Not everyone has a marsupium.

23 06 2009

There are firewood rounds sitting on my driveway arranged around the basketball hoop.

A tree leaned its way across my driveway in a winter windstorm and the inexperienced handyman cut all of the rounds at an angle, so they are devilish to split, but I’m making progress, if only to make basketball less treacherous now that Robin has grown large enough to play.

Lifting one onto the chopping block, I disturbed dozens of tiny shelled creatures who had made their home in the decaying wood at the bottom.


Sow bugs, these are called.

They’d be pillbugs, if they rolled that way. (or any number of other names)

Crustaceans, like lobsters and shrimp and such.

Woodlouse seems like a nasty name for a creature that come out of the wood looking so clean and does no harm in the world, really – mostly just helping already decaying things along their way.


One of them was the largest I’d ever seen, as big as my fingernail, bigger than the biggest watermelon seeds from my childhood memories of gargantuan Hempstead, Texas watermelons. In Texas I was told that like armadillos, they could carry leprosy. This is a canard, but there is some size at which crawling things go from almost cute to almost creepy, and this one edged toward creepy. She was large enough that I after I coaxed her onto my hand, I could feel her individual feet as she ran along the back of my finger and eventually to my arm. I flipped her over to see the gills on her undersides, the 14 wiggling legs, and what I think was the white marsupium where she would store her eggs – or could have been storing them yet.

In this picture you can see one shedding its skin – they do one half at a time, for some unknown reason.

Dandelion sparkles

20 05 2009

The colors in this picture are really remarkable. I’m not completely sure it is a dandelion, although the photographer says it is. I like to take pictures of dandelions myself, but have never seen the dew so thick!


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:

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.

Pacific Abalone

12 05 2009

Sunday’s Seattle Times had a good story about Puget Sound’s lone abalone species — it’s one of several stories they’ve run that make me realize that poaching is a big deal — of big game, big trees, or Pinto Abalone.

Biologists calculated that this thief took as much by himself as all other recreational fishermen combined in some years. And no one believed he was the region’s only poacher.

It’s also got lots of lovely detail.

Polished pieces of shell become saxophone keys, pocketknife handles and guitar inlays.

The creature looked like a simple gnarled stone — until it danced.

On a recent spring day in a Mukilteo marine laboratory, a single pinto abalone rose up on its milky foot, the shell resembling a mushroom cap, and swiveled to and fro like a child surveying a room. Then it pushed across a table toward the edge.

The basic theory is that abalone populations are shrinking because they’ve reached the opposite of critical mass.

Read about it:

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.

standard “emetic units”

6 02 2008

Finished today:

Moth Catcher, by Michael M. Collins


The kind of book that you should read if and only if the subtitle “An Evolutionist’s Journey Through Canyon and Pass” sounds like your kind of book — this book doesn’t rise above the expectations set by that title, nor does it fail in the end to meet them, either.


For the most part, it’s just the story of the “ordinary” life of a modern scientist — following and illuminating his passion for caterpillars and moths, describing the work of a lifetime in the span of a 150 pages, the bits and pieces of the real contributions Collins has made to science. Not earth-shattering or sky-splitting, but a valuable gleaning of facts contributing to a better understanding of speciation and hybridization.


eupackardia calleta

Pasted from <>

This is a Eupackardia calleta larva. “The gaudy color and pattern suggest warning coloration , as does the blood chemistry.”


He describes one experiment in the book that bears repeating (in fact, I’ve already repeated it to my son.) Nestling blue jays were raised

…as naïve predators, feeding them palatable viceroy butterflies, a supposed mimic of the poisonous monarch. The birds eagerly accepted the viceroys and learned to recognize them by their color and pattern When they were then offered monarch, the jays at first could not discriminate them from viceroys. Each time they attacked a monarch they quickly spat it out and retched in response to the cardiac glycosides these butterflies sequester from milkweed during the larval stage. (Revealing his wry humor, Brower [one of the scientists] quantified glycoside levels in standard “emetic units.”) Still reeling from the experiement, the wretched brids subsequently refused to feed on viceroy adults, presumably solely on the basis of their visual resemblance to monarchs. More than a century after Henry Walter Bates proposed the idea of micry, the Browers and their students linked together plant biochemistry and predatoation to explain the evolution of warning coloration in the monarch model and of convergent patterns on the wings of the viceroy mimic.


Such is the progress of science — proving or disproving, logic isn’t enough; although one feels a bit of sympathy for those poor jays.


Near the end of the book, the tone suddenly shifts from memoir to science article with a closely reasoned and intellectually stimulating description of the debate over the meaning of species — essentially, where you draw the line. It’s clear from reading this, by the way, that humans at this point in time are all one species, although he doesn’t address this question.


One question I would pose to him, though. He says “The longer two species evolve along separate lineages, the more genetic differences they accumulate and the less successful their hybrids will be.” But my understanding is that after a “short” separation, crosses are more successful leading to hybrid vigor. ( )


Post-script — one interesting fact.

He usually collects his butterflies and moths in traps, baiting the traps with females raised from captured  caterpillars that he hopes will lure the males he is interested in. There goes my vision of chasing around fields with butterfly nets — although that does happen at one point, it’s not the norm. 🙂


This book was mentioned in an earlier post: Tracks of Tracks in the Snow