A Spare Beauty




















































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Just six months ago I was reveling in Spring flowers and the lengthening days of May. The air was charged with promise, and each time I went outdoors I knew I would find even more beauty. November’s pleasures are not as obvious, but they can get under your skin. There are days I have to force myself to go out into the wet chill – not only is it unpleasantly dark and wet, but I don’t expect the abundance of visual treats that I find in Spring.

I look harder these days to find the beauty, much harder. In this darkening time of year the rewards can be dramatic – mysterious dark woodlands, raging rivers, the ruined grace of a last leaf clinging to a branch tip.

Our native Vine maples (Acer circinatum) are some of the last trees to drop their leaves.  The species is variable; some trees show off in shades of green, yellow, orange and rose all at once, while others present a restrained palette of yellows and golds.  The play of light on a Vine maple’s golden leaves creates a delicately romantic scene even on an overcast day. The trees throw a warm wash of light onto a dim woodland where dark, hulking evergreens suck out the light (#1, #9).

Like certain Japanese maples, the Vine maple’s leaves are rounded but also lobed (#6 & #7). In fact, this tree is the only representative of its group outside Asia; it’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples. A smaller under-story tree with an open habit and delicate branches, it can be easy to overlook, especially among the massive cedars, firs and hemlocks.

The leaves in #2 and #3, are obviously maple leaves but they have more deeply cut lobes than the Vine maple. They’re from our native Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a large deciduous tree with huge leaves that have mostly fallen to the ground by this time of year. The leaves make a rich mulch on the forest floor, and on the fallen cedars and Douglas firs that interrupt the forest (#17).  Ferns, shrubs and more trees will take root on top of these logs, thanks to all the decaying biomass and our wet climate.

Three photos (#4, #9, #10) show scenes at Moss Lake Natural Area, a county wetland preserve. Many trees around Moss Lake are covered with deep layers of moss, lichens and ferns, like the tall Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla; #9).  As tree stumps slowly rot they too play host to deep layers of moss (#10), providing perfect spots for seedlings to get started. The preserve’s shallow, boggy lake (#15) is a calm setting for a clump of rushes (Juncus sp.).

Four of these photos (#5, #12, #13, #14) were taken in the rain on a day trip into the mountains.  Index, a small town about an hour northeast of Seattle, has a reputation for the best rock-climbing in the state, on rock like the granite face seen in #14. You can bet no one was climbing on the cold, rainy day we were there, as the North Fork Skykomish River raged past the town under low clouds ( #12, #13) and Red alders receded into the fog (#5).

Deception Falls (#4) is about 75 miles from Seattle and about ten minutes this side of a pass over the North Cascade Range. Deception Creek tumbles steeply over rocks as it meets the Tye River here, and an old growth forest dripping with mosses and ferns makes it a magical spot, even in the rain. When we left the house the sun was peeking out, but as so often happens this time of year, by the time we hit the foothills and began climbing the road into the Cascades, we were under rain clouds. I huddled under a tree to change lenses as carefully as I could, but sure enough, I let a raindrop fall on the sensor so most of the photos have a big smudge on them. Oh well, it’s fine now and we’ll go back another day!

#16 was taken at Marymoor Park, at the head of Lake Sammamish. The round leaves are the Fragrant waterlily, an import from eastern North America that’s an invasive weed here, pretty as it is.

Magnificent trees, serene lakes, fern-covered forest floors – they wouldn’t be the same without our wet climate, and they really are beautiful any time of year. You just have to go out and look.










It’s been rainy and dreary here, and from what I’ve heard the gray, wet weather is bothering a lot of people.   The weekend forecast showed a brightening trend last Saturday so I took advantage of it. Chores and errands be damned – I was desperate to get out.

We drove east across the valley and up through the Cascade foothills to Moss Lake Natural Area, a beautiful spruce and hemlock forest set around a small lake.

As the county’s description reads, it is “372 acres of high-quality wetland and forested upland habitats” with “an extensive 150-acre wetland complex” including a sphagnum bog, where peat was extracted in the past. Recently preserved, the land is surrounded by vast tracts of corporately owned forest, most of it regularly logged.

That may not sound good, but it’s better than the land being sectioned off bit by bit and offered up for sale to the highest bidder, as the suburbs push their way into the mountains. Just down the road another small lake is surrounded by houses. Here, the only dwellings are non-human. Most are hidden from view.

Raindrops clung to every branch and leaf on the shore of the shallow lake.  A squadron of Bufflehead ducks dove and swam in the distance.

The lake shore, with it’s grasses and line of tall evergreens, was reflected upside down in each drop:

It was broody weather, but it held! We spent almost three hours wandering around up there, with only occasional sprinkles to worry us. Lucky.

A well-maintained path winds through Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, Red alder and Big Leaf Maple woods – except when a giant falls and blocks the way.

Many trees in the wet Pacific northwest are covered with mosses and lichens. When winds are strong, the trees fling samples down to your feet for a close view.

Here’s a small branch covered with Usnea and Hypnogymnia lichens, mosses, and who knows what else. I love the lichens’ soft, cool green color and varied textures.



A torn Vine maple leaf slowly disintegrates on a bed of Hylocomnium splendens, or Stairstep moss. One of my favorite Pacific Northwest mosses, it grows abundantly, forming soft, leafy mats on stumps or logs or any shady spot with decaying wood.

In certain places the woods present an incredibly complex scene in which patterns are hard to discern. I photograph it anyway. I know this isn’t a proper landscape with a clear focal point, but it does convey the chaos of patches of this forest.

In other places with little undergrowth and fewer species, patterns are clear: tree trunk, branch, moss, repeat. Just sprinkle generously with sword fern and voila! A less chaotic scene.

From time to time the sun shone through cloud windows, creating a neon effect on the moss clinging to the tree trunks.

A stand of hemlocks rose higher than we could see, their broken lower limbs pure sculpture.

This Big Leaf maple’s trunk arcs and bends to carve a light-filled space in the woods. Springing from the moss are graceful flourishes of Licorice fern.


Time to play. I set the camera to shutter priority and swung it around with the shutter open for one full second. It was refreshing not to hold on tightly to keep from blurring my shots. Blurring can be good…

I switch back and forth between the overall “forest” view and the closer “trees” view. The old expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees” may apply to me a bit, but I try to step back and get both views.

I like the way these turned out. It would be fun to print them up huge, but I suspect it would take plenty of tries before it looked right. Seeing images on a computer screen is so different than seeing them printed on paper.

On the way home we passed through Snoqualmie Valley again, taking the smaller roads. We stopped at an oxbow lake that must have once been part of the loopy Snoqualmie River. The snowy Cascade foothills shown blue in the distance, partly – and poetically – hidden by clouds. Mallards laughed heartily on the lake as the sun disappeared.