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Archive for June, 2009

I watched this documentary (again) about Charles Bukowski the other night – Bukowsi: Born Into This. As before, i was struck by the honesty of the man, and how cantankerous he was. If you don’t know him, check out “Dinosauria, We” – read by him, or the full poem in text. Or “Bluebird.”

In “Dinosauria, We,” we see Bukowski the observer and his cry out against injustice, and “Bluebird” is a sad and moving self-exploration. The man was a drunk, and no literary elitist. He brought the street back into poetry and wrote with biting simplicity and truth.

But today what is on my mind is how much he reminds me of Edward Abbey. Most famous for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and the memoir Desert Solitaire, Abbey was a self-professed curmudgeon and a proponent of anarchy. He was also a fervent environmentalist. And a beautiful writer.

Also a drunk. Also a man of the people, a working class guy. Also brutally honest and often offensive. Also unapologetic.

There is something about this mold of man that makes us love them. Maybe it is the heart of gold that we sense lies beneath the gruffness. Maybe it is their fearlessness and confidence to truly share themselves with us. Maybe it is because they are not afraid to really speak. To really live. I suppose Hunter Thompson might fall into this category too.

And they’re all dead. Who is railing right now? Who is lashing out against injustice and puffing out his chest to hide a breaking heart?

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i make the mistake, over and over, of buying books of the collected works of poets. they are like the double album of death, or the triple album, the boxed set. their pages stay unthumbed; dust clings to them. but then, in the mail, comes the mix tape of poetry… the magazine. a touch of simic, of hoagland, of bok. and here the music melds wonderfully. not too much of one mood. a succesion of soloists, not a whole night of one. like that mix tape your friends used to make for you, you know, back before itunes and the quick burn to cd. before writeable cds. back when someone would sit by the record button, and stop it at just the right time. find the next track. then go back and fill out the cover with titles and tracks, maybe draw a doodle to be original. then hand it to you shyly, with that look in the eye, and say “here, try this.”

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The forecast said Saturday would be the day of clear skies in a weekend of otherwise mixed weather. At the last minute on Saturday morning i decided to go on a hike. With an Olympic National Forest map (a terrible map, good for nothing but finding the numbers of forest roads), i picked out Lena Lake.159306603-MNow this, my friends, is the beauty of trail hiking. I walked out of the house with a paltry excuse for a map, no compass, few clothes, and some fishing gear. I was ready to go. When you go to a forest trailhead, there is little to worry about. A worn path leads you where you want to go. There is no orienteering, no chance of getting lost.

And, as someone who spends his IMG_2741weekdays fighting his way up tangled creek bottoms through grasping vine maple, slashing salmonberry, and prickly Devil’s club, i can truly say that there is a certain pleasure in unimpeded walking.

You see, in western Washington at this time of year, the understory is so thick that it is hard to see your feet. Beneath the sheltering cover of huckleberry, ferns, and a hundred other kinds of leafy greens are moss-covered logs and rotted stumps that wait to swallow you whole. It’s a challenge to stay upright and not break an ankle. This means that walking is slow going, and often frustrating. People have been known to curse. Especially after grasping a Devil’s club a couple of times.IMG_0185

So let me give praise to forest trails. Bless the trail builders and the trail maintainers. I stumble out the door without any preparation, i can see my own feet as i hike, and i can rest easy knowing that there is a trail that takes me where i want to go. When i don’t want to think, and when i want to go to the same exact place that thousands and thousands of other people have enjoyed, i have you to thank.

Of course, on this particular day, i arrived at the Lena Lake trailhead to discover about 50 shiny automobiles lined up, and two octogenarians slowly crossing the pavement to the trail. A quick look at the trail register listed not one, but two scout troops up at the lake! I just couldn’t do it.

So up the road i went, driving over several road washouts, and finally arriving at another trail head that warned “The trail is no more than a path established by hikers and fishermen. It is not maintained and is considered difficult, climbing up steeply and descending several times.”

I didn’t have a map, a compass, or rainpants. It was raining. What could go wrong? Better than having kids running circles around me and grandparents trying to tell me stories, though.  So off i went, nearly to my doom. But that’s a story for another day.photo by Daniel Harrington

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A recent post about Oxalis oregana and a conversation with coworker has got something tumbling around in my head. And the thumb-worn dictionary beside me is open to a word – Sentience. A sentient being is one that is conscious or responsive of  “sense impressions.” Like light? Like raindrops? You see, Oxalis species fold their leaves up in rain or excessive sun, and open them again. Sounds like a response to sensual impressions to me.

A coworker was also encouraging me to see a documentary that shows time-lapse photography of Himalayan blackberry, and — get this — how it shifts and pulls back and forth using its thorns to rip and tear at any precocious plants or saplings that might dare to attempt to grow there. Amazing to me. I had considered the thorns a hardy defense, but a weapon against other plants? I’d never thought of that. (the documentary is “The Secret Life of Plants” circa 1978 – haven’t been able to find it yet)

Some trees are known to change sex according to the sex ratio of surrounding trees. Most plants twist and turn to follow the sun. There is a constant evolution of flowers, bees, etc. I’ve heard (hearsay!) of a study where plants “screamed” (in a plant sort of way) in recognition of humans who were there to trim them.

Sentient beings. Conscious even? Definitely aware.

I attended a talk by Stephen Jay Gould a long time ago at Dartmouth. It was amazing. He spoke about evolution and the arrogance of humans. One thing that really stayed with me was the idea that as complex animals, with brains capable of self-examination, we choose to elevate beings that are more like us. His particular point was that we mistakenly associate evolution with complexity. We name the ages after the most complex animals (the age of dinosaurs, the age of mammals…) when in truth, bacteria are the most evolved creatures on the planet. And the least complex.

And how does this connect? Well, it is easy for us to dismiss the trees, for example. They are so simple. They don’t even move. Yet at the same time, they are more ancient than mammals. They’ve been around. And they are sentient beings. They react. They are aware of their surroundings.

Does a tree feel it when i brush a hand along its bark? What about when i trim a few dead limbs for a campfire? The heat of my campfire against the trunk, now that it must feel, and it probably even reacts in some way. In some way i can never understand.

It is a good reminder. Not a forest, but trees. Each one aware and sentient. It can change the way a person walks in the woods. Or wields a chainsaw. Or even a lawnmower.

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According to Pojar and MacKinnon, the redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) is reported to take but 6 minutes to close up its leaves, but 30 minutes to open them back up. Sounds like a pessismistic little plant to me. It is unusual, though, this sort of reactive behavior in a little plant. Quite noticeable, too. I’ve been in some hail and rain in the last few months, and it is amazing to look down and see all of the leaves folded up like retracted umbrellas.IMG_0139

And now, as the sun has been warming the woods, and i’ve had some opportunities to see various plants who’ve been suddenly exposed to more sun than they’re used to,  i notice the sorrel folded up in heavy sun, too. Pretty cool.

I’ve been in love with Oxalis for a long time. In the northeast, there is Oxalis montana (common wood-sorrel) that is different from our pacific northwest variety by having a bit more reddish color in the leaves, and reddish veins in the petals. The leaves get sort of ruddy, the way geranium leaves do. They are very pretty, and tend to blanket the forest floor in a way similar to oregana. Probably close up their leaves, too, but it’s been a while and i can’t remember.

So when i arrived in the pacific northwest, i was happy to see one of my favorite little flowers out here. What i wasn’t prepared for was the way it can glow. As i said, i’ve been in some rain over the last few months, and there is nothing like spring rain to really bring some color out in the understory.

About a month back, in the Willapa Hills, it had been raining and chilly for three days or so. We were lucky to get a sun break in the evening, that held through the first of the morning hours. I pulled myself out of my sleeping back, unzipped the tent, and went for a little morning wander as the sun was cresting the horizon. Fog filled the valley floors, and clouds shut out any hint of blue, but for a few precious moments the sun hung between the layers and bathed the ridge in soft light.

Early spring, so the understory was not yet filled with plant life, and the ground was still dark with moisture. And there in front of me was a patch of sorrel pioneering its way into the season. New leaves, dark ground, and soft light conspired to make it a lambent patch of soft green. Glowing green. It was a sight that will stay with me for a long time. Dark woods and glowing sorrel.

It’s up early in the spring, and by now there are sections of the forest floor that are blanketed in the clover-like leaves. And there is the folding thing. How does that work? What triggers it? The tapping of rain? A drop in pressure? You’ll see me out there soon, tapping one with a pencil to see what happens.IMG_0150

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red-legged frog

red-legged frog

I’ve been a wildlife biologist, of sorts, throughout most of my adult life. I’ve chased spotted owls in four different states, red-cockaded woodpeckers in The South, Bicknell’s thrush in Vermont, Canadian lynx… and i’ve done endless hours of classifying plants and habitat. Rarely was a position more than six months long, and somehow i managed to live in more than 13 states in the course of 15 years or so. In terms of wildlife biology, i feel as though i’ve been around a bit.

I was talking with a coworker the other day about various studies and projects, and the frustration that comes from being the technician in the field. Many, many projects out there have either poor study designs, or exercise mediocre implementation of their design. Sometimes they suffer from both. It can make being a data collector rather difficult, as you can imagine.

Not all field techs are like me. Most are intent on someday being the boss – writing the papers, going to the meetings, directing field crews, and basking in the glory of being a permanently employed person. Some skip the field altogether and go straight from undergrad into graduate study. Excuses are invariably made about these studies – they are a learning experience, and inconsistencies can be sorted out later, in the analysis. Or if it is a state or federal agency, there is the bureaucracy that makes doing anything worthwhile difficult. Regardless of the employer, money is always a concern. There is more work to do than people to do it. I’ve heard over and over the statement “we don’t have the money to pay you overtime, but … ” The field technician, with hopes of advancement in the field, or at least a decent recommendation, is expected to sacrifice time and a personal life for the good of the project. And it is usually a worthy cause.

The life of a seasonal field technician is a headwater of stories, experiences, and memories that will fill a lifetime. This is usually what you hear about. Not the uncertainty at the end of each job, or the tremulous line that separates you from begging on the street. I have pondered more than once, looking at an empty bank account, what would happen if the engine blew on my truck.

Don’t worry, i plan on sharing some of the stories and experiences. I look forward to telling of the times that grounded me, of the moments that changed my life, and of the people and animals i met along the way. But the conversation i was having with a coworker was about frustration. Details of inane study design and data collection that made no sense, or in which we held no faith. But still we collected the data.

And inevitably, when i am seated at a bar somewhere, or at a barbecue, or some other locale that puts me into conversation with strangers, a quick description of what i do for work brings the response … “and my tax money pays for this?” It is a good question, rightly asked. And yes, for the most part, it does. You, me, and other Americans donate cents in order for thousands of people like me to hoist field vests, pencils, and rite-in-the-rain notebooks and go marching out into the woods.

Carrying binoculars even. Sniffing flowers. Sometimes even falling asleep on the job. Driving endless miles on someone else’s dime. Having a grand time in fresh air. Occasionally hugging trees. Definitely scruffing voles (not as fun as you think). We’re out there, right now, on your nickel.

Sometimes i feel guilty about this. Especially because some of the studies are truly terrible, and occasionally produce useless information. And in jaded moments, even the good ones seem like pointless endeavors when there are oceans rising and humans breeding. All of this has been turning in my head for quite some time. I’ve even tried to get out of the business and do something else. It’s hard. Every spring these damn job announcements come out, and they are so alluring. It makes it hard for a guy to settle down and have kids and work a real job. You know, spend money at the mall and those sorts of patriotic things. But i digress a little bit.

Yesterday (?), my friend Matt posted an Edward Abbey quote on Facebook that somehow didn’t make it into Abbey’s convenient little book of quotes. It goes something like this:

One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am- a reluctant enthusiast…a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can, while it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breath deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk bound people with their hearts in a safety deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators, I promise you this; you will outlive the bastards.

And here’s the thing. Tax money pays for many things, including bombs, torture of innocent prisoners, million-dollar toilet seats, and countless administrative positions in government departments that do very little of use. Tax dollars probably go into the Peace Corps, and definitely went into the Civilian Conservation Corps, and to wildland firefighters and contractors, and to countless other projects and people with questionable merit.

When i think about it, i’m happy that tax dollars are helping to put a bunch of people into the woods each year to study fish and wildlife. No deposit boxes and desk calculators. I think it helps produce better people. Adventurous people. People who have gained confidence by challenging their limits, by facing grizzly bears and waterless canyons. People who have a more sharpened perception of what it means to be alive in this world. I’m willing to pay a few dollars for that. And if we get some useful data in the process, all the better.

i fear a world of electronics and fossil fuels. I worry about people weaned on television and first person shooter video games. I worry that in ten, twenty, or fifty years the people in charge will be those who have never set foot in the woods, who have never felt lost and small, who have never hunted or fished. I’ve spent a long time, maybe too long, enduring hours of mindless work and difficult conditions for thankless employers in hope of those few transcendent moments of beauty that the wilderness can provide. I am thankful that i could be paid a meager wage to do so.

And yes, i’m happy that your tax dollars are spent to send me and other people out there. It is more valuable than you think. Just ask Ed Abbey.

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I’m growing some vegetables in the garden, and with a recent heat wave i’ve been introduced to the idea of leafy greens bolting. You may have heard of this… your leafy greens, like any other plant, want to reproduce. So, if you aren’t careful, they will eventually grow a little taller and then attempt to put out flowers. A total loss… the greens get bitter and you are forced to pull the plant and rattle around your seed bags looking for a replacement. Funny, don’t you think, that our mission with spinach and lettuce is to prevent the stuff from reaching adulthood. That way, we keep eating it.

So spinach is like dogs and cats. Stick with me here.

Somewhere back in the attic of memory, i recall sitting in some biology class or another where they discussed the term “neoteny”. Look it up. It’s this strange state of something being adult but retaining juvenile characteristics. When i first look at the definitions – retaining childlike features into adulthood/attaining sexual maturity at childhood – the definitions seemed a little at odds… but the basic idea is that there are juvenile (or larval!) characteristics that end up being the adult state. Weird, eh? Why would this happen?

Well, in the case of dogs, (cats might be a bad example, the stuck-up little bastards) it’s because we’ve bred them this way.

Wolves make bad pets – Territorial. Piss on stuff. A lot of attitude. Jaws with enough pressure to break your femur. You get the idea.

Dogs, however, are goofy. Compared to the wolf, they are ” a babe lost in the woods ” (Shut up Donnie, you’re out of your element). Big eyes, eager to please, couldn’t catch a cold (except for deer in the east, but then again a babe lost in the woods could kill one of those rats). The domestic dog is cute, cuddly, and safe. In effect,  it is a domesticated version of the wolf, bred for characteristics that resemble a wolf pup. Neoteny. They resemble a wolf pup throughout their years, to the point where an aged dog would still make a wolf cock its head with the classic “what the…” reaction. Big eyes, goofiness… it makes babies cute and dogs loveable.

And spinach edible. Keep pruning it back. Breed it to bolt only at the last moment. Strange to propagate a plant so that it will never reproduce, isn’t it? To even selectively breed this trait for slow bolting varieties. We munch away, and buy seeds when we need them (another topic altogether).

But then again, the dogs i grew up with were “fixed.” And the cats, too. You go to the pound for a new one.

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