food, farming, friends and family: a meditation on chosen simplicity and (in)voluntary complications – life.

Retirement: Lessons Learned From Water

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In what I’ve been calling my temporary retirement (Bellingham is, after all, the other place young people go to retire), I’ve been trying to soak in all of the things I love so dearly about the Pacific Northwest.  When I look back at the last month, I realize just how literal the soaking was; all of my adventures about the area have taken me to water.  It began with my trip to Oregon with Neil (my partner in retirement – in all things, really), where we spent a couple of days with his family walking around the Fernhill Wetlands watching all kinds of birds fly from pond to tree to pond again.  A hike on the outskirts of Portland with Al to see the mighty Columbia meander its way through the Gorge.  Soaking in the soothing sulphur springs with Virginia at Doe Bay on Orcas Island.  A beautiful weekend with my favorite Seattle-ites in a cabin in La Push on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula, where the waves roared in a winter storm and a forest’s worth of driftwood scattered the beach.  And just a few days ago, Neil and I took the train up to Vancouver, BC and spent an afternoon at the aquarium there, fully cementing my love for sea otters and fascination with all things that make their homes in the water.


I, myself, do not feel particularly at home or at ease in the water.  Surfing seems like a death sentence and I envy those that can make swimming seem less like a struggle and more like cohesion.  I enjoy being near water, but the interactions I have with the element usually feel out of my control, based more on the whim and power of the water itself than any influence I might have.  Not a phobia, but definitely a healthy dose of (at times nervous) respect.  Awe.


This past month has reminded me, though, of the constant presence water has in this area (further reinforced by the mini-hail storm happening just outside my window) and in my life.  As much as it exists in our oceans, rivers and alpine lakes, it has a place in our subconscious too.  And the more time I spend with it, the more I become aware of the lessons water has to teach us.


It combines and balances grace and power – patience and urgency – in the most mesmerizing way.

It maintains a healthy relationship with the moon.

It’s rarely linear, preferring a zig-zaggy meandering to a straight shot.

It cycles through its existence, the product of countless sources and environmental influences – shifting shapes, but omnipresent.


My upcoming travels (my study abroad, as my sister calls it) are taking me to the midwest – a land of lakes whose precipitation of choice (or non-choice, rather) at the moment is a heavy blanket of snow.  More lessons to learn – insulation and patience, perhaps?  Time will tell.  For now, some words from a man who describes my current home like no one else can:


Puget Sound may be the most rained-on body of water on earth.  Cold, deep, steep-shored, home to salmon and lipstick-orange starfish, the Sound lies between the Cascades and the Olympics.  The Skagit Valley lies between the Cascades and the Sound–sixty miles north of Seattle, an equal distance south of Canada.  TheSkagit River, which formed the valley, begins up in British Columbia, leaps and splashes southwestward through the high Cascade wilderness, absorbing glaciers and sipping alpine lakes, running two hundred miles in total before all fish-green, driftwood cluttered and silty, it spreads its double mouth like suckers against the upper body of Puget Sound.  Toward the Sound end of the valley, the fields are rich with river silt, the soil ranging from black velvet to a blond sandy loam.  Although the area receives little unnfiltered sunligh, peas and strawberriesgrow lustily in Skagit fields, and more than half the world’s supply of beet seed and cabbage seed is harvested here.  Like Holland, which it in some ways resembles, it supports a thriving bulb industry: in spring its lowland acres vibrate with tulips, iris and daffodils; no bashful hues.  At any season, it is a dry duck’s dream.  The forks of the river are connected by a network of sloughts, bedded with ancient mud nad lined with cattail, tules, eelgrass and sedge.  The fields, though diked, are often flooded; there are puddles by the hundreds and the roadside ditches could be successfully navigated by midget submarines.  

It is a landscape in a minor key.  A sketchy panorama where objects, both organic and inorganice, lack well-defined edges and tend to melt together in a silver-green blur.  Great islands of craggy rock arch abruptly up out of the flats, and at sunrise and moonrise these outcroppings are frequently tangled in mist.  Eagles nest on the island crowns and blue herons flap through the veils from slough to slough.  It is a poetic setting, one which suggests inner meanings and invisible connections.

Tom Robbins
Another Roadside Attraction


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