Many years ago a famous author commented about the sloppy appearance of women in Washington State, where I went to public schools, Kindergarten through three undergrad degrees. She also talked about Puget Sound, using terminology appropriate to the East coast. Both comments irritated me, but non-locals talking about my corner of the natural world is particularly irksome. She spoke with authority and got details all wrong. I mean to write about two things today. First, a peevish rant about people misunderstanding my home.
A mediocre mystery/romance novel set on “the Puget Sound” referred to it as “ocean,” which it isn’t. Look at a map for goodness sake. And no one born here includes that article “the” before Puget. As in: We took the ferry across Puget Sound to Orcas Island.
The early episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, which I enjoyed, gave away a lack of local awareness by consistently calling the ferries “ferry boats.” Again, no true local calls them that. Were the television series producers/writers worried that people would think by “ferry” (as in “I have to hurry to catch the ferry”) might be misconstrued as a pejorative reference to gays? I still wince every time they say “ferry boat.”
An excellent author claimed in an interview that there is no wildlife and only “conifers” on the Hoh River in the Olympic Range. She found it unpleasant because it was so quiet. Good grief.
Throughout the winter season, rain falls frequently in the Hoh Rain Forest, contributing to the yearly average of 140 inches (3.55 meters) of precipitation each year. The result is a lush, green canopy of both coniferous and deciduous species. Mosses and ferns that blanket the surfaces add another dimension to the enchantment of the rainforest.
… It is common for visitors to spot large mammals like Roosevelt Elk, Black Bears, and River Otter. One may also spot signs of more elusive animals such as Bobcat and Mountain Lions that are more active at night. The overgrown forest floor provides the perfect habitat for animals like banana slugs , snails, rodents, snakes, and salamanders. Among the treetops, you may hear birds sing. We often see American Robins, Barred Owls, and Canada Grey Jays. The old growth provides a special habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl, so remember to respect the home of these animals during your visit!—National Parks Department
I know this environment. My husband and I were both born in the Pacific NW—me in Corvallis, Oregon, and Gary in Seattle. We have lived for more than forty years in the narrow band of land squeezed between the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean. It is a verdant landscape, averaging over 90″ of rainfall a year (though this may be changing) and mostly falling in winter. I have never seen a Canadian jay locally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t here.
A couple of days ago, running hills on highway 101, I smelled elk. I couldn’t see them that day, but there are many Roosevelt elk in my community and all along the coast, and I know what they smell like. We have black-tail deer and perhaps the rare Columbia white-tail deer, but not nearby. We see osprey, turkey vulture, Cooper’s hawk, red-tail hawk, and bald eagles, and we have more often heard than seen two species of owl. There are raccoons, river otters, many species of small mammals including wild rabbits and chipmunks and weasels, coyotes, black bear, and cougar locally. I doubt whether tourists notice any of these species. Song sparrows, nuthatches, several species of finch—our tenant is in love with chestnut-backed chickadees which are common along the Pacific coast, particularly in rainforest. Visitors might think the invasive Eurasian doves are pigeons or that the pigeons are ordinary park pigeons. Those last, native banded tail pigeons, are among Gary’s favorites.
Walking over Tillamook Head just a few miles north where second growth evergreen trees are blanketed with moss and ferns, silence stems from the thick duff underfoot and the natural avoidance of humans by wildlife. We have several species of evergreen trees: Douglas fir, both Western and Mountain hemlock, Western red cedar, and the grand ancient Sitka spruce. A few miles up the coast there are native pines (a coastal variety of Pinus contorta), but people have planted them locally and also the Japanese black pine recommended by the garden center, which grows fast here but dies young. Lumber companies replant only Douglas fir, but interspersed on undeveloped lands are alder, cottonwood, big leaf maple, and vine maple—the same species found on the west slope of the Olympics. The silence in an old forest is majestic. All that moist growth and richness underfoot deadens sound.
The local park forests are so quiet you can discover you are way too close to a deer (me) or a black bear (a friend) or even a bobcat (my older son), before either of you even notice. It is wilderness, and wildlife avoids humanity. We are the most dangerous animal in the forest.
Seasonally, we watch for the brown pelicans and Canada geese. Many species of duck when we drive north and cross Young’s Bay. Just now in winter, we see the gulls (there are three local species), bald eagles and osprey, crows and ravens, the doves and pigeons, sometimes the blue herons, various small songbirds, and jays. Mostly, we see Steller’s jays, but I was told not so long ago by a man new to the region that I could not have seen Steller’s jays outside my kitchen window because they only live in the mountains. Huh. We see them most mornings year around.
Traveling to Wallawa Lake a couple of years ago we saw scrub jays (another species of jay) near Pendleton (sometimes we see them locally too). While staying on the lake, another couple mentioned seeing scrub jays, but the local know-it-all told them that was impossible. Gary and I exchanged a glance but kept our mouths shut. This has become a sort of joke between the two of us: You didn’t see scrub jays. They aren’t here. What is it about jays that I have not seen, but have?
A fine writer I know wrote a somewhat fictionalized memoir about spending a season in a wild forest. He wrote about a lot of wildlife, about a dead moose, and a “lion hunt” that was so offensive I almost could not continue reading. Cougars or mountain lions are rare, extremely shy, solitary, and they weigh about a hundred pounds in the Pacific Northwest. Compare that to an African lion, weighing 250 to nearly 500 pounds. The so-called New World “lion” compared to the Old World. No one I know calls our biggest cat a “lion.” They are “cougars” or “mountain lions.” But if you are out for a trophy, “lion” might sound more impressive, even treed and shot from 20 feet away. Wow, big game hunter.
I am more interested in seeing garter snakes and salamanders and skinks. There are shrews living in my garden, but I only know this because our cat Zora caught one twenty years ago, and became so bored playing with it that she allowed the poor thing to walk away. I have seen a weasel exactly once. I have seen footprints of deer daily for weeks at a time. I have seen seals and sea lions and elephant seals on occasion (great occasions!). A black bear crossed the highway in front of me with her cub while I was driving to work. I have had uncounted interactions with elk and deer and I know enough not to approach either. I have never seen a cougar in the wild, though I know someone in Washington who had just put her dogs back on lead after a run, and they suddenly went wild lunging forward and barking. She saw only the distant flash across her path, a paleness and long tail. Did she see a cougar?
My daddy and mom, Mom’s sister Aunt Marcia and Uncle Harry in California in 1949. All were attending the UC Berkeley at the time and all but Mom were veterans (she was 17 when we entered the war). My mother wore a green dress for her wedding.
I found out via email yesterday that a friend died last year. She committed suicide. I had just been talking about her to Gary the other day. I suppose I am at an age where the deaths of friends will become commonplace. I am rereading Carol Shields’s novel Unless, which I loved the first time in 2002. The first person narrator talks a great deal about grief, and how writing her first novel she did not understand it because she’d had no real experience with personal tragedy. She is asked in an author interview what was the worst thing that had ever happened to her?:
That stopped me short. I couldn’t think of the worst thing. I told him that whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I knew, though, at that moment, what the nature of the “worst thing” would be, that it would be socketed somehow into the lives of my children.—from Unless by Carol Shields
The novel is about that worst thing, told in tiny chapters titled with small words, the much-maligned adverbs such as “So” and “Otherwise” and “Thus.” When I read it the first time, I had experienced hardship and loss. The house had flooded during a remodel and we lived in a tiny space with two preschool children and six dogs for six months. My father and my father-in-law had both died of lung cancer. But it turned out none of those events were the worst thing in my life. That was only the beginning.
Born in the United States, the real Carol Shields lived most of her life in Canada where she raised five children and became a citizen. She was 68 when she died in the year following publication of Unless.
So. Here is where I admit that getting facts wrong is not the worst thing. Not even close. Silly, really, to even complain about people not understanding local terms or misconstruing an experience with wildlife and trees. It is merely a pet peeve. A rant about mistakes. Who gives me the right? I get things wrong myself all the time.
You didn’t see scrub jays. They aren’t here.