I live in a little yellow house tucked away from the street. A passerby may glance down the long driveway, lined with tall plum trees, only to see the shed, garden pots, a sandbox full of metal trucks and buckets and shovels, and a big pile of brush. Little do they know that just beyond their scope of vision from the street is a lovely little shire with green grass, tall trees, little trees, and a garden. In the East-facing front yard, we have a lawn bordered with raised garden beds containing a few small trees, ground-covers, weeds, lupines, daisies, lemon balm and peppermint. The stones that make up the garden bed wall are covered in green moss, and, each Spring, ferns victoriously poke their heads through the stone cracks to see the light of day. The branches of our little trees are covered in a pale green moss. This land of mountains, lakes, rivers, pools, waterfalls, rainforests, volcanoes and saltwater is a GREEN, lush fairytale land. The forests are mostly made up of evergreen trees: Giant Firs, Cedars and Pines. When the deciduous trees (mostly oak, maple, aspen and birch) lose their leaves each Autumn, they reveal enchanting, bright-green, moss-covered branches.
The undergrowth is full of beautiful green ferns and mosses, and, in just the right spots, an abundance of diverse fungi… a mushroom-gatherer’s dream. Follow any river valley from the Columbia River up into the Cascade Mountains and you will find rocky cliffs, ledges and flats that are completely coated with moss, simply seeping with water. The Western Cascade Mountains reveal not only moss-covered rocks but evergreen forests, mossy oaks and green pieces of land. The prairies South of the Mount Saint Helens National Forest stretching to North Vancouver are green as green can be, too- scattered with grazing cows and horses. In the prairies stretching from the Willamette River Valley to the Coastal Range are sheep-pastures, farms, orchards, nut-trees and vineyards. House rooftops, if not properly maintained, can turn completely green due to accumulative moss over the course of many years. Some abandoned houses or fallen logs are rotted out and completely covered with mold and thick, spongy-looking moss. If we leave a wooden toy or bike outside for more than a couple of days, it will return to the house covered with black mold spots, much to my dismay.
Why? The Western Cascade region gets about 150-190 days per year of measurable rainfall which can be, on average, just under an inch of water per hour. That means that about 6 months out of every year it is WET. Though our summers are cool and relatively dry, in the wintertime our days are enveloped in water. The Western tributaries of the Columbia River are filled with pools, torrential rushing rivers and plunging waterfalls…your face will be wet with the spray, the mist, the water in the air. The coast swells with bigger waves and the surfers flock to the little wet coves beneath the grassy bluffs overlooking the rugged coastline. Rainwater fills our gutters, hammers on the rooftops and patters on the tarp we have spread over the sandbox. Rainwater fills the soil; it splashes into ponds where ducks are fishing. It fills the rivers, which, in the winter and early Springtime, tear through the valleys with a force that is not to be reckoned with. The rivers rise up to 10 feet depending on the year. One cubic foot per second (CFS) is a flow measurement that means one cubic foot of water flowing past a specific point. On a particularly wet month last year, our local river was recorded at 20,000 cfs!Come Spring when the snowmelt drains into the high rivers, our children aren’t allowed anywhere near their banks until the waters have subsided. In the wintertime, the rains here are relentless, coming down from the gray skies day after day in showers, sprinkles, drops and sometimes SHEETS. My three-year-old, in all earnestness, asks me: “Mama, why is it raining?” to which I respond, “Because the clouds are full of water…” And indeed they are!
Oh, the skies are beautiful: grays and whites and sometimes a pale heron-blue. Scattered showers and fleeting clouds cause the sky-lover to go into raptures. On our West-facing porch there is a clear roof so that this winter-time bird-lover and cloudy-sky-lover can sit in the backyard while it mists or rains, and still sip his tea & read his novel outside, in the light of day… The trees drip, the gutters are loud; puddles fill the streets. Hundred-year-old fences and stone walls in historical towns along our coastline are glazed with a silvery-green moss, a sign that it is a place of dampness… the kind of dampness that gets into your bones and chills you more than any snowy, sub-zero winter does. It is the kind of dampness that weighs down your hair and makes your hands white & clammy. The kind of dampness that you can feel yourself inside of, it wraps itself around you, enveloping you in a still, cold universe where all sounds, be it the crow overhead, the flock of starlings in the bushes, the bicyclist around the bend or your friend crunching along on the path ahead all sound like they are right next to you.
The sky is so gray here and the lack of sunshine so common that my hair has turned from a blonde to a light brown since moving here 7 years ago. Many people have a severe lack their Vitamin D. To keep the blues away, (along with exercising and taking my vitamins) I have painted poppies all along the stairwell wall and birds on my kitchen cupboards. Lanterns are strung in our kitchen to keep our spirits happy. Because of this “endless gray”, there can be found many colorful paint colors in the city of Portland, Oregon, reminding me of the cheerfully-painted doors in the similarly wet, lush, fertile, Northern land of Ireland. Surely this is no coincidence… folks of wet, gray climates must need color to cheer their spirits during the longer, darker months of the year. For this reason, our front door is painted a lovely marigold-yellow with a soft turquoise-blue trim. The same blue is on the entire porch framework. Rubber boots of all sizes, tiny to huge, line the porch wall… for puddle-stomping and watery treks, of course. Our boys put on their boots and set out into the neighborhood to find the deepest puddles of all, stomping and running and jumping as the rain thunders down on their heads. They stick their heads under the leaky gutters and hide under their tree shelters, coming back red with the cold and wet from head to toe. The rubber boots may as well be sneakers since they create such gigantic splashes. One of our favorite places to be is along our local rivers, the shoreline made up of river-stones in blues, greens and grays. Fishermen line the banks during the right seasons and we wade into the swirling, clear waters with our boots on, looking for beautiful stones and pebbles underfoot. Redwing Blackbirds and Finches sing their song over in the blackberry hedges along the shore, and we build cairns marking our river adventure. We drape lightweight cotton blankets over the yellow reeds growing up through the pebbles so that my babies can eat their picnics in their own cozy river-houses. Squirt-boaters with their helmets on get pulled under the water with the current, then pop back up to the surface like a cork out of a soda-water bottle. We make little boats out of walnut shells, a toothpick for the mast and a birch leaf for the sail. My children throw sticks and leaves into the currents, watching them bob along downstream, chattering about where they will end up… will they make it all the way to the Columbia? Perhaps even to the Pacific Ocean?
We do our errands in the town while the rain comes down, treating ourselves to bookstores and cafes. We wear lots of woolen clothing to stay dry, hunker down for bowls of hot soup and gather around fires. We cradle a hot mug in our hands, cozying up in coffee-shop armchairs, looking out the windows into the world of gray, watching a train pass by or the occasional barge transporting sawdust or lumber making its way down the Columbia River. Follow this Columbia through the coastal range out to where it meets the Pacific, and you will find yourself in the most navigationally- hazardous waters in the world: the Columbia River Bar. At about 2,656 feet elevation, this great river begins in the Rockies in British Columbia and travels 1,214 miles through desert and mountains. It drains nearly all of Idaho, large portions of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, almost all of Montana west of the Continental Divide, and small portions of Wyoming, carrying with it tons of silt which it abruptly deposits onto the shifting sand floor at it’s Mouth just West of Astoria, Oregon, colliding with the waters of the Pacific ocean. This collision of waters creates waters so treacherous that it has been responsible for hundreds of shipwrecks; hence it’s other title, The Graveyard of the Pacific.
We hike through the woods to cross over bridges above waterfalls. We run along the little trails finding sticks to take to the lake. The boys attach little ropes to the ends of their sticks and sit on the shore to pretend they are fishing, watching with admiration the nearby fishermen who sometimes kindly give them some bait, hook and tackle. We wade in the swimming holes, making paper boats. We jump, ankle-deep, into the waves of the ocean. We watch the canoes glide soundlessly across the lake in the Cascade foothills, which is surrounded by a network of trails. The boys collect driftwood from the shores of the Columbia and make rafts, singing sailor songs. We head up to Mount Hood and drive up dirt roads to go swimming in Alpine Lakes.
Water is not just a naturally abundant source here but a daily blessing and tool. Often, in the Autumn, we light a fire on our back porch in our chiminea, filling the air with wood smoke and warming our hands as we go between apple-processing tasks: Flats of apples getting sorted by little hands into two piles: bruised and un-bruised. The bruised apples go into the washing tub where little hands wash and hold, transferring them into the next flat, where they then get chopped up and placed into large pots on the stove. As the rains come down and geese fly overhead, our applesauce and apple butter simmers on the stovetop. In the summer we wash peaches in these same tubs. While my children splash in the warm pool I have filled for them by the blueberry bushes, I like to watch the sunshine hit the water which bounces off the peach fuzz. My boys water the potted plants while my little 1 ½ year old patters around the room, bringing me items for the kitchen, re-arranging the magnets on the fridge, carrying her baby, singing her happy songs. We make pot after pot of tea, boiling the water, pouring the water, drinking the water. Throughout each day the table is filled with different spreads, one of them being palates (yogurt lids), brushes, and heavy cold-pressed paper for watercolor painting. Our 7-year-old tries his hand at some fantastic experiments with “fireworks”: a dot of thicker paint placed right in the middle of a puddle of water on the paper. When hitting the water, the color immediately spreads out in many directions creating a lovely star, or firework, effect. Beautiful! There is the washing of the floors. Homemade broth simmers on the stovetop; the kettle boils, the lentils are bubbling; and so steam fills the room, fogging up the windows. I fill up my kitchen sink with warm water, giving my babies cozy baths while I do my steam-ironing on cold mornings. Candles flicker on the windowsill and beyond this window are birds on the wet, dripping branches of trees, and rain-drops splash on the window. There is the washing of laundry and warm heavy quilts after a hot bath. I dip my hands into a tub of water as I center my lump of Stoneware clay on the wheel… I continue to wet my sponge as I form these bowls. When my children are thirsty, I give them water. When I wake, I wash my face, cleansing for a new day, a new beginning. We start our lives off in a womb filled with water. Water is in us, it is around us; it makes up more than half our planet. It waters our crops. It nourishes, it sustains. Water is essential for life: Life in our souls and life on our earth. This life in our watery land is fertile and good. The rains coming down touch to the roots of our souls, filling us with strength, for it is the Heavenly Dew, a symbol of blessing and fertility. Through water we are made new.