Are You Blackberry or Salal? Wild Ruminations on Wild Berries

Now is the season of sweet, dark berries gathered by the handful at the sunny edge of the woods.

Also, it’s blackberry season.

But for those of you not from Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), I’m talking about salal berries.

These guys

They’re native, humble, not well known, to my surprise, even to many Washingtonians. They are completely edible–just ask Lewis & Clark. Also delicious–although don’t expect that opinion from Lewis & Clark. They got pretty sick of salal that winter of (I think) 1804. Maybe because they were eating them dried and mixed with smoked salmon and bear grease, a protein-packed pemmican the Coastal nations were kind enough to share with them.

Granted, you wouldn’t want to bake a pie with salals–at least I wouldn’t. Their skin is rough and a bit furry, like a peach, and their “meat” is seedy.

I usually chew a sweet mouthful, then spit out the pulp. Hard to do that with pie.

But they’re sweet! And free! And best of all, to me, unlike those giant, juicy blackberries that stop me on my bike rides–they BELONG here.

I was thinking about salals and blackberries the other day after reading my morning poem by Mary Oliver. (She has defaulted to my poet of choice since I took up the daily poem habit as inoculation against the day’s national news, after the election.) Mary had a childhood full of suffering, which she managed to transcend through her writing–and probably lots of other activity I don’t know about, since she hasn’t written an autobiography. But my point is: she suffered, she survived, she wrote, and her writing is both vehicle (to her) and Promised Land (to the rest of us and also, I devoutly wish, to her).

I’m a writer. I have to this point in my life suffered almost nothing. 50-some years of good fortune. I know my time will come, so I’m neither boasting nor tempting Fate–just wondering: could this be the reason I have yet to write something that brings people screeching to a halt at the side of the road?

Easy to ride past.

Is my writing sweet, nourishing, but not very tempting? When someone takes a bite, do they savor, but still spit out a portion of pulp?

Is suffering the sunshine and rain that causes art to plump and swell? Or does the real difference lie in the species themselves: some of us are born with certain DNA, then planted and raised in such a way to create more beauty or truth than others?

I take comfort in the fact that this is, really, a pretty silly parallel. Also that I love blackberries, and great writers, so much that I’ll never waste time feeling envious. 

But in salal season, I still wonder.

Road Trip VIII, Days 1-4, Tacoma to Oakland: Making The Familiar Strange

“Poetry is making the familiar strange.” That’s an unattributed quote I used to give my students, and it came to my mind as the Mate and I began the first leg of this, our eighth cross-country sojourn to North Carolina. It’s true that even though February travel argues for a quick race to the south, we have multiple routes available to us for that purpose. We don’t have to go Tacoma-Eugene-Redwood Coast-Oakland-Los Angeles. Yet we’ve taken that route six out of eight years.

That raises two questions. The first, Why? is easy: people. Specifically, dear very young people who are changing so rapidly that missing a year is like missing three, and dear older people whose health we never want to take for granted. We WILL go where they are, while we can.

…like these guys😍

The second question is tougher: how do we keep fresh our enthusiasm for this well-traveled route? And that’s where that quote comes in. In this first, familiar leg of our journey, I am giving my Noticing Muscles a workout, determined to keep the familiar strange.

So, walking in Tacoma’s beautiful Point Defiance Park, I ignored the shining trunks of the madrona trees to capture this bright red Oregon Grape.

Nothing like Christmas in February!

Then, instead of taking a classic picture of Mt. Rainier in all her fresh-snow glory, I focused on this cloud flexing its muscle.

We can do it!

In Eugene, walking with friends along the Coast Fork of the Willamette, I substituted a shot of moss-draped oaks for this intriguingly blank sign.

For when you’re feeling especially self-directed…

Not pictured: flock of wild turkeys.

Just before the California border, heading toward Cave Junction on beautiful US 199, we passed this sign (admittedly not our first glimpse, but I finally got the Mate to slow down so I could take its picture):

Apparently fully intentional—hey, let’s celebrate veggies AND dyslexia!

In the redwoods—oh, I have so many pictures of redwoods!—I forced myself away from the big trees…

OK, just ONE MORE big tree picture…!

ahem, I say, I forced myself to look down instead of up sometimes, and found…

British Soldier lichen!

And…

Tiny tree doing yoga!

Finally arriving in the Bay Area, the Mate and I went for a bike ride along the top of Tilden Park in Berkeley. And there…well, it’s not so much that my noticing muscles gave out, as that bikes aren’t the best mode of transport for photography.

So I had to settle for this fairly obvious shot:

Good ol’ Golden Gate in the distance

Not pictured: a pair of the glossiest ravens I’ve ever seen.

But no worries—most of the “view” I’m seeing in these well-travelled parts of the West are memories…and I haven’t found a way to capture those with my smartphone yet.

Tree Guru, Part II: Let Me Learn From Yew Too

Here’s one of those “discovering” something that was always in plain sight stories. And of course it has a moral.

A few weeks ago I was walking my favorite woodsy path on our beautiful isle and my eyes came to rest on the trunk of a tree I must have passed literally HUNDREDS of times. “Funny,” I thought, “that looks like a juniper. But they don’t have junipers here.”

It’s true. Here in Ecotopia we have Western Red Cedar and we have Douglas Fir, but juniper’s an eastern thing. I knew right away this was something special. And that’s when I remembered hearing about a handful of ancient Pacific Yews still surviving on the south end of Lopez Island. I stepped in for a closer look.

Much closer look.

Thirty+ feet in height. Flat needles. Red bark. But the width–whoa! I couldn’t get my arms around the trunk, not by a long shot. My wing span’s a good 5 feet, so this trunk’s circumference could be 80 inches. And yet it looked SO modest, tucked into the larger forest, that I had ignored it for a good six years of walks.

Not much to yew, is there?

A botanist friend tells me a yew this size is “hundreds of years” old. Impossible to tell how MANY hundreds, of course, but who cares? This unassuming tree, much smaller than the firs around it, could be their great-great-great grandma (overlooking the whole different genus thing, of course).

The obvious moral to this story is, PAY ATTENTION. Who knows what you may be walking past? The more subtle moral…well, several come to mind.

Perseverance and strength–the qualities of heroes–may come in drab packages.

Flashiness often distracts us from our best, truest role models. And of course…

Yew are who yew are.

Do you have your own story of an unobtrusive hero or role model you came to notice after much time? Do share, won’t yew?

My Guru The Tree

If you look at my books you’ll see my publisher is Madrona Branch Press.

That’s me. All us Indie authors are our own presses. But Madrona Branch, the name? There’s a story there, which I’ve told before.

Don’t have time for the previous blog post? Just look closely at that loopy branch.

Here’s an update.

The other day I was out for a walk and stopped to hug “my” tree as I usually do.

Hello, Beautiful.

Then I stepped back and looked into its upper branches. My eyes found that astounding curl of branch which has become my personal emblem. Then, for the first time, they noticed something new that had always been there:

“I’ve been here all along, y’know.”

See it? Look closer.

“Lean on me…when you’re not strong…”

Not only is that never-say-die branch supporting itself with its own loop, it’s also leaning against an older part of the original tree trunk. A dead part. But not so dead that it can’t lend its bulk to keep “my” branch climbing toward the sunlight.

Excelsior!

So I’ve extended my metaphor. Yes, I accepted the “failure” of not being traditionally published, and supported myself to keep growing upward, into independent publication. But I was never alone in that endeavor. I leaned heavily on my writing group, on my editor, on my book designer, and on countless friends I knew only via internet, who helped me with technology or marketing questions.

Not to say any of those folks are “dead wood.” They are all solidly growing themselves. The “dead” part of that solid trunk is all the authors over time whose work inspired me and taught me. Shakespeare. Zora Neale Hurston. William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stegner. Barbara Kingsolver. Michael Chabon. And on and on and on, a trunk of growth so powerful it will never stop nourishing growth, even when it’s finally broken down into soil.

There’s also something to be learned from a tree which uses its own dead parts as scaffolding, rather than shedding them. That’s US, guys–the community of writers! We are the whole damn tree.

A little further on my walk, I ran into another new favorite tree of mine. But that’s a whole other story, so I’ll save it for my next post.

Any other metaphors strike you from these pictures? Or do you have a Nature metaphor for your own experience? I would love to hear.

Trip Envy: When This Little Spousie Stays Home

My Mate is leaving me, and I’m beside myself…

…with envy. Because he’s not LEAVING leaving; he’s going on a buddy camping trip with an old friend and his son. Guys only. Well, I’m sure I could get myself invited if I made big enough puppy eyes (or threatened to withhold pie). But they’re going for a week. And it’s high season here on Crawling With Tourists Lopez Island. I have to stay and bake.

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m so happy for the guy. He doesn’t get out as often as I do, being retired, nor is he half as social as I am. I get together with my high school Besties every summer. He and his pal have done this only once before. It’s great to watch them piling up the backpacks, stove fuel and water filters. Great to hear all that discussion about what’s going into the gorp, and how many nights in a row they should eat noodles. Just…great.

I’ll be fine once they’re gone. But seeing that map of British Columbia, hearing them bandy phrases like “towering peaks,” “turquoise lakes” and “giant cedars” is making me a little crazy.

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I love where I live. THAT LOOKS SO BEAUTIFUL!!!  I love my daily life. TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!! I love my job. PLEASE... Would you like another slice of pie before you head off on your adventure?

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If you have a partner in your life, do you ever take separate pleasure trips? If so, how do you deal with Trip Envy? Just, you know…wondering.

Road Trip V, Days 1-2: Tacoma, WA to Arcata, CA

Redwoods, right? Or marijuana. Those are the botanicals most people associate with Arcata, a lovely town in one of California’s loveliest counties, Humboldt. But I want to give some love to a lesser-known plant: the madrona. (Or, for you Californians, madrone. But I think madrona’s prettier.)

We see a number of different ecosystems on our road trips: redwoods, cactus, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. So let me try an experiment. I’ll say a kind of plant, and you form a mental image, OK? Here we go:

Rewoods.

Cactus.

Live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

I don’t ned to provide a picture, right? Even if you’ve never been to California, to the desert, or to the South, you’ve seen movies, TV shows. Those images exist for you. Now: how about madronas? Yeah–thought not. Unless you’ve spent significant time in coastal Washington, Oregon or California north of the Bay.

So let me remedy that.

image

What’s so special about madronas? Where do I start?

They’re deciduous, but they’re in no hurry to lose their leaves. Green all winter, they finally agree to drop their old leaves only when the new ones come to push them out in the spring.

(All images courtesy wikimedia)

(All images courtesy wikimedia)

They have the COOLEST bark, smooth as human skin beneath the peeling outer layer, in the most beautiful shades of red, bronze, and green. I love to lay my cheek against it.

Around Thanksgiving, they bust out bunches of brilliant red berries–early Christmas decorations.

In spring, they bloom bunches of creamy white blossoms that look like little bells and smell like honey.

Best of all, they grow in the wildest, most original loops and curves.

(This photo's all mine!)

(This photo’s all mine!)

…which is why, when I published my first book, I named my press Madrona Branch Press, in honor of that amazing, self-supporting branch. That’s ME, baby. That’s the beauty of the madrona.

logo

What a lovely way to start our road trip! And when we’ve trekked across the country, turned around and trekked back, to the tune of 10,000 miles or so, I’ll know I’m home as soon as I spot that first madrone. (Ooh, song lyric!)

How about you, dear reader? Favorite tree? Other emblematic member of the plant kingdom? What does it for you?

The Warm Blanket of Friendship–Literally: Button Blankets

You’re about to turn 60…or 70. Your friends gather in secret. They spend hours (and hours and hours) preparing a surprise. There are no balloons involved, no h’ors d’oevres, no dancers jumping out of cakes. Your friends are making you a button blanket.

This idea, borrowed from the Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest, is vibrant on my island. Just how vibrant stunned me, though. I had heard of it, even been invited to participate in the production of one (which I had to miss, due to traveling). But not until I saw a display at our community library did I realize how deeply blanketed in friendship we Lopezians are.

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This badger blanket (for my singin’ buddy Kenny), features wool made from Lopez sheep, because Kenny likes to make things out of wool felt.

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Some of the “totem animals” of the person being gifted are very NON-Northwestern, like my friend Polly’s giraffe:

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Sometimes the totem isn’t an animal at all, but some other important symbol:

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I think the “gifted” person’s spouse/partner is usually involved in choosing the symbol, but it could also be done by group consensus. I don’t know, but you can bet next time I’m invited, I will happily join in. Here’s a picture of the process:

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Unfortunately, I can’t credit the photographer, since it wasn’t attributed at the exhibit. But if it’s Pamela Maretsen, the chief craftsperson/designer, then–kudos, Pamela, and thanks not only for making this tradition happen, but for lighting the fire to spread it.

Of course, as soon as you see these blankets, you start dreaming: what would mine look like? If anyone, like, you know, ever decided to gift me with one?

How about a frog? Frogs are cool...

How about a frog? Frogs are cool…

 

The whole process is very Zen-like. You can’t ask for one. You can’t buy one–at least not that I’ve ever heard. You probably shouldn’t even THINK about one, or wish for one. You should probably just go about the business of being a good person, and one day your friends just might decide to show their love this way:

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I’ve heard of groups of friends making quilts for each other, in the South and the Midwest especially. But I’ve never heard of it being done in secret, and I’ve never heard of men’s being involved.

So I’m wondering: does this happen in other small communities, or groups of friends? Maybe not blankets, but something similar? I would love to see this tradition spread. Maybe, somewhere, it already is? I would love to hear.

Wave of the Present: Do You? Don’t You? Why?

When I drive, I have twitchy fingers. Every time I pass another car, person or bike, I wave a couple of digits in their direction.

It’s not just me. All locals do it. Lopez Island is known as The Friendly Isle. Most of us use the one-or-two-finger approach; some go whole-hog and use all five. I even know a couple of folks who’ve installed a floppy glove on their dashboard, vertically, which takes care of all their waving needs.

It’s the Lopez Wave. 

japanesewave

You can tell it’s summer by the low percentage of folks who wave back. Takes tourists a while to get the memo. But when they do, they join in enthusiastically–all five fingers.

Off-island, though, it can be a little embarrassing. When you wave at other drivers in Seattle, they tend to think you’re warning them about something. “What? What? Did I leave my latte on my roof again?”

nope

And off-island on rural roads? It always takes me about three days to quit waving at folks. I guess they don’t mind. They even wave back sometimes.

closer

So I’m wondering: is this a rural thing? No one waved on the dirt roads where I grew up in North Carolina. Maybe it’s Midwestern? There are a lot of Midwestern roots in the Pacific Northwest. Do folks wave at each other in Hawaii? Or just give the aloha sign?

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I really am curious. Please weigh in with your thoughts. The only other thing I’ll ask of you is…when someone waves, wave back.

Seattle Seahawks + Guiness Book of World Records = Ridiculous Case of Civic Pride

I am not a pro football fan. True, I’m not quite as bad as some of my island friends who claim not to know what “NFL” stands for, but, in the overall range of not-fan-ness, the only reason I’m not one of those annoying spectators who demand to know “Wait, why’s that guy doing that?” when you take them to a game is that no one’s ever going to take me to a game.

So I should be embarrassed to admit that I’m proud of “my” Seattle Seahawks because they set a world record last month. Well, not them, exactly. Their fans–a.k.a. “The Twelfth Man.” (See, if I were a COMPLETE and TOTAL not-fan, I wouldn’t know what that meant. So maybe there is hope for me, or no hope, depending on how you look at it.) They set a record for NOISE.

Yep, it’s official, folks. 136.6 decibels, breaking the previous record by 1.6  And the previous record holders, the hardy fans of the Galatasaray Soccer Club (that’s in Turkey, in case you were wondering) can suck it try again next year, jolly good luck and all that.

Want to hear what 136.6 decibels sound like?

What’s funny is, hearing this story gave me a rush of civic pride that continues to bubble up anytime anyone mentions the topic. How in the world can this be? Am I such an insecure Northwesterner that world attention of any kind that doesn’t mention “the Battle of Seattle” or the wimpiness of Steve Ballmer automatically pumps me up?

Gotta admit…I was just in New England, and I found myself keeping score: “There’s a Dunkin Donuts. But ha! There’s a Starbucks right across the street. We’re catching ’em! Oops, there’s another Dunkin Donuts…dang.”

Civic pride, anyone? Do you fall victim to it over silly stuff? Or do you save your “I Left My Heart in ________” moments for something more real, like when Boston rallied after the marathon bombing? Or maybe pride is pride and love is love, and it doesn’t even matter why?