All Creatures Great and Small

During the years Margaret lived in New York City, 1927 to 1943, she rented out rooms in her house for extra income, and when she returned to Olympia, she continued the practice. As a free-lance writer the income gave her some financial stability, but it also brought her new friends. Dale and Barbara were one such couple who rented from Margaret in the 1950s and found not just a place to call home while stationed at Fort Lewis, but a generous and avid guide to the natural wonders of the area. They enjoyed many outings with her to hunt for mushrooms, wild strawberries, explore mountain meadows and on one occasion, the rich sea-life of Puget Sound. Barbara recalled, “Margaret took us to an aquarium that had specimens of all the things in Puget Sound. And, of course, she could identify them all. That was a fun day.”

In the correspondence, notes and books, and other papers saved from Margaret’s records there are plenty of mentions of mushrooms, birds, trees and wild flowers, and local wildlife, but no mention of tide-pools or the creatures that populate the near-shore environment. Still, “she could identify them all.” And that is a puzzle. How did she learn about all the curious creatures found under the rocks and washing in with the tide? There were few to no guides available yet; she likely learned her marine biology from a fellow aficionado, so far name undiscovered. As her curiosity for nature study was inexhaustible, however, her expertise should not be a surprise. 

Guides to marine life and Internet sites now abound, but the most illuminating way to learn about this hidden bounty is have the good fortune to be present as we were recently for an “Ocean Day” hands-on experience at a local beach. I’ve experienced the generosity of birders who share scopes and knowledge with novices; now I can add marine biologists who happily initiate children and adults alike to the mysteries of what can be found on or near our shores.

Heading out with nets to find what creatures live in the intertidal zone of Kadonaga Bay

What a revelation! As we clambered over rocks to peer into tide-pools, we were shown whelks clinging to the rocks, but also masses of their eggs—which look like small grains of rice—clustered in the crevices. I would have missed seeing them on my own.

Barnacles and Whelks clinging to the rocks. If you look closely you can see some of the Whelk eggs as slightly pinkish rice-like masses wedged between the rocks.

Nets employed to gently scoop up small beings were emptied into large aquariums for easier viewing and identification. Crabs, small fish of various kinds, jellyfish, bits of seaweed, and life forms I’ve never seen before swam, floated or scuttled about the tanks. Two of the many creatures which intrigued me were species of nudibranchs (see below) and a creature that looked like a blade of grass with the tiny face of a seahorse on one end, commonly called a bay pipefish!

We stayed, peering into the tanks and chatting and exclaiming until the onset of sunburn reminded us of the passage of time. It was a glorious day of discovery and camaraderie. If Margaret had been with us, she would have been in the thick of things, pointing out the wonders, drawing in the children, and enjoying herself immensely. And identifying everything!  

I am so grateful to Barbara Esler for sharing her memories of living at Margaret’s house and adding insight and color to my understanding of Margaret’s personality and life. I would also like to thank Rob Underhill of Mayne Island Conservancy for help with information for this post and the enthusiastic marine biologists who generously shared their knowledge, Kelly Nordin, Dave Hutchinson and Michael Dunn, while hosting Ocean Day at Kadonaga Bay, St. John Point, on Mayne Island.

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