What an Old Growth Forest Knows


photo by Paul Mayer



A few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the kitchen one morning, turned on KUOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to happen simultaneously. The program on air was in the middle of an interview with a writer who was on book tour, and I thought, I know that voice.

And I did. The crisp Australian cadence of her voice. Years ago we were neighbors north of San Diego. I’ll call her Harriet. I didn’t know her well—both of our families had a fair amount of land with avocado groves to manage, young children to raise, and were pretty busy–but on the few occasions that we did get together, her voice enchanted me. And here it was now, playing away in my kitchen.

That night I attended Harriet’s reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. And afterward, over lattes, caught up with the new life of my old neighbor. Both families had relocated. Her’s to Houston, while we obviously wound up in The Pacific Northwest.

Walking each other to the parking lot, I thought the evening had gone pleasantly enough until she gestured with a dismissive sweep of her arm at the dark green woods surrounding us.

“I don’t know how you can live here.,” she said. “If you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all.”

And on that note, Harriet hopped in her vehicle and was gone.

I was stunned. My first thought was that they are not all pines, not by a long shot. It’s so much more complex than that. Richly complex.

The Old Growth Forests of The Pacific Northwest are essentially conifer forests, dominated by Douglas firs and Western hemlocks. Stretching from SE Alaska and SW British Columbia, through Western Washington and Western Oregon to the border of Northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the crest of The Cascade Range. Sometimes referred to as Primary Forests, Virgin Forests, Primeval Forests, and my favorite, Ancient Woodlands (in Britain), an Old Growth Forest is defined by Wikipedia as a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits unique ecological features.

Walk through it with me, if you would, for we later left the city and moved north—onto San Juan Island. Into the wilderness, so to speak. We live in an Old Growth Forest at the foot of the sea, where Western red cedar thrives. Growing year round in our mild winters, these trees reach heights of 200 ft, and may be two or three centuries old. This is the tree with which I am most familiar now.

Mother Cedar. Distinguished by it’s fluted base and graceful, feathery branches. It’s fragrant, sweet smelling needles softly carpeting the forest floor and tracking into our home daily. The exterior of our home is shingled in cedar shakes, making it appear at one with the woods. A half dozen cedar Adirondack chairs sit upon a cedar deck, and another half dozen in a circle around an outdoor fire pit. We are all about cedar here. We probably smell like cedar.

An Old Growth Forest is comprised of large trees, standing dead trees (snags), and fallen trees. Water-repellent and rot-resistant, red cedar can last for hundreds of years on the forest floor. As such, logs and snags may foster more life after their death than they had before. Covered now with mushrooms and mosses, and nursing huckleberries, ferns, and salal. Over time, it may provide a substrate for seedling shrubs and trees.

Time is long here. While some trees reach upwards of 1,000 years of age, others are on their way back to decay. There is a mix of tree ages and of regeneration. An Old Growth Forest is a continuum.

An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not from human events such as clear-cut logging. At a time when the U.S. has lost 96% of its Old Growth Forests, what this Old Growth Forest Knows is immense.

That air you breathe, Houston. We put it there.



Filed under Old Growth Forests

Trouble in Paradise


photo credit: Paul Mayer


You have to know, the island is my peaceful place, and Roche Harbor, my happy place on island. We found it first by boat, and later, we picked up our lives in the city and moved there.

Waiters informed us Roche Harbor had a microclimate of its own where the sun shines nearly every day, and now we know that to be true. It’s where everyone looks good in that light. Where children don’t whine, and babies don’t cry. Where children are capable kayakers or driving around in dinghies. And young ones are entertained with a net and a bucket on the docks until bedtime. A life jacket over their pajamas, rather than a computer in hand.

Where the Our Lady of Good Voyage chapel rings out beloved songs in bells. It’s where a parade of pets goes by daily: Goldens and Golden Doodles, Spaniels, Pugs and Poodles. A dog on nearly every boat, and the dogs look good in the light too. Hell, it looks like a Ralph Lauren ad.

We purchased a home to be near that light. And every day we circle through Roche Harbor in the course of our walks to pick up our mail, get groceries, stroll through the gardens, and generally enjoy the facilities, a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.

All that shattered for us last week at the dog park in Roche Harbor. How often it’s empty, I notice every time I cut through the woods. Normally we’d have no use for it, but our daughter was visiting and her Brittany pup needs to run and knows no bounds—so we chose the safety of a dog park. In we went accompanied with our other daughter’s Yellow Lab and our dog “Coco,” a small American Eskimo/poodle mix. The Brittany and Yellow Lab were fetching balls while Coco stood around not knowing what to do with herself, when the gate swung open and in walked a woman with a 90lb steel gray pit bull, off-leash. Her dog didn’t hesitate to lunge toward Coco. It was clearly in kill mode.

It is difficult to recount all that happened in the space of 15 or 20 endless seconds. The pit bull lunging, singularly focused. Coco yelping and leaping about to save herself, finally landing in my husband’s arms. Him covered with her blood. It took two people to hold back the pit bull. The mouthful of Coco’s fur in his jaws. Meanwhile in the woman’s automobile, another large aggressive dog, going nuts.

“Coco’s a lucky dog,” our vet said, pointing out punctures near her lungs. Any deeper… Incisor marks all over her left foreleg, right rear leg, belly, and rear end. They are called “weeping wounds.” Bandaged initially, uncovered now for better healing.  Coco sat still all day, with little thirst or hunger, having to be carried outside to a patch of grass for the first few days. Attended day and night by four people and two gentle, caring dogs, the Yellow Lab and Brittany who watched over her.

My question is: why would anyone have such aggressive animals? And why do they bring them around? It’s hard to believe this woman lives here, on island, near Roche Harbor as do I. She obviously doesn’t see things in the same light. The light that looks good on everyone and everything, the waiters, the food, children, babies, kayaks, dinghies, boats, and dogs. She can’t possibly see it.


Filed under aggressive animals

Of Trees and Seas



When Susan Orlean asked John Laroche in her book The Orchid Thief why he loved plants, “He said he admired how adaptable and mutable they are, how they have figured out how to survive in the world.”

But I wonder… we may outfox them yet.

I recently picked up and devoured Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir of a woman in the natural sciences. But whereas I might come at nature from the I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree brain hemisphere, Jahren, recipient of three Fulbright Awards in geobiology and tenured professor at the University of Hawai’i in Honolulu, sounded alarms good and loud from the science department.

“Planet Earth is nearly a Dr. Seuss book made real: every year since 1990 we have created more than 8 billion new stumps,” she states. “If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than 600 years from now, every tree on this planet will have been reduced to a stump.”

Some disappearances happen almost without notice in the course of one’s lifetime. Some in a matter of decades—like the colorful coral reefs in the Caribbean, now bleached. And some practically before one’s eyes, such as the magnificently large orange, red, and purple sea stars that lit up our boating trips to marinas in the Puget Sound just a few short years ago.

You know it’s a good book when what you are reading puts you in the author’s mindset. Lab Girl had me seeing like a scientist. While she examined seeds, soil, and trees, I hopped on a dock at Ganges Marina on Salt Springs Island, British Columbia and spotted starfish—something whose disappearance we have witnessed. The West Coast starfish Plague. First they go clear, and then they are gone.

You can’t imagine my delight in finding one.

Like sea life, “plants have more enemies than can be counted,” notes Jahren.

At the end of her memoir she requests that each reader plant a tree, nurture, and protect it. And “to try to see the world from its perspective.” For we are all in this together, the trees, sea stars, and us.

Here’s hoping Lab Girl sells, and sells well.


Filed under starfish, the environment, trees

Peace Where We Find It

apple picNorth Pole Columnar Apples. Photo by Paul Mayer


Not since the 60’s has this country seen so many demonstrations. Now I am in my sixties and standing in a Demonstration Garden. What’s a Demonstration Garden, you ask? Well it’s the Master Gardeners’ way of inviting you into their space to see what grows well in a particular area and to share their gardening practices.

This place, I have decided, is my personal act of resistance. Against all the violence, hatred and bigotry in the world, this is my personal act of resistance because it is a working model. I am planting myself here as much as possible.

The first scent to hit me is fish fertilizer, and I rather like it. I’ve got dirt under my fingernails before I remember to wear my gloves, and I don’t mind that either.

Tomatoes are growing under plastic tarps for heat. In the temperate summers of the Pacific Northwest, tomatoes often need a little help. Patty pan squash, zucchini, peppers, and Bush beans aplenty. Little eggplants, dangling like amethyst earrings.

A new crop of chard is coming along, whereas my first crop is still in the process of coming up at home. Potatoes, garlic, kale. Herbs of all description. Tomatio, looking like pretty little Japanese lanterns. Grape vines gone berserk.

“And peas that are beginning to say goodnight,” as one Master Gardener put it.

Arugula that wintered-over, a skinnier leafed variety than what we are growing at home, with a more pungent peppery taste. Rhubarb, which could be grown outside the fence, as deer don’t care for it.

It’s all about food here—indeed the only blossoms are flowering food plants, artichokes, squash, and such. Despite the small plot, The Master Gardener Demonstration Garden on San Juan Island donates over 1,000 lbs. of produce annually to the Friday Harbor Food Bank, and no wonder. As we stood in the garden, Master Gardeners showed up to work carrying excess produce from their home gardens to contribute as well. Everything is organic, weighed and delivered to the Food Bank, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, just steps away.

I hopped over there to have a look and found a sweet little store, clean as can be, meticulously organized and stocked, where everything is free—all it asks of customers is island residency. Fresh produce, of course. Eggs, meat, milk, canned goods, pasta, dried beans, soups, frozen chickens, frozen sausage, and ice cream treats for kids while shopping. Some signs say take one item per shelf, or two items per shelf. Large families, of course, get extra.

Like so many things on island, the Friday Harbor Food Bank is run by volunteers. But then, this is an island where drivers in cars wave as they pass. Where there are more people walking or running or biking than driving. Where there are no traffic lights. Where the wildlife is harmless and the people are kind. Where the town of Friday Harbor looks like Main Street, Disneyland.

It isn’t fair, I get to live here.

The more I think about it, the island itself may be my personal act of resistance as well.


Filed under food gardening, personal act of resistance

Notes from an Old Volvo Driving South to Tahoe for the 4th of July

Tahoe Blog


It’s a country of alfalfa, potato, and cattle around Merrill, Oregon. Western storefronts still standing. The Wild Goose Lodge. Here Mexican food gets good. Lost River and Lava Beds National Monument, who knew?

Over the border and in California without knowing it. No wonder the green turned gray, Sage Brush and Scrub Pines. All the many Jeffrey Pine with edible leaves and a bark that smells like vanilla.

Bee farms, and rivers running dry. Barns, and farm house architecture inspired by barns. Butte Creek.

Mt. Lassen, site of my husband’s first camping trip with his parents. Their first and last time camping.

Rusted incinerators once used for burning at old saw mills. Now we repurpose the bark and chips in a multitude of ways.

We’re doing something right.

Cactus appears like roadside daisies in the North country where I come from. Ranches with acreage too vast to fence. Cattle crossing signs on the road. I think of the difference between watching for leaping deer versus a big old, going nowhere, bull.


Transformation to an apocalyptic terrain. Looking like Death Valley.

Pit stop: we need to get out. We need to get back in the car and go. Too hot–even the dogs say so.

Eagle Lake. Susanville. Nearing Reno, more ranch country. Nothing like a city do we see. Instead John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath come to mind. “Dust devils” kicking up like little cyclones.

What is that light on the dash?

Bordertown, Nevada. A white salt lake that’s been browned by dirt dust. Boomtown. Truckee River, and I know we’re getting there. Gold Ranch Road. Having grown up on the east coast, how I love these western names.

Tahoe Nat’l Forest. Squaw Valley. We’re in the Sierras here.

All the rafting on the Truckee River alongside us, as we bumper-to-bumper our way in to Tahoe City. Rafts tied up like traffic, laughing all the way. Summer break happens here & now. I’m thinking I could live here.

Freedom of movement. Haven’t I always loved that about this country?




Filed under roadtrip

Ode to a Flower


Photo by Paul Mayer


Orlando. Congress. This has been a tough time in our country, what poet Beatrix Gates called “the thousand day week.” I am writing an ode to a flower because it’s the only thing pulling me through.

A year ago I planted numerous wallflower, salvia, coneflower, Iceland poppy, lavender, lupine, and Shasta Daisy—practically every perennial I could get my hands on from the drought-resistant, deer-resistant tables at our island nursery. I wanted to see what would thrive on a sunny hillside in our piece of old-growth-forest-on-the-bay.

All that I planted, and all that remains today: a trace of wallflower, a little lavender, and Shasta Daisy.

I should have taken a clue from all the roadside daisies on island. Unless you have something you have to prove to yourself, my theory in gardening is to go with what thrives. And daisy may be this island’s flower. The deer have gifted it to us.

This year the variety of Shasta Daisy I have planted is Leucanthemum ‘Becky,” all along a hundred foot fence on the bank to the water, since that’s another sunny spot. Larger and more robust than the roadside daisy, growing up to 4ft tall and blooming early summer through early fall, they are all I need.

The funny thing is, they’re facing away toward the water and toward the sun. South is south, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s all good. Another reminder that we are not the center of the world. If Trump ever tried to garden with his tiny hands he would know that.


Filed under deer-resistant, drought-resistant, perennial, planting

My Next Dinner Party


photo credit: Ashley Mayer


As for table decorating, it is hard to beat a simple, large plate whose design and color don’t compete with the food, a simple glass that makes the wine seems to float in air, a great big soft napkin of any color that strikes your fancy, and pots of field flowers (or weeds), or a few poppies. Lee Bailey 

Here’s an idea: assuming we only invite people whom we like to dinner, why not tell them just how much? This idea came to me when my husband returned home from a Rotary meeting one morning last week.

Our life in a nutshell: Paul seems to wake up dressed and push off like Superman. That’s what I called him back in the days he wore a three-piece suit to work. I hardly saw him. Whereas I rise slowly, brew a pot of coffee and write my Morning Pages–three pages longhand—followed by my gratitude journal entries, every day, before I even talk to anyone. So I knew something about what Paul was talking about when he said they were visited at Rotary by David Brooke, aka That Gratitude Guy.

A former Nordstrom store manager, for the past 7 years David “The Brooker” Brooke has been speaker, life coach, author, and teacher on the transformative power of gratitude, a self-described “social entrepreneur.” His message: “… no matter how stressful or tragic, (any situation in life) can be reframed and refocused into a fulfilling journey, by using the simple principles of gratefulness.”

Now I’ve probably been keeping gratitude journals longer than David’s been running workshops, so I know firsthand what he’s saying. To put it simply, starting each and every day with a gratitude list—five things for which I am grateful—has me looking up, not down. Getting off on the right foot, so to speak. Lord knows it’s way too easy to start off on the wrong one, and spend the rest of the day catching your fall.

At the breakfast meeting of The Rotary Club of San Juan Island, David passed out cards and asked each member to select a partner and write down attributes he or she appreciates about that person, then give the card to him or her. I read my husband’s card, written by a very new friend, and saw that he nailed it. All my husband’s best qualities on one card, which I have put away in a dresser drawer—to be taken out whenever I need to be reminded.

So at my next dinner party, I am going to borrow a page from David Brooke. We’ll each pick a partner and write down as many attributes as we can about the other for one minute. Then share it with him or her.

This I know before any consideration of food, wine, and what I love most, the linens and dishes and table setting—so much so that I dream of my late grandmother’s butler pantry. It’s a recurring dream of mine in which the pantry figures as prominently as any other room in the Connecticut manse.  Gram had more glasses and dishes than Crate & Barrel, and in the dead space above the mile-high cupboards, rolls and rolls of paper towels. She could house whatever she wanted to store in that pantry.

Gram would have loved Costco. And I would have loved parlor games.


Filed under dinner party, gratitude, table setting