Tag Archives: lincoln park

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

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

Gifts of Fogmaggedon

Carl Sandburg’s fog may come on little cat feet, but mine comes on the muffled blast of the ferry foghorn, telling me even before I open my eyes in the morning that our annual autumn mist has arrived. Here in Honnalee, the fog moved in 2-1/2 weeks ago: mysterious, atmospheric, giving presence to still air whose existence we usually no more notice than fish notice their placid water. Sunbeams filtering through foggy autumn forests inexorably pull my camera, with me attached, into the forest, and those first couple of days I danced around the park taking photo after photo of the moody woods and enchanting dewdrops.

Fog in Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Fog in Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Dewdrop on cedar needles

Dewdrop on cedar needles

A few days later, the fog still swirling through the trees, I left to spend a week back home in Virginia at my high-school reunion, celebrating with dear friends from way back, then showing my father my old haunts in my college town. (Well, most of the haunts; some were better left back in the past along with my profoundly immature 20-something self.) The remnants of Tropical Storm Karen literally dampened both occasions, dumping her remnant Gulf Stream moisture on us all day, every day. But the joy of being with old friends and my beloved dad lit the days, and one afternoon’s sunbreak gave me a few bird-photography opportunities.

Northern Mockingbird Williamsburg, VA

Northern Mockingbird
Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal
Williamsburg, VA

Do East Coasters realize how amazing cardinals are?

Anyway, as my evening flight took off from Dulles at the end, I was looking forward to returning to Seattle’s glorious blue-sky autumn days, the woods aglow with our brilliant yellow Bigleaf Maples and the occasional stunning red Vine Maple.

I woke up late the morning after, having mercifully been able to sleep off jet lag—to the sound of the ferry foghorn. Still? After a week and a half? No sun for twelve straight days, no sense of the changing light that tells time’s passing, just monotonous gray skies all day, not even a good storm to make it interesting. It would be 10 am, then suddenly 4:30 in the afternoon, time for a nap.

Lincoln Park beach in fog

Lincoln Park beach in fog

After yet an additional three days of this, even our eternally enthusiastic resident weather guru, Cliff Mass of the University of Washington, got grumpy. “Fogmaggedon!” he called our record-setting string of foggy fall days; a “boa constrictor” of an inversion. (As always, he has cool photos and diagrams – check them out.)

Cliff hightailed it to Eastern Washington to get a sun injection to his psyche, but I just stayed in place, not even venturing into the forest for a couple of days—which tells you something’s way off. I just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Then this afternoon, Rob called me a few minutes after he left for orchestra rehearsal. He’d reached the top of the hill near our house—and it was glorious up there, sunny and warm. The boa-constrictor inversion meant that at our house, 200′ above sea level and near Puget Sound, the air was cool enough to keep moisture in vapor form—but a mile away and 300′ higher, the sun had warmed the air enough to vaporize those foggy droplets. He could see all the way to the mountains.

Given this news, I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I got to the edge of the bluff just as the sun broke through near the horizon.

Color! Glowing yellow light through the trees! Bright orange leaves lining the soft red-brown path!

Path to beach, Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Path to beach, Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing color during the days of monochromatic mist. I raced down to the beach, suddenly full of energy, to immerse myself in the palette of post-fog sunset.

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach West Seattle, WA

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach
West Seattle, WA

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into animal vision and the science behind it. Although we humans have three kinds of color-perceiving cells called “cones” in our eyes, many other mammals just have two kinds of cones, so the world looks very different to them. For instance, here’s how a dog might perceive the Lincoln Park path and the Northern Cardinal:

Simulation of dog's view of path and cardinal

Simulation of dog’s view of path and cardinal

All this research has been fascinating—bird vision, for instance, is astounding—and I’ll tell you more about it in future posts. But it took Fogmaggedon to get me out of my head and back into my body, for my spirit to wake up once again to how utterly remarkable it is, living in a world shimmering with hue and tone and vibrancy and saturation beyond the imagining of most other mammals.

If it doesn’t last too long, the quieting blanket of fog can be a blessing, providing an introverted interlude necessary for recharging the soul, bringing its own magical depth to the world. But too-persistent fog—from atmospheric inversion, midlife crisis, depression, self-centeredness, busyness—keeps our spirit from joyous aliveness to the multicolored world. When the time comes for the mist to dissipate, we welcome the brilliant earth back, alive again, rebaptized.

Autumn grove Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Autumn grove
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

 

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A Scientist is Surprised By a Tool Long Known to Artists

Maybe it’s my training as a scientist, with its requirements for precision and accuracy, but it’s always felt like my most natural fine-art form is photorealistic drawing:

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

Portrait of Agnes Adámy

I drew all through childhood (didn’t we all, in those pre-electronic days!), and in my teen years found the pure joy of doing portraits. The human face—expressive, alluring, textured, with character in curves, stories in wrinkles, soul in eyes—

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

Portrait of Arthur Wheeler

—it’s unendingly interesting, no matter whose it is. It is a deeply sensuous pleasure to shape the curves of someone’s face or body with your hand, sketching in shading to bring out their infinite depth and character, a caress in carbon.

I didn’t really start experimenting with watercolors until I was an adult. Water in all its forms takes you with it on its fluid journeys, washes you out of your mold, pours itself into your rigid ideas and softens them, blurs and diffuses your boundaries. Watercolors have a life of their own, and I was drawn to them because I couldn’t control them as I could my pencils. And since you pretty much can’t erase with watercolors, being in relationship with them requires you to commit to their serendipity, to be open to new directions you hadn’t anticipated. I knew I needed that.

The watercolors I’ve been happiest with were those where I stopped in time rather than overworking them, but these have been few and far between:

Galapagos Tortoise (I think)

Galapagos Tortoise

Generally I just get frustrated because I keep trying to get it just right, with all the lines in the perfect place just like they are in reality, and all the colors exactly right with the precisely correct shape. I either overwork the piece until it seems ruined (remember, no erasing), or give up in frustration over the details before it feels finished. That’s what happened with this sketch, which I began while sitting on a bench in a Lincoln Park clearing that I’ve nicknamed “Dragonfly Field.”

"Dragonfly Field," Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

“Dragonfly Field,” Lincoln Park, West Seattle (unfinished)

So many branches, so many leaves! It was just too hard.

Trying to get a grasp of this literally-ungraspable art medium, I took a watercolor course recently with marvelous artist and teacher Ruthie V, who teaches at South Seattle Community College. She really gets watercolor.

“Look, aim at just the big patches of color. Don’t worry about all the little bits,” Ruthie suggested as I struggled to portray every single leaf in view in the SSCC Arboretum. But I just couldn’t un-see the details, and once I noticed them I couldn’t not try to get them right.

* * * * *

Getting the details right is a big part of the scientist’s job description—and not only that, but a thrill as well. A continuing-education biology instructor who started out as a geologist once told me with great pride, “There’s not much about ultramafics[1] that I don’t know.” As a grad student, I loved knowing tons of details about crystals, their architecture, how the atoms fit together and influenced each other, how a crystal sings and dances.

Of course, that’s not all you need to be a good scientist. You also have to be able to find patterns, preferably ones that are both interesting and significant. As with art, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. I remember when I finally got my first big data set from my grad-school research and was faced with All Those Numbers: yikes! Now what?

I managed to find some interesting-enough patterns in those data. But how to do that in art? Especially when I’m not in my 20’s or 30’s anymore, but my 50’s —late 50’s at that—when my brain doesn’t function at quite the speed (that I seem to remember…) it did back in school?

* * * * *

I’ve had poor vision since fourth grade. In fact, I remember the exact day when the big blue numbers on Miss Stein’s classroom calendar looked different. She was teaching some lesson, finished up, and asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand and said, “Why does the calendar look fuzzy?” (She annoyedly clarified that she had meant questions about the lesson she’d just given. Oh. Sorry.)

I used to love lying under the Christmas tree and taking off my glasses, enjoying the wonderful soft haloes of colored light above me, our tree transformed into an arboreal fairyland by the hovering glowing light-balls. (I still do that now…don’t tell.) I think part of the joy I’ve always felt swimming might be partly because, wearing no glasses, I can’t see when I’m wet: a freedom from tracking what’s happening, freedom to trust to the sensation of wet and coolness on my body rather than the information from my eyes.

* * * * *

Right after I wake up every morning, I have a daily write-of-passage: three pages in my journal that take me from dreamland into reality, my treasured liminal time. And it was in that liminality yesterday, for no apparent reason, that I had a sudden insight into my art conundrum.

Because of my gift of poor vision, I can choose how well to see! What a wonderful tool in my artist box: to be able to simply take off my glasses and paint what my 20/450 vision sees: large fuzzy blots of color and hazy shapes. Take that, perfectionist tendencies!

This morning I went back to Dragonfly Field, sat on the same bench as before, took off my glasses, and iPad-painted what I saw.[2]

Dragonfly Field sans glasses (Used iPad app called Art Set)

Dragonfly Field sans glasses
(Used iPad app called Art Set)

It’s a scene, a whole scene, how about that? No tiny leaves to worry about, a few big shapes of shadows and shrubs and grass; can you make them out? The splotches of color seem to define a space, a place, in a way my thin lines couldn’t. It’s almost like having a whole new medium to explore.

Funny how at this point in life, occasionally the things you’ve been thinking all along are your weaknesses suddenly flip over and become resources. A tendency to move slowly, formerly known as laziness, starts to look like contemplativeness. Having no ability to deal with shopping malls (a sore disappointment to my mother) gets transformed from “hypersensitivity” to an affinity for the earth. Insecurity about having something valuable to say becomes a desire to listen more deeply. Bad vision can sometimes help you to see a little better.

Artists have long known to take off their glasses, and I’ve just discovered this tool. So maybe that’s another bounty of aging: delight at newly encountering the old wisdom of others. Here’s to many more such surprises.


[1] An igneous rock type sort of like basalt, but more so.

[2] (Unfortunately, not seeing well also meant that I inadvertently painted on a tiny little portion of my canvas, ending up with a teensy and highly pixelated image, but I can fix that next time. Live and learn.)

The Weavers’ Tale

KEEP BACK, the sign said.

2013-7-16_0032-Wasp nest warning sign

That inviting package was wrapped in bright yellow ribbons saying “CAUTION,” so of course I went right over to check it out. **

Wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

A construction of remarkable beauty hangs from the drooping branches of a Western Redcedar in our neighborhood park. The size and shape of a football, it was finely crafted by the social wasps who built this nursery to house and raise their young. They’re called Dolichovespula arenaria, or aerial yellow jackets. Thankfully, our park’s management made the decision to let their nest stay rather than removing it.

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Dolichovespula arenaria (Aerial yellow jacket) wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The outer sheath looks like a watercolor painting: fibers of different tones from a brown palette woven together into diffuse stripes. (Or perhaps like bacon, if you’re reading this in the morning before breakfast.) The meandering colors evoke a landscape of flowing rivers or rock strata warped into waves over eons.

Woven fibers of wasp nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Woven fibers of wasp nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nests are made, like so many homes here in the Northwest, by utilizing timber from our local forests. In the wasps’ case, unlike ours, the homebuilders don’t fell the trees; the workers harvest snags or chew wood that humans have already cut and put to use as sheds, fences or decks. In fact, if you’re sitting quietly in your backyard in spring or summer, you might hear a tiny gnawing that, with good eyes and an attentive mind, you can trace to a small yellow-and-black insect working at the nearby fence. (Click here for a video of a different kind of wasp chewing wood.)

Where do these colors come from, I wonder? Perhaps each brown or tan or buff stripe represents the type of wood gathered by one particular wasp at one particular place: your neighbor Mary’s beautifully weathered gray fence, or the dead dark-brown Douglas Fir that provided a home to last spring’s Pileated Woodpecker family. The foraging wasp has chosen a harvest site for her own reasons—maybe she thought its hue especially beautiful, or she found its taste exquisite. She flies back to the nest, chewing the fibers and mixing them with her saliva, then deposits the paste on the rim left by the last worker, creating a band whose color tells the story of her journey, her destination, her work.

Wasp at nest entrance. Note her vertical mandibles.

Dolichovespula arenaria wasp at nest entrance (note her vertical mandibles). Is she laying down a new band?
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Look closely at the photo below, and you can find tiny slivers of wood in the saliva paste, each color band a memoir, the multi-toned sheath a tale told in layers, as all good tales must be.

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Aerial yellow jacket nest closeup
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Within its protective cover, the nest holds the precious young, one larva in each cell. Here’s what the inside of this nest might look like:

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath. Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. "Evolution of nest architecture." The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Nest development for aerial yellow jackets. (a) Nest starts with twisted stem and initial cell. (b) Queen nest with beginning of layered envelope. (c) Mature nest with many cells, enclosed within sheath.
Figure (14.62) and information from Wenzel, John W. “Evolution of nest architecture.” In Ross and Matthews, The social biology of wasps (1991): 480-519.

Skilled caregivers go out and capture insects, then feed them to the growing young. After the larvae have extracted their own nutrition, the remnants then become concentrated food for the adults. Children feed their parents in diverse ways in many species, before they leave home to become part of new colonies.

A wasp nest in the forest: a finely bound book of family stories, quests and adventures, children raised and launched—all set in a particular landscape that is quite literally embedded in the woven text whose fragmented and rewoven pieces hold a community together. A good reason for an orange cone and some yellow CAUTION tape; we surely want to keep it safe in our natural library.

* * * * *

** Footnote: Please be very, very careful around wasp nests! If you disturb the nest, the wasps are likely to come out and spend their energy defending the nest instead of maintaining it and taking care of their young. They may also label you with a pheromone that, as you’re running away, will alert any other wasps along your path to come after you…not a good way to spend a sunny summer afternoon. For you or the wasps.

Long Journeys to Hidden Homes: International Migratory Bird Day, May 11

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one.

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He was right on time. Here in the Upper Left-Hand Corner, our tanagers start arriving in late April and really increase in numbers after early May. (That is, according to our local birders’ listserv, Tweeters. I hardly ever see them until a really good birder like Janeanne or Mark points them out. Sigh.)

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The Western Tanagers are presumably here in my neighborhood park to build their little cup nests on one of our abundant conifers and to snack on forest food. To do that, they fly all the way from Central America or Mexico, around 3000 miles.

Western Tanager Range Map
(From Fieldguide.mt.gov)

They’re not the only well-traveled spring arrivals in our woods. On April 28 I heard the FOY call of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and the warblers have been spreading through the trees for about the last ten days. (The two below visited today – check out the Lincoln Park Bird List for photos of several more warbler species.) While tanagers build their nests up pretty high in trees, warbler nests are soft weavings of soft moss and grass, hidden carefully near the ground.

Orange-crowned Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson's Warbler Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson’s Warbler
Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Of course, it’s not just the migratory birds who’re building nests this time of year. A pair of Northern Flickers have been diligently working on their nest hole—

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

—and if you’re quiet and attentive, you’ll notice lots of little birds preparing homes for themselves and their children.

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

"A robin feathering her nest Has very little time to rest, While gathering her bits of twine and twig..."

“A robin feathering her nest
Has very little time to rest,
While gathering her bits of twine and twig…”

Hutton's Vireo gathering nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Hutton’s Vireo gathering nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

If we just consider the tanagers and the six warbler species who spend summer in our park, that’s 21,000 miles traveled by the seven species—times, oh, say, 50 birds per species in our area—gets us to over one million miles traveled by little birds in order to build their nests in our neighborhoods.

That’s a million bird-miles through storms, wind, mountains, hunger, thirst, massive weather systems–as well as navigating around lost habitat and other human-generated challenges. Of course, then they have to go back south at the end of the summer, bringing us to two million miles of travel.

All that effort, and it just takes one dog running through the shrubbery, or one group of people chatting as they push through a trail-free area, to disrupt the delicate nesting process that’s the culmination of weeks of effort, the future of that little family.

May 11, 2013 is International Migratory Bird Day. Celebrate the wonder of warblers, the thrill of tanagers, by taking a quiet moment to imagine the forest as a network of fragile hidden homes: cherished cradles that need and deserve our protection.

Happy Bird-Day to you!

Blockwatch

Taking a break from working on a writing deadline, I loaded up my binoculars and camera and headed down my street toward the park. I didn’t make it farther than the end of the block.

Atop the light pole on the corner was a Northern Flicker, calling loudly to an unseen companion (who joined him later).

Northern Flicker with mate

Northern Flicker with mate

Then he made his way vertically down the pole, investigating various holes tiny and large.

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining hole

Northern Flicker examining second hole

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Northern Flicker exploring hole #3

Let’s look at that last photo a little more closely:

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Northern Flicker extends tongue into cavity

Woodpecker tongues are really amazing. The structure supporting them wraps all the way around their heads, in some cases looping around their eyes.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sloshtheory.com/Anatomy/files/collage_lb_image_page4_0_1.png

Woodpecker bone and tongue structure. Click on link for source.

This gives most woodpeckers lots of tongue with which to explore tree cavities—and that means they have to spend less energy on excavation. Then when they encounter delicious bugs, their elegant barbed tongue is sticky enough to grab the bug and bring it back to where the woodpecker can enjoy his meal.

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From "The Woodpeckers," by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

Tongue of Hairy Woodpecker. From “The Woodpeckers,” by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (1901)

But that’s not all we can learn by observing what’s happening on our block! Let’s go back to the flicker’s exploration of the second hole. Did you notice anyone else?

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

Black-capped Chickadees monitoring flicker

These two Black-capped Chickadees flew in together, at first scolding the flicker and then remaining silent as they watched him poke around in their prospective nest holes. They waited until he left, then went back in — maybe to assess what damage he might have done with that huge beak and strange-looking tongue?

Black-capped Chickadee checking out hole post-flicker

Black-capped Chickadee checks out possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores possible nest hole after visit by flicker

Black-capped Chickadee explores second possible nest hole after visit by flicker

I haven’t seen the chickadees at these holes for the past couple of days; maybe they’ve decided to search for nest cavities on a less popular tree trunk.

*   *   *

This afternoon, lured by irresistible sunshine during this extraordinarily wet April, I headed back out towards the forest. Nope.

I’d heard frantic robin cheeping, so I figured a hawk was somewhere nearby. Another drama in our little corner of the city? Yes – but with different players. As I walked out the door, I turned away from the forest, toward the robin calls…just in time to see a crow fly off with a lovely blue egg in its beak.

Hope and tragedy, all in a few short days on one short city block.

What’s happening on your street?

P.S. – There’s a sequel to this story! Check the next post, “Blockwatch Success,” to see what happened.

Male American Robin

Male American Robin

Time rewound, for a moment

After several cloudy, mizzly days, I woke up this morning to the stiff north breeze that carries the promise of blue skies all day long. Dazzling! I wasn’t the only one out luxuriating in it; almost as soon as I got to the path, an eagle soared overhead. Shortly thereafter, a gull circled repeatedly, apparently enjoying an invisible wave of cold Canadian air cresting over the bluff.

Gull soaring in north wind

Although there are still autumn colors in the woods, most of the leaves have undergone abscission and are lying quietly on the forest floor, beginning the slow journey into compost.

Autumn path near end of season

Always habitually scanning (consciously or not) for signs of birds, my attention was caught by a flicker of movement to my right, a flash of yellow soaring upward. A (very) late warbler? No.

It was like seeing time spin backward. A fallen Bigleaf Maple leaf had been retrieved by the wind and was spinning up the bluff, dancing upward in ecstasy through the mostly-bare branches, as if retracing its journey to its tree of origin.

I smiled as I watched it twirl through the tangled twigs, circle round a sturdy fat trunk, fly across my path. And then I laughed out loud when it actually managed to land upright on the thin branch of a young tree—it had made it back home!

Bigleaf Maple leaf, back in a tree for one brief shining moment

Did it feel, perhaps, that it had been granted a second chance, a new lease on life, a last chance before death to once again breathe in sweet carbon dioxide, feel the freshness of water flowing in its stem and the strength of sap surging out to its tree?

Maybe to fix a mistake or two: an occasional lack of generosity in sap supply, a desire to outshine its neighbor leaves with a particularly brilliant yellow?

Or possibly just to revisit the old home place, remember what it was like to be part of a tree, view again the vistas up and down, recall the soft vibration of a pair of life-mated crows grooming on your branch in spring.

Crows grooming on Bigleaf Maple, leaves in background

The leaf was only allowed to enjoy its time travel home for a brief moment (during which I was miraculously able to snap its portrait above) before the next gust returned it to the forest floor. But I wanted it to have just a little more time, so I picked it up and nestled it into a nearby trunk, a finger of bark holding it close, where it can imagine for a few more moments that it’s still part of a living tree.

Bigleaf Maple leaf held by a finger of Douglas Fir bark

We’re due for big storms this weekend, so the leaf will be back down in the duff soon enough. If you pass it while you’re walking through the park, please feel free to greet a time-traveler who was given one last chance.

What would you do with one last time-travel gift?

Unlocking Utopia

It’s nearing sunset as I walk along the bluff trail toward the eagle-nest tree. As I round the last curve, I’m not surprised to see the small group of eagle-watchers who in recent weeks have been gathering at this spot late in the afternoon, when the golden light lends a richness of color on the fir needles and gives a special glow to the eagles’ feathers. We hang out along the fence, chatting about eagles, hawks, hummingbirds, hikes, occasionally raising binoculars and cameras to get a closer look at one of the parent eagles on top of their favorite perch on a nearby bare-topped fir, or at their huge fledgling, perched on a thick limb below his nest.

Eaglet watching eaglet-watchers at sunset

The scene has been reminding me of something I haven’t quite been able to pin down until a few days ago, when I finally remembered one of my favorite childhood books.

For those of you “of a certain age,” do you remember back in grade school when a few times a year, you could order books from Scholastic Book Services? Everyone’s orders would come in boxes and the teacher would parcel out the stacks of thin paperbound books to us lucky kids whose parents had let us order them. What a wonderful feeling, running your hands over the smooth covers, finding out which books you had ordered so long ago! What a juicy sense of anticipation—all those stories to plunge into!

Once I had remembered that special book, long packed away in some box in my parents’ basement, perhaps still there or perhaps lost in the small flood along with many precious old photos, of course I had to order a copy. Not the later reprinted edition, but the very version I had owned so long ago, with the cover I remembered.

The Forgotten Door (published in 1965 by Alexander Key, heh) arrived a few days ago. I took two delicious days to read it through.

The story involves Jon, a boy who has fallen through a long-disused door from another planet: Earth-like, but where people are so empathic that they easily reach out to understand others’ thoughts and feelings, and are in communion with animals. Having lost his memory, Jon first makes contact and travels with a doe and her fawn and is surprised when he perceives their fear as they near a particular valley; what could such creatures possibly have to be afraid of? Jon senses, astounded, the angry presence of a human with a weapon in time to warn the doe, who escapes with just a slight gunshot wound.

Jon’s time on Earth with a special family grows perilous as his abilities threaten the ways of their—our—culture, which responds with increasing violence. The scene that emerges for him as his memory finally returns is of his village’s daily gathering with the animals at sunset, to watch together from a ledge above the valley as the stars emerge in the darkening sky.

I was probably ten years old when I read this story (whose ending I won’t reveal here; read the book!), but the image of people peacefully gathering with the animals at sunset apparently nestled into my subconscious and set up lifetime housekeeping.  I’m guessing that the book’s version of Paradise has stuck with me as well, helped form this yearning for human-nature harmony that drives my mornings in the forest and my afternoons writing in my study.

How can we hold onto these hopes, remember these founding images, in the face of such widespread contemporary human disregard for nature, of intentional cruelty that shatters your heart, of the extinction of experience (as Robert Pyle puts it)?

An important key to the forgotten door, I think, lies in recognizing pieces of Paradise when we encounter them; to stay awake and aware of a world with awe and beauty and love as well as awfulness. My evening eagle-watchers remind me of the way the world should be—and, miraculously, sometimes is.