My Big Discovery at Friday Harbor Labs


As a fiction writer, I’m in the minority at Friday Harbor Labs, a marine biology field station of the University of Washington on San Juan Island. I’ve been fortunate to come here since 2007 as a Whiteley Fellow to work on a book that eventually evolved into a novel. Today, I ventured outside my studio and made an important discovery in the natural world.

My first year here, I befriended an oak–a garry oak, quercus garryana, to be precise–who informed me her name was Matilda. Growing out of rock at the edge of a wind battered island, Matilda’s trunk is hollowed out. Rearranged by breast cancer, I feel an affinity for this survivor tree. I can look right down into her empty core. Yet, there she stands, glossy green leaves sprouting each spring from brittle branches. From a distance, she looks like a Spanish flamenco dancer, skirt swirling as she turns. Close up, the iconic oak appears ravaged by harsh conditions and time.

I often start my day beneath the tree with a cup of coffee, watching the sun rise, sensing my creative day. Once, I stuffed the pages of my manuscript into her hollow interior saying, “Look!”

Several years ago, I found some dried up acorns in the shade of her. My daughter and I planted three of them, but not one had taken hold when I returned the following year. Then, a few years later, I found a tiny sapling beneath her! Old Matilda had produced a baby oak! I showed it to two FHL staffers, who I’d asked to look after it. They politely indulged my enthusiasm. Before I left, I bought a cage at the hardware store and placed it around it to prevent deer trampling and munching. When I returned in 2012, the cage remained but the sapling didn’t. Nature had run its course, I figured. I decided I’d stop looking and hoping.

Today, I walked out to Matilda on an afternoon break, picking my way down the rocky terrain overlooking the docks and tidal waterway. Clasping a branch, I greeted her and told her, “I finished my novel. I’m here to make it better to get it published. My marriage is ending. I’m here to let go.” And, as I told Matilda what was growing, I looked down at my feet and there were four glossy oak leaves sprouting from a stem rooted in rock. Matilda made a new baby.

Here is the passage from my novel I was editing when I stepped outside and made my discovery:

The road to Indigo looks the same today as it does in the black-and-white photographs hanging in the Sugar House Medicine Room from when Miss Emily and her family lived here. I’ve studied the photographs and the trees lining the allee since I first came here nearly three years ago. One is my favorite. It’s called the Survivor Oak because the tree got ripped out to its roots in a hurricane during Rebecca’s time. But new shoots grew out of the Survivor tree’s knobby grey roots and the old oak filled out in all directions, wider than Indigo’s Great Hall and library combined, mightier than ever.

About Sandra Sarr

I've written my first novel, The Road to Indigo, and am actively seeking an agent and publisher. I'm a 2013 graduate of the Master of Fine Arts Program with the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop.
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10 Responses to My Big Discovery at Friday Harbor Labs

  1. Ardine Martinelli says:

    Sandy this is beautiful, a tribute to Matilda and to survival. Another open invitation to know that there are no accidents–loved reading the passage from your novel as you find new leaves that Matilda has shot forth. I am so glad she is still standing tall!!!!


    • Sandra Sarr says:

      I like the notion of the open invitation to know. Very nice. Matilda remembers and sends her swirly greetings.


  2. FeLicia Elam says:

    Beautiful. Sorry your marriage is ending. Take care.


  3. Amazing synchronicity, Sandy. I love knowing you’re on a neighboring island. Best to you in this time of growth.


    • Sandra Sarr says:

      Iris! When I arrive at FHL I put my head down and go into my work. So, I didn’t even think about you just across the water, an island away! Is there any possibility we could connect?


  4. Tom Shields says:

    I love your voice in this piece Sandy, a profound moment shared with such beautiful words. Thank you!


    • Sandra Sarr says:

      Thanks, Tom. Today, I contacted Claudia Mills here at FHL. She’s in charge of preserving natural resources in these parts, as I understand it. I did my best to make the case for increasing the odds that the little oak takes hold.


  5. What a great friend to make in Friday Harbor. I’m working on my “crazy tree lady” reputation here on Bainbridge.


  6. Sandy, I think it amazingly synchronistic that the first post I read on your blog is about an oak tree named Matilda! Although my name carries an inner “h,” the care you have for this tree shivered through me. How very, very lovely.


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