About Mary Ekstrand

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

Riding out the Storm, Holding Course

“Batten down the hatches!”

We’re dead in the water!”

“Man overboard!”

“Land ho!”

Even we landlubbers know what action is necessary for each of these phrases. If we were anywhere near water and heard someone shout, “Thar she blows!” I’m guessing most of us would be scanning the horizon for a whale.

“Hold the course!” may have had its origins in horse-racing, but it also had early connections to keeping the ship on course by tightening and adjusting the ropes on the sails. Hard work!

You’re holding the course today. And it’s not easy.

Death Valley registered 130 degrees this summer, the hottest temperature in world history. My son, living in northern California, says it’s not a question of whether their house will burn. It’s a question of when. Not only fires, but hurricanes that are stronger than ever. A friend in Austin wrote about the “anguish” that the Texas summer heat brings. This summer, a forecast of not one, but two hurricanes heading toward them was actually good news. She explained, “The only thing that can fracture the daily hammering heat is a biblical collision of storms against the massive heat dome.” In spite of widespread fires and ever stronger storms, many environmental standards in our country have been reduced significantly over the past four years.

We hold the course. We try to eliminate buying and using so much plastic. We grow veggies and we buy from farmer’s markets. We try to lessen our dependence on fossil fuel and we live smart. Many of us replace our old cars with electric ones–that economists now are saying are cheaper in the long run.

A pandemic has killed over 220,000 people in our country. Millions have lost their jobs and many of those have lost their health insurance. We have a President who has made mask-wearing a political point rather than a life-saving one.

We hold the course. We donate to food banks and help where we can. We socially distance. We wear our masks. I have only once seen someone in my grocery store in the past six months or so not wearing a mask. He was elderly and seemed confused. My part of the county averages 2-3 new cases a day, often fewer.

Our President calls respected news outlets “fake news.” Who refuses to denounce white supremacists and has emboldened them to new extremes. Who routinely confuses truth and lies. Who has some choice names for women. Simply put, a bully who divides rather than unifies.

What do we do? We hold the course. We treat others like we would want to be treated. We work locally to make changes. We live and love well and we make good choices. We learn about the issues and we vote. We recognize that words matter and that everyone does better if everyone does better. Basic kindergarten stuff. And then we take time to smell the fresh sea breezes. We know the routine. We simply tighten the sails batten down the hatches, and hold the course.

Walking beside the waves, low tide in May

Choose Your Horse–Time to Ride!

I still remember learning about the Pony Express in maybe fourth or fifth grade. Sound familiar? It made for a great story for kids of that age. Teams of young riders plowing through the snow on their sturdy horses. Fast horses! They rode back and forth at breakneck speeds between Missouri and California.

In reality, beyond the romanticized picture, the Pony Express only operated for 18 months before it went broke. But it was still impressive. Riders couldn’t weigh more than 125 lbs., rode night and day, and were “changed out” every 75-100 miles. In an emergency the rider was allowed to ride a double shift of more than 20 hours.

The Pony Express was not a part of the U.S. Postal Service. It was a business. Even with all the California gold making its way across the country and a strong and very experienced businessman at its helm, the company never lasted two years.

What it did do, however, was to show that one well-connected and organized communication system for the entire country was possible. I like to think it contributed to the further development of the USPS.

The USPS, unlike the Pony Express, was never intended to be a business. It was developed as a service for its citizens. It gets mail to and from all the little towns and rural communities in our country, something a profit-minded company could never do. It delivers social security checks and medications, Christmas cards and gifts, even baby chicks! It employs many veterans who are given preferential status when they apply. And the USPS delivers absentee ballots to our citizens. My state, among several, votes completely (and very successfully) by mail.

Every few years we citizens need to fight for proper funding for this service. We need to remind our representatives, and this year even our President, that this is a service and not a business, and we expect it to be adequately funded.

It’s time to call Republican senators (since the funding bill has passed the House) and demand adequate funding for the USPS. Maybe even suggest an experienced and knowledgeable person to lead it?

From Missouri to California, we need to swamp those offices with postcards and telephone calls until they get the message. We did it once before when mothers and babies were being separated at the border–the huge outcry from all over the nation stopped that. If you know your senators will support a funding bill, you might call or write Republican senators in other states. Sure, they give more weight to people in their own state, but a huge pile of mail sends a message in itself. Phone numbers and addresses are easy to find on the internet.

We don’t have to ride a horse for 20 hours through a snowstorm, nor do we have to defend that mail pouch with our very lives. All we need to do is speak out and speak loudly. it’s what we do in a democracy.

Clear Thinking and a Kidney

When I called my mother on her 98th birthday, she told me she was thinking about donating one of her kidneys. She had watched a tv show on organ donation.

“I  sit here when I could just as well be of some use to someone.” She went on to say that she’d had a couple of  surgeries over her lifetime and they weren’t so difficult. She’d probably be in the hospital a week or so. And if she died at the age of 98, well, that would be OK, too.

My mother had spent her life in selfless, giving acts, but this was a bit much. Before I had a chance to think how to respond, she went on.

“But I got to thinking about my surgeries. What were they? Yes, the hysterectomy…and then I remembered–I already had a kidney removed! I have none to give!”

She thought that was pretty funny, but I gasped.

“I don’t remember your having a kidney removed!” I had just a moment of panic wondering how I had missed that rather significant surgery.

“Mom, I think it was a gall bladder you had removed.” Silence for a few seconds.

“Oh, yes, I think you might be right. So I DO have a kidney to give!”

Usually lucid, clear-thinking and well-informed, Mom’s thinking process had become a bit muddled from time to time.

Our thinking through the pandemic hasn’t always been crystal clear either, and we don’t have the excuse of 98 years behind us. It’s in situations like a pandemic or widespread protests that it’s imperative that clear thinking prevail. We need logical, informed, educated people who are willing to talk to people, listen, read, and think things through. It’s not enough to use generalized platitudes and negative thinking.

“It’s always been this way. It’s never going to change. Why bother?”

“It’s just the flu.”

“It’s just a few bad officers–there’s some in every precinct.”

All kinds of possibilities exist out there and we have an opening now to explore them. Police and criminal justice reform, major efforts to re-build a first-rate public school system, healthcare reform, mental health funding instead of incarceration. Costly? Of course. But the cost if we don’t will be much higher.

I emailed my siblings that evening after our phone conversation. I told them to keep an eye on Mom or she might be short a kidney.





Are You Listening?

Remember Hal’s computer voice in Space Odyssey 2001? I heard it last week in Costco. It came over the intercom, smooth and velvety, a man’s voice saying something like, “Please remember to social distance, leaving six feet between you and other shoppers.” This was not your crackly supermarket voice, “Brenda, we need a price check on Aisle Six.” This was clear and professional. I swear it was Hal. If the voice had been a color, it would have been the color of cocoa, warm and soothing and reassuring. All is well. Carry on. Continue shopping.

The intention of that voice recording was meant to calm us, I know, but it felt alarming to me. My anxiety level went up a notch as I glanced around to see if anyone was showing signs of panic. Nope, all were continuing to shop.

Sounds and silence. It has been an unusually quiet few weeks for me as my internet connection recently died and my internet provider not-so-much dream team tried for a week to resurrect it. The first 3-4 people I talked to had kind and reassuring voices.

“Oh yes, let’s get that computer up and running for you.” These people understood I was locked down and that the computer was my link to much of the world. I was in good hands. Everything would be OK.

Everything was not OK, and after literally hours on my old landline with those kindly voices, they handed me over to people whose language I could not understand and whose voices were not so kindly and reassuring. I seriously began to believe that they were trying to get rid of me.

“Keep pushing and let’s see when she’ll break and cancel our service! She’s old and we need to cut her loose!”

But Spring still blossoms and computers are brought back to life. Bird songs are everywhere, perhaps louder with less background noise of air and auto traffic?

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Chinese dogwood was at its showiest in its 40-year-old life this year.

The first thing I did when my computer was working was to email my yard helper who is deaf to see when he would be working again. I missed him this spring–his grin, his hard work, and his enthusiasm for my wild yard schemes. Even his silence.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear that still, small voice within us. It doesn’t come over a loudspeaker or intercom.

Carry on. One day at a time. All will be well.

10 Things Covid 19 Has Taught Me

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Skagit Valley tulips I missed this year. Next year for sure!

  1. I now know what clean air looks like. I always thought we had clean air here in  the Pacific Northwest, but this is day after day clean and clear skies. The Olympic Mountains have been beautiful! Fewer gas-burning cars, pick-ups, and planes out there make a difference.
  2. People are kind. Almost without exception when I meet people walking, they will cross the road or walk clear out into the middle of the road in order to keep that six foot separation, but they almost always wave or smile as they do so.
  3. Yes, I feel sympathy for all those who are hurting–job losses, deaths of loved ones, etc. But I also have been feeling sorry for Suze Orman. Remember her? She preached financial responsibility at us for years and years on PBS. Perhaps she still is. Her first and strongest advice was always, “Have enough cash set aside to tide you over 3-4 months in case of an emergency.” Was anyone listening to her? Anyone? And yes, I do realize how difficult this is to do on a minimum wage job. Suze was the first person I thought of as jobs started closing down.
  4. I love the quiet! I’m used to hearing at least one siren and usually more daily on the highway up the hill from my house. Almost none now! And how did I not notice the airplane noise before? Fewer cars going by in front of my house means less noise. Boat ramps are closed. I am hearing no boating traffic. I have seen canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and paddleboards, and they are so beautifully silent!
  5. We are not giving our teens enough credit for their written language skills. I owe this realization to my sister. I have had more emails from my grandchildren and they are unusually well written. My sister commented that they seem to be “bilingual.” They can text friends or tweet in their abbreviated, casual style, but when they email their grandmother, they switch to very coherent, clear writing.
  6. I will never again go food shopping more than once a week. Why? With a little planning, I can save some gas and fuss.
  7. I have so much more appreciation for all those people who work the essential jobs who we fail to notice–farm laborers, medical workers of all kinds (including the cleaning crews), grocery store staff, scientists, and news writers who keep us up to date with facts and expert interviews.
  8. We need health care for all. When we all do better, we all do better! And people working low wage jobs or a couple of parttime jobs deserve health care. Some of those workers are caring for us now.
  9. I don’t know if I can attribute this to the virus, but I am seeing and hearing a lot of birds. No, not like years ago, when we used to see flocks regularly, but I’m more aware of them now. Perhaps it’s the quiet that makes me notice? In a time when bird populations are falling, this gives me just a tiny glimmer of hope.
  10. I have realized that if we can survive and come out of this very severe crisis (and I think we can), we are absolutely capable of removing war weapons from our streets. I’ve had people tell me it’s too late–there are too many. It’s not too late. We have the means and know how to do it. If we don’t have the will, then God help our children and grandchildren.

I’m sure I’ve learned more, but those are the ones that rise to the surface now. How about you? Have you had any insights?

Blessings as we continue on this journey. Continue to take care and be safe.

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

We’re all in our comfort zones right now–our homes. But don’t forget to step outside and see what’s happening. As abnormal as the rest of our world seems right now, some beautiful sights are just outside your front door.

The neighbors have a new cat who has taken over the neighborhood. He is a handsome yellow creature who sits atop my fenceposts to hunt and patrols my high deck railing. A coyote ran through my yard over the weekend, and for the first time in some 50 years, a heron stood surveying my yard from the top of the pumphouse. The camellia bush is almost done blossoming and those bright pink blossoms of the peach tree are just opening.

This is not a month for words. Here are some of my favorite photos of outside attractions:

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The quince bush is just now beginning to blossom.

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Moon snail shell and part of a moon snail egg case on the beach at low tide.


Lisa’s amazing photo from a caterpillar infestation of several years ago. They can de-leaf a whole tree!

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We will soon be seeing rhododendron blossoms like these.

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Tulip fields in Mt. Vernon won’t be open this year, but I heard that they will be posting photos!

Step outside, take a walk, enjoy the sights in your neighborhood, and stay safe.

The Writing’s on the Wall

February is a month of hope. We can see the days getting longer. We often see just a few more days of sunshine. I start browsing the seed catalog and planning my veggie garden on paper.

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I’m not sure how many of you read the business section of your newspaper, but if you don’t, you might need to. Whether we like it or not (and I don’t), money shapes much (most?) of our world. However, even if we see dirty footprints wandering through those pages, sometimes we get a glimpse of humanity and even hope.

The Sunday Seattle Times on January 26, 2020, carried a story in its business section, “The Climate Crisis Is Reshaping the World of Finance.” Granted, it’s written by three environmentalists, but the facts they were reporting were enough to cause two of us in my house to rustle the newspaper, sit up and take notice.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, a company that holds an 8 to 11% stake of every company in the Fortune 500, has announced in his annual letter to CEO’s that they now expect to see business plans for “operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized,” as well as “hold accountable” present board members who don’t make significant progress toward that goal. The climate crisis has become so severe, he had said, that it has become a force that will “fundamentally reshape” the world of finance.

Goldman Sachs, the powerful bank on Wall Street? It has recently prohibited funding of coal mines, power plants and Arctic oil drilling projects, the authors report.

I think most of us are aware of the major moves in Europe by the financial sector, especially the big banks. The authors cite other major changes here in our country among insurance companies, and also fossil fuel disinvestment among religious institutions, pension funds, university endowments, and charitable foundations.

As we witness worse storms, more unpredictable weather, devastating wildfires, life-threatening heat in the southern hemisphere and other areas of the world, and a federal government that stands idly on the sidelines–or worse yet, unravels previous legislation that might have helped, our spirits need to see some positive, hopeful action. It’s not a perfect picture, the authors point out, but these are some signs that the financial world is changing as our Earth changes. Time will tell if it’s changing fast enough.

“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” — Arundhati Roy

Angelic Flocks or Foul Fowl

Some things are just plain hard to live without. Toilet paper. For some of us, a cup of coffee in the morning. A warm bed at night. Chocolate. A hug now and then.

I would add to those necessities a flock of chickens. We had a flock of chickens while our kids were growing up, and I swear those chickens kept our house running smoothly. We almost always had enough eggs. They gobbled up all our kitchen garbage. Chickens, I assure you, will eat anything, including egg shells.

But they also gave us the ultimate gift. They fertilized our garden. We had two large chicken pens that ran side by side, and each pen had a separate entrance door into the small chicken house. One year the chickens wandered and scratched and pooped on one side while the vegetables grew on the other side. The next year, we switched them around. My mother always claimed that chicken manure was the absolute best for a garden. After those years of gardening in a chicken pen, I know she was right. Since the chickens also packed down the earth in a year, it took some rototilling each spring, but we had terrific crops year after year without any other fertilizing.

If you drive north this time of year to the Skagit Valley, up near Mt. Vernon, you will likely see a field covered with flocks of snow geese. If you’re lucky you’ll see a smaller group of white trumpeter swans. Those fields of beautiful, elegant birds are one of the valley’s main tourist attractions–along with the tulips, of course.

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Snow geese in a field near Mt. Vernon, Washington

“Heads up, start watching–we’ll see some soon!” Once we start descending into the valley on the interstate, we start scanning the fields and horizon. If we’re really lucky, one will fly low, just above the car.

These rich farmlands are a favorite spot for geese and swans that stop off on their long migration routes. They’re heading south from their nesting grounds in Alaska and Siberia. They hang out between November and early spring and feed on marsh plants in the intertidal area, but they also spend a lot of time on the farmlands.

I had always believed (with my background of keeping chickens) that these birds must be a terrific boon for the farmers. Not so, according to an article published in the Everett Herald in 2007. Farmers do admit that the fertilizer is one of the only good things these birds leave behind. They also eat any crops that might be planted, moving inland from swamp grass to their new favorite diet–pasture grass. The farmers do not love them nearly as much as we sightseers do. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 birds stop and winter over in the Skagit Valley.

I still can’t help but believe that fields like this one later in the spring owe some of their beauty to the snow geese and swans!

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The tulip fields in Mt. Vernon, WA

“When we come upon beautiful things….they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.” –Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just.


Small Mercies

On Christmas Day I saw about 22 bald eagles in a big tree on the farmlands  just south of Chuckanut Drive. That was a big thing for me! But today in these waning days of the year, I’m thinking about all the much smaller things that enrich our lives.

We will soon begin to notice those few extra blessed minutes of light each day. The days are getting longer! Life is good!

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On our walk down the road from my house last week, my son called my attention to two black turnstones hard at work at the water’s edge. I would have missed these small shorebirds otherwise. Yes, they do turn over the stones to find invertebrate snacks beneath them. These are rare birds for us. Small gifts!

A tall, older man walks once or twice a day down our road and often carries a hand clippers to snip off any tendrils or twigs that even think about stretching out into the narrow walking path beside the busy road. He does this week after week, all year long. I try to remember to thank him often for keeping us all safe.

Right around the time that our president was mocking and demeaning the young Swedish girl when she received Time’s Person of the Year Award for her activism (for which he had also been nominated), I saw a woman in the grocery store with a sweatshirt with this message, “Make America Love Again!” I smiled at her, but if I see her again, I will thank her. I might even hug her.

An unusually beautiful sunrise, a chattering Stellar’s jay, a stranger holding the door for you, my neighbor offering to prune my grape vines. All small mercies that can turn your day around.

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It’s easy to be grateful for the big things, like having a roof over our heads and food in the refrigerator and seeing 22 eagles at once. But these little things sometimes escape our notice. I don’t often make New Year’s resolutions, but this might be a good one.


A Squabble of Angels

The Potter brought me half a crab yesterday for dinner, one of the kinder things he’s done for me lately, so this afternoon I headed down to the beach with the leftover shells and scraps. Down the driveway, across the road, and onto the small deck where I opened the bag and tossed the scraps over the railing. They made a small clatter on the gravel beach. Almost instantly a flock of about a dozen sea gulls materialized, circling and shrieking above me. Where had they come from? I saw others heading our way. My head spun as I looked up at them, circling around and around, so close. From that angle their wings are enormous. I waited for them to land, but not one did. I stepped farther back between some bushes, but they never descended and after a few minutes, one by one, they flew away. Disappointed by the menu? Perhaps scraps from half a crab isn’t worth the bother of a landing? One hopeful gull floated just offshore.

Or perhaps they have some collective, inherited memory of the old man in our neighborhood who every day tossed bread from a day old bakery to the gulls, way more enticing than a few crab shells. That was some 50 years ago in this same spot. He always attracted a big gull group, too.

“What good are they to me,” he’d grumble, “they don’t even lay eggs.” Our family had chickens in a pen nearby.

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Gulls feeding on a Salish Sea mudflat at low tide

Looking up at them today, their big white angel wings were beautiful, hardly an image for the scrappy bird they are. They’ll eat almost anything and are found in huge swarms (bigger than flocks!) at landfills and garbage dumps. I wrote a small booklet once about Pacific Northwest gulls, but I still enjoyed Sandi Doughton’s article about gulls last month in the Sunday Seattle Times magazine section. She reported some of their less than angelic nicknames, “Flying Rats,” and “Dump Ducks.” A flock of gulls, she reports, is called a “squabble.” They do fight a lot, but almost never kill another, she wrote.

Gulls are gifted at “riding” air currents. These air currents can be produced by big ships, or even by ferries. If you’ve watched gulls gliding beside the ferry you’re riding,, they’re simply catching a ride. They have been known to follow ships across the Atlantic, free-loading scraps–and air currents–all the way.

Today as we realize how fragile our lives on Earth are, the words below are probably even truer than when I wrote them some 40 years ago.

I catch my breath
as I glance up from my newspaper.
You’re a pearl drifting,
suspended beside my window.
Boat and air move us together
as one. We share
one destination.