Wild Home

 

This week, I’d like to share a special interpretive signage project I recently completed.

Last summer, my clients at the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council near Bend, Oregon, contacted me with a specific request: they wanted an interpretive sign on the topic of stewardship, and they wanted to use student-created artwork and poetry.

I’ve discovered over the years in my business that using student work for an interpretive project—or any design project—requires a special touch. Sometimes, people are surprised to find out such projects often involve more time and can end up costing more in the long run. They are not merely design projects, they are learning experiences as well.

But, if done right, it is most definitely worth it.

In this case, it worked out great. The Watershed Council staff and their partners spent a lot of time working with the students, and they generated spectacular results. It was my job to take their finished work and tie it all together, designing a sign to feature the artwork—adding one illustration of my own for context—and to make the topic complete.

The basic design was done to coordinate with an earlier series of signs I did for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Click on the sign for a larger view.

The basic design was done to coordinate with an earlier series of signs I did for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Click on the sign for a larger view.

 

To give a background and context for the more imaginative student work, I painted a watercolor of the mountains and the headwaters of Whychus Creek.

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Peaks from left to right: Broken Top, South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister.

 

The other illustrations were done by high-school and middle school students.I particularly liked the center mandala. If you look at it closely, you will see it is amazingly intricate, with gorgeously designed elements pertaining to the river and the life it supports.

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And the salmon! Each one has its own wild design within the contour of the species—truly an artistic expression of the concept of Wild.

 

Equally compelling were the poems.

 

“This place is a home,

to the fractured

and the ones who

never had

one of their own.”

 

-Alaina Todd, Sisters High School.

 

For me, this poem is deeply affecting. It really says it all—why we so desperately need to preserve the wild places left on earth. The Wild is our home.

Our only home, in so many ways.

 

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If you’re ever in the vicinity of Bend, Oregon or Sisters, Oregon, be sure to visit the Whychus Creek Area and the Three Sisters Wilderness.

 

 

Heart of the Tree

Ever since our remote human ancestors first swung down from the African treetops, we’ve shared a deep connection with trees. In a sense, humankind was born in trees, and since then, almost every culture worldwide has featured trees in their stories of Life and the Cosmos.

I think winter is a good time to contemplate trees. Leafless, they seem to display even more of their individual character with twisting trunks and gnarled bark, and seen through a maze of twigs, the dull gray sky is transformed into a fascinating, complex design.

Yesterday, as I walked through my neighborhood, I was struck by the beauty of this English Walnut. It’s one of the biggest trees in the area and I suspect it was planted in the early 1900s, probably soon after this section was cleared of its native Douglas firs and hemlocks. It was probably a sapling when my house was built in 1907.

English Walnut is actually a native of Central Asia, brought to Europe by Alexander the Great. This one seems to have come with its own Dryad. When I imported this photo into Photoshop and applied a filter, I was startled at the image that emerged. I highlighted it a bit with the dodge and burn tools and voila! The tree-spirit of Walnut Avenue!

English Walnut is actually a native of Central Asia, brought to Europe by Alexander the Great. This one seems to have come with its own Dryad. When I imported my photo into Photoshop and applied a filter, I was startled at the image that emerged. I highlighted it a bit with the dodge and burn tools and voila! The tree-spirit of Walnut Avenue!

 

In honor of those who planted this tree—and those who have nurtured and preserved it—here is a poem by Henry Cuyler Bunner, published in 1893 in The Century Magazine:

(and thanks to my mother for sharing this beautiful poem with me—recited from memory!)

The Heart of the Tree

 

What does he plant who plants a tree?

He plants a friend of sun and sky;

He plants the flag of breezes free;

The shaft of beauty, towering high;

He plants a home to heaven anigh;

For song and mother-croon of bird

In hushed and happy twilight heard—

The treble of heaven’s harmony—

These things he plants who plants a tree.

 

What does he plant who plants a tree?

He plants cool shade and tender rain,

And seed and bud of days to be,

And years that fade and flush again;

He plants the glory of the plain;

He plants the forest’s heritage;

The harvest of a coming age;

The joy that unborn eyes shall see—

These things he plants who plants a tree.

 

What does he plant who plants a tree?

He plants, in sap and leaf and wood,

In love of home and loyalty

And far-cast thought of civic good—

His blessings on the neighborhood,

Who in the hollow of His hand

Holds all the growth of all our land—

A nation’s growth from sea to sea

Stirs in his heart who plants a tree.

-Henry Cuyler Bunner, 1885 – 1896

 

 

Wild Things

 

“There are some who can live without wild things

and some who cannot.”

-Aldo Leopold

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I’ve been keeping a sort of Wildlife Life List over the years, and it has become fairly complete with local species—with one notable exception: Gray Wolf. This is not surprising, they were extirpated from Washington in the 1930s and only reappeared a few years ago. Since then, I’ve kept track of their surprising progress, and I’ve wondered if I’d ever get to see one. More than any other animal, I’ve wanted to see a wolf.

This nation once exterminated wolves with such extreme prejudice, it feels symbolic of the broader disregard for nature that has landed us in our current environmental mess. Now, we’re on a planet facing serious trouble. But, the return of wolves feels like a hopeful sign, a small step toward a more balanced state. I may be a dreamer, but I think if we can learn to coexist with a species as challenging and controversial as wolves, there might be hope for wild nature after all.

And maybe for us, too.

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A watercolor sketch of a wolf I did for a previous post, Gray Wolf. Nature is messy, inconvenient and unpredictable. Can we learn to live with wild things?

 

Last weekend, when my family and I had a possible wolf sighting, I was thrilled. And it wasn’t just one wolf, but three of them. A pack.

In all honesty, we’re not one-hundred percent sure it was a true sighting. Wolves look a lot like coyotes—except they are twice the size—and at a distance it’s hard to tell the two apart. Still, we had a pretty good look at them, and they just didn’t look like coyotes. There was something about their behavior and the way they moved—not slinky like the familiar coyote, but smoother, straighter, and more powerful-looking. Even more compelling, the next day we found 5-inch tracks nearby that were undoubtedly wolf, scat that was possibly wolf, and the kicker: Washington’s newest pack, the Wenatchee Pack, had an official Washington Department of Wildlife “Confirmed Sighting” a few months ago in Pitcher Canyon, just several miles to the south. There is no doubt…wolves are in the ‘hood.

So, there you go. Whether it was a true sighting, or just my own dreamer-self needing wild in the world, I’m adding Gray Wolf to my List.

 

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I painted this coyote for a project. Coyotes are half as big as wolves, have a narrower snout and larger, pointed ears. To me, the animals we saw didn’t look coyote-like.

 

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This is an unretouched photo of one of the tracks we found. It measured about 5 inches from the bottom of the pad to the top of the claw marks. Click here to see a comparison of wolf vs coyote vs dog tracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The following story is a short sketch of our suspected wolf sighting last weekend. It’s all completely true…except for the obviously imaginative parts.

 

Pack

 

He was expecting us, of course—wild animals are far more in tune with the world than we are. He probably knew the moment we stepped out of the cabin door—all four of us talking and laughing, thoroughly enjoying our weekend-getaway in the Eastern Cascades.

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A quick watercolor sketch I did of the meadow as viewed from the cabin. Those are the Three Brothers in the distance.

 

My husband and I and my brother and sister-in-law were heading out for a sunset stroll to the old pioneer homestead where there’s a good chance of spotting the elk herd. Dusk and dawn are the best times for wildlife-watching, and the herd often comes out of the forest for an evening graze. Just that morning we had watched a bull elk with a magnificent rack of antlers saunter across the meadow like a king. At night, we’d hear the bulls bugling their love-calls to the females. It was a haunting sound, a little plaintive for such a regal animal. “Please, baby, pleeeease baby, pleeeee-eeeee-eeeee-eeee-eeeeese!!!”

 

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A detail of a watercolor illustration I did of a bull elk. At full size, the large males are eight feet tall.

 

We didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t be seeing any elk in the meadow—they were hesitant to leave the forested cover. It was a good decision, because three of Nature’s supreme top predators were on the move, and they’d love nothing more than killing and devouring an elk. Gray wolves had not been seen in these parts for the better part of a century, but they were here now, and the elk were naturally nervous.

I imagine the scene…

…the wolves were bounding up from Pitcher Canyon, adrenaline and anticipation fueling their almost-flying gait. They knew the elk were nearby, the mountain air was saturated with elk-scent, and the constant bugling was like a beacon. The leader realized it was a long-shot—dangerous even. After all, an eight-foot bull elk deep in the frenzy of the rut would be a poor choice for prey. But still… there might be a sickling or a young one from the herd they could take.

 

Anyway, even if the hunt failed and they resorted to scrounging for mice or carrion, it would be worth it, just to feel like a pack. For most of his life he had run solo, existing on nothing but his wits, luck, and smaller, easier prey like beaver, rabbits and occasionally a deer. Then one day not long ago, a female had appeared, a straggler from a pack whose territory ran to the west, closer to the Cascade peaks. The two had forged the bonds of a breeding pair, ideally a partnership that would last their whole lives. Soon another female joined them, a younger sister to his mate and not yet fully mature. Now they were a pack of three. It was an important accomplishment—as a pack, they could support each other while they scouted out territory, a place with good prey where they could raise up new generations. Plus, now they could really hunt.  Since time began, wolves have practiced the art of cooperative hunting: assessment, strategy, and teamwork. It was high time to hunt like wolves.

 

But as the three wolves scrambled up from the forested canyon and trotted into the open expanse of grasses, the leader paused. Deep in his awareness, an alarm was being raised. He scanned the distance and, about a half-mile away he could see five or six dens, the kind used by only one species. Uprights.

 

He signaled to the others to take cover while he went to investigate. Following his nose, he found a good spot and took position, holding his head high and letting his nostrils flood with hundreds of the incomprehensible scents that always exuded from Uprights. The wind shifted and now he could hear them, and he perked his ears to capture their vocalizations, rising and falling from chirpy to booming and back again. None of it made sense, but still, he took note of every detail.

 

He stood stock-still with all senses on full-alert as they rounded the bend and came into view. Ah. Just as he expected: four Round-Headed Uprights. Adults. Two male, two female.

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The four of us strolled from behind a grove of ponderosas into the open. The rutted road led to the old pioneer homestead, now just an aspen-ringed clearing on a small rise above the meadow. I was lost in thought, imagining pioneer life in such a place. What would it be like, coming outside on a frosty morning to milk cows or hitch up the wagon and facing such a landscape: meadow, mountains and forest, all arranged like a carefully composed oil painting. It was almost too beautiful to be fully natural. How did they focus on chores with such a view?

I felt someone grab my arm.  Ralph was pointing to a spot straight ahead in the grasses.

“Coyote!” he whispered.

We all froze, and someone whispered, “who’s got the binos?” Each one of us —even though we knew better—had forgotten to pack decent binoculars. All we had was a flimsy loaner pair, shared between the four of us. We had been kicking ourselves all weekend for being such idiots, since we knew full well the cabin is a terrific place to see wildlife. The large camas meadow, with grasses, wetlands, and aspen groves, is ringed with ponderosa pines and Douglas fir forests—all just a hop and skip from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Usually, we saw elk, sandhill cranes, coyotes, bear, deer, owls, hawks, songbirds, snakes…you name it. A weekend at the meadow was like a mini-African Safari, Northwest-style.

And yet, we had forgotten binoculars.

“Oh, well…it’s better this way,” Fran had said as we started our walk. “It’s always when you forget your good binoculars that you spot something really cool.”

“Yeah, and at least we remembered the beer,” my brother Mark had added.

And sure enough, in the tall brown grass a hundred or so yards in front of us, we all saw him: a large grayish canine body standing with ears perked up and aimed straight at us like little radar dishes. He was obviously assessing us, reading our scents and our postures.

“Give me the binoculars!” Ralph hissed.

As I blinked to focus my naked eyes, I was struck by something about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

“Strange coyote,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s a coyote,” Ralph said, his voice quavering just a bit. “Look at the size of him. Oh man…it’s gotta be a wolf.”

“A WOLF! Oh, let me see!” I squealed.

For the next few moments, the four of us fumbled around, passing the binoculars, and whispering as if to not give ourselves away. It was kind of silly since the animal was already fully zeroed-in on us.

“Do you think it’s really…”

“I can’t quite tell…”

“Oh geez, he’s looking straight at us…”

Suddenly, as if distracted by something in the distance, his head swiveled sharply sideways. Then he bounded off through the grasses.

“Darn, he’s gone…he ran off into those trees…I lost him…”

“There he is! He’s right there! Oh my god, here comes ANOTHER one! Look, they’re nuzzling each other!” The two wolves were sidling up against one another, brushing their bodies and faces together.

“Look! I see a third! There’s THREE of them!”

When it was my turn with the binoculars, I saw a smaller wolf run up to join the larger two.

“The third one looks playful, like a pup,” I said. “He’s…bouncy!” I was so excited I couldn’t think of the technical term and reverted to Pooh’s descriptor for Tigger.

The three wolves congregated for a few moments, then the leader took off, heading north toward the far end of the meadow.

“Look at that stride,” Ralph said. “Coyotes don’t move like that.”

It was true. There was something distinctly different about the posture and gait of these animals—they didn’t slink like coyotes, but ran smoother and straighter.

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The male had decided: the pack would move on. With Uprights here, this was not the time to go after elk, especially since there were only three of them to work the hunt. They would head north into the forest, and if they were lucky, they might be able to catch and kill a deer.

 

As he ran, all thoughts receded from his animal mind until there was nothing but the sensory input of the world and its creatures. He took it all in, instinctually searching for his own place in the midst of it all.

 

Now that they were a pack, he had a better chance of finding it. They all did.

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Seeing the wolves head north, we raced back to the cabin and settled ourselves out front where we’d have a good view—if the wolves continued on their trajectory they’d pass right in front of us.

As the sun sank deeper the gold sky seemed to dissolve, slowly revealing the blackness of infinite outer space. The meadow became drained of color until it was a silver expanse surrounded by shadowy forest. It seemed like the perfect place for wolves to hide in wait for prey to appear.

We waited in silence and I noticed that the birds and other wildlife seemed to have vanished—it was suddenly dead-quiet. I began to feel chilled from the light wind blowing down from the mountains. It had been a while…had we missed the wolves? Or, were they maybe in the forest taking cover for an ambush?

“Just think,” I whispered to Fran. “Maybe we’ll see the wolves take down an elk!”

She looked at me with widened eyes, and I couldn’t tell if she was intrigued or horrified by the thought. The scene started to play out in my imagination… the terrified screams of the elk as he struggled against the snarling hunters. I shivered. Did I really want to witness such a thing?

“There he is!” Ralph whispered as we watched a wolf dart across the meadow and into the woods on the north side. “That looks like the young one catching up—the other two probably went ahead. I think they’re gone now.”

Thirty minutes later it was pitch dark, the sky steadily filling up with stars. I got up and walked back up to the cabin and started getting things ready for dinner. Mark and Ralph got the fire going.

“Where’s Fran?” I asked as I set the table.

“Still out there,” Mark replied. He chuckled. “If we let her, she’d stay out there looking for wolves till the moon comes up.”

“Well, go tell her that her pack needs her to come inside,” I said. “It’s feeding time.”

 

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Here is the link to the rental cabin at Camas Meadow. Click here for info.

Once Upon an Ice Age

I remember the geology professor pausing in his lecture on the Ice Age and sighing wearily, like he had said the words a thousand times and was getting sick of it.

“I do not like the word RETREAT,” he said. “The glaciers did not RETREAT. They did not advance down in one direction, then turn around and march back in the other direction. They MELTED. The ice MELTED and the water DRAINED AWAY.”

Of course, this was well before the days of Global Climate Change, so perhaps our freshman class was not as savvy about things like melting ice. Still, the terminology makes a subtle but important difference. Water has shaped this planet in amazing ways, and it shouldn’t get short shrift. Especially when you consider the massive volume of water that was released when those towering Ice Age glaciers began to melt. In some cases—particularly in the Pacific Northwest—it made for some real drama: the Ice Age Floods.

 

The Ice Age Flood of Lake Bonneville

Lake Bonneville was an ancient Ice Age lake so big it covered almost half of Utah. (Today, the Great Salt Lake is a remnant of Lake Bonneville—a tiny puddle compared to its former self.) Lake Bonneville was a pluvial lake—in a landlocked basin fed by the heavy rains of the wet, cool climate of the Ice Age. On the northern side, Lake Bonnevile was walled in by a rocky ridge – a natural dam. In one place, today called Red Rock Pass, it was slowly eroding, the rocks giving way to the softer sands below.

Then, one day around 14,500 years ago…the dam broke.

Imagine…If you had been standing on the canyon rim at Swan Falls Idaho, above the Snake River, which today looks like this…

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A watercolor I did that shows the present-day view from the canyon rim.

 

 

…you would have seen something like this…

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There were people in the Snake River area back then – perhaps someone actually witnessed this…?

 

 

A 300-foot wall of water shooting down the canyon!

The force of the flow was so great, it ripped out chunks of the canyon walls and sent them hurtling downstream. Today, this is affectionately known as “melon gravel”. Here I am standing by one particularly large piece of melon gravel:

DDahnMelonGravel

Several months ago, I was asked by my clients at Idaho Power to design a sign telling this story. Swan Falls is the site of one of their dams, and there is an interpretive kiosk that tells the story of the flood, as well as the history of the power plant and the Native Americans that once occupied the canyon in winter villages.

Here is the finalized design for the Flood Sign:

DDahnSwanFalls [Converted]

 

 

If you’re ever in the Boise area, take a drive out to Swan Falls and check it out. It’s well worth the hour drive, and if you like historic power plants, you can arrange for a tour of the very cool old plant, too.

Plus, the interpretive signs (installation due in 2014) are going to be pretty great.

😉

 

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Add your thoughts:

What do you think! Have you ever been to Swan Falls, or another site in the Snake River Canyon? Have you ever heard of the Ice Age Floods?

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Learn More:

 

Read a short article and watch a cool slide-show

Read a longer, more in-depth article on Lake Bonneville and implications for climate change research

Visit the Ice Age Floods Institute

Check out one of my other posts about flowing water, including a section on the Missoula Floods

 

New Evidence Shows Squirrels Can Read

Yes, they can. But they’re quite picky about their reading material.

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The Walnut Avenue Little Free Library

My West Seattle neighborhood has a brand new library that is so convenient, I often visit in my pajamas.

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The Walnut Avenue Little Free Library (official registration in process)

It’s a Little Free Library, a new idea promoting literacy and the love of books that is sweeping the nation.

I first heard about the idea from my neighbor, who asked me to decorate the Library he was planning for our block. Our neighborhood is full of kids who love to read—particularly our neighbor’s daughter who supplied me with ideas for the design.

“Squirrels reading books!” she said, followed by a massive flood of other ideas: fairies, butterflies, wind-blown cherry blossoms, trees with books instead of leaves…

But, mostly squirrels reading books. That was the central theme.

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It made sense – we live on Walnut Avenue, a leafy block with two enormous walnut trees nearby. Our yards are bustling with squirrels and we get a kick out of watching them go about their small mammal business—mainly filling our planters and windowboxes with caches of walnuts.

(And this time of year, quite a bit of chasing each other around the yard…but that’s a story for another post.)

 

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Anyway, the love of reading grows and spreads. Chalk it up to the magic of the Little Free Library system.

If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and get a book! Or leave one. It’s free to everyone, and everyone is welcome. You don’t need to have a furry tail or live in a tree to use the Walnut Avenue Library.

 

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Start your own Little Free Library! It’s a great way to spread the love of reading and build community. Find out more here.

Visit a Little Free Library near you.

And don’t forget to READ BOOKS!

(Including mine, which is coming to a reader near you…someday. I promise.)