Clark’s Nutcrackers

The Clark’s Nutcrackers arrived in Twisp a week or two ago.  They always show up at this time of year, heralding the end of summer with their exuberant, slightly harsh cries, and I’m always glad when they do.

The Nutcrackers live a life-and-death dance with Whitebark Pines, trees that fringe the northern timberline.  Like Henry Adams’s archangel, Whitebarks love heights—and they like it cold.  They dwell on islands in the sky, mountain tops where cold and snow dominate the ecosystem—islands that are becoming ever smaller as temperatures rise and warm air laps at the island shores.  Widely spaced and slow growing, they’re vulnerable to the rapid changes that currently characterize our earth—and everything closely connected with them is vulnerable as well.

The Whitebarks and the Nutcrackers are close.  The Whitebarks feed the Nutcrackers, seeds rich in fat that provide one of the densest sources of nutrients available at high altitude.  The Nutcrackers, in turn, distribute seeds—they hide some, drop a few, leave a litter on the landscape that slowly, over decades, turns into trees bearing more seeds.

It turns out that a lot of other animals are closely connected with the Whitebarks, as well—bears and squirrels, woodpeckers and chickadees, and a host of other species.  Whitebarks are considered both a keystone species and a foundation species, critical to animal survival and to ecosystem function.

Here in Twisp, the nutcrackers hang out in the park just north of my house, flitting between the big old Ponderosa Pines, talking among themselves.  Last Saturday I looked out my window and saw something else—a bouncy house thrusting its bright plastic spires into the canopy.  I couldn’t help wondering:  “For shiny amusing baubles like this we’re destroying habitat and undermining ecosystems?  I’d so much rather see birds!”

Then I found out that the bouncy house was part of an anti-bullying fair—surely a good cause.  I’m glad we live in an era when men are joining together to stamp out our senseless cruelty toward one another.  Like so many conundrums of the modern age, this one has no easy answer.

I like to think I’ve made peace with change—its necessity; its inevitability; its value.  Life is about change—I know that, and I appreciate the bigger dance of which we are all a part—a dance that change—movement—fuels.  And, that said—I’ll miss the Nutcrackers, if there comes a year when they don’t arrive.  I’ll miss the Whitebarks if they lose their foothold in the high mountains.


I specialize in writing about land use, natural resources, horticulture, and community…various aspects of how we live on and relate to the land.

Here in North Central Washington, fire and its management has been at the forefront of our attention for the last few years.  A couple of decades ago, endangered species listings brought salmon recovery to prominence, and although it’s less in the news these days, it’s still underway, shaping the landscape, the community, and the local economy.

While those topics shape our tiny communities, we’re also forging bonds with each other, learning to live together in changing and challenging times.  It’s a rich mix, and a worthy challenge to interpret and report it.

Diablo townsite

For years I’ve been curious about the town of Diablo, reached via one of the few roads that branches off Highway 20 through Washington State’s North Cascades.  But until this week I was never curious enough to make the turn.  On Wednesday I set out to assuage my curiosity and explore the tiny settlement.

Diablo is perched on a rare piece of flat ground in a largely vertical landscape, facing the turquoise water of Gorge Lake and just downstream from Diablo Dam.  Its main feature is a cluster of old-fashioned houses with a sturdy presence that suggests a government works project (as is indeed the case–those houses were built to house Seattle City Light workers in the 1920s).  There are some recreation facilities, including an indoor swimming pool, which I wondered at…just how much use can that pool have gotten, sitting across the road from a gleaming and forest-fringed expanse of open water?  There’s a tennis court, too, and a carefully-fenced replica of any early water wheel that provided power before dams were built on the Skagit.

Diablo is a peaceful spot, in spite of its curious name–a pick-up and drop-off site for hikers, and home to two trailheads and a campground.  I saw little activity the day I was there; houseplants in windows and a variety of outdoor decor lent an air of settled domesticity.  Though the townsite piques my interest as a cultural landscape, it’s also a window on a rare way of life, sequestered in the mountains and immersed in breathtaking scenery that must account for at least some of the peace I felt when I finally took the time to visit.