A Tale of Two Islands

Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Harbors, lighthouses, beaches, wildlife, and farmlands describe both Martha’s Vineyard and San Juan Island, two seemingly idyllic islands at sea. Just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is twice the size and primarily a summer colony. North of Seattle in the Salish Sea, just off B.C. Canada, San Juan Island also attracts its share of summer visitors. The climate on both islands is more temperate than the mainland. “The Vineyard” enjoys cooler summers and warmer winters than inland by a few degrees, and San Juan Island, far more sun than Seattle and an unusually dry climate for Western Washington.

Whaling brought Martha’s Vineyard to prominence in the 19th c, while a booming timber industry coupled with lime kiln operations nearly devastated old growth trees on San Juan Island. Today both islands are extraordinarily sensitive to fragile, vital ecosystems on land and water. On Martha’s Vineyard, approximately 65% of the island has been designated “Priority Habitat” for rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Similarly, San Juan Preservation Trust purchases and receives donations of land, protecting saltwater shores, woodlands, and one of the last remaining native prairies. 

Originally inhabited by indigenous people—Coast Salish peoples in the San Juan Islands, and Wampanoag people on Martha’s Vineyard where there is still a small population. Coast Salish tribes moved about all the San Juan Islands, following the seasons in what archaeologists call “a seasonal round,” fishing, hunting, and harvesting. As the U.S. government claimed the islands, it opened the land to homesteading for U.S. citizens, running Native Americans off the land they knew. 

Meanwhile over on Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head is embroiled today in a court battle over the transformation of a community center into a casino on their reservation. So it’s not all roses there either. 

Here we are, two islands at sea all these years later without getting the first thing right: our relationship with indigenous peoples. We’re all on borrowed land.

Never forget that, we are all on borrowed land.

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A Candle in the Dark

 

photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

 

We all lost a giant in Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18. On San Juan Island, The League of Women Voters held an evening vigil on the courthouse lawn in Friday Harbor. As I write these words I realize how quaint that sounds, and how quaint it was indeed. An island, like a microcosm, in a state that refers to Washington D.C. as “the other Washington.” But if D.C. is white marble and power, we are green and cooperative. If D.C. is many, we are few. And if they’re dressed in suits and heels, we live in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes. Otherwise we’re just the same.

I had the privilege of riding to the vigil with my neighbors, Susan and Michael Martin, who recently moved onto the island from D.C., where they’d been annual season ticket holders at Washington National Opera. There they were seated near the Ginsburgs, enjoying what they called “a nodding relationship” with the other couple. Susan spoke at our vigil on island. Carrying low voltage candle lights in the dark, we all stood around her in a circle. Susan’s stories humanized Ruth for us as a woman who valued her family, friends, and the arts—especially opera.

“When I am at the opera I get totally carried away,” Ruth said. It’s a delightful thought, that this extraordinarily intelligent, disciplined, and practiced woman had her moments like that at the opera.

Soon other stories flowed forth of RBG’s impact on all our lives. One woman in the circle had served in the military “when you were discharged if it was discovered you were pregnant.” Many women remembered having to get their husbands’ signatures for a credit card, even to a department store. And another who stated that up until 1974, women had to leave the Foreign Service if they married. In the end, we all sang “We Shall Overcome” through our masks, before going off into the night.

Perhaps most poignant and seared into my memory for eternity, is Saul Loeb’s photograph (The Atlantic) of all the former clerks attired in black standing at attention, socially distanced, on the steps of The Supreme Court to meet the casket when the Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States came to lie in repose.

And from somewhere, friend and contemporary Gloria Steinem cried, “I thought she was immortal.”

~~~

In the forest Mother trees are the largest trees, passing their legacy on by nurturing others. Reaching with deep roots, Mother trees draw water to help support and shape younger shallow-rooted trees. Moving carbon and mineral nutrients to one another, and even communicating with each other—signaling dangers such as droughts, disease, and insect attacks through fungal networks–Mother trees insure regeneration.

The maternal instinct of trees was brought to light by Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. “These discoveries,” she writes in The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, “have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system.”

In other words, for interspecies tree communities to thrive in the forest it isn’t ‘survival of the fittest,’ but rather interdependence. “To reach enormousness, they depend on a complicated web of relationships, alliances and kinship networks,” writes Richard Grant (“Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018).

As a litigator fighting for equal protection for men and women, RBG modeled herself after Thurgood Marshall in his struggle for civil rights in our country. Mentors for the ages, both. At 5’1” Chief Justice Ginsburg stood like a Mother tree in our time, leaving a legacy to shape future generations.

It isn’t always about today; it’s about tomorrow.

Famous for her dissents, RBG explained “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.” (in an interview with Nina Totenburg, National Public Radio, May 2, 2002)

In the forest, even injured and fallen trees bring life to others.

 

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Paradise Lost

 

We saw the photographs and footage like everyone else. Forests in red blazes, orange skies over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a mustard gas like atmosphere on the ground in Los Angeles. Runaway wildfires working their way up the coast, California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

In the San Juan Islands, just off beautiful B.C. Canada, we were sailing along under blue skies for a time, feeling grateful. That was last week.

This week the smoke is in our hair, on our clothes, in our eyes, in every breath we take. All we can taste is smoke and it tastes like cotton/wool/flannel. No, it tastes like fleece. Smoke strips everything of color, rendering it flattened and forlorn. Smoke silences our forests.

We should have known it was coming. One evening last week we felt a course wind, “like a Santa Anna,” my husband noted. One by one the birds left the island, taking their songs with them. The only birds I see now are Resident Canadian Geese and Northwestern or American Crows. Resident Canadian Geese are born here, don’t migrate, and have lost all instinct to fly off. And crows, like cockroaches or coyotes, are scavengers, poking through paper plates and napkins left on outdoor restaurant dining tables.

Basically, birds live on the edge. Because of their highly sensitive respiratory system, caged canaries were at one time carried down into coal mines to detect any dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. If the canary died, miners would flee the mine. But we can’t climb out of this. Planet Earth is our home, and air quality has no borders. It’s like the ocean.

We’re all living on the edge.

A few years ago a woman I know from Houston, Texas visited Seattle. She couldn’t wait to leave, it was too green for her. “When you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all,” was her refrain. Never mind that our forests in The Pacific Northwest are comprised of Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Sitka Spruce as well as Ponderosa Pine. They were all the same to her. And they all do their job in being one of the great “lungs” on earth—keeping places like Houston alive.

We cannot afford to lose our forests if we’re going to keep our planet pumping. Climate denialism will never replace lost lives, homes, towns, forests, wild animals, beloved pets, and birds overcome by heat and smoke. What’s in the smoke? My friend, Jeff Smith, retired RN in San Francisco tells us, “Smoke is not just particles—it is all the substances that are burning. It is gases and plastics and pesticides and toxic metals and flame retardants. These get attached to the particles and we breath them in. And we absorb them through our skin… and we ingest them.”

No one survives smoke plumes upwards of 10 miles high containing thunderstorms, lightening, and tornados. Unprecedented drought, soaring heat and strong winds fueled these flames. Meanwhile snowpacks have been shrinking in the mountains just as oceans have warmed.

Mother Nature is pissed.

As Governor of California Gavin Newson put it, “The debate is over on climate change. Just come to the state of California.” Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia, Canada, I might add.

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The Outdoor Rooms in Our Lives

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Some of us consider our outdoor space essential to our survival, but really we’re just fortunate. If windowsills were all I had I’d be growing something on that, and that would be my story. But as it is, I am dealing with a deck, an upper deck. And a deck, I dare say, is different than a patio in terms of what it wants.

The deck below knew just what to do. It’s appointed with half a dozen Adirondack chairs, cedar stump tables, lifejackets of every size hanging on a rack, and a bevy of water shoes, boots, and waders in a cubby. Considering where we are and what we’re about, it’s perfect.

The top deck, my concern here, steps off our open space living/dining/kitchen, and is currently furnished with all the traditional black wrought iron furniture that moved in with us from other homes. And they just don’t work in this cedar shake house in-the-woods-by-the-sea.

I purchased many of these pieces by visiting consignment stores along The Main Line outside Philadelphia in the two years we lived there. We were living in an old stone farmhouse at the time, and for the Pennsylvania Bluestone patio I picked up assorted wrought iron pieces, mismatched sets, in various colors. Sanded them all and gave them a coat of flat black Rustoleum. It worked. The furniture looked like it been with the house for all time. We felt remarkably settled on that patio in Bryn Mawr, in the evenings mainly as the summers were so warm. Canapies and cocktails, the sound of cicadas, and fireflies dancing across the lawn until it was time for bed.

Then we moved west and I didn’t know what else to do but load all my patio furniture into the moving van. It took awhile but finally, six years later, the traditional wrought iron looked well appointed again on the patio of a small English Tudor on Queen Anne hill in Seattle. Every square inch in a walled city garden is precious. The cushions were upholstered in a black & white awning stripe, and a dining table, chairs, and a candelabra, all in black, were added to the collection. Our outdoor room was a green oasis where climbing hydrangea scaled the walls under a pair of magnolia trees, all very reminiscent of New Orleans, Paris, or Nob Hill in Boston.

From there we moved out to The San Juan Islands and all the wrought iron pieces came with me again, and they shouldn’t have. If furniture could talk they would have told me this.

Now here we are, on an island where the trees meet the sea eleven nautical miles off the state of Washington mainland, and north of Victoria, B.C. Both rustic and remote, we couldn’t fantasize New Orleans, Nob Hill, Paris, or even Queen Anne, if we wanted to. The uptown girl furniture was made for patios, and patios, by nature, are turned inward. A patio is social. Upon the decks, we are always turned out. We listen to birdsong and our gaze is far. Like the running boards of the deck our line of sight extends to the sea, the stretch of beach, the coastal shrubs, the stance of heron, the flight of the osprey, and the rising moon. This land, this sea, this sky, becomes us.

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By the Side of the Road

photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I have been joined by fox on my walks recently. They’re always singular, stepping out onto the country road before me. Red fox, black fox, silver/black fox, we keep an eye on each other as I walk toward him. But before I get too close, the fox jumps back into a culvert along the road or back into the thick of the woods. Since this has happened frequently, I think it must mean something but I’ve no idea what. I do know this however, according to Stephanie Rose in Interpreting the Spiritual Meaning of Seeing a Fox, “as a spirit animal, the fox reveals itself during times of great and unpredictable change.”

And that it is.

Queen Anne’s Lace has begun to bloom on island in fields, meadows, along beaches, and roadsides. I can’t tell you what that wildflower means to me. My first marriage was in a church built in 1846 on an elevated site in Suffield, Connecticut. I had no affiliation with that church, I just liked the look of it. Small, white, wooden, and with the exception of four Doric columns across a portico in front, the church is quite plain, almost chaste. An interior without  ornament, without electricity. A hand pumped organ, a lectern, and pews. And on that day, upon every window sill, homemade arrangements of Queen Anne’s Lace. A young bride in a long white cotton dress—I wish I could stop her, but there was no stopping her. It was all very hurried and quite mad.

Queen Anne’s lace smells like carrots, by the way.

Just beginning to appear, right behind Queen Anne’s Lace, is the wild lavender/blue flower I mistook for an aster my first few years on island. In fact it’s Common Chicory, a woody perennial herb in the dandelion tribe. It was at the Master Gardener Demo Garden that I stood corrected, and I remember shrieking with joy that this little flower, all over San Juan Island, is chicory. What came to me then, and what comes to me now every time I stumble upon it, are memories of a couple days spent in The French Quarter in New Orleans with my daughter. Dishes to die for—“first you make a roux,” bougainvillea growing to extraordinary heights on wrought iron balconies and gates, folds of old velvet drapery in deep reds, spider webs in chandeliers, the texture of crumbling brick walls, squares and courtyards and patios, street musicians, the smells of mossy trees, gardenia, and sweet olive, and the distinctive taste of the coffee. The ground root of Chicory was used as a coffee substitute in The Depression, and still today in New Orleans, as a matter of preference, it is mixed with dark bean coffee.

One glimpse of the pretty Common Chicory and I am there, at Café du Monde, powdered sugar on my fingers and upper lip.

And growing in sunlight where everything else gave up ever trying to grow, for they seem to come out of rocks, the California Poppy. Distinquished as the state flower of California, but native to the entire Pacific slope of North America. A flower so small and demure, with a vibrant explosion of yellow/orange color, the California Poppy expresses the optimism and free spirit of the state, reseeding itself if happy. Flowers that close at night and on cloudy days. I experienced that when I first moved to California from New York. I was continually calling people too late at night, not realizing that Californians more closely follow the sun.

Come fall, I am going to sow some.

I have completed the loop and am coming home from my walk. This is where I turn in: a shrubby lot by the side of the road and by the side of the sea. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out—and everything comes back to us. It never leaves. A great state in a seed, two days in New Orleans pre-Katrina, a brief marriage, and a knowing fox.

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The Nest

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A hanging fuchsia basket recently sold at Julie’s Nursery on San Juan Island and was promptly returned when the customer found a nest in it at home. The nest was built in a hollow at soil level and contained three little eggs. Julia exchanged the basket, and hung this one where it had been hoping the mother bird would not abandon it.

“Sure enough,” exclaimed Julia, “soon there were four eggs!”

Four eggs, it turns out, is the normal clutch of eggs for a Junco, who usually lay one egg per day. Thanks to swift observation on the part of the customer, the clutch is now complete and Julia watches over the nest in her nursery today.

My childbearing years are behind me, but I will always equate nests with homes.

Once I lived in a perfectly beautiful house in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. How we got there I haven’t a clue, for we deeply loved the town in California we had to leave for Bryn Mawr, and were as happy, settled, and committed as we had ever been, anywhere. Then the next thing you know we left this perfect house because my husband’s job was moving us west again, this time to Seattle.

It was at this point that a friend of mine gave me Louise Gluck’s poem “The Nest,” torn from the pages of The New Yorker. I carried that poem with me. It worked its way into my very being. “The Nest” spoke to me so much it was as if I had written it. In the end, that poem was a springboard or prompt for a memoir I wrote. A memoir that has everything to do with nature, homes, and moving.

 

A bird was making its nest.

In the dream I watched it closely.

 

I mention this because my youngest sister in Boston is looking to move. No one’s job is requiring it, for they both work remotely. They just want to find a place where they might like to retire. Which is what we did on San Juan Island from Seattle, and now I can say I live in a perfect place. And having written a manuscript about new starts, I am trying to help her with this.

 

It had it’s task:

To imagine the future.

 

So how is it happening that I am falling in love with Cape Cod? I’m smelling salt air, suntan oil, seaweed, and lobster, all swirled into one. It’s knowing that all those barns on 6A are filled to the rafters with antiques, a browser’s paradise year after year. And all the writers and poets and artists who migrate to Provincetown. Perhaps the grass really is greener… Afterall, Annie Dillard moved from Lummi Island, Washington to the Outer Cod.

 

I had nothing to build with.

It was winter: I couldn’t imagine

Anything but the past. I couldn’t even

Imagine the past, if it came to that.

 

This is exactly what gets me every time: this desire to change my life. I think, what am I doing here when I could be there? Or there? Or there? Sometimes it scares me. And it should really scare my brother-in-law because before we knew it, our other sister was seeing herself on Cape Cod as well. The three of us residing in a community of small shingled cottages just steps from the beach and just steps from each other.

We had it all worked out, aging together. Our younger sister would get a foothold in the first cottage, and let us know as other cottages become available. We’d start our own book group there, opening it to others as we met them. We’d help each other out with guest rooms when one was experiencing an overflow of guests. In time, we would come to be known as “the older sisters” in our new seaside town.

 

And I didn’t know how I came here.

Everyone else much further along.

I was back at the beginning

At a time in life we can’t remember beginnings.

 

What our husbands were going to do, I don’t know. Fish?

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Living Next Door to Myself

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

There is a quarantine in process in our house on island. A couple guests fled NYC last week and are hunkered down in our home, while we moved into a neighbors’ empty house. Our neighbors would be here too, but they’re having their own complications. Our guests did right to come here. On one of my husband’s Rotary Zoom meetings this week I overheard County Council member Rick Hughs mention that San Juan County may be the safest county in the state of Washington.

We hadn’t traveled in awhile. Hadn’t left the island for months until we ferried over to leave a car for our guests at the ferry terminal on the mainland. Because, of course, we can’t ride together. We can’t even hug.

So our guests came home to our house and we moved in next door. Our dogs zigzag back and forth between the two homes, otherwise this is all so diplomatic, it’s almost détente.

There is no other way to say it, I am beside myself.

One of our guests does her work outdoors on a deck. Her laptop upon her lap, the paddle arms of the Adirondack chair holding her glass of water. The other guest works comfortably in my writing hut, a stone throw from the house. The shortest commute imaginable.

I have noticed this in just moving over one property: a little closer to the water, a lower bank, a change in elevation. A slight turn, a change in light, and it changes everything. A time away.

As each day draws to a close we find ourselves back at our place around the fire pit. Chairs pushed back, a socially distanced campfire with our guests. They come out of our house carrying trays as I would do, and wool throws as the temperature dips in the evening. I begin to feel like myself again there before the fire, deep into the night.

Who needs a house anyway? We’re starting to rethink the whole thing. At night we all sleep in our respective bedrooms in our respective homes with our heads turned toward the windows over the bay, awaiting first light.

How else would we have noticed the rainbow? The slow waltz of the Shasta Daisies opening one by one, day by day. The sheer madness at the hummingbird feeders—the darting back and forth between fuschia blossoms and sugar water. The otters who come up from the beach, and the large fox who kept his distance making his way down toward the beach. And the deer who don’t come near when the dogs are out.

And the sounds! Raccoons chittering, heron squawking, gulls cooing, the shrill of an eagle. We’d miss all this inside, listening to ourselves, the radio, the news. Oh god, the news.

Note: Upon finishing this piece I went to town, and outside the bakery I ran into a friend. One of the happiest, most beautiful people I know.

“Carla! How are you doing?” I asked.

We chatted about her family, my family, the kids being the lights of our lives. But as for her, “Now they’ve taken away my smile,” she lamented through her mask before climbing into her SUV.

She too is beside herself.

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The New Normal

 

photo bu Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We were propped up in bed watching House Hunters International—one of our ways of traveling vicariously while quarantined. The apartment hunt was in Amsterdam and we were torn between a small flat with canal view, and another with no canal view but a rooftop deck.

It was just after 1 am, May 15, when we felt it and heard it. A 3.0 earthquake eight miles deep on island, less than two miles away as a crow flies. It sounded like a sudden gust of wind, and indeed, our house did lurch a little.

“What was that?” we asked each other. We were suddenly out of Amsterdam and back on San Juan Island, Washington.

We asked each other this question, but knew full well. We didn’t live all those years in California for nothing. And so we continued with our house hunt in Amsterdam, my husband favoring the view, while I couldn’t imagine living without the outdoor space.

In subsequent days I inquired whether other islanders experienced the earthquake. Our social circle is particularly small lately due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but I asked our neighbors (there are only two), my book group, and friends on Mount Dallas.

“We didn’t feel a thing,” is all I heard from anyone. Everyone, it turns out, slept through it. And so everything returned to normal, or rather, The New Normal.

There is much to be said for The New Normal aside from the fact that the moon is brighter and there are far more stars in the sky lately. The friends on Mount Dallas are seeing islands beyond all the islands they ever saw before.

I have felt my hair grow over my shoulders and fall onto the small of my back. We’ve so many houseplants indoors now, they color the light in our home. And I take the time to walk them all out to be watered in the rain.

On clear days we step outdoors and hear nothing but birds, a symphony matinee every day. The keening of gulls carries for miles over salt water, from one bay to the next. A friend on island notes, “Something I never tire of, watching quail walk along the top of my rock wall.”

Businessmen are at home writing poetry. Children, learning to bake bread. More thank you notes than we’ve seen in decades are moving through the mail, followed, in many cases, by thank you’s on the thank you notes.

The deer and fox step closer to us now. On every walk I weed my way up the gravel drive, while my husband mows the long dirt road for all the neighbors not here yet. We keep an eye on the empty houses for them.

We are all watching seeds sprout, plants grow, buds open, and flowers bloom. At a time when we haven’t been able to see the children who have flown off, these are our children now. I am now planting Winter Blooming Honeysuckle for the hummingbirds. At a time when even an earthquake doesn’t rattle us anymore, hummingbirds move us immensely.

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The Flight of the Hummingbird

Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

 

“I can’t do this,” he said.

My father was a smart man. He may have figured it out. Coronavirus was sweeping through his assisted living facility outside Boston, and everyone was being tested, residents and staff alike.

A modest man, in his own quiet way he was extrordinarily accomplished in his life. But at ninety-six years of age he wasn’t up for something unknown that no one knew how to treat. That much he knew. He read The Boston Globe daily.

“Life goes on until it ends,” that’s what dad always said when he was trying to help me with my inconsolable grief in losing others.

Deeply worried about him, yet unable to be there, I ran off to the nursery to fill three large hanging baskets. I needed something to do. Tired of looking at last summer’s geranium mummies, I’d start over with fresh soil, and—on the drive to town I saw it clearly—hanging fuschia. A nectar producing plant with tube-shaped blooms specially adapted to accommodate the long bills of hummingbirds, my father’s littlest friends.

It was there at the nursery when I received the call. Hospice was by dad’s side now and this was my only chance to say goodbye. I think I said, “I’m at the nursery, daddy. You’d be here too, if you were with me, and we’d be extraordinarily happy.” Something nonsensical like that.

Looking back, purchasing plants at nurseries may have been one of my father’s only indulgences. Together we could spend half the day there filling our wagon, and often did.

I was crying so hard, I was grateful to be masked.

At the same time, my project remained important to me. Julie of Julie’s nursery helped me load trays of twenty-four fuschia starts, eight for each basket, into the back of my car. She advised peat be mixed half and half with potting soil, and an organic flowering fertilizer which looked a bit different than my organic fertilizer at home, so I purchased that too. Julie could have sold me the moon that day, anything in the rush to grow my beautiful baskets.

We set up the planting operation on the picnic table at home. The table Bill Maas built when we first arrived on island. Eight fuchsia starts per basket, hung, and watered gently. They looked so lighthearted and promising beneath the eave. In the evenings we covered the baskets with clear plastic, for it’s still cold. And every morning, the unveiling. There is something in that ritual too.

There are two species of hummingbird on island: Anna’s and Rufous. Native to Western coastal regions, Anna’s Hummingbirds are increasingly found here year-round, living in the branches of our coastal scrub. Rufous Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have the longest migration of any bird their size. Wintering in Mexico, spring in California, summers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and zipping over to the Rocky Mountains for fall before returning to Mexico. Feisty and territorial, the visiting reddish brown Rufous try to chase off the resident emerald green and gray Anna’s each year. So we just keep putting up more feeders and more nectar producing plants to accommodate every one.

When we moved onto San Juan Island, mom and dad’s place on The Cape was very much on our mind. Shingled cottages by the sea. Ragtag fleets of boats by the water’s edge in summer. Clams in the muddy sand. And a writing hut where Dad had had a garden shed. The baby mice that once fell onto the brim of dad’s hat when he was puttering around in the shed. He cared for them too.

Dad has always been with me in writing, in gardening, and now, birds. He wrote his memoir, which prompted me to write mine. He explained Master Gardeners to me as “missionaries of the gardening world, Jesuits for all their knowledge,” and I became one. He led by example in the garden, and now he’s got me loving birds.

“What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer…” Richard Powers

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enhancing the Woods

Limekiln at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

My dog looks at me from across the room.

Something is not right, she says with her brown eyes. Don’t know what, but I’m here to make it better.

 We go outside to pick up fallen branches. Well, she meanders around and I pick up branches. Clearing the brush clears my head. Didn’t I once laugh when I read that one of the activities President George W. Bush most enjoyed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas was clearing brush? Anyway, live and learn.

A new purpose in life lately: enhancing the woods. I know of a man who does just that on his acreage on San Juan Island. A professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle, out on island he devotes himself to this, enhancing the woods. Married to a friend of mine, I have been hoping to meet him, talk to him, or simply trail him around. Our book group met there recently–he scattered, as husbands do—and when I turned onto their property I thought it a forested park.

The trees don’t know the Coronavirus. In North America trees have known The Dutch Elm Disease, Armillaria Root Rot, Anthracnose and Leaf Spot Diseases, Annosum Root Rot, Aspen Canker, Bacterial Wet Wood, Beech Bark Disease, Brown Spot in Longleaf Pine, Canker Rot, and Commandra Blister Rust, so their lives have not been without consternation. It isn’t easy being a tree. But trees today will live through the Coronavirus, just as many of them lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu global pandemic.

Our trees on island faced a fate worse than plague, the limestone mining industry. On islands rimmed with large deposits of high quality limestone on the shoreline, rock was quarried, blasted and shunted downhill to the kilns. And trees were felled to fuel the fires of the ovens. Converted to commercial quick lime primarily for the building industry, and sent off in barrels on fleets of ships, both sail and steam. All this was not without erosion, the gouging out of hillsides. Wetlands were filled. Shellfish flats buried.

Old growth Douglas fir was the fuel of choice. The voracious appetite of the ovens roared away for more than sixty years, from 1860 to the 1920’s, consuming nearly all our old growth trees, and with them, their stories. It must have been hell here. It took The Great Depression to shut down the massive limekiln industry in the San Juan Islands.

Roche Harbor, where I walk, had the largest lime works operation west of the Mississippi. The trees remember all that the earth in its dense biomass endured. The woods have memory. Today, there are only isolated old growth trees. Now as then, the Douglas fir is most abundant, just as most of the branches I am gathering are Douglas fir. Some trees remember, many are returning, and all we can do is stand beside them.

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