Category: The Northwest United States


On Saturday, March 24ths, 2012 I left the wonderful little island of San Juan. I’ve been here over three months!

When I first arrived here there were still leaves on some of the trees, but I couldn’t tell you the names of any of them. The pump house archway wasn’t yet mudded and the windows were also bare. The cob house had only a small section of floor, some straw insulation in the living room ceiling and many more holes to the brisk outdoors. I didn’t know how to change the bit in a drill, or the blade in a saw, let alone scribe a wood to stone line.

Now as I get ready to move on new spring buds are opening around me and I can tell you the common and scientific names of many of them. The pump house is fully mudded and just waiting for some warm spring days to help it dry, and the cob house has a floor you can walk on and a ceiling that is fully insulated! And I have figured out how to change that gosh darn sawzall blade and a few other tricks of the trade. Of course I still have much to learn as I think I recently tried to cut through copper with a wood blade and definitely continue to make other silly mistakes. But Ryan has been a patient and willing teacher and I am incredibly grateful.

These are just some of the more tangible things I have learned. There are countless more subtle ideas and processes I have picked up as well, many of which I may not yet be aware of but I am sure will influence me as I continue on my journey.

While I have been on this island I have also played and listened to more music then I have in a long time. Weekly contra dances with an open band plus a weekly Irish session hosted by Art L. on his wonderful schooner have helped improve my ability to pick up tunes by ear. The jams I have possibly enjoyed the most though have been with Ryan and Ian and Chuck, where 90% of what I am doing is listening because the songs are ones that I do not know, and when I actually play it is often quite technically simple and meant to just support the other musicians. I thank the islanders for letting me be a part of this wonderful music scene for the months I have been here. And a special thanks to Cori who played a big part in making me feel welcome in the contra scene here and was always eager to sit down and help me figure out a tune phrase by phrase. All in all I have been re inspired to find groups to play with regularly back east in order to continue to develop my ear and expand my repertoire of tunes.

As I leave this island I realize that I have created a lovely community for myself here that I am quite sad to leave. A goodbye/equinox party on wednesday night left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside as we all sat around a fire on the beach roasting marshmallows and telling stories past midnight. And it seems I am leavings just as the season of bonfires begins.

Another highlight of my time on the island has been the friendship I have developed with Alan Boyne. He is like another grandparent to me or like that professor who takes a lucky student or two under their wing that I always wished I had at Cornell. We have enjoyed weekly contra dances together, frequent dinners at the Cask and Schooner, and shared some music as well. Our time is always filled with insightful conversations often having to do with right versus left brain thinking and trying to better figure out why things don’t always turn out quite as well as they should.

More recently I befriended another older man, Michael J Cohen, who is the caller at the Monday night contra dances and a folk musician himself. But when I found myself sharing a dinner with him at Cask and Schooner one evening before the Irish Session, I realized, of course, that he was much more than just the caller. I found out that he founded the Audubon Expedition Institute, which no longer exists in the form it used to, but is a program that I had heard of and have been intrigued by every time it came across my path for the last couple years. The individuals I have run into who were part of this program (that ran out of Lesley University in Massachusetts) were all now working in fields deeply connected with the outdoors and seemed to be dynamic, engaged individuals with values and backgrounds that resonated with me. So I got quite excited when I realized I had unknowingly stumbled into dinner with the founder of this program.

I learned  from Mike that the Audubon Expedition Institute no longer exists but that he had streamlined the institute, which is based in teachings of eco psychology, and had created a much more financially accesible program that people can do on their own, in their own backyard, with guidance from a few books and an online support group. And so I walked out of dinner that night with all the needed “text books” and decided why not enroll in the $100 intro course that I could complete in about 11 weeks from anywhere in the world. It seems that all I have to do is be willing to do a few activities each week out in some small patch of nature and write about them. I have just started the course and don’t yet have to much to say about it but it seemed like the universe was putting this opportunity right under my nose and making it pretty hard to refuse, so I will let you know how it goes!

All in all, my time here on the island has been great. I feel I have finally, truly embarked on my journey as a natural builder and have found an important mentor for me in this field. But perhaps more importantly, I found a community here on the island of truly good people. This place has a small town feel that took a little while to get comfortable in but three months here has been just enough time to give me a taste of the good stuff that keeps people coming back here. People here take care of and show up for each other in a way that you don’t see so much in a city. It is quite beautiful to experience and can’t quite be explained in words. As I sat around another spring equinox bonfire my last night here I felt my eyes tear up. I will definitely have to return one day to this wonderful little island.

I am sad to leave and am also excited to go home in a month and have an opportunity to start applying what I have learned on my own small projects. But before I go home I return to Seattle for a few days to say goodbye to Penny, and then will take a 2 week detour into Canada to Lasqueti Island where I will learn from another natural builder, Mark Young. In my mind, the more teachers I have the better as I develop my own skills and style. And so my journey continues…. Wish me luck!

On December 18th Peter arrived in Seattle to spend my birthday and christmas with me. Yay!!!! After a morning with Penny we headed to San Juan Island to spend the week at Ryan’s. Ryan is one of Peter’s best friends from LEAPNOW, an experiential education program with a strong focus on travel and personal development and evolution, and for all of us to be in one place at the same time was definitely a dream come true for Peter and something I have also looked forward to.

When we arrived at Friday Harbor I got to meet Kaia, Ryan’s girlfriend, who is also a total sweetheart and would be spending the week with us as well. From the first night I could tell that this was going to be a good week.

Our first full day here we went on a hike which turned into an epic adventure of building a drift wood bridge over a lagoon. It took us about three hours but we succeeded! In the evening we went to cribbage night, where we played a close game of the girls vs. the guys. Girls won of course 🙂

On the 21st Ryan and I took a sunset solstice dip in the ocean; my first swim since arriving in the northwest! The water was cold, but honestly with Kaia’s wetsuit I felt surprisingly comfortable, and being someone who loves water I had been itching to get into the water. With the wetsuits we were able to put on snorkels and flippers and swim out into the bull kelp forest that grows just off the shore of Ryan’s parents beach house. The water was so clear! Very different from the Atlantic in the Northeast, at least where I have been. And of course Ryan knows tons about the critter of the ocean. We saw a crab, many star fish, a sun star, sea urchins, and of course, lots of bull kelp. Did you know that bull kelp are hollow and store CO2 within them? They also can be cut into rings, pickled and eaten. It was pretty cool to be out there in the ocean. I was also amazed at how buoyant I felt in my wetsuit; it was hard to dive down! but Ryan gave me a few pointers and I was able to get a a few feet under the surface.

Ryan and I after our solstice dip into the Pacific

My 23rd birthday was pretty much a perfect day in every way. It was understated, which is how I like things, no big parties, but three awesome people, and full of the outdoors and precious moments and experiences. We woke up early and caught the ferry to Orcas Island, known to some as the gem of the San Juan Islands, and the home of the highest peak on the islands; Mt. Constitution. After a stop in town where we bought some food and drank some delicious chocolate from around the world we headed to Moran State park, where Mt. Constitution is located. Before driving to the peak we took a few hours to hike around the lower parts of the park, which was filled with huge old growth Cedars, Doug Firs, and many other plants. With Ryan’s wealth of knowledge and Peter and my curiosity this hike quickly turned into a plant walk with us quizzing each other and asking about every plant we saw. I am getting better at telling the difference between a Grand Fir, Doug Fir, Lodgepole Pine, and Spruce. I also can now tell the difference between a Cedar and a Juniper, and am learning some of the native underbrush such as the salal, the oregon grape, nootka rose,  trailing blackberry, and bracken ferns, to name just a few. And then there is the weird, slimy orange fungi called Witch’s Butter! And these are only the plants that are still identifiable in the middle of winter! I love understanding the place I am in, and it is awesome to have someone like Ryan around who is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the islands when it comes to natural history. Having a strong sense of place is something that he feels is really important and so he has made it a priority to understand his surroundings.

Me hugging a huge Doug Fir in Moran State Park

After our hike in the lower parts of the park, which included some beautiful waterfalls as well, we drove to the peak of Mt. Constitution. After we parked the car I ran to the top to discover one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Imagine sparkling ocean dotted with islands all around you. And then, in the same view you have snow covered peaks on the horizon. AMAZING! I couldn’t help gasp at the beauty. And the sun was out, with just a few clouds for effect. I could not have asked for a more perfect day. And yet it got even better!

Ryan, Peter and I climbed to the top of the lookout tower they have on Mt. Constitution while Kaia went “to the bathroom.” But really she was going to get absolutely delicious carrot ginger vegan cupcakes that she and Peter and baked while Ryan and I had been swimming in the ocean. When Kaia walked in to the lookout tower and Ryan and Peter started singing I was totally surprised! What better way to spend my 23rd birthday then on the peak of the highest mountain in the San Juan Islands with an absolutely gorgeous view and three of my favorite people in the world.

Peter, Me, my cupcake, Ryan, and Kaia at the top of Mt. Constitution

I also learned that Kaia has a gift for giving presents. Although she and had only met me a few days before she and Ryan got me a watercolor postcard set. How perfect!

This blissful day continued as our next stop was Doe Bay, a little spa right by the ocean with soaking tubs and a sauna. Here we relaxed and soaked, two happy couples at the end of a wonderful day. There was even an ice cold natural spring to dunk into when you got too hot, and of course Kaia and I took advantage of this after getting nice and hot in the tubs.

Then it was finally time to head home, tired and happy. Once we reached home we opened a bottle of Peter and my homemade anniversary dandelion mead- quite yummy if I do say so myself, and I got two more wonderful presents from Peter. First was a delicious chocolate bar for us all to share and second was a beautiful, turquoise-green-blue shawl that will be perfect for meditation, the fancy occasion, and  perhaps to even curl up on the couch and read a book with. It truly was a perfect birthday.

The next few days were low key and gave Peter and I some good time to catch up and reconnect. Long distance relationships aren’t always easy but we both seem to be committed enough to make it work thus far.

Then came the Browne’s Christmas Eve party. Yummy food, some hilarious rounds of Telestrations, Christmas caroling (a tradition I have never experiences having grown up in a Jewish family) and more presents. Kaia continued to amaze me with her gift giving talents and gave me beautiful earings she had made herself; of course she remembered that I was worried my ears might close up as I hadn’t brought any earrings with me! And the earrings went perfectly with the shawl Peter had given me, which I was wearing for the night. And Ryan also gave me a perfect gift; Northwest Foraging by Doug Benoliel. I can’t wait till spring when I can try some of the recipes using foraged plants!

Christmas day was also wonderful and relaxed with a delicious christmas dinner that rivaled thanksgiving, provided by Ryan’s parents. Given that this was Peter’s last night it was only fitting that we ended with Ryan, Peter and I curled up on the couch in front of a fire having a juicy conversation about Nature and the Human Soul (a book by Bill Plotkin).

The 26th meant it was time for Peter to fly back to the Boston. This good bye was no easier than any other, but I know that we will see each other again and that both him and I are doing good work where we are that is necessary for our personal growth. And so with a few tears we gave each other hugs and I wished him safe travels and Ryan and I headed home alone.

Peter and Me on the top of Mt. Constitution with Mt. Baker in the background

I have to say that being from the North East it is amazing for me to be somewhere where I can see snow capped mountains on one side of me, the ocean on the other, and be in comfortable 50 degree weather in Seattle. On Friday Penny and I took a short half hour drive first to go see Snoqualmie Falls and then to climb Little Mount Si, a relaxed 2.2 mile hike to a 1,576 ft. summit with incredible views. This was the perfect hike to do as a afternoon hike or with kids (we saw many families including a little girl hiking in a tutu) and the view is definitely worth it, as one girl informed us on our way up. Here are some pictures from Snoqualmie falls and Little Mount Si.

Snoqualmie Falls. There was so much mist in the air from these powerful falls that it felt like it was raining.

Penny on our hike saying hi through a crazy root formation. Nature does do incredible things.

Penny and I at the peak. I think (?) that might be big Mount Si in the background.

More views from the peak of Little Mount Si.

Mountains in the distance on our way down.

I also finally made it to a rock climbing gym for the first time in many months. Although I am not as strong as I used to be it felt good to boulder and use my arms and upper body strength. I went to Stone Gardens Seattle, a large, impressive rock gym and I think I will try to go again before I leave Seattle.

***

A Sunny Tuesday led to Penny and I walking from the Ballard neighborhood all the way to Fremont, another funky, fun Seattle neighborhood and the home of the Troll, and the center of the universe. It was a beautiful day and a very pleasant walk. We found some wonderful little stores on our way, even some that Penny hadn’t noticed before, including one that sold beautiful little terrariums called Midnight Blossoms. It made me think, how cool would it be to have a terrarium built into a cob wall? It might have to be filled with non living things as my conversation with the store owner indicated that you really have to be able to open them sometimes to clean out condensation and mold. Or wouldn’t it be cool to have a ship in a bottle as a window in a cob house?

Anyway, there were some other fun architecturally inspiring things we saw on our walk as well. Here are a few pictures of a wacky building and some cement sculptures (they both have roofs over them so they totally could have instead been made out of cob!) and boast houses (now that is another appealing idea… a small, self sufficient, moveable house on the water…)

Funky apartment building

Cement sculpture under the bus stop

The Fremont Troll

The Fremont Troll

Fun brass sculptures of two clowns do-si-do ing

Boat houses across the way

A particularly cute boat house. That would be plenty of room for me!

***

Somehow, Tuesday wasn’t enough walking for us so today we walked all the way to Discovery Park, a 534 acre natural area. By the time we had walked there, done the loop trail through the park and walked back home we had walked almost ten miles! Discovery park was beautiful. Today was not as sunny as yesterday but the somewhat overcast threatening clouds added to a dramatic view from the park out over the water.

View from Discovery Park: Stormy clouds over the water

Another beautiful view from Discovery Park

Another beautiful view from Discovery Park

And one last view from Discovery Park

The wind was fierce at some points but the rain held off until just before we got back home. We finished off our day with a trip to Wide World Books and Maps, a travel bookstore, where we listened to a talk called Walking Seattle. I think our next long walk will be at Interlaken Park which is also close to the Washington Park Arboretum… That will be another good day of walking to look forward to.

But first I will be heading off to do a ten day silent meditation retreat. Yup, that’s right. Tomorrow I leave for a 10 day Vipassana Silent Meditation retreat. I am not quite sure what to expect but I am sure it will be transformative in some way or another. Wish me luck!

So I am back in Seattle now for thanksgiving week with my old babysitter, Penny. We have been having a wonderful time here, eating delicious food, going on walks even when we have liquid sunshine (what Penny calls the rain), and other fun outings. My first full day in Seattle Penny took me to the Ballard farmers market. I love a farmer’s market just about anywhere, but I must say the Ballard market is quite a nice one. There was delicious fresh produce, meats and cheese, baked goods, artisans and crafts and lots of street performances happening. One that particularly touched my heart was a young little boy who could not have been older then 8 who was out playing music with his father and younger sister. As his father tuned some of the other instruments this little boy took the stage and began to strum and sing on his miniature guitar. What a beautiful thing to have such a little child empowered to stand in front of an audience of strangers and play. And the passersby loved it. This little eight year old boy was truly glowing.

After exploring the Ballard market we took the bus downtown to Pike Market, Seattle’s equivalent to Quincy Market  in Boston. Tons of little shops and stands selling everything from chocolate pasta (yes, I’m serious) to lobster tails bigger then any I have ever seen. And of course there was the famous tossing of fish that draws many tourists and made me think of the scene in the movie Free Willy when Jesse steals a fish from the market mid toss. Streets markets are a wonderful thing in my mind. They support small, independent businesses and allow customers to have actual relationships with those whom they buy from. They are such lively places and encourage human interaction and cultural exchange.

A few highlights from downtown were a man who was playing a violin as if it were a cello (and he played it as beautifully as any master violin player!), beautiful paper and wood lanterns that demonstrated outstanding craftsmanship, and a delicious sticky rice lunch with yummy goodies inside of it such as pork and egg. A very good first full day in Seattle.

Wednesday night, the evening before Thanksgiving day I got to introduce Penny to something new in her own town; Dances of Universal Peace. Dances, as I have come to call them are a wonderful thing that happens all around the world. I discovered them first in Ithaca, when Peter took me to one, and I have since been hooked. The dances, although originating in the sufi tradition, takes songs and prayers from almost every tradition and culture and puts them to music, adding simple movements that together create a often spiritual and profound experience. It is like prayer and meditation in motion. And it is a worldwide community that I can tap into just about anywhere I go. Singing together in a group has always felt powerful to me and when the songs have a certain prayer-full theme in makes the experience that much more profound. Sometimes I have found myself inexplicably moved to tears. In Ithaca the dances quickly became a comforting and healing monthly tradition for me and as I have been traveling I have have continued to seek them out wherever I am.

The next day was thanksgiving day and so Penny and I spent most of it in the kitchen, preparing the turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing, which would be our three major contributions to our thanksgiving dinner. Penny is an excellent cook and eats mostly gluten and dairy free and these were quite special dishes that I would love to share the recipes for. I have put most of our modifications to these recipes to make them gluten free and extra yummy in parenthesis:

Stuffing Recipe for a 15 pound turkey:

  • 2 one pound loafs of whole wheat bread, finely chopped in a food processor (we substituted with Udi’s gluten free bread and a mixture of other gluten free breads, such as ends of old loafs of homemade pumpkin, banana, or even corn bread.)
  • 2 cups of cooked basmati brown rice
  • 3/4 pound of italian sausage, baked separately (we used chicken sausage), finely chopped
  • 2 onions finely chopped
  • 1 cup of finely chopped celery
  • 2 cups of chopped toasted hazelnuts
  • 2 large fuji apples with skins on, grated (this helps keep the stuffing moist)
  • 3-4 tablespoons of sage (to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons poultry seasoning (to taste)
  • salt to taste
  • pepper to taste

Turkey preparation: We then stuffed this into the back and front of the turkey. Before seasoning the turkey we separated the skin from the flesh using our fingers and then we rubbed the flesh (under the skin) with fresh rosemary and thyme and stuck many thin slices of lemon under the skin. We rubbed the skin with a bit of apple cider vinegar and then we salt and peppered the outside of the Turkey and stuck it in the oven in a covered roasting pan at 350 degrees F. After about an hour we lowered the heat to 325 for the remainder of the time. The last wonderful touch that makes the skin deliciously crispy is about half an hour before done baking we took the turkey out and brushed it with a glaze of Pomegranate Molasses.

Pumpkin Pie Recipe, with Penny’s modifications to make it lower in fat and lactose free:

  • 2 cups canned pumpkin
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (we left this out)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk (we used unsweetened soy milk instead)
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • 3/4 cup whipping cream (we replaced this with 0% greek yogurt. I couldn’t taste a difference)
  • Penny’s addition which I thought was ingenious: finely chopped crystalized ginger, about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

All of this is mixed together and poured into a pie filling of your choice. We also glazed our pie crust with apricot glaze made from 5 ounces of apricot preserves and 4 tables spoons of apricot brandy. This is then baked for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F and then for another 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Then, to top this all off there is  topping that is spread on the pie. The topping ingredients are:

  • 2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter (we used earth balance instead)
  • 1 tablespoon whipping cream (here we used soymilk)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt (we left this out since earth balance has salt in it)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans

This deliciousness is spread evenly on the top of the pie and then the edge is bordered with whole pecans. We then broil this for just about three minutes or until the topping begins to bubble. Be careful not to burn here, it really only takes a minute or two!

I really enjoyed thanksgiving dinner, which was at Derek and Tony’s house- two of Penny’s good friends. Tony had made some delicious candied sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, and string beans, among other things to add to our contributions. Thanks giving has always been my favorite holiday; it is all about family, friends and food without the stress of presents.

Hello Seattle!

As I walked towards baggage claim in the Seattle/Tacoma airport I reviewed in my head where Penny had told me to meet her. She doesn’t have a cell phone so we had made plans for a very specific rendezvous point. Penny was my babysitter was I was little, but we haven’t seen each other since I was 7 years old, 15 years ago! Honestly, she was much more then a babysitter to me. She was part of the family, a mentor and a teacher. She was not your typical babysitter; there was never a dull moment with her. I remember going on many outings with her and doing many arts and crafts projects, including some amazing ones that I look at in wonder even today and don’t know how she got me, as a seven year old, to create such amazing things!

When I was seven years old Penny decided to move to Seattle and we have not seen each other since. But, amazingly enough, we have kept in touch. Penny, like me, is also a wanderer and traveler at heart. So when I took my first year off between high school and college and decided to travel through Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador I exchanged many e mails with her, asking her questions about what it is like to travel as a woman alone, what were some of her favorite places in those countries, and general travel tips. Since that year we have talked about someday seeing each other again, and now finally, almost four years later, I am in seattle.

I spotted Penny immediately, sitting in her silver-grey prius right where she said she would be. After big hugs of hello we she takes me on a wonderful little driving tour of Seattle and her neighborhood. The air here feels warm after being in Minneapolis. The city look modern and clean. Penny’s neighborhood, Ballard, feels cozy and progressive, with lots of cute little cafes, restaurants, and places advertising massage, and other holistic health practices. It is right on the water with the beautiful, snow covered olympic mountains visible across the Puget sound.

Penny and I are getting along fantastically. When we arrive at her house she shows me the amazing little cocoon  of a room that she has created for me. It is so adorable, with a bed, desk, lots of plants, and shelves full of books, many of which look interesting to me. We heat up a delicious meal of black bean soup, home made chick pea – edamame hummus, and some sweet potato salad. Mmmmm, so yummy. And of course, I got to try her delicious energy bars that she plans to soon be selling. They are rich and flavorful, almost like chocolate, but not too sweet and not at all dry. They taste healthy, but not too healthy- just like they are made of real, high quality ingredients, which they are. I think they might be the best energy bars I have every tasted!

Even though I have just arrived, the next day I will be heading out to the San Juan Islands for four days to learn the ropes and get a feel for my cob building apprenticeship with Ryan (more on this later). Then I will be back in Seattle for thanksgiving and more adventures with Penny before I go back to the islands!

There are two first impressions about Seattle that have struck me. One is that the people here seem really friendly. I have already had a conversation with with someone on the bus, a man who builds boats and is on his second sailing trip around the world, and a woman on the ferry, a holistic veterinarian who is thinking about moving to the islands. And people have been happy to help me find my way to the bus station, navigate the ferry’s and answer any questions I might have. The second thing that has struck me about the Ballard neighborhood in particular is that something about the aesthetics of the place remind me of Japan. Maybe it is the influence of the many Japanese people who do indeed live in Seattle, but I swear that something in the layout of the streets, the buildings and architecture, and the landscaping make me feel like I could be in Japan! I have a feeling that I will enjoy my stay here, especially if it is a strange melding of the two cultures of my parents.

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