Guilty as Charged

This passage from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac seemed particularly relevant after my recent encounter with the Sandhill Cranes at Ridgefield.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

I’m definitely guilty as charged. I began bird photography trying to capture the beauty of certain birds that I admired when I first saw them. I’m probably still guilty of paying more attention to those species I consider beautiful, like the male Wood Duck or the male Harlequin Duck than to their drabber relatives. But it seems impossible when you’re actually out there paying attention to birds you admire to ignore those other animals that don’t meet the common definition of beauty.

For instance, I doubt that many people would view the American Coot as a beautiful bird, but over the years I’ve found myself fascinated with them and have spent much time trying capture pictures of them with their offspring, one of the scruffiest birds I’ve ever seen. Over the years I’ve probably learned more about them than I have about either the Wood Duck or the Harlequin Duck.

American Coot

In fact, my appreciation of the American Coot seems to have evolved very much as Leopold’s appreciation of the crane did. One look at those strange green feet and I was hooked (and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the American Coot closer to the Sandhill Crane than to the ducks most people identify it with.)

This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

Although I have life-long love of nature and wilderness areas, I discovered birding relatively late in life, and will never have the kind-of-in-depth knowledge of wildlife that Leopold possesses,

And so they live and have their being—these cranes—not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

but the more I learn about the birds I photograph the closer I feel to nature, and to the environment. No one who birds would ever underestimate the value of marshes, with or without cranes, though until recently they were regarded as worthless areas to be filled so that houses could be built on the shores of beautiful lakes or, worse yet, filled in as garbage dumps so that they could be paved over as parking lots. Indeed, it seems rather ironic that the college where I got my undergraduate degree relied on a land fill to provide parking for its thousands of commuters, a college well known for its fisheries and oceanography programs.

It would be too bad if people only appreciated nature for its beauty, but if that beauty leads them to a true appreciation of nature in all its beauty and complexity then it’s a wonderful tool that I don’t mind relying on regularly in this blog.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness also inspired me to re-read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac AND SKETCHES HERE AND THERE, a book I read a year or so ago but never commented on, largely because I was so impressed by it that I didn’t think I could do it justice at the time (I doubt that I can do so even now). It was so good I was amazed I hadn’t encountered it before, though apparently everyone who has actually taken classes in ecology knows Leopold and his writing. According to Wikipedia, “Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation” and helped to found the Wilderness Society.

Luckily, Sand County Almanac reads more like a literary work than a scientific textbook. It’s a delightful read; I’m enjoying it nearly as much the second time as I did the first time. One of the first passages I underlined on my first reading takes on even more significance on a second reading when it becomes clear that it introduces one of Leopold’s major ideas:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Although this passage might seem more appropriate in the introduction of a child’s tale than in a college professor’s journal, it offered an interesting perspective when seen in light of this passage which appears just a few pages later:

The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.

These diametrically opposing statements force the reader to see the same event from two very different viewpoints, something most of us seldom bother to do. It’s even more remarkable to see the event from the perspective of two different animals, and not merely from a human perspective.

A few pages more and the reader is offered yet another perspective of this winter thaw:

Further on I find a bloody spot, encircled by a wide-sweeping arc of owl’s wings. To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want, but also a reckless abandonment of fear. The owl has reminded him that thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution.

We tend to forget that different animals see the same event from very different viewpoints, and certainly not from man’s viewpoint. Leopold argues we cannot get an accurate view of nature if we only see it from an Anthropocentric viewpoint:

It was a bolt of lightning that put an end to wood-making by this particular oak. We were all awakened, one night in July, by the thunderous crash; we realized that the bolt must have hit near by, but, since it had not hit us, we all went back to sleep. Man brings all things to the test of himself, and this is notably true of lightning.

Immediately Leopold proceeds to relate all the different events that changed the environment during the life of the oak as he cuts it up for firewood, events that most of us have never heard of or, if we have heard of them, dismissed as unimportant because they didn’t directly affect our life, no matter how devastating the effect on the prairie environment.

In a later essay, we learn when Leopold first gained his famous perspective.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Raised as a city slicker and a life-long dog lover, I’ve never had to overcome a prejudice against wolves, but this anti-wolf mentality is ingrained in our society, as we’ve seen recently in local attempts to eradicate wolves once again. At the very least they are seen as competitors for wildlife, at worst as potential threats to humans. It seemed like a giant leap forward for a forest ranger to recognize that even he had been brainwashed into viewing nature only from mankind’s short-term viewpoint.

Once you’ve realized just how limited our anthropocentric view of nature is, you might even be able to see our environment from the view of the mountain,

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

no longer fixated on short-term gains but able to consider how present actions may affect the ecology, including our future generations.

Spring’s Heralds

It’s often difficult to distinguish Winter drizzle from Spring showers here in the Pacific Northwest, so we rely on flowers to tell us when Spring has arrived. Judging from their popularity I imagine many Northwesterners, myself included, believe daffodils are the best herald of Spring.

After all, nearby Puyallup holds a Daffodil Parade every Spring. Daffodils have been naturalized in so many areas that even my generation assumes that they’re natives, but a little research proves otherwise.


Since it’s possible to see non-native flowers in people’s yards nearly year round here in the mild Pacific Northwest, the best indicators of Spring’s true arrival continue to be native species like the venerable Skunk Cabbage

 Skunk Cabbage

which is now in full bloom nearly everywhere.

I’ve even seen a few Trillium at Belfair, a favorite native herald of Spring,


though they often don’t last through the heavy rain storms we’re still experiencing.

Even a few Salmonberry have begun to join in on the Spring celebration.


How could I do otherwise?

Ev’rything is Satisfactch’l

It’s easy to get excited at the sight of a flock of rarely-seen Sand Hill Cranes flying overhead, but if you’re going to enjoy birding on a regular basis you need to continue to find beauty and joy in seeing the everyday residents of the wetlands and woodlands.

You need to spend fifteen minutes watching a Great Blue Heron stalking his prey,

Great Blue Heron

knowing full well you already have 250+ shots residing on your hard drive at home and that, more than likely, you’ll end up deleting these images shortly after you get home.

You still have to be thrilled upon hearing the male Red-wing Blackbird’s brilliant conk-la-ree,

 male Red-wing Blackbird

charmed by the female Red-Wing Blackbird’s quieter charms,

female Red-Wing Blackbird

or fascinated by her efforts to gather nesting materials.

female Red-Wing Blackbird

It doesn’t hurt if you still can manage to love the iridescent-green head of the all-too-common Mallard.

male Mallard

When you’re able to do that, any sunny Spring day becomes a Zip de Doo Dah kinda day (and life doesn’t get much better than that).