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Nature of Writing Speaker Series book reviews

October 12th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Village Books teams up with the North Cascades Institute every spring and fall to offer the “Nature of Writing” speaker series at the Readings Gallery in the storied Fairhaven bookstore. With a focus on nature writing, science and the natural and cultural history of our region, the free series of readings brings some of the best writers on the natural world to Bellingham.


Two authors have already visited and shared their new works. Leigh Calvez’s The Hidden Lives of Owls (Sasquatch Books) reveals the natural history of 11 different owl species, including the Spotted, Snowy and Great Gray, while weaving in explorations of human-animal connections, mythology and owl obsession.

Robert Steelquist’s The Northwest Coastal Explorer (Timber Press) is a beautifully designed field guide to the varied habitats and marine life of the Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia coasts. From the Pacific banana slug and Pileated woodpeckers of coastal forests to harbor seals and sea otters of the Nearshore to eelgrass and salmon of the estuaries, Steelquist handily covers the complex weave of life that inhabit our shores.

Coming up Sat., Oct. 8, Hob Osterlund’s debut Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors (OSU Press) blends memoir with her close study of Laysan albatross. When a distant relative—her grandmother’s cousin, a respected cultural anthropologist who wrote the book Hawaiian Mythology—appears in Osterlund’s dream, the author interprets it as a sign to move to the islands.

With only a few hundred bucks in her pocket, Osterlund relocates to Kauai and a series of serendipitous events puts her on the path to studying albatross, or molias they’re known locally. These magnificent birds spend many months alone at sea, “gliding on gravity and wind” over vast distances across the Northern Pacific, until each November when their instincts, or the “ancestral GPS in their cells,” pull them thousands of miles back to their lifelong mates and nesting grounds.

Osterlund writes the life stories of several individual albatross, sharing their names, their quirks and personalities until we too are hooked on these peculiar, endearing creatures and their seemingly impossible life quests. She also explores the Hawaiian concept of aumakua, or “guardian ancestors in animal form,” and finds that her intimacy with the birds provides healing for past familial trauma.

On Fri., Oct. 14, Kim Stafford, son of the late poet William Stafford and founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, celebrates a new 30th anniversary edition of his critically acclaimed collection of essays,Having Everything Right. A deeply felt meditation on the history, folklore and natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, this essential title reveals how nature, culture and community overlap and inform each other in our special corner of the country.

For the writers in our community, Stafford is also teaching a Chuckanut Writers class on the same afternoon at Village Books: Local Knowledge is Advised on Oct. 14 at 1 p.m. This creative workshop invites participants to tell the story of your place, to be the local bard, the singer. Stafford will lead the class along as they jot fragments for development into poems, essays, stories, and songs. These could be a profile of the local character, an evocation of a neglected place, a field guide to creatures you have met and other short forms of “salvations” — concise writing to save an encounter, a discovery, an incantation from daily life. Come see what your natural surroundings will inspire you to create! Class is $45; click to register.


Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of Pacific Northwest Volcanoes, by University of Montana Professor O. Alan Weltzein, critically examines the relationship between the looming, glacier-clad volcanoes and our Cascadian regional identity. He takes a hard look at the impacts of outdoor recreation, particularly the mountaineering industry, set against population growth and affluence in the Northwest. He’ll visit Bellingham Fri., Nov. 4.

And last but not least, the Nature of Writing Series wraps up Sun., Nov. 13 with one of the most celebrated writers of the Pacific Northwest bringing not one but two new books to share. Robert Michael Pyle has a new collection of poetry, Chinook & Chantrelle, as well as a reflective memoir, Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature.

Originally published in the Cascadia Weekly, 10/5/16.

Pacific Wren

Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)

November 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

By Rob Rich

I came to the Pacific Northwest for many reasons, but one of them was, well, for the birds. Were those harlequin ducks for real? What was so special about the Pacific wren? And oh, how I longed to see the red-shafted Northern Flicker! These were some of my last thoughts before finally chasing the sun towards the Salish Sea. But since most birds don’t migrate from East to West, I knew I’d need a guide to set me straight.

Thankfully, I’d planned North Cascades Institute’s Spring Birding to be my first stop upon arrival. That’s right, I signed up from 3,000 miles away, tossed out my moving boxes in Bellingham and settled first things first: learning birds in the field with Libby Mills.

If you too feel like a lost goose at times, do not fear. Spring Birding is back, as are a host of other older Institute favorites – and some new ones that look out of this world. Literally. Where else but North Cascades Institute can you take a class that is astronomically synchronized for the nighttime awe of photographers? And where else can you hang out with snake experts, or decipher the clues of wildlife tracks in our precious winterscapes? As always, the great unveiling of the Institute’s January-June courses will expose natural curiosities you never knew you had. Experienced and emerging naturalists alike will both be forced to reckon with a growing list of reasons why the North Cascades are where it’s at.

Night photo

» Continue reading Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)


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

 “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


(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.


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

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.




Exploring “The Tangled Bank” with Robert Michael Pyle

December 5th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

North Cascades Institute welcomes Robert Michael Pyle to Village Books in Bellingham, 1200 11th St., Friday, December 7, 7 pm. Free!

Robert Michael Pyle has been interpreting the natural world for readers for more than 30 years. Combining his Yale-educated scientific background, an insatiable curiosity for the world and a warm, generous personality that inspires his prose, Pyle explores the myriad ways in which nature intersects with our daily lives.

A long-time resident of Gray’s River in southwestern Washington, Pyle’s published work—which includes books on the natural history of the Willapa Hills, Bigfoot, butterflies, Vladimir Nabokov and his childhood in Colorado— has been recognized with two Washington State Book Awards, a National Outdoor Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing.

His latest book The Tangled Bank collects dozens of his columns from when he was a regular contributor to Orion and Orion Afield magazines. Each personable piece is a finely honed mini-essay, weaving together natural history, philosophical ruminations, travelogue, scientific facts, poetic observations and commentary on contemporary culture.

Christian Martin: Your column “The Tangled Bank” was published in 52 consecutive issues of Orion over 11 years. What were the challenges in writing such a long-standing feature with a strict format?

Robert Michael Pyle: The biggest challenge was to learn to write concisely (750–1300 words, depending on the issue) and still write substantively, not lite, shallow or “sound-bitey.” I did enjoy it, and continue to value and employ the heavy apprenticeship in concision that it represented. But it was invariably difficult, sometimes wrenchingly so, to meet the inflexible word counts and the incessant deadlines. It seemed that no matter how long and how many drafts a column took to finish, there was always the next one due on its heels. But that’s good, too, to keep you going.

CM:  How did you come up with enough topics to sustain the column?

» Continue reading Exploring “The Tangled Bank” with Robert Michael Pyle

Naming as Knowing

October 30th, 2011 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Practicing natural history requires us to be consciously aware, to be intentional observers of our surroundings. To be a naturalist involves surrendering what we know about a place in order to learn from it. Slowly we will make notes of patterns and similarities, notes of how things are connected and how and when these connections occur. When we become familiar with a place, that familiarity is grounded in our first efforts to identify and name individual pieces of the landscape.

In my dalliances so far into the naturalist world and into the North Cascades, I have made attempts to name what I see, collect these pieces as parts of a whole, and better understand this place as my home. Learning and pulling from the experiences of the naturalists of our community is a special part of the M.Ed. Graduate Residency at North Cascades Institute I have been inspired by words and experiences about what it means to identify something by name, to understand the patterns of place, to see the connection between recognition and reverence, and to cultivate that curiosity that pulls us more deeply into relationships with the places we call home. Here are some thoughts I’ve gleaned and some experiences I’ll share about the art of naming in the practice of natural history.

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