A Trip North

A brief Anchorage visit in May stepped back in time to a part of spring we’re long past here. Because our older son bought our house after we moved to Washington, the trip also stepped back to the life that house contained.

Seattle is full of such houses – a story and a half with trees and a sidewalk out front – but not Anchorage, which inclines more toward subdivision split-levels or McMansions. The house protected me from weather in the far north and allowed me roots and regular life after a nomadic childhood. It was a privilege to separate gradually from that little house, but the shuffle required infinite patience from our son and his wife of less than a year. I am grateful.

Once I walked through our old neighbor’s house after they moved away, rooms hollow and echoing but a clean slate for the new person. Thirty years ago I found green shag carpeting, sky-blue walls, salmon-pink kitchen cupboards, and empty rooms in my old house. My daughter-in-law has now inherited the patina and clutter of many years.

All of which needs to be cheerfully, enthusiastically obliterated. The process has begun, and the more the young people make it their house, and the happier they are, the more relaxed I am. Any mistakes remaining are mine – like the oil paint so hard to cover and a garden full of overly enthusiastic groundcovers.

I admire my daughter-in-law for many things, including her willingness to tackle this fraught situation. (“There’s that word again,” she would say.)

It’s a 40s-flavored house and it might not suit forever, but its location in a friendly neighborhood, within walking distance to offices, a new bakery, and bike trails might outweigh its baggage for now.

I love to observe the changing particulars as the house begins to reflect its new family. The animals are back to full strength – two rescued orange tabbies (named Cromwell and Wolsey) joined a beloved good-natured dog. The young people have wonderful plans for a modern “heart of the home” kitchen.

We dealt with more leftovers this trip. Dividing the decades-long accumulation of cookie cutters with my daughter-in-law was a happy moment for me – sharing the decisions – dog for you, flower for me, four hearts means two each, a star for both. Dividing angels and gingerbread people, jack o’lantern, cowboy boot, owl and chick and four-leaf clover. Dinosaurs – four kinds we could name by working together. Hammer and saw stayed in Anchorage for the remodel – a teapot and dove of peace came south.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

A birder friend here sometimes leads “bird walks” in the spring – and he identifies birds almost always by their calls and songs. Having no musical ear, the easiest calls for me to recognize are ones humans attach words to. The olive-sided flycatcher is unmistakable with its throaty “quick three beers!”

Migrants (wintering from Panama south to the Andes), these insect eaters return between the last days of April and June. Nearly always I hear that request for immediate service about the 16th of May.

The Seattle Audubon Society website lists the olive-sided flycatcher as a species-of-concern because they are in decline. That means hearing the call is cause for celebration – and refreshment after such a long flight.


For a few weeks every May a crow repeatedly visits the bird bath (luckily the one less popular with small birds).

The crow (or several different crows) brings food and stores it in the dish: peanuts in shells, big hunks of white bread – or body parts.

Why would a crow prefer food soaked into mushiness? Last summer I suspected it might be easier to eat a soggy piece of bread than a crunchy one, or to corral a peanut in a dish. Maybe on a hot day, the water keeps meat and bones fresher.

The other day the crow used a foot to hold food against the rim of the dish, while tearing off morsels and taking sips of water between mouthfuls. When finished, the crow lifted up with flapping wings and flew straight between the houses. At the edge of the bluff it paused for an instant’s hesitation, then released into a glide over the edge. I imagine how pleasurable that must feel.

Violet-green Swallow

Each spring swallows return to the bluff as insects wake up. Aerobatic marvels, they patrol the lawn just above head height, air-vacuuming insects. Until the other day I thought of swallows always as a shape in the sky hurtling east to west and back again in feeding flight maneuvers – often in the evening.

This year we might get more familiar. The other day I watched two swallows diverted from the usual formation make repeated investigating runs toward the eaves of the Buffalo. I read they make nests out of pellet-sized dabs of mud, so it could take a long time to make a nest there. Or maybe it didn’t suit. The bluff itself must be hospitable – with snack bar lawn above.

Northern Flicker

A tall Doug fir on the bluff is a favorite with birds. We call it the low-down tree because only the top of it rises above the bluff. The first Thanksgiving we spent here, I spotted an unknown bird and grabbed binoculars, I watched wind fluff its feathers – black chest blaze like a bib, black polka dots on white, red cheek patch, and rusty orange highlights: northern flicker – a red-shafted male.

The flicker was the first bird I identified from the book “Birds of the Puget Sound Region” – such a pleasure to put a name to that beauty. Flickers (woodpeckers) consort with robins, often joining them for flocking events. Robins seem not so impressed by stylish good looks as I am. Robins can shoulder the larger flicker from the birdbath.

Ants can be nearly half a flicker’s diet. They feed often on the ground like robins, but are the only woodpecker to do so.


This spring I watched a robin in the bath, its beak full of dried grass – in a seeming dither about whether to drop it or not before bathing, multi-tasking, just a quick dip before getting on with the chores.

I have never seen a robin come into the courtyard. Sometimes they land on the tall fence (far out of Frances reach) and use it as a launch zone for zeroing-in on lawn worms or insects.

From trees around the house robins sing lovely melodies – frequent and welcome. I try never to say, “It’s just a robin,” – even though they are ubiquitous – like us – year-around residents and always about.


When she visits her childhood home, my painter friend always draws me a picture in a letter of her parents’ clothesline at work – it’s the umbrella type with a central pole and much capacity, and it dries clothes on Whirlwind Hill.

I remember summer days at my friend’s old farmhouse here in Washington with a clothesline – a t-shaped contraption with multiple lines. Wooden clothespins, in a cotton bag grown faded and holey over the years, swung on the line. Sometimes we gathered the clothes on the run – getting them in before the afternoon thunderstorm. Clothes gathered into wicker baskets (a bygone object) smelled so good – stiffer than dryer dried. And most certainly without artificial scents.

My old house in Alaska had a clothesline, but it was most often strung with wet camping gear in the summer, and empty in the winter, shaking in the wind. It sagged badly.

I knew I wanted one here but dithered about location. Then, in a gardening magazine I saw a photo of a little garden with a clothesline strung right through it. It drooped through the garden in front of a gazebo or potting shed and looked just as friendly and charming – suggesting a clothesline could go anywhere.

In our new house, energy efficient machines reside on the second story, not in the basement like in my old life. I’d have to haul wet laundry downstairs and outside for the pleasure of towels and sheets blowing in the wind and absorbing fresh air and sunshine.

And so I do. Enjoying a totally ordinary clothesline – stretched along the woods at the edge of the lawn on the waterside, from north to south, where the west wind blows clothes and sheets and towels nearly horizontal some days.

Clotheslines, like canning the season’s bounty, chicken coops, and compost piles, need a little rehabilitation for acceptance, some ingenuity and imagination, (and some covenants changed). A homey, functional, inexpensive thing, they help combat the statistic I read that electric dryers account for 5-10% of the residential energy used.

Hanging clothes is one of those domestic chores, menial tasks that the machines freed us from (and a dryer is often very welcome). But we lose the satisfaction of an orderly line of clothes and an opportunity for meditative outdoor activity: lifting wet clothes from the basket and picking the best place to attach the pin. Do all the socks stay together? How do you pin the jeans – upside down or by the waist? Clothespins attached to T-shirts and tea towels leave telltale pinch marks.

Hanging laundry to dry outdoors is a hymn to a slower life – a Breezy Bluff, sunny day life.