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

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

 

Give the world a week of wonder

“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!

Rumi

Every year, April 22 is designated as Earth Day… As though every day isn’t earth day? What do we think our lives depend on the other 364 days of the year? Of course every day is earth day, but like many other humans, I can get distracted and take all this life support for granted.

  I am fortunate enough to live in a place where Nature is very much my neighbor; where tending yard and garden very much part of my daily life and the dog gets me out morning-noon-evening in every weather offered up. I write with a desk that faces a view of mountains and sea that after a quarter century still thrills me morning by morning. It is easy in this environment for me to stay attached to Earth. But I have not always lived here.

I was born in west central Montana, a landscape of boxy buttes, rolling prairie and cultivated wheat fields. I remember asking my grandfather on one summer visit, “Why didn’t you keep going until there were more trees?”

We lived in New Jersey and Illinois (remembered only through a few remaining black and white photos) and then when I was five, moved to Indianapolis, living first downtown with grass in cracked sidewalks. When I was six, my parents bought a tiny house on the edge of the city (then) inside a flood plain, across the street from a sycamore tree I loved to climb, and a bike ride from a creek full of crawdads and polliwogs we carted home in mason jars.

When I was nine, we moved to the edge of Minneapolis, a half-acre yard with 23 oak trees—too many leaves for even four Baldwin children to rake!

After college, I lived in San Francisco in a communal Victorian tucked under the elevated freeway, with no outdoors tolerable at all. And over the decades, I’ve traveled and lived many places—a list fascinating to me, but probably not to anyone else. And every place I go: there is nature.

Nature is present: it is to me to look for it, notice it, nurture it, and humble myself before this huge gift of which I am one miniscule breathing participant. So here comes Earth Day, and the question of how to honor the gorgeous complexity that is life surrounding.

For the week of April 18-24, I am going to start each day sitting on the front porch of our house—at the edge of whatever weather the spring wants to offer up—watching the mornings rise and writing in my journal. I may ramble off on stories that reside behind the above sentences; I may ruminate on the scene before me; I may enter a territory of meditative surprise. I invite you to join me.

This April, some  people are emerging from pandemic isolation and some are going back into isolation in response to viral surges. Whether opening or closing the doors and windows of our lives, we are living at the beginning of the “Next Now.” We should not go back to sleep. There are so many variables and unknowns in our situations, but our one shared constant is that we are all living embedded in Nature. And we need to find ways of more respectful living forward.

I know some things that I can do to make my lifestyle more sustainable… but I am not the authority: I dedicate this week to listening, to reflective inquiry, to translating the breezes of dawn into messages that help me live more honorably connected to the planet.

The page is blank and waiting.

My cup of tea is brewing.

The new day dawns.

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.

 

 

 

 

Stop the steal of our story

Remember four-year-olds and how fantastic their story-making capacities are? “Where were you?” asks the mama. “I said you could be in the backyard, but when I called you didn’t come.”

“I almost comed, but then a bear came out of the woods and said, ‘get on my back and I’ll give you a ride to your mama.’ So I got on him’s back, and then he didn’t ride me to you. The bear said, ‘I has a ice cream machine in my cave and we can have chocolate-vanilla swirls and then I’ll take you to your mama.’” A look of huge satisfaction crosses the face of the child.

“Honey, you are making that up.”

“No it really happened mama, smell my breaths.”

So, indulging him, mama smells his breath—chocolate.

So what is reality?

That is the question being asked these days in a much more serious realm. In America, the storylines required to hold people to a shared concept of reality have been shattered. Deliberately. When a people can no longer agree on basic perceptions of who we are and what is occurring around us, we become vulnerable to manipulation at just the time we most need shared perceptions. A huge part of the problem is that technology has advanced its capacities to manipulate what we see and hear way beyond our capacities to discern truth, lies, or reality in a split second electronic flash.

Bernie and the “bros” on a construction site.

Chocolate or vanilla?

In this environment, it’s amusing to watch the meme of Senator Bernie Sanders, crouched in his jacket and mittens in the chilly wind of the Inauguration, get superimposed on a thousand scenes, because we know it is false. We offer it as entertainment not reality, and we did it “ourselves”—clever photoshopping, the collective imagination at play.

 

Bernie lands on the moon

 

A bear with mittens?

 

However, it is not amusing to watch our collective imagination get played! When parts of the multi-media industry abdicate responsibility for maintaining defined “reality,” the resulting confusion fissures people into wildly divergent storylines. The outfall of anguish and anger is tearing up the lives of ordinary families, former friends and coworkers, religious congregations, and the aisles of Congress. This is a perilous moment in which our drive for meaning makes us vulnerable to technologies and influences that have outpaced our capacities for discernment. In this story stew, the loss of a cohesive national narrative is profoundly dangerous—as January 6, and whatever comes next, makes clear.

Beyond geography and economy, a nation state is a complex narrative of identity about who we are and how our country behaves within a world of nations. Stories shape national identity and form the foundation of our actions, from the level of policy to personal behavior toward one another.

A national story requires consistent revision as the nation and its people mature. Revision in national narrative means that citizens are educated toward increased understanding of complexity and encouraged to include diverse, previously excluded experiences in how we name ourselves. We are called to revise our societal story to address issues of “white privilege,” “black lives matter,” and “land acknowledgement.”

Revision always generates blowback from folks and influences who don’t want the story to change: but blowback does not mean rampant lying is allowed. Except, it has been allowed. America’s story in the hands of Fox News, QAnon, a former president, and dark-web media have weaponized humanity’s most creative tool by provoking story’s capacity to disintegrate reality as well as weave a cohesive agreement of the world around us.

Family photos and family stories

Story is a neurological necessity. Story is the linguistic vehicle the mind uses to translate information and integrate experience into meaning-making. We are wired to make meaning; we are wired for story. Words are how we think, but story is how we link. And once we have linked ourselves to a story-line and given credence to ideas embedded in that story, it is hard to pull back and open our minds again. Possible, but difficult. We become entrenched. We filter reality through the story lens we are devoted to in attempts to make more and more meaning.

There really was a bear. This fuzz is not moss it’s fur! He was a green bear. He promised me ice cream.

Words lead to actions. A cohesive society is based on a collective social agreement that no matter how much we struggle and disagree, some boundaries will not be crossed: we will not lead, nor allow ourselves to be led, astray of commonsense reality. That social contract is currently broken. In the zero-gravity environment of ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ clicking and algorithm determined suggested links, people have come to believe that evidence is just a chosen story-line and that they are under no obligation to give it credence unless they want to. So, for example, the flat earth theory is just as credible as round earth science; both should be taught in school and children allowed to decide what they want to believe.

The green bear is real because I say he is.

In the political realm, the danger of Donald Trump is that he was granted four years of tweeting whatever served his will of the moment. He broke the contract of adherence to commonsense reality and legitimized falsehoods at a grand scale, culminating in over 30,000 “false or misleading claims.” The danger in the Republican party is that they acquiesced to the erosion of reality and some have joined the storyline to retain power and future votes. The danger in the Democratic party is that the call for unity needs to recognize what cannot be unified and to reckon with the scale of this disaster. The danger for us is that we allowed the power of story to be stolen from our mouths and minds and we need it back.

The view from Zoom

Story is oral tradition. Story is the voice of the people. In this long winter, we must speak out from our porches and Zoom rooms to re-personalize and repopulate the story-field and call each other home. By voice, email, tweet, and social media we can take charge of what storylines we perpetuate. We can raise up what is good, true, meaningful and call out what is evil, false, denigrating.

One responsibility of citizenship is to hold the story-field accountable. If we want this country back, we need to get the story back. Though the pandemic necessarily separates us, it does not necessarily divide us. We the people can hold the outer rim of cohesiveness that allows us to encompass difference, to work for justice, and to reweave our belonging to one another. It’s time for the “mama” voice to re-establish basic reality.

The bear is brown. The world is round. 

If story can transport people into such dark corners of belief: then story can retrieve people from these places. Not all people, but enough of us to carry on with the business the world calls us to at this crucial time.

May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch but thrived, that America secured liberty at home and stood once again is a beacon to the world. President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021

 

2020—A Good Year for Fungi

Originally I was going to post this blog on January 6. But on that day the President of the United States, whose job is to protect our government, incited rioters and looters to attack the U.S. Capitol. My father, a lifelong Republican who risked his life for democracy by fighting in World War II, would be furious. My mother, who lived her life as a model citizen of democracy, would be appalled and profoundly saddened. I carry both their emotions.

 I wrote this blog to insert knowledge and hopefulness about good things that happened in the challenging year of 2020. It still does that and maybe more than ever this moment needs the story of two women scientists—one a friend and mentor, another living a short distance away—who have changed how we view the natural world, specifically the potential for fungi to be of help during this profound time in history.

When I was an undergraduate Botany major at Iowa State University (1967-71), my major professor was Dr. Lois H. Tiffany—a mycologist, an Iowa farmer’s wife, a mother, and a woman science professor in an era when women scientists were rare. She was known as “Iowa’s Mushroom Lady” because she taught and led field trips all over the state. She was a remarkable role model and teacher to me. Lately I have been thinking about her because even in a year overwhelmed by politics and pandemic, fungi, or more specifically their mycelium, have been making the news. If she were still alive, I think “Dr. T” would be gratified to see her long-held beliefs and research about soil, and mycelium in particular, validated as crucial to the health of plants.

Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, courtesy of Iowa State University special collections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fungi are a “hot topic” right now

In the complex year of 2020, the emergence of ground-breaking understanding about the role of fungi in sustaining planetary life may contribute to our lives as much as vaccines and restorative political leadership. (The terms mushrooms and fungi are often used interchangeably, but technically mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain species of fungi.)

Early in 2020 the documentary, Fantastic Fungi https://fantasticfungi.com/  opened in independent movie theaters. (It was the last movie we saw in a real theater before COVID-19.) An LA Times review summarized the documentary this way, “Mushrooms are the new superheroes… a documentary of epic proportions.” The cinematography was superb—imagine subterranean, invisible to the naked eye, networks coming to life as we see them in action doing their work of sustaining plants and decomposing things that humans cannot figure out how to get rid of.

In December,  the New York Times magazine published an article entitled, “The Social Life of Forests” by Ferris Jabr: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html?referringSource=articleShare . The article enables us to see the very real progress being made on understanding the underground world of the soil and fungi. And it opens our minds to thinking about defining “communication” in new ways—i.e. something other than human words.

At the end of the year, I finished reading Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020 Random House/New York). This brilliant book by a young scientist with its 50 pages of notes and its 44 pages of bibliography details everything from the revolutionary work around lichens(extremophiles) to the mind-altering capabilities of mushrooms to the industrial potential for these organisms to decompose everything from plastics to nuclear waste. This young scientist has synthesized profound amounts of information to further help us understand the potential of this life form.

Cover of Merlin Sheldrake’s new book on fungi, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conviction/persistence by a young woman scientist

All three of these 2020 works feature the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She grew up in the old growth forests of British Columbia across the border from where I live. When she decided to pursue a career in forestry in the 1990s to study what she loved, she entered a discipline that thought of trees as commodities that would produce faster profit if grown in monocultures so the desirable species had no competition. This did not make sense to a woman who knew the aliveness of an old growth forest with its variety of trees, plants, and animals.

Dr. Suzanne Simard, courtesy of Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite dismissal by many colleagues, she persisted in her conviction that there is a scientific way to “prove” the interrelatedness of trees in a forest. Her 1997 PhD thesis was the first study showing that carbon passed between plants in a natural setting (not in a greenhouse). Using radioisotopes and tracking the movement of activated molecules between trees, she showed that trees are not separate entities, they are connected via mycelium. Or as Jabr writes in his article, “Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi.”

The tiny fungi strands (mycelium) surround tree roots forming a partnership called mycorrhiza that enables the trees to get water and nutrients from the soil while fungi utilize the sugars the tree makes through photosynthesis. The forest and all habitats are a study of cooperation and linkage.

Dr. Simard will be coming out with a new book on May 4, 2021, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The advertising for this book claims, “From the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest.” I can hardly wait to read this new book!

Changing our perceptions

Dr. Tiffany published over 100 scientific papers and looked extensively at the relationship of fungi to Iowa’s prairie soils. Dr. Simard brings a similar impeccability of scientific research on the subject of forest soils and trees. Fungi are crucial to the web of life in all habitats. It is good to see them getting some “popular press”.

Every week, my little dog and I walk our local state park with its old growth and mid-growth forest. It is winter in the Pacific Northwest. The rains have made visible a lot of mushrooms. I am keenly aware that I am seeing only the most miniscule manifestation of the mycelium beneath my feet and scattered everywhere in the rotting and downed logs. So much has been learned about fungi in my lifetime! A bow to scientists who continue to pursue the true curiosity of real scientific inquiry to open our understanding of the world around.

A jelly fungus with the common name Witch’s Butter, photo by Ann Linnea at nearby state park

 

The Healing Power of Ceremony

October and November are important months for our small family. We honor the passage dates of each of our four parents and our son, Brian. All five of their lives were well-lived. Our four parents lived to honorably old ages. Brian died at 33 as the result of a line of duty accident as a paramedic captain. We take time to mark each of these passages in some way.

Part of our kitchen counter this fall was dedicated to remembering our ancestors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is Brian’s passage that we annually honor by taking an entire day to immerse ourselves in nature. Our choice of where to go and what to do is often spontaneous. This year our choice was prescient. We decided to spend our day walking the sandy beach created by the sediment being washed down from the Olympic Mountain National Park’s Elwha River into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Mouth of the Elwha River, WA before (left) and after (right) dam removal. The sediments are rich in nutrients. Photo from Olympic National Park website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside of the Puget Sound region, the Elwha River is hardly known, but it is famous for being the site of the world’s largest dam removal project. For a hundred years two dams stopped the Elwha from flowing freely from the finger glacier on the east side of the Olympic National Park into the sea. The dams were used for electricity production. These dams, of course, prevented salmon from migrating from the sea back up to the pristine headwaters in the national park. However, by the early 21st century the amount of electricity produced was minimal and stakeholders from the Lower Elwha Tribe to politicians to environmentalists and businessmen began long and involved conversations about removing the two dams.

The removal of the dams took two years of careful engineering and deconstruction. Photo from Olympic National Park website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012 the project was launched and by 2014 the dams were removed. Some thought it would take years to see if the original salmon stock would migrate upriver. It began happening within two months! The river is being extensively studied by scientists. They are using research methods from snorkel surveys to radio telemetry to sonar imagery to seining to discover which salmon runs are being restored, how fertile the sediments are at the river mouth, and how other species are being affected. Much data remains to be collected, but already the results are stunning for many species, not just salmon.

Fisheries biologists sample the Elwha for salmon. Photo from Olympic National Park website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, we took our grief at losing Brian to the great river and its new and ever-changing delta. We walked. We talked. We stopped to self-design a ceremony of remembrance by creating a circle of  beach treasures and scattering some of his ashes around the edge. The stories flowed easily and freely. Brian was such a presence. The stories of both his heroics and his deep devotion to family just pour forth when his name is mentioned.

Brian in his beloved jeep. Photo by Cousin Molly Hilgenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In ways we could not anticipate or even totally articulate, we felt restored and renewed by our meandering walk and spontaneous ceremony. The ecosystem around us was being slowly restored and renewed, as are we. The Elwha and its great salmon runs is resilient, as are we. Brian would have it no other way.

Ann gazing at the Straits of Juan de Fuca attended by her little corgi. Photo by Christina Baldwin

 

Ceremonial circle of beach items and some of Brian’s ashes

A Life Well Lived

My mother, Astrid Linnea Brown, seven years before her death at age 93.

 On October 1, 2020 our dear mother Astrid Linnea Brown passed away. She died of natural causes at the age of 93 years and eleven months. She lived through the last century and this one with an unflappable kindness that family and friends counted on. She spoke humbly and often did not realize how much wisdom was embedded in her comments on everyday life. I miss that voice and know I will begin to hear it rising from within myself.

On the morning  of her last day of life, Christina and I had a brief Zoom call with her. She remembered that Christina recently had cataract surgery and asked how she was doing. Even though she had entered hospice, we had no idea that she would shift from frailty to dying just a few hours later that afternoon. Thanks to technology, my sister, Kathy, who lives nearby, was able to alert and help gather all four of us daughters so we could be present to our mother’s last hour of life. While Kathy held her hand, we other daughters (in Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina) held vigil via Zoom. We shared scripture and music and the promise that we would take care of each other. We gave her permission to let go. As we played Dvorak’s Going Home from the New World Symphony, our mother, the organist, let go of this life and moved on to her next.

Mom’s casket. Three of us daughters, three grandchildren, and five great grandchildren attended a simple graveside service observing Covid protocols, acknowledging that we were each standing in for dozens of family members who could not travel because of the pandemic. Photo by granddaughter Kyle Anderson.

 

Since our father’s death seven years ago, after 65 years of marriage, Mom transferred out of the family home to an assisted living campus near Kathy. My sisters and I phoned her nearly every day for the last couple of years, being especially diligent as she shifted into nursing care and during this time of pandemic isolation. Many times she called us before we reached her. We were her lifeline as her capabilities diminished. It was an honor to have these conversations and shared insights into one another. Mom tackled her last phase of life with the same resilience and steadiness that led her through the birth and raising of four daughters, the arrival of thirteen grandchildren and then 28 great grandchildren.

Susie, Kathy, Mom, Ann, and Margaret on a 2018 trip up the North Shore of Lake Superior.Photo by waitress.

 

She was a classic woman of her generation—wife, mother, community member, and also a talented piano player and church organist. In many ways our mother was the epitome of the American Dream. Her parents both immigrated to this country as teenagers with their Swedish siblings. They were poor and hardworking. Mom lived through the Depression and never forgot the frugality and hard work of those years. She lived her whole life with the values of love, kindness,  and honesty. These are the values that endeared “Astie” to her many descendants. These are the values needed now more than ever in our country. Thank you, mom, for this powerful legacy. We will not forget.

There are so many stories to share when you live as long as our mother did, but the one I  choose to focus on here is how much I learned from her about writing. Her penmanship was impeccable. Her commitment to writing letters was multi-generational. And she always paid attention to the proper use of language!

My immigrant grandmother, Vendla, taught herself to read and write English. She never got back to Sweden to see her family, so she counted on letters as the link to that other life. Mom often spoke about watching her sit down at the dining room table, Swedish/English dictionary at her side, writing those letters.  The imprint was strong. Mom in turn always took time to write her four daughters as we moved far from home. Actually, our father also wrote us letters because his father had written letters to him during his service in the Pacific Theater in World War II. The importance of communicating via the written word remains with us and has been passed on to our children and grandchildren. (In the younger generation texting and email has, of course, often replaced actual letters but the IDEA of writing is deep in the extended Brown family.)

Mom’s writing went beyond letters. In the late 1990s she and her younger sister, Helen, took one of our PeerSpirit writing seminars. I was delighted by the writing  she shared in a group much younger than herself. She joined a writing group when she moved into her long-term care center after dad passed away.

Mom on one of our writing outings.

One of the things I cherished doing with mom when I visited in recent years was driving to a nearby park to be inspired by the beauty of nature. At first she could walk, then she used a walker, and still later I pushed her in a wheelchair. We would sit and look, sometimes read a Mary Oliver poem, and then take some time to write our reflections. It was a beautiful way to witness my quiet, introverted mother as she articulated some of her deeper thoughts.

A sample journal entry by mom

This snippet of her writing that I share here came from a shared moment with my sister, Margaret. After a fall,  mom had been moved from the assisted living wing into the nursing wing. Susie had come earlier to help our local sister, Kathy. Margaret and I arrived to help disassemble her assisted living apartment. Mom, Margaret, and I paused for an afternoon tea break and took a moment of quiet to reflect on the statement at the top of her page: Little things make a big difference.

You see here her beautiful penmanship even at age 92, her appreciation of our presence, and her getting used to the name of the new place that would be her home for the rest of her days. By having parents who lived for so many decades, I have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to live into old age. And I had a chance to internalize what an extraordinary role model my dear mother was for me. I walk now in her footsteps, in my own way, as best I can.

Graveside service bulletin. Photo by granddaughter Kyle Anderson.

The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!