Tag Archives: San Juan Islands

Plant Daddy

By Kimberly Mayer

In “Head to Toe”( https://alittleelbowroom.com/2021/06/18/head-to-toe/) I wrote on discovering Birkenstocks in my sixties, while everyone around me had discovered them in The 60’s. I was in Encinitas, California with my daughter and son-in-law, so it’s only fitting that they circle back in this piece. Apparently I’m not done with Encinitas yet.

Just a couple blocks down the Pacific Coast Highway from the Birkenstock store sits the campus of Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. What is that? you might ask. Tunisian-like white structures punctuated in azure blue, topped with lotus blossom domes in gold leaf, it’s weirdly beautiful in an easterly way. Twenty-seven acres include an Ashram Center and Retreat, The Hermitage, and Meditation Gardens, overlooking and stretching down to Swami’s Beach. 

The Fellowship was founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda to spread understanding of the spiritual wisdom of India in the West. It was in the bookstore of the fellowship that I began going through Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and noticed a chapter devoted to Luther Burbank. Why, I know of that man, I thought. A renowned plant breeder and horticulturist, a pioneer in agricultural science. 

Paramahansa Yogananda’s autobiography, it turns out, is dedicated to Burbank. They were dear friends, the Yogi and the plant breeder. In his day, Luther Burbank practiced Kriya Yoga devoutly, and Paramahansa Yogananda called Burbank “my American saint.”

This is when one thing leads to another. I purchased the Autobiograpy of a Yogi and when home, dusted off my copy of A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. Indeed, the two men figure in each other’s book. In his autobiography Paramahansa Yogananda tells the story of walking alongside Luther Burbank through his garden in Santa Rosa, California when Burbank informed him, “The secret of plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.” 

We halted near a bed of edible cacti.

“While I was conducting experiments to make ‘spineless cacti,’ I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. ‘You have nothing to fear,’ I would tell them.’ You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you. Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety.”

I was charmed at this miracle. “Please, dear Luther, give me a few cactus leaves to plant in my garden…”

I too received a cactus arm, a descendent of Luther Burbank’s cacti, while visiting the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. It may have been silly for me to accept, residing as I do in the San Juan Islands—where only Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus makes a rare appearance on dry rocky banks. No, I had another idea for the arm. 

Living alongside Balboa Park in San Diego are my daughter and son-in-law. Having landscaped their Spanish contemporary home primarily with cactus, agave, and roses, they’ve demonstrated how well the cactus grows there. Furthermore, on my visit I counted forty-two robust houseplants in their home, many of whom are succulents. And that wasn’t counting all the potted and hanging plants in a large courtyard. 

Add to that now, the cactus arm I left with my son in law. 

My daughter is the first to say that her husband is the plant genius. The Augmented and Virtual Reality Capability Lead at the largest consulting company in the world, but better known as “plant daddy” to his wife and family. The cactus arm is in good hands.


Filed under horticulture, plant breeding, yoga, Uncategorized

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

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.


Filed under gardening with deer

How to Turn a Home into a Writing Retreat

 Chair and Books

“We think of retreat as going away, but it need not be a physical act. Each of us can find our own way to silence. We withdraw and the inner world appears.” Deena Metzger


If this post were structured like a real how-to, Step 1 would be to turn off the television. Or in our case, never turn it on. Whether we want to write, read, paint, sculpt, or meditate, there is no better step than that.

What we are aiming to do here is to create a sanctuary, an oasis of civilization. What Gordon Lish referred to as “a haven in a heartless world.” In our case a writing retreat, and this is our attempt at that using our house.

To begin with, we went out of our way–left the city last year to be here, in the San Juan Islands. Downshifting…

And upon a lot in an old growth forest by the sea, there sat a modular Timberland Home, circa 1997, which we redesigned in sustainable materials to be in harmony with nature. Down went LP siding, up went cedar shake shingles. Down came numerous interior walls, and up came generous open space living.

Everything opens to sky and sea; we knew nothing should detract from that.

It’s the shimmering waters. It’s the quality of air. It’s the wildlife. It’s the quiet. It’s the organic foods. It’s having as many outdoor spaces as in. It’s the reverence for nature. And if you ask me, it’s to be shared.

So I invited a writer friend to live with us. (note: this step has to be as important as no television). Dear friend,  brilliant writer. He too is finishing a book.

Together we imitate graduate school here: writing days, and long walks. Good food, discussions, books, and sometimes reading aloud at night what had been written by day.

Suddenly all this nature and art. It was working for me. I know this to be true because he went away for a couple days and I could barely tap out this piece.


Filed under writing retreat

Going Gray

Jackie's apartment

The San Francisco residence of J. Mayer and B. Blum


My girlfriends in Seattle told me it would happen when I moved to the islands.

“You’ll come back gray-haired wearing Birkenstock sandals,” they warned.

Well they were half right.

We were all coloring our hair back there. The San Juan Islands are more organic in every sense. Women give each other permission to go gray here.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Going gray took a number of months. My hairdresser had to remove my hair of the brown coloring, and gray what was stripped. Matching up the color with what was growing in.

“I don’t like it. I’m not ready for this,” my husband commented when the job was completed.

The next day I was flying east. I had promised to care for my father at his retirement home while my mother enjoyed a stay with friends in the English countryside. Residents of the retirement home raved about my hair. What they saw were the waves–the color was a given. I felt good enough to come home again.

Here on the island gray is the color of silver fox, oyster and clam shells, shimmering fish, Gray whales, harbor seals, dolphin, Gray heron, and fog.

I will get around to remodeling. All roads lead to remodeling lately.

Deck after rain

This weekend we painted 800 sq. ft. of decking around our island home. What had been a dark brown-red paint over cedar became a lighter gray, and the house went from being “of the woods” to being “of the water.” Gray is a nautical color, the color of sun bleached piers and teak decking on boats.

There is a gray wash to our hardwood floors. A gray stain to new pieces of furniture (Restoration Hardware outlet). A gray quartz countertop in our kitchen. A gray veining through Carrera marble tiles on the backsplash. Stainless steel floating shelves for glassware and dishes. Stainless steel appliances. Grays in slate tile floors in mudroom and bath. And now, gray decks running everywhere: down the hillside staircase, across the house, and out to the writing hut. Where I write.

I say this after having lived with earth tones all my life, on my walls and in my hair. There is a calmness and sophistication to the color gray. It is restful and it is where I am right now.


Filed under hair coloring, remodeling, the color gray

Time After Time

Clock on the Mantle -1

The old clock always knew where it was going. Not us. We didn’t know we would uproot our lives in the city and move to the San Juan Islands. And we didn’t know what the house would be until we came home with a 9 1/2 foot yew log for a mantle and didn’t want to cut it down. But when we realized that a rock wall would be best behind it, it was decided then, I think, the house would go Lodge Style.

From that moment on I looked for rustic furnishings and rugs. Our hardwood floors were already distressed. Like a dock, I thought at the time. It was summer then, and I was thinking along the lines of a beach house. But in moving over to Lodge Style, everything worked in concert. Including all our “nicer things:” candelabras, linens, chandeliers, art and books.

And an heirloom of mine, an eight day time and strike mahogany shelf clock, circa early 1800’s. Today, the heartbeat of the house. So tightly wound in its packing crate, it started ticking when placed upon the mantle. That’s why I say the old clock always knew where it was going.

Pano from the Beach

Give me a day like this and I re-appreciate passing time. The season is turning and we will all be coming out of the darkness like moles. The sun is something we’ll have to adjust to again. It all rushes back to me: light filled days and nights, how awake we will be, and what we can accomplish.

Soon we’ll drop household projects and favor everything outdoors. What is done in the remodel will be done. Our priorities will shift.

It will be far more important to hold the seawall, reinforcing it with logs and rocks. We will want to build another set of Adirondack chairs with ottomans for the upper deck, staining them in the sun. Pick up a picnic table, cook and eat alfresco. Vegetables to get growing; an old deer fence to reinforce first. Forage for clams, oysters and crab on the beach.

Essentially we will live outside. Hang a hammock, and call it a day.


Filed under crab

A Circle of Six

6 Chairs

My husband and I are between homes and living on a boat in The San Juan Islands. Our home of the last seven years in Seattle is on the market. We left it looking picture perfect for a remodel project that we go to every day, on island. First we fell in love with the island, and then with the property: a sloping side of old growth forest on a quiet bay.

The house itself was hideous, but we knew we could do something with that. “There never has been a house so bad,” noted Elsie de Wolfe, “that it couldn’t be made over into something worthwhile.” Elsie was the woman who practically invented Interior Design.

But back to the land. Afterall, it’s all about the land and the sea. That’s what calls us here and holds us here. We reimagine our lives with each move.

My philosophy in moving–I’ve moved often enough in my life to have developed a philosophy–is to create a zone that I can go to initially, where everything is ideal. I can’t tell you how often these “rooms” have been outdoors.

In San Diego I found a shady spot out back under a trellis draped in grape vines where I contemplated growing everything in mossy, old world pots. It was my sanctuary.

And when all the house was covered with drop cloths in the tumult of renovation on Mercer Island, the deck was what pulled me through. Out there I saw how well the orchid plants were doing, resting on the rail overlooking the lake after their cross-country move in a truck. We had flown in, how could I complain?

Here, I created my zone by carrying up rocks from the beach and building a fire pit in a clearing. Around that I envisioned a circle of cedar Adirondack chairs. It was as simple as that and we built it.

So our pow wow is up and ready, long before the house. This is where I sit under the cathedral of trees and remember why I am here. I will learn the bird calls by day and find my way among the stars at night. And it will all be so clear.

Everyone has their own immigrant story, but at one time we were all indigenous people somewhere. Come, count yourself among us.




Filed under interior design

Daylight Savings: What I Did with the Hour Lost

Friday Harbor

Daylight savings happened and I have to wonder, whatever did I do with the hour lost? Where’d it go? I know where I was at the time. Driving on I 5 in relentless rain. The monotony of gray. A day as dark as night. Four lanes of cars spraying like a battalion of power boats. Hypnotic windshield wipers. Well what I did with that hour while driving was nothing less than to re-imagine my life.

We were meeting a friend for lunch that day in Blaine, Washington, where he keeps a cabin. Blaine is in Whatcom County and the northernmost town in the state of Washington. Our friend lives in an apartment in Vancouver B.C. and comes to the cabin every chance he gets. He has been doing this for years. There he has guest rooms for his children and grandchildren, a vegetable garden, and a 36’ sailboat in the marina.

Never mind that his cabin is a doublewide, it looked like the good life to me.

In the darkness of winter it is difficult for us to believe we will ever come out of it. It is almost like Whoville. You would hardly know we are here. Though our candles glow like Northern lights, we lose sight of it too and start to wonder.

For our friend in Vancouver, the biggest draw to Blaine is the sun. Between the cities of Vancouver and Seattle there exists an intricate pattern of microclimates, some of which are blessed with a hundred more days of sunshine per year. I know of pilots who have identified Ocean Shores, Washington from the air, and vowed to retire there. For us it would be in The San Juan Islands. We spend a lot of time on I 5.

In that hour lost I flipped the whole equation mentally, and re-imagined our life from the islands. It struck me as clear: turn everything around and live there. Live, love, write, and worship my new god, Ra.


Filed under Uncategorized

Between Acts

Everest Range

So I was reading from Thomas Merton’s journals this week and came upon this: “It is really illogical that I should get temptations to run off to another monastery and to another Order of monks.” Oh my God, was he this way too? Restless and wondering whether life would be better in that monastery over there instead? I nearly fell out of my chair. For here I go again, looking to reinvent my life.

For years, change was almost scripted for us. Due to job transfers and job changes our family hopped around, West Coast, East Coast, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. That which moved us also settled us in some pretty spectacular places. And I indulged in a nearly promiscuous love affair with houses and starting over.

Today we are more settled having been in this home, and in this city, longer than any other. But all our cards are in the air as my husband has left his position of fifteen years. And where did he go, the hardest working man I had ever known? He went trekking in the Himalayas….

Always believe it when you hear that climbing the Himalayas is life-changing.

Whatever Paul does next has to be entirely new and challenging. He needs mountains. So we’re giving our imaginations free reign and looking at everything, from other offers, to consulting, to living abroad—it’s now or never, he says—to living in a high-rise downtown, to moving to the San Juan Islands and living near the boat. In Panama this might be called “living off the grid.” I’m not suggesting anything like that, but definitely taking stress down a few notches. I hate to say it, but we could grow old there.

I am learning to shop in my own closet. Whatever path we chose, we have too much stuff. How simple it would have been for Thomas Merton!

I’m happy for Paul to have this time off, and treasure the time together. Long walks pondering what to do with the rest of our lives…. Don’t know what we’ll do, but change is in the wind. My folks are alive and well and would like us to come east. Our daughters live in San Francisco.

We are betwixt and between and maybe, just maybe, entirely free.


Filed under reinvent

Sounds of Silence

After seeing the film, “Descendents,” my sister remarked that it made her aware of all the superfluous chatter in life, that much of what we mean can be expressed without words. No doubt it was George Clooney’s eyes that spoke to her, nevertheless we are all capable of so much more in nonverbal communication.

And while this blazingly beautiful Indian Summer of ours just won’t quit, my husband and I slipped off in the boat again for “one more weekend.” Pulling up at Rosario on Orcas Island, we came ashore as tens of people were pouring out of a seminar. They were out on a break and while most sat on the shore facing the sun, some lay down on the grass, or strolled singularly on paths. The notable thing about it was the quietude. None of the participants spoke. Not to each other, not to anyone. And we did not want to disturb it.

Describing quietude is like trying to describe the dark. There is little light on land at night in the San Juan Islands. Soft lights from boats reflect, and diffuse, in the water. It is darker there at night. The sky, however, can be lit up like the Hayden Planetarium on the Upper West Side in NYC. Stargazing did for me a child, and this was again, such a night.

We were taken with it, both the quietude and darkness. While on a walk at midnight, my husband encountered a deer. It was close yet he couldn’t see it. When he came back to the boat his description was of “a low hum, the sound of air moving fast.” We talked like this that weekend.

We learned that we had arrived on the second day of an intensive, three-day, Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Retreat. Tom Kenyon was creating catalytic sounds by channeling a celestial musician, the participants found it transformational, and although we were not in the program, it affected us nonetheless. For the entire weekend we did not play the music we are usually fond of hearing out on the water, and I don’t know that either of us noticed.

I wish I could write this from inside the retreat too, but no, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend all that time indoors. One of the benefits of boating is we can absorb all that good Vitamin D and raise our serotonin and endorphin levels through the roof. And if we go a bit overboard in the summer, it is because we are stocking up for all the gray months ahead.

On the final day of the program–day three for them, day two for us– one by one, participants out on break began to say “hello.” It was as if they were resurfacing, and us as well.

Time had stood still, it seemed, and now it was time to return from whence we all came. Soundlessly, people wandered off with their backpacks, and boats left their slips or moorage, more sailboats than motor. We hoped to bring some of it back with us, the sounds of silence and the lights of darkness.

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Filed under meditation, channeling