Essays from Orion
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Oregon State University Press
Title Page, Copyright
Prologue: The Fern Wall
For Christmas, Thea gave me a children’s book titled The Riverbank, beguilingly illustrated by Fabian Negrin, with words by Charles Darwin. Mr. Negrin took as his text the same paragraph that gave the title for this book and for my long-running column in Orion Afield and Orion magazines upon which it is based. That paragraph...
Leaves That Speak
I happen to live in a paradise of leaves. On the whole, the Pacific Northwest, and the maritime rainforest in particular, photosynthesize more with cedar scales and the needles of firs, hemlocks, and spruces than with full-blown, deciduous leaves. But this particular place is an old Swedish farmstead founded by an immigrant, by way...
In the Eyes of ...
Yesterday, at the old brick-bound pond that now serves as the compost pit, I met two slugs. One, a big, splotchy banana, was suitably arrayed on a banana peel. The other, a European brown, browsed a corncob. While the two imposing animals made an impressive molluskan tableau, I had to admit that I took more pleasure in the...
Of Mice and Monarchs
So often we go looking for something and find something else: people in the street, books on a shelf, words in a dictionary. It happens in nature all the time, if we are open to what’s out there. In fact, when people ask me how one becomes a naturalist, I say that being open to what’s out there is at least as important as knowing what...
Turning Fifty on Silver Star
When Thea and I married, we built the living-room ceremony around friends, family, flowers; autumn leaves, the local judge, a little Walt Whitman; and a best-forgotten sonnet with a well-remembered message: that getting OUT would define our lives together, so help us. And gotten out we have; but never enough...
Haying is going on right now where I live, each farmer with one eye on the rows, one on the clouds. Here in Willapa, people talk a lot about grass—also Douglas-fir, black-tailed deer, and elk; coho salmon, sturgeon, and Dungeness crab; Holsteins, Herefords, and slugs. In the country, many people (though fewer each year) still take...
It was the title of the thing that grabbed me first: “Biotic Aspection in the Coast Range Mountains of Northwest Oregon.” An “aspection” turned out to be an overall “look around” at the forest’s lifecycle from all sides— organisms, seasons, soils, and weather. The 1951 paper described James Macnab’s pioneering 1930s study with...
The Element of Surprise
Yet I believe nothing freshens the wrinkled will like immersion in the natural world. This is especially so for conservationists, who way too often forget what they are working for, what it looks and smells like. And nothing restores the wonderment like sheer stupefaction: the shockingly novel sensation that awaits every watcher...
A Declaration of Independents
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone exclaim, upon seeing a butterfly, “Doesn’t that prove that there has to be a god, to put such beauty into the world?” The countervailing view seems just about as logical to me: how could there be a caring god in a world with death and sinuses, let alone leaf blowers? Silly as such...
Stuffed into the uttermost bowel of a 757, at the ragged end of a redeye from Portland to Baltimore, I am consoled by visions of the Siskiyous. Hours earlier, my wife, Thea, and I had returned from those serpentinegirded mountains in southwestern Oregon. We’d long desired to hike, botanize, and butterfly in that wild...
Down at the Grange
Walking down by the old covered bridge one day during my first fall in this valley, I met a dairy farmer named Bobby Larson. His family had pioneered the south side of the river, while the Sorensons, who sold me my place, farmed the north, and they’d built the bridge between them. Conversation settled on the Alaska...
Of Cabbages and Queens
My wife, Thea, came home from a walk one day with a winter bouquet in hand. I recognized the ferny leaves and the spidery, complicated flowerheads, colored the greeny-white of elder flower, some spread flat like a yarrow head, others cupped into a basket, each with a deep purple spot in the...
When Things Go Wrong
Aldo Leopold may have been the first to articulate that special pain reserved for those with an ecological awareness, but many have discovered it since. You simply cannot be attuned to the finer details of the natural world without feeling tortured when the fabric of the land unravels around you. This is one of life’s nastier...
Alles ist Blatt
Each May I teach in Washington’s Methow Valley at the Spring Naturalists’ Retreat, an ecological potpourri put on by the North Cascades Institute. While I enjoy the interplay between enthusiastic participants, versatile instructors, and the Okanogan Highlands, the best part is teaching beside Arthur R. Kruckeberg, professor...
I had real compunction about dispatching them in the depth of their passion. They were beautiful utterly merged—and they were stunning in their sheer physical exuberance. But letting them live would have serious consequences, as I had learned bitterly once before...
A few weeks before my sixteenth birthday I flew from Denver to New York in an old Constellation airliner with four props and three fins on the tail. I was part of a passel of would-be scientists who would spend their summer at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory on the coast of Maine, courtesy of the National Science...
In this coldly mercantile era, economists clutch at any straw in the wind to woo stability from chaos. Among the “leading economic indicators,” the one I like best is “sales of durable goods.” Whether or not this measure helps the Fed set interest rates, it certainly furnishes a fine example of unintended irony...
My grandfather, Robert Campbell Pyle, was famous for finding money. Each year, the Rocky Mountain News reported how much Mr. Pyle had found since the previous dispatch, usually more than $100. Then he would break the take out of his plastic baseball banks and old socks, depositing equal shares in his grandkids’ savings...
The Toucans of Tikal
My friend Jimbo traveled to the wild Petén district of Guatemala to study bird behavior in the early ’70s, and his description of bat falcons shooting around the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal has stuck with me ever since. So when Thea and I took a keen troupe of butterfly watchers to Central America recently, I climbed the...
Waving the Flag
I’ve been thinking a lot about flags lately. It’s been hard, after all, to do otherwise. For example there is the blue flag iris. The name usually refers to Iris versicolor of the North and I. virginica of the East, but I am better acquainted with those wild marshy banners of the old frontier, Iris missouriensis, often called western flag. The sight of...
My Meringue Bazooka
Deep in the Dark Divide of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a bunch of botanizers from the Washington Native Plant Society is exploring the high meadows in midsummer. We’ve backpacked up to the saddle between Sunrise and Jumbo peaks for two days of flower forays and the kind of campfire chats that naturalists...
Nightlife in Amsterdam
It was the month of March. Logan, Utah, where I was teaching, still lay in the chill grip of snow and ice. A trip to Holland for a butterfly conference in the ancient university city of Leiden seemed the perfect leap forward into spring. Before departing, I asked my environmental writing students to read an essay of...
Wings to Wander
Three weeks ago I waded in Atlantic waves before a pink Art Deco hotel in St. Pete; the very next day, I bodysurfed in the Pacific off Oahu. After basking on a slope of straw-gold bunchgrass beside a cold Cascadian lake at five thousand feet, I boated the Rio Grande in south Texas, then crossed into the...
Confessions of a Hophead
During the Q & A after a recent lecture, a man in the audience asked me whether any butterflies feed on hops as their host plant, like monarchs and milkweed. “As a matter of fact,” I replied, “yes!” While I shuffled the facts in my mind for an accurate response, I found myself smiling at the mere mention of that golden...
When I was a boy, my family’s escape routes from the suburbs to the mountains were any one of a dozen canyon roads into the Front Range west of Denver. Each one—Boulder Creek, Clear Creek, Coal Creek, Turkey Creek—had its own traits, which we came to know and watch for. Heading up Deer Creek, for...
Guarding the Household
It was shortly before sunset on San Juan Island, the tail end of a bright May day in Puget Sound. Gulls plainted, semipalmated plovers piped, and a cool breeze came across the straits from the Olympics. Striding the tideline of Old Town Lagoon, I stepped from great white log to mussel-and-limpetstrewn cobble, from...
A Tale of Two Turtles
That turtle didn’t have a chance. Traffic was heavy on Maryland Route 16 not far east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge: a long line of cars crowding behind me, a big truck bearing down from ahead. And there stood the turtle on stumpy legs, rearing its long neck over the centerline as if it were a finish tape. This...
The Chemistry Between Us
As a boy, I subscribed to a monthly mailing called “THINGS of Science.” Each time the blue cardboard box landed in our mailbox, I’d eagerly turn back the copper clips and lift the top to see what was inside. I hoped it would contain something to do with plants, bugs, or shells, rather than some boring experiment...
Taking Their Names in Vain
“You’re so sluggish!” Thus spake my lively mate one recent morning, when my late-night reading and early a.m. torpidity conspired to bring about yet another tardy departure for the city. Of course she was right, and her frustration was righteous. Nor was her metaphor inappropriate. Like our...
Tit for Tat
Amtrak Cascades train #510, northbound for a holiday getaway, Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. Morning alpenglow pink on the entire eastern rampart of the Olympics. Puget Sound plashing trackside, and just yards from the freshly washed windows, harlequin ducks. How beautiful the drakes, all rust and...
Between the Space Needle and Puget Sound, among tree ferns and bromeliads, we watched scads of neotropical longwings, massive blue morphos and banana-sucking owls, little scarlet-and-black swallowtails, aqua-neon preponas, and key-lime-and-opal malachites. My wife, Thea, was...
The Long Haul
In the dim deepwood of massive and moss-bound trees, the three tenors of the Northwest forest give voice: varied thrush’s raspy note, like whistling through spit; golden-crowned kinglet’s high tinkle, the sound older ears lose first; and winter wren, puck with a pennywhistle on an endless tape loop...
Butterflies and Battle Cries
In spring of 1985, one John Hay turned up on the roster for a butterfly-watching tour I was to lead in England. When I discovered, that first morning in London, that he was the John Hay, I was somewhat terrified. Long a devotee of...
The Moth Blitz
The mercury vapor lamp cast an eerie glow in the gentle Tennessee night. Behind the bulb hung a white sheet adorned with a dozen rosy maple moths—two-inch French-vanilla-and-strawberry silkmoths that clung to the cotton with pink furry legs. Then a really big moth spiraled in, striking...
On November 3 a front was on its way out, leaving the rivers high and the sky clear. On a saddle between the Naselle River and Salmon Creek, yellow sun struck the shellacked leaves of salal and a late cluster of its flowers, hanging like little sugar-dipped bells. I got out and breathed deeply, then...
Elbows resting on the wooden railing of a back-beach boardwalk, I scanned the dark swamp and its bright dapple of waterlilies. Suddenly my eyes came to rest on a composition so perfect that, were it submitted for a magazine cover, no editor would believe it was candid. There, smack in the center of...
The High Price of Getting Hip
Forsaking the out-of-doors for any shopping mall is my idea of the Seventh Circle of Hell. But not long ago, on a perfectly good Montana Saturday, I found myself driven by necessity into a Target store. Having found the needful item tucked among acres of shiny products, I made my small...
After winding a hundred miles of curvaceous roads between wheat and lentil fields, traversing a sea of cereal where once a rich and rolling short-grass prairie grew, I pulled into Pullman with minutes to spare. Noam Chomsky, the revered and reviled linguist and radical truth-teller from...
It’s always been this way. When my grandmother Grace took my older brother, Tom, and me to early Disney films at the Denver Theater—Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan—we walked from her house near Congress Park to the #12 bus stop and waited beside a big mulberry with whose...
It was Harrison Cady, not Thornton Burgess, who put the topcoat on Old Mr. Toad, the trousers on Buster Bear, and the crooked stovepipe hat on Sammy Jay. I’d always thought the author of the famous Bedtime Stories and Mother West Wind tales had imagined his animal characters thus clothed...
Hanky Panky: Notes on the Biology of Boogers
There’s nothing like a sinus infection to concentrate one’s attention on the head … and how nice it would be to have it removed. Same goes for a common cold, or first-class hay fever. The itchy eyes, water-faucet schnoz, chapped nostrils, postnasal mudflow, mucous membranes swelling and...
The first bird I saw upon awakening in Central Asia was a common myna. Perched on a high wall, it contributed its brown, white, and olive to the roses’ coral and the blushing orange of persimmons in the courtyard of the Atlas Guesthouse. Several more of the yellow-billed, yellow-legged mynas...
Pele and Kamehameha Dance
When I first visited Hawai‘i in 1979, I was working for the Nature Conservancy, managing preserves in the Pacific Northwest. Since the organization did not have a land steward on the islands, I was sent to investigate a proposed preserve. In order to protect the widest possible...
With Enemies Like These
At a recent conference on “Biophilic Design in the Built Environment,” I stepped outside for an early-morning bird walk. Beyond the rustic buildings of Whispering Pines, a forest retreat in Rhode Island, warblers and orioles were singing high in the trees. The woods gave way to shoreline just as the...
The Great Indoors
On a recent airline flight, having finished one book and forgotten to bring another, I read a piece in United’s Hemispheres magazine by Patrick Thorne, titled “Outside In.” The opening spread showed a scene I assiduously avoid, a throng of human beings arrayed in attitudes of leisure upon a tropic beach...
The Territory of Tint
The color gray appeals to me, or perhaps I should say the full spectrum of grays, from pearly pigeon-breast gray to ashy or granite gray to weathered cedar-plank gray. And I like it spelled that way: g r a y. Just as well, in both cases, since I live in a place called Gray’s River, which was named after...
The first rain in weeks slickened I-5 as Thea and I drove south to see one of the great spectacles of northwestern natural history: the Chapman School swifts. Every September, as they stage for their migration to Central America, Vaux’s swifts congregate in the heating-plant smokestack at this...
When you take part in the archaic but still-kicking enterprise of making and selling the original laptops (by which I mean books), you hear certain questions again and again. What about blurbs, folks ask—are they paid for? No, never. And what’s the deal with royalties? What’s that? I ask back...
A protected shoreline of mossy balds and maroon madronas stood before me. Sailboats waggled at anchor in the foreground, while white-capped buffleheads bobbed in the bow wake of an incoming ferry. The scene from the dock of the San Juan Island ferry terminal reminded me of a poster...
License to Kill
Only eighteen wood ticks: not bad, after a long May day’s birding in West Virginian woods. The first, adorning my sleeve during beers in the conference center lounge, and the last, plucked from my neck on the way to dinner (after a shower!), went free. But the others, gathered in a tumbler...
Pulling the Plug
In the spring of 1969, my Goodwill TV bit the dust. I never got around to replacing it. My household today contains a television set, but it plays only movies. There’s no cable or aerial reception here, and we have no dish. I’ve been without television for nearly forty years, and I’ve never been...
Overseer of Butterflies
I knew Tom had been getting out on the national forests even more than usual lately, making some ambitious hikes in search of downed World War II–era aircraft and taking up mountain biking on top of his longtime devotion to motorized trail bikes. So this seemed plausible, except that I’d...
After the forever-flight from Portland to Perth via San Francisco and Sydney, I slept the sleep of the crypt. It would be weeks before my Circadian rut and I settled in comfortably again together, but there is something about sleep deprivation that heightens the senses, which is why it has been an...
Epilogue: X the Unknown
As kids in the fifties and early sixties, my big brother, Tom, and I loved monster movies. Nothing like the slashers of today, which I can’t stand, these were the early Frankensteins and Draculas and Wolfmen and Mummies, starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. The...
Great and heartfelt thanks belong to my friend and neighbor David White, for laboriously creating the digital files from the original printed copy, both for this book and my earlier OSU Press title, The Thunder Tree. In generously doing so, he made the whole thing possible...
Publication Year: 2012
OCLC Number: 821734542
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Tangled Bank