17 February 2018

Redrawing Our Relationship With Spiders

For many people, the feelings they have about spiders form a tangled web of repulsion, fear, and hate, but animator Joshua Slice has set out to shape a new perspective on these eight-legged wonders.

Using a jumping spider as his model, Slice created Lucas the spider, an animated Internet sensation. The adorable Lucas, voiced by Slices's five-year-old nephew, challenges arachnophobia by striking an engaging tone, which is exactly what the animator intended. To see Lucas and learn more about Slice's approach to creating him, watch the video below:

Lucas represents a smart blend of strategies from animation and environmental communication. First, Slice animated the spider so that it closely resembles a real jumping spider. It also moves like a real spider. The differences between art and life appear subtly. Although he has four large eyes like his counterpart in nature (real jumping spiders have a total of eight eyes but four large ones), Lucas possesses a more doe-eyed look. This gives him a less intimidating presence as does his young voice.

The changes Slice makes from real jumping spiders anthropomorphize Lucas only slightly, allowing people to connect with this eight-legged ambassador without making him so cartoonish that people can't associate him with actual spiders. As environmental communication scholar Julia Corbett argues, although anthropomorphizing contains drawbacks, when used strategically and minimally, it can help people better relate to animals and our environment. Early audience reactions suggest that Slice achieved that balance in an effective way.

With animation like Lucas, perhaps we'll untangled ourselves from our phobia of spiders and start to weave a better relationship with them.

10 February 2018

A Picture of Regret

The picture that's worth a thousand words assumes a heavier price when not taken.

For the last two and a half years, a picture I did not take in August 2015 has bothered me. The regret stems not from some beautiful missed sunset or mountain scene but rather from the awful image of dead seabirds washed up on the coast of Washington state. In the past, I have blogged about the disturbing experiences I had with global warming during the summer of 2015, and I have even mentioned that I saw the seabird carcasses, but this will be my first post dedicated specifically to those birds.

I saw the dead birds at Roosevelt Beach, their bodies half-buried in the sand and mixed with ocean debris at the high-water mark. The effects of the summer's unusual weather had already disoriented and disconcerted me. The heat, drought, and fires presented me with a Pacific Northwest I hardly recognized but for which I grieved deeply. Going to the beach seemed like a good way to escape the oppressive conditions, and although the ocean breeze made things cooler, seeing the dead birds added to my alarm. At the time, I didn't know what kind of birds they were, and I didn't realize the connection between the heat and their deaths. As it turned out, they were common murres, and the warming of the Pacific Ocean depleted their food sources, starving them into a mass die-off up and down North America's west coast.

A common murre swims in the surf off
Roosevelt Beach in August 2015.
A thought of taking a picture to capture the sad image crossed my mind, but I hesitated and ultimately decided not to snap it. I can't pinpoint the exact reason I didn't take it, but I remember feeling sad and confused about the sight before me. The birds' unceremonious demise made me question whether I wanted to or even should keep a photographic memory of it. I felt powerless and ashamed too. So I walked past without giving them the recognition they warranted. All I ended up with was a shot of a live common murre swimming in the surf just beyond the dead bodies of its kin. It's a haunting image in its own way--dark, lacking detail, and showing the bird looking into a vast ocean of uncertainty.

Regardless of why I didn't photograph the carcasses, I know I wish I had taken that picture of them. I should have recorded the moment. Because of what those birds went through, they deserved having their fate documented in the hopes that it would inspire people to prevent more die-offs from happening in the future. Additionally, the photo would have added another piece to the larger picture of what global warming, fueled by human activity, does to this planet.

The picture of those dead murres never made it to my camera, but the memory of seeing them on the beach has stayed with me in vivid regret and led me to write these words in an attempt to make up for the omission. I suspect it isn't enough.

03 February 2018

The Best of Us

The best of who we are emerges through our collective efforts to achieve shared dreams.

At Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90 in Washington state's Cascade Mountains, we can see the great things that happen when people come together in a public decision-making process and exercise their combined power to solve problems. Fittingly, that collaboration has produced work that both symbolizes and realizes the potential of connection.

Seeking to solve multiple problems, including avalanche danger, car collisions with wildlife, and ecosystem disruption, a far-reaching coalition of environmental groups, government agencies, lawmakers, and engaged citizens, planned out an extraordinary project. Through a series of road-widening strategies and plans for wildlife overpasses and underpasses, the coalition set in motion an intelligent and inspiring approach to transportation and habitat connectivity. The long and impressive work to bring that vision to life continues, but the fruits of the labor have already started appearing, and they are nothing short of awesome. To learn more about the entire project, check out Cascade Crossroads, the new documentary by Conservation Northwest:

Fragile as it is, confidence in ourselves and our public institutions deserves the best chance to flourish. When it is allowed to, it yields amazing results.

Projects like the I-90 wildlife overpasses and underpasses demonstrate the great things within our collective capacity when we offer our individual strengths to the work of a common dream.

27 January 2018

A Mythical Event

With the right combination of anticipation, waiting, and surprise, some life events channel a magic so powerful that they become instantly and forever mythic.

Last weekend my favorite bird, the cedar waxwing, made one such event happen. It was something I had always hoped to see but wasn't looking for at the time.

My affinity for cedar waxwings goes well beyond my general liking of birds. We click. Social but free-spirited, subtle but with a unique style, peculiar but charismatic, these birds make their own rules and plumb a special joie de vivre. Anyone who pays attention can see them do amazing things.

Two cedar waxwings share a berry.
I've had plenty of opportunities to witness their behavior, and many of those occasions turned into cherished memories. I remember the day I first identified them as they fluttered through some Indian plum bushes in search of fruit; I remember sitting on the bank watching them hawk insects over a creek; I remember their whistles and trills by heart to the point that I instinctively respond to them with a smile and a look to see where the birds are. Usually, they're gobbling down fruits or berries, lounging cheerily together in a tree with their crests carelessly falling back over their heads, or flying off in effervescent earfuls to look for more berries.

For all my various encounters with them, before last Saturday, I had never seen them execute one of their most quintessential behaviors. Cedar waxwings will sit in groups or pairs and pass food, including berries, insects, and flower petals back and forth with their beaks until one of them decides to eat it. Sometimes, they do it as part of a mating ritual, and other times, they appear to do it just for fun. Whatever the reason, it helps define their nature as unique, social, and joyous birds.

Eager to see this sharing of food and long disappointed, I began to think I might not have the chance. It turned into something like the sasquatch (well, more like the auroras actually--some storied thing I knew existed but had never been in the right place at the right time to view in person). After a while, the reality of not seeing it pushed the hope of seeing it to the background. Then, last Saturday, I saw two waxwings in a bush along a walking path. As I started taking pictures, they leaned toward each other. Although blocked from the point of exchange, I knew exactly what I had just seen through the camera lens. The surprise and happiness of at last witnessing the pass of a berry from one bird to another locked the moment into my memory hard and in a way more clear than the picture I ended up taking. All the waiting and dashed hopes came together for an epic scene time can never take from me.

The stories of waxwings sharing berries are myths for me no longer, but my own experience with it sure seems mythical.

21 January 2018

The Eternal Dance of Dark and Light

The greatness of some moments appears before they fully take shape and leaves its impact long after the sun sets on them.

Yesterday, I woke up early for some outdoor excursions, but I delayed my preparations when I looked out the window. No, the weather hadn't thrown me an obstacle. Rather, I could see some traces of the imminent sunrise in the clouds. I knew those hints contained the potential for something greater, so I grabbed the camera and positioned myself to capture what I thought might come.

The sun rises in eastern South Dakota.
My anticipation of the sunrise received a vibrant reward: a chance to see dark and light meet in unforgettable fashion. During the next 20 minutes, they swirled together in reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, and blues. Clouds intertwined as those two great, contrasting forces, ancient partners who have done this for eons, embraced in the space of sky before me. With power and inspiration, they simultaneously lit up and shaded the world.

What I saw and photographed has remained with me in striking detail. I posted my pictures of it on Flickr, but that didn't seem sufficient. A need to articulate it in words drove me to more reflection and to make this entry.

Oh, what a fine, eternal dance the dark and light perform. How lucky we are to witness it even for the brief moment we're allowed.

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.