Goodbye to Gray’s River for Now

With the exception of having no desire to live in a small rural community, Robert Pyle and I share an awful lot of ideas, opinions, though he knows infinitely more about ecology than I’ve ever had time to learn in my lifetime. It’s that knowledge about ecology, especially as it relates to birds, that makes Sky Time in Gray’s Riverappealing to me.

I’ve noted before that one of the main things I’ve gained from my recent birdwatching is a sense of the seasons, something which is finally beginning to replace the “school calendar” that’s been my primary measure of the passage of time in my lifetime. Thus I identified strongly with passages like this one:

It is the birds of passage that most mark the seasons by their alternating presence and absence. They have so many ways of coming and going. A hermit thrush makes a momentary cameo in the back garden on its way to higher country. A flock of western meadowlarks or mourning doves, temporarily lost on the wrong side of the Cascades, give voice where they are least expected. Ten snipe and seven swans materialize at Larson’s pond. Two or three dozen hooded mergansers dive cleanly in the silver meadows and a pied-billed grebe sinks in the Lily Pond like an aquatic elevator. Double-crested cormorants, visiting from their massive colonies on the sand islands of the Columbia, fish up the river, their throat pouches flashing the color of the afternoon school bus. A green heron is profiled by the moonlight on the long arch of a dead oak bough over the road or as a slow dark form rising up from the river with a catlike shriek. The great blue heron sounds a dyspeptic kronk as its pale bulk lofts toward a roost in a hemlock grove far up Phelps Road. The white, mild winter monuments of cattle egrets hang out with the Burk halters’ herd, and the great egret, like a bleached great blue stalks voles beside the E D S E Z – L B J FOR THE USA shed where sandhill cranes sometimes descend. Usually the cranes pass on high, one day in spring and another in the fall: we hear their eerie, chummy hoots, then run outside to see them circling away on high thermals. Many local people call the herons cranes, but certain farmers will call to tell us when real cranes have landed.

I’m finding in retirement that birds, and other animals, give a better indication of season around here than the calendar does. I probably realized that from gardening, but my gardening schedule was too often dictated by teaching demands rather than by being in tune with seasonal changes.

I also share Pyle’s attitude towards those who too often feel threatened by attempts to save what little is left of our environment:

As an environmentalist in this land of loggers, I have been fairly well tolerated. Most know that my beef is with decisions that hurt the people of the woods as well as the woods themselves. But at a town meeting a few years ago, I felt way out of sync with the prevailing mood. The occasion was a rally at Rosburg Community Hall calling for a boycott of the state’s rumored offer to buy bottomland for habitat conservation. Some folks felt threatened by the plan, which they saw as an attack on the future of the community. “They want to turn the whole damn place into a park for ducks, and the hell with the people,’ one speaker summed up. She urged that everyone present a united front against the state and refuse to sell their land to them. It seemed to me that the program would be one way for some landowners to get paid for their property on the floodplain, where farming was no longer profitable and development ill advised. But the organizers were opposed on principle as much as anything: “taking” once productive land and “giving it back to the swamp,” never mind that this was a matter of willing sellers and buyer, and eminent domain was not involved.

I ran into this kind of animosity the year I worked in Aberdeen as a caseworker, but it became much more of an issue when I became a teacher in a small community where logging was one of the major industries. Though I’ve always believed my job as an English teacher was to teach students how to think for themselves, and not to brainwash them with my opinions, I too often ran into students and parents who wouldn’t tolerate any viewpoint but there own. Luckily, I live in the next town over where few neighbors were quite as conservative.

Pyle almost made me nostalgic with this passage:

My daily walk to the compost heap is the closest thing I know to sacrament. The pile grows out of a round brick pit that once served as an ornamental fishpond. After trying to restore the pond, I realized I could never persuade its broken bottom to hold water, so I embraced Thea’s idea: why not make it the place where all the goodness goes, between life and more life, during that great long limbo called rot? Now I love to watch the succcs sion of organic sediment through the months: the zucchini we’re never going to eat in January, the first sweet grass clippings of

April, the remains of fresh lettuce in June, the blown flower heads in September, the caved-in pumpkins in November, all punctuated by citrus peels, eggshells, and the stalks and bracts of Brussels sprouts and artichokes. Coffee grounds and tea bags. Now and then a sprout from a big, shiny avocado seed sends up tender leaves until the first frost. A second heap farther out toward the woods receives shredded brush and bushels of raked leaves for longer-term rotting. They too take part in Darwin’s “formation of vegetable mould-making mulch, the potting soil of life.

Around the spring equinox, another yearling deer was hit on the highway, and we barrowed it down to the river field. By the last day of the year, nothing remained but a felt of fur on the matted grass. The next flood washed even that away. When the water pulled back, there was no sign that this particular deer had ever walked the Willapa Hills. Yet even as it reentered the flow, it helped dozens of other creatures make it through the winter. Every road-killed or winter-killed creature, if returned to the fields or woods, gives back life.

When we moved to Tacoma, I decided I could no longer justify composting because our yard is quite small and because Tacoma has such a good recycling program, one that collects garden waste every two years and processes it into mulch which I’ve purchased for my raised beds the last four years. Rodale magazine started me composting nearly 40 years ago, and I took pride in compositing and recycling long before local communities started doing so.

I would be curious how my friends who are rural bloggers would react to Pyle’s work, if they would find it true to their own experiences. I suspect they would because Pyle is, most of all, a sharp observer of details, a strength of the book that even those who aren’t environmentalists would appreciate.