Monday, December 28, 2015

Looking Back at 2015 - Top 5 Most-Read Posts on the Blog This Year

Chester Morse Lake in the Cedar River Watershed. Lainey Piland photo

Here we are, already counting down the last few days of 2015... where has the year gone?! Looking back over the past 12 months on the blog brought up fond memories of new places explored, new friends made, adventures and hikes aplenty, and musings on drought, climate change, and our place in nature. Here's a roundup of the top five most-read posts on the blog this year:

1. Conifer Confusion? Learn to identify these PNW trees

2. Deciduous Determinations: Learn to identify these PNW trees

3. Wanderings: Cedar River Watershed

4. Musings: Missing Washington

5. Nature Nerd Wednesdays - Earth Day Edition

Stay tuned to A Day Without Rain for more writing on Pacific Northwest nature and environmental issues. Here's to a shiny new year, and many more adventures in 2016!

You can also follow along on Twitter @LaineyPiland, or on Instagram @a_day_without_rain_blog.



Saturday, November 28, 2015

Musings: Opting Outside on Black Friday, and why we need to go further


The sun-drenched forest at the Redmond Watershed Preserve

The frigid, damp air reddened my nose and stung my cheeks, and the weak sunshine spilling through the tree trunks did little to offer any warmth. Frosty dirt crunched beneath my boots, releasing an earthy scent of humus and decaying leaves. Birdsong trilled overhead, and the eardrum-piercing high-pitched call of a varied thrush resounded through the forest, followed by the persistent tap-tap-tap of a pileated woodpecker determinedly searching a dead maple trunk for insects. This was how I spent the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. It was glorious.

As I hiked through the Redmond Watershed Preserve that afternoon, pausing frequently to take photos while my patient husband waited shivering in the nearest sunbeam, I could hear not only the sound of birdsong and tapping woodpeckers, I could also hear the sound of other hikers, runners and cyclists who also decided to hit the trails that day. There was a sense of community, a sense of satisfaction knowing that rather than jostling with the crowd of Black Friday shoppers, we were all here, peacefully enjoying a sunny - albeit chilly - afternoon in the outdoors.

This was actually the aim of the much-publicized "Opt Outside" campaign launched by REI this year: in addition to closing their stores on Black Friday, REI encouraged its employees and the general population to opt to spend their Black Friday in the outdoors with friends and family, rather than shopping for those can't-be-missed discounts and sales at the mall.

I've enjoyed seeing photos and reading the accounts of other folks who spent their Black Friday outside rather than in the crush of holiday shoppers. Some people headed to the mountains for spectacular hikes and snowshoe adventures in the high country, and others like myself stuck to the lowlands and enjoyed the nearby nature of local parks, walking trails, and nature preserves. Amid all of the lovely photos and excited sharing of bird and wildlife sightings, there were also the cynics lamenting - even mocking - the fact that people were slapping a corporate hashtag on a life moment, a memory, that was supposed to involve being out in nature, away from the retailers, consumerism, and yes, corporations.

I get the irony there, folks, but there's no need to diminish the fact that the Opt Outside campaign did raise some questions about what's important, and perhaps inspired some people to spend their day after Thanksgiving in a much different way than they would have otherwise. I went hiking on Black Friday last year, and would have hiked this year regardless of whether there was an Opt Outside movement or not (a weekday off work with no obligations? We're hitting the trails!). This is because hiking is a hobby of mine, it's an activity that I enjoy, and spending time in nature is something that my mind, body, and sanity require. And besides, crowds of people leave me in a state of anxiety that just isn't pretty to see. This isn't the case for many people, but if even a handful of people were encouraged to head outdoors rather than hit the mall as they may have initially planned, that's a great thing.

Wildlife photo fail. Had the wrong lens with me - can you spot the tiny woodpecker?

Why is it important to get more of us outdoors? People care about what they know, and getting more of us outdoors to know, connect with, and love the trees, rivers, mountains, birds, and wildlife means that there are going to be more people willing to stand up and protect these things. More of us willing to make better choices in our daily lives to minimize our ecological impact. When we make connections and find an affinity for things in nature, we then have a reason to care and a responsibility to act.

It's important that we don't just stop at "opting outside". We also need to connect the dots and point out the importance of opting out of the consumerism of Black Friday, for the protection of the environment that we just spent our day after Thanksgiving enjoying. We need to emphasize that all the stuff we're buying - not just on Black Friday, not just during the holidays, but all year long - can have a significant impact on the environment. The raw materials that have to be mined and harvested, the water and fossil fuels used in the manufacturing process, the carbon emissions released as products are shipped from factory to retail stores, the waste created when all of that packaging (much of it plastic) is thrown into the garbage... all of these things are unsustainable, harmful, and cause ecological devastation, especially when they occur on the scale of our overblown consumer society here in the US.

So, don't just Opt Outside. Make connections. Consider the environmental impact of every purchase. Gift experiences instead of stuff. If you do give stuff, make sure it's stuff that the recipient will want and be able to make use of. In order to protect the majestic trees, the fresh air, the snow-capped mountains, the chattering Douglas squirrel you saw on your outdoor adventures, it's time we all start making smarter choices - not just during the holidays, but all year long.

As the already-long shadows stretched further across the landscape and the golden afternoon light reddened to amber, we returned to the parking lot at the Watershed Preserve to find it even more packed with vehicles than it had been when we'd set out. Laughter, dancing footsteps, and children's delighted shrieks could be heard emanating through the frosty forest all around. I hoped that those children were awed by the frozen leaves, delighted by the mud, fascinated by a pileated woodpecker's bright red head; hoped that they were making connections, finding a reason to care. Those sounds filled me with that warm, fuzzy, just-drank-a-mug-of-hot-cider holiday feeling - something I couldn't have found in the crowded aisles of a department store.



Monday, November 9, 2015

Going Green: Tips for a less-waste, eco-friendly move


Cats are very helpful movers.

Moving is not fun. For most of us, I'm sure "moving" is battling with "going to the dentist" for the top position on our list of most-dreaded activities. It's overwhelming to think of packing up an entire household, loading box after box and struggling to maneuver heavy furniture items into a truck, then unloading and unpacking everything at the new residence. The process of packing and moving can also be extremely wasteful. In the overwhelming chaos of it all, we can be tempted to indiscriminately toss things in the trash, and if we're not careful, we can end up needlessly sending an alarming amount of waste to the landfill as we move our belongings from once residence to another.

I know what you're thinking. Moving is already awful enough, and who wants the added stress of worrying about being environmentally friendly on top of everything else? Trust me, I recently tried this myself as my husband and I packed up our small condo (crammed full of belongings, I might add!) and moved into a new home, and a low-waste move is not as challenging as one might expect!

Here are a few tips gleaned from my recent experience:

 

Decluttering


As we pack, we'll typically find belongings that we either don't need, don't want to bother moving to our new home, or that are no longer usable and need to be disposed of. Items that are in good condition can be donated to organizations like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or Value Village. Things that can't be donated should be disposed of responsibly rather than chucked in the dumpster, where they will end up in a landfill and potentially pollute the environment. Here are a few oddball items for which I had to do some research to find good disposal/recycling options:
  • DVD cases: Our household has a sizeable DVD collection. We're talking more than 1,000 movies, TV series, and documentaries on DVD. To save space in our new home, we decided to remove the discs from their cases and instead store them in large books like these. The paper jackets and inserts were removed and recycled, but we were still left with hundreds of empty DVD cases made from a type of plastic that's not recyclable in our curbside bin. A little bit of research revealed that our local Best Buy store accepts DVD cases for recycling, so we happily dropped them off there. You can also contact your local library to see if they can use your empty DVD cases, or ship them off to The CD Recycling Center of America, which also accepts discs and CD cases.
  • Spent batteries: I had a baggie full of used batteries which I knew couldn't be thrown in the garbage due to the dangerous heavy metals and hazardous materials they contain. I checked out the "What do I do with..." page on the King County Solid Waste Division website, which offered a list of facilities that accepts used batteries.
  • Unused/expired medications: These should never be flushed down the toilet, as so many of us have been told to do in years past. When flushed, these medications end up in the wastewater system, and our treatment plants do not have the ability to filter the medications out of the water before it is discharged into rivers, lakes, or Puget Sound. Many pharmacies, including Bartell Drugs, offer take-back programs for expired or unused medications of both the prescription and over-the-counter variety. 
  • Clothing/textiles: Sometimes we have clothing items, towels, or sheets that are just not fit for use anymore. These items can be recycled. Another visit to the King County Solid Waste Division website yielded this list of businesses, organizations, and locations of donation bins that accept textile items for recycling. If you have blankets and towels that are still in one piece but not fit for human use, consider contacting your local animal shelter or veterinary clinic to see if they can use them. I worked in a veterinary hospital for many years, and we were always looking for towel and blanket donations to keep our patients cozy and comfortable!
  • Electronics: Electronics that no longer work and that cannot be sold or donated need to be disposed of responsibly. See my previous blog post on the topic for disposal tips and information on the issue of electronics recycling.

 

Packing 

 

This is another aspect of moving wherein waste abounds...
  • Boxes: rather than purchasing new boxes from the store, ask around to see if any friends and family have moving boxes you can use, or check with your local grocery store. Once you're done with them, simply flatten the boxes and find a dry place to store them - they don't take up much room, and you probably won't have to hold onto them for too long before you'll have friends and family members asking around and looking for boxes for their own move. If your boxes sustained quite a bit of abuse during the move and they're not in good enough shape to be used again, simply put them in the recycling bin.
  • Use large plastic storage bins: My sister had a large stack of plastic storage bins she wasn't using, and donated them to our moving effort. These bins are reusable many more times than a cardboard box would be, and are especially good for packing heavy/fragile items, or items which will be stored for a long period. When you're done with the bins, pass them along to the next friend or family member who can use them.
  • Bubble wrap, packing peanuts, and styrofoam wrap: Just say no. These products are 100% wasteful. When packing fragile belongings such as dishes, framed photos, and other decorative items, I used blankets, clothing, and towels instead of bubble wrap. I figured that I need to move the dishes, and I need to move the towels, so why not wrap the former in the latter and pack them into the same box? It worked wonderfully, and I had no packaging materials (or broken items!) to throw away in the end. 
  • Get creative: Look at the items you have to move, the boxes and bins that you have to pack them in, and the items you're looking to get rid of, and assess how you can creatively pack everything with as little waste as possible. For example, in the decluttering phase, I shredded a huge volume of documents, bills, etc that were taking up space in my filing cabinet. Rather than throwing away the shredded paper, I effectively made my own bubble wrap/packing peanuts by filling leftover plastic bags with the shredded paper, tying the bags shut, and packing them into boxes to fill in some of the dead space and keep fragile items from shifting around and breaking. Once at the new house, the shredded paper was emptied into the compost bin and the plastic bags were returned to the grocery store for recycling. A little planning and creativity can go a long way toward reducing waste!
If you follow the tips above, you can move into your new residence with the satisfaction of knowing that you took steps to make your move a little more waste-free and environmentally-friendly. Have other tips? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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I found the process of trying to pack and move in the most environmentally-conscious way possible to be a very thoughtful experience. As I packed and sorted and decluttered, I was struck once again by the excess and wastefulness of our consumer society. This feeling hit especially hard as I sat on the living room floor, pulling DVD's out of cases, recycling the paper inserts, and stacking the empty cases in towering stacks that became increasingly large and more alarming. The little bit that we actually wanted - the DVD disc itself - was such a small part compared to the large, thick plastic cases they were packaged in. It was so unnecessary. So wasteful. We filled several large boxes with empty DVD cases, and must have recycled more than 100lbs worth of paper inserts alone.

This is just a small amount of the paper we recycled from the DVD cases.

These three boxes are filled with empty DVD cases ready to be recycled.

These days, movie streaming services and on-demand television are eliminating the need for consumers to purchase physical copies of DVD's, and will likely help to eliminate much of the waste from that venue, at least. However, for every DVD that no longer needs to be manufactured, there will be some other wasteful and unnecessary item being made and packaged in excessive amounts of non-recyclable plastic. If anything, this move forced me to think more in-depth about the things we purchase, and caused me to experience firsthand the feeling of being overwhelmed and consumed by one's own belongings. Henry David Thoreau expounded on this theme at great length in the "Economy" chapter of Walden:
"How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life... Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men... Indeed, the more you have of such things the poorer you are."
After this move, I'm grateful that although our house is larger than the condo we moved out of, it is still small enough to discourage us from collecting unnecessary things. Like Thoreau's sharp words above, attempting a low-waste and environmentally-conscious move reminds you how many of your belongings are truly unnecessary, and that it is for our own ease and in our own best interests, as well as that of the environment, to limit our belongings to the necessities.

A necessary possession? I found this mystery buffalo in a box of old belongings when I was packing for the move...


Monday, September 28, 2015

Wanderings: Blue Lake


Larches at Blue Lake

I nervously eyed the temperature display in the truck as it quickly dropped from a near-balmy 59 to a bracing 47 degrees as we climbed up Highway 20 in a cold, steady rain. My husband and I were headed home from a brief visit to the Methow Valley, and had planned to stop for the short hike up to Blue Lake, but the weather didn't appear to be cooperating. We parked at the trailhead and sorted through our things to see if we had the appropriate gear to hike safely in this weather, and ultimately decided we should be okay. With hoods pulled tightly over our heads, we splashed across the wet parking lot and headed out on the muddy trail to make the 2.2 mile ascent to Blue Lake.

Truth be told, I was actually excited to finally have an opportunity to test out the waterproof hiking pants I received as a Christmas gift from my husband last year. Yep, it's been that long since I've hiked in the rain. Thanks, drought...

We set out onto the trail, following a few sets of rain-sodden boardwalks into a dense forest of Pacific silver fir. It was a very dark forest: the trees, needles, and trunks were all dark, the earth was damp and dark... were it not for the bursts of color provided by the autumn foliage, the early portion of this hike would have been a bit dismal. Rain dripped from the boughs overhead, splattering on my nose and cheeks. Scattered along the trail and piled in drifts around tree trunks were shredded pine cones, consumed by what appeared to be a very healthy squirrel population in this forest, although we didn't see any squirrels during the hike.


There are some busy squirrels here!

The trail gently ascended through the forest, then suddenly emerged into a wide-open meadow about a mile in. After being in the darkened forest for awhile, my eyes hungrily drank in the sudden explosion of autumn colors in the meadow. It was absolutely spectacular. The open meadow also offered us a look up at our end goal: behind a stand of trees on a ridge way overhead, we could clearly identify a flat, open space into which Blue Lake was surely nestled.


We continued onward, briefly winding through the meadow before returning to the forest to resume the gradual, steady upward climb. At this point, the rain lightened and we were getting a bit warm and sweaty from the exertion, so we paused to shed a few layers, gulp some water, and catch our breath before continuing. As we climbed, the silver fir forest began to thin, allowing us astounding views of the surrounding mountains, which were dotted with red, orange, and yellow autumn hues where they weren't swathed in trailing clouds and mist.


And then we suddenly left the dim forest behind and found ourselves in this technicolor world of fall foliage. There were red huckleberry leaves and yellow larches. This was the first time I'd seen larches in person. I was very excited about the larches.

Huckleberry plants
So colorful! Look at the larches!


At this point, we began passing other hikers who were already on their way down from the lake. Doing some quick math in my head, I realized that the number of cars parked at the trailhead (just a handful) roughly corresponded with the number of descending hiking groups we were passing. We'd probably have the lake to ourselves. Perfect. The rain still fell lightly, although I didn't notice it much anymore, too enamored as I was with the gorgeous, almost-unreal scenery that surrounded us. I felt like Alice in Wonderland or something. We crossed a stream trickling across a rocky portion of the trail, and I knew we were getting close to the lake.

We rounded a corner, and there it was at last: the gleaming water of Blue Lake resolved from the misty alpine scenery. Only a glimpse of the lake could be seen from here, so we followed the trail, crossing the lake's trickling outlet stream across a narrow log bridge. The trail around the lake was carefully roped off, with signs announcing that certain areas were closed for restoration. I imagine that this trail sees a large crowd of hikers during the summer months, and they'd really done a number on the delicate vegetation here. Obediently staying away from the roped-off areas, we made our way to the small beach at the water's edge, where I stood gaping, gasping, exclaiming over the beauty that spread out before us.

Oh, the colors!!
This had to be the most gorgeous scene I'd ever encountered, made even more lovely by the knowledge that my own two feet and determined effort had brought me here. Aquamarine lake, autumnal foliage, a light rain hissing and whispering over the surface of the water, marring it with ripples. Emerging from my awestruck trance, I dug my camera from the backpack and started snapping away. We climbed up onto a large boulder for a better view. The lake spread out before us; serene, colorful, completely wonderful, and insulated into silence by the heavy clouds that had closed in all around. I tucked my camera underneath my sweatshirt in an attempt to protect it from the persistent drizzle, and we watched tiny fish jumping out of the water, listened to rocks clattering and tumbling down the steep granite mountain at the far end of the lake, perhaps knocked loose by the mountain goats that live here.




Despite our best efforts, we hadn't managed to stay very dry in the wet weather. Our wet clothes and the cold temperatures indicated that it was time to turn around and head back. As we climbed back down the boulder, we were visited by a very bold, inquisitive gray jay alighting on a small tree just an arm's length away. He sat there, feathers all soft and fluffed up, tilting his head as he sized us up. Never in my life have I encountered a bird so curious and unafraid of my presence. He flew away across the lake, and a second bird landed on the tree to take his place. He investigated us for a moment before following his friend and swooping across the lake. Jokingly, I said okay, where's number three? No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a third gray jay landed on the tree. This time, I lifted my camera and snapped a few photos of the obliging bird, who was unperturbed by my movements and the snapping camera shutter. He flew away without being replaced by another jay, so we took this as permission to leave.

Gray Jay. He was so beautiful!

With one last glance at the most beautiful lake I'd ever seen - now thickly socked in by clouds - we turned and headed back down the trail, speeding along to return to the warm, dry truck and thick slices of leftover cake that awaited us in the cooler in the backseat. Because what else would you do after a spectacular rainy day hike to a stunning alpine lake but eat a piece of cake to celebrate?

It's a good thing we arrived when we did! The lake was socked in by the time we left.

Washington State appears to be graced by several bodies of water going by the name Blue Lake, but the one we hiked was right along Highway 20, tucked just inside the eastern boundary of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Thanks to the steady, very gradual ascent and absence of switchbacks, this is an excellent trail for people like myself who struggle with uphill hikes that have any measurable elevation gain. A relatively short hike with a huge payoff... this one is a must-do! If you can manage it, hit the trails for this hike during autumn to see the amazing colors for yourself. My photos don't come close to doing them justice.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Wanderings: Adventures in Forest Ecology

 These forests each have their own ecological stories.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend an Adventures in Forest Ecology program at the Cedar River Watershed with my older sister. Led by forest ecologists Rolf Gersonde and Bill Richards, the program allowed us a rare opportunity to see up close the work being done under the Watershed's Habitat Conservation Plan to restore healthy forests, water, and wildlife habitat to this landscape historically altered and degraded by logging.

Although I was already familiar with many of the forest ecology concepts discussed during the program, it was a marvelous experience to get out in the field and see it firsthand, standing in the cool damp shade of the trees, smelling the fresh air, going off the trail to climb through the forest and getting an uncomfortable amount of conifer needles in my pants... but more about that later.

After checking in at the welcome center and making a brief visit to the rain drum installation, my sister and I loaded up with our fellow "students" into one of two large passenger vans, then set out for a half-hour long drive to the Rex River drainage along the Watershed's bumpy graveled roads.

Stop #1 - Second-Growth Forest (natural succession)


The vans drew to a stop in the middle of the road, and we hopped out and followed our instructors down a steep and squishy slope into a dim forest. This was a second growth forest, which had grown back on its own after being logged 60 years ago. The trees were mostly hemlock, all the same size and same age, closely crowded and competing for light and space. Their trunks were bare of branches, and the only green to be found here was a sparse carpeting of moss on the forest floor and the canopy of green needles high overhead - a canopy which, we learned, only allows 5% of the sunlight to actually make it to the forest floor below. Hence the lack of sunlight-thirsty vegetation here. This forest is not what you would call diverse or healthy, and does not make for good wildlife habitat, but much of the historically-logged watershed is covered in forest just like this. Rolf and Bill show us this forest as an example of what they're trying to avoid with their restoration efforts.

As we listened to the instructors speak, I briefly let my mind wander to soak in the forest around me. The air was clean and pleasantly scented with the fragrance of conifer needles. It was silent and still. There were no birds singing, no breezes whispering through the canopy. Aside from our murmuring human voices, the only discernible sound was that of the Rex River off in the distance, the soft sound of its rushing water traveling unimpeded through the forest of bare poles, bare tree trunks.

We clambered back up the bank, piled into the vans, and after a pit stop at the roadside porta-potty, we continued on to our next stop.

Stop #2 - Old Growth Forest


The graveled logging roads wound gently uphill, and my excitement heightened as increasingly large trees flashed past the windows of the van. We parked next to a large pile of decomposing cedar logs, and Bill informed us that we'd be walking into the old growth forest from here. I was glad to hear that. In my mind, old growth forests are as venerable and sacred as an old church, and it seemed more respectful and in keeping with the enormity of our surroundings to approach quietly on foot rather than with crunching tires, rumbling engine, and piercing beep-beeping backup alarm.

We followed a gravel road that was slowly being reclaimed by nature, and after a hundred yards or so,  stopped at the forest edge. Our instructors pointed us at the seemingly impenetrable tangle of greenery at the forest edge, and said this is where we're going in. There was no trail. This was going to be fun. We carefully picked our way through, and paused in a relatively open space to listen to Rolf and Bill discuss the ecology of this seven hundred year old (!) forest, one of the remnants of old growth in the Cedar River Watershed that thankfully managed to escape destruction by logging and fire for the past seven centuries.

This healthy old growth forest is the ultimate goal of restoration efforts in the Watershed, and its defining characteristics were easy to spot. First of all, there were the trees so massive it would take half a dozen people to encircle their large trunks. Then you notice that the forest is green everywhere you look; from floor to canopy, there's nothing but green. There were a variety of plants comprising a healthy understory. Trees of all sizes and ages grew here: conifers like Doug fir, hemlock and cedar as well as deciduous trees like maple and alder. There were patches of shade and sunlight. Busy birds chatted in the branches overhead, feeding on seeds and insects, and I was able to pick out the chattering of a chickadee from among the voices. We had to watch our step to avoid large mountain beaver tunnel holes dug into the thick layer of soft, wet humus underfoot. And the smells! I've never smelled such smells in any forest before, and could have happily sat there all day to suss out and attempt to identify each individual fragrance perfuming the air. This forest was alive, robust and diverse; the complete opposite of the forest we encountered on our first stop.

One of many mountain beaver holes we had to avoid stepping in.
We had to duck under this nurse log. It had an entire forest growing on it!
Oh, those old-growth Dougs...

We continued on through the dense understory to explore the forest further, climbing over logs, ducking under logs, scrambling up banks and picking careful footholds on steep slopes, dodging devil's club, fighting through salmonberry thickets and getting whacked in the face, stomach, and back with rebounding branches as the person in front of you passed through them. This is where an astonishing amount of scratchy conifer needles found their way into my pants. We paused at the edge of a wide, rocky stream and learned from Bill and Rolf about their efforts to restore marbled murrelet habitat in the Watershed forests, and were pointed to the large, wide branches found only in old growth forests upon which the murrelets lay their single egg. After rock-hopping across the stream, we passed by a seven-hundred year old cedar tree, then scrambled down a bank and rock-hopped back across the stream, clambered up a steep slope, and shortly thereafter found ourselves at the end of the road we'd walked in on.

I turned around and took a picture of what we'd just walked through. It was tough going in some places!

  My sister admiring a huge old Doug fir, and there's the stream we had to hop across.

Green everywhere. Ecologists often refer to old growth forests as "decadent"... for obvious reasons!

We made our way back to the vans, where my sister and I precariously climbed atop the pile of rotting cedar logs alongside the road to eat our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Not a bad view from our lunch spot...

Stop #3 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological thinning)

Looking out over the thinned forest

Back in the vans, we continued in a steep ascent along the bumpy logging roads, before emerging at an elevation of 4,000 feet to a sweeping vista that literally took my breath away. We stood on the brow of a steep hill, looking across rolling hills and steep ridges, all covered in small silver fir shaped perfectly enough to be Christmas trees.

Rolf and Bill explained that this area had been logged about thirty years ago, and the silver fir had grown back as thickly as the hemlock in the first forest patch we'd seen, so the ecologists employed a restoration technique known as ecological thinning to remove many of the trees. This ensures that the young forest will have enough space for the trees to grow without having to compete with one another for sunlight, and also to ensure there is room, light and space for other plant and tree species to take root, thus giving the forest the best possible chance to grow into a stand as diverse, healthy, and suitable for wildlife as the old growth we'd just seen. Altogether, a staggering 10,000 acres of forest in the Cedar River Watershed has been ecologically thinned.

It was quiet up here, in this very open forest. I didn't hear any birds singing. The only sound was a cold, lonely wind sweeping across the remote hilltops.

It's easy to see the open spaces created by thinning the trees.

Stop #4 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological clearing)



We wound back down the steep roads and returned to the lowland forest, where we disembarked the vans and stood facing a steep mossy bank that led into another dense second-growth hemlock forest like the one we'd first seen. Our guides said, okay, the spot we're going to is up the bank there... who wants to find a route up? And with all the giddy enthusiasm of an elementary school class being let out for recess, two vanloads of grown adults fanned out and gleefully climbed up the bank, grasping tree roots and kicking toe holds into the soft humus as we went.


Emerging atop the hill, we found a dense sixty year-old second-growth hemlock forest to our right, and a large clearing to our left. In an attempt to introduce some size variation and vertical diversity into this forest, the ecologists had cleared all of the trees from an area that was about half an acre in size, I believe. This restoration technique known as ecological clearing was employed in this section of forest to see if other tree species (especially deciduous trees) would take root. All that was visible, though, was a dense sea of very young hemlock trees, standing between knee and shoulder height. Those darn hemlock are determined.

This patch of forest was fairly still and silent as well, although the croaking of a nearby frog occasionally broke the quiet. After listening to Rolf and Bill explain their work to increase diversity in this part of the forest, we made our way back down the bank and into the vans for the twenty-minute drive back to the Watershed Education Center.

On the way back, my long-held hope of seeing wildlife on this tour was fulfilled when we encountered three enormous bull elk on the quiet, shaded road. One darted in front of the van and turned to look at us from the safety of the forest cover. His clear, inquisitive gaze belied an intelligence behind those shining, beautiful brown eyes. I snapped a photo.

Can you spot the elk bum?

Hmmm. Perhaps the next class I sign up for should be Remedial Wildlife Photography...


Visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center website for more information on tours, programs, and other activities.
 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Musings: Environmental Issues and Reasons to Care


Lainey Piland photo

How do we get people to care? This is an enduring challenge in regard to environmental issues and the central question of an excellent article I came across today.

The Messengers, an article published in the current issue of Pacific Standard Magazine, explores messaging in relation to environmental issues, and how that messaging either inspires action or sinks us into a defeated state of depression. Do we focus on hope, or do we take a chance on forcing people to face grief over what's lost and cross our fingers that they'll be propelled forward into action rather than down into defeat? The need for hope seems like a no-brainer, but this article suggests that both tactics - including grief - may actually be necessary.
What we might do and what we might change, were we to stop hiding from grief and instead face the profoundly painful, profoundly beautiful truth of all that we’re losing.
The subject of this article is artist and photographer Chris Jordan. I'm sure most of us have seen his work: the devastating photos of deceased Laysan albatrosses on Midway Island; bellies filled with deadly plastic. These photos reveal a terrible consequence of our throwaway society in their depiction of decomposing albatross bodies, with the plastic that killed them still intact and just as brightly colored as it was when we threw it into the trash, never expecting that it would one day kill a beautiful bird on a remote island in the Pacific.

I remember the first time I saw Jordan's albatross photos. It was several years ago, and I was sitting hunched over my wheezing old laptop, probably procrastinating on finishing a paper for school. Those gut-wrenching photos loaded slowly on the screen, revealing horrifying images that I didn't want to see, but couldn't help scrolling through. I went through a range of emotions: shock, then nausea, horror, anger, guilt and sadness. I felt defeated. All of those birds were dead, all of that plastic was floating in the faraway ocean - what could I do about it? I closed the photos, blocked the grief from my awareness, and probably got to work on that paper.

After seeing those photos - which really were my initial introduction to the Laysan albatross - did I do anything? Did I take any action to address that problem? Nope.

In that situation, grief and horror in the absence of hope was paralyzing for me. But I also wonder whether my lack of proximity, my lack of familiarity with Midway Island, with the Laysan albatross, also contributed to my lack of action. What if, rather than occurring in a far-flung place I'd never seen, there were birds scattered dead in my backyard or in my favorite park down the street; their bare skeletons forming a cage around a pile of colorful plastic that had caused them a slow and painful death? Would I have done something then? Absolutely.

So what's the difference between the albatrosses and my backyard birds? One of my college professors said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life: People care about what they know. Unless people can find a personal connection to an issue, they are unlikely to care enough about it to take action. Sure, I was incredibly sad about the albatrosses. But I wasn't familiar with them, didn't really know anything about them, had never seen one in person, and as a result, had no real connection to them that pushed me beyond grief into action.

Barn swallow nestlings in the rafters above my horse's stall. I'm well acquainted with these dear birds!

Chris Jordan's work with the Laysan albatross has evolved since those initial gut-wrenching photos. Rather than only depicting their terrible deaths, he also introduces us to the albatross in life, with photos of beautiful albatross pairs mated for life, a parent watching over a newly-hatched chick, a juvenile albatross testing its wings on those ocean breezes for the first time. These photos show moments of intimacy and hope that help us connect with the albatross, and make those photos of death - a death that we humans collectively caused - even more difficult to look at. But perhaps now we feel a connection, a sense of responsibility that propels us beyond guilt and grief to a place where we can actually do something about the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.
 
It's an interesting and critical topic to ponder. How do we get people to care about environmental issues, many of which are so enormous and complicated that we don't even know where to begin? I think it all comes back to the idea that people care about what they know. That is the premise behind my writing on this blog, and the reason I started it in the first place. To start here at home, working within my (admittedly small) sphere of influence to encourage people to get outside and explore the wonders of nature here in the Pacific Northwest, to develop a connection with this place and the wildlife with which we share it that goes beyond casual appreciation of cute animals, mountains, forests and ocean. To make people understand the myriad environmental issues which threaten this place we call home, and how their own individual actions can either improve or worsen those issues. To bring these seemingly distant environmental issues right back home and give us all a reason to care... and hopefully turn that caring into action.

Check out the Environmental Issues and Going Green pages of this blog for more information on these problems and solutions, respectively.

The sassy Anna's hummingbird that likes to scold everyone from the vine maple outside my window.


Related posts:

Nature Nerd Wednesdays - Earth Day Edition

Reasons to Care

Monday, August 10, 2015

Wanderings: Snow Lake

Snow Lake - Lainey Piland photo

Every once in awhile, it's good to push yourself outside your comfort zone, just to prove that, in fact, you can do the very things you tend to dissuade yourself from even attempting. This was exactly what I did over the weekend, as I loaded my backpack into my car and drove east along I-90. Alone. It was still fairly early in the morning when I reached Snoqualmie Pass. The morning sun was just starting to warm the forested slopes, and fluffy clouds were sailing upward, lifting from their night's slumber clinging to the Cascade mountain peaks. My objective for the day: hiking to Snow Lake, one of 700 lakes found in the aptly-named Alpine Lakes Wilderness within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

I glanced at the clock on the dashboard and was pleased to see that I was just about on time. I took exit 52... and then drove five miles down the wrong road and ended up being half an hour late by the time I finally arrived at the parking lot for the Snow Lake trailhead, where I was meeting up with fellow bloggers for the hike. I was a little nervous about this hike. I'm more of a lowland hiker who likes to wander through the forest and look at the pretty trees, maybe take a few photos and listen to the birds singing. Peaks and alpine lakes generally seem beyond my abilities, and I hoped I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of my fellow bloggers whom I was meeting in person for the first time! But I decided to go for it, out-of-shape knees be darned. And thanks to a fun and supportive group (and a few timely rest stops), I successfully hiked to my first alpine lake!

It was still chilly enough to require a sweatshirt as we set out on the trail, which starts out as a staircase, then gently ascends through a forest, and then continues in gradual switchbacks to the top of a ridge. Although the grade was manageable, the footing of loose stones and large rocks was a little challenging, and forces you to keep your eyes focused on the trail in front of you, carefully planning each step.

The trail footing was a bit rugged!

At the top of the ridge, we took a detour from the trail to climb atop a large boulder, which afforded the first glimpse of Snow Lake. It was just as gorgeous as I'd hoped; its clear deep-blue water gleaming in the sunlight, beckoning us to hike down for a closer look.

Oh, that water!

Our small group returned to the trail and continued down toward the lake on yet more gradual switchbacks. I tried to ignore the fact that I'd have to hike back up them again on the way out. This part of the trail was especially beautiful - fragrant fresh air, shaded green slopes, and plenty of robust, healthy looking conifers strengthened by the heavy loads of winter snow they must bear. We heard pikas chirping and squeaking at one another, and even got a fairly close-up view when one perched on a nearby rock to say hello. I'd never heard or seen one in person before! We also had to pause and marvel at the dew-laden leaves along the trail, their droplets clear and shining. I was so glad to be in the company of others who appreciate the simple beauty of dewy leaves!

Love those colors. Lovely dewy leaves.

Pika


Passing by the remains of an old stone cabin (imagine living up here!), we made our way to the shore of Snow Lake, which was just as beautiful close-up as it was from our vantage point a few hundred feet above. Rugged-looking peaks preside over the lake, their rocky, lightly-treed slopes completely bare of snow in this scorcher of a summer we're having. A few people were scattered along the shoreline, but it was largely empty. And quiet! I was astonished at how quiet and still it was; no sighing wind or chirping birds, and completely bereft of any traffic noises. Until an airplane flew overhead. Its familiar rumbling reminded me how difficult it is to escape the sounds of civilization.

Snow Lake

After spending some time chatting, snacking, and resting on the rocky shores of Snow Lake, we packed up and headed back to the trail, where we'd follow the switchbacks back up to the ridge, and then down the switchbacks on the other side. As we made our way back down the trail, I was so grateful that we'd set out early! By this time, it was late morning and the trail was positively crowded with people making their way up as we came down, and the temperatures had heated up significantly as the sun blazed down on the trail's exposed switchbacks. But there was still much to enjoy. We passed through fields of nearly-spent fireweed that were busy sending their seeds aloft on silky threads; the downy clusters ascending straight into that blue sky as though they were stars racing to claim their place in the heavens. Just another of the many beautiful sights on this lovely hike.

My knees were already starting to ache as our group returned to the now-overflowing parking lot. We bade one another farewell and scattered to our vehicles. I couldn't help but tilt my head back and look up toward the ridge which we'd hiked up and over. I had done that. My feet had carried me all the way up there and back, and I'd seen some of my home state's incomparable beauty which no longer felt inaccessible to me. Tired, sweaty, and a little sore already, I drove away feeling a little bit proud of myself for broaching the boundary of my comfort zone; thinking that perhaps once the soreness faded from my muscles, I'd want to do it again.

Thanks again to my fellow bloggers for a wonderful hike and great company! Please check out their fantastic blogs:

Alpine Lily

Pacific Northwest Seasons

Tiny Pines