I’ve begun reading Robert Pyle’s Sky Time in Gray’s River, a book John recommended when I met him at Belfair. I’ve been enjoying it even more than I thought I would. I suspect that living in a very similar area has contributed to that enjoyment, but I suspect I would enjoy it even if it were describing Vermont. He has a remarkable ability of choosing concrete details that seem to capture the essence of each season. Even when he’s focused on describing the history of the area or the people who live there, he has a way of tying everything together with natural observations.
In the opening chapter entitled “Beforetimes” Pyle explains why he chose Gray’s River for his home:
None of this is high adventure, but it meets my hope for a home where boredom remains at bay. I live where I do so I can look out or walk outside at any time and instantly be with “nature.” Of course, one is in nature everywhere, since there nothing else. But I mean a place where you can actually see all the swallows depart on a certain day in the fall and see the first arrivals in the spring in all their joy and relief and know there is nothing sentimental in saying so. See rufous hummingbird working the sparse nectaries of blood currants while they wait for the salmonberries to break bud. Watch the early vultures ride the airs just above the treetops, and the bald eagles, whose nest in a cottonwood top was blown away by last winter’s winds, start in again to soar, to hunt, to feed their young in a brand‑new nest. See the bleeding hearts fan, the trilliums crack, the banana slugs strike out from their cold‑weather hideaways for fresh pastures of moss, and the first spring azures appear on what Robert Frost called “Blue Butterfly Day” These things are as important to me as love, and in fact, that’s what they are.
This description almost makes me want to move to Gray’s River, too, because these precisely the kinds of things I love seeing while I’m out hiking and birding in Western Washington.
Pyle explains that his book is written as “a phenological pastoral,” though it compresses twenty-eight years into its chronology. The structure works for me, helping to define the months by what is most often seen during a particular season. In January he talks about the birds that gather at his feeder:
Frost descends and sticks some nights, and occasionally it snows for a little while. Suchtimes we spread birdseed beneath the umbrella boughs of the capacious Port Orford cedar beside our drive. Until recently we didn’t keep feeders. But when the weather is harsh, and snow or interminable cold rain prevents the birds from normal foraging, we break down and buy bags of millet and sunflower seed. In no time the varied thrushes drop down from the hills, the Steller’s jays arrive, and the resident rufous‑sided towhees tuck in. Later in the season they will be joined by song and fox sparrows, purple finches, and juncoes. The birds at seed create a spectacle, vying and trouncing, retreating and running back in, or just pecking away in relative amity. In this time of depleted colors, we take pleasure in the deep rust of the towhee’s side bands, the orange breasts and eye stripes of the Alaska robins, and the bluebottle blue of the mass. ing jays, sometimes twenty or more bolting seed together on the scarified ground beneath the cedar. The sentry jay screeches and puts the rest up when a truck comes by, then all settle again.
While these aren’t exactly the same birds we see here in the Puget Sound area, they are all birds I find nearby.
If you’ve followed this blog for several years, this next passage describing February might be familiar:
Nothing signals the sun’s return to the northern sectors as clearly as its reflection in the upstart flags of skunk cabbage in the sodden pastures. Unlike the olive‑purple twists of northeastern skunk cabbage, the western species unfurls its spathes into broad, tall ensigns of uncoil, promising yellow‑ the yellow of pioneer daffodils, early dandelions, and buttercups. I fancy that even the few remaining turgid waterlogged Holsteins greet these pennants with pleasure, saluting with raised muddy tails and hot streams of pee, making the water meadows run even yellower. No emblem commands fonder allegiance from winter survivors than skunk cabbage, bringing the deep relief of early spring, just as frogsong announces winter’s flight once again.
Though winter seems to hold on a little longer 200 miles north of the Columbia River, these very same skunk cabbage have caught my photographic attention in march with their tribute to sunshine.
Pye also seems dead-on with his description of April:
Walt Whitman, in a poem entitled “There Was a Child Went Forth,” described the way “the early lilacs became part of this child.” He, like Willa Cather, knew that the bursting of violets, greens, violet‑greens, the springing of irises, lilacs, and suchlike from the waterlogged soil, make life worth living all over again.
While I’m equally a captive of lilacs and irises, nothing among the wild flora speaks to me of the redemption of spring like trilliums. And the best place for trilliums has always been a certain knoll across the valley, a knee of Elk Mountain cut off by Covered Bridge Road. The knoll sits just inside the far‑near curve of the loop. On a walk or run around the valley in the time of trilliums, it would take real discipline not to pause, to feel, and gaze on the linen tablecloth of blossoms spread beneath the old hemlocks.
I’ll have to admit that I’ve always identified trillium with a much later date because I first discovered them on the top of Mt. Hood near Trillium Lake and it’s still covered with snow that early, but finding trillium in April at Belfair has become a special treat, one of shared with readers several times in the past.
I would’t go so far as to say that I’d like to move to Gray’s River , I’m way too much of a city boy for that, but Pyle has convinced me I need to make a trip through that area sometime soon since it seems to be one of the few areas of Western Washington that I’ve missed really seeing or exploring.