Elizabeth Dodd

The Intermittent Blog

Here you'll find any current news Elizabeth may wish to share. Chances are, however, that this will be more of an intermittent blog, with updates coming your way sporadically.


Fall 2011

March 2011

Brief once again, but to update:

Fall 2010

boxIn brief! Recent publication news is that my essay Sinuous has won Terrain.org's 2010 Nonfiction Contest and is available at their website. Here's the opening paragraph:

What does a sinuous petroglyph call to mind? I mean the pecked or carved line that curves beckoningly back and forth across the face of the rock, or the top of the boulder, or the shelf in the cliff where someone once crouched twenty feet or so above the canyon floor and hollowed out a small basin the depth of my own cupped hand, making this particular shape that snakes across the Cliff House sandstone I've slithered up in order to look out where Andy is measuring sightlines along the southern horizon. What does it look like, this petroglyph stilled in its hint of motion? What does it mean?

July 2010

On the thirtieth summer after the great eruption of Mount St. Helens, a “pulse” of scientists and writers came to continue long-term ecological research (and reflection) of the place. We were there thanks to the combined efforts of the United States Forest Service and Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. We camped in a private campground near the National Monument area and made daily forays into the affected landscape. On the first day we traveled in a large charter bus, the humanists and the scientists together, and at several stops lead researchers gave synopsis talks. In the surviving forest we learned about the effects of tephra (ash and pumice fragments) on the soil and plant life; overlooking Meta lake we learned about the ways contours in the landscape or pockets of snow protected patches of plant life, leaving “biological legacies” that could repopulate the landscape; gazing down the Coldwater Creek valley we learned about tailed frog tadpoles that graze on algae in fast-moving streams, tiny herbivores like miniature elk.

The high point, for me, was the last day. Elise Larsen, a doctoral candidate from the University of Maryland, took a small group of writers (Derek Sheffield, Simmons Buntin, and me) out onto the Pumice Plain while she was surveying the season’s nesting birds. Energetic, generous, and although we were her students for just a day, a marvelous teacher, Elise let us see some of the youngest new additions to the developing ecosystem.  

When the volcano erupted on May 18, 1980, the north side of the mountain was scraped bare by the powerful pyroclastic flow. The earliest visitors described it as a moonscape. Photographs of the time show a world of ash and stone; some of these are Ansel Adams-like compositions of black and white, or reminiscent of Arthur Rothstein’s images of the Dustbowl. In the weeks immediately following the eruption, surviving gophers and plants (that had lain underground during the blast) stippled the expanse of ash, and ever since various researchers have been tallying the arrival or return of various species.

This is the first year nighthawks have nested on the Plain. Elise led us to the edge of a small, eroded draw and pointed out the parent bird, doing its broken-wing best to divert our attention from two tiny, fuzzy chicks. At waist- or chest-height in the young thickets of willows, she showed us the nests of willow flycatchers and yellow warblers. “Here,” she said, “we have two lovely nestlings”—and there they were, tiny birds the size of my thumb from nail tip to first knuckle, with only a dorsal stripe of feathers on the bare skin. One by one, we stepped quietly up and peered in. When a nest was too high or too oddly positioned to peer into, she handed us a compact mirror (Revlon, evidently, is sufficiently field-tested) with which to angle our sight. Out in the open, she stopped us amid a scattered flower field—penstemon, lupine, Indian paintbrush, pussyfoot—and directed our gaze to the base of a paintbrush plant. Horned larks, tiny things. The parents stood nearby, dangling insects from their beaks and waiting for us to turn away so the day’s feeding could continue.

We ate wild strawberries; we drank from the waters of Willow Springs. Then while Elise hiked briskly away to the west, towards some other nests (“You’re welcome to come, but we’ll be working very quickly,” she told us), we strolled back up from the Plains. For the first time all week, I saw steam rising from the lava domes inside the crater, pale, wavy tendrils like morning mist from some placid lake surface. Dust rose from the crater’s rim, marking fresh rock falls in the ash. And everywhere we passed fields of purple lupine, their rhizobium-rootlets plowing nitrogen down into the pumice-dust, like shadows of forests from the future, or the past.

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