When Stories Become Legends

A story about water, time, and knowing when the time is right,” by Maria Michaelson

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“You’re going to get a truck,” people said when we moved onto the island. Not us, we thought, as I stood solidly by my Volvo wagon of nearly twenty years, and Paul, his Porsche. Two years later a 1989 Toyota pickup rolled into our drive, and this old truck has been my husband’s second mid-life crisis, if you will.

We also heard legend that “women on San Juan Island grow strong.” I now know this to be true. Again and again, I meet remarkable women, often rolling into their eighties or nineties, sharp as a shark’s tooth, with no sign of slowing down. This island is teeming with strong women. 

I’m not suggesting it’s a matriarchy, but perhaps the most egalitarian place I’ve ever known.

So I asked some local women for their stories, and I didn’t have to go far. Chairing the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, an 82 year old woman has been in charge for more years than she can remember. As volunteers, we strive to keep up with her. Supplying fresh produce to The Food Bank, The Demo Garden is open year-round and throughout the pandemic. Recent wind advisories topped 50mph, and there was our chairwoman, bundled in more layers than Nanook of the North, harvesting kale. 

Historically several large farms on island were run by single women. In researching old barns for an art installation, one woman–who went on to become president of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art–informed me that “Lizzie Lawson (1879-1968) took the seat out of her car, a Liberty, loaded it with sheep and took off for the fairground.” Back in the day, farms on island primarily raised cattle and sheep as well as growing orchards and vegetable gardens. Little has changed. Life is pastoral here and farm or no farm, growing food, a religious experience.

“In the garden one is moving with rather than against the inhalations and the exhalations of greater wild nature,” notes Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “Whatever happens in the garden can happen to soul and psyche—too much water, too little water, bugs, heat, storm, flood, invasion, miracles, dying back, coming back, boon, healing.” On islands we live by the seasons and the seasons live in us. We share this of course with all the islands in The Salish Sea. Perhaps with most islands everywhere.

When contractors were remodeling our home—young men who had grown up on island—I always heard in their conversations an awareness of what was running: the halibut, the salmon, the season for prawn, crab, and I-hate-to-say-it, the deer. I thought, I want to become like that. Knowing the seasons by what’s in season, as in the garden. 

“Living here I carry a battery-powered chainsaw in my vehicle in case I have to remove a tree branch from the road,” a friend tells me. She splits and stacks wood for heat in her home in the winter, and with her husband owns a tractor for clearing the road after snowstorms on Mt. Dallas, where they live. Although my friend lived most of her life in a city, she has found her place here. “The wildness and the beauty. The people. The independent shops and businesses. The theatre and museums. The post office and the grocery store. The ferry. And so much more.”

Farming, fishing, kayaking, boating, piloting, filmmaking, acting, establishing a documentary film festival, a community art center, and taming wild mustangs. And behind closed doors, consulting, researching, writing, and making art. Women conducting tireless public service or running businesses, all of it making an illustrious impact on a sparsely populated island. That auto shop you frequented for years on island? The woman who owned it at one time soloed on a sailboat in hurricane force winds in the Pacific for 41 days. Both a book and a film were made of her ordeal at sea.

Many women brought a wealth of political experience and activism to the island. “I have always felt it is important to give back to whatever community I have lived in,” notes one. “From that, I have made friendships that will endure long after I leave boards and indulge in the pleasures of book, garden and sloth.” 

My neighbor moved onto the island from what we like to call “the other Washington.” Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, she educates us all on global migration and refugee issues at every turn. Do women on San Juan Island grow strong, or has the island attracted strong women to its shores? Perhaps that’s it. The old pioneer spirit in women, still pushing west and toward Alaska. 

I’ll ask my neighbor.

24 Comments

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24 responses to “When Stories Become Legends

  1. Val Gauthier

    Love, love, love❤️❤️❤️

  2. Don B

    You make the island come alive to your followers. What I am surprised by is how uncrowded it appears to be. With your description, I would think you have thousands of people moving in on you. I remember when I walked across the country and when I was in Montana many people would ask me how I liked Montana. My responses were similar to your descriptions of your island. The people would say “don’t tell anyone about Montana – we don’t want others to come.”

    Back to your island. It sounds as if it is utopian. You probably don’t have “t….pers” there.

  3. Thank you! I can attest to what you are saying, my strong women friends are a legion and my constant companions on our beautiful walks… the forest mystics, if you will, another breed here. Also, my daughters grew up here and are now engaged in raising strong kids, and their friends right with them, alongside. There is an element of loyalty and love of place that runs deep here. My friend, the father of the term “Salish Sea”, Bert Webber, tells me it is the same on the Gulf Islands. We grow strong from the heart of the Salish Sea.

    • “The forest mystics,” so much more attractive than mossbacks!
      And thank you for the legend that “we grow strong from the heart of the Salish Sea.” I looked up your friend, Bert Webber, and how he found a place, a shared ecosystem between Western Washington and British Columbia, that needed a name. Great story. I had no idea the name Salish Sea was so new.

  4. That piece inspires me to move on island. Maybe I can become strong, again. Sounds like you live in paradise, which of course we all do, if we make it so.

  5. I love how your island is full of strong woman. It made me think of how the New England town where we grew up was also full of strong older woman who lived forever. Perhaps, there are more of them than we think there are.
    Very well written. You are one of the strong talented woman you write about so well.

  6. This really makes me want to visit. Beautifully written.

  7. Alice B. Acheson

    BRAVA !!!  Kim, I loved this posting, especially — because I know of whom you speak — this one:

    Historically several large farms on island were run by single women. In researching old barns for an art installation, one woman–who went on to become*president of the* *San Juan Islands Museum of Art-*-informed me that “Lizzie Lawson (1879-1968) took the seat out of her car, a Liberty, loaded it with sheep and took off for the fairground.” Back in the day, farms on island primarily raised cattle and sheep as well as growing orchards and vegetable gardens. Little has changed. Life is pastoral here and farm or no farm, growing food, a religious experience.

    Alice ========== Alice B. Acheson, Book Marketing/Publishing Consultant P. O. Box 735 Friday Harbor, WA 98250 360/378-5850 https://sites.google.com/view/alice-b-acheson a little elbow room wrote on 2/2/2021 11:40 AM: > WordPress.com > a little elbow room posted: ” Sculpture by Maria Michaelson BY > KIMBERLY MAYER “You’re going to get a truck,” people said when we > moved onto the island. Not us, we thought, as I stood solidly by my > Volvo wagon of nearly twenty years, and Paul, his Porsche. Two years > later a ” >

  8. Susan Martin

    Great stories. I particularly like the way you weave together the women and the island. As to your question at the end, my answer is ‘both.’ I think there is something about the island that attracts strong women—the beauty of the landscape being one major draw—but it also makes strong women—we need to be more self-reliant because we don’t have the same access to services, entertainment, healthcare, etc. that we’d find on the mainland. We need to create out own opportunities, like the master gardening program, for women to make a difference. Organizations that focus on women’s equality and inclusion, like the Soroptimists and League of Women Voters, also have greater visibility here on the island because everyone knows someone who in involved.

  9. A year or so before you and Paul even thought about moving to San Juan Island, my husband and I visited it with you and Paul. We met a young man who was off to College in a week and he told us it’d be his first time off
    Island. I think we felt a bit sorry that his life had been so restricted. And yet he seemed so happy, curious and engaged in life. Perhaps, we were the ones that didn’t get it -back then. As for women growing strong, I think strong women are everywhere when we look for them. They certainly bloom on your Island. Beth Yourgrau (haven’t figured out how to get rid of my Cindyhouse 2 user name.)

  10. sandrampujol

    Following! I’d like to think the latter. The island attracting women with the old pioneering spirit even if that calling layed dormant, it’s whisperings, nudges and remembering, bubbles and surfices making one sure they made the right decision to come here seeking adventure and refuge on a boat in a split second decision that would be the beginning again. Returning to a vibrant life on the sea with my son at 55, crone.

  11. sandrampujol

    Following!
    I’d like to think the latter. The islands attract the old pioneering spirit kind of women even if that spirit layed dorment, it bubbles and whispers it’s callings to the survice making one decide to move here in a split second decision for adventure and refuge on a sail boat. Returning again to the water and the sea of her youth and wandering wayfair travelings, now with her son at 55, Crone.

  12. Deb

    Makes me want to visit all over again, Kim!

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