Taking Note

Sit for a while with John S. Farnsworth, who taught environmental writing and literature at Santa Clara, for a journey into nature with an excerpt from his new book, Nature Beyond Solitude.

Taking Note

During my final sabbatical at SCU, I visited five field stations along the West Coast over a six-month period. The fourth of these visits took place at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, a long-term ecological research site in Oregon funded by the National Science Foundation. There, I had been granted a residency by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. This project was convened in 2003 by Oregon State University, and will continue on through 2203. That’s not a typo—the project has been funded to run for two centuries!

Two nature writers are granted residencies by the project each year, one in the spring, and one in autumn. In return, they are asked to observe five reflection plots, write up their observations, and contribute these observations to a forest log. The reflection plots included a stretch of forest that had been clear-cut in 2003, an old-growth section where a few trees had blown over and it was going to take 200 years for the logs to decompose, and a gravel bar that was subject to severe flooding every hundred years, more or less. Can you imagine watching a log decompose? Or watching a clear-cut grow back? Thank goodness this was to be a collective effort.

My self-imposed project for the book [Nature Beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field; June 2020]  was to compose field notes that were completely contemporaneous, where everything that was ultimately published in the book was written on site on the day when the observations were made. In essence, I wanted not only to write about nature, but also to write from nature. That turned out to be a challenge; although I have advanced degrees in writing, they never taught us how to write on a gravel bar in the middle of a stream in the Cascade Mountains. This task was complicated by the fact that my time at the Andrews Experimental Forest took place during the rainiest October in Oregon’s history. My field notes were not only contemporaneous, they were often wet.

The excerpt that follows, which was selected by Leslie Griffy, Santa Clara Magazine’s managing editor, contains observations from the gravel bar reflection site during a day when I was out there alone—just me, a few birds, and a forest full of rough-skinned newts. I was attempting to describe the site in a way that might be of value to a reader 200 years in the future, a task I found daunting, especially given the prospect that climate change may completely alter this landscape. This passage is part of my entry into the official forest log.

While I made a good number of solitary observations over the course of my sabbatical, most of my time was spent working with teams of scientists, citizen scientists, and graduate students engaged in field research. For example, the first chapter takes place at the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley, where I assisted with a 45-year-long project to explore the cooperative breeding behaviors of acorn woodpeckers. Other sites were the Santa Cruz Island Reserve, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in the Marin Headlands, and the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

My biggest takeaway from this sabbatical? In a word: community. I experienced a vibrant community of scholars striving to deepen our understanding of natural history. It was a privilege to roll up my sleeves and immerse myself in the work of that community.

Pacific Northwest Forest On A Foggy Morning. During A Beautiful Sunrise The Morning Fog Adds An Atmospheric Feel To The Firs And Cedars That Make Up This Lovely Island Forest.

Listen: John S. Farnsworth reads the following excerpt from his book, Nature Beyond Solitude, in this exclusive audio clip.

I situate myself below the north bank of Lookout Creek in a young stand of red alders, none more than 20 years old, on a flat bar directly upstream of the reflection plot. Were the creek to rise another 50 centimeters, my boots would be submerged. While I set up my stool and stow away my daypack I am greeted by a Pacific wren who bobs almost formally with each two-note call.

Chee-chee, chee-chee. Down up, down up. The bird is clearly aware of my presence, and seems to want me to know that it owns the timber rights to the pile of logs on which it perches.

There are four large Douglas fir snags above me on the bank, and it could be perilous on a windy day to encamp where I currently sit. Any of six snags from the north bank would add to the gravel bar’s topography were they to collapse downhill, which judging from the deadfall around here would be the logical direction, and most of them are already leaning downslope. There are likewise two snags on the far side of the creek whose tips, at least, will someday add to the bar’s mass.

The creek runs clear despite the recent rains, and when I look upstream from the bar I can clearly make out the round rocks all the way across the bottom. From the bank I cannot see fish or any other aquatic fauna.

A cluster of large logs—I can count seven from here but there are certainly more—the largest of which are more than a meter in diameter, form a partial dam on the upstream edges of the bar, bifurcating the water to create a fairly stable island. With the exception of a large Douglas fir that serves as a bridge from this bank, the other logs seem to have flowed here from upstream during a flood. Both channels form ripples and rapids just loud enough to make it impossible to hear ambient birdsong from the forest. Twice as much water flows to the far side of the bar than the near.

The downed log that serves as a bridge has a stile built over it to facilitate crossing. The log is covered with moss uphill of the stile, but not on the side leading to the bar, where it appears that human traffic has worn away any growth. The logs on the gravel bar, likewise, are not mossy, which may attest to the thoroughness of my colleagues’ explorations here. After all the rain in the past few days, the bridge log does not appear safe to cross.

Three separate alders grow on the bar, the largest being approximately 10 meters tall and about 20 centimeters in diameter at the base. They have shed most of their leaves by now, and appear to be flourishing. Younger hemlock and Douglas fir saplings crowd together in the center of the bar, none having exceeded two meters in height.

I leave the security of the bank to climb along the logs atop the bar, moving from mossy stepping-stones to slick logs that have long ago shed their bark. To say that these logs are slippery is to understate the peril, and I’m glad no one can see me straddling them and crawling along the more precarious sections.

The largest of the logs is a bit spongy, and I keep an eye out for rot while I cross it. The transit was well worth the effort, however: One understands a gravel bar imperfectly from the bank.

I can now count 14 logs thick enough to have been the trunks of centuries-old trees atop this bar. None of the logs appear to have been lumbered; their ends are snapped rather than sawn. There are six large tree-trunk logs immediately downstream, visible from the outside of the gravel bar. A lot of timber went into the creation of this reflection plot. There is an S-curve below me as the water runs past this bar and then left into the next group of three giant logs on the southern bank. Clearly, these trees are altering the course of the stream within its traditional banks.

After returning to the alder grove, I hike downstream a few hundred meters. More logs have aggregated here, at least a dozen. Indeed, the number of huge logs that this stream has transported boggles the mind, and I’m having a hard time getting my head around any upheaval large enough to have resulted in what I’m seeing. Heading back upstream, I am unable to access the creek a hundred meters beyond my study site. There is a larger gravel bar upstream, quite overgrown, that may have contributed to the formation of the bar I’ve been describing. I would need a chainsaw to transit the upper bar, or at least an ax.

I return to the alder grove where I started. The opposite bank has been cut away by floodwaters, in many places three to four meters high as the water squirted past the upper bar.

Pacific Wren. Adobe Stock

Although this flood occurred two decades ago, in 1996, it seems like a more recent event: The evidence is still fresh. Time itself slows in old growth.

It appears that during the flood the upper gravel bar may have been created in an eddy below where the floodwaters dug into the far bank, thus aggregating the substrate on which the second bar was built. I would like to have witnessed that, especially with all the logs flowing downstream. Although this flood occurred two decades ago, in 1996, it seems like a more recent event: The evidence is still fresh. Time itself slows in old growth.

As I begin to gather up my kit, two American dippers fly by, low over the water, heading upstream. The one behind is vocalizing loudly, a sharp ZEET, and seems to be chasing the one ahead. How I wish they had stopped by to forage at my gravel bar! They are North America’s only aquatic songbird, presently, and all their food comes from under water. I look again for signs of aquatic life in the water above the gravel bar’s rapids, but can see nothing from this vantage. Ah, for a D net and a pair of waders! But I can at least infer the presence of aquatic insects from the occurrence of the dippers, not to mention the fact that one of them would defend this territory so aggressively—there has to be food here for that to happen.

The Pacific wren reappears on the logs, deus ex machina, as if to defend its turf from the dippers. It’s been at least an hour since I last heard it, but the presence of another species seems to have inspired its rhetoric.

I head downstream one last time. There is a second gravel bar—a smaller bar—some 40 meters down- stream of the reflection plot at the completion of the S-curve. No logs lie atop it. Although vegetated, it does not support tree saplings or shrubs. It doesn’t have nearly the gravitas of its upstream cousin, but the noise of the water flowing around it is more intense, almost musical. I find it quite pleasing to sit on the bank above it, gazing upstream at the more famous gravel bar, a hydrologic celebrity that has already inspired numerous poems. The sun comes out as I sit here, absolutely transforming the morning. I check my watch, and discover that it’s already afternoon. I’ve been here longer than I thought.

Farnsworth Book Covers

John Seibert Farnsworth is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences, Emeritus, and a member of the Thomas L. Bergin Legacy Society of Santa Clara University. Farnsworth’s previous book, Coves of Departure: Field Notes from the Sea of Cortez, was excerpted in the Spring 2019 issue of  Santa Clara Magazine.

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