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 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.

Casting About

castfootMy latest adventure revolves around decades of being bipedal. The human body is an amazing organism, but it’s not designed to last forever. I’m talking about wear and tear on the joints. I feel fortunate that no bones have been broken in my travels (except maybe for one or two that didn’t slow me down much). But at the age of 56, I am experiencing a cast for the first time in my life.

After the past couple years of managing to hike, ski, and clamber around, my left ankle was so wobbly that I wanted to find out what was wrong. I have vivid memories of each time it has rolled to the outside, leaving me lying on the trail faster than I could blink. It’s not a good feeling to know that I could fall down miles from anywhere and find myself unable to walk. (Which is the case all the time, but more likely with an unreliable ankle.) Why risk it? In the immortal words of those hardy souls who have gone before me: “I might be getting too old for this sh*t.” So off to the orthopedic surgeon I went. He discovered that my ankle ligaments were intact but stretched like an overused piece of elastic. An easy fix–he tightened them up. That was eighteen days ago. On Day 9, I went back to the doctor to have the bandages and sutures removed and was fitted with a fiberglass cast. There was a wide choice of colors to choose from. In the end I made a conservative decision to go with good old blue, a color I can live with for four weeks. When I need more color, I can embellish it myself.

Life has slowed waaaaaayyyy down as I recuperate. My needs are simple, and I can walk enough to take care of myself. Friends are kind enough to bundle me in their car to take me on an errand or two. But mostly I am at home, reading, quilting, scooting around the garden on my backside to pick weeds and debris. This past week the spring weather has been so glorious that I can lie on a reclining chair outdoors, drowsing like a cat in the sun, listening to birdsong. My energy level fluctuates as the body goes about its mysterious healing processes.

I hope to be cleared to do trail work in June, but for now I wait. Before I know it the cast will be off and I’ll be able to drive again. Physical therapy will start, and I’ll be able to do more in the garden. I’m surprised to feel patience with all of this. It will get better, and when I hear the mountains calling me, I’ll be able to answer, “Yes, I’m on my way.”

Spring Has Sprung

My colleague Jon is fond of repeating: “You know what they say about the weather around here…if you don’t like it now just wait five minutes.” That is the perfect description of March in the Pacific Northwest. It is very early spring here, which means most of the snow has melted out of the yard and occasionally there is a burst of birdsong from the trees. But there can be a white squall of whirling snow or a bone-chilling downpour in an instant. Big billowing cumulus clouds with dark purple-gray bottoms pile up over the ridges, dump some rain, then dissipate in a blast of wind.

But, oh, when the sun shines! The warmth penetrates skin and brightness lifts the spirit. My boon companion, being feline, takes full advantage of sun spots. He stalks in from rain storms with spiky fur, demanding that I turn off the shower. But a bit of sunshine mellows him right out and suddenly all is well in the world.

I’m pretty sure I heard the soft chirp of a bluebird the other day. Snowdrops bloom, and crocus appear where snow flattened their slim leaves. From now on, the rush toward spring accelerates. But just to make sure we don’t take it for granted, just wait five minutes. The weather is bound to change.

We were looking for signs of spring. The big rains have melted much of the snow from the valley bottoms, and the hills in the rainshadow are beginning to show a tinge of green. Sagebrush buttercup buds are held tight in the saturated lithosol, not yet ready to burst out into silky yellow dots. As we made our way up the Taneum Creek road, I looked out into the recently flooded swampy places for emerging skunk cabbage. Nope, still too early. Even though the cottonwood buds swell, and the alder catkins dangle from leafless twigs, it’s still too early for wildflowers and bluebirds.

But we were happily distracted by wondering how the system of beaver dams had been affected by the flooding. Water was still backed up and pooled around the maze of natural and constructed structures in the creek. It seemed like the dams and logjams had spread and slowed the rushing water. The large beaverlodge was plastered with fresh mud and tracks crisscrossed the area around it. The beavers, it appears, are thriving.

Like most of my generation, I grew up watching more television than I am prepared to admit. I got out of the habit in the early 1980s and have never returned to regular viewing. But those years of programs and commercials from the 60s and 70s shaped my world view. I am still surprised by the power of the memories that arise unbidden in my awareness. For example, upon seeing the beaverlodge and dams, the voice of the narrator from Disney nature documentaries intones: “Beavers, nature’s engineers!”

Are they? I wondered. Are they really nature’s engineers? Our culture is a lot more subtle these days about the anthropomorphism we project onto animals. During the heyday of Disney films, it was shameless. Of course we understand animals by giving them human characteristics. Of course beavers are admirable because they are so industrious. Except when their industriousness collides with humans. Beavers used to be routinely trapped and their dams and lodges destroyed because their altering of riparian habitat inconvenienced how humans desired to alter the habitat. (This was never shown on TV.) Over the past twenty years or so, beavers have come to be seen as valuable again because they can restore riparian areas that have been degraded by human activity. A creek with beavers has more suitable places for fish to live and breed. Streamside vegetation flourishes and migratory songbirds have places to nest. Beavers’ work makes the stream more complex and winding. Silt is caught in woody structures, keeping the water clear and cool. Beavers are a keystone species, influencing a particular environment so that it benefits many other species.

Does this make them engineers? For sure they are large for rodents, and have adapted to aquatic life. Like all rodents, their teeth never stop growing so they are compelled to gnaw. Or their teeth keep growing because they gnaw so much. Beavers gnaw wood and feed on the inner bark of small branches. Perhaps in the course of all this gnawing and piling up of woody debris, some long-ago beaver saw the benefit of using that stuff to alter the behavior of water. If an activity provides some benefit, creatures are likely to keep doing it. So beavers found their niche in the world, and are coming back from persecution. You can call them engineers if you like, but I am ready to stop giving human attributes to animals. In a way, it’s a false distinction because humans are also animals. Beavers do what they do. How they make their living is entirely fascinating.

Now if I can only get get that narrator’s voice out of my head (his name was Rex Allen). He told the story of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and many others, in a folksy tone. Even as a kid I knew those stories were made up and simplified. Looking back, I think what a disservice it was to make animals so cute and entertaining. It gives us the wrong idea about their lives and their place in the world. We in the Anthropocene epoch are witnessing an extinction event. It’s not entertainment. The world is diminished when animals and habitats disappear because of human ignorance and greed. This is a hard thing to bear, but I think we are all better off if we allow the world and all living things to be as mysterious and interconnected as they are. We might realize our own place in that interconnectedness and take better care of it.

I am beginning to believe that the words we use to describe the world really matter. Language is inadequate to accurately express everything about our experience, but it’s about all we have besides art and mathematics. This is probably me thinking too much, but I want to use words that are as honest and true as possible. Words that describe things and relationships in a direct clear way, that reveal the actual value of things and relationships to the sustenance of life. Words that avoid filters and screens and projections. Words that are not chosen to lie, manipulate, or devalue.

This is a lot of reflecting brought on by looking for skunk cabbage and finding beaverworks. Perhaps like rodents, I need something to gnaw on so that my mental teeth don’t grow too long. While I am busy thinking too much and chewing on the thicket of life, snow continues to melt, creeks continue to run, spring continues to advance. And it is good.

The Beginning of the End

When snow comes again after a few weeks’ absence, it makes no sound. The low-hanging clouds may darken a little and feel heavier. If you happen to be working in the woods with your head down concentrating on your job, you may miss the exact moment snow begins to fall. It starts as a few tiny flakes, phantoms on the edge of your vision. Did you really see them? The next time you look up there will be more until the air around you is blurred with silent precipitation. It falls relentlessly, pulled to earth by gravity to rest upon the surface of the snowpack. That is when I stop to give it my full attention. Instantly I am a little kid again, looking upward in mute wonder. There is something magical about this white stuff, something I don’t feel with rain or wind or fog. Snow makes the evergreen trees more beautiful, enhancing their tall conical shapes and covers the ground below to hide anything that may distract from the standing trees.

Like all things in this world, snow is transient. As soon as it lands it begins to change. The crystalline structure can bond to the existing surface. If the temperature is warm, snow will stick to itself. If cold, the texture is powdery. Over the course of the winter, snow changes within the layers that have accumulated. Then there comes a time when snow stops piling up and begins to recede.

This snowfall last week was the beginning of the end. We walked on snowshoes out of the woods while snow whirled. By the time we reached the valley, the snow had changed to rain. As the storm front passed, warm air from the tropical Pacific poured over the Cascades. It rained and rained and rained. The snowpack is tinged blue from holding so much water. The streams are over their banks with rain and snowmelt.

The signs are unmistakable. Cottonwood buds swell, alder catkins dangle and release pollen. The air is warmer, days longer.

Late winter or early spring? How do you know the difference?