The muddy easement passes two just-built houses and a fifth-wheel before plunging into the woods. Then the roadbed itself plunges down a ravine. A landslide has scooped away the hillside below, leaving bare dirt and loose roots and just a scrap of trail for us to navigate. It’s been a wet spring. High overhead, quilted into firs, are madrona blossoms.
The road comes out on the shore of a hidden lagoon. Grasses, rushes, and staked young shore pines. No Scotch broom. The lagoon’s several arms are rimmed with mud and salty logs. Trees lean over the water, hiding creek mouths.
This is the centerpiece of Johnson South Sound Preserve, a nature refuge just north of Devil’s Head. The only public access here is to the beach via boat. I am here with Nathan Daniel, executive director of Great Peninsula Conservancy, who is a botanical explorer like me. We have come to brave the rainforest beyond the lagoon’s far shore.
The beach has collected driftwood of many forms: ancient lumps of cedar, bleached root forms, pressure-treated boards, a 100-foot fir log with the bark still on. An alligator lizard appears in a crevice between wood and disintegrating Styrofoam. It vanishes.
Daniel says that when he first moved to Washington he was puzzled by the low diversity of amphibians, given all the rain and wetlands. After a few summers he realized that whereas the Eastern U.S. gets rain all summer, we turn arid. For amphibians to stay moist enough to survive, they must have extraordinary adaptations. It’s the same but opposite for our few reptiles. They must be able to survive endless damp and cold to take advantage of the summer sun.
The ability to toggle between surviving and thriving: it’s a good way to think about plants too. Not having the ability to move, they have attuned to a far more refined menu of hyperlocal conditions — soil type, drainage, acidity, exposure, companion plants — to craft their life strategies, and have a far greater diversity.
We first go south on the beach. Here is brilliant Indian paintbrush, quite rare locally, growing from the bare face where a bluff begins to rise. Beyond, much of the bluff is covered with ivy, terrible ivy, cascading down from above. But valiantly growing over it are patches of manroot, a native vine also known as wild cucumber, with tendrils curled like fiddleheads and stalks of soap-smooth flowers. I know of only a single manroot in my regular haunts. I love finding so many here.
Daniel prods a gray streak at the base of a 100-foot cliff. Sand falls without resistance. We take a few steps back. In windows of dripping clay above, chickweed monkeyflower sticks its fat yellow lips out to catch the drops. Offshore is another sure sign of bluffs: splashing bands of pigeon guillemots. These black and white puffin relatives create tunnels in the cliffs for their nests.
Soon we are crawling up the edge of a bluff, following a faint deer trail under huckleberry. It barely hangs on. Fallen soil. Exposed tree roots. We find a plant with glossy leaves shaped like dog tongues. It looks so familiar yet out of place. I take a photo. Much later it comes to me: it is queen’s cup, a species of the mountains. A lily with a small pure white flower. I’ve never seen one on the peninsula.
Fighting our way upward, we gravitate toward a stand of tall firs. From his backpack, Daniel draws a tool called an increment borer used by foresters to determine a tree’s age. He chooses a place at chest height and turns its hollow bit into a deep furrow in the tree’s bark. The bit is 20 inches long. When it will go no farther, he inserts a metal instrument called a spoon that draws out a rod of fragile wood.
The tree’s rings expand and contract along the length of the rod. We peer at the far end for a circle that is not there. The bit did not reach the tree’s center.
I count 170 rings. The tree is older than that. I do the math. This is old growth, alive before the ’49ers rushed for gold and logging began on Puget Sound.
More discoveries await. A massive madrona. Skeletonized leaves of — it takes some figuring — poplar. Nearby a brick hearth buried under ivy. In the dirt Daniel finds a cassette. Guns N’ Roses. Away from the old homesite, native vegetation rules. Hazelnut, huckleberry, salmonberry, salal. We find a slug climbing stinging nettle. A large bigleaf maple repels our effort to core it. Below it, a red longhorn beetle stalks the tree’s shed limbs. We slide down a chute to a creek that squeezes us back toward the lagoon, pausing to examine a wild gooseberry rising above salal, the only one we have seen. Why here?
As a landowner it is easy to assume that the plants surrounding you also blanket the peninsula. But what is common in one place is absent in another. Plants are highly discerning, and the peninsula is loaded with hidden corners, rare conditions. Being in a place like this has me daydreaming of a Key Peninsula National Park.
At the head of the lagoon is a lush plain incised with muddy creeks. Banks of Siberian miner’s lettuce. Grasses, ferns, false-lily-of-the-valley, arrowgrass. Another community. To fully attune yourself to the hyperlocal conditions these plants have selected would be the work of a lifetime.
On our way back up to the easement road we climb the face of the landslide. A neighbor has arrived and is planting twigs in the bare dirt. He says they are thimbleberry starts. Thimbleberry grows just above, he says, so he thought it might work here. He tells us about a work party he organized with his neighbors to eliminate Scotch broom on the beach.
Maybe ivy will be next.
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