A canopy of red alders in winter. (Image: Brendan McGarry)
A friend of mine calls alders “trash trees.” He is an arborist, and as a pragmatic person who maintenances trees to fit into the grid, alders aren’t “good” trees. They are fairly weak, short lived, are rot prone, and pop up unwanted. They are also native, and as a result host loads of other species, and possesses a subtle seasonal variability I find a beautiful part of our landscape.
These differences of opinion are well reflected in the blocked up properties of dense, urban Capitol Hill. Based on my observations, some people care dearly about managing every last inch of space, others are willing to let things go wild, and some seem entirely oblivious to the world outside their indoor spaces. (Landscaping is also a privileged act, not simply about “caring” or “not caring”). I wonder how the red alder, Alnus rubra, the common and unassuming tree, fits into our world on the Hill?
There are certainly plenty of alder trees growing around Capitol Hill. They are in the Arboretum, in St. Mark’s Greenbelt, in Interlaken Park. However, few yards appear to purposefully invite red alders into their limited spaces. Why is this? Continue reading
One of the things that signal summer to me are dragonflies. One day I look up and suddenly they’re there: jeweled, colorful insects, jetting through the air and changing direction on a dime to scoop up unsuspecting prey. Maybe this isn’t your idea of summer but I think dragonflies are worth your attention this season.
I’ve been feeling a little blue about the state of insects lately (to put it lightly). I am convinced that I belong to a generation with a shifting baseline, unknowingly living through a major decline in insects because I grew up without massive amounts of insects around (see the link above for why this matters). But despite this feeling of dread, I have to remind myself that while some humans have seriously destructive and potentially irreversible tendencies, many insects have been around a long, long time too. Continue reading
Your Capitol Hill lawn is gender-fluid, too. Bobby Morris? That’s a different essay.
Pride month is here and I have something to tell you: Nature is queer. I don’t mean strange (though it is that too), but that the natural diversity of gender and sexuality in the Hill’s nature is part of its beauty. Culture can blind us, sometimes presenting facts that are actually fiction, particularly about the more than human world. Let’s bust that up a bit.
I write this as a white, straight, cisgendered man inexperienced in getting into the weeds on the subject of the LGBTQ world. Pride is easily co-opted as social capital, something I’d like to avoid. I am writing this not to co-opt but in an attempt to offer a few clumsy words to uplift some stories of natural diversity (and hopefully not inadvertently perpetuate violence or my privilege).
The complexities of gender and sexuality in nature (you may need to be reminded that this includes us), are fathomless. Despite being trained as an environmental educator, I am not a people expert; we will speak here about the more than human world, possibly as lessons for being human. The version of nature we are often given, of male and female organisms on an endless trail of sexual reproduction is a far cry from reality. Continue reading
Have you ever learned about something and suddenly start noticing it everywhere? For instance, I had never really paid much attention to how many late 90s Honda civics are still on the road until I was driving one. There’s a switch in our heads for recall. This is an ideal time of year to train that human ability for recognition towards bird songs.
I’ve talked about why birds sing in various articles on CHS, but to review: birds vocalize to communicate. That could be a drawn-out daily song to tell a neighbor this is that a territory has occupants. Or a raucous screech to tell everyone in the vicinity that there’s a cat roaming nearby. I find that by paying attention to bird song I see more birds, so much so that I’ll stop mid-stride when I hear a particular song or call.
If you are interested in trying to see birds, a helpful skill is being able to find them by their vocalizations first. An early job of mine was as a point counter, walking transects in Northern California, recording bird abundance. You’d think I would just walk around looking for birds, but mostly I was walking around listening. I liken learning bird calls to learning a language, though undoubtedly humans fall short of fluency. I had a step up by learning at an early age, but anyone can learn a few songs. You might already know the sound, even if you don’t know who is making it.
Below are a few birds I hear all over urban Puget Sound and that are common and readily found on the Hill. Continue reading
Happy daylight savings! You woke up this morning, all your devices are set an hour forward, you get on with your day. Seems pretty simple right? We get a bit more daylight out of the day and we move on with our lives. Not quite.
All vertebrates need to sleep. Physiologies differ between species, individuals, and is related to age or other endogenous factors — meaning we (as in vertebrates) all need different amounts of sleep depending on who we are. A famous example of a seemingly aberrant model is that of dolphins, who go on autopilot to sleep, turning off half their brains to rest but continue traveling to the surface to breath via their blowholes. We have it easy, we just have to not smother ourselves with our pillows.
We humans all need to get to sleep a good amount of successive hours and our bodies know this. If your body is functioning fairly well, it knows when it’s time to go to sleep. We have specific circadian rhythms, dictated mainly by the pineal gland, which sends out the message in the form of melatonin. When your eyes don’t see light for awhile, it’s bedtime. Melatonin, is neurohormone that initiates sleepiness. When daylight hits those eyelids, your body stops the melatonin rush, and you start to wake up.
As I write this, we’re getting ready for another round of snow, and while I don’t know how much will fall, I do know that it’s hard to be outside in cold weather. The warm-blooded wild creatures that live on the hill have to continue to find food, or at least not waste energy, despite the conditions. Unlike some species, which can shut their entire bodies down, even to the point of freezing solid, most birds and mammals need to maintain bodily functions through the coldest months. Birds don’t exactly have it easy, they can’t layer on fat with high metabolisms and the need to be light enough to fly, but they do have the benefit of being able to migrate away.
What do squirrels, raccoons, or even rats do in a cold spell?
I haven’t seen frost in quite a while. And yet, even if we don’t get much snow on the Hill, I know every winter I can count on some frost. Mundane? Well, you may or may not know that there are several kinds of frost, brought on by a variety of conditions. Frost is fascinating.
You mostly know when to expect it. After that clear, cold night, you wake up, ready to scrape the windows or watch your step as you walk down the block. In its simplest form frost is moisture in the air, gaseous water, that has settled into a liquid state, and frozen, on a surface. For this to happen, the air temperature needs to get below dew point, the temperature where gaseous water turns to liquid (why we get dew on our lawns overnight in cool temperatures). Frost mostly happens when the air is saturated with moisture.
When we do get cold, clear weather in our area, we see a lot of frost because we have moisture to spare. In a more dry place, even on the other side of the Cascades, frigid temps don’t always mean an accumulation of frost on the available substrates. Less moisture, less frost. Continue reading
I’m not going to pretend that every person who reads Pikes/Pines participates in the tradition of putting up a tree for the holidays. I generally see Christmas as wasteful, contributing to the consumer nightmare that is the contemporary United States. I’m also a solidly secular individual. However, it’s a time of year when I get to see distant friends and family, eat wonderful food, and I rather like getting thoughtful presents. The trees themselves are also a gift, of sorts, bringing a piece of forest life into Capitol Hill homes and neighborhood hangouts.
When I was in high school, I worked at a Christmas tree lot in Seattle. All our trees came from a family farm near Shelton, Washington and I got to know the different species intimately. We had Douglas fir, noble, and grand firs, the odd blue spruce, and a few pines.
According to a 2012 census by the USDA, Oregon and North Carolina produce 79% of the Christmas trees in the United States. Lewis and Mason Counties in Washington are our state’s largest producers, but are far behind counties like Ashe County, North Carolina and Clackamas County, Oregon. Only a small portion of real trees in the country are from u-cut operations, where you show up and cut your tree, or from non-agricultural sources, individually harvested on National Forest Service land. Most are grown as monocrops and shipped around the country. Fraser firs are the most-sold US tree, noble and Douglas firs second and third. Continue reading
American Robins are common in our yards, but almost never come to feeders. Habitat is what attracts them. (Image: Brendan McGarry)
When I was eight years old, few things were more exciting than birds. This excitement may feel eccentric to certain folks. However I’m not unique in this. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that at least 47 million people in the U.S. watch birds, in one form or another. Few of these people probably match the fervor of my 12-year-old-self seeing “life birds” — species I’d never seen before — but I bet many feed birds.
There are likely more people on Capitol Hill who feed birds than identify themselves as birdwatchers. Bird feeding is a $5 billion industry. Inevitably, people on the Hill feed birds. I have been feeding birds most of my adult life. Not only do I get to enjoy feathered friends with morning coffee, but it gives me a sense of who is in the neighborhood, helping me feel less disconnected from the world.
So, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.
A burying beetle species found on a deer carcass. (Image: Brendan McGarry)
Most folks have an aversion to dead, rotting, and decaying things. They smell bad, they have a weird texture, they’re just simply gross. Most of us, if we had it our way, wouldn’t deal with the slime that forms in the bottom of the garbage can. However, in a strange way, this is the stuff of life: in the unmaking of things that once lived, the new foundations of life are found.
We are on the verge of a holiday in which we celebrate our fascination with death. Halloween mostly focuses on the spiritual side this. I thought we could think about what happens to the corporeal after life.
Things certainly don’t just fall apart by themselves. We can’t just throw our yard waste in a pile and expect it to turn to compost immediately. A whole host of organisms, we’ll broadly call decomposers, break them down. On a simplistic level, a decomposer picks apart the larger pieces in the process of getting sustenance, leaving divisions in its wake.
There are fungi, bacteria, insects, and even vertebrates that aid in decomposition. If we get into it, only fungi and bacteria really break things down enough to be considered fully “decomposed,” broken into essential ingredients of life like nitrogen or carbon. The rest are just detritivores that aid the process. No matter the role, they’re all important. So let’s consider some possibly familiar, and less familiar, decomposers that live on the Hill. Continue reading