Bird-watchers, bicyclists, organic gardeners, rock hounds, tree huggers, weather nuts, history buffs, community activists and downtown office...
Bird-watchers, bicyclists, organic gardeners, rock hounds, tree huggers, weather nuts, history buffs, community activists and downtown office workers — that covers just about everybody in Seattle, doesn’t it? — will find plenty to embrace in “The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle” (WestWinds Press, 224 pp., $14.95), an inviting new book by David B. Williams.
A Seattle native and a frequent Seattle Times contributor, Williams spent nearly 15 years away from the Pacific Northwest, first at college in Colorado, where he majored in geology; then in the Moab Desert as a park ranger; and later in Boston while his wife attended graduate school.
When he returned to the Northwest in 1998, he began viewing his hometown through the lens of natural history, using skills he had honed during his time away. Suddenly, the familiar old venues, from Northgate to Pioneer Square, looked very different. Williams demonstrates how Seattle’s pocket parks, its buried streams and bogs, its vestigial groves — even its most manicured lakeshores and tallest buildings — take on intriguing new dimensions when we slow down and look at them more closely.
David B. Williams will read from “The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle” at 5 p.m. Sunday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com) and at 2 p.m. June 18, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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He opens the book with a surefire crowd-pleaser: a tale of bald eagles nesting at Green Lake. Balds are one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. After being on the brink of extinction in the 1960s and early ’70s, our national bird has made a heartening comeback. Williams uses the story of the Green Lake eagle pair’s successful mating season as a springboard for a broader discussion of bald eagles — their habits and habitat, the renewed phenomenon of nest-building around Seattle and their prospects for the future.
Although the status of bald eagles has been downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” on the federal list of protected species, the biologists that Williams talks with don’t necessarily think that’s good news. They worry that the consequent loosening of federally mandated restrictions might have an adverse impact — essential perching and buffering trees might no longer be protected, for example. Williams reminds us that complacency today can mean trouble down the road. Cutting even young trees to make way for development removes potential nesting trees of the future.
In subsequent chapters, Williams addresses the status of other local birds. There’s an interesting piece on the much-maligned Canada goose. Although Williams rather uncharitably describes this species as “walking digestive tracts disguised as birds,” he does urge moving away from the dubious (but standard) management practice of mass killing. Another chapter highlights the charismatic crow.
Lest you should think this book is just for the birds (and their admirers), read on. Williams writes thought-provoking essays on the fault lines that underlie our region and on the hills that rumple our topography. He considers the weather that sweeps through Puget Sound. He celebrates our native plants, from sphagnum moss to Douglas firs (once characterized in a promotional brochure as “vegetable skyscrapers”).
And he investigates the invasives, from English ivy and Scots broom to house sparrows, rats and starlings. He doesn’t spend enough time on aquatic invasives, either plant or animal, but he almost makes up for it with a couple of engrossing essays on other watery topics. His by-foot exploration of the Thornton Creek Watershed, from headwaters to outlet in Lake Washington, is an eye-opening exercise in the ways we treat streams in urban settings.
In another chapter, he traces the water that cycles through an average Seattle household, from mountain source to sewage treatment plant. With recent public criticism of Habitat Conservation Plans, readers might wish that Williams had more closely scrutinized the job that Seattle Public Utilities is doing with its Habitat Conservation Plans in the Cedar River Watershed. Still, this illuminating chapter emphasizes our profound dependence and impact on the landscape around us.
A short list of quibbles: Williams didn’t discuss the peregrine falcons downtown. He could have done more on the gulls that wheel and bicker through our skies. He skimps on commentary on our saltwater habitat, and he barely touches on the tale of Lake Washington’s near death and dramatic comeback. Hand-drawn maps by Megan Ernst would have been better complements to these essays if they hadn’t been so poorly reproduced.
These aren’t enough to keep “The Street-Smart Naturalist” from being a thoroughly enjoyable book, however. Arm yourself with a copy, then go out and make field notes of your own!