Forest Fright

(First published October 31, 2013)

 

I’ve been saving this story for the right time, and I guess now is as good a time as any. After all, Halloween is the night we face our fears. Whatever you’ve been told about the pagan origins of the autumn festival, it really boils down to a single bit of ancient wisdom. Every once in a while you have to unleash your demons and let them run wild, just so the rest of the year they’ll leave you alone.

Sometimes, a bad scare does you good.

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But, I don’t want to get all Vincent Price about it. This isn’t a story about demons or monsters. It’s simply about a fright I had one fall afternoon in the forest…

It was the day I happened upon a strange mound poking up from the forest floor.

To be sure, the forest can be pretty creepy in autumn. It isn’t just the dead stuff—the shriveled leaves and the slimy decay—it’s the light, too. Unlike the flat gray of winter’s naked canopy, the fall forest is still shady, and the lowering sun streaks through the sky-holes like bright swords, practically blinding you from the glare. As you walk, the effect comes and goes, so that one minute you’re fine, and the next, all you can see is a confusing jumble of dark shapes, backlit by searing gold light. Suddenly, mossy boughs seem to reach out from every angle like hairy, twisted arms, and twigs criss-cross everything like inky scribbles. It’s disorienting.

 

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This particular afternoon, I was wandering on the loop trail, trying to get a little fresh forest air and some exercise. It had been a long day of painting in my studio and I had been a bit unsettled by my subject, a giant wolf spider. I could still see the plump, hairy body with all those legs and eyes—eight of each—plus that enormous set of fangs. I try to love all creatures great and small, but wolf spiders give me the serious willies.

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As I walked down the trail, I tried to move silently to see if I could sneak up on the resident coyote. I had seen plenty of his scat so I knew he was lurking around somewhere, but the crispy leaves underfoot made too much noise for stealth, so I decided to hunt for mushrooms instead.

I came into a shady spot beneath towering Doug firs, hemlock, and maple. The understory was thick, and most of the forest floor was in deep shade. It was the perfect place for mushrooms. I was investigating a colony of tiny bright orange mushrooms along the side of a decaying hemlock when I noticed an odd shape—a mound—poking up from below a clump of ferns. Maybe it was a giant puffball, or a one of those mushrooms that looks like a sponge. Hmmmm…interesting.

I reached down, parted the ferns and squinted into the shadows. All I could make out was a silhouette—a rounded shape about the size of a melon, half-buried in the forest duff. The domed top was covered with clumps of thin, dark strands gleaming in the rays of golden light. Strange, it looked just like someone’s shiny black…

Hair.

I leapt backward. The mound was a head. A human head.

I let out a shriek and then froze solid, feeling a sickening surge throughout my body. The forest seemed to suddenly lurch away from me, as if yanked backward by a giant tether. I could see nothing around me, hear nothing but the sound of my own pounding heart. The forest had vanished and there was nothing left but me and the hideous mound rising up from the forest floor.

I knew it was just adrenaline—the heightened yet narrowed focus, rising blood pressure, dilated pupils— it’s the classic “flight or fight” response—nature’s little bag of tricks for the primal struggle of Eat or be Eaten. Without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have amounted to anything but sabertooth tiger chow.

I tried to calm down so I could decide what to do. Had there been anything in the news about a missing person?

Stupid question. Of course there had been, there were always missing people. The TV news was nothing but a grisly string of stabbings, gunfights and murder. And now, I’d be one of those ridiculously awkward headlines, “Hiker Finds Head Hunting Mushrooms.”

I needed to call someone. Dail 911, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Always call 911, even if you’re not sure you should, that’s what they teach you. Better safe than sorry. Soon there’d be sirens and cop cars and flashing blue lights. There’d be reporters and News Vans and Chopper One. They’d tape off the whole forest and set up spotlights, and uniformed people would bustle around holding clipboards and talking on cellphones and picking stuff off the ground with tweezers. Eventually, they’d start hauling things away in black plastic bags.

Call 911! I fumbled through my pockets. Damn. No phone. I remembered now, it was at home on my desk, charging. Crap.

What should I do? Run, screaming, hoping I could find someone with a cellphone? There wasn’t a soul around, I was pretty sure I was the only person in the entire forest. I was completely alone…just me and a severed head.

I peered down at the black hair shining in the beam of sunlight. It was so thick and healthy-looking. How sad. This had been a human being, probably someone young and beautiful and in the prime of life. What a sick world.

The sun disappeared behind the branch of an enormous maple, and the pool of shade around the head dissolved. In the flattened light, it was actually easier to see. I dug in my pocket for my ipod-touch. I should take some photos. The detectives might need photos.

Grimacing, I squatted, balancing on the balls of my feet. I set the ipod on flash and reached out my hand as far as I could. Nice thing about ipods, it’s easier to take photos at arm’s length. I touched the glass to focus on the head, and pressed the button.

There was only a millisecond before the flash went off, but it was long enough for the thought to register. I was going to see this thing fully lit. I hadn’t considered that. I knew it was only half-buried, but was the face showing? Would I see eyeballs staring back at me?

Before my imagination could kick into full panic mode, the flash went off and for a few long moments I saw the afterimage still burned into my retina: a melon-sized rootball of maidenhair fern, probably partially dug up by some animal, and topped with an odd-looking tuft of shiny, black, hairy fungus. Weird, but perfectly natural.

Roots and fungus.

I laughed out loud and fell over backward and lay flat on the leaves for a moment, staring up at the darkening sky. What an idiot. Scared of fungus. Thank goodness my phone was dead. I cringed thinking how embarrassing it would have been to call 911 to report a fungus.

As I walked back home, I thought about how fear affects us. These days, it seems like the whole world runs on fear, and most of it is based on miscalculation, misperception or hype. The least likely things to harm us seem to occupy most of our concern. We’re afraid to walk in the forest, but not afraid of driving on the freeway. We’re afraid of being un-armed, but not of a world where everyone is armed. We’re afraid of kidnappings and serial killers and mass-murderers, but not of climate change and mass extinctions. The fear response that once saved us from being eaten, is now eating us up.

I knew I wouldn’t ever be afraid in the forest again. It’s not good for the body or soul to be paranoid all the time.

A good fright once a year is enough.

 

Happy Halloween!

It’s Salmon Spawning Time!

 

Way back in the 1990s, Seattle realized it had a problem. Potentially, a very big problem.

The city was growing fast, but our drinking water was also needed by salmon. And not just any salmon…potentially endangered salmon. How would we make sure there was enough water for both people and fish?

Chinook, also known as King salmon, are the largest of Puget Sound’s five native salmon species, shown in watercolor.

 

Seattle began work on a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan, which encompasses the entire Cedar River Watershed—the main source of our drinking water. The HCP is a large-scale plan to protect and preserve fish and wildlife habitat.

I just finished a three-sign project that interprets a few aspects of the plan. It’s on a small parcel on the lower part of the watershed where Seattle and its partners are restoring habitat and building a small public access trail.

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Seattle is unique in America in that it owns the entire watershed of its main drinking water source: the Cedar River. That means every inch of land that sheds water into the Cedar and that ultimately reaches our faucets is owned and controlled by us. Our water is protected from human-caused ickiness from the moment it falls from the sky until it enters the water pipe at Landsburg Dam. After that, it flows into the transmission and distribution pipeline system—1800 miles of underground pipelines until it reaches your tap. (For the whole very interesting story, watch the official video).

We don’t own the watershed below Landsburg Dam, but none of that water is used for drinking, so it’s not a problem…at least not for us. For fish and wildlife, though, it’s another story. In many places, wildlife habitat has been impacted by development. Things like levees or bank-hardening, invasive plants, and pollutants have impacted habitat in many places.

The lower watershed was once one of the richest salmon spawning habitats in the world, and Seattle and its partners are working to preserve and restore it to good condition. I did the watercolor on the sign below to highlight some of the main features of good salmon habitat.

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The sign below shows the upper watershed—the area that is off-limits to unsupervised access. That glowing lake in the center? That’s your drinking water—as clean as it can be!

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Want to see salmon spawn in the Cedar River?

NOW is the time to go! At Landsburg, you can see the best show, but there are other sites and also volunteer naturalists on hand.

To find out where and when to go, check the Cedar River Salmon Journey Website.

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Want to help preserve natural areas in Seattle: join the Seattle Nature Alliance!

 

 

Wet Labs at Magnuson Park

A few months ago, my clients at the U.S.G.S. contacted me for some interpretive signs at Magnuson Park.

The topic was: Wet Labs.

 

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No, not those kind. (Although, with Seattle’s first Dog Swimming Beach, Magnuson Park has plenty of those, too).

The U.S.G.S. runs the Western Fisheries Research Center with state-of-the-art Wet Labs to study fish. The facility is located adjacent to the park, but part of their equipment is inside the park, so they wanted me to create 2 new signs to help visitors understand a bit about their work.

The Center originated more than 70 years ago through the efforts of Dr. Frederick Fish, a visionary scientist who pioneered improved methods of studying Pacific Salmon.

(With a name like that, I hope he had a good sense of humor.)

Here are the signs I wrote, designed and illustrated. They will be installed soon.

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This sign will be installed near a new pump station. The USGS figured park visitors would see the pump and wonder what it was, so they took the opportunity to educate them a little about their work at the Center. Seattle’s Magnuson Park was a pre-World War II era Naval Airfield and is now a huge complex of sports fields, tennis courts, trails, beaches, wetlands, and a Dog Swimming Beach.

 

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This sign will be installed near a reconstructed wetland complex which provides rich wildlife habitat. Cleaned and recycled water from the lab helps keep it wet year-round.

 

If you visit Magnuson Park, watch out for the wet labs! Both kinds.

 

Eat Prey, Love – the Sequel

There has been an update since I originally posted “Eat Prey, Love” in the fall of 2012! Journey not only has a mate, but a new family!

Read about it here.

 

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A Lone Wolf called Journey

Journey was a lone wolf that crossed into California in 2011. He was the only one left from the scattered—or poached—Imnaha pack in eastern Oregon, and the first wild wolf in California in nearly a century. Since then, he’s probably been looking for a mate and scouting out his territory. Being alone for so long, he probably had a harder time hunting larger prey like elk and lived mainly on smaller animals like beaver or rabbits.

I hope Journey has found his mate and gets his family. Most of all, I hope he learns to hunt wild prey, rather than sheep or cattle—a sure death sentence.

I hope we can learn to respect wildlife for being themselves rather than as trophies, entertainment, or pseudo-pets. I hope we will make a place for wildness.

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From Eat Prey, Love, originally posted October 25, 2012

 

Can we make a place for wildness?

A lone wolf called Journey was California’s first wild wolf in nearly a century. Now, he’s back in Oregon, possibly with his new mate.

 

Wild or Captive? It makes a difference

Many wildlife biologists no longer favor the term “Alpha” in describing wolf behavior. Even the idea of a “pack” is somewhat outmoded. These old ideas were originally made popular by biologist L. David Mech in 1970. As he explains on his website, his original research was done on captive wolves, and has since been updated with field research on wolves in the wild—with quite different results.

While captive wolves do behave in the alpha-dominance model, it is not common in the wild. I’ve heard it likened to how humans behave when forced into captivity, like prisons or concentration camps. Social norms break down. Things get savage.

In contrast, wild wolves live in family groups of related individuals: the parents, called the breeding pair, and their offspring, which include the current years’ pups and possibly older siblings from one or two previous seasons. The breeding pair are the leaders, not because they fought their way into their high status position through force and dominance, but simply because they are the parents. Parents know best, right?

It makes a subtle but important difference in how we view wolves. Their social behavior is not centered on dominance, but on family. Wolves live and work together cooperatively based on age and experience, with the older ones teaching the younger ones how to be wolves. When they’re ready, the youths leave the family to find a mate, establish a territory, and make a family—their own pack.

 

What does it mean to be wild?

I flip open my ipad and check my Google alert on wolves (October, 2012). The top article is from Wisconsin, where the first wolf hunting season in 38 years started a few days ago. A father-son team of trophy hunters snared the first wolf, a young female, in a legtrap. They had seen her struggling as they approached with their rifles, finally shooting her in the head to complete the hunt. Her pelt would be their trophy, hanging on their wall to remind them of their proud accomplishment. They get to be the alpha dudes, the true top predators, thanks to superior hunting skills—and a little help from modern technology.

The next article tells of a college girl who takes her wolfdog (85-90% wolf, 10-15% dog) to campus with her. The photo shows her and the muzzled wolfdog gazing into each others’ eyes, and the girl receiving a huge juicy-looking tongue kiss. The caption says she majors in wildlife science and occasionally sleeps with the wolfdog.

These two cases really run the gamut. The first is about dominance through violence, and the second, well, it is a form of trophy-ism, too, just on the other extreme. A little too Fifty Shades of Graywolf, from the look of it.

I wonder why we need to treat wild animals in these ways, either to prove our own supremacy, or as proxies for decent relationship-material? (Or worse, for cheap entertainment, as in some circuses and creepy You-Tube videos.) I’m not saying that trophy hunters—or college girls who love wolves—should be kicked out of America. But what about simply appreciating wildness? Do we have a place for that, as well?

It’s only recently we’ve learned how important top predators—like wolves—are in natural ecosystems. When they are gone, they are missed—not just by us tree-huggers, but by other living things like trees and plants and pollinating insects, and birds and even the prey species, eventually. Living with wildness is messy and complicated and will take serious cooperation and effort and money from all of us, but it will be worth it in the long run… if we want to leave something decent behind us when we are gone. A habitable planet, for example.

 

To learn more about wolves and conservation in the Northwest: http://www.conservationnw.org/

To keep on Journey and his latest doings: http://www.oregonwild.org/fish_wildlife/bringing_wolves_back/the-journey-of-or7

To read an article about top predators and their effect on ecosystems: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203630604578072693046060834.html

Forest Sketch

This post was originally published in May, 2013

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On one of my forest walks, I came upon an elderly gentleman who was standing by the trail, gazing up at a gnarly bigleaf maple. It was one of those Seattle-summer days when the sun comes out unexpectedly, and after weeks of dismal gray, the world was in full-color once again. The whole forest was glowing.

As I passed, the man tipped his hat to me in a polite, old-fashioned way that seemed out-of-place in West Seattle. He must be from a foreign country. Or at least, a foreign time.

“You know what I wish?” he asked, smiling. “I wish I was an artist. I wish I could paint this!” He swept his hand across the lovely scene.

I stood with him for a moment admiring the lumpy, twisted old maple. The sunlight was filtering through the leafy canopy, falling in streaks against the brilliant moss-covered trunk. I imagined painting the tree, how I would drag brushloads of sap green over raw umber to capture the colors and play of light.

I was just about to share my art-thoughts with him when I noticed his eyes had teared up a little. “I want to remember this tree,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, but by the time I get home, I’ll have forgotten. It’ll all be lost…like it never existed. If I was an artist, I could paint this and take it home with me. I’d have it forever.”

I realized we weren’t really talking about art at all, but about how it feels when things we love slip away. Was he afraid his beautiful world was disappearing…being erased into blankness?

He was still standing with the old maple when I continued on my walk. I hope he remembers his tree.

I wish I had painted it for him.

 

An acrylic sketch I did of a maple in one of Seattle’s beautiful forested parks. This one didn’t have a mossy trunk, but it was beautiful anyway.

 

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A sad note to end this story…

A few weeks ago, I learned that this same gentleman — a well-known park visitor — was knocked over and badly injured by a couple of (illegally) off-leash dogs in this same park.

Increasingly, people are treating urban natural areas as places to let their dogs run free. It is only a minority of the dogs that cause damage or injury, but that minority is causing serious problems—not only to other visitors but to the plants and wildlife that depend on these natural areas for survival. For that reason, ALL dogs need to be leashed where the law requires it. Unless everyone cooperates, those few trouble-makers will simply say “Everyone does it.”

Please. Leash. Your. Pets.

It is your responsibility.