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Archive for the ‘Voice columns’ Category

Wolves?

From The Voice, by yours truly, February 21, 2008:

Quietly, day by day, by hoof and paw, wilderness is returning to Oregon.

Moose, long absent from Oregon, are back in Wallowa County. They’ve trickled in to Northeast Oregon from Washington, where their numbers are growing.

Another, less popular, wild animal is also making inroads into our part of the state. Wolves.

Over the last eight years or so, there have been sporadic sightings of wolves in northeastern Oregon. One was hit by a car near Baker City. One was shot near Pendleton, and another was found dead recently near Elgin.

I talked to a rancher up Catherine Creek this summer who was angry about wolves trickling in from Idaho. He refused to buy a hunting license in protest of the state not doing anything about the wolf problem.

He is not alone in his low opinion of wolves. Somehow, wolves spark debate and illustrate some deep divisions between rural and urban voters. It is the Portland liberals, he said, that love wildlife – as long as it isn’t in their backyard. I can see his point.

But at the same time, I can see that times are changing.

The pioneering spirit that settled the West was motivated and justified by the concept of Manifest Destiny. When settlers took to the trail in the 1800’s, they did so with the belief that it was their divine and moral duty to “make something” of the wilderness of the American West.

The beliefs that support Manifest Destiny are rooted in Medieval Europe. As Barry Lopez points out, Europeans in the Middle Ages divided the animals of the world into “stenchy beasts” and “gentle beasts.” The gentle beasts were useful to mankind; the stenchy beasts were the predators and other animals that stood in the way of progress.

Progress was defined as the taming of the wilderness. Civilization, under these beliefs, was a pastoral place where the land was useful and quiet, whereas the wilderness was a place of evil beasts and wasted lands. By civilizing the wilderness, people were following the will of God.

In colonial times, John Adams described America as a “dismal wilderness,” and Cotton Mather called it a “howling wilderness.” Note that word – howling.

In Oregon, the last bounty paid on a wolf carcass was in 1944. The last grizzly was shot in the 1930’s, and buffalo haven’t been seen here since the 1840’s. The motivations for clearing the land are clear and understandable, considering the views of the time and the push to civilize the West.

However, there is a new push in the United States. National parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas have been established to preserve wild areas. Reintroduction efforts for wolves, lynx, and even grizzlies are underway. The perception of wilderness and its value have changed and continue to change. No longer is the landscape valued only for its utility.

Arguments about endangered species, public land use, and even fire suppression still echo back to the Middle Ages and Manifest Destiny. Detractors vilify the government and urbanites for policies that “waste the land.” Predators are seen as dangerous, inhumane, and unpredictable animals that damage human interests.

These arguments are understandable. But it is time to move beyond these old ideals.

I, for one, look forward to the day when my spine tingles at the sound of a quavering, mournful howl. I’ll pay a little more for beef. I’ll donate to the fund that compensates ranchers for lost livestock. Just give me the howling wilderness back.

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Snow

A winter writing… column from February 7, 2008 of The Voice:

In 1885, Wilson Bentley became the first person to photograph a snow crystal. By 1885, he had tried several techniques, and eventually succeeded by attaching a camera to a microscope and using a long shutter speed. He went on to make over 5,000 photographs over the next 46 years. He was quoted as saying “no one design was ever repeated” which gave rise to the common wisdom that no two snowflakes are ever the same.

Snow is a fascinating natural phenomenon. Scientists classify snow crystals into 35 types, from the dull “solid column” to the exquisite “fernlike stellar dendrite,” and there is variation within each class. Each class of crystal is associated with a certain temperature and humidity.

However, what we call snowflakes are usually conglomerations of several or more snow crystals. In 1887, there was a report from Montana of a snowflake that was fifteen inches across! But then again, I think they drink a lot during the long Montana winters…

Here again, environmental factors such as temperature and wind affect the likelihood of larger flakes. The type of snowfall can change rapidly with minor changes in temperature and humidity.

The more complex forms of snow crystals tend to form at warmer temperatures. Because of various arms and fernlike appendages, these forms are more likely to stick to each other. So, warm temperatures often lead to large snowflakes. Colder temperatures create more simple crystal structures, and therefore smaller flakes, or even a mist of individual snow crystals at truly cold temperatures.

When these individual crystals and flakes reach the ground, they create a blanket of snow that is largely composed of air. This is why snow is such excellent insulation.

One source claims that ten inches of fresh snow has the equivalent insulation factor of six inches of fiberglass insulation. This makes sense, since fresh snow consists of 90-95 percent air.

Therefore a layer of snow can do much to shelter plants, insects and hibernating animals from cold winter temperatures. In Finland, ground temperature beneath a snowpack was usually around zero degrees when the ambient air temperature was sixty below zero.

Rodents also benefit from what is known as depth hoar. Most of us have seen hoar frost on cold mornings – it is a layer of delicate shards of ice that forms on the surface of the snow. It can be truly beautiful, but backcountry travelers recognize it as a potential “weak layer” in a snow pack that can lead to avalanches.

This same sort of hoar also forms at the bottom of the snow pack, at ground level. Not only does the snow insulate creatures like rodents from bitter cold air, but it also forms a weak layer at the bottom which makes tunneling easy. It is a rodent paradise.

A good layer of snow is a benefit in the winter. It keeps pipes from freezing, it keeps my heat bill down, and it provides most of the water that gets us through the dry summer.

Yes, it makes the roads slow going, and it makes us keep a shovel by the front door.

But at least we can take comfort in the fact that La Grande doesn’t get much snow compared to some other places. The record? Mt. Baker during the 1998-99 season received 95 feet of snow. That’s a lot of shoveling.

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Coyote

Bored of columns? Here’s another… January 24, 2008 in The Voice. People actually read this one, I think.

National Agricultural Statistics Service found that predators accounted for 2% of cattle losses and 3% of calf losses for the state. Bad weather accounted for seven times as many deaths.

I think there’s something else at work. We drove wolves and grizzly bears to local extinction. We tried (and are still trying) just as hard with coyotes. But it doesn’t work. Instead, their range has expanded.

Coyotes evolved in the shadow of wolves and grizzlies. They are adaptable. When we hunt them, they breed faster. They’re clever; they know how to hide. We hate them because we can’t control them.

Wild animals, predators even, living right under our noses. There’s something beautiful and admirable about that, I think.

So I encourage this: Bring a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, and go find some coyotes to watch. They are beautiful animals, and entertaining to watch. But as you observe, remember that you are looking at a survivor. Coyote’s people watched our people first wander into this valley.

We are the transplants.

We might just have something to learn from coyote.

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Tracking

Yet another column… this one in The Voice on November 29, 2007:

Piercing cold and ridgelines glowing white in the moonlight. Cloaked firs and pines wait for the wind to undress new coats and send them shimmering down. Snow has fallen.

Up there in the high places there are stories being written. Reading them requires a different sort of literacy, and a willingness to follow. I speak of footprints, tracks, traces of passing.

Today I grew weary of Foucault and the glow of the computer and drove to Spring Creek to see what stories were left for me to discover. A ten minute drive on the freeway and another five got me far enough in and away to feel like I’d left La Grande and entered the solitude of the woods.

Wandering a forest road, I found the snowfall to be less than I’d hoped. Not even an inch, and swaths of open ground along the roads and circling the trunks of firs. But still enough.

The prints of squirrels crossed and re-crossed the road, disappearing into logs, leaping into trees. Here the crisp tracks of a junco hopped along before disappearing with the faintest impression of feathers on snow. The dragging toes of mule deer followed the worn trails of their kind and left the road behind.

And finally… the delicate prints of a coyote merged with the road before diverging up the hill and away. A trail worth following. For me, anyway. I’m a lover of coyotes.

If you have never followed the tracks of animal in fresh snow, you have missed out on a wonderful way of seeing the world. It starts in just following the trail, but soon curiosity finds you wondering and imagining.

Here coyotes tracks compress, toe-to-heel for a little stretch, as if something caught her interest and she slowed to a careful stalk. Across the open the tracks spread, as if loping. Then suddenly a stop and a diversion to the side and back. You imagine the nose in the grass, searching.

In the black hole of barren ground under a tree you lose her for yards, and on the other side two tracks emerge, and another joins. A hollow log is a maelstrom of track on track, but no blood, no fur, so I imagine the squirrel lived this day. Fresh feet of a squirrel bound away.

They take me up the hill and into a draw, but before long the watch feels heavy on my hand and civilization calls me back. The hardest part of following a track is letting it go. Wonder creeps in… what happens just up ahead?

These days are precious. New snow on barren ground means easy walking and clear tracks. No snowshoes needed yet. Take advantage of these in-between days, there are stories out there waiting to be read.

Walking the road out, there are new tracks crossing. Three coyotes gain the road and pause at my own booted prints. I’d like to think they watched me pass, and I never would have known save for the telltale marks left in the snow. They pause a moment, perhaps in wonder, and then move on.

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Altitudinal

Here’s a column published in The Voice on November 7, 2007:

Unfamiliar chips and trills from the brush, a flash of white tail feathers. Here at a time when most birds have fled Oregon for Spanish-speaking climes, there is a new bird prowling the lawns of La Grande – the dark-eyed junco.

You will usually see them flushing from the ground as you walk a sidewalk. They’ll perch up for a while, probably chipping at you, and then return to the ground after you pass.

Generally, you won’t see juncos in the summer unless you climb up and out of La Grande.

They nest in the foothills and high into the mountains. Although the males will perch at the tips of trees to sing and proclaim their territory, the nest actually sits on the ground. I’ve found many junco nests when females flushed off a nest near my feet.

Juncos are a wonderful local example of what biologists call altitudinal migration. While other birds take advantage of wings and a lack of government to seek warmer climes in the winter, the junco uses a different strategy. Juncos move up and down in elevation according to the season. Here in the river bottom of La Grande, it is hard to find a junco in the summer, but flocks of them are a common sight in the winter.

If I’ve piqued your interest in juncos, take a moment to look at a few. You might notice some differences among them.

Some have black heads, some don’t. Some have rufous flanks, while others are mostly gray. What is going on here?

A look at any bird guide will illuminate most of these differences, and it brings up another point about juncos – we have two kinds here in the winter. First there is the Oregon race of the dark-eyed junco. They’re the ones with the dark heads and the rufous sides. Black heads for males, and gray heads for females.

Then there is the slate-colored race. They are much plainer birds… gray overall with white stomachs.

But here’s a surprise. The slate-colored race doesn’t breed here. They breed in Canada and into Alaska.

So that innocent flock of juncos in your yard is, in truth, a complex illustration of the different ways that birds deal with the arrival of winter. The dark-eyed junco is fascinating because there are two different races (which we can tell apart) which employ different migrational strategies. The Oregon race is an altitudinal migrant, and the slate-colored race is a traditional, north-south migrant.

But don’t trust me. Pay attention. Do both races stay for the whole winter? Do any juncos summer in La Grande? When do they leave? When do they arrive?

Questions beget more questions. Why are there races within a species? Why migrate at all?

I would give you my opinion, but my fingers grow tired, and my answers grow thin. There are some birds outside right now. A dove has just flown in. It is time to go out and look.

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Overwintering

Here is a column printed in The Voice on October 25, 2007.

Change is in the air as autumn fails; the leaves blush a goodbye, and silence settles. Gone are the songs of morning warblers. The birds themselves have faded, too, either leaving us for warmer climes or molting out of their bright feathers into the browns of winter.

Still, if you look for it, there is at least one reminder of summer still on the wing. Butterflies. This week, during a sunny afternoon that brought out those curious little fuzzy flies, a flash of orange crossed the walkway in front of me and disappeared. Then another.

I watched one land on the hood of a car and bask for a moment in the heat before it flew. Another disappeared into a fir tree. No flowers in sight, and temperatures dropping near to freezing overnight, yet here were delicate, sun-loving insects still on the wing.

Butterflies feed on nectar, right? So were these the last, starving remnants of the summer crop of butterflies? Were they living out their last days desperate for a flower, not knowing that snow was soon to come? I began to pity them, but then again…

Flipping through the pages of The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Michael Pyle, I soon find the entry I’m looking for – California tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica).

Two words stand out on the page, “Adult overwinters.” Think about that.

Somehow, somewhere, these little butterflies of sunshine and flower sugar are wedging themselves into woodpiles, under flakes of bark, into the siding of your house. Dark places, full of dirt and cobwebs. There, through the storms, freezes, and thaws of winter, they will sit. Waiting.

I read on. “Feeds on fir needle exudates in spring, fir sap and fruit in the fall.” There it is. They aren’t looking for flowers, they are taking advantage of another resource – sap.

While other butterflies have a life cycle of egg-caterpillar-butterfly that is constrained by the presence of flowers, these tortoiseshells are generalists. They adapt to the season and feed on what is available.

And this allows them to be the first on the wing in the spring, and the last in the fall. They can find food in the seasons when other butterflies would starve. And they overwinter.

So on the next warm afternoon I’m going to spend a little time chasing butterflies and looking for deformities. A tear in the wing, or a hole. A discolored spot. Anything that might help.

I’m going to take a good look at the tortoiseshells I see on my walk, because there is a chance that they will be the same ones I see first in the spring. After sleet has rattled the windows, and snow has blown sideways. After I have cursed my heating bill and worn a fleece and a hat in the house.

In those first warm days I may see them again. Not just tortoiseshells, but that one, there. The one with the tear in the upper wing. I’ll look for her again in the spring.

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I write a column for Eastern Oregon University’s newspaper, The Voice. (they claim they will update the website soon, with archives and all…). Here’s a column. I’ll add some more when i get the time. This is what i submitted to them, so there may be minor edits in the printed version.

You don’t have to be a hiker. You don’t have to be an expert rock climber. All you need to do is to get outside, and be curious.

We live in rural Oregon. There aren’t endless shops, nightclubs, and museums to explore. You cannot lose yourself by going to a different neighborhood. Your favorite bands don’t play here. There is a university, a few restaurants, and some things to do, but if that is the scope of your adventurous spirit, you will soon be disappointed by what La Grande has to offer.

What La Grande has is open space. Rimrock. National Forest. Sage and ponderosa pines. Lingering just beyond the edges of town is an interesting world that will absorb as many hours as you wish to spend in it.

And here’s a hint… you don’t need special equipment. What you need is curiosity and a little bit of time.

For example, Morgan Lake lies just above La Grande. It is a 5 to 10 minute drive from town, or a half-hour bike for those with the legs and lungs for it. Morgan Lake is heavily used during the summer, but relatively quiet at this time of year. This is the time of year to be out; Rain has taken away the smoke and haze of summer, and yellows, reds, and oranges signal that the shrubs and trees are readying for winter sleep. The air is crisp and edges seem sharply defined.

There’s a trail that circles the lake. Don’t make a race out of it, take your time, look around. Listen, smell, feel. There are little birds moving through the pines – pygmy nuthatches that hang upside down on the trunks. There are gray jays that whistle queries from the canopy and will land right beside you out of curiosity. You don’t find these birds in La Grande.

Have you ever smelled a ponderosa? Find a furrow in the bark, especially one that is deep and red, and stick your nose into it. They smell like vanilla… really, they do.

North of the lake, in a draw, is a red-tailed hawk nest. The young are long out of the nest, but may be lingering around. If you know what to look for, you can tell the young from the adults.

In the evenings coyotes yelp and bark and elk appear at the forest edges like apparitions and move into the open. Great-horned owls prowl the edges of the lakes. Try and imitate one; they may hoot back. As night comes on, layers and layers of stars reveal themselves.

We spend too much time hurrying. The world around us is an unnoticed background to our day. It is good from time to time to step away from our cars, our classrooms, from the internet, and seek out the quiet places and explore them. It is good for the soul, it is good for peace of mind. It is good to know where we are.

La Grande is surrounded by places like this. But I will warn you that getting outside may lead to other things… you may buy a bird book, or a guide to plants and trees. You may find a favorite place and go there again and again. You may start painting, or taking pictures, or writing in a journal.

It doesn’t matter how you go, just get outside. There is a fascinating world out there waiting. You just have to take the time to notice it.

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