Holding Extreme Tragedy and Finding Beauty Again

Spring is coming to Ukraine, despite the desecration of its country. We do not hear about the beauty of the natural world unfolding from its winter slumber because so many horrific things are happening to people, buildings, and homes. It is hard to find beauty when everything around seems burnt, bombed, and dangerous. The only reference I hear about the landscape was first frozen ground to enable tanks, then mud to slog them down, and lately about leaves returning to provide camouflage.

Our table centerpiece-prayers for Ukraine

The people AND the land of Ukraine are being severely harmed. They are the principal supplier of wheat and sunflower oil to many countries, particularly in Africa. What is being planted? What is being destroyed?

Our Wilderness Guides Council held another zoom call to witness the stories of our Ukrainian colleagues.

We from the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa listened. The first Ukrainian speaker reported relief to see the faces of his countrymen—a confirmation that they are each still alive. One by one they took up the invisible talking piece.

“I wait every night for the call from my son who is fighting to find out if he is still alive,” reported one man.

“My home was bombed. I have confirmation of this now. My mother has been captured by the Russians in Mariupol, but at least I have word that she is alive.”

Barely able to speak through her tears, a young woman said, “Hate. I did not think I was so capable of hate. That we must prove what the Russians are doing is unthinkable,” she said in reference to the fact that Russians are claiming the atrocities being discovered have been staged by the Ukrainians.

“Thank you for listening,” they each said at the end of their speaking.

The call dropped me to my knees, brought tears to my eyes, left me grasping for what else I might do besides being a listener and sending money to the World Central Kitchen https://wck.org/.

How do I hold these stories?

 After the call, I walked outside to see my garden.

My April garden tulips

Tiny arugula seedling coming up under the protection of row cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could see the beauty before my eyes. But I was not staring into a bombed landscape. So much sadness filled my soul. How could I integrate the stories I had just heard and make space again for joy? How could I remain grounded in my own reality and resources so I could be a witness for those who needed it?

Nature is always my refuge, my restoration, but I needed more than just a meander in the woods. I needed something tangible to do. I had been thinking about collecting nettles this spring. There is about a two-week window when they are big enough to cut and not so big that the stems become woody. Perfect, I would “armor up” to harvest nettles.

Young forest nettles perfect for harvesting.

The tiny- pointed hairs covering the leaves and stems break off when touched and release formic acid—the same venom found in bee and ant stings. So, NO bare skin for this harvest. Many people consider them a superfood, a super medicine.  Nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, antihistamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being.

My gloved hands harvesting nettles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dressed in heavy pants, long sleeves, thick gloves, I carried two 5-gallon buckets down a path and off into a huge nettle patch near the state park parking lot. Within 20 minutes I had snipped two buckets full of nettle tops. The patch was so big, looking back behind me, I could not tell that anyone had been here harvesting. Nettles grow in Ukraine. Would anyone even be safe harvesting them? My thoughts would wander, then I would refocus on my task. Harvesting nettles requires attention—a wrist bared or sock top exposed means miserable itching.

Back home carefully snipping the tender leaves from their stems into a steaming pot.

Coming home, I sat on a chair on the patio and carefully snipped the leaves off the stems and into a gallon pot. Two five -gallon buckets consolidated down to one gallon of leaves to steam. It took about 20 minutes of steaming for the nettles to cook down (the steaming destroys the stinging hairs) to a small serving dish size. Sauteeing some of last summer’s garlic and sunflower seeds in olive oil, I added the steamed leaves turning them over and over, adding lemon juice and balsamic glaze. Presto! A vegetable dish for three.

A filled gallon pot cooked down after steaming

The nettles sautéed in olive oil, garlic, and sunflower seeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me so happy to honor the earth’s bounty in that way, to feed my family. Action empowered me to do something good and tangible. It brought me joy and purpose. By day’s end my heart was again open.

The connection between  food and land and hope

The work of holding the complexity of these times is immense. We all do it in different ways. Let us not forget that the earth is helping us, too.  Leaves are returning to the trees in Ukraine. May blooming flowers rise in the shattered cities and surprise those most in need of beauty. May someone be planting a kitchen garden on their porch. Stinging nettles grow worldwide. Maybe one of the local chefs working with the incredible organization of the World Central Kitchen is preparing nettles in some Ukrainian village this very day.

This is not a far-fetched thought. WCK partners with local chefs to create hot, deliverable meals to communities in Ukraine being bombing. (There are many fine non-profits working in Ukraine. I highlight WCK because of the connection to food in this piece of writing.) For example, a small town outside Kharkiv where cows cannot be milked and the grain silo is destroyed have been receiving hot meals. In a monastery in Odesa where 130 seniors live and 10 refugees a day come from Mariupol, the monastery staff bakes bread and shelters homeless animals. People and land working together sustain life.

Plants connect us. Food preparation connects us. The act of foraging in dire need or in adventure awakens gratitude that food is there. I can reach my gloved hand into the nettle patch and feel connection to the life-giving presence of Ukraine and its remarkable people.

Do Not Forget Us!

Flag of Ukraine, courtesy of Wikipedia

Like so many of you, I have felt shocked, devastated, and immobilized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Other than discerning a good way to send relief, I have felt helpless. So, when the Wilderness Guides Council put out a call for a collective gathering to hear the stories, needs, and strengths of our Ukrainian friends, I eagerly signed up. (WGC is a global network of wilderness guides and supporters who offer “contemporary wilderness rites of passage”.)

Since the international Wilderness Guides Council convened in Ukraine in 2012, I was hopeful that some of our Ukrainian guides would be on the call. At least four participants were from Ukraine. The rest of us tuned in from many countries including South Africa, Spain, Germany, Canada, South Siberia and many U.S. states.

2012 WGC attendees in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

 

Close-up from 2012 WGC gathering in Ukraine, photo courtesy of WGC, Darcy Ottey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the Ukrainian guides was sitting in total darkness because his city is under bombardment and strict orders to have no lights on at night. One is currently living in Canada, every day fearful for her parent’s lives. The other two had fled their cities and were in the currently safer western part of their brave country.

Council Wisdom

The intention of the council was to offer peace and protection for Ukraine. We opened with a slide show of that 2012 gathering, a song, silence with lit candles, and then an open invitation for the Ukrainians to speak so we could bear witness. Words came slowly at first. Feelings were raw, so very raw. One of the Ukrainians had spent 12 days in a bomb shelter with her family before fleeing to the western part of the country. Another is still living in a city being bombarded. His face illuminated only by his electronic screen showed the wear of sleeplessness and living in constant danger. Still another wrote her comments only in the chat box because her reception was so poor she feared we would not be able to hear.

There were long pauses. This is the way of council. We wait. We hold the space open so words can form and be supported as they arise.

Some of us as witnesses added comments after our Ukrainian friends spoke. One American guide who went to the 2012 gathering spoke of bringing 3 acorns back from a 1,000 year old oak. One of those acorns sprouted. She planted it and it is now about 30 feet high—a symbol of the longevity and strength of its home country. Another shared the t-shirt that was literally given to him off the back of one of the Ukrainians on the call. Another among us spoke how she is living on stolen lands—from U.S. native peoples—and reflected on the violence so long perpetrated against peaceful peoples everywhere.

1,000 year old Ukrainian oak, photo courtesy of WGC, Trebbe Johnson

I chose to repeat the words one Ukrainian guide had spoken at the end of his second check-in. “Something new is being born. In a birth both the mother and the child are very vulnerable. We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.” The words haunted me, yet I know he spoke them as a man who has lived many decades and watched the ongoing trials of his country. His voice invited respect. He spoke with hope. He repeated words that each of his countrymen and women had spoken earlier, “We will not lose our country. We will remain free.”

The chat box was filled with information, including a note from one of the German guides with a connection to a site that would help refugees find shelter, food, and clothing in her country. We shared emails. We want to remain connected. We want to speak again. We are eager to help in whatever ways we are able.

The parting words from each of our Ukrainian friends was, “Do not forget us!”

Something new is being born

Leaving the council, I chose to head to our nearby state park with its old growth Douglas firs and western red cedar. I wandered the slowly emerging spring woods in the tradition of the Medicine Walk, so dear to the hearts of my fellow WGC guides. The phrase “something new is being born” kept repeating itself in my mind. A short ways up the first hill of the trail a large, old alder tree next to the trail had blown down since I walked this trail last week. It was shocking how little root structure had held the old alder all these years. The alder will now become a nurse log providing a platform for mosses, mushrooms, salal plants, huckleberry, and eventually another alder tree. Something new is being born out of a loss, though, at the moment, all that is visible is the dead alder and all the ferns and young plants it smashed on the way down. Can any of us begin to see what will be born out of the current tragedy in Ukraine?

“We must pay attention and protect both the mother and child.”  Further along, I stopped to lean against the 500-year-old cedar tree. It is hollow now—a person could actually bend over and “skinny” their way from front to back. The winter has blown down some of its enormous branches, yet as I gaze skyward, back against the tree, I cannot see through the many remaining branches to the top of the tree. It is probably the oldest tree in the park.

In 1999 I was sitting on the bench overlooking the tree when two young boys wandered up from the campground. They grabbed some big sticks and started hacking away at the then smaller hole in the tree. I was completely shocked. It occurred to me that no one had taught them to respect a large old tree. I rose from the bench and gently approached them.

“Excuse me,” I said. They both looked up. “Would you beat your grandmother with a stick?” At this point they have set their sticks down and are looking at me as if I am some kind of apparition. “This is the oldest tree in the forest. It is the grandmother tree. We must treat it with respect.” The two boys hurriedly disappeared down the trail.

Later I worked with the park ranger to erect a sign and a barrier to the tree explaining its age and importance. “We must protect both the mother and the child.”

The winter has been hard on the forest. A number of large trees have blown down. Yet the whole of the forest remains functioning, beautiful, and vibrant. The further I walk the more I can understand the wisdom of the older Ukrainian guide who has walked the “forests” of his country for many decades. He knows intimately the individual components of cities, mountains, forests, people. He sees them as a whole—resilient, interconnected, ever-changing. Two hours later I return home with a much better understanding of how these four guides could be so sure that they will not lose their country. They know and understand things that we as outsiders can barely comprehend.

Sitting down to dinner that night next to the wood stove, holding hands with my beloved, we offered prayers of gratitude for the incredible privilege of an intact home, enough to eat, and a peaceful neighborhood. And we asked for prayers for all who do not have such privilege at this time.

We will not forget our Ukrainian friends. We will keep the stories of their courage and determination alive, for they represent the hope that people everywhere have for democracy to remain alive.

 

 

 

 

Our Animals Help Us Be Better Humans

Blue-eyed girls, photo by Christina Baldwin

Daily our little blue-eyed corgi helps me be a better human. By doing the things she loves, I become a happier, healthier, kinder person. Having a dog makes sure that I tend to the following:

Plan time outdoors every day.

 Share love and affection and, of course, snacks.

Pay attention to needs other than your own.

Offer kindness.

Be curious.

It seems so simple really. Yet we humans can get involved with matters of consequence and overlook or minimize these basic tenets of a good life. But our pets, be they dogs, cats, horses, birds, guinea pigs or something more exotic, thrive on these things. And so do we!

Because Vivi is only two years old, she needs a LOT of exercise—which is very good for us. Two good walks a day of at least two miles. Time in the big, fenced yard of her best friend, who also happens to be a corgi, racing around flat out  with no leash. Lots of time on the floor playing with stuffy toys and keeping her two 70+ year-olds flexible. And did I mention race and chase? Her favorite indoor game is to be there when the laundry comes out of the dryer and steal a -falling sock or underpants that then requires a fun romp and keep-away around the living room. Such good laughter for us two serious humans.

The laundry helper stealing a dropped sock. photo by Christina Baldwin

Come get me. I know you want your sock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vivi loves meeting people— especially children. She does a hilarious belly crawl as she approaches them—as if a short corgi needs to make herself even shorter so as not to intimidate little children. People always laugh and ask what she is doing. We explain that she wants to meet them, and this is her greeting crawl. During the pandemic, when meetings with passersby have been reduced, her six-foot leash is just the right social distance and her friendliness a wonderful bridge builder. We call her our little Minister of Joy. There are, of course, people who simply ignore Vivi and walk on by. She watches to see if they are dog aware or not, almost shrugs her little corgi shoulders and then heads onto her next interaction.

Always on the lookout for something new and interesting!

Regularity of schedule and pattern provide a secure rhythm to our days. Yet, Vivi is always “up” for something spontaneous—like the surprise appearance of a squirrel on the feeder or a neighbor who stops for a chat during a walk. (Honestly, I am quite sure that most neighbors in the next community over have no clue what my name is—I am just the one who walks that cute tri-colored corgi named Vivi.)

At the end of their weekly Medicine Walk in our local state park, Ann writes in her journal and Vivi remains alert.

As a longtime wilderness guide, I have incorporated two practices from guiding into my life: a weekly Medicine Walk and a daily Sit Spot. (A Medicine Walk is more about being than doing. It is a walk with intention to seek greater awareness and guidance.) Vivi has made this easy. She loves our Medicine Walk. She gets to sniff as much as she likes and when she stops to notice something, I stop to try and perceive what she sees,  hears, smells, or senses. Always she knows when someone is coming well before I am aware of their presence. Walking alongside our perky little pup, I pause as often as she does and listen to the forest. May I do this the rest of the years of my life. It will surely take that long to perceive both the underground symphonies of resonance and the above ground harmony of sensory overload.

Winter Sit Spot on our front porch, photo by Christina Baldwin

The other nature-based practice that Vivi helps me honor is the Sit Spot. When dusk comes, she comes to find me until we head out the front door and sit on the porch together.  On a near daily basis, here are some of our gifts—eagles coming into roost, the last flickers at the feeder, or a surprise clearing of the mountains just in time for sunset.

I cannot end this blog without sharing the journey of two dear friends who walked their 15-year-old chihuahua/Italian greyhound to her final breath this week. They did so with beauty and attention, taking care of their “old lady” as she aged. After she had a stroke, they stopped everything for three days and simply prioritized her needs and their own. Tootsie has been on every hike and camping trip we’ve taken with them all these years—an adventuresome little dynamo. We will all miss her. Tootsie helped them be their best possible selves. She deserved no less.

Tootsie in the last week of her life. Photo by Nicole Luce

Would love to hear some of your own stories about how your pet helps you be a better human in this complex world we live in.

Henry Beston’s famous quote from The Outermost House:

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

 

It’s a Fine Line

Outdoor winter adventure is beautiful in the mountains of western Washington. White mounded trees, animals that whiten for camouflage, the presence of tracks so the activity of animals can be discerned, and mountains with their extraordinary mantle of white. Minnesota-raised, my child winters were full of sledding, skiing, skating and snowshoeing. Winter was fun! To access that snowy wonderland from the rainy, green lowlands of western Washington I head up in elevation for a few adventures each winter.

Individual trees almost disappear under mountains of powder snow

Winter adventures pose a greater level of risk than wilderness outings in warmer seasons. A mistaken route choice can lead you into avalanche territory. Improper attention to weather conditions can find you in driving wet snow, loss of a sense of direction, and hypothermia in less than 30 minutes. This greater call to preparedness and attentiveness is part of what I DO love about winter adventures.

Snowshoeing at 4,000 feet in the season’s first big snowstorm

The first big, ski resort-opening snowstorm of the season in Washington state occurred mid-December. On the first day of that storm, I joined an REI lowland snowshoe trip to Mt. Baker, a place I have been both summer and winter. (At 72, I prefer not to go alone into the winter wilderness.) Having someone else drive was a delight—especially when mask-wearing protocols were carefully followed. We arrived at the Heather Meadow downhill ski parking lot in moderate snow and wind—a world of white far above the green grass back home. Everyone scrambled into layers of gear before stepping out into the 25 degree F. (-4 degrees C.) temperatures. I carefully slid hand warmer packages into heavy weight gloves and then joined everyone.

Distributing snowshoes, poles, and gaiters in the parking lot.

After being issued snowshoes (loved trying out new gear!), poles, and gaiters, nine participants and two guides were on our way up the snow-covered, rolling slopes leading to Artist Point. Within the first fifteen minutes, it was clear one participant had not carefully read the “vigorous trip” label as he struggled to keep up. One of the guides took him down to the Heather Mountain Lodge for the remainder of the day.

When, our remaining guide stepped out of the tracks and came back to check on each of us, I quietly explained that I had a current Wilderness First Responder certification and would be happy to remain at the back of the line-up and serve as “sweep”. She thanked me and gratefully accepted the offer.

Landmark in a snowy landscape

We slowly made our way up through the trees until we reached the Heather Meadows Visitor Center—closed, of course, but a guidepost on the snowy landscape. Although visibility was poor, our guide pointed out avalanche chutes and gave us an educational talk about the Northwest Avalanche Center and what information we should check before heading into the mountain backcountry landscape.

Heather Meadow Visitor Center, accessible only by snowshoe or skis in the winter

 

 

Looking closely, we spotted a ptarmigan in a shrub—white spot upper middle of the shrub.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stopping for lunch

The group made good progress and stayed together well. Once we traversed a steep ridge, we were just below Artist Point. Blowing and drifting snow made visibility poor so our guide circled us up near a group of trees in the lee of the wind for a lunch break.

Following in a line so we broke trail for one another, we climbed to a ridge below Artist Point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The always helpful Washington Trails Association guide lists Heather Meadows ski lift to Artist Point snowshoe as a four mile, 1,000 foot climb. It details the importance of knowing your route and avoiding avalanche-prone areas. It was reassuring to have our guide with her GPS navigation and radio that connected us directly to rescue, if we needed it. My guess is that in our 90-minute climb we had come up from our 4,100 foot beginning about 800-900 feet.

Lunch break on sit pads or standing

Stopping for lunch is important, AND it is a moment of vulnerability. We had been issued small insolite pads to keep us from sitting directly on the snow and getting quickly chilled. I knew not to sit down because I get cold very fast, so I ate standing up. Before eating, though, I pulled a light weight down coat from my pack and put it underneath my waterproof outer layer. While eating my sandwich, I noticed one of the participants had put on her warm underlayer, but had not zipped it. Then I noticed that her bare hands holding her sandwich were beet red, so I asked if she would like some help zipping up her jacket. She was appreciative. Her friend volunteered to give her a set of hand warmers.

In 20 minutes our guide encouraged us all to finish up and get ready to head down. “You won’t burn as many calories or stay as warm going downhill, so move around while you are waiting for everyone and keep on that underlayer you just put on.”

A moment of vulnerability

When one of the younger men stood up, he instantly got dizzy and had to sit back down. Here was a point of vulnerability for the group—What if he cannot walk out by himself? Our guide asked us all to keep moving and stay warm. I snowshoed around, talking to each person while the guide stayed with the young man who was now actually, in WFR terms, a “patient”.

Wandering over to the guide, the young man, and his girlfriend, I asked what he had for breakfast and what he had eaten for lunch. It did not sound like a lot of food for a rigorous snowshoe in the cold and wind, so I asked if he had a protein bar, which his girlfriend did. After eating half of it, he tried to stand again and found he was still light-headed.

As a trained Wilderness First Responder, I have begun thinking about possible rescue scenarios. Our guide had a radio to contact the other guide in the lodge. I had a bivy sack the young man could climb in and get seated on insolite pads to keep warm until help arrived. Then I started wondering who will stay with the “patient” if he needs rescuing and how the guide might expect to help the rest of us keep warm.

Ann bundled up—her pack set carefully in the snow 5 feet away.

 

On the next try, the young man was steadier on his feet, so we started the trek back down.  We progress slowly enjoying the snowy beauty. It was fun to watch the numerous backcountry skiers make their way uphill on their climbing skins or swishing around us as they carved their beautiful turns in the accumulating powder snow.

 

 

 

It was a gorgeous day in the winter wonderland with important reminders to BE PREPARED. Yet again I am reminded of the fine line between winter wonder and potential emergency.

 

For my reminder and for others, a list:

Must bring on a winter trip

Extra layers of clothing

Packaged hand warmers

Waterproof jacket and pants

Gaiters to keep snow out of your winter warmth boots (not hiking boots)

A means to navigate if snowing and blowing snow descend (GPS or compass)

Extra food and water (in a bottle that won’t freeze)

First Aid kit

Must check before going into the winter mountain back country

Avalanche danger

Weather report for your area

Someone knows where you leave your car and what time you will return, and don’t travel alone!

An honest assessment of your own physical strength and stamina

Snow-loving Ann

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Salmon Fishing

Fall has come to the Pacific Northwest. Our dry summer is history. Snow is beginning to accumulate on the mountain tops and area rivers are rising. The latter fact is good news for our migrating salmon—many (though, not all) small headwater creeks now have enough cool water for these magnificent, iconic creatures to complete their egg laying journeys. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, they rest in gravel bars all winter before hatching in the spring as tiny alevin with yoke sacks on their necks. And the great salmon cycle begins again.

As a keystone species (essential to the health of our region), nothing about the salmon/human interaction in the Northwest is simple. Their shrinking numbers depend increasingly on shoreline restoration. Unfortunately, lack of funding for habitat restoration is woefully inadequate. Couple that with the problem of stormwater runoff, dams on tributaries, and logging practices, it is a wonder that we still have a salmon run. According to Washington’s State of Salmon in Watersheds report issued January 2021, a trend of warming waters and habitat degradation are the principal problems. The report says that 10 of the 14 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the state are not improving and five are “in crisis”.

So, why fish?

Fishing with my dad was one of the first ways I explored the natural world. When I was only six years old, we waded in cold Colorado mountain streams seeking the elusive native cutthroat trout. I loved the excitement, the connection to nature, and, of course, the camaraderie with my father. Fishing became synonymous with adventure for me. And it has remained so.

This drawing is up on my wall. I love the reminder of my dad’s spirit. He passed away in 2013.

However, fishing and fishing resources have changed dramatically over the 65+years since Dad taught me to fish. Yes, we had licenses and limits back then. And my family always ate the trout we caught. But now, of course,  the catch limits of every state have gotten stricter as the resource has dwindled.

In my home state of Washington, our Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing its best job to manage the salmon fisheries despite many challenges. So, I trust that my small impact on the fisheries IS part of a larger plan to keep a healthy fishing resource.

It thrills my wild heart to have a chance to “think like a salmon”. What is the right bait, the correct shore, the correct time of day, and the correct technique for safely landing them? Their magnificence connects me directly to the ecosystem and people of this land—both now and in the past. Also, by being responsible for all facets of catching, cleaning, and eating them, I have a much better understanding of my decision to remain a carnivore at this time.

Wearing my down jacket on an October morning, I stand on the empty shore of Bush Point. Looking across Puget Sound, I see the stately Olympic Mountains. Looking towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I can see the San Juan Islands and all the way into Canada on a clear day. I remember all those mornings of summer past— watching the arrival of dawn on the mountains or peering through the fog, feeling the camaraderie of my fishing buddies, and experiencing the occasional excitement of a tug on my line. It is a remarkable, expansive place to fish, even with the shoreline homes right behind us.

A quiet July morning fishing at Bush Point.

Another, not so warm, July morning fishing at Bush Point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salmon season on the west side of our island has been closed for three weeks now. It was a great season—the first time in four years that I caught my limit of two fish/day (once) and the first time my grandson caught a salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that nearly 2.9 million wild pink salmon(also called humpbacks) arrived in Puget Sound in 2021. There were other species, too—cohos(silver) and Chinook(king)—but the vast majority this year were pink salmon.

Our grandson with his “pink” salmon on a July morning.

Those millions of salmon streaming by the island are now inland on the last leg of their precarious journeys from the open ocean. How do they know which stream to return to? Is the water cold enough? Where have they been the last 3-4 years? Do they really care if my lure has Smelly Jelly on it? Why do they sometimes hit a pink lure and sometimes a chartreuse lure? So many questions, so few answers—just an ongoing exploration of curiosity and awareness.

Fishing with my grandson

In the tradition of family fishing, it is a great joy to me that our 16-year-old grandson, Jaden, loves to fish. Every single morning of his annual summer visit with us this July, he got up at 6 a.m. so we could fish for 2-3 hours. Unfortunately, his vacation occurred at the beginning of the summer run, so very few people were catching fish while he was here. But Jaden persisted. On his last morning, 30 minutes before we had to leave for the airport, he caught his salmon! He was getting high fived by all the guys on the beach—a rite of passage into manhood that could not have happened if only his grandmother was there.

Jaden’s salmon being admired by some of the “old salts” who fish Bush Point.

 My friend and skilled fisherwoman, Pip, is our salmon-catching mentor. Jaden followed her teaching: land the fish, give thanks for its life, and kill it quickly to eliminate suffering. He gutted the fish himself and later fileted it back at Pip’s fishing station. And he did not miss his plane! His persistence and determination were admirable.

Jaden fishing with Pip

Recording the date, type of fish, “wild” or “hatchery” on his fishing license. Identifying what you catch and being sure it is legal is important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fileting the fish back at Pip’s garage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After he left, I joined Pip on the beach once a week. She who fished every day caught over 5 dozen salmon. My salmon card reported only six fish, but it was plenty to share with friends and put some into the freezer for winter nights when we need a reminder of summer’s bounty.

Ann cleaning her female fish full of eggs back at her home.

Carrying the fish innards and unused portions back down to the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing is wasted when fishing. Within minutes of arriving to throw innards into the water, the gulls arrived. What the gulls don’t get, the crabs do!

Standing on the empty shore now, I marvel at the bigness, the mystery, and the excitement of nature’s cycles in my region. And, above all, I give profound gratitude for the privilege of living in a region that still has salmon runs.

 

 

 

 

 

2021 Summer Family Gatherings

If the summer of 2020 was the summer of cancelled reunions, memorials, and weddings, then the summer of 2021 has been the summer of resuming important family gatherings. As of this writing, vaccinated gatherings have felt relatively safe and so very imperative, but the rise of the Delta variant of COVID is beginning to cast a shadow on late August and autumn events.

After our mother died in October 2020, and we were able to have only the smallest internment service for her, my sisters and I began dreaming of a large family reunion to celebrate our mom and mark the passing of her generation as we four stepped into the role of elders. In this blog I record the absolute joy and privilege of a Brown Family Reunion/Memorial for our Mother that occurred in mid-June.

Our sweet mother, photo by Ann Linnea

My three sisters and I started planning in December 2020 before there were vaccinations. Two things seemed clear—it needed to be in Colorado where our family had vacationed for decades, and we wanted lots of outdoor activities because that’s what our family always did on those Colorado vacations.

The Brown Sisters: Kathy, Margaret, Ann, and Susie, photo by Joe Villarreal

We settled on Snow Mountain Ranch, YMCA Camp of the Rockies, and reserved lodge rooms for mid-June. It was a huge leap of faith. Spring came. Vaccines arrived. We got the shots. People began to register. Nearly every living descendant came—53 people, ages 1-76—from Florida, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington. We are a diverse lot—age, sex, race, religion, and political affiliation. We are united by our love for our dearly departed matriarch, our shared joy in nature/outdoor adventure, and loyalty to the values this family has practiced since Mom and Dad married in 1948. Time together helped us be our best selves.

How do you weave a diverse, far flung family together to pull off an event with such unity? You plan. You trust. You jump in and have fun together. For our family I think the shared outdoor adventures were key because that is the culture that our parents had set in place for over 50 years. And most certainly you need a measure of good luck.

A collage of activity photos is included below. We supported each other to participate in activities ranging from horseback riding to high ropes adventure to zip lines to bicycle riding to hiking to making crafts to swimming to  tubing to eating s’mores around bonfires.

The narrative I focus on here is the high adventure ropes course because it was an important event for my small part of the big family. My daughter wanted this listed on our choices of activities because we had done this type of thing when she was a child. “I have a fear of heights and I want to challenge myself,” she said.

On a beautiful early June evening several dozen of us walked or drove down to the ropes course. Located in a circle of pines in the forested mountain bowl of Snow Mountain Ranch, an event called the Giant’s ladder and the Leap of Faith pole were rigged by a group of young staff. We gathered for instruction.

High ropes courses are all about individual challenge with team support. Participants are carefully fitted into a parachute type harness and hooked to safety lines called ‘belays’ held by staff and team members.

Our 16-year-old grandson, Jaden, was one of the first to climb the 40-foot utility pole and jump off wearing his harness. After watching several other family members, including some that did not make it to the top but turned around halfway up, our ten-year-old granddaughter, Sasha, said she wanted to try. She harnessed up and reached for the first foot peg and slowly made her way up to the tiny wooden platform at the top to the cheers of dozens—most loudly her big brother. With hesitancy on that little swaying platform, she trusted her harness and herself to leap off. As her father said, “I felt like she left a lot of the anxiety from a year of Covid homeschool and little socialization up there on that tiny wooden ledge. It was very emotional for me to watch.”

Sasha determined to climb that pole, photo by her father Joe Villarreal

Sasha at the top preparing to maneuver onto the jump platform, photo by her father Joe Villarreal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha ready to leap, photo by her great Aunt Margaret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“OK, now I have to try,” said my daughter. There is nothing natural about climbing to the top of a high, slightly swaying pole and then jumping off. It wasn’t easy for Sally, but slowly she climbed, carefully managing her hands and feet. The support crew of aunts, uncles, cousins, and, of course, her family encouraged her to leap and trust that we who belayed her would slowly lower her to the ground. Once on the ground she was in the middle of a hug from Sasha, Jaden, Joe, Nina, and I.

You did such a good job, Sweetie! Now I have to try, photo by Joe Villarreal

Sally leaping off the platform, photo by her Aunt Margaret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After several more people and children climbed, Jaden wanted to try again. This time he had the goal of jumping off and catching the trapeze bar swinging seemingly just out of reach—something our young guide said less than 10% of participants accomplish.  The friendly crowd grew silent when Jaden perched on that little platform. It was like being a spectator at an Olympic event—we could feel the young athlete’s focus and concentration and did not want to interrupt it. With every ounce of strength in his young body he flew and caught the bar! Cheers, laughter, high fives . . . it was a raucous moment out there in the pines. Afterwards I reflected to Jaden, “If you focus yourself, you can do anything you want to. That was impressive!”

Jaden leaping from the platform, photo by his father Joe Villarreal

 

Jaden reaching for that trapeze, photo by his great Aunt Margaret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He got it! Photo by his father, Joe Villarreal

 

 

 

 

 

Me watching Jaden fly onto the trapeze, photo by Joe Villarreal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was up next. Someone in the grandmother generation needed to do this! I made no attempt to leap for the bar—sure did not want to throw a shoulder out. But I found it fun to trust that harness and leap. And for sure the cheers from everyone were helpful. Once down and getting out of the harness, I admit to a certain pride in being called a “bad ass grandma” by one of my nephews.

My leap documented by my sister, Margaret

This was one of many events in our five-day gathering. All of them were focused on choice, empowerment, and team building. And all of them built a strength of togetherness that culminated in the final evening memorial service for mom.

The memorial happened the last evening in the chapel after four days of eating, talking, and adventuring together. The field of connection was strongly woven at that point. The service had participation from all three generations remaining in the Brown family. Our historian sister, Margaret, and her son, Frank, put together an amazing video of mom’s life with live footage of her talking. Each of us other three sisters spoke. Mom’s musical talent rested in her grandchildren, and they played the piano and sang with beauty—Molly, Anna, and Frank. Thanks also to Erica and Jaden for their heartfelt words. And thank you to our three cousins who came to represent the fact that their Aunt Astrid was the last of the Svedlund women. Not a dry eye in the room. A homespun service of great heart and meaning.

Photos of our time together

Horseback riding in the Colorado Rockies, photo by Ann Linnea

 

Hiking to the falls: Christina, sister Kathy, niece Erica and daughter Kinsley, sister Susie and Ann, photo by John Harrington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making s’mores, bonfire created and tended by Joe Villarreal, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our oldest Zipline daredevil, Christina, photo by Joe Villarreal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying through air with the greatest of ease, Christina, photo by Joe Villarreal

Eating in the dining hall—Kathy’s family, photo by Ann Linnea

The great grandchildren making their own evening plans: Riley, Mishayla and Jaden , photo by Ann Linnea

A surprise graduation party for Mom and Dad’s youngest grandson, Frank Jonas, photo by Ann Linnea

The whole family after an afternoon of summer tubing, photo by Kyle Unfug

Giving Away Grace

Giving Away Grace

Posted this ad on our local Drewslist (our local equivalent of Craigslist) this week:

Free: Aquaterra KAYAK

Grace: a stable, trusty paddle.

Paddles, spray skirt included.

Grace, the kayak that traversed 1800 miles along the shore of Lake Superior in 1992

This 17- foot, rudderless Aquaterra plastic sea kayak with paddle,
cockpit cover, and spray skirt to the person with the right story!

In this boat I kayaked 1800 miles around Lake Superior in 1992. We moved to Whidbey in 1994 and she’s enjoyed many pleasant hours in Puget Sound. As you can see, she is well cared for. But she weighs 65 pounds and when I kayak these days I find myself always opting for my lighter weight boat. Since she has a remarkable story, she needs to go to someone who really wants her. Also included, my story of that journey: Deep Water Passage, A Spiritual Journey at Mid-Life.

Please donate something to Drew. We do.

Ann Linnea 7/06/2021

The emails of interest began pouring in. In the next several days 19 people expressed an interest. Their stories were many and varied: “Need a kayak for my daughter so she can join our adventures. My husband would never buy himself something, and he works so hard. I would love a kayak for my wife and I take really good care of gear. I’d like to do longer paddling trips in the San Juan Islands. . . .”

On July 10 a young father from nearby Oak Harbor arrived with his 7 and 4-year-old sons with many adventuring tales and a firm commitment to tending old gear. He skillfully loaded the boat onto his sedan. As I handed him an autographed copy of Deep Water Passage, he shared that he has aspirations to write his own book. We shook hands and off he went.

Young father and sons ready to claim their new sea kayak

Grace loaded and ready to go to her new home

Here is the response I sent to each person who inquired about the boat:

Thank you for your inquiry about my Aquaterra Sea Kayak. Some of you shared stories about why you would like this 32-year-old kayak that carried me around Lake Superior in 1992. In the true spirit of Drewslist, I lined you up in the order of receiving your emails. This afternoon a young family in Oak Harbor with an excellent story loaded her up and took her into her next life. They were the first people to inquire about the boat.

Fellow paddlers on the sea of life, be well, keep your paddle in the water, and keep adventuring always!

See you on the water,

Ann Linnea

 

My greatest joy at this time in my life is empowering the next generation(s)!

 

 

The Organic Farm School

Multi-colored vegetables, goats, chickens, hogs, and fabulous young people learning to be organic farmers. What is not to like about this scene? For the past three years it has been my great joy to volunteer as an adult mentor at the Organic Farm School in the Maxwelton Valley of Whidbey Island.

Sunny day in early spring, courtesy of Organic Farm School

Baby goat, courtesy of Organic Farm School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Chicken tractors” protect the young chicks from predators, but can be moved daily for foraging in new places. Ann Linnea photo

The young people range in age from mid-twenties to mid-forties and come from all over the U.S. to join the ranks of future farmers focused on growing healthy food. It is a six-month, full time, intensive training. They learn soil management, seed production, marketing, and business planning through a combination of classes, field work, and community interaction. (The latter was challenging during the pandemic, but we shifted, adapted, and had a successful year with a smaller class in 2020. We are back up to full capacity at 12 this year.)

In one of our recent teaching sessions the students were each giving a 4-minute statement on why they choose to farm at this time. We were meeting in the open-air picnic shelter. The air temperature was 45 degrees F. and there was a light wind blowing. I found myself wishing I had donned long underwear. Even though it was April, there had been a morning frost.

Student working with seeds and seedlings in one of the greenhouse, courtesy of Organic Farm School

I was busy taking notes so I could reflect back to them the general gist of their statements. Every one of them was articulate about why they were choosing to farm at a time when the number of farmers in the U.S. is slowly decreasing, farmland is being bought up by big corporations, and U.S. Department of Agriculture policies continue to largely favor the “big farmer.”

Many of them spoke about wanting to change the way farming is done in this country. Some focused on wanting to learn essential life skills. Several referenced seeking a spiritual connection to the land. All of them were inspirational to listen to—courageous, taking a big leap of faith, working bone hard every single day. These are the people I want to invest in!

Transplanting seedlings from the greenhouse to the field, Ann Linnea photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The focus of OFS teaching by the farm manager, assistant farm manager, and the instructor is on regenerative agriculture. A shorthand explanation of that might be a farmer saying, “I focus on the health of my soil. If it is healthy, I am being successful.”

Regenerative ag farmers use a variety of techniques ranging from cover crops to crop rotation to no till farming to rotational grazing. In many ways they look at farming more like a 1950s farmer growing a variety of crops, not using pesticides or herbicides, having some animals as a source of manure and “tilling,” and planning to have a farm whose soils can support crop growing for generations to come.

Everyone learns to drive the tractor, courtesy of Organic Farm School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also built into the program is an emphasis on communication and interaction. The students host a farm stand, offer cooking and tasting sessions, and even Friday evening pizza oven gatherings. All of these programs involve community volunteers.

“Communication” is where my friend and colleague Sharon Betcher and I come into the program. We offer weekly supplemental classes, like the one articulated above. The umbrella title for our classes is “The Holistic Farmer. We, and invited community members, provide an hour-long session on topics ranging from developing working agreements, to a history of the area, to working with conflict and disagreement, to functional fitness, to civics for farmers, to ethics of slaughter.

Inside one of the large green houses, courtesy of Organic Farm School

We have a course outline for the remaining Mondays of this year’s sessions. We know the curriculum will need to be adapted as suggestions and needs come forward from the students. Like the soil, plants, and animals, like weather and seasons, change is the norm in this outdoor lifestyle. To stand alongside and contribute to this program is challenging, wonderful, and a great privilege. I come home with my arms full of very fresh vegetables, and my heart full of confidence in the future of farming.

Aerial early spring view of OFS, courtesy of Organic Farm School

Young hogs “tilling and fertilizing” a stretch of sod, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resilience

Recently we had the privilege of hosting our dear grandchildren for a week. Because of COVID and the fact that they live far away, we had not seen them for 18 months. The very first thing we did after getting our second COVID shots was to call our daughter and see if we could bring them here for spring break. Ah, the benefits of vaccination!

Sasha, Jaden, Christina, Ann and Vivi

Sasha, Jaden, Christina, Ann and Vivi, photo by Nicole Luce

There are so many memories from our recent week together: The joy of watching them play with the young dog they had never met as a puppy. . . their familiarity with rhythms from years past like planting peas . . . the fun of board games on rainy days . . .growing skill at helping in the kitchen . . . and their deepening ability to articulate themselves during morning check-ins.

Photos in collage below

In many ways it was not so different from previous years. Well, Jaden is now old enough to be driving us around! And Sasha is now old enough to sleep in her own bedroom. But the thing that struck me the most about being with them this time is their resilience.

Since COVID cancelled our annual spring break visit in 2020, they have had a year of school entirely on ZOOM. The vast majority of their time has been spent in a two-bedroom apartment or running errands with their dear parents. They have had very limited access to friends. And once our daughter found a new job which took her away from home, the two of them had to learn to take care of each other at a whole other level.

I am so impressed with both of them! What I see is how this past year has matured them—made them stronger and better versions of the selves they have always been. This, of course, is certainly a tribute to the fine job their parents are doing and the closeness of their family unit. But it also speaks to how adversity can grow our souls.

A lot is being written about “the lost year” of COVID for young people. I know there have been huge losses and challenges. But what I see in our grandchildren is strength and resilience. I am defining resilience as an ability to recover and grow from adversity. This is a skill that will stead them well.

None of us knows what the future holds for our beloved children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, family friends, and neighbor kids. We wish we could have a crystal ball that told us what is coming so we could help prepare them to create the world they want. But we don’t. We must simply love, encourage, and support them to the best of our abilities and resources. And then we must step back and trust their incredible youthful spirits.

I trust Sasha and Jaden’s spirits even more after this recent visit. May I have the privilege of being with them for many years to come.

Morning wakeup and conversations

With Jaden as my ally I am SAFE!

Neighborhood work party with Sarah

Jaden at the wheel

Playing at the beach

Wrestling on the floor with Vivi

Ann and Sasha baking

Writing our note in the bottle

Inserting note into the bottle and sealing with beeswax

Football player Jaden getting ready to throw the bottle into the outgoing tide on a very chilly morning

Many games of UNO

Sasha planting peas

 

Spring is Coming!

I have lived in the northern part of the northern hemisphere my entire life, including 15 cherished years in Duluth, MN where snow can arrive as early as October and leave as late as May. So, I know the length and breadth of winter—and, I do not think I have ever been so eager for spring as I am this year. After a year of Covid winter, I am ready for some thawing, some blooming, and for sure, more joy!

It has been a very long year for everyone. There has been much suffering, ambiguity, frustration, adjustment, upheaval, and insecurity. Yikes! We have had no visitors inside our home. Our tiny, socially distanced gatherings occur under the patio heater on our porch on days with little wind or rain. We still walk hiking trails here with masks on. All of my family connections, friendly outreach and community meetings have turned to ZOOM. We last saw our daughter, her partner, and the grandchildren in October 2019. And I know these stresses are small in the scheme of things. We who are the middle class retired have been inconvenienced, but not bearing the brunt of disruption. We have stood by to assist others as best we can. We have a home, heat, enough to eat, relative health, love. AND— I am ready for some opening up!

Tea on the porch under the patio heater with neighbors

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can I tell? Well, my moods are as variable as spring weather. Valentine’s weekend we had snow at our house, a rare sea level occurrence. I got to ski down our street and make a snowman! It was great fun.

Ann skiing down the gravel road in front of her house

Ann making a snowman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then in perfect Seattle snowstorm fashion, it all promptly melted in three days and the inexorable, erratic march of spring returned. Immediately, I was out in the garden turning over the winter cover crop. I walked over to our neighboring farm to get my garden seeds. The next day the sun came out and I got so excited I nearly planted grass seed in the thin spots in our front patio yard until I read the package which instructed me, “Seed when the air temperature is 60 degrees F.(15.5 degrees C.)” More waiting!

3 days later turning over the winter cover crop in the garden

Neighboring Deep Harvest farm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I laughed out loud at myself. Geez, it IS only February, and the temperature has not even gotten up to 50 degrees F yet (10 degrees C.)! So, I restrained my optimistic impulses and strolled around the yard appreciating all of the blooming plants that came through the snowstorm in great beauty: Hellebores, heather, and Pieris. I do feel lucky to live here.

Blooming Hellebore in our February backyard

Blooming heather in our February front yard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later I was walking with our puppy on our favorite trail in the state park. “Oh, my gosh!” I exclaimed aloud to little Vivi. “It is the first salmonberry flower in our park! Spring IS coming!” My steps on the muddy trails became ever lighter.

Salmonberry bud about to burst. Once they do, the incorrigible rufous hummingbirds arrive from their long migration to begin their incredible summer lives in the NW.

 

 

And yesterday we got our second COVID vaccination. It does feel like slowly, slowly the door of possibilities is beginning to open. My daughter and I immediately made plans for the grandkids to come up for spring break. I was so happy that I cried. Yes, we still have to be very careful—need to get COVID tests, need to fly with cautious protocols, need to keep masking up in public. But spring is coming. Warmth. Possibility. Hope.

Decades ago, I worked as a newspaper reporter in northern Utah. I was the cub reporter. One of the more seasoned reporters I looked up to very much, Jim Godbold, said he heard I was from Minnesota. He then proceeded to tell me the story of his year working at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. “Coldest, most miserable year of my life,” he said. “But when spring came I was more creative than I have ever been. There was such a release of my energy as things began to thaw. I couldn’t believe it. Haven’t experienced it since, but I never forgot that feeling.”

That is exactly how I am feeling at this moment. Spring IS coming. (Honestly, to my Minnesota and Canadian friends, it WILL come.) The Earth’s signals do not lie. They may taunt us, but they do not go away. Lighter weight jackets can come out of the closet. Mittens and scarves will soon go into storage. Masks will still be with us for a long time. But somehow the necessary changes we face no longer feel as daunting.

In 1732 the English poet, Alexander Pope wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” That’s me. I wish he was around this spring, I’d give him a high-five and a hug. Masked, of course.