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.

08 August 2017

Stumbling Toward Ecstasy

Those first steps in that 1,000-mile journey might lead to stumbles, but if we learn and accumulate the tools we need along the way, we'll arrive at somewhere special.

People like to quote Lao-Tzu and tell us that, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Inspiring words to be sure. The quote leaves out the fact that we tend to wobble, stagger, and even fall in our first steps, but that's okay because we can recover and find what we need to walk steadily toward our destination.

My first real hiking trip two years ago brought a few setbacks. In 2015, I decided to take up hiking. I'd spent a lot of time outdoors before that, fishing and exploring nature, but I hadn't formally committed to hiking. That July, I hiked the Skyline Loop Trail at Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain held a special place in my heart because I grew up with it in the distance, so it made sense to take my first hiking steps there. For the most part, the experience met my expectations, but crossing a snowy section on the trail activated my fear of heights, and I left with a sunburn on a spot I'd missed with sunscreen.

Even though the snowy heights and the sunburn didn't ruin the hike, they stuck with me as challenges to overcome. To address the latter, I bought a UV-protective pullover from Patagonia to go along with the UV-protective Patagonia shorts I already had. I also purchased a pair of Merrell Capra Sport hiking shoes to replace the jogging shoes I'd worn to Mount Rainier, a pair of REI hiking socks, and a Patagonia backpack, the latter of which I blogged about last year. It was time to get serious about the steps I wanted to take, but I still didn't know how to deal with the issue of heights. After all, having a fear of heights and a desire to hike in the mountains presents a substantial dilemma.

Some of the gear that has improved my hiking.
Last year, my phobia triggered another stumble. On a hike at Mount St. Helens, I had to turn back because walking the side of Johnston Ridge bothered me too much. The trail was far from treacherous, and the heights I encountered should not have overwhelmed me. Upset at myself for having to end the hike for no good reason, I resolved to fix the problem. One of my cousins suggested the idea of using trekking polls, so this spring, I bought a pair of Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z trekking polls from REI. The REI purchase also included a second pair of hiking socks (this one from Darn Tough) because I like to double up on socks and a pair of UV-protective gloves from Outdoor Research.

Following the spring shopping, I felt ready to take my next steps in the hiking adventure. Those steps brought the kind of exhilaration and satisfaction I had hope for from the beginning. First, I hiked in the Mount Adams Wilderness, an experience I blogged about last month. As I wrote at the time, the trekking polls helped make the hike a nearly perfect outing. They gave me extra stability and allowed me to focus on the simple task of taking the next step instead of imagining unlikely pitfalls. Even on snowy terrain similar to that at Mount Rainier in 2015, I felt relaxed and in control. Meanwhile, the light, UV-protective clothes and gloves kept me cool and protected from the bright sun, and the gloves held up to the challenge of gripping the trekking polls. Ecstatic about the hike, especially with the performance of the trekking polls, I knew my new tools had already paid for themselves, and for the first time, I felt completely at home in hiking.

Besides providing the desired control, the trekking polls yielded another major benefit. As with my backpack last year, the polls helped better distribute the strain of hiking. Rather than having my legs do all the work, I used the polls to climb and cushion against the impact of sloping terrain. Consequently, I could enjoy the whole trip more and feel better about it in the end. After noticing the difference on the Mount Adams hike, I appreciated it even more a week later when I returned to Mount Rainier for a 12-mile hike from Longmire to the Reflection Lakes. Despite the distance, my legs felt better than they had following the 2015 Mount Rainier hike.

We can complete our journey a step at a time, but if that journey also includes growth and some accumulation of equipment for living (as Kenneth Burke would say), the destination will elate us.

06 August 2017

Right on the Edge

The right move can take us to the ends of the Earth.

Last Tuesday, as record-setting heat settled into the Pacific Northwest, my mom and I drove to Kalaloch on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The trip gave me a needed escape from the oppressive temperatures and smoky air.

Although we'd scheduled the outing before forecasts began predicting the extreme heat, I couldn't help thinking on the drive up the peninsula how nice the ocean air would feel instead of 95 degrees. With each mile, we left further behind the temperatures escalating inland. When we reached Kalaloch, which resides on the western boundary of Olympic National Park, the temperature stood in the 60s. On the beach, a fresh breeze blew light fog from the water, and the tide washed cool waves over our feet.

Driftwood on the beach at Kalaloch.
Walking near the surf, I found myself surrounded by shorebirds, including a semipalmated plover, which represented my very first sighting of that species. We left the beach for lunch, climbing the cliff at the edge of North America. When we reached the top, a group of people informed us that they saw gray whales just offshore. Putting off lunch, we stayed to watch the whales, which ventured inside the breakers, flipped on their sides, and occasionally spouted into the air. It had taken a long drive, but looking at the whales forage at the end of the world's greatest ocean, I knew I'd come to the right spot on what otherwise might have been an uncomfortably hot day.

After watching the whales, my mom and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch in the cool restaurant at the Kalaloch Lodge. Next, we explored the Kalaloch Creek Nature Trail. A little warmer than the beach, the forest through which the trail wound nevertheless provided abundant shade, and its quiet confines completed the satisfaction of escaping the less favorable conditions to the east.

As we returned home to find temperatures still in the 90s and smoke filtering in from wildfires in British Columbia, the lesson of the day shone clearly through the haze: Know what place is right for you, and go wherever that may be even if it's the very end of the line.

24 July 2017

A Small Price for Priceless

Paying $3.5 million really isn't much when it buys something priceless.

With the population of the Pacific Northwest continuing to grow rapidly, intact ecosystems disappear under paved streets and homes with startling and saddening regularity. However, efforts to protect some of the important wilderness areas have helped limit the damage; and the fundraising for one such preservation project comes down to the wire this month.

The Port Gamble Forest in Kitsap County encompasses 3,000 acres of wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Facing the prospect of seeing the land subdivided into housing developments, a coalition of groups, including environmental organization Forterra, two Native American tribes, and local land trusts, put together a campaign to raise the $3.5 million needed to preserve it. Check out the video for the campaign below:

As an important ecosystem, sanctuary, and place of recreation, the Port Gamble forest carries a value greater than any dollar amount. Protecting it takes an important step in maintaining the spirit and ecology of the Pacific Northwest. If you would like to contribute to the campaign by the July 31, 2017, deadline, click here. As of the last tally, they only need about $900,000 more, and that's a small price to pay indeed for this amazing place.

Let's raise the money to protect Port Gamble. We can't afford to lose it.

12 July 2017

Finding a Friendly Place

When an old friend and I began talking about taking a hike together, I didn't realize it would lead to making a new friend of a strangely familiar place, but that's what happened on my trip to the Mount Adams Wilderness last week.

Looking up at Mount Adams from the Killen Creek Trail.
For some years, a friend I have known since elementary school and I have discussed plans for a hike. We grew up in the same area, playing sports and musical instruments and occasionally fishing together, and we thought a hike might make another good adventure to share. Eventually, we settled on Killen Creek Trail #113 near Mount Adams, an area I didn't know well but that provided a nice central meeting point.

Growing up in western Washington, I considered Mount Adams more of an acquaintance than a friend. Its placement in the eastern half of the Cascade Mountains meant I could see it occasionally (though partially obscured) from high points near my home. On the other hand, I felt a much deeper connection with Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, the former in particular. I saw them regularly and built a kinship with them. When I see Mount Rainier, I instantly think of home.

Without much knowledge of the Mount Adams Wilderness, I went into the hike a little nervous. After all, my friend and I had to coordinate family schedules, bring all the right equipment, and find our way to a fairly remote trailhead. The trepidation proved unjustified, and I found myself looking over a new setting with which my heart felt a deep connection.

From the moment we turned off Highway 12 onto Forest Road 21, I began to like the area. Though dusty, the road enjoyed a canopy of trees that offered a warm embrace. I grew up surrounded by trees, so I love having them overhead, and although the ones leading to Mount Adams grew smaller as we moved closer to the mountain, they kept us company for the entire drive and hike. On the road and the trail, they provided shade against a sunny, warm day. In the clear air of the mountain meadows we crossed during the hike, they glowed green. Then, as I looked out from our stopping point just northwest of Mount Adams, I heard myself say with a smile, "Look at all the trees." They stretched out in a sea of varying green shades all the way to Mount Rainier, which glistened in the sun 50 miles north of our position, and I realized how much they made me feel at home in the shadow of a volcano I'd previously known only in passing.

Coming prepared for the hike added to the connection I felt to my novel surroundings. In May, I purchased a pair of trekking poles for added stability on hikes. They paid for themselves in just that one day on the Killen Creek Trail. Along with giving me extra points of control and taking strain off my legs while ascending and descending, the poles made the snow we encountered a source of joy rather than stress. The control they provided on an otherwise slippery surface allowed me to embrace the snow for its refreshing coolness. Even when I stepped through a weak spot up to my knee, I kind of liked it. Instead of resenting the snow as an obstacle, I reflected on how good it was to still have snow this late in the year after two years of hot, dry springs and summers in the Pacific Northwest. I prefer the cooler months of the year anyway, so I felt glad that I had the chance to walk up and meet a bit of winter in July.

Finally, hiking the trail with my mom and my friend and his family brought the new and the familiar of the experience together in perfect symmetry. Gazing over the landscape from our stopping point, I realized and appreciated how far into the wilderness I had gone, but I didn't feel disconnected from anything or out of place. I could have stayed there for hours more. Even the aggressive mosquitoes we fought during the hike, while breaking through the insect repellent, never broke through the feeling that I belonged there.

In the process of reconnecting with an old friend, I found another I never knew I had, and for years to come, I'll think of that distant mountain as a friendly place.

27 June 2017

Staying Power

Life for endangered streaked horned larks poses many risks, but one member of this subspecies of horned lark continues bringing hope to conservation efforts aimed at protecting the birds, returning to his nesting site in western Washington year after year and lasting longer than even the identification band that gave him his name.

Photo of a horned lark (not Pinky though).
Born in 2009, Pinky the streaked horned lark keeps showing the tenacity of his subspecies. Last year, South Sound Prairies, an organization that promotes conservation, restoration, and preservation of native prairies in the South Puget Sound region, announced that Pinky had returned (still sporting his pink identification band) and built a nest at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military installation.

Considering that the oldest horned lark on record was about eight years old, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site, and that fewer than 1,000 streaked horned larks remain in the wild, the news brought great excitement. Over the winter, I thought about Pinky occasionally and hoped 2017 would bring equally happy news about him. This year, the venerable Pinky returned again, sporting a slightly different look. Now eight years old, he'd lost his trademark pink band, but that didn't keep him from nesting in his familiar spot.

I learned this year's good news about Pinky while birding at the Glacial Heritage Preserve on Prairie Appreciation Day last month. The ornithologist who told me about Pinky couldn't hide his excitement and pride. That's understandable, especially given the endangered status of the subspecies and the powerful symbol of hope Pinky has become.

With that, I'd like to wish Pinky another great year with safe travels. Stay pink, my friend!

21 May 2017

Early After All This Time

The Glacial Heritage Preserve and the Black Hills
on Prairie Appreciation Day 2017.
The seemingly contradictory claims that "good things come to those who wait" and "the early bird gets the worm" came together at the Glacial Heritage Preserve in southwest Washington state last week to make one special experience.

Every year in early May, the preserve opens to the public for Prairie Appreciation Day. Offering wildflowers, educational booths, and a chance to catch up on all the work done to protect the important prairie environment near Puget Sound, the event celebrates spring and environmental preservation.

My mom and I used to go before I began my doctoral studies, but because of school and work commitments, I've had a long wait between chances to enjoy Glacial Heritage. Last year, I stopped in for the first time since 2008, but I could only stay for about 30 minutes. To make things worse, most of the wildflowers bloomed out before Prairie Appreciation Day last year because of an abnormally hot April.

My long wait to immerse myself in the prairie ended this year on May 13 though, and thanks to the Black Hills Audubon Society, I made it to the prairie before almost everybody else and before the rain. Most of the day's festivities began at 10 a.m., but the Audubon Society hosted a birding event at 7:30 a.m., giving those who participated early access and an exceptional experience of the preserve.

As I walked with the other birders, I reacquainted myself with the prairie in a whole new way. With the wildflowers in full bloom this year, the morning sun glistened off fields of wet camas, blue-eyed Mary, and golden and harsh paintbrushes. Years of restoration work, which still continues, showed in the colorful, lively landscape.

In the middle of this sea of flowers and Mima Mounds, birds sang, chattered, buzzed overhead, and landed on the informational signs set up for the public. I had never birded the prairie before, and the group of birders helped me identify three species I would not have confirmed on my own. Two (the willow flycatcher and the western wood peewee) proved quite difficult to distinguish without great expertise, and the third (an orange-crowned warbler) was only identified by its song, which I wouldn't have known by myself.

All told, the birders received three hours of good birding before the rains came at 10:30 a.m. As the majority of people were just arriving, we walked out having seen more than 40 species. Personally, I added eight new species to my 2017 total, and I left with a special feeling of having seen the prairie again after a long absence and before most everyone else this year.

My 2017 Prairie Appreciation Day proved that the early birder gets the good weather and a memorable experience even if it means waiting nine years.

24 April 2017

The Illusion and Reality of Isolation

Lonesome George in 2006.
The human mind sees loneliness amidst connection, and that illusion carries concrete consequences.

On a living planet, we think we're alone. Surrounded by marvels of nature, we believe everything on Earth exists for our consumption, not for its own sake. Such thinking makes us feel isolated, and as in the case of Lonesome George, it sometimes leaves other creatures facing a harsh and real loneliness.

Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, died in 2012. However, today's presentation about George for this year's Earth Week at the University of South Dakota caused me to reflect on the real nature of loneliness and isolation. The presentation discussed how human activity led to the extinction of several subspecies of tortoise in the famed archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin. Centuries of hunting and careless importing of invasive species that preyed on tortoises and destroyed their habitat shoved the reptiles to the brink. By 1971, only George remained of the subspecies on Pinta Island. He lived out the last 40 years of his life in a sanctuary, facing a loneliness so real we can't fathom it.

In constructing an isolation from the rest of nature, we create situations in which we act like we are the only ones on Earth. We take what we want, and we act without thinking about the larger impacts on the web of life. And so we sentence animals like Lonesome George to the experience we fear most: sheer separation.

Despite our tendency to feel alone and act like we are, perhaps in remembering Lonesome George, we can recall our true connection to the other pieces of nature and take real action to protect the shared fate of all life on this planet. In that way, maybe we can also preserve a symbolic connection for that solitary tortoise in place of the real bond we severed.

25 March 2017

Headed in the Right Direction

Anthropologist Elizabeth Kapu'uwailani Lindsey once said, "True navigation begins in the human heart. It's the most important map of all." Compass Outdoors, a new outdoor gear and apparel company based in Washington state, embodies those words.

Before going any further, in the interest of full disclosure, I know one of the company's co-founders.

Following in the footsteps of companies like Patagonia and Klean Kanteen, Compass Outdoors places environmental ethics at its heart. The company logo, which consists of a compass pointing toward the Pacific Northwest's iconic Mount Rainier, gives the sense that Compass Outdoors knows what's important to it and where it's going. Looking more closely, the company has the stated objective of, "Using business to help create awareness and support for environmental issues." Such ethics influence the business model as well with five percent of each purchase going to support the national parks.

The launch of the company Web site last Wednesday marked the first step in Compass Outdoors' journey toward its core vision. The initial offering of six products, including an insulated bottle, a shirt, and hats will soon expand with additional items. To see the current selection, click here.

Compass Outdoors also plans to pursue a better environment by carving a path beyond simply selling products. Its Web site will expand in the future with a companion blog that spotlights environmental issues by featuring individuals working to address those concerns. Such issues did put the company on its path after all.

Knowing what Compass Outdoors set out to achieve and the reasons at the heart of that objective makes me excited to see where the company goes. It's clear they have a good navigation system.

25 February 2017

The Shredding of Our Moral Core

According to Immanuel Kant, "We can judge the heart of a (person) by his(/her) treatment of animals." In a more general sense, that behavior, along with how people treat the environment, probably also says something about the heart of a society.

It is with a heavy heart then that I have watched recent environmental policy coups play out around the United States. For example, as this article from BuzzFeed describes, the Republican-controlled US House of Representatives recently passed legislation to reinstitute the barbaric killing of wolves and bears on wildlife refuges in Alaska. The approved tactics include aerial shooting and killing pups and cubs in their dens. To say nothing of the fact that these activities would take place on wildlife refuges, the inhumane legislation reveals those supporting it as sadistic, sociopathic, and bereft of conscience.

Morally corrupt as it is, the wolf-bear policy displays a cunning level of strategy. Targeting wolves and bears proves a clever tactic for unraveling the threads of human concern and environmental policy. As apex predators, those species indicate the health of the ecosystems in which they live. When they're wiped out, proponents of environmental exploitation can more easily make the case that extracting resources will not damage an ecosystem anymore than it already is. Additionally, as charismatic megafauna, wolves and bears generate public concern, and people rally to save them. In short, these species are critical to environmental preservation, and it is no accident legislators are targeting them.

We see the reasons for using bears and wolves as strategic targets in environmental policy proposals and decisions across the country. Stripping the species of their federal protections takes the first step in breaking down the systemic mechanisms that foster, institute, and enact our environmental ethics. Eliminating key reasons to protect the land opens the door to proposals that allow for expanded environmental exploitation. For example, we've already seen a proposal to permit oil and gas drilling in national parks and renewed efforts by Democrats and Republicans in the state of Alaska to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Ultimately, taking federal government out of the picture puts our environment in the hands of private interests, which is exactly the point of these policies. One of the best (though most egregious) examples of this process comes from Oregon, where a state board led by Democratic State Treasurer Tobias Read voted to sell off the Elliott State Forest to private interests. Covering the story, Men's Journal calls the sale "the natural conclusion of a land losing federal protection" and "a bad sign for America's public lands." Throwing away our heritage of conservation and our responsibility to future generations, the board sold the forest for short-term profits.

In the place where our moral and environmental ethics once found their footing, a corporate callus now resides, an indifference to anything other than consuming resources and making money. That's how, according to Greenpeace, the public relations firm for Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, ended up writing the letter in which the Republican governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa asked the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the pipeline.

At their heart, these actions by our elected officials represent a bipartisan, corporate attack on the core of our society and the shredding of our moral and environmental fabric.

11 February 2017

Now Presenting: The Search for Alternative Voices

In our attempts to respond to nature's signals, we clearly need the help of new voices, and I recently gave a presentation on how critical rhetoric allows us to identify these alternative perspectives.

Much of my research in environmental communication focuses on rhetoric, especially one approach to rhetorical criticism called critical rhetoric. When I was asked to deliver a presentation for the Humanities Research Forum Series at the University of South Dakota, I brought together several papers in which I had employed critical rhetoric. Below, you can view the Prezi I used to present my presentation aids for the talk:

Critical rhetoric challenges power by deconstructing meaning and identifying and advocating for marginalized voices. That focus makes it particularly useful as environmental communication scholars pursue new ways of articulating the relationship between humans and nature.

The Prezi above addresses several key aspects of the presentation I gave on critical rhetoric's potential. First, it explains the value of laying out environmental discourse about the human-nature relationship on a continuum. Part of the continuum addresses discourses found in newspaper coverage of global warming. These discourses include nature-as-out-of reach, nature-as-antagonist, and nature-as-co-present, the latter of which represents an important alternative perspective that challenges its more dominant counterparts. Next, the continuum adds components through an analysis of the Web site, The Featured Creature. Together, the discourses from the newspaper coverage and The Featured Creature provide a fuller picture of the human-nature relationship. 

The presentation also discusses how an analysis of The Nature Conservancy's Liquid Courage Web site suggests that elements of physical distance can be added to a public participation model to enhance research into environmental communication. Liquid Courage demonstrates the value of physical-distance elements in our relationship with nature.

As our environmental issues grow more complex and the urgency to address them increases, critical rhetoric presents us with an important tool in finding the voices that can help us respond to environmental signals.

03 January 2017

A Whole New Light

Now, you don't see it; now, you do.

Our physical environment heavily influences what things we see and how we see them. My experiences at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge demonstrate this fact well.

The most recent of my trips to the refuge possessed a much different character than the previous two (the second of which I blogged about two years ago). Back on my first trip in 1994, rain dominated experience, and in 2015, a thick fog enclosed the refuge. As a result, my family and I had limited visibility both times, drawing our focus to things close at hand. When my mom and I returned four days ago, clear skies, sun, and miles of scenery treated us to many new sights and experiences.

Out in the open, in the context of the Nisqually Valley and the extended Puget Sound, the refuge and the recent work to restore it took on even greater significance. It truly represented the meeting place of mountain and marine ecosystems--the destination of the Nisqually River, which begins at Mount Rainier. In that light, the work to remove the dykes that had dominated and reshaped the estuary for a century meant so much more. Seeing the sun shine on the larger natural processes working freely once again at the refuge proved quite satisfying.

Besides highlighting the larger importance of the refuge, the clear day revealed sights and things I've never seen before. For the first time, I saw the Tacoma Narrows Bridge from that vantage point. I also documented my first sighting of a peregrine falcon--a bird I was drawn to as a child and waited years to see in the wild.

American wigeon at the Billy Frank Jr.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
The final revelation offered by the sunny day at the refuge involved ducks. As an amateur bird-watcher, I have experienced difficulty committing ducks to memory. For some reason, other than mallards and wood ducks, they all seem to slip into one general image in my mind. I think one reason for this difficulty is that unlike songbirds, I am not around ducks all the time. However, because of the open scenery and the many ducks at the refuge last week, I was able to identify and become familiar with four species, including the American wigeon, the green-winged teal, the common goldeneye, and the bufflehead. I can say that they are more than just ducks to me now. I can see them for the individual species they are.

When the light changes, even familiar places give us more to see.