I must have flowers, always, and always. ― Claude Monet
What is the value of a flower? Can you quantify the visual and psychological impact of a field of neon blossoms? Do you base it on the number of wows, or Holy cows, or assorted verbalizations, or the number of persons standing seemingly dazed and dumbfounded in the presence of such manmade, yet breathtaking beauty?
Suddenly, each spring like clockwork, thousands of men, women and children who, normally, don’t pay much attention to plants, flock like zombies called to the task, to behold fields of red, yellow, purple, pink and orange flowers, all arranged like soldiers in orderly rows.
In this particular case, the astonishing sight of more than one million tulips peaking in precisely planted rows is what draws visitors with magical magnetism.
A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in–what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars. ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
This year, the tulips did not disappoint. Right on schedule with the Skagit Tulip Festival, the flowers beamed their enchanting vibes to the crowds. Daffodils led the pack, with colors ranging from deep yellow to white with orange centers.
Beyond the daffodils, the stars of the show, Tulipa, obediently performed, knit together with the other colors into a vivid but orderly counterpane.
Here and there, couples and families and friends posed for photos among the blooms. Children delighted in the hues. To walk fields saturated with color, under a sunny sky, was like being in a painting.
Even though the incredible floral display was not planted merely for our pleasure, but for a bulb-growing business, the impact was not lessened. We walked away happy, content to witness the renewal, the continuance of the seasons, the affirmation of life. Perhaps that is the value of a flower.
Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the mind. ― Luther Burbank
Salt Creek in Death Valley National Park is one place that has water, and that’s usually only seasonally. I have never been there in summer, so I can’t say how dry it is then, but I imagine it’s pretty much dried up. Surprisingly, it serves as habitat for the critically endangered Salt Creek pupfish, which are about an inch long.
The narrow creek with its muddy banks is only part of the overall marsh area. The upper area holds small pools that remain year round, and where the fish can survive the summers.
On my fifth journey to the park earlier this year, I revisited Salt Creek, with the intention of spending more time, walking well beyond the boardwalk that parallels the creek.
The boardwalk, which is almost a mile long round trip, ends where the creek peters off and the land becomes more open and vegetated, and the path is sandy.
In late afternoon light, the sun highlighted the creek and magnified the textures and shapes in the mud.
With the sun getting lower and most visitors back in the distance, I drank in the gift of Death Valley, pure silence. I looked and listened for birds, but found none.
Nonetheless, the landscape was enough. I loved the way the low sun hit the water, and a variety of textures and shapes revealed themselves.
I knew some of my images would look best in black and white.
More than 100 years ago, the U.S. government build military strongholds along many coastal areas. In Washington State, Fort Casey is a formidable example of the nation’s determination not only to defend itself, but also the use of the latest technological advances in military power.
Fort Casey was part of a trio of such forts around Puget Sound, including Fort Worden in Port Townsend and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island. The Harbor Defenses of Puget Sound, as these forts were known, were created because Admiralty Inlet was considered vital to the defense of Puget Sound. And Puget Sound was important to defend because of its access to Puget Sound Naval Station in Bremerton, and also to the ports in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia.
The ghost fort and adjacent Admiralty Head Lighthouse stand today as a state park on Whidbey Island, and also a historic district in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.
Fort Casey was operational from 1899 until 1945. It was built for defense, but spent the greater part of its life as a training facility.
What remains are the fortified structures – batteries or emplacements – with their associated functional rooms and towers. There were 10 batteries, each named for an Army officer.
I was curious about who the honorees were, so here they are.
Battery Schenck: Named for Lt. Col. Alexander D. Schenck, U.S. Artillery Corps, who died in 1905.
Battery Seymour: Named for Major Truman Seymour, 5th U.S. Artillery, who gave distinguished service in the Mexican War and Civil War, and died in 1891 in Italy.
Battery Worth: Named for BG William S. Worth, who served with distinction in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and died in 1904.
Battery Moore: Named for MG James Moore, Continental Army, who served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and died in 1777.
Battery Parker: Named for Bvt. 1st Lt. Thomas D. Parker, 2nd Lt., 2nd U.S. Infantry, who was killed during the Civil War in Gaines Mill, Virginia, in 1862.
Battery Kingsbury: Named for Col. Henry W. Kingsbury, 11th Connecticut Volunteers, 1st Lt., 5th U.S. Artillery, who died during the Civil War at Antietam in 1862.
Battery Valleau: Named for 1st Lt. John Valleau, 13th U.S. Infantry, who was killed in Queenstown Heights, Upper Canada, during the War of 1812.
Battery Turman: Named for 2nd Lt. Reuben S. Turman, 6th U.S. Infantry, who died in 1898 at the Battle of Santiago during the Spanish-American War.
Battery Trevor: Named for 1st Lt. John Trevor, 5th U.S. Cavalry, who died in 1864 at the Third Battle of Winchester, Virginia, during the Civil War.
Battery Van Horne: Named for Capt. Isaac Van Horne Jr., 19th U.S. Infantry, who was killed in 1814 at Fort Mackinac, Michigan, during the War of 1812.
Visiting Fort Casey today, you are free to wander the grounds and emplacements, and the eerie dark empty rooms that once bustled with purpose.
The mazes of rooms are like catacombs and you never know what you might encounter exploring them.
Luckily, I did not find any creepy spiders, monsters or ghosts. I ventured only as far as the light would stretch.
I had wondered whether some were living quarters, but all the rooms were for supplies and operating other equipment within the battery.
Interpretive signs help you understand how the various small rooms were used in each battery.
Living quarters were located away from the emplacements.
Me being me, I am certain that my experience at Fort Casey was quite different from anyone else’s. From the first battery that I explored, my eyes were instantly drawn to the artistic patterns of minerals leaching out of the concrete walls – efflorescence.
Other folks no doubt just passed by this vacant scene. But I found a treasure trove, and spent a lot of time photographing my finds.
Exterior walls brought to mind landscapes, with mountains and rivers undulating across them, while interiors presented galleries of waterfall-like patterns.
At the same time families were moving through and children were delighting in screaming in the tunnels, I was focused on the art of the concrete, shapes, and light and shadows.
As I moved through the batteries, I also tried to imagine the manpower involved in operating and maintaining the fort. This was not today’s Army! The crowning glory in the fort’s heyday was without doubt its two 10-inch “disappearing” guns.
These large cannon-like guns were state of the art in the early 1900s. They could be raised and lowered as necessary, ensuring that they would not be detected when lowered below the battery walls. Note: The two 10-inch “disappearing” guns seen in Trevor and Worth batteries are not the original ones, but similar versions brought back from Fort Wint in the Philippines, where they had been used in defense of Subic Bay.
It’s dizzying to imagine how it would have been under a real attack, with “all hands on deck” at all the batteries. Hundreds of soldiers hurrying, shouting, hauling ammunition, loading the guns, noise and smoke.
The First War
As impressive as these Puget Sound forts were when they were built, technology soon advanced and warships and airplanes made the big guns obsolete. During World War I, Fort Casey was a training facility, readying soldiers for battle in Europe.
When the war ended, the fort was kept under “caretaker” status, and the artillery was removed.
The facility was still used for training for the National Guard and Army Reserve officers. There were officers quarters, enlisted barracks, an administration building, hospital, gym, fire house, commissary, exchange, bakery, and stables.
The Next War
But, as things go, a couple decades later, Fort Casey was called up for service again. As the U.S. was entering World War II, the Army reactivated the fort as an induction center and troop training facility. The old emplacements were outfitted with new anti-aircraft guns.
After this war ended, the fort was vacated and fell into disrepair. The old iron doors looked Medieval to me. The whole place could serve as a great movie set.
Finally, in 1953, it was officially deactivated. Two years later, the state of Washington acquired the property for a state park, and Pacific University acquired the administrative buildings and housing to create Camp Casey Conference Center, which you can see today.
Admiralty Head Light
Just up hill from Fort Casey stands Admiralty Lighthouse. It wasn’t always where it is now. A navigational light at this location predates Fort Casey, but when the fort was on the drawing board, planners realized the light would was going to be in the way, so it was relocated. However, the original structure no longer exists.
The lighthouse you see today was finished in 1903, with an Italianate Revival design. But in time, as happened to Fort Casey years later, the usefulness of Admiralty Head Light was less than desired. In 1922, the lighthouse was deactivated, in favor of the navigational effectiveness lighthouses at Point Wilson and Marrowstone Point.
Admiralty Light stands 30 feet high. The building was constructed with thick walls to withstand concussions from the fort’s guns and earthquakes. Its fourth order Fresnel lens was removed in 1927 and installed at the New Dungeness Lighthouse.
This month’s full moon has been given many names by native peoples. Among them are sturgeon, salmon, blackberry, and “flying up.” The latter referring to the time of year when young birds fledge.
I agree with Blackberry Moon. It’s ripening and picking time here! At various places in town, you can see people here and there with buckets and bags, cars parked alongside the road. But the invasive shrubs might make up for their brash ways somewhat by giving us bounties of berries to perk up summer meals and snacks.
I suppose if you are an angler, you might find sturgeon and salmon at this time also.
I went out to greet the Blackberry Moon on its fullest night and found an enchanting sight between the trees.
What caught my eye against the red-rust bricks was the softness of the purple-blue and white petals, like bits of angel wings.
The shapes made me think of cranes and swans and butterfly wings; even dragons. They had a most delicate appearance, ethereal.
As it sometimes happens, an object in death can be as beautiful as it was when alive, just different.
The spent columbine petals lay assembled in various random poses, but could not have been more artistic if they had been purposely placed. I ran for my camera.
These magical columbines came with the house I bought 13 years ago. For years, there were very few, just about hidden beneath some shrubs. It took me a few years to discover them, coming to recognize their distinctive rounded lobed leaves. I quickly came to cherish the secretive blooms.
By this year they have spread and I had more little purple flowers than ever. Some gardeners almost regard them as pests. I wholeheartedly invite them to spread across the entire yard.
Wild columbines are native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa, but they have been widely cultivated as garden flowers in the United States. The five-petaled flowers come in many colors, from purple and blue, to pink and orange.
Aquilegia, their Latin name, pays tribute to the flower shapes, with spurs jutting out from the rear.
These spurs hold nectar and were thought to resemble eagle claws or beaks. Aquila is Latin for “eagle.”
Columbines are said to symbolize wisdom, strength and happiness. It has served as a religious symbol of purity and has appeared in paintings with the Virgin Mary. It was also considered sacred to the goddess Venus.
Like many wildflowers, columbines have been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. All parts have been used, including the roots, flowers, leaves and seeds. The medicinal uses were many. It has served as a remedy for fevers, rhinitis, swollen lymph nodes, bloody coughs, jaundice and gall bladder ailments. The plant contains several alkaloids, triterpenoid saponins, flavonoids, and small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides.
Though columbines are considered toxic, the flowers have some astringent and antiseptic properties. The root has been used as a topical treatment for eczema. It is not recommended to consume any parts of the plant, as it contains cardiogenic toxins which can cause gastroenteritis and heart palpitations. Ingestion of large amounts of the fresh herb can cause convulsions, breathing problems and heart weakness.
Best to enjoy these storied flowers from a distance!
Just for fun, take your own Rorschach test: see what the petal shapes remind you of.
On a recent morning, as I was lifting the window blinds, I saw a tiny bunny munching on grass in my front yard. What a sweet surprise! It looked very small and seemed completely at ease.
I do occasionally see them around, cottontail rabbits, but not often in my yard. Once in a while one shows up on my camera trap that is set up in the back.
Cottontails are common throughout North, Central and South America. If you want to get uber scientific, there are many subgenera, such as Eastern cottontail, desert cottontail, mountain cottontail and swamp rabbit. Most have the little white fluff that gives them their name.
Females can have up to three litters a year, with an average of four young. they grow quickly and are considered full grown at three months! They live in burrows and are quite sociable with others in their group.
The life of these cuddly creatures is short though, averaging two years. They are appealing to many predators, including birds of prey, foxes, coyotes, cougars, dogs, cats, snakes and even squirrels!
I was able to get some good photos of my visitor before she or he left.
Yesterday, we had a brief bout of crazy weather. It’s the kind of thing I love, watching the sky change, the light, cloud shapes, cloud colors.
In the space of maybe a half hour, I watched the scene unfold, as slow-moving storm clouds crept westward. In the distance, I saw a dark arm reaching down from the clouds. Rain was falling over there. I hurried out to take some photos.
What I found so interesting was a series of cloud layers above the rain curtain. Different shades of grays, gray-blues. Slowly, the great cloud shapes morphed, colors shifted.
The dark front moved closer to my area. I saw one flash of lightning and heard one clap of thunder, but not too close. The air had become so much colder. The temperature must have dropped a lot. No rain was falling yet. The front continued on the move.
I went back indoors. But I kept watching out the window. A short time later I noticed a very subtle patch of color within the gray clouds, like an apricot color. I went out again to record it.
Somewhere to the west, a slice of late-afternoon sun must have hit the clouds. I watched as the color slowly deepened. Did anyone else see that?
The icy air drove me back indoors, and pretty soon I started to hear tinkling against the windows. Was it sleeting? Was it hail? I couldn’t tell for sure. Usually I’d say such weird weather produces hail, but it was so tiny and it had gotten so cold, I thought it could be sleet.
The sky was very dark, but in the distance I could see a dramatic sliver of orange beneath it.
The precipitation continued for a little while, and later on the news, I had confirmation. Hail! Mine wasn’t big enough to photograph, but I saw photos from other neighborhoods that had pea-sized hail.
I was pleased to learn that one of my photos had been published in the fall issue of Shots magazine, the quarterly journal of black & white photography. I had not caught up with all my issues.
While watching the Academy Awards, I discovered my own award! Each issue has a theme, and this one was Journey. I submitted 8 images and this one was chosen. Not only that, it graces the centerfold! I am honored.
I believe I took this photo in my front yard one summer morning. A humble snail making its way. The original is in color, but the magazine is all B&W.
We’ve all seen the horrendous news coming out of Australia about their dreadful wildfires. My thoughts went back to the month I spent in Australia in the early 1980s. For two weeks I volunteered on an Earthwatch expedition in South Australia, helping collect data for a group of American graduate students from Cornell who were studying the native flora and fauna. My team members were wonderful, diverse American women who shared an interest in wildlife and travel. One of my teammates was Sy Montgomery, who since has become an acclaimed nature writer of numerous books. At the time, we were both journalists and nature geeks, and we haven’t changed much since then. Our team was camped at Brookfield Conservation Park, which is affiliated with Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Our leader, Dr. Pamela Parker was a conservation biologist with the zoo then, but has been assistant director there for some time and is still very active in Australian wildlife research.
For two weeks after that I toured South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory. It was an incredible experience and one that will always be a fond memory.
I wrote this piece for Earthwatch’s magazine back then, but they did not use it.
So it seems timely to post this now.
*Photos included here are from scans of my color slides and B&W negatives.
We slice through the darkness with powerful spotlights. My beam illuminates something in the distance – the yellow glint of eyes. Instantly, I sweep back to the spot. We fix our binoculars on the eyes and discover they belong to a kangaroo. Panning the beam slightly, I see there are two kangaroos, frozen briefly in the light. We spend a minute just watching the creatures grazing and moving awkwardly about. Then, we slowly drive on, searching for more animals.
Our project, “Drought Refugia,” has brought us to Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia.
We’ve come here to study the flora and fauna, with an emphasis on the Southern hairy-nosed wombat. The park was set up as a wombat preserve, but it’s also a refuge for kangaroos and other animals. Last year’s drought had a huge impact on the ecosystems here, and plant and animals alike suffered. Spotlighting is kind of a bonus activity for us volunteers. The researchers do it to catch animal behavior that they can’t see during the day.
As our principal investigator, Dr. Pamela Parker, gives us a tour of the park, we pause to watch a small group of gray kangaroos, survivors of the drought.
We also feast our eyes on some beautiful birds –swift-flying mallee ring-necked parrots, raucous gray and pink galahs, and a tiny, vivid blue Splendid Fairy Wren.
Further down the park’s dirt track, we get out of the car for a close look at a wombat warren.
Here, we get our first look at results of the drought – remains of a wombat that had starved to death.
Pam drives on, rattling off names of trees and shrubs we pass on the way – mallee… acacia… triodia… spinifex.
“How do you spell that? How big does it grow? Does it flower? Is it good food for the animals?” Our questions are endless.
Today, I and another volunteer are inspecting color-coded wombat warrens.
We stride across the sparsely vegetated, rock-strewn landscape, going from one warren to the next. We look for signs of activity, either by wombats or other animals, like rabbits or foxes.
We search for the most important unmistakable sign of wombats – fresh fecal pellets. Finding fresh pellets is not difficult, but identifying them can be confusing.
Just when you think you’ve got them pegged as wombat, Pam tells you that female grey kangaroo pellets can resemble wombat.
So, one of the things we learn to do is break open the pellets and examine the plant fibers inside. This takes some getting used to, handling fecal pellets, but after a while our curiosity overtakes our reluctance. Wombat fecal pellets contain short, fine fibers, while kangaroo pellets have fibers of varying lengths and textures. Even Pam sometimes has trouble telling the difference, so I don’t expect to become an expert in two weeks. But my partner and I give it our best try.
Another part of our warren study is to record the number of burrows. A warren can contain anywhere from two to more than 25 burrows in its elaborate tunneling system. After our first few inspections, we learn to walk gingerly over the warrens.
More than once we’ve felt our footing suddenly give way. In many instances, we come across bones and carcasses where starving wombats finally collapsed. It’s clear that the foxes found plenty to scavenge.
The research atmosphere in the park is very relaxed. I’m a bit surprised at the research staff’s willingness to trust us with pieces of their important projects. They send us out to collect specific data: avian use of water at troughs; wombat activity; fecal pellet transects, and rabbit behavior. We plunge into our work enthusiastically, trying out our new gear – binoculars, compasses and field guides.
We get to choose what we want to do, and the work gives us some private time alone with our thoughts.
One of the first things we learn is that “negative data is still data.” So, it’s important for us to note the absence of wildlife during our observations, as well as any activity. We have opportunities to see not only wombats, but red and grey kangaroos, lizards, echidnas, and many species of birds, including emus.
Tonight I am spotlighting again. We go bundled against the mild winter night, standing in the open back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, armed with spotlights in search of animals. Each of us is eager to see the wildlife that is so evasive during the day, and a little crisp night air isn’t enough to keep us glued to the campfire or in our tents. On our trip we glimpse a wombat before it disappears down a burrow. Then we spot a fox, hungrily tearing at some food, and later, a tawny frogmouth, a bird of prey.
What a lucky sight! Two emus have come to drink at the trough I’m watching.
Until now, none of the volunteers had seen any signs on them except for their flat, circular “pies.” I suspect the emus are a male and female, after checking the head coloring in the field guide. As they are drinking, the emus are making low, booming sounds. When they finish drinking, they walk off as quietly as they came.
The vegetation research is expanding and we have a chance to record density, growth and variety of species.
Only after getting down on my hands and knees do I discover the beauty of the microscopic flowers: candy cane-striped spears the size of toothpicks, and tiny yellow, purple and white flowers.
They all seem so fragile, I’m afraid to step anywhere. Pam says some of the plants take years to regenerate. In times of little or no rainfall, their root systems stay alive, enabling the plants to spring to life at the next rainfall. Pam has been very excited at the return of ephemeral plants and flowers, and her excitement infects us all.
More and more, we realize the devastation of the drought.
Brookfield Conservation Park has been a marvelous learning experience.
We’ve seen and done things no ordinary tourist ever could. The clear skies, sunsets and star-filled nights, the moaning ravens, bounding kangaroos, wombats and the warmth and patience of Dr. Parker, the research staff, and the park ranger are hard to leave behind.