I felt that I should add a bit of history for context to describe my reasons for leaving the Skagit, as well as to offer a brief sense of the loss I felt as I began my transition from Washington to Alaska. Below is a free write assignment for a course at Prescott College. The assignment and the experience of writing freely were both cathartic and revelatory for me and have in great part been the inspiration for this blog.
An account of a series of events culminating during spring break 2010
Beware the Ides of March
Okay. Perhaps, this is a bit extreme for the turn of events I have recently experienced in my life. However, I tend to be wary of news that seems too good to be true when it comes to my professional life, so the title stays. Today is the first day of spring, and the Mountain Bluebirds have returned to the upper Skagit, followed close behind by the Northern Shrike that frequents the field across from our upriver home. I use the word “home” a bit loosely here as well, for it is a structure that has seen many uses over the years, from barn for our landlord’s bovine, to apartment in various stages of repair, to Corkindale Creek Cabin, as my husband, Jim, and I have lovingly referred to it for the past seven years (even more for Jim).
Our landlord, Jim Harris, passed away last summer. He was a kind of kindred spirit guide for the upper Skagit community. Born on a homestead not far from here, he grew up before there were state highways or a bridge over the Skagit River in Rockport. He worked as a logger, teacher, and became the first District Interpreter for the newly created North Cascades National Park and shared his October 2 birthday with the park. He was a storyteller and true upriver fellow, starting project after project, leaving old chevy trucks out in the field to be covered by rambling Himalayan blackberries, and gathering rhubarb year after year from the plant that returns to the same spot in our front yard every spring.
This was Jim’s barn, and when he passed away, we felt the winds of change and sensed that perhaps it was time for us to move on. My husband and I imagined this meant that we should find a home to buy and settle in to a new life in the upper Skagit. We tried unsuccessfully to realize this American dream for over six months before throwing in the towel. It turns out that “moving on” can take on many shapes and forms. I started a new part-time, temporary job that took me downriver to an interpretive center on Padilla Bay. I felt the grasp of the upper Skagit each morning as I would drive into the darkness and leave my community behind for an education desk job, replete with my very own cubicle. Each evening, I felt the upper Skagit pull growing stronger as I drove farther east toward home.
Our second translation of this concept of moving on was in a long overdue resignation from North Cascades National Park, where I worked as “Ranger m” for six years. I was offered an extension to my position at Padilla Bay and felt a mixture of relief and sadness when I accepted. Was this the end of my identity as “Ranger m”? I knew I had to leave the unhealthy, unsustainable working environment at North Cascades NP, but I couldn’t help but feel a deep loss over leaving the people with whom I had developed strong connections to at the park and in the community all these years.
This limbo didn’t last long. Not 36 hours after I accepted the position, I received a call from the wild (I mean Alaska) regarding a permanent Education Specialist position I had applied for two months earlier. A week later, after multiple interviews and nights spent dreaming of Alaska interspersed with moments of apprehension over leaving the Skagit and what I would do with my chickens, Ranger Steve welcomed me aboard the team at Glacier Bay National Park on the ides of March. And just like that, the die was cast. So this was the answer we had been searching for in our quest to move on.
Heralds of spring
Every year, I know it is spring when I am awakened in the morning by the drumming of a Red-breasted Sapsucker (RBSS). For a woodpecker, a sure fire way to let the lady folks know you have excellent genes and top notch territory is to drum as loudly and as often as possible. What better way to send this message than by drumming on metal! If you take a closer look in your own neighborhoods, you might notice woodpeckers perched on mailboxes, guardrails, and even metal siding or a gutter on your house during the spring breeding season. For the RBSS of Corkindale, drumming on a tin can that sits atop an old snag behind our neighbor’s house is the answer. My husband and I don’t know how the can found its way to this spot, but the loud drumming of the RBSS heralds the official arrival of spring each year. It begins with a loud and fast-paced “Rat-tat-tat-tat,” which slows gradually until it fades away and is then started anew. “Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat—tat—tat—tat.”
Soon thereafter, the first Mountain Bluebirds arrive with their luminous blue feathers aglow from their perches on old fence posts, and the young song sparrows begin practicing their songs. Right now, a young male has nearly fooled us into thinking it was a Black-capped Chickadee singing “spring’s here”. Then the Northern Shrike arrives, with its small (they are about the size of a Robin), yet fierce presence perched at the highest point in the young coniferous and deciduous trees, so light the new growth barely bends under its weight.
Each day this week, I have waited with baited breath for my favorite of the thrush family, the Townsend’s Solitaire, a grey, subtle, humble yet beautiful bird with a soft, melodious voice. My spirit guide for spring from the bird world, I can picture it fly-catching from a fence post or low branch of a Red Alder. It flies out, tail feathers fanned in a pattern of black and white, circles back, and flicks its tail, resting a moment before repeating the performance, a simple, elegant ballet before my eyes and anyone else who takes the time to notice.
There are no Townsend’s Solitaire in Gustavus, Alaska, a remote community that can be reached by boat or by plane, surrounded on three sides by the 3.3 million acres of wilderness protected as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and on the other side by ocean. My heart is heavy at the thought of missing this cherished herald of spring each year, yet I know that with the pain of leaving a place there is the hope and promise of new birds and creatures in the north. This exercise of letting go is one that does not come easily for me, yet I can feel my excitement grow at the thought of the adventure ahead.
The beauty of a life spent observing birds is that I must learn to be present, to grow acutely aware of my senses and the humming and dynamism of the world that encircles me every moment of every day. Each new place I visit, there are feathered friends to discover and remarkable opportunities to connect with the world, if I but open myself to the possibility.
In my application for admission into the Ph.D. in Sustainability Education program at Prescott College, I wrote of my fierce dedication to the upper Skagit Valley and quoted Gary Snyder “find your place, dig in, and fight”. I never could have guessed that a year later I would be journeying to the unknown wildness of Alaska, yet I have learned that there is a great desire and fight left in me to live every moment of my life to the fullest and preserve this Earth that is so precious to me. Perhaps, my place is yet to be discovered or better yet, my place is wherever I find myself in the world. The upper Skagit, the Townsend’s Solitaire, the mighty Skagit River, and all of the places, people, and wild species I hold dear will journey with me north and wherever my travels take me, for they have helped to shape the person I am and will live on in my heart for as long as my feet touch the Earth beneath me, my eyes scan the horizon for signs of feathered life, and my ears listen for the drumming of a woodpecker or the call of a thrush. Here’s to my last time crossing paths with the Townsend’s Solitaire of the upper Skagit and to a future spent embracing the present.