“What defines a Pacific Northwest forest?” asks Seattle naturalist Kelly Brenner in her new book, “Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World.” “Is it the towering Douglas firs with their cones hanging in clusters? Or is it the moss dripping over the tree branches or the lichens?”
The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. Forests and ecosystems defy definition, though they can be characterized by the life they support. That’s because they’re always changing, not least because of the ways that humans interact with landscapes. Though we’re all cooped up right now, and with Earth Day falling April 22, it’s a great time to consider — perhaps on one of your many neighborhood walks — the life all around us in Seattle.
Brenner herself was trained as a landscape architect, but her interests are more … wild.
With a curiosity for how humans and landscapes influence each other, both literally and in stories and folklore, Brenner approaches her writing like she approaches the world: with reverence and inquisitiveness. “In the same way that a camera obscura reflects the surrounding landscape onto a flat surface, ‘Nature Obscura’ is a projection of the nature found in a city onto a piece of paper,” Brenner writes. “Writing is really just a type of camera obscura, a projection of the real world.”
Late in a sunny morning just before social distancing measures heightened in March, I met Brenner in the heart of Seward Park. It’s one of her favorite places to explore. In her book, she writes, “There are few places left in Seattle to experience this ancient landscape, but Seward Park … is one of them.”
Seattle has a dramatic natural and human history. But “Seattle — a city that has plowed down hills, cut through the land to connect fresh- and saltwater, and paved over much of the rest — has a surprising variety of life.” And Seward Park is one of the oldest landscapes in the area, Brenner says.
We walked on trails soft with pine needles and the skeletal remains of dead leaves. Brenner’s veneration for the natural life sprawling around us was palpable as she described snags and lichens and poked around with her pen light looking for slime molds. A “snag,” she explained, is a dead tree left standing — essential for woodpeckers and owls. And flying squirrels live in the woodpecker holes.
Seward Park’s trees were never clear-cut, making many of them hundreds of years old.
“I love Seward Park,” Brenner said as we picked our way along the trail. “Especially in spring and fall, when the sun comes through the fog — also, it’s the best time for slime molds.” Slime molds, or Myxomycetes, are a passion of Brenner’s, and she chronicles some of their scientific history in the chapter “Miss Lister’s Myxies.” Easily going unnoticed, these fungus-adjacent growths (they are classified as protozoa) can be found on decaying logs and are often brightly colored — pink, orange, yellow. “They’re oddballs, and I like oddballs because I am one,” Brenner said as she stepped off the path, bending toward a damp fallen log.
Sure enough, she’s spotted some — both the mature fruiting bodies, a yellow mass, and the immature bodies, which look like little black sewing pins.
Most of the plants native to the Pacific Northwest are in inner Seward; the edges have been landscaped. But in the heart of this place, where some of the ancient forest remains, the world is different from the edges.
Licorice ferns glow pastel green on the towering firs and maples. As we move further on, Brenner points out “ground zero,” an 11-acre part of the park where sword ferns mysteriously started to die off in 2014. Even today, scientists still don’t know why. “In an ecosystem, such as a forest, when one thing dies or otherwise disappears, another living thing will quickly move in to take its place,” Brenner writes in “Nature Obscura.” But in Seward Park, “ground zero remains bare.” This speaks to the mystery of the natural world. Modern scientists have many tools to find answers to questions like this: What could be causing a fern die-off in a specific spot in an old Seattle park? But even today, the riddle remains unsolved.
“Nature Obscura” is a book that embraces the mystery even as it searches for answers. It is centered on the nature of urban Seattle, making it particularly engaging to those of us who live here, but its appeal stretches beyond our own backyards. Structured around the seasons and using specific (typically tiny) creatures as entry points to explore the vastness of the world we live in, this book is a beautiful meditation on the infinite, beautiful enigma of life, and also an accessible guide to building one’s own practice of scientific observation (it even includes a guide for How to Be an Urban Naturalist). In a time when certain aspects of biology are particularly frightening, it’s a relief to be transported via Brenner’s calm, elegant prose to the worlds of tardigrades and snails, moths and molds. The delightful accompanying illustrations by Zoe Keller don’t hurt either.
It’s clear Brenner isn’t fazed about building her scientific practice outside of traditional academia. She doesn’t work in a lab, but rather has built her own lab at home over time, acquiring microscopes and other equipment, and DIY-ing the rest.
She’s been staying at home in Seattle, where she connects with other scientists online. The rest has been trial and error. And love for these (often teensy) beings (see: Nudibranch Twitter).
“Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World” by Kelly Brenner, Mountaineers Books, 208 pp., $17.95