Sunday, September 30, 2018

Four degrees of preparation

I won a first aid kit through my community's emergency preparedness Facebook page the other day. It's been a good resource for getting to know my neighbors, and I'm glad to know they're thinking about caring for one another in the event of a disaster. With my abundance of leashes, kennels, carriers, and crates, and with the nearest animal shelter 27 miles away, I've volunteered to be my neighborhood's companion animal assembly station in the event of a disaster on a scale that separates people from pets. 

Survivalists and preppers have been the brunt of more than a few jokes in my lifetime, and there is something almost pathetic about someone who invests more life energy in building a nuclear bunker than in connecting with today's society. Preppers are often stereotyped as anti-government, right-wing radicals or commune-dwelling, free love hippies, but since Y2K and especially since 9/11, it seems that being prepared for at least a couple of weeks of societal disruption is now viewed as mainstream common sense. Workplaces are doing it, families are doing it, and in some places, communities are doing it together. 

 I've been thinking lately about four kinds of preparedness for either socioeconomic disruption or a natural disaster. While I'd like to think that society is on a trajectory for course-correction and increased health, I look the income disparity, environmental degradation, and political madness rampant today and I realize it's not a bad idea to prepare for alternatives. Additionally, living as I do on a restless subduction zone, being prepared for an earthquake is just good thinking.

Here are the four ways in which I'm creating more resilience for my family and neighbors:

1: Thriving Now. That means I'm paying down debt, living within my means, loving my work, caring for my health, and cultivating joy and sustainability in my daily activities so that I'm not living on the edge of material or emotional survival to begin with. 

2: Preparing for Emergency.  I want to feel secure about my family's immediate, essential needs. That means storing water, emergency rations, first aid kids, a go-bag, an emergency radio, flashlights, etc. For my hungry animal family, that also means storing plenty of kibble. 

3: Building Community.  Surviving together will be a life skill in the event of a major disaster. Thriving together is the icing on the cake of community life today. Knowing who's in my neighborhood, and what their skills, resources, and special needs are, is a good idea with or without disaster. I'm glad to have Community Emergency Response Teams mobilizing in my neighborhood and I'm planning to be involved. I'm also building community by supporting small businesses, keeping my banking as local as possible, and buying my food through a CSA from organic farmers in my watershed. 

4: Building Skills. I think one way to move forward is to move back—to gain DIY skills for building, mending, and growing, and self-sufficient communities. Despite my relatively shaded lot and limited time, I'm planning to plant a small vegetable garden and a few fruit trees as a step toward greater food independence.

The nice thing about all of this is that it doesn't have the slightest negative impact on life: living within my means, storing life essentials, knowing and supporting my neighbors, and having the skills to meet my own basic needs are just great, life-enhancing activities whether or not life as I know it is disrupted in my lifetime.

Prep away! 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Deer whispering

I once read a book that suggested it's possible to speak to animals—really speak, and really be understood word-for-word. The book made me a little angry, to tell you the truth. It was like a tantalizing but false offer of the greatest gift I could ever hope to receive.

Nonetheless, I believe I can speak to animals through my body language—through my touch—through the tone of my voice. I believe they can understand what's on my heart when my attention is attuned to them.

I have two great dreams: one, that I might one day open a deer sanctuary on Whidbey, to rehabilitate injured and orphaned deer and to support the conditions for safer deer-driver interactions. Two, that I might die with enough money or fame to warrant the construction of the Marnie A. Jackson Memorial Wildlife Bridge, to allow safe passage of wild animals over Highway 525.


I had an extraordinary experience last night.

I was driving to the ferry to pick up my daughters at about 8:45 pm and I saw three vehicles pulled over on the highway. Out of the corner of my eye, I realized the drivers were kneeling on the shoulder next to the moving body of a young deer. At that point, I had passed their location and couldn't safely stop.

"Three stopped cars," I thought. "They've probably got it handled." And then I thought of the fawn who was entangled in a wire fence three years ago, and whom I'd delivered to Sarvey Wildlife Center two hours away . . . and another fawn, who didn't make it but who died in my arms after another driver struck her . . . and the badly injured doe with whom I'd waited for twenty long minutes last winter until a sheriff arrived to ease her passing. I had too much experience to drive past without stopping. Too many visions in my mind of the various possible outcomes, for better or worse.

I went around the block, turned on my flashers, and pulled up next to the crowd. There was a woman I didn't know, kneeling near the fawn. The rest of the crowd came into form in the pooling light of the street lamps, and I realized with surprise that they were all friends—J, a volunteer at the Whidbey Institute. M, a childhood friend. E, a colleague and, incidentally, my first employer (I gave her son riding lessons when I was 14). This is small town life.

The deer was flailing, thrashing, and beating his head against the ground. One leg was folded under his body. His horn buds were just starting to swell to little lumps the size of blackberries. His spots had faded into a smooth, healthy brown coat. His mouth foamed. The crowd thought he was dying, and had carried him from the pavement to the grass to await the sheriff and a merciful bullet. I asked for permission to approach, which they gladly granted.

Two police officers arrived just moments after me, and they agreed with the assumption that the fawn was on the way out. "I think her leg is broken," said one. "We see this all the time," said another. "We put down several a week. We'll end her suffering."

I didn't think so. I had seen animals in the spasms of death. I had seen grand mal siezures, I had seen neurogenic shock, and and I had heard the agonal breathing of animals near death. This wasn't those.

I sat beside the jerking fawn and lay my hands on his body. I bent my head, and I poured as much love and peace through my hands into his body as I could muster. The rest of the scene faded away from my consciousness as I touched my forehead to his neck and whispered, "you're a beautiful baby and I love you. You have a long life ahead. You can stand up and walk away." He grew still. His breathing became regular.

When I moved back, he stood—drunkenly at first—and shook. His legs were unsteady but uninjured.

Two sheriff's deputies and I walked with him across the dimly lit highway. The three of us—me in a dress and colorful tights, the deputies with flashlights and holsters—walked with him. Approaching traffic slowed to give us room.

As the fawn gained strength and steadiness, perhaps shaking off the fog of a concussion, I guided him up a grass embankment. As he tried to turn back into the road, I reoriented his body away from the highway and gave him some parting advice. "Go uphill," I said. "Find a quiet patch of grass. Rest and get better."

I'd like to think he's lying in some tall grass now, sleeping off a headache and dreaming about looking both ways before crossing the road.


Update: I have heard from so many people who saw the accident, or expressed interest in helping to transport the deer to a vet facility. I want to let readers know that on the night of the incident described below, I wanted to secure the deer in my vehicle and transport him to Sarvey Wildlife Rehabilitation. The responding officers felt that would create unsafe driving conditions. I also offered to go home and get a large kennel in which to transport him, but that idea was vetoed as well.

For those wondering how to help injured deer on Whidbey, I recommend contacting Sarvey and Wolf Hollow. I also recommend that, when transferring injured wildlife to the mainland, you let the ferry staff know—in the event of a long line, they will allow expedited boarding for emergencies. Dr. Parent in Freeland and Best Friends in Oak Harbor both provide veterinary care for wild small mammals and birds, free of charge. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Plumbing perspectives

The Ark (not pictured) is a fixer-upper. That's why I was able to afford it, and I am grateful for the stained carpet, missing fixtures, overgrown yard, rickety porches, and dripping taps that put this home within financial reach. Thanks to the help of various hired and volunteer helpers in my life, it's now moving from the "needs repair" to "could use updating" column—in other words, it's safe, sound, and livable.

The most recent project includes replacement of the 80's era beige toilet in the the upstairs bathroom, which has had a tricky flush valve since we moved in. It was off limits for most of the summer, with a "NO!" handwritten in sharpie taped to its handle.

About a month ago, my dad pulled the beige toilet out and opened the box on our shiny new toilet from a big box store, only to discover the tank was cracked. Never fear! The friendly customer service team was only too happy to process our refund and reorder the toilet. It would be shipped to my home, they said—no need to make the hour's drive again.

The toilet was ordered September 5 and was supposed to take about a week to arrive, so I've put in a few calls to customer service since then. First,  I was told there was no update from the freight company contracted to deliver to Whidbey Island. Second, I was told the freight company had changed and the contract was now in much better hands. "I'm glad," I said. "We're a big family, and our upstairs bathroom now has a plastic bag and an inverted salad bowl on the floor where a toilet used to be."

On my third call, I was told that maybe my toilet was caught up in Hurricane Florence, 3000 miles away. This gave me pause. My inconvenience pales next to the tragedy of homes and human lives lost, the environmental devastation of manure lagoons overtopped, and the brutal, brief lives of the 3.4 million chickens and 5,500 pigs that drowned in North Carolina's flooded factory farms. 

I got a call yesterday at about 9 pm from a customer service representative based in Arizona, who promised that guaranteeing my delivery was now her personal commitment. I was grateful for the update, yet unattached to the outcome. I've decided that for now, one functioning bathroom is enough.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


I rented in this neighborhood for six months before I bought, and when a house I could afford came available I jumped. The thing I would not trade for anything—one of the most precious measures of home—is that my neighborhood is walkable.

Going out my door and strolling with the dogs is a great source of joy to me. From our door, we can walk down a quiet wooded lane, descend from the high bluff through a dappled forest, traverse a mile of secluded beach on the shore of the Salish Sea, and hike up a quiet country road to return home.

My other favorite place to walk is near X's home (below). There, I experience the feeling of spaciousness that I remember from my California childhood. The windswept hillsides, sun-soaked and dotted with trees. The golden grasses bent over and rattling. That sort of sprawling landscape feels, to me, like heaven.

I'm grateful to this land for holding me as lovingly as the California hills once did.  Whidbey, isle of view.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Five goals of this blog

Alison Fennell art
I'll tell you a secret—I've always wanted to be an advice columnist. If you need advice, send me your questions.

The advice column dream notwithstanding, I do have four goals in mind for this blog:

1) Share a little of the joy and humor that I experience every day at the hands and paws of my beautiful family.

2) Flex my writing muscles again, as I have come to miss the creative boost I experience when I have a daily blogging habit.

3) Deepen my roots here at the Ark—a new house for me, but one in which I'm starting to feel at home.

4) Provide fodder for my third book. My first book was a children's story, published a few years ago with illustrator Alison Fennell (she illustrated the bunny above). My second book is in progress, working title Shine. It's mostly about Fenway Bartholomule, but also about me.

What do YOU want from this blog? Anecdotes on the animal family? Home improvement updates? Family status reports? Poetry, psychology, gratitude, angst? Advice? You got it.

It's good to be back.

With appreciation,

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Russell the Muscle

Someone hurt Russell's feelings once and he has never forgotten it. He is a very soft dog—a fast movement makes him cringe and a harsh word curls him up like a pillbug. Nonetheless, he also has a tremendous, oversized capacity for joie de vivre. I have never seen a dog enjoy freedom as much as Russell does.

When Russell was younger, he used to make a garbled sound like an emphysematic gremlin at the sight of any other dog. That sound, plus his curled tail and wrinkled forehead, made me guess he had a streak of basenji in him. Now that he's arrived at the dignified age of 6, he has a regular (though shrill) bark. He spends less time shrieking in the presence of caninekind and more time trembling with tension and curiosity.

Russell spent the first seven months of his life tied to a tree, and after joining our family he tried to help himself to freedom in oversized portions. Backing out of harnesses, scaling gates, digging under fences, and squirming out of the cracked windows of cars in motion—if you can think of an escape plot not involving opposable thumbs, he's tried it.

Yesterday, I took Russell to a favorite site of his—the road to nowhere, conveniently sited on a friend's private property and surrounded, as you might guess, by virtually nothing. He had a major grownup moment when the cattle in a neighboring field began to run. Do you know what my good puppy did? I'll tell you—he froze, he stayed on OUR side of the barbed wire fence, and he watched.

Good boy, Russell.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Hearing voices

Monday, a friend and I were talking about what made Brays of Our Lives work. Brays was my former blog, written from the point of view of my late mule, Fenway. He had a clear voice—earnest, baleful, wise, and wry. Writing for Fenway felt more like channeling than authoring. It was often a state experience—effortless, exhilarating, and sweet.

My friend asked if the current animal family (three dogs, three rabbits, two cats) would contribute to this blog, and I said I didn't think so. They talk to me every day—with deep eyes, wagging tails, play bows and binkies. That said, they don't tell stories . . . not in the way Fenway did.

Maybe I'll discover an animal voice in my blogging process—maybe one day Russell will look at me and say, "hey, Ma? Scoot over. I have something to say." I don't think so, though. I think one of the great gifts my mule gave me was the ability to hone my own writer's voice. Like Fenway, I have some wisdom and some humor to impart. I hope that daily writing flows as well for me as it did for him.

These stories will feature the Ark crew, though. You'll meet Russell, a low-confidence, high-energy minpin mix . . . Brodie, a dignified labrador/greyhound cross . . . Clover (pictured), my chihuahua and copilot. Milo, a doggish cat, and his brother Tiger, a cattish cat. The rabbits—Mama, a retired breeding doe from a nearby homestead, and sisters Olive and Hazel.

Hazel has a t-rex spirit trapped in a mini-rex body, and I'll tell you this: if Hazel were authoring this blog, it would be NSFW.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

F . . . or was it Q?

Brodie likes to sleep tucked in beneath his blankets. In winter, he likes to wear his blankets around the house. 

F said he doesn't mind being blogged about as long as I refer to him with a different capital letter each time. He doesn't want anyone getting the idea his first name is Frank (it isn't) or even begins with F (it doesn't). Today is a Q day, I think.

Q has many lovely attributes and habits, but one that I find most endearing is that he's very committed to tucking the dogs in each night. He spends extra time with Brodie, who is not as young as he used to be, and who is dealing with several chronic illnesses, and who can't see any more. I think Q's extra time with Brodie has less to do with the fact that for Brodie, time may be running short, and more to do with the fact that Brodie is just a great dog. He deserves more love than we could possibly show him in the years he has left.

Q gets down on the dog bed beside Brodie and tucks him in beneath a blanket, after five or ten minutes of baby talk and patting and philosophical musings along the lines of, "who's a good boy?" These days,  Brodie can't sleep without getting tucked, and he'll come to the bed whining if we forget. 

Thank you, Q, for being the kind of person who intentionally adds a few minutes of joy to the life of my dog every single day, without fail. I love that about you. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018


Longtime readers may remember Dahlia, my Jersey cow. Some of you may even remember her as our Jersey cow—saved by 22 people, (the "Dahlia Syndicate") who contributed to her purchase so that she could join my family. She's had a very happy retirement, and has made many friends.

Dahlia has spent most of the last year living on a 200 acre organic squash farm in Coupeville, on central Whidbey Island. There, she shares a couple of acres with two other cattle and spends her weekends being admired by visitors. Autumn is an exciting time to be an extroverted cow at a pumpkin patch!

Dahlia gets a lot of compliments on her beautiful big brown eyes. They're one of her most distinctive features, and apparently one of her most vulnerable. For the last few weeks, she's suffered a debilitating case of pinkeye. We moved her, briefly, to my mom's farm where we'd have easier access to a headgate, in which she was restrained for a series of intra-ocular injections. That's a thing I never again want to see a loved one go through.

Dahlia is much better now, and despite our fears and the vets' warnings she seems to have escaped with her vision unhampered. Yesterday, she returned to the squash farm fully healed and ready to greet pumpkin patch patrons throughout the month of October.

I want to acknowledge that even at the ripe old age of 39 I can ask my mother for anything, and she'll be there. Swooping in with a truck and trailer to rescue my cow in her moment of need is just how my mom rolls. (Thanks, ma!)

A retired dairy cow is a rare creature*, and every time I see Dahlia I feel a rush of gratitude for the many people who intervened to keep her out of the slaughterhouse. My former neighbor, who sold her to a commercial dairy but passed along my phone number and an entreaty: "call this lady if you ever decide to butcher her—this lady and my cow are friends." The farmer, who dug that scrap of paper up five years later when he thought the time had come. The 22 people who donated to her purchase (she was priced as beef, on the hoof). My mom, who drove over the Cascade Mountains to pick her up. My friends the Sterns, who caretake at the squash farm. The owners of the squash farm, who opened their pasture and their hay barn to my cow and her voracious appetite.

I'm grateful to Dahlia, too. After multiple painful treatments of her eye infection, she still came to me. Dropped her nose into the halter. Rested her head on my chest, and reminded me that love really does win.

*The average longevity of a dairy cow is 5 years. The natural lifespan of a cow is estimated at 22 years. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018


“To bring anything into your life, imagine that it’s already there.” Richard Bach

I think one of the major contributors to my general happiness is my ability to get tremendous satisfaction out of my imagination, or perhaps I should say my intentions. To clarify, I can imagine something that is likely to come along down the road—that I'm planning for, and working towards—and it just thrills me, and is almost as good as the real thing. My front yard will be full of giant allium flowers and chartreuse euphorbia. I can see it already, in my mind's eye, and it is BEAUTIFUL. I get less satisfaction out of thinking of a front yard full of Scottish highland steers (beautiful, yes. Likely to come along down the road, no). In this way, I'd say I'm fed more by plans than by daydreams.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” —Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry

Example: I replaced my washer and dryer yesterday. It was basically a non-event, because I'd known I needed a new washer and dryer since October 2016, and I'd started saving then. As soon as I set the intention, in my heart they were as good as mine . . . and, while the old ones heaved and squealed and strained along I was able to live with the ease and joy that comes from knowing solid, working appliances were in my future. 

Example: I know what color my house will be someday. I have the paint swatches picked out, they're magneted to my fridge, and they're BEAUTIFUL. Done! In my imagination, my house is basically already that color. Never mind that it might be two or four or six years before I get there, I know it will come. 

Example:  I decided I wanted a boulder in my front yard, roughly delineating the end of the driveway (for, no matter how many potted plants I line up outside, people still find ways to drive over the septic tank). I mentioned it to my mom in a, "silly me, when will I be able to afford a boulder?" way, and she showed me to a giant rock in her field that she would be quite happy to give me! It only lives an hour away, only weighs a ton and a half, and is only slightly embedded in the glacial till that forms the entirety of Whidbey Island. Voila! It's as good as mine. I love looking at the spot where it will go, thinking about the mosses and sedums that I'll cultivate in its shadow, and planning for the day when I can hire the Smitty's Towing team to move it from there to here. 

When I'm facing something big—a big deadline at work, a huge home renovation project, a daunting savings goal—I imagine the feeling I'll have when it's complete. I experience it viscerally, as though I were really living that moment. I never set out to operate this way, but it started happening to me unawares and I was eventually able to put my finger on it. Now, I notice and appreciate how often my instincts take me to that place of visualizing my success, my gratification, and my future joy. 

That's what I'm grateful for today.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Four senses will do

Living with sensory-impaired animals is interesting—there's so much to notice in how capable they are, and how much they achieve with the senses they do have.

Paisley, our deaf Aussie (2002-2013), used to go into the master bedroom of our apartment on Billy Frank Jr. Blvd. at about four every summer afternoon to watch the ceiling. It confused me at first, until I stayed with him and saw what he saw—a glint of light like a flare slashing across the ceiling, signaling that the chrome bumper of Matt's truck had caught the light as it turned the corner toward our driveway. Master was returning.

Brodie, my Labrador mix, is blind. He lost 100% of his vision in one eye and most of his vision in the other due to complications of diabetes this winter. He sees a little bit of light and shadow, it seems. He gets around fine, and you could almost forget he was vision-impaired if it weren't for the occasional "walk straight into a bush" or "run joyfully to greet the spot 10 inches left of me" moments. When I took him to the home of his petsitter for a pre-trip safety check, we realized the extent of the danger when he nearly took a header off the second story deck, with its widely spaced stiles harking back to an era when small people could plummet to their deaths without anyone being sued. That deck has been off limits to him since.

When it comes to recognizing people, places, and subtle emotional states, Brodie probably achieves more with his nose than I can achieve with my eyes, ears, and nose together. He knows when my boyfriend F is not in the bed, and hops up to take his place next to me.

F and I sleep well together, sometimes holding hands all night long. He's been away this week, and although the dogs are good companionship they can't take his place. Apparently I sense his absence in my sleep, and reach for him. I keep being awakened in the night by the rough feeling of paws pulling away from my grasp—seems holding hands with the dogs as we sleep is more soothing to me than to them. They associate paw holds with claw trimming, something Brodie is downright phobic about.

We all miss F and want him home. We'll be watching for him, though I think blind Brodie may see him coming before I do!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A new story

The other night I dreamed that I was writing again, and I knew exactly how to begin. It was a simple thing—maybe one sentence, maybe two. In my dream it started with just that, and then the words flowed out of me and by dinner time it was a book. I don't remember the first sentence, but it had something to do with stepping on dog shit in my bedroom*.

I then dreamed that I found a weanling mule wandering in the road, and I had nowhere to put him. No paddock, no pasture, no backyard, no garage. I roamed the streets beside him, feeling an obligation toward his safety and an utter, overwhelming lack of clarity as far as how to secure it. That dream ended when I saw the door to my home—the Ark—and suddenly the weanling was gone, and I was mounting the steps and opening the door and wrapping my arms around my boyfriend, who stood there silently awaiting me. It was the best feeling. A feeling of safety, of permanence, and of home.

Moving to the country and owning acreage was my mother's dream and it became my life story. I moved to the country with my mom at age 11, and in adulthood I achieved micro-farmer status when my ex-husband and I bought Bent Barrow Farm, on 1.25 acres in the Cascade Foothills. It was big enough for horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, and dogs, so it was big enough.

While the transitions that have taken me away from Bent Barrow Farm have all been good ones (a career I love, a community I adore, an amicable ending to one relationship and a beautiful start to another) I've struggled to resonate with an idea of home that doesn't include pasture. While my heart often says yes to this quirky, sweet house and this beautiful little yard that I bought two years ago, my head still says, "but couldn't we make a Winnebago on a 4 acre clearcut fit in the budget, instead?"

I didn't know I had writer's block until I dreamed I didn't, but I think the two things are connected. I think I want to belong here, in the Ark—and one way to do that is to tell a new story.

*this happened. Thanks, Russell!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Tales and tails

My mule Fenway died on June 1, 2018—the day before my 39th birthday. It was terrible, and unexpected, yet apparently painless and instant. I loved him so.

I can't continue blogging without mentioning him, as he was the mule behind Brays Of Our Lives. Through my relationship with Fenway Bartholomule I found my voice as an author, my confidence as a communications professional, and my gratitude, in a time when I was overcome more often by sorrow than by joy. Today, I'm almost ridiculously happy most of the time—wonderfully fulfilled, wildly optimistic, and constantly grateful for all that is right in the world even while so much is wrong. Racism, environmental devastation, climate change, the kyriarchy—I acknowledge they're real and that I must play a role in dismantling them, but also that I work better with a joyful heart.

I've sometimes wondered if I should have kept Brays Of Our Lives going in those years after I got busy doing paid work, writing not for my big brown mule but for my nonprofit employer. I loved the journaling aspect of being a blogger, and I loved the ease with which Fenway's words flowed off my fingertips. I loved the connections it sparked—with entrepreneurs, with other writers, with ideas and movements, and with readers all over the nation and world, including some who've become dear friends.

It would feel wrong to blog on Brays Of Our Lives now—that is Fenway's space. It always was and it always will be. It was about scenic trails, fragrant hay, and the tuneful rhythm of bare hooves on pavement.

A lot has changed since Fenway started blogging from Bent Barrow Farm—a new job in 2013,  a divorce at the start of 2016,  a new relationship since the next autumn, and my oldest daughter grown and launched into the world in 2018. This is going to be a place for my stories—mostly stories of animals and family, which is what I'm up to these days.