As part of my MFA quest, I now find myself catching up on many classic works of nature literature that I had somehow skipped in my youth: John Muir’s account of the Water Ouzel, Rachel Carson’s seashore vignettes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, if you can believe it, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (or at least selected portions thereof.)

Most of this has been illuminating in a good way, but occasionally I run across something that drives home how much times have changed. For instance, Thoreau talking about a “game” he played with a Common Loon:

…having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon… So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless… At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

Never mind the god of loons — the ABA would certainly be angry at Thoreau, were he to behave like that today! But those were simpler, more self-centered days, especially for an educated white man with a place to live and time to spare; and moreover we did not have the data then that we do now to shed light on the weary business of migration and the toll taken on birds by such games. Still, it is a little jarring!

(On a completely unrelated note, could any reader recommend me a good field guide for the south Texas/ Rio Grande Valley region? I might have some spring break plans.)

Regular readers will remember Greenough Park, the very lovely but seemingly very small and tame park that I visited back in 2010.

Well, last week this happened: Rattlesnake Creek ice, water roar toward Greenough Park

A valuable reminder that nature is still nature, and even something that doesn’t look much like wilderness can be a bit wild given the right circumstances.

I hope that the Dippers came through ok, but they are adapted to such conditions. If John Muir is right, they were probably singing the entire time.

I don’t know how this keeps happening, but I’ve written and sold another story about birds. This one, “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly”, will appear in Bewere the Night, edited by Ekaterina Sedia. It’s coming out in the spring, but it’s available for pre-order now.

No, this is not the annual holiday Return to the Olde Homestead post, but rather about something I should have done years ago but hadn’t: reading Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America. As I pointed out to my professor when justifying my inclusion of the book on my semester-long reading list, Wild America has been profoundly influential on the birding community as well as the travel/nature writing world.

My first impression of this book was that it was not very good, to be honest. Both co-authors were known for expertise other than writing and it shows.

For instance, both authors narrate at different points in the book, and the reader is given very little warning when the narratorship changes hands. Although I eventually got used to this, it was initially very jarring, especially since it didn’t follow a steady pattern. The two men have very similar voices — although whether this is a reflection of their very similar personalities and backgrounds or an artifact of sharing an editor is unclear. With each new section, I was forced to figure out who was speaking using context, and the relevant context often did not appear for several paragraphs.

Both men were also thoroughgoing geeks and the text is laden with numbers and statistics — acres of parkland, miles driven, species tallied, gallons of Coke drunk — many of which are not really necessary for understanding the journey. I find this sort of thing engaging, but between all the numbers and the breakneck pace of the trip (the 300,000 miles in 100 days statistic is cited so often by reviewers that it might as well be the book’s tag line) it’s easy to see why the book is sometimes charged with encouraging the sort of people who collect lists of species like baseball cars rather than seeking a deeper engagement with an ecosystem.

That said, there are also passages of fine description, not only of birds but of plants, insects, and mammals that the pair encountered, and the geology of the landscapes they explored. Both men, like most ornithologists, seem to have been very visually oriented, and they execute little one- or two-sentence portraits of new species with aplomb in the midst of explaining science or history, as well as painting paragraph-long pictures of new landscapes. Their meditations on place, the future of threatened species and landscapes, and the meaning of wilderness, although not groundbreaking even for their time are at least present and linked throughout book.

On the subject of wilderness, Peterson and Fisher make note of some urban parks, but only for their relative pristineness. For the most part wilderness is something they travel to, something that is apart from daily life. On the other hand, they hardly espouse the notion that only untouched nature is worthy or valuable — in fact, in keeping with their era, they seem very sanguine about direct and fairly heavy-handed management. Fisher talks eagerly about which game birds would be most appropriate to introduce in Nova Scotia (whereas Scott Weidensaul, in Return to Wild America, repeatedly names invasive species as the most serious threat to the wild regions he visits, and for that matter Peterson acknowledges the problems caused by chestnut blight and other introduced menaces.) They tour Avery Island, a private bird reserve in Louisiana stocked with egrets by a Tabasco heir, with the same enthusiasm as any public park. They view the Tillamook Burn with no mention of fire ecology, but lots of statistics on fire suppression. That said, they have no hesitation in hauling out the old (even then) cliches about true wilderness being primitive and virginal.

Their attitudes towards people can be a little dated as well; female park rangers are remarkable, while Uncle Remus-style attempts to render the speech of a southern African-American tour guide are sadly apparently not. Native populations they visit in Mexico and Arizona are treated with the same exoticizing tone as the birds and cacti. Fortunately, since people are only rarely the focus of the narrative, this is less jarring than it might be for the modern reader.

In the end, I am forced to acknowledge that despite the fact that I wasn’t very impressed with this book on the level of technique, it succeeded on its own terms. The authors wished to promote enthusiasm for wildlife-watching and support for the National Park system in their readers, and they did so. Moreover, they created a work that has remained in print for over fifty years, one which continues to inspire imitation and response in younger nature writers like Scott Weidensaul, Kenn Kaufman, and Lyn Hancock. The premise in and of itself is loaded with such a multifaceted appeal — as an adventure story, a patriotic celebration of the United States, an aspirational travel guide, and a behind-the-scenes look at one hundred days in the life of a man who was already a celebrity and role model to many birders and environmentalists when the book came out — that it would take genuinely terrible writing, not just occasional awkwardness, to strip it of its charms.

On Saturday, I ventured forth to scope out Greenough Park, which is likely to be the subject of my next 10,000 Birds post.

In New York City I always took urban, public transit-accessible parks – well, not exactly for granted. I did appreciate them. But having lived my non-urban birding years first on the Olde Homestead and then in rather bird-centric Ithaca, I had underestimated the frustration of reading all the hotspots and seeing phrases like “head out of town on Rte. so-and-so” or “drive about fifteen minutes north of Whoville.”

Greenough Park, along with the Kim Williams Nature Trail, are the big exceptions I’ve discovered to this conundrum in Missoula. Both follow watercourses – the Kim Williams along the Clark Fork and Greenough up the lower part of Rattlesnake Creek – and both can be reached from my home with nothing but shoe leather. This weekend, I did a small part of Kim Williams and all of the mile-long Bolle Birdwatching Trail in Greenough (named for Arnold Bolle, a University of Montana professor greatly enamored of birds.)

The Bolle trail, even in winter, has many lovely birds. The mix of Ponderosa pine, older cottonwood snags, Douglas fir, and (unfortunately invasive) maple shelters an understory rich in life-giving plants like mountain ash and snowberry. The result — potential for wintertime sightings like Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, and Downy Woodpecker (which I saw) as well as Bohemian Waxwing, Western Screech-owl, and Pileated Woodpecker (which, alas, I did not.)

But the star attraction of the park is the American Dippers. They nest on Rattlesnake Creek and live here year-round. I watched one of these remarkable little bundles of feather plunge again and again into the half-frozen creek, allow itself to be swept nearly under the ice, only to emerge to open air at the last possible second with some tiny fish or insect meal. Since I was shivering in a wool coat, wool mittens, a bomber hat and Thinsulate boots, I was impressed to say the least.

Did I remember my camera this time? Oh yes, I did. And I don’t want to keep Jochen in suspense of the results, so here you go:

Bad photo of an American Dipper

Yeah, so, I really need to get better at this.

Yesterday I bought… well, probably too many things, but a few of them were to do with birds.

One was a suet feeder. Birdfeeders are not as straightforward here as back east, because they tend to attract bears, but between living in the heart of town and the fact that it is now snowing and all good bears should be asleep, I figured it was safe to risk it. I haven’t seen any birds at it yet, but it’s only been up for a little while, so hopefully good things will come with patience.

The second was a book called Birds in Place: A Habitat-based Field Guide to the Birds of the Northern Rockies. I picked it up because I thought the concept was interesting, and only later noticed that it was by one Radd Icenoggle. The arrangement, though it makes a great deal of logical sense, will take some getting used to, and already I can feel myself flipping through and saying “but, but…” However, it’s not as though taxonomy is free of ambiguities either, and I do like that this guide forces you to be aware of where exactly you’re at. I’m pretty good at telling when I’m birding by a river (hint: there’s a big flowy wet thing nearby) but learning to distinguish the various types of conifer forests that occur at different elevations here is challenging, but very important if you want to understand what’s actually going on in the landscape rather than just pluck birds out of it. I’ll have more to say about this book, no doubt, when I’ve used it more.

Last but not least, I also grabbed a book called Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains. I was first attracted by the title, of course, but it looks like something that might be inspirational to many nature bloggers: a volume of very short place-based essays. The smaller ones could easily be blog entries, but the book is copyright 1988, long before there were blogs.

Winter is definitely upon us now, hopefully forcing many more interesting birds down from the higher elevations and latitudes. I trust I will soon have much more to report than my shopping.

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Here’s a little-known fact about Montana: it is the only state in the USA with a constitution that guarantees state citizens the right to a “clean and healthful” environment.

In 1972, when Montana’s current constitution was written, the state was (for that matter, still is) recovering from ongoing plutocratic rule. In particular, the captains of the mining industry had run wild, poisoning entire communities, using extra-legal violence to break unions, and leaving little wealth behind but what they put in the pockets of their bought-and-paid-for officials. The clean and healthful environment provision was one those put into the constitution to prevent this from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, right now poisoned communities, violent thugs, and an oligarchy of the rich seem to be politically popular in certain circles. And Montana has a call for a new constitutional convention on the ballot, with backers who explicitly wish to see the state made more ‘business-friendly’, even friendly to those businesses who wish to physically harm the citizens of the state.

That’s why I’m going to vote on Tuesday. No matter what state you’re in, there’s probably at least one issue out that that should prompt you to do the same.

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