I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
I grew up in the desert, though I didn’t know it — home is simply “what is” when you’re a kid — but perhaps that’s why I have such an attachment to water. Or does every human? Is it that we’re all drawn back to moisture, being 55-65 percent water? Maybe this column would be better titled “life in water” or even “life of water” as babies are born with bodies nearly 78 percent water.
Whatever the case, early in life I became a water baby. I took my first swimming lesson at four years old. I taught Red Cross swimming classes at 10. I got my life saving certificate at 15, after “rescuing” my floundering 250-pound instructor Mike in the Lions Club swimming pool. My summer job between college quarters was life guarding at the Terrace Heights Country Club where every morning I would warm-up by swimming two lengths of the pool underwater in true trout-like fashion.
But my fondest early water memories are centered around the rivers of Yakima County — the Naches, Little Naches, the Yakima, Tieton and Bumping. Rivers roar in the spring, thrash up enormous logjams, jump their banks, shove boulders around, maniacally leap into the air or cascade down rock faces in deafening majesty. A river is not to be messed with when it is at its peak in frigid, cobalt blue or frothy white.
Later in the summer is the time to make friends with a river. Under the midday sun, rivers placidly wallow around the feet of alders or cottonwoods, suck gently at mossy banks and, when dusk settles in, lull us to sleep. This is the season to walk barefoot in the mud at their edges and poke rocks with a stick for crawdads or lean headfirst just over their serenading lips to stare at tiny fish in the shallows.
Inner-tubing on rivers can be fun too, but I’d much rather stand and admire them than be part of the sway. I want to sit on the basalt outcropping we call the Ash Grove, east of Camp Roganunda, and listen to their music. Or just watch — rivers flowing, flowing rivers — in their never-ending job of pushing to the sea.
Some folks live on the river. Friends Allen Moe and Cathryn Vandenbrink have shacks on the sloughs up the Skagit River. Last month, Cathryn took me up to her place for an equipment drop and we made a day of it. The drive from Seattle is a pleasant 35 minutes. In Cathryn’s book the rule is “no hurry” — it’s part of the ethos of shack-life. The point is to breathe deeply when you get on the water, so why be frantic on the way to slow-down?
Once off the highways, we load the skiff from the dock, cast-off and putt-putt upriver. The day is bright though blue-grey clouds float just above the hills around us. We motor through a misty rain and pole up the appropriate slough until we find a water-depth that takes us directly to her shack. After a quick tie up, we unload the boat carrying baskets of clean laundry and supplies up the dock ramp.
Nib, now down to one partially functioning eye, baled off the deck and I found him scrambling up the bank amid the just-blooming skunk cabbage. After a towel-down, he sat in my lap in the sun as we watched the day go by. Living on the river is not about doing nothing; it’s about knowing the difference between doing and being.
Opening a space to think — with no cell phone, no Internet, no commotion — can be a scary prospect for some. Artists know that it’s where magical ideas lurk, ideas that can jump into your head from the natural environment at the slightest invitation.
Nahcotta by the Bay
In Nahcotta, I live on the bay side of town on a little rise. This situation has nothing to do with my being savvy — it was purely a matter of luck and the urging of a good friend. But by this quirk of fate I ended with a perfect southeast facing garden plot, less salt breeze, more protection from the storms, and, out the kitchen window, a view of Willapa Bay. The bay has, therefore, become a dear companion. It’s the first thing that greets me when I rise and the last face I see before the light dims.
All day long, I watch the tides pull back — uncovering rich mudflats and murky channels — and push up, filling to the treeline again. I can see folks stumbling around on the public clam beds and marvel at the graceful blue herons poised for hours it seems waiting for dinner or flying in over the house with nesting materials. For several weeks last summer, we had a resident eagle making high daily circles above our little piece of heaven.
For my first year, I was a bit envious of folks with an ocean view. Not to say those aren’t splendid, but now I have to admit a preference for the Willapa Bay watershed, all 600,000 acres of it. I love to watch the oyster boats and track the rising and falling shell mounds as the season progresses. The way the sunrise creeps out through the fog hanging on Long Island and the sunset lays its colors down over the waters just before dusk, I would not trade for one curling wave against the sand.
Even in Seattle, where I’ve been spending more time of late, I live in a tiny gypsy cabin floating on a barge. This culture-country combination is pleasing. I can hop metro bus 49 for 75 cents and in 15 minutes make it up to the Egyptian Cinema on Capital Hill, the Seattle Art Museum, or Pike’s Market. Or I can just open the door and feed the Canada goose family leftover crackers while I watch rowers zip by under the University Bridge. (If you’re too tall to pass beneath: toot one long, one short.)
I don’t know how I got so lucky. But water seeks its own level wherever it goes; it floods ravines, fills canyons and cracks, and smoothes all the rough edges on its way to more water.
I guess my heart and brain, 75 percent water; my lungs, 86 percent; my muscles, 75 percent; my liver, 85; my kidney, 83; my bones, 22; my blood, sweat and tears, 83, 95, 100 percent, are seeking a return to their source.