15 December 2012

The World is Never Boring: Exploring The Tangled Bank with Robert Michael Pyle

Interview by Christian Martin

Robert Michael Pyle has been interpreting the natural world for readers for more than 30 years. Combining his Yale-educated scientific background, an insatiable curiosity for the world and a warm, generous personality that inspires his prose, Pyle explores the myriad ways in which nature intersects with our daily lives.

A long-time resident of Grays River in southwestern Washington, Pyle’s published work—which includes books on the natural history of the Willapa Hills, Bigfoot, butterflies, Vladimir Nabokov and his childhood in Colorado— has been recognized with two Washington State Book Awards, a National Outdoor Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing.

His latest book The Tangled Bank collects dozens of his columns from when he was a regular contributor to Orion and Orion Afield magazines. Each personable piece is a finely honed mini-essay, weaving together natural history, philosophical ruminations, travelogue, scientific facts, poetic observations and commentary on contemporary culture.

CM: Your column “The Tangled Bank” was published in 52 consecutive issues of Orion over 11 years. What were the challenges in writing such a long-standing feature with a strict format?

RMP: The biggest challenge was to learn to write concisely (750–1300 words, depending on the issue) and still write substantively, not lite, shallow or “sound-bitey.” I did enjoy it, and continue to value and employ the heavy apprenticeship in concision that it represented. But it was invariably difficult, sometimes wrenchingly so, to meet the inflexible word counts and the incessant deadlines. It seemed that no matter how long and how many drafts a column took to finish, there was always the next one due on its heels. But that's good, too, to keep you going.
CM:  How did you come up with enough topics to sustain the column?

RMP: I wrote about what most fascinated me at the time. Since I am always fascinated with something, or many things, and since my travels constantly suggest new topics, it wasn't difficult. The greater difficulty was deciding among the many possible topics. This collection of my columns concludes with a list of 52 more I'd like to write someday, including ones on waterbears, plants that grow on animals, the evolution of empathy, recycling roadkill, the history of saffron and the ontology of crocuses and “Utopia: what to leave in, what to leave out.” I could go on.

CM: Was there a unifying theme or mission that tied together the columns over the years?

RMP: Yes, the unifying theme was Darwin's contention that "it is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank...”—in other words, all of nature is interesting when closely observed. My mission was to demonstrate that the world is never boring. And, I suppose you could say, to dive as deeply as I could in one breath.

CM: It is very unusual to find natural history writing, as exemplified in these columns, in publications today, don't you think?

RMP: Yes, such writing is rare, especially with a bit of wit, which I employed when appropriate. One does see good natural history writing here and there in serials, such as Tom Titus's fine essays in the newsletter of the Eugene Natural History Society and Rod Crawford's columns on spider collecting expeditions in Scarabogram. But not a lot. Maybe there are lots of good naturalists’ blogs, but since I don't tend to read online, I don't see them. I mostly go to books, both fiction and nonfiction, and of course, poetry.
Apart from the obvious candidates we both know and love, some current writers of excellent natural history (writ large and sometimes funny) that I would endorse include Ken Lamberton, David Carroll, Julia Whitty, Jim Lynch, Charles Goodrich, Bill Yake, Seth Kantner, Carl Hiasson, Barbara Kingsolver, Henry Hughes...these are people who observe the world in all its individuating detail and bring it back in ways that delight me.
CM: Your column succeeded in connecting natural history and scientific topics to contemporary life and relevant issues.

RMP: It keeps the wide world always engaging—and therefore, ever compensatory—for the unsatisfactory qualities of the narrow world of human society. Ala Robinson Jeffers, it can help you keep your mind in maddening times. It makes life, in short, more fun.
CM: What do you do to keep the arts of traditional natural history studies alive?

RMP: I go out of doors, with my eyes, ears, and mind wide open. And then, when and if I feel like it, I write about it, in letter, journal, essay, poem, or even—if nothing else—an email. Other than that, I guess my main ways of helping to keep the practice alive are the reading and writing of books informed by the physical world; and urging the young to go afield, to seek, to read, and—if they feel so moved—to write what they find.

Photo by Benj Drummond: bdsjs.com.

12 December 2012

Great Books from 2012

Waging Heavy Peace
Neil Young

If you like memoirs that really reveal the interior life of the subjects, as opposed to the polished, sometimes ghost-written promotional tomes that politicians and Hollywood stars often put out, then Young’s autobiography might be for you. Disjointed, quirky, frustrating, funny and brimming with enthusiasm for life, family and making music, reading it is what I’d imagine sitting at Neil’s knee and listening to his rambling reminiscing might be like. The chapters jump around to different times in his life in no particular order, but he reveals enough interesting insights from his nearly lifelong career of rock stardom to make it hard to put down. From his early days as a struggling musician in Ottawa to an epic cross-continent road trip to the Sunset Strip, from partying in Laurel Canyon with Crosby Stills and Nash to his personal struggles with epilepsy and addiction, from his obsession with electric trains and analog sound quality to the challenges and joys of raising a severely disabled son, Young’s story is rich and rewarding. His commitment to integrity, artistic independence and serving what he refers to as “the Muse” is an inspiration for all.

The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart
Brian Doyle

From the author of the widely praised Northwest novel Mink River comes a slim memoir about hearts—of the author’s and his wife’s, of hummingbird’s and blue whale’s, of the “seat of the soul” and the origins of God. But most crucially, the book is about his son’s heart, born with three chambers instead of the requisite four. It is hard to describe this wonderful book. Is it about the joys and heartbreak of family and fatherhood? Yes. Is it scientific writing that brings to our attention the many miracles of the organ as the engine that drives us? Yes. Is it poetry? Oh yes!

Cairns: Messengers in Stone
David B. Williams

Stacking rocks is one of the world’s oldest languages, a primitive marker that connects humans to their landscapes and, according to Williams, “a sign of community—of hikers, of family, of humanity.” From Iceland to Hawaii to Mongolia to Scotland, people have been building cairns since time immemorial for a wide variety of reasons, including burials, trail markers, cultural memorials as well as reasons lost to time. Seattle-based writer Williams, author of Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology, continues to “make stones sing” in his latest natural history exploration.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
Timothy Egan

What a gifted interpreter of history we have in Egan, beginning with his classic Pacific Northwest road trip book The Good Rain to the National Book Award-winning story of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time through to 2009’s The Big Burn. In his latest, the author turns his attention, research skills and eminently readable writing style to Edward Curtis and his photographic legacy of the early 20th century. “An Indiana Jones with a camera,” Curtis spent three decades traveling around the country in an attempt to document the native inhabitants and their ancient lifeways before they disappeared. He made more than 40,000 photographs of American Indians from the Arctic to New Mexico, Pacific Northwest to Montana, in tribal regalia, in their sacred places, in dances and ceremony. The book chronicles the many adventures Curtis had in his travels, as well as his development as an artist and how his work changed the nation’s views of Indians: “Through his pictures, you see ordinary people who look extraordinary. You see pain, honor, dignity. His photos convey a sense of intimacy that is both haunting and humane.”

02 November 2012

David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work

Spokane-based author, naturalist and teacher Jack Nisbet is fascinated with the natural and cultural history of the Pacific Northwest. He is one the most gifted interpreters of the wild bounty that our corner of the country possesses, and also has gone to great lengths to tell the stories of the first European explorers to encounter this native endowment.

His books include Source of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest and The Mapmaker’s Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau. Each volume retraces the steps of passionate, hardy individuals who made the first strides in understanding the landscape, native people, wildlife and botany of Washington State.

Douglas, the subject of his latest book David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work, landed at the mouth of the Columbia River in the in the spring of 1825, charged by the London Horticultural Society, with blessings from the Hudson’s Bay Company, to learn all he could about the Pacific Northwest ‘s botanical treasures. He had previously pored over the accounts of Lewis and Clark, Vancouver, Mackenzie, Thompson and other explorers and was uniquely adept at scientifically surveying this “New World.” Douglas was passionate about botany and gardening, fastidious about specimen collecting and note taking, young enough to be resilient and adventurous and also wise enough to befriend the native people and others who lived close to the land. This combination of skills, pluck and strategic relationships combined to produce one of the great explorers of America.

His legacy is writ large on the landscape today by way of nomenclature: the Douglas fir, Snow Douglasia, Douglas squirrel, Douglas Brodiaea and over 80 plant and animal species with douglasii in their scientific names.

As exemplified in David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work, Nisbet’s method of interpreting regional history isn’t the usual staid recitation of dates and facts. In pursuit of bringing stories nearly 200 years old to life, he walks trails, visits reservations and tribal elders, charters pilot boats, climbs trees and wildharvests food. His studies may begin by perusing old maps or historical journals in dusty archives, but his curiosity soon has him bounding out the door and in to the same landscapes that his subjects once roamed.

His new book demonstrates, surprisingly, that the contemporary landscape he reconnoiters is in many ways not so different than what the early explorers saw.

“Although the natural and human landscapes that Douglas described have endured a turbulent two centuries since his departure, a surprising number of the species he collected can still be found near the sites where he originally saw them,” Nisbet writes, which leads him to realize that “many details of both Douglas’s and the Northwest’s larger stories remain incomplete, waiting to be teased out of clues that have been left scattered behind.” Thus begins the author’s quest.

What is noteworthy about his approach—by first reporting, then inhabiting and finally extending these early explorations—is that he actually places himself in direct lineage with the great literary naturalists of America. Nibset is a modern day John Muir, climbing to the tops of precarious fir trees to collect cones, and a contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, digging up native camas bulbs in order to taste the earthy fruits of the land.

01 November 2012

Green Bookshelf

Summer books that explore the natural wonders of the planet

The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States
Mark Fiege (University of Washington Press)
Mark Fiege’s book presents a concept that is as revolutionary as it is obvious – writing history as if the natural world mattered. Much in the same way that Howard Zinn infamously recast the American story in A People’s History of the United States of America by telling it from the perspective of the underdog, Fiege takes a look at historical events so well-worn they’ve become platitudes and makes them fresh again. The Professor of History at Colorado State University does so by revisiting milestones in our nation’s history – including the Salem witch trials, cotton production and slavery in the South, the Battle of Gettysburg, the building of transcontinental railroads, the invention of the atomic bomb, the oil crisis of 1973-74 – and examining them through an environmental lens: how did the natural world shape these events? How did these events impact the natural world? What was the dialectical conversation between humankind, culture and nature that has produced the country we live in today? From sea to shining sea, America has been built upon a vast landscape bearing an abundance of natural resources and burnished with sublime beauty, but our shared chronicles often overlook these natural graces. Fiege aims to widen the scope of our storytelling for, as William Cronon explains in the Foreword, “There is nothing in the world – nothing in place or time or history – that is ever outside of nature or the environment.”

Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Crops at Home
Colin McCrate & Brad Halm (Sasquatch)
The co-founders of Seattle Urban Farm Co -- a nationally-recognized outfit that has helped hundreds of families, schools and restaurants design and implement urban gardens – share the wisdom they have accumulated over the years in this overstuffed, lively and personable tome. From vegetable profiles (when to plant, how much, container suitability, fertilizing, pests, when and how to harvest, storage and preservation) to instructions for building a wide variety of beds for all kinds of unusual urban/suburban spaces, the authors cover all the basics. There are also sections on making great compost, transplanting, mulching, dealing with disease and pests and “The Only 11 Tools You’ll Ever Need.” Illustrated with great photographs on nearly every page, it concludes with an index of useful charts, lists, calendars and other resources.

Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide
John Soennichsen (The Mountaineers Books)
Most people heading eastward across our state – towards a concert at the Gorge, family in Spokane or the Big Sky spaces of Montana – cruise at high speeds through what seem like void of central Washington. Guidebook author and historian John Soennichsen invites us to slow down and take a closer look at these big empty spaces. The Channeled Scablands – shrub-steppe plateau terrain that has been carved out by cataclysmic floods during the Pleistocene epoch – contain coulees, potholes, slot canyons, deep lakes, erratic boulders, waterfalls, basalt buttes and other natural oddities. With the recent establishment of the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail and plans for visitor centers and roadside displays, John’s book is a great companion for anyone wanting to explore this overlooked but fascinating region.

12 October 2012

Exploring Arctic Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve with Debbie Miller

Debbie Miller is on a mission. 

Having spent considerable time in the far reaches of Arctic Alaska, she’s found a wilderness wonderland that most of us have never heard of. It is a landscape of superlative natural riches — the largest herd of caribou in America, the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the Arctic, millions of nesting migratory birds, beluga whales, polar bears, walruses, salmon, spotted seals, the list goes on and on. It is, like most untouched places, under threat of resource extraction and industrialization, and that is where Miller’s mission comes in to focus: spreading the gospel about this unspoiled terrain that belongs to each and every American.

So, why haven’t most of us heard about this special place? Call it bad branding.

“The National Petroleum Reserve” is not a name that inspires wonder and awe. It sounds like the place you’d stop to fill up the gas tank on your way to the much more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which lies to the east.

And yet, this reserve — larger than the state of Maine, ten times as big as Yellowstone National Park — is the largest unit of public lands in the US. Its 23 million acres are home to the largest river (Colville) and lake (Teshekpuk) in Arctic Alaska, the aforementioned riches of wildlife and migratory bird habitat, the most prolific site of dinosaur fossils of any polar region on earth and more than 10,000 years of native inhabitation and history.

It also, not surprisingly, holds oil and natural gas resources, and neighbors the 1000-square-mile industrial oil-field development of Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope complexes.

While there are designated “special areas” within the Reserve  — denoting exceptional wildlife, recreational, subsistence, historical and scenic values — not a single acre has permanent protection.

Miller’s new book On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time Through Alaska’s National PetroleumReserve aims to change that. She is traveling around the country giving multimedia presentations that combine photography, soundscapes, scientific findings and storytelling, bringing her journeys through the Reserve to life.

She hopes to win over the hearts and minds of Americans, introduce them to this hidden gem and inspire actions towards protecting the best, most profound places within the Reserve.

And it seems like Miller has the wind at her back. Her mission was boosted by late summer political developments, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announcing the first comprehensive management plan for the Reserve that put approximately half of it off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

Still of concern is the future possibility of a new pipeline crossing the Reserve, moving oil and gas from the remote Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, where Royal Dutch Shell is attempting the first offshore drilling in the American Arctic in 15 years.

“If we listen closely, if we observe the fullness of life in this vast, wild Reserve, if we exercise restraint as consumers” Miller writes hopefully, “this great northern landscape may have a chance. When we begin to understand this big blank spot on the map, and love it, perhaps we’ll gain the wisdom to protect it.”

08 August 2012

Terry Tempest Williams' "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice"

Terry Tempest Williams reads from "When Women Were Birds" at Bellingham High School on Thursday, June 21; $5. Co-sponsored by Village Books and North Cascades Institute.

 In recent years, Terry Tempest Williams has written about patriotism and democracy in America, Italian mosaics, the Sundance Film Festival, Rwandan genocide and Hieronymus Bosch's fifteenth-century Flemish masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. Not bad for a so-called “nature writer.”

In her latest book WhenWomen Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, the author returns to some of the themes found in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her highly-regarded 1991 environmental memoir that intertwines reflections on family, mortality and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near her home in Salt Lake City.

The opening pages depict Williams’ mother, dying of ovarian cancer, passing on to her writerly daughter her lifetime collection of personal journals. The mother makes Williams promise not to read them until after she is gone. When that time comes to pass, Williams finds a plethora of colorful, clothbound journals:

The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank.

When Women Were Birds then is an investigation in to the mystery of all those white, untrammeled pages. As the story unfurls from this startling prelude, Williams explores the power of silence, Mormon culture, marriage, feminism, a supernatural history of birds, relationships between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters and the central question, “What does it mean to have a voice?”

The narrative toggles between short, distinct stories from Williams’ life – how her Mormon ancestors came to settle in Utah, learning bird songs as a young girl with her grandmother, meeting her husband Brooke, studying natural history in the Grand Tetons – and more emotive meditations that aren’t bound by conventional logic.

Anyone who has read Williams mesmerizing literature before knows to expect a wide-ranging, unconventional and empathic journey. This one touches upon experimental composer John Cage, the extinct Chinese language Nushu, writer Wallace Stegner, Navajo mythology, a battle for wilderness legislation in the US Congress, Richard Strauss’ operas and her beloved Southern Utah red rock wilderness. In a holistic feat similar to Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, the author successfully makes comprehensive and connected what the reader may have previously imagined disparate. This is the kind of book that changes the ways in which we see the world.

Still, beneath Williams’ intriguing meanderings, the presence of the blank journals haunt the reader.

My mother’s journals are a love story. Love and power. What she gave and what she withheld were hers to choose. Love is power. Power is not love. Both can be brutal. Both dance with control. Both can be intoxicating, leaving us out of control. But in the end it is love, not power, that endures and shows us the consequences of our choices. My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing.

But I can imagine.

It is an enjoyable feat to behold the nimble mind of Williams dancing across time and terrain, flitting from topic to topic like a bird from branch to branch, her graceful and poetic prose the airborne track of her compassionate inquiry.

-- Reviewed by Christian Martin

18 July 2012

Artist promotes wilderness as oil companies move into the Arctic

The coldest places are ravaged by a warming world.

“I describe this as the Arctic paradox,” explorer and educator Subhankar Banerjee said. “The very thing that is devastating the Arctic—global warming—is the result of accumulation of greenhouse gases that we see from the burning of coal, oil and gas. And these are the very resources industry are entering the Arctic to extract and release.”

From his journey and journals, the photographer describes the melting and retreat of sea ice at an unprecedented pace, and the effects of that on the marine ecology. Simultaneously, and magnifying upon the effects, permafrost is melting on the land, freeing tremendous volumes of methane from primordial wetlands, accelerating the release of climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Herds and entire species perish in cycles of thaw and freeze as gales of worsening weather savage the north.

“Because conditions there are so harsh, everything grows very slowly, recovers very slowly,” Banerjee noted. “If you damage the Arctic, it takes a long time to recover. There is a tremendous provision of life there, but it is not like the tropics. It is sparse. It is delicate. We have to understand that and respect that.”

Banerjee’s interest in the Arctic took him into the high latitudes as an amateur observer with a gifted natural eye. He emerged an advocate to professionals in high places.

An engineer by training with masters degrees in physics and computer science, Banerjee came to photography late in life, but showed enough instinctual talent to put together a book soon after he abandoned his science career in full-time pursuit of his art. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, published by The Mountaineers Books in 2003, showed the fecundity of life on the northslope of Arctic Alaska in all four seasons.

The images Banerjee collected over 14 months spent on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) were dramatic enough to also persuade the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to produce an exhibit. Things got interesting for the lowkey Seattle resident.

The Smithsonian exhibit in Washington D.C. went up just as the Senate began debating oil drilling in ANWR, a stated priority for President George W. Bush in his first term. Proponents of drilling in the wildlife refuge went to great lengths to describe the region as a lifeless void: Gail Norton, Secretary of Interior, called it, “a flat white nothingness;” Alaska Senator Ted Stevens described it as “empty… ugly…a barren…frozen wasteland.”

The Smithsonian exhibit down the street from the Capitol gave lie to these descriptions. Banerjee’s images show muskoxen, polar bears, willow ptarmigan, caribou and other creatures inhabiting their ancient niches on the snowy Arctic plains.

California Senator Barbara Boxer understood his quiet message. She held up Banerjee’s book on the Senate floor, highlighting a dramatic picture of a polar bear crossing sunlit sea ice. She recommended everyone visit the display of Banerjee’s “breathtaking” photographs.

The administrative response was disheartening. Banerjee’s work was swiftly, without notice, relocated from the main floor to a more obscure basement gallery, and his informative captions were altered or deleted altogether.

But the Smithsonian’s censorship backfired as international press coverage spread Banerjee’s Arctic photos far and wide, giving them far more exposure than they would’ve received without the political meddling of the Smithsonian. The vote to drill in ANWR failed in the Senate and the lifeways of the Pacific loon, Grizzly bear, Dall sheep, Arctic ground squirrel and buff-breasted sandpiper quietly went on. Yet national policy also went on, and energy directives advanced by Bush proliferate under Obama. These events galvanized Banerjee.

“My photographs were quiet, they touched your emotions,” he said. “Now, with the pace of change, my words must be loud.”

His new book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, brings together passionate first-person narratives from more than 30 prominent activists, writers and researchers who address issues of climate change, resource extraction, environmental justice, natural history, ecology and human rights.

The Obama administration has conditionally approved Shell’s plans to drill 10 exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Drilling in these remote areas—the first in offshore Arctic Alaskan waters—is seen as risky, especially after the traumatizing BP Deep Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Arctic Voices calls out against the effort to drill for oil in the far north.

We’ve had an unfortunate stealing of language,” Banjeree explained. “Clean energy advocates talked about reducing our dependence on foreign oil as a means to achieve that goal. This was taken up by the gas and oil industry as a reason to increase domestic extraction, to—in effect—worsen the conditions the phrase originally sought to address.

“Between oil extraction in the Arctic ocean, extractions from the Tar Sands in Alberta, shale oil and shale gas in much of the Western United States, deepwater drilling in the Gulf—and now a new emphasis on coal extraction—all of these have accelerated in recent years. They have not decreased,” he said. “Instead of taking the country to a cleaner energy future, we are taking the country into the next century and beyond into a fossil-fuel driven future.”

Obama’s U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, under the Department of the Interior, declined to pursue an environmental impact statement (EIS) for Shell’s plan to drill exploratory wells. According to the agency, there was “no evidence that the proposed action would significantly effect the quality of the human environment.”

They instead issued a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Not so fast, responded a coalition of 14environmental organizations and a coalition of native Inuit interests known as Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). In a letter sent to the federal agency overseeing Shell’s drilling plans, they wrote, “The proposed activity threatens a number of significant effects, including effects to endangered Bowhead whales from drilling and ice– breaking noise, effects from a very large oil spill, and cumulative effects, and has the potential to harm subsistence activities that are of central cultural significance to Arctic coastal communities.”

The groups want a full EIS “to analyze and disclose the effects of the proposed drilling.” They maintain this is a clear requirement under the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969.

The letter also points out, “The recommendations of National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill also strongly support preparation of an EIS for Shell’s exploration plan.”

Vice Admiral Roger T. Rufe, a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, a former president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, and former director of operations and planning at the Department of Homeland Security, discusses some of the risks inherent in oil drilling in this remote region:

“The Arctic Ocean has one of the harshest climates on Earth. Even in the summer, conditions are volatile, with sudden violent storms and shifting sea ice. The shoreline is sparsely populated, with no roads connecting the eight main villages to each other or to the rest of Alaska. The nearest major seaport is 1,300 nautical miles away; the nearest Coast Guard air station is 950 air miles. A spill cleanup effort could take weeks to mount and then could suffer endless delays because of foul weather.”

“Hard questions need to be asked about any oil company’s ability to mount a response to a major oil spill in hurricane-force winds, high seas, broken and shifting sea ice, subzero temperatures, and months of fog and darkness,” Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Arctic program, told the New York Times.

“The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are remarkable marine sanctuaries,” Banerjee writes. “They’re home to estimated 10,000 endangered Bowhead whales, estimated 3,600 to 4,600 threatened polar bears, more than 60,000 Beluga whales, Pacific walrus, three species of seals, numerous species of birds and fish, and various tiny creatures all the way down to the krill that makes much of that marine life possible.”

On May 25, 2012, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision upholding the Obama Administration’s permitting process, bringing Shell’s drilling plans one step closer tofruition. Further appeals are pending in federal court.

The New York Times reports, “Shell has already invested nearly $4 billion on its 10-year offshore leases and preparations for exploration in the forbidding Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Its current plan is to drill up to 10 exploratory wells in the two seas, potentially leading to production by the end of the decade.”

18 June 2012

Tony Angell is For the Birds

Artist, educator, writer and conservationalist celebrates life of the Puget Sound

Watchful ravens standing sentinel at the entrance to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. A soaring bald eagle and playful river otters at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake.  A parliament of owls gathered on the Whatcom Community College campus.

Whatcom County is fortunate to have Tony Angell’s inspired avian sculptures adding beauty and grace to our local land- and cityscapes. These iconic pieces join noetworthy installations at the Seattle Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo, Tacoma Art Museum, The Sleeping Lady resort and countless public libraries and schools throughout Washington, not to mention Cornell University and the renowned Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming.
Under the influence of his powerful hands – Angell is a former University of Washington shot-putter, discuss-thrower and arm-wrestling champ – blocks of granite, onyx, marble, chlorite, limestone and serpentine reveal sinuous shapes of Pacific Northwest wildlife, often birds, but also orcas, turtles, salmon, salamanders and other denizens of our region.

“(While) I do address matters of detail and I am generally sensitive to accuracy of my detail, I don’t put a lot of it into my work,” Angell once explained in a radio interview. “What I am trying to do is emphasize the spiritual side of the subject.”
Angell is also a gifted wildlife illustrator, and has just published Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion,and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, a follow-up to 2005’s In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Both volumes are a collaboration with John Marzluff, Professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the UW, bringing together the artistry and field naturalist skills of Angell with the scientific expertise of Marzluff to examine the fascinating, uncanny world of corvid behavior, the bird family that includes ravens, crows, jays, magpies and nutcrackers

Raised in the dry topography of Southern California, Angell fell in love with the natural world at a young age while hiking the Santa Monica Mountains, birdwatching, keeping snakes and reptiles in his room, even studying taxidermy so he could learn the inner workings of animals. Moving to Washington as a teenager, his intimate relationship with wildlife continued as he rehabilitated owls, trained falcons and hawks and built a rustic cabin on Lopez Island where he observed the marine mammals and migratory birds of the Salish Sea.

Alongside his prolific career as an artist, Angell is an elected Fellow of the National Sculpture Society and an active board member of Washington's chapter of The Nature Conservancy and he served as Director of Environmental Education for the state of Washington for 30 years.

“Angell's work is known for how it combines elegance and strength,” an art critic for The Seattle Times wrote, “but it is most remarkable in how it represents the convergence of his personality, passion and life…. Seattle novelist Ivan Doig describes him as ‘a rushing river threatening to break its banks.’”
A generous selection of his sculptural and illustrative work was collected alongside essays and commentary in PugetSound Through An Artist’s Eye, published in 2009 by University of Washington Press. He described the book as “an invitation to enjoy the world artistically, and in a way, inspire other people to be artists. Because there are plenty of people out there who can use art as their avenue of discovery and action and commitment and enjoyment of living here. Once you do that, you’ve invested in what’s here.”

But why is Angell so invested in corvids?

“When a raven was given to me many years ago, it soon became my most important emissary from the larger world of nature,” he explains. “My friend the raven “gifted” me a richer understanding of Nature in general and animal behavior in particular. They have given us fuel for our myths, song, literature, music, dance, painting, and sculpture over tens of thousands of years -- gifts beyond measure.  Now science is just beginning to discover other gifts they have to offer us.

“Sometimes we hear people say, there are only two ways of looking at a crow, “you either love them or hate them,” he continues. “From our book I would hope that these two attitudinal poles might be replaced with a more middle ground of admiration for these special birds. I would hope that the readers, while seeing these species as a revealing subject for scientific discovery, would also consider them to be exceptional sources of subtle beauty and provocative emotional possibilities.  Should one apply his or her artistic mind to the corvids, the aesthetic gifts will be great.”

15 June 2012

Falling in Love with the World: Thomas Fleischner works to revitatize natural history

By Christian Martin

Thomas Fleischner is a man on a mission. An environmental studies professor at Prescott College in Arizona, cofounder of the North Cascades Institute and founding president of the Natural History Network, Fleischner has worked in the trenches of conservation biology, environmental education and ecological literacy for decades. His latest effort towards these interrelated goals is the publication of
The Way of Natural History, a multidisciplinary anthology featuring contributions from Jane Hirshfield, Robert Michael Pyle, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Aiken, Dave Foreman, Scott Russell Sanders and others.

Fleischner lived in Bellingham from 1979-1988, attending WWU for his Master's in Biology degree, working as an Interpretive Naturalist and Backcountry Ranger for North Cascades National Park and serving as co-director for North Cascades Institute. I had the opportunity to talk with him while he is back in town, readying for his July 8 presentation at Village Books.

Christian Martin: How do you define natural history as it pertains to your new book?

Thomas Fleischner: For some years now, I’ve defined natural history as “the practice of intentional, focused attentiveness to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.” Simply put, it’s the practice of paying attention.

In this book, I gathered together a variety of voices—poets, artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists and others—to hear how this practice of paying attention to the wider world has served their work and play. Natural history is a fundamental human trait—and need.  Their stories show how many different ways this can be manifested.

CM: So, natural history involves a way of seeing the world?

TF: In my mind, natural history is a verb, not a noun—it’s the practice of attending, not just the body of knowledge that accrues from the observations. I’ve come to refer to natural history as the practice of falling in love with the world.

Natural history at its best involves integration between sciences, arts and humanities. It’s at the center of a liberal approach to education: we pay attention to the world around us and respond in a variety of ways—through a painting, a poem, an essay or a scientific monograph.

CM: What are the roots of this tradition?

TF: Natural history is the oldest continuous human endeavor—there’s never been people on this planet without the practice of natural history. But – and this is what concerns me—there’s never been a time in the history of the world when natural history was practiced less than it is today.

It’s important to recognize that natural history is more than just science, more than just a body of facts, more than dinosaurs and other dead animals. Natural history comes from the Latin “Historia Naturalis,” which literally means “the story of nature.” At any moment, in any given place, there’s an infinite number of stories of nature unfolding. We make choices about which ones we pay attention to—or if we pay attention at all. And that’s crucial: too many people simply don’t pay attention to Others in the world. As a species, as a contemporary culture, we’re greatly diminished by this.

CM: How is natural history related to the idea of "Citizen Science"?

TF: Citizen Science is a wonderful trend toward involving amateurs into the collation of important data. First, remember that “amateur” literally means “one who loves”—so we should never underestimate the importance of amateurs!

In many important cases, having the thousands of eyes and ears of citizen scientists makes a huge difference—for example, in reporting changes in flowering times as we experience climate change, or the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The Bird Count is a classic example of this: for over a century, all sorts of people have counted birds in a structured way. It’s the longest term, uninterrupted data set for any group of organisms ever, and it has shown major changes in bird distribution throughout the continent. Wonderful stuff.

All of these citizen observations are natural history. Of course, because natural history involves more than just science, the citizen science movement doesn’t necessarily include the arts and humanities as much as it could. I’ve been part of discussions that suggest we might try reframing Citizen Scientists as Citizen Naturalists. Then, we might encourage the writing of haiku along with the tabulation of bird numbers!

CM: From your vantage point, what do you think the future of natural history is?

TF: I’m ultimately optimistic. Humans are wired to do natural history—it’s literally what we evolved to do: pay attention. So it’s a matter of rediscovering who we are—not of trying to make ourselves into something we’ve never been.

I’ve been part of a national movement to help revitalize natural history, and it’s been really exciting and encouraging. The Natural History Network – which includes many members here in the Cascadia bioregion – was established for this purpose, and has received a super enthusiastic response.

CM: There are a lot of new ways to access and appreciate nature today without having to go outside. One can watch nesting birds from hi-def webcams, fly over national parks and mountain ranges via Google Earth, peruse stunning nature photography, listen to bird calls on our iPhones. Are these valuable outlets for our biophilia? Why do we still need to go through the hassles to get outdoors?

TF: These new technologies are wonderful, and provide all sorts of new channels into observing nature. I’m all for them. There’s lots of examples of ways they’ve helped us understand the world. These technologies are also really important in that they can provide an entry point for young people, brought up in this electronic world, to pay attention to what’s around them.

But it’s key that it doesn’t stop there. It’s vital that they take the next step and get out there and get muddy and watch what that bird is really doing, or how luminescent that butterfly’s wings really are, or how the beetle’s carapace glistens in the sun. Those are the experiences that create the opportunity for falling in love with the world.

Photo by Benj Drummond.

01 June 2012

Gary Snyder on Ish River Country

Gary Snyder at Bellingham High School, 2004

"In the fall of 2004, I heard Gary Snyder read from his most recent collection of poems, Danger on Peaks.  In a calm, steady tone, Snyder delivered his selection to what is likely the most attentive audience that the Bellingham High School auditorium has ever boasted. His poetry is renowned for its ability to arrest and articulate specific moments in nature.  The simplicity and clarity of Snyder’s rendering almost masks the careful rhythm, which implicitly structures his voice.  His work blends respect for the natural world with Zen Buddhist thought, achieving truly innovative modes of telling.

Snyder was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Pacific Northwest.  Over the years he has undertaken many endeavors:  he was a logger in his youth, he studied anthropology at Reed College, then Chinese language at Berkeley, and Buddhism while living in Japan.  In the late 1950s, he was influential in the Beat Generation/San Francisco Movements (along with Ginsberg and Kerouac).  Snyder is now the critically acclaimed author of sixteen collections of poetry and prose and was awarded numerous literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship (1968) and the Pulitzer Prize (1975).  Until recently, he taught Creative Writing and literature as a professor at UC-Davis.

Snyder and I met on the morning following his reading in the lobby of the Fairhaven Inn in Bellingham....

Anne Greenfield:  You mention Bellingham in Mountains and Rivers Without End and, more recently, in Danger on Peaks.  How did you come to know Bellingham and how has this relationship changed over time?

Gary Snyder:  I was raised on a little dairy farm just north of Seattle, through the thirties and up early into WWII.  The country between Seattle and the Canadian border was mostly dairy farming or logging in those days. We had a little dairy farm, so in our spare time when we wanted to go out and travel and look at things we would go look at dairy farms.  That would bring us all the way up here once or twice to Bellingham, Sedro-Woolley, up the Skagit Valley, Mount Vernon, and back down.  That’s my first memory of Bellingham.

Later, from the age of fifteen on, I started mountaineering.  And one of those summers (I think 1946 or 1947) I came up with some Mazamas (a climbing group from Portland, Oregon) to climb Mount Baker. And I worked in the forest service, up the Skagit, in the summers of 1952 and 1953, when it was still the Mt. Baker National forest.  I often came to Bellingham with friends, particularly one friend who I’m going to meet for dinner tonight: Jack Francis, who’s lived in Bellingham all these years. I came through here with Alan Ginsberg in 1966 on my way to British Columbia.

So, Bellingham has been in my consciousness as part of Ish Country (the Puget Sound region) and the culture of Maritime Northwest Pacific.

AG:  Speaking of sense of place, much of your work is grounded in and speaks to location and specific places.  In fact, your recent collection takes up the 1980 blast at Mount St. Helens.  Have the recent eruptions there triggered anything new for you?

GS:  Well more thoughts of the same. Pacific Rim Circle of fire:  the chain of volcanic activity down the west coast as far south as Mount Lassen, actually as far south as Mono Lake.  The actual instability of the earth’s crust and that fact that every volcano that exists on the west coast is more apt to erupt again than any place that doesn’t exist as a volcano already.  Mt. St. Helens – if you look at its history- which I did – erupts every few centuries. It has been erupting every few centuries for some time.  Mt. Rainier is quite capable of doing a major eruption at any time.  So this is part of our life here. Except, being very short lived creatures, human beings, and being new to the region – that is to say the present American population has only been here for a hundred and fifty years – we don’t have much consciousness of it. I am exploring what that consciousness would tell us. So, having some recent events at Mt. St. Helens is hardly surprising.  It’s part of the story and the story goes on.  Who knows what comes next?

AG: Danger on Peaks has been deemed your “most personal collection yet.”  To what degree do you see your poems as autobiographical?

GS:  I’ve never written autobiographical poetry as such. On the other hand, whatever one does in poetry has to be grounded in deep personal experience.  But personal experience is not necessarily autobiographical experience because we are all vertebrate mammals.  And we live in very much the same body and the very same mind. To be grounded in your body is not autobiographical.  And to be aware of the world is our mutual heritage, but not everybody sees it immediately and clearly.  Which is something that my own artistic inclination, plus my Buddhist practice, pushes me towards: mindfulness in the present moment."

From "Grasping the Natural: A Conversation with Gary Snyder" by Anne Greenfield, published in 2004 in the Bellingham Review. Photo copyright Christian Martin.

22 May 2012

Notes from Disappering Lake: The River Journals of Robert Sund

Robert Sund is our bard of the Skagit River, a singer of songs celebrating skunk cabbage, frogs, muddy water, ducks, and the rising tide.

In the summer of 1973, the poet — who studied under Theodore Roetke at the University of Washington in the early 1950s — built a small dwelling on the pilings of a former fisherman’s shed in the estuary of the North Fork of the Skagit River. Access was only by boat and though his hermitage was only a short paddle from La Conner and downstream from the active artists’ colony at Fishtown, he felt worlds away, “far, far back,” from modern society.

This remove gave Sund time and space to closely observe the rhythms of the natural world, as well as the fluctuations of his own thoughts and emotions, and he recorded these impressions in a series of thin, 26-page notebooks. The tidal marsh surrounding his shack, formed where the glacier-fed Skagit mixed with the saltwater of Puget Sound, provided him with endless inspiration for more than a decade of on-again, off-again residency.

“Out on the river you know you are in the midst of a great creation,” he wrote. “You see the old work and the new work side by side: the ancient migration routes of all the birds, and the slow building of silt and soil in the estuary.”

The choicest tidbits from Sund’s 75-plus journals have been extracted and lightly edited to produce a new volume of work from the well-loved poet, who passed away in 2001. Assembled by Sund's close friends Tim McNulty and Glenn Hughes, Notes from Disappearing Lake: The River Journals of Robert Sund presents poem-like journal entries documenting life in the Skagit River estuary alongside spiritual insights, weather reports, and pithy celebrations of friendship and community.

“Robert was obviously not there to advise us,” explains McNulty, “but he was definitely looking over our shoulder as we worked on this project. We excerpted material that was pretty much intact and didn’t need to do much editing. Robert’s voice was rough and authentic and we wanted to keep it that way. Several friends have read these pieces and said, ‘This is like spending time with Robert again.' "

July, 1973
Snipe walking through the
  flowers & grasses
picking worms & bugs out of
    the mud —
Wren on the front porch
  tiny feet
  tick tick.
Robin, swallow
crow, seagull, heron
goldfinch, duck
blackbird . . .
Who needs a radio?
Song at morning
song at evening
and all day long ...
   This is the real news:
    Local, regional, & world-wide.

Though he departed more than a decade ago, Sund’s unique voice, as expressed through his poems, painting, and calligraphy, has risen in repute since the 2004 publication of Poems from Ish River Country by prestigious publisher Shoemaker & Hoard, home of Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, and Wendell Berry. The Museum of Northwest Art’s successful Fishtown and the Skagit River exhibit in 2010 only heightened interest in the unique countercultural confluence of art, poetry, and spirituality that flourished in the Lower Skagit in the 1970s and '80s.
The recent attention paid to to this now-gone locality contrasts the original inhabitants’ desire to be left alone, hiding out in the marsh grasses where they could be free to pursue their alternative lifestyles.

“(The) burgeoning community (of Fishtown) reflected the larger national impulse towards going back to the land, living simply, and disengaging from chaotic political and social events,” Kathleen Moles writes in Fishtown and the Skagit River, the catalog for the MONA exhibit.

Sund had a deep interest in Chinese literature of the Tang and Sung dynasties — as many drawn to Fishtown did — and his shack provided him a private place to live like the hermit poets he read at night by lantern light. The seclusion, hardships and exposure to the raw elements of storms, tides and bird migrations were a forge for his poetic aspirations.

“A river mouth, in and of itself, exerts an influence on human consciousness that becomes manifest in music, literature, and art,” points out Skagit Valley novelist Tom Robbins in an essay in the MONA catalog.

Sund’s journals contained unvarnished etchings of that Skagit-flavored manifestation, and editors McNulty and Hughes’ work to unearth new material from their friend also revealed insights in to the poet’s methods.

“Robert’s journals held his day-to-day notations; they’re perceptive, unique, sometimes dazzling, and of course poetic,” McNulty explains. “His observations offer keen insights into nature, record subtle personal reflections, and explore the experience of solitude in a wild, natural landscape. At the same time they're often happy and joyful. The journals capture those aspects of Robert’s process, personality, and aesthetic in an immediate way. Chip and I had a great time exploring the journals and delighting one another with new discoveries.”

April 24, 1977   4 A.M.
In the excited mind
          words fly.
The night is still, the water still ––
          & suddenly, in the mind
(as on the night river
          a beaver
breaks the silence)
the first ripple of a poem
swims almost invisible by the river bank.
Blades of grass standing in the river
          feel the waves rise and
                    pass through them.

McNulty further says, “I see a marked contrast between the experience of Robert’s journals and the way we’ve become so locked into gadgets and digital media. The idea of Thoreau-like experiences, of being alone in stunningly beautiful landscape and following the mind’s drift on a daily basis…it can’t hurt.”

In light of this posthumous collection of Sund's work, words he once wrote seem prophetic:

Maybe exalted gestures will be
            retrieved in our time.
Maybe our grandchildren will go through
            our trunks and boxes
                  and be amazed.

Poems are copyright 2012 Robert Sund Poet’s House. Top photo: Erik Ambjor; middle: Paul Hansen, untitled (Fishtown landscape); bottom: Christian Martin