An Unseen World

Back before the dot com age, the fastest way to vast riches (besides marrying an heirless aristocrat with a bad cough) was to land a piece of the spice trade. Pepper, in particular, was worth several times its weight in gold. Until relatively recently, most of it came from India’s Malabar region—and even in the 5th century it was so valuable that marauding Visigoths plaguing Rome demanded ransom in pepper. Pepper pulled Vasco da Gamma around the African horn, and pepper fuelled the first fires of mercantilism—if even only one of your ships came in with a cargo of the stuff, you were set up Read More

American Beaver ~ A long history

Oregon has a very long and notable history with American beaver.   Two years ago John Zancancella, the BLM’s coordinator for paleontology in Prineville, stumbled upon some unusual rodent-like teeth while perusing an eroded patch of frozen ground near the John Day Fossil Beds.  The teeth were a molar and premolar (back teeth) from an ancient species of beaver that swam 7-7.3 million years ago in the creeks, ponds and rivers in grass-dominated landscapes occupied by “small camels, short-trunked elephants and shovel-tusked mastodons.”  The teeth are very similar to the molars and premolars found in modern beaver suggesting that the animal has changed little since the Read More

The Power of Water

A month ago we walked out in our wetland and saw a few inches of water collected in the deeper end where the cattails grow. The red-winged blackbirds with their liquid call were already in residence, and the marsh wrens (the reed canary grass chokes the stream beneath the berm offers them an easy nest) scolded, half-heartedly. But mainly we saw what wasn’t there—water. That, of course, has changed. The wet season has arrived in spades, as everyone along the Willamette knows.  Just a few days ago we tried to reach a stranded friend in both pick-up and canoe to little avail—the Mary’s wandered convincingly—inspecting Read More

Mountain Quail ….

In March 1806, on the return journey up the Columbia River, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition shot a previously un-described species of quail near Beacon Rock, 10 miles east of today’s Portland.  Lewis wrote “last evening Reuben Fields killed a bird of the quail kind.. it is rather larger than the quail or partridge as they are called in Virginia….this is a most beautiful bird.”  A specimen of this bird was subsequently given to the famous illustrator, Charles Willson Peale, and included in a series of sketches of wildlife encountered by the expedition.  That illustration is currently kept by the American Philosophical Read More

Lean times …

Outside, beyond the Christmas lights, the cookies and fireside snacks, the long season of short days sets in.  Leaves mat and blacken the ground, stars appear before bedtime, and frost etches bent grass in the fields. It’s a hungry time too—the easy seeds are gone, the berries a summer memory. Even the rosehips are blown, and the few remaining apples lie shredded in the weeds along the drive. I suppose birds make their peace with the season and its lean times, although more of their larder vanishes, irreplaceably, every year, pushed to the margins, paved or ploughed: and every year, there is less to lose. Read More