I don’t know about you, but I entered this week with a surreal feeling. Anxiety and hope are both present in me—anxiety for the health and safety of the many, and especially those who are especially vulnerable to illness or to food and shelter insecurity in the days and months to come. Hope for what is possible when we awaken and live into our interdependence with one another and with Earth. In this spirit, I spent part of my weekend planting seeds. Read More →
The land welcomes you
While I was writing this article, I realized this is a good analogy for what is happening in the world and the US today.—Kay Nairn
A Slug Encounter, by Kay Nairn
When I moved from Utah to the Pacific Northwest in the mid ’70s, one of the many things I had to adjust to was the slug. I’d never seen a slug before, and thought I had never seen anything to ugly. I love animals, but I just couldn’t even like slugs. I would sometimes camp on the Chinook grounds and when a friend bought land next door I would camp out there—often right on the ground.
I once found a slug in my tent, and shortly after that I woke up with a slug on my head. Ewww.
That’s when I realized that if I was going to stay outdoors in this area, I was going to have to learn to not hate or fear the creatures.
The best way to let go of hate and fear is to get to know the other. So . . . I spent a few hours following a slug around the Farm Loop trail, and off the trail, and over and under fallen twigs and leaves, and into places I would never have gone without a little creature to show me the way. I found that slugs do move slowly most of the time, but they can skitter along pretty fast when they feel threatened. I became fascinated by their feelers and how rapidly they withdraw them and move them, and by how they chew.
By the end of the afternoon, I’d gained a great appreciation for slugs. While I can’t say I love them, spending time with a slug turned my dislike into curious appreciation.
Photo by MrsAirWolfhound via Flickr Creative Commons
by Kimi Hoover
One of my favorite things about summer is the chance to sleep under the stars, especially when they’re shooting stars! The month of August brings the Perseid Meteor Showers—one of the best nighttime shows of the year.
Being on the staff of the Whidbey Institute has many perks, one being the opportunity to throw my tent up on the Chinook grounds for a night of celestial viewing.
August 13 was billed as one of the best nights to see the meteor shower as there was no moon. At about 9 pm, with just a few minutes of light left, I drove to the Institute and got a recommendation from my colleague who lives onsite, Thomas, on the best location to get a clear view of the northeastern sky.
I pitched my tent without the rain fly—only the bug netting between me and the night sky. I knew rain was predicted for the next morning so I set my alarm for 5 am. I thought I could pack up at dawn and be home before the rain hit.
As the sky darkened, I was rewarded with dozens of bats flying overhead but only three shooting stars before I dozed off. I was awakened at 3 am by two screech owls calling back and forth between two trees.
As I lay in my own cozy nest enjoying the owl symphony, I noticed I could no longer see any stars so I knew the clouds had moved in. About a minute into the owl serenade, a gigantic flash of lightening lit up the whole sky and was instantly followed by a huge crack of thunder. With my heart racing I leaped up and started the fastest tent breakdown of my life! I bet it took fewer than three minutes for me to get everything stuffed into a couple sacks. I made a dash for the parking lot just as the downpour hit.
On the ten minute drive home, I witnessed many incredible displays of lightning traveling from horizon to horizon. Then, snug in my bed, I listened to more thunder before the adrenaline finally wore off enough for me to fall asleep.
The next day Thomas and I, along with the rest of the staff, had a good laugh when he mentioned that he had looked out his window right after he had been awakened by the storm and all he could see was this phantom headlamp darting frantically this way and that as I hurriedly packed up my gear, and then the dot of light streaking away as I made my dash to the safety of my car!
Shared laughter, shooting stars, bats, and owls . . . oh, how I love my job.
stock header photo from flickr creative commons; sidebar photo by marnie jones
How the Woodpecker Got His Colors
by Johnny Palka, Whidbey Institute Senior Fellow
One afternoon in early July I was walking on the Chinook land, the beautiful protected forest of the Whidbey Institute. Partway up a low ridge I heard a sharp, resonant rap, then a few seconds later another. When I looked around for the source, I spotted a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker clinging to the side of a Douglas Fir trunk, and excavating his signature rectangular cavity in search of insects. Of course, I wanted to take his picture, but my telephoto lens was buried in my backpack. So I stopped, slowly took off the backpack, unloaded it to the get to the long lens, removed the short lens from my camera, replaced it with the telephoto, stood back up, and looked again toward the Pileated. There he still was, unperturbed, continuing to excavate the same cavity. He allowed me to take several photos (see sidebar), then circled sideways around the trunk to start another excavation on the back side where I could no longer see him, only hear his chiseling beak hard at work.
Intimate encounters like this always seem to leave me with two feelings. One is a feeling of connectedness with the creatures or objects I have observed, and often also of gratitude that I have had the privilege of experiencing this connection. The other is a feeling of curiosity and wonder at the deepest nature of what I am experiencing. In the case of the woodpecker, I felt privileged to have been in his presence for so long, and seemingly without his having felt disturbed, AND I felt very curious about what makes black feathers black, white feathers white, and red feathers red to my personal experience.
The link between the woodpecker’s feathers and my own internal experience is best understood by contemplating the physical nature of light, including its quantum aspects. That is the direction that my mind most wants to go! I will be exploring this topic, and others that are at the interface between personal experience and how nature works, in many subsequent pieces.
Editor’s note: Check back! We’ll soon provide a link to the online home for more of Dr. Palka’s nature writing.
by Robert Mellinger
I wake up everyday to the routine surprise that everything is still here, somehow thrumming along and creating itself anew all the time. How, I wonder and wonder? Spring at Chinook (and most places) is a time when the world shows us how most conspicuously.
During the past few of weeks the red-breasted sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber) have returned with the typical panache of a Chinook sapsucker. Landing on apple and ash trees right at face-level, they cock their dashing red heads in your direction, cast a wily eye, and give the trunk a few taps. Those who make their home at Chinook are scarcely noticed in the winter months. Perhaps they are deeper in the forest. Perhaps they prefer overwintering sites away from Chinook. Wherever they go, their return to center stage is a marker in this place of the Earth’s turning and the great dam of life unleashed by longer, warmer, sunnier days.
Rufous hummingbirds (Selasforus rufus), butterflies, and countless other insects congregate at the sweet wells that Sapscuker has chiseled into the living cambium of trees. A cascade of relations of stunning complexity can be witnessed with a pause of just moments before these little fonts of life.
Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) flit furtively out of low places like vegetated banks and near the base of trees. Along the road one day, one flew out of the bank and stopped to watch me closely. After a few moments, it began to hop about on nearby branches make the quiet alarm that sounds like two small beach stones lightly tapped together—a sure sign of a nest! Right where it flew out of the bank, I did indeed find a nest full of tiny, pink, baby birds. The nest was a harvest of twigs, shed winter blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus) fur, moss, and grasses.
The robin-like song of black-headed grosbeaks (Pheuticus melanocephalus), the cat-call whistle of Pacific slope flycatchers (Empidonax difficilis), the whacky, ascending twirl of Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus), and the various drummings of woodpeckers make a distinctly spring symphony complete with baseline.
Western thatching ants (Formica obscuripes), move out across the landscape of blooming flowers, seeding grasses, and awakening insects, drinking nectar, cutting thatch, and eating bugs. They sometimes chew small holes in base of bell-shaped flowers.
On two consecutive Saturday evenings, Thomas has encountered a newborn fawn and a baby owl, both sitting in the middle of a trail (pictured at right). Bella the deer, who is really a male, has the buds of his first antlers.
My Encounter with a Hawk
by Tia Gschwind
When I was at the Winter Gathering on Whidbey Island, I went out into the forest with Joanna (an adult) and two other kids, Mateo and Tobias, and we encountered a hawk. Here’s what happened:
We were walking down a path in the forest when I heard a rustling coming from behind a log. I looked over and a bird flew out from behind it and hit my face! Then it flew into a nearby tree. We took pictures and looked at it through binoculars, and later when we got back I looked up what type of bird it was, and it was definitely a hawk. I couldn’t find out what type of hawk. But all I know now is a hawk is my spirit animal. Because if you have an encounter with an animal that’s not a pet, like in your dreams or in real life, then that animal is your spirit animal.
We even named it. The name “Russet” popped into my head and the boys wanted to call it Seahawk because of the football team, but we decided on calling it “Russet Seahawk”.
It was an amazing experience and I feel really lucky to have had that encounter with the hawk.
And that is the story of the hawk that flew into my face!
Header and sidebar photos by Thomas Arthur Anderson; hawk photos by Joanna Wright and Tia Gschwind.
The Thread of a Place
The Greek myth is familiar to a lot of us: Theseus, a warrior from Athens, sets out to kill the Minotaur, a half-bull and half-human monster who lives inside a labyrinth on Crete. The labyrinth is so intricate that no mortal has found their way out. But Theseus falls in love with Ariadne, who gives him a thread to unravel so that he’s able to enter the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur, and make his way home.
The story’s longevity owes something to its allegory for our lives. I know this because I’ve also been in one – at Chinook, though instead of a Minotaur at its center, this one’s bulls-eyed with coins and tree cones. On a misty day three winters ago, as part of a year-long non-Institute program called Seasons of the Soul, I found myself walking the seemingly endless distance to the center, then retracing my steps all the way back to its opening, as I told the story of my life.
I did this while two women witnessed me from the bench on the labyrinth’s northern edge.
This sounds hard because it was, especially for me. As a former employee of the Whidbey Institute I’d walked the labyrinth many times, but the idea of being seen as I recounted the twisty and often sordid details of my past and present, in a loud voice that rang through that clearing in the woods, terrified me. Yet as I walked deeper into the labyrinth, the words spooling themselves out in tales of childhood wounds, of betrayals inflicted and suffered, of changes made or brought upon my life without warning, questions flooded my mind: what I was speaking, was it true? To what center was I moving? What personal monsters resided there? What did I wish to make of my short time on earth?
The labyrinth never helped to answer these questions, much as I wished it would. Instead, it deepened them, giving me a handhold, perhaps a thread like Ariadne’s, to anchor my path forward – the duration of which was not the ten or so minutes it took me to walk the thing, but my entire life.
So that when I finished my story and stood again at the mouth of the labyrinth, hearing the women murmur their support and admiration, my heart hammering like I’d just run a marathon, the insight came over me: courage is required for a journey like this, because it’s one you take alone. No one can go with you. But this insight was accompanied by an even more powerful one: your journey isn’t complete without others to support and witness you.
The land and Institute have played the role of support and witness in my life for a long time now. Since I took that long and very personal walk to the labyrinth’s center, I’m occasionally reminded of the insights I had, in the shape of even more questions: “Remember this place? How’s your journey going? Remember how this place held you and your friends as you supported each other?”
I received one such reminder the afternoon I came to the land to wish Maggie Mahle farewell, as she departed last November from her role as the Institute’s Land Care Coordinator. As we stood talking by the Labyrinth, suddenly a single, triangle-shaped frond of wood fern on the north slope began waving at us.
Or maybe at me? There was no wind, so it’s like the fern frond was waving itself, behind the very spot where the women had sat, witnessing me as I walked the labyrinth two years earlier.
“Check that out,” Maggie said, mimicking the fern’s motion with her hand. “It’s like it’s trying to get your attention, saying HEY!”
Hey, indeed. Hey to the magic of mazes and questions to which there are no firm answers, to living aloud the truth of one’s life; to the courage required by the journey that we must take alone, yet not alone.
Standing with Maggie by the labyrinth, I pictured two beautiful Ariadnes sitting on that bench, listening to what I had to share as if it was the most important and beautiful thing in the world.
Help us give voice to the beloved place that is Chinook—the heart of South Whidbey, of the Salish Sea, and of Cascadia. Our experiences and our voices are no less a part of this place than the robins’ and the tree frogs’. Share your stories and help this place be heard!
The Whidbey Institute seeks accounts of your personal encounters with, or at, Chinook—from a meeting with a plant or animal, to a meeting with a friend or a memory, to a meeting with some undiscovered truth or hidden part of yourself. Submissions of prose, poetry, visual art, videography, music, and photography will be gratefully accepted. Read More →