Sachi’s parents arrived on the red-eye from Hawaii and she went down for a quick overnight trip to pick them up. This set me up for my first “Lee” night (a night alone) in the new house. This may not seem that remarkable, but it’s exceedingly rare. I sometimes go more than a year without being alone in our home for more than a few hours.
Leading up to nights like this, I always joke about all the fun I’m going to have and what debauchery will ensue. It will be an all-night party with all the music Sachi doesn’t prefer. I may not even be awake when she returns. Like so many things, much of the fun lies in the anticipation.
To prepare for her parents’ arrival, we washed the dogs in their dog shower and they became clean fluffy balls. My challenge was to keep them dust-free until the family arrived. This meant no rambunctious playing in the garden. Weeks of drought plus eight dog paws equals our own little dust bowl. I even debated if we should go outside at all. But the nice summer evenings are fleeting and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend it than on the deck.
I grabbed our moveable speaker, binoculars, a Rainier beer, and an adapter that allows me to connect my iPhone camera to one side of the binoculars. During the summer, a parade of boats goes by our house and I’ve become fascinated and sometimes enamored. “Oooh, look at that one.” Photos give me an opportunity to catalog what I see and feel a bit of aspiration. Someday, I’ll have a big boat too, right? I suppose I’m talking about yachts when I say “big boat”, but I can’t bring myself to aspire to something with that label. It evokes Thurston Howell III slumming it on a three-hour tour. I’ll stick with “boat”.
My friend, Mike, is well-versed in boats and is frequently trying to convince us to get a boat that we can take out for multiple days. He’s said on multiple occasions that when we’re ready, he’ll help us find the perfect boat and recently sent me links to ones I might like. It was obvious he’d been browsing and I understand. The allure is undeniable.
As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways. If I identify a boat I like, I soon end up down the rabbit hole of boat websites and sales listings. It’s captivating. Someday, we may take Mike up on the offer to be a matchmaker, but for now, we’re happy with little Short Story and watching the parade.
I had sat down with my supplies for no longer than a minute before Piper leapt from the deck and took off around the corner of our house toward the garden. I protested, but she was silent aside from the footsteps. No bark, no foul. I shrugged it off.
The can of Rainier soon became a dram of bourbon. Then a Toronto cocktail, which features Fernet Branca and rye. These, among other things, are my favorite libations for a night like that one.
As I got lost sipping the cocktail and watching the boats, a thought hit: Where’s Piper? I shrugged it off. The dogs are in a fenced area. She has a history, as an adolescent, of disappearing into the forest for an hour hunting deer. I don’t think she’d do that now, but the fear lingers.
Like a child, Piper’s silence and absence were suspicious. Eventually, I had to investigate, which meant walking along the house and peering around the corner toward the garden. What did I see? Piper digging under a woodpile. She was covered in dust up to her front elbows and sticking her nose into the freshly dug hole as far as she could. Because, of course. Damn dogs.
Whatever she chased, it went under the stacked wood and evaded her attack. I called her once and she looked at me with a posture that clearly said, “Dude, this is a serious situation.” I was undeterred, “PIPER, HERE!” [downward point]. I left the scene with my intentions known and her unmoved.
She arrived at my side in a few seconds and I was proud. She clearly deserved a treat for leaving the very serious situation, so we all went inside. One treat per dog, gently accepted. We operate a fair and equitable home when it comes to treat dispensation, even when only one dog performed well.
Feeling like the woodpile was too much of an attraction, I tried leaving the dogs inside. The plan was to enjoy a worry-free evening on the deck without thinking about the dogs and their fluffy clean fur. I’d listen to an episode of 99% Invisible and chill out.
Then, just after I sat down, I heard a familiar sound from the other side of the door… Woof. Woof-woof. WOOF!
I groaned. Piper was not satisfied being inside and wasn’t likely to stop asking. Part of me thought she was having a Piper night and needed to take advantage, like me. At that moment, I realized that there was no training I could do, or maybe wanted to do, that could account for the dogs wanting to be with me. It’s not something that needs correction. If anything, it needs development. The best outcome, I think, is being outside with me, without getting into trouble.
Meanwhile, something was chirping by the garden. I don’t speak chipmunk, but I’m pretty sure it was mocking Piper…and she knew it. “Chirp-chirp. Good try, muppet.”
This situation was not sustainable, so I had to change course and went inside to get my secret weapon: peanut butter treats shaped like bones, because I’m sure our above-average dogs appreciate that.
They watched me get the treats and place them in the middle of the coffee table on the deck. This was when the waiting began. All other dog thoughts were moot. The treat was all that mattered. To calm them down, I first asked them to lay down. They did, like good dogs, and received a treat.
In the moments after that, I decided to write some notes using my phone and ignored the view I had so decisively favored an hour ago. As I wrote, I felt warm, humid air across my face in waves. At first, I ignored it, but then it came in a rhythm and smelled like a dog’s breath.
If you have dogs that are allowed on furniture, you’ve had the experience of noticing a dog in your lap with no knowledge of how it got there. Maybe’s panting felt like that, but not as stealthy. Without noticing, she quietly triangulated her position so she could keep an eye on the treats and be ready by my side if I made any moves.
“Maybe, lay down.” She lied down and one minute passed. After three minutes, my writing was interrupted again by puffs of dog breath. The treats beckoned. “MAYBE. Go. Lay. DOWN.” Piper was tuned into the treats, but not as obstinate. The treats held Piper’s attention over the menace in the woodpile, and in that way, achieved the desired outcome.
It was a battle of wills and I had had enough. Lee night was becoming more of a dog night. There was no rest, silence, or fresh air as long as the treats were in view. I split up the remaining bones and rid myself of the meddlesome beasts. The chipmunk chirped fruitlessly as the dogs remained at my feet for what was left of the evening.
At long last, I could finally enjoy the evening writing, photographing, and listening to podcasts. Then, as the sun faded, I watched the Olympic volleyball and went to bed.
Lee night was not that different from any other night, really. And for that I am thankful. As much as I joke about all the fun I’m going to have with Sachi away, I don’t behave much differently than I ordinarily would. Maybe next time, though, I’ll try to convince her to take the dogs.
Storytime is a series of brief videos focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life.
This is a brief story about discovering a business model that allowed us to remain a two-person company with a product we could make once and sell multiple times. The full version of this story is told in my book Big Enough.
Storytime is a series of videos that are usually brief and focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life. This episode is about how our video “Twitter in Plain English” ended up on the front page of Twitter.com for over a year. The full version of this story in my book Big Enough.
Forget, for just a moment, the lines on a map that separate counties, states, and countries. Without these lines, North America looks fundamentally different. The desert southwest bleeds into Mexico. The Rocky Mountains rise up into Canada. Waterways and rivers flow through huge swaths of the continent.
If you take a closer look, the soil, geology, wildlife, climate, and biodiversity are the true markers of our regions. These natural factors, which are mostly timeless, represent a valid way to think about where we live, whether that’s in the Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Gulf, or the Pacific Northwest.
This version of North America is what Native Americans experienced before the arrival of settlers and their neatly drawn maps. From this perspective, maps seem arbitrary because they don’t represent the natural lines of how the continent fits together. Maps are drawn by man, regions are created by nature.
It’s within this perspective that a movement has been growing in the Pacific Northwest. Like other regions, we share a natural environment or “bioregion” that stretches across state and national boundaries. The bioregion is called “Cascadia” and many are adopting it as a way to think about the true territory of our home.
Cascadia, of course, has boundaries. But unlike our standard maps, Cascadia’s lines are based on the natural world rather than the imaginary lines of longitude and latitude. It encompasses over 500k square miles from southern Alaska to Northern California.
The purpose and goals of the Cascadia movement depend on whom you ask. The movement started in the 70s and 80s as an environmental movement and it remains environmentally-focused today. By defining and understanding a bioregion, the thinking goes, we can work together to protect and restore it. In the Cascadian context, this means Washington State and British Columbia should be aligned and collaborating as if they were a single region and not two countries.
Recently, the idea has become more mainstream, providing PNW citizens a new identity and way to think about our corner of the world. We are proud Cascadians, even if we’re not yet sure what that means.
Like our friends to the south in Texas, Cascadia does have secessionist tendencies. Some see it as an independence movement and future sovereign state that encompasses parts of Canada and the US. If this happened, it would have a population of over 16 million and an economy producing US$675 billion worth of goods and services annually. While there are zealots in every group, I don’t think succession is on the horizon. Besides, I’m not sure what would compel British Columbia to participate. Most people I know just love the idea of Cascadia as a bioregion.
Every movement needs a good flag and Cascadia is no different. “The Doug” was designed by Alexander Baretich in 1995 and sports a Douglas fir tree and colors representing blue for water, white for snow, and green forests. These are the unofficial colors of the PNW.
The Doug has quickly become a cultural icon and has been adopted far and wide. It is flown at MLS soccer matches between PNW rivals in the Cascadia Cup. The Seattle Sounders even have The Doug on their jerseys.
For me, the flag is a symbol of regional solidarity. In Seattle, we may have feelings about Oregon and their subpar soccer team, the Timbers. But we are all Cascadians. The same is true for British Columbia. Whatever differences our nations have, we are all Cascadians.
I love the idea of Cascadia being an independent state with its own laws and perspectives but I know it’s not reasonable. I also believe a kind of PNW utopia is possible, but we have so many other problems to solve. For now, I’m happy to be a part of the Cascadian bioregion and ready to work for its goals, even if they happen within imaginary lines.
This will be a good time! Two lively Brits, Grant and Paddy, host a live show called The Visual Jam. I will be their guest on July 8th to discuss The Art of Explanation and Common Craft videos. Register for Free.
Have you ever had a great idea for a product or a service or maybe an improvement to your business, but people just don’t seem to get it? More often than not it is because your idea has an explanation problem.
Well, fear not because Lee LeFever, co-founder of Common Craft and author of The Art of Explanation, is going to join us for a fun, interactive session where he will give us a sneak peek into the process that Common Craft follow to produce their world famous explainer videos – from script to storyboard to final content and animation!
Our part of Orcas Island is called Deer Harbor and in the harbor, you’ll find Fawn Island. On the other side of Orcas is Doe Bay and in between, there is Buck Mountain. These names are well earned as Orcas Island is (or was) overpopulated with blacktail deer. For as long as I can remember, encountering them has been an everyday experience, on the side of the road, in the yard, or anywhere there is food.
Last month, just after we moved in, something changed. The deer became noticeably absent from our property and for a while, we shrugged it off and hoped they would stay away. But then neighbors started to report finding dead deer in their yards and strangely, in ponds.
The cause of the deaths was a mystery and the island was abuzz with theories. People worried that they were getting into household chemicals or fertilizers, or that someone was poisoning them. Fewer deer would suit my tastes, but I didn’t like the idea of a human causing it.
Soon enough a tissue sample was sent to the lab and came back with surprising results. The deer were dying of a fast spreading virus not unlike COVID-19 in humans.
A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian said the disease, called adenovirus hemorrhagic disease, poses no risk to humans, but also that the infection could soon spread to the mainland and carve out a permanent home in the state.
First discovered in California in 1993, the disease had been seen in Washington just once before this year. In 2017, about a dozen animals fell ill near Goldendale in Klickitat County.
The San Juan Islands are serving as a nice petri dish for the disease to spread, which it does through close contact among deer. Like humans, the deer spread the virus by simply being together and from what I’ve seen, social distancing is not their priority. In fact, the deer swim between islands, so the disease is able to hop efficiently to new and relatively captive populations.
I was relieved that it wasn’t a bad actor causing the deaths, but a natural phenomenon that just needed to run its course. But at the same time, death by hemorrhagic disease is a terrible way to go. The sick deer often have foamy mouths and bloody diarrhea, as their blood vessels start to hemorrhage. Ebola, one of the most feared human diseases, is a hemorrhagic virus. Poor deer.
In 2019, a similar hemorrhagic virus swept through the rabbit population on Orcas. The virus only impacted domestic rabbits and domestic rabbits that were feral. A sad event, but one that did benefit island gardens for a while. Anecdotes suggest rabbit populations here are growing again.
In the short term, the island is dealing with many dead deer and everyone has stories of how they’re disposing of them. The county will pick up deer that are on the sides of county roads, but that’s a fraction of the island. Everyone else has to dig a hole or wait for the scavengers. Thankfully we have plenty of bald eagles and turkey vultures.
We haven’t seen any dead deer on our property but did see a sick one. However, the stench is widespread. A nice evening outside might suddenly feel different as the wind shifts and carries with it the unmistakable smell of a carcass.
Perhaps this is nature doing its thing. The island had too many deer, which have no natural predators aside from humans and car bumpers. Something had to give and in the long run, the deer and the island will be better off with a natural correction, albeit a sad one. Sachi likes to point out that the surviving deer may be the strongest ones and will create a new gene pool that could build back quickly.
The deer have always shaped the Orcas landscape by mowing through tree seedlings that might otherwise grow into trees. This is true for our beloved madrona trees that, like our gardens, must be kept inside a fence to grow to adolescence. Some worried that the ever-growing deer population could prevent wild madronas from getting a foothold and eventually lead to a lost generation of the iconic trees. Maybe the virus will give the trees a break, too.
Right now there are no solid data on the decline of the deer population, but my guess is that our sightings have dropped by at least 75%. We now go a week or more without seeing one, which makes them more of a novelty. The unfenced property around us is noticeably bushier and some of my supposedly deer resistant plants are more resistant than before. Silver linings, I suppose.
From this experience, I take one big lesson. Whether they impact humans or wild animals, these viruses are real and do incredible damage, very quickly. While our experience with COVID may be on the wane, there’s a good chance more pandemics will follow. Unlike the poor deer, we are only helpless in the fight if we choose to be.
Storytime is a series of videos that are usually brief and focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life. This episode of storytime is about how we worked with our competition to grow the market for our services while remaining a two-person. I share a full version of this story in my book Big Enough.
I sometimes wonder what it is about British TV that we find so entertaining. Sure, there are charming hosts with funny aphorisms and accents. But the sheer abundance of quality shows that are unlike anything we see in the US is confounding. My guess is that it has something to do with funding from the BBC, which operates a bit like the PBS in the US.
🚜 Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime) Like Monty Don, Jeremy Clarkson is a British legend, mostly due to his long-running and much-loved show, Top Gear. This one-season show is about him buying a huge farm and learning to make it productive with the help of local farmers in the Cotswolds. His ornery sense of humor along with the colorful locals make this show very entertaining. I now know much more about the challenges of “real” farming.
🥦Grow, Cook, Eat (Amazon Prime) This isn’t British, but Irish, and features a master vegetable gardener and charming sidekick who sticks up for the amateur gardener. The couple focuses on one vegetable per episode and the viewer gets to see it grow from seed to harvest to being cooked by a chef. Very practical and easy to watch, especially if your climate is like theirs.
☘️Fredrick Law Olmstead: Designing America (Amazon Prime) – This documentary is about Mr. Olmstead, but also the evolution of Central Park in New York. Our neighborhood parks in Seattle, including the boulevard in front of our house, were designed by his son and nephew and I always wanted to know more about the family and their approach to landscape architecture.
I clearly remember watching my father in his tunnel-shaped greenhouse on the hill behind our house in Kernersville, NC. On my frequent visits, I’d wander around in the humidity as I inspected his tools and projects. The air was a musty mix of soil, fertilizer, and him. He had long tables full of plants, mostly flowers, organized into sections with carefully placed labels and tags. A spiral-bound notebook with a dirty cover kept his barely legible notes. Little film canisters, each with their own labels, seemed to be sprinkled about and stored in a tiny refrigerator along with a couple of bottles of Yoo-Hoo.
When he wasn’t inside the greenhouse, he was somewhere on the property digging a hole, moving a plant, starting a sprinkler, pruning, weeding, and more. As a child, I never understood what he was doing in the greenhouse and garden, but I knew it came from a place of passion. At dinner time, I would often have to go find him. Left alone, he would stay in the garden until dark.
Now that we’ve moved and built garden beds, our garden is our next big project and I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming a version of him in his garden. We are putting down literal roots on a landscape that has been stripped of life in the course of construction and building it back feels like a lifelong pursuit. Aside from the vegetables in the garden beds, the garden and landscape around our property won’t develop fully for many years and that’s part of the beauty of this project. We will bring life back to the rocky ground.
In my book, Big Enough, I shared this quote in a chapter on long term planning:
The success or failure of any design comes down to the goals you’re trying to reach and I take inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York, who often ignored the need for short-term success and took the long view of landscape architecture.
In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.”
Forty years. That’s how long he thought it would take to see results. The distant effects of our garden will hopefully take fewer years, but I am prepared for the long term. As much as I want to snap my fingers and transform the sword fern by our front door into its full prehistoric splendor, I must water and wait.
In our division of duties, I am the landscaper and Sachi is the vegetable gardener. In Seattle, we had a backyard planter bed where Sachi grew veggies for years. I was always interested in the challenge, which I didn’t fully comprehend going into the process. Gardening seemed like a nice hobby where you put seeds in the ground and a few months later, harvest a cornucopia of big beautiful vegetables. And in some cases, that happened with minimal effort (I’m looking at you, tomatoes!)
What I witnessed then, and now understand, is that tending a garden is more like an arms race or a puzzle than a set-it and forget-it hobby. It took Sachi multiple years to learn how to optimize the garden for maximum sun and what plants worked best in our little corner of Seattle. She was always at war with pests, like slugs, snails, aphids, birds, and squirrels who used the garden like a buffet. Then there was the weather, which can be uncooperative and the all-too-short summer season in the PNW. If it doesn’t get warm enough for long enough, gardens can remain puny. No season is ever the same. And that’s also part of the fun.
The rush in building our raised beds at Flattop was an effort to get seeds in the ground before it’s too late. Now that we have them in, the real learning can begin. I’m sure we’ll have successes and failures, but for the first year or two, the real goal is experimentation. Our garden, like most, has a sweet spot between the spring and fall when the plants don’t need to be protected or covered from chilly winds and low temperatures. Finding that sweet spot is the goal, and it may take years.
Orcas Island has multiple micro-climates and ours, on the west side, is known for being warmer and sunnier. Some say it’s Mediterranean. I’m not so sure, but taking advantage of what sun we have is high on our list. With its pests and wily weather, we have a lot to learn.
Today the beds are approaching full, with squash, french beans, radishes, tomatoes, lettuces, and more. It feels like the calm before the vegetable storm, which gathers strength each day.
The vegetable garden is Sachi’s happy place. She spends mornings and evenings tending it and watching it grow. Yesterday she was excited to show me that the Hubbard squash was starting to show fruit. Unlike the landscaping and ornamental plants that I tend, hers are productive. They feed us and that surely adds to Sachi’s attraction.
Flattop has large spaces to fill in terms of landscaping and it sometimes feels daunting. I have plans for filling each space, but the lower priority areas are slowly succumbing to weeds and grasses. We’re hoping to establish ground covers that, over time, prevent other plants from growing. It will take years, but will hopefully provide us a natural, low maintenance, and beautiful way to wrest control of the soil from invaders.
One of my favorite projects is a relatively modest one. The west side of our house slopes down precipitously and the north corner is barren and rocky. Over time it may start to erode and one of my first goals was to plant ground covers that would beautify it and keep the ground in place. So far, like most of my landscaping, it looks puny, but I’m keeping it watered with high hopes. Thankfully, the rocky slope is not a place deer like to tread.
For me, the garden has become a place of refuge. I jump at the chance to take a break from work and inspect the plants. In the evenings, I look forward to the meditative feel of watering. Looking back, I think that was also true for my Dad. His garden was his refuge and place to do what he wanted.
He turned a few acres of family property in North Carolina into an expansive garden that became a stop for bus loads of garden tourists. Those greenhouse projects, notebooks, and film canisters were his tools in creating and naming hybrid varieties of daylilies, hostas, hydrangeas, and rhododendrons. One of his best-known varieties is a hydrangea named after my mother called Dear Dolores. Like most members of the family, I have a daylily named after me: Forsyth Lee LeFever.
Today he’s 86 and his best gardening days are behind him. But he still reads gardening books and loves to talk about what we’re growing out here on the west coast. Someday, we’ll have a space like his greenhouse for our garden projects and experiments. We’ll grow what we can and hopefully, our garden will be a lifelong source of happiness, exercise, beauty, and food. Who knows what we’ll see in 40 years?
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.