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SWW 2015 Beach sitting

The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part Two)

December 26th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute hosted a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center. Here are some participant poems that came out of this unique weekend in the North Cascades. The first group of pieces from this year can be found here.

Poems in Response to “Voices from the Salmon Nations” by Frances Ambrose


Those great, smooth boulders
were they polished by glaciers?
or by the years of glacial melt
relentlessly flowing over and around?
or by countless salmon bodies brushing their sides
on the struggle upstream?

Death for a rock comes
when it is ground to powder by wind, waves, other rocks
and then dissolved in water
to become food for plankton and algae
in turn, food for feeder fish
who become dinner for salmon.

The next time I eat salmon patties
will I remember and praise those ancient rocks?

When I die
I too will return to molecules
that will feed the smallest to largest creatures,

Great boulders: you and I are kin.

Late Fall

The river stinks.
Dead salmon litter the banks.
Rotting fins float in the eddies.
Eyes pecked out by crows.
Whole carcasses carried into the forest by eagles,
remnants scattered on duff below tall perches.
Fat bears waddle away, fish blood on their muzzles.
Stink and happiness everywhere.

» Continue reading The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part Two)


Hooked!: Saying Farewell to Our New Friend Tele Aadsen

March 3rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Crewing on a commercial fishing boat during prime salmon season isn’t exactly conducive to writing a memoir.

“No writing happens on the boat except on my arm,” said Tele Aadsen, a fisherman, writer, Alaskan and most recent Writer-In-Residence at the North Cascades Institute.

But to write a complete log from the Gulf of Alaska, and then some, sentences via forearm and rare moments of rest would not suffice. With a manuscript due by the end of May 2014, Aadsen needed space, time and distance if she were to finish writing her memoir, Hooked: A Season of Love, Sex, and Salmon.

Fortunately, Aadsen was friends with Betsy Delph, a returning sous-chef at the Institute and the daughter of the Institute’s Administrative Assistant, Anne Hubka. Through them, she heard about the residency opportunity and was accepted in June 2013, spending the rest of the summer watching the long Alaskan days tick by until she could trade a salmon knife for a pen come mid-November.

Aadsen’s next three months living at the Environmental Learning Center were productive, but not always blissfully easy, as most artists under deadline to get into “the flow” likely understand. On a recent night in February, Aadsen gave a farewell presentation to the Learning Center community detailing the opportunities, highlights and challenges of her residency. She described it, in part, as an exercise in “forced accountability,” saying, “I have backed myself into this corner that I’ve spent the past 17, 18 years strenuously avoiding.

Even at the young age of 18, fellow fisherfolk had been asking Aadsen when she was going to write a book, to which she’d respond, a little sheepishly, that she would like to……someday. Though she’d been told by teachers and friends since elementary school that writing was a craft at which she excelled, this encouragement did not necessarily translate into a talent that was automatic or without struggle. At age 21, she left the fishing life, and Alaska, at a point when she was, as she recalled, “very angry and bitter.” She spent the next six years as a social worker in Seattle, helping homeless youth. “I bounced from crisis to crisis to crisis,” she remembered. She didn’t write for the entire six years.

Tele and Besty Photo Joel Brady-Power
Aadsen and Betsy Delph, a sous-chef at the Environmental Learning Center, spent a summer catching salmon together, which included hanging out in the fish hold. Photo by Joel Brady-Power.

But living in a city, passing days punctuated by stress and misery, was hardly sustainable. Aadsen was called back to fishing, a lifestyle she’d known since she was seven when her parents built a 45-foot sailboat, the Askari. At the same time, she was called back to writing: Her story, which she’d spent years trying to ignore, grew louder and more insistent while back on the water.

And then one of those perfect, serendipitous events occurred, the kind that practically force one to believe in fate. In 2010, Aadsen was visiting Bellingham, where she stopped by the independent bookstore and community hub, Village Books. The author giving the reading that evening was Cami Ostman, a former social work colleague of Aadsen’s from a decade previous. “’Someone I know wrote a book!’” Aadsen thought, surprised and delighted. After the reading, her old friend told her that non-fiction books can be sold on proposal, unlike fictional novels, which have to be fully completed. Within three years, under Ostman’s tutelage and encouragement, Aadsen had finished a 100-page proposal for Hooked. Her agent sent it out.

Four of the ten publishers to whom the proposal was pitched wanted to talk about turning it in to a book. All of them were in New York. “None had ever been near a fishing boat, XtraTuf boots or Alaska,” Aadsen laughed. Each publisher singled out a different piece of the story that spoke to them, yet only one, Riverhead Books, identified that there was a feminist component in Aadsen’s life as a female in a male-dominated industry. This was important to Aadsen, and she went with Riverhead, ready to join the ranks of writers such as Anne Lamott and Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Tele presentation photo K. RenzAt Aadsen’s presentation to the community, she posted a beautifully-crafted timeline of the progression of Hooked around the Dining Hall. How could any creatively-driven person not find solace and empathy in the top quote: “As a kid, I’m always writing. Teachers say I’m a good writer, which I internalize to mean that writing should come easily to me.” Photo by Katherine Renz.

Now came the hard part – getting her whole story on paper – a task accompanied by even trickier questions: How does one tell their own stories – ones that are funny, sordid, emotional and everything in between — when they involve other people? At what point is the line drawn between characters in a book and friends in real life? With memoirs, does such a line even exist?

The residency offered Aadsen a freedom impossible to access while in proximity to her loved ones, whether working at sea or landed at her permanent home in Bellingham where her partner, Joel Brady-Power, and cat, Bear, held down the proverbial fort until the season began again. Up at the Learning Center, if she wanted to tell a story that could potentially offend a friend or family member, well, so be it. Aadsen could shrug off the concern. “It doesn’t matter, they’re down river,” she’d remind herself, and start writing.

Aadsen also wrestled with issues of shame. Not only was this a theme in her memoir – What does it mean to be faithful? To love? To delve deeply into one’s own secrets? – but it was also an issue with the luxury of a residency itself. With the constant reflection so characteristic of writers, Aadsen wondered, “Who gets to run away for three months to write a book?”

Part of the answer was found in one of the dozens of letters friends and fans sent her during her three months, some of which she shared during her presentation. As one woman wrote, “You valuing your work gives me permission to value mine.” The humanity of Aadsen’s task became apparent, as a model for others wanting to embrace their creative goals but also in considering how to take Hooked to a deeper, more universal level. “How can I make this no longer my story only?” she asked herself, chapter by chapter. With the popularity of memoirs over the past decade or so, with authors like Cheryl Strayed agonizing over love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail or Elizabeth Gilbert traipsing all over the world to find herself, this format has often been criticized for its narcissistic tendencies. Aadsen’s intention was to escape this inherent pitfall as much as possible, to craft a story in which readers can better understand their own experience through her experience.

As a graduate student and year long resident at the Environmental Learning Center, welcoming Aadsen into our lean wintertime community was a sweet opportunity. I remember the autumn afternoon when Anne Hubka mentioned we would have a writer-in-residence, the same woman who provides all the salmon we serve in our kitchen. An author? I thought. A real live writer? Who is also a feminist? YES! My initial assumption to jump for joy proved correct as we got to know Aadsen over the next few months. Though she was, most of the time, diligently locked in her apartment organizing words, Aadsen always made time for her new family, including leading an all day writing workshop for the graduate students, one of the highlights of our educational experience. I can’t count the number of times I heard her say, “There’s a book in you….,” extending the encouragement she’d received along her own journey to the writers among the graduate cohort and staff.

Tele Aadsen became and remains part of our community and part of our story as, we hope, we are a part of hers. We’re hooked.

Tele writing on arm/joel brady powersMemoirs are an internal story, but sometimes they’re external, too: Aadsen doing her daily ritual on the boat, pre-residency, transcribing her inspired notes-on-forearm into a more permanent journal. Photo by Joel Brady-Power.
Leading photo: Aadsen and the graduate students (collectively known as “Cohort 13”) pose for a farewell photo. Obviously, we wish she could be our constant writer-in-residence. From L to R: Sarah Stephens, Annabel Connelly, Katie Komorowski, Samantha Hale, Katherine Renz, Tele Aadsen, Elissa Kobrin, Kaci Darsow, Tyler Chisholm. Photo by Liz Blackman.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. When not doing homework or blogging, she is dreaming of being a writer-in-residence. 





Tele writing

A Writer’s Residency: Like Fishing?

January 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Guest Post by Tele Aadsen

Six weeks into my time with the North Cascades Institute, I’m thinking that a residency is something like a fishing season. As on the F/V Nerka, I rely on routine here in Dogwood 2. Instead of getting the gear in the water at first light, though, I’m working on each day’s opposing end, tap-tapping my way into tomorrow. I’ve second-guessed this process – you’re supposed to get up early and working first thing in the morning; all the Real Writers say so! – and trust me, I’ve tried. But my words are nocturnal creatures. If writing memoir is to roam murky trails of memory, casting a light for those stories that glimmer and wink back through the darkness, perhaps there’s a grace in welcoming the new year’s lengthening days this way, sitting with words long into the night.

An admission: my first full week up here, I didn’t walk a single trail. Not to check out the waterfall at the top of Sourdough Creek Trail, not dainty quarter-mile Deer Creek Trail, and I didn’t even know about Peninsula Trail, just outside the dining hall. I told myself I was here with a book to write, no time for walks! That, too, was like the fishing season, when we fling ourselves at the July king salmon opening until our bodies must impose their own limits. We leave them no other choice. Now, after too many days of sitting, I take time to appreciate these surroundings. Hopeful of seeing another bobcat, I move slowly, testing each footfall for stealth. (And once succeeding, accidentally sneaking up on the poor Christmas Bird Count gentlemen.) There’s always a rainproof notebook in my back pocket, ready to corral the ideas that inevitably appear when you step away from your desk. One day I walked in the snow. It didn’t stick – little has – but turned my hair white and refreshed one of my earliest memories: pressing my face against the window to watch enormous flakes surge down, stunned to learn that snow could steal the black from the night sky.

deer creek trail The dainty Deer Creek Trail: No time for walks! Photo by Katherine Renz.

Late at night, when I don’t think I have anything more to give, I step away from the desk and curl up on the little green loveseat on the other side of the room. If you’ve sent a letter, this is when I open it. At the end of the day, as a reward. Even if we’ve never spoken and wouldn’t know each other’s timbres, your voice fills this little haven. The voice of a friend. I lean into your pages like a conversation, then, with Amy Gulick’s Salmon in the Trees as an inspiring desk, I write you back. It is a conversation, and like any good visit with a friend, I feel renewed when we say goodbye. Envelope sealed, stamped, and leaning against the jade plant on the coffee table where I can’t miss it, I go back to my desk and write one more thing.

It’s been said in so many ways that writing is lonely, solitary work. No one else can do this for us. Whether in moments of triumph or despair, we’re all staring at our screens, our notebooks, alone. Yet I don’t feel alone. From the work of favorite authors lining the kitchen counter (“Your literary bloodline,” novelist Jim Lynch calls them), the postcards brightening the fridge, to the North Cascades Institute’s explicit expression of belief through opportunity, I feel all of you here with me. This, too, like fishing: it’s when we’re able to step away, tossing phones into a drawer and sliding laptops into their cases, that I feel most connected to my surroundings, the people in my heart, myself.

tele workspace

Tele Aadsen is NCI’s Artist-in-Residence, where she is writing her first book, Hooked: A Season of Love, Sex, and Salmon (Riverhead Books, 2015). You can follow her work at, and find writing-related resources on her Facebook page. Her name is pronounced “Tell-ah,” and she is overly fond of corvids.