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When Stories Become Legends | Guest column

Submitted by Kimberly Mayer

“You’re going to get a truck,” people said when we moved onto the island. Not us, we thought, as I stood solidly by my Volvo, and Paul, his Porsche. Two years later a 1989 Toyota pickup rolled into our lives.

We also heard the legend that “women on San Juan Island grow strong.” I now know this to be true. Again and again, I meet remarkable women, often rolling into their eighties or nineties, sharp as a shark’s tooth, with no sign of slowing down. This island is teeming with strong women.

I’m not suggesting it’s a matriarchy, but perhaps the most egalitarian place I’ve ever known.

So I asked some local women for their stories. An 82-year-old woman has been chairing the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden for more years than she can remember. As volunteers, we strive to keep up with her. Supplying produce to The Food Bank, The Demo Garden is open year-round and throughout the pandemic. Recent wind advisories topped 50mph, and there was our chairwoman, bundled in more layers than Nanook of the North, harvesting kale.

Historically several large farms on the island were run by single women. In researching old barns for an art installation, one woman–who went on to become president of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art–informed me that “Lizzie Lawson took the seat out of her car, a Liberty, loaded it with sheep and took off for the fairground.” Back in the day, farms on the island primarily raised cattle and sheep as well as growing orchards and vegetable gardens. Little has changed. Life is pastoral here and farm or no farm, growing food, a religious experience.

On islands, we live by the seasons. We share this of course with all the islands in The Salish Sea. Perhaps with most islands everywhere.

“Living here I carry a battery-powered chainsaw in my vehicle in case I have to remove a tree branch from the road,” a friend tells me.

Farming, fishing, kayaking, boating, piloting, filmmaking, acting, establishing a documentary film festival, a community art center, and taming wild mustangs. And behind closed doors, consulting, researching, writing, and making art. Women conducting tireless public service or running businesses, all of it making an illustrious impact on a sparsely populated island.

Many women brought a wealth of political experience and activism to the island. “I have always felt it important to give back to whatever community I have lived in,” notes one. “From that, I have made friendships that will endure long after I leave boards and indulge in the pleasures of book, garden and sloth.”

My neighbor moved onto the island from “the other Washington.” Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, she educates us all on global migration and refugee issues at every turn. Do women on San Juan Island grow strong, or has the island attracted strong women to its shores? Perhaps that’s it. The old pioneer spirit in women, still pushing west and toward Alaska.