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.


In “Daybook: The Journal of an Artist” (a book about being an artist and a mother which rewards rereading), the artist Anne Truitt describes a meal of spaghetti after the completion of a series of sculptures: “The current series of sculptures is finished. As I took my hand off the last one at 6:45 last evening, I felt like going on and on, making more. But the desire had a febrile echo. I was glad to wash my hair, have a very deep and very hot bath, and sit down in candlelight with my young crew around me digging into plates piled with spaghetti, cottage cheese, salad, French bread, with ice cream and hot bubbly chocolate sauce to top it all off.” I can feel the relief and celebration in Truitt’s spaghetti meal – and often think of her at the end of a project – or when making spaghetti.

Basic Italian Tomato Sauce from the “Streamliner Diner Cookbook” always tops our spaghetti. Four cook-owners of the Streamliner Diner on Bainbridge Island wrote and illustrated the recipe book. I associate the diner with breakfast with the children, egg scrambles, great big muffins, and what the kids called “woofles,” but the tomato sauce is a staple here for meals everyday or festive.

One of our sons asked me why I got the book out, didn’t I know it by heart? And I sort of do, but with the book out I don’t have to think or remember (though I’ve done that often in recreating it when cooking away from home).

If you start the onions to sauté in olive oil, then chop garlic, open a can of whole tomatoes and a little one of tomato paste, you can add all the other ingredients (tablespoon of honey, one of red wine vinegar, oregano, marjoram, and thyme, salt, freshly ground pepper, one bay leaf), to the top of the tomatoes in their can while waiting for the onions to cook. Add the garlic to the onions just a minute before tipping in the big can of tomatoes (with additions). Add the tomato paste – and the Streamliner surprise ingredient: lemon zest. Simmer.

This time of year we have gorgeous Washington asparagus to serve along side, with a loaf of ciabatta from the local organic bakery Pane d’Amor, and a bounteous salad full of the first greens from the garden.

Oh and maybe, for some, just a little ice cream with chocolate sauce.

Chest of Drawings

On a visit to the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery, I saw a series of prints created by two artists by feeding clothing, paper, and color through a press. Prints of life-size, old-fashioned children’s clothes hang by wooden clothespins on a thick cord stretched along two gallery walls.

The garments include a baby dress embellished with real buttons on the printed paper, and pantaloons and little shirt with the words “Colors of Spring” stenciled on the front. In a print of shirts with collars and pockets, the powdery, pastel colors darken along stitching at edges and seams. A lacy apron is the only trace of a grown-up.

It’s art and it’s making a record. Like still lifes, which some artists call visual diaries, such a piece poses questions about why an artist would choose these particular objects and invites connections to the viewer’s experience.

In addition to pure pleasure from the beauty of the little garments and the cleverness of the installation, it brought to mind the little drawings made when I contemplated emptying the house where we lived for more than 30 years.

A rickety chest of drawers in the basement in Anchorage turned out harder to deal with than boxes of tax returns and a warehouse-sized collection of old skis and camping gear. The chest contained favorite kids’ clothes – treasures, but derelict and worn and saved only out of love. I’d open the drawers and hesitate – clothes preserved for decades – but surely beyond use for modern babies.

Moving means you have to say goodbye to things, but drawing them meant I could bring them along. Thirty little drawings stand for drawers full of baby and childhood stories – both our family and another. Four different children wore these clothes in their time. When new (it being the 70s), embroidery and patches and hand painting decorated them. Traces of those embellishments remain – and memories. I’d bring a few upstairs and draw when I could, hanging them on my workroom wall in rows.

I never manage to convey my pleasure in writing and drawing; it’s much less about discipline and more about joy. It seems a miraculous part of being human to make ink represent objects with words or shapes.

These aren’t elegant christening gowns and antique bonnets, but well-worn jammies with shredded sleeves, the vest from a three-year old obsession with a miniature three-piece suit, and teensy T-shirts painted to welcome a newborn. I include here just a few from a chestful – for the record…

Garden Journals

Gardeners, always told to keep garden diaries or journals, choose multiple methods for that record keeping.

In the 1750s an English country clergyman name Gilbert White kept his “Garden Kalendar” which led to the first and most famous natural history “The Natural History of Selbourne.” White made absolutely regular entries in his journals and was never at a loss for what to write. He advises: “many other particulars will daily offer themselves to the observer when his attention to such points hath become habitual.”

My disorderly system of odd notebooks and my regular journal captures some of those particulars. I also keep close by my “coverless journal” – unbound but lined seconds from my bookbinder friends – full of fragments of sentences by date and longer riffs written while sitting outside: “mason bees breaking out,” “juncos harassing squirrel” “old and ratty coyote crossing the bluff in the rain.”

When we first arrived, my old friend gave me a lovely tin box, painted with nesting birds. She called it a hope chest and said I’d figure out what to do with it. In it I began to file, in envelopes by year, saved bulb packages, plant labels, and seed packets. To go through them is to walk through the developing garden – its successes and failures.

Reading the labels I’m reminded of plant needs – the Italian plum I planted two years ago needs fertilizer in early spring before new growth. I find still viable seeds, and I see also a lot of plastic labels that could be what some garden writer likened to little tombstones attending the graves of dead plants.

When I visited another gardener, she brought out (to answer a question) a good-sized plastic tub full of seed packets all separated by nicely cut chunks of cardboard. With a little flipping through she could easily share the seed name and source.

My clever friend, both creative and orderly, uses a printed garden journal, but transforms it into a three-year journal with a system of columns to compare one year with another. Side-by-side she can record rainfall, first frost, and bloom times.

There is no doubting the utilitarian reasons for garden journals. Henry Mitchell, writing in “The Essential Earthman” says: “It is the spectrum, not the color, that makes color worth having and it is the cycle, not the instant that makes the day worth living.” Garden journals record the instant and reveal the cycle.

Journal Keeping

When I began to write each day about life in this new place – which led “Her Spirits Rose…” – I began another slightly embarrassing endeavor: rereading my old journals – from the beginning.

I wrote the first journal from the back to the front. I’m over that – also over the grown-crackly-with-bad-glue books I used then. I’m even past arguments with myself about my worthiness to write and draw in the handbound Watermark books I love.

Art making led to the record keeping initially – what I’d done, what inspired, figuring the next project. Entries tended toward the tedious and technical – the fixing times and recipes for fiber dye colors, kinds of watercolor brushes, transparent versus staining pigments, hot press or cold press paper: these notations which reinforced what I learned formed a reference to return to.

After reading a lot of years (just a bit in the early morning) work rhythms became clearer. Eventually I gave up griping at myself – fretting I allowed, but not belaboring failures. And I can see the power of tossed-off wishes, one of which – “I wish I would do something about all the flowers in my life…not just the wildflowers but flowers from grocery store and garden.” – led to a focus and a book.

At first I wrote briefly before getting children out of bed. Then growing children left more time and more references to them (happily to me now) – chicken pox and driver’s licenses, college acceptances and travel adventures.

Approaching the present, I encounter the house-building years and all my worries. Sitting on the second story floor here, with windows framed in but no sheeting or roof, wondering if I would ever really sit at a desk in that spot. I repeatedly query myself in the journals about whether the move would happen, and what I would think. This writing endeavor might attempt to answer questions I posed in the past.

For that is what journals do – allow time travel. I like best to read the details – not my feelings, but descriptions of actual events – welcome rain on the roof or a splendid rhubarb pie. Virginia Woolf wrote that we don’t know our feelings in the first moment. But she’d agree the details are only vivid at first.

The author with the challenging name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explored “optimal experience” in his popular book “Flow.” He writes: “The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness. The kind of material we write in diaries and letters does not exist before it is written down. It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.”

Mostly the journals are a record of getting to work and a good source of encouragement, full of the intrinsic reasons for writing and drawing – to organize, to observe, to express, to have discipline, to gain knowledge. Keeping a journal rewards the doing.

May Days

Since I speak so often of the wind, the wordsmith suggests Breezy Bluff as a name for this place. Breeze sounds a gentle puff to me, part of “warm airs,” but I can see from the National Weather Service website that the wordsmith is accurate in her word use (not surprising). Still, forecasts of “breezy with gusts” seem windy.

Differences in temperature between sea and land or a stronger than normal cold front, can make early May weather unsettled and turbulent. Frances and I wait it out on the window seat on the east side of the house, where I can’t see the wind-whipped whitecaps on the Strait. I do watch the flexible stems of ocean spray and saskatoon, bedecked in new leaves, windblown into shimmering spirals – flush with the color of the Green Man and ready for a new season.

I’m Irish enough to feel kinship with the slightly different calendar quadrants of the Celts. Beltane, May Day, marks the first of the six most light-filled months, and how quickly we forget the darkness – open shades to welcome daylight before six in the morning, eat supper long before sunset.

Catherine Swift, in her rich book “The Morville Hours,” mingles the story of making a garden with an exploration of Books of Hours. She labels May  “the month for Courting and Making Music, for Hawking and Riding, for wearing your best clothes and showing yourself off.” In the agriculture calendar of old, May marks “a pause after the heavy labour of spring ploughing and sowing, and before the summer harvest.”

Our soil begins to reach the magical 50° – the temperature needed for plants to take up nutrients. Air temperature warms as well, and a few days ago, before the cold front, I could shed my jacket and clean up the vegetable bed. Plant spinach, chard, and kale starts.

Replace old thyme grown woody after three years, with new plants of English thyme. Trim back the flourishing, stalwart French sorrel – so tasty in eggs nearly all year long. Plant more peas to replace the ones eaten by birds (they cast aside the little three-inch shoots to pluck out the pea). Cover peas this time.

Plants definitely show themselves off this month: on the woods walk, we negotiate a path become tunnel with arching salmonberry overhead. Sword ferns tickle thighs with each step. Rhododendron, always a surprise to me in the woods but charming in that setting – glow with bouquets of party-pink blossoms.

Clematis Montana rubra decorates the courtyard gate with pearly-pink petals. Pink also blushes pasque flower and a perfect bud on a potted rose. Tiny  blooms of the groundcovers sweet woodruff, starflower, and beach strawberry bedeck every garden bed (perhaps they frolic too vigorously).

Flowers winding around the “sticks” transform the new columnar apples into Maypoles fit for the merry month of May – only lacking ribbons to flutter in the breeze .

Native Plants

My husband recites when needed a lot of statutes, from both Alaska and Washington. He defines words, and explains concepts from philosophy and events from history for me. But he’s a beginner at plant names.

When we first came here, I painted a series of familiar plants for his birthday. I did it to get to know the plants – specially the native plants – like the boy who buys his mom a fire truck.

Since last week was Native Plant Week in Washington, it reminded me to revisit our efforts. On a hike a few years ago in a patch of familiar-to-me wildflowers, I recited their names in a schoolmarmy, irritating way, suggesting my husband learn a few. He agreed, but only three plants at a time. “You have a tendency to clutter things,” he said.

So on a walk in the old fort close to home, I began again. Spotting trailing blackberry as we climbed a hill, white blossoms on prickly vines, I asked for an i.d. The confident answer came back: “Lilies.”

Moving on, looking for better success, I was struck again by the orderly way the natural world provides food. Rarely do all flowers or berries on a native shrub appear at the same time. Similarly, the bloom time of species is a progression of bounty through the season.

Tiny Indian plums already form, smaller than the end of a little finger, already in that plum shape. My husband easily names them – and earns bonus points for the added information that they were the first native plant to bloom.

White flowers on a vine (or thin branches) leaning over the trail puzzle me, but I ask anyway. The answer immediately provided, because they resemble a vine from Midwestern boyhood: “Honeysuckle.” This doesn’t seem quite right.

A stretch of trail is fragrant with many of the next plant – corrugated leaves alternate up the stem to a frothy, creamy-white cluster of blossoms. The answer is: “Solomon’s Seal.” Very close. False Solomon’s seal.

By now I had exceeded my quota of quizzable plants, but I can’t resist asking about the tiny, pale pink bells of salal blossoms. I offer a hint: shiny thick leaves – the most common Washington native plant?

The answer: “Clematis.”

We have some work to do. But all my testing (as is often the case) reveals my own uncertainty and my pleasure in learning the names.

The puzzling white flower, the misnamed honeysuckle, grows everywhere right now. I brought a stem inside and with the help of the bible of Northwest coast plants – Pojar, entertaining as well as informative and never irritating –– learn it is saskatoon (also called serviceberry), and that we can watch for it in August when its highly regarded berries will ripen. And can be identified!

Salad – Everyday and Special, Too

Salad is an everyday event here. Sometimes just chopped up fresh vegetables or tiny leaves of garden kale passed off as lettuce, but most often a green salad in a favorite bowl – exactly the right size for generous portions for two people.

But now I need a salad for six, to fill a large green bowl made by an Alaska potter. Setting about the job, it occurs to me that while he would approve of the bowl, William Morris would be disappointed by my salad tools. Morris, 19th century artist and craftsman, advised to have nothing in your house “that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

For years we used the companions to a wooden salad bowl wedding gift, which eventually delaminated along the seams. When we came here I enthusiastically bought salad tools carved by a local woodworker from fruitwood. They show the marks of handmade and look sturdy, but one of the fork tines broke leaving an uneasy feeling. (We also have a silvery set that came with some temporary tableware – serviceable but dull.)

Since we so often take salads to one another’s meals (such a treat to eat an interesting salad prepared by someone else – equally fine to just make salad and get a great dinner), I notice people’s salad tools – ones both beautiful and useful – delicate small utensils with carved handles, a large wide pair like bear paws, or salad tongs aged with history or sentiment for the owner.

We celebrate spring with plentiful, fresh local greens and the peppery taste of cabbage raab. Vegetables added to salads vary by season (sometimes tomatoes, sometimes beets). My clever friend recently transported salad additions (apples and avocados) – what her family calls sinkers (and another friend’s husband calls atrocities) – right in the jar of salad dressing, marinating and keeping them fresh.

Some people find adding fruit to salad an anathema, but my old friend taught me to add her trademark orange segments. A row of Washington pears waits on my kitchen windowsill and, after squeezing their shoulders to determine ripeness, I slice them into the salad. Or blueberries – a handful from the freezer – thawed by the time we eat.

And no salad can go to dinner without dressing. In the past I’ve been guilty of cavalierly dumping a little balsamic vinegar into a larger quantity of olive oil, adding some dried herbs and calling it good. Lately (born of enjoying so many guests’ delicious dressings, including one always brought by a young mother to Thanksgiving), I pay more attention and add enlivening ingredients – perhaps a little maple syrup and a minced shallot.

No nuts in our everyday salad (usually we’ve consumed quite a handful already with pre-dinner olives and almonds), but tasty roasted nuts or a little Gorgonzola make a salad special.

When served with everyday tools, or better yet, with a just received, perfect  gift of  salad tossers!

Spring Changeover

Changeover in my old life in Anchorage meant changing the tires. Drive to the tire shop with studs grinding on roads gritty with leftover winter sand, air full of dust (also returning geese and hints of warmth), and drive home suddenly lighter, friskier with summer tires.

Here a winter-for-summer changeover trades pillow covers. Two sets of patterned fabric cover the nook bench pillows according to season. This year tulips broken off by a hard rain and brought inside prompt me to it – they need spring cover colors to be a pleasing scene.

Setting aside other chores, I sit down to sew. Spring sunshine pours in – the window beside me open for the first time in months. I squeeze each pillow out of its winter cover made from a Bali sarong – stylized tropical flowers and birds on warm-toned backgrounds of khaki and rust – and change to garden blossom colors in stripes, polka dots, and flowers.

When I used to make quilts, I treasured such quiet moments of stitching – the needle rhythmically piercing the cotton, in and out pushed by a thimble. I could listen for ideas about what was next.

Clearing thinking space can be tricky some weeks, and a good thing for my skittering mind is to read some part of Brenda Ueland’s 1938 book “If You Want to Write” – even just the introduction. In it, the writer Andrei Codrescu admits his own need to have “inspiration refreshed regularly” – and he always finds renewal in Ueland’s book.

Codrescu identifies Ueland as a teacher who is a believer whose faith is contagious. Codrescu says Ueland believed in “…the power that comes from paying complete attention to one’s circumstances. The joy that infuses attention pays off beyond one’s wildest dreams. It’s simple, but still secret, because it takes Courage.”

The fresh covers lift my spirits – like road tires instead of winter treads. They smell like the bar of lavender soap they’ve been stored with all winter.

In the midst of the task, I wonder what life will be like at the next changeover. You never know. But this is a chance for gratitude for life going on with comforting routines, a chance to recognize a change of the season – and a chance to pay attention.