Rainshadow World: A Naturalist's Year in the San Juan Islands
by Susan Vernon


Archipelago Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-061-66120-4.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 05/15/2011

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Paying attention to a place is an act of respect; observing the place over many years, taking notes on weather and time, and the comings and goings of the inhabitants—human and wild—is an act of love.

In Rainshadow World, Susan Vernon draws on years of observation and a finely-tuned sense of wonder to evoke the edge where the Pacific Ocean slaps up against the rocky archipelago of islands that dot the straits between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Washington State. These hilly bumps of land, worn by glaciers, weather, and time, host an incredible array of life, from stately Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees, their lichen-clad branches holding nests of bald eagles, to lithe sea otters and vivid blue camas, along with gumboot chitons, periwinkles, and startlingly green sea lettuce offshore.

Vernon's short essays on the mostly-wild life of these unique islands are arranged by month over a calendar year, beginning with "Walking in the Woods" in January and ending with "Winter Solstice" in December. Each piece chronicles an expedition to meadow, forest, or shore, with vivid details on what she sees, hears, and learns along the way.

On a warm day in May not long ago, I took a walk along an upland trail at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories... I stopped to look at a broad-leaved starflower that cast a tiny shadow under a towering fir, then watched a spring azure flutter by and land in the camas, promptly folding its wings and disappearing into the rich hues of the plants' blue flowers. A bald eagle made slow measured turns high above the madrones, western red cedars, and Douglas firs anchored in the bedrock. Chestnut-back chickadees and dark-eyed juncos foraged in the early creamy inflorescence of ocean spray, and at Beaverton Cove, a sleek river otter came ashore and lumbered off through the understory of salal, western sword fern, and Oregon grape... It was the type of walk I liked the best: investigating unfamiliar niches along a trail; finding new plants to identify; and pondering birds, butterflies, and other wildlings.

Vernon not only knows the "wildlings," she appreciates human history as well, and she draws on observations of early naturalists to show how the islands have changed in the last century. She sets the scene in the days before the Civil War with ship's surgeon and naturalist Dr. C.B.R. Kennerly, who made several forays to the islands from 1857-1860 by canoe, sailboat, and revenue cutter to survey their natural resources (and potential military positions) along what would become a major fishing area and shipping route.

Rainshadow World is an affectionate portrait of a unique place, seen through the eyes of an observer who delights in both the familiar and the unexpected and finds meaning in the cycle of life, what Rachel Carson called the "repeated refrains of nature." Whether you know the San Juan Islands or not, this book is worth reading as an example of the rich stories to be heard when you pay attention to a particular place and take note of the inhabitants and changes over time. In Vernon's writing, the result is rewarding, a book to be savored and enjoyed a bit at a time, through the year.

Read an excerpt from this book.


Susan Vernon has lived in the San Juan Islands nearly twenty-five years. She was executive director of The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor and co-founder of the San Juan Nature Institute. She writes a wildlife column, San Juan Nature Notebook, for the San Juan Islander newspaper. She has studied the natural history of the San Juan Islands for federal, state and local agencies, and has worked at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and for Defenders of Wildlife. She continues to study the fauna and flora of the islands, and has a particular interest in the rare Island Marble butterfly. Visit her website.

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