Hi folks! It’s been too long since I’ve written here. This is mainly due to the fact that I am at the tail end of a Master’s in Environmental Education and that has taken most of my energy (and willingness to sit by a computer any longer than is necessary). However, I am VERY lucky in the fact that I get to use my capstone project (like a thesis, but not strictly research) to launch a idea I’ve been wanting to work on for years. Despite the input of several awesome folks, I never quite got there. Now I can!
To finish up my program, I get to work on putting out the first issue of a magazine called The Field Journal. To explain the project briefly, it explores human relationships to the natural world through art and inquiry. This will be printed at the end of March. The first issue will explore a topic near and dear to my heart, what does it mean to be a naturalist. Over the past couple years, I’ve realized that this a complex idea and overlaps with a lot of different things. Being a naturalist is even problematic from certain perspectives, which has been hard for me to reconcile at times. And certainly it looks different for all of us.
The reason I am writing this here, is that I’d love people to collaborate with. It’s a big world, with lots of ideas. Here’s the original call, but please feel free to reach out and ask questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
AND, as a reward, below are some of my favorite images from the past year.
If for some reason you thought that I wouldn’t say anything about the current state of the world here on Wingtrip, I wouldn’t blame you. The reason I wouldn’t blame you is that I have had countless opportunities to talk about systemic and overt racism in America and I haven’t blatantly discussed it on Wingtrip. There are even things I have previously written that document bias on my part, that I am embarrassed to have said. But right now, all over the world we are not just discussing biases, which we all have and will likely never be entirely free of. This moment is about justice for the continual murders of Black Americans by police, about the systemic racism that is foundational to America, and about how everyone needs to be taking part in tearing it down.
Part of the reason I have not actively used this vehicle to discuss these subjects is that I am not an expert on this subject. I don’t have experience as a BIPOC. I am white, male, cis-gendered, straight. I am extremely privileged, even if I am not affluent by American measurements. Yet ultimately the reason I haven’t spoken here is because I don’t know where to start and if I’m being honest I worry about doing it right. There’s a fine balance between uplifting melanated voices and overwhelming the narrative with my thoughts. Still, I needed to say something particularly as it relates to birding and being a naturalist.
“Neutrality” in birding, natural history, and outdoor recreation is not real. Being a Black or Brown person birding. or engaging in anything, is not a political issue and should never have been considered such. Speaking up is not either. If you think your blog or instagram page is not the place to speak about these things publicly, even if it’s to a small group of people, you’re part of the problem. Everyone should be able to go out birding wherever they want and the reality is that they can’t. And white birders are a part of this problem (Here’s a great piece about this very subject).
In the past two weeks we have seen so much strength from Black Americans. I was thrilled by the work of folxs who organized Black Birders Week. My world has become brighter because of all the incredible people I have come into contact with and listened to, even if virtually. I have seen seemingly small things, like Facebook birding and nature groups suppressing Black voices dismantled, that make me proud of many people in the birding community. And I also know, from experience and from reading the words of many of the voices during the week, that there is a lot more work to do. There are racist birders and they aren’t hiding. My aim is the be an anti-racist birder and naturalist.
One of the things I have heard several times from birders over the past months of pandemic is that they find solace in birds and nature. I understand the desire to take space to care for yourself, to wind down, to step away for a moment from the pain and suffering of the world. These are real things that help you step back in. J. Drew Lanham describes this in an interview below, as being in communion with birds, which is different from escapism. I would never deprive anyone of these experiences, because I know birds and nature are magic for my soul. This is why we need to do better. Not everyone gets to do this as freely as I do.
Growing up as a white kid I never had to think about where I went as a birder. My only limits were related to money and time. Even within the last month I suggested going birding with a Black friend of mine, to a place that has known white Supremacist cells. I didn’t know. And that’s exactly the point. I’ve never, ever had to think about it. I just went birding. I want to live in a world where birders of the future don’t have to either, but we’re so unbelievably distant from that.
Over the past weeks I have protested, I have given money, I have read and been relatively vocal. None of this is as courageous as the people who are being actively oppressed while standing in the streets, as I write this. I am not a savior, and to some, this writing may appear to be performative (in a way it is). Shouting into the vacuum that is social media is a minuscule step in the right direction. Reading about racism is a better step, but it’s still a privilege to sit in my comfortable rural home and read some of the resources I will share below, or listen to countless podcasts while I whittle a spoon. Donating some money to a freedom fund or Black Lives Matter or buying from a Black-owned business is a step further. None of this fixes anything. It’s about keeping your foot on the gas and continuing to show up past protests: at work, at home, at school, with your paycheck, with your votes, in your community.
As I write this I am angry, I am ashamed, I am fearful, I am so absolutely full of sorrow. And I am also grateful for all the BIPOC (and LQBTQIA+) voices that are willing to speak for a better future. This takes so much more courage than my writing this because I can put my ideas and body on the line with much more impunity. I am grateful for all the incredible academic and creative work that has spilled forth into this hateful country where I have lived all my life. If I have anything, I have an active imagination and if I have learned anything from Adrienne Marie Brown’s book “Emergent Strategy,” using my imagination to envision the future is something I can actively do as a writer, artist, and naturalist. But right now I am focusing on listening to other voices.
This moment we are having in America is not new. It’s a repeat of violence and pain that have been perpetrated over and over again since the first Europeans arrived to forcefully steal land and lives. It’s a repeat of active, organized oppression that Black people have been experiencing in our country for as long as they’ve lived here. Protesting has happened over and over again. This time it feels different and I hope it is.
Writing a post on this subject is not about my voice, which is why I will stop talking here soon. This is about amplifying Black and Brown voices across this country, taking a step back, and supporting work they are leading. White people who call themselves allies have been sitting comfortable for decades, offering weak armchair reiterations and pledges of support. There is no room for this anymore, (again, I am hesitant to tell anyone what to do as white man in America). If you got your back up because I said white, paired with awful things, and you think you are on the side of “the good,” being quiet, being afraid to offend people, being outspoken about experiences that are not your own, being supportive of police – these things are no longer acceptable.
Where do you start? I can’t answer that for you. You start somewhere and move beyond. There is no final destination with anti-racism work, we will never be done. And to be clear, this isn’t about being good or being bad, it’s entirely likely you have racist corners of your thinking, implicit biases that you don’t even realize exist. This is about fighting for justice, supporting anti-racist movements.
If you have been doing this already, I thank you and I know you are probably tired. Everyone is tired. Take care of yourself so you can continue to show up with your best self.
You might still be thinking, well, what does natural history, conservation, or environmentalism have to do with systemic racism? The entire mainstream environmental movement in America has clear racist roots (that can be read about in many places below). If you care about biodiversity, you should care about all types of diversity, and know the inherent value. Thus, you should care about human diversity as well. The same systems of oppression that impact BIPOC around the world also oppress the natural world – these communities experience the impacts of things like climate change more deeply and have long been subject to NIMBY environmentalism. It’s tempting to try to segment our work, to blinker ourselves from one aspect of the world saying “I can’t do it all, so I’m going to do this thing here only.” That kind of thinking will get us nowhere when fighting racism because it is everywhere in America. So I urge you, if you care about birding or nature or getting outside to do this work for the planet and all its inhabitants. We are stronger together.
One of my favorite quotes from Black Birders Week was from a man named Tykee James who works for National Audubon and runs an awesome series of podcasts. I paraphrase it here, as the final words before my list of resources:
“Racism is a direct threat to environmentalism.”
So, if you want to be a better naturalist (a better human), below are some things that I have engaged in and that have helped me (this may seem like a long list, but it’s actually short and doesn’t include countless personal conversations I have had and will continue to have):
Buy books from black-owned bookstores, directly from local bookshops, or at the very least from Bookshop and select a local independent bookstore. Don’t buy from Amazon. Below are some books that have helped me examine my privilege and see paths forward.
Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown – Read this to help you pull together complex thinking and feel empowered.
Part of what I appreciate in centering BIPOC voices are hearing stories that don’t merely focus on trauma, oppression, and scarcity – one of the risks in discussing systemic racism is getting stuck in this trauma and not considering narratives of joy, wealth, and strength. These stories of Black Science, Joy and Life from The Story Collider are fantastic and add complexity to the discussion.
Seeing White is a podcast series that helped me wrap my head around being White in America. I think it’s especially good for White folx because the narrator is a White man who is using the series to question his privilege, his biases, and point of view. There is a lot of internal work that needs doing before other work happens, and this is a good way to begin.
Look for black-owned businesses in your community and support them. If you can look up the hours of your local restaurant, you can look up directories of local Black-owned businesses.
Avoid businesses that do not show support and action towards this movement. Just this week I learned that Trader Joe’s has closed a store in Seattle indefinitely, likely because its employees participated in protests. For the time being I will not be shopping at any Trader Joe’s. There are other businesses that have stayed silent, and while putting out statements may be performative, avoiding doing so signals (to me) that they aren’t worth patronizing.
OKAY So, there’s a lot of work to do! Don’t just listen to me, I am learning alongside everyone else. Don’t let shame or guilt overwhelm you. Don’t get paralyzed by the immensity of the problems or your role in them. DO get going on something and keep your foot on the gas. And thanks for reading.
For those of you just arriving, I am currently writing about Pacific Northwest trees. This is a practice in appreciation, place-making, and is a pandemic project I hope to continue beyond this period. Though there are certainly no starts or finishes to this, if you are interested in this subject, I suggest you go back and read my first two pieces on red alder and bigleaf maple. The goal here is to not try to be all encompassing, supply every fact, but to tell stories.
Someone recently suggested that I write about an alpine tree and that sounded appropriate, because right now I am pining for the alpine. I know it’s still there, without me, and that it’s still early to be traveling on elevated trails just yet. And it still feels as if summer could slip by without really getting into those glorious hills. As always, thank you for engaging with this subject and considering our part in nature.
They were cast about like rocks, thrust deep below the talus we traversed. We exhaled with the pain of thin air and heat and insects. They stood silent, numb roots wiggling free in thaw. Our fragile lives groaned past their tortured trunks, curled deeply like arthritic hands that seemed to mock our pain: ours was temporary self-flagellation, their’s was monastic devotion. A hollow tinkle below our feet and a shimmering veil of mosquitoes told us how they were persisting. And that’s what alpine larches do, they persist. No matter what I tell you in the following, it’s not glamorous. Mostly, it’s a practice in deep time, lingering in places where the lines between geology and flora meld and collude.
I grew up in the Evergreen State. I went to The Evergreen State College. As a child conifer, as in cone-bearing tree, and evergreen were synonyms. Or, at least they were until my mother started classes towards her imminent landscape design business. Through a strange osmosis, she took a class in tree ID, and I tagged along and unconsciously absorbed. As preteen I wasn’t yet too cool to feign disinterest but mostly I was just happy to be out in arboretums with binoculars, imagining rare birds behind every sprig of needles. Despite my all consuming thirst for birds, I started learning about trees.
Arboretums are strangely wonderful places. Collections of living things plucked from reality and arranged in ways that please the gardener and the guest. As with many of my critical thoughts about my identity as a naturalist, arboretums can feel unsettlingly Victorian, representations of exploration, plunder, and lacking in context to all but the most engrossed of visitors. Of course gardens, tree focused or otherwise are of all cultures. In one form or another, they are markers of our biofilia, our spiritual and visceral need for vegetative life. And arboretums also surreal, beautiful places, representations of hard labor with foresight and artistic flair. They are spaces to admire life that will outlast us.
I was yet young enough that I can’t recall what I must have absorbed while strolling arboretums with my mother. Or from driving through the city, erratically stopping to consider an unusual tree. There’s a similar lack of clarity when I think back to learning birds. I do not know when I first learned to recognize Song Sparrows; they seem to have always been part of my consciousness. Other birds, like my first House Finch, a male seemingly stained red in a blackberry thicket, have through-lines. Larches, alpine or otherwise, are deep memory.
On what must have been a gray spring day (an unhelpful atmospheric memory for a person growing up in the Pacific Northwest), they vibrated a translucent neon. Their evergreen brethren seemed stagnant by comparison, likely because of what I’d just learned. This was unearthly. “Larches are deciduous conifers.”
Peering through my spotting scope, I confirmed what I’d glimpsed with the naked eye. I’d been walking beside the dammed portion of the Skagit River called Lake Diablo with my classmates, when I looked up to see a hint of gold on a distant saddle of Colonial Peak. Fall afternoons were closed in, shoulders of surrounding mountains framing in darkness, the craggiest peaks washed pink and golden. I felt like I was seeing the most westerly larch in the North Cascades, alone on an inhospitable flat between mountains that once peaked above landscape consuming glaciers.
The Pacific Northwest has two species of larch. The alpine, or subalpine, larch, Larix lyallii and the western larch, Larix occidentalis. I was staring up in surprise at an alpine larch, which are the more hardy cousins that exist in the most extreme of environments in Washington. The two species have clearly diverged over their ability to endure what is essentially alpine tundra. These are places sometimes just above the treeline throughout the Cascade Range of Washington and the Northern Rockies. Hence the two common names: subalpine and alpine. Alpine sounds more distinguished, and I can’t help but find it annoying to describe a species by what it is not.
As I stood gawking at this glowing golden larch, a sentinel on Colonial, I didn’t know it yet but larches extended even farther westward to my back. The Pickets, a range of peaks made famous by inaccessibility and ruggedness, hold alpine larches too. This confounds us humans, who like to distinguish boundaries and draw lines around things. Further east of where I stood Ross Lake, in a rift-like valley that is the dammed portion of the Upper Skagit River, is often viewed as the dividing line of the Cascade Crest. Indeed there are stands of ponderosa pine on the east lakeshore and only a few on the west. But what to do about those alpine larches up in the Pickets? Where oh where does the Cascade Crest actually sit? This encapsulates the North Cascades, that they are difficult to comprehend as a single entity, a jumble of ideas with people trying and mostly failing to wrest control and understanding. Larches seem to echo this.
Of course alpine larches don’t care what we think, they know in their roots and knobbly stems what are suitable perches. This seems to be in places freshly scoured by ice. In the Cascades they are barely found below 5000 feet. Larches appear to relish a good challenge, scrabbling against geologic frost fortresses with only a chilly three months to grow each year. Three months is plenty for annually flowering plants that die back, throwing fistfulls of seeds about in fading light. Three months is hardly anything for a tree. As a result, these high up denizens take their time.
Some of the oldest trees in the world are larches. Can you imagine standing in an endless, assaulting winter for a thousand years? Well, an alpine larch can, they strive for it. In their first 25 years they might only reach 12 inches in height. Focusing on height isn’t terribly useful until you have a grip. Root systems develop more fully first, to find water and footing in the rocky places larches grow. This system of slow growth means they can grow where most other trees cannot do as well, but at a sacrifice: they can’t compete with faster growing conifers like subalpine fir and mountain hemlock, who grow in solid stands at just lower elevations. I have stood in talus fields where krumholz firs cower beneath pure stands of larch and within a couple minutes walked downhill, to a few legacy larches amid densely packed subalpine forest.
I have something of an admission to make. It feels like when I tell people I’ve never been to Hawaii or Alaska, which are somehow requisite trips if you live in the Pacific Northwest. Up until a couple years ago I’d never really admired larches in autumn. This is partly because I’ve never made the journey into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at the right time of year, nor gotten a permit for a much desired backpack into the Enchantments. And if I’m being honest, it never really occurred to me how beautiful an autumnal drive up Highway 20 or chilly October hike in the Pasayten Wilderness would be.
My experiences with fall foliage changed when I was fortunate enough to spend a year living in the North Cascades. While many can never get enough time up in those high places that larch live, I got a fair share considering I was in the midst of graduate studies. I saw them throughout the seasons: gray and bare, neon and flush, golden and fading. I admired them from afar, a final murmur on a landscape slipping back to sleep. I petted their soft needles and dreamed of a bed of their limbs. Larches are the trees that slip up out of nowhere and surprise you, suddenly a hillside is bright green or sharp yellow where you never noticed they grew. You come around a corner or slog through a cirque to find a miniature forest of them in the shadow of monstrous slabs of rock. Mary Shelley’s sublime view of nature is of the larch. Battered, neon green, growing in the cracks between boulders sheared in two by a thousand foot drop, weathered by a thousand years.
Why would a conifer be deciduous? Though I have yet to discuss the value of needles in these writings, the general idea is that all those vulnerable photosynthesizing chloroplasts are protected by waxy, resinous materials. Frozen weather is shrugged off and at the first sign of favorable conditions, an evergreen conifer can start growing instead of first needing to push out fragile new leaves.
This works well up to a point, because there are limits to the stoutness of evergreen needles, and that limit is seen at the edge of the North American boreal forests where the only “trees” further North are all tiny enduring birches (or so I’m told). In Siberia, Dahurian larches, Larix gmelinii extend miles beyond where all other trees stop. They are the most northerly trees in the world, trees that inspired Siberian shamans, their tree of the world, a tree of the dreamtime.
Dropping needles means several things: larches don’t have to worry about losing moisture to cold or desiccating heat, which are both part of their world. Late spring and early summer can bring intense bouts of sunshine despite the still frozen conditions. Larches grow their needles late and so don’t have to worry about the inescapable heat. Depths of winter? No problem, even their buds are protected beneath knobs of bark, giving larches recognizable pimpled branches. Muddling things, further evidence that larches care only for survival and not our desire to pin them down, young trees grow wintergreen needles. These are evergreen needles that last through the winter and into the following fall on the lower branches of the tree. Evidence suggests these needles are more drought resistant than the rest and having needles earlier in the year is a leg up when establishing.
Though alpine larches don’t cast much of a shadow, literally or figuratively, in the Pacific Northwest, they have captured most imaginations. March a group of graduate students up a frozen Tiffany Mountain on the last day of September and they’ll forget the howling wind amid glowing yellow needles. Chase four friends through a circle of storms, miles of trail crisscrossed with downed sooty trunks, up gasping, heartbusting climbs, and make them bed down in a thunderstorm. Despite themselves they will wake in high spirits under ancient trees with florets of chartreuse needles. Alpine larches may have long memories up in their follies, but they seem vampiric, capable of absorbing the human pain of wild places, leaving pleasant, bright days brushed with soft needles. Thinking about the places I have mingled with these trees gives me that uncontrollable, shaking excitement that starts deep in the core and finishes with a sanguine rise of the chest. I want to drop everything and rush aloft.
This brings us to the precipice of usefulness; as if emotional joy is no use. This is also where I say bollocks to your usefulness. These trees are too far and few between, on the whole too small, to be considered for industrial perversions (though do not doubt that other larch species have not escaped this fate). Though it hasn’t yet slowed worldwide deforestation, I would implore the person looking for a use for these trees to consider that the largest larches you’ve seen may have taken root during the Mayan Empire. And if that isn’t enough, Indigenous peoples likely had little desire to disturb such ancient trees, out of practicality and I’m sure respect for those high places. Why should anyone else then? As is said in Richard Power’s The Overstory: “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.” What in the world would that be?
I have clearly placed trees, and alpine larches in particular, upon a pedestal. They are deserving of this, as are any lattice of organisms you have the patience to train your mind to. Many creatures can do things that we cannot despite our cleverness. What continues astound me about trees is what can be perceived as their notion of time. They live in the same annual world we do, phenologically linked to seasons. And yet many trees, including larches, have memories that extend to a time when glaciers were not rapidly disappearing.
Larches occupy a place of unrest, of upheaval, of summer snowstorms. They remember the bad years as much as the good and record them in the imperceptible rings of their cores, in gale thrust bows, and centuries of yellow and green. There should be no doubt that larches are tough trees, but can memory and time save them from a climate even more chaotic than their norm? Time will yet tell.
When my family moved into our home in North Seattle, there was a lot of work to do. Humans are certainly ecosystem engineers to the extreme and my mother set me to ripping up stumps and removing sod. During our excavations we found giant stones, scattermarked from the same ice that rendered the landscape of larches. This unearthed glacial till became erratics that featured in the berms and beds of the garden I grew up (moaning about) tending. Sometime in middle school my mother planted a weeping larch across one of these rocks. By the time my parents moved, this prostrate tree had spilled over the boulder in a draping carpet of blue green.
This small tree held within it the memory of frozen winters, of a climate so fierce it could not grow as an upright tree. Genes that saw vacillating continental ice sheets, the footfalls of mammoths, seas so low our ancestors could walk between places now separated by vast waters. Alpine larches, all larches are superlatives. In my mind’s eye I hold that prostrate larch in my parent’s old yard, and the lone one on Colonial Peak. They are frozen, forever there, immoveable, shambolically sublime forms. Larches are unimaginably tough and tender all at once. Who knows when I’ll next hold hands with an alpine larch, but when I do I’ll remember being a child and adult all at once, and how knowing trees has made being human an immense delight.
Last weekend I decided to do something that sounds odd. We’ve all had to get creative about what we do during a pandemic, both in desperate measures and finding trivial pursuits. The self-prescribed activity I will describe below definitely falls under the more trivial side of things. And yet it’s also about deeper things too, things that have to do with being human and being a steward of the places you live.
If you are birder in the Northern Hemisphere, May is a traditionally fun time of year where you can get out to your favorite patch and enjoy the wonder of migration and an influx of colorful birds you’ve been missing all winter. I have many places I like to visit in May and sometimes I do a big day, where I count as many birds as possible in a 24 hour period. With the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day happening on May 9th, I figured hell might as well do a big day in my yard.
That’s not actually anything terribly special. People keep yard lists. An annual event in October called The Big Sit requires birders to stay within a 17’ diameter circle, all day, and count what they see. Birders are very creative in finding seemingly inane challenges for themselves.
To make this a little more interesting, and more challenging for me (I can already tell you that I had 90% of the birds I’d see in the first two hours of the day), I decided to lump in a bioblitz. The goal: count all the living things. Really, it wasn’t going to be a bioblitz because they are gatherings of experts and the interested public, inventorying all the life they can manage to count in a day. This was just me, with my limited knowledge, running around with little focus and no clue. Sounds pretty stupid right?
One can make up many reasons for wanting to do something like this. A Bioblitz when done well can introduce people to entirely new taxa hiding beneath their noses or even contribute to monitoring efforts in a specific place. The Global Big Day was started to amplify engagement in birding, in crowd-sourced data on birds, and to raise funds for global conservation. If I am being honest with myself, I did this for mostly personal reasons, even if I did post silly Instagram videos of myself all day and am writing about my experience here. I did it to have something to do; to learn something.
What you could broadly say I was participating in is called “natural history,” I was collecting data on specific taxa. This is rough, but it’s what I was up to. What is the point of doing this?
There are a good number of compelling reasons to pay attention to the natural world around us. I am preaching to the choir, I know. Among the many good reasons is this line of logic: if we know what is around us, we’ll see it more, we’ll pay attention to it, we might even begin to care, and build empathy. This is a very reasonable concept that I have come to very unscientifically, anecdotally, and to spare us the word count and time involved in finding empirical evidence I hope you will consider it a real thing. I’ve seen it happen and it’s also entirely likely it doesn’t work this way for you.
Knowing the names of some birds and plants is great. But it doesn’t mean you understand diddly about these beings, about their role in the environment, about what it’s like to be one. You might know how to recognize its shape, size, colors, things people are pretty good at. But that’s basically nothing even if you pair this with understanding a portion of their life history, their behavior. But you continue to learn these things, slowly and with a certain degree of subjectivity through observation, through experiences that can build over a lifetime.
There are problems with names. In the “science” world, they are very Westernized, insisting on a certain, dominant mode of knowledge. One example is this: many birds are named after some famous dead white guy. Swainson’s Thrush, a bird I saw on this big day, is named after an English ornithologist, who did important work and is worth recognizing but who also had scant things to do with this bird. As far as I can tell, he never saw them in North America.
I would argue that this naming limits our view of the human relationships with the more than human world, and tends to turn species into an owned objects, things we count, discounts individuals and being. Swainson’s name showed up after a colleague described the bird, which thrust it into Western science and simultaneously ignored thousands of years of experience that Indigenous people had with the bird, all across its migratory range. This also ignores the unfathomable existence of being a Swainson’s Thrush and stops us from considering the individual. How might we be dismissing different relationships with a species named a certain way?
It is possible for me to hold this notion in my head, uphold the hard work of community and professional scientists worldwide, and delve into learning the names of species new to me in my yard. During my bioblitz and big day, I toed this line constantly. I ran about a yard full of life, both species introduced by my settler-colonist ilk operating on a global economic scale, and those that have been here since the last glacial advance receded, or even before.
I live on 1.14 acre property that’s mostly lawn. It’s not huge. And yet it is rural and full of life. Birding from home has been touted as a thing “all of us can do” and even I have fallen into repeating this ideas. It’s true, we can, and yet there is also an inequity in this. There is strong evidence that biodiversity is higher in more affluent areas, particularly with an eye to more human dominated places like cities. Again, there are certainly caveats, but my point is that my cavorting was a luxury of my race and socioeconomics.
So really, I ran around and counted stuff. It was super fun. I spent 18 hours minus a couple breaks to eat food or have a breakdown because it was hot. Indeed I’d chosen the hottest day of the year thus far. Below I will explain a bit more about my process, what I found, and thoughts for the future. I would like to do this sort of thing again, because this was a test run and likely will always be something I can improve upon. Really this whole thing was a practice in trying to figure out what I don’t know.
Some Basic Stats
Time Devoted: 5:21 AM – 11:21 PM; 18 hours
Distance Traveled: 1.22 miles
What I missed; Vacancies
Birds: If you have done a big day of birding, you know that one almost always misses something you hoped for, or at least expected. A few birds I hoped for, but that I don’t see every day here are: Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Steller’s Jay. I missed them all. Likewise a few species showed in the yard in the following days, due to the variance of migration. Early may is always a good time for big days in Washington and it’s always a bit of a game of chance. I had Yellow Warblers and a single Lazuli Bunting in the yard days after finishing up.
Reptiles and Amphibians: I checked under a lot of boards, scanned the edges of the property, but no lizards or snakes. And no amphibians either. We are probably too far from real bodies of water to have any. I heard Pacific Chorus Frogsin the evening, but I didn’t count them because they were clearly not on my property. This is a judgement call, because I counted birds I heard far off, but then again it’s more likely they’re around.
Mammals: I know that there are rodents on our property. But I didn’t see any and I didn’t have any traps, live or otherwise to use. I am sure that other mammals are here too, like weasels and skunks.
Though I didn’t see them, Townsend’s Moles are around and there is strong evidence of them. I threw them on.
Most Invertebrates: So yes, there was no way I could approach counting them all. But I definitely didn’t do enough digging in the dirt, lifting of logs, etc to really feel like I got a good count. I shook some shrubs to see what fell out, I looked at the edges, I visited flowers. But there are so many microhabitats within a very small area. I was overwhelmed and distracted just by trying to get good enough looks at flying insects. Even then I only saw 1 dragonfly, and a single Cabbage White Butterfly. Also I didn’t take time to think about ants, I only really counted one species for sure: western black carpenter ant, Camponotus modoc who were releasing alates – the flying, reproductive ants that leave to form new colonies.
Grasses: If I had sufficiently prepared, I could have tried to identify the grasses in the yard. I assume that almost all of them are introduced species.
Weeds: This is a derisive, not terribly descriptive term in the first place but I really wasn’t going to notice everything growing along the margins and in the lawn. I took a casual approach and walked the perimeter and strolled the lawn. I probably found most of the species, but certainly missed some.
Garden Plants: Here I was totally objective. I counted trees but not everything else. There are too many plants in the garden and I didn’t want to get lost in doing this. It’s a blurred line because much of the weed category are merely plants that have jumped garden beds and self-seeded elsewhere.
Microbiome: There is no way for me to assess this in day. And it’s also absurd because the bulk of the biodiversity in the world is not made up of Eukaryotes (organisms with nuclei enclosed within a cell membrane – plants, animals, fungi). No idea about Bacteria or Archaea. So, it wasn’t even something on my radar until I sat down to think in the afternoon. Maybe someday amateur naturalists will be able to engage in this. When I really think about it, this makes my whole effort seem like a joke.
Fungi: While I know there are fungal colonies all around me at all times, I just didn’t have the space. So much missing.
Ideas for Next Time
Measure (height and diameter at breast height) and count trees.
Set out plots as a way to focus my efforts.
Invite friends to help, when that’s an option!
Investigate a rotten log and spend all day with just that.
Cars are loud and make it hard to hear. So are robins when they’re all singing early in the morning.
I already knew this, but the best place to find diversity is on the edges of things.
My landlord mowed the lawn right before I started. And weed whacked some other patches I’d hoped to explore. That didn’t help.
I wasn’t exactly efficient. I spent too much time focusing on trying to ID tiny bees. This was fun, but wasn’t helpful in terms of the numbers game.
Where all this “data” went
(aka use these resources)
iNaturalist – all the insect photos I took ended up here, both to help me ID them and to document what was around. This is the coolest thing about iNaturlist, it sits between a crowd-sourcing of identification and a way to broadly document biodiversity. I wish I had time to take photos and upload everything.
eBird – All my bird data went here. I used ebird both for my own records (which I am generally bad about) and to help contribute to a global dataset on birds. My main question is why birders wouldn’t use eBird? It’s easy, both an app and on a brower, and it keeps track of things for you. I like old fashioned pen and paper too, but eBird is awesome for both personal and professional efforts.
My journal – I keep a journal, for personal use, for a distant unlikely future where I can recall what I’ve seen, where, and that it might be useful to someone else. It’s not like a Grinnel Journal (referenced in a link above) but I have kept those in the past (pay me to do this stuff and I’ll keep a Grinnel every day; patreon anyone?).
The Basic Numbers
Here’s the disappointing bit. I still haven’t finished writing this all down. Birds are were easy to list, but the rest takes considerably more effort. I have pictures and notes, but I want to have a list of species with common and scientific names attached and will do this in the coming weeks. This is a big effort. And I wanted to get the broad strokes of this effort up. I still feel very accomplished with the numbers below.
In Summary Depending on where you sit, 161 may seem like a pretty small number. Or it may seem huge. I know it’s just the surface of what this 1.15 acre parcel has. I could spend an entire year documenting and still not have it all down. This is actually a source of excitement for me. I will never know it all and I will continue to be surprised.
Almost a week after this big day of naturalizing, I was still running outside to look at things, finding bees I’d never seen before in the flowering kale outside our kitchen. I know carry a little bottle and a loup with me and have used it to scoop up a weevil I saw crawling across the beach. I’ve always been attuned to birds, but I am just that much more aware of who is around and what might be going on in their lives. In this sense, I achieved my goal. To feel a little bit closer to the land, my neighbors, and to snuggle down into the warm embrace of curiosity and fascination (with a sprinkle of unbridled fanaticism and frenetic energy).
One final thing: to do this stuff I had help and support from my partner, Caitlin. She helped me shake bushes, wrangled crane flies, and listened to me drone on and on and on about all this stuff. Couldn’t have done it without her. Thank you.
Cheers everyone and thanks for reading about this journey!
Last week I laid out a plan to pontificate on Pacific Northwest trees, a storied appreciation of the most prominent of plants. I offered up experiences with the red alder, those ever-cycling nutrient bombs, the first wave. What comes after? Well, by design or chance I chose the next tree in the standard understanding of forest succession. But that is far from the reason I chose bigleaf maples.
How many times have you stopped to gaze at one individual tree? I’ve lost track of the trees I’ve admired over and over, or I was never counting to begin with. Something felt different about the licorice fern frilled branches of one particular giant on the southern boundary of Discovery Park in Seattle. This tree was the maple of my mind’s eye, the archetypal tree with a spreading crown and cool shade.
Cast your imagination to a hot afternoon. Where have you sought respite to eat your lunch or read a book? We’ve nearly all done this at one point or another, spread out in cool grass beneath a shade tree. If you have spent time along the Pacific coast of North America, you’d probably recognize bigleaf maples. Maybe not as a specific species, but certainly as shelter. They are cool islands of moss, layered canopies of lime green halflight. With all the shade they create, bigleaf maples hold their own against the tide of conifers, firm resistance against newcomers, gripping strong to boulder fields and deep river valleys alike.
As with red alders, I need only lift my eyes out the window to alight on a bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, quite literally the “maple with large leaves.” Since we moved to Vashon Island, I’ve been peeking at a specific tree that fills one of our windows, anticipating every perceivable change through the long dark gray into the sunshine. My partner through this stay home, stay healthy order knew without a doubt what tree I aimed to tackle next. I’ve spent half of my spring days prancing about their limbs, photographing their changes, bursting with joyful spouts about “bursting buds” and “unfurling racemes,” and “listen, there’s a Black-throated Gray Warbler up there!” She’s tolerant, sometimes even inviting of my jabbering, but I may have found her limit with the endless talk of maples.
Sometimes when an organism is named, it’s for a discrete feature. This may aid identification if you’re holding it dead in your hand, or examined under a microscope. It took several tries this spring for me to show Caitlin the orange of an Orange-crowned Warbler. An unashamed fellow in the birdbath, his bill spread slack with rapture, finally spread his head feathers and we had a glimpse of the namesake. I don’t blame scientists for this name; there is an orange crown and Greenish-grayish-yellow Warbler lacks a certain style. However, these monikers seem ridiculous when other names are so apt that you never think twice about them. Bigleaf maples are certainly in this category. There is no mistaking their leaf size.
My housemate Tanner and I were standing above Diobsud Creek, which flowed out of the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness. Months later we’d learn that the first potential wolf pack West of the Cascade crest in nearly a century was somewhere up this valley. And yet this felt like any old forest, logged over and regrowing, like the ones we’d both grown up with in our respective home states of Washington and Oregon. Here was that shade tree of our youth. Tanner picked up the leaf and brought it to his face, a mask that engulfed his not insubstantial noggin. This childhood fascination continues to be fun, because bigleaf maple leaves still often dwarf an adult human’s face.
This particularly massive leaf was splashed with lemon blotches. Bigleaf maples are one of the few Pacific Northwest native trees that actually display fall color. Skinny vine and Douglas maples do blaze red, but I have a hard time calling their slender, brushy forms trees. One of the only other gaudy displays come from larches, which were growing not too far from where we stood, on the most weather-beaten rocky ridges of the North Cascades.
Diobsud Creek eventually feeds into the Skagit, which digs one of the deep river valleys that twist their way out of the Cascade Range. Back where those rivers disappear into tributaries are places of intermingling. Bigleaf maples are known for being a plant of moisture, of soggy-bottomed haunts where they form unbelievably lush “Halls of Moss” in places like the Hoh River Valley on the Olympic Peninsula. Yet they are tolerant. of rocky slopes that conifers can’t handle, and eke out life on dry exposed sites that won’t do for an alder or a cottonwood. This, and their ability to shade out other trees while living a moderately long life, has allowed bigleaf maples to stake claim to a wide range along the West Coast and be considered the “next step” in succession after alders and willows. A few sneaky maples root in shaded nooks as far south as San Diego and others stretch up the central coast of British Columbia. Others creep up and over passes and mingle with ponderosa pine in east slope valleys. They need more water than an oak, and can’t handle heavy snows, but they still show up in surprising places.
Along with my roommates in graduate school, bigleaf maples were the company that made the drive back and forth to Diablo Lake from Marblemount on Highway 20 bearable. I hold dear to Mary Oliver’s saying “attention is the beginning of devotion,” and certainly found myself more engaged as the drive became part of my sense of home. Gawking at roadside bears and stopping to admire glowing walls of seepspring monkeyflowers all enhanced my appreciation for this corner of my State. And yet, I’m sorry Mary, paying attention was also just an early morning and late night slog through twisty, dangerous roads for a year of graduate school. I suppose a different sort of devotion.
Bigleaf maples show the seasons on their sleeves. Through fall they are deep yellow, and as their leaves drop their laden trunks glow a bit greener with epiphytes enjoying the tiny space of temperature, precipitation, and sunlight the shoulder seasons offer. Spring brings pendulous hanging racemes, long stems bearing multiple individual flowers, seeming to open exactly when warblers arrive from Sonora or Costa Rica. Their shade proved vital to my focus on sweltering days in the North Cascades.
Looking back I realize now that these maples have always been a source of comfort. I don’t remember when I first became aware of them as a species, but I think I have always known their shelter was there. In places decidedly not like home, they have reminded me that I can be adaptable.
Their weeping branches have given me purchase on steep rocky slopes in search of Peregrine Falcon nests above Lake Diablo. I have been reminded of home by their plush, finely haired leaves brushing my face as I scaled an exposed burn to survey woodpeckers in the Northern Sierras. I pulled hard off the road the first time I saw bigleaf maple growing just below Blewett Pass in Central Washington.
During my first quarter of graduate school, my cohort backpacked into the remote town of Stehekin wedged between the North Cascades and Lake Chelan. Amidst the uncertainty of why I was there, and who these new people were, I found solace in the surprise of bigleaf maples. They lined the road into town, growing between ponderosa pines, a tree I view as emblem of the east slope of the Cascades. We devoured pie and ice cream in their shade outside the famed bakery. Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers joined us, just arriving from their trek from the Mexico border, the other end of the tree’s range.
The first time I climbed a bigleaf maple I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and my legs were wobbly. I’d been up taller trees, like a nearly 200 foot Douglas fir in a friend’s yard. This tree was maybe 70 feet tall. The difference was that this time my rope looped through the top of an impossibly tall, slim, and near branchless trunk, one of dozens on this tree. Though it was no less safe, this was my first experience feeling exposed while climbing a tree, no branches below to veil the height. Nerves don’t do you a lot of good in a tree, and my co-worker and I were climbing for fun, so I tried not to look down and focused on the ascent.
Many bigleaf maples in developed or previously logged sites have multiple trunks that start near ground level. Unlike most conifers, bigleaf maples (and many other broadleaved trees) can grow back from their stump. For foresters, this is a frustrating ability because a tree once leveled can shoot back many multiple foot long stems in a matter of years. This adaptation allows them to spring back after fires, or other events that might level surrounding conifers for good. There are half a dozen of these multiple trunked maples growing back on the property where I live, the perfect poles for introduced English ivy to train up. Take a look around if you have bigleaf maples growing near you and you’ll likely find these forms, arrow straight, reaching into the future.
Bigleaf maples are also desirable timber. Their wood can show amazing grain coloration and patterns called figure and their trunks develop large burls. These make beautiful bowls, wood for guitars, and slabs for live-edge tables (Carlos Santana plays guitars made with Pacific Northwest bigleaf maple). Unfortunately this has led to substantial illegal harvests and trade of bigleaf maple timber, which are hacked to pieces and mauled to find the desired figure for a hundred million dollar illegal market. This is such a problem, and one that many of us assume doesn’t happen in “lawful” America, that in 2018 a community science project was developed to inventory bigleaf maple genetics in combating illegal harvests. Once a tree is cut and milled, it’s very difficult to tell its provenance without such methods, and such sleuthing is often beyond the resources of federal law enforcement.
Those previously stumped trees also remind me of an age old practice called coppicing. Coppicing is the practice of cutting back trees or shrubs to generate desirable growth. The already established root structure of the original tree stump (called a stool when in a coppice) feeds vigorous new growth. In the case of bigleaf maples this can be up to ten feet in the first year of regeneration.
Initially this might sound just as barbaric as poaching figured wood. There is evidence that coppicing, from the French word couper “to cut,” has been in practice in different parts of the world for thousands of years, since before the written record. Does that make it ok to seemingly butcher a tree? Possibly not. On the flip side, it’s become a way to maintain forests instead of denuding them for short term benefit. Many forest products can come from a copse, a patch of forest managed in rotation through this practice. You might produce biofuels from willow, axe handles from ash, firewood from maples, and basketry from hazel. Coppices are shaped by people indeed but they also offer up opportunities for reciprocity, and to examine how we ourselves have been shaped by the trees as well. It feels as if this relationship goes deeper than mere production.
Bigleaf maples might not be the best choice of trees to coppice at the moment. Within the past ten years many trees in Washington, regardless of age or underlying health have been growing stunted, prematurely yellowed leaves, and entire stems in the crown structure are dying back. Forest pathologists with the USDA and researchers at the University of Washington tackled the issue after concerned landowners across the state started reporting the issue. Despite rigorous work, there was no evidence of a specific disease or infestation. Instead something more insidious seemed to be the culprit, urbanization, a warming climate, a changing water table. We may be in the midst of a sea change for the makeup of our forests; a lot of trees don’t seem to be recovering from the combined stresses of longer, drier summers.
Despite all this, bigleaf maples still seem to represent fertility and prosperity. Most sources note that seed production is prolific, which I have seen first hand in lawns, garden beds, and rain gutters all across Western Washington. Their seeds are large and tasty to many animals, their seedlings are fodder for deer and elk; one in a thousand may survive, so make many. Those magnificent leaves make wonderful mulch and offer opportunity for a riotous romp through a fall leaf pile.
Epiphytes can grow so thick in particularly verdant places that soil builds up under the mossy matts bigleaf maples support. The weight of these mosses, lungworts, and lichens has been estimated at up to a ton on certain trees. To share in those soil nutrients, bigleaf maples grow aerial roots into this layer. This was first described by a then graduate student, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni who ascended into the canopy to investigate life there.
I graduated from The Evergreen State College, where Dr. Nadkarni was a professor at the time. It is with an exacting hindsight that I look back and wish I’d known the magic of being up trees, of climbing another being to observe an entirely different ecosystem up in the air. I wish I had been able to connect with her as a budding scientist and student. However, as I sat in my home, mulling over ways to find connections in the world of social distancing, I knew that Dr. Nadkarni or not, I could still occupy the space I was seeking out. I just had to climb.
As a climbing arborist, you are always on the lookout for deadwood. Deadwood to remove. Deadwood to avoid standing on, tying into, or knocking loose on your unsuspecting coworkers below. Bigleaf maples are very good at compartmentalizing, shunting dead or dying limbs, which can sit precariously for ages, housing families of birds and generations of microorganisms in the process. I found myself dealing with these hazards, letting several branches fly as I accidentally bumped them, hard to pick out amidst even the modest moss in the tree I was huffing up. I was feeling especially delicate because unlike when I ascended with a saw to prune, this time I had my camera and binoculars with me.
The main reason I am energetic about bigleaf maples are their blooms. I wanted to sit in the crown of flowers and watch the life drawn in by the flabbergasting number of flowers each tree grows. Unfortunately their flowers, which are so obvious from the outside are hard to see from the interior of the canopy, even with still unfolding leaves. Getting out to the tip of a branch is physically impossible for an adult human despite some fancy ropework. I knew this before getting up in the tree I was climbing of course. I merely needed an excuse to get some different exercise and perspective, working my way up the vertically grooved bark.
I first became entranced by maple blooms when I was living on a friend’s property in the San Juan Islands. Strangely I’d come down with mononucleosis at age 29 and was barred from much activity by a severe lack of energy. Short walks on sunny vernal days had to suffice for activity, and brought me in close contact with a particular tree that jutted out along a particularly sunbaked treeline. As the sun persisted and the buds finally burst into yellowy-green, many flowered stems, it was all over. I was obsessed by the tens of thousands of flowers and the life they drew.
Viewing that great bud burst drew me to pondering insects more than any other event in my life. I have not encountered such an event since. This was likely due to my chancing on the right temperatures and the right place (or it might be because there has been a severe decline in flying insects worldwide). Regardless, the event holds strong in my memory. Today I suspect I am too near polluting centers, like the Tacoma Smelter Plume, and a legacy of pesticide use, to experience the flies, beetles, bees, butterflies, and moths that covered the flowers of that tree in the San Juans.
As perched on a tall ladder to photograph these insects, it slowly dawn on me that I knew none of them beyond family. Rousing myself out at night to shine a flashlight on blooms revealed nocturnal visitors I knew were moths, but that was as far as it got. Where had all these insects come from? How did they know when to arrive? It’s always best to have more questions than answers and I’m still working out all the bee flies, flower flies, dance flies and gnats. I know I missed tiny beetles amid the riot of movement. This was my first real introduction to bees that were other than bumble, honey, and mason, finding that there are around 400 bee species in Washington that are mostly solitary, both tiny and large. Here was a whole world I had basically ignored.
Bigleaf maples are gender-fluid plants. They are heterodichogamous, a technical mouthful that means they bear both female and male structures at different times. Depending on the place, a population may have female or male flowers first and then follow up with the second. Before I sat down to write this piece, I did not know what this term meant, nor to look for those different structures as I engaged in photographing maples this spring. I wish I had, because it would have added layers to my time with that tree I climbed and admired out the window. When I plucked entire strings of flowers to fry as tasty fritters, I did so with the measures of an honorable harvest that I learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, but not knowing more about those clusters feels like a misstep. Typical white guy, showing up, taking, not listening.
In that very pandemic of phrases: I was in a zoom call this week. However, this time it was to listen to dialogue between distinguished author, scientist, and proponent of her Indigenous Potowatami traditional ecological knowledge, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and author, teacher, and mystic Robert Macfarlane about the book I mentioned above. Logging in, I stewed in what had become a familiar anticipation of disengagement, borne from repeated meetings via video calls. Thankfully I found myself captivated by the conversations between two people I can only hope to emulate in my life. Somehow they ended up discussing the very things I think of when I consider bigleaf maples: strength and regeneration through adversity, the cyclical view of time, different ways of knowing, and even, by chance a brief discussion of how to provide a new pronoun for nature.
For bigleaf maples are emblems of strength, growing back despite a fire or saw, holding up the weight of water soaked aerial ecosystems, rooted strongly against taller and older conifers. They are spirals of time with rounded crowns, surging up and down with the events of their lives, hairy samaras whirling to flow up in an echo of their parents. When we receive shade, comfort, and joy from their annual journey through the seasonal round, how can we not seek out reciprocity for them when we all are struggling as well?
Bigleaf maples have offered up an opportunity to recognize what Kimmerer described as the “biological vulnerability” that we are feeling right now, and for expansion into ecological compassion for the other beings around us. Her notion of shortening an Anishinaabe word for all living beings on this planet, Bemaadiziiaaki to “Ki” as a pronoun for any singular being in nature, and a plural of “kin,” is nothing short of beautiful. Using it would be a radical act, forcing us to come face to face with the responsibility we hold as humans living alongside kin, instead of looking at a tree as a thing to hack up for profit.
The tree holding me up as I climbed it, like a child climbing a parent’s trunk, with the patience and tolerance many trees must embody to live hundreds of years deserves more than an “it.” Considering this, I will continue to grow in the shade of the thousands of bigleaf maples in my life. Here in this swaying circle, I have no choice but kinship.
Small leaves dance across the horizon, strings plucked one by one with fingers of rain on this dreary April morning. The soft, lightly rolled under serrations of new leaves need this moisture. Gray dappled trunks running with rain remind me of childhood, watching Northern Flickers dig into mushy woody hollows in the dank backyard of a neighbor, forgotten and disused.
A carr is what my gaelic ancestors might have called this patch of wet ground thick with alders. This is possibly why my Irish father liked to remind me that we lived on an old swamp, and hid tape recorders playing Irish music in the yard to convince me of resident faeries. Sprites or otherwise, the flickers, woodpeckers that they are, needed those swampy burrows of rotten aging alder for their eggs. In that former riparian strip subsumed by my suburban neighborhood, I got my first inkling of needing alders as well.
I have long been obsessed with trees. After-all, so many of the vertebrates I admire spend much of their lives among them. Birds brush their wings against dense leaves in pursuit of food. They huddle over eggs yet to hatch in womb-like cavities inside of trees both living and dead. A Purple Finch bubbling away outside at this very moment is undoubtedly the star at the top of a Douglas fir. Their cousins the Pine Siskins twitter away as they pick at the pendulous racemes of bigleaf maples. For all but the most seabound or grassland strewn of birds, trees are life. (And let us not forget the many other extravagant, hysterically beautiful organisms that need them as well.)
Before I knew what was happening, I was working up in trees too. I had strode through trees as a naturalist guide, an ornithologist, an educator, but out of monetary necessity I was also a professional “tree guy” for two years of my life. This largely meant killing trees, hacking, pulling, grinding, chipping, generally wreaking havoc on living organisms. I had to navigate the cognitive dissonance of being a “tree hugger” and a tree killer. And yet, I liked the work because it was challenging both physically and mentally. Wood normally considered waste took on a new meaning as I learned to carve green wood. Tree work actually brought me closer to trees.
I needed a space to consider the tree I love. So, I am writing love letters to the trees of my home. And my first is to the alder.
Red Alder, Alnus rubra, the short-lived, the first to arrive, and the first to bed. How they vacillate from the hazy auburn of yet to open catkins in late winter, to the brilliant chartreuse leaves backlit by April sunrays. How they usher in a small sadness with those first drifting yellow leaves, borne on a warm August breeze, emblems of summer’s end. Wood that transforms from freshly hewn bleach white, to the oxidized rust and tan of only hours exposed to air and sun. To me, almost more than any other tree, alders represent resilience, death and rebirth, a representative of the cyclical nature of the world.
Hate may be a strong word, but I have heard many people express this emotion in reference to alders. Even in personal circles I hear more people carping about them than extolling their virtues. They aren’t necessarily wrong, especially if you can’t drift from expressly Western perspectives. Alders live short, punky lives – the juvenile delinquents that visit trouble on many a rural Washington road during a windstorm. They rot and fall, and make huge messes. They spring up unwanted, by the thousands, in recent clearings or have to be beaten back from swallowing verdant fields. Alder wood has up until recently been viewed as waste by loggers. Tree guys hate climbing them, because they are relatively weak, and have hidden pockets of rot that make them dangerous. Talk to the person who heats their home with wood and they’ll often list alder at the bottom of desired cordwood. Even I have been known to complain about the lack of clarity alder grain carries in carving.
Despite all this, I love alders. They have always been part of the places I call home. The places I have lived along the Salish Sea are the strongholds of their range, spanning the Pacific Crest west from California to Alaska with remnant pockets holding on in Northern Idaho. The thirty odd species of alder grow in many forms. The Sitka alder (Alnus viridis) of Cascadian avalanche shoots form shrubby impenetrable thickets that resist unimaginable annual pressure from snowpack. Poles from the trunks of black alder (Alnus glutinosa) built the foundations of Venice, incredibly durable when used in water.
Alders are all resilient, remarkable species that still manage to fly under the radar because of their commonness, their lack of visual sophistication. In the most urban of Seattle neighborhoods unseeing droves walk past red alders picking away at cement margins, bastions of habitat, shady haunts. Their lichen blotched trunks show me where the land has some moisture to it, sometimes literally growing from the water, and where even the most infertile soil now has potential. They may not be stunning trees, but they make up for this in other ways.
Sweating, pushing, swearing; I felt like this wasn’t working. The bar of my little climbing chainsaw was stuck in an alder log it had no business bucking. “Alder is soft for a hardwood,” I thought to myself. Why not do my buddy a favor in return for letting us stay at his cabin. Way up the South Fork of the Skykomish River I was in too deep without the necessary tools.
Stretching a stiff back, I stood and took a walk to observe the fallen tree. A plate of roots stretched six feet into the air where they’d given up their hold, letting the trunk plummet right into a water tank. The soil of the pit where the roots once gripped was sodden from winter rain. No surprises here. Alders fall all the time.
Looking closer at the brown tangles of roots I noticed something strange. Roots extended outwards as normal, but had strange growths along their lengths. I snapped a few off to look at them closer, little balls of root material made up of tiny individual stalks that gave them a crenulated texture. An overall shape that reminded me of pollen depicted on a large scale or frankly, the images of the CoronaVirus that were circulating widely at that moment. I was pretty sure I knew what these growths were, but I pocketed a few before getting back to grunting and shoving wood down the clay slicked slope.
Back at home, I confirmed that these little globules were what I expected. Possibly the most important, but rarely seen anatomy of any alder tree. Among many things, alders are nitrogen fixers and these growths were proof that this tree had been engaged in this process. Nitrogen fixing is something legumes are famous for, like the clover cover crop sown in rotation to renew worn out soil. Beneath the surface, these legumes are in cooperation with bacteria colonies that live in their roots and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form for the plant. In return, the plants permit root nodules to form, which the bacteria live in while sharing their production of nutrients. Alders, though not a part of the legume family, do the same thing.
Alder roots host a specific strain of actinomycete bacteria called Frankia alnii. Though I’ve made it all sound copasetic, this nodule I’d found was the result of a Frankia infection. The relationship can still be considered symbiotic, but the bacteria need to change a few things to be at home. Young alders develop nodules as they grow up in soils with the bacteria present, allowing them purchase on hard scrabble soils. Indeed alders are famous for being the first to show up on land freshly denuded of nutrients. Coiled beneath the surface of likely every alder tree you have ever walked by are nodules housing these bacterial colonies.
Sunlight bathed us as we stood on the ridge, enjoying the crater and the glorious day. And I was suffering. I’d been up since 4:30 AM to pack up the van, pick up our guests, and shepherd them south through rolling hills and river valleys towards the mountain. The last thing I wanted was to get warm and sleepy; I still had hours of late afternoon driving back back to Seattle, undoubtedly with a van-load of sleeping guests and a bladder too full with coffee.
Driving to Mt. St. Helens from Seattle is not like driving to imposing Mt. Rainier, which blithely struts out in gasping views. I wasn’t alive before the 1980 eruption of St. Helens, but today the peak isn’t prominent enough when you are deep between the many hills of Southwest Washington. Then, suddenly you are along the North Fork of the Toutle River, winding up the Spirit Lake Highway, and the landscape opens up to magnificent destruction. In May of 2012, the hillsides above us had long since been replanted with coniferous trees, but below in the aftermath of the largest landslide in recorded history, were alders.
Walking the Hummocks Trail at Mt. St. Helens always felt like a treat at the end of a long, warm day. I’d been a naturalist guide for a Seattle-based ecotourism company for over a year now and was mostly frustrated by taking people to Mt. St. Helens and back in a day. Everyone was after the spectacle, not to hear geologic lessons or to understand the opportunity documenting the regeneration of a blasted landscape offered to scientists. At the Hummocks were alders growing out of what were basically piles of gravel, the aftermath of an entire mountainside rushing down the Tuttle River valley moments after the eruption. Here I could sometimes get people to see first-hand the seeming miracle of regrowth.
Red Alders have always been a riparian, river bottom species. The story goes that until settlers showed up and started clear cutting, the tree wasn’t as known for the pioneering qualities that most scientists, foresters, and loggers know it for today. Certainly logging offered up spaces for shade intolerant, early succession plants like alders to expand in a first wave of regeneration. Living along oft changing waterways, the ability to fix nitrogen was always useful in exploiting newly opened spaces. And indeed alders represent the majority of hardwood canopy in the Pacific Northwest, and have apparently expanded twenty fold in the wake of settlers. But if I’m being honest I don’t think this story really gives weight to how good alders are at arriving and thriving in newly disturbed spaces, “natural” or not.
All alders sport obvious dangling catkins, which represent both male and female parts of the tree. The male catkins are long, obvious appendages that release pollen, which is then received by the female catkins which are less obvious until they swell with seeds, turn brown, and begin to look like pine cones in autumn. The cone-like structures hold hundreds of tiny seeds. The Betula family, the birches, of which alders are a part, are famous for growing densely because of the rain of seeds they produce. A pound of alder seeds can contain more than 660,000 seeds, tiny samaras built to ride the wind. According to the Oregon State University’s Oregon Wood Innovation Center, a favorable and recently cleared site can harbor around 100,000 alder seedlings per acre. This is approximately how it feels when walking the Hummocks Trail.
The trees around us were still a welcome shade, even if this was a year of tent caterpillars. Nearly every tree around us had globular webbed tents that housed the hungry young of tent caterpillar moths, who defoliate alders and other broadleaved trees every few years during population explosions. Despite this, the alders were clearly reinvigorating the soil with their nitrogen fixing bacteria and rich mulching leaves. Despite basically being on a bed of gravel, plants were growing everywhere. As the first to show in these distrubed spaces, alders are also often neighbors to many introduced species enjoying newly enriched soil. The regeneration of Mt. St. Helens has also become focal to understanding how non-native plants envelop new sites. Pacific chorus frogs lazed about on foxglove leaves as we brushed by them on lush trails, most likely unconcerned with the origin of their roosts.
Unlike most other hardwoods, even the few that are native to the Pacific Northwest, red alders live short lives. The founding cohort of twentyish year-old trees in the Hummocks were well into middle age and had been reproductively mature for over ten years. A healthy seedling can reach three feet in its first year. This is part of the reason that tree plantations spent many years fighting alders by cut and chemical, until they were redesignated as helpful nitrogen-fixers who staved off diseases that threatened the desired monocrop. Alders outgrow even the famed Douglas fir in their first twenty years, which is why they are considered the first succession of trees in a regenerating forest. With less competition in this overpacked woodland, and with better soil than gravel, the red alders here could have been at least 70 feet tall by the time I was walking among them with my guests.
I had been staring into the large forked crown since I first noticed this multi-stemmed loner. Vireos danced through the canopy, bulking up for the long flight south. Curtains of epiphytes sloughed off impossibly long limbs, shading my graduate cohort sitting below. I wanted to get up there.
Despite knowing next to nothing about lichen identification, I could tell there was immense diversity in the top of this massive alder in the Upper Skagit Valley. We were neighbors for a year. It showed me what a lone, aged alder without competition could look like. This tree was so deeply different from the craning, single stemmed alders growing below the floodline along the banks of the Skagit. I had never seen an alder like this before.
Alders growing in Seattle, where I first started climbing trees, look little like those growing in less polluted spaces. Even as I write this, halfway between Tacoma and Seattle, with SeaTac Airport spewing planes day and night, my rural island alders have the rich covering of lichen and moss that urban trees rarely get. I wanted to get up close to that biomass hanging in the branches above me.
The difficult thing about climbing a tree to observe epiphytic life is not knocking it all off in the process. Tree climbing is really rope climbing, but your feet still kick into delicate bouquets of life and your rope still abraides everything it touches in the process of your breathless struggling. I tried to tell myself this was no different than a stiff wind, that this was a dynamic environment. And I still felt dismayed when lengths of Usnea, old man’s beard lichens, drifted by me like party-streamers. When I finally got as high as I safely could on weak alder limbs, I delicately picked my footing, hung in my saddle, and gazed around. Not only was I up, climbing and cradled by a living thing (just consider that for a moment), I was surrounded by others who knew nothing but these perches. Crustose and foliose, macro and micro lichens surrounded me. The bubbling leaves lungwort, bumpy nodes of bark barnacle, and methuselah’s beard intermingled with what seemed hundreds of other species at home in this often misty canopy.
Sitting still in a tree canopy you are often surprised by how unconcerned other visitors are. A common story of people tree-sitting is to wake with flying squirrels curiously crawling about them at night. Above my daylight vantage were Purple Finches quietly calling while crunching on alder cones that disintegrated into the breeze. Chickadees jumped about the branches, prying at unseen insects, seemingly oblivious to the human in the tree with them. In what felt like the tallest of the tallest alders (red and black alders are the two tallest species in the world), I was certain biodiversity was higher than the nearby row of Douglas fir even if I had no real way of being sure.
There is significant evidence, both blandly scientific and anecdotally guttural that alder forests are more diverse than those of dense Douglas fir. Because of its increasingly realized value as a commercial timber and a recognized asset to forest structure, much forestry research has been devoted to understanding how alders can benefit a healthy and “productive” forest. In areas where alders are excluded, even-aged stands of conifers like Douglas fir will eventually shade out most of the life beneath them. It doesn’t take a scientific study to demonstrate that a monocrop of trees isn’t going to boost biodiversity, but this has given a nuanced approach to some forest management practices, whereby overall diversity is increased when allowing alders to persist, leaving a legacy of forest-opening mosaics when they are overtopped and outlived by coniferous cohorts.
Below an alder forest there is just simply more life. The forest I pushed about along the Skagit River while in graduate school, just downfield of my home at that point, was brimming with green. Without hyperbole, every lowland river in Western Washington is lined with alders and is vibrant with life. The spot on the Skagit had nearly a dozen species of trees and shrubs growing there, thanks to the dappled shade of cottonwoods and alders, graciously sharing the sun. There were at least twice as many birds as the mixed conifer forest uphill across the river. If I am out enjoying birds in Washington, I inherently drift towards the edges and reaching canopies of alders and away from the quieter, shady fir stands on all but a few occasions.
Up in that tree, I could feel the twisting rhythm of stems moving with the warm wind flowing upriver. I was thankful that I wasn’t here to dismantle a tree that had probably started growing when the land was first cleared to farm and the house behind me was built. This tree grew from a seed the size of a pin head that likely drifted from the now beaten back flood forests. Possibly this tree’s parent predated White settlers in the region and might have stood with the first people living as they had since time immemorial.
I don’t feel comfortable talking about plants as useful, even though it’s a word I often assign to many things in my life. My reason for this is that I don’t like the gross, clutchy feeling of colonialism and land management that spring up when the supposed value of a tree is considered in my Westernized culture. And yet alders are undoubtedly important and useful trees, and have probably been viewed as such for as long as humans have shared spaces with them. Though I would guess that local Indigenous mindsets assign less hierarchical approaches, alders are certainly a great source of medicine and material for lives more consciously linked to natural resources. You need only cast a glance at any ethnobotanical text to affirm that alders are useful across cultures, which ultimately is just part of a human relationship with plants. The part I cringe about results from being of a culture with unhealthy expectations of how resources are used.
Though I could take time to list all the ways Indigenous people in this part of the world have used alder, I’d rather not. I am a White settler-colonist with no long or lasting relationships with Native people in Washington State, despite having grown up on their traditional territories. To discuss such things without that relationship is hollow and feels disrespectful. What I will tell you is what I’ve discovered myself: alder is magical to carve.
Break open a green log and you can feel the moisture emanating from the split faces. Walk away and you’ll discover that the tannins have quickly oxidized and the wood will have started to redden and yellow, that the outer bark that split away is deep red. I learned this because, at the same time I was living along the Skagit River on the traditional territories of the Upper Skagit and the Sauk Suiattle, I discovered the tradition of carving spoons from green wood.
Alder wood is light, soft, and easy to work. It grows fast and is common. Long, straight boles are frequent, so straight grain is not hard to find. This has made red alder the “most important commercial hardwood in the Pacific Northwest.” This is also why I love to carve it and why Indigenous people from California to Alaska have also appreciated this fine timber. Unlike knotty bitter cherry or twisted madrone, I can shave off amazingly clean cuts. This is so enjoyable that I could easily sit and lose myself in shavings instead of ending up with a spoon.
This relationship has helped me come full circle, back to a time when I was clearing alders for the sake of clearing, an echo of colonization. Though I don’t think carving a few spoons absolves me of cutting trees to perpetuate urban sprawl, it gives me a better appreciation of what can come from material that is underappreciated. This gives me a more healthy relationship with the natural resources around me. I have settled in complexity, for how I view not just alders, but all trees. Throughout my life I will both plant and harvest trees and plants, and there is nothing wrong with that inherently. I believe this is much better than holding nature at arm’s length and stigmatizing many ways of connecting.
Outside my current home I carve beneath the tapering speckled gray trunks of half a dozen alders. In this forgotten cross-section of three fenced properties. They form a private canopy where I can axe away happily at various woodworking projects, binoculars nearby for any birds that are flitting through. Recently a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, head feathers crested to display its namesake, stopped it’s bubbling song on a bobbing branch tip, posing mid-action to stare at me. We made eye contact before it went back to singing and hovering along branches, snatching at insects within feet of me. It felt like I was given a small nod of approval.
Looking through the dappled crowns I consider what all these trees mean. My whole appreciation is here, where I can simultaneously appreciate the life they represent, while crafting from their fibres. I consider that this genus has been a tree of importance across the world where they grow: buttresses and amendments to Incan hillslope agriculture, the original pillings of Venice, medicine and dye for the Coast Salish. My ancestors in Ireland might have avoided stands of what they called fearn, alders, for fear of what lurked in the depths of the bogs they grew near. At the same time they also made drinking vessels and utensils from such wood. Riverine nitrogen fixers that they are, the red alder of the world I grew up in has always represented calm and potential. They are the first wave of regeneration, unassuming yet unassailable.
My morning journaling practice was rebounding, a good feeling in the midst of uncertain times personally, locally, and globally. Absentminded words about what I could hear outside filled in behind my left hand. A flash of shape and color stirred me from my pleasant stupor. The cat had jumped to the window to watch what I was hearing, the movements of birds through the thin walls of my home. I peeled myself from a blanket and rummaged through my backpack. Binoculars might be another encumbrance, but this brick of lens and light is a cherished treasure, a life-long aid in standing up and paying attention.
Hearing voices in the treetops draws eyes to feathered forms. Echoes of twirls and leaps were flickering on alder boles, mingling with lightly waving shadows of toothed leaves against feathered lichen. Bouncing in the chartreuse were vireos, warblers, juncos, wrens, grosbeaks. I cannot stop myself from assigning names and behaviors, assuming segmentation of their habitual stratigraphy, as these beings went about their day mostly unaware of my second story perch close but also quite far. What I try to call up when I watch birds is not a clinical drone, but the impractical wonder of life that goes on all around. Does it cease to exist if I don’t stand up and peer out the window?
In my journal I had just been remarking on the number of Hutton’s Vireos of late. They are a much overlooked character, lost in the canopy, looking like a husky kinglet. An endless prattle of single notes and little wheezings pierce the air as they dart across the mottled alder canopy. I can only assume they are eating the caterpillars that have poked holes through many of the leaves, through which I catch glimpses of hooked bills and white spectacles, betraying stout and tan songbirds. Maybe I’ve been projecting, or my subconscious has been making connections without me, because there are a lot of vireos up there. Half a dozen flitting beasts chasing each other in the early sunshine of what promises to be a blazing day.
With them are their cream-bellied, clear-eyed cousins, Warbling Vireos. I almost missed them because they are silent, but equal in their frantic aerialism. As I wrote that last sentence, the world, invariably recalcitrant, pulled up a series of notes from the bird I was watching. What might be discernible as a bird of the year in my hand while banding, is not from my perch, but I do notice one of them begging for food from another. This is despite that the tree appears to hold plenty of choice morsels. Why else would they be there?
Also “silent” are Pacific-slope Flycatchers, spending more time sitting and flicking their tails than dancing. These wallflowers need to sit still and watch the flying insects they eat. Vireos busily investigate nooks and crannies, extending necks and tilting heads to peer on the undersides of leaves for green wrigglies.
I saw a flycatcher recently feeding a baby Brown-headed Cowbird. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness for this parent, doomed to feed only this unrelated bird, who will soon wander off on its own, detracting from the flycatcher gene pool. Fledgling cowbirds this time of year are often found plodding about on open ground, singular and seeming to be lost but far from it. On a nearby beach, while watching Puget Sound Gumweed swarm with bumble and digger bees, I noticed an indistinct brown bird drawn to the insects drifting about the tide wracks. Despite myself, I wondered if it was the same cowbird I’d seen being fed by that flycatcher in the pine tree in my yard. We have cowbirds everywhere because we cut down all the trees and killed all the buffalo in favor of cows, which are now everywhere. By we, I mean White people.
Standing out among the mossy backs of the other birds are Wilson’s Warblers. Not skulking in shrubs, spitting out staccato songs as they do in spring, but out in the open, part of the alder fest. Two unimaginably yellow birds with black caps, that out hue the few turning leaves, yellow from many dry days and impending fall. Even more than the vireos, they can’t seem to sit still and they shortly drift beyond my spyhole.
It seems almost ridiculous that I can stand and watch these birds out my window. They prepare to fly off to the Neotropics. I prepare to write words they’ll never comprehend about their lives, which I will never fully comprehend.
I sometimes wonder what will fail me first, my eyes or my ears (as if those will even be singular events). When I first got glasses, I remember walking outside the downtown Ballard optometrist, and looking up to the top of a Douglas fir, and seeing the individual fresh needles on its peak and the papery husks that fold away from male flowers. I saw such detail that I had forgotten was there, in a combination of near-sightedness and being a twenty first century teenager distracted by girls, computer games, and the need to be cool.
Recently I went to the doctor because I had a strange deep reverberation in my ear. I discovered that liquid had built up in my inner ear from some unknown mallady. Like my donning of glasses, bringing out details in the world, this was temporary and I seem to have my full hearing back.
If I had to choose which would go first, I’d choose neither because they are interwoven with my senses, reminding me that being human is about looking outside yourself as well as attending to the deep vibrations within. What if I lost my sense of touch or taste instead? We take too much for granted.
My morning, had I simply sat and pondered the noises out the window, wouldn’t have been a terrible one. My coffee would have been sipped warm. Currently it is tepid, from the hour I stood at the window gawking while the cat lobbied for an early breakfast with soft twists between my bare legs. Would I have been more, or less human without this pause to step outside my head to admire the intricate shadowboxing across the late summer layers of alder leaves? I suspect I would have merely continued to have a conversation with myself, unheard and unseen, but pretending to pay attention.
The moment we crawled onto a flat that weaved into a beautiful alpine meadow, I was fairly certain I hated backpacking. This was after we’d enjoyed the expansive Jack Mountain and the Nohokomeen Glacier. This was after I sat in the shade, listening to Sooty Grouse boom, and turned to see a snowshoe hare hopping down the trail. Despite these things, I still couldn’t determine why I thought 7 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain, with a backpack for 4 days of camping, was a good way to spend some time off.
Type two fun is one name for such approaches. My left hip had started to spasm in cramps and I couldn’t seem to walk without stopping to wheeze. Truth be told I was out of shape, but this was definitely harder than I’d imagined. When we finally broke the treeline and sat down alongside a stream that dropped through lime green meadows, filtering some much needed and deliciously cold water, we were met with a cloud of mosquitoes. How can a place be simultaneously so beautiful, yet so ruinously uncomfortable?
The wilderness boundary on Devil’s Junction from Ross Lake.
Sam, had been pushing for us to hike Devil’s Dome Loop in the Western Pasayten Wilderness for years. He is a friend from high school, and one of a group who gets out hiking together at least annually. I’d had no objections, but the first attempt was foiled by fire near where I currently go to school, in 2015. Then came years where it didn’t quite make sense with our schedules, so we went to the Eastern Pasayten early season, or circled the Goat Rocks Wilderness. I may or may not have forgotten the challenge those hikes presented. Yet, I cannot imagine my life having not strode up the great open flank of tundra on Armstrong Mountain amidst tinkling Horned Larks, or crawling out to the perilous perch atop the jumbled summit of rocks that is old Snowy. These were things worth doing, even if you forgot the pain.
A panorama of Jack on our hike up from Ross Lake. The big patch of “snow” on the left flank of the peak is the Nohokomeen Glacier.
There was a moment during the hike up where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. We were staring up at Devil’s Dome and from our perspective, it seemed impossible. I stopped looking at the wall of rock and focused on my feet, taking small steps and measured breaths. Usually I splatter my gaze across the trail and the world around me. That’s how I spotted the Northern Goshawk that flew by earlier, or picked out a male Sooty Grouse displaying from a log in the shadows of subalpine firs. For now, it was time to focus on the energy I had left and stagger atop the fucking dome.
Somehow, the last moments before reaching a summit, your feet begin to lighten. I’m no mountaineer; that’s never going to be my thing. And, I still I know what it’s like to push my limit for a summit and then feel the burning lift away as the top levels out. After a solid six hours trudging uphill, we’d finally hit the peak.
What motivates me to backpack isn’t the challenge, it’s to see what’s out there. What is happening in the lives of the organisms, at this moment in time, during this year, in this obscure place? Who do I expect to see, yet find no trace of? Who will surprise me? Who am I trying to pretend I am not searching for every moment of every second we are hiking, in the hopes that fate will toss one across our path? The views don’t hurt either.
Our first camp was complete with a beautiful view, but I was also captivated by the plants and animals making a living up here. This patch of juniper must spend at least half its year under snow, and yet, here it is doing just fine. Sometimes I think I take on these challenges to be continually humbled.
Jack Mountain is the spire you circle around on the Loop. This hike could also be called The Many Faces of Jack. At 9017 feet, it is a very tall mountain by Washington standards, and one I’ve seen countless times as I’ve driven back and forth across Diablo Dam during the past year. Admittedly this was from the southwest and no glaciers or snowfields were visible from that aspect.
Much of the settler history in this part of the Upper Skagit sits in the shadow of this peak. The mountain itself was named after Jack Rowse, who had a mining claim along Canyon Creek. Henry Custer was the first topographer to describe the mountain, while surveying the area in for the Northwest Boundary Commission in 1859. George Holmes, a freed slave from Virginia, had a mining claim in Ruby Creek drainage that he acquired in 1895. He operated this until 1925, toiling in solitude on the southern flank of Jack. I can say next to nothing of the women who knew this peak during that period of history. I can only assume Lucinda Davis, at her roadhouse on Cedar Bar knew of Jack’s immensity well, if not intimately. Similarly I know nothing of the indigenous relationship to the peak, but it is difficult for me to believe it hasn’t played a significant role for people who have traversed these rugged hills since time immemorial.
Crater (left foreground) and Jack (right) from Devil’s Dome.
Jack is formidable and it drew our attention as we watched the sun glissade down the sea of peaks that is the North Cascades. Yet, we weren’t there just to stare at a big peak. Jack was merely the foreground to the spread of peaks with names I knew, and other names I didn’t. I was drawn away from this vision by the twittering of Vaux’s Swifts, a group of six that drifted up to this elevation, presumably for an evening snack. For some reason I felt an affinity for this ascent and yet utterly feeble by their seemingly easy climb. Surely they would descend to a roost tree, while we sat among the alpenglow, almost unable to move.
Sundown over the snow on top of Devil’s Dome.
I woke up sore, stiff, and much later than I would on a typical backpacking trip. Hermit Thrush whistles still rose from the treeline as I crawled out to greet the day. With the enormous view from the highest point of the trail, we were in no hurry to get underway and sat with our morning vittles as the sun crept over the horizon to our backs.
The snowfield on Crater Mountain, a slightly lesser mass to Jack, was entirely pink with snow algae, and visibly so with the naked eye. Baker hid behind the mountains I drove beneath every day. I finally saw Mount Ross as a snow covered peak instead of a rocky wall, as viewed from Newhalem. Big Devil looked like a volcanic cone enough to confuse me considerably, nothing like the snowy talus slope I see from Highway 20. There were so many jagged summits stretching into Canada, I had no hope of remembering them all. It’s much better to surrender to the sea instead of playing the name game.
Finally it was time to get saddled up. We’d already seen more people than we expected, several early morning hikers, as well as the woman who’d snagged the best spot on the dome the night before. This place felt remote, but we were concerned that other camps might be occupied.
Hiking south off the Dome.
The hiking was easy as we got off the Dome and wound down the ridgeline. The Pasayten, to our left, was brown, the orographic effect vividly displayed, but we were also seeing a different geologic mixture that added to the feeling of a water scarcity. Where we stood it green and this carpeted the mountainsides up to treeline to our right and west.
Passing from trees to meadow, we felt it heating up and began to get a little worried about water. Our map had a spring marked on it at Devil’s Pass, but there was no other evidence of water, snow having recently disappeared from the aspect we were walking. Thankfully the spring was there, and running.
While Sam pumped water, I ran back up to our bags, because I’d heard a raven croaking from that direction. Just as I rushed to the saddle of the pass, our bags had been dropped to spare us the crawl down to the spring, a dark shape drifted through the trees overhead.
I settled into guard duty on this lonely little pass. The only sound was of the birds and the flies attracted to my sweat stained shirt. I imagined the animals that must use this pass throughout the year. A wolverine passing across a vast territory, headed where ever it feels. A wolf, leaving the natal den for a wider world. Countless birds that pause long enough to breed, or just to rest as they journey to another locale with better resources. Millions of insects unseen or unobserved. I imagined my body staying where it lay and feet of snow piling up over me, a stratigraphy of thawing and freezing, until the sun’s warmth could no longer be shrugged off overnight. This little pass in the middle of nowhere felt timeless.
A group of Outward Bound students and their leaders met us at the high point of the day’s walk. Trail talk is an art, where you balance the need to keep moving with the desire to get beta from those who have already walked where you’re headed. Yet, there’s also a genuine nature to it, and often you have meaningful exchanges you remember far beyond the grip of most random human encounters. In this case, one of their leaders knew a graduate of my Master’s program, and the co-founder of the non-profit where I currently spend my time. Such an expansive place can slim substantially with a chance meeting. It can also be an affirmation of good taste.
Devil’s Creek drainage.
We traversed another series of meadows, full of ground squirrel burrows dug beneath nodding pasqueflower seedheads. I always get excited about these spaces, because surely predators lurk nearby. The dusty track ahead of us was crenulated with the soles of hiking shoes, but I kept hoping I’d pick up an interesting track. A wolf? A fox? A cat?
My hope for the day was the stop early, drop our packs, and head up to a small bight in Jackita Ridge called Anacortes Crossing. Stopping for lunch, it was clear that we could go farther and that the bugs weren’t going to be friendly where the best camps were. Sam wanted to push further, and though I was after some scrambling and peak bagging, I admitted that four miles wasn’t enough distance to cover for the day.
Part of the reason I’d wanted to stop was because of what I knew was ahead. The trail sloshed through the creekbed straight down, and despite trekking poles, we had to arrest our momentum continually with our sore legs. The water was plentiful and beautiful, and admittedly the trail did wend through spectacular flower-filled bogs. And, as soon as it leveled out, it climbed straight back out again. Dripping with sweat and spitting obscenities at the person who thought this was a good grade, we pushed through overgrown paths swollen with slide alder and yellow cedar.
Our second camp’s basin.
The camp that waited for us on the other side of the ridge couldn’t have been much better. The insects were tolerable, water was easily found, and there was a nice flat spot for a tent. Our stuff exploded, we enjoyed the lift that occurs when you’ve dropped a heavy pack, wandering about making camp. A fire lit, dinner eaten, food hung, we sipped whiskey by the fire and ran into the adjacent scree bowl to watch the sun dip behind Jack. You can’t help but feel immensely grateful when a day ends in a good place, with a good friend, with days of adventure ahead of you.
From where I sat, I could feel the water swaying beneath me. A light breeze pricked at my flushed face. We sat, waiting for them in hushed anticipation, punctuated by an exhale of four wispy puffs of breath, and a matching explicative from someone in our boats. Then they’d go down for several minutes, and we’d wonder where they’d surface next. Moments later, they were right along side and their hydrophobic skin pushed the water away in skeins, deep Vs sliding across first their dorsal fins, and then their heads. All we could do was squeal and look them in the eye, because two of the Transient Killer Whales that passed our raft of kayaks, gave us a look as they passed within meters.
A little bit of me thought, “well, if I have to go, at least I’d be the first person to go down by a wild Killer Whale.” My logic told me that this family group of mammal eating Orcinus orca were probably searching for seals, and had no desire to eat me. Because…..that had never happened before. My gut, which dropped precipitously when they took a series of shallow dives on a line incredibly close to our boats, as we floated and waited for them to go by as to protocol, told me that that big male might weight 20 thousand pounds and that him and his family could do whatever the hell they wanted, history be damned. I still think we probably just don’t taste very good.
A male Transient Killer Whale moving through the Haro Strait.
I have a long standing love affair with the San Juan Islands, so when my former employer wanted to do a video shoot of his products, e.g. whale watching and kayak camping, I jumped at the chance to be one of the models. So, this last weekend, along with several old co-workers, I got to spend a weekend playing in kayaks and having close encounters with Killer Whales. The best part was knowing that this isn’t the last time I’ll have the privilege of enjoying the company of friends in these cherished islands.
The goal of the trip was to document what a typical overnight kayaking trip to Stuart Island would look like. I’ve done dozens of these trips and despite the absolute privilege, by the end of my time doing them for work, I was totally burnt out. Guiding is stressful and extremely hard work. It takes a very mentally and physically fit person to be a good guide. You have to have attention to detail, like people, be well spoken, be a good decision maker, and enjoy being outside. I like to think I was an excellent guide, despite the fact that I lasted one season of full time overnight trips. Some of my old co-workers have now done upwards of eight seasons. You’d think I wouldn’t want to get back on board with this, even for a weekend, but the islands were calling, and this was going to be a staged weekend, with friends as fellow “guests.”
There’s no bad time of year to be in the San Juans, but don’t tell anyone. Spring is particularly magical because there’s fewer people, the wildflowers are glorious, many seabirds are still around, the year-round resident birds are very active, and summering residents are just starting to arrive. This combines for quiet mornings on a rocky coastline free of stumbling visitors, with chocolate lilies nodding in the wind around you, the whirr of Surf Scoter wings over slate blue water, and Townsend’s Warblers singing overhead. Magical is a word that comes to mind.
Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis)
We left Roche Harbor at 6 am, not because of why we’d usually leave early on a trip, favorable tides and wind, but because low angle light is always a must in a shoot. As the sun stuck out through clouds over Orcas Island, we paddled around the wildlife refuge of Barren Island, enjoying the Black Oystercatchers squealing in alarm at an immature Bald Eagle flying by. Canada Geese were already paired and holding down nest sites on the island. A Steller sealion poked its head out of the water off the island, surely searching for food along the rocky shore. The bull kelp beds weren’t quite poking up, still growing back after dormancy throughout the winter. Large camas grew tall on the Eastern end of the rock, a surprise, as I’d never paddled by this early in the year.
Almost none of us were in kayaking shape and it was a slog against the ebbing tide and Northerly wind across Spieden Channel. By the time we made it to Sentinel Island, we were happy for a chance to rest in its shade from the tide and stretch feeling back into our legs and bottoms. Sentinel was once the homestead of an intrepid couple, and then called Gumdrop for its round shape. Now owned by the Nature Conservancy, it is private and inaccessible. This alone makes me want to explore there, but I had to settle for paddling around Sentinel Rock.
Harbor seals sat in wait for the best spots to haul up as the tide went out. Twenty of them watched us as we passed by. Harlequin Ducks foraged in the shallows, keeping their distance from our bright boats. A few Dunlin surprised me, fully dressed for summer, as they poked about in the rocks. The ubiquitous Bald Eagle was there too, looking for handouts, and it occurred to me that every island I have ever seen in the San Juans has had an eagle on it at one point or another.
We headed on toward the shore of Spieden Island, a long, thin island that is known for extremes. On its slowly sloping South face it is largely bare, trees having difficulty taking hold in the hard ground, sun exposure, and Southwesterlies. The shaded Northern side drops steeply and is dark with trees. Privately owned, it was once home to a private game lodge. After that a nature focused summer camp. Today, I consider the most obvious extreme is the number of feral fallow deer and mouflon sheep still on the island, a hangover from the days of the game lodge, and the fact that despite being green in spring, Spieden never has a wildflower bloom. Any other island with this much open prairie would be full of flowers this time of year. Instead the South side stays neatly cropped by ungulate incisors.
Seablush and friends on Gossip Island.
Still, passing by Spieden is a pleasure, because there is little outright evidence of people. Seals sprawl on the thin shore, bracketed by seeps that feed fluorescent green algae when the water flows. Giant glacial erratics, granite boulders brought here from far away in the Cascades by glaciers, dot the hillside above you as you paddle by sea cucumbers and blood stars magnified in the water below. We startled a pair of Black Turnstones on our paddle West toward Stuart, who burst into chattering flight, archs of contrasting black and white on a muted cloudy day. Pigeon Guilemots also scattered as we came around Spieden Bluff, congregated in large numbers because they nest in the hollows worn away in the cliffs. They lifted off in a bluster, only to come skidding down on orange feet a few yard away, calling to each other and lifting their wings in display.
Though it wasn’t lunch, we got out at the spot where our trips would normally break for lunch after crossing New Channel just North of Spieden. Gossip Island island is tiny, but it never fails to astonish. The only landing is a little beach made almost entirely of ground up barnacles, nestled between the dark igneous rock that makes up the island. This little beach just happens to be in the perfect tidal position to collect the chalky remains and the contrast between dark rock and light shell is stunning. Above the beach is a squat island with a few Douglas firs, a spattering of madrone, several gnarled juniper, and impenetrable thickets of oceanspray and snowberry that otters have carved weasel shaped pathways into. Much of the island is grassy and host to wildflowers. Pink seablush spread across the top of the rock and yellow monkeyflowers bloomed out of the cracks that seeped enough water to sustain them. A few chocolate lilies poked out here and there in the grass, a reminder to walk carefully for the sake of blooms yet to come. White-crowned Sparrows sang sweetly despite the gloom of a threatening storm.
The barnacle beach on Gossip.
The benefit of this being a photo shoot was that we could cheat: load up the support boat, and jet off to our next spot. With weather pressing down on us, we pulled the boats on board, and saddled up in survival suits to ward off the cold wind. Minutes later, in what would have taken at least an hour of paddling in good tides, we were in Prevost Harbor on the North side of Stuart Island and setting up camp.
Taking a break after setting up camp, I took a moment to explore, despite being intimately familiar with the side of the state park we had taken over. Warblers sang overhead as I tromped down the path to where I’d heard there were a few Oregon fawnlilies, a real treat because Erithyroniums are a favorite. A few nodding white flowers faced North toward Boundary Pass and a bonus fairy slipper orchid was a pink beacon in the green and brown nearby.
Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
Oregon fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)
Spring is a time of firsts of the year. Within a few minutes at camp I heard both my first Purple Martin and my first Pacific-slope Flycatcher of the year, surely just back from weeks of traveling from the tropics. Although I’d seen my first Osprey of the year a few days earlier, I enjoyed watching a pair display out over Satellite Island, flying in circles with slow exaggerated wing beats while calling and holding down their legs. Later at night I hoped to hear Western Screech Owls but didn’t, and feared I never would again as a result of the Barred Owls that frequent Stuart.
The dock at Prevost Harbor.
After a spattering of rain, we were able to get out on the water for more video and images. Turn Point, which is one of the most Northwesterly points in the Lower 48, happens to also be visually iconic, with huge cliffs, a historic lighthouse, and often epic water where the Haro Strait and Boundary Pass meet with the combined effects of prevailing wind. This is one of the must-see places on the island and a bit of a right of passage for paddlers in the San Juans. When we rounded the corner in our powered vessel and saw the current collision of opposing water movement, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be paddling; large standing waves of several feet and roiling eddies were right off shore.
In the shade of a point South of Turn, we found enough space to launch our kayaks and paddled in the pretty evening light. The water wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and we had a blast ripping around the water beneath the lighthouse, over and over, to get the right shot. We all held our breath when a Steller sealion appeared at the point and disappeared underwater, none of us relishing the idea of the head of a bear-like pinneped bursting suddenly from the water near us. Thankfully we didn’t see it again.
Paintbrush and red-flowering currant bloomed on the edges of soil on the tall cliff, called Lover’s Leap, above us. I was struck by the resiliency of the bigleaf maples growing from mere cracks, exposed, yet still growing. The natural beauty contrasted sharply with the constant tanker traffic in the deep water of the strait, symbolic of the threats we pose to such a beautiful place with our consumerism and international trade. An oil spill here would devastate the region and as of now, our counterparts in Canada have almost no plan for a response, which is admittedly not much better than on our side of the border.
Looking across to our campsite on Stewart Island.
Before dinner I managed get a moment to climb a lofty, leaning madrone in camp and enjoyed the sunset from high over the heads of my friends. Tacos and brownies consumed, beer and wine in hand, we then settled in for a night by the fire. But, I was beat, and I turned in not long after we’d prepared our camp to weather the storm of mice and racoons that swarm over the campsites at night. We’d started at 4:30, I think I was justified.
Me, up in a madrone.
The next thing I knew, I woke to croaking ravens and a rain subdued dawn chorus. We’d been allowed to sleep in because the day before had been so photographically fruitful. I allowed myself to sleep a bit longer before struggling up and helping cook breakfast. Many hands made light work of the effort of cooking, cleaning, and breaking camp, and before we knew it, the boat was pushing off. Once more I was saying goodbye to the grizzled cedars bent into the saltwater and the shining green leaves of Douglas maples of Prevost Harbor.
As we left, we were headed for opportunities to see whales. Our boat was fast, and initially we were headed for far North into the beautiful reaches of Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of Canada. But our plan quickly changed and as we sped out of the harbor, we turned West and almost immediately picked up two groups of whales that had just been reported. The water was perfect, the kayaks were in the water, and we had whales. It was a good weekend.
It’s always awesome when you get to see a whale’s eye!
Winter is a season we love and hate. When you step outside and are immediately cold and wet, you curse it, and the wind it rode in on. Yet an afternoon crowded with sombre clouds dropping fluffy snow, a night of sparkling hoarfrost casting rainbows in the moonlight, or a frozen, shining morning filled with the tentative calls of waking birds, make it all worth the unpleasantness. Even a frothing, blustery storm can be relished. I work outside every day, so I know what I’m talking about.
Just when a season passes, I feel like I’ve missed it. I realize that as I write this, and you read it, we are about a third of the way through spring. I don’t work that fast and I take time to decompress and analyze. Nature moves fast certainly, but we could all use some slowing down these days. I’m present, so I can write about it later.
What do you think of when you think of winter? I know many people who think of mountains and snow. I think more of gray days, wintering waterfowl, and sparrows hunched in thickets of blackberries. In a chance moment as I walk down the street in Seattle, I hear the chip note that promises to me a hint of golden yellow, as a Yellow-rumped Warbler passes through the trees overhead. I sit with the ceaseless discussions of Snow Geese in dormant fields, looking up to see Trumpeter Swans flying by on a frigid January day in the Skagit Valley. I pay attention to the brown birds skulking in the bushes, because what I might assume at first glance is a Song Sparrow might actually be a Hermit Thrush.
An Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler flies between cottonwood tops.
A Spotted Towhee eyes be through roses on a frigid January morning.
Trumpeter Swans flying by in the Skagit Valley.
Snow Geese congregating in a field in the Skagit Valley.
Sometimes I catch myself in the ignorant notion that it would be easier if the world ended and I could go feral. Not the world itself, just the human world. In this little dream, I am able to run off into the forest and subsist. I like to think I would do reasonably well, which is absurd because without my modern gadgetry, I would probably starve, freeze, and defecate myself to death; not necessarily in that order (not to mention witnessing the horrors of the post-apocalyptic world). I’m tough, but not as tough as I like to think.
When I drive around Seattle, I see a lot of homeless encampments. I have these bizarre thoughts about how I would set up my camp, how it would be better, and then immediately feel ashamed. I know these people don’t want to be living in the cold, polluted cesspits that our society has somehow cornered them in. And then I feel even more ashamed because I know my way of life isn’t sustainable for the planet. That while I sit inside warm and dry, not only are there destitute members of my species outside in the muck, there are wild animals and plants that have to deal with this every day. By living my life, as I do, I’m making it even harder. A simple Song Sparrow or bigleaf maple endures so much more than we give them credit for.
When I go out birding or into nature at any time of year, I always try to be sensitive of my impact. Winter is when I take this particularly to heart, (evidenced by my scolding my girlfriend for paddling into and scattering a flock of ducks during January on Lake Washington). When I’m cold or wet, but in the elements for recreation, I imagine myself in the place of one of the birds I’m watching. While I may catch hungry songbirds at daybreak, so concerned with not freezing to death that they will let me approach them, I try not to take advantage of their hunger. A little bit of me wants to anyway, to somehow demonstrate that not all humans are inherently awful, but that is a wasted effort at best. So I keep my distance and I try to just watch. When I get cold, I can go back to my warm conveyance, and eat some food, put on another layer, or just leave. They don’t have that option, they have to be out everyday. I don’t necessarily think we have it better in the long term either.
A Golden-crowned Sparrow eyeing a morsel.
Birders don’t watch enough. They count. They scan. They eBird. They observe details in plumage, or look for a standout in the crowd. Everyone is in such a hurry. I do it too. But because I get out less frequently than I want these days, I remind myself to slow down and pay attention. And get off my phone.
Funnily enough, carrying a camera slows my pace. The light catches my eye and I stop. I hear a bird I’d like to photograph and pause for an opportunity. I come across some obliging models, going about their day, unconcerned with the odd person making a clicking noise. As with writing, I become more patient, because unlike when I say, participate in a big day of birding, what matters isn’t the numbers but the moments I can capture with word and image. The cold makes it harder to slow down, but I do it nonetheless.
Winter color in the willow tops.
Winter is over. No matter how hard I try to make it, it won’t be back for several more months. Maybe I’ll remember to enjoy it then. Outside my apartment I can hear an American Robin. It’s incessant flutings driving home the point that Spring is here.
He won’t be quiet, but that’s ok, testosterone is driving him insane.
During work the past couple weeks I’ve seen the signs. Two male Downy Woodpeckers chasing each-other in a vine maple, so incensed I could almost reach out and touch them. Yellow-rumped Warblers, still around from the winter, but now occasionally murmuring tidbits of song, and molting into the yellows and blacks that define breeding plumage. A hen Cooper’s Hawk flying circles overhead, fluffing her under-tail coverts, and calling that unsettling cackling of accipiters; a sure sign of a nearby breeding territory. Familiar birds always tell me much about the world’s seasonal momentum, regardless of the actual date. Nothing says winter is over more than the greenbelts of Seattle, flowing from the reddish brown new leaves of black cottonwoods to the chartreuse and true yellow of flowering bigleaf maples.
A Myrtle, Yellow-rumped Warbler, a purely Winter visiting subspecies.
Of course, it’s still wet, but the damp no longer creeps into my bones. I hate being hot and dread summer’s swelter. Maybe all seasons bring on feeling of love and hate? Either way, I miss them when they’re gone. These days, I just hope we’ll have winter again.