Martha Bray lives with her husband John Day and an old hound named Daisy on the outskirts of Sedro-Woolley in Skagit County Washington. She had the great privilege of working for Skagit Land Trust for twenty years protecting local land for wildlife and open space. She and John now are lucky enough to be grounded at home in a beautiful place. They stay a bit active in local and national politics to the extent they can face that crazy world.
Photo Credit: Martha Bray
For fifteen years, my husband John and I have lived on five acres on a dead end road on a low hill of glacial till perched above the verdant Skagit and Samish River valleys on the western side of the North Cascades in Washington State. We landed here with intentions to simplify and be closer to our work. We moved about 40 miles west, leaving a small farm in the floodplain of the upper Skagit River that had been my home for two-and-half decades. My youthful vision of making a living as an organic farmer had faded, replaced first with environmental activism and then graduate school, and eventually the perfect job in local land conservation. But the workplace was 50 miles away. We tired of long commutes and weekends too full of endless chores. The joy of living in a remote beautiful place was gradually being replaced by a routine weariness. The leaving was not without grief. We left a community of close friends, and a handmade house in a place of astounding beauty. It was on the edge of great swaths of truly wild land—where the river, cold and fresh from the mountains, runs clear blue green with suspended glacial dust. Our new home, while tame in comparison, has nonetheless brought us different and unimagined gifts.
Our ‘new’ neighborhood is scrappy. It is semi-rural, on the edge of a small town. The larger landscape consists of patches of pasture and second/third growth woodland, laced with small creeks and wetlands; it is bounded to the north and east by state and corporate owned plantations of Douglas fir. The neighborhood does not immediately draw you in. The first impression is likely the blue tarps and instantly decrepit manufactured homes melting into jungles of invasive plants, replete with dirt bikes, pit bulls and family junkyards. Mixed in are well-kept little farms and pockets of suburban homes with tidy lawns, paved driveways and occasionally even a kid on a bike. In a word, it is commonplace.
This land was once part of the vast and ancient rain-soaked conifer forest of the Pacific Northwest—forests that were the home and sustenance of thriving Coast Salish people. In the scale of time that landscapes form, this history is a heartbeat away. One can still find old maps marking the sites of logging camps, and the tracks of the steam powered railroads that crisscrossed these hills to move massive logs down to the river with a grinding relentlessness. And of course, there are those haunting black-and-white photos of a dozen white men sitting proudly on one unimaginably huge fresh stump. By the early 1900s those legendary trees were gone, and the land was settled—and it was divided repeatedly into smaller and smaller parcels.
And so, this little parcel of land had been logged, and then logged again, most recently perhaps in the 1970’s. Then someone tried to turn it into pasture, crudely pushing stumps and debris around with a bulldozer and ditching the wet areas in an attempt at drainage. The clay soils responded by solidifying into compacted sodden swales that grew hardhack and rush, with scattered patches of weedy grass and creeping buttercup. Rhizomatous thistle was spreading; invasive nonnative blackberry draped the old stump piles with hard thorny canes the diameter of broom handles. The sheep had been gone for a few years. So, along with the invasives, red alder was quickly returning – dozens of saplings to a square yard – the first sign of healing and resilience. A few big old second growth hemlocks and firs were still here, and a grove of red cedars had been left more or less alone, except sheep had gnawed at their trunks and nothing grew beneath them. Several of the cedars toppled in a winter windstorm the year we arrived, their splayed roots ripped and tilted-up like huge deathly hands reaching out from the saturated soil. This land was torn up and neglected, and the larger landscape fragmented by rural land uses. Many of these land uses unwittingly drive nature toward loss: loss of diversity, of complexity and of beauty. Yet something drew us here – some memory and shadow of resilience. And now it is our great privilege to tend to this place.
Of course, we didn’t simplify our lives very much, but instead have grown deeply connected to another piece of land. Over the years, we have planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs, we have dug several small ponds, we have pushed back the invasive plants, we have planted vegetable gardens, fruit trees—and around the house, sentimentally, some nonnative favorite trees, shrubs and perennials. We learn through time what we can coax to grow in the heavy soil—and the land remembers, shows us, if we pay attention. We celebrate in amazement the return of common plants—sword fern, thimbleberry, vine maple, willow. Mostly I don’t think about what it was like before, but I do remember that in the first year the only birds at the feeders were juncos. Today there is a thrumming of bird song and bees and budding, blooming, unfurling everywhere.
COVID time on this land isn’t so different for us (fortunate ones), but the experience is richer with the gift of time, and perhaps with fresh awareness of how precious it is. Most days we put on the same dirty work clothes and go back outside. Between projects, John is the citizen scientist, the picture of patience and unbounded enthusiasm—following the bird song, reading last night’s gifts of frog and salamander eggs like the morning headlines, learning to identify bumblebee species for a monitoring project, identifying the unusual weed we hadn’t seen before (I am satisfied with “a veronica of some sort, perhaps”)…. I am the gardener, a worker – digging, pulling, clipping, hauling, spreading. I must remind myself to look up. He shows me things. We show each other things. We discover mason bees at work in old half rotted bee boxes put up years ago, little blue-black native bees so laden with pollen that their abdomens appear yellow. The bright lithe garter snake lazing around in the herb garden. Just once, a northern alligator lizard in the rubble wall in front of the house—are they still here and we just don’t notice? And there are the treasure laden photos from the trail camera. Who knew?! Bobcat, mother coyote with a pup, and once a cougar tail disappearing from the frame—they still live here! Such unexpected joy, and all so mysterious. We know so little. We wonder. We watch. The shared noticing is a perfect kind of intimacy.
I started writing this a month ago, now the season has traveled on. I was going to write about the earliest spring arrivals—the tree swallows chattering, cheery and iridescent blue in the cold April skies. Now they are already busily vying with each other and the violet-green swallows for the perfect nest box. I was going to write about the translucent lace of young red huckleberry leaves and the sweet propolis fragrance of new cottonwood leaves, and about the wood ducks showing up—for the first time checking out the box near the new pond—but today there is a mother mallard already venturing forth with eleven week-old fluffy yellow and black ducklings. I was going to write about the rufous hummingbirds’ arrival that coincides with the red-flowering currant bloom—their presence upsetting the order for the overwintered Anna’s hummingbirds. But now, already, the juvenile hummingbirds are darting about. And the warblers are here, orange-crowned, Wilson’s, black-throated gray, common yellowthroat and yellow-rumped. And fancy male black-headed grosbeaks flash orange, black and white across the yard (awaiting the females who will arrive a few weeks later). Yesterday a male western tanager, usually so elusive, lingered in plain sight—hungry for calorie laden suet after a long journey north.
There is a deep intimacy in paying attention and tending to land. There are so many scales of change. In a day a bud opens to a flower, in a week a shoot emerges and unfolds from the warming soil, in a month an incubated duckling breaks free of her shell, in four months an apple flower ripens to fruit. In our short fifteen year tenure, a red cedar seedling is twenty feet tall. And always there is the annual turning, the dying back, and the rains, all to begin again. This brings me great comfort—the natural world is unconcerned with human struggles, or even with its own rhythm of death and renewal. To really see this is to participate in something much larger—to disappear for a moment or two into it and to know we are just a tiny part of this great exchange of carbon and oxygen. Paying attention, tending to the natural world helps us remember that change is the only certainty. Change. Resilience. Renewal. This is the gift of this ordinary and common place, at this uncommon time.