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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.

spotted owl

Rarely Spotted : Northern Spotted Owls

September 12th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Leigh Calvez, author of the new book The Secret Lives of Owls. Join us Thursday, Sept 22, at Village Books for a free reading from this great new title from Sasquatch Books, the first event in our Fall 2016 Nature of Writing Speaker Series in Bellingham.

Perhaps the most iconic of all owls in the Pacific Northwest is the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis). I was excited to look for these owls in the wild, in the ancient trees where they live, before they disappear altogether. Sighting one seemed to me to be as epic, and just as improbable, as sighting a unicorn. Yet from all I’d heard from the biologists called “hooters”—for the hooting call that they make either electronically or with their own voices to determine if Spotted Owls are nesting in the area—these owls were still out there. Still, even the experts were finding only one or maybe two nests in their survey areas each year. Tracking them would be more of an adventure than I could yet imagine.

Through the grapevine of owl biologists, I contacted Stan Sovern, a Forest Service biologist who has been monitoring the Spotted Owl population in Washington State, both on the Olympic Peninsula and in Central Washington, for the past twenty-eight years. He invited me out for an afternoon check of one active nest site. I met Stan and Margy Taylor, another longtime Forest Service hooter, at the Cle Elum Ranger Station. Then we drove east along I-90 to the forest edge, where the habitat abruptly turns to shrub-steppe, as if a line had been drawn through the state.

Just before we took the Taneum Creek exit to the interstate, I could see fields full of tall windmills turning in the breeze blowing down from the eastern Cascade slopes. There are spotted owls here? I wondered.

We then turned and headed west into some of the last remaining old-growth forest in Central Washington. It was here that we met William Meyer, a biologist from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who knew Margy from the days they had counted Spotted Owls together on the Olympic Peninsula. He now specializes in restoring beavers—once an integral part of the landscape—to their natural habitat and reclaiming watersheds that have dried up since beavers were removed from the land.

» Continue reading Rarely Spotted : Northern Spotted Owls


Great Tide Rising: Toward Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change

April 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Join North Cascades Institute at Village Books in Bellingham on May 3 at 7 pm for a free reading by Kathleen Dean Moore from her new book Great Tide Rising: Toward Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change.

Oregon writer Kathleen Dean Moore founded her reputation as a top-notch writer through several books that gracefully combined natural history, philosophy and meditations on being human, as in Riverwalking, Pine Island Paradox and Wild Comfort. Her focus took an urgent turn in 2011 with Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, a collection of essays she co-edited featuring essays from thought leaders like E.O. Wilson, Thomas Friedman, bell hooks and the Dalai Lama on the moral responsibilities we have for safeguarding Planet Earth.

Moral Ground made the case that the threatened climate catastrophe was a moral catastrophe, and it called for a strong moral response based on our love for the children, commitment to social justice and a reverence for life,” she explained to me recently in an email. “After the book was published, I hit the road [including a reading at the Whatcom Museum during their 2013 “Vanishing Ice” exhibit]. For three years, I spoke in every place that would have me – church basements to town plazas – listening to the people who so deeply cared, wrestling with the questions they asked, watching the world change.”

Her new book Great Tide Rising: Toward Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change is a result of her climate change “listening tour,” a deeply-felt manifesto that ponders, as Moore explained, “How can I bring some clarity to the hard questions? How can we all find the courage and the communities of caring that make it possible to keep trying? How is it possible to open peoples’ hearts without breaking them?”

With sections along the lines of “A Call to Care,” “A Call to Witness” and “A Call to Act,” Moore has written a guidebook for modern day environmentalists and climate activists that is both grave and restorative.

“Writing Great Tide Rising lifted my spirits,” the writer told me, “because when you look for them, there are logical and creative answers to the hardest questions. When you look for them, there are people all around the globe who are standing up to the forces that would wreck the world. And when you look around, you see that there is so much worth saving. These are the stories I wanted to tell.”

Here’s an excerpt from Moore’s new book:

» Continue reading Great Tide Rising: Toward Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change


Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”

October 6th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Ana Maria Spagna; an excerpt from the Prologue “The Low Ground” to Reclaimers, (UW Press 2015)

Spagna reads from her new book at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

When I started telling friends about my interest in reclamation, everyone had a story. Did I know about High Line Park in New York City on a reclaimed elevated freight rail? How about Seattle’s plan to reclaim wasted heat from data centers, the so-called Cloud, to power nearby neighborhoods? Reclaiming appeared everywhere, out of nowhere; it seemed to be, in some ways, the backdrop of our time. Nearly every major American city has a re-store where would-be remodelers can buy lumber and hardware salvaged from demolished buildings. Most watersheds have seen restoration, and some—the Hudson, the Cuyahoga—have been nothing short of miraculous. Even small-scale dam removal, it turns out, was nothing new. The nonprofit river advocacy group American Rivers estimates that in the past century 925 dams have been removed from rivers.
Then there were Native Americans. If reclamation—at least the way it interested me—had to do with land and water, the original inhabitants were the ones with the most at stake. For the past fifty years, I’d learn, all across the country Indian tribes have been taking back what’s been stolen from them: the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the Menominee in Wisconsin, the Passamaquoddy in Maine, the Colville in Washington.
At the beginning, I didn’t know any of this. I wouldn’t until I left home.

So I did. I took a long solo trip—or more precisely a series of them—spurred by curiosity and hemmed by my own geography and finances. Over three years, I’d yo-yo up and down the west edge of the continent on either side of the long strip of mountains—Panamints, Sierras, Cascades—that have defined my adult life and alongside rivers that have, in literal ways, sustained me—the Feather, the Columbia, the Stehekin—in an aging Buick along a zigzagging dot-to-dot route that loosely connects where I grew up in a desert suburb of Los Angeles to where I’ve landed in the North Cascades. I’d walk over sand dunes past lime green mesquite and follow game trails among dormant oaks, watch steelhead through glass and befriend a single red fox. I’d talk to elders and activists, bureaucrats and lawyers and small town mechanics. I’d tell everyone my three part theory of reclaiming, and if their eyes occasionally glazed over at “taking back” and “making right”—weary perhaps of the eternal moral tug-of-war—by the time I got to “make useful” they had some things to say. And I tried to listen.



The sign approaching Death Valley that names it “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone”

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”

Ana Maria Spagna B&W

Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident

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

Ana Maria Spagna reads from her new book Reclaimers at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free! Read a book review by our communications coordinator Christian Martin at

Like many people who choose to live in the North Cascades, Ana Maria Spagna has patched together jobs, passions, and pursuits that inform and inspire each other. Through perseverance and pluck, she has created a life and livelihood in one of the more remote communities in America: Stehekin, a village of fewer than one hundred year-round residents that is accessible only by float plane, a three-hour boat ride, or a long hike over the mountains.

Spagna grew up in Riverside, California, but a camping trip to Oregon as a teenager connected her with the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. “I loved the green forests and the blue sky and even the rain,” she remembers, “and I swore that if I ever made it back, I’d never leave.”

After graduating from college, she spent a summer volunteering with the Student Conservation Association in Canyonlands National Park, which led her to apply for jobs in other parks around the West. She landed in Stehekin in 1990 at age twenty-two to work for the North Cascades National Park.

“I had never been there, didn’t know you had to take a boat to get there,” she admits. “I arrived and saw those mountains and was completely wowed!”

The community of Stehekin sits at the northwest end of Lake Chelan, a fifty-five-mile-long fjord-like lake carved by glaciers, the third deepest lake in the country. The village is surrounded by steep mountains rising seven thousand feet above the valley floor. There are no shopping malls or Starbucks, though the internet and a few phones connect inhabitants to the outside world. Cabins are scattered for nine miles up the valley along the meandering Stehekin River. Summertime temperatures can be upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while winters bring long periods of snow and subfreezing temperatures. It is a place for people who like solitude and living close to nature.

Spagna was first assigned a desk job, but she spent every weekend exploring the mountains, eventually joining a trail crew. The transitory nature of trail work had her stationed in Marblemount for a couple of years and then out of Darrington, working in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, for a few more.

She cleared trails with chainsaw, brush whips, and loppers, maintained bridges, worked on tread with a pulaski, and cleared rockslides with explosives. She would often camp in the woods for eight days at a time, putting in ten-hour days with a crew of four or five people, mostly men.

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident

too high too steep Williams 3

“Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle

September 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by David B. Williams

Williams’ reads from his new book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography at Village Books in Bellingham on September 16 at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

More so than most cities, Seattle has shaped itself to suit its needs. The citizens of Seattle have dug up, dug into, dumped upon, and carted away its original topography as few other cities have. They eliminated hills, cut canals, killed rivers, replumbed lakes, and built islands, in the process completely reshaping many parts of the landscape. And they did most of this within 75 years of the settlers’ landing. Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography explores these unprecedented engineering projects by weaving together history, geology, and on the ground exploration.

As Michael Upchurch wrote in a Seattle Times review: “Williams does a marvelous job of evoking the cityscape that used to be. He clues us in to the spirit of civic ambition that drove Seattle’s geographical transformations. He methodically chronicles the stages by which its regrade, canal and landfill projects were accomplished. And he’s meticulous about placing his readers on present-day street corners where they can, with some sleight of mind, glimpse the hills, lake shores and tide flats that vanished. (Maps, illustrations and archival photographs help.)”

too high too steep Williams 2

Building Seattle – A few tidbits on interest discussed in Too High and Too Steep.

  • Filling in the tideflats of the Duwamish River created approximately 2,500 acres of new land.
  • No dirt from Denny Hill went into making Harbor Island.
  • The largest single hill regrading took place around Jackson Street when 56 blocks were regraded between 1907 and 1909.
  • Nearby was the Dearborn Street regrade, which created the valley now spanned by the Jose Rizal Bridge on Twelfth Avenue.
  • When Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet with the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, it led to the loss of 90 percent of the lake’s wetlands.
  • Building the locks and canal resulted in the establishment of one of the final whaling fleets in the United States, which overwintered in Meydenbauer Bay.
  • Total dirt moved during the city’s various engineering projects was at least 75 million cubic yards.
  • The regrades were paid for by people who lived in the regrades, not by the city.
  • One failed project called for a canal through Beacon Hill to connect Elliott Bay with Lake Washington.
  • Seattle’s first big tunnel under the city, which runs for a mile, was cut by hand and completed on time.
  • When the Alaskan Way Viaduct was completed, the Seattle P-I labeled it the “royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest.”

» Continue reading “Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle

6.26.15 Corvids E Petrovski

Welcome to Subirdia: Q&A with John Marzluff

April 1st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, John Marzluff reads from Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, Friday, April 3rd, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

Q: You started your research studying crows, jays, and ravens. What was the catalyst for making the transition to birds and wildlife in urban areas?

JM: Moving to Seattle in the late 1990s, I was confronted with a rapidly growing urban area that was spilling into relatively wild country. When a large forest near my home became a high-end subdivision, I knew I had to take a closer look. Previously, scientific information for urban systems was mostly descriptive or nonexistent.  Researching how birds and other wildlife responded to development was a perfect way to combine my love of pure science with my desire to offer planners, developers, and others relevant ecological knowledge.

Q: Could you please define subirdia?

JM: The geography of life, or a physical place (the rich mix of built, planted, and natural lands that fringe our cities) and the web of life linking people with their natural world.

Swainson’s Thursh

Q: The research you and your students and postdocs undertake requires many patient and persistent observers. How long and about how many have contributed to our understanding of subirdia?

JM: In this type of work, a year’s effort yields only a single data point. To understand the ups and downs of bird populations and the natural booms and busts of birth and death requires a decade or more of standardized measurement. For thirteen years, eight to ten of us took to the woods and streets every spring and summer. During this time, my team included many undergraduates and interns, three postdocs, eight doctoral students, and six master’s students. I am proud that they now teach in some of our nation’s top universities, contribute to the management of our wild resources, and direct research in non-profit conservation organizations.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from their experience of encountering Welcome to Subirdia?

JM: A better understanding and appreciation for the ecosystem we call “home” and the tools needed to nurture a life enriched by our wild neighbors.

Banded_Spotted_TowheeBanded Spotted Towhee

Q: What is your favorite bird or wildlife encounter you relate in the book?

JM: The great thing about field research is the collection of memories I take home each season. I can still recall the broods of hungry thrushes I measured and the extraordinarily old birds I was able to recapture. But my favorite memories from subirdia mostly involve mammals. For example, sitting quietly as a band of angry crows approached and seeing that the object of their scorn was a brash bobcat; playing bird calls by a mist net in the cold dawn and having a coyote rush in; and the look on one kid’s face as he extracted his bicycle from a (different) net and wondered what he was going to tell his mom. (Well that’s not in the book, but it was sure fun!)

European_Jay_Peppered_mothsEuropean Jay and Peppered Moth
All bird art is by Jack DeLap, taken from Marzluff’s book, Welcome to Subirdia. DeLap writes, “While I produce images in various media, from graphite, pen and ink, to acrylic and oils, the current work in its final form was created freehand using a digital tablet and stylus (Wacom Cintiq). My process involves sketching in the field, as well as from museum specimens and photographs to create an original composition that seek to capture aspects of the species’ natural history and physical form. Dr. John Marzluff and I collaborated on the conceptualization and narrative sequence of images. My primary objective for these illustrations was to utilize my passion for drawing in direct service of natural science education.”