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Special Event: Poet Holly J. Hughes Reading, Bellingham 4/12

April 9th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Sailing by Ravens
A reading by Holly J. Hughes
April 12, 2014; 7 pm
Readings Gallery at Village Books, 1200 11th Street, Bellingham

This Saturday evening, former Alaskan salmon gillnetter, mariner, editor and naturalist Holly J. Hughes shares her latest book of poetry, Sailing by Ravens (University of Alaska Press, 2014) as part of Village Books and North Cascades Institute’s Nature of Writing Series.

Using a variety of poetic forms, Hughes deftly explores how we find our way, at sea, in love and in life. Hughes draws from more than 30 seasons working at sea, offering a lyrical view of the history of navigation, plumbing its metaphorical richness. From the four points of the compass, Hughes navigates “the wavering, certain path” of a woman’s heart, learning to trust a deeper knowledge. This collection offers wisdom culled from direct experience and careful attention, taking us with her in her quest to chart her own course. “How will she learn to ride the swell, let the earth curve her?” This poet’s questions open us to possibilities as vast as the ocean.

Sailing by Ravens is a deeply moving portrait of a sailor and her ocean.  It’s a look back at love and loss and the Alaskan fishing life. It’s a history of sailing and navigation, a study of a dissolving marriage, a gorgeous map of the body and desire. It’s an impressive book of forms and an ingeniously crafted whole. Holly Hughes takes on the familiar metaphor of the ocean, then makes it necessary and new. I’m awestruck.
–Kathleen Flenniken, Washington State Poet Laureate, author of Plume and Famous

Hughes is a recipient of a Washington State Artist Trust Fellowship and residencies at Hedgebrook, Centrum and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including Dancing With Joy: 99 Poems (Random House), The Poet’s Guide to Birds (Anhinga Press), Working the Woods, Working the Sea (Empty Bowl Press), and America Zen: A Gathering of Poets (Bottom Dog Press).

She teaches writing at Edmonds Community College, where she directs the Convergence Writers Series and received the Excellence in Education Award in 2012.  She has also spent over thirty summers working on the water in Alaska in a variety of roles, including commercial fishing for salmon, skippering a 65-foot schooner, and more recently, working as a naturalist on ships.

Some samples from Sailing by Ravens:

Steering by Monarchs 


She forgot the instruments and steered instead

by butterflies knowing nothing human could be that sure.  

~Alison Hawthorne Deming, The Monarchs


Fog thick enough to lick, horizon a blanket,

pearl gleam of sun.  Sure, the sea trips

the mind, conjures creatures but what’s

this dusty heartbeat of wing?

First one.  Then another.  And another.

How to account for this river of wings

flowing south through generations?

She watches the monarchs drift—

cloud of orange and black—

Western mind says discount,

but knows better than to dismiss.

She abandons the instruments,

tracks by dusty heartbeat,

joins the wavering, certain path.

Sailing by Ravens


They have no chart, no sailing directions.

Instead three ravens to find Iceland.

 ~ Islendingabok 


Planks creak, sails shudder in unseen wind.  At the tiller,

Floki faces astern, watches the Faroes diminish


to flat line of horizon.  They ride a barrel stave of latitude,

sight each night with the husonatra the Guiding Star.


On the first day out of sight of the Faroes, Floki released a raven. 

Lifts dark wings into an empty sky, an exclamation point,


wings off, shadows another ship’s wake home.

On the second day another raven is released.  Circles, a question,


lights upon the ship’s mast, an answer.  On the third day,

another raven climbed to a great height, flew off purposefully to the west.


A raven can see land ninety miles away  

Floki could see the raven to a height of 5,000 feet.


What next?  Black V of wings diminishing

to a period, winging toward certainty


in bone, feather.  Floki leans against the tiller,

traces faint calligraphy across the blank slate of sky.

 sailingravensHolly J. Hughes’ most recent book of poetry, from which she’ll be reading this Saturday, April 12 at Village Books. The cover is from a painting by Evon Zerbetz.


Leading photo: Holly Hughes, happy. Photo by Isolde Pierce.
books Stephanie Burgart

Confessions of a Bibliophile

March 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

It has been almost two years now since I graduated with my Masters in Education from Western Washington University (WWU) and North Cascades Institute’s unique graduate program. My memories are filled with the laughter of Mountain School students, Professor John Miles’ New “Hampsha” accent and endless views of Diablo Lake. While I miss the sunshine, quiet and darkness up there in the mountains, there are days where I also long for the library, research and studying. It may be shocking to some, but it’s true: we did actually do traditional learning and coursework during the residency. With images of the graduate students gallivanting around snowy peaks, dense forests and playing in the sunshine, it is easy for parents and friends to wonder if we were actually trying to “learn anything” in the program. Of course, it’s a very big “yes”.

We were all there to learn. Sure, Dr. Miles did an excellent job of getting us out into the world we preach about, but there were also the necessary times of studying inside. You can’t read heaps of homework out in the rain, at least not everyday. Deer Creek Shelter, for example, is a wonderful place for respite, but I doubt a LAN cord to connect to the servers will reach that far (though I’ve no doubt Nick Mikula, one of my fellow graduates, tried it at least once). Large portions of curriculum writing, nonprofit work and research for various projects all happen in front of the screen or book, but one of the best parts was the individuality of all this learning.

The amount and types of research varied from student to student. Taken out of context, some of the reading we do as experiential environmental educators could come across as crazy. For me, I’m pretty sure the WWU library has me flagged, and with the recent National Security Agency and “Big Brother” news going on, I wouldn’t blame them. I’m into some pretty amazing stuff.

» Continue reading Confessions of a Bibliophile

murrelet andrew reding

Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet in the North Cascades

November 15th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Maria Mudd Ruth

Maria Mudd Ruth presents from her book Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet at Village Books in Bellingham at 4 pm on Sunday, November 17, as part of our Nature of Writing Fall 2013 series.

William Leon Dawson (1873-1928), a well-respected naturalist, egg collector, and author was hot on the trail of the murrelet’s nest at the turn of the 19th century and wrote about his pursuits in his charming and authoritative book, The Birds of Washington, published in 1909.

Dawson was inclined to dismiss the Quileute Indian stories he had heard about murrelets nesting in trees in the Olympic Mountains, but that changed one morning when he was camping at Glacier “…on the North Fork of the Nooksak River, and near the foot of Mount Baker, having risen before daybreak for an early bird walk, on the morning of May 11, 1905, I heard voices form an invisible party of marbled murrelets high in the air as they proceeded down the valley, as tho to repair to the sea for the day’s fishing.” (Birds of Washington, p. 921-922)

Glacier is 24 miles inland from the nearest salt water. Dawson, like most naturalists and ornithologists at the time, could not accept the idea that a web-footed seabird would nest in trees in the forest–not to mention so far inland. Other birds in the alcid family to which murrelets belong nested on rocky cliffs, offshore islets, in burrows in coastal bluffs–not in the forest.

This inland sighting at Glacier, however, allowed Dawson to be open to the possibility of a forest-nesting seabird. Following his sightings at Glacier, Dawson documented sightings of murrelets in California alone and with Joseph Grinnell in the 1920s. Both these men documented their sightings and thereby left a paper trail that eventually lead to the first nest discovery  in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains in 1974.


fledgling (tom hamer)A young murrelet about to fledge near the Snohomish River in western Washington. Photo by Tom Hamer.

In 1989, wildlife ecologist Tom Hamer was camping in Dawson’s stomping grounds in the North Cascades. Hamer had just finished nine years of spotted-owl research and was ready for a change. When he heard about a “strange creature” called the marbled murrelet, he wanted to see one. He joined some colleagues on a camping trip in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest along the South Fork of the Nooksack River. On his first morning, he heard and saw birds flying up the river drainage. A year later, he was surveying murrelets in the forest here and, using his own invented strategy for finding murrelet nests, found first marbled murrelet nest in Washington.

With his characteristic enthusiasm, energy, and brilliance, Tom Hamer began collaborating with other biologists in the 1990s to develop nest-finding strategies so the breeding habits of the murrelet could be understood. Through the Pacific Seabird Group and now through his own consulting firm, Hamer Environmental (based Mt. Vernon WA), Hamer’s contribution to murrelet research is major, critical, and highly respected in the scientific community.


Excerpts from Maria Mudd Ruth’s Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet (Reprinted by The Mountaineers Books, 2013), courtesy of the author.

Leading photo: ancient murrelet flicking tail up as it prepares to dive deep at the intersection of Bellingham and Guemes Channels near Anacortes.  © 2013 Andrew A Reding.

Nature of Writing series on YouTube

July 30th, 2012 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

We’ve posted three readings recently in our new “Nature of Writing” video series on YouTube — video and audio recordings of past writers we have presented events with, tuned up, edited down and posted for all to enjoy. To get the series started, we worked with an old VHS tape recording of Gary Snyder reading in Bellingham in 2004, audio recordings of Snyder’s return visit in 2009 and Terry Tempest Williams’ recent presentation in Bellingham in 2012.

You can watch all of them online on our website’s Video Gallery, or directly via YouTube at

We have more in the archives we’re excited to dust off and share, so stay tuned!

David Douglas: Collector, Naturalist, Explorer

May 22nd, 2012 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

While spring is busy blooming and blossoming at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, there is still time during quiet evenings to curl up and read a good book. For those of you interested in expanding your understanding of the early days of natural history exploration in the Northwest region, The Collector by Washingtonian writer, teacher, and naturalist Jack Nisbet is the perfect read for you.

The Collector recounts in wonderful detail the life and influence of Scottish naturalist David Douglas and his forays throughout the Pacific Northwest in the name of science and the London Horticultural Society. Between 1824 and 1834, Douglas traveled by foot, canoe, and horseback, exploring the uncharted and vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Along the way he gathered, identified, and catalogued everything from mineral and bird to wolverine and desert lomatium. Douglas also built relationships with countless fur traders and native tribes, and Nisbet explores excerpts from his journals that candidly portray both the erosion of indigenous culture and the beginnings of conflict in the New World as a result of early European settlement.

» Continue reading David Douglas: Collector, Naturalist, Explorer

The Animal Dialogues: A Natural History Book Reflection

February 20th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

In 2010, I completed a year-long bicycle tour through many countries famous for their exotic creepy crawlies and, while reading Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues, I couldn’t help reflecting on the experiences I had with some of those creatures throughout that tour. The Animal Dialogues presents an exploration of the author’s uncommon encounters with animals, reptiles, and insects. Childs’ writing style is a blend of naturalist observations and beautifully depicted narratives indicative of a well-seasoned nature writer. He is able to find pause in that moment between life and death and break down the human-animal barrier, capturing in writing the infinite space between one moment and the next.

One such moment was depicted in a chapter on mountain lions where Childs recalls many nearly unbelievable stories. After a recent cougar encounter in Diablo, followed by numerous cougar sightings around the Environmental Learning Center, I found myself paying close attention to how Childs describes his encounters with cougars in the wild. One particular story that Childs writes about centers around a run-in with a cougar near a water source in the Arizona desert. After the mountain lion backs down from the stand-off with Childs, he writes, “I stand there for a few minutes, staring at the forest. […] I have reached the hard, palpable seed of life. The image is now permanently formed in my mind. I can see how the mountain lion will be posed, suddenly in view anywhere around me, its tail weaving an intricate pattern, spelling secret words in the air (66).” We all have moments in life where time seems to stand still and we are truly living moment by moment. Although for most of us this stand still will never occur between man and cougar, what Childs conjures in this chapter and throughout his book is the way in which our primal connection with the earth is realized when we interact with deep wilderness. Whether it’s a cougar in my own neighborhood, a mountain goat on Cascade Pass, or some other surprising encounter, these experiences come in a myriad of forms.

» Continue reading The Animal Dialogues: A Natural History Book Reflection

The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

November 7th, 2011 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Pacific Crest Trailside Reader series Co-Editor Rees Hughes will be doing a reading from his new book Saturday, November 12 beginning at 7 p.m. at Village Books in downtown Fairhaven.

Exploring the people, places, and history of the Pacific Crest Trail as it ranges 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada, The Pacific Crest Trailside Readers bring together short excerpts from classic works of regional writing with boot-tested stories from the trail. Be sure and join Rees on Saturday evening to support this great work! 100% of author proceeds go to benefit the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Read below for a summary of the anthology, as well as a wonderful excerpt from the book by Rees.

At the heart of these anthologies are modern day trail tales, stories taken from PCT hikers that recount trailside humor and traditions, “trail angels” and “trail magic,” encounters with wildlife and wild weather, stories of being lost and found, and unusual incidents. Revealing a larger context are historical accounts of events such as Moses Schallenberger’s winter on Donner Pass and pioneer efforts like the old Naches Road that ended up creating access to today’s trails; Native American myths and legends such as that of Lost Lake near Mount St. Helens; and selections from highly-regarded environmental writers who have captured the region in print, including Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain; John Muir in The Mountains of California; and Barry Lopez in Crossing Open Ground. Readers will also enjoy a few more surprising contributions from the likes of Mark Twain and Ursula LeGuin.

Organized parallel to the geographic sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and presented in two regional volumes, The Pacific Crest Trailside Readers will entertain everyone from dedicated thru-hikers to lovers of regional lore.

– Trailside Press Release, October 2011

» Continue reading The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader