“image
One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

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

It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose. 

dungeness crabs in a trap

We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July. 

This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.

sunflower sea star lee lefever

We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.

In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.

Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance. 

From this article.

The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.

Sunflower sea stars, like the one we had in the trap, were recently certified as critically endangered by the IUCN

I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths. 

sea star in water

My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.

A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.

Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself. 

When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept. 

To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.  

reddit data
reddit data

That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.

These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.

A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.

fox news story about sea star

Then, the article also appeared on the New York Post website.

new york post sea star

Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family.  One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:

“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”

At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice. 

The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.

According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound. 

reddit stats

Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap:

sea star escaping crab trap
sunflower sea star
Permanence and Permaculture ?

Permanence and Permaculture ?

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

Saturday was supposed to be rainy, which is the norm for this time of year. I thought we’d do indoor house projects, like organize the garage or get to some painting touch-ups. Then, the weather cleared except for a brisk wind that was perceptibly warmer than it had been in days. 

Sachi decided to head to the grocery store and we loaded up the car with trash and recycling for a trip to the transfer station on the way. I couldn’t help but think of the connection between her trips. Old food containers would become full again. My plan was to walk to a nearby nursery that was having a plant sale and she asked twice about dropping me off. I wanted to walk and she relented.

Not far from home is a wetland area that is often flanked with birders in the summer, who park on the side of the county road and lug long lenses along the shore. The wetland and its views are so commonplace to us that we don’t notice it often. But on this walk, I did. 

Across the road from the wetland, I noticed a little trail leading up the hill that I’d never seen before. Long branches were arranged lengthwise on the sides of the trail, which I took as an invitation. After a short hike, I found a bench overlooking the wetland and a sign that marked it as public property. 

bench overlooking wetland

I stayed on the hill for a while and took in the view. The wetland below has a story. In the 1970s, a neighbor, who was a professor of ornithology, noticed that the area was attracting a variety of birds. He worked with several neighbors, who owned the land, to create a conservation easement with the aim to establish a waterfowl preserve. They flooded the former fields and the fowl came in droves. Today, the preserve is managed by the county and is a permanent part of the island that is open to the public. 

On an island like Orcas, there is always pressure to develop. Over time, much of the island, and especially the properties with shorelines, have been purchased and developed. But there are exceptions. Multiple organizations like the San Juan Preservation Trust work with property owners to preserve wild spaces so that the island can continue to offer access to the public and provide homes to wildlife. The waterfowl preserve is one of those spaces; a permanent slice of wildlife. 

I walked back down the hill and by the preserve and eventually arrived at my destination: the nursery. Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead and Nursery is no typical nursery. It’s a destination that’s known around the world for expertise in the field of permaculture. They have been developing the property for over 35 years to be an example of a permaculture system at work. People arrive from all over to attend their design courses, become farm interns, and experience the homestead. 

Bullocks Sign

If you’re like me, you’re asking: perma-what? It’s a good question and one that seems more difficult to answer the more you learn about it. Any attempt to explain it is a risk and I’m sure some may take exception.

Permaculture is an approach to agriculture and lifestyle that is focused on sustainability, self-reliance and working within natural systems. In part, this means designing farms and gardens to work as a system that includes livestock, water, waste, energy, and vegetables. A common example is a chicken, which not only produces meat and eggs but consumes plant waste and produces manure that serves to fertilize the ground. Reduce, reuse, recycle. 

Visiting the nursery is a cultural experience. A number of people live and work on the homestead, which is a maze of houses, gardens, greenhouses, and farming equipment. The people who work there are amazingly knowledgeable and very friendly. They all seem to adhere to what seems like a standard style: dirt-encrusted farmer, and proud of it. 

I browsed one of the nurseries by the entry and considered a couple of trees that were priced at 50% off, but I was walking. Trees are popular among permaculturists, as they represent a permanent part of the garden that can produce fruit and shade, and be enjoyed by both humans and livestock. That’s part of the idea. Instead of constantly pulling plants in and out of the soil, it’s better to plant something permanent.   

At the side of the nursery, there was a tent where a couple was managing the transactions. I approached and asked about garden design services. A friendly worker said I should talk to Doug, who was further back in the property. She said, “He looks like a crusty permaculture dude.” Message sent. 

I wandered into the maze to potentially find Doug, but also see what was there. Permaculture gardens are rarely the manicured gardens you might expect at a normal nursery. Instead it feels more laissez-faire and unkempt. Weeds mingle with plants, grass grows everywhere, and the property is dotted with pile after pile of decomposing plants. This is all intentional and part of the idea. Nature is messy and unkempt and that’s how the plants like it.

compost bin
trailer on dirt trail

I finally saw Doug who was deep in conversation among the rows, so I kept walking. I could have stayed at Bullock’s much longer, but the rain was coming back, so I made my way home.  It is a fascinating place.  

That evening the rain arrived on time and I heard the now-familiar pitter-patter of it on our skylights and metal roof. I had been anticipating it all summer and wondered how the rain would sound, especially at night when it’s time to sleep. Listening that night, I thought about permanence and entropy. Try as we might to establish wetlands, gardens, and homes to be permanent, the universe eventually has its way with human projects.

But I didn’t want to think too deeply about that while sitting in a new house. To me, Flattop is permanent. It will be here longer than me and in between, all the things that we see, hear, and do, are permanent parts of our lives. The sound of rain on the roof was one of them; a bit of gentle percussion on a permanent drum that’s perfect for sleeping.

Bonus:

My friend Justin Cox is a talented musician that performs under the name Routine Layup. He lives on Orcas and wrote a song that might just get stuck in your head. Not Everyone Has to be a Permaculture Gardener. Listen below: