Tag Archives: San Juan Island

Peace Where We Find It

apple picNorth Pole Columnar Apples. Photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Not since the 60’s has this country seen so many demonstrations. Now I am in my sixties and standing in a Demonstration Garden. What’s a Demonstration Garden, you ask? Well it’s the Master Gardeners’ way of inviting you into their space to see what grows well in a particular area and to share their gardening practices.

This place, I have decided, is my personal act of resistance. Against all the violence, hatred and bigotry in the world, this is my personal act of resistance because it is a working model. I am planting myself here as much as possible.

The first scent to hit me is fish fertilizer, and I rather like it. I’ve got dirt under my fingernails before I remember to wear my gloves, and I don’t mind that either.

Tomatoes are growing under plastic tarps for heat. In the temperate summers of the Pacific Northwest, tomatoes often need a little help. Patty pan squash, zucchini, peppers, and Bush beans aplenty. Little eggplants, dangling like amethyst earrings.

A new crop of chard is coming along, whereas my first crop is still in the process of coming up at home. Potatoes, garlic, kale. Herbs of all description. Tomatio, looking like pretty little Japanese lanterns. Grape vines gone berserk.

“And peas that are beginning to say goodnight,” as one Master Gardener put it.

Arugula that wintered-over, a skinnier leafed variety than what we are growing at home, with a more pungent peppery taste. Rhubarb, which could be grown outside the fence, as deer don’t care for it.

It’s all about food here—indeed the only blossoms are flowering food plants, artichokes, squash, and such. Despite the small plot, The Master Gardener Demonstration Garden on San Juan Island donates over 1,000 lbs. of produce annually to the Friday Harbor Food Bank, and no wonder. As we stood in the garden, Master Gardeners showed up to work carrying excess produce from their home gardens to contribute as well. Everything is organic, weighed and delivered to the Food Bank, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, just steps away.

I hopped over there to have a look and found a sweet little store, clean as can be, meticulously organized and stocked, where everything is free—all it asks of customers is island residency. Fresh produce, of course. Eggs, meat, milk, canned goods, pasta, dried beans, soups, frozen chickens, frozen sausage, and ice cream treats for kids while shopping. Some signs say take one item per shelf, or two items per shelf. Large families, of course, get extra.

Like so many things on island, the Friday Harbor Food Bank is run by volunteers. But then, this is an island where drivers in cars wave as they pass. Where there are more people walking or running or biking than driving. Where there are no traffic lights. Where the wildlife is harmless and the people are kind. Where the town of Friday Harbor looks like Main Street, Disneyland.

It isn’t fair, I get to live here.

The more I think about it, the island itself may be my personal act of resistance as well.

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Walking in the World

White Point sign

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

There are people in our lives who have an influence they’d never know. My parents instilled a love for Cape Cod that we find in many ways living here on San Juan Island in Washington. The friend in California who suggested a year or so ago that I rein in this blog to a remodeling theme: remodeling a house, remodeling a life—the same thing, in my book. Our daughter, now living in Argentina, who upon visiting before her departure grew my daily walk by a beautiful mile or two. And in sending me a video of the works of sculptor Anthony Howe on neighboring Orcas Island, my cousin in Atlanta reminding me to stay with art every day. And to try not to stray.

They are all part and parcel of who I am, why I’m here, and how I see it.

“Walking the loop” began as a tradition while living on upper Queen Anne in Seattle and continues out here today. That first loop took me around the perimeter of the hill, overlooking the Space Needle and downtown Seattle, Lake Union, and Puget Sound. Today’s loop takes me alongside Westcott Bay, and through the red, white and blue nostalgic quality of Roche Harbor Resort where everyone looks good in the light. Finally, the road meanders through an old growth forest of cedar, fir, and pine where everything grows dark and green, and back to my home on the bay.

Where the road dips down to the shoreline I experience what I call a Cape Cod moment, framed by flatlands, grasses, marshes, and horizon. In the course of this walk I may pass only one or two cars on the road, a few more in summer, on an island where every driver waves.

This is the walk my daughter grew, taking it out on a point to new terrain, the posh end of White Point Road. Here I pass tennis courts where nobody’s playing, a pond with a dock establishing someone’s swimming hole, and a private golf course back in there somewhere, for I’ve seen it from the water. Horse fencing and regally high pampas grasses standing like sentry guide the way. Crushed white shells underfoot line the one-lane road at sea level. It’s as private as private can be, except for me, out on this point.

Here I gape at houses, something that seems to be my lot in life: the desire to see myself in other spaces, other places. On walks I finish unfinished houses in my mind, or tear them down and start again. As anyone in the field knows, design is never done. When the bones are good, I may mentally repaint it, or envision it clad in cedar shingles, dark, red, natural or a weathered gray.

At home, the short video on the kinetic sculpture of Anthony Howe awaits me. It’s mesmerizing. How did my cousin know to send this now? I needed it. Isn’t art what ultimately pulls us through? All the arts, always. And art as balm, particularly in troubling times. Which is where we are today.

“After reading the newspaper on Sunday, I sit quietly and simply look at art books.” Michael Graves

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Gardening Around Deer

 Deer eating

 

Summer came and our attention moved from inside to out. That, and when a house is on the water, everything gets turned around and the waterside becomes the front. So we are focused on the water now and we’re off in kayaks and guests of ours are coming by in boat. We are digging for clams, growing oysters in the water, and all our salad greens in planters on a sunny deck.

Let’s just say that summertime in the Pacific Northwest is so nice, everyone would live here if it were like this year round. So we’re glad it isn’t.

Similarly I am grateful for all that the deer don’t eat. It seems to me in gardening, with all the choices available, we need some restrictions. We need to plant native, preferably, drought-tolerant, and living on island, deer-resistant. Our smart nursery at Browne’s on San Juan Island has a few long tables that fulfill these requirements. Put in the right plants, and no need to see deer as menace.

While palates can differ among deer, I think it is safe to say they dislike strong-tasting plants such as herbs. Likewise they will leave euphorbia and poppies alone (milk sap), they avoid foxglove and daffodil (poisonous), lupine, Jerusalem Sage, Meadow Rue, Bigroot Geranium, lamb’s ear, salvia, foxglove, Shasta daisy and Iris. (Cosmos were on this list in my first draft, but they were chomped in the night so now they’re not).

Who can’t paint a picture with all that?

I’m planting Shasta daisy along the 134’ fence that lines the edge of the property from the steep grade bank to the beach. Our bonfire pit encircled with Adirondack chairs is before this fence, soon to be joined with the picnic table Bill Maas is constructing for us at Egg Lake Sawmill & Shake. Plus a Bocce Ball court we’re going to build on soil because our daughter gave us a handsome set for Christmas. The Shasta daisy lined fence will be background for all this activity, attracting butterfly by day and illuminating the night. And the deer have given us this.

This house had been standing empty for a couple of years before we purchased it, thus the deer made the property part of their park. It is their land and I am not about to fence them out. Surrounded by forests and farmland, pastures, lagoons, quarries and marshes, miles of trails and a winding country road, all this natural beauty—the deer are a part of it.

Native to the San Juan Islands, the Columbia black-tail deer graze about, their big black eyes following us. Where we live never a shot is heard, so this trust has been built up for some time. I just walked into it. Yet I now consider myself a deer whisperer. Talking softly and moving slowly, I assure them they are safe and that I love them. Attentive ears, they listen to me. Then go back about their grazing, grooming the woods, and munching all the pesky dandelions.

Wild gardening.

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Birdsong

trumpeter_swan

Sometimes it is all you can do to keep your head above water. When this happens, I know to take a long walk in the woods. Or, since moving to the country, hang around home and clear brush and fallen branches. And then there’s another tactic: get away.

Even if where you live is off the coast of Northern Washington, over the border with Canada in the outer reaches of an archipelago of islands in the Salish Sea, one may still feel the need to get away.

So my friend and I volunteered to count swans on Shaw Island last weekend for the Washington Department of Fish and Game, under the umbrella of Preservation Trust. Shaw is but a short ferry ride from San Juan Island, but in its way, worlds away.

You have to remember that an island is always a place apart.

My friend and her husband have been living in a trailer on site while building a custom home. This makes our remodel look like a walk in the park—although we did live on a boat for a few months. Boat, trailer, much the same. Small.

On a moored boat one may have to fend off otter. Into a trailer, mice will creep. And as much as she hates to do it, my friend sets mouse traps. When she catches one she puts on gloves, picks it up by its tail, walks down to the edge of Egg Lake and places the little mouse on a stump over the water. An offering to the eagles.

We live on a land of waters, and where there is water there will be birds. Salt water birds stay all winter, like us. And like us, they are easier to track.

But on this morning we were looking to report on the migratory pattern of swan upon Shaw Island. Dressed in outdoor gear, bearing binoculars, notebook and pen, we left in the dark to catch the first morning ferry. The irony was that at sunrise my friend’s lake, Egg Lake, would be full of swan. Trumpeter swan. But others would be responsible for the count on San Juan Island that morning. We were off to Shaw Island.

Our jeep drove down every open road on island—all 7.7 sq. m.–through heavily wooded forests searching for ponds, coves, inlets, anywhere swan might be found. Light green lichen dangled from branches like chandeliers. Out my side window I became mesmerized with the pattern of fences. Split-rail fences in every state of standing and collapsing, covered in emerald green moss.

We stopped in all the public places on Shaw—all three—to inquire. The grocery store was closed. A librarian opened the library for us. The postmaster inquired of his customers, and no, no one had seen swan on island for perhaps a year.

With no swan to report to the Department of Fish and Game and a couple hours before the next ferry, we turned our jeep into Our Lady of the Rock, a Benedictine Monastery for women. Here traditional habit-dressed, Gregorian-chanting cloistered nuns are “living out the liturgy through prayer, praise and contemplation” upon 300 acres of forest and farmland.

We didn’t see any nuns either.

Final Count

swans: 0

nuns: none

But we introduced ourselves to the Cotswols Sheep, Highland Cattle, Ilamas and alpacas, poultry and Jersey dairy cows. Said a prayer in the chapel and purchased infused vinegars. Got home and wished we had purchased herbs, mustard, and teas, as well as their famed “Monastery Cheese.”

I’ll be back, perhaps as a guest.

 

“This is my life and I don’t pretend to understand it.” Thomas Merton from his journals in solitary hermitage

 

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Musings on Another House

Pemberton House

At home on the island, our project of late has been remodeling the master bath. For what has seemed like weeks, the door’s been off and there have been neither mirrors nor lights. The bath’s tile floor has been scattered with cabinet doors and baseboards, tub filled with discarded insulation, countertops laden with a jigsaw, fine tool drill, chiscels, screwdrivers and hammers.

I usually take my toothbrush from a drawer and a towel off the hook and go visit the guest bath, rather than risk my neck.

It didn’t have to be like this.

“I had a farm in Africa,” wrote Isak Dinesen. Well I nearly had a house that reminded me of her farm “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

This is the home I loved on San Juan Island. Situated in an interior valley with a white horse fence surrounding 6+ acres with a pond, bordered by over 500 acres of conservation land and a forever view. All light and sky and immense width and depth of landscape, looking off to snowcapped Olympics and The Strait of Haro, a glint of sea in the distance.

To me it was an Out of Africa moment every time I returned to visit this home. But to my husband it was just that little glint of sea.

The house was perfect. I could have moved in and put everything away, and within days been at work revising my book. Planning gardens, planting fruit trees, setting up a bocce court, horseshoes, a badminton net, who knows where it would have gone?

Instead we are in our seventh month of a remodel in a-home-that-needed-nearly-everything on Westcott Bay. I don’t know what it says about us that given a choice between a newer, lovely home in pristine condition and remodeling, we chose remodeling.

But I do know we did it for the chance to live on the water.

Yes, I might have been immensely happy in the other house with all the south facing light and vistas, but Paul would not have been. Where’d he go? I would wonder. And then I would know, down to the marina…

And in time it would have caught up with me too, the desire to live by the sea.

I know this every morning as I wake with flashing waters on the bay. Waterfowl at work or play, both resident and migratory, and what the old growth forest means to me. I’d be lost without the trees. Birds and trees, they have become me.

All that matters is being able to say, like Isak Dinesen, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”

 

 

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A DIY Christmas

Tree Bird

 

Christmas is doing itself this year. I have surrendered to the environment.

Several powerful windstorms have come to visit us in our first winter on San Juan Island. Days as dark as night. Pinecones pelting windowpanes like sleet. Downed branches and trees crisscrossing roads and paths. And that incessant hum…

I have trouble falling asleep with the winds. And then I don’t know where I am when I awaken.

I am learning that living on the water is much like living on a boat. At high tide our concern is that the bank will hold. At low tide we breathe a sigh of relief—that is when we fall asleep, I think. In my dreams we’ve been swept away, much the way I feel when anchoring for the night.

“The florist delivered again!” I exclaim, as I throw open the front door in the morning. Each day after a windstorm I find fresh branches at my doorstep, from which I cut boughs to freshen our mantle, tuck onto gifts, and make arrangements with greens, pinecones and winterberries.

All the roads are softly covered in cedar and pine needles after a windstorm, as soft and quiet as a snowfall. At our front door a foyer rug of navy, salmons and green is perfect for hiding the needles coming in on every boot. Who knew?

The rug was a gift from my parents. Windstorms whistled when they lived on Cape Cod. When the wind whistled everyone wanted to come downstairs to sleep.

Interesting, a whistling there. A deep, low humming here.

Back to Christmas.

We cut down our own little tree on our property. In the house it speaks to me, telling me what it wants.

“Forget the totes full of Victorian and Venetian glass ornaments you collected over the years,” it says. Suddenly all of that is an heirloom.

“What I am is a woodland tree.”

I knew that.

Rummaging through my totes for birds, pinecones, vines and icicles, I found a few. It doesn’t get on my tree now unless it comes from the forest.

The beauty of the woodland tree is in the minimalism. It speaks of the scarcity of winter.

(note to self: don’t go overboard collecting these ornaments either).

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Case #1, Completed

Bookcase 3

Quite the racket at our remodel on San Juan Island this week. Outside, men on beams like cats are deconstructing a deck, board by board. Throwing them all overboard. Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” plays on a portable radio that has seen better days.

What is to be my writing hut is currently at use as a construction shed. Large pieces of plywood are being ripped down for the building of bookcases in the house. At the garage, wood is being cut on a table saw, half in, half out. Booted steps on the stairs carry the boards inside. A symphony of sounds: air compressors firing up and the rapid popping of nail guns going off, followed by the buzz of an electric sander. And for a grand finale, the vacuum cleaner sound of a paint sprayer. All in a day’s work.

Our little dog is looking to hide, whereas I am over the moon. Ecstatic.

We have moved off the boat and into the house. It is still a job site, but with the construction of the bookcases the contractors will be finishing up indoors, and all out on the decks.

It makes sense that I come in with the books. Sacred stuff, books. My whole life was on hold while the books were in boxes. And the architecture of bookcases is nothing less than temples or cathedrals to me. Considering the height of the ceiling, we will be worshipping with the help of a library ladder.

How did it come to this, this wonderfully abundant bohemian love of books in the span of a lifetime? In the house where I grew up, the bookcase was stocked with regularly updated The World Book Encyclopedia, yards of National Geographic magazines in their distinctive school bus yellow binding, a set of Harvard Classics from my father’s father, Time/Life series of art history books: Medieval, The Renaissance, and so on. And although I know I’m forgetting other notable sets, Readers Digest Condensed Books.

Everything in sets, in other words. What was with that? I can’t say I remember real books upon those shelves.

Look at me now. A confirmed bibliophile. And if it seems I was a book snob before I became a bibliophile, I think you are right. For I could sense, growing up, that something was not right.

We lived close to the center of town where a Carnegie style public library perched on high over the town green, but there was no local bookstore. Today I can’t imagine living anywhere without a bookstore. Did everyone use the library then? Were people not reading as much, or just not needing to own what they read?

Nevertheless there were three good role models for me in those days. People who had to have books. Nana, Miggs, and Marcia.

A 98 lb. grandmother who devoured Agatha Christie novels in paperback. Hard to believe the English crime novelist could be so prolific, but sixty-six books flew off her desk along with a host of short stories collections. Frail little Nana had her arms-full and they kept her up late at night.

Miggs was the mother of one of my best friends. Needless to say I spent a lot of time at her house, a charming Cape appointed with antiques, original oil paintings, and books. A built-in bookshelf under the staircase, but more importantly, there were hardcover books all over the house. Where did she get these impressive books? My guess is she belonged to Book-of-the-Month type clubs, popular at the time. Her books came in the mail, much like my parents’ Time/Life sets. You had to subscribe, in other words. It was a different time, although not that different than ordering through Amazon, now that I think about it.

Marcia, my godmother and aunt. Informed by the New York Times booklist, a voracious reader in a family of men, I remember her curled up on the sofa reading while they watched sports on television. Marcia gifted me books with the Caldecott seal and the like throughout my youth. These I kept in my room, and thus began the need for books by my side.

Today half the weight of our household—as we move—is in book boxes. Books are where I can’t stop collecting, and for every book I finish I’ve found forty more. Where books, to me, make a room, and roomfuls of books make a home. Where books seem to carry on their own conversation in a room, with or without people. Where I will never be lonely as long as I have them. And where the only thing that worries me now is running out of time…

When Aunt Marcia passed away I mourned all over again with the publication of each new book I was sure she would have loved. This process started with Frank McCourt’s Angeles Ashes and continues to this day with The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Marcia is active in my selection of books, reading over my shoulder with me. And it’s books, books, books, that I, in turn, gift her grandchildren today.

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