JUST ONE: Maidenhair Fern…

AND THOUGHTS ON AMERICA’S HISTORY OF RACISM

Last night and the night before I watched violence in the streets of Seattle on TV as events unfolded before the eyes of the public. Live news coverage of protests continued for hours, but it only took a few minutes for me to feel depressed, weary, exhausted, and hopeless. A reporter made the point that these protests – or was that even the right word for burning cars and looting? – looked different from Seattle’s 1999 WTO protests, when a World Trade Organization meeting was confronted with tens of thousands of protesters blocking delegates’ access and an overwhelmed, unprepared police force. That time, protestors had a clear target: globalization. In contrast, there was a randomness to these protests; as a woman expressed disappointment that her planned, peaceful demonstration had been hijacked, looters ran behind her with North Face jackets over their arms and cars went up in flames.

Underpinning it all, the driver of the current crop of violence and protests is our long history of racism, a history that, in my mind, we have not even begun to address. No wonder George Floyd is dead, no wonder Trayvon Martin lost his life. No wonder Eric Garner is dead, no wonder Ahmaud Arbery lost his life. The list goes on and on, back to the men and women who died on slave ships on their way to what – the promised land? Our country hasn’t faced what we did and keep doing, we haven’t made restitution, we have turned away. The turning away is profound and results in so much loss – loss of life, loss of dignity, loss of possibility.

I grew up in profound ignorance of this part of America’s story. Surely there were discussions of slavery in our grade school history lessons, but in our all-white classroom it wouldn’t have seemed very real. I don’t remember even seeing a person of color until I was ten, when we traveled from our quiet, upstate New York neighborhood to southern Georgia. My eyes were wide as we drove past a black woman weaving baskets for sale by the side of the road. My heart leaped at the sound of a quartet of black men singing spirituals on a sultry night. My mind puzzled over a black woman baking biscuits for her white employer’s family and my grandfather’s racist remarks. I longed to understand what seemed like a different reality. And different it was, because of the legacy of white culture’s investment in slavery.

After I left home my understanding of the other reality that was black America took shape down a rocky road of close friendships, interpersonal violence, even a drowning. I was deeply entangled in a fraught inheritance as victim, and on some level, as perpetrator. I’m far away from those times now but many incidents left deep scars on my psyche. Often it seems there’s no making sense of any of it. That’s the despair talking. That’s how I felt watching TV last night.

Retreating into a pretty world of graceful plants – and the Maidenhair fern certainly fits that bill – is tempting but I couldn’t simply proceed with this post as if nothing else was happening. Between racism, the pandemic and a changing climate, there is much to mourn today. Making sense of it seems impossible but we need to make the effort. And we need to turn away at some point, if only to breathe. Yes, I used that word “breathe” intentionally. George Floyd literally couldn’t breathe and so he died. We all need to breathe some better air. I offer this brief respite in the hope that you will come away from it breathing better, if only metaphorically. In Zen practice I learned the Three Precepts: to cease from evil, to do good, and to do good for others. In another iteration: to not create evil, to practice good and to actualize good for others. I see it as a continuum. We can at least try to place ourselves on it, somewhere, once we catch our breath.

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And now to the lovely Maidenhair fern, which you may already know. It’s graceful fronds invite contemplation. They sway in the breeze on long, impossibly thin stalks, they shed rain but love wet places, they please the eye with the regularity of their patterns, like small green ladders in the woods, arrayed in circles.

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The Maidenhair fern is sold as a garden plant and grows wild in many places – North America, China, the Andes, New Zealand, Europe – even Bermuda has its own Maidenhair fern. There are around 250 different species of Adiantum, a genus name that means unwetted, for the way water beads up on the leaves.

The species found in my area is called Adiantum aleuticum. Aleutian maidenhair fern ranges from Alaska to Mexico and is also found on the other side of the country, from Newfoundland to Vermont. I don’t remember where or when I saw a Maidenhair fern the first time. Maybe it was in a conservatory that I was first captivated by the graceful, delicate patterns of its leaves. Every time I find one my breath draws in sharply. Oh! A Maidenhair!!

There aren’t many colonies here on Fidalgo Island; we’re too dry for this moisture-lover. The few places I’ve found it growing here are rocky, wet cliffsides in shady locations. Further inland it can be found in rich, moist woods. Once I saw it entwined with Sword fern AND Lady fern – a trio of repeating patterns in bright green.

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5. Three different native ferns intertwine along a trail in Snohomish County, Washington.


6. Pendant Maidenhair fern fronds on a rocky bank along a rural road in Skagit County, Washington.


7. Maidenhair ferns growing in a cave near the beach at Shelter Cove, in Northern California.

8. A garden specimen unfurls delicate fronds in March at Kruckeberg Garden in Seattle.
9. A cultivated Maidenhair fern frond is nestled in a Hosta leaf at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

10. Masses of Maidenhair fern make a lush accent for the trees at Washington Arboretum in Seattle. Look carefully and you can see the difference between this cultivated fern and the native species.
11. Maidenhair ferns grow near a power plant at Newhalem, Washington, deep in the North Cascades.

12. I found this Maidenhair on a wet cliff at Multnomah Falls, along the Columbia River in Oregon.

13. These leaflets look exactly like tiny Gingko tree leaves! That’s what I love about this plant – the endless discoveries you can make when you study its form.

14. The colors have been altered in this photo but the stems often do have a purple cast.

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Fern reproduction is a complicated business. You probably know that ferns have spores rather than seeds. On many, but not all ferns, spores are carried on the undersides of the leaves and that’s the case with Maidenhair ferns. Sometime in summer, the margins of fertile leaflets curl under and spores begin to grow. Tiny, dust-like spores are piled in sori (from the Greek for ‘heaps’) also called fruitdots. The sori are covered by a thin membrane which is pushed aside once the spores are ripe. In the case of Maidenhair ferns, the membrane protecting the spores is simply the rolled edge of the leaflet. In some of these photos (e.g. #13 & 16) the rolled margins of leaflets can be seen – that’s where the Maidenhair fern hides it’s precious spores.

When they ripen, the spores will burst out of their cases and get blown around by the wind. Ferns produce prodigious amounts of spores and since there are so many, some are bound to land in just the right place. But spores don’t create ferns directly – first, there’s an intermediate stage, the gametophyte. A little hair anchors it into the soil and it grows, cell by cell, into a very small, heart-shaped body on which the sexual organs form. With a little moisture, male sperm will swim across to the female organs and eggs will be fertilized. An egg then develops a root, a stem, and finally, the first little leaf. Every time I read about fern reproduction I think, why can’t I find one of those little heart-shaped fern gametophytes? They’re just too small. My eyes are distracted by so many other things.

The fine, dark smooth stems of Maidenhair ferns have been used in basketry by North American tribes, and there was some medicinal use as well. In some European countries a sweetened syrup is made with Maidenhair fern leaves. Called Capillaire or Capile in Portugal, it’s been used in cocktails and to treat symptoms of illnesses like sore throats and bronchitis. The medicinal uses of Adiantum in Iranian traditional medicine are discussed in a recent scientific study. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Adiantum plant species, too. And a Seattle-based school of herbalism and foraging is called Adiantum School of Plant Medicine.

A plant with such a wide distribution has probably had many other uses through the ages. For me, it’s enough to just look at it. This fern never fails to delight, no matter how many times I might see it.

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15. In October the fern’s leaves begin to turn gold.

16. By November Maidenhair fern has turned brown. The leaves will persist for months.
18. A piece of plant detritus has fallen onto a fresh frond in the woods.

19. At Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, Maidenhair fern is used as a filler in plantings. Sometimes it escapes, as it did here, pushing through cracks in a display table.

20. Maidenhair fern drapes luxuriously over Camellias at Volunteer Park Conservatory.

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UNDENIABLE

The urge to get outside, to create, to look in wonder and enter into the season – it’s undeniable.

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From the bottom,

Crab apple blossoms, Maidenhair fern, a pine cone, a Magnolia branch in flower, A Magnolia bloom, fallen Magnolia flower petals, maple twigs with their dangling flower parts, more Maidenhair ferns in black and white, last year’s Magnolia leaf, chewed by insects, and the long, elegant needles of the Montezuma pine. All were seen Friday at Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington.

Note on processing:

I procrastinated about buying the excellent Nik Silver Efex program for converting color photos to black and white. It was just as well because last week, the program became free to all, along with several other Nik programs for digital processing. I’m just getting the hang of it and I expect I’ll find the suite of programs very useful. The first photo, of a pine bough, takes a bright, sunshiny image to a dark place, thanks to the Color Efex program; the second photo’s creaminess was exaggerated with that program’s settings, too.  Sometimes though, it’s best to leave well enough alone – the final photo has only very minor tweaks in Lightroom.

All photos taken with an OM D-1 with Olympus 60mm f 2.8 macro lens. Yes, I brought other lenses, but I only had two hours. Changing lenses takes time, to switch out the lens and to reboot your eyes to the new lens. Besides, I just love this lens.

Next some near-abstract images, also derived from outdoor shots. Coming soon…

As Natural as a Walk in the Park

Recently seen

in my neck of the woods,

where

the green machine has been working overtime:

rain-empowered

sun-sparked

and

(mostly)

upward bound.

 

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All but three photographs were taken on the Lime Kiln Trail in Robe Canyon Park, near Granite Falls, Washington, with a Panasonic Lumix G3, kit lens.

From the top:

View of farm fields from the Snoqualmie trail (near Duvall, WA) with Cow Parsnip (Heraclatum lanatum) in the foreground.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), Lime Kiln Trail.

Cat-tail moss (Isothecium myosuroides).  This photo was desaturated.

Foxglove bud (Digitalis purpurea).   Also desaturated a bit.

Ripening Salmon-berries (Rubus spectabilis).

Thimble-berry flowers (Rubus parviflorus) and assorted fauna.

Unidentified moss – maybe a beaked moss – I don’t know, but it sure is pretty. And those are new leaves growing from the midribs of the old leaves!

A bend in the Lime Kiln Trail.

A bee on Manroot (Marah oreganus) on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (a 2x and a 4x filter were stacked on the lens for the close-up).

Another bee on Cow Parsnip, Snoqualmie Valley Trail, same lens set-up.

Western Red Cedar stump, probably cut about 80 years ago, Lime Kiln Trail.

Moss-covered Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) trees with Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), Lime Kiln Trail.

 

 

 

ABOVE IT ALL – BUT JUST A LITTLE

Another Photo Challenge is sparking ideas and sending photographers hunting for images taken “FROM ABOVE.”

Here is a collection of images, almost all from nature, that I have taken while looking down on my subject.

Since I was young I’ve liked looking down. Sometimes looking down flattens the space and creates interesting abstractions.

Sometimes looking down just keeps me anchored to the earth, or affords a view I hadn’t seen before.

Or, when there’s water involved, it’s a roundabout way of looking up.

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These photos were taken between January, 2010 and a few days ago, on Captiva Island, Florida, on the High Line in New York, at Bellevue Botanical Garden in Bellevue, Washington, at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden in New York, at Anthropologie in Philadelphia, in Spring Lake, New Jersey, near Tannersville, New York, along the Dosewallips River in Washington, in the Marckworth Forest in King County, Washington, in the Quinault Rainforest in Washington, and in old Robe Canyon on the South Fork Stillaguamish River in Washington.

More interpretations of this challenge can be found here.

Early Spring

I took a walk through Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle…Spring’s beauty is here.

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At the top of the stairs are Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), an evergreen native fern that’s characteristic of the Pacific Northwest.

The unfurling green fiddleheads are Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). When I crouched down among them it was like being in a miniature forest. I just about ruined my boots in the muck!

The cherry blossoms after the bench photo are Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa), native to parts of China. Its delicacy reminded me that hybrids may be spectacular, but species plants have their own beauty, often more subtle than the bright, beefy plants one sees at nurseries.

The twisted little unfurling ferns are Maidenhair fern (Adantium pedatum). One of my favorites, and how happy was I to find that they’re common in the woods here?

The white three-petaled flower is a Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). It was my FOS. What’s that?  Well, birders call birds they see for the first time each year, like a swallow returning in the spring, their First of Season, hence “FOS”.

As a child in upstate New York I haunted the woods behind our house, sometimes finding wild trilliums – white and a few times, pink. I really wanted to transplant them to our back yard, but I found out they were disappearing from habitat destruction and over picking, so I let them be. They must be gone now – a computer bird’s eye view of my old house shows only a thin, poor band of woods between it and a newer development.  When I moved here last year I was thrilled to find wild trilliums (a different species but very similar)  regularly in the woods. It seems that respect for the wild comes more naturally to people here than in New York.

Along the stream, moss and Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) grow happily. In the east Skunk cabbage is white but here, its bright yellow color lights up the early spring forest floor. The eastern variety has a different smell to me. Plants here smell more fragrant and less “skunk-y”, but it’s a heavy, strangely intoxicating, almost-perfume-but-almost-unpleasant odor. I like it.

I don’t know the names of the other cherry trees I photographed.  They’re well labeled, but once again I was caught up in the excitement and forgot to check.  The Prunus genus include almonds and peaches as well as cherries, and the Washington Arboretum lists over a hundred different Prunus varieties growing in the 230 acre park – all within Seattle city limits!

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It was still early

for cherry blossoms, and

it snowed a bit today, so I expect to

see more,

before the bloom is off

the branch

(but oh, the glorious, transient beauty of fallen cherry blossoms!)

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Blowing, Caught, Wafting, Swirling: Ever Present, Never Twice the Same

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Apologies to Robert Irwin, an artist whose granite marker, inscribed with the phrase,

EVER PRESENT

NEVER TWICE

THE SAME

was part of an installation on the grounds of Wave Hill, a New York City public garden where I worked in 1987.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Irwin_(artist)

THE SUBTLE COLORS OF JANUARY

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Photos taken at Markworth State Forest, Carnation, Washington, and on Cherry Valley Road, Duvall, Washington, on two frosty, early January afternoons.