Islander Profile: Dorothy Bird

Dorothy in her usual good humor.

If you were one of the fortunate people to experience the Holiday Garden tour last year [2003] you visited the home and garden of Dorothy Bird and Zobra Wambleska. The house and garden are a reflection of the artist’s lifetime of experiences.

It is a little known fact that, while taking botany classes at Western Washington University, Dorothy illustrated books. Foraging for Edible Wild Mushrooms and Ferns of Western Washington and British Columbia. Her first illustrating effort was a chapter in a larger botanical text Field Guide to Winter Twigs. “Basically I drew sticks” she says “Every time I lived near a college I took classes”, says Dorothy “I wasn’t interested in getting a degree, I was interested in learning”. Great philosophy and good advice!

Her attention to detail is reflected in her garden. It has native plants that compliment each other and sequential ponds water features. The ambience she created attracts birds, wildlife, and people. There is a chipmunk peeking his head out of a shrub as we sip tea at her table. Her organic vegetable garden produces tasty vegetables and her small flock of chickens produces eggs and fertilizer. Just keeping up with the garden would keep the average person busy.

Dorothy is NOT an average person. Her life chronicles adventures, change, risks, creativity, and culminates in the expressions of her art.

As a young woman she lived in Yosemite during what she refers to as “the golden years of rock climbing”. She spent her spring and fall rock climbing . She climbed while pregnant. Her gear accommodating her pregnancy. She climbed on her “due date”. Her son Eric was born two weeks later.

Reading Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums inspired Dorothy. The time spent rock climbing afforded an opportunity for her small family to spend the summer of 1964 at Sauk Mountain Fire Lookout, just as Kerouac and Gary Snyder did in the book. That led to a lookout at Horse Butte, on the edge of Yellowstone, the following summer. No fires that summer but she counted 105 lightning strikes marching off into the distance during one storm. Dorothy claims she kept the fire danger low when on these fire lookouts. She took her PNW rain with her. Spending a summer on a fire lookout is a lesson in self sufficiency that she carries with her to this day.

Dorothy spent two years in Aspen, Colorado. There, she owned and operated a health food store. She claims her “gills” dried out in the Rocky Mountains, they were a barrier to her beloved salt water.

From the Rocky Mountains she went to Bellingham. The town offered her the salt water fix she craved, as well as an outlet for writing. It also had WWU where she continued to take classes. She was one of the co-founders of the Bellingham Food Co-Op and the Fairhaven Mill. She wrote articles for diverse publications such as North West Passage {underground newspaper}, Threads, and North West Gourmet.

The Shearwater at anchor in Southeast Alaska.


She spent 18 years in the fishing industry as an owner operator of fishing tenders and floating processors in Alaska and Puget Sound. One of very few women in this male dominated field. Her boat, The Shearwater, was a 70 foot wooden boat built in 1943. She personally ran that boat for 14 of those 18 years. The Shearwater sailed predominately in Puget Sound but at least once a year would run the inside passage to Alaska for herring and salmon. Ultimately this endeavor is what brought her to Guemes Island in 1978, with her purchase of property near the ferry dock.

She was quite an activist on Guemes and was one of the board members of the Guemes Island Environmental Trust. There were several issues worth her time and effort on Guemes at the time.

Dorothy is presently doing Gouache paintings of textiles that are showing at Watermark Books and Rhodes Stringfellow Gallery in Cannon Beach, Oregon. The paintings are a kaleidoscope of intense color.

Dorothy taught “design it yourself” knitting at her home here and at a friend’s home in Shelter Bay. She donated all the proceeds from her classes to Children’s Orthopedic Hospital Group from Anacortes. Her classes tallied the highest monetary donations in the Anacortes chapter.

Dorothy realized that the fish tender business had served its purpose and she was ready to move on. At that time she explored three distinct and diverse options. She applied to the Anacortes Museum for the director’s position. This because of her 1990 experience at the Whatcom Museum where she helped design and build permanent exhibits. It took 2-1/2 years for the Anacortes Museum to hire a director. She applied to the Peace Corp. She wanted to help women in non-western non-Christian countries develop their strong textile heritage. The Peace Corp wanted to draw on her fish tender and processing experience as opposed to textiles. She also applied to school to become a massage therapist. Massage therapy won out, and for the last 13 years she has had a practice in Anacortes.

She says, about her colorful life, when in high school nothing terrified her more than the complacency of suburban living. She could not visualize herself driving a station wagon and going to PTA meetings.

The Inside Passage is calling to Dorothy once again. She wants to spend time at the coves and hotsprings she visited years ago, now with Zobra, her cat Raven, her knitting, her loom and artwork {painting}. She would like to produce art with whatever materials {grasses driftwood} present themselves.

Her advice to young people of today is to avoid conformity, control, and fear. Avoid television. None of these things are healthy. Security is a myth. A person must rely on his/her own resources.

A sparkle, a flash, a glimmer, a gleam, Dorothy is one of Guemes’ rare jewels.

by MJ Andrak

Lineup: Profiles of Tim Wittman and Joost Businger

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