Heartbreak in my city

My wife and I recently spent an hour exploring natural areas not far from our home. We were amazed and appalled.

ospreyThis is a juvenile osprey, waiting for food, in its nest on a big ball and tackle joint of an enormous crane on the Duwamish River in Seattle. The river is incredibly polluted, and it will take decades, at best, to clean up a few years’ worth of irresponsible toxic industrial dumps in the middle of the 20th century. But despite existing on fish caught in a polluted river, the amazing osprey continue to thrive on the Duwamish. They are incredibly resilient and adaptive.

camplong1A few minutes drive away from the Duwamish there is Camp Long, a beautiful  rustic park in the middle of a city. Elementary school classrooms vie for a limited number of coveted field trip spots there every year. The peace is stunning. The cabins available to the public for once in a lifetime family camping experiences are absolutely enchanting. The surrounding woods and well cared for trails invite exploration and discovery.

camplong2A few steps away from that scene is another vision of how we should use our city parks. This is the “ropes course” at Camp Long. In the middle of this pristine jewel in Seattle, is this testament to what can be fabricated in the name of a “natural experience”. All the supports are on poles, not trees. There are no trees where the poles are – they have obviously been removed. Reminded me of a scene from Bridge on the River Kwai.

There were poles where there should have been trees and undergrowth. There were no birds. It looked clean, spiffy, and it was devoid of life. If there had been humans there, flying this way and that, one could say it hosted life. You’d have to read the sign on availability, fill out the forms, and pay the fees, to be a part of that, though…

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Uncle Xerxes

ux4When I was finally confident, through a zoomed in scope, that we were looking at UX on the band, I let my wife know – “UX, definitely, green band on left leg, white band on lower right”. Almost immediately she responded, “Uncle Xerxes!”

Bottle Beach is a mecca for birdwatchers on the Washington coast. Get there 2 hours before high tide, in the right season, and you will be amazed at the volume and variety of shorebirds, especially in spring and fall migrations.

b95We had missed the spring migration, because it was June 3, and supposedly all the birds inclined to head north to breed had already passed through. But I had just read the amazing report of a 21 year old Red Knot, sighted on the east coast. He’s known as B95, and there’s a fabulous book about him, Moonbird. And we really, really wanted to see a Red Knot. However, they are never a gimme in the west coast….

So when we headed to Bottle Beach this time, it was with long shots in mind. Our chances were slim, because it was so late in the spring, and we were not encouraged when we arrived at the parking lot, and there was nobody else there. If the birding is hot, you’re lucky to get a parking spot at Bottle Beach.

ux5But we pushed on , and good grief, there he was, Uncle X,  with two others – Red Knots in breeding plumage, heading north to breed near the Arctic Circle. There were no other people there.

We stayed for a long time, watching. It took a while to confirm that there were indeed three Red Knots. There were many Black-bellied Plovers, Dowitchers, and a few Dunlin, all hanging out, feeding.


Exhilarated beyond belief by what we had just witnessed, we returned to our hideaway on the coast and let a well known coastal birdwatcher know about our sighting. She forwarded our pictures to Washington Fish and Wildlife, and we got this email  response from them  the next day:

Mark, thanks for taking and sharing the photo! UX was banded at Grays Harbor on 14 May 2014. The band on the lower leg is the metal one issued by the banding lab. The green flag is used to identify individuals without needing to recapture them; green is the color code for the USA. It was one of about 180 Red Knots we captured and processed that day as part of a disease monitoring project. I see that this bird was observed at Bottle Beach on 3 June; that means it has been in Washington for at least 21 days.

When we forwarded that report to a very good friend and excellent birder, he responded, “Have you ever spent 21 days at a McDonald’s?” Love it!

Uncle Xerxes, you go, guy! And get a move on, time’s a wastin’.

What a fabulous opportunity to witness, and share with others, this amazing natural cycle.ux7

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Sweet Memory of a Hard Thing

I taught 8 and 9 years olds for 29 years, and toward the end of every one of them I experienced the most difficult task I had to deal with all year long – finishing up the reading aloud of Charlotte’s Web, by E B White.

The penultimate chapter ends with “No one was with her when she died.” That was always hard to get out, but I eventually learned to quickly compose myself by saying something like, “Well, isn’t it a good thing the book doesn’t end here?!” Always met with nodding heads and misty eyes. And a couple of smiles. Because they all knew how it was going to end.

But the end of the last chapter was the killer. Charlotte’s babies hatch, three stay with Wilbur, her devoted best friend… and it ends with talk of life going on, and the importance of friendship. Sometimes I had to stop, because I couldn’t get the words out, but somehow I found a way to finish the book. Every year.

I went through three copies of Charlotte’s Web. If I were to dig out the most dilapidated copy from a box in the garage and flip through some of the paperback’s pages lucky enough to still be bound to other pages, I’d get a faceful of chalk dust. Yes, I taught in the world of chalkboard classrooms, and all the books I read to the kids rested on the tray of the chalkboard until I picked them up the next day to continue.

Today, on a beautiful last day of May, I sat mesmerized in our back yard, watching as a cluster of dozens of miniature spiders began their journey out into the world.

It all came back to me in a wave – powerful emotions brought on by skillfully written words that I had the privilege of passing on to children every year. I got to be very good at reading that book. I had all the character voices down, and it got to the point near the end of my teaching career where I didn’t really need to do much but glance at a paragraph to be able to read it to my class.

Ah. Here’s to the sweet memory of making it through a hard thing.

And here’s to those little spiders I saw this morning on their way out into the world. I wish them safe journeys and wonderful friendships:

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The Seattle Nature Alliance

There’s a new group in town, the Seattle Nature Alliance. It started on Facebook, expanded to Twitter, and now it has a website. An email discussion list is about to launch. Check it out – like, follow, comment:

songsparrowsmI feel privileged, and very excited, to be a part of it. I hope you will consider joining in.

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Happy Earth Day!


Rachel, age 16, Patton, PA

Earth Day is April 22nd every year, and kids have been working on getting the word out.

The Earth Day Groceries Project is most likely the largest art give away in history, as millions of school children have poured their artistic and environmental passions into decorating grocery bags that ended up in homes around the world, on Earth Day – in all 50 States and over 40 countries.

Thousands of schools have participated and sent in reports to document their participation.

Now in its 21st year, the Project is a grownup.

If you’ve ever received a decorated bag at the grocery store on Earth Day, it is because of this project.

It began in 1994, with an email invitation sent out to a couple of education listservs. The project has grown, spread, and taken on a life of its own. It has had a blog, a Twitter account, Flickr groups, and was a 501(c)(3) for many years.

These days, the website started in 1995, is still there, with thousands of reports and pictures, going back 21 years. There is also an active Facebook page.

Happy Earth Day!

Ashley, 8, Kansas City, MO

Ashley, 8, Kansas City, MO

Ariana, 9, Philadelphia PA

Ariana, 9, Philadelphia PA

Masy, 9, Omro, WI

Masy, 9, Omro, WI



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Saving Cheasty

Cheasty Greenspace

Cheasty Greenspace

(Updated July 18, 2014) As the people of Seattle find out about a proposed pilot mountain bike park in Cheasty Greenspace, opposition grows rapidly. Listed below, in chronological order, with the most recent at the top, are some of the many public statements in opposition to the proposal. I will continue to add to the list, so check back often. Feel free to leave comments and additions.


Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park - not a healthy greenspace.

Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park, King County – not a healthy greenspace.

Some try to make the case that the only way to get rid of invasive species and restore Cheasty Greenspace is by putting in a mountain bike park. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Mountain bike parks and healthy greenspaces have nothing to do with each other. As a matter of fact, they are mutually exclusive.

(Top photo by Mark Ahlness, bottom photo by Darrell Howe, used with permission)
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Ziplines, Mountain Bikes, and Horseshoes

Two years ago, Seattle Parks and Recreation tried to give over part of Lincoln Park to a commercial zipline company. When the word leaked out to the public, the community became outraged, and responded in an explosive way against the proposal at a meeting. The next day, the Parks Department withdrew its proposal. Outrage was around two points – 1) what a zipline would do to the mature trees, vegetation, and wildlife at the park, and 2) the lack of public involvement in the process of coming up with the proposal.

Today there is no zipline in Lincoln Park, nor in any other Seattle Park. Those who fought the battle against it remember the time well.preservelincolnpark It actually brought together the community and fostered conversations that led to new friendships and new organizations, to make sure something like that never happened again – to ANY Seattle Park.

Two years later, in January of 2014, the Seattle Parks Board of Commissioners gave their advisory vote of approval to the establishment of a mountain bike park in Cheasty Greenspace, a Seattle Parks natural area, as a pilot project – violating the Parks policy  prohibiting bike riding in its parks. To try it out. For three years. At a cost of three quarters of a million dollars. To be built by volunteers and financed by non- and for- profit corporations.

meetingCommunity members, many having just found about this, became outraged. The bike park promoters said there was ample public disclosure. But somehow, there was a large, very upset group of citizens (many from outside the neighborhood) that shook its head saying it did not know – and this is not what Cheasty Greenspace was meant to be used for. The first public meeting was very contentious. Divisions between sides could not be more evident than Congress during a State of the Union speech.

Right now, at the end of March, 2014, Parks and Recreation says it is going ahead with the pilot, and opponents swear it is not a done deal. Opponents have come out with posts, petitions, and an open letter. The Urban Forestry Commission, another city advisory board, has come out with a draft position statement that questions many aspects of the proposal. Both sides are sending emails to the City Council, the Mayor, and Parks and Recreation. It’s a mess.

So maybe it would be useful to take a step back and look at a more peaceful time, when there was not the public process that we take for granted today, on these kinds of decisions. The city built things in its parks because that is what they thought certain groups wanted, or maybe because it was popular at the time. The land was there to be taken, filled up, used for activities.

Enter, horseshoes, the game – or pitching horseshoes. Some of us can even remember pitching the real thing a few times. It was quite the craze, back in the early part of the 20th century. Well, it was for the men, anyway. The guys who had some leisure time on Sunday picnics and at family gatherings. There were horseshoe magazines and national competitions. It was a great part of white, rural and suburban Americana in the middle of the last century.


But most people don’t play horseshoes anymore. So here’s what a horseshoe pit looks like today, in Lincoln Park:


cedar at end is 2+ feet in diameter


moss covers concrete slabs

The cleared, barren area is 50′ by 100′, 5,000 square feet, the size of a typical city lot.  It is surrounded by a high chain link fence, in the middle of a heavily forested area. There were 20 horseshoe pits there at one time, each flanked by two 2′ by 6′ concrete slabs. There are currently six pits that are recognizable, still having some rotted wood around them. All 40 concrete slabs are still there, most now below the surface.

Here’s what the area looks like to the north, and the south – a natural woods. Trees grow and mature, and wildlife thrives. People walk on paths through the woods.

DSC08038 DSC08037




But   that 5,000 square foot horseshoe pit just sits there, unused, as it has for decades. As it will for decades more. Nothing grows there but moss and weeds. It is scar tissue in Lincoln Park. Thank goodness there is no zipline folly in the park, wrapped around, nailed into, and choking its maturing trees.

I wonder what those mountain bike trails at Cheasty Greenspace will look like in 10 or 20 years? The proposed trail system will cover 50,000 square feet, at the very least. That’s ten house lots, or ten of these horseshoe pits – a lot of land upon which no trees or plants will grow, and no animals will live. For decades and decades. Well beyond the popular use of mountain bikes by a small segment of society. Trust me.

DSC08079Will some current specialized use be worth this? Is anything worth the destruction of a natural area in the middle of a city?

If so, what is it?

And who decides?

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