Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 5, 2011

animals small and great

September 4, 2011

As I approach Smith-Bybee lakes by bike, the air is still. Its warmth hints at a hot afternoon. The warble of male crickets intones hopefully from either side. Gossamer tents teeming with caterpillars inhabit every other cottonwood.

break in trees at Smith-Bybee with great egret

Humans don’t tolerate tent caterpillars well even though they don’t generally cause lasting damage to trees. To avoid them, we buy insect-repelling alien plants that create a food desert for local wildlife. In contrast, the caterpillars contribute to the chain of life by providing high calorie meals for small mammals, birds and bats.

Two miles later, turning into the road at Kelley Point Park, the light wafting fragrance of willow shifts to the scent of hot blackberries and back again.

cottonwoods at Kelley Point

Local media has piqued my interest in the fresh water mussels that can be seen along the Willamette shore here ( “Lowly mussels bond with salmon”, Portland Tribune, SustainableLife, 8-18-2011). Apparently scientists are finding that freshwater mussel beds are often found near healthy salmon runs and may be one key to restoration since they clean the water. Each of the small, overlooked species can filter an astonishing 18 gallons a day! Unfortunately however, most seen on the Willamette shoreline are empty shells, a sign of their decline.

Willamette River shore

A bony carcass of a harbor seal catches my attention. Closer inspection discloses a scaly tail—it’s a sturgeon, six or more feet long!

As I walk south on the beach, a few live mussels become evident along with the empty shells near the water’s edge. The live ones have heft when handled and resemble small rocks. The number of shell ridges indicates years similar to tree rings. These are young, only a few inches across.

When photographing two in the shallows, I startle to see movement! One shell parts and rotates subtly. It opens, separates and closes with each small wave. When the wave retreats, barely discernible white lips spit water a few inches straight up in the air! I notice the other one has a parted shell and the white mussel is scouring sand underneath. They are busy at work, filtering, taking on the work we appear incapable of. They are western pearlshells, or Margaritifera falcata, and can live for a century or more. They are some of the longest living species on Earth. 18 gallons of filtered water per day for 100 years equals 657,000 gallons in a lifetime. More than half-million! That’s a lot of filtering. In sharp comparison, some of our superfund industries have spent millions of dollars to do the same thing to arguable effect. Of course, much of the money is spent on PR, something the unassuming mussels have done without until now!

empty fresh water mussel shells

live mussel

at work filtering the murky river

Small animal wonders are rarely recognized or understood by us. We know little about the tapestry of life that supports salmon habitat. The Willamette River has been degraded by exploitation of its natural resources with no thought beyond profit, trusting that somehow it can be fixed—or not—by someone else. Lip service is given, but there is no intention to stop. It brings to mind an article from the New York Times today entitled, “A Debate Arises on Job Creation and Environment” in which Republicans and business groups argue that we can’t afford environmental protection (New York Times, “Business Day Economy,” 9-5-2011).

Wisdom tradition of Judeo-Christianity reveals the correct divine, nature and human interrelationship. For instance, the Book of Job contains some of the best nature poetry ever written as God describes the awesome traits of His wild animals and calls Job to admiration (Job 38-42). There’s an interesting book on the subject by Bill McKibben entitled, “The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation.” 

Our system makes everyone, bar practically none, dependent on people who gain from nature’s destruction and don’t have the foresight to see what they are doing. Yet we trust in their authority. I often wonder what independence from such a system looks like?  It is the basis of wilderness tradition—a rejection of Empire and its idolatry—that forms the root of Judeo-Christian spirituality.


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