Recently, I was asked by a friend to contribute a regular blog post to the Urban Naturalist reader blog at the Seattle P-I. The post below is my first post for that blog. In addition to the P-I postings, I will also be posting other thoughts and observations on urban natural history to this site.
I didn’t set out to be an urban naturalist. After graduating from college with a degree in geology, I moved to Moab, Utah, paradise for geologists. I spent most of my time out in the red rock canyons hiking, biking, canoeing, and teaching. During my final years in Moab, I worked as an interpretive ranger at Arches National Park. I thought I would stay and be a naturalist in Moab for many years but when my wife decided to go to graduate school, I followed her to Boston.
Initially, Beantown was not a good fit for me. All I knew about the geology of Massachusetts was that a group of renegades had supposedly landed on some piece of stone we now call Plymouth Rock. One day though I was walking across the Harvard campus when I stopped to look at Harvard Hall, a stately Georgian structure built in 1766.
I distinctly remember walking up to the stairs to look at the stone work, which had begun to erode. Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling stone. Sand grains accumulated in my hand. They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.
I had looked at these sandstones around Boston for months but it wasn’t until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nested in my hand that I made the connection: what I had known as red rock in Utah, easterners calledbrownstone. Both are sandstone colored by iron, which in an oxygen-rich environment rusts and coats individual sand grains like the skin of an apple.
From that point on, I began to focus intently on the geology of Boston’s building stones. I found buildings made of the same stone as Plymouth Rock, which I learned was a 610-million-year old granite; churches fabricated of a purple hued, cobblestone-rich sedimentary rock known as puddingstone; and rooftops covered in slate, formed by a chain of islands crashing into North America. I had found the geologic stories that could provide the connection I had lost to wildness I had treasured in Utah.
I have continued to seek out such stories around Seattle. I learned that the reason it’s generally easier to bike north/south than east/west is the region’s recent glacial history. When I bike from the my house around Licton Springs to Lake Washington, I have to travel up and down the trough and ridge system carved by a 3,000-foot-thick glacier. When I bike to downtown, I am riding in one of the troughs.
I also discovered the rich diversity of life in the city. It is not unusual for me to see bald eagles in the city; I have even seen and heard them in the towering Douglas firs in our backyard. Speaking of trees, we are unusual as a city in that our dominant tree cover consists of our native Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, and red alders. And, of course, I have found building stones galore, ranging in age from 100,000 to 3,500,000,000 years old.
These stories have revealed to me the rich textures that make up the urban landscape. They have made my chosen home of Seattle a more interesting and more enjoyable place to live. I still love to get out in the wild places and see the grand scenery and the grand stories but I have found that living in Seattle still allows me to connect to wildness. It may take a little more effort to find the stories but they have more deeply rooted me in place.
So my goal with this blog is to explore not just the geologic stories but all aspects of the natural history of the urban landscape. In doing I so, I like to believe that we can learn from these stories of urban wildness not only about the land and its inhabitants but about ourselves and our place in this place we call home. I look forward to sharing this journey with you.