Dancing with whales

Sunday morning arrived with calm winds and a sky dotted with pudgy clouds. So my husband and I packed some carrot-berry muffins and took our boat for a short cruise around our front yard, the waters off Kodiak Island. As we sipped coffee in the wheelhouse, four orca whales surfaced near the bow and glided effortlessly through the water. They were so smooth, so regal. It was like watching my Dad do the foxtrot across the dance floor.

Orca, whales, ocean, Kodiak, Alaska, mountains

(c) Marion Owen, Kodiak, Alaska


Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

How rough can gardening students be anyway?

During last night’s organic gardening class, my students brought me down to earth.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to teach. Problem is, I always feel a little nervous at the first class with a new group of students peering at me from their desks with great anticipation. Never mind that I’ve taught the subject a dozen times, or for as many years. (How rough can a group of gardening students be anyway?) That’s just how I am.

Usually after a few minutes my shoulders relax and then I settle down. Here’s where my students came to my rescue…

garden, organic gardening, workshop, class

I gave each person a short questionnaire. It’s a way for me to get to know them, and they use the opportunity to express why they want to learn how to grow stuff. During a break, I reviewed some of their responses. Oh, sure there was the expected be more sustainable, grow more safe, healthy food, and get more exercise, but there were some sweetness, too. Even from the guys:

  • Introduce my kids to gardening
  • Be around green, growing things
  • Grow cut flowers for myself and friends
  • Grow beautiful things to photograph

I drove home around 10 o’clock and sat down with a cup of tea. So why do I like to grow stuff? Well, for lots of reasons. But you know, I’d rather hear your thoughts. I mean, surely it’s not for the love of weeding, is it?

pansies, viola, flowers, garden



Posted in Organic gardening | 10 Comments

Up a creek without a camera

When I grabbed my camera bag and headed out the door, I had no particular agenda in mind. The sky was still peppered with stars and faint outlines of clouds meant the sunrise had potential. So did the day, as I soon learned.

I drove a couple miles to the mouth of the Buskin River, a tight, S-curve stream that flows into the ocean near Kodiak’s main airport. As I pulled into parking lot, the tires crunched over old snow and new ice. I took the precaution of stretching spiked “grippers” over the soles of my boots so I didn’t end up spread-eagled — or worse — on the ice.

Canon, F-stop, camera, bag, Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera

What’s wrong with this picture?

I hiked upriver along a snow-packed trail to where sandwiches of ice sheets, stranded by the receding river and tide, creating interesting patterns. I set my gear down on the matted rye grass and took inventory: river, ocean, beach, sunrise, mountains. The clouds began fringing with pink and orange. Pacific wrens chatted in the spruce trees. Nice.

I unzipped the back panel of the camera bag, anticipating a fun, creative morning. But as I reached for the camera body, all I saw was an empty slot. I’d forgotten to re-pack my bag after going on vacation.

Now what? I reached in my coat pocket and pulled out my iPhone…

Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera, sunrise, ice, river, winter

Sunburst over ice and Buskin River on Kodiak Island, Alaska (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

photographer, photography, Kodiak, Alaska, landscape, ice, Alaska, Kodiak, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera, close-up, macro, winter

Ice constellation and grass meteors. (iPhone macro by Marion Owen)

After I resigned myself to using the cell phone, I began to relax and play, discovering more things to photograph. “I’ve got to bring my students here next week,” I said aloud.

I felt pleased because of what I didn’t do, which was get frustrated, put myself down, and feel cheated by the universe–all the while mumbling, “Why me?”

Winter, river, ice, sunrise, Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera

Ice sheets left by receding river. (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera, sunrise, ice, river, winter, mountain, selfie

Self-portrait. Am I smiling?

Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera, sunrise, ice, river, winter, mountain

Barometer Mountain blushes at first light, Kodiak, Alaska (iPhone photo by Marion Owen)

After an hour or so, I slung my backpack over my shoulder hiked back to the car. The one feeling, the one word that kept coming to mind was gratitude.

sunrise, Kodiak, Alaska, river, Pacific Ocean, Alaska, Kodiak, photographer, photography, landscape, iPhone photo, picture, photo, camera

Sunrise over the Buskin River as it flows into the ocean. The City of Kodiak, Alaska in the upper left.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

California’s drought is screaming, “Get off your duff and start growing!”

If you’ve been toying with the idea of growing some of your own food, it’s time to get serious about it. Thanks to California’s current drought–reported to be the worst in 100 years–food prices are on the rise…

garden beds, soil, winter, garden

Our raised beds are thawed out, so I took a break from making bread (note the apron) to turn the soil.

California, which has the nation’s largest farm economy (more than 90 percent of the U.S. production of broccoli, celery, almonds, grapes, walnuts and other crops), seems to be in a perennial drought. While 2013 may have set a new standard as the driest year on record, going back 160 years, this year is not looking good. So far in 2014, geologists say the Sierra snowpack—a crucial source for state water—is only 20 percent of normal.

Why is California so dry? Meteorologists say there’s a huge, stubborn high pressure system (also called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge) off the West Coast nearly 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long. It isn’t budging.

Can you pick out Alaska and the West Coast? This snapshot gives you an idea of the jet stream "wrinkle" that is causing havoc.

Can you pick out Alaska and the West Coast? This snapshot gives you an idea of the jet stream “wrinkle” that is causing havoc.

“About 65 percent of our cropland [about one million acres] is irrigated,” says Karen Ross, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture, “So it is very serious.

“It is not just isolated to one part of the state. We have a number of our counties that are under extreme drought conditions. We are already seeing farmers choose to fallow land that normally this time of the year they would be preparing for a springtime crop or a summer crop.”

Which means nut trees will have more priority than seasonal crops like lettuce and tomatoes. And since most of the nation’s salad bar is grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, produce prices could rise.

garden, organic, greens, mustard, salad

Mixed salad greens are the easiest, fastest, and most economical crops to grow in the home garden. (Marion Owen photo)

What does that mean for you and me?

In the U.S., fruits and vegetables account for about 1.2 percent of a typical household’s spending, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. California’s drought could also impact the prices of dairy products and meat. A 10 percent increase in food costs could add 0.4 percent to the annual rate of inflation.

Uhhh, 0.4 percent? It might not seem like much, 0.4 percent, but to an economist, that’s huge.

Meanwhile, a recession seems to be increasingly likely this year. Oops, really?

Here’s a little history lesson: According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, data shows that the average economic expansion since World War II has lasted 58 months. The current expansion that we’re experiencing now began 55 months ago in June 2009 and could end this year as consumer spending slows.

Moving away from speculation, while California is unusually dry and hot for this time of year, why then, is Alaska so wet and warm? The Associated Press gave us a clue recently: The jet stream–the river of air that dictates much of America’s weather–is meandering again. Which means warm air is flowing from near Hawaii north to Alaska and from Canada south to the Lower 48.

“It’s like a fire hose is turned on Alaska at full blast,” said a National Weather Service meteorologist in a recent broadcast.

carrots, garden, harvest, organic

Carrots are so versatile (pickles, savory, sweet, fresh, steamed, roasted) they should be grown in every garden.

So let’s turn a fire hose on rising food prices by growing more local food. If you’re new to gardening, you might be wondering, where to start?First, build a raised bed. Use whatever materials work best: Stones, cement blocks, rough-cut lumber from the sawmill, 4×6′s from your local hardware store, driftwood, re-conditioned pallets. The length is not so important as the width. Make your raised beds 4 to 6 feet wide, narrow enough so you can reach in from both sides.

Fill it with local soil, and local materials such as leaves, kelp, sand, fish meal, compost and aged manure — goat, chicken, horse, cow, buffalo. [You can see that Kodiak Island is blessed with a treasure-trove of garden goodies] Yes, it will seem too lumpy but don’t worry. In a few months, it will have broken down and settled a bit. Come planting time, top it off with a couple inches of sifted soil or compost.

If building a raised bed means reducing the size of your lawn, have at it. A sprawling expanse of green is overrated in this country. Besides, you can’t eat a lawn so you might put you yard to work by growing edible, as well as beautiful food. With the rising cost of food and concern about food safety, you can’t go wrong by growing a few heads of lettuce or broccoli.

radish seedling, garden, vegetable

Radish seedling on the grow! (Marion Owen photo)

No room for raised beds? Half-barrels, halibut tubs, totes, window boxes, narrow raised beds, and hanging baskets, all make excellent containers. A community garden or a shared garden with your neighbor might be the answer, too.

Finally, what to grow? Here’s a list of easy-to-grow, veggies that love coastal Alaska growing conditions:

Kale, broccoli, mustard greens, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, cress, Swiss chard, spinach, radishes, peas, fava beans, beets, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage.

You may have noticed that tomatoes and cucumbers are not listed above. If you’re a hoop or greenhouse grower though, they’re do-able. Allan Thielen, Kodiak’s cucumber king, swears by Jade cucumbers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. As for tomatoes, many early and cherry varieties do well in protected conditions. One to try this year: Gregori’s Altai Tomato from Tomato Growers, which originates near the Chinese border with Siberia and produces slightly flattened beefsteak tomatoes in 65 days.

Speaking of Siberia, as I write this, the temperature has tanked at -63 degrees F.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 3.49.55 PMNOTE: This article was originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror as one of my weekly garden columns. I edited it for this blog posting to make it more relevant for readers who don’t live in Alaska.

Posted in Food and recipes, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rock stars of organic farming chew the fat about our food

Garden, Alaska, organic, Kodiak Island

View of raised vegetable beds in our home in Kodiak, Alaska.

carrots, garden, harvest, organic

Don’t worry, eat carrots! These were grown in our seaside garden. All organic, using kelp (seaweed), leaves, compost, volcanic ash, cow manure and lots more.

In Kodiak, Alaska, I’m an organic gardening geek. I teach the stuff through the University of Alaska and write about weeds, seeds and the beauty of kelp in my weekly newspaper column.

My husband and I grow a lot on our ‘postage stamp’ property. In the summer, it’s mostly greens, herbs and edible flowers which are transformed into 400-500 salads for our dinner cruise guests. So when I saw this article, The Elders of Organic Farming in the New York Times (Jan 24, 2014), I pushed the pause button on today’s schedule to read Carol Pogash’s piece. I hope you do, too.

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California recently hosted a week-long conference where two dozen organic farmers–rock stars in the industry–from the U.S. and Canada shared decades’ worth of stories, secrets and anxieties.

Let me share a few highlights:

Michael Ableman and Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer, organized the intimate conference. Mr. Ableman, the author of “Fields of Plenty,” (excellent read, by the way) is writing a book about the gathering. Deborah Garcia, the widow of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and a filmmaker whose previous films include “The Future of Food” and “The Symphony of the Soil,” is making a documentary.

Michael Ableman, Fields of Plenty

Each chapter provides you with an enormous helping of hope and inspiration. Thank you, Michael.

We should all be happy, right?

Sales of organic food in the United States reached $31.5 billion in 2012, compared with $1 billion in 1990, according to the Organic Trade Association… So the grandfathers and grandmothers of organic farming should be joyous, but they are not. Their principles of local, seasonal fruits and vegetables have been replaced in many cases by year-round clamshelled tomatoes for Walmart, Target and other stores.

The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman

Thanks to Eliot’s book, we pledged to grow more of our own food. We encircled the house with raised beds, installed a hoophouse and greenhouse and share how-to’s with friends, neighbors and visitors to Kodiak island.

The big picture, from the garden “trenches”:

The sustainable agriculture these farmers practice goes beyond farming without synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. They adhere to a broader political and ecological ethos that includes attention to wildlife, soil, education and community. For most of them, the bottom line has never been their bottom line.

About their anti-establishment beginnings:

“Every one of us broke the law,” said Frank Morton, 57, an Oregon seed farmer, with perverse pride.

But don’t be satisfied reading things tidbits. Pour a beer or a cup of tea and read the whole article here.

Oh, one more thing: Promise yourself you’ll grow at least one salad’s worth of greens this year. It will change your life.

Hakurei turnips

I learned about Hakurei turnips through Eliot Coleman. They are sweet and mild. I even shred and bake them in muffins.

Posted in Food and recipes, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Choices by the teaspoon: How do you use precious moments?

Early this morning, I read a bold statement that caused me to set my coffee cup down:

“All who are willing to snatch time from the greedy material world to devote it instead to the divine search can learn to behold the wondrous factory of creation out of which all things are born.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

I looked up to see stars reflecting in the water. Okay, so it’s not a pleasant thought, but you know, eventually our bodies will fall painfully apart and we will be escorted off this earth. That’s a given.

So back to my coffee. Marion, how much precious time do you waste chasing temporary happiness in the form of food, money, gratification of the body, useless diversions and attachments to material stuff?

There’s no escaping the inner work I have yet to accomplish. And something tells me I have miles to go before I sleep…

Alpin Hong, piano, concert, classical, Kodiak, Alaska, tour

During a busy concert tour, concert pianist Alpin Hong pauses to enjoy a developing sunset over Pasagshak Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. (Marion Owen photo)

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Where curiosity leads me | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

When a snowflake whispers in your ear, listen up.

Isn’t it cool how answers show up in the most unusual ways…when we have burning questions, problems that need solving, or lessons to learn? Allow me to share a story with you…

Snowflakes, snow crystals, photograph, ice

The center “eye” in this split star is the connecting column which joins two partial, or split crystals. Here’s the theory: The two plates start out symmetrical, but as soon as one edges ahead, it starves the other of water vapor and retards or alters its growth. The asymmetrical results can be quite beautiful.

Call me crazy, but I love freezing my arse off to photograph snowflakes.

In that way, nothing’s changed since the 1980s, when I first started photographing “sky flowers.” I was shooting film back then, and I faced one obstacle after another. For example, Canon hadn’t released the queen of macro lenses, the MPE-65mm yet, so I used a reversing ring to marry a 50mm lens onto the front of a 200mm lens. (To my non-photographer readers, stay with me on this). Though I achieved an impressive 4x magnification (200/50=4), it was not always with impressive results.

They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it?
~ Jeanette Winterson

Snowflake, snow, Formvar, snow crystal

My early (1999) attempt at preserving snowflakes using Formvar resin.

I also dabbled with preserving snowflakes in liquid Formvar resin, which crawls on the surface of the flakes to make a kind of plastic shell, a permanent replica. Later I’d photograph the specimens under a microscope.

Then there were lighting issues. Snowflakes are clear ice. Without decent light, there’s not much to see. Trouble is, if I tried to light up snowflakes with incandescent flashlights, the crystal structure melted like warm Jell-o. High-powered–and cool–LED flashlights didn’t come on the scene until 1999, so I was limited to daylight hours. Even then, beautiful snowflakes didn’t always cooperate (fall on cue) between the hours of 10 AM and 3 PM. Remember, we’re talking short, winter days in Alaska.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
~ Voltaire

And trying to get everything in focus? Depth of field was an enormous challenge, especially for triple-decker snowflakes, and obstinate ones that landed cockeyed on the glass slide, as if propped up on an elbow. Focus-stacking software such as Helicon Focus hadn’t been developed.

img_6701-6702 snowflake

A near-perfect symmetrical snowflake; actually, this is a stellar dendrite (classic-shaped) snowflake. Dendrite means “tree like”, so stellar dendrite snow crystals have branches and side branches. This is the most popular and recognized snow crystal type, sometimes growing to large and extravagant crystals in conditions of high humidity.

Then digital cameras came along, and thankfully, many obstacles melted away.

[For those of you dreaming of photographing snowflakes, here's my current setup: A Canon 5D MarkIII mounted on one end of an extension tube, with a microscope objective (lens) on the other. These days I use LED flashlights to highlight the crystal facets without worrying about melting my subjects.]

I was very excited, thrilled, actually, at the prospect of finally being able to single out, and photograph with confidence, the most perfect and beautiful snowflakes in the world.

Yet, something didn’t feel quite right.

snowflake, snow, snow crystal, ice

Look closely at the center of this snowflake. What do you see? The father of snowflake photography, “Snowflake Bentley”, often looked for familiar shapes and patterns within the center plate of snow crystals. Milk bottles, mittens, and flowers, as seen here.

Were only perfect snowflakes worthy of attention?

Am I limiting myself?

Will I overlook something in the process?

And am I judging nature?

What does perfect mean, anyway?

Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.
~ Henry David Thoreau

If you’re like me, you grew up believing that all snowflakes were 6-sided symmetrical shapes; like something created by clipping triangles and diamonds from folded paper. So I carried that belief into the field, as I scrutinized a fresh batch of newly fallen snowflakes. I discarded ones that didn’t measure up, and photographed just the perfect flakes.

Not any more.

I’ve learned to let go of the myth (and all the expectations) and accept that there is perfection in imperfection. I needed to relax and practice Slow Photography.

It makes me think of a wonderful little book, What the Road Passes By, with photographs by Dewitt Jones, a top professional photographer whose thoughtful columns in Outdoor Photographer kept me renewing my subscription for years.

There are times in my life, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without, when the world is so achingly beautiful, when everything holds such meaning, that I am incapable of any expression except tears of joy. The boundaries of my being begin to blur, whatever separates one thing from another begins to dissolve, and in that confluence of light and line and law, lies an experience for which I have no words.

Sometimes photographers set the bar pretty high in a quest to produce the perfect shot, the Pulitzer prize-winning image. As a result, I think we pass by, not just a lot of great images, but meaningful experiences that are meant to be the rule, not the exception.

The snowflake below is far from symmetrical, but for me, time seemed to stop as I brought this regal beauty into focus.


This is probably one of my favorite snowflakes. The soft hues, contrast and regal-ness. Time seems to stand still while I do this kind of work. I take naps, graze a little and photograph through the wee hours of the night and day.

And this snowflake (pictured below), with its warts, pimples and funny arms…

What do you think, is it any less beautiful in its own imperfect way?

snowflake, rime, water, ice

Rime or reason: Toward the end of this snowflake’s 20-minute journey to earth, cloud droplets bombarded it like buckshot, freezing and sticking to the ice surface on contact. These “water warts” are called rime.

Snowflake, snow, snow crystal, photograph, real snowflake

Look, mom, lots or arms! This snowflake is unusual in many ways. For one thing, it’s born of at least two plates, visible at the center, and grew at different rates.

Thanks for visiting.

P.S. If you’d like to discover the beautiful, overlooked world of snowflakes, take a look at this article in the Anchorage Daily News which features my photographs and some tips for snowflake watching.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Our world, Photography, Where curiosity leads me | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments