My son runs ahead of my husband and I on a thin path that trails off into mudflats. We’ve parked along a narrow road that stops abruptly in front of a dike. We cannot see the water. But we can see, just barely, the tops of cattails. We have come here, to the Skagit River delta in western Washington, to look for birds. Snowy owls to be exact. We want to take part in what has been called one of the most spectacular and unbelievable wildlife events in decades. Thousands of these birds have been spotted across the northern US with the highest number in the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. We see picture after picture from friends and listen to wild ecstatic exclamations of discovery. All winter we’ve scouted along the river near home in hopes that they might travel inland and we could have our owl moment. But that hasn’t happened so today we travel down downriver to the delta.
A certain number of snowy owls fly south from their Arctic breeding grounds each winter but rarely do so many fly so far. These periodic southern migrations known as irruptions happen when plentiful lemming populations mean a boom in owl births; sometimes three to four times the average clutch. Now, a year later, there is not nearly enough food for them all, so off they go, the mostly young males, south, looking for food. The Skagit River delta is along the Pacific Flyway. Some 30,000 snow geese or more winter here along with 700 trumpeter swans, 1500 tundra swans and thousands of ducks. Most travel from the Alaskan, Siberian, and Scandinavian arctic. Even without the snowy owls it is a spectacular place to be.
My son is running over the flattened grasses along the river channel, waving his seven year old arms and shouting for us. We hear a great blue heron croak and rasp then lift slowly to fly away just above his head. It is just us now. We catch him and give instructions in quietness. We’ll never see any birds this way we moan. My husband wanders off with his camera, long lens and tripod in hopes of finding birds.
My son crawls up onto a fat log, an old growth cedar with a giant root ball still attached, though the roots are bare and grown through with grass. The log has travelled downstream from the mountains. The entire mudflat here is strewn with these logs; remnants of floods and high waters, souvenirs of the grand trees that grace the slopes above us. He stands up and walks along the top of the log. It’s long straight trunk slopes downward into the cattails. I follow. My son bends over and pulls at the browned broken leaves of the cattails.
“What are these?” he asks.
“Cattails” I say. I know he has seen these many time before, along the pond near our house and the river’s edge and here even. This is not our first visit. Lately he asks questions about many things. Sometimes I am hard pressed to answer and realize I take knowledge for granted, or more I think I know things but when pressed to explain I have just as many questions as answers. Today I think I know a thing or two about cattails and tell him the soft brown sausage of fur he is pulling on is really a matt of seeds, millions and millions of seeds. When ripe the long narrow heads disintegrate into cottony fluff from which the seeds disperse by wind.
“Wow” he says and we sit down on the log and tear the brown matted fur apart – making a large pile. He stands up on the log tossing handful after handful of seeds off into the air but he is turned in the wrong direction and the wind pushes the seeds back to settle in his nose and eyes. He sneezes, laughs, and then asks why there aren’t more cattails if he’s just tossed a million seeds out. I start on a long explanation of competition and growing conditions but he stops and asks where the first seed came from. I venture that maybe it drifted up from the south, one generation after another making its way up the coast. No, no, no he says, the first seed, the one that made the first star or planet or whatever and then became a cattail. Oh, I say, that one.
I came from the arctic or my father’s ancestors did; dispersed, as they say, from their colony, away from the parent plant. My grandfather came from Overkalix, Sweden, somewhere along the Kalix River in the region of Norbotten. It is called the heart of Swedish Lapland, 35 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. He was a reindeer herder, married and in his early twenties when his father died of pneumonia. The story goes that after returning late one winter night from herding, cold and exhausted, my great grandfather fell into a deep fever and never awoke. Too many offspring and not enough resources forced the younger males elsewhere, mostly south and across the ocean to the northern US. My grandfather and his young wife went first to New York, and then to a farm on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where they would have nearly a decade of seeming happiness before my father’s mother would die giving birth to their fifth child. The farm was lost and the family drifted to Chicago, destitute, to be split among relatives and orphanages. From there my father would move to Minneapolis and later I would migrate to this place, western Washington.
My mother’s parents sometimes referred to my dad as the “Finn Swede” another word for Lap. I had no idea what this meant and for most of my grown life I did not know I was of Lap, or the less derogatory, Sámi, descent; nor did my father really or his brothers and sisters. It would be a nephew who would start asking questions, who desperately wanted to be something more than a white boy. He would dig into our past, do research, visit Overkalix, find relatives and verify our heritage.
But what does this mean? What does it matter? Sure it explained my father’s brown eyes and jet black hair that never seemed to grey. It explained my aunts’ plumpness. But beyond that did it make our lives different, did it change who we were or what we might become? We learned our story was different than that which we had always been told. We were displaced people. Not just because of a lack of resources and food but displaced by the Swedish and other Scandinavian governments that did not allow Sámi to own land, displaced by prejudice and discrimination. My guess is that we were denied this part of our heritage as our father’s father and mothers and aunts and uncles thought it best to keep things quiet in this new world where people thought they were Swedish or Finnish not Laplander, not something akin to an Indian, who couldn’t own land; who were often thought to be savage and dirty or worse, a nuisance.
It wasn’t so long ago that here in the delta the first white settlers arrived and the diking, dredging and draining began. The local Native American tribes were shuttled off to reservations and the land divvied up and farmed. And it made wonderful farmland. Bumper crops ensued. But it turns out all this diking, dredging and planting was not so great for the delta. Here in the Skagit delta over 75% of its tideland habitat has been lost. This loss has had an impact of a number of species, not least of which is the Chinook salmon.
Now a community works to restore the tideland; a community that is a mix of the ancestors of the settlers and local Native Americans, more recent newcomers and scientists. The restoration is sometimes contentious as dikes are removed and perfectly good farmland destroyed. But the removal of dikes allows the free movement of water, for salt water to once again meet fresh water and turn farmland back to marshland, critical habitat for a number of fish and bird species. Even this does not guarantee the survival of any one species. Evidence implies that it’s not just the Skagit Delta, but all of Puget Sound, that is in peril. There are over forty threatened, endangered or candidate species, nearly 6,000 acres of contaminated sediments and 800 miles of shoreline armored. Over 1,000 new residents settle in the area every year. Our own human irruption has been going on for generations but no one has been coming to watch. No one has been thrilled by the record numbers and the extraordinary natural event that has been occurring.
They say stories are important. Stories are political, whose get told, whose are remembered, and whose are marginalized. In my family the stories seem to have stopped with the migration, on both sides, but especially on my father’s side. There is a loud silence, a place where now questions reside. My ancestors must have suffered for this silence. Leaving behind all they loved, to come to an unknown land, to deny who and what they were, to let go of all that had tethered them to this earth for generations and drift like tattered rags, poor and hungry. This they suffered and sacrificed for us, the next generations, so we could wake up unaware of our supposed dirtiness, our savageness. They worked so very hard so we could wake up one day, part of white middle class America, so very properly assimilated.
Suffering is not unique to my ancestors; human history is a chronology of sorrow. Even the owl irruption has a dark side. The beautiful mysterious white owls we look for today, the owls we are overjoyed to have come our way in record numbers like a celebration, suffer. The marsh hawks and other animals they compete with for food don’t necessarily feel like sharing. Here and there biologist report emaciated owls, food starved birds that have dropped dead in farmers fields. Others have been shot and killed. They are seen as nuisances. And this winter’s snowy owl outbreak, the size of it, the real reason behind it, remains largely a mystery of nature. It might not be simply an overabundance of owls and shortage of lemmings. There may be more to their story and ultimately our story.
I look and see my husband walking toward us, I wave and he joins us. We decide to go further north along the dikes. We return to the car and drive until we find another section of dike and wildlife refuge. Here and there my son scrambles off the dike. We are nearer to the water’s edge here and he looks under rocks for crabs, small crabs that he scoops up into the palm of his hand, and runs toward us, shouting.
As I watch my son with the crabs I wonder if things could have been different, if a different narrative could have unfolded. Is it possible the stories the settlers told themselves, the stories a nation created, their sense of place in the world, rationalized their actions? And it wasn’t all bad; there is much to be proud of here. But the fading marshland, the sickened fish, the polluted waters, maybe all that wasn’t necessary; wasn’t inevitable. Maybe a different story could have unfolded; one that included all the stories, those of the cattail, the fish, humans.
But are stories really so powerful? Do we become the stories we tell? This seems profoundly disturbing as a parent; a terribly burdensome responsibility, this idea that the stories we share with our children will shape their future and thereby the future of the world we all inhabit. How do I know which the stories to tell, which are true? How do I know for sure the truth of things if my own small story, the one I’ve believed all my life, is erroneous?
The truth is we’re nothing but stories. Every minute that passes becomes part of a narrative. How we interpret the events, what we tell ourselves and each other happened and why is what informs our realities – our truths.
My son asks how the story starts – how did the first seed came to be here. The truth of this I don’t know. But the stories are there: the legends, sagas, tales and myths. They are there for us to discover. Gifts if we’ll accept them, acknowledge them. The more stories we pay attention to the deeper, richer and more compassionate our living. The best I can do is be mindful of all that surrounds us. Question the truths I’m told, unravel the ways we are entwined, discover the ways we are similar, the ways we depend on one another. The best place to start is with my story, my son’s story, our families story and sit down beside my son, take a cattail in hand, tear the soft brown down apart, let the wind lift them away, watch the seeds disappear. I’ll say something like “Did you know you come from the Arctic like the snowy owls?” Or maybe, “One cold and snowy night your great, great grandfather died herding reindeer.” It’s a good story really and one that ought to be told.
(This owl irruption took place in 2011/ 2012)