Nutty Wanderings

Dear Readers,

Thanks for returning to my now-annual blog post. Earthly matters demand my attention lately, but there does come a time to reach into the internet. I would like to share a few things I recently learned about an extraordinary kind of tree.

This spring I spent a month in Chile, traveling with my dear brother Josh who has been living there. Due to unfortunate circumstances I no longer have the sketchbook that I kept on the trip, but there are some photographs. We wandered high and low through thick and thin, but here I will focus on the botanical mission that was the impetus for my journey. I am immensely grateful to Josh for being my guide and interpreter, as well as providing me with his photos and footage from the trip.

I had long been curious about this corner of the southern hemisphere because of its climatic parallels with the West coast of North America.  Southern Chile is home to a treasure-trove of broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs well-adapted to cool rainy winters and warm dry summers much like our own here in Cascadia (Cistus Nursery outside of Portland carries a number of hardy Chilean plants). And it is the refuge of one ancient and incomparable conifer, Araucaria araucana, known to its human dependents as Pewen, or among the Chilean populace as simply ‘Araucaria’ (for the sake of simplicity I will use that name for the purposes of this blog post).

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A stream in Araucaria country near the village of Cruzaco, Araucania State.

 

In the Northwest one may spot the occasional Araucaria, or as we call them, “monkey-puzzle”, towering over an old Victorian house in Seattle or Portland like some giant alien about to go stalking through the streets in search of prey. Part of the reason they look so strange is that they are usually found alone, and this is regrettable. Being dioecious, the trees are male or female individually. They need to be together, at least within a few hundred feet, so that the male’s pollen can reach the female’s seed cones and create viable, edible seeds. Even before I learned of their incredible value as a food crop, the Araucarias fascinated me with their unique appearance, their uncompromising architecture armored in sharp reptilian scales.

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In 2010 a some Alaskan friends of mine in Portland had a band called Monkey Puzzle, and I recall doing some tentative album-cover sketches. Shortly afterward it was decided that the name was not sexy enough, they became Animal Eyes, and are still making music to this day. (http://animaleyesband.bandcamp.com/)

So I wanted to see this tree in its native land. I had read here and there of its crop potential in permaculture publications, but it seemed like a long shot, planting this slow-growing oddball creature in hope of someday harvesting nuts. But what information there was intrigued me, the trees’ great longevity and resistance to fire and drought. We are daily bombarded with the looming threats of global warming, prophesies of fire and drought. What if I told you there is a crop that has survived every climate catastrophe since the Jurassic while feeding everything from Triceratops to parakeets to Homo sapiens?

I had not located any of the few pollinated female specimens in the Northwest from which to gather seed, and anyways I wanted the choice of seed from an entire forest, from the biggest  and healthiest specimens. I went to Chile with two little permits from the USDA, a #587 for importing small lots of seed and #621 for carrying endangered species. The Araucarias were logged extensively in the 20th century for their excellent straight-grained lumber, and are now justly guarded as the precious heritage of Chile and the world.

Throughout southern Chile, it is not uncommon to see thrifty young Araucarias growing in front yards and even median strips. The national tree, it acts as a sort of patriotic symbol alongside the Chilean flag, or more significantly, as a symbol of Mapuche heritage and culture:

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Mural with young Araucarias

 

After traversing the warm, fertile, lower-middle section of Chile from Santiago to Chiloe, through apple orchards, seaweed beaches and dusty backroads, we found our way to the mountain haunts of the Araucaria. At first, I could only see them distantly, pale trunks and dark palm-like crowns lining the ridge-tops above steep valleys swathed in broadleaf forests. For days I strained my eyes staring upward at these reclusive beings.

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On the mountain pass to Icalma I got my first close look, after hours of winding upwards on a tortuous gravel road. Passing between these plated pillars, these wizened sentinels of the former world were a revelation, like traveling through a gateway in time. Their form has changed little since the Mesozoic era, when Brachiosaurs may have chomped at their new shoots, and pterodactyls roosted in their crowns. Fossilized seed cones nearly identical to those of today are commonly found in Argentine Patagonia. Here they stood, bedecked with pale streamers of lichen, scaly limbs stretching out into space, wind-firm and arrow-straight atop the rocky crags.

In the dusty mixture of forest and rangeland around Icalma, among rocky hills and cool blue lakes, we met with Pewenche, the people of the Araucaria. I knew from my research that the seeds should be ripening by early March, and I was not disappointed. After weeks of backpacking and bus rides and sidetracks, we found this manna from heaven.

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First we stopped at a little restaurant advertising puree de pinones, as the nuts are called. My only knowledge at this point of the actual taste of the tree crop I had flown thousands of miles to study, was only what I had read in books and articles. The puree was delicious, like mashed potatoes but thicker and with a richer flavor. As I savored this mountain sustenance, staring at carved wooden stirrups and a stone mortar and pestle on the windowsill, the 8 year old son of the restaurant’s owner appeared at our table and handed my brother and I four large pinones. It seemed somehow fitting that my first collection of Araucaria seed was given to me by a child.

On a local’s tip, we went a little further down the road, almost to the border with Argentina, to the hamlet of Cruzaco, to meet the harvesters themselves. Here the Araucarias grow in open groves in light, volcanic soil, with very sparse groundcover of grasses and shrubs nibbled by livestock. Young trees seemed underrepresented in proportion to mature specimens, and I wondered if goats would chew even their spiny foliage. But the saplings I did see appeared healthy, and it strikes me that Araucarias could work well in pastures. The light shade from their high crowns would scarcely inhibit the grass, the thickness of their mature bark armors them well against livestock, and any excess seed would be readily devoured. The locals attest it is good food for anything from chickens to horses.7

In the dust of late summer it felt like high desert, only the size of the trees attesting to abundant winter rainfall. It was dry and sunny, and a strong breeze blew intermittently. We could see full cones high in the crowns of the trees, and here and there pinones were scattered on the ground where a cone had begun disintegrating. We sampled the raw nuts and found them good, with a crunchy texture like a fresh radish or carrot, and a nutty flavor that some liken to jicama or adzuki bean. They are mostly carbohydrate, like chestnuts, with some fiber, and sugar and small amounts of oil and protein.

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We met a man walking down the road pushing a bicycle with an oscillating hedge trimmer tied to it. He graciously answered questions from the two grubby and sunburnt gringos, and led us back to his father’s house to have lunch. We were treated to horsemeat, fried bread, and mate, and the older man, Manuel, brought out his gear for harvesting pinones. There was a 100′ length of rope with a small iron weight at the end, and a sack tied round the waist for gathering. At the first tree we came to, Manuel began deftly twirling the weighted rope around his head, then took aim at a cone and let go. It was a direct hit, and pinones rained down like confetti. With subsequent throws he flipped the rope over this branch or that, shaking it to loosen more seeds from their cones:

This footage will be part of a documentary Josh is putting together about the struggle for Mapuche land rights, and the audio is still being edited and translated.

In a few minutes of picking them off the ground we had several kilos of pinones, and headed back to the shade of the ranch house. “How much is your permit for?” Manuel asked me in Spanish. “Two and a half kilos” I replied (five pounds in fact) and he weighed out a sack on a scale and handed it to me. I knew I wanted more seed from other trees for the sake of genetic diversity, but this generous gesture struck me as a sign of abundance. Manuel and his son were not rich people in monetary terms, having their sheep and goat flocks, a horse and a bicycle, but no car. But they weren’t starving, and sacks of pinones could be had for no more than the work of harvesting, no irrigation, weeding or fertilizer needed.

On our way back to Icalma, we saw more people harvesting, filling the back of a pick-up truck with sacks of pinones. A woman who gave us a lift in her Subaru station wagon said she was going to make a fermented beverage from the juice of the nuts. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find any ready to drink. I heard of the nuts being threaded on strings for storage, or buried in pits for years at a time, but these aspects of storage and cooking I would like to study more. In 20 years time when my own trees start producing, perhaps I will make another trip to Chile. This blog has more interesting angles on the culinary process: http://eatingchile.blogspot.com/2009/03/eating-pinones.html

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From Icalma we headed for Conguillio National Park, to see the old-growth Araucarias in a place untouched by livestock and chainsaws. Another long and bumpy ride took us back to Melipeuco, and thence into the mountains around the great Volcan Llaima. In the center of the park lies a pristine lake created when a lava flow dammed a river some 800 years ago.

This Lago Conguillio is surrounded by a marvelous mixture of forest types, from Araucaria seedlings sprouting out of bare and baking pumice gravel, to 200′ giants looming out of shadowy old growth. The name ‘Conguillio’ itself apparently translates from Mapudungun as ‘water and pinones, describing the two essential resources found in abundance in this mountain refuge.

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Getting nutty in a prehistoric forest.

 

The Araucarias seem to form pure or nearly pure stands primarily on recent lava flows and steep ridges but also intermingle with broadleaf evergreen forests. In more fertile, moist, and sheltered sites, various Nothofagus species seem to gradually take over given their greater shade tolerance. Meanwhile a type of native bamboo often dominates the understory in these more mature forests  (I believe this was Chusquea culeou).

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Old-growth Araucaria with bamboo understory.

 

On the low ridges between Lago Conguillio and a small, marshy lake to the west, along a trail called “Los Carpinteros” after the native woodpeckers, we found ourselves in a truly majestic forest. Dominated by ancient Coigues with gnarled trunks up to 8′ in diameter and perhaps 150′ in height, it was interspersed with giant Araucarias with scaly trunks straight as pillars and emergent crowns looming 200′ high. The largest of them is known as ‘Nuka Pewen’, is over 7′ in diameter, and estimated to be 1,800 years in age. When they reach this massive size, the bark of the Araucarias reverts from hexagonal plates back to a smoother surface with horizontal wrinkles, like the foot of some humongous dinosaur. Mosses and lichens grew everywhere on the trees and in the verdant understory, creating a tapestry of transfixing beauty. It was with reluctance that we left that magical ancient forest.

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My sketch from memory of the forest structure. The figures to the left of the large Araucaria give a sense of scale.

 

 

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Old-growth nearing 200′ high

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A medium-sized tree growing in the sharply-draining soil of an old lava flow.

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An abundant crop of cones.

 

 

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A crop for the future: Araucaria seed cone.

 

 

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What does the future hold for this ancient species?

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My seedlings from Chile, organized by provenance.

Having returned safely to my island home with around 200 Araucaria seeds from large and healthy trees, I am keeping them watered in a cold frame and eagerly watching their progress. They seem to germinate most readily when just the tip of the nut is stuck into the soil, leaving most of it standing above ground and exposed to sunlight. They are not dormant but require warm temperatures before they will sprout. Plant them out in well-drained soil and a sunny location. Once established they are very drought-tolerant and also wind-firm. When thirty years have flown by and you wake up with gray hair, you may be pleasantly surprised to find a scaly herd of saurian trees showering you with sustenance and a promise to outlive you by millennia.

 

 

 

Earth and Fire: the Summer Solstice

The homestead in summer

The homestead in summer

Summer has come to the island, and the sun beats down from on high on the dry grass. Pollinators buzz their way through a sea of blackberry flowers, and the fir forests grow fragrant with the scent of warm sap. I have been digging in the earth, three, four, five feet deep, looking for clay. I found the clay: dense, gray, and sticky, a marvelous substance that can be molded to any form, liquefied in water, or baked to brick in the sun.

I had seen ovens made of earth, and I wanted to make one. A year ago in Alaska, I helped Jimmy Riordan, Michael Gerace, Jesus Landin-Torres III and Sara Frary, and many others build an earthen egg, a chamber of contemplation, on a rocky beach. That experience kindled a flame inside me, a great curiosity about this way that you could build things out of dirt. I have often wondered about my acrylic paints, how they’re made and where they come from… what if I could just make art out of the earth beneath my feet?

I decided to build an oven, because I love bread, and pies, and pizzas, and everything else that comes out of ovens. Fortunately for me, Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field have written an excellent book that shows how anyone can do this. Build Your Own Earth Oven is an indispensable guide, ancient knowledge brought back from the brink of forgetting, and woven together with new knowledge and innovation. I have known these two since I was a boy, and finally reading their book was second only to enjoying their company in person.

So I dug up clay, and I shoveled gravel, I cut wild grasses and scrounged old bottles. I pried big beautiful stones out of the ground for the foundation, glacial gems of granite and limestone. I trod the mud with my feet, then poked and prodded it into lumpy forms approximating my vision. I shoveled horse and cow dung out of fields, mixed it with clay, and smeared the fragrant gray-green frosting into fanciful patterns to please the eye. Who knew that grazing animals manufacture a durable and versatile plaster? People living in mud houses all over the world have known this for thousands of years…

At last the oven is finished, somehow  just in time to bake bread and feed friends on the longest day of the year.

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Surviving the mild winter

When I first set up my yurt here on San Juan last spring, a grizzled old islander looked me dead in the eye and said “Have ya spent a winter out here in that thing?”. Well, no, I hadn’t. Given that I had spent a winter in that thing in Homer, Alaska, another winter in Bellingham, and another in Alger, I was not overly concerned. But everyplace has its quirks of microclimate, and every tribe of locals is acutely aware, and proud of, its unique challenges.

Fortunately, the unique microclimate of the San Juan Islands is mild even by the temperate standards of the Pacific Northwest. A little less rain than the mainland, and a little less frost.  Just a few days ago, as less fortunate people somewhere far to the east were bracing themselves for an epic blizzard, I was digging in the garden with my shirt off. “Juneuary” as the CBC dubbed our little warm-weather vacation.

Through recent forays into furniture-making, the yurt is gradually getting more comfortable:

A bed and a bookshelf

A bed and a bookshelf

My growing museum of specimens and oddities, those of marine origin on the left and terrestrial on the right.

My growing museum of specimens and oddities, those of marine origin on the left and terrestrial on the right.

Plenty of books to pass the long winter evenings, and maps to stay oriented in the complex geography of the Salish Sea region.

Plenty of books to pass the long winter evenings, and maps to stay oriented in the complex geography of the Salish Sea region.

This is 'Bageera', a 1979 Ford Ranger that I recently inherited from my friend Loren Schaumberg, who had it for a long time. This is a special truck.

This is ‘Bageera’, a 1979 Ford Ranger that I recently inherited from my friend Loren Schaumberg, who had it for a long time. This is a special truck.

On a recent visit to the Willamette Valley, I had time for filling in a new sketchbook:

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A glorious bit of public art in downtown Portland

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A massive American chestnut in Sellwood, one of a pair situated next to a Montessori school. Every child should be so fortunate.

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Notes from the wood carving shop of

Notes from the wood carving shop of Kiko Denzer

The view south-west from Fitton Green, with Mary's Peak shrouded in clouds

The view south-west from Fitton Green, with Mary’s Peak shrouded in clouds

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A skillful portrait of a wood duck by Eben Denzer, a promising young artist/ornithologist

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Looking south-east from Fitton Green, across the Willamette Valley toward Eugene

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A large Garry oak at at Fitton Green.

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Eben generously gave me this drawing of King Aragorn, in exchange for a drawing of Gandalf.

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Island Home

As spring approaches, I am setting up cold-frames, taking cuttings of seaberry, autumn olive, and fig,  scheming ponds and orchards, and being awoken in the night by the frenzied mating calls of foxes in the meadow…

September is another season…

It has been a wonderful two months now that I have been back on San Juan. On September 6th, I was present at the wedding of my old crewmate Dane Caldwell & Selva Wohlgemuth. As a gift for them I made a pair of painted plates at Johnny Picasso’s in Anacortes. Dane taught me a lot about longlining, such as: how to skin an octopus, how to eat raw sea urchin uni while coiling groundline, how to dress halibut, etc. I had a lot of fun with these plates and I am thinking of doing more ceramic painting projects in the future…

On the left, black cod fishing, and on the right, halibut fishing.

On the left, black cod fishing, and on the right, halibut fishing.

After that, I went along for a week with several good friends on a sailing trip from San Juan up into the Gulf Islands of BC. The weather was incredibly sunny and calm, not allowing much sailing, but we contented ourselves with hiking, sunbathing, picking apples and plums in the old orchard on Prevost Island, gathering oysters, fishing for lingcod, diving for crabs, and generally having a good time.

The moon over James Bay, Prevost Island

The moon over James Bay, Prevost Island

Scenes from Wallace Island

Scenes from Wallace Island

A burly old Madrona on Tent Island

A burly old Madrona on Tent Island

I recently started working part time as an assistant for the sculptor Matthew Gray Palmer (matthewgraypalmer.com). This incredibly skilled and talented artist just happens to live and work in Friday Harbor. I consider myself one lucky individual to get paid to spend time in Matthew’s workshop of wonders, learning new things every day about bronze, concrete, steel, moulding, casting, welding, and more. It’s like everything I ever dreamed of doing in art class as a kid, multiplied by 100.

The studio, with a stainless steel work in progress looming over a curious-looking piggy bank.

The studio, with a stainless steel work in progress looming over a curious-looking piggy bank.

Maquettes from old projects gathering dust as they oversee our work.

Maquettes from old projects gathering dust as they oversee our work.

My bike outside the studio.

My bike outside the studio.

Best of all has been spending time on the 5 acres at the foot of Cady Mountain that I now call home, hewing logs for a shed and dreaming and scheming of a thousand different things to come. Most of all I think of all the trees I want to grow here: walnuts, chestnuts, filberts, monkey puzzle, figs, mulberries, seaberries, medlars, plums, black locust, perhaps even a few hardy olives like the folks over on Pender and Saturna islands (http://olivetrees.ca/). It will be a long process with lots of hard work and challenges along the way. I am looking forward to being here:

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Going Home

After a fairly average salmon fishing season aboard the Sea Mist in Prince William Sound, I am back in Homer for a few days before going home to a yurt and 5 acres on San Juan Island. The Sound is as beautiful as ever, glaciers blazing under the midnight sun one minute, wrapped in fog and rain the next. There was time for the occasional dip in a fjord as well as berry-picking excursions in the rainforest. The fishery seems for the most part the same as the last time I was there in 2010, with the addition of more boats lured by big hatchery pink runs. There is a sense that the ‘gentleman’s fishery’ in which fishermen know and respect each other, is becoming afflicted with more greed and obliviousness. Although not every permit is actively fishing at this point, the common sentiment among long-time Prince William Sound seiners seems to be that there are ‘too many boats’.

With so many boats waiting for a turn to set on any given point, I had a some time to put my colored pencils to work in trying to capture the unique landscapes of the Sound.

 

F/V Miss Molly in Sawmill Bay

F/V Miss Molly in Sawmill Bay

"The Slide" Sawmill Bay, Evans Island

“The Slide” Sawmill Bay, Evans Island

Montague Island

Montague Island

Sugarloaf Mountain, Port Valdez

Sugarloaf Mountain, Port Valdez

Alder-covered mountains in Port Valdez

Alder-covered mountains in Port Valdez

Beaver Nelson, legendary Prince William Sound fisherman

Beaver Nelson, legendary Prince William Sound fisherman

South Twin Bay, Elrington Island

South Twin Bay, Elrington Island

Cabin Fever: four days of closed fishing, sitting on anchor in nonstop pouring rain and howling wind, produced such elaborate daydreams

Cabin Fever: four days of closed fishing, sitting on anchor in nonstop pouring rain and howling wind, produced such elaborate daydreams

F/V Sea Mist going home

F/V Sea Mist going home

Some reflections from life on the boat:

Day off, reading

How many words can you pour into your head?

How deeply can these drops of information soak down

into the subsoil of your brain

before it becomes fully saturated

and they run in rivulets down the side of your head

to join the rushing streams, the roaring torrents

of continual human forgetfulness.

I am collecting rainwater in a roast pan.

A section of plywood in the fo’c’sl has become entirely saturated.

Here in Prince William Sound, in South Twin Bay, on August 8th

it seems as if some aqueducts in the sky have burst  open.

In the snug household of my bunk

the rain invites itself in.

 

 

Alaskan Summer

I have been in Homer, Alaska for almost a month now, and tomorrow I am going to Prince William Sound on the F/V Sea Mist, to spend the rest of the summer chasing salmon among the fjords. The midnight sun is here in abundance, bringing with it an explosion of plant life, animal energy, and waves migrating visitors: squawking cranes, leaping salmon, and  human seekers and adventurers of all kinds.

It has been good reconnecting with friends old and new here in this small coastal community, this self-styled ‘cosmic hamlet by the sea’… Even though my home is now down south among the Doug fir and madrona by the Salish Sea, I will always remember this place and these people.

While in Homer I stumbled upon a great community art project called Searching for the Sublime at the End of the Road. I helped Michael Gerace, Jesus Landin Torres III, Jimmy Riordan, Sarah Tonin, and many others to build a hive-shaped adobe cenotaph on Bishop’s Beach. It was a great learning experience in mud, sand and teamwork, and also a labor of love that suddenly and poetically climaxed when a storm-surge washed away most of the cenotaph a day or two after it was fully fired and complete. We knew it would be ephemeral, but the swiftness of the ocean in reclaiming its dominion over the beach made it that much dearer to our memories. I must also thank Asia Freeman and Michael Walsh at Bunnell Arts Center for bringing this project to Homer, and for all the other great things they are working on at the gallery and in Old Town. If you are ever in Homer, take a long walk down Bishop’s beach, get a loaf of bread at Two Sisters, stop into Bunnell to see some fascinating art, consider a tattoo at A Muse Ink, get a good book at the Mermaid cafe/ Old Inlet bookshop, have some bouillabaisse at Maura’s… you won’t be disappointed.

I am now looking forward to spending another summer in the labyrinth of rain-drenched islands and fjords that is Prince William Sound, among salmon, bears, deer, eagles, jellyfish, kelp, and the constant radio gossip of the seine fleet. When the days get shorter and the pink salmon are gone, then it will be time to go home to San Juan Island, to blackberries, plums, apples, winter squash, and good friends that I miss.

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Seeker at the end of the road

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Faces of the Down East Saloon

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The ubiquitous Pushki

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The Sea Mist, built in 1976

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Sketches, with a figure copied from Arthur Rackham

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Drawing by Karma

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Last day in Washington, views of the Salish Sea

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Miscellaneous sketches

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A memory of India

Bird's eye view of the cenotaph site

Bird’s eye view of the cenotaph site

Looking out from the alder grove by the creek, cenotaph under construction below

Looking out from the alder grove by the creek, cenotaph under construction below

firing the cenotaph

firing the cenotaph

inside

inside

after the storm

after the storm

Island Spring

Mother Mouse

Mother Mouse

Now I am living in my yurt on San Juan Island, on a south-facing slope at the foot of Cady Mountain. Awakening each morning to innumerable birdsongs all around, walking outside through waves of tiny wildflowers and the rising tide of nettles, grass, and brush, I have been taking time to watch the bustling insects pursue their mates. Tomorrow I am going to Alaska to prepare for the Prince William Sound pink salmon fishery, but I will be back to this island Eden when the blackberries ripen in September. I have been drawing and painting as always, going back into a simple mode of observation and reflection.

Fishery Point, Waldron I.

Fishery Point, Waldron I.

Beach Camp

Beach Camp

E & M

E & M

Town

Town

Open Mic

Open Mic

Observations (large bug at upper right copied from Aaron Horkey)

Observations (large bug at upper right copied from Aaron Horkey)

Faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow.