NINE DAYS in MARCH: Hints and Proclamations of Spring

As I write we’re closing in on the Spring Equinox, that earthpause when day and night have equal sway, before the brightness overtakes darkness. There’s no doubt that the tonic of perceiving new life around us with all our senses is especially needed this year. For me, seasonal glimmers of hope began in January as the days began to lengthen. Where I live, spring takes its time, arriving in measured increments that begin early in the year and continue well into May. Instead of explosions of color or a sudden blast of warmth there are hints and glimmers arising over the course of months. In February Osoberry bushes reach for the light in forest openings, sprouting leaves and flowers that brighten the somber, deep green coniferous woods. Anna’s hummingbirds, those brave little bundles of speed that somehow overwinter here, appear far from the feeders they relied on all winter, calling “tzzip, tzzip” from the early-flowering Salmonberry bushes festooning the forest edge. Bald eagles perch proudly by the huge, messy nests they use year after year. If you’re very lucky, as we were one mid-February day, you may see a pair of them lunge, rise, swoop, rise again and lock talons high in the air, tumbling toward the ground in an extraordinary spiral before letting go at the last minute. Joe, as amazed as I was and always creative with words, said it was like a wingnut dance. Whatever you call it, we were grateful to witness the display in person – and right by the highway, as we were driving home! It was truly a proclamation of spring.

The hints and proclamations that began in February are picking up speed. Sunrises are drenched with color, birds are singing and the Bitter cherry trees have opened their snow-white buds in a frothy redemption: spring is now.

1. Our native Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) blooms without fanfare in the woods at Kukutali Preserve. To stand under a cherry tree in full bloom is to feel a benediction from light itself.

Before the cherry trees began singing diaphanous melodies in March there were other hints. On the first of the month I climbed up Goose Rock at Deception Pass State Park. The short, sometimes steep climb through the woods winded me. Just as I stepped onto the glacier-scraped bald at the top I heard the happy “chirrup, churee” of an American robin. Perched high in a Madrone tree, he faced the sun with the world spread out under his feet. As I walked toward him he gave no sign of letting up – he had an important proclamation to make.

2. American robin

3. Lush moss at my feet overtaking the dark detritus of winter storms.

4. Sunset over the strait.

I lingered on Goose Rock for a long time, looking for hints of the wildflowers that will soon dot the meadows and admiring pillows of moss and reindeer lichen softened by spring rain. The air was cool, no one was around, and quiet pervaded. To the west, the sun began to set behind strips of clouds over the strait. I pointed the camera directly into the sun, thinking, why not try? Then I strode back into the forest and made my way back down to the bridge at Deception Pass in fading light. Pausing underneath the bridge, I made the same photo I’ve made any number of times, this time with an iphone. Those criss-crossed girders marching into the distance are irresistible. Seeing more trash on the ground than usual, I frowned. There was more erosion, too, from an increase in foot traffic brought by the pandemic. It’s a two-edged sword, this new popularity of the outdoors: there is less privacy and more wear on the trails but there is also the possibility that more people will begin caring deeply about protecting wild places.

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The next day I had an appointment in Kirkland, an hour and a half south. There was just enough time afterward for a brief walk in O.O. Denny Park, where Bigleaf maples rise from a deep ravine and a silver creek slides musically down the hill to Lake Washington. The sun was out and the air was fresh. Licorice fern fronds, firmly anchored on moss-covered tree trunks, shined acid green in the afternoon light. I didn’t have my camera but the phone worked well enough.

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It was all enough.

Spring is enough,

whether in glimpses

or proclamations.

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Saturday was cool and overcast, a good day to hike a favorite route at Little Cranberry Lake in Anacortes. Following the trail through Douglas fir and Redcedar, I rounded the south end of the lake and began climbing a fire-ravaged hill. It was unnaturally quiet. Perhaps the fire that tore through here five years ago still prevents the land from welcoming as many creatures as it did before. No birds sang to remind me that spring was near and only one person passed me on the trail. A glimpse of aquamarine-colored, thorny stems shook me out of my gloom and I recalled savoring three or four tasty black raspberries from that plant last summer; the birds got a few, too.

At the peak of the hill, where Madrones consort with Douglas firs, soft green pairs of leaves hugged the ground exactly where I photographed Rein orchids (Platanthera sp.) last July. The leaves will photosynthesize for the next four months, making fuel for the small flower stalks set with tiny orchid flowers that will bloom in mid-summer. It was reassuring to see them. Whatever mishegoss* is going on in this world, the seasons unfold on their own. The world is full of basic goodness just as it is full of the betrayal of innocence but orchids don’t care about that, nor do the seasons. Being amidst that great freedom from the mind’s constant business is why I return again and again to nature.

8. Picking my way back down through the forest to the north end of the lake, I turned right and traced a trail bordering the water, still as a mirror.

The next day I drove around March Point and pulled over to watch a flock of about 50 Common mergansers hunting together in a tight flock. Churning the choppy water of Padilla Bay in a long, thin line, they appeared to be herding schools of fish. Looking comically intent with their slicked-back crests, one bird took the lead while a few ducks dipped their heads under the water to see what was going on, then there must have been a signal I couldn’t see and they all dove at once. Seconds later they popped back up. I’ll never tire of watching that!

The setting sun turned a Bitter cherry tree’s blossoms yellow along the road and painted the dried grasses underneath it in graceful strokes. I dialed the light way down by using the camera’s spot metering mode and pointed at a bright spot in the grass. A few days earlier I had finally received a new camera that had been delayed from the Texas snowstorm. I was busy getting to know the feel of a different body in my hands and the locations of dials and buttons. It’s going to take a while!

9. Last year’s grass in a roadside ditch.

The light was almost gone when I got back home. I raced out to photograph our own Bitter cherry tree by an intermittent creek that runs past the house. Opening the shutter to f2.8, I could see the blue cast of the creek behind the sparsely flowered branches.

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11. Wild cherry blossom in black and white.

On Monday I met friends who drove up from Seattle to explore Pass Island, a small island in the middle of Deception Pass that can be accessed from a staircase midspan. The island’s sheer, rocky sides drop off to churning water as it rips through the pass. I’ve never felt comfortable walking far on the trails there by myself but on this day I was with friends who knew the island – and for once, I brought a trekking pole. We were quickly rewarded with a natural hillside garden of rich purple Satin flowers, aka Grass widow (Olsynium douglasii). I almost teared up, seeing so many of the delicate, transient beauties that would surely be gone in a few days. Harsh sunlight made photographing the groups of flowers impossible but I managed a few photos of individual flowers.

12. Satin flower.

At the end of the island we sat down for a quick snack and watched the spectacle of the rushing current grabbing passing logs and sliding them like toothpicks into a funnel of waves breaking against the rocks. Richard pointed out a yellow lichen (Polycauliona verruculifera) growing in a beautiful scallop pattern on a rock by the water. He’s been photographing that rock since 2003, recording the lichen’s slow crawl across the rock’s rough gray surface. This time he found tiny, orange cup-shaped apothecia on the lichen’s body. Apothecia are sexual reproductive structures; lichens mainly reproduce a asexually but sometimes will reproduce sexually.

We finished up the day at Sharpe Park, where my friends introduced me to a new (to me) fern, the Leathery polypody, Polypodium scouleri. I walked right by the little fern without noticing it The almost cartoonish charmer is a fern of the salt-spray zone on the Pacific coast from northern British Columbia south to Baja California. It “doesn’t belong” here, 90 miles from the coast, but maybe the fern feels at home near Fidalgo Island’s mix of fresh and Pacific Ocean water. Who knows? The island continues to surprise me. It was a good lesson, thanks to my friends, who know a thing or two.

13. Pacific, or Irregular polypody.

14. A view from Pass Island. Way in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of the North Cascade Range.

15. The Deception Pass Bridge towered above us.

The next day, invigorated by the discoveries on Monday’s outing, I decided to go down to the beach, Fidalgo Island-style. Tuesday brought a mix of sun and clouds and a very low tide at Bowman Bay. For once, the tide ebbed deeply in the late afternoon instead of the wee hours of the morning, which meant I could peer under rocks which are normally under water. I found snail eggs attached to a rock and delighted in interesting ripple patterns splashed across the sand. A brilliant Red-flowering currant bush (Ribes sanguineum) lit up the forest along the Lighthouse Point trail but I was disappointed to find that heavy foot traffic on the meadow had crushed the few Satin flowers that tried to bloom there this year. This made me all the more grateful to have seen them blooming unmolested at Pass Island. Finally, a lone Great blue heron fishing in the bay with studied elegance was a gift.

16. A favorite declaration of spring, the Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum).

17. Laid bare by the pull of the tide: tiny, glistening snail egg cases.

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22. A new tide dancer has washed up on the beach at Bowman Bay.

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24. The rocky point near the three walkers is normally under water, necessitating a climb over the cliff on a well-worn trail to reach the part of the beach where I stood to take this photo. The tide is only low enough to walk around the rocks at certain times. The firm sand felt good under my feet.

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26. A companionable pair of Canada geese waddles out of the water. I can see a hint of spring in the turn of their heads.

*

I planned to cover the first two weeks of March here but there are already more photos than I think I should include. Flocks of Snow geese, more cherry blossoms and other early spring pleasures will have to wait. Whatever the state of the season is where you live, I hope it feels like enough. Even for a moment.

*

*mishegoss is a wonderfully expressive word I learned when I moved to New York City at the age of 18. It’s Yiddish slang for craziness – the kind of senselessness that’s hard to comprehend or digest.

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Subtle Rapture

Last week I took a walk at Kukatali Preserve, a narrow, forested peninsula that’s owned and managed jointly by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Washington State Parks. The preserve reaches a long arm into a quiet bay where seals, cormorants and ducks ply waters alive with clams, crabs, oysters and more. A walk at Kukatali is always interesting, offering treasures from the forest, shoreline and bay. The photo below shows the view from the end of the peninsula on that overcast day. The bird you can barely see is a cormorant, likely the Double-crested.

1. Deception Pass bridge seen from Kukatali Preserve.

We are at 48 degrees 44 minutes North so you might not expect Spring to be in evidence here, but the Salish Sea moderates temperatures and our winters are mild. Spring doesn’t have to wait for the snow to melt here at sea level. So far this year, rainfall has been abundant; the moss is green and luxurious and buds on the trees are plump. The first blossoms of the year have already opened: Indian plum’s little white bell flowers dangle from spindly branches and a few Red-flowering currant flowers are unfurling deep pink petals.

In recent weeks I’ve seen eagles sitting on their nests or hanging out next to them, apparently thinking things over. The Varied thrushes are looking handsome in their breeding outfits; Song sparrows are singing everywhere I go. Tiny insects can be seen buzzing the air too, but the landscape is still rather bare, as if the earth was holding its breath for a moment before a burst of energy. I know that’s not true though – the dance always continues on many levels, whether we see it or not.

Against this background of subtle colors and charged possibility I walked the length of Kukatali Preserve, curious to see what would present itself. I was not disappointed. Towards the end of the trail, a grassy field marks the spot where a home once stood; along the edge of the field, a haze of creamy white beckoned behind a maze of bare winter branches. It was a lovely wild Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) in full bloom, all by itself in the somber brown woods. Bitter cherry doesn’t boast the sweet pink of cultivated cherry trees – this tree’s flowers are a soft, creamy white. For a brief time in early Spring their subtle beauty graces forest edges and moist woodlands of the Pacific northwest. When they grow in the middle of the woods the puzzle of branches all around them allows only tantalizing glimpses of the delicate little flowers. It’s not easy to describe the phenomenon of walking through the winter forest and finding a blooming cherry tree, but you can bet my breath was taken away by the sight of this modest beauty, glimmering in the woods.

2. Normally each flower has five petals but the flower on the left has almost double the normal number, and two styles instead of one. If you think about how many flowers must be on one tree, no wonder some of them aren’t “normal.”


3. This phone capture conveys some of the complexity of the forest and the haze of cherry blossoms on an overcast afternoon.

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5. This blossom landed on a Sword fern that was half under water. Shadows complicated the picture. I could have picked out the Doug fir needles and lichens that distract the eye but I prefer not to make too many changes. Besides, finding firm ground to stand on in this wet spot was challenging.

6. Sometimes I treasure the fallen petals more than the blossoms still on the tree.

7. Moisture from the morning rain kept this single petal stuck on an old, lichen-covered log.


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12. New leaves

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14. In a certain light the creamy haze of flowers had a pink hue.

The Bitter cherry displays its bounty modestly, often behind a scrim of bare tree branches. Unlike that low-contrast scenario, the disparity between the nourishing beauty of my surroundings and the barrage of bad news about our earth, politics, epidemics and violence is intense enough to induce mental whiplash. This sentence from the newsletter of a local non-profit organization speaks about the painful discrepancy between the beauty we witness and the news we hear:

One of the tasks of these times, it seems, is to learn how to live in the space between unimaginable beauty and unbearable sorrow. To live without losing heart.

From The Pathfinder, the newsletter of Transition Fidalgo and Friends, a local non-profit.

15. A Madrone tree enjoys extra light by the water. Kukatali Preserve, south end.

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Spring(ing) Through an Old Lens

The first blooms have opened, the birds are singing, the air is fresh. It’s time for immersion.

 

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I can get lost in a lens. Especially the old Super Takumar 50mm f1.4. From time to time I get it out, twist it onto the camera body, dial the aperture way down, and see what happens. (Here’s a video about the lens).

 

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The white blossoms of a native Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) grace a patch of scrappy woods that’s between our house and the one next door. What a lift for the spirit, seeing that sprinkling of white among the bare branches and evergreens. And there are little Indian plums (Oemleria cerasiformis) in the woods, with joyous, lime green leaves and sweet little sprays of dangling flowers.

 

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The emerging energy around the yard is echoed at the state park a few miles away, where red alder (Alnus rubra) catkins glow with color and the rocks follow suit with blooms of lichen, perhaps Orange boulder lichen (Porpidia flavocaerulescens).  Sometimes I wish I could pack a tiny lichenologist, or a botanist in my pocket, and take him out whenever I had a question. I’d pull him out, point to a mysterious lichen and say, “There! Tell me a story about that one!”  If you doubt the existence of lichenologists, here’s an excellent article about one. It’s a great read. Seriously! I included another lichen photo, of a twig with at least four different species on it, just because lichens are cool.

There’s so much to learn.

Back on the trail in the park, diminutive Rattlesnake plantains (Goodyera oblongifolia) nestle in the moss. They will produce slender stalks covered with tiny white orchids; hopefully they will wait until I return. And the humble Red dead-nettle, or henbit, (Lamium purpureum), which hitchhiked here from Europe, is already blooming. Henbit hides its pale blooms under colorful leaves arranged in neat pairs. Seen from above, it’s almost architectural in its orderliness, like a tiny stupa.

 

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Then there’s the beauty below, the star of our early Spring forests, Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). This native shrub delights woodland walkers, hummingbirds and bees with a profusion of charming raspberry-colored flowers.

 

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Along the water the steep, rocky cliffs retain enough moisture for clumps of grass to take hold in crevices. I’m drawn by the artful way last year’s tattered leaf blades jostle with this year’s growth. In the forest, Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) leaves unfurl along green, zigzagging stems. The edible red berries will appear later, but I doubt I’ll get to eat one – the birds and mammals are likely to beat me to it. Next to a tree stump on the edge of the forest, hardy Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytonia sibirica) blooms. The edible plant can be used in salads but I don’t know whose dog, or which wild creature may have left their mark here, so I’ll pass.

 

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Our common evergreen fern, the Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) took a beating this winter from heavy, long-lasting snow. Clumps of this normally attractive understory plant lie flat on the ground now, their fronds broken and spotted with dead patches. Frankly, I haven’t wanted to look at Sword ferns lately, but a few dried fronds curled against a rock made beautifully intricate shadows, a pleasing sight. No doubt, even the dead fronds can be beautiful but soon their distinctive fiddleheads will begin to unwind, and I’m looking forward to seeing a Sword fern rejuvenation.

Near one end of a favorite trail, the small leaves of Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) dot the dark landscape like a pointillist’s dream.

 

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It’s getting late….time to go.

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All of these photos were made with the Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens, during the past week. Yesterday I went for a quick walk before dinner. I rushed out of the house with the old Takumar lens on the camera and a macro lens in the bag. Neither one was the right choice for photographing this Common loon swimming in the bay at sunset. It would have been nice to be able to zoom in closer. It is what it is though, and as a record of a moving scene, it ain’t half bad. So: have the lenses or the camera you’ll need with you – but if you don’t have the right equipment, do what you can and be satisfied.

 

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