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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Signature of All Things

There have been some great bird sightings on the island lately - unfortunately most of them have not been mine! The best of the bunch is a long-eared owl that has been seen at least twice near False Bay Creek, where I do monthly bird surveys. Unfortunately numerous visits out there both during the day and at night have not turned up any owls for me, though I have seen other neat species such as western meadowlarks and a northern shrike.

Flooded pasture along False Bay Creek

Lots of Canada geese, but no long-eared owl at False Bay Creek

I did see an American kestrel (144) one afternoon as I drove home from work, which was a nice find as it's an uncommon species here on the island. It's amazing how many species were in the first 50 on my year list the last bunch of years but aren't even on my list yet, simply because all my Pacific Northwest birding this year has been exclusively in the San Juan Islands. As a result, I still don't have black-capped chickadee on my list this year!!

This afternoon I went out for a one hour walk at English Camp, hoping to find a rufous hummingbird or some other early spring migrant. Not only did I fail to find a hummingbird, I hardly saw any birds at all! Excepting the 75 bufflehead and 25 surf scoters out in the bay, I only saw/heard 40 other birds - not species, birds! It may sound like a lot to non-birders, but when you're hiking well over a mile they are few and far between. Since an hour's birding only turned up 16 species, I started turning my attention to other things, because even when the birds are scarce there's always something to investigate! This time, in part because of the book I just finished reading, I noticed there were mosses everywhere!

The book in question is The Signature of All Things, a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). Set primarily in the 19th century, it follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a famous botanist. She follows in the footsteps of her father, becoming a plant expert, and in the early part of her life is able to study specimens from all over the world in her father's gardens and greenhouses. While part of her wants to travel the world and see all the amazing trees and orchids she has grown to love in their native habitats, circumstances dictate that she is confined to her family's estate in Pennsylvania. Frustrated, she feels like she already knows every tree and flower on thier property from her childhood explorations, when she makes an interesting discovery on a boulder she has passed thousands of times.

Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression at the center of the boulder, where all the water pooled.

Just across this ocean - which was half the size of Alma's shawl - she found another continent of moss altogether. On this new continent, everything was different. This corner of the boulder must receive more sunlight than the other, she surmised. Or slightly less rain? In any case, this was a new climate entirely. Here, the moss grew in mountain rangers the length of Alma's arms, in elegant, pine tree-shaped clusters of darker, more somber green. On another quadrant of the same boulder still, she found patches of infinitesimally small deserts, inhabited by some kind of study, dry, flaking moss that had the appearance of cactus. Elsewhere, she found deep, diminutive fjords - so deep that, incredibly, even now in the month of June - the mosses within were still chilled by lingering traces of winter ice. But she also found warm estuaries, miniature cathedrals, and limestone caves the size of her thumb.

Then Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her - dozens more such boulders, more than she could count, each one similarly carpeted, each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel's mighty telescopes. This was planetary and vast. These were ancient, unexplored galaxies, rolling forth in front of her - and it was all right here!

In the book, Alma goes on to study the stories that play out in the world of mosses. That may sound like a boring task, but only when you are caught up in the fast, loud pace of day-to-day human life. In the moss world, things move much more slowly, but are no less dramatic. There are wars waged over prime territories, and she documents their advancements and retreats. There are clear winners and losers, which leads Alma to begin wondering why certain species are successful, why others are not, and what causes some mosses to succeed where others fail. Mosses, after all, are an amazingly diverse and hardy lot. They can thrive in areas where nothing else can even begin to grow, as we can still see today wherever we look:

Mosses can make a living where other plants can't - such as on wood, stone, or nowadays, pavement

As she continues her life as a bryologist, Alma does eventually get the chance to travel beyond Pennsylvania, and in the process meets an interesting cast of characters. While she wants to explain everything in terms of science, she meets others - such as artists and missionaries - that are convinced that not all the amazing things we witness can be measured and that some of the most compelling discoveries come when we leave the world of science behind.

The book is a captivating one from start to finish, as Alma is a naturalist who lives at a time when the worlds of science and religion are both starting to change drastically, and it's all due to looking carefully at the world right beneath our feet.

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