Living in Cascadia

In 1985, when our children were 2 and 4 years old, we received a call to serve a congregation in Boise, Idaho. The process of receiving that call had been interesting. Children entering our family had shifted several dynamics. Whereas we previously had job-shared a single full-time position which gave us time to pursue other part-time work, having children at home meant that we needed the other half of our time to care for the young ones. Our growing family was also consuming more. We had grown more quickly than the capacity of the congregations we were serving to increase our pay. We began to consider a move to a new call. One thing that we wanted to find was a single congregation. Although we had really loved serving our small parish with two congregations, the dynamics of keeping two separate congregations served had been a bit of a challenge. We decided to limit the geography of our search to the Pacific Northwest, allowing our profiles to circulate in only three United Church of Christ Conferences: the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference, the Pacific Northwest Conference, and the Central Pacific Conference. That meant that congregations in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and a bit of northern Wyoming were able to consider us as possible candidates to become their pastor.

We had conversations with a few congregations, but the only one where the conversations proceeded to the point of interview was with the congregation that called us in Boise, Idaho. On our interview trip and again when we were presented as candidates for the position, we drove from our North Dakota home to Rapid City, South Dakota where we took a flight to Salt Lake City and from there to Boise. Both trips were in the spring when the weather in North and South Dakota was cold with snow and the weather in Boise was delightful. Boise sits at the base of the mountains, so we could see the ski hill from the city and we could sense the difference in the climate. The lilacs were blooming in Boise when it would still be months before they appeared in North Dakota. Meanwhile people were still skiing on the mountain. Folks told us they mowed their lawn and went skiing on the same day. It seemed magical to us.

After we accepted the call to serve the congregation, our first road trip to Boise was when we drove a U-haul, filled with our household goods, followed by our car on a tow dolly behind. The trip was an eye-opener for me. My previous experience with Idaho had been confined to driving across the northern part of the state, between Missoula, Montana and Spokane, Washington. The state is narrow up north and the drive across that part of the state is scenic and relatively short. It can be traversed in a few hours. On our trip to Boise, we got up after sleeping in a motel in Idaho Falls and it took us most of the day to drive from there to Boise. Our summer trip in a truck without air conditioning took us across the dry desert climate of southern Idaho. The trip seemed dry and hot and the land seemed flat and empty. For years afterward, I half-joked that I felt like I had been tricked. I thought Idaho was beautiful mountains and found myself moving to the desert.

Although Boise isn’t technically a desert, it is the driest place we have lived in our lives. Average rainfall is around 11 inches per year. It is the northern edge of what is known as the Great Basin, a unique geographical feature that includes all but the southern tip of Nevada, about half of Utah, a tiny bit of eastern California, and stretches north into souther Idaho and southeast Oregon. The great basin is a unique climatic zone where water enters by rainfall. The few creeks and rivers that run into the basin from the high country that surrounds it do not escape. Because Boise is just north of the Snake River, which flows west and then north and drains into the Columbia, it technically is not in the Great Basin. There are no rivers that naturally flow out of the Great Basin. It is a place where water enters but cannot escape. Mountains and other features mean that the way water leaves the Great Basin is evaporation. Once the area was part of a great inland sea and what is left are lakes that rise and fall with changing weather patterns. Salt Lake in Utah is the most prominent example. Water flows in and leaves the lake by surface evaporation leaving minerals behind.

Now, decades later, we have moved to a place that is climactically nearly the opposite. We now live in Cascadia. Where as the Great Basin is low ground surrounded by mountains, the center of Cascadia is high ground. The Cascade Mountains are the high point of our climactic region. Mount Baker, which we can see when we drive to our son’s farm, rises to nearly 11,000 feet. We live at about 80 feet above sea level. That means that water enters our climactic zone from the sky as rain or snow and exists by rivers and creeks and streams that flow to the ocean. Where we now live there is flowing water everywhere. Our neighborhood has a settling pond in its center filled by the rain that falls onto our streets. From that pond there is a stream, constantly flowing into Terrell Creek that empties into the Ocean. Unlike the sandy, porous soil of the high desert in the Great Basin, our soils are rich and loamy over beds of clay which hold lots of moisture. When I dig fence post holes at the farm, they have water in the bottom. The water table is only a couple of feet below the ground in the winter. Unlike the beautiful features of the Great Basin shaped by wind, ours is a land shaped by water. There are plenty of places that get more rainfall than we do. At 39 inches a year we are close to average for the US, but it is a lot more than other places where we have lived.

Like the move to Boise, our move to Cascadia is a move to a new place with a new kind of weather. It will take us even more years to adjust to the wonders of this new place. We continue to learn.

Learning from the bees

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I grew up with a healthy respect for farmers and ranchers. My father was careful to make sure that we knew that farming and ranching were the foundation of society. When one of our customer’s dairy suffered a failure of some of their automated milking equipment, we were taken to the farm twice a day to help with milking because the dairy had to run even if the machines were broken. While we waited for new equipment to arrive and be installed, we had a responsibility to them not only as customers, but as suppliers of a vital resource for our community.

When I was a teenager, I worked on my uncle’s farm and my cousin’s farm. it was considered to be a good job and important work. The dry land wheat farm produced hard red winter wheat. We took wheat directly from the farm bins to our house where it was ground to make flour for our bread and cereal for our breakfast. My cousin also raised cattle and it was made clear to us that care for the animals was essential to our survival. Every year we purchased animals directly from the 4-H sale at the county fair that filled our freezer with food.

Our family never raised chickens for eggs. We sold equipment to several commercial egg operations and our refrigerator sported “Howe’s Farm-Fresh Extra-Large Eggs.” We did, however raise chickens for meat. Each spring the chicks that were unsold after the farms and ranches were supplied came to our place to be raised through the summer and make their way to the freezer for fried chicken Sunday Dinners throughout the winter.

Farmers and ranchers were treated with great respect in our household and that value was essential to the early years of our ministry. We began our pastoral career serving churches in two small towns where the majority of our members were farm and ranch families. We brought to the community our years of formal academic education, carefully thought-through theology, practiced pastoral skills, and a love of crafting liturgy. But we also brought knowledge of farm and ranch culture. I instinctively felt at home on the farms and ranches. I knew how to visit, even during the busy seasons. I would jump into a harvest truck or mount a combine operating in the field. I knew how to dress to find ranchers in the field or barn during calving season. I never was a real horseman, but I knew how to saddle and ride a horse and was comfortable around animals. It wasn’t just that I understood the culture. I loved the culture and the people who devoted their lives to producing food. I still do.

It was my cousin who began to help me think a bit differently about modern production agriculture. He was active in what eventually became known as the “Lentil Underground,” a movement of grass roots farm and ranch families who were changing their practices away from chemical and fuel consumption toward natural farming and ranching practices. They moved part of their operations into conservation reserves, learned about crop rotations to replace chemical fertilizers, stoped the use of pesticides and herbicides to produce organic produce. They had to develop new marketing strategies and formed cooperatives to take their organic grains and meat to market.

My cousin and I loved to have long talks and he taught me a lot about his philosophy of farming and ranching. When he was in his sixties he told me that he thought that the best farming he ever did was when he did nothing. He admired bison because they didn’t need help with calving, were worked by walking among them, and preferred natural grasses and wild open spaces. He watched as fields were left fallow and natural and recovered their subsoil moisture which was robbed by traditional rotation of fallow one year and wheat the next. He learned about raising lentils for food and for the replenishment of essential soil nutrients.

I used to think of myself as two generations removed from the land. My father’s businesses served farmers and ranchers, but we were only hobby farmers. Other than a few small garden plots, I didn’t actually produce food for our family, but rather earned money to purchase food by serving others.

Our son, however, is returning to the land a bit. Although both he and his wife work off of their small farm, they invest a lot of energy in producing food from their land. They have extensive organic gardens, tend an orchard, expand their berry production, raise chickens for eggs and meat, pasture cattle and work their land. I have become a small part of their operation by tending honey bees.

The bees, while important to the overall operation, and producers of very tasty food for our family, are products of production agriculture. They are not native to this place. There are plenty of natural bees in this area. We have mason bees, carpenter bees, bumble bees, and at least five or six other native species. Our honey bees are an invasive species, descendants of bees imported from Europe. Tending them means paying attention to their natural tendency to produce additional colonies when they are thriving. If I were to just keep them in optimal health they would produce swarms that would go out into the surrounding countryside and take up residence, displacing natural pollinators and contributing to the general decline of native species. Raising domestic bees requires a sensitive balance of intervention and understanding of natural processes. I keep our operation small and am learning about raising queens for other bee keepers to control the swarming of our colonies. So far, I have captured swarms when they have occurred and kept our bees from returning to the wild. As we transition our operation to more natural beekeeping, there is much for me to learn to work with nature rather than battle it.

I try to keep the lessons learned from my cousin in mind as I work with my domestic animals. I pay attention to the wild bees on the farm and work to encourage the health of their colonies. I build mason bee habitats and have learned about bumble bee nests and how to protect them from some of the farm’s processes.

In some ways, I’m circling back to the land and the respect for farmers and ranchers that has always been part of my life. It seems like good work to me and the right thing for this phase of my life. The more I watch the bees the more I find out how much there is yet to learn. I hope I can continue to correct some of my mistakes and work with the bees for the overall health of the land.

Visitors

George Washington never visited the state that is named after him. Of course Washington wasn’t at state until 90 years after George Washington, first president of the United States, died. Other presidents have visited our state. Washington isn’t a state to which presidents are particularly attracted. Given the fact that the polls show where our state’s electoral votes are likely to line up, the state isn’t considered to be “in play” or likely to switch its loyalties. Candidates in this year’s election will find little reward in visiting Washington. It is unlikely that our electors will vote differently than was the case four years ago.

Our corner of the state doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to presidential visits. Only one president of the United States has ever visited d Whatcom County and that visit was a long time ago. On October 9, 1911, William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, paid a visit to our area. His train stopped in Bellingham. the President made two stops in Skagit County that same day.

Taft was at an interesting point in his career when he visited, part of a whirlwind tour that took him to 30 states in 57 days. He was playing a game of political survival. A former U.S. attorney and federal judge, Taft had served as governor of the Philippines, governor of Cuba, and secretary of war during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Roosevelt endorsed Taft to succeed him in the White House in the 1908 election, but by 1911, Roosevelt had withdrawn his support of the President, especially over disagreements in foreign affairs. He was preparing to challenge Taft in 1912.

The presidential train pulled into Bellingham shortly after 4 a.m. on October 9. Taft emerged at 8 a.m. to the cheers of s substantial crowd that was waiting. Public school students were given the morning off from school, in part to swell the crowds for the presidential visit. After breakfast in a local establishment, Taft addressed a crowd of 15,000 people. It was a big deal in those days. Before long the president was off to Skagit county where he visited Burlington and then crossed the river for a visit to Mount Vernon a town that chose its name after the estate of the nation’s first president.

Since then, no U.S. president has paid a visit to our county. As far as I know no president or former president has any plans to come to visit us. That seems to suit us just fine. We don’t especially appreciate crowds and it doesn’t take much to create traffic jams around here. We are getting along just fine without the attention of the big politicians. From time to time, someone will dig out the old newspaper clippings from the archives at the Bellingham Herald and read the article that included the full menu for the breakfast the president had eaten during his visit. There will be an article in the paper or a presentation to a history class and presidential fervor seems to quickly die down.

There isn’t enough about the president’s visit for a full journal entry. This is about the halfway point and I know of nothing more to say on the topic.

The visit wasn’t a big deal for Taft, either. He soundly lost in his bit for a second term as president. Although Roosevelt got more electors than Taft, Woodrow Wilson won the election and became the next president. A decade later when Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had wrote, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.” He might have actually remembered, but he probably didn’t remember his visit to Whatcom County.

If you don’t happen to be president, however, Whatcom County is a very interesting place to visit. Nestled between the beautiful North Cascade Mountains and the waters of the Salish Sea it is a place of astounding natural beauty. Our beaches are good places for whale watching as well as viewing Orcas. North Cascades National Park isn’t one of the most famous of our national parks, but it is a place of incredible alpine beauty and well worth a visit.

Our village is used to welcoming visitors. We think of ourselves as a destination for tourists. We have more than enough restaurants and short term rental properties to host the waves of visitors that come every summer. This week is the start of our season of tourists. We are getting prepared to having periodic shortages of parking. We are becoming accustomed to seeing a lot of cars with British Columbia plates on them. We’re practicing our smiles and waves and good manners so that our visitors might have an experience that invites them to return in the future and when they do so to spend a bit of money in our restaurants, gift shops, and other businesses.

Personally, while I try to be welcoming to guests, I don’t really feel a need for more people to come. I’m not a fan of big crowds. I enjoy having a few good places to eat nearby and I suspect that our restaurants are all dependent on visitors, but for the most part my life is just fine without the traffic and crowds. With Vancouver BC just across the border and Seattle a couple of hours south of us we have access to plenty of city when I feel a desire to visit one, which doesn’t happen very much these days. I’m pretty comfortable being in a place that is a bit out of the way. I make a few trips to town to visit the hardware store or see a doctor and am quite pleased when i have days when I just stay at home working on my projects. The main thing that cities have to offer me is access to an airport where I can meet guests coming to visit from far away places and board a plane to travel myself.

Consider visiting us some day. We’ll find space for a quiet visit and some time in nature away from the crowds.

In between

I have sometimes joked that I have made it this far in my life without ever being the right age for anything. I went directly from being “too young” to being “too old” without ever hitting the imaginary sweet spot in-between. That makes an interesting story and perhaps will garner a smile or two as a joke, but it isn’t completely true. Each of the calls from congregations to serve came in part because I was at the right age and the right place in my career to be matched with the needs of the congregations I was called to serve. It wouldn’t have worked for me to serve those congregations in any different order. The delightful and productive two-year interim ministry at First Congregational Church in Bellingham that ended almost a year ago was a call that I couldn’t have afforded to accept at any other point in my life. Our call to the two small congregations in North Dakota was a perfect match for the beginning of a pastoral career. We wouldn’t have been able to serve the congregation in Rapid City successfully had we not gained the experience we had in our previous calls and we wouldn’t have been able to stay for 25 years had we not been in the first half of our forties when we accepted that call. So, in a sense, there have been times when I have felt that I was the right age for the events of my life.

There have, however, been times when I was aware that I wasn’t quite the right age for some things. I was only a year younger than most of my peers when I entered college, but I was a lot less prepared for the social side of college life. Although I was worried about the academics, it turned out that I could handle that side of student life well. Being homesick and not knowing how to deal with roommates turned out to be a bigger challenge. Had it not been for the generous welcome and dozens upon dozens of home cooked meals offered by Susan’s family, I think I might not have been as successful in my college years. Although I know how to operate a washing machine and a dryer, how to fold and put away my clothing, I have never been fully responsible for my laundry for any amount of time in my entire life. There has always been someone to help me with that necessary life chore.

Looking back, there have been a lot of “in between” times in my life. I was a college student between the time of moving away from my parents’ home and the time I moved to Chicago for graduate school. Three of those years was time between living in my parents’ home and being married. We lived in Chicago between our college graduation and our first call to full-time ministry. There were eight years between our wedding and the birth of our first child. My mother lived in our home between the time she was no longer able to live independently and the end of her life.

A lot of ministry occurs in “in between” times. I often was invited into family homes between the time they learned of a death of a loved one and the time of the funeral and public expressions of grief. I’ve been with folk between the administration of a test and the knowledge of the results. I have had some deep and very meaningful conversations with people between the time they received a devastating medical diagnosis and the end of their life. I have sat with families in hospital waiting rooms between the time of sending a loved one into surgery and the news of how the procedure went. I have shared the joy of the time between learning of a pregnancy and the birth of a child with a lot of people.

Preachers spend a lot of time exploring the meanings of a short “in between” time in Jesus’ life. It was only a few short years between the start of his public ministry and his crucifixion. We have only a few stories and a few memories of the things he said in that time, yet we have been speaking of that time and its meaning for millennia.

There is nothing particularly unique about being in the time between the end of my active career and the end of my life. Although retirement itself is a privilege known only be a small percentage of the people of the world and it has only been possible for three or four generations of Americans in the entire history of our country. It seems quite possible that the lifestyle I currently am enjoying is the product of being exactly the right age. Many people younger than I are not anticipating having the kind of retirement that was planned from the beginning of our careers. The congregations we served set aside savings for us all the way through our time of service that are now enabling us to life comfortably without the income of a regular job.

There are still plenty of “in between” times in my life, though. We are enjoying being able to spend a lot of time with our grandchildren right now, but before very long they will move on with their lives and will have less time to be with their grandparents. We often provide a short bit of childcare between the events of the very busy lives of their parents. “Can you be at the farm for a few minutes between the time the school bus arrives and the time I get home from an appointment?” Of course we can.

I’ve benefitted greatly from the “in between” lives of others. A very busy doctor squeezed time to have an EKG performed and interpret its results between other patients in a very busy day. I was seen between the delivery of a new baby and the administration of a dermatology examination. It was life-saving. There are many more examples of being served in between other important events.

All of life is the time between birth and death. Sometimes it seems like a long time. Other times it seems all too short. For now it is good to be in between.

Life near he border

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We moved to Washington during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the effects of that pandemic was that the US - Canada border was closed to all non-essential traffic. It first closed on March 21, 2020 and remained closed for 19 months. The border was still closed for most travel when we purchased our home very close to the border in the fall of 2021. The area where we made the purchase is a tourist area that prior to the border closing had enjoyed a healthy tourist trade with Canadian visitors. For years the prices of some commodities including gas and groceries were lower in the US and Canadians routinely crossed the border to go shopping. Border towns are filled with mailbox businesses that exist to give Canadians US addresses to receive packages from online businesses, taking advantage of free shipping to US addresses. Although items purchased and transported across the border must be reported to customs officials, the practice of bringing small amounts of personal items became routine.

In addition, there are many cross-border families, with some family members living on one side of the border and others living on the other. We have met several families that include some members with Canadian citizenship and others with US citizenship. Extended families, used to crossing the border for family gatherings were forced to separate during the border closure in order to obtain health care in their country of citizenship. The complexities of health care and insurance are very different in the two countries and it was very challenging to cross-border families to obtain health care when the border was closed.

The border is now open. Last Friday we crossed from the US to Canada, back into the US, and back through Canada to the US in a single day. Each border crossing took just a few minutes with only a few simple questions to answer after we presented our passports. We see a lot of cars with British Columbia license plates all around town. When I stopped to pick up a few items at Costco yesterday it seemed like about half of the cars in the parking lot were from Canada. When we were in Point Roberts on Friday we noticed that all of the gas stations were advertising prices per liter rather than per gallon as gas is sold in the rest of our state. I suppose having the price in liter simplifies price comparison for those traveling across the border, but with the Canadian dollar trading at only 78 cents American, there is still quite a bit of mental math required to compute whether or not one is getting a good deal.

Of course, those near the border have become accustomed to calculating exchange rates and differences in measurement for decades. It isn’t really that difficult, it is just something of which you have to be aware. I have lived much of my life in border states and have seen quite a few changes over the years. When I was growing up in Montana, crossing the border was no big deal. The driver of a car was asked to show identification at border crossings, but a driver’s license would do and no one felt the need to have a passport to go to and from Canada. In those days the exchange rate was closer to even and we routinely received Canadian currency in change at stores. We didn’t pay much attention to whether we had Canadian or US pennies, nickels, dimes, or quarters. That has all changed. At the restaurant where we ate lunch on Friday, the cashier clearly stated to a Canadian customer that they do not accept Canadian currency. Another change from decades ago is that most credit and debt cards now offer free currency exchange so that they can be used seamlessly regardless of which country you choose to spend money.

The statistics, however, reveal that the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the area and that things have not returned to normal following the border closings. There are five border crossings between Whatcom County, where we live and Canada. The combined crossings are sometimes collectively referred to as the Cascade Gateway. There are signs and monuments to the open border. In 2023, our five land border crossings were down 25% compared to pre-pandemic times in 2019. Since the currency exchange rate is nearly identical to what it was back in 2019, the statistics show that habits have changed.

There are simply fewer Canadians making day trips across the border to buy cheaper gas, milk, and alcohol. More impactful on our small village is that many beach cottages owned by British Columbians are going on the market, taking advantage of high prices on all housing units. One local marina reports that leases of slips by Canadian customers is down by about 15 percent. That market has recovered significantly from the pandemic days when the marinas were empty, with both Canadian and US boat owners keeping their boats out of the water for extended periods of time.

Many of other pandemic restrictions are fading with the passage of time. Although I remember to carry a face mask with me most of the time, I go many days without ever donning one. There are a few medical facilities that still require all persons to wear masks, but masks are optional at most doctor’s offices these days. We have grown adjusted to seeing people with masks and when we had colds a few months ago we wore masks when we went out in public to avoid sharing them with others. I hope we retain that habit for everyone’s benefit, but I doubt that we will feel the need to carry masks for everyday tasks much longer. Our vaccination records are logged at our doctors’ offices and the State of Washington still has an online record of vaccinations, but we don’t carry our cards with us any more. The last time we received covid vaccine we were told that the pharmacy no longer fills our vaccination cards when administering the shots.

Life goes on, but perhaps where we have arrived is at a new normal and we will never go back to the way things used to be. That would probably be true had there not been a pandemic. Since we moved during the pandemic we never know for sure how much the way things are is how they have long been or are expressions of changes in behavior. For now, we feel fortunate to have a comfortable home in a beautiful location and the option of crossing the border with ease on occasion.

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