Life as usual


Routines have changed and I’m evolving, shaped

by circumstance, wriggling into

new spaces, expanding into

unfamiliar realms, making it




Just short of four months ago, my partner and I traveled deep into the Sonoran desert, near Arizona’s border with Mexico.  We had come to explore Organ Pipe National Monument, part of a vast desert landscape ranging through parts of California and Arizona, and Mexico.

Slicing across this desert is an international border – a political boundary, not an ecological one. The border is crossed fairly easily by plants and animals, at least while there is no wall. But people – they fight over this line in the sand. Some of them suffer deeply because of the border; many have lost their lives because of it.

The evidence of this struggle is quite apparent in the desert and the small towns, and between border conflicts and a difficult desert environment, it’s clear that adaptation is what every living being must do.

How people adapt or fail to adapt to the political and economical situation here is a complicated story that I don’t feel equipped to tell, except to say that the signs I saw – the border fence and checkpoints, the helicopter that buzzed us when we went off trail, the empty water jugs, the graves and roadside memorials – those signs of struggle were impossible to get away from. In retrospect, it’s almost as if those signs were a portent of the life-threatening change that would throw us completely off balance within hours of returning to civilization, a change that forced us to adapt beyond what we would have imagined.

But as we walked and drove through the desert we were purely in the moment. I was focused on taking photographs. Needless to say, I took a lot.*   Looking through them now, an obvious category is the flora the brilliantly adapted, tough and prickly plants of the desert that tell their own stories of adaptation.  Another group of photographs will wait for another post. Those pictures touch on the stark realities of the border and this desolate, unforgiving country. For now, the plants:


The familiar looking Englemann’s Prickly Pear cactus (familiar because similar cacti grow in many parts of the US) is found scattered throughout the park. I love the soft green color of this cactus, but in black and white, attention is drawn to the contrast between the round shape and spiky spines, which I find compelling.

The large, multiple-stem cactus that gives the park its name is the Organ Pipe cactus. It’s more common in Mexico but inches onto the southern edge of the U. S. here in the hot Sonoran desert. This cactus and others that are rare in the U.S. are the primary reason the park land was set aside, way back in 1937.


I’m not big on interpretive signs, preferring to keep fresh eyes and form my own take on things. Once in a while I do read them though, and a sign along the winding, scenic road through the park informs visitors that wind blowing through an Organ Pipe cactus makes a strange and beautiful sound. It was a breezy day so we tried it. Choosing a huge old specimen, we gingerly stuck our heads into the mass of spine-cloaked stems. The sound was enchanting and otherworldly – a kind of breathy, ethereal hum that is perfectly suited to the spare, quiet landscape.


Another cactus seen more often in Mexico than America is the Senita cactus, below. It has a similar growth habit to the Organ Pipe, but the details are different. Older specimens in the second photograph show the Senita’s distinctive hairy looking tops. I was fascinated to learn that a moth has co-evolved with this cactus; both species have adapted to the environment and each other in a complex evolutionary dance. The moth larvae live on Senita cacti and eat the fruits; later, the moth pollinates the Senita’s night-blooming flowers. This cactus can grow tall, to 13 feet.


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Twenty-six species of cactus live at Organ Pipe; all are adapted to life at temperatures ranging from over 100 F to below freezing. Rainfall here is scant and unpredictable. Plants must be able to take full advantage of rainwater when it comes; storing it has proved one of the best adaptations to this environment.

Below is a typical jumble of the peculiar forms of Saguaro, Ocotillo, Senita, Cholla, Brittlebush, Palo Verde tree, and others. They all vie for space in the arid environment, making Organ Pipe National Monument essentially a lush, desert garden.


Perhaps the most common cactus is the Saguaro, seen here in the foreground and scattering up the hillside to the left.


Below is an example of the rare cristate mutation on a Saguaro. The cause might be frost, but no one is sure why the cactus sometimes grows in this ornate pattern. In fact, over a hundred other plants sometimes exhibit this abnormal growth pattern too, called fasciation. 


Cacti can be seen at Organ Pipe in all stages of growth and decay. Both Organ Pipe and Saguaro cacti often begin life hidden under a desert tree such as the Palo Verde. The small tree or shrub provides just enough shelter for the cactus to get a good grip on life. Once we started looking for them, we saw many young cacti under trees and shrubs, like the Organ Pipe cactus growing out of the middle of a Palo Verde, below. You can see a shorter stem in front of the main stem.


Below is the skeleton and peeling “skin” of a fallen giant – in this case, an Occotillo.


The fallen Saguaro below pulled the desert floor with it when it toppled, exposing the rough rock it grew in.  Below, you can see the “skin” of a dead Saguaro and the woody structure underneath.



This oddly beckoning skeleton is probably a Jumping Cholla cactus. Further down, you’ll see a live one.


Like the native Tohono O’odham people, who have lived here for many generations, cacti have adapted well to desert extremes.  Shallow root systems and flexible “skins” allow cacti to quickly gulp down rain that falls as unpredictably as a cat’s meanderings.  Pale colors reflect away over-abundant light. Spines provide protection from thirsty animals, guide raindrops towards the cactus flesh, and create slender threads of shade on sweltering days. Many cacti can put their metabolism into idle mode to wait out the calendar’s rough spots.

Below, a roadside scene at Organ Pipe where Cholla cacti and Saguaros are set against the Ajo Range. On the other side of the mountains is the 4,340 square mile Tohono O’odham (‘Desert People’) reservation, the second largest in the country.


Where there’s water, plant life adapts and changes gears.  At Quitobaquito Springs near the border, trees and a wild tangle of grasses edge a pond.




This harsh land has a strange beauty. The image below is an Ocotillo plant with the Ajo Mountains in the background. The Ocotillo’s peculiar spindly form is an odd favorite of mine. I was introduced to the plant at Joshua Tree National Park in California. It was good to see the Ocotillo’s eccentric scribbles punctuate the landscape again in southern Arizona.

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Some Ocotillos sport striped branches that contrast with new leaves, others don’t. Another adaptation? Maybe. The small, tough leaves can appear a few days after a good rain and fall off in dry spells, the plant going dormant for years if necessary.


This is Jumping cholla, or Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida). This specimen, with its balanced, formal symmetry, reminds me of Victorian decoration.

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Below is another Cholla cactus, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigloveii). Its tiny, backward hooked spines are like little velcro magnets – get anywhere near them and watch out! They will detach and seem to jump right onto you. Good luck removing them! At Joshua Tree in California I saw a discarded T shirt in a Cholla patch – picking out the spines just wasn’t worth the effort (it would have been nice if they’d packed it out).  This cactus is also known for the way its spines catch the light with a warm glow at dusk.


We were too early to see cactus flowers, except for a few. Below, the bud of a cactus, possibly a species of Mammillaria. Many species of Mammillaria cactus grow in Mexico but only a few thrive in the US, at least in the wild. They are popular as cultivated cacti. Below the flower, a barrel cactus with last year’s fruit, well protected behind a thick ring of sharp spines.




Below, a rare Elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) wedges its water-swollen trunk and  branches into the poor soil of a rocky hillside. I would have inhaled deeply if I’d known the tree has a wonderfully pungent fragrance, which I learned later online (no interpretive sign for that!). With all the moisture it can store, the Elephant tree can go a year without rain, but it is very susceptible to cold, which is why it’s more common across the border in Mexico. The tree’s tiny leaves arrayed on delicate branches contrast with the tough-barked, swollen trunk. The leaves’ pores open at night, another way to conserve water.

Some indigenous people who used the reddish sap as medicine cautioned that it must be kept out of sight. There seem to be layers of mystery around this species – I was drawn to the tree and I wanted to sit under it for an hour, just feeling its essence. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have that luxury when traveling. I’ll try to remember these lessons for my next trip:

  1. Read up more before you go, if possible
  2. Work in time to just sit and take it all in.





Another intriguing desert adaptation is the relationship between the Phainopepla, a medium sized bird, and the Desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum). When the bird eats mistletoe berries while perched on the branch of a host tree, the seeds are left behind, typically in a perfect spot for future germination.  This mistletoe is a hemiparasite that grows on desert trees and shrubs. Below you can see the berries growing close up, and Desert mistletoe in a Palo Verde tree.






I bet that’s a Phainopepla feather caught on that mistletoe branch…

Our own adaptations to changing circumstances – physical, emotional, intellectual – may be less obvious at first glance than those of the plants at Organ Pipe, but they are just as interesting. Let’s hope we as a species can be as successful in evolving with rather than against our surroundings.


* Taking travel photographs is challenging.  Every time I travel to a new place, excitement takes over. When I get home I realize all the things I forgot to do: I should have used a different aperture, I shouldn’t have left the polarizing filter on, I should have composed more carefully, held the camera steady, checked the exposure, etc. Maybe I should tape a small sign on my camera the next time I travel that says, “Stop. Think.”  The most successful photos above are thanks to practiced eyes and the miracles of digital cameras and software, in spite of an over-excited mind. The less successful ones are lessons.


A New Year’s Day visit to Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory was a pleasant diversion on a cold, damp first day of the year. The century-old glass house shelters a good variety of meticulously tended plants nestled happily in a palm house, a cactus and succulent house, a fern house, a bromeliad house, AND a seasonal house. Plenty to keep me occupied.


Conservatories are wonderful places to renew your senses but they’re challenging places to photograph, with the riot of shapes, colors and textures all layered on top of one another.


I look for simpler scenes and abstractions. Zeroing in on a plant detail is one way to make visual sense of the rich experience – so the cactus house is a natural starting point.












Spanish moss (Tilandsia) drapes around an iron support in the Bromeliad house.



The palm house boasts an elegant orchid display, but the flowers resist being photographed, at least by me. The angle is wrong, someone is in the way, the background is too busy, too many flowers are crowded together. Looking up soothes my frustration.







Another place I look for images is windows, when they fog up from humidity or dirt.  You can get very painterly abstracts, looking through the clouded windows – from outside (first and fourth) or from inside (second and third). The resulting images aren’t for everyone but they’re some of my favorites.











At the end of the year the conservatory sets up an elaborate old Lionel train in the seasonal house, complete with old figurines waiting at the station. The whistle blows and sometimes smokes – it’s charming.


And the flowers! I didn’t ignore them altogether. Though I concentrated on leaves and on  finding abstract images, a few flowers cooperated too:







I needed those sweet splashes of color!  We stayed until closing – 3:00 pm on this holiday – and saw many disappointed people peering in as we left.



In a week I’m off to a desolate spot in the Arizona desert where I expect to be fascinated by the landscape and plants. I hope to see new birds and deeply moving night skies – there are very few towns where we’re going. Most of all I expect to be surprised – can’t wait for that!












The Pleasures of a New Camera

Saturday was another gray, wet day, added to a month of near record-breaking rain. Indoors seemed like a good place to be, but I was eager to try out my new camera. I thought about Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory – should be perfect – so I drove over.

I can’t resist a glass house.  This one is small, well kept and comfortable. Built in 1912 in a traditional Victorian design, it is centered around a central palm house, with a seasonal display house and a fern house on either side. At the ends of the broad, spreading building are a cacti/succulent house and a bromeliad house. For Christmas an old model train is set up in the seasonal house and surrounded by poinsettias – nothing new or novel, but it’s a sweet tradition.

I started in the cactus house.

The new camera is an Olympus, the first Olympus I’ve owned. It’s a micro four thirds, or ILC – interchangeable lens – camera. They’re smaller than DSLR’s but do just about all the same things. The market for ILC’s is growing as the technology improves. The DSLR market is dropping off, but of course the edge is owned by smartphones, Go Pro’s and drones. I’m not ready for a drone or a Go Pro and my smartphone isn’t versatile enough.  I like a smaller camera but compacts don’t cut it –  I want to use different lenses, be able to focus manually, have an articulating LCD screen and a viewfinder – just for starters.

My last camera was a Panasonic Lumix G3, also a micro four thirds. A few months ago the LCD screen died. So every photo I’ve taken for the last couple of months has been kind of blind – I can’t review shots on the screen, can’t use it to see settings – nada. Repairing the screen costs almost as much as replacing the camera (no surprise!). I started looking at alternatives – maybe it was a sign that it’s time for a different camera.

In a local camera store I held an Olympus OM-D EM-5. Very nice. The lenses I already have for my Lumix would fit it.  That’s huge. Then I tried the EM-1 – even nicer! It had a film camera feel, the buttons and grip were comfortable in my hands, it was solidly built, with WiFi and weatherproofing (I can be rough on things).  Though it’s not a new model, the salesman said a huge firmware update was due in November, with many performance enhancements, like focus stacking.  I thought it over, waited, thought some more…

Then Santa came – hurrah! (Santa’s an expert at finding the best deal).

It’s always a learning curve when you move to a different system and this one is a lot more complex than the Lumix. Things got prickly.

At times I felt like tearing my hair out.

I persevered and found a good video online that reviews the camera – that made a big difference. Who writes those manuals, anyway???

I took a few photos around the house, trying to figure out the focusing. Then I went out. It was Christmas afternoon, and I got to the good espresso place just in the nick of time – it was closing early.  (First things first!)

The rain stopped for a moment so I went to the lake, two minutes from the cafe, to try the camera outdoors.

This is straight out of the camera, nothing at all done to it. The camera did well with poor and difficult lighting.

It still felt alien though, and I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.  There are a million options on this camera – for example, you can see in the photo above that I was using the 16:9 image size option, for a long, skinny landscape shot. When you’re not familiar with your camera, finding the button or series of clicks or whatever to change options is torture! I really didn’t want every single photo to be in those proportions. You just have to spend some time figuring it out.

Back at home I started playing with a setting called Art Filter, which I think is unique to the Olympus cameras (other than the hundreds of special effect apps you can download onto your smartphone). There’s pop color, sepia, watercolor, vintage, pinhole, etc. One intrigued me  – soft focus.  I thought it would be good for plants and flowers.

It was. I was impressed with the smooth tones and retention of detail.

I wasn’t using a tripod. That’s impossible in a space like the conservatory. Besides, I’m an impulsive, walk-around kind of photographer. I brought three lenses with me. I quickly removed the 20mm in favor of a macro and used that one lens the rest of the afternoon.

The camera has five direction image stabilization built into the camera, and I think it made a difference. As the day wore on and the ambient light grew dimmer, I could still get sharp detail with very little noise.



On to the other houses –

A fallen Alamanda flower.

The palm house has orchid displays.


I framed a photo looking up through a giant Monstera deliciosa leaf.  This is the kind of high contrast shot a lot of cameras would have trouble with – not this one.

The mature leaves have these cool holes and are called fenestrate – the French word for window is fenetre, so there you go! This plant is a vine and an epiphyte. It has aerial roots, and produces tasty fruit, though I’ve never had it.

Went crazy with the soft focus here –

Spanish moss (Tilandsia useneoides) is plentiful in the Bromeliad house, and epiphytes of many types hang from supports everywhere.

I don’t know what this flower is; it was hanging at about face height. It looks like a confection dusted with sugar. The conservatory has many delights – a little waterfall set with ferns, a bog garden with carnivorous plants like the red-edged plant above, Nepenthes alata, other odd plants, and many repeating plants, which lend consistency as you walk through.

The photo below was taken with my phone, looking towards the bog area. You can see what a pleasure this place is on a December afternoon.

I love the way conservatory windows steam up.  Two views from inside are above (without filters or special effects), and below, a view from the outside. A Tilandsia of some kind presses hard against the glass.

And the train set-up – I didn’t realize until I got home how old the figures are. I should have taken more pictures of them. Last year, the train blew it’s horn AND blew smoke, but on this day, no smoke. Still nice! And it was the perfect shot for another art filter  – Diorama.

The conservatory from the outside:


I think this camera’s going to be fun.




The Saguaro cactus – that powerful symbol of America’s Old West – is a fairly common sight in southern Arizona, where the Sonoran desert extends its range from Mexico.  Tucson has a huge park devoted to the Saguaro, and they dot the landscape around Phoenix, too. While awaiting our flight home out of Phoenix recently we went to the Desert Botanical Garden, hoping to inspect Saguaros and other cacti at close range.  Admission was $37.00 for the two of us – that’s rough!  We noticed a few acres of attractive desert habitat around the road leading to the garden. Weighing our options, we decided to park in the lot and walk the “wrong” way down the road. Then we wandered at will, with no paths, signs or amenities to distract us.

I doubt that fallen Saguaros are left to rot in such splendor on the other side of the fence. We enjoyed seeing the cactus structure bared as it slowly releases itself to the elements. The crisp “skin” felt like hard plastic. Anchored by a long tap root, the cactus puts out many shallow roots near the surface. When it rains, the Saguaro drinks deeply and saves the bounty. Saguaros grow slowly in the hostile desert habitat and can live to be over a hundred years old. The small cactus above nestled among larger stems might already be 30 years old!  We observed a bird there that we identified as the Gila Woodpecker – it makes its home inside the saguaro; you can see the holes below. How it perches amidst those spines, let alone excavates a nest hole, is hard to imagine.

This fellow gets props from the garden staff:


It rained in Phoenix that day – funny because we were on our way back to Seattle, which has a big reputation for rain.  Seattle Seahawks fans were already arriving for the Superbowl the following week, so locals blamed the rain on them  –  I mean, us. 😉

The gloomy, glaring light wasn’t good for photography but it was fun to inspect and photograph the many specimens and strange forms, even under the poor light.  Though the Saguaro’s subtle colors are quite beautiful, I thought a monochromatic Saguaro essay would be interesting. I processed the photos in Lightroom and OnOne Black and White Suite. I didn’t use a consistent style because certain images seem to lend themselves to particular treatments.

Incidentally, we really enjoyed our little adobe house in the desert, far from the nearest town (and about a hundred miles from Tucson). It had everything we needed, including a composting toilet and shower in a separate building. I quickly got used to running between the buildings with my flashlight, and inhaling the cool desert air outside, the scent of pine shavings inside. Here’s our place at dawn with the Dragoon Mountains in the background. Below is the bathing facility.

If you’ll be in the area, I recommend staying at the Dragoon Mountain Guesthouse. The hosts are wonderful people.  We had everything we needed but we felt like we were the only people around (Barbara even gave us birdseed to scatter near the window so we could watch birds while eating breakfast).  If you’d like to know how to construct a straw bale house, which the owners did while staying in the adobe house (they built that too!) read about it on their website here.




Wandering through Seattle’s Volunteer Park Conservatory keeps me sane in winter months. It can’t compare to the Enid Haupt Conservatory that I used to visit in New York, but like so many places in Seattle, it has a charm of its own.

The holiday season means pretty lights and a room full of poinsettias – not my favorite plant, but oh well – with a model train running through it. When the holiday cuteness irritates my aesthetic sense the Cactus House, with its quiet gray-green colors and interesting shapes, satisfies. There’s also the Bromiliad House, and a Palm House set with orchids tucked into glass cases surrounded by Maidenhair ferns, so really, what better place on a gray winter day?

Here is an admittedly eccentric group of images from a visit last week:



This week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge  is Pattern.  It’s everywhere.

Ponder this:

Does the key to the ubiquity of patterns in our world lie within our perceiving brain, or outside of us? Both? Is there any way to know?

And this:

“How is it that a man made, artificial, technological system is behaving like a natural system?  The more efficient it becomes, the more it looks like nature…”  From a video by Jason Silva called, TO UNDERSTAND IS TO PERCEIVE PATTERNS.

Watch it – it’s only 105 seconds long, and it will set your brain spinning.

Read about Jason Silva, who’s been called and “Idea DJ” whose short videos are “shots of philosophical espresso.”  Hey, no wonder I liked that video!


Patterns have always motivated artists. Whether you locate them inside your perceiving brain, or outside in “nature”  (however you define that), they’re ubiquitous.   I need to narrow down this vast subject, so I’ve chosen patterns in leaves and branches, because they have interested me as long as I can remember.  I’ve abstracted these photographs in Photoshop, mostly using the Posterize and Cutout filters. It’s clear that the patterns I perceived here are at least partly inside my head.  I suspect some will resonate with patterns in your head, too.














More PATTERNS await discovery at the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge.

To spin your mind harder, try googling “Pattern perception brain” and then add “Philosophy.”  The two links below look interesting, but it’s warm and sunny out, it’s spring, and I think my brain’s telling me it’s had enough of the computer screen. For now.

More From the Conservatory

This cactus has a very blue cast. I wonder what those two furry places are in the center – the beginning of flowers?  In any case, this cactus is an attention getter, with its big size and fuzzy textures.  I’m not one for anthropomorphizing or getting cute, but I have to say, this cactus has the look of a Sesame Street character.

Long ago I had a temporary job in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden – what a gorgeous, magical place to work. I loved it, hard work and all, but weeding the beds in the desert houses is tricky – at least once I got a bottom-full of cactus spines after squatting down to weed in a narrow space.

This is a Tillandsia, a kind of “air plant” that obtains moisture and nutrients through the air, using other plants as a support. These dry looking plants have beautiful gray green color and pleasing symmetry.

This is some kind of Bromeliad. They also absorb moisture from the air, collecting it in the central rosette, where there is often enough water to harbor insects, or even animals, which depend on it. The shiny red and deep green leaves in this species are not at all subtle!  The flower is in the middle, and that’s Spanish moss in the right-hand corner.

As I took the photo on a longish exposure, I turned the lens to zoom out, creating the blur. You could do this with a tripod and get the center more perfectly in focus but I have little patience for tripods.

Next time I have to be more disciplined about noting the names…this is an I-don’t-know plant, in the cactus house.

Another Tillandsia.   The image was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.  I moved the camera a little when I took it, to emphasize the exuberant feeling of movement in the leaves.

Also in the Cactus House, I’m pretty sure this is an agave. These succulent plants bloom only once, and were an important food source in the drier, warmer parts of the Americas where they grow. I zoomed the lens again to blur the image, then made the digital color photo into a black and white image in Lightroom.

All photos taken recently at the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle. It’s looking greener and greener outside here – no need to depend on a conservatory for botanical inspiration. Soon I’ll go out and dodge the raindrops for photos of buds, blossoms and branches.