LOCAL WALKS: Benign Neglect

Are you ever curious about an empty lot that you’ve passed countless times? Maybe an abandoned building or a field exudes an aura that captures your attention. Not far from my home there’s a tract of land next to a highway that I used to wonder about. Last June my curiosity intensified when masses of wildflowers appeared there. Tall, magenta flowers ascended a rocky cliff next to the highway. More flowers marched across the ridge top but beyond that was anyone’s guess – I could see no further. I really wanted to know what was up there! Each time I drove by I strained to see where the overgrown gravel road leading into the property went. A chain was strung across the bottom of the road and a “For Sale” sign sat next to it for months. Then the sign was removed, adding another question: did someone buy the property? As the height of summer approached and the profusion of foxgloves and daisies grew more colorful, my brain tingled with visions of what might be up there. I fantasized about gathering a bouquet of wildflowers and carting them home to enjoy all day long.

So I convinced my partner in crime to explore – well, to trespass – with me one fine, June day. We pulled into the gravel drive and parked off to the side. I thought at best we might look like potential buyers, at worst we were trespassing. I figured I could probably finesse the situation if anyone came along and questioned us.*

But no one did. What a sight it was up there! The land appeared to be a large parcel that someone began clearing years ago, perhaps to build a house or a development. Maybe the money ran out and the project was abandoned. The land is nothing more than three little contour lines on a topographic map – but as we climbed the hill, a network of undulating fields, rock outcroppings and woodlands unfolded before us. Small groves of blackened, dead trees and burned rocks told us a fire once ripped across the ridge. Summers here are very dry and fires can flare up quickly, but this one appeared to have been put out before it did much damage. Scrambling up a rock outcrop, I saw a slice of blue water surrounded by firs in the distance, a view that must have sealed the deal for the buyer.

Here are photographs from that delightful June afternoon. Benign neglect has allowed a whole community of plants, insects, animals, and birds to thrive in this patch of land beside a busy highway. The living beings here appear to be doing fine without any human interference. Each expresses its individual nature even as the whole blends into a hidden, human-free Arcadia. To my mind, the sky and clouds together with the land and its inhabitants are breathing a symphony into existence. After spending a few hours up there, I could only respect the fabric of the landscape for what it was. I hoped the human hand would continue to play a very minor role in the landscape. Imagine how nice that would be.

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1. A river of daisies.

2. A stand of Douglas fir trees shows what fire can do. The low branches of young trees would have quickly caught fire, causing the entire tree to become engulfed. Mature Douglas firs tend not to have branches at the bottom, making it harder for flames to travel up the tree. They also have very thick bark that protects them from fires. Many of the oldest Douglas firs on Fidalgo Island sport charcoal-black scars from fires past, but they are still going strong.

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6. Foxgloves were scattered everywhere.

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10. A profusion of Foxgloves and daisies among charred trees and branches.

12. A tiny Rufous hummingbird resting high in a tree watched us carefully. (I didn’t have a zoom lens with me so I did the best I could).

13. This field has scant shade, a result of logging and fire that created optimal conditions for sun-loving grasses and flowers like Foxgloves and daisies. Soil disturbance from logging probably prevented native plants from gaining a better foothold, though the field does contain some natives. Many non-native plants favor disturbed soil, which is why you often see them on roadsides and vacant lots. But what an effective combination this is, aesthetically – Foxgloves for height and color, daisies for mass, and grasses to tie it all together. These attractive flowers arrived without conscious human help and established themselves artfully. A garden designer might be envious.

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15. I didn’t see the tiny insects on these flowers until after I got home and imported the photo.

16. Campbell Lake is in the distance. I believe the rust-colored moss was burnt in the fire.

17. Fresh green moss grows in patches where the ground is still black from the fire. The lands heals slowly.

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19. It looks like the older Douglas firs here will make it. If the land is left to its own devices, new Douglas firs and a procession of plants and animals will appear over the years. But chances are, sometime in the next decade or so this land will be turned into houses and roads.

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* I don’t advocate trespassing. In this case, I had enough familiarity with the land and the larger environment to feel that it I could probably walk on the property without harming anyone or anything. Strictly speaking, I should not have wandered up there.

Misty Pass – a Short Hike on the Pacific Crest Trail at Snoqualmie

As we headed east on I-90 towards Snoqualmie Pass, the fog and mist grew heavier and I wondered if I would regret going up into the mountains today. Back home, morning clouds had already given way to sun, and lately I’ve been focussed – OK,  obsessed, with getting out into every sunny day I can here in Seattle, where summer is stunningly gorgeous but all too short.

The doubts disappeared as soon as we started on the trail though – mists rolled down the mountainside from some notch above like giant puffs, and it was really cool to walk in the midst of the clouds that are usually high above you.

We were  hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to Canada.  Most of the people we saw on the trail were through hikers – going all the way, or close to it. They were from Indiana, Ottawa, Rochester, and elsewhere. Their faces beamed under layers of dust as they spoke of elk, bear and coyote. Zack, the first hiker we met, was a lovely shade of dusty brown from his dread-locked hair to his boots. As he leaned in to show us a cache of ripe huckleberries he’d just picked, the smell was powerful!  I wish I’d taken his photo, but I did record some of my favorite sights on the trail:

Here’s the Pacific Crest Trail register. We pulled it out of its waterproof housing to read the  most recent entries. The PCT is  2,663 miles long and typical through hikers do about 20 miles a day, re-supplying at the nearest towns when possible. Our friend Zack was heading off trail for real food, and then hoped to meet up with a friend who was rock-climbing up near Leavenworth. He looked at our map so he could figure out which roads to hitch-hike on.  It was probably a good 90 miles, but after hiking up from the Sierra Nevada I’m guessing that was a minor challenge.

By the way, the fastest through hiker, Scott Williamson, set a record of 64 days, 11 hours, 19 min.  From Mexico to Canada. And all the through hikers we met were young, and most had school or a  job to go back to. Reminds me that it’s a luxury. Even our hike required a car, some free time, and decent health, all of which we’re lucky to have.

If you click on the open book photo you can read notes people left in the register – NOBO means northbound.

For us the turn-around point was just a few miles south at Lodge Lake. My guidebook said it reflects the surroundings mountains, but today we were content to sit on logs at the lake’s edge, snacking on Cliff bars and watching the mist roll over the lake. There were hundreds of waterstriders – pretty big ones – and as they jumped across the surface, swifts zipped around overhead.

In certain parts of the forest, hemlocks and Doug firs collect the mist. When it drops off the needles everything underneath glistens.

   The meadows were speckled with red, yellow, purple and white wildflowers – and best of all, berries! I sampled blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries and tiny wild strawberries.

    I blurred the image above a little to convey the dreamy, seamless beauty of the meadow and misty treeline.

Only four miles for us – not forty a day, like the guy who set the speed record.

And now it’s time for ice cream…

Mid-August

Mid August is almost here and you don’t need a calendar to know it. Earth holds its breath for a few days – everything is still, heavy with light and summer dreams, waiting to move forward into autumn.
 
A late afternoon elegy of sunlight breaks through the tree line along the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, speaking of summer’s impending dispersion into fall.
 

This photo was taken (but sometimes I think they’re given to me) at a preserve near Woodinville, WA. I felt uninspired – glum, even. But I forced myself into the car and went searching  for a little deliverance. It came gradually:  a field of flowers, a jay, a wren, a creek, leaves, seeds…and color and light.