Category Archives: Animals

Vernal Voices

I’m delighted to note that my new essay about the meaning of music, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, has just been published in About Place Journal. Click here to read.

Fresh green of spring in West Seattle.

Soft green mornings on my deck are filled with new music these days. The calls of our regulars—towhees, juncoes, robins, jays, and crows—have been joined by more lyrical tones of recent arrivals. The chattery trill of a Wilson’s Warbler first announced spring’s arrival in our yard, his clear tones piercing the thick woods of the wetland.

Wilson’s Warbler

Soon his song was joined by the quiet, clear whistles of a reclusive Pacific-slope Flycatcher, tiny of body but proud of sound.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Nearby, Orange-crowned Warblers added their arched tremolo to the choir.

Orange-crowned Warbler with spider prey

Most recently, a little trio of Black-headed Grosbeaks joined the chorus. At first shy and leery, they’d disappear from my feeder as soon as I moved inside the house. But now they’ve grown accustomed to my face as I sit quietly here on the deck, and all three, two males and a female, happily gorge themselves on sunflower seeds. When they retreat to the young cedars at the edge of the deck or into the old pear tree in the yard, they warble their lovely whistling melody, a cascading waterfall of pure tones.

Black-headed Grosbeaks, male (upper) and female (lower) in cedar beside deck

* * * * *

In The Moth Snowstorm, his lovely celebration of nature’s beauty, Michael McCarthy writes passionately of his joy upon examining online GPS data from tagged cuckoos in Africa one February, realizing that their northward migration in the Congo meant that from 4000 miles away, he could see spring coming.

Here in Seattle, the arrival of spring migrants is our clue, presaging an end to our long months of what locals call mizzle, the moist grayness that’s not quite mist, not quite rain.

Incessant April mizzle

Our winter starts in November and December with stiff south winds that bring delicious big winds and heavy rains, a welcome intensity that brings our perfect summers to a dramatic close: the snuggle season where we cozy up on the couch by the fire, watching the Doug firs and the cedars sway in their autumn dance in the early dark.

Winter view from our kitchen window: Douglas Firs in the unending rain

 

But by March…April…May, we’re ready for real sunlight, not just the lightening behind the clouds as the days grow longer. This year’s been a good one, with many more clear days than we’re used to. Usually, though, the music of the migrants means we’ve made it through yet another long gray doze, and we can allow ourselves to hope for light and new energy.

My partner Rob and I are as much audio folks as visual. He’s a composer and conductor, we’re both singers, we both play in our wonderful community orchestra. Spring’s visuals—fresh green woodlands, the delicate tips of the new leaves, the brightening sky—are all important to our relief at the dawn of the season of light. But without the chatter and trills and warbles, our joy in spring would be muffled, hushed; we’d be missing half of our vernal souls.

What would it mean for us if the birds’ songs were silenced, hushed by lack of food or safe places to hide or unfamiliar predators? Over fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring warned of the loss of birds to chemical poisoning. We’ve managed to make real progress in diminishing that threat to the vernal voices. Yet other challenges have muted their music.

And what might song’s loss mean for the birds themselves? I imagine a little songbird, perhaps a Western Tanager, newly arrived in his spring home after an exhausting migration, happily full with seed from my feeder or native plants, excitedly starting his first song for a new love.

Western Tanager male, singing. Who’s there to listen to his song?

But where is she? Where are his fellow singers? What happens to his music? What might it mean for him, for his fellow birds, and for us when song’s silenced? And what can we do to help preserve those precious chatters and warbles and trills for our shared future?

In my new essay, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, published this month in About Place Journal, I explore some of these questions in the context of New Zealand’s songbirds and their story. I hope you’ll take a look.

And while you’re reading, perhaps you can find a quiet place in the sun to enjoy love’s lullabies ringing through the soft spring air.

Singing Bellbird, Tiritiri Matangi, New Zealand

 

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Just Keep the Bear

 

When writing in the field, keep a lookout for bears. (Photo link here; Creative Commons license CC0, public domain.)

John McPhee won the undying allegiance of many of my generation of geologists by getting away with writing 720 riveting pages about geology and publishing them over twelve years as a series in the New Yorker. Farrar, Straus and Giroux later published the essays in book form as Annals of the Former World, for which McPhee was awarded a Pulitzer.

Although I’ve never met McPhee in person, during my years as a researcher I have met geologists who know him. Kathy Cashman, who now holds an endowed chair at the university of Bristol, taught for a while at Princeton, where McPhee has worked for more than four decades. Kathy told me that every year, McPhee gave a talk to the Princeton geology department. Then she chuckled.

During his most recent such talk, she said, he had read to the audience a list of his favorite geology terms; perhaps subnivean, sussultatory, hyaloclastite, or feldspathic litharenite (a type of sandstone whose name has a delightful anapestic rhythm). Apparently he didn’t include my own favorites, quaquaversal vergence (referring to the orientation of rock layers that come together toward a center) and palinspastic (a type of geologic map showing past rock configurations). Cashman said you could tell the audience scientists’ specialties by which words didn’t trigger laughter: the terms that were just everyday vocabulary to them but hilarious to everyone else.

Could this be quaquaversal vergence? Dinosaur National Monument, National Park Service photo, public domain.

For all of his verbal virtuosity, McPhee confesses that he gets stuck—and not only that, his writer daughters do as well. In his recent craft book, Draft No. 4 (based on his New Yorker article of the same name), he says that when his older daughter Jenny was a fresh college graduate, she called him one evening, miserable because she could simply not generate any words. “Who am I kidding?” Jenny asked about her desire to be a writer. Her younger sister Martha, like Jenny a well-published novelist, phones McPhee, he writes, “nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible.” And of course his writing students arrive regularly with “howling cries” about how they cannot possibly produce another word.

Here’s what McPhee tells them, as if writing to a student named Joel:

Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do?

Curious polar bear at truck window. Photo by Steven Kazlowski via Burke Museum website.

You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

Kodiak Brown Bear at Dog Salmon Creek. Photo by David Menke, US Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain. Link here.

I’ve been working for what feels like forever on an essay about a topic I’m passionate about. For long months, I felt completely stuck. Not being able to write about something I loved so much was incredibly frustrating, and I began to doubt myself as a writer.

I wondered how long “forever” actually was, so I checked; the first related file is dated one year ago yesterday. But the piece is based on a blog post I wrote back in 2013, so its seed has been lying dormant for years, waiting for its soil to be rendered fertile by some mysterious confluence of light and soft Seattle drizzle and an earthworm taking a particular path through earthy granules of rocks long disaggregated.

But I do remember how the sprouted seed finally poked through the ground one day. I had gotten so utterly tired of looking at the same old words in the same old draft, twiddling around unproductively rearranging them in hopes of generating some new energy that could drive the green fuse finally upward again.

Sprouting seed. Public domain, license CC0 1.0 Universal. Link here.

Then an idea fluttered gently onto my shoulder. I simply started a new file for the new material, which I called “Ending.” I should have named it “Bear.” No old leaden sentences weighing me down, no being dragged backward into stale editing. The blank page invited new words that turned into new ideas, and I worked happily, finishing the piece in six weeks.

McPhee’s book is called “Draft No. 4” for a good reason; Draft No. 1’s whole purpose is just to get words on the page, not to be “good.” (Anne Lamott memorably refers to the requisite “shi–y first draft.”) McPhee writes, “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people…. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4.”

I realize in retrospect that part of my problem was being careful. I wanted to write a really good first draft (of course). But my freedom came when I released myself from that unreachable standard.

My father has always loved wordplay, and when as kids my brothers and I got ready to run around outside, he’d caution us not to “be careful,” but to keep bearful. And now I realize just how excellent his advice truly was.

I’ve submitted the new essay to several journals, so its fate is now in the hands of good editors who will guide its next incarnations. And it may come back home for replanting. But now I can turn my attention to seeing what kind of bear wants to be born next.

Coastal Brown Bear Mother and Cubs. License: CC0 Public Domain. Link here.

* * * * *

Want to dig into nature writing in your own soil? The Burke Museum in Seattle is offering a one-day environmental writing program called “Inspire, Observe, Inhabit” on April 7, 2018. Not only will you get classroom instruction, but you’ll get to go into the field, the true home of nature writing. Instructors are Lynn Brunelle, Claudia Castro Luna, and Jonathan White, who’ve written books, essays, and poetry about nature in both urban and wilderness contexts. More details are available on the Burke’s website.

And while you’re there, you might ask them how to keep bearful.

Grizzly Bear. By Mattyman17 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Storylines in Sepia

After years of planning, I was finally heading for the Galápagos: my long-awaited retirement gift to myself. I had bid a teary farewell to my last-ever group of natural-history students. I had enjoyed the closing parties: the celebration for all my university’s retirees, the reception for the new faculty emerti, the departmental gathering just for me. I had packed. I had given my last final exam, turned in my final final grades that same day.

Forty-eight hours later, Rob and I were, at long last, on the plane to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We spent a couple of days recovering from jet lag by basking in the soft tropical air by the wide brown Rio Guayas, watching mats of vegetation float by on their journey toward the Pacific, fifty miles away.

Vegetation mat rafting toward Pacific on Rio Guayas, Guayaquil, Ecuador

Recuperated and restored, we finally departed for the islands themselves. I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of wandering through a tropical paradise filled with exotic birds, which had been so critically important to my hero Darwin.

But I’d been so busy bringing closure to a thirty-year career that I hadn’t wedged in a lot of time for trip research. So when our planeful of fellow voyagers started its descent into Baltra, I’m embarrassed to admit I was startled by the bare brown landscape below me. Where was all that lush jungly green we’d admired around Guayaquil?

Isla Baltra, Galápagos. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA, shared on Wikimedia Commons.

Although the Galápagos Islands are on the equator, which is generally pretty rainy around the globe, it turns out that they’re desert islands. Three cold ocean currents converge there, chilling the air enough to discourage the cheerful abundant plant growth of coastal Ecuador. And the islands, created just a few million years ago by a volcanic hot spot, are so removed from the mainland that it’s hard for plants and animals to get there to colonize and soften their rocky faces. (Some of those floating mats we’d seen on the Guayas may have brought the first seeds.)

At Baltra we boarded the friendly Samba, our floating home for our fortnight in the Galápagos.

The Samba, anchored at South Plaza Island, Galápagos

Lava was the language of landscape on each island we visited. Its dialect might be pahoehoe (smooth) or a’a (craggy), but in each place, fractures in the fresh-made land told stories of its birth from water, birth in fire.

Lavascape, Vicente Roca, Isabela, Galápagos

Lava landscape at Punta Moreno, Isabela, Galápagos. Volcan Alcedo in background, showing classic shield shape of basaltic volcanoes

Viewed from a higher perspective, these fractures tell the deeper stories of the island’s sepia faces. The curved concentric cracks around Darwin Bay at the island of Genovesa were formed when the underlying magma pool drained and the rocks above it collapsed.

Concentric fractures around Darwin Bay show where volcanic caldera collapsed (Genovesa, Galápagos)

To those who can read its wrinkled language, this lava landscape tells its life story: tales of explosion and collapse, of inexorable erosion and stressful seas.

* * * * *

We tend to think of beauty in terms of smooth curves and vibrant colors. Look what shows up when I do an image search on “beauty in nature”:

Results of “Beauty in nature” image search. (I had previously deleted cookies to avoid influence by past searches.)

The resulting images are bright, oversaturated, mostly with a soft feel. So the face of the Galápagos’ harsh landscape, with its craggy wrinkles and sepia palette, might seem unlovely; hard to love. But such fractured faces have their own beauty.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise. Urbina Bay, Isabela. Giant tortoises can live over 200 years.

Giant Tortoise. Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

Marine Iguana. Punte Espinoza, Fernandina, Galápagos

Climbing such challenging landscapes brings its own rewards as well as new vistas:

View from peak of Bartolomé Island, Galápagos

Lava Lizard on Marine Iguana. Punta Espinoza, Fernandina

Wrinkles bring character and depth to noble coppery visages:

Brown Pelican. Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

* * * * *

Somewhere in my family’s photo collection is a bunch of old black-and-white photos of my older relatives. Among the great-aunts and second cousins once removed, there are jagged holes. These are where my grandmother Mimi cut her face out of the photos. She was recognized as a beauty in her youth—

My grandmother with my infant mother, about 1925. Photo from Susan Adger.

—and I’m guessing that she couldn’t stand to see her face with the wrinkles etched by hard times and good: the storylines of her life.

Searching recently through the vast photo collection in boxes in my father’s attic, I could only find a couple of images of my grandmother that had escaped the sharp edges of her scissors—including this one from my mother’s wedding day.

My grandmother with my mother on her wedding day, 1954

Over her decades, my mother’s smooth face grew similarly storied, and even more beautiful than in her youth.

My mother in her late 50’s

And now it’s my turn to work toward the peace my grandmother could never achieve regarding wrinkles.

Trileigh, photo by Benjamin Drummond, taken as part of the Natural Histories Project (http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/)

Like the Galápagos Islands’, like my mother’s and her mother’s, my own wrinkles are the storylines of my life, rendered in sepia. All of the women in my family, as all women and men everywhere, are born from water, formed of fire, sculpted by exuberance and by wear.

Bright colors and smooth surfaces aren’t the only shapes beauty takes in landscapes, reptiles, pelicans or people. Those that catch my eye and touch my heart are the etched, lined, fractured faces—the ones with the wisdom of wrinkles.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Santa Cruz, Galápagos

The Healing Rain

Rain, finally

After a record-breakingly dry, hot summer, the rain has finally blessed us with the sweet scent of moist soil. Desiccated trees and shrubs, having finally enjoyed a long-awaited drink, are releasing oxygen-laden sighs of relief. You can almost hear their joy as they perk up their leaves one last time before settling down for winter’s quiet herbal introversion.

Raindrop on salmonberry leaf

Rain-drenched cedar branch

Our bird life is changing too. This summer brought to the Salish Sea an extraordinary number of Caspian Terns, whose daily foraging route seemed to take them directly over our house while they filled the air with their raucous conversations.

Caspian Tern checking me out (Lowman Beach, West Seattle)

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of one of the last terns soaring high overhead, perhaps giving his summer home one last look before he heads south to Mexico for the winter.

One of the last Caspian Terns of summer

I’ll miss the terns’ elegant soaring grace. But while the terns seek winter refuge in the Baja California area, others birds are arriving to seek winter refuge here, bringing their own voices and flashes of beauty to the turning palette of autumn.

Male partner of first Varied Thrush pair of the season

Some, like this Varied Thrush, will be with us all winter, sweetening the days’ ever-earlier dusks with their mysterious two-toned calls.

Others are just breezing through, like the warblers I encountered yesterday at one of my city’s large parks by the lake. My dear friend Nancy and I walked in spitting rain along marshes and swamps, catching quick flitting movements through willows and oceanspray. With their quick movements and leafy colors, the warblers were almost impossible to photograph, but I managed by sheer luck, a large-capacity photo card, and a bit of stubborn persistence to get a couple in focus.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with spider prey (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

The warblers are en route from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. Bug-rich waystations like these wetlands are crucial to their survival, providing  essential protein, fruit, seeds, and shelter. It’s only because of intensive preservation and restoration efforts that these refuges still exist; not too many years ago, this land served as a naval air station. Collaboration among government, private companies, and nonprofits is transforming much of the military facility into a vibrant wildlife habitat and sanctuary.

We also discovered small companionable flocks of American Goldfinches making their way through the trees. This one made me chuckle with his decorated beak. I can just hear him thinking “What’re you lookin’ at?”

American Goldfinch, probably a juvenile (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Just a few days ago, I’d had a similar flock at my feeder. A juvenile (on the left) seemed to be successfully begging from its parent—but perhaps the middle goldfinch was simply scolding her companion, since by now the young birds should be pretty self-sufficient.

American Goldfinches

Here at the end of September, young goldfinches gather in flocks of increasing size, chattering as they explore in search of the season’s abundant food. Goldfinches will be with us all year, though their numbers will gradually drop as autumn progresses and many disperse to new territories.

Season of abundance, season of change; summer’s treasures disappear and new joys arrive, some for a brief shining moment and some for a lifetime. Now is the time of transition.

This year’s September has been hard. Some loved ones have left us forever. Others’ light has flickered briefly but will return bright and strong. Some hover on the edge of darkness, and only time will unfold the rest of their story.

But as summer turns to autumn, with time’s horizon inexorably lowering toward winter, the darkening season brings the comfort of quiet. We light the candles for wisdom as we embrace both loss and love; we welcome those who bring their harvest gifts of color and their notes of hope: rain on the roof, a two-toned voice in the gathering dusk.

Varied Thrush

 

The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

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Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

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As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

The Herald Pelican—Hark!

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

As I climbed up the steep cobbled path to the ancient Sicilian church, resting on its rock by the sea, I didn’t expect to encounter a haloed pelican inside. But there she was, a glowing mosaic at the front of the altar: wings slightly spread, neck arched gracefully over three young who were begging with open beaks. Her halo and her backdrop shone with tiny gold squares.

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Looking more closely at her breast, I could see chips of red among the delicate aqua and white glass squares. What was she doing here, shining like a beacon in this baroque-looking 16th-century Catholic church replete with life-sized crucifixes and saints?

The images here in Chiesa di San Giuseppe struck me as unusually kind ones. A life-sized statue of Joseph with his lily-topped staff, holding 6-year-old Jesus by the hand as he listens affectionately to the boy’s stories. Mary in an earthen grotto, beaming as she received the news of the gift of life within her. Jesus leaning with concern over Lazarus, who is dying on a bed with loved ones around him.

So a pelican feeding its young seemed in tune with the loving images in the rest of the church. And Lipari has long been a fishermen’s town, probably for all of its 7000 years, so its people would have admired the bird’s exquisite fishing skills. Still, I was surprised to see a bird so prominently displayed: her gold setting shone like a beacon in the church’s dim light. Why was she here?

The “Pious Pelican,” it turns out, is one of the major avian symbols in Christianity. Another bird, the dove, is much more familiar to me as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But the pelican has widely been used as a metaphor for Christ since about the second century AD.

Woodcut of a pelican in her piety

Pelican in her Piety. Woodcut by Cecco d’Ascoli (1269–1327). Click here for further info/permissions.

In this woodcut and the beautiful mosaic in Lipari, the pelican is piercing her own breast to generate drops of blood that will provide sustenance for her hungry children—a clear allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas referred to the bird’s generosity back in the 13th century:

Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine
Cuius una stille salvum facere
Totum mundum qui ab omni scelere.

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God,
Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood,
But a single drop of which doth save and free
All the universe from its iniquity.

(Translation: Edward Caswall).

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The Great White Pelican pictured below is  the species that likely would have been familiar to Sicilian churchgoers. You can see why early observers, without the benefit of contemporary optics, might think that pelicans pierce their own breasts:

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

And looking closely at the beak tip of this Great White Pelican, you could imagine it had been dipped in blood:

Great White Pelican - note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican – note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Finally, when a pelican feeds his young, he may flatten his beak against his chest to promote the regurgitation process—looking like he was poking his breast for blood.

Whatever the source of the symbol, it’s clear that pelican parents sacrifice themselves for their young. They share nest-tending duties and spend lots of energy catching food for their chicks. They literally open themselves up to nurture their babies: as the young grow bigger, they’re able to reach far back into their parent’s beak to grab the goodies. Sometimes the babies are so persistent that hints that dinnertime’s over don’t work—meaning the pelican has to shake her head hard to dislodge the hungry beggar from her throat, literally knocking it off its feet. Parents put up with a lot. But it’s worth it.

* * * * *

A few winters ago, I had pushed myself to get out for a walk in my park even though the weather was dreary and soggy. I was coming to the end of my loop, and as I shivered in the dusk’s chilly air, I thought how good it was going to feel to come into my warm hobbity home just a few minutes’ walk away.  I stood overlooking Puget Sound for a moment before turning into my street, when puffing up the steep trail from the beach came a ridiculously fit-looking runner. Seeing my binoculars, he asked me if I’d seen any interesting birds.

“Just the usual,” I said. “Towhees, juncoes, bushtits—guess they’re able to stay warm under those feathers.”

“Well, I saw a pelican just now as I was running along the beach.”

No way, I thought, we don’t get pelicans here. Like me when I was just starting birding, novice birders can sometimes think they’re seeing rarities when really it’s just a normal bird, perhaps in unusual light, or juvenile, or molting. Perhaps this was a gull fluffing its feathers, looking large in the dim light.

When I asked politely if he were sure of what he’d seen, he laughed and reassured me that it was definitely a pelican. I sighed. On the off chance that he was right, I was going to have to haul myself and my gear back down to the beach just in case, then trudge back up again when there was no pelican. I thanked him for the tip and headed down the wet trail.

At the beach, the light was fading fast. Bracing myself against the stiff wind, I scanned with my binoculars. And to my amazement, there it was: an American White Pelican, far outside its regular range, flying up and down along the beach, occasionally plunging into the cold water for fish. Would he still be here in the morning, when I could hope for good photos?

Yes! In the brighter light, and yet stiffer wind, the pelican shone like a beacon against the rocking, whitecapped water.

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American White Pelican, West Seattle

Looking more closely, I could see the red tip on her beak.

American White Pelican, West Seattle

American White Pelican, West Seattle

I alerted the birding community, and soon I was getting texts asking where the pelican was now, and now. The birding website eBird shows that an American White Pelican (presumably this one) was sighted occasionally around Puget Sound for the remainder of that month, but then not again—until this year. Suddenly we’re getting lots of white pelicans all over Puget Sound.

Why? Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Katie Campbell reports that these birds may be climate refugees. Their usual freshwater nesting sites in eastern Oregon and Washington are experiencing drought, shrinking the inland lakes they depend on for security from predators. The white pelicans are failing in their efforts to be the good parents that the ancient Christian symbols show they’ve always been. And they’re apparently hoping that perhaps the Puget Sound area, even with all of its human disturbances, may provide a manger when there’s no room back at the climate-changed inn.

Like a visiting white-winged angel, the rare pelican brought a message from beyond our local world. She and her fellow refugees need our help. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh: but perhaps bold, frank incentives to slow climate change—and a bit of mirth to keep our own spirits buoyant and resilient.

At this darkest time of year, the pious pelican remains a beacon in the dim light. The hope of Christmas will soon face a challenging New Year. Can we find it in ourselves to pierce our breasts for our family, shedding five drops of our own blood—five personal practices to help reduce climate change this coming year? Can we make this small sacrifice to feed not only our own children, but those of the herald pelican and all her fellow birds?

Let us hope so. These white-winged wonders are worth it.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo for attribution/permissions.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for attribution/permissions.

P.S. – Good news! In comments below, my friend Véronique Robigou, naturalist and artist extraordinare, points out a Seattle Times article by Annette Cary, which came out just as I was finishing up this post. Cary reports that on Badger Island in Washington’s Columbia River, our state’s only American White Pelican nesting area, the pelicans seem to be rebounding. So we can start 2017 with a cheer of good hope for our avian angels!

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Creche of young American White Pelicans. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for link and permissions.

 

Is Play for the Birds? A Lughnasa Reflection

Today marks summer’s midpoint, Lughnasa, the magic moment halfway between the solstice and equinox that open and close the bright time of year.

Summer, the season of play. Lincoln Park’s saltwater swimming pool is open, and the bluff above rings with the exultant sounds of “Marco!” “Polo!” and shrieks and splashes of kids emerging from the spiral slide into the deep end. Kids built forts—

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

—frisbees soar across park lawns, volleyball games sprout on Alki Beach. We play by moving ourselves around in fun ways, by moving things around in playing catch or to build interesting structures, and by horsing around with each other.

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The forest’s birds play too. Continue reading

Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Continue reading

Eyes on the Sparrow

A heartbreaking image of a swallow with seared wings is what initially scared me away from Rebecca Solnit’s important recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. But Rob insisted rightly that I needed to read it, so I finally prepared my all-too-sensitive eyes and mind to get through painful descriptions of bird tragedies.

Solnit argues forcefully that to deal successfully with our contemporary climate crisis, we need to reinvent not only how we extract energy (and, I would add, our desire for it), but how we tell stories about our time. She is right.

We do need to tell stories, Continue reading