Sailing Ahead, Wherever That May Be

The only time I’ve ever been on a sailboat was to sleep. There’s a great Tall Ship converted into a youth hostel in Stockholm where my sister and I bunked for a couple of nights on our college gallivant across western Europe. [Which hostel appears to have been recently renovated, and very nicely, if any of you should be interested.] While there may have been the faintest of motion rocking us to sleep in our on-board berths, I doubt it replicated very accurately the sensation of actual sailing. My next opportunity was during graduate school when I got a fan letter (one of the very few in my life, as you can imagine!) from a stranger who’d liked a gallery art installation I made so much that he offered to take me out sailing to the nearby islands. I don’t think there was anything predatory about him, but besides my still having a grandiose case of social anxiety in those days, there is the fact that the art show in question was entirely a walk-through, life-sized illustration of an espionage thriller; while I am doubtful that was his inspiration, I didn’t take him up on the offer.
Photo: Adrift on the High Seas

But whenever I see a sailboat, I do think it’s a beautiful representation of a genteel form of freedom that captivates my imagination all the same. Yes, I know plenty of tales of grueling trials on the high seas, no matter the size of the craft; even some of my close friends and relatives have such stories to tell, thankfully, having survived them. And I know, too, the old joke about testing one’s real interest in boat ownership by dressing up in a rain slicker and standing under an ice-cold shower for a couple of hours while flushing hundred-dollar bills down the toilet. But I also know that a vast number of people who could jolly well choose to spend their money and time on less demanding, safer, and far less expensive pastimes still choose boating. There’s clearly a strong pull to counterbalance any such negatives.

I, too, have spent some happy times on boats, just not sailboats. As a coastal kid, after all, I grew up thinking time spent on the ferries was as much pleasure and sightseeing as it was commuting or transport. I have been fairly miserable on a North Sea ferry in stormy seas while I was recovering from the stomach flu, but it did not so permanently scar either my psyche or my stomach lining that I didn’t look forward to the next time I got to be on a slow boat cruising along the shore, or perhaps best of all, in a rowboat or canoe, dipping the oars or paddle in with the rhythmic soft splashing that accompanies my reveries.
Photo: All Ashore

Living far from any natural body of water as I do these days, I am beached like an old craft whose hull is no longer seaworthy. But like those old boats I see, dry-docked on the beach or alongside the tumbledown barn or in a weedy field, I keep in my soul a firm and loving memory of every good time spent with the waves rocking me softly from below, telling me stories of their own and inviting me forward, ever forward, wherever that might take me.

I Went to the Shore

photoI was born near water. I am not an avid (or skillful) swimmer and I don’t enjoy lying on the beach sunning myself, what with the high probability I’d burst into vampiric flames, pale as I am. But oh, my, I do love being near the water. Specifically, I crave the sound and spray and the whisper-and-crash sounds of moving water. Lakes and ponds are all well and good, but when I’m here in my present digs in north Texas, I’m not often close enough to the lakes and rivers to get as attached to them as to I am my bloodstream as it flows in the million waterfalls of the Cascade and Olympic ranges and pours back into the heart of the Pacific Ocean.

So this summer’s travel was a homecoming in that way as well: returning to some of those places where I feel the most connected and whole. The people who fill my life come first, of course; wherever my great friends and loved ones are will always be home. The places I love to go, visit, work, play and stay anywhere in the world have their merits that designate them home when I’m there as well. But few things have the same depth of attachment that, ironically perhaps, does not ebb and flow but remains strong and steady at all times in me, the same compelling passion, as the sea.

It was good to be at the docks, the marinas, the edge of the ocean–on the shore again.photo

Hanging around in Trees

photoThere are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.

Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.photoBut if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.photo

When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.

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The titular king of Finca Drácula is a dramatic orchid that can haunt your dreams . . .

Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!photoFor one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety,  was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.photo

Ten Thousand Kinds of Green

 

photoIt takes very little time upon returning to the Pacific Northwest for me to be reminded of one of its central characteristics that became so imprinted on my heart and mindset through my many years of dwelling there as to be interchangeable with my entire concept of wholeness and well-being: the color green. The millions of colors that can be called Green, to be more precise. Having been born in the Emerald City of the Evergreen State, I can confirm that they have earned their titles both the hard way (rain–sometimes seemingly endless–rain–oh, and snowpack and glacier runoff in the spring) and entirely honestly. The city and the state are genuinely, deeply, exquisitely green.photoOther places may be green with envy. Yes, there are certainly other spectacularly green places on earth, some of which I have visited, among them to wit: Ireland, Allgäu, and the jungle that straddles the Panamanian border with Costa Rica (a tropical cloud forest) all rife with verdure and also with all of those forms of watery nourishment that bring about such burgeoning beauties in their respectively green-glorious regions. Each green place is unique in the character and flavor of its glowing, growing vegetation, and each gains its place in my heart as much through its variations of verdancy as by any other means.photoWhat it all comes down to is that these things grow on me as much as on the face of the earth, filling my senses and my emotional center in ways that few other things can. This recent return to my mossy, leafy, grassy, graceful green roots merely reminds me of what lies deep within me all of the time. The west coast is so rich in tints and hues and tones and shades and variations of green that I cannot imagine an existence without them and know that green will always be the color against which completeness and contentment and ecstasy are best measured.photophotophotophotophotophotophotoMourn the tiresome persistence of the rain at times, if you must, but once you have been drawn into the corridors of the green world you will likely find it irresistible, too. It bursts with the presence of renewal and strength, lures you with the dappled dream-world light that only a leafy and towering tunnel of trees can create, and makes the heart ache with that yearning form of delight best found in things that sing of secrets, promises and hope.

Wishful Gardening

 

photoIf you haven’t already guessed it, gardening in the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can battle long, murky, cool, overly rainy winters that seem to last seven months of the year, so the easiest things to grow are mold and mildew, possibly between your fingers and toes. You want a green roof? Get yourself a rooftop Japanese moss garden without even trying just by positioning your house close to any healthy shade tree. I can’t promise you’ll feel very Zen about it, because like the fiendish imported English ivy, such moss is mighty hard to stop let alone kill, and eats buildings faster than you can spell ‘plague’. Mud is perhaps a given, but so, in the territory of a once quite active volcano is the euphoniously named glacial till that means Rock Picking becomes a competitive sport among gardeners and anything larger than a teacup had better be excavated for with vigorous pickaxe action and the tenacity of a Welsh miner. Slugs grow to mythic size and are believed by small children to be capable of swallowing their pint-sized innocent selves without chewing.photoBut the mildness of temperature and plentiful rains also mean that one can practically put a piece of two-by-four in the ground and grow a tree, or at the very least, can make greenery and flora proliferate in an almost jungle-like exuberance. Heck, though outsiders might doubt it, you can grow big healthy palm trees and citrus and big fat figs right there next to the cold waters of the Puget Sound, mere crawl strokes away from the chilly dark not-really-Pacific Ocean. So the P-Patch allotments of Seattle are rich; why, even a parking strip along a city street can support a dandy raised-bed vegetable garden full of tempting green and vitamin-packed leafy goods.photoOne of the things I’ve missed greatly since leaving the west coast is an incongruously tough plant, one evolved to withstand the vagaries of coastal wind and salt and coastal dwellers’ neglect with remarkable stamina and glamor. The Ceanothus, sometimes known as Farmer’s Lilac, is one of my very favorite plants for this combination of ruggedly handsome looks and ease of care. I am fairly certain that an experiment with one or two of these heady-scented, blazingly blue delights is in my Texan future. They come in such a variety of heights and breadths, leaf sizes, shades of blue and purplish, and even both deciduous and evergreen types that there’s sure to be a sort that will withstand even north Texas trials. Now that I’ve been back amid them in full-blast bloom, I know I can’t keep going sans Ceanothus without giving them a good old Texas try.photoThe other thing I miss most, perhaps, about Northwest gardening will likely be much harder to replicate in my newer, ahem, digs: cottage gardens. Besides that native-born northwesterners are not much inclined toward formality, their access to easy growing conditions make them quite fond of that crowded, colorful and slightly overblown style of gardening, not least of all because it leaves less room for weeds, which of course also love the mild and friendly weather. But in hot and dry climes it can be a little too stressful on the water meter and long for greater shade than is easily procured by the average gardener. Clearly, it’ll take some tricky thinking to overcome those obstacles. Our recent negotiations with the fellow who will likely supervise our landscape overhaul when we can manage to do it have been a solid reminder not only of the limits of NTX nurseries and their resources but how much it’s going to cost us to do any adventuring in the fuller development of our patch of ground. Our recent house plumbing near-disaster and a couple of automotive ones, not to mention the trip we are making just now, all send pretty clear signals to our budgetary brains that it’s yet a while before we can tackle much renovation or revivification in our happy little greenbelt-hugging home zone. So for now it seems all the wiser to me to store up all of the brawny, brainy yet beautiful garden ideas I can and savor my short stay back in cottage-garden country to help me suss out just what I can do to bring a semblance of it back home with me when the bank account has been fattened up a bit more again.photophotophotophoto

A New Lens

digital painting of a mixed media original

My world is water-colored . . .

Having spent much of my life near the coast, both at home and abroad, I am less of a swimmer than you might expect, though most of my water time has been spent near northern shores, if that explains anything for you. But I am greatly comforted by being near water without needing to be in it. Rivers, oceans, lakes and ponds, streams and waterfalls, puddles and pools alike all have their appeal and the sight and sound of them soothes my soul like few other things can do. A walk along a riverbank or beach boardwalk, out on the mud flats or wading in the cool fringes of a foaming inbound tide–all have the power to send the complications of life fleeing, if only for a while.

Not so surprising, then, that many of my artworks play with the cool hues of water and the shadowy welcome of its associations. Whether in the impressionistic and abstract styles seen here or in images quite specific to the sea, the hold that water has on my heart must make its appearance often just to comfort me.digital photo-paintingAll the same, as a northerner by birth and years of residence, I have always been wildly fascinated too by the idea of those mythic turquoise tropical waters whose gem-like clarity would surely entice me in, offering the siren-like assurance that I must be utterly safe in them since I can see practically forever in their depths. I know that this is not entirely true, but the appeal of their warmth and seemingly pure glassy transparency has its potent pull on my imagination anyway. So it was a bit of a fait accompli that I should love it when I did at last have my chance to step into the perfectly sheer aquas and blues of the Caribbean for the first time. It was everything I’d hoped, and of course a little something more.mixed media + textSwimming in Warm Water

I:     Skimming along as if in flight Just under the surface of a lake, I can look up and see through its tinted lens A circular and absurdly distorted universe Of inbent trees examining me in kind, Of ship-sized cumulus zeppelin clouds whizzing by, The pillowed prows of ducks plowing past me And convoluted birds careening In zigzag traffic from shore to shore.

II:     Looking down, I see dazzling curtains of kelp Dyeing mottled sunlight as it Cooks the lake like a giant kettle full of fish. Flitting, darting shapes shoot up to nip me Or casually brush by And I exult in floating a subtle touch Toward a parti-colored veil-tailed fish When it fixes me with its dully silver, Unemotional lidless eye.

digital painting made from an oil pastel drawing

Perhaps I shall always be looking for a sea change . . .

Because for all that we know and admire about its clarity and simplicity, and surely for its necessity to life, water is also still a source of great mystery and power and its depths both literally and metaphorically may never be fully plumbed.

Foodie Tuesday: My Crustacean Crush

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Who are *you* calling a Shrimp??? These here critters are Prawns, ma’am!

Living in north Texas, I realize we’re only a day’s drive away from the Gulf Coast, and stores and eateries here have generally plentiful provisions of Gulf Coast shrimp, catfish, stone crabs and other delicacies of the region to be sure. But I will admit to occasional bouts of longing for the profligate availability, in our former stomping grounds on the West coast, of those indigenous oceanic treats and northwest native water denizens with whom I grew up. The salmon and steelhead Gramps would bring us fresh from the Skykomish; the Dungeness crab caught that morning in the icy water of Puget Sound or sweet clams dug from the rocky coarse sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean, all right at our doorstep. The Alaskan runs of halibut and Copper River salmon being dashed down the coast from boat to table in a matter of hours. These are the delicacies on which I was weaned and cut my kitchen choppers, so to speak. Gulf Coast treats are a delight of their own kind, but neither should ever, could ever, supplant the other in anyone’s heart and mind and tastebuds.

So I indulge a little when I come across any of that home-reminiscent bounty of the sea and shore when I’m able. But I’m also working my way around the places in my newer home region that seem to proffer the authentic and fresh and well-crafted seafood known and loved by Texans and lake-landers and southerners, to learn more of what’s so great about what’s right here and what can be brought in that brings the oceans with it. Today needed to be a seafood day; either my heart or, at the very least, my tastebuds told me so.

On an ordinary Tuesday, I’m out grocery shopping in the afternoon, because my zookeeper husband, having a short turn-around time between when he gets home from Tuesday morning staff meetings and work at the church in Dallas and when he needs to be back at the university to do his final preparations for choir rehearsal there, has me drive him over and that gives me a convenient time with access to the car for the grocery expedition. Today wasn’t ordinary, though–having sung an extra-rigorous schedule  of rehearsals and performances of Theodora, the Collegium singers had earned a break from today’s usual rehearsal time. Since his schedule today included useful and necessary meetings with at least three or four different parties during the day and a significant reception event in the evening, all in Dallas, and since most of my partner’s administrative and score-study work can be done at or from any of his three current office spaces (school, church and home all having library materials, keyboards, computers and telephones), it’s an all-day Dallas day.

While we could, of course, have brought our lunch, it offered an opportunity for us to go to a place known for its seafood and indulge the whim a bit. So that’s what we did. Truluck’s–where I confess we’ve not yet tried anything not particularly aquatic to eat other than a little salad–seems to me to treat their seafood with respect, and not try to disguise anything second-rate with overworked or over-complicated distractions. So the fresh prawns in the first shot, their “Shrimp Cocktail“, is nothing but five massive prawns cooked, chilled, and served in their own stainless cauldron over billowing dry ice (that looks remarkably like the dish was shipped straight from Cawdor) with a couple of wedges of lemon and a hearty spoonful of brain-clearing horseradish cocktail sauce. It’s entirely possible that anyone wishing to do so could eat this supposed cocktail with some of the house bread and butter and leave fully replete and contented. But one has, after all, passed the display tank in the entrance on the way to one’s table, and the crustaceans there waved their antennae and claws ever so coyly and winsomely . . .

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…with a friendly ‘Howdy Do’ to all and sundry…

. . . so, clearly it would be rude to ignore the invitation and bypass a further dish. The dish of choice: a bowl of the house Lobster Bisque, as creamy and unfussy and redolent of the rosy lobster as one could like, and studded with a few very nice hunks of mild and tender lobster meat lazily rafting around in the foamy pool. The soup is poured into the bowls tableside, over a good dollop of goat cheese, and having that nice bit of mild zing gradually melting into the soup so that it intermittently brightens the mellow, cayenne-tinted warmth of the broth and balances the lovely bit of cognac (or is it sherry?) just barely sweetening the pot–well, it’s all finally melded into a slurry that goes down a treat on top of those recumbent prawns now nestled neatly in one’s happy stomach.

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Creamy and dreamy.

I’m still looking forward to the next time out on the coast and eating Cheri’s inimitable clam chowder (no one else’s anywhere has come close yet) at the 42nd Street Cafe, or wild-caught King salmon straight off its cedar roasting plank, or taking ridiculously big forkfuls of Dungeness crab drenched in melted butter and washing them down with a glass of some nice, crisp, dry Washington Riesling . . .

Of course, there’s all of that seafood beckoning to me from the vast array of countries and cities and restaurants and home kitchens full of good sushi and curries, gravlax and dishes alla Pescatore and, oh, oh, ohhhhh . . . .