From the meaningful to the delightful to the wonderfully absurd, islands offer endless opportunities for observation and research. Entire books have been written about the subjects I dip my big toe into as I travel; here is a microcluster of subjects that have caught my attention.

Driftwood teepee fort at the Point Robinson Lighthouse | Maury Island

Driftwood teepee fort at the Point Robinson Lighthouse | Maury Island


A driftwood sea serpent checks out a fairy house on Fishing Bay's beach | Orcas Island

A driftwood sea serpent checks out a fairy house on Fishing Bay's beach | Orcas Island

The Pacific Northwest shoreline can look like a horizontal forest stripped of bark and leaves. For imaginative and ambitious souls, nature’s lumberyard fosters shelter construction. On a smaller scale fairy houses are built from shells, pebbles and driftwood. On Orcas Island in Washington, a nautilus path leads to a driftwood pillow resting on a clamshell bed and a seaweed salad in a scallop shell bowl, welcoming the winged and grounded alike…and even a (hopefully friendly) sea serpent. Other islands are known for their fairy houses; Cathedral Woods on Monhegan in Maine has bark and moss varieties with acorn bowls. Raising forts and decorating fairy houses are but two of the numerous childlike activities that await island visitors.



An old SNL commercial starring Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner featured a household product called “Shimmer” that was both a floor wax and a dessert topping, giving “the greatest shine you’ve ever tasted.”

Seaweed is the Shimmer of the natural world.

As a starfish is not a fish but a gill- and finless echinoderm (kin to sand dollars and urchins), seaweed is not a weed. It isn’t a true plant at all—or an animal—but rather an algae. Growing up to 100 feet tall in aquatic forests that can be more than a century old, 6,500 of these red, brown and green organisms offer the highest aquaculture value on earth from their use in Japanese cuisine, are loaded with vitamins and iron, serve as critical marine “nurseries,” are used as fertilizers for gardens and are being tested by the University of Washington as an alternate source for ethanol production. Extracts are used for toothpaste’s texture and in medicines that induce labor.

The sturdier and more colorfast varieties are used in paper and other artworks. Red eyelet silk seaweed (from Possession Beach on Whidbey Island, Washington) grows in sheets of up to forty inches; it serves as the hull of one Lummi Islander Ann Morris’s vessel sculptures. Bull kelp anchors with holdfasts rather than the nutrient-seeking roots of plants. Seaweeds also have no stems or leaves, but rather haptera, stipes and blades that allow them to feed through their surfaces. This lowly plant grows up to become one of Judy Arntsen’s artful baskets—she collects their strands on her private beach on Lummi.