ODE TO STATEN ISLAND

Three years ago I posted about New York City’s Staten Island, the borough New Yorkers love to hate. As I said back then, I had lived in the city on and off for four decades – on Manhattan’s Lower and Upper East Sides, the Bowery, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx’s pretty Riverdale neighborhood, and other city locations. In 2008 I worked in Lower Manhattan and commuted from Connecticut – a four hour round trip by car, train, and subway: pure madness.  At the time I couldn’t afford Manhattan or Brooklyn rent, so I decided to look on Staten Island. I found a big, rambling apartment on the north end of the island, a pleasant ten minute walk to the ferry to Lower Manhattan. After the ferry ride, I could jump on the subway or walk the last bit to my job, in an office building next to the old World Trade Center site, then under construction.

On weekends I explored my new back yard: the somewhat wild and very weird Staten Island. I found it to be an endlessly fascinating mashup of the sublime and the ridiculous.

I’m grounded this month – I can’t drive, I can’t use my camera. I can pick away at the keyboard with my left hand though, so it’s an opportunity to dredge the archives and see what surfaces.This handful of images from New York’s forgotten borough has waited long enough.

As I said in that last Staten Island post, when I lived there I found plenty to hate – noise, traffic, pollution, rudeness, stupidity – but I also found lots to love, and much to wonder about.

This too, is New York City:

Great egrets stalk prey in a flooded park next to a Staten Island beach, after a September hurricane ripped apart the thin margin separating ocean and lawn. Like New York’s other boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx – Staten Island has an abundance of bird life. It offers good habitat variety and sits right on the Atlantic flyway, one of North America’s main avian migration routes.

The beaches also attract island residents, who migrate here from all over the world.

Our favorite stretch of beach for walks was off the beaten track and boasted a series of cairn sculptures that grew into an elaborate installation, transforming a good half mile of coastline into an ingenious wonderland.  A dedicated local zookeeper named Doug Schwartz was behind this obsessive labor of love. We ran into him once. A quiet man, he seemed to be a typically eccentric Staten Islander. Every piece of the stone monoliths was found on site, hauled and stacked by hand. Beach walkers, captivated by the impressive effort, would sometimes lend a hand, or add their own touches in typically spontaneous New York fashion.

Powerful storms washed the sturdy cairns away several times, but Doug kept at it. Then, unbelievably, he was ordered by the Department of Environmental Conservation to remove all the sculptures. I thought the sculptures were an intelligent, attractive solution to the problem of debris that continuously washes up on Staten Island’s none-too-pristine beaches. The DEC guys thought otherwise.  Here’s a story about that fiasco.  It exemplifies the bloated, inhuman, bureaucratic side of New York, which was partially responsible for my leaving the state.

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Beach debris is so tempting, isn’t it?  The day I took this picture, we were sorely tempted by these rusted artifacts, but the car was too far away – a photo had to suffice.  In the background are migrating ducks and Brant geese.

Speaking of debris washing up, while exploring the industrialized north shore one day, we noticed a promising dirt road leading towards the waterfront.  OK, it was private property – but no one was around and the gate was open, so I insisted on checking it out. At the end of the narrow, overgrown road we came to a sliver of sand littered with debris. Looking closely, I realized that dozens of small, old potsherds and bits of glass were scattered about, and were still washing up in the gentle tide.

It was an amazing find – everything was quite old and seemed to have originated in the same place – maybe Britain circa 1920, or even earlier. A shipwreck?

I was unable to ferret out any clues as to the origin of this small bonanza. We returned once more that summer to collect more artifacts. The following year we returned again, but a tall fence blocked access to the road and property. A younger, braver member of our group tried to scale it, but he couldn’t. That was the end of that.

I wonder if old fragments of forgotten lives still wash ashore there, and if anyone notices.

Inland on Staten Island, the greenest borough, there are many parks and preserves – over 12,000 acres. Some are still fairly wild, considering you’re in a city of eight million souls.

But wildness attracts the “wrong kind” of New Yorker, too, and Staten Island has plenty of those. This park was beset with rusting car wrecks, tires and garbage.

In another park nearby, a sweet statue survived relatively unscathed at an open air shrine. Perched on a bluff overlooking the water and dating to 1935, the shrine is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. People leaves flowers, crosses, hand written prayers, photos of loved ones, rosaries…and during the four years I lived in the area, the offerings remained undisturbed. An old broom leaned against the wall, ready to tidy the shrine.

You can see the figure take the weather in stride – the second photo was taken a few years before the first one.

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Staten Island is a famously Italian borough. Besides the shrine at Mount Loretto and fabulous Italian food, a local cultural center boasts a pretty little Italianate building and reflecting pool, built a few years ago for weddings and receptions.

A few steps away, the center (Snug Harbor) offers a charmingly overgrown botanical garden. It may be a poor cousin to the well known New York Botanical Garden, but I came to love it more, for its simple charms and air of subtly elegant neglect. I must have a thousand pictures of the gardens and flowers at Snug Harbor. It became my go-to place for R & R after long weeks of working for the state department of health, monitoring services for people with brain injuries.  My office in a building adjacent to the twin towers site was a stressful place to be during the reconstruction, and Snug Harbor provided respite.

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There is a Chinese Scholar’s Garden at Snug Harbor, too. Other than a nominal charge to enter the Scholar’s Garden, the grounds of Snug Harbor are free to all.

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Surprises are a dime a dozen on Staten Island – turn down a side street in a residential area, and you may find something like this next to a modest home.  Explore back roads in sparsely populated neighborhoods, and you’ll see the occasional rooster scratching in a side yard.

Here’s Superman atop a business that makes awnings. Around the corner in this mixed use neighborhood was a dignified, if dilapidated older home, with interesting curtains on the door.

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The island was (and still is, I hope) a rich hunting ground for oddball attractions. One sunny Saturday we ventured warily through an open chain link gate in a post-industrial wasteland just off a highway. Someone had been living in an abandoned trailer on a concrete-covered lot that was quickly reverting to weeds. It was hard to tell how long ago they last used the space, but they certainly left their mark. Behind the trailer, hard by a marsh and winding creek, sculptures constructed from waste dumped at the site dotted the rough landscape.

This is REAL outsider art! Who else ever saw these? Anyone? What impulse moved the artist – you’d have to give them that – to create these?

On the trailer wall, a broken plastic candy cane played visual tag with a series of stencils. I couldn’t decide whether it was creepy or poignant.

I think the latter.

Staten Island offers quotidian delights like magnolia blossom-strewn sidewalks as readily as the strange sights of less traveled roads. This was on the block where I lived.

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And sunsets – I remember sitting alone on the sandy beach and watching the sun go down on this beautiful April evening, reveling in that brief, glowing meld of color that settles in once the sun is below the horizon. How about wild deer on an island in New York City? Staten Island has that. Folks say they swam over from New Jersey. (We were in a car, when I took this, exploring back roads again).

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The flora of Staten Island is what a botanist would consider degraded, since it is overrun with alien species and invasives. Still, I enjoyed my regular wildflower forays each summer and fall. I explored every back road I could find on that island. Pretty soon I knew exactly where I could go to put together a bouquet.

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I drew maps to remember where I’d been – and how to get back.

If the weather didn’t cooperate, there was always the view from my window. Looking west, the old St. Peters clock tower is just visible during a winter ice storm. A neighbor is burning cardboard and trash in his old furnace to get warm – just don’t inhale too much!

To the northwest are the busy ports of Bayonne and Elizabeth, New Jersey, just past the Kill van Kull’s busy shipping lanes. I never tired of watching the ships and tugs. I would google a container ship name to learn where it came from and where it was going.  Here, a barge is pushed out the Kill van Kull by a local tug as another tug returns to port. Dramatic skies vie for attention.

There are too many window views to include here – they deserve their own post. Another day.

Parting shot: sunset on the Kill van Kull with the Bayonne Bridge in the distance. A curve of neglected rail track glints and a trio of gulls soars west past the ubiquitous chain link fence – a typical meeting of the mundane and sublime, on Staten Island.

SCATTER, part two

SCATTER, part two: a second scattering of summer images. You’ll see fall color creeping in, and towards the end, a brief narration of a fall from grace.

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Fall from grace: I’d been wanting to see Mt. Baker, one of the state’s highest peaks, for years. We drove north last Sunday and spent the night nearby to get an early start on Monday, when crowds would be thinner. We didn’t sleep well so it wasn’t a very early start…up and up we drove to a short hike along a stony trail at Artist Point in the North Cascades, where views of Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan and other peaks have been drawing visitors since the road was completed in 1931. The clear, thin air was cool, the sun strong.

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Views morphed as we followed the well worn trail across rocky Kulshan Ridge. At over 5,100′ vistas spread out in all directions, across glacier-scrubbed slopes set with tarns, scree and patches of late summer snow. The gnarled old evergreens and warm-hued heather we saw are smothered under an average of 50′ of snow in winter; road crews must remove signs at the end of each season if they want to use them next year – the weather here is unforgiving.

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The mid-September day was calm enough for a butterfly and a few bees to flit among the last tiny alpine flowers. I expected to enjoy the views and complete the circuit.

HOWEVER, I tripped over a rock and took a hard fall on my right arm and left knee, with a taste of gravel in the bargain. After catching my breath, with full support I made it back to the car for the three hour ride to the emergency room. By that evening I had the diagnosis: the knee was badly bruised but not broken, my face only lightly scratched. But the right shoulder – not so great. The humerus shattered where it fits into the socket, and it was well out of the socket. A skilled, patient doctor scrunched it back in and sent me home with pain killers and my arm in a sling. Several days later an orthopedist re-evaluated the shoulder, giving me the all clear to…..yup, just wait. No driving or lifting anything (not even a camera!) with the right arm for a long time. Hopefully by late next month I’ll be out of the sling and driving again. Talk about curtailing freedom…

Well, it WAS a great view up there but not that great!  I will take advantage of the down time and get to projects that fell by the wayside this year as work gobbled up my time.  I’ll post more, I’ll visit your blogs more, and I’ll certainly perfect the left-handed fork-to-mouth routine!

Mt. Baker:

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More soon!😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCATTER, part one

As summer quickly fades into fall, people scatter, looking for those precious last summer pleasures. Here in America’s northwest corner, cars from faraway states like Mississippi and New Jersey roam the highways, taking that final spin before the responsibilities of school and work assume primacy again.

Birds scatter too: fledglings that must survive on their own are exploring further from their nest sites. Shorebirds are already migrating south. Our local online birding forum reports rarities like the charmingly named Wandering tattler, a shorebird that nests in Alaska and winters on the coast, far from Seattle. Seeds are scattering to disperse their genetic material, aided by wind, animals, birds, insects – and once in a while, my shoes.

Scattered movement seems to be common in late summer/early fall in the Northern hemisphere. In keeping with the season, I have a scattering of photos from the last few months.

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I’ve gotten out whenever I could. It never feels often enough, but that sort of dissatisfaction is called being human, isn’t it?  I long for more, for places farther and farther away.

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Gold Creek Pond, Snoqualmie Pass, Cascade Mountains (Washington)

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Naches Peak Loop Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park

 

There have been many short jaunts nearer home this summer. These drives and walks that trace local pathways help construct a bedrock of felt knowledge about my local landscape.

Growing up in the northeast, I grew into an intimate relationship with the land, its flora and fauna. This knowledge is formed by the accretion of layer upon layer of sensing, in the outdoors. Experiencing the weather, inhaling the scent of local plants, encountering local creatures – it all adds up. It is years of watching the sky, listening closely to the faintest birdsong, feeling the tingle of a bug crawling across my arm, and inhaling the sharp air over a frozen snow field. It is decades of thinking about the progression of wildflower bloom along roadsides, the odd differences in Song sparrow songs, the beauty of a rounded canopy of deciduous trees laid across rolling hills.

Now I’m beginning the same journey thousands of miles away.

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Here, the characters are different (well, mostly) and the setting is different, but the forays outside to check out a new place or return again to the same spot will accrue a felt sense of this place, just as my wanderings on the east coast embedded an intimate knowledge of that landscape.

Along the way the photos play their part, too.

 

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The key is getting out, looking, listening, tasting, inhaling and feeling the outdoors til it fills every pore.

 

 

WILD HOPE

I’m happy to share the news that a new magazine, Wild Hope, has published one of my photographs in their second issue.

Here’s the magazine:

 

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Here’s the spread with my photo – the detail of sword fern fiddleheads in the corner:

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Here’s the photo, taken nearby a few years ago. Sword fern fiddleheads have an amusing twisted way of unfurling in the spring. The fern is plentiful in the Pacific northwest.

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Wild Hope magazine’s emphasis is on hopeful stories about maintaining biodiversity on earth. The article my photo accompanied describes Dr. Emily Burns’ work with sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) in California redwood forests, where drought has affected sword fern growth. A Fern Watch Project is underway in California, and anyone can participate (Yes! to citizen science). Data is uploaded and shared on a website, iNaturalist.

The “Wild Hope” is that the sword fern, which responds faster to climate variations than the redwood, will help show which areas of redwood forest are most affected by drought.  If I were in California, I would join the effort. As it is, I’m honored to be included in the magazine.

 

Here are more photos of sword ferns (mostly under Douglas fir trees instead of California redwoods):

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A busy “day job” keeps me from marketing my work, but one of these days (OK, years) I’ll retire and get to work on that. Until then, being approached about publishing a photo falls into the realm of lucky breaks.  There was one more recently: a book publisher asked to print my photo of sprouting hostas in a textbook. It was taken five years ago. Now, I’d probably make a technically better image, but it has a nice energy.

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I haven’t seen the textbook and I don’t know the title – there’s no control over the outcome.

Of course one plus with blogs is that we have a good amount of control over how our photos appear. For now, I’ll concentrate on improving my photography and sharing it with you all online. And when serendipity happens, I’m ready!

Getting Away

That too-quick trip I took up north –

the slow climb to the high peaks, the road’s

twists, slopes and curves, revealing ever-prettier views –

a zippy swoosh

down the east side of the mountain, then

dry, rolling hills,

burnt timber scattered over the valley.

So many discoveries – it was all over

too soon.

I saw this – and more:

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Most of the photos above are from Newhalem, a tiny company town built for hydroelectric projects that supply about a quarter of Seattle’s electricity. Three dams were built here on the fast-running Skagit River.  One hundred and fifty miles long, the Skagit tumbles down from British Columbia, twenty-four miles to the north, through the mountains, past small towns and lowland farms and out to Puget Sound, where the river forms a rich, life-sustaining delta. Seattle is about 116 miles south and west of Newhalem; the road didn’t cut all the way through the North Cascades until 1972, when Washington’s most  northerly route to the “east side” was finally created, tracing a path used for thousands of years for trade by indigenous people.

Newhalem is a clean, orderly little dot on the map, a stopping-off place where tourists traveling over the North Cascades Highway learn about the hydroelectric project and stroll the beautiful Trail of the Cedars. Last year fires raged in the area, as seen in the fifth photo above, but this year’s fire season has been better…so far.

Skies were glaring the morning we passed through so I selected the “Dramatic tone” filter in the camera, and a sepia one. In the end, no matter what you do, pictures don’t convey the bulk and size and benevolent majesty of the old cedars, without question, my favorite Pacific northwest tree.

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Here’s the old Gorge powerhouse plant –

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…where you can learn about the history of this extraordinary project, which involved some nervy railroading feats. In the photo below you can see two local women on the car with an assortment of men in charge and project laborers.

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Back on the road, you’re soon in the heart of the scenic view territory, as one by one, shimmering turquoise blue lakes created by the three dams begin to distract you from the road.   The only question is which overlook to stop at.

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Waterfalls at the road’s edge are irresistible.

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Imagine the flow of these waterfalls and the river in Spring! The highway opens in April or May each year, then closes in November or early December. It takes the crew four to six weeks to clear snow and get the road open each year, and… Every spring, Tootsie Clark, the matriarch of Clark’s Skagit River Resort  (near Marblemount), drives her Cadillac up to the west-side closure gate near Diablo, opens the trunk and serves cinnamon (Tootsie!) rolls and coffee to those waiting in line for the gate to open. It’s a tradition she has been carrying on since the 1970s.” (from the Washington State Dept of Transportation website. I think she is still around but I doubt she’s still driving!)

Forty-two miles down the road is Washington Pass, after which we would descend the mountains along the eastern slope to the Methow Valley. The Pass was our last stop in the mountains, and a fitting one. There is a profound charge to the atmosphere there. Walk away from the parking lot, wander over rocky, moss-strewn ledges, inhale the sweet air and look across to the high peaks. You’re rooted and lighter than air at the same time. Your whole being quiets.

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By the time we dragged ourselves away from the pass it was 6 pm. Our destination, the little town of Winthrop down in the Methow Valley, was only a half hour away. Set in the beautiful, dry hills of central Washington, Winthrop is a Western town offering a main street with old, false-fronted wooden buildings and a sprinkling of lively restaurants with good food.  The day satisfied!

(But sometimes WordPress does not. I have fixed the alignment over and over, and nothing I do will make the photos all align left or centered, so please forgive that some are on the left margin and others aren’t. Likewise with the uneven spaces between the photos).

 

 

 

Small Town Satisfaction

On the first morning of a long weekend road trip last week, we veered off Highway 20 to follow a local road that connects forgotten small towns dotted along the loopy Skagit River. It was serendipity because almost instantly, we stumbled on a classic car show in the small town of Lyman, population 438 in 2010. Mostly local people – men and a few women – were lining up their rides in neat diagonal rows along tiny South Main street, bordered by weather-beaten wooden buildings and framed by picturesque views of the North Cascade mountains.

As we headed east, cottony fragments of cloud hung onto the mountain foothills:

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As we drove into Lyman my eyes kept flitting back and forth between classic cars and equally classic buildings.

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Oh, that stylish ’57 gray T’bird convertible with the cream interior! There was plenty to drool over and covet in Lyman, but we had more places to go, and things to see…

An hour down the road in Newhalem, old growth cedars reminded me how small I am…

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An overlook at majestic Gorge Lake had its own classical beauty:

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I used various vintage-style processing tools on most of these photos. In the coming days I’ll post more from the North Cascades and beyond.

 

 

How a Phone is Changing Me

The phone camera provides a very different experience than a digital camera does. It has far fewer opportunities for control – no aperture or ISO setting, no special lenses to choose – just that oddly flat rectangle to hold up to a scene, turn this way and that, and lightly touch.

It’s less calculated. I find I’m more spontaneous when I use it. This adaptation to the technology at hand – it’s almost Darwinian!

Here we are, in the car-wash again, floating in a colorworld…

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A few days later, during a brief respite between appointments. Downtown Seattle:

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I’m not going to switch from digital to a phone camera, but I’m glad I have the phone with me all the time. It opens up other paths.

Life is busy lately so I’m looking forward to getting away next weekend for a road trip I’ve been wanting to do ever since I moved here: a big loop east on Washington Rt. 20 (north of Seattle) through and over the Cascades. This very scenic road is closed much of the year because of the snow and avalanches. We’ll turn south at the little town of Twisp on the dry, eastern Cascade slope. Finally, we’ll head back west on Rt. 2 or I 90, depending on our energy levels come Sunday. There will be two overnights, one at a countryside airbnb north of here, the other at a rather pedestrian hotel in Winthrop – one of the last rooms available in the area when I booked the other day. Hopefully I won’t forget the SD card or the battery charger!

 

RESPITE

Outside a major hospital in Seattle, a cop corrals a disorderly, screaming man wearing a backpack away from the busy front doors. The men catch my attention and I slow to a stop as I exit the building – how dangerous is this? Will the angry man turn and come back? Is the policeman radioing for help or is he confident that he has this?

They disappear down Broadway and I beeline for the curb. There, beds of oddly mixed perennials, banana trees, cabbage palms and annuals draw me in. In these days of hyper-vigilance to violent encounters and the stark polarities of class division, there is respite in nature.

I’m here for a day-long training on suicide prevention; maybe that’s another reason that plants look especially good today. I spend breaks outdoors examining juxtapositions of leaf and branch, color and pattern. I’m glad I can freeze these arrangements with my phone. It’s very satisfying work and the rest is left behind.

 

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Even the ground under the banana trees offers up interesting compositions in the textured twists and curls of dried plant leavings.

It was centering to lose myself in the intricacies of the foliage after the endless statistics and probabilities, what if’s and worries, advice and reminders about tough conversations. It’s been a decade since I sat in the hospital at the bedside of a client after an attempt, but when/if I’m confronted with another person who might be suicidal, I hope I remember to ask that simple question: “Have you thought about killing yourself?” No? Good (move on). Maybe? Yes? Let’s talk (deep breath).

 

Oh that “dull light!”

No

sunlight, it’s overcast, I

don’t

see interesting

shadows, or

highlights, it all looks

so

muddy.

*

How

to work

with what

you have?

 

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Shake things up.

 

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Remember

you’re not

separate.

 

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Find your way.

 

Photos taken with two second exposures and intentional blur, i.e. jiggling and shaking of the camera. Processed to add contrast and depth in LR, and Color Efex.

 

ORDER AND CHAOS

Gardeners may create order briefly out of chaos, but nature always gets the last word, and what it says is usually untidy by human standards. But I find all states of nature beautiful, and because I want to delight in my garden, not rule it, I just accept my yen to tame the chaos on one day and let the Japanese beetles run riot on the next.       Diane Ackerman

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An early Spring spell of very warm weather followed by weeks of cool, overcast skies and misty rains has encouraged riotous growth here. I’ve never seen so many wildflowers, and gardens brim over with joyful color.

The vine-covered old willow above graces a public park nearby that is really more nature reserve than park. Bald eagles, herons, hummingbirds, rabbits, turtles and many others find homes within its bounds. This year’s weather resulted in extra lush growth of ferns, vines, and all manner of greenery.

For years volunteers have been at work slowly eradicating the non-natives here, bringing the land closer to what it might have been before white people imposed their own chaos. I wonder if they’re working overtime?

Taming the overgrowth is best left for the iron-willed and long-suffering among us. I used to spend hours taming my garden – on warm summer evenings I would plop down and painstakingly pull bits of grass out of a huge moss garden I had. It was great after-work therapy. I’d be out there pulling weeds now if I had a garden, but these days I’m limited to a little deck. That does allow a certain freedom to marvel and gawk in wonder at this lush, bountiful season.

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Drive back up in the Cascades and it’s the same thing – layer upon layer of green among the old forest giants.

Spring was good to the flower growers out in the valley, too. These photos were taken during our long string of overcast days in May. Rows and rows of delphiniums, ready for the picking, stretch comfortably back towards misty hills.

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When you stop and look closely, there is pleasing structure amidst the growing chaos.

The Large-leaved lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), is a Pacific northwest native. Lupines are very familiar to gardeners – this species, taken to England almost two hundred years ago, formed the foundation of the hybrid garden lupines you see today, in multiple shades of purples, blues and pinks.

What happens when a flower becomes popular with gardeners and is grown all over the world? It escapes. Now this lupine is considered invasive in countries as far apart as New Zealand and Finland. But not here.

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Here’s another northwest native (Tolmiea menziesii, or Piggyback plant) sometimes sold as a house plant for its foliage. The tiny flowers warrant bending down for a close look:

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Another bonus of prime growing conditions is watching all the wildlife, which can also be rewarding close up. A Goldenrod Crab spider is stashing the catch of the day in the flower cluster of an Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) shrub, another native plant sold in nurseries.

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A Tiger Swallowtail works the mud for minerals at a Seattle wetland. The need must have been keen because it let me inch the camera quite close. I was happy I could hold the camera with one hand with the LCD screen tilted up so I could see what I was doing (sort of). Not perfect, but getting down at the butterfly’s level provides a feeling of immediacy that’s lacking in shots from above.

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Below, a lovely Spring azure – those are the sweet little blue butterflies that flit among the grasses at your feet, whether you live in the east or west (or Britain and elsewhere, I believe).

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In a public garden a sea of irises floats across a low-lying wetland.

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Not only are there abundant subjects to choose from these days, but there are many choices that can be made for processing.  Color, sepia, black and white? Vintage maybe?

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Back to the first photo – the overgrown willow at the park. I like it in color, I like in black and white.

Abundance. Order. Chaos. I’ll take them all.