June Color: Hazel Heckman’s “Island Year”

Island Year Cover ImageThe following is an excerpt from Hazel Heckman’s Island Year, with drawings by Laurie Olin. The book contains a year’s worth of meditations on the flora and fauna of Anderson Island as they cycle through the seasons. The following excerpt is taken from her entry for the month of June. Filled with delightful descriptions of the natural riches of the Pacific Northwest, Island Year was originally published by the University of Washington Press in 1972. We brought out a new paperback edition of this Northwest classic earlier this year.

Camouflaged among yellow blossoms dripping from the rain tree, laburnum or golden chain, two goldfinches billed each other. The bright yellow male wore a black beret tilted forward. He looked debonair, a gay Lothario. The soft green female made a fine pretense of modesty and shyness. She moved away, but not too far. Her simulated reticence increased his interest, which was probably the way she’d planned it.

flowers for heckmanThe horse chestnut tree came into bloom overnight. Flowers stood up in spires, wine-red or yellow centered, staminate and pistillate blossoms with long projecting style and stigma, and recurved stamens. Bees are guided subtly by spots of color at the base of petals. The English call the tree hyacinth, or “giant’s nosegay,” “a sight for gods and men.” And so it is, a tree to outdo all flowering trees save in the tropics.

A minus-three tide brought to light a kelp crab, Pugettia, a little green fellow shaped like a shield. Master at camouflage, or fashion-minded, he had decorated his own carapace with plumes and scarves of seaweed that drifted out behind like a bride’s train, or ribbons on a parade float.

June Opening CabinI walked along the water’s edge and found the beach strewn with excavations left by those who had come and gone. Excavations left open meant death for some, from exposure. Mounds of sand and gravel meant death for other lives by smothering. I found clams with broken shells, the animals left to die. Even a geoduck too small and immature for use had been left lying beside the open aperture he had occupied as living matter. No boat was in sight, but someone had been there by boat, some thoughtless or ignorant vandal. Who can blame us for posting signs? Not that they do a whit of good.

The shells of mossy chiton are little hammocks lined with turquoise blue and bordered with mossy bristles. The eight curved plates bear delicate tracing on the dorsal side, suggestive of designs used by Northwest Indians in basketwork and sweaters. Patterns in brown, orange, coral, and salmon decorate the shells of clams. A sharp-eyed glaucous-winged gull pecked at a brilliant red sunflower starfish stranded in a tide pool.

Loveliest of all June color comes from the bright orange-red drupes that swing in clusters on wire-thin scarlet stems from long looped bough of oso-berry, jeweled strands against light green spring growth of feathery evergreens.

beach image for heckmanThe fresh-water creek that negotiates the length of the cove and crosses the shingled carried semitransparent larvae by the thousands, destined to become adults or to be ingested. They all look much alike, shrimp shapes swept inexorably downstream in helpless masses to meet their fate without choice or decision.

I remember a day when my feet, in rubber-soled boots, sank suddenly out of sight in the cove, as though I were being ingested, pulled downward by some giant hand into cold mud. Recalling tales of pedestrians caught in quicksand, I threw myself forward and crept out barefoot on hands and knees to distribute weight. To be buried alive, swallowed by cold mud. A nightmare.

A flock of western tanagers descended into the madroña tree, dislodging creamy urns of blossom, gaudy birds that resemble a band of brightly clothed gypsies. The red-faced males, with swollen beaks, black backs, and yellow breasts and rumps, looked artificial, like birds made up of paper to match a color scheme at a children’s party. Females wore greenish yellow. They did not move about as do grosbeaks in migration, but sat and rested, making dry clicking sounds, then swept away all at once, over the beach and above the water, flying swiftly, as though late for an appointment in the Olympics. I was sorry to see them go.

boat image for heckmanOn quiet June days all life seems trusting. A two-point buck deer lifted his head, gave me a curious look from his limpid, long-lashed eyes, and went back to his browse. A goldfinch not three feet away crabbed sidewise up a twig to pick at a holly blossom. I literally turned aside for a purple finch at work disassembling a dandelion seed ball.

A female kinglet, olive gray with a golden crown stripe and no bigger than a bushtit, fidgeted from leaf to leaf in the English walnut tree. She kept up a thin, high-pitched, one-sided conversation. Kinglets build one or two decoy nests as well as the nest put to use, which proves that they are not all nor always trusting. She flipped into the laurustinus, fluttered off to investigate a dogwood leaf, and disappeared into high fir branches.