12 January 2018

It's My Party

Parties are fine, but they're no sunset at the beach.

This past New Year's Eve crystalized for me the realization that I prefer outdoor activities to traditional parties as ways to celebrate or mark occasions. I reached this determination on a clam-digging trip with my mom and uncle.

Traditional parties generate mixed emotions for me. I enjoy seeing friends and family, but I also consider parties somewhat constraining. Almost without fail, I find myself seeking some alone time to break away from the social confines. In addition, I'm not convinced that parties always serve as the best ways to celebrate. Once, I even remarked how hikes seemed like better ways to mark upcoming weddings than bachelor parties.

Roosevelt Beach celebrates the end
of 2017 with a resplendent sunset.
The clamming trip to Roosevelt Beach on New Year's Eve finally put all my feelings about parties together. Instead of celebrating 2017's end with a party, I took my camera to the beach, and while my mom and uncle dug clams, I photographed a brilliant sunset that had so many dazzling colors I could hardly decide where to look first. The light show had already begun when we parked on the beach. Excitedly, I pulled the camera from the bag, jumped out of the truck, and started snapping shots. The entire time the other two clammed, I took pictures, ending up with more than 120. Each photo seemed to capture some new color achievement produced by the interplay between the sun and the clouds. I smiled and smiled some more as I checked the images in the camera's viewer screen.

On the drive home, the contrast between what I had seen at Roosevelt Beach and the events of a traditional New Year's Eve party played out vividly. We saw people lighting off fireworks, and I couldn't help but feel how those colorful explosions paled in comparison to the sights I witnessed on the beach earlier that evening. The camera in the back seat now held images and memories a party could never have equaled.

With no party on the schedule, I went to bed before midnight. However, that allowed me to rise early and upload my beach pictures to Flickr. After accomplishing that task (you can see the full album here), I looked outside at first light and saw my first bird of 2018, an Anna's hummingbird. I really could not think of a better way for me to end one year and start another. I had watched the sun set on 2017 in astonishing fashion and seen it rise in 2018 with a feisty, energetic bird. It was nature from end to start, precisely who I am and how I experience this world.

Above all, I comprehended fully that it's my party, and I'll take photographs at the beach and watch birds at first light if I want to.

31 December 2017

A Year of Birds

From the Pacific wren at first light on January 1 to the American dipper in the half-light of Porter Falls on December 12, this year proved itself a great one for my bird-watching.

In 2017, I logged 120 different bird species. That total surpassed my 2016 tally by 22, an increase of more than 20 percent.

One of the Clark's nutcrackers I saw in the
Mount Adams Wilderness on a July hike.
Besides boosting my yearly count, 2017 also brought me 22 new species for my life list. These included the American tree sparrow, bushtit, Clark's nutcracker, double-crested cormorant, dunlin, Franklin's gull, gray catbird, greater white-fronted goose, Le Conte's sparrow, redhead, rose-breasted grosbeak, semipalmated plover, and Virginia rail. In addition, I sighted three species of vireo that I had not seen before. These included the warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, and yellow-throated vireo.

Happily, I also improved my birding skills by identifying five species of flycatcher that I had not been able to distinguish before. These included both the eastern and western wood-pewee, olive-sided flycatcher, willow flycatcher, and Pacific-slope flycatcher. Because of their subtle differences, flycatchers bring confounding challenges for bird-watchers, especially less experienced people like myself, so I am proud I could identify these birds this year.

Along with the new species, some old friends I had not seen in a few years showed up again in my sightings. These included the black-throated gray warbler, eastern kingbird, and golden-crowned sparrow. I have fond memories of the moments in which I first identified these species, and I am very glad I was able to see them again this year.

All in all, I'll remember 2017 as a wonderful year of birds. I look forward to what might fly my way in 2018.

23 December 2017

Winning Gamble

You can't hit a jackpot worth more than the recent conservation victory at the Port Gamble Forest in Washington state.

Last summer, I blogged about the collective effort, led by conservation group Forterra, to protect the forest from development. Through a press release yesterday, Forterra announced the purchase of the final 1,500-acre parcel of forest. All told, the conservation project preserved 4,000 acres.

The risk in attempting to secure the Port Gamble Forest came from the possibility of losing it forever if the funds necessary to purchase it could not be collected. Once developed, the large parcel would lose its incalculable value as an ecosystem. However, the conservation coalition of groups and agencies came together so everyone in the region might benefit from the rewards of preserving that land. It's a major win with an amazing return on investment.

In the end, the Port Gamble acquisition resulted from hard work, generous donations, and a commitment to conservation, not from gambling, but it will certainly produce an environmental windfall for Washington state.

17 December 2017

Life in the Half-Light

Frequently secretive and always precious, the Pacific Northwest's December light holds surprising colors and wondrous activity for those who seek it out in places like southwest Washington's Porter Falls.

I visited the falls on a short hike last Tuesday afternoon and discovered a place half lit and full of life. Whether on the forest trail, covered by trees of varying ages, or standing beside Porter Creek in the shadow of the surrounding hills, I found comfortable and picture-perfect light.

The lower section of Porter Falls.
The birds, including varied thrushes, hermit thrushes, golden-crowned kinglets, and a melodious American dipper, must have felt the same way. They moved through the area with a flourish of activity, taking advantage of the traces of sunlight for foraging and the shadows for concealment.

Along the falls, the subtle reds and greens of late autumn glowed in the light permitted by the gully walls and the trees overhead. A light mist rose up from the rushing, tumbling water, adding a hazy quality to the place. It all made for great photography opportunities, and I happily captured as many as I could. When my mom and I left the creek to the bubbly sound of that dipper, I felt completely satisfied with the results of the hike.

Not everyone can see the special qualities of the PNW's wintry light, but people who look closely into its shadows find pieces of life the sunniest summer day could never reveal.

09 November 2017

A Place and Its Moment

Wind turbines churn out renewable
energy near Grayland, Washington.
American journalist Mignon McLaughlin wrote, "The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next."

The state of Washington needs that courage now from its legislators and from its people. We stand on the edge of a transition from one moment to another, and that move asks us to take a major step.

During the past five years, Washington has seen major impacts of global warming but no legislative action to address it. Consequently, that half-decade did not contain the fondest moments for Washington's environmentalists. In November 2012, voters elected Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat who has highlighted global warming as a key issue. That same year, two Democrats switched allegiance and began caucusing with Republicans, putting the state senate in GOP control. Every year since then, with major droughts, die-offs in sea life, and record-breaking fire seasons taking place, Inslee has called for climate legislation only to have Republicans block it.

Election results from a single race on Tuesday made possible a new and brighter moment in Washington government. Democrat Manka Dhingra won election to the senate in a district previously represented by a Republican, returning control of the chamber to Democrats. That means, no obstacles remain to prevent Inslee's desired legislation. As long as Democrats have the courage to make it happen, we can finally address this urgent issue.

This is the moment the state has waited for, and we must make the most of it. Our beloved region desperately needs action on global warming, and that work has to start at home. No excuses, no procrastinating. Whether the legislation comes in the form of a cap-and-trade system like the one Inslee proposed three years ago or a carbon tax like the one voters placed on the ballot in 2016, this legislation needs to get done, and needs to be done well.

Our moment is here, Washington, and we must be courageous. Contact your legislators and the governor, and tell them to seize this opportunity for a healthier planet.

30 October 2017

Sold Outdoors

The United States National Parks Service (NPS) has proposed a massive entrance-fee hike that carries a cost far greater than its $70 price tag.

According to this news release from NPS, the peak rate at 17 heavily visited parks, including Washington state's Mount Rainier and Olympic, would jump from about $25 to $70 in 2018. NPS argues that the rate hike helps address maintenance costs for the parks.

Without a doubt, we must fully fund and maintain our parks. However, the approach taken by NPS exacts a much heavier toll than the money for an entrance pass. I would pay the $70 because I love these places and because I can afford it, but for many, the price will turn them away, and that's where the real cost emerges.

Are we willing to pay the price for losing our connection
to places like Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park?
We preserved national parks as part of a social, cultural, and environmental trust. They were and continue to be places where we can go and connect with nature and other people more closely. Instituting a prohibitive entrance fee destroys that connection, cutting people off from important human and environmental relationships. Once severed, those bonds wither and fade, leaving our planet and ourselves at risk and opening the door for the possibility of privatized national parks (a great and devastating oxymoron). Violating a sacred trust like our national parks with a privatization scheme would threaten our deepest values.

As I said above, the national parks need full funding, but satisfying their budgets calls for more collective commitment, not less. Consequently, we must reexamine our priorities. Do we want tax cuts, particularly for the richest individuals, at any price, or do we want to have a society that makes us proud and nourishes us by returning the investment we make in it?

Whatever we choose, we'll pay something, but I doubt we can afford the first option.

09 September 2017

Race to the Last

When I drove through the Columbia River Gorge on my way to Multnomah Falls in summer 2016, I couldn't imagine having to write this blog post.

I have blogged before about the feeling of losing what was the Pacific Northwest to global warming. Although many of the changes brought to the region by the warming climate, including the staggering heat of July 2015, the shrinking glaciers at Mount Rainier, and the die-offs off starfish, birds, and other species along the cost, helped me realize that the PNW had already become something different from the place of my youth, they didn't prepare me to see the gorge consumed in the red flames of wildfire. So last week, when fireworks set ablaze the gorge's tinder-dry forest, which had been parched by months of relentless heat and rainless skies, I realized with new sadness and urgency the magnitude of our increasingly hot situation. Seeing the flames close in around Multnomah Falls, I felt a powerlessness akin to watching time slip away. To gain a sense of the awful scene still developing in the gorge, watch the video from The Oregonian below:

In recent years, I have increased my efforts to see places in the PNW precisely because I felt the need to race the changes that would alter them forever. In spite of the changes they've already seen, most of those places retain part of their essence and a good amount of their iconic beauty. For this reason, the trip to Multnomah Falls last year left a satisfying impression. I was glad I had taken the time to know and appreciate that place better; I felt at home below the high walls of the gorge; and I considered it a place I would hold in my heart despite any of the changes I imagined coming to it.

As it turns out, I haven't been racing change; I've been racing erasure. I will always have the memory of the 2016 gorge trip. Still, until last week, I didn't think the situation so dire that the drive would stand as my last time seeing the gorge in that state of beauty. Firefighters protected some of the area around Multnomah Falls, including the historic lodge, but much of that stretch of the gorge on the Oregon side went up in flames. The smoke and ash from that fire combined with the output from numerous fires throughout the region to blanket and choke the PNW in a hazy, red hellscape so alien I hurt to even think it the same place I once knew.

Nearly beyond our imagining but definitely beyond any doubt, we find ourselves in a race to the last and quickly disappearing remnants of something special.

02 September 2017

The Sight of Silence

Birds make so many beautiful sounds, but they make one sound all bird lovers hate to hear: thud!

View of CollidEscape applied to the outside of a window.
The side panes have screens between the birds and the
glass, so we didn't apply the film over them.
Birds cannot see the glass in house windows. All they see is an opening through which they think they can fly. That's when they make that thud, slamming into the window (often at full speed). At best, they receive a bump on the head, but a familiar and unpleasant sight often follows the thud. Many times, I've rushed outside after hearing that dreaded sound to find a bird laid out beneath the window it struck. Sometimes, the birds just knock themselves unconscious. Other times, they die from the collision. Either way, I feel horrible each time I hear that unmistakeable sound.

Fortunately, other people hate hearing birds thud into windows as much as I do. The American Bird Conservancy, which prioritizes bird protection, offers recommendations for products and strategies to limit bird collisions with windows. One of the products the organization recommends comes from a company called CollidEscape, which makes several types of film window covers that allow birds to see the solid surface of the glass.

Looking outside through the CollidEscape film.
Last month, my mom and I finally heard enough thuds and installed the white version of the CollidEscape film on the house windows. It was pretty easy to apply. Also, as you can see from the pictures, it provides a privacy screen from the outside while allowing people inside to see out. Additionally, the film helps keep the house cooler on hot days by tinting the windows. Most importantly, since the installation of CollidEscape, the birds have gone silent (at least, as far as their thudding is concerned).

From the looks of the early results, we have reason to hope the birds will now make only the sounds they're supposed to make.

27 August 2017

Web of Memories

The female and male yellow garden
spiders I found two weeks ago.
Eight legs and 22 years ago, I saw my first yellow garden spider. I didn't see another until two weeks ago, but the two events share an unbreakable link in my mind.

In 1995, my parents built a house. I remember that event clearly enough in and of itself. However, I also remember that a yellow garden spider spun its web on the new deck rail that fall. The spider made a spectacular adornment for the front porch. Its large size and vivid colors stamped themselves into my memory, becoming part of an autumn that seemed especially fresh and alive.

The chilly morning I found the spider lifeless in its web also occupies a place in my memory. I recall feeling sad to see it dead (like something special had passed beyond me). As if to prove the point about the specialness of that spider, I didn't see another of its kind until two weeks ago, a length of time that further secured that 1995 specimen's place in my mind. A long-disappointed yet ever-fresh hope of seeing another helped keep the memory of the first undimmed.

Apparently, the long wait between sightings and my fond memories for the first spider also set the stage for the second sighting to leave a memorable and lasting impression. The night before I left Washington state for South Dakota and the fall semester, I went for a walk in a field. As I moved through the tall grass, rays from the setting sun worked between the trees and scattered to my left. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a ball of yellow gleaming in the sunlight. I probably knew what it was even before I had fully focused on the sight as a spider. At least, it seemed like a rush of memories pushed the realization that I was seeing a garden spider into my mind before I achieved full consciousness of the moment. After 22 years, I had my second visit from the species, and I set out to capture the moment, returning to the house for my camera.

As I took pictures on that cool night in the brown grass with the smell of fresh rainfall in the air, old memories and a vivid, new experience wound together in a perfect, strong form. I noticed the spider's web actually contained two spiders, the second and smaller of which turned out to be the male. The next morning, I found a sack of eggs near the web. Now, I had many yellow garden spiders to remember and a continuation of a story at once old and ageless.

In the webs of our minds, some memories, though separated by time, still manage to intertwine themselves in the most natural and certain ways.

10 August 2017

Old is New

For my previous post, I discussed how the new things I've purchased in the last few years have improved my hiking, but I also had help on this year's hikes from an old friend with a new look.

In 1996, I purchased a pair of Bollé sunglasses for $40. They came with attachments that fit around their arms to keep out more rays. I've worn them for the last 21 years, but I never used the attachments until this summer's hiking season.

During my Mount St. Helens hike last year, I found myself wishing my sunglasses let in a little less light on sunny days in the mountains. Then, I remember the arm attachments, which I had kept despite never using, and decided to try them out on the next bright hiking day. However, cloudy weather delayed my chance to use them until this summer.

The Mount Adams hike in July provided the perfect test for my sunglasses to, after all these years, show their full potential. On a bright, cloudless day with snow reflecting the light back up at me, the sunglasses joined with my newer UV-protective clothing to shade me from the sun and make the hike more enjoyable.

I love my sunglasses like an old friend, and I appreciate that they're still helping me out in new ways.