A Letter in the Mail

Our city house in Anchorage had a rural mailbox – they are such a good size. It stood right by the front porch, and even in winter I could go out in my socks and get the mail. Now I put on a jacket and real shoes, and walk down the driveway. I like the walk after lunch – I’m cold and the quarter of a mile gets the blood warm again. I can’t help being hopeful as I approach the mailbox, in spite of modern reality (nobody writes letters any more).

Or so they say. Sometimes people write letters about important things. They write letters when email isn’t quite right. No matter that the thank you isn’t instant – it seems so much more heartfelt on paper.

An exception to the no-letters-to-speak-of is my painter friend. We have written letters and letters with drawings for more than 30 years. We often did series of drawings – one a day on a vacation or when stuck at home during a rainy summer. I think we began the drawings because I was so envious when she sent a letter with a little drawing included, that I learned to draw in part so I could add such sketches – teacups or sleeping cats – images setting us in place.

My part of the exchange has suffered this year – but I do know that I always used to wish that I approached work as eagerly as I did the making of a letter with a drawing for my friend. Creating “Her spirits rose…” gets close to that feeling.

I read an essay a long time ago – I remember sending it to my old friend (we used to be good about letters) that if you fail to write the letter, you let the creative impulse die – unacted upon. In “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says the point of writing is not merely to transmit information but to create it, to put “experiences into words” and allow a chance for reflection.

I thought when I began writing about mail, that I’d just lament the passing of letters – and I do – but I also admit greed. I cherish a letter with its re-readability and tangible presence in an envelope, but also texts from the young people written on the fly, allowing a glimpse into their lives. The commonalities are words and caring.

I was very glad to get my old friend’s postcards from a recent bike trip to Corsica. I pictured her buying them, and then writing while sitting on a stone terrace over the sea, her words describing the adventure scrunched into limited space. She found a tabac selling stamps, figured the postal rates to the U.S., and mailed. Great fun to find in my mailbox.

Equally, my clever friend’s amazing, nearly daily emails written on computers in pensions on a recent Turkey sojourn were full of outpourings from her racing mind and agile fingers on unfamiliar keyboards. She described wondrous markets, exotic food, happy encounters with Iranians, dervish dances, and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

On any day – a letter in a mailbox – Hooray!


Mushrooms have been much on my mind. They’re everywhere in the woods – but I select them from the shelf at the Food Co-op. This time of year wild mushrooms like chanterelles join the ones local mushroom growers provide year round like shiitake and cremini. Portobellos are a favorite. (They fill a bun so nicely!) Jack Bishop’s “Portobello Mushrooms with Red Wine and Oregano” is quick and delicious.

But now also, I have mushrooms in the house – or at least the potential for mushrooms. A “blob” in a plastic tote (a gift from our builder) is allegedly going to sprout shiitake mushrooms! I’m following a schedule: misting for two weeks – then dry, then submerge, and start over. I’m on day four so not much to see yet – but it’s an exciting thought. The builder says it works and he’s usually right.

Now I’m in the midst of making “Polenta Gratin with Mushrooms and Tomato” – a Deborah Madison recipe. (I love Deborah Madison – she never lets me down. She explains and inspires always. I never pick up my cluttered-with-sticky-notes copy of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody” without encountering something pleasing to cook.)

Today I’ll make the firm polenta and refrigerate. I’m actually looking forward to stirring for the entire recommended 30-45 minutes – this is for company so I want it to be good. Deborah says it’s the “time spent cooking that brings out the full corn flavor.” (She also says it’s a good time to catch up on reading.) When cooked, half of the polenta gets poured out into a baking dish and the other onto a baking sheet, wrapped with plastic film and refrigerated.

Putting the rest of it together looks easy for tomorrow. I have a mixture of mushrooms – around a pound – to slice, and add along with garlic mashed with salt, to olive oil cooking with an onion, bay leaves, thyme and marjoram. Then add half cup of dry white or red wine and simmer till reduced and add two cups of tomato puree or crushed tomatoes in puree. Simmer a little longer, “taste for salt and season with pepper.”

The tomato-mushroom sauce gets spread over the polenta in the baking dish and covered with grated provolone and Parmesan. Another layer of polenta (Deborah warns that it might be necessary to cut it into smaller pieces before placing over the sauce). Cover with the remaining sauce and cheeses.

I like the description of this dish as “hearty and straight-forward” and the thought of baking till it’s “bubbling and hot throughout” – about 25 minutes. Along with greens from the CSA and an apple crisp, this should make for a festive, fall Friday night.

Excitements and Possibilities

“…the excitement and possibilities are in the working and can only come in the working” – is a quote of long-standing importance for me. The words are those of the painter Francis Bacon, and they’re scribbled on a paper scrap, edged with blots and scratches from attempts to get my fountain pen started. It sat on the desk for a long time, and now is thumb tacked to a shelf – a reminder to get started.

Bacon referred to creative work, but I try and tell myself the same principle operates with house chores. Now in October, jobs pile up that I’ve let go during the summer when the garden is priority (or truthfully the blog is priority). But just now I am trying to convince myself of “excitement and possibilities” in resealing the bathtub. It’s the kind of job I stall about.

I already know the phrase applies to garden work. I go out to do some specific task and suddenly have ideas about what else I’d like to do. Moments when work gets accomplished and new potential excites me.

Lists work – one on a yellow pad in the kitchen and one on my desk calendar. I just need make them – and then look at them. (I love a peek at other people’s lists. The first time I saw a son’s long “to do” list on a yellow pad, I knew things were different.) The best thing about the sealant job would be being able to cross it off the list.

I’m hoping going public about the caulk job (and taking a toothbrush to the grout wouldn’t be a bad idea either) might spur me on. Once engaged, the fall jobs won’t take so long. “Well begun is half done” the adage says.

I’d like to get past the “must do” part of the list to elective tasks – like organizing the recipes (the mother of my young friend told me about plastic pages in a notebook making finding things simple). Changing the nook pillows. Clean out my closet.

Virginia Woolf once wrote of the summer being “folded up and put away on a shelf like a sweater.” I think of that each time I get a sweater off the shelf at the top of my closet. It’s past time to get out the heavier sweaters (the distinction here is not sweater or no sweater, but the weight of the wool). It’s time to wash and organize the sweaters, add fresh lavender sachets and discourage moths with their own job in mind.

Freeing my mind from nagging and reminding might lead to excitement, and I have a gift from the young writer to help – words from John Cage: “If something is boring after 2 minutes, try it for 4. If still boring, try it for 8, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Olé!

Books – Pixels or Pages

On a rainy Sunday (no, not all Sundays are rainy these days, but many), we headed for the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair at the Seattle Center. We rode the ferry from Bainbridge and walked up the hill to the monorail – a Sunday morning city – quiet.

And it was hushed in the Exhibition Hall – a huge room full of aisles of booths manned by book people of all stripes – independent bookstores, dealers with first editions, collectors of posters, individual pages of manuscripts, and author correspondence.

My main goal was to visit Vamp and Tramp Booksellers. I don’t know how or if they assign those titles to each other, but Vicky Stewart is pretty with southern honey-tones in her voice, and her husband Bill is professorial and kind. Both are gracious. Together, they cross the country in a van with their goods aboard – handmade books consigned by the artists that Vamp and Tramp, with enthusiasm and care, represent.

They have a great web site (vampandtramp.com), but with artists’ books there is no substitute to seeing, holding, and opening pages. Vamp and Tramp make this possible by visiting book fairs and special collections at libraries and universities on their rounds.

Artists’ books are hard for galleries to exhibit, but they are comfortable owned by individuals or in special collections. Housed in custom made boxes in closed stacks, these often one-of-a-kind books are brought out by request for students and interested visitors, and for exhibitions organized around individual artists – or particular subjects.

To visit Vamp and Tramp at this book fair is a little like a visit to a collection. In a setting with many faded (but valuable) books, their books are colorful and inventive in shape and content – popup books (handmade and amazingly intricate), accordion folded books, elaborate hand bound books, and books of unexpected materials. I asked particularly to see books that contained text beyond letterpress (many book artists are printmakers, and they produce exquisitely beautiful volumes with large text blocks).

I’m curious because I want to make more books, and wonder now about beyond the year of the blog. Combining words and pictures is joy for me. The mechanics of constructing a book by hand is at the other end of the spectrum from sending out the blog with a push of a button. Paper pages or pixels – both a chance for expression.

On this visit I delivered my set of foldbooks, newly bound and housed in a red portfolio. On their circuit to Canada, back home to Alabama, and up the East Coast, Vamp and Tramp will show these books where they might be of interest – all before Christmas.

While I stay home and work – that’s inspiring – and I’m very grateful!

Orange in October

‘Tis the season of orange – pumpkins pile everywhere on this peninsula, in fields, on doorsteps, at the Farmer’s Market – bringing an orange haze to the season of Jack o’lanterns.

Before we moved here that is pretty much all a pumpkin meant to me – something to carve with the kids to get ready for visitors expected in the evening on a chilly Alaska doorstep, when parkas and wool hats peeked from under princess dresses and space helmets.

But now I cook pumpkins, and we are also likely to be infused with an orange-tinted, beta-carotene glow. Pie pumpkins are small, but one pumpkin purchased on Saturday led happily to pumpkin muffins on Sunday, pumpkin pie on Monday, and pumpkin soup on Tuesday.

To get the pumpkin ready to use, I cut it in half and baked at 350° face down in a little water until tender. A small pumpkin yields a surprising amount of pumpkin when it’s scooped from the collapsed shell. After baking, it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days (and I’ve read you can also freeze it.)

I made the pie late in the afternoon of a workday not for any particular event, but because there was pumpkin (and farm fresh eggs). My favorite recipe (from Red Dog Farm) calls for a cup and three-quarters of cooked pumpkin, two lightly beaten eggs, a cup of milk, half cup of honey, and spices (a teaspoon of cinnamon, half teaspoon of ginger and eighth teaspoon of cloves). Mix all together and pour into an unbaked shell. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes, turn the heat down, and bake an hour or more till no jiggles in the middle of the pie. (Out of curiosity I made a Deborah Madison piecrust using oil – interesting.)

Humming like hobbits, we ate slices right out of the oven (making an event of a dark Monday night). My good-natured husband was decidedly good-natured at this turn of events and suggested we share.

So we took pieces to our friends down the bluff, “a spontaneous pie delivery” as my friend called it later.

It’s cozy in the house with candles and lamps and shades drawn, but outside was Halloween dark! I clutched the still-warm pie on a plate covered with foil and walked in the light cast by my husband’s headlamp, a bobbling blue circle on the gravel road. Occasionally the woods rustled, but mostly the night was silent and moonless.

Light from our friends’ windows shone like houses come upon in rural darkness do – a sudden bright warmth. Beyond their house, diffused by a film of fog across the water, Victoria lighted the horizon.

It felt good to walk home after our delivery – crunch up the gravel and approach our house with lights aglow. When we opened the door, we knew by the fragrance – “Somebody’s been baking a pie in here!”

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers are building contractors in the bird world. Because they move on each year to build new nest and roost cavities, the Audubon society says a “wide array of species use their old spaces” for lodging.

In the woods in the spring, to spot the source of their deliberate territorial drumming, I need to look high – most often on a snag. This time of year when I am attracted by what seems to be the sound of a happy hammer, or a tap dancer overhead, or an elevated person tapping out a text message – it’s a pileated searching for food.

Pileateds mainly eat ants – carpenter ants and others. They chisel distinctive rectangular holes, sometimes drilling through the tree’s outer wood to hollow centers. This summer a downed tree bore their marks, and looked like a collapsed apartment building with window shaped indents.

While pileateds are often said to be crow-size, their decorative, bright red crest (source of the pileated tag) and long beak makes then seem bigger, specially by comparison to the littler Downy woodpeckers or red-breasted sapsuckers. Like carpenters’ plaid shirts, bright red is associated with all these birds.

Their call is distinct and easily recognizable once you’ve heard it, and Kootenay Photos has a remarkable video of a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest hole and calling:


In “Seasons with Birds,” the British Columbia birder Bruce Whittington says he has come to enjoy fall birding best of all, in part because it is the beginning of life for this summer fledglings, what he calls a critical time for birds.

Birds do seem more collegial this time of year – our regular sparrows, juncos, robins, and towhees, adults and juveniles, congregate more often now. I watch many communal, though not always completely cooperative, baths in the dish out front.

And sometimes these bird-flocking events include a pileated or two. Credited with providing “foraging opportunities for other species,” pileateds have been taking apart an old stump here.

Other birds help with the clean up. They’ve learned it’s smart to stick around the big birds with the red crests.

Yellow Paint

On one of our early visits to the Buffalo before we lived here, I bought a can of mellow-yellow paint and one of warm white. I mixed them in various versions to cheer up some of the existing hospital-white walls.

Near the dining table in the Buffalo’s one room, on the yellowest wall, I hung oil sketches on paper by my painter friend, paintings exchanged in our “letter drawings.” The sketches are colorful and about house (fragments of corners of rooms and belongings) – on the yellow wall they are jolly.

On different visits I thinned the paint with more white and stretched it up one wall of the stairway – and then, pale yellow by now, on a single wall of the bedroom. And, this week, after the Buffalo repair I used the same delicate yellow (leftovers) to paint inside the closet.

The shade of the yellow reminded me Emily Carr’s house on Government Street in Victoria, her birthplace. The graceful house from the 1890s is a museum now about Carr and her work. It has a resident black cat, flower gardens, musty belongings, and tea and cookies for visitors.

Painting that yellow reminded me to dip back into Carr’s journals, “Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist.” Finding my old copy with crackly spine but classic painting by Carr of “Red Cedar” on the cover, I remembered why I loved it. Like Anne Truitt in her journals, Carr acknowledges the importance of writing down the “bits” – small things that often seem unimportant but describe our lives. “It was these tiny things that, collectively, taught me how to live…the little scraps and nothingnesses of my life have made a definite pattern.”

Part of what I enjoy about Emily Carr’s life, is her fondness for houses – and the way she writes about them. In 1946 she moved to a little cottage and describes setting things to rights after moving in: “Things are getting straightened out. Each corner suggests objects. Sometimes the objects object, but mostly, if the corner calls, the object responds. Furniture is so very alive. It knows who it wants to hobnob with. Sunshine has poured into the cottage all day and has gladdened everything. I am beginning to love the cottage. It’s homey.”

Carr admits to caring for “creature comforts” (asking herself if perhaps too much), and she will keep me company while I put the Buffalo back together. Wash the bedding (in a plastic bag since August), air out blankets, and polish it up for coming visitors.

The Bean Project Continues – Bean Soup

“How can I help?” Welcome words, offered by my husband the other Sunday, as I headed over to paint the Buffalo closet, ahead of the carpenter coming to put back the shelving. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the shortening day, the jobs to be done, the overflowing refrigerator, I smiled in gratitude and said, “Soup!”

I turned to a recipe offered by our farmer Karyn in her weekly newsletter two autumns ago. She titled it “Fall Inspiration Soup,” but I think of it as what’s-in-the fridge soup, or now as cooperative, collaborative soup (my favorite thing). It’s infinitely variable – and quick – no sauté needed!

I piled possible ingredients on the kitchen island: new potatoes, stems of chard, celery, shallots, a leek or two, and one sweet onion. Fresh rosemary. A can of crushed tomatoes – and beans.

Oops, I hadn’t soaked beans, this being a last moment offer. I remembered Mark Bittman calls the myth about soaking “the most egregious, and the most harmful” of the bean myths, because “it has given millions of people the impression that beans must be prepared well in advance.” Bittman says flatly and in italics: “Although soaking speeds cooking, it does not do so significantly,” and that soaking overnight shaves just 15 to 30 minutes off the cooking time.

But, if you soak, Bittman tells us:  “Soak the right way.” (Soaking does reduce the oligosaccharides in beans – those hard to digest carbohydrates.)

So I followed his hot water soak advice while I ate breakfast: rinse, sort, and then cover beans with water in a pot (I used a cup of pinto beans and six cups of water). Bring to a boil, cook for two minutes, turn off the heat, and let sit for an hour. Then, after another rinse, I put the beans to cook as usual (well covered with water and salt added), issued instructions, and went off to paint.

I came back to a lovely miracle: soup simmering, beans cooked and ready to add (in just under an hour after their hot soak). This bean method was a revelation – so many times I stall at recipes calling for beans because of lack of planning the day before.

They were delicious – making the soup (an “even better the next day” soup) hearty and inspiring.

On Time

Alarm clocks – necessary evils – give us time. I am a snooze button pusher. I am also likely to set the alarm for an hour before I need to get up. Then I can sleepily reset it for the correct time and dive back into sleep’s warm nest for just a little longer. But – after negotiation with my clock – I do get up. Sleep fog doesn’t last long, even on these dark-in-the-morning days, and the rewards are great.

Robert Grudin, in “Time and the Art of Living,” describes a commonality (in spite of many differences) of Anthony Trollope and Gustave Flaubert. “They understood that no artistic necessity – not technique, elegance, genius itself – is more basic or inalienable than regular and expansive time. One need not be great or famous to experience its positive force.”

And in “A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write,” Kenneth Atchity says a part of our brain, the part he calls “the managing editor” knows our “strongest, most faithful collaborator is time.”

Anne Lamott wrote a snappy article about making time for creative life (http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/). (A young friend who is the mother of two sent the link – she keeps a copy on her refrigerator.) Lamott in her funny but fierce-about-what’s-important voice declares “no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor,” and adds, “I’ve heard it said that every day you need a half an hour of quiet time for yourself or your Self, unless you’re incredibly stressed, in which case you need an hour.”

Grudin lobbies for a little more: “…when we allow ourselves not just one or two hours, but several for productive activity, we show mercy and patience to our own minds, and they bring forth good things even on bad days.”

And Atchity says: “The satisfaction will come from knowing that each day you’ve allotted time for the work you love, the work you want to do.”

With a little help from that alarm clock!

October Garden

Aah – sun! These sunny October days weight the year differently here. Spring is long and cold, but autumn is also long and sometimes surprisingly warm – at least warm-in-a-windbreaker warm.

On the first morning back from Victoria I found the garden  still so beautiful in its rustic way. The hop vine climbs up the Buffalo deck to the roof, covered with bracts and blossoms with their piney fragrance. The deer have nibbled a fountain-shaped topiary from the Sambucus out front. The first blueberry bush to blossom has gone all carmine red – the last one offers final berries. Lavender needs cutting back, but cosmos, calendula, and crocosmia bloom with vigor. So do yellow black-eyed susans, blue asters, and nasturtium. “Autumn Joy” sedum lives up to its name.

I make a mental list of things to do: put away the umbrella (if the orb weaver is gone). Harvest the dirt from the new molehills close to the garden – I’ll shovel it up for a garden bed and stick a twig of mint into the hole (local advice for discouraging moles). I like to think about their subterranean lives parallel to ours, but Frances isn’t keen to share her space, and they’re at risk in the courtyard.

Critters have been about. A beautiful coyote – interested I suppose in the rabbit population on the south forty – stopped to stare at me as I drove in. (Coyotes often do that – is it a look of defiance or curiosity?)

I watched a racoon walk up the front path, dressed in that good-looking bandit regalia, big body and little legs ending in clawed paws. It seemed to be on familiar turf, turning its head back and forth and sniffing. Maybe it’s the one that uncovers the yogurt cup and takes out the slugs? (Do they eat live slugs or just dead ones marinated in beer?) We don’t see raccoons often, but last year I interrupted a mother attempting to herd her three kits up the front walk. She stood still but the babies scattered to the nearest tree – climbing up and peeking their masked faces at me from different sides of the trunk.

Vita Sackville-West wrote that autumn is really the most beautiful season of the year, adding that it is only as a portent that it troubles (she often compared the seasons to our human lifespan). The trouble foretold used to be the coming Alaska winter for me. October was my most dreaded month of the year – no holiday cheer or real snow yet – but often cold and very dark.

Now October feels like a gift of foggy or crisp mornings and sunny afternoons – for hikes in fall foliage, and for tasks (including maybe soon – the roofer) like planting bulbs on a sunny fall day.

An Apple a Day – or More

At the last Wednesday market of the season, I questioned the young farmer from Finn River Farm while I labeled his interesting apples with their names. I wanted to keep them straight while painting.

I’ve been wondering about the columnar apples, so I asked how to tell if an apple is ripe, and he said several ways: when the apples start to fall from the tree, when the seeds inside are a glossy brown, and when the apples taste ripe. When I inquired about the best apples for crisp, he grinned: “Oh I’m spoiled, I use a combination!”

I love apple crisp. Steeped in too much British literature from novel to memoir to Virginia Woolf’s diary, I associate apple crisp with a return to plenty after the war – the pleasure of butter and sugar after rationing. You can make a crisp formally by following a recipe, but they usually call for lots of the rich ingredients, and it’s really the cooked apples I’m after.

Pie’s a possibility, but apple crisp is easier by far – quick to put together, and smells so good cooking. If it’s slipped in the oven before dinner with company, vanilla ice cream on top will melt on the crisp’s sweet heat.

For quick crisp I core and wash the apples, and cut them roughly (leaving the skins on), and fill a favorite baking dish. Sprinkle some cinnamon on top of the apples. Oatmeal gets rubbed together with butter and sugar or maple syrup for the crumbly topping.

In a variation, Deborah Madison suggests canola oil or “a rich-flavored nut oil, such as walnut or hazelnut” as an alternative to the butter – and nuts for the rolled oats. She adds a little flour, dash of salt, grated nutmeg and cinnamon to make a “coarse, crumbly” mixture. She adds a little lemon and lemon zest to the fruit in a shallow gratin dish, and covers with the topping mixture. (I’m going to try this soon.)

For an even easier but somehow festive treat – simple baked apples are great: wash flavorful fall apples, dig out the cores, set in a pan with a little water, pour a little maple syrup in the indent along with a sliver of butter. Chop some pecans to sprinkle on top. Bake till soft – and very fragrant.

It’s hard to go wrong – the magic is in the apples of autumn.

Victoria on Foot

For a few weeks we thought about crossing the Strait to Victoria to mark our anniversary. We made plans, then stalled a little, but my husband said we should go. I can dream things up but he makes them happen.

In a thick mist of a morning it felt strange to take our passports and head west to Port Angeles rather than to the airport. We could drive an hour, catch the Black Ball Ferry to Vancouver Island, and celebrate with a walking trip in a foreign country. On the crossing I could feel the swells I heard hitting the beach at the bottom of the bluff before we left home.

To a visitor the pretty, lady-like setting of Victoria seems in keeping with her nature. The city gloves fingers of land, low hills, surrounded by water. Clouds thinned as we approached the Inner Harbor, tucked protectively away from the Strait, and surrounded by downtown buildings. Foot passengers leaned against the railing to see city landmarks – the large, ivy-covered Empress Hotel, British Columbia’s Parliament Buildings (built in 1898), and the Royal BC Museum.

We walked to our hotel – and walked for the next day and a half, filled with the kind of musing that goes on when outside the regular routine. I thought about our wedding so long ago – the Alaska autumn day, my best friend’s parents’ lakeside cabin, and the judge who flew his small plane down from Anchorage to marry us.

And being in Canada stirred up another set of memories. Six years of my nomadic childhood I spent in British Columbia, a stop on the ever-northward journey to Alaska (the end of the known world at the time – or so it seemed). These Victoria days crossed the path my life took and the path it might have taken, if my parents had prolonged their Canadian experiment. It’s hard for me to imagine any alternative so lucky as the one that happened.

We lived in the woods in interior B.C. when Elvis was happening in the States, and I always wanted American things – Hershey bars instead of Cadbury, baseball rather than curling. But a friend my mother made there taught me to sew. I was 14 and she changed my life – sewing clothes led to making quilts and to making pictures.

On our anniversary day we walked and walked – up Menzies Street all the way to the Strait where a path on the bluff winds beside bramble thickets full of snowberries, rose hips, and blackberries. Park benches at viewpoints look toward “our” side.

We meandered back through beautiful Beacon Hill Park that combines meadows, areas of rough habitat, ornamental gardens, ponds, ducks, peacocks, and nesting herons. The meadows and the native Garry oaks attracted the English who settled here – meadows where First Nation people had cultivated camas bulbs for centuries. The home of the artist Emily Carr is near the park – a pilgrimage site for many.

Rain began that afternoon. I wanted to walk through “The Bay,” a modern mall, looking for traces of the department stores I remember from my childhood. My mother would buy cakes from the basement of Eaton’s in Vancouver for our drives home through Hell’s Canyon up the Fraser River to Prince George. I remember those drives on a narrow road, single lane in spots, right on the edge of the gorge, as terrifying. I remember equally vividly the frosting ribbons and roses on the cakes as joy – and a great distraction from fear of plunging to the river. (My mother had interesting diversionary tactics. On another trip I read her banned-in-Canada copy of “Peyton Place” in the back seat of the car.)

Victoria’s Inner Harbor twinkles at night when lighted buildings reflect on the water. After anniversary dinner at an Italian restaurant, where they cook made-to-order meals and the server asked, “Was there any vegetable I didn’t like?” (“No.”), we walked to the hotel past European style chocolate shops and English flavored “tea rooms.”

On our return crossing, we steamed through pea soup, and foghorns sounded nearly the whole way. But as we approached Port Angeles the Olympic Mountains suddenly loomed against a clear blue sky. The customs guy chuckled at my purchases – tea, a teapot, and some books.

It felt good to be back. “Good to go” as my clever friend says, and “good to be home.”

Spider Time

Beauty queens of autumn – the spiders known as orb weavers – cope with the weather. Moisture from rain and fog sharpens their intricate woven mandalas – food trap webs attached by guy wires – into bright focus.

Spiders are everywhere here, and varied – from the multitude of small ground spiders in lawn and flower beds to the squirming yellow ball attached to house or fence that, when touched, becomes a cluster of scattering, teeny spiders. Yellow crab spiders that always find the yellow flowers amaze me.

Big spiders sometimes need transporting out of doors, and we relocate them with plastic container and a piece of paper. In the process the spider might drop a line and get carried out on a filament. Wispy spiders with hardly any body look like dust, which they like. A particular kind of medium dark spider camps out under blankets or cushions, surrounded by captured prey. Getting dressed here means shaking out jeans (my niece, raised in Washington, taught me this).

Robert Pyle, in his book “Wintergreen,” writes of his wrestle with a fear of spiders in general and orb weavers in particular: “I came to find that one cannot enjoy the late summer in western Washington without a tolerance for these and the many native spiders, for they lie in wait everywhere for flies, grasshoppers, and arachnophobes.” (A spider expert once found 50 different species of spiders in and around Pyle’s Washington home.)

Orb weavers with bulbous abdomens and distinctive cruciform marks on their back have a definite presence. Sometimes overnight they build a web across a window from frame to frame. They are quick to scamper when webs vibrate.

One particularly clever weaver has built her enormous web between the closed-up sun umbrella and the chimney stack of the old Franklin stove in our garden – she retreats in inclement weather to one of the umbrella’s folds, which shelters her perfectly. She emerges to mummy wrap countless creatures, seemingly sucking on the victim, like a lollypop still in cellophane.

Last year I watched a weaver for days from the window seat in the house. The wind repeatedly blew fir needles into her web, and she wrestled each one out (she’d put the end of each needle in her mouth before kicking it off her web plate). Like housecleaning I thought at first, but the longer I watched the more I wondered if she was enjoying some tiny bit of sap sweetness.

I don’t like to be surprised by spiders – I recognize that part of my brain that just reacts – and spiders like our encounters even less. Spiders want no truck with me. I appreciate their industry and independence, the way they quietly perform their beneficial tasks in the world, and their proclivity for peaceful co-existence.