Train of Thought

Union Pacific Railroad City of Los Angeles Astra Dome dining car

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

It was first thing in the morning and if I was looking for a writing prompt, I didn’t know it yet. But one came in with a “ping” by the head of my bed. My sister was riding a train between Boston and New York and texting me.

Our father gave us our love of railroads when we were very young. On trips out West and to and fro Florida, what I recall most is my sister and I being all over that train. The giant sucking sound as we pressed the button to open the sliding doors between cars and the rollicking floor underfoot as we crossed between luxury Pullman, coach, dining, cargo, and caboose. We couldn’t believe children were permitted to do all this while steaming across thousands of miles.

The train was our world. The porters our friends. It was as simple as that.

I have but one vivid memory of my parents on these trips. One evening, on a return trip from Florida, we had all gone to the dining car for dinner—how I loved the starched white linens and shiney silverware. While there, at a stop, cars were rearranged. Walking back, we found our sleeping car missing. Gone with all our luggage. It isn’t often you see your father befuddled like that.

As advised we disembarked and waited by the tracks for another train—to connect us with our car on yet another train. In the dark of night, deep in Georgia, at a deserted station. The real South. This was beyond thrilling for a couple of Connecticut girls in patent leather shoes and white ankle socks.

Did my sister and I ever wonder, ever ask, why all the porters were black? How did that not capture our imagination? Did it occur to any of us that we were traveling in a frozen moment of time? Although we’d been texting back and forth—my sister was the one who remembered riding on the tail end platform of a caboose—I hadn’t time to ask her this question. Her train pulled into Penn Station and I lost her to New York.

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Letters from Yellowstone, Blog Posts from the Salish Sea

photo by Paul Mayer

 

By KIMBERLY MAYER

It was as simple as this: I set down the novel I was reading, Letters from Yellowstone, for a walk in the woods. And there I came upon Calypso Bulbosa, one of the wildflowers that Alex, the main character, had discovered.

“It was rapture. Pure rapture,” Alex cried.

And naturally, upon the mossy bank in the old growth forest in which I live on San Juan Island, where I too spotted the diminutive orchid, I shared her unbridled joy.

And then I did a terrible thing. I bent over, and with two fingers pulled it out of the ground. A genus of orchid found in undisturbed sheltered, northern and montane conifer forests across Canada from Alaska to Newfoundland, as well as northeastern and western U.S., the petite and delicate Calyso Bulbosa, sometimes known as “calypso orchid” or “fairyslipper,” makes but a brief appearance each spring.

I must have been thinking of Alex who meticulously noted, sketched, and collected Rocky Mountain plantlife for field study from camps high in the backcountry. I may even have been thinking I was Alex.

In Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith, a writer of the New West, the year is 1898 and the setting, Yellowstone, the Nation’s Park. Alex is a naturalist on a Smithsonian-endorsed expedition with fellow botanists and entomologists, finding “…more wildlife than I know what to do with.”

“I am in the Nation’s Park, and oh what a wondrous place it is!” wrote Alex. “It is as though I have traveled back in time, to the very edge of the universe where the earth, still in its primordial stage, sputters and bubbles and spews out the very origins of life.”

Yet already, in 1898, the newly created Nation’s Park was up against developers and railroad barons petitioning for right of way through the park. It was the naturalists who fought to save it.

There are people who like their places wild—and we can count ourselves among them. Just as Yellowstone National Park comprises an impressive 3,468 square miles of canyons, mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes, the archipelago of the San Juan Islands comprises over 400 islands at high tide, only 128 of which are named.

Defined by mountains to the east, and sea to the west, and between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada, we might as well have been declared a National Park. In any case, as stewards of the environment we are intent on keeping it that way.

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March for Our Lives: Truth to Power

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

This past year, I am always marching in one Washington or another. Most recently, in The March for Our Lives in Friday Harbor, Washington, March 24. Large or small, here or there, they are all important.

Friday Harbor Mayor Farhad Ghatan welcomed over six hundred islanders of all ages before turning everything over to the Middle and High School students standing like a chorus in bright orange tee shirts on the courthouse steps. This was, after all, their event, their cause, and their day. A bright blue sky was behind them.

“To those who think we will not change the world: Just watch us.”

 It’s been six weeks since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the Never Again movement that grew from it shows no signs of stopping. Instead, it only grows.

“What if our lives were more important than the rights of guns?”

When the Columbine High School shooting occurred in 1999 I planted columbine in my garden as a memorial. I’d thought the shooting a horrendous, one-time occurrence. We all wanted to believe that. Instead our country went to the dark side, again and again and again. Even the NRA itself went dark.

“What if the gov’t stopped taking money from the NRA?”

“We have grown up with this problem. We knew this stuff. It’s not like a new, fresh horrible thing that’s happening, it’s been preexisting even before we entered the world,” explains Jaclyn Corin, president of the Junior class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Joining forces with her classmates at Never Again, Corin found herself within a few short weeks talking one-on-one to state representatives and addressing the state legislature in Tallahassee, Florida. Advocacy, for her, has been part of the coping process.

Never Again broke the stigma that had hindered gun control activists in our country for decades. When it seemed impossible. When gun sales and gun fatalities were spiking, yet legislation was blocked. As we grew cynical and perhaps hardened, here came these kids—many of whom are too young to vote.

Never Again seized the moment and broke right through–reinvigorating every generation and swaying the public. (A Gallup poll of March 1 found 67% of Americans say the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made stricter. This is the highest in any Gallup survey since 1993).

Student led and focused like a laser, they are the movement with a crowd that was bred online. Never Again is all about voices, votes, and policy change. In Friday Harbor, The League of Women Voters hosted a table to register voters during the march. This happened everywhere.

Our future is speaking and our future can’t get here fast enough. If I were a college or university I would recruit the founders of Never Again right out of High School. They are the wind of change and they are moving mountains.

 

 

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Rock of Ages

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A bench. A book. A cup of tea or coffee, and there you go. It’s been true since time as we know it. Indeed, it may be the one true thing. Yet the gray-green of winter still lingered in March. Winds had not yet subsided, and slapped with exceptionally cold temps, we were looking to do things indoors.

When we lived in the city, we frequented the theatre. Now on island, it is events like the Annual Rotary Spelling Bee that have us in the audience at the San Juan Community Theatre on a Thursday afternoon. Attending is a way of coming to know some of the children, 4th—8th grade, growing up amongst us.

You know the drill: a word is pronounced, used in a sentence, and repeated. If requested, a definition of the word is also provided. The contestant is now on her own to repeat the word, spell it letter by letter into the air loud and clear, and state the word once again. Then sit back down or leave the stage.

Here the mic had to be lowered and raised as much as two feet with the varying heights. After every successful round a couple girlfriends seated side by side exchanged hugs. One girl’s large sneakered feet pigeon-toed as she concentrated on each word on stage. And when it was his turn, a boy in big glasses spelled out letters with his fingers on his arm. In the end an extraordinarily poised girl, her shoulders wrapped in a shawl, took home the grand prize.

I have to hand it to them all. This is a generation that grew up with Google and spell check, and may not have ever looked up a word in their life. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all the learning happened in those steps to the dictionary, and then in locating the word within that vast book, which could take some time. One almost needed to know how to spell it to find it.

“That’s a good question, you should look it up,” rings as a parental refrain from my childhood. And to make it easy, the den was equipped with dictionaries, World Book Encyclopedia, and Year Books to keep us all up to date.

One grandmother, a former teacher, corrected our letters from camp with a red pen—the spelling most likely—and sent them back to us. I didn’t mind. English is not an easy language, and we were expected to struggle with it.

In my own home as our daughters were growing up, a dictionary stand occupied a corner of the dining room. That was where they did their homework, and it was at meals that words frequently came up and were discussed. I know this sounds as old fashioned as parlor games, but people were not individually armed with smart phones in those days.

One thing is for certain today, these Spelling Bee students must be readers. That, I’ve decided, is how they know their words. Bravo.

 

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Rock of Ages

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

A bench. A book. A cup of tea or coffee, and there you go. It’s been true since time as we know it. Indeed, it may be the one true thing. Yet the gray-green of winter still lingered in March. Winds had not yet subsided, and slapped with exceptionally cold temps, we were looking to do things indoors.

When we lived in the city, we frequented the theatre. Now on island, it is events like the Annual Rotary Spelling Bee that have us in the audience at the San Juan Community Theatre on a Thursday afternoon. Attending is a way of coming to know some of the children, 4th—8th grade, growing up amongst us.

You know the drill: a word is pronounced, used in a sentence, and repeated. If requested, a definition of the word is also provided. The contestant is now on her own to repeat the word, spell it letter by letter into the air loud and clear, and state the word once again. Then sit back down or leave the stage.

Here the mic had to be lowered and raised as much as two feet with the varying heights. After every successful round a couple girlfriends seated side-by-side exchanged hugs. One girl’s large sneakered feet pigeon-toed as she concentrated on each word on stage. And when it was his turn, a boy in big glasses spelled out letters with his fingers on his arm. In the end an extraordinarily poised girl, her shoulders wrapped in a shawl, took home the grand prize.

I have to hand it to them all. This is a generation that grew up with Google and spell check, and may not have ever looked up a word in their life. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that all the learning happened in those steps to the dictionary, and then in locating the word within that vast book, which could take some time.

“That’s a good question, you should look it up,” rings as a parental refrain from my childhood. And to make it easy, the den was equipped with dictionaries, World Book Encyclopedia, and Year Books to keep us all up to date.

One grandmother, a former teacher, corrected our letters from camp with a red pen—the spelling most likely—and sent them back to us. I didn’t mind. English is not an easy language to learn, and we were expected to struggle with it.

In my own home as our daughters were growing up, a dictionary stand occupied a corner of the dining room. That was where they did their homework, and it was at meals that words frequently came up and were discussed. I know this sounds as old fashioned as parlor games, but people were not individually armed with smart phones in those days.

One thing is for certain today, these Spelling Bee students must be readers. That, I’ve decided, is how they know their words. Bravo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bird Park, San Diego

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I remember my uncle’s visit in Southern California. We were living in Laguna Beach at the time, and, recently widowed, he was traveling to New Zealand from New England. We were a half-way resting place and ever so happy to have him.

My uncle looked upon it all incredulously. From Connecticut to California it must have been like landing on the moon. Main Beach is to Laguna Beach what “The Town Green” is to New England. In Laguna, a well-tended lifeguard tower stood in lieu of a white gazebo. And sand and surf where there was usually a lawn. Main Beach bustled with people, tan, fit, and half-clad.

I was seeing all this through my uncle’s eyes.

“Everyone’s in motion, aren’t they?” I asked. He could only nod.

Today our daughter lives across from Bird Park in San Diego. Bird Park is a part of Balboa Park, the famed legacy of Kate Sessions. Balboa Park may be to San Diego what Central Park is to New York City.

There is something so timeless about this scene from our daughter’s front door: a child and a swing, families picnicking. Strollers, bikes, rollerblades, scooters. Stretching routines and soccer practice.

Constructed in the shape of an enormous bird, Pershing Drive is the “branch” on which the “bird” stands. Employing native plantings to attract local birds, Bird Park is the brainchild of San Diego artists Robin Brailsford and Wick Alexander.

I raised my children not far from here in this climate when they were very young. Out every day, all day, is how I remember our time together. We were card-carrying members, regulars at The Wild Animal Park, now Safari Park. Strolling The Kilimanjaro Trail, lunching at picnic tables, napping in a double stroller while still moving.

A short jog off The Kilimanjaro Trial, we liked to cut through an Australian Rain Forest exhibit for the girls were fond of wallaby’s and kookaburras—as amused by the names as much as the animals. For me it was the vegetation, a green respite from the dry brown heat of the African-based trail. In the shelter of the rain forest I pointed out bronze signs in braille to two little girls who were learning to read English at the time. Their fingers running over and over the raised dots in each sign.

Sometimes you are all of one place. The climate became us. The park, wildlife, and horticulture, became us. I could see my daughters in khaki uniforms one day working summer jobs there. But then we moved. How did we ever move to the desert when San Diego was desert enough? I ask myself this now.

I live on an island now, and I have become it. I hear from friends that the bulbs are pushing up, and I must return.

Life moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes in circles, sometimes in avian shapes. But never in a straight line.

 

Perching birds of San Diego, in no particular order: Black-chinned sparrow, California towhee, Common yellowthroat, Horned lark, Western wood-peewee, Vermilion flycatcher, Western bluebird, Barn swallow, Blue grosbeak, Yellow warbler, Savannah sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, Northern rough-winged swallow, Red-breasted nuthatch, Rufous-crowned sparrow, Gray vireo, Marsh wren, Fox sparrow, California thrasher, Lark sparrow, Black phoebe, Tree swallow, Dusky flycatcher, Sage sparrow, LeConte’s thrasher, Lawrence’s goldfinch, California gnatcatcher, Tricolored blackbird, Say’s Phoebe, Wrentit, Bell’s vireo, Yellow-breasted chat, Red-winged blackbird, Lucy’s warbler, Chipping sparrow, Western tanager, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, Hooded oriole, Song sparrow, Brown-headed cowbird, Rock wren, Olive-sided flycatcher, Yellow-rumped warbler, Black-tailed gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Verdin, American robin, Lesser goldfinch, Green-tailed towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western kingbird, Violet-green swallow, Cassin’s kingbird, Black-throated sparrow, Phainopepha, Cactus wren, Purple finch, Scrub jay, Bullock’s oriole, Grasshopper sparrow,  Scott’s oriole, American goldfinch, Purple martin, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Lazuli bunting, Western meadowlark, Ash-throated flycatcher, Great-tailed crackle, Blue-grey gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned warbler, Brewer’s blackbird, Willow flycatcher, White-breasted nuthatch, Hutton’s vireo, Canyon wren, Crissal thrasher, Steller’s jay, Plain titmouse, Northern mockingbird, Bewick’s wren, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, American crow, Brown creeper, Mountain chickadee, and Common raven

 

 

 

 

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Flip Flops in January: Three Girls and a Truck at Village Nurseries, San Diego

photo credit: Jackie Mayer Blum

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We are wintering in San Diego, living on a mattress with a small bistro table, a couple folding chairs, and two bright Hawaiian printed Tommy Bahama beach chairs in an otherwise empty house. The house is a job site. Our daughter and her husband purchased a new home in North Park, San Diego. A remodel, and we are here to help.

While the men are at home swinging hammers, we are on a landscape mission. My daughter is commandeering a pickup truck, bouncing over dirt roads and splashing through puddles at Village Nurseries Wholesale Plant and Tree Grower. Thirteen acres of planted bliss, a Disneyland to me. No lines, no crowds (to-the-trade only), and free of all the commercialization.

The bed of our truck is brimming with potted plants: 5 tall Barbara Karst bougainvillea, Mister Lincoln white rose shrubs, “bartenders choice” Mexican Lime Tree, a 15 gallon Strelitzia retinae Bird of Paradise shrub, and enormous agave plants anchoring them all. Clean and new at the U Haul lot, the truck will be returning with all the mud and markings of having taken the Indiana Jones ride at Adventureland.

You had to know my mother would be on board; she must have slipped onto the bench seat. It wasn’t until we turned into the nursery that we realized she was with us. https://alittleelbowroom.com/2017/12/05/my-imaginary-mother-in-winter/ Her breath, like ours, was taken away with the vastness and the serenity of the place.

Rounding Succulents and Drought Tolerant plants, I am back in the gray/greens with Mediterranean plants. Heaven for me once, for at one time I lived in Southern California. Today I recognize some full well, yet can’t recall their names. Other names I know, but can’t picture. My daughter is reintroducing me to some old friends.

Discombobulated I fumble forward. A Master Gardener from Climate Zone 4 (San Juan Island, WA) in Zone 24 (San Diego, CA), I try to be helpful. “Seasonal amnesia,” is there such a thing? All I know is that in a rush I just mailed a Valentine’s Day card–one month early. I recall that when living here: waking and having to orient myself with the season, with the month, before stepping out of bed.

Left to our own devises mom and I might have gone crazy, but my daughter was specific. A wall of her courtyard would be draped in bougainvillea. She knew the color. A lime tree would round out their citrus collection. And white roses and giant Blue Glow agave look exquisite together. Who knew?

And who knew about my daughter’s newfound passion for plants, and in the same place where I first got the bug? Her grandmother may have been the only one to have seen that coming.

 

 

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