Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Round from an old-growth tree, Cedar River Watershed Education Center. What a symphony this tree would produce! Lainey Piland photo

Those who've spent time in the forest are familiar with its music: birdsong and scolding squirrels, dripping dew, and the susurrus of wind blowing through tree limbs - hemlock, cedar, and bigleaf maple all contributing their distinctive voices to the harmony.

One breezy afternoon as I was traipsing to a far field to retrieve my horse, I was halted in my tracks by an unexpected sound: the ocean. Looking around in bewilderment at my decidedly landlocked surroundings, my gaze settled an imposing old-growth sitka spruce, a lone tree at the edge of the vast horse pasture. As the wind hit those sharp blue needles, it produced a sound akin to rustling dune grass and frothy tides hissing as they spread thin over wet sand. There was an ocean inside of that tree.

As it turns out, there is another way to listen to the music of trees. Taking rounds of various tree species and translating their rings into music, artist Bartholomäus Traubeck offers a new perspective on what trees might sound like. Take a listen to the tracks below as these trees take a spin on a record player:

That first track brings my spruce tree to life in an entirely different way, yet somehow just as soothing and mesmerising as the sound of waves on the sand or wind seething through prickly-needled branches.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Hallett Peak reflected in Dream Lake. NPS Photo

I just love it when More Than Just Parks (MTJP) releases a new film, because that means I've got an easy time finding something awesome to share for Nature Nerd Wednesday. Last week, MTJP launched their newest film, this time showcasing Rocky Mountain National Park.

Enjoy a tour of alpine lakes, grassy meadows, clear streams, rolling forested hills, and yes, rocky mountains, in the film below. The amazing clarity of the picture makes you feel like you're there in person, rather than gaping at the scenery through a computer screen... one can almost feel the bracing fresh air and smell the sweet autumn sunshine.

Note: A proposal was recently introduced to increase National Park entry fees during peak season. The proposal has had mixed responses, with proponents arguing that the fees will provide much-needed funding to address a backlog of maintenance projects within the parks; while those against the proposal argue that the higher entrance fees will exclude those visitors who may not be able to afford the increased entry fees, and that the federal government should increase park funding rather than leaning on park visitors to foot the bill. Learn more about the proposal here, and submit your public comments here by November 23rd.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Environmental Issues: Plastic Pollution

Cannon Beach, September 2011

Salty sea breezes, crashing waves and footprints in wet sand. A visit to the beach brings back nostalgic memories of youth, offers opportunities for discovery, and leaves one with a refreshed perspective as we stand before the frothing tide and gaze outward at the vast ocean. When we look at the ocean, we see an immense body of heaving water stretching to a horizon we'll never reach. What we do not see is the alarming volume of plastic churning within those waves.

While holding the title as the singular material responsible for the convenience and ease of our daily lives, plastic is also causing an ecological disaster. I recently attended a workshop put on by the King Conservation District, Horses for Clean Water, and Plastic Ain't Our Bag on the subject of reducing our use of plastics. Although this is an issue with which I've long been familiar, even I was surprised at the information that was presented on the issue as I sat in horrified awe in the classroom at Brightwater Environmental Education Center late one Friday evening.

Plastic by the Numbers

  • 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually
  • More than 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans annually
  • Of the plastic entering the oceans, 80% comes from watersheds, meaning it is discarded on land and washed into the ocean through rivers, creeks, etc. 
  • Less than 10% of plastic is recycled. It is more cost-effective to produce new plastic than to recycle existing plastic
  • 100% of the plastic ever made is still in existence
  • 50% of the plastic in existence was produced just within the last 13 years [article]

The Problem with Plastic

Plastic seems an innocuous enough material, and we can recycle it, right? So where's the issue?

The biggest problem with plastic is that it never goes away. As noted above, every piece of plastic ever made since the material was introduced during WWII is still in existence today. Plastic does not biodegrade - if it breaks down at all, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. These plastics typically end up in the marine environment, where they cause big problems. Fish, plankton, and sea birds consume the plastic, which either causes them to be a toxic meal for whichever predator eats them, or kills them outright as their bellies fill with non-digestible plastic, as happens to so many Laysan albatross chicks. It has been estimated that salmon ingest 30 pieces of plastic per day, and whales can ingest 300,000 pieces per day. Alarming for us humans is the finding that the average seafood-eating person consumes 11,000 pieces of plastic per year in the form of micro-plastics that we cannot see.

Another issue with plastic is its toxicity. Made of petroleum and other harmful chemicals, plastic itself is toxic enough. But set bits of plastic loose in the ocean, and they become sponges for other hazardous materials like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) present in the water, causing plastics in the ocean to be one million times more toxic than the seawater around them. One MILLION times more toxic. Makes one consider that perhaps when a piece of plastic washes ashore, it should be roped off for public safety and removed by someone in a hazmat suit.

Consider plastic's persistence and its toxicity, and you've got a recipe for another issue. Plastics and their toxic loads bioaccumulate. This means that with each step up the food chain you go, the greater the concentration of plastic toxins. This is a problem for those animals at the top of the food chain (like humans and orca whales) who can experience adverse health effects such as hormone disruption from toxins accumulating in their tissues.

Recycling is Not the Answer

Especially not now. Just weeks ago, China imposed a ban on importing plastics and mixed paper from the United States, which has left American recycling companies without a market for these materials. You might be thinking hold on a minute - I thought the recycling companies like Waste Management and Republic Services actually recycled the things I put in my curbside bin? I thought so too, but as it turns out, those companies typically only collect and sort our recyclables, which are then compressed into bales and sold to other entities who do the actual recycling. Chinese recycling companies have found plastics coming from the US are too contaminated to be feasibly recycled, which means that because we Americans aren't rinsing our laundry detergent jugs and scraping out peanut butter jars well enough, we may now be without an option to recycle our plastic items.

I was shocked to learn of this development when I attended the workshop. Why is no one talking about this, especially the companies who provide our recycling service?! I have heard NOTHING from Waste Management about this problem, although I now have an inquiry in to them to see how they're addressing the issue. We shall see if they respond. In the meantime, the plastic items in our recycling bins may soon be destined for the landfill rather than new life as a recycled item.

[Update 11/10/2017: Waste Management replied to me with this information: The ban limits contaminated recycling from entering the country, but WM is continuing to focus on quality improvement to ensure that the recyclables are clean, high-quality products. Additionally, WM has well-developed relationships with a variety of end-market recycling companies. For example, many recyclables will be shifting to an end market in Spokane, WA by the end of the year. Good news for my recyclables, anyway...]

We All Contribute to the Plastic Problem

You don't have to litter to contribute to the issue of plastic pollution. Even those who dutifully recycle their plastic and who would never consider tossing that empty pop bottle or used plastic fork out the car window are still participating in the problem. If you purchase items packaged in plastic, if you use cleaning products or personal care products containing plastic microbeads, if you wear synthetic clothing, if you use any plastic in your life at all - and that's all of us - then you're complicit. We pollute waterways with plastic simply by showering, washing laundry, and cleaning the house, so it's important that we recognize our part in creating the problem, and our responsibility to address it, by making changes in our own lives and as consumers demanding that manufacturers do the same.

Just think about this for a minute... when you purchase a six-pack of soda or beer, what do you do with the plastic rings that hold them together? We all do what we were told, which is to cut the rings so that no animal, fish, or bird can become entangled in it. Then we toss it in the garbage. We are acknowledging, by the very action of cutting the rings apart, that this piece of plastic will likely end up in the environment after leaving our possession, whether in the ocean or on land, and we do not want to be responsible for entangling and killing a wild creature.

Okay, so we have a material that is persistent, toxic, produced in huge volumes, and soon may not be recyclable. This is not sustainable.

It's time to consider a new approach to our lives that involves less plastic. Much less. No plastic, if possible. It will be better for our own health, better for the oceans, better for wildlife and the environment as a whole. Plastic pollution is an enormous issue. I presented an overview of the problem here, and in an upcoming Going Green post I'll share some solutions, after I do some investigating and experimentation with my own routine to find plastic-free options that work. In the meantime, here are some simple steps you can take right away to reduce your use of plastics:
  • Reusable grocery bags. Keep them in your car, and you'll always have them at the ready.
  • Reusable (non-plastic!) water bottles and hot beverage travel mugs.
  • Say no to plastic straws and silverware: stash a reusable metal or glass straw and a spork in your bag for dining out.
  • Ban microbeads. Forego the soaps, toothpaste and cleaning products with microbeads and opt for more environmentally-friendly options with natural ingredients. Healthier for you, too!
  • Avoid purchasing products packaged in plastic. For instance, give regular old hand towels a try in place of those Costco paper towels, which are individually wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in more plastic to hold them all together. Being able to recognize excessive plastic packaging for what it is - rather than assuming it's normal - is an important first step in making these changes!
Stay tuned for more.

For more information:

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

The vestiges of last week's mild flood reflect fall colors on this farmstead in the Sno Valley. October 2017. Lainey Piland photo

"From the north and south, the valley is even simpler to find.  You start at Mount Baker and walk south.  A friend starts at Mount Rainier and walks north.  The place where you meet, in the shadow of a leaning gambrel barn or a rustling cottonwood or a silent hawk wheeling overhead, is the Snoqualmie Valley."
~Lainey Piland, contribution to Orion Magazine's 'The Place Where You Live' web page

I'm not sure whether this is an extraordinary year for autumn foliage in western Washington, or whether the sunshine and brilliant weather we've had recently has simply highlighted the colors particularly well this fall. Regardless, the trees are surrounding us with all the splendor of the season, lending warmth to even the thickest foggy morning, and I'm fortunate to revel in the scenery during my long commute to work through rural Snohomish and King Counties.

New England gets all the glory for autumn color, but I think it's difficult to find a more beautiful place than western Washington this time of year. We may be known for the evergreen trees, but the deciduous ones are holding their own! The bigleaf maples, alder, and cottonwoods are especially stunning in the Snoqualmie Valley right now:

Snoqualmie Valley, late afternoon. October 2017

Now that November has arrived, the colors won't last long... but what a show they've put on this autumn!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Chester Morse Lake, Cedar River Watershed. Lainey Piland Photo

Whether birdsong wafting through the window and interrupting a busy workday, colorful autumn leaves drawing our gaze from the sluggish line of traffic on our commute home, or the smell of rain filling our lungs as we hurry across the parking lot to an appointment, the beauty of nature is always ready to intercept our attention from the busyness of daily life and create some breathing space.

Those who utilize public transit in King County can also find this breathing space during their commute, thanks to the Poetry on Buses program bringing the words of local poets to this shared space. This year's theme is "Your Body of Water," described as a poetic exploration of our connections to water and how it is protected and cared for by King County and Seattle Public Utilities.

A new poem is shared every day, and you can find all of the poems to date on the Poetry on Buses site here. What a rich collection of perspectives and voices speaking on the force of nature that unites us all as Pacific Northwesterners: water. Whether in the form of the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound, Snoqualmie River, tap water, or rain, water holds importance to each of us personally, and to the place we call home. Take some time to get lost in the wondrous words of these poems - we have some talented poets in our region! Here's one I particularly connected with:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Deception Pass State Park. Lainey Piland photo

"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
~Alan Watts 
These words appeared on my Twitter feed recently, and as I read them a feeling of great relief and peace washed over me. I was surprised by the feelings those words evoked, and hadn't realized there was a tension, disconnection, dissociation building within myself that needed to be dissolved. We need these reminders every so often, to stop and look around and let our minds linger on the small beauties, the expansiveness of the big picture, or the everyday sights that aren't as mundane as we've been deceived into believing.

You are not a stranger here.

Such comfort in those words! We're as much a part of this earth as the birds we hear singing in the trees as we hike through the forest; as the orcas who we delight to see swimming in Puget Sound; as the trees whose colorful leaves litter the streets, sidewalks, and trails this time of year. The fact that we're not strangers here implies that, although we so easily distance and separate ourselves from "nature," we humans yet retain an innate knowledge of, and familiarity with, this earth. We all belong here.

While pondering these soothing thoughts, take in the peaceful sights and sounds of the Cracroft Point Orca Lookout webcam, located in the islands off the coast of British Columbia.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Bigleaf maple, Lord Hill Regional Park, November 2016

An old page from the October 5th, 1912 edition of the Duvall Citizen newspaper was shared on Facebook recently, and the words from a column entitled "Autumn" struck me. I recognized immediately a kindred spirit in C.D. Woodman, the author of the article and a resident (I presume) of the Snoqualmie Valley who was as touched by that place as am I. Here are some of his thoughts on the season:
"The falling of the leaves tells us that we are in what the poet calls the 'melancholy days…the saddest of the year.' But we need not take this gloomy view. Autumn is a golden period.

What if the frost has touched the tender herbage? What if the summer birds have carried to other lands the gladness of their songs? The skies are still bright, the air is pure and bracing, and the blood courses through the veins in an electric current. Mind and body are both in better condition than during the summer heats.

...and who would not rather be striding through the breezy autumn woods, with his free thoughts for companions than lying in a hammock in the tropics subjected to the enervating influences of the torrid heat?"
You can find the full text of the column here. The Duvall Historical Society has made all copies of these old newspapers available in electronic format, thanks to a grant from 4Culture

Autumn tends to be for me a season of reflection, of turning inward and taking stock of my life. As I read Woodman's words above, I wondered whether he knew they'd still be read and treasured 105 years later. And 105 years from now, will any of my words still be bouncing around in the cobwebbed corners of the world wide web?

I've found that life's deep questions are best pondered while walking, perhaps in those "breezy autumn woods" on a leaf-strewn dirt path.