The Eagle Creek Fire: Renewal not Ruin

At the risk of receiving additional “I don’t need to hear any good news about fire,” Facebook messages seen during the height of the Eagle Creek fire, “I have patiently waited until the smoke has cleared to add an even stronger scientific zing supporting the role of fire and announcing confidently that the Eagle Creek Fire was good, pretty much all good.

While the temporary loss of recreational trails and green forest aesthetics are now part of our Gorge experience, the main fact is that the recent fires have not ruined the Gorge but instead, once again, renewed it.

Just as winter gives the natural world a much needed break for a season, how nice to give wildlife a break from the ever increasing numbers of folks recreating in the Gorge.  And an opportunity for recreation planners to potentially change currentplacements of popular trails to better protect riparian areas and other ecologically sensitive sites.

For a typical fire a third of the affected timber will be scorched trees, a third will be trees whose future is uncertain and a third will look unscathed.  “Easily two-thirds or more of the Gorge fire is really good ecological fire,” Professor John Bailey said when he was on the ground. “And that’s why the fire does some of the fuel management for us.”As he flew over the Gorge, Oregon State University Professor John Bailey was analytical about the Eagle Creek burn. “Fire is a healthy, natural part of a forest ecosystem,” the OSU faculty member said. A century’s worth of suppressing wildfire in the United States has created conditions, especially in the West, that will ensure longer fire seasons because of longer, drier and hotter summers. Those conditions point to the need for “actively managed” forests, Bailey noted, which could include more deliberately set and managed prescribed fires.

It’s been 115 years since the Yacolt Burn, and the area affected is now a rain forest like every other rain forest in the Pacific Northwest, with only minor signs there was a catastrophic fire there in the relatively recent past. It re-grew from the ashes.

And ash is nature’s fertilizer.  Plant blight, disease and insects are reduced or eliminated by burns.  Mineral soil is the compost that Douglas fir seedling roots need to grow. “Dead trees” or snags are full of life.  Our local woodpeckers are surely ecstatic after the Gorge fire!

Meg Krawchuk, assistant professor at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, says fire is a necessity in forest ecosystems. “We’re actually in a bit of a fire deficit when we think about this over the longer historical period,” she says.

Life will return to burned areas in short order. Fungi are already crawling around in the ashes of the fire, laying the foundation for soil that will support the plants that will constitute the early stage of the forest’s re-growth—a time when heat from the fire and sunlight newly reaching the ground in the absence of a canopy encourages a new crop of plants to firm up the soil structure that will allow gigantic trees to thrive.

Some of the plants we’ll see in the seral stage of the Gorge re-growth have a striking beauty. Fireweed, a fast-spreading flying seeder that often sets the stage for post-fire re-growth, produces pyramids of striking pinkish purple flowers. Wild blueberries and huckleberries devour the acidic soils of post-fire environments, and they’ll start to appear en masse.

This is what forests do.

The Gorge is already blooming, transmuted by fire, growing into a beautiful new thing in itself, becoming the next beautiful thing it will be for our children.” Corbin Smith ~


Sharing the Trail with Praying Mantises

Most of us look forward to seasonal natural events such as the first appearance of robins, the return of the San Juan Capistrano swallows, a summer’s swim, and currently, the arrival of  autumn rain.  For the past five years during a brief sliver of summer, praying mantises have magically shown up on the trail separating our home and the top of the hill where we park our cars.  Why these 2- 3 inch long insects hang out in the open on hardpan soil is unknown, yet I walk at a snail’s pace hoping not to step on them because they blend in PERFECTLY to the sienna grass.

Mantises are mostly ambush predators, but a few ground-dwelling species are found actively pursuing their prey. They normally live for only a year. Here in the cooler Pacific Northwest climates, the adults lay eggs in autumn, then die. The eggs are protected by their hard capsules and hatch in the spring.

Imagine my horror last weekend when I came upon a dead mantis on the path, being devoured by a yellow jacket wasp.  I am only lucky to see a few of the prayerful insects every year, and I was saddened to think the mantis season was over…until yesterday when I spied one along the trail and I guess what goes around comes around, for it grasped a dead yellow jacket in its mitts.  If there ever was an insect that glares at you it is the mantis.  With their googly, non-blinking eyes, they don’t seem to tire during a stare down.
Mantises were considered to have supernatural powers by early civilizations, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and Assyria, who revered them as Gods.  Mantis powers include rotating their head 180 degrees, turning black after a fire to blend into the charred landscape, being able to detect bat sonar to protect themselves, and of course, the female mantis beheading the males after procreation!

Whither are the porcupines?

When is the last time you saw a porcupine?

Fifteen years ago, our third largest rodent lived in the trees above our garden and frequented our porch at night.  Baby porcupines were as tame as pets and attracted many a neighbor.  It seemed everywhere I traveled in the Columbia Gorge, porcupines were abundant.

I have not come across a porcupine during the past 10 years and I am not alone wondering why these intrinsic animals of the West have disappeared.  University of Montana researcher Katie Mally, who is studying for a master’s degree in wildlife biology have started the first study of porcupine populations in the West and why they appear to be declining.

In 2006, Mally put out a survey and magazine ad, which prompted hundreds of responses from outfitters, hikers, rural residents and others who said they were seeing far fewer porcupines than in past decades.

Mally originally intended to compare populations at lower and higher elevations, but no porcupines could be found in the Bitterroot Mountains. In other Montana locales, the researchers have put radio collars on 10 porcupines.

Rick Sweitzer, California’s foremost porcupine expert, agrees that the porcupine seems to have become scarce.Sweitzer, an ecologist and associate adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, did his doctoral dissertation on porcupines in Nevada.”The indications seem to be that porcupines, where they were once present, are not present any more,” said Sweitzer. “I think we’re just now noticing.”

Compared to most rodents, the porcupine is not a prolific breeder. Each female gives birth to only one offspring per year. As a result, Sweitzer said, it may be that we are only now noticing the long-term effect of historic and ongoing agricultural, ranching and marijuana farming poisoning practices. Sweitzer said a concerted research effort is needed to determine the population status of porcupines.

We would that porcupines will recover their population in the Gorge again.  Now having families of their own, our grandchildren should have the same opportunity to witness the full display of nature’s wonders ~

You’re as Cold as Ice

If you live anywhere from northern California to the Western Canadian border, you have awakened to the warmest day ever recorded.  Depending on where you are, you’ll see temperatures rising to as much as 110 degrees F.  Mild mannered Portland is expecting new highs of 106 degrees F.

I believe that Mother Nature is tired of giving us numerous chances to mend our ways.  She came us the momentous 1996 and 2011 floods, 2015 drought, rainiest/snowiest 2016-2017 winter, and now this…Lawrence of Arabia-epic searing winds from the Nevada desert.

Dr. Phillip Mote, a leading climate scientist from Corvallis, Oregon stated today that the day-time highs are not as unusual as the night-time “lows.” “Whereas the incidents of greater-than-100-degree temperatures has gone up by a factor of two or three, the incidents of higher-than-66 degrees-Fahrenheit for night-time lows has gone up by a factor of six or eight in much of Western Oregon. And this is true across the country. The low temperatures have tended to increase faster than the high temperatures.”

Why is it that when people are queried about whether they “believe” in global climate change, there are typically two questions:   Do you believe in climate change?  And then the odder, do you believe it is “human caused?”  The third question I would ask is: Regardless of questions 1 and 2, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to reverse the trend of rising temperatures?

What should we be doing?  Dr. Mote says, “We can help lower greenhouse gas emissions by driving less frequently, using public transportation or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

I wonder how many more clear warnings Mother Nature will give us? ~



The Daily Eclipse

“I was particularly struck by the change of colour in the sky, which had been gradually losing its azure blue and assuming an indigo tint”

Warren de la Rue experiencing a solar eclipse in Spain, 1860.

In less than four weeks, one million people will converge over the Oregon Territory to witness a two minute event — a total solar eclipse.

While I am encouraged that so much humanity would travel to the day-turned-night phenomena, I wonder whether these same folks are awed by the daily changing of the celestial guard, the revelation of night and the newness of day.  While the eclipse moon will cover el sol enough to bring out the stars, today’s setting sun may bloom an array of hues, while a gradual descent into the horizon will etch sea, mountain or city in luminous quiet beauty.

What attracts the throngs to pay visit: the rarity of 18-year solar eclipse intervals, being part of a million man and woman sit and start in, or cynically, an insatiable craving for novelty?

Experiencing nature, we tend to grow tired of repetitive encounters; an initial buzz of viewing a herd of elk too quickly dulls to ho hum, there they are again.

What happens next and forever when the stellar show is over?  Will we return to the outdoors for further exploration?  Will we prioritize additional life adventures?

We can only hope that a moment of darkness will illuminate a brighter future. ~





In tender memory of Brian Doyle ~


Unless we are serving as an usher, when we ask a person to sit, we may be in store for some intense conversation (interrogation).  When we instruct our dog to sit, the result is the opposite — typically a treat.  I’m guessing in ancient days, wild dogs sat just outside the danger zone hoping for similar treats from our ancestors.

While exploring is at heart of our environmental education programs, doing nothing in a spot chosen by each student (their Magic or Sit Spot) seems to have the most impact.  A one-on-one moment with the natural world where conversation is silent and the senses are fully open to wonder is the start of a Vision Quest.

I propose that we sit more often when outdoors.  Wasn’t Sir Isaac Newton cross-legged when the gravitational apple found its mark.  Don’t all Buddha sculptures show the Prophet sitting in a meditative or ear-to-ear smiling pose.  Guru comics depict the wise person on a mountain ledge in contemplative non-standing position.  Iconic images of famous people sitting include Forrest Gump on a bench, Gandhi spinning cloth, and of course!…Sitting Bull.

We spend countless hours sitting indoors, but when we finally arrive in nature, we are driven to activity: running, walking, biking, driving.  Let us pause during those activities and smell the wild roses as we sit and ponder the beauty of the moment, the beauty of the day. ~


The Happiest Place on Earth…

…and the place of most contentment, and creativity and healthfulness and healing.

While Disney Land flaunts itself as the “Happiest Place on Earth,” and Norway wins this year’s prize as the Happiest Country on Earth (US is a mere 14th.), intriguing research now pinged on 3 million Mappiness data points reveals another answer.  Mappiness is a multi-year project featuring volunteers to record their moods and activities twice a day at random times.  then it matches those responses to an exact GPS location from which it extracts the environmental characteristics.  The aim is simply:  What makes people happy?  Does place matter, or not?

Can you guess what the overwhelming results are showing?

The study showed, “participants are significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than they are in urban environments.” Yet, perhaps not remarkably, Mappiness users were rarely found outdoors.  93% of the time, they were either indoors or in vehicles.  What Mappiness has sadly diagnosed: our epidemic dislocation from the natural world. We simply don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that time outside makes us healthier, more creative, more empathetic, and more apt to engage with the world and with each other.

While the poets and musicians have long shown us how vital time in nature is for our spirit, (Beethoven would hug a linden tree in his backyard and dedicate symphonies to landscapes), scientific research is now proclaiming a resounding, “Ditto.”

The happiest place on Earth is your own backyard, woods or meadow.






Limited Knowledge, Unlimited Wonder

Second grader on the path telling me, “I know where this trail leads!”

“You do?  Where,” I asked?



When I planned the field trips with a Corbett Elementary School teacher, I wondered how many students would be involved?  She smiled.  “Didn’t our principal tell you…we’re bringing the entire school! 

To celebrate spring, in the past three weeks, a herd of kindergarten through high school students have visited the Sandy River Delta.  They came to plant native trees and shrubs, and some spent time walking through the woods.

It has taken me a few decades to realize that when you have children outdoors for a limited amount of time (typically one opportunity), the most fulfilling way to spend those precious hours is to allow the students to explore, especially when the primary goal of the day is to instill a sense of wonder and place.

Third grader discoverer by the river turning to me,”The air smells different here.”  “What does it smell like?”   “Sand.”

I used to believe that outdoor time should support the in-school science curriculum by bringing the ecological concepts we taught to life. And I still do.  However, instead of focusing on reiterating science by sitting in one place, I’ve noticed that the children want to be on foot.  They are ready for exploration as soon as they get off the bus.  As pathfinders, we take turns giving students the walking stick, and as soon as one has it in hand,a new leader is born and off we go in the direction they choose!

“How should we act when we are exploring the forest?”

First grader: “We should be good.”

The combination of first planting native trees, then poking around the natural world complement each other nicely.  All of the kids planting will get plenty of soil on their pants and shirts, and they don’t seem to mind.  They are now in their “Exploring Clothes.”  There is pride and accomplishment in planting their own trees, and afterward, they are ready for movement.

From On the Loose: “Remember thy Creator int he days of thy youth.  rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.  Let the noon find thee by other lakes and the night overtake thee everywhere at home.  There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.” ~










Trees, in March

To be poor and be without trees, is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees, is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die.

We know what sugar maples are doing in March when freezing nights and halcyon days prompt sweet sap to flow.

At the end of winter, here in the West, it depends on where you are regarding what trees are up to. Trees could still be hibernating, in bud, or in magnificent full bloom.

The first awakening is an inevitable sense to grow, taking place in the meristem cells located along the tree’s trunk and branches .A meristem is the plant tissue found where plant growth can take place. Meristematic cells give rise to various organs of the plant. These cells divide to form a new cambium layer pinched between the outer bark and outer sapwood, adding a new layer of living cells atop the previous heartwood.  Resulting, as we know, in new tree rings.

When temperatures rise about 40 degrees F.meristems produce auxins at the top of the conifers which become cones.  Some become male or pollen cones, and some transform into female or seed cones.

Soon, the small pollen cones magically open just in time to spread via wind their fertilizer to the seed cones.  Interestingly, the male cones are located on lower branches in order to spread pollen to adjacent trees not to the female cones above them in the same tree.

At the root of it all, minimum temperatures for root growth are thought to be between 32 and 42°F. and roots are independent, growing earlier than shoots, and opportunistically when they please despite what the tree is doing above ground.  Successful trees have their taproot plunging down in March.  Other roots are fanning out and concentrate into the top few centimeters of the soil.

Trees are awake and they are busy!   ~


An Unexpected Spring

It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

The familiar harbingers of spring are upon us:  the first robin, the first wild grass widow flower, increasing light, and snow melt.  For folks living in the Columbia River Gorge, we have experienced a most unexpected three-month-solid winter.  Now we might keep all of our senses wide open for what could be a most memorable spring season.

Already, stranger things are afoot.

As my daughter Denali visited us last week, a giant alligator lizard emerged in front of her from a long sleep cradled by the meadow soil.

A weasel-kin fisher, extinct from Washington State for a half century, has appeared in the wilds of the Mt. Adams Wilderness.

My elderly statesman Black Lab became instantly young again this morning discovering, then chasing a coyote amid the oaks.

We are going to really miss out if we don’t spend copious hours outdoors this spring.  Waterfall cascades will be bank-full.  Catherine Creek wildflowers could show us hues we never have beheld.

Yet, while we will expect color and water, it is also the little natural gifts we welcome, a cool breeze, warm sun finding our skin, the hum of new life.

Expect the unexpected.