The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


We interrupt this program for a book review

I’m smack in the middle of rolling out several posts about my recent travels, but I just finished my friend Russ Cahill‘s new book and wanted to post a brief review.

Kolea by Russell Cahill


In the tradition of epic story telling, Kolea takes the reader on a sweeping and dangerous journey among the Hawaiian Islands and eastward across the Pacific. Russ Cahill’s first novel demonstrates his deep understanding of Hawaiian culture and history as well as his knowledge and appreciation of native people of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In particular, his descriptions of designing, building, sailing and navigating the great canoes are fascinating.

Because I’m a friend of the author (and grateful to be mentioned in acknowledgements), I’m only providing a brief review of Kolea, but I encourage you to read it. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon,  and also online in paperback from Barnes & Noble. If you are in the South Puget Sound area, you should be able to pick it up at Orca Books.

Next Monday, I’ll take you on a visit to my favorite neighborhood in London. Stay tuned!


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Dispatches from the mountain

I live between two mountain ranges, but when you speak of “the mountain” around here, everyone knows you mean Mount Rainier. To say “the mountain is out” makes perfect sense to us because when it is visible it seems to be everywhere all at once. Its size and beauty can make your jaw drop. And, my friend reminded me, as we drove toward Paradise yesterday morning, the mountain also talks. Only last week, it claimed a life in circumstances where listening to the mountain might have made a difference.

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The mountain speaks in many voices. On an early summer day it told of sunshine, wildflowers, and too little snow for the time of year. A volunteer I met on the trail told me that there was plenty of rain this winter, but the temperatures never dropped enough to create much snow. As a result, there’s not enough snowpack on Mount Rainier or in the Cascade and Olympic ranges. I am not particularly knowledgable about climate change but it seems foolhardy to ignore the evidence of your own eyes, or to fail to listen when a mountain is trying to tell you something. This will be a hard summer for fish, bad for fire season, and too dry in the lowlands, as well.

The Native American names for Rainier are Tacoma, or Tahoma, which might mean “mother of waters.” Whatever you call this mountain, she talks. She speaks in avalanches and waterfalls and great mysterious cracking sounds that echo down the slopes.  She speaks in the whispering sound made by a flicker’s wings, in a marmot’s whistle, in brooks and breezes.

The mountain also follows you. Well, follows me, anyhow. Driving anywhere within her ambit, I often look up to see her in an unexpected place. Of course it’s the road that shifts direction, but often the mountain itself appears to have moved from the right side of the road to the left or from slightly north or slightly south to a point straight ahead.  That’s all wrong and I know it, but the illusion is a powerful one and I can’t quite believe it isn’t real.

Here’s the story, as I heard it, about the young man who died on the mountain last week. He and his friends were climbing without a guide and were caught in a sudden white out. In the first instance, they did the right thing: hunkered down in a crevasse. But when they realized they had left their camp stove at another site (not far away, apparently, but far enough), the one who would lose his life set out to retrieve it. He was not roped up. If he had been, he probably would have made it, or at least made it back to where he started. This is such a heartache, but how I wish he had listened to the mountain. How I wish he and his fellows had been climbing with an experienced guide. I just can’t help saying this, as well: I grew up in the Midwest and we had some bad weather, too, even though we had no mountains. I remember hearing stories about farmers who roped up to get to their own barns in a blizzard and some who didn’t and never made it back. To their own barns.

The legend above the exhibit space in the Visitors Center at Paradise reads, “An Unquiet Beauty”. What a wisely chosen, fitting description that is. It is one thing to be dazzled by beauty, but the mountain also talks. When she speaks, you must listen. Perhaps it was coincidence that I just rediscovered this quotation, but perhaps not:

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.

— Will Durant


Into the watery world

Cape Disappointment from Long BeachThis is the week I left home with my manuscript to hide myself away and plunge into editing and revising. I had the generous loan of a cottage in Long Beach (Washington), so I loaded up a few clothes, a lot of paper and pencils, my MS in a box, some food items and my Macbook, and headed for Southwest Washington. Here’s how that trip starts — out Highway 101 and Route 8, past the Black Hills towns of McCleary and Elma, then down to Satsop and Brady. Turn left at Monte (Montesano) onto Route 107 —  not toward Cozzie (Cosmopolis) and Aberdeen. Join 101 again and turn south for North River and Artic. No, not Arctic, Artic.

I have driven this way many times before but I think never just at this moment, in the heart of springtime. The route traverses only three counties — Thurston, Grays Harbor, and Pacific — but as I always said back in those far off days when I lived and worked in and around Westport, Grayland and Tokeland, this part of Washington isn’t really part of the United States at all. It is Other. This is especially true at some nebulous point south of Raymond and South Bend, maybe around Bay Center or the three-forked Nemah River. Even before you hit South Bend, there are piles of oyster shell and no immediate signs of prosperity.  The landscape bears the scars of rapacious clear cutting. The fishing hamlets, the rivers and sloughs, the glimpses of Willapa Bay, the few cars, and the terrifying logging trucks are telling you something: Pay attention. This is different.

By the time I turn west for Long Beach Peninsula and begin to skirt the southern edge of the bay I am in the Willapa Wildlife Refuge, where my jaw drops and I begin talking to myself and threading descriptive phrases together in my head. This is a world of fir-covered hills, lingering mists, solitude, distance. Everything is green or gray. Forest and water. Hill and meandering slough. Out on the bay, broad expanses of silvery water, low hills in the distance, mysterious castle-like wooded islets just offshore. What you are seeing tugs at your heart. This is Lewis and Clark country. The Corps of Discovery saw this! Sacajawea saw this!

There is not a straight line in sight. The road curves, the leaves and branches curl and turn up. The streams and rivers and sloughs meander and play out. There are more shades of green than can possibly be named. Hemlock and Doug fir, the occasional cedar, are standing sentinel upon the hills. Pearl gray clouds hang above slate gray water. The world is water — the bay, the placid streams smooth as a plate winding through mounds of sumptuous emerald green rushes. There are mists that hover in place and mists that float away, palest gray. The local government appears to be made up of herons, gulls, ducks, geese, and crows; deer, elk, and fox are probably just out of sight. Who knows? Who named all the wetlands or backwaters, known here as sloughs (pronounced “slews”)? They are called Preachers, Greenhead, Teal, or family names like Johnson. Were all those rotting pilings once used for log rafts? It’s all part of the mystery.

I have many rivers to cross on this journey. The North, the Palix, the Nemah, Naselle, Bone, Bear, Wallicut. I know stories about some of these places from when I lived here years ago — storms that bent tree trunks above the Palix to a frightening angle and, from my personal testimony, the possible sighting of a UFO in the Nemah River estuary. In 1893, a group of brazen businessmen stole the county records from Oysterville so they could establish the county seat at South Bend, a location more to their liking.

Upon turning onto the peninsula, I encounter at last another color, the pink of cranberry bogs, along with the barest hint of civilization. No Starbucks, though. No supermarkets. No traffic jams. I have come through the watery world and now I am at the beach. My racing heart slows down. There is peace and quiet. Time and space to breathe, and to work.

IMG_5062The beach beckons from time to time, but iffy weather and dedication keep my head down for the next couple of days. A good start. Thursday, on my way back home, I drive out to Bay Center and back, looking for a spot called Rhodesia Beach. It’s on the bay, but used to be a good spot for beach combing. The old Blue Heron Inn is now called Dock of the Bay. More tiny oyster companies and giant piles of shell. Wikipedia says the population of Bay Center (a “census-designated place”) is 174.

People do physical work in this part of the world. They raise oysters or gillnet or run crab pots. Work in the woods (meaning, they are loggers.) Build things. Maybe they have to do too many things to make ends meet.  Their spirit is unbeatable, but they are often insular. You see the same family names over and over on mailboxes, businesses, and campaign signs.

The tide is high, so I give Rhodesia Beach a miss this time. I have no photos of Willapa Bay or the wildlife refuge to share with you. I was mesmerized and took a hundred shots in my head but couldn’t bring myself to stop. Oh, I want to go back!

Recommended reading:


Stalking the wily razor clam, again

Pacific razor clam, Siliqua patulaSpring in the Pacific Northwest inevitably brings thoughts of razor clams, or at least it does if you have ever dug them or eaten them and live within striking distance of Long Beach Peninsula, Grayland, Ocean Shores, Copalis, or Kalaloch.  Fifteen years ago, I rented a house with some of my cousins and went clamming on Long Beach. It was such a successful event (135 clams in on the first day!) that I put up a little web page about it, which miraculously still exists out there on the Internet. But I’ll relive the experience here, too. After all, it’s Throwback Thursday. My timing is pretty good, too, because the Long Beach Razor Clam Festival is coming up this weekend, April 18-19!

If razors are unfamiliar to you, you are laughing at the notion that we were so happy about 135 clams, but note that the daily limit is the first 15 clams you dig. That’s because once its fragile shell is broken, a razor clam won’t survive. They’re called razor clams for a reason, by the way — those broken shells are sharp! Bear in mind that only two or three nice-sized clams make a fine meal.

Clammers as far as the eye can see

Someone once said that going after razor clams fulfills the human urge for hunting, fishing, and farming all at the same time. You have to be up early to catch a spring tide near its lowest point. It’s cold and there is likely no time for coffee. If you are doing it right, you will get wet and you will probably end up eating sand. You certainly won’t be alone. Oh, and those clams are several inches under the surface of the beach and they are not just sitting there.  They are trying to get away from you.

mark-kirbI won’t go into methods, but you can learn more here. Old hands often dig in the surf. Kids might sit down and dig high on the beach. Some folks like to use specialized shovels, some prefer clam “guns.” Just remember, everybody over the age of 15 needs a license.

If you are successful, you’ll have your work cut out for you cleaning your catch. I remember that we set up an assembly line to clean our 100 plus clams. Boiling water goes on to loosen the shells, followed immediately by cold water so they don’t start to cook. I like to use kitchen scissors but a sharp knife works, too. These WDFW instructions describe what to do.

The best way to eat razors? I recommend cleaning a few as soon as you get back from the beach. Their delicate texture and rich flavor is hard to describe but, once experienced, never forgotten.

Sautéed Razor Clams

Shopping list: eggs, flour, Saltines, oil, butter, lemon, pepper.

  • Beat up an egg or two for dipping and finely crush some Saltines to use as a coating. Heat a cast iron skillet to medium high
  • Once the pan is beginning to heat, add a little oil (olive, canola, etc.) and then a little butter
  • Dip each clam in the egg (you can dip in flour first if you want) and dredge it in the cracker coating
  • Sauté them for about a minute, then flip over and sauté the second side for less than a minute
  • Place on paper towels to drain of some of the oil
  • Serve as quick as you can, with eggs and toast along side if you like.
  • Seasonings if desired: pepper, a squeeze of lemon

That’s the way I learned to do it when I worked for the old Department of Fisheries about a gazillion years ago, reinforced over the years by my cousin Jill, who is just about the best cook I know. As for all those “extra” clams, the necks are are great for chowder. It’s hard to beat sautéing the rest (body and foot), though. You can freeze razor clams, but fresh is best. Sure, you can try some fancy recipe, but nothing you make will ever be as good as clams coated in saltines, sautéed when you and the clams are fresh off the beach.

Have you been clamming?  Plan to go? Got a favorite digging method or recipe? What’s your experience with hunting or gathering your own food? Please share in the comments!


What’s up with that blue chair?

“Reading, writing, and thinking aloud from the house with the blue chair in front. Sometimes I sit in the chair.”

wisteriaIt’s early spring here in the Pacific Northwest and the weather is . . . changeable. Yesterday, which was Easter Sunday, I put the blue chair back in its accustomed place underneath wisteria blossoms that have yet to unfurl.

I write in earnest now. I think of myself as a writer. A part of me wishes so much that I had headed down this road sooner, my earthly goods tied in a bandana and suspended from the end of a stick. I would have set off whistling (except I can’t whistle) and never looked back. The novel that’s been in my head for all these years — I’d have leaned into it and at least had a manuscript by now.  I’d have been engaged in a writing practice that was meaningful and fulfilling, writing essays at least to myself. Perhaps I would have tackled memoir. I would certainly have had more time to read — classics, junk, the latest, whatever I wanted. Instead, I have most of a first draft, written over a ridiculous amount of time. But I do have that and I’m working consistently to move forward with it, too.

I’m taking myself as I am. I am sitting in the blue chair in my tiny front yard. I’m there almost every day if the weather allows, just as I was last summer. It’s comfortable, it’s symbolic, and I love the view along my curved sidewalk and over the bronzy-red Japanese maple to the tall hemlock spruce trees beyond. It’s a sheltered spot. I can daydream there, and I do, looking up at the clouds, and the tree tops, and the blue sky. Eventually, I will turn to the book I’m reading, or to my notebook, grateful to have this spot that grounds me. This year, when fall comes and the days are shorter, cold and damp, I will miss my spring and summer days in the blue chair, but what it gives me, a specific place in which to read, write and think, will linger on.