Miscellany Nature

The mystery of nature’s engineers

When I was younger, my sisters and I would search for “beaver sticks” at the coast. The beach we frequented is split by a creek that runs into the Pacific Ocean. Near the banks of the creek, we’d gather pieces of driftwood with telltale ends chewed to a point, shaped by beaver teeth marks. When I showed Ryan and Maeve some of these sticks on a recent visit, Ryan thought I was pulling his leg.

The thing is, even though I knew that beavers gnawed on those sticks, I still second-guessed my knowledge. I’ve never seen a wild beaver, but I see evidence of them all the time, even in the wetlands near my urban home.

Beavers were here. (Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge)

Beavers are a little mysterious to us. Nocturnal and industrious, they leave plentiful evidence of their work as “nature’s engineers” — the output of which seems to be increasingly convincing scientists that maybe we ought to start learning from beavers how to adapt to changing climates.

As Leila Philip writes in Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, “Beavers are the only animals apart from man that radically transform their environment.”

And the wonder in all of it is that we don’t exactly know why. We don’t know how much they know, or what compels them to make decisions about building lodges and dams. It can even be tough for archaeologists to tell the difference between things that were built by beavers and things that were built by early humans. (Their materials were the same: rocks, mud and wood.)

The older I get, the more I’m embracing the idea of not-knowing. As a lifelong learner, I tend to run on the philosophy that the more knowledge I gather, the better off I am. But life events have humbled that working philosophy. (Being a parent, for one, is a constant exercise in accepting that more information rarely leads to one right answer.)

Ryan and I sometimes refer to Maeve as a “little beaver.” Like most toddlers, she loves to busy herself shuttling books and toys into a fort or dragging blankets and pillows and couch cushions where she wants them. Her rationale is not evident to us, but it’s not supposed to be.

She’s occupied with a sense of discovery, interacting with the world around her as it reveals its many possibilities. Perhaps it’s important that parts of her play-as-work remain unknown to us.

As Alison Gopnik writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter, “Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done.”

Ice cream installation discovered on the living room floor earlier this month.

Family Nature

Taking a walk on toddler time

Nothing has taught me as much about slowing down and experiencing the moment like accompanying my toddler on a walk around the block. (And I thought living through the early days of the pandemic was an exercise in presence!)

My knee-jerk reaction is to keep her moving — to make our walk the verb that it’s supposed to be. But Maeve wants to stop and pick up rocks. She wants to point out balls in neighbors’ yards and to touch the tulips. She’s delighted when she can spend several minutes with the cats down the block. She knows when we get to a certain hedge, we’ll probably play a quick game of hide-and-seek.

So I’ve learned to slow down and to let her lead, even when she doesn’t take us anywhere but to a particular flowering rosemary bush to watch the bees do their work for several long minutes.

As Jenny Odell says in Saving Time, “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.”


A bioregion in my backyard

Flowering salmonberry, Oregon grape, Western trillium, all spotted on a local hike

I used to think that knowing the names of flowers or birds or trees was a lost art, something left only to hobby gardeners and birders.

Then the pandemic shrunk my world down to my home and my yard most days. I looked out of the front window and watched plants bloom and grow leaves and shed them and go bare as the seasons changed.

I grew interested enough to download an app to help me identify the birds hopping around and the flowers as they blossomed. Then came a couple of bird feeders, a pair of binoculars with an arm that holds my phone so I can take photos, and some field guides from the library.

I hardly bat an eyelash now when I walk through the neighborhood, cataloguing the neighbors’ yards: forsythia, hyacinth, weeping cherry.

Appreciating backyard nature has become a way for me to mark the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. It’s also a practice that keeps me grounded in place when I’ve otherwise been disconnected from local community.

As Jenny Odell writes in her book How to Do Nothing, “Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.”

I’ve seen this curiosity blossom among my peers, too, with friends in their 30s and 40s ordering seed catalogues and sharing bulbs and veggie starts. Ryan and I recently dropped in on some retired friends and our conversation turned to bird-friendly backyard habitats. My friend Mike taught me that English ivy is an invasive species in the Northwest, and now I can’t unsee it on hikes, steadily making its way up the trunks of every tree in local parks and green spaces.

Like all ordinary endeavors, the habit of paying attention to the plants and creatures that live where we do changes us, one day at a time.

“Redwoods, oaks, and blackberry shrubs will never be ‘a bunch of green,’ writes Odell. “A towhee will never simply be ‘a bird’ to me again, even if I wanted it to be. And it follows that this place can no longer be any place.”


Taking a mental vacation

I have found that I’m craving sensory input about other places since being mostly confined to our apartment and local parks. (Today marks day 73 of social distancing, and although Kansas City has officially reopened, our life continues to look the same as it has for weeks.)

I dug out my external hard drive last week to look at photos of past vacations, trying to remember what it felt like not just to have a trip to anticipate, but to feel my feet in the ocean or sand in my scalp. Earlier this weekend, after too much doomscrolling, we turned on the jungles episode of Our Planet. It’s comforting to focus on birds and bugs instead of huge, unanswerable questions. (We’re all bird-watchers now.)

In “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” Danez Smith writes,

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

The poem, as I read it today, grounds me in the possibilities of nature. I can picture the blinding light, feel the cold seeping through a down jacket and wool socks. I’m soothed by letting my imagination take me somewhere else.

Smith’s lines remind me of the lyrics in Brandi Carlile’s “Have You Ever”:

Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
And everything there feels just as it should
You’re part of the life there
You’re part of something good
If you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods

While we can’t go far, we can imagine our way into the forests and tundras and coastlines. We can watch the bluebirds and cardinals in the neighborhood. I am finding that there are many ways to see the world.


Stop spending money at businesses you don’t respect

I’m a millennial, so I have a fair amount of anxiety about the financial reality I will be living into in adulthood. (“The systems are failing us!” I often yelp at my fiancé or friends or anyone engaged in current-events conversation with me.)

One of the things that helps me is remembering that art can save us. Matthew Arnold says it best, as engraved on The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: “Art still has truth, take refuge there.”

Another helpful tactic is remembering that we have a public option. You probably think about health insurance when you hear the phrase, but it’s a cornerstone of our public policy. State parks, city pools, libraries, highways and public schools are all examples of the public option.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in light of what’s not working for everyone. Today (and tomorrow!) is a made-up holiday for the biggest American retailer. Its warehouse employees wear adult diapers so we can get our guaranteed two-day delivery. The behemoth didn’t pay a dollar in federal income tax last year. Workers are striking to protest low wages. We love the convenience of shiny new industry disruptions (Lyft, Postmates, Instagram), but we’d be wise to remember who they (mostly) serve: Big Profit.

The public option gives me hope because institutions like libraries and parks and the Postal Service keep me connected to other people and my community without causing harm. I mailed some hand-written notes and bought two sheets of Sesame Street stamps today instead of shopping online. It feels good to acknowledge how our tax dollars contribute to our civic wellbeing.

As Austin Kleon writes, “I think of the public library as one of the last spaces in this country where you can go and feel like a real citizen. You’re not being sold anything. You’re welcome to be who you are, or work on becoming what you want to be. The library is there for you.”

I’m also drawn lately to Jenn Armbrust’s envisioning of the feminine economy. In fact, it’s what inspired me to launch this very blog a few years ago — the title of this post and several others come from her Proposals for the Feminine Economy. Her rainbow wheel of feminine principles highlights traits that I feel when I’m exploring a library branch or sitting in a park with friends: ease, connecting with nature, intimacy.

Like Jenn says, if we want to keep joyful, communal things accessible to everyone, we need to support them with our time and money and voice. Pay the fees (unless your library is like mine and recently removed late fines, which makes them an even better institution). Show up. Share the places you respect with people you love.


Spend more time in nature

I love fall, but this year I’m seeing it as never before. I have my city to thank for being where it is on the middle of the map, I suppose. Some delicious combination of early-season rain and cool days has left us with a jaw-dropping show of color on every tree, pops of crimson and orange, gold and lime.

Kansas City has seasons, unlike my western Oregon hometown, where the months can seem to blur into each other during the more damp, gray half of the year.

There’s an audacity to a showy autumn. We’re giving up the ghost, the leaves say, but not before going out in a flash of brilliance. In a political and cultural space where those too long in power can’t let go of anything, can’t say yes our time is over, can’t accept that we may need to make space for what is to come, they ought to watch the leaves: bold, fleeting, now crunching under our feet.


Practice radical receptivity

 Kanazawa, 2014
Kanazawa, 2014


I am walking along a curving path next to my sister Erika, silent with expectation. We are in Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s “great gardens.” It is morning and the park is quiet, hushed by a blanket of fog. We have traveled to Japan to spend two weeks in this strange country, and here we are now, visiting this garden in Kanazawa for my sister the horticulturalist. I am content to follow her to Japanese parks and gardens. Their order soothes me.

“Ohhhh, wow,” she breathes from just behind me. I turn around to see her gazing at a towering, fat, ancient pine tree. She is already besotted. 

The tree is mesmerizing, its trunk a rich, woodsy red and its roots braided and rising up from the moss. So many others around us are also looking up into the tree’s height,  snapping photos, smiling in the foreground. Why aren’t they approaching it? I wonder. I look over at Erika and she points to a wooden fence encircling the tree. Oh. It’s protected from us. What a radical concept.

– – –

This wasn’t the first time we had seen trees tended to as though they’re royalty. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Back in Tokyo earlier in the week, we stood in a park framed by skyscrapers, staring in wonder at a 300-year-old pine tree that was propped up carefully, its long branches supported with bamboo splints and stakes. The tinny voice speaking through our tour headphones told us that the tree is pruned—by hand—twice a year. This process takes about three weeks. Erika confessed she was “obsessed with” the tree. So are the Japanese, and my only response is reverent silence.

– – –

After I returned home, friends would ask, “Why Japan? What was so interesting about it?”

I would attempt to wrap some words around our experiences, to explain the dichotomy of tradition and innovation that we encountered over and over. I can’t explain the multitudes that Japan contains, but I do know that beyond the cartoon mascots and bullet trains, this country taught me a lesson, clear and simple: the wisdom of nature is not to be ignored. 

There is a holiness in the way the Japanese tend to their natural surroundings with such respect, such deference. They tie ropes from the crown of a tree to its lower branches so the snow will slide to the ground and not break the limbs. These rope cones, these wooden splints say: the planet does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is our mother and our sister and it gives us things we cannot replenish. 

Perhaps this is why we’re fenced out. Why the Japanese lay hands on trees instead of slashing them with chainsaws and snipping them with pruning shears. Why one afternoon in a Tokyo city park, I found my sister standing next to a pine tree, her hand flat on its bark. Listening. Learning. While I had been busy framing a street musician just so in a video clip to post online.

I can be proud and arrogant. I want to shape my experiences for myself and others, not let them shape me. But I was reminded so often in the silent places of a crowded country that trees have wisdom. When I consider this, and other unusual ideas, I learn to listen. When my eyes are open and clear, I can become receptive to the curiosity of children, the love of animals, the beauty of uncertainty.