Pink ribbons at low tide: A pictorial week in Kodiak, Alaska

As I left the greenhouse and walked toward the house, I heard a loud puhhh-HUP behind me. I twisted around and took two steps toward the ocean, just in time to see an orca whale’s black, dorsal fin disappear below the surface.

I’m always humbled by gifts like this; surprise snippets of life. Like this morning: I looked up from doing dishes just in time to see the gibbous moon appear between puffy clouds. My hands paused in soapy water.

And so goes my life in Kodiak, Alaska. Here is the first of seven images I’d like to share from a week on the Emerald Isle…

Peaceful river

Speaking of moons and other celestial things, a photographer friend and I drove out the road on Sunday morning, my camera in the passenger seat, in search of whatever inspired us. We pulled over by the Olds River bridge and was stunned to see the water calm and unruffled.


Dining with dolls

On Monday, I had a craving for borscht, so I stopped in to Monk’s Rock coffee shop. It’s a coffee shop and restaurant on one side and a gift store filled with orthodox books, icons, prayer ropes, you name it. While waiting for my order, I explored the quaint shop, stopping at this collection of Russian nesting dolls.

IMG_6141-russian-nesting-dollsOn asking permission

Coming back from the gym on Tuesday morning, I noticed the clouds were forming horizontal bands across the sky, announcing a cold front brewing. I’d always wanted to photograph this particular rock and tree (which reminded my of the Lone Cypress in Monterey, California, probably the most-photographed tree in the U.S.) but I needed permission from the property owner to cross their property onto the beach.

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m not very good at doing such things but, gym clothes and all, I knocked on the door, talked with the guy-at-home and got a thumbs-up. So I dashed home for my camera and tripod. Midday, harsh shadows, not great light; but I shot it with black and white in mind.


Trail sentry

Continuing on a tree theme, I love the Sitka spruce trees in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. Any weather. Any time of year. They are like old friends as I walk the trails. Late one evening (it was getting dark) I was almost back to the trailhead when I passed this expressive tree. I turned around and set up my tripod. Back at my computer, I played with the texture and color in a program called Topaz Labs, giving it a painterly, impressionistic look.

Good morning, moon!

A friend agreed to help with garden projects, so I agreed to pick her up. As she settled into the passenger seat, I noticed that the clouds were blushing with pinks and blues. “We need to take a detour first,” I said.

We drove about three miles to the end of the road, where a salmon stream flowed into the ocean. The frozen grass crunched under our feet as I walked in circles, evaluating the scene. “Look!” she said, “There’s the moon!”

Another one of those surprise snippets of life.


Food risers

The librarian at Kodiak College recently retired, so the staff put on a party to celebrate her next step in life. The food–from rhubarb tarts to dipped strawberries–was beautifully displayed on these risers made from spruce logs. I didn’t know what else to call them. Food risers? Toadstools? Supports? I’m open to suggestions.

Note: After posting these photos, a suggestion came in for the food risers: Sweet Seats! Perfect, isn’t it?

IMG_6150-library-foodLast, but not least, another morning adventure…

The blue hour

The tide was out, the sky was blue, and the sun was lighting up the clouds in an oh, so special way. You see, for centuries, artists have treasured this rich light, called the blue hour, a period of 45 minutes or so before sunrise and after sunset. On this morning, light reflecting in the tide pools created beautiful ribbons of pink and blue. (Based on the response I’ve gotten, I might have to make prints of this scene to sell in the art gallery we built in our Cliff House B&B).


Back to the killer whale sighting I told you about at the beginning. (You’ll have to read this to get the punch line).

Having watched the whale slip under water, I glowed in humbled awe for a few moments. Then my thoughts skipped to a comment a marine biologist friend made recently when I asked, “How was your day at the office, Kate?”

“Oh, I was out on the boat all day sampling whale scat. Now if you think whale breathe is bad [it’s very fishy, in case you wondered] then you aught to smell whale farts!”

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Is your lawn organic? (Think barefoot kids and wild salmon)

When spring arrives in Kodiak, Alaska, we’re normally coping with snow and ice. But this winter has been the warmest in 30 years. Hundreds of bald eagles have returned to town, on schedule, to feed on fish scraps, and commercial fishing boats are shuffling in and out of our harbors like a giant video game. But purple crocuses are already poking through the green lawn way ahead of schedule. Did I say green lawn? In Alaska? In March?

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

Weird but true. And that’s why I’m writing this post:

I want to share our favorite way to jumpstart a lawn and maintain it—without the use of chemicals.

Accomplishing this feat took some experimenting, though. Kodiak Island, after all, is a temperate rain forest by nature. The soil is very acidic, low in organic matter, and it’s mostly volcanic ash. The method is very easy and basic, and I’m sure it will work for your patch of green, too.

We started our lawn from seed on a base of peat moss, shredded kelp and compost. Our bed and breakfast guests and visitors touring our gardens are amazed how green it is. We work at keeping it healthy, so it can withstand heavy rain and snow, moisture-sucking northwest winds, freeze-thaw periods, and the pressure of many, many footprints.

Don’t tread on me

In the spring, it’s natural to grab a rake and start scraping twigs, branches, spruce cones, plastic toys, dog poop and other debris. Be gentle. Give it a light combing with a leaf rake, but step lightly when you do it. In other words, try to not walk on your grass too much. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a lawn—especially a soggy one. Wait until it has dried out a bit and the ground is not mushy.

At first the damage occurs underground where you can’t see it. Here’s what happens: when you walk on a soggy lawn, you squeeze out the air between the soil particles. In time this pressure creates a hard, compacted soil. Without these air “highways”, water and nutrients can’t reach the root zone. And then one day, something doesn’t look right and you wonder, “Why does my lawn look so pathetic?”

Turf grass thrives on the same kind of soil found in your garden: Rich, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter.

I don’t know about your situation, but perfect, well-drained soil doesn’t come naturally in Kodiak, so we have to create our own. So what you can do to help your lawn realize its greatest potential of being green and healthy?


It’s easy being green

Now the green part is easy, whether you use organic or chemical fertilizers. There are differences, though. Organic methods enrich the soil which improves root growth. Your lawn survives drought and extreme weather conditions better, it holds onto nutrients longer, and it becomes more sustainable itself. So eventually less maintenance is required.

One thing about organic lawn care I need to interject here: The way you mow your lawn makes a huge difference. Keep your mower blades sharp and leave your grass 3 inches longer. This improves your lawn’s health because the leaves of longer grass have more access to sunlight, which helps the grass grow thicker and create deeper roots.

Real green thumbs are not from chemicals

Chemical fertilizers on the other hand, might turn your grass an enticing, day-glo green, but it’s at a price. (All the promises on the packaging are lies). Chemical fertilizers wash away in heavy rains, and the toxic runoff ends up in lakes, streams, and oceans (we love our wild salmon folks). To say nothing of letting your pets and kids run around the lawn after you’ve applied a load of chemicals. Chemical fertilizers have been linked to cancer and poisonings, and since most Americans follow a “more is better” attitude (to the tune of 3 million tons per year), all that overfertilizing damages the soil and kills helpful microorganisms and fungi with toxic salt buildup.

With an organic lawn, you’re not simply putting down fertilizers four times a year; you’re initiating cultural practices to nurture life in the soil, and in turn, the soil sustains the grass.
~ Paul Tukey, author of  The Organic Lawn Care Manual

Healthy soil = healthy lawn

You may have guessed, I’m a cheerleader for organic lawn care. So here you go:

The one simple step every lawnkeeper should follow is to spread sifted organic matter on your lawn.


We try to do this twice a year, when the lawn is relatively dry, but before a good rain or watering with a sprinkler. Recipe ideas (no exact science here) depend on what’s available in your location. For us in coastal Alaska, the list includes:

  • Spreading a combo of peat moss and compost, or
  • One part peat moss to  bags steer or cow manure, or
  • Straight finished compost plus sifted kelp, or
  • A manure-compost blend

Well-aged manure is like a good wine

You can also mix in soybean meal, cottonseed meal, well-aged manure (like a good wine!), finely shredded leaves and compost. Blend ingredients together in a wheelbarrow and dump it on the lawn. Yes, right on top. Shake it through a screen, toss it by the shovelful, or cast it about as if scattering feed to the chickens. After you apply the organic stuff, spread it around with a leaf rake with a combing, fluffing up action.

Okay, your lawn will look horrible (really bad) for a couple weeks, and the neighbors will probably think you’re crazy. But then something magic happens: new, green growth emerges and the brown stuff settles into the ground and disappears. Your lawn will be ten times healthier, you don’t have to worry about your kids running around barefoot, and the neighbors will stop whispering behind your back.

Thanks for visiting. And may you enjoy every minute when you’re out in nature.

Marion Owen, photographer, organic gardener, Kodiak Island, Alaska

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

Posted in Kodiak Island, Alaska, Organic gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My favorite smartphone photo apps for travel

Florida Everglades by bike -- fat tire!

Bike riding, fat tire style, in the Florida Everglades.

Every winter, Marty and I exit Alaska in search of new hiking trails and a Vitamin D fix. This year was different. First, we traveled by land-yacht (RV), and second, I vowed to play with my iPhone’s photo apps. How did it go? Well, I perfected the art of grilling a PB&J sandwich in a one-fanny kitchen. And I dove into photography with Crayon-like enthusiasm–all helpful stuff for when you hit the road with a frying pan and a smartphone. I’ll show you what I mean…

An evening with giant cauliflowers

On a late afternoon in February, we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, a natural and geological stunner of a desert landscape. Heaps of boulders and cliffs rose from the high desert floor, parched from a 4-year drought. A dusting of snow, a ranger told us at the entrance gate, brought some relief in December. “But we could use more. You gotta love those Joshua trees, though. They just keep hanging on.”

Sunset was 30 minutes away, so while Marty managed the winding, 2-lane road, I searched the landscape for curvy horizons and shapely Joshua trees. “Let’s pull over by this grove,” I said. “Wow, they look like giant cauliflowers.”

I perched my tripod near a tree that felt grandfather-ish. (Joshua trees don’t have normal tree rings, so I guessed 100 years). It was the “blue hour”, a special time of day when the colors of sunrise and sunset share the sky with the blue dome of midday. I took a series of photos with my Big Camera and then pulled out my iPhone.

Here are the before and after shots, followed by the two basic steps to get there:

Before and after image using snapseed and Perfect Image app. photo tips, photography tips, photo apps, Instagram, Joshua Tree National Park, Arizona, National Parks

The left photo is the original image. Great potential here. After working with it in Snapseed, I looked at the dark base and thought, “What a fun place to put some text.”

Step 1: The Snapseed app

I began by processing the original photo (left) in Snapseed to saturate color and adjust contrast. Let me pause for a moment to say something about contrast: Even a little adjustment goes a long way.

Increasing the contrast of your photos is one of the most important steps before posting your images online.

There are an astounding 2.5 million apps but Snapseed (free) is one of the most popular photo editing apps available for iPhone and Android, offers a variety of powerful photo-correction tools and filters. To learn how to use the different features of this app, Google has an excellent Snapseed Help Center.

Below is the opening page of Snapseed as it appears on your iPhone or Android screen. The left side shows some of the photo editing options, the right side, a sample image before replacing it with your own.

Snapseed, app, photo editing, Nik, Google, android, iphone, photo app

The Snapseed home page showing some of the processing filter options.

After making adjustments in Snapseed, I saved the photo in my iPhone’s Photo Library. I could have stopped there, but I thought a mini-poster (with text) would  be fun to share on my Marion_Owen_Photography Instagram page.

Step 2: The Perfect Image app

Perfect Image, photo app, iTunes, photo processing, iPhone, Marion OwenTo create my mini-poster, I wanted to add text on top of, and below, the image.  So I re-opened the picture in another powerful app called Perfect Image, a free app available through iTunes. With it, you can add a gzillion special effects with ease.

One of the best things about these two apps is that they are non-destructive, which means when you save your picture after applying the effects you like, a new copy is made, leaving your original untouched. Another thing: you can share your masterpiece photo instantly on Facebook, Instagram, via e-mail, or messaging.

Black and white photos rock!

There’s no art more exquisite than a well-done black and white image. They sing with texture and tone in ways that color images can only dream of. As a former darkroom junkie, what can I say?

So take a look at these two examples. Both were processed in Snapseed in another 2-step process: First, I enhanced the clouds a bit to make them pop as if I used a polarizing filter. You can see the results in the left photo. Then I selected the Black and White filter, lightened the shadows a little and created the photo you see at right. Which one do you like best?

snapseed, polarizer, polarizing filter, photo tips, photography tips, photo apps, Instagram, Joshua Tree National Park, Arizona

See how changing the color image to black and white makes the clouds and textures in the rocks really pop?

Camels on Route 66?

RV-ing the right way means being flexible and open to surprises. Take Kingman, Arizona, for example. Straddling Route 66 (off Highway 40) in the western part of the state, Kingman is part tourist trap and part legit stopover. Back in 1859 though, Kingman was the twinkle in Lt. Edward Beale’s eye. While in the service of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, he was charged with two tasks: Survey for a wagon trail and test the feasibility of using camels as pack animals in the desert. Beale’s wagon trail eventually became a road and part of Route 66…

We arrived in Kingman on a sunny weekday, pulled into a local park and piled out of the RV to stretch our legs. Marty was craving Italian, so he took off in search of restaurant while I roamed around looking for potential sunrise shots. The next morning, I got up at 5 AM and drove to Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner. Some of the staff had just arrived and turned on the lights. Perfect.

Here’s another example of using Snapseed and Perfect Image together:


I created a border and saturated the color using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) filter in Snapseed and then added the retro, “Get Your Kicks” in Perfect Image and placed it at the bottom. I really like the playfulness of the final photo.

In conclusion: Sharing what I learned

Firstly, cooking in a compact space was an easy adjustment for me, since every summer I prepare gourmet dinners for small groups aboard our 40-foot yacht in Kodiak, Alaska.

As for taking pictures, I said at the beginning that I dove into photography during this trip with Crayon-like enthusiasm. You see, I’ve faithfully used 35mm Canon gear for my professional work since the mid-1970s. But lately I sensed a subtle lack of fizz toward my photography, an art form  I’ve enjoyed since my parents gave me a Kodiak Brownie camera when I was eight. But hey, I don’t blame it on the lack of inspiring subjects though. I love to just get out and look (I can find cool stuff in a spruce forest or a junk yard).

Using the iPhone and experimenting with Snapseed and Perfect Image taught me something. No, more than that…it helped me out. I started using my Canon gear with a lighter step, a refreshed attitude. Isn’t that one of the reasons to hit the road?

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to hear about your adventures on the road.


Posted in Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

A New Year’s message from Helen Keller and friends

It’s 10:30 PM on December 31 in Kodiak, Alaska. Dogs are barking outside, thanks to fireworks. Yes, I’ve received invitations to parties, but I’m not going out tonight. Rather, I’m packing my camera gear for a road trip tomorrow. But first, I want to give you an invitation: To “keep on keeping on,” as a friend said the other day.

smily face, fence

I found this smiley face on a chainlink fence hear the boat harbor in Kodiak, Alaska. I must admit, it made me smile.

Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.

Helen Keller


It’s not that “today is the first day of the rest of my life,” but that now is all there is of my life.

Hugh Prather, author of Notes to Myself


For the New Year my greatest wish and prayer for you is that you cast aside wrong habits of thinking and doing. Don’t drag your bad habits into the New Year. You don’t have to carry them with you. Any minute you may have to drop your mortal package, and those habits will vanish. They don’t belong to you now. Don’t admit them! Leave behind all useless thoughts and past sorrows and bad habits. Start life anew!

Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi and founder of Self-Realization Fellowship


The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt


God speaks to all individuals through what happens to them moment by moment.

J. P. DeCaussade


In your silence, God’s silence ceases.

Paramahansa Yogananda


Thanks for being there, and thanks for visiting.

New Year, sand, writing, surf, ocean

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Photo essay from Kodiak Island: Captain Santa and a Christmas tree made from bird deterrent tape

Thirty years ago, in December 1984, I moved from Seattle to Kodiak, Alaska. My Mom fretted. “When are you coming home?”

To describe island life, I wrote letters to family and friends, and slipped a photograph or two in the envelopes. Soon my summers were sprinkled with visitors, traveling North to see for themselves. “But what about the winters?” They asked.

To continue the tradition, may I share with you a visual smorgasbord from the past couple weeks. Mind you, we’ve had a snow-free winter so far, but my motto as a photographer (and cook, gardener, whatever) has always been: Do the best with what you’ve got. So, short and sweet, I hope you enjoy the images:

Let’s start with a dazzling Christmas tree that’s 30 feet tall. It’s made from a flagpole, lines, bird deterrent tape and flood lights…

Christmas, tree, Kodiak, Alaska, sunset, outdoors, light, sun


Didn’t you know? Captain Santa guides his reindeer from the pilothouse. If it gets foggy, he resorts to radar…

santa, claus, boat, costume


While on a late afternoon hike on Pillar Mountain, above the City of Kodiak, we were treated to this golden view of the airport and surrounding mountains…

kodiak, alaska, airport, mountains, winter


A sign of the times, or should I say, a reminder for all of us…

celebrate, sign, physical, therapy

At a Christmas potluck, we were greeted by beet crabs and broccoli coral. Yes, I live in a fishing community…
table, decorations, food, beets, broccoli, crab

During a visit to St. Innocent’s Academy, a local school for troubled youth, I noticed a collection of vacuum cleaners huddled in the corner. “Do you have any Santa hats?” I asked one of the students. Soon we had a chorus of vacuum cleaners signing, “Oreck Come All Ye Faithful!”…
Oreck, vacuum, Christmas, elves, tree


I found this chunk of kelp while walking along the beach on a frosty morning. (I came back later with buckets and loaded them up with shredded kelp for the compost)…

kelp, beach, ocean, frost, fertilizer

Our winter has been so mild, we still have carrots growing in the hoophouse. We mulch with spruce branches and kelp to keep the soil from freezing…

carrots, harvest, Alaska, organic, gardening

Kodiak Island is home to an amazing variety of birds and during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, we’re often rated Number 1 or 2 in Alaska for number of species. Here is a long-tailed duck, spotted during this year’s count. A beautiful bird, isn’t it? The sun lighting up the mountains in the background casts this golden reflection on the water…

Oldsquaw, long-tailed duck, Kodiak, Alaska, Marion Owen, birds, waterfowl

If you’re still with me, I’d like to finish with a blessing, by Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Lord, we thank you for this place in which we dwell, for the love that unites us, for the peace accorded us this day; for the hope with which we expect on the morrow; for the health, the work, the food, and the bright skies that make our lives delightful; for our friends in all parts of the earth.”


See you in 2015!

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Snowflakes, Karma and God: When things don’t go as planned

Excited at the prospect of photographing snowflakes (one of my favorite winter activities), Marty and I booked flights to Anchorage, Alaska. Though it’s only a 60-minute flight north of Kodiak Island, it’s usually enough change in latitude–as Jimmy Buffet might say–to produce nice snow crystals. But this year was different.

When we arrived in Alaska’s biggest city, temps hovered around 30 degrees. Too warm. For good, single snowflakes, I needed a range between 0 and 15 degrees F. The forecast didn’t look good. I felt like a Prisoner of Weather. Fortunately, we had friends to visit, a Costco run to do, and Christmas gifts to buy. I put my snowflake gear away and picked up my regular camera. Here are some images from a couple photo-walks, plus a little serendipity I think you’ll enjoy…

My friend Kate is always up for a hike. She knew I craved snow, so we drove to Eagle River Nature Center where we found snow and ice-encrusted trails. Since the day was overcast and gray, I “thought” in black and white.

Cottonwood, trees, alaska, winter, landscape, snow

What seems like a tangle of branches is actually a beautiful cottonwood tree, enhanced by snow.


snow, bird house, alaska, landscape

I discovered this bird house, abandoned by the trail. It looked like a smiling Old Fisherman.

The next day, we drove out to Portage Glacier to see what we could find. That’s my motto. I love to go outdoors without an agenda. To be receptive to Nature’s gifts.

Ice bubbles, alaska, winter, photography, snow, ice, sculpture

Ice bubbles formed along a stream near Portage Glacier outside Anchorage, Alaska.

stream, ice, bubbles, snow, river

I could spend hours playing with ice formations along rivers, streams and ponds.

For years I’d heard about a fishing boat that once belonged to Joe Redington Sr., the father of the Iditarod sled dog race. It sits, abandoned in tide flats of Knik Arm. I thought, with a little snow on it, the old boat would make a good photo subject. I was not disappointed, and Kate and I were glad the ice was thick enough to hold our weight.

fishing, boat, Anchorage, Alaska, Knik

Abandoned fishing boat in the tidal mudflats near Knik Arm, Alaska.

Funny, the twists and turns of life. Here I was in Anchorage, hoping to photograph snowflakes. No such luck, but for those few days, I knew better than to whine and to take advantage of the hand that Nature dealt me.

I had to smile though, when I spotted this snowflake pendant around Kate’s neck. It was sort of a karmic joke, as if God was saying, “Do you think for a moment that I don’t know of your wants and needs? Behold, I created a snowflake for you.”

snowflake, silver, jewelry, necklace, photography

While talking with my friend Kate, I noticed this snowflake pendant around her neck. “It’s made from silver recovered from film processing.” How perfect was that?

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The language of wreaths: They’ll save you from lightning, but not love

If you’re off to a party, consider placing a wreath made of violets, roses, myrtle, parsley and ivy on top of your head. According to Pliny the Elder, a corona convivial was thought to counter the effects of intoxication.

The wreath has been utilized symbolically for many centuries, dating back to ancient Greece. Olympic champions hung their prize-winning wreaths inside their houses, and during thunder storms, Emperor Tiberius wore a laurel wreath on his head to protect him from lightning strikes. Today, wreaths can mean many things, from peace and victory, to faith and unrequited love.

wreath, Christmas, evergreens, circle, Alaska, cones, children, crafts

Shaun Skonberg, age 5, and his mom Kathy of Kodiak, Alaska, made this wreath together.

The language of wreaths

Until last week, I never really thought about the language of wreaths, beyond the one we hang on our door after Thanksgiving. Here’s my story…

In November, our little garden club in Kodiak, Alaska sponsors a Wreath Making Workshop. Nothing fancy mind you, for the dozen or so people that usually show up. Most years I’m out of town, but there I was, in St. Mary’s Church, preparing to wrestle with cedar twigs and wire.

I arrived early and set my pliers on a corner table to claim my spot. Within 15 minutes, 50 more people came though the door. Soon the tables were surrounded by people and covered with branches, spools of wire, pliers and Christmas decorations. The air was scented with cedar and pine, and charged with high expectations to create a showpiece worthy of the holidays.

Wreath making 101

Kate, one of the coordinators, helped put us at ease, “Making wreaths is a very forgiving skill.” Reaching into a box of evergreens, she pinched off a few twigs and held them up.

“You want to build your wreath with clumps of greens about the size of your hand. Pinch them together and then attach them to your wreath form using this spooled, green wire. Then make another clump and keep adding. “And don’t worry about making it perfect,” she added. “You’ll be amazed at how it all comes together beautifully.”

We bowed our heads and got to work. Soon my table-mates were sharing tools and swapping pine cones and ribbon.

New friends

“Are you Marion?” asked the lady across the table from me.

“Yes,” I said. “Can I help you?” As a garden writer and photography instructor, I’m used to being asked all kinds of questions.

“I’m Tasha. I just moved here from California. My husband’s in the Coast Guard. My friend Pamela said I should look you up. And I’ve been following your blog even before we moved.”

Wreath, making, Christmas, swag

Meet Tasha, my new friend, making a 6-foot swag.

Wow, what were the chances that I’d not only meet Tasha at a function I had never attended before, but I’d be standing right across the table from her?

What’s more, I knew Pamela from our Google+ connections. A twist of faith? Maybe, but then the word “wreath” is from an Old English term meaning “to twist.”

Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know Thy ways,
Know them and practise them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.
~ George Herbert (1593–1633), British poet

As the afternoon wore on, the room hummed like a beehive. The Christmas music, audible at first, was all but snuffed out as moms, friends, teachers, kids, Coast Guard spouses and long-time residents shared stories and glue guns. An impromptu bow-tying lesson took place in the corner by the kitchen.

cedar, branch, wreathThe inventory of evergreen boughs began to dwindle and it became obvious that cedar was the most popular green. “It smells good and it lasts a long time,” said garden club treasurer, Esther Waddell. “And if you keep your wreath outside, it can last until spring.

Esther admitted that the garden club doesn’t make much money hosting the workshop. “But that’s not the point. It’s just nice to see so many people from the community get together to make these amazing works of art. And it starts the Christmas season off in good spirits.”

Wreaths can mean many things

The good spirits continued later while I chatted with Esther over a cup of coffee. “We always seem to have a little extra greenery left over,” she said. “A few years ago, some kids gave their wreaths away to an elderly neighbor. It was all their idea.

“And last year, two young boys made a wreath for their grandmother who had cancer.”

“You know,” she added, “it just goes around like a circle.”

To learn more about wreaths, here is a great research paper called Wreath: Its Use and Meaning in Ancient Visual Culture.

Merry Christmas, and THANK YOU for stopping by…

You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, as well as my Marion Owen Photography website.

cedar, branch, wreath


A few more bits about wreaths you might find interesting:

While wreaths in the U.S. are pretty much associated with Christmas, hung on front doors as a sign of welcome, in English-speaking countries wreaths are also used during the rest of the year as household ornaments. One example I particularly appreciate is the harvest wreath, a custom with ancient roots in Europe. In Ancient Greece, the harvest wreath was a sacred amulet, using wheat or other plants, woven together with red and white wool thread and then hung by the door year-round.

Today, we see wreaths, made from leaves and flowers, worn as crowns and used in memorials, weddings and funerals. In many Scandinavian countries, harvest wreaths are made of woven straw. In Poland, fruits and nuts are added to the wreath and then brought to a church for a blessing by a priest.

The use of evergreens has its own significance. For many, having greenery around during the winter months is a promissory symbol of the approaching light of spring, something we can all relate to. Green, the most predominant color in nature, is considered an emotionally positive color. It’s regarded as the color of balance and harmony, of growth, renewal and rebirth. Green is also said to renew and restore depleted energy. Who can argue with such an uplifting influence in the darkness of winter?

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Kodiak Island, Alaska | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The laundry can always wait

This story is about a photograph taken in Homer, Alaska, shared by a friend of mine, LA Holmes…

On a clear winter day, Cy and I loaded the “toter” Toyota pickup truck with our laundry for the weekly cleaning event. It was 2008 and we were living in a 8×12-foot cabin while building a 48-foot boat right next door to the building. For me, having a scheduled laundry day, a structured routine, was important.

After locking up the cabin, I looked across the drainage ditch that bordered the boat yard and noticed a lot of activity around my homemade bird feeder. Dozens of small birds, Pine Siskins and Red Poles, were scurrying around the feeder.

“Cy, get the camera,” I said. “I want to try feeding the birds. If you go up in the boat, I’ll cross the ditch and head over to the birds.” The camera was a Nikon D200, the one we used for killer whale research. It was set up with a 300mm lens that brought things in pretty close.

A fine and agreeable fellow, Cy climbed up onto the boat. As I headed toward the bird feeder I stopped by our stash of bird seed that we kept in a garbage can near the door to fill a small bag with sunflower seeds and millet.

When I approached the feeder, the birds fluttered away. I wasn’t worried, though. It doesn’t take creatures of the cold very long to come to food, especially if their eating perch is heated.

I sat down in the snow, grabbed some seeds with each hand and opened my palms to the sky.

LA Holmes feeding Pine Siskins out of her hand in Homer, Alaska.

LA Holmes feeding Pine Siskins out of her hand in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Cy St-Amand.

After a minute or so, the birds returned. They landed on my sleeves, my fingers, my head, my legs and my boots, waiting for their turn to feed. After about two hours, we called it quits.

Cy took about 200 pictures that afternoon. It wasn’t hard to find the best of the group, and we promptly emailed it out to friends and family. My dad, sick with cancer, loved the photo and had an 8×10-inch copy printed and posted on the wall by his bed. Whenever we talked on the phone, he often described the birds’ flared wings, landing gear and postures with amazement and delight.

“See the one by your sleeve? He’s landing,” he’d say. “His wings…you can tell he’s already committed.”

Two months later, Dad passed away, right there, under the birds.

You know, the laundry can always wait.

Posted in Essays and inspirations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Building a better waffle: Healthy, cheap and gluten free

I love waffles, but I don’t like the heavy feeling they leave in my gut.  Then I ate a waffle that changed my attitude, for good…


On a gray Sunday morning in Kodiak, Alaska, I sauntered into the kitchen in search of a cup of coffee. I hadn’t slept well the night before, thanks to 50-knot winds that drove rain and salt spray against the windows. Ocean swells, a lentil soup green in the morning light, rolled through the channel like giant folds of fabric. I hugged my coffee cup. This was going to be a slow breakfast morning. A waffle morning.

But not just any waffles. I reached for a cookbook, the one with a yellow spine, long faded to a vanilla white. I thought about the time I first learned about this gem of recipes…

Meanwhile, in Hawai’i

While visiting friends on the Big Island, our hosts treated Marty and I to a breakfast of homemade Belgian-style waffles. Since they lived in a modest, owner-built home with rustic furniture, I figured the waffles would not be made from a box.

waffles, gluten free, oats, peas, beans, whole grainThe warm plates arrived and, trying not to be rude, I poked at the waffle with my fork for a quick look. It was light brown and dotted with darker bits. I took a bite. There was a whole grain goodness to them, yet they were light, fluffy (not heavy and doughy) and quite tasty.

I looked up from my plate. “They’re made from soybean and rolled oats,” my friend Carrie explained.

Carrie smiled and handed me a stained and withered copy of, The Oats, Peas, Beans & Barley Cookbook. As I flipped through the pages, I remembered when I started cooking with lentils, rice, soy products and beans in the early 70s. “That’s hippie food!” my Mom used to say.

Back in Alaska, I logged onto Amazon and bought a used copy for $2.00.

The waffle recipes call for blessedly simple ingredients like pinto beans, garbanzo beans, soybeans, rolled oats, lentils, millet, rice, cashews and buckwheat. No eggs, milk, flour or baking powder—great news for people with lactose and gluten issues.

For pennies you get a million dollars worth of nutrition and health

“One 9-inch soy-oat waffle contains approximately the same amount of protein as a 3-ounce serving of T-bone steak, or six slices of bacon and two medium eggs,” says author Edyth Young Cottrel, a research nutritionist from Loma Linda University. “But the cost for ingredients for the waffle is only about one-eighth that of the steak or bacon and eggs.”

Since my first experiment with the original recipe, I’ve found it to be quite forgiving. You can mix and match ingredients, creating a meal base for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Here’s the basic recipe:

waring pro waffle iron

The Waring Pro Waffle Iron, available on Amazon, sometimes with free shipping.


  • 2-1/4 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup soaked beans (approximately 1/2 cup dry)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Soak beans for several hours or overnight (preferred). Drain. Combine and blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until light and foamy, about 20 to 30 seconds.

Let batter stand to thicken up a little while the waffle iron is heating. (We like the Waring Pro). Grease the waffle iron with a vegetable cooking spray or high-quality solid shortening. Bake in hot waffle iron for a full 8 minutes. This is important in order to cook the beans. One recipe makes three to four waffles. Tip: Soak extra beans, measure and freeze them for later. The cooked waffles can be frozen for later use–so handy for snacks and quick meals! Just pop them in the oven, microwave, or toaster oven.

waffles, cooking, recipes, waffle iron.

These bean-based waffles need to be fully cooked for 7 to 8 minutes. They’ll be golden brown, with a perfect crunch like a fine cookie!

Toppings for a breakfast meal include berries, yogurt, bananas and peanut butter, jam, stewed apples, or rhubarb sauce. I’m sure you can think of other goodies.

Waffles aren’t just for breakfast anymore (pizza waffles?)

For lunch or dinner, try creamed variations using one or more of the following: broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, cooked halibut, smoked salmon, turkey or chicken. Sprinkle with cheese if you like. You could probably make a waffle pizza by initially topping it with a thick base of tomato paste.

As for what you can add to the waffle batter before cooking, the list of ingredients (and combinations) is extensive: Lentil-oat, pecan-oat, rice-oat, almond-oat, sunflower seed-oat. And here’s a way to include more of your garden’s harvest: Add herbs, dried or fresh spinach or kale. Tip: For grated zucchini, mashed potatoes or squash reduce the amount of water.

The last word

I really hope you include The Oats, Peas, Beans & Barley Cookbook in your collection. It’s filled with delicious recipes for desserts, vegetables, entrees and breads with natural, unprocessed foods. Even though the publish date was 1974, I’ve noticed that Amazon editors have selected it as one of the best books of 2014.

Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that the oat bean waffles are not only gluten-free, they are gas-free!


galley gourmet dinner cruises, Kodiak, Alaska, wildlife tours

I spend much of my summers on our boat, cooking for dinner cruise guests and running wildlife viewing trips in Kodiak, Alaska.

About Marion: Writer, photographer, and teacher Marion Owen of Kodiak, Alaska is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul. In the summers, Marion is the chef on their Galley Gourmet dinner cruises and wildlife tours.

Follow Marion on Google+ and Facebook.

Posted in Food and recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A trip down Red Zinger lane

Ever had a roommate that changed your life?

In 1976, I lived in a small 2-bedroom apartment in north Seattle’s Green Lake district. My roommate, Cathy Childs, was 15 years older than me. She had long blonde hair (with split ends that I thought needed trimming), drove a Volkswagen Beetle (way too fast), ate brown rice with tamari, dressed her granola with yogurt and drank lots of Celestial Seasonings’ Red Zinger tea.

red zinger tea, celestial seasonings

For me, Cathy was a new pair of glasses. She showed me where to shop at local food co-ops, shared the benefits of honey, and introduced me to (then) alternative books by Adelle Davis (Let’s Get Well) and Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet) — two women who contributed to the rise of a nutritional and health food movement that started in the 1950s.

Though Cathy and I were roomies for only a few months, she had a profound influence on my life, from the ethics of food choices to taking personal responsibility for my health. (Today I write a weekly garden and food column for our local newspaper, in Kodiak, Alaska). To this day, whenever I sip Red Zinger tea–pink and lively with orange, lemongrass, hibiscus flowers and rose hips–I think of Cathy.

Fast forward to October 2014. Knowing we were going to visit friends in Boulder, Colorado, I thought, “Finally, here’s my chance to see Red Zinger’s birthplace.”

So on a sunny Saturday, we turned onto Sleepytime Drive and stopped for a photo op by the sign with the signature Sleepytime bear on it. We parked in front of the door marked “Tours”, went inside and signed up for the 1 PM group. The receptionist gave us packets of Wild Berry Zinger tea as our entrance tickets.

celestial seasonings, tea, herbal, colorado, boulder, sleepy time

We had a few minutes to kill, so we sampled iced teas and took a seat near a wall display of black and white photographs. They were a timeline dating back to 1969 when founders Mo Siegel, John Hay and others began gathering herbs and flowers in the mountains around Boulder and selling them to local health food stores.

A group of young, 20-somethings came over and began pointing at the photos. “These are hippies,” one of them announced. “See, hippies had long hair, grew their own food, and tried to eat healthy.” I smiled at their history lesson.

“Celestial Seasonings was started by a group of hippies. See them harvesting wild herbs in the mountains? Eventually they bought real ingredients.”

Real ingredients? Indeed.

Our tour guide, Sandy, handed out nifty blue hairnets. “Guys with beards get an extra one,” she said. Then she highlighted a few rules: “This is a working factory, one of the largest specialty tea companies in North America. Please stay in the yellow safety zones and don’t touch any of the equipment.

“As you walk through the facility it’s best to shuffle because the floors can be slippery from tea dust. Also, no photographs.” I stuffed my iPhone in my pocket and followed the group through a set of double doors.

We entered a large room, stacked floor to ceiling with totes and large sacks. We learned that Celestial Seasoning sources over 100 ingredients from 35 countries. Colorful signs and posters, taken from the company’s packaging, lined the walls. A rainbow of sweet odors filled the air. “Stay within the yellow lines, please,” reminded Sandy. “The forklift drivers might toot, but they don’t always stop.”

She explained that there were three steps to making tea: Milling, blending and packaging. “Today we are processing lemongrass from Guatemala.” An assistant passed around a metal bowl of twigs.

The lemongrass, like most of the other ingredients, is milled for blending by going through a process of cleaning and cutting before being run through 20 different screens, from coarse to fine. Then it goes to the blending room.

“That’s the kitchen of the factory,” Sandy said into the microphone over the din of the machinery. “Our taster, who has worked here for many years, samples over 120 cups of tea a day.”

We were escorted past bins of chamomile, ginger, cloves, ginseng, ginger, blackberry leaves and lemongrass. “If you don’t like any of the smells,” said Sandy, “just walk faster.”

Then we approached a room with a red, garage-like door with a giant red and white candy cane painted on each side. “Welcome to the Mint Room.”

The Mint Room is rather famous. It’s where the company stores giant bags of spearmint and peppermint tea. (The challenge–and joke–is to see how long you can bear the powerful aromas before you need to step out for some fresh air). Sure enough, a strong, menthol-mint smell filled my nostrils. My eyes began to water. “Mints are so potent, we keep them apart from the rest of the ingredients,” Sandy said. The good news is that you can put sachets of mint in your gym shoes or gym locker to kill the smell.”

After we walked around an assembly line of tea boxes snaking their way along a narrow highway that ended in cardboard boxes, the tour finished in the gift shop. I stood next to a display of colorful mugs that said, I survived the Mint Room. “Any questions?” asked Sandy.

“What are the top selling Celestial Seasoning teas?” I asked.

“Well, I can tell you that Sleepytime is number one,” said Sandy.

“What about Red Zinger?”

Sandy scrunched her face a little. “Hmm, I don’t think it’s even in the Top Ten.”

You know what? I really wasn’t disappointed. For me, Red Zinger will always be Number One.


Writer, photographer, and teacher Marion Owen of Kodiak, Alaska is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul.

Posted in Essays and inspirations, Travel, Where curiosity leads me | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments