That was zen, this is now: Mindful projects in an age of quarantine

imagePutting finishing touches on our new composter. It could probably land on Mars. But at least it will help turn our banana peels and apple cores into rich black soil.

IMG_7955I CAN’T SAY I EVER truly “got” all the philosophical nuances of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when I was 20. The book, which Philosophy Now cites as the best-selling philosophy book of all time, was required reading in my first course of study at The Evergreen State College in 1976. Getting through the 500+-page book then was like swallowing 100 hamburgers. There were tasty bits — a pickle slice here, a smear of mustard there — but what a struggle.

Now, in this age of quarantine and pandemic, it has oddly come back to me.

I first thought about the book recently as I took apart WeLike’s outboard motor and carefully pieced it back together with fresh grease and carefully torqued bolts. It came to mind again as I spent this past week measuring and cutting lumber, drilling, sanding and following plans to build a new compost bin that at times seemed to rival a Mars lander in its intricacy of design.

And I realized that this time of angst and isolation is perfect for losing one’s self in a project of great detail and challenge, akin to Pirsig’s peace of mind found in comprehending the mechanical workings of his old motorcycle on a road trip from Minnesota to California. While his cycling companions relied on professional mechanics to make repairs when their new bikes developed problems, Pirsig’s character listened to his machine’s every purr and hiccup, and got out his own tool kit when it was time to smooth out his ride.

It was time to replace the “Leaning Tower of Compost.” Note the strategically placed rock that held the lid closed.

For me, keeping our new Evinrude buzzing happily through regular upkeep was a goal well met. Building the new bin was more a necessity, to replace an elderly cedar-slatted box that we’d come to call our “Leaning Tower of Compost.”

Understand, when you live on a remote island with no public services such as trash pickup, composting isn’t just something you do after waking up one morning and resolving to be more organic. It’s a necessity, unless you want to end up with a back porch buried in Hefty Lawn and Leaf Bags bulging with greasy black banana peels and rotting apple cores.

I got plans for the composter from an old Rodale guide to composting, checked out from the Lopez Island Library (which I love because they still have those lined “Date Due” stickers inside the front cover of every book, and they let you stamp the date yourself when you go through the check-out).

The Rodale plans included a complete list of needed lumber, nails, screws and hardware, which I picked up last weekend after bravely venturing to virus-ridden Seattle to visit our daughter.

With the parts assembled and the plans to study, I thought it would be a doddle. I went to work on the Nuthatch Cabin’s deck. Happily we had a week of sunshine, because it took all week to complete.

The Rodale folks are usually reliable when it comes to anything organo, but these plans were flawed. The list of lumber needed was off. The design was overly intricate, requiring some fancy powertools I don’t have. But I adapted and made it work. I even innovated a “hideaway” prop to hold the lid open. As I often tell Barbara, “I ain’t Joe Cantwell’s son for nothing.” (Dad was an aerospace engineer, my loyal reader might recall.)

In the end, our new compost bin, wrapped in shiny wire mesh to make it rodent-proof and sitting on a sturdy four-legged platform, does slightly resemble a Mars lander. With proper hinges and latches on the lid, and good air circulation on all sides, it’s a big improvement over the “Leaning Tower.”

And I enjoyed a week of mindful focus on a project that transported me away from other worries of the world.

I hear the government might send us all money to revive the economy. Maybe I’ll get an old motorcycle…1-anchor

IMG_20200319_112007964Kitty supervision is vital to most building projects, I’ve found.

Sheltering in place as winter wanes

P1290945One of our newly planted wild-currant bushes offers its first blooms in front of The Nuthatch cabin.

IMG_7955WE AWAKENED THIS MORNING, a bit groggily, to that annual harbinger of an emerging new season, that whispered wake-up call disturbing of slumber yet comforting in its message that winter won’t last.

Yes, daylight-saving time had arrived.

I stumbled downstairs to start the coffeemaker and turn the clocks ahead.

It’s a disturbing time in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle has become the coronavirus capital of America. It’s a good time to be a hermit on a small island with no public ferry.

But even here, we’re suddenly cautious about greeting neighbors fresh from the city. No hugs, no handshakes. Plenty of hand-washing. It’s awkward, but everyone gets it. One neighbor is here for a month because her employer sent her away from the growing pandemic. The news is more alarming day by day, as schools shut, illness spreads, travel is canceled, regional deaths become double-digit. In this, the Northwest would have happily let somewhere else be the trendsetter (though you really wouldn’t wish it on anyone).

We’re in good stead at The Nuthatch. Barbara just brought home weeks worth of groceries, and we already had plenty of toilet paper. (And what’s the TP hoarding all about, anyway? This is a pulmonary illness; there’s no diarrhea. People just get crazy.)

Rougher times are coming, we’re all told, unless you listen to a certain official who believes everything the federal government does these days is “perfect.” Old folks dying in nursing homes isn’t perfect. People trapped on cruise ships with too little food isn’t perfect. School kids with no place to study isn’t perfect.

We’re sheltering in place on our island, watching the real harbingers of spring sprout and bloom outside, and hoping our friends and loved ones will be as fortunate. 1-anchor

P1290951Miniature daffodils herald the coming change of season on Center Island.

Bosun, the comeback kitty

P1290414Wearing a sweater against the cold during a January snow, Bosun takes his daily constitutional on the Nuthatch Cabin’s deck.


Everybody says there are dog people and there are cat people. I’m a bit of a crossover. I grew up loving Skippy, the Cantwell family’s fabled and unlikely crossbreed of black Lab and dachshund parentage (mama was the dachshund; don’t think about it too hard). But I’ve shared the majority of my life with cats.

This is about one of our current Nuthatch Cabin housemates, our elder statesman in formalwear, Bosun.

Bosun is a big tuxedo cat, mostly shiny black but with a white v-neck, paws and roguish half mustache. He’s about 17 years old now, which puts him well into his 90s in human years. He lived on our boat most of those years, with occasional weekends at the cabin until we moved here full-time in 2018.

The personality trait that best characterizes Bosun goes back to why we first chose him from a milling crowd of adoptable felines at a rescue shelter: He’s an easy purr. When we told a shelter worker we wanted a male cat with a beta personality, she pulled shy Bosun from under a table, put him in daughter Lillian’s arms, and he immediately sounded off with a booming, rumbling purr that has been his lifelong trademark. How could we not take this sweet guy home?

Since 2004, he’s been an affectionate companion who can melt your heart with soulful gazes from his big green eyes.

Now he’s in his twilight years, if not his twilight months, after recently suffering his second stroke.

But this isn’t a missive of mourning. It’s a tale of resilience, of a tough old cat who wants to live. What Australians would call a “battler.”

Twice we’ve thought we’d lost him. Twice we’ve sobbed over him. In September 2018, after his first attack, he could barely walk. He couldn’t navigate the stairs or climb on to a bed. Only the fact that it was a weekend and no nearby veterinarians were available stopped us from having him put down, out of mercy. We thought we had no choice.

But by Monday, he was getting better. And he just kept getting better. Up stairs and down. Within a week or two you’d never have known he’d seemed at death’s door.

The next 12 months I called “Bosun’s bonus year.”  Somehow it took away the sting of knowing we would probably lose him soon.

We thought the time had come a few weeks ago. This “bad spell” was even more unsettling. He fell over, one side of his face contorted and one eye blinked with a tic that went on and on. Finally, Barbara found and administered some herbal “cat calming drops” she had tucked away, and that seemed to help. Eventually the twitching stopped. But clearly Bosun had lost most control of one of his rear legs, and he was unable to retract his claws, so that he kept snagging his paws on rugs and bedspreads when he did manage to walk.

But once again, he has gradually gotten better. Still “unsteady on his pins,” as Barbara puts it, but walking almost normally. Barbara trimmed the tips of his claws, so he doesn’t get snagged as often. The soulful gaze is still there. And he is once again determined to go outside every day for what we call his “constitutional” — a supervised walk from one end of the deck to the other, while he sniffs the fresh air.

A few nights ago, I was awakened in the blackest, wee hours of the morning with a feeling that I was having some kind of mild angina. I soon realized that a feline was standing on my chest. I felt a nose touch mine. Reaching up to see which cat it was, I felt Bosun’s bony old body.

I pulled him down to nestle between Barbara and me, his fuzzy, geriatric cheek to mine. I whispered his name and that booming purr filled my ear in the darkness. It went on and on, engendering a sense of profound well-being as I drifted back to sleep.

Sometimes I find comfort in cats. 1-anchor

Birding by the book


IMG_7955HERE’S A BOOK I’m loving as I pursue my goal of learning more about birds this year.

As a Christmas gift, Barbara got me “How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding,” by Ted Floyd. This how-to guide is perfectly geared to someone like me, whom I would call a “knowledgeable novice.” Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine, tells about 200 birds in the context of 200 lessons about birds and birding. Each “lesson” is limited to one page, making this a volume I can pick up anytime I feel like a few minutes of birding education.

Floyd’s lessons are approachable and easy to fathom, geared to bird size, color, migration patterns, habitat and much more, without being too simple or condescending. For example, Lesson 29 discusses how birds get their italicized scientific names — what many inaptly refer to as the Latin name (some are Latin, but not all). Typically, whomever first discovers or studies any particular bird gets to choose its scientific name, and tradition has it that these names may not be changed or challenged. Floyd notes how “crazy” some of the names can be, “misspelled, mistranslated, misconstrued, biologically nonsensical, and politically incorrect.”

I got a smile out of his discussion of the scientific name for the Common Grackle, the slender and glossy blackbird on which Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) bestowed the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula.

Floyd explains that both words are misspellings of the Latin word quisqualis, which roughly translates to “What’s the deal?” or “Whatever!”

So was the grackle just unlucky enough to catch Linnaeus on a day when he was bored, out of sorts, tired of birds and not up to anything more original than the “Whatever whatever”?  Nobody knows. But Linnaeus saw to it that the Common Grackle gets no respect, to this day.

I’m getting to know birds better every time I pick up this book. 1-anchor

  “How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding,” by Ted Floyd, with pencil sketches by N. John Schmitt; National Geographic, 2019; hardcover list price $28, but marked down at this writing to $12.60 at the online National Geographic Store (less than Amazon’s price).

Waking up to woodpeckers

P1290914A hairy woodpecker clings to the fir tree outside our bedroom window.

IMG_7955I’M GETTING TO KNOW WOODPECKERS better than I ever expected. There’s something about first impressions, early in the day.

After climbing back into bed every morning with the first mug of coffee — one of the perfect pleasures of retirement — I have a clear view through our rear window of the trunk of a slim Douglas fir that is a favorite of our resident woodpeckers.

The hairy woodpeckers, the bigger of the two woodpeckers that frequent our piece of the rock, like to cling to the tree’s bark and work their way upward in a circular fashion. With their red topknot, it’s like watching Ron Weasley climb the spiral staircase to his Gryffindor bed chamber. (We read a lot of “Harry Potter” as our daughter was growing up.) Eyeballing the big birds is an idle pleasure complemented by a good dark-roast cup of java.

The hairy is a regular at the suet cage that hangs outside our kitchen window. The big woodpecker dwarfs the small cage, akin to a sumo wrestler riding a Vespa. The bird hooks its talons into the underside of the wire cage, causing it to swing horizontally, then curls its body up and angles its long beak down to peck at the seed-laden beef tallow that seems to be like steak and eggs to a breakfast-seeking woodpecker.

“I hope he gets as much out of it as he puts into it, doing all those ab crunches,” daughter Lillian commented when visiting.

The bird’s exertions often cause the cage holding the suet to knock against the cabin’s wooden eaves. When we hear a sound like the tapping of a light hammer on the side of Nuthatch Cabin, we know our friend the woodpecker is doing his morning sit-ups.1-anchor


This is the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Join Barbara and me in giving 15 minutes a day to help with this important annual census. Scientists use data from bird observers worldwide to track the health of avian populations. At this writing, 3.6 million birds have been counted in the event’s first day. The count continues through Monday, February 17. Get involved at

A perfect cake for a perfect birthday

P1290929Topped with a cherry-filled heart, Barbara’s birthday cake was a family legacy recipe.

IMG_7955ANOTHER ISLAND BIRTHDAY for my lovely wife, Barbara. We need not be so crass as to talk numbers, but she is officially on Medicare as of today. It’s a happy milestone.

Daughter Lillian came on the water taxi for the weekend and helped create a birthday cake using Grandma Cantwell’s best-ever chocolate cake recipe, which Barbara has preserved hand-written in my late mother’s lovely old-fashioned perfect penmanship.

The mother-daughter baking wizards also concocted a luscious vegan buttercream frosting, which Lil applied with a piping bag and her own panache, mixing in sliced maraschino cherries and crushed walnuts between the layers as grandma always did.

It felt a bit like my dear old mother was at the party, smiling in the background. 1-anchor

P1290920Using her grandmother’s hand-written recipe, daughter Lillian helped create a luscious birthday cake.

To these island hermits, a few hours on Orcas feels like an overseas vacation

P1290832Locals walk Orcas Island’s Crescent Beach, looking out on East Sound.

IMG_7955WE TOOK A 3-1/2  HOUR VACATION to visit the rich cousin with the organic farm and lots of sheep.

Sort of.

Each of these San Juans has its own personality, so when Barbara and I took our old Ford pickup, Ranger Rick, to Orcas Island for a day last week, it was a bit like visiting the eccentric relative. It’s only seven miles away from Center Island, but a different watery world.

After a very moist, cold and stormy January, the weather gurus called for a day of sunshine and light breezes. Happy to relieve a mild case of cabin fever, we jumped in our boat, tied up at Lopez Island’s Hunter Bay dock and took the truck aboard the interisland ferry for the 35-minute hop to Orcas, the largest island in the archipelago.

P1290714On the way to Orcas Island, the state ferry pulls into the dock at Shaw Island, the least visited of the ferry-served San Juans.

The ferry schedule can rule your life when you live in the San Juans. Finding interisland sailings that would get us there and back with plenty of daylight on each end, with a bit of ferry-line waiting built in, we had 3 1/2 hours to explore the 57-square-miles of Orcas.

But, you know, you can actually see a lot in a few hours. You can even have lunch.

Another motive for going: I have another writing assignment for AAA of Washington, giving them 800 words about Orcas Island. I’ve been there many times, but needed a quick refresher.

With that objective, we mostly drove around and took photos. (The weather gurus muffed it, by the way: We got, ahem, snowed on, which put the kibosh on driving to the top of Mount Constitution.)

Along the way we had time to munch tasty fish n’ chips at the White Horse Pub in Eastsound, with a lovely view of the water. We did a little Valentine’s Day shopping.P1290875 And we stopped at one of our favorite Orcas farmstands, the historic Coffelt Farm (now run by the Lum Family), where we picked up a dozen of the prettiest, freshest eggs a hen ever clucked about, in delightful soft pastels of green and brown.

The quick tour reminded us of the bucolic beauty of Crow Valley’s rolling pastures, pocketed among island forests; the mossy, mountainous wonderland that is Moran State Park; the hippie-dippie perfection of Doe Bay Resort; and the coziness of Olga, one of the few communities I know that can properly be called a hamlet.

P1290765A mossy old one-lane bridge marks one entry of Moran State Park.

There’s also money on Orcas, with plenty of it represented in the view homes overlooking long-ago Seattle Mayor Robert Moran’s 110-year-old waterfront mansion, Rosario, or in Oprah Winfrey’s 43-acre, $8 million island retreat, which she calls “Madroneagle.” (Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue for me, but money and poetry don’t often go together, it seems.)

It’s a different crowd, all in all. But anybody driving around in an old pickup truck can fit right in, too. Just wave at the sheep as you go by. 1-anchor

Par-tee! Toasting Cousin Rabbie (a few times removed)

P1290685A Burns Night Supper of vegan haggis with sides of neeps and tatties made every Rabbie around our table smile — in a reserved, Scottish sort of way.

IMG_7955ON A REMOTE LITTLE ISLAND IN JANUARY, you just have to make your own fun.

After weeks of winter winds, snow and rain, the timing was right for a party. January 25 is the birthday of the renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), and all over the world, followers of “Rabbie” and everything Caledonian celebrate with Burns Night Suppers, toasting the author of such cultural standards as “Auld Lang Syne” and other poetic pearls.

We hosted a Burns Supper on Saturday. It was fitting, since before Barbara took the name Cantwell she was (and, of course, remains) a Burns. Grandpa Burns hailed from Nova Scotia, and the family genealogy says he was, indeed, a shirttail relative of the Scottish bard.

Our neighbors, John the Mad Birder, who earned his doctorate from a Scottish university, and his charming first wife, Carol, joined us. Complete with Rabbie masks for all, it was an evening of sipping good single-malt from Speyside, listening to bagpipe music on the stereo, the Mad Birder’s richly rendered readings of modern Scottish poetry, and even a recitation by Rabbie himself of his delightful poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785,” said to have been written after Burns was plowing a field and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest, which it needed to survive the winter.

It was the poem that inspired a John Steinbeck novella, among other things, with the passage,  “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” (Agley is an old Scottish word meaning, basically, fucked up.)

Oh, you may wonder how Rabbie recited it for us on Saturday. To shorten a long story: When he died, in his late 30s, a plaster cast was made of his skull. A couple years ago, universities in England and Scotland joined forces to use the skull as a basis for creating a motion-capture 3D animation of Burns, as he actually appeared before his death, reciting the poem, using the voice of modern-day Ayrshire poet, and Burns enthusiast, Rab Wilson. It’s brilliant, with all the proper Scottish burr and pronunciations. (“Mousie” becomes, deliciously, “Moosie.”)

And, of course, it’s on YouTube, so we watched it on our 40-inch flat-screen.

We then recited the proper Selkirk grace before the ritual stabbing and devouring of the haggis, which Barbara made with a vegan recipe featuring a filling of lentils, oatmeal, grated carrot, mushrooms and shallots traditionally seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sage, thyme and rosemary — all wrapped in savoy cabbage leaves rather than a sheep’s stomach. (We were truly thankful.) Sides included neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes) with whiskey gravy. Dessert was a trifle with layers of custard, angel food cake, coconut cream, peaches and fresh raspberries.

Na ane coud eat na more, a well-fed Scot might have said in 1785. 1-anchor

Snow falling on cedars — and firs, and hemlocks, and salal…

P1290570.JPGSnow blankets the front path to The Nuthatch on Tuesday.

IMG_7955IT DID SOME SERIOUS SNOWING on Center Island in the past 24 hours.

We’d had a light frosting now and then since the weekend, but Tuesday afternoon the mercury was frozen in the mid-20s and the slate-gray sky decided flurries were a bore. It opened up and snowed.

Last night, Barbara and I doused the lights in the cabin, switched on the outside lights above our wall of windows and watched “Snow Theater.”

By Wednesday morning nine inches blanketed the island.

P1290656The snowcap on our feeder Wednesday morning: Cold and hungry birds have depleted our stock of birdseed. Sorry, spotted towhees.

We’re living off the larder. Pulling on snow boots to tromp the buried roads. Tempted to build a snowman on the blank whiteboard that is our airfield.

Stay warm, stay safe. We’re hunkered happily. 1-anchor

Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens, 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The kinglet and I

P1290330.JPGA golden-crowned kinglet bows as if to show off the bright stripe for which it is named.

IMG_7955IT’S BEEN A BIT OF A SAGA, my effort to photograph the golden-crowned kinglet.

Last winter we first noticed small groupings of these tiny, round gray and olive-green birds with an orange mohawk-like stripe on their heads. Oddly, they liked to hop about and peck in the gravel roads on Center Island. John the Mad Birder, my next-door neighbor who has officially declared these his favorite island avian, informs me they are pecking for mites.

Neighbor John’s affection for them is understandable (considering, of course, that we already had dibs on the nuthatch). Kinglets are delightful balls of fluff, though perhaps not overly bright; we had to watch our step at times so as not to actually tread on one. They seemed oblivious to pedestrians on our cowpath-ic byways.

So I expected it would be a cinch to get a good kinglet photo.


For months I’ve been in pursuit. But when I’d walk around the island and encounter kinglets I wouldn’t have my camera. I would resolve to carry it next time I ventured out. But of course then no kinglets were to be seen.

This went on for weeks. No camera? An island infested. Camera in hand? A peaceful, kinglet-free walk.

I came to learn their “tells,” however. Kinglets hang out in the understory in small groups and are rarely silent. Their cheeping call, while distinctive, isn’t loud. When six or eight are hopping among roadside cedars, a sound like the faint tinkling of a fine crystal wind chime will gradually work into my consciousness. It’s my kinglet alarm!

Yesterday, finally, I caught some with my camera. But, of course, they turned shy and wouldn’t allow me near. Perhaps because it was a cold day of pelting rain mixed with snow, they hopped quickly and actively, so catching a focused photo with my zoom lens was a challenge.

I’ve not caught my perfect kinglet image in this round. But here are a couple of soft-focus first efforts that give a clue to their colorful adorability.

I’m not finished with you yet, my pretties.  1-anchor

P1290276Kinglets like to peck on the ground, or even on a gravel road, in search of mites. The fir cone in the photo’s center is a tip-off to the bird’s compact size.