Tag Archives: Houston

Paradise Lost

 

We saw the photographs and footage like everyone else. Forests in red blazes, orange skies over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a mustard gas like atmosphere on the ground in Los Angeles. Runaway wildfires working their way up the coast, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

In the San Juan Islands, just off beautiful B.C. Canada, we were sailing along under blue skies for a time, feeling grateful. That was last week.

This week the smoke is in our hair, on our clothes, in our eyes, in every breath we take. All we can taste is smoke and it tastes like cotton/wool/flannel. No, it tastes like fleece. Smoke strips everything of color, rendering it flattened and forlorn. Smoke silences our forests.

We should have known it was coming. One evening last week we felt a course wind, “like a Santa Anna,” my husband noted. One by one the birds left the island, taking their songs with them. The only birds I see now are Resident Canadian Geese and Northwestern or American Crows. Resident Canadian Geese are born here, don’t migrate, and have lost all instinct to fly off. And crows, like cockroaches or coyotes, are scavengers, poking through paper plates and napkins left on outdoor restaurant dining tables.

Basically, birds live on the edge. Because of their highly sensitive respiratory system, caged canaries were at one time carried down into coal mines to detect any dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. If the canary died, miners would flee the mine. But we can’t climb out of this. Planet Earth is our home, and air quality has no borders. It’s like the ocean.

We’re all living on the edge.

A few years ago a woman I know from Houston, Texas visited Seattle. She couldn’t wait to leave, it was too green for her. “When you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all,” was her refrain. Never mind that our forests in The Pacific Northwest are comprised of Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Sitka Spruce as well as Ponderosa Pine. They were all the same to her. And they all do their job in being one of the great “lungs” on earth—keeping places like Houston alive.

We cannot afford to lose our forests if we’re going to keep our planet pumping. Climate denialism will never replace lost lives, homes, towns, forests, wild animals, beloved pets, and birds overcome by heat and smoke. What’s in the smoke? My friend, Jeff Smith, retired RN in San Francisco tells us, “Smoke is not just particles—it is all the substances that are burning. It is gases and plastics and pesticides and toxic metals and flame retardants. These get attached to the particles and we breath them in. And we absorb them through our skin… and we ingest them.”

No one survives smoke plumes upwards of 10 miles high containing thunderstorms, lightening, and tornados. Unprecedented drought, soaring heat and strong winds fueled these flames. Meanwhile snowpacks have been shrinking in the mountains just as oceans have warmed.

Mother Nature is pissed.

As Governor of California Gavin Newson put it, “The debate is over on climate change. Just come to the state of California.” Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia, Canada, I might add.

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What an Old Growth Forest Knows

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photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the kitchen one morning, turned on KUOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to happen simultaneously. The program on air was in the middle of an interview with a writer who was on book tour, and I thought, I know that voice.

And I did. The crisp Australian cadence of her voice. Years ago we were neighbors north of San Diego. I’ll call her Harriet. I didn’t know her well—both of our families had a fair amount of land with avocado groves to manage, young children to raise, and were pretty busy–but on the few occasions that we did get together, her voice enchanted me. And here it was now, playing away in my kitchen.

That night I attended Harriet’s reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. And afterward, over lattes, caught up with the new life of my old neighbor. Both families had relocated. Her’s to Houston, while we obviously wound up in The Pacific Northwest.

Walking each other to the parking lot, I thought the evening had gone pleasantly enough until she gestured with a dismissive sweep of her arm at the dark green woods surrounding us.

“I don’t know how you can live here.,” she said. “If you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all.”

And on that note, Harriet hopped in her vehicle and was gone.

I was stunned. My first thought was that they are not all pines, not by a long shot. It’s so much more complex than that. Richly complex.

The Old Growth Forests of The Pacific Northwest are essentially conifer forests, dominated by Douglas firs and Western hemlocks. Stretching from SE Alaska and SW British Columbia, through Western Washington and Western Oregon to the border of Northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the crest of The Cascade Range. Sometimes referred to as Primary Forests, Virgin Forests, Primeval Forests, and my favorite, Ancient Woodlands (in Britain), an Old Growth Forest is defined by Wikipedia as a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits unique ecological features.

Walk through it with me, if you would, for we later left the city and moved north—onto San Juan Island. Into the wilderness, so to speak. We live in an Old Growth Forest at the foot of the sea, where Western red cedar thrives. Growing year round in our mild winters, these trees reach heights of 200 ft, and may be two or three centuries old. This is the tree with which I am most familiar now.

Mother Cedar. Distinguished by it’s fluted base and graceful, feathery branches. It’s fragrant, sweet smelling needles softly carpeting the forest floor and tracking into our home daily. The exterior of our home is shingled in cedar shakes, making it appear at one with the woods. A half dozen cedar Adirondack chairs sit upon a cedar deck, and another half dozen in a circle around an outdoor fire pit. We are all about cedar here. We probably smell like cedar.

An Old Growth Forest is comprised of large trees, standing dead trees (snags), and fallen trees. Water-repellent and rot-resistant, red cedar can last for hundreds of years on the forest floor. As such, logs and snags may foster more life after their death than they had before. Covered now with mushrooms and mosses, and nursing huckleberries, ferns, and salal. Over time, it may provide a substrate for seedling shrubs and trees.

Time is long here. While some trees reach upwards of 1,000 years of age, others are on their way back to decay. There is a mix of tree ages and of regeneration. An Old Growth Forest is a continuum.

An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not from human events such as clear-cut logging. At a time when the U.S. has lost 96% of its Old Growth Forests, what this Old Growth Forest Knows is immense.

That air you breathe, Houston. We put it there.

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They Call Us Mossbacks

For years I wondered: where on earth do I feel most at home? We would move and I’d try various places, waiting to see if I could grow roots. Finally I took up gardening. In the garden I can make myself at home anywhere, but nowhere as easily as here, in the Pacific Northwest. Where everything grows on its own accord.

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Back in San Diego I used to paint my flowerpots with buttermilk, then roll them in dirt before potting. With regular watering over a course of time, the pots would whiten and grow the mossy green patina found on garden antiquity. All around me the homes were too new. Too many developments with roofs of clean bright orange terra cotta tile. Whereas the pots on my terrace gave the appearance of old. While developers were busy putting up “Mediterranean style” for the masses, I was looking for Old Spain, something evacuated from say, Seville.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we can save the buttermilk for baking. Moss grows up our steps, over walls, on all sides of trees, and onto rooftops. I have to laugh.

We love our moss. A friend told me the story of a time she hired a man to pressure-wash the brick patio, as it can get slippery, and stepped out of the house to find that he had gone on and taken care of the back wall as well “which was a treasure trove of happy lichens in yellow, orange and gold, plus fabulous swaths of moss.” She was heartbroken.

Not too long ago a neighbor from those days in San Diego, now living in Houston, came through Seattle on book tour. I had come into the kitchen in the morning, turned on KUOW, our local NPR, in the middle of an interview and recognized her voice immediately. That night I attended her reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. Harriet Halkyard is her name. One doesn’t forget a name like that. She and her husband, John, wrote 99 Days to Panama based on their travels there. After the reading I bought their book and we sat down for lattes and to get caught up.

I will admit I was surprised to hear how much they love living in Houston (“It’s the people; we’ve never been so socially engaged!”), but nothing could have prepared me for her next comment.

“I don’t know how you live here,” she cried.

“I mean,” Harriet went on, “when you’ve seen seen one pine tree you’ve seen them all.”

I smiled and realized it could be plants and trees and climates that determine where one feels most at home. In San Diego we both had the warmth, the sun, the desert landscape, the occasional palm tree and arid climate, and she chose to go get more of it in Texas. Whereas I sought to come home, if not to New England, to the Pacific Northwest. A place more exaggerated than New England ever dreamed.

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