Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.
The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.
You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.
Han-shan Te-ch’ing, from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now ed. Red Pine & Mike O’Conner. Wisdom Press
Who is this old image-maker
wrapped up in pristine forests and trampled leaves?
This week I took a walk in local park shortly after a band of rainy weather passed over the island. In the park a one-way, 2.3-mile road shared by foot and car traffic loops through thick forest with brief views of the water beyond. The 15mph speed limit discourages car traffic; most people walk. I like to drive part way around the loop, park at a pull-out, and take trails through the forest, which I did that afternoon. When I came back out onto the road I admired a bright spot where maple trees interrupted the evergreen parade. Pale gold leaves were falling to the ground, making soft layers in the woods, but all the leaves that had fallen on the road were trampled flat by the tires of cars. The leaves’ cells were breaking down in progressively ruined stages: just-crushed, flat and thin enough to reveal pavement bumps, becoming translucent, losing edges, skeletonized – many stages of decomposition were on display.
I wavered about photographing the leaves on the road. Part of me was drawn to the way the splayed and flattened shapes recalled graphic depictions of a maple leaf. Another part of me was repulsed by the dirty, crushed plant tissue. The textures were interesting but the colors had lost their life. I turned away, then turned back. The sun was disappearing and there was no time for second guessing. Photographers know that the phenomenon we view at any given moment won’t repeat itself: the smashed leaves at my feet would never look quite like they did that afternoon. So I made some photographs and I’m glad I did.
I’ll look for the Bigleaf maples the next time I go to the park. Whatever I find it will be different next time, and the next. That’s part of the magic of walking outdoors. I’ll also be more likely to consider the aesthetic possibilities of crushed plant material the next time I come across it. That’s part of the magic of human imagination.
About the Bigleaf Maple
We are predominantly coniferous here on Fidalgo Island but we have our share of deciduous trees, trees that are mostly golden now as they work through the annual task of releasing their leaves. A standout among our deciduous trees is the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a well-named tree that’s hard to miss. With the largest leaves of any maple tree, it spreads its branches wide in the forest and frequently hosts copious amounts of moss on its trunk and branches. Happiest in moist climates that don’t get too cold, it ranges up and down America’s West coast where the weather is moderate, into the mid-elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and through coastal British Columbia.
Bigleaf maples turn yellow, gold and brown in the Fall as they cease food production and lose their chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment that green plants use to make energy from light. The same reduction in daylight hours that has me complaining prompts these trees to make layers of strong cells at the junction of each leaf stem and twig. The thicker cells allow weaker cells above them to break, severing the leaf from its home. The prodigious effort of food production that occupied the tree for the last six months or so is over; thousands of frail factories are floating down to the ground to gradually decompose. The process has its own intricacies; if you’re so inclined, here’s a study to about the mathematics of leaf decay from MIT.
Each spring before the leaves get started, male and female flowers share space on pretty, pendulous cascades that hang from branch tips. If there aren’t many other flowers out, the bees that visit Bigleaf maple flowers for nectar will produce a hauntingly fragrant honey. Last year I bought Bigleaf maple honey from a vendor at a farmers market and I savored every last drop until it was gone. I have to wait for another spring when I might be lucky enough to find it for sale again.
The flowers turn into winged maple seeds that ripen in the fall and are carried away by the wind for months afterwards to germinate in a moist, partially shaded spot when the time is right. A cut stem will sprout readily too. The little saplings are munched by deer and elk, birds and rodents eat the seeds, and various parts of the tree host a variety of insect life. Humans make use of the wood for furniture, veneers, musical instruments, crafts, pulp, and firewood.
The Bigleaf maple is an epiphyte paradise, gracefully supporting moss, lichens and ferns in great abundance. One study found that the trees carry an average of 78 ponds (35.5kg) of epiphyte biomass. They can actually grow small roots along epiphyte-covered branches to burrow into the rich substrate for nutrients captured from the atmosphere by the various epiphytes. Bits and pieces are always falling to the ground, enriching the soil.
These trees can live to be 300 – nothing compared to an ancient redwood, but an impressive number of seasons on earth. A photo of the biggest Bigleaf maple tree in the U.S. can be seen here. A person standing next to it makes the scale clear.
And here’s a photo of me holding an impressive leaf on a Bigleaf maple tree in July, 2012.
January in the Pacific northwest was wet, with over 8″ of rain; the average January precipitation is closer to 5 1/2″. That has made outdoor photography difficult, but I’ve been darting out between showers to a nearby park, hoping the rain doesn’t begin again before I reach my destination.
O.O. Denny Park isn’t far from home but it feels almost like another planet – a very green one, especially now. Local residents favor the park’s pleasant waterfront picnic and recreation area on Lake Washington, but across the street there is a deep, wet ravine dotted with tall, moss-covered trees and luxuriant undergrowth. The gurgling sound of water from the park’s fast-moving creek stays within earshot as you walk a loop trail up the creek, across it, and back. There is a magical feeling here, a sense of stepping back into a place defined by trees, not cars.
This month I’ve been inspired by the otherworldly quality of a landscape drenched in mist, mist that sometimes turned to rain as I walked, tempting me to run back to the car. If the rain is gentle the trees provide enough cover to wait it out; experiencing the changes adds to the pleasure. This week I was caught by a hailstorm. Ducking under an old cedar tree, I listened to the surprising clatter of tiny ice balls bouncing all about me. I emerged feeling frigid, with numb fingers and toes, but I’d been given a weather gift, and I was thankful.
Water is happy in the ravine; it stays and makes a home, decorating its domain with all manner of lichens, mosses and mushrooms, funneling its way up tree trunks and down them, too. Water speeds the rot and decomposition that smells so rich here, it makes tinkling stream music, it forces you to step carefully on slippery surfaces, it gives the Yellow Skunk cabbage all the oozy muck it wants, and sometimes – no, often – it throws a hazy curtain of rain or hail over the lot, prompting you to squint, or maybe just close your eyes and breathe.
When I first walked the paths at O.O. Denny Park, the landscape was so different from what I was used to seeing that I couldn’t take it in. I just gaped. As I walk the loop trail repeatedly, I see more. I slowly prise the details apart and begin to see the patterns. The Big Leaf Maple thrusts moss-laden branches high into the sky for light, and each fall the maples drop a mother-lode of leaves. Because the leaves are huge and the forest is crowded with growth, many leaves are caught on the way down. There’s a pattern: caught leaves, decomposing in place.
One day this week I tried to grab a window of time without rain, and made my way up the O.O. Denny ravine path, camera in hand. The clouds parted to reveal a rare glimpse of blue sky but it was a changeable day, and soon a cold drizzle began to fall. I paused and heard a ping, ping, ping. Soon tiny ice balls began bouncing all around me. I was transfixed. Bundled up in a down jacket and wool scarf but without gloves or a hat, I put my hood up and stepped backwards, taking shelter under a large cedar. The hail came clattering down. It coated the path in front of me white, it collected in furrows of leaves on the ground and in mossy crevices on trees, and it turned the ravine into a magical fantasy land.
Holding my camera under my scarf, I awkwardly reached for my phone in an inside pocket. With frozen fingers I composed a few pictures. Finally, the hail stopped and I set back out for my car, avoiding the muddy, icy puddles as well as I could. I was very cold and desperately wanted to feel that heater!
A section of the loop trail. Late one afternoon I noticed a tell-tale splotch of white on the path here. It was still wet so I looked up and sure enough, there was a Barred owl, staring me down from a perch just overhead. Not wanting to disturb the owl, I left the camera at my side, and enjoyed the opportunity for a brief, eye-to-eye connection across species lines.
Bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) form a tangle of green, enriched by abundant rain. The biggest maple in North America, Bigleaf has an affinity for mosses, ferns and lichens. Their lush growth on Bigleaf trunks and branches produces “canopy soil” full of nutrients. The trees can actually produce tiny canopy roots, taking advantage of the rich biomass, high above the forest floor.
Flanking this Bigleaf maple are the gracefully swaying branches of Western Red cedar (Thuja plicata), a common northwestern evergreen. Given the right circumstances, these trees can live over 1,000 years and grow 230′ tall.
The moss-covered tree is probably a young Bigleaf Maple; the orange leaves are Bigleaf Maple leaves.
Somehow, a maple leaf was speared by this branch. It will probably hang here until it fully decomposes.
Another maple leaf caught on a branch.
And another – so precarious!
A pause in the rain.
A single Bigleaf maple can support several tons of “epiphytic material” – the mosses, lichens, ferns and associated bacterial and fungal species that live in the trees.
Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) take root in the moss on this branch. The trees in the background to the right are Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla).
The Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is a large, tough evergreen fern found throughout our area, up into Alaska, and down along the coast to southern California.
Licorice fern has a similar distribution, and favors the trunks and branches of Bigleaf maples but will grow elsewhere. A nibble of the rootlet yields a sweet, faintly licorice taste; the plant is used medicinally and for food. “Polypodium” refers to its habit of having many feet – growing from different points along a creeping rhizome.
I believe this pretty lichen is Oakmoss, or Evernia prunastri. It grows across the Northern hemisphere and is used in the perfume industry in Europe.
This fragment is typical of broken branches seen on the forest floor. It’s covered with a complex mix of lichens and moss, and I can’t identify a single one!
Elegant Western Red cedars and sturdy Douglas firs create a cathedral-like atmosphere on one of my favorite sections of trail.
These little bright gold mushrooms are probably Hygrocybe flavescens. They grow across North America; Europe has a very similar species.
The Indian plum, or Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) is already budding! Soon their tiny, white dangling bells will punctuate the forest. They’re the first native shrubs to flower here, offering nectar to early foraging bees. Song sparrows and Pacific wrens are singing…it won’t be long.
Local forests shine bright green in January because of an abundance of evergreen trees, ferns, understory plants, and mosses.
Hail pellets are gathered in a cup of maple leaves on the forest floor.
The hail won’t damage these ground covers that are green all year.
Along the path, the little ice pellets begin to melt and soak into the ground. In an hour there will be no trace of the hail, except for mud, puddles, and more water in the creek that makes its way down to Lake Washington, through the complex of bays, canals and waterways that divide Seattle in half, into Puget Sound, through the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and finally, into the Pacific Ocean.