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Kristin Musgnug: Artist in Residence

December 4th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

By Kristin Musgnug

I am a landscape painter whose goal is to make paintings of the kind of places that don’t usually show up in landscape paintings – places that are not conventionally beautiful. While I thoroughly enjoyed the extraordinary beauty of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center’s surroundings, it was a particular challenge to find places that evoked other responses.

My project while at theEnvironmental Learning Center involved close up painting of the forest floor, particularly in the lush undergrowth of old, wild forests. This project’s emphasis on intact, mostly un-interfered-with location represents a bit of a departure for me. For years my work has investigated the relations between humans and the natural world by painting in places where the results of this interaction were visible. Much of my work has been generated by considering such questions as: how our attitudes towards nature affect our actions towards it, how and why we shape the environment, and how we in turn are shaped by it. To do this I have often focused on landscapes shaped by a particular type of land use, such as campgrounds, parks, gardens, logged forests, parking lots and miniature golf courses.

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compost2 (haag)

It’s the COMpost!: Welcome to the Black Morel

November 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

During a recent celebration at the Environmental Learning Center, I noticed Saul, our Executive Director, gesturing toward the compost building from the back deck of the dining hall. Made of grey cement blocks and housing two Green Mountain Technologies Earth Tubs, a dumpster, and several recycling bins, this building is where dining hall leftovers are transformed in to nutrient-dense fertilizer as part of the North Cascades Institute’s Foodshed program. The structure is hardly architecturally or intellectually noteworthy. And it stinks. So what were the dozen or so revelers talking about, captivated by the most infamously fragrant building on campus as opposed to, say, staring west through the trees at a twilit Diablo Lake as the sun descended into the folds of the glorious Skagit Valley?

Saul explained he would like for people to start calling the structure by its rightful, well-earned moniker. “It’s named ‘The Black Morel’,” he said, with all the authority an executive director can possess when referring to his facility’s odiferous refuse.

Perhaps you, dear reader, have noticed that every building on campus has a name, all which reflect the native vegetation, save for our one fungal representative – the Black Morel. The waste management building represents an entire other biologic kingdom, one that is neither plant nor animal, deriving it’s food and energy from dead things and helping them turn back in to soil. This naming of the buildings was completely intentional. Saul said that initially, while building the campus in 2004, they were referred to by a quick and boring “Building A, B, C, etc.” But why not integrate the built environment into the living one as much as possible, and use them as teaching tools as well? Towards that end, for example, there’s Sundew, our Aquatics Lab, named after a bog-loving carnivorous plant that looks like a monster’s toothy mouth. Or consider the Wild Ginger, our cozy library, named for a plant with heart-shaped leaves that lie close to the ground, with inconspicuous, triangular maroon flowers hiding underneath, much like books, full of love and secret worlds.

The namesake fungi: the Black Morel (Morchella elata). Photo by Lee Whitford.


signWhere the loop gets closed. Photo by author.

I vaguely recalled noticing the carved wooden sign announcing the building’s given name. I still referred to it, though, as most of the staff did, as “the compost.” That was how it announced itself, olfactorily, whenever one ventured near that edge of campus.

But Saul was right. Though the office (a.k.a “Twinflower”) is where all of our programs get organized, and our trails are where about 2,500 Mountain School students every year get connected to this North Cascades ecosystem, the Black Morel may be the most important place at the Environmental Learning Center. It’s where the loop is closed, where the cycle of matter and nutrients works perfectly, rather than getting ignored and abused in the typical “trash” to landfill scenario. According to our chef, Shelby Slater, all of our food waste is composted, and 75 percent of the total waste from the kitchen ends up here (of the other quarter, 15 percent gets recycled, and only ten percent is destined for slow death in the landfill).

There’s the “foodshed” cycle, too: Blue Heron Farm in Rockport and Acme’s Osprey Hill Farm provide much of the food that gets prepared and served at our dining hall. The carrot tops and leftover scraps go to the Black Morel, where they are transformed into fertilizer to give back to local farms, the Angele Cupples Community Garden in Concrete, and private down-valley gardens.

blue heron anne (brondi)Anne Schwartz, of Blue Heron Farm, showing off a leafy and lovely bok choy in front of a field of organically-grown corn. Blue Heron provides much of the food served during programs at the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Michael Brondi.

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The Mushroom Hunters: Outlaws in Lobster Park

November 8th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Langdon Cook presents his new book The Mushroom Hunters at Village Books in Bellingham at 7 pm on November 13 as part of our Nature of Writing Fall 2013 series.

The forager stops me abruptly with his hand. Wait. I stand motionless behind him and listen. All I can hear is my own labored breathing. We have walked a mile of unforgiving old-growth forest to reach this spot, zigzagging through bogs of devil’s club and traversing fallen conifers high above the forest floor like construction workers shuffling along suspended I beams. My left hand is pincushioned with tiny thorns. We pause on a forested hillside overlooking a gravel road. In the mind of my guide, this road presents the only real obstacle. He cups a hand to one ear.


He hits the dirt on all fours and flattens himself against a knee-high nurse log. I slump behind a hemlock snag as wide as a front door.

The car is a white sedan, not a ranger’s truck. It comes around the corner and pulls into a turnout. An elderly woman steps out with a lap dog. The forager is relieved but still cautious. “I’ll wait here for an hour if I have to,” he says, still on the ground, leaning back comfortably into the hillside now, with his hands behind his head and one boot crossed over the other, his eyes closed as if he might take a quick nap. This is his element. Even at a distance of only a few feet from me, he blends easily into the landscape, like all the other creatures that use cryptic coloration to avoid detection. He’s wearing tan canvas work pants and an ash-gray T-shirt. His collapsible bucket (for easy stowing) is painted hunter green, as is his backpack, a simple rucksack with one large compartment that can hold about fifty pounds of product. The product today: wild mushrooms, the sort prized by restaurant chefs across the land for their earthy flavors and firm texture. These are not the bland white variety found in produce bins at the supermarket. Wild mushrooms grow only in nature, in ragged, untended corners, not in the warehouses or rectilinear, climate-controlled environments used by cultivators. And these particular wild mushrooms—about sixty pounds in all between backpack and bucket—were, until a few minutes ago, growing right here, inside the boundaries of this national park where we’re currently trying to hide. It’s illegal to pick them here.

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From Teacher to Student and Back Again

October 16th, 2011 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Last weekend Cohort 11 graduate students had the chance to step away from our roles as Mountain School Instructors and again return to being students of Natural History during our three day Fall Grad Retreat. After weeks of training and teaching 5th and 6th grade youth about the diverse ecosystems of the North Cascades, the respite from such high activity was much appreciated by all. Our explorations took us by hand and knee through douglas fir forests near home, and by car and foot through the ponderosa pine and fire-scarred forests in the Methow Valley.

Day one of the retreat was spent near the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center campus with M.Ed. graduate alumna and mycologist Lee Whitford discussing the amazing yet unfamiliar world of fungi and their fruiting mushroom bodies. After learning some basic facts and characteristics about our earthy friends, we set out to do some local harvesting of our own (on Forest Service land, of course!). It took some time to adjust our eyes and hone our observational skills to the often unnoticed specimens hidden between leaf, detritus, and tree trunk, but half an hour and handfuls of mushrooms later our forage had yielded an impressive and diverse variety of them.

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A moment of snow

November 15th, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Each footstep crunching beneath the layers of newly fallen leaves has now transitioned to the soft silence of detritus, and of snow. Autumn’s transition to winter has been a tug of war. At the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, the snowline has risen and fallen along hillsides like the lapping of waves against a shore. We have been watching, our eyes patient and waiting, the white, wintry callings only a few hundred feet above us for over a month.

This weekend looked promising for powder, with forecasts for the North Cascades to see snow at significantly lower elevations. Like a child during the holidays, I awoke with joy Friday morning, gazing upon fat flakes of frost falling from the sky. It may have been only a minute amount of snow, but its company was welcomed with excitement and an eagerness to go out and play.

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Intro Photo Megan's Trapper blog

Blitzing Trapper

October 18th, 2009 | Posted by in Adventures

The morning of September 27th was one of those mornings that you wake up, look out the window and know instantly that there is nothing keepin’ you indoors. When I walked out into the day, it didn’t matter what I did as along as it involved being active in my huge backyard of the North Cascades. At breakfast in the dining hall, Katie mentioned she was going to hike up to Trapper’s Peak and, just like that, my day began.

Katie, Justin, Rebecca and I all piled into Katie’s car, drove to the Thornton Lake Trailhead, just down valley from Newhalem. The 10+ cars parked on the road surprised us. Apparently quite a few people had the same idea we did. The first quarter of trail was an old logging road and had a low grade of elevation. The variety of mushrooms lining the trail was incredible. It seemed as though there wasn’t a size, color or shape we didn’t come across.

As we climbed higher in elevation, the blueberries were at the height of their season. We could barely take ten steps without having to stop and gather a handful. The berries’ deep blue color created a beautiful contrast against their bushes, which had begun to change from green to a reddish-brown. Justin’s lips and fingers, in particular, maintained a blue tint throughout the hike.

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Mushrooms are everywhere…..

October 8th, 2008 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

……they grow on everything. They come in all colors, shapes, textures and sizes; orange, yellow, brown, spotted, purple, red, smooth, white, black, shaggy, cupped, and fringed. Every day I head down the trail wondering what new mushroom will have pushed its way into the world. Actually my favorite mushroom trait is their earth moving powers! Okay, it’s more like their humus moving powers. Big mushrooms remind me of big, slow moving school yard bullies. The mushrooms shoulder out the hummus, twigs, diminutive plant material and force their way into the world.

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