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A Very Busy Spring

Editors Note: This was written several weeks ago.  Spring is in full swing at this point.  The fact that this was composed so long ago is telling that I’ve been out and about, working and playing a lot.  This is no less telling or interesting despite the tardiness of my actual posting of it. 

Spring is here. The vernal equinox past. Suddenly the birds are singing, the flowers bloomed, and my vegetable garden flourished.

Almost.

Approximations are a rule with the natural world, that’s what keeps those of us that are deeply enamored coming back. No lines can be drawn without finding contradictions just around the bend.

At the very least, it is true that our days in the Northern Hemisphere are getting longer.

As I’m writing this, all my body is telling me to be outside. A rare March day is afoot but I’ve a resolve to get this written before I get lost in the revelry of spring sun in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve been in my new garden all week. For the first spring in quite awhile, I’ve had the opportunity to start a vegetable garden. Some might not immediately see the connection between an urban garden and natural history but they should be considered inseparable, specifically for the urbanite.

If I were to guess at what first got my curiosity started as a child, it probably dates to crawling about the side yard of the El Segundo storefront where I spent my first years. My parents, artists, hippies, whatever you’d like to call them (I usually just call them Mom and Dad) had the good foresight to get me outside. Sure, this was urban Los Angeles, but I was getting my first taste of nature among the succulents in this small space.

Several years later, we moved to the Seattle area. My mother became a master gardener, my father and I became the labor. In those early days I found weeding and meticulously plucking slugs and cutworms off plants a chore (in fact it was, I got my allowance that way). Whether or not it was intentional, my parents’ insistence that I be outside, that I participate, garnered a deep seeded appreciation (pun intended). Like kids that have grown up on farms or in rural areas, plant life makes sense. In turn this furthers my understanding of ecosystems and especially birds.

Messing around in the garden this week I accomplished a lot in terms of getting ready to have spring vegetables, but I also enjoyed a side benefit of getting to know my new neighbors. A pair of American crows, displaying notable sexual dimorphism (the male hefty next to his mate) have started to collect sticks for their nest. Bewick’s wrens are rampant, singing all day, poking about fence lines. Holdover winter flocks of golden-crowned kinglets and brown creepers are beginning to sing during foraging efforts. American Robins are singing non-stop and getting feisty, chasing each other in the median strip in front of my house. There is no shortage of song these days.

My meager garden work finished, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a jaunt down to the local park. I’d been wanting to check the status of the native plants, to look for flowers and fresh foliage. So, it was off to Ravenna park.

I’ve always thought an important trait for a naturalist is forgetfulness in the face of nature. This is a theme I’ve touched on before and others, far greater than myself, have also commented on it. I’m reading Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher at the moment and have had fits of laughter in hearing these idols of mine running out of gas, losing wallets, and best of all, binoculars. We are all alike in losing track of human realities in the face of birds and landscapes. It was 4 PM before I realized I’d not eaten, had water, or done anything to satisfy bodily needs since 11 AM.

The reason being was that the forest of Cowen-Ravenna Park was awakening. In shambles from disturbance, by no means pristine, with a creek that still stinks of city runoff, there is still much to enjoy in this alleyway through the urban world of Seattle. Restoration is in full swing too, sapling cedars the most obvious of the newly planted. The creek itself runs all the way to Union Bay on Lake Washington from Green Lake, finishing adjacent to a favorite spot of birders, the Montlake Fill or the Union Bay Natural Area (natural in a primordial sense it is not). While only a section of this fragrant trickle is daylighted (1.1 km through the park), before 2006 when a project to show it the light of day was finished, it was practically hidden. Standing next to it, I have hard time believing this creek ever had salmon spawning beneath old growth timber lasting as late as the 1920s.

Disconnected from city sewage and flowing once again into Lake Washington, Ravenna Creek is a great escape for the cement weary.

Indian Plum has already made its charge into new growth, the earliest bloomer in this region and I was not surprised to see it flush with creamy pendant blooms and fresh green leaves. However, as I descended from Cowen Park, the “top” end of the creek, I saw hints of pink amongst bare branches.

“The Salmonberry is blooming!” I practically yelled in excitement.

Really, this is no surprise, just a welcome bit of color to match the vibrant birdsong. Pacific Wren trilled endlessly, a Downy Woodpecker called, and even Ruby-crowned Kinglets, not destined to nest here chortled away, flashing scarlet crowns. I always see and hear birds when I walk in the forest, it was just nice to have the yearly renewal of activity.

I listened, with the delusory hope that I’d hear something other than the Anna’s Hummingbirds buzzing about. Rufous Hummingbirds time their arrival with the blooming of Salmonberry (along with other plants). I kept this in mind, but I also was convinced that it was too early still. Taking a guess, I’d say there were probably only 10 percent of the Salmonberry blooms I’d expect in the coming weeks. Then I’d see my first Rufous. (Note: And I did) 

Along with the discarded trash that’s found a resting place in the creekbed, Skunk cabbage was flowering and leafing out. I was humbled, even in a landscape I feel a belong to, where I’ve come of age as a man and a naturalist, that I knew next to nothing about this plant. How was it pollinated? How did it propagate and spread? Getting odd looks from passersby, I squelched over to get a closer look. (In retrospect, I remembered that these plants are stinky, in this case, meaning they are pollinated by insects attracted to their stench).

Where am I going with this diatribe? I’m not really certain and I think that’s the point. One shouldn’t always have to worry about purpose or goals when enjoying the outdoors, I just had a mind to say a few things, to see a few things.

A Varied Thrush half sang from the shadowed crown of a small Western Red Cedar. I’d gone out with an eye to see things, not a checklist to fill out, and been thrilled at every turn.

Back in the garden Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers chipped above me in the trees. Any impetuous for time outside is good in my book.

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