Category Archives: Plants

Just Keep the Bear


The Burke Museum’s Environmental Writing Program is coming up soon! See details at end of post.

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.


Seeds in Seams

With gray Antarctic seas rocking our ship, I hunkered down with a dental pick and got to work on the Velcro. The Akademik Ioffe was pulling up to our first landing on the glorious island of South Georgia, just north of the Antarctic Circle, and our expedition leaders had cranked up biosecurity measures.

2013-1-2_0059-South Georgia profile-©Trileigh Tucker

Approaching South Georgia

South Georgia, for all the rocky strength of its mountains and the sweeping power of its massive glaciers, is fragile. Although restrictions on hunting of whales and fur seals have allowed those species to rebound—we regularly had to dodge grumpy fur seals draped across beaches, the most harrowing part of my Antarctic experience—the island’s ecosystem is now threatened by two subtler menaces: climate change and the introduction of invasive species.

On site, we couldn’t do much about climate change, and the island’s British government has, incredibly, just succeeded in vanquishing the land’s rodent problem. But we could help prevent the colonization of the South Georgia lowlands by non-native plant species.

Which is why I was sitting in the ship’s cold mudroom, surrounded by muck boots, life jackets, and an enormous, mysterious piston-like device supposedly used for sonar “investigations” in the ship’s past life as a Russian research vessel, picking almost-invisible seeds out of the worn seams of my bright red rain jacket. That’s what Velcro is designed for, after all: catching and holding tiny things. You’d be amazed how much plant material is hidden in the folds and pockets and other in-between places in our cuffs and zippers.

2018-1-7-3483-Velcro seeds-Trileigh Tucker

Seeds and vegetation in Velcro in sleeve cuff, paperclip for scale. Note not just the “big” seeds, but the tiny little specks. All of this had to be removed before landing on South Georgia.

Finally clean and seedless, our group loaded into Zodiacs and sped toward the shore. Like Shackleton, our first stop was at King Haakon Bay, where in 1916 he had landed a small crew in hopes of crossing the forbidding mountain range to find salvation on the other side of the island at Stromness. Unlike Shackleton, we were armed with cameras and binoculars, with the assurance of a plentiful meal and fresh-baked chocolate dessert at the end of the day. We set out to get to know this realm of remote beauty.

1_0014-King Haakon Bay, South Georgia-©Trileigh Tucker

King Haakon Bay, South Georgia

The dramatic sightings of South Georgia, of course, were the hundreds of thousands of penguins who filled the glacial valleys around the island.

King Penguin colony, St Andrews Bay-Trileigh Tucker

King Penguin colony St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

More modest but just as inspiring was a South Georgia Pipit.

2013-1-3_7096-South Georgia Pipit-©Trileigh Tucker

South Georgia Pipit. Larsen Harbour, South Georgia

This unassuming-looking little bird is part of the island’s success story, rescued from almost certain extinction by disciplined international efforts to remove its predators, rats, from the entire place. Global warming could still melt glaciers enough to provide increased rat habitat, with consequences for the little pipit, but for now, he and his community are doing fine. They can find healthy food in the form of native plants—with our help in de-seeding invasives from our Velcro.

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I’ve long been unexpectedly attracted to the seams in our places, the in-between nooks, the overlooked vacant lots.

Vacant_Lot_of_Osaka_Rinko_Line (Wikimedia Commons)

Vacant lot, Osaka Rinko Line. By 暇・投稿 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 I love walking through neighborhoods as I go on errands, noticing where the wild things live. When I lived in the urban core of Seattle’s Central Area, my walking route often took me past an overgrown lot that had somehow escaped development. It was a narrow slot between houses, a standard 3000-square-foot city lot—but it supported big trees and thickets of blackberry plants where hidden birds chittered. Trails wound through the brambles, paths worn by kids’ sneakers as they explored this urban micro-wild. I hoped that somehow it could be preserved to provide a much-needed island of nature, a green refuge in a gray block.


A temporary meadow in a vacant lot on Harvard Ave E in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo by Joe Mabel; caption provided by photographer. Used by CC BY-SA 2.0. File available here.

One day I saw a big white square glaring on freshly-installed posts: the inevitable Notice of Proposed Land Use Action. It didn’t take long for a graffito protest to appear: “Neighbors – how can we stop this?” Another responded: “Let’s meet,” with a proposed date. But a couple of months later, as I approached the block, I could see a bright gap in the sky where trees had provided cooling shadows. Construction had begun. I stopped to chat with one of the workers, who told me, “Yeah, a Microsoft guy bought it. Planning to build one of those mega-mansions, fill up the entire lot with a big fancy house. Kind of a shame. But that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it?”

Robert Michael Pyle writes in his marvelous essay Eden in a Vacant Lot, “…nothing is less empty to a curious, exploring child”—and I would add, to spunky wildlife trying to make its way in a challenging urban setting—”than a vacant lot, nothing less wasted than waste ground, nothing more richly simmered in promise than raw ground.” Seeds of a child’s love of nature, seeds of nature itself, are planted in these wild seams.

* * * * *

We’re now beginning to see that these urban seams may provide some of the seeds for wildlife recovery. A recent article in Yale 360, Habitat on the Edges: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World, outlines the ways in which undeveloped space in cities can act as refuges for species squeezed out of areas denser with people. Even areas as narrow as 25 yards wide can significantly help to increase biodiversity, notes author Richard Conniff. He describes a British effort in which conservation-commercial cooperation is generating new attention to the ragged land along rail lines as wildlife habitat: not just nature-by-accident, but purposeful enhancement of unexpected natural spaces. While Conniff acknowledges that much more habitat is needed for true species preservation, these neglected spaces offer small islands of hope.


Weeds and wilderness: The Haddington Branch. Caption from Wikimedia Commons: When the North British Railway decided to miss out Haddington, this did not go down well in the county town. A short branch line was built linking Haddington and Edinburgh via a junction at Longniddry. The railway was closed to passengers in 1949, but there is quite a strong campaign to reopen it. The seed rich embankment is a useful resource for the finches now that winter sown crops are becoming more popular here. (Link to file and attribution is here.)

Seeds in the seams are sources of wildness: sometimes a threat, sometimes a treasure. But unless we learn to pay attention—to consider the overlooked, the in-between, the generative gaps—we won’t be able to tell the difference.

2013-10-6_0016-Thistle seeds-©Trileigh Tucker

Thistle seeds

Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds. Continue reading

Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50’s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April. Continue reading