The mysteries of the everyday

A writer and her family court the unknown.

 

At first, we mistake the bronze balloons for bags tangled around low-hanging branches on Coyote Creek. Our 7-year-old daughter leans out of her kayak. “Trash,” she concludes.            

I lift a branch holding one of the oblong sacs. It snaps, and the thing plops into the water. Maia scoops it into her bug net.  It’s not trash: We stare at a mysterious translucent thing with star-like patterns embedded in its membrane. In 14 years in Oregon, I’ve never seen anything like it. 

I pull out my smartphone. My caption on Facebook: “What IS this?”

 

Bryozoan colony.
Lisa Miller

My husband moved here from New York 15 years ago; I came from California. We’re not unusual: In 2014, according to United Van Lines, more Americans moved to Oregon than to any other state.

Jonathan and I bonded over our shared fascination with the Cooper’s hawks that shrieked through the forest between his apartment and my bungalow. We were happiest outside, shivering or sweating, soaked with rain or river water. 

At Darlingtonia State Natural Site, we paced wooden walkways between tall yellow-leafed masses of Darlingtonia californica. “Cobra lilies,” I read. “Insects fly into the plant’s hood and slide down the stalks. The plant digests them. Yikes.” 

We married among Douglas-firs, then added a child to our exploration team. We braved coastal windstorms to study the sea stack called Face Rock. I read the Coquille Tribe’s legend aloud.

Maia frowned. “How could a sea god turn the princess and her raccoons to stone?”

“It’s a legend,” I said. “Not true.” Though I wondered, given the rock’s resemblance to the upturned, imploring face of a woman.

“What are these?” Among sea stacks, Jonathan examined dozens of finned aquamarine discs. “By-the-wind sailors,” I read in my guidebook. “They float on the ocean. Wind blows them onto beaches.”- 

We rejoiced in the knowledge that individuals are either right-finned or left-finned and chanted their Latin name: “Velella velella, you’re a hell of a fella.”

But then we grew bored.  “We’ve lived here a decade,” we told friends.

“So move your couch,” one advised. “Take a vacation.”

Instead, we sold our couch, packed our belongings, and moved to Costa Rica. 

 

Velella velella.
Notafly/Wikimedia Commons

In Costa Rica, nature isn’t subtle. Iguanas and monkeys festoon branches; wonders declare themselves outright. We snorkeled with octopus and stingrays. I saw a tapir. Maia found leaf-cutter ants, the parade of tiny bodies brandished leaf fragments aloft like flags. We didn’t miss Oregon. 

Outside Maia’s new kindergarten, students and parents pointed into the trees at a long hairy creature. “What is it?” I asked the teacher.

Oso hormiguero,” she replied. “An anteater.” 

Along with monkeys howling at dawn and the blue undulation of morpho butterflies, we made mundane discoveries: How to make money, where to live. We missed our family and friends.

“I miss oak savannahs,” Jonathan said, navigating our rickety jeep down a jungle-bordered dirt road.

“I miss the seasons,” I said.  “I even miss the rain.”

On a beachside boardwalk, we navigated snowcone carts, bicycles, kids selling puppies. We stepped across a bridge and discovered an open-air restaurant covered in Oregon Ducks flags.

“What is this?” I studied the tourists and Ticos.

The expat owner hailed from Eugene. We sat under green-and-yellow flags and looked at each other over fish tacos. 

“It’s time,” we agreed, “to return to Oregon.”

 

Amanita muscaria.
Dawn and Jim Langiewicz/Flickr
           

Once again, our Honda is stuffed with camping gear.

In the Wallowa Mountains, we -marvel at tiny pink wildflowers.-

On a coastal hike, we find Amanita muscaria, -hallucinogenic red mushrooms with white spots. Our consciousness feels altered enough by the sight of the rough-skinned newts below them.

“Newts,” I read, “smell their way back to their birth-river at mating time.  Males grow rough patches on their feet to embrace females. They rub their snouts together.”

I rub my nose along Jonathan’s. Maia giggles and scampers toward the beach.

Another day, at a river confluence, a sliver flash leaps upward. “What is that?” she yelps.

The migrating salmon hurl themselves up boulders, heading for their hatching ground, using the earth’s magnetic field like a map.

We visit the carnivorous plants at the Darlingtonia site. Maia wanders the path between thousands of fork-tongued stalks. Suddenly, a man runs over.

“Bear!” he pants. “Ran across the highway … headed this way.”

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Oregon surprises. Mystery and discovery sharpen our minds, engage our senses, confirm that wonder still exists.

 

Darlingtonia californica.
Noah Elhardt/Wikimedia Commons

At Coyote Creek, we cut open the bronze sac and find gelatinous goo.  No one responds to my Facebook query. Later, I meet a biologist from Philadelphia. “Bryozoan colony,” he says. “Moss animals. Those star-shaped things on the outside? Zooids — individual creatures. What’re they doing on the creek?”

“No idea.” 

We grin at each other, thrilled by what we don’t know about our adopted homeland. 

So much to discover, still.

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014).

High Country News Classifieds
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • POLICY AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...
  • OWN A PIECE OF THE GREATER YELLOWSTONE ECOSYSTEM!
    near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).