Table of Contents
Impressions of the North
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part III: Landscapes of
Songs of Green Mountains: A Naturalist's View of the
In the summer of 1983 my friend John Dittli and I
climbed to the summits of ten peaks in two weeks. I remember their names
like old friends: Sahale, Buckner, Sharkfin, Forbidden, Eldorado, Black,
Mixup, Shuksan, Spickard, Redoubt. We were young. It had been a wet and
stormy July. August broke with the promise of clearing. The southwest
skies dawned with thin streaks of color instead of the leaden gray and
black we had grown accustomed to. We were ready to move.
I remember it as a time of magic, surrounded by good
friends, our bodies strongwe had a mission and dreams. I was newly
in love that summer and wrote poems each night and played my
pennywhistle to the clouds from every peak. Does everyone have a summer
like that? I count myself blessed that I have had many, and most of them
have been touched in some way by the green mountains of the North
As a peak, Sahale is not very impressive. A high
spire at 8,680 feet, it remains relatively inconspicuous in the company
of the larger and more rugged peaks in the
vicinity of Cascade Pass. As a climb it is not very
difficult, either. But it was the first peak I climbed in the North
Cascades seventeen years ago as a new backcountry ranger working for the
National Park Service.
From Marblemount I had followed the Cascade River up
through Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Forest Service land
into North Cascades National Park. At 3,600 feet the Cascade Pass
trailhead lies shadowed beneath the rocky north face of Johannesburg
Mountain. The trail to the pass is short, 3.7 miles of gentle
switchbacks, and climbs gradually through forest before breaking free
into small meadows and scattered clumps of mountain hemlock at
I was new to the North Cascades, new to the Park
Service, and remember my elation at being set loose for a summer in the
midst of such wild mountains. Kelly Bush, another seasonal ranger, and I
hiked the sinuous trail up Sahale Arm from Cascade Pass one afternoon,
climbing 3,000 feet to the small pocket glacier just below the summit
rocks. We roped up for the short scramble to the top. It was a tiny
place, barely big enough for two, with the world dropping off in all
directions, an unknown landscape that filled my imagination. I stared
out at the world of rocky crags and ice, green valleys and shadowed
lakes that still fill my dreams.
Earlier in the season, on my first trip to Cascade
Pass in June, I postholed steeply uphill through thigh-deep snow with
Bill Lester, Backcountry Area Ranger for North Cascades National Park.
The pass, and Pelton Basin lying just to the east, was to be my home for
the next four months. As we slowly climbed through a silent forest of
Pacific silver fir, Bill told me, "You have a unique opportunity to live
in a wilderness. Get to know this place, learn it better than anyone
else, take care of it." Bill taught me to touch the wilderness gently
and showed me trails that now, years later, I discover again through the
eyes of my daughters.
I was entering a new landscape and a new life. The
job of a seasonal backcountry ranger was ideal for me: long days
outside, hard work, solitude at the end of the day, remote crags to
explore and climb, hidden plants to discover, new birds to learn. It was
a welcome break from graduate school and the noise of the city. That
summer I slept on rock ledges and glacier ice. I lay sheltered by clumps
of subalpine fir and watched shooting stars dance overhead. At first I
was drawn to the summits. It took longer to learn what the valleys
offered. I camped along rushing creeks, the sky hidden by
thousand-year-old cedars, and felt darkness flow like water. Surrounded
by the calls of dark birds I began to listen to the mountains.
Directions to a Place Called Home
Home is the place to which I always return. Each time
I walk into the mountains there is a moment when the place speaks to me
and I say out loud, "Now, I'm back." Sometimes it happens when I'm
walking through a light rain into green hills. Sometimes it comes when
I'm sitting alongside the trail, back against a cedar buttress and
feet bare to the breeze. The outside world slips away
and I look around with the sudden realizationI'm home.
Sometimes that moment happens on the first day, in
the first hour. Usually it takes much longerdays, nights,
especially nights, with hours stretching themselves thin and the night
cries of frogs and insects settling into place. It happens while hiking
up Thunder Creek beneath the shadow of Pyramid Peak. And again under the
cedar shadows of Big Beaver Valley as I walk toward the Picket Range.
With each step I am coming home.
How can I give directions to a time, to a
place where magic happens?
My home is bounded by shores and islands and a wall
of mountains. Bounded by place and people and names that sound like
falling waterSalish, Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Slesse,
Sauk, Suiattle, Skagit, Sahale, Shuksan, Stetattle.
Each time I come back I slip into place a little more
easily. I slide inside the pattern of green woods and dark forest trails
as if I am entering my own bedroom, a room dark with eyes and the songs
of unseen birds.
To know the future we must know the place we call
home. The stories of common landscapes are as powerful as individual
human historiesand as knowable. Some of us are drawn to live in
dark river valleys on the west slope of the Cascades, others are called
by the high open country east of the crest. Our understanding of a place
expands as we learn the bioregion where we live and work and play. We
learn to notice natural boundaries as well as human-made lines on the
map. We see that watersheds are defined by ridges, that the places where
we can easily travel are limited by large rivers, mountains, and
oceans. We know without thought when the moon will be full. It is the
beginning of recognition that cedar, hemlock, raven, and frog are also
part of our culture.
Even today much of the North Cascades lies untouched
and unknown. It is a landscape where green is the dominant color, where
wind and storm provide counterpoints of gray and white. The essence of
its wildness lies far away from roads and towns. It lives high in the
cold mountain air where solitude and silence speak louder than the
I think of many trails connecting me to this place.
Some lead to high meadows just now breaking free from snow. Some follow
green rivers toward an inland sea. The organic debris of centuries falls
slowly around us. Maple leaves and fir needles sift down through the
ages. This is an old place. Older than humans, old as the oldest rocks.
I live on the narrow edge between sea and forest, river and ice. I can
only travel for so long in any direction before dark trails call me
A Naturalist's View
Naturalists are people who know home in
different ways. I love to look at patterns in nature, to know the names
of birds and find out where and how they live. I follow the green songs
of wild things down the trail.
Landscapes are made up of detailsveins on a
vine maple leaf, yellow and black scales on the wing of an anise
swallowtail, striations in a piece of greenschist. Details show us
where the magic hides. The ways things fit togetherthe
interactions of living and nonliving thingsall tell a story. To
read the story, to recognize it in the first place, you have to see the
The poet William Carlos Williams said, "No ideas but
in things." He was talking of specific objects, artifacts, details.
Pieces of a landscape are the things a naturalist knows. A name
is a bit of history you carry with you as you hike down a muddy trail
ablaze with small pink flowers. Knowing the name means we can say
"calypso orchid." Knowing a name is the beginning of respect. I believe
it is harder to harm something once you have spoken its name.
Everyone should have an intimate knowledge of at
least one group of organisms. It doesn't matter whether you are drawn
to dragonflies, maples, or lizards. The ability to identify local
species leads us to appreciate living things, and their relationships
with each other, in new ways. Why alders like to live along the edge of
trails, why hemlocks prefer to take root in decayed logs, are questions
we can answer by looking closely into the face of the natural world.
Once when we were sitting on a log in a forest
clearing, with small orange fritillaries flying all around us,
lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle placed a butterfly on the end of my
nose. "For a naturalist intimacy is everything," he said with a laugh. A
naturalist's business is this passionate paying attention, observing the
details in things, places, and events. Paying attention brings us into
intimate contact with the world and we immerse ourselves in small
woodland bogs and alpine tarn pools with equal joy. Northwest botanist
Art Kruckeberg once told me, "A naturalist is an ecologist in short
pants." I would add that, after a day of scrambling after butterflies or
kneeling by a patch of orchids deep in the forest, we are ecologists
with scratched legs and scraped knees as well.
Aldo Leopold wrote that "the penalty of having an
ecological education is to live in a world of wounds." One antidote to
Leopold's dilemma is increased intimacy with the natural world. Pick a
place and get to know it. From this knowledge and depth of experience
come facts and feelings that call us to action. Naturalists have to be
involved in the life of the world they study and celebrate. As we look
to the future we have no other choice.
Dreams of Roaring Mountain
In the winter of 1983 a small group of us started a
field school dedicated to natural history exploration. We began as
Shuksan Institute named after Mount Shuksan, the "roaring mountain" that
guards the northwest corner of the range. We were a group of dreamers,
people who cared intensely about this place who wanted to create
meaningful work in a land we loved. In 1986 we evolved into North
Cascades Institute and began offering programs celebrating the natural
and cultural history of the Pacific Northwest. From the beginning we
were closely tied to this ecosystem, this region, and resisted calls for
expansion throughout the state. "It is difficult enough," we said, "to
learn one place well. Let this be our place."
From that small beginning, ten years ago, we have
grown in spirit as well as size. The vision that brought us together
continues to guide our steps and hearts. It must, for the work we do is
needed. The Institute offers field-based environmental education for
children and adults: natural history seminars, watershed education
programs, teacher workshops, school programs, summer camps, Elderhostel.
Our programs are nationally recognized for excellence and our staff
include some of the best people with whom I have ever worked. It is a
dream that grows each day. I often struggle with the conflicting
demands of office and administration while my heart calls me back to
As Executive Director of North Cascades Institute I
am responsible for bringing many people to these mountains to learn for
themselves the beauty of falling water and the color green. As an
educator I know that small places in the landscape sometime tell us more
than the big places. Big landscapes, especially mountain landscapes,
often turn into scenery, backdrops for experience rather than the
experience itself. As a teacher I look for powerful experiences to share
with my students so that they remember the context of the place we are
sharing as much as the content of the course itself.
Why, as naturalists and educators, do we feel it is
important to share the North Cascades? For one, we love to teach
outside. For another, it is the best way we know to assure that these
mountains have a future as rich as their past. Why not keep special
places hidden away for ourselves? We do keep some places hidden. There
is a meadow that has seen me alone and at my wildest. There are dark
valleys where I have howled and run naked through the huckleberries.
They are still there. Twill return when the time comes. But mostly I
look for places I can share. Trails that can take the impact of a small
group of learners walking quietly and carefully. Places where we can
gather to marvel at the wing scales of a mourning cloak butterfly or sit
and listen to the bubbling song of a dipper.
I go to these special places for myself and for
others. I cannot imagine doing anything else. My students leave the
mountains with a new view of wilderness and civilization. They know
their home place in a new way. When it all works, when the mix of people
and place and subject click together just right, it is magic and we all
know it. Our new knowledge has power because we have experienced it with
our bodies as well as our minds. It means something because it is
The most important part is being outsideinside
the natural world. A trip to the mountains immerses learners and
teachers in nature. Make your next weekend hike a learning adventure to
explore a new habitat. Go back to a favorite place determined to see ten
new things. Take a new mind to a familiar place and see what you can
discover. While looking at the hidden flower of wild ginger, take time
to listen to the song of a winter wren warbling out of the forest. Get
on your belly and look deep inside the flower. Listen to the forest.
Teach yourself to hear the voice of a rotting log, the small songs of
millions of insects clustered inside. Slow down and listen to the
stories of tiny landscapes.
I want to share a naturalist's view of these green
mountains and want you to look through my eyes toward the future of the
North Cascades. For me, that future is wet and green. It is alive in
mind and heart because of what I see each day on each trail I walk. I
wonder, and worry, if what I see will always be here. I do not know. For
me, the only way to look toward the future is to share the present, to
celebrate what we have and to encourage others to walk gently into wild
places with receptive and attentive minds.
I will let others sing the praises of grizzly and
cougar and wolf, rare and unseen totems of the mountain world. I whisper
the stories of common wildness: the songs of thrushes, small trails that
lead to alpine gardens, and the soft breeze of gossamer wings.
into the dark silence
of green woods
and we are still
waiting for your song.
Forest birds are difficult to see but easy to hear.
On the west slope of the Cascades four members of the thrush family
share the montane forests. Their voices tell us much about habitat and
ecology. As clear as a signpost in the forest, they announce their
presence even if the singers are seldom seen. The American robin is our
most common thrush, found in clearings from lowlands to midelevations.
Our three other thrushesvaried, Swainson's and hermitare
similar in size but different in appearance, voice, and manner.
To know the thrushes takes patience, which is a
naturalist's chief virtue. As I hike through the old-growth forests of
Big Beaver Valley, the song of the varied thrush unfurls out of the
moist, coniferous woods like a dark ribbon of sound. Its long, even,
slightly dissonant, single-toned whistle floats out of the morning fog.
After a brief pause the bird sings a second note at a slightly different
pitch. The two notes alternate back and forth, mesmerizing in their
simplicity. A friend calls it the telephone bird, although it seems rude
to equate such an eerie song with something as mundane as the ringing
of a phone.
As I climb higher into the mountains, the song of the
varied thrush is replaced by the rapid, ascending spiral of Swainson's
thrush. Its clear, flutelike notes seem to disappear into the tops of
the Pacific silver fir and mountain hemlock forests that guard its
domain. In coniferous forests at high elevations throughout the
mountains especially in areas surrounded by open meadows, the song of
the hermit thrush provides the voice of timberline. Heralded by a
single, high, flutelike note followed by a rapid series of rising and
falling notes, its serene song continues with similar phrases repeated
at different pitches.
Knowing the songs leads us to knowing the birds. I
once hiked from summit to valley in one long day accompanied by a friend
who said that knowing which thrush sang which song robbed the forest of its
mystery and, therefore, its beauty. I was stunned, for I see the varied
thrush inside my mind when its song calls out to me. Its grayish-blue
back contrasts with orange eyebrows, wing bars, and underparts. Its
breast is crossed with a single black band. "A robin that went to the
circus" is how I once described it to a child. Swainson's thrush, on the
other hand, is darker, reddish-brown above with a bold eye ring and
huffy breast speckled with dark spots. And the hermit thrush's back is
gray-brown, contrasting with its brick-red tail. A white eye ring and
grayish flanks complete its costume.
The songs of small birds teach us about place, about
their home and ours. We only have to listen. Their songs have the power
to reach across time, to span years into the future. Today we mourn the
passing of the grizzly. Will we someday weep as the last notes of the
hermit thrush fade into the wind that sweeps up and over Sahale Arm?
Climbing into a clear light
absence of sounds and birds
the hills falling below
On the crest of the ridge
one rock melted free of snow.
My passions take me to high places. In the mountains,
in addition to the eight cardinal directions, there are two others: up
and down. We do not have much that is flat around here. I love to wander
unnamed ridges that snake upward toward unnamed peaks. Small waterfalls
drop into valleys thousands of feet below and I have the illusion that
no one has walked here before. Our rugged terrain and close proximity to
the Pacific Ocean support a rich and varied landscape. Within a small
geographic area the North Cascades offers an exceptional range of
climatic, topographical, and biological diversity.
One of the first places I explored in the Cascades
was Boston Basin, a steep, ice-sculpted cirque that hangs on the
mountain slopes just below the jagged peaks of Forbidden, Torment,
Sharkfin, Boston and Sahale. Northwest of Cascade Pass, the basin is a
climber's paradise, with rock of Skagit gneiss and granodiorite forming
the upper boundary of the cirque. The outer edges of the basin are
dominated by long, narrow meadows; bare bedrock, flanked by lateral
moraines, makes up the center. Eight creeks, fed by meltwater from the
Quien Sabe and Taboo Glaciers, dissect the meadows, then fall steeply
into the Cascade River Valley 2,700 feet below. When I worked as a
climbing ranger for North Cascades National Park I set up my base camp
in Boston Basin each summer. The peaks and the waterfalls became
familiar friends. In 1982 my wife, Shelley, spent most of the
growing season exploring the basin while studying subalpine plant
communities for her master's thesis. It was then that I began to notice
"Anybody can travel light; it takes a real effort to
travel heavy." That's what we said to console ourselves as we packed for
our climbing trips. We did go heavy. Climbing gear, beer, books of
poetry, field guides. My climbing partner, John, had his camera gear in
a second pack strapped on top of his already huge load and an extrawide
fanny pack which he swung around and carried on his front for easy
access. He is the only person I have ever seen use a wide-angle lens to
self-arrest on a steep ice slope.
Shelley carried her botany tools, sampling frame,
plant press, and twelve pounds of plant books, including Hitchcock's
massive Flora of the Pacific Northwest. I, on the other hand,
went a bit lighter: only my journal, a few books of poetry, a field
guide or two, a hand lens, binoculars, a butterfly net, and a small
bottle of sakeand, of course, a stove to heat it. Scrambling to
the crest of the moraine which dissected the distant meadows of the
basin, I looked down at John, engrossed with tripod and lenses, all
attention focused on something too small for me to see. And Shelley, on
her knees in some wet meadow, lupines crusted with dew, so wet that just
by walking through you were soaked to the skin. A new flower before her
nose, she was oblivious to rain, wind, and deerflies.
My stove sang a faint whistle to the marmots. A small
pot of tea began to steam. Clouds rose out of the valley, sometimes
covering the entire scenewhich, over time, has been
transformedJohn's photographs made into wonderful images in
magazines and books, Shelley's notes into the pages, graphs, and
dendrograms of a thesis, and my own scribblings on rain-smeared journal
I believe there is nothing more important than
knowing a place well. We can not hope to preserve what we do not know.
We need to know, and delight in, the details. We need the activist and
the scientist, the passionate artist who can paint the story and the
naturalist who can sing the praises of small bugs. We must learn what we
can and cry for that which is unknown and unknowable and which may be
Songs of Timberline
In Boston Basin, as in timberline forests throughout
the western Cascades, a deep and persistent winter snowpack sets the
ecological stage for the year's activities. Along the basin's lower
edges timberline forests are composed of Pacific silver fir while its
upper edges form forest islands of mountain hemlock that interfinger
with subalpine meadows. These beautiful parklands just below timberline
are unique features of northwest mountains, better developed here than
anywhere in the world.
Shelley's research project was concerned with the
composition and distribution of plant communities in the subalpine parklands of
Boston Basin. No matter what the weather, she would leave camp early
each morning to sample new sites across the basin. Sometimes I watched
her disappear into the blowing mists, a small figure clad in blue
raingear moving slowly uphill. Her methods were simple: find, identify,
sample, count, measure, write notes over and over again. Her schedule
only varied with summer storms, the foot of snow that collapsed her tent
on the fourth of July, and my entreaties to her to join me in the valley
on my days off.
What Shelley learned that summer fascinated us both.
The transition from mountain forest to subalpine meadow is dramatic. In
Boston Basin the first glimpse of the upper meadows is spectacular.
After climbing steeply through silver firs encrusted with gray tendrils
of moss and lichen, we turned a corner and suddenly could see the entire
basin spread out before us. Forest turns to meadow within a span of
fifty feet. Trees are replaced by grasses, herbaceous flowers, and small
shrubs. Lush meadows of alpine phlox, Davidson's penstemon, false
hellebore, Sitka valerian, mountain lupine, partridge foot, fan leaf
cinquefoil, and glacier lilies cover the slopes. A half-dozen small
streams cascade over rock slabs while sheer faces of rock and ice float
in mist and sunlight 3,000 feet above.
Subalpine meadows occupy an ecotone between the
montane forests at lower elevations and the alpine tundra above.
Timberline, caused by a complex interaction of ecological factors,
including snow distribution and accumulation, topography and wind, is a
special place where dramatic shifts in plant communities occur over very
small areas. Subalpine meadows are characterized by deep, late-melting
snow which insulates the plants during the winter and provides abundant
meltwater during the summer. The depth of snow accumulation, and thus
the duration of snowpack, influences soil moisture, soil temperature,
and the length of the growing season. Leeward slopes and basins
accumulate snow throughout the winter. Because snow persists into late
summer in these sites they provide ample water but a very short growing
season for plants. The accumulation of heavy snow damages woody plants,
keeping the meadows free from trees. In contrast, ridge tops and
windward slopes are exposed to the full force of winter winds which
strip them clear of snow after it has fallen. With insufficient snowpack
to recharge soil moisture, these sites are susceptible to drought
throughout the growing season. Plants in these high alpine areas bloom
early in the spring when water is available.
Two years of work finally led Shelley to describe
eleven different plant communities in the rich environment of Boston
Basin. She then simplified them into five broad categories, relating to
habitat types and the timing of snowmelt. Lush mesic meadows
cover a large area of the basin on deep, well-developed soil, often
honeycombed with marmot burrows. In this habitat, higher ground melts
out by mid-June, while swales hold snow as late as August. Wet
meadows, created by meltwater from high snowfields, have a high
water table throughout the summer. Shelley found
that snowmelt in these communities is late, in
mid-July or August, and the ground is muddy throughout the summer. In
striking contrast to these wet meadows is the vegetation that occurs on
the glacial moraines that dissect the basin. These steep, rocky
features, remnants of alpine glaciers that covered the basin as recently
as 100 years ago, are dry throughout much of the summer. Snow melts
early from moraines and they are often snowfree by mid-June. We noticed
that vegetation is sparse, especially on the steep, inner slopes of the
lateral moraines. Large slabs of exposed bedrock extend across
the center of the basin. Smoothed by retreating glaciers, the snow melts
by the end of July, forming cascading streams that course across the
polished rock. Plants are unable to gain a foothold in the bedrock and
Shelley would return from a day of scrambling having found only isolated
plants growing in small cracks and depressions that collect silt and
water. There were also distinct creekside communities throughout
the basin with their own rich assemblage of wildflowers.
Above the meadows we discovered the alpine world.
This is where I went to climb and roam, and where Shelley and I went
exploring on my days off from "work." We found the dominant life forms
of the peaks to be lichens and small cushion plants: low-growing,
prostrate plants such as Tolmie's saxifrage, crowberry, Douglasia, and
spreading phlox. Growing low allows these cushion plants to stay in the
warmer, more sheltered microclimate near the ground. On the most exposed
summits, crustose lichens often represent the only growth.
In all the days we spent wandering the basin we saw
relatively few large animals. The warning whistles of marmots and pika
alerted us to the arrival of a hiker, coyote, or eagle. Birds were the
most visible animals and the songs of horned larks, water pipits, and
rosy finches often woke us from our bivouac on the rocky talus. Insects
were far and away the most common creatures in the high country. It took
awhile but we began to look beyond the mosquitoes' whine and the
deerflies' bite to small and colorful worlds of wonder.
In the center of each palmate leaf
mist has gathered
one small drop of rain.
one blue butterfly
slowly opens its wings.
I came late to the love of butterflies. They were
always around me, fluttering through green meadows, floating across
ridges, and disappearing when the fog rolled in. I did not notice them
for too many years. When the sun was out I was
always on the move, too busy to watch for small
insects among the flowers. Now that I have learned to look, I find them
everywhere; flying at the edge of memory, they call me to mountain
I am drawn to small butterflies, and of all the
little ones, those that sing to me most are the gossamer wings in the
family Lycaenidae. The gossamer wings are a large family made up,
in the Cascades, of three groups: the blues, the coppers, and the
hairstreaks. They are the warblers of the butterfly world. At first they
make some sense. Blues are generally blue, coppers are most often the
color (and size) of a new penny, and hairstreaks have tiny hairlike
tails. Butand this is what I love about biologythese insects
have an attitude. There are blue coppers, tailed blues, and tailed
coppers, and copper-colored hairstreaks and blues. You have to love
them. There are about thirty-six species in the North Cascades, and I
may never get them straight. Males and females differ markedly in color
and in structure, while females have the six legs common to all insects,
male gossamer wings have reduced forelegs and therefore appear to only
possess two pairs of legs. With delicately banded antennae, brilliant
colors on the dorsal surface of their wings, and soft hues intricately
patterned with tiny spots and thin lines, their names reflect their
stunning colors: silvery blue, immaculate green hairstreak, purplish
copper, spring azure, lustrous copper.
What can small blue butterflies tell us about the
future of the North Cascades? Most people would say, "Not much." But if
all of us, or even most of us, actually took the time to see
these small jewels, what changes would it make in our view of the world?
Is butterfly watching merely a romantic pastime, a dream of old
naturalists roaming through sylvan glades, naming butterflies after
goddesses and figures from mythology? Or is it another vital
linking that connects us to place and, thus, to home?
Butterflies surround us in the summer meadows. They
dance through dappled clearings in the darkest forests and follow the
openings along small streams and rivers throughout the Cascades. Theirs
is a world of many-legged creatures waiting to be discovered.
With cupped hands
I bow and drink
a different stream
from the same river
If the mountains comprise the body of the North
Cascades, the Skagit River is its heart. The North Cascades is a land of
rivers and the Skagit is one of the great rivers of North America. Born
in mist and rain and nurtured in wilderness, the Skagit watershed is the
largest river basin in Puget Sound, contributing over thirty percent of
the freshwater and thirty percent of the salmon that flow into our
inland sea. But while the Skagit is born in wilderness, its wildness is
Wilderness is a gift that civilization gives to
itself only once. When it is gone, it is lost forever. Words and
pictures pale beside its fading memory. It is only because of the work
of many individuals, organizations, and agencies that we have wild
rivers and wildlands left in the Pacific Northwest. To imagine the future
of the North Cascades we must imagine the future of wilderness. It is a
challenge we must face today so that our children will be able to
discover the magic and power of this green land for themselves.
As we move into the next century, places like the
North Cascades are critically important. There are few places left where
we can learn about the natural world in its original, unaltered state.
These scientific values of wilderness become more important as we
realize how much we have lost. We must share the lessons we learn from
wildlands. Wilderness also provides opportunities that are essential to
certain types of learning. Wildlands offer a preeminent outdoor
classroom, places where the lessons we learn about ourselves are as
important as lessons about food chains or alpine plant adaptations.
What future do I want for my home? Most of all I want
the songs that whisper from these green mountains to keep singing. For
that to happen we must keep listening. I worry that we will be left
with only the larger parks and wilderness areas to roam in. Wildlands
lose something when they exist within limited boundaries. We need a
broad spectrum of wild places, from large, protected mountain parks and
wilderness areas to greenways and nature corridors connecting our towns
and cities. We need small backyard spots for butterflies and garter
snakes, and places close to home for our children to explore. We need
management directed at all levels of diversity, from the largest
predators to the smallest pollinators. And we need am informed and
educated public, people who care deeply and passionately about
particular places, women and men and children who know these places
intimately and care for them as they would care for their own home.
I look toward a future where there is a place for
wilderness and biological diversity, a place for families and
communities to live sustainably and well on the margins of wild
landscapes, alongside rivers and forests, taking what we need and not
allowing our greed to rob our children of the unique experiences we
have shared. If we begin with love and knowledge and appreciation of
specific wild places we can create a new vocabulary for talking about
wildness and wild nature. I am looking for a place where the land sings
to me and I sing back, my voice faint beside the creek's roar.
Walking into the Mountains
Walking into the mountains
in the rain
deeper and deeper
everything is green.
Teaching in the Rain
I have seen the future and it is wet and green. All
winter the mountains have sung to themselves in low, muffled voices. In
springtime their voices are louder. The sound of falling water, snowmelt
streams breaking free from ice-fast earth, cascades from peak to valley.
The group, some ahead of me, some far behind, moves slowly, silently. It
is not the silence of quiet communion with the wilderness, but rather
the footsore slogging of exhausted students. Our camp is miles away; our
discussion on forest succession ended as gray clouds descended to the
ground. We move without speaking. I think of the many forms of water:
clouds and rivers and lakes and rain and sleet. I am wet and cold and
tired. I am also teaching.
Once, when I was new to this business, I sat in the
winter darkness of a Wyoming cabin with some of my closest friends,
educators with more experience than I may ever know. Ed Grumbine's voice
rang clearly from the darkness beyond the fire. "You can't teach in the
rain!" That was years and miles removed from this green river valley
deep in the North Cascades, but once again his words return.
As a naturalist I pride myself in being outside in
all seasons and weathers. As a teacher who spends more time outside than
in the classroom I am often asked, "How can you teach in the rain?" My
answer is, "There is no such thing as bad weatheronly
inappropriate clothing." But of course the question goes deeper than
I can teach in the rain. But I teach
differently, learn differently. Rain is an integral element of
this wilderness place, and the place changes you. It reaches out and
grabs your attention, demands to be noticed. In the North Cascades rain
is one way the wilderness says, "You're not in the classroom or the city
Rain is the signature of the North Cascades; it makes
the land. Glaciers, mountains, rivers, and the inland sea we call Puget
Sound are all molded by its wet embrace. If you come here you are going
to get wet. If you teach here, sooner or later you will find yourself
walking through a dripping forest with your socks down around your
My work with North Cascades Institute has shown me
that teaching outdoors in the Pacific Northwest means accepting the rain
as an essential element and, more importantly, accepting what the land
is teaching you. The crux of teaching, and learning, in wilderness is
using the power of place. Let the rain teach. Let wildlands speak for
The elements of wilderness education are time, place,
people, and something to talk about. The art lies in putting these
elements together, then trusting yourself and the students enough to
stand back and watch what happens. Immerse a small group of students in
a powerful natural environment, give them something to sink their teeth
intobe it alpine ecology or old-growth forestsmix
thoroughly, and let simmer for a few days, a few nights under the stars.
The experience is deep, powerful, and lasting.
Teaching in the rain involves more than just
teaching. Living in the rain is hard: wet clothes, wet sleeping bags, soggy granola, field
guides that either fall apart or swell to twice their original volume.
We can learn from the earlier native inhabitants. Did they stay inside
their longhouses sitting around a smoky fire, or did they put on their
cedar-bark capes and go out to face the wet? After two or three days the
rain stops being an outside force. Its presence is invasiveanother
being living with you, close to your skin. It becomes as familiar and
natural as the wet jacket that clings soggily to your back.
Each time I am out with students and clouds roll in
from the southwest, sink toward the ground, and begin spitting at us, I
relearn the same lessons. First I look for signs of clearing, delaying
projects "until the weather changes." Eventually there is nothing left
but to continue. We gear up and move on toward the day's lesson. This
is a good time to learn the lessons of microhabitats, to hunker down in
protected crannies, and watch alpine saxifrages hiding from the
Teaching in wilderness is powerful. Teaching for
wilderness is infinitely more so. It is the only way we can retain wild
places like the North Cascades for our children. Teaching for wilderness
requires listening to the voices of the land. If we listen well, the
land will change our lives. It has changed mine. Rain is one of the
essential ingredients of place. A basic tenet of ecological truth in the
Pacific Northwest is that the land is the way it isin shape,
smell, texture, soundbecause of the rain. It sings sweetly to the
cedars. Our job is to learn to listen to its song.
SAUL WEISBERG is a naturalist, writer, and educator
who has been exploring and teaching in the North Cascades since 1976. He
is co-founder and Executive Director of North Cascades Institute, and
has been a climbing ranger, fire lookout, tree planter, and biologist.
He lives in Bellingham with his wife, Shelley, and their two daughters,
Hannah and Emily.