Eating Stories

Dwarf blueberries in the subalpine ripen in late summer and early fall

My breakfasts tend to be simple, toast and a bowl of fruit. This mornings fruit was stewed dwarf blueberries (Vaccinium cespitosum) that had been picked last summer or early fall. The distinctive flavor that came with that first bite brought feelings of warmth and gratitude along with blurred impressions of that place and my experience there. I think I was a little surprised by this, and gave a moment or two to recollect the two picking trips I made (to the same place) this year, one with my dad, the other with my kids and brother.

It didn’t take long for my thoughts to turn towards the rest of the day, but that evening, spurred by the morning’s experiences, I thought I would share some memory food with my kids. We got out more of those same kind of blueberries and some whipped cream. Before we ate them, I asked them to share with me their memories of that trip to pick berries we made together with their uncle. It was interesting to hear their reflections, some things I remembered when they mentioned them, others that I didn’t recall at all. I was a little surprised at their enthusiasm in sharing their memories, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been (they are motivated by dessert), and I’m glad I felt inspired to do this with them. I shared some of my memory of that trip with them, and we enjoyed the berries and cream together.

As I write this later, it occurs to me that we also ate some seaweed we gathered during dinner. I hadn’t made the connection while we were eating, but during dinner we ended up talking about where the seaweed came from, as they were both on that gathering trip back in early April.

In the work I’ve done with 8-shields over the past several years, there have been various routines and/or practices that I have learned about where food and stories are wrapped together. I recall hearing about a hunter-gatherer group for whom the story of the hunt was as important culturally as the food that resulted from that hunt. Every year in the fall, I’ve heard about various ancestor honoring traditions, usually centered around food (often with the addition of a fire) and stories that go along with it.

In reflecting on today’s experiences, I feel like I’ve made a connection for myself (though whether I hold on to it remains to be seen). Although I grew up in a family where a significant portion of the food we ate was grown, caught, shot, or gathered, sometimes even with my participation, I do not recall consistently experiencing eating of that food linked with the story of that food, at least not in a way that stuck with me as a practice (though now that I’m thinking back, I do remember some stories going with food, at least on occasion).

I now find myself wondering about the power of eating stories instead of just food. I feel like there is probably something to be gained through this practice. Ingredients that are grown or gathered by ourselves or people we know, and the story of how it came to our plate. Food that has a connection with people or places we’ve known (or would like to), even if we don’t necessarily know the stories of those particular ingredients. I wonder how I can make stories a greater part of my meals. If you have thoughts/ideas, or your own experiences to share, please leave me a comment.

Posted in foraging, kids and nature, nature connection, Wild Food | 1 Comment

Purple Finch

This afternoon my kids were checking on a Biorka Street yard that has been hosting Bohemian Waxwings regularly when they noticed a bird that looked unusual to them. Connor was able to get a couple of shots before it flew out of sight behind a house. Rowan watched for it while Connor ran back home and got me, but despite spending the next hour or so out and about, we did not find it again.

When they got home, they looked through the bird book and came up with Purple Finch as the most likely candidate. Having never seen one, I’m unfamiliar with Purple Finch and was hesitant to come to any conclusions, especially given the rarity (and the fact that one has not been previously reported here that I know of). Connor posted his pictures to inaturalist, and had someone there agree with his id, while I passed the link to Steve Heinl who also confirmed the photos showed a Purple Finch. So it was a very nice find for Connor and Rowan, and I’m glad Connor was able to get identifiable pictures for documentation.

Although this species has shown up in a handful of other Southeast Alaskan towns, as far as I know, this is a first record for Sitka. We’ll keep an eye out for it (I know I would like to see it and get pictures) and I’ll let folks know if it shows up again.

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Brown Booby Final Update

Brown Booby at Alaska Raptor Center just before shipping out (Photo by Jen Cedarleaf))

Many folks had commented or e-mailed that they enjoyed hearing about the Brown Booby and wanted to know what happened with it, so I thought I would post one final update. Jen Cedarleaf said the bird was sent south to an International Bird Rescue rehabilitation site in Southern California back on 18 November (I think quite a bit sooner than originally anticipated).

Jen said the booby was admitted to the Alaska Raptor Center at 995 grams it left at 1430 (so it sounds like the bird was probably pretty hungry). Jen was told the booby had been released into a large aviary and, as of an early December update, lingering injuries (a limp and small wounds) were gone or close to being completely healed. They said the bird seemed quite happy, and the next step was to release her. (Though as of this posting, Jen had not heard whether the bird had yet been released).

Brown Booby rescued in Sitka at International Bird Rescue, photo by IBR volunteer Doug Carter

Thanks to Jen for sharing her photos as well as passing on the reports and photos (and getting permission for me to post the photos) from the International Bird Rescue.

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More Mountain Bluebird

As is so often the case with unusual birds, after getting pictures the first time and being excited to have them, I found myself thinking it would be nice to try to get better ones. Perhaps with better light, closer, or in a better position (ideally all three!). I did not know if the bird would stick around, and Tuesday was so dim, plus my schedule so full, that I did not even make it over to the airport to try looking for it (though I did hear of at least one person seeing it). Wednesday morning was slightly brighter, and I had more time, so Connor, Rowan, and I spent about 45 minutes at long-term parking without seeing any sign of the bird (nor did someone who had been there for about the same length of time and was leaving as we arrived). Weather was still pretty gray, so I wasn’t inspired to try again later.

Today was the last day of scheduled classes at UAS, so I was up relatively early and over to UAS. The weather was unexpectedly just partly cloudy with the sun shining through. After class I decided to spend some more time over by the airport. I waited for a little while without seeing the bluebird, and was driving along the old airport road to head home when I saw a bird perched on the fence. I didn’t have my binoculars and so took a couple of photos to see if I could tell what it was. From the photos, I was thinking it might be a robin, as it looked like it had a red breast. However, the angle of sun was such that I wasn’t positive, so I decided to check it out more closely. My extra effort was rewarded with additional views of the Mountain Bluebird. This time it seemed a little less flighty than it had been when I first saw it Monday. It behaved in what (if I understand correctly) is typical bluebird behavior, moving from high perch to perch (generally the fence), flying down to the ground or up in the air to grab at some food. I also saw it stop in a mountain ash tree and grab a berry a couple of different times.

After watching it for some time, where it mostly flew between the two fences that intersect down by the lagoon, it flew off across the runway. I was happy to have better viewing conditions to observe and photograph the bird, but the orientation of the airport fences are such that it was difficult to get photos of the bird with the sun at my back. So, after lunch, given the continuing nice weather (the forecast had been for rain, and it looked like a pile of clouds could move over soon), I decided to see if the shifting sun might offer better opportunities.

I was grateful that the bird was fairly cooperative this afternoon, even perching a couple of times where I could get a shot of it with the sun at my back. It once again followed a similar pattern, though this time I noticed it spent some time flying between the tops of 6-8 foot alders on the inside of the fence. Once again I watched it fly off across the runway. I ended up spending additional time experimenting with some new tools for trying to do focus stacking (the lichen photos are the results). I’m not sure how long I had been working on this when the bluebird returned. Along with it was a pipit, which I thought I had heard earlier, but had not seen. Although the pipit perched on the fence with the bluebird a couple of times, I lost track of it and couldn’t get photos. American Pipits are considered Very Rare in winter, though it’s possible they’re annual, but just not usually observed because of preferred habitat.

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Mountain Bluebird

Yesterday I got a report with some photos of an unusual bird with a blue rump out along the old airport road. It was not especially cooperative, but the photos were strongly suggestive of Mountain Bluebird (at least to people who were familiar with that species, which I wasn’t so much at that time). I only had about an hour of fading light to check out there, and didn’t have any luck finding anything.

Though I was not especially optimistic, I thought it was worth the effort to check around the area again this morning. My kids and I started from long term parking, did not see any evidence of the bluebird there, so walked a long loop around Japonski Island, then Alice Island. Along the way we saw a fairly late Yellow-rumped Warbler and more Savannah Sparrows (at Alice Island) then I would have expected. As we were walking along the old airport road, a jet landed and as it went by a bird flew up to a utility wire near the airport sand piles. It looked suspicious, and I was able to get a better look to confirm it was the Mountain Bluebird.

It was very active, flying from a perch down to the ground and back up to another perch. As it did this it moved down the road towards Alice Island. It never stayed long in one spot, and as a result was hard to approach, though I did not really have the impression that it was really trying to get away. Despite this, I was able to get a few photos, the best of which I’ve included with this post. I had somewhere to be at noon, so I let my kids follow it to the Alice Island loop road (where they lost track of it) while I went and got the car.

In the afternoon I had some time, so went back to watch for it again. It didn’t show for a while, but as light was starting to fade, I noticed it on the fence at the long-term parking lot. From there it followed the pattern I had seen earlier, flying down to the ground, then back up again. This time it kept going back to the fence, but went a little further down each time. I was able to keep track of it until it got to the fence near the lagoon, but by that time it was getting dim enough I didn’t have much hope of getting better photos, and needed to get going anyway. If the weather is not too dreary and time permits I may try again tomorrow, though it’s hard to say if it will stick around.

Thanks to Karen J. for noticing this bird seemed unusual and reporting it.

This marks the sixth life bird for me this fall/early winter, and it seems unlikely I’ll have another season like this in Sitka (absent a trip off shore). It’s always exciting to get to see new birds around here, and I’m grateful for the chance to do so. I’m also grateful to the folks who have helped facilitate seeing them, as well as those who have shared in the excitement of finding new and/or unusual species for Sitka.

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First Snow

Snowy Day at Totem Park from back in February

Yesterday dawned with the first snow of the year down at sea level. There was less than an inch, but it was enough to make the ground look white. Temperatures warmed throughout the day and by this evening it was raining, heavy at times. This morning there were still periodic showers (a wintry mix special), but shortly after noon there was a clear spell that last until right around 2. Fortunately/unfortunately I was outside during this time, and it made for nice ultimate (frisbee) playing conditions, but I didn’t get to take a picture of the scenic surrounding mountains with fairly heavy snow on the trees down to about 1000 feet. By the time things wrapped up at Moller field, heavy clouds had moved back over and the rain had started to fall.

Though I’ve not spent much time outside the past couple of days, I have managed to make some progress on processing photos from this year. I’m all caught up with the Q4 (Oct-Dec) – it helps not to be taking so many pictures. I’m now down to just a couple of days from Q1 (Jan-Mar). Among the days I’ve recently uploaded photos for is 16 February when I took quite a few pictures on a walk around Totem Park, including the one I’ve included with this post. Other posts (either created or with additional photos added) a January hike up Herring Cove Trail, a February outing to Medvejie Lake, a March low tide at Sage Beach, the Raptor Center trail after an Eagle release, and a sunny day at Magic Island.

Quite a few of those days had pictures that will inspire individual posts, so expect to see more (though I can’t say when, for sure).

One thing that’s kind of interesting about this exercise is finding out how much (or how little) I remember of the days in question. I usually can recall the context (location, at least) for the photos I took, but I don’t necessarily remember much other than the photos and the context in which I took them. I suppose there are other aspects that I could remember, but I just don’t have those memories firmly associated with that particular day. (For example, on the February walk around Totem Park, I also was out at John Brown’s Beach – I can also remember walking around Japonski Island one day last winter, but I do not recall if it was on the same day as the walk to John Brown’s Beach. If it was, I did not take any pictures from that part of the outing.)

I’ve heard some people choose not to take pictures because they have a tendency to become the memory. I can see a a certain ridiculousness in the practice of walking through a museum (or nature) and just snapping pictures with a cell phone, focusing primarily on it rather than fully experiencing the actual embodied presence that the camera only captures a small part of. However, in many ways, for me, the question is not whether the photo becomes the memory, but whether I can really recall the memory at all without a photo or some other form of documentation. Again, it’s probably not so much that memories are absolutely irretrievable, but that without any hook or thread to help me connect with them, they are not accessible to me without some essentially random trigger. If I’ve taken photos, I have a link that helps me (re)connect with the experiences. However, I’ve noticed that even this can be inconsistent in its effectiveness.

The less time and care I spend with a photo at the time its taken and/or in the hours and days when I can still remember a great deal of the context clearly, the less effective that photo will be in triggering the richer memories. There are times when I just notice something in passing, have a mild amount of curiosity and snap a couple of shots before moving on. If I do not end up processing those photos (and adding some text context in the form of tags, titles, captions, etc.) within a few days after taking such photos, it becomes increasingly likely that I will remember anything other than the immediate context of the photo. When that starts to happen, I’m usually able to jog my memory by looking at the data I record with CyberTracker (mostly bird and flowering plant observations). However there has been at least one time I could not even remember for sure where the photo was taken, nor could I determine from my observation data.

On the other end of the spectrum, those days where I take photos with more deliberation, process them relatively quickly, and write a blog post about the outing, I find my memories will tend to be much fuller. Of course those memories are shaped in large part by what I chose to document, not just because that is what I continue to have access to, but also because those are the things that were meaningful enough to me at the time to take the time to document more fully, thereby reinforcing those memories. I feel like I have access to a broader swath of the context of those experience, even beyond what I’ve specifically photographed or written about.

I’m grateful to have the tools of digital photography and journaling via weblog. I think it’s unlikely I would have connected as fully or learned nearly as much about this place I call home without them. I’m grateful also to you who read this – I don’t know who all reads these things (other than my family), but I do appreciate the many ways and times people have offered encouragement over the 15+ years I’ve been doing this. If any of you read to the end of this (much wordier than I expected going into it) post, I would be curious to find out how long you’ve been following me online nature journaling if you wouldn’t mind leaving me a comment. Thanks!

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