Seeds are Everywhere

I had a teacher once who told me “seeds are everywhere.” They just don’t take root everywhere.

Working on the Tongass, living on Lingít Aaní (Tlingit, pronounced “KLING-it”, Land) has meant many things. I have witnessed how deeply rooted harvesting and foraging is in Alaskan culture. I collected seeds and learned that this ancient practice is one that joins science and art. I grew to understand how variable a plant’s phenology can be — how unpredictable and essential an act it is to pass on genotypes, pass on restoration, pass on seeds through generations.

Seed collection is an intimate act. Over the past months, I worked largely on the microscopic level — leaning through understory to discover the smallest of berries or fixing my eyes on the ground to notice the smallest of flowers, straining my eyes through a hand lens or cleaning seeds by hand invites you to zoom in even closer. With some plants, like the pungent and prickly Oplopanax horridus (Devil’s Club), this intimacy is difficult to achieve, often requiring two people to get close to the plant — one to climb up high and bow the toppling head of berries down near enough for the second person to reach up through the spikes to strip the berries into a bucket. Days collecting Devil’s Club left us with torn clothing and smelling of celery and rainforest. We took, and so did they.

This intimacy extends beyond the collection and into the entire process. During the planning and scouting phases, we paid multiple visits to the populations we anticipated collecting from, tracking their phenology and guessing when they would go to seed. Many times, we thought we had it planned and predicated exactly right, that we were tuned into their growth and timeline. Then when we arrived to collect from them, they’d fooled us — gone to seed within a span of a few days or a week. Their seeds were not for us.

I found that small acts of intimacy were present all over the Tongass, including interactions between strangers in town. The District Office here sits on the rock cliffs above Bar Harbor, along with the bunkhouse. I spent many evenings on these docks, growing accustomed to the wobbly walk and coming to know the names of certain resident boats and fishermen. One evening, a stranger handed me a bouquet of fresh herbs — English thyme, rosemary, Japanese kale. He reached down to collect the herbs for this spontaneous gift from the variety of potted plants trailing off the side of his boat as he paired down his deck garden for the colder months. We exchanged smiles as the plants passed from one hand to the other. I shared my gratitude.

This is not the first time I am writing about gifts during this internship. In an earlier post, I spoke about the delight of seeds, how they are like small gifts from the earth. In my first post, I wrote about abundance. I have found both here on the Tongass — gifts and abundance.

Yet this season’s seed collection comes at a time where native plants and their seeds are growing increasingly scarce, removed from the land by people, infrastructure, hot and widespread wildfire, eroding streams and drying wetlands. I witness abundance; I also think about the gradual loss of habitat and native plants on this planet.

This is why we collect. Native seeds are gifts for the future.

I was introduced to so many plants while I was here. Many were strangers who I gradually developed a relationship with. I tracked their phenology, gathered their fruits, cleaned their seeds. They signaled cues of growth, gave up juicy berries that painted my jeans in smears of red and purple, offered their seeds.

We collected 1,577,772 seeds, that is, 17 pounds of seed from 17 species and 23 populations, ranging across southeast Alaska’s rainforest, lakeside, alpine, and muskeg ecosystems. Six of these populations will be stored locally at Ketchikan Misty Fjords Ranger District. The remaining 17 we labeled, packaged and shipped to Bend Seed Extractory.

We were able to restore and recover 2 miles of salmon habitat on two streams. Some of the seeds we collected this season will return to those stream banks in years to come. It feels good to know where a handful of the seeds we collected are going.

We collaborated with other departments, expanding our experience beyond Botany and seed collection. With Timber, we visited micro- and macro- timber harvest areas and surveyed for rare plants. With Recreation, we hiked-in wooden planks to repair a bridge and helped maintain local trails. With Fish and Wildlife and Ketchikan Indian Community, we dug trenches and hauled logs into stream beds with winches, blocks, and tackles. With Archeology and Landscaping, we hiked into cabin-building sites and assessed the area for archeological evidence, probing the ground for charcoal and remnants from the past.

This exposure to other specialties in the Forest Service was eye opening and so much fun. It also interested me to think about the diversity of habitats and species seed collection will impact. Sometimes it is seed that will go into the soil of a major bird migration route or a seed mix specifically formulated for riparian areas (one of the goals through seed collection here on the Tongass). Sometimes it is seed going into steam banks, supporting soil stabilization and spawning salmon. Other times, the seed goes toward grouse habitat, maybe even city parks.

Seeds will be everywhere.

Scouting in the clouds on Upper Silvis trail

Alaska, I love your silvery blue mornings. Your fog and rain. I love the smell of red cedar. I love watching the shore pines bathe in the wideness of your sky. I love your islands shrouded in clouds that break up the ocean’s vastness. The bouncing, soft ground of moss beneath my feet. The eagles, bears, salmon, deer. How the people here live closely to the land — hunting, foraging, fishing, gathering. The pace of life in Ketchikan slows over winter and expands in the summer. Locals almost hibernate, before spending their summers out at sea or, in our case, in the forest.

I have learned, while being here that humans can live in pace with the seasons. And some of our greatest teachers in this lesson are extraordinary adapters: the plants. Their chance of survival is so slim, conditions are varied, places are packed, and so many of our current land practices adversely impact their ability to take root.

Seed are everywhere. And sometimes they do take root. They are small, but meaningful. And so, we collect.

I have completely fallen in love with the process, the plants, and the people.

Thank you, Alaska, for your many lessons. I will carry your seeds with me, everywhere.

Gales, Gulls and Goodbyes

Gale arrived this week — a strong wind with speeds below a storm but above breeze — 39 to 54 mph. Ketchikan pulls on a blanket of fog, now a sleepy town with longer nights and greying days of mist and fog and rain. When the sun does come out, the sky is a cold blue — the air piercing, but the sunlight warm and welcoming.

Refuge Cove at sunset

The rainforest is wet and dark, and speckled with fall colors. Devil’s Club exchange their bright green leaves for orange-tipped umbrellas and Salmonberry branches, once dripping with yellow-orange-red berries are almost bare.

Misty rainforest, Perseverance Trail

Field work is drawing to a close along with summer. But Mather and I recently spent a day out in the field with the Recreation Crew, repairing and reconstructing a bridge on a local trail. We hoisted heavy packs onto our backs and hiked to the bridge site. We used pry bars, sawszalls and hammers to remove the old, decaying planks, and replaced them with new, treated ones.

We hiked in 30 wooden planks on our backs. I fell through 1 — slipped straight through the boards and to the ground. The two crew leads pulled me up out of the bridge, all of us, laughing and laughing.

Hiking out the old, decaying planks

Another field day this month drew multiple departments together, completing surveys for potential cabin building sites. We walked several different sites, taking plant inventories, with an eye out for rare plant species. The wildlife biologist looked for eagle nests and rare birds, and considered the possible impacts to salmon, bears, wolves, and deer in the area. The landscape architect took note of the soil and depth and thought about accessibility to and from the site. The recreation management specialist addressed the water table and the amount of flat ground available to them for building the cabin, while the forester assessed the stands of trees and the timber demand. The whole day teemed with friendly debates and conversation.

Just before we all left, we walked through a marshland that brimmed with sprawled, decaying bodies of salmon, out to the inlet. Where the ocean flooded in, a flock of short-billed gulls lifted in one swift group up and off the water, calling and calling.

Wildlife Biologist, Ben Limle, looking through binoculars at a flock of short-billed gulls

Complimenting the new wintry chill in the air, the forest harbors another touch of fall these days. The color red. The huckleberries.

Vaccinium parviflorum (Red Huckleberry) carpets the forest floor, but few are still holding onto their berries. To finish out what will likely be our final collection, we ventured off trail, and up in trees to discover the ripest huckleberry patches. Many were tall and required us to gently bow the stems toward us to pluck their berries. Stellar’s Jays flitted around my head as I reached up to collect the small, blushing berries.

Vaccinium parviflorum (Red Huckleberry)

Seed collection is not the only thing coming to a close. This is my field partner’s final week.

Mather, I want to thank you for the following:

  • Confirming my estimations were often wrong
  • Doing math and counting seeds with impressive concentration
  • Delighting in the smell of decaying salmon while collecting seeds 🙂
  • Making me laugh
  • Being a truly excellent field partner, hiking pal, and friend
Mather taking pictures of plants on the Deer Mountain Traverse

A River’s Restoration

This month: a restoration story. One of water, salmon and seeds.

Seed collection is a necessary step toward restoration. But this month, we partook in another type of restoration. For one week, we partnered with the larger Tongass NF Fisheries crew and Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC), diverting and re-building a stream.

Hauling logs into a stream with the Tongass NF Fish and Wildlife crew and Ketchikan Indian Community employees.

Toward the beginning of our season, I asked Val (our lovely supervisor), what restoration meant to her. She told me she sees restoration as a two-fold concept: 1. to repair damage we have done in our past, and 2. to enhance and advance natural processes that will eventually occur without human aid. This month’s stream restoration project channeled these perspectives into practice, thinking 100 years down-the-line.

Our large group of people, adorned head to foot in waders or their Grundens and Xtratufs, spent lots of time with and in the river and mud that week. We hauled over 10 logs into the stream, wrapping rope around trees and using blocks to weave the rope through and then drive the logs in. We dug over 10 trenches to place those logs, diverting stream flow and re-establishing the s-curves of the water’s movement.

It was empowering work. Rejuvenating and physically exhausting. It was an excellent group of people. And it was a beautiful thing to be able to see the fruits of our labor. It was also humbling to see the force and capacity of water, to acknowledge that we can dig trenches and place logs and watch the sediment fill, but the river will do its own work to restore, to re-story. This is a river’s restoration story, we are just the hands to help in the process.

(And in a couple of years, hopefully we have a seed-mix to spread along the stream in the aftermath).

Planting Rubus spectabilis (Salmonberry) along the stream following restoration work
KIC and Botany crews looking at tiny salmon fry found in the riverbed days after restoration work

All season, I have watched salmon runs swim upstream — swaying bodies moving in company with others against a strong current. While out collecting seeds at Ward Lake, (a common trail and accompanying campground area near town), mostly Spirea splendens (Rosy Spirea) and Carex aquatilis (Water Sedge), you could smell them before you could see them: rotting salmon on the lake shore. When I’d look down in the water and see their carcasses beginning to give way, I’d whisper: “good job. you made it.” Their struggle is all at once inspiring and heart-wrenching. As I bent down to strip seeds along the lake shore, I listened to the beating rain and their relentless splashing.

Salmon swim upstream from the ocean to spawn

In late August, Mather and I backpacked the Deer Mountain Traverse, an alpine trail covering 18 miles and spreading along four peaks and a rocky ridge-line. Cassiope mertensiana (White Mountain Heather) and Vaccinium ulinignosum (Bog Blueberry), bursting with fruit, hung low to the ground. Arnicas and Gentians towered over them, tickling our ankles. I don’t believe I will ever get over how small and mighty alpine plants are. Our legs were tired, and our lungs exhausted. And even up there, nestled in the high mountains, water prevailed. Snow fields tapered into snow melt lakes and waterfalls funneled water down to lower lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater, ocean.

Alpine lakes, muskeg bottoms, puddles on pavement after it rains, the breeding grounds of rivers, and the ocean, broad and spreading. Water is everywhere.

Snow melt in southeast Alaska’s alpine

Seeds of Their Own Making

Ross Gay, in his collection of essayettes, The Book of Delights, ruminates on the nature of delight. He believes delight is a type of invitation to notice the things and events happening and unfolding around us, and find joy in their spontaneity and sorrow, their strangeness and their beauty.

Which is to say… seeds are here! Across the Tongass, plants are teeming with seeds of their own making. And we are taking some of them. Collecting seeds is a delight, which means it is about paying attention. It is also a meticulous and at times, tedious, act. For this post, I will revel in this delight: the detailed beauty of fruits, capsules and pods, and their accompanying seeds.

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) is an elusive forb that often stands alone or in smaller groups, making it difficult to find an extensive enough population to collect from. But, early this month, we encountered a steady group of them on the side of a freeway on Prince of Wales Island. Only a few bowing red and yellow heads remained — most had hardened and browned and were full of tiny black seeds. These seeds became our first collection.

Blueberries, (Vacinium sp.) with their sour notes of blue, are packed with 20-30 seeds per berry. There are subtleties in the varieties of blueberry — the bog and dwarf blueberry are smaller, and sweeter than these traditional, larger wild blueberries. Vacinium alaskensis are abundant in this forest, pops of blue and purple carpeting the forest floor. And they were our second collection.

Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) keep their seeds close. They go to seed so quick, it is easy to miss the event: tiny white clusters of flowers that, when blooming, look like mini constellations of stars mirrored onto the forest floor, elongating into seed pods, each filled with sometimes three or five, but more often one, single black seed.

By and large, this month was berry month.

Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) are bright, flat umbrellas of green. Their stems are full of sharp spikes, and they balance large triangles of red berries atop their leaves. Bears relish them; we take a few from every plant we can get close to.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) pack themselves tightly into stream systems and along roads and trails. This month, droplets of plump berries hung from their branches, coming in colors gold, red, or sometimes a combination of both. They taste like water, but bitter too.

And the Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) — the most vibrant shade of purple-pink you will ever see, brightening the road systems and stitching up the slopes of tall mountains. We collected their seed pods just this morning — sleek and slim green-bean-like capsules, pink on top with a green underside, each filled with up to 8,000 seeds. Abundance.

Stink Current, Ribes bracteosum, leaves your hands smelling of lemon and mint. These delicacies became our most recent collection.

It is clear that each plant and their seeds are exceptionally designed to work for them, their morphology, their pollinators, their eventual dispersal. Everything about them is carefully and thoughtfully designed. They produce seeds of their own making.

Fireweed; Chamaenerion angustifolium
Stink Current; Ribes bracteosum

After harvesting comes drying, sorting and cleaning the seeds for storing. This is a tedious process, one that is also all about detail and care (especially when everything is soaking wet!).

Our seed collection work station in the District Station’s Warehouse. Sign lists our collected species (by nickname) as of August 1st.
Spreading out Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus), to dry.
Sorting out and cleaning Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) and Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) seeds.

As seed collectors, we are one mode of transport, one of these plants’ dispersal units. In the process, we try to ensure that we are leaving enough behind for the bears, for the birds, for the plant’s own survival and promise of future generations. If we take, we must also give back.

Seeds are gifts from the earth. They are plentiful, but they are also limited — a resource we collect in the case of needed restoration, which is also plentiful.

Joy and sorrow. Seeds are delightful.

On a walk down a trail at the end of a long day, exiting dense stands of red cedar and western hemlock, just entering a muskeg, there, delicately dropped in the middle of the trail: a speckled eagle’s feather. An offering. A delight.

A juvenile Bald Eagle’s feather

Finding the Rare in the Abundant

In southern Alaska, Colorado’s aspens and canyons are replaced by yellow and red cedar, by spruce and vast ocean. Utah’s diverse plant life – small geniuses in the art of conserving water – exchange places with green ferns and mossy forest floor, well-acquainted with rain and hungry for speckled light that dances slantways through dense canopy. Here, in southern Alaska, bald eagles attach to telephone wires, and locals are accustomed to the great bird’s presence. Bears follow your scent and encourage you to maintain conversation between field partners, to keep your eyes alert and to pay attention. Boats are about as common as cars for transport, and the concept of vast and grand exceed their common definitions.

Working on the Tongass National Forest this past month has meant a lot of different things. My field partner and I spent many days scouting and vouchering at potential seed collection sites, and there we collected data on the various native plant species in the area – their phenology, their population density, when we can anticipate they will go to seed. We helped out on a stream restoration crew, jamming logs into stream banks to restore meanders and a diversity of water-flow and attempt to build back habitat for spawning salmon. On one Saturday, I helped local kids paint imprints of salmon on blank T-shirts. On other days, we spent time training in safety protocols and herbicide use. We visited timber-harvest sale areas and while they looked at the trees, we looked at the understory with an eye out for anything rare, or lacking in abundance.

Identifying grasses with the larger Tongass National Forest Botany crew.
Lunch with the stream restoration crew.

While doing so, I have learned several things:

  • Plants, being immobile, have one of the broadest ranges of living beings.
  • Muskegs are the definition of the abundance of the small.
  • Skunk cabbage can grow taller than me, and spread wider too.
  • While plants in the desert might be smart in the conservation of water, plants in the rainforest know how to use water to their full advantage.
  • Rare plants, when you find them, feel like the most precious thing in the world.
  • Everything, that is, everything… is slippery.
Youth-on-age; Tolmiea menziesii.
Red Columbine; Aquilegia canadensis.

Each of these lessons stem from impactful experiences, yet perhaps the most impactful moment for me on the job this month occurred when we were conducting rare plant surveys and monitoring projects. While attending a forest-wide botany training on Prince of Wales Island – a remote four-hour ferry ride from our home Ranger District in Ketchikan – one of these rare species we were surveying and monitoring for was Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens). Often only showing a small, lush leaf or two, the elegant and plump lady’s slipper hides among large ferns and nestles in muskegs. She revels in the company of grasses and is what we call a “roadside rare.” How strange that such a scarce plant tends to grow best along the marginal edge of gravel roads. There are only four documented clusters of this variety of Cypripedium parviflorum on the Tongass NF. We located all four. At each site, we had multiple sets of eyes scanning every inch of ground for stems – for they are not only rare, but difficult to find. The first three sites were relatively abundant and some were in full flower, but the specimen we found at the fourth site was in poor shape. Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) reaching heights of four or five feet nearly covered the entire plant, and tree debris from a recent brushing procedure almost buried the few stems that were left.

Surveying for Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens).

The leaves were visibly chewed through and drooping. The chances of this fourth plant surviving seemed slim. I found myself questioning what to do. How do we choose to manage our forests? How do we decide to put our resources toward doing everything we can to attempt bringing this small cluster of stems to thrive again or acknowledge that we might not help this one, and to divert our work elsewhere? Conservation and land management is a complex task. It means making decisions about living beings other than yourself, while also managing for and understanding the impacts of your own species. It means taking the time to find the rare in the abundant, so that the ones not often spoken for might be.

Yellow lady’s slipper; Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens.