Does the word that just popped into your head show up here? Find out:

22 March, 2009

Revelations, Without the Crazy Bloodbath

I must be acclimating well, because a week of cool rain ushering in Spring felt just fine.

Escaped the office on Thursday to explore a parcel in Mason County. No boat, so it took a ridiculous amount of time to drive around and back-track down the peninsulae to the designated spot. It turned out to be yet another place where something stood in the 1930s and was subsequently obliterated, but where I managed to find older stuff: a micro-midden and a hammerstone with some fire-cracked rocks.

That may not sound like much, but considering the fact that almost none of the surface is visible, it ain't bad. I went through the ritual of covering some trail-less ground (in a forest thinned a few years ago, this means through 10-foot seedlings, blackberry tangles, young hazel and alder thickets, and all manner of impdeiments), and learned nothing more than this is excellent huckleberry ground. That in itself is useful, since huckleberries were as delicious centuries ago as they are now. Also, these were the evergreen species, which stay on the bush until well into winter, contributing to the larder later than most any other fruit. And then it was amatter of a mile or so of logging road, scanning the cleared ground for white shell, black dirt, and red fire-rock.

Then Friday, a 2-hour drive to eastern Lewis County, where I went with two of the Cowlitz Tribe cultural resource guys to check out a place identified a century ago as "Indian Cabin." We never found the cabin--maybe it was the foot of snow still on the ground, or maybe due to the last round of CAT tracks--but we found the place.

How do I know? Didn't have the most detailed map, but enough to provide a clue. More to the point, there's something in me that lights up when I walk into prime habitat, and when I walk in with guys who know something about taking advantage of fish runs, so much the better. Some of it has to do with the shape of stream and terrace, the suspiciously dam-like falls, the slightly different vegetation, the abundant elk poop. Then, there's just the feeling, maybe born from unconscious recognition of habitat elements, or maybe the echo of past presence.

Those of you still reading this photo-less post may be put off by the mysticality creeping in at this point, but let me tell you that even an evolutionist, a materialist son of a physicist, can listen to notes not on the standard scale. And when he walks onto the supposed location of the site, and the clouds part and the cold dissipates and everything feels right, he doesn't need to see the artifacts tucked beneath the snow. In Hawai`i I learned to keep an eye out for what are called there the ho`ailona, the signs, and this place had them. Through whatever means, mystical or just subtle material (what you want to believe is still your right in this country), the site revealed itself, as so many sites and artifacts have over the years.

And that's a great way to start the Spring.

18 March, 2009

St. Patrick's Day Massacre

Yesterday, walking to the bus stop, the varied thrushes sang. Not the ditty of Spring promise, but a dirge, their voices calling out like the mournful creaking gates of abandoned homesteads.

After forming a list weeks ago and repeatedly telling us we'd learn on Monday, the powers-that-be tacked on another day of anguish, wating until the 17th to begin hewing away at the staff. After much deliberation, apparently, it had been decided that the cutting crew would sit in a room downstairs, and we would sit in our cubicles. Your phone would ring, and you would be summoned down to hear what you knew from a simple ring. Like many offices these days, phones hardly ring on our floor, as the business of state whizzes in silent packets through the ether. (That would be email. No editor here to rein me in.)

Anyway, a phone would ring, and everyone in the neighborhood would know. The one for whom the bell tolled would manage an "Alright," and rise for the dead man walking routine. The rest refrained from banging out coffee mugs on the cubicles, but it was pretty much that vibe. The living also refrained from cubicle meerkatting; there's something wrong with popping up for a glimpse of carnage. Instead, we hunkered down, emerging only to commiserate and offer what we could by way of comfort.

And the bells rang out death all around. About a fourth of the people in my section, jobless. And it being a big state office, with a big union contract, the agony has just begun. Those laid off had to fill out forms, some of which set the stage for "bumping," by which they can displace less senior people. "Good morning. Your job is gone, but if you'd like to pass along the misery, we may have a place for you earning far less." So the iterations of displacement will cascade on down.

So yeah, I escaped. What am I complaining about? The System, what else? Not the poor people stuck doing the deed, even. They built the staff, and the cumulative misery of laying off person after person had to lay heavy upon them.

Shitty day, all around. Relief at having a job, gratefulness even. But there was no joy to be had.

16 March, 2009

Ecotone Creek

There is a major creek that feeds the Columbia. In fact, it's called Major Creek, for reasons lost in the mists of history (which ain't very long here, but no matter). For reasons obvious to only a few readers, it was imperative upon me to survey said watershed a few months ago. Just early enough to beat the snow (wintry bane of surface survey), but not before the onset of the rains.

Being who I am, I started in the wettest, steepest, most nastiest part, just to get it out of the way. And also because on the west side of Major Creek, it was so rainy and foggy that I couldn't tell; the other side was nice.

Being who I am, evermore and contradictorily so, let us begin the tour with the end, and work our way back to that gloomy beginning.

The photo abover is the east side of Major Creek. Ponderosa pine and scrub oak, grass and licheny outcrops. Eastern Washington hills, in other words.

Major Creek lies a thousand feet below. Where it dumps into the Coumbia, it is more or less like this, albeint with the waterhogs and moisturephiles that cling to the riparian teat. The more up you go, the wetter it gets. Straight downhill from the photo here, verdance.

Above: Turn around and look back west across the valley, and all is dark, green, wet to the top of the ridge. Below: Hemlock and Doug-fir, moss and ferns so thick you cannot even tell if there are rocks. In other words, Western Washington. Less than a mile away, and a whole different world.

I'd stumbled into Ecotone Creek. Edge-land. Glorious coupling of wet and dry. For a devotee of evolution (not to self, make T-shirt proclaiming "Jesus Evolved!" to wear at Creationist events), this is like the holy grail. Only better, because I can gather data to prove the find. Makes me want to become a biologist just to see what miracles have been selected in that valley...

15 March, 2009

Can You Can?

In Bellingham Bay, on the Fairhaven side, near the foot of Bennett Avenue, there sits in the shallows a big boulder. You can see it from the shore, or from the new pathway over the water itself. Some of the tourists enjoying a stroll notice the boulder, and a few appreciate its warm ruddy glow when the sun makes an appearance.

Plenty of lcoals appreciate it as well. To some, it's a sentimental favortie among Bellingham places, a piece of history.


Because this boulder is a reminder of the cannery that once stood here. Boats pulled in, disgorged their catch, which emerged not long after in cans. Except for the icky parts. And trimmings of tin, which were swept off the end of the wharf. Year after year, tin scraps into the shallows, piling up rusting, forming Fairhaven's favorite boulder.

11 March, 2009

Can You Canoe?

About a century ago, this photo was taken on a beach of Whidbey Island. In those days, local tribes plied the waters around Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and the Pacific in canoes that their ancestors a millenium ago would have recognized. These days, their descendants still do, especially during the summer Canoe Journey, when tribes from hundreds of miles around converge on a different place and tribe each year in a celebration of canoe culture. Cedar armadas like the one above migrated with the seasons, hauling in at one place to harvest shellfish, another to net finfish runs, another to pick hops, and still others to visit and dance. Canoes throughout time have had the ability to glide over borders that trip up travel for the West: bureaucratic jurisdictions, cartographically frozen tribal territories, international borders.

My childhood was in a different canoe culture: Aluminum craft on rivers and lakes, pleasure paddles enabled by cars with roof racks, recreational fishing, and later on the escape to a quiet cove for, um, some boat-rocking. Then there were years in Hawai'i, when I went mauka (inland), happier knee-deep in taro ponds than on the water. Canoe culture was stronger than I could handle: outrigger racing too competitive, and double-hulled voyaging too serious for a guy who knows just a couple of knots and spews chum at the first side-swell. I satisfied myself with apprectiating the rennaissance in canoe building and navigation and the artistry of the vessels, and was lucky enough to find some canoe-making artifacts. More recently, I had the good fortune to play a small role in the restoration of a canoe house in Nu`alolo Kai, a place important in Kaua'i canoe culture, a beach where I landed again and again and hope to forevermore.
Here as there, the journey from forest tree to oceanic vessel draws my attention as much as the trips from shore to shore (although I suspect thast in the more placid Puget waters, I could be more easily coaxed aboard). Cedars felled, roughed out, adzed to perfection and steamed to streamline, adorned and oiled. Even archaeologists fall into the misconception that there was a "stone age," but canoes remind us that it was always the Wood Age. And Fiber Age, and Mat Age, I suppose, but my heart is in the wood. I want to be the guy in the photo above, carving the canoe. A long trip, and I have yet to produce even a paddle (or an adz, for that matter), but I've got time...

10 March, 2009


There was that pro-test song about "Signs, signs, everywhere are signs, messing up the..." blahblahblah. The guys who recorded it it made their millions, bought mansions, and posted signs at the gates to keep people out. Or at least that's what thjey did if they were typical baby-boom hypocrits.

I've obsessed over signs in my own ways. Stealing them now and then, ripping a few down just for the satisfaction of removing lexic-hell from the face of the earth, reading plenty just for the satisfaction of being one in a million.

And I collect them, more than ever since the ready availability of digital cameras. Why? Weirdness mostly, but it's alsways possible to rationalize it as professional interest or reasearch when people have the huevos to approach me and ask. I've amassed an archive, lost it when I crushed a hard drive, and begun again.

The best are often home made. People with a burning desire to say something to the world. Good, bad, or crazed, but generally heartfelt. Now and then, someone like this who cannot say all they need with just one sign. Given the age of the vehicle, I'd have recorded this as a historic site if it weren't on private land, but I get the feeling that the last thing this guy would want is the guvament telling him he had to leave this culutral resource alone.

Then there are the official signs, frequently swelling the ranks of the unintentionally hilarious, fodder for irony buffs. This one was part of a series demarcating a wildlife area, but elk can't read, and the trees have a voracious appetite. Had the program that put this sign up not gone extinct, they might have put up more signs.
Or rather, they might have "signed" more. Signage experts sign places, they do not put up signs, because verbification is validation in the kingdom of Jargon, where most consultants live. Signing solves all problems. Experts in futurology, linguistics, hubristics, and other fields are currently at work developing signs for nuclear waste dumps, designing warning icons that will make sense to our descendants millenia down the road to ruin. (Meanwhile, we avoid deciding where the signs will actually be used, but that's another rant.) Signs for boundaries, for rules, for education.
Signs, signs, everywhere are signs.

09 March, 2009


So once again, I find myself trekking solo through the woods. Normally, not a problem. Bears and leeches still sleeping at this time of year, cougars prefer veal, and me and Sasquatch have a solid non-agression pact.

Then, the hair on my neck (recently challenging head hair for numerical superiority) stands on end. Under canopy under clouds, another layer of darkness congeals. And somewhere in it, something watches.

Suddenly, like a hooked chinook, my leg quivers, spine shivers, and liver flips. Then the mini-copter whumping of a grouse in flight. I must've practically stepped on it. A quick glance to see if someone has materialized to witness my scared little girl jump, and then onward.
I snap a photo, or at least try, because the bird keeps just enough distance to keep from becoming lunch. Grouse stupidity is renowned among many, and it's pathetic thespianism wasn't enough to fool even a theatrically illiterate chump such as myself; it was trying to divert my attention from the nest. On the other hand, altruism for the brood was not so strong that it wanted to martyr itself. That kind of bravery or stupidity is more common among your higher primates.
Now, since I could care less about eating birds smaller than my head, much less their eggs, said jungle-grouse could've returned home and put up the Mission Accomplished banner with no sense of irony.

But no. I walk away, and next thing you know, it's in front of me again. And again. 100 meters further, and still at it. Not so much leading away from the nest now, as bird-dogging me. Daring me to come after it. And as the sun sinks from its pathetic pre-vernal-equinoctal acme, and the gloom grows, I see its beady bird eyes glow.
Twice, I find myself lured off track by this bird, trying to get a better glimpse, a clearer photo, before snapping out of it. Ulysses' crew was drawn astray by beautiful sirens, and here I was about to head into the briar patch for a dumb bird. "Who's dumb now?" it would ask, cackling as I struggled to get free, or fell off a cliff, or sank into quicksand, all the while staring me down with those beady eyes, so seemingly empty of thought, but so full of malice.

Eventually, I managed to ignore it to death, or it just camouflaged itself out of my awareness. Back on the scent, I found sites spanning centuries, jotting notes, photographing artifacts, collecting GPS points. No bird curse caught me, no mishaps prevented my return.

But just before I got back to the truck, I saw them devil-eyes darting around, staring at me again. Taunting like the obnoxious guy who picks a fight and challenges you to throw the first punch, his lawyer lurking just out of sight, prepared to press cases both civil and criminal.

Not this time, bird. Not this time.

04 March, 2009

Fun Guy

Ahh, the humble mushroom. Beloved by some, reviled by others, but mostly just ignored. In Hawai`i and Virginia, my faves were the pepeiao on kukui wood, the wood ears on oak. Dunno if they were the same species, but they were easy to ID, and the tasty reward for dank fieldwork and rainy rotting weather.

And now here I am in the fungal kingdom. An embarrasment of riches, and me too ignorant to sort them out from the occasional killer. Like these, which look like grey chanterelles. I wanted to eat them, but not even mushroom lovers advise people to just go pick and eat without a high degree of confidence. And it's not just the risk of death or an unplanned trip that puts me off--as a kid my wife touched some mushrooms, rubbed her eyes, and her lashes fell out. Life without my luscious lashes would be unbearable.

And these seeming sulfur caps. Could be delicious. I generally do too much crawling around through brush to collect fungi and return to the office micophiles with anything more than mush. I can come back with photos, but if anything, it's more frustrating to find tasty mushrooms and not get to eat them than to not find them at all. Frustrating to know that the expertise is a cubicle away, but never in the same boondocks at the same time.

So for now, I have to satisfy myself with the pleasure of seeing the manifold forms sent forth by mycelia eating the detritus of forests. Giant trees are definitely cool, and they do the heavy lifting in the forest, but it's the fungi that clean up the mess. Besides the wood and leaves and turds, they can process diesel spills, and there has been recent progress in identifying a species with promise to eat nuclear waste. And of course, without mushrooms to help eat wood and other organics, archaeology wouldn't be challenging enough to be worth the effort...

03 March, 2009

Scablands Tourist Bureau

Last year I got a chance to go to the Channel Scablands. Well, not really to the Channel Scablands...just passing through, like coulee water outflow. Nothing like the massive flood that created the channel in the first place, which would've been cool to watch. (BIG flood. Check out the truck in the bottom photo for scale.) And no flood, no channel; no channel, and all you got is scablands, a name conceived before tourism.

Not that I have anything against scablands. Pahoehoe makes me happy, makes me feel at home. Not that I grew up in Hawai'i, but I spent enough time walking on volcanoes to have it in my blood. Or I bled on lava rocks, or something like that. I look at a view like this and want to hop in the canyon and look for lava tubes, maybe pick up some imu rock.
But I digress. Not sure what the point of this post was suppost to be. Maybe I need to spend more time in the scablands to figure that out.

02 March, 2009

Old Site New Site, Red Site Blue Site

Based on a tip from a 1930s map, I have reason to believe that there are a few cabins hiding back in those woods. Better yet, an inperceptibly higher bit of the foreground could have something much older.
Then, so far in the foreground it's behind me in the first shot, there is this. Smart archaeologists of the future will recognize it as a couple of years' accumulation of offerings. People place tribute such as mattresses, shotgun shells, and stripped cars (not pictured) by gates and at the end of roads on state land. All of these items are meant to provide state workers with a comfortable afterlife. Every once in a while, the priests of this reverse cargo cult arrive with libations and set the offerings aflame after ritually "killing" them with boxloads of the finest ammo.
Had Mr. Geisel lived to this day, I am sure he would've written a book about it. It would've been less boring, more rhyming, and far funnier than what I have to offer, but I am what I am, and that ain't no Dr. Seuss.

01 March, 2009

Skidmarks of the Ages

Pictured here, basalt bearing glacial tracks (the horizontal grooves). More or less north-south, but I don't know whether it was coming or going. These may have emerged from a cover of sand in the past few decades, and are not far above sea level now.

The rock is smooth and undulates, like a gentle ocean swell on a windless day.

Smitten with Midden

When I lived and worked in Hawai`i, there was a steady stream of archaeologists arriving from elsewhere (as I had), and who were unsteady in their assimilation to both the larger culutre and to the islands' archaeolgical tribe. One bone of conten tion was the term 'midden,' which to Hawaiian archaeologists meant any accumulation of shell and food debris. Some mainlanders could not accept anything less than a massive shell mound as midden, and bristled at application of this term to anything less. (For the record, the Norsemen who brought the ancestral term to the British Isles would be just as justified in ther own bristling at archaeological misappropriation, since the word originally meant "dungheap.")

Personally, I used the term midden the local way, for just about any amount of shell. Having grown up near the Chesapeake, where middens are sometimes so large they can be mistaken for natural landforms, I can sympathize with the other point of view, but where's the fun in going to Hawai`i and expecting it to be Norfolk? (For the record, I almost never saw a midden that would've represented more than a few meals to any self-respecting Hawaiian family. Island culture fed the rubbish to the fire, or back to the water, and not so much to the earth.)

Now, I'm back in a land of big shell deposits. The one pictured above is in the San Juan Islands, and consists mostly of clam shell. The trowel point rests on what looks like the first meal, and above it are layers representing much larger harvests. Some are pretty well crushed, like they were in the midst of an active settlement, and there are lenses of dirt between some layers, showing times of hiatus. (For the record, some people are better able to glean details, but there is some small pride in my being midden-literate in claiming the title Mighty Mo, Oracle of Dungheaps).