Saxophones and Saxifrage: Improv Jazz Meets Natural History

[At this year's Burlington's Discover Jazz Festival I enjoyed an amazing performance by one of my favorite artists, Terence Blanchard. In many ways, my training in jazz helped define my approach to environmental education and engagement. Here's the piece I wrote on the topic for the most recent edition of Field Notes.]

In an apocryphal story from the annals of jazz lore, a stranger woke on the floor of a smoky New York hotel room shared by two of the greatest legends in American music. Dim morning light seeping through the blinds illuminated John Coltrane, hunched on the edge of a vinyl chair playing licks on his saxophone, and Thelonious Monk, out cold on the bed. Somewhere between meditation and frenzy, Coltrane drilled imaginative, improvised passages again and again, turning them around and backwards, modulating them through every key, and working every tempo. The stranger left to tour the city for the day, returning 14 hours later to find Coltrane in the same place, horn to his lips. The licks were different, but the room was still smoky, the blinds still half-drawn.

Jazz is an improvised, unscripted conversation between the soloist, the band, and the audience. The swirling music evokes a feeling, and the fingers and breath channel what the spirit has to say about it. Those endless practice trances built repertoire that Coltrane retrieved to bare his soul fluently when the moment presented itself. This is called “woodshedding” in the jazz world: chopping and stacking musical ideas for future use.

The naturalist is cut from Coltrane’s cloth. I practice bebop scales on a trumpet for the same reason I devour textbooks on bear biology, pour over medicinal mushroom guides, or stare at a coyote track for an hour. It’s woodshedding: building the notes and phrases to express something significant when that solo comes around. As naturalists, we are enamored of nature’s complexities and captivated by discovering them. That motivation is the product of our own passion, like the enraptured saxophonist playing scales for 14 hours.

Most people are also deeply motivated by a need to express. We want others to understand what makes us tick. “The main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe,” Coltrane explained in a 1962 DownBeat Magazine interview. “I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way.” So we drill scales in that vinyl hotel room chair because expressing our souls on cue takes practice, whatever the vocation.

As naturalists, we often find ourselves in the performer’s role, where we can simultaneously realize both of those deep motivations: to exercise our passions and to express ourselves. We should recognize those moments in the woods with an audience as the rare opportunities they are. They’re the personal and unfettered occasions when layers of pressures and obligations fall away, and we try to deliver simple experiences like those that shaped us.

If we trace the origins of our love of nature, we find particular occasions in the woods that rocked and redirected us. I have powerful memories of my father showing me a scarlet tanager in the back yard, and a middle school science teacher bringing me on a mission to catch moths with a UV light. Consider your own similar examples, and you’ll often find someone else orchestrating those experiences. Whether it was an enthusiastic park ranger or a loved one nudging you toward something you might otherwise have overlooked, that person set you up to be profoundly affected.

We need to respect these high-stakes opportunities when they arise by knowing what we’re trying to deliver. Remember that song—maybe it’s your favorite—that came on the radio at a powerful time in your life. All the sounds jibed with the notes and lyrics, just right, and the sound sizzled through you. That feeling satiates and nourishes. It makes you scrunch up your nose, close your eyes, and quietly go “yeah!”

And that feeling pervades humanity. It’s resonance in its purest form: your insides vibrate because you are exactly in tune with what you’re receiving. It’s when the baseball connects with the bat just right, it’s biting into a PB&J on top of a mountain, or a really good phone call with an old friend. Everyone resonates differently, but when we reflect upon these moments, we find that they are the punctuations—or even the chapter breaks—of our lives.

The performing naturalist aims for that resonance. Like a jazz musician, we play the woods as a piano, riffing on improvised arrangements of repertoire and unrestrained enthusiasm to ignite points of resonance that connect our audience with the woods. For the frequent-flyer businessman in the audience, the naturalist plays the arctic tern that flew nearly a million miles in its lifetime. For the real estate agent, the naturalist plays the 150-year-old stone wall, covered in moss, representing the first subdivision in the entire town. For the doctor, it’s the willow bark containing the compound that inspired aspirin. For the police officer, it’s holding the mushroom that was found in the pocket of a 5,000-year-old murder victim. When treated as an improvisational art, the simple nature walk becomes a most powerful tool.

This type of sorcery, the conjuring of meaningful experience, was Coltrane’s goal. “I would like to bring to people something like happiness,” he said. “I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.” Likewise, the skilled improv naturalist wields a vast array of tangible and abstract features on the landscape, curating and channeling them to resonate with the very psyche of his audience over the course of a few hours or even a few years.

We rarely look to musicians for professional advice, but Coltrane’s philosophy extends beyond earshot of his saxophone. Inspiration is every naturalist’s role, whether or not it’s written in the job description. We are all driven to express passionately what we find most profound. If we didn’t oblige, we’d be jazz musicians who never took the stage. This takes practice, but it especially takes courage. At some point we must take our armload of butterfly chrysalises and saxifrage sprouts, leave that smoky hotel room, and perform.

Bison Controversy in Yellowstone's Northern Range

[This is part two of a series of posts featuring photos from our March programs in Yellowstone with Natural Habitat Adventures and Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools.]

A big bull interrupting our preparations for a snowshoe hike

This week in Yellowstone featured the bison. Granted, it’s almost impossible to visit this park without getting stuck in the middle of a bison herd at some point. But the contexts in which we saw these big ice-age behemoths this week really showcased the lives they lead and the hardships they endure.

Bison walk on packed paths to avoid breaking trail in deep snow. This guy picked our path to walk on.

The thick, dark fur on their face protects their skin from the abrasive icy crust they must break to access grass beneath.

Bison are built for life in winter. Their massive head and shoulders effortlessly dig through snow to the forage below. Their gut is adapted to pull every last bit of meager nutrition from the dead grass they depend on. Their fur is so well insulated, snow and frost builds up on their backs by the inch. They seem to have a radar for finding the highest-quality food available under any snow depth. They consistently find the easiest travel routes and the safest valleys.

Even with these physical and behavioral adaptations, though, life is still tough. Winter is a time of perpetual starvation, insanely cold temperatures, and serious vulnerability. As winter draws on, ribs and hips become more and more defined. Grass becomes scarce. Wolves become stronger and braver.
Under this pressure, many bison find the roadway and follow it west. They follow it past the Lamar Valley, where their kin were restored to today’s healthy numbers after teetering at the brink of extinction. They follow it past Crystal Creek, the reintroduction site of the one wolf pack that specializes on hunting bison. They follow it past Blacktail Lakes, where a few bulls fall through thin ice and drown every year.

This calf has nearly survived his first Yellowstone winter.

Bill bison walking through the Lamar Valley, the historic Buffalo Ranch in the background.

By the end of the winter, some bison look like skin draped over bones. Green-up can't come soon enough.

Even in winter, there is fresh forage available along the shore of some spring-fed creeks.

They arrive at the Gardiner Canyon, and follow the river downhill to the edge of the park. At this low elevation, the ground is snow-free and the temperatures are spring-like. Having found what seems like an oasis at the end of the bitter winter, the bison walk through the Roosevelt Archway, crossing an invisible but significant border between Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner, Montana. Here, bison are no longer property of the American People. They are not ogled and admired by tourists and naturalists. Instead, they are legally considered escaped livestock. The farther the bison venture beyond the arch, the tighter the rubber band of state tolerance stretches. Eventually, that ecological oasis is replaced by a political minefield.

Behind the gate, bison are managed "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People." Beyond it, they are considered escaped livestock.

Some bison, you see, carry a disease called brucellosis. This disease causes failed pregnancies and therefore kills the reproductive potential of the herd. The problem is, this disease affects cattle too. Montana is considered a brucellosis-free state with respect to livestock, so stock growers can transport cattle across their state line without penalty, fee, or testing. Should Yellowstone bison intermingle with cattle and transmit brucellosis into domestic herds, the whole state’s brucellosis-free seal would be revoked, with devastating effects to the livestock industry.

So when a few hundred bison venture out of the park into the Gardiner Basin at the wrong time each year, their fate is gloomy. This year, about 600 bison were removed after leaving YellowstoneIn years past, these migrants were killed by the thousands. That still happens, but not with such reckless abandon as in previous years. Instead of an outright firing-line at the border, the herd is now rounded up and brought to slaughter, the meat given to Native American tribes. About 200 bison met this fate this year.

One of the park's biggest bulls looking for fresh grass along the Yellowstone River.

Upset by the annual annihilation of America’s most treasured bison herd, advocates and managers are now trying to design solutions that please all stakeholders. For instance, researchers have just concluded that with proper quarantine, testing, and culling, you can definitively declare a group of bison “brucellosis-free.” With this stamp of approval, the bison can be brought to Native American reservations to be used as agricultural and cultural resources. Or be brought to Ted Turner’s huge conservation ranches. In the future, the cleared bison may be the source for restoration herds on the American Prairie Reserve or the Tribal National Park.

A small herd of females and calves passing by.

Only 60 bison were quarantined this year. About 200 were consigned to slaughter. What happens to the remainder? Native American tribes are given special permits to exercise century-old treaty rights to hunt bison off-reservation under their own rules and regulations. These hunts accounted for roughly 263 bison this year. It’s nice to see the federal government following through on some much-needed reparations, especially after we slaughtered 99.999% of America’s bison to starve out the Indians. However, these tribal hunts have meant that gut-piles and bloody snow litter the Gardiner Basin, making for some interesting discussion on wildlife watching excursions like ours. Native Americans are also in disagreement over the ethics of hunting these animals in such circumstances.

Things are looking promising for these big guys. Which is good, because they have enough to worry about as it is. The Montana Supreme Court just ruled that bison may now be legally tolerated in roughly 400,000 acres outside the north and west entrances. Also, the World Wildlife Fund and the Intertribal Buffalo Council are working together to establish tribal quarantine facilities so that more wandering bison can be held and transferred to reservations and restoration projects instead of being killed.

A train of bison walking through the Gardiner Canyon, heading towards the park's boundary.

Hopefully, with continued conservation efforts, fewer of these Yellowstone migrants will be economic nuisances to the cattle industry, and more will become the pioneers of new herds across the Great Plains.

An hour-old bison calf standing for the very first time. May 2013.

Encounters in Yellowstone

I never enjoy hearing that alarm go off at 4 AM in Cooke City, but I have learned to treasure this morning. It is the moment when our group is finally tied together-- in the way many groups are united-- by a common uncomfortable experience. My travelers have to finally ante up. Up to this point, they have just had to climb into the vehicles and let us whisk them away to amazing places in (generally) total comfort. But this morning is when folks face the facts that wolf watching is never easy. No matter how fresh the fruit, how experienced the guides, or how nice the equipment, there is no way to get around the reality that the best experiences in this ecosystem happen at first light, if they happen at all. Discomfort is required.

I like getting to breakfast early to watch the group arrive over a cup of tea. Many folks stumble into the dim café, sit down next to the fireplace, and quietly look down at their cup of coffee, groggily sipping away. Others come in with their guns drawn, hollering about the snowmobilers ripping down main street at 3 in the morning. Others arrive in a bewildered and disheveled haze, clearly not having woken up this early in years. The most straitlaced traveler lets his guard down a bit, arriving in purple sweatpants and eating his bacon with his hands. Everything smells like coffee and blueberry pancakes. There is a blizzard outside that has to be navigated in the darkness to get to the restaurant from the hotel a hundred yards away.

As we rounded the corner, I looked to the right to respond to a traveler sitting in my passenger seat, and noticed sheep feet whiz by on the cliff edge just out the window. I screeched to a halt and reversed, and we were able to spend half an hour enjoying this big ram enjoying some dead grasses growing between rocky outcrops. The deep cut bands in the horn indicate the age of the sheep. The horns grow year-round, but much more slowly in the winter because of the poor forage quality. Each of the prominent bands represents one winter that this sheep has survived.

Our naturalist friend Dan Hartman has these inquisitive pine martens living around his cozy log cabin. A world-class naturalist of an endangered breed, Dan invites us into his home to share stories and cookies with us. Occasionally, one of these beautiful martens appears just outside the living room window to listen in on Dan's tales.

When the temperature drops, steam explodes from Yellowstone's thermal features. A frosty morning along the Firehole River. Many of Yellowstone's largest hot springs and geysers drain into this river, keeping it open all winter long. Bison congregate along the riverbank to forage on exposed vegetation right along the shore. Every winter morning in Yellowstone feels like the first time that humans have witnessed this magic place.

In the summer, as many as 5,000 people might congregate along the boardwalks to watch each eruption of Old Faithful. This night, there were four of us. All alone, we could hear the water gurgling inside the geyser cone and feel the water blasting into the sky. The steam froze instantly and geyser snow fell on our noses.

After a cold, misty morning, every branch is coated in ice, turning this burned skeleton forest into a crystal chandelier. It is often after the most unbearable weather that we are rewarded with nature's most beautiful shows.

Alpenglow on the Tetons reminds me to appreciate this view each time I pass by. The burst of color lasts only a minute. This show precedes every clear sunrise, making sure that I never regret waking up in the dark in this valley.

Trumpeter Swans fly north to Yellowstone to access the rivers and streams kept open by the influx of geothermal waters. After a long bath and preening session, this swan extends his wings to ensure that his feathers are aligned just so. This bird, once threatened with extinction due to feather trade overharvest, was rediscovered and recovered in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. This region is now one of the best places in the country to see this magnificent bird.

I go outside and shovel a foot of snow off the roof of the vehicle. Then I figure out which of the four gas pumps in town will turn on that morning. I need four-wheel drive just to make a turn around the pump without sliding into the dozen snowmobiles lined up next to the service garage. The only lights in town are coming from the Sinclair gas sign, the inside of our cozy restaurant, and a streetlight down the road illuminating a dog and nothing else of importance.

My anxiety builds alongside the group’s. You can be in the right place (Yellowstone’s northern reaches), at the right time (before first light), with every possible controllable variable under control. Then all you can do is hope. You’ve flown in from New York or New Zealand, paid a thousand dollars or a million, been motivated by mere curiosity or by a lifetime dream to see a wolf in the wild, but the animals are the great equalizers. They will show up or they won’t. At some point, between bites of muffin or sips of coffee, this realization gradually materializes in every traveler, and we roll out of Cooke City, unified, into the first glow of dawn.

"Winter in Yellowstone" On WWF/NHA's "Good Nature"

Hi All,
I'm also now writing for Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund's travel blog, "Good Nature." I'll be updating The Green Man with links to those blog posts when they become available.
Here is a link to my most recent entry on that site:
Good Nature: Winter in Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Winter Adventures in Yellowstone

This week kicked off my big season of week-long winter Yellowstone wildlife expeditions. It was a phenomenal group of travelers, and we had some truly memorable experiences along the way. The ride into Yellowstone's interior came complete with a howling blizzard and a foot of fresh powder that our snow coaches could barely stay on top of. Once the weather cleared the next day, we had a beautiful ride past many of the park's most impressive hot springs and steaming mountains. 

The entire town of Cooke City lost power overnight, requiring us to find our way to the Bistro by flashlight, and eat breakfast by candlelight next to their big wood fire. Though it wasn't part of the plan, the episode brought the group together, and added a sense of adventure to our day in the Northern Range.

After four days of zero wolf sighting anywhere in the park, we were treated to a pair of wolves feeding on an elk carcass at daybreak. Our group and two wolf biologists were the only people watching wolves in the park. Perhaps the only people watching wild wolves in the whole country.

At one point, we spotted a coyote following a packed-down game trail, scavenging for food and hunting small rodents under the snow. Realizing his trajectory, we positioned ourselves near his eventual route, and he continued past us unperturbed.

Highlights of the week also included great bighorn sheep, moose, and elk viewing around Jackson Hole. The lower elevations of this valley and the milder, windswept environs makes this area a mecca for wildlife. These sheep manage to cling to impossibly steep cliffs, leaping gracefully between promontories.

After a long day of wildlife watching in Northern Yellowstone, euphoric from all we had seen, we stopped at Round Prairie and watched the sun set on the Absarokas Mountains before heading up the pass into Cooke City for the night.

Pilot Knobs and Teewinots

They were once called the Pilot Knobs because fur trappers from a hundred miles around oriented themselves using these shark-tooth mountains. Long before that, an unknown tribe built the 'Enclosure,' a radiating dish of monolithic slabs impossibly arranged on a spire just shy of the tallest peak, where warriors or medicine men would climb to and meditate or seek spiritual orientation.

All of us here still orient to these mountains like the trappers, and like the Indians before them. I lamented that I would eventually get used to the Tetons. Surely they would fade into the doldrums of everyday life. Not so. Every time it's like seeing these mountains for the first time
Some days the top of the Grand is a stone's throw away. It's the way the light catches every fleck of mica. Its because i'm feeling invincible and euphoric. Other days its seems to be in a faraway dimension. It's the way the light shrouds the highest reaches. Its because i'm feeling humble and conquered. Every experience out here happens in the attention of the Tetons. Everything is mapped and cataloged onto the mountains such that every view is an orientation and reorientation. 

This particular view is the punctuation mark of many of my seasons. Trucking up to this rounded hilltop with a picnic and a bottle of wine, looking down at wolves rolling around in the meadows below. Barking Sandhill Cranes echo off the hills over a mirror-still ranch reservoir, cutting through a thick silence dusted with singing cicadas and whistling sagebrush.

My first grizzly is out in that meadow somewhere. Mom was foraging on gopher caches, trying to provide for her two cubs as summer was running out of steam. The two cubs stood on their hind legs to inspect and harass a pair of cranes that towered over them. The next year I canoed to that island with a friend shortly before she moved away. Many people here are as ephemeral as these short seasons. 

Photographers come here every hour of every day. I took this in October 2011, and this shot hasn't been possible since. In October 2012, wildfires throughout the Rockies rudely dumped smoke into the valley all Autumn, obscuring visibility of the mountains entirely. In October 2013, the aspens never turned this bright,and the rain clouds never lifted off the peaks. Outdoor photography is 90% about showing up. Again and again and again. 

Here, elk and horses, bison and cattle share pastures, bridging the gap between wildlife and livestock management. One summer day, we photographed pronghorn here all morning then walked up to the fence and hand-fed grass to the horses. One winter day, we went on a beautiful cross-country ski to a secluded lake where a coyote howled and howled from shore. We were awarded with this view on the return trip.

On the shortest days of the year, its best to just accept the long nights. The full moon illuminates the frost on grandfather cottonwoods before setting behind Buck Mountain. This is near the most popular summer destination in the park in the summer. I had never photographed here for that reason. I came here alone early one morning last week. The moon was blinding, and the snowy grass sparkled.

Seen Through the Looking Glass

If you had to run into a burning building to retrieve one of your possessions, what would it be? There are very few items I own that are imbued with enough significance to be irreplaceable, like the spotting scope left to me by my late mentor, Jeanne Fossani. This little post is a tribute to Jeanne and her continuing legacy of environmental advocacy around the world.

All the following photos in this entry were taken through the eyepiece of her scope.

Resplendent Quetzal
Elegant Trogan

Jeanne was the leader of a teen naturalist trip to Costa Rica through the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT. I was interested in nature, but not to the extent that I wanted to build my career around protecting it. She encouraged me to wake up at 4AM that first morning in the rainforest to experience the dawn chorus. As I understood it, no teenager had ever seen 4AM unless they hadn’t yet gone to sleep from the night before. Begrudgingly, I got myself up and walked out of the bungalow. Birds were dripping from the trees, and the cacophony of their calls seemed deafening. She pointed her old Swarovski spotting scope on a high canopy. Little blue and yellow and red gems were flitting through the acacias like a scene out of Fern Gully. I saw a Resplendent Quetzal, South America’s most beautiful bird. I realized that the landscape is full of hidden treasures that are only really apparent if you already know what to look for and have the right tools for the job. I was hooked.

Arctic hare

754M of Lamar Canyon Pack

Phantom Springs pack

I returned to Vermont and kept up the same attitude to birdwatching. Jeanne taught me everything she knew. She was fighting cancer and needed some help, so I would come over and water her plants and fill her bird feeders. She took me birding along Lake Champlain, and we saw rare gulls and ducks through that scope.

Jeanne died in 2007 and I had her scope in my car when I first heard the news. Her friends and colleagues encouraged me to keep the scope because they thought she'd want me to have it, and I didn’t know how to get in touch with her family anyway.

Lamar Canyon Pack

Grizzly at the edge of the woods
Black bear cubs

So for the last 6 years I’ve used the scope the same way she did: to excite people about our world’s most amazing creatures. I treated it not as my scope, but as a tool for paying forward what Jeanne was all about. I think about all the things that scope has been trained on. Photons have actually bounced off a snowy owl, funneled through the lens, and hit people in the eye.

Bighorn sheep

Northern Hawk Owl

Polar bear mom and cub

Trumpeter Swan  and ducks

I upgraded my equipment after the polar bear season, but I wanted Jeanne’s scope to continue being used to show more people amazing things. Natural Habitat guide Brad Josephs over at is now responsible for Jeanne’s scope. Provided that a coastal Katmai grizzly doesn’t literally eat it, it will be in great hands in an incredible place. 

Big Griz

Mountain goats

Ruddy Duck

If you want to know more about Jeanne, go here:

Halfway Around the Yellowstone Sun

When we last left off, I was wishing Mother Nature to provide us many bears and wolves over the summer. Indeed, we had a great season for bears. Our famous “399,” now approaching 20 years old, had a new set of triplets that awed visitors all season. Scarface was out in northern Yellowstone eating whatever his worn teeth could still chew on. Wolves are scarce and seem to be getting scarcer as hunting pressure along the borders increases and elk populations decline. Though wolves were hard to find, we had amazing experiences with all the other wildlife.

My late mentor, Jeanne, taught me that the best shows in nature happen early, early, early in the morning. Though I try to explain this to my travelers, they don’t always have the drive to wake up before dawn, and as a result they miss things like bison being born in the sunrise over the Absaroka Mountains. Twin moose calves were raised happily in a big campground in the park this year. In the dawn light the calves spent all summer wandering unnoticed between campsites in the hour of dawn light before the humans stir. I came to check on them in October, and they are still doing just fine at their regular campsite in Loop B. The National Park Service should probably approach them about paying campsite fees.

Yellowstone is a place where seasons are short. Except for winter. From week to week everything changes. One wildflower starts to bloom as another curls up and fades until next spring. It seems like by the time moose calves are steady on their feet, some of the migratory songbirds are already itching to leave. The elk have just started growing their antlers when the fall colors are upon us and bugling fills the woods. No such thing as stasis. The earth seems to hurtle around the sun so fast this time of the year.

Suddenly, pronghorn are already galloping around the summer sun-dried pastures of the park, and the bison are rolling around in the dry dirt. American Dipper chicks have begrudgingly surrendered to diving into the cold, swift mountain streams. Until now, they stood at the water’s edge and beg for food from the increasingly impatient parents. Before we even recognized that summer was in full swing, huckleberry season was over and the serviceberries were producing like never before. Grosbeaks, chipmunks, waxwings, and black bears swarm these bushes, and I can’t resist grabbing handfuls of berries as I pass on my mountain bike.

Now the leaves are turning and the photographers line up in processions at Oxbow Bend. Grizzlies return to the valley floors, patrolling the park in search of whatever can be digested. As Dan Hartman stacks cord after cord of firewood in preparation for a long Beartooth winter, pine martens dart in and out of the cracks between logs, looking for the perfect cranny in his woodpile to use for winter quarters.

Tourists empty out of the park, leaving the geysers and hot springs open to our peaceful sunset enjoyment. The grizzlies and black bears wander into the hills to find a place to hole up until March, and the residents of Jackson prepare their own dens for the big winter to come.