Book Buzz: Northwest Know-how: Beaches

Northwest Know-how: Beaches by Rena Priest

Nature lovers and poetry enthusiasts have a couple of chances to meet a local treasure, Washington State Poet Laureate Rena Priest. Priest will be speaking about her latest book, “Northwest Know-How: Beaches” from 7-8:30 p.m. Friday, June 10 at Village Books in Bellingham as part of the spring “Nature of Writing” series. Humanities Washington will also host Priest for a reading and presentation at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, June 12, at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. 

This tiny tome is a pocket-sized guidebook to 34 beaches along the Washington and Oregon coasts and islands, from Semiahmoo Spit to Sunset Bay State Park near Coos Bay. Each entry includes a wee lyrical description and a bite of “know-how” — tips about parking, passes needed, whether pets are allowed and other details.  

Although the list of beaches does not contain any major surprises, the choices made in describing them are delightful. For Fay Bainbridge Park it reads, “Building a fort of any kind is a childhood highlight. You can relive that glorious experience at this scenic beach by building a driftwood fort within view of Mount Rainier. The size of driftwood that washes up here is perfect for such an endeavor.” Priest will have you wistfully dreaming of beach forts and packing your picnic basket and kite before you finish turning the pages.

Sprinkled throughout this slim volume are Priest’s graceful stories and poems, such as her retelling of “The Story of Raven” and “Salmon Woman.” Priest’s rendition is a quiet reminder that nature must be kept in balance. As long as man takes only enough salmon to nourish himself and his family, there will be plenty.

Deceptively simple line drawings by Jake Stoumbous illustrate the book. A limited palette of blues and tans reinforces the gentle, soothing images which are accurate but stylized depictions of the beaches they represent. Although the default for travel guides these days is full-color photography, these drawings allow readers to imagine themselves in the scene and are in keeping with the uncomplicated narrative and accompanying poetry.

Priest’s poems are what transform this book from a sweet tchotchke to a sublime gift. Written in the pantoum form (four-line stanzas with the second and fourth lines repeating as the first and third lines of the next stanza), these poems have the effect of waves gently lapping along a sheltered shore. In “Beach Fire,” Priest implores readers to: “Measure wealth by how well you enjoy the hours/Fluttering by in praise of sunshine and the ocean breeze …”

Her words effortlessly conjure an afternoon at the beach, staring out at the sea, content and heart-happy.

Priest, who received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, is the 2022 Maxine Cushing Gray Distinguished Writing Fellow at the University of Washington Libraries. Her debut poetry collection, “Patriarchy Blues,” won an American Book Award in 2018. Her work has appeared in such publications as Seattle Met, YES! Magazine, Poetry Northwest and High Country News. She is a National Geographic Explorer (2018) and an enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation.

You can place a hold on all of Priest’s books via the Whatcom County Library System catalog. Please register in advance for the June 10 and 12 events. 

Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Visit to experience the power of sharing — at the library!

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Tuesday, June 7, 2022.)