The things we take from ourselves

Eleven years ago today, I spent my birthday at Glacier National Park. That was back when I owned a house in northwest Montana, and I spent every possible moment there. And because it was my birthday, I wanted to go to Glacier, because I love Glacier. I looked back at my ancient blog Trailheadcase (I’ve been blogging continuously at one site or another since 2005), and was reminded that it was chilly enough up at Logan Pass to require a coat on my almost-four year old (now almost 15), but warm enough to play in Lake McDonald in shorts and a t-shirt. Such is life at elevation.

St. Mary’s Lake at early afternoon, during the 2003 fires.

Tonight, eleven years later, Glacier is on fire. A lot of it is burning. The venerable Sperry Chalet, one of Glacier’s famous backcountry lodges, was overtaken by flame. I’ve been watching this beloved place of mine — all of Montana, really — burning for weeks on the news. I spent a day in Glacier the last time it was this tormented by fire, in 2003. It was a hellscape, and my lungs were scratchy from smoke inhalation at the end of the day. These fires are immeasurably worse.

At the same time, the Columbia River Gorge — a place I lived near for three years around the same time — is alight as well. The story is that a teenager tossed some fireworks into a a canyon for lulz, giggled, and walked away, trapping more than 100 hikers on a trail I can recall hiking about exactly ten years ago.  At the end of that trail is Punchbowl Falls, a sublimely chilly pool where a smallish, homely bird called the water ouzel plows into the falls and skims the bottom for food before popping up again, calm and collected, to enjoy its meal.

The trapped hikers made it out. I don’t know the condition of Punchbowl Falls, but as of yesterday, the fire had spread to 30,000 acres, enough to threaten all of the other wonderful trails in the Gorge and some historic structures, some of which I was lucky enough to see again when I was there last month. Although everyone wants to junk punch this teenager, his casual maliciousness could never have had the effect it did had this July and August not been the third driest on record in Oregon.

061-3FL17On the other side of the country, Hurricane Irma, among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history, is on trajectory for a head-on collision with south Florida — another place I’ve spent significant time, both in my childhood and as an adult.   I took my first steps at the Kon-tiki resort in the Florida Keys. I wonder about my grandparents’ old house west of Ft. Lauderdale. I worry about my stepdaughter in Orlando, working as an intern at Disney. I worry about my aunt in Ocala, and my dear cousin in Palm Coast. I worry about the monkeys on the Silver River, and the willets on Marineland Beach.

And this is all on the heels of some of the worst flooding in United States history in Houston, which saw my husband’s childhood neighborhood drowned.

I lived out west about ten years ago, and it was there I became acquainted with the reality of climate change, as so many of us did. Climate change somehow became a political question, and a refusal to believe the established science became a tribal litmus test for the right — to the profound and devastating misfortune of the earth.  I don’t know how much longer that denial will work for people, as one out-sized natural disaster after another befalls us. Sadly, I fear that the denial well is nowhere near as dry as the woods in Montana and Oregon.

And so this is likely to be what the last half of my life looks like, watching these gorgeous and meaningful places die, not to come back in my lifetime. I suppose I’m lucky I saw them while they lasted; my kids’ generation isn’t so fortunate. The earth will outlast us, of course. Whole books have been written about that. The World Without Us talks about what an earth suddenly unstressed by human occupation would look like. Some things, like plastic, are here to stay. But the carbon in the atmosphere would clear after many thousands of years.

These things aren’t so much about the earth, exactly. Climate change has always been more about what we take from ourselves, and from the wilds. And whether we admit it the cause or not, we are starting to lose a great deal.




We visited this lavender farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on a Sunday in early August. The morning air was cool, misty, and carrying a bit of smoke from the wildfires in British Columbia.

This is my spouse and favorite travel companion, sitting in the lavender as I wander the fields. Waiting.


Fire in the air

In the last few days I’ve been been in the Pacific Northwest, and we wandered out to Salt Creek in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Fires are burning in British Columbia and central Washington, and a haze hangs over everything. During a Pacific Northwest summer, you can usually see the volcanoes and the Olympic range from a good distance; not so now.

I was in Glacier National Park for the crazy wildfires of 2003 (we were the last vehicle to exit the park at Apgar when they closed it down, just ahead of the sirens, and I’m sure I took three years off my life from smoke inhalation). So from my photography there that year, I know how wildfires can produce weird, surreal light.

I was hoping that the sun would sink further down toward the horizon and spill some light toward the island before it was swallowed up into the haze entirely, but this is as far as it got. Elemental.



Many of the homes I’ve lived in, over the time I spent in them, came to be invested with a lot of emotional significance. Home and place are sensitive concepts for me. When I love a home, I have a lot of sadness — more than is perhaps entirely proportional — moving out of it. When I don’t love a home, I don’t. When I love a home, I can’t drive by it or go back to it for a long time after. I sold the home I had when my son was born, a walkout ranch tucked into a small neighborhood off Indianapolis’ Michigan Road, twelve years ago.  It was the first home I owned, and it sat on an acre overlooking Crooked Creek, and had 1100 square feet of two-story deck from which I could take in the nature preserve. When my ex-husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon, we had to sell it. When I moved back to Indy in three years later, I wished we had just rented it out.

I can drive by now, but it took almost a decade. In fact, the only home I can’t go back to, still, is the house in Montana I owned while we lived out west. This is true despite the fact that friends of mine own it now, and have offered to let me come back whenever I’d like. But I haven’t been able to bring myself even to the town it’s in, despite being in Montana last summer. Then again, it’s only been eight years. Maybe another two will do the trick.

After this pattern became apparent to me over the course of leaving several homes, I looked for the source of all this overwrought sentimentalism, and found it — as we so often do — in my childhood. My parents divorced when I was eight, and that event meant a move out of my childhood home — a walkout ranch on a large lot, of course — into an apartment complex on Meridian Street in Indianapolis that no longer exists. It was a jarring feeling for a sheltered kid like me, and I wanted my family home back in the worst way. One of my childhood friends still lived across the street, and I went back to visit her once, a short time after we’d moved out. We were playing outside, running around zanily as kids do, and I had to go to the bathroom or something. I completely forgot the situation of my life, the reality that we no longer lived there — despite the fact that I had just been introduced to the new owners that day by my friends’ parents — and on reflex, habit and muscle memory, I burst in the front door of my old home. That was, after all, where I ran to while playing outside when I needed something.

As an adult, I can’t blame this woman for what she did, as I must have at least startled the hell out of her. But she screamed at me, and I stopped cold in the entryway, too shocked to move. Reality came flooding back as she yelled at me: “You don’t live here anymore, get out!” I’ve always been extremely sensitive to criticism and elevated voices. It’s easy to imagine my son, who is not, saying “Oops, sorry,” turning around and running out, without a single enduring emotional effect. But that was not me as an 8-year old. I melted down in tears, and after regaining control of my feet, I turned around and ran out, back to my friend’s house. I was a disintegrated mess of tears, woundedness and anxiety as I tried to figure out where to go. I was terrified this story would get back to my parents and they would be upset with me. (Nowadays, I’m pretty sure they would’ve been sympathetic.)

So, the lesson that wired itself into my brain without any conscious awareness: Places that aren’t yours anymore aren’t safe. The loss feels too big.

That story is almost four decades old, and I’m a tougher character now, but there isn’t much I can do about my brain and its anachronistic clinging to the things it’s experienced. And that’s okay. It’s how this life works.

This last Monday, my husband and I closed on a new house, again in Indianapolis. It’s — you guessed it — a walkout ranch that sits on an acre and a quarter. We’ve been working all day and painting in the evenings, and the second evening we were there, our yard was visited by a deer, a hawk, a red fox, and a great-horned owl. I think it’s going to be one of those places I love. And if we sell it, it’ll be to move back west. Hopefully that will be the last big home transition.

I will be able to drive by my current house immediately after we leave, as I don’t particularly love it. But fate was kind enough to remove the things I do love about it before I leave it. The house sits on a pond, and when we moved in, it had two willow trees and two Bradford pears — the weak, split-prone trees that keep tree-removal businesses hopping — that reached up to the second floor bathroom. Storms took out the willows earlier this year, and a few weeks ago, I heard a huge crash during a storm. The Bradford pear tree had split down the middle and narrowly missed the sunroom. The yard, once a shady, mystical habitat for birds and squirrels, is now bare and baking in the sun.

20258467_1707310809279593_1814202389444997376_nIt’s time to go. And this time, I’m glad.



The prairie at Prophetstown

Until I knew the prairies, mid-July was not my favorite time in Indiana. This time of year is hot and often wretchedly humid, and the colors of spring — so sweetly surprising after a winter unfolding mostly in grayscale — have all faded into a uniform green. The redbuds are gone, and spring flowers no longer carpet the forest floor. And anyway, hiking in the woods is no longer a reliably refreshing experience; stinging nettles and poison ivy crowd out woodland trails, and the respirations of the trees can feel superheated. Paddling may not offer an alternative, as the waters are too often warmish and clogged with algae.

The prairies in full bloom, as they are now, are different. The sun is still hot on a July prairie, but it does always set, bringing cooler air and sweeter light. Although everything else seems quieter, the birds are still noisy at dusk, swooping from flower to flower and chattering the whole time.

Large portions of northern Indiana were once covered with tall-grass prairie, the plants so high they could conceal a horse and rider. In some parts of the Midwest, a human being might see nothing but this tangle of grasses and flowers in every possible direction, clear to the horizon.

As we were walking through the prairie on Friday night, we startled a buck that had bedded down in the plants and he bounded away. I hope he found another good spot to sleep.


(The rest of the images are on the Trailhead’s Facebook page.)

(Prairie Dog) Pup collage

I took my son to the Badlands in South Dakota in late May, and it shook up my routine a little. Sean is avidly interested in snakes, and plans to work in venomous herpetology, so we spent fully one day and half of the next at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City.  So instead of sitting for a long time in front of a wild prairie dog town as I might have on my own, I spent a long time in front of Reptile Gardens’ prairie dog town. There was a real upside to this: this years’ pups were out, and they weren’t concerned with my presence. Here’s the collage.

Bunny Hour

Bunny hour, at least where I live in the Midwestern United States, at this precise time of year, occurs from about 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. (While I do understand that an hour is composed of sixty and not ninety minutes, I think we can use the shorthand in the interest of verbal efficiency.) During Bunny Hour, all the available rabbits in the immediate area emerge from whatever cover they had taken for the day.  Here in Indiana, they sit out in the open, nibbling grass, taking in the waning evening sun, and from time to time, interacting with their rabbit colleagues. But if a human or dog approaches, they beat a hasty retreat across the yard, into the brush, or behind the bushes.

This is case for most of the rabbits I observe, except the ones I call Dumb Bunnies. Dumb Bunnies are always juvenile rabbits, born the most recent spring.  Still green and inexperienced, Dumb Bunnies will often stand their ground even in the most ridiculous of circumstances, usually staring vacantly at whatever threat is approaching. A photographer can get far closer to a Dumb Bunny than their seasoned, more experienced elders. Everything is late here this year, but Dumb Bunny Season is typically from mid-June to mid-July. Because of the rainy, cooler-than-usual temperatures, it seems like everything is lagging by 2-3 weeks.

This weekend, I was at a state park in Indiana, and at the appointed time, the rabbit community held Bunny Hour on the side of the road, its representatives distributed about every five feet along the grass, as if the road were a parade ground. Accordingly, I was able to capture this portrait of a Dumb Bunny. This young one is sharper than most of its fellows, as it had the good sense to put its ears back, which I understand is Rabbit for “back off, wanker.”

I expect this one will do well in the future.


A clear and walkable creek

017On Sunday afternoon, as I stood in the middle of a stream, water running over my feet and then between tall, moss-covered cliffs on its determined way to somewhere else, I remembered – again – that my husband and I do the same thing for play now that we did when we were twelve: ply the creek beds. We’ve added some adult accompaniments to this pastime; I carry my camera, we notice more detail, we pay attention to dragonflies. But the basic activity is the same. Although as adults, we breathe more deeply and more consciously, because we are more aware of what we are trying to shed out here – the stifling noise of an urban setting, the pressures of a life trying to hold it all together.

I love the natural world, and being in the places where it holds the most sway. When I’m in one of these landscapes, fully engaged in it, I always get a feeling of transcendence.  This feeling isn’t exactly the same in all the places I go, though. Just as the foods I love all have different flavors, so do my favorite natural areas. Some places, like the North Fork Wilderness in Glacier National Park, stun me into silence one moment, and the next have me joyfully sticking my parched head into a frigid meltwater creek. The Silver River in Florida is changeable: in the morning it’s blue, misty and serene as a cathedral. But when the sun comes out for the day, so do the monkeys, and as they shove each other into the water or fling themselves in from the trees, they instantly change the character of the river from reverent to mirthful.

This place – Fall Creek, in western Indiana, near the Nature Conservancy site Fall Creek Gorge, is soothing. It’s a clear, walkable creek, dotted with circular indentations in the bed that force you to slow down and watch every step, so you don’t snap an ankle. At this time of year, the green of the tree canopy shelters the creek, filtering the sunlight into long, luminous beams. The cliffs are covered in cool green moss, and groundwater drips through the rocks here and there. About a month ago, columbines growing from cracks in the rocks were in full bloom, but by last weekend they were gone. The sight of the columbines was replaced by the enthusiastic chirping of cliff swallow chicks, tucked safely into nests their parents had carefully built inside gaps in the rocks.

There are always – always – surprises on the banks of the creek – an electric blue dragonfly, a tiny frog, a small water snake. There’s a particular rock beach that always seems to harbor puddling butterflies as they take in their minerals. Once, it was a large group of yellow Eastern Swallowtails. This time it was a handful of Question Marks. On the way back, we noticed a small, prehistoric looking creature, almost like a tiny horseshoe crab, lounging in the sand, half-in and half-out of the water. On closer inspection, we realized it was a snapping turtle hatchling, probably only a week or so old.

There are always surprises.

After a day of this, my calves were on fire and my joints were angry — another adult accompaniment to the endeavor — but my mind had quieted. Nature does this, at least for some of us, the scientists say, but I still wonder what precise things different places do to our minds. I wish I could wire myself up during visits to various places and find out: What part of my brain lights up like neon in a cool, green place like this? What about the vast and lunar Badlands? The New Mexico desert in September? What about the prairie patches that run along the busy city street near my home, where I’ve come away with so many images of micro-wilderness?

Most of my brain doesn’t really care, in the end. These are feelings of well-being, and addictive, so I keep seeking them out.