Elderberry connections

13 05 2009

Shadow portrait on clearcut

I  see the clear-cut as an opportunity as much as a calamity — an opportunity to be observant as this scraped land returns to life. The land just behind my property had been cut in 1993 — 6 years before I first saw it — and I didn’t realize that it would change and shift so fast over the last 9 years. I’ve also changed a lot since then, and parts of my life have been shorn away, while others have grown and others simply changed. I regretted not paying attention to the changes going on in my backyard before, now I have a second chance at this, so taking a closer look at the clear-cut resonates with other things in my life, other second chances I hope to have. This time around I know so much more, see so much more, understand so much more, even as I also realize how vast my ignorance still is.  

Learning about nature opens up avenues to learn even more; the more I know, the more I can know, in a virtuous cycle that I feel directly on this walk. The air is floral and scented as I walk along, strong enough perfume that I wouldn’t like it if it were lingering around the counter at the department store; it’s pleasant and not overpowering in the open air. I track the smell down to clusters of brilliant off-white blossoms.

Elderberry blossomsI’m sure I’ve traced this smell down on some earlier walk — maybe many times. But now I can — or bother to — recognize it, and this smell has a name. These flowers will be clusters of Red Elderberries. In fall, bears pull sprays of berries down with a paw and surround whole clusters in their mouth, scraping off berries and, I imagine, a helping of stems, from cluster after cluster. I used to see them across the bowl of the valley behind my backyard. One time 5 bears, including a cub, were feeding at the same time in the early evening. A few years later, I would only see the twitching  and shaking of the branches, and now, the trees have shaded many of the elderberries out. But they thrive in the extra sunlight along the trail. How many years, I wonder, until they first colonize the clear-cut?

Back home, I turn to one of my berry books — Northwestern Wild Berries, by J.E. Underhill. I’ve read about them before; these berries are so abundant, it would be nice to use them somehow — but they taste bad, and even the Indians didn’t find a use for them. The Black Elderberry, a cousin if you will, is the one you’ll find in jellies and syrups; another berry book records that some people have made jelly out of them with no apparent ill effects — like almost all native berries they are probably not harmful in small quantities. I think “If it feels good, do it.” is a poor motto for life, but it seems quite reasonable advice to say: If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it! 

I discover something new: the Swainson’s thrush is one of the birds that feeds on this abundant berry. Probably I didn’t know its name when I read this entry before. This thrush has perhaps my favorite song, a beautiful watery warbling that seems to spiral through the air; I despaired of ever identifying as it seemed always to emanate from some mysterious cranny of the woods in the evening. Birdsongs are hard for me to look up — bird books, with their attempts at onomatopoeia, are hopeless dead ends for me. The radio came to my rescue, and if you  want to hear what they sound like, you can listen at this link:  http://birdnote.org/birdnote-transcript.cfm?id=223

They sound pretty enough on that recording, but it doesn’t really capture how they sound in the clear evening air in my back yard. I expect I’ll hear them any day now, as they arrive in mid-May.

Clear-cut in spring.

11 05 2009


I’m sitting on a stump overlooking the Snoqualmie valley as I write this– not from the overlook in my back yard, but up the logging road behind my house a mile or so on. I can see the tiny flecks of cows grazing and it is just a beautiful, beautiful day.

There’s a newish clear-cut of about 10 or 15 acres or so back here that I walked through but now can’t see from my place on the stump. I was impressed in the winter by how much life seemed to remain in the undergrowth where the trees had been cleared away. Oregon grape, salal, and some ferns were all in evidence. But now, though the rest of the land is thriving and green, the clearcut looks roughly the same as it did in winter.

Ferns UnFurlDSC_0010 - CopyThere are a few ferns unfolding, and I suppose that the thistles are a step toward regrowth (Thistles are often first colonizers of disturbed ground — I expect there will be more to come, but I certainly don’t care for thistles!)

DSC_0031 - CopyThey are more than counterbalanced, though, by the stark white bones of the trees, the hulking masses of the slash piles, and the shattered branches where the trucks drove over and splintered them or the trees fell and crushed them.

The trees were hailing

19 01 2009


dsc_0027Yesterday, when I went outside, I found nearly everything clouded up in fog and the trees were hailing, shedding thawed lumps of  frozen dew to fall like rain with an icy filling. The humidity was nearly 100% and I suppose the thick dew had condensed on the branches and frozen overnight. Now the very tops of the trees were in sunshine and there were tiny localized showers under just the tallest of the trees – like stereophonic rainstorms, the sound came from only some places and not others, giving an eerie feeling to the shortest stroll. I decided to escape the fog and head out to the logging road where I could gain some altitude and get some sunshine before my movie (this would result, as any who know me well might suspect, in my being too late to see the showing I had planned, but it was worth it – one of the pleasures of being alone is that you can change your plans and not feel as though you have failed or that someone else will be disappointed.) I protected my camera from the wet branches and dripping trees in a makeshift camera bag (plastic, grocery), and set off, maneuvering my shoes on nearly one-handed (as I type this as well – injured my wrist). The trail we blazed last year was surprisingly passable, and I was nearly out of the fog by the time I hit the main trail. It’s amazing how much the logging road has closed up over the last decade. It seems a bit of a shock (although not as much as I was to have shortly) to not be able to spot the old spot of the slash pile that was for a time a fine black raspberry patch. I remember noting it the first year, relishing sharing it for years to come with the bears. Little did I realize what a temporary and fleeting thing each years plants are on a clear-cut, as one species flourishes for a season or two or three and then is overshadowed and overtaken by another. There were many things I took for granted that year that are gone now. Thinking about it makes me melancholy – I’m not ready for the new look of the overgrown trail maybe because I’ve failed to stay in touch – illness, divorce, my job… The twins and I don’t share the same connection with this trail as Robin and I once did, and even we don’t have the same connection we once did, either. I look forward to the less changeable view from the valley overlook at the edge of the logging road just as it turns into the untouched part of the forest. But I’ll not find that spot on this trip.
When I reach the main logging road that curves all the way down to my left the 700 or 800 feet of elevation to the road on the other side of the hill from my house,  I am in the sunshine, glorious sunshine, and I see that it has been covered anew with fresh rock, gray and black. To my right lies a shocking sight – new cutting. The fog brings the same beautiful depth to the upper hills as it always does, but the foreground is now a jumble of slash pile and stumps and bark and soil.

Clearcut with Logging road
Clearcut with Logging road

I’m saddened a bit, but in a way it feels like a renewal, a chance to start over – even though I actually arrived years after the last cut of the land behind my house, it feels like a new beginning. (This seems nonsensical, but it is so.) I don’t really know what to think – I don’t find our favorite overlook, instead I take a few pictures from just inside the scarred area, and head back to drive into down for some books (essays, thriller, the letters of E. B. White), some dinner (Thai – green curry) and a movie

Slash Pile

Slash Pile

It’s Sunday now, the brink of midday, and I hurriedly type this out. I want to go back out, but I know that if I don’t write this now, I’ll never write it because I’ll have new thoughts after going out again. It’s warm and sunny out there this morning – the inversion that trapped the fog yesterday has brought its warmth all the way down to ground level now – 61 degrees outside, scarcely cold enough to warrant a coat.  There are terrific gusts of wind though, so I’ll wear one, and a hat, too. Probably I’ll return with a different sense of things.

the utterly unrequired nature of the task

6 02 2008


On Sunday I got out into the yard to scope out my newest project. My 5 acres is backed by 100+ acres of former clear cut, and I’m planning to blaze a trail so that I don’t have to go through my neighbor’s property to get to the logging road that leads up to the view. On a clear day you get a fantastic good view of Seattle and the full sweep of mountains to the North and West, not the merely very good view of the Cascades you can see directly from my property. I wasn’t sure if it was feasible, but it really looks like it will be — and without going onto my neighbors property at all. Making it bikeable will be a bit more of an effort, but I think it will be worth it — it will be a whole different thing if walking to the logging road is as easy as walking down the driveway. Although Brodie, don’t worry, we’ll still go down there and feed you apples! (Although, if you are reading this, then you, sir, are a most talented pony!)


Robin is worried that, like so many home projects, this will come to naught, but I am determined (in my flush of good health) and am confident of progress, even eventual success. It’s not clear how long it will take to  cut my way through all of the debris left by the loggers a decade ago. I am sure I am as much driven by the utterly unrequired nature of the task as I am by the brilliance of the idea


But on Sunday, I was clearing away the undergrowth to make a path from the driveway to the beginning of the clearcut. Per Robin’s suggestion, I used my Dad’s old machete, newly sharpened by my samurai-sword wielding yard man who helped out last year. Actually, it’s my grandfather’s machete, made of some pretty high quality steel. My father wrote on a napkin that it was made in the early 1940’s in Canada, where his family lived at the time. You can see from this picture of the handle that it has seen some wear before today…