Completing the Circle

Captain WoolyRecent Goings On

Coming home today was when it became really real – when I took the first load out of my car and headed up to my office, understanding that I will never again have to “leave”.  There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, let me begin.

I last left Anacortes Marina (both home and office) for Everett last Wednesday.  It was the last week of school at Cascade High School – the place where I have poured my passion and refined my profession over the past 14 years.  Because Wednesday after school was our Science Department end-of-year party, I planned to stay more locally at my sister’s for the night.  Thursday was the last day of school, and my last day as an Everett Public Schools contracted teacher.  Because my mom, sister and I had a very early flight the next morning, I stayed at her house again.  We spent the weekend in remote Grass Valley California, with my father’s best friend and his wife.  After my dad died in March, I realized I could no longer delay visiting these precious friends who have had such an enormous impact on my life, to have some memorial with them.  My mom and sister were able to join me.  It was a very nourishing, healing weekend or us all, and a chance for me to start “unwinding” from a final intensive marathon at the end of a major career.

During all of this time I kept waiting for it to “hit me” – that I was not just “off for the summer”, that I was done teaching high school full time, and that I would be now dedicating my entire force of passion, time and energy to teaching maritime and nature classes through Shearwater University.  Instead, I felt a bit more like scrambled eggs – with all the different parts of my self and my attention bopping around chaotically inside my being.

We got back from California pretty late last night, so I delayed the drive north and stayed at my sister’s again.  This morning I enjoyed breakfast with them, a walk with my mom, and we squared up some financial issues related to mom’s move and dad’s death & memorial.  I answered some emails and phone calls I’d missed over my “network-free” weekend.  Finally I drove north in the afternoon.  Getting hungry, I picked up my mail and some fresh groceries, and finally rolled toward the Marina.  “Home” is my sailboat in the marina, a Nimble 30 named Alaria.  My office – Shearwater University Headquarters – is upstairs in the Anacortes Marina office Building.  Imagine my new commute across the parking lot (down from 2.5 hours per day).

Then, as in slow motion, I made my way upstairs.  Loading up my backpack and the groceries, inhaling a sense of truly “coming home”.  Stepping across the lot, exhaling the knowledge that I do not have to rush back to Everett tomorrow morning, or the next, or even in the fall.  Opening the building door, gazing at my one workplace (with its extension in Cap Sante Marina and all across the Salish Sea).  Going up the stairs, feeling my presence settling.  Entering my office, letting down my load, and knowing at last that all of my attention, all of my classes, all of my passions, will now flow through this place.  

I’m here.  And here is not really just this office, or this marina or this island, or even the whole of the Salish Sea.  “Here” is taking every step that I have taken in all of the places and experiences and efforts and lessons of my life, knitting them all together, and plying them into ONE purpose – the one that brings it all full circle.  

From the first sail my father took us on in San Francisco Bay – it’s characteristically strong winds driving the gunnel below the frothing sea and terrifying little 5-year-old me.  I will never forget that fear.  Even though after that day I transformed almost immediately into a wind and salt-spray seeking maritime adventurist, the memory of the fear helps me to understand the feelings of students experiencing heeling for the first time.  To the annual cruises of our family (and the friends who joined us) in which my father insisted we each develop the skills for every station on the vessel – helmsman, deck crew, navigator, galley cook and galley slave.  From the first cross-bearing fix he instructed me in at age 10, knowing where I am has been a lifelong habit of mind.  The excitement of racing Fireballs and J-24s as a teen allows me (an explorer by gut drive) to relate to those who seek that thrill, and it’s drawing me back in now.  And though during my 18 years in Southeast Alaska I never stepped foot on a sailboat, I built my navigation and piloting skills at the helm and on deck of commercial vessels up to 68 feet long, and even in skiffs and kayaks which I steered for many miles through islands, winds, seas, fogs, currents and shoals.  There were other adult years in the Inside Passage, exploring the waterways inside and outside Vancouver Island for weeks and months by sail and by paddle.  

But the circle has two halves, which for so long have felt divided.  The other half has been education.  This passion started as a student at the Evergreen State College.  My personal experience as a student within the integrated curriculum model that is the core of this institution brought learning alive with relevance and limitless interconnectivity.  I became excited about learning like never before in my life.  After I transferred to the University of Washington to pursue Botany and plant ecology more specifically, my passion for learning was joined by a new awareness of my ability to help others understand.  Fellow students started coming to me for  help instead of our professors.  From there I became an undergraduate TA for the Plant Taxonomy class (based on my years of field plant ID in the wilderness of SE Alaska).  

After graduation I was hired back as a Teaching Associate, first in General Botany and then in Plant Ecology.  I did that for two years before going back to Alaska and teaching my own Botany class for the University of Alaska in Ketchikan.  This along with a natural science illustration class I called “Drawing From Nature”.  In DFN I drew from the principles and techniques of scientific illustration to help budding adult artists connect their creativity and passion for nature with drawing skills.  This process helped them connect more deeply with the natural world and express that connection visually.  Some of them went on to second careers as artists of nature.  

But in all of this there was an undercurrent – a dream of bringing these two worlds together.  I first tasted it on the Hyak – the 52-foot charter vessel I spent my first 5 years in Alaska living and working aboard (1984-88).  When I first came aboard it was dedicated to work charters – providing a floating base camp to timber cruisers, geologists, and other field professionals in remote wilderness areas all over the archipelago.  Within a couple of years I had us supplementing that limited work with natural history charters – a new idea in the islands, where fishing charters and work charters were the two main-stream models.  From unstructured naturalist teaching on these charter cruises, I began conceiving of classes with more structured content and themes.  

After leaving the Hyak, I sought other venues for this wilderness-based education in Wrangell, Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau, including collaborations with other boat owners, educators, and even the Alaska State Ferry System.  At last, in Ketchikan in the 90s, I was finally able to bring it all together in Raven’s Backyard.  Raven’s Backyard workshops involved collaboration with the University of Alaska, the Forest Service, and the local schools.  Classes included Discovering Plants (edible and medicinal plants classes), Drawing From Nature (workshop version), and Plant Identification classes.  Enthusiasm grew within the communities of SE Alaska.  New classes were being developed to bring in more intimate experiences with ecology and wildlife of every scale.  And new collaborations were being born with remote lodges, large charter vessels, and the first kayaking tour/outfitters.  But that’s when life intervened, and I made the choice that mothers have made for all eternity.  While I was building up Raven’s Backyard I was also working as a Professional Botanist for the Forest Service.  And when I found I could not single parent and work two jobs, I chose the job that seemed more reliable at the time – a steady income displaced the dream.  

But my Forest Service work became part of the circle.  My personal, as well as scientific and professional, experiences with native plants gave me the perfect background to guide what was a very contentious process the Forest Service needed to go through: to develop a policy for managing wild non-timber plants for multiple uses.  These plants, which the Alaska Natives regard as an integral part of their very identity, lifestyle and livelihood; and which sourdough frontier families had also come to depend upon for their subsistence, were experiencing new demands from bio-prospectors and commercial wildcraft harvesters.  Some proposed taking out salal by the container-load to the lower 48 for sale to florist shops.  Others dared apply to commercially harvest the sacred devil’s club for medicinal products.  THAT’S when the Alaska Natives called for a big “time out”, and the Forest Service got busy trying to figure out how they – a multiple-use agency – would be able to balance these radically diverse needs and values.  This became the 4-year project that I stepped into the middle of.  I worked with 22 Alaska Native Tribes, the two largest National Forests (Tongass NF, at 17 million acres, and Chugach NF, at 7 million acres) with their 13 Ranger Districts, the State, the University of Alaska and its Extension Service, other States and National Forests, the USDA in Washington DC, the general berry-picking public, commercial harvesters from out of state, in-state cottage industries, pharmaceutical researchers, and even other countries.  With the input from these widely diverse needs and interests, and the collaborative hard work of a Special Forest Products Task Group, I wrote the Special Forest Products Policy for the Alaska Region of the Forest Service.  

A very substantial curve of the circle was forged in this process.  It includes my own intimate relationship with the plants through their providing integral and seasonal staples in my diet and my family’s, along with important medicines we came to rely on.  It includes the process of helping others develop this intimate and caring relationship through learning sustainable harvest and use of the plants for their own families (the Raven’s Backyard workshops).  It includes the strong relationships with my Alaska Native friends, colleagues, and collaborators, some of whom became like family to me, and all of whom taught me my most treasured life values toward family and the natural world.  It includes a hard-won understanding (through our mutual struggle for a collective understanding) that neither science nor tradition hold the ultimate answer, but rather that bridging between the two holds the path forward.  It includes the belief that sometimes, priority matters; and in the end we found a legal way to reserve the top priority use of these plants for traditional, customary and subsistence uses.  

It is difficult for me to explain how my experience working closely with this diverse assemblage of humans – and especially how the influence of my Alaska Native friends – drove me out of the Forest Service, back to Washington, and into the service of public school teaching.  But it did.  It had to do with the premier value of family (ironically, my deepening connection with the Alaska Native community bought the necessity to leave it, to be closer to family and so my son could grow up surrounded by his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles).  It had to do with my calling to return to education (once the Policy was done and in place).  It had to do with the unique perspective of building a bridge between science and traditional knowledge that grew out of this work.  And it had to do with a spiritual urge to serve the needs of learners as diverse as only public school could bring together.

When I dove my passions into high school science teaching, my growth as an educator was exponential.  It quickly grew to deep collaborations in curriculum and instructional design, as well as leadership roles in inquiry-based instruction and curriculum adoption throughout the State.  For nine years my passions and energies were equally split between raising my son and teaching my students.  My passions are not easily split, and this was my first encounter with the hardship of me trying to do so.  I pour myself completely into what I do.  Which doesn’t leave a lot left after you’ve poured two “completenesses” into two different purposes.  Yet, despite my neglected health, I managed to raise a well-loved son, and become a first-rate educator for my school district.  

Throughout this time, lingering on the sidelines, there was an orphan.  The orphan contained in it all the other parts of the circle:  my intimate knowledge of native plants, their ecology and uses; my deep connection with the natural world (in the forest and on the sea); my passion for boats (particularly sailing and kayaking), exploration, piloting & navigation, and living on & with the sea.  Sometimes I would wonder, or people would ask, if I could teach a Raven’s Backyard workshop here and there, now and again.  But I lacked the venue and the infrastructure, the insurance and the local reputation.  So it just sat, orphaned, waiting, wondering how long it would be waiting.  It just had to come back around, sometime, somehow.  

Then one of my two BIG jobs came mostly, materially, to an end.  In 2010 my son went off to college.  In my initial panic (read “serious empty nest syndrome”), I didn’t know what to do.  But I did know I needed to find a way to transition out of the relentless over-work, and back toward a more balanced life.  So I took the universal advice to all those suffering the empty nest, “reconnect with your passions”.  Slowly, I enticed the orphan out of the closet.  The poor thing of course blinked wide-eyed in the light of day.  But once I had signed up for an outdoor social group, bought a backpack, a kayak, a pair of snowshoes and a bike, the orphan went on a sheer blitz.  Every weekend was paddling, hiking, biking, and often camping.  I quickly became a leader and organizer for my regional kayaking club.  I joined and led kayaking expeditions.  I solo backpacked the entire Washington coast (okay, almost entire).  I got incredibly in shape.

Then, one day, one of my kayaking buddies said “Hey Phyllis, don’t you know how to sail?  I’m working on learning; maybe you can go out with me and give me some pointers.”  Yes, of course that event exploded on my life, and within a few months I was on the market looking for a 35-foot sailboat to live aboard.  I eventually found it, but not without finding a husband in the process.  So I married my yacht broker (Mike), moved onto my boat, rented out my house, and together we went headlong into the maritime world professionally.  

But while Mike dove back into yacht brokering (now with his own brokerage), I had this problem of being divided again.  There I was, pouring my whole self into teaching high school science, AND pouring my whole self into growing a sailing and kayaking and navigation school (and rebirthing Raven’s Backyard) for Anacortes.  And driving 2 1/2 hours a day between them.  I survived that for only a year and a half.  With the exuberantly positive response from the community of Anacortes and the Salish Sea to my offering sailing, kayaking and navigation classes in boating paradise (with the quality of a professional educator), Shearwater University grew until I could no longer sustain the divided life.  It became irrevocably clear by mid-February that I had to make a choice.  And the choice was clear.  Only one path would bring the circle to completion.  

But before I could offer my resignation to the Everett School District, calamity struck my family.  In the middle of the process of moving my mother from my house to my sister’s house, my father went into the hospital.  Three roller-coaster-sleepless-nights weeks later he died, with the three of us beside him extolling our love for him.  My career transition was lost in this process and its aftermath.  The months of March and April were absorbed with caring and family and grief and memorial and trying to keep my students tended to, and really just trying to breathe.

After the dust settled, and I looked back at the big decision I had made, it was with the awareness of my father that the way forward took on a higher level of imperative.  The idea that “he lives through me” (just as he lives through everyone he touched in a different way), meant that turning my teaching skills toward sailing, kayaking, navigation, and nature would keep his greatest joy alive in the world.  I turned in my resignation form, and then I turned myself toward finishing this school year with my best abilities, while keeping Shearwater University steaming toward it’s first year under my full attention.  As you can imagine, it was grueling.  But at the same time, it was exhilarating.  I had come so far as an educator in the crucible of the high school classroom – serving every diversity of student.  I had crafted my profession in collaboration with incredible educators, doing our greatest work together, and becoming better professionals for it.  I felt that this 14-year expedition in public education made me more ready than I could ever have been to serve the maritime world in the best way I am able.   

But it was not on the last day of school that the circle became complete.  And it was not over the weekend retreat in California, in the presence of dear friends and family who have been with me through this lifetime.  It was when I got out of my car in the Anacortes Marina parking lot, foisted my overloaded backpack onto my shoulder, and hefted a couple bags of groceries across the parking lot, up the stairs, and into my office.  It was arriving and knowing “I am here”, and I don’t have to divide my passions any more.  The circle is complete.  And everything I have experienced in my life is here with me, to serve the wide diversity of people who seek connection with the sea and with nature.