Amidst autumn’s sheds
pine needles, leaves and antlers
spring beauties blossom.
This morning you smell the sweet tang of leaf burst, the ground littered with the sticky bud casings of cottonwood trees, now shimmering lime green with new leaves. The casings cover the ground, cling to the dangling catkins of the mountain ash, leave resin scented with sunshine on your clothes. And too, they stick on the new green shoots of the leafy spurge, promise of a scourge of yellow weeds soon spread through the forest floor.
Pterodactyl shapes weave in and out among the treetop rookeries perched high in the cottonwood grove. Looking overhead you see the stretch of long necks, the spread of grey blue wings as the brooding herons shift, rearrange cramped legs, turn the eggs with saber beaks and settle once again. Head raised, you nearly stumble over scraps of longhaired hide scattered in the grass. You find yourself standing in a deer shaped bed of sheared hair and red-specked bones.
Eurasian collared doves coo from their perches in the Ponderosas. “Who-who, who-who, who-who will be my mate?” The flash of their white tipped tails remind you of the flags of startled deer as they bolt for cover. You work your way around the massive root ball and clamber over the trunk of a newly downed cottonwood. The shallow rooted trees are no match for the spring storms that race through this valley.
In the muddy bottom of a channel where spring run-off seeps into remembered pathways through the river bottom, you see the prints of coyote. Last night you heard the wild cacophony, exuberant howling and the high-pitched yips of rambunctious pups. Searching for more prints you find instead a great scatter of feathers under a small tree. No flesh, no bones, only the discards of a hawk’s feast. There, amidst the fluffy down and dove grey wings are the long tail feathers tipped in white.
Beneath the heron nests, fertilized by the white splatters from above you find a vibrant patch of yellow where, first flowers of spring, the buttercups bloom, sending out their runners in all directions. And there, in the dappled sunshine of blossoms, a patch of sky blue, broken eggshells of herons that will never hatch, a careless scatter from the rearranging of the incubating eggs above.
A raven explodes from it’s nest, haranguing the hawk who has flown too close, cawing relentlessly as it chases the raptor through the treetops, even as the redtail circles back around toward the unprotected chicks. The raven slices across the sky, heads off the hawk, who circles back the other way. Around and around they go until at last the hawk perches in the top of a cottonwood snag across the meadow, watching, waiting. And the raven returns warily to its nest, watching, waiting.
The woods are coming back to life, back to death, endlessly cycling through the lengthening days.
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one ‘less traveled by’—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accpt the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
I have just finished re-reading Silent Spring, a book I have not picked up since I read it in college nearly 40 years ago. At that time it was very controversial and I remember the way she was vilified for even suggesting that the brave new world—“better living through chemistry”—was not turning out to be the Eden the chemical and oil companies touted. Re-reading it now I am horrified by how little has changed. True, the book and Carson’s subsequent testimony before congress did have some positive impacts. DDT was eventually banned in this country, though we still sell it overseas. And she was one of the instigators of the broader environmental movement that was spawned at that time. I have always looked to Carson as an inspiration, a shining example of what powerful writing can accomplish. And yet…
And yet, fifty years later “only 200 of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the US have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. And exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or child development.” Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah. Coincidentally, just as I was finishing Silent Spring, Bill Moyers had Sandra Steingraber on and her book is the natural sequel to Carson’s. Steingraber says, “(In Silent Spring Carson) posited that ‘future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’ Since then, the scientific evidence for its disintegration has become irrefutable, and members of the future generations to which Carson was referring are now occupying our homes. They are our kids.”
Steingraber speaks of the moral crisis of our day being two-fold—the pollution of our bodies by toxic chemicals and the alteration of our climate through the accumulation of heat-trapping gasses. Both of these crises are attributable to our economic dependence on fossil fuels.
After outlining the scientific evidence for her arguments, Steingraber presents a compelling case that it is the moral responsibility of all of us to not give in to “well-informed-futility-syndrome”, whereby knowledge about the enormity of a problem becomes incapacitating. Instead we must scale up our actions to match the size of the problem.
I would love to sit back and focus all my time and attention to being a naturalist, to bearing witness to the incredible complexities of nature that abound in my backwoods and beyond. I still believe, as I wrote last year in “New Language, New Way of Thinking” that observing and writing about nature in an effort to restore its sacredness as Jack Turner in The Abstract Wild, “If we find we live in a moral vacuum, and if we believe this is due in part to economic language, then we are obligated to create alternatives to economic language…Emerson started the tradition by dumping his Unitarian vocabulary and writing “Nature” in language that restored nature’s sacredness. Thoreau altered that vocabulary further and captured our imagination. The process continues with the labor of poets, deep ecologists, and naturalists,” is a worthy enterprise, I am beginning to feel that it really isn’t enough. Neither is changing out my light bulbs, driving less, or even growing and canning my own food.
I can’t just throw up my hands in despair, even if any action I take will be insignificant in the face of the power of the economic interests of the corporations. I have to be able to look my children in the eye and not feel shame for my cynicism and cowardice. And so, when I was asked to sign a petition stating that I was willing to be arrested to protest the Keystone Pipeline, I did. You have to make a stand somewhere. And stopping the pipeline and fighting the expansion of fracking in my own state is a place to start. Faced with peak oil, the answer is not to find new and dirtier oil. It is to begin to build an alternative to our fossil fuel economy.
I will still be exploring the backwoods and beyond. But I will also be looking for ways I can keep myself from despair over the state of the world. Reading both Silent Spring and Raising Elijah is good place to start. I don’t want to leave my children a world with a silent spring, and so I can’t be silent any longer.
First sign of spring in the forests and meadows, it blossoms even before the last patches of snow have pulled back. It’s creamy yellow petals flash in the gray brown tangle of dried grasses, fallen pine needles and melt-soggy soil. They are so small they would probably go unnoticed but for their neon color.
When I was a child we would pluck the blossoms and hold them under our chins. If the bright saffron hue reflected on our skin, childhood folklore said we were fiends for butter. Invariably mine would glow, for there is nothing I love more than thick pats of butter melting into crispy warm bread, or a scoop of melted butter pooled on the end of an artichoke leaf.
One common name for a species of buttercup is “ugly buttercup,” but it is hardly ugly. It may not have the flash of the shooting star, or the elegant swoop of yellow bells, or the exotic glamor of the glacier lily. But those flowers come weeks later, allowing the buttercup to answer our eagerness for spring. Their five shiny petals are created by an underlying layer of white starch which reflects light back through the yellow pigment, making them look like drops of liquid sunlight. The Navajo are said to make a tea from the leaves to protect hunters against dangerous animals, which reminds us when we see the buttercup bloom, the bears are leaving their dens.
We might, later in the season overlook them altogether amongst the abundance and rainbow colors of the summer wildflowers. But it is because they are first, because they grow in great spreading clumps that splash the hillsides with gold, because they are such a welcome contrast on gray cloudy, gumbo mud days in late March, that we so avidly seek them out. Proving, I suppose, that even the most ordinary and unremarkable can be something extraordinary if it finds a way to stand out from the crowd.
We have waited so long for the thaw,
but gazing into the eye of the window,
we see only the cold heart of winter.
storm clouds spill over mountain tops
hide behind curtains of snow flurries.
buds burst only with hoarfrost
greening grasses trapped under dirty snow.
I want to turn away
from winter’s cold shoulder,
to pull the blinds and leave.
Instead I reach out a tentative hand
and lift the sash, steeling myself
against the blast of frigid wind.
In the sky
ka-ronk, ka-ronk , two geese now paired.
from the hillsides
hoo hoo hoodoo, horny great owls.
from the trees
kwik-kwik-kwikwikwikwik , laughter of mated flickers
from the fields
keeeeeeeer, a redtail hunts food for its young.
Together we stand at the window and listen.
Packing my camera for the ski trip to the Centennial Valley, I had one thing in mind. Mountains. Everyone has an affinity for a particular landscape. There are ocean people, like my husband, who look out on the ceaselessly undulating water and envision a magical world beneath, so independent of mankind, where exotic and strange creatures flourish. There are flatlanders who are happiest in big prairies where you never have to look up to see the sky, but only out to limitless vistas where any direction you turn is wide open possibility. There are forest people who love the cathedral like columns of tree trunks and the green leafy sky lights that enclose them.
And then there are mountain people. I am a mountain person and the Centennials are my sorts of mountains. Rising four thousand feet from the Centennial valley, they pierce the sky above nine thousand feet with their glacier-sculpted rugged slopes. I envisioned hours spent trying to capture their changing moods as the sun arced across their peaks, following their unique east/west orientation. On the fifteen mile snowmobile ride from Henry’s Lake to Elk Lake, the mountains towered over us, a promise of spectacular panoramas in the days ahead.
The next morning, however, as I skied out toward the Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge, the mountains had disappeared. Banks of storm clouds avalanched from their summits and down their slopes. Rather than jagged ridgelines and snow crusted peaks, I was faced with what looked like a giant wave about to break on the valley floor. I am not unfamiliar with disappearing mountains. I went to college in Tacoma, Washington and it was four weeks into my first term before Mount Rainier appeared one morning as if by magic, looming through my dorm window.
But I didn’t have four weeks. We were only going to be at Elk Lake for two days. The weather did not break. As I watched the sky for some sense the storm would move out, I began to really see the clouds. Not just that they obscured the mountains I wanted so badly to photograph, but I actually saw the clouds themselves, and the way they swept across the sky like brush strokes of paint, creating an ever changing abstract work of art over my head. I began to understand the attraction of the “big sky” which was more like a movie than the single-frame grandeur of the mountains.
The world gave me clouds and so I photographed clouds, trying to capture just a hint of their ephemeral beauty. I realized you could never go somewhere with the plan to photograph clouds. All you could do was take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. After all, the mountains would always be there. Or not.