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.


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.


Go for a walk

I am a creature of habit, a woman of ritual. After lunch, I go for a 30-minute walk in the business park where I work. There are no sidewalks for long stretches, so I crunch through the red cinder rock or walk the white line if the road is open.

The weather is changing, and while I don’t idealize the seasons, or at least I try not to, this one is my favorite. I love fall. On a lunchtime walk earlier this month, I realized there’s something about the low angle of the late afternoon sun and the crispness in the air that makes me feel like I can exhale for the first time in months.

My love for fall isn’t about scarves or boots. I’m not that excited to put squash on my stoop. I refuse to drink pumpkin spice lattes. I embrace this season because it gives me what I need. The heat eases and the sky deepens. In the past weeks, I have felt like falling to my knees with relief more than once. Maybe there’s some nostalgia in this, a twinge of rose-filtered longing for new pens and bright maple trees and sitting in classrooms. But there’s also something happening physiologically. The temperature is dropping, sliding back into the 70s and 60s, and I am achy and teary with gratitude.

In the summer, I often come in from a midday walk with my mind refreshed, but my body sluggish. I am overheated and feel soft and round and thick. I gulp water. The feeling eases, but it makes me want to lie on the cool cement floor of my basement. I am not energized.

This week, I have been coming in openhearted and loose and light. Goals feel closer. I can do more, give more, be more. I want to hug my friends and sisters. I want to hand out flowers to strangers.

I feel the cool breeze on my face and watch the sun sliding down the sky. This is coming home.

– – – 

After reading Teju Cole’s Open City a couple of years ago, I became enamored of the idea of taking long solo walks through the city. The city I live in is no New York, but it’s walkable and my neighborhood is friendly. Being habitual, I tend to stick to my neighborhood loop. On Sundays, I often hike up Mt. Tabor, a nearby volcanic cinder cone. Mt. Tabor Park is green and quiet and filled with trails.

Some days, I’ll put my earbuds in and listen to an episode of WTF with Marc Maron or Beck’s Morning Phase. On others, I am quiet, letting my mind spool out and dip into new thoughts. It’s best if I don’t have a destination. When I walk as a mode of transportation, I feel bogged down by time constraints. It takes too long to get places and I’m impatient. When I walk as a means of meditation, everything falls away and I can be brought back to myself, to the earth, to acceptance.


Drink water

Before sitting down to write this, I opened the fridge and scanned my offerings. Kombucha. Cans of seltzer water. Almond milk. I had boxes of tea bags and fresh coffee in the pantry. An insistent part of my brain wanted any of those options, just a little something that would feel like a treat. A hit of sweet. A tart zing. 

But I filled a glass with water instead, dropped in a few ice cubes, and sat down at this desk. Water is the only vital thing. Writing often feels that way to me, too.

– – –

I went to Cape Cod last week for a conference. My coworkers and I stayed at the Chatham Bars Inn on the elbow of the cape, which looked like it had fallen out of the pages of The Great Gatsby. The curving, light-filled inn and its surrounding cottages and outbuildings faced the Atlantic Ocean, just across the street. The grounds lay quiet and manicured, the cottages quaint with shake shingle siding and white trim, but it was the ocean that stunned me.

The beach was in a harbor, ringed by sandbars and outcroppings. The water was calm, lapping at the shore. No cresting waves. No roar.

On the first afternoon of our stay, I joined my coworkers on the beach. We waded into the water, feeling refreshed after working outside and sitting in the sun. I could see my feet underwater. I watched minnows dart around and seaweed drift in the tide. I agreed to swim again the next morning.

We met on the beach at 6:00 the next day, jogging barefooted up and down the short stretch of land to get warm. Light was just rising from the horizon, and the air felt thick on my skin.

Bob dove in first and came up gasping. I knew I had to go in all at once or I wasn’t going to do it. I counted to three, clenching up, and then dove. It took my mind and body a few seconds to connect properly. The water was bracing. It made me feel alive. I could taste the salt in my mouth.

We sat, submerged in two feet of water, and watched the sunrise. I told myself, You are in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise. Pay attention. The sky glowed with a palette of rich, warm colors. I felt myself on the earth, in the ocean, in the moment. Connected. Grateful.

– – –

Water draws together villages and towns and people. We swim and wash our dishes and bathe each other and drink water. Water separates us. Salty oceans sit unforgiving and mighty between the continents. Water carries us to new places. Water is a blessing and a scarce resource. 

I drink from my glass and I think about how more of us struggle to have enough clean water. I think about where my water comes from. I try to say no to Aquafina and Dasani and other corporate-fueled bottles of “purified” drinking water. I tell myself I could carry bottled water in my car on hot summer days for homeless men and women in my city. 

When I think about water, I see all of us connected. I have questions about our future. I hope desperately for answers. Water is the only vital thing.