The spread of the novel Coronavirus has made me realize how nuts I am about scientific method. A friend tells me her church is people. I like that. The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness. I like that, too. My philosophical perspective nowadays includes both humanism and kindness, leaving plenty of room for science. Including empirical evidence is important to me because I was brought up to respect science and admire scientists and engineers. My parents’ idea of a fun vacation was to attend a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). My father was a mathematician and liked to have his information verified, preferably by empirical, scientific methods. Even watching television commercials, he’d demonstrate a healthy skepticism for the misleading statistics of four-out-of-five-dentists type claims and taught me to be skeptical, too.
With the rise of COVID-19, it’s clear that scientists are constantly working behind the scenes to understand viruses, prevent outbreaks, and deal with contagions. It was a woman named June Almeida who first identified the human coronavirus under a microscope, though she wasn’t taken seriously at first. It’s easy to sit back and speculate about an illness and its origin. Tracking it to its source, whether it is a chimpanzee in the case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or bats in the case of recent viruses, takes diligent, painstaking effort over the course of years.
Our neighbor, M.C. Kang, is a chemist who developed drugs for the treatment of AIDS. He noted that, “In a rough sense, it takes thirty years or longer to deliver a medicine from the first understanding of biology to the market. Identification of biological mechanism takes twenty years or so through basic research in biology in academia.” For instance, M.C. worked for ten years to bring a drug called Fuzeon (T20) to market for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Such breakthroughs, along with the work of Anthony Fauci, M.D., virologist David Ho, and others, save lives.
Dr. Fauci says that lessons learned while working on the AIDS virus were useful in tackling the novel coronavirus. “Viruses cause disease by binding to receptors on cells in your body, be they in your upper airway or in your lung, in the case of COVID-19. They then replicate at a rapid rate that triggers a variety of pathogenic processes. Targeting drugs to interfere at one or more vulnerable sites within this replication cycle is something that we learned with HIV.”
Now people all over the world need tests, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19. Scientists and doctors are developing them as fast as they can. There will be mutations of the virus that require new vaccines and treatments. And there will be new viruses emerging. As M.C. points out, that’s part of nature. Scientific evidence indicates that the novel coronavirus came not from a laboratory but from nature. And it’s part of human nature to try to understand and cure viral illnesses and, when possible, prevent them. Like the AAAS, we can advocate for evidence and its integrity and hasten our victories over the virus.
I made quinoa peanut butter cookies one day. They contained no wheat, which meant I could eat them without upsetting my stomach. I thought the cookies were buttery and delicious, so I took some to our daughter, Emily who lives nearby. When I later asked her over the phone how she and her fiancé Alex liked them, she told me, “Mom, we don’t need to eat gluten-free. We can eat regular cookies.” That seemed silly to me. A cookie is a cookie. Then, as if to take the sting out of her rejection, she said, “The sheep liked them though.”
“Wait. What? You fed them to your sheep?” On their farm, Emily and Alex have a small herd of Tunis, an ancient breed of sheep with coppery-brown faces and bodies billowing with creamy wool. I didn’t know sheep ate anything besides grain and hay.
“Yeah,” she said, “they were climbing on top of each other to get them, they liked them so much.” After that, I started calling the cookies “sheep treats.” At least I had some four-legged fans of my baking.
In February, I went to the farm to see some newborn lambs, which emerge a cinnamon brown color, so adorable. I had a plastic bag in my pocket with some of my homemade sheep treat cookies inside. No matter that it was tightly sealed. As soon as I went through the gate to the hilltop meadow, the ewes stopped nibbling grass, raised their heads, and laser focused on me. It was a little eerie how quickly they clustered around me. My attention was so much on the sweet, new lambs that I forgot I had treats for their mothers. Emily, however, noticed the adult sheep nuzzling my red, wool coat. “Do you have something in your pocket, Mom?”
“Oh, yeah.” When I pulled out the bag and opened it, that’s when I was in the middle of a sheep riot. Bleating and grumbling, a dozen or so woolly clouds bumped into me, begging for a cookie. The sheep in the back climbed onto the plush bodies of the ones in front to get closer to the treats. In their haste and my nervousness, it was difficult to feed the sheep. Emily managed to get a couple cookies in their mouths, but all the treats I offered crumbled at their assault.
That was a little crazy. Nevertheless, a bad day getting mobbed by sheep is still a pretty good day. Sheep are a treat for me and I’ll keep on making treats for them, my biggest fans.
QUINOA COOKIES, aka, Sheep Treats (from my box of Ancient Harvest quinoa flakes)
Preheat oven to 350 F
Mix: 1/2 cup butter, 1/3 cup brown sugar (or a dash of maple syrup), 1/2 cup honey, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 cup peanut butter.
Add: 3/4 cup quinoa flakes, I cup rice flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix well. Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 12- 15 minutes until golden brown. Cool for a couple minutes before removing from sheet.
Shio lived in the seaside village of Nakanohama, Japan. Her husband was a fisherman and she expected her three sons to become fishermen, too. Her two daughters would become wives of fishermen and stay close to home.
That’s how it was in Japan two hundred years ago.
Could Shio see a different destiny for her second son, Manjiro? Ever since he was born, Manjiro glowed like a firefly and he was always curious.
“Manjiro,” she’d say, “it’s up to you.
There’s nothing you can’t do.
If you keep trying, you’ll see it through.”
When Shio’s husband died, nine-year-old Manjiro started going to work every day. With no father and an older brother too sick and weak to work, it was up to him to provide for the family. Little Manjiro may have looked skinny as a rice stalk, but he became strong as bamboo. He helped empty the nets on fishing boats and brought home fish for the dinner table. At least they had something to eat with their rice.
Every morning, Shio told her little son,
“My dear Manjiro-chan,
try your hardest again today
and remember: Gaman!
Gaman means to stay strong
like a tree stands in a storm.
Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Have patience and go on.”
Manjiro’s two brothers and two sisters depended on him. Sometimes they called out to him as he left for work,
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
At this time in 1836, Japan had hundreds of rules, like the rule that children always grow up to work in the same jobs as their parents. No Japanese citizen could leave to visit other countries, and no person from another country could visit Japan. People who broke the rules were punished and imprisoned. That’s how it had been in Japan for a long time.
When Manjiro was fourteen-years-old, he was working on a small fishing vessel with four other fishermen when a storm came up and blew their boat far away from Japan. When her son did not return, Shio had to accept that he was either drowned or shipwrecked somewhere. After a while, the family even had a funeral for him. Shio was very sad, but she told herself, “Gaman. Stay strong like a tree in a storm.” She had to keep going and take care of her family.
Manjiro’s family didn’t know he was still alive.
Almost twelve years later, on October 5, 1852, they got a big surprise. Guess who was coming to their door! Shio heard someone calling “Okasan” and went outside her little house. A man who seemed somehow familiar was coming towards her, walking very fast. “Mother, I’m here! I’m here!” he said. Then he stopped and bowed his head low. “I’m sorry I left you for so long.”
“Manjiro? Could it be you?” Shio said. Tears came to her eyes. Then her son hugged her and cried along with her. His brothers and sisters came running to see what was happening and stopped short in surprise. Shio drew herself up and said, “It is your brother. He has come home.”
Their shock gave way to joy as they shouted, “You’re back! Hurray!” And then, “Manjiro! Where have you been?”
“Yes, Manjiro, what happened to you?” asked his mother. If she had known, she would have been a wreck herself.
The family gathered outside on straw mats with cups of tea. It was a warm autumn afternoon in their village between the mountains and the sea. “Manjiro, we thought you were dead. You left here a boy and now you’re a man. Where did you go?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been around the world and back,” Manjiro said. Then he realized that his family would not understand what that meant. They knew as little of the planet as he had twelve years ago when he was shipwrecked. He decided to start at the beginning of his journey.
“I was fishing on a boat with four others. A storm broke our mast and oars. The cold rain and winds lasted for seven days and blew our boat far, far out in the Pacific Ocean. All we could do was hang on.”
“Gaman,” said his mother, glad that her son had remembered what she taught him.
“Then we used planks of wood to row ourselves toward a tiny island. Our boat broke to pieces on the rocks, so the five of us swam to shore.”
“Oh,” said Shio, with a sharp intake of breath. “You didn’t give up.”
“There were no people living on the island, only albatross birds. We ate their eggs. We also found shellfish to eat. We saved rainwater and allowed ourselves three sips a day. That’s how we lived for five months! At night we slept in a cave.”
A tear rolled down Shio’s cheek as she thought of their loneliness. “So much for a boy to endure!”
Manjiro’s sisters remembered the words they’d shouted to their brother as he went to work. Now they chanted them again in order to cheer up their mother and to help Manjiro continue telling his story.
You can do it.
You’ll get through it.
Manjiro laughed, remembering how their high spirits had lifted his mood so many years ago. He decided not to dwell on his trials as a castaway, such as the earthquake that almost buried them in their cave, and jumped ahead to a happier part of the story. “We always looked for boats to come take us home. One day while I was looking for food on the shore, I saw a ship. I shouted and the others came running, waving their clothes until the sailors on the ship saw us. We were rescued!”
Manjiro’s mother, brothers, and sisters leaned toward him with their eyes wide. “By Japanese?” asked his sister.
“No, they were Americans from far away, hunting for whales in a big ship. They rowed a small boat to our island and picked us up. Then they took us on board the big ship and fed us rice and soup. They gave us sailor clothes to wear and washed our old things for us. But they could not bring us home, because Japan does not allow foreign ships to enter its ports.”
“Weren’t you scared, Manjiro?” asked his littlest sister.
“My four fellow fishermen were very scared. They expected to be killed. I was too curious to be scared, so I followed the sailors around to see what they were doing. Some of the men were friendly even though they laughed when I tried to repeat the words they said. Then one of them touched the tall tree trunk holding their sail and said mast. I repeated it and this time I knew what it meant. I learned new words every day and soon I could talk with the crew and even the captain.”
“The whaling ship took us to the island of Oahu where there were many good people. The four other fishermen decided to stay there. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, asked me if I’d like to go home with him to America. I said yes.” Manjiro took a chopstick and sketched a map in the dirt to show how far he traveled. “In America, in a place called Massachusetts, I lived with Captain Whitfield and his family. I went to school and learned many things.”
“You learned another language?”
“Hai, Okasan. Yes, Mother, I learned to speak, read, and write in English.” Manjiro scratched in the dirt to show them. He wrote John Mung, the name the Americans gave him because it was easier for them to say than Manjiro. Then he continued with his story. “Some people did not like me at first because I was different. I was the first Japanese person they’d ever seen, so, of course, I was strange to them. But I made many friends and learned from everybody. I even learned to ride a horse.”
This was astonishing to Manjiro’s family, because the only people who rode horses in Japan were samurai who served the shoguns and nobility. They did not expect a boy from a poor fishing village to ever have that privilege.
His mother looked confused. “How did you get back to Japan from the other side of the world?”
“There was something called a Gold Rush on the west coast of America. I went there and found gold.”
His brothers and sisters pumped their fists in the air and cheered him again. “And what did you do with the gold?” his mother asked.
“I sold the gold and made enough money to buy my own small boat, the Adventurer, to put on a big ship. The captain of the ship brought me close to Japan and I went the rest of the way in the Adventurer.”
“Where is your boat?” asked his younger brother. After all, a boat is a good thing to have for a fishing family.
“Naturally, I was arrested when I got here, because I have been out of the country. Local officials took my boat away. Then they locked me behind bamboo walls and questioned me for more than a year. Finally, I was released so I could visit you. I hiked ninety miles to get here.”
No one could speak for a few moments as they thought how far Manjiro had come. His brother patted him on the back a few times. Then Shio wiped her eyes on the cotton sleeve of her yukata. She was so grateful her boy who was lost at sea was alive and well. With a smile for Manjiro she said, “I must get you something to eat.” She hurried to the cooking fire. Her son, the firefly, was home at last.
Manjiro stayed at his childhood home for three days. After that, he was taken to a castle in Kochi for questioning and then to Edo (now called Tokyo) for more questioning.
Fortunately, he did not have to stay in jail again. The more Manjiro talked to officials, the more they realized that he could be a valued advisor to the Shogun and other leaders of Japan. A scribe wrote down and illustrated what the traveler told them. Those writings and pictures became a book called Drifting Toward the Southeast that is still available today.
Manjiro became a teacher and taught English and other subjects to samurai.
In December 1853, Manjiro was given the rank of samurai himself. The young fisherman from Nakanohama received payment, two special swords and a new name, Nakahama Manjiro. (Only high-ranking people in Japan had second names. Manjiro named himself after his village.) He could finally help support his family as he’d tried to do as a child.
Manjiro was often asked to tell people about America. He told the Japanese leaders how helpful and friendly the Americans had been to him. Manjiro’s words helped the leaders consider being friendly, too, and in 1854 Japan entered into a treaty of peace, friendship, and trade with the United States. They opened two ports to ships from the United States of America and other countries. After 250 years of closed doors, Japan was open to the rest of the world.
Manjiro had gaman, guts, and grit. He did more than endure his difficulties. He took action, made friends, and changed the world.
JAPANESE WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS
Gaman = Endurance, strength, and perseverance
Hai = Yes
Okasan = Mother
Oni-chan = Brother (informal)
Oniisan = Brother (formal)
Samurai = Warrior in service to the shoguns
Shogun = Head of the samurai government
Yukata = Cotton kimono
Bernard, Donald R. The Life and Times of John Manjiro. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Blumberg, Rhoda. Shipwrecked! The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts & Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Humanity Above Nation: The Impact of Manjiro and Heco on America and Japan. Honolulu: The Joseph Heco Society of Hawaii, 1995.
Manjiro, John and Kawada, Shoryo. Drifting Toward the Southeast: The Story of Five Japanese Castaways. Told in 1852 and translated by Junya Nagakuni and Junji Kitadai. New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, Inc., 2003.
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Nakahama Manjiro’s Hyosen Kiryaku: A Companion Book. Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum and Library, 1999.
It’s all about territory and who lays claim to it. Moles dig tunnels underground and live generally solitary lives. If the tunnel of one mole breaks into the tunnel of another, a fight to the death ensues. As Marc Hamer wrote in his surprising memoir, How to Catch a Mole, “Fighting is in the nature of things with territories.”
That sentence got me thinking about habitat destruction and its role in the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world. What is an animal’s habitat if not a territory? Every species, and every community within each species, needs a territory, a place to call home. Looking under “W” in our World Book Encyclopedia, I read, “Conflicts over resources are the most basic and enduring causes of war. Resources include land, minerals, energy sources, and important geographical features. The world’s first wars probably were fought over resources.” That’s about as basic as you can get. When we violate the homes of our fellow creatures, they may not consciously go into battle with us, but the environmental and health consequences can be as dire as any war. After all, humans aren’t the only inhabitants of this planet, though we sometimes act like it.
Many of the worst viruses affecting humans are transmitted from bats, birds, and other animals. Epidemiology research shows that COVID-19, the source of our current contagion, with new fatalities every day, can be traced back to bats and possibly pangolins. We encroach on their environments or capture them for market, and thereby expose ourselves to new combinations of germs to which we have no immunity.
There is a story called Who Speaks for Wolf that has stayed with me for two decades now. In the face of our COVID-19 pandemic, it comes to mind once again.
The story begins as some people outgrow their living space and seek out a new one. In Paula Underwood’s way of sharing this oral history, she wrote, “Long ago Our People grew in number so that where we were was no longer enough.” Runners “were sent out from among us to seek a new place where the People might be who-they-were.” (I have added punctuation here and there to Paula’s words. She used very little.) A site was found that had space for the longhouses and for the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. After much discussion, it was decided to move the community to this site.
As work began on the new site, a man called Wolf’s Brother returned to the village. “He asked about the New Place and said at once that we must choose another” because, “You have chosen the Center Place for a great community of Wolf.” Further, he warned, “I think that you will find that it is too small a place for both and that it will require more work then- than change would presently require.” This man was well known for understanding the ways of wolves and his words were respected but overruled, because the establishment of the new village had already begun.
“The People closed their ears and would not reconsider,” Paula wrote. When all was prepared and the people moved in, the People, as Wolf’s Brother predicted, had to constantly contend with Wolf. It was a challenge to protect their children and their food. “They soon discovered that this required so much energy that there was little left for winter preparations.” After trying this and that, they came to the question of the final solution, which was to kill off the wolves.
This is an ongoing question for human beings right now. Do we need to take over every corner of Mother Earth? More species become extinct or endangered every day. Is this the kind of people we want to be? Is this the kind of world we want?
In the story, Paula put it this way. “They saw that it was possible to hunt down this Wolf People until they were no more.” Such a thought gave them pause. “They saw, too, that such a task would change the People: they would become Wolf Killers, a People who took life only to sustain their own, would become a People who took life rather than move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people.”
In hindsight, the People wished that Wolf’s Brother had been included in the decision-making from the beginning. They admitted, “To live here indeed requires more work now than change would have made necessary.” From that time on, they included a question in every discussion, before a decision was finalized, “Tell me now, my Brothers. Tell me now, my Sisters. Who Speaks for Wolf?”
Wisdom comes from such challenges as these, when we take an honest look at the chain of cause and effect in which we have participated and make new decisions. We can broaden our perspectives and listen to a diversity of data, putting our heads together for better solutions.
Paula Underwood preserved the tale taught to her by her father and wrote it down as one of Three Native American Learning Stories (2002, A Tribe of Two Press). Before Paula’s death in 2000, many people studied with her in the high country of New Mexico or among the redwoods of California. She was a mentor to me and reminded us, through her stories and aphorisms, to listen to all species, not just our own. She invited us to listen to trees and wind. And our own minds.
My daughter, Emily, and I used to visit the International Crane Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and later worked there briefly as volunteers. We were fascinated, as were millions of people by the work of George Archibald and Ron Sauey to save endangered crane species, especially the whooping crane, from extinction. With only thirty known whooping cranes left in the world, it became crucial to breed Tex, a female crane in captivity. Trouble was, she was imprinted on humans from an early age and had no interest in flirting, much less mating, with her own kind. But George she liked.
So they would dance.
During mating season, George got up every morning and walked with Tex over a grassy hill of the Crane Foundation. She was, in her mind anyway, his crane wife, (also the name of a popular folk tale in Japan). The whooper was always delighted to see him. Together they would do deep knee bends and flap their appendages in the brisk Wisconsin air. Whooping cranes are four to five feet tall and have six to eight feet wing spans. Tex could hold her own with Dr. Archibald! The couple danced each spring for three years. Eventually, George’s assistant was able to artificially inseminate the bird as her attention was on George. George Archibald kept Tex company day after day and, like in the Japanese folk tale, his “crane wife” returned the favor. She laid a fertile egg! The egg hatched into a chick named Gee Whiz that carried on Tex’s genetic line.
Though whooping cranes now number in the hundreds, they are still rare and endangered. You can see wild cranes in the wetlands of Wisconsin and you can see cranes of all fifteen species at the International Crane Foundation.
People over the centuries have no doubt observed the way newly hatched birds sometimes bond with humans. Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) specialized in studying this behavior known as imprinting. Working with greylag geese, he stayed with some hatching eggs until the goslings emerged from their shells so that he was the first animate object they saw. The goslings attached to him as if he were their mother, following him all around.
Emily’s fiancé, Alex, had a similar experience with one of their geese on their Duck Duck Goose Farm on Whidbey Island. One spring day Alex heard a peeping in the grass a short distance from the nesting area of the geese. He found a tiny hatchling, cold and wet, and wondered how he got separated from his mother. When Alex returned the little guy to his mom, she pushed him away. As Alex put it, he “shopped” the gosling around to the other geese moms and none would take him.
So Alex took the fluff ball inside the house, dried him off, and fed him. Once he warmed up, the little goose kept chirping for attention, so Alex turned on some music to try to calm him down. When a piece by Amadeus Mozart started to play, the gosling was entranced and peaceful. So Alex named him Mozart.
After that, Mozart liked being with humans and had to be babysat at all times. In fact, on Mother’s Day, Emily showed up for our celebration at my house, handed me the fluffy, peeping baby, and said, “Happy Mother’s Day!” He was my first grandchild, as it were. I tended to him while she and Alex cooked a nice dinner. At the Greenbank Pantry and Deli, you can see where Mozart’s image is painted (by our daughter Steph Terao) under the store sign on the side of the building. He’s now the mascot of the deli where Emily and Alex work, because he spent so much time in the yard there while they set up their new business.
This past spring, one-year-old Mozart bonded with a Roman tufted goose and she laid a nest full of eggs! Their offspring imprinted on their parents and followed them all over the farm. Even though Mozart is an excellent father and well-adjusted gander now, he still greets Alex and Emily with a big spread of his wings, happy to see them.
As one of my mentors, Paula Underwood, used to say, what may we learn from this?
From George and Tex, I am reminded to dance. Sometimes it’s more than fun and exercise; it can be a bonding experience and help continue the species!
Perhaps there is a warning in imprinting: don’t follow every animate object that catches your eye or soothes your vulnerabilities. It is disturbing to know that the Austrian Konrad Lorenz was an active member of the Nazi party during WWII. With that in mind, the charming photographs of him with lines of devoted ducks or geese behind him might conjure up the kick step march of German soldiers saluting Hitler. If someone appeals to our instincts and takes advantage of our innocence, we may be recruited as devoted followers. This is not usually done with our best interests at heart.
What about Mozart? He found no kindness in the nest as a gosling, but due to human kindness became an attentive friend and parent himself. When given a chance, we can fly higher than our upbringing and origins. With fluffiness and fortitude, we bring smiles to those in the heart of an island.
Where do I go to celebrate a milestone? A national park!
Spring wildflowers may be long gone from my part of Washington state in July, but in the mountains, they are just starting to bloom. On Thursday, I finished six weeks of radiation therapy for breast cancer. On Sunday, my husband and I caught an early ferry from Whidbey Island to the mainland and then drove two hours to Mount Rainier National Park. We had the whole day ahead of us to see flora, fauna, and mountains! With so much park to explore, we stuck to the Sunrise area in the northeast section.
Go left to get the best mountain views.
Our first stop was Tipsoo Lake parking lot, the starting point for the Naches Peak Loop Trail. The avalanche lilies at the trail head looked like a field of stars, guiding us into this national park of wonders.
Field of stars
The guidebook said the loop was three miles long, rising to 5800 feet altitude. Still recovering from radiation, I wondered if I could make it around Naches Peak and have enough energy to enjoy the rest of our visit. Some of the trail was rough with plenty of rocks to negotiate. Our walking sticks came in handy. With a new view or lake around every bend, it was not difficult to keep going.
Donald on the trail
Barb with Mount Rainier coming into view
Mount Rainier seen from Naches Peak
We also went to Sunrise and hiked on the Silver Forest Trail, stopping to hear the song of the White River along the way.
Our dinner at the Alpine Inn of salmon for me and a Bavarian pho for Donald was just what we needed to replenish ourselves.
I also got to ring the bell in the Crystal Mountain tower to mark the end of cancer treatment. A milestone truly celebrated! As if to renew our spirits even further, we saw a family of silver foxes playing near the Inn. How charming they are with their dark fur and white-tipped tails.
Nature knows what I need and is always conspiring to make me happy. My realist side acknowledges that this place I treasure is home to an active volcano and can be dangerous. Yet I agree with John Muir on this, that every location has its hazards. As Muir wrote, “Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” It is a healing place for me, with a radiant power all its own.
The very first Japanese Americans to be rounded up and sent to internment camps were those on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Armed soldiers forcibly removed more than 200 islanders of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, citing Japanese American Exclusion Order #1. Many of the people had homes, farms, and pets that had to be abandoned or left in the care of sympathetic neighbors. The internees could only bring what they could carry.
In our long history of immigrants coming to this continent, different groups have received different types of treatment. Bainbridge Island provides a bright spot in a dismal history of outright racism towards people of color. Though the government identified this ethnic group (but not Germans or Italians in America) as a security threat, most of the people of the island chose to see their Japanese neighbors as friends. Islanders remained friendly with the “excluded” population before and after they were sent away, often protecting their property for them throughout the three years they were gone.
The beautiful wooden wall built in 1998 includes the names of every man, woman, and child taken away March 30, 1942. Colorful origami cranes are tied here and there along the 276 foot-long contemplative walkway. It leads down to Eagle Harbor where the Japanese people were herded onto a ferry and then a train to be taken to Manzanar and, later, Minidoka internment camps. My husband’s parents were similarly incarcerated during WWII and I’ve written about my mother-in-law’s experience in a previous post. We could see that this cedar and granite wall was created with love and respect, just as the local editor during the war regularly included stories about the Japanese Americans missing from the island community, using the power of words to maintain human connections.
It’s three days since Aretha Franklin died and I’ve got her CD playing in my Forester. I drive from the mini-peninsula of Port Townsend across the tip of the broader Olympic Peninsula, singing to the firs and hemlocks, “You make me feel like a natural woman…” Oh, yeah, tree friends, wrap me in moss and slap me with river spray! Get me back to nature, baby. I turn onto Hurricane Ridge Road to go to the famed lookout point at the road’s end. This is both stupid and obstinate because there’s no view to be had. But I want to get outside and it’s on the way to, well, outside.
We moved recently and I’ve been inside unpacking boxes or out foraging thrift stores and garage sales. Although it’s gratifying to create a new home, I need a change. Western Washington is up in smoke from wildfires in Canada and elsewhere and we’re advised to stay inside and certainly not exert ourselves in the polluted air. My plan was to go on a leisurely beach walk with friends, but that isn’t enough for me. I want out and I want to go alone.
I get like this sometimes, when I’m hankering to wander and I’m not sure why. After the fact, I usually realize I was starved for a chance to catch up with Mother Nature and with myself. For me, that is best done in solitude (or with someone I know so well I can have lots of quiet time). So I don’t mind if I can’t see all the way to Mount Olympus, the highest (at 7,980 feet) of the Olympic Mountains. I’ll wave to Hera and Zeus through the haze.
Later I find a room for the night at Lake Crescent Lodge. I get some cauliflower curry soup and watch the sun set pink over the shrouded, ghostly hills. I feel lucky to be in this historic and, momentarily, peaceful national park.
Yet the sad truth is that the park, which sound tracker Gordon Hempton (whose book I described in a past post) identified as the quietest place he could find in America, is in trouble. The rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula are under acoustic assault and may not remain quiet for long. I’ve written our government representatives to try to keep it that way, without military jets shrieking overhead for training missions from Whidbey. There is more to be done.
Night dreams are an escalator down to my nether world and I head back to the woods as soon as I wake up. I am getting to that place of inner quiet.
My morning walk leads me to a mossy log where I sit for a while by the rapids of Barnes Creek. I seem to have the sacred space all to myself until I am joined by a companion in contemplation: a curious Douglas Squirrel joins me from the pew of her tree.
When I continue on, I am happy to also make some human friends on the way to Marymede Falls.
Then, inner haze somewhat cleared, it is time to go home. As the song goes, “I used to feel so uninspired… Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for.” Sometimes you gotta go out to go in, and get nourished by nature. And sometimes we have to speak up to keep the peace.
“Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company …with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity.” John Muir (1838-1914)
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How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)
In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.
What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”
“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.
“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.
Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.
When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.
I’ve written about my favorite birches, oaks, and redwoods, and even a post titled, “Have You Thanked a Tree Today?” Currently, I have another tree to thank and my gratitude reaches a new level, coming from the very marrow of my bones, even as that marrow struggles to make white blood cells. The leaves of Taxus Baccata, the European yew, are the basis of a drug called Taxotere (generic name: docetaxel) that is helping to save my life.
My Welsh ancestors may well have had such yew trees growing nearby, as they were favored in church yards. The toxic leaves repelled the cows, thus protecting the cemeteries from trampling. Nothing could protect the trees, however, from monarchs’ demands for springy yew wood to make longbows, depleting forests for 300 years until guns became the weapon of choice in the 1700s. But a few ancient yews, some more than a thousand years old, can still be found in the old church yards.
Now the trees contribute to my longevity as I take my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Of the four drugs injected into my system every 21 days, Taxotere from European yews (or Taxol from Pacific yews) is most common. It is apparently a reliable and accurate assassin of cancer cells and has helped shrink my tumor to a fraction of its former size. Due to its’ effectiveness in treating various cancers, there is a rise in demand from pharmaceutical companies that could again threaten yew populations. After all, cancer drugs are lucrative business. For instance, the United States saw $3.1 billion dollars in sales of Taxotere in 2010.
I wish the trees, and all those receiving their medicine, well. Yeah, they inhibit all the cells in my body, even the good guys like white blood cells, from dividing and make me nauseous and almost bald. I’m as sick as a cow in a graveyard, but I plan to get rid of disease, recover from the side effects and surgeries, and live cancer-free.
As I said to my nurse during chemotherapy, “You’re giving me poison in order to save my life.” She said that’s right. Thank you, yews. May we turn your cytotoxic poison into medicine so we can stand strong and live. And may you do the same.