Back to dripping saltwater on the lawn: How to start all over again with a new perspective

Family on the beach

In June of 2008 I started telling my story of living on the waterfront with my first column in the South Whidbey Record.

From the beginning it should have been clear to any reader that this version of waterfront life wasn’t going to be anything like what you’d find in the pages of Coastal Living magazine. (I pick on them a lot as examples of excessive waterfront lifestyles, but I really enjoy their pretty pictures.)

There would be no matching red white and blue linens gracing the Bartlett’s beach side dining table. Going out on the boat would mean rowing, not calling the launch to come get us from the yacht. Even getting this crew all facing the same direction is nearly impossible.

And my primary focus was always going to be the question of what we could do to make sure that our all consuming lifestyle didn’t decimate this place so that future generations had nothing left to enjoy.

So much has changed since the summer of 2008.

I’ve been honored to be able to write for my local paper for almost three years. And doing that job, led to this, Tidal Life the blog, and it got me involved with the information fire hose that is Twitter. It’s safe to say that Tidal Life has changed my life. I hope it’s left salty little fingerprints on a few of yours.

Alas, the time has come to wave bye-bye to the newspaper version of Tidal Life. The economy has not been kind to small town newspapers and cuts are deep. Tidal Life, the column, has been made redundant.

Truthfully, this news came as a relief. I’ve become so busy with Tidal Life the blog, writing a book and working full time that I wasn’t giving the column the time it deserved. Without that looming deadline each month I can devote myself to new projects for a while.

In my talk with Brian, my editor at the Record, I left open the option of occasionally writing a special piece, if events and my interest create something special. (Like a conference about beach access.) I’m happy with that arrangement.

So I thought, to celebrate a new start, I’d post that very first column all over again. Though much has changed about waterfront life, much remains the same. We still need to take care, every minute of the day, of our beautiful Puget Sound.

Thank you to all my readers. It’s been wonderful to hear from you over the years. Whether you agreed with my perspective or not, I’ve appreciated every word you’ve written or said to me in response to my columns.

Whidbey is still a beautiful and special place, not in small part, due to all of you. The story continues here at Tidal Life. Please keep reading and commenting. And pulling together to get through this harsh time and on to a better one. If there’s one message I’d like to make sure Tidal Life imparts it’s that the status quo sucks. We should not be looking to get back what we had, but to move on to better ways of doing things, ways that take more care of the environment than we have in the last twenty years.


The Story on the Water

One day last August, after snorkeling off our Holmes Harbor beach, my son stood dripping on the lawn.

“What happened to the eelgrass?” he said.

“What about it?”

“It’s gone.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, thinking of the times I’d been tangled in the long strands.

“Nope, nothing but sand. I did see three kelp crabs. I’ve never seen more than one before.”

“You’ve been honored.” These reclusive, long-limbed crabs are hard to spot.

“Not really,” he said. “They were dead.”

A few days later my neighbor Gerry returned from kayaking saying he could see nothing but sand on the bottom of the harbor. He, too, asked, “What happened to the eelgrass?”

Knowing eelgrass was important, Gerry and I sought answers. He called state agencies that monitor eelgrass meadows. I sent panicky notes to scientists who study eelgrass, crabs and water quality.

My friend Sandy Wylie-Echeverria, of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor lab, told me loss of eelgrass has a cascading effect.

“When you lose eelgrass,” he said, “you lose structure in the water column.”

In other words, there’s no place for little fish to hide and grow into big fish. The sediment changes. Invertebrates, waterfowl and salmon all suffer.

Gerry and I jumped to conclusions. There must be one culprit, scofflaw or evildoer to blame for the disappearance of eelgrass. We learned instead that a major cause is all of us. The potential salvation is the same, all of us. The reason we should care about eelgrass disappearing — drum roll please — all of us.

And what are we all doing that can harm eelgrass and other sensitive species? Nothing diabolical, just living our lives. Cleaning our roofs with moss killers and letting the residue flow to the bay. Planting roses, then treating them with spray that drifts over the bay. Dosing hot tubs with chemicals, then draining them into ditches that lead to the harbor. Cleaning up after our dogs and throwing their poop into the bay. Taking our kids water skiing, then cleaning the boat with detergents as it sits right on the waters of the bay.

For the privilege of living at the waterfront, we willingly pay a premium.

But Gerry and I demonstrated something else we need: to pay attention. We’re the front line, here to notice changes in the sea we look out on every day. It’s not a bad job; we also enjoy front row seats on the antics of the aquatic world. The seasons of marine life get ingrained in us. We get up one morning thinking it’s been too long since we’ve heard a loon, then a few days later wake to that haunting laugh.

On the flip side, we’re here year-in and year-out, witnessing reduced numbers of scoters, realizing at the end of summer that no gray whales have cruised by, watching the very reasons we came here disappearing. We have great views, but one of the oh-so-lovely sights is the local outfall that dumps tainted runoff onto the beach.

Our bluffs slough, algae blooms perfume the air and our shellfish are inedible. Something is wrong, but we’re not sure what to do.

In the fight for Puget Sound, our worst enemy is our own innate desire to do things the easiest, cheapest way. Another is the confusing array of products and methods touted as “environmentally friendly.” No one has time to sort it all out.

I’ve been dragging my feet about some house and garden projects because I know my choices matter to the health of the Sound and I’m unsure what’s best.

Other islanders are in the same boat. So, rather than grab the quick-and-easy fix, I’m diving in to look for better methods and report what I find. I’ll investigate such topics as bluffs, roof maintenance, native plants, hot tubs, marine mammals, sea birds, cleaning products and more on eelgrass.

On Whidbey no one lives far from the beach. Runoff makes its way from every part of the island to the waters that cradle this exceptional community. No matter where we live, we need to do things differently now for the future of Puget Sound. We’re writing the next chapter in the adventure of island life. Lets make it a blockbuster with thousands of heroes.


In memory of Gerry Rawlings, good neighbor, tireless bike riding fundraiser and passionate advocate for a vital community.


My last column for the Record appeared in March.  I’ll post it Monday, as it didn’t make it to the on-line version of the paper.

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  1. But a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding pattern .

  2. I’m sorry to see the Record drop your thoughtful column, Tidal Life. I hope you plan to continue the blog. It’s hard to understand the paper’s thinking when you consider everyone on the island is affected by what happens at the water’s edge. Then again, technology is changing communication; it wouldn’t be surprising to see The Record become redundant.

    1. Thanks Candace, I do plan to continue this blog. I’ve got far too much invested in it to let it go, plus I have big plans for the future. Heck, just today a herd of oysters started following me on Twitter, I couldn’t possibly let down my adoring public.

      And then there’s that other point you make: here on Whidbey we’re all at the water’s edge. There’s a lot going on, both along the shore and inland that’s worth talking about.

      The Record will survive, but I imagine it will move more online as new technologies and tools bring most of our interactions to the web. iPredict iPhone APP.

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