Tag Archive: nature


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.

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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

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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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In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.

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Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.

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The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.

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Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:

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Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.

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I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

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Driving it off

Okay, this wasn’t a crazy road trip like some.  I’m not Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove for days to allegedly kidnap and/or murder a romantic rival.  We’re the same age, but- well, we have slightly different priorities in life.

What we have in common is the marathon drive instinct, she for a much more exciting reason. Despite a summer torn apart by too much work, I was determined to co-present at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association annual conference in Bend, Oregon. I couldn’t attend the whole 4-day conference, so I would drive down one day, give my presentation, and drive back.

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Sure, this wasn’t an audition for a shot at fortune and fame, but it meant something to me.  It meant telling the story of surviving- and succeeding at- a project shot full of wild and whacky stories.  At one point, an agency peer emailed only a subject line: “You will get a call about a dead whale.” I wasn’t fazed. After the endless carnival that proceeded that email, no big deal.  A dead whale. Next crazy card in the spinning Rolodex.

I wouldn’t include the suicide in my presentation.  That was too hard and too personal.  It’s not the first time by far I’ve been a bystander, a stranger and witness to someone else’s tragedy, and it cut deep.  “Why me again?” ran through my mind for as long as I could hear the man’s voice in my ears: a voice hesitant and soft, no longer demanding. His voice asking about my life and my future.  Only a few days later, I understood the changed tone, the questions about a tomorrow that he would never see.

I almost quit then, but remember, I’m the boring one, not the one who makes hell-bent-for-leather road trips to stalk a competitor in a high stakes romance. I soldiered on, hollow inside, until the voice faded,  and then dutifully filed all his correspondence for the project record.

No, my road trip was a day driving myself numb through white knuckle weather, sheeting rain and road spray obscuring big rigs that would suddenly emerge dark, huge, and very close.  Bands of blinding sun streaming in from the west would puncture the storm clouds to turn the spray waves from speeding trucks into eye-burning glare. The parade of semis and monsoon clouds cleared as I drove east over the mountains, but then the road started to twist and wind around itself.

Finally, I dropped into eastern Oregon, much like eastern Washington: out of the storms that stall over mountains and into expansive and sunny drylands spinning away from me.  I relaxed, but felt oddly anxious and disappointed, because I couldn’t keep driving.  What I usually do on road trips is keep going, camping and staying in motels for the occasional shower, unwinding and forgetting who I am, day after day.  Long road trips are in my genes. This was only one day.

bridgesOregon has few wayside rests, so I was relieved to find Peter Skene Ogden Viewpoint.  After hours of focused driving, I needed to stop looking at a road whipping past.  I needed to walk.  I immediately encountered the most disturbing warning sign I’ve seen yet, before the overlook that has killed “many dogs”, graceful retired bridge, and a historical kiosk. Looking over the cliff, I could almost hear the barking of ghost dogs.cliffsign

The conference presentation went well, as expected.  Unlike many who rank public speaking right below disease and divorce on the Agony Scale, I enjoy it. I attended the rest of the last day, which ended at noon.  I had decided to stray east a little more and visit the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds.  I didn’t have my good camera- I’d stupidly put my hand on it at home, then decided it would just disappoint me not to keep traveling and really use it. But I had a phone, and it would do.

The excursion would add several hours onto my trip home, but it would let me stretch the down time a little.  As I was driving through Bend, a project member called because a reporter needed something.  Patching through meant sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on one phone call after the next, with people staring at me like I might be a jilted and deranged lover, or a woman on the verge of divorce.

Over an hour passed before it was settled, and I should have driven straight home.  I should have done the sensible thing, but I just couldn’t.  I drove east away from the busy Redmond/Bend corridor down a wonderful lonely road to John Day.  As expected, almost no one was there- me, and of course, a couple other guys by themselves.  It’s always that way for me.  I walked every trail I could find, knowing it was foolish and the time was passing, but lured on by the scent of juniper and sage, and color and rocks and fossils.

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The rest of the drive home was just plain long, and sometimes hard.  I didn’t realize the road that drops to the John Day was designed by a crazy, drunken miner for impatient, balletic mules- or something like that.  It felt like those car commercials where a stunt driver demonstrates power and control you will never need crawling in city traffic. With dusk settling, little deer herds everywhere tried to kill me and themselves by leaping forcefully into the roadway on hairpin turns.

People in Oregon are wildly friendly compared to Washingtonians, making you feel like a vulnerable and paranoid refugee.  They pump your gas in Oregon, so you have to remember to smile, and not to hide your wallet as if the guy approaching you wants to cop a five or rob you.

The smiling, cheerful lady at the gas station took me on a tour of the candy and energy bars, and even celebrated my purchase of a gooey-sweet mocha from the coffee machine and a bunch of bad chocolate.  She gave me a complimentary extra candy bar for the drive home. That sugar and caffeine helped when I hit rain at dark crossing the Columbia River Gorge and drove the rest of the way through increasing downpour as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Finally, I reached home.  I crawled into bed and curled up under soft, thick blankets, waiting for the feeling of motion to fade.  I wasn’t in custody, ragged and running on adrenaline, with that chewed up, wild-eyed realization that my little adventure had changed my life forever.  No, I was home, quiet, with a sprig of fragrant juniper on the nightstand as I drifted off to sleep listening to the soft hooting of a great-horned owl, with red-streaked hills in my dreams.ph3

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Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.

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We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.

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This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.

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This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.

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This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.

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Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.

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Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.

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At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.

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The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.

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When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.

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These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.

ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.

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I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.

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Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.

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My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture