Early one morning, Danny and I, newly boostered (the third), board a plane at JFK for our first extended trip since the onset of COVID. Off to Seattle and beyond we go for a little touring, a bit of birding and botanizing, and visiting various friends and relatives that we haven’t seen in three years or more.
The city of Seattle on Puget Sound is hilly and rises from an active waterfront, busy with many a ferry, tour boat and tanker. Occasionally herring and California gulls fly by. The people are casual, well maybe still even a little grungy. Old buildings are disappearing, but there is construction of glassy high-rises everywhere, cranes gracing the cityscape as if the streets were being walked by gigantic giraffes.
In Seattle, the famed, five-story Pike Place Market is awash with people — and crows — wandering the myriad stalls and booths that are filled with a huge assortment of goods: fresh fish and meat, fruits and vegetables and flowers galore. There are craft breweries, bookstores and bakeries. And lots of places to purchase local art, T-shirts and gaudy gewgaws.
At SAM (Seattle Art Museum), Alberto Giacometti, he of the thin beyond thin sculptures of people, is put into perspective. In keeping with the current atmosphere, there’s a show of masks from many cultures, though some are more like headdresses, scary and purposeful — too elaborate for medical masks — but certainly inspiration for Mardi Gras costumes.
But it is the Burke Museum that is a masterpiece of new museum design and presentation of natural history. The Burke began life in 1899 as the Washington State Museum, the outgrowth of a high school natural history club. Over the years the museum, located on the University of Washington’s campus amassed a wealth of mammal, bird (the largest collection of spread bird wings in the world) and cultural artifacts.
Over the years, the narrative of the Burke museum shifted from straight presentation of explanatory dioramas to more interactive visual displays that can be manipulated by the visitor to see and understand science at work. Here, too, you can see scientists at work through huge glass windows: men and women examining items, studying specimens or filming other specimen for comparisons. In one room, we watched a Native American being interviewed, perhaps for an oral history.
The new Burke, opened in 2019, is housed in a building created for exactly the purposes desired. The displays are truly innovative, presenting a wealth of information using visual techniques that attempt to connect everything in the world of natural history from prehistoric times to the present. The giant ground sloth found while Sea-Tac airport was under construction is displayed in situ as when it was excavated. Films throughout give detailed narratives and contexts to what you are seeing.
One display shows what the Seattle area looks like now with you being able to lift up portions like three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle pieces that tell you what was there before man intruded and shifted not only the Indigenous peoples living in that area but the waterways as well. Another exhibit shows an excavation of a 19th- and 20th-century dig, everything moldering away, in contrast to a 21st-century dump dig with many layers of plastic that will not decompose for thousands of years.
My favorite, though, is the three-dimensional cladogram showing the relationships of species to species. A cladogram is “a visual evolutionary tree that diagrams the ancestral relationships among organisms.” One could spend many an hour studying this. In Danny’s hour, he found and reported a mislabeled silhouette of a thrasher.
After meals of salmon raw, smoked or grilled, we take leave of the cityscape where birds are few and far between save the crows, on the average smaller than the crows on the east coast. At one point these crows, which have less of a call than a shriek, were known as northwestern crows, a different size, with a different call, but, alas, they were lumped together with the common crow, so no addition to the life list for us.
Crows, like young tourists, are everywhere: in the streets, on top of parked cars, on roofs, on streetlights, two-stepping through gardens and parks. Occasionally, flocks of pigeons rise up above buildings as if directed by a fancier, but they are far outnumbered by crows.
Off we head to the Olympic Peninsula, home to snow-covered Mount Olympus and the national forest of tall western red cedars, Douglas firs and bigleaf maples among other trees. Unfortunately, the famed Hurricane Ridge road is closed for a month for repair, but not to worry — there are many, many other hikes and trails.
After a bit of a drive, we stop to stretch at an area by the water. A common loon trills as if welcoming us here. The small marsh has a few Canada geese, mallards and a great blue heron plying the waters. The sparrows calling from the shrubs sound familiar —and I soon realize they are white-crowned sparrows, birds that have many regional calls. Six hop around the yellow flowering Oregon gumplants.
The area west is hilly and forested. At Dungeness National Wildlife on the Juan de Fuca Straits, we amble through the conifer woods where the undergrowth is primarily large splashy western sword ferns, salal and Cascade Oregon grapes which do not look like grape leaves at all — to the sand spit, a long narrow arc of beach, covered with seaweed and enormous sculptures of driftwood — and tourists, children, dogs (it is Sunday). The weather is sunny and warm in this area known for fog and rain.
By the time we check into our Airbnb on a grassy field surrounded by a tall forest, we are ready to retire. The next morning as I stand on the porch at dawn, I hear the sweet whistle of the varied thrushes, a weird and wonderful bird call.