Protecting the circle of life

A view across Guemes Channel from Anacortes, Washington, toward Guemes Island. (Wikimedia Commons/Joe Mabel)

When I wake up every morning, one of the first things I do is stand and stare with glassy eyes over my coffee mug at the San Juan Islands. The neurons in my sleepy brain flicker to life one by one to a gentle symphony of color: the ever-soothing grays and blues of the tides moving through Guemes Channel, the Ireland-greens of Fidalgo, Guemes and Cypress Islands.

For nearly 13 years, we have lived here in Anacortes, Washington. Starting my day soaking in the shifting colors of the islands, the salty seawater smell of the air, and the sounds of the gulls and ferry boats is something I do not take for granted. It is an endless daily miracle, a blessing, a gift.

But I didn't always feel this way.

You see, my darling husband Dan actually bought this house without asking me. And we are still married, even.

When Dan saw the "For Sale" sign in front of this 1902-built Victorian bed and breakfast, his heart leapt with joy. Not only had he been inside the house once, 20 years before, and fallen in love with its eight bedrooms and bathrooms, its 12-foot ceilings and beautiful old woodwork, but it was located directly above Lovric's Marina, where he had long moored his commercial dive boat.

Until now, a normal workday for Dan entailed rising very early at our home in Marysville, Washington, driving 50 miles to his boat, spending the entire day diving for sea cucumbers or sea urchins, preparing and driving his harvest to the buyer, then making his way back home in the dark, salty and stinky and exhausted.

Then he would get up the next day and do it again. And again. Dan is a tough Norwegian, and he rarely complained, but it is an understatement to say that he was one tired fellow as those dive seasons wore on.

So that "For Sale" sign gave Dan the miraculous opportunity to both live in his dream home, and have one of the easiest commutes imaginable.

He could roll out of bed much later, sip a leisurely coffee or two, then stroll the three minutes down the gravel road to his dive vessel "Amelia Isabella." And when each dive day turned into night, he could trudge back up the hill and fall wearily and happily into bed.

And so it came to be, to the great joy of Dan.

Oh, did I mention that my office was still near our home back in Marysville, 50 miles away?

And that our two boys Duncan (then 12) and Nick (then 16) were still in school there? And that all of son Nick's disability benefits and services were still coordinated from there?

And that I had been the first owner of our brand new little rambler home in Marysville, and that the house we were moving into was 102 years old, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and haunted, to boot?

Yep. All those things.

During our first year here, when folks asked me how I liked our new home, I would mumble sleepily: "Dan and the boys seem very happy."

Which was true. Dan was delighted to live literally on top of his boat. Duncan and Nick immediately thrived in this small island community.

I was the only one who seemed a bit cranky, with commuting an hour each way to my job, and coming home at night to a creaky, drafty, always dusty and occasionally spooky house.

But it all worked out.

Right away, even through my grainy, grumpy eyes, I could see the miracles forming around this move. Like so many situations, it turned out not to be about me at all, but about a whole lot of others.

Our extra bedrooms allowed us to open our doors to many of our family and friends. The first one to arrive was Dan's longtime dive partner and best buddy Winston Brooks, who was in the final debilitating stages of hepatitis C. He lived here with us for the last eight months of his life.

Brooks' journey included being a neophyte beat poet, following the words of Kerouac and Ginsberg to New York's East Village in the 1950s, a consciousness-expanding, drug-abusing hippy in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the 1960s, a recovered heroin addict and rehab counselor in the 1970s, and a Volkswagon Vanagon-dwelling explorer and philosopher between here and Alaska in the 1980s. He and Dan had joined forces on Dan's first dive boat in the late '80s, and these men of words and adventure became brothers.

The first time Dan brought Winston to our home in Marysville, son Nick (who has autism) was 11 years old. When Winston halted self-consciously in the foyer, Nick looked him up and down and asked: "Are you Pop's brother?"

Winston smiled, "Yep."

Nick calmly took his hand and led him into the family room. "Sit here, Uncle Winston."

Point forward, this scientific, scarecrow loner was a member of our family. Period.

Dan and I still regularly laugh at many pithy and hilarious Uncle Winston-isms, and can still be surprised by hot tears at the sudden remembrance of the hole his death in 2005 left in our family.

During his winding and eclectic life, Winston had developed into a deep and committed ecologist. He was also a ranting conspiracy theorist about the profit-driven forces that threaten our planet and our very existence on it.

The bookshelves in his bedroom here were stuffed with books about all kinds of ecosystems, and he had posters and maps tacked to the walls depicting their interlinkage and the factors that affected them.

"The circle of life," he would point out to Nick and Duncan. "You take one piece out, and it all goes to hell in a handbasket."

The boys would stand rapt as Winston told them about how the environment was being exploited and ruined by corporate greed, how whole species of animals, plants, birds and insects disappeared daily, and how the culprit behind this destruction was inevitably "the rich white man."

"Follow the money," he would tell the boys, and Nick and Duncan would nod at each other seriously, pretending to understand what he said.

While the boys may have been a bit hazy on the content of Uncle Winston's diatribe, they were drawn to him like moths to flame. His room — like his VW van and trailer before it — was draped in the stuff of boy dreams. Indian blankets and dreamcatchers and pocket knives, sacred rocks and feathers, and a pile of twisted walking sticks straight from Gandalf's closet.

Winston lived his last months in a fierce poetic realm somewhere between Tolkien and Audubon, a mystical state where his Deep South, Catholic and Native American ancestors swirled. The air about him seemed to dimly thrum with chants — both Gregorian and Native — and drums. If Winston was a frail and aging Peter Pan, Nick and Duncan were the last of his Lost Boys, listening to his stories and seeing the shadows dance on his walls.

As I watch the morning news, and see sanctioned oil spilling into our rivers, federal troops aggressing First Nation resisters, and environmental protections being swept away with the stroke of a presidential pen, I think of Winston.

If he were alive, there is no question that he would have bundled up in one of his brightly colored blankets and limped his VW van to Standing Rock. Skeletal and shaking, he would have stood in the cold wind, putting his body where his mouth was. Ragged but firm between the rich white man and the earth he loved.

Dan and divers like him report that the fish in these islands are steadily disappearing. The killer whales are dying. The sea life — starfish and anemones and coral — are literally melting away as the temperature and acidity of the water rises due to global warming and pollution.

The colors, smells, sounds of our beloved salt water island are next on the chopping block, it seems. Will I be brave enough to speak up, and stand up, like Winston? I hope so.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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