two geese, two dogs, and a beaver

Two and a half years of walking these woods and I have seen no wildlife to speak of. Yes, Nora got sprayed by a porcupine, yes, I could see scat on the trails, prints in the snow, yes, the sounds of woodpeckers and birds followed us. But I’ve never actually seen another living thing except the back end of a slow flying turkey making fight and the frozen stare of one lone deer getting ready to jump the brook. Last fall there was a family of otters that swam the back side of the pond, retreating to the furthest corner when we approached. That’s it. I had gotten used to the feeling of walking the trails with just flashes of dog to accompany me.

Then last week as we approached the pond I noticed something gliding, leaving a small wake as it moved through the water. Instead of retreating, this animal turned and began to swim right toward us, staring straight at me, at least that’s what it felt like. A beaver!

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What did I know of beavers except of their engineering prowess? Was this guy patrolling/protecting or just curious? Clearly he wasn’t afraid of us. As he was closing the distance between us, I moved quickly and called the dogs to keep moving along the trail, noting the edge of fear that propelled me away.

He/she she was there again the next day. Same dance, same result. I was humbled by how nervous I felt in the presence of a wild animal that wasn’t afraid of me. But then, he/she had the whole pond to hide in if necessary. I called again to the dogs to keep moving and the beaver slapped its tail and disappeared under the water. We moved along without waiting around to see what would happen if we stayed.

As we approached the pond yesterday, we were greeted by the loud honking of geese. Not the kind of cries from the sky that announced arrival or departure; this was like a conversation, a back and forth between two creatures.

There was just two of them, and like the beaver, as we approached, they actually began swimming toward us, continuing their lively banter. And much to my amazement, the beaver was right there with them. What a scene. Two geese, two dogs and a beaver.

For years I used to say I lived with two kids, two cats, and a dog. It rolled off my tongue like velvet, it felt good. I lived in a household that was rich in life that coexisted in harmony like a team. I didn’t realize how much I missed this until now, regarding the way in which these animals were all focused and communicating with each other in what seemed to be a trusting way. I finally felt how I was part of it too, not just an observer. I felt the urge to sing out loud like these geese. To say clearly whatever was there that I may have been silent about for too long. Did I dare? I decided to stay, sit and absorb what was being offered in this moment. We were an unlikely team, all of us there at the pond, but a team nonetheless. My job in this moment was to discern what endeavor was calling, how teamwork would be essential to the effort. Where my loyalty to living and modeling a sustainable life was leading me. The beaver circled around to the center of the pond, slapped its tail and dove out of sight. He didn’t reappear, instead, leaving a reverberation of presence in the center of the pond.

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Later, as if to make sure whatever message I needed to get was being delivered, Yogi stepped into the center of a pool in the brook.

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He transformed, became part bear in that moment, staying visible, inviting me to consider how a dream of making housing to serve developmentally disabled persons, and the developmentally challenged community of which they are a part, might actually become real…

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Yogi, Nora, and I are finally back in the woods.

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The paths are a little soggy, but the crampons have been put away, pants have been sprayed with permethrin in anticipation of warmth and ticks, and it feels like clear sailing ahead. Yesterday we covered three glorious miles of deep woods walking. We emerged in a new place behind my neighbors property, a place that gave me a view of my homestead in a way I’d never seen quite this way before. After two and a half years, it still takes my breath away.

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Aside from an occasional call out to the dogs to come, our walks are otherwise a quiet communion with a spirit of something that feels solid enough to hold all the inspiring thoughts that float through my mind. I have this huge story beginning to grow in me, and I can’t stop it from coming. Amidst the circling ideas about developing characters and scenes I had a persistent thought. When did the woods introduce themselves to me for the first time? How old was I when the initiation of this sacred feeling took place? I searched and searched my memory, considered all the years of skiing on snow covered slopes cut into the woods on the side of a mountain. My love of being in the wildness of this kind of context captured my heart immediately. But no, there was something earlier, something more visceral and intimate than swooshing in and out of woods in the cold with speed that had been triggered at an early age. It took a while, but the memory finally came. My one and only time attending summer camp in the heart of the Adirondacks for two whole weeks. I was ten years old. It all came flooding back then. The feeling of communion with companions in the wildness of where we were. The thrill of jumping into the deep black lake, the excitement of hiking and portaging with bags of homemade gorp in our pockets, the overnight trip deep into the woods, sleeping on the ground in the open, flashlight on all night in my sleeping bag, terrified of the thought of a bear finding me. The whole time, the woods were there with me too.

I’ve been in transition these past few months. As I move into production of my first book that has been in the making for three years, I simultaneously move into my job as a creative who also writes. It has become a serious thing, this business of writing, every bit as much an obsession now as my quilt-making. I fought it for awhile. All the shoulds and should nots that could prevent me from following this path have presented themselves and I’ve had to work through every aspect of what it means to live a life not devoted to one occupation, but to many. There is the worry about not being enough of a specialist to command a price for my work. There is wondering about providing for retirement. Retirement? What is retirement? There is fear about being alone. But I started down this path of crafting a life as I go along, a long time ago. There’s no looking back now. The woods and the brook give me the strength to hold onto this vision and keep flowing with it at the same time.

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Today, it is a new quilt occupies the landscape of my mind. So much of my work begins with making ‘fabric’ first by assembling random pieces and scraps in a spontaneous and unpatterned way. These pieces of ‘fabric’ get transformed in some way. The agent of transformation is hovering.

Here are the pieces that I’ve made so far. What will they become?

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black and white

March is almost over. It’s been a long month of being coaxed back into the woods for walks after weeks of waiting for the inches of snow to melt enough for easy long distance walking. We had a week of this freedom, the beauty of a forest letting go of winter.

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And then boom, the blizzard of 2017 hit, depositing another two feet of snow where there had just been none. No easing into spring here, just the black and white world of swinging from one extreme to another.

I’ve had to adjust to how Yogi manages his time in these extremes. He is just a year old, still very much a puppy, still trying to sort out what he can manage on his own, where he is restricted, and where he will push a boundary. Most significantly, he has learned how to get up on his hind legs and with a deft paw, push down on the lever hardware that will open the glass storm door to let himself out. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that this is the way he can let himself in as well. He has trained me to just let him do it because otherwise, he will just continue to deepen the grooves he likes to make in the wood door and frame. All I need to do is train him to close the door behind him.

But in the meantime, I need to be ever vigilant of his desire to be outside. Some days, he will stay out for hours, making beds for himself in the snow. Other days, in and out, in and out. It’s actually a blessing here on the homefront when there are many feet of snow. He can play and dig to his heart’s content without breaking into the frozen ground.

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But oh, just a little thaw and the dark wet earth starts flying. When I feel my blood pressure rise, I let myself fantasize about the one extreme of life without these nuisances, without him in my life, or the other extreme of getting the chickens and goats I dream about, not waiting till next year, so as to give him some work right now, to guard the animals he is bred to do.

Or, I could go to make another batch of my new favorite chocolate cookies.

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It is a cookie so dark and crunchy chocolate and so easy to make, it is impossible not to feel the balm of seratonin that follows. I had noticed the bag of (Organic Traditions) cocoa nibs I bought to use for Christmas cookies sitting unopened in the cabinet. You can imagine the plethora of recipes that could be found by googling cookies with cocoa nibs. “Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nib Shortbread Cookies” had no competition. I made some adaptations, polished off the first batch in less than a week, and immediately tested the recipe again a second time.** The cocoa nibs add a perfect little crunch. They aren’t tea cookies. They need the strength of coffee to manage the strength of dark chocolate lusciousness.

I remember much needed moderation when these cookies are in the house. What better way to remind myself of the middle way when dancing with extremes.

Yogi has done a good job so far of guarding the homestead as he tries to find his place here. He has his perch at the front and another overlooking the woods and meadow and will bark at the sound of  truck ambling by a mile away. He is a good dog. A gentle soul. And oh so beautiful. I simply have not been able to stop taking pictures of him. The camera loves him, and he seems to know just how to move to let the light move across his lush white fur, or turn to look at me with an expression that always seems to say “I know exactly what to give you right now to make up for that hole I made over there”

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In the end, if I can’t find him a job guarding animals, there is always a career in modeling.

**Dark Chocolate Cocoa Nib Shortbread Cookies (adapted from recipe by Traci York, Vanilla and Bean)

3/4 cup all purpose flour (I used organic unbleached white flour)
1/4 cup white whole wheat flour (I used my cashew flour/whole wheat pastry flour mix)
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (good quality dutch process kind really makes a difference)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) butter at room temperature
1 cup turbinado sugar, (processed in small food processor to white granulated sugar consistency)
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup cocoa nibs
Powdered sugar

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silpat (I used a silat)

Whisk or sift together flours, cocoa powder, salt & baking soda. Set aside.

Beat sugar, butter and vanilla until smooth and creamy. (I might use a stand mixer here if I had one, but by hand works great too….)

Add dry ingredients in two batches. If too dry and crumbly, add up to a tablespoon water    (or leftover coffee)

Mix in cocoa nibs until evenly distributed.

Dump dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, lightly drape over dough, and press dough into a 1/2” thick rectangle. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to two days.

On a floured work surface roll out dough to 1/4” thick, maintaining rectangular shape as much as possible. With a sharp wet knife, cut dough into 4 x 6 grid, approx. 24 rectangles. Place cookies on pan with metal spatula, separated by at least 1/2”.

Put baking sheet with dough in refrigerator for another 20 minutes while pre-heating oven to 350 degrees.

Bake chilled cookies for 22-24 minutes, check for done (almost firm to touch) after 20 minutes. Allow to cool on sheet. Sift with powdered sugar.

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apple cake redux

It is just when I think I’m finished with the writing of my stories that have been forming into a book, that I think the next round of editing could be done by someone else, that this piece might truly be complete, that the nagging inside of ‘there is more to do’ finds expression. I have been sharing the developing chapters with my writing group for four years and it felt significant that I recently put a full working draft into their hands after all this time. My gut told me I would hear from these trusted colleagues what I already knew. They indeed gave me words for what more I could do, and led me to acceptance of where I am. I simply have not reached that moment in the process where I can confidently let go. After years of architecture projects and quilts that spanned years before completion, I am well acquainted with this feeling. Writing as a form of creative expression is no different. Time to strap myself back in the saddle and go for a longer ride.

It’s why the unexpected twists and turns in the path through the woods each day is so nourishing. No matter what the weather, the temperature, the season, or the temperament of dog cavorting with human on any day, I know that at the end of our time there, I will be inspired in some new unexpected way and will result in some creative act, even if just capturing the essence of where I am in that moment. Now, after weeks of deep snow, we were finally able to get out for the much needed longer walks we were used to,

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taking in the distinct smells and sounds of earth accomodating melting snow.

It’s also why the smaller efforts that take place in the kitchen have become so important. They are my fix, a point of punctuated pleasure in making something uniquely delicious right now. Even the things I have been making for years over and over that I keep coming back to like the ‘Small Macaroni Woodsman’s Style, with Mushrooms’, by following Marcella Hazan’s recipe in her book “More Classic Italian Cooking”. (Also referenced in Oct. 12, 2011 post called ‘woodsman style’) The only serious straying I do from her recipe is to substitute uncured turkey bacon for the ham. An impulse for making this dish came last week after purchasing some orecchiette. Next time at the store I bought the fresh mushrooms called for. I’ve been making this pasta for over twenty years, and most consistently use dried porcini mushrooms as well. It took over a week and repeated failures to acquire these dried mushrooms, and I finally ordered an entire pound of them online. Gorgeous pieces of the woods in a bowl ready to be re-constituted with a little warm water.

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From impulse to actual preparation of this woodsman’s style pasta, it was now almost two weeks. Here, I was making progress in being able to follow the natural flow of an impulse to its natural conclusion, no matter how long it took. It was worth the wait. My weeks of missing the nourishment of woods essence was satisfied here too.

Then there are the broad sweeping changes I will make to something like the ever evolving Apple Cake**. There are no limits to what I won’t try in an effort to enjoy the abundance of canned apples from my own trees. This morning I came across the most recent version of a recipe I wrote down toward this effort. And proceeded to do something completely different. Instead of creaming the butter with a cup of sugar, I endeavored to cream it with a cup of maple syrup. I finally gave up after rounds with both the electric mixer and wooden spoon, when the butter was broken down to a out rice size pieces and I could accept that this would not be a creamy fluffy blend like what happens with sugar. Adding the eggs and cream helped. By the time I added the flour mixture and apples, it didn’t matter anymore, this looked and felt like cake batter. And it came out of the oven with the sides of the cake provocatively shrinking from the sides of the pan just so, the top golden brown and glistening. So much promise here.

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After cooling in the pan for at least an hour, I finally cut a piece. The first wedge lifted out of the pan like a prize fighter in perfect form. Not a crumb left behind. I sprinkled a little powdered sugar on top as the fragrance of spice and apple was fully released.

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I gave it all a moment of reverence and then took the first bite. It had spring. It was light and moist at the same time. The tastes were all perfectly melded, not too apple, not too sweet, not too anything. Just sublime. I can’t wait to see what kind of apple harvest there will be this year in anticipation of making more canned apples and more cake. This recipe will bear repeating. Something to put in the file along with woodsman’s style pasta.
**Apple Cake Redux

Cream 8 Tablespoons butter (1 stick) with
1 cup maple syrup (an electric mixer is helpful here)
Add 2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks
Add 1/2 cup heavy cream

Whisk together in another bowl and add to wet ingredients until just mixed
2 cups flour (1 cup unbleached white (organic) flour + 1 cup ww pastry flour/cashew flour mix)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1-3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Fold in (1) pint spiced shredded apples + 2/3 pint applesauce

Pour into 12″ round cake pan prepared with butter & flour

350 degrees for 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

for the love of winter sushi

It is really winter now. Two weeks of storms, lots of snow, some freeze and thaw,

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more snow. Full moon and partial eclipse, some intense winds, more snow. Risotto, and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. There were a few days where I could get out into the woods with Yogi and Nora just wearing crampons, when the powdery snow was still nestled on branches and the slightest movement would bring it down in a cascade of whispers.

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I went long distance with the dogs those days, the full loop around Eagle Nest to the swamp, along the brook and back. They reveled in the freedom to explore the familiarity of the place we all love to be together

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and I loved seeing the transformation that came with the blanket of white.

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And then it snowed again. This time enough to warrant snowshoes and finally, a foray into my own back woods all by myself. It’s been months since I’ve walked this familiar path, abandoned in favor of deeper woods that could absorb the full energy of the dogs. I was invincible with the snowshoes on, I could go anywhere, every glance a new potential path. And familiar views that welcomed me back.

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Before I left on retreat to St. John I saw a movie I really liked called ‘East Side Sushi’. It is about a Latin born woman who aspires to become a sushi chef, and all the imaginable roadblocks that come with breaking with tradition and aspiring to something new. It is a sweet movie, moving, full of the kind of tolerance and acceptance that can make a difference. So I’ve had sushi on the brain ever since. Inspired, I took a package of nori and a bag of brown rice on retreat and ended up making vegetable sushi for one of the pot lucks while there. Seaweed wrapped seasoned rice was refreshing, and even more so I imagined after the ravages of typical winter fare.

Today’s vision was a strong one. Curried (purple) sweet potato and smoked sockeye salmon, which earned the name, ‘for the love of winter sushi’**. The key was to cook the sweet potato in the spices until just firm, not to let it get mushy. The potato was cut into thick slices and added to the center of the rice with a strip of the smoked salmon. An amazing combination of smoky and subtle heat with firm to the bite and soft. Warm. Today’s stew.

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All it needed was a little bit of tamari as seasoning, wasabi wasn’t necessary with the heat of the curry. With a bowl of steaming miso soup, the perfect supper….

**For Love of Winter Sushi

Sushi rice: I cup short grain brown rice, cooked in 1-3/4 cups water until just done, firm to bite. Heat 1 Tbsp. Rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp. Agave, 1/2 teaspoon salt and add to hot cooked rice in wide shallow glass or ceramic bowl. TOSS together (not sir) with spatula. Prepare curried sweet potato (thick slices sautéed in olive oil, curry, ground fennel, and a little coconut milk until just tender, but still firm). Open package of smoked wild sockeye salmon. Cover nori with a thin layer of rice. Cut each piece of potato to size to lay out a line in middle of the rice. Add strip of salmon. With moist hands or bamboo mat, roll. Slice. Eat.

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our world

I just got home from an afternoon of Special Olympics basketball. The world feels right again. My faith in humanity, in a way of settling into the heart of the game that is being played by persons of all abilities, is always instantaneously restored in this context. Perfect strangers root for the other team when a brilliant basket is made. The sense of us all being in it together, truly and authentically, is what reigns. It is such a relief.

This morning the sun finally rose in full view with the day.

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I can’t remember such a gloomy stretch since I’ve been here in this beautiful place I call home. It’s been a long week of gray skies, sleet, rain, freeze, ice, sporadic snow flurries. So uninspiring that the woods didn’t even call. The dogs were becoming impatient with the dance between inside and outside

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Finally, yesterday, with the Himalayan style cramp-ons strapped to my boots, we ventured out into the ice encrusted world where deep frozen deer tracks, looking like lungs of the earth, were the only hints of life.

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It was a start anyway, to settling into the world of home that I remembered before I went away for retreat. I was so caught up in the rapid fire changes being made at a national level that I forgot that this home for me has already been irrevocably changed in such a powerful and wonderful way by the presence of Ben, and all the people I have been lucky enough to come to know who also inhabit his world.

Ben made me a CD the week he was home for Christmas. He is a master of making playlists and loves to compile special collections for special people in special times. It wasn’t until we were in the car after our week together that he popped his new creation into the car CD player. It began with skillfully interwoven Annie Lennox songs from two different albums, all my favorites, twelve in all. I thought that was it. But when I got back home and was driving into town for the first time a few days ago I turned on the audio and the CD kept going. The song ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Bedingfield filled the car with its inspiring lyrics, then the song ‘Reflection’ from the movie Mulan, then three Celine Dion love songs. For some reason this entire collection, all powerful songs by powerful women, brought up the emotion I had been suppressing since I came home. Driving along I finally released the tears I had been holding for days. How did he know?

I ejected the CD and found this written on the disc**

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Yes! OUR WORLD, and proud to be part of it.
**Kathy Ford Band, Our World 2017

A Thousand Beautiful Things
Honestly
Wonderful
Bitter Pill
Oh God Prayer
Smithereens
Ghosts in My Machine
Womankind
Sing
Big Sky
Fingernail Moon
No More I Love You’s
Unwritten
Reflection
Loved Me Back to Life
Somebody Loves Somebody
Where is the Love

gentle gentle gentle

And then there is santosha, a yogic practice of ‘accepting what actually is’. That we are human beings, full of weird stuff that can often come into the light in ways we would never consciously summon and would benefit from having clarity about. Santosha is essentially the same as radical non-intereference in spirit, ‘see something for what it is’, but also carries with it the space for action from clarity. When my legs become covered in bug bites like they do the first few days in this new environment, it takes time for me to accept that I am a delicious object of desire for bugs. I keep letting it happen. It takes a few days for me to accept that this is actually happening again, even though I’m not using any coconut oil on my skin now like I did last year, have even been using bug spray diligently. I work through the dismay and puzzlement of why my legs still became covered in flea bites, why I am still waking in the middle of the night to the one or two mosquitoes that are leaving large welts on my knuckles and face and even my feet under the covers. Making the choice to stop the assault required action. Moving to a windier location, or maybe even buying one of the readily available mosquito nets from the shop. All the while watching my resistance to choosing these paths to comfort, as if willing my way to a solution through battle with the bugs might actually work. Eventually the words that come to me when practicing Santosha are ‘gentle gentle gentle’. I don’t have to surrender to these bugs, I don’t have to crumble in despair, I don’t have to fight back to the death. I can gently bring myself back to myself and maybe, just maybe, I can share from this place with others. I can co-exist with the bugs and choose my comfort at the same time. I know, it’s only bugs, not human beings. But it is a place to start practicing.

Practicing with humans in retreat brings its own joys and challenges. There are typical group dynamics that come from fear of missing out or not being fully involved in the social activities outside of class. And then the fun of celebrating gratitude together for this experience we have given ourselves. One of my favorite moments was at the end of the first week when, unbeknownst to the rest of us, many members of the group prepared and performed cover songs with new, retreat specific lyrics. Pure fun.

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My legs are healing. And as it is the second week of the retreat, I was scheduled to switch tents, and it happens to be in a much windier location that the bugs cannot rest in. The wind seems to come from the very water itself. This particular tent feels like something out of Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, as if the very structure of home is truly supported by the sea.

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I also now have a variety of deet free bug repellent that I use diligently, still determined not to fall back on chemical warfare. Who knows what combination of these things is making the difference. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is making a choice to act to end my suffering. And honor that an action taken might mean very different things to different people.

The tents here at Concordia are eco-tents. Composting toilets, solar electric and hot water. A small refrigerator and cooktop. Solidly constructed frames that are sheathed in protective canvas and screens with zippered flaps that allow a full flow of light and air. Simple and easy. Not unlike many of the apartments I have experienced with daughter Molly in Cusco. It’s certainly not the amenities of first world comfort I have been brought up with. But I don’t think of it as a third world thing either. This feels completely natural. Something to even aspire to and work towards in my modest home back home. The daily walk along the wooden ramp/path that connects us all to each other also connects us to the richness of the deep blue we get to live with here.

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There is a beautiful tree that this path winds around, with the weathered skin of a wise benevolent being who set down roots here a very long time ago.

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There is also a path through the woods that leads us down to the sandy beach of Salt Pond, replete with shimmering aqua water and palm trees and the anchored vessels that remind us that there are many ways to live with the sea.

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Raging winds and rains shook our tent like a rattle last night. The sensation of gently settling into the violence of it all was met with awe, and a little healthy fear at just how destructive unleashed power can be. Gentle gentle gentle still seems to be a good response.