Saturday, August 22, 2009
Less than two weeks left in August! Thistledown and fireweed fluff float through the golden air. The native plants in our front yard are well on their way to becoming a mini-forest. Flowering red currants and twinberries are loaded with berries, as are huckleberries, red osier dogwood, and snowberry shrubs. Rose hips are reddening. Flying creatures buzz, dart, and flit through sun and shady patches—black-and-yellow bees and wasps, smaller insects too, as well as butterflies and birds.
The thermometer reads close to eighty, but a feeling in the air tells us fall is near. Is it leftover chill from the cool morning? Is it something added by the changing angle of the sun? Maybe it’s the scent rising from the fields below our hill where crops are ripening. Or the sweet smell of blackberries ready for picking.
Whatever it is, something of my childhood returns to me every year at this time. I remember the giddy anticipation of a new school year—old friends, brand-new pencils and tablets, new things to learn. We're reluctant to say goodbye to the unstructured days of summer. There's a depth of sweetness in end-of-summer activities. The cold river has finally warmed enough to spend entire afternoons splashing in the swimming hole. Our mother's labors in the kitchen make the house smell of peaches and pickling spices. We bring in huckleberries from the woods for her to turn into our favorite jam. And she makes our other favorite jam, blackberry, from the little mountain berries we’ve picked as a family in the high, logged-over areas on nearby hills.
The little berries were hard to find, but we knew our best chance was to search a recently- logged area. The vines sprawled over stumps and dead brush and crept along the ground, hard to see unless we knew what we were looking for. The biggest, juiciest treasures grew in the shade of other plants. When we found a patch, we called the nearest parent or sibling to come share the bounty.
Nothing is tastier than those native blackberries. They can still be found in open, recently cleared spaces, but an interloper has crowded its way into many of the haunts they once claimed...an interloper with larger, more bountiful, easier-to-find fruits.
The Himalayan blackberry came from seeds imported and developed by none other than Luther Burbank, the genius who gave us many new or improved varieties of plants back in the mid-1800s. It’s a vigorous, adaptable grower whose stout, sharp thorns discourage those who try to dig it up. Birds love the sweet fruits and disperse the seeds far and wide. The masses of canes, up to thirty feet long, overwhelm native plant life and crowd it out. It’s a bully of a plant.
Genesis 1:31 says, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Even those pesky Himalayan brambles have something good about them. The berries are delicious. Hank and I picked a couple more gallons this morning in less than two hours. Tonight we’ll have blackberry cobbler. I’ve already made jam. And we’ll have pies this winter to remind us of these golden August days.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV).
Hank and I walked from the dimness of the Makah Cultural and Research Center museum at Neah Bay into bright summer sunshine. I love the feeling of history that pervades that place. It’s not at all like most USA small-town historical museums. No stagecoaches, no old-time wash machines, no photos of early-day street scenes. The history here goes way back, thousands of years before the European arrival on New World shores.
Five hundred years ago, a mudslide buried the Makah village at nearby Ozette, perfectly preserving everyday household articles, tools, basketry, ceremonial objects...all made of ordinarily perishable fiber, bone, and wood. Archaeologists and modern-day Makahs rescued these artifacts and used them to reconstruct parts of the ancient culture lost with the coming of the white man. They built the museum to share that culture with visitors and to teach it to their young people. The past, the present, and the future come together here.
We’d observed how the Makahs adapted to the changing natural cycles: gathering roots, berries, shellfish and other necessities; fishing; seal hunting; whaling. Their long houses built of cedar planks were well-suited to the cool, rainy climate. We marveled at their ingenuity—from constructing end-to-end whalebone and driftwood drains to carry rainwater away from their houses—right down to the tiny torches that seal hunters wore on their headbands while searching dark sea-caves for their quarry.
We drove through the town of Neah Bay to Cape Flattery—the westernmost headland of the contiguous United States—to one of our favorite places: a three-quarter mile trail leading through fir and cedar forest to the point of the Cape.
It’s a popular trail. We lingered while other hikers passed us on the new boardwalk, noting scars on cedars where Indian women had once harvested bark for making mats, baskets, hats, capes, and other articles of clothing. We imagined them picking huckleberries and salmonberries, thimbleberries, and salal berries like those growing in the understory beside the trail.
In weather less calm than this, visitors hear waves crashing into the cliffs long before they see the ocean. On this day, we heard mostly the cries of seabirds echoing through the forest. Then the point narrowed. From either side of the trail we looked down into blue-green waters reflecting the sedimentary bluffs and sea stacks.* Arching caverns yawned deep into the bluffs. The scene looked like it hadn’t changed for an eternity, but a sign posted along the trail informed us that on a stormy day, we would feel waves crashing into those caves, shaking the whole point. Someday, who knows how far into the future, the roofs of the caves will collapse and the point we stood on will erode into the sea.
Fog had closed in by the time we reached the final viewpoint, hiding nearby Tatoosh Island from view. In summer, Makah families once camped on the island to dry their winter’s fish supply. Whalers set out in sea-going canoes to intercept their migrating prey. Later, the Coast Guard used the island. An inoperative lighthouse still stands.
On my first-ever visit to this magical place, I peered into the dark caves where bold hunters once swam in pursuit of seals, imagining them armed only with spears and the tiny torch flames on their headbands. Even from above, the water looked frigid.
Suddenly, a pale shape rose from the nearby depths. My heart nearly stopped as the apparition grew larger and larger. A big, sleek head popped up, followed by huge shoulders and flippers. Two-thirds of the creature was still underwater--the biggest sea lion I’d ever seen. Two dark, inscrutable eyes peered into mine. The creature blinked and sank straight down and out of sight like a spirit from the deep.
Today, the waters are full of orange hemispheres trailing whitish tentacles. Squid? “No,” said the Makah ranger, a woman, stationed at the overlook to answer visitors’ questions. “They’re migrating jellyfish. It happens about this time every year.” She didn’t know where they came from or where the current would take them. But as far as she knew, they always came and always would come.
That would be nice. But history—ours, the Makahs’, that of the ocean creatures—tells us that nothing lasts forever. Yet, God has set eternity in the heart of man, and he has made everything beautiful in its time. He has done that to turn our hearts to our Maker. I think that’s what I feel most powerfully when I walk the Cape Flattery trail.
* Columns of rock cut away from the main mass of rock by wave erosion and standing alone, often crowned with their own small forests.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
When my husband suggested a vacation trip recently, the tedium of a long car ride loomed large. Projects needed doing. I preferred to stay in my familiar holding pattern. But obviously, Hank wanted to go, so I arranged with a feline-loving friend to take care of our cats Popcorn and Peanut and to water our flowers.
Hank’s home-town high-school reunion was to be only a little more than 200 miles to the southwest of our home. But we took a long way around to get there. First, we drove north to cross Deception Pass bridge, then south down Whidbey Island. My enthusiasm quickened when I sighted dozens of brightly colored sails moving across the sunny waters near Oak Harbor. From a restaurant in Coupeville, above Penn Cove, we watched dozens more sailboats gliding back and forth in a slow motion race...a lovely serendipity.
We crossed Admiralty Inlet on a ferry so small that every storm halts its operation. Near Sequim we stopped to walk a sandy path topping the dramatic bluffs at Dungeness State Park. The pale bluffs contrasted with the deep blue of Puget Sound far below. Suddenly, a fountain of spray broke the undulating pattern of swells. A whale’s long, dark back broke the surface, then disappeared. Again and again, we saw spouts from at least three gray whales feeding in the shallow waters. More serendipity!
From there we drove on to Port Angeles to
visit my sister Patty. For the first time we
saw Patty’s new home and garden; small
but beautiful jewels reflecting her creative
skills. The next morning, she suggested
we drive to nearby Hurricane Ridge in the
Olympic Mountains to see the wildflower
display. Up a narrow, winding road we went,
heading into the sky. The steep slopes above
and below us wore borders and splashes and
carpets of wildflowers. We pulled off for a
face-to-face inspection. They were lovely.
I have photos to prove it.
From Port Angeles, we drove on toward Neah Bay,
Washington’s westernmost town. The road winds along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with picturesque sea stacks, wild beaches, and views of distant Vancouver Island. We walked the shore and watched fog drifting in and out and even rising from the damp sand beneath our feet. Another serendipity.
We hiked to Cape Flattery where the Makah Indians once hunted whales. We visited ocean beaches to the south, along Washington’s coast. We stopped at a village called Taholah. A spit piled with huge, silvered logs and stumps--a graveyard for the bones of old growth forest--guards the mouth of the Quinault River where it slows before discharging into the surf. Lines of stakes curve out into the calm river where Indians still fasten their nets in an age-old method of set netting. I’ve seen Alaska natives on the Yukon and Koyokuk do it the same way.
On Highway 101, between Aberdeen and Raymond, we passed through thousands of acres of forest leveled by 125 mile-an-hour winds in December, 2007. Trees lay like spilled toothpicks, tops all pointing in the same direction, an awesome sight. We’re not supposed to have hurricanes in Washington, but tell that to foresters trying to clean up the mess.
By now I’d lost count of serendipities. We arrived at Washougal, Hank’s former home at the entrance to the Columbia Gorge. After a wonderful reunion with high school friends as well as relatives, we attended his former church. I hugged our 90-year-old friend Hazel and her husband Clias. Hazel had been felled by a simultaneous stroke and heart attack the year before. We never thought we’d see her again...but here she was, walking and laughing and thrilled to see us. I stroked the velvety head of her newest great-grandbaby. These church folks had been my friends for only nine years, but some of them had crossed into old age in that time and young people were now middle-aged. We stood talking with Hazel and Clias about the changes in the church. Clias looked from the newborn to his wife, and said, “Yes, one by one, we come...and we leave.”
My heart flooded with gratitude for one more chance to reconnect with these people we loved. The trip I dreaded had surprised me with such a shower of blessings, I can’t even remember why I didn’t want to go!
There's nothing like a good reunion to hammer home the brevity of life. How can it happen that one day we're young, with limitless possibilities ahead; the next, the years of our lives have whirled into the past as if carried away by a speeding train?
We’ve just returned from Hank’s small town high-school reunion in Washougal, Washington. It’s been fifty-seven years since he graduated. Some schoolmates present graduated in the early 1930s; others, in the late ‘60s. Some never left Washougal. Others came from all over the United States, not having seen their classmates since they graduated. Hank’s bemused expression let me know that he, like everyone else, was searching countenances etched with a lifetime’s experiences for the fresh-faced teenagers he remembered. Name tags helped. Before long the meeting room resounded with laughter and joyous reconnecting. I listened to the stories swirling around me and marveled at the way life changes us.
Hank’s first girlfriend was there. But he went away to college and never looked back. I heard him apologize to her for that. She married someone else and raised a wonderful family. It’s too late to regret what did or didn’t happen, but still...do they wonder, What if?
One of the school’s former star athletes sat across from us. He seemed very quiet. Then I learned that he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Another graduate, a watcher and listener like me, had brought his book to sell...a collection of memories about growing up in Washougal. I bought one for Hank because the two shared similar experiences even though they barely knew one another.
The oldest graduates there were in their nineties; the youngest still busy at their careers. Committee members’ adult children and teen grandchildren served at the banquet. The whole gamut of life—energetic youth to slow and painful old age—was represented in that room.
I couldn’t help wondering what those polite young people were thinking. I hope they find it incomprehensible that someday their smooth skin will sag and wrinkle, their strong backs will bend under the weight of years. They deserve their time to dream. I hope their possibilities become realities.
I hope their realities include the kind of life-long connections and good memories that will someday bring them back to a reunion like this one.