An Unlikely Refuge on an Important Journey

Thank you to the attendant in the women’s bathroom in Concourse A of the Atlanta International Airport. On a recent cross-country trip to surprise my sister at her retirement from 30 years of college teaching I was lucky to be one of many nurtured by the attendant’s generous spirit.

Moving from my arrival gate to the departure gate of the next leg of my long flight, I tucked into the bathroom. There was a line out the entry way—another signal to this travel weary soul that the world of travel is big and impersonal. As I inched forward in the line, I began hearing the same steady, cheerful voice.

“How are you doing today? Long flight? Head right over there, Honey!”

When it was my turn, the gray-haired attendant in her red uniform gave me my own, warm, focused greeting.

“Welcome, young lady! Been on the road long?”

I barely had time to respond before she gestured to the next empty stall.

What I noticed is that the women inside the bathroom were not impatient. Once we realized the orderliness of things, we all calmly waited our turn. And we all seemed to pick up on her thoughtfulness.  When I headed to a sink to wash my hands, a woman stepped aside to let me in. I was probably in that bathroom a total of five minutes, but when I emerged back into the sea of moving humanity that seldom looked at one another, I had been somehow reinvigorated.

Settling at my gate to eat breakfast before the next leg of the journey, I kept thinking about that attendant and how carefully she was doing her job. She made such an impression on me that I decided to pay a return visit to that bathroom right before my next flight departed.

There she was, two-and-a-half hours since my first visit, still standing by the entry to the bathroom, still sharing her positive spirit. Still sometimes going in and wiping down a stall before directing someone in. When I was sitting in a stall in this unlikely refuge for the second time, I thought, “I want to figure out some form of acknowledgement to thank her. I will have about three seconds for the transaction.” I grabbed a five dollar bill out of my wallet, waited at the sink for a pause in her speaking, then walked out handing her the $5 bill and said, “Thank you. This is the cleanest public restroom I have ever been in.”

“Bless your heart, honey,” she said.

Conclusion of the Important Journey

Twenty minutes later I was boarding my Delta flight to the Asheville, NC airport and the unfolding of a several day rendezvous and celebration that my youngest sister and I will forever remember. She was honored with student and faculty accolades and many gifts for outstanding service to Brevard College.

Ann greeting Margaret for the first time as they walk into the college Humanities Dinner

As the author of The Wild East, a Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains, Margaret is an accomplished writer, an active gardener who has created a Monarch Waystation, a devoted mother, and a person known for her community activity and commitment to lifelong learning. She is an all-around remarkable human being whom I have cherished since the day she was born.

Margaret and Ann relaxing together
photo by Frank Parsons

My sister and the attendant live in very different worlds. One gave me five minutes of kindness— a boost on my long journey. The other has given me a lifetime of joy, memories, and connections.

Margaret and Ann hiking in the Pisgah National Forest
photo by Frank Parsons

The Garden

“Why does being in your garden make you so happy?” asked my sixth- grade granddaughter as she was helping me plant peas. Then twelve and very interested in all things having to do with make-up and clothing in her LA lifestyle, her question was sincere.

Age 12 in this photo, Sasha was already a practiced hand at planting peas.

“It brings me joy to take care of the earth,” I responded.

“Oh, now I get it,” she said and continued her meticulous placing of each soaked seed into the ground with a careful pinch of inoculant powder.

Nobody has ever asked me that clear question before. It helped ME realize that one of the most restorative actions I take on behalf of myself and the earth is tending our small vegetable and flower garden.

Carefully fenced to keep out deer and bunnies, our raised bed garden gives soil a chance to warm early in our cool climate.

 

Since 1998, this 20’x40’ (6×12 meter) fenced piece of earth at the north edge of our property has received my love and care. Raised beds have rewarded us with baskets of fresh vegetables, many pints of blueberries and raspberries, and exquisite bouquets of flowers.

Of all the seasons of the year, the spring garden is probably the most inspirational—not the most productive, but the time that tunes me most closely to the changes happening in the earth at the moment.

 

 

 

Spring makes everything seem possible. Raspberry canes without leaves shoot out greenery no matter the fluctuation of temperature.

Raspberry canes putting out foliage to provide nutrition for the plant when the fruits of summer are borne.

Tender spinach, arugula, kale and pea plants are pushing their way up through the cold earth despite a frost as recently as two days ago. Life cannot be stopped!

April is prime asparagus harvesting time. Tiny kale seedlings planted on the front edge of the bed will provide food when the asparagus turns its energy to sprouting its feathery leaves to put energy back into the underground crown.

While in the garden today on Earth Day, I noticed an osprey flying overhead. They are just returning from their annual long migration from Mexico. Life cannot be stopped!

Remay cloth over pea seedlings to give the soil more warmth and protect from cold winds.

 

 

A pea seedling peeks out from under its protective Remay cloth covering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pulling up the remay cover cloth on the peas, I notice that the small seedlings are ready for more sunlight, so I remove the cover cloth completely. Life cannot be stopped!

Tree swallows, also returning from their wintering grounds in Mexico, are dive bombing the eaves of our house ready and eager to find a nesting spot. Life cannot be stopped!

Thirty minutes of garden-tending this Earth Day has given me a wonderful shot of optimism and hope. We all need a spot of nature and an outdoor activity that offer us replenishment. I hope you find yours—go plant some pansies, or pull weeds from the sidewalk cracks, or stand under a lilac bush. It’s Earth Day—not just April 22nd—but every day. Life cannot be stopped!

Tulips bloom all through April, a cheery respite for often rainy, cool days.

Some Logging is Important

Logging looks destructive. Trees uprooted, gashes on trunks from felling, soil upended, understory destroyed. It’s not a pretty sight for those of us who love forests. But it can be a way to restore some forests to long-term health. This blog is an invitation to think critically about the complex subject of logging through the lens of one logging operation.

Even this first stages of a logging operation in a quiet forest are a shock..

Working with our local Whidbey Camano Land Trust (WCLT) as a leader of hikes and teacher of school-aged children, I recently had the opportunity to walk through one of our preserves with a local logger as tour guide. In Island County, WCLT manages over 11,000 acres of forests, farms, and coast line. This is the story of one 721-acre tract known as “The Trillium Forest.”

The Story of Trillium Woods

In 2010 WCLT raised $4.1 million dollars in five months to purchase land that was about to be logged, sold, and turned into a large-tract, expensive housing subdivision. Hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and hunters all rallied to raise funds so that these acres, owned by the Trillium logging corporation, could be rehabilitated, and turned into a multi-use trail system that also functioned to broaden and extend wildlife habitat on the south end of the island. At the time, it was the largest ever purchase for WCLT.

There had been significant logging of this tract over the years by Trillium Corporation. In 1980 there was a 450- acre clearcut that had been overplanted and never thinned. When WCLT acquired the tract in 2010,  the forest was a mix of Douglas fir of varying densities, red alder, and some wetlands. If the forest was left to regenerate as acquired, it would have posed a fire hazard for surrounding properties and much of the area was not a healthy environment for wildlife because of the tree density.

A group of WCLT members being shown a stand of Douglas fir planted too close together which affords too little light for understory. The trees grow straight up to the sun with few lower, leafed branches. This weakens the trees, making them vulnerable to wind and pest damage. Lower dead branches create a “ladder effect” for fires. Food availability for wildlife in the understory is poor.

After an extensive search of area logging firms to find a company that respects the need for leaving trees standing for carbon dioxide sequestration or leaving parts of forests that can regenerate themselves, WCLT hired Janicki Logging Company in Sedro Wooley. Over the past half dozen years several blocks of trees in the Trilllium Forest have been thinned to reduce density  from some areas that had 600 trees/acre to 220 trees/acre. By contrast, a healthy old growth forest has about 25 trees/acre. In these thinned  blocks trees have more access to light and nutrients and can grow in a healthy manner. Additionally, understory plants are filling in to provide better food for wildlife.

Fourth generation logger, David Janicki, leads the WCLT tour.

As a longtime lover of trees and advocate for very little logging, I jumped at the chance to attend a Land Trust tour led by Dave Janicki, 4th generation logger. In my book Keepers of the Trees, a Guide to the Greening of North America (https://annlinnea.com/books/) I featured an old-time logger, Merve Wilkinson, who focused on minimal disturbance to the forest. This book was offered as a gift to donors who gave over $100 in the fund-raising campaign to acquire these lands.

My book, published in 2010, features 14 people of different professional backgrounds that care for and about trees.

 

The need for some logging

The focus on the current thinning project is to get the forest density down to 125 trees/acre. Logger Janicki walked us through undisturbed trails pointing out previously logged areas that have regrown. “In a climate like ours, forests restore themselves relatively quickly. The damage you’ll see when we get to the area with equipment will begin to heal as soon as we leave.”

When we arrived at Patrick’s Way, the main artery trail of Trillium Woods, the usually quiet, undisturbed gravel road was muddy with large tire tracks and the sound of machinery and falling trees in the distance. Our first stop was a pile of logs by the side of the trail and a machine called a Gatherer.

 The Gatherer follows the Harvester machine through the woods, picks up downed trees and moves them into piles along the road for the Loader, which will pick logs up and place them on trucks to be carried away.

The Gatherer follows the Harvester into the woods picking up felled trees and bringing them to loading areas near the road.

The Harvester is a high-tech machine  operated by a skilled logger that determines which trees should be felled and then carefully cuts them and lays them along the “slash road” for the Gatherer to retrieve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janicki guided us to the Harvester machine that he had hopped off to give us this guided tour. This machine has treads over 8 wheels. It creates its own path through the forest by laying down small trees and branches in front of it. The machine then travels this “road”, crushes the trees and branches underneath releasing their nutrients back into the soil. This eliminates the need for slash piles and burning.

The slash road is created by the Harvester as a path through the forest. Driving over it, the Harvester grinds minerals and nutrients from the live trees back into the soil. This eliminates slash piles and slash pile burning.

In the driver’s seat of the Harvester, Janicki both assesses which trees need harvesting and then harvests them. These felled trees are picked up and laid next to the trail. The Gatherer machine then comes along the newly established trail and picks up the felled trees to bring them back to the loading area.

One of the bonuses of this harvesting system is that the first round of thinning actually paid for itself and generated a small profit. The small diameter wood was sold as pulp and firewood. The forest responded well to that first thinning. In the current and final thinning work some dimensional lumber will also be harvested, thus providing further support of the WCLT’s work.

A look at other forests in Washington state

I am lucky enough to live in a hugely forested state. The Trillium Forest is a fine example of a forest benefitting from forest management. Other forests in our state do not present such clear mandates for the intervention of logging for overall forest management and health.

For perspective: Washington state has 22.5 million forested acres which cover about half the state’s land area. The majority of these forests occur on the moist west side of our state. Some of those forests are managed by the National Park Service where logging is forbidden. Some are managed by the U.S. Forest Service where current logging rules and regulations demand an almost ten-year lead time before cutting. Approximately 5.6 million acres are managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The remainder are a combination of privately held or land trust held.

How do we balance the need for lumber products with the need for overall forest health? This question can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Proposed logging operations face scrutiny from state and federal laws, environmental concerns, and concerns by neighboring property owners. This scrutiny is important. It has put a huge halt to the free-wheeling clear cuts of the 1970s.

And yet, there must be balance.  We need lumber products AND we need forests to protect watersheds, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. My invitation to you is to think holistically when reading about any proposed logging operation.

Christina and Ann  dwarfed by an old growth red cedar at South Whidbey State Park. Forests which have never been harvested in our region eventually produce healthy, ever-changing old growth forests.

A Winter Paddle

Near the end of February, between snowstorms, heavy rains, and strong winds, I snuck in an afternoon’s kayak paddle along the Mutiny Bay shoreline near our home. My winter’s goal the last two and a half years has been to get my new, lightweight (27 pounds—12.3 KG) kayak into the water at least once a month, every month. My Epic GPX, carbon composite kayak is a dream come true: light enough for me to load and unload by myself and carry to the shoreline. And it has a large cockpit to give my legs and back plenty of room. It is fast and easy to handle.

Ann’s Epic GPX paddling the wild west side of Whidbey Island

Paddling in the winter means careful weather watching. My “go to” weather for winter solo paddling: calm seas and air temperature above 40 degrees F.(7 degrees C.). That means spontaneity because winter weather is always changing.

I love being out on the cold waters of Puget Sound wrapped in its mantle of winter gray paddling in the cocoon of my trusty boat. Only rarely do I see another small, self-propelled craft. My human companions on the winter seas are the sturdy, dependable tugboats moving their year-round loads and the occasional cargo ship loaded with overseas freight heading into or out of the port of Seattle.

A tugboat carrying two barges of pulp on Puget Sound in the distance

My most regular companions on the Sound’s winter seas are harbor seals, solitary common loons in winter plumage, rafts of white-winged surf scoters, dozens of red-breasted mergansers, flotillas of tiny bufflehead ducks, and the occasional, solitary cormorant or grebe.

To be a part of this hardy human and animal seascape, I dress carefully, study the weather meticulously, and check the tides and currents. In any season a prepared kayaker dresses for the temperature of the water. In Puget Sound  in the winter that is about 45 degrees F. (7 degrees C.). My layers are a heavy turtleneck, wetsuit, fleece, and paddling jacket; a warm cap; gloves with handwarmers; neoprene booties with wool socks.

A selfie from the cockpit

Because I have a half-century of paddling experience on big, cold seas, I have enormous respect for the vagaries of winter outings. I am in cell phone contact with a shore person. I don’t paddle far from the shore. And I do my best to return at the time promised.

Paddlng close to shore

These outings exhilarate my soul. Confirm my oneness with the wild seas. I am under no illusion that at my age I can or should paddle in just any winter weather. But being out in the winter, when it feels safe to my experienced eye, confirms that I still carry a strong measure of skill and strength. It builds my confidence as an aging athlete. May I be able to do this for some years to come! AND, may I be wise enough to know when the time has come to retire the goal of paddling in winter.

Home in time to clean up the gear and enjoy a sunset

Hummingbird Chronicles

Gratitudes

Thank you to the following people who conferred with me about how to help keep our hummingbirds alive in the recent severe cold spell: Fellow Whidbey Islanders: Debbie Dix, Pip Gordon, Jim and Karen Carbone, Jane Sykes, and, of course, Christina Baldwin; Port Townsend: Pam Sampel and John Sager; and Amanda Fenton, Vancouver, BC.

Close-up hummingbird photo credits:Bonnie Rae Nygren, friend, colleague and nature photographer extraordinaire

Female Anna’s hummingbird at a feeder, photo: Bonnie Rae Nygren (bonnierae@braenstorm.com)

A primer

Anna’s hummingbirds weigh less than a nickel and are the smallest migrating bird in North America. Additionally, they have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird! The great majority of the mighty mites migrate from the Pacific Northwest/Canadian west coast to southern California and Baja Mexico for the winter. However, in recent decades increasing numbers of them have remained in the Pacific Northwest all year long due primarily to the availability of feeders and introduced landscape plants that flower in the autumn.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, photo by Bonnie Rae Nygren (bonnierae@braenstorm.com)

The middle week of January 2024, the Pacific Northwest endured an extreme week-long siege of sub-freezing temperatures and snow. And those of us who feed Anna’s hummingbirds were on high alert, helping one another figure out how to keep the sugar water in our feeders from freezing solid, sometimes rotating our thawed water on an hourly basis. (Night time air temperatures were well below freezing: 15-20 0 F. or -9 to -7 0 C.)

Anna’s hummingbirds get through long cold nights by going into torpor—lowering their body temperature to conserve energy like an overnight version of hibernation. However, in the morning they must warm up their bodies almost immediately and they can only do that by consuming sugar water. If their feeders of sugar water (the only consistent winter food source) are frozen, or if they haven’t enough reserve stamina to get to the feeders, they will die.

Part 1

Sometimes all you need is a pair of kind, warm hands.

One morning a couple of weeks before the deep, cold, and snow hit, I opened the front door to check my weather station and found a female Anna’s hummingbird splat on the mat at my feet. (It was still dark and about 45 0 F. or 7 0 C.) I carefully picked it up, sad to see that one of my feeder’s hummers had died. However, as I was holding it, I could feel the tiniest beat of its little heart.

I cupped its frail body inside my hands and came into the house. Christina prepared warm sugar water. We went back outside. I dipped its beak into the water three times and could see its tongue moving. In an explosion of activity it flew straight up to the porch light and then fell down onto Christina’s shoulder and then back onto the porch mat.

There were still two hours until dawn, which is the hummer’s normal signal to begin flying and looking for food. We turned off the porch light, set the little dish of sugar water near where the hummer was sitting, went inside and waited. Two hours later I walked around the house to look on the porch and our little female was gone! She had regained enough energy to fly and presumably feed!

The previous dusk, we had heard her fluttering inside the skylight well, set over the entrance to our home. Apparently unable to figure out that she needed to fly down to get out, she had roosted at the top ledge. Perhaps the struggle had depleted her inner reserves and she literally had no energy to stay in her roost all night long. When had she fallen? How much longer would she have lived lying there? Unanswered questions. A mystery and for now the apparent joy of “saving” a hummingbird.

Part 2

In times of challenge we all need community.

Ann putting her hummer feeder out before dawn in the big cold

Originally my blog was going to be an enhanced version of the above story. But then the most severe cold snap in 30 years of living here arrived and the story of hummingbirds turned into a community effort.

Saturday, January 12, we awoke to an air temperature of 17 0F. (-8 0 C.) The wind chill index was 0 0F. (-17 0 C.). I put my hummingbird feeder out before dawn. Within an hour it had nearly frozen solid, so I quickly brought it in and changed out the liquid—and this was with a feeder warmer underneath! Not sure how I was going to keep this up all day, I texted friends about techniques they were using. This community network of nature and hummingbird lovers shared a wealth of information. Enclosed are a couple of photos of the more creative ideas I received.

Put an old wool sock over the glass and gain several hours of freezing prevention

 

Make the sugar water stronger: 1/3 c. sugar/1 c. water and put a heater underneath, this photo taken before the snow arrived

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sophisticated system that feeds 35-40 Anna’s hummers every winter, photo by Pamela Sampel and system by John Sager

Part 3

Nature’s ways are sometimes hard to understand. We have no choice but to accept and honor them.

Once again, I thought my hummingbird chronicles would only include Part 1 and 2. And then came Part 3.

On the morning of January 16, five days into our deep freeze, I had put our feeder out with its “enhanced” sugar water and heater and about 30 minutes later went out to walk our dog Vivi. Just beyond the back steps, she was sniffing something on the ground right underneath the feeder. Pulling her back, I realized it was a female Anna’s hummingbird.

Tenderly trying to warm a frozen hummer

Removing my gloves, I carefully picked her up and came inside to practice our warming technique.

We set the tiny hummer into a little container and set her on the hot air register.

 After nearly fifteen minutes we did not perceive any heartbeat, but we did not give up. We put some sugar water on her beak and set her in a little warming nest on our heat register.

She looked so perfect sitting there. We kept believing she would resurrect. But the stress of five nights of extreme torpor and recovery had been too much. Was she the same little female we had been able to revive three weeks earlier? Had the stress of that hard night reduced her resilience? Had she been flying towards the feeder and simply failed to have the energy to reach it? We will never know.

But we do know that we had the incredible privilege to interact kindly and compassionately with a wild creature. For the next three hours the male Anna’s that frequents our feeder alternated between feeding and sitting near the feeder. Was he looking for his lost companion?

The male Anna’s waited for nearly three hours on the nail just above the feeder. Located just under the roof.

Later that morning, we saw two other females visit the feeder. We were relieved to see the male would have companionship for the rest of the winter. How quickly hummingbirds must let go of their perceived grief and return to the business of survival!

 To deal with our grief, we set the little female in a nest we found last summer fallen from a nearby tree.  We have created a tiny altar of appreciation in our dining room. Maybe twice, but certainly once, this little bird needed our help. We did our very best. We take solace in the privilege of this sacred interaction that brought us closer to the fine line between the wild and domesticated and between life and death.

To help US with our grief, we created a little altar in the dining room with the brave little female resting in a nest we discovered last summer.

 

Citizen Scientist

I love science for its inquiry, information gathering, critical thinking and problem solving. In college I majored in botany and zoology and minored in chemistry. Science has stimulated my natural curiosity and wonder about the world around me. In the many decades since, I have had numerous opportunities to keep that intellectual curiosity alive as a citizen scientist.

Volunteer citizen scientists support the work of scientists and institutions by gathering information using prescribed protocols. (Some organizations now use the term “community scientists” to imply a welcome of all people wanting to help, regardless of citizenship.) Two fields of study—ornithology and meteorology—are particularly enhanced by citizen scientists because they deal with subjects that know no political boundaries.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

Part of my holiday tradition for the last half century is to participate in my local Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Launched in 1900 as an alternative to the then popular traditions of going out on Christmas day to shoot birds for food and sport, the CBC count has become the largest and longest running citizen scientist project in the western hemisphere, if not the world.

Counts are organized into teams that cover an area defined by a 15-mile diameter circle. Ideally each team has one or two members proficient at identifying birds AND counting them, but anyone is welcome. Whidbey Island is large enough and has enough enthusiastic birders that we have both a north end and a south end count on different days in the two-week period surrounding Christmas.

Sarah Schmidt and Janet Hall looking through spotting scopes and binoculars to count the number of surf scoters bobbing up and down in the offshore waters.

I participate in the north end count on a team of 3 birders. In 2023 our count had a total of 15 teams with 39 volunteers who counted 119 species on count day, plus two additional in Count Week (Western Tanager and Northern Shrike). The total number of birds counted was 21,426.

Ann recording species being called out by her team mates at an inland site.

Dissecting the data, we see the significance of team work. Our longstanding, skilled team saw 61 species. The total of 15 teams in our area counted 119 species. Most notable for the three of us were the large rafts of surf scoters—a sea duck. For a total listing of our species count: https://ebird.org/tripreport/182007

Since 2000, all CBC results have been entered online. This has become one of the most important data sets for researchers to track the health of avian populations across the Western Hemisphere.

The CBC informs scientists about trends and patterns in winter bird populations over the decades. For example, Christmas Bird Counts have contributed to the knowledge that populations of barred owls have expanded from the east into the Pacific Northwest where they are outcompeting and hybridizing with the threatened northern spotted owl. Another example focuses on species like pine siskins and red crossbills that have “irruptions”—that is, one year we see quite a few of them, the next year none. An “irruption” is the movement of a species from one location to another because of food availability. Shortages are usually  based on the cyclical availability of food like pine cones.

Citizen CBC scientists use the tools of spotting scopes, binoculars, and decades of experience. It is terrific to be part of a gigantic effort that gives data to scientists that they alone would never be able to amass.

CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network).

 Weather is a passion of mine. Ever since paddling around Lake Superior in 1992 when daily weather checks of our hand-held weather band radios were crucial to our safety, I have paid attention to the weather. (No cell phones back in those days!) In 2008 I joined a volunteer reporting network affiliated with the National Weather Service which gave me a tangible, daily practice of weather recording and watching.

Ann checking her rain gauge—often done in the early morning with a flashlight.

This network, called CoCoRaHS, was launched because of a tragedy that might have been preventable if the NWS had access to more data stations. On July 27, 1997, over thirteen inches of rain (almost the city’s annual average) fell on the west side of Ft. Collins, CO resulting in a flash flood that killed five people and caused millions of dollars of damage. Because the storm cell was an intense, highly localized event in a remote canyon, the National Weather Service had no way to record that the event was happening and thus warn people downstream of the potential for intense flooding.

The event spurred state meteorologist, Nolan Doesken, high school students, and other state emergency managers, to create a volunteer network of reporting stations to expand the predicting capabilities of the NWS. The private nonprofit became known as CoCoRaHS.

The daily report form Ann fills out online.

Most areas have micro-climates. A micro-climate is created by a combination of temperature, light, windspeed and moisture. For example, here on Whidbey Island the yearly average rainfall for my gauge is about 27.72 inches (an average of 16 years of data). Coupeville, WA located only 12 miles north has an average annual rainfall of 20.66 inches. Coupeville is in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains.

The Wikipedia definition of rain shadow: “an area of significantly reduced rainfall behind a mountainous region, on the side facing away from prevailing winds, known as the leeward side.” Depicted in this diagram, we know that my Freeland area of Whidbey is not as protected from prevailing Pacific Ocean storm moisture as is Coupeville. The precise definition of where the Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow lies has been based on data from many local reporting stations.

Rain shadow effect from Wikipedia

There are now over 26,000 active CoCoRaHS active observers in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and Guam. Everyone of us empties our rain gauge before 8 a.m. in the morning and sends the data in.

Weather matters. It is probably the one natural phenomenon effecting the most people every day. Our amateur measurements make weather predicting more precise because the increased number of reporting stations gives meteorologists more data. Had the COCORAHS network been in place, perhaps the deaths from the 1997 Ft. Collins flood resulting from the storm up in Big Thompson Canyon could have been prevented.

In a civilized society we watch out for one another. We care what happens to the planet and our fellow human beings. A tangible way to engage that care is as a citizen scientist.

Mushrooms Everywhere!

A classic Amanita mushroom growing in my neighbor’s field

The fall of 2023 is a stunning year for mushrooms in the forests along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. They come in most every color: Yellow, red, brown, purple, pink, white, and even black. Some grow on the forest floor, some on logs, some only on individual Douglas fir cones. They occupy nearly every inch of the forest and are completely essential to its health.

 

This tiny mushroom grows only on Douglas fir cones.

An example of a gilled mushroom holding a tiny lake of raindrops.

 

In a recent class I taught for fifth graders at one of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust sites, I had the students stomp their feet on the forest floor. “Underneath one of your feet are 300 miles (480 kilometers) of mycelium,” I said. “They mostly can only be seen through microscopes, but if you laid these little thread-like roots under your foot end to end they would  stretch from one end of our island to the other six times!”

And what do mycelium become? They become mushrooms when conditions of temperature and moisture are just right. The fifth graders received deep caution about trying to eat any mushrooms. The focus of our class was wonder, amazement, and respect for the role of these “creatures”.

Twenty years ago, mushrooms were still thought to be in the plant kingdom. Now, however, they have been catalogued by scientists to be in their own kingdom—a kingdom mostly invisible to us except during spectacular “blooms” like this fall. The more I learn about mushrooms, the more I am convinced they are the magicians of the natural world.

A lignin decomposing shelf fungus

Notice the brown spore print below the shelf fungus. Spores disseminate the mushrooms into new places, much like primitive seeds.

Need a two-ton tree on the forest floor removed? Mushrooms will do the job. Need to find a way to decompose plastics? Mushrooms are proving capable of that “impossible” job. Is there a disease in need of cure? Likely a mushroom exists that can be of help. And mental health challenges? Mushrooms are on the frontier of that field, too.

Mushrooms also provide us with spectacular metaphors for life. On a recent zoom call between Wilderness Guides in Ukraine, North America, and Europe I listened to the dire reports from my Ukrainian colleagues: those in their 20s and 30s struggling to have hope for the future, one in his 60s whose son had just been sent to the front line. Please, they asked us, tell us something of your lives so we can see beyond our own borders.

My check-in was about our forest mushrooms. “I know mushroom foraging is important in your country. Lately, I have been walking our forest trails and been absolutely amazed by the variety, color, and abundance of our mushrooms this fall. One month ago, there were scarcely any mushrooms out. Now they are everywhere. It is a poignant reminder that unseen, powerful forces for beauty and good are always at work around each of us.”

Fairy finger mushrooms.

 

 

A log being decayed by moss, witches butter mushrooms(yellow) and a species of gilled mushrooms

 

Shaggy mane mushroom

 

Admiring or collecting mushrooms is more fun with friends—Marcia and Christina holding onto Libbie and Vivi who are NOT truffle sniffing dogs!

If you are hunting mushrooms for eating, go with someone local who knows what they are doing! I had the privilege of acting as sweep for a recent Whidbey Camano Land Trust walk with Kyle Ostermick-Durfee, WCLT steward specialist and amateur mushroom hunter Sego Jackson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mycology, the study of fungi, is a complex and fascinating field. One of the best, most accessible sources of information is the film by Louie Schwartzberg entitled “Fantastic Fungi”. The film with animation focuses on connection between all mushrooms and the earth’s systems. It can be accessed on line.

One of the best books I’ve read recently about fungi is Entangled Life, How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake.

And I pay tribute here to Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, mycologist, my professor at Iowa State University, who first opened my mind to the wonder of fungi. She was known as “Iowa’s mushroom lady”, taught at ISU for over 50 years, and received numerous national awards for her work. She passed away in 2009 and would be totally amazed by the knowledge gained in the mycological world since her death.

One of my all time mentors, Dr. Lois H. Tiffany

 

 

 

A Calming Ritual

The international and national news cycle is heartbreaking. When I can no longer follow one more thread of the Israeli/Hamas war or the Ukrainian War or the chaos in the U.S. House of Representatives, I go outside to tend to the ritual of closing down the garden for the season.

This one little patch of earth is where I can make a difference. I stand at the gate overlooking twelve raised beds that need my care and flourish because of it. October weather changes daily, growing cooler and wetter. The day length is shrinking so fast that the sun scarcely has the strength to burn off last night’s dew. I follow a sequence of chores that nearly 30 years of gardening here has taught me.

Ann in her fall garden

Unlike my gardening days in northern Minnesota in the 1980s, there is not an abrupt end of fall gardening here. Our climate in the Pacific Northwest is far milder, even though the latitude here is slightly further north than Duluth, MN. The presence of Puget Sound creates a moderating effect that keeps October temperatures between high 40 degrees F. (8 degrees C.) to low 60 degrees F. (17 degrees C.). By contrast, Duluth has already had its first frost. Whidbey’s first frost date is usually mid-November.

I gather my hand tools and shovel, appreciating the respite gardening gives me from the dire news of the world. My tasks are not avoidance, but a kind of meditation, a way I receive teaching from the ground I stand on.

First teaching: There is a season of flourishing, harvesting, last gifts, and completion. Plants are excellent communicators of this cycle.  Our bean and pea plants yellowed weeks ago. When there is no longer enough chlorophyll to keep them alive, I pull them up, move them to the compost pile, and plant a cover crop of rye, common vetch, and crimson clover so the soil in those beds maintains its fertility and composition through the winter rains.

This year’s cover crop: rye, common vetch, crimson clover scattered on the ground, covered with remay cloth to keep the birds from eating the seed, AND then covered with chicken wire to keep the squirrels from eating the seed!

Second teachingA gardener is in relationship with everything: plants, soil, weather, birds, and squirrels. Figuring out relationships seems to be a major source of the human problems in the world. No, I don’t have any answers except to respond with kindness, respect, and listening. Those three things work in the garden with the critters. I do, however, confess to more than my share of unkind thoughts towards grey squirrels who have forced me to figure ever more clever ways to grow my cover crops. And chasing them around the perimeter fence certainly gives our little corgi purpose in life!

This year I grew a spectacular 9 foot sunflower plant. When it turned to seed, it was stunning to watch the squirrels hang upside down by their tails devouring the seed.

Planting tulip bulbs for next spring, I covered them with wire mesh to keep the squirrels from digging them up!

 

 

 

 

Third teaching: Be patient and move at the pace of nature. I used to pull up most crops by mid-October and put in my cover crops and garlic before the end of the month. These days, two hours is a good workload and I don’t try to move fast. I let the plants finish themselves. Potatoes are still in the ground, so are two rows of carrots.

Two rows of carrots that won’t come out of the ground until November. Raspberry bushes and asparagus stalks in the background.

Fourth teaching: Let nature show the ways to heal and delight. I come to the garden daily for peace of mind. Here, I admire the hardy tomato plant(grown on the deck for extra warmth) using its last push to ripen tiny fruits. I am amazed by a zucchini plant putting forth blossoms, even when there seems little hope for a fruit to ripen.  Finding joy in the dailyness of things is a radical act in this challenging world. I pluck a handful of not moldy raspberries and let memories of summer’s red juice burst on my tastebuds. If  I can get to the place of admiring the athletic antics of the  squirrels, I know the garden has worked its balm.

Cherry tomatoes ripening on the deck, even though the plants contain little remaining chlorophyll.

A zucchini blossoming in mid-October with a young fruit just behind the blossom.

 

A few ripe raspberries remain on the vine even into mid-October.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to the house after a morning or afternoon of gardening, I do not open the news—either on my phone or the computer. I need some indoor integration time with a cup of tea or a conversation with Christina or a friend.

 The natural rhythms of the planet have always informed and given me the skills of steadfastness and compassion needed to cope with the human world that so dominates daily life. I take the peace of my garden and make sure it is integrated into my heart and soul. Come winter, my main chore will be feeding birds, keeping the seeds and suet available. in January, I will cut back the raspberry canes. In early February I will release the tulip and garlic tips from their wire cage. In March, turn over the cover crop and plant a line of early lettuce, spinach and arugula. There is always something to do in the garden. Thank goodness.

Vivi guards the newly planted garlic from her nemesis, the squirrels. She will be there in February to help me admire the brave new shoots of life. (Note the covering of chicken wire to keep the garlic bulbs from being dug up by the squirrels.)

Solo on the Spit

Each year for many years I have held the intention to spend time alone camping in nature, offering gratitude for my life and the earth, designing simple ceremonies, and doing whatever wilderness adventuring my body allows. This is my most basic spiritual practice, a way to reset and check my internal barometer.

This August I had a campsite reserved in the Cascade Mountains. However, as time drew nearer, temperatures were predicted to rise above 100 degree F. (38 degrees C.) Then a nearby fire exploded down forested foothills. Time to change plans and cancel the reservation. But these were the days I had set aside in a month full of harvest and volunteer commitments.

Public campgrounds of either the local, state, or national variety are solidly booked these days. The weather forecast indicated that camping near the cool waters of Puget Sound made the most sense. However, there were no open spots anywhere—except first come, first serve. Not my favorite scenario, but abandoning hours of internet searching for availability, off I went in a spirit of trust.

Surprise #1

With my change of plans I had to count on standby status on a ferry normally fully booked during the summer. Last car on the ferry! Things looked good for my spontaneous plans.

Dungeness Spit Recreation Area overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca had some first come, first serve campsites. I caught the first ferry from Coupeville (yes, I was standby status) and lucked into an exquisite site located 20 yards from a bluff overlooking the Strait. By 11 a.m. my site was fully set up.  I loaded up my backpack and headed out to Dungeness Spit National Wildlife Refuge.

My solo tent—no rainfly for breathability. No mosquitoes or wasps either!

Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. Jutting out into the Straits from the Olympic Peninsula, it is a narrow, 5-mile-long curve of sand, beach logs, and incredible bird habitat. I hiked about halfway to the light house, sat down, ate my lunch, and marveled at the blue expanse of sea and the shore of Vancouver Island (Oh Canada!) across the Strait. My intention for this trip was a modified retreat/quest—insightful solo time, small ceremonies, journal writing, and wilderness adventure.

Looking at Dungeness Spit from the bluff above.

I had hiked far enough out on the spit that there were no other human beings around—just the seagulls and terns. Pulling out my journal, I began to record my gratitude—always a first day exercise for me on these solos. Even though fully covered and sitting within reach of the shore breezes, the intensity of the sun and heat drove me back to my campsite by early afternoon.

 

 

Surprise #2

About halfway up the forested, paved path from the beach back to the campsite (a 2/3 mile, incline) I began to feel completely exhausted. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was capable of walking to my campsite. I staggered on. Once back, I sat sweaty and thirsty in my camp chair drinking and drinking water, beyond the 2 quarts I had carried down to the spit and already consumed. I worried I had Covid.  I took a nap. Rising, I still felt completely lethargic—just sat in my chair and began to marvel at the small Douglas fir and alder trees around me, the chestnut-backed chickadees and golden-crown kinglets carrying on their high pitched dialogues in the underbrush,  and the distant view of Vancouver Island. After a time, I felt hungry enough to cook up a bit of supper. (I no longer fast from food during these self-designed solo times.  I fast from electronics, homey comforts, and my beloved family, but for health reasons do not fast from food.)

By sunset I was feeling like my usual self and it dawned on me that despite camping in one of the coolest spots in the region these hot days and engaging in only very moderate exercise, I had experienced a case of mild heat exhaustion. Obviously, another thing I am more susceptible to as I age and weather intensifies.

Surprise #3

Sun setting over the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

As sunset approached, I walked 25 steps around the forested area protecting my tent site to a bench overlooking the Strait. The bench was located along a paved path. Only one other person was sitting awaiting the sun’s nightly journey onto the horizon. There was no wind, just the rhythmic pounding of surf on the beach far below. No sound of footsteps, just the slow, inexorable sliding of the sun on its ever-changing nightly course. I sat in awe of this nightly spectacle. As it began to darken, I turned and rose to go back to my campsite. There were nine people standing behind me in the cathedral of sunset! No one had said a word. A few bowed as I passed by.

Surprise #4

My first night in a smaller tent since my back surgery a year ago went smoothly and well. The second day of my solo is usually about listening for wisdom from my ancestors—both recent and long ago. Always I create a simple altar for this ceremony. Again, I hiked out on Dungeness Spit. Again, it was a hot day in the upper 80s (low 30sC). I brought more water and the awareness to REALLY take it easy.

Altar created on the shore of the beach out of stones and a few sacred objects brought from home.

This is a place Christina and I have come before to scatter our son Brian’s ashes and honor the yearly passages since his death in 2013. We are approaching the 10th anniversary of his passing. Sometimes these anniversaries are harder than others. And days can pass now when I don’t think of him. But this year the generosity of his estate enabled his nephew, our beloved grandson, to go to college. The great heart of our son and the enormous enthusiasm of our grandson for this gift filled me with an overload of happiness and profound grief. Mixed together they came out as huge sobs which I had absolutely no control over. Ceremony brings the inside to the outside, helps us pause and bear witness to that which is within us always. It always serves to guide my life going forward.

Surprise #5

On the final full day of my solo when temperatures were beginning to cool down into the low 80s F.(mid to upper 20 Degrees C.), I drove to the Olympic National Park to be with the great old growth trees. My choice of trails had been to travel up Hurricane Ridge and hike. However, the road was closed for removal of fire debris. Another surprise. More flexibility required.  I decided to hike the Heart of the Hills trail—moderate difficulty, large trees, 4.4 miles out and back, recommended by the ranger at Park headquarters.

However, this was the sign at the trailhead.

A warning sign at the trailhead. Cougar protocol: hike with others, carry hiking sticks, look LARGE if you confront one and never, ever run.

Yikes! As I was reading the sign,  a pair of women hikers came up behind me and began the trail. I reasoned I was not really alone and headed out a short distance after them, though I definitely gave them their space.

Trail among Olympic Mountain old growth trees both standing and downed by powerful storms.

Typical trail section through thick undergrowth of Devil’s Club and over a bridge because it IS a rainforest with seeps everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only at the turn around point by the river did we see one another again. About 30 minutes after seeing my trail friends, I did stop to pick up a large, stout stick for some reassurance. Surprise #5 is that I did not see a cougar!

Surprise #6

This surprise could simply be that I was able to have a solo in a public campground that was so deeply meaningful for me. Yes, I did have interactions with a few people, but mostly i was able to practice solitude, deeply held by the natural world of my own bioregion. And in the spirit of the quest, my “base camp” and community back home, Christina and Vivi, welcomed me with long beach rambles and deep story sharing.

Another photo of the holy moment of sunset at a public campground.

Holding onto the Thread

Those of us in the Wilderness Guides Council who are no longer actively leading trips or are beginning to slow down in how many we lead, belong to the organization’s “elders council”. We are a diverse group of folks ranging in age from 65 to 89, sharing our thoughts about moving into this next phase of our lives. I find our bimonthly zoom conversations helpful, honest, and insightful to my own aging. We were each asked to write a reflection about this transition which I also share here as a blog post.

Many of my peers are engaging in different versions of the question, “How am I transitioning into my elder years?” I share some of my thoughts here and encourage yours.

I turn first to William Stafford’s remarkable poem:

                   The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

                                                   By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

This is the poem we always shared with people from our Cascadia Quest as they prepared to return home, encouraging them to integrate the insights they had found from their time on the quest. This is a poem that speaks to me deeply. It encourages me to articulate how I am holding the “Thread” at this time in my life.

I have always trusted the world of nature and it has rewarded me with endless wonder. My earliest childhood memory is lying on my back in our backyard staring at clouds and making up stories about mysterious figures in the sky. Growing up in the 1950’s, a little white girl in small town Minnesota, I had tremendous freedom to roam the fields, forests, and nearby stream in all seasons.

When I was twelve, I took my three-year-old sister to look for crawdads at Turtle Creek on the back of my Raleigh 3-speed bicycle. At sixteen, as a YMCA camp counselor in northern Minnesota, I took eight-year-olds on overnight canoe trips.

Sharing the mystery and beauty of nature with others has been the guiding thread in my life. I was a botany major who became a Forest Service naturalist, schoolteacher, mother, grandmother, kayaking and wilderness guide. In 1990, friends and I published, Teaching Kids to Love the Earth (University of Minnesota Press). In 1992 I kayaked around the shore of Lake Superior—a journey of 1800 miles and 65 days. To pay homage to this feat and incorporate its lessons I wrote Deep Water Passage, a Spiritual Quest at Midlife (1995, Pocketbook).

Ann on her journey around Lake Superior

Though I knew little about the rites of passage movement emerging in a transfer and amalgam of Native knowledge into the white naturalist community, the Lake Superior journey set me to reading—pre-internet—to understand the deeper spiritual longings underneath my physical feat. That reading eventually led me to The School of Lost Borders and introduced me to Anne Stine. In 2004, she and I designed Elderquests for women 50 and older in the Inyo mountains of California.

Anne Stine and Ann at their Elderquest basecamp in the Inyo Mountains        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guiding dovetailed with the pioneering work Christina Baldwin and I offered to integrate the collaborative wisdom of circle within the hierarchical structures of modern business, education, medicine, and governance The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair (2010, Berrett-Koehler). While this work took us indoors, there was always a “campfire” in the center, and the patterns of severance, threshold, solo, and incorporation, were also present.

In 2010 Christina Baldwin, Deborah Greene-Jacobi and I designed Cascadia Quest, melding lineages from Lost Borders, The Circle Way, and Angeles Arrien’s Fourfold Way.  We offered that quest to women and men in eastern Washington until retiring from the work in 2021.

Ann, Deborah-Greene-Jacobi, Christina Baldwin, Vivi as mascot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my 70’s guiding and sharing nature with others looks different than in previous decades, but it is still a strong thread that brings purpose into my life. Whether taking friends and family for local walks or paddles, hosting our summer Granny camps, leading local Land Trust hikes or coordinating environmental education activities with school groups, I help people set aside the human story and become quiet enough to hear the Nature story. Keepers of the Trees (2010, Skyhorse Publishing)

Ann and Vivi on one of their first Medicine Walks at the beginning of the pandemic, a weekly spiritual practice for both of them.

My ability to implement my passion is slower in my seventies. Hikes are shorter, camping requires a larger tent and thicker pad, paddling requires a lightweight kayak, and formal solo-time is self-designed with my partner as basecamp. And even those adjustments will change and morph as my body ages. I hope for more years to love this beautiful Earth. And when dying comes, I pray to lay myself down gently in the duff of the forest.