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Hiking Old Woman (which Liam used to call “Old Lady Mountain”)

I read this section in Scott Russell Sanders’ Writing From The Center recently and was inspired to hike up Old Woman with the boys. We had such a good time that we went up again this Sunday.

“Most of our children spend a year in grade school studying the history of their home state. Shouldn’t they spend as least as much time studying their home ground? Let them take walks, handle stones and leaves and dirt, watch squirrels and bats and bugs, pore over photographs and fossils and maps, feel the land in their bones. We grown-ups could explore along with them. You don’t need a degree in biology to listen for geese honking by overhead, to see burst milkweed pods loose their down seeds, to run your fingers over the ledges in roadcuts, to watch a storm blow in from the horizon, to sample water from a creek, to discover in any of the countless details that make up the life of a place.”

book review published in the Anchorage Daily News


Book guides Alaskans through Kodiak’s unique flora

Daily News correspondent

(07/24/10 17:26:50)

On a recent gray, rainy day at our fish site on Kodiak, my husband carried the mail up from the skiff. Inside a slightly soggy envelope from my mom was a present, Stacy Studebakers’ field guide, “Wildflowers and other Plant Life of the Kodiak Archipelago” (Sense of Place Press, $25).

The book is the first comprehensive field guide for this region of Alaska.

The field guide was a day brightener, literally. It’s organized by flower color. Hundreds of brilliant photos (365 species) in a sturdy, bound 6-by-9-inch field guide allow quick identification. Insets of flower close-ups or plants at different lifestages help clarify. The result is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. The bright pink wildflower on the book’s cover is a Kamchatka thododendron, Studebaker’s favorite because it thrives on windswept sea cliffs and mountains. I imagine we’ll appreciate the vivid pages as much on dreary winter days as on July hikes.

This first edition of “Wildflowers” could be called a life’s work. Studebaker has lived and worked in Kodiak since 1980 as a teacher, naturalist, and environmental advocate.

For the field guide, she chose from 15,000 photos she has taken in the last 30 years. She has been studying and photographing coastal flora since 1973.

Many photos came from her plant inventory trips to remote locations on the Kodiak Archipelago for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Kodiak Island includes very diverse ecological zones. Mossy spruce forests at the north and eastern end of the island ascend to alpine ridges before dropping into the drier west and south coasts along the Pacific and Shelikof Strait. The guide applies to a large region of coastal Alaska — from Southeast to Southcentral and the Aleutian chain.

The field guide is useful for naturalists, parents, hikers and teachers, but it’s also great for kids. “Teaching your children to notice and appreciate the living world around them is one of the best gifts you can give them,” Studebaker writes in her introduction.

Our 3-year-old son Liam can open the book to the right color and with a little help he matches the photos to the plant. Flowers are much more cooperative than birds for an early exercise in identification.

In just a few minutes’ walk from the cabin, Liam spotted wild geraniums, nootka lupines, chocolate lilies and yellow paintbrush. They may be flowers I could name without a field book, but as we waded through the tall green grass, Liam also noticed the round beads of water cupped in lupine leaves, a mustard white butterfly (Studebaker includes photos of insect pollinators) and the sound of bees, the loudest noise at that moment. The gift of the field guide is the awareness we cultivate when we stop and spend time getting to know the things living quietly around us.

Then it was back to the usual beach play — climbing rocks, throwing rocks, shoveling rocks — but I noticed forget-me-nots growing on the cliff above us, a favorite wildflower of mine, not because they are the Alaska state flower, but because my husband used to tuck them into his letters to me before we were married.

In the field guide, a synopsis of each plant provides the common name, the scientific name accompanied by the abbreviated name of the scientist who first described and published it, and the plant family it belongs to.

There is also a measurement and detailed description, worldwide distribution, habitat, and snippets of natural history and folklore.

The photos and written description provide enough information about stems and leaves to learn key characteristics that will help identify plants when they are not blooming.

“The numerous landscape and habitat images scattered throughout, and the inclusion of many ‘non-flower’ species (grasses, sedges, willows, ferns) make this book stand out among other popular floras for our region,” said Carolyn Parker, a research and field botanist and plant taxonomist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Museum of the North Herbarium.

The book also includes a brief history of Kodiak botanists, geological and floral history, as well as an interesting discussion of Kodiak’s unique glacial refugium during the late Pleistocene. (This is a mountainous area that remained uncovered by glaciers which extended from the Alaska Peninsula into the ocean far east of Kodiak.)

Kodiak is called “The Emerald Isle” for its inviting green mountains and lush rain forest. But the summer season is fleeting, and slogging through it when plants are alive can be difficult.

Hiking off the trails in Kodiak is more easily done in the spring, before plants push up through the soil, add green leaves and bloom, or in the fall, when vegetation has fallen over with the first frosts. But this book will likely inspire beginning and experienced botanists alike.

For those willing to put on bug dope and endure scratched-up arms on a trek to find the famous lady’s slipper orchid, or deadly monkshood, or the glacial refugium’s alpine forget-me-not, this book is an excellent tool for learning about all of the flora along the way.

laundry & lists

Twice now, with a year or more in between, I happened to open Good Poems to Tess Gallagher’s

“I Stop Writing the Poem.”

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives

or who dies, I’m still a woman.

I’ll always have plenty to do.

I bring the arms of his shirt

together. Nothing can stop

our tenderness. I’ll get back

to the poem. I’ll bet back to being

a woman. But for now

there’s a shirt, a giant shirt

in my hands, and somewhere a small girl

standing next to her mother

watching to see how it’s done.

waves & clouds

We went to surfer’s beach the other day. It rained twice on the hour drive out, and then the sunshine won. The beach was crowded for Kodiak—maybe ten families and a couple of four wheelers, but we outlasted most of them. Our dog, Schooner, abandoned us for a little redheaded girl who threw a stick for him about 200 times. The boys dug tunnels and waded and played the exact same game we loved to play here as kids—the one where you follow the receding waves toward the ocean and then scream and race away as the tide sweeps in. I was a tiny bit fearful that some wave might carry them out and kept circling the boys like I was playing a zone defense. There was a time the only consequence I considered in this game was jeans wet to the knee.

I kept thinking about place and time overlapping. Witnessing my boys delighting in the same act, at the same beach—maybe it was my Once More to the Lake moment. Except without “the chill of death.” I recognized their joy from memory, and I felt as if my own joy in this moment was deeper for knowing it twice. All I felt was happy.

And I didn’t want to live anywhere else.

Sometimes I get nervous about the book coming out. I didn’t set out to write personal essays. I’d been hoping to stick with the hidden  narrator of journalism. On perfectly beautiful days like this one, I can’t imagine writing a word against life on Kodiak.

A friend just recommended the novel A Paris Wife. I opened the book today and the Hemingway quote as epigraph reassured me somehow.

“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.”


The Muses Among Us

Some words from Kim Stafford’s lovely book

“In my experience, all pleasure in writing begins with a sense of abundance–rich knowledge and boundless curiosity.”

“…for the writer what I call “tricks of beginning,” those initially natural but incrementally more complex and sustaining experiments with language that simultaneously honor the voices around you and the voice within you.”


“… My life of writing is rooted in the fragment…”
“There is a story in my family that my grandmother’s physician, during her pregnancy, prescribed an hour of beauty a day. There is no report of dietary restrictions, exercises. No, she was simply to take her music, or her sunset, or the unworked colors of the quilt spread by the lamp before her. While others did chores, she sat on the porch and watched the slow inevitability of the twilight, heard the crickets chanting the beginning of the world night by night. She was to take the roll of pasture by evening’s mist, the looming shape of barn and of elm, the warm September moon hung low over the corn rows. She was to take these things to nourish her child, my mother, within her. I feast on this story. It teaches me the fundamental practicality of close witness of the world, which is the beginning of art.”


On keeping a notebook:

“…instead of staring at a blank page to gather my thoughts, I leaf through the little notebooks to be reminded of many rich beginnings. The question then is not ‘What shall I write?’ but rather ‘Which, of the many beauties in my notebook, do I wish to carry forward?’

My own writing routine surges in a stream of notebooks, letters, and drafts of stories, songs, and essays, all in simultaneous development. A certain amount of chaos flavors the whole rush.

Gifts of rich lore surround us all. While others seem to observe these offerings on occasion and by chance, noticing and then letting them go, I make the hearing and recording of them my mission as a writer, and a key invitation to writing students. Dreams get away if we don’t tell them, or write them down. Thoughts do the same. The writer’s greatest chance may be devotion to the passing fragment. It is small, but it is pure, and it may hold a compact infinity. You heard it for a reason.”


On writing daily:

“Writers know this when they are writing daily. With the first stroke, the hand may swim, the pen glide. The cold glass of the window brightens; the rug has a biography. Sweet tension of silent meeting throbs in the room. Unsaid words grow powerful, wish to speak out. Ideas gather their bones and rise up. A face becomes a life, a place a story. Everything speaks, or is powered by silence. Everything dreams aloud. The pen grows numb with haste, yet calm with plenty.”


sometimes you find a book at exactly the right time

A few more lines from Writing From The Center by Scott Russell Sanders. I love this book. Whenever I pick it up, I find myself, upon setting it back down again later, saying thank you thank you thank you.


“To be centered, as I understand it, means to have a home territory, to be attached in a web of relationships with other people, to value common experience, and to recognize that one’s life rises constantly from inward depths.”


“We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.”


“The effort to know and care for and speak from your home ground is a choice about living as well as writing. In that effort you are collaborating with everyone else who keeps track, everyone who works for the good of the community and the land.

Trees tap into the soil, drawing nourishment and returning fertility. Capturing sunlight, breaking down stone, dropping a mulch of leaves, replenishing the air, trees improve the conditions for other species and for the saplings that will replace them. So might writers, through works of imagination, give back to the places that feed them a more abundant life.”

skiff rides

And here’s the bay on another calm day. It  looks like I’m waving the camera around, but we’re just bouncing over the waves on the way to the setnetter picnic. I couldn’t really move my arms because Luke fell asleep on my lap. It was kind of uncomfortable. But it was a beautiful day.


I love this piece by Brian Doyle:


(and I love these boys)

It is a craft and an art and a prayer. It is exhausting and enervating and epiphany. Once begun it does not end, forever and ever amen. It is to be privy to miracles all day and night. It is laundry and cooking and cleaning and barking and insurance and doctors and bandaids and toothbrushes and cereal and yelling and praying and weeping and snorting with laughter and teaching them to walk and talk and read and do complicated algebraic somersaults and trying to seed their souls with grace and courage and mercy and independence, and then watching heart in mouth as they sail away into the ocean of pain and joy and heartbreak and brilliance that is their own life to make, and all you can do ever after is be ready to listen and hold them when they need you which they do.

This is Being a Parent, and it’s essentially impossible to explain or train for, and it makes you gaunt and gray, and the only tools that really help are patience and love and sleep, but o the joy, the exquisite holiness, the power and passion and poem of love it is!

And so much else that we cannot articulate no matter how much we try.

There may be no greater confusing complicated joy available to human creatures than that of being granted the mysterious gift of children.

The best things I’ve read lately

“Foster” a short story by Claire Keegan

Train Dreams, a novella by Denis Johnson

“First Up: Barnstorming for Poetry” Samuel Green’s reflections on being Poet Laureate in the state of Washington

In the Skin of a Lion, but I like pretty much everything by Michael Ondaatje

“People Like That Are The Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore. As I was reading Moore’s story, I thought of that Emily Dickinson line about how she recognized poetry when a piece made her feel, “…physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”