Clark’s Nutcracker:
Poetry by Alexandra Teague
Art by Claire Emery

from Cascadia Field Guide: Art | Ecology | Poetry

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This excerpt of Cascadia Field Guide: Art | Ecology | Poetry, edited by Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman, and Derek Sheffield, is reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher, Mountaineers Books.

Cascadia Field Guide: Art | Ecology | Poetry, Edited by Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman, and Derek Sheffield

Have you ever been so filled up with the wonder of a place that it wants to spill out as a song? Well, here is the songbook. I imagine walking through a forest and pausing to read these illuminating pages aloud to a listening cedar or a dipper. There are field guides that help us to see, and to name, and to know; Cascadia Field Guide does all of that and more. This is a guide to relationship, a gift in reciprocity for the gifts of the land.
  – Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass

Learn more and purchase the book.

Clark’s Nutcracker

(Nucifraga columbiana)

Clark’s Nutcracker doesn’t have any true songs. Instead, they have a repertoire of calls ranging from a rasping, metallic kraak-kraak that keeps them in touch with other Nutcrackers to an actual squall when disturbed. They even croak. But this beautiful black-and-gray bird who flashes white in tail and wing calls a little differently to family, using a low, melodious song that rises in pitch and sounds a bit like a Human baby gurgling and cooing.

Nucifraga columbiana, or Nutcracker of the Columbia, is one of very few members of the corvid (or Crow) family in which the male shares incubation duties with his mate. This incredible being uses a daggerlike bill to dig into pine cones and pull out large seeds, which they stash in a pouch under their tongue until they can store them in the cracks of bark or in little trenches they dig with their bills.

Not only does Clark’s Nutcracker depend on pine seeds, but pines themselves have been changed by their relationship with Nutcracker. Pinyon and Limber Pines, among others, depend on Nutcracker to disperse their seeds. Over time, this relationship has changed the trees’ seeds, cones, and even overall shape in comparison to pine species who rely on the wind to disperse their seeds.

Perhaps the most critical relationship Nutcrackers have is with Whitebark Pine (whose seed, ounce for ounce, has more calories than chocolate!). Whitebark is in decline due to Mountain Pine Beetle infection, blister rust, and the long-term effects of fire suppression. Clark’s Nutcracker is integral to the restoration of Whitebark Pine. Whitebark needs Nutcracker to cache seeds in
excess (more than they’ll ever eat) for healthy stands to regenerate. Without the Whitebark, the Nutcracker loses a vital food source and may no longer nest in areas where the tree is a primary source of life.

We believe, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, that “names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.” Many believe the time has come to rename this amazing being to better reflect the relationship Nutcracker has with fellow beings and not the relationship it never had with a history that regarded beings only in the ways they may glorify a single Human.

Clark's Nutcracker

First Seeking Clark’s Nutcrackers: June 2020

Shoshone County, Idaho

We’d driven to a mountain named Grandmother to be alone in fields of bear grass with our fears. We’d brought binoculars to bring the world close without touching it. We were just starting to suspect for years we’d been like children playing with binoculars the wrong way round: tunneling everything to one distant spot called the future. Playing pin-the-treasure on every map we had to survive here. Between Douglas firs, nutcrackers kraaked and rode the updrafts, their tails fanning like flying pianos with too few black keys. Their beaks’ jet trowels, the original jaws of life, could pry open the tightest cones of whitebark pines. In one summer, we read, one bird could stash 80,000 seeds in mounds of two or three; then precisely remember months later those tens of thousands of caches under snowdrift and deadfall. The land shedding seasons and details, adding saplings and squirrels and heather, like those word problems we never thought we’d really need. We were starting to suspect knowledge was never a single compact apple. We were starting to wish we hadn’t just copied from the answer key. How to Stay Alive in the Woods said, There is just one method to keep from getting lost, and that is to stay found. Like most tautologies, the distance between a thing and itself only grew farther as we tried to speak of it. Stocked-grocery-store
people-not-dying-or-fewer. What we thought were trees swept by fire on the ridge, their trunks blanched ashy, were whitebark pines killed by beetles and blister-rust. A ghost forest. Only the caches the nutcrackers fail to find may grow more trees. Imagine mapping more than your own survival. Knowing, months before, how to pry and fly and hide one seed, then another seed.




Alexandra TeagueAlexandra Teague is the author of three poetry books—Or What We’ll Call Desire, The Wise and Foolish Builders, and Mortal Geography—and the novel The Principles behind Flotation, as well as co-editor of Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. She is a professor at the University of Idaho, where she co-directs the MFA program. Her memoir in essays, Spinning Tea Cups: A Mythical American Memoir, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2023.

Read Alexandra Teague’s Letter to America, “‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (arranged for Brazen Bull)” appearing in



Claire EmeryClaire Emery is an interdisciplinary artist and educator who works for community vitality through her woodblock prints, educational workshops, and artist-in-residence programs. Trained as a natural science illustrator, place-based educator, and contemporary artist, Emery sees art as a catalyst that engages people and communities in creating vitality, resilience, and clarity. She has worked as an artist-in-residence in Montana primary and secondary schools for over 15 years, sponsored by the Montana Arts Council. She has taught at the Missoula Art Museum, Montana Audubon, the Montana Natural History Center, Project WET, the Wilderness Institute, the Watershed Education Network, Montana State Parks, Northwest Connections, and many other venues.

Header image, Eastern Rivers Cluster, by Justin Gibbens, from Cascadia Field Guide. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.