Locked In

flockedMarch 1st–here in the lowland (1900 feet above sea level) the wind is blowing, a sure sign of spring along the east slope of the Cascades. The sun emerged this morning and shone brightly. While there is still plenty of snow on the ground, it is thawing and settling during the day and freezing at night. The solstice is twenty days away, and a person begins to feel hopeful that the season is changing.

Not so at 6500 feet above sea level, on top of a mountain that creates its own weather. Winter is still locked in place. Pushed upward by the terrain, the air gives up its moisture which freezes onto any surface. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “rime” as :  an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog and built out against the wind. Understanding the reason for the phenomenon takes nothing away from the wonder and fascination I feel whenever I travel through this cold fog and see the trees. “Magical,” I think to myself. Beneath the thick coating of rime the conifers are alive, just barely photosynthesizing above ground. Below ground their roots mingle with each other and other organisms busy with processes of high-elevation life in winter. Some conifers are well-adapted to living in cold harsh places, which to me is the greatest magic of all.

It will be late May or early June when spring comes to this place, when the snow finally melts, wildflowers bloom and insects throng the meadows. Summer in the subalpine zone is one of the rewards for lasting through the long cold winter. Sometimes people ask me why I stay here if I find winter so long and difficult. It’s hard to explain and there probably isn’t a reasonable reason.For one thing, when I get out on the snow and away from the human-built world my soul soaks up the deep silence of winter. It seems right that much of life is at rest. For another thing, spring always comes and it is an energizing season. I can’t imagine living in a place that doesn’t change radically with the turning of the earth. And lastly, it is because I so dearly love those subalpine places with the brief summers. It’s enough.


Visiting Old Friends


Sometimes I get a hankering to go see them. I’ve been thinking of them, how nice it would be to spend some time in their company. These particular friends never come to see me–I always have to go see them. And that’s OK. It pleases me to know that they are just fine at home.

It’s a short ski from Highway 97 to where they live. The day I went, it was cold enough to keep the snow from settling and sticking. My skis pushed through the powder almost without effort. Occasionally a few flakes would swirl down from the sky, but there were moments of blue sky as the clouds wafted apart. Before long, I had found my way to the meadow where my friends make their home. The forest is dense all around there, one of those “unhealthy” forests that we hear about from land managers trying to justify ecosystem intervention. The original intervention was 100 years of fire suppression. Without frequent low-intensity fires, ground fuels built up and many small trees fill the spaces in the understory. Mother Nature is creative, and sent defoliating insects to thin the forest since fire wasn’t allowed. Fire came anyway in 2012, and humans scampered through the stand with a light underburn intended to slow the big Table Mountain fire. Since then, the budworms have died off and many of the smaller dead trees are falling down.

None of this has affected my friends. They live in the open, and even if a low-intensity ground fire came along, their thick bark would smolder and likely withstand the flames. Their branches are high overhead, so fire would have to climb up to them.

My friends are much older and wiser than I. They were probably adults when the botanical collector David Douglas came to this part of the world and named their kin Pinus ponderosa. Ponderous pines. Slow-growing, patient, tough as nails. Yet also filled with character as they age, taking on a sway or a lean. Symmetry is not as important to them as it is for true firs or spruce. One or two heavy branches can droop toward the ground, giving them a lopsided demeanor.

The color of their bark reminds me of cinnamon, and the flaky shapes are like puzzle pieces. The shallow furrows in the bark are darker. When I look closely, I can see the dingy sulfur yellow powder of last year’s pollen collected in cracks. Maybe a spider web here or there. Perhaps some dried pitch, hardened and amber. Some people say the bark smells like vanilla, but I swear I have never smelled this. When the sun shines on them, the only scent is warm ponderosa pine. Nothing like it.

I hang out with my friends in their meadow, happy to be with them after a long absence. I snuggle up as close as I can without taking my off my skis and stare up into the crown and out at the sky. Then look past the trunk to neighbors. I’m happy to be there.

Much has been discovered recently about how plants live. What they sense, how they communicate, how they help each other. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia has done ground-breaking work on how forest trees collaborate communally through their roots. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, but all these discoveries have increased my sense of wonder and appreciation of trees as co-inhabitants of the world. They are much more than inert towers of wood that drop needles and cones into my yard and provide perches for birds. Trees are mysterious.

It is unfashionable to be anthropomorphic, but standing next to the pine tree I wonder if it has any awareness of my presence, any inkling of me exuding joy, goodwill and dare I say it, love? Are trees sentient? Not in any animal intelligent way of course, but are they aware of other creatures, we short-lived rapidly-vibrating warm-blooded mobile things like birds and squirrels and humans? I would like to think so, but I truly do not know and am unlikely ever to know.

And that’s OK too. As long as I can visit them–these pines below Tronsen Ridge, the big doug-firs along the Pete Lake trail, those few hemlocks along Spinola Creek, a particular larch tree on the way to Haney Meadow…things will be right in my world. We all rely on old friends to help us keep our perspective, and I’m beyond grateful to all of my old friends.

For more amazing stuff, check out What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, linked above.



We snowmobiled 9 or 10 miles. I was in the lead and came around the corner to see the spire of Cathedral Peak gleaming in the midday sun. It wasn’t till later, on the way back, that I turned and snapped this photo. By then the sun had dropped toward the ridge and a thin layer of cloud filtered the brightness.

One of my favorite places to be is this wide glacial valley near the Cascade crest. The Cle Elum River is slow here, meandering through flat meadows fringed with dark firs and spruces. I’ve seen this place in the drizzling rain, in the hot sun through wave after wave of whining mosquitoes, in the brief colorful autumn of deep shadows and bugling elk. And in winter, when the trees appear to be brushed in ink against the pale meadows and flat sky. Today we ate lunch on the porch of the old cabin, basking in the warmth. I remarked on the silence, savoring the absence of any human clamor. Those moments must be treasured.

I’ve been thinking a lot about clarity these days, observing those rare times when the cold winter air snaps away any fuzziness. The sky and mountains seem to be especially clear and light, and the air seems to contain more oxygen. Lately the valley bottoms have been socked in with a dank penetrating fog, the kind of cold air that sinks and persists for days. It can be a week or two before I see the ridge on the other side of town. There is a blurry heavy feel to every day life, and the world outside the fog feels far away. Everything is obfuscated.

Like many people, I’ve been working through a procession of emotions and thoughts since the election in November. I’ve been shocked, despairing, unsettled, disbelieving, outraged, and occasionally amused into raucous laughter. American politics have been fraught with tension since the beginning of the republic, and the more I read of history, the more I believe it so. Tension between the interests of the individual and the greater good. Tension between the kinds of economy we could have. Tension between Puritans and the wild west. Tension between our values and those of other ideologies. I am a child of the Cold War and the protests of the 60s and 70s. I have witnessed turbulent times as well as relative peace and plenty. I understand that those in power will lie and prevaricate in order to stay in power, whether they believe their own lies or not. After September 11, 2001 the lies coalesced into a semi-cohesive version of reality. I remember laughing with my friends that “facts don’t matter”. Some people will insist that the earth is flat, that the Iraquis had weapons of mass destruction, that rape can be “legitimate”, that climate change can’t exist. It was easy to ridicule such ideas.

I’m not laughing any more. “Alternate facts” is another way of obfuscating, blurring, lying, creating a delusional reality. Besides obscuring the view of the big picture, settled fog has a way of stagnating the air and making it impossible for pollutants to escape. Pretty soon the air itself is toxic. It takes a major shift in the weather, a big storm to shove the fog and bad air out of the valleys. Then clarity returns for awhile.

In the meantime, we all need days like today. Days when we climb up out of the fog and emerge into brilliant light and clear air. Days when we can see, when it’s so quiet we can hear ourselves think, and when we can connect with a truth bigger than our own ruckus.

May you find clarity where you are.

A New Year

The problem with not posting for a long time is that the writer gets out of the habit of posting. The next blog entry is somewhat further down the list of priorities, and not as prominent in the tangle of things to pay attention to. I think about writing, but usually when I am doing something else. I believe that is called procrastination.

Anyway, the year has turned. It has never made sense to me to start a new year in the middle of winter. I am resigned to an arbitrary calendar, where days and months are made to fit into boxes. For me, the year really begins in spring, when living things wake up from winter’s rest. My sense of time runs along with the seasons.

I never make New Year’s resolutions. Such great ideas lose their luster after a couple of weeks, and the whole business falls through the cracks of life. Why set myself up for failure? If I feel the need to make changes, it’s often because something in my life feels out of whack. And I want to be in whack, in balance. Balance is a moving target, attained only to be knocked off kilter again. It helps me to think of balance as asymmetrical, rather than a relationship between two equal parts. This is a visual art analogy. One focal point may be balanced by several smaller elements elsewhere in the composition. The important thing is to keep the eye moving throughout the whole. It’s about the flow, rather than about the subject matter. For example, my day job is the weighty element in my life right now. Most of my waking hours are spent navigating through the shifting tasks and relationships associated with managing the field operations of a winter recreation program. This weight is balanced by little things like seeing the bright stars in the predawn sky, watching narcissi and hyacinth bulbs grow on a windowsill, preparing small tasty meals for myself, sleeping warm and well through the long nights after being in the cold outdoors. The activity and stillness in my days flows along in a seasonal rhythm. Home is for nesting and hibernation in January. I’ll consider being ambitious when the days are longer.

It is -6 degrees and snowing this night, dry sparkling crystals falling from the black of outer space. The world outside is quiet for the moment. Savor it. And Happy New Year.

New and Improved!

Long-suffering readers will notice a change. I’m sure there are questions. Here are a few answers.
Where have you been?!! Why haven’t you been writing?

I haven’t gone anywhere. I had surgery to repair a loose ankle ligament in March. By mid-September I was able to hike again, and returned to my place on the trail crew. Then I was busy catching up on all the things that had fallen by the wayside while I was gimping around. Now I’m ready to write again.

You’ve changed the name of the blog. What’s up with that?

It’s been on my mind for a long time to change the look of the blog to make it easier to read. When I started posting in 2007, I called it “Fieldwork” in order to tell stories about my adventures with the US Forestry Department (name of agency has been changed to distance my online presence from it). Over time, I found myself writing about all sorts of observations and reflections. The stories were more about my whole life than just about my job. So I decided to call the new improved blog “Ramekin Cottage”, after my home. It is here that all adventures begin and end, whether I’m out on the trail somewhere or chasing my hens around the yard.

Ramekin Cottage??!!!

Yup. Some friends insist that homes should be named. So in the past, I have lived at Filbert Park. Those friends live at the Spud Ranch. When I moved here, they asked what I was going to call the place. For a long time I didn’t know. The word “ramekin” popped up in conversation, and I thought That’s it! A ramekin is a small dish for baking individual servings of creme brulee, Greek potatoes or whatever. It’s apropos of nothing, therefore perfect for my house. And as for the cottage part, it’s not overly charming just small.

Are you still going to write about working in the woods?

Yes. But don’t be surprised to read about an assortment of other topics such as my experiments in micro-homesteading, books, art and other projects, feminism, growing older, the weather, memories, etc. Life is all of a piece, woven into a connected whole. I intend to write about whatever presents itself as a topic for consideration. I’m glad to have the company of readers–it’s always good to know what captures my attention may be of interest to others.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine of writing blog posts. I have missed the kind of focus and depth that comes from writing about the world. We’ll see where this goes. Continue reading

On Hiatus

Hiatus: any break, gap, or interruption of continuity.

Regular readers will have noticed that there have been no posts here for a few months. I’m taking a break from writing Fieldwork. Life has been different as I recover from ankle surgery. I am still not cleared to do trail work, but the time grows near when I will return to the woods. The blog will be updated when I have something to say. Right now I’m thinking.

Please stay tuned.

Humming Trees

My left foot is still encased in a fiberglass cast. April has been magnificent so far and I am determined to get outside to play in the garden. I stump around for awhile, then flop into the outdoor recliner and lean back. This takes the weight off my foot and tilts me toward the sky, where I gaze at the blooming maple tree. All those brilliant yellow-green tassels are flowers. What you can’t tell from looking at this photo is that the canopy of the tree is gently humming. It’s a low soft sound, which might be mistaken for something else. Lying on my back, listening, my eyes focus and then I can see the tiny shapes silhouetted–lots and lots of insects. They’re hover flies, and a few honeybees.

My honey bees have been quite active on these warm days, and male rufous hummingbirds zing through the garden as they establish territories. Butterflies and moths are starting to appear. Pollinators have been much on my mind since someone at work mentioned a website where you can submit photos of bumblebees for identification. It’s called bumblebeewatch.org. While checking that out, I visited the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I learned about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Why not? I registered my garden, since it appears to be providing lots of pollinator habitat right now.

The arrival of honeybees in my life six years ago has been an experience in witnessing how connected all things are. As a beekeeper, I still have much to learn. They are alien and mysterious, but I’ve fallen in love with them anyway. All I have to do is provide flowers and water in the summer, and some sugar candy in winter. The hive is located in a place that receives morning sun, afternoon shade, and is somewhat sheltered from the wind. It’s tucked out of travel paths, but near enough that I can keep an eye on it. Henry, my big gray cat, spends hot afternoons in the shade behind the hive. My approach to beekeeping is pretty hands off. I figure they know what they’re doing better than I do. I don’t have any particular need to open the hive and look for the queen or see how much brood there is. Knowing how chemically sensitive honeybees and other beneficial insects are, I garden as organically as possible. By creating healthy soil and choosing climate-adapted plants, I rarely have problems that require chemical intervention. Diatomaceous earth takes care of the dreaded earwigs that devour my zinnia seedlings. Slugs are trapped with beer and aphids can be sprayed away with the water hose.

People who don’t keep bees can still do a lot to help pollinators. Avoid monoculture, both in your own outdoor environment and in your food choices. Plant a diversity of shrubs and flowers (including natives), minimize lawns, let some of the vegetation be wild and less-tended. Avoid pesticides and other garden chemicals. Do your homework. If you purchase plants from nurseries, make sure they are grown without the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of systemic insecticides which remain in plant tissues, including pollen. Very bad for bees. Neonicotinoids are also sometimes used on hay. There have been reports of composted horse manure containing neonic residue, which contaminates gardens. (See, everything is connected!) Pollinators require water. I’ve seen bees landing on plants after I’ve turned off the sprinkler. They will also drink at puddles, bird baths, and swimming pools.

Lying there on my back listening to the maple tree hum, I am able to put aside all these concerns and worries about the messed-up world. I will do all I can in my small way to help these creatures thrive. But it is also necessary to marvel at the sheer wonder of flowering plants and pollen and how plant success is made possible by flying insects. (And birds and bats.) Amazement is a counterbalance to the uncomfortable knowledge of just how fragile the web of life is. Which leads me to the most important thing I have learned from bees so far…when I squat down in front of the hive and watch them coming and going, each of them doing her job, I know that their business has nothing to do with me at all. Or any other human, or any of our works. How marvelous to not be as important as I think I am.