Kruckeberg Botanic Garden

I recently completed an interesting interpretive sign project at the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline.



This beautiful garden is a life-work, a work of art, and a tribute to the wonderful flora of the Pacific Northwest.

It was created by Arthur and Mareen Kruckeberg.


This massive sequoia was planted by the Kruckebergs when it was only 4-feet tall.




This is a detail from one of the signs showing Art Kruckeberg and his wife Mareen Kruckeberg.


It all started in the 1950s when a young botany professor at the University of Washington and a grad student met and married. Their shared love of plants, the outdoors, and Pacific Northwest ecology became a cornerstone of their marriage, family and life work.

Together, Art and Mareen Kruckeberg transformed their 4 1/2 acre lot in Shoreline into a beautiful oasis of flowers, shrubs, and trees representing over 2000 species, many which they collected themselves from Washington and other similar zones around the world.

The Kruckeberg family spent much of their free time exploring the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, collecting rare native plants.

Below is one of the interpretive signs I did for the site. It introduces the visitor to the Kruckebergs and their life-long work at the garden.

The center photo shows Art and Mareen in later years. The black and white photo shows the house on the property when they first moved there in the 1950s.



In the design, I used illustrations by Mareen Kruckeberg, who was a talented botanical artist.  The final sign is 3 x 4 feet.




This is a second sign on the theme of the present-day garden, describing the current management and mission of the garden.


Actual size 3 x 4 feet. (Background illustrations by Mareen Kruckeberg.)


If you visit, be sure to wander through the whole property. In back is the Nursery which specializes in rare and native plants, and behind that are trails which wind down through the garden itself.

 This is the kiosk where the signs will go — still under construction at the time of this photo.

This is the kiosk where the signs will go — still under construction at the time of this photo.


 The nursery.

The nursery.



Beyond the nursery, the path leads you further into the garden…

































This garden has such a distinct Northwest feeling. It’s not surprising, since the Kruckebergs were experienced naturalists as well as botanists. One of my favorite books is “The Natural History of Puget Sound Country” written by Art Kruckeberg in 1991, about the landforms, waterways, and native plants, animals and people of the Puget Sound basin.

And, when I was researching this project, I discovered what a fascinating person Mareen was (she died on New Years Day in 2003. Art is still living). She was an internationally known horticulturalist with an artistic flair who spent her life advocating for rare and native plants.

The two of them created a beautiful, living legacy for the Pacific Northwest.



Plant Intelligence

Say what?


Whoa…killer view, dude. (Western pasqueflowers, also known as Hippies-on-a-Stick.)


A new branch of plant science is researching what some call “Plant Intelligence”.

But for many other plant scientists, just seeing the words “plant” and “intelligence” side-by-side is enough to send them into paroxysms.

“Preposterous! It is impossible to think WITHOUT A BRAIN! Don’t spread this foolishness! Next thing you know, bloggers will be publishing ridiculous posts about “Plant Intelligence”, and rational thought will grind to a halt.”

But, the research shows there is something going on—if it’s not intelligence, or intention, then what is it?



Michael Pollan recently published an interesting article called “The Intelligent Plant” in the New Yorker about the new research into plants and the debates it has stirred up. He also discussed the topic with Ira Flatow on Science Friday in a segment called “Can Plants Think?”

According to Pollan, the research data clearly shows that plants are a lot more sophisticated than we ever knew. For one thing, they have more senses than we do—they have all of our five senses (including hearing) plus up to 15 senses that we do not. They “communicate” with friends or enemies, can recognize their own kin, even wage war. They hunt, forage, trick their enemies, and even “care” for their young.

They just do it all so slowly or discretely that we never paid much attention.

So, is this all a bunch of overblown hooey? Some say yes. But it is not the research they argue against…it is the descriptors. Care, hunt, think, communicate…to many scientists, these are terms that belong only to the Animal Kingdom.



And, no one is questioning the scientific data. It is clear plants are a lot more complicated than we knew. The sticking point seems to be how to describe it. Are plants really exhibiting intelligence? How can anything without a brain, without a single neuron, think?




I like the way Pollan turned the debate upside down. It’s not that plants are like us, but that we are like plants. After all, he argues, we have always considered that our brains are the locus of the Self, sort of like a Central Command Center. Yet, when you look at the brain, there is no one location you can pinpoint as being “in charge”. The brain is a network—much like networks found in the plant world. For example, in forests, trees are connected to each other through amazingly complex fungal/root networks that seem to show “behaviors” like awareness and sharing. (I wrote about this in a post last year, called Mother Trees.”




I find the subject fascinating. Intelligence, competence, instinct—whatever you call it, I think we’ll end up finding out the plant world is much richer and more interesting that we ever knew.

I can’t wait to find out more.







Are you are scientist interested in plant behavior? Check out the Society of Plant Signaling and Behavior


Black Mesa Nature Preserve

I just completed an interpretive signage project for my clients in Oklahoma. I started this project last summer, just a few days before the tragic tornado hit the town of Moore. When I heard the news, I contacted my client who lived a mile from the path of destruction. Although many of his friends and neighbors suffered damage, he and his family were spared. He wrote in his email that Oklahomans are a resilient bunch, and pull together in disasters. They’ve certainly had a lot of practice.

The project is located in Black Mesa Nature Preserve in the panhandle. Its claim to fame seems to be that it is the “highest point in Oklahoma”.

But I think they’re just being modest. It turns out to be a really interesting place.


Design and illustration by Denise Dahn.


My clients provided the background information and I wrote text, painted the watercolor illustrations and did the design. The final signs are 3 x 4 feet.

The Mesa is actually the remnant of a giant lava flow that filled up an ancient valley. The hills eroded away, and all that’s left is the black basalt-capped mesa.



Design and illustration by Denise Dahn.


And how do we know this? Geologists, of course. Those rock-loving scientists revealed the geologic history layer by layer, like reading pages in a book.

And, sometime back in the swampy Jurassic, dinosaurs roamed over this landscape, leaving their tracks in the stone. I chose an Allosaurus to illustrate. She doesn’t look as fierce as they are usually portrayed, but I’m sure even Allosauruses mellowed out once in a while.


Design and illustration by Denise Dahn.


And, there’s history too! The famous Santa Fe Trail passed right by the mesa. The Santa Fe trail linked Mexico and the States and was mostly used by freighters rather than pioneers. The trip was wild, rough, and dangerous.


Design and illustration by Denise Dahn


And, it wouldn’t be a Nature Preserve without wildlife. The mesa is a classic “edge habitat”, where overlapping plant communities result in rich species diversity.


Design and illustration by Denise Dahn


If you visit, you can climb a trail up the side of the mesa and southwest until you reach the trail destination spot: the “Highest Point in Oklahoma”. It is marked by a beautiful granite monument.

But personally, I think the geology, the history, and the plants and animals are the true high points of this trail.


Design and illustration by Denise Dahn




































Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Wilderness

The Wilderness Preservation Act

This year the Wilderness Preservation Act turns 50. It’s worth remembering that Wilderness Areas were not a given—they were hard-won by a few passionate and determined people.



Mardy and Olaus Murie – Voices for Wilderness

This week’s post is about two people, Margaret (Mardy) Murie and her husband Olaus Murie. Their love of nature—especially the arctic wilderness—drew them together to share a life of adventure and activism. And they both played key roles in the passage of the Wilderness Preservation Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The main source for this story is the book “Arctic Dance”, The Mardy Murie Story.” 


Love and Adventure

It all started in the wilds of Alaska nearly a century ago…

In 1916, In the frontier town of Fairbanks, Alaska, a fourteen year-old girl was saying goodbye to her mother. She was excited and a bit nervous to be taking her first journey on her own, a trip on the Valdez Trail to her father’s home in Southeast Alaska.

Mardy and her fellow travelers were bundled into enormous wolfskin robes for the trip across the Alaska Range in an open, horse-drawn sleigh. Mostly, they traveled at night when the snow was easier, and they stopped to rest in roadhouses along the way.


Horse and Sleigh on the Valdez – Fairbanks Trail, 1911-1920. Photo Library of Congress.


After what seemed like weeks in the sleigh, she transferred to a wagon, then train and steamship, finally arriving at her father’s island home in Southeast Alaska.

It was there, during a summer of exploration and outdoor life in the remote inlets, bays, and forested islands, that Mardy’s love of wilderness was born.

To most fourteen year-olds today, spending a summer roaming free in the wild would probably be the adventure of a lifetime. But for Mardy, it was just the beginning. While still in college, she met an arctic biologist, Olaus Murie, a tall, handsome blue-eyed arctic biologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). He was doing research on caribou and other wildlife.

Olaus was a strong and gentle man who had spent most of his life in wilderness and was an expert in arctic survival, wildlife, and the native language. His interests were scientific, but he was a gifted artist as well, and spent much of his free time in the backcountry drawing and painting his observations of nature.

Olaus Murie

Olaus Murie. Photo U.S.F.W.S


While they were becoming acquainted, Mardy and her mother went to visit Olaus near Mount KcKinley where he was working. It was there that their friendship deepened into love as they spent five days “tramping about in a rosy haze in those enchanted mountains.” The two of them realized they were perfectly matched: a shared love of adventure and wilderness life.

Mardy completed her business degree and was the first woman graduate of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska Fairbanks). She and Olaus married in 1924 in a log chapel in Anvik, a remote village on the Yukon River. Mardy’s mother and the rest of the wedding party arrived to the wedding by sternwheeler.



Mardy and Olaus shortly after their wedding in August 1924. Photo U.S.F.W.S


For their honeymoon, the two of them set out on a three-month, 550-mile riverboat and dogsled trip up the Koyukuk River to the Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle. Mardy, dressed in furs and skins from head to toe, had to learn how to mush her own sled pulled by seven Siberian Huskies.


Olaus and Mardy wearing their trail furs. Photo U.S.F.W.S



Mardy and her dog-team mushing on the trail. Photo U.S.F.W.S.


They camped in a canvas tent warmed with elk hides or stayed in shelter cabins. Olaus conducted caribou research and did sketches and paintings, and Mardy wrote in her dairy and fell in love with the arctic wilderness.

Mardy wrote of a day on the trail as they approached a shelter cabin:

“…the sky is midnight blue and fully spangled with stars, and the moon is rising brighter and brighter behind the pointed trees. In the north, a flicker of green and yellow; then an unfurled bolt of rainbow ribbon shivering and shimmering across the stars—the Aurora. The dogs begin to speed up; we must be nearing a cabin; yes, there it is, a little black blotch on the creek bank. The air is cold and tingling, fingers are numb…


A little later, when warmth and light and food and our few possessions had made the tiny cabin our home for another night, we listen to that ‘whoo, hoo, hoo-hoo’ from the forest; it makes a day on the arctic trail complete.”


Margaret (Mardy) Murie, “Two in the far North”


As their epic honeymoon ended, they each felt they had found their perfect life. From then on, they spent as much time as possible together in the wilderness. The next year, Olaus was sent back to the Arctic to explore the remote headwaters of the Old Crow River. By this time they had their first son, Martin, who was just ten months old. But Mardy had no intention of being left behind, so she packed up the baby and the three of them went on another wilderness adventure.

This time it was summer, a season that can be even tougher on arctic travelers than winter, with hordes of mosquitoes, and the warming weather turning the ground to a soggy sponge-like mess below their feet. Instead of mushing a dog-team for transport, they poled up the river in a tiny scow—their crankshaft having broken on the third day of their trip. Mardy made a little tent on the deck of the boat for the baby, where he was tucked securely into a wooden box.

In “Arctic Dance”, Mardy is quoted describing her daily routine in their camp:

“I used empty five-gallon gasoline cans for the dishes and for clothes, where the cans would be cut down through the center and the sides rolled back to make a handle. You can put in on the fire and warm some water for the diapers. And the diapers you just hang over the willow bushes. And in the other tin you prepared food and did all of the next day’s preparations.”


But the little family was undaunted by the hardships and challenges of the wilderness. They sang, grew closer, and reveled in the expansive, unspoiled world that teemed with wildlife.

“At my back…stretched the limitless tundra, mile upon mile, clear to the Arctic Ocean…we threw off our headnets, gloves, and heavy shirts, and stood with the breeze blowing through our hair…We could see, far out over miles of green tundra, blue hills in the distance, on the Arctic Coast, no doubt. This was the high point; we had reached the headwaters of the Old Crow. After we had lived with it in all its moods, been down in the depths with it for weeks, it was good to know that the river began in beauty and flowed through miles of clean gravel and airy open space.”



Mardy in camp. Photo U.S.F.W.S.


Olaus in later years, sketching on the deck of a boat. Photo U.S.F.W.S


At the end of their second trip together, Mardy felt as comfortable with wilderness life as Olaus, and they continued to travel and have adventures—something they would do their whole lives.

In 1927, Olaus was offered a position in Wyoming, and the growing family moved to Jackson Hole. Olaus continued his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and he and Mardy became key players in the early conservation movement. Among other things, they helped found the Wilderness Society, and had a hand in the passage of the Wilderness Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They both authored books and won prestigious professional and environmental awards.



Olaus and Mardy in later years. Photo U.S.F.W.S



Olaus died in 1963, but Mardy continued to be active in the wilderness preservation movement until her death at age 101 in 2003. She wrote articles, gave speeches, testified before Congress, and was invited to the White House when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964. She worked until late in her life, and was dubbed the “grandmother of the conservation movement” by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.


Mardy Murie, left, as President Johnson signs the Wilderness Act. Photo U.S.F.W.S


Today, the Murie ranch in Wyoming operates as an Environmental Center.

Without the passion of committed people like Mardy and Olaus, today our Wilderness Areas might be developed, asphalted, and choked with traffic.

The fight for Wilderness is not over. Today, our federal lands are under increasing pressure for oil and gas development, as well as other high-impact uses such as motorized recreation.


Do you have any thoughts about wilderness, adventure or preservation? Please leave any thoughts or comments. I love hearing from you!


References and Links

Olaus and Mardy Murie: Alaska’s Passionate Protectors

Arctic Dance, the Mardy Murie Story, by Charles Craighead and Bonnie Kreps

The Wilderness Society

The Murie Center

The Wilderness Act and the Preservation Movement

The Wilderness Act turning 50

Two in the Far North, by Mardy Murie


Arctic Spell

Shelter cabins in the Alaska Wilderness were once a lifeline for arctic travelers.


Imagine being alone

…in a million-acre frozen wilderness, under an infinite sky that pulses with light and color.


I did this watercolor of the Aurora on the tundra from imagination.


It’s winter in the year 1913. You’ve left Fort Yukon and are headed toward the Brooks Range, the northernmost divide between the Arctic Ocean and the rest of Alaska Territory.


For weeks, your only companions have been your sled dogs and the sharp-tempered, unforgiving arctic cold. Wrapped in furs, you’re warm enough to function, but comfort is just a long-faded memory.


You grip the handlebars tighter as the sled whooshes along, knowing you can’t let your attention wander for a second—at least until you’ve reached the shelter cabin. Once you’re safely set up inside with a fire and food and tucked into your bedroll, then you can relax. Then, you’ll have a moment or two before sleep when your thoughts will fly free. Then, you can let the arctic work its magic on your soul.


For now, you need to stay focused. You need to remember where you are—teetering on a thin line between life and death on top of the world. Don’t let the shivering green spirits in the sky distract you. Pay attention to the serious, heavy cold.



Alaskan wilderness trails were once sparsely dotted with tiny cabins that sheltered trappers, missionaries, mail-carriers, freighters or other travelers. They were not owned, but were shared by all. It was a culture of survival, necessary in the harsh Alaskan winter. Each person who stayed there left something behind for the next person: firewood, matches and perhaps a tin of food or a shot of whiskey.

I did the cabin illustration for an interpretive sign on the Steese Highway, for the Bureau of Land Management, at the location of a historic shelter cabin.



This is the first in a series of posts in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Preservation Act. The next post will be the story of two people who found love and adventure in Arctic Alaska, ultimately leading them to a life of activism and wilderness preservation. Without their persistence, we might not have Wilderness Areas today.

As always, I love to hear from you! Have you ever been in Alaska? On a dogsled? Winter-camping? What do you think of our Wilderness Preservation system? Leave a comment, subscribe to the blog, and join me on Facebook!