The summer plants are dying, or at least fading away. After a season of production, they’re slowly disappearing into compost. Brown leaves blow about and crunch underfoot.
Clouds of dust swirl around the dogs when they play chase in the garden, powdering them with invisible grains that dull the color of their fur and our floors. It’s noticeably cooler, but the sun continues to shine, sometimes through a screen of wildfire smoke.
According to my weather station, it has rained 0.83 inches since August 1st and it’s not an anomaly. Summers in the PNW are almost always bone dry, in part, because we don’t get hot enough to produce thunderstorms that would be a reliable source of rain.
For weeks and weeks at a time, the sun shines bright and dries everything to a crisp, including the people.
I love a nice day in the sun, but by this time of year, I’ve had enough. The world outside is a tinderbox that needs moisture before it’s too late. Wildfire is our biggest risk. If we can get through September, we can relax with the knowledge that the rain will finally arrive in spades.
Right now, I’m a little anxious, or maybe just full of anticipation. Each year, I plan for the famous PNW rain to arrive by October 15th. Then, storm season commences and the sun disappears along with the risk of fire. It’s fascinating how quickly and reliably it happens.
I plan on the transition each year, and for now, I wait and watch for signs of change. The weather models are unsure of what will happen. It’s like the dry PNW summer is battling the north pacific currents trying to push into Washington for the winter. Forecasts this time of year often say there is a 58% chance of rain, which is frustratingly noncommittal. They might as well admit they have no idea.
It’s the forecast of rain that feeds my anticipation. I want commitment and confidence. I want a sure thing. For the last couple of days, I’ve been watching a prediction for rain on Wednesday. On Sunday, the Wunderground app showed an 80% chance of 0.20 inches of rain and it allowed me to relax. Rejoice! It’s coming! 🙌
Then, I checked the weather as soon as I woke up on Monday. Overnight the forecast dropped to a 74% chance of 0.11 inches. It ruined my day. 😞
This morning it was 68% of 0.04 inches. 🤷🏻♂️
At the time of publishing this afternoon, it’s down to 49% of 0.03. 😡
I’ve seen this happen so many times. The models get you all hyped and hopeful, only to crush your dreams. At this point, I expect a perfectly sunny day on Wednesday without a drop of rain. What have we done to deserve this? Why do they torment us?
Perhaps, I am addicted to the drama of not knowing. Or, maybe I’m just fascinated by the machinations of weather and the difficulty of getting it right. What gets me through is the confidence that the autumn rain will arrive… eventually. It always has.
As much as I complain about the sun at the crunchy end of summer, I love and look forward to this time of year. As I’ve written here many times before, I believe happiness livesin anticipation. Right now, it’s bright and dry and the summer weather seems interminable. But I have so much to look forward to. The cool misty air, the sound of rain on the roof, and fires in the fireplace. I miss seeing our property in its more natural state: wet and verdant. For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
When people learn that we live on an island that’s only accessible by boat, plane, or ferry, they sometimes conjure visions of Alaska-style wilderness and off-the-grid living. People who aren’t familiar with the region ask if we have schools and grocery stores. Despite our relative remoteness, Orcas Island does not want for amenities. In fact, our grocery stores punch above their weight and have prices to show for it.
But island life does have its inconvenient realities. A severe earthquake could cut off our power and disconnect us from the mainland for weeks. An attack (or accident) that affects mainland infrastructure could do the same. In these situations, we’d be on our own and this has imbued the island with a doomsday prepper ethic of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We are not immune and always planned to move into the new house and start preparing.
While we don’t have a bomb shelter or a closet full of MREs, we are working to build up our knowledge and skills in feeding ourselves, and our friends. This summer was our first with a full season of gardening and catching seafood from the Salish Sea, and I’m fascinated by the possibilities.
We’ve enjoyed entertaining over 30 off-island guests this year. Some stayed for an afternoon, some for days. We want nothing more than for friends and family to have a memorable experience with us. Creating that experience from our effort is something we take as a challenge.
People who visit Orcas often prize the local, farm-to-table experience, including eating local seafood, like Dungeness crab, oysters, and spot prawns. They visit the farmer’s market to load up on fresh vegetables and bread. After a nice dinner out, they may order a cocktail or a dessert. Along with good company, food is a necessary part of any island experience.
We want to create a similar experience from home, based mostly on our own planning, time, and self-sufficiency. This summer has been a time to share what we’ve grown and caught. We’ve served many meals that featured crab and prawns we from our traps, tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, peppers, strawberries, and lettuce we grew, bread and pizza we baked, and dessert and cocktails we made, all overlooking the Salish Sea. That’s always been the dream and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see it happen.
The average visitor, I hope, feels that everything is operating smoothly and we have it all under control. This is my hope because the reality is not so flattering. We are learning on the job and always trying to figure out how to solve problems. Growing, catching, and cooking food is a challenge that always evolves. There are always new problems to solve.
From the outside, you might wonder if so much gardening and crabbing is a chore. Do we really love it, or is it a means to a self-sufficient end? It’s a good question and I’ll answer it with an analogy.
If you’ve ever gambled on a football game, lottery ticket, or at a card table, you know the rush that comes with taking a risk and hoping that lady luck shines on you. Having fished for crab and shrimp with Sachi for a few years, I came to see that all fishing is gambling. You place bets in the form of lures, traps, and bait and then hope that you’ll get lucky. Some days you win, some you lose, but the rush keeps you coming back. Experienced fishers are able to beat the odds, on occasion.
Perhaps gardening is no different. There are no sure bets, especially when you’re just getting started. You plant, water, wait, and hope. Sometimes the soil and sun cooperate, and sometimes they don’t, but you keep trying. The rush comes, but it’s spread over weeks in the summer when the garden finally matures. Experienced gardeners, like fishers, are able to beat the odds.
Today the odds are probably still against us and our garden, in part, because we’re still getting a handle on our little microclimate. Wind, shadows, sun, moisture, humidity, and temperature are all variables that can impact the harvest. Understanding what works at a specific location requires entire seasons of experiments. When an experiment takes that long, you have to see vegetable gardening as a lifelong pursuit. We are currently 1.5 seasons into a very long game.
Sachi is our chief vegetable gardener and gambler. Starting early in the spring, she placed bets in the form of squash, pepper, and tomato seedlings in the garage under UV lights and over a heating pad. She planted seeds for lettuce, beans, and more in the garden. If it works, the bets pay off when dinner is served.
The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.
The garden did well this year, but there were failures. The beets didn’t really form – not enough sun. Half the beans didn’t mature, and the squash almost failed due to cool weather that lasted too long into the spring. Mother nature and our own inexperience didn’t cooperate with some plants. There is always next year.
One of our experiments this year seems to have paid off. Peppers and tomatoes prefer heat and warm weather. This spring we added raised beds next to the south-facing side of our home. We hoped the sun shining on the black siding would warm the plants enough to make them successful. It worked this year; a jackpot that came from a new use of the sun’s rays.
In fact, it worked so well we’ve been able to freeze the surplus and give some away. Our neighbors weren’t so lucky with tomatoes, so we traded our tomatoes for their apples and a frozen loaf of homemade zucchini bread. I like to think, if things do go off the rails, that we’ll all combine forces to get through.
Now that autumn is upon us, dried squash plants are composting and the tomato plants are looking barer. We’re watering less and looking forward to transitioning to a more interior lifestyle. Before we know it, seedlings will be growing in the garage, the garden experiment will start again and we’ll be one step closer to getting it right, come what may.
Early this spring, I planted a tree called a staghorn sumac. It was about two feet tall and looked like a dead branch sticking out of the soil. We were promised it would grow to over 10 feet, eventually. (See mature version)
Nearby is a blue Chinese wisteria tree with a trunk as big as a pencil. (See mature version)
The sumac and wisteria trees are emblematic of our approach to the ornamental side of the garden that is my domain. We’re starting small. Sure, we could spend more and get mature versions of the plants we like, or we could watch their growth and savor tending them from a young and fragile age.
When people visit, I often tell them they are seeing a miniature version of the garden and that, over time, it will change. I want them to remember this version for a sense of scale. Starting now, each year will bring another, fuller version of it. For the first time since 2017, we can plant a tree and feel confident that we’ll see it grow and mature. That feeling has been missing for too long.
This newfound sense of permanence is something we both feel deeply, having lived in the new house for over a year. It’s fascinating to develop a new rhythm of daily life with the knowledge it may stick. Twenty years from now, will I be taking out the trash, brushing my teeth, and making coffee just as I am today? If everything goes according to plan, there is a good chance I will. The accumulation of these permanent rituals will probably get boring and stale and that goes with the territory of permanence. We can only hope we get them right as early as possible.
Part of what has gripped me about the garden is the combination of permanence and change. The sumac tree may be here in twenty years, but it will have changed constantly in that time. Every day, I can inspect it and notice the little things. I can see it in different colors as the seasons change.
There are some parts of the garden that I’m hoping will trend toward permanence, or at least long-term stability. As a result of construction, we have large and visible swaths of the property that consist of rocky construction fill. One of my first priorities this year also seemed like the most boring: planting low ground covers that will one day cover the troubled fill areas and create a dense groundcover mat that looks great and prevents weeds.
Today, these plants are miniature, too. I planted creeping raspberry, kinnikinnick, thyme, and cotoneaster around the property and feel real joy from seeing them spread. Everywhere they go, weeds and future maintenance are being reduced. Within a couple of years, my work will hopefully be limited to trimming the edges into the shape I want.
Right now, the hundreds of new groundcovers, ferns, sedums, trees, bulbs, and shrubs require daily or weekly care because they are new plantings. They are young and need to get settled. Most need a year or two of regular watering to establish their roots. Once established, they can trend ever so slowly toward permanence.
We’ve opted for a number of drought-tolerant plants, which I know sounds odd for the pacific northwest. Our summers are very dry, with almost no rain July-September. The tolerant ones need to get established, so my watering duties for this summer are significant. In this, I’ve developed a ritual. In the afternoons, I start a podcast and spend an hour or more watering and weeding. It’s not much of a workout, but I find it meditative and a time to focus on just one thing. Every minute I spend watering contributes to the plant becoming healthier, more permanent, and lower maintenance. I have this summer to get it right.
In June, we declared our planting season to be over. I didn’t want it to end, but I knew it was time. Sachi wanted me to pause and leave some things for next year. She knows my happiness lives in anticipation and didn’t want me to use up all the fun planting and landscaping projects too quickly. I told her something I believe deeply: there will always be projects in the garden. Unlike brushing my teeth or taking out the trash, the garden changes daily. Soon enough we can transition from clearing, preventing, and preparing to a focus on developing, maturing, and beautifying. Maybe that applies to humans, too.
Today, the staghorn sumac is changing every day and has become an essential part of the garden. The groundcovers are slowly reaching out to one another in what I call the Sistine Chapel moment of development.
Every time I water, I imagine roots below the surface slowly becoming permanent parts of the landscape. And as I do, my roots become more permanent, too.
Spot prawns live in the deepest parts of the ocean around Orcas Island and when shrimping season is open, it creates a minor traffic jam. From dawn until dusk each day, boats drop shrimp pots at a depth of 250-400 feet, wait an hour or so, and then pull them up. The traffic is often most concentrated during the slack tide, when currents are the calmest.
This is our second year catching spot prawns and we’ve become proficient. On our first day out this year, we caught our legal daily limit of 80 prawns per person. Over the winter we had our 15’ Boston Whaler, Short Story, serviced and all signs pointed to a summer of fun on the water. Our new Honda outboard had less than 200 hours on it. Bring it on!
Our normal process for catching prawns is to set the pots on the bottom, kill the motor, and just drift silently for about an hour. I love that hour of calm and quiet time on the water. We watch all boats we covet and wave at passers-by. All the while, knowing that prawns may be falling for our clever trap. The thing about all types of fishing, we’re learning, is that it’s akin to gambling and can produce the same rush. Thankfully, unlike Blackjack, most of the time you only stand to lose time, bait, and the occasional tackle. For most, this potential cost is acceptable for a day spent on the water.
Last Thursday, there were two slack tides. We chose to go in the afternoon and we were not alone. We always try to go a little early and stake our claim. It’s decidedly poor form to place pots too close to others. We use an app called Navionics that allows us to place virtual pins on a map that helps us navigate to locations of past success. The afternoon was windier than expected and we placed our pots upwind from the majority of shrimpers. As soon as our buoys hit the water, they seemed to take off like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. We hoped the heavy rebar we tied to the pots would keep them in place.
I looked around and didn’t see nearby boats, so I killed the motor to start the drifting phase of the trip. I underestimated the wind and soon found that we were drifting toward other boats. I suggested that we motor to a location where we could drift downwind without worry.
I put the boat in neutral, turned the key and knew immediately that something was amiss. There was no beep, no click, no turnover. It was like someone cut the power from the battery. I kept turning the ignition as if it might catch with the perfect turn. Nothing.
At first, we assumed it was something obvious. Maybe the boat wasn’t in neutral? Maybe the safety switch was off? We both tried everything we could think of. I must have turned that ignition switch thirty times. The battery was connected and looked brand new. No corrosion. No missing hardware. I tapped and wiggled the terminals just in case.
We were flummoxed and slowly drifting into a dense area of boats. Without a motor, we had no way to navigate. We have two paddles and could alter our course a bit, but not much. This situation was a bit more serious than any we had experienced, but wasn’t dire. We were not in danger and we could always call a tow service to get us home. That was the last resort.
We brainstormed who to call for advice and quickly decided our contractor, Drew, might be the best person. He helped us with our first oil change and is an amazing problem solver. At the time. he was driving his 50-foot boat, Refuge, back from the mainland and had a few ideas to try. Nothing helped. Strangely, other parts of the boat, like the bilge pump, had power, just not the motor. He asked about fuses and we shrugged. We’d never changed a fuse on this boat and didn’t know where to find them.
He mentioned that our plumber, Greg, was also shrimping and maybe he could help. I called Greg and found that he was at least an hour from getting on the water. He asked a key question from the start: “Are you in danger?” No, I said. Maybe in danger of embarrassment. He laughed.
Meanwhile, we’re still adrift in the wind. As we approached a boat twice our size, it seemed to slowly move out of the way. Part of me thinks they could tell we were having an issue. Maybe they could see it on our faces. My head being deep in the center console was a sure sign.
We switched to thinking about other friends with boat knowledge who could help. I called Will and Smiley, who live close by, and have a boat in our marina. Will is a talented mechanic and together, we hatched a plan for them to come and help us figure it out, or at least tow us the 15 minutes home. I mentioned the potential of fuses causing the problem, and he said he’d bring a bag of them.
As we drifted past the remaining boats in the shrimping area, Sachi studied the owner’s manual for the motor and found a section about fuses. The manual had a nice graphic of the inside of the fuse box and what fuses were connected to what circuits.
We removed the motor’s cover and found a box that looked like the diagram. Will suggested using the boat key to pry out the fuses and see if one is bad. I could feel the momentum building. The table in the manual said the second 10amp fuse controlled the ignition and power to the motor. I removed that fuse, held it up to the sunlight and Voila! The culprit was identified on the first try.
Referring back to the manual, I saw that the fuse box contained spare fuses. Wow, I thought. Honda is thinking ahead. I plugged in the spare 10amp fuse, turned on the power and the boat started right up. At that moment, Will was in his garage gathering supplies and called to ask a question. Before he could get it out, I interrupted and said, “We fixed it! It was a fuse and we have a spare!” I texted Drew and Greg for good measure.
More than any other experience so far, this was a lesson. We now know what happens when a fuse blows, where to find the fuses, and how to replace them. The next day, we bought a bunch of spare fuses and created a backup bag that will always be on the boat.
As amazing as it felt to fix the problem on the water, it was a stark reminder of how little we know. Fuses are boating 101 and a simple problem to fix. As we continue boating, we’ll surely have more problems to solve. It’s part of the challenge and a skill we both want to develop.
Here’s to learning through experience and helpful friends under non-dangerous circumstances.
We’re fortunate to have two hardware stores for the 4000 or so people on Orcas Island. The Ace Hardware in town is more focused on home goods, like paint and home improvement supplies. In local hardware terms, it’s more buttoned-up.
At the other end of the spectrum is Island Hardware & Supply, which has lumber and construction supplies, gas, and rows of Costco goods. The store has been around for over 50 years and over that time, has developed its own culture and way of doing business that feels uniquely island-like. The photo below is the lumber yard checkout station.
For example, each month, the store sends out a handcrafted one-page newsletter called the The Hardware Herald. The owner, Paul Garwood, winters in Arizona and is the newsletter’s columnist.
This month’s issue captured the culture he’s created. He wrote:
I sit around a campfire with my desert friends and explain that we need no fencing around our business — the honor system rules at the Hardware. They have a tough time with the no fence concept until I tell them that some of our loyal customers actually root for the store’s success.
Just as I think I’m making progress with my desert friends, I mention that a few of our contractors who have a tough time scheduling their orders actually have a key to the store. That’s when they look at me in utter disbelief. I did choose to omit the fact that we have a staff member and his pitbull living upstairs in Harriet’s old apartment.
It’s true. The building is surrounded by all manner of things that could easily be stolen day or night. He could try to lock it all up, but at what expense? He trusts the island’s residents to do the right thing.
Paul’s unconventional way of doing business is found around the store and extends to things like batteries. He asks:
Should we be required to purchase the number that the supplier chooses? Well, yes, on the rest of the planet. Not here. Buy what you want at Island Hardware — you have the option to buy one or 100. And check out these prices!
I can vouch that this system works. I have purchased a single triple-A battery. On the backside of the paper is a list of all the Costco items they resell. It’s a brilliant and helpful service that can prevent a ferry trip and he knows it.
If it’s in stock at Costco Burlington, you can purchase a giant pack of 6 jumbo rolls of Kirkland TP (everyone’s favorite) and save $2.26 over buying the same product from us. Of course, you’d have to burn $4.00 per gallon of gas to get there and back. Oh, yes, there’s the ferry fare. Have I mentioned the value of your time?
Going to the store is always an adventure. There is limited parking, so it’s usually a free-for-all, where you might end up parking between a pile of gravel and part of the road. The exterior changes by the season and these days, hundreds of bags of mulch and potting soil sit unprotected. Like everyone else, we usually throw a few bags into the truck on the way in and tell them at checkout.
It’s probably no surprise that the store takes great pride in its homespun humor, including hand-drawn signs, inside jokes, and a bit of salty attitude. The staff is friendly and helpful, but you’re likely to get a sarcastic answer to almost any question, followed by actual service.
I needed to get some scrap metal tubing for our gate and looked through a bin of scraps. Once I found what I needed, I asked about having it cut. The person quickly got to work and soon, I had the pieces in hand. As I headed to the checkout, I said, “What do I owe you?” and he looked at me for a second too long. He then asked, with a squint, “Do you live here?” I said, “Yes.” and I’ll never forget his reply: “No worries, it will all come out in the wash.” Such is life at Island Hardware.
We started regular visits to the store soon after getting property and felt a little like outsiders. It seemed everyone there knew each other. The staff and customers all knew one another’s names and engaged in island small talk. We would overhear plans for a new restaurant opening, a business ownership change, or a shortage of good firewood on the island. We were the newbies and I’m sure it showed. Our shoes were too clean and our questions too easy. One day, I hoped, we’d be accepted into the Island Hardware culture.
Over the last couple of years, we noticed the nods and knowing glances; the recognition that we were here to stay. We learned peoples’ names and started to consistently see island friends at the store. It’s finally started to feel homier and our shoes have generally been a bit dirtier.
On a recent visit, we collected supplies for a woodworking project and stacked them by the register and something happened that had never happened before. The cashier looked at us and said, “Put this on your account?” We nodded with a quick “yep.” and went to the car. That was when Sachi pointed out the momentous occasion I had missed. We didn’t have to say what account it was. The cashier knew us. We both smiled. After years, we were finally in.
Small and isolated places like Orcas Island need hardware stores and I’m so thankful that Island Hardware not only exists but does so in such a family-like style. More than just about any other place, it is Orcas Island and I hope it never changes.
One of the things I missed in our multi-year transition to Orcas Island was having a sense of permanence. As I wrote at the time, everything felt temporary; too temporary to exert effort to establish or beautify. I couldn’t wait to finally move to Flattop and begin a life with years of permanence.
Now that we’ve lived in the house for about a year, we’ve developed a good sense of our daily rituals and patterns. I make coffee the same way every day. The same bowls go in the same drawers. The books, blankets, and other accoutrements now have homes. In the months after we moved in, it felt new and transformational to identify these permanent homes. We could finally take advantage of the design choices we made with great deliberation.
Now, when I put a bowl in the drawer, I sometimes think, “This is it. I may use this drawer in the same way for the rest of my life. Bowls live here, perhaps forever.” We can always change the contents of shelves and drawers, but in reality, we won’t. The drawer was designed for bowls and that’s where they’ll remain.
I’m a little torn about this new reality. On one hand, I never have to think about where to put bowls. On the other, there’s seemingly nothing left to optimize. The problem has been solved and I take comfort in that. My brain can move on. The question is: to what? There will always be things to redesign and optimize in small tinkers. The garage is one. But soon, I will have achieved what I desired for so long: a mostly permanent feeling of consistency and completeness. The platform is built and the stage is being set.
And now, a new feeling is creeping in. Completeness and consistency are both comforting and… boring. I’m starting to miss the design process and having a productive place for my mind to wander when it comes to home. The satisfaction completeness produces is fleeting and spread across a lifetime of slightly more convenience. Soon enough, it fades into the background.
We are both happier with a problem to solve or an idea to be brainstormed. While the interior of Flattop is coming together, the exterior has a long way to go and that, too, was by design. We chose not to think about landscaping so we could think about bowls. We wanted to live on the property and take our time with planting because it’s a project that is never truly complete. The design problem changes every day and persists through years of seasons and weather and pests.
A year ago, we moved into Flattop with the exterior being a blank slate. We rushed to build a few garden beds so we could participate in the growing season. We were late, but still had a productive year for vegetables.
This year, we’ve added vegetable beds close to the warming black siding with hopes of growing tomatoes, peppers, squash, and more.
Sachi has been working on starts in our garage, which, I’m learning, becomes a greenhouse this time of year. She’s our vegetable gardener and has things mostly under control, or as much control as nature allows.
The ornamental side of the garden is a very different kind of problem and that’s my focus. We added six raised beds for beauty this year and unlike vegetables, their contents will be mostly permanent.
I want to turn the blank slate into a lush, colorful, and fragrant garden, full of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. I want to plant things that are remarkable and uncommon. I want them to start small and grow into something amazing over many years.
That’s the magic of permanence applied to living things. Discovering the perfect spot for a plant is the beginning and not the end. It may never move, but it will change and develop. It will require attention, care, and maintenance. It will be a part of a much bigger canvas that is also evolving. These plants offer a lifetime of projects to optimize and problems to solve.
We recently made a trip to the nearby Bullocks nursery and came home with a plant called a stag horn sumac. There is perhaps no better example of how we’re thinking about the garden. As a mature plant (below), it can get 15 feet high and wide, with big bright leaves and cone-shaped flowers.
Today, our sumac looks like someone stuck a dead branch in the ground. It may be years until we see its full glory and that’s the idea. We can wait. We want to wait.
We didn’t always plan to have a wood-burning fireplace. Coming from the city, where people often have sleek natural gas fireplaces, wood seemed dirty and cumbersome, which it is. After living on Orcas Island for a while, it became clear that wood is a very common form of heat and one that’s as sustainable on the island as it is abundant. It is a very wooded place.
We knew the indoor fireplace wouldn’t be a primary heat source. We have very efficient in-floor radiant heat that keeps the house warm and comfortable. The fireplace is more like a hobby, or a muse. It warms us, but not only on the skin. When the fire is roaring on a stormy winter night, it’s a feast for the senses. There is nothing like the sound and smell of a wood fire. When the warmth it produces touches the skin, it seems to penetrate all the way to bone. I like to think that we all evolved to feel this connection. Something deep inside us is naturally drawn to the light and warmth of fire.
I sometimes marvel that this wild and destructive force can be alive right in our living room; a tiny bit of the sun, safely tucked into a fireproof box. It could kill us and take away our most prized possessions. But we tame it. We keep it near, but not too near. We feed it, but not too much. We allow it to breathe but in only one direction. We benefit from thousands of years of practice and experiments. Yet, each fire still feels like a challenge. The perfect fire is not something you ever achieve. It is only an aspiration.
And I do aspire. You might assume that millennia of building fires would have taught us exactly how to build and maintain a fire. The basics are pretty simple and most people can build a successful fire. But I want more. I want to maximize and design. I want to experiment and learn the nuances that make a fire great. For most, including me, this means a hot fire that uses wood efficiently and burns more cleanly.
Most people on Orcas Island, and especially those who use wood as a primary source of heat, use wood-burning stoves. Because they enclose the fire in a metal box and feed it oxygen, it burns more cleanly and efficiently. It’s still a hobby for many, but one that errs on the side of productivity versus aesthetics. The toasty feeling of a home warmed by a stove is a special feeling. It can quickly become too hot, but the heat is variable and fleeting.
What we all have in common is our woodpile, which also has all manner of nuance and challenge. There are two major sources of wood on the island. First, there are wood processors with large machines that cut and split wood with great efficiency. Anyone on the island can order firewood that is delivered in a pile, cut to the desired length. Second is the homeowners who process their own wood. When trees fall or are felled, they process them using a chainsaw and wood splitter. I aspire to this, too, but am firmly in the delivery camp for now.
Last spring, we had two cords of wood (Douglas fir) delivered and we quickly stacked them in the back corner of our property for the summer. The wood needed to dry or “season” before the fall and that happens by being open to the elements.
The wood needs to release moisture and the wind is an essential part of the process. Some day we will have a proper woodshed, but for now, a tarp over the top will have to do.
Thoreau wrote, “Every man looks upon his woodpile with a sort of affection.” I know what he means. Our first pile was a practice run. Like the fire it produces, there is no perfect pile, only the aspiration. We did well to keep the wood off the ground and stack it for maximum airflow. I’m sure many island residents would have constructive criticisms. There is always next year.
As the first fall approached, we learned a valuable lesson. Our wood is split into rather large pieces that burn slowly. With the right combination of kindling and other fuel, they could be productive, but it soon became clear that we’d need to intervene. We’ve had a hatchet or two, but for the first time ever, I bought a proper ax and couldn’t help feeling like a lumberjack turning big wood into small wood.
Splitting wood has become part of my exercise regimen and one that I enjoy. There is something meditative about the process and the concentration it requires. There is no room for extraneous thought when wielding a sharp piece of heavy metal in the direction of your feet. And man, is it satisfying to feel, see, and hear the wood shatter into pieces from gravity, a bit of muscle and decent aim. The smell of freshly cut wood is like nothing else. Another feast.
Elderly Scandinavian men with a passion for firewood are often told that they have entered something called the “wood age,” or that they have been bitten by something called the “wood bug.” The anthropology surrounding a passionate concern for firewood has not been the subject of much study in Norway, but research carried out by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in 2007 appeared to confirm that a “wood age” does indeed exist as a distinct and measurable state. Nine hundred families living in Sweden were studied-the criterion was that all used woodburning stoves-and the results were unequivocal: It is men more than sixty years of age who spend the most time dealing with wood. Only 29 percent of the women in the study took any interest in firewood.
Once again, I aspire.
We will soon order more wood and stack it as we did before. This time, I may split a lot of it, which makes for easier stacking and better drying. This summer or next, we plan to create a more permanent home for the wood, perhaps under a shelter more permanent than a tarp. For now, we have enough wood to burn in the evenings and for the occasional bonfire this spring. Soon, the dry summer will arrive along with its seasonal burn bans. Our wood will be dormant for many months, safely seasoning in the back of the garden. Then, once summer turns to autumn, we’ll once again eye the woodpile with anticipation. The first fires of fall are the sweetest.
During my high school years, the YMCA was the place for pickup basketball games. When I arrived one afternoon, a game was finishing up and I sat along the sidewall of the gym to wait. I had recently made it a goal to dunk a volleyball and took every chance I could to practice my jumping. Once the game ended, I eyed the rim and tried to summon my strength to reach it.
After a quick stutter step, I took a few long strides and planted my left foot for take-off. At that moment, the full weight of my body and downward momentum caused my left ankle to roll to the inside. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Within a few minutes, my ankle was the size of a softball and I called my mom to take me to the ER. It was a very bad sprain, but nothing was broken. The nurses were very impressed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of a lifetime of joint problems that I eventually discovered are connected to my DNA.
My left ankle was never the same and I’ve sprained it innumerable times since then. In fact, it no longer hurts for more than a few minutes when I roll it. It’s like the ligaments are so stretched they can no longer be injured. It helps, too, that I’ve become so used to the feeling of it starting to roll that I can often prevent it by voluntarily crumpling onto the ground when I sense it happening. I’m not sure which is worse, the flailing or the fleeting pain.
As an adult, my right shoulder started to dislocate, or pop in and out quickly, causing pain and the indelible grind of irregular joint movement. It happened at unpredictable times, like rolling over in bed or reaching to a top shelf. Soon, I learned that any time I raised my right arm over my head, it could easily dislocate momentarily. I never had the skill to play competitive basketball, but this and my ankle were decisively career-ending. Volleyball, rock-climbing, etc. were now also out.
Eventually, I had surgery on my right shoulder to prevent the dislocations. In fact, the surgery happened just as I started dating Sachi. Our first few weeks together saw me in a sling and consistent pain. It was a bonding experience for us both.
I’m grateful my shoulder recovered and has not been a problem since. I can’t say the same for my other joints. In the years after the surgery, I developed occasional lower back pain. When it hit, I walked with a limp and felt shooting pain in my hip. I saw specialists and did physical therapy. I had a cortisone injection and nothing seemed to help. For years, it was a mystery.
In 2010, I discussed it with my doctor and he suggested something I didn’t expect: a DNA test. A few days after a blood draw, I received an email from the hospital saying that the test showed I may have a disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is severe arthritis that causes lower back vertebrae to fuse together. The prognosis was terrifying.
I met with a rheumatologist, who fully reviewed my condition and ordered an MRI. It was time to learn my fate. Turns out, I didn’t have the terrible disease but did have arthritis and inflammation in my SI joints.
The most fascinating part of this scenario is the DNA test. It showed I had a genetic marker that is highly correlated with a number of disorders. Along with arthritis, people with this marker have problems related to eyes, heart valves, bowels, and skin. The research says about 8% of Caucasians have the marker. I only have the arthritis side, thankfully.
On my next visit, he tested my movement and noticed the looseness of my joints, which he said could be connected to the genetic marker. He asked if I practiced yoga, and I said no. He then said something I’ll never forget. “Well, if you start, don’t get a superiority complex, because your joints don’t work like other peoples’.” Noted.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the genetic dimension of this. My oldest brother has problems with his shoulders dislocating and so does his son. I recently reconnected with a first cousin who explained his family suffers from debilitating back pain. The genetic marker has probably been a part of our family for generations without anyone recognizing it.
Today, my right shoulder is still in great shape, but my left one continues to be an occasional problem. I dislocated it a couple of years ago while indoor skydiving and had to go to the emergency room to have it reset. It was the first time my shoulder remained out of joint for more than a moment. I was amazed at how easily the doctor returned it to its socket and I made a mental note for future reference.
Unfortunately, an opportunity arose a few days ago. We had friends coming over in the evening and I was casually cleaning a mirror backsplash under a shelf. To reach the top of the mirror, I raised my left arm in a weird position. Before I knew it, my shoulder was out of socket. I gasped a string of profanity as Sachi came to help. My arm drooped off my shoulder and the slightest movement shot pain through my arm.
I immediately broke into a cold sweat and tried to stay calm. I sat down and worked with Sachi to remove layers of sweaty clothes. She draped a cool wet towel across my neck that felt like such a relief. Then my ears lost fidelity, my vision blurred a bit and I decided to move to the floor before the floor moved to me.
As long as I was still, the pain was minimal. Suddenly, the whole day looked different. Neither of us wanted to get on a ferry to get it reset. Would we have to cancel our dinner plans?
Sachi searched the web for the doctor’s method of resetting the joint and eventually found videos that matched my experience in the ER. It’s called the Cunningham Technique. I sat across from her and put my dislocated arm on her shoulder. Relaxation is key, so I took deep breaths and she massaged my shoulder muscles. She then put a little weight on my elbow and started to pivot it back. I felt it slip right back into the joint with almost no pain, like magnets pulling it into place. The joint wanted to be there. What a relief!
Within a few minutes, it was like nothing had happened. Dinner was back on and no one needed to board a ferry. The biggest lesson here is that I can’t clean those mirrors anymore. It’s simply too dangerous. At least that’s what I told Sachi.
Like my ankles, the pain from this shoulder injury was fleeting. Within days, I was back on the rowing machine and splitting wood. I’m not sure it classifies as a silver lining, but I’m thankful that my body allows me to recover easily. As I get older, I assume this superpower will wane.
Now that the Olympics are in full swing, I’ve been thinking about when Sachi and I spent about a month in China in 2006.
At the time, China was in the process of becoming more open to western tourists. We were mostly free to move about without chaperones or keepers watching our moves. According to people we met along the way, this was not the case only a few years prior. Still, I’m sure we were watched in ways we didn’t know.
We stayed in a large and unremarkable hotel in Beijing, which is a common jumping-off point for seeing the Great Wall. There were multiple locations for seeing the wall and we decided to make the Simatai portion of the wall a priority as it featured more of the original wall intact, even though it was farther – 100 miles from Beijing. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Getting there was possible via hiring a driver independently or planning it through the hotel. Having been on the road in Asia for months, the details of figuring it out independently seemed like a heavy lift. So, we signed up for the trip offered by the hotel and hoped for the best.
We had been in China for a few weeks, and we knew the trip would be an experience one way or another. We came to relish these weird tourist events and find the humor in them instead of the problems. This is a key lesson in making long-term travel work.
The next morning, we met a nice mini-bus outside the hotel and quickly found a row to ourselves. The other people on the bus were abuzz with conversation. It was obvious they were traveling together and it was a pretty fun and raucous scene. We quietly tried to decode the discussion and animated hand gestures. Soon, it became clear we were on a day-long tour with eight Italians, a driver, and a young Chinese tour guide named Prudence.
Prudence was a standard-issue Chinese tour guide. She was well trained, prepared, and really wanted everything to go as planned. Tour guides like her were everywhere in China, often seen guiding tourists with ever-present flags.
Watching the Italian conversations made two hours of terrible Beijing traffic more entertaining. There were disagreements, apparently. As we sat in traffic, hawkers were selling all kinds of goods and I saw something I didn’t expect: a car-to-car turtle salesman.
We all became a little frustrated with the traffic. Just as we were finally getting out of the city, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot and Prudence grabbed the microphone to make her first announcement to the group.
This kind of tour frequently includes an event where a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand: pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. Then the tourists are presented with a giant shiny gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kickback for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar. For the disinterested, it’s basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that seems to waste time.
This is a pearl jewelry factory from another excursion:
This tour was no different. Prudence announced that the group would now exit the bus for 40 minutes and tour a jade factory. This stop was not on the itinerary and came as a surprise to everyone, especially after losing so much time in traffic.
Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown. Prudence was a nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her. By this time, we had developed some rapport with the Italians who were engaged in a debate that required consensus. Their leader, Stephania, was checking in with each person. Then, she came to us and asked if we wanted to do the tour. We said no. She smiled, turned back to her group, and said, “They’re in!”
Stephania is the woman in red pants:
The fate of the factory tour was sealed. We were unified and Stephania told Prudence that we were NOT getting off the bus and NOT going into the factory. The only thing we wanted was to go to the Great Wall. Prudence was clearly flummoxed and started making calls. Her next offer was to reduce the amount of time we’d spend at the factory. 30 minutes? NO. Just 20 short minutes? NO. OK, maybe just 10 minutes? NO. Arms were crossed. Stephania was our rock.
Just as Prudence was about to capitulate completely, one of the Italians noticed what must have seemed like a mirage in the distance. A small building across the large parking lot had a little red sign that said “Espresso”. At that point, the clouds lifted and a small celebration ensued.
Stephania, having been the victor, now announced that we would all be getting espresso. Prudence had no choice but to agree. So the people who demanded to stay on the bus now disembarked and marched to the small building that promised espresso.
In the building, there was no real barista or coffee shop. We were met with a man who was ready to make espresso for the group from a small home-style machine. As he hesitantly picked up a paper cup, one of the Italians threw up his hands in frustration. He then grabbed the paper cups and tore off the tops to make them espresso-sized. Then, he took control of the machine and proceeded to make us all espresso.
After slurping down the espresso, we all boarded the bus and finally got back on the road. There was much rejoicing and we were now honorary Italian travelers who worked together on a mutiny.
We finally made it to Simatai and it was damn impressive.
Prudence was a knowledgeable tour guide and seemed to loosen up on the trip. It was like she smiled, threw up her hands, and just went with the flow.
By the time it was all over, we were all friends, including Prudence, who regaled us with translations of Chinese jokes and tongue twisters. The group taught her a few Italian words and how to roll her “R”s. Part of me wanted to stick with the Italians for the rest of our time in Beijing.
Maybe that statement is a bit extreme. I love feeling healthy and being active, but I’ve always struggled to maintain the kind of exercise that I need: regular, full-body, and sustainable for years. The closest I came was working with a personal trainer for a few years in Seattle. It was twice a week and I dreaded it every time. What kept me going was the standing appointment, the feeling that I was doing something good for my body, and friendship with my trainer, who sometimes brought me pork belly he smoked over the weekend.
We had an elliptical trainer at home in Seattle that came close to being the right thing, but it didn’t stick. My body doesn’t react well to regular running and biking (road or stationary) isn’t my favorite either. I’ve realized that one of the culprits in this struggle is boredom.
As Flattop was being completed, we wanted to use the move as a reason to establish new habits. New house, new routines, we’d say. Sachi’s doctor said the best scenario was to find an exercise you can do every day for the rest of your life. Rain or shine, young or old. Then, make that a part of your day. Even for 10-20 minutes. This was the goal. One of the reasons I’m sharing this review is because I know many people have a similar goal.
I started looking at home exercise equipment and rowing machines seemed to check a lot of boxes. Rowing is one of the best full-body workouts, working legs, core, and arms in a style that’s low impact and high cardio. But the question remained: would a rowing machine end up being another way to collect dust?
What I found is that rowing machines, like exercise bikes, are innovating. Peloton exercise bikes have become popular, in part, because they come with a touchscreen that is internet-connected and offers a library of workouts with real trainers guiding you. Your account tracks your progress and allows you to compete with others.
Rowing machines are learning from Peloton’s success. A new class of machines now comes with built-in touchscreens and a library of workouts. These options are relatively expensive and often come with a monthly subscription fee for access to the library. We wondered: does the library of workouts matter? Will we end up watching a TV show instead?
It was impossible to know without giving it a shot. We looked at NordicTrack, Echelon, and Hydrow, which all do similar things. We ordered a Hydrow because the reviews said it had the best workouts and a money-back guarantee.
NOTE: I do not earn money or have formal relationships with Hydrow or any other exercise equipment. This is just my personal experience.
The Hydrow machine arrived eleven weeks ago and the results are in: I’ve found my exercise. Since it arrived, I’ve used the rowing machine at least 5 days a week and the Hydrow app even more. For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to workouts and feel confident that I’ll continue to do so. It’s become a habit.
Why has this worked for me? A few reasons:
The Workout Library
I cannot imagine rowing without the workouts. There are about 3,000 rowing workouts that are filmed on the water, in a beautiful location, with an athlete rowing a boat along with you. The system is designed to create a rhythm where you match the rowing strokes of the trainer. As long as you keep up with them, you’ll get the workout you want, whether it’s a slow jog, a sprint, or a marathon.
Most of the workouts I do are twenty minutes long and are organized into intervals. Rowing along with a person in a boat creates an immersive experience that feels like you’re training with them in Miami or Lake Lucerne. The commentary during the row is part reminders of proper form, part location information and part personal stories. This does a lot to prevent boredom.
The training team matters more than I expected, too. It’s about a dozen athletes and you get to know them over time and see them as individuals. They pick the music for each workout and fill the spaces with stories and anecdotes from their lives. They are world-class athletes, including Olympians, who are leaders of the community and chief motivators. Like personal trainers, they are positive, encouraging, and enthusiastic. They celebrate that each day you row is a win.
Space, Time, Noise
We keep the rower in the office, where it’s out of the way and takes up little space. It uses magnetic resistance, which is smooth and quiet. There’s no prep to get started, you just sit down and start rowing. In and out, including a shower, in thirty minutes. Rain or shine.
Because Hydrow is internet-connected and each person has an account, it tracks your workouts: how many, how far, how many calories, average strokes per minute, etc. This matters more to me than I expected. As my form has improved, I’ve seen it in the data and that improvement keeps me pushing.
The Other Workouts
In addition to rowing, Hydrow has yoga, pilates, and strength + mobility libraries, all of which are filmed in the same fashion: outside in beautiful locations. I now do yoga 5-6 mornings a week.
You can choose to be competitive, or not. During each row, there is an on-screen leaderboard that you can show or hide. It compares your rowing speed to everyone else who has completed that row. As you row faster, you overtake other rowers in the leaderboard, and I pay attention.
Needless to say, I’m a fan of Hydrow and the new class of smart exercise systems. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have an exercise option that I can do for many years. I can’t imagine going back to exercising alone.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.