For the love of place


Some mornings in Seattle, when I stepped outside I’d be greeted with a waft of ocean air. As a girl who grew up vacationing at the Oregon Coast, the scent of the sea carries with it a bit of home; but I never expected it in this teeming city.

Here in Bellingham – small city hedged by forest, bay, farmland and Canada – it is not the ocean greeting me on the breeze when I step outside, but the musk of farm animals. And it thrills me all the same, this whiff of sweet manure, tapping into another place of home in my being.

On a walk this morning, as soon as I step into the woods the scent of a barnyard dissipates and I am left with evergreen trees. Their musk is subtle in these woods, so much so that I experience it more than I inhale it. Here among trees and song birds and squirrels is the scent of home that has become my lifeblood these past years. Wherever I go, my compass points toward forests.

. . . . .

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A friend kindly suggested to me recently that, one day if I live among family or friends, geography might not matter so much. The message between the lines was this: If you had more meaningful human connections, you wouldn’t be so attached to a place.

For me, that place is the Pacific Northwest. But my husband’s entire family live in Mexico, and we have talked extensively of moving there one day to be near them. The one question at the forefront of my mind is not, Could I love Mexico?  I have no doubt that Mexico would open up a new door of home in my heart. New people, new landscapes, new trees and birds, new colors and sounds, scents and tastes.

No, the question has been, Could I live without these forests? 

My husband’s family live dead center in Mexico, where it is arid and hot, far from any forest. I wonder how homesick I would be for these living beings that bring me to life whenever I am in their presence. Who tap into a place of knowing in me that transcends language.

It’s not that my friend’s comment offended me. It just didn’t ring true. Isn’t there room for loving a place without it diminishing love for people, or visa versa? And even more, isn’t it valid enough to simply love a place, with every fiber of your being?

This is my reality, and it’s not been one that everyone can relate to.

. . . . .


I step out of the woods into a large clearing, treading as lightly as my running shoes on gravel permit. To my left, a spotted towhee perches on the tips of a small tree, his voice a continuous question. Eeeeeeeeuup? Eeeeeeeeuuup?  I regard him with sidelong glances, mesmerized by the urgency of his voice. I wish I could speak back.

To my right and up the path, a half dozen robins comb the grass for a late breakfast. Their rust-colored chests bob up and down, set against green blades and a sky the color of their eggs. As I watch them, I feel my own chest swell with emotion.

Step by step, I make my way to a bench and sit facing the woods. Cotton swab clouds move across the sky as if being pulled apart in slow motion. Somewhere in the woods, I hear the pounding of a beak on dead wood. The rise and fall of a robin’s call. The continued questions of a towhee. Two gulls soar soundlessly over my head and I watch until their white bellies disappear. I see the curve of a bushy black tail trailing a squirrel up a trunk.

And I release the swelling in my chest, a torrent of gratitude and wonder streaming down my face. That this place exists. That I am here. That any of them are alive.

I don’t know if I can bear imagining a world without them. Not even where I live apart from them, but without them in it. A world that is no longer hospitable to their lives. And this is precisely the world we humans are creating.

It is possible to weep with wonder, love and heartbreak all in the same salty tears.

This, too, is my reality.

. . . . .


One of the many things that slowly edged me away from my roots in Christianity was this mindset that the earth is not our home, and therefore, we cannot love it too much. Likewise, human beings are the main characters of this earth’s narrative and the ones, in the end, who truly matter. All other life is here for our pleasure or use – and yes, our care – not existing for their own glorious purposes, but ultimately for ours. Furthermore, life is best spent investing in things that have eternal value, according to the faith, which means humans. Humans have souls; no other living being does.

I fully recognize this is not universally true of the Christian faith – as it is practiced or perhaps as it was originally intended; there are always exceptions and my knowledge of Christianity came only from western culture. But in my thirty years of experience, this was largely how I saw it lived out across many denominations and communities.

I began to see that the ones I loved did not hold much value in my faith tradition. That, no matter what, I did love this place and earth was my home and humans aren’t the only ones who matter in this story.

I began to see that trees have souls and animals are sentient beings and this world is as much their home as it is mine. We breathe the same air, yet we are the ones degrading it. The state of this earth matters, whether or not this is the only life we’ll know or if it will all be reborn one day after it’s destroyed.

It matters because we exist. Together.

. . . . .

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I didn’t have the words at the time, when my friend suggested I not give so much weight to loving a place. But I do now, thanks to Kathleen Dean Moore and her book, Great tide rising, that makes me ache with familiarity. At the end of an early chapter, she listed what it means to love a place (which is exactly the same list for loving a person):

  1. To want to be near it, physically.
  2. To want to know everything about it – its story, its moods, what it looks like by moonlight.
  3. To rejoice in the fact of it.
  4. To be transformed in its presence – lifted, lighter on your feet, transparent, open to everything beautiful and new.
  5. To want to be joined with it, taken in by it, lost in it.
  6. To fear its loss and grieve for its injuries.
  7. To protect it – fiercely, mindlessly, futilely, and maybe tragically, but to be helpless to do otherwise.
  8. To press your lips against it, to taste it, to close your eyes and feel it gratefully and fully. 

And I wept here, too. For the knowledge that this love is more than enough to sustain me.







Christmas trees, reimagined

I grew up on artificial Christmas trees and generally thought nothing of it. We could put them up whenever we wanted, for however long we wanted, and they made no mess. But as soon as I was living on my own, I gravitated toward real trees. I wanted that quintessential Christmas tradition in my memory bank, the one of hunting for the perfect tree in the cold winter air with the scent of evergreen dancing in my nostrils. I wanted to traipse through forest or rows of fir trees on a farm, saw slung over my shoulder and a cup of cocoa in my hand.


So as soon as I met my husband, this is what we did, for five years. Until that last year, as I surveyed the acres of magnificent trees with a lump in my throat. I tried to shake it off, this feeling of unease. Because, how dare it threaten my beloved tradition? This is a cornerstone of Christmas memories, a symbol of the holiday season. I wasn’t keen on giving it up, but I couldn’t shake it, that pesky sensation of being at odds with my self.

If I love – even revere – trees as much as I say I do, why am I essentially killing one once a year so it can sit for a month in our apartment as a decoration?

I turned to my husband that day on the tree farm and whispered, with a trace of apology, “I love this, but I don’t think I can cut down another tree after this year.”

And after I explained my thoughts behind this statement to him, he squeezed me and nodded his support, as he so often does. God bless this man for his patience.

We decided that year, together, that we would come up with our own creative expression for a Christmas tree in the years to come.

. . . . .

December was fast approaching last year and still we had to figure out exactly how we were going to construct our own Christmas tree. I had ideas, but so far none of them had panned out. We needed something, stat.

Enter the epic windstorms that are par for the course this time of year in our northernmost part of Washington state. Violent winds that snap trees in pieces and leave their branches strewn from here to kingdom come. As we were driving home one afternoon in the little beater Prism we no longer have, with a flimsy handsaw in the backseat, we pulled over near a small maple tree that had cracked in two. We hacked our way through the part of the trunk that had nearly snapped off and hauled it back to our car. With both backseat windows rolled down, we drove home with a skeletal tree poking out either side of the car.

And this naked beauty became our Christmas tree.

We left it up the remainder of the year, without lights or ornaments. Because where else are you supposed to store a tree that is no longer alive, with branches that do not fold down?


. . . . .

We were planning on redecorating this maple for our tree this year. Truth be told, in my heart I longed for something green in our home. I loved our naked tree, but it still lacked that feeling of Christmas that an evergreen embodies. But I wasn’t about to cut down a living tree, we had no place to plant one and no money or car to transport one, even if we could.

Thanksgiving afternoon, the sun broke through and we headed outside for a long walk. Our plan was to stretch our legs, breathe the fresh air and collect acorn tops. I led Ricardo to the jackpot of oak trees in our neighborhood and we bent down and collected these little wooden tops like two kids who’d stumbled upon a buried treasure.

“We can do something cool with these,” we said to each other, unsure of what that would be. Which is also how we happen to have a large bundle of birch branches standing up on our balcony, awaiting a grand purpose.


Satisfied with our loot, we strolled hand in hand back through the neighborhood to our trail through the woods.

And it was here, at the edge of the trail, that I saw our Christmas tree for this year.

It laid on its side, with its long, beautiful branches reaching in all directions, half hidden in the grass. I ran to it, shouting, “Ricardo! Look at this! It’s perfect!” Looking up from where it lay, I saw a large pine tree. Squinting to see through its full branches, I saw jagged splinters of wood at the top where the tree had snapped off. And here it lay, oozing resin and begging to be hauled home.

So we each took one end and hoisted it up, hauling it the remaining mile and a half home. My hand stuck to it like super glue, but I didn’t care. We smiled and greeted families as we passed them on our walk, chuckling afterwards at their thinly veiled looks of judgment. Like we’d chopped this tree down in our own neighborhood. If they only knew.

And now it stands about 7 feet tall in our living room, its trunk curved as if blowing in the wind. Its branches, full in places and sparse in others, lend it personality of its own. We couldn’t love it more.



. . . . .

I turned on Christmas chorale music last night, sitting in front of the tree as it twinkled lights in the darkness, and stroked the tummies of my sugar gliders as they slept in their pouch. Beneath the tree, our nativity scene – one of our many thrift store decor finds – features my new black sheep ornament huddled close to the baby Jesus. And the painted glass urn that holds my Papa’s ashes right beside it, a photo of him and me as a little girl propped up, stare back at me.



I sat and gazed up at our beautiful, unexpected gift of a fallen tree top, inhaling its rich scent. Sat listening to the music that carries me back through years of memories, many of them now bittersweet, as they so often are when loss shapes them. Sat staring at my Papa’s face, with tears streaming down my own. Sat feeling the softness of my sugar gliders’ warm, furry bodies and the weight of love in my heart for them.

And it all felt like too much to hold.






The shivering wind through distant trees calls to me, their bodies swaying in whispers and breaths. Through a field of shorn, spiked grass in sandaled feet, I pick my way to the far edge where stand the remaining crop of trees. They shelter a small marshland, what’s left in an ongoing spread of development. It’s been months since I stepped foot in there, and today, I crave the company of trees. My first steps inside, I am distracted by the musical wind, the tinge of autumn. A few more steps and my eyes focus beyond. Something does not look right.

My steps quicken, and soon, the ground beneath me rises up to speak.



The dirt has been overturned, as if a ship dredged the bottom of a lake and spit its contents on shore. Everywhere, garbage. Rubber tires, plastic jugs, bottles, electronic parts, a sweatshirt snagged on a branch, a shoe half buried, glass shards. And mangled roots. Through the center of the woods, a wide path has torn through, flattening everything in its way. Trees pile on either side, haphazardly, grotesquely. I feel I have entered some site of desecration.

I cry out, cover my mouth, curse the machines that left a gash here in this small community of trees. It is barely recognizable.


The air hangs heavy, eerie. If only the trees could speak. No, if only I could sit here long enough to discern their stories, because they are speaking. They do. For now, I absorb their sadness through my limbs.

I reach out and place my hand on the severed trunk of a birch tree, its beautiful red bark exposed. It stands there, injured beyond repair. I stroke its wood, gently, wondering if my touch sends electrical currents to its roots. Wondering what it communicates, if anything at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, again and again, caught between sorrow and outrage.


I listen to the birds and squirrels carrying on in what remains of their home. I hear stirrings, branches cracking, and I’m not sure if they are human or animal. Humans also live in these woods.

I pick my way through mud and rubbish, nausea slowly spreading as my eyes absorb it all.



The trees smell of death, or impending death. Of sand slipping through an hourglass.

And still, all around me life goes on, forging new places amidst the ruins.

I follow the clearest path, past work overalls hung from a tree like a scarecrow. Past a tent tucked in an alcove of trees, bikes parked outside and laundry hanging to dry. Past a canopy over a lean-to, a satellite strapped to a nearby tree trunk. I walk quickly, wanting to pause to take in these sights, yet racing a sense of unease. These are homes and I am trespassing, though there are no stirrings of their occupants within.


Where the trees open up to usher me back out to the field, a grocery cart stands piled with plastic, the earth around it a landfill. And just beyond, a chain link fence guards a construction site that borders protected wetland.

I want to know what it means for us, all of us, to share this same space. Trees, humans, birds, construction sites, wetland, homeless persons, evicted wildlife.

But for now, I stagger away, reeling from the messiness of these intersections. The absence of easy answers, the cohabitation of beauty and its maiming, hope and despair, death and resilience. The way it holds a mirror to the world.


Raging fires and deep waters



I sit in a small pool of golden light at the kitchen table, orange glow refracting off a painted glass vase filled with silk flowers and birch. The balcony door is propped open, allowing the cooler air from outside to mingle with the heavier air indoors. I glance at the painted vase with its one word, an admonition I need this day: breathe. And I begin to type.

. . . . .

It began with a photo on Instagram yesterday. Well, two, to be exact. Side by side views of the Columbia River gorge: one in its pristine glory, the other engulfed in a flood of hazy red and orange. I sat stunned, caught for a moment in that breathless pause of denial. Then I searched online for news articles, which quickly jarred me into reality. This was really happening, currently ten thousand acres of beautiful land on fire. At the sight of these photos, my eyes began to spill tears.

Having spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, I have not been intimately acquainted with fires. Those were the tribulations of California, Colorado, and the eastern parts of my home in Washington. Ours has been the fear of devastating earthquake, occasional flooding, and in recent years, drought. But forest fires surround us now – north of us in Canada, in national forests east of us near Wenatchee, and national forests southwest of us. And now the Columbia gorge, near Portland. Our skies are filled with smoke and eerie haze that masks a pink sun.

. . . . .

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My high school years were spent in the Portland area.

I close my eyes and remember barefoot hikes in the icy waters of Eagle Creek, on ninety-degree summer days. Surrounded by dense woods, a few friends and I slowly hiking upstream, stopping here and there to climb rocks, jump into crystal clear pools.

I remember trips to Bonneville Dam with my family, walking the fish hatchery. Sunday drives up and down the historic Columbia River Highway, stopping to hike Bridal Veil Falls or ascend the top of Multnomah Falls. Cupping my hands in pristine waters flowing over rocks and drinking. Standing at the top of a lookout point, feasting on the beauty of miles of river and forest in panoramic view.

It’s been called the gem of Oregon, this land that is being consumed by fire. I’m sure none of us ever imagined a day it would be so dry to ignite like kindling with the careless flick of a teenager’s fireworks.

As of this writing, no human homes have been lost, though the fire has now claimed 31,000 acres and is completely uncontained. I don’t know how many people have been evacuated. My aunt and uncle are among the evacuees; my sister and her family are waiting to hear if they need to flee. Portland is covered in ash. And all I can do is pray.

. . . . .

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I couldn’t stop my shoulders shaking yesterday as I rode the bus home, staring down at my phone screen at pictures and feeling the sobs swell. And why, when I don’t live there and haven’t in years?

But I know why. I close my eyes and images surface, unbidden: deer and rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, cougars and coyotes, eagles and crows, and all manner of birds and small forest animals, eyes wide with terror as they flee. I can see the trees, quickly overtaken by flames, and them unable to move, unable to save themselves. I see images of babies still in nests, in trees and on the ground, and parents unable to carry them all away. Their fear is so close to palpable, a retching in my stomach. That primitive survival instinct  and self preservation that is in us all, human and animal and tree.

We have a responsibility to them, to care for their world. To protect them from harm. And we have failed, catastrophically, time and again.

Where, where do wild animals flee when the only homes they’ve known are burning? How many non-human homes will be lost? How can wildlife evacuate to safe ground? And how long, how very long, does it take to restore a forest, habitats, an ecosystem, once they’ve burned to the ground? There are no statistics for these losses.

The questions rip through me, jagged blades. They return to haunt my empty spaces of thought. This fire, its implications, are too much to feel.

. . . . .


It’s taken me three decades, but I’ve finally come to accept a fundamental truth about myself: I feel everything deeply. So deep, in fact, that I have to seriously limit my news intake, and then allow myself ample space to feel everything. For if I am aware of the suffering of people in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine, Washington D.C., neighbors across the street, and that of more intimate relationships in my life; if I know of all the actions of our crazy president, the nuclear missiles aimed at us by North Korea, the hurricane set to slam devastation for the second time in two weeks into our country, the undocumented immigrants fearing deportation, the species further endangered by climate change; I will feel it all. And if I have enough suffering in my own life, it will sink me.

I used to see this characteristic in myself as weakness, sentimentality, a failure, a liability. And if I’m completely honest, sometimes I still do. All of this pain, this openness to feeling, can quite literally be a liability when you live with clinical depression. It can quickly spiral to despair, which in turn can spiral into suicidal thoughts. I have ridden this wave many times, and sometimes, I’ve been afraid it would consume me.

But  if this is weakness, it also has the potential to be the opposite. A generosity of spirit that, as it expands, holds more and more in a heart that has also been strengthened by adversity. This willingness to walk alongside others in their suffering, to sit with them in silence, to withhold judgment and the temptation to fix things. Because I know I can’t. There is a beautiful, quiet, ferocious strength in the deep waters of feeling.

It can be both fountain and undertow. Either way, it is an exhausting and rewarding way to live and interact with the world.

. . . . .

Two summers ago, when we experienced the worst drought of my lifetime in western Washington, I could barely peel my body off the couch. Everywhere I looked, I saw death. Trees, grass, plants, water levels in the lake, fish and turtles, disappearing habitats. The suffering was almost unbearable to me each time I stepped outside. Not surprisingly, that was one of the worst bouts of depression I’ve experienced.

So it’s not a huge leap for me, to close my eyes and see the deaths of lives that are precious to me, even if I don’t know them personally, as the fires rage a state away. I know that trees, in their own way, experience pain. It is not something we want to think of, or are accustomed to thinking of, in our human-centric world. But science says they do. And animals experience terror, pain, grief, hunger, thirst, loneliness and disorientation every bit as much as happiness, love, friendship, community, safety and satisfaction. When I close my eyes, I see all this, I feel all this, and it moves me to tears, to a pulsing grief that cannot be measured in words.

. . . . .


I keep returning to my breath. To my mat. Where I move with the angst that courses through my veins and I let the tears come as they may and I lift my chest toward the sky in backbends that are deeper than I can normally practice. Because this is how I stay alive to the present. I let myself feel it, without judgment, and as best I can, I keep moving through it. The movement, the breath, the tears, the spaces where there are no words, I let these be my prayers.

The long exhale


I sit in the dark with the window open, breeze blowing through the screen from sky layered with charcoal clouds that I hope hold the promise of rain. I cuddle under a cozy blanket, welcoming the cool air. How we need the rain.

A yellow glow from the balcony light spills over my desk and I imagine it to be the moon. Much time has passed since I sat in this stillness, soaking in night sounds, a sugar glider asleep in my lap. Ninja, my late riser, the one who sleeps through most anything. I resist the temptation to break the calm of this moment with do-ing, and instead, continue to stroke his rabbit-soft body, relishing all the tiny clicks and sighs and chirps of his sleep.

I’ve sat down to write multiple times these past weeks, only to hit “save” and shut my laptop, come back to it and start over. My words have been dark, heavy, layered like the clouds outside. I grow weary of how my writing turns to depression when I wish to write of lovely things, a life lived fully. The truth is, I haven’t been living; I’ve only been surviving. And who wants to write of that, let alone read it?

But this night, my heart is quieted, my mind still. I am neither in the past or the future, nor numbing out the present. This moment begs my attention, and so I sit, grateful for the reprieve.

I think of the sky these past weeks, heavy with the haze from Canada burning. The air itself languishing, stagnant, muggy, oppressive. But today, a fresh breeze blew through town, and with it, I exhaled a long, stale breath. Pranayama, our breathing practice in yoga. A deep, cleansing breath is one where you exhale every last bit of stale air, making room to fill with what is fresh. This day has been my cleansing breath.

I’d said yes to volunteering at a booth for the humane society at the farmer’s market today, not because I felt like it, but because I haven’t felt like doing anything. I knew I needed a reason to leave the house, and they happened to need my help. Plus, I haven’t made it to the market but once this summer, even though it’s been one of my favorite places to be on a Saturday. So, I hopped on my bike and pedaled the thirty minutes or so to downtown. Lungs contracting, exhale, exhale, exhale stale air.

. . . . .

I didn’t know what to expect, besides forced extroversion. But what I didn’t expect was to make a new friend – no small thing when I can only claim one friend in the year we’ve lived in Bellingham. Three hours passed in a comfortable flow of conversation with my new friend, with pauses as we interacted with all the friendly locals who approached our table.

I hadn’t expected to be met, as I am, outside my home today. No mask required, no forcing anything. Hallelujah.

I wandered the market in its remaining minutes, as vendors and farmers packed their goods, splurging on a small basket of cherry tomatoes. My first of the season. I popped one into my mouth and groaned with pleasure, my taste buds coming alive.

1502640101920636715976It’s the small things, the ones you can’t notice when you’re in the throes of depression, barely surviving, full of stale air. And then, one day, a farm fresh tomato reminds you: you’re alive. Lungs expanding, inhale, inhale, inhale fresh air.

The depression is still here; a deep exhale doesn’t evict that. I live with it, continually trying to find balance, make peace. But this is me, pausing to breathe in fresh, grateful for the taste of life. For unexpected gifts, like a new friend. For the energy of a crowd of friendly strangers and the vibrancy of a local market. For saying yes when I wanted to say no. For the cool of air on my skin and a faint sighting of our nearby mountain. For charcoal skies and night breezes through window screens and moments fully inhabited and cozy blankets needed in the middle of August.