The West Shed

Elizabeth Bernays



        I am deposited by a friend at an attractive modern wood house in a quiet cul-de-sac near Pt Reyes Station on the coast of California.  I am here for a writers’ retreat at Mesa Refuge and have no idea what to expect; I have no experience of such things. For so long I organized my days with precision to pack in the tasks that made my career and then filled every waking minute with busyness following the death of Reg, my soul mate and colleague in biological research. Will I actually manage two weeks of doing nothing but thinking and writing? The house stands on a bluff overlooking the southern end of Tomales Bay, a quiet place obviously tended with care. Pam, who runs the house, shows me around. I can choose between the west room and the east room, both simple bedrooms with a bathroom between. I choose west; there is more glass, more light, more to see outside—a garden full of flowers. There is a green watered lawn, shrubs of rockrose, clusters of foxgloves, lavender here and there among the rocks. Stone paths meander through the garden and a board walk links the Refuge to the house next door. Pam says “West visitors” normally get the West Shed and that is fine with me.


We walk through the lush garden, down a rough stone stairway hemmed in by oaks, bays, apples, coyote bush, grape vines and willows, to a small wooden building entered from a landing and door on its south side. A large rusty metal W announces that it is the West Shed. I am immediately enchanted. The west wall has large low windows and a door to a deck high above the cow parsley, hemlock, horsetails and wild radish below. From the windows and deck outside, I look down the steep slope into the valley that represents the San Andreas Fault. Here at the south end the valley has been reclaimed as pasture, inhabited by cows and Canada geese. Beyond the flat grassy floor of the valley are the tree-covered hills of Inverness Ridge.


Back at the main Refuge building I see the kitchen stocked with foods for the three residents, the deck beside it for warm evenings. And between the kitchen and the two northern bedrooms is the main room of the house, The Gathering Room. With its comfortable armchairs, walls of books, a west wall of glass, a spotting scope, stove, desks, and table with a decanter of sherry and a tray of cut glass sherry glasses, writers are invited to embrace comfort and relaxation.


I stop at one of the desks and see two framed quotes from Mary Oliver:

No one has yet made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.


Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart—to pace, chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

I will have these things here.  The quotations feed into my sense of experiencing something different, going perhaps to a new place in my mind. I am invigorated by possibility.


I return to my west bedroom and look through the glass to the garden where pink and purple foxgloves strike their tall bold poses, lavender and salvia make light and dark mauve cushions, and spikes of buddleia wait for the sun and the butterflies. Smokey clouds race up from the Pacific behind Inverness Ridge, climb above this house and break up into hurrying patches of white on blue. The only sound is the whine of the wind. I will go now to my shed. I take my Power book under my arm and wander through the garden and down the steep stone steps overgrown with vegetation, dropping into another space of mind.


My shed is 12 ft by 10 ft with a six-foot wide deck along the west side. A simple isolated shed on the edge of the American tectonic plate will be my writing place for two weeks.  This afternoon Pacific fog hugs the top of the tree-covered hills beyond but it is not too late for the west wall of windows to let in the afternoon sun, filtered through the waving branches of young ash trees struggling up from twenty feet below. A single north window looks out to hemlock, willow, bramble and oaks and a glimpse of distant water where the real Tomales Bay begins. Leaves blow against the roof, waving stems squeak against the railing of the balcony. Geese call from below and a thrush sings nearby. Otherwise there is silence; its unending weight and pleasure, its embracing peace.


I look around—one desk under the big windows facing west and another by a window facing north. I have six big candles in holders round the wall, mats cover the floor.  There is a heater for cold weather and a fan for hot days. The floor is covered by a motley set of mats and rugs. The deck with its wooden armchair outside the west window feels high above the slope. Above the north-facing desk is a small metal cupboard attached to the wall. A collection of stones placed by a previous shed writer, a few pine cones, two tall tin cans for flowers, an old fashioned wood plane, a small canvas wrapped around a block of wood with a rough oil painting depicting the view out of the west window. I have the habit of observing detail more now that I have lost the love of my life.


In a drawer of the north desk I find a journal for this shed in which other occupants have written their thoughts:

learn to trust the force of your own voice,


I know this space and time has made an important difference in my life,


this shed invites you to write when it is necessary and put pen down when that is necessary

In a drawer of the west-facing desk is a note pad, and a card on which is written,

To read and read and read some more, no apologies asked or given—water to a thirsty mind.

Certainly, previous writers here have left their mark, and it adds to the feeling of the shed to think of all those who have been here before me, writing as they survey the trees, the valley and hills beyond, the afternoon sun over Inverness Ridge, the birds.


Here, in my shelter, yet exposed to the elements, I am invited to write. Here will be the pitter patter of my laptop, and the less perceptible turning of my mind as it churns through the mountain of ideas and searches for meaning in the turmoil and tumble of my mind and the random words that scatter though my head. Not much is written that first day.


Next day as I look down into the valley I notice two small brown objects sticking up from the grass, and then with my binoculars see the ears, and the black-tailed deer they belong to. I see the geese and count thirty-seven of them; they mostly sit motionless, but a few are busy foraging. Two crows fly by, then another. They are abundant here. Then, looking over the field to the left that has been recently mown, I see two dozen of them. Stubble obviously makes good pickings. There is much coming and going of these confident birds. A great egret stands motionless amongst the water hyacinth in a channel of water.


I am enclosed by four walls of pine and glass, perched on the edge. I am embraced by the piney smell. What am I doing here? I think of Reg. I remember the last experiments before he finally gave up; they had to be done over Christmas because the caterpillars had reached just the right stage. It seemed that every holiday was like this, but we didn’t mind. We were happy to just be busy together. I sat at an electrophysiology rig measuring responses of taste cells as he tried to stay upright and record the data. But quite soon, “I am so sorry—I have to lie down,” and I pulled out the cot from under the bench and helped lower him onto it.  I go back further and remember how we loved to argue about ideas and hypotheses as we worked together in cassava plots in Nigeria, sorghum fields in India, grassland in Australia. And now silence.


I have a plan to write about my past and the joys of studying plants and animals, the inspiration that nature provides, the quirks of laboratory research, the pleasure of working in a team on a particular problem, the joy of working with Reg.  I write all day but at intervals drop into reverie. The west shed becomes my expanded mind, full, so full and so heavy with memory, while the wild wind outside bends the trees, a raven banks against the gusts, and great blue herons stalk prey in a now sunlit ditch down in the valley.


For two days it seems that there are no sunsets here. Instead, the great Pacific cloud fog comes and goes, hiding or revealing the sun, with a bit of blue above and clear sunshine in the afternoons from about one or two o’clock. I savor the silence, the wind in the trees, the bird sounds, and the wonder of isolation. Why am I not lonely as I would be elsewhere? Perhaps it is because I supposed to be alone here.  Perhaps it is that there are two other solitary writers working at Mesa Refuge. After so many years of nonstop activity, so much grief, I am finding some relief in this refuge from the world.  The dusk is very gray and suddenly there is a great flight of geese over the valley honking loudly as they go wherever geese go at night. I am learning, and impatient again for tomorrow.



And the next day is bright and clear. I didn’t expect such a blue day here at the California coast. I should walk before I write in my shed. The crows are noisy this morning. I will remember the wind here. I take my first hike on the Tomales Bay trail, over grasslands and down to the water’s edge, passing a lake busy with reeds and red-winged blackbirds. Along the east side of the bay where the winds are strong on the western headlands, California bay trees grow almost horizontally towards the east. In their shelter flowering buckeyes hide, their candles of white flowers spiking up among the great hands of leaves. My hair has become wild with the wind.


Back in my secret shed, my cocoon, my outdoors indoors, the leaves beat against the wooden walls and gable over the landing, swaying branches squeak against the railing of the porch in front of the western windows, their leaves swishing back and forth interrupting the view of the flat grassy valley below, the forested hills opposite, the blue and white sky.  And as the sun moves its rays fall on my desk and the shadows of windy leaves shiver over my laptop, across the binoculars and papers on my desk, and finally on the wall behind me.


Sitting in the West Shed dreaming of the past, I remember rowing my pram dinghy alone on the Brisbane River when I was in my early teens, and then too I dreamed. Most of all I dreamed of having my own small cabin in some quiet beautiful place, with trees and green grass, a stream somewhere near, a view. It would be about twelve feet square, and there I would live alone and in peace. Lying in the bottom of my dinghy I pictured the narrow bed and modest possessions, everything that was essential and nothing else. Each daydream had slightly different arrangements in the cabin; more books or tools, a balcony, plenty of windows.  How strange that now I work in such a cabin, here called the West Shed. Here I have entered the cabin of my youthful dreams and I must make a writing dream now.


The wind drops as dusk falls and a faint pink rises over the hills to the west. There has been no fog today—none in the morning, none in the evening. People say there is always fog or wind. But of course, there are those different days. Everyone wants to talk in generalities, yet so much is particular.  So much in science is about averages, yet it is the variation that matters most. The very nature of evolution depends on variation, on some individuals being fitter and others less so, and an eye for differences is one of the keys to discovery in research. I think about Reg; he always saw patterns when I saw exceptions; we ever were foils for one another.


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Photo by Elizabeth Bernays.



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Essay and Photo Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Bernays. All rights reserved.