Floating in Fog

Yesterday on my way to the post office, I experienced one of the delights of living in a small town. I had to wait at a stop sign for a little wiggly line of day care children (I counted nine), all connected together by a rope, being led across the street by their daycare leader.

January is our year’s monthcare leader. It directs the way and pulls along the rest of the months, whether they’re ready or not. They follow, bumping and stumbling, all with their own unique characteristics and quirks–hot sun, falling leaves, spring flowers.

But January leads the pack. Sometimes it rains nonstop, like today. Sometimes it’s cold and icy, like the day earlier this month when I took this photo of frost on the native rhododendron leaves.

Toshiba Digital Camera

Toshiba Digital Camera

And sometimes this month gives us fog. Several years ago I was walking beside the bay on an early January morning. Not even a wisp of wind stirred the water and it was still and gray. A heavy gray layer of fog blended into the water and for the life of me, I could not tell where the water ended and the fog began. Water and sky became one gray mass. But scattered across this mix of sky and sea were about 30 ducks, just little black blobs that looked like they could be floating either on the water or in the sky.

Then, as I watched them, I realized there was a little bit of morning light just beginning to break through the eastern sky from behind me. Eerie light had begun to streak onto the water, but it didn’t permeate the gray mass ahead of me. I felt like I had stepped forward into another world–until a car stopped up ahead of me and a couple got out to also admire and take photos.

This year I love January, its quiet time with fog and rain, and flannel sheets on the bed. The promise of a few sunny days in February is bumping up next on the rope. And it can give us its own beauty as well. Just a few days before January this year, the Potter caught this beautiful photo up on Chuckanut, near Bellingham, of some of the heavy clouds we see this month.

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The Grasses of the Field

We were seniors at Pacific Lutheran University in the spring of the year, a time in my life when I thought everything would last forever.

Toshiba Digital Camera

Beach Grass

One Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend suggested we visit Paul and his wife. He wanted them to meet me. I remember being reluctant. Not only was I not on a first name basis with my professors, but I never “dropped by” their houses on a weekend afternoon.

Paul wasn’t actually a professor. He managed the very small campus radio studio, and since Don was involved in campus dramas, they had become acquainted.

I’m not convinced they were happy to see us, but they warmly welcomed us into their home several blocks from campus. Two young children were bouncing about and a harried wife was struggling with the weekend load of wash and a cluttered house. I don’t remember that we stayed long.

A dozen years before, in 1951, a PLU regent and benefactor from Burlington gave the school a radio studio as part of the Eastvold Chapel which was being built, hoping that someday PLU would have a radio station. For 15 years it was used for speech classes and a few radio programs.

I graduated and left PLU that spring in 1964. Two years later, on November 16, 1966, KPLU-FM went on the air with the objective of providing “top quality information and musical programs.” It operated four hours daily, from 4:30-8:30 p.m. Paul Steen was the program director.

“The antenna towers 121 feet above the campus atop the Chapel roof,” reported the December 1966 issue of the PLU newsletter.

Paul Steen only stayed a year or so in that position. He then signed on as general manager of KPBS, a new public television and radio station in San Diego that was just getting on its feet. He stayed there for 26 years.

About one year ago, a year before KPLU-FM would be sold to KUOW-FM, Steen died. He was described by one co-worker as a “visionary.” Steen died at 82. KPLU-FM was sold at 49 years.

We have come full circle. The college confidant is gone, and so is the radio station he guided through its birth. Both exited within a year of each other and they both lived their lives extremely well. The grasses of the field (or beach) that are alive today and tomorrow are…..

A couple of weeks ago I received a letter to alums from the PLU president explaining the rationale for selling. In a time when public radio is struggling, the two stations were duplicating their news and commentary coverage. KPLU-FM would continue to operate as a provider of first rate jazz music.

The other evening I watched PLU students on the local news (a commercial station) demonstrating on campus against this sale. I’m glad to see students with enough passion to get out and march and shout, and I hope they’re doing that for some other causes as well. Our country needs some strong, young–and idealistic–voices in these times.

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Howard Zinn




Crawling Backwards

“Architecture is inhabited sculpture.” — Constantin Brancusi

Maybe you and I are not that far from the cave? A few steps perhaps?

When I was five or six years old, we lived in a house that had an old barn, but I have no memories of it, although I do recall the ladder leading up to the hayloft. That ladder called my name any time I wandered near it.

What I do remember is a very small, shabby shed out behind the barn. Dusty dirt floor. No windows. Light leaking in between the siding boards. A little dark, but not scary dark, although I never dared go out there after the sun set. It became a favorite play spot. I have a vague memory of one of us being in trouble for starting a fire there. It was our space, small, intimate, and the big people never ventured out there. We accumulated small treasures and furnishings there–a couple of chipped cups for the “kitchen,” some broken toys, a row of very valuable rocks.

Last summer we walked the beach at the Point No Point Lighthouse and passed some seven or eight driftwood creations. Every 30 to 50 feet would be another unique structure–never a driftwood animal or sculpture, never a tower, but always a small cabin-like structure we could walk or crawl into. Some of them were tall enough to allow us to stand upright in them.

Driftwood sculpture at another Salish Sea site--a Bellingham Bay beach.

Driftwood sculpture at another Salish Sea site–a Bellingham Bay beach.

Like a sandy subdivision, they lined up in a row down the beach. Days like that restore my faith in people. Why? They stood upright, unguarded and unprotected. Even though they were fragile (no nails, of course), they stood! No one had come along and knocked them down, one by one, just for the heck of it.

Unfortunately it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later that someone lit one on fire (I choose to believe it was an accident) and during a summer that was way too hot and dry, it created considerable problems for the fire department.

Something draws us back into the tight, small, warm spaces. Like babies playing with cardboard cartons, like the architects of tree houses and playhouses, like tent designers, like my friend Jean’s beloved little domed “Turtle” she pulls behind her car, we crawl back into the cave. It makes me wonder if the architects and buyers of the current Monster Houses might be misguided.

Not So Lasting Impressions

More than one bird had met its maker there, so I thought I was becoming a totally bird-friendly house when I cut out a couple of paper bird shapes and taped them up in the porch window.

Usually when birds hit my windows they leave a smudge or maybe a fluffy little feather, whether they survive the hit or not.

Not so this time. It couldn’t have been but a few weeks later when this showed up within inches of the paper bird cutout.

Toshiba Digital Camera

Toshiba Digital Camera

Can you see it? The outline of the whole bird is there–round body, two spread wings, head, and even what might be a beak or crown. When I get up close I can actually see 4-5 individual feather impressions at the tips of each of the wings. It was just a little horrifying at first, similar to seeing body tape on a sidewalk marking where someone died, but I never found a body.

Several days later another imprint appeared–but from a very different animal. This imprint was near the bottom of the sliding glass door on that same porch. My camera couldn’t capture it, but I think your mind can.

Imagine dipping your fingertips into dirty water, almost muddy, but not quite. Now place your hand on a window, palm side down, and run your hand down the window, leaving muddy little finger streaks. Do it again and again and again. And maybe once more. The whole bottom quarter of the glass door looked like small children were having great fun with very dirty fingers.

Raccoons of course. I’m guessing they’re used to being fed elsewhere in the neighborhood by coming to glass windows and doors and standing up at them to beg. No such luck here. Several summers ago, I found long, coarse black hairs on a roughly-textured, plastic-covered porch swing cushion, not far from this window. After a few moments of panic, I guessed that raccoons were partying (and swinging!) on my porch at night.

I haven’t been able to wash either of these imprints away–I’ve grown rather fond of them. But eventually they will disappear, along with my memory of watching the hummingbird this October morning in the rosemary bush.

Not so the people closest to us, as David Levithan assures us in Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, “The important people in our lives leave imprints. They may stay or go in the physical realm, but they are always there in your heart, because they helped form your heart. There’s not getting over that.” Maybe these animal imprints and impressions, all these experiences that force us stop and wonder, are there in our hearts also.

Seabird Congregation

We were walking at dusk on a long spit north of Bellingham Bay when we saw them and stopped–several swarms of seabirds, flying over the water close to shore. Each swarm (or as I have since learned, a “stand,” a “wing,” or a “congregation”) contained hundreds of small birds, likely sandpipers or plovers. Each group swept back and forth as a single unit, staying in formation.

When they made a turn, the whole group flashed from a dark gray to a bright white, showing a side or upper part of their bodies. Like synchronized flashing cards in a football stadium–except these birds were much more precise. The setting sun, Lummi Island across the bay, a tanker just barely visible on the horizon–they all faded away as we stood on a low bank beside the water and watched the show.

And then we heard them also–we were close enough to hear just a slight rustling of their wings, a soft whisper, as they passed. Occasionally one would pop out of the top of the group like a kernel of popcorn being tossed up and out of the group, but eventually would make its way back into the cloud.

The tide was high, covering the huge expanse of mudflats visible earlier in the day. They feed on those mudflats at low tide. We have since learned that this flying is largely a defensive action. The group will tighten into a small core when threatened by a raptor–and no raptor would dare attack such a unit. With no danger in sight, it still appeared to be a “comfortable” formation for them.

For me? Yet another picture and sound I’ve fixed in my memory!

In the fascination of the moment, I didn’t think to grab a camera, but here’s a beautiful video (with music) from a cameraman in England capturing the same kind of experience, but with starlings instead of seabirds. It’s worth watching!


A Flock of Leaves

Madrona trees skirting a saltwater beach and holding back a stand of fir trees.

Madrona trees skirting a saltwater beach and holding back a stand of fir trees.

I couldn’t make sense out of it. How could a young man shoot down ten people in a church, killing nine of them, simply because of the color of their skin? Simply because they were different from him? Setting aside the loss and horror, the act was strange, unnatural, and it unsettled me. And yet as I thought about it, I could see similar symptoms in other parts of our country.

The next day, two days before the solstice signaling the start of summer, I took my walk along the bay. I was glad I’d worn a sweater–the morning had missed the Summer’s Here! message and it was chilly.

Suddenly I stopped–just ahead of me was a huge old madrona tree beside the water. A gust of wind had shaken just the top of the tree and what looked like a flock of hundreds of birds flew up into the air and over the water. Were they birds or leaves? This was not a falling leaves season. They hovered high in the air, even above the tree, for just a few moments. Would they fly off to a friendlier beach? Then they fluttered down ever so gently onto the water, answering my question. I stood there for a minute or two, wondering at what I had seen.

Several diseases have hit many of our madrona trees in the past decade or two. These beautiful trees, our only native broadleafed evergreen tree, are often found beside saltwater bays. They have a shaggy, stringy bark that falls off to reveal a glossy, smooth, golden brown trunk. It’s sad to see them start losing leaves, then limbs, until only an old stump remains. I’ve noticed several dead ones along my walk over the years, including one on my beach.

Was this just a normal dropping of leaves or was it the beginning of the end for the tree, one of the few healthy ones remaining on this stretch of beach?

Diseases can spread and kill–a tree or a group of people.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/95721592@N00/5683604819″>Lopez Island point</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;


Everyone wants to make connections, even an introvert like me. And yet we rarely meet many of our neighbors–those people who live closest to us. That may all change here in my neighborhood. Some thoughtful neighbor hooked us up with an online neighborhood network. People passed the word, started to register at the site, and we soon passed the 50 member mark. Now we’re at a whopping 87 members. This particular network uses for each title the first word, “Nextdoor,” followed by the name of the community. I’m guessing there are other similar neighborhood network sites as well. I think it’s a terrific idea!

Sure, it’s a way to get acquainted, to make friends, but it also serves as a neighborhood crime watch, a lost and found site, a spot to advertise your garage sale or old truck, and a place to bring up matters of general concern for the neighborhood. And I’m loving reading the messages from these interesting people!

One of the first was a man who had found a shoe at the high tide line on his beach, “brown, strap, covered toes, and a marking on the sole, Primo.”

One neighbor described her year-old-puppy Oscar and asked that should anyone find him out wandering from time to time to please call her. It was a vivid description of the pup and her problems with restraining him, and then she added, “That being said 1 more important request if anyone has found 1/2 of blue glass dangle earring….”

My favorites, though, were this trio of comments about a deer wandering through our neighborhood:

“Just saw a yearling Doe walking on the road by my house on Tukwilla and Brauer! I ran out to my field and sure enough, it had jumped my fence and walked thru the field into the woods.”

“Awesome!! We see deer hoof prints in our front yard. An occasional nibble on the rose bushes. One night we looked out and there were two in our front yard. We love the wildlife here! So beautiful!”

And then a comment from another neighbor, not so enchanted with the doe’s beauty:

“That dang deer has now eaten every single apple off our two trees and won’t stay out of our garden…..” I was sympathetic–that doe had wandered through my yard and nibbled off the top of my favorite rosebush!

The potential for socializing is amazing. One couple offered to host a wine-tasting in their home. Another, the owner of wandering Oscar, suggested a big clambake, or maybe a “beach crawl,” where people could walk the beach meeting and visiting with neighbors along the way. At the end of this, she added, “Seriously, no one has seen my Egyptian glass earring…..?’

Me? I put in a notice about a big sealed bid auction in my garage and carport this weekend. Not sure how many neighbors will show up, but eight people thanked me for the notice!

We complain loudly about how online communication has separated us. I will be waiting to see if this online communication site will bring us together.

Creepy Crawlies

We’ve got some hungry caterpillars around here, but they’re not Eric Carle’s caterpillars. Remember his story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar? That little cutie eats more and more food all week long until Saturday when he puts away so much junk food that he ends up with a tummy ache. What happens Sunday? He eats one big green leaf and is all better, builds a cocoon, and turns into a beautiful butterfly.

All caterpillars are generally voracious feeders (they’ve been described as “eating machines”) and they’re usually “herbivorous,” or plant-eating. Carle’s idea for his story was a good one.

Our tent caterpillars,, herbivorous and extremely voracious eaters, don’t turn into beautiful butterflies, however. Every 10-12 years or so, we have an invasion and they can defoliate a tree in less time than it takes to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar–or so it seems. They especially enjoy birch, alder, willow, ornamental and fruit trees, as well as rosebushes.

Instead of building cocoons, they build silky tents in the trees where they hang out at night. They spend their days munching on new green leaves. A friend’s daughter, Lisa Iaroslavtsev, shot this great photo on Marrowstone Island a few weeks ago.

Lisa'scaterpillarsWe go into lock down mode when we see an invasion on the horizon. It generally lasts two to three years, although they’re only feeding on our trees in the spring and early summer, just as the new leaves emerge. The first year is manageable–maybe a nest here and there. This year was a second season for us. I went out every other morning before the caterpillars were out of bed and picked them off with my fingers or clipped off a few small nests, or “tents.” Occasionally I needed to use the long-handled pruner to get a high nest. Next year, unless this was our big year, will be full scale invasion and I’ll do an every morning inspection.

Chemical sprays can harm beneficial insects and birds, but many people use some of the safer biological sprays that have been developed. Some untreated wooded areas become caterpillar jungles. Friends tell stories of caterpillars so thick in a more remote area of our county one year that the roads were brown and slippery with them.

Next winter after the fruit trees are pruned, I’ll go through and look for their egg cases. They look like small gray Styrofoam patches on the branches, easy to peel off and throw in the garbage (they can survive and hatch if left on the ground).

I turned over the alder trees down by the bay to the critters this year. The irony is that by simply letting them live and defoliate the trees, they can run out of meals–and their predators (a small wasp) will develop and then kill them, and the infestation will end. The defoliation doesn’t usually kill the tree, but it can alarm the neighbors.

Nests in the upper branches of trees by the bay

Nests in the upper branches of trees by the bay

And it can make us go just a little crazy. Last year when six-year-old Tessa next door proudly showed me her “pet” caterpillar she was carrying around, it was all I could do to not grab it, throw it to the ground, and stomp on it.

Give me a wooly bear any day–now there’s one cute caterpillar!

The Sun, the Moon, and Cucumbers

If you’ve ever admired the classical statue of a young nude man, you might have been admiring Adonis. This demi-god the Greeks inherited from the Phoenicians was a very handsome young man with quite a complicated history, but what interests me today is that he was a god of fertility, connected with vegetation. Adonis has obviously been smiling on my one little cucumber plant, which is coming along quite nicely–unlike previous years’ pathetic efforts.

The Potter has always had an uncanny gift of finding books I would like at garage sales. When he recently gave me Sacred Voices: Essential Women’s Wisdom Through the Ages, I wasn’t so sure. As I started reading, however, I realized he’d picked another winner.

Mary Ford-Grabowsky, the editor who gathered all these quotes (arranged in chronological order), revealed in her introduction that she had for many years collected wise quotations, sticking them up inside her cupboard and closet doors. After several moves (and dismantling the sticky notes), she realized that almost all the authors were men. Why?

You’re right–for centuries, men believed women had nothing worth recording, so very few of their words survived.

But one early recording she quoted really caught my eye. Praxilla was a Greek poet in 450 B.C. In her poem “Adonis,” she voices Adonis’s answer to the question put to him by the Shades of the Underworld when he dies: “What was the most beautiful thing you left behind?”

Most beautiful

of all the things that I have left

is the light of the sun;

next, gleaming stars

and the face of the moon.

Then cucumbers in the summer,

and apples and pears.

What wonderful images of cucumbers, apples and pears as connected to the stars and the moon. And, of course, the question posed to Adonis, “What was the most beautiful thing you left behind?”

Praxilla was a prolific poet, but almost none of her poetry survived, which I find incredibly sad. This poem did. Why? Because, as Ford-Grabowsky explains, “These lines endured because Zenobius quoted them in his dictionary of proverbs to explain the maxim ‘Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.’ Only a simpleton, he added, could put cucumbers in the same poem with the sun and the moon.'” A simpleton? Or perhaps a gifted poet, you silly man.

And what will be the most beautiful things you leave behind?


Orchard Spirits, Spinster Sisters

“Spinster” simply doesn’t do it anymore. Did it ever? Somewhere out there floating around in Etymology Land is a yet-to-be-born word that will describe women who choose not to marry. These women often live vibrant lives, sometimes devoted to careers they love, to close friends and family, and to a sense of fierce independence and adventure.

When we moved into our house 45 years ago, I had two different sets of spinster sisters who lived close by to demonstrate to me that the word “spinster” simply didn’t cut it. Both sets were Norwegian.

Mabel and Aleda were older. They both had retired from careers–a nurse and a teacher, as I recall. They wore their waist-length gray hair in buns or braided and coiled up on their heads. Kind, spritely, they became just a bit eccentric as they grew older. Aleda called me a couple times to come over and wash dishes for her–she had fallen behind and couldn’t catch up. Frankly, as I grow older, I don’t identify this so much as “eccentric” anymore–I recognize that feeling of being overwhelmed!

Janet and Alice, however, are the spinster sisters who have been on my mind. They lived next door to Mabel and Aleda, and only two houses away from us. Actually, they lived in Seattle, but their father, when they were children, had bought a five acre piece of property here on Liberty Bay and built a small vacation cabin for his family.

We only saw Janet and Alice during the summers when the weather was warm. They’d arrive in their big blue Volvo station wagon that they’d bought while on a European tour. They were still working jobs, so they took “vacations” over here–sprucing up the cabin, pulling weeds, and mowing the grass around the cabin with a push mower. Sometimes they planted a new little fruit tree. They always had time to visit. They plodded over in their old work shoes on a narrow path that connected our houses. We talked about how much the beans had grown, whether the little fig tree would bear this year, and the Stellar’s Jay that kept them company. Sturdy women! We would see them in their old swimsuits, heading for the cold water of the bay after a warm day of work. As the years passed, however, they came less often. They hired a neighbor boy to mow occasionally.

Mabel died first, and then Aleda. A few years later, Janet was gone, and then Alice. A young family moved into Mabel and Aleda’s house, but the blackberries, ivy, and weeds grew up and took over Janet and Alice’s five acres the next few years. The path that I used to take to get to their cabin grew impassable with blackberry vines.

A birch tree Janet and Alice brought from Europe.

A birch tree Janet and Alice brought from Europe.

Within the last two years, however, their nephew, not a young man, has begun clearing the property–but in no way is he “clear-cutting.”

“I’ve had people tell me I just need to bulldoze it, but I’m not going to do that–I want to see what my ancestors planted,” he told me. He estimates he has about 30 fruit trees there. He’s grubbed out around them, dug out dozens of thorny little Hawthorn trees and piles of blackberry vines. He’s pounded in fertilizer spikes around the old fruit trees and started to prune them. Like his aunts, he seldom comes during the wet winter months, but when the weather turns warm, he shows up–driving that old blue station wagon. He has gradually reclaimed the orchards.

You can see where the brush has been cleared and even some grass planted.

You can see where the brush has been cleared and even some grass planted.

I’m sad to see the wilderness go–it likely was home and protection to a lot of birds and small animals. This spring, however, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I glanced out the window and saw fruit tree blossoms between the bigger fir trees. The spirits of his aunts move among those blossoms.

I'm grateful for a few areas he has left wild.

I’m grateful for a few areas he has left wild.