Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

The McWhirr stories-An Afterword?

Cormorants are huddled like a conclave of robed mystics brooding over lost fish. The wind blows from all directions in Port Madison.

I write windy dialogue that transpires between two contrary characters.  I suppose the I of the story refers to myself, but even this first-person identity gets pretty tenuous at times.  I am obtuse foil to McWhirr’s exacting command, and he is confounded by my poetic flights.  This tension, this ever tipping dynamic, propels the leaky vessel of my prose.

In the voyage of this yarn to it’s “conclusion”, fact and fiction are interwoven to create a tapestry of associative episodes in order to express some ineffable truth about man’s impulse toward adventure.

But to what degree can I actually claim these adventures mine? Where was the line crossed between inspiration and plagiarism? All my powers of expression are called upon to render a fictional account of  vaguely recalled events in the transient world of sensations and ideas.

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Me sneezing

I’ve come close to foundering in a fog of  fantasy, relevant only to myself or to those souls fortunate enough (or unlucky enough) to be conversant with sailing lore, and experienced in the sea’s fickle ways.

Where has McWhirr gone? While his vanishing act seems a natural outcome of the narrative flow, it has left me without bearings-without a meaningful waypoint.  He’s left me becalmed at slack water, transfixed by sunlight on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with only an obscure missive from Virgil’s heroic verse:  From me learn courage and patience, from others the meaning of fortune.  Then again, maybe this is all the bearing I need.

Though the dream of finding a copy of the Aeneid happened some 20 years ago, it’s true import remains enigmatic.  But I feel it has to do with carrying on a lineage, the bearing of the household gods to establish a new homeland or  mode of awareness.  It’s also about a mutual need, a pact made with the dead to honor them.  My dad’s ghost comes and goes in the story, and recalls me to some forgotten bond.  He says I should heed McWhirr.

The View from the Wheelhouse is a fluid one, and successful navigation depends on an ability to tolerate a constantly shifting perspective. The conclusion of this tale is as elusive as a Micronesian landfall.

So I trust this isn’t the last we’ve heard from McWhirr. The wily old coot’s vanishing act may be prologue to his reinstatement on a more believable level of fictional existence.

Wars are started by mistaking the thing in itself for the metaphor, and the inability to see through the symbol, as through a veil, to the symbolized. Scientists have recently discovered that the north wind doesn’t really have a beard and puffy cheeks. We’ve evolved beyond such nonsense.  But this knowledge is of little use to the sailor driven on a rocky lee shore by a fierce northerly gale.  For myself and everyone, I pray to the household gods.

Posted in Paintings in Progress

Monument for a Liverpool engineer

vickers mem,

I  return to Kane Cemetery often to draw the Vickers memorial. A stone figure stands on a high pedestal with a great stone fisherman’s anchor steadied in her left hand, under the patchwork of golden light at the tree-lined harbor entrance. It’s a monument the citizens of Port Madison raised to honor a poor engineer on the Russian built, steam side paddle-wheeler tug, the Politkofsky.

I like to think Vicker’s went easily. That he never felt the shaft handle that fell on his head, delivering the humble British immigrant into the hallowed halls of Puget Sound maritime history. The good citizens raised a charitable fund to have this sculpture shipped from Italy.   Here it stands, a century later,  a moving gesture of honor for the bygone age of steam paddle wheel tugs and the men in them.   I am heartened by knowing how loggers and mill hands paused from clear-cutting Bainbridge Island’s forests to pool their hard-won dollars to honor a humble seaman with a fond tribute.

It is such monuments that mark high civilizations. I hope that we are still capable of such moving, selfless gestures of magnanimity. For, often, it seems our culture has nothing to leave posterity but endless strip malls, business and theme parks and miles of consumer-friendly, soul-denying landscapes.vickers 4 cropped

I’ve tried many times to capture the essence of this angelic figure in paint or charcoal, and her spirit has ever eluded me. She seems to rise by the power of her fisherman’s anchor, as if that very symbol of hope and faith had lifted her into the empyrean vaults by its dumb weight; and the toil of a Liverpool engineer is rewarded, finally,with the grace of an angel’s smile.

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

The Voyage of Old Hand-the Descent

Ye Realms, yet unreveal’d to human sight,

Ye Gods, who rule the Regions of the Night,

Ye gliding ghosts, permit me to relate

The mystic wonders of your silent state.

                                       The Aeneid, book 6, John Dryden, trans.

The Sierra Echo buoy flashes a mile off the starboard beam as  I sheet in for a close, starboard reach.  Through the rain-pelted wheelhouse windows, I see lightening streak diagonally into the black face of Foulweather Bluff like the bronze spears of invading armies.

“Steady lad, tis a mere capful of wind.” Says McWhirr.

“It’s a big head of storm to fill such a cap, Captain.”

We are just able to lay the Foulweather buoy. The bell rings dolefully as it’s black profile sways wildly off the starboard beam.

I remember that blackness from long before, far away…

You gods of souls who dwell in endless night,

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Abrojos, watercolor by Craig Spencer

grant that I may tell wonders of regions void of light.

Abreojos was a small Baja fishing village of plywood shacks. Hollow waves broke over a razor-sharp reef, and the afternoon offshore winds blew rainbow rooster tails over the backs of pitching surf. The name meant open eyes; and the longer I stayed in the palm-roofed fish hut, waiting for the big swell, the more my eyes opened to it’s stark beauty. The name was also warning to keep a steady watch, and the iron keel of a wrecked schooner high on the point  was testament to the fierce chubasco winds that hammered that arid shore.

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Abreojos Graveyard. Watercolor by Craig Spencer

The moonlight bleached the low, rounded dunes and cast angular shadows of lobster pots half buried in the sand.  I descended the vague path to the graveyard south of the village.  Gaudy tombs of fisher-men stood in the pallid light. Enclosed in the florid, stucco niche’s were relics of their earthly lives: an action figure, cheap guitar, and the blessed baseball glove.

My shadow rose up the moonlit dunes as I slowly approached the cemetery gate. Night breezes swirled with vaporous shades who mended starry nets and sang the Mexican Birthday song:

O Lady Guadalupe, O Lady Guadalupe…

It was your image come in dreams, dear father, that set my course toward your dark shore.   In a dream garage sale I found a clue that led to your habitation. Three times I have tried to clasp your hand. Three times my vain words have left me reaching for empty air. Like you, I gasp to articulate an ancestral rage, and long to transmute the leaden ore of miss-shapen phrases into avowals of love from the hearts golden core.

“Fall off a few points west. There’s a deep-draft bearing down from north-east.”

McWhirr’s  profile is etched by lightening against the bulkhead.

“A few points west it is, sir.

On we plunge into darkness, Old Hand’s bow lifts high and then falls  with a jolt into the black troughs of the seas. The wind screams in the rigging as a fan of spray flies off the storm jib in an arc of phosphorescent light. Seas advance, white-capped, like a phalanx of militant headstones called up from Gabriel’s northern gate to defend the ramparts of Dis.

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

Saturnius McWhirr

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“ Have ye clapped eyes on McWhirr, mate?”

The weazy drawl came from a wall-eyed galloot who followed me. The starboard list in his walk, the hollow stare and grog-blossoms that festooned his weathered mug showed him to be a waister on a leaky bum-boat.

“He has a scowl like a North Sea line squall that would strike fear into the black heart of Beelzebub himself.”

He sent a brown spew of tobacco juice onto the dock as if he spat out the last vestige of the accursed name.

“They say, long ago, the  crew of the old Uranus found him off Cape Horn-a mere babe afloat in a Quaker cradle.”

This was laying it on a bit thick.

I’d signed articles the day before-and, here I am, traipsing innocently down the wharf toward my next berth and this guy starts yammerin’ like some hop-head bit-player in a mid-20th Century movie.

He pointed a boney finger at the dismal sky as his voice rose.

“They say he’s Zoroastrian ‘er some such heretical blasphemy that, as sure as I’m standin’ here, will lead the impious reprobates into eternal hellfire!”

This was prelude to my first encounter with Saturnius McWhirr…


Point no Point lies off the port beam at sundown. By the time we make Foulweather Bluff darkness has fallen, and the Kinney Point light is veiled behind a scrim of fog.

His gaunt profile lit green by the radar, McWhirr says:

“What’s all this about Aeneas? The Roman?”

“Trojan, sir.”

“And what has he to do with this voyage?”

“I don’t know sir.”

“Then I suggest you focus on navigating the here and now, son.”

It’s McWhirr’s watch. Sometimes he gets on my nerves. Zero imagination. Mention free association to him and he grabs a cutlass. He thinks it’s a Commie group…

Posted in Saturnius McWhirr stories

Ahab meets Aeneas

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The sound of waves whooshed over the sandlot playground where, high overhead on the screen,  elongated tars sang from the Pequod’s rigging. Dad had piled the crew into the wagon to see the awesome spectacle of Moby Dick unfold on a 50’s drive-in movie screen.  Gaunt against the dusky tropical light, Ahab glowered over the taffrail, the very image of the leaden god that circumscribes our meager efforts on earth.  Is that when I first heard the  lydian call of the Siren’s sea?

“Ready about! We’ll never make our offing if you don’t wake up!”

McWhirr stands on the foredeck, grasping a weather shroud against the roll.

“ Ready about!”

The wind freshens, and Old Hand pounds into seas steepened by the brute contention of wind and tide, hell-bent on clearing the boulders awash off Skiff Point.

Why must we hurl headlong into the tide-race at Neptune’s mercy, when we might be lounging, beer poised, before the latest remake of the same old sea story, remote from the possability of drowning? At the question, the mind can only wander, and flow with the kelp’s sinuous curves into deeper soundings past the headland to the west…oriens

Dad, from his wheelchair on the  Laguna Beach hills, held lookout for whale-spouts on the gold-burnished horizon.  A watch he may yet hold, in his heart. His stout heart, relic of the an ancient clan, has either been occulted into the rarefied vaults of the holy ones or lost in a cluttered closet on Dawson Street.

Then, in a dream, I found a a copy of the Aeneid among carved wooden heads on a laural-shaded altar. A sign? A waypoint that marks the passage of another life?

“We are becalmed, mate.”studio etc 010

McWhirr’s foghorn bass, seems far away.

The boom swings overhead. A clatter of gear from below rouses me in time to see an abomination of a container ship off Jefferson Head turn southeast around the Sierra Foxtrot buoy.  I turn the helm alee, past sodden fishermen bent over gunwales, looking bereft of hope for even an enemic cod.

“3 fathoms. Let go here, mister Spencer!”

“Aye sir!”

I drop anchor and Old Hand slowly turns toward the flood. The east turns blue/violet, then slate-gray above the  Cascade range.

“Have I ever told you that dream about Aeneas?”

“Who’s he when he’s at home?”

Let it go. That was another life. Another has signed on as swab this voyage. I was but a nipper who saw the hollow face of Saturn in the light projected on an L.A. drive-in movie screen. Just as now, he’s rough-hewn on the rocky peak yonder.  He limps his sluggish round while the laurel tree’s shadow circles over the household gods, ever counter to the golden sun.

Posted in Musings

Chop wood,carry on

Classic tug, Noreen, built in 1906
Oh my back! Monk’s shop to left

Its been very lovely in Port Madison this Spring.  I’ve been regrouping after putting up the art show, taking stock and redirecting energy toward simpler things like chopping wood.  We are talking serious wood chopping.

The building is a workshop built by  Ed Monk.  I’ve been privileged to Moor Old Hand at this historic site, built by one of the Northwest’s finest boat designers.  I feel his presence in the stoutly built out- buildings and docks,  and gladdened by the thought that, he too, hauled gear and materials up and down the steep path to the water.  His can-do spirit inspires my humble efforts, and I take extra care in the stacking of split maple and cedar.  This stacking is itself, an art.

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Interior of Old Hand

At first, I was unimpressed by Monk’s designs.  But as I worked on his boat-houses I came to see his ubiquitous, wooden power cruisers in a new light.

I find rusty, bent shipwright tools near Monk’s shop, and use an old, weathered workbench he made.  After the long preparation for the exhibit, this physical connection with  common objects that surrounded his life has inspired in me an appreciation for the simple aesthetic of usefulness.

My boat, Old Hand is not a Monk, but was built of such stuff.  Her portly hull design is a scaled-down version of the hefty Norwegian lifeboats designed by Colin Archer.  After 10 years of owning her I’ve   greater appreciation for her ponderous lines and stout workmanshipShaw Island 2009 961.                                         So I am readying for another season of sailing.  I look at tide tables and plot course South toward Old Hand’s first port of call:  Gig Harbor.

So stay tuned for posts chronicling these adventures on the Salish Sea told in art, music and videos.

Posted in Paintings in Progress

Last touch up for April art exhibit

sufi shrine
Sufi Shrine

Here are some paintings I’ve been finishing for my art exhibit this month.  I’ve been too busy getting them ready to find time for a blog post.

The Sufi Shrine has been a real challange, but I believe I pulled it out at the last minute.

Sleeping Poet by Craig Spencer

The Sleeping Poet (not sure of title) has a long history as well.  It was inspired by a medieval poem called the Pearl-a pious allegory where the poet falls into a dream by a beautiful river bank.  I’m not usually into allegory-especially pious ones-but something about this story has grabbed me ever since reading it (and memorizing some) 20 years ago.

Square Rigger
The Inferno

The Square Rigger is my latest,  unfinished painting.  It evokes an earlier time of Port Madison history.  She emerges from the sunset mists  like a ghostly presence.

Here is my version of Dante’s Inferno.  I’ve been listening to a recording of the Divine Comedy while getting ready for this show.

An Artwork in Progress-The Dream Oracle


I begin this post with only the vaguest notion of what it’s about.  A feeling, a mood that has to do with twilight is all there is to go on at this point. Sometimes we are simply empty of ideas.  Nothing of worth seems to loom on the horizon in the way of inspiration.  There is nothing to go on except some vague feeling, and an impulse to create.  This fear of abandonment by the creative muse has given me much angst but, over the years,  I’ve developed strategies for dealing with this problem.  One way is to begin with a color, to paint a canvas with a ground of a single hue and visualize it as I drift off to sleep, asking that an image come to me in dreams.  As for the question of to whom I am making this appeal I can only say that it is addressed to Great Spirit, Hypnos, the Household Gods or maybe even my own inner wisdom.   The problem of from where dream imagery originates has never been satisfactorily answered.  I used this method in the painting Oriens.  I asked for a symbolic image for one of my Four Directions series-that of East.  When I woke next morning and, disappointed with a lack of response from the dream oracle, I opened the hatch on my boat and saw, rising from the low-lying fog, a vision of a celestial city bathed in the glorious morning light.  It was Seattle, a city very much situated in the waking world.  What this says about the efficacy of my method I don’t know, except that it inspired me to look at the external world in a fresh way.twilight oil 2  

Here is a canvas covered with atmospheric veils of blue/violet and red/violet that suggests a seascape on an inland sea.  In fact, it looks like Port Madison.  I evoke the ineffable feeling of the moment between two lights-that of day and nocturnal luminance that lights the inner workings of soul.  When one is illuminated the other falls into shadow.

In my research of Port Madison history, it seemed those who inhabited these shores appeared to me in the violet hour, spectral forms who emerge from the shadows to demand remembrance, nourishment from the life they’ve long left behind.     port madisson images 023These phantoms seem to advance and recede as I work the material.

This image was a rubbing/transfer from a photocopy into my sketchbook.  Only after I photographed and enlarged it again was I able to discern the presence of figures who eluded me before.  They emerge with the process of working the image with different media.  It’s as if the artistic process is a form of conjuration.  In contemplation of these sombre hues I call forth the restless shades who reside beyond the dusky veil to take their places in the visible world.

An Artwork in Progress-A Cinderella Tale

watercolor 010My boots are heavy with the soil of Thatcher Farm. This is the foundation from which I begin this homage to a hallowed place, and invoke the Genius Loci of the old harbor community I’ve come to call home.  Among last year’s pumpkin vines I sift the refuse of common household twilight 024 objects. To ground this narrative I reach across time and make contact with the elders through the humble detritus of everyday life.  I touch cup fragments once held in living hands around the faded embers of the ancestral hearth.

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There is also the secret record.  It’s a spiritual history that, some say, dates back to the Rosicrucians, who preserved the remnants of Solomon’s wisdom.   But we must forego linear chronology to enter the transhistorical and poetic record of events that transpire in the soul.
Just down the road is Kane Cemetery.
Many of the headstones of Port Madison’s founders are inscribed with Masonic symbols. This secret society played a major role in much of Port Madison’s early cultural and artistic history. The Kane No. 8 Masonic Lodge Hall was situated on a dock in the town center. It was said that Edwin Booth performed there.  I can’t verify this, but a world where the great actor brought his melodious interpretation of the Melancholy Dane to sleepy Port Madison is a world I prefer to live in. He did perform in Oregon territory.port madisson images 005

Port Madison photos 005
Some in this photo actually played roles in the production.

I read of a production of Cinderella  staged by the MacDonald sisters in the Hall. I find the choice of this particular tale for the entertainment and edification of the community significant. It was, for a time in the mid 19th Century, the myth which inspired the rough and tumble loggers and mill hands toward loftier goals than decimating forests, whoring and drinking. A wild west mill town staged a pageant honoring the Anima. “The Anima of man,” writes Jung, “has a strongly historical character. As a personification of the unconscious she goes back into prehistory…she provides the individual with those elements that he ought to know about his prehistory.”

The curtain rises on a poor maid covered in ashes.  She fans the faded embers of a secret tradition based on humility and good works, preserving in the vestal flame an esoteric knowledge of salvation.

Jacob Boheme says :  “The inner light is the natural ascent of the spirit within us which at last illuminates and transfigures those who tend it.”  She ascends by degrees (symbolized by her changes of clothes) to her royal estate and abides among the envoys of supernal light. Swedenborg, in his Concordance, says that shoes correspond with the lowest natural things and that beautiful shoes symbolize the delight of making oneself useful. This has long been the Freemason’s credo.  She teaches us that we are exalted through selfless servitude. Her lost shoe forms a link between her role as humble servant and her radiant heavenly counterpart. This ascension provides a model for the spiritual adept.  Perhaps these mysterious changes of raiment are reflected in the robes of office and pageantry of Masonic Rites.port madisson images 010

Lost in these speculations, I return to till the soil.  Maybe I’ll find more spiritual artifacts or the way to elevate this arcane history by tilling the rich soil of good works.

An artwork in progress-Port Madison Reverie

Reah’s dock

Reflections of brilliant red kayaks fall vertically into the mud off Reah’s dock . The gray water stretches toward steep soundings off Jefferson Head and a fitful northerly  brightens the harbor entrance with catspaws . An ancient tug nudges a  barge off Meig’s old mill site, while the sqwak of a blue heron echoes from tall cedars veiled in ghostly fog. The fog  creates vast space by removing nearby objects beyond this present time to maroon me with only my dark thoughts. A little mystery by way of atmospheric perspective.

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The Old Mill

Strange to think how the population of this quiet port dwarfed Seattle in the mid 19th Century, when Meig’s mill belched acrid smoke into the northwest gloom and the west shore shipyard built lumber schooners for the coast trade. Then, the steam side wheeler’s whistle sounded along these shores.  Venerable tugs like the Politkovsky, brought passengers, mail and logs to the hearty inhabitants of a thriving boomtown built with the lumber milled for distant ports. The long history of this now peaceful anchorage holds some dirty secrets- like when Meigs suddenly fired all Chinese workers or used trickery to monopolize the mosquito fleet, the main form of transport on Bainbridge Island.

I’ve taken a break from painting to work at Thatcher Farm. My art work has long tended toward abstraction (the term is used loosely since my work is figurative) and I needed connection with our ancestral earth to ground my mercurial mind. Speaking of Mercury, it seems significant that Thatcher farm was the main switchboard for Island communications for much of the 20th Century.boat house repairs and farm 007

So now I’m sending out a communique into an ever expanding cyber network where few have time for an old sailor’s questionable yarn. Among crockery shards I disinter rusty hinges for a gate that opens into another time. How many have turned this soil over the centuries, have pulled crabgrass, hacked blackberry vines into submission and bent hoe blades on this weathered rock? I till midden heaps of kitchen ware and toss rocks into a plastic bucket with a loud, dull thunk!.mill drawing2

Under golden maples that sway over the harbor entrance, a cemetery holds the remains of Port Madison’s founders. Here I came upon a stone bearing this simple elegy:

…Gallieau, 1905-2005, Lost at Sea

What an epic sea romance is encapsulated in this terse inscription!  Would that my own humble literary efforts were enlivened by such economy and expressiveness. I see Gallieau as a Conradian swab on a lumber schooner bound for Frisco after the big quake, or an ancient mariner going down for the last time off Foulweather Bluff in a squall.  May he rest in peace.