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June 1st, 2016

If you’ve ever studied a second language, you’ve probably heard, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” While some people may feel unaffected that they no longer remember the language they learned in secondary school, entire cultures suffer when the last speaker of that language dies and the language is lost. There is a great importance behind understanding cultures and their practices. This includes how the culture connects with the environment around them. Today Patricia Whereat-Phillips discusses her introduction to research focused on indigenous languages and how she became interested in ethnobotany. In her new book, Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, Whereat-Phillips documents the ethnobotany of western Oregon indigenous peoples.


Growing up in the hills near the eastern shore of Coos Bay, I spent much of my childhood playing out in nature – playing in the stream at the bottom of the draw, watching deer eat apples in our yard, helping mom fill the bird feeders, and spending all summer wandering the land around our house picking berries. As a child, I learned that I was descended from the Milluk people of lower Coos Bay. I wondered what the old language was like, but no one seemed to know. The last fluent speaker of Milluk died before I was born, and the last speaker of its sister language, Hanis, died when I was 2 ½ years old. I never met her.

For years my research focused on indigenous languages – mostly the Coosan languages of Hanis and Milluk, and Siuslaw, and traditional legends. My interest in ethnobotany began when I received a letter from an undergraduate who was researching medicinal plants of Oregon Indians. It wasn't a question I'd looked in to before, and I began to do some research. I found a few mentions of medicinal plants, and answered her letter. By now, my curiosity piqued, I tried to do some more research and found (probably as this student did) that there is little published on western Oregon ethnobotany (unlike the rest of the Pacific Northwest and California).

So I spent years trying to research the ethnobotanical knowledge of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw. Not only did I gain a greater appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the temperate rainforest that I had grown up in, but a greater appreciation of the breadth of indigenous knowledge of the landscape and the melding of ethnobotany with language and story.

Take, for instance, the quirky skunk cabbage, known to science as Lysichiton americanus. It is an unmistakable plant as there is nothing else in our region that looks – or smells – quite like it. In early spring bright yellow 'lanterns' emerge from mucky earth, followed by waxy green leaves that can grow more than three feet long. And its odd smell, which gives it its English name, is unique and to some people unpleasant. To our ancestors, skunk cabbage was a medicine, food, and part of the mythological world. Our stories tell us that in the beginning, the First Trickster set the precedent for how to cook skunk cabbage roots. He was hungry, tried to eat the skunk cabbage root raw, but it didn't taste good. In a moment of anger he shoved it into the hot ashes of his fire. Soon he smelled something sweet. He removed the root from the ashes, and found that it tasted sweet. He began to cut up the root. As he picked up each piece, he said “Give this to your father, give this to your mother...” He continued on and on until he had named all the kinship terms. In one act he let it be known that skunk cabbage root was no good but had to be roasted until it smelled sweet, and he created the idea of and terms for family relationships.

For generations, women gathered the roots in spring and early summer. The roots were more than just food, however; they could also be medicine. In my family, my great grandmother was the last person to use this medicine. Her method was to grind up the root, mix it with some honey, and give a spoonful to her relatives suffering from a cold.

Over the last few years I have been able to learn much about traditional culture and native plants. It has also been amazing to see the cultural renaissance during this time – more and more Native people of western Oregon have been bringing back traditional canoes, weaving, carving, songs and stories.

May 25th, 2016

The Pacific coast provides beach goers with amazing sites to see. From the cliffs high above, to the tide pools down below, there is something for everyone to enjoy. However, what many people overlook is the hidden world of plants, insects, and parasites. Luckily for us, we have our very own guide! Today we join George Poinar Jr. as he takes his grandchildren down to the beach on an adventure to meet some of the plants and creatures depicted in his new book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes.


Going down to the beach for a nature walk makes a fun day. The kids are excited and bring their pails for collecting shells, agates, bugs and anything else of interest.  

Chasing beach hoppers is always an attraction, especially when these little crustaceans roll up in a ball and let the wind roll them down the beach at great speeds. Watching the shore birds picking them out of the sand shows how important beach hoppers are in the ecology of the strand, since they also help decompose the seaweed.      

With an especially heavy deposit of seaweed, the kelp flies are swarming over the twisted stalks.  Lifting up some holdfasts of Bull kelp exposes the white fly maggots.  Black dots often cover the older kelp stalks. They represent miniscule springtails, so-called because these insects have a spring that, when released, propels them quickly out of sight.    

There is also a wide range of life associated with driftwood. Turning over some pieces near the high tide line reveals ground beetles of all shapes and colors. Many were predators that emerge at night to search for prey. Larger logs washed up onto the dunes make wonderful homes for termites and beetle larvae. Some larvae take years to develop, but emerge as the largest beetles in the Pacific Northwest.

There are always Sea Rocket plants. Notice their thick leaves that can withstand the constant battering of sand grains and the seed pods that can float in the sea for months and still germinate. Some caterpillars develop in the flower heads, but weave a silken net around themselves to keep from being blown away. Another survival technique is to live inside the leaves, like this little leaf-miner fly.

Further up into the dunes are the beautiful flowers of Beach pea. There are several caterpillars that feed on its leaves but my favorite is one that lives in the pods and relishes the seeds as much as we do garden peas.   

There is a small grove of coast willows that recently bloomed. Willows support so many different insects that they can be considered keystone species. This little weevil develops on pollen inside the male catkin. Many insects beside bees develop on pollen, which is an excellent source of protein.   

The willow sawfly that forms red leaf galls is one of my favorites. The galls are formed when a chemical is introduced into a leaf by an ovipositing sawfly. While the gall provides a wonderful home for the sawfly larvae, they are not completely protected.

Parasitic wasps insert their own eggs into the galls and their larvae dispatch those of the sawfly. Then there are beetles and caterpillars that patrol the leaves, opening the galls and devouring the occupants. The complexities of life surrounding these red willow leaf galls is amazing.    

Piles of plant debris often turn out to be ant homes and you can find red-headed dune ants scurrying all over them. Any animal that disturbs the nests is at their mercy and the ants will rush out and bite the intruder, at the same time spraying formic acid into the wound. The worker ants search for food and plant material and bring back captured caterpillars in their jaws. These nests are a world unto themselves since aside from developing ant stages, they are inhabited by crickets, nematodes and a host of other creatures. 

But dune ants do have their enemies. One ruthless predator is a little wasp that cruises back and forth over the nest, waiting for the right moment when an unwary ant is exposed. In a fraction of a second, the wasp dive-bombs, inserts its ovipositor and deposits an egg into the ant.  The worker ant continues to live for a while with the developing parasite inside, but eventually dies.

These are just a few of the dramatic events that unfold in the hidden world of the Pacific coast dunes.




May 11th, 2016

There are few experiences in life that are worse than isolation. We all need to have a connection to others and the things that we love. A sense of community is vital to our wellbeing and the best kinds of communities are the ones that we have a passionate connection to. Books can bring us together and allow us to travel through time and space, escaping whatever brings us pain and uncertainty. In his new book, A Week in Yellowstone’s Thorofare, Michael Yochim takes readers on a journey through his personal experiences exploring Yellowstone National Park’s Thorofare. Today, Yochim shares a passage from his Acknowledgements section in which he describes his own experiences with isolation and community while writing A Week in Yellowstone’s Thorofare.