Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lopez Island Blog

The Evening Ferry 
There are some places in my life that bring me happiness.  Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State, is one such place.  Last week I visited Lopez for five days.  My agenda was simple: walk on the beach each day; eat good, healthy and ideally local food; write; visit with my neighbors and be present while a skilled arborist, who lives on the island, cut and limbed some trees on our property that had overgrown their welcome or were unhealthy.

I was excited to have this opportunity.  While I was waiting in line for the ferry, just the thought of my visit and the beauty of north Puget Sound inspired me to write a poem I would like to share with you.  It is called, given where it was written:

At the Ferry Landing

At times the world escapes my grasp.
It disappears around the bend
And runs away with me
When I least expect it.

I wake to the rain.
I wake to the sun.
The new moon is a sliver
So tiny it catches my eye.

The full moon rises across the valley.
It glows red then silver.
It fills the horizon
Like a huge beach ball.

Sometimes I feel so full
I start to cry
And other times, so empty
There is no solace.

The wind whistles in the trees
And the flags fly high.
Just over the horizon
A new day begins.

Led by an expert arborist, three young men spent two days cutting overgrown and dead trees around our house.  Our property isn’t large but it is heavily wooded.  Over the 35 years our family has owned it, many cedar, fir and other less desirable trees have grown too close together, grown too near the house or have sprouted up in places that would benefit from having less or more diverse forest growth.  Several volunteer deciduous trees, including some undesirable non-fruiting cherries, became much larger than we ever anticipated.  Many lower branches on otherwise healthy trees were dead from lack of light and crowding.  The trees needed more air, more light and more space to breath.  The forest needed help to re-gain its health and the house needed to be free of trees that leaned too close.

Up in the tree!

The work of an arborist or a lumberjack is intrinsically dangerous.  Anyone who has ever wielded a chain saw or even cut thick branches with a hand saw knows that it is all too easy to damage oneself and the tree unless conscious care is taken.  The young men who worked on my trees were uniformly knowledgeable and safety conscious.  They didn’t allow me to be too close to the work since I didn’t have a hard hat and even a small falling branch can be dangerous.  One of the larger trees was so close to the house, it had to be felled by taking it down piece by piece.  The chief arborist Zack coached one of the younger men through the entire complex process.  First, he climbed an adjacent tree using climbing gear so as not to damage the tree.  His harness had multiple redundant fastenings and all his tools, including a full size chain saw were fastened to his body by strong carabiners.  Any mountaineer would have been impressed with his equipment and skill. 

When he was more than fifty feet off the ground, he threw a rope over the upper trunk of the tree that was going to be cut.  He startled a raccoon that was sleeping in an abandoned nest high up in a third tree.  After saying “good morning” to the surprised coon, he used rope-climbing techniques to swing over to the designated tree.  Once there he chose a sturdy branch and began limbing the leafy cedar branches above his head.  Soon, he was ready to cut to treetop.  Zack, his mentor stood below on the ground with the anchor rope attached to a winch on the trunk of the original tree.  After making an initial cut into about a quarter of the tree’s radius, with the anchor rope winched down tightly, the aerial artist cut the trunk.  There was a loud crack and fine wood dust filled the air as the heavy wood broke free and dangled high in the air.  Zack lowered the trunk while the fellow up in the tree continued to limb and cut the next section down.  The entire operation was intrinsically elegant.  The three young men completed all the work efficiently and safely – and my husband, Jeff and I have a healthier forest, more light, better views and enough wood chips and firewood to last quite a long time.  

Jeff joined me for the weekend.  On Saturday morning we visited a local baker to buy some of his artisanal bread and learn about his wood-fired oven.  Twenty years ago, Jeff built a wood-fired brick oven in our garden in Seattle.  We modeled the design roughly on the brick ovens that grace many Brazilian gardens – big enough to roast something quite large and small enough to fit into our urban yard.  In the years since, we have enjoyed many wonderful roasted meals – salmon; pork; leg of lamb; holiday standing rib roasts; roasted vegetables and many other delicious foods.  The oven is built of firebricks and sits below a steep rockery outside our kitchen door. 

Over the years, we have used many kinds of fruitwood and other hard woods to impart delicious smoky flavors to whatever we roast.  Jeff has become an expert at roasting in this outdoor oven.  He understands the quality of the different woods; the nature of the fire and the relative heat and smoke needed for the perfect product depending on the specific item being roasted.  He has also developed a seventh sense about how to use different types of salt, fresh cut herbs, garlic and various marinades to enhance flavors.  Often we use rosemary branches cut from large bushes in our garden to give the barbeque an extra twist.  And we never hesitate to raid the liquor cupboard for a bit of leftover Aquavit or Cointreau or whatever else might add a new flavor to the roast.

Our friends and family love coming over to share food from the brick oven.  When everyone digs into the pork roast or cuts into the crispy salmon skin, there is silence and satisfaction in the dining room, as everyone tastes the smoky flesh.  We are thinking about building a similar but perhaps larger oven here on Lopez.  Farmers on Lopez produce some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten; we can catch salmon and crabs and buy oysters, mussels and clams from the local shellfish farm.  What better reason to have a wood fired oven in the garden?  And what better reason to visit a local baker who is a wood oven expert?

The baker we visited bakes all his bread in an oven he built using very interesting technology.  His commercial-sized oven is much larger than we would need for one family but its basic structure, from the firebrick lining to the thick insulation that stores the heat to the built-in temperature probes, make it a perfect model to guide our thoughts.  Nathan is a very capable and creative person.  He built the oven in its own roomy bake house.  He explained that to develop enough stored heat to bake his bread and the delicious cinnamon rolls we sampled, he must fire the oven up almost 24 hours in advance.  By building and tending the fire over the previous day, he is able to store enough heat to bake commercial quantities of artisanal bread.  He only uses natural leavens and to the extent possible, locally grown wheat.  His bread is quite extraordinary – moist and flavorful with a fine soft interior and a rich crusty exterior.

Jeff has been making bread from a wild more than one hundred year old sour dough starter for thirty years.  It was inspirational to meet this young knowledgeable baker and listen to the two men discuss the attributes of wild yeasts.  Of course, from my perspective, there is nothing quite as delicious as sinking your teeth into a fresh loaf directly from the oven.  We are excited to eat more local Lopez bread and to plan our own wood-fired oven.

We rounded out our weekend with a marathon session of chopping and stacking a monster juniper bush that has taken over the lower edge of one part of our property.  Jeff’s job was to beat the bush into submission.  Mine was to clear the gnarly branches away from the road and driveway – and attempt to stack them for future chipping, as well as spread chips from the previously cut trees on the forest floor.  We were both pleased that our hours in the gym translated into the ability to do hard physical work outside for the better part of Sunday – without having back, shoulder or arm pain.  I was impressed with my ability to move big logs and endless juniper branches and fill and dump many wheelbarrows full of wood chips.  Maybe all those core exercises not to mention lat pulls and curls are beneficial. 

All in all we had a productive and peaceful visit.  I look forward to returning to enjoy the rejuvenated woods and finish our plans for an outdoor oven.

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