Fieldwork: Hermit Thrushes and Invasive Weeds

Spreading phlox, Phlox multiflora, blooming in the clearing where I work in the morning.

I spent the morning squatting in a clearing atop a small ridge just off the Upper Terrace Road at Mammoth Hot Springs in the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, hand-digging russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens) shoots. A Hermit Thrush serenaded me as I worked, its fluting song echoing through the nearby grove of Douglas-fir trees. 

After two and a half hours of steady digging and pulling, my lower back ached from the strain, and my quads burned. A rainstorm blew in, spitting hail, and I decided to take a break. 

As I stowed my digging tool, water bottle, and bear spray in my day pack, and scrambled down the ridge in the pelting rain, I remembered the Hermit Thrush’s song and smiled. That thrush is part of why I am spending two weeks volunteering to grub out invasive perennial weeds in the landscape that I have loved ever since I can remember. 

What does knapweed have to do with Hermit Thrushes? It crowds out native plants, killing them with a natural herbicide exuded by its rhizomes and roots, and it doesn’t provide habitat for native insects. 

As entomologist Douglas Tallamy puts it, “a plant that isn’t feeding insects isn’t doing its job.” Hermit Thrushes and other songbirds raise their young on insect larvae. A lot of larvae: Tallamy’s studies show a pair of chickadees feeds 6,000 to 9,000 insect larvae to raise a single brood! 

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorrhiza sagittata)

So an infestation of thousands of Russian knapweed plants crowding out the native spreading phlox (the sweet white-flowering Phlox multiflora in the photo at the top of the post), yarrow, fleabane, arrowleaf balsamroot, and other wildflowers means no insects, and thus no food for nesting songbirds. That’s just one example of how invasive weeds disrupt and degrade the webs of relationships that create healthy natural ecosystems. 

Crowding out the wildflowers of course also means less food for the hundreds of species of native bees and butterflies, plus hummingbirds and other pollinators. And it changes the soil ecosystem as well, which may mean the soil becomes less fertile altogether. 

And of course, plant communities altered by invasive weeds directly affect the lives of the “large charismatic wildlife” that attract millions of visitors to Yellowstone every summer. Like the cow elk in the photo below, who was grazing placidly in the Mammoth Campground just yards from Space 50, my home for the term of my time here. 

The other perennial invasive I’m working on eradicating while I’m here, houndstongue (Cynoglossum officianale), a robust plant that looks something like comfrey but with deep purple flowers, is poisonous to grazers, including elk. The plant fills its tissues with anti-grazing compounds that stop liver cells from reproducing, causing grazers to slowly die of liver failure. 

I’ve been digging knapweed in the morning, and then switching to the much larger houndstongue in the afternoon to vary the work–and to give me a mental break. I grubbed out a whole trash bag of houndstongue today before heading to Gardiner, Montana, just outside the park, for lunch and internet access (as well as electricity to charge my laptop). 

And now it’s time to head back to houndstongue eradication before I wear out for the day. I’m working hard, but don’t feel sorry for me. I’m happy doing work that helps heal the landscape that is the home of my heart. 

The view from my houndstongue eradication project “office” this afternoon.

My muscles may be sore by the end of the day, but my spirit is singing.

Writing, Wildflowers, and Community

I’m home after five days in soggy Austin, Texas, where I participated in “Stories From the Heart,” the every-two-years national conference of Story Circle Network, an organization whose mission is to nurture women’s voices in writing. 

The conference was packed full of information and wisdom, encouragement and connections, friendships made or renewed, and just plain fun–like the opening to the workshop on marketing by Deborah Winegarten, where she had us up and dancing to a video featuring teenagers rapping “It’s all about the book…”

Which of course was the point of the workshop–marketing is in fact, all about the book and our message. (I have no idea what I was doing with my mouth while dancing in the photo above–apparently finding my rhythm required a lot of concentration!)

My comadre-in-writing, Dawn Wink, and I taught our popular “Place as Character” workshop on finding and articulating the heart of the landscapes that inspire our work, to an enthusiastic group so large that I ran out of handouts. (If you’re one of the participants who didn’t get a handout, or if you just want to get a sense of the workshop, my handout is here.)

And since we roomed together, Dawn and I got in a lot of catching-up time, and also reviewed the editor’s suggestions on our first joint publication, an essay called “Mother Tongues.” (More on that closer to publication time.)

Brooke Warner, Publisher of She Writes Press, opened the conference with a rousing talk about why she left Seal Press to found an author-supported publishing company focused on finding and nurturing great women’s writing. In describing the changes in publishing as the big houses have consolidated into bigger houses and then into international publishing conglomerates, Brooke said that the increasing focus on blockbuster books and celebrity platforms has often marginalized women’s voices and left editors unable to publish “passion projects,” those books that might not sell huge numbers right off, but might still be extraordinary stories, writing that could change our lives and the world. 

Susan Wittig Albert, New York Times bestselling mystery author and founder of Story Circle Network, closed the conference with a talk on why community is crucial to women writers. While writing is inherently a solitary pursuit, she said, we write better with each other’s support, encouragement, and shared wisdom.

Together, we reach farther with our writing, go deeper, and dream bigger–our stories expand as our vision of our work does. (Clearly, we dance more fearlessly, too!) 

The day after the writing conference, Jude Whelley, another attendee and a writing friend and I braved rain and flooding creeks to drive out to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for an immersion in a different community, the community of the land. We spent a glorious–if quite soggy–late morning touring the Center with Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Director of Horticulture.

Texas Paintbrush (red), composites (yellow), and Texas Bluebonnets (blue) swirl around a prickly pear cactus in the prairie around the Center’s parking lot.

The wildflowers blooming in the Center’s formal gardens and restored Texas prairie and woodland areas were so breath-taking that Jude and I kept stopping to shoot photos, which meant that the short walk from the parking lot to Andrea’s office took us almost 20 minutes, making us quite late. 

No matter: Andrea greeted us warmly and was generous with both her time and her deep knowledge of the Center and its work restoring native prairie, harvesting rainwater, pioneering sustainable landscaping, and reconnecting kids and families with nature in its inspiring new Luci and Ian Family Garden, an inviting place where natural prairie melds with play lawn, and woodland becomes playground, where watering cans demonstrate how aquifers work, and wildflowers peep out of every nook and cranny. 

Texas Bluebonnets, rain-drenched, but still beautiful.

As Jude and I drove back to the hotel to catch the shuttle to the airport, I thought about how the community of those who love and nurture native plants and the land is as warm and welcoming as the community of women writers. I am blessed to belong to both, and both keep me sane–and hopeful–despite the craziness of politics and world events today.

May we all find such community in our lives, networks that inspire us to add to the ocean of love and kindness in this world, and help us to leave our part a more beautiful, blooming, and nurturing place for all…  

Birds Nest Fungus & Hope

After a string of windy and bitterly cold days that has turned most everyone cranky, today dawned still and fair. And although the air temperature was only 10 degrees F at dawn, once the sun came up, the air warmed quickly, rising to 60 degrees by early afternoon.

I decided to take advantage of the day of spring-like weather to wash my windows, which were liberally streaked with wind-blown dirt and pollen. I got out my stepladder, squeegee and swab, and my bucket, filled the bucket with hot water plus vinegar, and took my gear out to the sun-warmed front deck. 

Once the large windows on that side of the house that harvest solar energy in winter for my heat were sparkling clean, I hauled the stepladder, bucket and washing tools around to the back side of the house to wash my office and bedroom windows. 

As I set up the stepladder, I noticed something unusual on the surface of the soil. I bent down to look and saw a scattering of tiny cup-like structures, each no bigger than my littlest fingernail, and containing two or more flattened disks with a slightly pearly luster. 

I stared for a moment and then smiled. I knew exactly what the odd cups and their egg-like contents were: birds nest fungus. These fascinating little lives are saphropytyes, meaning they get their nutrition by decaying tissues, in this case, the local wood chip mulch I spread lightly over my native seed mix the fall I moved in, a little over two years ago. 

The fungal threads excrete enzymes that can break down cellulose and lignin, the structural tissues that make wood inedible to humans, into simple sugars that the fungus feeds on. When the environmental conditions are right, the network of fungus threads begins thinking of sex, or at least sexual reproduction. 

The fungus diverts some of its energy into forming those odd little cup-shaped structures, and within them, casings shaped like miniature, flattened eggs. Inside those casings is where the actual sexual reproduction happens, filling each disk with spores that can sprout into new fungal threads. 

A closer view of the fungal "cups" and their "eggs"

The little "birds nests" are part of the fungus' dispersal strategy. The ones I spotted while washing windows are perfectly shaped so that the force of a raindrop hitting the cup will splash the tiny disks out–they land as far as three feet from the parent fungus. And there, when conditions the soil surface is wet from rain or snow, and the relative humidity of the air is higher than it usually is in this high-desert climate, the spores sprout into a new fungus. 

What made me smile was only partly the whimsical, fairy-like reproductive structures. I am equally delighted by what their presence implies: My junky industrial lot is returning to life. Those seeds I planted are beginning to reweave a native mountain prairie on what for a century or more was an informal track-side dump which, once abandoned, sprouted a dense fur of invasive annual weeds including tumbleweed, kochia, and cheatgrass. 

The birds nest fungus add nutrients decayed from the chipper mulch to the crappy soil (road-base on top of dump), helping the mountain-prairie plants reclaim this once-blighted site, filling the air with color and sound and life as butterflies and native bees zip from flower to flower, along with hummingbirds and songbirds. The fungus cups remind me that healing is possible for we humans and the earth we have so often treated carelessly, given time and patience and love. 

Seeing the birds nest fungus gives me hope. It is, after all, spring, the season of resurrection and life.

My reclaimed mountain prairie yard in summer

Radical: Returning to My Roots

Eve was a radical. And how I love the word radical because it means going to the roots. –Eve Ensler, from her 2014 talk for the Bioneers Conference

I’ve been nurturing a radical notion for some time now, one that isn’t quite clear yet. But I’m starting to see it take a kind of diaphonous form.

I mean “radical” in the sense Ensler was using the word in her talk about reimagining the story of Adam and Eve; the way Botany uses the word radical, as a term for something that springs from the root. (The word comes to English from the Latin radicalis, itself from radic– or “root.”) 

The photo above illustrates radical plants: Cobra lilies, Darlingtonia californica in the language of science. They look like something out of science fiction, and they are carnivorous, supplimenting the meager amounts of nitrogen in the coastal swamps where they live by luring insects, especially flies, into those skylit “hoods” where the insects buzz around, confused by the light, and eventually fall into the pool of liquid at the base of the modified leaves and are digested by the microbes that live there and share in the nutrients harvested. That’s a radical but very practical adaptation to thriving in a difficult environment. (The photo is from the Darlingtonia Wayside north of Florence, Oregon, a stop on my recent trip. )

My roots as a scientist are in Botany. But my affinity for plants goes deeper than that, originating at least partly in a childhood spent learning wildflowers with my mother, who loved all flowers, but especially those native to this continent, from inches-high “bellyflowers” she knelt to admire on alpine tundra to the head-topping Silphium, Compass plant, of the tallgrass prairies. 


Pursh’s milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), all of three inches high in bloom, and just the sort of alpine wildflower Mom took delight in. 

Plants, I like to say, are “my people.” Plants aren’t demanding, though they do reward attention, and they don’t overhelm me the way humans–especially en masse–sometimes do. I’d say that plants don’t talk back, but given what we now are beginning to understand about plant communication and behavior, that’s not exactly true. We just may not recognize their back-talk yet. 

The radical notion that is beginning to take shape in my mind is about going back to my roots in restoring nature. In addition to learning to identify wildflowers from my mother, I also learned to rescue them in clandestine raids to vacant lots slated for development. Mom and Dad would load our bike baskets with plastic bread bags, trowels and gloves, and off we’d pedal to a location slated for bulldozing, where we would dig up wildflowers to carefully transplant into Mom’s garden. 

A young Lupine plant (I don’t know the species) sprouting from volcanic gravel at Crater Lake National Park. 

The notion is rooted (sorry, I can’t resist the pun!) in the field research I’ve done informally over three decades of restoring nature, whether burning patches of prairie or planting a bluff at a coal-fired power plant in a gritty industrial neighborhood to provide habitat for hummingbirds and bluebirds–and inspiration for the human employees; whether restoring a narrow ribbon of riparian shrubs and trees along a channelized creek to clean the water of urban pollutants, or re-wilding the abandoned and degraded parcel where I now live. 

This radical idea also draws on what I’ve learned over the years about nature as a healing force, both from my own experience of living with a chronic autoimmune disease and in the research I’ve read on the positive effects of “nature exposure” on all manner of conditions, from kids with ADHD to adults with high-blood pressure or mental illness.

Time in nature, we are begining to understand, has a powerful healing effect on all manner of ills, physical and mental to emotional. Restoring our bond with soil and water, animal and plant also restores our balance in the world, and heals the wound that being estranged from the community of life has dug in our souls.


A flower fly sipping nectar from the Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) in my restored mountain prairie yard.

Plants are the pioneers in restoring nature, the living architecture on which life builds. Native plants, in particular form relationships as soon as their roots touch the soil, “calling in” the other species, from microscopic microbes to winged, finned, furred and scaled being, who together heal soil, water, and land, creating the natural society that brings such joy and surcease to we humans. 

I speak “plant,” I have personal experience with the healing power of nature, I practice habitat gardening, I do urban nature restoration, I write and give talks and teach. The idea forming in my mind is both rooted in and integrates those sometimes separate areas into a mission given urgency by Barry Lopez’ comment over our lunch a week and a half ago that he feels we are in a time of perilous unraveling–unraveling of human culture, of our connection with each other and with the planet that is our home. 

Wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integrifolia) recolonizing my formerly degraded industrial yard.

I believe that plants are key to restoring not only the glorious web of life that animates this blue planet, but also our own health and spirits. And I am beginning to envision a way I can be help a re-ravelling of sorts to revive we humans, our neighborhoods and cities and culture, and our relationship with each other and with the rest of the species on this planet. 

That way involves becoming an evangelist for estoring nature where we live and work, and recruiting and training others to help spread that renewal, plant by plant, plot by plot, across the country and the globe, a corps of people who know how to weed and seed, water and nurture the very roots that will help re-grow a vibrant planet and healthy humanity. A “Restore Corps” as it were. 

I don’t know how this radical idea, this vision of sprouting a world-renewing movement from my own roots in nature, Botany, and writing will take shape. But I do know it is calling me to act from my deep love and respect for the community of humans and nature and for this glorious living earth, the only home our species has ever known.