When Larches Become Lionfish

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I am not certain how long it takes to know a place.  It might take longer if your office is inside instead of out in the field. It might take longer if you’re learning about it from reading about it. Certainly it takes longer if you’re tuned out of your surroundings and tuned in to your iphone or television screen.  Over the first 25 years of my life I explored the wild places of the Pacific Northwest.  I became familiar with its cities, which at times seem filled with more wildness than not.  I came to know jagged ridgelines and mountains and had random encounters with many of the hardy and unique things living in those harsh climates. Screenshot 2016-06-30 at 3.33.44 PMPaintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) scattered mountain trails provided encounters with bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and black bears (Ursus americanus), and I was able to take quiet moments under the shade of rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis).  There was miles of trail in dark and lush temperate rainforests along surging rivers, winding through western redcedar (Thuja plicata), rhododendron (Ericaceae), and even carnivorous plants. These places were relief from life’s obligations and a period away from the requirements of being a “civilized being”…which is what I think I might be for at least some of the time.  

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I have been away from these places for over a year. Many days I desperately feel the need to pop a freshly picked huckleberry (Ericaceae) into my mouth. Run through an open Montana prairie filled with lupine (Lupinus sp.) and arrowleaf balsamroot (Balamorhiza sagittata) blooms. Stop during a walk to rub some sage (Artemesia tridentata) into my mustache because…well who doesn’t like the smell of sage and want to bring it with them?  While a year is not forever, it sometimes feels too long to be away from these escapes. My task and heart are in the islands of the Philippines right now, and over my time here one of my major challenges has been to come to truly know this place as well.

This knowing, for a self-described mountain man/poet/runner/lover, has not been easy.  The plants and animals here seem foreign, strange, and sometimes outright life-threatening.  While I’ve learned some of the many species in the forests and mountains, the heart and core of this area’s biodiversity is underwater.  The opportunities for me to enjoy great amounts of marine biodiversity while in Montana had been, well, zero. Additionally, large bodies of water, specifically oceans, have always been a great fear of mine. I could list reasons such as their being vast, unknown, dark, etc., but for me it came down to something much more simple. A fear of drowning. This has made my introduction to scuba an intense, if not especially rewarding, experience. I’ve been in the water with a few close friends here in the Philippines already, and many know the few personal rituals I’ve turned to in order to focus, not hyperventilate, and become comfortable breathing under the surface.  Also, having one of your best friends at site be the dive master that taught you everything you know about scuba has worked out nicely.

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Besides training oneself to deal with inner demons, getting to know something is perhaps the best way to lose your fear of it.  In turning towards whatever small part of myself was meant to be a marine biologist, I’ve found a deep reservoir of enjoyment in meeting the critters below the surface.  Each creature seems to teach me lessons and unravel new secrets.  Watching the colorful schools of striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus) hover closely to massive corals while the blue streak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) dart in and out of large coral limbs might tell you that the reef is healthy, the area is somewhat protected from harm, and that fish are using the area as a nursery.  Mistaking a chinese trumpetfish (Aulostomus chinensis) for a seahorse and a “real” clown anemonefish (Amphiprion percula) for a “fake” one show me that I’m new in this world and have a lot to learn.  Rainbow-endowed parrotfish (Cetoscarus bicolour) remind me what colors are, and while it lies stealthily along the rocks the variegated lizardfish (Synodus variegates) proves that little monsters of the earth’s deep places still run (swim) free.

Sometimes I know what I’m seeing right away, I know to watch the spotfin lionfish (Pterois antennata) from a short distance, it looks like it may be dressed for gladiator battle. The moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus) is an iconic reef species here and I think I was familiar with them before I back-rolled off the boat.  But if being ultra-familiar with these things makes me happy and comfortable, finally identifying something after months of failure makes me delirious.  I encountered the mostly solitary two-lined spinecheek (Scolopsis bilineatus) and it’s lightning-esque markings gliding in and out of my line of sight for months before I could figure out what it was. It’s commonly seen in Biliran’s reefs, and when it parades through corals next to the multi-colored moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare) I send out mental “eat-your-heart-outs” to those who only see the crescent of the moon from above the surface.  I’m still working at telling clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum) from the rest and honestly to my eyes most butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) look like the same species. It can be confusing identifying from only a brief moment, but when swimming with black tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) I can see right away that I’m look at a perfect hunter, one with the fins, body, and movement of an evolved killer. That is unless I think it’s a black tip and it turns out to be a tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus).

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2014 Le Grizz 50 Mile Ultramarathon…larches turning yellow in backdrop PC: Myke Hermsmeyer

I miss seeing small black bears roll through the underbrush in the wilderness right outside of Missoula. I miss it when the larches (Larix occidentalis) turn color in fall. These were known things, familiar things I could count on during the seasons. But I don’t have to trade meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) for monitor lizards (Varanus olivaceus) or give up huckleberries for hawkfish (Cirrhitidae).  I have memories and experiences belonging to one of those ecological worlds and still enough space to begin loving this new one.

some of the jellies have been stinging me really badly…I’m trying to find space to appreciate those too.

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