About Mary Ekstrand

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

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:

photo1

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?

photo2

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.

Clams and Cows

An unlikely pairing, right? Not here in the Salish Sea area, where our days and days of winter rains wash everything into the bays–sewage overflow from malfunctioning septic systems, oil from the roadways, pet and wildlife waste–and manure from big dairy farms.

cows

And in Whatcom County, north of Seattle, dairy farms are big business, so it accounts for a large amount of contaminated run-off. It starts small, though, with fecal coliform washing into the small streams and ditches around the farms, moving down into larger streams, then into the Nooksack River, and finally dumping into Portage Bay.

clamshells

Presently, some 800 acres of shellfish beds are now closed during six months each year due to pollution. The Lummi Nation has traditionally harvested those beds for thousands of years, and through treaty rights with the United States, are entitled to continue harvesting them. Tricky to do when they’re contaminated.

After the tribe decided to sue the seven largest dairy farmers, the two sides started to meet and talk and try to avoid a lengthy, costly court battle for both of them. Last month they signed an agreement whereby the farmers will pay the tribe for the losses they are incurring, and make efforts to clean up their operations–buffering their streams and areas where manure run-off occurs, and installing above-ground steel containers for holding manure. It can more safely be spread on fields during the dry summer months. Expensive? Yes, but not as expensive as litigation.

But the agreement also forges a bond between the two sides so they can address other sources of contamination as well, and they hope to encourage the public to become more aware of ways they can help.

I liked the quote from one of those seven farmers (reported in the Bellingham Herald. “We and the Lummis probably have not understood each other for years. We did our thing out here and they did their thing over there….we have to understand each other and talk and learn about each other.”

Our Congress could learn a thing or two from these people–and perhaps we can, too.

Photo credits:

Cow photo: photo credit: will_cyclist <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/88379351@N00/30538314015″>Moo</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo: photo credit: Frankenstein <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37996582271@N01/29509260353″>Lunch</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc Clam /2.0/”>(license)</a>

 

A Child’s Earth

Toshiba Digital Camera

She just turned two. When she wants her grandpa’s attention, she trots over and stands beside him at his computer. She doesn’t say anything. She stands there ever so quietly until he notices her. Who could resist such adorable sweetness? Grandpa might ignore a child tugging at his sleeve or whining (for awhile), but this is irresistible. She’s only two, but she knows what gets results.

Kids are so smart. They notice. They see. When my son was seven or eight, back in the ’80’s during the arms buildup, I noticed him stretched out on the living room floor, studying the “Ground Zero” map on the front page of our local paper. He could tell that since we lived only a few miles from a base where nuclear warheads were stored that we were a target on Russian military maps.

About the same time, a friend told me that his young son was having nightmares about nuclear attacks. That child knew the possibilities. He understood the potential.

I remembered these incidents when I heard a young boy’s response to someone asking why he was walking in the big march last month. “Because of global warming,” he said. Our national leaders may choose to ignore it, but the children understand what’s happening.

I don’t remember how we discussed that bulls-eye newspaper map. I do remember reading a psychiatrist’s suggestions for how to deal with children’s fear of nuclear war. Children who see the “big people” in their immediate lives (parents, grandparents, etc.) actively DOING something to make a difference (not just talking about it) experience a sense of reassurance. They sense that their parents care about what they care about and are acting to change it.

Global warming is scary even for adults. Kids are smart. They’re aware of news coverage and conversation–melting glaciers, fires in tinder-dry areas, more erratic weather and storms, polar bears trapped on melting ice floes, rising waters, the “hottest year on record” reports, and, yes, even the disappearing sea stars I wrote about last month. If they see us acting to try to keep the world safer and healthier, they absolutely will notice. They’re smart.

We don’t have to lie down on the railroad tracks to block a coal train. We don’t even have to march in a parade. We can call or write postcards to legislators about maintaining international climate change agreements, make some small changes in our own energy consumption, or join a local group trying to preserve some wild spaces. The earth needs those big expanses of wild areas for the health of its atmosphere. If the children can be involved somehow, even better yet.

And then, support some environmental organizations that are working on a national scale to bring much larger and more urgent change. Some of my favorites that are very reputable are Union of Concerned Scientists (factual, no nonsense, research-based), Earthjustice (“because the Earth needs a good lawyer,” highly rated), Sierra Club (becoming more political, lobbies politicians), Nature Conservancy, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Not everyone is comfortable with Greenpeace. They are aggressive and confrontational because they recognize the urgency of the situation.

Read more about these groups and others online. You can check a site like Charity Navigator to verify that the money you send is being used well.

And by starting to act yourself on behalf of the child in your life, a remarkable thing will happen. Not only will that child experience a sense of hope and reassurance, but you will, too.

Toshiba Digital Camera

“There is nothing more difficult, yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit.” –Maria Popova

Wasting Away

On my walks along the shore on dark January days, one bright spot has always been seeing an orange sea star (or starfish) down on the beach at the water’s edge. They made my day!

Starfish - one is not like the others

And then one day they were gone.

I wondered if it was connected to the warming ocean water, but a fellow walker reassured me, “No, no–it’s just a disease. I have a friend on Hood Canal who knows about them. He says they’ll be back once the disease passes!”

But they have not come back in the four to five years since this “wasting disease” was first identified. And they’ll likely never be back this time, say scientists. Warmer ocean waters make animals more vulnerable to disease. This particular disease has hit some 20 sea star species.

The situation is recognized as being the largest observed die-off of an ocean animal. Not all the species are gone yet, but the disease continues, especially along West Coast bays where the waters have warmed significantly. Local ecologists describe this “wasting disease” as a “horror show,” where the animals literally melt into a goo, falling apart.

I remember my children exploring tide pools when they were barely old enough to walk. Some of the first animals they encountered there were sea stars–bright splashes of orange, dark red, or purple in that magical star shape.

They knew these animals were tidal pool superheroes. They could lose an arm and re-grow a new one! Those gazillion tube feet on their undersides made it possible for them to grab and hold onto anything.

I have shed tears over the lost sea stars–not only for the children who won’t see them, but for myself.

One of my first blog posts I wrote was about the grief I felt over the disappearing glaciers. I had been in a second hand book store when I spotted an older book of large photographs of glaciers and I found myself weeping as I remembered standing on one of those glaciers. I never imagined a day when they would not exist.

Depending on fossil fuels for so much in our lives is coming at a high, high price.

It’s not an honor to be a witness to the “largest observed die-off of an ocean animal.” It’s a profound grief.

Photo credit:photo credit: IronRodArt – Royce Bair (“Star Shooter”) Starfish – one is not like the others via photopin (license)

Turning on the Light

I’m at the laundry room tub, mid-afternoon
The overhead light starts to flicker.
“Please, please, do not die!”
The light flickers again and dies.
Finish washing up.
Need to change the bulb.

Out to the garage, haul in the ladder.
Grab a new light bulb from the cabinet.
Up the ladder, old one out, new one in.
Down the ladder, flip the switch. No go.
Up the ladder, tighten the bulb.
Down the ladder, flip the switch. No go.
Stamp my feet.

Hmm. Maybe the new bulb’s bad?
Up the ladder, unscrew the bulb.
Down the ladder, get a new one.
Up the ladder, screw in the new bulb.
Down the ladder, flip the switch. No go.
Up the ladder, remove the light bulb.

Now my mind begins to go:
Whole fixture is bad.
Need to call an electrician.
Can’t call anyone till I pay for the new roof.
Too much upkeep.
Time to sell and move to a condo?
If I had a handy husband, he’d fix this.

Return both new light bulbs to the cabinet.
Throw out the old one.
Stash ladder away in the garage.
Shuffle back into the house.
Say a few bad words to the empty socket.
Glance at the microwave to check the time.

No time! No microwave light!
No electricity!
Power outage!
Yay!
Don’t need an electrician.
Don’t need a condo.
Don’t even need a handy husband.

Out to the garage, haul in the ladder…..

Dead Zones (revisited, revised for this month of change, November, 2016)

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.

The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house that had a great southern exposure. It died. She pulled it out and planted another fruit tree nearby. It died also.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Many years ago, farmers often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and their animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.

Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.

Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. He didn’t know that what he was doing would continue to contaminate the soil for generations after he was gone. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots didn’t run beneath the rich topsoil. She calls it the “Dead Zone.”

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. They accumulate over the years, over the generations.

Today we know that the over-emittance of greenhouse gases is contributing to the increase of Earth’s temperatures at an alarming rate. Scientists have warned us about this for years. We’ve resisted their warnings for a long time. Now we’re beginning to feel it in the changing weather patterns. We can no longer claim ignorance.

Today we know that if we don’t make significant changes in the way we live, we will be producing more dead zones all over the world.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our grandchildren and their children inherit?

We know better.