’t.

At any rate, by the 18th century, absorbed also meant completely gripping one’s attention. When we are absorbed we incorporate and assimilate with full attention (again, think of a nursing child, oblivious to everything but the task at hand). The idea of complete attention is important. To be absorbed in something necessitates an absence of distraction. It’s almost a refusal of incoming sensory information, except within the narrow field of engagement. When I think about being absorbed I sense a unity, a lack of boundary between what we call the self and the object of our attention. The separation that our minds create between ourselves and the rest of the world is useful for functioning in daily life but when we’re completely absorbed in an activity the separation recedes. Some of these ideas are my personal associations with the experience of being absorbed. Isn’t it interesting that we humans communicate by using agreed-upon word meanings but we each have a whole host of subjective associations attached to words as well?

This state of absorption is akin to flow, a concept developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His interest in creativity and happiness led him to assert that being fully absorbed in something for its own sake, or being in the flow as he called it, enhances our feelings of well-being and our creativity. Csikszentmihalyi talked about the importance of a balance between skill and challenge in the flow state. He recognized that motivation in this state is intrinsic, not external. The theory of a flow state isn’t exactly the same as the concept of being absorbed in something, but active focus and a sense of timelessness are characteristic of both.

This state of flow or absorption is a very human quality, something we all experience. As photographers, we’re pleased when we sense the dropping away of day-to-day worries and concerns and become fully absorbed in what we’re doing. Truth be told, we often hope that when we get home we’ll find an image that reflects the way we felt, even if it doesn’t convey the full experience. Looking through photographs that I made in the last month, there are hardly any pretty blue skies. The fullness of spring is just a dream. But even in less than optimal conditions, when inspiration doesn’t come easy, it’s possible to enter into a meditative state of absorption. And whether a pleasing photograph results or not, any time spent being absorbed in something is its own reward.

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1. It’s easy to be absorbed in the changing light of a fog bank at sunset.
2. And once you look, it’s just as easy to get lost in sand patterns on a beach.

3. Even a disintegrating fern frond rivets my attention.

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11. Fog again. The barely visible structure of a bridge in the distance drew me into the mist.

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Whether it’s a small detail, a wide vista, or something in between, being absorbed in what I see is one of the best things about being human on this earth. It goes without saying that music, touch, and all of the senses offer the possibility and pleasure of full absorption into the moment. I hope everyone experiences at least a few moments of absorption today.

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WATERSIDE, WINTER

The weather has quieted.

A parade of typical winter days and nights

plods through the month,

not terribly cold, certainly not warm,

some sun, lots of clouds,

rain that comes and goes.

The weather doesn’t keep me indoors but

I have to push myself more than I would in spring

when wildflowers pique my curiosity, propelling me outside

day after miraculous day.

But in this dimmer season, devoid of birdsong,

I can’t complain.

There’s plenty to see –

small bits to stumble across,

wide views where the soul can rest,

modest miracles, startling finds,

refreshment

each time I venture outside.

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1. Our life-giving sun is setting in the west over the Salish Sea, illuminating the Deception Pass bridge.

2. A broken blade of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) lies on the beach where the outgoing tide left it (for me?). This giant seaweed is an alga that reproduces by way of spores, not flowers. From a tiny spore, it reaches 30 – 100 feet (10 – 30 m) in less than a year. Then it dies and pieces wash ashore all winter, like this one.
3. The prolific Bull kelp is found from central California to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in cold, fairly deep water. A root-like holdfast anchors it to the seafloor. Near the water’s surface, the stipe (like a stem) widens into a hollow, bulb-like float that contains gas, allowing the blades (like leaves) to float near the surface and gather sunlight for photosynthesis.
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4. Winter storms have left countless pieces of kelp on the beaches. This one nuzzles up to a fragment of Sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca).

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6. A lone figure stands on the rocks (in the middle) enjoying a cloud-laden sunset view of the Olympic Mountain Range, 60 miles (96km) to the southwest.

7. A Bullwhip kelp stipe floats on the gentle waves of an outgoing tide.
8. A hieroglyphic kelp bed viewed from a rocky promontory called Rosario Head that juts out into the rich waters of the Salish Sea.
9. These Bullwhip kelp blades are still attached to the stipe. When the tide comes back in, where will the kelp go?
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11. King tides and winter storms have pushed heavy driftwood logs into an old Sitka spruce tree (Picea sitchensis). Every time I pass this tree I wonder how much longer until the tides undercut its shallow roots enough to make it lean and finally fall. Like Bullwhip kelp, Sitka spruce ranges along the American west coast from southern Alaska, through Washington and Oregon, to northern California. Bullwhip kelp is a very large alga; likewise, the Sitka spruce is a very large tree. One Sitka spruce, named the Queets spruce, lives on the other side of the mountains seen above in #6 and is around 250′ (76m) tall. In Canada, the Carmanah Giant is much taller, at over 314 ft (96m).
As Sitka spruce trees and Bullwhip kelp coexist in this bountiful region, pieces of kelp wash ashore to rest at the foot of this spruce tree, or even in its lower branches. And perhaps spruce needles blow across the water to land atop a bed of kelp. While Sitka spruce trees can live to 700 years, Bullwhip kelp completes its life cycle in less than a year, but both depend on the grand cycle of the rolling earth, soaking up the sun and resting in the dark of each new day.
12. Bits of shell, rock, wood, plants, and who knows what else: a pleasing puzzle found on a nearby beach.
13. The tide rolled two logs onto the old boat launch. They’ve been there for weeks. I like the formal simplicity of repeating parallel lines.
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15. The old pier in the distance also suffers the insults of storms and high tides. A few days ago workers began to dismantle it. The plan is to slowly allow this bay to return to the form it had before people built a fish hatchery here back in the 1940s. It is well on its way.
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LOCAL WALKS: Watching the Weather

1. After sunset, tide running out, Deception Pass. Late December.

Looking back over the past six weeks it seems like we’ve come full circle: in early December the skies were gray and drizzly and temperatures were moderate. Then over the holidays, a long week of sub-freezing, snowy weather settled in. Now we’re back to the cool, damp, cloudy days that typify Pacific Northwest winter weather.

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2. Sunset on a calm day, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.

What a treat the bright, White Christmas was, at least for those of us who weren’t traveling. When icy temperatures continued all week I was reminded of my New York childhood. Everything changed – the air was sharp and fresh, the landscapes enchanting, and the roads – well, our road was hardly plowed. But we’re both cold-weather veterans who’ve driven in far worse conditions so the dicey roads didn’t stop us from going out.

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3. Snowfall on Christmas Day, at home.
4. Our road, snapped with an iPhone between Christmas and the New Year.

But the cold! I’m not used to it anymore! Ten years in the Pacific Northwest has spoiled me. So I bought a pair of warmer gloves and packs of toe warmers that stick to the bottom of your socks and keep your feet warm for hours. That helped, but my fingers were just too stiff with cold to cooperate. The pervasive bright light that snow creates threw me off, too. Many of my photographs were disappointing. Still, I haven’t enjoyed the simple activity of looking out the windows so much in a long time. I would check the little stacks of snow on the deck railing to see if they had grown tall with a new layer or collapsed into pancaked shapes. I admired and worried about the Douglas fir trees laden with snow, their branches bent to the ground. The birds were ravenous, fluttering down from the trees and swarming like ants the minute I tossed seed onto the ground. In the morning there were fine little birds’ foot tracks and delicate wing imprints on the thin layer of snow that blew onto the concrete. The whole house filled with blue-white light, a boon to my mood. Winter is often very dark in this land of towering, dense stands of evergreens.

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5. Ice in the wetland at Bowman Bay. Early January.
6. As above.
7. Looking down from the bridge at Deception Pass. Late December.
8. Grasses underwater, Little Cranberry Lake. Mid-January.
9. Surf scoters on choppy water, Washington Park. Early January.

News stories of atmospheric rivers bringing high winds and extra-high tides became routine but the storms’ effects were anything but routine. One day during a wind event I drove down to Rosario Beach, a rocky crescent of shoreline in Deception Pass State Park. Only one other car was in the lot. The noise of waves pounding the beach was deafening as I carefully made my way down the path to the beach. I could barely stand up, the wind was so fierce. Gulls sliced the air, wooden debris was smashed to bits at my feet, and walls of water tossed huge logs back and forth in a furious maelstrom. When white objects flew past me I thought, what little birds are those? None of our small birds are white. Then I realized the missiles were big chunks of foam the wind picked up from the wavetops and flung high across the trail into the bay on the other side. I didn’t stay long that day but I was glad I witnessed nature grabbing the upper hand with such unconditional determination.

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10. Slideshow: A wind-driven king tide throws heavy logs around at Rosario Beach. Early January.

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11. Logs and a tangle of Bullwhip kelp thrown onto Bowman Bay. Early January.
12. Blades of kelp floating on a calmer day, Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
13. Bullwhip kelp wrapped around a log by a rambunctious tide. Bowman Bay. Mid-January.
14. Red-tailed hawk, Campbell Lake. Mid-January.

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Eventually, the snow was confined to a few speckled patches in shady spots and the lake ice shrank to a smooth necklace on the shoreline. Temperatures returned to normal and numb fingers became a memory. We’re back to drizzly rains giving way to clouds, occasional fog, and sunbreaks (the sun only shines all day in summer here so we enjoy our sun in small doses that we call sunbreaks). The days are getting longer, the holidays are over, and a new year has begun. The dark cloud of discouragement that overtook me toward the end of the year has lifted. In my gut, just as the birds and animals do, I sense the climb toward spring.

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15. Calmer days. A hilltop path through the woods. Photo made with intentional camera movement. Mid-January.
16. Old road on Ginnett Hill. Photograph made with slight intentional camera movement. Mid-January.

17. Fog on Lottie Bay. Mid-January.
18. Fog at Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
19. Fog, Deception Pass Bridge from Lighthouse Point. Mid-January.
20. Ice on Pass Lake. Late December.

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ENCOUNTERING the SUBJECT

What’s the difference between a sculpture given pride of place in a museum and a tree trunk washed ashore after being sculpted by countless tides? One is human-made, one isn’t, the places where we see them are nothing alike, and we attach very different meanings to each object. You can probably think of other differences. But what if we untangle the threads that make up the answers and see what’s left? Perhaps finally, the object itself is all that remains, without any stories “about” it.

1. Amida Buddha; Japanese, circa 1130.
2. Driftwood log; 12/22/21.

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What I’m talking about is the idea of removing layers of received wisdom from the experience of seeing, the encounter with the subject. A few weeks ago I photographed a handful of objects at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Essentially my approach to looking at art objects isn’t so different from my approach to looking at objects anywhere. That afternoon I didn’t ponder who made the work, why it was made, or how it fits into history. Those are good questions, no doubt. But I prefer to encounter art more directly. After all, the objects I was looking at were free from expectations or ideas about me. So, to the degree my mind was open, maybe I could approach them on the same terms, without distracting preconceptions.

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3. Detail, Buddhist ceremonial banner.
4. Bullwhip kelp; 12/22/21.

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Objects appear in my visual field as form, light, color, texture, structure, pattern, and perhaps other qualifiers that haven’t occurred to me. I enjoy taking them in on those terms. When I roam the landscape it’s the same: form, light, color, and texture present themselves in various guises. There’s no need to include extraneous thoughts (not that I don’t torture myself trying to remember the names of plants). Staying with the physicality of objects, leaving concepts and projections out of the relationship, one can embody a fresh appreciation of the world.

One thing that’s enjoyable about a museum experience is that the objects on display are presented with enough space around them to allow the viewer to rest in the encounter with the subject, to give oneself over to it. Focusing on objects individually, one after the other in conscious appreciation of their particularity, our attention is honed and heightened. I’ve noticed that after I walk out the museum door the experience doesn’t stop. I find I’m attending to the makeup of everyday objects in a deeper way. I’m more engaged with everything. In fact, even in the museum I often see chairs, shadows, and other “ordinary” objects as aesthetic subjects in their own right. That’s one of the pleasures of museum-going.

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5. Near East ceramic vessel? (I didn’t check the label).
6. Valves and alarms on an industrial building; 12/24/21.

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You probably already figured out what I’m doing with the images here. Each pair of photographs includes an art object and an object I photographed outside of the museum context. Maybe the pairings can help point toward a taken-for-granted fact: valuing one object over another is a choice we make or don’t make. I’m not suggesting that the log, the kelp strands, or the industrial valves I photographed should be in a museum. I’m suggesting that whether we’re in a museum or in a desert, at home or on an elevator, it’s possible to meet the world with fresh eyes and directly experience beauty without extra layers of mental activity.

Some of these pairs may be more obviously connected than others, which I think is fine. The point is to suggest a kind of universality of perception. There’s no need to see objects in museums differently than you see the objects you photograph. Conversely, everyday objects really benefit from the close, special attention that we give museum artifacts.

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7. Calligraphy scroll, probably Japanese.
8. Angel-wing begonia flower buds; 10/08/21.

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9. Water-moon Guanyin; Chinese, 10th to late-13th century.
10. Old Bigleaf maple tree; 12/01/21.

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11. Detail, Chinese landscape painting, probably 18th century.
12. Detail, peeling bark on a Madrone tree; 01/18/21.

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13. Thousand-armed, Eleven-headed Guanyin; Chinese, 16th century.
14. Spiraling stem and leaves on a tropical plant; 11/17/21.

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2021 REFLECTIONS

Some photographers create “Best of” wrap-up posts at the end of each year and this year, I decided to join the tradition. It wasn’t a simple task – I couldn’t begin to decide which are the best photos I made this year. What’s more subjective than one’s own opinions about one’s work? Mired in indecision, I persevered and finally chose to post a collection of images from 2021 that 1) appeal to me and 2) represent the scope of the year. Many of these were posted earlier this year, a few were not.

1. Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park, Washington; May 12th. This year I spent lots of time studying the beach at low tide.

Reviewing the year’s work got me thinking about what I do here on WordPress. I don’t post individual images, though many photographers I admire do. There’s a lot to be said for posting single images; the viewer’s attention is fully centered on one photograph, with no distractions. But I like to create posts that can be experienced more like a short story or a film short focused on a particular theme. Often my subject is the observations I glean on a local walk but increasingly I’m drawn to concept pieces with images and text. The interplay of ideas and images intrigues me and the challenge of balancing text and photograph so neither detracts from the other keeps me engaged.

Because I spend a lot of time constructing these visual narratives, I tend to see and think about my photos in groups. How they relate can be more important than how they stand alone. Typically some photographs are like main characters, moving an idea forward, while others play supporting roles. I enjoy the flow that a series of images can create as the photographs “speak” to one another through qualities like color, tone, subject, scale, etc. Composing a “Best of 2021” series is challenging because there isn’t one idea or one place to represent – over the course of twelve months, there have been many ideas and (in a year of limited travel) at least several locations. Some cohesion is lent to the group by the fact that primarily, I photograph nature. Hopefully, a personal style also lends some consistency.

2. Deception Pass State Park; April 16th. In the spring I immersed myself in local wildflowers. It’s always my happiest time of year.
3. Snug Harbor Botanical Garden, Staten Island, NY; May 24th. During a trip to Massachusetts and New York, we visited several parks and gardens. Garden photography was my favorite thing to do when I lived in New York.

As I looked back over the year, I realized that it’s been a year of gear changes. During the first six weeks of 2021 I was using the camera and lenses that I had grown accustomed to for five years. Holding that camera was as familiar as holding a pencil – it even had nice wear marks on the grip. Then the unthinkable happened: the camera died. There was no fixing it. I could replace it but it was an older model so it made sense to research newer iterations of that camera. That led me to consider other cameras that take the same lenses. At least I didn’t allow myself to be tempted to switch to an entirely new system!

For about a month I wavered. I had a backup camera to use while I thought about which camera to buy. In March, I made a decision to buy an Olympus Pen-F, a slightly smaller, lighter camera than the one that broke, which was an EM-1. Smaller and lighter is a good thing and the elegant-looking Pen-F has a special way with black and white, which interests me. But I was constantly comparing it to my old camera. Small things like the feel of the on/off button bothered me; a bigger issue was that the camera is not weather resistant. Lovely as it is, the camera wasn’t quite right. In June, I ordered the newest version of the one that died, the EM-1 Mark III. (I am not made of money but I rationalized two camera purchases by the fact that I spent little money on travel for the last two years). The Mark III is weather-resistant, has excellent image stabilization, and offers a host of features that I haven’t even tried yet. The buttons and levers feel right. The ergonomics are good, too, and it’s smaller than most comparable cameras but it weighs more than I’d like. Nothing’s perfect.

After nine months, it still feels a little new to my hands and I’m a long way from being comfortably familiar with all its ins and outs. What I’ve realized this year is that a camera you’re used to is one you don’t think twice about, which allows you to concentrate on being creative with your little black box. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the camera thinking about technique. Of course, that isn’t all bad but I’m eager for this camera to be so familiar that I never pause to think about which button is where or how to quickly find a setting. I want it to be an extension of my hand in service of my vision and that’s going to take a while.

In the meantime I know I’m lucky to have a good camera that I can use anytime I want. What’s more, I’m grateful for the community of creative people with whom I share my work. Thank you for being here and thank you for all that you do – you keep me going more than you know.

4. Anacortes, Washington; February 13th. My favorite local bookstore and cafe put a positive pandemic message in their window: “We are in This Together.”
5. Bowman Bay; May 12th. Another low tide discovery.
6. Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park; March 1st. Madrone tree bark study. I’ve been photographing these trees for almost ten years.
7. David Zwirner Gallery, New York City, New York; May 21st. Sculpture by Carol Bove. Her monumental steel sculptures were a delight to photograph.
8. Volunteer Park Conservatory, Seattle, Washington; November 17th. I was excited to find smudged, foggy windows at the conservatory. This is part of a series I call “Through” that I began over ten years ago.
9. Heart Lake, Anacortes, Washington; May 15th. I photographed Fawn lilies in bloom from mid-March through mid-May.
10. Little Cranberry Lake, Fidalgo Island, Washington; November 26th. This lake is often still and glassy, with nice reflections. The photo was made with an iPhone.
11. The San Juan Islands and Rosario Strait from Sugarloaf, Fidalgo Island; April 10th. Sugarloaf is a favorite destination for wildflowers in spring and views anytime.
12. Along March Point Road, Fidalgo Island; January 17th. Grasses, with their linearity and repeating shapes, are some of my favorite subjects. Home to two oil refineries, March point also has nesting eagles, a major Great Blue heron rookery with over 600 nests, and a flock of American white pelicans in the summer.
13. Heart Lake, Anacortes; July 14th. The diminutive, delicate Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) have fascinated me ever since I began finding them tucked in out-of-the-way places all over the island.
14. Bridge Gardens, Bridgehampton, New York; May 25th. A high point of the trip to New York was meeting photographer John Todaro, who introduced me to this out-of-the-way garden on Long Island.
15. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island; February 5th. A dead juniper is hung up among Douglas fir trees but one day maybe it will fall into the water. Seaside junipers have become another favorite subject since I moved here in 2018.
16. Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park; July 11th. Massive logs are strewn about on many Pacific Northwest shorelines – at the ocean and all through Puget Sound. Often surrounded by detritus, they can be challenging to photograph.
17. Bowman Bay; December 3rd.
18. Ancient Lakes, Quincy, Washington; April 1st. We met friends here in the desert in eastern Washington. The scenery is strikingly different from western Washington, where I live.
19. Queens, New York; May 21st. A commuter wearing a mask waits for a train to Manhattan at the Long Island Railroad Jamaica station.
20. Bowman Bay again; November 3rd.

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SOLSTICE

Snow falls

on the mountains,

paperwhites

at my window.

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Abundant rainfall in the lowlands, deep snow in the mountains. Next year Mt. Baker will release its white coat as river water, nourishing all creatures and plants in the river delta before merging with the Salish Sea. The paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceous) will fade long before then. I will plant them outside. Maybe they will bloom again, maybe not. Cycles of life.

Happy Holidays to Everyone

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COLOR IMMERSION: Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2022

Two photo friends posted this week about the 2022 Pantone Color of the Year and, inspired by Mark Graf and Alex Kunz, I decided to join in. Another photo friend, Linda Graschoff, has just added six beautiful photos inspired by the color of the year to her latest post. At this time of year, I can really use a good dose of color! Pantone is an American company specializing in color for designers, manufacturers, and printers, among others. The company is known for its systems of color swatches that enable industries to produce precisely defined, standardized colors. For example, a country can clearly specify the shade of red on its flag or a textile designer can communicate how a color palette will look when applied to a line of clothing or an interior.

Pantone also has a Color Institute that forecasts color trends and advises companies on ways to use color to support their brands. Each year since 2000 they have announced and promoted a ‘Color of the Year’ that supposedly reflects the current state of the world, the zeitgeist. The color for 2019 was ‘Living Coral,’ a warm, convivial coral color. That was before COVID 19 – I can’t imagine coral being appropriate for this year. In fact, for 2021, two colors were announced – ‘Ultimate Gray’ and ‘Illuminating,’ a bright yellow. The idea was that people need hope (yellow) but want a firm foundation (gray) in uncertain times. Skeptics can say it’s all just blatant consumerism and I’m not running out to buy the color of the year to paint my house, but I find it interesting to look at how these trends reflect the psychology of our times.

My introduction to Pantone colors was way back in 1967 when I got my first set of Pantone color swatches as a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. We were given assignments that involved combining different Pantone colors to illustrate color design principles. I have a clear memory of the weight, texture, and opacity of the chunky little “book” of color swatches and the individual sheets of Pantone paper we used for projects. The paper felt almost like someone painted color onto each sheet. It was visceral, working with those papers, and visceral reactions to color can be very pleasant.

1. This beautiful iris sports a color very close to the 2022 Pantone Color of the Year. Seen at Kubota Gardens in Seattle, it might be Iris ensata ‘Variegata.’

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Next year’s Pantone Color of the Year was just announced: “Very Peri” is its name and 17-3938 is its number. You’re forgiven if that doesn’t tell you much! You can see it here, on Pantone’s website, where you can also buy a mug or a keychain in Very Peri. To me, it’s a medium blue with enough red to push it slightly toward purple. Like in 2021, Pantone’s color choice seems to reflect the prevailing uncertainty of our world, this time with the thought that we all need courage and creativity. Pantone says, “Encompassing the qualities of the blues, yet at the same time possessing a violet-red undertone, PANTONE 17-3938 Very Peri displays a spritely, joyous attitude and dynamic presence that encourages courageous creativity and imaginative expression.”

Intrigued by the Very Periesque (Very Perish? No!) images that Mark Graf and Alex Kunz found in their archives, I scrolled through files going back ten years and came up with a bouquet of images that move in and out and around the color of the year, Very Peri. Enjoy!

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2. Iris laevigata ‘Variegata’ at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Bellevue, Washington.
3. Another iris – either Iris sibirica ‘Blue King’ or I. sibirica ‘Ahrtalwein. Also seen at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
4. Anemone coronaria in a window box on a sidewalk in Edison, Washington.
5. Another sidewalk flowerbox, this time with pansies, somewhere in New Jersey.
6. These Periwinkle flowers (Vinca minor) were growing wild under a building in the ghost town of Helena, California. This could be where the name Very Peri came from.

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8. A Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) at Bellevue Botanical Garden.
9. Delphiniums are pushed against a thick plastic sheet that’s used to keep out the cold at the flower market at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington.
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13. Wild Common camas (Camassia quamash) with Death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum) and buttercups in a meadow at Washington Park,
14. Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) growing with an unidentified tree at Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle, Washington.
15. This photo was made in 2004 with my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica. I dug this little Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa lucilaea) from the lawn in front of my house so it wouldn’t be destroyed when the grass was mowed.

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Feel free to join in and post your own interpretation of the 2022 Color of the Year. I’d love to see it.

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LOCAL WALKS: Shifting Edges

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The idea that more action occurs along edges came up in a book of fiction I read about thirty years ago. I don’t remember the book’s title or author, or how the idea was developed. The story involved a man who kept noticing that there was more activity on the edges of things than in the middle. This idea really interested me. It made sense. I knew that ecologically, places where one habitat meets another – where a forest meets a field or where land meets water – are places where you can expect more activity, and often, more species diversity. That’s a generalization of course, but it fits my own experience. On a ship far out in the ocean, I saw few living beings – a few flying fish, a single gull – but on shorelines, I see many different life forms. Deep in the middle of a forest, it can get very quiet but on the edge of the woods, movement and variety predominate.

Edges are places where one thing turns into another, where states of being merge, mingle and mix. You could say edges are the primal dialectic. How about the trajectory of a person’s life? Transitions between life stages can be times of great turbulence; the middle periods may be less eventful. Certainly, in our imaginations edges are important – we fear dropping off the edge of the earth; we admire the edginess of current culture; we walk the razor-edge in dangerous times.

Photographer Brooks Jensen relates a conversation with another photographer who advised, “Watch out for the edges. Wherever there’s an edge, there’s energy. That’s what you want to be photographing.” Jensen expanded on the concept to include psychological edges, “where anger meets compassion, where compassion meets sorrow.” (Brooks Jensen; ‘Single Exposures’, 2008).

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My favorite ecological edge took a beating recently. What had been a fairly clear border between land and water was battered by strong winds associated with an “atmospheric river” – the same one that brought flooding, landslides, and destruction to our Canadian neighbors. Massive driftwood logs were tossed high up onto the beach, obliterating a trail and crushing vegetation. Tangled piles of Bullwhip kelp (a seaweed that can grow to 100′ long) were deposited at the bases of trees whose roots were exposed to the elements from erosion. Two small wetlands were breached: in one, a green haze lay on the surface of the water. Did it come from the bay or was it dredged from the wetland itself? I don’t know. In the other wetland, strands of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs floated where normally the water is clear.

This particular edge was muddled beyond belief.

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It was hard to look at. Giant-stepping over logs and ducking under a tree that fell across a trail, I told myself, “This is nature. This is what happens. It’s not a carefully tended garden.” Despite my rational explanations, it hurt to see this precious place turned upside down and inside out. I took only a few photos that day.

But I went back – of course I went back! – and things were different. I can’t say exactly why – something shifted and I found the beauty again, even amidst the destruction. A little sunlight didn’t hurt.

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5. Strands of Bullwhip kelp and a driftwood log now litter the wetland. In the lower-left corner, you can see rocks from the beach that were pushed into the wetland.
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10. The view from a hill between the two beaches and wetlands.
11. Piles of Bullwhip kelp and driftwood logs landed on the beach. The wetland in #5 can be glimpsed in the middle of the photo.
12. The wetland edge with Madrone trees leaning precariously over the water. The views in #1, #2 & #5 are to the right, beyond the frame.

13. A Douglas maple leaf (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) on the forest floor after a rainy morning.

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More about the lichens seen above: The green leafy-looking structures are probably Peltigera brittanica. Lichens are composite organisms; P. brittanica includes a fungus, a green alga, and a cyanobacteria. The dark dots on the green surfaces are the cyanobacteria.

The darker leafy-looking structures are another Peltigera, probably P. neopolydactyla or P. membranacea. The red-orange tips on them are spore-bearing structures called apothecia. Unlike ferns, which also have spores, these lichens can reproduce vegetatively, by breakage or by producing propagules that contain fungal tissue and green algal cells. Talk about living on the edge – lichens appear to live on the edge of comprehension! Scientists are continually revising our understanding of lichens, so what I’ve written here could change at any time.

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A philosopher’s musings about edges:

“What I have called the edge-world is not only a world composed of intricate patterns and permutations of edges; it is also a world that is itself on edge. As a consequence, each of us is pitched on a thousand edges—edges on which we shake and tremble even as we pretend to go about our lives undisturbed. Our equanimity is only skin-deep; underneath it the abysses gape open, not just at the far edge of the known world or at the base of a precipice. We are denizens of a world on edge, and we are ourselves creatures of exposed edges. This is not just a matter of being accident-prone or vulnerable as individuals. We carry risk to others, endangering their lives as well as our own. Whole populations of human beings have been decimated by their fellow humans. Many animal and bird species have been rendered extinct because of human actions in the Anthropocene. Now we are on the verge of making ourselves extinct if humanly induced climate change takes its full vengeance. There is no way to exist on earth, no alternative path, other than to follow the edges that guide us even as they expose us to risk at every turn. We must take such exposure into account, learning how to identify those edges that are likely to lead us astray: each of us exists on a perpetual visual cliff. Some edges bring us to an unwelcome fate for which we are not adequately prepared: on these I have focused in this epilogue. Instead of trying to forget them or merely regret them, we must think on them, reflecting on what they portend. Becoming wary of certain edges, we can come to trust other edges that will configure our life-worlds in ways that are both more constructive and more creative. These more auspicious edges point the way for us, incisively even if not infallibly. Thoughtfully traversed, they are able to liberate us, indicating directions with the potential to save us from our own destructive and self-destructive ventures”

Edward S. Casey: The World on Edge. Indiana University Press, 2017.

from Phenomenological Reviews

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