Armchair Birding

Armchair Birding: Rachel Carson’s “Sea Books”

(by Anne Kilgannon) – I watched the chickadees busy at the suet feeder and felt anguish sweep over me as I worried yet again about their survival in the face of a changing climate and seemingly indifferent human race. How could I make a difference for them? How have others met the challenge of saving what they love in this—or other—distraught times?

An article in The New Yorker (March 26, 2018) by Jill Lepore seized my attention. Prompted by the Library of America publication of the works of Rachel Carson, she eloquently complained that this collection “includes not one drop of her writing about the sea.” Lepore then lavished praise on Carson’s neglected works as poetically and full of wonder as Carson herself achieves with her own writing.  I was jolted; Rachel Carson is my longtime hero. Reading Silent Spring was a turning point in my life, and her slim but deeply felt book The Sense of Wonder was a blueprint for how to raise my children and guide my own life; but Lepore’s outpouring shocked me: I knew nothing of Carson’s early works on the sea.

A little searching soon yielded an enticing stack: Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941; The Sea Around Us, in 1951; and The Edge of the Sea, in 1955. But before diving in, I immersed myself in her life story, thoroughly researched and sensitively portrayed by Linda Lear in Rachel Carson: The Life of the Author of Silent Spring. For even more insight, I dipped into Courage for the Earth, essays by many notable writers and activists about Carson’s influence, edited by Peter Matthiessen; and the love-letter of a book about her work by Carson’s editor, Paul Brooks, Rachel Carson at Work.

Carson’s work and life are so entwined and mutually enriching—the writing by the life story of the author and the life lived by the work undertaken—that reading her biography first only added to the sense of awe and deeper understanding I experienced when I finally delved into her books on the life of the sea. And what an immersion! Her writing takes you down to the shore alive with birds and the hidden life they depend on for sustenance, then into the vital tidal strip that teems with life balanced between salt water and rock or sandy beach, and steps gradually deeper and deeper until she probes the darkest, most mysterious of all depths, the ocean floor. Her prose rises with the waves, scintillates with moonlight, phosphorescence, and the life-giving rays of sunshine. She examines life from the tiniest one-celled creatures to the greatest fish in the ocean, and connects them all in the complicated web of prey and predator. The immensity of the waters, the tidal forces, the winds and currents, polar ice and underwater geology sweep us along, yet we pause to notice plankton, tiny shrimp and ghostly jellyfish. Her writing manages to be simultaneously dreamy, poetic, and sensual as well as particular, deeply researched, and stoically accepting of life-and-death.

I had two thoughts about the worth of reading books published in the 1940-‘50s era. As meticulous as her science was, at the time, what new discoveries and understandings now inform the study of sea life? What have we learned since and does that overturn her work? In the end, I decided there was still great worth in reading these books; they set an historical baseline for inquiry. Her passion was contagious. Her feeling as expressed through her words shone through this concern; I didn’t want to miss her exquisite sense of beauty and wonder, which can never be outdated.

Secondly, her work was very much of her time, the turmoil of the war and anxiety of the early Cold War period. And here I reflected on how Silent Spring built upon the scientific work of the Sea books—and how her reputation for excellence and eloquence as achieved by these early books was a springboard. We would not have Silent Spring without them. That book was written at a time of deep fear about the use of atomic bombs, worry about competition for world supremacy against the Soviets, and the hell-bent race for affluence after the years of depression and war with its adoption of wholesale use of chemical “solutions” and their “fall-out” so graphically described by Carson. The biography described how her critics tried every way to discredit her and belittle her work. But she was firm in her science and firm in her view, at heart spiritual, that the beauty of the Earth and life upon it was a sacred trust, our duty to protect. The beauty of her writing touched readers and fired their support; we owe so much to the groundswell that resulted from her testimony and courage to counter the forces that would pillage the sea and land. We need that courage and example today. We again face a perilous and reckless era.

And so it was that I made my pilgrimage in late July to watch the tide breaking against the rocks tumbled on the shore of the island of Southport, Maine near where she had a cottage. One rock carried a plaque noting Carson’s devotion to that very place, those particular tide-pools and mixed forest trees and the life they support. Her ashes were scattered there in the salt water that was so much her lifeblood. I remembered her words and felt such gratitude and renewed strength from her work and life.

Armchair Birding: The Wood for the Trees, by Richard Fortey

(by Anne Kilgannon) –

Sometimes things really do come in threes, if you just look for the connections. This winter I gaped in awe as we tramped an emerald green—and every other color of green imaginable—feathery-cushioned landscape of moss covering every surface of tree and rock on the wooded acres we had just purchased. The local conservancy biologist exploring with us hushed and stooped to separate a few tiny leaves from the general “moss” and revealed a wild orchid pushing up through the carpet. I was entranced by the tiny world, the pulse of life seen close up, the stunning richness of dozens of kinds of moss and the treasures hidden within their tangle.

And soon after that experience, E. O. Wilson published a searing essay in the New York Times, “The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know.” He was not writing about the charismatic tigers, bears and wolves, whales and redwood trees, vital as all these beings are, but about the small uncounted, unstudied life forms that nonetheless are the warp and woof of life on earth. He noted, “The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated.” If we are going to save them, first we have to know them. Wilson admonished, “Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They, too, are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.”

I found an excellent book on moss, Gathering Moss, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and began to study. Those acres are a responsibility and an opportunity, a classroom and laboratory. But I was soon at sea. I needed more grounding for my new project, more guidance on how to go about learning this piece of the world and how to think about and care for it.

As luck would have it, the third thing came to hand, the right book whose title engaged my curiosity: The Wood for the Trees, One Man’s Long View of Nature, by Richard Fortey. Fortey, like us, had just purchased a few acres of woodland, in his case in the Chiltern Hills near Oxford, and had conceived the notion to document his land from the ground up, and through time, as only a paleontologist can contemplate it. Admittedly he had some excellent help not available to us, as he could call up colleagues from the Natural History Museum of London, but he is generous with their advice and insights. We are introduced to charming and dedicated specialists of crane fly study, fungi, myriad beetles, and shy woodland mammals, to name a few.

To give you an idea of his approach and ambition, here is a sample: “Charles finds one example of his own favourite (British spelling!) group of miniature organisms: a rotifer. We are now at the edge of visibility, which I set as the boundary for the Grim’s Dyke Wood project. And there are many smaller creatures in this living soup.” He goes on to describe a one-celled creature, while “other protists whizz by under the microscope like tiny self-propelled machines, too fast to identify. All these organisms feed on others still smaller, and far too minute to be readily observed beneath Charles’s binocular microscope.” Which means that Charles takes the specimens back to his lab for further study. E. O. Wilson would be beaming!

At the other end of the scale, Fortey concentrates on the predominant life form in his woods: beech trees. Not only does this book look backward to the formation of the rocks under the skin of life, it proceeds seasonally over a year, so we begin our study of the woods when the bluebells are spreading lakes of blue under the trees, fueled by sunshine not yet blocked by unfurled leaves. We then follow the trees as they stretch and flourish through spring and summer, only to slow and drop their leaves and hunker down through fall and winter. Just as the trees do not exist alone but harbor whole worlds of birds, mice, beetles, moss and everything imaginable, the beeches live embedded in human history.

Fortey includes humans, their economy and ecology, as not separate but joined and vital in his natural history of this place. Humans have used, shaped and been shaped by the beeches since the beginning of their shared existence. He finds traces of ancient practices and follows woodcraft through the ages as people coppiced, harvested, saved and lived with these trees from Anglo- Saxon, Norman, Tudor and more recent eras. The woods have survived because people lived so closely and with great dependence on them, as fuel, as wood for buildings and furniture, as bungs for barrels and uses so various as to “always” have a use. I am encouraged to include in my study the shell middens hidden by the moss and the old stumps, relics of pioneer logging efforts on our own land. We too will leave our trace.

I am barely giving you a hint of the richness of this work. The trees are the foundation of the woods, obvious to say, but the tiny creatures munching the leaves and helping create the soil, the moss snugging the surfaces and holding water, the red kites flying over the canopy are integral to the health of the place. Fortey brings them all into the picture, a living, breathing whole world, intricate, interdependent, delightful and though seemingly timeless, existing in season and century. We are a part of it all. And it all matters.

The Friends of LBA Woods is offering opportunities for a holistic study of a “place” through a series of guided nature walks and a citizen-science project to catalogue the biodiversity of life forms in the upland forest of the LBA Woods. Watch their website www.lbawoodspark.org for details. (by Anne Kilgannon, Beech Trees photo by Callum Black, Wikimedia)

Armchair Birding: A Sideways Look at Clouds by Maria Mudd Ruth

I was out walking in my neighborhood yesterday, craning my neck, scanning the sky to locate the resident eagle that was punctuating the quiet winter day with screams: screams of delight at the high, bright clouds after rain? Or the uptick of humans swarming at the domed capitol building? Or at the arrow-swift flight of pigeons that got away? I never did see the eagle, although some high-flying gulls fooled my eye a few times. But I did return my gaze, entranced, to those clouds.

They animated the sky, tracing the wind, catching the sunlight, streaking the blue with their grays and whites. They moved and changed and massed and trailed off into wisps. If I could mistake a gull’s wings for an eagle, how would I ever name the clouds? Many-syllabic Latin words floated as freely in my mind as their namesakes sported in the sky, but I had to let any identification hopes slip away on the breeze. Despite having just turned the last page on Maria Ruth’s engrossing study, A Sideways Look at Clouds, like Joni Mitchell, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

But now, significantly, I know what I don’t know. And I possess a template of how I might go about filling in some of the yawning gaps in my understanding of how the world works. As ephemeral as clouds appear to be, they are physical bodies responding to the physics and chemistry and geography of life on Earth, its grit and salt and general mayhem. With tenacity that pushes mere idle curiosity to the mat, Ruth pulls clouds in close and asks more questions than you ever contemplated, probing their mysteries and then digging deeper to question even the questions. Her subject matter may be slippery and, if you tried to clutch them with your hands, even ghostlike, but her voracious questing brings clouds into focus as constructs we can grasp, analyze and name.

This is a serious science-rich study, yet accessible to general readers. Ruth achieves this open-door by forthrightly declaring herself a complete novice in the field and then tugging her readers with her as she plunges in to learn all there is to know about clouds. She finds the experts who can decode the fleeting ups and downs of the molecules that form clouds, of the forces of heat and cold, evaporation, condensation, wind, solar energy and the out-breathing of life forms. It’s all in there: number-crunching, definitions, discovery and more questions. Sometimes difficult, but never dry or dull, it’s worth it to tag along. Ruth also makes this study as refreshing as a summer bike ride and as tingling as her attempt to swim in clouds on a foggy day. She brings the clouds right to us. We really begin to see them.

How is cloud watching like bird watching? They are akin. They draw us outside; they tilt our eyes upward. They fill us with wonder, delight, and questions. They have names that help us remember their attributes and life stories. They rarely stay still for long and teach us to seize the moment and appreciate our luck. They are there, existing for their own sakes but enriching our lives immeasurably. And mercifully, there are field guides to both! In an earlier book, Ruth made the secretive Marbled Murrelet visible even if we never see one; she does the same for clouds. They may fill our skies every day in billowing piles, hazy streaks or rain-leaking solid gray, but now she uncovers their secrets and teaches us to look—and see—them with new eyes. And sometimes eagles, or gulls, sail out of them to surprise us. (by Anne Kilgannon)

Armchair Birding: Welcome to Subirdia, by John M. Marzluff, illustrations by Jack DeLap

Ever since the days of John Muir, conservationists’ efforts have focused on saving as much wilderness as possible, cordoning off tracts of land from our traffic-congested cities, stopping clear-cut logging practices and our garbage strewing ways. Grizzlies, Marbled Murrelets, Spotted Owls and the like depend on large, untouched swaths of intact habitat to survive and reproduce. Humans, too, need the backcountry to replenish our spirits—even if we never go there but just know it exists and persists for its own sake. But even as we practice “leaving no trace,” we still come down off the mountain to dwell in houses and apartments crowded together, drive cars on roads to get to work or school, and live immersed in an industrial culture. How can we suburbanites reconcile our ideals with our everyday lives? Is there a middle way?

The scheduled speaker for our annual BHAS dinner in March, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, has good news and plenty of well-informed guidance for us city residents. If you can’t wait or want more in-depth information now, I highly recommend his book Welcome to Subirdia. While grounded in rigorous academic research, documented in copious endnotes, Marzluff truly does welcome everyone to live more closely with nature and blur that line dividing urbanites from the creatures all around us. His language is engaging and accessible, though he writes with an obvious backbone of deep knowledge based on years of work in the field. He speaks from the heart as well as the head; the combination is infectious and inspiring.

Too often when I’m reading books on conservation I can barely get through them. The room seems to darken as the gloom of hopelessness descends; it feels too late, too big, too impossible. Reading Marzluff felt different; he doesn’t fluff over the hard realities of climate change, extinction and suffering, but he carves a path to a better, more informed relationship we might all have with birds and other creatures. He cheerfully declares himself an optimist. And optimism leads to a more hopeful vision and more importantly to action – action grounded in painstaking science. Considering ourselves facilitators of biological diversity, not simply destroyers, shines a new light on our place in the web of life. And just now, especially, we need all the light there is.

Marzluff measures both bird resiliency and fragility as they find a place in our suburban and urban environments. He examines their whole life cycle, reminding us that to persist, animals must be able to live, breed, and move among the habitats we provide. How does our human-centered world stack up? Some birds flourish – juncos! Some are stressed and retreat from the challenges we present. Some live on the edges of both environments and depend on the mix of features offered. If we know what birds need and take some steps to accommodate them, Marzluff assures us that we can co-exist. He lists what he calls Nature’s Ten Commandments, principles and practices we can adopt even in small spaces. As he says, “Actions aligned with these ideals would increase the persistence of biological diversity by increasing the vitality of species that tolerate our presence.” I rearranged them slightly here to emphasis his approach: Begin with #10, which states, “Enjoy and bond with nature where you live, work and play.”

1. Do not covet your neighbor’s lawn.
2. Keep your cat indoors!
3. Make your windows more visible to birds that fly near them.
4. Do not light the night sky.
5. Provide food and nest boxes.
6. Do not kill native predators.
7. Foster a diversity of habitats and natural variability within landscapes.
8. Create safe passages across roads and highways.
9. Ensure that there are functional connections between land and water.
10. Enjoy and bond with nature where you live, work and play.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s work, Marzluff encourages his readers: “Embracing these commandments can guide your development of a land ethic that holds at its core an appreciation for the community, not just the commodity, of your property… more relevant than ever in urban settings.” If we all practice these basic precepts, we will be richly rewarded with birds living with us and delighting us with their presence, and knowing that we are part of Nature, not cut off from that which nourishes our lives, too. I look forward to hearing him speak about his work at our Annual Dinner.

Note: The illustrations by Jack DeLap are stunning! They enrich as well as inform the text in a way photographs would not. A handsome book you’ll turn to again and again. (by Anne Kilgannon)

Armchair Birding: Witness Tree: Seasons of Change With A Century-Old Oak, by Lynda Mapes

Imagine slowing yourself down to tree pace. Plant yourself deeply in one place and then stretch higher than you can reach upward to the sun, flinging your fingers to the sky while feeling the action of nutrients coursing through your veins. Then go one step further and open your cells to light: photosynthesize sugars and exhale life-supporting oxygen. All right, a stretch too far. Instead, join Lynda Mapes as she delves into the life of a chosen tree and studies the meaning of its life from every conceivable angle, inside and out. Through her deep, thoughtful questing you can almost feel the roots pushing down into the earth and the great branches skimming the night-and-day sky above. A century is a moment gathered in leaf burst and leaf fall.

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Armchair Birding: The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, by Akiko Busch

While I was not quite ready to walk ocean beaches in search of dead birds for Dr. Julia Parrish and the COASST team, our Annual Dinner speaker inspired me to learn more about citizen science projects and what ordinary people can do to help our increasingly imperiled world survive. Instead of just worrying about climate change and habitat loss, what could I do to make a difference? I don’t have a background in science or natural resource work and consider myself to be a mere beginner as a birder. More heart than head, really, but keen to learn.

So I hitched a ride with Maria Ruth early one morning to get a firsthand look at a citizen science project. We headed for a little-noticed dock by the port to monitor one of the clusters of Pigeon Guillemots that populate lower Puget Sound. I found these birds in my guidebook but had never noticed them on the water before. Their name was puzzling: a pigeon that swam?READ MORE

Armchair Birding – May 2017

ARMCHAIR BIRDING: STORIES FROM THE LEOPOLD SHACK: SAND COUNTY REVISITED, BY ESTELLA B. LEOPOLD

Having read one too many despair-inducing news stories, I went looking for something solid and nourishing to clear my mind and lighten my heart. There on the bookshelf was A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It was as good and straightforward and sensible as I remembered, and funnier, too. There was the iconic story of the wolf whose death lit a fire in Aldo’s mind of how the world was really put together, predator and prey included. But there was also a story I had forgotten of Aldo’s search for the inner life of grebes, a bird that intrigued and beguiled him. His method jolted me: One day I buried myself, prone, in the muck of a muskrat house. While my clothes absorbed local color, my eyes absorbed the lore of the marsh.

He describes the quiet life of the marsh as he waited patiently for grebes to appear out of the rushes, and then unspools his thoughts about man and nature and time, as well as several pithy details about grebe life and ways. I could almost feel the mud seeping into my pores and the brown water lapping my chin as his wise and tender remarks sunk into my consciousness. This was committed bird watching!READ MORE

Armchair Birding – March 2017

Turning homeward: restoring hope and nature in the urban wild, by adrienne ross scanlan

This small book speaks quietly; it is not by accident that the title, subtitle, and author’s name appear in lower-case type on the cover. This memoir, almost a meditation, gains power, though, as Scanlan digs deeper into the questions that arise as she examines herself and her surroundings for a path toward that place many of us seek: Home. And more importantly, how to live in that home once discovered or created in a consciously caring way.

I find myself drawn, again and again, to this subject of making a home. My reading is often guided by two linked preoccupations: “I am not from here,” and “Can I become native to this place?” Scanlan’s story of her work grappling with just these issues acknowledges that longing that we transients suffer and puzzle over. She begins right there and wades into the issue of displacement and home-making through her exploration of what makes this place one she can claim. Parenthetically, even for those who live in the Northwest from birth or long lineage, it still requires attention, knowledge and active involvement to truly inhabit this special environment.READ MORE

Armchair Birding – January 2017

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, by J. Drew Lanham

I first heard of Drew Lanham when Bird Note featured an interview with him after he published “Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” in Orion Magazine. He is both witty and serious about the perils of watching birds while black, dryly advising black birders to forgo hoodies and always carry plenty of identification. “Hoodies” now conjure horrific scenarios of children gunned down for snuggling into warm clothing in all the “wrong” places and a train of news stories laying bare a cancer of implacable racism and other ills besetting our nation. Amid the noise of the acrimonious election campaign, I sought a copy of his memoirs and spent some quiet time absorbing his story and perspective. He offered me a kind of field guide to his life in rural South Carolina, a foreign country for me, a white westerner.

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