The Nature of Writing

Murrelets, mushrooms and meter

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

They lurk in the dark woods of Cascadia, moving in the shadows, trying to stay out of sight. They prefer the moist west slope of the mountains and roam with the seasons. No, it’s not Sasquatch, but the underground tribe of wild-harvesters who follow the mushroom “bloom” down the Pacific coast.

In his new title, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, Langdon Cook is a gonzo journalist infiltrating this highly secretive subculture, thrusting himself in to the lucrative, Gold Rush-like trade of transferring wild mushrooms from forest to five-star restaurants.

Cook’s travelogue also explores natural history, mushroom lore, culinary insights, geography and cultural tradition, all tied together with wit and passion.

As part of the latest Nature of Writing Series, Cook will share his stories, as will the following two authors, in upcoming days at Village Books.

Marbled Murrelets are an interesting anomaly among the web-footed seabirds that are often observed in the near-shore habitat of the west coast of the Pacific Ocean. Though they spend most of their lives at sea, they nest in the forest, sometimes as much as 50 miles inland from their coastal feeding grounds.

Murrelets evolved to prefer old growth, and look for mature stands of ancient trees to nest in. This particularity is what has pushed this robin-sized bird toward scarcity, as most of the coastal old-growth forest has been logged off over the past century.

Designated a “threatened” species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1992, it is estimated that their population has declined 50-60 percent from historical norms. This precipitous decline led to the designation of nearly four million acres of land as areas of critical habitat, with hopes of giving the murrelet enough room to recover.

Olympia-based nature writer Maria Mudd Ruth grew fascinated with these hard-to-find birds and so set off to learn all that she could about them, gleaning tidbits from native lore and early explorers’ surveys, and diving into the modern-day conservation drama. Her book Rare Bird, described as “part naturalist detective story and part environmental inquiry,” is a love letter to this diminutive bird as it struggles to keep making its journey.

Tim McNulty is the author of several volumes of Pacific Northwest natural history, including wonderful incantations on Washington’s wild rivers, Mt. Rainier, and the Olympic Peninsula. But McNulty is widely known for his homegrown poetry, too.

These two author roles are not as divergent as they might appear: his natural history writing is full of poetic images and language, and his poetry is attentive to all kinds of natural detail.

Ascendance, McNulty’s new book, gathers together several of his hard-to-find chapbooks, including Through High Still Air, poems and journal entries from a season spent as a fire lookout atop Sourdough Mountain in the North Cascades.

McNulty’s deep resonance with the natural environment of the Northwest is infused with his gift for elegantly arranging words and images on the page. His poems are inhabited by tree frogs, raven, salmon, stars, wildfire and deer mouse. Eschewing abstraction, McNulty’s writing reminds of us of the joys of physical action grounded in place—watching a white deer at Diablo Lake, skiing in the Methow, hiking Mount St. Helens, restoring the Elwha River. These poems serve as a manual for how to live more fully, more awake and aware, in our wild corner of the world.

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