The idea that bliss and transience go together may seem counterintuitive since we humans tend to get attached to things and usually find change challenging. But deep pleasure can come from experiencing impermanence. If you guessed that I’m thinking about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of spring, you’re right. In spring evanescent clouds mist the trees while flowers grow buds, bloom, and fade in a vivid parade that passes quickly. It’s hard not to want to make these fleeting moments last longer but maybe knowing that every gem-like spring flower is followed by a new one can ease the regret. Maybe fully sensing the beauty of life’s fluctuating rhythms is a better bliss than grasping at frozen bits of time.
Spring arrives in early February here with subtle, barely perceptible whispers. Buds swell, willows sport fuzzy catkins, and a few non-migrant birds sing tentatively. The leaves of certain orchids that won’t bloom for months appear in mossy places at the edge of the woods. This slow, steady unfolding is due to moderate temperatures – most of the time the thermometer doesn’t fall very low or rise very high. Cold Salish Sea waters that flow around our island even out the weather, creating optimal conditions for lush growth. As the days lengthen the greens that pervade our landscape intensify bit by bit, leaf by leaf. February, March, April, May, and June can all make claims on spring in the cool maritime Pacific Northwest.
This spring I was away for two weeks in April, during the height of the time when roadsides display one of my favorite sights: the soft-edged, lime-green haze of budding deciduous trees. Acutely aware of the progression of flora and fauna during springtime, I was afraid I might miss something while I was away. But when I returned it seemed that the world had held its breath – the trees were still bright and fluffy and the wildflower show was just getting started.
With my head still spinning out visions of red rock dreams, I stepped into the moist glow of green fields and forests to search for wildflowers. I was eager to check out all the familiar places that I’d been the month before, where I knew wildflowers should be in bloom. But there was one catch: a Northern elephant seal pup, the first known to be born on the island, needed attention too. As a volunteer “seal sitter” for a network that protects marine mammals on the west coast, I felt an obligation to guard the young elephant seal pup and help educate the public. His mother made the inconvenient choice to give birth at a busy state park (the one that happens to be my favorite) on Jan 31st. She nursed him for 26 days and then swam away, leaving him all alone. It’s normal for this species to nurse for about a month and then leave pups to fend for themselves but most elephant seals are born in colonies where the pups have plenty of company. This guy only had humans!
For two busy weeks, I bounced between volunteering, dips into local parks, physical therapy appointments, yoga classes, and the usual chores everyone needs to tick off their to-do list. As the weather got warmer, the park got busier and the human/wildlife interface became harder to control, as one of the photos in the slideshow makes clear. Finally, it was decided that it would be best for all concerned to move young Emerson the elephant seal to an uninhabited island where he wouldn’t be surrounded by curious people all day long. To keep chaos to a minimum, the public wasn’t notified in advance and even volunteers didn’t get the news until the day after he was relocated. Suddenly I was free of my obligation, which was a bittersweet relief. I’d grown fond of this character with his big, dark eyes, sleepy afternoons, and a predilection for resting under the signs we used to inform the public to stay at least 50 yards away. I was glad Joe and I spent a few hours with him the day before the big move. True to form, that afternoon he rested for hours next to one of the signs, then suddenly (suddenly for an elephant seal looks nothing like suddenly for a chipmunk) decided to mosy down to the water, just to stick his nose in. Swimming is what seals are supposed to do but during his time at the park, Emerson mostly slept.
I learned a lot about Northern elephant seals over the last three months. I also came to see the park and its habitat differently. My sense of this park now encompassed an odd creature needing protection, a never-ending stream of curious humans with their dogs, and an assortment of signs and orange traffic cones that had to be moved every day because you never knew where Emerson would turn up in the morning. My cherished vision of this space as a sanctuary made way for a concept that sometimes seemed more like a zoo than a refuge. I wasn’t always happy about that but I learned a lot. It’s good to know this old brain can still be flexible.
But what about the wildflowers? I’ve been outside making the rounds, peering at the ground. The little gems won’t be here for long and that’s the beauty of it – they keep me fully awake in the present.
Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm, Without looking for the traces I may have left; A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home, Hearing this, I tilt my head to see Who has told me to turn back; But do not ask me where I am going, As I travel in this limitless world, Where every step I take is my home.
~ Eihei Dogen
from Heine, Steven, translator.Zen Poetry of Dogen. by Eihei Dogen. Tuttle Publishing, 1997.
In any case, here’s a collection that reflects my deep appreciation for “Spring ephemerals,” the fleeting wildflowers of spring that appear and depart all too quickly. These photographs were made within fifteen minutes of home, over the past five weeks.
This is a long, immersive post that you may want to linger over.
After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.
Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.
It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.
One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.
The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.
The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.
We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.
Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.
We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!
*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.
The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.
But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.
In January I wrote a “Local Walks” post about Washington Park, a 220-acre, wooded park about 20 minutes from home. I found out about this captivating place in 2017 but I lived far away then, near Seattle. After moving to Fidalgo Island in 2018, I could visit the park more often. Then, when COVID-19 restrictions closed another favorite park in March, I became a regular as Washington Park remained open for walkers, bikers and to a limited extent, auto traffic. Almost all of the Fawn lily photos from my last post were taken here, as well as the Calypso orchid photos in the previous post. Needless to say, this little dot on the globe is playing a big part in my life. I’m so very thankful it exists.
The park has too many stories for me to begin sorting them out: the history includes a one-dollar-a-pie Lemon pie sale that local women organized in 1922 to raise funds to expand the park; the geology includes an unusual mid-Jurassic period rock ledge which was once part of the earth’s mantle; the park’s flora includes leafless, rootless orchids that spring out of the ground only to hide in plain sight and an odd little fern that looks like parsley and thrives in infertile serpentine soils. Let’s not forget the stories of the people who use the park every day, walking their dogs on the 2-mile loop road, camping under the tall trees, boating, picnicking, exploring tide pools at low tide, hand-feeding Chickadees and chipmunks, or even grabbing a 25-cent shower in one of several clean restrooms (I’m always pleasantly surprised to find a clean restroom in a park).
Some stories with personal meaning include the times I’ve spotted seals and porpoises from the shore, days spent exploring trails that wind through the woods and up and down the grassy balds, the surprise of mating Oystercatchers, and the peaceful times I’ve spent gazing across the water at vibrant sunsets. You can see why I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll let the pictures tell the story. Enjoy!
Where do all those Latin names come from? Because common names vary from place to place, they can be confusing, imprecise and misleading. Latin names are a universal language. I try to include them often so that readers from other countries or other parts of North America can understand what plant I’m referring to.
The sources I use regularly include the internet (e.g. Wikipedia and iNaturalist), Daniel Mathews’ excellent reference book, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Pojar & Mackinnon’s Plants of Coastal British Columbia, the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers and Lyons’ Wildflowers of Washington. I actually enjoy searching through these books and online resources to figure out what I’ve seen, and then learning about it – it’s like detective work.
Spring proceeds on its own schedule, without effort or hindrance. It may be wetter or slower or colder than we think it should be, but those notions are just concepts that we layer onto our experience. Spring doesn’t listen to that. Without considering our opinions or preferences, buds open, birds sing, frogs lay eggs, insects buzz…
…and the flowers, the flowers. Lately one in particular enchants me: the Fawn lily, Erythronium oregonum.
Clean and delicate, the elegant, six-petaled lilies appear in early to mid-spring, in moist woodlands or prairies from northwest California to British Columbia. About two dozen other species of Erythronium occur in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Iran and the Caucasus. Like tulips, they are members of the Lily family. Generally, lilies have flower parts arranged in threes, grow from bulbs and flourish in temperate regions. Their simplicity of form is very appealing.
The Fawn lilies here on Fidalgo Island have been beautiful. Last April I was away almost all month and the April before that, I didn’t live here, so this is my first April on Fidalgo Island. It’s been a month of discoveries and finding dozens of graceful Fawn lilies in parks and preserves near home has been thrilling.
The flowers I admire today have taken years to come into bloom; they’re nothing like the sprouts you might grow at home or grass seed that greens up a lawn in a matter of days. I could begin the cycle anywhere but I’ll start with January, when the winds of winter have their way with branches, leaves, bark chunks, needles, cones and lichen scraps, sending them all raining down onto the forest floor where they slowly decompose. In March the ground is still a chaotic tangle of broken fragments holding little promise. But deep under the soil, Fawn lily seeds are busy growing. The first visible effort isn’t very dramatic – just one small leaf will emerge, probably during the wet weather of autumn. But the leaf will grow, and so will the bulb.
The next year another leaf will emerge, this time a little bigger. Below the leaf, the seed will have fattened into a small corm or bulb, which gradually pushes downward to a deeper, safer place where it’s less likely to be dug up and eaten or dry out in the summer. That downward motion is accomplished with specialized contractile roots that pull the bulb down into the soil instead of taking up water and minerals. As this cycle repeats the result is a bigger leaf, a bigger bulb, and a stronger plant each year.
Finally, the plant gathers sufficient energy to produce a flower. If the flower survives it may be pollinated, most likely by a bee. Successful pollination will lead to seed formation and dispersal and with their work done, the leaves will wither in the summer heat, releasing their nutrients back into the soil. Some of the seeds will land in just the right places to begin the cycle anew.
Spending time among the Fawn lilies, photographing them and working out different ways to process the images deepens my appreciation for them. They won’t be in flower much longer. Like many Spring ephemerals, they take advantage of the light on the forest floor that is present before many plants leaf out. They flower before the light is reduced, fading away over the summer and coming alive again in the cool, wet, early months of the year. Late next winter I’ll search for those distinctively mottled leaves in anticipation of enjoying the delicate white stars of the forest again.
In saying that spring follows its own schedule and pays no attention to what we might be thinking, I don’t mean to imply that our actions have no impact on the climate, the environment, and thus on spring itself. What we do and how we are involved with life on earth matters.
Sugarloaf – the name is used a lot for peaks and promontories, but why it was given to this hill on Fidalgo Island I don’t know. At 1275 feet (389m) it’s a bit lower than the island’s highest point, Mount Erie. Neither place gets snow very often. As it happened though, the first time I hiked to Sugarloaf there were a few patches of snow on the ground. That was mid-February of this year.
The sun was shining through the trees and ferns but clouds obscured the horizon. I had taken an easier route than the one most people use. Instead of beginning the hike at the bottom I drove up the winding, two-lane road that leads to the top of Mount Erie. Part-way up the drive there’s a trailhead for Sugarloaf and room for a car or two on the side of the road. I parked there and set out, keeping a map close at hand because of the confusing maze of trails through these woods. Trail 215 is part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands and is rated technically difficult because of numerous rocks, roots and a few steep pitches, but it’s short. I was at the top after about a half mile of winding through the forest.
The view of Whidbey Island and the San Juans was a nice reward and behind some trees, a slice of the Cascade Range was visible in the other direction. Tall, fire-blackened Douglas fir trees stood in the clearing alongside the fresh green of young Madrones. I wondered how long ago the fire came through here. How was it extinguished, so far from a water source?
I enjoyed the hike but it wasn’t until May that I got back there again, this time with a group of native plant enthusiasts. Learning about Fidalgo Island’s wildflowers was exciting. Gripped by a fever of wildflower identification, I came back three times that month, introducing friends to favorite new figures in my personal forest lexicon.
I worked at identifying flowers that were new to me, recording what I saw with the camera. When I could, I got down close for the challenging task of making photographs that were more than documents, often failing, sometimes succeeding. This kept me busy for weeks.
All of the flowers here were seen on Sugarloaf in May.
After the spring wildflower frenzy I didn’t get back up to Sugarloaf all summer. Then a few weeks ago I returned for a quiet woodland walk. I saw no one. One last flower bloomed in an opening, mushrooms lined the trail, and raindrops glistened in the bushes in the low, angled light. I amused myself with photographing tiny twigs and mushrooms.
A raven soared by and was quickly gone, riding the mountainside updrafts. I lingered to watch the sunset over the mountains, far off in the distance. By the time I was heading back down the trail, the sun had gone under and it was getting dark. Dozens of small white mushrooms growing in the fir needle duff lit up the forest gloom, like little stars showing me the way.
Yesterday I went hiking in the North Cascades with a friend who loves the mountains and is as curious about plants as I am. It’s time for berry picking now and most of the wildflowers are finished, but we hoped to find a few flowers hanging on. One of the flowers still blooming was a delicate, pure-white flower that looked familiar. I knew I’d seen it in the field guides but I couldn’t remember the name for it. I made a few quick photos to study when I got home. The pretty little wildflower was dropping snow-white petals onto the dark soil at the trail’s edge; it was a lovely, poignant sight signifying the end of summer.
After I got home I looked for the plant in my field guide and found it: it’s the Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata). The odd name instantly brought up a memory of my mother saying “Grass of Parnassus” as she described a similar wildflower she found hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where she lived. In fact, Grass of Parnassus is probably one of the flowers we saw on our last drive up into the mountains back in 1999, when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. Late that summer I visited her to help out and we took a pleasant drive together to see the scenery. It was one of many visits I made that year before she finally drew her last breath in her own bed, on Christmas Eve.
My mother loved wildflowers and passed that along to me. Mountains, too – she hiked many miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her hiking buddies. We never hiked in the mountains when I was a child; we lived in places with rolling hills and we vacationed nearby, or at my grandparent’s home near the ocean. But I remember standing on a hillside outside of Syracuse, New York with my mother when I was a schoolgirl and gazing at a glorious view spread out below us. It was essentially the same feeling I get from mountains vistas, that peaceful relaxing into open space that assures you there are endless possibilities ahead.
My parents retired to place where they could hike in the mountains, and without making the connection to what they did, I did the same thing, although I’m on a different side of the country. But it’s no surprise since they set the stage early on, conveying a deep and lasting appreciation for nature. I kept the passion alive, thanks to my own enthusiasm and to the people around me. Now I’m living in a beautiful part of the world, making forays out to places that nourish the most fundamental parts of my life.
I’ll keep going back up to the mountains as often as I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It usually involves a long drive on terrible roads, and a bit of planning. But oh, is it worth it!
5 – 7. Wildflowers and butterflies on Sauk Mountain.
Late in July I hiked Sauk Mountain, another North Cascade Range peak. I didn’t quite make it to the top that day but that did not diminish my pleasure. The wildflowers were riotous, the butterflies and bees happy, and the view seemed endless. I’m sure my mother would have enjoyed that day. My son would have too, if he’d been there. The passion for nature, especially for the mountains, is alive in him.
There’s something exhilarating about being high up in the wilderness. I’m thankful that my parents instilled a keen appreciation for the outdoors in their kids, and thankful I have friends and family who share the passion. My wish for you is that even if the mountains aren’t accessible and the wilderness is out of reach you can still go outside, quiet down, and forget yourself. With a little luck, the energy around you will bring peace, and maybe even a tear to your eyes.
A few weeks ago we took a three day road trip to the Methow Valley, a popular weekend hiking, biking and skiing destination in north-central Washington State. I read that Methow is an Okanagan word for sunflower (seeds). I don’t know why “seeds” is in parentheses, but I suppose that the sunflower is Arrowleaf balsmaroot, a locally abundant flower that brightens the valley’s hills in Spring.
To get to the Methow Valley we had to drive over the North Cascade Mountains, following the two-lane North Cascade Highway east for over 100 miles. By the time we reached the pass, our elevation had increased by about 5,450 feet (1661m). It’s an exhilarating drive, once you get into the mountains. We stopped at Newhalem, a tiny company town built around the hydroelectric plant that has powered Seattle for almost a hundred years. Here, we took a short walk on the Trail of Cedars to enjoy the view of the Skagit River and the beauty of the mature forest around it.
We stopped a second time at an overlook to gaze at the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by one of three successive dams on the Skagit River.
As we approached the pass the clouds thickened and patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road. The North Cascade Highway is very avalanche-prone during the winter and closes from October until sometime in May, depending on weather. For a good six months you have to drive further south to another pass if you want to get from one side of the state to the other.
Up at the pass there’s an overlook with an impressive mountain view where I hoped to stop for a look. The short road to the overlook was closed and still snowy, but we were able to park the car outside the gate and walk up. Taking care on the snow, we sucked in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the silence.
As we walked back to the car, a pair of Gray jays flew into view. It was clear that they were checking us out, and I knew what that meant – they wanted food! These birds are called Camp robbers, a well-deserved reputation. We happened to have a bag of nuts with us so we doled out a few peanuts, and could barely contain our joy the two jays swooped down onto our hands and grabbed the treats. I’ve fed birds by hand before, but not jays. I was struck by the satisfying plunk of their strong feet on my hand – these birds actually have a little weight to them, unlike the tiny chickadees I’m used to.
Over the pass, down the mountain and into the valley we drove, from the wet west side of the Cascades to the dry east side. Before checking into our bnb we made one more stop, at Lewis Butte, where we dawdled amidst fragrant bitterbrush, lovely lupines, and sparkling aspens.
It’s such a pleasure to be able to experience a completely different environment after just a few hours’ drive. The small towns of Methow Valley have their charms too, with their “Wild West” atmosphere. They can get overrun with tourists at times, but it wasn’t a problem on this trip. We had a great time exploring back roads, and I plan to post photos from the rest of the trip later.
A late May walk on a cool, foggy morning, a favorite place ten minutes from home…
If you fly over this corner of Fidalgo Island in a small plane and look down, you’ll see a bay shaped like the curved knife used for chopping vegetables, sometimes called a mezzluna. The knife edge is the beach. A rocky cliff takes a bite out of the edge and a long, narrow pier draws a fine line across the blade and into the bay. (A map is below, for reference.)
A bit of lawn disappears into thick woods surrounding the bay; the quiet water is speckled with rocks. To the west are more islands. In the distance, the Strait of Juan de Fuca disappears into the mist. In the off season the pier is deserted, the waters empty but for an occasional kayaker or small boat, the paths lightly traveled.
2. At anchor in the fog, Bowman Bay
On this foggy morning there was just one other vehicle in the lot. I was effectively alone. We think of fog as removal: it takes away our ability to see clearly, it muffles sounds and obscures things.
But fog brings not-knowing forward, and what does that do? It returns us to the Wonder.
I’m not sure what’s ahead. I slow down.
3. Flowering grass, Bowman Bay
4. The path to Lighthouse Point, nearly overtaken by wildflowers and dune grass.
5. The growth of past seasons mixes with the fresh blades of dune grass on a tangled mess of crumbling driftwood.
Nootka rose and Cow parsnip
A chilly bee rests
Wild Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana) sprinkle the path like fat, pink polka dots. The pretty magenta flowers of Common vetch (Vicia sativa) are plentiful too, but are almost lost in the welcoming, cloud-like drifts of Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum).
Stillness hangs heavy. The air is cool.
At the south end of the beach is a tombolo, an Italian-derived word for a narrow strip of land connecting an island to the mainland. This tombolo, strung between two bays, connects Lighthouse Point to Fidalgo Island. It’s the kind of place where edges have no edge, dancing with the tides, creating and erasing boundaries with the unpredictability of a butterfly’s flight. One day, masses of seaweed wash up onto the beach in spongy, pungent mounds. Another day a windstorm spills bay water into the marshy wetland. Sands shift and reach into the dune grass that lines a path over the tombolo. Waves cut shallow scoops from the shoreline. Forty-foot logs are tossed about like toothpicks, eventually becoming rooted in place by wildflowers growing around them. The rubbery ropes of Bullwhip kelp scribe messages in the sand alongside dainty racoon tracks.
It’s always changing here.
7. A receding tide deposits layers of seaweed on the beach and bares barnacle-studded rocks at the base of the cliff.
8. On top of the cliff the view through the smooth branches of a Madrone tree is fine. Even on a foggy day. Especially so.
9. Splashes of ochre-colored lichens, chestnut-hued moss, wildflowers, grasses and stunted trees provide decor on a cliff to the north of Light House Point.
On the back side of the tombolo a damp wetland gives way to a sheltered cove called Lottie Bay. This bay is fed by the straight whose churning waters barrel through Deception Pass several times a day, carrying water from the Pacific, ninety miles to the west. With its muddy, shallow bottom, the little cove is a favorite spot of gulls, ducks and chattering Kingfishers. On this day Kildeer spew their high-pitched cries into the gray air, raising the alarm at the slightest perception of threat. One bird drags its wing in the classic “broken wing” feint, designed by some mysterious twist of genetic material to draw would-be predators towards the bird pretending to be injured and away from its vulnerable young.
10. Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) is beginning to go to seed. The young plant stems were peeled and eaten like celery by local tribes. Black bears forage on it too, which makes me wonder if the bear that swam ashore near here three weeks earlier might have snacked on this plant. That young bear swam to several other islands before being spotted back on the mainland, near a highway. It was finally darted, captured, and hauled off to the mountains. Life should be easier there, assuming this youngster didn’t get too used to dining on birdseed and trash during his island odyssey.
11. A washed up, barnacle-studded branch is caught in a tangle of dune grass. Another still life to admire, until it all changes again with the next tide.
I return to this magical place at different hours, in fair and foul weather, through all the seasons. Because different habitats are jammed up against one another edge to edge, there are quick, dramatic changes to experience with all my senses. The chill in the air, the scent of low tides, the zippy flight of swallows and the echoing calls of Oystercatchers – it’s always a sensory banquet.
Woods, beaches, a wetland or two, rocky cliffs, a muddy bay, off-shore islands – all in the space of a half mile or so. That’s just what I see on foot, but if I were a seal or an otter, an eagle or a squirrel, then I would have parsed this place into different components. I’d have it memorized by sense instead of names: the place of fast water, the high tree where everything can be seen, the tangle of brush to hide in…
12. A bouquet of wildflowers cascades off a cliff on Lighthouse Point. Delicate pink Streambank Spring beauty (Montia or Claytonia parvifolia) intermingles with the yellow flowers and succulent, blue-green leaves of Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathufolium). Grasses, Licorice fern and Bedstraw (Galium triflorum) help anchor the mass to the rocks.
13. Delicate Streambank Spring beauty.
14. I believe this is Baltic rush, Juncus balticus. Rushes look like grass until you get closer. They’re “walk right by” plants of cool, damp places that most people don’t notice. In Spring, the discerning eye can find a complex, beautiful architecture in their flowers.
15. The evergreen Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is ubiquitous in the northwest, thriving in many different habitats. The repeating patterns are irresistible.
16. Seaweed caught on a branch shows just how high the tides can go. This may have happened last winter in a storm. It’s a rather desolate look, but I think it captures the wildness of this place.
…with seasonal changes is a motivating force. I missed three weeks of spring while I was away. That worried me, because after observing summer, fall and winter here on Fidalgo Island, I didn’t want to miss seeing the changes spring would bring.
But it was fine – when I returned from Europe 12 days ago, tender, green growth was visible everywhere. The spring ephemerals – wildflowers that take advantage of extra light on the forest floor before the trees leaf out – were blooming. These flowers benefit from spring rain too, and it’s been unusually dry. But at least for now the morning dew, and some moisture remaining in the soil, keep the green machine chugging along.
I’ve taken a walk outside most every day, not wanting to miss a minute of this fleeting season. I’m curious to see how spring here differs from spring 70 miles south, where I used to live. Many of the major players in this ecosystem are the same – the dominant evergreen trees, the understory of salal and sword fern, the basic weather patterns – but there are striking differences. Sussing out the disparities, season by season, is fascinating.
I’ve taken walks at a community forest around a lake, at my favorite places in Deception Pass State Park, and at a local park on a peninsula. Those locations are close to home but one day we drove an hour inland to Rockport State Park, where the ecosystem is a little different. In each place wildflowers were blooming, ferns were unfurling, birds were singing, insects were buzzing, and the cool, fresh air gave me a little shiver until I warmed up from trudging up and down hills.
I brought along a favorite macro lens, a wider-angled prime lens, and once, the old Super Takumar 50mm vintage lens, which can be a challenge to use, but produces some unique images. The sun has been bright lately, which isn’t ideal for photographing tiny, delicate wildflowers. I did what I could with the conditions I found. It was fun getting back to Lightroom. I really enjoy pushing those sliders around and manipulating images, but I’m rusty after three solid weeks away from it. In any case, I think you’ll enjoy the fruits of my walks – I hope so. I’ll get back to the Europe trip later – this feels like it can’t wait!
1. Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) like all ferns, is interesting to peer at up close. I love those tightly coiled little fists. Some people harvest and eat the fiddleheads, but the safety of ingesting this fern is controversial.
2. Bracken again. Slightly different species of this fern grow in North, Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in China and Southeast Asia, and in Australia. In other words, it’s everywhere! Cattle farmers don’t like it because it can poison livestock.
3. A Twisted stalk, probably Clasping Twisted-stalk, aka Watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius), unfolding in the shady understory of the old growth forest at Rockport State Park. The small flowers hide under the stalk – you have to get down really low to see them. A very elegant plant!
4. I think this is a close relative, Rose Twisted-stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus, v. roseus). It’s easier to identify after the flowers open, but what a beauty it is at this stage. Rockport State Park.
4. Another elegant plant, though many people may not realize it, is our native Vine maple (Acer circinatum). This small forest tree is found, like many of our native plants, from southwest British Columbia to northern California. Close relatives are the familiar Japanese and Korean maples of Asia.
5. The little Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa) is found in cool forests in the US, Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics. The plant depends on particular soil fungi and does not transplant well.
6. Calypso orchid petals seen from above. The flower does not produce nectar, but the fancy digs (seen in #5) are quite attractive to insects. Though a bee may leave disappointed, just one more futile try for nectar at another flower may be enough for pollination. Orchids often use this strategy of pollination by deception.
7. Looking up in the deep shade of the forest at Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park. The cheerful oval leaves are the Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), a common understory plant of our woods. Indigenous people made good use of the small berries. Whenever I see them there are only a few left; the birds and animals always seem to beat me to the berry.
8. Pacific Bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), with its ferny foliage, creates a soft, pleasing picture wherever it grows. It’s a popular garden plant; the nursery trade has hybridized these flowers to produce much bigger, more deeply colored pink blooms, and pure white flowers as well. Rockport State Park.
9. Black and white? Color? I chose a highly desaturated look for this sweet fiddlehead unfurling it’s fronds at Cranberry Lake, on Fidalgo Island.
10. The little Chocolate lily, (Fritillaria affinis) is a western lily of well-drained sites. Locally, it’s often found on bluffs and balds, the open spaces scraped clean by glaciers long ago. The small, brown and gold flowers can be hard to spot. I had to sit down on the ground to get this angle; this plant was just a few inches tall. Taken with the vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens at f2 or f2.8.
11. Another take on the Chocolate lily, seen from above and processed in sepia tones. This plant is similar to (but much smaller than) the garden plant Fritillaria meleagris, or Checkered lily, which is now rare in its native Eurasian range.
12. Death camas (Toxicoscordian venenosus), at Washington Park, where I saw hundreds of the pretty little plants, which are poisonous from head to toe, to both humans and livestock.
13. In bud here are two Common camas flowers (Cammasia quamash). Camas was an important food plant for indigenous people here in the northwest. It often grows near Death camas (above). The flowers are different, but when the flowers are gone it’s hard to tell the bulbs apart, and the bulbs are what people ate. Supposedly, tribes weeded out the Death camas plants to protect themselves against accidental poisoning. Taken with the Super Takumar 50mm lens.
14. Here’s an open Common camas flower, in a shadier place, where you can appreciate the delicate lavender color. Also taken with the Super Takumar.
15. Spring color is reflected in a fast-moving stream at Rockport State Park.
16. Is this a small bee? I don’t know. I was trying to photograph the impossibly tiny flowers of what’s known around here as Sugar-scoop, or Three-leaf foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata). The tiny flowers are scattered along a stem held high over three-part leaves. A delicate beauty, it rewards you if you can get close; in this case the reward doubled.
17. A stump of rotting wood is left in place at Rockport State Park. Downed trees are full of possibilities for many life forms, from tough lichens and luxurious mosses to the Douglas squirrels that use them as a picnic table and the Pileated woodpeckers that excavate meals from them.
18. Western starflower (Trientalis latifolia) sends up one or two flower stalks on delicate stems, leaving the flowers dangling over the whorl of leaves. It’s a beautiful sight when the pale stars are scattered above deep green leaves on the forest floor. Deception Pass.
19. The humble Starflower may have supplied indigenous people with food from its tubers. It’s slightly different from the Northern and Arctic starflower (Trientalis borealis and T. arctica), which grow in eastern North America, and Europe and Asia.
20. Stink currant – that’s a fine name! It describes the smell of crushed leaves, not the fruit, which is reported to be unpleasant to delicious, depending on the bush. Ribes bracteosum is the Latin name for this gooseberry relative that grows from Canada down to northern California. I found this one at Rockport State Park,
20. A woodland trail at Cranberry Lake, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. Taken with the Super Takumar lens.
21. This buttercup (Ranunculas sp.) has lost its petals, but the stamens and developing achenes (the tiny fruits that hold a seed) are the same joyful yellow. Goose Rock, Deception Pass.
22. I couldn’t resist including this burgeoning specimen of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It was along a roadside at Rockport State Park but of course, they are everywhere!
23. Meadow, or Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and pink Sea Blush, aka Short-spurred Pletritis (Plectritis congesta) bloom happily in a meadow. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
24. A Red huckleberry bush gathers a shaft of light angling through the thick canopy of Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, and Redcedars. Deception Pass.
25. Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) has come into flower recently. The mid-size bush or small tree graces our roadsides with pretty, cream-colored panicles of flowers. The compound leaves are handsome too, with their elegant tips and finely-toothed edges.
26. Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) is easy to overlook but a close-up view is rewarding. This is another Spring wildflower that is available as a garden plant, with bigger, more colorful flowers. Indigenous people used the plant medicinally. According to Wikipedia, T. grandiflora contains a compound with antiviral properties. Deception Pass.
27. Two Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla) plants rise above Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) fronds, which in turn hover over the flattened evergreen fronds of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). Snow crushed the Sword fern plants while the others slept underground – but Sword fern is putting out new fronds. Vanilla leaf sometimes makes a delicate ground cover in the forest. The vanilla-scented leaves were used to repel insects and perfume living quarters.
28. A Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) past its prime is still beautiful. As the flower slowly turns deep pink, the petals will shrivel and fall away. See the holes in the leaves? I suspect a slug or other creature chewed a big bite in the plant a while ago, when the leaves were tightly folded to the center. The unfurled leaves now reveal three holes. Rockport State Park.
Abundance! That’s Spring for you! This is longer than my usual posts, but the flowers just keep coming! Soon the flora parade will fizzle to a frizz, as our dry summer weather takes hold.