Island

At the turning

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

— Susan Cooper

On the shortest day I loaded a backpack with four tin cups, a thermos of hot cider, a parcel of cookies dusted in sugar, and a picnic blanket. It was a surprise outing for the children, an inkling of a new tradition I’d thought of. We drove a little way north along the rim of the valley, where there’s an open field I like. I used to ride an Arab mare around the perimeter, trotting her uphill for conditioning and resting at the top to puff and look out over the quilted landscape. Our family of four—and the dog—walked along the fence that surrounds the cemetery of the little church of St. Francis and picked a spot in the high corner to spread our blanket and watch the sun sink.

During our first full season at the farm I’ve watch the sun’s arc intersect the hills beyond our valley, working steadily south along the blue knuckles of Mt. Dallas to Little Mountain and then the low hills above Kanaka Bay. This deep in the year it doesn’t even reach the island, vanishing instead behind the Olympic mountains across the straits.

We called up the most luminous points of memory from the year that’s been: adventures in Paris, singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, bringing home the kittens, making “fifty” friends at school, our first lambs. The great magic of life on this farm—a magic well grounded in work that isn’t always fun or instantly gratifying, mind you, but rewarding all the same.

Now we’re closing the year in a slog through boxing up all our remaining clutter in Portland. I am not quick to find cathartic joy in this chore; part of me would like to light a huge bonfire in the driveway and have done, but alas, city codes and sentiment over the possessions of my ancestors prevent me.

Wishing you a clean sheet, a new leaf, a freshening wind as we welcome 2018!

To the lighthouse

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As I’m writing today, we’re in Portland watching the clouds lower and waiting for the cold sizzle of freezing rain. My daughter has seen the inside of a school building exactly once this year and has logged a total of nine days of education since December 1. Our world has been snow and ice and sledding and baking and free play and Swallow and Amazons for so long I can hardly remember the shape of our standard routines. This wintry dreamtime has been such a complete holiday from real life that I dread the return of early rising, school lunches, and long commutes in dreary weather. If our thaw works quickly and we aren’t glazed in a fresh layer of ice, that day might be tomorrow, so I’m looking backward instead.

At the turn of the year, natured graced us with a golden day. I swept the children out of the farmhouse and into the car for a quick walk before the sun set. The wind had calmed; Mr. G stayed behind to enjoy the respite from its teeth as he set new fence in our most exposed corner, where the breeze comes in boorish from its romp across the Pacific. At the southeast tip of the island is the little Cattle Point lighthouse, built in 1935. The surrounding land is part of a conservation area crisscrossed with pleasant walking trails—as long as you’re not nervous about the rather abrupt plunge down to South Beach.

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A fellow walker watched my children and dog pelting ahead up the path and kindly asked if I was familiar with the lay of the land. Indeed, there’s been enough erosion here that the trails we walk today are not the trails of my childhood, and in some places they wind very near the edge of the cliff. As tempting as it might be to climb atop that stone the boy is passing above, the sandy soil is scooped out beneath it and I wouldn’t care to test whether an extra forty or fifty pounds might be enough to send it on its inevitable tumble to the sea. The kids stay clear. But I believe the only way to grow agile and surefooted and canny in risk assessment is to test yourself on trails such as this one from an early age, so I let them run.

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A gentler slope here

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Darn, I wish this hat were something I needed to photograph for a pattern release!

The lighthouse isn’t grand or terribly iconic, but its stout little octagonal tower and drum lens go on keeping the shipping off the rocks of Cattle Pass. The Coast Guard allegedly intends to do some restoration work here to shore up the building before it slithers seaward.

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Two bald eagles reign over this territory and we crept near their tree to watch them awhile, because that was the sort of magic on offer this day. The sea was full of splashy ducks and cormorants. The homeward trail got a wee bit tiring…

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…but the beauty and the docile weather made a rather dribbling pace no hardship. All the mountains were out—Mount Rainier, about 120 miles away, is just visible on the horizon at the right edge of the frame in the photo above—and the road home provided a close look at this handsome fellow in the twilight:

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My parents chose this home, crossing the continent years before I was born and setting down new roots. I had the freedom to leave; I’ve visited many beautiful places and I hope to see a great many more, and I could have stayed for good in a few of them, but this island has always called me back. On days like this, I think the greatest gift I can give my little ones is to infuse their growing and becoming with this same landscape. Who knows where they’ll fly? But if they carry this place in their hearts, they’ll know what they’re looking for when they find it.

Reenactment

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Visiting friends researched what’s going on in town and discovered the English Camp reenactment camp-out is on this weekend. We managed to stumble upon this educational four-day living history event a couple of years ago, too, and were happy to go back.

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My son was excited to have the opportunity to go inside the blockhouse, built for defense of the camp. We weren’t allowed up the ladder to the second floor, where naughty marines had to serve time-out, but he did plenty of imagining how it would be to poke a rifle through those little square holes to shoot at emenies all the same. (What is it with little boys and the shooting? I’ve begun to think our species got the idea to invent guns because wee lads were already running about pointing their index fingers at each other and shouting, “Pew, pew pew!”)

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The kiddos played croquet and learned a period gambling game in which you spin a four-sided top to take a coin, put in a coin, do nothing, or sweep up all the coins. (They’re 1800s pennies, which were much larger than the modern-day equivalent.) Don’t play against the one in the pink hat. She is already scheming about how we could carve our own top or modify a die to play this at home.

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We got to watch a blacksmith demonstrate his craft with his mobile forge, learning about how younger sons were apprenticed to learn a trade and then made their way as journeymen, eventually setting up shop elsewhere so as not to compete for business with their masters.

I didn’t get a photograph of the two Metis widows spinning (Romney, in the grease, from the lock), knitting, and handsewing, but I did learn some off-color Chinook Jargon from them. (Tenino, WA, I’m never driving through you without a snigger again. Please tell me whoever chose to make the high school Home of the Beavers did so in full knowledge of the town’s name origin.) Middle-school humor aside, I’m fascinated by the idea of a trading language with 660 words, whittled down to just what you’d need to communicate with strangers for mutual benefit. I wonder how many similar trading languages still exist around the world?

Thanks for the fun and learning, reenacters. My friend Linus predicts I’ll be joining you within four years… which is probably the length of time it would take me to sew an appropriate costume.