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Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) hunting in winter snowfall. Ontario, Canada.

Favorite Nature Art & Photo Books of 2015

December 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

I’m fortunate to get to review books for various regional publications, most often in the Cascadia Weekly. I get the privilege and pleasure of being sent many books throughout the year, usually on “nature topics,” both fiction and nonfiction, as well as poetry, art, photography and conservation issues. Here at the end of 2015, I’ve selected some of my favorite coffee table-style books that present the natural world in all of its glory!  — CM

TheLivingBird_PRINT

The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature
Photography by Gerrit Vyn (Mountaineers Books)

This handsome volume brings to life the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a venerable institute that has been researching – and communicating to the public – the complex lives of birds since 1915. Leading chroniclers of the natural world contribute essays, including Barbara Kingsolver, Jared Diamond, Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Scott Weidensaul, but the real star of these pages is photographer Gerrit Vyn. His crisp images of nesting Snow Owls, dancing Greater Prairie-Chickens, migrating Sandhill Cranes, flocking Trumpeter Swans and beachcombing Sanderlings share as intimate a portrait of bird life as has ever been produced. (Top photo of Great Grey Owl by Vyn)


Grizzly 

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Grizzly: The Bears of Greater Yellowstone
Thomas D. Mangelsen (Rizzoli)

Photographer Thomas Mangelson is renowned for his stunning photographs of the world’s wildlife and exotic locales, but for Grizzly, he focuses his lens in on a family of bears in his own backyard: Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This veritable Eden is rich with elk, moose, antelope, bison and other creatures, but the return of brown bears (and gray wolves too) is a recent phenomenon. Beginning in 2006, Mangelsen began creating a “visual journal” of the life and times of Grizzly #399, a matriarch of the Ursus arctos horribilis clans of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Because she inhabits the frontcountry around Grand Teton National Park, she was relatively visible and attracted a legion of admirers. Grizzly intimately chronicles her life and times raising three cubs, hunting elk, playing in wildflower meadows, swimming the Snake River and doing a delicate dance amongst her humans fan club. This large-format book is empathetic and moving tribute to the more-than-human world.


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Pacific Valley

California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints and History
Tom Killian with Gary Snyder (Heyday Press)

Writer and woodcut artist Tom Killian conducts a multi-level exploration of California’s Pacific Coast through art, poetry, Native American stories, records of early explorers and varied contributions from writer, bioregional philosopher and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder. Killian’s 80 stunning, colorful woodblock prints, influenced by the 19th-century Japanese technique of ukiyo-ë, say the most about these places with the fewest words. San Francisco Bay, Pt. Reyes, Bolinas Ridge, Monterey Bay, Pt. Sur, Tomales Bay and other scenic waypoints along the ragged California coast are exquisitely rendered. His carvings blend the accuracy of natural history with the impressionistic imagination of an artist. Striking a fine balance between romantic and representational, his artwork shares what a   landscape viewed through the lens of respect and love looks like.


SOW-Cover

Soul of Wilderness: Mountain Journeys in Western BC and Alaska
John Baldwin & Linda Bily (Harbour Publishing)

» Continue reading Favorite Nature Art & Photo Books of 2015

NCI Snyder SourDough 2

Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

November 7th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“August on Sourdough,

A Visit from Dick Brewer”

Poem by Gary Snyder from The Back Country; a reading with Rob Rich

You hitched a thousand miles

north from San Francisco

Hiked up the mountainside     a mile in the air

Thy little cabin – one room –

walled in glass

Meadows and snowfields,     hundreds of peaks.

We lay in our sleeping bags

talking half the night;

Wind in the guy-cables      summer mountain rain.

Next morning I went with you

as far as the cliffs,

Loaned you my poncho –      the rain across the shale –

You down the snowfield

flapping in the wind

Waving a last goodbye      half hidden in the clouds

To go on hitching

clear to New York;

Me back to my mountain      and far, far, west.

 

Snyder_print

Just behind the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, Sourdough Mountain looms. This fabled peak has enjoyed a front row seat to generations of comings and goings in the Upper Skagit: a glacial lake draining, indigenous peoples journeying to quarry ancient sea-floor stones, newcomers paving Route 20 through gorges, your car rumbling through them.

» Continue reading Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

Gary Snyder Nobody Home

Notable Environmental Books of 2014

January 1st, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

As a book reviewer for the Cascadia Weekly, I pay close attention to what’s being published, with a special focus on books on regional topics, releases from regional publishers and titles that explore natural history and environmental issues. I’m extremely fortunate to receive dozens of complimentary review copies through the year, and try to read as many of them as I can. Here at the end of 2014, I put together a list of what I consider to be noteworthy and important environmental books released over the last year. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully will provide you some inspiration for future reading!

One more thing, I strongly encourage you to purchase any of these titles that interest you from your local independent bookseller. We need community hubs like Village Books, Elliott Bay Books, Trail’s End Bookstore and Watermark Book Company to continue to promote literary diversity, local flavor, community economics and opportunities for grassroots free-thinking and creativity.

Without futher ado…

ecopoetry anthology

The Ecopoetry Anthology
Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (Trinity University Press)
In this new anthology of poetry, the editors are quick to explain that poetry has involved itself with the natural world since the very first poems were written, and that their collection is focused on poetry that is influenced by contemporary developments: the birth of the environmental movement, the incredible discoveries made in the natural sciences and the growing awareness and magnitude of ecological crises enveloping us. So while the book opens a historical foundation provided by the likes of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, it soon dives in to a great tangle of recent works — “praise songs, incantations, narratives, meditations, lists, elegies, rhapsodies, jeremiads” — which the editors hope contain power to “move the world — to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair.” Poets like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Robert Hass, Jane Hirschfield, Linda Hogan and W.S. Merwin — and better yet, poets you haven’t discovered yet — are called in to do the heavy lifting.

The Sixth Extinction Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt)
When I received a copy of this book, I thought “why would I ever spend my precious time on such a grim topic?” I dabbled in the first few pages and, before I knew it, Kolbert’s well-built narrative and engaging prose swept me up and through to the end. The Sixth Extinction is engaging and informative and even kind of fun, like a good, long New Yorker article, which is where Kolbert holds her day job. Each chapter is based around investigation of a species that is either long-extinct or currently endangered, with Kolbert traveling around the world to explore jungles, zoos, ice regions, coasts, caves and islands, interviewing scientists, citizen activists, anthropologists, climatologists and other front-line experts along the way.

The author explores the history of our understanding of extinction — how the very concept of species disappearing from the planet challenged science at the time, and how discoveries of mammoth bones and ammonites, plate tectonics, natural selection, climate change and evolving concepts on the origin of homo sapiens have come together to illuminate life on Planet Earth over the past 3 billion years.

As the narrative reaches our modern times, what many geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, the unfolding understanding of how many species Earth is going to lose is grim indeed. The Sixth Extinction is unfolding right now, primarily because of us, and it’s an open question what will survive our disastrous reign.

spanish-revival mining-towns exotic-plants

How to Read the American West: A Field Guide
William Wyckoff (University of Washington Press)
We are all familiar with field guides that interpret the natural world for us, like Sibley’s Guide to Birds and Pojar and MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. But a field guide for dude ranches, strip malls, grain elevators, cloudscapes, ski towns, farmworker settlements and gay and lesbian neighborhoods? William Wyckoff, a professor of geography at Montana State University and talented photographer, has created a strange, fascinating and often humorous book that surveys our modern American landscape, both natural and human-built.

Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism and Living in Places
Gary Snyder and Julia Martin (Trinity University Press)
This diminutive volume holds three lively, in-depth interviews and a trove of correspondence that transpired over three decades between a graduate student-turned-professor living in South Africa and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet living in the mountains of California. A mutual interest in esoteric topics like bioregionalism, ecocriticism, Zen practice and poetics sparked their long relationship, and Martin’s sensitive but persistent proddings bring forth a wealth of insights from Snyder. In their letters, we eavesdrop on the development of a caring friendship, reading accounts of travels and academic conferences, all the while Snyder providing sage advice to the younger writer.

» Continue reading Notable Environmental Books of 2014

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Book reviews: New titles from Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry & Gary Ferguson

November 12th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Editor’s note: Gary Ferguson teaches a Nature Writing Workshop for the Chuckanut Writers program at WCC on Nov 18, 9:30-4:30, $75. Co-presented by North Cascades Institute, Ferguson will instruct how to blend natural world, memoir, myths and archetypes in to your own story. More information at www.ncascades.org/signup/programs/nature-writing-workshop-with-gary-ferguson; register at www.whatcomcommunityed.com or by calling (360) 383-3200. Ferguson’s workshop will be followed by a free public reading at Village Books at 7 pm for his new book, The Carry Home. Info at http://www.villagebooks.com/event/gary-ferguson-11/18/14.

By Christian Martin

Gary Ferguson has been a voice for the wilderness for the past 25 years. His steady, sturdy prose has translated the power of wild places in to 22 nonfiction titles like Hawk’s Rest, The Yellowstone Wolves, The Great Divide and Walking Down the Wild.

Combining lyrical images, scientific research and hard-won, first-hand experiences, Ferguson has shown readers how the untamed natural world challenges, informs, inspires and awes us.

In his latest book, The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness from Counterpoint Press, Ferguson explores another dimension of the power of wild places: healing.

Ferguson, Gary (c) Mary Clare

The Carry Home chronicles Ferguson’s quest to scatter his wife Jane’s ashes in several locations that she specified: the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, near a Forest Service cabin in southern Montana, a remote corner of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone and Wyoming’s Absaroka Range.

It is one last adventure in the Great Outdoors for the couple, married for 25 years and bonded through their shared love of exploring, hiking, canoeing and roadtripping (they put 350,000 miles on a 1979 Chevy van).

Ferguson invites us to join him on this intimate journey, and as the tale unfolds, we witness the healing balm that nature provides.

“At first, the journeys broke my heart,” he writes. “Later they helped me to piece it together again.”

Ferguson’s books have excelled at telling other peoples’ stories, like wildlife biologists studying grey wolves or troubled teens in a wilderness therapy program. The Carry Home turns the author’s focus on himself, and his chronicle of grief is unstinting and raw, deftly avoiding maudlin and over-sentimental prose. The reader travels alongside Ferguson — riding shotgun in the Chevy, hiking trails, paddling rivers — as he revisits hallowed ground and meditates on love, wild places and how both came to be braided together in the story of their marriage.

» Continue reading Book reviews: New titles from Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry & Gary Ferguson

Desolation NCI

On the Lookout for Unalloyed Pleasure: Poets in the North Cascades circa 1950s

February 10th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascade Institute’s graduate Cohort 13 recently hosted our annual Instructor Exchange with other students and teachers from IslandWood and the Wilderness Awareness School. As part of this, I facilitated a session about the handful of poets who served as fire lookouts in the North Cascades in the 1950s. My notes were gathered almost entirely from John Suiter’s comprehensive and lovely book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint 2002). After the presentation was through, I realized my hunch was correct: People love these stories.

At this point, over half-a-century later, Jack Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled fiction and Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary (for the times) poems can seem romantic and co-opted to the point of being trite. Sometimes. More often, though, I regard this small club of men – Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac — who looked out, in solitude, from these mountains as an immense and symbolic source of relief. All three had connections and allegiances to the San Francisco Bay Area, a peninsula inhabited by freaks and artists and which regularly appeared as a setting in their writings. I, too, have been steeped in that place. It is a lifeline to know they lived and loved, wrote and pondered, here in the North Cascades, that they were the keepers of these ridges and valleys over a decade before these mountains were bestowed national park status. I can look up toward Sourdough Mountain, if it’s not hiding behind heavy grey, and hear Snyder and Whalen reminding me what a stunning land this is, assuring me that the steep streets of North Beach, the forested flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the cacti gardens and Craftsman homes of Berkeley are a mere hitchhike away, should one choose.

The following relates three connected snippets of the poets’ experiences in the North Cascades. All information and quotes are from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.

*    *    *

It is 1954, and Gary Snyder is not happy.

After spending two summers as a fire lookout in the North Cascades, once perched in the highest structure, atop Crater Mountain, and later living on the comparatively “suburban” Sourdough Mountain, Snyder’s application to work a third season is rejected by the United States Forest Service. Had the 24-year-old poet and mountaineer done something wrong? Perhaps he had not spent the requisite 20 minutes per hour scanning the horizon for smokes or failed to memorize every peak amidst his diligent practicing of Zen Buddhism, outlining a future play about lookout life, reading galore and imbibing green tea?

view north from SD, K. RemzThe view from Sourdough Mountain, looking north toward Ross Lake. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The answer is hardly definitive. On February 10, the Forest Service supervisor in Bellingham denies Snyder’s application on unclear grounds. Snyder eventually receives an explanation from the Department of Agriculture, vaguely attributing his dismissal to a “general unsuitability” as opposed to “security” issues. One thing is clear: Snyder is blacklisted from government work.

Homegrown campaigns against labor rights activists in Washington and Oregon got nasty after World War One, at times demonstrating a particularly Pacific Northwest brand of vigilante violence by flogging Wobblies with the spiky native plant, devil’s club (an ethnobotanical application of this highly medicinal species that usually goes unmentioned). Thirty-five years later, Snyder is irritated, hurt, and increasingly angry and frustrated by attempts to find other, equivalent employment. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare is raging, and though the young poet is an open pacifist and anarchist, he is not involved in any radical organizing. Calling all pikas! You mountain goats o’er there, with your un-American beards! C’mon Hozomeen, rally the chert!

Plan B. Snyder sends a stack of applications all over the Pacific Northwest and California looking for summer work doing trail-building, fire crew, or fire-watch. He is successful, and buys six weeks worth of groceries on the way to his new lookout job in the Gifford Pinchot forest. He is fired the next morning. He finds a position as a choke setter on Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation instead. From Zen lookout-poet to manning one of the most dangerous jobs in the logging industry, Snyder’s season was a challenge.

Poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg Backpacking
Though never a lookout himself, poet Allen Ginsberg [on right] was a friend and contemporary of Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac. He writes: “Between June and September 1965, North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, USA — Summer 1965, 8 day backpack climbing in wilderness area of northern Cascades, Glacier Park, Washington state, [with] Gary Snyder [on left] back from a near-decade in Kyoto studying & practicing Zazen. My first mountain walk.” — Image © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

As Snyder writes in a letter to his friend, fellow poet and lookout Philip Whalen: “I am physically sick for wanting to be in the mountains so bad. I am forced to admit that no one thing in life gives me such unalloyed pleasure as simply being in the mountains.” And later, he elaborates: “Everything feels all wrong: I just can’t adapt to not packing up and traveling this time of year and my rucksack and boots hang accusingly on the wall.”

Philip Whalen’s boots, however, are indeed on his feet, though they are likely propped up on a chair, his lap supporting a book, more often than his mountaineering friend Snyder’s ever were. Set above 6000 feet at Sourdough Lookout, it’s mid-August and Whalen is in his second season, occupying the one room home in which Snyder had experienced his own creative surge the year before in 1953.

Previously, Whalen had spent his premier lookout season on Sauk Mountain, with a choice view of the Picket Range, Mount Shuskan, and Mount Baker. The two men, both writers, became friends while students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Highly intellectual, Whalen is turned on to lookout-ing by the younger Snyder, thrilled not so much by the physical challenges of the outdoors but by the rare opportunity to embark on an intensive summer reading campaign while living embedded in beauty and solitude to inspire his writing. And getting paid by the Eisenhower administration to do it! Snyder also introduces Whalen to Zen teachings and practice.

During his short stint in 1954 atop Sourdough (fire danger is low that year, and the season starts late), Whalen’s neighbors include a herd of a dozen stags and a resident black bear. Upon returning to the valley, motivated and enthused, he writes in a letter to Snyder: “My imagination is in great shape. Goodness knows what will happen next.”

diablo from SD Katherin RenzA classic image of Diablo Lake, as seen from the flanks of Sourdough Mountain. In his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout”, Whalen describes it as “two lights green soap and indigo”. Photo by Katherine Renz.

It is a little over a year later, October 1955. A handful of poets, on fire, give a reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. Allen Ginsberg unleashes his incendiary “Howl”. Jack Kerouac, a writer and train-hopping Buddhist who’d recently arrived from a literary bender with William Burroughs in Mexico City, is in attendance, too. It proves a legendary night, the kickoff of the literary resurgence fueled by the so-called Beat Generation (not all participating poets, Snyder included, would enjoy this lasting label).

Whalen shares his tales of lookout work in the wild North Cascades to Kerouac. Snyder elaborates. Though Kerouac has never traveled in the backcountry before, he has long fantasized about holing up in a hermitage – writing rapid-fire, beset with visions, privy to a direct line to the divine. His experienced friends encourage him to apply.

Kerouac is accepted to man Desolation Lookout, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, for the summer of 1956. His anticipation is overwhelming, and he tells his friend, Carolyn Cassidy, “O boy, O boy, O here I go, I got the offer for the job watching fires…and I told the Forest Ranger I hoped he’d take me back next year, and the next, and all my life. It will be my life work…”.

kerouac copyright Walter LehrmanMay 1956, Kerouac at Gary Snyder’s going-away party (Snyder would be back and forth between Japan and California for the next 12 years) in Northern California. This is six weeks before Kerouac left for his season in the North Cascades. Image © Walter Lehrman.

Being a fire lookout does not become Kerouac’s life work. He writes a ton while on Desolation (his arguably most famous novel, On the Road, would be published a year later). But he is also lonely, scared of the looming Hozomeen, especially in the dark, having more delusions than visions and yearning more for debauchery and drugs upon returning to the city than for the dharma of the present. In his 63 days on the aptly-named mountain, he receives no visitors, his sole social contact being when he scrambles down to the Ross Guard Station, ten days into his season, to scrounge a one pound tin of Prince Albert rolling tobacco from the generous guards.

*     *     *

Three men, 360 degree views, a slew of haikus, tales and legends. It is 2014. I look to the peaks and they rumble poems.

desolation sign NCIAbove and top images © North Cascades Institute

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward to an obligatory pilgrimage to Desolation Peak this coming summer vacation, followed by a drink in North Beach.

 

 

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Place-Based Resolutions

December 31st, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Seconds past midnight, all bubbles and kisses. December’s fading moments transition into the cacophony of January, offering an annual reincarnation, ushering in a fresh year of open-ended possibility. Like blushing buds on winter’s twigs: Potential, unstoppable.

(For the next couple of weeks, at least.)

In terms of the new year — unlike most considerations — I’m a traditionalist. Being a powerfully symbolic time, the opportunity to create resolutions, and to reflect upon my variable successes with the almost done ones, is one too juicy to pass up. Two thousand fourteen is no different. Though the standard intentions, namely, “Play more guitar,” and “Stop being so neurotic” are obliged to make their repetitive appearance, I recently found a more measurable, but still challenging, way to test my resolve, one that will hopefully yield better results. It stems from the first post I wrote for Chattermarks, in which I wondered: How do we get to know our place (and, with a wink of the impatient, also asked if can we speed this relationship up)? I still haven’t found an answer, but the inquiry did prompt me to revisit a document called the “Bioregional Quiz.”

salmon carcasses RenzTaking care not to get any rotting flesh on her feet, the author stands amidst dozens of salmon corpses on the banks of the Skagit River near the Newhalem campground in North Cascades National Park. The anadromous fish travel upstream to the pools of their birth, lay the eggs of the next generation even as they begin to decay, then promptly die, in the process nourishing all the life of the upper valley. Photo by Samantha Hale.

Bioregionalism is best described by novelist Jim Dodge in his 1990 essay, “Living by Life.” Most simply, it’s a movement — part philosophy, part politics —  looking to natural systems as the point from which we should organize ourselves, our neighborhoods, our government, our spirituality. This could mean we consider, for example, watersheds, the shift in plant and animal communities from one region to another, topography, or human culture as the bases for decision-making, as opposed to arbitrary lines drawn on a map. Famously championed by Dodge and poet Gary Snyder, bioregionalism is radically place-based.

The questions such an approach requires one ask are essential ones and, I think, are the discoveries and explorations environmental educators seek to encourage in their students all the time. Let’s do it:

BIOREGIONAL QUIZ

Modified and augmented from Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, CoEvolution Quarterly #32, Winter 1981

1.) Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2.) How many days until the moon is full? (plus/minus a couple of days)

3.) Describe the soil around your home.

4.) What was the total rainfall in your area last year?

5.) When was the last time a fire burned in your area?

6.) What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before you?

7.) Name five edible plants in your region.

berries C13 backpack Hale
Wild alpine blueberries and savage salmonberries will soon mix with some oatmeal and sugar to make a mid-trip crisp on Cohort 13’s summer backpacking adventure. Photo by Samantha Hale.

8.) From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

9.) Where does you garbage go?

10.) How long is the growing season where you live?

11.) When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?

12.) Name five conifers in your area.

13.) Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.

14.) What is the land use history of where you live?

15.) What primary geological event/process influenced the land form where you live? (Bonus: What’s the evidence of it?)

glacial valley Slate Mtn. Hale

Evidence of former glaciers can be found all over the North Cascades in U-shaped valleys such as this one looking out from Slate Peak in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo by Samantha Hale.

16.) What species have become extinct in your area?

17.) What are the major plant associations in your region?

18.) From where you’re reading this, point north.

19.) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

20.) Name some beings (non-human) which share your place.

21.) Point to where the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

22.) Are there plans for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

Dam HaleDiablo Dam: When living at the Environmental Learning Center, it’s impossible to forget where the energy comes from. Photo by Samantha Hale.

23.) What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

24.) Name five people in your neighborhood. What do they do?

25.) Where are the parks, open spaces or wild areas in your town?

26.) What are some of the main materials your house is made of?

27.) How much gasoline do you use per week, on average? What are the various ways you use to get from Point A to Point B?

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The pace of things to come? Biking around Lopez Island, dreaming of paradise. Photo by author.

28.) What is the oldest building in your community? The newest?

29.) Are there any hazardous waste sites in your community?

30.) Where does your sewage go?

31.) If there is a place you walk to regularly, is there an alternative route you can take instead, just to mix it up? How many different ways could you get to the same place?

32.) Where does your favorite restaurant get most of its food from?

33.) What advocacy organizations are in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

34.) Does your town have a domestic animal shelter? A wild animal one? Do they ever need volunteers?

35.) Do you have a food bank or homeless shelter in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

» Continue reading Place-Based Resolutions

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Poems from Sourdough Mountain Lookout

November 19th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Tim McNulty

Longtime Institute writing instructor, naturalist and poet Tim McNulty will travel from his home on the Olympic Peninsula to Village Books in Bellingham to read from his new collection of poetry Ascendence on Friday, November 22 at 7pm; free

These poems were written at Sourdough Mountain Lookout during the dry summer of 2003.  Several lightning-sparked wildfires were burning in the heart of North Cascades National Park that summer.  Natural wildfire is an vital part of the forest ecosystem.  The park service decided to reactivate the historic lookout to monitor the fires’ behavior.

Sourdough Mountain lies at the heart of the North Cascades.  A mile above the Skagit River canyon at the intersection of six major drainages, it commands one of the most spectacular views in the range.

When the park began looking for a fire guard who could commit to the summer fire season, friends let me know. I jumped at the opportunity.  A few days later I was alone amid one the most spectacular mountain wilderness landscapes in North America.

TM Hannigan camp 12

Part of my practice as a poet is to keep an active personal journal.  At the lookout I also kept a fire log in which I recorded daily temperature, wind velocity and direction, barometric pressure, fuel moisture, and fire behavior.  In my personal journal I jotted notes, observations, impressions, images…  During slack times in the afternoons and evenings, I worked at shaping my rough notes into poems.  I winnowed and revised them over the following winter.  The poems appeared in an earlier poetry chapbook and now they are part my new collection, Ascendance (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2013).  The section is titled “Through High Still Air,” an obvious nod to poet Gary Snyder who served as Sourdough Mt. lookout 50 years earlier.

What follows are a few poems that chronicled my weeks among the peaks as the Northwest summer gave way to fall.  Fires flared then succumbed to damp weather.  A river of wildlife passed through barely taking note of me.  And the stunning mountain wildness surrounded and inspired me each day.

 

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

 

I found it difficult to get to sleep my first few nights at the due to the dazzling array of stars that lit the windows all around.  To convey the immensity of the experience,  I evoked the image of the lookout as a small skiff anchored to a shoal in a sea of stars.  The mountain wilderness that surrounded me was a microcosm of the larger “wilderness” of the heavens.

 

Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout

 

A late-summer sun

threads the needles of McMillan Spires

and disappears in a reef of coral cloud.

 

Winds roil the mountain trees,

batter the shutter props.

 

I light a candle with the coming dark.

Its reflection in the window glass

flickers over mountains and

shadowed valleys

seventeen miles north to Canada.

 

Not another light.

 

The lookout is a dim star

anchored to a rib of the planet

like a skiff to a shoal

in a wheeling sea of stars.

 

Night sky at full flood.

 

Wildly awake.

 

*                          *                          *                          *                          *

» Continue reading Poems from Sourdough Mountain Lookout