Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: Bugs, Bikes, and Musical Flowers

Some families travel to Disneyland. Mine goes to science museums. There’s a family-friendly science museum in almost every major city, and you can find one of the best in Seattle, Washington.

We visited the Pacific Science Center in September on a break from my Avenging the Owl bookstore tour, and spent seven hours investigating every corner of the museum. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we discovered.

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Insect Village

Love insects? Stick around here for a while. An animatronic housefly invites you to “step right up” and visit an extensive display that will give you a sense of how high a flea jumps, how a beetle’s exoskeleton acts like a knight’s armor, why hissing cockroaches hiss, and—my favorite—how mealworms eat Styrofoam. (Up until I observed this for myself, I thought mealworms were simply food for owls, but now I realize they have other environmental benefits, as well!)

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Tropical Butterfly House

Even on the grayest, rainiest, coldest days, the butterfly house glows with a tropical light. Hundreds of butterflies drift about, landing on flowered plants, on piles of sliced fruit, and on you. The museum gets its butterflies in chrysalis form from farms in Central and South America, and they allow visitors to watch the hatching and study the brief but beautiful life cycle of these insects. Laminated identification cards let you to learn the names of what you’re seeing, but you can also dispense with the fancy nomenclature and simply bask with the butterflies.

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High-Rail Bicycle

So maybe you’re sort of a daredevil, or maybe your great-grandparents—like mine–ran away to join the circus. Either way, if you weigh over 100 pounds, you can pedal a bicycle on a one-inch-wide rail 15 feet above the museum’s courtyard for free. Downward-hanging weights keep it from slipping off the rail.

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Look, Mom! No hands!

Live Science Shows

As a creative writing teacher, I have a crazy admiration for those who can impart the magic of science to kids  . . . and to me. The museum offers a couple of half-hour science presentations a day, classes so surprising and funny you forget you’re actually learning. We saw “The Science of Combustion” in which the presenter lit blew up fuel-filled balloons and lit someone’s ten dollar bill on fire (it managed to escape unharmed), and “The Science of Bubbles.”

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Musical Flowers

After seven hours of fabulously-interactive exhibits on health and archaeology and space and dinosaurs and Legos and 3-D printing and musical instruments, I had to get outside and go in search of a veggie dog. I found one along a line of food stands in the Seattle Center, but not before I discovered artist Dan Corson‘s giant glass flowers sprouting up right outside the museum. As people walk past them, they emit loud tones—some low, some high, all unexpected and weird. But then, that describes the whole science museum, which is much more fun, my 9-year old agrees, than a family vacation to Disneyland.

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Bart King, Author and Bird Lover

You probably know Portland author Bart King from his books, The Big Book of Boy Stuff and the Big Book of Girl Stuff. He’s also written numerous other nonfiction books, and now, he’s got a novel!

Titled The Drake Equation, it’s the story of birdwatcher Noah Grow, a boy who starts out on a quest to find a wood duck and ends up on an intergalactic adventure.

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On Wednesday May 4th at 7 PM, Bart King and I will host a family-friendly literary event at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing . We’ll talk about his book, and about my new novel Avenging the Owl, then debate which bird is cooler–black swifts or great horned owls.

Learn about birds with our slide show presentation and Avian Trivia game, and stay for our reading and book signing. This event is ideal for anyone who loves wildlife and wit.

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Author Bart King

I caught up with Bart King earlier this week to ask him about his new novel. Here’s what he had to say:

Melissa Hart: What is it about black swifts that intrigues you, and why did you want to include this particular bird in The Drake Equation? Have you seen these birds in person, and if so, where? 

Bart King: First off, I’ve never seen a black swift personally. Almost nobody has! They’re very rare, canny, and private.

About two years ago, I read a short book about black swifts, and was amazed to discover this mysterious, rare little bird that nests behind waterfalls. So I imagined a young birdwatcher named Noah who thinks he *might* have seen a black swift.

But if Noah was secretly watching the black swifts, was it possible that someone (or something) else was watching Noah? (The story took off from there!)

Melissa Hart: Tell me about your relationship to wood ducks.

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck - Brautente)

Aix sponsa (Wood Duck – Brautente)

Bart King: In 1971, I was living in a small town in California called Sebastopol. It has wetlands on its east border (now known as the Laguna Wetlands Preserve), and wood ducks lived there. As a community project, I helped build and install nesting boxes for the birds. (Wood ducks are unusual in that they perch and nest in trees). Anyone who’s ever seen a wood duck knows how absolutely beautiful they are—and I’ve remained impressed ever since!

Melissa Hart: Let’s say you have a whole weekend free to travel to your favorite spot in the Pacific Northwest. Where will we find you?

Bart King: You’re going to think I’m a freak—but I might just stay home and work. (To explain that a bit, I’ll just add that given what we know about climate change, the idea of driving a car somewhere for fun has become completely “alien” to me.)

Melissa Hart: Are you working on another book now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?

Bart King: The Drake Equation was conceived with a large story arc with a natural halfway point. That point is where the novel ends. If the story attracts enough readers, then I’ll get a chance to finish the tale I envisioned. (Oh please oh please)

I’ve also just finished a funny novel called Three Weeks to Live (Give or Take). Among other things, it’s a “SickLit” satire about a teen girl named Jackie who nearly gets hit by a meteorite in her PE class. (Her tennis partner is not so lucky.) Jackie finds herself becoming a reluctant celebrity—but she may not be around long enough to enjoy her new status.

For more about author Bart King, visit his website at http://www.bartking.net/. And see him in person with me at Powell’s Books, Cedar Crossing, 7 PM Wednesday May 4th.

BartMelissaBooks


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Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide!

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Jake says “two paws up”

I knew I didn’t want to make a traditional book trailer. Typically, a book trailer’s a short video preview of one’s new novel or work of nonfiction or poetry. I’d made one for each of my previous books which, while quirky, followed a narrative about the stories I’d published. But my new book, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, April 2106) is my debut middle-grade novel about a 13-year old boy who’s essentially saved by Pacific Northwest flora and fauna, so I wanted to create a video in celebration of nature–a quick documentary that would entertain viewers and teach them something.

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Enter the banana slug.

I love witty nature documentaries like this one on nutria by Ted Gesing, and funny book trailers like this one by David Gessner. I decided to create an alter ego to highlight one of the weirdest creatures in Oregon’s natural world–Ariolimax columbianus. (Bonus info: As a college freshman, I enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz because their mascot is the banana slug.)

My husband and daughter and I teamed up to create a three-minute documentary/promotional video for Avenging the Owl. I wrote the script and created a storyboard. Jonathan (who’s a professional photographer) filmed, and our kiddo provided sound effects and some physical comedy along with me.

Click here to watch the video, Banana Slug Slip ‘N’ Slide

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Me and Ariolimax columbianus, BFFs

We spent several winter mornings hiking through Mount Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, searching for banana slugs. Finally, we found one in the long grass under Douglas firs. The slug became our movie star for 24 hours, and then we returned it to the spot in which we’d discovered it, right next to the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.

For super-cool information on banana slugs, I relied on a brilliant nature guidebook written by Patricia K. Lichen. All of her titles sit on our living room bookshelf.

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Next up, we’ll be working on a three-minute documentary about owl pellets. Stay tuned, Northwest Nature Nerds, and stay outside!

–Melissa


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Oregon Spring Beach Cleanup Day

In what single place can you find a Russian vodka bottle, a Japanese fishing crate, and a Coke can from the United States?

On the Oregon coast!

This morning, we woke up early and headed to Florence, Oregon to join 4,800 volunteers taking part in Spring Beach Cleanup Day, sponsored by the non-profit organization, SOLVE Oregon. With gloves and buckets and our adventure terrier on a leash, we trekked over a sand dune to a long stretch of chilly beach dotted with other ocean-lovers and their gloves and buckets. Our goal: To remove as much litter as possible from the sand while other groups up and down the coast did exactly the same thing.

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The Adventure Terrier. (Photo by Jonathan B. Smith)

SOLVE’s literature let us know that along with large pieces of debris, we’d need to be on the lookout for tiny bits of plastic that fish and other sea creatures ingest. We crouched in the damp sand and began to pick up fragments of pink and yellow, blue and green among the brown and white shells and rocks. The plastic shards made a beautiful mosaic at the bottom of our bucket (better there than in some poor fish’s stomach).

Almost immediately, we spotted a woman dragging a heavy tangle of netting and crates across the sand. We ran to help; the woman turned out to be Julie Daniel—a passionate sustainability leader and writer who has long been one of our local heroes. She taught us to identify the pelagic barnacles clinging to the side of a big blue bucket, and later, made several more trips from one end of the beach to the other, loaded down with crates and more bucket fragments and rope and netting.

Along with trash, we saw some pretty wonderful creatures on the beach. The terrier chased little white sand hoppers across giant strands of bull kelp. We marveled at tiny blue and white velella velella (see my short essay about them here) dotting the sand and gazed at an immature bald eagle that periodically sailed over our heads, flaunting its six-foot wingspan. We were glad to spare the raptor the agony of ingesting a plastic luncheon.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

For three hours, we dropped rubbish into our bucket, surrounded by families and retired couples and high school students working to fulfill their volunteer hours. We learned that we loved getting outside in the gentle rain to help clean up the beach together. We learned that people discard an unbelievable number of plastic bottle caps. And we realized just how far litter can travel. We can only assume–after checking out the Russian and Japanese trash that washed up on our beach–that our debris washes up on theirs, as well.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

We gathered together around dumpsters in the early afternoon, checking out each other’s hauls before moving on to picnic lunches and ice cream at B.J.s in Florence. At the end of the day, SOLVE sent us an e-mail report noting that volunteers had removed 90,000 pounds of litter from 363 miles of Oregon coastline. Sure, our bucket weighed only about 10 pounds, but we’re thrilled to be a part of the Spring Beach Cleanup.

Want to get involved ? SOLVE sponsors numerous Earth Day projects across the state. And don’t miss the Washed Ashore Gallery in Bandon, dedicated to making art from those interminable bottle caps and other plastic pieces. Visit the gallery and help create massive sculptures of fish and seals and sharks that go on display across the country.

See you on the beach!

 


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Writer Island/Orcas Island

I love traveling with my family—see my new essay in High Country News as proof of how much I adore our adventures together. But once in a while, it’s fun to travel alone—to meditate, silently, on museums or hiking trails or why the train’s three hours late. While no mom is an island (sorry, John Donne), I’m excited to visit one in two weeks.

With Washington author and essayist Ana Maria Spagna, I’ll be teaching the art of compassionate writing for “Writer Island”—a weekend creative writing workshop at Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast on lovely Orcas Island near Seattle.

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I discovered Orcas 18 months ago while on book tour, and stayed overnight at Kangaroo House (named for the kangaroo that used to reside there). The owners made me a gorgeous breakfast and invited me to teach.

I’ve taught writing workshops in bookstores, in hotel ballrooms, in my living room with four cats, and once, in an old ice house–but I’ve never taught at a bed and breakfast. I’m relying on the resident cat for inspiration. (Intrigued? There’s still time to register for Writer Island, if you’re interested!)

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The resident cat, in meditation.

But what if you can’t stand to leave your family behind? Bring them to the island (the ferry ride’s half the fun) and they can head off adventuring while you write. The hike to Mount Constitution in Moran State Park offers intrigue and excitement and really weird mushrooms! Look for banana slugs around the many lakes and climb the lookout tower to check out the historical displays.

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The rock structure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, looks like a medieval watch tower. From the top, you get a hawk’s-eye view of the San Juan Islands and surrounding mountains. I also got a fine look at the back of a red tailed hawk flying below me!

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The view from Lookout Tower . . .

There’s a wonderful bookstore, as well—Darvill’s—perfect for browsing if the weather turns rainy. I loved it so much that I went twice in two days and spent a small fortune.

Can’t make Writer Island this year, but want to meet me and Ana Maria Spagna? We’ll be reading at Lopez Bookshop on Lopez Island with writer Iris Graville on Thursday, February 25th and at Darvill’s on Friday, February 26th. We hope to see you soon!

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Backpacking on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Travelers of all ages rushed with their stuffed backpacks to the top deck of the M/V Malaspina to secure a camping space in the open air.

For years I had gazed at a Sunset Magazine clipping on my bulletin board describing adventurers pitching tents on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. Now, my husband and I were on a three-day voyage along the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Juneau, Alaska.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Since 1951, eleven ferries – the largest of which accommodates 499 passengers – have traveled 3,500 miles of routes along the marine highway. These comfortable ships venture as far south as Bellingham and as far north as Skagway, Alaska, with port stops in between. For many Alaskans, the ferries are a primary source of transportation between small, hard-to-reach coastal towns.

In Bellingham, we filed on board past a pickup truck overflowing with boxes, furniture, and potted plants. I overheard the driver saying that his family couldn’t make a go of it in the lower 48 so they were heading home. They joined us on the marine vessel’s top deck, where passengers were spreading sleeping bags across lawn chairs in the solarium and pitching pup tents outside. (If that doesn’t appeal, travelers can get an inside cabin – small, but warm.)

“You’ll need this,’’ the pickup driver said as he tossed me a giant roll of duct tape, explaining that once the ferry got going, the wind would kick up, threatening to blow tents overboard.

I watched as passengers affixed tent lines to the rough cement with layers of tape and heard horror stories like the one about the guy who had gone below to use the bathroom at midnight and returned in his boxer shorts to find his tent and gear in the sea.

We secured our backpacking tent and went to return the tape. The man shook his head. “Pass it on,’’ he said.

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My man, Jonathan, roughing it on the ferry.

Generosity was infectious as we cruised along British Columbia’s forested shore. Passengers in the solarium shared pretzels, hummus, and cider (alcohol was forbidden on outer decks). Yoga mats appeared; guitars inspired a jam session.

Initially, I worried about seasickness, but the Malaspina sailed smoothly into the sunset. We walked downstairs to check the cafeteria with its tempting smells of salmon and steak, and explored a bustling bar, small movie theater, and glass-walled observation lounge.

Naturalist Brett Calhoun, 20, delivered four talks a day on topics ranging from the mating habits of humpback whales to survival strategies for bear attack. Between lectures, he showed nature films and handed out maps. Periodically, he or the captain announced photo ops over the intercom. “There’s a school of dolphins off starboard,’’ one would say, or “Breaching orca portside.’’

On our first night we worried that noise might keep us awake. But the ferry’s motor rumbled steadily, lulling us to sleep in our down bags on inflatable pads.

We got up at dawn to commune with a scattering of early-risers toting Canons and Nikons. I walked down to the cafeteria, hatted and mittened against the stiff breeze, for a quarter’s worth of hot water to add to my mug of instant coffee. In a protected outdoor alcove, I watched the sun rise over a bucolic coastal town whose residents waved from their balconies.

A passenger from Alabama said this was his first vacation in 30 years. Cradling his camera lens, he gazed at the view, saying, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’’

The pickup driver joined us, jerking his chin at bald eagles perched in a tree. “Dumpster ducks,’’ he sneered at the raptors, so common in his part of the world.

Marine-highway-mapFerry travel inspires an instant camaraderie born of wind and water and periodic port stops. In Petersburg, the captain announced a three-hour layover and passengers headed toward the town’s main drag to share pitchers of Northwest microbrew.

We returned to the Malaspina and stretched out on lawn chairs under a star-studded sky. A teenager who had boarded at Petersburg put up a giant purple dome tent that we nicknamed “the eggplant.’’

“Want to tape it down?’’ I said. He grunted and ducked inside. We crawled into our tent and fell asleep to the ferry’s purr.

At 3 a.m., gusting winds buffeted the tents. Those sleeping outside moved their bags into the solarium or onto the cushioned seats in the observation lounge. I slumbered on.

In the morning my husband recounted the night’s events. He had peered out of our tent to find the eggplant collapsed on top of the teen and had helped to tape it down. “Took us a good hour,’’ he said. “Good thing we had duct tape.’’

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

From May to September the Alaska Marine Highway ferry leaves from Bellingham, Wash., every Friday at 6 p.m. and arrives in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday morning with several port stops along the way. Top deck $326, cabins $308-$533. Bicycles/inflatable kayaks/cars for additional cost. For reservations and maps, visit www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.html.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Interested Interested in taking a writing class with me or coming to a reading of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family? See my July schedWild within coverule, below!

July 17th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Sisters, OR, 6:30 PM. 

July 18th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Redmond, OR, 6:30 PM.
July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. Three spots left–still time to register!