The Oak Lady of San Juan Island

Mature Garry Oak trees, once abundant on San Juan Island, became rare, but now, thanks to restoration efforts, will thrive for future generations.

From the San Juan Island National Historic Park website:

“…native peoples collected foodstuffs such as acorns, camas roots, and bracken ferns…and burned the forests regularly to create habitat for game animals, promote the growth of weaving materials and food such as camas, and maintain an open prairie…lack of fire in recent years spurred an increase of Douglas fir trees, which have deprived the oak trees of sunlight, water, and nutrients.”

Through prescribed burns, the park has initiated a program to bring back the native Garry Oaks, an important tree in the unique-to-western Washington prairie ecosystem of the island.

Elsewhere on the island, on a mountain hillside, lives a remarkable woman equally dedicated to re-establishing native Garry Oak forests on the island.  She has supervised the demise of hundreds of Douglas Firs and personally planted hundreds of oak seedlings.  As she walks the land she shares with her partner, she points out each young plant, tenderly planted, caged and cared for.  She is distressed when she can’t find one, or finds it has died.  With determination she voraciously pulls out fir seedlings, an ‘invasive species’ in the island prairie habitat.  The oaks are her ‘babies’, though the slow-growing trees will barely be out of childhood and into their adolescent years in her lifetime.

In her own words, excerpted from an article she wrote in 2009 and published by the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team in Vancouver, Canada, she describes the property:

“….[it] is comprised of 20 acres..…a south-facing slope divided by micro-habitat types into thirds…ranging in elevation from approx. 600 – 400 feet. The top third is open grass meadow with a few [mature] Garry Oaks and minimal rock outcroppings; the middle third is mainly rock outcroppings, shrubs of Snowberry and Nootka Rose, wildflowers, Arbutus, Garry Oaks and ancient Douglas-firs; and the bottom portion is primarily a dense Douglas-fir forest with trees ranging in age from 300 to 20 years old. Our restoration project is concentrated in the top two sections of the property.”

Her article continues to describe the flora of the land, project objectives and challenges, the different methods used to remove the firs, and how she encouraged other native plants to become established.  It is not a paper written by an arborist, or biologist, or nurseryman, it is written by a person in love with a piece of land she is honored to steward, a love that grows from a passion for Nature and Place.  It is a privilege to know this special Lady of the Oaks.

Mike, the tree-planter, helping the Oak Lady plant her oak babies

Cousins by birth, friends by Nature!

Shaun, a paternal cousin and close friend, is the closest I have to a biological ‘sister’.  Though we did not grow up together, my family having moved east when I was 5, she 3, the sister title comes through a familial friendship which grew when we “met” after I moved back to the NW in my 20s. When I was living in Oregon we had an annual tradition of  “double dating” to the Joffrey Ballet when it was in Seattle. Once I moved to the Peninsula there were long phone conversations over the woes of relationships, jobs, life, once we had a ‘crush’ on the same guy; another guy, who was my dance partner, fell head over heels for Shaun.  She unequivocally filled the previously empty sister-role in my life.  She was the last-minute-brides-maid at our wedding in CA, and played my favorite waltz at our wedding party in WA a week later.  I have contra danced to her fiddling in Seattle, Port Townsend, and at Deception Pass, where I played along on my autoharp and called out the dances.  She provided me retreat and respite when, after 2 years of serve illness, I took my first car trip alone and headed to her island home, and when plans for my 60th birthday trip fell through due to new health challenges, she again was the place I turned for Mike and I to have a November get away.

Shaun, (who has 3 fabulous ‘real’ sisters) as any sister might be, is different than me in myriad ways.  We rarely see one another due to full lives and differing lifestyles.  There are too many ferries between us and our paths rarely cross.  But our strongest bond, besides the shared genes, is a mutual passionate love of Nature…especially Nature in its native garb here in Washington.  She is the only person I have ever talked with for an hour, on the phone, about noxious weeds, looking up pictures on the internet and sharing woes and knowledge of different plants we battle in our differing habitats.  In the spring we are both out photographing the tiny new blooms showing up in our respective environments, sharing the photos and the joy of seeing them, as if for the first time.  We speak of Spring Beauty and Star Flowers.  She sends me pictures of Mt Baker from her island home; I send her pictures of the Olympics and my trips to Mt Rainier.  We are Washington women!

Why do I write of this Nature loving, fly fishing artist, photographer, musician and world traveler on my blog?  Because she, my ‘little sister’ and friend, turns 60 this week, a life event she will commemorate with her partner Harold and their friends at various social events.  I sent her a modest gift for quiet moments back in her island home after the festivities, but  I write, and writing of her life is my gift, my tribute to her.

Besides restoring the Garry Oaks to Cady Mountain on San Juan Island, Shaun also has been involved in the Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project to bring back bluebirds to the island.  She has hosted a breeding pair for several years.  Her support of the project has been bittersweet, with successes and disappointments.  But with Shaun’s persistence, I belief there will be a time, perhaps by the end of this new decade of her life, that she will look out her window to see and hear bluebirds singing in her oaks!

Shooting Stars flourish in the prairie atop Cady Mountain

Until then a newly awakened prairie of shooting stars, camas, chocolate lilies, and other wild flowers will greet people who walk the proposed nature trail to the Cady Mountain Preserve owned by the San Juan County Land Bank.  Those flowers, the growing oaks, the wildlife that enjoys the newly formed habitat will all have a home far into the future, as the land that Shaun and Harold now steward eventually combines with the Land Bank’s  Preserve.  Thanks to Shaun’s vision and hard work, future generations will see what island prairie hillsides looked like in the past when Shaun’s maternal ancestors were among the earliest white settlers and the oaks were big and plentiful.

Happy Birthday Shaun, you are a mere 60 and you have already created a legacy, made a difference, and changed the world where you live.

2 thoughts on “The Oak Lady of San Juan Island

  1. Sisters are a gift from God. Thank you Shaun, for your good works and may you have a grace-filled 60th birthday and future.

    Laura Simpson

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  2. Thank you for your kind words! I am honored by your good writing, Penney. Most of all, thank you for spreading the Gospel of the Oaks! Love, Shaun

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