Chattermarks

From North Cascades Institute

Search Chattermarks

Archives

hemlock and doug fir

Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator

September 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Editor’s note: Mountain School is about to start back up for its fall season! After teaching two seasons and hundreds of students last year, I thought a lot about how the field of environmental education might be even more useful to participants and the world at large.

It was quite an event, the day the Great Spirit handed out cones to all the trees in the forest. Red alder was given a tiny bouquet of them, befitting its important role as a quick and efficient pioneer in new forests as a nitrogen-fixing species. Douglas fir was bestowed with robust, two-inch long ones. They were decorated with characteristic “mouse tails”, like celebratory ribbons trailing between each thumbnail-sized scale. They provided a main source of food for the squirrels that scampered through the forest. Western hemlock, however, was impatient and pushed its way to the front of the line, eager for the best cones. As punishment for hemlock’s haste, the Great Spirit gave it the smallest cones in the forest. Feeling forever badly about being chastised, hemlock hung its head in shame.

Though I am unsure of this story’s origins, it has undoubtedly evolved over the years as a tale that environmental educators in the Pacific Northwest often share. It is a way to remember, amidst all the trees in the dense forest, that Western hemlocks are the ones possessing small cones and a drooping leader.

Here is another version, adapted from a re-vamping by graduate student and co-editor of Chattermarks, Elissa Kobrin. Her story is different, but still told with the goal of leaving learners with the ability to distinguish common local trees. It begins similarly, with red alder and Douglas fir receiving their cones. Both trees wanted to be the first ones in the forest, and to shoot up toward the sky faster than all the others. Western hemlock, however, waited patiently in line. This patience represents hemlock’s role in the forest community as one of the last species in forest succession, for it thrives in the shade of the canopy other, faster growing species. Hemlock was given cones that, though comparatively small, are very ornate and beautiful, like the rosebuds of the forest. Its head, or “leader”, is always bent over to get a better look at its tiny, pretty cones.

hemlock cone K. RenzA macro rendition of the 3/4″ tall hemlock cone, at home amidst the miniature world in a bed of moss. Note the chartreuse pollen that settled in the scales, details that make the natural world go round. Photo by author.

Which story do you prefer? When I first heard the former, I immediately thought, “Wow, I will never tell this story to students.”  Was I just being overly sensitive, another stringently politically correct tree-hugger quibbling over words? In one sense, the first story is simply an engaging way to remember why a hemlock has a drooping leader and small cones. But in the context of a world where shame and bullying are rampant, and shadow who children become as adults, could it also serve, even in a slight way, to perpetuate the idea of lifelong self-denigration and insecurity? That small is bad, and we are expected to atone for our mistakes for the entirety of our lives?

Such reservations are not to advocate for sheltering our children from reality. We graduate students-slash-Mountain School instructors often discuss, with a lot of concern, the tendency over the last 30 years or so towards “protecting” children from anything deemed negative or risky in this world of unknowns. Even something as intrinsic as play, for example, has been made scary and restricted.

Yet as an editor who has been steeped in media criticism, it is hard to ignore the messaging we’re bombarded with from all directions, even from stories told in the woods. Reinforcing ideologies and paradigms that I consider part of the problem, especially in an ecologically-minded community in which we’re constantly emphasizing the interconnectivity of everything, is problematic. Words are powerful. Looking at all the way we teach kids, both explicitly and implicitly, is fundamental.

Admittedly, it is a little hard for me to write this. I really don’t want to seem uptight, and such reservations prompt me to feel a mite self-conscious and embarrassed. At the same time, though, it baffles me that we are not more self-critical sometimes.

Holly Hughes closeupA fifth grade Mountain School group is an engaged audience as instructors help them “travel back in time” to when Native Americans gathered Hozomeen chert, cured skin ailments with Douglas fir pitch and traveled through the North Cascades via Cascade Pass. Photo by Molly Foote.

» Continue reading Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator

-10

The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

August 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

In the middle of May, I moved halfway across the country, to a state I’d never been to, to play at a wetland with five- and six-year-olds. After three long days in a car, I landed in Boulder, Colorado. I moved into my tiny studio apartment across the street from Colorado University, and jumped into training with the folks at Thorne Nature Experience.

Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. Though I’ve taught and been involved with Environmental Education for the past six years, I’ve only worked for one organization. North Cascades Institute had been my home as far back as I can remember, and when I realized that I wanted to try my hand at teaching, it was a logical place to start. And then I stayed. I used to joke that I’d never leave. And that was true until I finished the M.Ed program through North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University this past March. I decided it was time, though I was (and still am) deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest, to get some experience elsewhere.

Elsewhere, it turned out, was a city with 300 or so sunny days every year. (I’m really more of a rain person.) Thorne is a pretty cool place. They’ve been around since 1954 and are located on a beautiful piece of “open space” land just east of Boulder proper called Sombrero Marsh.

-9“Come look, I found something! It’s in my net!”
-1No nature center is complete without plenty of dip nets for catching macroinvertebrates! Most commonly we find damselfly larvae, although early in the summer we found quite a few dragonfly nymphs and on one field trip a huge bullfrog tadpole!

I was a little nervous about moving to a city that sits higher than 5,000 ft, after living for my entire 27 years at or within 1,500 ft of sea level. But where Bellingham has hills all over town, Boulder is flat. My commute to work is 4 ½ miles and I can bike there no problem in about 30 minutes, half of it on the Boulder Creek Path that runs east-west all the way through town.

» Continue reading The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

Three trails to Maple Pass Viewpoint.SHale

Summertime Stewardship on Maple Pass — Join Us!

August 5th, 2014 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Washington is an amazing place. From the tide pools on the West Coast to the mountains in the heart of the state to the river gorges in the east, over one third of Washington is protected in one way or another. We have three National Parks, four National Recreation Areas and a mix of National Historic Sites, Parks, Reserves, Scenic Areas and Trails. We also have nine National Forests and a variety of capital-W Wilderness areas. One could say that the people of Washington treasure their land.

Of this protected land, 4.4% belongs to the realms of subalpine and alpine habitat. Normally, alpine habitats can be found at 10,000 feet or above; but in high latitudes like the North Cascades, alpine habitats start a little lower, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. As visitors, we see alpine habitats as flower-filled, snow-ridden reaches that are the perfect spot for a day trip. But don’t let the beauty fool you: Alpine life is hard. The winters are long, summers are short and snowfall and wind levels are high. There is twice as much ultraviolet radiation and twenty-five percent more light than at sea level. Air at high elevations is thin and cold with temperatures ranging from -20°F in winter to 90°F in summer. With an average annual temperature of 37.5° F, alpine areas are ranked similarly to polar climates in that no month has a mean temperature higher than 50° F. In many alpine communities in the North Cascades, snow can be found on peaks year round, with some popular hikes not melting out until August. Come autumn, it will start snowing again before long, covering up the ground for another nine months. Weather can change very quickly and, since there are almost no places to hide, storms can be incredibly dangerous.

pasqueflowerkrenzImagine being a plant in the alpine. What adaptations would you need to the harsh conditions? Pictured here is a favorite species of the subalpine: Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis), before it develops into its frizzled-haired fruit. Photo by Katherine Renz.

Now, imagine being a plant in the alpine. Rarely, if ever, does it rain, so you get your moisture from the long lasting snow packs. If the soil has not already blown away, it is nutrient-poor and makes it difficult to grow roots. The sun is hot and will burn new, tender leaves if you don’t figure out a way to adapt. The snow lasts quite a while, so you could only have two months to produce flowers and become pollinated before you are covered up by the white blanket again. Long lasting snow can be heavy and push you down; yet if you grow too tall, avalanches can knock you over. If you are lucky enough to survive all of that, you still have to avoid being eaten by an alpine herbivore.

Luckily, for alpine plants, they have a series of adaptions to help them survive such difficult life. Waxy, hair covered leaves help retain moisture. Long, strong taproots burrow deep into the rocky soil in search of hard to find nutrients. Anthocyanin, a reddish pigment acts to speed up photosynthesis and as a sunblock from the harsh sun. Instead of rushing through the reproductive season, plants extend the flower production and blooming process out over a few years to best maximize their short time uncovered by snow. Taproots and a short cushion-like shape help keep plants anchored to the ground in high winds and avalanches. It would seem as if alpine plants have it figured out. However, they still must contend with the challenges we humans rarely fail to offer.

 -1One of the many beautiful views from the Maple Loop trail with bountiful white and pink heather (Cassiope mertensiana and Phyllodoce empetriformis). Photo by author.

We come in with our heavy boots, sharp trekking poles and large numbers. We mean no harm, but to an alpine plant, too much tramping is the difference between life and death. I’ve been told that 12 steps on an alpine plant will kill it. Lush meadows and heather patches that once guarded the entrances to the alpine world now stand bare, opening up the precious soil to the elements. Social trails, campsites, lunch spots and viewpoints are all leading to the further degradation of alpine habitats.

So, this summer, my Leadership Track (a position I hold as part of my Graduate studies) is focused on working towards restoring alpine and subalpine habitats. We will be closing some social trails, rerouting the trail at some points, posting educational signs, and collecting seed and plant clippings. With those seeds and clippings we hope to grow them at the Marblemount Greenhouse to be planted at a later date. We collect them on site in order to preserve the genetic identity of the plants at Maple Pass, as well as to best support these plants in their bid to grow at high elevations.

MaplePassS.HaleLake Ann, as seen from the Maple Loop trail in between Heather and Maple Pass. Photo by author.

The work I am participating in will take place along the Maple Pass Loop. Thanks to its easy access and astounding beauty, it is one of the most heavily traveled trails along Highway 20. I’m sure many of you have hiked this trail, but if you haven’t, move it up higher on your ‘To Hike’ list this summer. Splitting off from the Rainy Lake trailhead, the trail ascends quickly through fir, spruce and hemlock stands. Huckleberry bushes fill in the understory and soon enough the wildflowers start to show their pretty blooms. At 1.3 miles you hit the trail for Lake Ann. Continuing on the loop, the subalpine world of heathers and low shrubs quickly come into view, as do the peaks and a view of Lake Ann. Depending on the time of year, snowfields will come into view at around 2.5 miles, soon after the split to Heather Pass. With the snowfields come more wildflowers; glacier lilies, paintbrush, penstemon and lupine among them. As you walk the rim and look down into Lake Ann, Maple Pass shows itself in the distance. At 3.5 miles and 6,600’ of elevation, you are at the pass itself. This is where I will be spending a good portion of my time and energy for the rest of the summer.

I am working in tandem with the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest and the North Cascades National Park on a project called the Maple Pass Restoration Plan. This plan, funded in part by the National Forest Foundation, falls under the larger “Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences” Project. The goal of “Treasured Landscapes” is to ‘revitalize our forests and strengthen our natural connection’ through stewardship, restoration, building better community bonds to the natural world and education.

hiker.SHaleBecause even just our well-intentioned footsteps as we commune with nature can leave a big, destructive trace. Photo by author.

The Maple Pass Plan is not the only National Forest Funded restoration project in Washington. A group of projects, collectively called the ‘Majestic Methow’ are working towards goals of ecological restoration, aquatic habitat restoration, wildlife habitat restoration and better connections between science and action within our greater community. Many of these areas are considered backcountry and some even lie in Wilderness areas. A few however, like Maple Pass, are easily accessible, with trailheads located right off Highway 20.

This summer marks the first effort of this multi-year project. My job is to help coordinate our different visits to the site, advertise the work to the general public and bring in volunteers to assist with our work. We have over an acre of trails to replant, 2,000 feet of social trails to close and almost a mile of trail to reconstruct. My work in this project will end before the job is done, however. The restoration process, notably plant propagation, will continue for a few years. After the initial trail closings and plantings, the site will be monitored for a few years to assist with plant regrowth.

Hopefully, this effort will result in a vastly different looking Maple Pass in five years, and a healthier ecosystem overall. For now though, I must think smaller, and focus on re-potting all of the tiny huckleberry and heather that I love so much.

If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering along side of us this summer, please contact me at Samantha_hale@ncascades.org.

marmot.krenzWho knows? You may get lucky enough to see a marmot like this one as you replant baby subalpine heathers. Photo by Katherine Renz.
Leading photo: Three separate trails tri-sect the fragile heather community at the viewpoint to Maple Pass Loop. Braided trails such as these show just how numerous and intricate social trails can be. Over time, these trails lead to large bare dirt patches and soil erosion. Let’s see if we can work this summer to make it a single track.
 

Samantha Hale is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Once a self-professed ‘ocean only’ lover she is starting to see the merits of frolicking, Julie Andrews style, amongst alpine plants. You can find her, DSLR in one hand, hand-lens in another, walking the high ridges.

 

 

 

backpacking Hillary S.

The Preservation of the World

June 13th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Ed. note: The days are getting longer, at least for another week or so. Here is a piece from a former graduate student to inspire you to get out there, both to the big-W wilderness as well as the wilds just outside your door.

By Hillary Schwirtlich

Glacier Peak Wilderness

We huddle from the driving wind under the protection of a band of stunted subalpine firs on the ridgeline near White Pass. My rain jacket is soaked through, again. The clammy synthetic material clings heavy to my arms and I can feel the cold rain seeping through my shoulders and wrists. My bare legs are numb. We ducked under these trees for a moment because we haven’t stopped walking for hours, but we know we can’t stop long or we’ll start to shiver. We’re attempting Glacier Peak for the second time tomorrow. Our first attempt, almost exactly a year earlier, was thwarted by a combination of lack of fitness and a spectacular storm of the kind that creeps like a blanket over the peaks of the Cascades in late summer. We hope our training will help us this time. We walked here from Mexico, we tell ourselves incredulously. The longest approach on a mountaineering trip ever. We can do this.

We stand up and start toward the pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail turns left toward the newly built bridge over the Suiattle River and our detour takes us left through a marmot colony toward Foam Creek. After so long away from cities, our eyes are tuned to pick out anything that doesn’t fit in this landscape, and we spot an orange lump on our route, then two strange figures, brown and white. “What is that?” I ask, and Chris replies, “Llama?”

view of White Pass Hillary S.A green view of White Pass: What the author imagines when she thinks of Glacier Peak Wilderness. Photo by author.

We’ve become a little wild ourselves by this point, and we approach warily. When we get close, the orange dome tent spits out a beanie-topped man, older than us, with a steaming cup in his hand. “Hi!” he beams, and since the rain has let up for a moment, we stop to chat. He’s a hunter, up for the high hunt. He hasn’t seen a single deer or elk, but he says he’s just happy to be where he is. “I’ve been coming to this country for a long time, and these hunts are just an excuse for me to be here, really.” We nod, we know what he means, we’re here for the same reasons. The Glacier Peak Wilderness was — and still is — the landscape my heart escapes to in its daydreams.

Movement has been our default for the last five months and the sun is setting earlier these days, so our restless legs tug us onwards. We wish each other good luck and Chris and I push on, our eyes trained upwards for our path over the ridge, a familiar notch. We leave the cupped, underused trail, climb up and over, then back down, up and down, our steps tracing ancient lava flows from the white giant over the ridge. Finally, we see it: our campsite, a windy plain of moonrock. Then farther, when the clouds clear for an instant, past a patchwork field of rock and snow: a lake of milky greenish water, beside the dirty remains of the White Chuck Glacier. We have been expecting this view, having been temporarily turned around on our previous trip, our climbing party arguing briefly over whether we were in the right basin. The USGS-made map dated from the 1970s showed a blue field of ice where a lake and rubble now was. This was the first place climate change, which I’ve now come to see as the grief, challenge and opportunity of my generation, hit me as something more than just a contested abstract concept.

panorama glacier Hillary S.Panorama of White Chuck Glacier (left) and the lake where it used to span (right). Photo by author.

We set up camp, giddy to be here, apprehensive about the morning’s weather. We fall asleep to the sound of wind howling across newly exposed glacial deposits. In the morning, the wind is stronger, and though fitness is no longer a factor and the sky clears, we reach a point a thousand feet below the summit when the wind severs my connection with the ground. I find myself flat on my belly, heart pounding, hugging the narrow ridge to keep from being blown away. Only slightly disappointed, we turn around. We still have Canada to look forward to, and this place will always be here.

On our way back down, a deafening roar rumbles from behind and we glance back in time to watch a fighter-jet contour up the white edge of glacier and barrel roll, only feet from the summit. Our legs go wobbly and we feel lightheaded with vertigo. “What if we were up there?” we ask.

coming down Hillary S.Coming down the mountain. Glacier Peak looms bright in the background. Photo by author.

Home

I used to have a moss garden. On the cement in front of the door of our north-facing, basement apartment, where only recently the weak spring sunlight has begun to stream through the branches of the rhododendron outside the window, the constant Washington wet would drip off the roof and land muffled and splashless on a bed of bright green moss the size of a dinner plate. When we moved in in September I made up my mind to sculpt it into some aesthetically pleasing shape, but that goal was quickly buried in a sea of grad-student to-dos. So there it stayed, ragged and shapeless and lush.

Until the end of February when a snowstorm left the ground white and left the newly arrived robins with no grass to pick at. The snow on our cement path melted faster than the snow on the grass, and the robins went for the only thing green they could find. I didn’t watch them do it — I only knew because the same thing had happened at my professor John’s house when we arrived at class that day. Bits of moss that had grown on his steps were strewn about his front walkway, strewn about by robins looking for insects and grubs and worms to tug out of the grass.

maple buds Hillary S.The little things: Maple tree flowers outside the author’s front door. Photo by author.

Now the snow has melted and the buds are breaking on the maple trees in the front yard. Snowdrops — those small white flowers that always know its spring before I do — have pushed themselves up from the cold soil and spread their frost-colored petals to the sky. The other morning, when the snooze on my alarm clock failed to get me out of bed, curiosity about the source of the trilling, musical song outside my window did. A crow calls twice and ruffles its glossy black feathers from the streetlight across the street, and chickadees scold and buzz from the birdfeeder, their eyes bright and black-crowned heads cocked. Nuthatches perch on the lip of the feeder, wary, then choose the largest seed and flit away to ignore gravity on the trunk of a nearby tree.

house Hillary S.The rhododendron bush and the “moss garden” (see left) helping provide a landscape to love, even in town. Photo by author.

For the last six months we’ve lived on this busy street corner and I’ve walked guiltily past the trash that lays in my yard, left by college students walking downtown and blown in from the streets and parking lots around where I live. But while sitting outside the front door on sunny days and behind my window on the much more common rainy ones, I began to notice. I started picking up that trash, respecting this tiny piece of land, surrounded by asphalt and concrete and filled with non-native plants. Because even though it’s a small thing, I know that this is the way I should treat a place that I love. It’s how I treat wilderness, after all.

-4Maple tree in the fall, setting the author’s front yard on foliage fire. Photo by author.
Leading photo: Not a llama, but a beanie-topped man the author and her partner, Chris, met on their trek through Glacier Peak Wilderness toward the end of their Pacific Crest Trail adventure.
 

Hillary Schwirtlich graduated in March from North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is the Southwest and Sierra Program Coordinator for American Alpine Institute, and lives and gardens in Bellingham, Washington. She loves to read, write, climb, hike, paint and cook, and you will usually find her in the Chuckanuts, at Vital Climbing Gym, bike commuting through Boulevard Park or volunteering. 

 

 

Migratory Birds Erica Keene

Taking Flight at the Migratory Bird Festival

May 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Field Excursions

By Erica Keene

Smiles, laughter and flapping arms – I mean, wings. Yes, wings. These were the best parts of a sun-filled weekend spent learning about migratory bird species during the fifth annual Migratory Bird Festival at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. On Saturday, April 26, over 120 participants took on the role of migratory birds to learn about the difficulties they face during their winged travels. Their goal? Get safely to their next stop along the migration route.

The first round was easy, no obstacles. In the second round, a hunter was introduced. With each successive round, migration became harder and harder. Habitats began to disappear. Predators started increasing and catching larger numbers of birds. Elders, teens and little ones alike all participated in this lively, competitive game to learn just how many challenges birds face when migrating long distances.

Migratory bird Erica KeeneYouth from Seattle Parks & Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities Program and the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program attempt to migrate safely to their next location while facing challenging obstacles such as hunters and habitat loss. Photo by author.

Groups rotated through three stations where they learned bird identification techniques, discovered ways to help conserve birds at home and participated in the ever-popular migration game. Each group adopted a bird for the day and spent time at each station learning fun facts about the Mallard, Rufous Hummingbird or the Killdeer. Some participants were even able to spot their bird during the bird identification station.

The day ended with students writing and decorating a postcard to be mailed to them in a few weeks’ time and with presentations on their adopted birds. Groups led interactive presentations on the Killdeer’s broken-wing display and the Rufous Hummingbird’s flight patterns while others absorbed the sunshine and listened.

eldersElders and youth from InterIm Community Development Association learn about migratory bird conservation. Photo by: Jim Chu, USFS.
Migratory Birds Erica KeeneOver 120 participants gathered on Saturday in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day at Camp Casey. Coupeville, WA. Photo by author.

A handful of regional community and environmental organizations participated in this event in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day, including Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities Program (O2), InterIm Community Development Association, North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures and the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program.

On Saturday evening, 23 youth from Seattle Parks & Recreation’s O2 program and InterIm Wilderness Inner-city Leadership Development (WILD) stayed the night at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island in anticipation of a Sunday stewardship project. Pacific Northwest Trail Association Intern, Noah Pylvainen, took students on a walk along the Pacific Northwest Trail and introduced students to the idea of long-distance backpacking.

Migratory bird fest AnekaYouth Leadership Adventures students showing off their migratory bird postcards. Photo by Aneka Singlaub.

The next morning, students loaded onto the bus for a short trip to Fort Ebey State Park. Upon arrival, Operations Manager Craig Holmquist from the National Park Service introduced them to Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Students were given a demonstration on how to use a weed wrench and learned to identify Scotch broom: a tall, quick-to-spread invasive weed. Their task? Pull as much Scotch broom as possible out of the ground in just under three hours. Many youth had been to this event the previous year and were eager to get started. They looked at the area they cleared last year and when they realized none of it had grown back, huge smiles spread across their faces as the impact they were making started to seem more of a reality. This year, inn less than three hours, 23 youth and their adult leaders cleared nearly an acre of the invasive, yellow-flowered plant, an act of stewardship that will be appreciated by native plant aficionados to come.

migratory bird Erica KeeneZheonte Payne, 15, and Seth Wendzel from O2 share a high five in celebration of removing a particularly large Scotch Broom plant.
migratory bird Erica KeeneAfter nearly three hours of grueling effort, youth celebrate the two trailer loads of Scotch Broom they removed from Fort Ebey State Park. Photo by author.
migratory bird Erica Keene Lewen Chen, 17, from InterIm WILD loads Scotch Broom into a trailer to be removed from Fort Ebey State Park.

Thank you to the US Forest Service, Ebey’s National Historical Reserve, Ebey’s Trust Board, National Park Service, Skagit Audubon Society, Whidbey Audubon Society and all other staff and volunteers who helped make this event possible. We could not have done it without you!

Leading photo: Ximena Beccera, age 9, from the Kulshan Creek Program, learns how to use a spotting scope for the first time at the bird identification station. 
 

Erica Keene is the Youth and Community Engagement Coordinator of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

 

 

 

sherisnowshoeing. John Harter

Quietude

May 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Highway 20 opened last Thursday at noon after six months of being closed — as it is every winter, due to heavy snows and avalanche danger over the pass — between Milepost 134 at Ross Lake and Milepost 178 at the Early Winters Information Center. This year, it took clearing crews almost six weeks to move the snow that had fallen up to 35 feet deep. The opening is a cause for celebration: East side, we’ve missed you! Yet there is also a tinge of lamentation, for the “road closed” season is a unique time in the North Cascades, one characterized by near impeccable silence.

Though those of us at the Environmental Learning Center live, work and play in a remote, backcountry national park, the effects of May through November’s steady stream of vehicular traffic on the acoustic environment is hard to ignore. Through the winter, residents and visitors hear the rhythm of the rain and the schulumps of snow sliding from needled branches above. As we orbit into spring, the sounds of nature change. The road closure’s sustained quiet is perfectly timed with the re-arrival of migrating birds, and the clean air is enlivened with the complicated call of Pacific Wrens, the monkey-like laughter and jackhammering of Pileated Woodpeckers and the dive-bomb buzzing of Rufous Hummingbirds.

The absence of murmurings from internal combustion engines offers the opportunity for a heightened level of sensory awareness, whether to auditorily observe the Park with adult ears or to facilitate listening activities for Mountain School students. “What’s the quietest sound you can hear?” instructors often ask trail groups. What about the fir cone scales gnawed away and dropped in a pile by industrious Douglas squirrels, or the various sounds water makes as it flows and dribbles and pools over the landscape? The cracking of a bud’s petals or the birth of a baby bird? “Road Closure” time is the ideal season for “sound mapping,” as well: Choose a spot to sit with pencil and paper, draw an “X” in the middle representing yourself, then listen and draw what you hear, notating it on the page in relation to your sit spot.

deer ears Molly FooteFifth graders from Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary using their “deer ears” to better hear the sounds of nature along the Deer Creek bridge. Photo by Molly Foote.

It is typically trying-slash-impossible to convince trail groups of ten fifth graders to close their mouths for any significant stretch of time with the goal of really listening (and the amount of talking and enforcing that trail instructors usually have to do toward such ends makes these attempts rather ironic). But the forest is a busy place; when one’s ears are opened and the machines given a rest, this becomes immediately apparent, sometimes to the point of epiphany.

Even without Highway 20 traffic, though, we are never far from reminders of the pace, size and sonic magnitude of contemporary existence. Many years ago, I spent 48-hours on a wilderness “solo” near the Dirty Devil River in Utah. While I sunned on slickrock, battling beefy ants and timing my day by the pale pink evening primroses that opened with the setting sun, I also became quickly acquainted with the flight paths of commercial jets. Respite from reminders of human civilization — the subtle or the bludgeoning — are hard to come by these days.

So difficult that Gordon Hempton, a western Washington-based acoustic ecologist, believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States where one can be for 20 minutes without hearing noise from human activity. He bases his argument, in part, upon his extensive listening experience, including a cross-country “sound tracking” tour in 2010, after which he co-authored One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). “It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may from it,” Hempton writes on his website. “By listening to natural silence, we feel connected to the land, to our evolutionary past, and to ourselves.”

dark-eyed Junco Alex PatiaCan you hear this Dark-Eyed Junco taking a bath? Photo by Alex Patia.

Hempton also founded “One Square Inch,” an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. Here he has identified – you guessed it – one tiny spot entirely free of noise pollution. It is marked by a small, red-colored stone that was given to him by an elder of the Native American Quileute tribe and is now placed atop a mossy log. The idea is that since a loud noise, such as that of a passing aircraft, impacts several of the surrounding square miles, designating a noise-free space, even one just the size of a postage stamp, with have its own rippling effects.

Ironically, one can find directions to this project on the “One Square Inch” website. (the exact coordinates are 47° 51.959N, 123° 52.221W). How long will this acoustically pristine site maintain its quietude as listening hikers pay homage? The scritchy scratch of synthetic hiking pants, the vocal appreciations of friends on trail, the beep of some technology one forget to turn off? A worthy conundrum, indeed.

Noise pollution has become a noted environmental issue over the past couple of decades. Not only do some humans seek solace away from anthropogenic noise, but it is critical for wildlife who depend on auditory signals for survival functions such as feeding, migration and breeding to not be bombarded with extraneous sounds. As Hempton said in a 2010 interview in The Sun: “The problem is that humans are often oblivious to the natural balance of sounds that has been established since the beginning of time. Imagine we’re gathered to hear a symphony, and a handful of people are running vacuum cleaners or perhaps playing their own instruments without any regard to the orchestra. That’s how human sounds often come across in a wilderness environment.”

Where is the quietest place you can think of? What are the sounds that impact it? Is it secure in its silence, or threatened? What are your favorite sounds?

As I join the party and drive to the east side, revisiting my favorite places in the Methow Valley, I’ll remember to consider my own contributions to the acoustic ecology, and try to open my ears ever wider to catch nature’s callings over the clamoring cars.

on the eastside.Elissa KobrinThe author on the east side in the fall, demonstrating how to communicate the presence of something especially cool in nature without making a sound. Photo by Elissa Kobrin.
Leading photo: Sheri Harter explores the closed side of a wintertime Highway 20 on snowshoes. Photo by John Harter.

 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She likes to Enjoy the Silence: All I ever wanted/All I ever needed/Is here/In my arms.

 

 

IMG_8145

SPECIAL EVENT!: Evolution of the Genus Iris ~ Robert Michael Pyle Reading, Bellingham 5/10

May 5th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Evolution of the Genus Iris
A reading by Robert Michael Pyle
Saturday, May 10, 2014; 7 pm
Readings Gallery at Village Books, 1200 11th Street, Bellingham
Free!

 “What a record we might have of the world’s hidden beauty if field scientists and poets routinely spent time in one another’s company.” — Alison Hawthorne Deming, from “Attending to the Beautiful Mess of the World” in The Way of Natural History

What better than a portable book of poems for a quick fix, one-way guarantee to reconnect with this hidden beauty which Deming conjures? A few stanzas, maybe just a handful of syllables, of sensory salvation for the time stressed, the pressed, those who have renounced staring dumbly at a screen or watching, heaven forbid, televised talking heads.

All Things Considered

Two river otters fished the Salmon,

diving and rising side by side, almost

down to the surf. Watching

their sleek and pointy loop-de-loop,

over and over and over,

I managed to miss

the evening news.

In his first full-length book of poetry, Evolution of the Genus Iris (Lost Horse Press, 2014), Robert Michael Pyle brings us the real news, live and uncensored from the natural world. A naturalist, lepidopterist, writer and field-class teacher at the North Cascades Institute, Pyle interprets the wild field with the eyes and notebook of both a scientist and a poet, as fellow writer Alison Hawthorne Deming wishfully imagines. The union is powerful. But Pyle does more than report from the web of life. He simultaneously offers solace from the verdant house of the holy by penning poetry that keeps us in the present, with feet grounded in the mud and moss. As he asks, also in the aforementioned book, The Way of Natural History, “Isn’t it enough that the pursuit of deep natural history is one of the surest paths toward an entirely earthly state of enlightenment?”

IMG_8236It is hard to ignore the genus Iris. (This is an heirloom bearded specimen from Alcatraz Island, part of another national park.)

Pyle’s Evolution gives a resounding “yes”. Before exploring the book’s ecological innards, though, its cover alone is stunning enough: Purple Fire by artist Lexi Sundell, a painting of a bearded iris with brush strokes from lightest lavender to midnight plum. This tantalizing botany, in tandem with a blank first page of royal violet, is the paper portal into a majestic realm of words, wings and petals. Mimicking pollinators, let’s dive into the center.

IMG_9462The beautiful mess of the natural world: Can you spot the three small invertebrates snug in this lupine? From left to right: An unidentified tan spider, a bumblebee carrying huge sacs of tangerine-colored pollen, a crab spider. So much habitat in one inflorescence!

I like/butterflies/quite a lot./But flies/(minus the butter)/abound,/and few/folks notice/except to/swat. So Pyle writes in “Dip-tych,” raising the banner for those less pretty, feces-loving insects even most naturalists seem to routinely kill without remorse or question. In another poem, “Releasing the Horseflies,” he becomes a screen-door naturalist: ….I can’t stand/frustration in any animal,/and a big fly battering a screen/is the very definition of frustration./And, oh! their stripéd silken eyes/are beautiful. Speaking up for the voiceless and the underdogs (or flies, in this case) is a specialty of both ecologists and poets. Pyle, embodying both, effortlessly lends his own integrity to this tradition.

The use of beautiful natural phenomena to elucidate hateful cultural shortcomings is another of Pyle’s talents as an author and a thinker. “Pink Pavements,” for example, uses the shattered blush blossoms of cherry trees to connect daily life across America to daily life in occupied Iraq. Or take Blues,” which tracks the constancy of azure-winged butterflies and jays across twenty years while, during that same time, 58,022 names were added to the stone wall-list of fallen soldiers. Freedom may not be free, so some chant, but taking flight as bird, insect or flower petal seems the epitome of this cherished concept.

IMG_6243How the sidewalks flush and run/when cherries, crabs, and apples shed/their petal pelts. –from “Pink Pavements”

Pyle finds freedom in the quiet revolution of “The Librarians,” as well (The walnut will drop its leaves, and one of these nights/the spider will freeze. Books too will die,/they say. But don’t believe it.), and in the unencumbered play of children, as described in “The Girl With the Cockleburs in Her Hair:”

We were talking about how children don’t

get out any more. She showed me

her daughter on her cell phone:

big pout, and four big burs

caught up in her hair.

that girl, I said, is

going to be

okay.

(Also, semi spoiler-alert: Post-Evolution, it will be difficult to consider a baby bird or a tulip exclusive of each other again.)

Pyle’s 54 poems travel from Tajikistan to Yellowstone, yet some of the best honor local Pacific Northwest celebrities: banana slugs, salmonberries, Lookout Creek. It is exciting to read the names of various species and regional landscapes, like seeing a roster of old friends with their names illuminated on the marquee, our critterly comrades and natural wonders getting the recognition they deserve. There’s pipsissewa and oxalis and varied thrushes and more, many more — a huge sampling of local biodiversity bound in one celebratory book.

banana slug K. RenzA Pacific Northwest gastropod celeb and famous decomposer, the banana slug.

My personal favorite, though, was the collection’s last. “Notes From the Edge of the Known World” is made up of three meaty stanzas telling the story of the whole grand cycle, from birth and life to death and decomposition. This printed poem itself was enough —  it was Every Thing after all, time and matter and space, the whole she-bang. But I’m a sucker for the Acknowledgements page, which followed, for who knows what connections and sweetnesses are to be found in the lists of helpful friends? Evolution‘s was no exception. I noticed that Pyle thanked Krist Novoselic, the bass player of a band from Aberdeen called Nirvana that rose to massive, worldwide popularity in September 1991. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Nirvana was the band that put Washington state on my map when I was twelve years-old. The Vision! Not only did their lead singer teach me the word “empathy,” which I now use almost daily in writing and teaching about the natural world, but had I not been obsessed with running away to Seattle as soon as I got my driver’s license (which didn’t happen), I probably wouldn’t be here now, going to graduate school 19 years later.

So imagine this editor’s surprise and delight to discover that Pyle and Novoselic — who these days is busy with political activism, farming, writing and still, music — teamed up to present “Notes From the Edge of the Known World.” Pyle reads, Novoselic fingerpicks an acoustic guitar and youtube gives viewers easy access to a video interspersed with both the performers and ecological scenery (including a rough-skinned newt!). The writer and the musician are both active in organizing the Grays River Grange, in the Lower Columbia region of southwest Washington. The tune was recorded and mixed by Jack Endino, who also did Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach.

Good poetry the same as good ecology, and good music: It makes the fallible, all-too-conscious human feel not so alone in the world. Whether drawing out our kinship with a horsefly or with hanging blue cotton panties drying in the wind, Pyle shows, once again, that relationships are everywhere inescapable.

IMG_3868A monarch caterpillar munching on an Asclepias, or milkweed. This plant supplies monarchs with alkaloids that make them toxic to predators.

PLEASE JOIN NORTH CASCADES INSTITUTE AND VILLAGE BOOKS IN WELCOMING ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE:

BPYLE.Benjamin Drummond

The poet himself.

Evolution of the Genus Iris
A reading by Robert Michael Pyle
Saturday, May 10, 2014; 7 pm
Readings Gallery at Village Books, 1200 11th Street, Bellingham
Free!

Leading photo: Graduate student Tyler Chisholm takes a break from teaching Mountain School to read some color-coordinated poetry in the woods.
 

Photo of Robert Michael Pyle by Benjamin Drummond. All other photos by the author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Though she rarely watches the Smells Like Teen Spirit video anymore, when she does she’s filled with regret that she failed to commandeer her high school’s cheerleading team.