The Cortes Portraits: Anna Ochsenbein
I drive up the gravel road to Anna Ochsenbein’s home. She answers the door with salt-kissed hair, remnant of an early season dip in the Pacific. I join her at her family’s kitchen table as she finishes a latte. I taste a sip. The milk is fresh from the goats I hear through the window. She promises me my own when we get back from our shoot.
Anna is a self-taught metalsmith and the proud owner of Verdiblu, a nature-inspired jewellery company based on Cortes Island. She hand makes her pieces from materials she finds on the island. We pass through her studio. It’s strewn with sketches, beach stones, and silver ready to be sculpted. Anna uses vintage suitcases to display her work, and a stack of them sit beside her studio’s french doors.
Together we stroll down the road to Smelt Bay, then along the short, steep path to the water. As it opens to the beach, we find ourselves at low tide, with an eagle soaring along the uncovered barnacle-strewn rocks.
“This is one of my favourite walks” Anna says. I couldn’t agree more. We stop from time to time to take in the breeze, or uncover a stone that Anna can use in her work. I wonder if I’ll recognize it later, resting on someone’s collarbone.
Locals call this place Maple Beach, for the old maple that used to stand here and for the other maples that still dot the open orchard. We are on Tla’amin land, where oral tradition honours this place as the home of Tla’amin creation.
As we leave the beach, we wander into the forest. The sun filters through the canopy, diffusing the light into a warm glow. We push past sword ferns, the deep green leaves of salal plants, and salmonberry shrubs along the narrow path.
Anna spots oyster mushrooms on a fallen hardwood. Harvesting a few of the bigger clusters, we wrap them in a spare shirt. Their smell earthy and sweet. Anna will fry these up later, with a little butter, mixed into eggs.
We pass many more along the way back through Siskin trail. I learn to differentiate them from the Angel Wings mushroom, a potentially poisonous look-alike with a lighter hue. Anna illustrates which clusters are ready to harvest. We leave these for other travellers.
As we return from the woods, Anna and I chat like old friends, forgetting time. We are living today, on island time. Joy, Anna’s family dog greets us at the door. The three of us walk through the house and out to the deck. Sitting outside, we look across the field towards the ocean. We can just glimpse it through the treeline.
“I feel so lucky to live here,” I say, “sometimes it feels like...magic.” Anna replies with a silent gentle smile.