Winter solstice brings some peace on Earth

P1230855.JPGA winter bouquet of wild Nootka rose hips, snowberries and salal, all gathered on Center Island, decorates The Nuthatch cabin’s entry.

IMG_7955AFTER MORE THAN A WEEK OF LASHING WINDS, this winter solstice brought peace to our bit of Earth: a calm day of weak but welcome sunshine on Center Island.

Barbara and I grabbed the chance to scoot across Lopez Sound in WeLike, our 1957 Skagit runabout, to go get some fresh eggs from the red house. (A hand-painted sign at the corner of Lopez Hill Road and Center Road says simply “Brown eggs at red house,” with an arrow, so that’s where we go to pick up cartons of fresh eggs the color of creamy cocoa and leave our money in a tin outside. We’ve never seen the chickens or the farmers. It’s simply “the red house.”)

On the way there, WeLike threw us a challenge. The boat’s big Evinrude lost power 100 yards from the Hunter Bay dock. It didn’t stop, it just slowed dramatically, so we were able to creep up to the dock. Probably a clogged fuel filter, possibly easily solved. It meant we used our little 6-horse kicker motor for the return trip. A slower crossing, but we made it.

On our isolated island, we’re welcoming the solstice. The days have been so short. We notice it much more now that whim and serendipity rule our days rather than office schedules and commute times.  In practical terms, it means I have less time to chop firewood in the afternoon, or that we have to head home from Lopez by 3 if we want to be in before dark.P1230874.JPGAs seen in our tree-filtered view from The Nuthatch cabin’s deck, the winter solstice sun sets around 4 p.m. over Lopez Sound.

Tonight an all-but full moon will light up the night along with the Christmas lights that decorate our deck rail. Before bedtime last night I stepped out and saw the distinct shadow of our cabin cast by a moon that shone like a locomotive’s headlight in the inky sky above. Appropriately, the December full moon is called the Cold Moon.

Tonight we’re lighting candles and feeding a fire to celebrate the turning of the season. Like ancient Druids, we look forward to the return of longer days. On our little island, sunrise and sunset set the rhythm of our lives. 1-anchor

Challenges on Christmas Island

P1230794.JPGThe Nuthatch’s brightly lit Christmas tree, an 8-foot Nordmann fir, helps fend off the winter gloom outside. It made a long trip to get here.

IMG_7955IT’S JUST AFTER 5 P.M., pitch dark and blowing like stink, a few days before the winter solstice. It’s been blowing for a week. The 100-foot firs around our cabin are swaying like willow saplings. Branches break and fall with loud thunks on our metal roof. It’s unnerving, and a little scary.

On this isolated island in the San Juans we’re more isolated than usual. Gusts to 50 mph mean we don’t venture out on our boat, even for the quick trip across Lopez Sound, where wind-driven whitecaps do a frothy tarantella. Amazingly, we still get mail every day through the U.S. Postal Service — that “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” thing apparently includes wind, though I worry about the postal contractor who risks his life crossing Rosario Strait in a small boat to deliver Christmas cards to us.

United Parcel Service isn’t so intrepid. No hunky guys in brown shorts make it out here. They contract delivery by plane to our grass airfield. From Anacortes, our packages go by ferry to a base in Friday Harbor, from which the small orange planes of San Juan Airlines fly them to Center Island. But they don’t fly when it’s too windy. We’ve had packages sitting in a warehouse in Friday Harbor, nine miles away, since last Tuesday, including some key Christmas gifts destined to go under our tree — providing they get here. Comet, Cupid, et al, where are you when we need you?

Getting a Christmas tree here was a challenge in itself. It might seem silly to buy an 8-foot tree in Seattle and bring it to this forested island — coals to Newcastle, right? — but we don’t have enough trees of the right size on our property to harvest one every December.

So we found a nice specimen at Home Depot, rolled it in a tarp like a giant holiday burrito, secured it with duct tape and lashed it to a bike rack on our Honda Civic for the 70-mile freeway drive to Anacortes, followed by a bouncy trip across Rosario Strait on the Paraclete Charters water taxi. Wrapped up like that it looked a bit like a dead body, so we referred to it as “Uncle Fred” when friendly folks helped us hoist it on and off the boat.

The nice Nordmann fir Barbara picked out this year made the trip just fine and looks dandy just inside the front window of The Nuthatch. We decorated it yesterday and today encircled it with the customary model train set. When the train whistle blows, we can’t hear the wind roaring outside. Whoo, bloody whoo!  1-anchor

Close encounter of the Frosty kind

IMG_20181202_145152212~2We buzzed over to Lopez Island for a dump run and to pick up a few groceries on a bright and sunny December day. Happened across this guy out in the fields along Fisherman Bay Road. We suspect a local farmer had a hand in his creation, since he’s cleverly crafted from silage wrap, with what looks like tractor mirrors for eyes. I’m not sure where anybody found a scarf that long. Island time means you have time to create an eight-foot snowman at the edge of your pasture, I guess. Got a smile out of us. 1-anchor

Ready for a deep and dark December

IMG_2883.JPGA bowl of Center Island apples, soon to be Barbara’s spicy apple butter.

IMG_7955OUR HERMITAGE, which we call The Nuthatch, is providing a cozy place to nest as the days grow colder.

That’s encouraged my wife, Barbara, to indulge her creative energies in various ways. One example is the new slippers she made for herself using a process called “felting.” She tells me it’s a process many people first discovered by mistakenly putting a prized sweater through a washing machine and having it come out “just the right size for one of their friends’ babies.”

To make her slippers, she first knitted a colorful pair of what might have passed as galoshes for a Sasquatch.

IMG_2877 - Copy.JPGThe “before” shot: Barbara’s Sasquatch slippers.

I mean they were floppy and huge. She then put them through the washing machine and dryer, and voilà — or, viola! as I like to say when I’m feeling more musical — they came out soft, smooth and about a third of their original size.

The “felting” part comes because the washing and drying somehow blenderizes the knitted wool so that all stitches disappear. The resulting texture resembles a soft, felt hat. There will be no cold feet in the Cantwell cabin!IMG_2882 - Copy.JPGAfter washing and drying: felt slippers to keep feet cozy through the winter.

Another of her creative efforts has been a large batch of apple butter. An ancient, gnarled apple tree — probably a century old — near Center Island’s community clubhouse bears fruit that ripens to a glorious crimson blush in late fall. This year’s harvest was larger than usual, and islanders took turns picking apples to go into many a cobbler, brown betty and other delight. After others had their turn, so many apples remained unpicked that we decided action must be taken. We borrowed the community step ladder — an ungainly three-legged affair that towers about 12 feet high — and while Barbara steadfastly gripped the third leg I braved the teetering heights to fill a shopping bag. The result: many jars of locavore, Center Island apple butter, ready to remind us of autumn’s spicy bounty well into the darkest days of winter.

Happy December! cropped-1-anchor.jpg

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
Paul Simon

Being thankful at The Nuthatch

P1230672.JPGNot everyone can pull off the fashion statement that is onion goggles: Daughter Lillian creates her famous onion gravy on Thanksgiving Day.

IMG_7955THANKSGIVING came easy this year. Our daughter, Lillian, and my brother Tom came for the holiday. We had a vegan feast and celebrated Tom’s retirement, which happened just last week.

At 66, my oldest brother had waited a few more years than I to eschew the daily grind. But like me, he’s going for a major change of scene. This week he moves from Portland, Oregon, to a small ranch near the Mexican border of Arizona, joining a new partner he met online. A big change for Tom, and maybe a challenge, but it sure won’t be boring.

Typically, we had a cold and very windy Thanksgiving, but — thank you weather gods — the power stayed on. (We all remember a turkey partially roasted on a Coleman stove at our parents’ place on Whidbey Island way back when.)

P1230676.JPGNo birds gave their lives for dinner at The Nuthatch this Thanksgiving.

Our feast included brilliant orange winter squash, from Horse Drawn Farm on Lopez Island, filled with a mix of wild rice and vegan sausage, along with a tray bake of beets, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, carrots and garlic cloves. Tom brought a tasty cranberry jelly accented with pomegranate to supplement our usual cranberry-from-a-can (which Barbara insists is “art deco” style because of the ridges in the cranberry sauce). Lilly made her masterpiece onion gravy — the girl has the gift — to go atop mashed potatoes and a vat of sage-rich dressing. P1230669.JPGLilly also created her trademark pecan-pie-in-a-skillet for our Thanksgiving dessert.

She also baked a pretty pecan pie to go along with Barbara’s dark, rich, cardamom-laced pumpkin pie. I poured the wine (Washington chardonnay and Sonoma pinot noir), took pictures — and helped eat it all! (Burp.)

The day after Thanksgiving, Barbara packed us off with faux-turkey and dressing sandwiches, and Lil, Tom and I went for a delightful hike at Deception Pass State Park before I deposited them back at the bus station in Mount Vernon.P1230742.JPGThe day after Thanksgiving, Tom gets a dose of maritime beauty at Deception Pass before heading for the Arizona desert.

On the drive back to the Anacortes dock, I passed flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans, arriving in the Skagit Valley right on schedule. Honk if you love holiday time in the Pacific Northwest. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

Seeing stars (and nobody fell down)

IMG_2895.JPGWith my dopiest hat to keep me warm, it was a night to watch for the shooting stars of November.

IMG_7955YOU COULD SEE IT in their wide eyes. Our two cats thought we’d finally gone ’round the bend.

It was 1:45 Sunday morning — a sailor would call it O’Dark Thirty — and Barbara and I were bundled up, she in her warmest sweater, I in my Elmer Fudd hat, and heading out the door of the Nuthatch cabin.

Nothing was on fire. The house wasn’t flooded. Our bed was comfy as ever, yet we had set an alarm and climbed out from beneath the winter quilt many hours before breakfast. The kitties were miffed.

When a geezer such as myself tells someone he is seeing stars, the common questions are, “Did you slip on ice? Have you broken a hip? Got a concussion?”

No, this was the peak of the annual Leonids meteor shower, a night-sky phenomenon generated by Earth’s crossing of the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which is not known for its neatness. It leaves behind chunks of space debris that become blazing fireballs as they plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.

It happens every year around November 17 and 18, but you have to spend some time in a good dark place between midnight and dawn to see the show. For us, it was a serendipitous thing. Barbara saw an item about it online yesterday and told me the peak viewing time for our area would be at 1:52 a.m.

“Let’s get up and see it!” Barbara suggested.

I was all for it. Here we were, on a remote island with a dark, cloudless sky, newly retired and with plenty of opportunity to catch up on our sleep. This is what ditching the office is all about.

We’d walk up to the Center Island air field, about 300 feet through the woods behind our cabin, we agreed. That would give us a good wide view rather than peering up through the tall firs surrounding the Nuthatch. Before bedtime, we’d make a Thermos of something hot to drink on our adventure.

Leaving the cabin at the appointed hour, I wore a headlamp and Barbara toted a flashlight as we carried mugs of steaming apple cider to ward off the upper-30s cold. As we followed a path toward the grassy air field, I suddenly saw another light in the woods. Did a neighbor have the same idea? Were we not alone out in the dark?

The other light became two big dots of light, just a few inches apart, and shining just as intensely as my headlamp. That finally made sense as a deer’s face materialized out of the murk 20 feet away. In another moment the laser-like reflective eyes turned and the big animal clambered into the brush.

Breathe normally now, Brian.

Reaching the air field, we tilted our heads back and gasped at the heavenly, van Gogh-ish panorama of stars above, bound by a smeary ribbon of Milky Way light.

“Wow, look at Orion, you can even see his knees,” Barbara exclaimed. A little to the west, the seven stars of the Pleiades pulsed in and out — a bit like a deer appearing out of dark woods, then vanishing again.

Barbara saw the first shooting star. I missed it. This wasn’t a year for one of the meteor storms the Leonids occasionally bring. Witnesses to a 1966 Leonids storm over the southwestern United States reported up to 3,000 meteors per minute. An average year such as this brings a modest 10 to 15 per hour. But seeing even a few can be a treat.

The night was still and quiet until we heard a distant banshee cry. A coyote maybe? It came from the direction of Decatur Island. I didn’t know they had them. Might have been an odd owl. Just when you think you’re alone again.

“There!” I called out to Barbara as a light streaked low in the southern sky. “Another straight overhead,” we cried in unison. “And another!”

After 20 minutes, the cricks in our necks, the gradually penetrating cold and the emptiness of our cider mugs convinced us to call it a night. I’d seen four meteors and Barbara six.

As we turned back toward our cabin, the Big Dipper floated hugely above, pointing, as always, toward Polaris, the North Star, an old friend from our ocean-sailing days. A star to steer by is a comfort on a dark night, even if you’re just on your way back to bed.

“I’m so glad we did this!” Barbara said as we stepped back inside our cozy cabin. I heartily agreed.

The cats? They thought we were nuts. 1-anchor

Who knew a trip to the dump could be so much fun?

P1230637.JPGA Lopezian with a classic Chevy pickup disposes of trash at the Lopez Dump, where “Absolute Garbage” is what’s left after you’ve dropped off recyclables and reusable items.

IMG_7955REGULAR READERS (BOTH OF YOU) will know that trash disposal is a challenge on our island, where the garbage truck doesn’t stop. You’ve seen those “Pack It In, Pack It Out” signs at wilderness trailheads? We should have one on our dock.

That’s right, there is no system of trash collection or disposal for the 24 or so full-time residents who call Center Island home (or for the many more vacation-home owners who come for weekends or summer visits).

What there is, is the famous Lopez Dump, on the next island over.

That’s what they call it, even on a handcrafted sign out front, though that label is tongue-in-cheek. The name suggests an old-style, 20th-century landfill, where you backed up your station wagon anywhere that you wouldn’t get mired in mud and unceremoniously shoved your discards into a malodorous, open-air heap to be picked over by rats, crows, gulls and maybe the family that lived in a shanty behind a pile of old cars.

The Lopez Dump is actually a transfer station, like in the big city. Partially staffed by volunteers, it is operated with a phenomenal degree of good-sense environmental and community sensitivity. On its website, I even found a Mission Statement: “The Lopez Solid Waste Disposal District provides a convenient local facility for solid waste collection with reuse and recycle options, operated in a fiscally, socially, and environmentally responsible manner with a goal to educate and inspire the community to reduce waste.”

But it’s a fun place, too.

Every two weeks or so, we pack our recyclables and bagged trash into a few plastic storage totes, cram them aboard our 20-foot runabout and convey them to Lopez Island’s Hunter Bay public dock, where we keep our Ford pickup. Everything goes in the pickup for the 8-mile drive to The Dump, on the edge of Lopez Village.

At the gate, we pay $4.50 per 18-gallon tote of trash. Usually we have only one or two totes of trash, because most of what we bring goes into their astoundingly thorough recycling operation.

P1230626.JPGFriendly recycling advisors help guide you to the right bins at the Lopez Dump.

The recycling station is our first stop. A line of receptacles is precisely labeled with the type of plastic, paper, cardboard, metal or glass that is accepted. In case you’re not sure what goes where (is this cat-food can aluminum or steel?), a friendly recycling advisor in an orange vest is there to guide you. For a small charge, they’ll accept bags of mixed recycling items, but if you sort it yourself there’s no fee.

Got something like an old lamp that you’ve replaced or just don’ t need anymore? Next stop is the Take It or Leave It shop. Here, they’ll accept almost anything that has potential for reuse by another islander. Out front is a lineup of used bikes, slightly crotchety lawnmowers, even — yes — kitchen sinks. The difference between this and, say, Value Village or Goodwill? Here, you can donate things, for sure, but you can also pick up anything you see and take it home at no charge. Be careful, though; a few months ago when I let the rambunctious volunteers know I was a first-timer, they insisted that all first-timers were required to take home a mower. (I quickly managed to get lost behind the bins of old shoes.)

P1230607.JPGBarbara carries items ready to donate to the Take It or Leave It shop.

Barbara and I have quickly grown to love Take It or Leave It, and other visitors often make a beeline for it whenever they’re on Lopez. Barbara picked up a like-new Vera Wang handbag (we proudly call it her Dump Purse). I got the Polk Audio computer speakers on which I listen to the Troubadours Channel on Amazon Prime Music while I pound on my laptop in Wee Nooke. (Yes, us rustic islanders can be modern on occasion.)

In return we’ve donated books, kitchen tools, an old carpet sweeper and more.

Our last stop on Dump Day is the giant dumpster where we toss away what nobody else can use. Appropriately, signs label this as “Absolute Garbage.” Yep, they call it like it is at the Lopez Dump. cropped-1-anchor.jpg

You’re never too old for Halloween

IMG_2872.JPGA ghostly Barbara and Brian with our scary pirate jack-o-lantern, carved from a pumpkin grown on Lopez Island’s Horse Drawn Farm. Below: I caught a photo of the Nuthatch cabin’s only trick-or-treater. (He wasn’t very good at obeying signs, and I’m sure I heard some grumbling about how “the people next door gave out big Snickers bars last year.”) cropped-1-anchor.jpg.

sharper squirrel with sign

A bullet dodged, a horticultural opportunity gained

IMG_7955WHEN WE ERECTED WEE NOOKE (nee the Wendy House) on our rocky knoll in the summer of 2004, we put it in a nice spot beneath a pretty lodge-pole pine tree. It was the only pine on our half-acre, which has lots of Douglas firs, a handful of pretty hemlocks, some willows and maples, a few cedars and two lonely madronas.P1220413The “before” picture: You can see the pine leaning over the rear corner of Wee Nooke, my writing hut on Center Island. Lower branches look bare, but plenty of healthy pine boughs remained up top.

The pine leaned slightly, just enough to give the 6-foot-square cedar shed a bit of summer shade and a little protection from winter rains or snow.

It wasn’t a very big tree then. But in the ensuing 14 years, it had grown much larger, even sprouting a secondary trunk. And a week or so ago it occurred to me that it was leaning more than before, and a little bit too much in a not-so-good direction.

It had gotten quite big — almost 50 feet tall. I hated the thought, but maybe I should have it taken down before it squashed my writing hut — my beloved Wee Nooke. Named for a country cottage that P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster once rented, it is one of the things in my new life that gives me great pleasure. I sit beneath sunny windows at a writing desk I built myself, listen to music from a pair of nice Polk Audio speakers I got for free at the Lopez Dump’s “Take It or Leave It” shop, and peck away at my keyboard — writing blog posts, newspaper and book assignments, correspondence with friends, etc. This winter, I might have a new mystery novel in me.

Last Friday, during a sun break after a night of heavy rain and some wind, Barbara and I took a walk around our island, and as we returned down the back path I spotted Wee Nooke — without the pine tree above it.

IMG_2839.JPGThe “after” shot, looking from the back: In death, the double-trunked pine decided my writing hut should live.

Our night’s wind hadn’t seemed dramatic. I guess the combination of wind, lots of rain and just the accumulated top-heaviness had finally brought down the pine.

Some of the big branches missed Wee Nooke by not much more than my shoe size. Amazingly, the structure showed nary a scratch.

I felt overwhelmed with mixed emotions: Sadness at losing the lone pine that had been the centerpiece of our rocky knoll. Relief that it hadn’t mashed my writing hut like a mound of boiled Yukon Golds.

It meant a busy couple of days with my chainsaw. The spot on our Back 40 where I had just recently cleared away a giant mound of fallen tree limbs that had collected over several years is, once again, a giant mound of tree limbs. (Keeping this property tidy is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge; you finish in one direction and then start over from the other end. Sigh.)

IMG_2842.JPGWee Nooke’s new look, with firewood stacked on the front porch.

The silver (and gold) linings: I don’t have to worry quite so much about running out of firewood. And I’ve been wanting to experiment with planting some quaking aspens here. They grow naturally on Lopez and Sucia islands, if not elsewhere in the San Juans, so I’d like to try planting some on our knoll, to enjoy the maraca-like serenade of their windblown leaves and the rich gold color they turn in autumn. Another adventure in island horticulture awaits. 1-anchor