Category Archives: Seasons

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.

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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 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).

* * * * *

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!

american_white_pelican_creche_7462472830

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.

* * * * *

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

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

Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Continue reading

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough. Continue reading

Field Notes: Mid-spring on May Day

It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May!

Female American Robin with nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Female American Robin
with nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

This time of year, the park is alive with song, sun, and scavenging for just the right nesting setup. It’s often a team effort; as the robin above collected dry grass, her mate was on a nearby branch, seeeep-ing softly.

Male American Robin Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Male American Robin
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Robins’ approach to nest construction is within the broad category of assembling: taking biological or non-biological materials and putting them together in various ways to form a sturdy nest. More specifically, robins use an interlocking technique, piling sticks together, then weaving grass to make a soft bed for their eggs and later young.

But the real expert weavers in our woods are the Bushtits, Continue reading

Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. Continue reading