Category Archives: Spring

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

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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.

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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.

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

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