Sunday, March 12, 2017

Safety First in the Valley...

The paramount concern in the country today appears to be the safety and security of America's citizens: build a wall to keep out the evil ones; hire more security personnel and station them to have its back should the wall not be high enough to thwart the hordes of villains and blackguards lurking without, eager to work their evil on our citizenry; increase security groping at airports, extreme pat downs, if you will, to protect air travelers from the evil that is afoot in the world at large; implement travel bans to insulate the homeland from those bent on wreaking havoc on our way of life, families, and peace of mind; and for the future, promise the country will boast a military the likes of which haven't existed on Earth since the days of the great Caesars. Soon all citizens will be able to have a good night's sleep: safe and secure in the knowledge we can now go about our daily lives without constantly having to look over our shoulders. In short, we will finally be able to roam the country in safety and at last be able to leave our guns at home.

The foregoing pertains, in the main, to the national stage, but those who pass through or reside in the Valley should give thanks to our State's Department of Transportation for its proactive efforts to keep drivers safe, detect any potential snares and pitfalls that may prove a hazard to motorists who use the Valley's Tualco Loop Road.

There's new signage, if you haven't noticed it, an embellishment to the Tualco-North Highrock turn lane. If you aren't too focused on looking left and right (twice on the latter...remember your Driver's Ed instruction) for your opportunity to creep carefully onto SR. 203, you'll see it. Staring you straight in the face on the east side of 203 and firmly bolted to a state-of-the art breakaway stanchion is a yellow warning sign featuring two bold black arrows. One arrow points north toward town; the other to all points south on SR. 203.

I happened along just as a pair of orange vested DOT workers finished the installation. They moved from side to side examining  their work, and apparently satisfied, moved across the road for a repeat performance on a new stop sign for traffic coming to the intersection.

It is not often you have the opportunity to thank those whose job it is to keep you safer. And The Ripple was not about to let this chance slip by. I pulled alongside the two State workers, rolled down my window, and shouted my approval of their labors. "Thanks to your efforts and that sign," I shared, "I'll no longer have the urge to run the new stop sign, shoot across three lanes of traffic on a busy State Road, and plow through a thicket of blackberries into the murk of Riley Slough." One orange vest stood momentarily, smiled, shook his head, and gave me that quizzical look as if to say: "We're just doing our job, 'ours not to question why,'" and resumed work on the new breakaway stop sign.

So on behalf Tualco Valley motorists The Ripple extends a heartfelt thanks for making the Valley a safer place for drivers. Thanks, WSDOT. Thanks for your service.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You Go, Gulls...

The other day a small flock of  Valley seagulls circled gracefully around Tony Broers' house, then swooped to a landing on the ridge peak where each assumed that stoic gull stance, seemingly as comfortable as if it were standing sentinel on a pier or jetty. "Not a sight you see every day," I thought. (Many a crow, yes, but never a gull.)

Our Valley boasts a healthy population of gulls, "sea"gulls, that is, which makes one wonder why these classic seabirds have strayed so far from their namesake saline seas to pasture lands and cornfields. It seems seagulls would be uncomfortable "landlubbers" as their principal habitat is large body of salt or fresh water which provides abundant food and rocky coastlines ideal for breeding grounds, both, excepting the seasonal flooding, the Valley lacks. Seagulls, however, are fixtures among the Valley's diverse and abundant avian population: Gladys and I see them nearly every outing.

While I wouldn't dare presume to be an avid birder, I can readily identify most of our Valley's avian species. Not so with gulls, which for me are all lumped into that category. My Birds of Washington field guide lists five species of seagulls, none of which I've checked off  my backyard bird list. Even if one happened to alight on the property, I wouldn't know which of the five paid me a visit.

When I'm afoot in the Valley, my mind tends to wander, and today it's led astray by those stately seabirds perched as if sculpted on my neighbor Tony's rooftop. To my surprise I realize over the years I've accumulated an inventory of seagull experiences. Tony's visitors and The Ripple are just the excuse I need to share them  (or rather unburden) myself.

Back in the early '60s when I scurried about the University of Washington campus in a freshman panic, seagulls were a part of daily life. North of Hec Edmundson Sports Pavilion, Seattle maintained the Montlake Landfill, a vast garbage dump. The landfill sustained a seagull population which must have numbered in the thousands. For post meal exercise a goodly number of these dumpster divers left the heaps and mounds of garbage and made their way to the rooftops of campus buildings where, gorged with excremental deviltry, they would perch. I had a morning humanities class in the old pink lady, Parrington Hall. When classes ended, students would pour from Parrington in a rush trying to make their next class on time. The resulting commotion spooked the napping gulls, all of which rose in alarm, issuing a deluge of whitewash that had all the undergrads bobbing and rushing for cover. (I've always maintained this gull behavior inspired a new style, at least for men: the white trenchcoat.) Those days seagulls were so much a part of UW daily life that The Daily, UW's  newspaper, featured the cartoon character Spencer the Seagull. In each Daily cartoon Spencer posed, stentorian beak foremost, in his goggles and leather aviator's cap, human figures tallied on its side, the latest victims of his scatological bombardment.

Over the years I've watched these inland seabirds go about their Valley business, the strangest of which is the gulls' occasional vortex behavior. I'll notice a whirlwind of a hundred or so spiraling upwards like extras in the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz. They whirl upwards in a drifting cone, spin for a while, and then break formation. Why they do this I have no idea. Their grossest behavior: foraging in the green mist of the poo-poo sprinklers, feasting on dairy by-product tidbits, happy as if they were gourmet diners. I've noted, as well, gulls presage imminent Valley storms, their numbers increasing as the incoming storm drives them inland. On one of my walks I was spectator to an act of gull bullying. For no other reason than he could, a bald eagle singled out a gull and harried its poor victim across a cornfield. The gull knew enough about raptor behavior not to let the eagle take the high ground. Pursuer and the pursued continued on across the open field until I lost sight of them in the trees along the river.

Last spring some birder reported sighting a rare gull in the Valley. A black-headed gull (Chroicocephelus ridibundus), an east coast resident, had allegedly been seen in the company of resident Valley gulls. Birders eager to notch another sighting on their life lists rushed to the Valley hoping for a glimpse of this east coast "exotic." On one of my Valley strolls I happened upon a birder friend of mine parked by Swiss Hall, "bird" oculars pressed to his eyes: the object of his surveillance...the black-headed gull. Sandy Frohning told me caravans of birders ("gullibles?") streamed by her house hoping for a glimpse of the vagrant seabird.

Other gull trivia. One of my five-year old grandson's favorite bedtime stories features an old salt named Burt Dow (Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man). Burt's companion on shore or the high seas is the "Giggling Gull," a happy-go-lucky seabird that expresses its levity in three syllables: "Tee-hee-hee" regardless of the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In my days as a struggling undergrad at the UW, to access an afternoon class I parked my used 1957 four-door Bel Aire sedan in a metered slot on 45th Ave (in the day when there were a few parking spaces left in Seattle). It so happened that often that empty space was in front of a Mercedes Benz 300 SL, fire engine red, spotless and shiny as a newly minted penny. The 300 was the first automobile to feature "gull-wing" doors which, when opened, gave the illusion of a seagull in flight. If  I was early to class, I would circle the SL two or three times and dream....

And  Beryl Markham, the first aviatrix to fly transatlantic from east to west made the historic crossing in an aircraft she named the "Vega Gull."

Finally, one of my favorite puns concerns a gull relative. Birders, this one's for you:

Sailor to shipmate: "Why do you have a leash on that seagull?"

Shipmate: "I'm just taking a tern around the deck."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Just a Stranger Passin' Through...

                                           "I've got a gun in my holster,
                                             A horse between my knees.
                                             I'm goin' to Arizona,
                                             Pardon me boys if you please."

                                                                            Randy Newman
                                                                           "Rider in the Rain"

The Valley. It has been a tedious winter to date, and dangerous too, like the morning I slipped on the frosty deck and like a poleaxed steer, came down unceremoniously across the top steps. If it hadn't have been for the winter padding I'd donned prior, I might yet be wearing plaster clothes, tangled in a web of ropes and pulleys, being served up those mystery meals catered for the hospital bedridden. Now the bruises have faded and my right arm protests only a little when I put it to use.Yes, cold snaps and a couple of snow episodes have made this Valley winter seem interminable.

But not today. I'm afoot in the Valley. The sun has the upper hand. The sky, blue, anticipates swallows. The Valley is green, flush with early spring. It's one of those days, as my old dairyman neighbor Herman Zylstra put it, "When you get new hope."

In a Valley where routines and scenery might, to hurrying passersby, never seem to change, I almost always see something different, a thing of interest directs my thoughts in a strange direction: say, for instance, that heap of boulders Ed Broers has piled like a terminal moraine from an Ice Age past in the field below his "movie star" barn. Yes, the Valley always seems to serve up something of interest....

Today is no different. As I stroll homeward, I see movement far ahead and out of that movement a horse and rider emerge. As they mosey toward me, I hear music. "A musical horse," I think. "Now this is something...." I can see the rider now, a young woman, wearing heeled boots, jeans, a white hoodie, and as if it were a gun and holster, a water bottle at her hip. Her horse, a big black with its tail in a half braid, carries her gently along. A cap topped with a jaunty tassel covers her head and ears. It is a woolen cap of many colors, hand knitted, it appears. I look at her face. High cheekbones, prominent nose, and bronzed complexion bring to mind "Castillan" ethnicity: Spanish. She is no stranger to horses and, as Louis L'amour might say, rides "tall and easy in the saddle." As she passes I give her a friendly smile which she does not return. Nor does she nod a greeting but maintains a stoic pose as she continues. It's as if she's in another world, this stranger, the Argentine pampas, perhaps, instead of Werkhovens' field of grass. On down the road she and her mount continue, tunes billowing out of her clothing.

I can only stare after her and it's then I notice the small backpack. Poking its head out of the pack was the head of a small dog, brown and furry like a koala, its perky ears bobbing with sway of the horse. Mouth open, tongue lolling out, the pup seemed to be smiling as if to say: "Aren't we a sight?"

And indeed they were. I continued on, my thoughts now occupied by what I'd seen. "Who was this stranger on her high horse," I wondered, "this stranger just passing through?"

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bough Down to Winter...

That rodent meteorologist Punxatawny Phil was spot on with his prescient prognistication of six more weeks of winter. Yes, we knuckled under to a four inch blanket of snow the 6th of February and quite a wet blanket it was. I had an early dentist's appointment that morning and reluctantly left the warmth of my bed to get ready. Here in the Valley we know when our one slim acre has fallen victim to an overnight snowfall. Hardly any traffic on the state highway out front. The bold commuters who braved the road crept by with muffled passage, tiptoed along tentatively. The interplay of snow and darkness rendered a strange refraction of light. The drawn shades glowed with the eeriness of a world outside turned white.

As I hurried to make my appointment, I glanced out the front window, stopped short for a second look, Something was amiss with the lay of the land out there. Then I saw it. The heavy snow had a caused a landscape malfunction: our golden chain tree was no longer standing. The snow had toppled the tree sometime during the night and it now lay splayed out across the snowy lawn. "I didn't need that," I groused, thinking about the labor ahead of me: chainsaw work, snipping and lopping, hauling away the brush to a heap that's already the size of a small mountain.... Anger first, right? Step one of the grieving process. Then I moved on to the mourning phase, remembering the golden chain's dazzling display of dainty yellow pendants, its May promise summer was just around the corner.

I'm not much for record keeping and thus can't say how long that tree has been a part of our landscape. One chronological milestone, however, jogs my memory. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed away May 19th, 1994. The day of her funeral I lowered the flag to half staff. The golden chain was in full blossom that day and the Stars and Stripes swung gently in the May breeze, beautifully silhouetted against a field of trailing yellow blossoms.

The last few years the tree has had health issues. One season it didn't bloom at all, lost its leaves, regrew the foliage, and shed its leaves again. When the tree toppled, no root ball surfaced and though I'm no arborist, I suspect the tree's undercarriage had simply rotted away... thankfully while I was safe in bed, not mowing the lawn in its shadow.

The Ripple, inspired by Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay,"(March 7, 2010) posted about the fleeting nature of plant life that during its season, whether it be new sprouts or blossoms, presented the color yellow. I think about that poem now as, chainsaw in hand, I go out to address the work ahead: turning a onetime landscape friend that gave me spring joy and beauty into the firewood of winter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pondering the Fate of the White House Beehive...

Here in the Valley I've seen beehives and bee yards abandoned, which makes for a sad sight indeed.
One "lost and lorn" hive was consumed by a blackberry thicket, its bees left to navigate their flight through vines and leaves. Neglected for years, left to the mercy of mites and disease, it struggled along on its own. I have no idea what happened to its attendant beekeeper. In another instance a bee yard of twenty or so colonies appeared bereft of a caretaker. I visited the yard last May and found it in disarray: a jumble of boxes, broken feeding jars, and displaced woodware. Only five hives showed any activity. When I asked the property owner what she knew about the yard, all she could tell me was she hadn't seen their caretaker in several months. Twenty colonies. That's considerable capital outlay to let go to ruination. Such negligence of stock and equipment seems downright irresponsible.

As our country transitions to new leadership, I'm concerned about another bee hive these days, this one across the continent in our Nation's Capitol...the White House beehive. Part of our former First Lady's gardening initiative, the hive was the first domestic colony ever on White House grounds. The First Lady's bees pollinated her vegetable gardens and gathered nectar for honey that was served at White House functions. More importantly the bee hive's presence on the grounds represented the past administration's awareness of and concern for the environment, the importance of pollinators in nature's scheme of things, to humankind in particular.

I have yet to see much environmental sensitivity from the President-elect or his appointees. In fact our "Soon To be Born Again" nation promises to tread forward leaving Gulliver-sized carbon footprints: more jobs, more industry, more pollution. This, plus opening up more federal land to mining and mineral exploration both of which lead to habitat destruction and species' decline. Given the recent campaign rhetoric and posturing, it appears crucial issues like climate change, conservation, and the environment will be given short shrift--if any shrift at all.

As our country embarks on the peaceful transfer of power I hope that bee hive on the White House lawn--and what it represents-- doesn't go the way some of our Valley hives have. And as far as "transfer of power" and new appointees, should the President-elect decide to keep the First Beehive but appoint a new beekeeper, I hope I'm among those considered.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year to You and Your's [sic]...

It's gratifying during the holiday season to receive cards and gifts from relatives and friends. Some cards include a "year in review" letter which I rarely read as the busy lives of others, their comings and goings, photos taken in the exotic places they've visited during the year, serve to remind me of the bland and cloistered life I live. The intent of this post, however, is not to lament the "gusto lives" of others but to address, compared to a trip to Machu Picchu or a tour of the monarch-laden forests in Mexico, the picayune subject of punctuation. After thirty-one years in the classroom unraveling the idiosyncrasies and vagaries of the English Language for school children, it's hard to let go the need to right the wrongs of English usage.

So, readers, let us plunge into today's lesson: the apostrophe. And, yes, whereas the word is "all Greek," it needn't be all Greek to those whose willy-nilly use of it bring out the English teacher in me. (Just the other day I had occasion to point out to the young ladies at my bank that I'd never before seen the surname of Santa and Mrs. Claus spelled as "Clause.")

As a subject, the apostrophe is no stranger to The Ripple. June twenty-third, 2013, I posted "Apostrophe to a Sign" in which I championed a cause for adding an apostrophe to some new Valley signage. Unlike periods and commas which appear fairly secure in the writer's comfort zone, the apostrophe is a conundrum, a puzzle, a snare and a pitfall to those who use the written word.

The apostrophe's purpose, as is the case with its fellow punctuation marks, is to clarify meaning in written text. Oral expression uses the subtleties of voice (inflection and pitch for example) to make the speaker's message clear.

While the apostrophe is employed a number of ways (omission of letters or figures...pluralizing letters or figures), one of its principal uses is to indicate ownership or "possession," especially where nouns are concerned. Ms. Sidney Mundy, my sage college English professor, stated the apostrophe was superfluous: the context of the sentence made ownership of something clear. ( Consider "the cats tail tripped the rat trap." No confusion here as to whose tail it was.) The conventions of written expression, however, require the writer, whenever he writes possessive nouns, to sprinkle them correctly with apostrophes.

Consider, then, those Christmas cards and gifts.What is a "grammar cop" to make of the salutation "Merry Christmas from the Smith's"? The apostrophe sensitive reader wonders "the Smith's what? Merry Christmas from the Smith's house, Smith's car, Smith's dog, Smith's driveway?" Even so, shouldn't the apostrophe be stuck after Smith's "S?" Context seems to indicate the well-wisher is more than one Smith. Aha! Just another case of a rogue apostrophe, a "lost and lorn" misplaced squiggle. False alarm. No ownership intended. Just a simple case of a noun plural: "We Smiths wish you a Merry Christmas." No harm or confusion meant.

To you Smiths, Smith's, Smiths,' a thank-you for your holiday greetings and well-wishes and a very hearty Happy New Year to you and yours, your's, yours' from The Ripple.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Curious Case of the Fallen Hummer: or A Bird in the Hand...

Over the weekend we hosted the family Christmas party. The day was unseasonably cold. A breath of frigid air from the Arctic vortex gripping most of the nation leaked into our mild maritime climate. For two or three days daytime temps didn't rise above freezing. The chickens' water bucket froze solid during the night as did the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window. I took to bringing both bucket and feeder in at night and setting them out in the morning frost free.

Thanks to our local hummingbird species--Anna's--we have a front row window seat of hummer activity year round. Winters, during rare periods of sub-freezing temperatures, a male Anna's perches sentinel in the backyard maple within twenty feet of the kitchen window food source. During the day I like to play "Where's Waldo" with the tiny bird, where after close scrutiny of several bare twigs either the dull green sheen of his back or a twist of head and beak give him away.

On party day my brothers had retired outdoors to the deck and were engaged in a lively competition, a bit of oral frivolity involving olives tossed high in the air, when brother Keith noticed what he thought was a leaf drop suddenly from a maple branch. When he went to investigate, Keith found a male Anna's hummer lying motionless in the grass. He gently scooped it up and to share his discovery, called me over. Other than appearing stunned, the bird looked to be uninjured: eyes open, wings not all appearances unharmed, just stunned. Stunned how? It didn't fly full tilt into a window pane but landed on a lawn that's now mostly moss. I took the bird from him, not knowing quite what to do with a handful (and a very small one at that) of hummingbird and took it inside.

Although I inserted the bird's slender beak in an eyedropper full of syrup, it would not drink. I closed my hand tighter, thinking my body heat might bring the little guy around. Just its shimmering ruby head and stiletto beak were exposed. For a few minutes I wandered around the house cuddling the tiny bird in my hand. In a show-and-tell mode I went from one household guest to another: "Look what I have here." Five or six minutes of public display was all it took and then a fluttering in my closed fist like I was shaking hands with a prankster holding a buzzing vibrator button. The little fellow had revived and was demanding release which I was only too happy to grant. I stepped outside, opened my fist...a pause, and then the bird shot from my hand, darted up in the maple tree, and perched on a twig. It had hardly escaped before it zoomed in to protect the feeder from an upstart female.

Grateful on the one hand, puzzled on the other, I tried to make sense of it all. When I shared the incident with a birder friend of mine, he said regional hummingbirds survive our harsh winter climate by entering a state of torpor which enables them to regulate their metabolism to conserve energy and body heat, a physiological phenomenon where, like flicking a switch, hummers can literally shut down the life within them. Perhaps at that moment I had observed a state of hummingbird torpor? But why would such a tiny, vulnerable creature do such a thing? Switch himself off and drop twenty feet to the ground possibly to be picked off by a marauding cat? Such behavior seemed so un-Darwinian. I have also heard that a hummer can starve to death in an hour's time if it doesn't find nourishment. Not sure if science substantiates that, but I'm inclined to side with my wife's theory. She believed because of all the olive tossing on the deck, plus the bustle of activity around the kitchen sink, the little male was afraid to access his food source and succumbed to a hypoglycemic tailspin.

All theories aside, my heart lifted when that little bird left the warmth of my hand and returned, apparently unscathed to our kitchen window to remind us once again that some day summer will return.