Island Life


I woke up this morning to a red ball of light piercing the forest where a brighter, more yellow one should have been. Just this side of the broad trunks of that fir grove which that light had worked its way through stands a scouler willow that began this summer with the best of intentions, but now it stands there with its entire crop of this year’s foliage having turned a brown that indicates a critical lack of life force. As one gets closer to the house there is another one of our natives, the indian plum, whose leaves are withered, yellow and dropping. Gazing out of the north facing windows in the kitchen, one can see amongst at least some of the green out there that yet another indian plum is most decidedly brown and more than likely not returning to this or any woodland party next spring. It has been duly noted for a number of years running now that the native shrub that is called both Oemleria cerasiformis and indian plum has not fared well in our summers of increasingly absent precipitation. What were once both large and small specimens all over this property have not recovered from the heat and lack of water, and as it has been stated, these few plants and many more seem to be heading down a similar, terminal path.

Traveling the quarter mile length of our driveway, it is obvious that it is not just our indian plums that are suffering. Yellow and brown leaves seem to be more the norm than the exception for this native plant that used to be quite satisfied with its local habitat and situation. But as one carries this ‘what is wrong with this picture?’ game out to the expanded view, it becomes disturbingly clearer that the answer in some places can be: “actually, quite a bit.” As one wends their way along the Island’s thoroughfares- freshly paved or not- one does not have to shift one’s focus for long (and hopefully not too distractingly long) to see any number of signs that a variety of the members of the forest citizens collective are either not happy or are no longer conscious of what either happiness or sadness is all about. Alders all over the Island have been losing their tops for years, and right not are shedding extra leaves well in advance of their expiration date. Western red cedars are showing signs of extreme stress in many areas- there are a number of trees along the main highway that are now looking like they may make the shift from evergreen to everbrown and down if this dryness continues. On a recent photographic side trip to the high school I noted that the young trees that were fairly recently planted a few years back along the long, arching sidewalk that crosses the school’s southwest lawn were mostly dead or dying. The lawn in that area looked brown and indicated a laudable but perhaps too extreme water conservation effort had been in practice there, and the trees have suffered from that lack of regular water.

On the other hand, a survey of non-native trees seemed to show many faring better than their native neighbors. In particular, the eucalypts appear to be relatively unfazed by the prolonged heat and drought. This is not surprising since they come from that land down under where drought is a common occurrence. Back in the late eighties, when global warming was a topic just being breached by the mainstream, I was asked if there was some sort of prescient reason for my and others experimentation with this Australian native. I would say that for the most part, the reasons for trying out eucalypts and any number of other non-native species were to see what would grow here and be able to offer alternatives in texture, color, flower and fragrance to the narrow native plant palette we had to work with. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a parks commissioners candidates debate that I stated publicly that I believed, when asked about the issue of non-native and other possible invasives, that it could be that as the climate shifts ever more drastically and quickly,  it could be the non-natives that might survive and thrive as the natives went away, unable to adapt to the new conditions. As far as native survival goes, it could be that like restocking wild salmon runs and hand feeding starving orcas,  the strongest of the native tree species may have to be singled out and propagated from in order to enhance the natural selection process. Or it just could be firs and cedars and willows and alders are no longer amenable to what we have wrought upon ourselves, and that something else will have to come along to take their places.

I do remember when I first moved here in the early eighties that the fall was a time for smokey red sunsets, but this was largely in part to slash burns that went on before the winter rains would render the piles less burnable. As the rampant clear cutting around the sound subsided and more sensible slash practices came into place, the coming of the red dawn and dusk was a much less common event. In the last three years that has changed radically, as evidenced by our present persistence of unhealthy alien smoke and air. I can also remember that back, way back, in my youth, I mailed in my membership to become a Smokey the Bear ranger. One can hardly forget the empowerment their slogan gave to everyone- that only you can prevent forest fires. As a kid from a New York suburb, that seemed important. I didn’t really think about the fact at the time that this was also somewhat to mostly irrelevant to my direct place in life. But now, when the results of blazes hundreds of miles away make themselves evident in both the haze of the smoke and, like last year, the ash from Oregon that coated the roof of my car and gathered in the tide lines out in Quartermaster Harbor, the thought of somehow preventing anything seems to be tenuous at best, and certainly not something I am capable of as the “only you” that Smokey emphasized. It doesn’t really help that the agencies and acts and the people responsible for seeking the ways toward solving these problems are all being tasked, seemingly, to not do anything about it.

So, where does that leave us, or rather me? Telling people what to do is mostly pointless, which makes making a film seem somewhat futile, as Michael Moore has attested to. But he’s out there doing it again. But I will report in here as to what I plan to do, but not right now. I am planning a road trip and some filming, which maybe sounds counter-productive to climate change, but it is the only way I can do it. It will involve history and a bit of then and now, and will hopefully get underway next month. Until then I will carry on with my blither. Until then, enjoy the sunsets.