Armchair Birding

Armchair Birding: Saving Tarboo Creek: One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land, by Scott Freeman, with illustrations by Susan Leopold Freeman

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by Anne Kilgannon – During the recent snow event, despite our efforts, we lost the crowns from several maple trees and significant branches from other trees that graced our front garden. The damage is beyond repair. Which raises the question: what should we plant in the unwanted openings in our canopy to recreate the woodsy feel we—and our local birds—enjoyed? The adage of planting trees for future generations, not oneself, has been made more complicated by climate change. What future do we now take into consideration when choosing new trees? Admittedly, our maples are non-natives; was that a factor in their demise? Was this heavy dump of snow a harbinger or an aberration? How should we be thinking about our garden’s resiliency in the next years when the only certainty is uncertainty?

We have a small city lot. Scott Freeman writes about grappling with similar questions but scaled up to eighteen acres of mixed forest and a degraded salmon stream on the Olympic Peninsula that he and his family are working to restore. With a community of like-minded landowners, local tribal members, government agencies and land trusts, the Freemans joined the project coordinated by Peter Bahls of the Northwest Watershed Institute, to study and find ways to return the land to health. The goal is to recreate an environment fit for salmon to thrive and reproduce, as the key species necessary for that place to be whole once again.

Working from the question, what do salmon need, the family examined what had happened to the land over the years, what changes had debased the ecosystem. By searching for clues about missing pieces: the tree species logged from the site, the meandering streambed that had been channelized and scoured, the wealth of animal and plant life that had been discouraged, the Freemans set about bringing back what had been lost. What had been stripped and simplified was to be made complex and intricate, a living web again, niche by niche.

Very basically, salmon need cool, graveled, tree-shaded waters for survival and reproduction, so the stream bed was reconfigured and renovated to create protected spots for young salmon and locations for redds for spawning salmon. An extensive planting scheme was created, a many-year project that returned a variety of trees to the stream banks. When considering the recreation of the forest environment, the team also looked ahead to a future that will require different species tolerant of a changing climate and capable of sheltering birds and other species that may migrate into the area as conditions shift. This ability to learn from a lost past, work in the present, but always keep the unsettled future in mind is one of the great strengths of this book. Freeman and his coworkers demonstrate the ability to juggle many pieces of the restoration puzzle thoughtfully, learning as they go, but keeping a clear vision of a healthy place as their goal.

As high-minded as is that vision, Freeman also employs a humble humor and a patient sanity that keeps the work in perspective and makes room for delight in small moments. He and Susan and their sons take frequent walks to simply enjoy their patch of the world and note signs of progress. And there is irony, too: when one of the returning species is discovered to be beavers that relish the newly planted saplings, there is consternation about competing values, the new trees or celebration of the return of this denizen species from the lost past? The answer is to broaden the vision and find ways to include them as well as protect enough of the young trees to dapple the light reaching the water. It was a head-scratching moment, though!

Freeman ranges over concepts as large as climate change, mass extinction, the psychological toll as we contemplate the loss of home as we once knew it, our personal and collective responsibilities, and how to keep our commitment to life intact and open. He circles from looming catastrophe back to finding strength in family and community and shared values as the way forward. He finds poetry in salmon nosing their way into the restored stream and renewal in caring for the trees that hold the soil and stretch over the water, noting, “Thinning and pruning have spiritual benefits too, for there is no better way to learn a patch of land than to work on it.” He is as strongly rooting himself and family by Tarboo Creek as the forest he is encouraging.

And it is not happenstance that brought him to this place. While it may sometimes seem like every innovative conservation project has a Leopold involved, it may very well be true that every Leopold can be found doing something in the field, doggedly and with imagination and generations of experience to guide them. The lineage of this project is direct: Susan Leopold Freeman and her husband Scott named the area they are restoring “Carl’s Forest” in honor of Susan’s father who had dedicated his life to plant research as the founding director of the Tropical Forestry Initiative, the Finger Lakes Land Trust and the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Carl is, of course, a son of Aldo Leopold, who is, then, the great grandfather of Susan and Scott’s sons. That connection of generations, of shoulders to stand upon, adds depth and a sense of legacy and responsibility to uphold the family ethos of sustainable and conscious living. Whatever our own heritage, we can all gain from their example and accumulated wisdom and share in the task of loving the land upon which we live in this caring and visionary way.

Armchair Birding: Listening to Barry Lopez “Children in the Woods,” in Crossing Open Ground

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(by Anne Kilgannon) – I don’t want to tell you how many books I’ve ventured, notated, loved and despaired over in my search for this essay topic. Perhaps it’s the season, the government shutdown impasse or just my state of mind. It is my state of mind: no doubt at all; confronting in each book and grappling with the impossibility of the lovingly crafted description of the end of the natural world and all its complicated and cherished living interconnected beings has left me bereft and empty of response. All I can promise is to try again.

So I started over in a new place, by chance falling upon an essay by Barry Lopez that goes back to the beginning: childhood, his own and then children of his acquaintances, and what he remembers, and then forgot, and now remembers anew with insight for all of us. He writes of an early experience that profoundly shaped him: it came as a confirmation that the world is full of wonder and that he was right to be astounded by that. He speaks of carrying that revelation forward whenever he can with children—and I would say, in all his writing and how he lives his life.

He tells of a time when this truth was masked by “encyclopedic knowledge of the names of plants or the names of birds passing through in a season.” The great lesson was to learn to say less, to allow children to see afresh and without the weight of labels and systems, just for now to let them discover the natural world prompted only by their own curiosity.

“I remember once finding a fragment of a raccoon’s jaw in an alder thicket. I sat down alongside the two children with me and encouraged them to find out who this was—with only the three teeth still intact in a piece of the animal’s maxilla to guide them. The teeth told by their shape and placement what this animal ate. By a kind of visual extrapolation its size became clear. There were other clues, immediately present, which told, with what I could add of climate and terrain, how this animal lived, how its broken jar came to be lying here. Raccoon, they surmised . . . If I had known more about raccoons, finer points of osteology, we might have guessed more: say, whether it was male or female. But what we deduced was all we needed. Hours later, the maxilla, lost behind us in the detritus of the forest floor, continued to effervesce. It was tied faintly to all else we spoke of that afternoon.”

Those children will know raccoons now in a way that will be indelible and transformative. Lopez then acknowledges, “. . . a single fragment of the whole is the most invigorating experience I can share with them. I think most children know that nearly anyone can learn the names of things; the impression made on them at this level is fleeting.” This was food for thought, but Lopez mused further and quietly extended this observation:

“The most moving look I ever saw from a child in the woods was on a mud bar by the footprints of a heron. We were on our knees, making handprints beside the footprints. You could feel the creek vibrating in the silt and sand. The sun beat down heavily on our hair. Our shoes were soaking wet. The look said: I did not know until now that I needed someone much older to confirm this, the feeling I have of life here. I can now grow older, knowing it need never be lost.”

I read that over and over. Yes, children are born open and willing to love the world. It is our job to nurture that flame, confirm and strengthen that inherent tendency—and share our own love and sense of curiosity, to get down in wet mud together in joy and the surprises the world delivers. Let a grin be our language!

I can’t resist giving you Lopez’s exalted final remarks:
“The quickest door to open in the woods for a child is the one that leads to the smallest room, by knowing the name each thing is called. The door that leads to the cathedral is marked by the hesitancy to speak at all, rather to encourage by example a sharpness of the sense. If one speaks it should only be to say, as well as one can, how wonderfully all this fits together, to indicate what a long, fierce peace can derive from this knowledge.”

Reflecting, I feel sure we Black Hill members are on the right track with our program of providing birding backpacks. We are opening doors and windows and removing barriers of accessibility and hesitation to the world of nature. And we are affirming by our attention and encouragement, our own love and willingness to wade into the waters and forests in search of what is hidden there. I am excited to see what fruit will bear from Richard Louv’s community talk on getting children—and everyone else—outside to play. We can’t lose this generation; we have no children to spare.

Armchair Birding: Books that Open Doors for Beginners—or Anyone

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by Anne Kilgannon – We are all familiar with the much appreciated flute notes that announce a BirdNote story on the radio following the morning news report: a quick upbeat and very bird-like melody that creates a pause in the rush to get out the door. Each story is only one minute and forty-five seconds but is packed with insight about bird life, a quirky fact or two, with the narration highlighted with cheerful or even thrilling bird sounds. Each broadcast is a dose of nature-medicine, a re-set and reminder to go outside and look up.

The BirdNote stories are so easy to listen to we might not realize how carefully curated and crafted they are, how deeply researched by noted ornithologists and writers, and how much they touch on the big questions about bird life pondered by academic experts and experienced birders alike. The recorded bird songs are drawn from the renowned collections of the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Every presentation is polished, evocative, and sparks curiosity and wonder. They are miniature masterpieces.

And now BirdNote has come out as a book? Can something so aural be captured on the page? And no, there is no attached CD of the soundtrack that is such a highlight of the radio segments. (Of course, there is still the website we can peruse to refresh our recollections of bird songs: www.BirdNote.org) I was intrigued by the question enough to attend the book presentation at Browsers Books in late September by Dr. Bob Sundstrom, science advisor and lead writer of more than 800 of the radio scripts, and Dr. Trina Bayard, another science advisor. They had me with an opening comment about Rachel Carson and the need to foster a sense of wonder in children and adults alike as the driving concept behind BirdNote. And while I enjoyed their stories capturing the essence of diverse species from Anna’s Hummingbirds to Sanderlings and Great Blue Herons, I was still pondering the notion of replicating the magic of BirdNote as a book.

The one thing the radio program does not have is imagery—the absence of which does ask us to use our other senses, mainly that of listening, a sometimes neglected ability in this visual era. And that is all to the good. If a radio could waft the scent of a forest or marsh or desert, the feel of sun or wind, as well…well, then we would be outside! (That would be asking too much.) But get hold of a copy of BirdNote, the book, and return to that need for wonder we all feel and hope to inculcate in others, and then slowly turn the pages. The illustrations by Emily Poole are vibrant, almost kinetic, and so lively you expect to hear bird sounds of calls, brush rustling and water splashing. Each is a feast of observed detail that captures the nature of the bird in focus, often in motion, with the correct habitat suggested just enough for context. The format of page-size illustrations matched by accompanying page of text, bird by bird, follows the radio BirdNote formula, only substituting image for sound. It works very well.

If you know a child or teenager or any adult that you wish to entice outdoors with you or on their own, this book would make a wonderful gift. As a first step, or with a field guide, these stories give just enough information to intrigue and inform a beginning birder in a narrative form that is easy to grasp yet not simplistic, and the illustrations are even more evocative than most field guides I currently possess. With a note including the webpage address for the aural enrichment, this book will delight anyone.

I have another suggestion of a book that opens the Nature door and is a feast for the eyes and imagination. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for my birthday: The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal, for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You, by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. The charming and accurate illustrations are also by Bernd Heinrich.

This book is packed first with the “why” of keeping a nature journal and very helpfully, the “how,” with pages of examples drawn from the personal practices of these veteran naturalists and then a set of pages inserted for your own use: no excuses! The “why” pages detail all that can be learned by tracking observations over time, of returning again and again to places of study to deepen one’s knowledge and gain new insights as patterns and variations are recorded and pondered. Noticing the fruiting of a bush and the appearance of insects and birds on or about the same date, or perhaps the mismatch as climate change impacts our location, or the date of fledglings testing their wings one year alerts the watcher for the next, keeping and checking our records enriches our excursions in fields and woods. Nathaniel and Bernd—who feel like friends by now—inspire and inform us how to begin, and just as importantly, how to continue this valuable practice of recording observations.

Understanding that this method was foundational for these respected writers and that everyone starts step by step building knowledge and experience would encourage any budding naturalist, yourself or someone lucky like me who receives this book as a gift. Surprising someone with either of these books would be life-giving and even life-changing.


Armchair Birding: Mentoring Books for the Giving Season

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(by Anne Kilgannon) Musings on BirdNote and The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal, for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You

We are all familiar with the much appreciated flute notes that announce a BirdNote story on the radio following the morning news report: a quick upbeat and very bird-like melody that creates a pause in the rush to get out the door. Each story is only one minute and forty-five seconds but is packed with insight about bird life, a quirky fact or two, with the narration highlighted with cheerful or even thrilling bird sounds. Each broadcast is a dose of nature-medicine, a re-set and reminder to go outside and look up.

The BirdNote stories are so easy to listen to we might not realize how carefully curated and crafted they are, how deeply researched by noted ornithologists and writers, and how much they touch on the big questions about bird life pondered by academic experts and experienced birders alike. The recorded bird songs are drawn from the renowned collections of the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Every presentation is polished, evocative, and sparks curiosity and wonder. They are miniature masterpieces.

And now BirdNote has come out as a book? Can something so aural be captured on the page? And no, there is no attached CD of the soundtrack that is such a highlight of the radio segments. (Of course, there is still the website we can peruse to refresh our recollections of bird songs: www.BirdNote.org) I was intrigued by the question enough to attend the book presentation at Browsers Books in late September by Dr. Bob Sundstrom, science advisor and lead writer of more than 800 of the radio scripts, and Dr. Trina Bayard, another science advisor. They had me with an opening comment about Rachel Carson and the need to foster a sense of wonder in children and adults alike as the driving concept behind BirdNote. And while I enjoyed their stories capturing the essence of diverse species from Anna’s Hummingbirds to sanderlings and Great Blue Herons, I was still pondering the notion of replicating the magic of BirdNote as a book.

The one thing the radio program does not have is imagery—the absence of which does ask us to use our other senses, mainly that of listening, a sometimes neglected ability in this visual era. And that is all to the good. If a radio could waft the scent of a forest or marsh or desert, the feel of sun or wind, as well…well, then we would be outside! (That would be asking too much.) But get hold of a copy of BirdNote, the book, and return to that need for wonder we all feel and hope to inculcate in others, and then slowly turn the pages. The illustrations by Emily Poole are vibrant, almost kinetic, and so lively you expect to hear bird sounds of calls, brush rustling and water splashing. Each is a feast of observed detail that captures the nature of the bird in focus, often in motion, with the correct habitat suggested just enough for context. The format of page-size illustrations matched by accompanying page of text, bird by bird, follows the radio BirdNote formula, only substituting image for sound. It works very well.

If you know a child or teenager or any adult that you wish to entice outdoors with you or on their own, this book would make a wonderful gift. As a first step, or with a field guide, these stories give just enough information to intrigue and inform a beginning birder in a narrative form that is easy to grasp yet not simplistic, and the illustrations are even more evocative than most field guides I currently possess.

With a note including the webpage address for the aural enrichment, this book will delight anyone.

As the gift-giving season is upon us, I have another suggestion of a book that opens the Nature door and is a feast for the eyes and imagination. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for my birthday: The Naturalist’s Notebook: An Observation Guide and 5-Year Calendar-Journal, for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You, by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. The charming and accurate illustrations are also by Bernd Heinrich.

This book is packed first with the “why” of keeping a nature journal and very helpfully, the “how,” with pages of examples drawn from the personal practices of these veteran naturalists and then a set of pages inserted for your own use: no excuses! The “why” pages detail all that can be learned by tracking observations over time, of returning again and again to places of study to deepen one’s knowledge and gain new insights as patterns and variations are recorded and pondered. Noticing the fruiting of a bush and the appearance of insects and birds on or about the same date, or perhaps the mismatch as climate change impacts our location, or the date of fledglings testing their wings one year alerts the watcher for the next, keeping and checking our records enriches our excursions in fields and woods. Nathaniel and Bernd—who feel like friends by now—inspire and inform us how to begin, and just as importantly, how to continue this valuable practice of recording observations.

Understanding that this method was foundational for these respected writers and that everyone starts step by step building knowledge and experience would encourage any budding naturalist, yourself or someone lucky like me who receives this book as a gift. However you celebrate the holiday season, the gift of either of these books would be life-giving and even life-changing.

Armchair Birding: Raptors in Focus

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(by Anne Kilgannon) – Have you ever been hawk-watching? Standing on a ridge overlooking a stretch of country created just right for an updraft of warmed air, forming a highway in the sky for the soaring of raptors? Some Fall day I will be there, thrilling to the sight of big birds streaming by, the urgency and tug of the migratory season pulling them through the sky. The Chelan Ridge Hawk Migration Festival on the dry side of the North Cascades is within reach—and a likely adventure some day—but the epitome, the dream trip, would be Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, so heroically saved for us by Rosalie Edge in 1938 when she purchased the land under the migration path.

Oh my, what a story! If you enjoy gripping page-turners and unlikely champions battling great odds—and winning—get a copy of her life story, Hawk of Mercy, by Dyana Furmansky, for an eye-opening history of a dark chapter in Audubon. It’s a passionate and inspiring biography of a woman wholly taken with birds and their protection, who threw herself and her fortune into conservation work almost alone, but who through persistence and sheer chutzpah created a movement and galvanized a quiescent public to stand up for birds. From a traditional norm of seeing hawks as vermin fit only to shoot and let rot in their thousands as they attempted their annual migration over the mountains of Pennsylvania and other infamous spots, Edge transformed the reflexive killing to awakening a sense of awe in the majesty of the birds responding to the seasonal imperative. In time, binoculars replaced shotguns, respect and understanding ended the wanton slaughter.

The villainy assigned hawks as “chicken killers” was, in part, ignorance of the crucial balancing role of predators in general and the raptor’s place in the natural order. Society still struggles with the notion of wolves and grizzlies taking their rightful places. Hawk-viewing festivals are part of continuing public education, as are banding programs, annual counting and mapping of bird populations, and other programs to gather data, establish patterns, and learn the intricacies of bird life.

An excellent window into this work and the fascinating people who make it their life’s purpose is Jack Connor’s Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May. Connor describes in gritty but affectionate terms what it means to participate in the annual tallying of raptors as they pass over this spot on the eastern flyway. As you read his account, your back will ache in empathy, your eyes will want to be there scanning, straining to identify smudges and streaks of sky-high birds as they stream by. You will be moved by the Cape birders’ dedication and their dogged strength as they struggle each year to add to our store of knowledge—still rudimentary, still a new science of migration and population.

Should you be pulled to join in, either at the Cape or more locally at Chelan, it would be best to study the classic work Hawks in Flight, by three noted graduates of Cape May: Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton. Their book is dedicated to Maurice Broun, who got his start when Rosalie Edge hired him as the first “curator” at Hawk Mountain. Roger Tory Peterson wrote the Foreword, adding another link to the chain of bird knowledge passed hand to hand, having himself stuffed envelopes for Rosalie’s conservation crusades in her New York apartment in his early days. It was Peterson’s “method” of bird identification system, first published in the 1930s, that helped turn bird study to field study, not “bird in the hand” by way of the shotgun. All these steps we now take for granted are but one or two generations of birdwatchers in the making. Hawks in Flight takes the Peterson method even further as the authors explore the visual frontiers beyond field marks and feather colors. Watching and identifying raptors calls upon the birder to develop new skills involving “a number of hints and clues: the rhythm and cadence of a bird’s flight; its overall color, shape, and size; plumage characteristics; and behavior under given conditions. All form a composite picture of a bird that may be flying at the limit of conjecture.”

It’s startling to realize that the tips offered for hawk identification were painstakingly assembled from experience at Cape May in the near past: Pete Dunne conducted the first season-long migration count just in 1976. This is still an evolving story, one we can participate in and advance if we have the time and skill. Bird watching is a relatively young pursuit and one heavily dependent on citizen science. With climate change and habitat loss threatening, we all feel the urgency of the moment, but seeing how far we have come in such a short span is also encouraging. We are giant strides from the massed killing of hawks, Passenger Pigeons, and other birds shrugged off by public indifference; our challenges are subtler if no less deadly. Rosalie Edge’s campaigns will not be our way, but with new tools and knowledge, we will join our pioneer forebears and marshal awe and wonder “for the birds.”

Armchair Birding: Rachel Carson’s “Sea Books”

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(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

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(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

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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

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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

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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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