About Mary Ekstrand

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

Spinning Gold out of Air

If you had told me that I would pick up and read The Alchemy of Air, a book about….well, basically about chemistry and fertilizer, I would have laughed at you. Not only did I read it, but it was the best book I read in the last year.

I’ve belonged to the same book group for about 40 years. We have increasingly been reading more challenging, non-fiction books. Sometimes I long for the old days when we could read books like Bridges of Madison County (yes, groan….we did!) or a Harry Potter book. On the other hand, I am reading books I never would have attempted otherwise. Last month we read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. This swash-buckling tale about Charles Wilkes, the volatile leader of a highly successful, but disastrous exploring expedition in the early 1800’s was a page turner.

But this month’s book was even better. The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager, is about two German men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, both brilliant–but flawed. In the words of the author, “This is the story of two men who invented a way to turn air into bread, built factories the size of small cities, made enormous fortunes, helped engineer the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of billions more.” Both men received Nobel prizes for their work. Haber, incidentally, was Jewish, and that fact played a lot into his drive for success in a country that, even before the rise of the Nazis, made it difficult to succeed if you were Jewish. His compromises ultimately put him into some unfortunate situations.

Much of the book dealt with early 1900’s German history, but some of my favorite chapters centered on the early and frantic guano trade along the South American coast. Yes, the book is about fertilizer! It’s a story of pulling fertilizer out of the air, the stuff of fairy tales. But fairy tales end happily and this one was hardly that. The Haber-Bosch process did produce fertilizer for crops (today it’s used all over the world), but it also produced gunpowder and high explosives, poisonous gas, and a problem we all face today–nitrogen pollution. The author also views the obesity pandemic today as a result of this process. He points out that there is no shortage of food, but there is a problem (due to wars and natural disasters) of getting it to the people who need it.

I appreciated the short chapters and the readability for a non-scientific person like myself. I found it hard to put the book down. This was a history I did not know–and  the others in my book group admitted the same thing. I am even looking at my vegetable garden and the plants in my yard in a different way.

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Sharpening Our Vision

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It’s just a little unsettling that as we get older, before we invest in updating any body part, we consider its life expectancy. I have a friend who is “making do” with a temporary crown on a tooth.

“Holy moly!” she says, “I’m 75 years old! How much longer am I going to live? I’m chewing just fine with the temporary–I think it will last!”

I was unprepared, however, when I drove the Potter to his eye appointment, where, after his exam, he scheduled appointments to have cataracts on both eyes removed. He was a little quiet in the car riding home.

“You know,” he finally said, “I have a decision to make. I can simply have the cataracts removed and Medicare and my insurance will cover it. Or, if I pay extra, the doctor can correct my vision. I wouldn’t have to wear glasses anymore.”

Another long silence. “I really don’t mind wearing glasses–I’ve worn them most of my life. That would just be a vanity thing and I don’t care about that. The real issue is that I’m 81 years old–if I knew how much longer I was going to live, it would really help to make this decision. It’s not worth it if…..” And his voice trailed off.

That evening when he called, he said, “Well, I’ve made the decision! I’m going to go for the complete fix! You know what helped me decide? I can see through binoculars a lot easier when I’m bird watching–I can get the binoculars right up to my eyes if I’m not wearing glasses!” He was joking, but I know how important those binoculars and birds are to him.

There is a delicious irony here. You know about birds’ eyesight, right? Birds have the biggest eyes, relative to their size, of all animals. So yes, they have much sharper vision than we do. Raptors, especially, have keen eyesight. I have read that if we traded eyes with an eagle, we could see an ant crawling on the ground from the roof of a 10-story building. And, birds see certain light frequencies, including ultraviolet, that we can’t see.

Will I remind the Potter of this? Probably not. He’s been in a foul mood lately–he might not even chuckle at that pun. In this Year of the Bird, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the most important conservation laws in the world, is turning 100 years old this year. A reason to celebrate, right?


This law prohibits the unauthorized killing of migratory birds. Viiolations are criminal offenses. The Interior Department has just issued a memorandum ruling that corporations and businesses that accidentally kill migratory birds during their operations are no longer in violation of the act. Under this new ruling (or Rep. Liz Cheney’s similar House bill), BP Oil would not have been legally responsible for the one million birds that were killed in the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

So we are gutting one of our most important environmental laws in this Year of the Bird.

It’s another attack, and another reminder to all of us. We renew our support for local and state conservation efforts, we continue to support those national organizations that fight for birds and science (Audubon, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, Union of Concerned Scientists, Nature Conservancy, etc.). And we continue to send letters and make phonecalls, and make sure our families and friends are all registered to vote.

We need to demand our lawmakers sharpen their vision. This is not a time to be short-sighted.

Earth Lovers

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Earth Day is Sunday, April 22, but since I know you are all Earth Lovers, I think we need to start early and spend the whole month in celebration of this beautiful planet. The earth is under attack from a number of different directions–another reason to spend a little extra time this month in thinking about it. I have no words, but here are some thoughts that I treasure from some wise people. See how many you recognize!

“The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.” –Terry Tempest Williams, from Talking to God: Portrait of a World at Prayer.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist.

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Skunk cabbage

“Love all that has been created by God, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every ray of light. Love the beasts and the birds, love the plants, love every separate fragment. If you love each separate fragment, you will understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson

“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” –John Muir

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” –William Blake

“We should notice that we are already supported at every moment. There is the earth below our feet, and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” — Rachel Carson

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray, where nature heals and gives strength to body and soul alike.” –John Muir

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“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

“Remember to look up at the stars.” — Stephen Hawking

“I had assumed that the Earth, the spirit of the Earth, noticed exceptions–those who wantonly damage it and those who do not. But the Earth is wise. It has given itself into the keeping of all, and all are therefore accountable.”                    –Alice Walker

Earth Lovers love to read about the earth! And some authors make that easy. Here are just a few as reminders. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the “Comments” section below.

The poetry of Emily Dickinson

The poetry of Mary Oliver

Loren Eiseley

John Muir

Terry Tempest Williams

Rachel Carson–consider reading a biography of this oh so courageous woman!

Wendell Berry

The Wind in the Willows, written for children, but challenging and earth-loving





What’s for Dinner?

Mr. Muscle came this morning and whipped my three raised beds into shape in time for planting. You can almost see the food sprouting out of them already–peas, beans, carrots, kale, zucchini (ONE plant only), pumpkins, spinach, lettuce, beets,  and radishes. Three long boxes, each divided in half–it’s like six blank canvases. My fingers are just itching to paint-plant.

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Three raised beds crafted by the Potter many years ago.

But I have other diners at my table to consider. Because the rabbits also relish my lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, and peas, those seeds get planted in the one box that has a low fence around it. One year I was able to plant a “spicy lettuce mix” in an unfenced area and they didn’t touch it–but it was too spicy for me, too, so that was a lost effort.

For years the peas mysteriously disappeared every spring–every single seed–and sometimes before they had even sprouted out of the ground. I suspected the rabbits of hopping the fence, but nothing else was touched. Eventually I noticed a Stellar’s Jay methodically working his way down the row of peas. Now I also cover the whole fenced area with a berry net.

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Crocuses nestled up against some hyachinths

I found another mystery last year when I noticed many of my beautiful purple crocuses ever so neatly clipped off. Already this year, the bed is looking like a bridal path of scattered purple petals. The culprit? Rabbits again. Turns out their tastes run beyond veggies. Some of the crocuses are eaten right down to the ground.

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No way could I blame the disappearing little green figs on the rabbits. Every fall, after the fig tree drops its leaves, it holds onto a second crop of small, hard green figs that never develop. Later we rake up a lot off the ground, but I’ve noticed squirrels in the tree making off with the rest.

After the peas are up several inches, I can move the netting onto the blueberries. Small birds still figure out intricate, secret routes underneath the netting, but I manage to save some for myself this way.

The August a flock of crows was slashing their way through my beeautiful juicy yellow pears was also the month a crow died in my neighborhood–by sheer coincidence, I swear. When we hung the two wings in the tree, the crows shrieked for a time, and then left. I hange those two wings each summer and I’ve never seen a crow in the tree since.

One summer I saw signs from a bear underneath an old apple tree that had several broken limbs. Every few years a few beautiful deer wander through and sample from the different apple trees. I figure they’re comparison shopping.

The wildlife and I exist side by side. I love seeing them all, even the crows. We enjoy trying to outwit each other, making life entertaining for all of us critters.

Looking Back and Stepping Ahead


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.

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.

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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.



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.

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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.

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