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.

The Stories We Tell

When I tell people I once had shingles in my mouth, they almost always take a step backward, away from me. That’s even before I mention that it’s the most painful thing I have ever experienced. I take pity on them at that point and quickly assure them that as soon as the doctor started me on the anti-viral, it cleared up. Then the look of horror on their faces fades and they relax. It’s one of my best stories and I seldom miss an opportunity to tll it, a (painfully) true story.

I told it two different times to strangers in the waiting room of the Safeway Pharmacy as I was waiting to get my second shingles shot plus a flu shot (one in each arm). I discovered that it is a fantastic place to tell this particular story. It’s the ideal setting. People are unusually receptive and shocked. I think the first woman who heard it actually backed up two steps. The second couple I told it to were sitting down, which was fortunate–they were unusually horrified.

It’s such a shame I can’t use it in more social situations when the conversation lags. Unfortuanately, it’s seldom as appropriate as it is in the Safeway Pharmacy Waiting Room.

I toyed briefly with the idea of going back to that waiting room the next day with a thermos of hot tea and maybe a doughnut and sitting for the whole morning. It’s flu shot season and I could tell that story over and over and over and then monitor the reactions I get. My life has been fairly uneventful. I don’t have a a lot of story-working material.

Is that true? Am I out of stories?

When I glanced out the front window this morning, the snowball bush was quivering–all the leaves looked like they were dancing, and without a breath of wind. What was happening? Finally I caught sight of a tiny brown bird, barely bigger than a hummingbird. That flock of bushtits had set the whole bush quivering!

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The last few blueberry leaves

And I complained last week that the blueberry bushes out the kitchen window had shown no signs of changing color. Today they are a flaming red. How do they manage that so quickly?

Last night I read an essay about mountain lions, those beasts that are as long as the jungle lions, when measured nose to tail because their tails are so long. They’re curious, like the coyote that will sit up on the hill behind my house and watch me. At the time the essay was printed (1988), the author reported that only one person in this country had ever been killed by a mountain lion, a 14-year-old boy. Previous owners of my house used to watch mountain lions pad by the house at night, make their way down to the beach, and then come back up their trail and disappear into the woods behind the house.

So perhaps I still have a few other stories to share, although few of them rise to the drama of the shingles experience.

This is my 100th blog (I write one almost every month), and I had wondered if I was running low on stories. Maybe I can come up with just a few more yet.

Pet Walk 2019

It would be great fun to start by listing off all the different breeds I saw that day this summer, but like breeds of cars, I can’t identify dog breeds either. But let me tell you, there were dozens of different kinds. I swear I saw one woman leading a big brown bear on a leash!

I was at first impressed by how many people had brought babies in strollers and then suddenly realized that most of those strollers cradled small dogs. I watched as one woman stopped, took the little terrier (or what I thought to be a terrier) out of the stroller and let him walk, joining another larger terrier. Maybe mom?

Pet Walk happens every so often down along my road and even though I am not a dog person, I always take my walk then so I can see them. It is one of the most entertaining events during the summer in my neighborhood. Theoretically a “pet walk,” I have only been aware of dogs in this annual event. This year, like others, people were convivial, pleasant, unhurried, visiting among themselves. Some walked in groups or couples, others were alone. Everyone was smiling.

But the dogs were even happier. Among all those dozens of dogs I saw, I heard only one quick bark. All the different sizes and breeds and colors and textures and I saw not one dog fight. On the contrary–they were having the times of their lives–mixing, sniffing, scampering, dancing, prancing, plodding, and pulling their owners by their leashes (yes, just who were the ones on leashes?). Some were obviously exotic, expensive breeds, freshly groomed, and others looked like they had come from a back alley, but they all got along. It was enough to make me just a little embarrassed to be human.

It would have been great to get a photo to show you–they were so photogenic, and I did have my camera. But I felt like a stranger taking a photo of someone’s child, way too intrusive. I would have felt like I would need to ask for a release to use the photo.

The comedian Gilda Radner once said, “I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me, they are the role model for being alive.” I know every human creature in that walk would have agreed.

What Tracks Will We Leave?

Can you imagine walking through a beautiful wilderness area and not seeing any wildlife? No birds, no insects, no small animals? My friend April, a college science professor, just returned with her family from a trip to Europe. They hiked and rode horses through beautiful mountainous areas. She was stunned to see so few animals. She said the forested areas they hiked through “felt like shells or facades.” She called them “monocultures, empty inside.” The birds they saw were common birds we see in parks. She said it felt like “an ecosystem in collapse.”


Last night as I went to close the back door I saw five large raccoons come down the hill behind my house and meander toward the back door. No, they weren’t about to knock–they were going to head between the house and the garage to get on their trail down to the orchard.

This morning as I picked the pole beans at the top of their support poles, a hummingbird stopped at a blossom right above me. I didn’t move and it worked its way closer and closer down the vine, stopping at each red blossom. It was a few inches from my hand and a foot or two from my face before it spun off.

I often see either a bald eagle or an osprey circle the bay in front of my house. We never saw eagles 45 years ago! What a successful return!

I will try to never take these encounters for granted again. I will greet the big bumble bees, and admire an unusual beetle. And I will not sit quietly when endangered species laws are trampled.

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”–a Dakota proverb

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” — His Holiness the Dalai Lama