Spars, Planks, Keels — Oh My!

Hello everyone,

I’ve been installed in a small cottage in Port Hadlock, Washington for nearly a month now, and I’ve been in class every week day (but for holidays) from 8 to 5, learning about wood, tools and how to build wooden boats.  I miss all of those close to me terribly, but I couldn’t be happier.

A few words about my surroundings:  Port Hadlock lies at the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, facing Port Townsend Bay, which means it’s near the entrance to Puget Sound.  The town is little more than a crossroads, but when the clerks at the grocery, hardware store and thrift shop know you after two weeks in town, it’s comforting.  Hadlock was a much bigger place 110 years ago, but today, there’s little in the way of industry.  What there is, is the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building.  Much of the school hangs over the water in historic buildings, with the rest of the campus just up the hill.  I live in a cottage across our dead-end street.  The surroundings are spectacular, and they reveal new surprises daily.  The maples and oaks just now glow in shades of yellow, orange and red with an intensity I’ve never imagined.  Some classmates showed me a secret path to an artesian spring that gushes forth the most delicious water only a few feet from the shore.  One recent day on morning break the guys in the smokers’ ghetto next to the classroom building were lucky enough to see a bald eagle snatch a gull off the water.  On clear days (they don’t come too often) the most prominent peaks in the Cascades — Mt. Baker and Mt. Ranier, along with the Olympic Range, shine with white luminescence under their mantles of snow.

About those Olympic Mountains:  Since they rise to more than 7,000 feet along the spine of the Peninsula just a few miles west of where I live and study, we’re in a rain shadow.  Hollister averages 13 inches of precipitation annually.  Port Hadlock averages 18.  But it comes a teaspoon at a time, and I’m still adjusting.  The day may start sunny, or foggy or cold, or wet.  Twenty minutes later, the playbook has changed.  I’m dressing in layers of layers, because 30 minutes of hard rain is often followed by balmy sunshine, then hard wind.

I’m writing this on Sunday night, after a full day before returning to class.  My neighbor and fellow student, who is exactly my age and moving into a new career after life in the Coast Guard,accompanied me this morning.  We left just before dawn to catch the low tide at a beach facing the Strait of juan de Fuca.  Had it been less overcast, we could have waved at Canada from there.  Nevertheless, there was a lot of ship traffic to watch.  We rambled down the beach until our pockets were bulging with treasures we did not need but could not live without.  Two miles down the beach, and old dump spills into the sea, and the beach glass there is abundant.  It’s like picking jewels off the sand.   There have not been enough storms lately, and the tide was not low enough, but we returned to the car staggering under the weight of our haul (thanks to some great driftwood finds).

As we walked, two bald eagles called to one another.  When a third entered the area, a peregrine falcon became testy and chased it off.  Then a pair of golden eagles soared along the cliff edge.  The falcon was prudent enough not to protest.  The shoreline swarmed with sea ducks, mergansers and harlequin ducks.  If you don’t know the latter, do yourself a favor and check out a picture on the internet.  Harlequin males may be the most beautiful ducks any of us will ever see.

Tomorrow means a return to class.  Our instructors have all worked in the industry for many years, and in every case, done great things.  A google search of their names reveals accomplishments and awards that they would never reveal themselves.

In short, the weather is gray, the school outstanding, the people unimaginably friendly, the surroundings the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered, and the lonleiness — at times — a heartcache.  But, in balance, I’m in the right place at the right time.

I stay busy on weekends cycling and hiking, and there are a lifetime’s worth of adventures to be had close to hand.  Less than a tank of gas yields more parks than I have bothered to count, a ski resort and a hot springs complex.  A bit further are rain forests that have no compare in North America.  I’m waiting for utility bills to come in so I can become a local resident, and save $80 on my fishing license, because it’s frustrating to watch people pulling salmon, sea-run cutthroats and dungeness crab from just off the dock across the street.

Sometimes the paper mill down the road stinks.  Often, I feel pangs of loneliness.  But overwhelmingly, parked against Port Townsend Bay, next to Skunk Island, I feel like I am the luckiest man alive, and grateful beyond words for a partner who continues to encourage me in this endeavor.


It’s Been Fun — Usually


I’m standing watch during a dear old friend’s last hours.  In fact, as I type this, he’s cradled in the crook of my left arm.  Pico the Blue-fronted Amazon parrot came into my life as a terrified young bird, as unaccustomed to people as any wild animal.  Over time, a bond was forged.  Pico rode my shoulder as I navigated my high school and university years.

I wonder what my parents were thinking when, as a boy of 13, they agreed to let me purchase a parrot.  But they did, and my good friend arrived on July 22, 1970.  Creating a bond took many more hours than I could have imagined, but eventually, we became a team.  When I married, Pico was part of the package, even after he carved a bloody crescent out of my fiancee’s nose the night before her bridal shower.

He flew freely through our flat, and his freedom was only constrained after the arrival of the first of our daughters.  He made it clear that he didn’t think children were a reasonable addition to our relationship.  There was also the adventure of a few days spent on the loose as a free flying parrot-about-town.

After 43 years together, Pico has reached the end of his string.  This morning, he was drooping at the bottom of his large cage.  He’s shunned most food for a few days, and the weight has fallen from him quickly.  His breathing is labored.  Most telling, the daily conversations that sounded like a lunatic aunt raving in the attic have stopped.

But, cupped in the crook of my elbow, he seems content, and ready for whatever comes.  I need to learn that acceptance as well, because I will desperately miss this green ball of feathers.

Together, Pico and I have influenced quite a few people NOT to add a parrot to their lives.  Do you know where you’ll be or what your life will be like in 40 years?  Parrots are social animals, and they are as smart — and as needy — as a toddler that never grows out of his terrible twos.  They’re messy.  They’re destructive.  Most of all, they are loyal, fascinating, hilarious and loving.

He’s not gone yet, but his end is at hand.  I feel privileged that he chooses to spend these hours with me.

Eden at Home

The Sierra snowpack has gone AWOL, and there are dire warnings of drought, but life continues to go on with a vengeance.

I’m speaking of our own garden, where we spend too few idle hours in exchange for good, Puritan toil.  But on the occasions when we pause to look, or to listen, miracles reveal themselves with joyful, even startling, frequency.  As we inspected things today at noon, I remarked about the soap opera that plays itself out just on the other side of our windows every day.

Ours is an exceedingly modest patch of the Earth, but it belongs to us — and the bank — so we take great interest in it.  There’s a lot to watch and wait for, because gardens will not be rushed.

I installed my first bee hive over the weekend, in hopes of luring a swarm of wild bees with the thought that they’ll be well adapted to local conditions.  There’s still no pleasant hum coming from the hive, so I have to content myself with regarding it as garden art thus far.DSCF2180

A few tomatoes are the size of pingpong balls, and lots of other vegetables are threatening to bloom.  Roses are exploding with flowers this year as they have no other.

But the real drama is that which is hardest to catch with a camera.  Not too many days ago, as I wandered around while talking on the phone, I nearly stepped on the freshly harvested remains of a songbird.  It was clearly the victim of a raptor for the unique way its carcass was processed.  The victor in this chapter of the survival of the fittest was almost certainly a Cooper’s Hawk, a smallish raptor that specializes in eating other birds.  The remains were as neatly flayed as if the work had been done with a scalpel.  The wings splayed open, untouched, as did the tail.  The head was missing, and the breast and body contents had been completely removed, leaving only the backbone and dorsal portion of the ribs.  That was enough evidence to suggest the Cooper’s Hawk identity.  Judging from the cloud of feathers floating in a copper pot that holds a water lily, the bird was taken just as it paused for a drink or a bath.DSCF2181

But it’s not all life and death.  Lately, life has been on the menu.

House Sparrows and House Finches are furiously going about the business of procreation.  The males stand erect, puff out their chests and sing with desperate fury.  Usually, the females spurn them, even chasing them away with aggression familiar to any teenage boy.

A pair of American Robins has been gleaning twigs from the garden, mostly from a large swath of wooly thyme.  They give their intentions away by carrying these materials in the same direction after each visit.  A nest is in the works nearby.

Just a few minutes ago, an Anna’s Hummingbird paused here and there, gleaning tiny insects that had gone unnoticed by the rest of us.DSCF2179

We continue to battle our poor soil, variable weather and the relentless onslaught of snails and earwigs, and without getting preachy, we endeavor to do it without noxious chemicals.  But in spite of our failures and our guerrilla war with a never-ending army of bugs, the joy that this microcosm we play stewards to gives us license to do a little victory dance every time we choose to notice.



Oh My Aching Feet!

Quick!  What were you doing on Saturday, April 6?  I’m not likely to forget what I was doing soon — or at least until my feet stop aching.

I joined nearly 100 other people — mostly men — walking eight blocks in downtown Hollister as part of a fundraiser and awareness-raiser to combat violence against women.  “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes” wasn’t exactly as advertised, because we didn’t walk quite a mile.  But the trek was more arduous that I could ever have imagined.

ImageImageI showed up on my bicycle, and swapped my shoes for a pair of size 12 pumps.  I never would have guessed it, but these nondescript, rather ugly shoes would prove to be instruments of torture.

I like my feet.  They take me places that I want to go.  I’m not a very graceful person, but I seldom fall down, so things seem to work as well as I’d like them to.

But that short jaunt down San Benito Street — even with thick wool socks — produced some memorable blisters, and at least six toes bruised so badly that I’m still doing a short shuffle.

How do so many women tolerate these things?  I’ll certainly heal — eventually — but I’ll be left to wonder what it is that compels people to stuff their feet into these things.

I’ve never owned a pair of Birkenstocks, but I think that short walk down San Benito Street made me a believer for life.

The Latest Buzz

Just a quick note, because I can’t spare more time.  However, I’m trying to keep my writing hand in the game a little more these days.  Another thing — among the less-interesting-but-marginally-more-lucrative endeavors —  that’s been occupying my time is the construction of a bee hive.  It’s not the familiar box-like structure that we all see in farm fields, but rather, one built according to a different philosophy.

I’m eager to see what happens when the hive finally makes it outdoors.  I hope to lure wild occupants, rather than an artificially produced colony mailed from some far-off locale.  Call it hubris, but nearly everything about my nascent beekeeping endeavor defies conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom dictates that beekeepers use hives developed in the 1850s by the good Rev. Langstroth.  His name has lent itself to these hives, so you’ll occasionally hear people who spend time with bugs talking about “Langstroth hive bodies.”  They’re really nothing more than wooden boxes, but the Reverend understood something very important.  Bees like to hang comb from carefully spaced structures.  Left to their own devices, they’ll build comb in the void of a wall in an old cabin, or in a tree hollow.  That makes it considerably more difficult for us to rob.  But the Rev. Langstroth sought to do something unheard of, and he succeeded.  He brought the ethic of the Industrial Age into a colony of insects.  He understood that bees are tidy insects, and left to their own, in a perfectly proportioned environment, the eggs and larvae go near the center, where temperatures are most constant (hives remain at 96 degrees F) and honey goes at the top and outer edges.

So Langstroth set about organizing life for the bees.  First, he organized hives around wooden frames, spaced the right distance apart for bees to do their work most efficiently.  Then, he set them to work by adding thin sheets of beeswax to slots in each frame.  Since the sheets were already embossed with hexagons, they provided a pretty strong hint in the direction of “get to work.”

And get to work they did.  The Langstroth hive is more likely to produce more honey in more varied environments than any other.  Moreover, there quickly developed ways to manage the bees so that honey went into the boxes that were easiest to gain access to, while the colony itself remained in other boxes.

As industrialized agriculture grew, so did the beekeeping industry, and those working with bees began to derive additional income from pollination services.  Eventually, it became common practice to truck hives of bees all over the country to pollinate different crops, many of which would fail to produce reliably without them.

Each spring, most of the bees in the nation vacation briefly in the Central Valley, where their hives buzz loudly in almond orchards.  The result is that almond yields can increase as much as forty-fold.  After about four weeks, the hives are loaded onto trucks and transported back to spots around the country for the next crop.

By manipulating their environment, Langstroth and the beekeepers who followed created an efficient mechanism for producing honey.  And that all worked very well for more than a century.

But then something went terribly wrong.

There are many recent accounts in local papers about a mysterious affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Hives that appear to be thriving are found empty and dead just a few weeks or days later.  Most mysteriously, the expected piles of bee corpses are absent.  They appear to leave home to die.  Theories about what causes it quickly began to develop.

An Asian mite that sucks the lifeblood from larvae and the bees themselves — varroa — gets some of the rap.  It arrived in North America about when CCD did.  Others blame modern pesticides, and/or a few diseases that have long afflicted bees.  But no single cause could be directly linked to CCD.

But there’s increasingly compelling evidence to suggest that something larger is linked to CCD, a whole suite of stressors and challenges to bee health.  To combat varroa, the common practice is to use pesticide treatments or essential oils. The practice is so prevalent that tests reveal more than 99 percent of the beeswax available contains traces of commercial toxins.  Do these practices weaken the immunity of the bees themselves?  More and more people think so.  For every other parasite or ailment, there’s another treatment, another expense and another crisis.

Then there’s the practice of moving bees for commercial pollination.  Bees fed on almond blossoms for a month may be abruptly dropped in a field of squash, or red clover, or orange trees.  The sudden changes in environment may result in additional stress that wasn’t noticed until so many other things began colluding against the health of bees.

But CCD isn’t the hopeless challenge it was once thought to be.  Some beekeepers were seeing the loss of one-third of their hives each year, and some still are.

But others are accepting the realities that existed long before the Rev. Langstroth came along.  That is that bees are colonies of insects, and some will thrive while others wither.  Look!  It’s natural selection right in front of us! More of them eschew commercial comb foundation — almost certainly harboring pesticides — for hives that let bees draw their own clean comb.  The result is lower production, but the outcome where consumers are fully informed can be higher prices.  Others concentrate on establishing colonies drawn from swarms of wild bees that have proven adapted to local conditions, rather than buying packages of bees through the mail.

Most hopefully, there are people everywhere who are putting hives on rooftops in urban areas, at the corners of their own vegetable beds, and in other out-of-the-way places.  There’s a growing realization that we are in partnership, and that hives are not the exclusive province of people who make them their business.  Every week, more people seek to act as stewards to bees because of their intrinsic worth, and if at the end of the year there’s enough honey to share, so much the better.

It’s not the last chapter of The Honeybee Story.  On the contrary, it’s the first chapter of understanding them more deeply, and to working with them, rather than yoking them to a model we created for them 160 years ago.

Life in Eden

Hello everyone,

Waaaay, back in October, I promised I’d be sharing walks with you, and that hasn’t happened.  It’s not that the walks have not.  There was one early this year with three-fourths of the family that included some delightful discoveries.  There was a classic Chevrolet Impala entombed near a creek that invited conjecture about its history.  And the same creek yielded a very heavy specimen of mudstone packed with fossils, a reminder that just a few million years ago, much of San Benito County was an inland sea.  It found its way home, along with a beautifully preserved ram’s skull.

As we cartwheel toward spring, I’m thinking about the things I anticipate that have not yet come, and the things I treasure that have come already.  Monday, I joined other birders for a census in Moss Landing.  This time it was remarkable for the lively debate that was launched.  Is that distant, small, relatively nondescript bird a Black-bellied Plover (common) or a Pacific Golden Plover (not so)?  The discussion included a friend’s foray into the marsh to try to get the bird to fly, in order to get a better look.  That was unsuccessful, but his photos later revealed our optimism for the uncommon to be misplaced.  The bird appears to have been a workaday Black-bellied Plover.

For the record, it’s beyond bad form to harass wildlife, and most of us are careful not to do so, so my friend’s attempt at flushing the bird was an exception, and one done in the name of science.

As we stood at the edge of Jetty Road in Moss Landing, I looked at our group.  Some of these people have been friends for more than 20 years, and we share much in common.  We’re an undistinguished flock:  clothed in muted colors, built more for comfort than style; lots of facial hair on the male specimens, and an uncommonly expensive collection of binoculars and textbooks to be found.  We also tend toward middle age or older.

But the banter belied the age of us, and the opportunity to contribute a shred of science, and to learn from one another, was a rich banquet.

It wasn’t long after the outing that errands took me to Salinas.  The Central Coast city perplexes me as no other ever has.  I pride myself on knowing my bearings.  Like many of my gender, I resist asking for directions.  But Salinas is my Waterloo.  There was the time, utterly lost on my bicycle, that I found myself in a neighborhood that seemed inhospitable to middle-aged men on expensive bikes wearing tight, day-glo garments, but I managed to survive.  There are uncountable occasions when I have driven the city, randomly searching for a freeway onramp.

Salinas befuddles my inner compass, and it always will.

But I left Salinas along a similar, and much-loved, route.  The San Juan-Salinas Grade is the last public stretch of the original Golden State Highway, the precursor to Highway 101. When it was first paved in slabs of concrete during the dawning years of the 20th Century, it was the state of the engineers’ art.  Today, its narrow, winding route reveals a California that I’d guess few in the Bay Area believes still exists.

As I rolled slowly (there’s no other choice) over that lane, I had to brake, and then wait, while a Golden Eagle finished dining on a bit of shredded flesh in the middle of the road.

It was just long enough of a pause to think about why we trouble ourselves to live in a place that’s too expensive and too prone to wrong-headed schemes for get-rich-quick development.

And I think Congressman Sam Farr summed it up best during a celebration for the creation of Pinnacles National Park in January:  We live in a place where it’s possible to gaze out at the sea to see the whales — the largest mammals that ever lived — and at the same time to look up to watch California Condors — the largest birds in North America — soaring overhead.

Truly, there’s no place else on earth that compares to the Monterey Bay area.