Is It Really Spring Already?

During yesterday’s hour long sun-break, I decided to run down to Pt. Defiance Rose Garden to see if the daffodils had started to bloom there since they are fairly close to blooming in my backyard, which is quite shaded.

There weren’t any, but the croci were everywhere, though I thought this bunch best reflected the moment.

Yellow Croci

I was shocked, though, to discover that the Rhododendrons that surround the Rose Garden were in full bloom,

Pink Rhododendron

months earlier than I’ve ever seen them bloom before. I looked back and found that March 24th was the earliest I ever gotten rhododendron pictures, and some years I haven’t gotten any until until mid-May. I guess they must be heat-sensitive, not light-sensitive, because although we had the hottest January in recorded history, we haven’t had much sunshine because of the constant clouds.

male Eurasian Widgeon

As an added treat, I spotted this Eurasian Widgeon among the Mallards and Widgeons floating on the pong.

More Time in Gray’s River

Though I’ll have to admit that their are portions of Sky Time in Gray’s River that I skim over rather rapidly, I’m sometimes amazed at how Pyle is able to hold my attention even when he’s writing about things I would normally avoid reading.

For me, his writing is at its best when he is describing a natural “scene” as in this description of June:

For now, at summer solstice, everything is gluttony. Caterpillars convert leaves with haste and immoderation. Brown slugs ingest the marigolds as if there were no tomorrow, which, if Thea has her way, there won’t be for them. Our doe walks through the backyard, making herself welcome by munching the thimble-berry beneath the buddleia. But she can’t stay good: she paces over to the currants, blueberries, and Asian pear and takes a bite of each before Thea chases her away. Minutes later I spot her just off the front porch, nibbling the Maianthemum, and her crunching tells me that those lush, heart-shaped leaves really are salad

The porch swallows swoop up into their nest hole with great facility and frequency, and I can hear the reasons peep through the battens. Brown flutterings outside my window the Swainson’s, jumping the bushes for red huckleberries. We cover the blueberries and red currants with netting to try to save a few for ourselves. As for our own takings, currants are already appearing on the oatmeal, and our own good lettuce and snap peas grace every meal. All this harvest seems early, with spring such a recent memory but not as precocious as the oldest leaves of Indian plum, already going yellow. Though the official first day of summer is just past, the first signs of the season’s fullness and consequent mortality have already appeared.

I’ve observed all of these things at one time or another, but I don’t think I would ever have thought of putting them all together. It seems like the same kind of cataloging that makes many of Whitman’s poems so powerful.

Pyle often manages to inform while entertaining:

Now, too, is when thistle goes to seed. While “thistledown” is a pretty word, and the sight of a million silky paragliders filling the summer sky is undeniably beautiful, the plant itself has more detractors than lovers. I should say “plants,” as there are about 464 species of thistles (genus Cirsiuin) in the world, 109 in North America, and 4 in the Willapa Hills. Only the Scots, who made the thistle their emblem, seem to revere it outright.

Thistles are composites (members of the aster family) whose heads have only the narrowest of disk flowers, bunched together like a badger-hair shaving brush. The flowers of most species are mauve, red-purple, or lavender, though some are pink or scarlet or, like the big, ediblestalked elk thistle of the high western mountains, white. Thistle scent is usually sweet, like honey and overripe plums. But if you stick your nose into a thistle head you’re likely to get pricked, as the flower, sepals, stem, and leaves are abundantly armed with sharp points. Walking through thistled ground in shorts leaves my legs scratched and itchy. Artichokes are big thistles. What we eat is the flesh at the base of the armed bracts and the “heart,” the head of the stem and the flower receptacle. The choke, the part we cut away, is the bunch of fibers that would become giant thistledown if allowed to grow.

The classic Scots thistle is reckoned to be the same as the common bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare or lanceolatum). According to tradition, it became the Caledonian national symbol by puncturing the bare feet of Danish invaders, whose howls of pain gave them away. The Scottish motto it inspired, Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one provokes me with impunity,” or “Wha duar meddle wi me”), equally describes the plant and the incited Highlanders. But I’ll bet lowland Scottish farmers hold no

more love for thistles than English farmers across the border The sad fact is that thistles tend to invade hayfields and ruin the the quality of the hay. Not only are they poor forage, but the spines can cause injury and infection in a cow’s mouth-imagine those prickles lodging in the soft gums of a Holstein.

Our native thistle species are important parts of local plant communities, but they tend to occur in less disturbed areas such as mountain meadows or coastal headlands. Alien thistles dominate the much-altered lowlands, especially bull thistle and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), a European import despite its common name. These “weeds” aggressively displace more desirable” plants, so farmers and nature reserve managers often spray them with herbicides. But agriculture in this area is not as intensive as it used to be, even in the years I’ve been here.

First, such passages remind me that Pyle is a Yale-trained ecologist. Second, it reminds me that in the past thistles have simply been a damnable weed that is nearly impossible to get rid of, but now that I’ve started birding I’ve anticipated their blooming because it provides the best opportunities to take pictures of Goldfinches. Of course, it wasn’t until I read this passage that I realized how widespread, and how numerous, thistles really are. I expect I’ll see them with a new appreciation this summer.

Pyle’s portrayal of August even managed to make me nostalgic with this passage:

Our own primary items of prey in the fecund wreckage of summer are the berries. Blackberries say high summer here and connote languorous afternoons, scratched-up hands and wrists purple-stained fingers, and the promise of pie. Three species o blackberries proliferate in western Washington. The only indigenous one, and the only one worth picking, according to many locals, is Rubus ursinus, known as dewberry, native blackberry, or just “the little ones.” Dewberry trails through the clear-cuts and over the road cuts in endless wiry vines with short, ankle-raking stickers and triplets of leaves that carry good color all winter long. The little-fingernail-sized berries aren’t very seedy, are the most flavorful of all, and ripen around mid-July.

I’d almost forgotten my family’s berry-picking excursions when I was five or six years old until I read this passage, a real mixed blessing to me because it seemed impossible to spend a day picking those berries without running into a garter snake up close and personal. Even those encounters couldn’t deter our efforts to stock up on enough blackberries to guarantee Blackberry Pie the rest of the winter.

Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as nostalgic as Pyle is about vanishing Post Offices or Granges. Still, it was amazing that he could sometimes find a specific detail that would even make these digressions interesting:

But at the next election, Krist Novoselic was elected Gatekeeper. The former bassist and cofounder of the band Nirvana, Krist, now deeply interested in political reform, settled one valley over and joined the Grange in hopes of building on its progressive past. He used his influence in Olympia to obtain from the State Grange a new-old owl, handsomely nickel-plated, rescued from some Grange Hall that had gone down. To put off such a fate here, he and Steve, Karl, Jim, Rick, Delvin, Krist, and other members have devoted themselves to restoring our hail. Dedicated in 1905 and repaired in fits and starts since, the building has been showing its hundred years. Already we have a new (all important) kitchen and a furnace that actually heats the hall without drowning out the reading of the minutes, and the building has been raised above flood level.

So we still meet, brothers and sisters with very different opinions who converse civilly for the most part and wash down too many homemade cookies with hot coffee. Stories are still told, which may be more important than the fading ritual and shrinking herds. Krist has now been elected Master, and he has instituted progressive election changes that reduce the endless and cumbersome old process to a brisk half-hour while allowing members to actually run for offices of their choice.

Our members from across K-M Mountain in Skamokawa, stimulated by new energy in the community, are taking steps to restore their own beautiful but badly flooded hail and begin anew. Even as the veterans dwindle, the Granges they made, like their villages, carry on.

At least for now.

Having lived in the city or suburbs my whole life, I can understand the appeal of small towns where you actually know and talk to your neighbors. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I would disappoint my neighbors by refusing to join the local church, Grange, or, even, support the local tavern — unless they served a great lunch or dinner. At times I found myself learning more about the small community of Gray’s River than I really wanted to know, and wished that Pyle spent more time on the ecology of the area.

Pyle’s Sky Time in Gray’s River

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.

Skunk Cabbage

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.

Not Every Day is a Good Day

I like to think every day has the potential to be a “good” day, but today didn’t seem to be one of those days. Despite waking up with a touch of diarrhea, I wanted to begin my day with a brisk walk, Skye’s first walk in three days.

It was a little chilly out, so I bundled up and headed out the door. Less than a 100 yards from the front door I spotted a large dog running off leash. I immediately headed back toward the house, hoping to avoid a confrontation since Skye invariably becomes aggressive when he spots another dog, especially when the dog is running free.

I didn’t think the dog had seen us, but as we almost reached the front door the dog came running up. I glanced back and could have sworn it was a wolf; I’m still convinced it was a wolf-hybrid that people have complained about here in the Pacific Northwest. Skye is 75 pounds, and this dog towered over him.

By this time Skye was going beserker on me, nearly impossible to control even with his choke chain. I finally got him pushed up against the door with my knees and got behind the glass screen door, all the time trying to get the other dog to back up, or, better yet, go away. He was having none of it. Apparently he wanted to come in the house with us. Naturally, I struggled to get the door unlocked in those tight quarters, and by then I was afraid Skye was going to end up biting me in order to get at the other dog.

I finally opened the door, pushed Skye in, and slammed the door shut as it got even closer. Luckily the dog seemed much mellower than Skye and probably just wanted to be “found.” He stood on the front porch for a little while looking rather wistful, while Skye slammed up against the window barking frantically. I’m sure if Skye hadn’t gotten so aggressive the other dog would have been fine, but I sure didn’t want to find out how long it would remain calm with Skye barking in its face. I certainly didn’t want to have to separate the two in a fight.

Before I’d managed to get my heart stop pounding a neighbor called and asked if I was okay. She’d driven up and heard me screaming at the dog trying to get it to leave. Of course, she thought I was yelling from inside the house, not the front porch. She asked if it was a wolf. She said it was huge, precisely the adjective I would have used to describe it.

Skye still wanted to walk after a couple minutes, much quicker than I did, by the way. Apparently out of sight is out of mind for him. I walked outside several times and looked around before I would even consider taking him for a walk. When we did go out at 1:00 PM, I kept my eyes open and avoided going too far from home.

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