Category Archives: readings

How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken


A standard Pacific Northwest export in the 1920s – 30″ x 30″ Douglas fir cants. Photo detail courtesy of West Coast Lumbermen’s Association

How Spotted Owls gave us Free-Range Chicken
by Jeff Libby

Book review of The Final Forest; Big Trees, Forks and the Pacific Northwest, by William Dietrich, 2010

The mind-blowingly naive mindset of hipster thought leaders in the early 1990s, even as satirized by the ultra ironic Portlandia, is hard to grasp just twenty years later. But if you’re getting on in years, like middle-aged pranksters Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, you probably remember the spotted owl rage. The setting of the national debate was Forks, Washington, lately of Twilight fame. But it wasn’t anything so unhinged and modern as heart throb vampires playing baseball by thunderstorm. The story line for Forks’ Twilight of the Nineties was simpler, almost wholesome – a relatively small, bright-eyed bird almost nobody had ever seen was in danger of extinction, and would only survive if the harvesting of a certain group of trees, known in timber industry speak as decadent virgin growth forest, was stopped.

On the ground, in Forks, the story was different. It was more about choice. You could save the bird, or you could save an axman. To hear the working families tell it, the entire Pacific Northwest timber industry was being sacrificed to save a single species of owl.  Timber barons and National Forest Service administrators were telling the same story, focusing on regional economies and predicted balance sheets of propogation and harvest. Bottom line, thousands of people would have to give up their livelihood and culture because a cabal of East Coast transplants and Washington DC activists had decided an endangered bird was more important than the working man. And for what – to preserve hiking trails.

As it turned out, the reality was that the timber industry was in a Twilight of its own. The old growth forest that scientists were claiming for owl habitat represented a tiny fraction of the forest available for harvest. And the old growth forest that was eventually put aside amounted to 2 to 5 percent of the massive centuries-old trees that white Americans first found in the mid-1800s when they began settling in the Pacific Northwest and northern California. In other words, by the 1990s, when the owl debate exploded, the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest was already pretty much timed out, had been harvested, milled and sold. It was no different than the old growth forests of the mid-west and the East Coast before that. The Pacific Northwest forest was the final forest only in that we hadn’t quite gotten to it. It was the last chapter in our Manifest Destiny handbook, and as early as the 1940s, Weyerhaeuser and other lumber giants were already researching the alternatives for survival in a post-old growth world.

But as quickly as the giant trees came down, there were enough of them that it still took decades to cut through them to the sun. The conquest, such as it was, was laborious, and men were crushed like beetles along the way – there are endless photos of puny men with handsaws gathered in the freshly cut maw of a collosal tree about ready to fall. Cutting sped as blades morphed from manpower to machine power. The rain kept falling and the air stayed cool most the year – perfect climate for a forest to continue producing something on the order of four times the biomass of the Amazon jungle. More families arrived, usually during storms – these are the origin stories related by Dietrich from kitchen and sawmill. They humped it into the trees. The forest that was viewed alternatively as wild as decadent and as virginal eventually was tamed. The small towns grew, even if they didn’t always prosper. 4-H came. Streetlights. American Idol. Vampires. And meantime, the industry had begun planting new growth behind the clearcuts. Miles and miles of tree plantations in perfect grids were sprouting along riverbanks and over mountaintops like super slow-mo human waves. In roughly forty-year cycles – from seedling to harvest – this new forest, a managed crop, was emerging as the staple of the timber industry.

In a way, the spotted owl was less a harbinger of the end of an era and more our country’s first free range chicken. Up until the 1990s, wildlife biologists had tended to study one species at a time, each in its own silo. Protectionists for the spotted owl introduced the public to the ecosystem. It was a radical construct, to study animals and plants as part of a larger interconnected system. The idea that an owl might be inextricably linked to a habitat of definable trees, and that additionally, that habitat might need to be contiguous, for other species as well as owls to propagate successfully, was new, even if today that may seem obvious, and hardly up for debate. The idea spread, until scientists wanted to manage and protect a multitude of species said to need and be needed by old growth forest – from murrelets – another rare bird whose nests have yet to be observed directly – to the red-backed vole, a forest rat that eats only underground truffles, spreading spores critical to tree root health. Not surprisingly, this re-imagining of the forest as a complex web of interconnectedness eventually made its way to the restaurants, where hipsters and thought leaders are prone to gather, and – twenty years later – informed eaters are asking about the lives, i.e., habitat, of the chickens they eat. It shows discernment. It’s precious. And it’s beautiful.

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The Galapagos Test Site

Book: The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner

Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1994

Maybe not often enough, we re-learn what we thought we already knew. The Beak of the Finch is that way. It upends on natural selection, adaptation, the origin of species. So much so that I wondered if I’d ever really studied any of it in school. And you don’t need to be a lover of birds to get sucked into this story. Weiner tells this very relevant, sometimes maddening story with the same depth and nuance of detail as any story you’ll read in the New Yorker. He is a great reporter and a gifted writer.

Global weirding, the mainstream lovefest for the metaphor of cloud networking, the futility of pesticides and dangers of antibiotics – these subjects are all the rage at the moment and Weiner was theorizing on all these fronts nearly 20 years ago now.

Weiner’s telling of the quest by corporate cotton growers to eradicate pests ends up being one of the most concise and amazing examples of adaptation and hybridization in the book. Each year, chemists funded by the agro-chemical industry dismantle the cellular coding of the Heliothis virescens moth in hopes of finding the killer pesticide to end all pesticides. And at the beginning of each season, the percentage of moths that die is very high. But quickly, with each life cycle of the bug, the percentage goes down. And as the growing season nears its close, more than ever are immune to the poison.

In the 1940s, the scourge was the boll weevil. DDT was the perceived cure. And it did wipe out the bugs, and all the birds that ate the bugs, so that “in biological terms, the cotton fields were left standing virtually vacant, like an archipelago of newborn islands – and out of the woods and hedgerows fluttered Helio virescens.” And chemists have battling the moth ever since, pouring on ever more poison to compensate for the ever weakening results.

The test site that is the cotton fields and that is the finches of the Galapagos is also that of humans among humans. And Weiner speaks to that underpinning of the book as well, of the human urgency to find what is our own, to discover our vocation, what we are made for. He quotes the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Each man has his own vocation. The talent is the call. There is one direction in which all space is open to him.”

But even then, even if on the level of the individual there is a somewhat rational fear that deep down we are all one-trick ponies – in spite of our giant brains – that concept pales in comparison with the ground Weiner tears open in the final pages of the book. He has been building toward it all along of course. But in many ways, there is no preparing for it. Or skipping to it. You have to let him get to it and it blows away any expectation. It’s nuclear grade.

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Old giant of spoken wood

Book: The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking

Author: James Krenov, 1977

Before I start in with anything of my own, let me type in the first few sentences of this gorgeous, cold, wry, deeply felt book.

” 1. Wood

Looking for a way to describe our amateur’s relationship to wood, two words come to my mind: one is curiosity, the other is chance. You live in some particular place – let us suppose it is in a small town. There is a local lumberyard with a few stacks of common woods, the usual thing – fir, oak, butternut, maple, a bit of walnut, some pine. The piece you’re apt to end up with has been haphazardly sawn and indifferently stored. Only sometimes in out-of-the-way places you will find just those people who do care, and are friendly, and will take the time to help you find what you want. These persons really care about the wood, though with this reservation: they are in business. Seven customers a day like myself and they’ll go broke.

At any rate, because there are just a few kinds of wood available, you start looking through the piles to find the best in each, becoming aware of the difference between one plank and another: you just have to….”

If you have some love of wood, this book will speak to you.

If you are looking for knowledge, the book has plenty. Do you know which way wood tends to cup? Krenov explains it simply, easily. Many teachers make it complex and easy to confuse. To paraphrase – Wood tends to cup toward its outer, longer rings. Done.

If you are looking for someone to speak of the mysteries of wood, he’ll also do that, aptly, reverently, with the dry cracked smile of regret, and some distrust mixed with humor.

He signed books, in cursive, with a blue ball-point pen.

“Warm well-wishes

Jim Krenov”

Born in Siberia in 1920 in a tribal village north of the Arctic Circle, the child of teachers for the Indian Bureau of Affairs, he settled with his parents in Seattle in the 1930s and did some of his first paid woodworking building yachts that sailed Puget Sound.

He called himself “a pre-Kerouac hippie.” He worked with a round-bottomed plane he made himself. The plane, he said, was “the cabinetmaker’s violin.”

In 1981, he founded the fine woodworking program at College of the Redwoods, in Fort Bragg, California, using his renown and the school’s reach to influence a generation of woodworkers.

When he died at age 88 in 2009, in Fort Bragg, his daughter Katya said he was holding a piece of sandalwood he kept near his bed for its fragrance.

—factual information from The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, also by Krenov, and the New York Times obituary of September 20, 2009.

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The Forest We All Know

Book: Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, 2011

Author: Emma Marris

Among many things, this well-written, forward-looking book lets you reclaim your favorite unkempt vacant lot and proclaim the weeds and wildflowers there as Nature with a capital N. Yes, weeds are Nature too. Maybe you already knew. But Marris spells it out – sometimes super beautifully, always with responsible, deep research – offering invasives such as Brazilian pepper trees or second growth stands of pine the same unabashed reverence normally reserved for such hoary national majesties as Mt. Rainier, Yellowstone and Ken Burns. Yes, big mountains are sublime. But so is the nettle sneaking toward your window box.

And just to emphasize – Finally! Finally someone stands up and debunks this whole ease people seem to have with expressing their intolerance for invasives. Turns out, no surprise, that we waste millions trying to stamp out plants that are from away, or are too adept at adapting. And for what? Often it’s to recreate landscapes from the past that are long gone or were never original to begin with.

The majority of conservationist ecologists, it seems, are a lot like architectural preservationists. Nostalgia for a purer past tends to simplify the landscape into a series of independent – and static – origin stories. Which does at least two disservices. First, it prevents the narrative from being about a dynamic, interconnected, ever-changing system. And second, by ignoring the ongoing improvisations of nature (and of architecture, and of everything for that matter), conservationist and preservationist narratives often prevent the beautiful and strange fruit that emerges – the new cultural meanings – when past and present are allowed the latitude to converge.

But this sort of improvisationist ethos, and this sort of Alice Walker idea of learning to love what is common as much as what is rare is only the beginning of Rambunctious Garden. Really, what Marris is shooting for, is for us to reimagine our role in nature. To become active participants, rather than awed spectators or mendacious polluters. And yes, we’ve polluted it. To the extent that many American rivers at one time were spontaneously bursting into flames on their way to the sea. Like Biblical anecdotes. And even if the fires have died down, we seem hell-bent on cooking the planet. But Marris is wanting to get at our individual connection to nature. What if we got real? What if we shook off our serious, all-too-serious alienation from the natural world and ran into it? What would we find?

Marris takes us there, to people who are exploding the tired, polluted mythologies. She follows scientists who are mapping the shifting ranges of trees and the butterflies that procreate in those trees, trying to ascertain the differing abilities of each to respond to shifting climates and what that might mean for both. She chronicles the work of Seattle groups along the Duwamish River as they try to heal a polluted waterway, balancing the needs of osprey habitat with car crushing plants. She roams an improvised sanctuary on the outskirts of Amsterdam that maintains an ancient reconstructed European grassland, one that is equal parts homage and pragmatic improvisation. It’s an exhilarating ride.

The ground out there is ancient. And we’ve trashed a lot of it. But with what we have, we can still make it wild.

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My Deconstructed Ocean

Book: Flotsametrics and the Floating World, How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, 2009

Authors: Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano

The mark of anything good – book, movie, food – is that it transforms something intimately known, makes it new. With Flotsametrics, the ocean is deepened even as it is deconstructed into a highly predictable system of ebb and flow. Turns out the ocean is a composite of interconnected slabs of water (unified by temperature and salinity) that are practically subterranean continents of their own, circling the planet via a network of slow-turning gyres. If you’ve heard of the Eastern Garbage Patch, this book will explain it in its home context. You will find out too that Japanese glass fishing floats should keep washing up on beaches for another fifty or more years, based on Ebbesmeyer’s formulas for predicting gyres’ periods, thereby deducing flotsam’s half-life. When you look out to sea again, your gaze will be sharper, will fathom through to the bottoms.

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