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.

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.