Tag Archives: Oregon

Pick Up Sticks


“We look at the world once in childhood. The rest is memory.” Louise Gluck

So clear is my memory of a screened-in porch on a modest Cape Cod style house where I lived as a child in West Hartford, Connecticut. It was a pleasant suburban neighborhood and our porch stood off to one side surrounded by leafy greenness. There in the shade of the porch we played board games upon a glasstop table, along with countless games of Pick Up Sticks. I considered myself steady of hand and quite skilled at it, but who knows; I was also the oldest of my siblings. 

Decades later, I live on San Juan Island, a sea-swept island in the Salish Sea off B.C. Canada. Famous for windstorms in winter, the ground frequently becomes saturated, trees keel over, and power goes out. Ferry rides are then either rough—with vehicles shifting during transit–or canceled. Winds rise and the waves up rise in winter, while islanders dress down in wind breakers and boots and take weather alerts in stride. 

After each windstorm, I enjoy picking up sticks and fallen branches. Clearing the decks, the drive, and the grassy area. The gravel area with a picnic table and firepit. The drunken bocce court. The woodpile, stacked kayaks, and dormant gardens fenced for deer. One bank covered in salal and another bank in heather, as well as our wooded areas. Clearing the property clears my mind. It’s much like editing a long rambling verse.

Now meet my neighbor down the road who has kicked it up a notch. About three years ago, Dave began picking up fallen twigs and branches and piling them, intermittently, while walking trails through the woods. His habit soon expanded to his walks on rural roads, around the loop by Roche Harbor and out to Neil Bay. There are more walkers than cars where we live. I contribute to these piles, and I like to think everyone does.

Dave’s goal is simple: to reduce the fuel load in the forest. Raised in Orange County, Southern California, fire consciousness was built into his DNA. In the summer of 1967 he worked with a fire crew in the Deschutes National Forest, near Sisters, Oregon. “There were so many fires that summer,” Dave recalls, “I made enough money to pay for two years of college.”

Each spring Dave rents a chipper and tows it on his truck while picking up stacks by the side of the roads. The piles on trails are reached by a Kubota tractor. Firewise, a voluntary program to reduce wildfire risks at the local level—there are three Firewise groups in our area alone–and Roche Harbor Resort provide partial funding for this effort. 

For my part I will always be picking up and piling sticks. As a writer I tie up a lot of loose ends in my head doing this, and I get to move my legs. I leave the truck, Kubota tractor, and chipper to my good neighbors.


Filed under playing games, windstorms, reducing wildfire risk

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.


Filed under climate denialism

The Man Who Came to Dinner


 “After all my time on this earth, I was becoming the person I was meant to be.” Donald L. Brown

I am not in the habit of inviting authors on book tour to my home for dinner, but if I were, our life would be more interesting. Nevertheless, I took this step after hearing Donald Brown promote his book, The Morphine Dream, in Seattle a few weeks ago. Having written a memoir of my own, I consider it good form to support other memoirists. And this man’s story is extraordinary.

It is hard to know where to begin with him. As a high school dropout, former Marine, and washed-up professional athlete, Don suffered an on-the-job industrial forklift accident in 1980 that subjected him to multiple surgeries for “severe internal derangement of the knee” and years of confinement to a wheelchair. Clearly his life had changed, and somehow he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Don’s orthopedic surgeon advised him, “Go back to school. You have a fine mind. Put it to work for yourself. It’s time to rely on your intellect, not your body. Put the energy and passion you’ve always had during your athletic career to work for your mind.”

By reading and listening to motivational books and tapes, Don turned his stay at Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital into an opportunity to repurpose his life. “Where do you want to be in five years?” one tape asked him, and Don noted “Harvard Law School” on a pad of paper. Next, the motivational tape asked him where he would like to be in ten years, and despite the fact that physicians had told him he might never walk again, Don wrote down “Walking U.S.A.”

Fueled by morphine for the pain, “I was sky-high,” Brown said. “I was flying.”

“Hospitalization was good for me,” recalls Don. “I had come to realize that my athletic career had been a result of incredibly hard work and focus. I knew I had to get engaged in a new future and work as hard as I did to be a professional athlete.”

In this way Don accomplished each of his goals. From a GED to community college to transfer into Amherst College, Don landed in the Harvard Law School of his dreams. Then in 1997, following graduation, “overweight, over fifty, a diabetic, and…. lucky to be walking at all,” averaging 41 miles per day, Don made the 5,004 mile trek across the continent in 137 days. Starting at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square and taking the northern route, he completed his journey by coming over Stevens Pass in Washington, and walking on down the coast through Oregon, Northern California and Big Sur, reaching his destination in San Simeon with the Pacific Ocean before him.

“I didn’t even bother to take off my shoes. I simply walked right in,” writes Don.

His method for turning dreams into actuality was always a carefully formulated plan of execution. While attending community college he distinguished himself by sitting front and center in lecture halls and winning every student award he could. At Amherst—still wheelchair bound—Don moved into a dorm the summer before starting “to figure out how to navigate the hills and dales of the campus, get my syllabi and books, meet my professors, and, most importantly, start reading.” From the start, Don told everyone he met at Amherst of his goal of attending Harvard Law School.

Likewise with the walk, “I knew when I departed Boston that if I could make it through the first two weeks, I would complete the entire journey.” It was a mental challenge as much as anything. Don divided each day’s walk into four ten mile walks in his head, considered crossing state lines a powerful motivator, and basically “realized I must push on, or else the notion of quitting when things got tough would rule the walk.”

Long distance walker Rob Sweetgall had taught him that “if I completed an arduous and lengthy walk one day, and then repeated it the next day without difficulty, I’d be prepared for that distance—regularly.”

Well, what could we say to that? Before us stood a man who in his life had learned so much about himself, tested it, and it held. I’m sure we squirmed a little in our chairs, then made every effort to buy the book.

That is when I invited him to dinner. What I recognized right away was his effectiveness in all things–something he hadn’t even mentioned was the writing of the book and its publication, no easy feat, I know. And at the end of the evening, at his request, Don Brown went off with a copy of my manuscript, the memoir I mentioned.

Shhh…. He is reading it now.


Filed under long distance walking