Islands of Memory
I. “Poetry is an island that breaks away from the main,” writes Derek Walcott in his Nobel lecture “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” (1992). I read his words in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago located between the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca in the Salish Sea. The name San Juan, which could denote a Caribbean destination, derives from a Spanish explorer who arrived here in 1791. English and American Camps, national historical parks and sites of the Pig War of 1859, which actually involved the shooting of a pig unlike the Bay of Pigs invasion, mark the northern and southern tips of San Juan Island.
I am at the Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center to write about art from Sri Lanka, an island nation often described as a teardrop-shaped country in the Indian Ocean. “A pendant off the ear of India,” as Michael Ondaatje puts it. The placid waters around me couldn’t be more unlike the crashing waves and choppy flows of the Indian Ocean around Sun n’ Sea Hotel in Unawatuna, a village on the southern coast of Sri Lanka and home to a diving school established by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Badly damaged by the tsunami in 2004, the hotel was built in the 1970s by Muharam Perera, a brave woman who survived that disaster and died of natural causes in 2006. During my off-season stay in 2018, I had an entire floor to myself and thought Ernest Hemingway would’ve liked it there.
“The life of all parts of the sea is linked,” Rachel Carson claims in The Sea Around Us (1951). The creatures of the Salish must be related to their Eastern counterparts, though the Arabian Sea, which I know well, is warm and without orcas, sea lions, or harbor seals. I’ve seen these animals and heard them bark, grunt, click, and whistle on annual visits to the Center from Seattle, where I live. You can often hear them before you see them. The shores of Friday Harbor offer clear views of breaching orcas of the endangered T-pod, a transient orca group; small sailboats, swift motorboats, and soaring seaplanes; and enormous, slow-moving vessels of the Washington State Ferries system named after indigenous peoples and places in the Pacific Northwest: Kitsap (Suquamish tribe), Yakima (Yakama Nation), and Chelan (Chelan tribe). I close my eyes to imagine Native American fisherwomen and fishermen in canoes amid the evergreens.
II. Summer camp for grown-ups is how I’ve often thought of my time at the Whiteley Center, which shares space with Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) of the University of Washington. Established in 2000 by a generous gift from biologists Helen Riaboff Whiteley and Arthur Whiteley, the phrontistery brings together two distinct populations of scientists and writers. In the dining hall which Laurie Spaulding and Megan Connelly run with skill and style, you can tell the species apart by sensibility, sociability and sartorial choice. The writers fly solo, wear athleisure, drink black coffee, and appear odd. They recall Eunice de Souza’s poem “Meeting Poets:”
Meeting poets I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea.
The scientists roam in groups –herds, flocks, schools, packs, or labs—and are a cheery, friendly, playful lot. They wear shorts and T-shirts (also Hawaiian shirts in a moist and misty climate), drink beer and occasionally wine, and collect specimens. At meals they share details of slicing and dicing fish fossils, as though this were an utterly normal activity. In 2019, at the Fifth Annual FHL Zander Fodor Ice Cream Competition, they used a machine on site to churn out experimental flavors for self-selecting, dues-paid tasters and voters. Apricot-rosemary and Mexican Chocolate were my favorites, though Blueberry French Toast and Rum-spiked Tiramisu weren’t bad. That year I missed the Marine Invertebrates Ball on Fourth of July weekend when students of marine invertebrate zoology make their own costumes (with prizes for winners!), walk in a town parade dressed as crustaceans and mollusca, and have a party in the dining hall. Leading up to that event, someone on the FHL listserv offered “a sea pen hat, an urchin suit, and two giant brittle stars” and other supplies gathered over the years to participants. Another cautioned: “Just a PSA... Don't try on hats at the thrift store— this has caused lice outbreaks in the past.” On a more academic note, one member of the community wrote, “I suspect it’s a safe bet that several people would love any Pycnopodia [sunflower sea star] saved, gently!”
III. “I don’t hike, I don’t bike, I don’t camp, I don’t glamp, I don’t picnic, I’m not sure I like nature,” I said to a realtor in Seattle while searching for a home to buy in 2016. Being in the Northwest and at Whiteley has changed me, a child of concrete and the world’s largest megapolises, Delhi and Manila (population: 23 million and growing). The Center stands on a biological preserve, 476 acres of a former U.S. military reserve transferred to the University of Washington in 1921. Deer and fox abound in the woods, plankton and kelp in the water and littoral zones.
Marine scientists, or the fish people as I think of them, are mad about kelp and not so keen on deer. At a weekly happy hour organized by Megan Dethier, the able and energetic director of FHL, they spoke of deer ticks, dog ticks, raccoon bites, and rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD), occupational hazards of being in the field. RHD, a relatively new scourge, has been devastating for the island’s lagomorphs. But shark populations in Indonesia were doing well, an upside of the Covid-19 pandemic, I learned that day. Also that Friday Harbor (population: 2,474) would host a Black Lives Matter protest near the courthouse at 6 pm. All were welcome at the silent march, and encouraged to bring signs and wear face coverings. On campus, students gathered around picnic tables in solidarity and with solemnity to make BLM signs for their cabins. A slender silver fox skulked by with juicy, bleeding red flesh in its mouth, probably a bird.
IV. “What’s a starling?” I asked Kathy Cowell, an accomplished photographer, passionate naturalist, and the thoughtful, birdlike coordinator of the Whiteley Center. A Whiteley scholar had raised a starling, Kathy effused, noting that the passerine bird had almost become extinct in North America in the nineteenth century. I recently came across a reproduction of an eighteenth-century painting by Shaikh Zain ud-Din of a Brahminy starling, or myna, with two Antheraea moths, a caterpillar, and cocoon on an Indian jujube tree, executed in colonial Calcutta and now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Mynas, starlings native to South Asia, and their songs are fast disappearing in Indian cities as old trees are torn down to make way for new construction. Still birdsong in Bengaluru and Guwahati can be marvelous. In the middle of these big, bustling cities, you feel like you’re in a forest when you listen to the birds.
On the Shore Trail at FHL – no dogs, smoking, camping, hunting, or picking flowers allowed— birds thwack, twitter, tweet, and trill from high above in the Douglas Firs. The earth smells of rain in spring and salty sea in summer. Reeds, ferns, mosses, and grasses are especially vibrant against dark soil and pebbly sand. Tiny pink, purple, and white flowers with specks of yellow burst forth from the ground. Driftwood on the beach and blowdown in the woods make for striking found sculpture. Gray-white and green-gold lichen cling to rocks, forming intricately webbed and knotted abstract patterns. In June the leaves are drier, bramble sharper, and berries riper than in March. Sunlight unevenly breaks through the dense thicket. Clouds gently drift across a pale blue sky.
V. “There is always the other side, always,” says Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1969), titled after a body of water that Carson describes as “a place forgotten by the winds” and home to a “weird assemblage of animals that live in the weed.” Mirroring the life of the Sargasso, migration from land to sea and sea to land structure Rhys’s novel, set in Massacre, Spanish Town, Coulibri, and Granbois on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and Thornfield Hall in the British Isles. Her novel dwells on making and unmaking islands of memory, history, and desire. Its characters journey across islands and continents like the creatures –birds, fish, eels—Carson calls transports.
“Have you seen a harbor seal wearing a hat?” reads a posting on the bulletin board in the FHL office co-sponsored by NOAA Fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service for which Carson was a science writer in the 1930s and afterward, and other organizations such as the Whale Museum and San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network. They ask for public assistance in identifying and rehabilitating tagged, stranded pups while advising humans to stay 100 yards from marine mammals –cetaceans, pinnipeds, and others— at all times. From Bob’s Study, named for Robert Fernald, a zoologist and founding director of FHL, I watch the harbor lights blink and ferries come and go. A toothy, dripping wet beaver bounds ashore. A bald eagle hungrily circles the water. The scales of the sea swell and shrink, settling into place and shifting constantly. The sea that is “the great mother of life” and medium of its transports, the sea that surrounds and sustains us, the sea that creates islands, real and imagined.
John N. Thompson
Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz.
It is not often that a biologist gets to use the word halcyon when writing, but that is the word that sprung immediately to my mind as I started to think about what to write in this 20th anniversary tribute to the Whiteley Center. For seven years, I spent the month of September, and sometimes the early part of October, at the Center. Only professional obligations elsewhere have prevented me from returning in other years. There are few places in this world in which it is possible to combine an ideal environment for thinking and writing, comfortable and quiet lodging embedded in a beautiful natural environment, a diverse and wonderfully interesting set of colleagues from many professions, and a surrounding community of others who add further to the richness of each day. The Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center easily tops the list for me, and I am sure for many others.
Such a special situation does not develop by accident. It began with the Whiteley’s combined vision and Arthur Whiteley’s clear focus from inception to completion of the Center and beyond. It then flourished through the willingness of the University of Washington, the Friday Harbor Laboratories, and the Whiteley Center governing board to allow the Center to create a unique intellectual atmosphere through the activities and interactions of the scholars. The other key ingredient that has maintained, and amplified, the feeling of something special has been the million ways that Kathy Cowell has helped scholars week after week and year after year.
I was not among the first visitors to the Whiteley Center. My colleague and friend Joel Kingsolver, then a faculty member at the University of Washington, kept telling me over several years about the new Center at Friday Harbor Laboratories. He said that the Center was the perfect fit for the periods of concentration I often needed for my work, in an environment that he knew I would enjoy. Finally, I had the opportunity to stay at the Center one September, and I returned thereafter six more times. I spent some years deep in analyses of how webs of interacting species coevolve, and I spent other years writing. Much of the outline and first draft of one of my books, Relentless Evolution, was written at the Whiteley Center. The periods of intense work at the Whiteley Center helped me to maintain continuity in the flow of argument of my analyses and writing. I hope to be back again before too long.
But periods of intense work need to be separated by periods of intense enjoyment of other things. The other Center scholars, the Friday Harbor Laboratories, the welcoming residents of San Juan Islands, and the island setting itself are the not-so-secret other ingredients to why the Center has been such a success. If my wife Jill and I had not come to the Center year after year, we would missed the opportunity to make friends with colleagues from other professions, such as historian Mike Honey from the University of Washington, Tacoma, learn from scientists and others at the Labs, make friends throughout the island, and enjoy walking on every known accessible trail on the island.
Halcyon, then, is the right word for how I think of my years at the Whiteley Center, and deeply grateful is the phrase that captures what I feel for being allowed to return repeatedly over the years. I hope that the Whiteley Center thrives for many decades to come. There are very few places like it in this world, and we need them if we are to keep scholarship alive in this world. Happy 20th anniversary, Whiteley Center!
Dart Endowed Professor of Trauma, Journalism and Communication, Dept. of Communication, UW-Seattle
The Whiteley Center was established the year I joined UW’s faculty, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take part in an interdisciplinary workshop there during my second year at UW. I remember quite well the delight I felt the first time I entered the central gathering room of the Whiteley Center, recognizing it as a profound gift to scholars and other visitors. My gratitude to the Whiteleys for their vision and generosity, and to all the FHL staff who make it possible for scholars to visit remains unabashedly strong.
I’ve have the joy of five subsequent visits to the Whiteley Center during these two decades, each unique, but each immensely productive—and restorative. During one visit I worked solo on a project for which I simply needed time and space to focus. During the other four visits, I brought one or two collaborators with me (one from another state and two from other countries). The Whiteley Center provided an invaluable environment for us to move fluidly between hours long, indepth discussions of our data, to periods of silent writing accompanied by birdsong through the open windows, to co-generating visualizations of our findings on large sheets of sticky paper around our shared study. Lunches in the FHL dining room followed by strolls through the woods or along the shore provided us multiple forms of nourishment. As we prepared and enjoyed suppers together in a Whiteley Center cottage, the surrounding forest nurtured friendships, and wide-ranging conversations in front of a crackling fire in the evening—sometimes laughter-filled and sometimes profoundly serious—sparked many new insights.
The knowledge produced and published on complex society phenomena from the collaborative work accomplished during each of these visits to the Whiteley Center has been significant. Quite literally, those publications would not have come into being without the collocated time together that was enabled by the Whiteley Center. But beyond the publications produced, my collaborators and I each also experienced a deepening and broadening of our own understanding of the world through sustained conversations with each other, across disciplines and professions, across cultures and international contexts—thanks to the Whiteley Center.
School of Engineering & Technology. University of Washington, Tacoma.
I am on the faculty at UW Tacoma, and have been a Whiteley Scholar half a dozen times, durations from a few days to a month. Whiteley is the most productive place I have ever been in! I love the beauty of the setting, the relative isolation, the leisurely journey from home to the Center in anticipation of the time I will spend there. I always go in winter, inevitably seem to arrive just before a snow fall, love to look out on the Sound as the sun rises each morning and the flakes of snow join their small moisture to the larger wetness. Most of all, I love to work there!
What have I worked on? Everything from grant proposals, to data analysis, to journal paper writing. Whatever I do moves forward during my time there, from the moment I arrive until the moment I pack up to leave. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who has contributed (materially, organizationally, spiritually) to make Whiteley what it is. I attach a paper that I have worked on during my stay at Whiteley, just one of so many papers that I have moved toward publication. (*not posted here). This paper appeared in the flagship publication of the Association of Computing Machinery, the largest organization of computing professionals in the world.
Happy 20th anniversary, Whiteley Center!
I am so fortunate to have discovered you.
From my first residency at the Whiteley Center, I learned how much leaving home can do for a writer’s spirit. By getting out of my home state, by getting out of my usual routine, by being given office space and solitude, I accomplished more at Whiteley in a week than I have ever accomplished in months of working at home. The tranquility, the community, the natural beauty, and the gift of having my work honored by a residency — all are truly priceless.
I’m including a short excerpt from my novel, My Last Continent, which I spent several residencies working on at the Whiteley Center, until it was published by Scribner in 2016. The novel would not be finished, let alone out in the world in eight languages, without the support of Whiteley.
To Arthur and Helen Riaboff Whiteley: Thank you for envisioning and creating this magical place.
To all who keep Whiteley thriving: Thank you, always.
When I look at Keller, I know that he’s fallen head over heels—not for me but for this continent. I can’t blame him. Much like Keller, after I’d gotten a taste of Antarctica, I didn’t want to leave. I’d have done anything to stay.
And I want to tell him so many things. That it’s exhilarating—the way the sun dips below the horizon for longer and longer each day, a glowing orange yolk that leaves behind a reddish black sky. That it’s lonely—that he will hear the waning sound of the season’s last plane echoing in the sky for a long, long time. That it’s dangerous—that the storms here are unlike anything he’s ever seen, with winds at a hundred knots, temperatures at eighty degrees below zero, snow blasting through the air like violent ghosts and seeping into buildings through the smallest cracks imaginable. That in the six months of total isolation, with no supply deliveries, no company other than two hundred other wintering souls, he will long for things like city streets, oranges, the leaves of trees.
— Excerpted from My Last Continent: A Novel (Scribner, 2016)
I wish to thank everyone involved in making academics and artists welcome at Whiteley Center. I wish I could personally thank Arthur and Helen Riaboff Whiteley, but in lieu of that, I want to express my specific appreciation to Kathy Cowell, who from the first time I asked for information about residencies was warm, kind, efficient and encouraging.
My residencies at Whiteley have been integral to my work over the past years since I moved to Washington State. The peace, the quiet, the natural beauty, the welcoming spirit, the opportunity to work without interruption in bright, clean, lovely rooms – all of this has been a blessing and an inspiration to me as a writer. I’ve written my best work there.
My favorite Whiteley moments, outside of the writing and research I’ve done, are those when I’ve encountered the natural world in surprising ways. Deer, of course, and various varieties of birds. But my most cherished meet-up was with a black fox, gorgeous and inquisitive, at my door one dawn as I sipped morning coffee. To stand face to face with such a creature and to absorb its spirit and behaviors all alone in the still-darkish daybreak is to be grateful to be alive and to be uplifted and encouraged as a privileged visitor to this splendid landscape. I think of that fox often, when I need a shot of positive energy—a sweet dip into the creature-ness of creativity.
So I celebrate this anniversary with my gratitude and with the lessons I’ve learned in my time at Whiteley Center. Congratulations to all!
Below is a sample of what I’ve written on the grounds, an excerpt from a memoir in progress that tells the story of my maternal aunt Aileen, and how her long-held secret of rape, the details of her unwanted lobotomy and her heroic survival affected me—as a woman. as a writer.)
The Water Bearer Drums
I try to tell her story for years, decades. It surprises me, at first, how hard it is to reveal a secret, your own or someone else’s. Hard, as in a rock striking driftwood, making no headway, only making a thud, time upon time. The wood remains wood: sturdy, stonelike, its long history protected beneath washed-out bark.
But something in the story keeps trying to be told. A splinter, a wedge of hurt, wiggles its way to the surface. Slowly voices and places rise up – from the sea of a family’s consciousness, from a culture’s disgrace–and scenes mount, make sense, stir and frighten me. If I tell this story, do I have the courage to tell it true, I wonder. Days and nights spent alone, in woods, in cabins, in harbors and hills, in more rooms than I want to count. Trying to tell the story.
I watch my mother die. A friend dies. I watch a stranger die. Do I learn nothing? I see my father die. My husband’s mother. Even Eenie dies. Her story so stubborn, I fear it dies with her. But the rock hits the wood, the wood echoes, the sea ebbs and flows. Time passes. Every hour, her Audubon clock uncages a bird’s song. I light candles in a tall glass jar to St. Jude, patron of lost causes. Every thunderstorm, a rarity in the Pacific Northwest, reminds me of her, holed up in her Louisville basement, rosary in hand. When my dish-washed hands beg for balm, I think of her. If I grow anxious, worrying that I am not up to this story, I see her big toothy smile, her dowager’s hump, her stooped figure taking each step up the stairs slowly, with determination.
“If it can help someone,” I hear her say for the hundredth time on the audio tape now a quarter-century-old, “then tell my story.”
You put me between a rock and a hard place, I hear myself answer the spinning spool of her familiar voice. Then one day that legendary space cracks open. A secret erupts, a volcanic lie explodes, changing everything. Between hard places, as miners know, lies treasure. Veins riddling a wall, given time, will flow.
Stories tell themselves. The storyteller only drums.
Book Description: Persistence is Resistance is a collection celebrating 50 years of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies. Contributors are a diverse group of scholars, from undergraduate students to faculty emeritus, representing twenty-two institutions. Essays cover GWSS’s history, praxis, and implementation. The book also includes artwork by GWSS undergraduates and alumni, and their answers to “why GWSS?” Persistence is Resistance is ideal for the classroom because the essays are short, jargon light, and inspire feminist inquiry, activism, and pride. (License: Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial
Willian R. Phillips
Professor Emeritus of Family Medicine, University of Washington
Tide Pools on the Commons
The Whiteley Center lives on the shoreline where native lands meet marine wonderlands, where diurnal flows refresh tide pools of scholarship and creativity. The currents draw learners and leaders from disciplines across academia, institutions throughout the country and nations around the world. This littoral laboratory creates a commons where scholarship breathes fresh air and sciences mingle with arts and nature.
The Whiteley endowment enlivens introspection and incites exploration. Those of us fortunate to spend - to invest, really - time there understand what it can do:
- Catalyze a retreat from the workplace to get on with the work.
- Shift focus from the computer screen to the doe and fawn browsing just outside the window.
- Inspire with sylvan solitude illuminated by sunny shafts of collegial light.
- Nurture the embracing spirit of Natural Philosophy.
- Nourish connections among sea and shore, organism and environment, scholar and society.
- Conjure fascination with old questions and new answers.
- Cultivate crucial focus and constructive diversion.
- Kindle conversations that reach from the roots to the leaves of the family tree of knowledge among undergrads, postdocs and career scientists.
The Center animated my own inquiry into the family doctor as student of the natural history of human health and illness. It paired me in the study with fellow travelers: a film producer editing videos by inner-city teens, two German scholars translating Wittgenstein, a biological oceanographer studying something in the mud. In the dining hall, I met with students interested in careers in biomedicine and public health. On the sundeck, I shared impressions of recent travels to arctic Svalbard with glacier scientists from Iceland and Norway. I poked around the labs and kayaked around the shoreline, meeting new friends.
One evening, walking back to my cottage after my regular circumambulation of the property, I was startled by a long, low, fleeting shadow. The sleek shape bounded across the trail, ran through the forest, loped across the grassy headland, scampered over the rocks and slid into the bay. What was it? Was it a wild river otter or a new idea, inviting pursuit?
Dear Whiteley Center Staff – Congrats on 20 years! I feel so lucky to be a bit part of that history.
I spent a week in residence in July 2015. My goal was to kickstart a new book manuscript on the changing geography of poverty in America. And, Whiteley came through for me. With the focused time and wonderful writing space – I cranked out about 30,000 words in 5 days and that text became the superstructure for my book, which was published in 2017.
You can find the book’s page below – the intro can be downloaded as a pdf. I also have attached the cover. https://www.russellsage.org/publications/places-need
The book has been a good success and I owe a lot of what it became to those initial moments at Friday Harbor.
I’m starting a new project this year and hope to revisit Whiteley in 2021 or 2022 sometime. Here’s to all the voices you’ve supported over the years. Best, Scott
Proceed to Volume 3 — or visit Volume 1. Return to Whiteley Center webpage.