Ancient Tree in an Ancient Town

img_2719smallx225On a recent European teaching trip we stopped to visit the town of Groznian on the Istria Peninsula in Croatia. Like so many things in this country, both the tree and the town have a long history.

A vendor near the tree identified it as a Mediterranean hackberry or European nettle tree, (Celtis australis). It stood prominently near the edge of the walled city. We were enthralled by its warty bark and hollow center. Indeed, it seemed to be a testament to perseverance, not unlike the town it had been planted in!

The first mention of the town in any written history was 1102. Being from North America where 400 year-year-old buildings are a rarity,
Groznjan awed us with its stone streets, walls, and arches. Today it is being revitalized as a meeting place for young musicians. Perhaps the tree will live to see the city thrive again as a cultural center of this area.

Weather Watching



With a 40-mile view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains I love watching the weather. All kinds of clouds gallop across the Pacific Ocean and fly over the mountain tops  to produce our maritime weather.

As a citizen scientist, I am part of a team of volunteer weather watchers and measurers: Our information provides important supplemental backup for the National Weather Service forecasts. Anyone can participate. All it takes is a $30 rain gauge and a computer. Even my 10-year-old nephew in North Carolina is part of this team.

Look us up and join in. It is a lot of fun and very informative.



Toddler Hummingbird


A young rufuous hummingbird (left) learned to drink from our feeder today and lucky me got to witness it. This morning while making tea I noticed a hummer fly in and sit right next to another hummer who was feeding.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Hummingbirds generally fight each other, not sit together.”

Then the one who flew in began to beg for food from the other. It put its little beak up in the air and opened it, hoping for breakfast. The mother completely ignored its young offspring and kept drinking. The message was clear. It’s time for you to learn how to do this.

After several attempts at begging, the little bird started jabbing its bill into the red plastic. “Dang,” I could almost hear it thinking. “This is not getting me any food.”

Then the little hummer flew underneath the feeder and tried jabbing at it. Still nothing. Back it flew to the top of the feeder and began begging again. Mom was not impressed. She kept feeding. The little hummer started jabbing its bill at the feeder again and BINGO in went its beak. The little guy got excited and started flapping madly with its beak in the hole.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Its beak is shorter than its mothers and the feeder is only about a third full. I am not sure it’s getting any sugar water.” The two hummers flew off. I made more sugar water and filled the feeder. They were back in minutes.

Once again the whole scene repeated itself—begging, ignoring behavior, more begging, more ignoring behavior, finally success at sticking its beak in the hole and resting on the perch drinking.

Such a miracle to see one of nature’s vulnerable moments!

The bird on the left is the young. The bird on the right is the mother. The photo below shows the characteristic rufous hummingbird reddish tail.

Snow in May?


Snow in May?

At first glance, it looks like we got a light dusting of snow here on Whidbey Island in May. Unlike my disgruntled friends and family members in Minnesota who DID get snow on May 2, this white substance by the side of the road is white flowers from our beautiful madrone trees.

Madrone flowers on the road

Madrone flowers on the road


The madrone tree, Arbutus menziesii, is found all along the west coast of North America. In spring it creates these white flowers and in the fall it bears red berries that are much loved by local birds.
img_9834It is an evergreen tree with rich, orange-red bark that peels in thin sheets, not unlike birch trees. It is very dense and therefore good for firewood. I love the curved, sensuous beauty of its twisting trunks. One of its challenges is that the heavily populated west coast no longer allows fires, which it readily survives and thrives on.




Farewell Orion


The most spectacular constellation in the northern winter sky is Orion, the Hunter (named after a god from Greek mythology). By mid-April this constellation is only visible in the western sky for a couple of hours after sunset. No longer the spectacular overhead cluster of stars with its belt and sword, it is making its exodus from prominence in the sky just as winter fades. In Canada and higher elevations and latitudes in the U.S. there may still be snow on the ground. In milder parts of North America Orion takes his leave as tulips bloom, daffodils fade, and lilac buds begin to form.

By May the mighty hunter is gone from our early night view until October when fall returns. I love this constellation. It is like having a friend up in the sky that is a better marker of the monthly calendar than the more fickle phenology of snow cover or blooming plants.

And imagine my surprise to discover Orion is also found in the southern hemisphere—as, of course, a marker in the summer sky. There he lies on his side, but he is as well known and distinctive to the Australians as he is to us. Though when we were visiting recently, I was informed the constellation is more commonly known as “the Pot” from the shape of the sword and belt. Constellations are named through our imagination and if we tend to them, they can tell us a lot about the changing seasons.

Nature is Everywhere


Nature is everywhere. My 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter, Sasha Ann, watched her mother carefully remove a bee from the window of their LA apartment using a jar and a piece of paper. Lesson: Bees are good. Don’t hurt them. They belong outdoors.

An hour later Sasha, I, and Grandma Nina (the photographer) were playing in a park when she wandered out of the playground onto a nearby sports field. Suddenly she stooped to point out a bee on some clover. “Good bee,” she said.

When her mother, my daughter Sally, was tiny I carefully removed bugs from the house. Obviously, the lesson took. As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, let us never overlook the impact of our actions on our children.

Tasmania—southern temperate rain forest
















“Where is Tasmania?” asked my Minnesota parents when I Skype called their land line. “It sounds like a fairy land.”

It is a fairy land of gorgeous coasts, wild rivers, and high mountains that is an island state of Australia—the last significant land mass before Antarctica. I am spending a few days vacationing in Cradle Mountain National Park here in Tasmania between Australian work assignments.

Hiking from 900 meters up through the southern temperate rain forest to subalpine vistas of craggy peaks, I was struck how similar the forest felt to the northern temperate rain forest where I live. Temperatures are comparable in this shoulder season between summer and winter. Moss covers every downed log. There are very few understory plants because little light can get to the forest floor past the tall trees. Downed logs serve as nursery logs for young, upstart trees. Green is the operative color and big is the operative size of trees.

However, none of the plant or animal species are the same. Here there are three poisonous snakes. Back home there are none. Here there are no large mammalian predators. Back home there are cougar and bear. (Tasmanians could make a strong case for which scenario they prefer!)Here all the mammals are marsupial—wallabies, wombats, and pademelons. Back home there are no marsupials.

The King Billy Pine found only in Tasmania occupies a niche comparable to the giant Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar of home. The largest “leafy tree” here is the myrtle beech, which is not deciduous, unlike the big leaf maple back home.

Everywhere our beautiful earth has evolved with the changes of ice ages, volcanoes, tectonic plate shifts, and intruding meteorites. It is a stunning things to have the privilege to view so much diversity . . . and it brings me great hope for the future adaptations that must happen.

Northern Winters

Northern Indiana

Northern Indiana



Swans Resting


Whidbey Island Snowdrops

Whidbey Island Snowdrops

In the northern latitudes of North America winter has many faces—from snow and ice to early blooming plants.

I have made journeys from one coast to the next and into the middle these last two months. What intrigues me is how many ordinary people are wondering about the changing face of winter in their area.

Folks in the northeastern U.S. who have recently been hard hit by snowstorms and Hurricane Sandy are seriously talking about global climate change. Unlike a few years ago when there was still a universal dismissing of “global warming”, people and their officials are having public dialogues about where and how to build.

In the central part of the U.S. in farming communities the weather has always been a part of winter conversations. Now it seems to me there is a wondering out loud about coming changes. Even with snow lying on the ground this year folks are remembering unprecedented early tornadoes in March of 2012 with a measure of unsettledness. . . and the droughts of last summer have not yet been quenched by mild winter snows.

In the lowlands of western Washington next to Puget Sound it is not uncommon for our maritime climate to have no winter snow. However, we had some of the highest ever rainfall totals in November and December. We are noticing that global climate change models for our area predict increasing warmth and wetness in the next decades.

Whatever continent you live on, I invite you into the dialogue about global climate change and its effects in your area. Talking about the weather really is an important past time!

The Outing

Photo by Dr. Chris Mann

Photo by Dr. Chris Mann

My little corgi dog, Gracie, and I often take a late afternoon walk to the beach. Last week on a cold, rainy winter day we trotted to the top of the community stairs. I was busy unlocking the gate, as we have done hundreds of times. 

All of a sudden Gracie started barking. I looked up thinking another neighbor might be coming up the stairs, but I could not see anyone. Her barking got more intense and then I saw it. Not ten feet from us perched on the top stair railing between two wild rose bushes was a full adult bald eagle. I squatted down and told Gracie I could see the eagle and we should be quiet.

The bird was staring at us from ten feet away. Hmmm . . . . I thought. We may not be going down to the beach. The bird had an intensity of presence and its wings were slightly hanging down as if trying to get dry in the rain, or perhaps it was injured. I was not sure.

Slowly, I opened the gate. Gracie was on a perfect heel. The bird remained motionless. We stopped. Three creatures sharing the same ten foot, wild edge of Whidbey Island sized one another up. In a split second the eagle raised its powerful wings and abdicated the space. Gracie bolted back through the gate. And the ordinary afternoon walker was reminded again of the potential for wonder in every outing.

The Elder


This elder is generations old, twisted and gnarled by its journey of adaptation. Steadfast in its determination to live and hold place on this precious earth, it reminds me of my own father.

I am just back from my trip to Minnesota to be of support as he fights to recover from a stroke. The hearts of both the old bristlecone and my 86-year-old Dad pulse on. Other bristlecones in the high mountain grove of this old one stand in companionship just as Mom and Dad’s 65-year-community is offering good support.

Life needs other life. We cannot stand alone. My sisters and I have been sustained by the outpouring of love and help. The elder lives on for a while longer.