Tag Archive: habitat restoration


crescentmoon

The first photographers who labored to put image to paper almost 200 years ago couldn’t have known that someday, a small camera within the budget of average Americans would be able to capture the crescent moon.  My little camera sees this New Year’s moon in more detail than the first photographers ever could. And  in another 200 years, we will probably live on the moon if we live at all.

golden_crescent_moon

Credit: Dcibillus, Wikimedia Commons, 2009

But using an electronic eye to see into the heavens doesn’t resonate like using imagination to daydream the moon and stars. Cultures around the world saw the sliver of waxing or waning moon and turned it into concept or goddesses or some symbol of the mysterious.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Using that electronic eye catches scenes quickly, gives a nice visual to tell a story with, lets us race by and get to the next part of our lives.  But slowing down, seeing that symbol hanging in the dark sky far above and imagining its meaning and power, stays more with us.

I spent the holidays puttering, cleaning, slowing down, simplifying not making resolutions to do more and better, but just stopping to think and to reach back to the things that make me happy.  The things that should inspire gratitude.

In a busy life, it’s easy to forget to be grateful. It’s been unusually cold here, and the cold stretches on. The ground is hard and the water tanks freeze nightly.  I carry water for half an hour every morning. It’s bone-chilling damp and frigid when I get off the train in Seattle. But electronics give me pause and perspective:  The jet stream that is chilling us with arctic flow is pressing a massive incoming pineapple express into northern California, which will experience major flooding, avalanches, and landslides.  That storm would have been barreling down on my area – if it hadn’t been so cold, that is. make_img

mtbaker

Mt. Baker, with a little steam rising to remind us it’s an active volcano.

And we’re not dry cold:  we’re having a phenomenal winter season, a good ski/snowshoe year, so there’s still time to get out to the mountains and enjoy and get back in shape for backpacking season.

 

 

larkeyMy remaining horse, and all the animals I’ve cared for here are also a reason for gratitude.  I bought this house, located in such a perilous place, for my horses.  Here I am now, down from four horses, two dogs, and two cats that came with the house.  I one horse left, and he’s ageing and looking sore on one leg, and we can’t figure out what it is.  I’m feeling the loss of my other horse, and this animal’s aching.

This stage can seem like the twilight of a flawed day that started with a brilliant, hopeful dawn.  You become worn being the angel of death ushering beloved animal companions one after the other  into eternal night. You wonder what would have been had you done something different.

Well, here’s the deal.  My dogs and horses forced me outside to get fresh air and exercise even when I didn’t want to go. They grounded me and gave me a badly needed sense of responsibility. They gave me reason to locate in a quiet sanctuary that protected me in some major life changes and difficult situations.

hawk3This sanctuary is where I learned to heal the land and make a home for wildlife.  Teaching other people what I learned over a decade of habitat restoration has made me a better communicator. Volunteering to give workshops lets me give something back to the world. My habitat project has helped my really see and understand wildlife. Animals have driven my art, my interests, my travel.  The drive to restore even more every year keeps me moving, digging the earth, creating hedgerows and gardens and wild, tangled refuges.

And my home is modest, but at least for now, I have a home.  My own home. Many, many people do not due to poverty, natural disaster, and war. Or they share dangerously cramped space with too many people.

whitehorseBy the end of holiday break, I could see my house as far more than an object and investment again. I slowed down, puttered around, rearranged my space, reconnected enough to see it as more than a snapshot.  Not  racing by, on a schedule to get things done, as a place of chores and responsibilities and somewhere to rest between work days.

I once again see home as a living place filled with stories and memories, souvenirs and mementos, many good times and some tough ones; the silent, non-judgemental keeper of my dreams and decisions.  My land is a driver for my best aspirations and successes. My horse is a welcome anchor, a creature who needs me as a familiar herd member, not a burden.

Sure, I wander around with my camera some, taking pictures of wildlife, the New Year’s Day sunrise and the crescent moon.  But I also stop, listen, imagine the moon and the hooting owls and trumpeting swans as symbols of something unearthly, daydream a novel of a mystical place where they are all gods- and well, you know.  Become human again.

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aprbuffalocampIt’s cold.  A thick layer of sparkly white frosting coats the tent like a muffin.  I’d say the temperature is somewhere in the 20’s.  It’s fall, so I expected this. I’m swaddled in synthetic puffy fabric and fleece, with rain jacket and pants to keep the slightest breeze from stealing heat. I brush most of the frost off the tent and then make coffee and read maps.

I’m at the Sun Prairie unit of the American Prairie Reserve, a privately funded island in an ocean of ranchland.  A place where people are working to put back on the land what we took away over a hundred years ago.

bisonskulls

Bison skulls awaiting processing for fertilizer. Unknown photograper, public domain, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

The bison, a keystone species and our new national mammal was almost exterminated forever by the early 1900’s.  Mass kills were followed by mass efforts to pick the prairies clean of bones for fertilizer.

Everything changed with the death of bison and arrival of people determined to completely alter the landscape.  Wolves and bears feasted on bison carcasses, then were themselves shot, trapped, and poisoned.  We eradicated prairie dogs, hawks, snakes, anything that got in the way of our cattle, sheep, and chickens. Where there was water for cultivation, native flora gave way to the plow.

Now temperate grasslands are considered the most threatened communities of plants and animals on earth. Internationally, we’re recognizing that grasslands have been “cradling the needs of humans for millenia“.  We’re working to correct the past with more than a national designation for an animal.

ynpredcalf

If this late-born red calf survives the winter, it will represent another hope for the future of bison. Yellowstone National Park, Sept 2016

Northeastern Montana is an area where large scale grassland preservation can be meaningful. Although the land has been changed at the surface, it hasn’t been plowed extensively.  Public lands can be bridged to provide large scale habitat.  The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge spans 1.1 million acres of land along 125 air miles of the Missouri River. Enter APR, first a foundation, now a place, buying ranches from willing sellers, building fence, and trying to restore the prairie landscape.

aprlocalwelcomeIt won’t be easy, mostly because of people,  past as well as present. I pass signs on the road protesting the Reserve. Ranchers worry about their way of life, though farm radio news indicates  the economy and ranch debt is more threatening than conservation. People have introduced diseases like sylvatic plague that kills prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets alike. And we all know what weeds are like:  psychotically clingy stalkers that reappear at every turn no matter how you try to ditch them.

But there is hope.

The BLM has introduced the Undaunted Stewardship program to help ranchers protect natural and historic resources; the video below shows how people are working to make ranching more friendly. APR is also promoting ranches that protect wildlife with the Wild Sky beef program.

Promoting responsible ranches is commendable, but cows are not bison. Using private funds, APR is piecing together land, and retiring grazing rights to Russell NWR where it can. They are restoring grasslands and streambanks. They’re growing a bison herd that can help restore the natural grassland processes. As a privately funded organization, APR can be creative because they’re not beholden to politically-influenced federal land management practices. And very creative people are at work even in the government: the USFWS has plans to use drones and candy to vaccinate ferrets against the plague.

As I sit and drink my coffee, waiting for the sun to dry my tent, I try to get into the minds of settlers.  Why did we needlessly slaughter 65 million animals that took care of themselves and provided healthier meat than we can raise even with intensive management?  Why did we start this endless effort to manage the land for animals that can’t thrive here without protection and help? Why did we make it so hard for ourselves?

I imagine the mass migrations of bison Lewis and Clark saw: the grasslands teeming with bison, deer, pronghorn antelopes, birds, punctuated with the warning yips and yelps of prairie dogs.  I’ve heard the low, rumbling sound of a bison herd moving through Slough Creek Valley below my camp, grunting and murmuring drifting up the hill. But that herd was over a hundred, not tens of thousands. I wonder which future generation will hear those sounds again; when we’ll again see the abundance we’ve lost.

aprkeepmoving

aprwelcome

After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

buffalocampsign

On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

aprcampsitehost

aprdontdothis

Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

aprwhosthere

 

 

 

prairiesunset

aprbeforeharvestmoon

The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…

 

 

 

 

 

I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.

 

But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson

 

This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.

TakaheKapiti

Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign

ShoeCleaningKauriDieback

Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.

Poison

It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

Great horned owl, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Great horned owl, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Owl legends run the gamut across peoples and history, and say perhaps more about people than owls.  The most simplistic and superstitious medieval myths associate the owl’s adaptation to night with terrible things.  The owl’s superior ability to hunt at night- along with the cat and the wolf- was not viewed as an adaptive trait: instead, it raised insecurity among our species, which stumbles around in the dark. We once feared becoming a target of animal night hunters, though now we are afraid of each other after the sun sets.  As it always does, our fear and insecurity resulted in our isolation and animal persecution.

Not all peoples viewed the owl as a witch incarnate, or symbol of death.  Some owl myths celebrate the owl as the keeper of souls and wisdom, a healer, or a welcome usher to the Otherworld.

The legend of Redfeather

If the Chippewa legend of Redfeather1 is true, then a cadre of owls are currently plotting to turn throngs of photographers into bird food.

Redfeather was a bratty, destructive kid who entertained himself killing animals that birds needed for food.  The heron whose chicks were starving tried to negotiate with Redfeather, to no avail due to his apparent ADHD and narcissism. The birds all convened to find a solution to their pending starvation, which came in the form of Owl.  When Redfeather tried to kill Owl with an arrow, Owl carried Redfeather off to a treetop to sit imprisoned until his owlets and other young birds were large enough to feast on the kid.  The villagers, who acknowledged Redfeather was a dysfunctional miscreant, sought supernatural help for his release anyway, and hosted a feast of penance at the direction of spirits.  Owl returned Redfeather only after the now-chastened boy promised never to misuse the food of the birds.

When the Northern pygmy owl at Chinook Bend Natural Area sees people crowding so closely that mice and voles are chased away, he may be plotting to speak to Owl.  When photographers at Eide Road start bushwhacking a path to take twig-free pictures of the Long-eared owl, they may be targeted by Owl for future owlet chow. Northern pygmy owl

Or so one would hope. 

There are many wonderful wildlife watchers out there, like the softly whispering couple I passed on Leque Island, returning from a photography foray on a stormy, lonely Superbowl Sunday . They beamed, delighted and enthralled by the long-and short-eared owls cruising low above the rough faded grass for hapless rodents.  After they left, I tried to walk as quietly as they had, still managing to flush a couple of ground-roosting shorties when I set my eyesight too high and distant.ShortEar7

There is Joey, the lively photographer from the Stanwood area, who carefully measured distance and laid branches at the limit people should stand near the long-eared owl.  And the mystery protector who lodged a large dead limb across the path people had beaten to the day roost to discourage people from entering. And the photography instructor keeping his small class with the impossibly large lenses at a polite distance, and quiet.  There is Paul Bannick, author of The Owl and the Woodpecker (www.paulbannick.com) , who will speak to a reporter about the great habitat at Chinook Bend, but who will not name the place on the news to protect the owl. These people are viewed favorably by Owl, and will probably achieve a peaceful, safe place once they pass over to the Next World.

And then there is the jerk who left the bait mouse on a railing by the parking lot and road at Chinook Bend.  There are the people bushwhacking to get clear photos of the Long-eared owl that likes dense brushy cover to roost in.  There was the monumental idiot at Boundary Bay trespassing in the protected marsh area and throwing flotsam at snowy owls to get flight pictures during the day, when they should be resting. And there is Greg’s story about photographers too cheap to buy a pile of bait mice to tempt Great gray owls. To save some pesos, they reportedly put the bait mouse in a glass jar so the owl couldn’t eat it.  I do hope this is myth, but you never know how low people will go.

And for what? For one more hyper-high resolution digital image of an owl.  Not a beautiful drawing, painting, or sculpture, or story or myth, but one more in a bazillion too sparkly-sharp digital images found everywhere on the Web. For the badge of honor that comes with owning a lens worth the cost of a car and getting the settings right.

Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

The best photographers- the ones who know owls, their habitat, and behaviors, the ones who wait for the natural, relaxed action, the ones who respect the birds- they are lost in a flurry of images from people who aim to be the next NatGeo rock star.  And even NatGeo has raised the ire of Owl with their practices.

Getting my own legend right

For my part, here is my promise to Owl.  I will celebrate Owl, and make Owl and his kind homes- habitat, perches, and nests. I will continue supporting several rehab owls that have nervous tics and unequal sized pupils, damage typical of a low flying hunter slamming into a traveling vehicle. They are ambassadors now that they have lost the freedom to fly the night sky beneath the stars and moon. I will try to be quieter and more observant in the field. I will follow Tony Angell’s advice to learn owls by field sketching, only taking photos (and mediocre ones at that) for reference. I will only buy photographs and photography books when I know the photographer is ethical. I will keep owl visitors to my property hidden in a bird Witness Protection Program.

Practically speaking, Owl is saving my trees from girdling by voles, and my barn and house from raids by rodents. Owl is functionally a night-flying friend and protector in my landscape.

But Owl is something else to me, too. Through a lifetime of grinding practicality, paying bills and taxes and working hard, I earned the privilege of daydreaming and mythology. In my mythology, Owl is a human from long ago alight inside with a memory of ages, wearing an elaborate feathered mask and enduring the synthetic grime and excess of the modern world.  Owl is waiting for something, biding his time on sentinel duty, watching over me.  Owl knows, though I do not, what it is that will happen. When it is time, Owl will watch me go.

1My modern adaptation of story from http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-141.html#redfeather, which credits Beatrice Blackwood, 1929, “Tales of the Chippewa Indians,” Folk-Lore 40[4]:315-44.

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Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

I was going to quit this year, finally, and just maintain areas that  turned into crazy  jungles.  Just prune and weed and divide occasionally, do something else with my time in the winter and spring.

But the orange honeysuckle burst into bloom for the first time in a decade and the Anna’s hummingbirds drink from every flower as it matures from yellow to deep orange.  And veritable flocks of Western swallowtail butterflies hang adoringly off the mock orange flowers. Red Admiral butterflies showed up for the first time to lay eggs on the stinging nettle lurking where I can’t get at it, a painted lady butterfly made a first appearance for strawberry flowers, and mourning cloaks basked on the power line and the lawn for over a month. A Lorquin’s admiral defends Now in June, bees work globe mallow flowers, wild lilac, and nodding onion.  Flocks of cedar waxwings move from the salmonberry to the twinberry and await the ripening of serviceberry and Oregon grape berries. There are pairs of nesting black-headed grosbeaks, Western tanagers, and Bullock’s orioles, none of which I’ve seen before.  Nests are everywhere, with babies crying to be fed. Scent follows me everywhere as I walk past the woodland garden, the sun garden, hedgerows, fruit trees, borders.

None of this rich world was here when I arrived fourteen years ago.  I made it happen- and I am not even a gardener.

Male Anna's hummingbird, staking a claim.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, staking a claim.

The planting addiction  started after I bought the house with  acreage that had been mowed and mowed again, beaten into submission by the motor and the blade.  The neighbors said they could hear Keith mowing all the time, maybe to get away from his wife.  The mower had a beer can holder, and the crushed aluminum victims lay in the thousands in the barn, testament to an ugly stint in Vietnam and an uglier marriage.  I don’t know who did the mowing after Keith shot a friend during a hot tub party and went to jail for awhile. Mary landscaped around the house, and though reputed to be mean and manipulative, festooned the greenery with kitschy gnomes and little girls in dresses and signs that said, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.”

The mowing began after massive clearing that took place some 70 years ago, long after Dr. Henry Smith made his way up the Snohomish River and decided it would be tamed to create a new Holland.  While the river has never agreed to this, and occasionally wipes out everything man puts in its way, the land has changed forever with diking and drainage.

The only survivor on my property is a bigleaf maple, now huge in girth,   left as a property boundary marker as was the practice throughout the river valley.  This tree would have stood as cedar, spruce, willow, crabapple, and maple were felled in the swamps around it, as sediment was dredged to make farmer-engineered dikes that cut off the land from water and nutrients, as a river once seasonally choked with salmon was raked to fill canneries as if there were no tomorrow.  The old maple leafs out every year and bears seed still, but the number of giant limbs dropping signals impending demise.  I wonder if that tree will breathe a sigh of relief to go to eternal sleep and see no more destruction of the world into which it sprouted.

The maple has more company of compatriot plants it once stood beside, along with some fresh faces that better survive the drained condition.  When I moved here, it became immediately obvious that I didn’t need so much reed canarygrass, a terrible horse forage due to its fibrous nature and alkaloid content. I needed wind and sun break.  Western Washington is not a chronic sheet of drizzle, as people think, but a Mediterranean climate that dries during the summer.  Afternoon marine thermals are common in the summer.  In the fall and spring, windstorms can brew as low pressure fronts arrive.  All this wind comes pretty much straight at my property from Fobes Hill.  The hill returns the favor by deflecting weather, but that means my ground is drier as a result. The afternoon sun would bake my horses and heat up the barn so that bringing them inside just meant they would sweat instead of burn.

So my neighbor, the grant administrator for the Snohomish Conservation District, encouraged me to check out their annual bareroot plant sale.  Since then, I have spent an average of $300/year on plants that cost $1 apiece, and frequently come home with sale plants or needy homeless plants.  I was told to plant dense, that half the plants would die.  I was told to bring in better soil for planting, to use compost and mulch.

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

And then most of the plants decided life was worth living. They cheerfully suckered, layered their branches as they marched across the land, sent out runners, produced berries and seeds for birds to poop out and start new plants elsewhere.  It is a sad day when you’re relieved the pesky beaver has wandered into the yard and nabbed a shore pine you never should have planted in that location.  Equally sad is the day you uncover dead trees girdled by voles and thank the voles for being such good owl snacks and saving you from your over-planting along the way.

There are always new areas to plant, however, and the birds and butterflies egg me on.  Fencing in this area, with our high water table, either rots or rusts;as farmers in medieval England discovered,  hedgerows planted along fencing create the same animal barriers with less maintenance, and they provide wildlife benefit.  And the earthen dike needs more root mass and fewer Himalayan blackberries, so there is always space there.

The real truth of the matter is that wearing out gloves, boots and jeans whether it’s sunny or raining has not just attracted wildlife, fostered life and protected water quality: it’s also kept me sane.  I work with the public in an activist West Coast urban center known for its addiction to process, and sometimes want to run screaming from the complexity of the human race.  And then I come home, dig in the dirt, plant the next phase of jungle, and watch the world come alive in the spring with animals that are happy simply with a food source, shelter and a safe place to start a family.  It’s a good balance for me.

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