Of men and Mussels

Red-sided shiner: a mussel step-parent.

Red-sided shiner: a mussel step-parent.

One of the best things about Environmental Studies 120 is the field excursions. Each Thursday we venture to some environmentally relevant site—some depressing, others inspiring. Ice Harbor Dam. Hanford. River restoration projects.

Last week my 24 students and I descended upon the tribal lamprey and mussel restoration laboratory located at the Walla Walla Community College Water Center.

This tidy, high-ceilinged room of recirculating pumps, water filters, and clear, blue fish tanks, each bearing a single, lonely minnow that kept company with its reflection, would hardly seem a place for epiphany.

But it was.

The students, who have been practically brainwash about the lore and value of lamprey, had hoped to see one. But there were no adults this time of year. Instead, they got a quick peak at a batch of tiny, nocturnal lamprey larva who all liked to be in the dark and would be traumatized if enough light was let into their tank for a clear view. Students were disappointed. Lamprey lost some of their glamor.

“And over here,” said Alexa Maine, fisheries biologist and tour guide, “is our brood mussel. She is a brown pearlshell mussel. Her name is Lucy.” Alexa pointed to a clear tank that contained what liked like a white coffee cup with a dark mussel shell propped up inside. The shell exuded a network of delicate filaments that waved with each of Lucy’s watery exhalations.

“How long do mussels live?” one student asked, probably hoping that the answer would be pretty ordinary and we could all go home.

“About 200 years.” Alexa said.

You could have heard a pin drop, and Lucy’s exhalations seemed palpable.

Two Hundred Years?!! We were hooked. These small, unprepossessing, innocuous , ugly brown shellfish lived long enough that some might have actually seen the real live Lewis and Clark wade through their streams.

Mussels, it turns out, are not only long-lived, but also play important roles in the early lives of lamprey and salmon. They filter algae and remove contaminants from streams. (You wouldn’t want to eat a really old mussel”, Alexa noted. “They’ve been filtering and concentrating pollutants for a very long time.” ) They transform industrial fertilizers into ecosystem/fish-friendly and tasty nutrients. Lucy’s species, Margaritifera margaritifera, the brown pearlshell mussel, is the longest lived. Others, that may live only 75 – 100 years, include Anodonta –a lighter colored and slightly larger mollusk.

But mussels are vanishing. A shellfish survey compiled over the last 15 years of walking river bottoms on the Umatilla Reservation, (CTUIR) has found only 73 (seventy three) Margaritifera mussels (the dark brown, long lived species) in the entire river. There may be others in the headwaters of tributaries. No-one knows.

So the tribal (CTUIR—Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation) program at the Water Center is an effort to change this. To bring mussels back, along with their companion species—lamprey. Lucy was evidently fertilized by another, unknown male (Single mothers should not be disparaged.) Her every exhalation now pumps out eggs that will grow rapidly to a tiny larva. Those tiny larvae will use the clamping power of their shells to attach themselves to fish—generally to its gills. In the real world, the fish would transport them to new places, sites where a future mussel colony might flourish. There is more adventure in a young mussel’s life than you might imagine.

But here in the lab, instead of their preferred host–a juvenile salmon–the mussel larvae will be offered a much more limited ride on a lonesome dace or red-sided shiner in a blue aquarium tank. Then, after 6 or 7 months, they will drop off the fish, and establish a new home in a gravelly or sandy stream bottom. Conveniently, this timing also lets them exit their quarters before the host salmon gets serious about its migration to the Pacific. At least the baby mussels who hitch a blue-aquarium-bound-ride on a dace or shiner have little to worry about in this respect.

To count only 73 of these long-lived mussels in an entire river, from head to mouth, is appalling. It suggests –or maybe demonstrates — that we are not paying attention to the little things that hold our ecosystems together. Hopefully, that is changing, thanks to the Umatilla Reservation tribal fisheries. I’m rooting for all of Lucy’s descendants.

The ancients among us

Umatilla tribal member and fisheries biologist Aaron Jackson measures an adult lamprey that is migrating over Three Miles Falls on the Umatilla River.

Umatilla tribal member and fisheries biologist Aaron Jackson measures an adult lamprey that is migrating over Three Miles Falls on the Umatilla River.

One of the most uncharismatic animals in the Pacific Northwest also ranks among the most remarkable and most threatened. The Pacific Lamprey (Lampetra tridentate)– is one of the most ancient fish on the planet. And its dwindling numbers are about to vanish from our rivers.

The adult Pacific lamprey grows to about two feet in length. It is an unremarkable, boring, olive-drab green-brown. It has holes in its head/neck that function as gills, and although technically a fish, it lacks scales or bone. It makes do with a slick, mucusy skin and soft, flexible cartilage. This native fish has remained virtually unchanged since it first appeared in the Devonian period, 360 million years ago. The Pacific Northwest was then a string of volcanic islands far from Idaho’s shore. The continent has changed radically. The Pacific lamprey has not. It is as ancient as the fabled Coelacanth. Yet we know little about these natives.

Pacific lamprey are parasitic feeders in the ocean But unlike their rapacious and destructive cousins –the east-coast-based sea lamprey that is invasive into the Great Lakes–Pacific lamprey never kill their host fish. They feed briefly, and then drop off and swim free, attaching again only when they need more sustenance.

These ancient, seemingly drab fish share the anadramous lifestyle of more glamorous salmon. Pacific lampreys spawn in fresh water. The newly hatched lamprey spend up to seven years as larvae, feeding on algae while they rear in our streams. Then, like salmon, the young lamprey migrate to the sea. But once they get there, we don’t really know where they go. Fishermen in Hawaii have reported finding them on tuna they caught near the Big Island. Pacific lamprey may hitch rides far into the ocean. Or they may seek fish more endemic to coastal waters. We are just not sure. We don’t know how long Pacific lamprey remain in the Pacific before returning far upstream to spawn in the headwaters, though it would seem to be a year or two. But even if you are hitching a ride on the tuna express, it takes a long time to get to Hawaii and back.

The downfall of lamprey comes in their migration upstream. Salmon can navigate the rushing waters of fish ladders. Lamprey cannot. Instead of swimming up the ladder, lamprey must use their circular mouths to attach to the concrete sides via suction, and literally inch their way up the ladder. But when they encounter one of the thousands of right-angle bends in the ladder, they simply cannot get their mouths into a configuration to loosen on one side and re-attach on the other around the 90-degree bend. Pacific lamprey cannot make the turn. They are swept back down the fish ladder, and like Sisyphus, must try again. Eventually, they simply run out of energy and die. (Lamprey do not eat during their upstream migration. They rely on the fat they have stored up over their time in the ocean. Once their fat reserves are gone, they are done.)

This year we have a record run of Fall Chinook and Steelhead.—and more wild fish than hatchery. As of today, 1,300,000 fall Chinook salmon have navigated upstream through Bonneville Dam. (Yes, that’s one million three hundred thousand.) and 24,000 lamprey made it as far as Bonneville’s fish counting window. McNary Dam, 150 miles upstream, counted about 500,000 Chinook. And 1500 lamprey. On the Snake River, once a lamprey stronghold, only 19 Pacific lamprey were able to crawl past the Lower Granite Dam fish counter’s bright lights (lamprey are nocturnal, and passing through a counting window’s lights is traumatic.) and rushing water, 300 miles from the Pacific.

These ancient, elongate, odd, and now rare fish are important to PNW tribes and tribal culture. They provide important food sources for young salmonids, and many other components of PNW headwater streams. And while we are starting to recover wild salmon, we are loosing the much-needed lamprey.

The Corps of Engineers is slowly modifying some of its fish ladders-installing rounded metal flanges at sharp corners so lamprey can inch around the bends. The tribes are starting rearing programs, and programs to collect lamprey at Columbia River dams and truck them upstream to tributaries for their final celebratory spawn. (Lamprey are not as fussy as salmon about returning to their natal stream to spawn.) There is hope that we can save this remarkable, ancient, ancestral fish. I’m rooting for them.

See: http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2013/06/with_new_ladders_at_columbia_r.html

The wisdom of an old dog.

MeeshaDieselYesterday, while sorting through (and discarding) old files, I found Meesha’s Humane Society adoption papers. They were dated March 6, 1999, her temporary name was “Murphy” and she was an estimated 6 months old. Even back then, she was deliberate and well-organized–both qualities that I lack. We have complimented each-other well during the years.

Today, she moves slowly, each step measured by its need. There are the medications of canine old age–Rimadyl and tramadol–to control pain and ensure sound sleep. But each morning she’s there to greet me with a hearty tail-wag. And when I return from work, she admonishes me for my absence. Every day, every moment are treasures for us both. She views Diesel as a nice, though somewhat addled, buffoon. I am more her staff than her owner. In Meesha’s mind (and mine) there has always been the question of who owns who.

Meesha often has the upper hand. She is, for example, quite clear about when it is time to go to bed. This applies not just to her, but to me as well. (Diesel is a lost cause in this respect. He would chase frisbees all night if he could and she has simply given up the hope of ever getting him organized.) The nightly routine begins almost on the dot of 9 PM with a demand for her evening pills which she thinks of as treats because they are concealed in cheese. (This is perhaps the only instance of my out-witting her.) There is a different, squeaky noise that says “I need to go out.” By 10 PM the squeaks have changed into louder squeaks and mutterings — a demand to turn out the lights and Go To Bed. This rarely actually happens until after 11, but in Meesha there is always optimism that her staff will learn new habits.

And in her persistent optimism, there’s something to be learned. Persistent optimism is perhaps our best path to motivate change, both on small scales and large. I really DO go to bed earlier than I would without the squeaks and mutterings from the vicinity of the dog bed. Maybe some day I’ll experiment with going to bed by 10. Or 9. And this applies to bigger scales as well. We have seen it in the past-perhaps best exemplified by the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s and especially Martin Luther King. (I Have a Dream comes to mind.) (I am pretty sure Meesha could envision herself on the podium at the Lincoln Memorial addressing the throng, too.)

What we seem to lack today is a Meesha with the vision and the correct squeaks and mutterings to move us toward an optimistic future. One in which rising temperatures, rising seas, rising floods, and rising poverty recede. This is far more complex a task than getting me to bed before 10 PM. To expect one unifying voice is perhaps too much to ask. But we can listen to, and become, small voices. Meesha is willing to provide lessons to anyone who’s interested.

Seeking imperfection

Fledgling great horned owl--a fellow fan of imperfection.

Fledgling great horned owl–a fellow fan of imperfection.

I live in an enviable setting–a remodeled farm house amid a grove of cottonwoods and maples, surrounded by the rolling open wheat and alfalfa fields of Washington’s Palouse. The landscape bespeaks freedom. Room to run, to stroll, to escape the everyday cares of work. Yet except for the grove of towering trees that are entering their dotage years, I am more confined here than I would be in downtown Walla Walla. Or Seattle. Or maybe even Manhattan.

Across the road, where alfalfa and wheat stretch to the skyline, discipline rules. No weeds contaminate these crops, though an occasional, ambitious kochia or Russian thistle raises a defiant green head above a uniformly tawny wheatfield. Crops, understandably, must be pure to be profitable. This purity is achieved through chemicals, and therein lies the problem, at least for me.

Although my neighbors might happily provide permission to walk their farmland access roads, I would prefer to get my morning exercise in a more herbicide and pesticide-free setting. Their perfectly groomed, weed-free monocultures are profitable, but not habitable.

So, instead, the dogs and I amble around in the little cottonwood grove, which we share with barn owls, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, kestrals, magpies, flickers, brewers blackbirds, starlings, robins, and a few chickadees. The cottonwood grove is not well managed. It includes a few locust trees and big silver maples, neither of which are native. Limbs have fallen on the ground, or dangle, partly broken. The trees are undisciplined. Above all, they are imperfect. But they provide habitat for a huge variety of birds, rodents, and of course, a woman and her dogs. Diversity is hardly rampant here, but there’s a lot more of it than you’ll find across the road.

As any ecologist knows, diversity and imperfection are the engines that drive evolution. That drive survival. Plenty of data argue that disciplined agricultural monocultures are detrimental to both. What I’ve learned from my time in the imperfect grove is that imperfection is inviting. Aesthetic. Intriguing. Even mysterious. That it has tremendous advantages over the perfect for almost everything.

And I’m hoping that includes me. Perhaps those qualities that I see, and that my peers may see, as imperfections, might actually be advantages. OK, there are plenty of physical flaws. We won’t go into those. But quietness to the point of reclusiveness? Maybe. A penchant for collecting saddles? A reluctance to eradicate all the spiders that have made the exterior of my house their homes? The list goes on. Who knows.

What I do know is that I am happier in the grove of imperfection. It’s more interesting. I have more friends there. It’s my preferred habitat. Bring it on.

The Storm

Storm Last Chance Road It was like living in the 1930’s. Or maybe Lawrence of Arabia. Last evening a storm rode into town atop a ferocious wave of wind and dust. It’s the third such storm in two years. They appear with bands of wind-stripped clouds far transcending the normal –but still ominous– mammatus clouds of more usual cumulo-nimbus.
This storm, like the previous one only two weeks ago, had a wall of wheat-field dust and 70 mph winds as its advance scouts. Then a sudden down-pour, just sufficient to clean off the dust that it had spread on cars, pickups, houses, horses, and cows. Then stillness.
The temperature dropped from 93 to 73 in about three minutes.
But unlike most “cold-front” storms, this on brought only temporary respite from the heat. Today the temperatures will climb back into the high 80s. Tomorrow the 90s.
Tuesday night more storms are forecast.
Is this the new climate? Thunderstorms that are dust-storms in disguise? Or dust-storms that pose as thunder-storm cells? The seasonal transition from summer to fall, from hot to cool, seems difficult this year. Change is never easy. In a climate-challlenged time, it may be more difficult than ever.
Storm Last Chance Road

The feeling of Empty

I live what mManti La Sal Abajos Deep Canyon from Road 95AXXxx-3583ost people would consider a full and fulfilling life. A three-year-long, and counting, teaching gig at a prestigous college. A nice house in the country. A horse to train and ride. Two great dogs. Serious work in photography. The list goes on.

And yet, I feel empty and uninspired, and I struggle each day to do simple things, and mostly, to find purpose. A mission. Something to produce that is larger than I am. Perhaps I’m reaching an age where legacy counts, and yet there is nothing lasting that I have built. What is worse, each time I try to find purpose I run up against a wall. There seems no purpose, and no energy available for any worthy cause, whether doing the dishes or saving the planet.

I am lost in depression’s fog, and despite Zoloft and another pill that I cannot spell, and perhaps don’t want to admit to taking, there seems no door or window to let in a beam of light to follow.

The world in general seems following the same path. (This doesn’t help me one bit.) Global Warming. Rising seas. Acid oceans. Deafened whales. Extinctions. Death. Next door, my neighbor /landlord has a lovely border collie that he keeps in a horse-stall, without affection or companionship. Tippy barks and cries all night. It is not good for sleep.

So the search for some tiny beam of light, something just leaking through the bottom of the door jam or filtering through the curtains, some path to follow that can lead me, lead us, out of a dreary existence that seems destined for another Cormack McCarthy novel, goes on. We  (I) have too long dwelt on woe. It would be nice to work on some positive vision. some more evanescent destiny.

I think my greatest block, the thing that keeps the doors chained tightly shut, the light extinguished, is fear more than depression. The idea of taking on the world’s problems, of mounting some degree of criticism, or of finding that new path into the dark woods (Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey) creates a dark, tight knot in my stomach, a reason to back away from action, a reason to embrace the lethal status quo. Depression and fear are the chicken and the egg. Hard to say which comes first. Or last.

It is time to move forward — not yet to slay dragons, but to draw back the window curtain, to peer under the door or through the keyhole, and see what lies beyond as a vision of light.  Something small but positive. Something to leave for others, even if it is only a path.