Happy Birthday Margaret!

Margaret was born April 17, in 1885, one hundred and thirty-four years ago today. The launching of this blog is my way of celebrating her birthday. A special lunch featured one of her favorite foods–mushrooms!

2018 Margaret McKenny Birthday Walk

This post is the script used for a celebratory walk held in the LBA Woods in Olympia, Washington, April 17, 2018 in honor of Margaret’s birthday. You can use it as a guide for your own walk in the woods. See the LBA Woods map at the bottom of the post for directions.

Thank you for coming today, Margaret McKenny’s birthday. This walk in the woods will be done in her spirit, using some of her words and observations to guide and inspire us. As I’ve read her books and her papers, saved for us at the State Library, I have discovered gems of wisdom and whimsy that I’ll share with you today.

But first of all, who was Margaret McKenny? Maybe you saw the elementary school named for her on your way here, or know that a neighborhood park has been named for her, or heard her name evoked whenever a tree or city park needed protection. 

She was born here in Olympia in 1885, a few years before statehood, and grew up here, roamed the countryside learning all about Northwest flora and fauna. She became a teacher, a writer, a gardener of wild flowers and a prize-winning photographer. She was a noted expert on fungi.

In 1927 she moved to New York City where she worked for the Garden Club of America and then the NY City Garden Clubs and was associated with the American Museum of Natural History and the NY Botanical Gardens. She wrote nature-themed books and magazine articles about gardening and got know people like Roger Tory Peterson and other notables in natural history circles. But she grew homesick for her birthplace and returned to Olympia in 1942 where she hoped to teach everyone the natural glories of her home state.

Some of the readings we will use today come from her series of Nature Notes that were the basis of a radio program she hosted in the 1940s, and were later printed in newspapers and collected into a book.

Margaret continued to write and teach and garden when she came home. She founded the Olympia Audubon Society in 1953 and headed various citizen groups that saved Olympia’s watershed for a natural-area park, protested tree-cutting in Priest Point Park, and began the long-haul work of saving Nisqually Delta from industrial development. She died in 1969 but passed the baton to strong leaders who continued the work. Some of us took heart from those efforts and worked to save these “LBA” woods from destruction.

Today we can enjoy the intricate beauty of these woods and plan for even greater health for this forest as we learn about it. And to see and enjoy the woods is our primary purpose today. We will walk along one of the trails and stop every once in awhile and see what’s growing there, from the tiny emerging shoots, to lush understory, and the varied trees that make up the canopy. We’ll listen for birds and talk about some of the creatures who live here but who we might not see. I will read from a selection of Margaret’s writing to keep her “with us.” We will be talking at several spots, but will not provide a running commentary so that you can pay attention to what you see, think, and feel in the relative quiet of the woods. A note about the trail: some of it is bumpy with tree roots and whatnot; we’ll take our time but do look down as you walk and not always up at the trees.

Let’s begin with this piece from a diary she kept to set the mood:

Today we were both valiantly doing household duties, the sun began to break through the clouds, and simultaneously we decided we were not being true to our better selves if we stayed in the house to contend with dust which after all is only the moldering past while sunlight is the spirit of the future…Then as the gray veil of clouds cooled the air we strolled slowly home, luxuriating in the feel of the soft leaf mold beneath our feet and the sense that we has wasted time in the most worthwhile way. After a day like that, unhurried, unworried, I can always settle myself to write.

Now, let’s enter the woods and walk to first stopping place:


One of Margaret’s insights was the importance of direct experience of nature. So we will have a moment of quiet for you to just look around and breathe in the forest.

What did you notice?

We don’t know if Margaret ever visited this particular forest although she was familiar with many areas of wilderness surrounding Olympia, which was much smaller in her day. This area was logged more than once; we can see some evidence of pioneer era logging in the high stumps left by loggers who perched above the bulbous trunks and used the big cross-cut saws, and we can surmise by looking at later stands of trees that patches were clear-cut and then recovered all at once with same-aged growth. What we have now, and probably have always had, is a mixed forest of evergreen and deciduous trees with lots of undergrowth of bushes, ferns, vines, some wildflowers, mosses and lichens. That mix is one of the greatest assets on these woods. A great habitat for birds and other creatures!

Let’s listen to some excerpts from Margaret. You’ll notice that the language of the Nature Notes is fairly straightforward and didactic, as they were composed primarily for children, but did not exclude adult readers, especially those who remained open and curious…as children. As did Margaret.

Nature Notes: The Douglas Fir

Small bristly flowers borne at the ends of the twigs, soon become brown cones with seeds beneath their scales. The seeds are small, flat and winged so they can fly far and find new homes. You can always tell the cones from those of other evergreens because between the scales are three-pointed bracts like Neptune’s trident.

The Douglas Squirrel or Chickaree

Early explorers of the Northwest were puzzled by the sound of a strange trill; they thought it was the call of a shy woodland bird. When they discovered that it was a squirrel, they called it a chickaree, but now it has been named for David Douglas, the Scottish botanist. They live on the seeds of pines, firs, spruce and hemlocks, storing them in great middens for winter. They also enjoy berries, flowers and mushrooms and even eat carrion and gnaw shed antlers for minerals.

Now let’s walk on a ways.


Margaret was a bird expert; she conducted some of the earliest Christmas bird counts here in the 1920s, and later founded our local Audubon Society. In her writing and teaching, she emphasized birds in their habitat and taught people how to invite birds into their yards by including native plants for food and shelter. She always saw birds “in place.”  

Nature Note: The Pileated Woodpecker

The Pileated woodpecker likes to live in the deep untouched forest, but he is very fond of the fruit of the dogwood or madrona. With a great deal of clattering “cock, cock, cock,” the big, rather awkward birds eat greedily of the crimson fruit. Sometimes, big as they are, they hang upside down just like a chickadee.


This is a good place to notice the age of this forest, its stands of trees all the same age, but with some surviving large older trees, the canopy openings, the fallen trees. The more you look, the more you can see the complexity of the forest, its layers of new growth, its remaining older “second” growth, the trees decaying back into soil to support future growth.

Near here I’ve heard a Winter—or now-called—Pacific Wren. Maybe we’ll be lucky and hear it today. The different ages and kinds of trees and understory growth create many kinds of habitat for birds and animals. This forest is a refuge, a sanctuary for wildlife. Here is Margaret discussing two others:

Nature Note:  Song Sparrow

The cheerful notes of the song sparrow are heard in both summer and winter. He even sings in the pouring rain. He chirps and chirps, flitting from bush to bush, always on the move and always pumping his tail up and down. He is one of the most fearless of our western birds.

And now an excerpt from a Nature Note on a creature not many of us have seen but which does live in these woods: Mountain Beaver:

It isn’t a squirrel (as Captain Lewis thought) and it isn’t a beaver. Zoologists say it belongs to a family all its own, the mountain beaver family. It is a rodent, one of the earliest forms known on earth; it hasn’t changed through thousands, perhaps millions of years. It is found only in western Washington, Oregon and California.


Nature Note: Ocean Spray

The Ocean spray belongs to the rose family and is closely related to spiraea. When the leaf buds of ocean spray open in early spring the leaves are so tiny that they give the shrub a misty look. The flowers grow in long, drooping sprays. There are hundreds of flowers in each cluster. In July the shrub is draped with the long sprays which look like delicate lace against the blue sky.

As I mentioned, Margaret taught that birds and plants existed together, so this is a good place to hear another excerpt from a Nature Note about a bird we may see here: The Bush-tit:

The Bush-tit may be a wee bit of a bird, but he makes up for his lack of size by being as busy as he can be all day long. They are so fearless that they often choose a place to nest in plain sight; they like the ocean spray very much, perhaps because the seed clusters hang on the branches until late spring and help camouflage their nest.


Margaret was a noted mushroom expert. She began studying mushrooms around 1913, published her first book on them in 1929 and in 1962 one of her most well known books, The Savory Wild Mushroom. She loved to advise amateur mushroom hunters who were free to knock on her door, basket of discoveries in hand, as well as working with university botany professors and even medical doctors who were treating poisoning cases. And she loved to cook up a dish and share mushroom delicacies with her friends!

In this Nature Note, Margaret forthrightly and humorously addresses the old question, Mushrooms or Toadstools?

There is no difference between a mushroom and a toadstool. It is correct to say a poisonous or an edible mushroom, or a poisonous or an edible toadstool. Mushrooms are often found in mossy places, and the word mushroom comes from a French word meaning mossy. Long ago people thought toads carried a poison, and because both toads and mushrooms were found in damp, mossy places, they thought toads sat on mushrooms. It is well known now that toads are not poisonous, and that they are good friends of the gardener, much too busy catching insects to take time to sit on a toadstool, or mushroom, whatever name is used.


When she came back to Washington after living in New York City, Margaret reveled in our mountain meadows, deep rainforests on the Olympic peninsula and nearby woods, like this one. All were rich with life full of interest for her. Some of her eastern friends were horrified that she would leave “the national stage” but she was keen to make them appreciate what we have “out here” and to make sure all the people newly arrived in the West in the post-war population surge would also learn to love the West as she did. Margaret likened herself to Thoreau, “studying her own wood lot.”

I believe she fought to protect nearby “wild” areas and natural parks like Priest Point Park because she was so interested in children—and adults—being able to find these places easily and go there frequently to be in nature and see the seasonal changes and other wonders. She understood the value of these nearby places and the need for accessibility. Had she still been alive, she would have led the effort to save these woods from the bulldozers.

The trees provide the structure of the woods and draw our eyes upward. We could say, the trees are the woods. But the understory is just as much a part of the forest as these vertical stars. Salal and Oregon grape are also quintessential Northwest plants.

Nature Note: The Oregon Grape

In early spring, soon after the first crocus fades, the golden flowers of the Oregon grape unfold. Soon the fragrant clusters stand high above the shining, prickly foliage. The tender new leaves are often reddish and add greatly to the charm of the plant. In summer the flowers are followed by blue berries, edible but very sour.

We haven’t seen many flowers but they too provide interest, food for insects and other vital roles. One of Margate’s favorites was the trillium—we’ve included her Note* on this native flower for you to keep—but she loved many wild flowers and much of her work focused on teaching others an appreciation for their beauty and variety. She saw in them a kind of salvation.

She tells this story to illustrate her own dawning awareness and her motivation to share the insight and sense of wonder that shaped her whole life. I’d like to close with this story, but we can, of course, keep talking about Margaret while we move into the birthday party in the picnic shelter in a few minutes:

“I learned what true conservation meant from the lesson given me by an old man when we were on a trip in the woods. I was only seven and he took me apart from the other children and showed me this fairy-slipper. I can still see the place, a mossy bower laced with moss-draped vine maples. I think I could go back to that very spot. This gentle old man told me this flower was very rare and fast disappearing and I must never pick it. That lesson lingered so well that I have hope for other children.”

Happy Birthday, Margaret! And Thank You!

*See the copy of this Nature Note here. All the Notes had a similar format.

LBA Woods Map guide for walk

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