Restoring the world, beginning with swans

A pair of swans flying low over Pablo Reservoir testify to the success of the Swan Restoration on the Flathead Reservation.
A pair of Trumpeter Swans flying over Pablo Reservoir on an August evening. The swans were locally extirpated in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Today, more than 250 resident swans are here.
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On a summer morning in 1996, retired biology teacher Harold Knapp released the first of 19 Trumpeter Swans as part of a re-introduction project conducted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The goal was to re-establish a breeding flock in the valley. The birds had been brought to Montana from Oregon.

Knapp understood the inestimable value of helping young people to do real work in the real world, so he partnered with the Fish and Game Department to let them experience fieldwork outside the classroom. Knapp had grown up at Round Butte near Ronan. He became a science teacher at Hellgate High in Missoula, where he was chair of the science department, winning many honors and awards. For example, he was named outstanding biology teacher of Montana by the National Association of Biology Teachers in 1968.  

Naturally, he was drawn to the project. What could be better than recreating a swan population in this place where they had once flourished? A river with a swan is an entirely different order than a river with no swans. Their graceful white beauty along with their devoted constancy,  they usually form monogamous relationships for life, have gained them a prominent place in the folklore and literature of many peoples. Just as we use mountains to imagine the concept of “majestic,” swans help us imagine beauty, grace, serenity, love, and passion. In Hinduism, swans symbolize the relatedness of the material world to the spiritual realm, creatures at home in both water and sky. They are living metaphors, tangible realities that are also bridges to the invisible world.

When the swan reintroduction project began, the only Trumpeter Swans seen in the valley were during migration—visitors that stopped briefly coming from or returning to Canada. No breeding pairs had lived here for decades.

Local Trumpeter Swans did not survive the Homesteading Era early in the Twentieth Century, due mainly to subsistence hunting by both settlers and Natives. The big birds are tasty and easily hunted. Commercial pressure also played a part. We know that nationally there was a market for their hides and feathers for quilts, pillows, and mattresses and the feathers were desired for women’s hats and garments. Swan quill pens were also popular, and they were on the market in London by 1736 in bundles of 25 or 100. The Hudson Bay Company’s hunters harvested about 108,000 swans between 1823-1880, and the numbers declined precipitously after that. Many thousands of swan skins ended up in Europe. The company had a trading post at Fort Connah near Post Creek in the Heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Other environmental pressures also contributed to the disappearance of the swans. As the valley became more agricultural, many of the pothole ponds that dotted the landscape, dating back more than 10,000 years to the last ice age, were dewatered for agriculture. The influx of people after the Reservation was opened to non-Indian homesteading in 1910 caused many changes to the flora and fauna of the area.

The passing away of swans on the Reservation was part of a much bigger story.  In 1929, the National Park Service began a survey to figure out how many swans remained in North America. Over the next four years they found 31 swans in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, 26 near the park at the Red Rock Lakes in the Centennial Valley of Montana, and 12 others in the surrounding area. Researchers concluded that the birds were on the brink of extinction. Later, remnant populations of Trumpeters were also found in western Canada and in parts of Alaska. In the 1930s and 1940s restoration efforts began, using eggs from the Red Rock Lakes.

In 1968, 3700 Trumpeter Swans were counted in North America. By 2015, there were 63,000. It’s a vital story—how that restoration happened and is happening, the return of  the largest North American bird  and maybe the largest living waterfowl on earth (measuring up to four feet tall and weighing up  to 30 pounds, with a wingspan of up to eight feet)—involving thousands of people, learning and working and offering many forms of support. It’s a story of feasible hope. 

Locally, the re-introduction project was led by Dale Becker, a large, amiable man who has been the Tribal Wildlife Program Manager for CSKT since 1989. Dale grew up on a farm in Iowa, and like Harold Knapp, he spent as much time as he could outdoors hunting and fishing. He and his wife Marilyn moved to Montana in 1977, where he completed a B.S. and an M.S. in Wildlife Biology. He worked for various conservation agencies before being hired by CSKT. He was honored as the Wildlife Biologist of the Year by the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society in 2004, and he served as President of The Trumpeter Swan Society from 2005 to 2010.

Dale began planning with other tribal, state and federal wildlife managers to reintroduce Trumpeter Swans in 1996, triggered in part by money in the form of mitigation funds from Kerr Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Flathead River a few miles below Flathead Lake. Ecological restoration often becomes more important to people as prosperity advances. People who live near to hunger will readily eat swan eggs or roasted swan.

Today, the big birds are a common sight on the Flathead Reservation, and the trendlines are good. The captive breeding program has been suspended because it appears that wild nesting will be enough. We can restore what has been lost if we are willing to study and obey nature’s ways, if we are willing to find allies and accept constant work, and if we are willing to learn from attempts that fail, re-envisioning the path forward.

When autumn came in 1996, those 19 swans relocated from Oregon that were released into the Pablo Reservoir flew away and did not return. So, back to the drawing board.

By 1999, Dale and partners on the project (including an old friend of mine, Bill Edelman, of the Lower Flathead Valley Community Foundation) had located better sources of cygnets. They established a relationship with the Trumpeter Swan Fund (TSF) in Jackson, Wyoming. This provided both a source of cygnets and access to a wealth of knowledge about captive breeding and introducing captive birds into the wild. With a source of the indispensable resource and more knowledge the project continued. Since 2002, 125 Trumpeter Swans have been hatched in captivity and released on Reservation waters. 

The first successful nest in the wild occurred in 2004 at Del Palmer’s place, a beautiful property lined with weeping willows, just west of the Ninepipe Reservoir. The successful pair continued nesting there for 13 years, until the death of the female. In 2018, according to Becker, 194 resident adults and sub-adults and 64 cygnets were counted here (and 329 in the rest of Montana).

Since the re-introduced swans had been raised in captivity, they never accompanied their parents on the southward migration, usually to Red Rock Lakes where warm springs keep two large, shallow lakes unfrozen through the winter. The lakes are in the wild Centennial Valley, protected since 1935 as a federal wildlife refuge.  The Flathead swans have lost migratory patterns that had existed for millennia.  Most of the birds now winter locally, a few miles southwest on the Flathead River between Dixon and Paradise.  Essentially, the swans have become year around residents even though the river doesn’t have an abundance of aquatic vegetation such as waterweed, pondweed, watermilfoil, and duck potato. Trumpeter Swans are heavy feeders, eating up to 20 pounds of plants a day. But despite sparse foods, the birds “seem to get by,” said Becker. “If the river ices up, they move up or downstream for a few days.”

When we attempt a restoration, many things have likely changed so what we create will not be identical to what existed in the past. We live with current realities such as that the migratory habits of today’s swans are different. Even more striking, the Pablo Reservoir, which is where the first reintroductions took place (and is today a favored location where many dozens of swans gather for the fall molt) is an artificial lake that didn’t exist when wild swans nested here without human intervention.

Pablo Dam was completed as a storage reservoir for irrigation in 1919.  The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) requested the establishment of Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, and in 1948 Congress passed legislation enabling the federal government to create a long-term lease for the Indian Trust land and to superimpose a national wildlife refuge on the irrigation project. The wetlands that exist today are to some extent the creations of large, coordinating institutions that barely existed in the early Twentieth Century.

Not long ago I spent the last two hours of a day on the shore of the reservoir. The site doesn’t have recreational facilities which means its an easy place to be alone. It’s permissible to hike down to the lake when nesting season is over. That evening I photographed Trumpeter Swans, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Terns, an Osprey, several Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, some Killdeer, and one American White Pelican. Up to 18 varieties of shorebirds have been seen in a single day, according to Audubon. It isn’t wilderness, exactly, but wildness is abundant there, mainly because of people who wanted it to be there enough to learn and to work, and then to learn again.

For the Tribes, ecological restoration is inseparable from cultural and spiritual restoration, as, I think, it is for us all. This may be easier to see for a hunter/gatherer culture, but what is happening now is that the tribes have accepted modern technology and science but subject their uses to the advice and direction of tribal elders. Last fall at a Lake Honoring program at the University of Montana’s Biological Research Station on Flathead Lake, school children from area high schools experienced a series of science station led by staff of the University of Montana, MFWP, and CSKT. The opening session featured a talk to students by Tony Incashola,  Selish and Qlispe Culture Committee Director. Tony has been a leader in the work of restoring and preserving traditional culture. In 2017, Incashola was presented with the Montana Historical Society’s Board of Trustees Heritage Keeper Award for his “dedication to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the culture, history, and language of the people of the Flathead Nation.”

 “Taking care of our environment is an important part of our way of life as Native people,” he said. “If we can learn to value the earth when we’re young, we’ll carry that throughout our life and hopefully pass it on to the next generation.” He stressed that there was no conflict between traditional values and science. “We respect the trees and appreciate all they do for us. The provide us with shade. They give places for birds to nest. We can burn wood to keep warm. But we can also learn more about how they do these things and what we can do to care for them.”

A true restoration won’t be an inflexible replica of some state of things that existed at some point in the past. It needs to be a living community of humans and other creatures interacting in complex ways with realities that exist right now. The result will be different in some ways from what was once here. It’s an act of creation.

If we do our work well, we find balances that include as many pieces of the bigger picture as possible. In finding those balances, we greatly increase our knowledge of how nature works. We tread sacred paths that open to us only as we move forward. “We learn by going,” Roethke said, “where we have to go.”

We become stewards, gardeners whose byword is “care.” Restoration is creation, engaging the past and the present to form visions of the future, informed by science but drawn onward by our hearts’ recognition of the swans themselves—aspects of Creation that give accessible form to an older and deeper spiritual knowing.

Life lessons and gardening

pink clematis

The clematis may be a symbol of ingenuity or of mental beauty. The meanings of flowers, as of other things, can be easily missed by a lab scientist peering through a microscope. There are spiritual dangers in not having a garden because a gardenless life easily becomes a barren life, an unsatisfying simulacrum.

What I learn in the garden is mainly the wisdom of traditions that I once kept through faith. I’ve learned from my culture and picked up from books insights that I could see were true in an intellectual way, and through gardening these insights have gained clarity. They’ve been embodied in the substance of my experience. In other words, my culture may be the source of what I know more than my garden.

I’ve been fortunate to have been raised in an intelligent culture, amid folklore and scripture more intelligent than I. There are truths in our heritage, if we are lucky, that we can learn only by obedience. Someone decades on in a good garden or a good marriage knows things that words cannot communicate to those who don’t know them. Spiritual truths can be discerned only with the spirit, to which the intellect may be a dull-witted and flat-footed bystander.

That’s not to say it’s possible or desirable to avoid mistakes. I have a long list of things that I now know don’t work, though it once seemed that they might. I’ve gained stronger vision than I had at the beginning, and it’s vision that drives the work of gardening. I don’t mean by “vision” what I think Robert Kennedy meant with his plagiarized self-promotion: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”


“Why?” remains the more potent question if one is driven by a hunger for reality. Why-not-ism easily becomes a rationale for thoughtless destruction, as history shows. Why not collectivize the farms to enforce equality? Why not replace fathers with welfare and mothers with daycare? Why not remove the levees that culture put in place to restrain sexual passions? Why not seize money from entrepreneurs and give it to the indigent and improvident? Why not slaughter the cattle of the prosperous to provide a brief feast for the poor? Why not dissolve nations via international financial creatures and open border fiats? Why not plant palm trees in Butte, Montana? Such visions are thin stuff—fantasies without living substance. They are void of wisdom, which is a reality-based phenomenon.

An ancient proverb states that “without vision the people perish,” and this is followed immediately with an injunction to keep the law. Moral law structures our cosmos much as the system of forces described by Newton structures the universe. Strong vision is seeing deeply and accurately the laws of human meaning and action. With an informed imagination and intelligent desire we can construct models of actuality in our minds. A weak imagination may conjure up the fantasy of palms and gardenias for a backyard in Montana, but such fantasies can’t be brought into actual existence. They cannot be given substance even with the most committed effort.

Stronger visions emerge when we see so clearly why and how things are that we can connect the present with the past, seeing what is becoming and thus glimpsing the future. Imagination is an innate power of our nature to see and understand what we are and what surrounds us. We can build mental models of things as they really are, using them as maps to negotiate workable paths through an actual world. We become partners with Creation, participating in the unfolding of life. The Creator said of Creation that It was good, and creatures in his image can echo that truth.

The more we learn about specific plants as well as soil, water, sun, pests and disease the saner our visions can be. We develop our sense of time, understanding and affirming that the creation of a rose is only possible as a process in time. We learn that time is opportunity. I have arching beauty bushes that stand 10 feet tall on each side of the entrance into my prayer garden. I saw them before I planted them, though I see them more clearly now, fifteen years later. There are moments in May when they are so bejeweled with new blossoms that the world is more beautiful than I could ever deserve. Hard work can make life more and more a succession of such moments.

With vision we can convert meaningless events into a sequence of shining moments, plot points in the story we author. And we know that for us creation is never ex nihilio. Interestingly, that hoary doctrine of creation “out of nothing” was itself created out of nothing by philosophers arguing from the Stoic and Gnostic world views in the second century AD. It’s possible to create philosophical concepts out of nothing and then to talk about them as though they exist—much of our political discourse in this age of propaganda is that sort of nonsense. But such vanities are not useful to gardeners. For us, creation is a matter of organizing the materials and patterns we find and editing what is present.

There’s an admirable humility and wisdom in that. We do not create the rains and the sun and the soil nor can we instill the plant’s nature to grow. We are immersed in grace. And it’s all transient. There are no enduring accomplishments. We can shape and assist but we cannot control. We can only care; gardens are emblems of care.

And we have to do the scut work. If we neglect things, they will not thrive. They might die. Azaleas don’t like their roots to get dry. Rhododendrons suffer from desiccating winter winds. Tulip and lily heads are delicacies to deer. Our relationships to the growing things in our garden are the same as other relationships: they require attention and effort. We live best when we find and practice an endless attention and an endless care.

Sometimes it’s simple. Where calendula or echinacea or daisies have reseeded prolifically, we remove more than we leave so that the remaining plants may thrive. Some plants need to die to create healthy space or circumstances for others. Sometimes it’s simple. We pull out some bindweed, or we dig out the dandelions. Sometimes it’s harder—removing the maple that has grown too tall, shading plants that need sun. And even with all our care, loss is built into the game. A stand of Austrian pines succumbs to a beetle infestation. A city water line repair removes a stand of lilacs. A drought forces us to let fast-growing plants die so we can provide scarce water to the trees.

We meet these things without anger, as we meet sunset or autumn. Loss is built into the game. We are transient beings, made of transient beings, living amid transient beings. The structure of human reality requires sacrifice—those moments when to save something of value we have to give up something of value. It is through sacrifice that we gradually clarify our vision, learning what we truly do love, and learning to order our loves so we do not trade things of little value for things of infinite worth, the enduring things.

Sacrifice means “to make sacred.” The sacred, all around us, endures. It is never transient though our grasp of it may be. As we work we glimpse it now and then as beauty. It appears as brilliant moments which we labored for but did not earn as bursting light and joy touch us in our depth, transforming us to luminous creatures of hope, knowing that it is good.

End Times: peace and strife

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Toward sunset I put aside whatever daily tasks remain and go out to see what I can see in a wilder place. Several refuges or wilderness areas are nearby. The wetland is nearest, and because it is open country it’s a good place to see birds and other wildlife. It’s a good place to stand  as present as possible to a day coming to an end.

The wetland is part of a bird refuge, quite wild in a way, though we live in days when all such places have become gardens, shaped by human activities and human intentions. Several agencies—federal, state and tribal—collaborate along with private landowners to agree on how the gardening should proceed. A map of land ownership shows a strongly checkerboarded view, though when one is in the middle of it, the abstractions are less compelling than what lives and moves there, such as the Trumpeter Swans, reintroduced a few years ago. The power lines that traverse the refuge have spinning reflective cards on them, to reduce the mortality of swans and other birds that have no nearly invisible cables running through the skies of their evolutionary history.

I took the photograph because I was moved by the peacefulness and harmony of the scene at last light. To the left, the western sky was a more dramatic interplay of vivid sunset colors. To the right, the jagged majesty of the Mission Mountains, purple sedimentary mudstone with white glaciers and pink clouds, was more of a spectacle. But the view to the north had a quietness that I found attractive.

Not that I’m naïve about the details hidden by the scale at which I focus on that panoramic view. The biology of earth is premised on death. Plants may eat the air (especially carbon dioxide), but most eating involves the death of something else. Among we creatures, we are always potential food for another member of the community.

collageBloody in tooth and claw: Osprey with fish, Kingbird with insect, Red-tailed Hawk with baby skunk.

And yet, that’s never all we are. We recognize and respond to the beauty and the sense of calm which persists around and through the brief flurries of struggle. In shifting our focus from the struggle to the calm, we change the pulse and tempo of experience, as we do when we shift our focus back to this particular hawk tearing at the flesh of this particular skunk. Both are present to us only so far as we are present to them. This is the stuff we are made of.

True religion, I think, deals mainly with immanence. Spirit animates us, and we see that whatever we are we are distributed through a world in which objects and settings circulate through each other. I have a plug-in in my bag—Sibley’s field guide—which allows me to upload centuries of accumulated gleanings into the thoughts and desires already circulating amid the pink of the northern sky and the crisp slice of an osprey veering through the space just above me, the dead fish neatly aligned aerodynamically in his left claw. The breeze lifts my hair and brings me the spicy fragrance of hundreds of Russian Olives, blooming yellow. Making a photograph is one way to pray, to turn attention to the circulation of this world through me.

Autumn and change

I planted a stand of Gaillardia this year at the front of a large bed of oriental poppies. They began blooming as the poppies died in early summer, and continued blossoming until hard frosts. Lewis and Clark collected a species of gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) in Montana in 1806.

One could argue against autumn, trying to get imaginary opponents to see that the world was once warmer, the sun brighter, and the whole garden fragrant with lilacs then peonies then lilies. There’s pleasure in judging–in seeing that some present circumstance does not meet some standard we have learned. In the decay and dreary rain of November, the remembered delights of easy summer nights entice us to name the doom that descends as nightfall on the many-pleasured peace just past.

To be sane, we also know the delights of getting things ready. My pump is stored, tools gathered, the massive leaf fall of cottonwood and willow raked and moved to mulch the most tender roses and smother the weeds in borders and beds. Apple branches broken by the bears that come each year when the fruit is ripe have been sawed and piled in the meadow, where a New Year’s Eve bonfire may bring the pleasure in being toasty and warm outside on a cold winter night.

As temperatures cooled and the sun dropped in the southern sky, trees moved nitrogen, magnesium and phosphates from leaves to the bark. Then the hormones auxin followed by ethylene triggered the leaves, stripped of nutrients and no longer photosynthesizing, to drop.  The tree monitors the cold, tracking interactions between proteins until time and cold have lasted long enough and new buds begin to form new leaves.

Late autumn is the best time for making some major changes in the garden. Besides planting hundreds of new bulbs–this year mainly deer-resistant daffodils, white and fragrant–one November chore was moving tree peonies that have never bloomed, most likely because they don’t get enough sunshine. Tree peonies don’t like to be moved. They develop, slowly, extensive root systems, and to preserve as much of that as possible, it’s best to wait till the plants are dormant and  then to begin digging at some distance from the main stems, to expose and loosen as much of the root as possible.

Making dramatic changes when things are flourishing and bursting with life may not work. But autumn is a time to see and act on possibilities.


Let there be delphiniums in the old orchard


Over seven-feet tall, delphiniums are a moment of pure aspiration. Moments in a garden can be anticipated and designed because they are not random, but we don’t control them. We participate in being on its terms, which we learn slowly, a little here and a little there.

We garden by imagining future moments and then making the arrangements, which involve thoughts about soil, sunshine, water, seasonal changes, and the nature of the plants that will play their part. Creation is never ex nihilo, though it does involve our power of speech, which is our power to bring an order that we have imagined into being.

The delphinium exists in a spot that is sheltered from wind. It gets nine hours of sunshine on a typical June day, though a few feet in every direction gets much less because of the shade of various trees and hedges. The spot gets shadier in the afternoon, when the sun is blocked by massive cottonwoods to the west.

The plant is supported by a 42-inch cylinder of net wire, no longer visible because the plant has grown through it. In early spring, I added two inches of compost as a top dressing. Since the plant began making the tall spikes a few weeks ago, I’ve watered it by hand with a hose, dousing the roots but not getting the flower spikes wet. When they get wet, the hollow stalks fall over and break at the top of the wire cylinder, which is only half as tall as the plant.

Delphiniums are not drought tolerant, and if the soil dries out they begin dying. Last summer, they needed water while in full flower, so I tried watering them with a sprinkler that made a soft mist instead of the impact sprinklers I normally use, which cover large areas but can be brutal on delicate plants. It didn’t work. The sprinkler was gentle but the water didn’t weigh any less, and the flowers began flopping over. I turned off the water and began installing individual stakes for each spike. This year, I was m ore careful. An unanticipated rain would wreak considerable havoc, creating a moment quite unlike the one I imagined. But it’s been a very dry summer.

The garden is a symphony of moments, of varying duration, many of them planned but some of them wild surprises. Each moment reveals a host of patterns, which we see in our mind’s eye. The moments are fleeting though in and endless succession, but the patterns remain in our minds forever, and we link them to other patterns, and as consciousness expands we see the patterns themselves forming larger patterns. The logos is a marriage of reality and consciousness, which are not two different things. And though very little of what happens is caused by me, what is happening does require constant care, which is not a problem. It is the real work. It is what God does, he says.