The most evident fact about me is that I’m not from here, here being the Pacific Northwest. I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, a climate and culture markedly different from the one where I now live in here in Olympia, Washington. (Yes, I probably will say “Sorry” if you bump into me. Those Canadian mores are entrenched!) Mine was the classic story: I fell in love, married, and found myself living in a new place. We had a family, made a home, and immersed ourselves in work and daily life.
For me, that involved teaching myself local history and serving on the City’s Heritage Commission, and then working for the State, documenting legislative history as an oral historian. I have conducted oral histories of local notables as well as for the Women’s History Consortium’s ERA Project. Along the way, I’ve been a board member of the Olympia Historical Society and deeply involved in the creation of Olympia’s historic house museum, the Bigelow House. It’s been a rewarding and fascinating career!
But even as I delved into the human history of my adopted city and state, something was missing. On school field trips, I learned random facts about iconic subjects such as the life cycle of salmon and how nurse trees benefit forests, but I wasn’t getting beyond an elementary school level of understanding my environment. We took our children to the beach, the mountains, and on occasional camping trips, but I am not really a camper type and have always been happier with a book than a backpack. Even though I revel in this lush, mossy, ferny, tall-treed Eden, for too long I was content to just see undifferentiated green all around me. I didn’t trouble myself to really know a Douglas-fir from a Red cedar tree, or Oregon Grape bush from salal. But reading such inspiring writers as Wendell Berry and Annick Smith, their catch-phrase “becoming native to this place” beat a soft persistent drum in my mind; it was the direction I wished my life to take but I didn’t know where to begin. I needed a mentor, a teacher.
Luckily, I lived only a few houses away from Flo Brodie. At first I knew her as a friendly neighbor who daily walked her ancient dog slowly by my front garden while I watched our young children playing. I must have lamented my general ignorance of our local flora and fauna as I recall her advising me to get some field guides to begin sorting out my surroundings. And she said I should acquaint myself with the work of Margaret McKenny without revealing much about who she was, or as I discovered, what her own connection with Margaret was and the important conservation work they had accomplished in their day. No, Flo knew I should begin at the beginning with birds and trees and work my way to Margaret through cultivating my own sense of wonder first.
So my quest began. Slowly, even while I kept busy with children and career, I began to pay more attention to the world outside. And I began to collect whatever I could find that referenced Margaret.
Margaret, had she still lived, I discovered, would also have been a neighbor. Her old home was only a short walk away. She died in 1969, more than a decade before I came to Olympia, but she was still a force and an inspiration to many in this community. She and Flo were leaders in the battle to preserve the nearby Nisqually Delta, said to be the last unspoiled estuary on the Pacific coast. I also learned that she was known as “the mushroom lady” as she was a revered expert in all things fungi. Margaret was also a wild flower expert and a founder of our local Audubon Society. She was the author of at least fifteen books on nature subjects and a frequent speaker and local commentator on her favorite subjects. Most thrilling of all, I found that her personal papers had been saved and were accessible for research. I conceived the project of writing her life-and-times story to inspire others with her work and example as she has inspired me.
You will find news of that biographical project here in this blog, but mostly I want to share my journey afield with Margaret and how it changed my life. Come join me outside.