Monday, June 29, 2015

Musings: Missing Washington

I miss Washington. I didn't move. I still live here in the Evergreen State and always will. Yet I still miss it, but more in the sense that it has left me, rather than me leaving it.

The Washington I'm living in now is very different from the one I grew up with. My familiar Washington had cold winters that brought snow to the mountains, skiers to the slopes, and occasionally treated us kids to a snow day here in the lowlands. We had springs that were green and wet, and actually required one to own a rain jacket. Our summers were mild, hitting 90 degrees was almost unheard of, and "a day without rain" was a rare occurrence.

Snoqualmie River a few weeks ago. I don't think I've ever seen it so low. Lainey Piland photo

But this year, August has arrived in June. Rivers are at late-summer levels right now, and on a daily basis hit new record lows for this time of year. Blackberry bushes are blooming and already sporting tiny green berries. Distant Cascade and Olympic mountains are dark and hazy, their slopes bare of brilliant snow. The landscape is so tinder-dry that wildfires are igniting anywhere they're given the opportunity, and Wenatchee is currently on fire as I write this. It's almost as though someone has punched the fast-forward button on our year, zooming forward to late summer.

I have faith that we'll see our familiar old Washington again; that it's not yet time to permanently refer to that place in the past tense. This year could be an anomaly. Hopefully it is. But this winter, spring and summer are giving us an advance look, a special preview, a sneak peek, if you will - of the kind of Washington in which we can expect to live in the decades to come, thanks to the effects of climate change.

A year ago, I wrote a post summarizing the anticipated climate change effects for our region outlined in the then just-released National Climate Assessment (NCA). Take a look at the post once again, and see if you don't get a creepy-crawly, goosebumpy feeling of deja vu. Loss of snowpack, changes in streamflow, hotter and drier summers, significant increases in wildfire occurrence and size, challenges for agriculture... any of that sounding familiar? This year, we've been living out the effects of climate change detailed in the NCA... decades before they were supposed to happen.

Since these changes arrived earlier than expected, we can only hope that this year is an anomaly, and that our hot dry summer and warm winter were nothing more than the result of El Nino (although probably somewhat enhanced by climate change). We can almost look at this year as a test run so that we'll know what to expect in the future. Winters like the one we just had, and summers like the one we're currently having, will become the new normal. And if greenhouse gas emissions aren't severely curtailed - and soon - we can expect our Washington winters to be even warmer and completely bereft of snow, and summers to be hotter and more parched than what we're seeing now. Who wants that? I know I don't.

I feel so out of place even though I'm still physically living in the same place - just a changed version of it. This Washington is not the one I know. Let's hope we don't have to live here permanently.

Shallow waters of the Snoqualmie River are a lovely color. Lainey Piland photo

The Washington State Department of Ecology has a rundown on the current status of the WA drought on their ECOconnect blog. Check it out here.

Friday, June 5, 2015

World Environment Day 2015

Today is World Environment Day 2015, a day designated by the United Nations for calling attention to, and inspiring action on, the environmental issues affecting our planet and its inhabitants. Previous years have focused on food waste and rising sea levels. This year's theme is a hefty one, dealing with the issue of sustainability and our global society's voracious over-consumption of natural resources:
Seven billion dreams.
One planet.
Consume with care.

After reading the theme statement above, I had to stop and let it soak in for a few moments. That last line speaks directly to the theme of sustainable living, but those first two lines underline why consuming with care is so important. There are seven billion people on this planet; each a living, breathing person with hopes and dreams and needs. Because we have only one planet to share, it is our responsibility to act with care while realizing that whatever damage we inflict upon the planet, we also inflict upon our neighbors and ourselves.

A short message from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urges "Let us think about the environmental consequences of the choices we make. Let us become better stewards of the planet." on this World Environment Day.

How do we become better stewards? Being informed is key.

Start by calculating your own ecological footprint at Footprint Network. For this interactive quiz, I recommend choosing the detailed answers in order to receive a more accurate result. The quiz will provide your ecological footprint in terms of global acres required to sustain your lifestyle, the number of earths that would be needed if everyone on the planet lived like you, and a breakdown of which components of your lifestyle contribute most to your footprint.  The result will probably shock you. I took the quiz, and if everyone on the planet lived like me, we'd need 4.8 earths to provide enough resources! Since we only have one earth, my personal resource consumption is clearly not sustainable.

Next, start doing what Ban Ki-moon asks in his statement above: think of the environmental consequences of your choices. Each choice we make, whether it's our method of transportation, the food we eat, or the products we purchase, have consequences in terms of resource use. This was demonstrated when you took your ecological footprint quiz. You can clearly see which choices add to your environmental impact - and add to the amount of the earth's resources you're personally using. At the end of the quiz, you're provided with suggestions on ways you can decrease your footprint, so be sure to read through those as well, and then put them into action! A little bit of conscious effort in our daily lives will go a long way toward minimizing our personal over-consumption and waste of our one planet's limited resources.

Lastly, take a look at some of the previous entries on this blog (found on the Going Green page), for further options to clean up your ecological footprint and be mindful of the environment with your choices:

The issue of sustainable consumption and overuse of natural resources is pervasive, touching every part of our planet. We consume the land through industrial agriculture, logging, mining, building and development. We consume the air and fill it with pollutants from our vehicles, manufacturing facilities, and power plants. We consume the water by drinking it, watering lawns with it, flushing pollutants into it, harnessing it with dams for drinking and electricity, and harvesting the species that live in it.

Keep in mind that conducting our society in an ecologically sustainable way is not just about "the planet"; that impersonal, ambivalent term with which we have no emotional connection. A sustainable future is necessary for the wellbeing of the seven billion humans and millions of other species who live on the planet. Living beings with dreams and feelings and a right to a good life. This is why the World Environment Day 2015 theme statement is so profound and almost unsettling. It ties us, along with our needs and dreams, directly to the fate of the earth and our ability to truly care for others and take seriously our responsibility to be good, ethical, intelligent stewards of this place we call home.
Seven billion dreams.
One planet.
Consume with care.

Let us think about the environmental consequences of the choices we make. Let us become better stewards of our planet. - See more at:
Let us think about the environmental consequences of the choices we make. Let us become better stewards of our planet. - See more at:
Let us think about the environmental consequences of the choices we make. Let us become better stewards of our planet. - See more at:

Monday, June 1, 2015

Deciduous Determinations: Learn to identify these PNW trees

Bigleaf maple. Lainey Piland photo

At long last, I've been able to write this follow-up to my Conifer Confusion article, which ended up being the most-read post on my blog to date! Thanks to all for reading, and if you haven't checked it out yet, click the link above and learn how to identify three of the most common coniferous (evergreen) trees found in the Pacific Northwest lowland forests.

Now we'll turn our attention to a few of the most common deciduous trees native to Pacific Northwest forests. The reason I had to wait so long to put this post together is because deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall, and I had to wait until they were fully leafed out again this spring before I could run out and snap some photos to help with identification. Looking at photos of leafless trees just wouldn't have been as exciting.

Let's get started with perhaps the most easily identifiable deciduous tree species, and one that also happens to be my personal favorite:

Bigleaf (Broadleaf) Maple

When you see these trees, think of an umbrella. Bigleaf maple have tall trunks and an expansive canopy of vibrant green leaves that opens and branches out overhead. These trees can reach more than 100 feet in height, and can live for several hundred years.

Identifying features: These trees often have multiple trunks, which are typically covered with moss and licorice fern, and often sport large, bulging knobs called burls. In patches where the trunk isn't covered with furry green moss, you'll notice that the bark has shallow, narrow grooves running vertically up and down the length of the trunk.

Maple leaves are vivid green and have that characteristic multiple-lobed shape that is easy to identify. In the fall, these leaves turn bright yellow before mellowing to orange-brown and dropping to the ground. Bigleaf maple are also known for the helicopter-like seeds they produce, which are sent spinning into the air from those branches way up high, and fill the skies on breezy days.

Bonus tip: if you want to see some truly spectacular bigleaf maple, head over to Saint Edward State Park and take the South Canyon trail for an amazing view of what I like to call the "maple cathedral," which in my mind rivals the grandeur of the park's formidable seminary building. The photo does not do it justice - trust me - visit this place and see for yourself! Try to get there in the afternoon if you can, when the maples are lit with heavenly golden light. It's spectacular.
Looking down the South Canyon into the maple cathedral

Black Cottonwood

Many of us are only aware of the existence of these trees because of the sneeze-inducing clouds of cottony white puffballs they release along with their seeds. This time of year, it's common to find drifts of white cottonwood fluff piling up along roadsides and clotting the vegetation along hiking trails. Although we tend to dislike these trees for the red, itchy eyes they often give us, there is actually much to appreciate about them.

Looking up a cottonwood trunk covered in its own fluff. Achoo!

Black cottonwood trees are ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest region. Although they grow anywhere, they especially like wetter areas along creeks, wetlands, and lakesides. This is where you can find some of the largest specimens, which can reach heights of more than 100 feet.

Identifying features: Cottonwood trees typically only have one trunk, with limbs and leaves branching outward along its entire length. The bark boasts deep, wide, sharply-chiseled vertical grooves, and is usually covered in moss in places. The leaves are triangular or teardrop shaped; green and waxy on top and golden on the underside.

Bonus tip: Because of their long stems, cottonwood leaves twist, twirl, and flutter in even the slightest breeze and make a soothing pattering and rustling sound as the air moves through them. Whenever he wrote of cottonwoods, Edward Abbey always referred to them as trembling, quivering, and shimmering; if you happen to catch sight of a cottonwood on a breezy, sunny day, you'll see why.  They positively glitter!

Red Alder

These are, in my opinion, the weeds of the tree world. Red alder are usually the first trees to grow back in recently cleared land, and they grow back with a vengeance! I have many unpleasant memories of yanking alder seedlings out of our horse pastures; a task which left my hands raw and sore, and covered in a pungent green varnish from the leaves and branches that tore off in my grasp.

A thicket of red alder growing in a once-clear pipeline trail.

Identifying features: Red alder trees have mostly smooth bark broken every so often by horizontal ridges. The bark also bears blotchy white areas, which are lichens that have taken up residence on the tree. Most alder you'll encounter will be the young weedy type with trunks only a few inches in diameter. Occasionally, you may come across an older specimen that measures a foot or so in diameter, but I've found these larger alder to be rare. The leaves are bright green, with serrated edges and a classic "leaf" shape.


Two different examples of Red Alder bark

And there you have it! Now you should be able to easily identify these common deciduous trees native to Pacific Northwest lowland forests. Because I'm focusing solely on identification here, this article isn't meant to be an exhaustive overview of the ecology of these tree species... there is certainly more to learn, but being able to identify each tree is a great place to start!

All photos by Lainey Piland