About Mary Ekstrand

I am an author living and writing on a small bay of the Salish Sea in Western Washington.

Looking Back and Stepping Ahead

IncomingTide

My high school speech teacher Mr. R. liked me. No, not in that way. In a fatherly, interested way. He gave me extra attention and advice. He liked the speeches I wrote. I got A’s in his class and in a number of my other classes, and was taking some college prep classes.

One day he called me aside to chat about a speech. He hoped I was making plans for what I would be doing after high school. And then he suggested what he thought would be the perfect career for me–I should become a stewardess! His daughter had done that and it would be perfect for me, too. I could travel the world and meet a handsome pilot, get married and have a family.

I remember my feelings to this day. Confusion. Embarrassed perhaps? Did he not think I was capable of going to college? My parents had always expected I was headed to college, but perhaps they were wrong. Mr. R. would know better than they. Maybe I wasn’t “college material.” Today I know that I was experiencing shame–I never told my parents, nor did I mention it to any friends.

However, in kind of a perverse way, he was correct. I remember reading a study about 25 years ago reporting that women coming out of college had lower self-esteem than women who did not go to college. Counter-intuitive, right? Not really. Those college women saw the guys around them having all kinds of careers to choose from. When I went to college in the early ’60’s, I could graduate and become a teacher, nurse or social worker. That was pretty much it. Perhaps there were some women in the business classes, but I don’t remember many. The women doing well in science were generally heading into teaching careers. There were exceptions, of course, but not many.

Much has changed for women today, thanks to those “nasty women libbers” who ranted, raved, marched, and demanded. They carried signs. Yes, they may even have “shrieked,” and did they really burn bras? Whatever. They got the job well under way. Some worked so quietly behind the scenes that we never noticed them. They were strident and they were powerful.

This weekend of President’s Day, I am not celebrating our presidents. We seem to have sunk to a new low when it comes to presidents. I am celebrating all those women (and some outspoken men, too) who continue to push for equality. Thanks to them, my grand-niece who was born this month can choose from all those careers. Yes, she can become a stewardess. However, if she chooses not to go to college, she will not be expected to automatically marry and bear children.

Me? I had a strong woman as a mother who would never have allowed me NOT to go to college. I listened to her instead of Mr. R.

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2018–The Year of the Bird

I never really saw the hummingbirds in the abelia bush until some New Zealand visitors stayed in my house for a week one summer. I have a beautiful water view and an interesting house with nooks and crannies that was built in 1908, but all they could talk about were the hummingbirds out the front window.

2018 is a year to celebrate–it’s the Year of the Bird, a plan by Audubon and National Geographic, and supported by more than 40 organizations. Perhaps this is the year that we all can stop and take a second look at our birds, learn a few new names, and then focus on the canary in the coal mine.

You know, of course, about the coal miners who carried cages of canaries into the mines to use as a warning signal for dangerous gases. They could beat a hasty exit if a canary died.

The Winter 2017 issue of Audubon has an amazing research photo of 10 Red-headed Woodpecker specimens and 10 Horned Lark specimens from the Chicago Field Museum. In the photo, they’re laid out on their backs in two neat rows, their white bellies all showing.

A study was conducted on over a thousand specimens collected over the years from 1880 until 2015. Researchers found that the soot on the specimens’ white bellies corresponded to estimates of black carbon in the Rust Belt cities during those years they were collected. They noted that a dramatic change happened in the 1950’s when the environmental movement pushed for the Air Pollution Control Act and the Clean Air Act.

The photo of those bird specimens is dramatic. The bellies of the specimens at the left end of the line are a dirty gray, but they get progressively whiter as you look down the line to the right. The whiter ones are from years when environmental protections were enacted.

The lungs of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What will happen as Congress and our President focus on dismantling laws that have protected our air and environment for generations?

In this Year of the Bird, it’s time to go beyond watching birds to speaking for them. Check the statistics of the “canary cages” (populations, migration route changes, etc.) and then start joining and supporting environmental groups, marching, writing letters, phoning legislators–especially at the local and state level. Research on climate change by respected scientists shows a significant impact on birds, our canaries.

No, one voice perhaps won’t make a difference, but joining with a flock? It can!

Swimming with the Pigs in the Bahamas

Forget swimming with the dolphins. Or even swimming with the manatees in Florida. How would you like to swim with the pigs in the Bahamas?

Sometimes conversations over a couple bottles of wine late at night need to be left there at the table. Other times, they are just too special to let them float away.

I belong to a book group of smart, funny women who gather once a year during the holiday season for a festive meal.

We had exhausted the other topics this year–intimate searches at the airport, puppy training, where Melissa bought her skirt with the blinking lights and whether or not she’d be safe if she stepped in a puddle, where the Scandinavian shop had moved, and why Santa had missed 10th Avenue on his Tuesday night rounds.

Mary C. started it with a simple question. Were we aware that there is a small island in the Bahamas, uninhabited by humans but populated by pigs, and that you can visit this island and swim in the ocean with those pigs. The pigs? Probably washed ashore from shipwrecks hundreds of years ago. They acclimated and settled into the island over the years. Mary said she and a few of her friends were talking about going to Nassau (where they had a place to stay) and then it would be a short boat ride to Pig Beach where, yes, the tourists can swim with the pigs in the ocean.

Perhaps it was the wine. We did share a very fine merlot. But the reaction of the women reminded me of the time someone suggested we let men join the group.

“I don’t believe it–pigs can’t swim!” someone exclaimed. Mary had to pass around her phone that showed a video of the Bahaman pigs–yes, clearly swimming.

“Yuck! Who would want to swim with pigs? You couldn’t pay me to do it! They’re filthy, smelly animals!” This from Sharon who as a youngster had raised a pig. Unfortunately, the pig turned out to have a severe case of depression and she had to lift it off the ground to get it upright occasionally so it could get some activity.

“Look at them!” Claire exclaimed, holding up the phone, “Their little snouts are sticking out of the water to breathe while they’re swimming!”

Shelley broke in, “I remember when we visited my uncle’s farm, he would tell me (she lowered her voice to a ghost story whisper), ‘Do NOT go near the pigs!'”

Chris agreed, “When I went to the farm when I was little, I could try to milk the cows, throw grain to the chickens, and pet the horse, but I was told to NEVER, EVER go near the pigs.”

Other comments were added regarding pigs’ smell, poop, furry hair, general bad habits, and ugly tempers. I doubt that there was a single pig supporter among that whole group of women.

After the exclamations, shrieks, and cautions subsided, there was a moment of silence.

“Well,” said Mary C. with a perfectly straight face, “I didn’t expect you’d have such a negative reaction.” But she promised a full report and photos if she went.

Pigs may not fly, but they do swim. And in a time when such strange, odd things are coming out of Washington, D.C., it somehow doesn’t seem all that unusual.

On Turning 100: Going Back to Our Roots

October opened with my admiring this giant old tree with its intricate, beautiful root system at the ocean.

Toshiba Digital Camera

October closed with a grand celebration of my mother’s 100th birthday.

Her root system is just as complex and intricate. It has produced a beautiful life. Swedish, yes–100%, as was my father. In later life she re-learned the Swedish language she had heard daily in her childhood home. She said it came back easily. Family was important. But beyond tribe, she had a fierce concern and love for the “other.”

Swedes aren’t known for being introspective, but it was a skill she learned over the years. When my son and his partner visited her in August, she welcomed them, and then said, “Here, sit down, I have something to tell you.”

She proceeded to tell them the very painful story of how they had lost Dad’s business and the home they had built beside a river in Montana. A bankruptcy in a bad economy took everything. They packed a few possessions and moved to Seattle.

“And the thing was, we didn’t ever talk about it! That was wrong. We needed to talk about it. Bad things are going to happen in your lives–you need to talk about those things.” (She told me years later that she still had nightmares about that event).

“And then, the other part of this is that good often comes out of the bad.”

She recounted how my two younger sisters found excellent public schools in Seattle. She found an editing job two blocks down the street. Dad found work in his field. And within a mile of their old brick rental house ($100/month) with a view over-looking Elliott Bay, was the site of the Seattle World’s Fair that had just closed.

Only then did she turn to them, “And how are you two? What’s happening in your lives?”

She was going back and finding her roots, untwisting, re-examining, and trying to pass on as much truth as she could in the time she had left.

As the celebration approached, my sister asked her if she wanted to write down any thoughts about passing that century mark. Well, of course she did–a page and a half. Since she can see very little, her writing is almost illegible, but my sister managed to make out, “Eat your green vegetables. Don’t smoke. Get outside a little every day.”

The celebration was grand–loving cousins arrived from Minneapolis, Montana, and Southern California. We gathered the night before the party and talked and remembered and laughed.

The next afternoon, with more friends and family, we drank champagne and nibbled on cake and a beautiful big round loaf of bread that Tsedal had brought. Mother had sponsored Tsedal’s husband  as a refugee from an Eritrean/Ethiopian conflict many years ago.

The shenanigans continued into the evening after most of us had left. Unable to sneak fireworks into or around Mother’s assisted living home, a little group of mostly Swedes gathered on Mt. Vernon’s waterfront and lit a magical flower that opened and played a reportedly “pathetic” rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

They look, in this photo that my sister Heidi shared, for all the world like a band of Vikings around the ceremonial bonfire. Quiet at last at the end of a long day, they’re reflecting on their last voyage and thinking about the next one.

100thFire

 

What Now?

As the howling winds approached the Texas coastline, I was writing words for an invitation to my mother’s 100th birthday party. I checked to see what had happened the year she was born. Perhaps I could use some of those “benchmarks” in the invitation? What happened in 1917?

An explosion at an artillery shells plant in Pennsylvania killed 133 workers. Initially blamed on German saboteurs, it may, in fact, have been an accident.

Over 73 blocks of Atlanta burned for nearly 10 hours, destroying 1,900 structures and displacing more than 10,000 people.

A tornado, or more likely a series of tornadoes, swept some 300 miles from Illinois into Indiana in eight days and killed 101 people.

A fire accidentally started by a foreman with a carbide lamp in a copper mine near Butte, Montana killed 168 workers. It remains the deadliest underground hard rock mining accident in the U.S.

Be assured, I chose other events to include in the birthday invitation! But these incidents made me stop and think.

When was the last time you heard of 100 people killed in a series of tornadoes? Today weather scientists can quite accurately predict them, and warning systems are in place.

A recent munitions factory incident? Safety regulations in factories have, for the most part, kept workers healthy and alive.

A city fire? Most of those structures in Atlanta had wood shingles. After the fire, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited wood shingles on new construction.

After the mine disaster, a mining strike called for safer conditions. I’m willing to bet a carbide lamp, or for that matter, any open flame, is not permitted in the tunnels today.

Following all these incidents, steps were taken to prevent the same thing from ever happening again, often with the help of scientists and engineers. These may have been costly regulations, but they saved lives and property from that time on.

But today as I write this, Hurricane Harvey is one of the worst in our history. Another is approaching Florida. Here in the western part of the U.S., we have more than 60 major fires burning. Even though I am not close to the fires, a heavy haze hangs in the air and I can see tiny  white ashes floating. A light layer of ash coats my garden bench. The sun this morning was an eerie orange/pink color.

We’re back again to where our ancestors were after the city fire, after the tornadoes, after the factory explosion, after the mine disaster. What do we do now to prevent this kind of destruction in the future? Is there anything we can do? It’s time, once again, to go back to the drawing board, to again listen to the scientists, to the technicians, and set in place the regulations that can protect our earth and its animals and people. They may be costly. This is what our grandparents and great grandparents did. We are certainly capable of doing the same.

Beach Dragon

You could call me a dragon. I’m a large lizard, about 16 inches from nose tip to tail tip. Sixteen inches of sheer terror for anyone who might stumble upon me.

You could call me handsome. I have an intricately scaled skin of pale gray-green, a kind of delicate artichoke green color.

You could call me unique. I really am quite special. I am the only such lizard living in the wild in the Pacific Northwest.

So when I crawled out of the bushes one morning to warm up on the grass beside a county road in Poulsbo, I managed to raise the blood pressures of a number of humans who wandered by. The road runs along Liberty Bay, so it’s not my favorite place–way too many people strutting, strolling, and streaking by. Some of those runners go like a shot! If it’s two or three walkers together, it’s talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Let’s be clear about this–I was still in the grass, so I was partially obscured, but I had my head up, stretching towards the sun. We lizards do that.

Besides being able to jump quite high when alarmed, humans have a peculiar habit of talking out loud to themselves. Bizarre. But certainly entertaining in this situation.

“Lizards don’t live around Puget Sound! It can’t be real. But it sure looks real. I’m outta here!”

“Lizards do NOT live around salt water! It’s not moving. Lizards DO sit very still. Maybe this one was a pet and fell out of a boat passing by? If I touch it with my shoe….nope, not doin’ it!”

“Yikes! Are you real?  Who ARE you?”

One runner had the audacity to skid to a stop, back up, lean over and touch my head. Lucky for him, I was still chilly and slow or I would have snatched a good bite out of his hand for breakfast.

I must have fallen asleep, and the next few days are a hazy blur. I remember flying through the air and landing on oyster shells on the beach, suffering a bad gash to my head. I slept on and off through the next few days and somehow managed to avoid the high tides. When I came to, my artichoke skin was covered with dark green seaweed. I left one piece on–it made a rather fetching jacket.

Toshiba Digital Camera

One beach-strolling human kicked at me with her foot, and then picked me up by the tail. Imagine the indignity–she upended me! As she picked me up, liquid poured out of the gash in my head. No, not blood and brains–just salt water.

She actually had the sense to perch me on a big rock, not far from where I had started out. The rock is in front of the house where a smaller-sized human lives, I believe. I adore this rock. After it’s heated by the sun, it’s pure bliss.

In this month of Seaweed and Spider Webs (drat those spiders–they think they rule the world!), I have survived. You could call me one happy dragon.

Toshiba Digital Camera

 

Recorded on Birch Bark

My 3-4 friends and I were perhaps 12 years old. I think it was an end-of-school sleepover, and a Montana sun was shining as we wandered back to the river. We dawdled at the old picnic table near the grove of birch trees, beautiful trees with shimmery leaves. The white bark peeled into scrolls and made perfect “paper” for a secret message.

Could it become a buried secret?

We quickly assembled our materials and wrote our message, something like a “We were here!” proclamation, and then we signed our names and ages. That was back when our ages were something to proclaim. The scroll went into some kind of protector, a bandaid can perhaps? And then buried not so deep in the ground near the table. We were sworn to secrecy, of course, and sworn to never digging it up.

That experience must have been in my mind when a news story several years ago grabbed my attention. Archeological explorations in and around Veliky Novrogod, south of Petersburg in Russia, were turning up fascinating finds. The magic component of the story was mud–the wet clay soil in that area contains little oxygen. This attribute, in addition to its chemical composition, has preserved ancient artifacts, including softer materials, leading to excavations throughout the area. Finds date back to the 1200’s.

But what caught my eye was the “softer materials” that were found–more than 1,000 messages of an ancient Russian people on birch bark! Those messages yield all kinds of information. They were an amazingly literate people. Many of the messages reflect daily activities of simple people, including drawings and simple words by children. A father, Onus, wrote to his son Danilo, “Send me a shirt, towel, trousers, reins, and for my sister, send fabric….If I am alive, I will pay for it.” Humor perhaps?

Novgorod

From the Novgorod Kremlin, a popular tourist site with many impressive buildings, city walls, etc.

This is an old Novrogod language, a precursor to Russian. The town was founded, according to legend, in 859, and children were attending school by 1030. It has been depicted as an idealistic democracy, a major trading post, and became one of the most important cities in Europe years later. Novrogod has been described as the “motherland of Russia.” Today it’s a tourist site, full of early Russian treasures.

I live on land that was also populated by an active, productive, ancient people in the 1200’s, and actually, for thousands of years before that. I found myself wishing we had that “magic mud,” that I could run across a message as I dug up the potatoes (and perhaps the mud would do magical things for my tomatoes, as well). But then I caught myself–descendants of those early people still live in this area. The Coast Salish people carry the DNA of all those ancient generations. They continue to preserve the language, customs, foods, and values of those ancient ancestors. They are living messages for us, certainly a national treasure.

Lost Laundry

One of my earliest memories is threading my way through my grandmother’s loaded clotheslines, hiding among the sheets, ducking under the towels, and emerging on the other side to green grass and a bank of flowers. My mother hung out her laundry, too, and it wasn’t just in the summer heat. I remember our laughter over frozen long johns, stiff and proud next to the other unmentionables in a late fall Montana freeze.

Here’s a laundry day in Venice:

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I learned well from them, but when my long clothesline (t-bars at both ends) crashed with the old tree in the backyard, it was like losing a dear old friend. I whined about it until finally a good friend showed up at my house on my birthday with her mom and stepfather. He dug the hole for the cement footing and Linda and her mom helped string up the wire for a single steel post clothesline. It was one of the best surprise birthday gifts I ever received!

I thought “hanging out clothes” to dry was a thing of the past for younger people, but when my grandchildren were toddlers and I’d arrive at their house to do some baby-sitting, there was always a large clothing rack or two set up near the washer and dryer and they were full. Some younger people are doing a great job of watching their energy bills and use of resources.

I still love hanging out the laundry and I do it as often as I possibly can. I enjoy having an excuse for getting out into the fresh air, and then being rewarded for it with a modest electric bill. I appreciate the time to hear the bees murmuring in the nearby periwinkle-blue ceanothus flowers. I get a whiff of the peonies that will only linger for a few days longer. I can usually hear if David is out from Seattle and clearing brush over on his property. I love that smell of line-dried sheets, so superior to any chemical dryer deodorant.

Toshiba Digital Camera

If you look carefully you can see my clothesline between the peonies and the blue bush in the background.

In our damp Northwest, there’s no way to hang out clothes through most of the winter, so I keep a small indoor drying rack for heavier items, like jeans. I have spent quite a few hours dreaming of how I could string a few lines back and forth in my enclosed, unheated front porch, but it’s still just a plan.

The potter, who knows me well, gave me a large poster some years back of a beautiful painting by Charles Curran (1861-1942) called “Shadow Decoration.” The colors are warm pastels. We only see the woman from the back,  hanging out clothes. The shadows of plants that are behind the sheets play on the white surfaces in fine patterns. You can almost feel the movement of the breeze and the sun’s warmth.

It’s unsettling to me that families aren’t sitting down to dinner together and visiting every evening. But as I drive through neighborhoods, I’m also sad that I see so few clotheslines.

Do you hang out clothes to dry?

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Photo credits:

Photo 1: o palsson <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/45713725@N00/6875702573″>Laundry day in Venice</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com&#8221;

Photo 3: zoonabar <a ref=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/92496717@N00/6093621129″>Clotheslines</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com

Living with a Dying Earth

Actually, the Earth is NOT dying. It will continue to live on long after you and I and all humanity are gone. It will be different, yes, but it will live on and evolve. When I get too down about the dying starfish on my beach and polar bears trapped on ice floes, it helps a little to remember this.

When I was young, we heard nothing about “extinction” or “endangered animals” because it happened so rarely. Today a lot of life on Earth is dying way too fast. If we continue at the rate we’re going, 75% of all species on Earth will be extinct in just a few hundred years.

We are in what scientists call the “Sixth Extinction.” Over Earth’s history, there have been five big extinctions, all millions of years ago. The dinosaurs disappeared in the last extinction period, about 66 million years ago.

But this Sixth Extinction is unique. Since the last extinction there have been many warming and cooling periods. But for the first time in Earth’s history the actions of one species is accelerating the warming period we are in right now. That rate of warming is going at an incredibly fast speed, unlike most other extinctions that took thousands of years.

The reality? Insects and rats might survive this Sixth Extinction. Even if we made drastic changes instantly, we will never return to the Earth we used to have–we’ve put too much carbon into the atmosphere.

So what? So what does a few hundred years matter to us? We won’t be around. The reality is that we are already being affected–increasing wildfires, severe flooding, atypical storm systems, rising sea water, all signs of climate change. As much as some leaders can claim that the changes we need to make are too expensive (and they ARE expensive), we are already paying a high price in damages. The costs ahead of us, however, will be much higher.

I’m always an optimist. We are the first generation to understand climate change and recognize it as a fact, even though scientists have warned us for many years. More and more people are becoming informed and concerned. We have an incredible opportunity to make changes that, if they do not solve the problem, at least give scientists and specialists a little more time to develop a miracle–and that’s been done before.

Some scientists see a “perfect storm” of new laws at some local, state, national and international levels right now. The Paris Climate Accord, signed by every nation in the world, is historic! All the countries in the world recognize the problem and know that action needs to be taken.

We all know what needs to be done. It’s just a matter of re-committing ourselves–recycling, buying less plastic, using resources sparingly, using clean energy, living more simply. No, those small actions are not enough, but they serve as a visual, concrete reminder to us and our neighbors of the bigger steps our country and the world need to take.

The greater steps? We need to DEMAND that our local state, and federal governments clean up their acts. We demand by writing postcards, making phone calls, attending legislative meetings, marching, and joining groups to gain more power. We support organizations that are actively working to effect change, especially at the legislative level.

Seeing us taking these actions will also give our children and grandchildren hope instead of cynicism. We don’t have the leisure to “let someone else deal with it.” We don’t have the leisure to wait until the spirit moves us.

I loved the sign that appeared in a recent march. It said something like this, “No one’s going to blame you for not doing anything to stop global warming. Except your children and grandchildren.”

Cryptid in the Kale

I didn’t have any problem when the Sasquatch wandered out of the woods and down the hill from behind my house, but when it headed for my patch of kale in the garden that has fed me all winter, it was too much.

“See here!” I shouted as I stormed out the door, “What do you think you’re doing?”

The Sasquatch looked me up and down and then sniffed. Loudly.

“Just having a little bit of nourishment from this modest patch.” Feminine voice, but her shape gave me no clues–she was covered in shaggy brown hair from head to foot, and towered over me.

“So who ARE you?”

“I’m a cryptid.” She spit the words at me.

“Cryptid? What are you talking about?”

“A cryptid! Don’t you read? Good grief–I can’t believe you humans don’t keep up with what’s happening in government! Your crazy state legislature is considering making me Washington State’s official cryptid. Can you believe it?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so she continued, “You do know what a cryptid is, don’t you?” I shook my head.

“Oh honestly! Mythical creatures! Creatures that haven’t yet been proven to exist! Me! They’re calling me a cryptid! They’re putting me in the same category as that silly Loch Ness Monster! Look it up if you don’t believe it. Wikipedia has a long list of cryptids and I’m on it. Even my cousin Yeti is on it. What a farce!”

She had continued pulling off leaves and munching as she ranted, but now she paused and lowered her voice, “Um, might you have a nice bottle of Chardonnay to accompany these lovely greens?”

I shook my head. No way was I giving alcohol to a Sasquatch.

“So are there a lot of you cryptids around?”

“I am NOT a cryptid–here, pinch me–I’m real!” No way was I going to pinch her, either.

“You mean the real unreal cryptids, right? There’s the Hakawai from New Zealand, a mythical bird that people have heard but never seen. And the Kaijin from Japan–a sea monster most frightening. You know about Nessie, of course. But how about the Beast of Bladenboro from North Carolina? An ugly vampire, a cat-like monster. You don’t want to cross paths with that one! And oh, so many others. But I do not belong in that club, and I do so hope the legislature straightens out this gross misconception.”

She gave me a long look. “Hmmm….might you help me? It wouldn’t be so difficult. You could start by calling your senators and representatives. Maybe you could write a letter to the governor? I know–send a postcard to the president and ask him to give these jokers the facts! Have you friends? Perhaps a march–yes, a march would be excellent! That’s a delightful idea!” Her eyes glowed as she looked off into the distance.

As she pondered that idea, I stepped back and scooted into the house. I figured she wouldn’t venture any closer. The letters and phone calls? I suppose I could contact my senator and let her know that I saw a very real Sasquatch in my garden. A march? I knew some people with marching experience. I suppose I could contact a few friends and get something started. If it doesn’t work out, you might see someone on the street corner with a sign, SASQUATCHES ARE REAL. It’s me.