Wonder Challenge Update

It has been nearly two months since I issued the Wonder Challenge to myself. I can report moderate progress. The observing muscles are flexing as I spend more time outdoors. Sometimes I feel a little squirt of delight when I realize I have heard the first hermit thrush of the year or nearly stepped on the first calypso orchid blooming under a cedar tree. These moments are recorded in the journal I keep, writing every morning without fail.

But as far as pulling out the camera to snap a photo or post on the blog, I haven’t been so disciplined. Instead I let the moment pass and go back to my task. Or, I go out to work in the garden. An online friend recently observed that her garden is greedy for time, and I agree. So is mine. All of a sudden it’s time to get seeds in the soil if I am to have vegetables and flowers. And the weeds flourish in the benign weather. I am perpetually behind, from the perspective of having a completely tended and kempt garden. It will never be so…there is only one of me, and I continually balance priorities against distractions. I accept the imperfection of the garden, and of myself.

This photo is from a couple weeks ago, when John and I went out to inspect a campground for trees that pose a hazard to campers. We moved steadily, but were always aware of the noise of melting snow rushing downriver. He marveled at the power of water, and I paused to take a look. How the color of the water reflects the sky! How the shape of Cone Mountain is so familiar, how I immediately recall of the trail that passes below it. The years that we have both lived and worked in this landscape make up a significant portion of our lives, yet the woods and rivers and mountains continue to surprise, delight, and frighten us. We belong to this place. To pull up roots and go somewhere else is almost unthinkable but at times we both long to go.

Back to work. As we moved from tree to tree, we noticed insects emerging from pock marks in the sandy soil. When we stopped to look, I thought they were bees with their striped and slightly furry bodies. But they couldn’t be. They only had two wings, so must be flies that mimic bees. Never saw that before.

It occurs to me that there are at least two kinds of wonder. One is the surprise at witnessing something you’ve never experienced before—which I hope continues to happen for me. But the second kind of wonder is for the familiar, what we know that still has the power to bring joy and curiosity. It’s a wonder to be friends with someone for over 25 years, to have walked miles together, to have been distant then greet each other after an absence. And to still wish the best for them, to watch them struggle and learn and grow and know they are doing the same for you. How is it that people connect—to each other or a place—and maintain the connection? We humans need this, but it remains a mystery. If it was easy, that mystery would have been solved. I wonder about it, but am content for the mystery to remain.

So wonder is alive and well. The challenge is to write and post more, to transform wonder into images and words that may be shared. May this be of benefit—to me, and to readers.

Spring Cleaning

warbler

I’ve been spring cleaning.

My usual pattern is to start waking up sometime in late February. What seemed like a warm cozy shelter in December now feels stagnant, stale, cluttered and claustrophobic. Outside is still cold, gray, and snowy. It would be a perfect time to take a vacation but I never do. Instead I put my head down and trudge through my work routine until winter is officially over. As I store my winter clothing and gear, I cast a critical eye over things and clear away what no longer serves. It can feel quite ruthless but also liberating. On a rainy April afternoon I was sorting through a box of papers in the studio and came across this old sketchbook with a drawing of a Nashville warbler. I looked out the window and saw that the pussywillow catkins were in this exact state of flowering. I wondered…had I seen or heard the warblers this year? They are transient, moving through town rapidly on their way to their breeding habitat higher in the mountains. It’s possible they had come through and I didn’t notice. They are insectivores and the pussywillows are clouded with bugs when they bloom.

But this year has been different. A warm spell in mid-February brought the catkins out early. They held static while winter returned for a few weeks and then just recently progressed to the pollen stage. Then it was warm enough for the bees to emerge from the hive and the air was filled with their gentle buzzing. But I never heard or saw the warblers.

No one can say what “normal” weather is any more. Neotropical migrants like warblers must figure out the timing of their journey. If it’s too cold when they’re on the move, their food won’t have emerged and they won’t have the energy to stay warm. Maybe this year the birds are holed up somewhere south of here waiting for the right conditions.

Finding the sketchbook and thinking about warblers was one direction of wondering. The other direction of wondering was the date of the drawing. In 2011 it was not uncommon for me to pick up a sketchbook and record a moment in the garden. In 2018 I never do. What has changed? I have always been burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and northern European Protestant work ethic. Work before play. And try as I might to change my mind, art is play. So the paycheck must be earned and the laundry must be done before I go play. All work and no play make Debra a dull girl, which is what I have become. Even before I found the sketchbook, I was aware of wanting to reconnect with wonder and joy. Writing and drawing and walking are all part of that.

As I make my way through clutter and untidiness in my house, I am also spring cleaning my mind. As much as I have resisted, I have what I call the “digital attention span”. In order to engage with the human world around me, I use many of the tools that everyone else uses. It is so handy to text and email, so handy to pay my bills online. And so seductive to look things up without opening a physical dictionary or encyclopedia or map, to listen to an audiobook or read on the screen or snap a photo with the iPad. Without knowing how it happened, I find myself spending more and more of my time looking at a screen (including right now). The digital attention span speeds me up, makes me impatient, keeps me from using all my senses and my hands. It is numbing and exhausting to disconnect myself from the tangible world, and all the more disconcerting to try to reconnect.

Yet the world is right here. Physical things exist. The earth turns on its axis just as it did yesterday and will tomorrow. Spring is advancing. The white-crowned sparrows’ call is more insistent every day. The buds on the deciduous trees are a little more swollen each day. The Nashville warblers are out there somewhere, I hope. This is what I want to be attending to in spite of my knowledge of the warming planet, human hubris, folly, and cruelty. Where my attention goes, so goes my life. The necessity of a good spring cleaning is more apparent. Time to sort my thoughts about work and play, about what matters and how to spend the time I have left. Someone once told me that it’s best to live life without regrets, but it’s too late for that. The question now is to decide whether I will let them add to the clutter.

I think not. Going forward, I will draw more.

Sustainability and Resilience

lemmings

Overthinking…it’s what I do. 🙂

Sustainability and Resilience:

I like these two words very much but I fear they are on the verge of being overused. When words are repeated too many times they become meaningless. Consider what has happened to “friend” and “like”. Or “happiness” or “freedom”. Say “friendfriendfriend” over and over and it becomes just noise. It stops meaning a familiar person with whom one shares an affinity, holds in regard and even affection, a companion along life’s path. Or worse, it becomes a buzzword and is loaded with one agenda or another.

It’s too bad such things can happen to words. Language has its limitations.

So I want to consider sustainability and resilience before they fall off the cliff of overuse.

What I like about sustainability is the long-term implications. Sustain has a Latin root, meaning to hold up from under. To sustain is to keep from sinking or failing, to uphold and support. I picture a solid foundation—whether it is constructed with stone or sound concepts. Perhaps a well-built bridge, sturdily attached to both sides of a chasm and designed to bear a load. Or a bridge from one idea to another, explained in such a way that a listener can follow the reasoning. We hear about sustainable economies, sustainable energy, sustainable landscapes, even sustainable trails. But nobody ever gets into the details of what sustainability means and what it might look like. Too often sustainability implies a dream of steady funding for whatever we hope will persist into the future–an economy that doesn’t go up and down on whims, or an endless free energy supply, or a trail that holds up without maintenance. But without a solid foundation, sustainability is just wishful thinking.

I’ve been thinking about sustainable trails because that’s my day job. I’ve done some reading of my agency’s glossy propaganda and even attended a webinar. There are a lot of words and cheerful thoughts that leave me scratching my head in bafflement. Sustainability is a nice idea if you are building a trail system from scratch. You can design it for the kind of use it will get, avoid the sensitive soils, plants and animals, and construct it so that it will require minimal maintenance by unskilled volunteers. In other words, you can design a trail based on a solid foundation. On the other hand, you can try to retrofit an existing trail system that was built for entirely different kinds of uses than it receives today, that was never meant for the volume of use it gets, that responds to human and natural agents of change in the environment, all in a time when the legislative body is unwilling to invest in an amenity that many members of the public value. Sustainability becomes much more challenging in the absence of a foundation. For example, I have come to wonder if bridges across backcountry streams are unsustainable. Trail bridges have a lifespan of 30 or 40 years. They can decay or be washed away or the ground holding them up can be undercut by the stream. In the 1970s, timbers and even entire bridges were flown into the wilderness by helicopter. As those bridges fail, no one (or at least me and the people I hang out with) imagines that money will be spent in such a way again in our lifetimes.

Which brings me to resilience. Resilience also has a Latin root, meaning to leap back. A thing regains its original shape after being stretched or compressed. Elastic comes to mind. Or a tethered balloon that returns to its place after being bounced and bobbed around. We hear about resilient landscapes, perhaps forests that quickly return to health and productivity after a disturbance such as fire. And resilient employees, who keep chugging along in a chaotic and rapidly-changing workplace. Resilience is the ability to recoil undamaged and unchanged after pressure or shock. I wonder what makes a thing resilient? It doesn’t seem to be a permanent state. My experience of elastic indicates that it works as designed for awhile, but after so much stretching it eventually wears out and your pants fall down. A tethered balloon bounces back until it has been hit so many times that it deflates or pops. So I expect that resilience is dependent on the repetition of pressure and shock as well as the forces involved. And entropy, that state of increasing disorder in the absence of infusions of energy. In other words, stuff wears out unless you work at keeping it going.

So a thoughtful reflection on sustainability and resilience leads me to the conclusion that these words have important meanings and shouldn’t be lightly tossed around. Both words indicate to me that some effort is required to truly be sustainable and resilient. There must be a firm foundation supporting that which we want to keep from collapsing. And resilience must be tended or it will wear out. Where will we put our attention and energies?

I’ll be watching for these words to go over the edge. And be sad to see them go.

Wonder

Today is the vernal equinox and my 58th birthday.

I have spent the past few days trying to get my head around being 58 and it’s discombobulating. I suppose I had vague expectations about what it would be like. When I was 25, I anticipated that my pigtails would have turned white by now. But they have not. My hair has lost its red-gold brightness, and is a few shades darker and duller. Curly white hairs are liberally threaded through, and there are silvery streaks at my temples and hairline. When I was 40, I figured I would end up leathery-faced with interesting lines from many seasons of fieldwork. But thirty-five years of consistent moisturizer and sunscreen use have saved me from complete leatheriness. There are fine lines around my eyes, the flesh of my cheeks and jawline have sagged, my mouth has thinned, but there are still freckles. I recognize me as me. There are other symptoms of wear and tear that modern medicine has been able to repair–that floppy ankle that had rolled too many times, cataract surgery which made it possible for me to do close work without glasses, a thumb tendon that is just now healing from a minor fix. Being post-menopausal means I’m no longer lean and muscular, but there is still strength and stamina under a comfortable layer of fat. At least that’s what they tell me when I go to the gym. I am “highly functional” for my age.

Nope, what’s weird about being 58 is putting a number on how I feel. I’ve been throwing away mailings from AARP for years, because I don’t see myself and my concerns reflected in their magazine and website. I can’t afford to retire. It’s strange to think that I qualify for the senior discount at places that offer senior discounts. Me, a senior? How can that be?

But there’s evidence–I have decades of memories of being an adult. Decades of perspective on the living that I’ve made and the work that I’ve done. I’ve learned some hard lessons, integrated some hard experiences. I’ve watched other people’s children grow from infants to adulthood. Most people seem younger than me now. I’ve been in Ramekin Cottage for thirteen years. Henry the big gray cat is twelve and a half. I’ve been divorced for almost as long as I was married and have no regrets at all.

What the hell did I expect? Maybe that’s the thing–I was so busy living that I forgot to have specific expectations of being an “old” person. Perhaps age is relative.

What I do know is that today is the first day of spring. It has been a beautiful warm sunny day. There are just a few scraps of snow lingering in the shady part of my garden. Crocuses are blooming. As I poke around in the flowerbeds, I see all sorts of shoots and sprouts including some beloved old friends. Winter is over and it’s time to clear the fog from my brain. Overcome the inertia that has settled upon me. Thinking about being 58 helped me to realize that I’ve stopped doing a lot of things that stimulate my mind, give me joy, help me feel connected to myself and the way I want to live. I stopped writing this blog. I stopped drawing and I rarely paint. I let my job suck my soul dry, and I stopped going to the woods on my own time because it reminded me of being at work and having to face masses of people as a uniformed ranger. I have been hiding in plain sight.

I don’t like how I feel. Sour, resentful, fat and sloppy. Where is my zest for life? What happened to my sense of wonder? What happened to gratitude? Is this how I want to spend the rest of whatever time I’ve got?

The answer is a resounding NO. I have decided: this blog will be revived as a way to document a renewed quest for wonder in every day life. There will be more small expeditions with sketchbook and camera in hand. There will be more noticing and less numbness. There will be observation and reflection on the human condition, as in “I wonder why…”

Today was a tiny start. It was a perfect day for sorting the beehive–rotate the brood boxes, scrape the burr comb off frames, clean out the honey super, add the queen excluder. I saw that many of the foragers were packing pollen back to the hive. Wonder where they’re finding that? It’s a good sign, since pollen provides the protein the queen needs to lay eggs and increase the colony. I had big plans for a hike, but by the time I finished with the bees it was too late to go to the place I had in mind. So I grabbed a small sketchbook and drove to a place where I knew I would find a few spring wildflowers. I left all digital devices in the truck and walked up the hill, stopping to look at the shiny yellow petals of sagebrush buttercups and the whiskered faces of sagebrush violets. Meadowlarks sang, my first hearing of their clear notes this year. When I saw the elk on the skyline I stopped and went to ground. We were all taking advantage of the mild day to soak up some sunshine on a south-facing slope. I idled for awhile, peering at small leaves emerging from the soil and the rounded stones left by the glacier that created this ridge. Wondered if the ticks are out and felt slightly crawly under my clothes. The sound of the interstate washed over me and I separated myself from the irritation I feel at the fossil-fueled busyness and noise of life in the 21st century. If I looked up, I could see the light blinking on top of a nearby cell tower and the spinning white blades of wind turbines. If the elk could exist with all that human junk, I reckoned I could too. On the way down I stopped to sketch one violet flower, really giving it my full attention and falling into the familiarity of making marks on paper. It was fine. I can do this.

This is the start of the “Wonder Challenge”, which will last one year. I will post on the blog at least once a week to document what I discover. I don’t know how this will turn out. But I have to try.

Happy Spring!

Beautiful Lettuce


This is Red Iceberg. It wintered over as a seedling in the plastic garden tunnel, and erupted into life once the warm sun hit it. I transplanted several frost-blasted lettuce seedlings into a newly prepared bed containing soil amendments and my secret proprietary blend of organic fertilizer. Then I watered regularly. A crisp green heart is forming, surrounded by these lavish bronze leaves.

Most gardeners of my acquaintance have preferences–certain plants they really like to grow. I confess that lettuce is one of mine. I love garden catalogs that feature pages of lettuce varieties. I read about them all, heirlooms and new cultivars. Some do best during cool weather, and others adapt to hot weather without bolting. Some have wacky names like “Flashy Trout’s Back” and others have plain names like “Green Salad Bowl”. Some lettuces form heads, others stay leafy. Compared to store-bought lettuce, homegrown actually tastes like something. The Red Iceberg is nothing like that anemic stuff from the supermarket. It has crisp texture and a noticeable flavor. Why would you not grow lettuce? Spring and summer are the perfect time for salads.

Knowing that I would write about my fondness for lettuce, I did some research. Lettuce was known in antiquity, originating in the Near East. The Romans served it at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. The Egyptians associated lettuce with male fertility since the plant grows upright and exudes a milky liquid. (You can Google the history of lettuce yourself if you don’t believe me.) Lettuce traveled northward into Europe and evolved into French and Italian varieties, German and Dutch and English. Lettuce migrated to North America along with settlers from these countries. My parents always planted a row of red leaf lettuce, and my mom would make a warm dressing from bacon and cider vinegar that was poured over the fresh leaves, slightly wilting them. You had to eat this right away. I think it is a recipe from our German heritage.

I stagger plantings of lettuce through the season until it is too hot for it to germinate. When there is a surplus, I give bags of washed lettuce leaves to friends. I wallow in salads of green, red, bronze and speckled all summer long, first with crunchy radishes and later with ripe tomatoes and tender cucumbers. Lettuce is loaded with vitamins and minerals. I would grow it year round if I could. Instead, I sow a late planting, knowing that some will get started, freeze, then take off again in early spring. Now, it even seeds itself around the garden and I find volunteer lettuces everywhere. It pleases me to move them around and nurture them until they are ready to eat.

Right now I am awash in beautiful lettuce, with more to come.

After a Long Winter


Spring has been slow to arrive this year, which makes winter feel all the longer. To alleviate impatience and cabin fever, a person has to go looking for spring.

I followed a convoluted route along backroads of the Kittitas Valley to the foothills. These roads make their way past farms and ranches and pastures and fields and housing developments, crossing swollen creeks and irrigation ditches. Horses and mules are still shaggy with rough winter coats, standing with their backsides toward the wind. A few deer look up from nibbling on fresh green grass. When I park and open the truck door, the sound of rushing water fills the air as Naneum Creek bustles past with its load of snowmelt. My nose catches a faint whiff of honey from the cottonwood leaves unfurling along the stream. I cross on a culvert and start climbing. The flowers appear right away, sagebrush buttercups and Lithophragma sp., the prairie star. The soil is moist and lichens on the basalt outcrops are fluffed up from recent rain. I hear the distant call of a meadowlark, and the quiet soft whistle of a bluebird. Insects blur the air in front of my face, startling me. It’s been months since I waved a bug away. I’m completely hooked now,and compelled to keep climbing the hill to see what else is blooming. I want to greet all my flower friends.

The desire to go walking to look at wildflowers goes back to childhood. By this point in my life, it has taken on the feel of a ritual. Something I must do or feel incomplete. Perhaps it all started with my grandmothers. Both of them lived near patches of forest in western Washington. I have distinct memories of walking with both of them, being shown flowers and introduced to them by name. Soon I knew to look for skunk cabbage and trilliums around Easter time. After being cooped up all winter, trapped in the house, the classroom and school bus by days of cold pelting rain, now there were times when it was possible to go out in coat and rubber boots. It was still cold and damp but the woods were different. Green shoots appeared on the forest floor amid the tangles of salal and blackberry briars. Everything uncurled, unfurled, untwisted, emerged from the wet earth. Birds sang. As I grew older, I made the pilgrimage by myself. Silently I would say hello to johnny jump-up’s cheerful yellow face and the gracious form of pink spring beauty. When I went to work in the woods as a young woman, I kept doing this. When I moved to a dry place in the rainshadow of the Cascades, I transferred my spring ritual to the shrub steppe.

Now I have the best of both worlds. I can start my flower visits in the low dry country almost as soon as the snow melts. As spring progresses, I follow the blossoms through the yellow pine woods until it is June and the snow is melting in the conifer forests on the mountain slopes. There I will find my old friend trillium, and the calypso orchid that my Gramma Mueller called lady slipper. To her it was a rare and precious creature, to be carefully revered. Now I know of places where they turn the ground under the cedars pink with their exotic flowers. No matter how many times I see them, I still feel that little twinge of magic in my chest. A goodly chunk of my heart is rooted in childhood wonder, carried for years like a flame that refuses to be stomped out.

I am not finished with my walk. I keep climbing up the hill above Naneum Creek. Here are clumps of ferny foliage that will produce the bright yellow disks of Hooker’s balsamroot, the spreading stems of big-headed clover, strange reddish fuzz with the beginnings of prairie smoke buds. Mats of creeping phlox, already beginning to show a few flowers. Larkspur leaves. At last I find what I truly long for–a patch of lithosol lavishly scattered with coyote tears. There are so many that they turn the hills golden. Under the stiff sage, the sagebrush violet blooms. I hunker down for a close look at the blue-green lobed leaves, the two-tone purple flowers with the whiskery stripes leading to the center. I smile. Hello, violets. Hello.

Inside of me, things fall into place. The yearly ritual has been observed. It is not what is blooming, but who. As I grow older, I find my point of view shifting away from an objective world toward a more animistic and perhaps native perspective. My world is populated with a lot of whats, but also a lot of whos. The life forms around me are characters and I have grown familiar with many of them. It helps to have learned their names, but it’s not necessary. The feeling of connection and belonging are necessary.

Spring really is underway. There are more hellos to say–I am looking forward to the return of the thrushes.