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30 July, 2011

Backroads: Habitat

Mmmm. Shoulder verdure.
Roadless wilderness is a sublime thing...I've been told. Like most of you, I've never been that far from some sort of road. Maybe I have a pretty loose definition (re-arranged lines of 'a'a lava that would kill any car, 'Opihi Road on Moloka'i, Grays Harbor County ruts sporting alder just small enough to barrel through, tire tracks through pastures,...the list goes on), but still, I've rarely been more than a couple of miles from a motor vehicle trail of some kind. Old rail grades, rotten remnants of corduroy, routes traveled once by horses iron or meaty--maybe little more than a scar on the land now, but evidence of prior human traffic nonetheless. Sometimes these routes are harder to walk, much less drive, than the non-road nearby, but the point is that these are not pristine, wild places.

And yet, nature always reclaims them. Weeds sprout (rudely or restoratively so? depends on your perspective, or maybe your human hubris score) into the most heavily traveled roads in the nation. Even if the DOT crews manage to spray them, still the undersides and crevices and shoulders support spores and seeds and all manner of microbial life ready to start the reclamation process again.

Until there is a verdure. I've driven enough places poorly traveled to recognize the progression: forbs climbed by vines pierced by seedlings topped by a relentless future that tunnelizes the road before erasing it entirely. As long as the road is still maintained, the progression stops somewhere along that line, but on the back roads I spend so much time driving, it has begun, and stands poised to pounce. The day after construction, the artery begins to narrow. Some growth happens between tire tracks, but the real action is at the boundaries of this incursion, flanks subject to constant attack as nature abhors the biological vacuum of exposed subsoil or fresh gravel. Grading, mowing, chainsaw work all sweep it open to one degree or another, but in fact all back roads are terminal patients, and the further out they are, the more reliant they are on extensive life support.

Or from another angle, they return to life support. The early succession plants feed critters from mice to moose. Tribes used to burn their trails and other clearings in the forest for exactly this reason, to provide forage. Where can the four-leggeds find something to eat? Not in the dark understory of decades-old trees, but there's plenty along the road shoulder mowed last fall. Eventually, salal and salmonberry establish themselves, setting out a berry buffet. Roads tend to track in weeds, it is true, but this includes blackberry and other species that despite their alien-ness (and maybe egged on by their invasiveness) quickly establish themselves as abundant food source for native animals. On each shoulder lies a line of edge habitat, between the flat barren road and the forest or field or sage beyond is a strip of ecotone, often with resources not available outside it. There may be a ditch in a dry land, a berm raised above swamp, some anomaly that creatures will recognize and exploit.

These back roads, the more remote of which only see the occasional vehicle, have been adopted by some of the wildlife for travel as well. In a park where they know they are protected, you can see deer and elk making use of the open paths, pausing sometimes until cars come to a standstill, but in wilder places the animals generally yield the right of way, bounding off in that moment when they can hear your truck, but before you see them. Bears make heavy use of the roads, much easier traveling than having to haul those big bodies through the woods (not to mention the berry buffet, always a sure lure for the ursine).

I'm not an advocate for more roads. There are too many already, and it bums me out to see the number of newer roads failing to make use of older road beds, adding insult to injury, braiding ever broader impacts. Something about sitting up on a D-9 makes a guy want to cut new ground, not dress up something pioneered long ago. Pressure from environmentalists and the First People mean that a new road now may be less likely to be an ecological disaster than a new one 50 years ago, but they still become scars. Culverts clog and become landslides sometimes, ripping far larger gashes in the landscape. Sadly, some of these are built for a single use, from the wagon roads built by the army and abandoned all in a few 19th Century years to the ones still built for a timber harvest that won't be needed for another 80 years or so (at which time the dozer operator will scoff at the design and rip open a new one).

But it is also a mistake to plan as if this will stop. Or to believe that we humans are so powerful that we've permanently ruined a placed by driving into it. We drive back to our homes, and the plants grow, the animals traipse and browse. Nature cushions the blow, eventually makes the road something only an archaeologist would recognize. She shrugs it off, beginning with the shoulders.

24 July, 2011

And Her Little Doggy, Too

Newcomers to this blog, expecting gardening or backroads or nature, you are about to get a dose of the shiftlessness and dissanctity that crops up from time to time. Continue on only if you are not readily offended by death and sacrilege:

22 July, 2011

Garden 9: Simulated Anadromy

I spend a lot of time walking around in the woods and can confirm that yes, bears do poop there. Often enough, right in the middle of a trail. What do they care? They're moving on, and won't step in it.

But they don't poop so much in the burbs, or city lots. Nor do eagles and ospreys. Gulls save their payloads for cars or pile it on the pilings and docks. And cormorants, well, I've always been told that they are relentless autocoprophagists, but really I believe that they just don't mind shitting where they eat, right back in the water.

And that is how, gardeners of Olympia, we've been robbed of the bounty of the sea ever since settlers wrested the place from the gathering of bears who had held sway for so long. Without all these critters feasting on the fish runs (not to mention the sad depletion of the runs themselves), then dropping steaming piles of recycled ocean-dweller upon the land, we no longer get that special fertilizer. The salmon spends years in the Pacific gobbling oceanic energy, and dutifully brings it back to the land, fetching nutrients from that vast soup, concentrating them, and allowing a fair amount to make landfall. Nitrogen? Sure. Also some iron from the blood, calcium from the bones, and so on. Best of all, that plethora of trace elements so readily soaked up in the ocean, but spastically and stingily distributed on land. 

This cycle, bringing the riches of the sea back to the rivers, swimming deep into the landmass, was already recognized by the people who lived here since time immemorial. Recently, science has caught up, studying isotopes locked in old growth trees, recognizing the cycling by anadromous fish of nutrients into the terrestrial system, salmon making that one last leap, miraculously becoming part of the land. There is a growing awareness that the ecosystems of the northwest would be weak spindly things without the fish bringing surge after surge of fertility from the ocean. Reacting to these studies, descendants of the people who maintained an agreement with the salmon people for millenia commented,  "No shit."

One day, people will have extirpated themselves from most habitats, dams will crumble, and whatever salmon remain will be free to spawn and rebuild their finny tribes. Until then, I'm stuck buying jugs of fish emulsion, simulating the gift of anadromy. Smells horrific (worse than just a dead fish, I think, and way worse than bear poop), but my garden thanks me for a drink or two of this goo, liquefied diarrheatic Alaskan fish. I've tried to convince the family that I could feast on coho from time to time, then do my bear impression out in the garden where it would do some good, but they're unconvinced that the result would be less offensive than the ersatz gull-crap in a jug.

I've never been a fan of fertilizing, and yeah, I know that much wiser and more experienced gardeners have better approaches, but I'm too cheap and lazy to haul my ass over to Black Lake Organic and get the lovely blend of ground stone and stuff, or to make a total fertilizer a la Steve Solomon. Gangs of opposum and rats pillage my compost, so I don't really produce enough to make a difference. 

So it's ground up fish for my garden. Cannery waste..fins, guts, and bones made into fertilizer. I like that what would have been waste (or another Hormel product) is serving some useful purpose instead. I like the poetry of anadromy.

16 July, 2011

Garden 8: Summer Rain

Summer sun took it's time peeking through on the far south Sound, but Olympia has not had decent rain for a while. Clouds taunted us garderners with their rainlessness (robbing lumens to boot), or else absconded while the sun turned its full attention on evapo-transpirating moisture from our sandy soil. 

I resorted to soaker hoses and occasionally setting a sprinkler to spradiate over a few feet in dire need. I don't use a lot of water, though, for a bunch of reasons: plants on life support depress me, I'm devoted to a Creator named Evolution (who will not abide cheating for long), water costs money, and water from a pipe has too many additives and subtractives to match the vigor of the H2O that falls from the sky.

Now we are in the midst of a steady rain. Not the light mist that dampens the surface and leaves roots begging  for more. Not a sudden downpour that erodes and runs off. Just hours and hours of rain falling on flowers, washing foliage, quenching roots down to their deepest. And the plants will respond; even the light dose earlier this week had them stretching higher, flexing and filling out, darkening green, multiplying blooms, growing fruit, and just generally splashing brighter and bolder brush-strokes across the canvas of gardens. After this drink, if we don't backslide into too many days of mold-inducing cool wet weather, the plants will drink in sun and go off.

So while other Olympians may be cursing the souply ground at Lakefair or the damper on other weekend activities, I'm thankful for this liquid gift. Sitting here, hearing drips hitting deck like some tireless woodpecker, I see not the greyed weekend, but the saturated weekend. Some sunny day in August, I'll revisit this rain in the form of tomato flesh, squash, beans, greens, and all the other transmogrified precipitation climbing back skyward from my patch of ground.

11 July, 2011

Pleading the 5th

The flag says the wind is waking on this 5th of July. The sole sign of the 4th is an over-stuffed trash can, visited now by a raccoon who nearly tricked me into missing sunrise, but this is all aftermath. I'll get back to it eventually.

A glow through the curtain crack told me it was after 4AM, when the sky near the Canadian border wakes and stretches, scratches at the dark, itching to become dawn. My family sleeps; I slip onto the balcony to see the shift. This is my church.

Above, the celestial blue is deep, but shallower than bottom, already less than the darkest our short Summer night offers. The horizon rolls out red as I stare out toward sea level, maybe 20 feet below my vantage and stretching for miles across the Strait.

Straight lines, but none of them able to withstand close examination. First and most obviously fallen: the horizon. A seismographic line of dark beneath the red, mountains pushed up by countless quakes, volcanic peaks like Baker and Glacier stand in for the big events, while mumbling multitudes remind me of the lesser but commoner rumblings that keep the Cascades rising.

Just above, lines between blood red and bled red, between the warm hues and blues. Infinitely many and fine lines. All straight in my pitiful little human view, but arched across the planet's fulsome curvature. And just where are the lines between redder, red, blue and bluer? I cannot pin them down, each dissolves color into colour, moving as unchecked as the rotation of our sphere through aeons, never to be delineated.

The water's surface, could I see it off in the dark distance at the foot of the rising Cascades, would be as straight as it gets. Pre-dawn calm, glassy smooth, perfect reflectory for the light show and the jagged silhouette of the mountains. But curving around the globe, warped by tides, and at any close view too cleaved and waked, blown splashed eddied and flaked to be truly straight for even a few feet. Water flows and will not be imprisoned by plane geometry, though for a crystalline moment it may let you squint and imagine mirrorine perfection, time unmoving.

Over the next hour, the calm is invaded as the approaching sun awakes winds. First, rifflets--islands forming. Then an archipelago. No white-top chop, not yet waves, really, no undulating horizon, but still the glass has shattered, letting me know that the flatlining peace of the un-dawned day is about to pulse to life and light. Before too long the meditative reflections have been swept away: the schooner's mast rippled apart, the seismograph of hills even more spastic, the stars and planets lost again.

Still, there are islands of calm. Lees maybe, or less romantically, sheens of oil or whatever was in last night's fireworks. But the way the wind blows and the tide flows, and these islands of calm remain, I suspect they are the deep waters running still. In and around one, a seal's head and wake sketch dances on the surface, then disappear. A pause, and then another dance. Neverlasting, never over. A fishing hole, maybe, some mystery known only from the underside.

Closer, in the thin strip by the strand, a raccoon mama emerges from the rip-rap and scrub-brush to investigate a trash can filled beyond capacity by last night's revelers. My eyes obey evolution and look. The tableau beyond, no matter how sublime, cannot compete with the creature. Like a fly crawling across a master's canvas, it demands attention, at least momentarily making the human eye follow motion and forget art.

But not for long. I've seen a grander motion already, and resolve to focus on it. From peaks left of the big mountain, shadow rays have shot subtly through the glow. Fanning darker into the lightening sky, lines of blue hue washing the warmer colors, paradoxical announcement of light soon to come. My eye rides them down to their center.

And in a bowl twixt peaks comes a brilliant green flash. More than a flash, a growing bubble, bursting finally into the yellow curve of the rising sun.

And day dawns.

Quickly the red draws itself on a line west, beyond my view. Maybe at my zenith, still there for the watchers beyond Tatoosh, but soon enough passing them as well, racing across the Pacific, chasing away stars and dragging up winds in its wake.

The sun stabs straight at me, as it always will over water. This low, the glaring orb remains attached to the long ellipse of the blade, and for the first time I see the sun's first reflection as a paddle, the sun a knob on the handle, slender Salish style, dipping into the sea. And so starts another journey.

04 July, 2011

Garden 7: Volunteers

They come every year, volunteers. If they didn't, I'd despair at the bare areas. Even when their aim is off and I transplant them to another spot, I depend on these plants that come back on their own, no tilling or planting, no slaving at saving seeds and protecting them from damp weather and damned predators.

The volunteers just pop up. Some I've come to expect. The calendulas, dill, and red shamrock pictured above all fall in that category, just like the little Hawaiian currant tomatoes that I plant exactly once at each new abode, thereafter peeking between and beneath each Spring's growth to spot the volunteers that will ramble and rove, dropping enough seeds by fall to ensure the next generation. 

Some gardeners look down on volunteers and weed them out. Even varieties they like, they want from new seed or starters, placed in their appointed position. These may be the same folks who pray to a god for some particular outcome, who think that deity and power concerns itself with placing all the pieces of creation just so, with dictating their moves forever after. Me, I'm happy to be a lackadaisical creator, casting some seed and letting evolution take its course. Maybe now and then playing the vengeful god, ripping out a greedy weed, cutting short the life of an underachiever, unnaturally selecting out the obnoxious and weak. 

But then again, I tolerate a fair number of what some people call weeds. It might be different if I gardened in a more pristine environment, but I live in a residential development, in what was once an orchard in what was once a clear-cut in what was once a successional forest in what was once a prairie in what was once a virgin forest. Maybe not all of those, but a disturbed landscape nonetheless, where a red shamrock or a tomato does no real harm. If the weed be yummy, fragrant, or otherwise delightful, it is a volunteer.

In enough abundance, a patch of volunteers might be thinned into something approximating a row, but their nature is never so boring as that. A geometry more fractal and chaotic than linear, expanding sometimes exponentially, their math has what my dad always loved about that field, wonder and elegance, something very different than the cut and dried thing it is thought to be by the unimaginative.

Each volunteer is a mystery and a miracle. I never know how many there will be, or where they will emerge. Some, I don't remember having planted last year, or maybe ever. They may be gifts or offerings from the birds and rodents who also enjoy the garden. They may have awoken from some long dormancy, echo of a garden decades old. Some trickster may have planted them to see whether I could recognize a gift. Others reappear year after year, sensing that they are wanted and loved.

Every volunteer is a step on the evolutionary journey. Drifted from the carefully selected product of the seedsman, perhaps, but closer to being perfectly adapted to this place. Diversified and crossed, selected by nature so local it knows my yard better than anywhere else. Roots feeding hyphae feeding soil, growing a horizon particular to this garden, which will spawn who knows what new variation. Volunteers save us from the hubris of over-selection, from the trap of uniformity sought by the big corporate seed builders. 

And besides, who can hate something that pops up on its own, offering gifts? Whoever cannot love an echo that returns and blooms is deaf to the joy of creation.