Yellow Island: A Place of Beauty

The first time I ever went to Yellow Island in 1996, I was with  a blind woman—a much loved and respected member of my community.  While the rest of us feasted on riotous colors and sweeping views, she was carefully led to perfumed scents, the rough touch of lichen against rock, smooth and cool Madrona bark, and the raised letters of the memorial to homesteaders Lew and Tib Dodd.

I think that was when I first glimpsed the complex character of this small island.  Only 11 acres, The Nature Conservancy’s preserve manages to feel like an entire world, existing almost out of time in the middle of the San Juan Islands.

I didn’t go back for years. When I did, I was in charge of my first group of Beach Watchers and busy with conversations and logistics during nearly all of the intense training period. That visit to Yellow almost ended with me spending all my time in the cabin, talking and planning. At the last minute, I dashed out, alone and well behind the guided group. I was astonished at the power of the island, and the incredible sense of being somewhere far away, though I was in familiar territory between San Juan  and Orcas islands. The wind was blowing hard and the taste of wild was in the air. I didn’t forget that stolen moment in the 5 visits I have had since.

It was a great honor to go back to Yellow recently, in the company of my friend, the caretaker of this Nature Conservancy gem, Phil Green, along with composer and blogger Alex Shapiro and her partner Dan, and naturalist/author and blogger Monika Wieland and Keith. Note the common theme of blogger. Alex is an amazing composer and her blog about life in the San Juan Islands is a joy to read Monika is an incredible photographer and naturalist who is building quite a compendium of local knowledge about life in and around the Salish Sea

From Yellow Island, I know what a San Juan prairie looks like.  Perhaps “prairie” is not the best name…  It might conjure up rolling fields of grass. But the rich and amazing prairie of Yellow Island is not that at all. It is a fragile remnant of what much of the islands used to look like, thanks to the Native American practice of burning.  It is also a place that has been carefully managed to keep away invasive species, guiding and educating visitors so that careless behavior doesn’t destroy the delicate seasonal pageant of an intricate ecosystem . What a remarkable difference.

On this, my 7th trip to Yellow, I thought back to what our blind explorer experienced.  It was also the first time I had taken in quite a few to be still. Instead of shepherding anyone around and talking, I laid on my back in the middle of the path and listened to the heartbeat of the island. It is a place of sound. In constant motion, harbor seals stirred, flapping flippers, grunting, and splashing.

The sweet song of white crowned sparrow floated over the air, interspersed with the whirring wing whistle of the rufous  hummingbird. When I stopped again in the north side of the island, the low buzzing of the orange-rumped or black tailed bumble bee (Bombus melanopygus), filled the space around me.  The western buttercups that gave the island its name were dominant, a yellow canvas dotted with the blue of camas and the bronzed tones of Chocolate lily. It was abundantly clear to me what a miracle was right before me: the collaboration of native flowers and native pollinators.

I was listening to the sound of life—one that has been threatened nearly to extinction  in many other  places. It brought forth a favorite quote by one of my heroes, John Muir:“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

Yellow Island is that kind of place. I give gratitude to all that conspired to allow me a day to once again delight in its beauty.



How the Salish Sea Got its Name

The “Salish Sea” was first proposed by Dr. Bert Webber in 1988. ImageAs a Canadian living in western Washington and a professor at Huxley College of Environmental Studies, a cluster college of Western Washington University (and my alma mater), he recognized our US vs. Canada thinking hindered our ability to see the whole bioregion.  And this special ecosystem needed a name. He called it the Salish Sea in honor of the native peoples, the Coast Salish, who lived all along its shores on both sides of the border. He proposed it to the Board of Geographic Names but at the time there wasn’t enough energy behind the name. Over time, American attachment to the name Puget Sound and Canadian connection with the Strait of Georgia gradually started to accept a third concept: a transboundary ecosystem that needed a cooperative spirit to survive.

In the early 1990’s, a landmark Environmental Cooperation Agreement was signed between the state of Washington and the province of British Columbia. Biologists working for The Puget Sound-Georgia Basin International Task Force officially noted that the wildlife and resources of the Salish Sea did not recognize a human-made border. At the same time, the concept of the Salish Sea was nurtured by many individuals and institutions in the San Juan and Gulf islands.

 ImageWhen the name was proposed again, it had the weight of the whale watching industry that ferried passengers over the invisible line daily to follow orcas which were following salmon, most of which were entering American water to return to the Fraser River in Canada.  In addition the Salish people had re-instituted the Canoe Journey, which traced the movements of their ancestors across the seamless water. This process helped to lend the strength of native voices to the term. Image


In October of 2009, the term “Salish Sea” was approved by the State and Provincial Boards of Geographic Names in Washington and B.C.  The U.S. and Canadian Boards of Geographic Names soon followed suit. The names Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia were not affected by this action. The Salish Sea is like a Google Earth experience of seeing the whole ecosystem from a little further out.

A Sense of Place Needs Presence

Or maybe it doesn’t for everybody. But I had to go all the way to the Green River in Utah to remember why a sense of place is even important. After 7 days in the Canyonlands, floating at river speed, my head and heart gradually aligned themselves to the landscape. I slowed down and time became all of one piece.

Now I am back and looking at the same face of Infinity I did with those ancient rocks, the Salish Sea itself. And without vacation, without a canoe and a reason to float, I am trying to breathe back the feeling of presence that filled me on our float trip.

People often think island life is quiet and perhaps full of solitude. That is no doubt true for many people. But not for me. My life here is fragmented between social engagements, trying to stay fit, trying to eat local and do the right thing, trying to keep our Grange alive, connecting with family and friends, and of course, the one that always falls through the cracks, nurturing creativity.

When I first moved here, I remember having the feeling of being on a boat. Our rock island, completely surrounded by sea water. I could feel the tides move, and sensed the mysterious and miraculous moods of this amazing ecosystem.  Now I remind myself how lucky I am to live here but so many things interfere with really feeling that. The language of Nature is so very different from the frenetic words and actions of humans. I know what I need to do. It is profoundly simple and one of the most difficult things I can imagine. Slow down. I don’t need to be in charge of the world.  I do need to feel, and be in, its wonder.

Welcome to One of the Last Best Places

Welcome. I live on the west side of San Juan Island in the magnificent  Salish Sea, one of Planet Earth’s “Last Best Places”. After 17 years of exploration, this place is still as fresh and tantalizing to me as the day I arrived.  Like you, I came looking for beauty and adventure. Over time, my sense of place has grown, and today, it roots me to this amazing and dynamic ecosystem.

A Last Best Place has a sense of urgency about it. It is “best” by a loosely agreed upon concept of a singular ecosystem which has immense beauty and rare biodiversity. It is “last” because all such places are threatened. Both words describe the Salish Sea.

The San Juan islands, the southern part of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands lie in the heart of the Salish Sea. This is the the transboundary hub of a larger ecosystem which contains Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.  From the San Juan Islands, you see the seamless water and quickly understand that the border is invisible to marine species and to environmental issues.

Four mountain ranges call from every angle: The U.S. Cascades and Olympics; the Canadian Coast Range and the southern Beaufort Range of Vancouver Island. You have to look carefully at the horizon to discern cloud from snow-topped peak. Fresh water tumbles through landscapes of Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Madrona and hemlock, shore pine, juniper, Garry Oak, alder and willow to the salty shoreline. Our moderate temperature is a gift of the warm Japanese current and prevailing moisture laden western winds. Our extraordinary biodiversity supports a food web from plankton to the top predators in the sea, the orca whales. It is a place of immeasurable elegance. Join me on a discovery of one of Planet Earth’s Last Best Places.

Wolf Trees, Medicinal Yews and Winter Cottonwoods

Wolf Trees

The simplest definition of a wolf tree is as follows: a very large forest tree that has a wide-spreading crown and inhibits or prevents the growth of smaller trees around it. Having said that, there is so much more to the amazing beauty and complexity of these enormous beings.

“And yes, all these years later, there’s still something beautiful in these gnarled old forms. There is no symmetry, no youthfulness, but there is a sense of history and mystery, of stories from another time and stories yet to be told. These charismatic old trees witnessed the return of the forest. They remind us that the story of this landscape, and the animals on it, is still unfolding.” From A Place for Wolf Trees.

For a great article on the value of wolf trees and some amazing photos of northeastern wolf trees, check out this link to A Place For Wolf Trees.

The Pacific Yew Tree

It is so easy to walk by it. I have, many times. But this spring, I plan to harvest the growing tips and really value this medicinal tree that grows side by side with more captivating trees.

The Pacific Yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), is found exclusively in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The Pacific Yew contains taxanes, naturally occurring compounds scientifically proven to suppress abnormal cell growth and invigorate the immune system.

Taxanes are one of the most promising of more than 120,000 plant compounds tested for anti-cancer properties. Research shows that the Pacific Yew is a rich source of beneficial phyto-chemicals (plant compounds and phytosterols) that are known to be health promoting. These constituents are concentrated in the branch tips during the growing season which is the harvesting period. Compounds include; taxanes (also known as diterpenes), which are unique to the Pacific Yew tree, lignans (lariciresinol and taxiresinol), which have been found to exert significant antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory activities, flavonoids (quercitin, rhamnetin, sciadopitysin), recognized for anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, antiviral and antibacterial properties.

The ancient Pacific Yew tree was a valuable source of traditional medicine for Native Americans and pioneers of the Pacific Northwest . Medicines were made from various parts of the Yew tree and included tea, made from leaves and bark.” Information from:

Winter Cottonwoods

On another note, this last summer, I was captivated by the floating cotton of the Fairbanks cottonwoods. It was truly magical. This January, I took a trip to visit my 88 year old and failing mom in Albuquerque. It was a lonely and taxing trip. But my eye was repeatedly delighted by the elegance of the winter cottonwoods.  The southwestern colors and the negative spaces of these gorgeous trees gave me beauty to balance the stuffy air of the assisted living home. I am in gratitude for their existence on this planet.

Heritage Trees Project Takes Root

Heritage Trees: An Introduction

Heritage trees are individual trees that are especially valued for their great size and age, or for some particular historical or cultural significance. In many parts of the world, heritage trees have been identified, formally recognized, and conserved as part of the natural and cultural heritage of a country or culture. This growing recognition of heritage trees is timely as trees of great stature and age, in particular, are vanishing around the world. (From Heritage Trees of Fiji, one of many such projects around the world). This the first of many posts about the Heritage Trees of San Juan County.

Wise Woman Tree

Sunset Wolf Tree

Wolf Sprouts From Rock

Wolf Sprouts From Rock

Wolf Sprouts From Rock

Open Heart Madrona

We Share the Same Root Madronas

Loving Madrona

Loving Madrona

Wolf Tree Family

Shining Madrona

Shining Madrona2

Shining Madrona3

Shining Madrona Base

Shining Madrona4

Tree People

Here we are, just like that in 2012.  I am behind on this blog because of many things (read holidays, getting a cold from hell, family and friends), but there has been a lot “cooking”.  One of my main intentions for this year is to plant trees, conserve trees, learn about trees, talk about trees and to document heritage trees. I got a book I wanted for Christmas: Like A Tree by Jean Shinoda Bolen. Here is a quote from the first page.
“The seed idea for this book began with the observation that there are “tree people”, and that I am one of them. A tree person has positive feelings for individual trees and an appreciation of trees . . . A tree person may have been a child who kept treasures in a tree, or had a sanctuary in one, or climbed up to see the wider worlds, a child for whom trees were places of imaginative play and retreat . . .  A tree person met up with Nature in childhood or as an adult, and like the four-footed ones who retreat to lick their wounds, may still heal emotional hurts by going to where trees are.”
Knowing something is good. Naming it gives it power. I am a tree person. I had so many experiences like the Bolen’s story:
“A huge Monterey pine (once) stood in front of the house that is now my home. . .  It never occurred to me that by a vote of a homeowners association this beautiful tree that was there before any houses went up and was in its prime could be cut down because a neighbor wanted it down and could mobilize the necessary votes. In trying to save my tree, I was in many conversations and meetings, and found that there is a world of difference between tree people and “not tree people.”

“I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” – Joyce Kilmer

“You see one tree, you¹ve seen them all.” – Attributed to Ronald Reagan

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” Wangari Maathai

Deep Time

Here’s what boggles my mind. I am made more tender toward the living world, more in awe, more in astonishment of its creation and more aware of a Divine Matrix or God or Goddess or whatever you want to call it…by my own consideration of “deep time”.
And yet… to quote an article on Deep time (the concept that the Geologic time scale is vast because the Earth is very old): “Following the Protestant Reformation, the Genesis creation stories were interpreted as holding that the Earth has existed for only a few thousand years. Proponents of scientific theories which contradicted scriptural interpretations could not only lose their academic appointments but were legally answerable to charges of heresy and blasphemy, charges which, even as late as the 18th century in Great Britain, sometimes resulted in a death sentence.”
I am glad I don’t live in that time (do I?—sometimes I wonder) and I invite you to “grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.” (quoted from mathematician John Playfair  in 1788). So, back to Oaks. This gives a whole new meaning to the word “primordial”. Start with the age of the Earth (4.54 billion years, more or less). Science indicates that something, something like an algal scum formed on land 1,200 million years ago. That’s a lot of time with no life. But thus began the The Kingdom of Plantae.

Around 450 million years ago, the first land plants appeared. 30 million years later, plants developed roots, leaves seeds and secondary wood. That was when forests first began to appear.  I am throwing the word “million” around here. I don’t know if you can take it in. I can’t, not really. That’s why, when we lose a species, or the structure that can support life it is such a big loss. It takes millions of years to evolve.

Oaks live side by side with pines and firs but they are a younger branch of the tree of life. The gymnosperms, the conifers–pines and firs– are much older, arising around the Carboniferous, about 300 million years ago.

Then at oh, about around 245–202 million years ago, the ancestors of flowering plants diverged from gymnosperms, and the first flowering plants known to exist are from 140 million years ago.

Then here is another amazing thing. They diversified. That gave them the evolutionary advantage.   The Division or Phylum Angiosperms (flowering plants) replaced conifers as the dominant trees only around 60–100 million years ago. Only. Mere youngsters. Then they started to further complicate things, developing more specialized plant parts, pollen, leaves and more orderly arrangements of their roots, stems and leaves. Over a few more million years, the Oak would evelove into 2 clades or divisions called Eudicots  and then the Rosids before coming to its first ranked division, the Order: Fagales.

This group includes the Birch family, Betulaceae, the walnut family Juglandaceae, and many others, including the beech family, Fagaceae. From there, it is further subdivided down into the Genus Quercus. All the gloroius oaks of the world are in this genus and they are found in many states and may countries.

Of special note are Quercus robur (Pedunculate or common oak) and Quercus petraea (Sessile oak).  These are the oaks that grew all over Europe, and which inspired the druid Oak Knowers. More later!