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A Memorial Garden Sanctuary

rosemary shrub over our mother's gravesite
We buried our mother's ashes beneath the rosemary. Lambchop, Argus, Griffin, Molly, and Lupine are near her side.

We planted my mother with the dogs in the pet cemetery. It’s true. She would have wanted it that way, right next to her best friend, little Lambchop.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. The cemetery, which we affectionately call “Boot Hill,” sits on a little knoll with a view of the Olympic Mountains, overlooking a small creek and the neighbor’s barn and farmland. The sunsets there can be quite spectacular.

My mother was a retired nurse. Intelligent. Caring. Even in the midst of a disease that steals your memories and leaves you without a sense of who you are, she never stopped giving and reaching out to others. Our family pets had a special place in her heart, as did the wild birds, which she helped through many cold winters. She loved the outdoors, the ocean, going fishing, and gardening – things she taught me to appreciate at a very young age.

And so, when she passed from this earthly existence, rather than toss her ashes to the wind, to an outgoing tide, or down a river in time, we thought she might like best to be in our backyard, close to family and pets. It was a stormy day in early December when my brother and I and other family members returned her ashes to the good earth and planted a rosemary shrub on top. At that precise moment, the clouds parted and beams of sunlight streamed through to that little spot below where we all huddled together in a circle, marveling at how such a strong personality could be physically reduced to such a small quantity of dust. We shared a few loving thoughts and memories and were thankful that she was finally freed. I played “Amazing Grace” and “Over the Rainbow” on my harmonicas, the clouds moved back in, and we left.

Barkley on the knoll, getting in touch with his inner dog, contemplating the world and all its wonders, or quite possibly, just enjoying a ray of sunshine.

I often return. Sometimes I talk to our mother, ask her advice, talk about the goings on of this world; plus, it’s a nice place to play my harmonicas. Other times I just sit quietly and look out at the fields and mountains. Our dog, Barkley, frequently joins me. He is a rather tormented, somewhat neurotic soul, who has come a long way since his troubled days in the dog pound – hence the name Barkley, which is the kind of name you get when you spend time in the joint making a racket. I like to think that he sits there in a ray of sunshine in peaceful meditation, getting in touch with his inner dog, thinking about how he can be the best that he can be. He is a very intelligent, thoughtful creature.

The rosemary shrub did not make it through the heavy rains and snow of this last winter, so early this spring, in memory of our mother, I decided to transform the area into a kind of mini-wildlife reserve – and also a kind of secret garden – a place to escape the craziness of this world.  I started thinking of my garden in an entirely different light – not only a place to grow food to nourish our bodies, but also a place to nourish our souls.

Plus, we needed a good windbreak to absorb the frequent storms we get off the coast, also something to help stabilize a steep slope, the aforementioned wildlife food and habitat, and last but not least, we needed to ensure that whatever we planted wouldn’t eventually block our mountain view. It was a bit of a challenge.

First, we took advantage of a Conservation District native plant sale and planted about 20 firs and cedars and a dozen or so huckleberry plants. Not all of them made it, but enough will eventually grow to make a forest grove on the northern edge of the property. We will fill in the spaces with rhododendrons and native plants as time allows.

To the west, we planted a new vine maple (Acer circinatum), a familiar Northwest wind-tolerant species that can grow tall in the sun or almost vine-like in the shade. It grows well with conifers, Doug Fir, hemlock, and dogwood. We planted it near the base of a gigantic maple whose limbs are starting to dry and break during winter storms. I love this old tree, and I am not sure why it is dying. Our house is over 100 years old, so the tree could very well be much beyond that. When my son was young, we built a tree fort in it and used to have picnics up there and read the original version of “Treasure Island.” You could hear us calling loudly from the branches, “Shiver me timbers!” The birds also love this tree, and we have often found cherry pits in our hideaway left by marauding raccoons.

Between the vine maple and the cemetery, we planted a Black Hawthorn tree (Crataegus douglasii – Lindl.), which will branch out and provide food and cover for birds and small mammals of all kinds. The hawthorn is a good fit for this spot because it will have room to grow; can be pruned to a hedge or thicket and makes a good windbreak; will stabilize slopes; can be coppiced; its branches can be made into tool handles; and all in all, it makes a good understory plant. Plus, they attract hummingbirds, which were my mother’s favorites.

Around the gravesite, I planted Sunchokes – sometimes called Jerusalem Artichokes – a perennial sunflower that will multiply year after year, creating yet another windbreak. The starchy tubers are low on the glycemic index and provide a good substitute for potatoes, or so they say. Planting a variety of sunflowers here is kind of an inside joke between my mother and me because they unexpectedly showed up in her garden one year, and she was certain that I planted them there, which I swear to God, I did not. I explained a little bird must have put them there, but she gave me the stare that only mothers can give and said she could read “L-I-E” across my eyes, which in earlier years would have made me tremble with guilt. I have planted sunflowers in my garden every year since, and yes, Mom, I planted these out there for you and your little bird friends.

Homemade chair from apple tree prunings
Homemade chair from apple tree prunings.

The crowning achievement in this little retreat, however, is the living chair. Barkley helped me pick the spot for this chair on one of his meditative days when I saw him out on the edge of the bank, his nose turned to the wind, his eyes closed with his face toward the sun, savoring the warmth of an early spring day. I had earlier saved the largest prunings from our old gnarly apple trees. I sawed them into pieces that would make two short legs in front, two tall ones in the back, braces to connect them together, and the straightest pieces for the seat. It is rather rustic looking, to say the least, but in it’s own way, perfect. I set it out in Barkley’s spot, on the south side of the little cemetery, beneath what I think is some kind of delicate birch, planted long ago (possibly by a bird). At the foot of each leg, I planted a willow cutting, a combination of Harrisons, Golden, and Noire de Villaine. They will one day grow tall and willowy (of course), and I will bend them into shapes, fitting for a throne.

I shared a picture of the chair with a friend, who commented that he envisioned a woman sitting on it with a figure behind, arm extended, one hand on the shoulder of the seated figure. It seemed to represent departure, “but certainly not a sad one,” he noted.

This vision is exactly what I feel there. The figure is my mother with her hand on my shoulder. No departure. She is always with me out there. I confessed to my friend that I have been going through some troubling times, which my mother understands – and in that is where the sorrow lies – but, like most earthly things, is transitory. We watch the sun go down together, along with our cadre of wild birds and pets.

What I did not tell him, though, was that I was expecting a visit soon from my brother, who would be flying an airplane from New York, across the U.S., and eventually to Alaska, where his home is. My mother and I have always worried about him; he had had a difficult life in general, but had been going through some particularly hard times of late.

Then one sunny afternoon, in what now seems an eternity ago, my brother buzzed our back acre with his plane. It was a vintage Cessna 195 aircraft, and he was like an ecstatic kid with the ultimate new toy. We later walked out to Boot Hill and I showed him how I was transforming our mother’s gravesite into a sanctuary of sorts for people, dogs, and birds. He liked it. We took turns trying out the chair. We talked about replacing the rusty looking dried rosemary.

A few days later, he left on the final leg back to Anchorage. His last words as he hugged us goodbye, “Take care of each other.”

I was out weeding my garlic that afternoon when a weather system blew in, as they often do, quickly drenching me in rain. I kept thinking of my brother, but was determined to finish this “one last row” before giving him a call on the cell. “Hey – it’s pouring down rain here. Hope you’re doing alright! Love you!”

What I didn’t know at the time was that his plane had fallen off the radar. Before long, a search and rescue effort was launched, but the information had to travel to Anchorage and back before I heard the news.

The rain ceased, nearly as quickly as it had begun, and the sun broke through the clouds. It was a surreal light – a kind of glow-in-the-semi-dark kind of light when you most expect to find a rainbow. An odd feeling overcame me. I could hear him saying to me, “I am worried about the kids. Please help them.” And I replied, “I am always here for you. Always have been. You know that.”

It was then I got the phone call no one wants to receive. I walked out to our little makeshift chair, looked out over the fields, and called him again on the cell. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We have people trying to find you. Try to stay warm. Hang in there. Help is on the way. We love you. We WILL find you!”

But in my heart, I already knew.

Later that afternoon, I walked out to the chair again and sat down. The sky was such a mixture of dark and luminous clouds. I called him again on the phone, knowing he wouldn’t answer. “Do you hear me?” I almost yelled into the phone. “Because I think you do. And I just want you to know I love you. Don’t you worry. We will be ok.”

I have just returned from Anchorage to bury my brother. Odd how you find things out about those you love after they die that you really always knew. He was more like our mother than I ever gave him credit for. His wife and young children have a long, difficult road ahead. I am sorry to report, there is no happy ending to this at this time.

The garden has exploded in my absence. I walked out to our chair yesterday and cut away the wild parsley and other weeds. It felt good to chop and drop, slash, clean, mulch – do something strenuous. The sun came out in the afternoon, and I sat down to rest, feeling the warmth on my face. It occurs to me that in the blink of an eye, our lives are changed, yet all around me, life keeps on growing as if nothing happened. The days are long; spring rains are plentiful; the weeds compete for their share of the sun, just as they always have. I selectively choose those I allow to grow and bloom – such as the sunflowers – and cut back those that will turn back into soil and nourish their roots. It is something I can do in the midst of things I can do nothing about.

I look down to see the willows sprouting at the legs of my chair. They will grow tall and bend, yet remain strong. With care, the chair will live on, long after I do not.

“Do you hear me little brother?” I call out, “Because I think you do.”

I like this spot – this place where I can escape all the world’s craziness. Our most devoted of friends sit at my feet, and standing beside and slightly behind me, I can feel my brother, reunited with our mother. Their hands rest gently on my shoulders.

The living chair sits in what someday will be a memorial garden and sanctuary.

Fall Abundance – and a Great Recipe for Apple Cake

So many reasons why I love this simply gorgeous time of year! But aaaghhh! So much to do! …last-minute scramble to button things up for winter, can and freeze surplus produce, get the garlic in the ground, don’t forget fall cover crops…and what to do with all those apples? Try this Skillet Apple Cake Recipe - it's fast & easy!

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Harvest Celebration Farm Tours

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 2, is the 14th Annual Harvest Celebration Farm Tour in Clallam County. If you are on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, this is a very fun event that gives you a glimpse of what the Peninsula has to offer. This year, nine different farms are opening their barn doors and throwing a party – hayrides, music, great food, farm animals & produce, demonstrations – a ton of down-home family fun.

We are incredibly blessed to have such an abundance of “real” food and local products available to us. It’s up to us to insure that availability. By supporting our local family farms, we are supporting our independence, our self-sufficiency, and our communities. Our health – and our quality of life - defined on so many levels – depends on it. So when you check out some of our local farms this weekend, take time to get to know our farming neighbors. We’re all in this together.

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Capturing Sunshine in a Jar

Save money, eat healthier, control the ingredients, be more self-sufficient – all good reasons to can your own food. It is a connection to past generations who understood the importance of self-reliance to survival. And like our grandparents, come some blustery day in the midst of winter, we can gather with family and friends, crack open a jar of those home-canned peaches, sit back, and close our eyes at the sweet taste of summer. Mmmm-hmmmm. A little sunshine in a jar.

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Local Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

products-from-slgCheck out the phenomenal variety of goods I purchased this week from the Sequim Locally Grown outlet: cinnamon rolls and a peach pie (wow!) from Sequim Valley Products, turnips, kohlrabi, and leeks from the Lazy J Farm, shallots from the Johnston Farms, flax seed from Teri Crockett, fresh oysters from QuilBay Seafood, and a live Colorado Blue Spruce tree from the Hydrangea Rangers (which we will plant after Christmas)! I had also recently purchased locally grown wheat from Nash’s store, fresh raw milk from the Dungeness Valley Creamery, freshly roasted coffee from Princess Valient, fresh raw honey from the Rarely Bee Haven Apiary, and lip balm and soap from the Galloping Goats Farm. That is just a small sampling of what is available.

Sequim Locally Grown makes it so easy. You just go online and browse through the produce and products posted by local farmers and artisans, make your selections by Tuesday evening, and then pick up your order at the local Grange on Thursday. It’s a special treat to see what was selected for you to complete your order – and definitely fun to see what everyone else is getting to give you ideas on what to order next week (personally, I’m going for Yvonne’s Chocolates!). (More local sources of food can be found on my Buy Local page – and if you think of someone who needs to be added, please contact me!)

This Thanksgiving, I am literally OVERWHELMED by how blessed we are to have so much available to us that is grown right here! It is such a privilege to be able to get to know the good people who work so hard to bring it to our table!

I am also keenly aware that not everyone is blessed with such abundance. According to the World Food Program, over a billion people in the world are going hungry, which means 1 in 6 people do not get enough food to be healthy. We are spoiled in the US, but we still have our problems. They are not insurmountable. It just takes a little effort on everyone’s part to help out someone else. Can’t find locally grown food near you? Go to Local Harvest for a directory of family farms. Just plug in your zip code and you may be surprised what is available near you. Real farmers. Real food. All across the country. Once you taste locally grown, anything else seems mediocre. Being a locavore becomes a mindset and a way of life.

I also know that I am extremely fortunate to be able to grow my own food – and although my hourly wage may not amount to much, the pride I have in knowing I am providing the very best nutrition and flavor for my family, the security in knowing that no matter what the economy does, we will have plenty of food, and the satisfaction in doing something that keeps me physically fit and that provides me something of substance (that I can see and EAT!) as a result of my labor – is worth far more than what I would pay for a similar (but ultimately inferior) item that has been transported from who knows where to sit on a shelf in a supermarket.

I have corn and beans in the freezer, canned tomatoes, relish, and jams on the shelves, and broccoli, chard, collards, and an assortment of greens ready to harvest in the garden right now. I have numerous boxes of Gravenstein apples and several varieties of potatoes in our barn, along with an assortment of pumpkins and other squashes. (If you could use some apples, please contact me!)

Abundance is what Thanksgiving has become all about. Get this: according to the American Council on Exercise, for the average American, Thanksgiving is a time to consume 3,000 calories and 229 grams of fat. If that doesn’t epitomize this odd compulsion Americans have with consumption, I don’t know what does.

I think of those early Pilgrims, whom we unrealistically commemorate on this holiday, and how they sat down with the Wampanoag Native Americans (who undoubtedly lent them a hand to keep them from starving!), probably at a simple feast that included deer and seafood as well as fowl, beans, corn, squash, and probably some wild greens. And guess what? IT WAS ALL LOCAL FOOD!

So before you commit yourself to a post-Thanksgiving feast coma followed by a fleeting idea of the need to walk for 30 miles to wear off those calories (and then collapsing for 3 days afterward and doing nothing), consider what Thanksgiving means to you. A time to be thankful, of course; also a time to be mindful. Abundance? Yes. Over-consumption? Not necessarily. A time to celebrate the fruits of all the hard work that went into making all this food available. A time to lend a hand to others.

And if you really want to celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving – GO LOCAL!

Thank a farmer. Thank the hands that feed you. Thank your neighbor!