Posted tagged ‘Seattle’

RIDING AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT

September 30, 2014

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-87Riding in the Sightseer Lounge Car with trains passing by on each side

Does Amtrak use Central Casting to hire its conductors? Probably not, but it seemed so when the man with the neatly trimmed white mustache and commanding manner arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station and announced to us how to queue up to board the train. He made the railroad proud.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-29The conductor checking tickets early in the journey

The last time I had been in King Street Station, the place was a mess, with temporary plywood walls and hardly a hint of the grandeur of the original station, which served the Great Northern and Northern Pacific passenger trains through much of the last century. Alas, the station had been modernized and lobotomized numerous times through the years, and had lost its personality. The city of Seattle bought the station a few years ago for the princely sum of $10, and agreed to renovate it at a cost of millions. Now the station’s interior is restored to much of its original glory, with plaster ceiling rosettes and marble floors and walls galore, along with the tradtional long wooden benches. Our voices echoed in the empty cavern. Earthquake cracks snaked along the marble floors–a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake that shook Puget Sound at a 6.8 quake level.

Seattle_King_St_Station-9Seattle’s King Street Station, recently renovated, is a classic, soaring space of light and marble

We had arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early on Sunday morning, after a beautiful late summer ferry run across Puget Sound, followed by a quick yellow taxi ride to the station. We were early because the ferry and train schedules don’t quite match, but that was all right, since it gave me a chance to photograph the station without the clutter of the passengers it was built for.

Our destination on this trip was Fresno, California, where we planned to pick up a new camping vehicle to drive back to Washington. We could have flown and been there faster, but we wanted  to take a bit more gear than would have been easy on a plane, and the train ride sounded like it would be more relaxing, since there is absolutely nothing relaxing or pleasant about the airport and airplane experience any more unless you can go in the airline club and get tanked prior to your first class flight.

Seattle_King_St_Station-15Amtrak’s classy poster for the Coast Starlight train, which runs daily from Seattle to Los Angeles (and visa versa)

Besides, I love trains. I’ve loved trains since I was three years old, and found an American Flyer train with a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive circling the Christmas tree in my family’s Detroit living room. My longest train ride was a trip to New Mexico circa 1964, when I went with a group of Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch for a great backpacking trip. In addition to seeing a UFO out the window while crossing the New Mexico desert, I remember flushing the toilet on the train and seeing it directly open to the railroad ties whizzing by below.

Later, I developed a love for the train songs that were popular in early folk and country music. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was influential enough in my life that I would have enjoyed becoming a Canadian if the opportunity arose. It didn’t. Then there was Linda Ronstadt’s exquisite version of “2:10 Train,” which showed her powerful vocal talents on one of her early efforts. And The Grateful Dead singing of “Casey Jones” meeting his fate, as in “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed … trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.” Music these days isn’t focused as much on planes, trains, and automobiles as it was when I was coming of age, and I miss hearing new train songs.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-23Passing one of the powerful locomotives on powerful Warren Buffett’s railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Soon enough Karen and I boarded the Coast Starlight for our overnight journey from Seattle to Fresno, California. Fortunately we got to sit next to each other on the nearly full train, though I hogged the window seat so that I could photograph the passing scene. There are big windows and plenty of legroom on these big seats, which is almost enough to make me never want to fly again. I could actually work on my computer without the fear that the person in front of me would suddenly recline their seat and shatter my screen.

There were passengers of all sorts: a few railfans, but mostly people who just wanted to get from here to there easily and inexpensively. From the start of the journey, there was a quiet murmer of conversation and the pleasant white noise of the hissing air conditioning system. The announcer came on the loudspeaker and asked people not to talk on their cell phones from their seats, but to instead take their cell conversations to a different part of the train car. But the young guy next to us didn’t hear the announcement, because he was already into a series of hours-long cell phone conversations that were so profoundly boring that I still feel like my useful life was shortened by being near him.

Alas, that is the common result of sharing a limited space with strangers for hours on end. It often works out well; sometimes not. Fortunately the passing scene outside kept us occupied, and Karen knitted a blue baby sweater for hours on end.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-24Passing through Tacoma, where the cable-stayed 21st Street Bridge crosses the Thea Foss Waterway

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-25Passing by Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, with its striking, cone-shaped hot shop, which celebrates the roles of Tacoma and artist Dale Chihuly in creating beautiful art glass. Note the Airstream trailer, which goes nicely with the stainless steel architecture of the museum.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-49Homes along a tidal slough along Puget Sound south of Tacoma

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-15The train takes passengers along industrial corridors normally not seen by highway drivers

We watched the passing scene as we wound through Tacoma and along Puget Sound. A group of scuba divers in drysuits and masks prepared to enter the Sound. Rotting piers and multi-million dollar condo developments flashed by. Occasionally a silver and red Santa Fe locomotive sat on a siding. This was a remnant of the the railroad business prior to to the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads. Now Warren Buffett’s company owns the whole BNSF system so we’ll blame him for any delays on this trip.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-45We passed right under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges. For those who remember their high school science classes, this is the location of the Galloping Gertie bridge that developed dramatic waves in a 40 mph wind soon after it was built in 1940. The waves were filmed and, at least in my fuzzy memories, the film showed cars being tossed from the bridge. It soon collapsed, and the pieces now create an artificial reef on the bottom of this stretch of Puget Sound.

After a while, we decided to wander the train, exploring the aisles and determining where we could eat when we got hungry. Three cars toward the locomotive, there was an observation Sightseer Lounge Car with windows that wrap over the top of the car where volunteer interpreters from Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park told engaging stories about the passing scene. My favorite story was about the guy who so enjoyed watching the trains go by from his driveway that he stipulated that he be buried under his gravel drive; it was fun seeing the wide green spot in his driveway that covers his grave, and waving to his friendly ghost.

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As we approached Portland, we bought lunch from the snack bar tucked away below the lounge. The coffee here was good; the microwave meals, not so much. As Karen said, it should be considered “filler” rather than food. Her plastic-enclosed Caesar salad was marginally better than my microwaved cheese pizza., but neither would win the mass transit cuisine competition. Amtrak, can we talk? Are you listening? Can’t you make these snack bars a little bit better with some truly edible food? Please?

Meanwhile, the interpreters pointed out all the houseboats around the islands as we approached Portland. They said that the original impetus for houseboats here was that people thought they could avoid property taxes by living on water instead of land. The government quashed that notion pretty quick with a different kind of tax, but people came to like the romance of rocking gently on the water as they drifted off to sleep.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-76Train station in Centralia, Washington

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Actually, speaking of taxes, this border with Oregon has long been a hotbed for tax avoiders. There are a lot of people who live on the Washington State side of the mighty Columbia River because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. Then, they do their major shopping on the Oregon side, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. It’s a pretty good racket, though they generally get caught if they buy a car in Oregon and try registering it there.

We pulled into the classic Portland Union Station, where smokers were told they could take a “fresh air break.” We coughed as we passed through all that fresh air, then entered the busy station, which was filled with so many people that it seemed like we had stepped back 60 years, though the cell phones and casual clothing were decidedly current. After a few minutes photographing the soaring station interior, and wondering why today’s public spaces are so uninspiring in comparison, we bought ice cream bars to savor during the walk back to our train car.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-94Portland’s Union Station, another classic structure from the classic era of trains

The train filled up again for the run south through the Willamette Valley, through Albany and Salem and Eugene and all the flat country of this vast agricultural valley.  When pioneers on the Oregon Trail finished their long journey in covered wagons pulled by oxen, this valley was their promised land. Its rich soil had been deposited during huge glacial floods that scoured eastern Washington and filled the Willamette Valley. Now there are vast vineyards to supply the wineries, tree and shrub nurseries, fields of peppermint to delight the nose, and orchards of hazelnut trees. During our ride through the valley many of the fields were brown after late summer harvests; had we come through in March, after the winter rains, the entire valley would have been a dazzling green.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-114Some passengers taking a fresh air break outside the train, with others just boarding

The afternoon passed pleasantly, and eventually we began to climb out of the valley and into the mountains of southern Oregon. We chose to have dinner in the dining car, where we were seated with two pleasant ladies heading home to Red Bluff, California after a Seattle wedding. They immediately refused the dinner rolls, saying they were on a gluten-free diet, along with tens of millions of other Americans. There were several entrees available; one of the ladies chose an Amtrak Signature Steak, which was a rare treat … actually, extremely rare, to the point of still mooing. She sent it back for some fresh searing. Meanwhile, we ate the Herb Roasted Half Chicken with rice pilaf, which was very good and filling. Amtrak may not rise to the level of excellence of a fine Seattle restaurant, but its meals are good enough to satisfy hungry travelers.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-115The dining car had some empty tables during our early seating

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-119Forest fires burned during this hot fire season, filling the air with smoky haze

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After dinner, we reclaimed our seats and watched as the train passed through a mountain landscape choked with smoke from nearby forest fires. We could not see any flames, but the fires were nearby.

Once it grew dark outside, we grew sleepy. After all, it had been a long day with an early ferry ride across Puget Sound, a cab ride to the train station, and then a long train ride. The gentle motion of the rails induced easy sleep in the reclining seats.

We were unexpectedly awakened before dawn by the Conductor saying that we were 12 minutes from Sacramento, and that it was time to gather our things. Amazingly, we were a full hour ahead of schedule when we pulled into the station, and were able to make an earlier and better rail connection for the rest of the trip into Fresno.

Once again, I was satisfied with rail travel. It is far more relaxing than flying, with better seats, freedom to roam the train, and a better space for working on a computer. What’s not to like, other than the snack bar’s offerings?

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-124Waiting to board our connection to Fresno, a train run by Amtrak California

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

February 8, 2014

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

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Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

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Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

QUIRKY SEATTLE

April 24, 2013

The Seattle Great Wheel and Space Needle on the Waterfront at NiThe Seattle Great Wheel is a new 175 foot ferris wheel on the waterfront, giving people a new way to view the city, in addition to the iconic Space Needle. For a time it had frequent colorful, multi-colored light shows that lit up all the spokes of the wheel as it rotated. Neighbors in the waterfront apartments and condos complained about the bright lights of the Big Wheel, as if they had never heard of curtains, so now the light shows are just occasional.  I photographed this from the ferry departing for Bremerton.

I recently devoted part of two spring days to photographing anything that caught my eye in Seattle, and I’ve included my favorites here. Some of the photos show tourist attractions that are also of interest to the natives, such as the famous Pike Place Market. Others are random signs or scenes that simply caught my eye or tell a story. Some of these are “classic” photographs I took over the last few years.

My philosophy of photography is simply to wander around in a zen state, open to anything that moves me or intrigues my photographer’s eye. Sometimes it is artistic, sometimes raunchy, sometimes funny, sometimes interesting to others.

Smokestack and Pipes Atop Seattle Steam Co. on Seattle WaterfronSeattle is thought of as a city on the edge of technology and the new urban lifestyle, with its headquarters for Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon. Here is a retro vision of the city: the Seattle Steam Company, on the Seattle downtown waterfront, which looks like it just popped off the pages of a steam punk graphic novel.

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-24Seattle has an activist mayor, Mike McGinn, who has long advocated bike lanes and routes in the city, giving him the moniker “Mayor McSchwinn,” though I believe he cheats by using a motorized bicycle. Here he is at the Pike Place Market for a news interview, dressed as casually as the rest of us in this city that takes “casual Friday” to “casual daily.” People who love fashion tend to hate Seattle!

Car2Go Car Sharing Smart Car on a Seattle StreetWe are green in oh so many ways, and little shared cars are the latest shade of green. Car2Go is a new venture by Daimler to provide flexible transportation to all the yuppies living in high-rise apartments and condos in the heart of the city. People can rent these little Smart Cars at 38 cents per minute, $13.99 per hour, or $72.99 for 24 hours. Just register for the service, find a car on your iPhone (they’re parked wherever people left them around the city), open the car lock somehow digitally, and take off. The company pays for gas. When you’re through, just park it in a legal spot along a city street. There are now something like 400 of these around the city; fortunately they don’t take much space.

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-43Flying fish are a staple at the Pike Place Market. In this case a huge salmon is headed into the arms of a waiting fishmonger. These guys have such a sense of fun and teamwork that there are whole books about their philosophy; in fact, everyone on the fish team signed a book bought by a tourist at the stall while I watched. Just beware of the monkfish, which bit my nephew!

Razor Wire Topping Chain Link Fence in SeattleThis is where they put Seattleites who don’t like coffee, rain, or liberal politics.

Seattle_Signs-2I love this sign, which is based on the Alfred Hitchcock movie starring Jimmy Stewart. It also reminds me of the opening sequence of Mad Men.

Seattle_Pea_Patch-5In the heart of the city, there is part of a city block devoted to a community garden, with lots of small plots for urban dwellers to grow vegetables and flowers–some to give to a food bank. This “Pea Patch,” as it is officially known, is located on extremely valuable land near the REI flagship store and the burgeoning offices of Amazon and biomedical research companies, and it is part of a system of Pea Patches throughout Seattle. The green space gives the eye a sense of relief from all the boring offices and condos. 

Seattle_November_2011-7Sometimes Seattle’s graffiti reminds me of my days in Ann Arbor, when students would do weird and cool stuff. Here the sign defacement apparently refers to a U2 song that I love (but I didn’t deface the sign; I would have done a neater job of it!).

Ivy growing on Support Column of Alaskan Waly Viaduct in SeattleSeattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, built in the early 1950s, is a relic of the past that still carries thousands upon thousands of vehicles on two levels along State Route 99 over the waterfront. Damaged in the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake (which also cracked the foundation of our house), the massive concrete viaduct is not long for this world. It is being replaced by a tunnel that is about to be bored. And, speaking of boring, the tunnel will not be as beautiful an experience as the viaduct, but it will open up the waterfront on Elliot Bay, making a much more pleasant experience for tourists and other pedestrians.

Seattle_Waterfront-47Jumbo Shipping brought the cutter for boring the new tunnel all the way from Osaka, Japan; here it is being unloaded on the waterfront. The boring machine, named Bertha, will dig a 57.5′ diameter wormhole under Seattle that will carry some of the traffic now carried by the viaduct. The problem is, there is going to be a toll on the tunnel, so notoriously skinflint Seattleites will skirt the tunnel, massively clogging the city streets. Such is urban planning in the land of the cheap.

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-40Ah, the Dungeness Crab. Found in waters off the Washington and Oregon coasts, this ferocious looking beast is among the tastiest crabs anywhere. We sometimes get them and use a pair of nutcrackers and some cocktail stirrers to get at the meat inside the claws. For these dinners, Karen accuses me of making her work for her dinner. The crab, dipped in melted butter with a touch of lemon juice, is deep water heaven.

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-45Beneath the waters of Puget Sound lives the biggest octopus in the world–far, far larger than this one–the Giant Octopus. Ferry boats and sailboats use special radar to avoid these octopuses, which can pull a boat down into the depths with two of their giant, suction-cupped arms. Or so the legend goes …

Elephant_Car_Wash-2Urbane and sophisticated Seattle: the pink Elephant Car Wash stands near the shores of Lake Union, now the place where thousands of Amazon engineers write endless code to sell us stuff (I think most of their stuff is shipped to me!).

Sign for Trolley that Once Moved People along Seattle WaterfrontUntil several years ago there was a trolley that ferried people back and forth along the waterfront, so that people didn’t have to walk to get a bowl of clam chowder at Ivar’s or see the shrunken heads and two-headed lamb at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. The transportation department apparently didn’t get the memo that the trolley was permanently parked. 

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-37Beautiful morel mushrooms at $59.90 per pound–that’s immorel! Plus there are fern fiddleheads at $12.95 per pound, and multicolored carrots and hedgehog mushrooms and so much more at the Pike Place Market. Dine on the bleeding edge, if your bank account can stand it.

Shadows on Union Stairway on the Seattle WaterfrontEven the shadows in Seattle are artistic. Some artist probably has a copyright on these shadows and will sue me for publishing them in my blog (Seattle has several artist/litigators who have sued the pants off photographers. Well, maybe not literally.)

Seattle_Signs-1Love the name. Alas, the Year of the Monkey must be over, because construction workers were remodeling the building’s interior when I sauntered by. It had been a store featuring imported furniture and home accessories from Asia.

Lusty_Lady-2The Lusty Lady peep show was a downtown fixture for decades, and its marquee featured witty sayings. For example, when the Seattle Art Museum opened across the street, with its huge iconic sculpture “Hammering Man,” the marquee said “Hammer Away, Big Boy!” Alas, all good things cum to an end, and this was one of the last clever sayings. Internet porn apparently killed the desire for real porn.

Seattle_Waterfront-657This looks like one of those giant octopuses under Puget Sound, but it is an early warning floating radar system that is normally anchored off Alaska. I hope that, after repairs, it is now back in place monitoring North Korean incoming missiles. Mount Rainier stands in the distance, ready to blow up at the slightest provocation, much like North Korea.

Hat 'N' Boots Seattle

Hat 'N' Boots SeattleHat and Boots served as an iconic gas station for several decades, with the hat serving as the office and the boots as cowboys and cowgirls restrooms. Alas, the boots of progress stomped out this business, but the heroic citizens of Seattle rescued the Hat and Boots, like John Wayne rescuing the madam with a heart of gold,  for use in a city park.

Seattle_Waterfront_2013-30Enough of my silly pictures; this one from the Pike Place Market can melt the hearts of all the girls; after all, who doesn’t LOVE tulips and the coming of spring?

The Seattle Great Wheel on the Waterfront at NightBig Wheel keep on toinin’ …

Seattle City Skyline at Night Viewed from a Washington State FerAlas, time to head back across the sound to where the little people live.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

THE BOTANY OF EXPIRE

June 15, 2011

The support structure for the gigantic flower of Amorphophallus titanum–an elegant example of plant architecture

Life goes to all lengths to get sex; after all, without sex, we have no birds, bees, or babies. But some sex is just plain weird, as in the case of the Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum). Think about the root meaning of those Latin words for a moment, and you will understand why Sir David Attenborough came up with the less “dirty” name of Titan Arum to use in his BBS television series, The Secret Life of Plants, instead of the scientific name.

Corpse Flower is a gigantic botanical simulation of rotting meat, complete with a fetid odor and a deep burgundy color to help create the illusion. It even raises its own temperature to make the illusion of decomposing meat more real. And who is it trying to attract with all this grossness? Why, carrion beetles and flesh flies, of course, which are its pollinators! Everything it does, it does for sex–kind of like some politicians who make the news, but we won’t go there …

Impressive in size, the Corpse Flower blooms only occasionally through the years, and sports the color, temperature, and fetid smell of a large rotting animal

I went to the University of Washington botany greenhouses in Seattle, after seeing a story in the Seattle Times about how this plant was about to bloom. On that afternoon of June 9, I joined about 60 people in line to wait for our chance to file past the magnificent plant and experience its sensory pleasures. Alas, my sense of smell is not working well because of seasonal allergies, so I couldn’t smell a thing. It’s just as well, based on some of the descriptions of the gag-inducing stink, which is said to be so bad that it can make a person’s eyes water.

Anyway, the plant was gigantic and most impressive; those of us who stood in line were rewarded with the chance to climb a ladder and look down inside the flower. The cutest among us were also rewarded with having pictures taken by a media photographer (he didn’t bother with me).

Climbing a ladder to view the Corpse Flower’s interior

Corpse Flower lives naturally in the Sumatra rainforest, but it has relatives here in North America, including Calla Lily and Skunk Cabbage. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which grows in swamps in places I’ve lived, including Michigan and New York, also has a meat color, strong odor, and the ability to generate heat–which helps it melt snow in early spring, AND to spread its wondrous odor better.

Now the flowering event is over, and it is time to patiently wait for that 100+ lb. root to decide that it’s time once again to surprise us with a magnificent bloom. It might happen in a couple of years, or perhaps in a human lifetime. Nobody knows, and that is part of the wonder of its nature.

University of Washington botany greenhouse, with the Corpse Flower visible inside

Virtually everyone took a picture of the gigantic flower

Wikipedia has a good article about the natural history of this amazing plant; go to: Corpse Flower.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

SEATTLE ARBORETUM: Wild Things

March 10, 2011

Male Gadwall in a small arboretum pond

I came to the Washington Park Arboretum to photograph colorful garden flowers; alas, spring seems to be a bit late this year, so I spent most of my early March afternoon photographing wild visitors to the park.

Today was a birdy day, with a knot of half-a-dozen Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Brown Creeper, and lots of Black-Capped Chickadees.  Robins were doing unmentionable things deep in a flowering forsythia. A pair of Gadwalls fed on a tiny pond and didn’t seem to mind that strange photographer laying on the ground and pointing a lens at them.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, a tiny bird constantly in motion, pauses a split second for a portrait

Mosses were lush and feathery to the touch on this spring day. A few people were happily walking dogs, jogging, identifying birds, and taking pictures. As a counterpoint, in thick brush I happened upon a grief-stricken informal memorial to a child from an anguished parent. It reminded me of a passage from a Dave Mathews song:

Lying in the park on a beautiful day

Sunshine in the grass, and the children play

Sirens passing, fire engine red

Someone’s house is burning down on a day like this”

The good and bad, happy and sad, swirl around us in a cloud of molecules and electrical impulses every day as we go about our lives.

A parent’s sad memorial to a son. Among other touching words, the driftwood sticks are inscribed “In Memory: My son and best friend … You beat us there, but we’ll meet you there … We love you.”

Woman walking with her dog on a beautiful spring day

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), a native shrub, lights up the March woods with its candle-like flowers

Extreme closeup of beautiful moss; I have never had training in moss identification, so I don’t have a clue as to the species

The graceful base of a huge old rhododendron

Water play, or so it looked to me

Female swimming among beautiful reflections

Adult female Gadwall with an orange bill. The female was more actively feeding than the male–within about four feet of me at times. She would sit in one place on the water, vigorously “paddling” downward with her legs, causing her to rock rapidly back and forth. Then she would “tip up” to feed, with tail stuck into the air. I believe her rapid leg motion helped to stir up matted aquatic plants so that she could more easily harvest them when she stuck her head underwater, but it is also possible that she was after aquatic insects. The male Gadwall kept a wary eye on me as I watched the female feeding.

I had always thought of male Gadwalls as rather plain ducks–especially in comparison to Wood Ducks–but the barred feathers have an understated elegance of design up close

The shape of a Gadwall’s head is interesting, with the fat cheeks and narrow head

In case you hadn’t guessed, I love photographing ducks from a low angle, though it gets increasingly difficult to haul myself up from the cramped position when I’m finished

Beautiful and subtle colors and patterns adorn the male in breeding plumage

Cone and needles of a Weeping White Pine (Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’)

A male Ruby-Crowned Kinglet showing a bit of its scarlet crest, which is often hidden

Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on a fallen log

Patch of moss growing on the bark of a fallen log

I have posted several previous blogs about the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.  Go to:

Azaleas in SeattlePretty in Pink, Spring in Seattle, and Monet in Seattle’s Arboretum.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com. I also have some inexpensive, smaller pieces for sale at an Etsy Website.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.


A FAVORITE SEATTLE-AREA HIKE: Melakwa Lake

August 11, 2010

Denny Creek cascades over a series of waterfalls near the trail

A hike starting between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 90 might seem less than promising. But we didn’t give up, even after the trailhead parking lot was full by 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday and the freeway noise was constant.

The trail to Melakwa Lake is like that; since it is so close to Seattle, being on the near side of Snoqualmie Pass, it gets heavy use. The trail leads directly under the tall, elevated viaduct that is the westbound route of I-90. I find the viaduct strangely beautiful; it was built so that avalanches could pass directly underneath, without affecting traffic. The contrast of the massive and elegantly simple concrete structure with the wild and visually complex forest below is astounding.

The Snoqualmie Pass Viaduct lets avalanches slip underneath

Farther up the trail, families gather on the smooth stone along one stretch of Denny Creek for cooling off on hot summer days. Still, farther, there is dramatic Keekwulee Falls. After that, only the young and/or hardy make the hike to Melakwa Lake, which has a 2,300′ elevation gain in just a few miles.

We camped near the smaller lake, and enjoyed a quiet night with a bit of rain and low clouds that swirled and danced among the rugged peaks and pointed firs. I didn’t realize it until later, but “Melakwa” is a native word for “mosquito,” and the lake lived up to its name (what’s a wilderness experience without a struggle?). Worse than mosquitoes were the black flies, tiny creatures that love to fly behind your glasses and bite you right at the hatline. I came back with four nasty bites that still itch and are swollen as I write this, a week and a half later. There were also biting flies of normal size that pestered us on the way up the trail, but their bite isn’t as bad as their buzz.

I’ll let the photographs tell most of the story, but there was one additional event that we found interesting. When I looked into Melakwa Lake on Sunday, the sun’s reflection appeared coppery in color. I thought maybe it was something about the lake’s blue color that changed the reflection; but on the hike down, the late afternoon sun turned tree trunks a bright burnt orange color. Then, on the drive home, the setting sun was a ball of dark (not bright) orange in the sky–something I had never observed in Seattle before, though it was common in central New York where I once lived. We heard later that the unusual color of the sun was due to smoke from forest fires burning in British Columbia.

For more information about the Melakwa Lake hike, including trip reports by numerous hikers, go to: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/melakwa-lake

American Pikas, relatives of rabbits, live among talus slope rocks in the basin containing Melakwa Lake; they make their living by gathering wildflowers and sedges and storing the dried “hay” for the long winter. They live under the snow and do not hibernate.

GROSS ALERT: Pika scats, which Pikas eat, thus ingesting nutrients they didn’t absorb the first time around

Pink Mountain Heather at its peak of bloom

Meet “Misty Melakwa,” our snowlady for the trip

The smooth rocks in one stretch of Denny Creek are great for sliding

A Dark-eyed Junco (aka “Snowbird”) sang in the mist above our tent

There were about six tents in the basin the night we visited

An American Dipper peering into the stream near our tent

Evening and early morning were misty, with low clouds shrouding the mountains

Colorful stones in the crystal clear waters of Denny Creek

Green False Hellebore, a favorite of mountain photographers, is deadly; so don’t eat it!

Misty mountain morning

The blue glow of a misty deep twilight

I believe this rock, tortured and twisted with chunks and flows, is termed a skarn

Pacific Silver Fir shredded and gnawed by a black bear

Keekwulee Falls along Denny Creek

Morning fog above Melakwa Lake

Waves give a painterly look to Melakwa Lake

A coppery sun, tinted by forest fires, reflects off the waves of Melakwa Lake

The Great (Gum) Wall of Seattle

June 14, 2010

A typically colorful detail of Seattle’s Great Gum Wall

“Abby and Ethan, do you know what’s on that wall?”

Stepping closer, the kids say in unison:  “It’s gum!”  And they run up to it.

Mommy, panicked, shouts “Don’t touch that, it’s germy!”

This conversation and countless variations on it are repeated daily in grungy Post Alley, just below Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.  The market has a huge sign over it that proclaims “Sanitary Market,” but the details of life around it are anything but sanitary, as the Great Gum Wall illustrates.

I first learned about the Great Gum Wall in a recent issue of National Geographic, where a two page photo spread showed the wall in all its 26 megapixel detail and glory. As a regional resident, I should have known about the wall earlier, but I’m usually out of the loop on Seattle pop culture, having just learned to appreciate Nirvana and Kurt Cobain nearly 20 years too late. Now I dress daily in Seattle grunge style which, come to think of it, also puts me nearly 20 years behind the times. But I’ll catch up; I’m considering a big nose ring, except during allergy season, and a fierce tatoo of a chickadee on the back of my shaved head!

Anyway, it seems that in the early 1990s, patrons of the Market Theatre in Post Alley started to stick their gum on the old brick wall while waiting in line to enter. The theatre first tried to clean it off, but gave up and the tradition stuck.  To the wall.  One gob led to another, and pretty soon tens of thousands of gum wads were deposited on the wall, spotting and dripping and smelling and reeking in all their wondrous glory.  I mean, what more can you say about a wall of pre-chewed gum?

Actually, TripAdvisor recently named the Great Gum Wall as one of the world’s five top germiest attractions–second behind the Blarney Stone.  For that reason alone it is worth jetting halfway around the world to see it; I recommend a stay at the nearby Four Seasons Seattle. Or, if you are on a budget, you can carry your sleeping bag over your shoulder and ask a photographer–as one young man, homeless in Seattle, recently asked me–”where can I take a nap?”

To answer the question starting to form in your mind, “Is Seattle still a yuppie Mecca?” Yup! The great gum wall is plastered with only the finest gum from the tooth-whitened mouths of sterling and sophisticated young men and women. Nothing but the best in this town, I say!

Box office for the theatre

Personally, I have never chewed gum, so I don’t have a reason to visit the Great Gum Wall again, since I can’t add to the “art.” Aside from that, the sight and stench made me gag.  But if you’ve got a strong stomach and are looking for something creative to do with the kids this weekend, they would love a visit to Seattle’s Great Gum Wall. Bring your antibacterial wipes …

If the city provided a ladder, the gum line could be much higher

Up the alley, there is a wall of grungy and torn posters; I think this photograph belongs in an art museum

The lower alley entrance can be a dark and lonely place at night

A gummer, writing the name of his love, Sarah, shows a strong work ethic and persistence–just the kind of guy employers are dying to hire

An ongoing art project: the Gum Mona Lisa

At least the gum smell overwhelms the other stenches in the alley

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.