Friday, April 22, 2016

Musings: Earth Day 2016

Looking up along the Wallace Falls trail. Lainey Piland photo

I want to tell what the forests
were like
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language

—W.S. Merwin, from The Rain in the Trees, 1988

I love the poetry of W.S. Merwin. When I came across this poem recently, the words hit me like a swift punch to the gut. The somber thoughts in those lines are the very ones I'm musing on, on this Earth Day 2016. Lately, as I write this blog I'm feeling increasingly that I'm not only sharing my photos and nature experiences for inspiration and to encourage others to get outside and see these wonders for themselves, but there's also a sense that I'm recording for posterity the beauty and rhythms and truth of a place I've called home my entire life - a place that seems to be heading toward a future wherein it will be radically changed.

And, of course, the driver of that change is climate change.

As we pump more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through deforestation, agriculture, and burning fossil fuels, our planet continues to warm and the places we know and love will continue to change. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our famously mild and rainy region is expected to get warmer; with rainfall coming less frequently, but when it does come - it will be in deluges. There will be less winter snowfall in the mountains, and consequentially, less water in the rivers come summertime. These changes will dramatically affect our ecosystems, agriculture, and economy.

We got a foretaste of these future conditions in 2015, with the drought that left our mountains bare of snow, and a record number of consecutive days without rain that, combined with consistently hot temperatures, left the landscape parched and river flows dwindling. It was so unfamiliar, and so difficult to process the fact that this could become a permanent and worsening condition as the climate continues to warm. I commented on this in my Missing Washington blog posts here and here last year.

Our planet is a big place, and the region that I call home isn't the only one being affected. Island nations like the Maldives are watching the rising seas slowly consume their homeland; areas of Africa are experiencing unprecedented drought, along with the civil unrest that accompanies it; native villages in far-northern Alaska are watching their homes slide into the sea thanks to rising sea levels and melting permafrost; warmer temperatures and dwindling mountain snowpack are leading to drought and water shortages in regions from South America to Asia. These aren't simply matters of watching one's homeland undergo a transformation... these are plain matters of survival.

So far, the first three months of 2016 have been the hottest January, February, and March on record. 2014 was the hottest year on record... until 2015 came along and stole that title. With each subsequent year hotter than the last, the warming trend is undeniable. In fact, scientist have gone so far to call it an "emergency" - and that's not a word that scientists just throw around. That means something. That's a warning.

All indications point to the fact that we're already past a tipping point where our planet, and where my home here in the Pacific Northwest, will undergo significant adverse ecological changes and challenges, regardless of what sort of action we take on climate change - even the most drastic action won't be enough to avert some degree of change.

In generations to come, we may need to speak in a forgotten language to tell what this place used to be like: that the trillium, salmonberry and indian plum bloom in late March; that the mountains are white and covered with snow all winter; that the rivers run high and cool even through the summer and support populations of salmon; that the song of Pacific chorus frogs wafts from the forest on warm spring evenings, often at deafening levels; that the summers are mild and we always joke that "there's always August" - the one sunny month; that January is glittering and frozen; that April is green, cool and showery, that it always rains on the Fourth of July; that we start awakening to frosty mornings starting in late September; that the migratory barn swallows return for the summer precisely on April 21st every year.

Sitting here on Earth Day 2016, this blog feels like it is becoming a record of those things. Each time I set out on a hike through the forest, there's a moment where I look around at the trees and greenery and sounds and smells that make this place home, and wonder how much longer it will be this way. How much longer will the forests stand, before they grow dry and brittle in drought, burn in a wildfire, or are killed by infestations of insects like the wooly adelgid that are destroying the hemlock forests on the east coast, or the pine borer beetles that have killed entire stands of forest in the drier western states? I don't know the answer. I probably don't want to know the answer.

So - assuming that my little blog will stick around for posterity - for those of you future youngsters reading this blog in 2026... 2056... 2086... I'm sorry. We tried, but it was too little, too late. Please take a look through this site, at the photos and narratives, and see what you missed. This was a beautiful place.

But wait... what can we do?

I'd rather not have to leave that heartbreaking apology above in this post. The apology might be necessary, but there's a chance that we can turn the future of our planet in a positive direction, and that I might be able to delete those bitter words. So many things need to happen to protect our planet... and subsequently, ourselves and our homelands... from the worst effects of climate change. We need to say goodbye to fossil fuels and move to 100% renewable, clean energy. We need to overhaul our meat-heavy diets and fossil-fuel intensive agricultural systems. We need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The daunting list goes on.

The best things we can start with are, first and foremost... vote people into office who understand this issue and who will do something about it. Please keep that in mind with the upcoming presidential election. Secondly, we can take steps in our own lives to minimize our ecological footprint and our personal contributions to the problem of climate change (see the Going Green page on this blog for tips). Thirdly, we can speak out! Talk about this, educate yourself and everyone you know, attend protests and marches, speak out through volunteer work with conservation groups.

Recently, activist and writer Bill McKibben was asked what individuals can do to fight climate change. His response? "Stop being individuals."

There's a lot of truth in those three words. Just as one tree doesn't make a forest, one person cannot make a movement. This issue is going to require every single one of us acting collectively in order to make a difference. Let's all commit to doing so, so that on Earth Day next year, and the following year, and in the decades to follow, we can celebrate the fact that the "language" of our earth, of our home regions is not forgotten... but rather is spoken, lived, and understood by everyone.

For further reading:

This excellent article in Yes! magazine isn't speaking directly of climate change or environmental issues, but illustrates the shift in mindset that we all need to experience in order to address these huge issues and see our lives, and our time here on earth, in a different light. Live Each Day Like It's Your... First? Five reasons "live each day like it's your last" is the worst advice ever.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2016)

It has become a tradition for me to take to the woods at this time each year to search for evidence of spring's arrival in the white trillium that bloom in the forest. For the past two years, I've sought out these precious heralds of spring while hiking along the aptly-named Trillium Trail in the Redmond Watershed Preserve, an 800-acre nature preserve of mature second-growth forest set aside in suburban Redmond.

But this year was a little different.

Rather than meandering through a protected and beloved forest along well-traveled and maintained paths, I was instead bushwhacking my way through a wild, pathless scrap of gorgeous forest filled with sunlight and birdsong - a doomed forest in the Issaquah Highlands that will soon be mowed over to make room for the construction of four new office buildings. And this time, I didn't just seek spring. I took it.

A few months back, I volunteered to salvage native plants with the King County Native Plant Salvage Program, and spent a miserably rainy, windy and freezing cold day digging up sword fern, salmonberry, and cedar, Doug fir, and hemlock saplings in a small patch of forest on the fringes of a Snoqualmie housing development. These plants were then taken to the nursery where they were put in pots and kept safe for use in upcoming restoration projects throughout the county. This forest would be cut down to make way for construction of more houses, but the developer allowed King County to come in first, to salvage as many plants as possible instead of letting them be mowed over and gone to waste.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I received an email from the plant salvage program coordinator, announcing a special salvage event on March 26th for volunteers only, where we'd be allowed to go to a site and salvage plants for ourselves all day long. Hmmm, I thought. March 26th. That was prime trillium time...

....And so, early on the sunny morning of March 26th, I found myself climbing over moss-covered nurse logs, fighting my way through salmonberry thickets, and dodging low-hanging vine maple branches (why do those dratted vine maple always poke you in the eye?!) while lugging large and unwieldy plastic tote bins and dragging a small shovel with a broken handle, whose hefty weight, I quickly discovered, was well out of proportion to its small size. I had one goal that day: to find a few trillium to rescue from certain death, from being bulldozed over, scraped away, hauled off to some landfill where they'd never again bloom or see the light of day, and instead to bring them home and lovingly plant them in a corner of my tiny backyard I'd already set aside for just that purpose.

A doomed forest.

Carrying my empty bins and shovel, I slowly walked through the forest, sweeping my gaze back and forth across the ground in search of those stark white petals. It's easy to find trillium if you know where to look. They like to grow at the base of trees, and in groves of sword ferns, and on rotting nurse logs, and in the sunny forest edges, and in the deep shade... well, they grow anywhere and everywhere, except the places you're actually looking. Ten minutes in, I began to worry. I had sighted no trillium yet, and I was in a forest slowly filling with other bucket- and shovel-toting people who, apparently, were also looking for trillium to take home. The competition was fierce, and the person with the keenest eyes would go home with the greatest number of those coveted flowers.

I had to find at least one. I'd driven all this way, with hopes high and visions of trillium dancing in my head.

And then I saw one, growing in the dappled shade beneath the boughs of a cedar tree. Mine. MINE! I wanted to yell as I half-ran, half-stumbled toward the treasured plant, hoping no one else had spotted it. I dropped my plastic totes and shovel on the ground and knelt to examine the small, delicate white flower with relief. I picked up my heavy shovel and rested its point on the ground about a foot away from the flower. Raising my right foot and preparing to bring it down hard to drive the shovel into the soft dirt, I felt a twinge of conscience and paused. This felt wrong. The trillium belonged in the forest. You weren't supposed to pick them, and you certainly weren't supposed to dig them up and take them home. You're trying to save it, I reminded myself. If you don't dig this flower up, then someone else will. Gritting my teeth and still not convinced this was entirely okay, I unearthed the trillium and carefully placed it in my plastic tote bin, along with a few shovels of good dirt.

Toting my totes and dragging my shovel, I wandered further through the forest and found another trillium growing at the base of a bigleaf maple. With the shouts of found one! sounding through the forest as my fellow scavengers found their own trillium, I quickly overcame my misgivings and dug the flower up, setting it next to the first trillium in the plastic tote. And because they looked lonely, I also dug up two Oregon grape and a half-dozen bleeding heart to keep them company. Along with a few more shovels of dirt.

I felt sure there was a third trillium out there with my name on it. I needed to keep looking. However, I was now struggling to carry one very heavy tote and one empty one, and the shovel. It was too much. I carefully set my plant-filled tote at the base of a cedar tree, in a nook where hopefully no one else would find it. I'm positive that the other people salvaging plants were completely honest and trustworthy human beings who would never stoop to stealing trillium, but in that moment I was completely unreasonable and couldn't be sure. As I walked away into the forest, I looked over my shoulder and kept a posessive and jealous eye on the tote in case anyone approached (picture Gollum and The One Ring here... my precious...). Then I gave up, feeling utterly aggravated with myself, hauled the tote back to my car and locked it safely in the trunk, then headed back into the forest to find one more trillium.

Amidst the trilling song of a Pacific wren and the raspy scolding of an Anna's hummingbird, I walked slowly through a grove of sword ferns, climbed over a few logs soft with green moss, and shoved aside low-hanging branches as I looked for the scarce trillium on the shady forest floor. I couldn't help but think of my grandpa at this time. Before his passing, we used to walk through the woods around my home and look for trillium in the springtime. In those woods, as with the forest I now walked through, there were no paths, no trails, no easy passage through the thick underbrush. My experience today was so reminiscent of those childhood memories with my grandpa that I became overwhelmed for a moment, and sunk down on a log and sat, and remembered, and listened, and thought wistfully of the person who should be sitting right beside me.

Gathering myself together, I stood up after a few minutes had passed and dragged my shovel and tote back to the sword fern grove. I dug two of them up and then called it a day. I had come in hopes of finding one trillium but ended up going home with two. There was no need to continue searching for a third.

With the two full totes arranged carefully in the backseat and the air conditioning at full blast to keep the plants from wilting on this suddenly warm day, I drove home goosebumped and shivering, and planted everything in a shaded corner of the backyard. After giving my new little forest garden a good watering, I stood back and looked happily at those two tiny trillium.

In years to come, I won't have to wander far to seek spring every year... those lovely, favorite flowers of mine and all of the sweet memories they represent will be only steps away.