“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.