The Blog

Aphantasia – A Different Kind of Blindness 🧠

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

This might seem strange, but please follow the instructions below…

Imagine an apple that’s floating in the space in front of you. It’s red, has a small green leaf and a stem. Now, using your imagination, look at the top view of the apple. Imagine what it would look like if you sliced it into two parts. Can you see the seeds?

There is a good chance that you completed this exercise with ease. You were able to use your mind’s eye to conjure an image and “see” it using your imagination. This seems natural to most people. 

This ability to see an image in your imagination is not the same for everyone. In fact, there are people, like Sachi, who cannot do it. The images simply do not form. No images do. Sachi and people like her live in a reality that is fundamentally different from most people because their brain does not generate mental images. 

This is called aphantasia (lack of fantasy) and it’s a relatively new field of study. Most experts agree that it’s not a disability, but a different form of human experience. Ed Catmull, the former president and co-founder of Pixar, wrote about having it. So does Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome.

My friend, Austin Kleon, recently wrote about it and his wife, who edits his blog posts, responded by saying, “I think I have that!” So it goes with aphantasia. People can live their entire lives with it and never know it. These people often respond to my apple exercise by saying, “Wait. People can see the apple in their minds?” They think “counting sheep” is just a metaphor and not something that people can actually imagine. 

When I learned about aphantasia a few years ago, I talked to Sachi about it and learned she was an “aphant” and didn’t know it. This fascinated me and I set out to learn as much as I could. The more I talked with people about it, the more people I found who shared the same experiences as Sachi.

For example, Sachi and I have worked closely together since 2007. In our work, I often propose ideas for changes we could make to the Common Craft website, for example. I could easily imagine the new feature in my mind; how it would look and work. When it came time to discuss the idea with Sachi, I often became frustrated because I couldn’t seem to relate the idea clearly enough for her to understand it. Once I learned about aphantasia, I realized that she needs to see the feature on paper in order to see what I see. I was living in the abstract world of imagination and she needed something concrete.

I also started to see how aphantasia likely played a role in our past experiences together. I love traveling with Sachi, but we are very different travelers. The best way I can describe it is that I am a romantic traveler and she is a logical one. We both want to soak in experiences, but I come away with lasting memories that are filled with color and fragrance. These memories lead to nostalgia and daydreams that stick with travelers like me. I can place myself nearly anywhere I’ve been and imagine the experience. 

Sachi, on the other hand, remembers being in Tuscany, knows she enjoyed it and can place herself at a specific location, but can’t reminisce. She can’t conjure the experience in her mind. There are no visions of olive trees blowing in the wind, even though she saw them in person and tasted the olives.

I didn’t understand why Sachi never seemed to have the same experience as me. We’d see the world’s most impressive architecture, like the Taj Mahal, and she’d come away shrugging her shoulders. She seemed incredibly difficult to impress and I was at a loss as to why. Now, I understand that these travel experiences don’t become embedded in her mind. They’re fleeting, and as such, have limited future appeal. What Sachi wants most is to sit and watch people in an Italian cafe, probably because it’s life happening in real-time. For her, this has far more appeal than being asked to imagine ancient Romans in the ruins of The Forum.

Think for a moment about how you read books. The words on the page help me imagine characters and events as the story is told. When Sachi reads a book, there are no representations of the characters in her mind. All she has is the words on the page and that’s probably why I’ve never seen her read fiction. Aphants are often attracted to technical and scientific fields (Sachi has a degree in microbiology) and my guess is it’s because they are more concrete than other fields. She loves a good spreadsheet. 

Sachi’s phone currently has a photo of our dog, Bosco, on the lock screen. Bosco died in 2016 and I always thought it was odd that Sachi wanted to keep his image on her phone for so long. But then I learned that aphants are not easily able to conjure the faces of loved ones in their minds. She can’t imagine the faces of me or her parents. She recognizes photos as easily as anyone else, but can’t create them in her mind. If she witnessed a crime and was asked to help with a sketch of the suspect, she would not be helpful. I started to see that photo of Bosco as a workaround. She wants to remember his face, but can’t without an image that’s constantly in front of her. 

I could go on. The aphantasia onion is one with many, many layers. I have described a few examples in the context of something that is missing, but the reality is that aphantasia is also additive. Sachi has many strengths and some, I believe, relate to aphantasia. 

Craig Venter says that his experience with aphantasia meant that he could focus on the big picture because he wasn’t distracted by memorization:

I have found as a scientific leader that aphantasia helps greatly to assimilate complex information into new ideas and approaches. By understanding concepts vs fact memorization I could lead complex, multidisciplinary teams without needing to know their level of detail.

For Sachi, this seems to manifest in an intense focus on planning and details. I’ve never met anyone who is more detail-oriented and aware of her surroundings. On the water, while I’m gazing at the grand scenery, she’s aware of it, but also notices the waves are getting higher and the tide is ebbing. She starts to check our depth and ensure that all our belongings are secured. She’s also an incredible planner who approaches events with everything in its place. For that reason, our events run flawlessly. I, on the other hand, long for a bit of chaos. 

Sachi describes her experience as constantly looking for the signal in the noise. From her perspective, the world is filled with distractions that aren’t productive for her. Perhaps that’s what Venter experienced, too. She doesn’t care about hearing a musician describe their inspiration in an interview, she just wants to hear the music. There are parts of pop culture that don’t stick to her and she’s learned to discard them. Why should she care about the noise? A scientific discovery or a looming financial crisis, on the other hand, is a pure signal in her mind. 

I think this is one of the reasons we make a good team. Like any couple, we are different people, but aphantasia seems to take it to a new level. I’m romance and noise, she’s logic and signal. Together, we can cover a lot of territory.

What fascinates me the most about aphantasia is that people can go their entire lives not knowing that their brain works differently from other people. It makes me think about all the other differences in the human experience we don’t yet understand. Do we all have blindnesses and sensitivities that seem normal to us, but aren’t? I have to wonder:

  • Do I perceive the world in a way that is rare, unique, or undiscovered?
  • Is there a part of me that is a strength or weakness I don’t understand? 

I’m sure all of these things are true to some degree, even if they don’t yet have a name. 


If you’d like to learn more about aphantasia, the links below are helpful:

  • Carl Zimmer wrote about it in the NYT here and here.
  • Someone with aphantasia did an “Ask me Anything” post on Reddit
  • You can take this quiz to better understand your ability to see mental images
  • Here’s an animated video by someone with aphantasia that’s helpful
  • This post by Blake Ross was one of the first that caught my attention and goes through a nice and funny FAQ.

Catching Spot Prawns 🦐

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When I was a kid, we’d load up the family RV and head to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, about four hours away. Often these trips were quick getaways that were less about sand castles and more about fishing. 

We sometimes fished from the beach, but our main fishing happened from piers that stretched up to 1000 feet into the Atlantic. I have fond memories of parking the RV at the Indian Beach pier, which also served as a campground. If the fish were biting, we’d be out on the pier for hours at a time, casting lines with two hooks and a sinker as far as we could. Sadly, Indian Beach pier eventually crumbled in the wave of hurricanes in the late 90s.

A pier similar to Indian Beach via BlueWaterNC.com

Our bait was usually limited to bloodworms and raw shrimp. I thought little of it at the time, but bloodworms are frightful little creatures that bleed profusely when you cut into them. They are venomous carnivores that are capable of biting humans. I have been bitten by a bloodworm and it’s not fun. But, the fish love them. We mostly caught spot, and occasionally pompano, sheepshead, puffers, and more. I also set basket traps for blue crab.

Those days and nights on fishing piers were fun for a kid like me, and exposed me to a lifestyle of sport and self-sufficiency. On a good trip, we’d be able to fill the freezer with fish and give them to friends and family. My mom was the most gifted fisher and always seemed to catch fish when no one else could. Over the course of an afternoon, you’d notice other fishers sidle up to try to get in on the action. Those salty characters who now live in my memory as the shark hunting character, Quint, in the movie Jaws.

One of my clearest memories is fishing with raw shrimp as bait when I was about ten years old. Over the course of the evening, my face seemed to explode with a reaction to something. My eyes got red, puffy, and itchy. I sneezed and wheezed and tried to contain what felt like a bad cold. I washed my face and hands and it passed, but remained a mystery. 

As an adult, I became a fan of sushi and noticed something odd. When I ate raw shrimp, my mouth would feel anesthetized and my throat would feel swollen. Sometimes my lips would puff. It didn’t take long to realize that I was allergic to raw shrimp. Thinking back to those childhood fishing trips, I remembered that I was baiting hooks with shrimp and then touching my face. Thankfully, the reaction only occurs from raw shrimp and I have no problems with cooked shrimp or any other shellfish. 

And that’s a good thing because shrimp, or “spot prawns” to be precise, are a recent entrant on our list of foods we pull from the Salish Sea around Orcas Island.  

Despite living in the area for so long, I never knew much about spot prawns. Our Canadian friends to the north always raved about them and got excited for spot prawn season. On visits to Vancouver we would pick up spot prawns for dinner. It seemed odd to me that this prized seafood was not well-known in Seattle, which shares the same waters. I still can’t explain why this is the case, but we now count ourselves as spot prawn enthusiasts. 

It didn’t take long to hear about spot prawns after moving to Orcas Island. Like the fishers at Emerald Isle, islanders here are always aware of what’s in season and how to catch them. Our contractor, Drew, took us out for our first spot prawn experience, which involved dropping a few hockey puck-shaped pots in 400 feet of water, waiting an hour, and then pulling them up with a battery powered pulley. It was like magic and we wanted to do it ourselves. 

Unfortunately, our little boat didn’t seem like a candidate for an automatic “puller” and the idea of pulling shrimp pots by hand from 400 ft deep seemed daunting. That all changed when we met a neighbor at our marina who hand-pulled small pots at a depth of 250 feet with great success. His bounty influenced our decision to invest in a single shrimp pot, 400 feet of line, two buoys, and shrimp bait. We were set for the 2021 shrimping season.

Perhaps the reason spot prawns are not well known in Seattle is that they are a protected resource. This year’s season lasts a total of twelve days, split between three long weekends. During these times, each licensed shrimper can use two pots and bring home 80 prawns per day. A productive and law abiding shrimper could bring home a maximum of 1,280 prawns in a year. A couple like us could keep over 2,500. The lesson: get while the getting is good.

Last week was our inaugural shrimping trip and our friend graciously allowed us to follow him to his coveted shrimping spot. Spot prawns, conventional wisdom tells us, like to feed in the short period of time when the tides change known as the “slack tide”. This means that within a limited number of days in a season, there are only a few hours a day when the shrimp feed. For our first trip, that meant leaving the marina at 6:30 am. 

By 7:00 am our little shrimp pot was baited with cat food, shrimp pellets, and sardines and lowered to the bottom. To wait out the trapping, we tied our boat to our friend’s boat and hoped for Camelot. He bottom fished for lingcod until his giant hook snagged something on the bottom and had to be cut free. We drank coffee and talked story. 

On our first pull, we got about 40 spot prawns, which felt like a victory. Because the slack tide was longer than usual, we stayed for another round and came home with just over 80 prawns. The next day we went out twice and came home with a similar amount.

After that, the weather turned and made shrimping more difficult. We stayed home and filled our bellies with those sweet buttery little crustaceans. They are the best-tasting shrimp I’ve ever had. The Canadians are onto something. 

The final opening of the season is in the middle of June and we plan to take advantage. Like every shrimper, our goal is to “limit out” which means catching the legal limit in a day. With two people and a second pot, we may be able to do it. Maybe next year we’ll get an electric puller. 

For now, pulling one small pot and 400 feet of line is part of the fun and a reliable form of exercise. Instead of using teamwork, we challenge each other to pull the entire thing in one shot. It’s harder than it sounds and highlights why everyone thinks we’re crazy for not using a machine. 

Sachi, of course, is our head shrimper and I’m the navigator and alternate puller. She baits the pots, removes the prawns from the trap and de-heads them on the way home.

If the prawns die with their head on, they release an enzyme that softens the meat. Once we’re home, she prepares them for the BBQ or a boil. I supervise, as I’ve learned my lesson with raw shrimp. No one wants my face to explode again. 

Related:

Podcast Interview with Jenny Blake at Free Time

Jenny Blake and I had a wonderful discussion, in part, because we share a similar perspective when it comes to business and the potential for small businesses to promote freedom and autonomy instead of taking it away. Along with having a great voice for audio, Jenny asked great questions and I really appreciate that she read Big Enough.

You can listen to the episode below or on the Free Time website.

I Can Recommend… Meat Thermometer Edition

I realize some may scoff at the use of a thermometer when a “real” chef can just feel when meat is up to temperature. I prefer data.

I use meat thermometers near the end of the cooking process and place the probe into the meat and leave it there until it reaches temperature. I don’t need an app, or settings for different meats. All I want is an accurate reading and a simple alarm for when the meat reaches the temperature I set.

The best thermometer I’ve found for this use is the ThermoWorks Dot.

I’ve also started to use a ThermoPro Infrared Thermometer, which you can point to any surface and get a temperature reading. It’s perfect for getting a pan the perfect temperature for eggs.

Note: I do not have business relationships with the products I recommend and earn no income from writing about them.

Feel the Burn 🔥

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage. 

One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island. 

The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed. 

My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.

In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season. 

That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure. 

It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.

 Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway. 

I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.

With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending. 

As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect. 

Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time. 

Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season. 

In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying. 

We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees. 

In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.

gif of tree falling

Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire. 

The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn. 

Using the UV Index in Sunburn Season ☀️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

People sometimes get confused when they see Sachi on a sunny day in long sleeves and pants. They wonder why she sits in the shade when everyone else is in the sun. “Aren’t you from Hawaii?” they ask. “It seems like you’d love the sun”.

Invariably, Sachi has to explain that being from Hawaii is why she stays out of the sun. She witnessed what it does to the skin over time and vowed not to be one of the casualties. As long as she keeps getting carded when buying alcohol, I will assume it’s working.

I didn’t grow up on a tropical island, but I did get my share of the sun at Lake Norman and North Carolina beaches. I sometimes feel nostalgic about those summer days when we’d finally go into the cool darkness of the house to let our pink skin rest in front of a fan. I can still feel that burning sensation when taking a shower with sunburn. Those days are now gone and I try to be more responsible with the sun and not get burned. Maybe one of the reasons we both love the pacific northwest is that the sun is less of an issue.

My family’s perception of the sun was like everyone’s at the time: when the sun is out, it can burn you. Sunrise to sunset, it’s always powerful. Only recently have I learned that the skin-burning power of the sun changes significantly throughout the day, and the seasons. And now, knowing its power is a simple matter of knowing where to look.

The UV Index

In my daily weather watching, I track all the normal data like temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, etc. These help me plan my day and dress appropriately. I recently added a new data point to my weather watching that has transformed how I think about summer days. It’s called the UV Index and I encourage you to track it, too.

The UV Index is an hour-by-hour measurement of the sun’s skin-burning power, at a specific time and location, on a scale from 0-11 (or more). The index was developed in 1992 but is only now becoming a standard in weather apps and websites.

Let’s imagine a family who is planning a day at the beach. The parents are concerned about sunburn but would prefer not to use sunscreen, if possible. Instead of just guessing or getting burned, they can use the UV Index to understand the sunburn risk on an hourly basis. Maybe 11-2 is time for a movie or nap.

Source: WillyWeather

It’s easy to assume we humans can tell when the sun is dangerous. It may seem the UV Index data is just a backup. After all, most people know the sun is most powerful during the middle of the day. But what about seasonal change? Elevation? Cloud cover? These are all factored into the index.

We were camping with a group a couple of years ago on a warm fall day. The sun was bright and seemed strong. Some members of the group applied sunscreen accordingly and we noticed. It was a logical move based on a lifetime of experience. Having learned about the UV Index, I thought to myself, “That sunscreen is wasted. The UV index is at ‘3’ right now and getting lower; no one is getting burned.” Rather than trying to awkwardly explain the index and how to use it, we just sat back with the confidence of someone with data on their side.

That’s what’s so useful about the UV Index. It takes the guesswork and wasted resources out of the equation. In this example, the UV Index was low on a sunny day because it was fall. In most of the northern hemisphere, the UV index remains low through the fall, winter, and early spring. Again, hooray for the “north” in “pacific northwest”.

Where to Find UV Index Data

Tracking the UV index is easy and free; you just need to know where to look. For example, the weather app that came with my iPhone displays it on the same page as all the other weather info.

I also use a free app called UV Lens that provides two day forecasts and a nice interface. (Find the app for Apple, Google)

UVLens

Using the Index

The UV Index uses a standard scale that relates to recommendations about sun exposure.

Source: EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency also has a few handy resources if you’d like to know more:

I think we should take the sun and its UV rays more seriously and that’s the real message here. Today on Orcas Island the UV index reached 5. In Honolulu, it got to 10, and at Lake Norman, 8. Interestingly, the peak times vary by latitude. Since Honolulu is closer to the equator, it peaks closer to noon. On Orcas, it’s closer to 2pm.

The index is a great tool, but it’s up to you to decide what to do with the information. Sunscreen is an option, but be aware that there is growing evidence that it’s harmful to marine life, like corals. If you go snorkeling, consider covering up instead. That’s really the best way to avoid the sun: blocking it with hats and clothes that filter out the UV rays.

If all else fails, you can watch the index number go down while having a glass of wine with Sachi in the shade.

The Time Between Glass and Mirror 🪟🪞

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When I stand in the center of our great room and look west toward the water, the view is framed by 240 square feet of glass, from the floor to the ceiling. As I look around, I see that I’m surrounded. To my left are two large glass doors that lead to the outdoor room. Behind me, a mirrored backsplash.

I never anticipated how it would feel to be surrounded by glass. During one of our first nights in the house, I noticed I could see my reflection in the wall of glass as I walked across the room. For a moment, I stopped and wondered how it might feel to see myself, head-to-toe, so often. I turned 90 degrees, sucked in my gut, and resolved to use the mirror as motivation.

I soon came to appreciate the glass wall as a feature of the house that exists in multiple states. During the day, it disappears and reveals a view over the Salish Sea, as it was designed to do. But at night, when darkness hides the view, the glass becomes a mirror to the interior. One minute you’re looking at the water, another you’re looking at yourself. I think of this as the time between glass and mirror.

In his one-man show called “In and Of Itself“, Derek DelGaudio talked about the period of time, just as the sun is setting, as the “time between dog and wolf”. He explains:

This expression, the time between dog and wolf, it comes from the Middle Ages. It was a cautionary expression that parents would use to scare their children, make sure that they got home before it got dark out. You better get home before the time between dog and wolf because at this time of day, it’s very difficult to distinguish a friend from a foe at a distance. It’s hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. And by the time it gets close enough to you for you to make out what it really is, too late.

I never saw this as a dangerous time, though I always saw this as a time of possibility. It’s a very specific moment for metamorphosis. For me, this was the time when a dog could also be a wolf.

DelGaudio uses this as a metaphor for his skills with cards. At a poker table, for example, people may assume he’s a dog. But in reality, he’s a wolf and his advantage comes from people not expecting to see a wolf.

After the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about this expression. I started to notice the time between dog and wolf each day and what parts of the evening were transformed by it. Trees with brown bark and green leaves become black silhouettes. The ocean fades from color and texture to a featureless void. We change, too.

The end of the day is a time of reflection and the glass wall behaves accordingly. In the time between dog and wolf, our perspective, along with that of the glass, changes from outward to inward.

As DelGaudio says, the time between dog and wolf is a period of metamorphosis and possibility. It’s a specific period of time when a dog could also be a wolf. Maybe that’s also true for the time between glass and mirror. When the light is gone and the work is done, it’s time to reflect in glass that could also be a mirror.

The Pig War 🐖

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022. 

Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.

At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too. 

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.  

Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable. 

The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own. 

Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires. 

The Pig War

In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”

San Juan Island at the time of the Pig War

The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot. 

As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years. 

During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands.  By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.

Map of the San Juan Islands
Today’s Border

When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.

I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.

The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon. 

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Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon 🥃

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.

Large Pile with Dog
Piper Protecting the Pile

The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up. 

Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up. 

Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there. 

To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.

The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001. 

I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work. 

It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.

On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath. 

After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.

Layout of Raised Bed
Layout of Raised Bed
Completed Bed with Maybe
Completed Bed with Maybe

A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed. 

Both Beds Complete
Both Beds Complete

Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.

That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.

Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?

10 Yards of Cedar Chips

We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect.  On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us. 

Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins. 

Debris in Raised Bed
Debris in Raised Bed

In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.

Dirt Conveyances
Dirt Conveyances

Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.

We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”. 

By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower. 

Filled Raised Beds
Filled Raised Beds

I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.

The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.

Sachi Planting
Sachi Planting the First Seeds

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Lee LeFever Headshot

About Me

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.

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